Writer vs Distraction, Round 478.

You’re reading this post, but you’re also checking Twitter. And Facebook. And maybe Reddit? How about G+? (Heh, just kidding.) Perhaps there’s a link suggesting that you click to discover the 14 best celebrity butts. Or how this corgi will make you weep with joy. Are any of those things helping you get writing done?

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Seriously, you do have about 12 windows open on your screen RIGHT NOW. Either that, or you’re caught in the Spiral of Despair, where you check each Social Media Thingy in succession–clicky, clicky, clicky—-until you realize none of those things is going to fill the void in your soul and none of those things will help you write the thing you need to write.

I know this is true because you’re a human living in 2014. Well, buck up, friends. There’s a solution. It’s called turning off the internet!

Yes, yes. Easier said than done. Yet this problem of infinite distraction is so well recognized that people are writing books about it (presumably, they did so after turning off their own internet). At least one person, Michael Harris, has started a thing called Analog August, and I think it’s worth a try.

The overall concept is broader than just reducing distraction, but you have to start somewhere. The less you look at the many, many screens you own, the healthier you’ll feel. The less distracted and stressed you’ll be. The more TIME you’ll have. And the more brain power you can pour into creative projects such as writing.

Based on this idea, I’ve come up with a few ideas for analog newbies, or just peeps who want to stop wasting time digitally,. Throughout the month of August (or whatever month you stumble upon this), try to teach yourself to do at least one of these things:

  • Check your email at predetermined times. Do it at the beginning of the day to check if you need to act on any work/personal emergencies, after lunch, and in the last hour of your work. Only respond to emails during those times. Tell people they might have to wait a few hours for an answer. Imagine them swooning.
  • Turn off all your notifications. Those little beeps and red dots are turning you into Pavlov’s dog, slavering at a cue but rarely getting a tangible benefit for all your devotion.
  • Put. The phone. Down. Walk away. Take a breath. Here’s a secret: the internet is gonna be fine without you for a while. Hours, even.
  • Tell yourself the computer is a tool, not a connector. Turn off the internet (or use an app like Freedom, if you need help). Then just….write your thing. Don’t click away from the writing app. Just write. When you need a break, don’t go to Facebook. Just stare out a window and imagine what Jack Kerouac/Jane Austen/Stephen King would do about the next chapter.
  • Go full analog. That means pen and paper. Write down your ideas. Draw a mind map. Doodle. You may find that you can retrain your mind to make new connections. There’s also something pretty cool about rediscovering whether you have good handwriting or not (Fact: I do not).
  • Turn of your TV/screen/shiny device and read a paper book. If you’re like me, you still have a stack of really real books to be read. Yes, even if you love your Kindle. So go pick one up and start reading.
  • Put away your devices and talk to a human who has also put away their device. Crazy? YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

These are just examples of ways to unlearn your addiction to digital stuff. Some of them are tougher than others. Some require more thoughtful ways of going through your day. But the main point is to realign your priorities so you are not at the beck and call of your devices. Make them work for you. And also, there is a world outside the digital. Live in it. It’s a pretty neat place.

 

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

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The Deadline: Set It and Don’t Forget It

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I just joined a book club. One of my main motivations to do so was because I already owned all the requisite books, but they’d just been sitting on my shelves, some for years. Life is busy, and I found many reasons and excuses to put off leisure time reading. But I just finished the first book for the first meeting, and it felt like a real accomplishment!

I know, I know. It’s just a book. But it still felt good. And I know that the reason I actually finished it was because I’d have to discuss it at the meeting. In other words, I had a deadline.

Sometimes, we need a little outside pressure to get things done, even if they’re things we want to do and love to do (like reading a fun book, or writing a fun book). As nearly all writers know, it’s very easy to say “I’ve got such a great story in my head! I’m going to write it someday!” And of course, someday never comes.

So don’t write someday. Write every day. Write on Tuesday. Write 500 words this Wednesday. Do it again on Thursday. Maybe on your lunch break. Keep doing that. Make it real. Make it banal. Make it a habit. By setting specific goals, you remove the misty someday from your work and you, well, get to work. Set a reasonable deadline and stick to it.

And here’s the second part of the plan: you make your deadline by making yourself accountable. How?

  • Make your goal public.
  • Post your daily word count on your blog or Twitter or wherever.
  • Tell your writing group what your goal is, and ask them to follow up when the deadline hits.
  • Don’t have a writing group? Find a writing buddy online through a group or a forum.
  • Participate in NaNoWriMo or something like it.

