A Public Service Announcement

I’m tired. I’m tired in a way that most adults who suffer from insomnia might be, though I don’t suffer from insomnia and am rather hilarious without sufficient sleep. So, to even mention the vagaries and trappings of what happened in The Hobbit would be rather cruel and unusual–

GOLLUM!!

–punishment.

DWARVES!!

And, if nothing I say here makes any sense whatsoever, keep in mind that I am as sleep-deprived (if not more so) than when I wrote my first draft of “Don’t Ignore Your Dead” for the Don’t Read This Book anthology.

RADAGAST!!!

So forgive me on this auspicious day o’ days, until I can return to some semblance of normalcy.

NECROMANCY!!!

This message has been brought to you by the department of concerned adults whose motto, “Err Less Through Prevention,” has been oft contested as the reason why there’s less chocolate milk in the grocery store.

Answering Reader Questions Squeefully

Today, I present you with a reader-driven interview of fantastic indeterminable quality and size.

Scott R. Asks: Have you ever loved a character concept but found it just would not fit into the project you were working on? If yes, how did you work that out?

    In fiction, I suppose I’m rather odd, because I feel the most connected to my work when I hear character voices. Those voices usually “talk” to me after I decide what type of story I want to tell. So I begin with the elevator pitch or concept first, and then match characters to that. When I start the other way ’round, the story just doesn’t flow like it should, because I’m so giddy about that character I don’t have a plot. I’ve never heard a character that needed to be silenced for a story; but I have had plots that didn’t work for characters.

    In games, though, this sort of thing happens all the time when I’m outlining. “Oh, it’d be so cool to…” occurs frequently. This is why line developers (a.k.a. gaming gods) exist to rein me in. (Or, when I’m developing, to handcuff myself.)

Mark B. Asks: What advice would you give to people who “run out of creativity” when writing?

    There is some reason why you did. Either it’s an emotion, like insecurity or boredom, or it’s something deeper but just as annoying, like the realization that you really can’t stand writing “X” or you have given up on working for “Y” or you can’t write with someone singing words in the background. Find out what that trigger is so you can recognize the warning signs and make better decisions for yourself, your mental health, and your career.

    Then? BE CREATIVE. Pick up some silly putty. Draw a stick figure. Learn how to bead or cross-stitch or paint or scrapbook. Choose anything — anything at all — that you can pick up and put down at your leisure and do it in a space where you can be completely free. No judgement. No feedback. No money exchanging hands. You do this hobby because you enjoy it immensely to get a creative break. Do this for a set period of time. Fifteen minutes. Half an hour. Then get back to it!

    Other methods that work are: switching projects, using a timer, or diving into a creative writing prompt. I do not recommend sitting at your computer until the words flow for the thing you’re working on because that will kill your productivity. If you turn writing into a punishment, whether that’s mentally or emotionally or not, you’ll do less of it without even realizing it. Yes, you have to write and I firmly believe this, but you also need to be good to yourself or you’ll kill that which you most desire.

Ursula M. H. Asks: What do you wish you had learned in school?

    I desperately tried to understand the business side of writing when I was in college. My Creating Writing program was outstanding because it offered me the flexibility to master form and function, but making money was something I did not learn. That, more than anything, would’ve helped me move forward with a career in writing as opposed to just storytelling. I very much lament the two paths presented in front of me — a literary career (a la The New Yorker) or a career in academia. Neither of which appealed to me at the time, but *shrugs* you never know.

Tiara L. A. Asks: How do you transition from short-story pacing to novel pacing? This is a constant struggle, and I don’t seem to be improving, even after years trying. I can rock a short story but my novel attempts just run out of gas, always about the same point.

    The software that helped me the most was Scrivener, because I was able to separate out the pieces of a novel. If you think about the pieces as interconnected (I always write short stories with the promise of more, more, more…) then you’ll have an easier time with it. More than that, I cannot say, because my novels aren’t out yet.

    I also feel, as I alluded to above, that if you’re stuck on a particular form you may have something else on the emotion side that’s blocking you. I feel you need to figure out whatever that is, perhaps take some time to meditate on the subject, so you can work through it. It may be simple as: “I’m really insecure about writing a novel on spec because I’m not sure if I can sell it and I have other projects people are paying me for.” (Which was my hold up.) Or, it may be complex as: “I’ve never done this before, there’s no one out there to teach me, and I’m worried I’m going to suck.”

