Monday, May 30, 2011

The Research Continues

A past Facebook status update:  So they don't have books in the Bronze Age.  *Goes back through and replaces all mentions of 'books' with 'scrolls.'*

I recently heard an author of historical romance asked, "Do you do your research before you write your book, or as you write?"  It seems like a perfectly reasonable question, and for the most part, it is - but the answer, at least for me, is "both."

Writing a novel set in a magical Bronze Age was a research challenge, filled with minor epiphanies and moments of "Wait, they don't have that!" (like soap, saddles, and pants.)  It also included editors pointing out things that wouldn't grow on Santorini, or wouldn't yet be cultivated (you know, like carrots.)  And having never been to the Mediterranean, I had the strangest thought of, "Does the Mediterranean Sea have tides?"  Turns out, the tides are so small as to be unnoticable (although the moon does, yes, actually affect the sea enough to technically give it tides.)

Research doesn't always happen at the beginning of a story (and yes, having never written or even significantly studied this era of history, I had to do a lot of initial research.)  Sometimes, it happens in the middle of a paragraph, or even in the middle of a sentence, when I realize that I need more information.  Now I'm onto a new novel, one set in a more modern age, but I still come across the same challenges.  What sorts of trees grow in Southern China?  How long does it take to get to China from Japan by ferry?  

So just because you've completed your initial research, laid out your setting in perfect details, and carefully chosen historically or locationally accurate names, doesn't mean you can put aside your books entirely.  Some days will involve as much research as writing, and usually over the oddest subjects. ("What's a good, very casual Japanese restaurant for a small, semi-private discussion?" and "How long would it take a large wall of glass to cool enough to climb over?" - thanks all my friends for helping with the answers!)  The bright side is that every moment is filled with learning!

If you want to keep your book feasible, be prepared to research continuously, and don't be afraid of the internet - having a second monitor has been invaluable to me, allowing a quick Wiki-check without minimizing my writing.  And, of course, having friends who know about the subject really helps. 

What are some of the oddest things you've found yourself researching for a story?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Guest Blog: On blogging, Part 2

A guest blog from social media expert Meg Stivison, second in a two-part series, on how to build your blog following!  Meg Stivison is a professional website-and-blog designer, and currently Director of Social Media for the MMORPG Next Island.

Your Awesome Content: Part 2 Sharing

We talked last time about scheduling your posts to make your RSS feed constantly active, even if can’t always be blogging. Now let’s put that rocking blog feed to work.

Share! Grab your site’s RSS feed, and connect it to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. (You’re on Twitter, right?) Your Facebook account will introduce your blog to real-life friends and professional connections, who will be predisposed to like it, and to give you early stage feedback.

Make it easy for your readers to subscribe to your site. You don’t have to use a bright orange RSS button. Try adding Google Friend Connect, Networked Blogs for Facebook, or similar plugins to encourage subcribing and sharing.  You can also make a basic Facebook fan page, and import your RSS to let readers subscribe on Facebook while keeping your personal page, well, personal.

Make it easy for your readers to bookmark and share what you’ve written. Blogger and WordPress offer plugins with StumbleUpon, Digg, Reddit and most of the major social bookmarking sites as one-click buttons for your readers. Most of us are more inclined to hit a one-click share option than to highlight and copy the URL, open a new email in another window, paste the link, don’t you think?

If you write on a topic with an active online community, make it easy for your readers to share what you’ve written with social sites devoted to that subculture. A gaming blog, for example, would want to connect with GameKicker, N4G and so forth.  If you participate on a topic forum, add your blog’s URL to your forum signature.

Enable email subscriptions to your blog, even if everyone you know uses a feedreader. I’m constantly stunned by how many readers prefer emailed updates. It’s not my personal style, but it’s all about putting your awesome content in the form your readers like best.

Once you’ve got a steady stream of posts, and a decent backlog of content, submit your RSS to related blog directories.

By building a steady blogfeed and helping your readers to share your posts, you’ll be able to package your awesome content to increase your blog readership.

Meg Stivison works in social media and player experience for the startup MMORPG Next Island. She blogs at Simpsons Paradox.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Blog: On Blogging, Part 1

My first guest blog, from social media expert Meg Stivison, on how to build your blog following.  Meg Stivison is a professional website-and-blog designer, and currently Director of Social Media for the MMORPG Next Island.  Part of a two-parter; next edition posts Friday. :)

Your Awesome Content: Part 1 Scheduling

Your blog rocks. You’re a great writer, your posts are relevant, funny and insightful. Well done!  Now, you’ve got to package that content in the way that your readers can best interact with it.

Schedule!  To get the most out of your blog’s feed, two or three posts a week is ideal. In that same ideal world, we’d have free time and blogging inspiration on a regular schedule.

