Category: | Fiction

Google Maps Street View: An Awesome Writing Tool

Google Street View Writing Tool
Before I jump into this week’s post, I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who gave an opinion on last week’s post. Your feedback is so helpful. It’s looking like the orange background is going to win it, but I’ll let you know when I make my final decision. Okay… onward!

Today I want to share a brilliant new writing tool I discovered while working on my novel: Google Maps Street View. It’s so obvious I’m kind of embarrassed that it took me so long to take advantage of it.

Using Google Maps to “See” a Place

Around page 98, my main character drives through a small town outside of Barstow. In editing, I realized that I didn’t really illustrate the scene very well. I couldn’t, because I had never been there, and therefore had no concrete details to share about it. Then it occurred to me – I don’t have to go there.

I pulled up the town on Google Maps, chose a corner that made sense for my scene to take place on and dragged the little yellow man into place to get the street view. So awesome. It was all tall signs and squat buildings in dusty shades. I “rolled” down the street a bit to see how the road slowly transitioned from sun-bleached town to lonely desert. There were two traffic signals.

A Word of Caution

Researching a place this way, I couldn’t smell the air, or notice how the people interact. I couldn’t feel the heat of the day on my face. I couldn’t hear the whistle of a train in the distance. There’s a lot you can’t get from “walking” down a street virtually, but if you’re just looking for a detail or two to set a scene, it’s amazing.

That said, I would never have used this trick for getting to know the main setting of my story. If I had tried to portray an ostrich farm without actually going to one, the story would have surly rung hollow. Because it’s those precise details (the heat, the train whistle) that make a reader feel like their with their narrator in the world of the story.

Also, I think it’s one of the biggest perks of being a writer that you can go anywhere and investigate anything in the name of research. Show me a writer who hasn’t worried about the FBI scanning their browser history and I’ll show you someone who writers boring stories.

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A Request for Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth GilbertI have long been a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing. I know people went all gaga over EPL (it was pretty great), but if you haven’t yet read The Signature of All Things you are missing out. That book is stunning. Seriously.

So I had to pick up Big Magic when it came out. I don’t usually go in for that kind of book, the I’m-a-big-star-now-I-can-tell-everyone-else-how-to-write, but this wasn’t that. I was totally charmed by the sincere, eager joy that poured off the pages. Continue Reading →

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Let’s Get Our Damn Books to Agents This March

writing motivationThis is a text exchange I had recently with a good friend and fellow writer who is determined to get her debut novel out to agents this March.

We both have novels we’ve been working on for a while. A long while. Every year we say this is the year. But so far, year after year hasn’t been.

For me, the process of writing this first novel has been an education in and of itself. I’ve lost count of the number of drafts, but this is at least the fifth. I have quite literally deleted thousands of pages. It is a completely different story than it was when I started and I am a much better writer.

So when is it done? Continue Reading →

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My Updated Submission Spreadsheet

Updated submission spreadsheetA few months back I shared a submission spreadsheet that I created in Google docs to track when and where I submit my short stories. If you missed that post, you can check it out here for a full explanation of what this thing is all about.

Since then, I have finished other short stories and have started submitting those as well. As I tossed those stories into the mix, it quickly became apparent that the spreadsheet needed a face lift. And since I’m not the only one out there submitting short stories to journals, I thought I would share the new and improved submission spreadsheet with all my fellow writers out there.

You can download the updated submission spreadsheet here.  Continue Reading →

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The Pros and Cons of a Writing Routine

Since quitting my job in December, my weekday writing routine has been to get the kids off to school, work on my writing for two hours, and then devote the remainder of my day to my freelance work until it’s time to go get the kids. It was a good routine, until it wasn’t.

The trouble with writing routines is that the smallest thing can throw them off and disrupt your writing. Never mind the big things, like moving.

