From Sarah, With Joy

Writer querying two novels and some other word babies. I tend to effervesce.

New post every Monday

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Physical Life of a Writer

Some jobs come with some major physical risks.



Writing is not one of them. Our major risks are back pain and carpal tunnel. It does not take huge amounts of physical strength and prowess to be a writer (one of the reasons I like it). That does not mean, however, that we should abandon concern for our bodies. I truly believe that our physical health directly effects our mental and emotional health. Just in that sense, it behooves us writers to take care of ourselves physically.

My biggest concern about investing time and energy in taking care of my body is the time it takes, which could be used for other things, like, for example, writing. But it really doesn't actually have to take that much time, and the time it does take is worth the sacrifice. Scheduling in time for your body will help everything else run more smoothly, I think.

There are lots of options here, in terms of exercise. Join a gym, recruit a workout buddy, everything from that up to training for marathons. There is one type of exercise that I'd like to highlight, though, one that I think is perfect for writers: taking walks. Simple and easy. You can put just as much time and energy into it as you want to, and best of all, as you're walking around you see new people and places, experience new things, smell new smells and hear new sounds, all of which are creatively inspiring. If you can find a convenient way to carry a notebook with you, you could even walk to your favorite cafe or park and do some writing.

So, the moral of the story is, buy one of these:

They'll keep you on your toes.


So happy walking and happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Don't Look Back, Just Write


I am a nit-picker. Like, a major nit-picker. I could sit and fenangle one sentence for a week. Unfortunately, this doesn't get books written. Over-stressing about each word puts major breakers on your productivity, and honestly, probably doesn't make the words that much better anyway. In most cases, its your story that makes readers pick up your book, not brilliantly lyrical prose (unless your Norman Maclean or Wallace Stegner), and your story is what you have to get down in that occasionally torturous first draft. The beautiful prose can come later, when you get to the editing process.

I have had to train myself to remember this as I write. I'll finish a paragraph and think, mmmm, that could be better, I could use a better metaphor in this description, or whatever, but then I tell myself, yes, maybe you could, but do it later. Right now, finish this chapter.

Maybe you guys are better at just getting the words out there. Do you have any tricks for how to keep things flowing? Movie soundtracks have actually been a useful tool for me, because I'm not distracted by words, but the music helps me keep writing forward instead of constantly looking back. Like I said, I've had to train myself to keep writing, or else I could never reach my 1000 words a day.

I'm not saying that you have to be okay with sub-par writing. Thats what editing is for. I plan to go back and fix all the things that need fixing, after I finish the first draft. But right now, its the finishing of the first draft that is important.

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Monday, March 28, 2011

5 Writing Tools to Carry in a Conspiring Universe


Is it just me, or do you feel like every time you start a new project, the universe conspires against you to take away all the time you thought you had to work on it. You finally get started, and then you look on your calender and realize that the next several days are a string of doctors appointments, meetings, helping your friend move, the Hare Krishna Festival of Colors, and you wonder where your time went. The past few days have been like that for me, just when I got started on my new WIP.

So what do you do? Being busy doesn't just happen at the beginning of projects, it happens all the time. Many of us are balancing jobs, parenting, school, and all the other things going on in our lives with our writing and writing careers. How do we balance the two?

1) Carry a notebook. That way, when you're sitting at your kids kindergarten waiting for school to get out, you can pull out the notebook and jot down a few sentences. You can outline the next chapter of your novel while sitting in the lobby of the doctors office.

2) Carry a book. You could fit in a good page or so while filling up the car at the gas station. To be a good writer you must be a good reader, and I imagine that sneaking bits of writing time helps your brain keep at high functionality throughout the day, just like sneaking crackers or apple slices helps move things efficiently through your digestive system. Poetry and short story collections and literary magazines are particularly suited for this.

3) Carry business cards. Take the time for some guerilla marketing. Sneak a card into one of the magazines on the coffee table at the doctors office. Give your card or even a copy of your book to your kids teacher or school librarian. Whatever you think might work.

