A brief update and miscellany

Hello, lovely people.

It has been a while, hasn’t it? I can tell you the last few months have been spectacularly busy at best, and tumultuous at… less than best. Between day job issues, exciting ongoing writing projects, personal health issues, and of course the juggernaut that is National Novel Writing Month, my blog has been (accidentally) abandoned to the dark corner of the internet where neglected blogs are tossed to collect dust.

Forgive me?

And because things show no signs of slowing down in the near future, I just wanted to reach out and answer a few questions.

  • 1. Yes, I’m alive and relatively healthy, the people I love are healthy, and things are more or less okay.
  • B. My major book-publishing projects are moving forward, behind the scenes, even though they’ve been out of the limelight for a little while… both my travel memoir and my YA novel Stormriders are in their respective editing phases (to clarify, Stormriders is in the Gonna-Pull-My-Hair-Out-This-Is-Horrid part of the editing phase).
  • And thirdly, I have some exciting updates to share with you!


I started a new project last month, for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, and on this side of November I have a 45,000-word draft for a story I’m sorta in love with. Think high fantasy meets stranger-in-a-strange-land, throwing in a few dragons and featuring a version of the feisty heroine who always finds her way into my stories somehow, and here we go again! Stay tuned.

The local writers group in Waconia is producing an anthology of our work, hopefully in early 2019! I’ve signed on as primary editor and formatting/layout designer, and the book will feature a wide range of beautiful work from our group members. More information can be found at waconiawriters.wordpress.com.

My 4-part blog series is still in progress! I began writing the third entry in The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen series a few months ago, and hope to finish the darn thing and post it live within the next few days.

Anything else?


A note on overcoming adversity, and finding success in your writing, even when you (temporarily) physically cannot write.

Over the past week, I’ve been sidelined from all of my writing projects, due to a pinched nerve in my neck. Sidelined, meaning I’ve been forced to intermittently lie flat on my back on the floor, with an electric heating pad between my shoulder blades. For awhile, merely sitting upright was painful. Working on my laptop was excruciating. 

This has been my primary view for the past seven days straight. (Yes, that is A Christmas Prince, the finest Netflix Xmas movie ever made. Fight me.)

But in spite of my inability to use my computer, I’ve still been writing. How, you might ask? I used the time staring at my ceiling. I used every single one of those horizontal minutes to brainstorm, to think through some plot problems, and I even solved some plot holes that were previously and up to that point driving me bonkers.

My injury forced me to stop, to avoid the tempting social media distractions that are present every time I open my Chromebook, and think. I spent the better part of the past two months constantly on the go. Not saying a nerve injury is a boon, but it did present an opportunity. I had to press pause on most of my hectic daily life. Alone with my thoughts and the strange patterns on my popcorn ceiling, I had nothing to do but untangle and sift through those thoughts, prioritize the ideas I wanted to, and focus.

After a few days, I was pretty good at think-writing. I could visualize pieces of my story that I struggled to see through the blue glow of the computer screen. Fleeting ideas and concepts became tangible plot points. Characters developed true human flaws and traits; I got to spend some time with them and get to know them better. Even though I didn’t physically hold a pen or crack open my laptop, I was writing. I was creating. And those exercises were really the only things keeping me from going out of my mind.

Moral of the story: you can create, you can make progress and move forward in unconventional ways, even when life (and nerve pain) tries to blow up your process.


The art of being happily alone, a “Stormriders” update, and some other miscellany.

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No Internets mean much writings.

A solo weekend getaway would usually be considered an odd choice for me. I like people, generally. However, being bombarded with so many distractions (of political and sporting nature) this summer has not been conducive to fulfilling my commitments as a writer, and to myself. The distractions add up. With all the negativity and stress hanging around society lately, a weekend away from humans (physically and digitally) sounded like a phenomenal plan. An uncle owns a gorgeous piece of land on Little Alden Lake, a stone’s throw northwest of Duluth. And so, last weekend I ventured into the Great Northern Wild Pine Forests of Minnesota, with only my dog Layla (with the very real title of Bear Scarer bestowed upon her) in tow, and with the very real intention of disappearing from the rest of humanity for 72 hours. Minimum.

