Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Writer and the Storyteller

by
Susanna Connelly Holstein


“Once upon a time,” begins the storyteller, “there was a king.” She pauses and sweeps the audience with unblinking eyes. “He was a proud man, a big man.” The storyteller straightens her posture, lifts her chin, and crosses her arms on her chest. She frowns. Her voice drops to a lower key. “Now this king had a young daughter.” Her voice softens; she smiles, and her body relaxes. Her hand reaches out to indicate the princess’s height.

It takes less than a minute for the audience to see the big stern king and his young daughter. Only a few words were needed to describe the two characters.

“Once upon a time,” the author writes, “there was a king. He was a proud man who stood erect and seldom smiled. His hands were always clenched, as if ready for a fight, and he held his head high. He stood over six feet tall, and it took many yards of fabric to make his breeches.” Words paint a picture of the king, and more words will be needed to describe his gentle daughter.

I have been a professional storyteller for over 20 years, sharing stories across the United States at festivals, conferences, workshops, reunions, campfires, and many other events. For the last 15 years, I have been a writer and have often mused about the similarities and differences in these two crafts.

The word storytelling is used today to describe everything from artworks to plays, movies and TV commercials. Filmmaker Ken Burns is often called “America’s Storyteller” and few would argue with that appellation. The word is also used to describe written works, be it novels, creative nonfiction, or historical works. With such broad application, it seems the name of this most ancient art has become as commonplace as generic aspirin. And yet what oral storytellers do is unique, an art with its own tools of the trade.

So what separates storytelling from writing? Are they the same thing, really? Is the only difference the form of presentation, or is there something more? The two artforms certainly have much in common. Both seek a strong storyline, a tale that takes the reader or listener by the heart and leads them to a new place that yet resonates with known experience. Both work to create intriguing characters, dramatic scenes, and a tale that follows the story arc.

Both writers and storytellers usually draft a working outline; the storyteller may never commit a word to paper, but the same work takes place mentally as a story develops. Some storytellers write every story they tell, adding personal notes for gestures, tone, etc., and inserting laugh lines or emotional cues at specific intervals. Some draw their story on storyboards, finding pictorial representation an effective way to commit details to memory. Others learn the key points and scenes only, then tell the story within that loose framework.

Writers and tellers also use another common tool: speaking their work aloud during the creative process. What better way to find redundancy, errors, and ambiguity? Telling the story aloud, even if it is only to the cat or to a wall, helps find areas that need improvement.

Where oral storytelling and writing differ is in the methods each has available to tell a tale. The storyteller has, in many respects, an easier time of it than does the writer because the teller can use physicality and vocal cues: voice inflection, eye contact, gestures and movement, pauses, and other vocal techniques. She can sing, shout, whisper, growl, or coo. She can crouch, spread her arms wide, indicate size with hand gestures. She can hop, walk in place, or move in any other way that helps the listener visualize the story.

The writer must convey everything through one medium: words. Here is where the writer’s skill must blend with creativity to create a powerful story. Dialogue allows the writer to become, in a sense, the storyteller. Descriptions call on artistic ability to create scenes that are clear and compelling. A mantra many writers follow is “show, don’t tell.” An oral artist must show, through movement and voice, because most audiences would be bored to tears with too many descriptive phrases. A writer faces the same threat of being boring if descriptions are too long or complex. While the storyteller must consider and choose both the right action and the best words to describe a scene, situation or character, the writer has only words to work with to do the same task efficiently and effectively.

When telling a story orally, the storyteller can vary the vocabulary and the story’s length; she can build in definitions or use body language to explain something that might be unfamiliar to a particular group, and lengthen or shorten a story to fit time constraints. She can make frightening scenes less scary by smiling or using a softer voice and body language, add humor to lighten the atmosphere, and even engage in conversation with the audience in some settings. The writer is more constrained; when the story is written, it is in a sense carved in stone. It cannot be changed except by future printed revisions. For the storyteller, the tale is constantly evolving, growing, and changing with almost every telling.

I was a storyteller before I thought about trying my hand at writing, and I have seen over the years how each craft informs the other. Storytelling has taught me how to use words and pacing for dramatic effect, and how to discover the heart of the story, the universal truth that will make that tale resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds. Writing taught me to develop strong openings and endings and the importance of dialogue in moving a story forward.

Both writer and teller strive for the same goal: to draw the audience into the story so deeply that the actions, characters and scenes play like a mental video as they listen or read. In the end, the medium disappears; only the story remains.





Writer, poet, professional storyteller, and ballad-singer Susanna Connelly Holstein is from Jackson County, WV. In addition to frequent storytelling performances, she writes the online journal Granny Sue’s News and Reviews, the blog Mountain Poet, and has been a columnist for Two Lane Livin’ magazine for almost ten years. Her storytelling performances include Appalachian stories and ballads, family heritage and history, and tales from West Virginia’s weird and wonderful history. Holstein’s work has appeared in Fed From the Blade, Diner Stories, and Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart from Mountain State Press, These Haunted Hills and Easter Lilies among other titles from Jan-Carol Publishing, and in many other online and print journals and anthologies. She has produced three storytelling CDs and was a founding member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild. She holds a BS from West Virginia State College and a MLIS from the University of South Carolina. In 2015, Holstein was named a West Virginia History Hero. When not writing or storytelling, she spends her time gardening, putting up food, and selling antiques.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Working at Home Like the Professional You Are


By
Sandy Tritt and Roxanne Sutton

After almost 20 years of owning a small business with an office in my home, I’m starting to get it figured out. When I first started, I felt like I worked constantly, yet I didn’t get much accomplished. Of course, at that time I had three school-aged kids hanging around, which made life a bit more interesting, but even with the kids, I discovered some secrets that make working at home easier. To gain a younger and different perspective, I also asked my daughter, Roxanne Sutton, a communications manager who works at home on occasion, to weigh in. She has a toddler and one on the way, so her routine is a bit different from mine.

