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Is Your Website at Risk from Hackers? 8 Ways to Protect Your Blog

Protecting Your Blog from HackersBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

A hacked site can cause you days of downtime.

It can cost you money, both from lost income if you sell books through your site and from having to pay a web guru to fix the problem.

It can cause you stress as your regular readers send you messages telling you they’re receiving warnings about your site (and your site loses their trust).

It can cost you sleep as you worry about long-term consequences.

It can get you blacklisted by Google.

It can even cost you your entire website and the hours or years of work you’ve invested.

Your blog or website is at risk of being hacked simply because it exists. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big blogger (like Jeff Goins who got hacked in August) or you’re just starting out. Hackers don’t discriminate.

Anders Vinther, author of The WordPress Security Checklist, lists three reasons hackers attack even small sites: “the insertion of spam links in your content to boost SEO for other sites, through malware infections of your visitors computers (e.g., to steal their financial information), and redirecting your traffic to other sites.”

While no site is ever completely safe, you can do eight things today to significantly reduce your risk. Don’t think they’re worth the time? Go ask someone who’s been hacked and see what they think.

I’ve listed these tasks starting with the ones I think you’ll be able to do quickest and easiest and then moving to more difficult items.

(1) Choose a Secure Password

I know you might think I’m being baby basic here, but when I say “secure password,” I mean one that’s at least 10 characters long, with at least one uppercase letter and a symbol/number.

I also mean one that you don’t use anywhere else. Anywhere. If your Twitter account or your email gets hacked, you don’t want a hacker going over to your website to try the same password and finding out it works.

(2) Keep Your Site Version and Plugins Up-to-Date

I had no idea this was a big deal, but it makes sense if you think about it. The previous version of WordPress was replaced for a reason, either bugs, security weaknesses, or something else. Also, when WordPress releases an update, they tell you what they changed AND, by extension, tell hackers where the weaknesses in the old version are.

By updating to the newest version, you automatically make your site more secure. Updating is free. All it takes is a few clicks. Your site will be “down for maintenance” while it updates, so just don’t update right after you publish a new post.

Along with immediately updating your WordPress version, you need to keep your plugins up to date for the same reasons. Delete all plugins you’re not using.

(3) Keep Your Anti-Virus Software on Your Computer Up-to-Date

Did you know hackers could actually crack your website because you don’t have good anti-virus and malware protection on your computer? Certain malicious programs that hide on your computer track your keystrokes and transmit passwords to the bad guys.

(4) Don’t Use Admin As Your Login Name

If you have a WordPress website/blog, the default administrative username is “admin.”

When you keep this as your username, you’ve just taken away half your basic security system. Most hackers will try this first because so many people fail to change it. And that only leaves your password for them to crack.

Not only should you change your administrative account, but you should also delete the admin account. As long as it exists, your website is vulnerable.

Follow these steps:

  1. Log in using your “Admin” account.
  2. Click on “Users” in the left hand menu bar.
  3. When you’re on the “Users” page, you’ll see an “Add New” button. Click that. Fill in the information using anything other than your name (too obvious) or “admin” for the username. From the dropdown menu, select the “administrator” role. You always need to have an account with the administrator role.
  4. Log out of the “Admin” account and into your new account.
  5. Go back to the “Users” page and delete the old “Admin” account.
  6. This is extremely important. When WordPress asks you what you want to do with the pages and posts belonging to the old “Admin” account, you need to assign them to the new account you created or they’ll be deleted.

(5) Limit Login Attempts

You can use the Limit Login Attempts plugin or Login Lockdown. Either of these allows you to choose the number of login attempts allowed before it locks out that IP address.

Without a limit to the number of times someone can get your username or password wrong, a hacker could eventually crack your website through sheer persistence. A skilled hacker can use software to run multiple combinations until they finally hit on the right one.

Hint: Most plugins show a “Settings” or “Options” link right under their name on the plugins page. Neither of these did, but I found them under my Settings tab in my left hand side bar.

But what if I change my password frequently or have a terrible memory? Won’t I lock myself out?

You might. Your site won’t blow up if you do. You will be forced to wait the time period you decided before you can log in again.

I’ll tell you my secret. I have my username and password written down on a piece of paper and taped to the back of a nearby picture. I haven’t yet forgotten them, but if I did I could easily check.

(6) Hide Your Login Page

In a similar problem to using “admin” as your username, all WordPress sites have their login page located at www.yourdomainname.com/wp-admin. Easy to find if you’re a hacker.

One plugin I found recommended in a ProBlogger post is Hide Login. I’m still looking for a better rated option though, and if I find one, I’ll update this post to add it.

