Tag: writing tools

Rhumb Lines, Novel Writing and How to get from point A to Point B

Rhumb Lines, Novel Writing and How to get from point A to Point B

Dhow in coastal waters off Zanzibar Island (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m in the midst of a year of writing sequels. Actually it may take two or three years to get through all the sequels needed for my current novels. As I have already mentioned on this blog I’ve found writing my first sequel a bit of a challenge even though I knew where I was going. It seemed that I kept straying off course.

This puts me in mind of the challenges mariners had back before Gerard Mercator created his famous projection in 1569. A projection is a way of taking three dimensional landforms off of a globe and placing them onto a flat surface (a map) while retaining relative conformity of shape and relation between the landforms. What Mercator did was take meridians of latitude and longitude and make them all aim straight north-south or east-west creating 90 degree angles at each intersection. Sure it expanded the landforms closer to the poles, but it also gave mariners a means of plotting courses over long distances.

Picture this overlaid on top of a typical world map with latitude and longitude laid out.

You see, prior to Mercator, mariners shared two fears – bad weather and getting lost. (Actually I share their fears, the latter most particularly when I’m writing.) In the years before Mercator’s projection, mariners had generally confined their sailing to the Mediterranean and coastal waters. The transatlantic voyages to America were done by the stars, but there were no helpful portolano (mariners maps using compass roses to show sailing routes) of the great oceans. Mercator’s grid made sailing the open ocean as easy as sailing the coasts because it gave sailors a means to chart a straight line (a rhumb line) from Point A to Point B across the ocean. From this they could plan their headings and make their voyages.

Of course sailing the distance from Cape Town to New York is about as huge an endeavor as writing a novel (or a sequel) from page one to the end and neither route actually takes a straight line. Sailors travelling that distance recognized that they didn’t travel a flat earth, they travelled a globe and so they added to their calculations, the curve of a great circle that was the largest circle they could draw through a sphere and this route showed the actual shortest distance between two points. Sailors then chose their routes by drawing straight chart lines between the great circle and rhumb line that allowed them to approximate the great circle along the route.

Tall ship off Portuguese coast (2006) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

This seems a lot like the process I use when I’m writing. I know where I start and I know where I want to finish (most of the time). The writing process then becomes one of deciding how far to travel from the rhumb line (the plot or the backbone) of the story, for it seems to me that novels have great circles, too. These are the themes you are writing about and you don’t want to allow your plots to take over, so that your story is nothing but plot, but neither do you want your subplots to take you so far out of your way that the story no longer fits within its themes. And that’s where sailing and writing diverge in their process. Sailors use the great circles and rhumb lines to plot their course and they follow it from Point A to Point B. A writer, on the other hand, will use them to plan their novel or their series of novels, but also to look behind and check whether they have wandered too far off course to get to their final destination. This is the challenge in sequels: viewing the second or third book as just one of the charted lines between the rhumb and the great circle, building its way to the ultimate end of the voyage.

 

 

What’s in a Map? Aboriginal Maps and Writer’s Dreams

What’s in a Map? Aboriginal Maps and Writer’s Dreams

A Huaca, or sacred stone, in the landscape of the Peruvian Altiplano (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Last night I received an article from my local Romance Writers of America chapter about world building for writers and how making a map of a location can help to create your story and your plot. I got thinking about this and how it relates to human history. In particular I got to thinking about how some anthropologists and historians have drawn a line in the sand (the 15th Century) about when true maps came into existence. (See my last post here.) But it got me wondering whether they were short-sighted in their definition.

The authors of this theory have said that prior to the 15th century while people might have made maps, they largely weren’t made for the same purpose of orienting the landscape like maps are used for today. They talked about how maps of older civilizations presented a cosmology, not a spatial map, or were used to show relationships, which could as easily be represented in text or the spoken word. This, they posited, means that earlier map-like creations are not true maps. Whether they are wrong or right is a matter of some debate.

