My Tetris-Inspired Task List

As creatives, we have to be able to get things done. Often there’s no one waiting, no one who even knows what we are creating, let alone to care when it is finished. I love to-do lists and goal setting and productivity hacks. However, I’ve struggled for a long time with repetitive tasks that I need to do every day or most days, even though I really don’t want to.

Some tasks are easy because they have an immediate result: I do the dishes because I need the kitchen clean and ready for me to cook again. But it’s hard to see results for long-term things like exercise and flossing, and even if I do see results, it’s hard not to feel demotivated that these are forever things, which I will never be finished with. These tend not to be creative tasks but instead mundane, real-world problems that we all have to deal with in order to keep up our health and our happiness.

But I wasn’t >doing these things. I clearly needed something more inspiring than a daily checklist that repeats forever. I found it when a friend sent me an image of a bullet journal featuring a page of “Adultris.”
Adultris is a popular name given to a notebook game based on Tetris, which has gained some popularity as a habit tracker. I immediately realized that this would be perfect to help me with all those repetitive tasks I was happily avoiding.

How to create a Tetris-Inspired Task List 

Ingredients:

  • graph paper or a printer
  • multicolored pens or pencils (minimum seven colors)
  • a set of tasks

I find it easier to print a sheet of graph paper than to use a notebook, partially because then it can just fly around my desk instead of being trapped between covers but also so I can create the perfect pattern/size for my game, which takes some experimentation.

You can generate a PDF and print it at https://incompetech.com/graphpaper/lite/

For this example, I used 0.8 cm squares at 35 across by 25 down on A4 landscape paper. Be aware that although large squares sound great in terms of finishing a game quickly, you can end up spending more time coloring than you do getting things done, and that’s clearly not the plan!

Now you split your page into two areas, where the right side receives a border to mark the gameplay area and the left side is your list of shapes and tasks. I like to leave more space on the left side so I can put the shape positions in, which helps remind me which way they turn, rather than waste time rotating them in my head when I should be placing my shape and moving on to the next task.

One thing to think about is which shapes you like the best, and to associate them with the tasks that you like the least. My game is focused on the seven original Tetris shapes (Tetriminos) but I’ve seen people repeat them or add additional shapes in order to expand it.
Here’s my sheet:

 

Note that it’s not perfect nor is it even very pretty. It’s fast and functional: I do not want to feel like setting up my next task list will take half a day.

I have seven repetitive tasks: one for each shape. I also have one wildcard, which is a shape of my choice. For those with a number (15 minutes or 1,000 words), I can repeat the task multiple times in a day for extra shapes. If I’m close to finishing a line, this can motivate me to put extra effort in, but I have to be careful not to apply this to things that I might spend too long on (for example, I can walk for hours, so exercise is a one-a-day thing, with a minimum of 10,000 steps).

The wildcard allows me to pick a shape. I color these in a different color so I can see at a glance if there are too many of any one task, which means I need to think about making it more difficult for the next game.

I write rules on the back of the sheet: for example, the 10,000-step minimum or a set list for my reading challenge (reading the Dream Foundry blog doesn’t count!). I also note things for the next game as I think about them, to stop myself from starting a new one every time I want to tweak something.

And finally, I list my rewards on the back in big letters. You can have one reward for finishing a game, or a set of smaller rewards for every five to ten lines, which I find more motivating, because I can’t help wanting to finish a line. My rewards range from buying music on iTunes, to treating myself to a special breakfast, to downloading a new fun book. At the end of the game, I win a day off… and then it is time to start the next one!


Thoughts on the Dream Foundry Writer's Contest

Every successful writer has their beginning story and it usually involves a long and difficult struggle. Yes, some exceptionally talented writers have had quick triumphs, where not only do they sell their first submitted story to a big name publisher, but also sometimes win awards. Even these rare cases of what look like overnight success usually only come after the writer has quietly toiled away for years, polishing their work and perfecting their style before feeling it was good enough to show to the world. For most writers, it is an even longer journey, through a confusing, depressing, and often overwhelming alien environment.

In a very real sense, the deck is stacked against beginning writers. When sending their submissions to the top publishers, they must compete—for the already too few open slots—with long-time pros, award winners, and big names in the business that often get an automatic read or bump from the slush pile. Then their reply is usually a form rejection that gives them no feedback about why their story didn't make the cut. It is grueling, lonely, and demoralizing. The good news is that nearly every successful writer you can think of has been in this same dark wilderness, and made it through.

While determination and a sometimes-irrational refusal to give up are probably the primary forces behind a writer's success, there can also be other contributing factors. Luck, being prepared to take advantage of opportunities, a community, and a helping hand from other writers can all help beginners. We here at the Dream Foundry can't give you the determination or the luck, but we do strive to give you the community and the helping hand. This contest (and hopefully future contests) is designed to reward the hard work and dedication of beginning writers.

As the contest coordinator, I'm hoping to use my experience running other contests to make this one as fair and successful as possible. Many more advanced and experienced writers have helped me, and now I'm glad to have that opportunity to help others in their journey in this small way. So thank you to all the first readers and Dream Foundry volunteers who have made the contest possible and good luck to all the beginning writers who enter.