(7) Install Key Security Plug-Ins

Secure WordPress – If you understand technical gobbled-gook you can read all the details about this yourself, but the basic idea is that this plugin hides the meta-data for your blog (which is otherwise public). If they can get a hold of this meta-data, hackers can use it to compromise your blog.

WP Security Scan – This scan searches for vulnerabilities in your website and suggests ways to fix them.

Bulletproof Security – This plugin prevents sophisticated hacking attempts, as well as gives one-click htaccess protection and wp-config.php protection. You’ll read a lot of posts on “how to protect your blog from hackers” that tell you to protect those things, but they all involve complicated coding that most of us don’t know how to do. Bulletproof security does it for those of us who are coding-impaired. It has a lot of options and looks complicated at first, but it has an extensive help file and there are many videos online explaining it, so this is basically a case of adding elbow grease to figure out your settings.

(8) Back-Up Your Website

Backing up your website makes sure that if the worst happens and you are hacked, you don’t lose everything. You can restore back to a saved version before someone inserted malicious coding into your site.

Good plugins for this are WP Online Backup, WP DB Backup, and BackWPup. I probably wouldn’t have the skills to restore my site myself (because I don’t want to go fiddling with the files that make it run), but I would have what I needed to provide to a web guru to quickly and easily do it for me.

If your site becomes immensely popular and you have the money, you can also pay for a backup service called Vault Press (by the creators of WordPress). The basic plan costs $15/month.

Is There More I Can Do to Protect My Site?

I’ve given you the quick version here. I wanted you to have something you could do in an afternoon. I also wanted to give you something that almost anyone can do.

If you want to make your site even more secure, you can read Anders Vinther’s free WordPress Security Checklist that walks you through security procedures in detail. It involves more technical knowledge. (Some of it is beyond my skill level, but I wanted to provide it for those of you who are able and interested.) The author says it takes about five hours to complete. You can download the PDF version or walk through the interactive version on their website.

There is also a highly-rated plugin called Better WP Security that’s supposed to cover many of the concerns above, including hiding your meta-data, htaccess protection, renaming your login screen, restricting login attempts, and scanning for security vulnerabilities. However, I haven’t tried it yet because it makes significant coding changes to your website. Before installing it, it’s recommended you have a backup of your site made. This is one I’m saving for the future when I can work with a web guru to walk me through it.

Disclaimer: I am not a website designer. I’m an average writer just like you who’s trying to make her site more secure. I wrote this post to help. If you break your site, I am not legally responsible.

Do you know someone who had their site hacked? Have you taken any steps to protect your site?

Image Credit: Vangelis Thomaidis (from stock.xchange)

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Why I’m Thankful for the Stress Tests in Life

Guild Wars 2 Stress TestI’m thankful for the stress tests of life.

Three weeks ago, my husband and I chose to spend our “date afternoon” together participating in a Guild Wars 2 stress test. Guild Wars 2 is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) based around the story of the re-emergence of Destiny’s Edge, a guild dedicated to fighting and defeating the Elder Dragons who’ve once again taken over the world.

When Guild Wars 2 publisher ArenaNet announced the stress test on the Guild Wars 2 Facebook page, they explained, “We will be actively working on the game during the event, so you might experience connectivity problems or discover features that are not working as designed. Any issues you experience are a result of the rigorous conditions of the stress test, and are in no way representative of the state of the game at launch. By participating in this stress test, you’re helping us make Guild Wars 2 a better game.”

And we did find glitches as we played. I got disconnected twice. A few quests were bugged (in other words, didn’t work as they should). We also won’t be able to keep the characters we created for the stress test once the game actually launches.

But those stress tests are essential for a good game.

Stress tests provide information ArenaNet couldn’t get without putting pressure on the game. Until they applied that pressure, flaws and problems lay hidden. Ignorance of the problems kept them from fixing them.

They wanted to catch things in advance because if they didn’t and those problems showed up post-launch, it could ruin their game’s reputation. Games are a lot like people. They have a limited time to make a good first impression, and if they’re unpleasant to deal with, no one will hang around long. Even if you eventually fix the problems, people will be wary of you because the cloud of your past trails along behind you on the Internet. It takes much longer to fix a reputation than it does to build it up and keep it healthy in the first place.

We need stress tests in our lives for the same reasons. Each smaller trial we face—the flat tire, the failed project, the broken arm, the pinching pennies, even the minor successes—shows us weaknesses in our character. Are we impatient? Are we unmerciful? Do we blame someone else for what went wrong, or do we take responsibility? Are we a sore loser, coming up with reasons why that other person shouldn’t have gotten the job or shouldn’t have won? Are we a sore winner, gloating over the people we’ve beaten? Do we panic and take our fear out on our loved ones?

