Writing Advice

John Grisham’s 8 Do’s And Don’ts For Popular Fiction

7 March 2018

From Writers Write:

1.   Do — Write A Page Every Day

That’s about 200 words, or 1,000 words a week. Do that for two years and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough. Nothing will happen until you are producing at least one page per day.

2.   Don’t — Write The First Scene Until You Know The Last

This necessitates the use of a dreaded device commonly called an outline. Virtually all writers hate that word. I have yet to meet one
who admits to using an outline.

Plotting takes careful planning. Writers waste years pursuing stories that eventually don’t work.

. . . .

6. Don’t — Keep A Thesaurus Within Reaching Distance

I know, I know, there’s one at your fingertips.

There are three types of words: (1) words we know; (2) words we should know; (3) words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category
and use restraint with those in the second.

A common mistake by fledgling authors is using jaw-breaking vocabulary. It’s frustrating and phoney.

Link to the rest at Writers Write

How to Fight Isolation When You Work From Home

23 February 2018

From Lifehacker:

As much as you rolled your eyes at your cubicle mate’s persistent muttering of “That’s what she said,” and as awkward as it was to listen to the Carol from HR’s cat stories every time you encountered her in the kitchen, when you start working from home, you begin to miss the daily human interaction that comes from being in an office. The weekend recaps. The lunch partners. The times when you’d show up wearing a similar outfit as someone and you’d take a picture together, hashtag officetwins.

. . . .

At home, there’s … nobody. Too many days of confinement and you forget how to people. It can get lonely—depressing, even—and if you don’t make some changes to your routine, it can take a toll on your whole life.

Fellow remote employees and freelancers tell me they must actively fight isolation while working from home. Here are some ways to do it (and not all of them involve putting on real pants).

Work at a cafe. Even doing so once a week can give you a boost. I appreciate that the coffee shops near my house aren’t filled with super-serious professionals typing on their laptops (aside from me, I guess). People are there to have conversations, and the noise energizes me.

. . . .

Have lunch with other people who work from home. I don’t know why, but it feels like such a luxury the first time you do it. Also, if you work in similar fields, you can talk shop and bounce ideas off each other.

Link to the rest at Lifehacker

When Worlds Collide

21 February 2018

From Writer Unboxed:

Have you ever felt out of place?  I’m sure.  We all have.  Meeting the new in-laws.  An interfaith church service.  Asking the price of a necklace at Tiffany’s.  The ER.  CIA headquarters in Langley.  Strange environments where people are different.

One summer day commuting to work on my bike, I stopped at Sander’s Bakery on Lee Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Williamsburg.  A bakery is a bakery, right?  Well, no.  Sander’s is in the heart of Brooklyn’s vast Chasidishe, ultra-orthodox Jewish community.  The shop was filled with men in long sideburns wearing black coats, Tzizit vests and beaver hats.  Women wore wigs, calf length skirts and sturdy shoes.  All spoke Yiddish.  The shelves were brimming with challah, strudel, rugelach, kippelech, sufganiyot, Napoleon cake and cookies.

In my jeans, black tee and bike helmet, I stood out.  Customers avoided my eyes.  I am goyim.  A non-Jew.  An outsider, suspicious, not unwelcome but not welcome either.  Cyclists have been attacked in South Williamsburg.  To some, I would be less than human.  Some, I knew, might believe that I literally lack a soul.

But hey, why should that stop me?  I was there for cinnamon rugelach.  The gentleman behind the counter accepted my money and spoke kindly.  I bothered no one and left quickly.  The rugelach was delicious.  No one was hostile.  The stereotypes of Hasidim are stereotypes.  (Gay bashers, child molesters, women oppressors, bad drivers?  Please.)  The Hasidic world is not my world, it’s just their world and so what?  They are entitled to live according to their faith.  And, hey, they have cinnamon rugelach.

In that trivial anecdote, note a couple of things.  The different place: South Williamsburg.  The different cultures: beaver hats versus my bike helmet.  The resolution: They are different but we find something in common in yummy cinnamon rugelach.

Most of all, though, note the source of tension.  Goyim.  Outsider.  Cyclists have been attacked in South Williamsburg.  Those feelings came not from anyone inside Sander’s Bakery.  They came from me.  When worlds collide, visual differences create contrast, true, but what creates conflict is the apprehension inside of a POV character.