Schedule your posts so you can write when the muse strikes, and still publish when it suits your readers. Blogger, Wordpress and Tumblr let you write and schedule your posts to go live at a set time in the future. This is great if you’d like to have a consistent Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, but you’re really only free to write after work.

Decide on your schedule before announcing it to your readers. While I’m usually for total blog disclosure (Hi! Here’s my real name, photos, breakup details, and how I like my job all on my blog! Wanna be friends?), nothing is more frustrating than a post about how the blogger plans to update every Tuesday, good intentions, and then an apology three weeks later for not following through. You may need to make some adjustments with your blogging schedule, and failing to deliver sets up a credibility gap for your readers.  Once you’ve written some Friday link roundups, Monday Musings, or whatever your new feature will be, let your readers know that what they’re enjoying is a regular feature.

Don’t bother posting on weekends, since the internet shuts down on weekends. But ignore this -- and all other scheduling suggestions -- when you’re covering a convention or you’ve got breaking news to share immediately.

Meg Stivison works in social media and player experience for the startup MMORPG Next Island. She blogs at Simpsons Paradox.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Avoiding the Computer Desk Pounds

Writing isn't exactly considered aerobic exercise.  So staying in shape when I'm putting a lot of time on the keyboard isn't something that just spontaneously happens - I have to manage my lifestyle to make sure I don't pack on the pounds.

What works for me may or may not work for you, but here's how I maintain a healthy weight:

1.  Walk every day.  The advantage to writing is that I can get out while there's sunshine, so throwing in a short 30-45 minute walk is no big deal.  It's harder when I've got a job that keeps me inside during daylight - I've done gyms in the past, once or twice a week, but that was all I could make myself go.  Personally, I prefer walking outside to a full-body workout in a small, sweaty-smelling room, but that's just me.  Exercise, afer all, is exercise.

2.  Eat whole wheat.  Controlling calories, of course, is part of staying fit (but I never eat less than 900 per day, because that basically kills the metabolism!)  The problem with white bread is that my body digests it more quickly than whole wheat, so I'm hungry again faster.  And this goes for breakfast, too - by trading out rice and sugar cereals for whole wheat ones, I go about five hours before needing lunch, even without stuffing myself.

3.  One of the big keys to not getting hungry, for me, is that I don't have a set eating routine.  I do always eat breakfast, because it jump starts the metabolism, but I don't always eat it at the same time.  And I vary my lunchtime, so my body has adjusted to not getting hungry at any specific time.  If I don't feel hungry, I eat less.  The same goes for lunch and dinner.  Some days I'll wait until 3 or 4 to eat lunch, especially if I'm working late.  Other days, I'll eat earlier, like when I plan on cooking dinner and expect that I'll be eating a larger than usual dinner.

4.  I also often eat my biggest meal at lunchtime.  Pasta, eggs and sausage, potatoes, pretty much anything that's really filling and keeps me full.  Then, at dinner, my appetite is smaller, so I'm less likely to gorge.  And since I work evenings, I'm full before I go to work - since one of my jobs is delivering pizza, being full before work is pretty important.  That's not to say I don't ever nibble a slice or two of pizza; it just means I do so less often than if I relied on pizza as dinner.

5.  I drink lots of liquids.  No, I don't measure out eight gallons of water a day, or any nonsense like that - but I also don't wait until I'm thirsty to drink.  I just keep a glass within reach of the computer chair and sip every now and then.  Some people snack.  I drink tea or water.  Since thirst can be misinterpreted by the body as hunger, it prevents excess snacking.

6.  Speaking of, I try not to habit-snack.  Sure, I'll grab a handful of crackers when I do get hungry, but I don't keep bowls of junk food by the computer.  Since I have to get up to nibble, I'm less likely to do so unless I'm actually hungry - thus, no habit-eating.

7.  I don't deny myself sweets, I just eat them slowly.  This seems pretty counter-intuitive: after all, aren't sweets one of the reasons people gain weight?  But eating my chocolates one a time, and taking time to savor them, fills the sweets craving and makes me feel like I've had more than I had.  And since I don't deny myself, I also don't feel the need to splurge.  I do, however, take into account the approximate caloric count of the sweet.  If it's particularly high, I eat a lower-calorie dinner, like stew.

8.  Do I actually count calories?  Erm, not exactly.  But I try to have an approximate idea of how many I've had, and when I've had too few.  If I'm below a 1000, I will, in fact, actually force myself to eat more.  If I know I'm going to have a high-calorie item at some point in the day, I stick to lower-calorie options for the other meals.  If I'm losing more weight than I want and feel like I need to start gaining, I eat both a large lunch and a large dinner.  And yes, I do splurge.  If I'm going out to eat (which I do very rarely, about once or twice a month) I don't even count calories.  One meal doesn't ruin a lifestyle.  If, however, I ate out more often, I would take that into account.

