Writing Advice

See through words

4 December 2016

From Aeon:

If you could ask Dante where he got the idea of life as a road, or Rilke where he found the notion that time is a destroyer, they might have said the metaphors were hewn from their minds, or drawn from a stock of poetic imagery. Their readers might have said the imagery had origins more divine, perhaps even diabolical. But neither poets nor readers would have said the metaphors were designed. That is, the metaphors didn’t target people’s cognitive processes. They weren’t engineered to affect us in a specific way.

Can metaphors be designed? I’m here to tell you that they can, and are. For five years I worked full-time as a metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose clients are typically large US foundations (never political campaigns or governments). I continue to shape and test metaphors for private-sector clients and others. In both cases, these metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.

. . . .

Pretty much every metaphor designer is inspired by Metaphors We Live By(1980), by the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon. It’s the classic look at how metaphors structure the way we think and talk, and once you’ve read it, you can’t help but agree that, at a conceptual level, life is a journey, and arguments are wars (you take sides, there can be only one winner, evidence is a weapon). However, for the practical metaphor designer, psycholinguistic research turns out to be much more useful than philosophical commentary, because it studies how people actually encounter and process new metaphors.

It was the Princeton psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg who in 2003 argued that metaphors are really categorisation proposals. Provocations, you might call them. You’re suggesting that one thing belongs with another. But the thing that lets us make sense of ‘paintbrush as pump’ – or ‘lawyer as shark’ – is that ‘pump’ is the name of a category for liquid-moving mechanisms, just as ‘shark’ is the name of the category for predatory individuals. Words such as ‘pump’ and ‘shark’ aren’t just the names of individual things; they also speak to generalities. They have what Glucksberg calls ‘dual reference’. He points out others that have become conventionalised metaphors. ‘Butcher’ refers to ‘anyone who should be skilled but is incompetent’, ‘jail’ to ‘any unpleasant, confining situation’, ‘Enron’ to ‘any dramatic accounting scandal’, and ‘Vietnam’ to any ‘disastrous military intervention’.

Link to the rest at Aeon

Researchers have quantified what makes us love Harry Potter

29 November 2016

From The Washington Post:

A good story often takes its reader on an emotional journey from despair to elation, and hits many notes in between.

It’s something that writers and readers understand intuitively. But it also can be analyzed, quantified and graphed. In a fascinating new study, researchers use machine-learning techniques to analyze 1,327 literary works — including “Romeo and Juliet,” “Frankenstein” and Harry Potter — and reveal what exactly it is about popular stories that makes us love them most.

The idea of graphing the emotional arc of popular stories is not a new one. The author Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote about it in a master’s thesis, which he called his “prettiest contribution to the culture.” The University of Chicago actually rejected the thesis, but Vonnegut went on to write and speak more about the idea.

In one of his most popular lectures, Vonnegut stands before a blackboard and graphs the emotional roller coasters of Cinderella, Hamlet and the Bible. In Vonnegut’s graphs, the horizontal axis tracks the story from beginning to end, while the vertical axis reflects positive or negative change in the characters’ fortunes. When Cinderella gets a fairy godmother, the line rises. When Romeo and Juliet quaff their poison, it plummets.

. . . .

For their recent study, the researchers fed the emotional arcs of the more than 1,000 literary works back into a machine-learning algorithm, which then sorted them into broad clusters. As the Harry Potter graph above demonstrates, individual stories may have very complex emotional arcs. But analyzing the emotional arcs very broadly, they found that there were six types that fit 85 percent of the books they had analyzed, Reagan said.

Roughly one-third of the stories were either rags-to-riches stories, in which the emotional arc rises through the bulk of the story, or the opposite, riches-to-rags stories, in which it broadly falls. “Romeo and Juliet” and many of Shakespeare’s tragedies show up in this second category.

. . . .

The researchers also find a subcategory of stories in which the emotional arc rises, then falls, which they label Icarus, after the Greek mythological figure who falls into the sea after flying too close to the sun. Another arc, where emotions rise, then fall, then rise again, is labeled “Cinderella,” after the fairy godmother tale. Its opposite, a fall-rise-fall pattern, is labeled “Oedipus,” after the Greek tragedy in which a king unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. (“Frankenstein,” graphed below, fits the bill.)

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Tom for the tip.

I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to write so that they can get rich quickly

25 November 2016

From bestselling author Dave Farland:

It seems that in the past few weeks I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to write so that they can get rich quickly, and I worry about them.