When worlds collide, it is mostly inside.

In a way, all stories are about a collision between two worlds.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Top Ten Peeves of Creative Writing Teachers

11 February 2018

From Melodie Campbell via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling. Did I want to come on faculty and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre. Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author. Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  (Pass the scotch.)

Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one. I’m definitely on the kind side of the equation. The last thing I want is to be a Dream Killer. But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated. So when Anne suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted. (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a creative writing teacher:


  1. “I Don’t Need no Stinkin’ Genre.”

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my course. Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, western, literary…etc.) to see what publishers expect. This is particularly important when it comes to endings. Mickey Spillane said those famous words: “Your first page sells this book. Your last page sells the next one.”

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres. Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure. So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work. They feel it is ‘selling out’ to do so. (Yes, I’ve heard this frequently.) They don’t want to ‘conform’ or be associated with a genre that has a ‘formula.’ (One day I hope to discover that formula. I’ll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction, even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they’ve actually read. (Pass the scotch.)

. . . .

  1. The Hunger Games Clone.

I can’t tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet. Yes, I’m picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I’m really talking about here is the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can’t come up with a new way to say things. Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot. But it has to be something we haven’t seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing. For me, it’s the ‘harvesting organs’ plot. Almost every class I’ve taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs. It’s been done, I tell them. I can’t think of a new angle that hasn’t already been done, and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please. Leave the poor organs where they are!

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

The Punctuation Guide

1 February 2018

An earlier post on TPV acquainted PG with The Punctuation Guide.

He’s bookmarked it because it’s a short and sweet (perhaps not actually sweet, but definitely short) guide to proper punctuation. PG is too inclined to modify the best way to express an idea which strains his punctuation knowledge into a less-best expression without questions about proper punctuation, so The Punctuation Guide may help.

Here’s an excerpt from The Punctuation Guide’s Top Ten Punctuation Tips:

2. Know where to place quotation marks

Periods and commas go inside quotation marks, even if they aren’t part of the material being quoted. All other punctuation marks go outside the quotation marks, unless they are part of the material being quoted.

“Any further delay,” she said, “would result in a lawsuit.”

His latest story is titled “The Beginning of the End”; wouldn’t a better title be “The End of the Beginning”?

This reminds PG that the British often use a more accurate system for quoted material which only includes the actual quotes inside quotation marks without adding spurious periods and commas that weren’t in the original. Added punctuation is placed outside the quotation marks — far more logically to PG’s way of thinking.

Grammar Girl elucidates:

Quotation Marks with Commas and Periods

The most common question people ask about quotation marks is whether periods and commas go inside or outside, and the answer depends on where your audience lives because in American English we always put periods and commas inside quotation marks, but in British English periods and commas can go inside or outside (kind of like the American rules for question marks and exclamation points). I use this memory trick: Inside the US, inside the quotation marks. Here are some examples:

“Don’t underestimate me,” she said with a disarmingly friendly smile.

I can never remember how to spell “bureaucracy.”

Don’t get confused when you see this handled differently in The Economist or on the BBC website.

And she provides some history that explains (but, in PG’s mind, does not justify) the American rule for always putting periods and commas inside punctuation marks.

Compositors―people who layout printed material with type―made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods. In the early 1900s, it appears that the Fowler brothers (who wrote a famous British style guide called The King’s English) began lobbying to make the rules more about logic and less about the mechanics of typesetting. They won the British battle, but Americans didn’t adopt the change. That’s why we have different styles.

Link to the rest at Grammar Girl

Regarding the Em Dash

1 February 2018

From The Millions:

Punctuation, largely invisible and insignificant for normal people, as it should be, is a highly personal matter for writers.  Periods, commas, colons, semi-colons:  in their use or non-use and in their order and placement, can represent elaboration, conjecture, doubt, finality.  And in aggregate, over the course of a text, the rhythms of punctuation advance an author’s worldview and personality as surely as any plot or theme.  Patterns of punctuation usage are the writerly equivalent of an athlete’s go-to moves, or a singer’s peculiar timbre and range—those little dots and squiggles, in a sense, encode your voice.  Anthony Powell’s colon (pardon the inadvertent image) is as signature as Kyrie Irving’s crossover or Rihanna’s throaty cry.