Selecting Workshops

Writing workshops can be the best part of a nascent writing career. You get to know other new writers who understand your starry-eyed ramblings and your labored explanations of your book. You meet working writers, glean their wisdom, and sometimes hang out with publishing professionals! You can work on a pitch, or a piece that is workshopped in a critique group, and receive invaluable feedback.

Yet all those perks can also make the workshop awful. A vicious, badly moderated critique group can leave you in tears. If a publishing professional doesn’t articulate themselves well, you could get your heart broken and see your work as unsaleable. (Note: nothing is truly unsaleable in publishing.)

So how do you pick one?

Because there are quite a lot!

(That list isn’t even comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start.)

I have been involved with three local workshops near my home in Bellingham, Washington: the Clarion West Summer Workshop, the Chuckanut Writers Conference, and the Cascade Writers Three-Day Workshop.

They’re very different. Chuckanut is huge, with a lot of A-list writers who have penned bestsellers. It takes up most of a community college and a couple of meeting rooms at a bookstore. Chuckanut is also likely to be aimed at a beginning writer or a writer mostly focused on craft. Programming shows that the majority of classes are about particular elements of craft and sometimes resemble literary discussions like what one would see in a lit class.

Cascade is smaller, cheaper, more intimate, and packed with writers who have sold books recently. Cascade is also, as you can tell by looking at the guests, entirely science fiction-focused, while Chuckanut reaches across genres. Cascade has fewer than fifty people and thus greater access to working agents and editors, so it is a great bet for people trying to break in with a finished science fiction manuscript.

Clarion West is one of the most famous workshops in science fiction. Unlike the others, which last three days, it lasts *gasp* six weeks. Each week is dedicated to writing one short story, and is taught by major writers. And it’s big news. It has local parties, ancillary one-day workshops, special guests, and it’s actually pretty cheap for six weeks of room and board and teaching. But it’s clearly the most expensive in associated costs, because you’ll be taking six weeks off work.

Which one?

There are three factors to take into account: 1) your goals as a writer, 2) the time you have available, and 3) the cost.

In the case of 1, a semi-pro writer with a published manuscript might benefit from something like Cascade: small, with face-to-face groups. It’s small enough to get face time with working publishing professionals and will only require three days off work, depending on travel.

If you’re just struggling to finish a project, something the size of Chuckanut might be a better bet for the wide array of craft topics.

And if you’re determined to hone your craft, to be the best writer you can be, and to level up, Clarion West, or its cousins Clarion San Diego and Odyssey, could be great. This is especially true if you are unemployed, or have the summer off—and more so if you can score one of their scholarships. (If not, Viable Paradise, at one week, and Taos Toolbox, at two, are pretty good by-audition-only options.)

You’ll notice that none of those workshops are particularly focused on self-publishing. There are good conferences for that—the 20 Books to 50k symposium springs to mind—but as I haven’t delved into that realm, I can’t speak to it. You do have to be careful with the number of services being sold to self-publishers. Always remember, in self-pub, the advice of Smashwords founder Mark Coker: “In the self-pub gold rush, more money will be made in author services than book sales.”

Self-published books succeed for the same reasons traditionally published books do. They’re good, and they have a solid marketing push. Anyone selling you a no-fail money method and promising you the moon… *insert sound of oily snake.*

It may be that your money could be better spent on a professional editor. In that case, establish their bona fides just like you would with a conference. Your editor should be working in the field, ideally a working publishing writer who has some experience with publications or an editor who has worked with a major house. Absolute Write has a good section of listed editors.

But there are major pointers for conferences. A good conference doesn’t just mean good craft. It means you’ll make good friends. As I said, you’ll sit down with people and share in their stories and their loves and talk books and shared writer frustrations.

Whatever conference you end up at, bright-eyed, coffee-loaded, with a fresh notebook in hand…have fun! Grab a drink, coffee, or lunch with other writers. Go to the game nights, the write-ins, and the restaurant next door. Participate in the open mic (but don’t go over your time). The conference will bless your craft, but the friends will bless your whole life.

Further reading: 30 Fantastic Writers Conferences For Authors, Bloggers & Freelancers


Interview with Contest Judge C.C. Finlay

How can a beginner learn from writing for a contest and from writing short stories?

Contests for beginning writers can be a good way to gauge where you are in your development. When you submit a story to a magazine, you're competing for attention with other beginning writers, but you're also going up against writers with ten, twenty, thirty years of experience. You're in the same pool with writers who've never sold a story and writers who've won multiple awards.

It's important for beginning writers to do that, to get work out there with the big name authors and try to shine. Every writer goes through that, and all of the magazine editors I know are looking for new voices and perspectives. During the five years that I've been editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, we've published a debut story by a first-time author, on average, in every issue. Even our "all-star" issues, like the 70th Anniversary edition out this month, usually include a first pro sale. Almost always, those writers have been working and submitting work for years before that first sale.

Contests are a good way to stay engaged on that journey toward professional status. In addition to the validation you get from winning, or the important things you can learn by getting a professional critique, there's also the chance to pick up critical skills. When the winning story is announced, it's something you can look at and say, "Okay, this was written by someone at the exact same spot in their career as I am—what skills do I need to work on to bring my stories up to the same level?"