1.      Decide how many hours a week you want to work. Be realistic. If you have kids at home or other obligations, take that into consideration.

2.      Set office hours. Decide what hours you want to work and what days of the week you’re available. Then, create a schedule with your office hours clearly marked. This means that if your sister wants to go shopping during your office hours, you need to reschedule for a time you’re off duty. This also means that you’re not trying to work at 8 p.m. when the kids are going to bed.

3.      Find an office area in your home. It can be a desk in a corner, a spare room with all the trimmings, or a comfortable chair with a handy laptop. Have everything available you’re likely to need so you don’t have to get up and hunt for a pen.

4.      Treat your office area like a real office. If possible, get a separate phone line for your business so you’re not interrupted with personal calls during the day—and so you can walk away from the business phone when your day is over. If you can close a door, do so. The more you can sequester yourself, the better.

5.      Treat your office hours like a “real” job. Get out of bed, get dressed, go to your office, and “clock in” at the same time each day. Roxanne adds: Yes! Do your routine! It will set your mind for the day. Don’t just roll out of bed and go to work.

6.      If you have kids at home, hire a sitter at least a few hours a week to get the kids out of the house. Do NOT, however, allow TV or video games take the place of a person for your children. They deserve more than that. Roxanne adds: If your kids are young, definitely set up daycare or some other care. They need constant attention, and you won’t be good at parenting or working if you’re trying to do both.

7.      Protect your office hours. When you’re scheduled to work, work. Don’t take a long lunch with a friend or chat on the phone with your bestie for 45 minutes. And absolutely DO NOT check Facebook, the sales at your favorite store, or the latest popup ad proclaiming what the child movie star looks like ten years later. If you’re overly tempted to check such things, make a note with the link and check it during your off hours.

8.      Protect your non-office hours. When you’re scheduled off, don’t work. Resist the temptation to do “just a little” right now. This is one of the things that makes you feel like you’re constantly working. If you’re in the mood to work and have the time to do so, then time your working hours and deduct them from the next day’s (or Friday’s) schedule.

9.      Let your family and friends know your working schedule. Ask them to please plan all emergencies for when you’re not working. This will take a while for them to get used to, so when they call during working hours, say, “I’m working right now. Can I call you back when I get off at five?” After a while, they will get accustomed to your work schedule as well.

10.  Structure your work day. I begin each day by reviewing email and dealing with any that need dealt with. I then work on whatever is on my schedule to work on that day. I try to set goals for each project, whether it’s to finish a small project before lunch or to knock off 15 pages by end of day. I end each day by planning my activities for the next day so I’m ready to get started right away. Roxanne weighs in with a 30-year-younger perspective: To-do lists are key. My new favorite app for this is Todoist. It has a mobile app that syncs with your web app, and you can sort tasks by project, assign due dates, etc. I also see the value in a written list, but it’s nice to have an app handy so I can write a crazy to-do while in the grocery store and then get it off my mind until the next work day. When I’m really busy or coming down on a deadline, I supplement the online list with a more detailed written list for a project. Sandy adds: I sometimes wake up at three a.m. in a panic because I’ve forgotten to do something that must be done. I grab my smart phone and send myself an email. Sandy also adds: I set alarms on my smart phone if I have an appointment or meeting. That way, I don’t have to continually check the time—I can concentrate fully until the buzzer rings. I started doing this with an old windup alarm clock when my kids were in school—after I was so involved in a project one day I forgot to pick them up.

11.  Keep a note pad next to the computer. When I start working on a project, I write down the time and the page number. When I stop working for any reason (the phone rings, I have to go to the bathroom, etc.), I jot down the end time. If you are writing, track the number of words you write during each segment. This helps me to clearly see how many hours I’m actually working. It also helps me to stay focused, because I play games with myself, constantly trying to work for longer times without interruption or to complete more working minutes in a day.

12.  Know you can’t plan everything. No matter how hard you try, there will always be work emergencies that require extra effort or family emergencies that require taking time off. Don’t let this stress you out. Just know that you can’t plan everything, and get back on your schedule as soon as you can.

13.  Take care of your body. Eat regular meals. Schedule breaks—and take them. I take a mid-morning and a mid-afternoon break of 10-15 minutes. I either go for a quick walk or do some stretching exercises. This helps clear the head and keep the body from cramping. Also, if you’re sitting in the same position for hours every day, you’re asking for your muscles to complain (and mine are whinier than a roomful of two-year-olds). Find alternate ways/places to sit. Yoga is a great stress-buster and helps stretch out those problem areas. 

Bottom line: working from home is a great option in today’s busy world. For those of us who make a living writing and editing, it’s pretty much the standard. For those who work in traditional offices, it’s becoming more common and can be a win-win for both the employee and the employer. But understand that working from home still means working. Put in your time, get your work done without distractions, and then enjoy your free time.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What Solving Puzzles Can Teach You About Writing

by
Jessica Nelson
 


Lately, my family has been into jigsaw puzzles. It started in July on our annual family vacation. There were several rainy evenings, so we picked up a couple of puzzles from Boulineau’s to entertain ourselves when we couldn’t go out. And so began our puzzle-working addiction. We are now on our seventh puzzle since July, each one with more pieces than the previous.

As we’ve worked our way through the triumphs and the disappointments, I’ve realized that writers can learn a lot from solving puzzles. Here are some lessons I’ve learned.

