One Writer’s Beginnings: The Bitter Gift of Trauma

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s. My father was an extremely sensitive, artistic, and intelligent man who, from, the get-go in his marriage with my mother, became an abuser. His violence was mostly directed at my mother, occasionally at my brother. All of us were terrorized by my father’s displays of frustration and rage, which involved a crescendo of yelling and crashing about that led to a violent act, followed by our withdrawal to safety and, eventually, his remorse.

My father always seemed to love and admire me as much as he attacked and belittled my mother. It made for a really toxic triangulation situation between my mother, my father, and me: the more he showed me behavior she saw as belonging, by rights, to her, the less she could co-opt and feel good about the milestones of my childhood.

Summer theater, and theater arts classes throughout high school, provided an escape from the sturm und drang of my family life—and gave me, every season, a new pretend-family with whom I could interact and work at being loved.

It was only after the publication of my second novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins—the story of a girl growing up in a foundling home in 18th century Venice—that I came to recognize my own orphan scenario: the well-spring of mother-love that was taken away from me; the resulting self-doubt and psychic pain. Once I’d done the bulk of my research for the novel and began writing, it felt as if the inner world of my orphan protagonist, Anna Maria dal Violin, was fully accessible to me—because I could remember precisely what it feels like to be without the protection of a mother or father, afraid, uncertain and abandoned; dependent on one’s own determination, ambition, and grit.

Writing literary fiction requires a highly tuned degree of empathy of the sort that’s typical of the best therapists, an ability and willingness to look inside people’s words and behavior, and explore the buried trash and treasures of their past: all that makes them who they are; all that makes them conceal who they are, from themselves and others; shining a light to try to find all the gleaming little keys that might fit the locks of their most hidden places.

For any novel—or any poem, for that matter—to really speak to readers, there has to be emotional juice there for the writer.

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

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Change

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of Change

Notes
Most people are averse to change at some level, and a certain amount of unease when it comes to change is normal. It only becomes a problem when a person is so determined to keeping things the same—possibly because they don’t want to give up control or are afraid of the unknown—that their quality of life is impacted, relationships are damaged, and they’re unable to grow and evolve in a healthy manner.

What It Looks Like

  • Dismissing new ideas without considering them
  • Humoring people; giving the appearance of considering something new but always rejecting the opportunity
  • Avoiding making decisions that require change (so the status quo can be protected)
  • Reacting emotionally rather than logically
  • Using outdated sources or ineffective arguments to make a point
  • Becoming emotionally activated when new ideas are being considered
  • Clinging tightly to “old school” methods: resisting technology, ignoring scientific advances, rejecting tools that deviate from what they’re used to, etc.
  • Sentimentality
  • Loyalty (to people, a job, a community, etc.)
  • Inflexibility
  • Repairing and fixing material objects rather than replacing them
  • Living in the same house even when it’s falling apart or the property value has skyrocketed
  • Sticking close to home; not traveling far or taking long trips
  • Frequent strife with family members who want to make changes the character is resistant to
  • Resenting others for moving on and leaving the character behind
  • Going to extremes to avoid change (manipulating others, lying, being mean or lashing out at someone who is suggesting a change, etc.)
  • Being more interested in the past than the future

Common Internal Struggles

  • Disliking being left alone/behind but being unable to embrace the changes required to keep up with others
  • Feeling obsolete
  • Feeling selfish for being so unbending but not knowing how to be more flexible
  • Wanting to go back in time to when things were happier or simpler
  • Struggling with anxiety or depression
  • Feeling stuck in a situation but being unwilling to make changes

Flaws That May Emerge
Confrontational, Controlling, Cynical, Defensive, Evasive, Hostile, Ignorant, Inflexible, Irrational, Judgmental, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Possessive, Resentful, Stubborn, Uncooperative

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life

  • Staying in a situation that makes the character unhappy or is unhealthy because it’s preferable to facing the unknown
  • Difficulty making even small changes to a daily routine
  • Missing out on meaningful activities with others (a trip with friends, a family reunion, dinner at a friend’s house, etc.)
  • Becoming isolated from others
  • Difficulty utilizing modern advances that most people enjoy because the learning curve is too great
  • Always having to make excuses for turning down an opportunity
  • Avoiding people who are likely to suggest activities or changes that threaten the character
  • Always needing to do things their own way; resisting new methods or ideas that would make their life easier

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear

  • New technology or processes at work that must be learned and used
  • A scenario requiring the character to move (the house being condemned, no longer being able to pay rent, etc.)
  • A spouse having to move into a retirement home, leaving the character on their own
  • Grown children moving across the country and asking the character to come with them
  • The culture shifting to embrace ideas the character disagrees with
  • Being given a new phone, a computer, or some other tool the character isn’t comfortable with but must learn to integrate into their life
  • The character’s children wanting to deviate from a long-held tradition

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Vital Difference Between Plot and Story—and Why You Need Both

From Jane Friedman:

Writers buy plotting books by the dozen and do their best to create the plottiest plot that the world has ever seen. They stuff their novels with action-packed sword fights, explosions, fist fights, and screaming matches. Plot points, pinch points, and grandiose climaxes abound.

But the problem is this: in the world of great novels, Plot and Story are very different entities, and every great novel needs both.

Plot refers to all the external events that happen in a novel. The plot encompasses things like sword fights and explosions. It also encompasses the logical flow of the narrative as a series of cause-and-effect events. (Plot even encompasses your Inciting Incident—you know, that oh-so-important event that catapults your reluctant protagonist into the action in the first place!) Think of Plot as the external and highly visual part of your novel.

Story, on the other hand, refers to the internal transformation that your protagonist must make throughout the course of the novel in order (usually) to become a less flawed version of themselves by the end. Story tracks the character arc of the protagonist, showing us exactly how they get from point A (maybe selfish or cowardly) to point Z (maybe unselfish or brave). Story is largely internal, and it follows the emotions and thoughts of the protagonist as they try to make sense of (and adjust to) their ever-changing world. It is here in the Story where we see the protagonist slowly transformed by the events of the Plot.

Think of Plot as what’s happening to your protagonist and Story as what’s happening within your protagonist. And certain events force them to wrestle with their internal demons, fears, misconceptions, and prejudices until (finally) they come out the other side of your Plot as a changed person. (Or, possibly in a tragedy, not changed.) When that happens, the Story is done!

Novels that have an interesting Plot but not a deep Story are dramatic sequences of somewhat related external events that would rival any Hollywood action flick. But…those action-packed events don’t seem to have a throughline, and there is no emotional continuity for the reader to grasp hold of. Plot without Story is unrewarding for readers. In fact, neurologist Paul Zak found that both plot and story must be present for test subjects to pay attention to a narrative and feel empathy for the characters involved.

Here are seven ways to infuse your Plot with Story.

1. Design a clear character arc for your protagonist. Your protagonist is an imperfect person, because they would be totally boring if they already had everything figured out from the beginning. Decide which aspect of their imperfection your story will focus on. This will be their basic character arc. Here are some common (simple) arcs, but there are many more that vary in complexity.

  • Selfish to selfless
  • Cowardly to brave
  • Mistrusting to trusting
  • Deceitful to truthful
  • Lacking self-confidence to having self-confidence
  • Afraid to unafraid

2. Create a compelling backstory that makes your protagonist’s character arc make sense. If your protagonist is selfish, have a specific and concrete backstory that supports this flaw. The backstory you create will be sprinkled throughout the narrative like seasoning, helping the reader understand your protagonist and begin to empathize with them.

3. Make that character arc clear from the beginning of the novel. The opening scenes and chapters are the perfect place for your protagonist to show off their imperfection. If their character arc is cowardly to brave, the reader should see them acting cowardly (and what effect that has on their life and happiness) early in the novel.

4. Test each plot point (narrative event) to see if it relates back to the Story. The events in your novel aren’t just there to be flashy and dramatic. They should pressure your protagonist to change in a very specific way. In essence, plot points exist to make your protagonist walk the trajectory of the character arc you have designed. So, if your protagonist’s character arc is cowardly to brave, then each plot point should relate back to that idea.

Sometimes these events will cause them to be less cowardly and sometimes more cowardly. Their character arc is a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back sort of thing. But, overall, there should be forward momentum and the reader should feel it.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Writers: Pantser, Plotter … Roadster?

From Writers in the Storm

I have known a lot of professional, much-published writers over the years and the pantser/plotter descriptions fit everybody to some degree. The pantser, of course, writes with minimal advance plotting by the seat of the proverbial pants and the plotter prefers to have a detailed outline while writing. I started out as a pantser and became more of a plotter.

I don’t recommend any particular approach—whatever works for someone makes sense to me, including combinations of the two approaches. I’m merely looking back at my own evolution along this line. If others shared this experience, we’re not alone. I hope I’m not completely alone, as that is a weird thought.

Starting Without a Map

When I was first writing with the goal of becoming professionally published (I had written stories from the time I was very young), I chose to begin with short stories. I liked reading them and had found a number of them meaningful to me over the years. So that’s how I started, with the intention of writing novels later.

I worked out story ideas many different ways. Sometimes I had a premise and then worked up the protagonist. Other times I had a character in mind first and sometimes, less often, a setting came to me first. I was totally writing by the seat of my pants, as the metaphor goes. One result was that I wrote a lot of fragments, attempts for which I got stuck and never figured out how to go forward. I did write some complete short stories this way. One was accepted by a regional magazine, which folded soon after my story appeared—and before they paid me the fifty dollars that had been promised. The ones I sent to major magazines and anthologies were all rejected.

At this time, I was writing fantasy and science fiction stories, which I continued to write, and also short crime fiction. Back then, I got nowhere with the latter.

Less than a year after I set out in this endeavor, I was able to take part in the Clarion Writers Workshop. At Michigan State University then, it focused on writing science fiction and fantasy. I had a great experience. Immediately afterward, I was unable to put into words what I had learned—I tried, talking to other writers as well as nonwriters. Over time, I processed a great deal of the experience to my benefit. This did not, however, influence the process I was using.

One Note, Two Notes, Three Notes… and More

While I was pantsing on a story, however, sometimes I thought of something to add farther into the story. That something might be a character, a plot device, maybe some dialogue. To avoid forgetting it, I wrote a note to myself.

That was the first step toward becoming a plotter. Yes, it took a long time, and my first two professional sales (the sale to the regional magazine was not considered professional by the Science Fiction Writers of America) were written mostly by pantsing, though I came up with the ending for the second one pretty early while I was working on it.

So, as I kept writing, I also wrote down notes for later—more and more, over time. I needed to note when in the story I planned something and began putting the notes in the order I would use them. Okay, you can see where this is going. Still while pantsing, I would sometimes take enough notes that they represented events all the way to the end. That constituted an outline—not detailed at first, but an outline.

During this time, I also came to the concept that a story is about its ending. In casual conversation, we might say a story is about a plot premise or a protagonist as “someone who does something or other.” How the protagonist resolves the conflict of the story, or fails to do so, is what the story is really about.  

Over time, without any particular decision-making, I found myself writing up notes until they began to take shape as an outline every time I worked on a story. In particular, I was still writing down anything I didn’t want to forget.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

The real problem with dangling participles

From The Economist

Reading this sentence, it may occur to you that something is slightly awry with it. Or you may not notice anything wrong at all. The first three words are a “dangling modifier”. This writing fault has been deprecated for over a century. It has made its way into countless usage guides, perhaps because of its catchy and evocative name, as something to be avoided at all costs.

The most common kind of dangling modifier is a dangling participle, as at the beginning of this column. Participles are those verb forms that end in -ing in the present tense, and usually in -ed in the past tense: playing, played. (Some past participles, like born and spoken, are irregular.) Participles are so named because they “participate” in two parts of speech. They are verbs in sentences like She has spoken French for three decades, but act like adjectives in those like French is the most spoken language in Belgium.

Participles can be used to add some contextual or explanatory information to a sentence: Speaking Spanish, he ordered three beers. Spoken in Paraguay, Guaraní is the source of the word “jaguar”. Since participles are a bit like a verb, readers seek an appropriate subject to go with them, typically in the first noun they find. The problem comes when these don’t match up. Writing gurus have often conjured up clumsy examples to highlight the issue: Trembling with fear, the clock struck twelveAfter fighting the flames for hours, the ship was finally abandoned. The clock was not trembling, nor did the ship fight the flames.

By no means do such abominations have to be invented. Take “Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow!” The quotation, from E.L. James’s “50 Shades of Grey”, has a classic dangling participle, the kind of thing that makes critics mock the style of her erotic novels. (A bit of envy may be mixed in with the condescension: “50 Shades” was the bestselling novel of the 2010s.)

Consider, though, that James Donaldson, who provides this example in his recent doctoral dissertation, also cites 21 dangling modifiers from a rather more critically admired source: Virginia Woolf. “Lunching with Lady Bruton, it came back to her.” “Rubbing the glass of the long looking-glass and leering sideways at her swinging figure a sound issued from her lips.” “Looking up into the sky there was nothing but blackness there too.”

The idea that an introductory phrase must always apply to the subject of the clause that follows is a useful rule, but not a cardinal one. Speakers often introduce a remark with some throat-clearing about their own feelings on the statement to come, as in “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It is but a short step to saying things like Frankly, he is lying to you—which under a strict rejection of “dangling modifiers” would be incoherent, as the speaker, not the liar, is being frank.

Yet these kinds of things crop up all the time, as when Richard Nixon said “Speaking as an old friend, there has been a disturbing tendency in statements emanating from Peking to question the good faith of President Reagan.” The dangling participle—“Speaking as an old friend”—has nothing to attach itself to. But Speaking as… is also a common introduction, the type that includes ConsideringAssumingLeaving aside and so forth. Only occasionally are these accompanied by an explicit I or we, which are nevertheless so strongly implied that they hardly need spelling out—a reason so many dangling modifiers go unnoticed. Moreover English sentences often have a dummy subject, such as “it” (Considering inflation, it seems plausible…) or “there are” (Given our situation, there are three options…). That makes dangling modifiers all the more likely to slip past editors.

It is best for writers to avoid, and those editors to fix, any danglers that give rise to absurdity, or even just a momentary jolt of confusion. Even if they bother only a few readers, those readers are disproportionately likely to think that the writer does not know how the parts of a sentence are meant to be combined. They are also disproportionately likely to write letters to the editor.

Link to the rest at The Economist

From ThoughtCo:

Dangling participles are modifiers in search of a word to modify. Dangling participles can be unintentionally funny because they make for awkward sentences.

The participle in subordinate clauses should always describe an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence.

An example of a dangling participle would be: “Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed.” This makes it seem like the unfortunate deer was driving. Correct the sentence by including the missing proper noun. “Driving like a maniac, Joe hit a deer.” The corrected sentence makes it clear that Joe was driving.

. . . .

