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1. Are You a “How-To” Junkie…Like Me?

One of my daughters once said that I single-handedly kept the how-to genre alive. It could be true.

Writing how-to books alone fill six book cases in my office.

There are how-to’s of every writerly variety. How to plot. How to write dialogue. How to survive rejection. How to find your muse. How to write your life experiences. How to journal. How to…

You get the idea.

A Forever Student

I have felt vaguely guilty over the years that I buy and read so many how-to books on writing. It’s not the money spent. I buy most books used for very little money (so that I can own them and mark them up.) Or I put them on my Christmas list.

I think the guilt comes from something else. For one thing, it feels like an admission that I still don’t “get it.” And I wonder sometimes if I read to avoid the actual writing.

I’m Not Alone!

Then I read Confessions of a “How-To” Junkie and found a kindred soul. As Keith Cronin said,

…the shopworn advice to “just write the best book you can and the rest will fall into place” really doesn’t begin to prepare a writer for the job of creating truly marketable fiction. 

and

Ever since I started getting serious about writing, I’ve been an avid reader and collector of “how-to” books on writing. While some artists cling fiercely to the notion of being “self-taught,” I’ve always felt there’s a lot to gain from exploring the opinions and insights of those who are further along in the game. Even now, as a published author…my appetite for books on the craft of writing hasn’t diminished. In fact, I’m currently reading three of them…

Current Reading

Like Cronin, I’m currently reading three how-to books, and you can tell what they’re about from their titles. They are:

All are very good, and I’m learning new things that I can actually use.

Care to share what writing books you’re reading now? And if you have a classic favorite–the kind of book you re-read and mark up–mention that too.

I have found some of my favorite writing books through suggestions made in the comments section of this blog. Thanks in advance from this how-to junkie!

 

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2. Want Great Word-of-Mouth Advertising? Write a Great Book!

We hear so much lately about building a platform and social networking and “getting the word out” about our books. It’s true, and it’s important these days.

However, let’s not overlook one very critical factor. As one marketing guru said, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” Don’t let this happen to you!

I’ve read some good marketing books lately. I’ve tried–like all writers these days–to make the change from publisher advertising to the much more do-it-yourself marketing that is required.

The Cart and the Horse

But remember! Writing (plus studying and practicing to write even better) comes first. That’s your horse, and it is most important. Do NOT lose sight of that fact. Marketing is your cart. It won’t go far with a lame horse. [More about that in a moment.] But while you’re learning to write better, you can begin your own marketing if you want to. There are great resources to help you do that.

Helpful books on the new marketing?

Remember from our previous discussion that an introvert gets recharged in solitude and starts to feel drained after being around people too long. It has nothing to do with your social skills. Depending on which study you read, introverts comprise 40-55% of the population.

Put on the Brakes!

With all the concentration these days on building a platform and social networking, it’s easy to overlook one critical factor. It will make you or break you as a writer.

The first 25 pages of Hyatt’s book deals with this issue. It is about creating a compelling product. In our case, that means a book or story or play. As Hyatt says, “There is no sense in wasting your valuable time and resources trying to build a buzz about a ho-hum product…The purpose of marketing is to prime the pump. But if people don’t want to use your product and–more importantly–if they won’t recommend it to their friends, you’re hosed. You can’t spend enough money or be clever enough to overcome a lack of word-of-mouth marketing. It just won’t work.”

To get noticed in today’s over-crowded publishing

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3. Just in Time for the Regents U.S. History and Government Exam

For those of you who are planning to take the New York State Regents Exam in U.S. History and Government this June (or have students planning to do so), we have just the ticket. Just released last month, our New York State Regents Review: U.S. History and Government will help you review the material. Moreover, it will give you tips on how to take the test. Perhaps most important—it will give you practice taking the test.

What’s the Deal? Before going on, let me summarize the special features of the book:
· Student’s Study Guide in the front of the book provides you with proven test-taking strategies.
· Two recent U.S. History and Government Regents examinations bring up the rear (aka, the back of the book), so you can get practice taking real exams.
· In each Chapter Review, you will find multiple-choice questions from actual Regents exams from the recent past.
·
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4. Florida Reading FLASH!

Think the Marlins will make the playoffs this season?