    I know others have said to just power through that blockage, but the reality is that you have to do what’s best for you. You may determine that you aren’t a novelist or you only have the one book in you or you have resigned yourself to writing short stories. If that’s the case, own that. Be the writer you want to be, not the one you feel pressured to because everybody else says you won’t be a real writer if… These are your stories, your legacy. Own your own destiny as a writer, and you’ll be so happy you just never know what’ll happen.

David J. Asks: Out of all the things you’ve written, what’s your favorite?

    The novels that haven’t been published yet. I love them so hard… You have no idea. I’m so deeply emotional about these stories that I’ve been very selfish about not sharing them and not polishing them for submission. Soon, though. It’s time.

    In terms of what stories have already been published? I’m enamored with Atlas, my mysterious vampire who first debuted in modern-day noir story called “Fangs and Formaldehyde” for the New Hero anthology through Stone Skin Press. This story was completed a little over two years ago and was part of a very successful Kickstarter. It’s my commentary on the vampire genre (MY VAMPIRES BLOW UP IF THEY GET TOO EMOTIONAL!) and there are more stories to tell in this world.

Preston D. Asks: At what point does more coffee become counter-productive?

    Apparently, Preston follows my blog… So, yes. It’s true. *raises hand* I am a coffee snob and a caffeine addict. To manage said addiction, I have been marking down what happens when I have too much of it. Soda is… Whoa. Bad. Very, very bad. I try to limit myself to one 20 oz. per day (or less) if at all possible. My recent addiction to cardio workouts has also reduced my caffeine consumption, because here’s what happens to my sensitive system when I have too much of it…

    …I’M SO ENERGETIC AND EVERYTHING IS VERY LOUD AND ALL THE IDEAS CRASH AND BURN LIKE A MICHAEL BAY BLOCKBUSTER ONLY NO ONE IS THERE TO PAY ADMISSION…

    …soooooooo it has to be managed and stuck into the queue of moderation. Provided (key word there) I have a strong focus. Caffeine without focus is counter-productive. But? Caffeine WITH focus is a worthy time for consumption. Indeed.

Jim C. Asks: Is creating an outline really a necessary part of the writing process?

    Gods, no. I would even drop an F-Bomb or two in there for extra special emphasis. My process varies depending upon what I’m working on, where it will be published or submitted, and who I’m working for. Outlines are not always required. They are necessary for certain types of publishers and genres (I’m thinking romance, my friends…) but you can also get away with writing down milestones or reminders for yourself.

    I mentioned this earlier, but if I’m writing something, I prefer to begin with my goal or logline. When I don’t, the story evolves and shifts and changes as if it has a life of its own. And, well… If you’ve met me, you probably think they do, since my nickname is Miss Random USA.

    An example of this is what happened last week. I saw a contest I wanted to enter and I had a concept floating around in my head. It began with a title and a specific scene. I heard the voice in my head and I started writing. BAM! 2,500 words later… I realized that the story was too big for the contest parameters, so I trimmed and trimmed and trimmed and pared and found another story that tried to sneak past me. So I focused on that and cut off the original idea like a bad habit. Mind you, I really like both concepts, and I did get not one, but TWO stories out of the effort — but if I had been writing for a publisher? This would have been bad. “I asked for ‘X’ — but you gave me ‘Y’. That’s not what I wanted!!!”

    Regardless of how you write, there’s a fair amount of technical skill involved — especially when you start involving other people in your process. While I don’t believe outlines are a requirement for you, persay, I do believe they are necessary as part of the professional writer’s toolkit.

Anyhoo… OY. Now hitting that over-caffeination point I was referring to earlier… (In my defense, I’m answering these question as I prepare for the midnight showing of The Hobbit… BUT I LOVE THE WORLD AND TOWELS AND EVERYTHING AND ZOMG!)

Eric C. Asks: Any subject matter you feel is taboo and you won’t touch?