Avoid dangling participles because they can make your sentences awkward and give them unintended meanings. The Writing Center at the University of Madison gives several humorous examples:

  1. Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.
  2. Waiting for the Moonpie, the candy machine began to hum loudly.
  3. Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
  4. She handed out brownies to the children stored in plastic containers.
  5. I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.

Link to the rest at ThoughtCo

Endings

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

For more than a decade, writers have asked me what they can do to sell their existing books. I always tell them to write the next book. Some writers don’t have time for promotion. Others don’t have the constitution for it.

. . . .

The one thing that will sell your next book is the ending of the current book.

If your book ends well, leaving the reader satisfied, then they’ll want to repeat the experience with your next book. If your ending falls flat, then some readers won’t care about your next book. If your ending is truly awful, the readers will avoid your next book completely.

What made me think of this was a movie that Dean and I watched on Amazon Prime. The movie is called Parallel. We knew nothing about it before we watched it, except for the bit of advertising copy. The movie’s about multiverses, which we both love, and it looked promising.

When we watch something together, we have a rule: either one can veto the movie at any point in the movie. We figured this one would be an early veto. Instead, it was a good way to spend an hour-plus. The script was tight, the characters—though unlikeable—were well drawn. There were some quibbles (no way could those bodies have been disposed of easily), but they were minor.

The movie hummed along. It even had the perfect ending. I was enjoying it…and then some idiot tacked on a scene with a minute and a half left.

That scene ruined the movie. I have since looked at reviews, and everyone calls the ending a jumbled mess. Yeah. It is. But had the movie ended a minute and a half earlier, it would have been just fine.

Here’s what the ending did wrong:

  1. It introduced new information that contradicted the information in the movie.
  2. It threw in a plot twist that literally made no sense.
  3. It was pointless and emotionally flat.
  4. It did not match the tone of the rest of the movie.
  5. It raised questions that could not be answered.

What that last scene was going for was a gotcha! sequence that you often see in horror films. You think everything is fine, and then—nope—there are little plants growing in suburbia (as in Little Shop of Horrors) or a hand rises out of the grave (as in Carrie).

But Parallel, for all its terrifying moments, isn’t a horror film. It’s a science fiction film. It even tells you that midway through by quoting Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.

The gotcha! ending doesn’t work in a science fiction film. The movie needs to be about the ideas and the characters, which it was, until 90 seconds before the end.

. . . .

Endings are really important. They have to be done right or the reader/viewer is going to be turned off completely.

What does “right” mean?

It means offering an emotionally satisfying ending, one that says “The story is over, and here’s the emotion you’re left with.” Sure, we all know that the couple in a romance will marry, have kids, fight before bedtime, and occasionally storm through the house. But they’ll still be together at the very end. They’ll probably die on the same day around their 100th birthday, hands clasped and declaring their love for each other in whispery voices ravaged by time.

The mystery ending will put order on chaos. Not every mystery ends with the killer behind bars, but at least we know who done it. And we know what the repercussions are.

. . . .

The real key to all fiction is an emotionally satisfying ending, one that ends, and does not leave things hanging. You certainly can’t introduce new ideas in your last chapter that changes or contradicts what has come before.

If you are going to change or contradict what has come before, you must set the seeds for that earlier. Little teeny hints of things not being as they seem.

And if you kill your protagonist, well, we need to know that on page 1, paragraph one, or even in the title.

“On the day that Devon died, he discovered the secret of the universe….”

Usually readers forget that you told them Devon would die, but when they get to it, they go “oh, yeah” and are okay with it. If you have Devon discover the secret of the universe and then hit by a bus without any warning at all, no one will read your next book. It’s that simple.

So the conundrum comes when you’re writing a series or linked stories. Most writers opt for the stupidest and least effective way of handling it.

They just end the action, with nothing resolved.

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.

Dos And Don’ts For Writing Viewpoint Voice

From My Story Doctor:

Many readers and editors state that a strong voice immediately draws them into a story, and one of the most important voices will come from your viewpoint character. But even when you’ve developed their personality and voice, it can still be tricky to actually get them on the page. Here are nine dos and don’ts to help out.

Hi all, September C. Fawkes here, back to talk more about voice. Last month, I broke down how voice works at three levels: the author, the narrator, and the characters each have their own voices. Voice is essentially that person’s personality, as it shows up on the page. In my opinion, when broken down, voice is made up of two things:

What the Person Thinks or Talks About + How They Say It = Voice

And this equation works at any level.

Most of the time these days, the narrator will actually be the same as the viewpoint character. Whether they are written in first person or third person, the majority of stories are written from a character’s perspective.

Yet even when we know the voice equation, it can sometimes still be tricky to actually figure out how to get that voice on the page. So today I wanted to share some things that do work well, and some things that don’t.

Avoid These 4 Things When Crafting Viewpoint (or Narrative) Voice

1. “Always” Sentence Structures 

(Ex. always talks in long sentences or short sentences)

When looking at developing voice, it might seem like a good idea to play with sentence structure–heck, it is a good idea, to an extent. But if you are too rigid with it, there are problems. The most obvious is that trying to read a story where every sentence is about the same length is usually a terrible experience. Beyond that, sentence structure is also used to control pacing, tone, and emotional experience. If you get too locked into a specific type of sentence structure, you doom other parts of storytelling. Besides, most people don’t adhere to a specific structure, constantly, in real life either.

2. Dominating Emotions that Undercut the Story

If you are writing in a voice where the viewpoint character almost always sounds calm or relaxed–guess what? Chances are it’s going to minimize the tension you have in your story. Because if they are calm, the reader is probably calm. If they aren’t worried, the reader probably isn’t worried. The only way you can get away with this consistently, is if you are writing a story with very high stakes at every turn, so that the calmness is a counterpoint that adds humor or irony.

Likewise, a character who is consistently sad about whatever, might start to sound melodramatic–and when you get to the really sad part later in the story, it won’t be as powerful, because we’ve already spent so much time feeling sad. In short, frankly, some dominating emotions work better as a viewpoint character’s voice than others. Avoid those that are going to undercut the power of your story.

3. Stock Voices

Once in a while you run into a character voice that sounds like a hundred other character voices of that genre. For example, YA is known for protagonists having snarky voices. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but if you do have a viewpoint character whose voice sounds similar to many others, find a way to individualize it. Lots of people are snarky. But they are snarky in their own ways. How is your character snarky?

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

The Complicated Ethics of Writing Violence in Fiction

From Time magazine:

There are some hard ethical questions in the writing of crime fiction.

For me, the most difficult one is how to portray violence.

For one thing, should you depict it all?

And if so, how do you do it with some sense of morality?

I wrestle with this issue all the time. It’s a fine line to walk. On the one hand I don’t want to sanitize violence—I don’t like presenting murder as a parlor game, or worse, a video game in which there are no real consequences. On the other hand, I don’t want to cross that thin line into what might be called the pornography of violence, a means to merely titillate the worst angels of our nature.

But we have to deal with it.

After all, we write crime fiction, and crime often involves violence. So either we choose crimes that don’t—the slick, bloodless heist, the clever con game—or we write scenes that involve shootings, stabbings and various kinds of murder.

And maybe that’s the answer—maybe we have come to a time when we should stop writing violent crime altogether. But if we make that choice, we say goodbye to the murder mystery, the procedural, the forensic novel.

And maybe I’m wrong about not sanitizing the violence. There is, after all, a place for the cleverly plotted, suspenseful whodunit with its witty dialogue, exotic locales, and intriguing characters. (Who am I to judge?) It’s fine, as long as we know it’s a game and we play by its rules and know its conventions. So if Colonel Someone kills Lord Someone Else in the study with a monkey wrench, we don’t expect to see the blood and brains and we don’t feel much from the grieving family except anticipation of the will.

Fair enough, I suppose.

But I write realistic crime fiction.

For twenty-three years, I wrote close-to-the-bone novels about the Mexican drug cartels. The actual violence was horrific, and I was faced with a stark choice: Do I back away from the violence, soften it, mute it, make it less terrible than it was, or do I bring it to the reader in realistic, graphic language that showed it the way it was?

For the most part, I chose the latter option.

It was hard choice.

Link to the rest at Time magazine

When PG found the OP, he realized that, after a significant number of years as a subscriber to Time and reading almost every issue cover-to-cover, he had allowed his subscription to lapse.

And he hadn’t thought about Time for a long, long time.

Things change.

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Agoraphobia

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

. . . .

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that causes people to be afraid of the places or situations that could bring on a panic attack. Their fear of being unable to get help or escape during one of these attacks can make it difficult for them to navigate open spaces, elevators, crowds, concerts, church services, movie theaters, or any place where a panic attack might come on. In extreme cases, a character suffering from agoraphobia may reach the point where they’re uncomfortable leaving their home at all.

What It Looks Like
Frequent panic attacks or elevated anxiety in certain places
Consistently avoiding certain locations or situations
Making choices that enable the character to stay at home (working from home, having groceries delivered, etc.)
The character often declining social invitations to certain places (amusements parks, church services, weddings, etc.)
Only venturing outside with a companion
Clinging to the friends or family members who are supportive
Becoming isolated

Common Internal Struggles
Wanting to not be limited by a fear but it being too strong to ignore
Knowing the fear is irrational but being being compelled to give in to it
Feeling guilty for making excuses about not being able to attend certain events
The character feeling like they can’t trust their own mind or emotions
Feeling defective or broken
Becoming depressed
Slipping into despair—believing that things will never change or get better
Wanting to seek help but feeling too overwhelmed or incapable
Feeling misunderstood and alone, as if the character is alone in their suffering
Worrying about what others think

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Avoiding Claustrophobia on the Page: Letting Some air into a First-Person Narrative

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

I’d like to say that I deliberately chose first-person narration for my new novel In the Lonely Backwater, that this was a craft decision made with writerly forethought. After all, the book is both a psychological exploration and a mystery, in which clues are unfolded and the reader moves toward knowledge step by step alongside the narrator. It’s a natural for the first-person POV.

The truth is that Maggie’s voice was so clear and distinctive from the moment she opened her mouth that I couldn’t imagine the story being told by any other person, or in any other way: “There wasn’t anything wrong between Charisse Swicegood and me except that she was her and I was me, and with the family history and all it was just natural.” That was the opening of the book from the get-go.

As the police investigation into Charisse’s disappearance and death unfolds, Maggie will prove to be an incredibly candid narrator of her own experiences and opinions, but also an unreliable one. I’m bothered by that familiar term “unreliable narrator,” because it posits the existence of a reliable one, and when are humans absolutely factual and dispassionate in the telling of their own stories, or anyone else’s? Can even computers be trusted (see: HAL 9000)? We see what we see, remember what we remember, and shade the truth for profit or kindness or survival all the time. 

So the writer chooses to have one person tell the story. The reader is caught in that awareness for the length of a novel, looking out through those eyes. It might get a touch claustrophobic.

“The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. … On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters.” Now Novel

The intimacy with the character (and often therefore with the writer) makes this the most powerful of forms, to my mind: the concentration, the “single effect,” of one voice. Of course a writer can always choose to use third-person or second-person or omniscience or multiple narrators, but whatever the decision, point of view is fundamental to the tone and structure of the work that will emerge. 

Claustrophobia may be exactly what is needed, a narrow window on the world. 

Some of the great books have depended on this: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Gulliver’s Travels…the list goes on. And Edgar Allen Poe (whose quote introduces the novel) was a master at letting the reader fully inhabit another consciousness. Within the first-person form, writers may employ techniques such as stream of consciousness, interior monologue, letters (epistolary novels), frame stories, or even set up the whole thing as a recounted tale or a recovered document. 

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

Focus Again

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

The other challenge I gave myself in 2021 was to work on the Fey. I had blamed traditional publishing for the fact that the next series didn’t exist and while that was true, it’s not the whole story.

I have a lot of baggage on that series. A lot. All the bad things that can happen in traditional publishing happened to me on those books.

. . . .

An editor rewrote me horribly, and did some of the work without my permission to make chapters shorter. So the rereads were traumatizing. I did them by hand, so I had to put in the corrections and restore what I could (because some of the original files were lost). I stalled out.

But I kept writing on the Fey project. Since I write out of order, it took me most of the year to realize I was writing outlines for the next several books. I’d write maybe 100 pages of the book and then outline. I’m good at writing something that seems like fiction, but really isn’t.

That’s what I was doing.

I finally sorted out that mess, but the story just wasn’t flowing. I blamed the pandemic. Then I found the novella at the heart of everything, figuring that would solve the problem. Nope.

. . . .

Until one morning, I woke up and realized I needed to schedule my writing year. I hadn’t over-scheduled my writing year in maybe ten years. First, I was so sick that I didn’t dare. (I underscheduled then.) Then, I stopped trying to schedule at all. (Nearly died, so was focused on just finishing words.) Then we moved (always disruptive). I got better…and the damn pandemic hit and ate my brain.

So figuring out the schedule made Dean happy. (“You’re back!” he said. Yeah, maybe he’s right.)

But it also made my subconscious happy.

What does figuring out the schedule mean? It means I had to figure out what I was writing when. Then I had to figure out a realistic word count for the week/day. Then I had to do math to figure out when I would finish Project #1 and so on and so forth.

I know myself well enough to know that I can’t write the same subgenre for each and every project. So I had to switch off.

I outlined it all…and I not only mentally relaxed, the stories started flowing. I was able to get lost in them. I would wake up and there, in my brain, was the solution to some problem I hadn’t even realized I had in the book(s).

I’m excited about writing again.

I think this is because I believe I have a future. Or we have a future. Or as much of a future as the human race always has, subject to the whims of crazy leaders and stupid viruses and personal emergencies (note the word personal, not a worldwide emergency like we’ve been living in).

It’s not normal. As some grumpy pundit said about the whole returning to normal movement: there was no normal before the pandemic. There was just what we were used to.

My brain has transitioned into a world filled with Covid and other problems. I feel less of a need to be hypervigilant about the world around me, and I’m able to escape into a world I invent.

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.

What If You Gave Up?

From Writer Unboxed:

NOT writing as a whole. Neither of us would be here if we wanted to give up writing. But what if you gave up an idea that is holding you back? Might it free you, your writing, your creativity?

I have to finish this manuscript before I can write the next story.

What if you didn’t? What if you moved on to another story? Just tested it out. You can still come back to the old manuscript. But what if the self-imposed idea that you have to finish something before you start the next thing is preventing you from working both on the old story and on the new story? Maybe you don’t like the old thing anymore, or the story isn’t quite working and you can’t figure out how to fix it, or it reminds you of a bad time in your life, or any other reason. If you gave yourself permission to put it aside would that be so wrong?

Would that make you a quitter? Or would that make you an adult who has looked at the options and decided to go another way? Laying aside a writing project that isn’t working / that you aren’t working on might be energizing. It might even help you make your way back to that project and finish it.

