Composing a Writer. #1 Tools of the Trade

Everybody has a list of wishes, some more idle than others. Early retirement is an idle wish if you aren’t saving for it. If you don’t have a passport, walking along the Seine in Paris isn’t in your near future. And the desire to write will lounge on your bookshelf next to Gone With the Wind as long as you like.

Idle wishes serve a valuable purpose. They are a way of playing dress-up with the future. What would the garden look like if I didn’t work at my job? What does it smell like in Paris? Fiction or nonfiction? Curiosity and creative exercise are crucial in keeping our brains healthy, so no guilt. Daydreaming is a fine art and wishes serve a purpose even if they go no further than the couch.

I have a confession: I love my writing. I’m probably supposed to lament writer’s block and be a tragic soul about a dozen literary things, but in my previous thirty years as a professional artist, I never threatened to cut an ear off either. What if the imagination/creativity thing was easier than we think?

I’ve decided to do some writing about writing; a road map of the paths and stopovers that I made. There will be weekly posts with writing exercises included. It isn’t that I think I’m an expert or that my book sales have bought me a second home. Or even a second bathroom in this home. I’ve just had such a great time on this adventure and sharing it serves as a thank you.

I notice saying thank you does more good than artistic angst every single day.

So, do you want to come along? Writing doesn’t require a savings account and you can travel so much farther than Paris using your own words. Is it finally time for you to start writing?

This is the part where you lay out your tools. If you feel that the only really artistic method of writing is banging away on an old Underwood typewriter, good for you, but there is some technology out there that really makes writing easier.

If you want to play along at home, start here: When is a blog not a blog? When we re-task it to suit our journaling needs. Think of a blog as a word processing program that also has a search feature and comes in a tidy, attractive package. You can categorize your thoughts/posts in a more organized way than a spiral notebook. A blog can be as private as a diary, shared selectively, or used to bring the world to your desk. Rather than having word docs attached to emails, drifting around the internet, and loitering in other computers, your words are contained and shared by a simple link. And, blogs are free. You can have a whole stable full of blogs for different purposes.

This week: Look around and find a blog home. I tried a few blog sites back when I started and I like WordPress best, for its scope as well as its bits and parts. The online community there is supportive and I’ve made some good friends there. It’s fairly friendly to use, but suit yourself. Then trick out your blog like a hideout. Give it a name that matters to you. Pick themes and colors you like. Get familiar with its quirks.

Blogs have pages, like a website, and there is usually an “about” page. If you want an example, take a look at my author site. Keep in mind that mine is a public blog, so I’m “dressed up” in a literary way. Your first blog is fun meant just for you, so lighten up. Flip-flops are fine.

Then write an introduction. Introduce yourself in seven words. (An exercise in brevity.) Or introduce yourself as your best friend or your dog would. (An exercise in using another voice… and speaking more kindly about yourself than you might, left to your own words.) Or introduce yourself to your greatest literary superhero. (An exercise to connect you personally with published authors, even if it’s just in your own mind.) Or do all three exercises… just for the sheer fun of it.

We work on the honor system here. There’s no submission requirement. Just like real life, you’ll get about as much out of this journey as you put in.

And just one more thought from me. Words matter so very much. They are powerful; how we speak of ourselves and our dreams are the creative spark that lights the future. At 62, I’m so aware of how precious that light is and how important our diverse voices are to the collective conversation. Too many of us hold our tongues, thinking we’re being polite when the world needs our truth. Writing is the art of molding our voices to say just the exact thing we mean, with honesty and vulnerability, and hopefully a little humor.

Please join us. Take your writing seriously. Whether the world ever reads us or not, it’s past time that we give our own words the respect they deserve.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Amazon Recommends My Books. To Me.

15289057_1183443898404722_5143139141458563265_o-2Do you ever have that experience where you tilt your head, squint, and hear a dubious voice in your head say, “No kidding?” 

My life is like that lately. It’s like I’m on a hijacked bus; the destination hasn’t changed, but wow, are we ever taking the scenic route.

This man in the photo is very kind and seemed to genuinely enjoy having his photo taken all night long. I’m always nervous when there isn’t an animal in the photo. We’re in Miami and that’s a gold medal around my neck. Head tilt. No kidding?

(This passes for formal attire. If anyone has held their breath in anticipation of who I wore for the red-carpet event, well, a very old kimono and brand new Crocs.)

