When Fiction Writers Blog

When I first started blogging, I was somewhat late into it.  I was cowriting then, but wrote most of the blogs then.  Everything we saw online said “You have to be an expert” and “you have to have a platform.”  I was a fiction writer.  Exactly what was I supposed to do with it?

I could see how the advice related to a non-fiction book writer because they came with those parts as a function of what they were doing in their business.  But fiction writing?

Ah ha!  Writing!

* Sigh * Yeah, I fell into doing writing how-tos for a while.  Surprisingly, it’s a rather boring subject.  There just isn’t a lot of versatility in it.  I’d write on them for about a year and then run out of topics.

Plus, all we got were other writers, not potential readers.

After I broke up with the cowriter, I moved the blog to where you’re reading it now.  Still continued the how to posts, but it was often a struggle.  I did the A to Z Challenge one year using writing as a topic.  I tried to stay away from how-tos, but it was still hard to come up with enough topics, and I didn’t finish.

I took a blogging writing course that was for writers, thinking that would help.  The emphasis of of the course was to find your own voice — but not do how-tos.  The other writers eagerly flocked to everyone’s blog at first, posting comments and eagerly cheering people on.

Mine was the first one they dropped.

It took about two weeks.

At the time I was very frustrated.  What was I doing wrong?

In hindsight, it was probably because I did stop doing the how-tos.  Everyone else still did writing topics in addition to other topics.

But the one thing I did do was use it to figure out how to manage writing time.  Even then, I wanted to write full time, so it would be training.  I tend to write at the same time most days, so I picked a time when I normally wouldn’t do any writing to do posts.

It also cheered me on to writing fiction faster.  I could put out a post almost as fast as I typed.  Why was it so much harder on fiction?  But writing posts helped reinforce in my head that I could write faster.

I also had an additional problem that was a bit of a challenge:  My name.  It’s kind of ordinary, and a lot of other people have it.  At the time, there was another writer with my name who turned up on searches.  But if I kept producing new posts, I would turn up higher in the search.

So I kept writing and trying to reinvent myself.  But I kept writing the posts, kept them mostly to a schedule.  The sheer act of doing the writing and trying to find other topics besides how-tos is how I found my blogging voice.

But the process to get there was really hard.  I kept watching how low the numbers were for a long time and despaired at one point that maybe it wasn’t a good time investment.  I debated giving up the blog several times.  But I kept returning to the problem of my name and that a blog was probably the easiest way to keep my name showing up.

I think that’s a lot like writing fiction.  A lot of writers expect to write one book and have it turn into a best seller so they can kick back and never work again.  The more I’ve written, the more I can see what else I can write.

The most important thing is to write.

Inspired by a blog prompt from The Daily Prompt

What’s the most important (or interesting, or unexpected) thing about blogging you know today that you didn’t know a month ago?

Reflections on the A to Z Challenge

Last year, when I finished the A to Z Challenge, I said I wasn’t going to do it again. The topics I picked made it hard to come up with enough posts, and I’d found myself scrambling for the last few entries, and repeating myself a few times. I mean, it’s hard doing so many posts, especially when you’re a fiction writer.

That sounds kind of weird, because writers write, right? But if you read about how to blog, it’s all for business owners who are selling a specific product like time management or planners. The blogs tell us we need to be an expert and that translates into doing posts like the “10 Writing Tips that Will Get You Published!”

Over the last year even, I thought that maybe I should stop blogging because I still wasn’t getting many people stopping by and I wasn’t sure it was worth the time I was spending.

So what changed?

What I enjoyed about the A to Z Challenge

I kept noticing that though no one commented, two posts kept getting visits:

I was surprised that a topic that I found rather routine was getting such interest. So I started shifting the blog over to more posts about the military and saw an increase in visitors. Every time I had thought about writing about my experiences in the military, I thought I had to do the big things. Instead, I’ve found that people are fascinated with the ordinary (to me) life of the military.

It’s also been something that, now 24 years after Desert Storm, that I do need to write about, now that I can do it without being angry or complaining about it. A blog is a very nice form for doing that. So that’s how I picked my theme for this year, and contrary to past years, I actually had more ideas for posts than I needed.

What I could have done better

1. Tags. Tags have always been a problem for me to come up with, and I need to learn how to be better at them. People do search off them, but they’re sometimes hard for me to come up with.

Copyblogger says, “To a certain extent, they could be used to replace searching, if done well.”