This is what I’m telling myself about the trilogy I’ve been working on for several years. I indie published the first book, fully drafted the second, and mostly drafted the third. And I’m just not working on them. But I won’t let myself move on, either, because I have to finish them. It was on a walk a few days ago that I asked that scary question: What if I gave up the idea that I had to complete the trilogy before I wrote anything else?

I’m close to giving myself permission to put them aside, at least for now, so I can start the next story idea. It might take until the end of this post, but I’m working on giving up this idea.

I have to find The Best System for Writing.

It can ease the anxiety of writing to put all your trust in an expert who has a system they say always works. But when that system doesn’t work for you, or it stops working for you, or some new expert comes with a Shiny New System that throws your system into question, or the novel you wrote using The Best System is rejected, that increases your anxiety. And you think it’s your fault–either for not following The Best System well enough or because it must not be The Best System and now you have to find the real Best System.

Writing is an anxiety-producing endeavor. No system and no writing advice will help you avoid it completely. And no system or writing advice can guarantee commercial success. Not even our own beloved Don Maass’. When I was in the Writer Unboxed Breakout Novel Dissection Group, every book we read violated at least one of his characteristics of a breakout novel.

Giving up the idea that there is a Best System can set you free to pick up and run with the writing advice that gives you energy and makes your imagination churn with ideas, and set aside writing advice that stymies you. Many multi-published writers who sell well experience self-doubt and anxiety at some point in the process of every novel. Remind yourself of this when you’re tempted to put all your trust in The Best System.

My only option is to be traditionally published.

This one was mine for many years. I was seeking the approval of a publisher and trying to avoid the insecurity and steep learning curve of indie publishing. Repeated rejection wasn’t fun, but I expected it, and didn’t let it stop me from keeping on trying.

But then a friend told me a story about raccoons: they love shiny things so much that they’ll stick their paw in a jar to get a shiny thing out, not be able to get their closed fist out of the jar, but they won’t free themselves because it would mean letting go. They’ll wind up in near starvation and all they need to do is drop the shiny thing.

Traditional publishing was my shiny thing. Letting it go meant a lot of work, and learning, and decision making. But I’m glad I chose myself. I might still try to get traditionally published in the future, but for now, I’ve written four projects that are out in the world, and I’m proud of that.

What if you gave up that idea that it’s traditional publishing or bust?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

One Plotting Tool for All

From Writers in the Storm

Whether you’ve just finished a project or you’ve just started writing, facing the blank screen (page) is daunting. It can make even the best ideas shrivel in your head and freeze your fingers. Some believe that story structure is essential for success and advise all writers must plan their story in advance. Others believe spontaneity is crucial to creativity and advise that everyone should pants their story. What is a writer, especially a new writer, to do? Consider that both are correct. Story structure is important and spontaneity can be a boon to creativity. Neither are the only right answer. There are tools that can help all writers regardless of their preferred story development method. One plotting tool for all is the story sentence.

Where Do You Start?

You stare at the screen and think that the great idea you had is really a cliché, or it’s too slight to be the epic novel you envisioned, or that the idea is only a two-step plot. Hold on. It’s not that bad. All you need is one sentence. But before we begin that, we need a common understanding of what plot means.

What is Plot?

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. Swain, Donald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell: 

Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner. 

It’s a mouthful, but all of those things are part of the word plot represents. What changes, how things change, how intense or tension-filled your story is comes from the situation, genre, and tropes you select to build your plot. Overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of pieces to plot and it can be overwhelming. So let’s pare it down to a bite-sized chunk—the story sentence.

What is The Story Sentence?

It is not a tagline. A tagline is a tease. That’s not what we want right now.

The sentence is closer to a log line. But it’s not that either. It isn’t for marketing. It isn’t for your readers to understand. 

It’s a plotting tool, a sentence meant to help you focus your story. Maybe you’re like I was. You’ve heard writers are supposed to boil their story down to one sentence but you can’t figure out how to do it.

I did not get it until I took Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise A Novel” course. Simply put, she advised that the sentence included a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, and a hook. She recommended the sentence should be no more than thirty words in length. With her more detailed class instructions, I finally understood. Since then, I’ve studied how others use the story sentence and eventually made it my own. 

The Parts of the Sentence

I break down the sentence into parts–

An [adjective] [focal character] needs [to do something] for [an important personal reason] but [an adjective] [obstacle] needs [something] which [verb of conflict or stakes].

This is both easier and harder than it looks. Those of you who are grammar nerds may find my next statement objectionable. Don’t worry about grammar when you construct the story sentence. This isn’t about making a well-constructed sentence. It’s about getting the essence of your story down.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Want Strong Dialogue? Don’t Forget The Subtext

From My Story Doctor:

Realistic, evocative dialogue is an important part of any successful story. We need our characters’ interactions to be authentic, consistent, and engaging to draw readers into what’s happening. So when we’re learning to write, we spend a lot of time on mechanics—learning all the grammar and punctuation rules. But proper form is just the first step.

When writing strong dialogue, we often forget that real-life conversations are rarely straightforward. On the surface, it may seem we’re engaging in simple back-and-forth, but if you look deeper, to some degree our conversations are carefully constructed. We hide our emotions, withhold information, dance around what we really mean, avoid certain topics, downplay shortcomings, or emphasize strengths—all of which lead to exchanges that aren’t totally honest.

Completely candid dialogue scenes fall flat because that’s not the way people converse. Subtext plays a huge role in conversation. It’s often tied to how characters are feeling, which can trigger readers’ emotions and increase their engagement. So we need to include this crucial element in our dialogue scenes.

Simply, subtext is the underlying meaning. Hidden elements the character isn’t comfortable sharing—their true opinions, what they really want, what they’re afraid of, and emotions that make them feel vulnerable—constitute the subtext. They’re important because the character wants them hidden. This results in contradictory words and actions.

A Subtext Example

Consider this exchange between a teenage daughter and her dad.

“So how’d the party go?”

Dionne plastered on a smile and buried herself in Instagram. “Great.”

“See, I knew you’d have a good time. Who was there?”

Her mouth went dry, but she didn’t dare swallow. Despite the hour, Dad’s eyes were bright, like spotlights carving through her mocha-infused fog.

“The usual. Sarah, Allegra, Jordan.” She shrugged. Nothing to see here. Move along.

“What about Trey? I ran into his mom at the office yesterday and she said he was going.”

“Um, yeah. I think he was there.” She scrolled faster, images blurring.

“He sounds like a good kid. Maybe we could have him and his mom over for dinner.”

Her stomach lurched. “Oh, I don’t know.” Her fingers trembled, so she abandoned the phone and sat on her hands to keep them still. “We don’t really hang with the same crowd.”

“Well, think about it. Couldn’t hurt to branch out and get to know some new people.”

Dionne blew out a shaky breath. How could her dad be so smart at work and so stupid about people?

Something happened at the party involving a boy Dionne’s now avoiding, and she clearly doesn’t want her father to know about it. While Dad is kept in the dark, the reader becomes privy to Dionne’s true emotions: nervousness, fear, and possibly guilt.

This is the beauty of subtext in dialogue. It allows the character to carry on whatever subterfuge she deems necessary while revealing her true emotions and motivations to the reader. It’s also a great way to add tension and conflict. Without subtext, this scene is boring, just two people chatting. With it, we see Dionne desperately trying to keep her secrets while it becomes increasingly difficult—even unhealthy—to do so.

So how do we write subtext into our characters’ conversations without confusing the reader? It just requires combining five common vehicles for showing emotion. Let’s look at how these were used in the example.

1. Dialogue

We all go a little Pinocchio when we start talking, and Dionne is no exception. Her words scream status quo: nothing happened at the party and she doesn’t feel anything in particular. But the reader can clearly see this isn’t the case.

2. Body Language

Nonverbal communication often reveals to readers the truth beneath a character’s words. Notice Dionne’s body language: the plastered-on smile, frantic social media scrolling, and trembling hands. Readers hear what she’s saying, but her body language clues them in that something else is going on.

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

Creative Ways to Brainstorm Story Ideas

From Writers in the Storm:

Inspiration is a fickle beast. She strikes at inopportune times (3 AM, anyone?) then disappears for months on end. She doesn’t call, she doesn’t write. Or maybe she treats you differently, pouring on so many ideas that you can’t tell the golden nuggets from the stinky ones.

Finding and prioritizing story options can be a frustrating process, but it’s easier if you approach it from the right angle. Here are a few possible starting points.

Start with Genre

We know that emotions are transferrable, from author to page to reader, so writing something that gets you excited pays off in dividends.

  • What do you like to write?
  • What do you like to read?
  • Which kinds of stories are you passionate about?

Do you like fantasy? Which elements? Think dragons, portals, evil wizards, shapeshifters—then consider how those elements might be reimagined.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series gave us a whole new take on dragons, turning them from marauding villains into loving creatures that impress upon humans at birth and use their fiery powers for good.

Then, twenty years after the first book was published, she released the dragons’ origin story and how humans first came to Pern. While the previous books were straight fantasy, this one was also science fiction, showing the settlers traveling to the new world and using their technology to establish communities and bioengineer full-blown dragons from foot-long fire lizards. Dragonsdawn is an innovative blending of the sci-fi and fantasy genres in a way that was new and entirely fresh.

So think of the genre you want to write, then tweak the standard conventions to create something new. Or blend your preferred genre with another one and see what ideas come to mind.

Start with Character

Everyone’s process is different. It’s one of the things I love about the writing community—the vast diversity of thought and method that can birth uncountable stories. Maybe you’re the kind of writer who’s drawn to characters. They come to you fully-formed, or you have an inkling of who they are before you have any idea what the story’s about. If this is you, start by getting to know that character.

  • If you have a good idea of their personality, dig into their backstory to see what could have happened to make them the way they are.
  • If you already know about their troubled past, use that to figure out which positive attributes, flaws, fears, quirks, and habits they now exhibit.
  • What inner need do they have (and why)?
  • Which story goal might they embrace as a way of filling that void?

Characters drive the story, so they can be a good jumping-off point for finding your next big idea.

. . . .

Start with a Story Seed

But maybe it’s not characters that rev your engine. When I’m exploring a new project, I have no idea about the people involved. Instead, my stories typically start with a What if? question.

  • What if a man abandoned his family to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush—what would happen to them?
  • What if all the children under the age of 16 abruptly disappeared?
  • What if someone’s sneezes transported them to weird new worlds?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Getting Over It

From Writer Unboxed:

Last week my youngest daughter went back to work in her office for the first time since the pandemic began. It was harder than she expected. Her office is an open space with dozens of cubicles, and she found herself distracted by all the faces and voices, by the need to be “on” all day with people, self-conscious about others overhearing her as she conducted meetings from her cubicle. It felt, she said, like being thrown into the proverbial deep end of the pool and being told to swim. And this kid is an extrovert. Maybe the organization could have handled this transition better, she said.

And I said, How much experience do you think your company has with transitioning employees back to in-person work after a global pandemic? They’re learning as they go, too. We’re all figuring it out.

This made me think of one of the newer aspects of what we’ve been through the past few years, which is RECOVERY. As writers, we spend a lot of time thinking through the trials and tribulations our characters have to face. We all know the basic story diagram of background/inciting incident/rising action/climax/falling action/resolution. But who are our heroes after they’ve survived their ordeals? How do they get through their days, interact with the world? If their ordeal has affected other characters and the world they inhabit, how are those others coping? What does this new world look like?

As you write your characters into the latter parts of their story, as they come out the other side of whatever you’ve put them through, think through all the aspects of their recovery (or rebirth or redemption or healing). Flesh out their adaptation to their post-ordeal selves and post-ordeal world. Consider:

What they value. Whether your character has been through a broken love affair, an epic battle, a devastating loss, a challenging journey, or whatever hell you’ve unleashed upon them, it’s a good bet their priorities have changed. Look at us as we emerge into this post-pandemic world, for instance. I know I spend less time sweating (or doing) the small stuff and more time prioritizing people I love and making time to do things I genuinely enjoy. Connection of all kinds means more to me than ever, and I will never take hugging for granted again., What were your character’s priorities before? What are they now? How and why did what they’ve endured change those priorities?

Who they value. Facing down challenges has a way of clarifying your vision, so you see more clearly the people who lift you up, and the people who drag you down. Forged by adversity, it’s easier to turn your time and attention and energy toward those who restore you, and away from those who deplete you. Who are those others in your character’s life? How has their relationship to those closest to them changed?

The dark side. Listen, when you go through an ordeal of some kind, you rarely emerge unscathed. Sometimes hardship heightens our flaws and our fears; sometimes it scars us in ways that leave us forever different and a little (or a lot) damaged. Someone who was prone to melancholy before an ordeal may find themselves more likely to sink into black holes of despair afterwards; someone who was filled with hubris may become more patronizing and condescending. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it may not make you kinder, braver, calmer, or cheerier.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Government

From Writers Helping Writers:

Fears can be a struggle for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental condition, or stem from a past wounding event, some fears can be debilitating, influencing a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters for a variety of reasons, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of the Government


Notes: Fear is powerful, and it’s unfortunately widely used to manipulate emotion. When politicians use it to further their ambitions, it builds distrust. For some, this can turn into a fear of government due to the belief that those in power (or the system itself) are so corrupt, they’re an enemy of the people. This fear can have many layers and be taken to extremes, so this entry covers a range of possibilities for your characters.

What It Looks Like

Voicing pessimism about the direction the country is headed
Becoming obsessed with a particular viewpoint
Refusing to believe anything reported from the government
Focusing on abuses of power (and ignoring instances when it’s used for good)
Paying close attention to rumors and what the government tries to deny
Gravitating toward and feeling safe among people who voice the same fears
Joining protestsBelieving everyone in power is a manipulator
Fearmongering
Assuming malice—for example, assuming a bill passed because it grants someone more power rather than because it will benefit people
Feeling unsafe (believing the government is failing to protect its citizens)
Heightened anxiety when watching the news or scrolling news feeds
A tendency to look for a hidden motivation or agenda
Being distrustful of technology because it can be used to monitor and track people
Becoming increasingly agitated during political campaigning and on election day
Not voting out of the belief that everyone’s corrupt, so what’s the point?
Becoming more susceptible to related fears
Believing the country is under attack from within
Gravitating to a single “source of truth” (a TV station, a website, etc.) that confirms the fear rather than considering contrasting ideas from many sources
Becoming easily provoked (or enraged)
Being pulled toward political outsiders or disruptors (because of a belief that their unconventional ways or outsider status might make them less corrupt)
Purchasing weapons and investing in safeguards because the government can’t be trusted
A tendency to connect events to a bigger picture when there’s no evidence
Becoming evangelical about a view (and feeling others must be educated to the truth)
Moving off-grid, so the government has less control over the character’s life
Being drawn to conspiracy theories
Establishing a group of like-minded people to actively work against the government
Becoming an anarchist
Participating in domestic terrorism

Common Internal Struggles
Fearing for the safety of loved ones and not understanding why they don’t share the same sense of urgency
Believing most people are brainwashed but being unable to say it without ruining relationships
Wanting to do something to take the country back but fearing what the government will do
Judging people who see the world differently (and having to hide it)

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The One Popular Myth Writers Believe About Writer’s Block

From Writers Helping Writers:

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block!”