9. Anything-goes meals.  Breakfast for dinner? If I feel like it.  Pasta for breakfast?  Sure, I need to eat those leftovers.  Yes, I usually do eat cereal for breakfast, but I'm not exclusive, which means I can switch out my highest calorie foods when I need to.

10.  I don't diet - all these things listed above are my lifestyle, and I'm not going to stop them as soon as I reach the weight I want.  That's the problem inherent with diets - they're temporary, so the results don't last.  And by telling myself that these eating habits will one day end, I adopt habits I don't want to keep in the long term, which means, of course, I won't.  So I eat in a style that I'm comfortable with, and don't deny myself the things I really want - I just make up for them.  Since I know my healthiest weight range (I try to keep between 125-134,) I also know when I need to lose - or gain - weight.  By tweaking my average daily calorie count, I can slowly add or subtract until I'm back in the middle of my zone.

I'll admit that I have a few natural advantages on the weight issue. I never stopped eating breakfast, and I never got in the habit of skipping meals, so I've kept a decent metabolism my whole life.  When I get stressed out, my appetite's the first thing to go, so I have a tendency to lose weight instead of gain it.  I also like vegetables (except bell peppers and okra), so I enjoy eating healthy foods, another bonus. I do, however, have to make sure I don't let my blood sugar drop, because that makes my brain slow down (seriously, if it gets too low, my speech starts to slur and I have trouble finding the words I want to use. I'm 99% sure that this is a bad thing, one of the main reasons I've never gotten in the habit of skipping meals.)

How do you keep in shape while writing?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Budget shopping

$10 worth of groceries: 
Technically, $10.69

Stole a sip of my roommate's milk this morning for tea - time to go grocery shopping again! If you're like me, you've probably got a backstock of food in your pantry of stuff you've bought over the months and just haven't got around to eating.  I decided there was no point in wasting money by buying non-essentials, which would probably just end up cluttering my pantry.  Therefore, I decided I'd limit myself to the $10 cash in my wallet.  (Budgeting tip: if you're trying to save money, pay cash instead of plastic!)

Admittedly, the milk sale ($2.77 for a gallon) improved my budget.  I was low on pasta... there's always a sale on one brand or another, so that was an easy buy.  I was also low on cereal, so I checked for sales - store brands are often on sale.  Whole wheat cereals leave me feeling full for hours and keep my blood sugar stable.  I've learned the hard way that rice cereals suck at both tasks, so breakfast food was an easy choice (store brands not made of rice or pure sugar: fake-raisen bran, fake-cheerios, fake-mini-wheats.  I like neither raisens nor cheerios.) 

With my most important items bought, I went to fill the remaining holes in my pantry. I grabbed a BOGO bread-substitute (weirdly enough, while I love loaf bread, I hate sliced bread.) The apple juice (again, an item that always has one brand or another on sale) was cheap, but they were out of the kind I wanted (of the sale brands, anyway,) so I got a raincheck instead.  That meant I had a couple of dollars left for some fruit.

The apple, btw, will not be surviving the end of this post.  (Munch-munch!)

What are your pantry priorities?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Market Yourself!: Proper Blogging?

I mentioned in my review of the NC Writers' Spring Conference that I'd learned some helpful tidbits.  Angela Harwood, VP of Sales & Marketing at John F. Blair Publishing, gave a persentation on marketing yourself.  One of the things she spoke about was making a successful author blog. 

First of all, you have to blog!  Not just once a week, but at least two to three times.  The more you blog, the higher on the lists your blog is, and the more likely people are to stumble across it.

Secondly, keep it short.  Seriously.  Our pets have longer attention spans than the average American, these days.  Keep your paragraphs short and succinct; people are less likely to read if the post looks long.

Third, guest blog and ask guests to blog.  Social media means "social"!  This one isn't easy for me - I invented the "HUTT (Hide-Under-The-Table) Club" in all my hermit glory.  But you've got friends, and your friends know stuff.  Even stuff that only slightly relates to your blog.

Fourth, only 50% of your blogging (at most) should be about your book.  The rest should be on a variety of related subjects, including cross-advertising for blogs related to your own.  This draws in new readers and builds a market of interest.

Your author blog shouldn't be a daily journal.  Don't "Dear Diary" your readers!  Instead, keep it quick, useful, and entertaining.  I admit that I truly fail at brevity, so I'll try for useful: shorter paragraphs and less digression, topics-of-interest and reviews of events.

What topics would you find useful to read about?