4) Carry a planner. With writing time tightly squeezed, its useful to plan ahead and know exactly when you will be able to actually sit down and write. Even if its just ten minute chunks. And then, once you know when you'll be at your computer, while you are out and about, plan ahead and know where and how your going to start up again when you get back. That way you will minimize the unproductive staring-at-the-screen time.

5) Carry an iPhone. Or something like it, if possible. That way you can update your blog or Facebook fan page while sitting at the lecture you didn't want to go to in the first place. Get your emailing and social networking done while you're on lunch break, and then when you get home and finally have your own time, you can use it for the actual writing instead of having to catch up on all the businessy type things.


Life will still be crazy and busy, no doubt, but carrying and efficiently using these tools can help maximize your writing productivity. Are there any other tools you think might be useful?

Sarah Allen

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Business Strategies for Beginning Writers



There is a crazy amount of talk in the news and around the blogosphere about the MAJOR changes going in the publishing industry right now and how it could affect writers. The changes are very exciting, and I believe if approached correctly mean more opportunities for us writers. However, the difficulty is that their is no longer just one road to publishing and writing success, and we writers (especially the newbies) need to have a certain level of business savvy to negotiate properly and make the decisions that are right for us.

And there are plenty of big decisions to be made. On the one hand, Big Publishing is still the best way to get your book out to the largest number of people; on the other hand, you maintain so much more control and higher sales percentage if you publish yourself. On the one hand, Big Publishing says it will not accept unagented submissions; on the other hand, there are horror stories about agents ruining writers careers, and some people are saying that writers should submit to editors directly anyway. On the one hand, self-publishing and all the marketing, design, etc that self-publishing entails is really hard, risky, and there's that stereotype that writers are bad at business and need to be taken care of and left to work on their art; on the other hand, in todays publishing world, whether you are self or traditionally published, the writers who will have the most success, make a good living and not get screwed over are the ones who put the time and effort into the business side of their writing career.

So, what is a beginning writer to do? We don't have the benefit of a long backlist like the mid-lists do, who get to put that backlist back on the market thanks to ePublishing and print-on-demand, and get to keep most of the rights and money for themselves. Agents and editors are tuning in to this awesome source of revenue that they missed out on and trying to keep more and more of those out of print, ebook rights from us beginning writers who are just signing on. So, does that mean self-publishing is the better idea? But what about really getting your book out there? Though its becoming more and more workable, there are still very few exceptions to the rule that self-publishing doesn't really bring in much. The decision is up to the writer which risks to take: try traditional publishing and risk getting jipped, or try self-publishing and risk getting nothing.

This is all based on what I've been hearing on blogs and in the news. If I am inaccurate or missing any important information, I would love to know. Based on everything I know about todays publishing world, the plan I've decided on for myself is to try a mix of both traditional and self-publishing. I would like to go the traditional route for my first novel at least, and plan to fight until that works out. I will be the smartest I can be about contracts with agents and editors, but the risks involved with this route are worth getting my book out to as many readers as possible. Once I have done everything I can to set myself up in the traditional publishing world, and once my name is out there, I hope to start self-publishing books alongside the traditionally published ones, so I can see how that works out and keep more rights and a higher sales percentage for myself. This means writing a lot and fast, and I'll do the best I can with it.

I hope this all makes sense. What are your thoughts? Beginning writers, what do you plan to do? What can you more experienced writers tell us beginners?

Happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Marketing Your Writing Blog


Part of me feels apprehensive about writing this post. The fact that I'm writing about marketing a blog makes me feel a bit greedy and hypocritical. Its a bit self-serving in the fact that I would love some of your ideas about promoting a blog and growing readership, and I'm also not the most knowledgeable person to be giving advice on the subject. However, I think this is something that's important to many writers, I have been asked directly how I do it, and I'm assuming most other bloggers are as grasping and excited about readers as I am. So here are my three main ideas for blog marketing:

1) Quality content: This does not seem directly related to marketing, but think about it. If you stumble across a blog and the posts are poorly written, scattered, or irrelevant, you're not going to remember it, come back, or follow. Before you can really focus on marketing you have to make sure you having something good to offer. Don't get too stressed about it, either. Do your best and be yourself. Nobody's perfect and this is something we're all working on.

