Tag Archives: Meredith Allard

Productivity for Writers and Other People

By Meredith Allard

It’s interesting to me to see how conversations change over time. Not so long ago everyone was praising multi-tasking as the best thing ever. Hey, I can write the world’s greatest novel while reading blogs while checking every new email the moment it pops into my inbox while keeping track of every ping on Facebook and Twitter while walking the dog while doing my taxes while binge watching Netflix while juggling watermelons while yodeling to the tune of “O Solo Mio.” At the end of the day I’d wonder why I hadn’t written more. Had I really lost an entire day watching cat videos on YouTube? Then I realized that I didn’t want to spend more time working. I wanted to get more done.

Around this time, I started seeing articles about how multi-tasking may not be all it was cracked up to be. We weren’t putting all our attention and talent into any one task; as a result, we weren’t working to the best of our abilities because our attention was too scattered. Enter the discussion about productivity.

I think the reason there are so many articles about productivity is because so many of us are struggling with the same issue—how do we work more efficiently so that we’re getting more and better work done in less time? Here are a few tricks I’ve learned lately that have helped me stay focused while I’m working. I wrote this post from the point of view of a writer hoping to steal back some of her precious time to get more writing done, but I hope anyone who is having some concerns about their productivity will find these tips useful.

  1. I changed my homepage for the Internet.

Since I’ve had the Internet in the mid 1990s I’ve used AOL as my homepage. My email address is through AOL, so by using AOL as my homepage I could check my email as soon as I logged online. But you know how it goes…there are the news links, the entertainment links, the books links, along with any other links that might catch my eye. Once AOL and The Huffington Post joined hands, I was done for. I’d spend an hour reading blog posts and getting no work done in the process. Was it fun? For sure, though there were definitely times when I was wondering why I was reading about celebrities I didn’t even care about. I had just wasted an hour I could have spent getting my work done.

About three months ago I changed my Internet homepage to my own website. That might sound a little self-serving, but it helps me in two ways. First, I can do a quick glance at my site to see if there are comments I need to respond to, which I can often do in under five minutes. Second, there are no news feeds to distract me so I’m able to get right to whatever it is I need on the Internet. Yes, I have to click on one or two more links to get to my email, but it’s worth it to me to skip over the distractions.

  1. I check my email twice a day.

I check my email in the morning to see if there’s anything imperative that needs seeing to, and then I check my email at the end of my work day to see if there’s something that came in since the morning. That’s it.

  1. I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and iPad and stopped all social media notifications.

Now the only way I can access Facebook and Twitter is to log in on my computer. This extra step helps to scratch the itch that used to lead me to check my social media pages every five minutes to see if someone posted a new cute cat photo. I check Facebook and Twitter twice a day, quick scans to see what others are up to and if there’s anything I need to respond to, which, again, I can usually do in less than five minutes.

I also removed all social media notifications. I no longer get instant pings whenever I get a new email or message on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. When I was getting the notifications everything else stopped until I discovered who sent the message and what it said. One day, in a burst of wisdom, I realized that most of the pings were about things of extreme unimportance. I decided that I wanted to focus my attention on things that are important so I turned off the notifications, and I don’t even miss them.

  1. I schedule my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn posts.

I use Hootsuite to schedule my posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It takes about an hour to schedule a week’s worth of posts, and then I’m done and don’t have to search every day for what to post on social media.

  1. I started using Google calendar to schedule my daily tasks.

For years I used paper and pencil notebooks and planners, but in my new wish to downsize my belongings (I love Marie Kondo’s books about decluttering) I’ve become totally electronic. Google calendar is heaven sent. It’s free, and all you need is a gmail account, which is also free. You can share your calendar with others, or you can keep it private. So now I know each day what I need to accomplish.

For example, today I had several tasks to tend to: complete my word count for the first draft of Down Salem Way, write this blog post, and find five sites to advertise Her Dear & Loving Husband, which is once again free. When those tasks are finished, I’m done with my work for the day, which is always a good feeling. Knowing what I have to do helps me stay focused. When I wasn’t keeping track of my daily tasks I just floated about looking at stupid stuff on the Internet because I was never sure what to do next so I’d go back to those cute cat videos on YouTube.

On a side note, I also find that it helps to know exactly what I’m looking for when I go onto the Internet. Right now, I’m back to researching the Salem Witch Trials for Down Salem Way, and I’m also looking for places to advertise When It Rained at Hembry Castle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I have those tasks on my Google calendar too so I know what I’m searching for. It stops me from going back to (you guessed it–the cute cat videos).

  1. I turned off the TV.

The TV is not completely gone because I do love my Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. For years, even if I wasn’t watching a show I had the TV on acting as background noise. Now the TV is off, as in off off, with a blank screen and everything. I started listening to music because music always helps to get my creative juice flowing. I’ve also started listening to podcasts because I realized I’d rather listen to some intelligent conversation than some TV show I don’t care about, and I can listen while I work. Rather than distracting me, the podcasts tap into my inquisitiveness about the world and they help me think, which is always a good thing.

My podcast tastes are pretty eclectic, like everything else about me. I love podcasts about writing and the publishing industry like Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn. As I’m learning more about productivity, I’m also learning more about how to be centered and healthy in this crazy world of ours so I listen to Shawn Stevenson’s The Model Health Show and Pedram Shojai’s The Urban Monk. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes is also pretty cool, and Shambhala features talks by famous meditation teachers in their podcast Meditation in the City. I recently discovered the History Chicks’ podcast, a great listen for a history buff like me.