I don’t begrudge people the desire to get rich.  If you’re a writer and you make a decent wage at it, it will give you the freedom to keep writing.  That’s a good thing.

But I’ve met a couple of novelists who have told me that they have a terrible time writing, that even though they make good money at it, every word that they write is a chore.  That strikes me as being . . . rather painful.  Why do a job that you hate just for money?

In both cases, the novelists seemed to write less and less until they went out and took other jobs.

So that’s one problem with writing just for money.  But there are others.  I see many writers trying to take shortcuts.  They try to go out and get major publishing deals before they’re ready—before they’ve really learned to write.  In fact, many of them will go write a novel and then work to get that major deal without ever having gotten a single critique.

That’s like sitting down at a piano and banging out your first concerto while hoping for a recording contract.  It’s foolishness.  These same people will pay decent money for stupid scams.  For example, there’s a writing book that claims you can write a bestselling novel in thirty days—in only five minutes per day.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

Stupid Writing Rules: 12 Bad Writing Tips New Writers Give Each Other

20 November 2016

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Fake news isn’t our only problem in the era of social media. Fake writing rules are everywhere. Even I get taken in. I shared a meme on Facebook yesterday that gave a spelling rule that was 100% wrong. Thank goodness an English teacher friend set me straight. (Thanks, Bev!) Not everybody is so lucky.

I tell new writers to join groups and get feedback from other writers, but now I do it with the caveat that most of the feedback you’ll get needs to be taken with several shakers of salt.

. . . .

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The problem with groups is that the most ignorant people are generally the most sure of themselves.

This phenomenon has been scientifically proved. It’s called The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Scientists David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University did a study in 2000 that proves the least competent people are the most likely to overestimate their own competence.

I remember feeling perfectly confident I knew everything worth knowing at the age of four.

Then I went to school and it ruined everything.

So make sure you cross-reference if any suggestion for a change goes against what you’ve observed or heard from respected authorities. Look up any stupid writing rule in a writing guide that was written by somebody who’s actually been published. Preferably sometime in the past 50 years.

. . . .

8 Stupid Writing Rules Currently Making the Rounds

1) Don’t make your opening scene too dark.

A writer I met recently started her novel with a pastoral scene with no tension or plot: just a pretty scene with pretty people being happy. Somebody she respected as an “authority” had convinced her to cut her nail-biting car accident opener and substitute this.

I suspect the “authority” was fresh out of a beginning course on screenwriting. What he/she had told the writer to substitute for her exciting opener was an “establishing shot”

But contemporary novels don’t have establishing shots. The start in media res (in the middle of things) and that’s what readers expect. Save the sunny afternoon idylls for your poetry.

She might also have been influenced by somebody who misunderstood the “hero’s journey” story arc. The “hero’s journey” theory of story, based on the teachings of Joseph Campbell, says a story must begin with the hero in his normal life at home, before the “call to adventure,” like Dorothy in Kansas before the tornado hits.

But home doesn’t have to be sunny and pastoral. You can have a storm brewing, and Miss Gulch can be pedaling that bicycle as fast as she can to reach Toto and do him harm.

Readers want action and emotion in the first sentence. Otherwise they’re on to the next book on the shelf or page. Here’s a list of 10 Things Your Opening Chapter Should Do. It doesn’t include painting pretty pictures.

. . . .

5) Novels can not contain contractions.

This one floored me. A writer heard this from an “editor”. (Which shows you should carefully vet freelance editors. Anybody can call himself an editor, so do your research before you hire somebody.)

If you follow this editor’s advice, every character in your novel will sound like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

People who speak English as a first language (and are not robots or space aliens) use contractions. If your characters don’t use them, your novel or memoir had better be set in a robot colony or on the planet Vulcan.

6) “Said” is boring. Use more energetic tags like “exclaimed”,”growled”, and “ejaculated.”

Whoever thought up this one must have read so many Hardy Boys books growing up that they became imprinted on their brains forever.

They’re also treading dangerously close to Tom Swifty territory.

“Said” is invisible to the reader. Any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself. Use other tags judiciously, the way you do with exclamation marks. You do use exclamation marks judiciously, don’t you!!?

Mostly you want to avoid tags altogether, except where they’re needed for clarity.