I’m like you. I like to dawdle in the barn. I’ve been known to binge-watch Netflix.  I like being on the bottom of a dogpile on the couch. Clearly, ambition is not my middle name.

Then writing starts innocently enough. One day an idea comes along while mucking the barn and you scribble it down. It’s like a crossword puzzle that has an 80,000-word runaway. What used to seem impossible becomes irresistible.

Then there’s a choice. You can put the words in a drawer and feel good about yourself. Done.

Or, if you enjoy the awkward balance of wearing one flip-flop and one stiletto, then you decide to let the world scrutinize your words. Or worse yet, ignore them. And from that day forward, the line between anxiety and pleasure becomes a floppy, teetering stumble. Weirdly unbelievable things happen without warning. Head tilt. No kidding

So, like I said, I’m like you. I get those same emails from Amazon suggesting books for me–sometimes horse books. Recently, the subject line of the email was “Barn Dance: Nickers, brays, bleats…”  Squinty confusion.

When opened, the email suggested a list of books, like usual, but this time including both Barn Dance and Relaxed & Forward. In one email. To me. It’s unprofessional to say so but I still get such a thrill seeing my covers.

And the best part? This email was not my doing. It was you! Yes. Thank you, in the extreme!

An attempted explanation: I think the way this works is that books get stacked in a remote dark corner of the world-wide-web. Search engines don’t go looking on their own. You have to nag them for a while before they move, and even then, they have a very short retention span.

We indie authors are always trying to not sound too desperate when asking readers to leave a review on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Goodreads. It’s embarrassing; we don’t do it because we’re groveling for compliments.  Getting a marginal review, like one for Stable Relation that gave it three stars and went on to say she didn’t finish the book, is still good news. That silly search engine can’t read! It just wanders out back to look for my book. In that way, every review is good.

If you left a review, thank you so much for keeping my books moving. It makes a huge difference.

And if you have thought about it and have a moment, please consider writing a brief review of Barn Dance or Stable Relation or Relaxed & Forward. (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads.)  Self-published books gratefully rely on word-of-mouth support. Thank you.

Last week found me in Elgin, Illinois, working four days at a wonderful therapeutic riding center there, followed by a two-day riding clinic at another barn that shares my blog and books. One of the participants at the second barn was a very serious rider; a man in his seventies who came with his two chestnut mares. He’d managed to ride five lessons in two days. Well done!

At the end of the clinic, he had his horses loaded for the haul home when he came to say goodbye. I stood to shake his hand, but then we hugged instead. I thanked him for riding and he said, “You’re just exactly the person you are in your book. Just the same person.”

There’s no squint in a barn. No head tilt. “Thank you,” I said, “that’s my intention.”

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Path

Perhaps the reason for my books… just trying to keep up.

Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

wm-tommi-path
It all looks
obscure

she leads
not lost
not found
but traveling
beyond the map

so follow close
your heart
knows the way.
 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)

Path

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Word Geek Needs Prom Date

“She’s insufferable with this stupid human game. What’s wrong with tossing a ball. What an embarrassment. We try to sleep through it.”
“She’s insufferable with this stupid human game. What’s wrong with tossing a ball? We try to sleep through it. This woman is an embarrassment.”

I was once on the very brink of practically passing as sophisticated. It isn’t the same as actually being sophisticated, but I swear, this blog is like a trashy “True Confessions of a Dork” tell-all. Bad boundaries? I was routinely accused of that, but I’ve moved beyond that to shameless.

I’m winding up to brag about my vocabulary. That’s what all this honesty has come to. Someone, please, stop me before I drag out comments from my grade school teachers!

First, just because I’ve never played a computer game in my life, doesn’t mean I don’t understand the theory. I want to announce I have just taken up something remotely like a computer game, only obscure and arcane and, well, it has the stench of a long over-ripe Honor Society membership.

Okay, here goes.

I call it writing but that’s a poor description. I spend a few minutes gathering words around an idea I have, and then hours editing them. I move them around like furniture, I replace words with better words. I struggle with punctuation and adverbs and pronouns. Then I check for words that I repeat too often or not enough. Writing is the very tiny part of the job.

Sometimes I use software programs like Word, but more often, I like the software here on WordPress. Their spell check is powered by an elderly English teacher with a very sharp ruler. For longer work, I like Scriveners, a writing software for arranging a book that is no less than co-author worthy in its ability to hold it all together before it actually exists. Even if their spell check is a bit more like a Junior High English teacher who also coaches soccer.