  1. I had to learn to stop checking everything everywhere.

We’ve all heard of the social ill the Fear of Missing Out (affectionately—or not depending on your point of view—known as FOMO). I was right there with everyone else, checking my social media every five minutes, worrying that what was going on over there was more important than what was going on over here. Also, because I’m a writer I was constantly checking my stats on my website and my book sales. Why did I sell more books on Wednesday than Monday? How come this book’s sales have slipped? Why did this post get more views than that post? I’d check my Amazon sales page five or six times a day, as if things were going to be that different between 3 and 5 pm. And then when things were the same I felt disappointed that some magical sales boost hadn’t happened.

Not only is this kind of constant worry exhausting, it isn’t productive. When I was worried about book sales or website stats I should have been writing. There was some time there when I was a writer who wasn’t writing—or at least I wasn’t writing as much as I could have been. I was so concerned about all these other aspects, some of which were beyond my control, and you know what? They don’t matter. Sales don’t matter. Website hits don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how I feel about what I’m doing. I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me (or even worse, my own perception of other people’s perceptions of me) to affect how I felt about myself, and that, my friends, is never a good thing.

As a result, I put myself on my “no checking stats” rule that I live by to this day. I no longer check my Amazon, BN, or Kobo sales pages. I no longer check to see how many page views my latest blog post has. My one exception is that when I’m running a promotion I may check my book sales pages to see if the promotion is worth its weight in beans, but otherwise my Amazon page is a no-go. Because you know what? My books are going to sell as many copies that day as they’re going to sell whether I’m compulsively checking or not. Why make myself crazy and waste time in the process? Yes, it does takes some self-restraint to go from checking 10 times a day to zero times a day, but it is possible. If you’re not able to go cold turkey like I did, maybe try checking just once a day and see how that goes.

  1. I started paying more attention to my health.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wasn’t eating well. I was eating and drinking way too much sugar, and my exercise habits had all but disappeared. As I’m working toward becoming a more productive writer, I’m also learning more about health and wellness (mostly from the afore mentioned Model Health Show podcast from Shawn Stevenson). I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now I’ll say that whoever you are, no matter what your profession, you have to get up and move. You have to put healthy food into your body. You have to drink more water. The better you feel, the more productive you’re able to be because you’re healthier. It’s hard to be productive when you feel lousy. Do what you can to help yourself feel better.

I am definitely getting more work done in less time. I’m no longer wasting time—or, more accurately, I’m wasting far less time. I still spend more time on Pinterest than I need to, but hey, no one’s perfect. For the first time, I’m writing two books at a time, which is something I’ve never been able to do before. By whittling away at time wasters and finding ways to streamline my work time, I’ve been able to get more done. From now on, instead of multi-tasking, I’ll be focusing on productivity.

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Researching Historical Fiction: The Victorian Era

Victorian England

By Meredith Allard

I have an odd habit of choosing to write historical fiction set in eras I know little to nothing about. I came up with story ideas about the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City and Washington, D.C. during the woman’s suffrage movement, and the American Civil War, and for those stories I had to learn about the history to write the novel. I don’t mind when it happens that way, though. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I enjoy learning about the past. I often get ideas for the plot from my research, so the research helps to make my novel even richer than it might have been without the historical background.

Writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle was different. I was already familiar with the era because of my love for Dickens. This time, it was more about reminding myself what I already knew (it had been 20 years since grad school by then) and figuring out how to use that knowledge in this story I had been kicking around for two decades. I realized early in the process that now I wanted to include aspects of my favorite TV show—Downton Abbey. The aspiring young writer Edward Ellis was still the focal point of the story, but now I wanted to include upstairs/downstairs elements as well.

To begin my research, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for Hembry—Our Mutual Friend. From there, I went back to a few favorite books about the Victorian Era—What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ Londonand Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian Englandby Judith Flanders. I had read both of those books previously but reread them for a refresher course. While reading about the Victorian Era, I discovered a new favorite historian, Ruth Goodman, who impressed me with the fact that she doesn’t just talk about Victorian clothing, she makes it and wears it. She’s tried out many elements of living in the Victorian era, which gives her work that much more authority. Her book, How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life, is a must read for anyone interested in life during the Victorian period. I also read The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes. Edward Ellis is loosely based on a young Charles Dickens, but I didn’t need to read anything specifically for that since I’ve read pretty much every biography about Dickens. It was nice to be able to use information I had in my head for a change.

Victorian England 2

After my refresher course on Victorian England, I realized that I needed to learn more about what the upstairs/downstairs world looked like in the 1870s. To my surprise, it wasn’t so different from the way it’s portrayed in Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912 during the Edwardian era. While I picked up a lot about manor house living from watching Downton, as many fans of the show have, I felt I needed more specifics so I read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. I gleaned some great information from that book, and it provided good background for me so I could see how the country house servant evolved over the years. The upstairs/downstairs world isn’t part of our culture in America the way it is in England, and I wonder if that accounts for Americans’ fascination with Downton Abbey—it’s a glimpse into a lifestyle we weren’t familiar with.

