Tip #4 for Keeping on Track with Your Writing

In this final of 4 blog posts with tips for keeping on track with your writing, I want to tell you about the many free database programs available to keep all your book files in a central location.

Many businesses use these database and project management programs for team collaboration and monitoring the numerous projects they have going. Well, we freelancers can use many of these programs as well, even if we don’t employ other people. Some of us go solo during the writing process, but others of us have teams that consist of critique partners, agents, and fellow writers who assist with the process.

I was introduced to Basecamp by a client of mine, a very large company that does business in all 50 states. It has many employees and, as you can imagine, multiple departments that handle different kinds of projects. I began using the free edition of Basecamp and then upgraded so I could use it to work on more than one book at a time.

In fact, when I co-wrote a mystery novel with another write last year, we used Basecamp to keep all our stuff organized. Herb had separate folders where he  uploaded his chapters and research, as I did, but we each had access to the folders. (If you didn’t want to give access to someone, you can do that, too.) We also created a folder where we could upload photos. He lives on the west coast and I live in New England, and each of our lead characters did, too. So uploading  photos was essential for helping our writing partner see what our characters’ part of the world looks like. We also used the program to message each other in real time and had the ability to email files to the central repository, as well.

I currently use Freedcamp, for personal reasons that have nothing to do with any dissatisfaction with any other program and everything to do with meeting my personal preferences for management more closely. Each writer is different, so you may like another database program better.

The best thing about using these programs is that you can keep your actual book manuscript, notes, research files, photos–basically everything to do with your book–in a single location that can be accessed from anywhere–by as many people as you grant access to. You can have several projects running at once, too. Right now, I have three books going at the same time. One completed book is sitting on the desk of both an agent and a publisher so my project is idle, I’m about 60% of the way through the first draft of another, and I’m in the outlining phase of a third.  I’m using the program differently for each of the three book projects, but I still go to the same place when it’s time to work.

The program includes a separate calendar for each project. As I write my WIP, I enter the chapter and scene number in it to keep track of where my characters are–and on what dates and times the scenes take place. The program also includes a task function that works separately for each project and it reminds me as I approach deadlines. I’ll be reminded when it’s time to check with the agent and publisher (assuming they haven’t called me with good news before then!), so I can put that on a back burner in my mind. (Or try to, anyway.)

The free version of Freedcamp I’m using allows me to have an unlimited number of projects and I chose it for that reason, plus its ease of use. If you’re a techie, you might find another product management database more to your liking. Here’s a link to just one of the online articles that provides you with a list of free programs. If you do a search, you can find plenty of other articles that compare them.

I hope this information proves helpful!

Tip #3 for Keeping on Track with Your Writing

In this third of four posts about how to stay on track with your writing, I’ll be discussing Tip #3: Using Multiple Notebooks in Microsoft’s OneNote.

I use OneNote to keep at my fingertips all those things I used to find myself flipping through pages of manuscript to find because I knew they were in there but just couldn’t find them. The best thing about OneNote is that it not only works like a regular notebook, with separate sections and pages, it also permits me to color code everything and insert photos and hyperlinks right from the Internet. I can organize as loosely or as precisely as I want to.

For example, in my Writing Tips notebook I use 5 major sections, and two Section Groups titled Characterization and Plot. Figure 1 shows what the hierarchy looks like when the notebook opens.

Figure 1

As you can see in Figure 2, the Characterization Section Group contains notebook sections, and each section of a notebook has color-coded tabs lined horizontally, with individuals page listed on the left.

Figure 2

It’s pretty straightforward. In Figure 3, the Plot Section Group contains its own horizontal color-coded sections, with pages listed on the left.

Figure 3

When you use the power of OneNote in conjunction with writing your novel, it expands your ability to stay organized. Figure 4 shows what the hierarchy of the notebook for my current WIP looks like. As you can see, I created a Section Group for all my research and the business documents associated with the book. It keeps them out of view so that when I’m working, my book section isn’t so cluttered.