Trail along the Camino Inca, the path to Machu Picchu (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

A case in point is Native American cartography. The literature about Native American maps is challenged by the fact that not only is it hard to find maps from pre-European contact (birch bark and leather just don’t stand up to five hundred years of colonization), but most of the records of native maps are colored by the perspectives of those who collected the map. The few maps that do exist require the reader to think of maps in more than one way. For example, records of a Virginian Algonquin map collected by John Smith in 1624 (while he was a prisoner), show a cosmological view of the world, but also a spatial linking of places. The map shows three concentric circles around a fire, with the first circle being a circle of meal representing the Algonquin Territory, the second being an inner circle of corn representing North America, and the third circle of corn representing the edge of the supposedly circular world. To try to understand John Smith’s origins from beyond North America, the Algonquin created a thatched stick island between circle two and three. Clearly this shows a sense of spatial distribution, even if it is not based on any scale a western European would use.

The ruins of Saqcsaywaman, Cusco, once part of the center of the Inca world. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Another interesting ‘map’ was a gesture used by a Native American Elder to describe the location of his town. The elder held his forefinger and thumb like a not-quite-closed-looped ‘okay’ symbol. The location of his town was between the unclosed tips of the finger and thumb, with Quebec, Montreal, New York, Boston and Halifax all located along the knuckles and joints of the rest of that looped finger set. This again clearly places the Native American town in relation to the major cities. So the question may not be whether Native American’s had maps, but whether they recorded their map information in a different way. Native American communities and living accommodations like the Navajo Hogan, the Pawnee earth lodge and even some longhouses could be said to be map-like in their structural symbolism of the concept of the sky dome or celestial vault providing shelter for a two dimensional geography with the four directions spreading out from a pivotal centre of the house. It might not be written on a piece of paper, but clearly there is a sense of direction and relationship to place within their sacred geography.

Finally, Petroglyphs, a primary source of pre-contact information about Native American culture, have also yielded examples of what could be maps, though there continues to be some debate. Some appear to show river routes and tributaries along with trails. Still other stone paintings appear to represent drive fences (fences used to drive prey animals into capture areas) complete with pictures of the animals that resided in the area.

Across the world we look for the sublime meaning of everything. Prayer flags, Tibetan area of Northern India, (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Which brings me back to the RWA article. It spoke about how, for a writer, a map can help you to give a greater sense of place to your writing. The writer will know where the towns and roads and lakes and mountains are in relationship to where the character is. But drawing a map can help the writer to also learn something beyond thethe lay of the land. A writer’s map can help you to understand what monsters live in what areas, what territory belongs to the enemy and what resources there are to harvest, along with your character’s place in the world. This leaves me to think the Native Americans understood modern (writerly) mapping better than the anthropologists and historians think they did, and that the modern writer’s map is based in something much deeper and perhaps more linked to the notion of a sacred human landscape. Both look for something more than just scaled lines on a page to find our way through either our imagination or the world.

 

 

Building a Social Network and Following

Building a Social Network and Following

Ashes and Light - coverLast blog Joshua Graham discussed how he built his novel’s readership from first self-published manuscript to best selling Thriller. Joshua talked about building his social network and that this was the key to having his book sell.

So how does someone build their network from their few friends to the broader network needed to sell your book widely?

Best selling novelist, John Locke, talked about conducting searches on Twitter and Facebook for people who might be interested in your types of books. These types of searches might be as simple as searching #mystery, or #romance, or #thriller, or they might be as complex as conducting a search of a topic area, such as #postapocalypticfiction, or #Bahamas (the location of your novel).

It may also involve areas you are passionate about. For me travel and culture were two areas I searched and followed people who seemed to have similar interests to me, or to post information that was interesting to me, e.g. National Geographic Traveler.

A next step is to look at these individual’s twitter pages and identify those people who follow that site who might also be interested in following you. This might be based on their profile, but it might also be based on what they post. Are the people avid readers, or reviewers, or are they passionate about the topic you are writing about such as #afghanistan or #animalrights? When you find people who are interesting to you, then follow them. Chances are they will also follow you, if you also look interesting to them. So how do you do this?