From my journal, the morning after I arrived:

Twenty-five minutes outside the city, and the pavement turns to dirt and gravel. The forest presses in on you as you take the winding road, which you begin to think is taking you into the bowels of a forest purgatory, or toward some hidden backwoods colony of survivalists; you try to ignore the banjos playing the theme from “Deliverance” in your head. You shouldn’t have started the journey after sunset… what were you thinking?
The moment when you are absolutely, hysterically certain you have lost your way and your fate is to be eaten by the bears, you are there. Ahead lies a little idyll of certainty in the heart of darkness. An A-frame cabin and a few outbuildings nestle between fully grown pines that soar into the black overhead. A precariously handmade stairway of stones create a path down a shaded slope to the lake. The property is surrounded by a thick ring of pine trees and underbrush, muffling the presence of the few neighbors who live there year round.

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Little Alden Lake, a.k.a. The Perfect Place On Earth

You turn off the ignition and are immediately aware of the utter absence of sound. The nocturnal creepy-crawlies, momentarily disturbed by the intrusion of bright car headlights, have fallen silent. You look up, and as your eyes adjust, you see the blackness has dissolved into a cacophony of the brightest stars you have ever seen. You could swear they are only a few inches from your face, for how bright and clear they are.

Your dog’s low, uneasy growl snaps you back to earth. She stares intently beyond the circle of light from your high beams, as if she can sense something out there, waiting beyond the trees. And, then out of nowhere, the unearthly shriek of a loon warbles up from the water, echoing through the trees. Your heart jumps into your throat. You run inside. You will unpack tomorrow.

You may be thinking I was thinking I’d made a big mistake. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being utterly alone for those three days was exactly what I needed.

Some people call it recharging their batteries. I call it an exercise in focus.

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Nature + wine = happy tingles. Thanks, Science.

Aside from the massive amounts of writing I was able to accomplish in the massive void left behind by the Internet, there are several moments from the weekend I can pinpoint, where I was not doing a whole lot. Waking with the morning and walking out onto the deck that faces the lake, watching Layla chase frogs in the grass, feeling the sun’s warm kiss on my skin, drinking in the scenery with my coffee, merely thinking about my novel… and I would feel this strange tingly buzz that started somewhere under my ribs and spread through my arms and legs, to my fingers and toes, flowing up my spine and prickling across my scalp.

I don’t know if there’s a word that can accurately explain that feeling (“Endorphins?” asks Science), but maybe I’ll call it the body’s reaction to the brain’s realization of pure and utter joy. Contentment. Confidence in the knowledge that when I did sit down to write, I would write and write and write. I was so happy I was tingly. Everyone should be able to feel that feeling.

So, I say, seek out the places that make you tingly. Take a break from the places that squeeze, that apply pressure, that weigh down, that pull apart. Unplug. Be by yourself for a weekend, a day, an hour even. Give yourself the space to rest, “recharge,” refocus. Let your senses take in the small things in those moments. The fluid sparkle of sunlight on the water. The surprising complexity of loon song. The squelch of mud between your toes. The hilarity of a hound dog learning what a frog feels like in her mouth (the frog survived). The late summer wind that already has a crisp bite to it, hinting of an early autumn. On a tree branch of a thousand green leaves, espying the one with a reddish tinge. How the wine in your glass tastes different as you breathe in the scent of fresh pine.

Allow yourself the pleasure of being alone.


During my voluntary absence from human contact, I was able to complete the next chapter in “Stormriders.” For more information about the story, and to read the first 4 chapters free, you can visit my Stormriders page.


While some of my other writing projects have taken a backseat to Stormriders (I’m only human, and just one!) I am still incrementally moving them forward. My Tanzania travel memoir survived its second edit, and I’m working on the specifics for getting that out into the world. Namely, to Amazon.com or not to Amazon.com. I would be appreciative of any feedback from my fellow indie authors, regarding alternative print-on-demand and e-book vendors. Which vendors are your favorites? What as worked for you, and what hasn’t?

I’ve also got a few short story ideas in my head that I will undoubtedly make available for free here, on my site, in the near future. More on that down the road!

In Which I Finally Publish a Book, and Other News…

File_000 (1)Blogging about being a writer is much, much easier than actually doing the WRITING part of being a writer.

At least, it has been in my experience. As a digital marketing specialist for my day job, I have this social media thing down pretty well. Facebook, Twitter, blog, rinse, repeat. I’m a decent socializer (I know that’s an awkward word, but I tried to correct it, and almost typed the word “socialist” and proceeded to have a good laugh for a few seconds, and then went with socializer. I loathe the phrase “social butterfly.” I massively digress.)…

So I’m a decent socializer. I’ve made some great connections on Twitter. I participate in online writers’ forums. I’ve had a grand old time creating concept cover art for various projects I’m working on. I’ve gotten my website looking pretty much the way I’d envisioned it.

