Writing my Way Through Trauma

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I never kept a diary or a journal. Writing was never my thing. I am a talker. Put me in a room with people and I will talk non-stop. Don’t get me wrong, I like to write, but it was never something I really did.

All that changed in 2010.

I was pregnant with my second child (after multiple miscarriages), and I went into early labor. This wasn’t just a little early. This was seventeen weeks early – meaning I was only twenty-three weeks pregnant. It was too soon. I had to make it to that magical viability mark of twenty-four weeks.

I spent six days lying in a hospital bed trying desperately not to give birth. My head was tilted down thirty-degrees below my feet. All the blood had rushed to my head. I was in pain, scared, and the only thing I could do was keep my eyes closed and breathe. I didn’t talk much those six days. Talking made me emotional and being emotional made it hard to lay still and stay calm.

My son, Sam, was finally born at twenty-four weeks and two days and weighed in at a whopping one pound twelve ounces. Two days after having Sam, I was alone for the first time in a week and it all started to hit me. Everything I had been through. Everything I had experienced. I was overwhelmed and felt like I was suffocating with all the thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head.

It was late at night, and the only thing I had nearby was my tablet. I opened it up and began writing an email to my brother who was living in Lesotho at the time. I wanted to update him on how his nephew, and I were doing.

Once I started writing, however, the email to my brother took on a life of its own. I ended up writing a long missive that was dumping ground for everything that was trapped in my head. I released it all on “paper”. The anger, the fear, the pain, the hope… all of it. When I was done, I felt relief. I was no longer weighed down by the thoughts swirling in my head.

The next day, after a long, hard day of learning about the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and what lay ahead for me and Sam, I turned to my tablet once again. Writing allowed me to process all the information I had gotten during the day and gave me a safe space to work through the trauma of it all.

It was then that I knew writing was going to save me. I quickly purchased a URL and installed WordPress. Two days after my son was born, my blog, Tales of the Anti-Preemie, was born. At first, the blog was just for my friends and family. But soon, I started seeing comments from total strangers who had either been sent my blog or found it on their own.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

And here’s a link to Tales of the Anti-Preemie where, if the photo correctly depicts him, it appears that Sam is doing well.


Hubris is character trait that features excessive pride or inflated self-confidence, leading a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or violate an important moral law. As a literary device, hubris is commonly exhibited by a tragic hero as their tragic flaw, or hamartia. The extreme pride or arrogance of hubris often consumes a character, blinding them to reason and resulting in their ultimate downfall.

. . . .

Examples of Hubris in Fictional Characters

Hubris is a common literary device applied to fictional characters whose excessive pride, self-importance, or arrogance leads them to negative consequences. Here are some examples of fictional characters that exhibit hubris:

Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)
Gaston (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)
Prince Humperdinck (The Princess Bride)
Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary)
Troy Maxson (Fences)
Willie Stark (All the King’s Men)
Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
Doctor Faustus (Doctor Faustus)
Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar Named Desire)

. . . .

Difference Between Hubris and Pride

Though pride is often used as a synonym for hubris, there are differences between the two. Hubris indicates an excess of pride, confidence, and self-importance. Pride, in its authentic nature, is considered positive and desirable. Pride is associated with healthy self-esteem, self-evaluation, and self-confidence. The outcome of authentic pride as a character trait is generally an individual who is considered conscientious, emotionally stable, and agreeable.

However, hubristic pride is considered negative and undesirable as a character trait. Hubris is characterized by low internal self-esteem, arrogance, egotism, aggression, disagreeableness, and even shame. In addition, the outcomes associated with hubristic pride are recklessness, impulsiveness, disregard for the well-being of others, and heightened attention to the individual’s image or persona.

Link to the rest at Literary Devices

How to Write Faster

From the Grammarly Blog:

In a perfect world, deadlines wouldn’t be a thing. You’d have unlimited time to complete everything you need to write, like essays, reports, reading responses, and even the kinds of writing you do for fun, like blog posts and short stories.

Obviously, we don’t live in a perfect world. But we do live in a world where you can learn how to write faster. Writing quickly is a skill that’s helped thousands of writers, especially writers with time-sensitive assignments like interviewers and journalists, meet their deadlines without breaking a sweat.

. . . .

Learning how to write faster is easy. To help you streamline your writing time, we’ve gathered a few helpful writing tips that will have you hitting deadlines in no time. 

Streamline the writing process

You’re most likely familiar with the writing process. It’s the six steps just about every piece of writing goes through to develop from an idea to a published piece. Working through these steps means doing a thorough job of brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and perfecting your work . . . but it can be a slow process. When you’re crunched for time, you simply don’t have the luxury of working through the unabridged writing process.

In a pinch, you can streamline it. One way to streamline the writing process is to combine steps one and two and outline your work as you brainstorm it. This might mean a less coherent outline, but that’s fine—you’ll smooth it out when you write. 

After getting an outline on the page, get right to writing. We’ll later on cover strategies that can help this step go faster. During the writing stage, the goal is to start getting words down. Don’t worry about irrelevant, superfluous, or awkward words winding up in your text—you’ll fix these up when you edit your work.  

Speaking of editing, you’ll also need to cut out an important step in the writing process: editing your work with fresh eyes. Ideally, you’d wait about a day after writing to edit your work so you can catch mistakes more easily. But with a limited amount of time, you’ll need to dive right into editing after you’re finished writing. Depending on how pressed for time you are, you might also have to combine the last two steps in the writing process, editing and proofreading. 

Type faster

It might sound like a sarcastic tip at first, but we mean it sincerely: Train yourself to type faster. You can do this by playing typing games and doing typing exercises that build muscle memory in your fingers. If you look at the keyboard when you’re typing, it’s time to learn how to type without doing that. Similarly, if you’re using the “hunt and peck” method or otherwise using any fewer than all ten of your fingers, it’s time to become a stronger, faster typist. 

Websites like typingtest.com can tell you how accurately you’re typing and how many words you can type per minute as well as providing typing lessons and exercises. The average person types about 40 words per minute, with 65 to 70 being the general target for “fast typing.” Typing 90 to 100 words per minute is considered to be very fast typing, with some of the fastest typists achieving more than 120 words per minute. When you can type faster, you can literally write faster. 

Write what you already have in mind

You might have no idea how to start your essay, but know exactly how you want to support your argument. Skip right to your body paragraphs. 

There’s no rule that says you have to write your piece in order of first to final paragraph. Write in the order that makes it easiest for you to start writing and maintain momentum, which often means jumping right to the parts that you’ve already worked out in your head. 

Writing the parts that you already know you want to say achieves two things:

  • It gets text onto the page: For you, seeing text on the page can be hugely motivating—it’s a lot easier to keep writing when you already have a foundation to build on, rather than starting with a blank screen.
  • It can help you determine what to say in sections you haven’t written: If you’re struggling with an intro paragraph, writing your supporting paragraphs can give you the phrasing and organization you need to introduce them in your opening section. Similarly, if you’re having a difficult time with certain body paragraphs, but you’ve written at least one, determine how that paragraph you’ve written fits into a broader piece. What does it follow? What follows it? Think of the piece you’re writing as a jigsaw puzzle and the sections you’ve written as puzzle corners you’ve completed. Which shapes fit into that partially completed puzzle? 

Link to the rest at the Grammarly Blog

Seeking vs. Suffering: The Secret of Passive Protagonists

From Writer Unboxed:

I’ll admit it. I fell for the title of Kelsey Allagood’s WU post on September 18th: “Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy”. Upon reading the title my blood pressure rose, not because of the heated word “patriarchy” but because of the chilly suggestion that “active” protagonists are inherently bad and therefore “passive” protagonists are fundamentally good, and maybe even a necessary political tool for activist fiction writers.

Of course, Kelsey was being slyly provocative. She did not strictly mean that writers should see passive protagonists as a weapon of change. Hey kids, here’s a great way to tear down patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, agism, homophobia, racism, capitalism, gentrification and more…let’s be more passive! There’s an idea, eh?

No, Kelsey was mostly speaking of “active” and “passive” in the technical sense in which we apply those words to protagonists in discussing fiction craft. The distinction is important and Kelsey’s point was a good one: not all protagonists are, or need to be, “active” in the sense of being imbued with agency and embarking on a planned course of action. Kelsey said, “I say let’s talk those of us who aren’t always in the driver’s seat.” Today I’m taking her up on that.

Not every protagonist is Odysseus. It is entirely possible that a main character can begin a story in a state of suspension. It’s a human condition to be oppressed, wandering, lost, stuck or even imprisoned. People don’t always make things happen; things happen to them. Naturally, there is no story without a response to an adverse situation. But does that mean a fist fight? Must a protagonist formulate a goal, or—ask me—engage in the more useful business of task, plan, scheme or gamble? Isn’t it enough for a main character to observe, experience, chafe, resist? Can’t a protagonist give voice to the powerless? Can’t a character just yearn?

More: Who says that women protagonists must be kick-ass, anyway? Must plot always drive toward something? Is a story climax always needed? (Whoa, so masculo-sexual!) Can’t a story be built of retreat, running, seeking refuge, healing? Is courage necessarily violent? Isn’t it equally dramatic to endure? Where is the line between passive as strong, admirable and uplifting and passive as weak, degrading and pathetic? There is a line. It has nothing to do with a character’s circumstances and everything to do with a character’s spirit.

This is where passive dissociates itself from the common, pejorative, unhelpful associations of the word. For fiction writers, a passive protagonist doesn’t have a commanding position in the story world but does have an inner light that says that this character is alive, aware, unbroken, strong inside and seeing. A passive protagonist might be helpless but is not hopeless. A passive protagonist may not be marching toward battle but nevertheless is on a journey to someplace better.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Think Like a Horror Writer to Create Better Villains

From SWFA:

You write speculative fiction for the same reason you’ve read or watched it your entire life. There’s something inside of you that craves tales of relatable characters overcoming adversity. It’s your inner hero, and it manifests on that illuminated screen when you sit alone, clicking away on the keyboard. That something becomes the characters that you put your heart and soul into, hoping to all things sacred that your readers will love them–because after all, they’re a part of you.

But what about the bad guy? Every element in good storytelling exists for one of two reasons: it either builds tension (conflict) or releases it (resolution). Genre fiction often utilizes an antagonist to build its tension. Since horror thrives on developing this character, authors of other speculative genres can learn a lot from horror writers about creating good villains. There are many ways to craft a good bad guy, but this horror author has found that they essentially boil down to three “R”s.


Whether your bad guy is a malevolent mastermind from another realm, a big, dumb troll, or a serial killer, your task as a writer is to make me believe he is real within the world you’ve created. After all, how could something phony pose any real threat? If it’s sentient, consider adding a humanistic quality: Jealousy. Genuine anger. A moment of empathy. Maybe even a brief second-guessing of the morality of his actions. Anything with which your audience can relate, and therefore, believe. Unless this character is invisible, be diligent in your physical description of him. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many authors over-describe their heroes, yet under-describe their bad guys. Think of your story in terms of visual-media, and give your antagonist some close-ups. Tell me about his rancid breath as he leans in to place cold, steel chains on your heroine’s wrists. How do the warm drops of sweat feel as they roll off his bald head to land on her face? Are the threads that stick out from the bottom of his robe frizzed? You don’t have to describe every crack in his pinky-nail, but a few cleverly placed details will give him flesh.


Not just menacing to the world at large, either. This malevolent force should be particularly menacing to your hero or heroine. A manifestation of their fears and past failures. His very existence should threaten something dear, even if it’s only their sanity. Reveal just how terrible he is in increments, as the story unfolds, through acts of treachery. Deviate from your outline, and use him to kill a character you never intended to kill (if it hurts you, it will hurt your readers.) Progressively change the tone of your writing to reflect your hero’s growing distress with each revelation. This will cause the audience to sympathize with them, putting them in your hero’s shoes, and increasing the satisfaction of their ultimate triumph (or in the case of many horror stories, the impact of their failure).

Link to the rest at SWFA

Don’t ditch standard English. Teach it better

From The Economist:

Teaching english as a first language is not easy—many youngsters leave school feeling they never quite mastered its finer points. Recently some commentators have been wondering whether the standard version of English really deserves to be singled out as “proper” and worthy of teaching at all. The debate they set off has been unedifying because of entrenched views that have as much to do with politics as with language.

Speaking recently to the Daily Telegraph, Willem Hollmann of Lancaster University argued that standard English is not uniquely “correct”. This view is common among linguists. Today’s standard English just happens to descend from the dialect prevailing near the seats of power (London) and learning (Oxford and Cambridge) at the critical time when printing took off. It uses “you were”, and not “you was”, only because that dialect did so—not because “you were” is more logical. (If standard English were logical, “to be” would have a single past-tense form, as every other verb does.)

Linguists know perfectly well, though, that standard English does have a social superiority, if not a grammatical one. It is the language of serious writing (including linguistics journals) and formal speech. It binds together Dorset, Kent, Yorkshire and London, as well as Alabama, Massachusetts and California. It can be spoken with any accent, allowing a speaker from Belfast to talk to one from Johannesburg or Auckland with little misunderstanding. There is nothing wrong with black vernacular American or Yorkshire English; they just don’t happen to be the dialect that newspapers are written in, or parliamentary debates are conducted in. Both halves of that proposition are equally true, and pupils should be apprised of both.

But when linguists make this case, they are often misconstrued as saying students should not be marked down if, for instance, they write “you was” instead of “you were” when deploying standard English. No longer considering “you was” to be incorrect in formal prose would imply the end of any standard at all.

Even from the left-wing perspective that many academics share, that would be counterproductive. Sociolinguists are at pains to point out that all dialects are valuable to their speakers—Yorkshire English and so on persist for that very reason. But standard English is valuable to its speakers too. It is dear to those lucky enough to have it as their native tongue (a category that includes most newspaper columnists). But it is also hugely important to those many strivers who didn’t grow up with it—yet hope to master it, so that they can join the wider community around the world that uses it.

And there are ways to inculcate it without resorting to snobbery. To begin with, it helps to avoid irrelevant pet peeves. In a column in the Times replying to Mr Hollmann and supposedly sticking up for standard English, Clare Foges was distracted by things like accent (saying fencin for fencing), slang (including the British tag-question innit?) and minor variations such as off of in place of off.

These ephemera have nothing whatever to do with standard English. “G-dropping” isn’t lazy, merely an accent; it used to be an upper-class habit, too. Nor does relaxed have to mean incorrect: innit may not be common in the boardroom, but it has its place in casual British English. And off of is standard in America, if not in Britain.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Quite a number of years ago, competitive debaters on elite high school or college debate teams were advised to not use their normal Southern or other regional accents during debate competitions.

The rationale behind the advice was that debate judges, particularly at the most advanced levels of major debate tournaments, would likely speak standard American English and regard a notable regional accent as a sign of a less-accomplished intellect and judge the accented arguments more critically.

Could a machine have an unconscious?

From N+1:

IT WAS FIRST DESCRIBED to me by a friend who works in the industry as autocomplete on crack, after the technology that endowed our phones with the quality everyone pretends to, but does not actually, want in a lover — the ability to finish your thoughts. Instead of predicting the next word in a sentence, GPT-3 would produce several paragraphs in whatever style it intuited from your prompt. If you prompted it Once upon a time, it would produce a fairy tale. If you typed two lines in iambic pentameter, it would write a sonnet. If you wrote something vaguely literary, like We gathered to see the ship and all its splendor, like pilgrims at an altar,it would continue in this vein: 

I stood among the crowd watching each bus disgorge passengers onto wooden planks laid over mudflats. The guests swarmed into town for their free visit to another world: our island on Earth where strange new gods were worshipped; here they could gather at some primitive shrine from which they could send offerings back home or sell out-of-date clothes in pawnshops full of old junk salvaged from forgotten times....

If you wrote a news headline, it would write an article on that topic, complete with fake facts, fake statistics, and fake quotes by fake sources, good enough that human readers could rarely guess that it was authored by a machine. The potential for malicious use was so obvious that OpenAI, the lab that made it, agreed to grant access to only a handful of well-vetted researchers, spurring the publicity-friendly lore that it was “too dangerous to release.”

GPT-3 is a natural language processing algorithm. It belongs to a new generation of AI models called Transformers, a technology whose early iterations were named after Sesame Street characters (BERT, ELMO, GROVER, as though the somewhat frightening allusion to children’s television could be mitigated with a softer, more educational one. That GPT-2 and its later, more sophisticated upgrade, GPT-3, dropped this convention might be read as a sign of their terrifying power. With 175 billion “parameters” — mathematical representations of language patterns — GPT-3 had initiated what was being called a Cambrian explosion in natural language processing.

. . . .

I say that it “read” the internet, but the preferred terminology is that GPT-3 scraped the web, that it ingested most of what humans have published online, that it ate the internet — metaphors meant to emphasize that the process was entirely unconscious. The frequent reminders in the machine-learning community that the model is mindless and agentless, that it has no actual experience of the world, were repeated so often they began to feel compulsive, one of those verbal fixations meant to quell the suspicion that the opposite is true.

. . . .

I’D BEEN FOLLOWING all this because I was writing a book about technology, or rather because I’d reached an impasse and wasn’t writing at all. I spent hours each day doing what could passably be called “research,” trawling the feeds of Hacker News and machine-learning Reddit, where the lucky elite who had access to GPT-3 posted the results of their experiments. One trope was to ask it to imitate well-known authors. It could do Dante, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. It could do Ginsberg (Endless suicide of the real world! Solitary! Solitary! Sisyphus! the rock! the road!).It could do Harry Potter in the style of Ernest Hemingway (It was a cold day on Privet Drive. A child cried. Harry felt nothing. He was dryer than dust. He had been silent too long. He had not felt love. He had scarcely felt hate.) Because we were all on lockdown, and my social life had devolved into sending and receiving novelties from the internet, I sometimes texted snippets of these outputs to friends, most of whom seemed to think it was a gimmick, or some kind of fancy toy. 

“What is the point of this device?” one asked.

Freud claimed that technology only solved problems that technology itself had created. The alienation and malaise caused by one modern invention was momentarily relieved by another, a process he compared to “the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again.” Nobody seemed capable of articulating what problem these language models were designed to solve. There was some chatter about writing assistance, about therapy bots, about a future where you’d never have to write another email (“Can A.I. bring back the three-martini lunch?” asked Fortune), all of which seemed to skirt the technology’s most obvious use: replacing the underpaid and inefficient writers who supplied the content that fed the insatiable maw of the internet — people like me. 

OpenAI was founded in 2015 as a nonprofit research lab devoted to creating a safe path to Artificial General Intelligence (AI that rivals human intelligence). Funded by an A-team of private investors, including Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Peter Thiel, its mission was to create artificial intelligence that “benefits all of humanity.” In 2019, however, the lab announced that it was transitioning to a for-profit model “in order to stay relevant.” Last fall, Microsoft exclusively licensed GPT-3, claiming that the language technology would benefit its customers by “directly aiding human creativity and ingenuity in areas like writing and composition.” 

From what I could tell, the few writers who’d caught wind of the technology were imperiously dismissive, arguing that the algorithm’s work was derivative and formulaic, that originality required something else, something uniquely human — though none of them could say what, exactly. GPT-3 can imitate natural language and even certain simple stylistics, but it... cannot perform the deep-level analytics required to make great art or great writing. I was often tempted to ask these skeptics what contemporary literature they were reading. The Reddit and Hacker News crowds appeared more ready to face the facts: GPT-3 may show how unconscious some human activity is, including writing. How much of what I write is essentially autocomplete?