2. Subtitles. Anne Allen’s blog on how to write blog posts also appeared last week and reminded me that I need to pay attention to subtitles on future posts (which, as you can see, are in in this post):

“Subheaders aren’t just for drawing the eye through and letting the reader know what’s coming up. They also need to spell out your most important points. And include keywords.”

Subtitles are good for scanning, which is a key piece of internet reading.

3. More links to other sites. I need to do more links in my posts, but that’s always been hard. Writing about the military doesn’t always lend itself to other blogs. Sometimes all I get is historical sites.

What the A to Z Challenge Could Do Better

Last year, I suggested that the rule about post titles having to be something like “D is for dialogue” should be changed. After doing two challenges, I’d discovered that none of the posts got any further interest. The titles made sense in the context of the challenge, but six months after, when a Google search turned them up, no one found the titles interesting to click on. The requirement was removed from the guidelines this year.

I was surprised that no one else seemed to notice this had changed. The result was:

  • Hard to tell what posts were about: I did a lot of my reading through Twitter streams. I could easily scan the tweets and pick what I liked. Frankly, it was hard to find posts, and I couldn’t always tell what the posts were about. In a lot of cases, I may have been passing by posts that I would have enjoyed.  Titles are very important in drawing the reader in.
  • Posts sounded like a glossary, not a blog post: This was particularly a problem with fiction writers where the glossary posts made me feel like they were checking the marking box rather than genuinely participating.

So I think removing the requirement wasn’t enough.  It needs to be defined better and maybe actual examples given.  From what I can tell, I was one of only a handful of people who noticed it had actually changed.

Would I do it again next year?  This time, it was a good enough experience that I’m not saying no, but I’m not saying yes.  We’ll see.

A to Z Challenge Wrap Up

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I’m wrapping up the A to Z challenge with a list of my posts about military in case you missed any of them:

Least Likely to be in the Army

First Day at Basic Training

Hauling Soldiers in a Cattle Car

Drill and Ceremonies, or all that marching

Explosive ordnance, pilots, and other things women do in the military

Do MREs count as Food?

What it’s like to wear a Gas mask

What it’s like when the war takes you away from Home

The day I got a Red Cross message during Desert Storm

Just a minute — I’m a ghost soldier?

Keeping up with the services: Reserves, Army, Oh My!

Lost in the woods with a Lieutenant

what it’s like to carry an M16

so Not ready — scariness on army guard duty

There’s Organizing my way and then there’s the army’s way

The Practicality of the army uniform

living Quarters in desert storm

The military wake up call: Revillie

Scariest thing that happened to me in the army

Tent fire in desert storm

Air war: Unknown in the distance

Where are the voices of the Women veterans

Washing clothes in Desert Storm

Xray! Xray! The military alphabet

Yes, It takes 20 years to talk about War

Watch for my A to Z Reflections on May 5.  Then I’ll resume military posts on May 12 with “What it’s like coming home from war.”

If you want to read about my continuing military adventures (or misadventures as the case may be), check out the blog on Mondays.

Plus some of my publications with women soldiers:

War Happens – part of a collection called Red, White, and True, which is being published in August, 2014.

Review of the book Redeployment – Washington Independent Review of Books.

Six Bullets – a fantasy short story in the anthology A Princess, A Boatman, and a Lizard.

A Soldier’s Magic – a contemporary fantasy short story in the anthology The Darkness Within.

Grateful Gift to Any Soldier – Washington Post.

Yes, it takes 20 years to talk about war

I had the occasion recently to review the book Redeployment, by Philip Clay.  He’s an Iraq War veteran, out about five years, and he wrote a series of short stories.  The first thing I picked up was an undercurrent of anger in the stories.

And I remembered that anger, because I’d had it, too, in the years after I got back from Desert Storm. It wasn’t like the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t see any direct combat, though I was entirely too near the Patriot missile battery and the front line. Plus, there was the constant fear that Iraq would launch poison gas. It was utter boredom day in and day out, and yet, utter fear because we didn’t know what would happen.

I don’t know … maybe it was different for the World War II vet because they came back on boat. The trip lasted for several weeks or a month and they had time to decompress. I flew back on emergency leave for ten days and was back to work. It was supposed to be business as usual, and yet how could it be?

I couldn’t tell you why I was angry. I couldn’t really point at a specific incident that was the source behind the anger. It was simply there. Maybe it’s because the experience of war is so profound and so unlike anything else that it boils itself into anger. I don’t know.