For me, there is no punctuation mark as versatile and appealing as the em dash.  I love the em dash in a way that is difficult to explain, which is, probably, the motivation of this essay.  And my love for it is emphasized by the fact that many writers never, or rarely, use it—even disdain it.  It is not, so to speak, an essential punctuation mark, the same way commas or periods are essential.  You can get along without it and most people do.  I don’t remember being taught to use it in elementary, middle, or high school English classes; I’m not even sure I was aware of it then, and I have no clear recollection of when or why I began to rely on it, yet it has become an indispensable component of my writing.

It might be useful to include an official definition of the em.  From The Punctuation Guide:  “The em dash is perhaps the most versatile punctuation mark.  Depending on the context, the em dash can take the place of commas, parentheses, or colons—in each case to slightly different effect.”  The “slightly different” part is, to me, the em dash’s appeal summarized.  It is the doppelgänger of the punctuation world, a talented mimic impersonating other punctuation, but not exactly, leaving space to shade meaning.  This space allows different authors to use the em dash in different ways, and so the em dash can be especially revealing of an author’s style, even their character.

. . . .

A more contemporary user of the em dash is Donald Antrim.  Antrim’s em dash helps to create a faltering narration that expresses the pervasive emotional mood of his work, an almost paralytic anxiety.  Take this first sentence, from the story “Ever Since:”

Ever since his wife had left him—but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop—Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality and become the sort of lurking man who, say, at work or at a party, mainly hovers on the outskirts of other people’s conversations, leaning close but not too close…

The narrator has only just begun to have a thought about Jonathan’s wife before a new thought intrudes, needlessly clarifying who she is to him before we even know who he is.  “Needlessly” in story terms, though the larger narrative need is to exemplify, through halting syntax, Jonathan’s excruciatingly circumspect mental process.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Hard first or easy first?

29 January 2018

From Medium:

Accountants have FIFO (first in first out) and LIFO (last in first out). Product designers have HFEL (hard first easy later) or EFHL (easy first hard later).

No matter the project, there are things you’re more confident about and things you’re less confident about. No brainers, maybe brainers, yes brainers. Assuming you have limited time to complete a project (we spend a maximum of 6 weeks on most projects), you have to decide how to sequence the work. Do you pick off the hard stuff first? Easy stuff first? What to do?

. . . .

Does this feel like a full project? Is it probably going to take all the time we have? Lots of moving parts? Does this work touch a lot of other things, or is it mostly self-contained? Do we feel like we’ve mostly got it down, or are there some material unknowns we haven’t quite nailed down yet?

If it feels big, and full, and challenging with some significant unknowns, we almost always start with the hard stuff first. The worst thing you can do in that situation is kick big challenges down the road because you’ll inevitably run out of time. You’ll either make bad big decisions that way, or you’ll push the schedule out, or you’ll work late or work weekends. All those are big no-no’s for us, so we tackle the hard stuff first.

. . . .

Once we have a sense of where we’re at, we think about what we need, as a team. I don’t mean what does the team need as far as tooling or technology goes, but what do we need emotionally? Do we want to slog along without any short-term visible progress, or can we grab a quick win and start to pick up some momentum? It depends — how did the last project go? Are we coming off a high or a low? If a low, maybe we should find some quicker wins to fuel the spirit. If a win, maybe we’re already feeling good enough about ourselves to go heads down without anything material to show for a few more days. The past plays a surprisingly important role in the present.

Link to the rest at Medium

It may surprise some visitors to TPV, but the process of building a technology product – computer program, web-based software product, etc. – can be a very emotional. In a typically busy tech open system office, it’s not uncommon to hear a big cheer from the programmers when a piece of a new product finally works right. On a bad day, various objects may be heard bouncing off cubicle or office walls.

PG was interested in some potential parallels between the varying writing processes of authors and the product design processes described in the OP.

A professional author is creating a product. While on the surface, it may be a science fiction story or a romance, ultimately, if it is to achieve commercial success, the book needs to be a product that readers will want to buy. The product will be the combination of the story, the cover, the book’s description and the way in which the book is marketed and positioned in the market, etc.

Some authors outline, others write a killer book blurb first, etc.