What do you look for in a short story?

I never know if I'm going to like a story until I read it, so that's a hard question to answer. I like to be surprised by fiction, whether it's by the quality of the prose, the voice and perspective, the ideas, the character insights, the narrative arcs, or the plot turns. Or, even better, some combination of all of those things.

Structure is also very important to me. But not structure as in, "Here's a formula, now you have to follow it." Every story has to find its own specific structure. But more generally, for me, all stories need a beginning that grabs me and pulls me in. First paragraph. First sentence is even better. Something specific and unique to this particular story and character is almost always going to feel more fresh to me than some common situation or trope. Sometimes small, relatable stakes are more effective at grabbing readers—and me; I'm a reader first—than big life-threatening stakes, especially if we don't know the characters and don't care if they live or die. After I'm grabbed, the narrative needs to sustain momentum—every scene or section needs some kind of in-the-moment stakes, something to keep us engaged and to move the story forward, and the pacing needs to keep us reading from one paragraph to the next. Finally, I expect the ending to be satisfying. The biggest piece of the impact of a story is the ending, because it's the culmination of everything before it and the last thing the reader sees of a story. Something specific and unique to this story and character is almost always more effective as an ending than something familiar.

Beginnings and endings are the places I see most writers resort to cliches and familiar tropes. Too many new writers try to game editors by giving us exactly what they've seen be successful in another story by a different writer. "Oh, Charlie bought a story with this kind of beginning—I'm going to do the exact same thing." I bought that story because I thought it was unique and reflected that specific writer. The best way to simultaneously stand out as a writer and also connect with readers, is to find your own unique stories. The things that only you could write about in that particular way.

What are common pitfalls that new writers can experience when submitting for the first time?

This goes back to the last question. A lot of new writers submit stories too soon, before the stories are ready to leave the outbox. I also see a lot of new writers telling very familiar plots or using very familiar tropes in familiar ways; they're not finding the new thing they have to offer to the long, ongoing conversation that is genre fiction.

But those are only pitfalls in as much as they're part of the learning curve for new writers. If you're finishing stories, submitting them to editors, and working to improve your craft and hone your skills, then you're on the right track. Not finishing stories, not sending them out into the world, not trying to improve your craft or get better—those are the real pitfalls.

Who are some of your favorite writers? What are some of your favorite short stories of all time?

Different stories and writers resonate for me at different times in my life, and I read old stories over to new effect, simply because I'm always changing, always responding to what's happening in the moment, and being present and aware while I read fiction opens me to seeing different things. On the whole, I think that's positive and one of the traits that makes me a good editor.

That said, The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes is a story collection that I read when I was young, just starting to write seriously, and it's one I go back to reread every few years. "Cora, Unashamed," one of the stories in that collection, is the epitome for me of everything that Hughes does well: the depiction of character and circumstance, the grinding build of tension, the satisfying release at the end. If that story doesn't make you feel, I'd worry that you've closed off your heart. If it doesn't make you think, I'd worry that you've turned off your brain. It's also such a clear and vivid picture of a specific time and place. When he wrote it, no one else besides Hughes was trying to write about those particular people or tell that particular story. For me, it's pretty close to perfect.

Within genre, I couldn't name any living writers without inadvertently leaving others out, and as an editor I don't particularly want to alienate anyone I might want to buy stories from in the future! If I'm understanding the purpose of this question, living authors are most relevant here if new writers want to get a sense of the authors and stories that I love. The best way to do that is to look at issues of F&SF from the past two years or so. I've been really excited about the work we've been publishing lately, which I think are the best issues of my turn at the helm so far, and especially excited about some of the young, new writers who have been appearing in our pages with multiple stories.

Why do you think a contest like this is important in terms of supporting the growth and community of beginning writers?

Becoming a writer is frequently a long and often a disheartening apprenticeship, involving persistent hard work and so much delayed gratification. For beginning writers, this is a chance to take stock, to shine, to get some immediate gratification. From an editor's point-of-view—and, I suspect, an agent's, but you'll have to ask Lisa—it's really important to encourage new writers and help them develop. As the world changes rapidly around us, perhaps more so now than any other time in recent history, we need new voices, new perspectives, and new stories to join the existing voices, perspectives, and stories. New writers are essential to the community of readers, and they'll be the people who'll tell the essential stories in the decades ahead. A contest like this one, that helps beginning writers move toward becoming professional writers, has the chance to be an important part of the process that helps those writers develop, gain recognition, and have success.


I’ve Got A Question For You: Considering Portrayals Of LGBTQ People In Fiction

It’s common for queer authors like myself (really any authors who aren’t straight, white and male) to address the need for positive representations of characters who share their identities. I write science fiction and fantasy so it’s par for the course that I should address those genres. Ideally, I’d point out that science-fiction and fantasy are realms of possibility and imagination, that no other sector of fiction is more suited to representing the beauty and diversity of human identities and lives. And of course I would remind you that representation is incredibly important for all marginalized people.

And it is incredibly important.

