Everyone Has a Story

by Deidre Dykes

This is Smokie.

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He is a 24 year old Congo African Grey parrot who is now living with my husband and I.  We volunteer with an area parrot rescue and rehoming non-profit called Phoenix Landing and work as foster bird parents to help birds who are between former homes and a Forever Home. Smokie here is the fifth bird we have fostered over the past three years.

But the point here isn’t my husband’s and my story – it’s Smokie’s tale. And right now, we don’t know much about him.

What we know to be true:

  • Smokie is 24 and has never laid an egg (so he’s probably male)
  • His owner died of COPD and the owner’s family could no longer care for him
  • His diet was mostly seeds and table scraps (not very good for a bird)

Otherwise, we were given almost no information about him. The first thing we discovered is that he’s skittish about hands. The second? He really likes scrambled eggs.

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The first time I offered him a spoonful of eggs this morning, he said, “Pretty. You’re so pretty!” Flatterer.

He’s been with us for three days now and, as birds do through their repeated words and their behaviors, he’s revealed some things to us:

  • He likes to be hand-fed food tidbits from your dinner plate
  • If you leave him alone in a room, he will fly to the floor and try to find you and follow you like a dog
  • His owner had a terrible cough

About half of the vocalizations that Smokie makes are growling, coughing noises. But today he let out what was clearly a long, wheezing cough. It sounded like someone fighting to breathe. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard and it told, in fifteen seconds, the sad story of Smokie’s last owner. A long life of love together with his bird living in his bedroom and a slow, terrible death from suffocation.

And poor Smokie had to watch it all.

This is a sad, damaged bird who desperately needs a loving home to give him the life he deserves. I hope we can help him get eating healthier, teach him to trust new people again, and help to find him the right family.

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As I took this photo, Smokie said to me, “Okay. It’s okay.” And he’s right. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay, little bird. We’ve got you.

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On Writing Mantras

by Lisa Bradley 

Family portrait of the writer F Scott Fitzgerald (1896 - 1940), his wife Zelda (1900 - 1948), and daughter Frances 'Scottie' Fitzgerald, 1925. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
Portrait of the writer F Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940)

Nearly all writers have a writing mantra (or fifty) tacked to their bulletin boards or sticky taped to their computer screens. We’ve torn them from magazines, scribbled them down on legal paper from writing how-to books, and printed them off social media. But what purpose does a writing mantra serve and should you really have more than one? For a writing mantra to be significant it needs to resonate with the writer. This is why my writing mantra is different than yours. Our needs and goals are different. Incidentally, it’s also why you shouldn’t worry a writer will “steal” your idea if you share an early pitch or ask a friend for a critique. Other writers aren’t looking to mine your heart; they want to mine their own. It’s why the story I write will always be different than the story you write. We write for ourselves first and our writing mantra should reflect this. So it makes sense that the little catch phrases or post-its I tack beside my writing space—words that inspire and push me to ask WHY, and then ask WHY again—resonate as if written solely for me. Now, of course, I know this isn’t true, but that’s how strongly I believe in my writing mantra. If you’re a writer who has fifty yellow post-its with other writers’ words lining the sides of your computer screen while attempting to write from your heart, I offer you this: Pick one. Select the gold nugget of writing advice, the green light in the fog, that reflects the heart of your writing, and throw out (or recycle) the others. Focus on this one piece of advice or inspiration as you craft your next line, next chapter, or next verse. Notice how your writing mantra gets at the heart of what matters most to you as a writer. And it should, and will be, different for each of us. As for my writing mantra, the great F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in a letter to an aspiring writer, “You’ve got to sell your heart.” Whenever I read Fitzgerald’s work, I am reminded of this piece of writing advice (and delicious characters we love to hate like the Buchanans). This line is tacked beside my writing desk, the words a rallying cry to dig deeper. They push me to coax out every emotion (even the contradictions, especially the contradictions) from my characters’ inner lives and put it all on the page. So to even contemplate a new writing project requires a mental break, a re-fueling, in essence, to grow a new heart. That is the expectation for any writer.