Maybe. But right now your goal is to pass the Florida Reading test.


Amsco’s Florida Reading Grade 6, Florida Reading Grade 7, and Florida Reading Grade 8 will help students review the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards for Grades 6–8 English Language Arts. The student books, by authors Dana Henricks (6-8), Amy Himes (8), and Virginia Pake (8), include eight chapters that cover all the benchmarks assessed on the Florida Reading test. There's also a Practice Test modeled on the Florida Reading test right in the book (with more to be found in the Teacher's Guide with Answer Key and Test Bank).


Special Features
  • Benchm

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5. The Indeterminable Rate of Educational Velocity

This morning I turned in the last piece of homework I will ever have. I submitted my final research project: my master’s thesis.There was no parade, no trumpets or cymbals to herald my victory. No “three cheers!” to mark the completion of my efforts. Just the simple knowledge that I have finally finished.
They won't hand me my diploma until later this month, but the reality is that today marks the end of my years of formal education. Added up, 18 years of teachers, classrooms, professors, projects, presentations, and dreaded papers. Over.

When I think back on the memories of school, what stick out most are not the facts I learned or the books I read, but what I recall are all the relationships I made and the fun I had when I wasn’t studying in the library alone.

School offers us just that, the opportunity to find new experiences that we wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

Because of a middle-school French-class trip to nearby Québec, I learned that my friend Emma would always find ways to get us into the most fun kind of trouble, and that I love all things maple-syrup related. Because of reading I Will Try during library hour in elementary school, I have made it my mission to travel across Africa (although not exactly the way the author did, when he decided to walk from Malawi towards America for his education). And because of spending countless hours at the local pub after economics class, I have learned that while philosophical entanglements often leave one feeling unfulfilled, beer and good company always leave one in better spirits. We would spend hours there, after Economics Development class, after History of Economic Philosophy class, after Statistics class: my peers and I, in time spent not studying, but taking what we learned in lecture and talking about it, openly, with opinions, with our own theories and smart colleagues to bounce ideas off of. 

These are the friends, memories, and happy learning experiences I will grow from for the rest of my life. Even if, heaven forbid, I forget how to use the econometrics regression equation to find the unknown parameters to formulate the average expected outcome of an observed condition. (Not that I hope to ever forget my mathematical training!) My experiences remind me, looking back, that learning happens throughout life. One has only to put oneself in situations that allow for unexpected, exciting opportunities to arise.

Though my years of formal education might be complete, they leave me with the knowledge that power lies in asking questions, and life is a learning curve that I will always be trying to bend. I may be out of the classroom, but I will forever be a student.

Do you have favorite memories, or wisdom to share about your education experience? Leave a comment below!
6. Be a Rebel: Read What You Want to Read!

At the beginning of every new year, I make a list of middle-grade books I should read and study, since that’s the genre in which I write. They are award winners mostly, or books recommended as “must reads.”

Most teachers encourage you to read a wide variety of books, and I always start with the best of intentions. But time to read is short for everyone.

Me and My List

Occasionally a book on the list really grabs me, and I sail through it. But more often than not, I have to really push myself to finish.

These popular books are well written, and for the most part, they deserve the honors and sales records they’ve garnered. However, many just aren’t “me.” Either I really don’t like them for some reason (subject matter, language, depressing ending) or I lose interest because I know that I never want to write a similar book. With time to read so very short, I hate spending it reading something I just don’t enjoy very much. I always feel guilty about it, but I finish few of the “must reads” on my list.

Freedom!

And then I read one of the free ebooks I downloaded from the NaNoWriMo give-away last month. It’s called How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play by Babara Baig. Listen to her advice for writers:

You need to learn how to read as a writer. What that means, first and most importantly, is that you need to read for pleasure. Never mind all the books you think you should read; what do you want to read?… Find a writer whose work you admire and feel you can learn from — choose someone whose level of skill you sense you could achieve someday, not a writer whose way of writing feels unattainable…You may want to choose a writer whose books focus on subjects that interest you. Then immerse yourself in this person’s work and see what you can learn.

Even though I agree with this advice, you’ll find plenty of teachers who will say the opposite. This is just my opinion based on years of trying to read the children’s books and adult books I “should” read. Nowadays I start them, but if I just don’t like them after ten or fifteen pages, they go back to the library unread. I’m giving myself the freedom from now to read what I love.