Because when there are so few representations of queer identities, every single depiction of a queer character makes up a huge percentage of the way in which we are seen and how we see ourselves. Every portrayal of an LGBTQ+ person holds the potential to humanize or demonize us. A single trans dragon-rider, a gay magician, a bisexual starship commander, a lesbian demon-hunter or a gender-fluid druid can become the catalyst for the letters LGBTQ+ to come alive as real people with strengths and weaknesses.

The impact of that humanizing effect—or its absence—reaches far beyond the realms of fantasy and science-fiction, because in the real here-and–now LGBTQ+ people are still struggling against discrimination. We face hatred from entire political parties and religious groups; our rights, our relationships and our very identities are regularly attacked and misrepresented in the most distorted forms imaginable. Over a thousand LGBTQ+ people will be victims of hate-crimes in the US every year.

There are still nations in which homosexuality is punishable by death. (Just having to write that sentence is heartbreaking and I wish so much that I was talking about works of fiction.)

Dehumanizing LGBTQ+ people plays a huge roll in making abuse and oppression seem acceptable. It’s easy to condemn us when you only think of us as monsters and abominations. But seeing our humanity can change that; it may be easy to kill a ‘monster’ but it’s monstrous to murder another human being.

Yes, it is incredibly important that we be allowed to tell our stories and share our strength, love and humanity. Positive representation is crucial, not just in genre fiction but everywhere. And, honestly I think that we all know as much.

So, I’d like to take a moment and ponder the matter from the other side. Because the current framing of this question places all burden upon marginalized readers, writers, and our allies to justify our work, our voices and even our right to exist. But what if we considered this question instead: What is the need for hateful representation? (Because that’s what we’re actually fighting against when we talk about positive representation. We’re battling hate and erasure by holding up the truths of our lives and our love.)

So let’s instead ask: How does demonizing and degrading marginalized people enrich our literature? Does it improve our lives? Why should LGBTQ+ people—or any group of human beings, for that matter—have to see themselves maligned, stereotyped, abused and murdered in fiction as well as in the real world? What does it say about us all, as a people, if we embrace ignorance and hatred as defining values?

What harm is there in one human being sharing their humanity with another in the form of a story?

When I tell you that my wife and I have been together for thirty years, and that every day I fall in love with her all over again, does that deprive you of anything? Perhaps it takes a little bit of ignorance from you. Maybe it makes me just a little less of a faceless, capitol L at the beginning of that string of letters, LGBTQ+.

And if you were to tell me some of your story then you too would cease to be an invisible reader out there somewhere and become a human being for me. You might tell me about your upbringing, or perhaps your aspirations. I would encourage you. Perhaps you’ll confide that you’re worried about the future. I am too but I believe that we can make things better for each other. We human beings are resourceful and capable of great compassion. I would want to tell you a joke but I might mess it up on the first try. I’m not great at telling jokes; I do it automatically—clumsily—when faced with fear.

I’m telling you all this now, because I hope you’ll recognize that reading about someone else’s strengths and struggles deprives you of nothing. It simply offers you the chance to know and share in their battles and triumphs.

In the end it stops being a matter of my narrative or yours. We can share in one another’s experiences. Your joy can lift my spirit; my positive representation can fill you with pride. That’s what’s so powerful about stories and that’s why the ones we tell each other and ourselves should matter to us all.

Editor's Note: This is a reprint of an original essay that appeared on HuffPost.com.


6 Tips For Building a World

So, you want to build a fictional world. Great! Now what?

An over-articulated world can easily tempt you into taking frequent, tedious detours to tell your readers all about it instead of focusing on character and story, and a world that was built with hardly any guiding principles often leads to situations where your audience will constantly ask, “Wait a minute, if X exists, why didn’t they just do Y instead of Z?”

Of course, there is no One Right Way of doing it. But the following principles can serve as useful guides to help keep you on target.

1. Your world doesn’t need to make sense, but it does need to have rules.

Lightsabers, sonic screwdrivers, zombies: none of these things really make sense, but we know what they can and can’t do. Knowing with clarity how things work prompts people to think about what might happen, which pulls them into the story. And for the writer, these rules also define the paths a story can take, form obstacles to be overcome or assets to be cleverly exploited by your characters, and can help you create satisfying suspense, action, twists, and drama.

2. Your rules can be broken, but only rarely, and at the right moment.

Sometimes, a broken rule can create all sorts of lovely responses in your audience. If a villain does something that should not be possible, it can establish the extreme nature of their threat, enhancing the fear and tension. If a hero does the impossible after an emotional three-act journey of unlocking their potential, you’ve created a compelling Chosen One. But if you break your rules too often, they'll cease to mean anything and your audience will stop caring.

3. Only tell your audience what they need to know.

If it isn’t relevant to the plot, to the character, or to the theme, then your audience doesn’t need to know it, plain and simple. There’s no need to explain all the rules to a fictional card game, for example. As long as your audience understands if a character is cheating, taking a big gamble, or in a tight spot, that’s all that really matters. Don’t force your audience to study your lore just to understand what they’re supposed to feel.

Moreover, what your audience doesn’t know can open up your world in ways no amount of information ever could. If an audience knows what a monster can do, but not what it wants or where it came from, the mystery can be powerfully compelling. Imagination often soars more vividly when left in the dark.