That was the first disruption I had this year. Moving to a new home not only drained all my energy and made it hard to find anything, it also just messed up my routine. I can’t even say why exactly, but in the old house, when I sat down to write, my brain knew it was time to engage. At the new house I found I was distracted by the tiniest things.

Then, just as I was beginning to adjust to the new space, the kids finished up school, and changed up our routine all over again. This is the first summer that I’m not working full time, and I love being home with them, but my routine has taken a serious hit. I feel like I am always scrambling to find time for the work that needs to be done for my clients, and then I end up squeezing in my own writing whenever I have time – which I rarely do.

It has raised the question in my head: is it more productive to have a regular writing routine, or better to avoid routine and be able to write anywhere, any time?

I would love to hear from the other writers out there, particularly those with kids. How do you juggle everything? Do you stick to a routine, or fly by the seat of your pants? I’m looking for a detailed daily breakdown here. Help a writer out.

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The Very Real Costs of Submission

the cost of literary journal submissionI was looking at my journal submission spreadsheet the other day. I got another rejection (ug) and so I was checking to see where to send my story next.

I’ve blogged before about how I try to see rejection as getting closer to acceptance, but as I scrolled down the list of places I’ve submitted to over the past few months, it occurred to me that almost every time I send my story out I pay a fee.

Reading fees are modest, yes, but they do add up. In my experience, they fall somewhere between $10-15, with the average closer to $12. So far, I’ve submitted my most recent story 30 times. That’s about $360 in submission fees, give or take.

Considering that, when the story is finally published (as I’m confident it will be), payment will be in copies, the money I’m spending in pursuit of publication is not money that will be recouped. So what am I getting for my money?

The word that comes to mind is encouragement. Especially given that my most recent short story is an excerpt from the novel that I’m working on, having a journal publish it would be so encouraging.

There is also the slim, but real, chance that an agent might see my story and be interested in seeing more from me. That would be the best possible income.

But how much is that worth to me?
$500?
$1,000?

I can think of a lot of ways I could spend $1,000. None of them would get me an agent, but they are all better than pissing money away. If I simply want to throw money around, a weekend in Vegas would be a lot more fun.

I need to think seriously about the balance between cost and reward here. Maybe there are grants available for submission fees. Or maybe I should be submitting to contests with prizes instead of literary journals. Any writers out there have some wisdom on this one? I would love to hear it.

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Celebrate Milestones

celebrate milestonesWriting a novel takes a long time. As my teacher Mark Sarvas told me once, you have to celebrate milestones along the way, because if you wait to celebrate just one final step (say, publication) you have to wait a long, long time.

So I am very happy to announce that I have finished (yet another) draft of my novel. Yay!

In truth, I wasn’t even going to blog about it, because it doesn’t feel like a very big deal. I’ve been here before. Officially, I think this is the seventh draft I’ve finished, but why bother taking classes if you aren’t going to listen to the advice that gets doled out? Tonight, we celebrate.

Another piece of oft-repeated Sarvas advice is to put your draft in a drawer and leave it there for a while so you can come back to it with a fresh eye for rewrites. I plan to follow that bit of advice as well, but not just yet. I have a few things I want to do before I put it aside. First, I am considering a new opening scene that needs to be written. Second, I want to go through, scene for scene and just make sure that I’m hitting the beats I intended to. Then, once I’m satisfied that it is actually a solid new draft, I will put it in a drawer.

I’m thinking I’ll leave it there all summer. I’m going to take the opportunity to work on my next novel. If you’ve been following along for oh, I don’t know, years, you know I hit a wall with novel number 1 a while back and took a break to outline novel number 2 – a story that’s been gaining steam in my head since way back before I was even a writer. It’s the story that made me want to be a writer. I am very excited to get back to working on it.

Doughnut anyone?

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Reading for a Literary Journal Will Make You a Better Writer

Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.

What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.

That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.

Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.

What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.

When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.

What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.

If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out Meetup.com, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).

Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.

At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.

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