Manuscript Critiques

I’ve begun to work with a critique group with the American Christian Fiction Writers to both help find issues in my WIP and to assist others. Often when we write we become blind from familiarity to both simple and not-so-simple mistakes that others may pick up on. We are burdened by the entire vision of the story in our minds, and if we don’t successfully translate that vision to words, we haven’t succeeded in our goal. That’s where a critique group provides value.patrick-tomasso-71909-unsplash.jpg

This is the most formal such group I’ve participated in to date. All undergo a week of training to ensure that there is complete understanding of the processes and expectations. After that the critiques begin – first the writer critiques others’ submissions, then they submit.

I have found this to be an extremely helpful and supportive group. I have so far critiqued six submissions and received five for my first submission. All comments provided value for which I am appreciative. While I was unsure at first, now I am eager to submit more.

Perhaps too eager.

At lunch I prepared my next submission, chapter two of my novelette Childhood. The feedback from chapter one influenced my review, as it should. I made changes, small at first, then more significant, then to the point of splitting chapter two into two chapters. Finally, I stopped, removed my fingers from the keyboard, and leaned back in my office chair.

I was rushing the process, and the writing suffered.

I was reminded of a small yet significant lesson today – don’t rush for the sake of an artificial timeline. I would like to finish the novelette in a month, but a rushed lackluster manuscript is much worse than a polished one that took three times as long to complete. I’m not racing against anyone but myself. My goal is quality, not quickness, so the next submission will have to wait – be it a day, two days, or longer, whatever it takes.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The Balance of Power

Yesterday I saw a tweet in the #writingcommunity that asked about abandoned writing concepts. I do have one that has sort of haunted me for 30-plus years. Maybe haunted isn’t the right word, but I feel as if I haven’t finished something. I touched on it last month, a novel titled The Balance of Power. That was my most significant abandoned writing concept, one I may return to.

As I have several projects in various stages (a novelette nearing completion, a novel that pc7rRgyRiI have just begun, and a relaunch of possibly two titles), taking on another project now would be foolhardy. Yet I am drawn to find the scraps of loose leaf and spiral notebook paper that comprised this improbable tale of a Soviet takeover of the United States. I think I know why, as well. The Balance of Power was my first complete manuscript.

I never tried to find a publisher or an agent for the manuscript for a few reasons. First, I didn’t want to go through the hassle of typing it up, though I did try a few times. Once was using a product called Electric Desk, a very early word processing (and I think spreadsheet) software package. Even if I could find those files and the original software (on 5.25 floppies), they would be useless. I have no way to read the ancient media (not that I have any confidence that after 30-plus years the data would still be intact on floppies).

Bur what I do have are the original penned scenes. Many hours of labor when I was in my mid-teens still exists beneath my house in some basement box, abandoned.

Maybe it’s time to revisit it.

I don’t know what the quality of the writing is – my expectations are low. But what I do know is that, for my personal history, The Balance of Power represents a milestone in my writing career, though I could not have recognized it at the time. For that reason, and for me, alone, I think I need to return to that manuscript. It has been on my mind for the last month, and the tweet just confirmed that I have become interested in revisiting the past. A crappy, unsophisticated story? Probably. But it’s mine. Perhaps, in today’s world of self-publishing ease, I shall fulfill my 16-year-old self’s dream and publish The Balance of Power. No one may read it, but it will be there for all to see – as the Greg of 35 years ago dreamed about.

Hammer and Sickle image from http://clipart-library.com/sickle-and-star.html

Today is the Day!

This is the day the Lord has made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118:24 New King James Version (NKJV)

Today is the day! It is the day the Lord has made! We only have today – yesterday has passed and tomorrow has not yet come. Embrace today!

This is one of my favorite snippets of scripture. The abundance conveyed in sixteen words is incredible. For within directs both our gift and our purpose for all of our lives, because our life is a long string of individual days.IMG_7520.jpeg

Human nature is to fail. We are not perfect, and never can be. Yet our sins must never distract our focus on serving the Lord every day as a gift to Him for providing the day for us. Mistakes and bad decisions are forgiven therefore we shouldn’t dwell on them. We should rejoice!

The pre-sunrise early morning speaks of the promise of the day. Everything is new and fresh. We have not yet addressed the stresses of the workday. I am guilty of often jumping from bed to shower to car to work without stopping to give thanks for this day and to promise that I will utilize the talents also gifted to me to serve. That’s a primary reason why I tweet the #8AMPrayer every workday, to remind myself not to forget my purpose here.

Obviously, that extends to writing. I recently read a tweet that promoted the idea that fiction should entertain and not contain a message or a lesson. That seems like a waste of a great opportunity – why not strive for both? The written word is a powerful influencer, a tool a gift from God. For me, I choose to offer it back as a gift in my writing, be it an 80,000 word novel, a 10,000 word novelette, or a 140 (or 280 now) character tweet.