No doubt you’ve heard this myth before.

Worse, you may have believed it.

And that’s rarely a good thing, as it tends to keep you where you are—in that stuck place you dare not call writer’s block.

Myth: There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block,” says writer Leigh Shulman. “It’s an excuse.  Your way of telling yourself you have a reason for not writing.”

You’ll find a wide variety of writers echoing this same sentiment. Whenever I heard it, I worried. I didn’t want to be one of “those” writers.

“The secret about writer’s block is that it’s an indulgence,” writes Amy Alkon for Psychology Today. “…The way you end so-called ‘writer’s block’ is simply by sitting down to write—’blackening pages,’ as Leonard Cohen called it.”

Lazy! Undisciplined! We hear it again and again. Stop coddling yourself. Sit down and write!

I vowed to do just that. I wouldn’t be weak. I would be a strong, productive writer.

No writer’s block here.

Then along came my third novel, The Beached OnesAnd it humbled me in a hurry.

My Novel Taught Me All About Writer’s Block

Draft after draft, I came up against a wall. No matter how hard I tried or how many hours I put in, I could not figure out how to get past the midpoint of that novel.

Now understand: I was no newbie to the mid-novel struggle. I had gone through it with my other two published novels, but never to this extent.

I bought books. I went to conferences. I talked to award-winning writers. I sketched out the plot. I outlined the chapters. I examined each of the character’s inner and outer motivations.

I did everything you should do when experiencing writer’s block—things that before had led to a breakthrough—and nothing helped.

It was frustrating, to say the least.

I looked writer’s block squarely in the eye and withered. So much for strength and discipline. They weren’t helping me at all.

My Cure for Writer’s Block

I finally had to admit that I was suffering a bad case of writer’s block.

Oh, the shame!

I’ve since learned that other writers—much as they may lecture about there being no such thing as writer’s block—just have a slightly different definition of it.

Says Schulman: “Here’s the thing: Every writer who has ever existed feels stuck at some point. That’s why I say there’s no such thing as writer’s block because it’s part of the writing process.”

Oh. So it is writer’s block. You’re just calling it something else.

And that something else is comforting, isn’t it? Shulman is assuring us that everyone experiences being stuck now and then. Relax. It’s normal.

But I couldn’t relax. The story sat in the back of my mind bugging me day in and day out.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

PG notes that the link to the author’s “latest” book on Amazon shows that it will be published in June of this year.

This is not the only time PG has observed this phenomenon.

He expects that in some publishing circles, this may be regarded as the best way to induce friends, relatives, etc., to pre-order your book so it gets a big bump in Amazon’s ratings because a lot of online purchases of the book happen on a single day.

People have been using this strategy on Amazon for a very long time. PG has his doubts whether the strategy still works to finagle Amazon’s Sales Rank algorithm, but is happy to be proven wrong.

One consequence that does occur when an author writes an article for an online publication and includes a link to the book is that Amazon’s Look Inside feature does not work. It’s not an option and won’t work until at some time after the book is published.

PG believes that Look Inside is one of the most powerful tools for inducing a curious potential purchaser to be converted to a buyer. PG virtually never buys an ebook without checking it out via Look Inside to get a better sense than the book’s description provides about whether he is interested in the book, whether the author knows how to write or not, etc.

This is exactly the same manner by which PG examines a potential purchase at a physical bookstore. (PG thinks this is correct, but it has been quite a long time since he has entered a physical bookstore with the intention of purchasing a book.)

End of rant. PG is happy to be informed in the comments that he is the only person who buys books in this manner, is a complete fool, should listen to his betters in large offices of traditional publishers, etc., etc., etc.

Do What You Love

From David Farland:

When you choose to do what you love, you have the greatest job in the world. If you love writing, it’s worth doing.

Years ago, I had a reporter call and ask, “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?” The only answer I had was, “I’d just keep on being a writer.” Since it was Career Day, the reporter wrote an article in which he posed that question to dozens of people. As one person chose a career, he would call someone with that job and ask what they wanted to be. So a teacher wanted to be a doctor, a doctor wanted to be an astronaut, an astronaut wanted to be a senator, and the senator wanted to be? Me.

I’ve always loved that. As an author, I’ve got the greatest job in the world.

First of all, I can write in my pajamas. I don’t have to get up in the morning and shave.

In fact, I can keep my laptop by the side of the bed and write from bed, if I want.

On my average day, I don’t have to spend an hour getting up to dress properly, nor do I have to worry about my commute.

I rarely have to concern myself with office politics, so my stress levels are low.

I get to schedule my own work hours and my own vacations. Guess what? Because I love what I do, I get up at 4:00 A.M. to start the day, and I will work as long as I like without my boss whining about how I put in too much overtime.

I can work anywhere in the world. In the past, I’ve gone to Cabo San Lucas to focus on a project. My favorite place is to write on the beach, just as the sun is coming up on a perfectly still morning. But I’ve also had good writing days in mountain cabins, in busy airports, and even while relaxing in a coffee shop.

And I make good money as a writer. When my daughter was twelve, she came home from school one day and asked tearfully, “Are you a drug dealer?” I told her no. She knew I was a writer. But she said, “Well, that’s what everyone says.” Apparently, my new neighbors felt that I had no visible means of support, that I spent too much time sun-bathing in the middle of the day (usually by 2:00 P.M. I’m ready for a break), and that I wasn’t smart enough to be a hedge-fund manager.

To be honest, I often feel bad for those poor folks who aren’t writers, folks stuck in dead-end jobs. I was on Facebook earlier and saw that one friend had been “made redundant” at his school in England, another had found himself in the same crappy job for 14 years and had never been able to get ahead, since his managers felt that his health issues kept him from being the kind of person that they could trust to be at work every day.

Several friends that I’ve known for more than thirty years wanted to be writers but took nice safe jobs with major corporations. Over the years, many of them lost those nice jobs time and time again.

So I’m feeling very grateful to be a writer today. Even when the going sometimes gets tough, I just keep doing what I love.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books

Habits of Mind: John Warner on Teaching Writing

From Public Books:

For over 20 years, John Warner has been a college teacher, a writer in multiple genres, a renowned blogger (at Inside Higher Ed’s “Just Visiting”), and an editor at a range of publications, including McSweeney’s. His polemic Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) is a contemporary classic in writing studies, while The Writer’s Practice (Penguin, 2019) emphasizes and unpacks the implications of what writing teachers have long emphasized in their classes: that writing is not a magic act, but a recursive intellectual labor, a practice—not pure inspiration. His most recent book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Higher Public Education (Belt, 2020), mounts a powerful argument for free college as democratic “infrastructure” in a system wracked by student debt and reliant on exploited adjuncts.

In November 2021, as Congress and the Biden administration scrapped ambitious legislation that would have increased funding to public colleges and universities, Warner sat down with writer and professor Ryan Boyd to talk about teaching, writing, academic labor, and the vast complex of institutions and people that we call Higher Education.

Ryan Boyd (RB): Why is there this widespread, seemingly historically durable perception that college students can’t write? Does someone benefit from this narrative?

John Warner (JW): A lot of this is wrapped up in a notion that when students arrive at school, be it college or high school, they are defective. They are somehow falling short of what we wish them to be, and the role of the school is to turn them into whatever is not defective.

When we say college students can’t write, it usually means they are unfamiliar with academic writing. That students are judged lacking is not surprising, because these formal genres are something students haven’t done before. If I asked a highly proficient academic to write something they have never done before, we would probably look at the results and say, wow, that person really can’t write. Lack of familiarity and lack of practice are confused for lack of ability.

RB: In terms of students’ intellectual development, is there a special role for writing classes, or are we just thinking this because you and I are writing teachers?

JW: Writing courses are an opportunity to ask students to do the type of critical thinking that will serve them well regardless of their major or what they go on to do. I want to introduce them to a way of processing the world through what I call the writer’s practice: the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits-of-mind of writers.

In a lot of places, the resources dedicated to something like first-year composition are incredibly limited; sometimes we have the least experienced instructors teaching it, or the lowest paid instructors. That is absolutely upside down. First-year writing is a fundamental class that should be treated as one of the most important classes. First-year composition should be a gateway to what comes next.

RB: I love how you frame this as a question of resources. And as you point out, writing classes are fundamental. We teach pretty much everyone who comes through the door of a university or a college, and yet within the political economy of the university system, we are often considered the least important relative to things like science labs, the business school, or the engineering program.

JW: If institutions were dedicated to things like reducing student attrition and increasing mental health and well-being, they would put a ton of resources into common first-year courses. But they do the opposite. That there is so much good writing instruction—and I have witnessed it, both at the institutions where I have worked and elsewhere—is a miracle. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the dedication of an individual instructor to make bad conditions work means that the system doesn’t need fixing.

. . . .

RB: After 2020 there was a shocking stat that higher education as a sector lost a tenth of its workforce, and I thought, surely that is going to lead to something seismic happening. The question maybe isn’t “How do we wait around for the beneficence of administrators to descend upon us and change things?” but more one of forcing schools to change.

Could you speak to the role of labor action and unionization and things like that in the fight for better pedagogy and better teaching conditions?

JW: These things are inextricable. And to the extent that unions representing instructional faculty and staff can make that argument, it can be persuasive. This is not an argument just for improved salaries or benefits for the people doing this work, it is an argument for additional resources to support this activity that everybody says is important.

You will not find a single administrator who says, “We don’t care about the quality of our general education or first-year courses,” or “We don’t care about our students’ mental health.” It’s the opposite. And I believe they are sincere.

So if we accept everybody’s sincerity, we can use that as leverage in the argument to improve conditions for the laborers who do that work, to create better conditions for the instruction to happen, which will ultimately benefit students.

RB: These debates and struggles don’t stop at the campus gates. We need to be getting larger publics on board with the project. And yet, when the legacy media reports on higher ed and academic freedom, I hear a lot of focus on stuff that seems to be more culture war–esque in tone. They are less focused on discussion about labor unions or the student mental health crisis or whatnot.

JW: A huge part of that is that the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords and USCs dominate the conversation at the broader public level. And as simple as this sounds, much of that is because the people who write and think and comment on these things went to those schools.

The solution is to try to do much more to raise the issues of real college students. Having these arguments over these elite spaces really serves the interests of people who attended them or intersect with them.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG posits that a great many college professors can’t write either.

To be fair, more than a few attorneys can’t write.

Setting Description Mistakes that Weaken a Story

From Writers Helping Writers:

When you think about the key elements of storytelling, characters and plot immediately come to mind, but what about the setting? Do you view it as 1) a vital story component, or 2) just the place where story events happen?

. . . .

The setting tied to each scene carries a lot of storytelling weight because it had the power to touch and amplify anything to do with characters, events, and emotion. Used correctly, a location can characterize the story’s cast, steer the plot, evoke emotions and mood, create windows to allow for active backstory sharing, provide conflict and challenges, and act as a mirror for what the protagonist needs most, reinforcing his motivation at every step.

When it comes down to it, the setting is storytelling magic. What other element can do so much to enhance a story?

Here are five mistakes with settings that can drain power from your story.

1) Treating The Setting Like Stage Dressing

Each setting holds great power, deepening the action as it unfolds and characterizing the story’s cast during the scene. If we only use a few words to summarize the location, it can really impact the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and what’s happening. Vivid, concrete details not only help readers feel like they’re right there, planting specific description and symbolism within the setting also adds layers to the story itself.

2) Focusing On Only One Sense

Another common struggle for writers is choosing to describe through a single sense, specifically sight. While we rely heavily on this sense in real life, our world is multisensory, and our job as writers is to make our fictional landscape as rich and realistic as the real thing.

We want to make each scene come alive for readers so they feel like they are right there next to the protagonist, experiencing the moment as he or she does. This means including sounds which add realism, smells which trigger the reader’s emotional memories and help create “shared experiences,” tastes that allow for unique exploration, and textures that will shed light on what’s important to the character through their emotional state.

Textures are especially critical to include, as a point of view character must directly interact with the setting to bring it about, and every action in the story should have purpose. What they touch should have a “why” attached to it, revealing the POV character’s mindset, and showing, rather than telling, readers what’s really important in the scene.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Are You an Accidental Info-Dumper?

From Writer Unboxed:

The infodump: one of the Four Horsemen of the Writerly Apocalypse (the others being Passive Voice, Too Many Adverbs, and Telling Not Showing). When authors infodump, they interrupt the flow of their story to drop a chunk of exposition onto readers’ laps. You’re happily reading along, following, say, the protagonist as she goes to board an abandoned spaceship, when—bam!—you smack your head against two full pages of how exactly this class of spaceship creates artificial gravity. (Probably because some nerd complained about how their immersion was ruined if the author didn’t explain how artificial gravity worked.) Regardless of the reason, the interruption takes the reader out of the story, breaking the illusion of the fictional reality.

The opposite of infodumping is “incluing,” a word attributed to author Jo Walton. Incluing is the process of scattering information seamlessly throughout the text. The author who is adept at incluing provides just enough information to situate the reader in the story without interrupting the flow of the narrative.

But like everything writing-related, this is easier said than done. Not only can it be difficult for authors to recognize that they are infodumping, it’s not always obvious where or how to include background information in a story. As a result, in attempting to avoid infodumps, writers seem to have created a few new troublesome habits. Like Hydra’s heads, as soon as we think we have solved one problem, more crop up in its place.

Others may have coined terms for them, but for my purposes I’m calling these pitfalls “uber-minimalism,” “the mirror glance,” and “the side quest.” While these are all attempts at solving the same problem, they also all have the same fundamental flaw: they take the reader out of the story.

Uber-minimalists provide zero information or context clues to help situate the reader. You know the type: you pick up a science fiction book (scifi often gets ragged on for doing this, though it’s hardly unique to that genre alone), and right away read a sentence that sounds like this:

“I picked up my blargstetter from the floor and set it next to my old flerf.”

And nowhere in sight is an explanation, or even a few context clues, of what a blargstetter and a flerf are.

Then you have the mirror glance, an only slightly less awkward cousin to the “men writing women poorly” genre. You know how it goes:

“She stood in front of her bedroom mirror and ran a hairbrush through her shoulder-length brown hair, noticing the slope of her too-pointed nose and sharp cheekbones in the morning light.”

(For “men writing women poorly,” just have the character notice her breasts, a definitely normal thing that people with breasts do on a daily basis.)