2) Guest posts/interviews: This is an area I have left sadly lacking on this blog (though that will be remedied in the near future). But I know it works. Get friends or other writer/bloggers to do a guest blog or interview for you, then when the guest post/interview is up they link to it from their blog and bazinga, more readers. This has the added bonus, too, that you don't have to think up a post for that day. (p.s. If any of you are interested in doing a guest post for this blog, send me an email with your ideas and I'll see if I think it would be a good fit.)

3) Comments: This is my favorite tool of the trade and is probably how many of you have found this blog. The means of promotion that has worked best for me is to go to some of my favorite author blogs, many of which have hundreds of followers. Followers who I know are interested in reading and writing because they are following an author blog. I click down the list of followers and see which followers have their own blogs. Then I go in, read the posts, and leave comments with a link to this blog. Not only has this been great for blog promotion, but I've read some great stuff and become acquainted with some awesome people. This does take time, but its worth it.

Now its your turn. What are your ideas? Any special tactics that have worked particularly well? Any nifty websites that do a good job of promoting blogs? What blog marketing techniques do you use?

Sarah Allen

Saturday, March 19, 2011

5 things writers can learn from American Idol's Casey Abrams



Ok, so obviously I'm not being subtle about my preferences on American Idol this season. Casey Abrams has been the stand-out obvious favorite, at least for me, since his first audition. Before you Idol haters click away, however, Casey has things to teach us even if you've never watched an episode.

1) Be yourself. Absolutely, with no exceptions, and no matter what anyone else says. This doesn't mean you can't take and use constructive criticism, of course you should, but don't forget that YOU are the writer and the ultimate decisions, good and bad, are up to nobody but YOU. Did you watchers notice that in the interviews for the last idol performances, Casey was the only one NOT intimidated by the big-wig producer/director people, the only one really speaking for himself? He knows who he is and won't let The Man deter him from it.

2) Take risks. Introducing Nirvana to Idol is a clear risk. Coming into an audition with a melodica is a risk. Casey is a fearless risk taker and it has paid off. How does this apply to writers? Take risks with your characters and stories. Whatever you consider a risk. Write about events and characters you are nervous about or intimidated by. This applies to marketing too. Stretch yourself to meet new people. Go places other writers have never gone.

3) Have a wide and varied skill set. Is there an instrument this kid can't play? Melodica, base, guitar, piano...I've seen him at all of those, and thats probably not the limit. Write in a multiplicity of genres and learn from them all. Learn how to write successful characters, plot, setting, dialogue, description, etc. The most successful writers will also have some skill in the business side of things: making smart contracts, networking, online marketing, all that good stuff. The good news is that you can definitely improve in whatever area in which you are lacking, which brings me to point number...

4) Put in the time. Practice, practice, practice. Casey wasn't born with ability to sing and play a bazillion different instruments. He probably was born with drive, and put that drive to good use. He must have put in hours upon hours of practice to get to the level he's at. I believe pretty much the most important thing a writer can do is actually write. Put in the writing time. Put in the networking and marketing time too, and time for reading. When you put in the time, the rest will follow.

5) Be relatable and new. Casey has the sympathetic, unique persona down to perfection. He's brought instruments and song choices to Idol that we've never seen before. His logger-man beard, too. His humor, light self-deprecation and fairly average back-story make us like and feel as though we understand him as a person. For us writers, I think this harks back to Be Yourself. As long as your not too uptight and not too stressed about fitting into a slot someone says you should fit into, the relatability and newness will be there. So much so that it will be surprising, if you just let things be. That is what I believe, at least. You'll be amazed how many people like you when you're you.