I’m getting to the part where it’s all as exciting as playing Call of Duty. (I had to google a game title. Is this a good one?)

Some word geeks play scrabble and call it good, but the game I dream of is software that can tell that I should have used to instead of on. You can’t imagine how invisible those little words become during editing. Oh, of course you can. You see those mistakes in my writing all the time. I’m the blind one.

Obviously, I troll around on word software sites because I get their solicitations… that’s how I stumbled upon Grammarly. I downloaded the free version and then had a picky judgment fest about it. I’m that kind of crazy on a Saturday night. There is a page switch aspect that I don’t like, but it wrangles commas pretty well. In my dorky opinion.

It all changed when I got an email summary from Grammarly that used the word “Mastery” in relating that in the last 39,620 words I’d written, (more words that 99% of users did in the same time period,) I had used 1424 unique words (a larger vocabulary than 97% of users).

Okay, I like this game. I think you can see why. I would never be the kind of person who liked statistics. That’s math and I would rather fanatically over-tip a server than do math.

It was WordPress who taught me to love statistics. I check them all the time, it’s a compulsion. Because they flatter me. Something math has never even tried to do. “Readers in 161 countries.” Wow. Humbled and flattered. It’s getting remotely close to 1,000,000 hits. (It would have been easier to type a million hits, but I wanted to gloat over all those zeros.) This is how it came to pass that I bored the dogs into a coma.

Like all good embarrassments, I was standing there at the corner of No One Cares! and Do You Know Who I Am? And smiling like a fifth-grader in cat-eye glasses and a buttoned-up sweater because Grammarly is my new best friend.

“Pathetic,” the dogs mutter in unison.

gold-shiny-hrReal Life Update: This Friday, I fly off to the Miami Book Fair International to receive my award for Stable Relation. This is an awkward invitation to be my prom date. Please. There’s a Saturday night formal event and as usual, the dogs weren’t invited and I think no one else will ask me to dance. So will you come? If you can’t show up, will you talk me through it on Facebook? I’ll be posting about it on my author page here. 

“Like” the Facebook page and follow me there, so you can share my angst of not wearing barn clothes and sleeping dogless. But know it won’t be as much fun as editing, just so you can prepare. 

Barn Dance, the next book, is still on track for January release. I think we have the cover photo nailed down, just looking for that perfect, witty tagline. Oh, and some more obsessive-compulsive editing. I know there are some stray commas and semi-colons roaming aimlessly through the text, but at some point, you just have to hold your nose and jump.

Okay, in an attempt for fairness, it wasn’t all hearts and flowers with Grammarly. I confess that Grammarly also noted that I missed commas in a compound sentence 274 times. I made 94 mistakes with missing articles. Perhaps most tragic, there were 168 mistakes in comma splices. I didn’t even know that happened to commas. Let’s just state the painful truth. I have comma drama.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

 

 

The Devil Is In the Details

 

wm-lateral-lilith-fauxcoverHow to create a homemade project that looks professional and inviting and even artistic–that’s the dilemma.

I would love to weave a romantic tale about my dilettante author life; that my groom delivers my horse while I pose on the mounting block in my baby-seal-skin riding boots. That I write at dusk by a sapphire pool while owls perch on my shoulder. That my personal masseuse/bodyguard/Corgi wrangler travels along in my Lear jet, as I flit to book talks in Paris, Rio, and Commerce City.

Can I just say there is nothing romantic about writing? It’s more like a bad habit. I start at 3:30 in the morning because I actually have a real job. If you can call horse training a real job. I’m not great company by dinner time, either. But if there is something less romantic than writing, it might be publishing. A friend suggested I write about this part; she thought it would be interesting. I’m dubious.

I’ve spent hours this week laying on the ground in pens here on the farm. I’m trying to take a photo for the next book cover and there are new power lines from a huge wind farm that cross-hatch all my backgrounds, not to mention miss-matched fence panels and a flotilla of wheelbarrows. So I was trying to get an angle where there is little background (like the llama in this photo) and just sky behind. Of course, when I lay on the ground in a pen I get dirt in unforeseen places. Then I wait, while the animals all tilt their heads at odd angles. Eventually, they saunter over to begin the C.S.I. work. In this photo, Lilith thinks I might be a bit unbalanced, but she doesn’t want me to die before lunch. The activity behind the camera makes her look absolutely sane.

If the devil is in the details, then so is the art.