1. There’s always that piece that almost fits. As you put together your puzzle, you inevitably find pieces that look like they should fit somewhere, but they don’t. They have the right shape and the right colors. Sometimes, the piece even appears to fit at first, but then you discover it’s in the wrong place when other pieces don’t fit around it. The same thing happens in storytelling when you have information important to the story, just not in the right place. This could be exposition or backstory or even a scene that you know has to fit into the big picture somewhere; it just doesn’t fit right there. It’s okay if whatever piece of the story doesn’t fit right away—don’t force it. Be patient, and eventually you’ll find the right placement.

2. Knowing when to move on. When you've been looking at that same section of puzzle for so long that you can't even see it anymore—like when you've been trying to figure out the same scene for days—it's time to move on to a different section. Or, in this case, a different scene or a different story altogether. We’ve all been there. In my house, while working on the puzzle, we periodically rotate positions or move onto a new section so we don’t get burnt out focusing on one place. Sometimes we get stubborn and refuse to move on to a different part of the puzzle, which just leaves us frustrated. As writers, we tend to do the same thing. We fixate on one scene or chapter or story and keep at it, even if we aren’t doing any productive work on it. Even when we are only driving ourselves crazy. Puzzle making has taught me to know when to move on and work on something else. Don’t worry, whatever is driving you up a wall will still be there later. In the meantime, take a step back, let your eyes readjust, let your brain clear and refocus, and go work on something else for a while.

3. How to see the big picture. Related to my first point, sometimes you’re convinced a piece has to go in a certain section because of its colors or patterns, so you spend hours trying to make it work in that part of the puzzle. But when you step back and look at the whole puzzle, you realize those same colors occur elsewhere, and that piece you’ve been trying to force for hours actually belongs somewhere else. Sometimes the same thing happens when you write. You try to fit a scene or a character into a story, but when you take a step back and look at the big picture, you realize it may not belong in that part of the story. Or maybe it doesn’t belong in the story at all. When you view the big picture, you can see what’s working and what isn’t. You can see what sections are complete and what needs to be developed.

I recommend breaking out a puzzle—even one of those hundred-piece puzzles that take less than a day to complete—and see what you can learn from puzzle working. And when you’re done (and your brain is refreshed), get back to writing! Once you get one story solved, you’ll be ready to take on the next. And the next. And the next.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Guest Post: Working the Storytelling Muscles by Trying Different Forms

by
Joey Madia


After 25 years as a professional in a variety of storytelling modes, I believe this is the most exciting time that there’s ever been for writers as far as opportunities and reach. While traditional publishing struggles to adjust to numerous factors, from the closing of brick and mortar bookstores to alternative avenues like Create Space, the market for other types of writing is increasing.

While my 20-year background is primarily in playwriting (a field also facing challenges due to shrinking audiences and a philosophical struggle within the community of how to make plays more diverse), I’ve recently landed numerous opportunities in four other forms—work-for-hire Screenplays, Audio Dramas, Escape Rooms, and Historical–Cultural Education. Each of these has increased my financial success and strengthened my skill sets when it comes to creating story well.

Make no mistake—no matter the medium of expression, what makes for a successful story applies across the boards—complex/compelling characters; a well-paced/well-structured plot with a clear arc and, when needed, efficiently implemented secondary and tertiary arcs; proper handling of exposition and tension; and a rich, enticing atmosphere.

And the tools that we have used to create story—the 3-Act Structure, The Hero’s Journey, carefully crafted Plot Points, the A–K Tension Map for Thrillers, etc.— are still our best chance for success no matter what type of story we tell.

How do these modes of storytelling differ? It is all in the EMPHASIS. Each has its primary emphasis. Audio Drama is all about SOUND. Everything must be conveyed through words, music, or sound effects. When I say words in Audio Drama, it is the SOUND of words—their sibilance and dissonance, their rhythms. Syntax and the pause become the punctuation that furthers the creation of atmosphere in conjunction with music and sound effects.

Then there is Screenwriting. Having written 20 produced plays, I thought Screenwriting would be the closest of all storytelling forms to playwriting. Turns out that Audio Drama is its closest cousin, especially if you are a playwright who is very conscious of the beats and rhythms of characters’ language. The thing about Screenwriting is that words are things that directors have to deal with, and many don’t know how, so they hire actors who are geniuses with words—think about Tom Hanks, Vince Vaughn, Katherine Hepburn, and Al Pacino. Screenwriting is all about the IMAGE. Words are not a necessity until the IMAGES make them so. Screenwriting is the art of saying as little as possible and letting the IMAGES—the compositions, the locales, the play of light and dark, the angles and camera placements—tell the story.

I hope some eyebrows rose when I mentioned Escape Rooms as a form of storytelling. For those who don’t know, Escape Rooms are an increasingly popular form of entertainment where 6–8 people in a confined space have one hour to solve puzzles to either unlock the room to “escape,” find a special item, or solve a mystery.

With 6,500 Escape Rooms in the US and dedicated gamers who travel to play 50, 75, or 100+ rooms, the stakes are getting higher and the field more competitive, so some designers are hiring storytellers for a more immersive and integrated experience. As part of my duties as Creative Director at Port City Tour Company in Beaufort, NC, I create storylines for our Escape Rooms and write dialogue for actors to be part of the immersion. The emphasis here is on puzzles, so how do you create “hooks” to hang puzzles on as you tell the story? How can you tell a story that is deep but not too wide (because of the confined timeframe), which delivers story in easily digestible bits that drive action? Solving these challenges makes you a better writer of character and better at mapping key plot points.

Play your local Escape Rooms and if they lack story and immersion, offer to help design their next ones. It has been an education I could not get in the finest of graduate writing programs.

Another of my duties at Port City is to write and direct our Living History/Cultural and Historical Education (CHE) programs, from one-man shows to walking tours to paranormal investigations (spirits/ghosts all have a story: tracking them and teasing out their arcs is a fascinating way to engage in storytelling). Here the emphasis is on facts and dates. Finding engaging ways to use “hard history” as anchor points or the skeleton on which you overlay the tissue, muscle, and bone of character and story arc is key. We are out among the public, with three-generational groups of 15 to 20 people on walking tours, so the stories must be succinct and immediately attention-getting; appeal to a wide range of attention spans and interests; and there must be all the right mini-arcs of tension and “the turn.”