Hope this helps and happy writing! And of course, vote for Casey!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Making Money Online: Supplementary Income for Aspiring Writers

This is another one of those posts where I have many more questions then I do answers. In fact, I pretty much have no answers as far as making money online goes.

But we have all been there, right? You don't get the book out as quickly as you'd hoped, it doesn't sell as well as you expected, and then you find out your fantastic junker of a car needs a million dollar replacement part or something like that. This is why the majority of writers that I know have day jobs. It is perfectly possible to make a fine living off of your books, but it just might take a bit of time to get there.

So what do you do in the meantime? Obviously a good answer to this question is a day job, but there are two reasons to explore the making money online option: First, even the day-job might not be earning you as much as you need, and second, wouldn't it be nice to make enough money online that a day job wasn't even necessary? I think so.

Not that making money online doesn't take work, and I don't even know where to begin. Do any of you have experience with this? The one answer I can think of is finding freelance writing jobs on sites like Freelance Writing Jobs, but I'm not sure even how to go about it, or if you can make decent money doing it in the first place.

So what are your ideas, oh people who know more then me? People say all the time that you can make a great living online, but how and where? Are there any helpful articles or tutorials that you are familiar with? I've done some research, but there is so much out there that its hard to sort through.

I hope todays post isn't too annoyingly mercenary. However, I think this is something directly applicable to almost every writer, especially the beginning ones. And to be honest, I could really use some advice about this right now. I'm getting ready to move in a couple months, and having even a small source of income would be, to put it lightly, very, very nice. I'm sure most of you feel similarly.

Thank you in advance for your advice. Keep up the writing!
Sarah Allen

p.s. For those interested in the Japanese literature that we discussed a few days ago, a wonderful list of 20 top Japanese writers has been brought to my attention that you might enjoy checking out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Amanda Hocking vs. Tea Obreht: Terms of Success

First of all, I want to say that I am not intending this post as a talent contest. I'm starting on the basis that both Amanda Hocking and Tea Obreht are very talented, high-quality writers. Also, my discussion is based on vague research, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracy.

What I'm interested in discussing is the extremely different paths each of these women has taken to very different kinds of success. I'm making generalizations here and I'm sure real life is more complicated, but still, I find a general discussion of Amanda and Tea's careers interesting and enlightening. I believe they are nearly the exact same age (mid-twenties?), which makes the comparison even more interesting, especially given the astonishing amount of success they've each had at such a young age. People spend their whole lives trying to reach the level of success that these two have reached. It is the different meanings of "success" that I find interesting.

On the one hand, we have Tea Obreht. Ms. Obreht went a fairly traditional route to publication. To begin with, she not only placed short stories in The New Yorker, but was anthologized in Best American Non-required Reading (2009 I think?) and Best American Short Stories 2010. That is huge success already. She got an MFA by age 25, at which she wrote the novel that came out this month, The Tigers Wife, published by Random House, the ultimate in Big Publishing. For this novel and these short stories, she was listed in several "Best Writers" lists, including the New Yorker's "20 Under 40".

On the other hand, we have Amanda Hocking. I believe Amanda tried for traditional publishing for a good long time, but what ended up working out for her was, simply, different then what worked out for Tea Obreht. Amanda is clearly not only a skilled writer, but a whiz at networking, marketing and promotion. She has a well-established web presence, and has reached a huge audience through things like her blog and Twitter account. Necessarily so, given she has done all the grunt work herself. She went the untraditional (though becoming less so) route of self publishing and has had more success then most in the publishing industry know what to make of. Whatever anyone puts on their lists, her sales are at bestseller rates. She whips out books and people gobble them up. She has several books out, as opposed to Tea's one, and though she hasn't gotten Tea's critical acclaim, the numbers (dollars and sales) are in her favor.