Five Reasons Writers Say They Don’t Need a Website …

And Why They’re Wrong

by Christie Speich

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All writers need a website these days. Okay, I’ll qualify that to almost all writers. If you’re just writing for yourself, and maybe for a few people that you’ll personally hand your writing, you might not need a website. But if you want people to find your work, become a fan, and keep coming back for more, having your own author website is the way to go.

Writers have several reasons justifying why they don’t want or need a website, but are they good reasons?

Reason #1: “I’m Not Published Yet.”

Building a website is one step of building your (yes, I’m going to say it…) platform. Platform has become such a big buzzword in the writing world, but what does it really mean? At a basic level, your platform is your group of fans.

Reason #1a: “Fans? I Don’t Have Any Fans Yet!”

Hey, everyone starts somewhere. The “overnight success” is usually a myth and comes from all the hard work done before the breakout — sometimes years before. E.L. James built her fan base in fan fiction, bit by bit as she posted her story online chapter by chapter. When she published her fan fic as Fifty Shades of Gray, she had a built-in platform — people who went out and bought her books right away because they already “knew” her. And then they told all their friends about the books, too.

Consider this: two unpublished writers query the same editor. Writer A already has a website and has even started a blog where readers are starting to interact with her. Writer B has no online presence. Both stories are superbly written and a great fit for the publisher. The editor would love to accept both, but due to scheduling or budget constraints, must pass on one of them.

Publishing is a business — never forget that! — so given the choice between a first-time writer who has already started gathering a following and one starting from zero, who is the editor more likely to choose?

A website is just one piece of building your platform, but it’s an important one. And you can start now, no matter where you are in the book-publishing cycle.

Reason #2: “Won’t My Publisher Do That For Me?”

Um, no.

These days, publishers expect authors to do a fair amount of marketing themselves, especially when it comes to an online presence and social media. If you thought you could get out of marketing because you’re not self-publishing, think again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Would you really want your publisher to be in charge of building, designing, and maintaining your website? What if you sign with multiple publishers? What if your publisher goes out of business or is acquired by another publisher?

Your website should sell you. Not a particular book. Not your publisher. You are the brand, not your book. Not convinced? Check out any of Kristen Lamb’s numerous articles or her books. While we’re talking about branding, let’s take a quick moment to discuss your website’s address:

it should be your name. Not your book’s title. Not a character’s name. Your author name.

Yes, yes, I know, J.K. Rowling has Pottermore. When your book breaks out like Harry Potter did, then you can have a website dedicated to one book/series/character. But that’s in addition to your author website. (Notice J.K. Rowling has jkrowling.com also.)

Reason #3: “I Already Have a Blog.”

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Awesome! You’ve already started building your platform.

But blogs can’t stand alone as you author website. By their very nature, blogs aren’t static. Every time you write a new post, your website changes. This is a good thing for building your fan base, networking with readers and other writers, establishing authority, and showing up in search engines.

But it’s bad news for the readers who want to find out information about you or your book. They want pages on your website that are easy to find. They don’t want to have to scroll through three months of blog posts to find the one where you describe your book.

You need a static website in addition to your blog. The best method is to integrate the static pages of your website with your blog and host them under one website address. (And that address should be…? Right. Your name.)

If you’ve used WordPress to build your blog, you are a step ahead. WordPress makes it super, super easy to have an integrated website and blog.

Reason #4: “I’ve Got a Facebook/Twitter/Google+ Already.”

You’re rocking your platform! Excellent!

How about MySpace? Got an account there?

Social media can be great for building your platform, no doubt about that. But you still need your own website. Remember all the artists who built their following on MySpace? They had to start over after MySpace went belly up.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Facebook or Twitter, but you never know when the next shiny new thing will come along. Social media sites also suffer from the same problem as a blog: new updates are pushed to the top and information is hard to find. Social media is great for interacting with readers, not so much for providing readers with the information they are looking for.

You want to be in control of your website. What are you going to do when Facebook changes their algorithms again and your posts are even less visible than they were before?

Your readers are your most valuable assets. You need to be in control of maintaining that list. You do that by setting up a mailing list subscription form on your website. Do you really want to trust your list to companies whose focus is curating and using your data for their own purposes?