Once we know our weaknesses, we can work on fixing them.

The purpose of those stress tests in our lives is to prepare us for the important events. A terminally-ill loved one. A lost job. Getting the job we’ve always dreamed off. A successful book. Parenthood.

We don’t want to be caught unawares by our weaknesses when those hit. We want to be as prepared as possible so that we can do our best when it really matters.

By facing the stress tests, you’re helping make yourself a better person.

What “stress test” have you been thankful for in hindsight because it helped prepare you for something important down the road?

(I don’t know whether to thank Samantha Warren and Melinda VanLone for introducing me to this game or not 🙂 I won’t completely geek out on you right now by talking about it in detail, but if you’re looking for a seemingly fantastic MMORPG that isn’t subscription-based, check out Guild Wars 2.)

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Why Every Author Needs a Professional Photo – Guest Post by Brent Foster

In my continuing effort to bring you useful tools, I wanted to look at why every author needs a professional photo (also called a “head shot”). Mine is in dire need of an update. Today I’m pleased to be able to welcome guest poster Brent Foster, a photojournalist who says, “I believe in storytelling, and photography is my tool.”

Brent is a master at just that. He’s traveled from Palestine to the Congo, and has met (and photographed) actors, authors, and even the Dalai Lama. His work has appeared in The National Post, The Los Angeles Times, Canadian Geographic, and TIME, to name only a few.

Take it away Brent . . .

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Most people believe a picture is worth a thousand words . . . unless you’re a writer.

authors need professional photos

(c) Brent Foster – Actor Alan Rickman poses for a photo at the Park Hyatt.

I’ve worked with hundreds of writers. As a newspaper photojournalist for the last ten or so years, I averaged working with 2-10 different writers in a given week, from Pulitzer prize winners to newbies. Let me tell you–writers are the worst at understanding the importance of imagery, and good imagery at that.

Let me break this to you as gently as possible–a picture will always be the first thing a reader/viewer will look at. That’s right, it won’t be your finely-crafted mumble jumble. It will be the image.

I’ll give you a second to soak that in.

Why do you need to show your face? Well, why not? We write differently these days for blogs, networking, etc. We write visually, and often in first person. That’s because we, as writers, journalists, photographers, storytellers, and communicators, reach people in a different way than ever before. We reach them by being us.

People read what you write because they like or dislike what you say, but, in the end, they are interested in you. Your personality, your thoughts, opinions. And after feeling like they know you this intimately, they likely want to know what you look like.

So, who would be ideal to take on this task?

Enter, professional photographer.

authors need professional head shot

(c) Brent Foster – Danny Angelidis, owner of Crystal Ice, poses for a portrait in the freezer.

Images that reflect you as a writer, and more importantly, you as a human being, are key to success in our crazy online world. Your promotional photo shouldn’t be a mug shot necessarily, but it’s also not a dating site photo taken by your best friend.

Look at people like the Rock ‘n Roll Bride. She’s made her career using her personality to her advantage . . . who doesn’t like pink hair?

Seriously though, your images should reflect who you are and what you want to say to the world. If you’re a dog blogger, well, hmm, what would be the ideal shot here? Lets just say, it’s not a shot of you and your cat.

Focus on your strengths, and pick a photographer who is suited to you. If you like what you see on the photographer’s website when looking at a full shoot, chances are you will like what you’ll get in the end. Find a photographer you love, who matches you, and who is willing to consult and brainstorm in advance of your shoot.

So stop hiding behind your pen, and get out there!

-Brent Foster

Why authors need professional photo

http://www.brentfosterphotography.com

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Not My Normal Monday Post

Inspiring Blog AwardThis isn’t going to be the post you expected. The type of posts you do expect on Mondays will return next week.

I had a different post scheduled for today, but I’ve delayed it until next week for three reasons. Since this is a holiday, I expect most of you are spending the day away from your computer and with loved ones. If you’re not, finish this post quick and go. Shoo. I’ve also had a flood of blog awards given to me in the last few weeks, and I wanted to thank some of those people for their kindness today before anything got in the way.

Mostly, though, it’s because my husband’s stepfather passed away this Saturday morning, and I wanted to pause and simply say “thank you” to all of you who regularly read my posts. Life is short, and I appreciate the time you spend with me. Your comments and shares and messages make this worth it for me. You’re what makes blogging fun.

So now for the specific thank-yous.

Tracy Campbell sent three awards my way: the Inspiring Blog Award, the One Lovely Blog Award, and the Liebster Award.