Choose whatever method works, and do it. Remember, your accountability buddies don’t have to read what you write. They just have to be the voices saying “Send me that file so I can see your word count” or “Remember when you said you we’re submitting that piece by the 30th? Well, it’s the 30th. Where did you submit it?”

The public nature of this exchange should be enough to spur you to get moving on your project. (If you still blow deadlines, raise the stakes. Miss a deadline? Pay your writing buddy $5, pay for your group’s monthly coffee tab, etc. Make it hurt…within your means, of course.)

Working to a deadline can make us dreamy, creative types nervous. Don’t you have to wait for inspiration?

No. No, you don’t.

The Muse is not a fairy to be coaxed from the aether with manna or honey or freshly-squoze brambleberry juice. The Muse is a sly ferret to be chased down and force-fed espresso until she chatters out all her inspiration into your brain and your laptop. Remind your muse that no one gets paid until you publish, and the clock’s ticking.

The deadline is your ally. Use it.

Now go write.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

 

 

 

Transparency: the other side of exposure

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about writing for exposure, i.e. writing for free. That’s an issue every writer will have to deal with at some point, and the answer won’t be the same for everyone. This post is about a related issue: transparency.

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What does that mean? If you’re a writer selling your work to magazines or other markets, even if you get paid, you probably also chose the market because of the audience you’ll presumably reach.

Too often, though, writers have very little information about the circulation or influence of any particular market. Which is funny, because advertisers demand that sort of information. And if you’re selling stories—guess what?—each thing you write is an advert for your work.

A well-known professional magazine may list circulation numbers…somewhere. But most online “magazines” (let’s face it, they’re really just websites) do not disclose this in a transparent way. Let’s look at a few speculative fiction magazines, shall we?

That source of Unquestionably Correct Info, Wikipedia, tells me that Analog Science Fiction & Fact had a circulation of just over 25,000 in 2011 (the most recent year listed there). The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had a monthly circulation of 14,500 in 2011. But go to the actual websites, and you’ll learn nothing. Smaller markets (Strange Horizons, for example) list no information about readership, either. By the way, I’m only citing these titles at random. Virtually all the magazines follow similar rules of not-telling.

You might look at proxy measurements like Twitter follows, FB likes, or ad prices to guess how visible a market is. You could ask the editors or the advertising rep, too, if you’re curious. But in an ideal world, these figures would be available without having to dig. I’d like to see this type of information listed on Duotrope and similar services. Maybe it’s in the massive Writers’ Markets books? I don’t know…it’s been years since I wanted to leaf through those tomes.

In general, I encourage writers to think about this issue because even if you get paid a professional rate (which can be as little as 5 or 6 cents/word), you are still very likely going to be making less than minimum wage for the time it takes to write a story. Therefore, looking for additional benefits like exposure is smart business practice.

Questions writers should ask before selling a story:

1 How many people will read this?

  • What’s the official circulation of the magazine/market?
  • How many hits does the median blog post on a website get?
  • How many unique visitors does a website or online magazine get?
  • How many copies of an ebook or issue of a magazine are downloaded?

2 How will the magazine promote my work?

  • Will they tweet links? How often?
  • Email subscribers? (If so, how many recipients open the email?)
  • Post on Reddit or similar site?

3 How will citing the market support future work?

  • Will you be proud to list this publishing credit on your CV/resume/bio?
  • Will the name be recognized by others?
  • Will a publishing credit here open doors elsewhere?

None of these questions are simple. But with ever fewer opportunities to make anything resembling a real payday for a story, the smart writer needs to consider all the potential benefits that a publication can offer. Writers create the supply that these markets are selling. As writers, we deserver to know exactly what that means in terms of numbers. Yes, we’re all artists and blah blah blah. But art is only effective if it’s seen.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

 

 

 

Favorite Podcasts for Writers

The last post from me covered favorite writing tools. But I forgot one tool: podcasts! So here is the extra special bonus podcast post.

Since I’m mostly alone–all day, every day–I like to listen to other voices. But TV is pure distraction for me. I can’t have it on in the background, and I’ve never been able to think well when looking at multiple screens.

Podcasts are different. The best ones are like listening in on the conversations of smart, helpful people. The fact that they’re all strangers doesn’t matter. I have several must-listen podcasts (Welcome to Nightvale! Roderick on the Line!). But here I’ll just mention three that apply most to writers.