4. Treat your cultures the way you treat your characters.

As with your characters, first impressions of your fictional societies are crucial. We learn the most important things about Harry Potter the moment we meet him waking up in a cupboard under the stairs, brushing spiders off his socks. The same is true of hobbits, Klingons, and the Capitol of Panem. The rest—what deities they believe in, what their legal system looks like, what political factions exist—can be elaborated as the need arises. It is far more important for your audience to know what a member of a certain race, nation, or religion is likely to think or do in a given moment than it is for them to be well-versed in the particulars right off the bat. Just remember not to keep putting off that nuance indefinitely, or you’ll end up writing caricatures instead of believable cultures.

5. Don’t have something explained to a character who should already know it.

Physicists don’t go around explaining black holes to other physicists in the real world, so why would they in fiction? If you need to explain something to your audience, that’s what a Fish Out of Water is for! Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins—their ignorance is wonderfully useful for world building. If you find yourself writing dialogue like “As you well know,” chances are you need to find another way to introduce or integrate the information.

6. Culture clash is your friend.

But what if your story has no room for a character who’s been living under a rock and needs everything explained to them? Well, if you put characters in situations where their worldviews are at odds, but they have to come to an agreement about what to do, having them argue about it is a convenient and natural way to get them to explain and defend their morals, traditions, or beliefs. Dramatic conflict can thus be used to develop story, character, theme, and world simultaneously.

And lastly, you can’t build a world without giving it a shot, so go and keep filling blank pages with words. Deliberate practice over time is the only way to become a better writer.


Talk the Talk: Making Your Characters Interact Like People

Recently, I chatted with a friend I’ve been out of touch with. We didn’t talk about anything in particular. A favorite actor of ours had recently passed away (R.I.P, Paul Darrow) and we caught up on life. It was a perfectly normal chat between friends.

But midway through the conversation, something struck me: I converse with this person differently from how I talk with literally everyone else. We’ve known each other for so long that we’ve developed a shorthand: certain words and phrases have shared meanings, there are mutually understood cues for segueing into jokes or stories, and to an outsider, easily three-quarters of any conversation would sound incomprehensible.

I’m not unique in this: all long-standing relationships, be they friendly or romantic or business, or hell, even adversarial, have a specific interpersonal dialect.

In writing advice books and blog posts, something I frequently see is: ‘Make sure your characters all have unique voices.’ Basically, make each character’s dialogue different enough so that the reader can keep them all separate. And that’s good advice! People don’t speak alike. We use a variety of words and sentence structures and speech patterns, depending on a wide range of factors (first language, upbringing, past trauma, subject matter, etc.).

What I have not seen as frequently in those same advice books and blogs is how to show characters’ personal and interpersonal dynamics.

The difference between the way one talks with, for example, a spouse, and the way one talks with family members or coworkers, can be used to great effect to deepen the reader's understanding of the various characters involved. The same holds true for how communication flows between friends, and between potential romantic interests, and between the hero and the villain of the piece (if those terms happen to apply).

What words does your main character use when they’re speaking to someone they trust, versus someone they’re not sure of, versus someone they hate? How do their speech patterns change? Do they become quiet when they’re with someone who scares them, or do they become annoyingly chatty?

This shorthand doesn’t have to be limited to the dialogue. Body language is part of this as well; physical tics and body movement, comfort levels regarding clothing and accessories, nicknames, inside jokes – all of these concepts can be part of a character’s personal language.

For example, in the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the demon Crowley frequently refers to his friend, the angel Aziraphale, as “angel.” It could be derogatory, but it reads more as a fond nickname or a pet name. In the miniseries adaptation of the same novel, Crowley – who prefers to wear sunglasses when he’s in company – willingly removes his glasses when he is drinking with Aziraphale. This is never stated explicitly, but it is notable, and significant, that it only happens once, communicating not only to the audience but to Aziraphale that Crowley feels safe enough in Aziraphale’s presence to remove a symbolic barrier.

The different styles and methods of communication can be put to good use in indicating the breadth and scope of characters’ levels of interpersonal familiarity and intimacy.

Making new characters and learning how they behave can be one of the most exciting facets of storytelling. To me, when trying to show the scope not only of a world but of a cast of people, discovering how they react when they come into contact with other characters and exploring the different styles and methods of communication between them is the most fascinating part of all.


The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Social Media Marketing for Authors

Editor's Note: Nicole Kimberling, as the editor at Blind Eye Books, discusses how brand-new authors should build out their internet presence. While many of the specific references are targeted at writers (such as Smashwords and Goodreads) within this article, the principals discussed in this article seem applicable to all creators within the speculative arts. A simple yet effective website, social media that dovetails with one's communication styles, and connection to the larger community are all ways of creating an internet presence that can be applied to many emerging creators. 

I decided to write this series because there has been a paradigm shift in the world of writing. Whereas before it was possible for a writer to remain outside the fracas of the online world and still have some sort of career (or even meaningful hobby), now having an active online presence is as much a requirement as wearing business attire to your office job. In other words: for a writer to be taken seriously by readers as well as publishers they must participate in social media and in their own online marketing.