Reason #5: “I Can’t Afford to Hire Someone to Build My Website.”

Here’s the great thing: you don’t have to! You can do it yourself.

Reason #5a: “I’m a Writer, Not a Web Developer!”

I promise you don’t have to be. If you are comfortable enough with the web to fill out forms on websites, shop online, pay your bills online, or any of the other tasks you do online every single day, you can build your own author website. No programming experience necessary.

How? WordPress(*). With WordPress, building a website is as simple as filling out forms. And it can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be. Just want a few simple pages to talk about your books and yourself? Easy! Need an e-commerce site so you can sell your books directly to your readers? Yes, WordPress can do that too.

Reason #5b: “I’m Not a Designer, Either!”

WordPress has you covered there, too.

All the design work is done for you; you just choose a theme to install. With hundreds of free themes to choose from, there’s sure to be one that you like. Later, when you can afford it, you can purchase a premium theme or hire a designer to make a custom one for you. Either of those options is much, much cheaper than hiring someone to create your entire website.

Reason #5c: “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That!”

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You’re right that building your own website takes time, even using WordPress. But you’ll only need to set it up once, and from then on maintenance becomes small tasks like adding your newest release to your website, or information about your upcoming book signing, and other news.

As with most business decisions, it comes down to time vs. money. Which one can you afford to spend? And which one will pay off in the future? If you hire a web designer to build you a custom website for a couple of thousand dollars, will you be able to update it later? Or will you have to pay someone every time you need something changed or added? What happens two years down the road when you realize your brand isn’t what you thought it would be, and that beautiful website doesn’t match it? If you build your website in WordPress, you can update it yourself and change the theme whenever you want a new look.

Convinced Yet?

A website dedicated to your writing will help readers find you and might even convince someone to pay you to write. A little time invested upfront can pay off down the road, whether you’re writing the next great American novel, your fiftieth genre fiction novel, a technical reference book, your autobiography, an article, or fan fiction you post for free online. It’s never too early or too late in your career to build your website.

Do you have another reason why you don’t think you need an author website? Tell us in the comments and let’s discuss!

(*) NOTE: WordPress comes in two flavors: the host-it-yourself wordpress.org and the they-host-it-for-you wordpress.com. The main difference is with wordpress.ORG, you can have your own address (http://www.yourname.com/) and you can install plugins which means you can do more with WordPress (like the e-commerce site I mentioned). With wordpress.COM, your site runs on their servers (http://yourname.wordpress.com/) and you can’t install any plugins. Plugins are what make WordPress so powerful.

WordPress.COM has limitations, but it can be used completely for free. My recommendation is wordpress.ORG, but you do need to sign up for a web hosting company and register your address, which costs money. Websites don’t have to be expensive. At the time of this writing, the web hosting company I use, Dreamhost(**), charges as low as $8.95/month and you get your website address for free.

For more about the differences between wordpress.COM and wordpress.ORG, see WordPress.com and WordPress.org, WordPress.org vs WordPress.com: A Definitive Guide For 2014, and Self Hosted WordPress.org vs. Free WordPress.com (Infograph).

Still not sure? You can start with the free wordpress.COM and switch to wordpress.ORG later following How to Properly Move Your Blog from WordPress.com to WordPress.org.

(**) affiliate link

Join Columbia Writers for a Book Launch Party!

Columbia Writers invites you to an event to celebrate the release of our anthology, Trapped Tales. Bring your family and friends; this is a public event.

As a fellow writer, editor, or just a literature enthusiast, we would love for you to join us in this evening of literature and art. There will be readings by the authors, art inspired by the stories, and networking with many local writers and artists.

We also offer a table for authors/publishers/agents to display your own books and promotional materials. We’re expecting 50-100 literature lovers and writers who will be pumped to learn about new books and literary connections.

Food and drinks will be available for purchase as well as complimentary hors d’oeuvres.

We hope you will join us!