Each of these storytelling modes could be its own blog; each is a long journey of education, trial and error, finding good mentors and collaborators, and immersion in the best of the medium. I watch lots of films and good TV; listen to hour upon hour of audio drama; exchange ideas and techniques with other storytellers through various groups for creatives online and locally; and watch interviews/videos on YouTube that break down the media in which I work. The feedback that comes with getting your stories into the world from industry professionals and, in the case of my work at Port City, guests and Trip Advisor/Facebook reviewers, is invaluable. Over time you learn to separate the chaff from the wheat and thicken your skin and open your heart and mind for optimum feedback value.

Take advantage of these growing markets. There are others in these fields experimenting with ways to make the experiences more immersive, all by focusing on how to infuse story into the specific emphases of each.

Experimentation and experience in these forms will make your primary mode of storytelling all the better.


Bio:
 
Joey Madia is a screenwriter, audio dramatist, playwright, novelist, actor, and director. His poetry, essays, and short stories have been widely published and have earned him several awards. He has appeared in, directed, and written well over 100 plays and a dozen projects on camera, including the 2014 remake of White Zombie. His first film as writer/director received an Honorable Mention at the 2016 Indie Gathering International Film Festival (Cleveland, OH). His screenplay The Man at the Foot of the Bed (based on a true story by Josette Saginario) has been a two-time Official Selection, a Beverly Hills Film Festival invitee, and a quarterfinalist twice. He is Creative Director at Port City Tour Company in Beaufort, NC and Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company, Inc. (which celebrated its 13th anniversary in August 2017). He is Resident Playwright at Youth Stages, LLC. Although he has written several main stage musicals and dramas, he specializes in historical education theatre and participatory plays for youth. His 17 plays for young audiences have been produced across the United States ,and he has two plays in the Dramatic Publishing catalog. He is the author of four books on using theatre in the classroom (The Stage Learning Series, Accompany Publishing, 2007) and is working on a fifth book, Every Day is a Story All its Own, about the necessity of telling our personal stories and telling them well. He has written and performed pieces about Civil War captains Louis Emilio and Thomas Maulsby as a Chautauqua Scholar for Voices from the Earth, which does symposia and performances on the African American experience in the Civil War and he portrays six different Golden Age pirates in “Blackbeard and the Pirates of Carolina,” which he wrote exclusively for Port City Tour Co. He and his wife are the lead investigators for the Haunted Webb Memorial tour, also for Port City. As a teaching-artist he has taught and mentored thousands of students in both theatre and creative writing and has spoken at many schools and national conferences. He has worked with organizations including The Epilepsy Foundation of NJ and Camp NOVA to bring theatre to students with disabilities and has won three writing awards from Very Special Arts of NJ. His first novel, Jester-Knight, was published in February 2009 (New Mystics Enterprises). He is writing the sequel. His second novel, Minor Confessions of an Angel Falling Upward was published in September 2012 (Burning Bulb Publishing). Both are available on Amazon. He is a book and music reviewer and the founding editor of www.newmystics.com, a literary site he created in 2002 that now houses the work of over 70 writers and artists from around the world. His website is joeymadia.com.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Introduction to Blogging

The work of being a successful author doesn't end once we're published. Instead, it's only the beginning of the next step--marketing ourselves and our books. One of the recommended ways to do this is by creating a blog and updating it regularly. You can add blog articles on the writing process, the writing life, your books, etc. You can also entice readers by showing scenes from your books--or add to their enthusiasm by giving "cut" scenes space in your blog. But, what you really need to know is how to create a blog. Many thanks to Guest Columnist Scott Chow for explaining all the details we need. 

Introduction to Blogging

by Scott Chow

What is a "blog"?

"Blog" is an abbreviated version of "weblog," which is a term used to describe websites that maintain an ongoing chronicle of information. A blog features diary-type commentary and links to articles on other websites, usually presented as a list of entries in reverse chronological order. Blogs range from the personal to the political, and can focus on one narrow subject or a whole range of subjects.
Many blogs focus on a particular topic, such as web design, home staging, sports, or mobile technology. Some are more eclectic, presenting links to all types of other sites. And others are more like personal journals, presenting the author's daily life and thoughts.
Generally speaking (although there are exceptions), blogs tend to have a few things in common:
diagram
  • A main content area with articles listed chronologically, newest on top. Often, the articles are organized into categories.
  • An archive of older articles.
  • A way for people to leave comments about the articles.
  • A list of links to other related sites, sometimes called a "blogroll".
  • One or more "feeds" like RSS, Atom or RDF files.
Some blogs may have additional features beyond these. Watch this short video for a simple explanation for what a blog is.

What is a "blogger"?

A blogger is a person who owns or runs a blog or a person who maintains the blog. That is, posting articles or new posts, information, sharing the most up-to-date news, opinions and case studies to name but a few. Such entries are known as blog posts.

The Blog Content

Content is the raison d'ĂȘtre for any website. Retail sites feature a catalog of products. University sites contain information about their campuses, curriculum, and faculty. News sites show the latest news stories. For a personal blog, you might have a bunch of observations, or reviews. Without some sort of updated content, there is little reason to visit a website more than once.
On a blog, the content consists of articles (also sometimes called "posts" or "entries") that the author(s) writes. Yes, some blogs have multiple authors, each writing his/her own articles. Typically, blog authors compose their articles in a web-based interface, built into the blogging system itself. Some blogging systems also support the ability to use stand-alone "weblog client" software, which allows authors to write articles offline and upload them at a later time.