And with that said, I’m ready to dig into a book I bought for my birthday. I love P.D. James novels, and I love Jane Austen. Guess what the new James novel is? A lover of Austen herself, she just published Death Comes to Pemberly. I expect I’ll finish this one!

 

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7. Strong Writers Do This

learningDuring the past year I’ve done more novel critiques than usual. Some have been so-so, some were very good, and a few have already sold.

What made the difference between the “very good” stories and the manuscripts that sold? In my opinion, it was the overall strength of the novels.

Often the “very good” book manuscript was strong except for just one area. Maybe there was no felt emotional connection with the main character, or all the dialogue voices sounded like the author’s voice. Perhaps the one weak area was lack of suspense despite beautiful prose, or poorly researched historical facts, or terrible mechanics.

Oops!

Often when I mentioned the trouble I saw, the writer emailed me back and said, “I knew that was a problem. I guess I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.” It’s better to listen to your gut feeling and assume if you know there’s a problem, others will see it too.

“Hoping an editor won’t notice” isn’t a solid marketing plan. Even if they had the time (which they don’t), editors aren’t in the business of fixing the story for you or teaching you how to write. That’s up to you-but what can you do?

Back to School

“Unless you’re working with an expert instructor, you need to be designing your own writing improvement program,” says James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers. “Work out a systematic plan to overcome your weak areas by setting up self-study programs.”

We all hope our novel’s strengths will over-ride the weaknesses, but you want your novel to be healthy overall, not just mostly healthy with one or two weak areas. If your physique were great except for flabby underarms, you would target that flapping fat with exercises and a program designed specifically for upper arms. In the same way, if your novel is weak in one or two areas, you need a specific exercise program to strengthen that area.

Make a Plan

For example, if your problem is dialogue that all sounds like the same flat voice, you might need a self-study program called “Creating Distinctive Voices.” Your study question might be: How can I create distinctive voices for each character, so distinctive that I can tell who’s speaking without any identification?

Here’s one plan, and you can adapt it for any area you want to improve:

  1. Make a list of novels where you remember the characters coming through in their dialogue as distinctive. (accent, regional speech, slang, choppy vs. languid speech, hip vs. old-fashioned, formal vs. grammatically incorrect, straightforward vs. flowery speech, etc.)
  2. Choose several of these novels and re-read them specifically for the dialogue. Keep your study question in mind as you read. Underline passages that do the job and then write a few scenes where you try to accomplish the same thing through dialogue. Don’t copy their words, but try to copy the technique used.
  3. Buy some books on the particular writing problem you have and study them. There are good writing books available on every area of craft you can imagine. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel, nor do you have to submit stories that are weak in one or two areas.

In today’s economy, your stories need to be the cream that rises to the top. Ensuring that your novel is strong in every area is one way to do that.

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8. Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel

wheelTo thrive in the present publishing climate, our manuscripts need to be submitted in the best condition possible. I’ve written previously about the need to continue studying the writing craft. [Strong Writers Do ThisSelf-Study Advanced Writing Program]

“But how do you find the TIME to study on top of writing and marketing?” I’ve been asked time and again. Actually, it’s simple.

Shorten the Learning Curve

Whenever possible, I piggyback on someone else’s research. For example, I prefer a book like Time to Write by Kelly L. Stone, who interviewed more than 100 professional writers about how they fit writing into their busy lives. All that experience condensed into one book is a gold mine.

tension-techniquesLikewise, last week I put together two e-booklets that could also shorten your learning curve. First is 50 Tension Techniques: Hold a Reader’s Attention from Beginning to End. I teach a writing workshop called “Tension Techniques,” based on my thirty years of writing and selling 35 books. A few months ago in Austin, I met a woman who had attended that workshop years ago; she told me she’d worn out her hand-out and wished she had another one. I use the hand-out myself in my fiction writing when I come to spots that drag or when things are too calm for too long!

Editors tell us that we need tension on every page in order to keep readers hooked. But what exactly is tension? And how can you possibly increase tension on every page? The fifty simple techniques in this e-booklet show you how to infuse page-turning tension into your dialogue (15 techniques), your plot (14), your characterization (12), and setting descriptions (9). I’ve gathered these techniques from years of reading how-to and writing craft books. (I have six bookcases full of writing books in my office.)