. . . .

WRITERS, SOMEONE once said, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. The question of who said it is not really important. The whole point of the metaphor was to destabilize the notion of authorial agency by suggesting that literature is the product of unconscious processes that are essentially combinatorial. Just as algorithms manipulate discrete symbols, creating new lines of code via endless combinations of 0s and 1s, so writers build stories by reassembling the basic tropes and structures that are encoded in the world’s earliest myths, often — when things are going well — without fully realizing what they are doing. The most fertile creative states, like the most transcendent spiritual experiences, dissolve consciousness and turn the artist into an inanimate tool — a channel, a conduit. I often think of the writer who said she wished she could feel about sex as she did about writing: That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I’d felt it before — every writer has — but at some point during the pandemic, the recombinant nature of writing became, instead, an infinite puzzle, a system whose discrete parts could be endlessly deconstructed and reassembled. I could never get the combination right. My critical instincts had turned pathological. I wrote and rewrote until the language was hollowed out: Potemkin sentences. 

The blockage had a larger context, which I’m reluctant to get into here but is doubtlessly relevant. A number of things had recently surfaced: memories I’d repressed, secrets I’d kept from myself. The most significant was that I’d been shamed as a child for writing, that I’d been confronted and punished for words that were meant to be private. It had happened more than once, and the shame I felt then was more or less identical to the shame I experienced each time I published something. I had, according to my therapist, chosen a profession that required me to continually revisit this wound, under the delusion that I could fix it or control it, that if I wrote something entirely pure and flawless the curse would be lifted and I would finally be free. I knew all this, but knowledge is not everything when it comes to compulsions. Part of me preferred the French term, automatisme de repetition. Repetition automatism: the tendency to unconsciously seek out the pains of the past, like a machine stuck in a feedback loop.

. . . .

PSYCHOANALYSIS GREW out of the realization that the most fundamental stratum of the mind was essentially a machine. Throughout the late 19th century, the unconscious was known as psychological automatism, a term popularized by the pre-Freudian psychoanalyst Pierre Janet, who argued that it was an “elementary form of activity as completely determined as an automaton.” The question was: how to get the machine to speak? Janet was among the first to experiment with automatic writing, bringing a rite of the séance parlor into the laboratory. His patients — Parisian hysterics — had experienced traumas they could not remember, and Janet believed that their minds had become dissociated into “subsystems,” the lowest of which was devoted to mechanically reproducing past experiences. 

He gave the women pen and paper, hypnotized them, then clapped his hands and commanded them to write. His case studies describe them scribbling away “in a machine-like state,” producing pages of text that they did not recognize, upon waking, as their own. My ideas are no longer comprehensible to myself,one wrote, they come of themselves.... I am nothing more than a puppet held by a string.Many of the women could recall in their writing memories they’d repressed. One who suffered from an inexplicable fear of cholera wrote about seeing two corpses during the last epidemic, something she had no memory of when awake. Another revealed that her tendency to fall down — which she’d long attributed to dizziness — was a compulsive reenactment of a suicide attempt years earlier, when she’d jumped into the Seine. 

Link to the rest at N+1

PG notes that sometimes when people write about writing, they are subject to wandering about.

Multiple Narrators, Multiple Truths

From The Literary Hub:

In my teens, I read only Victorian novels. The multiple narrator is such a prominent feature of 19th-century fiction that it’s possible I internalized the device inadvertently. Books such as MiddlemarchFrankenstein, and Wuthering Heights fed my already over-exercised imagination to the point where reality and fantasy were occasionally indistinguishable. Multiple narrator remains my storytelling technique of choice, as a reader and a writer.

. . . .

Of course, the multiple narrator has many incarnations. There are collections of stories, alternate narrators, interwoven first and third-person narratives, epistolary novels, story-cycles, and composite novels. I am particularly absorbed by stories in which the multiple narrators offer alternate versions of the same event. While I have an undying admiration for Kazuo Ishiguro’s ability to tell a story with a single, unreliable narrator, as in The Remains of the Day and Klara and the Sun, multiple narration can give the writer access to a wider context and world view that can be equally helpful in communicating with the reader.

The beauty of the novel is its myriad forms and re-invention. You do not have to be an advocate of experimental fiction, or a member of OULIPO, to appreciate original ways of storytelling and be entranced when you find them.

. . . .

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Waters has perfected the historical novel with a twist with Fingersmith, a novel that employs alternating narrators. With echoes of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Waters’ Victorian novel tells the story of Sue and Maud and the complex conspiracy that entwines them. Waters’ skill is in the visceral detail of the period that provides a background that, while evocative of the time, avoids pastiche.

Told in the first person, the alternating narrative is a satisfactory way of concealing and revealing information to the reader that is not available to the characters. Other alternating first person narrators include Wuthering Heights in which Emily Brontë uses two peripheral characters to tell the story of Heathcliff and Cathy, and An American Marriage, where Tayari Jones uses the device to examine the different feelings and experiences of the married couple Roy and Celestial.

Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Told in three parts by three different narrators, Han Kang’s slender and disturbing novel uses first and third person narrative voice to tell the story of Yeong-hye a South Korean woman in contemporary Seoul who decides to become a vegetarian. Her subsequent transformation is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister who react with different levels of sympathy and understanding at Yeong-hye‘s deterioration. Interspersed with these interested parties, is the fragmentary voice of Yeong-hye and her dreams of blood and meat and slaughter, all connected to her guilt that she ever consumed animals.

The Vegetarian has a distinct three-part structure, and each part is a self-contained story. Other multiple-voiced narratives, such as Beatrice Hitchman’s All of You Every Single One, interweave the narrators to build more of a mosaic novel where the point of view may be wider, or inclusive of diverse perspectives such as David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Epistolary novels like Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple use the multiple narrator to great effect.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Navigating Self Doubt

From Writer Unboxed:

Some of us run into it right from the beginning, when we first begin to put words to paper. Others are luckier and don’t encounter it until later on their journey. But either way, if you’re a writer, at some time or another you are bound to run into Self Doubt.

Self doubt hits all of us differently. It can be an uncomfortable itch between our shoulders or a paralyzing force that prevents us from getting any words down on the page. Whatever form it takes it can be, if not conquered, at least managed.

There are three distinct branches of the self-doubt tree.

Competence is about craft and skill. Do I have the writing chops to pull this story off?
Permission is about judgment and authenticity. Who do I think I am trying to tell THIS story?
Worthiness is about self worth, agency, and voice. Who do I think I am trying to tell ANY story?


Of all the causes of self doubt, competence is the most easily fixed. It’s about rolling up our sleeves, digging in, and committing the time and energy necessary to get better.

But of course, if merely proving our competency were all that was involved, no published writer would ever have self doubts and I am here to assure you that is most definitely NOT the case. Many published writers find their doubts grow stronger the further they move into their career. Their initial doubts are compounded by a sense of expectations they must meet, or new milestones or metrics they must achieve. Which brings us to head games and hard truths, essential tools in any writers’ backpack.

We’ll start with the hard truths first.

Our story will never be as sparkling and fabulous on the page as the idea of it in our heads. In the act of trying to capture it, in choosing specific actions and details, it loses some of the glorious sense of infinite potential, which is always a part of a new idea’s magic.

Knowing and accepting that helps us adjust our expectations. We won’t be writing a perfect book, but we very well might be writing a terrific book, and that’s good enough.

Another hard truth: Your journey to publication will likely take longer than you think. The industry average is 10 years. Knowing and accepting that helps us give ourselves the time and permission to improve our writing skills. With patience and persistence, all of us can improve and draw closer to mastery.

Now for the promised head game regarding competence:

When your goal is paralyzing you and filling you with debilitating self-doubt, change the goal.

Mind blowing, right? But the trick is to find a goal that feels like a challenge but doesn’t suffocate us. Instead of finishing a manuscript to find an agent or land a contract, shift the goal to finishing a manuscript. Or, finishing a manuscript that has an actual plot. Or middle. Or distinct internal and external character arcs.

Focus on nailing one or two things in this manuscript rather than having the entire forward trajectory of your career hinging on it. Try on different goals until you feel that tight knot of doubt inside you begin to ease up.

It is okay to attempt a story you can’t pull off. If you only ever train for a 5k, you will never be able to compete in a marathon. Most writers have practice manuscripts! But the thing about practice stories is, you can often do another revision. Or start over from scratch. Also? Practice stories CAN turn into break through or even break out books. (That is what happened with GRAVE MERCY.)

Be willing to produce a lot of material that won’t make the final cut. Writers don’t have so much as a block of marble or lump of clay or even paints with which to create. So recognize that your early drafts and story journaling are essentially creating the material, rather than writing the story you will be telling.

Revising is not polishing. Revising is taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together again in an entirely different way. Or starting all over again, from scratch. Be willing to do that if necessary. Over and over again.

Most of us have one or two areas that we seem to know instinctively and do well from the get go. Then there are a number of other elements that we must work at. And usually most of us have a couple of areas we are going to really struggle with. The goal is to see if you can identify which are which. But here’s an important tip—it is a better investment of your time to identify your strengths, shore those up, and play into them than it is to try and become achieve expertise in your areas of weakness.

I want to repeat that for emphasis: It is a better investment of your time to identify your strengths and play to them than it is to try and achieve mastery in every area of weakness.

If you’re an amazing plotter–lean in to that. If your characters breathe on the page, delve even deeper into them. If your use of language is so lyrical or clever or quirky that people would read your grocery list, play to that strength.

The goal should be to become competent enough in your weaknesses that they don’t detract from the overall reading experience. It is your strengths that will make your work stand out.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Space and Shadows

From Writer Unboxed:

A small painting hangs in my hallway. Created by a friend some years ago, it is one of my very favorite things, and illustrates a poem by Sappho:

People do gossip

And they say about
Leda, that she

once found an egg
hidden under
wild hyacinths

When I asked my friend to paint the poem for me, I had an idea of what I wanted it to look like — a girl in a white dress perhaps, discovering an oversized egg on the ground. But I kept my thoughts to myself, and I’m so glad I did, because the end result was so much better than what I’d anticipated. Brilliantly, my friend painted neither the swan, nor Leda, nor the egg — instead she gave me a simple sketch of hyacinths in the grass, heads waving.

Will you think I’m crazy if I tell you that even after 20 plus years, I still find myself searching for eggs when I pass by that painting?

That’s because my friend — let’s call her Christine (everyone say “Hi Christine!”) did something that will also work in writing — she left room on the page for my imagination to fill in the blanks. Because of that, the painting has stayed alive for me all these years as my brain constantly tries to reconcile what the poem says with what the painting shows. 

We can use the same technique in our writing to deepen our story and force our readers to engage. Brains love nothing more than a challenge, and leaving space in your story gives them exactly that. By not putting everything on the page, we hold room for the story to unfurl in our readers’ imaginations. We give them the framework but let them tell the specifics to themselves.

So how can we as writers accomplish this magic trick, this act of giving readers the shadow and letting them fill in the substance? Here are a few things I’ve learned from trying this on my own: 

Start by developing a rich backstory. Your novel is a snapshot of a period in your character’s life — it’s not the entire movie. They had a life before the point where your story started, and they should have a natural arc that continues after your story ends. Know that arc. You don’t have to write it all out — I personally resent spending time writing stuff I will never show anyone — but make it real. Tell it to yourself before you go to bed, when you are waiting in the car, when the dentist is late and you need a distraction. The more real it becomes to you, the more real it is for your characters.

Once you have that backstory, it will inform everything your characters do, from how they act to who they date to what they like to eat. It’s the invisible structure that holds everything up and makes it logical to readers. You can allude to it as needed, but you don’t have to put it all on the page. Think of your story as a first date: you probably wouldn’t spill all the details about your divorce or custody battle or horrific gastric reaction to shellfish, would you? But all those things would influence who you went out with, where you went, and what you ordered. 

For example, a main character in my new novel DARLING GIRL, while charming, is not a particularly nice guy. But he does have moments where I hope readers are sympathetic to him. To make that happen, I created an entire backstory for him, starting from his childhood, of all the ways he’s been traumatized and lost. The reader never hears the details, but because I have that framework, his actions are consistent enough that anyone paying attention can easily surmise that his childhood was not a happy one.

Limit internal dialogue/memories. In THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by Kevin Brockmeiyer, one segment of heaven is composed of people who are remembered by those on earth. But a virus is killing off the population (yes, it was prophetic) and heaven is becoming less crowded. Eventually the only people remaining are those who have crossed paths with the sole survivor on earth. 

These heavenly occupants know this survivor from wildly varying relationships. There’s an ex-lover, a childhood friend, a beggar on the street. Brockmeiyer’s prose is sparse — the book is only 272 pages — but he’s carefully selected the internal dialogue of these people. He doesn’t recount the entire affair, for example, just a few moments. But together, these seemingly disparate memories merge to create a portrait of the main character that is rich and colorful in our minds, the way watercolors bleed across each other to fill the empty space on paper.

. . . .

Use tiny gestures for a big impact. In the movie Hancock, starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron, a world-weary jerk of a superhero (Smith) finds a new reason to save people when he discovers that he’s not really all alone in the world — he once had a passionate, centuries-long relationship with Mary (Theron), a woman he now thinks of as a stranger thanks to his decades of amnesia. 

The film never flashes back to show them together. It barely even describes their former love — there’s no big long monologue about it. Instead, at one point early in the movie, Theron notices a bruise on Hancock’s hand. She glances at it with a heat and intensity that far outstrips the actual injury. Later, there’s a scene where she tenderly describes walking down the street with Hancock, holding his hand on the way to the movies. As she reminisces, she holds his hand and kisses it.

The brief exchange is so emotional, and has so much information packed inside it— that they’d been together long enough to have a routine, that they still liked each other enough to hold hands and go on dates, for example — that our minds immediately want to fill in the rest. But because the film hasn’t spelled the details out for us, we are free to imagine the weight and history of their love, and how it informs everything Hancock does going forward. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

From Kristine Kathryn Ru sch:

I’m doing a lot of things here in Las Vegas that I only dreamed of doing when I lived in Oregon, especially small town Oregon. Sometimes I think I rolled myself into a little ball and cut out everything else. Some of that was health-related, some of it was the demanding job, but some of it was opportunity.

Not that I took advantage of a lot of opportunities when I had them.

Bear with me on this, particularly those of you who have read the blog for a long time.

The word “audition” used to scare the ever-living hell out of me. I won a lot of awards for singing, music, and performance when I was a child and as a teenager. I also modeled. I fell into it as a child because the photographer of the local newspaper wanted to date my older sister. She was one of those popular girls who treated her boyfriends like crap.

My mother used to assign her to babysit me, probably thinking it would keep her out of trouble. Instead, my sister used to pass me off on the wanna-be boyfriends, particularly the photographer. I was in the paper a lot.

Then she married, my parents and I moved to Wisconsin, and my mother still found a way for me to get photographed for the paper. I did a ton of artsy fartsy things, except actual drawing, which I sucked at. I competed a lot, but I never had to audition, until high school.

I don’t remember most of my auditions, but the last one—the very last one—sticks in my mind. I auditioned for Fiddler on the Roof. I was scared to death, and the music stuck in my throat. When it became clear to me that I couldn’t sing in tune at that moment, I apologized to the co-director.

“I go out of tune when I’m nervous,” I said.

She looked at me over the top of the piano. “Well, you’ll be nervous on opening night, won’t you?”

It was like an arrow to the heart. And that was it. I saw everything through that prism from that moment forward. If I was nervous, I would screw up.

What I didn’t see was this: I had blown the audition badly and I still got a singing part. (One of the two youngest daughters, Shprintze.) What I considered bad wasn’t awful. It just wasn’t good enough for a lead role.

I had no one to tell me these things. I had a perfectionist mother who believed one missed word, one missed note, ruined everything. So I decided to avoid anything that required auditioning…although I found ways around it.

I was in radio. I got my first job as a writer of copy, and eventually, I learned engineering and because we were short-handed, I went on the air a lot.

I had married another theater geek, and I had dreams of heading to New York. He would perform and I would write. That got tanked when he quit drama school after he had been chosen to work at a start-up theater (which later won a Tony). He “didn’t like the pay.”

. . . .

[Kris took a voice-over class.]

Seventy-five percent of the class was performance, sprinkled with a lot of learning about all the kinds of existing voiceover work. There’s an engineering course that I will take later in the year, if I can sign up (it fills fast), and there’s a lot more to learn.

Because I didn’t care about whether or not I was the best or even “good enough,” I tried all kinds of things. I had fun and I was eager to get in the booth and try something hard.

It knocked the rust off my radio skills, and reminded me how much I loved voice work. I had tried to revive some voice work back in Oregon, but I hadn’t felt comfortable, considering how much had changed.

And a lot had changed, but the fundamentals remained the same. One voice, one microphone, some engineering work, and ¡voila! a product. I had forgotten that.

So, while I was enmeshed with trying to work out which classes to take next, the VO studio sent an email about moving forward, and in it, had this quote:

Comparison is the thief of joy.

They sent it because students who finish that first class usually become a group who take other classes together. As in all of the arts, a group that starts from the same place does not stay in the same place. Some have early success. Some quit. Some work forever to make small gains. And some eventually become the solid folks in their field.

I’m not planning to become a major voice-over artist. I have a job. But I want to do a few things, and I want the skills (and the contacts) to hire the right people for the jobs I have.

Still, I stared at that comparison quote for a long time, and it got me thinking.

The writers I’ve been around, particularly those with some success, often compare themselves to others like this:

I’m more talented than XYZ Bestselling writer. How come he has all the luck?

And then they try to explain it to themselves, often with a result like this:

Oh, he’s successful because he dumbs his work down for the masses.

Or, he’s successful because he’s writing something trendy.

Or, he’s successful because he does more advertising than I do.

Or, he’s successful because he sucks up to everyone in power (in traditional publishing).

He’s never successful because of his abilities—not to that person. Not that it matters, either. In the arts, comparing two artists isn’t fair. They’re different. They’re on different paths.

Which was the point of the quote the VO studio sent.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

How the AP Stylebook Considers Language on Disability

From Publishers Weekly:

I’m a Canadian writer but, beyond that, I’m a disabled journalist. The style bible in use north of the border is called the Canadian Press Style Guide, or CP Guide for short. The initialism for my disability, cerebral palsy, is also CP. I often joke with colleagues that I was almost certainly born to do this if the naming conventions of the industry are anything to go by. In fact, this tiny connection is one of the only things, in journalism or in the wider publishing industry, that I am sure of. As always, the goalposts move. Sometimes, even in the right direction. This was true for a recent revision of the Associated Press Stylebook.

On April 23, the AP announced what it called a “revision and expansion” of its guidelines for writing about disabled people. The advice highlighted the need to stay away from old tropes relating to disabled people—that we are just sad objects of pity who need to be doted on via the written word; that we are suffering, or bound, or afflicted. Given this update, one might think that the disability community felt triumphant. However, the joys of being 20% (or thereabouts) of the population is that we are not a monolith and neither is how we identify.