First of all, have an interesting profile on your twitter account. This doesn’t mean make things up, it means telling people what you are passionate about that show who you are. This might include your book, or your hobby, or your family, your pet, or your humor, but show them. This makes you human and they can see things that you might have in common.

Second of all, have a website linked to your facebook and twitter page. Make sure your website is interesting. Have a blog that is also interesting. Make sure your website and your blog are constantly changing (new material) to bring people back again and again.

Offer something to people who come to your website. This might mean value-added material about the characters or the world in which your book is set, or it might include offering contests or something free, like a story, to readers.

Be consistent in your postings to your website and on twitter and/or Facebook become a presence with something interesting to say and people will follow you.

Don’t think you have something interesting to say today? Then find the people with the tweets that are interesting to you and retweet them, because if you found them interesting, chances are others will too. If we’re talking about Facebook, make coments about posts that interest you. Facebook also allows pages for your book, so here is another place to show what you are writing about. With regards to blogs, if you have posted your blogs regularly, people will come to expect that you will keep that regularity up. That consistency allows people to follow you.

A note here. Many social media pundits say you should post a new blog at least once a week. Others have postulated that a quality post could be written less frequently to allow people to be guided to it again and again.

It’s my belief that this will depend on the nature of the post and its intended readers. So think about whether your blog’s readers are people with time to check posts regularly, or are they people who may need a month just to find the time to check your blog? Finally, a challenge for a lot of writers is that they target their blog to other writers instead of their readers. So think about what you are doing with your blog and your social media posts, and make sure it is targeted to who you are really writing for—your readers.

Beyond your own blog and website, you can also build your social media connections a couple of other ways:

1. Identify writers or books that you believe attract a similar audience to that your book should attract. Find fan pages and groups for these writers and books and engage with them.

2. Find other blog sites, like review sites, forums or well-trafficked sites and participate regularly. Share what you know. Share yourself and DON”T USE THOSE CONNECTIONS TO ONLY PUSH YOUR WARES.

3. Join Goodreads and become involved with reader groups. Participate in book discussions. When you introduce yourself to a new group, feel free to introduce yourself as a writer, but don’t push your book. There are other ways established on Goodreads to do this.

Most of all, relax and enjoy the people you meet. The open conversations that occur, make you human and are more likely to cause a person to think that given they like you, they might like your book.

Next week we’re going to talk about book reviews and blog tours.

Social Media, Pulling Teeth and Getting Started

Social Media, Pulling Teeth and Getting Started

I remember it well—the day my writing mentor said I had to be on Twitter. First came the panic.

‘No’, I said. ‘No way. E-mail eats enough time as it is.”

Another kindly pair of friends took me aside and explained that really, Twitter wasn’t so bad, and you needed it to market you books (no mention of how). So they helped me get an account and TweetDeck, and set me loose in the Twitter world.

And I never used it.

The few times I logged on, it was like going to the dentist and I HATED the fact that my darn computer dinged and disturbed my train of thought every time a new tweet came through. Now I know I could turn my speakers down, but I needed the volume to tell me when business e-mails came through. The trouble was twitter kept dinging and dinging. So this post is about Twitter and Facebook and social media in general and how to make it manageable for you. Next post will be on how to make it WORK for you.

The thing with Twitter and Facebook is that you have to understand that they have tremendous potential, but you also have to understand that there are downsides:

  • Social media can be frustrating as heck until you understand them and how they work.
  • Social media can feel like floundering in deep water until you decide the parameters of how you are going to participate.
  • Twitter and Facebook can become veritable time sinks.
  • Social media can begin to take over your social life.
Winter river near La Saucet, France (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Like anything new, understanding Twitter and Facebook requires purposeful learning. Yes, it is possible to simply open an account and begin tweeting or sending messages, but why, and what do you send messages about? One reason may be to simply keep in touch with existing friends. Once you’ve connected with your friends, it’s easy to fulfill this purpose. You can use Facebook and Twitter to send out urls for blogs, which is also useful, and if that is all you want, then the social media is working for you.