The way I research historical fiction has changed a lot over the years. I used to do months of research before I ever started writing. Now I do a few weeks worth of preliminary research to get a feel for the era, and then I start writing. As I write, I get a sense of what information I need so I know exactly what to look for. As I was writing, I realized that if Edward was a political journalist then he would know politics. I needed to figure out the political climate of the time, but it wasn’t too hard since I knew what I was looking for—events in British politics in 1870. I remember learning about Gladstone and Disraeli in a class I took years ago, and it was nice being able to put that knowledge to use as well.

Through the writing process I realized that I needed information about Victorian etiquette. There were such specific rules for every aspect of life, and since part of Daphne’s struggle is to learn to live in this upstairs/downstairs world, she had to learn those rules. I found The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill, which was written for Americans during the Victorian era, but after a little digging I discovered that the rules were the same in Britain so I used that book as my primary reference. The etiquette seems so antiquated now. I had a lot of fun writing those scenes because Daphne is rather amused by her grandmother’s nitpicking about how her manners aren’t refined enough for English society.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit England twice prior to writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Most of the London locations in the story were chosen because they were places I’ve visited myself so I had seen what I was describing. I stood on the Victoria Embankment near the Houses of Parliament watching the Thames roll as Edward is wont to do. I’ve taken a couple of Edward’s walks through the city. Many of the buildings are different (I’m pretty sure the The Gherkin wasn’t around in 1870), yet some of the buildings are the same, which is amazing to me. Here in Las Vegas buildings are imploded if they’re more than 20 years old.

In many ways, researching When It Rained at Hembry Castle was the easiest work I’ve done so far for a historical novel since I was already familiar with the time. It’s always magical to me when I start to see how I can take this knowledge of history and weave it into the story I have in mind. What is even more amazing is when the history leads the story in directions I had never considered before. That, for me, is the joy of writing historical fiction.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Her newest historical novel is When It Rained at Hembry Castle, a Downton Abbey inspired story set in Victorian England.

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What I Learned About Writing From Coloring Books

By Meredith Allard

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.

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Dare To Do Nothing: Replenishing the Creative Well

The view from the park at The Lakes in Las Vegas.
The view from the park at The Lakes in Las Vegas.

To say I had been having a busy time of it would be an understatement. Suddenly, I was a university student for the first time in 20 years, I was still a full time teacher, and I was working on the first draft of my new historical novel. I was looking forward to summer vacation from both work and school as a time to focus on my novel full time. I think this is why I’ve never been worried about having a day job—even with my day job I still get summers off to write full time. Then a funny thing happened—nothing.

The novel was stalled. Where my last three novels were written fairly quickly in less than a year (that’s quickly for me, mind you), my current novel was stubborn and not coming as easily as I would have liked. I didn’t understand the characters as well as I thought I did. I felt the plot was lacking, though I couldn’t tell you why. I wondered and worried myself crazy, and while I tried to work on the book I realized I was getting nowhere fast. That’s when I came up with the radical idea of putting my writing aside for a while and leaving it alone. Normally, I allow the story some baking time after the first draft, which I had done, but then when I went to write the second draft there wasn’t much more than there had been for the first draft. The second draft is a little better than the first, but it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s definitely not publishable. For my last three novels, once I made it past the “shitty first draft” stage and had a complete second draft I was, except for revising and editing, home free. This one not so much. I was getting so frustrated I was ready to throw in the towel and forget the novel altogether.

I hadn’t suffered from writer’s block in this form since I first began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009. What if I never have another good idea? What if being a doc student has sucked away all my brain power and I simply can’t write fiction until I’m finished with my degree? What if this is it and my creativity is gone, finished, kaput? You know how writers panic when the ideas aren’t flowing. Then I started thinking about how I’ve been writing novels constantly for the last six years without a break. Since 2009, I’ve published seven novels. And the scholarly writing I do for school is creative in its own way since it takes creativity to figure out how to take information from various sources and construct a well-organized, persuasive narrative. Maybe, I thought, just maybe my creativity isn’t kaput as much as just tired.

I’ve suffered, like many of you, from what they call the Do Something Syndrome at Farnam Street blog. Even on my days off I feel like I have to constantly be working at something—whether it’s writing, editing, schoolwork, marketing, social media, whatever. I started reading a lot about stillness and how doing nothing can help to fill your creative well. Here’s a great post from one of my favorite websites, Zen Habits, called The Number 1 Habit of Highly Creative People where the artists talk about stillness and doing nothing as a way to stay creative. There are a number of other articles out there on the same topic. Doing nothing? I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I was willing to try since my creative well definitely needed replenishing. This hiatus was going to be different from the baking time since baking time is where, though I’m not actively writing, I’m still working on the novel because I’m reading, researching, and finding other ways to immerse myself in the story. This time I was going to leave the story completely alone and give myself a rest from even thinking about the novel.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