Special Tension Needed

I love mysteries and have had eleven mysteries published (one won a children’s choice award), and mystery stories and books never seem to go out of fashion with kids. A few years ago I wrote a monthly magazine column on mysterytension8 writing. I’ve gathered those columns into a 50-page e-booklet called Writing Mysteries for Young People.

I’ve studied close to two dozen books on mystery writing, and these sixteen short chapters are the best techniques I’ve found. Writing Mysteries for Young People will show you how to construct a mystery. This includes the development of heroes, victims and villains, plotting and planting clues, creating the sett

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9. The Serenity Prayer for Writers

tension7When I’m frustrated, it’s usually a sign that I’m trying to control something I can’t control. This can be a person or a situation or an event. The process can churn your mind into mush until you can’t think.

On the other hand, making a 180-degree switch and focusing on the things I can control (self-control) is the fastest way out of frustration. This concept certainly applies to your writing life.

Words of Wisdom

Remember the Serenity Prayer? It goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

How about reducing frustration with your writing life by applying that wisdom to your career? Here are some things to accept that you cannot change:

  • How long it takes to get a response from editors and agents
  • Rejections
  • Editors moving before buying the manuscript they asked to see
  • Size of print runs
  • Reviews
  • Publisher’s budget for your book’s publicity and promotion

Trying to change anything on the above list is a sure-fire route to frustration and wanting to quit.

However, do you have courage to change the things you can? Here are some:

  • Giving yourself positive feedback and affirmations
  • Reading positive books on the writing life
  • Studying writing craft books
  • Writing more hours
  • Reading more books in the genre where you want to publish
  • Attending local, state, regional and national conferences you can afford
  • Joining or forming a critique group

Wisdom to Know the Difference

If you’re battling frustration and discouragement with the writing life, chances are good that you’re trying to control something beyond your control. It will make you crazy! The fastest way back to sanity is to concentrate on what you can control about the writing life.

Choose anything from that second list–or share an additional idea in the comments below–and get on with becoming a better writer. In the end, that’s all you can do–and it will be enough.

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10. Practical Combination

writingI can’t believe I never thought of this before! I feel ditzy even admitting this, but maybe it will help you like it’s helped me.

Aha! Moment

I have dozens of great writing books, and many of them contain terrific writing exercises to help us improve our craft. Some will improve the quality of your description, some will develop character emotions, some will pep up your dialogue, etc.

When I buy a book like this, I start out with great enthusiasm, using a clean notebook to do the writing prompts and exercises. Less than a week later, I’ve put the book on the shelf. Why?

Doing the writing exercises takes time. And I have so little writing time that I don’t feel I can spend it doing writing exercises.

What’s the Answer?

I never thought–until today–to combine the two things! I can’t believe this never occurred to me. I’m reading The Writer’s  Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.  At first, I groaned when I read this: “Basic productivity underlies everything else. Take the chapters one by one. Actually do the exercises!

I sighed and almost quit reading. But the author, Priscilla Long, added this instruction that created the AHA! for me: “But–and this is crucial–do every exercise in relation to some peice you are working on. Don’t just make up sentences on the fly, out of your head. Instead, in your writer’s41nde-y1m9l__bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa300_sh20_ou01_ notebook, write out a paragraph from the piece you are working on as it currently exists. This is your ‘before’ paragraph. Then work the paragraph, using whatever craft technique you are currently deepening… When you get an ‘after’ paragraph you like, type it back into the piece.”

Paradigm Shift

Actually doing the exercises in the craft books (or your lesson manual) is what improves your writing craft. So put your study/craft book right beside the manuscript you’re working on and use portions of your current work to do the exercises. You’ll be growing as a writer AND revising your manuscript at the same time.

I’m going to go back and systematically use the writing exercises in all the books on my shelf–while applying the exercises to my current revison. This technique will revolutionize my studying from now on!

I realize that many of you have probably been doing this for years! But it’s news to me–and I’m excited to see how this is going to change the way I write. If you try this, let me know how it works for you.

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11. Expanding Limits

The most enticing reality of being a writer is the fact that the job can be done anywhere. And if the writer plans ahead, it can pay for itself anywhere, too. 