Figure 4

I find OneNote especially helpful with the plot elements of my book. I have separate pages in this section to record chapter pages and lengths, a calendar into which I insert the Chapter and scene as I write it so I don’t have to constantly page back to document what to find what day something happened on, backstory items, reminders about things I HAVE to include in the future, theme reminders, a list of upcoming obstacles I need to incorporate, my chapter-by-chapter outline, etc.

One of the really neat thing about OneNote is the way you’re able to use it to keep Internet resource links and photos. Figure 5 shows how you can copy and paste info from the Internet, and the URL where you got the info gets pasted right along with the content to make it very easy to go right back to that source.

Figure 5

As you can see in Figure 6, I copied and pasted photos of people on the Internet to use as models for my characters.

Figure 6

I  use Tags in the notebook to remind myself when I need to edit or rewrite something; Figure 7 shows the list of all Tags used in the notebook. Once I create the master list, I can chose from it to enter the appropriate tag over the text in my notebook (Figure 8) and I apply the corresponding highlight color right into my manuscript to mark the section and then move on. If I forget what yellow highlighting means when I’m re-reading the manuscript (especially since I’m also using green and pink highlighting), all I have to do is refer to the color/tag code in OneNote.

Figure 7
Figure 8

I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. If you think you’ll find using OneNote useful, here are a few different online tools that will help you learn about more about it:

PCWorld article for beginners: https://www.pcworld.com/article/2686026/software-productivity/microsoft-onenote-for-beginners-everything-you-need-to-know.html

Lifwire article for beginners: https://www.lifewire.com/tips-tricks-for-microsoft-onenote-beginners-2511970

Microsoft OneNote tutorial: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/OneNote-video-training-1c983b65-42f6-42c1-ab61-235aae5d0115

I hope these tips you stay on track. I look forward to seeing you in a few days for the final post in this series, Tip #4: Feedcamp (or any product management database).

Tip #2 for Keeping on Track with Your Writing

In my last blog post, I talked about Tip # 1, Customer styles and themes in Microsoft Word. In this post, I’m sharing Tip #2: A Custom Chapter-by-Chapter template for outlining both what I plan to write in future chapters/scenes … and what I’ve actually written.

I don’t know how it goes with you, but my plans always sound terrific. And some of them actually turn out that way. But quite often, I change plans in the middle of a story because I stumble over a flaw in my plot, I note an inconsistency in the character’s personality, or I dream up a much better idea. None of these things are a big deal if the change occurs in the present or future, but it’s a big PIA if I need to backtrack.

I use a Microsoft Word document that includes a separate table for each chapter. The table is divided into two columns that contain the following information:

Left Column

The date and day of the week. I also keep a separate calendar document into which I insert each chapter and scene number to make the process of backtracking easier if and when I have to do it.

Bullet points for each of the goals I want to accomplish in the chapter (e.g., reveal more of the POV character’s background through subplot, show what drives her, show her personal stake in the outcome of her relationship with Character B, introduce new obstacle).

Right Column

Separate rows for each scene that contain my plans for the content each scene: if I don’t have plans yet, I keep the row blank.

I use shading to indicate what POV character the scene will be told from (i.e., green for the POV character, blue for Character B, and no shading if I’m not sure).

The image appearing below is an example of what the table looks like.

I save the document and then turn on Track Changes. This allows me to enter revisions to the outline right in the document, and to add details of scenes I write that I hadn’t planned beforehand, and see both the original plan and the finished product all in one document. Track Changes allows you to see a simplified version of the revised document (with marks only appearing in the margins) or all changes made.

The image appearing below is what the table looks like after being revised in Track Changes:

Here are two links to online instructions about using Track Changes:

Microsoft online instructions for Track Changes in Word: https://bit.ly/2tiWrtk

Online article in PCWorld: https://bit.ly/2yG3e6v

I hope this helps you stay on track. Let me know if Tips #1 and/or #2 work for you.