I stated this before – a Christian fiction writer has a responsibility to advance His kingdom. That goes beyond entertaining. Today is the day He has made – I rejoice in the opportunity to help others through writing this day!

Bible quote from https://www.biblegateway.com/

Picture by Greg Schaffer

Why I Quit My Job So I Could Write More

Heh – when I logged onto WordPress this evening, I had no idea what I was going to write about, then saw I had saved this title two weeks ago. Present Greg thanks Past Greg!

It’s true, in a way – I quit my job so I could write more, but that was one part of the equation (yay, a cliche and I’m only on the second paragraph). I was in charge of information security for a decently sized community bank and I could have remained in the position for many more years beyond the five-and-a-half I had already served – maybe even to retirement. It was a comfortable existence. But God had other plans for me.rye-jessen-1145106-unsplash.jpg

On the professional side, the message I received was that while I was using my talents well, I could apply them more effectively. Small and midsized businesses don’t have access to the information expertise Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) bring, so we provide part-time virtual CISO services that fit their budget and risk tolerance. I’m using my talents more for service while still earning a living.

On the writing side, I am called to write Christian fiction novels, as I’ve mentioned before, but it wasn’t always that way. My first two novels are more fantasy with some Christian elements and some non-Christian ones. I struggled to find writing time, and quitting my job was supposed to provide more bandwidth to write.

Here’s the odd part of all of this. I am working harder in my professional field than I ever have before, and yet I have more time for writing. How is that possible? My making this move, I’ve eliminated several time-wasters:

Commute – I cannot begin to calculate how much time I’ve wasted in traffic. Podcasts and audio books can only go so far. For awhile, I rode a commuter bus to work and was able to then write during the commute, but the conditions were not ideal.

Now, my drive is less than five miles each way in light traffic. I could have kept my home office and reduced my commute to zero, but I found that I accomplish much more outside the home office.

Meetings – It’s a fact of corporate existence – meetings. Meetings to discuss meetings. Meetings to examine output from meetings. Meetings just to hold regular meetings. Meetings that you don’t need to be in. Sure there are productive meetings, but in hindsight looking back on my career probably 50% of the time I spent in meetings was wholly unproductive. Now all of my meetings are productive, because my clients pay by the hour.

Low-Value Projects – This relates to meetings, as all projects hold meetings to discuss progress. But when those projects are not significantly advancing the core reasons why you’re employed, all activities associated with the projects, including meetings, become an exercise in checking boxes. I once sat through a series of meetings on designing policy templates, including the type and size of font. Is that really an efficient use of a senior executive’s time? See the “pay by the hour” comment above.

Nine-To-Five – I have the flexibility to create my schedule as I see fit. This means that often I start the workday at 5:30, take a writing break from 7-8:30, and work until 3:30, then go to the gym, ride my bike, or whatever. When inspiration hits, I can stop what I’m doing (for the most part) and write. You can’t do that on corporate time.

The takeaway? God has given me the opportunity to use my time efficiently. It’s up to me to do so for His glory.

Photo by Rye Jessen on Unsplash

Writing Tools – BookFunnel

A common theme among authors, especially indie authors, is frustration of lackluster sales and exposure. Luck is the product of preparation and opportunity. We don’t know when we will “get lucky” with our marketing efforts, but we can prepare for the opportunity when it arises (or when we create opportunity through marketing efforts). There are many preparation paths.Bookfunnel

BookFunnel is an eBook distribution platform. There are several levels of membership but the basic level ($100) allows for up to two pen names and 5,000 downloads per month – that is the level I signed up for.

I was introduced to BookFunnel when preparing for my first blog tour promotion of my novel Leaving Darkness as one possible method to distribute eBook copies to reviewers. I went a different route as the $100 fee just to allow for distribution I deemed excessive. I didn’t see much value for BookFunnel beyond that – at first.

One strategy for building email lists is to offer a magnet, a giveaway that others may value in exchange for an email address. In that sense it’s not free; you are “selling” for an item of value. Publishers and agents consider email lists as one indicator of the strength of an author’s platform (and therefore marketability). I realized I needed to begin collecting email addresses.

I did not market my first two novels at all out of nativity and ignorance, and am only now working to catch up to where I need to be as an author. I’ve understood the magnet concept for most of my life but its importance from the marketing side never clicked for me until recently. I decided to offer a magnet. but what, and how?

The answer to what was easy – my first novel, Forgiveness. I wasn’t worried about lost revenue from sales impact because there was no sales to begin with (a consequence of that lack of marketing I mentioned). But I believe it is a solid novel that many would enjoy. At the very least, my exposure would increase by the dozen or two that may download it, and I’d have a few email addresses that, ideally, most would convert into fans.