The side quest is less of a sentence-level problem and more of a structural issue that I’ve seen crop up in some critique groups and workshops. Writers are so worried about infodumping that rather than take a moment to just explain something in exposition, they create new plot threads, scenes, or other narrative tools to “show” some important aspect of their worldbuilding. It’s fair to say that if you have to invent a side plot to provide important information, that information may not actually be as important as you think it is. But you may also need to share a piece of worldbuilding that won’t necessarily come into play until later, yet provides critical context for a character’s actions in the present moment. In that case, wouldn’t it just be easier to simply include a brief sentence or two of exposition?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Sites I Recommend the Most to Writers

From Writers Helping Writers:

So, three things about me:

  1. I like to help (really, I’m a bit psycho about it – be warned)
  2. I like to build unique storytelling tools
  3. I like to share great resource finds with other writers

Online, I try to match people with the information they need. Sometimes people reach out through email or a Facebook page to see if I can help them solve a problem they’re having. Many writers tend to have similar struggles, and so I often end up recommending the same tools or sites again and again. I thought it might be fun to round up the resources I recommend the most.

#1: The Critique Circle

A lot of writers reach out because they’ve 1) written a book and need guidance on the next steps, 2) they’ve become frustrated because they can’t seem to sell their book and need to know if there’s something wrong with it, or 3), they need an editor for a manuscript. While it sounds like these writers may need different things, likely they don’t. All three could benefit from the same thing – unbiased feedback.

Critique Circle is an online community where you can submit your work for critique and offer feedback to others in turn. You’ll get a variety of critiques (six, ten, maybe more) from writers at different levels. Having six sets of eyes (or more) on your work means collectively you’ll get some good guidance on what to fix, and multiple critiques can help with spotting patterns. If several folks are all pointing out the same or similar issues, you know there’s a problem to fix.

You might be wondering why I would send someone who is submitting to agents and publishers to a critique group and not an editor, right? Well, it’s simple: many writers submit before they’re ready. (I sure did, back in the day.) And taking your book to an editor right off the bat is going to cost money, whereas the Critique Circle is free (they do have a paid plan, too). Starting with a free option is a good first step.

So, unless a person tells me they’ve extensively workshopped a book and have already used critique groups, I recommend starting at Critique Circle, even if a person just needs an unbiased opinion on whether a book is ready for submitting. Once the writer has learned what they can at the critique level, they can decide if they need to move to an editor, or focus on their query letter & targeting to achieve a better response rate.

#2: ProWritingAid

Another handy-dandy tool I suggest to writers all the time as they polish and tighten is ProWritingAid. It’s a brilliant tool with a free and paid version (and the cost is reasonable and offers great value). As I mentioned above, hiring a freelance editor can be costly, so the stronger you make your writing before seeking one out, the better. And if you are querying, or sending a synopsis and sample pages, you don’t want typos, grammar or weak writing to distract an agent or editor from your brilliant story premise.

. . . .

#4: Buffer

Ah, marketing, the necessary evil. We can write a book, and publish it, but if we don’t market it, chances are, no one will find it. So, we need to proactively think about our audience and how to reach them. I know you’re worried about coming across as car salesman-y, but here’s a secret – marketing isn’t about selling books. It’s about having a focus, being authentic, and building relationships. (You can read more about my FAR Marketing Method here.),

If we want to find our reading audience across the entire world, we should get online and embrace social media to some degree. Don’t worry, we don’t need to do it all, but we should do some, focusing on platforms where our ideal audience hangs out.

A big problem with social media is that it can steal a lot of time, so using tools in the right way can help us be more efficient. A tool I couldn’t live without is Buffer. It allows me to schedule content on all my social platforms, so I’m always sharing helpful articles and occasional items to help people discover how I can help them. Scheduling this content means I get time back to use my social media time to hang out and chit-chat on feeds and DMs, as being social is what it’s really about.

#5: Trello

Between writing, publishing, marketing, and running a business, well, writers juggle A LOT. Lists can be our friend, but having a way to visualize our action items and track important spreadsheets, links and sites in one place is really helpful. Becca and I use Trello, which allows us to create boards, lists, and cards for everything we do from our publication process for each book, to marketing objectives and goals, to brainstorming ideas for blog posts, books, and new tools for One Stop for Writers. Cards can be dragged from one column to the next, reordered, labelled, etc. It’s a brilliant way to map out a to-do list or process, or even brainstorm ideas for a new book. Did I mention Trello has a generous free version? 

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

PG used Buffer a long time ago and can’t remember why he stopped, so he’s going to try it again. The idea is that you can spend a single creative session putting together posts for Instagram, etc., etc., then schedule them over a period of time so new bits of marketing stuff is showing up on various people’s feeds throughout the day.

Absent scheduling, if you put everything up at 10:00 AM your time, then you’ll miss the people who check their feeds at breakfast and those who check them on the bus trip home and those who check them when the kids are finally in bed. The feeds on the big social media sites can move at warp speed. Yes, people can follow you, if they remember to do so, but showing up on feeds because you’ve scheduled them on a spread-out basis several times a day means you’re hitting more people than you are if all your tweets, posts, etc., show up at 9:00 pm every day. Oh, and don’t forget time-zones.

There are several tools/services in the OP that PG hasn’t tried, so he’s happy to have those visitors who have tried them to share their likes/dislikes, etc.

One additional point – PG has been on social media for long enough to have seen particular tools that start out very nicely end up being annoying because the venture capitalist that’s funding the company says they need to sell ads everywhere or something like that. It doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out for articles that tell you who’s up and who’s down.

Hint: AOL Chat Rooms are no longer a thing.

56 Words That Are Actually Portmanteaus

From The Grammarly Blog:

You might not be familiar with the term portmanteau, but you likely use portmanteaus in your vocabulary and writing more than you realize.

Portmanteau meaning

A  portmanteau (pronounced port-MAN-toe) is a word made by blending at least two words. The new word combines both the sounds and meanings of the originals.

To form a portmanteau, usually the first segment of one word is attached to the final segment of another word. Some portmanteau words are blended in other ways, like combining the initial segments of both words.

Why is it called a portmanteau?

Author Lewis Carroll describes the idea of portmanteaus in his book Through the Looking-Glass:

“Well, ‘SLITHY’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

The word portmanteau itself is an appropriate embodiment of this word form, since portmanteau, which is French for porte (“to carry”) + manteau (“cloak”), describes a suitcase that opens in two halves. Portmanteaus “carry” both meanings of their word pairs.

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

Contemporary novels from the past

From Hollow Lands:

Unless they are set in an exotic location or exotic demographic, [writers of contemporary fiction] expect their audience to understand the culture that they share with the author. And, so, they often waste no breath on explaining the things that everyone knows. They just get on with the story.

Still, time does pass, and the settings of such books do grow distant and unknown from their latest readers. Part of the appeal of these works for modern readers lies in their matter-of-fact portrayal of a different time in the ancestry of the current culture.

The picture above shows a camping trip in 1920. There was quite a fashion for these in the early years of the family automobile. Farmers from the mid-West could now take their families safely and conveniently on a multi-week vacation, participating in one of the luxuries that was previously unaffordable for them, educating the mind by seeing other places, and glorying in the exercise and fresh air that are everyone’s right.

How do I, specifically, know this? Why, I read about it, in Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1925 novel: The Keeper of the Bees.

The same exact vehicle is featured in some of the early scenes (our desperate hero is given a ride by a kind family on vacation). She describes its numerous conveniences as we would the latest high-tech camping gear. Even the fashionable pageboy haircut sported by the young girl on the left is part of the persona of another major character who could be the very same child.

Stratton-Porter‘s best known work is Freckles (ignore the execrable & worthless movies), and she has several others. They were aimed at an adult audience, of course, but have survived in popularity as part of that cultural-core of wholesome books suitable for an adolescent readership in my own childhood, like the dog-focused novels of Albert Payson Terhune.

What you may not know is that she was as popular in her day as J. K. Rowling is today.

Only 55 books published between 1895 and 1945 sold upwards of one million copies. Gene Stratton-Porter wrote five of those books—far more than any other author of her time.

Link to the rest with more information at Hollow Lands. If you have problems with this link to the post, go to the Main Page and work your way through the blog section to November, 2021.

How Can a Sightless Writer Convey a Smile?

From Publishers Weekly:

How does a blind person experience the broadening mouth and widening eyes of someone else’s smile? How does a blind fiction writer like myself convey a blind character noticing that smile?

There is almost no mainstream fiction with blind characters written by blind authors. As far as I can tell, you won’t find any by Jorge Luis Borges or James Thurber. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is a questionable exception, while Edward Hoagland’s In the Country of the Blind (2016) is the only indisputable non–young adult example in recent decades.

Sighted authors create blind characters, but to blind readers, they are almost invariably suspect. In Anthony Doerr’s otherwise admirable All the Light We Cannot See, a 16-year-old blind girl implausibly detects the tiniest objects with touch, and yet needs her father to help her bathe, an even more implausible claim that is excruciating to read for anyone familiar with blind people. To walk around town, she counts steps, which sighted people may view as a logical strategy, but that, as a practical matter, makes no sense. Our strides change length with changing moods and energy levels, and concentrating on counting distracts from critical clues about the environment.

In my novel Caroline, I present a mainstream story whose first-person narrator is a young blind lawyer named Nick. The focus is on his relationship with charismatic but mysterious Caroline as he fitfully establishes himself in his chosen career. The novel is set in New York City, during that stimulating period when it was emerging from the financial crises of the 1970s. And yes, Nick’s disability plays a prominent role as he figures out how to get things done in a sighted world and navigates relationships with sighted friends, colleagues, and office heads.

A question that often comes up among fellow writers and editors is how a blind character can possibly know this or that. For example, when a sighted character sees another character in a novel show amusement, it’s sufficient for the author to write, “She smiled.” However, when I have a blind narrator observe a smile, critics will ask something along these lines: “How can he know? He doesn’t see.” I’m forced to reword my sentence like this: “He could tell from her tone of voice that she was smiling.”

The trouble is that emphasizing differences in manners of perceiving sets blind characters apart. In doing so, it subordinates hearing and intuition to the power of sight. Although in real life I can’t see a person smiling, I always know when they are from tone of voice, context, and other similar clues that I process without thinking. Visual observation of a smile is at least as complex as auditory recognition, but an elaborate phrase for a blind character’s recognition suggests a less natural process. Besides, while the processes might differ, the results are mostly the same.

The question becomes how do I convey a blind character’s experiences without constantly highlighting differences like these. The method I’ve adopted in the case of smiles is, the first time around, to employ the labored tone-of-voice formulation, but afterward to write simply, “She smiled.” By that point, I trust the reader has absorbed the point. Indeed, readers of Caroline have commented that although they began the novel with a heightened awareness of Nick’s blindness, it dropped partway through into the background.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Being Capable of Harm

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

. . . .

Being Capable of Harm

Notes: Sometimes destructive thoughts enter the mind, causing us to wonder if we are capable of harming others, either as an uncontrolled response because of some internal driver or deficit, or because we become so single-mindedly obsessed about something (a goal, success, power, etc.) we will do whatever it takes to possess it. For most, these thoughts are fleeting, because common sense prevails – I am moral and have good judgment. For others, though, it becomes a deeply embedded fear: I will harm someone if I don’t safeguard against it.

This fear can play out well in storytelling for characters who are unsure where their moral line is, or worry they will lose control of themselves. It can also be a good fear for a villain if you wish to hint at their humanity and whether they might be self-aware enough to be redeemed. Characters with Harm OCD may be especially susceptible to this fear.

What It Looks Like
The character being afraid of their own anger
Warning people away and discouraging relationships
Not liking to be surprised
Intrusive, irrational thoughts about harming others
Acting out a compulsion to push an irrational thought of harm away (repeating, “I’m a good person. I wouldn’t do that,” several times)
Visible shaking
Panicked breathing
Dropping or moving away from the item that triggers ideas of harm
Keeping people at a physical distance
Having only a few close friends or family members
Having to step away when angry
Creating a buffer of space between themselves and others (just in case)
Making an excuse to leave
Avoiding triggers (refusing to watch violent movies, listen to a reporter detail a sexual assault on the news, or be around weapons)
Asking people if they feel safe
Asking people they are with if they believe the character is capable of harming them (seeking reassurances)
Questioning their actions in the aftermath of an emergency, What if I didn’t run as fast as I could have to get help? What if I wanted that man to suffer?
Avoiding being alone with someone who is vulnerable (a child, an elderly person)
Asking for an opinion on a goal, thought, or decision to “test it,” making sure it’s appropriate
Being slow to act because they need to think it through
Hesitating to commit
Avoiding responsibility and not wanting to lead
Being anxious if they want something (from worry over what they will do to get it)
Explaining their actions or motivations to reassure others they are safe

Common Internal Struggles
Having intrusive thoughts on how to get something in a direct, dark way (I’d get full custody if he was dead), followed by shame, fear, or both
An idea forming that it would be easy to hurt someone in a specific way
An impulse to use an item violently (cutting a sandwich at lunch and suddenly imagining using it to stab a family member nearby)
Being irrational: forgetting to return a library book must be a sign they want to deny others the opportunity to enjoy it
Having flashes of violent images
Questioning/worrying they secretly enjoy violence
Constantly examining and questioning their motives
A tendency to magnify small transgressions (bumping someone) and see how dangerous they are (had they been on a subway platform, they would have been pushed into an oncoming train)
Needing to escape situations where anxiety or anger is high before they hurt someone (believing they will)
Mentally reminding themselves of whom they care about and so must be kept safe

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Rules for teaching grammar in schools

From The Economist

Absence of evidence is not, as the saying goes, the same thing as evidence of absence. But if you continue looking for something intently, and keep failing to find it, you can be forgiven for starting to worry. And so it is with the vexed—and in Britain, highly politicised—subject of explicit grammar teaching in schools, and its link or otherwise with improved writing ability.

Another study, in this case a large randomised controlled trial, has recently been added to the expansive literature on the subject. Like nearly all its predecessors, it found that teaching kids how to label the bits and pieces in a sentence does not make them better writers. It was novel in that it tested six- and seven-year-olds who used a digital platform called Englicious to take grammar lessons, alongside the rote classroom teaching of grammatical particulars and their functions. The Englicious group did no better than those receiving ordinary instruction when it came to writing narrative passages. (The extra help slightly improved their performance on a task called “sentence combining”, which requires pupils to turn two sentences into one in logical ways, such as the addition of “because”. But even this effect was not statistically significant.)

Bas Aarts, one of the researchers on the project and one of the scholars behind Englicious, holds out hope that with longer exposure, or a study of older students, an improvement in writing skills might be detected. Other observers may begin to wonder whether the National Curriculum in England, which since 2014 has made grammar such a central part of its English programme, might have gone down a blind alley.