The AP was quickly criticized for its advice surrounding person-first vs. identity-first language. The news agency noted that some people prefer identity-first language, like I’ve used thus far in this piece—disabled followed by identifier. I use identity first because disability permeates every part of my lived experience. My brain damage is not going away, and I don’t need the small reminders that I’m a person.

The other option, person first—e.g., “a journalist with CP”—is used in some circles, but is largely deployed outside of the community by people who feel icky about the word disabled. Like they might catch something or, importantly for writers, like we’re not seen as fully fledged human beings in wider society. Imagine that.

After noting that these distinctions exist, the AP decided—in line with the National Center for Disability Journalism’s guidance at the time (I’m unsure if they collaborated on this decision)—to make its stance, “In describing groups of people, or when individual preferences can’t be determined, use person-first language.” To which many disabled Twitter users, to put it mildly, disagreed. Three days later came a Tweet welcoming readers to give the AP feedback. The NCDJ revised its guidelines this month, removing the suggestion that newsrooms use person-first language automatically.

This whole situation reminds me that it is a moral imperative to go beyond the style guide—to take it as our duty to shepherd the stories of those we are writing about, even if they are fictional, with the utmost of care and attention. Guidance like this has been in the CP Guide for as long as I’ve been reading it—about a decade. And yet, as I write this, typing “handicapped” into Google’s news-specific search function nets 255,000 results. “Crippled,” which is often thoughtlessly used in the same way that “turn a blind eye” and “to have a deaf ear” are, turns up over a million results. “Wheelchair-bound” (as opposed to “wheelchair user,” the preferred term)? 96,300. Just because industry publications give advice doesn’t mean writers take it. I have all the respect in the world for the NCDJ, but style guides change at a glacial pace. It’s not that there isn’t a desire to change—the AP’s quick about-face shows that there is; it’s that writers are creatures of habit. It’s not like handicapped just fell out of favor.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

How I Became the Honest Broker

From Substack:

I rarely talk about my workaday life before I settled into music and writing. Those days are far too strange and confusing to convey without writing a whole book about them. And I’ll never write that book because a lot of it I’d rather forget.

Other people in the creative economy have day gigs, but they are usually simple to describe—waiting on tables, tutoring school kids, driving a taxi, would you like fries with that, mister? But my work wasn’t anything like that. I took on projects that sent me into unfamiliar terrain all over the world, and thrust me into odd and unpredictable situations. The deliverables were always high stakes, the work often secret, surrounded by confidentiality agreements and cautionary warnings, and the agenda rarely going according to plan.

I’ll admit it: I was like a person with a split personality in my twenties. I was obsessed with music, working to advance my piano skills, and digging deeply into the research that would eventually result in so many later books and articles. But I also had to pay the bills, and I possessed a few highly marketable skills. I had an ability to analyze complex social, political and economic situations, a way of navigating through turbulent waters, a knack for making the right move at the right time. These skills caught the notice of powerful people, and they would put me to work to solve their problems.

And, oh man, did they have problems. They would thrust a plane ticket in my hand, and send me packing—off into situations that might involve everything and anything.

The good news: My bosses paid well. What they wanted was never simple or straight-forward. But if I could pull it off, I got rewarded with enough money to cover my costs during long stretches solely devoted to my music and writing.

I have little desire to dwell on the details. Many of them are still confidential, and telling too much could get me into trouble. Much of it is a blur any way—Bangkok, Medellín, Cannes, Shanghai, Prague, Copacabana, Macau, Paris, Tasmania, Jakarta, Tijuana, Frankfurt, Krakow, Tokyo and all other places I went on my various missions.  So many cities, so many crazy days and long nights.

But I need to remember it, if only because I have to tell you about the Honest Broker.

This particular project brought me to China. I was trying to set up an operation in a remote province, far outside my comfort zone, and couldn’t seem to figure out how to maneuver among the various interests and stakeholders. My patron was one of the wealthiest men in Hong Kong, and by using his contacts, I gained access to people who normally operate behind layers of intermediaries and gatekeepers. But even these contacts led me on an endless runaround. My sources gave me  conflicting advice and confusing directions. Everything felt wrong and nothing seemed quite on the level.

I knew I needed help, but had run out of options. Then I met the drunk Australian.

He wasn’t a contact on my list, and I can’t even remember his name. This was a chance encounter in a hotel bar late at night. But this hard-drinking Australian was talkative and had interesting things to say. He had spent most of his life bouncing around the capitals of Asia, and was a high-level operator in his own spheres. He bragged about his insider’s knowledge, and claimed—with some accuracy, as I came to discover—that he knew how to maneuver in China better than the clueless Westerners who were now appearing on the scene. He had traced the secret paths to power and knew all the dangerous mistakes amateurs always make.

He reeled off a list of them. “You go into a province or city and flash around some money, then expect the local officials will help you? Forget it. They’ll rob you blind, and even make you bribe them for the privilege. Same goes for the party leaders. From each according to his ability, and all that, my friend. And forget about lawyers—the legal protections here are like this”—he held up his empty glass, then flipped it over as if to emphasize the nothingness of what he was offering to the gods of Marx and Mao. “As for the bankers, you might as well call them wankers.”

The empty glass was also a sign that I needed to order another round of the local brew, and I quickly complied. My new friend fell into a meditative silence until further libations arrived. Finally, after another sip on the stomach-destroying glass of baijiu that passed for spirits at our watering hole, I asked the obvious question.

“So what do I do? Who can I trust?”

“That’s easy, mate. You need to find the Honest Broker.”

This sounded appealing enough, but I had zero idea what my new acquaintance was talking about. He might just as well have told me to go to Oz and consult with the Wizard.  

“Who, exactly, is this Honest Broker?”

“There’s at least one in every city. But don’t expect their business cards to say ‘Honest Broker’—that’s just what I call them. But that’s exactly what they are. Sometimes they don’t even have an official position. But they are the key to everything.”

He proceeded to explain how Honest Brokers play a hidden but vital role in communities without a history of legal protections and stable institutions. Their influence and power is built solely on a reputation for straight talk and trustworthy dealings. “They are true brokers, intermediaries between others. They aren’t going to participate in your deal, no matter what it is. They are go-betweens, really. But do not underestimate the power of this kind of brokerage. Whatever you need—a loan, a building permit, political influence, a place to land a private jet, whatever—they will introduce you to the right people and steer you away from the sharks.

“And they do this for a very simple reason: their prestige is enhanced by making these connections. In many cases, they don’t even want to be paid. Or let me put that differently—you repay them by becoming a trusted contact for them in future dealings. The Honest Broker may help you for free right now, but don’t be surprised to get asked for assistance on something completely different months or even years later. You Yanks have a hard time grasping it, and are always looking for shortcuts. But the Honest Broker plays the long-term game, mate.

“Find your Honest Broker, and your problems will be solved.”

This proved to be valuable advice, worth far more than the cost of drinks. Over the next few weeks, I changed my approach completely. I made inquiries, compared notes, and finally found my Honest Broker—who did solve my problems, just as promised. My mission accomplished, I returned back home to California and tried to forget all about it.

I put my passport out of sight. My world shrank back to manageable dimensions, and my days were spent at the two keyboards, the piano and the word processor. I was getting back into my music groove again.

A long time went by before I realized the real importance of what I had learned in China, and how it applied to the other half of my split and fractured life. I was putting energy into a new sphere now, music criticism, and trying to create a rule book for how to make it sizzle.

Yet criticism seemed such a degraded form of writing at that juncture. I had already seen the collapse in literary criticism—in fact, I had lived through it as a student at Stanford and Oxford. The whole enterprise had turned into a circus sideshow over the course of just a few years. Critics now aspired to quasi-celebrity status, and they exploited their roles as arbiters of taste to engage in the worst sort of strutting and preening. The more outlandishly they sold out their craft, opting instead for self-aggrandizement, the larger the rewards they received. This blight took root first in France but quickly spread elsewhere.  And now the taint seemed to be seeping into other forms of criticism as well. Whether the subject at hand was a movie or a meal or a TV wrestling match, the critics were the real stars, and everything else subservient to their self-serving deconstruction of anything in their path.

Music reviews seemed to occupy the lowest rung of all, with their own distinct set of vices. I saw critics who just regurgitated record label press releases. Or took all sorts of freebies from power brokers in return for—well, just guess—without a tinge of hesitation or guilt. Or used their influence to get close to stars, churning out favorable coverage in exchange for access. Or announced the arrival of some new savior of the music every month, hyping short-lived trendsetters in a never-ending process of spin. Exaggeration and hipper-than-thou pretension were the calling cards of the field. With an ample supply of those, and a backstage pass, nothing could stop you.

I admit, with some shame, that all this appealed to me in my twenties. The idea that I could adopt a pose as a critic, and launch myself into some higher sphere of coolness—and maybe even hang out with superstars as part of the deal. . . . Well, that was why you picked this vocation in the first place. Wasn’t it? There were compromises, sure, but didn’t they exist in every field? I soothed my conscience by recalling what Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone in The Godfather II: “Michael, this is the business we’ve chosen.” You get to swagger like a wiseguy, and grab whatever you can get your hands on, just so long as you’re willing to dispose of a few bodies along the way.

I could play this game, was even good at it. I got published and started receiving some recognition for my talents. But I was troubled nonetheless. This didn’t feel right. It didn’t add up. Was this really the right way to do it?

And that’s when I remembered the Honest Broker.

The Honest Broker now reappeared in my psyche as an inner voice, an avenging angel whispering in my ear. Remember me? The Honest Broker puts forthright expression and straight dealing above everything else. The Honest Broker doesn’t look for direct benefit in any endeavor. The Honest Broker is just an intermediary, not a beneficiary. 

But all that seems foolish—because what do you get out of it?

Day by day, the whispering got louder, turned into a constant drone. Do not underestimate the power of this kind of brokerage…the Honest Broker plays the long-term game, mate. Over time, that scrupulous fidelity and reputation for trustworthy advice beats out all other strategies. The Honest Broker is irreplaceable, and all the more so when other guides have become unreliable.

Again and again, I asked myself the same question: Could the Honest Broker be a role model for me as a critic? Even more to the point, did the Honest Broker represent an entirely different model for criticism? Precisely the correcting course we need at this juncture in cultural history?

And here I must make another shameful admission. My initial reaction to this line of thinking was to resist it, and even ridicule it—and for the simple reason that it didn’t gratify my ego. The critic as celebrity was much more appealing on every level. Even the title of “broker” was a huge letdown, especially when I considered the other options. Stanley Crouch had just released a book of critical essays entitled Notes of a Hanging Judge—now that sounded cool. The Hanging Judge? How could I get a nickname like that? I tried saying out loud: Notes of an Honest Broker.

Hell’s bells, it just didn’t have the same ring.

Even so, I saw my approach to writing change over the next few months. Without even consciously admitting it to myself, I was taking on the persona of the Honest Broker. I began measuring my own methodologies against ideal standards of fairness, and nagging myself when I strayed from them. I started paring away at exaggerations and posturing in my prose, and worked to find other ways of imparting color and vitality to my sentences. Above all, I started worrying about my reader—because, after all, wasn’t the reader the real person I was supposed to serve? Wasn’t the reader the beneficiary of my brokerage services?

This too was alarming. Pleasing musicians or editors brought more tangible rewards. What did I get out of serving some lousy, anonymous reader? The ingrate wouldn’t even recognize my noble sacrifice.

Then I reached the most abject level in this whole process of self-abasement. I started worrying about whether the reader would actually enjoy the music I was recommending.

This was a whole new consideration, one that had never dawned on me before. And I could tell by consulting various cutting edge critics, that this issue hadn’t got on their radar screens either. They didn’t give a rat’s ass for the reader’s musical pleasure. Or, if they did, they made sure to hide it at every pass. I started reading  music reviews just looking for the words: enjoyment, pleasure, delight. They had gone missing in action. Why didn’t anyone talk about them? Shouldn’t enjoyment be a make-or-break part of the deal? Yes, a critic expands the readers’ horizons, informs and educates, but also guide them to pleasure. After all, wasn’t that why I listened to music? Wasn’t that what brought me to my vocation in the first place?

Lost in this maze, I started recognizing all the other priorities that people had who wrote about music. And the more I mulled over the ecosystem, the more polluted it seemed. I saw smart people who wrote entire books about music with the aim of securing tenure from their elder colleagues in a college music department. I saw others twisting themselves into all sorts of contortions in order to win a grant or please an editor or curry favor with some institutional power broker. I even read reviewers who wrote with the apparent goal of ingratiating themselves with other reviewers. Talk about the blind leading the blind!

Link to the rest at Substack

How the AP Stylebook Considers Language on Disability

From Publishers Weekly:

I’m a Canadian writer but, beyond that, I’m a disabled journalist. The style bible in use north of the border is called the Canadian Press Style Guide, or CP Guide for short. The initialism for my disability, cerebral palsy, is also CP. I often joke with colleagues that I was almost certainly born to do this if the naming conventions of the industry are anything to go by. In fact, this tiny connection is one of the only things, in journalism or in the wider publishing industry, that I am sure of. As always, the goalposts move. Sometimes, even in the right direction. This was true for a recent revision of the Associated Press Stylebook.

On April 23, the AP announced what it called a “revision and expansion” of its guidelines for writing about disabled people. The advice highlighted the need to stay away from old tropes relating to disabled people—that we are just sad objects of pity who need to be doted on via the written word; that we are suffering, or bound, or afflicted. Given this update, one might think that the disability community felt triumphant. However, the joys of being 20% (or thereabouts) of the population is that we are not a monolith and neither is how we identify.

The AP was quickly criticized for its advice surrounding person-first vs. identity-first language. The news agency noted that some people prefer identity-first language, like I’ve used thus far in this piece—disabled followed by identifier. I use identity first because disability permeates every part of my lived experience. My brain damage is not going away, and I don’t need the small reminders that I’m a person.

The other option, person first—e.g., “a journalist with CP”—is used in some circles, but is largely deployed outside of the community by people who feel icky about the word disabled. Like they might catch something or, importantly for writers, like we’re not seen as fully fledged human beings in wider society. Imagine that.

After noting that these distinctions exist, the AP decided—in line with the National Center for Disability Journalism’s guidance at the time (I’m unsure if they collaborated on this decision)—to make its stance, “In describing groups of people, or when individual preferences can’t be determined, use person-first language.” To which many disabled Twitter users, to put it mildly, disagreed. Three days later came a Tweet welcoming readers to give the AP feedback. The NCDJ revised its guidelines this month, removing the suggestion that newsrooms use person-first language automatically.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Rethinking productivity

From The Bookseller:

Are you feeling the pressure? As we start a ‘new term’, post-restrictions, I know many authors are feeling compelled to start or continue at a certain pace. But we are still in or recovering from trauma, so before you think about what it is possible for you to achieve, please think about how you are and how you can look after yourself and others more.

There is a lot of advice circulated about maximising productivity, but what do we really need to get decent work done? It is lovely to have an office or a dedicated room, but if circumstances demand that you work at your kitchen table, or on your lap, so be it. If you wait for those perfect circumstances, you will never start, so always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. If you think you must assemble ideal terrain before you start, then you are deferring your creativity to fate. You may feel down, sad or grieving. But you can write in rage and sadness, too. Maybe not yet, but you will. Sometimes, little bits of story unfurl within your own sad tale; cling to them, because they are still precious. I have spent the pandemic home schooling, guiding, Skype teaching, being ill, but, most of all, under the pressure of caring for a very poorly offspring with little external support. This has forced me to adjust my notions both of what productivity is and of the conditions in which it is sustained.

And what about the adage of writing every day? Pah! Tremendous if this is you, but I cannot do it, and you mght not be able to either, for a whole host of reasons. This does not mean you cannot produce a book. Again, go with what is available to you. Thinking, reading, listening; you may not have committed words to the page, but a process is still ongoing. Stay in your lane; understand that comparison is futile. Your situation is unique to you and wondering if someone else is doing better will simply erode energy and confidence.

Pondering is the writing, too. The work.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Seven Surefire Ways to Weaken Your Writing

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

You undertook the grand adventure of writing and publishing a book. And now you’ve either learned, or will shortly learn, that the final page of your book is not the end of writing, but the segue from writing the book into writing about the book. Today’s publishing market is a media-content glutton. Whether you’ve written a novel or a nonfiction book, you’ll find yourself churning out essays, blogposts, presentations, interview questions and answers, newsletters, and memes.

Regardless of audience and format, your credibility is everything. You want your words to ring strong, true, relevant, and original. That’s how you grab and hold a reader’s attention, how you make them want to read more from you, how you build an ongoing readership—how you become an established author with a following.

Nothing will stamp you as unoriginal, bland, and of dubious authority as will the use of cliches that cast aspersions on your creativity and believability. Here are seven to avoid.

  1. “I’m not gonna lie”

A pediatric dental hygienist once told me, “The worst thing you can say to your child is, ‘don’t worry, it won’t hurt.’ Chances are your child wasn’t worried about pain until you brought it up.”

The same goes for telling your reader you’re not gonna lie. Before you qualified what you’re about to say by suggesting there are times when you do lie, your readers assumed you to be a trustworthy source. Now they wonder why you felt you had to say that, and whether it means that statements you don’t preface with “I’m not gonna lie” are untrue.

Gotta love one of Urban Dictionary’s definitions of the phrase: “A term that when prefixed to a statement does more damage than good.”

Whether you’re trying to establish credibility for your opinion, reveal an endearing vulnerability, or defend yourself against an unpopular stance, a strong standalone statement will have more impact on your readers. 

And beware of doubt-casting cousins like “I’ll be honest,” “In all honesty,” and “Truth be told,” and  . . . 

  1. “Trust me”

There’s good reason why writers are admonished to show, not tell. If you have to fall back on “Trust me” to gain the compliance or confidence of others, you haven’t taken actions or provided the information or perspectives that instill trust. Show us. You have to earn trust; it’s never an entitlement. We show, not tell, as demonstration of integrity and engagement. There’s no shortcut directive for that.

  1. “ . . . of all time”

The Big Bang was more than 13 billion years ago. And even that’s not all of time, because what about the moment before the Big Bang? Time is infinite, human recorded history is only a few thousand years. How infinitely silly it sounds classify something like television shows, football players, mobile apps, and running shoes as the best “of all time.” 

If you’re talking about a favorite something, it needs no qualification. “Cherry Garcia is my favorite ice cream” is quite clear. If you must qualify, “Atticus Finch is the greatest hero in film history” carries more weight than a film “of all time” when film has been around less than 150 years.

  1. “Let that sink in.”

The use of this junk phrase means you either didn’t use language clear enough to make your point, or you believe your reader lacks the intellect to know when you’ve made an important point. 

It’s condescending. Let that si . . . see what I mean?

A clear, succinct statement needs no command tag, but if you just can’t let go of the sinking-in idiom, you can take the conceit out of it by flipping it onto yourself: 

When I let that sink in, I was able to take a step back and look for solutions.

I let that sink in, and how very troubling it was. Now what?

Letting something that heavy sink in took a while.

Now your reader is empathizing with you rather than feeling irritated or patronized.

Link to the rest at Woman Writers, Women’s Books

How to stop writing a novel

From Nathan Bransford:

For the last year and a half, I’ve written nearly a dozen drafts of a novel. I wrote (or rewrote) 1,000 words every day, cancelled plans to work on my novel, and dreamed of publication. 