How have I been spending my days? Well, I haven’t been working on the novel, which is how I thought I would be spending this summer. I haven’t even felt guilty about not working on it—most of the time. Writers are great at laying the guilt trip on themselves, aren’t they? Whenever I see a book I’ve read for research laying around my desk, I remind myself that I’m filling my creative well and look the other way. Instead, I’ve been sitting on my little patio with my cat Ellie as we watch the Las Vegas desert sky turn from pale blue to slate gray as the thunder-filled clouds move in. I’ve gone to the park down the street with its fake lake (the water is real even if the lake is man made) and looked at the ducks, the boats, the pretty houses, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve been exercising and doing yoga after a bout of laziness. I’ve discovered the charms of adult colorng books (they’re just regular coloring books with more intricate details, folks. I know what you were thinking…). I used to love to color when I was a kid, and it turns out I still do. I’ve always considered myself a wannabe artsty-craftsy kind of person. I love watching the how-to-paint-flowers shows they have on PBS, and I even dabbled in painting with acrylics a few years ago. While coloring isn’t exactly an original piece of art, I enjoy the chance to play with colors and I’ve rediscovered the fun of crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors. I’ve been reading a lot, finishing two or three books a week. I’ve been watching some good TV shows, movies, and documentaries (yes, I watch documentaries for fun). Saying that I’ve been doing nothing isn’t quite accurate, but I haven’t been writing fiction, thinking about writing fiction, or, most importantly, worrying about writing ficiton. I’ve just been enjoying my days and filling them however I want to rather than stressing myself out about what I thought I should be doing.

Then, a couple of months into my self-imposed exile from writing fiction, I read a couple of novels that gave me some ideas for my own story. I still have things to figure out, but at least I have a few ideas now where before I had nothing. I refuse to start worrying again about when or how the book will be written. If it takes me two years instead of one to write, then so be it. I’d rather spend two years writing the story I meant to write than publish whatever just to get something out. Everything happens in its own time. I’ve always known that, but I find I need a reminder every now and again.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. She is the author of the bestselling novels The Loving Husband Trilogy and That You Are Here. You can reach Meredith online at www.meredithallard.com.

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How to Get Published

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at Writers Block, a group of young writers who are studying the craft of writing. When I asked what the group wanted to learn about, the answer came back overwhelmingly that they wanted to learn more about the publishing side of writing. It took some thinking to figure out how to condense what I’ve learned about publishing into an hour workshop, but I managed to come up with a few thoughts. Here are some of the ideas I shared about writing for publication. There’s nothing earth shattering here, but I think the young writers found it useful because it opened their eyes, perhaps for the first time, to the fact that writing for publication is hard work.

How to Get Published

To Begin:

  • Write something wonderful that someone will want to publish. This sounds obvious, but oddly it’s the step that some writers skip over in their rush to be published. Yes, wonderful is subjective, but if you have a strong grasp of the art and craft of writing, then you’re more likely to win fans with your work. It also helps to learn to be the best judge of your own writing.
  • Find your own voice and your own perspective. What do you have to offer that no one else does? How are you different or unique? That’s your strength. Use it.
  • Read a lot. If you don’t like to read, then writing is not for you. Read stories similar to the ones you want to write. Read about writing. Read about writers. Read the classics. Read your favorite genre. Read the cereal box. Read everything.
  • Be sure to proofread your work—check for spelling errors and grammatical mistakes. Don’t rely on spell check. I can’t stress this enough—sloppy writing will get your work rejected as fast as editors can hit the delete button. Yes, I speak from experience (as both the editor, and, I’m sure, as the writer whose work evaporated into cyberspace).
  • Have someone else (or many someone elses) read your writing and listen to what they have to say. Often, as writers we get stuck in our own heads and we forget that the point is to communicate with others. Remember, just because someone offers a criticism doesn’t mean you have to listen to it; however, if more than one person has the same suggestion for improvement, it might be worth seeing if there’s something to it.
  • Read your writing out loud to listen for the music of your language. We write for the ear, not for the eye. You could have the most perfect looking story or poem—sharp margins, professional looking layout, lovely font—but if the words don’t sound right then they’re not right.
  • It takes time, sometimes a lot of time, to create something publishable. Give yourself time to grow into the writer you want to be.
  • First drafts are never publishable (or usually even second drafts or third drafts or fourth drafts…).
  • If you’re not willing to take the time to make sure your writing is the very best it can be before you send it off for publication, then writing is not for you.

Then:

When you’re convinced that your writing is the absolute best it can be, you’re ready to start submitting to journals, magazines, and newspapers.

  • Figure out what genre your piece belongs in (Is it action adventure? Science fiction? Historical?) and research journals, magazines, and newspapers that publish the type of story you’ve written. God bless the Internet. When I first started writing, we had to do things the old-timey way—we had to actually look through books! Now a list of literary journals is just an Internet search away.
  • When you have your list of journals, read their submission guidelines carefully and follow those guidelines exactly as written. Again, I can’t stress this enough. You want to give your writing the best chance of being published. Editors receive many, many submissions, and often they’re looking for easy reasons to reject a piece. To make your work stand out from the crowd, show the editors that you’re a professional writer and you take your submission seriously.
  • Be prepared for rejections. Sorry, but it’s part of the process. If you don’t have the stomach to deal with the rejections, then writing is not for you. If it makes you feel better, you can find many examples of famous authors who received hundreds, sometimes thousands of rejection letters until they were finally published. Jack London was rejected many times, as was J.K. Rowling, as were countless others.
  • No matter what, keep submitting. It took me four years to get my first piece published. If I had given up three and a half years into it I never would have become a published writer.