I look forward to seeing you in a few days for Tip #3: Creating Multiple Notebooks in OneNote.

First of 4 Tips for Keeping on Track with Your Writing

I’m not a pantser. I don’t have to plot out every single scene before I write, either, but I like to have a framework within which to operate. After years of writing millions of pages of insurance textbooks, countless newspaper and magazine articles, and hundreds of book chapters I’ve settled on a process that keeps me organized. It also allows me more time to write without having to backtrack.

Here are the ingredients to my recipe for keeping on track:

Tip #1: Custom Styles and Themes in Microsoft Word

Tip #2: Custom Chapter-by-Chapter template for outlining both what I plan to write in future chapters/scenes … and what I’ve actually written

Tip #3: Creating multiple notebooks in Microsoft OneNote to keep at my fingerprints everything I need for my current work in progress

Tip #4: Freedcamp (or any other data management software)

In this post, I’ll discuss ingredient #1 by sharing how I use custom themes and styles to make the writing process easier and more consistent from document to document. In the next three blog posts, I’ll tackle ingredients #2 through #4.

Tip #1: Custom Styles and Themes in Word

Every publisher likes to receive documents in its own preferred format. When you find yourself formatting every single document you create, it’s time to come up with a method to quickly create a document that contains the majority of the formatting elements you’ll need … and for it to be available consistently in the future.

Because the bulk of what I write is either textbook content for my biggest client, or novel manuscripts, I need two different style sets and themes on a daily basis. For example, although most book manuscripts have 1-inch margins around, use double-spaced lines, and Times Roman 12-point font, the client for whom I write insurance content prefers ½-inch margins, line spacing at 1.03, and 10-point font that is not Times. In addition, each publisher has preferred methods of auto-formatting certain punctuation marks.

I’ve created different styles and themes for each of the two types of documents I use regularly so they’re preset to meet requirements the moment I open them.

A style collects multiple formatting controls and applies them at once to a selected area of text. For example, you might want your content to be in Times New Roman, double-spaced, and with the first sentence of each paragraph indented ½ an inch. But you want your heading to be in a larger, different font, with extra lines of white space before and after it.

Styles allows you to create the formatting for each section of the page (i.e., content and heading) and to apply them instantly whenever needed, eliminating your need to manually change formatting back and forth. Here are three online resources to help you create styles in your own documents:

Microsoft online instructions for Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, Office 2016 (and Outlook 2013 and 2016): https://bit.ly/2lzbxrn

Microsoft online video instructions: https://bit.ly/2tBJNpI

Easy-to-understand guide on Laywerist.com: https://bit.ly/2InmfKw

Once you’ve created the styles you want to use in a particular type of document (i.e., textbook versus novel manuscript), you can create custom themes to include your styles, margins, colors, fonts, etc. Here are two online resources to help you create themes for your own documents:

Microsoft online instructions for Word/Excel versions 2016, 2013, 2010, 2017: https://bit.ly/2ty7JKw

Microsoft online instructions for Word 2016 and Office 365: https://bit.ly/2MYjXVt

Once you’ve created and saved your document theme, you can either open the template you created or you can create any new Word document and click the dropdown box on the Themes section of the Design tab under Document Formatting.

Using styles and themes helps you achieve uniformity when producing documents, making each document appear the same. This will not only make your editor/publisher very happy, it will also save you a lot of time.

I hope to see in a few days for Tip #2. Feel free to let me know if/how this tip works for you!

3 Elements of the Successful Pitch

I’ve attended numerous writer’s conferences over the years and was never fortunate enough to be granted an agent/editor pitch until last month. And then, when I arrived at the conference, I learned I’d not only been scheduled 10 minutes with my #1 choice, but I’d also been scheduled another 10 minutes with my #2 choice (1 agent, 1 editor). How lucky can a girl get?