Recently, I decided to put my novel in the drawer and move on. It was gut-wrenching, but I know it was the right thing to do.

In this post, I’ll talk about why I came to that decision, how to mourn an unfixable novel, and how to move on. 

About six months into the writing process, I knew my novel wasn’t going to work. 

My plot was boring. I would re-read the story and find myself tuning out after the first third of the book. If reading it was boring, you can imagine how boring it was to write; I had to bribe myself with cookies to finish chapters. 

A boring plot is not necessarily the final death knell of a novel-in-progress. So I re-plotted individual chapters and added more spice, ultimately writing five more drafts and about 100,000 more words. 

Unfortunately, my characters were grieving (there’s a lot of death in the book), so a more energetic plot didn’t match their motivations. I was adding surface-level excitement to a fundamentally uninteresting story arc. The book was just a series of emotionally intense but pointless scenes. 

It wasn’t until I took a step back and evaluated the story itself — not how I told the story, but what the story was — that I realized that I didn’t have the energy to fix the novel. 

This is the key question you need to ask yourself if you’re deciding whether or not to put a novel aside: Have you lost the drive to keep pushing forward? Have you already wrestled with it for multiple drafts, to no avail? Are you in the throes of revision fatigue or are you more genuinely burned out with this novel?

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Sunk Cost Fallacy

From The Decision Lab:

The Sunk Cost Fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.

. . . .

Imagine that you bought a concert ticket a few weeks ago for $50. On the day of the concert, you feel sick and it’s raining outside. You know that traffic will be worse because of the rain and that you risk getting sicker by going to the concert. Despite the fact that it seems as though the current drawbacks outweigh the benefits, why are you still likely to choose to go to the concert?

This is known as the sunk cost fallacy. We are likely to continue an endeavor if we have already invested in it, whether it be a monetary investment or effort that we put into the decision. That often means we go against evidence that shows it is no longer the best decision, such as sickness or weather affecting the event.

. . . .

Individual effects

In economic terms, sunk costs are costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered.1 In the previous example, the $50 spent on concert tickets would not be recovered whether or not you attended the concert. It therefore should not be a factor in our current decision-making, because it is irrational to use irrecoverable costs as rationale for making a present decision. If we acted rationally, only future costs and benefits would be taken into account, because regardless of what we have already invested, we will not get it back whether or not we follow through on the decision.

The sunk cost fallacy means that we are making irrational decisions because we are factoring in influences other than the current alternatives. The fallacy affects a number of different areas of our lives leading to suboptimal outcomes.

These outcomes range from deciding to stay with a partner even if we are unhappy because we’ve already invested years of our lives with them, to continuing to spend money renovating an old house, even if it would be cheaper to buy a new one, because we’ve already invested money into it.

Systemic effects

The sunk cost fallacy not only has an impact on small day-to-day decisions like attending a concert. It also has been proven to impact the decisions that governments and companies make.

A famous example of the sunk cost fallacy impacting large-scale decisions was coined the Concorde fallacy. In 1956, the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee met to discuss building a supersonic airplane, the Concorde. French and British engine manufacturers and French and British governments were involved in the project that was estimated to cost almost $100 million dollars. Long before the project was over, it was clear that there were increasing costs and that the financial gains of the plane, once in use, would not offset them. However, the project continued. The manufactures and governments followed through on the project because they had already made significant financial investments and dedicated a lot of time to the project. Ultimately, this led to millions of dollars being wasted, and Concorde operated for less than 30 years.

If governments and large companies like those involved in the Concorde project are susceptible to cognitive fallacies like the sunk cost fallacy, it is easy to see that significant amounts of money, time and effort are wasted because the sunk costs would never be recovered regardless of whether the project was abandoned. Since governments are sometimes using tax-payers’ money for projects, their adherence to the sunk cost fallacy can negatively affect us all.

Link to the rest at The Decision Lab

Does Your Story Need More Conflict? Tap this Powerful Source

From Writers Helping Writers:

Conflict is such a versatile storytelling element. Not only will obstacles, adversaries, and stressors keep tension high and readers focused, they also provide characters with valuable opportunities to prove themselves, chances to reexamine what they believe and want, and even failures that teach lessons and beget growth.

Every scene needs good, solid conflict. It might be something big and life-altering, or a smaller block, complication, or disruption the character must now navigate. No matter what form it takes, conflict should further the story and offer readers insight into the characters involved.

Conflict is a kaleidoscope, offering a million possibilities for fresh storytelling. But sometimes, too much choice is paralyzing, and we struggled to choose what happens next. Or we’re writing on a day when the ol’ imagination tank is empty. In these cases, knowing where to look for conflict can guide us to scenarios that help raise the stakes and mess up the protagonist’s plans.

The #1 Place to Find Conflict

Where does most of our conflict come from in real life? That’s right: other people. Loved ones, extended family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, friends, complete strangers—if they’re someone who will interact with your character, they’re a potential source for trouble. This is why planning your story’s cast ahead of time can be so beneficial.

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Chances are, your character is connected to a variety of people in the story. When you need conflict, poke at their relationships to see what problems shake loose.

MARRIAGE AND PARTNERSHIP: All romantic relationships have bumps – good ones, and bad ones. I’ve been married twenty-seven years and there are days…well, you know. Life can be full of unknowns, including whom each person will become, how beliefs, goals, and needs may change, and if the partners will grow mostly in the same direction or not. People can also cope very differently when it comes to life’s challenges, and this can lead to resentment, frustration, friction, and fallout.

FAMILY: The people closest to your character may know things others do not…including the bad stuff. Past mistakes, shortcomings, and failures may be part of a relative’s mental Rolodex. Will they reference a “favor owed” when they want something, lay a guilt-trip, or spill a secret to others when they’ve had too much to drink? Strings tend to be attached in family relationships, so responsibilities, duties, expectations, and demands might also be a source of friction. And let’s not forget family dysfunction! Disagreements, arguments, sibling rivalries, or a family feud might help you hit your character’s soft spots.

HISTORY: Think about what kinds of people might have crossed swords with your character at some point in the past. Did your character wrong someone, or did betrayal end a friendship? What will happen if a ghost from the past shows up at a time when your character needs to really focus on the present?

Or maybe your character did something they aren’t proud of. If the partner from a one-night affair appears at the family barbecue as a cousin’s +1, will the past stay buried?

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

33 Common Literary Devices: Definitions, Examples, and Exercises

From Writers.com:

Common literary devices, such as metaphors and similes, are the building blocks of literature, and what make literature so enchanting. Language evolves through the literary devices in poetry and prose; the different types of figurative language make literature spark in different ways.

. . . .

Literary devices are ways of taking writing beyond its straightforward, literal meaning. In that sense, they are techniques for helping guide the reader in how to read the piece.

Central to all literary devices is a quality of connection: by establishing or examining relationships between things, literary devices encourage the reader to perceive and interpret the world in new ways.

One common form of connection in literary devices is comparison. Metaphors and similes are the most obvious examples of comparison. A metaphor is a direct comparison of two things—“the tree is a giant,” for example. A simile is an indirect comparison—“the tree is like a giant.” In both instances, the tree is compared to—and thus connected with—something (a giant) beyond what it literally is (a tree).

Other literary devices forge connections in different ways. For example, imagery, vivid description, connects writing richly to the worlds of the senses. Alliteration uses the sound of words itself to forge new literary connections (“alligators and apples”).

Link to the rest at Writers.com

30 Ways to Say, “You’re Stupid”

From Daily Writing Tips:

I’ve been bingeing on the Shetland mysteries by Ann Cleeves and have finished them all. The novels are set in the Shetland islands to the extreme north of the UK. One of the many enjoyable features is the realistic dialogue, replete with dialect words and British idioms. I encountered several words, some of them insults, that sent me to the dictionary.

In researching insults in general, I came to realize that English provides an astounding number of ways to show contempt for our fellow creatures—too many for a single post.

I shall begin with thirty words used to insult the intelligence.

Compounds involving the head

One way is to form a compound with head, brain, skull, or wit:

NOTE: The definition of wit referenced in these compounds is “The faculty of thinking and reasoning in general.”


Words for mental conditions
Some words used to call a person stupid or foolish were or, in some contexts still are, medical or legal terms. The Ngram viewer shows all of these especially offensive insults understandably declining—until the 2000s, when they began climbing. The word idiot shows an especially dramatic spurt as we enter the age of incivility at the highest levels.

idiot: A person so profoundly disabled in mental function or intellect as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct; specifically a person permanently so affected, as distinguished from one with a temporary severe mental illness.

imbecile: (Latin imbecillus “weak, feeble, delicate, fragile, ineffective, lacking intellectual or moral strength”) Of a person: mentally weak or deficient; lacking in intelligence or intellectual ability; stupid, foolish, idiotic. Sometimes used with the medical meaning of “suffering from mental retardation, typically of a moderate or severe degree,” but now largely disused and often considered offensive.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

If you’re not familiar with the Ngram Viewer, it’s a Google Books project you can find here.

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Therapist and Patient

From Writers Helping Writers:

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

The purpose of this thesaurus is to encourage you to explore the kinds of relationships that might be good for your story and figure out what each might look like. Think about what a character needs (good and bad), and build a network of connections for him or her that will challenge them, showcase their innermost qualities, and bind readers to their relationship trials and triumphs.

. . . .

A patient visits a therapist to receive treatment and rehabilitation in support of their mental and emotional wellbeing. A therapist’s guidance helps the patient identify their emotions, cope with daily challenges, reduce symptoms of mental illness, and make life choices.

The term “therapist” is a broad one that encompasses social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, life coaches, and more. The label also applies to counselors who deal with marital, family, and substance abuse issues, among others.

Relationship Dynamics
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict. 

  • A therapist and patient working together willingly to solve a problem
  • A therapist working with a reluctant patient, such as a teen whose parent is making them attend sessions or an addict partaking in court-enforced rehab
  • A patient seeing an overworked or incompetent therapist who isn’t really helping
  • Two willing participants who just aren’t a good fit for each other
  • A once-willing patient backsliding into destructive habits and no longer being honest with their therapist
  • A long-term patient becoming frustrated with their lack of progress and pulling away from the therapist
  • A therapist becoming too emotionally involved in a patient’s situation
  • A needy patient demanding too much time or attention from their therapist
  • Challenges That Could Threaten The Status Quo
  • The therapist quitting their practice
  • The patient or therapist relocating 
  • Insurance changing for either the patient or the therapist’s practice
  • Either party developing feelings beyond the professional relationship
  • The therapist gossiping about the patient
  • Either party accusing the other of inappropriate conduct
  • The patient suffering a severe setback (a relapse, family tragedy, job loss, breakup, etc.)
  • Someone the patient knows receiving care from the same therapist
  • The patient refusing to participate in a session
  • The therapist giving the patient bad guidance or wrongly diagnosing them
  • The patient not following through on their appointments, promises, or the advice of the therapist
  • The patient coming off of prescribed medication for mental health reasons
  • The patient’s situation stirring up painful memories for the therapist
  • The patient giving the therapist a bad review
  • The patient failing to pay for services
  • The therapist not having the skills, knowledge, or experience to help the patient
  • The patient lying to the therapist
  • The therapist exerting too much control over the patient
  • Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
  • The patient wanting to stop therapy before the therapist believes they are ready
  • The therapist wanting to put the patient on medication, and the patient resists
  • Either party wanting a different amount of time together than the other party
  • Either party wanting to bring a third party into the sessions, while the other does not
  • The therapist wanting to refer the patient to someone else
  • The patient wanting more access to and communication with the therapist
  • The therapist wanting information the patient is not yet ready to reveal
  • The patient wanting to finish therapy in order to meet an external requirement, while the therapist wants them to accept help
  • The patient wanting to keep secrets from the therapist
  • Either party wanting control 
  • Either party wanting a personal relationship
  • The patient wanting the therapist to lie on their behalf
  • The patient wanting to maintain behaviors, believing they can self-monitor them
  • The patient expecting an unrealistic outcome based on what is possible through therapy

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Secret to a Tight, Propulsive Plot: The Want, The Action, The Shift

From Jane Friedman:

Creating a story without at least some idea of your plot is like planning a trip without a route: You’re likely to wind up meandering, stuck, or lost.

But strong plot is more than just a series of interesting events. It’s a foundational element of what creates story—the road along which your character travels and is changed en route to a strongly held desire.

This basic definition of story means that plot is intrinsically tied to character. As a story element it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is both driven by and drives the protagonist: what she wants, the steps she takes to get it, and how she’s affected by each step on that journey.

You can adapt how much you decide to plot in advance of drafting based on whether you’re a die-hard plotter, a pantser, or something in between (“plantser”), but framing the overarching story as well as each scene within it through the lens of your characters and these three key elements—the want, the action, and the shift—will help guide you through creating a consistently cohesive and propulsive plot.

Think of your protagonist(s) as Tarzan.

If you want him to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, your job as the author is to make sure there’s a vine within reach when he needs it, that it swings him smoothly through the jungle canopy, and that there’s another vine ready for his grasp when he reaches the end of that arc. He can travel the whole jungle that way, all the way home to Jane.

That’s the sense readers should have of your character’s journey—that they’re effortlessly borne along with your protagonist on an unbroken series of arcs toward the final destination. The want is the vine awaiting the character’s grasp; the action is the swing; and the shift is the transfer from one vine to the next awaiting vine.

If any of these three stages fail, that smooth momentum is broken and you risk sending your protagonist—and your reader—plummeting to the forest floor, or stranded in the treetops or on a motionless vine.

This formula applies not just to each individual scene, but to the story as a whole. Before you even begin drafting, see if you can define your story through the lens of the want, the action, and the shift:

Hypercautious Marlon is desperate to keep his sole remaining child close to the safety of home and his protection after the rest of their family is killed, but when his son is swept out to sea, Marlon must face the dangers of the open ocean in trying to find him—and learns that life must be lived fully, despite the risks.

Did you recognize the key plot points in Finding Nemo?

  • The want is clownfish Marlon’s desire to keep Nemo safe in their little anemone and corner of the sea.
  • The resultant action is his journey to track Nemo down and bring him safely home, and all the challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and advances along the path to that goal.
  • The shift is Marlon’s realization that he can’t shelter Nemo from every danger, and that a meaningful life can’t be lived in fear.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

What’s the Secret to Writing a Bestseller? Hint: There Isn’t One.

From Crime Reads:

For a number of years, I taught an intensive, week-long course at the University of Toronto called How To Write A Bestseller. Each year brought a dozen eager, would-be authors to my class, hoping to learn the secrets to writing a book that would make its way to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list.

Everyone thinks they have a book in them. The truth is that most people don’t. The truth is that even those who do have a book lurking somewhere inside them will not write a book that more than a handful of people will want to read or pay money to buy. And the hardest truth of all is that no one—and I mean no one, not your editor, not the publisher, not the critics—has any idea what makes one book sell millions of copies while other, often better, books do not.

Nobody becomes a writer to make money. The sad fact is that approximately five thousand books are published every month in North America and most writers make less than ten thousand dollars a year, so you shouldn’t even be thinking of money. The odds are stacked against you, so you really need to love what you do. You need to be comfortable, even look forward to, spending hours every day—I recommend at least four—alone in a room with nothing but your computer and your imagination.

To be a writer, it helps to have four things: an imagination, interesting life experience, discipline, and talent. Unfortunately, you can’t teach any of these things. But even having all four is no guarantee of success. Without an imagination, discipline is a waste of time. Without the discipline to sit down every day and write, your imagination won’t get you very far. Without the talent to use your own life experiences to create characters a reader can identify with, those life experiences won’t be of interest to anyone but your immediate family.

And sometimes, not even them.

This isn’t to suggest that certain things can’t be taught. You can teach structure; you can teach certain basic techniques; you can teach grammar, how to be a more active listener, how to train your eye to be more observant.

You can’t teach imagination. You can’t teach talent. I can’t give you an interesting life to draw from. You have to develop discipline on your own.

So, what pearls of wisdom did I dispense in the course of those thirty hours?

First: read, read, read.

The more you read the better. Especially kind of book you plan to write. Find the best example of the genre you can. As someone once said, “Bad writing is contagious.” (Although bad writing never stopped a book from being a bestseller!) Read critically. Try to analyze what you read. Did you like it? Why did you like it? What made you want to keep turning the pages? What made the characters successful or not? Did you find your interest waning, and if so, when and why?

Decide on the story you want to tell. Then decide whose story is it. Is the story best-served by a single narrator or multiple points of view? Should I tell the story in the first person or the third? What about third-person singular?

Once you’ve figured out your basic plot and main characters, you should be prepared to sum your book up in a couple of sentences, twenty-five words or less. Think of it as the hopefully intriguing one-line description you will see beside your book when it makes the New York Times list.

The point of this exercise is to get you to understand what your book is about. If you can’t sum it up in a couple of sentences, then trust me, you don’t know what your book is about, and if you don’t know, your reader certainly won’t be able to figure it out. For example, I would sum up Cul-de-Sac like this: A shooting disrupts the lives of five families living on a small, dead-end street in Florida. There’s a lot more to the story, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in “Macbeth”

From OneZero:

Macbeth is a creepy play.

Actors have long been superstitious about acting in it. That’s partly because performances have been riddled with accidents and fatalities; indeed, actors consider it bad luck to even utter the name of the play. (They call it “The Scottish Tragedy”.) And it’s partly because the basic substance of the plot is eldritch: You’ve got black magic, witches, a gore-flecked ghost and walking forests.

But fans of Macbeth often say its freaky qualities are deeper than just the plot devices and characters. For centuries, people been unsettled by the very language of the play.

Actors and critics have long remarked that when you read Macbeth out loud, it feels like your voice and mouth and brain are doing something ever so slightly wrong. There’s something subconsciously off about the sound of the play, and it spooks people. It’s as if Shakespeare somehow wove a tiny bit of creepiness into every single line. The literary scholar George Walton Williams described the “continuous sense of menace” and “horror” that pervades even seemingly innocuous scenes.

For centuries, Shakespeare fans and theater folk have wondered about this, but could never quite explain it.

Then a clever bit of data analysis in 2014 uncovered the reason. (The paper is here.)

It turns out that Macbeth uncanny flavor springs from the unusual way that Shakespeare deploys one particular word, over and over again.

That word?


. . . .

Initially, the scholars who did this analysis — Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore — didn’t think to look at something as mundane as “the”.

They began by reading through scholarly work on the play, looking for various previous hypotheses. They pondered some of the more obvious weird things about how Shakespeare uses language in Macbeth, such as how witches speak in trochaic tetrameter (“Bubb-le | bubb-le, | toil and | trou-ble”). That rhythm is jarringly different from the train-chugging-along iambic pentameter of everyone else (“So fair | and foul | a day have | not seen.”). But the witches don’t appear onstage often enough for their odd prosody to contaminate the feel of the entire play.

Then Hope and Witmore moved on to another point that scholars historically made about Macbeth, which is that the play has a lot of repetition. The witches talk about battles “lost and won”, Duncan uses these precise words when he enters, too. When Lady Macbeth first greets Macbeth, she uses phrasings very similar to when the witches first greet Macbeth.

. . . .

So that made them wonder: Maybe they should do a word-frequency analysis of Macbeth. Perhaps it’d show the recurrence of certain words that would help identify the source of floating menace.