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The Rocking Self Publishing Podcast: This is the most relevant one on the list (since I’m a writer who self-publishes). Simon Whistler finds guests who represent a variety of perspectives to discuss many aspects of writing: working creatively, managing output, publishing, marketing, etc. Some names you might recognize: Hugh Howey, Johanna Penn, Russell Blake, and others. Each show addresses one specific topic–but even those that might not seem to apply to everyone (non-fiction writing, for example, which I don’t do) still offer great advice that’s broadly applicable to writing and publishing. Simon does his homework, asks great questions, and stays on point. For added value, he’s British, which makes the show exactly 28% smarter just because of the accent. (That’s how that works, right?)

Why not start by listening to this one about not looking to outliers (with Hugh Howey)?

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Back to Work: This is not a podcast on writing or publishing, but it is loosely geared toward the idea of working. If that sounds vague to you, you are so right. Though the show is nominally about productivity, the two hosts, Dan and Merlin, get derailed by any number of important topics: comic books, music, parenting, germ theory, or the sociological experiment that is Florida. But it’s funny as hell, and Merlin usually manages to pull himself together by the end to deliver a practical mediation on some topic germane to the concept of work. Often it’s about office work, dealing with management, or deciding what work you want to do with your life. But some episodes also cover more esoteric issues like agency or creativity. Merlin excels at taking all those nebulous ideas about work that we’ve all had, and then nailing down the core of them so they can’t wiggle off the examining table and back into the dark recesses of our minds before we’ve at least identified the problem. Dan will then diffidently explain how the Buddha approached the same issue. And did I mention the comic books? They talk about comic books. A LOT.

Why not start by listening to this one about the Vocational Wheel?

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Homework: Another show on the trusty 5by5 network, Homework is what Back to Work might be if Dan and Merlin actually stayed on topic (except for the mandatory 5by5 comic book aside, which is here too). Not just a clever name, Homework is literally a podcast about working from home, and therefore is useful for anyone who does any sort of freelancing or creative solo work. Most of the episodes take on a very specific topic. Workspace! Sleeping habits! Scheduling! Billing! Accounting! For writers, not all topics will be relevant. But if you self-publish, you are a small business owner, so most of it is stuff you’ve worried about. Aaron and Dave are delightful nerds who want to help.

Why not start by listening to this one about working for exposure?

If you’re a writer like me–or if you enjoy comic books–check out a few episodes of these podcasts. Do you have any other podcasts you find useful as a writer or worker? Share it in the comments…

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Favorite Writing Tools

Today, I want to share some real nuts and bolts writing stuff. Below, I’m going to talk about my top five writing tools. Not all of these will work for everyone, but if nothing else, I hope it make you think about your own writing process and how you can improve it (and we can always improve, no matter how good we are).

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Byword: I love Byword. It’s a distraction-free writing app, and it really is just that—tons of white space, and very little in the way of features (it only works on iThings, but there are similar programs for PCs). It’s the app I open in the early stages of a project. Byword is designed to keep you in the present moment. Lines of text fade from black to pale grey just as soon as you complete them. It encourages you to just keep writing—not to reread or critique what you’ve just done. I find that writing thousands of words is almost effortless with Byword. After I have that first chunk of the story down, I’ll transfer it to Pages or another more complex writing app (Scrivener, Ulysses, etc) to deal with the text there. Byword is unwieldy for detailed editing of large pieces. But for pure “get ‘er done” free writing, it’s fantastic.

Duotrope: I am not particularly good at record keeping on my own (read: I suck at it), so Duotrope is a perfect tool for me. With it, I can track my story submissions in a tidy, efficient way. As a bonus, the Duotrope database of market listings is extremely handy (though definitely not comprehensive). Since starting with Duotrope, I have a much better handle on my submissions process. I’m able to strategize which markets to aim for by type (pro, semi-pro, etc, for example), and to know which markets are open for submissions and when. I’m way smarter about timeliness too—when I get a rejection, I simply log it and submit the story to the next market on my list. In a way, Duotrope makes me more professional and less…um, emotional about my submissions. And that’s well worth it. Duotrope is usable for free, but much more of its functionality kicks in when you subscribe. (Caveat: Duotrope is geared to toward writers who will be submitting pieces to other markets. If you’re only writing novels, say, or if you’re self-publishing everything you do, Duotrope probably isn’t for you.)

RescueTime: I started using this app earlier this year. I was hesitant to install it, because I’m wary of “metrics”. So often crunchy data look impressive but tell you absolutely nothing useful. But RescueTime has improved my awareness of my work habits in a real way. It tracks everything you do on your computer and simply records it (with the paid version, you can set RescueTime to block the internet and other distractions for a set amount of time as well). It’s best to install RescueTime and then forget you installed it for a week or so. Don’t change your habits—just let RescueTime watch you work (Hal-like) and get some data collected. Then you can start looking at all the pretty charts RT generates. It’s eye-opening. You’ll see exactly how many minutes you spend in your writing applications, as well as email and individual websites. I was surprised to discover that I didn’t spend nearly as much time of Facebook as I thought (it only feels like forever). However, I spent way more time reading news articles of dubious import (click bait, anyone?). On the bright side, RT posts encouraging notes when you hit positive goals.