Instead of “‘It’s freezing,’ Tom muttered icily,” say something like “‘It’s freezing.’ Tom shivered and buttoned up his overcoat.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Here’s a link to Anne R. Allen’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

How Jack Reacher was Built

13 November 2016

From The New Yorker:

All fiction depends on what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” the reader’s decision to put the argumentative, quibbling part of his mind into neutral and go along for the narrative ride. The suspension is voluntary, though not necessarily conscious; it’s not as if you reach up and toggle a setting in your brain. Rather, as readers, we usually fight the story a little bit at the beginning, while we’re getting our ear in; then we submit, and are carried along by the flow, unless something happens to jolt us out of it. If something makes our disbelief become unsuspended—one implausibility too many, a series of narratorial bum notes—then the whole fiction comes crashing down.

This isn’t the same thing as aesthetic judgment—deciding whether a book is good as a work of art. The question is not “Is it good?” but “Is this for me?” Most readers have their own standards for how much implausibility they can handle. Mine is something that I call the Superman test: Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?

. . . .

One of the great pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels is the immensely accomplished manner in which he balances wish-fulfilling fantasy and earthbound detail. The element of wish fulfillment is embodied in the figure of Reacher himself. He is a six-foot-five-inch former military policeman, whose weight fluctuates between two hundred and twenty and two hundred and fifty pounds, none of it flab. (This is one reason that hard-core Reacher fans didn’t fall in love with the character’s cinematic portrayal by Tom Cruise, who has many virtues as an actor, none of which include being the same size as an N.F.L. linebacker.) Why a military policeman? The explanation comes early in the first Reacher novel, “Killing Floor,” from 1997:

A military policeman deals with military lawbreakers. Those lawbreakers are service guys. Highly trained in weapons, sabotage, unarmed combat. Rangers, Green Berets, marines. Not just killers. Trained killers. Extremely well trained, at huge public expense. So the military policeman is trained even better. Better with weapons. Better unarmed.

The implication is that if members of Navy seal Team 6 get a little frisky Reacher is the guy who’s sent to make them simmer down. Reacher isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon, often via the forensic question “How would you do it if you were the bad guy?” He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents, confident in his maxim that “two against one is never a problem.” All the Reacher novels feature a climactic combat, sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength or inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above. The bad guy seems impossible to defeat, but Reacher always defeats him. In Child’s new novel, “Night School” (Delacorte), Reacher gets into a fight with a large group of neo-Nazis, and dispatches the first seven of them with no difficulty, needing a little help only with the eighth and final one.

. . . .

We’re verging on Superman territory here. Yet a number of things conspire to ground the novels in reality. One of them is that the unlikeliness is enjoyable: Child has a great time with Reacher’s invulnerability, and is a good enough writer to make us enjoy it, too. The prose is crisp and clean, and the fighting is realistic within its implausibility. Reacher’s strength might be hard to believe, but when bone hits bone, when arms and faces are broken, when villains are choked to death, it feels real. Here’s a moment from the big fight in “Night School,” with Reacher wielding a baseball bat:

The guy brought his arm up to protect his head, and the bat caught his elbow, and his triceps, which impact smashed the heavy bone of his upper arm backward into the point of his jaw, where his neck met his skull. Which dropped him to his knees, but the lights stayed on. So Reacher swung again, this time properly right-handed, probably good enough for nothing more than a fly ball at a July Fourth picnic, but more than adequate against human biology. The guy rocked sideways and then flopped forward on his face.

Not pretty—but it’s not trying to be. The “more than adequate” is a clue to Reacher’s psychology: he is aiming to do maximum damage. He’ s a good guy who is, with his penchant for violence, very close to being a bad guy. His code is chivalric, in the sense that he fights on behalf of the good; sometimes this means the weak and the wronged, sometimes this means the U.S. government or its proxies. His actions, though, are as unchivalric as they come. He executes opponents, kicks people when they’re down. If he gets a chance to shoot someone in the back rather than the front, he takes it. He may be a hero, but he’s a realist, too.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

8 Things You Might Not Know About Vowels

11 November 2016

From Mental Floss:


A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y are the letters we define as vowels, but vowels can also be defined as speech sounds. While we have six letters we define as vowels, there are, in English, many more vowel sounds than that. For example consider the word pairs cat and car, or cookand kook. The vowel sounds are different from each other in each pair, but they are represented by the same letters. Depending on the dialect, and including diphthongs, which are combinations of two vowel sounds, English has from nine to 16 vowel sounds.


The most common vowel sound in English doesn’t even have its own letter in the alphabet. It does have a symbol, though, and it looks like this: ǝ. It’s the “uh” sound in an unstressed syllable and it shows up everywhere, from th[ǝ], to p[ǝ]tato, to antic[ǝ]p[ǝ]tory.

. . . .