What I haven’t done is finish writing a damn book.

Jen Book Cover2I’m happy to report that, by the end of April, the above statement should no longer be accurate. I’m almost done with a rewrite of my lonnnnnnng-overdue memoir of Tanzania, which has morphed into a commentary on a few topics I think are truly important, above all the inspirational social change happening in Tanzania, fostered by Tanzanians. Below is an excerpt of the book description on my Kickstarter page:

In July 2010, I spent 28 days in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. I arrived in the country thinking (somewhat naively) that I was there to facilitate positive social change and help to change a community for the better. Little did I know that I would be the one whose worldview was fundamentally changed. More specifically, what changed over the course of those 28 days were my preconceived views on international volunteering, culture sharing, and what the concepts of “home” and “community” mean to people the world over. And more than anything, what I came away with was a fierce respect for the people of Tanzania – and was left with a deep desire, when I came back to the States, to share what I had learned from Tanzanians themselves, those on the front lines who had been working for decades to grow and foster social change within their own communities.

To view more, you can visit the Kickstarter page, where all donations are going toward the physical printing and distribution costs associated with publishing this book. Or you can check out the book description page on my website by clicking here. This project is a labor of love and has been in progress for six years. I am thrilled that the day is finally here.

In other news:

I continue work on my NaNoWriMo 2015 novel project, The Bearers. I’m about 1/3 done with a first draft since November, but as I’ve mentioned before, when you fall in love with a story you’ll find a way to finish it. As of right now, I’m not sure if it’s going to end up an adult or YA novel… I’m trying to listen to the voices of my characters and see where the plot goes. It started very YA, but has since taken on some darker themes (although a lot of the YA dystopian fiction I’ve read can get pretty dark). It may come down to too many F-bombs… my heroine doesn’t mince her words. I hope the actual genre-selection process is not that trivial. I know a lot of writers advise finding and deciding on the genre before you get into the nitty-gritty writing of the book, but I’m decidedly having trouble with that, with this story. Check out the description page by following the link above and take a look at the synopsis and excerpt… I would welcome any feedback.

Since I can’t ever seem to finish a project before I dream up ideas for the next one, I have two new stories in the works. One is a retelling of a classic opera, reset in another planet’s post-apocalyptic dystopia. The other is set in a post-apocalyptic future-Earth, and has pirates. I don’t know… I think perhaps I am defining a genre niche for myself. I don’t have much online yet, but I will post synopses soon. Please feel free to visit my In the Works page for updates, if you’re interested.


Your book needs a cover.


This royalty-free photo is brought to you by Pixabay.

It’s National Novel Writing Month, AND I AM EXCITED.

In the spirit of the month, late last night I found myself wandering the cavernous digital hallways of Pixabay, searching for stock photography to use for a prototype book cover for my NaNoWriMo novel, The Bearers. If you don’t know Pixabay (most of my graphic designer friends do), I suggest you get to know Pixabay. It’s a wealth of high-quality royalty-free images you can use without penalty for just about anything, including commercial use (see: book cover art). There are plenty of stock photography services out there (Shutterstock is a big one) but a lot of the time you have to pay a membership fee. I’m mentioning Pixabay because it’s 100 percent free to use.

Yes, if I was going to be sitting in front of my computer at 11 p.m. last night, I probably should have been writing. Instead I decided to exercise another creative outlet: graphic design. (This one’s more like a hobby for me, and I’m honestly not very good… still learning the fundamentals. If you want to see real dedication to the craft of graphic design, check out my friend and superstar Karli Foss’s stuff. She is the terrific artist responsible for crafting the perfection that is the cover artwork of my Tanzania memoir.) My late-night graphic design experiment led me to think about what goes into creating a good book cover, if you’re going to design your own. I highly recommend going the professional route if you can afford it, especially if you have a superstar graphic designer friend. But if you are going to give it a go and design a cover yourself…

Ultimately, in my opinion, you want your cover art to do two main things:

1. Look good.

Straight up. You want the elements of your cover art – images, text, etc. – to have a cohesive, attractive balance. I always find that less is more; keeping it simple and clutter-free is one of the best approaches you can take with a cover. Use fonts that are easy to read (avoid Comic Sans and Papyrus like the plague) and really think about what text you need on your cover. Be sparing with text. Treat your images with care. If you don’t really know how to use Photoshop without it being painfully obvious in the end result, just don’t use it.