The force behind the reforms, Michael Gove, a Conservative former secretary of education, is sometimes maligned for other political reasons (especially among opponents of Brexit, which he championed). He is said to have insisted on the insertion of personal bugbears into the grammar curriculum, notably the subjunctive form, “If I were”. Mention of his name alone wrinkles many teachers’ noses—partly because some of them were hardly prepared to teach the new material themselves, after decades in which grammar was largely absent from classrooms.

In retrospect it scarcely seems surprising that learning to underline a modal verb, such as “can”, “should” and “may”, does little to help students use them effectively in their own writing. These words are anyway grasped by tiny children without the need to know what they are called. This may tempt the conclusion that the teaching of grammar should be shelved altogether. But there are reasons to reform it rather than scrap it.

Understanding of language is part of a wider education in what makes human beings human. How concepts are turned into sounds, and how those sounds combine to form propositions, commands or questions, are issues that have occupied many linguists in philosophy departments. What they reveal about the mind has exercised psychologists and cognitive scientists.

There are practical reasons to ask children to grapple with grammar, too. One is that an explicit knowledge of it will make learning a foreign language easier. Even if you did intuit how to make subordinate clauses in your native languages as a toddler—just without instruction—getting to grips with them in German or Russian in later years is simpler if you know how to define and spot them. As it is, many English-speakers come to understand grammar by studying a foreign language, rather than the other way round.

. . . .

Grammar could still be taught better. One small study showed improvement in some students when concepts are linked concretely to writing tasks. Even so, it may never be easy to point to a widget-output increase that results directly from improved tuition. A cook does not need to know chemistry to make a delicious sauce. But the science of how words combine to make meaning is fascinating as well as fundamental.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Backstory as Behavior: Pathological Maneuvers and Persistent Virtues

From Writer Unboxed:

Last month (“Explanation vs. Fascination—And a Woman in the Corner Opposite“) we explored how to use moments of helplessness to “look behind the curtain” of your characters. The context of that exploration was the need to make our characters fascinating by resisting the temptation to explain them.

But simply exploring moments in the past won’t by itself overcome the temptation to narrate those events in some form of flashback or backstory reveal. We need to take our exploration a step further by showing how those moments generate behavior.

Before we begin, though, take a moment to reflect on how you yourself deal with stress or conflict.

  • Do you drink a bit too much when fearing judgment, ridicule, rejection—or bordeom?
  • Do you jabber away when you meet someone you’re attracted to—or fall into nervous silence?
  • Does loneliness prompt eating, drinking, or spending binges?
  • Do you lash out when you feel criticized or threatened?

The psychologist Anna Freud referred to such patterns of behavior with the technical terms adaptations or defense mechanisms.

The novelist Elizabeth George (in her fiction guide Write Away) refers to this type of pattern of behavior the Pathological Maneuver. Personally, I love that term, not just because it’s more colorful. It reveals the fundamentally maladaptive nature of the behavior in question.

The maneuver is pathological because it demonstrates how the person is not dealing with the underlying emotion prompted by their experience of stress, conflict, judgment, and so on. And the episodes of helplessness we explored last week, especially those linked to fear, shame, guilt, betrayal, or loss are precisely moments characterized by stress, conflict, and judgment.

To see how such episodes generate habitual behavior—specifically, here, Pathological Maneuvers—consider these examples:

  • Because the character’s moment of greatest loss involved not just a devastating breakup with the man she thought was the love of her life, but also a moment of greatest betrayal when he married her best friend, she has developed such a profound fear of failure and rejection, colored by a stifling sense of shame, that she no longer tries to date men she is actually attracted to, but instead devotes herself to “projects” who most likely will never leave her. If the romance ends, it will be her decision that breaks things off.
  • Because the character’s moment of greatest shame was losing a position she had been told she was going to get—only to watch as the whole office learned it was going to a woman she herself had hired and trained—she no longer pursues what she truly wants, but instead settles for what is easily achieved or simply provided, while resentfully retreating into a carping sense of victimhood, fueled in secret by drink.
  • Because the character’s moment of greatest sorrow was the agonizing death of his mother from cancer when he was seventeen, combined with his father’s subsequent descent into alcoholism, he never allows himself to get too deeply involved with anyone else, because it just awakens the pain of loss, a pervasive sense of guilt over being unable to help his father, and his fears of his own mortality.
  • Because the character was raised poor, she suffered not just deprivation but frequent incidents of mockery and shaming. (If we’re creating this character, we’d flesh out the worst of those incidents.) As a result, she has become obsessed with success, works herself to the bone, secretly takes delight in bettering her competition (better they feel ashamed than her), feels suspicious of anyone making demands on her time (including friends and family), and basically lives in secret terror that without that constant, unrelenting focus she may slip back into poverty.
  • Because of being bullied and even abused as a child, he now lashes out with irrational rage at anyone who triggers his fears of being victimized—including not just enemies and competitors but loved ones.

Not all Pathological Maneuvers follow such a reactive trajectory; some take unpredictable turns:

  • Return to the character whose mother died of cancer when he was a teenager, and his father subsequently turned to alcohol to numb the pain. The son has refrained from any deep emotional commitments, resulting in a loneliness so severe he too has developed a drinking problem, which he cynically explains away as “like father like son.” In one of his drunken stupors, his elderly neighbor suffers a heart attack and is literally calling out to him for help, but he is too wasted to respond.
  • The character’s most terrifying moment came when he watched his drunken father beat his mother nearly to death. Unfortunately, he learns the wrong lesson from this experience, and grows into a man with a hair-trigger temper, living by the credo: The angriest person wins.
  • The character’s moments of greatest pride revolved around being the class clown, typically cracking jokes at others’ expense. Unfortunately, she too learned the wrong lesson from this, and now deals with uncomfortable feelings, not just in others but herself, through deflection, making jokes instead of actually facing the anxiety, nervousness, or discomfort in the moment.

As these examples indicate, moments of helplessness often develop into a pattern of behavior that is characterized by:

  • Avoidance, deflection, projection, denial, settling for less.
  • Acting out, self-injury, irresponsible risk taking, casual sex, substance abuse or some other form of over-indulgence.
  • Unconsciously modeling one’s maladaptive behavior on someone else’s that seems to get them what they want.
  • Some form of abusive behavior toward others, exemplified by a selfish regard for one’s own wants over any concern for others, or a disregard for the pain one causes.

Pathological Maneuvers are the collection of behavioral traits that reveal the false sense of safety, control, empowerment, or concealment that allows the character to ward off the depression, self-hatred, or anxiety she feels when she recognizes that she is not the person she truly wants to be, or living the life she truly wants to live.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Who Needs Other Women?

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

The friend you used to tell every scrap of good news to, and every heartache, too.

The sister you shared a bedroom with for years.

The woman at work who knew more about your day and your reaction to it than anyone else.

Where are they now?

Women’s fiction is about relationships, and well-written books about sisterhood and female friendship are among my favorites. Often, we are shaped by our mothers, sisters, friends, and coworkers. Your mother is your first role model for proper behavior. Your sisters are your defenders–or the ones you defend. Your friends shape your tastes in music, in clothing, and in other friends. Your coworkers are your listening posts, encouragers, and lunch mates.

Books like The Rose Code (Kate Quinn), The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood), and Firefly Lane (Kristin Hannah) present women who depend on each other, either by choice or circumstance. The books examine the closeness that develops between them, possibly lifelong but sometimes only for the duration of an event, like a war or a term of employment. In each case there are bumps in the road, but women come through for each other despite differences of opinion, outlook, and lifestyle.

I’ve known many great females over the course of my life, but some close relationships ended due to distance, job shifts, changing attitudes, and even death. A high school friend’s family moved far away in our final year. A fellow teacher took a job at another school and seemed uninterested in ever seeing me again. During a lunch date, my sister mentioned, quite casually, that she treasured our time together. She died that night. Their influences linger, brought to mind by a photo, a mention of their name, a song, or a bit of memorabilia. Each one made me what I am today, sometimes in bits, sometimes in great measure.

Other women I’ve known have remained close despite distance and differences. The friend we see or call or text daily. The coworker we can’t wait to tell about the weekend’s events. The phone call from a sister when years and distance roll away and we’re back to being silly girls, repeating bad jokes and reliving old memories.

I am inspired by these relationships when I write. My early standalone mystery, Somebody Doesn’t Like Sarah Leigh, explored what might happen when a friendship ends abruptly and without explanation. My popular cozy mystery series The Sleuth Sisters (written as Maggie Pill), has fun with the competition, irritations, and underlying love that sisterhood brings. And my 2019 book Deceiving Elvera, concerns a lifelong friendship between two very different females as they experience adventure and heartbreak, each helping the other when she needs it most.

The focus of my most recent book, Sister Saint, Sister Sinner, is relationships between female siblings. As sisters, we begin life in very similar circumstances, but personality and life experiences shape us into different people. In this story, three sisters find that their widely varied world views lead to serious consequences. As sisters have from the beginning of time, each must answer for herself the questions they face. What are the boundaries of kinship? Who has the right/responsibility to correct a family member who’s gone wrong? And perhaps most compelling of all, how much can love forgive?

Forging relationships with other women is healthy and wise. We live longer than men, so chances are good that we’ll need our sisters and girlfriends late in life. Besides, who else understands that your need to vent doesn’t mean you’re evil or crazy or about to reject the human race and go live in a cave? That woman you’ve bonded with will listen, because she knows that when her time comes, you’ll do t the same for her.

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

The Unlikely Hero

From Writer Unboxed:

Let’s talk about heroes. I’m not talking sporting heroes or comic book superheroes. I’m using the term hero to mean a person of any gender who demonstrates extraordinary courage and acts in a way that makes change for good in the world. Some people, through birth or other circumstances, seem destined to live heroic lives. An unlikely hero, on the other hand, is someone whose heroism comes as a surprise to us – it simply isn’t what we expected of such a person. Such individuals appear in the oldest stories of many cultures: folklore, legends, fairy tales. From time to time they appear in our literary works. And they exist in real life, though we don’t always witness their remarkable deeds or recognise them for what they are. Sometimes our unlikely heroes just get on with what has to be done.

There’s a common pattern to this in many traditional stories. We might start with three brothers or sisters and a quest to be completed. Siblings A and B are big, strong and confident, though possibly also selfish/unkind/thoughtless. Sibling C is seen by the family as lesser – quieter, weaker, too soft-hearted for their own good, perhaps a bit of a dreamer. They may be a step-sibling or half-sibling to the others. When the challenge comes, it’s A and B who go out, in turn, to confront the dragon or find the treasure or whatever. Both A and B make errors, generally because they won’t listen to good advice, or refuse to perform an act of kindness that may stall their progress, or are so focussed on the goal that they don’t bother to pick up clues along the way. A and B both fail in the quest.

Sibling C is the unlikely hero, someone who does not display traditionally heroic attributes such as great physical strength, charisma, excellence in fighting and so on. Sibling C takes time on the journey; listens to strangers they encounter; stops to help those in trouble (old woman carrying a heavy load; injured bird; lost dog that nudges C along a different path.) Sibling C does not contemplate the reward for the task as they make the journey. C wants to do their best, and as kindness comes naturally to them, they take the time to be kind along the way. The dreamer who used to play tunes on the whistle while out tending the sheep now stops beside the track to entertain a group of travellers and is rewarded with gifts of food and information that will prove vital to the quest. Sibling C may also pick up various companions along the way, the sort of folk with whom A and B would never mingle, and they help C with the task. In the end it is the unlikely hero who completes the quest.

It’s ironic, in view of what sparked this post, that an obvious choice of an unlikely hero from classic literature is the socially awkward Pierre Bezhukov from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As the illegitimate son of a count, Pierre unexpectedly inherits a fortune and finds himself catapulted into the upper echelons of Russian society. Over the course of the truly epic story, the reader sees this misfit character grow and shine in humanity, kindness and courage. In fantasy fiction unlikely heroes abound, perhaps because fairy tales and folklore are antecedents of this genre. What hero is less likely than the hobbit Frodo from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Small of stature, unworldly and completely devoid of superpowers, Frodo nonetheless volunteers to undertake the terrifying task of carrying the cursed ring to Mount Doom and throwing it into the fire. What advantages does this unlikely hero have? A kind heart. A moral compass. An unselfish temperament. Friends. In fact, under the evil influence of the ring, Frodo fails at the final challenge, but a quirk of fate sees the mission achieved. It could be said that Sam Gamgee, the faithful companion without whom Frodo would not have made it to Mount Doom, is the true (and even less likely) hero of the story.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Value of Percolation

From Jane Friedman:

I love learning how the brain works during the writing process. I’ve mostly been interested in how to “turn on” the brain’s right, creative hemisphere through exercises like free writing. A book I recently read gave me insight into a different aspect of the writing process: the value of not writing—of setting aside an unfinished draft.

How We Learn by Benedict Carey (Random House, 2014) explains scientific research on how the brain learns. While much of the book concerns rote memorization, I was drawn to chapter 7, which details how the brain approaches long-term projects (such as writing a novel).

Most writers have heard this advice: set aside your draft to revise later. And most of us have experienced new insights when coming back to a manuscript. Why is it helpful to set aside a draft? Why do we sometimes get insights about our writing when we are not working on it? Carey calls this process “percolation.”

The first element of percolation: interruption

When a project is interrupted at an important or difficult moment, that keeps the project at the top of our brain’s to-do list. Most of us have limited time to write, and some of us believe we should not start a story or novel unless we’ll have time to finish. But interruption is actually good for a long project and means that you can start a book whenever you want.

When my children were small, I used to wake up at 5am and spend one hour working on my fiction before I went to work. That’s all the time I had: one hour per day. I had no idea if my writing would come together in anything publishable, but I treasured that quiet hour when no one was demanding my attention, and I could focus on something I craved. Because I interrupted my writing every morning, I was still thinking about it (consciously and I’m sure subconsciously as well) during the day, and when I sat down the next morning, I often had some new ideas. Although it took years, I was able to write my novel And Laughter Fell from the Sky in one hour per day (as well as some occasional longer stretches when my husband would take the kids away for a weekend).

As my children grew older, and once I started working as a teacher, I had longer stretches of time to write during school breaks. When in the midst of a project, I would often lose track of time. I’d work throughout the day, and as much as I enjoyed the process, I wondered: was I really being productive, or was I spinning my wheels re-reading, tinkering, or heading down the wrong path?

A few years ago, I found out about a practice called the “Pomodoro Technique,” which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and working steadily during that time. Each “pomodoro” session is separated by a short break of up to 5 minutes. I set a timer on my phone and purposely put the phone in a different room, so I am forced to stand up from my computer and walk at least a short distance to turn off the pomodoro. If I’m in the flow of writing, sometimes I head right back to my computer after setting another pomodoro. At other times, I take a few minutes to wash some dishes or fold a few clothes. Even a short interruption can help, due to something Carey refers to as “selective forgetting.” A short break helps us forget about any blind paths or misleading avenues we were heading down. Even a tiny interruption helps my brain re-set. Sometimes, as I’m washing the dishes, I’ll get an idea about a line of dialogue to try, or an insight into a character.