. . . .

So they did an analysis of the “log-likehood” of words in the play. “Log likelihood” is a metric of whether a word is used more or less often than normal. So they compared word-usage in Macbeth to Shakespeare’s overall writing. What words did he use in Macbeth more frequently than in his other plays?

The results are in the chart below. The higher the “Log likelihood” number, the more frequently Shakespeare used it in Macbeth …

Sure enough, you can see several words used with unusual frequency! This includes several we could justifiably call creepy — like “knock”, “cauldron”, “tryant”, “weird”, “trouble”, “dagger”, “fear”, and “horror”.

Cool. But the thing is, that still can’t really explain what’s going. Sure, Shakespeare used these words more often than normal — but they don’t occur so frequently that they’d change the entire mouthfeel of the play’s language. Nor is their overoccurrence terribly surprising. Of course “cauldron” would appear more often in a play with witches, and “thane” in a play about, well, a thane. “This result,” as Hope and Witmore noted drily, “is not very interesting … We hardly need computers and advanced statistics to tell us this.”

Ah, but then Hope and Witmore looked at the list again. And realized there was one word that was pretty odd to see …

. . . .

How exactly did Shakespeare wind up using “the” so frequently? To figure out, Hope and Witmore began combing through the play, looking for uses of the word “the”.

They began to notice a pattern. Consider this example below; it’s Lady Macbeth speaking. The Macbeths are getting all jittery and nervous, and they’re startled by some noises in the night. Lady Macbeth explains the noises thusly …

Now, that’s a weird way to talk about that owl. Imagine you and I were walking through the woods and we suddenly heard a hoot. I’d probably say, “oh — it’s an owl!” An owl. Not the owl. If you say “the owl,” you’re referring to a specific owl that you, and everyone around, you is already familiar with.

By saying “it was the owl that shriek’d”, Lady Macbeth is — in a quite deliciously creepy way — implying that everyone already knows what owl she’s talking about.

It is a collusively strange way for a character to talk. And it makes us, the readers, feel slightly alienated from our own sense of ourselves, and our own knowledge of the world. (Man, maybe I do know that owl? What the hell is going on???) It’s very subtle effect, but it sends a little shiver down your spine.

Hope and Witmore have another, different way of looking at it: By saying “the owl”, Lady Macbeth makes the bird seem like “a generalised, mythical or proverbial owl … The owl becomes an idea, rather than a thing.”

This curious use of “the” is all over the play. Shakespeare just kept on doing it. Here’s Lady Macbeth again, when she’s counseling Macbeth on how to lie

Same thing here with “serpent”! Normally you’d say, “be a serpent” — but “be the serpent” sounds so much more specific and freaky.

Here’s one last example, from when Macbeth is steeling himself to stab Duncan to death …

Again, interestingly awkward word choice! As Hope and Witmore note, you’d expect Macbeth to refer to “my hand” and “my eye”. By writing it as “the hand” and “the eye”, Shakespeare neatly evokes the way Macbeth is beginning to be tormented by his own decisions; he disassociates from his own body. In a few acts he’ll be a totally unravelled mess.

Link to the rest at OneZero and thanks to HG for the tip.

Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 15: Introduction to the 6 Flat Archetypes

From Writers Helping Writers:

In studying character arcs, writers easily recognize Positive-Change Arcs and Negative-Change Arcs. But somewhat more baffling can be the stories that appear to feature neither. These are stories in which the protagonist does not change or seems to have no character arc at all. How do these stories fit into the discussion of archetypal character arcs?

If you’ve studied foundational character-arc theory and practice with me before, you know there are two possible answers to the seeming conundrum of the “character with no arc.”

One is simply that he or she doesn’t arc. Both the protagonist, the supporting cast, and the story world itself remain relatively unchanged from beginning to end, despite everyone’s adventures. Indeed, the very point of their adventures might be to maintain a desirable status quo.

The other possibility is that the unchanging protagonist is in fact spearheading what I call a Flat Arc. As the name suggests, this is an arc in which the protagonist—the story’s central actor—remains thematically unchanged, but uses his or her understanding of the story’s central thematic Truth to catalyze change arcs in the supporting characters. (Flat-Arc protagonists are usually positive influences, or Impact Characters, but if their fixation is on the thematic Lie rather than the Truth, they can also be instrumental in catalyzing Negative-Change Arcs for the supporting characters.)

Over the last few months, we have explored six successive “life arcs,” represented by the Positive-Change Arcs of six primary archetypes—the Maiden, the Hero, the Queen, the King, the Crone, and the Mage. Each of these positive archetypes represents a rising above the limitations of the previous archetype in the cycle. They also inherently represent a struggle with twelve related “shadow” or negative archetypes—the Damsel/Vixen, the Coward/Bully, the Snow Queen/Sorceress, the Puppet/Tyrant, the Hermit/Witch, and the Miser/Sorcerer.

. . . .

6 Flat or “Resting” Archetypes

The six flat or resting archetypes can be seen like this:

1. Child (precedes Maiden Arc)

 2. Lover (precedes Hero Arc)

 3. Parent (precedes Queen Arc)

 4. Ruler (precedes King Arc)

 5. Elder (precedes Crone Arc)

 6. Mentor (precedes Mage Arc)

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

After reading through the OP (although not clicking on the large number links that presumably provide more detail about the various terms of art used), PG is more sympathetic to those who are intimidated when they read a publishing contract.

(PG will note that this appears to be Part 15 and expects that reading Parts 1-14 first would clarify a great many things.)

Unusual Governments to Take Inspiration From

From SFWA:

Often, speculative fiction relies on common government types, like monarchies and republics, because they’re familiar to readers. History, however, offers other examples of sociopolitical systems. They can be a gold mine for worldbuilding ideas that stretch beyond the mainstream.

Informal Governments

Many societies worked just fine without strict hierarchical leadership. Power can come from more informal sources than “voting versus inheritance.” It can be shared in unstructured or ambiguous ways even within a single culture.

In fact, societies and cultures sometimes have incredibly diverse leadership structures even within their own region. We see this in modern-day America, with some states legislating via referendum and others preferring a more indirect method of democracy. When Europeans arrived in Polynesia, they found a series of islands where people had wildly different political systems, despite having similar ethnicity, economies, and religions. For example, one chief was technically the king’s subject but had such a strong personality that he was the one actually in charge. Another island had a more  formal system, with two co-equal kings à la Sparta or post-Diocletian Rome. Gallic polities were similarly diverse, ranging from a chief’s despotic and unrestricted power to the complex systems of checks and balances commonly found in aristocratic republics.

Pre-colonial Igbo society also had a complex political system. Priests were very important. Village councils of elders could consult and debate key issues. Merchants, male and female, could get rich and become prominent voices in the community. Although “kings” (called Eze) existed in this era, their amount of power and influence varied wildly. Scholars are still trying to figure out how inheritable the title was, what the limits on their power were, etc. At least one source says that if an Eze died it could be up to seven years before he was replaced, which certainly implies that the society could function well with power left in the hands of informal leaders. 

Informal governments, where the question of who is in charge is not always easily answered even by people within the culture, can offer a lot of opportunities for an author. 

Cycling Governments

Age-sets are a sociopolitical system common in East Africa. Among Kenya’s Nandi people, each ibinda (age-set) corresponds to a stage of the life cycle. Boys and girls from each region would be initiated into their age-sets during a series of mass ceremonies.  As an analogy, consider a series of nearby communities gathering children into one centralized boarding school then transitioning them out of school and into the lifestage of young adults marrying and being busy with young children, after which they would return to the workforce before finally amassing the experience to lead the community as political figures. 

In the Ethiopian Highlands, this sort of cycling age-set system, known in some places as gadaa (for men) or siqqee (for women), led to the development of a republic with democratic elections and the peaceful transfer of power, which took roughly eight years to accomplish. It is not the “democratic republic” as described in ancient Greece. Men were bound to their neighbors by the bonds of shared experiences, handling infrastructure projects for the whole region. In some places, this led to peace. In others, expansion of the length of time men spent in the warrior stage meant an increase in raids and conquest. 

Among the Oromo people, balancing representation of all clans, lineages, regions, and confederacies via the age-set system allowed for the development of a strong culture surrounding the selection of wise, clever, knowledgeable, and talented leaders—instead of despots and war chiefs. This system began as a religious institution and evolved into a more comprehensive political, legal, religious, and social system around the 16th century. 

Real political systems are changeable, inconsistent, and messy. Part of creating fiction, especially commercial speculative fiction, is streamlining and exaggerating for effect—but a political system that is too rigid can represent a missed opportunity for social conflict.

Link to the rest at SFWA

(perhaps PG’s computer has been possessed by demons (again), but, after he finished his excerpt from SFWA, when he clicks on anything to do with https://www.sfwa.org/, he gets an empty download instead of a website. He tried a different browser and had the same experience. He will defer to greater expertise than his to explain whether this is some sort of hack or if PG used up his daily allotment of SFWA clicks when he went to the OP)

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: One-Night Stand Lovers

From Writers Helping Writers:

A relationship involving two people who are sexually intimate one time and have no further contact is considered a one-night stand. The intimacy may have been fueled by desire, emotional pain, alcohol, drugs, or sex addiction. It may also have stemmed from the thrill of having no strings attached. One-night stands may be chance encounters or they may be facilitated through an app or website.  

Relationship Dynamics
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict. 

Two people hooking up for one night with no expectation of further involvement
A relationship where one person is emotionally invested while the other is not
The two parties staying in contact, resulting in a longer-term relationship
One party pursuing a lasting relationship with a lover who isn’t interested
The parties having to hide the one-night stand from others (because they work together, they’re involved in other romantic relationships, etc.)

Challenges That Could Threaten The Status Quo
Encountering the other person after the fact
One of the participants becoming pregnant
A bystander or witness gossiping about the encounter
Encountering the other person in one’s social or professional circles
A spouse or partner finding out about the one-night stand
Getting caught leaving the site of the liaison
Being diagnosed with a sexually-transmitted disease after the fact
One person becoming curious about the other and trying to contact them
A third party discovering evidence (a hotel bill, condom wrapper, etc.) of the encounter
One person developing feelings for the other
One party experiencing extreme guilt or shame over the encounter
One party leaving something behind that the other lover has to return
One person accusing the other of sexual assault
Images, video, or another form of evidence of the act being shared publicly
One of the parties losing their job as a result of the encounter
An unrelated tragedy happening as the encounter occurred (a loved one dying in a car accident, someone in one party’s care being neglected, etc.)
One party having an ulterior motive for participating in the one-night stand, such as them wanting to blackmail the other person

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

  1. Reading items like the OP makes PG extremely glad to have been married to Mrs. PG and more committed to continuing that relationship for as long as possible.

2. With regard to the wording of one of the Challenges That Could Threaten the Status Quo, specifically,

One of the participants becoming pregnant

While PG believes he understands the general usefulness of gender-neutral terms and knows he is definitely not au courant with respect to 21st-century relationships, is a participant in a one-night stand who is not a female going to become pregnant?

PG is pretty certain he knows the legal answer to this kind of question in Georgia or Nebraska, but are there one-night stands that do not involve long-standing biological principles for causing a biological female (who may identify as whatever she/he/they please) to become pregnant?

Do fertility clinics host one-night stands?

PG is, of course, being silly and means no offense to anyone, but he has noticed the occasional use of gender-neutral pronouns where they raise more issues than they resolve.

3 Mistakes To Avoid with Your Side Characters

From Writers Helping Writers:

Everybody loves their heroes, some people even love their villains. But it’s a rare author that actively loves and spends equal time on their side characters. Sure, some of them are fun to write, but they’re not who the story is about, which is why so many of them are simply slapped on and ill-thought out. Today, I’m going to help you combat that by giving you three mistakes to avoid when creating your side characters. 

Mistake 1 — Weighing Side Characters Incorrectly

Not all side characters are created equal. While some craft teachers talk about archetypes, I prefer to look at side characters in terms of their effect and influence on the story. 

Here are the three main types of side characters:

  • Cameos are brief and fleeting, usually nameless or with a generic label “guard, receptionist, girl with the teddy”. They leave no mark on the story and are forgettable. Think the woman in the red dress in the Matrix, or Marvel comic writer Stan Lee’s appearances in the Marvel films.
  • Minor characters are still fleeting, they still don’t leave much of a mark on the story save for transactional exchanges like a barman or a shop owner. Think Mr. Filch in Harry Potter.
  • Major characters are usually scarce, only a handful of them in most stories. They have their own subplots and character arcs, they should represent the book’s theme too. Think Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter.

Too often, writers try to give minor characters character arcs, or they don’t give enough attention to a character that’s supposed to have an arc or subplot. Understanding the different types of side characters should enable you to give the right amount of page time and depth to each character.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Secret Ingredient of a Commercially Successful Novel

From Jane Friedman:

There are a number of ingredients that make up a commercially successful novel, regardless of genre. Scenes that end with high moments that deliver a punch in the last lines. Evocative, rich sensory detail. Dynamic dialogue that accomplishes much more than conveying information … and the list goes on.

But the greatest and most understated ingredient of a commercially successful novel is microtension. And few writers understand what this is and how it can be used brilliantly in fiction.

A constant state of tension
Tension is created by lack. Lack of understanding, lack of closure, lack of equilibrium or peace. When your readers have questions, that creates tension. When they need to know what happens next, that is tension.

Masterful writers keep their readers in a constant state of tension. And that’s a good thing.

But here’s something to keep in mind: our characters may be tense, but that doesn’t mean readers are tense in response. A character with a tightened fist or clenched jaw does not ensure readers will respond in the same way. And that might not even be the desired response a writer is hoping for.

What the characters think, feel, and show must be carefully executed to evoke the desired emotional response in readers.

The tension we writers want to focus on most is the tension our readers feel. If we don’t keep them in a state of expectation, they’ll start nodding off, and next thing you know, our novel slips unread to the floor.

That means getting tension on every page. How is that possible?

By focusing on microtension.

The difference between tension and microtension
Just what is microtension? Just as the prefix suggests, it’s tension on a micro level, or in small, barely noticeable increments. Your big plot twists and reversals and surprises are macro-tension items. And those have great potential for sparking emotional response in readers. But microtension is achieved on a line-by-line basis.

For example, anytime a character has conflicting feelings, you have microtension. Microtension can be small, simmering, subtext, subtle. Even the choice of words or the turn of a phrase can produce microtension by its freshness or unexpected usage.

Microtension is created by the element of surprise. When readers are surprised by the action in the scene, the reaction of characters, or their own emotional reactions, that is successful microtension at work.

A sudden change in emotion can create tension. A character struggling between two opposite emotions creates tension. Odd contradictory emotions and reactions can create microtension.

Microtension is created when things feel off, feel contradictory, seem puzzling.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but if characters are sitting around happy with nothing bothering them, you have a boring scene that readers will stop reading. Sure, at the end of your book, you might have that wonderful happy moment when it’s all wrapped up and the future, finally, looks bright, but that’s why the book ends there.

Let’s take a look at part of the opening scene of the 2012 blockbuster best seller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, greet each other one morning—like any married couple, we’d expect.

At the start of the scene we get this strange thought in Nick’s head that seems to be interrupting the typical “wake up in the morning” ritual we tend to experience each day:

The sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-god self. Its reflection flared across the river toward our house, a long blaring finger aimed at me through our frail bedroom curtains. Accusing: You have been seen. You will be seen.

The sun is not warming and bright and inviting; it’s angry, accusatory. We immediately are piqued with curiosity—What is Nick feeling guilty about? What has he done? That alone might get many readers turning pages.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Don’t over-explain “default” objects and gestures

From Nathan Bransford:

When novels are bloated with an excessive word count, the extra words are often where you’d least expect them.

In fact, when I’m editing, I often find that very long novels are among the most tightly plotted. The authors know the word count is a problem, so they trim all the extra scenes and streamline the storytelling.

So how do these novels still end up way too long?

It’s almost always at the sentence and the paragraph level. When nearly every sentence has a few unnecessary words and nearly every paragraph has a sentence or two that’s already apparent from context, it really, really adds up. Over the course of a novel these small, seemingly innocuous redundancies can mean tens of thousands of extra words.

I’ve talked about a few different ways of paring back your word count, but today I want to hone in on one pratfall in particular: over-explaining default objects and gestures.

. . . .

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all have roughly standard ideas of everyday objects and gestures. If you read about a hammer in a novel that a character uses to hit a nail, you and I might have very slightly different mental images but they’re roughly going to conform to a “standard” hammer.

. . . .

It’s not necessary to spend a paragraph describing what this particular hammer looks like. It’s just a hammer. Unless there’s some reason this particular hammer departs from the norm or some characteristic will be important later on…just let it be a hammer.

So, for instance, when you’re describing a car, you don’t need to point out that the car has “round black rubber tires.” That’s the default. Unless you tell us otherwise, we’re just going to assume that a car has black tires.

This extends to gestures as well. Sometimes I’ll see descriptions like:

Nathan stretched his right arm and extended an index finger toward the object that caught his interest.

So, uh… “Nathan pointed?” You can just say that!

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Adult Child and Elderly Parent

From Writers Helping Writers:

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

. . . .

The relationship between a child and their elderly parent can be riddled with challenges. Oftentimes, the child must care for the aging parent as their health needs rise and their ability to maintain independence declines. But the roles are sometimes reversed, with an elderly parent still needing to fill the parental role for their adult child. If existing conflict is a major factor in the relationship, dynamics such as neglect, resentment, and strife may preclude each party from meeting one another’s needs.

. . . .

The relationship between a child and their elderly parent can be riddled with challenges. Oftentimes, the child must care for the aging parent as their health needs rise and their ability to maintain independence declines. But the roles are sometimes reversed, with an elderly parent still needing to fill the parental role for their adult child. If existing conflict is a major factor in the relationship, dynamics such as neglect, resentment, and strife may preclude each party from meeting one another’s needs.Relationship Dynamics

Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict. 

An elderly parent and adult child who speak everyday (via phone, Skype, FaceTime, etc.) and offer mutual support

The younger party caring for their aging parent in the child’s home

An elderly parent who actively supports the child and their family (babysitting, driving them to the airport when they’re going out of town, helping out financially, etc.)

An amiable relationship that is distant or superficial

One party only reaching out to the other when they need help

One party being ignored or neglected by the other

Personality differences or past wounds making intimacy between the parties difficult

One party verbally or physically abusing the other

A codependent dynamic

One party tolerating the other for short periods of time until they can’t take being with them anymore

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Close Encounters of the Initial Kind – Tips for When Characters Meet

From WriterUnboxed:

Here is the thing you need to understand about this post – It is not a recipe for perfecting the meet-cute scene of a new romantic comedy, at least not exactly. Simply ask Google to find dozens of suggestions for tackling that particular knot, which makes for a good writing exercise even if not your normal cup of tea. But, no, today my inspiration derives from something much simpler – an admiration I have long held for writers of stage, screen and print, across a wide range of genres, who manage to craft indelible moments when characters engage each other for the first time. Such interactions, handled deftly, add intrigue, tension and occasionally, as with the aforementioned rom-com hook, even humor to a tale. They also offer opportunities to develop character and to underscore core themes of your story.