Writer’s marketability insurance comes in the form of learning, studying, and anticipating future needs. Planning for those needs and contingencies takes work. 

Learning 

Writers learn something new everyday if they want to remain marketable. It’s part of the job’s requirements. Workshops on various pertinent aspects of writing are added periodically to the work load. 

Part of the reasoning for this continuing education is that trends in the publishing business shift from year to year and sometimes from month to month. The shift can effect the types of stories in demand–think vampires here. Some workshops deal with how not to become trapped in such trends. 

A workshop might revolve around language usage in both print and online work. It could be something as seemingly innocuous as word definitions that change from traditional to contemporary. Or, it could be a discussion of those publishing terms, phrases, etc. that have fallen out of favor, along with those replacing the old ones. 

Workshops dealing with technology and software usage have become increasingly necessary for the freelancer. Those workshops concentrated on web design and social networking are in demand. Simply learning how to develop a viable and usable platform becomes fodder for workshops. 

Reading other writers’ blogs and websites also contributes to any writer’s learning curve. Studying style, attitude, approaches, both toward writing in general and public displays, helps writers evaluate their own offerings. Personal re-evaluation is always valuable time usage. 

Studying 

Workshops are necessary and valuable tools for the writer. It’s true. Additional study of writing techniques comes in more formalized classwork most of the time, though. 

Taking a course in creative non-fiction can broaden a writer’s marketability into hitherto uncharted waters. This study can carve a new niche that allows the writer to share memoir pieces that wouldn’t fit the market earlier. It allows nostalgia to break through into print where before only a rejection slip arrived in the mail box. 

Expanding into a semester of poetry class can free up the Muse and teach the writer about an entirely different personal side and encourage a creativity that hadn’t yet been tapped. Poetry teaches many things about writing, not least of which is: focus, taut descriptive expression, metaphoric and symbolic expression, and observation of the surrounding world. 

In another direction, saturating oneself in a research methodology course can open up pathways that had always intimidated the writer. Technical and scientific writing is always in high demand and pays decent returns. A writer working on only short-term projects can usually find a number of these types of projects crying out for attention and get paid well for them. 

Anticipating Future Needs 

There comes a time for many writers when writing the same old stories, novels, essays, etc. just doesn’t excite the neurons like it once did. The writer wants to change styles, pen names, genres, whatever. When that feeling of personal dissatisfaction or boredom narrows its beady little eyes and dares the writer to make it go away, the tug-of-war between known work and unknown comes into play. 

One way to prevent that tug-of-war from ensuing is to anticipate that future need. The writer can dip a toe into the waters of something totally foreign and just as demanding in its own way. This exploration can be a vacation

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12. Stuck for Ideas?

Ever stumped for new ideas? When I started my last new book, I noticed during the plotting process that I was short on fresh ideas. I had used up many of the ideas collected over the years and stashed in my “Idea Notebook.”

While one interesting idea might be enough for a very short story, books take LOTS of intriguing ideas. You need ideas for quirky characters, ideas for many unusual plot twists, ideas for great secondary characters, and unusual places for settings (even when that setting is your home town).

Ideas Everywhere!

It’s good to write down the ideas that come to you out of the blue (in the shower, when you first awake, on a walk, etc.) But sometimes you need good ideas faster than that. You need LOTS of ideas, and you need them soon. Where are some good places to find them?

1) Get a stack of old magazines, either your own or the stacks given away or traded at most public libraries. Flip through each magazine very quickly. If something catches your eye (unusual photo, funny advertisement, interesting headline, local event), tear out that page. Skim articles–don’t read in depth at this point. That can come later when you put your ideas together.

2) Because many of us spend a lot of time online, also keep a computer version of an Idea File. You can have sub-files labeled “characters” or “themes” or “events,” if you like. But when you are reading the news online or you click on one of those weird-sounding Google ads and come across something odd or funny or quirky, copy and paste the story into your computer Idea File. Also store the URL (the web address where you found the idea.) Remember that URLs can disappear, so copy and paste the pertinent details. Just make it a habit to have your Idea File open when you’re surfing the web, then drop the interesting tidbits you find into the file, and watch it grow!