Tracy and I met just over a year ago at a writer’s conference where we discovered that although we write in different genres, we have similar writing styles. Since then, Tracy has become one of my favorite editing clients and also someone I consider a friend. Along with being a writer, Tracy is also a very talented artist.

One Lovely Blog AwardDarlene Turner sent two awards my way: the Inspiring Blog Award and the One Lovely Blog Award.

Darlene recently finished writing a contemporary gothic novel, Amber Dreams. On her Dream, Believe, Fly blog, she’s been courageous enough to share her very personal stories of her husband leaving her to pursue a life of homosexuality and her later struggle with infertility.                                                                                                                                      

Both of these ladies are a privilege to know, and I am humbled that they chose to pass these awards along to me.

If you’d like to learn the seven quirky facts about me that these awards ask for, check out my Versatile Blogger post.

I’d love to have you subscribe to my blog if you aren’t already. All you have to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” button. If you received this post by email, then you’re already subscribed, and I appreciate you!

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5 Basics About Dialogue You Need to Know

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

“Dialogue is conversation–nothing more, nothing less” (Gloria Kempton).

A couple months back when I took a survey on what you wanted me to write about, one of the topics you asked me to cover was dialogue. So today I’m kicking off a new craft series.

Through the series, I’ll cover ways to add variety to your dialogue, handling some of the most common challenges in writing dialogue (like dialect), the purpose dialogue needs to serve in a scene to make the cut, and how to write dialogue unique to your characters. But first we need to tackle the basics of beats, tags, and punctuation. Get them wrong and you can ruin an otherwise well-written scene (and mark yourself as an amateur).

(1) Choose the Correct Form of Punctuation

Improper punctuation of dialogue is one of the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts I edit and critique.

Use a comma at the end of a segment of dialogue (even a complete sentence) when followed by a tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said.

Use a question mark without a comma for a question. (This applies to exclamation marks too.)
Example: “Do you like cinnamon jelly beans?” Marcy asked.
I could have replaced “asked” with “said” here and the punctuation would remain the same.

If a tag is dividing a sentence, use a comma at the end of the first section of dialogue (even if the comma wouldn’t normally go there in the same sentence if it wasn’t dialogue) and use a comma after the tag.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said, “because they burn my tongue.”

Use a period after a tag when the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence.
Example: “I hate cinnamon jelly beans,” Marcy said. “I refuse to eat them.”

Use a dash when dialogue is cut off or interrupted. Do not add any other punctuation.
Example:
“It wasn’t my—”
“Enough excuses.”

Use an ellipsis for dialogue that fades away.
Example: “I just . . .” She wrapped her arms around her stomach. “I thought he loved me.”

Use exclamation marks sparingly! They’re usually a sign that you’re trying to bolster weak dialogue. They’re also distracting!! (I’m wagging a finger at myself right now. I know they’re bad, but I do so love to use them.)

Don’t use colons or semi-colons in your dialogue at all. While this might seem like an arbitrary rule, colons and semi-colons just look unnatural in dialogue. For the most part, you should avoid them in your fiction entirely. The old joke is that you’re allowed one semi-colon per career, so use it wisely.

Punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks in North America. If you’re not in North America, check some of the traditionally published books on your shelf to see where they place punctuation.

(2) Use a Tag or a Beat, But Not Both

A tag is a word such as “said” or “asked.” A beat is a piece of action used in place of a tag.

The point of a tag is to let the reader know who’s saying what. If you’ve shown them who’s talking through a beat, you don’t need to also tell them through a tag. It’s awkward and wordy to use both. (About one time out of 100 you can break this rule for effect.)

Wrong: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said, patting Luna on the head.

Right: My brother patted Luna on the head. “Your dog looks like an alien.”

Right: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said.

(3) F-A-D (Feelings/Thoughts-Action-Dialogue)

Another common mistake is to place your beat (the action) after your dialogue. Beats almost always come before dialogue. (I’ll talk about the exception next week.)

I can feel you rebelling already against the idea that you need to follow a particular order of feeling/thoughts, then action, then dialogue when you write. If you don’t follow this pattern though, your writing will feel off to your readers because you’ll unintentionally violate the law of cause coming before effect (or action coming before reaction). In life, which fiction imitates, there’s a natural order to things.

In life, we either have an emotional reaction or a mental reaction to an event first. It happens quickly. We see a gun, fear shoots through our body, and we think I don’t want to die. These emotions or thoughts cause us to act. Sometimes an action can be almost unconscious, a knee jerk reaction to your feelings or thoughts. Finally we speak because speech is externalizing what’s going on inside.  Speech, even when you’re angry, generally takes longer and requires more mental engagement. It’s a rational reaction.

Wrong: “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.” Emily shrugged.