How To Use Dictation For A Healthier Writing Life

28 January 2018

From The Creative Penn:

The word ‘writing’ has become associated with hitting keys on a keyboard to make letters appear on a screen or inscribing by hand onto paper.

But the end result is a mode of communication from one brain to another through the medium of words. Those words can be generated by your voice, just as people can ‘read’ by listening to an audiobook.

Famous authors who have written with dictation include diverse creatives John Milton (Paradise Lost), Dan Brown, Henry James, Barbara Cartland and Winston Churchill. When Terry Pratchett, fantasy author of the Discworld series, developed Alzheimer’s Disease, he found he couldn’t write anymore, so he moved to dictation in his final years.

. . . .

So, why dictate?

(1) Health reasons

You can dictate standing up or while walking, or lying in bed with injuries, or if pain stops you typing.

I started using dictation when I had RSI and used it to write the first drafts of Destroyer of Worlds and also Map of Shadows, plus some chapters for this book, which I dictated while walking along the canal towpath.

Dictation can help alleviate or prevent pain right now, but learning how to write with dictation can also future-proof your living as a writer in case of problems later.

(2) Writing speed and stamina

Dictation is faster at getting words on the page than typing, especially if you are not self-censoring.

I’ve made it up to around 5000 words per hour with dictation, while I only manage around 1500 words per hour typing.

There is a trade-off with ‘finished’ words as you will have to at least lightly edit to correct transcription issues, but if you want to get that first draft done faster, then dictation can be the most effective way.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

During his professional career, PG has dictated approximately a trillion letters and documents (give or take), but he’s never been able to comfortably dictate anything remotely creative. Of course, while he was doing this, he usually had a couple of very intelligent secretaries/assistants/paralegals who turned is spoken words into something that wouldn’t get him disbarred. Alas, those valuable people have turned to more remunerative and fulfilling pastimes when PG moved into executive roles in some large organizations which occupied him for quite a few years..

However, Joanna has given him incentive to try dictation again. We’ll see how it goes.

Walking as a Creative Device

21 January 2018

From Brain Pickings:

[Maira] Kalman’s proclivity for walking and movement as a gateway to a higher sensibility is something a number of great creators have in common. Dickens and Hugo were avid walkers during ideation; Burns often composed while “holding the plough”; Twain paced madly while dictating; Goethe and Scott composed on horseback; Mozart preferred the back of a carriage; Lord Kelvin worked on his mathematical studies while traveling by train.

. . . .

Rosamund E. Harding suggests in the 1932 gem An Anatomy of Inspiration:

It is possible that the rhythmical movement of a carriage or train, of a horse and to a much lesser degree of walking, may produce on sensitive minds a slightly hypnotic effect conducive to that state of mind most favourable to the birth of ideas.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They”

20 January 2018

From OWL – Purdue Online Writing Lab:

Linguistically, pronouns are words used to refer to people by replacing proper nouns, like names. A pronoun can refer to either a person talking or a person who is being talked about. Common pronouns include they/them/theirsshe/her/hers, and he/him/his.

. . . .

The English language does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun, but in recent years they has gained considerable traction in this role. They has been officially recognized as correct by several key bodies such as the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style.

. . . .

Historically, the OWL has had resources on gender inclusive language that mainly focus on incorporating women into general language—for instance, using “he or she” or just “she as the pronoun for a general subject, rather than always defaulting to “he. Now, the conversation on gender inclusive language has expanded further to include people whose genders are neither male nor female (e.g., gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, genderfluid, genderqueer, or nonbinary individuals, though this list is not exhaustive). In basic terms, this means that he and she are not sufficient to describe the genders of all people, because not all people are either male or female. As such, the phrase “he or she” does not cover the full range of persons.

The alternative pronoun most commonly used is they, often referred to as singular they. Here’s an example:

Someone left his or her backpack behind. → Someone left their backpack behind.

Since we don’t know the gender of the person who left their backpack behind, we use they to include all genders as possibilities for that mystery person. In addition to being respectful of people of all genders, this makes the sentence shorter and easier to say. In fact, almost all of us use this language on a regular basis without even thinking about it.

Link to the rest at OWL – Purdue Online Writing Lab

As a reminder, PG doesn’t always agree with everything he posts on TPV. He has, however, been a regular user of the singular they and their for a long time, dating back to a simpler age when there were just two genders.

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