3) Lie down and try taking a ten-minute nap. Just close your eyes and relax. You might actually fall asleep, but I never do. The minute I try to relax and take a short power nap, my busy mind kicks into gear. All kinds of ideas surface, the kinds that make you get up and write them down before you forget them.

4) This won’t sound like a pleasant way to spend time, but a good idea generator is to make a list of “The things I hate…” List the most annoying people, annoying habits or annoying anythings in your life. Annoying people make great antagonists, annoying habits add character depth to all your characters (including your hero), and annoying events give you plots to write about (and things for your hero to overcome.) The added “plus” in writing about things that annoy or disturb you is that you’ll write with passion. It will help you stick to your writing schedule, and the passion will come through in a more powerful story.

5) Explore words! Just for fun! Read the dictionary or thesaurus. Five minutes of this, and you’ll generate more ideas than you can imagine.

Feelers Out!

Try to get into the habit of always having your antennae up and alert for ideas. They’re everywhere. Then go one step further and capture the ideas for later writing. Oh, you’ll be glad you did!

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13. Ideas for Today’s Readers

ideaWant to know an easy way to think of both ideas for story conflicts and ideas for nonfiction? I read this idea in a newsletter by Angela Booth, and I wanted to pass it along.

People want to learn how to do things, how to solve things, and how to overcome problems.

Challenges in All Sizes

People have small problems and huge problems to overcome. They want to accomplish small things (organize an office), overcome medium challenges (potty train a toddler), and survive huge things (like being laid off from a job).

Do you write for kids? Just scale down the ideas. Children and teens want to organize their bedrooms, paper train a puppy, and survive their dad being laid off. Each “want to do” activity could be an article, a whole series of online articles, or the central plot of a book (either serious or humorous).

Technique to Generate Ideas

“Go to Google.com and enter ‘How do I’ with a VERB into the search query field. With the magic of Google Instant, you’ll get lots of ideas,” says Angela Booth.

For example, I entered “How do I make” (without quotes) and got:

  • How do I make clear ice cubes like in a restaurant?
  • How do I make my hair grow faster?
  • How do I make an electromagnet?
  • How do I make a pinewood derby car do faster? 

This doesn’t just generate ideas. It generates ideas that thousands of people are interested in! It generates topics for your writing that people want to read about. And many of the topics can be adjusted if you write for children and teens. (Example from above: a child may not care about making clear ice cubes for his dinner party, but it would make a great science fair project. And that science fair project can be a nonfiction article or a plot/subplot in your novel.)

See the possibilities? Try lots of verbs in your search, Googling “how do I build” and “how do I create” and “how do I quit” and so many others!

If you try this technique, give an example in a comment. I bet we could come up with some really unusual ideas this way!

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14. A Writer’s Spare Time

It would be fair to ask “What does a writer do when she’s not writing?”

I’ve asked myself that several times and the last time was today. I can only answer from my own experience. Nevertheless, the first question I answered long ago is “What constitutes writing”?

For me, writing means anything having to do with active thought, preparation, and execution of the writing process. That means I’m writing when I study writing, or when I’m gathering information, doing marketing research, etc. All of that takes far more time than sitting down to the keyboard and pounding out words.

Today I pounded out a website post and two blog postings. I took an active stab at plotting an adult novel that I’ve begun. I also read in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lost road and Other Writings; Language and Legend Before ‘The Lord of the Rings’,” edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien . That last one was studying of a very serious kind.

Why do I say that’s serious study?

Christopher Tolkien inherited his father’s notes for the “Ring” series. That in itself was a fortune in knowledge. He then took it upon himself to organize, edit, and publish the entire compilation as a scholarly series detailing the work and dedication his father put forth to create “Middle-earth” and its peoples, cultures, languages, etc.

There are thirteen books in the “History of Middle-earth.” Within these volumes are the maps, etymology texts of the various languages, plotting schematics, etc. that J.R.R. Tolkien created in order to build his world. Having waded through the first chapter and scanned what comes after, I can say that I stand in awe of the mind that worked out all of these puzzles to the nth degree and then managed to write such marvelously fluid stories.

Would that I could envision a world as complex and detailed as Tolkien. For anyone who has ever wondered why it would take anyone ten or more years to write one book, all they have to do is open on of the history volumes presented to the world by Tolkien’s son.