So to make social media work for you, this is a first decision point: what do you want from Twitter or Facebook?

If you want to leverage social media to help with marketing your books, this requires you to become more involved in the social media family. It requires you to become more comfortable with working with social media. A good place to pick up pointers is through Lynda.com, which contains video tutorials on the basics, but also sessions on marketing.

Marketing your book requires building your connections to others in the Twitterverse, or Facebook Universe. This involves building connections to friends, which means that you need to do more than marketing. You need to give people something of yourself and your interests, something that both you and other people find of value. This involves reaching out to others to become their friends, either by identifying common interests, or through their connections to people you friend or follow. This is easy enough to do, by simply clicking on a person’s profile and friending or following them. Hopefully they will reciprocate and follow you, too. But the trouble is this can become an obsession. You can spend hours identifying friends and follows, and you have to ask yourself what is most important—this social media work, or time spent writing (and time having a life).

This is a second decision point: Are you a writer first and a social media savant second, or is it the other way around? If you are a writer, then you may need to set parameters around your time spent on social media. For an example, I try to put in thirty minutes to an hour in the morning and the same in the evening.

Street scene, Montmartre, Paris (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But at the same time you need to understand that social media is social. This means that even if your original intention in joining the Twitterverse and Facebook was to market your book, you need to do more than that. You need to have something to add to the Twitterverse. This was initially where I stalled. I didn’t know what I could add to all the comments out there. Well we all have things to add, whether it be book recommendations, reporting on your latest accomplishments, or links to blogs that you found important, these are the things that will build your followers and your social connections, and when you get your first message from a follower it starts to feel fun that you are building connections to people—people who might eventually become your friends.

And not your dentist.

Prepping for the Market

Prepping for the Market

This post is on preparing your novel/story for the e-market. I’m not talking about the formatting required to put a novel on Amazon or Smashwords, I’m talking about what you need to do after you complete the manuscript, but before you begin the Smashwords or Amazon process. To make this of the most value to the most people, I encourage readers to please share what you’ve found worked for you.

Editing –

Of course you edit. We all learned to do this before we sent a manuscript to the traditional publishing world, but the stakes are a little different in the indie-e-publishing world. In the traditional publishing model, writers sent the best manuscript they could manage to an editor and it was that editor’s task to make sure that the book was the best it could be before it went out into the world for readers to see.

In this new world of indie publishing, the writer is selling directly to the reader, and thus ensuring the book is ‘the best it can be’ is now the writer’s job. Sure, we all say our manuscripts are the best they can be, but if you talk to writers who have been through traditional publishing they will tell you things like ‘the editor didn’t just pick up on things I’d missed, they saw the possibilities I had failed to explore’.

Editors are the ones who suggest to writers that their manuscript would be better if they shifted points of view. Editors are the ones who point out, for a second book in a series, that you’ve changed from writing a romantic thriller to just writing a mystery. Why is this important? Because the readers who loved the first book in a series are going to be expecting the thriller in the second book.

So editors are our friend and we writers becoming indie publishers need to find a way to overcome the lack of an editor. This means that writers have to develop new skills and resources.

Not only must the writer complete their usual editing process, but they must also go one step further to ensure their book is ready for the reader. This means that the writer must cultivate first and second readers for their books. These readers need to have the skills to not only read for proofing, they need to read for things like (and this isn’t a complete list):

  • Opening hook,
  • logic,
  • plot,
  • character arc and consistency,
  • consistency (e.g. character with blue eyes on page one, must have blue eyes on page 300), and
  • whether the book fulfills its promise and the promise of the series.

Sometimes this can be accomplished through a critique group, but in my experience most critique groups are not at a level to critique a book in this way unless they are professional writers. If you do have access to a reader like this, whether they be a librarian/spouse, or a writer friend, cultivate them and listen to them like they’re gold and treat them very well. If it’s another writer, trade reading/editing with them. We can all use a friend with those skills.