Many words we have today were pronounced very differently before the 14th century. Bootsounded more like boat, house sounded like hoos, and five sounded like feev. English underwent a major change in the 14th and 15th centuries. Words with long vowels shifted into new pronunciations. The changes happened in stages, over a few hundred years, but when they were complete, the language sounded very different, and spelling was a bit of a mess, since many spellings had been established during early phases of pronunciation. The change may have been initiated by the volume of French words that entered English shortly before the shift, or by the movement of populations with different dialects during the Black Plague.

Link to the rest at Mental Floss and thanks to A. for the tip.

How I tricked myself into writing my first novel

5 November 2016
Comments Off on How I tricked myself into writing my first novel

From author Victor Pineiro via Medium:

I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was six years old, and I’ve been attempting it more or less since then. I was frustrated when I graduated high school without my first manuscript, and then twice as angry four years later when I graduated college and still hadn’t written a single solid chapter. I jumped into screenwriting after that, took poetry seriously for awhile, but neither completely satisfied me. Part of me always suspected I was just putting off the novel.

And I’ve tried it all. I spent a year trying out the Snowflake Method, writing a hundred-page outline only to freeze two paragraphs into writing the actual novel. I tried Stephen King’s “excavation” method, jumping right into the writing of another novel only to get completely blocked after fifteen pages. Then that happened four more times.

Three years ago I realized that the only way to write a novel was to trick myself into doing it.

. . . .

The most difficult thing is finding the time. For years I thought I would have to dedicate at least 3–4 hours a day to writing a novel, or it would take me a decade to write it. There are so many full-time writers out there, how could I possibly juggle a day job and write a book? Then I stumbled onto Murakami’s story. When he tackled his first novel, he wrote for only an hour or so a night, and unlike most of what I’ve read, he didn’t find it too arduous — it was more a joy than torture. That simple anecdote completely changed the way I looked at writing, and finally gave me hope. An hour a day — that I could do. So now the trick was finding that hour.

In my case, I decided to try an experiment and write on my commute. A few years before I would have scoffed at that idea — how could you possibly write anything worthwhile on a train with people yammering around you, when it’s only a half hour each way? But I bought noise-canceling headphones and dedicated myself to writing every day on my commute, no matter how I was feeling. This was dead time anyway — what else would I be doing on the way to work? Spending the time writing instead was a no brainer.

. . . .

Getting into the groove of writing daily started with a 30 Day Challenge. I challenged myself to write every single day on my commute, no matter the quality of my writing, no matter how I was feeling. The key was not getting angry at myself for writing pure garbage some days. This was just an experiment — nothing to lose. As you’ve read dozens of times, once you do something for thirty days it becomes habit — and I found that to be true. The most important aspect of habit, in my case, was muscle memory. As soon as I sat down on the train seat, my laptop seemed to magically appear, open, on my lap — I didn’t even notice the reflex to immediately pull it out of my bag most days. And once the laptop was open and ready, I felt obligated to write.

Link to the rest at Medium

Singular or plural? It’s complicated.

24 October 2016

From The Week:

There is a myriad of ways we can express quantities in English, but there are just a couple words that are much in dispute.

Wait. Should that be “there are myriad ways” and “just a couple of words”?

Those are the two words much in dispute: myriad and couple. But we ought to just relax and let them go. They’re only sliding down the same slope as many words have before them, and still more might after them: the slippery slope from noun to quantifier.

What’s a quantifier? It’s a kind of word not everyone knows exists. Many people — including some who write usage guides and dictionaries — think there are nouns, and there are adjectives, and everything that modifies a noun is an adjective. It’s tidy, but it’s not true, and it leads to some silly mistakes.

First of all, numbers aren’t adjectives. They’re not! We know this because they don’t behave exactly like adjectives. For example, I can say “soft red pillows” and “the pillows are soft and red,” but if I say “three soft red pillows,” I can’t say “the pillows are three, soft, and red” — and I most certainly can’t say “the pillows are very three” even though I can say they are “very soft and red.” Also, I can say “a pink balloon” but I can’t say “a one balloon.” (After all, a comes from one.)

But not all words that express quantities are numbers. Even some numbers aren’t like other numbers. Consider: I can say “a thousand balloons,” “a few thousand balloons,” and “many thousands of balloons,” but I wouldn’t say “a nine balloons,” “a few nine balloons,” or “many nines of balloons” (unless I meant many nine-packs, in which case nine has become a noun standing for “nine-pack”).

That’s because thousand started out as a noun and, a long time ago, slid down the slope to becoming a quantifier. So did hundred. So did dozen. And that’s the slope that couple and myriad are on right now.