I’ve done the same thing with a few different animals, at odd times of the day for a couple of weeks now. I’m not sure who be on the next cover. There are a few hundred photos. The photos have to have the right kind of spacing so the title works. Remember the cover for Stable Relation? Hundreds of shots there, too. Nubè was catatonic by the time I gave up.

It wasn’t my intention to use my photography at the beginning. I have friends who are professionals and I respect their work. Besides, I’m not very sophisticated. I use my phone and if I need a tripod, I use a donkey. My books are as homemade as canned beans.

I do work with a book designer in the UK; she started with the first book, Stable Relation. I gave her some random ideas–like I liked the original cover for Wild with the hiking boot. I told her the covers I liked in her portfolio, and sent a couple of “kinda like this” photos. She did six mock-up covers, five of them with commercial photos and one of my photos. I shared them around to friends for their opinions. I loved one of her ideas especially… but eventually decided on the black and white idea because the “feeling” was right. I also learned that I could disappoint people (friends) before the book even came out.

When it was time for a cover for Relaxed & Forward, I was all set to skip the group-vote folly and just use that spare cover from the first book. My designer sent me six mock-ups again, different colors and fonts on that first image, along with similar images from online photo stock. Then she pulled one of the interior chapter photos out, did a mock-up, and, well, she was right. It was perfect.

UPDATE: I’m a little over half-finished editing the final draft of Barn Dance. Then I’ll read it one more time, trying to pretend I’ve never read it before. I’ve set up the ISBN numbers for the new print and ebook, I’m wrangling interior photos, and chanting bad would-be tag lines. I have to write one small perfect paragraph describing the book, making it sound so indispensable that strangers will buy it instantly, form a cult, and send me all their goats. And then there’s the matter of the cover… I’d like Edgar Rice Burro, but he shuns the spotlight. Clearly, some of these tasks are more challenging than others. I’m hoping for a publish date in January for Barn Dance

I’ll be collecting an award at the Miami Book Fair International in mid-November. Anyone else going? There’s book shopping!

And one more time, I want to thank everyone who posted a review online, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Goodreads. It means the world. Literally, people around the world read them. Now that you have a view inside of my fabulous publishing dynasty, it’s probably obvious that readers are my publicity budget. Thank you for poking the search engine into a grinding, squeaking rattle with the question, “Anna who?” Thank you! The reviews that slowly trickle in now are from people whose names I don’t recognize. It worked!

Now I’m down to details on the new book. Idiosyncratic editing. Numbers, dimensions, and abbreviated descriptions. I’ll head out in early light in the morning and hit the dirt again. No baby-seal-skin boots. No Lear jet warming up. And if I had an owl on my shoulder, she’d be checking my hair for mice and grubs. Romanic, isn’t it?

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Going Where You’re Invited

Lately I’ve been haunted by this drumming thought: Now would be a good time to do something smart.

It doesn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I have a tendency to do things the hard way. I spent a fair amount of time beating down doors, back in the day. If easier methods existed, they never occurred to me. For instance, I liked the idea of winning the lottery but I don’t actually believe in a free lunch, so I never bought the ticket. See what I’m working with here?

Lousy financial decisions have been a constant. Like hiring that financial planner/ex-IRS agent who helped me lose all the profit I made selling a house… to the IRS. And you wouldn’t want to take me along to buy a used truck. And oh yeah, there’s that barn full of un-rideable horses next to my house.

Maybe I got lost on the way to take the road less travelled and that has made all the difference. (Apologies, Mr. Frost.)

All of this is to say that writing a book fit perfectly into my long-term plan. First, I warmed my fingers up by blogging regularly for the last seven years. Readers came one at a time. I was a tortoise-like sensation. Then it took two years to write the first book, Stable Relation. Not a get-rich-quick scheme by any stretch of judgment.

Research told me that ninety percent of self-published books sold less than a hundred copies, but still I took the advice of two publishers and a book publicist and decided to self-publish. Hello, Prairie Moon Press.

Being the publisher meant writing press releases and blurbs. Promoting a reluctant author and entering book contests. And the biggest challenge of all: Talking good about the author in public. It’s enough anxiety to turn your tongue into a Dorito. How did someone who mucked barns and wrote every spare moment get this PR job?

It’s been fourteen months since Stable Relation came out. I’ve been making the whole thing up as I go and it’s been surreal. But is it time to let it rest? I love this book but is it over? Am I turning–even more than usual–into that balding guy rocking out in the cliché-red Corvette?

I figure just around this time my guardian angel got out of rehab.