The second element of percolation: the tuned, scavenging mind

When you have a project in mind, you are subconsciously attuned to any clues or information in your environment that might be relevant. “Having a goal foremost in mind…tunes our perceptions to fulfilling it,” says Carey.

It is important, therefore, when setting aside unfinished work, to keep your mind open to solutions. In the past, when I did not have a solution to a problem in my writing, I felt uncomfortable. I would try to argue the problem out of existence, try to convince myself that everything was fine. The problem was still there, though. Inevitably, critiques would point out the flaw I was trying to ignore. But because my mind had been closed—because I had been telling myself there was no problem—I had not come up with any solutions yet. Finally, I realized it was better to accept that nagging, uncomfortable feeling that said “something’s wrong here,” even when I didn’t know how to solve the problem. Being open to solutions often allowed solutions to suggest themselves later on.

Recently, I was pulling together a short story from segments of an unpublished novel that I’d worked on years ago and then abandoned. This short story has three sections, and I didn’t like the way the first section ended. The last line seemed too final for the first section of a story. I had the urge to argue away the problem, but fortunately I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable with having a problem and not knowing how to fix it. Some days later, I hit upon a possible solution: make the last sentence of the section into a line of dialogue, and have the other character react to it. I tried it, and liked the way it worked.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Story Salvage: Finding the Opportunity in Failure

From SWFA:

It’s often noted that in baseball, making an out 70 percent of the time is considered all-star play(1). Although every writer’s experience will be different, writing often seems to offer a similar success ratio in terms of failed stories. Sometimes that failure also comes fast, which gives you the opportunity to start over, but when a novel or other work collapses much deeper into the process, it can be brutal. You wake up in a cold sweat one night and realize the grim truth: The book can’t be saved. You’ve revised, re-worked, and re-imagined. You’ve rounded it through your beta readers and covered an entire wall of your house in post-its and notecards like a crazy conspiracy theorist, but the book simply doesn’t work(2).

A failed book stings, but the healthiest thing you can do is to see failure for what it truly is: an opportunity. There’s probably a lot of good material that can be salvaged if you know how. Here are five strategies you can try on any failed story.

Extract a short story

Okay, so your planned fifteen-volume epic fantasy has a million words, a hundred named characters, and nothing even closely resembling a coherent plot. You’ve already lost your youth and some of your sanity to this project, so consider carving out some of the best scenes and character moments and shaping them into short stories. There’s a thriving market for short fiction in almost every genre, so if you can pull a few particularly sharp sections out and polish them up, you’ll at least have something to show for your efforts—and perhaps a few more publishing credits to your name.

Trim to a novella

Sometimes a novel starts off hot and you write a terrific early section, and then you fall off a creative cliff and the rest of the novel is a terrifying process of grabbing at every conceptual branch that swoops up towards you(3). An obvious strategy is to surgically remove that first section and see if you can revise it into a novella(4). The key here is to ensure that your novella has a shape to it, that it has a real ending and doesn’t read as the first part of a longer story.

Mine it for the basis of another, better novel

Failed novels aren’t monolithic slabs of bad writing. They’re a complex mix of good and bad writing. If your story launched with an exciting buzz of this might be genius and is currently hovering at this might be the worst thing I’ve ever written(5), take a breath and go through the story to identify the good stuff—the ideas that make you excited all over again—and reconceptualize them.

Link to the rest at SWFA

Is It Too Late to Start Writing?

From Write to Done:

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to be a writer but haven’t made it happen yet. 

There are so many reasons why you might not have made the leap from aspiring to write to actually starting to do it yet.

Maybe you doubt whether you’re good enough. Maybe writing has never seemed like an important enough priority to dedicate your time to. Maybe you think you’ve waited so long to start that it’s too late. 

No matter what your reason for not writing yet is, there’s one thing that’s certain. Your desire to write hasn’t gone away yet, has it? Even if you’ve waited decades to get started, or told yourself every reason under the sun why you’re not good enough, your dream is very much still alive. 

The fact that you still want to write is everything you need to know. No more excuses. It’s time to make it happen. 

Next time you find yourself doubting if it’s still possible for you to start writing, hold onto these four important facts.

You have more life experience 

Unlike a lot of ways of spending time, writing isn’t made worse by waiting. It’s actually kind of a tradeoff. 

The earlier you start to write, the more experience of the technical craft of writing you have. The repetition of sitting down and getting words onto a page is a valuable discipline and one it takes time to develop. 

But, counterintuitively, all the time you spent not writing has made you a better writer.

Unlike a lot of skills, good writing is a mixture of the technical competency of the person doing it and the blend of life experiences they’ve had up until that point.

All the time you spent on something other than writing was just preparation for getting started. Yes, you’ll need to spend some time sharpening your craft and the practical side of writing. But all of the things you’ve learned and experiences you’ve had will enrich your writing in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you’d started earlier. 

So when you next try to trick yourself into feeling like you’ve wasted however many years not writing, stop and remember the truth. You were making yourself a better writer the entire time. So don’t let all your training go to waste!

You can always do things differently

It’s easy to make the mistake of confusing what you do with who you are.

If you’ve spent years wanting to write but never taking the time to get started, you might confuse your lack of action with your identity. You might hold beliefs like “I’m not the kind of person who could be a writer” or “someone who should be a writer would have started by now”. In turn, those beliefs end up holding you back further. 

Instead of holding on to these limiting beliefs, take the time to see things in a more empowering way. Being a writer is as simple as committing to some form of writing and making it happen. If you commit to writing a single page and do it after finishing this article, you’re now a writer.

In truth, telling yourself that you’re not a writer isn’t really about writing at all. It’s actually about the fear of failure. 

It’s easier to stay in your comfort zone and tell yourself false stories about why you don’t write than it is to face the possibility of finding it tough. 

Once you recognize that you might be fearful of writing, you can take steps to reduce the fear you’re feeling. It’s important not to think too far ahead. Don’t think about whether your writing will be any good or if people will enjoy it or not. Be very easy on yourself and let action be your only measure of success. As long as you’re writing, you’re succeeding. 

Like so many things, starting writing is often the hardest part. Once you build even a little bit of momentum and progress a snowball effect will kick in. You’ll gradually gain confidence and competency until you couldn’t imagine being anything other than a writer. 

Link to the rest at Write to Done

Crave Rejection? 7 Never-Fail, 100% Guaranteed Tips for Raising your R-Score.

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

Here’s some advice for those who feel they are missing out on one of the basic building blocks of a successful author’s career: Rejection.

For those who feel they are not paying their dues.

For every writer who is not receiving an adequate, soul-satisfying number of rejections, try these pro tips to help you pump up your pathetic, wimpy R-score.

1)  Embrace the Jackalope.

From the gory, surgical details of a tummy tuck to the onslaught of grammar Nazis and an attack by vicious sabertoothed cave rats, you must heed the advice of everyone in your crit group.

By all means pay attention to advice from “experts” who know almost nada about your book or your genre.

For example — the James Bond fan who wants “more action” in your sweet, sensitive romance about disabled teenagers looking for love.

Or the James Patterson reader who wants shorter chapters in your elegant, carefully-considered literary deconstruction of Finnegan’s Wake.

Be sure to give in to the devastating ego destroyers whose nasty tone and censorious delivery cause you to go to bed for a week and even contemplate suicide. They must know what they’re talking about, don’t they, these hit-and-run drive-by “authorities” who aim right for your confidence?

Heed the amateur shrinks who want to know “motivation” of every character including the guy behind the counter at Dunkin Donut who serves a Double Chocolate Donut instead of the Boston Kreme Donut your adorable but scared alien from another planet ordered.

The counter guy must be suffering trauma cuz he screwed up the order. Or is he enduring an unhealed childhood wound? Or did he just get fired from the rotten job at DD he needs to pay the rent?

And what about the adorable but scared alien? Where is his family? His parents or grandparents? Does he have siblings? If so, where are they? What happened to them? If not, why not?

To guarantee producing an unreadable mess, and sure fire instant rejection, be certain to pay attention to every comment and your dreams of infinite rejection will come true.

. . . .

2) Write the Best Horror-Thriller-Mystery Ever Created — and Send it to the Wrong Agent.

Your villain makes Hannibal Lecter look like a pussycat.

Your victims are so vulnerable, defenseless and forlorn they will make a stone weep.

The prose sparkles.

Your grammar is of such flawless perfection a revision of Strunk & White is being published at this moment to acknowledge your excellence.

The whole manuscript has been edited so scrupulously it contains not one single typo.

Your use of the Oxford comma and the activating hyphen are impeccable.

You’ve worked for years, neglected your spouse and children, let your dog go hungry and unwalked.

You’re survived without food and sleep.

The time has come at last for submission.  Which lucky agent will get first look at the best horror/thriller/mystery ever composed in Word/Pages/Scrivener?

Still determined to bulk up your wimpy stack of rejection slips? The answer is obvious. What you want is an agent who specializes in — Ta Da! — Romance.

However:

If you might just conceivably be interested in getting the best horror/thriller/mystery ever written actually published, why not do some research first?

Find out which agent(s) specializes in your genre. That agent will be up on all the latest developments in the market you’re trying to break into and will have close contacts with the editors who are looking for exactly what you write.

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

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Leading

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc.

. . . .

Notes:

Leading is not easy. It means being responsible and accountable, making decisions that will have a wider impact, and facing scrutinization for certain actions taken. This fear can cause characters to avoid stepping forward when asked (or needed), resent having this role thrust upon them, and even affect those already in a leadership role.

What It Looks Like

Resistance to being in charge
Avoiding making a final decision
Not wanting to be responsible in bigger ways
Not wanting to speak out or speak one’s mind
Letting others decide
Being risk-adverse
Pointing out one’s flaws and lack of suitability to others
Self-sabotage (to prove to others they aren’t leadership material)
Avoiding conflict and arguments

. . . .

Common Internal Struggles

Wanting to hide from responsibility, but feeling cowardly to want that
Wanting to make things better, but only seeing one’s own shortcomings
Believing leading would be a disaster (if the character hasn’t taken on the role yet)
Wanting to do right by others but fearing one’s efforts will only disappoint
Feeling unworthy of the belief others have in their abilities
Feeling like an impostor
A desire to go back to simpler times
Taking criticism to heart
The misbelief that they are only capable of so much, rather than see personal shortcomings as temporary and subject to change
Over-focusing on mistakes and failures rather than successes

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Confusing details can pile up quickly (page critique)

From Nathan Bransford:

Now then. Time for the Page Critique. First I’ll present the page without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline.

. . . .

Title: Discover
Genre: YA Fantasy

Astral was one tail-flick past the boundary, one metre beyond safety. By now most Mers would have drifted into the rooms they were meant to be in, and only rushing servants and nobles too proud to bolt would remain in the Castle’s sprawling corridors. He listened for the sounds of guards: the scrape of weapons against fish-hide and metal, a bored laugh, the swoosh of their assured tail sweeps. It was either sound that could alert him or the invisible, silent messages Mers created when they swam and moved the water. More accurate, but it did not allow him to ‘see’ as far as sound permitted.

Haughty muttering sounded out two passageways behind him, accompanied with aggressive sweeps of a membrane-ridged tail. They must be a Royal; only they could manage to curse through their gills and still retain that precise air of superiority. What are you doing out so late? He swam to one side and pressed himself against the chilled marble surface of the Castle’s halls, shivering when the cold bit into his skin. Even with a layered jacket and floors heated by magma tunnels, the chill of winter still numbed him.

Astral placed one of his two sensors, a long and skinny strand of muscle ending in a leaf-like shape that grew from the side of his tail, on the corner so it could sense the nearly imperceptible movements of the water made by the approaching Mer.

. . . .

Here’s my redline:

Title: Discover
Genre: YA Fantasy

Astral was one tail-flick past the boundary to [whatever boundary is being referred to], one metre beyond safety from [whatever he’s safe from]. By now most Mers, [explain what a Mer is], would have drifted into the rooms they were meant to be in [be more specific. Why do they need to be in a particular room?], and only rushing servants and nobles too proud to bolt [bolt from what?] would remain in the Castle’s sprawling corridors.

He Astral listened for the sounds of guards [If he’s listening, it goes without saying that he’s listening to the sounds of whatever you say he’s listening for]: the scrape of weapons against fish-hide and metal, a bored laugh, the swoosh of their assured tail sweeps. It was either sound [I don’t understand what this is referring to] that could alert him [Alert him to what?] or the invisible, silent messages Mers created when they swam and moved the water [How does one swim without moving water?]. More accurate, but it did not allow him to ‘see’ as far as sound permitted. [I don’t understand what this is referring to]

He heard Haughty muttersing sounded out two passageways behind him [Struggling to visualize where we are. Weave in clearer physical description], accompanied with by the aggressive sweeps of a membrane-ridged tail. They must be a Royal [explain what a Royal is]; only they could manage to curse through their gills and still retain that precise air of superiority.

¶What are you doing out so late? [This question feels like a non-sequitur] He swam to one side [one side of what?] and pressed himself against the chilled marble surface [If he’s pressing himself against something it goes without saying it’s a “surface”] of the Castle’s halls, shivering when the cold bit into his skin. Even with a layered jacket and floors heated by magma tunnels, the chill of winter still numbed him.

Astral placed one of his two sensors, a took the long and skinny strand of muscle ending in a leaf-like shape that grew from the side of his tail and ended in a leaf-like shape, and placed it on the corner [on the corner of what?] so it could to sense the nearly imperceptible movements of the water made by the approaching Mer. [Extremely convoluted. Read the original version out loud]

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Introducing…The Fear Thesaurus!

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears play an important role in story and character arc, so we’ve decided to delve into this topic for our next thesaurus at Writers Helping Writers. Not just any fears, though—the virulent ones that stymie characters and derail them from their goals and dreams. To help you write your character’s greatest fear realistically, we’ll be exploring the following aspects for each entry:

What It Looks Like. Fears look different for each character based on a number of personal factors, so we’ll be providing a variety of manifestations for you to consider. Know your character’s personality, their sensitivities, and their personal boundaries—things they’re not willing to do because it will be triggering. Being intimately familiar with your character will give you a good idea of how their fear will manifest in various areas of life.

Common Internal Struggles. Fear will cause the character to doubt, obsess, and worry—many times, to an unhealthy degree. If they recognize that their preoccupation borders on the irrational or that it’s making certain desirable things impossible, that knowledge will war with their need for safety, generating internal conflict. The way they deal with it (or don’t deal with it) will have consequences that will impact their forward progress, so this is an important aspect of fear to think about.