Of course we judge books by their covers. It’s the very first impression of your story that a person formulates, and terrible cover art scares away readers before they even open your book. Do you want to tell me you’d take precious hours out of your week to read any of these books? Or these? (Real book covers, by the way.) Maybe you would, I don’t know. That is a whole other set of issues entirely.

2. Tell something about your story… but not too much.

You don’t want your cover to mislead readers. Keep it true to your genre (no robots on the cover of a historical romance novel… unless… nope, won’t go there). Avoid trying to be too avant garde with your concept. Covers that border on the slightly abstract or vague are fine if and only if they contribute to the narrative you’re trying to tell. You don’t have to give the ending away or even show a scene from your book on your cover; that said, a cover with artistic elements that harmonize with the content of your novel (or even just the summary on the book jacket) will draw readers in, if they are able to make that association before they read your book.

This is definitely a personal preference, but one of my favorite examples of cover art is the cover artwork for Gregory Maguire’s books. If you don’t know Gregory Maguire, his novels are reworkings of traditional fairytales, often from an antagonist or auxiliary character’s perspective. (He’s the author responsible for Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which eventually became a hit Broadway play… you might have heard of it.) The artistic styling of his book covers has become almost a brand, and the covers paint a clear picture without giving the entire story away. For examples of slightly more abstract covers, here is a great photo gallery of “The Best Book Covers of 2015 (so far)” by Frannie Jackson of Paste Magazine. Not on this list, but still an example of a simple cover at its finest, is ROOM, by Emma Donoghue. These covers may not give the story away, but they still tell the story. They tell potential readers SOMETHING about what they will find inside.

Not sure? Find help.

There are numerous articles out there in the Interwebs with tips and tricks to designing a stellar book cover. A lot of them are very thorough, and most of them give you the same basic advice: keep it simple, avoid certain pitfalls (there are a lot of lists and examples out there), and don’t use images from Google search.*

*The last point is extremely important. If you don’t take anything else with you from this blog post, remember this one. If the image you find belongs to an artist or designer and the image has been appropriated without their permission, that is stealing. Even if you found the image on a secondary site, if it wasn’t attributed to the image’s owner, you can be held liable for copyright infringement. Don’t learn this the hard, expensive way. Use Pixabay.

And of course, ask your friends. Definitely ask your graphic designer/superstar friends. Ask strangers on the bus. Ask anybody what they think. Feedback is important. Look at it as a free focus group study. You’re doing research. Come at it objectively. Use any criticism you receive constructively, and don’t take it personally. Knowing what even a random sample of people think of your cover is invaluable information to have at your disposal. It allows you to make the best possible decisions about marketing your book… especially when you’re publishing it yourself. That is why I’m putting my “masterpiece” online, for all to see.

So here it is, the conceptual cover art for my NaNoWriMo novel, The Bearers.

© 2015 by Jen Anderson. All rights reserved.

© 2015 by Jen Anderson. All rights reserved.

I’m currently using this on my website and on my NaNoWriMo novel page, but it’s by no means the finished product.** I love the simple image of a person who resembles one of my main characters. For context, I may inset a small, faint illustration of an important location in the story, in one of the corners. Please feel free to shoot me an email and leave your feedback… I welcome feedback! I crave feedback. Help.

The original subject is a nameless lady in a free Pixabay photo, with absolutely no relation to Kristen Stewart (to my knowledge). I was worried this would read a little too Twilight, but ultimately it’s just a prototype cover. I would like to know if there is too much resemblance to Bella Swan before I market this image too much or go ahead and print 500 books with it (that’s way, way down the road, of course). On second thought, I’d certainly be MUCH better off having Karli do it.

**2/4/17 UPDATE: Since this post, I’ve actually changed the cover art for The Bearers, to a slightly retro-style cover design that faintly reflects the science fiction book covers of the 1970s and 1980s (which have been an endless source of inspiration for me).  You can view the new cover art here.


NaNoWriMo 2015

I realize an update on my projects is long overdue, but first:

12052367_10101258378087616_993245048235675428_oWant to jump off the proverbial cliff with me? Your future novelist self will thank you.

Click on the image above to visit the official site of National Novel Writing Month. You can create an account for free, get tips/tricks/support from fellow novelists a.k.a. cliff jumpers, and track your word count through the month of November.

50,000 words in 30 days. Sound impossible? Let’s see what happens!

If you Facebook, click here to join the Event for additional updates and information.

I’ll be tracking and logging my status in a couple of places. If you’re interested in checking in on me, visit my NaNoWriMo Author Page, or check out The Bearers summary page here on my website.