If this option isn’t available, then an alternative is to pay an editor. No, I don’t mean going to one of the author service agencies I mentioned here, because they often expect to sell you a package of other services along with the editing. Nor am I talking about the services of a book doctor who might keep you revising your manuscript for years.

But there are other services out there. For example, Lucky Bat Books  offers complete editorial and other services based on what the writer is looking for. Or check within your local writing community for writers who also provide editing services on a fee-for-service basis. Fee for Service means that you agree on the task and a price before the ‘editor’ provides the services and they DO NOT receive any royalties from your work. This is important as it could be a nightmare for the indie publisher to have to provide royalty payments and statements to an editor.

While this service will cost you, it pays in the long run. You’ll provide a professionally edited product to your readers, rather than alienating them due to numerous errors in the manuscript. Finally, even though your editor will provide you with a proofed copy and editorial comment, this doesn’t mean that you don’t still have to provide the manuscript one more read-through to make sure the manuscript is clean. Even after having one of my manuscripts well-edited, I found a continuity error no one else had picked up on.

Covers –

Lady of Ashuelot
Lady of Aushuelot (2010) Twisted Root Publishing

The bane of my existence and very important, because covers are (unless you are a known author) one of the most important ways to draw potential readers’ attention. I’ll discuss what makes a good cover in a future blog, but here I wanted to mention the importance of this and that you need to take the time to put a cover together. For e-publications, the easiest program for this is PowerPoint. You can change the slide size to 6-9 and then create a cover using photographs found on line and graphics provided by the program.

PowerPoint created all of my existing e-book covers using photographs either I had taken or that were available royalty free or free on the internet. If you are going to create your cover yourself, consider what you’ve written and what are strong images contained in your book. Go to bookstores or on line and check out the covers of the books that are in your genre. Often there are style conventions (some might say clichés) for the covers. For instance, Urban Fantasy often has the main female character in black leather standing before something indicative of the story setting. When you are designing covers, start well before you want to publish so that you can try different cover possibilities and get friend’s reactions. I had a cover designed for me and was pleased with it, but when a friend’s daughter saw it (and she was my target demographic) she just shrugged and said it ‘looked like a photo’. Back to the drawing board.

The alternative to creating covers yourself is seeking a cover artist. To find such a beast you can look at covers you admire and try contacting the artist, but this can cost many hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. The alternative is to look for graphic artists who are just starting out. This can be through your local art school or college and can give you the opportunity to work closely with the artist to sort out your vision. Like with editorial services, you want to conduct business on a fee for service basis so that the artist isn’t expecting ongoing royalties for the cover. Definitely set this out in writing.

If you are going with a graphic designer, make sure you give yourself enough lead time before your planned publication. Often preparing a cover can take an artist at least a few weeks, so while you’re doing your editorial reviews, get busy with the cover, too..

So like I said, creating a cover isn’t something you should do last minute. You spent a long time writing a book. You want it to sell. Spend the time to make sure your cover helps.

Blurb –

The blurb is what, in traditional publishing, you would find on the back of the book. In e-publishing, this is the description you’ll read on Amazon or Smashwords or Barnes and Noble that tells you what the book is about.

Let me emphasize that: It tells you what the book is about.

It should be short. It should be snappy and it should catch readers attention and make them go: “I’ve GOT to read this.”

It should not give you a detailed look at the plot or the back story. I’ll talk more about blurbs in a future post, but suffice it to say that if you are starting to think about Indie publishing, start seriously reading the backs of books now. Start to get a sense of how blurbs hook you and try out those techniques for your book.

So what do you do to get ready to publish? How do you make sure your book is edited properly and what have you learned about producing a book cover or blurb, that might help the rest of us?