Right: Emily shrugged. “I don’t know why he would steal the cinnamon jelly beans.”

I learned the acronym F-A-D from agent Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.

(4) Avoid Creativity In Your Tags

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) a sentence, you’re violating the “show don’t tell” principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. If you feel like you need to use a tag other than said, asked, and occasionally, whispered or shouted for the reader to understand your meaning, you need to rewrite your dialogue and the beats around it to make it stronger and clearer.

Trying to get creative with your tags also comes with other consequences. Said and asked are nearly invisible to readers. Our minds skip over them. More creative tags aren’t, so they can quickly become distracting and annoying.

They’re also impossible. Go ahead. Try to hiss or growl a word. I dare you.

(5) Place Your Tags/Beats Strategically

Always write John said, never said John. You’ll often find the latter in classic literature, but it went out of style decades ago. And this is one style that won’t be coming back.

When you have long passages of dialogue, it’s usually best to either begin with a beat so readers know who’s talking before they start, or place a beat or tag at the first natural pause.

Example: “We have come to witness our finest warriors compete,” Penthesilea said. “Scythia offers their best to us, so we offer them no less. Six stand ready today. We need only three.”

What’s your greatest struggle when it comes to writing dialogue? And, the real question, do you like cinnamon jelly beans?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

Enter your email below so you’ll receive the rest of the series, and remember to Join Me on Facebook!

Photo Credit: Ilker from www.sxc.hu

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Cinderella Strong – Guest Post by August McLaughlin

Last April, I read a post on the Cinderella fairy tale that made me see it in a completely new light. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I asked the author, August McLaughlin, if she’d allow me to re-post it here today. If you’re not already a regular reader of August’s blog, make sure you go there after. It’s my favorite place to get well-being tips–from healthy eating, to inspiration, to resolutions that could save our lives.

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Cinderella Strong

By August McLaughlin

August McLaughlin Dolly Cotour Alice Hu 2011Taken literally, one could argue—and numerous have—that Disney’s Cinderella is a passive woman who does nothing to improve her dismal situation.

Rather than stand up to her evil step-family or step out on her own, she relies on others—singsong mice, her fairy godmother, and a handsome prince. She makes wishes, and they do the dirty work. Her prize? A beauty makeover and happily ever after with Bachelor #1.

In the 1980s, psychologist Colette Dowling presented similar views in her best-selling book, Cinderella Complex: Woman’s Hidden Fear of Independence. (It’s a fascinating read, if you’re interested.)

But what if Cinderella is entirely metaphorical? Here’s what I see:

Cinderella’s mice represent her spirit, prodding her to believe in “the dreams [her] heart makes?” Our hearts recognize our dreams before we can pursue them.

The evil step-family illustrates the naysayers in life—people, including ourselves, who tell us to stop striving, that our goals and pursuits are foolish, that we’re destined to live out our lives doing undesirable work, caring for everyone but ourselves.

The fairy godmother is Cinderella’s muse—the inner voice that prompts us to step out of our comfort zones and toward our passion.

The glowing gown she wears reflects how she feels once she begins honing in on her dreams. Once we find the “shoe” (life path) that fits, we stands a bit taller, and our inner-beauty shines outward.

Reverting to her “raggedy” self at midnight represents the time, rest and self-care personal growth requires. There are no quick fixes. We all face risks and challenges along the way. If we embrace them, they can help make us strong.

And speaking of passion, the hunky prince represents the handsome life Cinderella eventually obtains, and the chivalry she finally shows herself. Once that happens, the world is her stage to dance on. Sure, we might get blisters now and then, and every step won’t be graceful, but we’re free to live happy, authentic lives.

Ever seen bits of Cinderella in yourself? When have you felt Cinderella-like? What did the experience teach you?

August McLaughlin Thriller AuthorAugust McLaughlin is a thriller author, health writer and freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. To learn more, visit her website and connect with her on Twitter: @AugstMcLaughlin.

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How to Help Your Readers See Your World

Sense of Sight in FictionBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I have a confession to make. It took me three tries to finish Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

I stalled out the first two times in the same place—at the house of Tom Bombadil. I tried to slog through all the description, but my attention would slip, I’d set the book down, and something more interesting would steal its place. On the third try, I skipped that section and sailed through the rest of the series.

Most readers aren’t going to be so determined to read your book, and the biggest trap when it comes to over-describing is the sense of sight. And that’s logical. It’s the sense we use the most, and it’s the sense we need to include the most so the reader gets a solid grasp of our setting.

But how do we include enough sight details without creating the Tom Bombadil problem?

Allow Your Character to Put Their Own Twist on It

We hear this advice all the time. Everything needs to be said the way your point of view character would. What would your POV character notice? How would they describe it?