Right now I'm seeing a lot of really good writers who should be in their prime whose voices are beginning to vanish due to a complete lack of understanding of how to promote themselves online. Hopefully, these tips will help at least some drowned-out voices to resurface as well as help completely new authors find and maintain connections to their ideal readers. This is not meant to be some kind of masterclass. In fact, it's a little more like kindergarten.

But by the end of it—with any luck—you too should be able to engage the new digital reality of life as an author.

How To Create An Online Presence

It’s finally happened: you’ve written a piece of fiction. You’ve either sold your masterpiece to a publisher or you’ve decided to go it alone on Smashwords. Either way, the one thing you need to do now is create an online presence.

I do not care who you are, or what you write, or what problems you have—philosophical or existential—with social media. If you hope to have success you need an active online presence. Full stop.

Why?

Because this is the way readers will discover you and share their love of your work with each other and with you. And it’s also where you will reassure them that you are still alive and beavering away at your next project. It’s where you will build excitement for your creations and where your readers will share their excitement with others.

Your work will be competing with thousands of other titles. Your active social media presence is what keeps your work from being subsumed by the massive tidal (title?) wave of other works and promotional campaigns.

Social media also allows you to build relationships with other writers. It’s no exaggeration to say that your relationships with other writers will dictate the course of your career. They will inspire you, teach you, introduce you to important industry professionals and, most importantly, introduce you to new readers via cross-promotion.

The First Steps

Before you build a website or attempt to take on Twitter—the Autobahn of the social media world—you need to decide whether you will use your actual name or a pen name. I use my real name. Here’s why: my real name came with existing contacts in the form of my real-life friends. Even if they’ve never read a single word I’ve written, my real-life friends have staunchly supported my career via likes, shares, retweets and general signal-boosting. Plus, I am not the sort of person who is likely to maintain two separate social media presences (one private, one personal). I’m naturally extroverted and impulsive and having to pause to remember who I am supposed to be online vs. in real life would drain all pleasure from the experience of interacting with people.

If you are like me, using your real name—or some variation of your real name, like your initials or your first and middle names—is the way to go.

For example, if your name is Angelica June Hardesty and you decide to publish under A.J. Hardesty you just change your Facebook profile to “Public” and the name listed to A.J. Hardesty and you’re already in business.

But many authors use a pen name. There are many reasons this might be the choice for you. They range from as personal as hiding your hobby from your coworkers to as calculated as the deliberate creation of an auctorial brand identity. So long as you will legitimately post as your online persona, having a pen name is great. But it does burden you with starting from zero in terms of contacts, so you’re going to have to go deliberately court followers.

Whether you use a variation of your real name or a pen name, it’s important to make sure the associated domain name is available for you to purchase: i.e. my name is Nicole Kimberling, so I own www.nicolekimberling.com. If your name is already taken you can either choose another name to write under or you can augment it with an applicable term like, “nicolekimberlingwriter” or “nicolekimberlingauthor.” You can check if your domain is taken by using the search function at sites like GoDaddy.

One note about pen names: be aware that nowadays most assumed identities are eventually discovered, especially if you become popular. Understand from the start that your nom de plume is not an impenetrable shield of anonymity. It’s more like a business name. So remember to use business etiquette when posting.

Build a Website

Take that domain you bought and just build one. There are plenty of platforms out there. Right now I recommend Squarespace, because it’s dead-easy and has a great help section. But probably in a couple of years there will be an even easier platform to build on. If website building is truly impossible for you to understand, find a kid to help you. Like a relative. Or a neighbor. Alternately, most college students will be able to assist. Hire one to sit beside you for a day and help you figure out what you're supposed to be doing. Do not let them build your website for you. They're just there to help you learn because you're going to have to update this thing for yourself eventually, right?

To begin with, all you need are four pages:

  1. A landing page with your author name on it, plus a picture or logo.
  2. A page that lists your publications. (With buy links.)
  3. A biography with links to your social media and contact information
  4. A blog, or news section where you can post announcements or free reads.

And viola! You have built your home base. You have created an exclusive venue to post your news, updates, free reads promotions, cat pictures… whatever. Now that you have a home, it’s time to expand.

Finding Your Social Media Platform

At the time of writing this essay, the three major social media platforms of most use to writers are Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Here is an easy way to figure out which one to start using first:

  1. If you like to write letters or talk on the phone, start with Facebook.
  2. If you prefer to send postcards or texts, join Twitter.
  3. If you send blank postcards with meaningful images, Instagram is the way.

You can set up each of these social media platforms to post to the other automatically, but you need one primary mode of interaction that you can perform easily from your phone.

Why My Phone?

Because you must engage with social media every single day for the month before and one month after your release. It helps to be able to just use dead time—like when you’re in your dentist’s waiting room—to keep engagement up without cutting into your writing time. (Cause you’re already working on your next project right? Of course you are.)

One Last Thing

Set up a profile on Goodreads and link the blog on your website to it. (If you can't figure out how to do this, invite that kid back. Buy her a pizza or something for her trouble.) Now everyone, including prospective editors, agents and publicists, can easily find out about your and your work.