When these words were nouns, they behaved like nouns, pluralizing, taking a singular verb when single, and needing an of to attach them to another noun. That’s right: “a thousand of cattle,” “two millions of pounds,” “several dozens of eggs.” We still sometimes use dozen like this when referring to cartons. These quantifiers still show the marks of their noun past: “There were a hundred cats,” not “there were hundred cats” (compare “there were nine cats”); “thousands of dogs” and “scores of years” but not “fifties of dogs” or “nines of years.” Quantifiers that were once nouns can still be used at least sometimes as nouns (depending in part on how far down the slope they’ve slid). But the rest of the time they’re not behaving like nouns — but not like adjectives either.

. . . .

Myriad is not nearly as common a word as couple, but it has more ways it can be used. I won’t say there are myriad ways you can use it, or a myriad ways you can use it, or even a myriad of ways you can use it — or that thereis a myriad of ways — but there are at least those four ways. It started as a noun, of course, meaning “group of 10,000,” borrowed from Greek by way of Latin. It arrived in English in the 1500s, and by the 1600s it was already being used on occasion as a quantifier, both with and without a. It slipped down the slope quickly, no doubt at least in part because of its magnitude — when many just isn’t big enough, myriad serves nicely. But it’s stayed in use at all the stages of the slope: “a myriad of ways is,” “a myriad of ways are,” “a myriad ways are,” “myriad ways are.” Since it’s been used all these ways for centuries, there’s no reason not to keep using it however we want, choosing according to what works best in the context.

Link to the rest at The Week and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

NaNoWriMo Sucks. Here’s Why I’m Playing Anyway.

21 October 2016

From Medium:

If you’re a writer and you belong to any sort of writing community — in person, online, it doesn’t matter — about this time of year your life suddenly becomes all about National Novel Writing Month.

It doesn’t even matter if you want to try to write 50,000 words in thirty days.

It certainly doesn’t matter whether you want to hear about other writers preparing to bang their heads against their keyboards in abstract misery for the whole month of November.

. . . .

My professional opinion, as a published novelist and a teacher, is that NaNoWriMo sucks. I mean, it has it’s place (I’ll get to that in a minute), but as a method for becoming a real, working write?

NaNoWriMo sucks. For two reasons.

You’re not really writing a novel.

Those 50,000 words don’t make up a novel, unless you’re writing for middle grade kids or younger. A novel for young adults or adults is generally at least 65,000 to 70,000 words long.

You can indie publish whatever you want. If your plan is to try to traditionally publish, you’re going to have a hard time convincing an agent or publisher that 50,000 is long enough.

It’s probably not very good. (Yet.)

Those 50,000 words that were banged out at breakneck speed are almost definitely not publishable.

Chances are good that you’re going to reach December 1 needing the next eleven months to recover from your NaNoWriMo experience. You can’t actually build a career on pounding down 50,000 words every November and never really looking at them again.

Practically every Nano-er I know has a drawer full of 50,000 word great starts. Most aren’t willing to spend the rest of the year working on turning their great start into a publishable novel (of novel length.)

. . . .

NaNoWriMo sucks. It’s fun, but it’s just not the best way to write a novel. It advances the idea that a writing a novel is something you should be able to do in 30 days. It drives anyone who loves a writer crazy.

And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. NaNoWriMo changed my life.

I wrote the very first draft of my very first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004.

Link to the rest at Medium

How to be a Writer

16 October 2016

From Literary Hub:

1) Write. There is no substitute. Write what you most passionately want to write, not blogs, posts, tweets or all the disposable bubblewrap in which modern life is cushioned. But start small: write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming about writing the great American novel or what you’ll wear at the awards ceremony because that’s not what writing’s about or how you get there from here. The road is made entirely out of words. Write a lot. Maybe at the outset you’ll be like a toddler—the terrible twos are partly about being frustrated because you’re smarter than your motor skills or your mouth, you want to color the picture, ask for the toy, and you’re bumbling, incoherent and no one gets it, but it’s not only time that gets the kid onward to more sophistication and skill, it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words.

. . . .

5) Find a vocation. Talent is overrated, and it is usually conflated with nice style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are rarer, and they will get you through the rough spots in your style when your style won’t give you a reason to get up in the morning and stare at the manuscript for the hundredth day in a row or even give you a compelling subject to write about. If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing? It starts with passion even before it starts with words. You want to read people who are wise, deep, wild, kind, committed, insightful, attentive; you want to be those people. I am all for style, but only in service of vision.

6) Time. It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

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