The how to offer the magnet presented a challenge. I opted to try Facebook ads, as I had success building my author page following with ads several years ago (okay, I did try a bit of marketing then I suppose). I was pleased with the initial success as I began to receive signups for my email list in exchange for the download.

Up to this point, I had planned to just email the eBook in the format they specified, but I realized this would take a lot of my time, so I looked at BookFunnel again and decided to try the basic plan. In the end, $60 of ads produced 57 contacts – a nice number, but costly.

It wasn’t until the end of the ad period that I explored BookFunnel further and came upon the promotions section. One author set a promotion theme and invited others to join to fill limited spots (I believe this promotion capped at 26). With nothing to lose and low expectations, I signed up.

My expectations were not only met but exceeded. In 12 days Forgiveness was downloaded approximately 170 times. With minimal effort and zero additional capital, my email list had about quadrupled. No surprise – I’m sold on BookFunnel now. Even if there are no other features that I opt to use, BookFunnel has already proven its value, as far as I’m concerned. Note I have no connection to BookFunnel beyond the customer relationship.

Image snipped from BookFunnel’s web landing page at https://bookfunnel.com/

 

 

Writing on the Road

I find it difficult to write when on the road. I’m only referring to business trips, not vacations, because trips away are just that. But when traveling for the job, I do try to set aside some time for writing activities. Sometimes meetings, conference activities, and the like end early enough to allow for an uninterrupted block of time in the hotel room before retiring, sometimes not.luke-stackpoole-578017-unsplash.jpg

I try to write some in the morning. In addition to the #8AMPrayer tweet (that I don’t always get out at 8:00 in the morning), my goal is to publish my daily blog post by then before digging into the work day. Some days I don’t get to the blog until midday or later. I always try to post something, though, because part of this is about maintaining discipline.

That’s where part of the challenge is. When in a routine, scheduling is much easier. When traveling it is difficult to maintain a routine beyond eating three meals (and even then, sometimes a meal is eaten later, if at all). It becomes all too easy to just put the writing discipline aside.

Addressing a Work In Progress (WIP) is the hardest for me. Unlike a tweet or a blog post, I have to take a bit of time to center my thoughts, get into the story, and relax to begin the creative flow. In the rush of travel schedules, that often is not possible. In those times, I abandon the effort. I’ve tried to push through, often with substandard results. Forcing time to write then becomes a waste of time.

For me, yes, it’s about discipline, but it’s also about patience. As God has called me to write, He will also provide the situations to write in His time, not mine. While I suffer from impatience, He does not, because time has only meaning to me, not Him.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Writing Tools – AutoCrit

Ah, AutoCrit – I have a love-hate relationship with you! No, not hate, maybe frustration at all of the possible ways you present to me that I may improve my manuscript. But that is also why I love you – and love wins out with you.AutoCrit

I need to issue a warning – AutoCrit will provide the writer with a tsunami of information. Everything from repeated words to verb tense to passivity (is that even a word?) to too many adverbs for the genre, AutoCrit is a very powerful diagnostic tool for the fiction author. And therein is one of its limitations – it is structured for fiction, not non-fiction. No, not limitation, feature – AutiCrit does not pretend to be something it isn’t.

AutoCrit examines a manuscript against industry averages to determine alerts on too many adverbs, sentence length and variation, and other variables. Is it perfect? I suspect not. But it does provide many paths the author ma choose to investigate.

That’s the key – “may choose to investigate.” Don’t choose them all, there’s simply too much information, else the writer will spend more time fine-tuning the manuscript to satisfy AutoCrit and not the readers. Never forget the readers are the primary concern.

I often say that AutoCrit has helped me become a better writer. I tend to use less adverbs and therefore produce tighter works. I also have shaken most of my passive bad habits. Not all, but I also catch them often before running an AutiCrit analysis.Adverbs, passive

AutoCrit won’t help with a bad story line – it’s not a developmental editor. Nor will it point out Point of View (POV) issues. You’ll have to diagnose and correct plot deficiencies and head-hopping yourself, or go the preferred route, hire developmental and copy editors. I did just that and learned much more, especially from the developmental edit process, but that shall be a post for another day.

Bottom line – I love AutoCrit. I have no interest beyond promoting a good product.

Screenshot from AutoCrit https://www.autocrit.com/

Looking for Followers in All the Wrong Places

Book marketing is challenging. In order to get our words read by others, we have to not only make them aware of our works but convince them to read it. That is necessary from a sales perspective. Christian fiction authors also bear the responsibility of getting their words read as we write to promote God’s kingdom. Yet often authors shun marketing.sara-kurfess-1416213-unsplash

I get it. Marketing is hard and not exciting and just not fun, but we have to put at least as much effort into marketing our books as creating them. I know that from firsthand experience. I did zero promotion for my first two novels (beyond a few lame tweets and mention on a dusty website). And I was surprised and saddened at my anemic sales! So much I had to learn (and still have to learn).