Wow! That is some heavy lifting for what typically starts out as a checklist item while laying out a plot – Protagonist meets new boss, future father-in-law, child’s teacher, man who later tries to kill her, etc. But if such encounters are necessary on the page, shouldn’t we make the most of them to advance the story in ways beyond the perfunctory? 

. . . .

Keep in Mind Character Needs

In crafting the first encounter, it may help to start by asking yourself a few questions, such as these:

  • What do your characters want from the interaction?
  • What do they fear? What do they desire?
  • How do the characters present themselves? And what motivates them to do so?
  • Is one character more self-assured or aggressive? Is so, why?
  • How does the situation (or how can the situation) reflect a larger conflict within the story?

Remember, each new encounter is an opportunity to explore character, both for you as the writer and ultimately for your audience. 

. . . .

While even chance encounters with minor characters can provide opportunities to layer or reinforce a character’s nature, the initial moments of more complex relationships are even more ripe for exploration. This is where the “meet-cute” exercise comes into play. I may never write a romantic comedy, yet I can appreciate the skill involved. Every rom-com hinges on the moment early on when the love interests first meet. What elevates successful ones, actor chemistry aside, is when the witty interplay reveals personality traits that will drive the action – and the emotional arc – for the remainder of the journey.

In When Harry Met Sally, protagonist Sally Albright’s nearly OCD approach to life encounters, clashes with, and ultimately complements Harry Burn’s more pessimistic take, with both maturing to the point they can appreciate the love that has grown between them and commit to the relationship. In their initial meeting, Sally arrives for their 18-hour road trek from Chicago to New York City, maps and schedule in hand, only to find Harry deep in embrace with his latest girlfriend, content to linger and disrupt her carefully constructed plans. Cuteness ensues as she nudges him to pay heed to her schedule. The scene works because the personalities and stakes are seeded with an economy of words, setting the stage for a delightful exploration of how people worlds apart in philosophy and outlook can still bond, building a durable foundation for a lasting love.

Link to the rest at WriterUnboxed

How to Write a Great Summary

From GrammarlyBlog:

A summary is a shorter description of a longer work, covering all of the highlights but not many of the details. It’s used for an overview so that people can get an idea of what the longer work entails without reading or watching it first.

You see summaries everywhere, from book covers to product descriptions to online review sites. However, no matter how many summaries you’ve read, it can still be difficult to write your own when you need to.

. . . .

What is a summary?

Really, a summary is a general term used to describe any writing that briefly explains, or “summarizes,” a larger work like a novel, academic paper, movie, or TV show. Summaries are usually short, from one or two sentences to a paragraph, but if you’re summarizing an enormous work, like all seven Harry Potter books, they can stretch out over pages. 

Summary writing is like a highlight reel, showing only the best parts and ignoring what’s not strictly necessary. A summary example of Hamlet would mention the main plot points like the murder of Polonius, but wouldn’t mention details irrelevant to the plot, like Polonius’s “to thine own self be true” monologue. 

The key to summary writing is to stick to the facts; do not include opinions, analysis, or bias. If it’s written for commercial purposes, such as the summaries on Netflix, it might be intentionally alluring and withhold spoilers. However, for academic papers and more formal writing, summary writing leans towards factual and clinical. 

Summaries appear in many different shapes and forms, including book reports and other school papers. Academics use summaries all the time for research papers when they write an abstract, which is essentially a summary of an entire research paper. 

Really, everyone needs to know how to write a summary at one point or another. Even finding a job requires you to summarize your own professional background and work experience. Learning how to write a good LinkedIn summary can help you land your dream job!

Summary examples: What makes a good summary

Let’s look at some summary examples of famous works to see what constitutes a strong summary. 

On IMDb, the summary for the 2008 movie The Dark Knight is just a sentence long: 

When the menace known as the Joker wreaks havoc and chaos on the people of Gotham, Batman must accept one of the greatest psychological and physical tests of his ability to fight injustice.

Right away, you’ll notice that the specific events of the movie are omitted and replaced by a general explanation of what happens. The main characters are mentioned—at least the protagonist and antagonist—and there is some description given about the types of events, such as “psychological and physical tests.” 

However, the details are absent. To summarize a two-hour movie in a single sentence requires broad strokes; there’s only room for the bare essentials. 

Most summaries, though, are longer than a sentence, like this multi-paragraph summary example for the novel To Kill a Mockingbird from SparkNotes

As you can see, this summary is about the length of a page. It’s far more detailed, too, mentioning secondary characters and adding more context to the plot events. Still, to condense 281 pages into one requires a lot of cutting, so each key event is given just a sentence or two, consisting of only the need-to-know information. 

How to write a summary in 4 steps

Summary writing uses the same best tips for all good writing. If you want to know how to write a summary yourself, we break the process down into 4 basic steps. 

. . . .

 3. Write the summary in your own words

Next, write the first draft of your summary following the lists you made in the previous outlining stage. If you’re summarizing a book, film, or other media, it’s best to use chronological order (even if the story is told out of order). 

The key here is using your own words. While you’re free to copy the occasional direct quote in your summary writing, it’s best to use original language to make it your own. Also, keep in mind the perspective of someone who’s never read or seen the source material. Do you have all the relevant points they need to understand what’s going on? 

Link to the rest at GrammarlyBlog

Although PG has created a zillion written and spoken summaries for a wide variety of audiences and situations – Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury or In short, for example – he has never consciously focused on how to create a good summary other than with some little-used portion of his reptile brain.

In the future, he’s going to see if he can bump summaries up to a somewhat more evolved part of his mind.

The Three W’s of Scene Orientation

From Writer Unboxed:

I suspect we all know people who will walk in a room and say something like, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me.” I’m married to one of them.

It’s obvious there is conflict, so this might end up being a good story, but right now the comment is floating in space. I’ll need more words to understand it. Who is this woman? Where did he see her? When did this happen—ten minutes ago? Is he still chewing on something from his youth? Or is this a future action that worries him?

One thing is for sure: to assume that I can read his mind is a sweet yet preposterous overestimate of my editorial prowess. I suppose that’s what happens after you’ve been married a few decades.

But judging from the manuscripts I see, it can also be what happens when you are on your umpteenth draft of a novel and can no longer remember which version of which facts are on the page. For that reason, it can be helpful if at some point, before sending your manuscript to beta readers or developmental editors, you take one pass to make sure that you’ve set each scene appropriately.

Although reportage is different than story-building (for more on this you can check my previous post on paragraphing), borrowing the journalist’s 5 W’s can inspire a set of useful questions that will ensure that the scene you’re building is also giving the reader the information she needs.

Who took action, and who did it affect?

What happened, exactly?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did it happen, and why does it matter to this particular story and this particular protagonist?

Wait—didn’t you say 3 W’s?

The bare minimum we need at the outset of a scene is the who, when, and where. With that information, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me” gains context:

It’s been ten years and Simone’s clothes still hang in the back of my closet. I still can’t believe she quit on me.


I still can’t believe what just happened at the office—Joanna up and walked out on our partnership.


I backslid at Ed’s retirement lunch; I couldn’t resist the shrimp scampi. I still can’t believe Cleo warned me to stop eating garlic or she’d quit training me at the gym.

I was thinking about this topic after a question was posed on a Facebook page about how to cleverly fold in these details without being as pedestrian as, say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch, his brother…” The thing is, though, those seven “pedestrian” words perfectly orient us to who, when, and where.

When it comes to setting your scene, clarity—not cleverness—should be your first priority. Let’s look at how that’s done.

Examples from a Master

As it happened, on the day that question was posted, I had just finished reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It’s the story of two siblings who cannot overcome a past symbolized by the grandiose home that their father had bought—fully furnished by its previous Dutch occupants—for their unappreciative mother, who then left the family. Patchett is an author at the top of her game, and she had plenty of game to start with. Among this bestselling title’s many accolades, it was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

. . . .

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

5 Steps to Creating a Unique Character Voice

From Writers in the Storm:

Create unique character voices by varying how they communicate with other characters.

I’m one of those writers who needs to put my characters through a first draft before I figure out who they really are. Tossing them into trouble and watching how they wrangle their way out of it helps me get to know them. Their dialogue and voices are usually interchangeable at first. It’s more about what they say than how they say it, or even why they say it.

The voices usually come to me as I write, and by the end of the first draft, I’ve written snippets of voice that let me see and hear the characters. On draft two, I develop those snippets into fleshed-out characters.

Since I don’t hear my characters first (like many writers do), I make conscious choices about their voices, and craft them same as I do a setting or the plot. Which keeps my authorial nose out of my character’s business, and lets them be who they are—not extensions of who I am. Characters who all sound like the protagonist or the author is a common first-draft issue for a lot of writers.

The author’s voice sometimes gets in the way of the character’s voice.

The characters themselves might be fully fleshed out and different as can be, but their voices aren’t. That’s only natural since the author is writing the novel. All their vocal quirks and mannerisms sneak in, which can lead to every character in the story sounding more or less the same. They all ask questions the same way, they react to trouble the same way, they greet each other the same way. If you took out all the dialogue tags, it would be hard to tell which character was which.

Character voices that reflect their personalities not only help readers remember them, it helps them connect to those characters as well. When a reader connects to a character, they care, and when they care, they worry what will happen to that character, and bam—you’ve hooked them in the story. Now they’re invested.

Here’s a five-step plan for creating unique character voices for your novel:

Step One: Pick a greeting that reflects their personality.

How a character greets people says a lot about where they grew up, where they live now, and how open they are toward others. A shy character might offer a soft “Hi,” while an always-the-center-of-attention character might shout, “The party train has arrived!”

For example, imagine one character is waiting outside a restaurant for another. When they approach, the waiting character greets them with:

“Good afternoon.”
“Yo, whassup!”
“Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to see you.”
“You’re late.”
Did you picture a different character for each of those greetings? Each greeting hints at the type of personality that character might have, from formal, to rude, to enthusiastic.

Step Two: Decide how they answer questions.

How someone responds to a question can tell you a lot about them. If you establish a character as a shy, introvert who has a hard time opening up, it might not ring true if they start giving speeches when asked a question. A non-stop talker is the right character to go to if you need to convey information to readers—just make sure they’d know that info so it doesn’t come across as an infodump.

But a character acting out of character can pique reader curiosity. A chatty gossip will raise eyebrows if they suddenly start giving one-word answers to everything. Why are they so quiet?

For example, what kind of characters do you picture based on these responses to… “Did you go to the movies last night?”

“Yep. Any pizza left?”
“I did. Jo and I went to that old art theater they just remodeled on Main. They’re showing these cheesy old westerns. It was a total blast.”
“Stay out of my business.”
Shrug. “Nothin’ better to do.”
“Oh dear, I should have called you. I’m so terribly sorry.”
“Yeah, with Juan.”

These answers do more than just answer a yes or no question. Many of these answers lead to more questions. Is character one trying to change the subject? Why does character five feel so guilty about not calling?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Anaphora, Epistrophe, and Symploce

From Daily Writing Tips:

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or sequence of words at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences.

Martin Luther King Jr. made frequent use of anaphora. In the “I Have a Dream” speech (August 1963), he began a sentence with the title clause eight times.

In his Memphis speech, just before his assassination, he used a phrase referring to an assassination attempt that had occurred ten years previously. The attacker’s knife blade had stopped just short of the aorta artery. Doctors told him that if he had so much as sneezed, he would have been a dead man. In that last speech, he emphasized his civil rights achievements to date by beginning six sentences the words “if I had sneezed.”

Here are two examples of anaphora from political leaders in 2021:

The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. —President Joe Biden, address to Congress, 29 April 2021

This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. —Representative Liz Cheney, speech on the House floor, 21 May 2021

Epistrophe. (also called epiphora) is the opposite of anaphora. Epistrophe is the repetition at the end of successive clauses or sentences.

There are causes as I have said for everything that happens in the world. War is a part of it; education is a part of it; birth is a part of it; money is a part of it. — Clarence Darrow arguing to spare Leopold and Loeb the death penalty, 1924.

I confided all to my aunt when I got home; and in spite of all she could say to me, went to bed despairing. I got up despairing, and went out despairing.” — Dickens, David Copperfield

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. —Lyndon Baines Johnson, address to Congress, 15 March 1965.

. . . .

Advertising also makes effective use of these rhetorical devices.

Since 2009, Google has produced a three-minute video called “Year in Search” that summarizes the most popular searches from the previous year. I watched the one for 2017, in which the search box is shown with words being typed into it. First comes a statement:

This year, more than ever, we were asked how

Then follow dozens of questions, each one introduced with the word how.

Repetition can be an extremely effective rhetorical device in a variety of contexts, not just political harangues.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Becoming a Writer: Calibrating the Work Against the Pleasure

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I met Jacomena van Huizen Maybeck when I was thirty-three and she was seventy-seven. I’d hoped to rent her cottage, and found her tarring the roof, dressed in a halter top and shorts. I’d never met anyone like her. She knew how to throw a pot, wield an ax or a sickle, and make plum jam. She took relationships seriously and had many longstanding friends.

She introduced me to her friends, mostly women educated during the 1920s and now thriving in their winter years. I was a photographer at the time, making a living as a dental hygienist. I was intrigued with these older women and began doing formal portraits of them. Because we’re used to seeing ourselves in movement, the women were surprised but proud to see their wrinkles in stark black and white. 

After entering a few shows and competitions, the photo collection went into the closet. I became obsessed with this problem—what do you do with your completed work? Jacomena suggested making a book and offered to come along with me on many interviews.  While talking with the women, a different view of aging and what was possible began to coalesce.

After another year or so, the book was finally ready for my agent to present to publishers. In summary, they loved the idea and praised the photos but felt that my writing was weak. I still have all the rejection letters!  A local writer gently suggested that I team up with a seasoned writer, Charlotte Painter, and together we re-interviewed the women. Charlotte’s short portrayals were elegant; Chronicle Books offered us a contract. Gifts of Age: Portraits and Essays of 32 Remarkable Women sold over 125,000 copies. 

Jacomena continued her long and creative life into her mid-nineties. She’d become a well-known ceramicist and declared that a privilege of old age was that she could make things just for herself—she no longer felt obliged to compete and make things that would look good in an exhibition. “These days, I calibrate the work against the pleasure. When you’re doing it for yourself, you make the greatest picture or pot.” We were close friends and she helped me through my child-rearing years, always encouraging me to continue with photography. 

Eight years ago, my husband and I bought Jacomena’s home. I realized that I knew little about her early life—what had shaped and supported her in preparation for her later years? I began the research and interviews that would keep me busy as I moved into my own winter years. Jacomena’s grandchildren searched drawers and closets and found invaluable diaries and photos which excited me.

I learned who she was in her thirties and forties, and how those experiences created her self-confidence and flexibility as she reared twins while longing for “creative work.” Jacomena married her childhood sweetheart who left her a widow at age sixty-one. Her approach to life in her winter years inspire me now in my current season. 

But would I dare write again, after my experience with Gifts of Age?  I took several memoir writing classes, studied Charlotte’s and others’ writing styles, and began to write Jacomena’s story. Finally satisfied with the first draft, I asked a writer friend to read it and she advised me to “put more of myself into it.” I was disappointed with her comments, and unsure that I could make more changes. 

I was then in my mid-seventies, forgetting old friends’ names, and misplacing my car keys. Could I re-write this story? And then what—would it too sit in a closet? Why was I writing it, and who will read it? I thought of Jacomena’s words—perhaps I’ll just do it for myself and for the pleasure of honoring her life. 

For many of us, the beauty of being in our winter years is that we do not have to rush through our days. I often think about how Jacomena organized her days. She kept a daily journal throughout her seventies and eighties which helped me understand her challenges. She was adamant about doing “outside work” daily—clearing brush, trimming trees, or making a railing out of branches for her “wobbly friends.”

. . . .

Having a serious project to look forward to every day, has brought me great joy. Some days it was like solving a puzzle – finding the right piece for the space. 

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

How to Create an Authentic Setting from a Place You’ve Never Been

From Writer Unboxed:

What do a cup of Wawa coffee, a bottle of Yuengling lager, and a bag of Herr’s potato chips have in common? They are a few of the many of subtle details that bring the fictional Philadelphia suburb of Easttown to life in HBO’s new crime drama miniseries, Mare of Easttown, starring Kate Winslet.

Having grown up in a nearby town, spotting these little details was like seeing a childhood friend on TV—“Hey, I know that coffee cup!” From Mare’s North Penn High School T-shirt to the blue, white, and yellow license plate on her SUV to her character’s Delaware County pronunciation of “water” (wooder), these little details came together to create an authentic sense of place.

The series creator Brad Ingelsby is a native of nearby Berwyn, Pennsylvania, so it’s no wonder he got these details right. He grew up living and breathing (and eating and drinking) them. But as I watched Mare save a man’s life at the “Lehigh River” and talk with her partner beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge overlooking the Delaware River, my inner fiction writer was contemplating what it takes to bring a place to life. Specifically, how to accomplish this if you’ve never stepped foot there.

This question is timely for me as I’ve been considering setting my next novel in a place I’ve never been. I reached out to the ever-wise Writer Unboxed community to see if anyone else has encountered this issue and learn how they’ve approached it (you can join our conversation thread here). Today, I’m sharing ideas and tips for planning a virtual research trip based on what I’ve learned.

Experience the place through your characters’ eyes.

Creating an authentic sense of place is about more than getting the details right, it’s about experiencing the place as your character would.

Fellow WUer Deb Peterson begins her research with a virtual visit via Google maps. She uses the satellite view to study its topography and terrain, street view for an on-the-ground perspective, and the measuring tool to calculate distances to ensure her characters are walking (and horseback riding) between places in a realistic amount of time.

Historical fiction writer Claire Greer casts a wide research net, seeking out photographs, personal accounts, historical newspapers, artwork by people who were there at the time, as well as old photos and maps. “I’m chasing a visual sense of the place—in three dimensions and with all five senses,” says Greer. “I want to know just how high the cliff was at Gallipoli when the first Australian troops landed there in 1915. I want to know how long it took to get from the base at Etaples to the frontline trenches, on a train, by truck, by cart, by horse, and by foot in 1916. I want to know what the weather felt like on a particular September day in Belgium in 1917.” (Fun fact: Claire dug so deeply into her WWI setting she end up doing a PhD in history!)

Travel back in time.

Understanding how a place has evolved over time adds subtle authenticity. Butch Wilson relies on Google Earth’s Timelapse function to see how places have changed over the past 30 years. This helps ensure his characters don’t end up in a building or on a road that did not exist at that time.