However:

If you’ve written a novel, then the process is a little different. If you want to pursue traditional publishing one route is to find an agent who will represent your novel to the publishing houses.

  • You can find agents the same way you find literary journals and magazines—by looking them up online.
  • You need to finish your novel before you start contacting agents because if agents are interested then they’ll often ask to see the whole manuscript.
  • Like with submitting to journals or magazines, you need to be prepared for rejections. If the rejections will deter you, then, once again, writing is not for you.
  • To catch the attention of an agent, you’ll need to write a great query letter. Here’s an article from Writer’s Digest about how to write the perfect query letter.

If you have more of a go-getter’s heart, you may want to look into indie publishing.

  • Indie-publishing is a great option for writers these days. Many best selling novels are indie-published.
  • You can create your own e-books on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. You can also publish your books to BN, iTunes, and Kobo. The entire process takes about five minutes per retailer. The directions are easy to understand. You can also create your own paperbacks on Amazon’s CreateSpace or on Lulu. Again, the directions are pretty easy. Best of all, it’s free!
  • If you’re self-publishing, then everything that would normally fall on the publisher (cover design, interior layout, editing, marketing, etc.) falls onto the author. You have to make doubly sure you’re putting out a quality product if you’re indie-publishing so readers will take you seriously.
  • The Creative Penn (www.thecreativepenn.com) is a great resource for writers who want to publish their work independently.

Once you’re published you have to learn the ins and outs of book marketing and publicity and you have to deal with the naysayers. You need a strong constitution to be a writer. It takes courage to put your work out there. I think the young people I spoke to were surprised at how hard it is to be a writer. I think they thought, as I did when I first started, that being a writer meant sitting at your desk scribbling out your crazy ideas and somehow all the other things (getting published, getting publicity, hitting the best seller list) just magically happened.

I wanted the young people to understand that becoming a writer, as in making a career for yourself, takes time. Even the indie authors who are hitting the best seller lists these days are often people who have been writing for years, and I include myself in that list. I’ve been at this since 1994 (21 years now), and it took me four years to get my first publication—a short story in a small literary journal. Then I wrote three novels before my fourth (Her Dear & Loving Husband) hit the best seller list in 2011. Now over 200,000 copies of the Loving Husband Trilogy have been bought or downloaded worldwide.

Was it worth it? All those rejection letters, all those worries that no one would ever read my stories, all those times I very nearly gave up writing for good? Of course it was worth it. If someone had said to me that it was going to take 20 years to get everything I wanted as a writer, I probably would have said, “No thanks. It’s going to take too long.” But the 20 years passed anyway, as time will, and because I didn’t give in I ended up where I wanted to be. That’s really the lesson I wanted the young writers to take away. Don’t quit. Not ever. If you have a vision, a calling, whatever it is, keep going. It will be worth it in the end, no matter how long it takes to get there.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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When a Book Changes Your Life

By Meredith Allard

How often does a book change  your life? I’m not talking about books you love so much you read them again and again. I’m not even talking about books that prompt you to think differently. I’m talking about books that cause you to do something, to take action. Just because I’ve loved a book doesn’t mean I make any changes in my day-to-day life after reading it. When I’m reading the book I’m engrossed in it, but then I close the covers and go back to my life, doing the same thing at the same time most days of the week, most weeks of the year.

About a year ago I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho when it was one of the books available for a literature class I was teaching. The books in the textbook room were brand new, as in no one else had used them. The pages were crisp, the covers unmarked, but that didn’t deter me. When I read the book I fell in love with the simple yet profound message of finding the power of dreams and staying true to your destiny. The Alchemist is a parable about how what you’re looking for is already within you (think Glinda the Good Witch telling Dorothy she’s always had the power within her—only without the sparkly red slippers). It’s the story of Santiago, the young Andalusian shepherd who has always wanted to travel and ends up on a journey of self-discovery:

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy (Santiago) told the Alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.”

Of all the characters in The Alchemist, the one I most related to (as I would guess most people do) is the crystal merchant. Santiago is stranded after his money is stolen, and he goes to work for the crystal merchant, who treats Santiago with kindness. Though the merchant is afraid of change, he takes Santiago’s advice and makes changes to his crystal shop. Because of Santiago’s ideas, the crystal shop thrives. The crystal merchant has dreams of travel like Santiago, but he’s full of excuses. He reminds me of that complaining relative everyone has—I can’t do this because… I can’t do that since… You think you’re not feeling well? Let me tell you about not feeling well… Like many of us, the merchant hides his heart’s desire behind worries. He can’t go to Mecca because… It’s not a good idea since… The crystal merchant fears that if he does finally go to Mecca he’ll have nothing else to look forward to.

I wasn’t dreaming of Mecca, but I had been wanting to visit London for more than a decade. As a student of English literature, a trip to England seemed somehow necessary. But, like the crystal merchant, I made excuses. England, especially London, is too expensive. It’s too far. I don’t like flying. England is an entirely different country! How would I know what to do or where to go in another country? I didn’t have a passport. Don’t they use different money there? Oh, did I mention how expensive England, especially London, is? But after reading about Santiago’s journey of self-discovery—how he achieved his dreams despite the obstacles—I realized how flimsy a lot of the crystal merchant’s excuses sounded. And if the crystal merchant’s excuses were flimsy, and I made the same excuses, then I’m not any better than the crystal merchant.