Timer: as in, an actual timer. Sometimes it helps to have that outside reminder that the clock is literally ticking. I don’t use a timer every day. But when I’m having a terrible time focusing, I’ll set the timer for fifteen minutes and say “I’m just going to write for fifteen minutes. DEAD PEOPLE can write for fifteen minutes.” That short, targeted goal often helps to break me out of my focus funk. And when the timer dings, I just crank it again…or keep on writing, if my practice has kicked in. Personally, I like those old-fashioned timers that simply go ding at the end. However, any timer app can work just fine. The point is letting yourself be ruled by the timer long enough to get you in the flow.

Tea: Yeah, I’m getting real high tech here. A near constant supply of tea is invaluable for my writing, and not just for the caffeine. The warm mug is so useful for de-chilling fingers that just typed 1000 words! The comforting aroma of Barry’s, or Yorkshire Gold, or PG Tips (all bagged—I’m no aristocrat, people) definitely helps put me in a proper mindset to write. Also, it does have that nice caffeine…[Jocelyn heads off to make another cup of tea]

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Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Is It Ever Smart to Write for Exposure?

In an ideal world, all artists would be paid for all their work.

We do not live in an ideal world.

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Any writer can tell you how hard it is to get fairly compensated for the work you do. Even a short story can take a long time to do well: maybe a week or two, maybe several months. Once you calculate the hours it takes to get a short story ready to sell (for up to $200-300—if you’re lucky!), that mimimim wage job starts to look pretty solid.

So, many writers contemplate whether to write for exposure, i.e. write for free (like this very blog post…ooh, meta!). Many folks have a zero-tolerance policy on writing for exposure, and that’s fine. But I’d like to advance the theory that writing for exposure may in some cases be the right design. The key is knowing when to say yes or no.

When is writing for exposure bad?

When it’s exploitative. This is what most people are talking about when they discuss the evils of writing for exposure. “People die of exposure! You can’t pay the rent with exposure!” Both are technically true. There are plenty of folks out there who will always try to get something for nothing. They prey on writers’ desire for recognition, for that sense of validation. This is what you have to watch out for. Be very careful when you’re asked to work for free, especially if the end product is still something people pay for, or if others involved are getting compensated. Do your research and make an informed decision. If you don’t see a good reason to say yes, say no.

When it gets in the way of paid work. This scenario is simpler. If you have a choice to do work for free or do work for pay, pick the paying gig! Easy, right? This method of prioritizing works well in general, actually. For example, in my own writing, I tend to work hard on my romances and get them ready to ship ASAP, because the romances sell. I work on my spec fiction and other projects after I hit my daily romance goals, because even if/when I sell those stories, it will likely be for less money per hour of work. Remember, art is still a business.

When is writing for exposure good?

When there is mutual benefit. Exploitation is like a bad parasite in your gut, but symbiotic relationships are good. A free gig might help you hone your craft, say with a piece of flash fiction that won’t take very long to write. It might help you explore a new genre without stressing too hard. Maybe you’ll get to work with a stellar editor, or an artist whose work complements your own. Maybe the project is for a charity (if you’re passionate about that cause, let your craft be your donation to it). You’ll have to decide if you can get something out of any particular gig, and the benefits will obviously differ depending on the writer.

When it results in “real intangibles”. What’s a real intangible? A publishing credit. A contact. A reference. None of these things are cash money, yet all of them have a real value. The path to paying gigs is paved with experience, and it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be compensated for everything you do (especially when you’re starting out). Think of real intangibles as investments. They start small but can grow over time. And yes, there is a risk that some won’t ever pay out. (But if you think writing is ever a risk-free business, you’re in for some sad times, pal.)

Be smart about building up these intangibles, and you can leverage them later on. Maybe one of your contacts is going to put together an anthology and pay the contributors. Maybe an agent will read your published story and contact you about representation. Maybe a few readers will like your stuff and follow you on social media…and they may buy your book when it’s published.

Bottom line: If it doesn’t feel like the right decision, then don’t do it. Never let yourself get pressured into something.