Both of these writers have success that makes me green. I think many writers would give both legs for it. I'm not sure I would be able to pick which type of success is better than the other, or which I would pick for myself. Obviously the ideal is both critical acclaim and mass popularity. (Not that these two fit neatly into one category; like I said, I'm sure real life is more complex and that they've each had a variety of success). In thinking about it, though, I'm not sure if success is something writers themselves have any control over. I believe any writer with enough determination will find success. But as far as what kind, I think that might be up to other people. Of course every writer wants both the acclaim and popularity, but I think all we can do is write the absolute best we can and market the most we know how, and see what happens. In real life every writer will have a variety of success, and for the lucky ones, lots of it.

What are your thoughts? Is there one path that is clearly the preferable one for you? How do you think writers can achieve both kinds of success? Is that even possible?

Sarah Allen

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Characters: Self-Sacrifice and the Deeply Disturbed

Today I want to talk about two types of characters that never fail to affect me. When I meet them in a book or on screen, I think about them for days or years afterwards. They become prototypes for characters I try to create in my own writing.

The first is the self-sacrificing character. The ones who sacrifice something hugely important to themselves for the sake and love of someone else. Jean Valjean sacrifices his own safety to save Marius, which is actually a double sacrifice because keeping Marius alive means he is also giving up Cozette. Mr. Darcy sacrifices incredible amounts of time, effort and money to save Lydia for Elizabeth's sake. Niles Crane sacrifices seven seasons of happiness to keep Daphne comfortable and keep things on her time table. (Ok, this last one could maybe be considered a stretch, but Niles is one of the best characters ever and it works for me).



What are your favorite self-sacrificing characters and what do they sacrifice? Do you have real-life examples of self-sacrificing people that you know that could maybe be used as creative fodder? I actually have a directly creative reason for asking about this, because getting some self-sacrifice ideas would help me get over the last big plot hole of my current WIP. So ideas would be great :)

The second are the deeply disturbed characters who have a plethora of things wrong with them, nearly everything about them except for the love of someone else. I think I have less company in adoring these kinds of characters then I do with the self-sacrificing ones, because they often come off as mere creepers. But for some reason I think these characters are fascinating. Severus Snape is a rude, bitter dude, but when we find out about his love for Lilly our opinion of him changes. (Makes him one of the best HP characters, if you're me). Claude Frollo is a total nut job, including in his love for Esmerelda, but it is this love that makes him seem, at least to me, pitiable and human. Ben Linus is a psychotic, manipulative murderer, but he becomes much more complex, relatable, even admirable in his love for his adopted daughter Alex, his childhood crush, even in his admittedly creepy love for Juliette. Do you like these kinds of characters as much as I do? Who are some of your favorite?

These are some of the types of characters I adore reading and writing about. Do you have favorite character types? What makes them intriguing to you?

Anyway, happy writing!
Sarah Allen

Monday, March 14, 2011

Genealogy and Journals for Inspiration



So, this might be kind of a cheesy idea, but have you ever done research into your own family history for story ideas? This can be extremely difficult in some cases, but with all the new internet resources these days its getting a bit easier. And some are lucky enough to have journals from great-grandparents and such. In fact, if you are one of those lucky ones, those journals could be an invaluable resource.

Ask whoever is available to you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, if they have journals or stories they would be willing to share. Get a recorder and let them talk. You never know what gems you will find. Stories from their own lives or stories they've heard from other ancestors could be fantastic character/story fodder.

And like I said, the internet is a fantastic resource. Sites like Ancestry.com and FamilyLink.com have incredible compilations of information. Take advantage of it. You don't even have to spend much time doing it, but it could be very worthwhile just to see what you can find.

The stories you find can be used in a lot of ways, too. You can use them directly or use the conflicts and place them in a modern setting. You can even use your own journal for inspiration, which is one reason I recommend keeping a journal.

I feel a bit hypocritical here, just because I definitely am not great at keeping my own advice in this regard, but I hope to do better and I do think it can be helpful. So happy writing and happy hunting :)

Sarah Allen

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japanese Literature and the Earthquake


Considering the days events, I thought I'd highlight our friends and fellow writers from Japan. First off, here are some ways to keep updated about the earthquake situation. It all kind of makes you reel, doesn't it? Also, the awesome Maureen Johnson is taking up a collection with Shelterbox, if you are interested in helping out that way. I'm proud of how we have responded to emergency and disaster situations in the past, and I hope we can do even better with this one. Keep Japan and its citizens in your charitable thoughts and prayers.