Not Quite Superman

When I was young, whenever I would get frustrated with something, my parents would say, “It’s hard, but you can do it.”

Throughout life, I’ve taken this to heart; I powered through and did the things, even when there was a crushing amount of work to be done. Friends called it “superpowers,” and I found myself using it more and more often. Superpowers always have their cost--get the power of the Dark Side at the expense of your morality, get magic powers when you sacrifice the thing you love most, and so on. For me, I’d be exhausted the next day, a gibbering baboon who looked like they’d stayed awake for three days straight, but the feeling was always that it was worth it because that’s what you gotta do to get it done. It’s hard, but you can do it. 

Today I both write SFF and work in a high-powered slice of tech. In tech, superpowers are the norm. Superpowers are expected. Superpowers are your basic prerequisite, because of course you’re going to work-hard-play-hard, you’re going to go-go-go and get-shit-done. (You probably have a t-shirt or mug with at least one of these phrases, possibly handed out by your employer.) There is no place for weakness in this environment. 

There is no place for disability in this environment.  

In the past 5+ years, working with a wide variety of client companies, I haven’t seen a single person with a visible disability. Any invisible ones have been carefully hidden away.

Even without my disability, I’ve never been healthy. In the past five years alone, I’ve dealt with a bizarre constellation of medical issues: car accidents, emergency appendectomy, shingles… nothing connected, but many things. Some I can hide. Some I can’t, but there’s still an expectation to push through. A regular sick day usually means working from home, smiling and cogent on the video conference, trying to ignore the fever heating my cheeks. The last time I had a real sick day, I was two weeks after major surgery and on serious painkillers. The following week, still high as a kite on vicodin and barely able to shu ffle to the fridge and back, my then-client insisted that I get some work done and I’d been out long enough. But at least all of these issues were temporary and none actually disabling.

Which brings me to my actual, invisible disability. I’ve struggled with sometimes-crippling depression since high school. I’ve checked myself into two different hospital programs, one of which included a week of inpatient care. It’s hard enough to smile and pretend I’m stronger than I really am when recovering from a physical illness. It’s excruciating while depressed. In my field, depression is an unheard-of weakness. People acknowledge that I can’t help it if I was hit by a car, but depression is still seen as a personal failing. 

I am not “out” in tech because I would stop getting business. This piece is the first and only work I’ve ever written under a pseudonym: I can’t afford the risk. Who wants to work with someone who might one day just be too sad to come in? What’s the point? Just get over your bullshit and get this shit done. Superpower your way through and you’ll be fine. So I grit my teeth and smile, smile even when my cheeks feel like they each have a one-ton weight smuggled within them, smile when it’s all I can do to keep the tears from squeezing out and rolling down my unprofessional face and dripping onto my unprofessional laptop that would fizzle and sizz in the very reaction that I’m now suppressing in myself. 

(Superpower through it. It’s hard, but you can do it.) 

Depression feels like the opposite of superpowers. Instead of being able to burst through expectations and accomplish superhuman amounts of work, I’m saddled with some sort of superkryptonite. Not only can I not do things that are super, but I find it hard to do incredibly basic things. Showering is difficult. Dishes nigh impossible. Dragging myself to work is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy because the weight of the burden wants to crush me to the ground. And I want to let it, because it would be so much easier to let myself be pulverized into mush than fight for just one minute longer. 

(It’s hard, and you might not actually be able to do it. That’s a scary thought.)

In a scenario where I have to hide my disability for fear of losing my job, I feel like a backwards Clark Kent. Masquerading amongst the superheroes, ever afraid that someone would notice that I squint a bit and sometimes bump into things and really if I put on glasses I’d look just like that non-super reporter guy. Nobody needs to bring in that non-super reporter guy to get things done.

Which brings me to the SFF part of my life. There are many issues with disability in science fiction and fantasy. Evil people are disabled or disfigured almost by their nature: see Star Wars’ Snoke, Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison, Doctor Who’s Davros, and so on. Cons still don’t do enough for people with disabilities. I can’t count the number of times a panelist has decided they’re naturally loud enough to “not need a mic” so I can’t hear them (much less be heard by those with hearing limitations) or seen a panelist in a wheelchair struggle to get onto a ramp-free stage. There’s a lot that needs to be improved. 

But despite all this, the SFF world has been my disability salvation. This was the very first world where I was allowed to be “out” with no consequences, and met a number of folks with the same struggle. I could have depression and still be OK, a person worth working with. Hell, I could have depression because I’d been cooped up for too long dealing with yet another illness (my current situation) and still be OK. I was able to open up about my difficulties, my clashing needs to be productive and also practice self-care, in part because so many others were openly fighting the same battles. In the past few years, the SFF community taught me about the concept of spoons and saving your energy for the things that matter most. This is the community that lovingly yelled at me to stop being ridiculous while I was berating myself for taking too long to finish a novel draft. They told me to start taking better care of my mental health, which included taking breaks. 

Not only did I not need superpowers to be accepted in this community, it seemed like nobody did. The outpouring of empathy and love became one of my strongest sources of support, with the echo of “it’s hard, and sometimes you don’t need to do it. It’s OK if you don’t.” 