Holding a Book in Your Hand: Print on Demand

Holding a Book in Your Hand: Print on Demand

Ashes and Light - coverThe chance to hold your book in your hand in published, bound format is a treat each would-be author dreams of. I know published authors, with reputable e-publishers, who struggle to accept themselves as published authors because the book isn’t available in hard copy. For those authors who are either venturing into publication on their own, or who have started their own publishing company, there are avenues to satisfy this craving. They are known as Print on Demand (POD).

POD generally comes in two forms, one which I am going to call Traditional POD and the other I’ll call True POD. In Traditional POD, the author works with a printer and orders a print run of so many hundred or thousand copies of the book. The printer prints the books (at a cost to the author) and then either warehouses the books (also at a cost to the author) or ships the books to the author so that the author can warehouse them. Downsides of this model are the high, upfront, printing costs, and the ongoing cost of warehousing and shipping books when (if) they are ordered. Also a downside is the fact that, unless the author has a means (a platform) to sell these books, the author might end up holding onto them forever. So downsides of traditional POD include high up front costs, ongoing costs and/or the storage space the author must pay for.

On the other hand, I know of motivational speakers with platform who have used this printing method with complete satisfaction. They know when they are going to give a series of lectures, can have the right number of books printed to meet their expected demand, and store the books for a short period of time while they sell them at their lectures. It works for them.

For the rest of us, however, having to either store or pay for the storage of books, and the upfront costs make this rather prohibitive.

Enter True POD. In a nutshell, this model of self publishing allows you to have the book ready for sale through a distributor and, when someone wants to purchase the book, that individual book is printed. It does away with the need for storage, but allows quality books to be printed.

There are three main companies for True POD:

1. Lightning Source

2. Lulu

3. Createspace

Lightning Source differs from the other two because it is basically a printing company, while the other two could be called ‘author service companies’ with mostly-free options. Lightning Source focuses on providing printing services, and printing services alone. They expects you to know how to format your book both inside and the cover. The company does provide templates and instructions, but does not expect to deal with author/publishers who don’t know their business.

To Lightning Source’s credit, it offers extensive book formats, including hard cover and full color. The company also has the most extensive distribution in both the US and UK and allows the author to control discounts to distribution points (stores).

Costs, however, are higher, with Lightning Source charging between $117 and $150 per title, depending on whether you are doing hard or soft cover. Other downsides include the requirement that you have your own ISBNs and that their website is not the most easy to use. I’m told, however, that once you figure it out, it’s no more difficult to use than the two author service companies.

Lulu – The first of the author service companies presented here, Lulu offers a full range of services including author packages like “The best selling publishing package”. While this package comes at a charge of $629.00, it doesn’t offer anymore than an author/self publisher can do themselves. Lulu offers pre-publishing, marketing and publicity packages, but again, the author can do most of this themselves.

On the plus side, Lulu publishes in the US and UK and offers many more trim sizes including everything from pocket books to hard covers with dust jackets, similar to Lightning Source. Distribution through Lulu on a free basis is through Lulu.com, and, if you choose Lulu as publisher, through Amazon. If you want yourself listed as publisher it will cost you $99.00. Lulu also offers a good template for cover creation.

Createspace (my current choice) also offers author publishing packages, but the author creation of a book on Createspace is relatively intuitive. Packages include the $758.00 Total Design Freedom Standard that has ‘professionals’ work with you to get your book ready to publish. Again, you don’t need this unless you have money to throw at the project.

Createspace basically has two ‘plans’ for publication, basic and pro-plan. The basic plan allows your book to sell at the Createspace e-store and Amazon for only a share of the royalties, while the pro-plan (at a charge of $39.00) makes you eligible for the Expanded Distribution Channels that can get your book into libraries and bookstores (theoretically). In the pro-plan, you also pay less per copy when you order your own book. Royalty rates are also higher in the Pro-plan in comparison to Lulu.

So for my money, Createspace seems to win as a low-cost option for POD.

While these three companies seem to be the front runners for POD, there are any number of other author service companies who will, for a price, provide book formatting, editorial services, cover production, and marketing advice and services. Let me emphasize this: FOR A PRICE.