One of the things I love most about reading and writing is that books are one of the best ways we have of connecting with other people. I know that sounds kind of wrong, but I think its true. We not only become intimately familiar with the characters, but we see things from another persons (the writers) point of view. I think thats very valuable. So lets try connecting with our Japanese friends by reading Japanese literature.

There are two main Japanese writers that I am familiar with. The first is a modern writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day. (I know you could argue that he is basically British, but still). I have read Never Let Me Go and it was...interesting. The concept was wonderfully disturbing and exciting.

The next writer is, I think, not only important in terms of Japanese literature but literature in general. Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, which is considered the worlds first novel. I've read some of it, and its very different and a cool read, and I think its awesome to get into a society so completely different from anything we are familiar with. And come on, its the first novel ever written. Worth checking it out just for that. Plus its a good read, at least what I've read so far.

Anyway, I know I've riddled you with more than enough links already, but here is another thats a great compilation of important Japanese writers. I'm not familiar with nearly enough of them, and I intend to fix that. Literature from other cultures is awesome and enlightening, and Japan is one of the best.

Hang in there, Japan. We're rooting and reading for you.
Sarah Allen

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Balancing your writers platform with actual writing

I personally think working on my platform is fascinating. I love putting myself out there and meeting new people and becoming part of a community. However, the time you spend blogging, tweeting, facebooking, emailing, all that fun stuff, means you aren't actually writing. And writing is what makes a writer.

Especially in todays publishing world. The more you produce the more you have to work with and market and experiment with traditional vs. self-publishing or a mix...in other words, its good to have lots of stuff out there. (This is obviously mostly from a business standpoint. Everyone has their own ideas and strategies as far as artistic creativity, but we writers really do have to be business-people to make our writing careers work.)

But having a platform is also important. If people don't know about your book, they won't read it. Simple as that. Building a platform and networking is how you increase your readership and have a good relationship with the readership you already have. At least thats part of it.

So how do you balance the two? For me, at least, its about setting rules for yourself. Set a word count that you have to reach before you can go online (1000 words is a good rule of thumb), or maybe set a limit on your platform-building, non-writing time. Personally, I try and give myself a list of things I have to do each day, which includes a word count and things like daily blogging.

What has helped you accomplish these two sides of a writing career? For the actual writing, what helps you actually sit down and get the words down? What are your favorite tools for platform building? What has helped you reach the most people, both in your writing and networking?

Hope this helps! I'd love to hear some of your ideas.
Sarah Allen

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Scenario to Plot: How do you do it?

This is something I've always had a hard time with in my writing. I always have characters and scenario's floating through my head, situations and people that I find fascinating. The hard part is taking these relationships and situations and turning them into a storyline or plot. I've been getting better at this, and I recently solved this problem for my current project, but I still want to discuss this and get your ideas.

Does my problem make sense? Its basically an issue of plot development. Plot has always been my biggest issue. What exactly do you personally do in your own plot development? Obviously every writer is different and has to find what works for them, but maybe you have some ideas or techniques that could help me.

I'll give you an example. Lets see...its summer and a divorced dad is taking his eleven year old son on a fishing trip. A young couple is camping at the site next door and dad and son hear some loud arguing. Dad and the woman begin talking and form an interesting connection.

Its easy for me to get to this point. I'm not sure I would actually use this particular scenario, and I can get more detailed with character and setting and stuff, but getting from this summary kind of scenario to a novel-length plot is hard for me. What are your strategies? Like I said, I've been working on this and getting better at it, but I'd still like your ideas. The basis is character drive and motivation, and thats what helps me eventually get to a plot. But still, I'd love to know your process and strategies. Thanks for the help!

Sarah Allen
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