Not many will take the time or have the ability to create complete languages and etymological dictionaries. Not many have the soaring knowledge base to build cultures with long histories to create anthropological treatises around them. I bow to an absolute master of the art.

Writing Demands Study

Constant study is necessary for writers, whether it’s formal or not. Ask any good writer what they spend time doing in their spare time and most will say that they read a great deal. Some will say they are voracious readers.

Some read genres entirely different from what they concentrate their writing efforts on perfecting. Others devour all levels of books within the genre they prefer writing. Some read anything that comes to hand but write only in one or two categories.Tastes and preferences are as individual as titles on a shelf.

Besides the books and articles already on the market which tell the writer what not to write, there‘s market information that’s critical to the business of writing. Studying the market is half the battle for many writers. If one doesn’t know what’s going on in their own field, how can they hope to be competitive.  Regardless of what any want to think, this is a competitive business with many ins and outs. One of these days

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15. The Dutch Invasion, Part Deux

You have new Picture Mail! Erik and Jaap, the guys from the Delft Public Library who visited the Chicago area in February to talk with librarians about gaming, are coming back this month on a nationwide tour to explore innovation in U.S. libraries. Yes, a nationwide tour. Only these two could pull off something this ambitious. They’ll be driving cross-country on their way to the Internet Librarian conference in California at the end of October, stopping at the following libraries along the way:

  • New York Public Library
  • Darien Library
  • Public Library of Charlotte Mecklenburg County
  • Ann Arbor District Library
  • Mortenson Center
  • Council Bluffs Public Library
  • Denver Public Library
  • Salt Lake City Library

They’ll be talking with librarians, interviewing them on camera, shooting video of services, driving westward, participating in the annual “gadgets” presentation at the IL conference, and then heading home to create another great documentary (like the one they did for their first trip). They’ll be in the Chicago area around October 20-21, and I can’t wait to see them again. If nothing else, we will definitely have another video game night. :-)

If you’re on or near their route, consider contacting and getting together with them - I guarantee you won’t regret it. Their enthusiasm and creativity is infectious. I mean really, who else do you know who could get funding for such a big idea as this?

me and erik When Erik first drew up the plan on a napkin in February, I loved the idea of librarians as “shanachies.” Their theme is “Keep stories, tell stories, make stories.”

“Originally the shanachie in Ireland was a very important person who in rank came after the chief and the druid carried the gift of keeping and telling the stories. They travelled the country and were given free lodges and food in return for stories. The gift was passed on when the Shanachie died.”

More info is available on the official Shanachie Tour site. They’ll be posting a video diary there as the trip progresses. I can’t wait to watch what they do next!

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16. The Open Source ILS Song

While I love all of the Shanachie Tour videos of American public libraries released so far, my favorite is easily the one from the Florence Public Library in Colorado. Not because of the message of “the open source ILS song” sung by two librarians there, but more for the spirit in which they sing it. They are having *fun.* You really have to hear this one - jump ahead to the 10:35 mark if you just want to hear the song, but the interviews are great, too.

Florence librarians singing "the open source song

Nice job, ladies! And great videos, Shanachies! I can’t wait to see you again - I am proud to call you my friends. You inspired many librarians during your journey.

the Dutch mob

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17. Thanksgiving

It’s been quiet around here because I was lucky enough to be invited to speak to some fantastic librarians at the Hawaii Library Association Conference, so I was able to sneak in one of the most amazing vacations I’ve ever had (the pictures from which you can see here, although I’m still uploading them). Big thank yous to Dave Brier, Becky, and Vicky for inviting me and all of the help they provided for my sessions. My “talk with slides” is available on my presentations wiki as a PDF.

Hawaiian librarians rock, especially Amy, who had my favorite quote of the conference. While talking about allowing her high school students to game in the computer lab during recess, she said, “I refused to say no,” and it’s paid off big time for her. She’s made connections with the kids that she wouldn’t have otherwise made, and now some of them confide in her because of this.

Other travelers are also home now, including our Dutch friends, who have posted the final video of the Shanachie Tour. Well, of this year’s Tour, anyway. ;-) We all miss you guys very much - I sure do - but you did an amazing thing and inspired a lot of librarians here.