These companies aren’t cheap and for the most part any author can learn to produce reasonable POD books on their own or through finding freelance services, or friends (to trade services with).

That said, however, there is a significant learning curve required for POD. Assuming your cover design is reasonable enough to be used in POD, there is still the matter of being able to write suitable back cover copy, and to format an entire cover (front, back and spine). You also have to be able to produce a print ready interior of the book. This requires the author to develop other skills in self-publishing, and to learn new programs like Adobe Photoshop and In Design, or Microsoft Publisher—something that took a lot of hours for me to accomplish. But if you are determined to have a print copy of your book, and if you are prepared to do the work, there is nothing like the mailman delivering your first proof.

Packing Light – And Drowning in Electronics

Packing Light – And Drowning in Electronics

So I’m on the final countdown. Eleven days from now I’ll be on a plane heading towards Lima, Peru, on my virgin trip to South America. In between trying to get books finished and manage my business, I’ve been trying to pack and get my equipment in order. I’ve cleaned and packed my camera equipment. I’ve bought a lightweight computer. I’ve made plans to blog and I have my smart phone so I can keep in touch. I even have my kindle so I don’t have to carry a plethora of books.

There’s only one problem. I feel sick about it.

Photographing Angkor (2009) Note the camera backpack and tripod.
Photographing Angkor (2009) Photo (c) Selma Swaab. Note the camera backpack and tripod.

All this stuff weighs a ton. There are electrical cords and plug adapters and more plugs and batteries until I wonder whether I’m going trekking or to the office. I keep telling myself all this stuff will help my travel, but I guess I’ll reserve judgment until I hike my pack onto my back. Let me tell you about the changes the electronic age has made.

1. I don’t have to carry film. Instead I have a little external hard drive and numerous memory cards. This might not seem like such a big deal, but fifty to seventy-five rolls of high quality slide film are far heavier than you think, especially when you have to carry them on your back. Not only do they weigh a lot, they also take up a huge amount of space and time. I recall going through a SeaTac Security counter where they wanted to open and check each roll of film after I refused to let them put it through the x-ray. I had the time, so I stood there and let them do it, until they finally gave up. Seventy-five rolls is that much. Shooting digital on my last trip I shot over 3000 frames—the equivalent of about 86 rolls.

It’s interesting as I pack now. I’m using the large pack I took to India for three months and although this time I’m packing the same amount of clothes AND a sleeping bag, the pack is still almost empty compared to the old trip because of the lack of film. Which means a lighter pack and more room for the souvenirs and gifts I inevitably bring home.

2. Think books. There’s a guidebook to Peru that I’ll still carry, though I have it on Kindle also. (I always have a backpacker’s guide like Rough Guide or Lonely Planet). Right there, you have a heavy tome. Then any books you might want to read over a month or so away and you have a few more pounds. So this time I have my kindle loaded up with far more books than I know I’ll get a chance to read, but better to have too many than not enough. One of my most horrendous memories is of being caught in Burma with only the Thornbirds to read. Twice. I still shudder.

3. The telephone. Before cell phones took over the world I’ve had to waste a day wandering around to find a pay phone, stand in line and then make connections from whatever backwater I happen to be in. Having the smart phone will help out with e-mail and keeping in touch, so though it’s an additional weight I think it’s a weight that will save me in time. On the other hand it’s going to keep me more connected and that isn’t always a good thing when I’m trying to focus on the place I’m in.

4. The computer. Let me just say I always journal when I travel. It’s the best way I know of to record the events, the feel and emotion of a place. Often I’ll write myself to sleep and wake up the next morning and write more before I go off on the day’s new adventures. Having the computer presumably means I can do this electronically, but I’m not sure if I will, even if I need it to blog. I have always carried coiled notebooks. A notebook can’t break down and can be salvaged if it falls in a river. A notebook is less attractive to steal and a pen or pencil still feels more real in my hand when I travel. However I have to say that after filling four or five notebooks on my India trip, there may be room for computers though I feel both more vulnerable and excited to try this out.