And then Stable Relation was awarded a gold medal from the Readers’ Favorite book awards, in the Non-Fiction, Animals category.

The publisher (me) is happy because now the author (me) has the title of  Award Winning Author. I’m flattered but still more likely to come to “Hey, you!”

They hold a ceremony/mini-conference during the huge and wonderful Miami Book Fair, November 18-20th. They invited the winners to come, hobnob a bit, and perhaps snag the ear of an industry pro. And going to a book fair sounds like about as much fun as you can have without goats or donkeys. On Saturday night, there’s a formal event to present the awards. Think rhinestones on my Crocs.

Like I said, I’d really like to do something smart, if I could tell what that was. I try to keep an open mind. Life is like working with donkeys; you end up someplace else but had little control about how you got there.

So, obviously my category wasn’t the biggest, and I won’t know a soul there, and I don’t sleep well in dog-less hotel beds. But I’m going to try something out of character. If you have a history like mine and don’t know what to do next–it’s crazy notion–but maybe you try going where you’re invited.

…Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
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When I Met You.

20160313_140155-1Welcome to the Rocky Mountain Horse Expo. Let me start by saying it was never my fantasy to spend a few days standing on the cement floor of a convention hall, under fluorescent lights with no windows. It came with the extra tease that people walked by all day long, on the way to the barn where the horses are stalled, while I stood behind my book table.

The other authors did a great job of hawking their books, confidently asking people passing to stop and look, and I just couldn’t start the conversation with buy mine!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not retired and I don’t have a trust fund. I need book sales just as much as anyone. At the same time, I can only do this selling thing the way I can do it. If I start to feel like the guy at the state fair selling the Chop-o-matic… well, it won’t work for me. It’s awkward; I’m the one who hates it when people try to sell me things. Clearly, I have issues. So I was cross-dressing as an author, wishing I was in the barn where I belong, and trying to find the words that wouldn’t betray my books or me.

That was when I met you.

You were the Mom who knew nothing about horses, but came along with your daughter who was transforming herself in this horse world you don’t understand. All you could see was how beautiful and competent she’s becoming.

You were the husband of the woman who stopped to tell me she loved my blog; you were quiet until we compared dirt bikes to horses, and found we had a sense of humor in common.

You were the lonely horse owner who came back a few times to tell me again about how your rescue horse chose you, and follows you, and shares your heart in a way that has never happened before in the history of mankind.

You were the elderly woman who no longer rides, but still belonged there with us.

And maybe my favorite: the teen girl whose friends competed, while she stayed loyal to the leased,  lame, and un-rideable horse who was her best friend. What a horsewoman she’ll make!

Thanks for the reminder that authors, even a memoirist like me, need to tell the personal story that is a shared experience. Sometimes we get so wound up in our own subplot, that we can’t see the bigger story. (Replay the famous Rick-Ilsa Hill of Beans speech from Casablanca one more time!) I could have written a chapter for each of the people I met. Is this where the term Dear Reader comes from? It’s a term I’ll use will full heartfelt affection from now on. I loved meeting you.

In the meanwhile, it’s springtime on the high prairie! It isn’t green yet, but the birds are back and the hibernation is over. We’re all a little itchy to get on with Our Upcoming Events!

  • Midwest Horse Fair, April 15-17, in Madison, WI. I will be in the Horse’n Around Magazine booth, #2304. Drop by and tell me about your horse!
  • Mountain of Authors, April 23, 11-5, Pikes Peak Library District, at Library 21c, located at 1175 Chapel Hills Dr, CS, 80920. This is an informative day with speakers and a wealth of local talent.
  • WEBINAR Calming Signals: Are you Listening?, May 10, 7pm ET, 5pm,MT. Windrush Farm in Massachusetts invited me to create a webinar. It’s available for anyone to watch live, or taped at a later time, with proceeds to benefit their therapeutic riding program. Who knew making this presentation would be so much fun?
  • Horse Symposium, Oslo, Norway. October 29-30. International speakers on horse welfare. I’ll present on Leadership that Builds Confidence and Ulcers and Stress. I’m very excited about meeting the people at this event.

This week I’m off to Madison, WI, for the Midwest Horse Fair. Please stop by and distract me from myself!

For as solitary as writing is, it’s also the thing that brings so many intriguing people into my experience. I am so profoundly grateful to you, DEAR READER, for the stories you share with me, as we exchange notes on this horse/life. It’s the thing I never expect but appreciate the most–the reminder that we are all more alike than different. Thank you.