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18. Help Me Write!

Author Kevin J. Hayes has been very busy writing American Literature: A Very Short Introduction, but he needs your help. Find out what you can do below.

When I was studying for my exams at the University of Delaware, I found little books about big subjects to be the most useful study aids. Despite the usefulness and convenience of these little books, I still resented the time studying took. I was eager to finish my degree and start my career, to stop reading the work of others and start writing work of my own. As part of the studying process, I drafted a brief history of American literature. After passing all my exams, I realized my draft history had been a way to force myself to keep studying. I set it aside without a second thought, graduated, and moved to Oklahoma. The draft history disappeared along the way.

Upon completing my forthcoming biography, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I wanted to work on a tiny little book next, so I started writing American Literature: A Very Short Introduction. The book will consist of eight chapters and will be organized in a rough chronological manner. Each chapter will concentrate on a particular literary genre and will have a central focus, too. For example, Chapter 7, the first chapter I drafted, presents an overview of the novel refracted through the idea of the “great American novel.”

I’m working on Chapter 2 now. It will trace the story of American travel writing from colonial times through the twentieth century. Though travel writing constitutes some of the best writing in the colonial American period (see Daniel Royot’s fine chapter in the recent Oxford Handbook to Early American Literature), literary histories have typically slighted subsequent travel writings in favor of belletristic literature. Deciding which travel writers to include has proven to be more difficult than I initially anticipated. I need help. Obviously, I do not have room to discuss too many travel narratives in such a short book. Here’s my question: which travel writers should I include?

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19. Stress: You Need It!

stressShocking but true–you need stress in your life in order to grow and in order to attain your goals. Sound weird? It did to me too until I understood the two types of stress.

Distress? Or Eustress?

We all know what bad stress is (or distress). It’s the rejection letter (like the one I got on Monday), the flu bug you can’t shake, the fight with your teenager over curfew, bad news about the publishing economy, and being stuck in traffic when you’re due in the dental office.

The effects of bad stress are well known now: high blood pressure, inability to sleep, weight gain, sore bodies, heart attacks, snarly relationships, overdrawn bank accounts, and having your rotten teeth fall out (after being stuck one too many times in traffic.)

Healthy Challenges

Eustress, on the the other hand, is good for you. Yes, it is a challenge to your body or mind (or both), but the end result is growth and moving toward your goals (instead of away from them.) Eustress might come in the form of a trainer or coach pushing you to stretch your limits, or choosing to study something at night instead of watch TV, or going to counseling with your spouse. Remember, eustress is stress that is healthful and helps you grow in some area.

In many of the choices you make every day, it’s a choice between distresseustress and eustress. The one BIG difference I’ve noticed is that distress tends to overtake you and fall on you without you needing to make any effort at all, while you have to actually choose eustress.

How Much is Too Much?

Can you have too much eustress? We all want to attain our goals and make progress as quickly as possible. Is eustress always a case of “more is better”? No, it’s not. If you’re out of shape, taking a walk each day, and building up the miles over time, is good for you: eustress. Running a 5K race after you’ve done nothing but watch TV for ten years is bad for you: distress.

The same goes for your writing. If the most you’ve ever written is thirty minutes per day, then aiming for 1-2 hours per day would be eustress (good). Deciding to write 8-10 hours per day, on the other hand, would usually cause distress (to both mind and body).

Writer Eustress

For years, I did my best to avoid criticism in all forms, including critiques. I had a very thin skin and couldn’t handle it. It caused me distress. But it wasn’t until an editor at a workshop practically forced me to read my story in a group–and learn to handle constructive criticism–that I discovered there were two kinds. Destructive criticism was the kind to avoid where someone rips your writing apart and haughtily calls you names. However, the good criticism could be immensely helpful, even if it was uncomfortable to hear.

Today, I don’t know what I’d do without my critique group, both for writing help and for their friendship. Yes, even a good critique can cause eustress for a while, but it’s a catalyst for growth.  

You Need To Do Both

If you want to achieve your writing goals this year, you will probably need to do two things. First, be aggressive in getting rid of the bad stress in your life. Second, be just as determined to find sources of good stress to challenge yourself to move forward.

Do both things often enough, and it will literally change your life.

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