Mystery writer Laura Seeber is a former geologist and environmental inspector whose job required her to be a “real estate detective,” researching the history of properties to determine if there were any problems with them. She dug up clues by researching old maps, exploring the land, and interviewing neighbors and local officials. Coincidentally, she uses many of the same tools to infuse her story settings with historically accurate details. They include:

Fire insurance maps – Dating back to the late 1800s, these detailed city maps were originally created to help fire insurance companies assess their liability in urbanized areas. They can help a writer reconstruct the past by offering unique insight into the life of a city, including its water distribution system, the types of construction materials used in its structures, and special buildings that contributed to the community’s economic and social landscape. You can find archives of U.S. fire insurance maps through the Library of Congress or by searching the University of Central Florida’s collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps by state.
Topographic maps – These maps use elevation contour lines to provide details about the shape of the Earth’s surface. They include information about geographic features, like roads, railroads, rivers, streams, lakes, boundaries, mountains, and changes in elevation over time. They can show you how a town or landscape has evolved. The U.S. Geological Survey has a searchable database. For locations outside the U.S., OpenTopoMap is billed as the largest crowd-sourced topographic map project in the world.
Plat maps – Also known as “plats,” these maps illustrate how tracts of land are divided and record the land’s size, boundary locations, nearby streets, flood zones, and any easements or rights of way. Title search records can fill in additional details, like who has occupied the land and who owns it and can hint at their financial struggles or triumphs. Plat maps can be found on the public records websites for the appropriate towns and counties. You may also access them at the town or city hall.
Historical fiction writer John J Kelley studied photos and read first-person accounts of France in WWI—in both Paris and on the front—when researching his novel, The Fallen Snow. Kelley placed his protagonist, an infantry sniper, in a specific division and used the history of that unit to plot his likely path from training to landing in France to his destination on the front via troop train and into the battle that left him maimed. For the train scenes that took place both stateside and in France, John dug up old train schedules, including one for a line in Virginia that shut down decades ago, and historical photos of train stations in France. “It felt crucially important to me to find an actual route that my protagonist could have taken in the period,” explains Kelley. “It gave me a sense of reality to know someone, perhaps a young man like my protagonist, might have been sitting in a real railcar in that very same month a century earlier.”

Speak to the senses.

While sites like TripAdvisor can tell you a lot about local attractions and provide feedback about visitors’ firsthand experiences, biblical fiction writer Natalie Hart turns to YouTube to flesh out the sensory details. Once she knows the places, activities, and businesses she wants to learn about, she searches YouTube to see if someone has posted a video about it. Considering that more than 720,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day, according to TubeFilter, the odds are in our favor. Hart opts for video because “it offers a similar view that you would have if you were there, so there’s a chance to notice details that fact-driven research can’t give you.”

One thing video can’t provide is smell. Since smell is such an evocative sense to share with the reader, Hart posts requests on social media, asking people who have been to destinations she’s writing about to share what they smelled like.

Romantic suspense writer and Scrivener expert Gwen Hernandez seeks the “local perspective” by searching for blog posts from people who live in the area she’s researching. She’s also found children’s books to offer interesting insights and a unique perspective.

As you research your setting, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. What would you want to know and experience? Science fiction writer John E. Simpson is setting his novel on an asteroid turned spaceship traveling through space. To bring this imaginative setting to life in a realistic way, John began with a list of questions he’d need to answer to gain the reader’s trust. How big does the asteroid need to be? How many people could live on it? What propels it? How does it communicate?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

PG notes that the title of the OP may include a typo, substituting “Belief” for “Disbelief”. That said, “A Willing Suspension of Belief” is an interesting concept to consider, but perhaps, the whole thing is too subtle for PG to understand. UPDATE: PG has been corrected. It is a willing suspension of Disbelief after all. Sometimes his fingers on the keyboard outpace the brain in his head.

From Daily Writing Tips:

The origin of this expression lies in literary criticism. The term represents a contract between reader and writer.

In recent years, however, the phrase has escaped from literary criticism and is used in a variety of contexts that have little to do with the original meaning. A web search brings up numerous examples in which the term seems to serve only as a round-about way of saying that something is unbelievable.

. . . .

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his two-volume autobiographical and critical work, Biographia Literaria (1817). The term originates in his discussion of the poetry collection he published with William Wordsworth in 1798.

The collection, called Lyrical Ballads, is credited with ushering in the Romantic era of English literature. The previous era, the Age of Enlightenment, elevated Reason and Skepticism above unquestioning belief. Religion, the supernatural, sentimentality, and excessive emotion were special targets of intellectual contempt.

Coleridge, with his penchant for high emotion and the supernatural, recognized that in order to draw an “enlightened” reader into his fantastic fictional world, he needed to employ a certain technique. His goal was to create a level of human interest and believability in his characters that would inspire his readers with a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

One of the poems included in Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I learned and loved in high school, but which doesn’t seem to be taught much anymore. Looking it up for this post, I found that it still gives me goosebumps.

Coleridge immediately places the reader in a recognizable situation. A man on his way to a wedding has his arm grabbed by a ragged old man who could be a beggar. The wedding guest, all dressed up for the occasion, is understandably annoyed and shakes him off, but the old man, a sailor, holds him with his “glittering eye” and launches into his eerie tale. Coleridge has hooked his readers and, by interweaving realistic physical descriptions with the supernatural elements, enables us to believe in the reality of the old man’s harrowing tale.

. . . .

Apparently, according to psychologists, when we give ourselves up to a narrative, we turn off the part of our brain that assesses reality in the ordinary way. We react to what we are seeing—on the screen or in our mind’s eye as if it were really happening. We are acting on “poetic faith.”

As long as the writer doesn’t introduce something jarring, something that would wake the brain’s critical thinking systems, readers can ignore the fact that what is happening to provoke our emotions is not really happening at all.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

On Not Letting Ambition Take Over

From Writer Unboxed:

When I was young, writing didn’t feel mysterious or difficult. I wasn’t curious about other writers’ processes, or searching for the “best” way to develop a story. Writing was just putting pen to paper and seeing what came out. It was a way to pass the time contentedly. It was a way to explore my own mind — what I was curious about, what I remembered, what I longed for.

As I grew older, writing started to feel more Important, both for better and for worse. Writing became a source of pride, because pretty much everyone said I was good at it. But it also became a goal, transforming into a sort of ideal, something farther away and less concrete. Like the difference between the air I had always breathed, and the blue sky way above me, out of reach. Supposedly they were both made of the same stuff, but they felt so distant and different from each other. Suddenly I had to look up and strive.

Put another way: the writing I was doing at the moment didn’t seem to matter as much as the writing I would do in the future, and what that writing could mean. Not mean to me, so much as mean for me. Or mean to other people. Would they like it? Would they think I was talented? Would they pay me for it? Could I build a career? Could I even — dare I say it, dare I dream it — become rich and/or famous?

Ambition can be a powerful motivation, but it can also be a vise, squeezing out passion and creativity. The key, as usual, is to find the right balance for yourself.

So my journey over the past several years has been one of going back in order to better go forward. More and more, I’m trying to return to the girl I once was, sitting in a quiet corner of my parents’ office, scribbling stories for myself. Using the page and my imagination to explore the world around me, as well as the world within.

Because there are the feelings we put in our writing, and then there are the feelings we have when we’re writing. When I was young, I took the latter for granted. I didn’t realize how valuable that inner state was to me, or to the creative process, until it had turned so feeble, so vulnerable. So tortured by all the ambitions I hadn’t managed to fulfill that I could barely appreciate the ones I had.

. . . .

This is part of why I think it’s important to have a good support network. And to check in with yourself periodically. Write a mission statement or a vision statement. Keep a journal. Stick post-it notes on the wall in front of your desk. Set reminders on your phone. Whatever it takes to redirect your energy away from outcomes that you can’t control (such as fame or fortune) and keep you rooted in creativity — in exploration and connection.

Connection in particular has been a strong grounding force for me in recent times. Since becoming a mother, and then living through this pandemic, much of the writing that has been most meaningful to me is the writing I’ve done privately, in service of the bonds between myself and my friends and family. A personal blog to chronicle the ups and downs and all-arounds of my two children’s lives. A note of love and support to a colleague battling cancer. A fun little card to someone I’ve known peripherally for many years but am finally becoming closer to. A heartfelt message to an old friend after the passing of his mother.

Despite the small audience — or perhaps in part because of the intimacy? — the way I feel when writing these things is like a light leading me back to my purest self. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Catch Those Repetitious Redundancies and Pleonasms

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Hello there. How are you today? Are you ready to test out your redundancy eye?

You might ask, “Why should I care about redundancies?”

Before we begin, I’ll answer that question.

Redundancies are superfluous words or phrases also known as pleonasms: the use of more words than are necessary to express an idea.

Pleonasm is an unfamiliar term to some people, which is why I and other writers often refer to unnecessary words as redundancies.

Rather than augment writing, these extra words slow down action scenes and increase word count — without adding helpful details.

Did you notice the strikeouts in the previous paragraphs? Each strikeout represents a redundancy. If I were intentionally bloating this post, I might leave them in. However, they’re just useless padding.

Oh, wait. I guess I did leave them in, and that means they still count as words. Oops, sorry, Anne, I needed them to illustrate my point.

A Few Words About the Quiz

Below you’ll find fourteen sentences that contain redundancies, and fourteen suggested solutions. They’re revised examples from books, news, social media, television shows, and conversations.

Scrutinize the examples and try to find the pleonasms. Will you score 100%?

Welcome to the Promenade of Useless Redundancies

  1. The village was home to a community of people with many diverse talents.
  2. The thick clouds entirely obliterated the sun and darkened the sky.
  3. If the pump doesn’t perform as expected, you’ll be eligible for a full refund of the money that you paid for it.
  4. They couldn’t have been more different. They were total polar opposites.
  5. A hunter picked up the lion’s scent spoor and tracks fortuitously by accident.
  6. The writer tried various different phrases, but none of them seemed to fit the context.
  7. The most quintessential obsession of Pauline’s existence was the consumption of coffee, coffee, COFFEE.
  8. The new scanner reads UPC codes much faster than the old one.
  9. The toddler threw a noisy temper tantrum when his mother took away the toy.
  10. They had reached a critical juncture — which of the options should they choose?
  11. They didn’t have the same resources now that they used to have before.
  12. Just to be on the safe side, Bryan decided to cram a medical kit into his bulging knapsack.
  13. We need more information about exactly what that means.
  14. The both of them knew that they were in for a severe trouncing.

Suggested Edits

Edit #1:

The village was home to a community of people with many diverse talents.

community: a group of people who live in the same place or share particular characteristics

diverse: many different types of people or things

Note how the definitions embrace the meanings of the deleted words.

Alternative edit: The village was home to many people with diverse talents.

Choose the connotation that matches your storyline.

Edit #2:

The thick clouds entirely obliterated the sun and darkened the sky.

obliterate: make invisible by obscuring

If something is invisible, can it be partially invisible? If not, we don’t need to mention that it’s entirely invisible.

When readers visualize the sun obliterated by thick clouds, they’ll imagine a dark sky. We don’t need to mention the darkness.

Other phrases to beware:

  • entirely by chance
  • entirely decimated
  • entirely inappropriate
  • entirely natural
  • entirely surrounded
  • entirely [fill in the blank]

Whenever you encounter entirely or one of its synonyms, question its necessity.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

6 Key Strategies for Emotionally Affecting Fiction

From Jane Friedman:

People sometimes talk about emotion in fiction like it’s some discrete quantity you can just dial up in your prose—like perhaps if your novel is too plot-heavy, or too cerebral, you can just turn a few knobs here and there and wind up with an emotionally affecting story.

The most obvious indicators of emotion are found in scene, so this is where newer writers tend to focus in their quest, interlarding their scenes with the body language associated with emotion—the pounding hearts, the sweaty hands, the chills up the spine—along with overt statements of emotion (“walking into the meeting, he felt nervous”) and a preponderance of adverbs (“she snarled angrily”).

The body language of emotion is important—and certainly, there are times when overt statements of emotion are called for. And personally speaking, I’m not in the “no adverbs” camp (though I do think they tend to backfire in the hands of less experienced writers). But these are just the most obvious techniques for generating emotion in fiction, and relying too heavily on them tends to have the opposite of the intended effect, coming across as cartoonish, exaggerated, forced.

There are techniques that are subtler, less obvious, and they work best in tandem with one another. Because the truth is, emotion is an emergent property of fiction, a sort of alchemical magic generated by the synergy between multiple elements of the story; to create it in your fiction, you need to approach the challenge from more than one angle.

1. What’s at stake?

When we talk about what’s at stake in a story, we’re talking about what the protagonist stands to gain or lose, and in stories with strong emotions, both of these possibilities hold a real emotional charge for that character.

What does your protagonist stand to gain if they achieve their goal? If it’s a large sum of money, for example, that goal will have more emotional stakes if the protagonist is on the verge of dropping out of college because she can barely afford her tuition.

And if failing to achieve that goal means not only losing that large sum of money, it means losing her scholarship to her dream college, the one her folks were so proud she got into? So much the better.

When you up the stakes in your story, you dial up the emotions involved.

2. How close is the relationship?

Interpersonal conflicts are one of the hallmarks of effective fiction. But conflicts with friends matter more than conflicts with strangers; conflicts with close friends matter more than conflicts with acquaintances; and conflicts with family members tend to matter most of all.

If you find yourself struggling with how to strengthen the emotional quotient of your story, take a look at the primary relationships in it. Is there a way you can make one or more of those relationships closer?

Sometimes it’s just a matter of making a friend an old friend—one who was there for the protagonist at one of the toughest moments of her life. Maybe the neighbor lady, the one who’s dying of cancer, is actually the nanny who helped to raise the protagonist. And maybe that conversation with the old man in the park should actually be a conversation with the protagonist’s dad.

When the relationships are closer, the emotions involved tend to be stronger.

3. What’s the backstory?

Backstory is a big part of the emotional power conflicts hold in a story, because it’s a big part of what those conflicts mean for the characters going through them. Backstory also helps the reader put herself in the character’s place, giving her the background info necessary to understand and sympathize with those strong emotions.

For instance: A conflict between a mother and her teen daughter will be more powerful if the mother had strong conflicts with her own mother as a girl. A conflict between two brothers will be more powerful if one of them has always dominated the other. And a conflict between two friends over a new love interest will hold a lot more charge if the one who’s fallen in love has a history of falling for abusive men.

For any given scenario, emotionally charged backstory will increase the emotional quotient—so a key strategy for generating the sort of emotion you’re looking for in any given scene or conflict is to first set up the backstory to support it.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Stop Being So Hard on Yourself

From The Harvard Business Review:

One of my clients, Ben, a research and development director at a pharmaceutical company, arrived at our coaching session feeling distraught. “A situation happened at work today that I can’t get out of my head,” he said. It turned out that Ben had spent hours preparing for an all-hands meeting with colleagues across the globe. He reviewed the agenda, drafted his talking points, and logged on to the conference software ready to contribute.

Then, things went askew. Ben struggled to be heard above more dominant colleagues, and when he did get an opportunity to speak, he felt flustered and flubbed his words. Afterwards, Ben was preoccupied by the incident. He couldn’t quit beating himself up. Why hadn’t he spoken up earlier or been more assertive? Why did he over explain and blabber on instead of sticking to his talking points?

Ben is what I call a sensitive striver — a high-achiever who is also highly sensitive. He is driven and demands excellence from himself at all times. But when he falls short of those impossibly high expectations, his innate sensitivity and thoughtfulness cause him to spiral into self-recrimination. If you can relate to Ben’s reaction, then you also may be too hard on yourself. This can take the form of harsh, punitive judgements, overanalyzing your shortcomings, rumination over minor missteps, worry, and assuming fault.

Perhaps you have thought that self-criticism is what keeps you sharp. Sensitive strivers like Ben often use it as a form of motivation, hoping that if they’re tough enough on themselves, they’ll be compelled to perform. But research shows that self-criticism is a poor strategy. When used excessively, it is consistently associated with less motivation, worse self-control, and greater procrastination. In fact, self-criticism shifts the brain into a state of inhibition, which prevents you from taking action to reach your goals.

Being hard on yourself may be ineffective, but it is also a hard pattern to break. It requires consistent attention and practice. Here are a few strategies I shared with Ben that can set you on the path to taking a more balanced, emotionally equanimous approach to your performance.

Name your inner critic.

Create psychological distance from self-criticism by personifying it. For example, choose a silly name or a character from a movie or a book. Mine is called Bozo, but you might name yours “the little monster” or “gremlin.” I once had a client who called his Darth Vader (of Star Wars fame). He purchased a small Darth Vader action figure for his desk, which reminded him to keep the critical voice in check.

Naming your inner critic leverages cognitive defusion — a process by which you separate yourself from your thoughts. Defusion is shown to reduce discomfort, believability, and the stress of negative thoughts. It also promotes psychological flexibility, or the capacity to steady your mind, manage your emotions, and be aware, open, and adaptive to changing demands.

Avoid generalization.

When I pressed Ben for details about the all-hands meeting, it became clear that no one noticed he was flustered. In fact, the COO later told Ben she thought his comments were the only moment of clarity in the conversation. This shocked Ben since it did not match his impression. It was a clear example of the spotlight effect — a tendency in which you misjudge and overestimate how much attention others pay to your behavior.

To combat the spotlight effect, consider your performance on aggregate versus zeroing in on a singular negative event. Think of a bell curve: you’ll likely perform average or higher than average most days. Some days will be below average, and that’s normal. Keep an eye on the bigger picture. Ben realized that while the all-hands wasn’t his best showing, he was only paralyzing himself further by taking this one unfavorable meeting and generalizing it to an ongoing pattern. Specifically, I coached him to avoid using extreme statements like “I always mess up,” “I’ll never get my voice heard,” and “This happens every time.”

Link to the rest at The Harvard Business Review

Another “Kryptonite” Issue: who vs whom

From Daily Writing Tips:

For all practical purposes, the pronoun form whom is ready to go the way of ye, an old form of the pronoun you.

Ideally, speakers who do not understand that who is a subject form and whom is an object form would simply stop using whom altogether. The forms are so similar that we can get along just fine by using who for both. Millions of English speakers already do.

Speakers who have mastered the grammar concepts transitive verb and object pronoun are free to use both forms until a generation arises that knows not whom.

That time may be delayed, however, by a segment of English speakers who do not understand the object function of whom, but who have decided that whom must be a more elegant way of saying who.

The forms who and whom function like the other pronouns, such as he and himshe and her, and I and me. The first form in each pair is used as the subject of a verb. The second form is used as the object of a verb or preposition.

Admittedly, the subject/object forms of the personal pronouns are under siege from speakers who use subject forms as objects and vice versa, as in these examples from the web:

Me and my friends are in class.
This trip proved to my husband and I that we can still travel.

CORRECT: My friends and I are in class.
CORRECT: This trip proved to my husband and me that we can still travel.

Nevertheless, I/m, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them have not yet reached the state of confusion that exists with who/whom.

Who as the subject of a verb
Who is that masked man? (Who is the subject of the verb is.)

Garett Morgan is the man who invented the yellow traffic light. (Who is the subject of invented.)

Whom as the object of a verb
The first employee they hired was Jeff Johnson, whom Knight had met at Stanford. (Whom is the object of had met.)

Whom do you prefer in this election? (Whom is the object of do prefer.)

Whom as the object of a preposition
Figure out how much you owe, to whom and on what terms, and start paying it off. (Whom is the object of the preposition to.)

The Daniels have five children, three of whom are adopted. (Whom is the object of the preposition of.)

Incorrect uses of whom (These examples are from printed sources.)

They were aware of students participating whom had not participated in the past.

. . . a detained Palestinian whom, according to police, stabbed two people in a supermarket.

Springdale police are searching for this man whom they say robbed an Arvest Bank branch Thursday.

CORRECT: They were aware of students participating who had not participated in the past. (Who is the subject of had participated.)

CORRECT: a detained Palestinian who, according to police, stabbed two people in a supermarket . . . (Who is the subject of stabbed. Beware of intervening phrases like “according to.”)