Then I started thinking, Holy S–t! What the hell am I going to do? I’d been conducting nonstop research on the essential elements of the pitch, as if someone, somewhere had written a list of explicit instructions I could follow. I hadn’t really expected to be granted a pitch, but still, I’d been amassing huge amounts of advice. So, I knew what I had to do. Sorta.

Since then, I’ve been wondering why both my pitches were successful when, unfortunately, so many other people at the conference did not walk away with a similar outcome. I felt really bad for the people who ended their agent/editor appointments within the first 2-3 minutes (some rushing away with tears in their eyes) and didn’t want to be one of them. There is a lot of info on the Internet, much of it vague and nebulous.

So, here’s my list. It contains 3 elements, and I’ll explain them in detail. I hope I provide some clarity for you.

 (1) Write a book you know inside out, and love, and could talk about endlessly

The book has to be complete. Let me repeat: THE BOOK HAS TO BE COMPLETE! Because if it isn’t, how do you know what will happen, how your characters will develop and what they’ll think/feel, or any of the other things the agent/editor is going to ask you about the book? I don’t care how detailed your outline is, it isn’t going to supply you with all the answers the agent/editor will ask. How do I know this? Because both the agent and editor asked me questions I hadn’t counted on being asked. But I knew the answers. (Thank God.)

If you don’t love your book and characters, why would anyone else do so? If you can’t talk about them with enthusiasm and awareness, why would anyone else even want to learn about them? Imagine this, you’re trying to convince your best friend to go on a blind date with someone you say is terrific and perfect for her. If you can’t answer your friend’s questions about why you think she and the guy are ideally suited, do you really think she’s going to risk an hour of her time on him?

(2) Be a professional; know and provide exactly what the agent/editor wants

I’ve been a business owner for 40+ years and have learned that professionalism isn’t something you automatically acquire when you establish a business, get a promotion, or don a business suit. It isn’t denoted by a college degree or letters after your name. It’s an attitude, the ability to listen and speak respectfully, knowing your business industry, fulfilling promises you make, and knowing how to behave in the setting you find yourself in.

One of the biggest reasons I see for writers not being asked to submit their work is because they don’t give the agent/editor what they want. Chuck Sambuchino’s article in Writer’s Digest has the best GENERAL description about what publishers are looking for, by genre, with respect to word count. Of course, agents and editors state their personal preferences for this, and other requirements, in their submission guidelines.

I don’t care how terrific your novel is; if agents/editors are looking for submissions between 65,000 and 80,000 words, they’re not going to ask to see your 50,000-word book. Why? Because you’re not professional. You haven’t done your research–which means you don’t know your craft (aka business industry) well enough–and you don’t care enough about a potential business partner to conduct your due diligence. This same thought process applies to anything else the agent/editor wants and has specified, and that you ignore or overlook.

Examples of how to be professional:

Spend more time listening than speaking. If you do speak, make sure it’s respectfully and pertinent.

Be punctual. Tardiness communicates you’re either unprepared or inconsiderate.

Dress appropriately. What did I wear for my pitches? Ankle pants with a blouse and cardigan (and flats). Why? Because the agent and editor were wearing business casual at the panel they sat on the day before I pitched. Yes, I checked. It’s considered professional to be dressed similarly to the person you hope to be working with rather than much more casually or formally. If you’re not sure, dress up–not down.

Visit the agent/editor’s website BEFORE the pitch. It will contain specific information about the kinds of books he or she seeking. Google the individual, as well, and read all the agent/editor interviews you can find. That’s how you know the agent has 3 German Shepherds or the editor has a personal fondness for kick-ass heroines. Agents and editors are real people; they can be anxious at pitch sessions, too. Just because they have more experience conducting them than you do, it doesn’t mean they like them any more than you do. They can be just as nervous talking to strangers as you are.

You can obtain information online about agents/editors on websites like Query Tracker, AgentQuery.com, and Manuscript Wishlist, which are free. Or you can purchase a one-month subscription to Publishers Marketplace for $25 or subscribe to Writer’s Market for $5.99 per month (or less if you buy an annual subscription). Jane Friedman is a well-respected source in the publishing industry and you can’t go wrong reading articles on her website or blog.