Comments

Want an interactive website? Wouldn't it be nice if the readers of a website could leave comments, tips or impressions about the site or a specific article? With blogs, they can! Posting comments is one of the most exciting features of blogs.
Most blogs have a method to allow visitors to leave comments. There are also nifty ways for authors of other blogs to leave comments without even visiting the blog! Called "pingbacks" or "trackbacks", they can inform other bloggers whenever they cite an article from another site in their own articles. All this ensures that online conversations can be maintained painlessly among various site users and websites.

The Difference Between a Blog and CMS?

Software that provides a method of managing your website is commonly called a CMS or "Content Management System". Many blogging software programs are considered a specific type of CMS. They provide the features required to create and maintain a blog, and can make publishing on the internet as simple as writing an article, giving it a title, and organizing it under (one or more) categories. While some CMS programs offer vast and sophisticated features, a basic blogging tool provides an interface where you can work in an easy and, to some degree, intuitive manner while it handles the logistics involved in making your composition presentable and publicly available. In other words, you get to focus on what you want to write, and the blogging tool takes care of the rest of the site management.
WordPress is one such advanced blogging tool and it provides a rich set of features. Through its Administration Screen, you can set options for the behavior and presentation of your weblog. Via these Administration Screen, you can easily compose a blog post, push a button, and be published on the internet, instantly! WordPress goes to great pains to see that your blog posts look good, the text looks beautiful, and the html code it generates conforms to web standards.
If you're just starting out, read Getting Started with WordPress, which contains information on how to get WordPress set up quickly and effectively, as well as information on performing basic tasks within WordPress, like creating new posts or editing existing ones.

Things Bloggers Need to Know

In addition to understanding how your specific blogging software works, such as WordPress, there are some terms and concepts you need to know.

Archives

A blog is also a good way to keep track of articles on a site. A lot of blogs feature an archive based on dates (like a monthly or yearly archive). The front page of a blog may feature a calendar of dates linked to daily archives. Archives can also be based on categories featuring all the articles related to a specific category.
It does not stop there; you can also archive your posts by author or alphabetically. The possibilities are endless. This ability to organize and present articles in a composed fashion is much of what makes blogging a popular personal publishing tool.

Feeds

A Feed is a function of special software that allows "Feedreaders" to access a site automatically looking for new content and then post updates about that new content to another site. This provides a way for users to keep up with the latest and hottest information posted on different blogging sites. Some Feeds include RSS (alternately defined as "Rich Site Summary" or "Really Simple Syndication"), Atom or RDF files. Dave Shea, author of the web design weblog Mezzoblue has written a comprehensive summary of feeds.

Syndication

A feed is a machine readable (usually XML) content publication that is updated regularly. Many weblogs publish a feed (usually RSS, but also possibly Atom and RDF and so on, as described above). There are tools out there that call themselves "feedreaders". What they do is they keep checking specified blogs to see if they have been updated, and when the blogs are updated, they display the new post, and a link to it, with an excerpt (or the whole contents) of the post. Each feed contains items that are published over time. When checking a feed, the feedreader is actually looking for new items. New items are automatically discovered and downloaded for you to read, so you don't have to visit all the blogs you are interested in. All you have to do with these feedreaders is to add the link to the RSS feed of all the blogs you are interested in. The feedreader will then inform you when any of the blogs have new posts in them. Most blogs have these "Syndication" feeds available for the readers to use.

Managing Comments

One of the most exciting features of blogging tools are the comments. This highly interactive feature allows users to comment upon article posts, link to your posts, and comment on and recommend them. These are known as trackbacks and pingbacks. We'll also discuss how to moderate and manage comments and how to deal with the annoying trend in "comment spam", when unwanted comments are posted to your blog.

Trackbacks

Trackbacks were originally developed by SixApart, creators of the MovableType blog package. SixApart has a good introduction to trackbacks:
In a nutshell, TrackBack was designed to provide a method of notification between websites: it is a method of person A saying to person B, "This is something you may be interested in." To do that, person A sends a TrackBack ping to person B.
A better explanation is this:
  • Person A writes something on their blog.
  • Person B wants to comment on Person A's blog, but wants her own readers to see what she had to say, and be able to comment on her own blog
  • Person B posts on her own blog and sends a trackback to Person A's blog
  • Person A's blog receives the trackback, and displays it as a comment to the original post. This comment contains a link to Person B's post
The idea here is that more people are introduced to the conversation (both Person A's and Person B's readers can follow links to the other's post), and that there is a level of authenticity to the trackback comments because they originated from another weblog. Unfortunately, there is no actual verification performed on the incoming trackback, and indeed they can even be faked.
Most trackbacks send to Person A only a small portion (called an "excerpt") of what Person B had to say. This is meant to act as a "teaser", letting Person A (and his readers) see some of what Person B had to say, and encouraging them all to click over to Person B's site to read the rest (and possibly comment).
Person B's trackback to Person A's blog generally gets posted along with all the comments. This means that Person A can edit the contents of the trackback on his own server, which means that the whole idea of "authenticity" isn't really solved. (Note: Person A can only edit the contents of the trackback on his own site. He cannot edit the post on Person B's site that sent the trackback.)
SixApart has published an official trackback specification.