CORRECT: Springdale police are searching for this man who they say robbed an Arvest Bank branch Thursday. (Who is the subject of robbed. “They say” intervenes between the subject and verb of a relative clause.)

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

PG doesn’t think he has a problem with who and whom (although his mother did work hard with him on the proper usage), but can’t say he has a strong opinion on the question of whether whom should be sent to the language dump.

Discovery Writing

From The Creative Penn:

Joanna: Patricia McLinn is the award-winning and multi-USA Today bestselling author of over 50 books across mystery, contemporary, and historical romance, women’s fiction, and nonfiction. Today we’re talking about discovery writing and the Survival Kit for Writers Who Don’t Write Right

. . . .

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Patricia: I was one of those kids who read everything I could get my hands on. I haunted the Helen M. Plum Memorial Library, and I loved it. Her husband was Colonel Plum. We actually had a Colonel Plum and they donated their house and garden to my town, and that was the library.

I thought everybody had stories in their head. It was a real shock to me to find out that people didn’t. As I was reading and growing up, I can remember specifically going down to the kitchen to my mother and reading her this passage from Dickens when he describes Uriah Heep as unctuous. I got the shiver down my spine and I told her, ‘I want to do that to people.’

And then I discovered, it seemed to me, Dickens was so far away over there, a different century, a different country, a different world. And what really struck me was when I found out that a woman named Marguerite Henry who wrote horse books, as somebody said, girl-meets-horse stories, Misty of Chincoteague and Sea Star.

I had read these and I was fascinated. She lived in the same county I did. And it was like, ‘Holy moly, real people writing books. This is a possibility.’ So, that probably really sparked the dream to do it someday.

Understandably, my parents thought something more practical would be a good idea. So I went into journalism. Not totally practical, I went into sports, especially at a time when women didn’t do it.

The last part of that career in journalism was 23 years editing at ‘The Washington Post.‘ And in that time I started really writing, because I had been goofing around with writing before that but I could never get past the first couple of chapters.

I would send them off to my sister-in-law who babysat for me when I was six because she and my brother were high school sweethearts. And she’d say, ‘This is great. Now what happens?’ ‘I don’t know.’ She said, ‘No more. Send me no more until you’ve finished it. I can’t stand it. I get invested in these people and then you just leave them.’

I got involved with the Washington Romance Writers and I got into traditional publishing. As I said, my first book was out in 1990, did 27 books in 25 years of traditional. Kept being told I was pushing the envelope, never felt like that to me, but it wasn’t a great fit.

When indie came along, I was more than ready to explore that. And I was hybrid for a while, and then in 2015 I went a hundred percent indie, and it has been a ride. It’s been terrific. All-encompassing in some ways, as you know, we can work all the hours, right?

As I said, 27 books in 25 years in traditional, and now I’m pushing, or I may be over 60, I don’t keep real close track, but I’ve done a lot more books indie in a shorter span than I did traditional.

. . . .

For people who might not be clear, what is a pantser or a discovery writer? What do you mean by those terms?

Patricia: What I mean primarily is that I don’t plot ahead of time. I dive into the book, writing whatever I know at the time. And for me, most of the times the books start with almost like I’m eavesdropping on two people in a restaurant.

I hear voices, Joanna, and I just start taking down what they’re saying. I don’t know their names, I don’t know their situations a lot of time. I have this feeling and I’m hearing them talk.

I can say specifically with my first book, it started with an argument on a basketball court between the heroine and the hero, and there was this back and forth, and that’s what I started with. And then I had to think, ‘Who are these people? Where did they come from? How did they get to this point? Where are they going to go from here?’ And then you play the what-ifs.

One of the ways I think of it is that, I did a talk with a really good friend who writes totally differently, and our talk was writing from the inside-out or the outside-in. So I think of it as writing, the way I do it is writing from this feel and hearing who the characters are and then writing out to structure.

Where plotters tend to start from structure, they know the story, they know the events that are going to happen, and they write into the guts of the character. You have to have both to have a really good book. But it doesn’t matter which way.

Joanna: You mention that your friend who writes totally differently. Even within the broad pantser and discovery writing to the plotter, there are different people within that.

For example, you’re talking now about almost taking dictation, some people call it, and they hear those voices. My mum who writes as Penny Appleton does exactly the same. And it’s so funny when she gave me the first draft of her first novel it was totally talking heads in an empty white room. It was a conversation between two people with no setting, no nothing.

It’s like she just heard the conversation. Whereas I don’t hear that at all. I don’t hear any voices. I’m a discovery writer, but I usually start with an object, or a thing, or a myth. But that isn’t the story that I’m getting to, or a place. For me, dialogue is one of the last things that happens.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

5 Quick Dialogue Tips

From Writers in the Storm:

1. Minimize dialogue tags.

Sometimes you need a “he said” or “she asked,” but oftentimes you don’t need a dialogue tag at all. You can show who’s speaking by having the character do or feel something before or after the part in quotes.


“There she is!” my father announced, and my family exploded with excitement.

“Faye!” they all greeted me, and my two nieces, seven and four years old, dropped their Candy Land game and surged toward me. They hugged my torso with exclamations of “Auntie Faye!”

I was glad to see everyone, but suspicious too. Why were they here?

“Hey, girls!” I scooped each niece into a cozy embrace, and their soft curls tickled my nose.

“For our guest of honor,” my mother said, handing me a crystal chalice.


My father stood front and center. “There she is!”

“Faye!” My name reached the rafters in a chorus of excitement.

My two nieces dropped their Candy Land game, surged toward me, and hugged my waist. “Auntie Faye! Auntie Faye!”

I was glad to see everyone, but suspicious too. Why was my entire family here?

“Hey, girls!” I scooped each niece into a cozy embrace, and their soft curls tickled my nose.

My mother handed me a crystal chalice. “For our guest of honor.”

. . . .

Avoiding tags when possible is a better use of your word count, helps with flow, and deepens POV.

2. Use body language, tone, and internal thought for subtext.

The spots outside and around quotation marks are prime real estate for deepening character and plot. After all, what do we do when we’re in conversation with others? We mentally process our thoughts and their words. We have visceral reactions to the content, tone, and body language of others. We give background for why we’re perceiving things as we do.


“It’s got to be better than before, when it was impossible to live up to the Nickie Gold Standard,” Karyn says.

“Nickie sucks out every bit of energy my parents have,” I answer. “They barely know I’m alive.”

“So no perks? Nothing?” Karyn fishes for a way to spark my optimism or at least my snark.

“Well,” I say, “Nickie did tell me I can take just about anything from her old wardrobe.”


“It’s got to be better than before, when it was impossible to live up to the Nickie Gold Standard.” Karyn air-quotes those last words, like they’re a brand.

Actually, the way things were before sounds pretty good. “Nickie sucks out every bit of energy my parents have. They barely know I’m alive.”

“So no perks? Nothing?” Karyn fishes for a way to spark my optimism or at least my snark. I feel for her. This wilting version of me isn’t exactly a TARDIS-full of fun.

“Well,” I say, looking for any silver lining, no matter how tarnished. “Nickie did tell me I can take just about anything from her old wardrobe.”

. . . .

Create tension and help the reader learn more about your characters with subtext—the unspoken part of the conversation.

3. Make sure the reader knows who’s talking!

When I’m copyediting, one of the most common comments I add in the margin is “Who’s talking here?” Without proper cues, it’s easy to lose track of who the speaker is. That’s even more likely to become an issue when dialogue goes back and forth for a while between or among speakers.


DeDe strolled into sight, sporting a tangerine bikini on her tanned body. “Yeah, good thing you were there,” she drolled. “Can we get back in the pool now?” Her mother pursed her lips and cocked her head. A show of disapproval.
“I’m glad you’re okay. Justin was really worried when he first brought you in.”

As if she’d filled her obligation, she turned back to her mom, raised her eyebrows in question, and received a curt nod of dismissal. And permission apparently, because she sashayed out of the room and I heard the sliding door to the backyard open and close.

“Don’t mind DeDe. She’s trying to make new friends. New kid on the block, you know?”


DeDe strolled into sight, sporting a tangerine bikini on her tanned body. “Yeah, good thing you were there,” she drawled. “Can we get back in the pool now?”¶

Her mother pursed her lips and cocked her head. A show of disapproval.¶

DeDe forced a smile onto her face and turned to me. “I’m glad you’re okay. Justin was really worried when he first brought you in.”

As if she’d filled her obligation, she turned back to her mom, raised her eyebrows in question, and received a curt nod of dismissal. And permission apparently, because she sashayed out of the room and I heard the sliding door to the backyard open and close.

“Don’t mind my sister.” Justin gestured toward her exit with his head. “She’s trying to make new friends. New kid on the block, you know?”

. . . .

Make sure the speaker’s identity is clear by ensuring the character’s names or pronouns are periodically mentioned, by giving characters distinct voices, and by creating a new paragraph each time the speaking stick is passed, so to speak.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Novel Writing Tips

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

For me, novel writing is a process of decision-making. I begin with an idea, and from that idea, the characters and plot slowly emerge. 

What I’ve learned along the way – 

  1. Love your idea. If you love your idea you’ll want to spend time with it, and through spending time with it, you’ll see a spectrum of possibilities for your plot. There’s a great deal of thinking and imagining involved in writing a novel. You need to ask yourself questions – for example, my seventh novel, A Lie For A Lie, is about a school nurse who is accused of hitting a child. I asked myself over one hundred questions along the lines of: Where does this story take place? Who is my nurse? Why is she accused? Who is her accuser? When does this happen? What are the repercussions? 

Each of these questions were expanded into a further set of questions as I drilled deeper and deeper into the heart of the story. 

  1. Spend time in your main character’s head. And if you’re going to spend time there then you need to make her interesting. The most important question you will ask her is: What do you want? 

She might tell you she wants to get revenge or find a husband, have a baby or walk the length of the British Isles. Or she might tell you she wants to keep the status quo. 

Do you – and therefore readers’ – identify with whatever it is she wants? What motivates her? Is she different from you? In what ways is she different?

Do the work. Get under her skin. The more you get under her skin the easier it is to make decisions as the story progresses.

  1. Who, or what, is in your main character’s way? You need a strong antagonist, someone or something that will push your protagonist to the very limits. If your antagonist falls at the first hurdle then that will make it very easy for your protagonist to get what she wants, and there’s no story in that. I have learnt that the harder I push the antagonist, the harder I have to push my protagonist. That makes for a story with shocks and revelations, twists and turns.
  2. So, what does your main character want? 

Yes, really. I’m repeating this because it can become lost as the story progresses. I have post-it notes on my wall to remind me of this otherwise my focus slips.

  1. Where is your story set? Setting adds atmosphere, context and imagery. Do you want your setting to help or hinder your character in some way? How will you use your setting to highlight and inform certain aspects of the plot? Make it work for you.

6. Find your first few plot points. 

There are writers who plan before beginning to write and there are writers who have an idea and dive in. I am somewhere in between. When I know toughly what my novel will be about, I plan Act One, and about halfway through the writing, ideas for Act Two begin to take shape.

I believe plot grows from character. The more work I’ve done with my protagonist, the less likely I am to be sitting thinking – what’s she going to do now? Is she the sort of person who would do X, Y or Z?

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Unapologetic Characterization

From Writer Unboxed:

“I’m sorry.”

These two words are like a thick blanket someone will toss over whatever unknown coals might be scorching a valued relationship. The words do not acknowledge the harm that was done—they simply allow the wrongdoer to avoid looking at his or her behavior so the relationship can move on unchanged.

Unchanged? Hmm, that doesn’t sound like good story, does it.

Even so, a character’s blanket apology is a dialogue default I’ve noticed repeatedly over my years of reading client manuscripts. I’ve been thinking about it more since bingeing on 13 seasons of Heartland last December. For me, the Canadian accent (“I’m SOH-ree”) drew attention to how many times per episode it was used. (This is the one and only thing I will criticize about this show, so don’t start with me, because I’ll fight back and I will not apologize!).

If the longest-running one-hour drama in Canadian history can get away with blanket apology, why do the words “I’m sorry” bother me as a reader—especially when I’m a fan of their lavish use in everyday life?  It’s because in many cases, they gloss over the real, relatable, and often gritty conflicts the author has strived to build into their story. Yes, we humans must still get along even after hurting one another, or when differing goals or ideologies create chasms between us. But if your characters truly believe they are doing the right thing, should we yank the rug from beneath their empowerment by having them apologize for what they said or did? If they really meant to take the action but feel bad that the other person had to suffer for it, are they really sorry for this?

Let’s say your character is frustrated as to why her children are suffering an ongoing illness of unknown origin. Meanwhile, she discovers that the factory where she works has been covering up flagrant EPA violations. She turns in her findings. She is certainly sorry it has come to this, as it will impact not only her work environment, which is about to turn hostile, but has personally impacted her next-door neighbor, the plant manager who mentored her and who refuses to answer her questions about his children’s health. In the resulting financial restructuring, he’s been laid off, requiring him to sell his home and move his kids to a less desirable school district. Is she really sorry that he has to pay a steep personal price for turning a blind eye toward his company’s practices for so long, if the pollutants have been making her own children sick—and perhaps his as well?

There are consequences for inaction and there are consequences for action—these are your story’s stakes, that you’ve foreshadowed since the beginning of the novel—and in this example, it seems the whistleblower’s “I’m sorry” would feel like back-pedaling. Your character must engage with the stakes or the energy of your story will drain away.

Her inner conflict might be better shown by having her standing in her driveway, hugging her kids to her as they wave goodbye to their friends, as the father—her mentor—averts his eyes. A tear rolling down her face might say more about the situation’s emotional complexity, which will feel more powerful and true than any apology. (One might even argue that he’s the one whose actions beg an apology, but if you’ve written the story right, he’s had good reasons for doing what he’s done.)

Skipping the apology can be hard for some of us women to pull off. A dad might chastise his son for fighting in school while turning away to hide a proud smile—but when his daughter is caught in a dustup, he’ll demand she apologize because girls shouldn’t act that way. In her May 3 newsletter, Whole30 co-founder Melissa Urban wrote:

It’s been ingrained in women, especially in moms, that we have to apologize for everything. Saying no at work, not taking on every extra household or child-related task, even just existing makes us feel like we need to apologize.

Urban’s words brought to mind a visual from an essay I’d read long ago in O, The Oprah Magazine, written by a woman who was taking Tae Kwon Do for self-defense. She described herself in an aggressive stance, wearing her stiff white uniform, yelling “kee-yahp” as she practiced the kinds of punches that could disable an attacker. Afterwards, the instructor said to her, “You know you don’t have to smile while you’re throwing punches.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Power of Quirky-Smirky Assonance and Alluring Alliteration

From Writers in the Storm:

The rhyming vowel sounds of assonance aren’t always quirky-smirky. But I wanted to grab your attention. It must have worked. You’re here!


Rhyming vowel sounds are as cool as a school of dolphins.

As smart as a cart full of bestselling authors.

As right as your brightest writing.

I’m having fun with you all. Hope this style made you smile.

Assonance and alliteration can carry a subtle power or an in-your-face power. We’ll do a deep dive into both.

Alliteration and Assonance:

You all may know alliteration and assonance, but do you choose to use, or do those rhetorical devices fall on the page on their own?

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty.

Hmm… Notice the last six words and where they’re placed in that sentence.

…serious or silly

…whimsical or witty

Deep Edit Analysis: 

           Structural parallelism

          The number of beats matches – 3, 1, 2, and 3, 1, 2

Double Alliteration – s, s, w, w

          Assonance – silly, witty

The first sentence has double alliteration too — a, a, s, s.

And the paragraph sounds cool. Right?

Wrong. Almost right.

Read it out loud:

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty.

I hear the beats in a missing third sentence.

How about:

Alliteration and assonance support the soundtrack for our words. They can be serious or silly, whimsical or witty. But only if you write them well.

Just a little teachy-preachy. 

Ha! I could become an assonance addict. But that sentence carried a truth.

Which segues into two important teaching points.

Alliteration and assonance are cool writing tools, but beware:

1. You could overuse, but I’m betting you wouldn’t. I’ve never seen them overused.

2. The words you choose must be the right fit. They need to fit the scene, fit the character, fit the style.

Did you notice I just used the rhetorical devices anaphora (Triple Beginnings) and asyndeton (The No And)?

Why use rhetorical devices like alliteration and assonance and others?

  • Add power.
  • Set the mood.
  • Enhance your voice.
  • Provide a stylistic boost.
  • Treat the reader, provide an uplift.
  • Help you stand out in a talented way.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

(Writing) Each Book Is A Different Story

From Women Writers Women’s Books:

I have written three novels over twelve years: one which got me an agent (as yet unpublished); my debut Paris Mon Amour (2016) and my new novel, Scent.  Each has been a unique experience and part of a learning curve which will never end. I now work with other writers on their manuscripts and in a world where ‘writing tips’ abound (often more anxiety-inducing than constructive), the only thing that matters is what works for you.

For most writers, that’s an ongoing process which develops with each project, just as our real lives do in the background (don’t get me started on that). An open mind and willingness to try new things are traits you’d hope for in a creative writer and they’re as important to process as any other aspect of storytelling.

It’s a weird and wonderful thought that some people are reading Paris Mon Amour and Scent almost back-to-back when they were published five years apart (PMA has just been reissued). Both are set in France and occupy my home territory of midlife and female sexuality but the way the two novels emerged was different.  Some of that was inevitable, some deliberate, as I experimented with new ways to deliver my vision for Scent and (less pretentiously) to make my job easier. 

Long story short: some of my old habits didn’t need changing after all.  Some of my new approaches worked, some didn’t.  These were the biggest revelations:  

First draft – words mount up whether you count them or not

I enjoy every phase of writing novels apart from first drafts. I love having something to work with, develop and improve but generating it in the first place is a real challenge especially as I’m not a fast or wordy writer. With PMA, I set myself a weekly target of 3,500 words to produce a first draft in six months. Many writers do find wordcount goals motivating but for me it made the whole thing feel like a chore. Sure, it’s nice to see the numbers creeping up, but as I discovered when I took a different tack with Scent, that happens anyway if you keep showing up.  Instead of setting myself word count targets, I sat down to write for two hours at a time. Things progressed at the same rate but I enjoyed it so much more.

To edit or not to edit as you go

With my debut I felt I wasted a lot of time re-reading and polishing the text even in the early stages – we all know how much a manuscript changes from first to final draft. But when I stopped doing this, I lost my connection with the characters and the belief that Scent would ever amount to something worth reading. Far from being a pointless waste of time, I realised that editing as I go along is an integral part of my writing process.  Trying new methods and deciding the old ones actually serve you is also a valuable outcome. 

Re-type draft

My most dramatic experiment, both in terms of results and the horror and disbelief it inspired in other people!  I got the idea at a workshop led by Andrew Wille just after receiving constructive and helpful feedback on the first draft of Scent from my agent and closest writing partner. The latter’s observation that the novel wasn’t, as I’d been thinking, about a failing marriage but a love story between two women instantly made me see it in a different light.  Retyping the entire 90K word draft (from scratch not from memory) to capture this new slant was the most exciting and transformative thing I’ve done as a writer. Now I can’t imagine writing a novel without this step – my post about it is one of the most viewed on my Literary Sofa blog.

Link to the rest at Women Writers Women’s Books