    Okay. (Puts on serious face.) I despise anything that goes in the realm of “creating for the sake of…” Writing for shock value, a la rape/incest/sodomy/etc., is so far removed from what I want to do as a storyteller it’s not even funny. When I tell stories, my goal is not to grab you by the throat to shock the living beejeezus out of you — even though that is a type of story to tell — it’s to entertain you in a way that leaves a different, softer lasting impression through a sense of wonder and mystery.

    Take rape for example. Rape is ugly and common, overlooked and not socially forgiven (e.g. the woman is often treated like the culprit), and is very, very, very wrong. When a writer defaults to that in a horror story, at the exclusion of all other possibilities, there’s very little room for plot. You see vengeance. You see character motivation. You see the victim becoming the antagonist/protagonist. But that rape is a story in and of itself and when it’s not? It turns into gratuitous violence.

    I feel an overemphasis on that (gratuitous violence) against women or people of color or any other “minority,” gross body behaviors (e.g. focus on defecating), and slaughter are cheap tricks that overwhelm plots. There are so many other dark dimensions that can be explored — which I do to highlight that little pinprick of light. In my storytelling world, death means something.

    Other writers may choose to go the shock and awe/gore pr0n route, but that’s not me. Not unless there is a very tangible reason related to the plot and I can write it in a way that does not serve those tropes up on a platter or overly disgusts the reader. There’s already enough of that out there.



****BONUS!!!! GUILTY ADMISSION!!!!****BONUS!!!! GUILTY ADMISSION!!!!****BONUS!!!! GUILTY ADMISSION!!!!****

Here’s my guilty admission for the day: my favorite lunch to make is a variation on macaroni and cheese. I’m a huge fan of Annie’s Organic Macaroni and Cheese and often add in things like: tuna, buffalo chicken, broccoli, jalapenos, portabella mushrooms, etc. I could write a whole cookbook just on the 100 varieties of mac-and-cheese we’ve come up with!

Interacting with Celebrities or Authors? Don’t be “that Guy.”

One of the benefits of following your favorite celebrities or authors on Twitter, MySpace, Facebook or through their blogs, is that you can interact with them like you would one of your friends.

Unfortunately, this accessibility also encourages the notion that these highly visible people are your personal friends. Friends that you can make recommendations to, ask for favors from and expect to publish or create specifically for you. Should you?

I’ve been involved with social media (both professionally and not) for some time, but I’ve also worked with celebrities as well through my photography, Flamesrising.com and conventions. It still surprises me that online accessibility is creating strange expectations that include things like: reciprocal “follows,” personalized responses for every comment, charitable donations, invitations to dinner or things like free plugs for your work, agent referrals, critiques, etc.

Remember, that many of these celebrities have thousands – if not millions – of followers that they are trying to maintain. The primary reason why many people can’t respond to you, personally, is time. Engaging in internet activities can be a time sink, but especially when you have thousands of followers. For many authors, even though they don’t put in a 9 to 5 schedule, they need to spend their time wisely in order to meet deadlines and promote their own works. There are only so many charities they can support, and only so many people they can follow up with. For example, the sheer volume of responses to a single Tweet for people like Amber Benson, Neil Gaiman or Warren Ellis creates a situation where your response might get lost in the shuffle within minutes.

As part of the creative process, authors can’t provide individual critiques to fans because if they did — then they’d have to do it for everyone. Moreso than responding to a Tweet or a comment, critiques take time away from an author’s day. It’s also not uncommon for some fans to send story ideas. Unfortunately, that opens authors up to potential legal issues if they publish something similar to what you sent them, even if they didn’t read it.

That’s not to say that authors won’t interact with you or offer advice, it just means that anyone who is visible online can’t be everywhere at once. Many authors will offer up-front policies for what they will and won’t do (e.g. critiques, interviews or offering advice, etc.), but not everyone does.

So let me be very clear: I recommend not being “that” guy that has specific expectations from following people online in order to further your own agenda. Don’t. For just a minute, put yourself in the shoes of those you admire. Celebrities are not magical beings, they’re just more highly visible than other folk because it’s part of what they do for a living. That’s not to say that they don’t care about your comments or don’t want to interact with you, it’s just impossible for them to respond to even a few hundred people all at once.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject? Agree or disagree? Feel free to comment below.