Early Morning journalling on the balcony, Phnom Penh (2009)
Early Morning journalling on the balcony, Phnom Penh (2009) Photo (c) Selma Swaab.

So for this trip to a new continent, I’m trying a new form of travel: One that’s a little lighter and that comes with a whole lot more (electrical) connections.

If I don’t get hit over the head by someone trying to steal it.

Or fall in a river.

Finding the Perfect Jacket

Finding the Perfect Jacket

Let me start by saying there’s no such thing. You might get close, but perfect is beyond anyone in my humble opinion.

Searching a Paris shop window for the perfect whatever. Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Searching a Paris shop window for the perfect whatever. Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I spent a good portion of my Christmas shopping time also looking for the jacket I was going to carry on my trip to Peru. Now I know my trip is three months away, but when you are as tall as I am, finding clothes to fit you is never easy and finding specialty clothes to fit me is even tougher. Shirts and jackets and fleeces that on most women would reach down to the hips, on me barely clear my belly. Trousers—well let’s just say they are never cut long enough.

So finding a jacket that would be very lightweight, but rainproof enough for the rainy season in Peru, warm enough for the mountains, but still breathable enough when I was climbing UP said mountains (probably uphill both ways) was no small task. I needed to start early. I needed to plan where I would go to look. I needed to plan it all and find the perfect jacket.

I didn’t find it.

Everything was either too short or too short in the arms, or it was a man’s jacket and fit like a box. I finally settled on a jacket that they had to order for me and I’m hoping it will do the trick. Not quite as long as I wanted, not quite the fit I wanted, and it has a hood you can’t hide. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t, but the trick is to try it.

Why am I telling you this? Because finding the perfect jacket is a lot like trying to write the perfect book.

Over the past three and a bit months I’ve been writing another novel, this one a romantic suspense set in Cambodia, that I call Shadow Play. Writing it, and the last three books I’ve written, have been some of the most difficult creative exercises for me. Why? Because I wanted them to be perfect. Because I knew if they weren’t perfect, they wouldn’t sell. Talk about the wrong emphasis (selling).

The result was that I was so caught up on all the qualities I couldn’t seem to find in my own writing, that I couldn’t seem to see anything good, and if there’s one thing that can shut down the creative brain it’s the editor on your shoulder telling you it’s not good enough.

Luckily, I’m immensely stubborn and I have some great writer friends who helped talk me through these crises of faith, but the most important thing was to keep reminding myself it doesn’t have to be perfect. In this day and age of computers you can write the story, like I did, and discover the characters and their background through the writing process. Then you can go back and reshape the manuscript to fit the characters you actually wrote.

As I write this, I am chuckling because of something I tell my students in an investigative report writing course I teach. Of course I forgot to apply it to my novel writing.

Apparently there were researchers looking at people’s styles of writing and where writers placed the majority if their times in the planning, drafting, or redrafting process . The researchers surmised that people would spend most of their time planning and drafting with a small amount of time on redrafting.

What they found was that they were wrong.

There were actually two approaches to writing: one was the person who spent most of their time planning and writing. The other was the person who just wrote and found their report through the writing and redrafting process. These people rarely did planning. Both types of writers came out with a reasonable product at the end of the day, but both had deficits in their writing toolbox.

Why is this important? Because the best writers can use skills in both planning and redrafting.

When I initially read this information I laughed because I had virtually gotten through school with never writing a second draft, but it told me I had a serious deficit in my skill set. Writing novels has changed that.

I’ve spent time learning the skills of redrafting and now I no longer have to write the perfect novel first draft. With Shadow Play, the next few weeks will be spent going back and redrafting the front end of the book to be more compatible with the latter half. Maybe not perfect, but pretty darn good.

If only it were as easy to add four inches of fabric to the not-so-perfect jacket.

Recent Romance


Available HERE, $3.99

Available HERE,
$3.99


Available HERE, $3.99