(3) Be confident enough to learn an elevator pitch and how to sell yourself

Please don’t cringe. Seriously. I’ve been in sales for 40+ years and I know what I’m talking about. Here are some facts–not personal opinion–that will help you master this essential element.

You need to be aware of, and interested in, other people. Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People was written in the 1930s and I recommend you read it. I’ve purchased and/or read hundreds of sales books, and this is my #1 go-to. The most important part of selling yourself is building rapport with your potential buyer. Did you know that people prefer to be persuaded to buy rather than sold to? And they’ll NEVER buy from someone they don’t trust, someone with whom they have no rapport.

Your internal thought process communicates itself. You must BELIEVE in yourself. If you’re terrified of dogs, don’t they sense it? Well, people can sense when you’re timid, afraid, desperate, or believe you can’t accomplish a goal. You MUST talk yourself into being positive or, at the very least, surrendering the outcome to fate, destiny, God, or some higher power. You can’t appear confident if you’re tense–you need to be at peace with yourself.

You need to be unique and different from everyone else. This is what is meant when people ask, “What sets you apart from other writers?” How are you, the person, special? What is it about you, and your perspective, that allows you to use words in a way no one else does? I’ve been told my voice comes through in my writing. Now that you’ve read my overlong blog post, do you think my writing is different from that of others? If so, how? If not, why not? Look at your writing and ask yourself the same questions until you come up with the answer.

You need to master the “elevator pitch”. An elevator pitch is the equivalent of a blurb. Like the back copy on your book once it’s published. When I used to sell insurance, I had 30-second and 60-second elevator pitches about me and my insurance agency. Now, I have 30- and 60-second pitches for each of my books. Google “how to create an elevator pitch” and read at least 10 of the how-tos. Then write one based on what feels comfortable to you.

The most important thing about the elevator pitch is to practice it, over and over again, until you can say it in your sleep. Practice it when you’re driving and when you’re in the shower. That way, when you’re called on to answer the question, “So what’s your book about?” your response will roll off your tongue naturally. The more you practice, the more authority you’ll have and the more professional you’ll sound.

That’s it: the end. Feel free to ask questions, volunteer suggestions, or simply comment.

Do you know your slang?

We all know you don’t say certain words in public. Or, God forbid, when your mother is in the same room.

Slang is defined as informal speech that’s used in a particular setting or environment, or by people in a particular group. When I was in high school, our slang included the terms groovy, batshit, and way out.

In my current novel, two of the present-day characters have ancestors who lived during Prohibition in the 1920s. Did you know the following terms were coined back then?

Skid row was originally “skid road,” a place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these logging roads became meeting places for boodleggers. (Skidding is a logging term for pulling cut trees out of a forest.)

Hooch is an abbreviated form of “hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. This idiom was used for low-quality liquor, usually whiskey.

If you had a beef, you had a big problem. If you were given the bum’s rush, you were ejected by force from a drinking establishment. If you had to see a man about a dog, you were explaining in code that you had to leave to go buy bootlegged whiskey. If you were a piker, you were a cheapskate (my father used this term all the time–he was born in 1929).

Here are some other terms coined during Prohibition that we still use today: babe, beat it, carry a torch, tighten the screws, and on the up and up.

One other thing I learned about Prohibition is the huge number of synonyms for drunk that were coined nearly 100 years ago, including:

bleary-eyed, bent, blind, blotto, boiled, boiled as an owl, canned, corked, crocked, four sheets in (or to) the wind, fried, fried to the hat, ginned, half-cocked, half-shot, high, jazzed, lit, loaded, on a toot, ossified, out on the roof, owled, pie-eyed, pickled, plastered, polluted, potted, stinko, soused, stewed, tanked, primed, scrooched, zozzled

What are some of YOUR favorite slang terms?