If you choose to take an exposure gig, do treat it as a professional job. Even with no money involved, get a contract or an agreement in writing that preserves your rights to the work. For example, if you write a piece of flash for a webzine, they may have exclusive rights to publish it on their site for 6 months, after which they have only non-exclusive rights to archive it. That way you can use the story elsewhere (such as for a reprint or an anthology). Don’t just hand off your stuff without a plan. As a writer, your writing is a business asset. Treat it like one!

Like everything else in the universe, the concept of “writing for exposure” is neither pure evil nor pure unicorn rainbows. Decide what you value, what outcomes you want, and what you can live with.

Bonus: How NOT to write for exposure

Here’s a quick tip. If someone asks you to work for free and you don’t want to, here’s a professional-sounding way to frame your refusal. Simply say “I’m flattered by your respect for my insights/previous work/awesomeness, but at this time, I have to focus on paying projects. I wish you luck in finding another contributor who can work for free, and I hope your publication/market/business/website will soon reach the level of success where you can afford to compensate your contributors.”

Take that and tweak it however you like.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

What Rappers Can Teach Writers

Recently, I watched Something from Nothing: the Art of Rap, Ice-T’s first documentary. It’s on—you guessed it—the art of rap, and it brings in some of the biggest and most respected names in the business to talk about how they craft and refine their art. (It’s on Netflix and Amazon and everywhere else, so see it. It’s pretty amazing.)

As I watched, it occurred to me that so many of the insights these artists offer up are things that writers should listen to. Now you are probably smarter than me, so you probably immediately thought “Duh, of course writers could learn from rappers. Rappers ARE writers.” Well, yes. But I was so used to thinking of rappers as musicians and collaborators that I never considered that a lot of their work still takes place inside their heads, or alone in a room. Just like writers.

So, I pass on to you just a few pieces of knowledge this film captured:

Skip the setup. “Once you grab the mic, in the first bar of your rhyme, you have to swing the crowd to you.” KRS-One tells amateur rappers to hit the ground running. Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, just do it. Writers hear about this concept a lot (hook readers in the first page, the first line) but it’s important not to forget it. No one is going to give you a gold star just for showing up; you have to show what you’ve got. Bring your best and the audience will follow you. But you can’t drag them there. They have to want to go along. Speaking of…

Learn how to listen. “If you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” DJ Premier is talking about understanding hip hop versus jazz and blues…but the same thing is true for writers. If you’re going to write in a genre, learn the genre. “You have to know the language” says DJ Premier. For writer, that means reading the classics of the genre, learning what the tropes are, seeing how things have evolved. Don’t assume you can fake it, because the readers who love the genre will definitely spot your ignorance…and they’ll tear you apart. Which brings us to the next lesson…

You’re gonna get booed. Eminem tells his story of getting booed during his first attempt to rap in public, an event that got recreated in the movie 8 Mile. He’s up front about it being traumatic. He initially felt like he was done after that…and who would blame him? (At least beginning writers can read their rejections in private.) But obviously, he didn’t give up. He says “couple days later, week later, hour later” he realized he had to get up and do it again. And eventually it worked out. Are you guaranteed to achieve Eminem-like levels of fame if you keep at it? Of course not. But you sure as hell won’t achieve more if you quit now. Which brings us to…

Know how to work. Immortal Technique discusses his…well, technique for how to write. He often works out or boxes, saying “I come back with my blood up…but instead of physically fighting, I focus on fighting mentally.” Everyone has a way to get into the flow of writing. Maybe you need silence. Maybe you need loud. Maybe you need to eat. Maybe you need to not eat. Figure out what gets you ready to write and then stick to it. One warning about this idea: don’t let your habit become an excuse. Just because you don’t have your special yellow legal pad and #2 pencil with you doesn’t mean you can’t write. The pen is just an instrument. So is the computer. The writing comes from you. If you find yourself making excuses, maybe you need to…

Make sure this thing is for you. Dr Dre says once you decide on your path, “you have to give it the passion that’s necessary.” Why listen to Dre? Out of a 27 year career, he took two weeks off. Two weeks. That’s dedication. If you’re a writer, you need to give the same dedication to your craft. You don’t have to write every single day, but you have to be consistent, and you have to care. And, finally…

Be yourself. Speak with an original voice, make it your voice, and make the best thing you possibly can. That’s how you get to be the best. In the words of Snoop, who closes the film: “Find yourself, find your art, find your heart.” Aw, Snoop. You said it.

There’s a lot more where that came from (seriously, just watch the movie…you’ll be smarter at the end). As writers, we should constantly look for ways to write better and improve our craft, and that means learning from every source, even ones that don’t seem obvious at first. Got it? Now go write!

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.