Pingbacks

Pingbacks were designed to solve some of the problems that people saw with trackbacks. That is why the official pingback documentation sounds so much like the description of a trackback:
For example, Yvonne writes an interesting article on her Web log. Kathleen reads Yvonne's article and comments about it, linking back to Yvonne's original post. Using pingback, Kathleen's software can automatically notify Yvonne that her post has been linked to, and Yvonne's software can then include this information on her site.
The best way to think about pingbacks is as remote comments:
  • Person A posts something on his blog.
  • Person B posts on her own blog, linking to Person A's post. This automatically sends a pingback to Person A when both have pingback enabled blogs.
  • Person A's blog receives the pingback, then automatically goes to Person B's post to confirm that the pingback did, in fact, originate there.
The pingback is generally displayed on Person A's blog as simply a link to Person B's post. It is commonly believed that pingbacks do not send any content, as trackbacks do. This is not correct. If you get a pingback, you will see an excerpt from that blog in the Edit Comments section of your dashboard. The issue is that very few themes display these excerpts from pingbacks. The default Wordpress themes, for example, do not display pingback excerpts.
In fact, there is only one significant difference between pingbacks and trackbacks: Pingbacks and trackbacks use drastically different communication technologies (XML-RPC and HTTP POST, respectively). But that difference is important because trackbacks have become the target of so much spam. The automatic verification process introduces a level of authenticity, making it harder to fake a pingback.
Some feel that trackbacks are superior because readers of Person A's blog can at least see some of what Person B has to say, and then decide if they want to read more (and therefore click over to Person B's blog). Others feel that pingbacks are superior because they create a verifiable connection between posts.

Using Pingbacks and Trackbacks

Comments on blogs are often criticized as lacking authority, since anyone can post anything using any name they like: there's no verification process to ensure that the person is who they claim to be. Trackbacks and Pingbacks both aim to provide some verification to blog commenting.
To enable trackbacks and pingbacks, in the Discussion Settings of your Administration Screen, select these items under 'Default article settings':
Attempt to notify any blogs linked to from the article.
Allow link notifications from other blogs (pingbacks and trackbacks) on new articles.
Selecting one option and not the other would not be very neighborly ;)
Once enabled, trackbacks and pingbacks from other sites will appear in your Administration Screen just like other comments, but on your post pages, they will appear according to your theme's design.
Once enabled, pingbacks are sent automatically when you publish your post, you don't have to do anything. To send trackbacks, you will need to find the trackback URL somewhere on the post page you are linking to. If you can't find one, try to determine if the site supports pingbacks. If it does, you should not send trackbacks as well. Copy/paste the trackback URL into the Send Trackbacks field on your Add New Post screen. If you don't see this field, go to the screen options and select the Send Trackbacks option. Note that selecting this does not send trackbacks, it only displays the field called Send Trackbacks. When you publish your post, trackbacks will be sent to the URLs you pasted into the field. This field will also show the status of trackbacks and pingbacks on your Edit Post screen.
If there is someone that wants to send a trackback to your WordPress blog because their blogging software does not support pingbacks, your trackback URL they should insert into their post edit screen is your blog post's permalink with "trackback/" appended to the end. If their software supports pingbacks, they do not need to do anything, the process is automatic.

Comment Moderation

Comment Moderation is a feature which allows the website owner and author to monitor and control the comments on the different article posts, and can help in tackling comment spam. It lets you moderate comments, & you can delete unwanted comments, approve cool comments and make other decisions about the comments.

Comment Spam

Comment Spam refers to useless comments (or trackbacks, or pingbacks) to posts on a blog. These are often irrelevant to the context value of the post. They can contain one or more links to other websites or domains. Spammers use Comment Spam as a medium to get higher page rank for their domains in Google, so that they can sell those domains at a higher price sometime in future or to obtain a high ranking in search results for an existing website.
Spammers are relentless; because there can be substantial money involved, they work hard at their "job." They even build automated tools (robots) to rapidly submit their spam to the same or multiple weblogs. Many webloggers, especially beginners, sometimes feel overwhelmed by Comment Spam.
There are solutions, though, to avoiding Comment Spam. WordPress includes many tools for combating Comment Spam. With a little up front effort, Comment Spam can be manageable, and certainly no reason to give up weblogging.

Pretty Permalinks

Permalinks are the permanent URLs to your individual weblog posts, as well as categories and other lists of weblog postings. A permalink is what another weblogger will use to refer to your article (or section), or how you might send a link to your story in an e-mail message. Because others may link to your individual postings, the URL to that article shouldn't change. Permalinks are intended to be permanent (valid for a long time).
"Pretty" Permalinks is the idea that URLs are frequently visible to the people who click them, and should therefore be crafted in such a way that they make sense, and not be filled with incomprehensible parameters. The best Permalinks are "hackable," meaning a user might modify the link text in their browser to navigate to another section or listing of the weblog. For example, this is how the default Permalink to a story might look in a default WordPress installation:
/index.php?p=423
How is a user to know what "p" represents? Where did the number 423 come from?
In contrast, here is a well-structured, "Pretty" Permalink which could link to the same article, once the installation is configured to modify permalinks:
/archives/2003/05/23/my-cheese-sandwich/
One can easily guess that the Permalink includes the date of the posting, and the title, just by looking at the URL. One might also guess that hacking the URL to be /archives/2003/05/ would get a list of all the postings from May of 2003 (pretty cool). For more information on possible Permalink patterns in WordPress, see Using Permalinks.

Blog by email

Some blogging tools offer the ability to email your posts directly to your blog, all without direct interaction through the blogging tool interface. WordPress offers this cool feature. Using email, you can now send in your post content to a pre-determined email address & voila! Your post is published!

Post Slugs

If you're using Pretty Permalinks, the Post Slug is the title of your article post within the link. The blogging tool software may simplify or truncate your title into a more appropriate form for using as a link. A title such as "I'll Make A Wish" might be truncated to "ill-make-a-wish". In WordPress, you can change the Post Slug to something else, like "make-a-wish", which sounds better than a wish made when sick.

Excerpt

Excerpts are condensed summaries of your blog posts, with blogging tools being able to handle these in various ways. In WordPress, Excerpts can be specifically written to summarize the post, or generated automatically by using the first few paragraphs of a post or using the post up to a specific point, assigned by you.