Take it bigger.

Is your character an optimist or do you want to show her in a good mood? Have her notice the one point of beauty in an otherwise ugly item.

Want to show the character arc? How does what they notice about a particular object change over the course of the story?

Use Carefully Chosen Items to Foreshadow

The problem with sight is every day we’re overwhelmed with thousands of meaningless, extra images. Consequently, when we write, we’re tempted to also fill our books with images that don’t serve a purpose. In fiction, everything needs to serve a purpose.

We can include sight details so people see the setting. We can include sight details to set the mood. We can also use sight details to foreshadow.

Foreshadowing is hinting at what’s to come in your story. You can foreshadow a major plot element, the character’s internal state or future transformation, or a secret (either not yet revealed or revealed to the reader but not to the POV character) all through little sight details.

Remember the key here is subtle. So subtle in fact that not every reader will catch it. But the ones who do will love you for it.

Put What Your Character Sees Into Motion

Unlike the other senses, sight often takes more than a single detail to give us a vivid picture, especially if the setting or character you’re describing is important. While adding action (or at least a feeling of motion) won’t fix a giant info dump, it can ensure longer descriptions still have forward momentum.

Suzanne Collins used this expertly when describing Rue, the youngest competitor in The Hunger Games.

She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound. It’s impossible not to think of a bird (pg. 98).

N.K. Jemisin did the same thing in her Hugo and Nebula-nominated novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

Face like the moon, pale and somehow wavering. I could get the gist of his features, but none of it stuck in my mind beyond an impression of astonishing beauty. His long, long hair wafted around him like black smoke, its tendrils curling and moving of their own volition. His cloak—or perhaps that was his hair too—shifted as if in an unfelt wind (pg. 30).

So How Can We Balance the Five Senses?

Here’s my tip for figuring out your weaknesses when it comes to the five senses in your fiction or memoir. Take your first chapter, last chapter, and five random chapters from the middle. (No cheating and picking your best.) Assign each sense a different color and circle or highlight every time you use a sense. Once you finish, spread the papers out around you. You’ll immediately be able to see which sense you use the most and where you’re weak.

How do you feel about sight descriptions in books? Do you like to be shown everything in detail or do you prefer the author leave much to your imagination?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on the five senses. If you missed the first four installments, you can check out my posts on taste, touch, smell, and sound here.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

I’d love to have you subscribe. I’ll be kicking off a series on dialogue soon.

Photo Credit: Raphael Pinto on www.sxc.hu

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Megamind: Is Praise More Powerful than Criticism?

MegamindBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

There’s an old joke that women marry men expecting they can change them, and men marry women thinking they’ll never change. Both end up disappointed.

Change is a tricky subject. How do we know if someone has truly changed? And how many times should we give a “second” chance? Should we even bother trying to help someone change?

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: We can’t change anyone, but we can be the catalyst for them wanting to change. (Click here to tweet this.)

This is exactly what happened to Megamind.

Megamind is a blue-headed alien who lands on earth as a baby after his planet is destroyed. Megamind crashes in a prison and is raised by criminals, while his nemesis (another alien baby sent from a different planet in the same destroyed galaxy) grows up in a wealthy home.

“No matter how hard I tried,” Megamind says about his school years, “I was always the odd man out. The screw-up. The black sheep. The bad boy.”

Even when he tries to do nice things for the other children, it backfires and he ends up in the corner. He decides that being bad is the one thing he’s good at.

He becomes a super-villain, and his nemesis becomes a superhero named Metro Man.

After years of battling each other, and completely by accident, Megamind manages to kill Metro Man. He takes over the city, and then…he’s bored. Without anyone to oppose him, where’s the fun in being a super-villain?

He comes up with a plan to give Metro Man’s powers to someone else and create a new hero to battle. In the process, reporter Roxanne Ritchie mistakes him for a museum curator named Bernard (thanks to a watch Megamind wears that allows him to disguise his appearance).

Roxanne and “Bernard” fall in love. As Bernard, Megamind gets told how inspiring he is, how strong and brave and funny.

Throughout his life, people lectured him about how bad he was and how he needed to change.

But he never had a chance to learn the rewards of good actions.

By loving him and showing him what life could be like if he changed, Roxanne gave Megamind the push he needed to want something different.

Megamind starts to clean up the city because he knows it will make Roxanne happy. He returns the works of art he stole. When the hero Megamind creates turns evil, Megamind finally steps up to stop him and becomes the hero himself.

Sometimes we don’t change because of the consequences of our actions. We change because we finally realize what we’re missing, and we want it more than we want to avoid the pain and struggle of changing.