I began examining my excuses about not visiting England one by one to see what, if any, validity they had. Here’s what I found:

1. England, especially London, is definitely expensive, but the truth is I had the money. I’ve been fortunate enough to have sold a fair number of books and I had money set aside. When I looked into airfare, hotel, and the cost of meals and attractions, I had to cross too expensive off my list because it wasn’t true—I could afford it.

2. London is far from Las Vegas, Nevada, 5235 miles to be exact, which is ten hours airplane time. True, I don’t like to fly, but I had already discovered that just because I don’t like to fly doesn’t mean I can’t. Whenever I do travel by plane I get an aisle seat and pretend I’m on a bus or a train. And it’s not like I have to know how to work the controls in the cockpit. I just have to sit there. I didn’t want to be one of those people who are so afraid of flying they never go anywhere. I had been that way for a while, but there are places I want to go so I had to get over my fears. Not wanting to fly ten hours was no longer an excuse.

3. It’s true that England is a different country thanks to that little squabble called the American Revolution circa 1776. I often think of that quote from George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” But they do speak English in England, English an American can understand, even, and from reading so much British literature and watching so much British television I like to think I speak conversational British English. So yes, England is a different country, but since I wouldn’t have trouble communicating with anyone that wasn’t an excuse—at least not a good one.

4. No passport? Seriously? Two filled-out forms, two hours in the post office, one bad photograph, and $150 later the lack of a passport was no longer an issue. They do use different money in England, but a trip to the ATM gave me a few hundred dollars, which the nice man at my bank exchanged for ten British pounds (that’s an exaggeration, but not by much).

Regent Street in London

I realized I didn’t want to look back and know I missed my chance to go to London. I booked my flight and hotel room, I bought a few tourist guides, signed up on Rick Steves’ travel website, and a few months later I was there, in London, seeing places I had dreamed of for years. I wasn’t disappointed when I got there the way the crystal merchant expected he would be disappointed. I loved being in London. It’s a truly international city and an easy place to visit for tourists who haven’t been there before. I even went to Paris. Despite my French surname, I don’t speak a word of French (American English and conversational British English are as far as I go), but I managed to get around and back to the airport on time and in one piece. In other words, my trip wasn’t a colossal failure as the crystal merchant thought his journey would be. It was a joy, and I’m already making plans to visit again next summer.

I wouldn’t have visited London if I hadn’t read The Alchemist. Goes to show how inspiration to follow your dreams can come from anywhere—even an unused stack of books in the textbook room.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Visit her online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Janet Fitch and Avoiding Cliches “Like the Plague”

By Meredith Allard

I love that old saying by Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Has it become a cliché? Probably. But I love it anyway because as a writer myself I know it’s all too true.

My “I hate writing” moments happen when I’m drudging through a first draft. You can see my posts with tips for writing a first draft here. After I finish my first draft, that’s when I’m on the journey toward my “love having written” stage. That’s when I sit down at the computer no longer wanting to pop my eyes out with spoons or pluck my hairs one by one. Finally, in the second draft stage, I’m able to find the poetry in the prose. When I find the flow, that’s when the fun of writing begins for me. How do I find the flow? It’s a challenge, one that started 15 years ago.

In 1999, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Janet Fitch, author ofWhite Oleander, for the Oprah Book Club. Fitch talked about how a writing instructor told her that a “cliché is anything you’ve ever heard before—so never use a description anyone has heard.” As I remember it (it was 1999), Fitch spoke about a time she challenged herself to describe a tree with her own unique phrases. I was already well into fiction writing at that time, and her words struck me as truth. I learned that writers should reach to find their own descriptions, and they should never be lazy and allow others to do the work for them.

In a 2006 interview for O Magazine, Fitch explained that when she began writing fiction she had to work on word choices and the music of language. That was what I wanted too. I wanted to work on word choices and the music of language. I wanted to avoid clichés “like the plague” and create images “as sweet as pie.”

It’s a lesson I still hold close to my heart. When I’m molding sentences, I stretch, hands out, fingers pointing there, there where that inchoate image waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for me to probe my vocabulary for the exactly right string of words to illuminate what I see the way I see it. If I’m describing a storm, a small town, a person, an emotion, I need to do it my own way. In their 2006 interview, Oprah mentions to Fitch that such a stretch “seems as if it would be quite difficult.” Fitch responds, “It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things.”

I learned a lot from Fitch in 1999, again in 2006, and I continue to learn from her whenever I read one of her novels. Reaching for phrases I’ve never heard before becomes harder with everything I write, but that’s the part of writing I thrive on—creating poetry in prose. And when I do finally find the right words, that is when I love having written.

If you’d like to lose yourself in the poetry of Janet Fitch’s prose, check out her novels or the short pieces on her blog. The 2006 interview for O Magazine can be found here.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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What I Did and What I Didn’t–Blogging

I’ve taken a lot of advice from others who have come before me. That’s what I did. But there’s other advice I’ve left aside—for various reasons. That’s what I didn’t.

What I Did

I started a blog.

There are many posts out there about the Blogging Commandments, and somehow the Commandments change depending on whose blog you’re reading. Thou shalt not blog off topic (whatever your topic happens to be). Thou shalt blog regularly (some say more regularly, 2-3 times per week, some say less, about once a week). Thou shalt not have more than 500 words per post. Thou shalt have pretty pictures in thou’s posts or the masses shalt not read thou’s words. Thou shalt not…

Whatever.