Putting Yourself Out There but No Comments? Here’s why.

The line used to be “everyone’s a critic.” Now it’s more like “everyone’s gotta blog.” In my opinion, whether you update frequently or not, it’s essential to having a blog or personal website for your own name. (Sidenote: you’d be surprised how many people who reached celebrity status, don’t.) Well, when you get a blog, you have to do the work to promote it by commenting on other people’s blogs, writing good content and keeping it updating. You might say blogging is “high-maintenance,” which is one of the reasons why they get abandoned. It’s not just a “post and readers will come” sort of a scenario: it’s a “post, promote and hope readers will come.”

As writers, we all know how important content is for a blog. If it isn’t written in a language readable to humans, it probably won’t attract us (or Google, for that matter). Besides being well written, good content also means having something that is sooooooooo cool, so fabulous that people will gape in awe.

Finding that amazing content is a lot harder than it looks — especially for a writing blog — because a lot of sites make their money by being cool, almost like the Ripley’s Believe it or Not phenomenon for the blogosphere. Boing Boing, TechCrunch and ThinkGeek immediately come to my mind, but there are others. That’s not to say that your blog can’t get attention by “repurposing” or “pointing out” cool content (Search Engine Optimization, anyone?).

Enter the comments. The writer side in us loves the appeal of having people comment on what we write, because it’s like a teeny tiny “thank you” for taking the time to write a post. Yeah, don’t hold your breath. Just because it’s published online–even on a place where people are reading your work–there is no guarantee you’re going to get people interacting and commenting.

Here’s my take on why:

Why Readers Don’t Comment on Blogs

    Your Comment System Needs Improvement: From complicated log-ins to “yet another password,” overly complicated means of commenting can be a turn-off. One of the ways I want to improve my comment system is to figure out the “direct reply” WordPress plug-in, so that I can directly reply better to people who comment. (Here’s the WordPress Thread Comment plug-in from WordPress.org.)

    Timing, Timing, Timing: In my experience, comments can depend on when you post a topic and how long that topic is visible on your front page. They can also depend upon whether or not your content is hitting the reader when they have time to comment. If they’re at work, for example, maybe they physically can’t comment.

    Doesn’t Grab the Reader: If the content isn’t spectacular, and doesn’t hit the reader in that sweet spot, then they’re not going to post a comment. Comments require an emotional commitment on the part of the reader — they have to have a legitimate reason to want to post.

    Your Readers are RSS Feeders: RSS feeds are such a time saver, but they are also a barrier to commenting. I view RSS readers to be a lot like window shoppers; they can read headlines and snippets of your content, but they don’t have to click through. That “click” is their commitment to your blog. Asking them to comment as well requires another step toward reader-writer commitment, so you had better be ready to offer them something good.

    The Tone of Your Content isn’t Genuine: Blogs have the trouble of sounding too authoritative, because everybody is an instant expert. Something I struggled with when I started my blog, I try to go the route of “this is my opinion and your experiences may differ,” and that’s what has worked for me. Readers aren’t stupid, so if your content sounds too much like a sales pitch or talking down to them, then chances are your blog might get ignored.

Web Analytics Can Help you Prove your Theories

Anyone can make inferences as to why people aren’t commenting on their blog, but to get into the specifics you’ll want to check your web analytics toolkit and figure out “why.” For example, a post I did about two free fiction submission sites you don’t want to miss received a lot of attention and more comments than I usually get. Why? Someone thought the post was worthwhile enough to use StumbleUpon, causing it to be my highest-trafficked post on my blog.

From abandonment to click-through rates for RSS feeds, you can find out a lot of information about your reader’s behavior to ensure that you’re writing great content that they’ll want to read (and you’ll want to write). The same can be said for commenting, in my opinion, because they are somewhat related. I like to think about it like a party. Before you can ask people to have a conversation, you have to invite them to your party. Before you can invite them to your party, you should probably get to know them and engage them, to find the right group of friends that will stick around.

Hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. Admittedly, I don’t always practice what I preach due to time constraints (and a touch of procrastination, too), but commenting is a good way to build community and to get other people familiar with your own work and personality. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I have to find some blogs to go comment on today! Have a great one!




Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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