As a writer, I wanted to get it out and put it on paper, but I couldn’t write about the experience of war in non-fiction (a big no-no while I was in the army), and I couldn’t make the words work for fiction. I revisited it periodically over the years, pondering at first a non-fiction book and later a novel, but I never got past the first few chapters. Every time I tried, I de-evolved back into that anger, and angry writing isn’t fun. the other problem I had was that I was writing about the specific experiences that happened to me, rather than characters who were in the military or were veterans.

It’s only been in the last few years that my brain seems to have rewired itself enough that I see the things that happened to me in a different way.   But for some people, even that isn’t enough time.  War is an experience unlike anything else.

My final Challenge post will be “A to Z Challenge Posts” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.


Xray! Xray! the military alphabet

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Have you ever talked on the phone and had a really hard time differentiating between some letters like P and B? A lot of Army soldiers use radios to communicate, and misunderstanding a letter. The words were originally developed during World War II, and these are the ones currently used:

A – Alpha
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – India
J – Juliet
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V- Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu

So you might have someone spelling out a last name like mine as Alpha Delta Alpha Mike Sierra.

But sometimes the phonetic alphabet can be used to mean other things. There’s an episode of  NCIS called “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”  If you can’t figure out what the means, change it back to letters.

Washing clothes in desert storm

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Sometimes washing clothes in the barracks could be a challenge. But Desert Storm presented new challenges because we were in tents, nary a washing machine in site. Plus, with all the dust, clothes got dirty fast.

The military contracted with the Saudi government for someone to clean our clothes. We lugged it over to the supply tent in our olive drab laundry bag and got a receipt for it — kind of like taking out the dry cleaning. Some of the women elected to hand wash their underwear. Not me. I was with the guys on this one. Throw it all in the bag and let someone else do it. The clothes were simply not worth that amount of effort.

Next up will be “Xray! Xray! The military alphabet” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.

Where are the Voices of the women Veterans?

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One of the reasons I do this blog is because the women in the military often don’t really have much of a voice. In fact, for the most part, they largely get ignored as the camera focus is put on the male solder.

How many of you have seen a picture of an old man with the shadow of a soldier in the background? Has anyone seen a picture of a woman like this?

How many of you have seen a picture of a male soldier kneeling down to pet a kitten? I’d really like to see one of a woman soldier with a kitten, but I’ve never run across one.

At a science fiction convention, panelist Janine Spendlove, who is a Marine, related a conversation she had with one of her fellow officers.  She told him that he would always be known as a Marine, but she would always only be known as a female Marine.  The same is true for the army.  The men are the soldiers, and the women are the female soldiers.

I’ve tried finding photos of women soldiers for this blog, and it’s hard work finding any at all. What I do find is usually not something interesting or exciting. The Army seems to gravitate straight to the male soldiers.

It’s like there’s a default, and it’s to the guy. I see this in writing, too. A writer will write a novel and have a cast of over 100 characters, and maybe one or two will be a woman (Clive Cussler, I’m talking to you). I read Redeployment which was a series of short stories about the Iraq War. There were girlfriends of the male soldiers, but no female soldiers whatsoever.

So you’re getting the stories that no one else tells.

Next up will be “Washing clothes in Desert Storm” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.

Air War: Unknown in the Distance

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Most of the time when we saw the desert of Saudi Arabia, it was flat. But when we moved to the King Khalid Wildlife Research Center, there was this big rock sitting on the sand in the distance, set against the blue sky. I always called it a mesa.

Somewhere out there was where the front line was, about seventy miles away. That’s not a long ways. Yet, it was far enough that I couldn’t see anything except that mesa and the flat desert. I’d sit in the back of a cargo container we used as an office and listen to the radio and stare out into the distance. What was going on?

That’s one of the worst things about being a soldier.  The waiting and the not knowing.  We had this Irwin Allen yellow radio, and that was our only connection to what was going on.  When the news announced the war deadline, we approached it with grim trepidation.  There wasn’t anything else that we could do.

The deadline passed, and the air war begin. We were right on the flight path of the sorties going into Kuwait. All we needed to do was stand outside the cargo container and watch the jets fly over us, their engines roaring. Once they passed by and their engines faded into the silence, it was almost as if this wasn’t quite real. Like they didn’t exist.

We never saw them come back. Presumably it was because their flight path took them in a different direction, but it added to the eeriness of not knowing what was going on.

Next up will be “where are the Voices of the women Veterans” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.

Tent fire in desert storm

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Scary thing #2 that happened to me while I was in the army happened during Desert Storm. Our battalion had gotten this major handed off to them right before they deployed. Evidently no one else wanted him, so they stuck him with us. The major was all about military precision and everything dress right dress, no matter what.