I don’t adhere to the rules of blogging, as you plain well know since you’re reading this. I don’t adhere to the rules of blogging because I don’t want to. So there.

It’s fair to say that most of my posts fall under the theme of writing, but I write about whatever I feel like writing about. Sometimes it’s news about my books, blog tours, interviews, etc. Sometimes it’s writing ideas. Sometimes, when I’m wearing my editor’s hat, it’s advice from an editor’s point of view. Sometimes it’s my odd observations about whatever is tickling my fancy at that moment. Sometimes it’s book reviews. Most readers find me through the Loving Husband Trilogy. Some find me through Victory Garden or Woman of Stones. Some find me through The Copperfield Review. However you find me, I’m glad you’re here. I love that readers can (and do) post messages and use the Contact Me form to drop me a line. I’m always amazed that there are people in the world who have read my books and will take the time to get in touch with me. The blog isn’t merely a way for me to share information or ideas. It’s a two-way lane of communication, and I love that aspect of it.

I like to post once a week, but you know how it goes. When I’m in writing mode (as I am now) I don’t have time for much else. That’s just the way it is for me. When I’m writing fiction I’m so engrossed in my imaginary world that it’s easy to forget there’s this thing called the real world so I may not post as regularly as I would otherwise.

Mainly, I’ve learned that I have to do what works for me. There are many blogging articles out there that say if bloggers don’t post in a regular fashion they’ll lose their readers. Oh no! Don’t go! The result was I felt like “It’s been two weeks since I’ve posted!” and I’d stress about it. But after a while I realized I’d rather post once a month with something I’m happy with instead of scrambling to slap up whatever comes to mind as fast as I can because it’s Monday and I’m supposed to post on Mondays. I’ve read many blogging articles that say you shouldn’t nitpick over your blog writing, but words are what I do so I can’t be careless with them. It takes me a few running leaps to get the words lined up exactly right. According to WordPress, I’m currently working on the ninth revision of this post, and I’ll work at it for another nine revisions if I have to. If the Powers That Be of Blogging think I’ll lose readers because it takes me longer than others to write a post, I can live with that.

I don’t like it when I’ve signed up for e-mail updates and my inbox is bombarded with posts. That’s my personal preference, obviously, but I’ve unsubscribed to more newsletters than I’ve kept because it was too many e-mails to weed through. I figure if I post only once a week or so, then I won’t outstay my welcome. So far it’s working.

There are many great sites out there with blogging tips. Copyblogger and Problogger are the two I turn to most often. But I’ve learned that you have to read any and all advice as simply that—advice—especially since so many articles contradict one another. It’s not that one “authority” has better information than another. Those who write about blogging are sharing their personal experiences, and everyone’s personal experience is different. As a result, we get articles that say, for example, that the sweet spot for blog posts is 300 words, and then the next day there’s another article that says blog posts should be 750 words but no more than 1000 words. If your post contains 1001 words, such posts say, people will run from your site screaming as they evaporate into cyberspace, never to be seen or heard from again.

I have deliberately not put any pretty pictures in this post. Are you still reading? I didn’t think so.

Apparently, people need pretty pictures to read words online. In theory, I don’t have a problem with that. I like pretty pictures too (hence my current addiction to Pinterest), but random pictures don’t add to my interest. I read an article because I want the information or insight offered. If I have a picture that makes sense, book covers for an article about the book, for example, then, sure, the picture goes in. But I’m not adding a photograph of a bear cub hitching a ride in an article about blogging. I don’t care how cute the bear cub is. I won’t do it. I might repin it on Pinterest on my Bear Cubs Hitching Rides Board, but I won’t post it here.

If I have any lesson here, it’s for authors to play around with blogging to find their personal sweet spots. If once a week works for you, grand. If you have the time to post more often, go ahead. If you only post sporadically because you feel you only need to post when you have news or something important to share, that’s fine. If you try blogging one way and you’re not happy with the results, try something else. It’s all good. There are examples of authors who have been successful with no blog at all. Experiment. That’s my magic word for the day.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Books Are Dead? Not While Powell’s Lives.

By Meredith Allard

Today I saw an empty store where a Borders used to be, and I sniffled when I realized the building is now a Ross Dress-For-Less. I have nothing against Ross Dress-For-Less—I found some cute luggage there once—but as I drove past I found myself thinking that, while the world is a sadder place with fewer bookstores, we would survive all right without another half-off department store. I know there are hobbiest bargain shoppers out there who want, no, need more discount stores, but I’d still rather see a bookstore.

During my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I went, as all book lovers must, to pay homage at Powell’s City of Books, an independent bookstore in Downtown Portland. I’ve known about Powell’s for years. Friends who visited Portland told me about Powell’s. I had read about the store on the Internet. I started following @Powells on Twitter. I hadn’t even been there when I started following them, but for someone who loves history as much as I do, I couldn’t resist following such a relic—an independent bookstore. When I knew I was going to Portland, Powell’s was the first stop on my to-do list.