Plugins

Plugins are cool bits of programming scripts that add additional functionality to your blog. These are often features which either enhance already available features or add them to your site.
WordPress offers simple and easy ways of adding Plugins to your blog. From the Administration Screen, there is a Plugins Screen. You can easily search, install and activate Plugins from this Screen.

Basics - A Few Blogging Tips

Starting a new blog is difficult and this can put many people off. Some may get off to a good start only to become quickly discouraged because of the lack of comments or visits. You want to stand out from this crowd of millions of bloggers, you want to be one of the few hundred thousand blogs that are actually visited. Here are some simple tips to help you on your way to blogging mastery:
  1. Post regularly, but don't post if you have nothing worth posting about.
  2. Stick with only a few specific genres to talk about.
  3. Don't put 'subscribe' and 'vote me' links all over the front page until you have people that like your blog enough to ignore them (they're usually just in the way).
  4. Use a clean and simple theme if at all possible.
  5. Enjoy, blog for fun, comment on other peoples' blogs (as they normally visit back).
  6. Have fun blogging and remember, there are no rules to what you post on your blog!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Self-Publishing in 2017: Everyone Needs an Editor--Even You



By Jennifer Jett Prezkop

As the managing editor of a magazine, I deal with a lot of writers and assignments. Too many times people have sent me what they considered impeccable editorial I could not use. I spend a great deal of my workweek critiquing stories and ghost writing to help them revise their drafts into something usable. The biggest problems I come across are people who are too close to the material to recognize a problem, don’t proof their own work, and don’t consult a style guide. Much like freelancers pitching stories for magazines, as an author, your credibility is based on the quality of your work. You might have the next Harry Potter novel in you, but if there are structural problems or typos that distract the reader, you will have hard time selling copies or building a fan base. Editing is vital to publishing success.

As a writer, I know how much time, effort, and passion goes into a manuscript. It took me a long time to develop a thick skin for critiques, and it took me even longer to get in the habit of asking beta readers and editors to rip my manuscript apart. I don’t want praise. I want them to tell me what is wrong so I can get closer to a perfect manuscript.

No matter who you are or how long you’ve been writing or what you think you know, you need two things before you self-publish: a professional editor and a marketing plan. You might have a degree in creative writing and you might be a pro at formatting and you may have the style guide memorized, but as the author, you cannot be trusted to read all the words on the page and catch all the mistakes. You're simply too close to it. I thought my manuscript was ready for print. Then I paid a professional editor to review it, and surprise, surprise: it has structural issues that must be addressed. Why? Because once it prints, it’s forever.

A few weeks ago, I shared a list of 10 steps on how to successfully self-publish in 2017, and in the weeks since, I have been breaking down those steps one by one to better help you on your way. Before we move on, though, I think it’s imperative that we discuss editing, and I can think of no one better to help me with that than Sandy Tritt, the CEO and founder of Inspiration for Writers. In this Q&A, Sandy provides a wealth of knowledge from her years in the industry. Next week, we’ll look at how to edit your own work, but this week Sandy is helping me get the basics out of the way, like defining the different types of editing (yes, there are many!), explaining the importance of a style guide, and discussing why editing your own work is not enough.


Q: Tell us about the different kinds of editing.

ST: There are about as many different kinds of editing as there are editors.

Copyediting generally refers to checking the basics—spelling, punctuation, word choice, and grammar. Sometimes editors do more than a basic copyedit and also edit for paragraph and sentence structure as well as word-level edits.

Line editing is looking at how the words fit together—sentence flow, paragraph flow, readability, and, most important, the author’s voice.

Content editing is looking more at the big picture. Are the facts correct? Are there inconsistencies? When it comes to fiction, this includes looking at plot development, point of view, character development, and so forth.

Developmental editing is actually getting involved with the creation of the story—assisting in plot or character development, advising on sequencing, suggesting scenes to add or cut.
Proofreading, of course, is the final stage, in which a careful eye goes through the entire manuscript looking for typos.

Copyediting, line editing, and content editing are all critical to the success of a story, and every writer needs to have each of these edits performed. Most editors sell their services by these differentiations—you pay X cents per word for a copyedit, Y cents per word for a line edit, and Z cents per word for a content edit. At Inspiration For Writers (IFW), all of our editing packages (except for proofreading) include ALL of these types of editing. Since some writers need more work done than others, we charge according to the amount of work that needs done to make a story both technically and artistically the best it can be. We estimate this during our free sample edit.

Q: Speaking of sample edits, what should authors know about these?

ST: It’s critical to get a sample edit from each editor you consider hiring so you can compare the editors’ styles and what is included and isn’t included in their packages. IFW offers a 500-word sample edit so the editor you would be working with can get a feel for the types of issues in your manuscript and help you better determine the type of edit you need.

Q: What can you tell us about style guides and the importance of knowing which style guide an author needs to use for their project?

ST: A style guide is the set of “rules” that will be followed in editing a document. Each major industry has its own style guide. For example, journalists use the AP style guide. This ensures consistency in capitalization, hyphenation, punctuation, spellings, et cetera, throughout a paper or magazine. The AMA style guide is used for papers or articles published in the medical field. The Chicago Manual of Style is followed for fiction and informal writing like memoirs. It’s important to follow the appropriate style guide when editing your manuscript. You can find a list of style guides at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_style_guides.

Q: Why is it important to use a professional editor instead of doing all the editing yourself?

ST: It’s really hard to see your own work as others see it. We are writers because we love words—especially those we’ve created, spending hours and days and weeks to nurture and grow from infancy to adulthood. We know what we mean—we know all the backstory. So when we read our manuscript, everything makes sense to us.