One of the things he ordered was that the battalion line the tents up in neat, orderly rows. It was kind of bad because even the lowest private was thinking, “An aircraft doing a strafing run could take the entire battalion in a couple of passes.” We’d just made it really easy for them by following rules the should have been bypassed by common sense.

The battalion’s headquarters was the first row of tents. The first tent was for the guard relief, and the second tent was the battalion commander’s quarters.

Then our company was the next row, and behind us another row. We also were interspersed with some foxholes, which are holes for the soldiers to hide in during gunfire and mortar round attacks. The tents were about four feet apart, and tied together.

I’m inside the supply tent and I hear a commotion coming from outside. I peep out to see what’s going on, and soldiers are running everywhere. The guard tent is on fire, orange flames whipping in the wind. Those canvas GP mediums burn very quickly.

The winds were so bad that it wouldn’t have been hard for a spark to leap over to our tents and take out the entire battalion. I raced one tent over to the women’s tent to make sure no one was in there (no one was). As I came out, the fire had spread across the ropes to the next tent. Now the battalion commander’s tent is burning down.

And it’s taking less than five minutes.

Then we hear a sound no one wants hear: Pop! Pop! Pop!

Ammunition is cooking off.

A cry goes out, and everyone runs for the foxholes. The male soldiers were diving — literally — into the holes. I ran back and jumped behind a berm. My squad leader later joked about how fast I ran (I was a rotten runner because of my flat feet).

Yup, adrenalin will do that.

One of the cooks, who was a former Marine, grabbed the water truck used to fill the showers and used that on the fire. A couple of other soldiers got knives and dropped the next text, effecting a fire break. They got the fire out. We lost only the two tents.

But I also lost my footlocker. The battalion commander had lost all his equipment, so he replaced it with spare supplies and from soldiers like me.

Being a private is definitely not fair.

Next up will be “Air war: Unknown in the distance” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.

Scariest thing that happened to me in the army

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I’ve had a few really scary things happen to me, one which was intentional on the army’s part, and the others a function of the environment.  So this is going to be the first of three posts on those scary things.

As the last part of basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, we had to do something called Paragon Trail.  It was a live fire exercise, as in real bullets and real grenades.  An Air Force colonel who did the same training noted:

The training was designed to simulate combat with live machine gun fire 40 feet above your head, with flares lighting up the night sky.

I would not have said that was 40 feet.  It felt a lot closer!  But it was dangerous, and things could happen.  A male soldier from another cycle had been hit by shrapnel from one of the explosions.  We could get hurt!

And I nearly did.

I think the drill sergeants planned for it to be a new moon that night.  It was so dark out, in a way that you only get out in the middle of isolation.  We were a crowd of some 90 women, and yet, it seemed like each of us was alone in that field.  The night’s blackness was solid, impenetrable.

Our task was to cross Paragon Trail in full gear — helmet, equipment belt, gas mask, and rifle.  As part of it, we had to go under an obstacle of concertina wire.  This is a razor wire.  If you’ve ever driven by a prison, that’s what you see at the top of the walls.  It’s meant to stop human beings.  Humans can get over regular barbed wire.

Danger everywhere!

Then it was my turn to go and I ran, faster than I’ve run in all my life.  Flat feet didn’t stop me here.  The rifle banged and klunked against my legs. I heard the staccato of the machine gun bullets above and the booms of the grenades all around.

My brain screamed, “I’m going to get shot!  I’m going to die!”

Fear seized me, propelling me forward, faster and faster.  Everything shut down except that one goal: The end of the field.  I didn’t breathe, I didn’t think — I just reacted.

The concertina?  I dropped to the ground, rolled over, put my rifle across my stomach, and slid underneath.  The tracer rounds streaked above me as I scraped along the ground.  At last I was free of the concertina.

By then, though,  I was sweating so much that it just poured down my face in a river.  Think Robert Hayes from Airplane when he’s trying to land.  I think I was worse.  It got onto my glasses, and I could not see anything.  So I took them off, but the sweat poured into my eyes, stinging them.  Between the dark and the sweat, I couldn’t see much.

But I still ran because I had to keep moving.  I had to get to safety!

Then suddenly a shape jumps out at me, screaming, and drags me in another direction.  It’s the drill sergeant, and I’d scared him (you can fill in your own colorful phrase here).  I’d gotten to the end of the course and had almost run into the concertina wire!

Reading about action is fun.  Being in it … well, not so much.

Next up will be “Tent fire in desert storm” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.