I don’t know what I expected to see when I walked into Powell’s. Having read all about the death of books, I thought maybe I would find a dilapidated cellar with a few books hanging by their threadbare bindings from a cobweb-covered shelf, the scent of mold and mortality heavy in the air. Or maybe I would find a zombie apocalypse, where hundreds of undead, grunting and groaning as they dragged their corpses across the rotting wooden floor, would wave disintegrating hardcovers and paperbacks in the air and yell, “See! Look what you have done!”

Instead, inside Powell’s I saw people—living, breathing people, and a lot of them. They were ordinary-looking folks. They didn’t have two heads or ten eyes. They were boys and girls, men and women, tall and short, doing regular bookstore stuff, pulling books from the shelves, flipping through them, reading the back covers and the insides, putting back the ones that didn’t strike them and holding onto the ones they liked. Some people asked questions of the knowledgeable staff. Even children were reading in the well-stocked, fun-looking young person’s section. I saw a line of people waiting to spend their money, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw they were buying books with that money. And as for the people behind the register…they had the audacity to smile at me while I made my purchase. In other words, the place was thriving. So, I wondered, how has Powell’s held on while other bookstores have faded away?

First, to call it a city of books is an understatement. The place is huge. I read it takes up an entire city block, and having been there I believe it. It has several floors, and each floor is divided into color-coded nooks with every possible category you might want. I was thrilled when I found the ceiling-high shelves of vegetarian cookbooks. I’m so tired of cookbooks with titles like 101 Ways to Cook Rutabagas. I have all the respect in the world for rutabagas, and I’m certain without ever having eaten one that rutabagas are tasty and nutritious. I only mean that even we vegetarians like variety in our diets, and at Powell’s I can find a cookbook to help me. In less-stocked bookstores all I’ll find, if I’m lucky, is something like Vegetables 365 Days a Year and that rutabaga book.

At Powell’s,  you feel comfortable enough to browse around and get lost in the stacks. The staff is there if you need them, but otherwise you can look around for hours, which is really all any book lover wants—to find something you didn’t know you were looking for. I found my treasure in the Classics section in the Ds—an entire ceiling-high shelf of Dickens. Every kind of Dickens. Big Dickens and small Dickens. Long Dickens and short Dickens. Popular editions of Dickens and lesser-known versions. Plain text Dickens and illustrated Dickens. Biographies of Dickens. Critical studies of Dickens. The only thing missing, I thought, was Dickens. Not that he’d look all that propped onto a shelf at 201. But still.

Another thing Powell’s does right is buy and sell used books, which gives their customers more variety, more choices. They sell new books at Powell’s too, and I’m all for recently published books, but often there’s something wonderful to be discovered when browsing used books. I didn’t even realize the copy of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel I bought at Powell’s was used until I got home and noticed the label. And Powell’s has a thriving website. While the store itself is a fun place to spend time, the Powell’s people haven’t ignored the online world and they understand that sometimes you just want to browse and buy books over the computer while relaxing at home in your jammies. Or maybe that’s me.

I’m glad I took the time to visit Powell’s. I’m glad I got to see actual people reading actual books. I had been believing what I was reading—about how people don’t read any more, how people only skim nowadays, how reading seems boring compared to everything else we could be doing, how there are more people writing books than there are people who read them, which is a worrying thought for someone like me who lives to read and write. But never fear. They’re still out there, readers. I saw them myself, pouring over books, scanning the shelves, and looking for their next great read. I feel better already.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Dear Readers

Where in the world are Copperfield readers?

They’re everywhere. The Copperfield Review is truly an international journal.

That’s not entirely news to me since we’ve been receiving submissions from writers from all over the world for years. Since I signed Copperfield up for Google Analytics it’s been a joy to look at a map of the globe and see the dots—some smaller, some larger—representing places where people have read The Copperfield Review. Here are the top ten cities that read Copperfield:

1. New York City

2. Bloomfield, NJ

3. Palmyra, NJ

4. London

5. Washington, D.C.

6. Chicago

7. New Delhi

8. Tel Aviv

9. Melbourne

10. Calgary

And this was just the top ten. We have readers across the North American continent, throughout Europe, around India, in the Middle East. Not too shabby for a little journal that started on a whim nearly 12 years ago.

I would never show bias toward readers from any one place because I’m thrilled to have a global audience for our journal, but I was very happy to see London at number four on the list. Anyone who knows my love for Dickens won’t be surprised to learn London is the city of my heart (even though I’ve never been there—I’ll be rectifying that next year). Out of curiosity, I checked Copperfield’s stats for the rest of the UK, and it turns out we have readers in Manchester, Harrogate, Wolverhampton, Iver, Epping, Colchester, Stroud, Dublin, and Liexlip.

When I spoke at the Las Vegas Writers Conference this past April, someone asked if I would ever turn Copperfield into a paperbound journal. Nope, I said. And I meant it. When Copperfield began, my intention was to eventually publish it as a paper journal. Those were the days when people thought you published online because you couldn’t get published any other way, and I thought the journal would have more credibility if you could buy it in a bookstore. But as the years passed we began to get submissions from writers in the UK, France, India, Japan, China, and across Africa, and I began to not only love this online format but respect it. As an Internet journal, The Copperfield Review can find readers from everyone everywhere in the world, and we have the Google Analytics stats to prove it.

The stats change every day because every day people from new cities find us. Where in the world will The Copperfield Review be read tomorrow? I can’t wait to find out.

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