This contrast is startling. 

When I had a week-long crippling migraine, an editor sent me copy edits to review. I knew it would be OK to request a few more days, because I wasn’t able to concentrate very well with the pain, and they were fine with it. That same week, my tech job showed no such courtesy, and I had multiple skull-shattering, painfully loud video conferences. 

When I was depressed and struggling to make it through the day, I had another editor ask for a revise-and-resubmit for a story. I’d seen others do it, so I knew it would be OK to ask for another few weeks because I was too depressed to make progress. He told me to take care of myself. At the same time, not being “out” in my day job, I was juggling three very demanding clients with no way to get a reprieve. I dragged myself forward on each new project, each new request, whispering “it’s hard, but you can do it” as I trudged through. 

When I was extremely depressed and was in a hospital program, getting intense therapy for four hours every weekday, my corner of the SFF community sent me love and support. It was clear that all writing had to come to an indefinite halt. In fact it should’ve been clear that all work had to come to an indefinite halt. But instead I found myself dragging my wrung-out carcass directly from the hospital to a client planning session. Depression, which gives your frontal lobe a wallop and makes it hard to concentrate or think, had me scraping together my remaining neurons (already frazzled from the hospital session) to focus not on rest and my own health but on a soon-to-be-dead company’s plans for their next product launch. 

The SFF community still has a way to go towards eliminating ableism, both in its media and within its community. But for me, this has been the one place in my life where it’s completely OK that I’m not quite Superman. I can drop the fake smile and the veneer of hypercompetence, and have one less burden to lift. I can take care of myself and my health. Things are hard, and I’m OK whether I can do them or not. 

It’s good to be home.

 


Burnout, Guilt, and “Productivity”

This post is half explanation, half me yelling at myself.

After my book came out at the beginning of April, my
productivity levels plummeted to zero.

I kept trying to tell myself that it was okay, that it was
natural, that I’d been working almost continuously since November 2017 and I
needed a bit of a break. My husband and friends and editor all told me the same
thing.

And you know what? They were right. You know what
else? I knew they were right.

But I still felt incredibly guilty.

This is called “burnout,” kids.

And the last several weeks that I’ve been mostly AWOL from
writing have been me trying to work through that guilt for just being tired,
and why it exists.

I’ve identified two major reasons:

1) Recovering gifted child guilt

This particular guilt manifests in different ways for
different people, but for me, it’s the problem of “Well, I didn’t finish this
the first time I tried, so obviously it’s never going to work and I should move
on to something else.” Which is a terrible way of doing anything, but hey, it
worked in grade school, so obviously it should work in my adult life, right???

(No. No, the answer is “no.” And again, “no.”)

2) Capitalist / “gig economy” guilt

Productivity =/= worth as a human being

We’ve all been told the exact opposite by so many for so
long that this has to be repeated over and over and over again until hopefully
we can absorb it.

We’ve been taught to devalue the pursuits we enjoy if we’re
not getting something tangible in return.

But we need intangible things, too.

Doing other things besides earning money is not “a waste of
time.” Hobbies—non-money-producing hobbies—are not only important, they are
vital. They let you rest, and just enjoy things. It’s so important for your
mental health and your emotional well-being.

Writers and artists need rest. We need sleep, and non-creating
time. We need to kill the myth of the starving artist…with food. And we need to
do fun things for fun.

So in addition to identifying the guilt, I’ve also been
working on trying to let all of that guilt go, and instead of beating myself up
for not being superhuman, I’m trying very hard to just be kind to myself.

I try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, without worrying
about how many words I’ve written that day.

I spend more time in the kitchen, and pay more attention to
what I’m eating, instead of grabbing whatever’s quickest that I can shovel into
my mouth while I’m hunched over a keyboard. And I keep water around, to lessen
my temptation for caffeine.

When I do sit down to write, I set myself a limit as well as
a goal. I say, “Okay, I want to reach a thousand words tonight, but I’ve got
other things to do, so I’m only going to write for two hours, and then I’m
going to go do something else.” I find I work better with deadlines, so giving
myself a time limit means I have to get the words out—they don’t have to be
good words, but they have to be on the page before two hours are up. And
telling myself, “This time is set aside only for writing,” helps to free up my
brain from worrying about other things.

I do things that aren’t writing: I go bowling with my
husband. We have a weekly board game night where we try games we’ve never
played before. I knit baby blankets and watch Poirot. I stay busy and enjoy myself and get away from my desk for
a few hours. Sometimes the “You Should Be Writing” gremlin starts poking me,
and I have to remind myself, “No, this isn’t Writing Time, and I’m not going to
write until it is.”

And that’s where I am right now. I’ve had about six weeks of
doing more or less nothing except trying to build myself back up to get back to
work, and…it hasn’t exactly been fun, but I’ve learned a few things:

  • Sleep.
  • Eat food.
  • Remember to hydrate.
  • Set limits as well as goals.
  • Do fun things for fun.
  • Be kind to yourself.

You’re the only one of you, and you’re the only one who can make
the things you want to make.

Take care of yourself.

I’m trying to do the same. 


How do you combat burnout? Tell us on the forum post for this blog entry!