Sincerely,

The Columbia Writers

Friday, March 13, 2015
7-11 pm

The Diamondback Tavern
Second Level
3733 Old Columbia Pike
Ellicott City, MD 21043

RSVP by Monday, March 9
Jennifer Yates Tebben
jentebben@gmail.com

Query Letters 101: Letters and Agents

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by Deidre Dykes/gowordbird
A query letter is your introduction, your first impression, your cover letter that presents you to a literary agent. Your literary agent is your best tool for getting your book sold to a publisher. He or she represents you, pushes for your best interests, sells you and your work, and should help you negotiate contracts. When it comes to traditional publishing, an agent is going to be your best friend. So you want to make a good first impression with your new best friend, right? Right. That’s your query letter.

Literary agents receive hundreds of query letters every week, most of which – it’s just a numbers game – they are going to reject. Filtering through all of these letters is only one part of the job that agents have to do, so they can only budget so much time for this task. You need to grab their attention immediately and be interesting enough to hold it. This is going to be the job of the first sentence or, if you are very lucky, the first paragraph of your query letter.

You need to do some research and some thinking before you decide who to send your query letter to and this will also shape the kind of letter you’re going to write. What genre does your novel fall into? Sci-fi? YA? Literary fiction? Make sure the agent(s) you’re querying represent the genre(s) you write. Additionally, make sure your agent(s) of choice is currently accepting queries. Otherwise you’re wasting your time!

An agent should ALWAYS: talk with you via Skype or phone or even in person, be head over heels in love with your work, champion your project, be honest and forthright about their previous sales records. An agent should NEVER: charge you for their services (a 15%-20% royalty upon sale of your project is normal; an up-front payment is not normal in the industry and a red flag that something is probably wrong)

Grammar Goofs

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by Jennifer Michael/DeviantFeather

Most of us start writing because we have ideas, thoughts or insights that we’d want to share, we hope to effect our world in some way, to change other’s opinions to match our own.

For most readers, I’ve already lost them. Why on earth would you listen to anything I have to say if I can’t keep my grammar straight? Affect vs. effect. Other’s vs. others’. Oxford commas. It’s vs. its. Run-on sentences. Good vs. well. They’re, their, or there? The list is endless, and these simple goofs are a quick way to lose your reader.

Don’t get me wrong, we all make mistakes. Even the most educated writer will miss a comma or switch up their tenses. Misspellings are like cockroaches—there are always more hiding under the surface, populating despite our best efforts. There are also plenty of old-school rules that are now acceptably broken, such as ending a sentence in a preposition, starting a sentence with a conjunction, or using ellipses in the middle of a sentence…those aren’t the issue.

The issue is losing your reader’s interest or trust because you don’t proofread. A reader has an expectation: that you will entertain and/or inform them. When they open a book, blog, or even a Twitter feed, they are extending trust that the writer will deliver on that expectation. They trust that we won’t waste their time—they can do that well enough on their own.

Grammar can quickly break that trust, and once it’s broken, it’s nearly impossible to recover. After all, if you (the writer) can’t produce a polished finished product, why would they (the reader) trust your content? First impressions matter, especially in writing! In person you have a multitude of mediums with which to express yourself: body language, voice inflection, your clothes, your attitude, etc. Writing has none of that—you’ve got your words and a blank page, so you’d better make those words count.

Think about it this way: if you find spelling errors on a restaurant menu, do you wonder about the staff’s education? Do they know basic principles of safe food handling? What if you’re an investor and checking out a new business? Grammar errors on their website might call into question the business’ commitment to quality and attention to detail. If you find typos in a magazine, are you likely to subscribe to it?

Bottom line? If your writing is presented to the public, it’s a product and you are the manufacturer. If you expect to keep a reader’s interest long enough to share your message, clean up your product. Take some time to educate yourself. Take a class. Buy Grammar for Dummies. Ask your ex-English-teacher mom to give it a final read.

A little effort up front will pay off in the end. And if it doesn’t, at the very least you’ll avoid crucifixion by the grammar nazis.

Looking to avoid grammar goofs? Try these resources:

http://englishgrammar101.com/

http://www.dailygrammar.com/

http://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/

http://www.englishgrammarsecrets.com/