An author’s platform is, in my view, their online presence and following. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blog, website, and so on make up the online presence. Constant activity in all channels is necessary, though it’s not necessary to choose all channels. Followers are also necessary, because who will care about or even read tweets to a dozen followers? Sure, hashtags ensure more visibility, but it’s a very large Twitter universe out there.

Currently in the #WritingCommunity there are numerous activities to promote increasing Twitter followers. I admit that I began to participate in these follies, essentially variations of the “I’ll follow you if you follow me.” Why am I negative about them? Because these do not result in quality followers. I could build up 14,000 followers easily but if they are all mainly authors struggling for recognition like myself, what good is that. No, we need to focus on quality not quantity with our social media engagements, else isn’t it a waste of time?

I’ve adopted a better strategy. Write well. Interact with communities I want to reach as an author, not echo chambers. I’d rather have 100 followers passionate about my works than 20,000 who don’t care about my content, just my follow back. Focusing on a quality platform is the only way I can fulfill God’s call for me as a Christian writer.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

Ethics in Leadership

No, this is not the title of my next novel (though I kind of like it). Today I’m scheduled to speak to students at Middle Tennessee State University on ethics in leadership. I’ve been thinking about what to say – often when I give these types of talks, I don’t prepare a “script” but rather go with what is on my mind. It may sound like the wrong method, but in an intimate classroom setting I prefer the discussion approach rather than following a stiff presentation march (with potential Death by PowerPoint).ian-schneider-66374-unsplash

Still, thinking about ethics in leadership has led me to certain points in my life when, in hindsight (and often at the time), I chose the ethical leadership decision. I’ve come to realize the reason for that. In reality, thee is no such thing as unethical leadership.

A leader is not someone who oversees people, a department, a squadron, and so on. Those who approach successful completion of a mission by relying solely on chain of command are not leaders, they are managers. Leaders may or may not be someone’s superior in an organizational chart. In fact, most likely not.

Leadership is about service. Conversely, true service is leadership. Ethical leadership involves using our positions of influence to achieve positive results for others. If one’s motives inherently are self-serving, how can that be leadership? One may argue that both can exist – a person may lead out of service but also desire to reap the benefits – and I would agree. But if the primary motivator is self and not others, that is not ethical leadership (and there is no such thing as unethical leadership, in my opinion).

Christian writers, fiction and non-fiction, take on a tremendous responsibility that I am not sure is often realized. As a Christian, I have the responsibility to advance His kingdom through my words (written and spoken). Yes, book sales and reputation and name recognition are important because we want encouragement that we are making a difference. But they cannot be prime motivators for creating works – He must always be first.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

My Freelance Writing Roots

Yesterday I was working on an ongoing and seemingly endless project: cleaning out my basement. I’m on a mission to simplify my life, and that means releasing items that no longer bring me joy (I haven’t read Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering, but I get the core concept).Computerworld

I have an office in the basement that I don’t use much anymore since moving to a rented office (I tend to be more productive outside of the house, so it’s worth the cost). The basement space consists of a desk and table. Computers, monitors, and a small filing cabinet are gone, either repurposed or disposed of. The filing cabinet landed in my rented office, but I didn’t take all of the files with me. Those folders have sat on the basement desk for several months awaiting review.

While examining the contents of one of the folders, I found the last print copy of Computerworld, an Information Technology magazine that used to be a fixture on computer and network pros desks. The magazine launched an online presence many years ago, and eventually that resulted in the downsizing and elimination of the print copy.

I recall reading a message, whether in the print copy, online, or in email, that Computerworld was interested in freelance writers. With no such experience, I inquired and landed my first freelance writing gig. My goal was exposure and to give back, while earning a few dollars. I remember being pleasantly surprised that the job paid more than I originally believed. Earning money while writing – what a concept!

My first article, published almost exactly 13 years ago to the day, began a three-year relationship with Computerworld, where I provided content on computer networking and information security on a not-quite-monthly basis. Originally I had expected the three-part series I pitched to be the extent of the job, but I suppose that my contributions were well-received as the editorial department eventually requested more.

It was a fun experience until I received my first negative feedback. I don’t recall the details, only asking the editor how or if I should respond. Essentially I crafted a very professional reply and learned that not everyone will agree with what I write. A solid lesson that I have built on over the years.

I haven’t written as a freelancer for about a decade now, but I’m suddenly intrigued about the possibility of returning to the field. We will see.

I kept the magazine, by the way. It still brings me joy.