I’ve been around Great Danes since I was seven years old. Danes are gluttons for attention, especially as puppies, which means that if you scold them for a bad behavior—giving them attention—they’re going to repeat that behavior any time they want your attention. If a bad behavior earns a reaction, it becomes a game for them.

So when you’re raising a Dane puppy, you have to do something that seems counterintuitive to most people. You ignore all bad behavior. No punishment. If they jump on you, you stand still, cross your arms, and turn your face away. If they chew something they shouldn’t, you distract them and hide the chewed object.

And you praise the stuffing out of them for the smallest good behavior.

Doing this hasn’t failed yet to turn out a well-behaved dog.

Dogs are very different from spouses, but perhaps the same principle applies.

What if, instead of griping and lecturing and criticizing our spouse for the things they do that we don’t like, we gave them praise and affection whenever they did something right?

Maybe you’re all better at the marriage thing than I am yet, but I know I tend to take the things my husband does right for granted. Why should I have to thank him, hug him, or praise him for doing something around the house? Isn’t that just what he’s supposed to do? So what happens is, more often than I want to admit, he only hears the negative.

Perhaps the power of praise to bring about change is highly underestimated.

Have you ever consciously or unconsciously changed your actions because of positive feedback? Parents, do you find this idea works with your children? Couples, does this work with your significant other?

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What the Olympics Can Teach You About Becoming a Successful Writer

What the Olympics Can Teach You About Becoming a Successful WriterWe all want to be successful.

It’s how we define success that differs.

You might define it as being able to support yourself financially through your writing. You might define it as hitting the bestseller list (either NYT or Amazon). You might define it as helping people. You might define it as having a small, loyal following. You might define it as something else entirely. 

But no one aspires to fail.

This is part of why even non-sports fans love the Olympics so much. We’re inspired by the athletic prowess and dedication of the Olympians, and we dream about what it would be like to be that good at something.

The excitement of the summer Olympics might be over for another four years, but we can take away three lessons about how to be successful in our writing.

Practice for 10 Years Before Expecting Success

Olympic athletes don’t start training to go to the Olympics the year before or even four years before.

Eleven-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte learned to swim at age five, started taking his swimming seriously in 1998, and it wasn’t until 2004 that he qualified for his first Olympics. He worked for six years to reach the Olympics and waited another two years before winning an individual gold medal at an international event.

Michael Phelps started swimming at age seven and joined the U.S. Olympic swim team at age 15, but didn’t medal at all in his first Olympics. With more practice, he’d go on to win 22 Olympic medals.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours we need to become an elite performer like Olympic athletes.

If you calculate the 20 hours per week Ryan Lochte says he spends swimming and the 15 hours per week he trains on land, you get…5.5 years to reach 10,000 hours. Almost exactly the amount of time between when Lochte began to take swimming seriously and when he qualified for the Olympics.

For people who can only devote 20 hours per week, the time to reach 10,000 hours is 10 years.

I know I’m risking stepping on some toes here, but this is why most writers shouldn’t even attempt to publish the first book they complete. That book is the practice. It shouldn’t be treated like the Olympics. Writers, like athletes, need to learn by doing. Theory alone isn’t enough. And few people have put in their 10,000 hours by the time they finish their first book.

When it comes to practice, there’s also one more thing we need to keep in mind—Olympic athletes don’t train in isolation. They seek out the company of other swimmers who can push them to get better and trainers who can teach them proper form and give them specific, targeted feedback.

As writers, if we work in isolation without seeking out feedback from peers and experts, we’ll be doomed to repeat our mistakes without realizing we’re making them or knowing how to fix them.

While all this might sound depressing at first, I think we should actually take it as encouragement. Excellence takes time. If our writing isn’t excellent right now, that’s okay. We just need more practice.  

Balance Your Fuel Intake with Your Calorie Output

In 2008, news stories everywhere reported on Michael Phelps 12,000 calorie per day diet. The average male needs 2,500-3,000 calories/day, but Phelps’ caloric intake was normal for Olympic athletes.

He could eat so much because his training burned a huge number of calories. An imbalance either way would have destroyed his chances for success.

If Phelps stopped training but continued to eat 12,000 calories per day, he’d turn fat and unhealthy. (The average human gains one pound for every 3,000 calories they eat above what their body needs.)

If Phelps continued training but dropped his caloric intake, he wouldn’t have enough energy to perform.

How does this apply to writers? In the same way that Phelps and other Olympic athletes need to balance their caloric intake with their energy needs, we also need to balance our input and output.

Our fuel for excellent writing is well-written books, teaching on craft (whether that be books, classes, or critiques by pros), information on genre conventions, and research into the specifics of our book, whether that’s the police procedures or setting of a novel or the latest research on the subject of your non-fiction book.