Most people think it’s easy to write a book. You just sit down and write. But writing a book is like building a house. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Yes, you can make a playhouse by nailing a few planks of wood together. But if you want to build a real house, you need to understand infrastructure and weight-bearing walls. You need to know about crawl space, basements, kitchens, bathrooms, attics and maybe fireplaces. You need to know how to install electricity and plumbing. You need to add insulation. You have to cut out windows and doors—and do so in places that not only make sense from the interior, but that also make for an attractive package from the outside. You need to know how to install a roof. Then you need to finish both the inside and the outside, do some carpentry and painting, and maybe even hang drapery. There’s a lot more to it than you might guess.

It takes a lot of time, study and experience to become a good housebuilder. It takes even more time, study and experience to become a good writer. We need to understand the infrastructure of a story—how point of view, tense, and voice work together. We need to create a solid plot to bear the weight of the characters. We need to install settings that have just the right amount of description to take us where we need to be—but sprinkled throughout. We need to understand how to build suspense and how to write effective dialogue. Then there’s pacing—we need to make sure the story doesn’t move too fast or too slow.

If you don’t have time to study the craft of writing for 8-10 years, you probably need to hire an experienced professional who has completed that study and who can guide you through the blueprints. You need a mentor.

***

So, there you have it—everything you need to know about editing. Except, of course, how to do it. Be sure to watch for our blog next week when we discuss just that—self-editing.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Self-Publishing 2017: Building Your Audience

by
Jennifer Jett-Prezkop



In reviewing my list of 10 tips for self-publishing in 2017, one of the most intimidating tasks for me is the idea of creating a fan base. Where does one begin? What works, and what doesn’t? My head spins at the thought of accomplishing such a big task.

Despite my questions, I’ve been assured by several authors that it’s important to have this done well before the book comes out. From author websites and blogs to social media accounts and mail lists, we’re going to take a look at how to overcome this obstacle on the road to successful self-publishing.

Blogging

It takes a long time to write a book. When the actual writing process is through, there are still several rounds of edits to get through before a manuscript is ready to be published. Once the first book is out, writers are encouraged to get to work on the next story because your readers will want more—and soon. Blogging is a great way to build your readership before the book launches and also maintain front-of-mind awareness so your followers don’t forget about you.

Gail Ingis, author of Indigo Sky, writes a blog post every week. “For those who want to market themselves through a blog, writing about the (novel’s) subject and sharing opinions and suggestions is probably wise,” she says. “My blog is purely entertainment. From time to time, I blog about writing, designing and historic events. I try to make the posts more personal rather than informative.”

Eric Vance Walton, a novelist, poet, and blogger, recommends blogging about your book’s characters as well as the behind-the-scenes process of writing a novel and your frustrations with the process. “People are fascinated by all of this, and it creates a lot of anticipation for your book,” he says.

Social Media

When it comes to social media, author Nina Mizner advises that it’s never too early to create your social media accounts. You can use these accounts to promote your author website and your weekly blog posts, although Mizner warns that your content should be about more than just promotions for your book. She recommends doing some research on your favorite authors to see the different ways they utilize social media and the types of fresh content they share.

Ingis utilizes social media in addition to her weekly blog. She uses The Killion Group, a marketing company with experience in publishing, to post for her on Facebook and Twitter five days a week. From her experience, following those on social media who follow her also helps grow her reach.

When creating your social media accounts for promotional purposes, make sure you are using the sites that are popular with your targeted audience. For instance, if you write young adult novels, Instagram—NOT Facebook—is where you want to set up camp. This will require some research, but it’s something you definitely want to get right in order for your efforts to be worthwhile.

Mail Lists

Mail lists are a great way to stay in touch with your readers, and Constant Contact and MailChimp are great sites that simplify this process. Both sites will manage your email database for you. Constant Contact has a monthly fee, but MailChimp is free once you reach a certain number of subscribers. Beware: when you use these sites, the subscribers must sign up. You cannot add whoever you want to the list without their permission.

Sandy Tritt, founder and CEO of Inspiration for Writers, uses Constant Contact for marketing and says creating a mail list is important because newsletters are a great way to keep your name in front of your followers. There is a link to a sign-up form on Inspiration for Writers’ website. “Whenever I set up at a book festival or some such thing, I often do a door prize drawing for those who fill out the subscription form at my booth,” she says.

Walton drives people to the subscription form on his website through links on his social media and blog posts. “This way, I can build my own lists for free, and I know the people on the lists have at least a mild interest because they signed up.” His newsletter offers exclusive content, such as updates on new releases, speaking engagements, and workshops and classes. He uses the newsletter to make this information available weeks before sharing it anywhere else so there is incentive for fans to subscribe.

Best Practices

Out of all of these marketing options there are bound to be things that work and things that don’t. Here are a few these authors have had good experience with.

Steemit: “Steemit has been the best for me by a long shot,” says Walton. “My target audience is on Facebook, but that platform has become too expensive to be viable. I recently paid to boost a post on Facebook so people who’ve already liked my page would see it, and it only got 47 clicks out of an audience of almost 3,000. On Steemit, not only do people who’ve followed me see my posts, but I get paid for writing there. There’s no comparison.”

Networking: According to Ingis, networking is a great way to build a fan base. While we all have one main group—family and friends—we need to expand our reach to writing groups, social groups, church groups, membership organizations and clubs.

Intended Audience: Author and editor Deborah Holmes says to always keep your intended audience in mind and be aware of which social media sites your readers use. “Make sure you always write with your intended audience in mind, which is critical to good reception whether you’re tweeting or penning an article for a peer-reviewed journal.”

As for what not to do, Walton weighs in on where he wouldn’t waste any more time. “Probably the least effective thing I tried was a live Q&A on Facebook a few years ago,” he says. “The other thing is trying to get physical books in brick and mortar bookstores. I don’t even focus on trying that anymore because there’s zero profit in it. All of my content is available exclusively online.”