Our training is the actual writing we do.

If we keep taking in fuel but stop training, we’re wannabes. Flabby with theory.

If we train without the proper knowledge fuel, our progress will fizzle out.

Choose a Specialty

Did you ever notice how each Olympic athlete has their area of expertise. It’s the event where they have the best chance of success.

Ryan Lochte’s specialty is the swims around 200-meters. The gymnast who excels at the horizontal bar usually isn’t the same one who wins gold on the beam.

More than this though, you won’t see Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps running track, competing in gymnastics, or even diving.

As writers, we often hate the idea of limiting ourselves to one genre, and further down to a sub-genre, but think of it this way—would you rather be the Stephen King or Nora Roberts of your genre or an author who dabbles in many genres but never builds a name for themselves in any?

That’s a personal choice, but many of us have one genre we love above all others and that just feels like home. For me, that’s fantasy. And I don’t feel like it limits me because I can incorporate the things I love about other genres if I want.

You don’t choose your specialty when you’re starting out. You try things out and see where your natural ability lies.

Once you discover your niche, though, why would you wander from what you love and what you’re most successful at?

What other lessons did you learn from the Olympics, writing or otherwise?

I owe the inspiration for this post to Vince Robisch’s “What Ryan Lochte Can Teach You About Blogging.” I enjoyed this post so much that I just had to write a version targeted to writers.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

Image Credit: Neil Gould (obtained from Stock.xchng)

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Why Every Couple Should Play Video Games Together

Marcy Kennedy World of WarcraftBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Video and computer games are some of the most underrated relationship-building tools.

My husband and I had a long-distance relationship from the time we met until we got married (and even after we got married as we waited on immigration). Many people wonder how we could possibly know each other well enough to get married if we’d never lived near each other. Alongside long hours spent talking on the phone and webcams and all-too-brief visits, we were also able to learn about each other through playing online games.

Put your skepticism on hold—I’m about to tell you three things you can learn about the person you’re with simply by playing a game together, plus why I think every couple can benefit from it.

Do they know how to share, and will they make sacrifices for you?

In World of Warcraft, the game my husband and I started playing as a long-distance dating couple, bag space is at a premium. You start with one bag (out of a possible five), and you don’t have the money to buy any more. So what? Well, if you don’t have enough bag space, you’ll waste a lot of time running back to a vendor to empty your bags rather than being able to complete all the quests in an area at once. And until you reach level 20 and get riding training and a mount, all travel is slow and on foot.

You also start out broke, with not a single coin in your purse. You have to earn money by completing quests and selling what drops from the monsters you fight. This can make buying new gear, buying bags, or getting the training you need slow at first.

Unless your significant other has a higher-level character and is willing to send your baby toon (a way of saying “low-level character”) four 16-slot bags and 250 gold. They just showed that they value helping you over advancing their own character.

Any game where two players can share items, ammo, money, or information can tell you a lot about the character of the person you’re playing with.

How do you function as a team?

In WoW, you can play cooperatively with someone else by joining a group and going on quests together. (A lot of games have this team element to them, so, again, this point isn’t confined to WoW.)

My husband and I play as a damage-dealer/healer pair. He has to have my back and protect me from mobs that would rip through my flimsy cloth “armor,” and I have to make sure I don’t let his health drop to critical levels. Does the person you’re with watch out for you, or do they run off and let you die?

Other quests and dungeons require a certain amount of strategy. In other words, you need to develop good communication skills if you expect to succeed.

And when you fail, do they blame it all on you? Or do you both accept responsibility and figure out a new plan together?

How patient will your partner be with your shortcomings (or what they consider shortcomings)?

According to my husband, I’m a slow player with limited situational awareness. I locate quests slower, choose my rewards slower, empty my bags slower—you get the idea. It’s a difference in our play styles. I’m living the fantasy and savoring the experience. He just wants to level because he’s already played the content multiple times before.

I also tend to accidentally attract bad guys because I don’t see them. I prefer to play with my view zoomed in closer, while my husband plays with his zoomed out as far as it will go. Neither of us can understand how the other plays the way they do.

So we work to find a compromise between our play styles, we try to be patient, and we continue to play together because the fun we have far outweighs our frustrations.

Have you played video or computer games with your loved one? Is there anything else you would consider an underrated relationship-building tool?

For another great post on the value of gaming in life and relationships, check out Kristen Lamb’s post “Gears of War—Playtime, Obsession, Foundation of a Happy Marriage.”

Image Credit: Jer Wilcocks Photography (That’s my husband and I from our engagement photo shoot in the picture.)

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