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life. If your character has a debilitating fear, you’ll need to show it clearly to readers through the context of their current story—no expository paragraphs or info dumps. An effective way to do this is by showing how the fear impacts the various areas of the character’s life. In this field, we’ll offer ideas on the minor inconveniences and major disruptions a fear can create.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

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

PG updated this post, which first appeared in August, 2021, to include credit for the author of the OP, Tiffany Yates Martin. PG missed including her name when he first posted the item from Jane Friedman’s blog. You’ll see a link at the bottom of this post to Ms. Martin’s website.

PG regrets his oversite.

From Tiffany Yates Martin via 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 Tiffany Yates Martin via Jane Friedman

Here’s a link to Tiffany Yates Martin’s website. She is the author of Intuitive Editing.

3 Things to Ask Yourself Before Writing about Trauma

From Jane Friedman:

“Let’s rip it off quick!” My grandmother pointed at the Band-Aid on my knee.

At four, I equated Band-Aid removal with peas, waiting my turn, and going to bed. Still, I loved and trusted my grandmother, so I let her yank it off. After a momentary flash of white-hot pain, I experienced an exquisite relief. Soon after, I adopted “rip it off” as my motto.

Three decades later, during my master’s in counseling, I discovered James Pennebaker’s research on how writing about difficult events improved your health. The trauma survivor in me saw this as a dream come true. So, I began a memoir.

My initial drafting plan combined Pennebaker’s research with Grandma’s sage wisdom. If ripping off a Band-Aid created some relief, churning out one hundred pages of “look what terrible thing happened” would elevate my health and happiness to the Oprah Winfrey level. Bottle that and I’d become the world’s greatest writing coach.

Except, the exact opposite happened. Writing about endless pain depressed me. Eventually, I avoided my writing desk. When I did show up, an essential part of me cried, “No, no, no.” If I forced myself to write anyway, the work felt flat and superficial.

To write sustainably about trauma, you must P.A.CE. yourself.

  • Proactively engage in self-care.
  • Activate your internal wisdom.
  • Choose wisely and keep it contained.
  • Explore your stories with curiosity and compassion.

P.A.C.E. is an integrative approach to writing about trauma that combines proactive self-care, mindful awareness, and targeted strategies that help writers discover insights and resilience inside their painful experiences.

Activating your internal wisdom (the A in P.A.C.E.) helps you to assess what you should write, when to get started, and how to manage the process before working on painful material. The process can also help you if you’re feeling stuck.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Essential computer skills for writers

From Nathan Bransford:

In the past, nothing has quite brought out the snide emails and comments like suggesting that writers should do more than just write. (Remember when I said it’s helpful to be able to type fast? I sure do!). There’s a certain slice of writer who bristles at any suggestion that their beautiful art won’t carry the day on its own.

Look. If you want to just write, just write! You have no argument from me. It’s a wonderful and meaningful way to spend your time.

If you want to seek publication, on the other hand, it’s not enough to just write, and despite whatever gauzy nostalgia you’ve been bathing in, it’s never been enough to just write. Sorry. I don’t make the rules now, and I didn’t make them in the olden days either. As long as publishing has been a business (as in roughly 100% of the time), there have been business realities for authors too.

What I’m going to cover here isn’t that hard. You don’t need to be a TikTok star selling NFTs in the metaverse. Sure, you might need to learn a few skills or shake up some old habits, but what I’m talking about here isn’t going to upend your life.

. . . .

If you’re pursuing traditional publication, publishers want to know that you’re going to be a professional author who will do everything you can to help promote your book. If you are self-publishing, you have to find a way to give your book a boost to reach your first readers.

And these days: that means being at least somewhat online and being able to communicate in a way that’s conducive to being productive and part of a bigger team.

The pandemic has only accelerated pre-existing trends that were pushing us online. Publishing employees are now physically scattered and have finally ditched old school habits like sending out paper contracts and manuscripts.

. . . .

Understand email etiquette

Let’s start with your email address. It should be professional and shouldn’t be an address you share with your spouse. Whatever email program you use to send and receive emails shouldn’t make your missives look like gobbledygook to people who use more common email services like Gmail and Outlook.

Gmail is free and easy to use. So is Outlook. It’s (usually) not hard to move over your old emails so you keep receiving them at your new, more professional email address. You’re really not stuck forever with whatever email service you signed up for in 1998.

But apart from your email address, I also think it’s really important to understand email thread etiquette. You should not be in the habit of changing subject lines and sending emails to publishing professionals without the previous correspondence, particularly when it’s an ongoing conversation about a specific topic. You should try to get a sense of email tone, particularly when it comes to things like all caps, and make sure you’re not inadvertently coming across like you’re screaming at someone.

Be conversant in Microsoft Word

For better or worse, Microsoft Word is still the default game in town for sending and receiving word processing files. If you’re sending your manuscript to a publishing professional, chances are they’re going to want your file in a Microsoft Word (.docx) file. Not a PDF.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use Microsoft Word on a day-to-day basis. Other word processing programs like Apple Pages or Google Docs and fancy writing apps like Scrivener will export to .docx files. (I use Apple Pages as my day to day word processing program and export to Word).

Familiarize yourself with industry standard formatting, and utilize functions like page breaks. If you’re working with an editor, chances are they’re going to send your manuscript marked up with line edits and margin notes, so you’ll need to learn how to engage with these too.

Out of all the hoops you’re going to have to jump through in a publishing journey, formatting is one of the easiest. It pays to be professional here.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

As many visitors to The Passive Voice know, these and the other items mentioned in the OP have been standard for online business communications since The Stone Age, aka DOS.

It certainly is a cultural and class thing, but if you’re going to deal with traditional publishing and its various elements, you need to talk the talk, etc.

The same thing goes if you’re going to self-publish your book. Spell check, Grammar check, ideally one or more beta readers who will pick up your dumb mistakes, etc.

95% of the work you do to get a book ready for submission to a publisher is exactly what you do for self-publishing. If you doubt your own skills for proofing, grammar checking, formatting, etc., you can pay someone to perform these tasks, but, it’s still a good idea to know something about how to do it yourself.

If you’re intelligent enough to write a decent book, you’re intelligent enough to do what is necessary to self-publish that book.

10 Dangerous Critiques: Beware Misguided Writing Advice

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

One of the most damaging things a new writer can do is try to please everybody who beta-reads or critiques their WIP. I’ve seen a novel turned into a kind of jackalope of unrelated parts.

If you tend to be a “people pleaser” this can be a real problem.

I’ve been swayed by these dangerous critiques a few times myself. One of my Camilla romcom mysteries has suffered the wrath of reviewers because there’s too much realism going on with one character’s tummy tuck. I had made the mistake of taking advice from one of these dangerous critiques: A man told me with great authority what a complicated procedure a tummy tuck is. So in spite of my own experience with tummy-tucked friends who had no such complications, I let his confidence sway me. So I added way too much clinical detail to my breezy romcom.

. . . .

I learned some things.

. . . .

Sources of the Most Dangerous Critiques

1)      The Realism Brigade

These are  the folks who want to know when your characters go to the bathroom, and point out that it really isn’t all that romantic to have your first kiss in front of everybody at work, the window of a department store, or the middle of a snowstorm.

They’ll tell you that gun has too much of a kick for a young women to handle and that nobody could run that fast in high heels.

They must be so miserable in superhero movies.

The truth is that most fiction is not realistic and is not meant to be.

James Patterson said it well   “ I don’t do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I’ve written doesn’t seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing. You can say, “I don’t like what you do, or I don’t like Chagall, or I don’t like Picasso ” but saying that these things are not realistic is irrelevant.”

2)      The Detailers

These are the folks who want you to tell us the species of trees that your heroine is running through to escape the giant sabertoothed cave rats. They’ll add, “And bring in all the senses here. What do the trees smell like? What does the pathway feel like under her feet? Are there birds in the forest? Describe their songs.”

By this time the heroine has been eaten by the giant sabertoothed cave rats. And your reader is bored to tears.

Details in fiction should be like Chekhov’s Gun.  Don’t spent two pages describing trees if those trees don’t end up being an important part of the plot.

3)     Grammar Enforcers

These people may write nonfiction, or teach technical or business writing. Every one of their suggestions is correct, and they can tear through your WIP and make it read like a grammar text book.

Not exactly what people read for entertainment..

Fiction requires sentence fragments, one-word paragraphs, and unfinished clauses. Sometimes you even need to use a preposition to end a sentence with.

If you let the Grammar Enforcers get hold of your WIP, the result will send all your readers to sleep.

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

Here’s a link to Anne R. Allen’s books

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Mentor and Protégé

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.

. . . .

Mentor and Protégé

Description: This relationship consists of an experienced mentor who has achieved a measure of expertise in a given area and a protégé dedicated to learning from them and following in their footsteps. While a relationship can initially be established with this purpose in mind, the mentor/protégé dynamic typically grows out of an existing relationship (teacher/student, coach/athlete, boss/employee). The interactions between the two parties will differ based on many factors and may change over time.

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 mentor eagerly sharing the fruits of their knowledge with the protégé
A mentor taking a personal interest in their protégé
A mentor actively creating growth opportunities for the protégé—taking them to meetings and introducing them to other influencers, etc.
A mentor being open to learning from the protégé
A mentor jealously keeping the protégé to himself
A mentor who doesn’t want the protégé to move on (seeing him or her as a valuable resource rather than someone with potential) and doesn’t do what is needed to grow them
A mentor viewing the protégé as an underling to do their busy work
A brilliant mentor who isn’t necessarily good at teaching or dealing with people
A mento taking the protégé’s lack of interest or ability personally
A protégé recognizing what the mentor can provide and soaking up everything they can
A protégé seeing the relationship not just as one that benefits him but also looking for ways he can help the mentor
A protégé catching up with their mentor and growing past him or her
A protégé taking the opportunity seriously, being responsible and showing gratitude
An overconfident protégé not being open to feedback from the mentor
A protégé seeking constant instruction, feedback, and affirmation from the mentor
A reluctant protégé only putting in partial effort
An eager protégé being distracted by personal problems and not giving the relationship their all
An unwilling protégé being pushed into the relationship (by parents, a court order, etc.), resulting in apathy or resentment

Conflicting Desires that Can Impair the Relationship
The mentor wanting something different for the protégé than the protégé wants
Either party wanting more time, energy, or personal attention than the other is willing or able to give
The mentor wanting to teach a protégé who is in the relationship for subversive reasons (to gain information for someone else, to set the mentor up for failure, to humiliate them, etc.)
A protégé wanting to learn from a mentor who wants to control and subdue
The protégé wanting to be taught and mentored while the mentor wants a lackey
Both parties wanting to be “top dog” in the relationship

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

6 Cheats to “Tell” Well (When It’s Warranted)

From Writers Helping Writers:

Most of us are familiar with the “Show, don’t Tell” rule. In short, it’s more effective to dramatize the story than to simply tell what happened. Nonetheless, almost every story needs at least some telling. It can help keep the pacing tight, relay background information, and enhance tone, among other things. Here’s more on when breaking the rule can work. So how do we tell well? Here are six cheats to help you.

1. Appeal to the Senses

Good showing appeals to the senses. Basically, we have to appeal to the senses to really show a story. There is no reason moments of telling can’t appeal to the senses in a similar way. Appealing to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch can strengthen your telling just as it does with showing. It’s just that with telling, it’s usually brief, or relayed “in passing.” This example appeals to senses despite it being a telling summary:

We drove through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, stopping to cool the engine in towns where people moved with arthritic slowness and spoke in thick strangled tongues . . . At night we slept in boggy rooms where headlight beams crawled up and down the walls and mosquitoes sang in our ears, incessant as the tires whining on the highway outside. – This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

2. Use Concrete Metaphors and Similes

Some telling doesn’t lend itself to the senses very easily, because of the subject matter that needs to be told. In cases like that, you can try tying in a concrete comparison to suggest a sense. This example tells about a telepathic and emotional connection using comparisons:

At night awake in bed, he’d remember her presence. How their minds had been connected, ethereal like spider webs. How just her being there brought a sense of comfort, like a childhood blanket he hadn’t realized he’d still had.

3. Sprinkle in Details

Just as you use detail to make your showing great, you can and often should include detail in passages of telling. Mention a red leather jacket here or a specific cologne there. Of course, you won’t be including as much detail as you would with showing, but detail makes telling more realistic. One key to making this work is to pick the right details, as opposed to generic ones.


Their mom had always stressed the importance of eating dinner as a family, of stir fry nights and cloth napkins on laps, of hands held in prayer and laughter pealing off travertine, and even of the occasional green bean food fight.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

A Room of My Own

From Writer Unboxed:

I saw a photo of Alix E. Harrow on twitter recently. In it, she’s wearing a baby in a front pack and has a toddler tucked under one armpit, her eyes are glazed — probably from sleep deprivation — and she’s typing madly away. In the caption, she reveals that the manuscript she’s working on will eventually become The Once and Future Witches.

The photo made me nostalgic — I wrote my first book in much the same manner — and it also made me laugh, because–although I cannot fit my almost-adult children on my lap or under my arm anymore, nor would they be caught dead in either position–the search for a private place to write twenty years later is still ongoing.

I had an office in my first house — a loft with a tiny balcony overlooking our yard. The view was so lovely I set my desk against the wall so I wouldn’t be distracted, and I motivated myself with timed breaks on the balcony. The house had an open floor plan, which was perfect for two adults. But babies are much more distracting than views and after our first arrived, my productivity took a dive. Thankfully, we moved to another house soon after. This one had no balcony but did have the benefit of an office for me on the second floor, complete with a door that closed.

The room was large enough to hold a small couch, and often when I was working at night the door would creak open and my toddler would tiptoe in, board book and sippy cup in hand, secure in the knowledge that so long as she was quiet I wouldn’t rat her out to her dad, who had bedtime duty. I stocked the bookshelves, not just with craft tomes, but also with stuffed animals and quiet toys, and I painted the walls kid-friendly pastels. I wrote for newspapers and magazines in that room, and finished and sold my first novel from there.

But as time passed, the kids grew up and went to school. I no longer needed to barricade myself in to finish an article or chapter, no longer had to work only during nights and nap times. Oddly, now that I had what I’d longed for — a few uninterrupted hours of writing time — the office felt far too quiet. I took to wandering the house with my laptop, writing some days at the kitchen table, other times on the living room couch. When I truly felt like I was going crazy in the silence, I packed up and headed to a local library or coffee shop.

And then Covid struck. Like most everyone else, all my chickies came home to roost at once, filling the house. The two teenagers stayed mostly in their bedrooms, which left my husband. Who needed a place to work with a door that closed. A place like … my office.

On paper it made sense. He has a job that often involves discussing confidential information, whereas most of my conversations take place with people I’ve made up in my head. Even so, he was reluctant to settle in, convinced things would soon be back to normal. But as one month turned into two, then four, my beloved toys and artwork got relegated to corners where they wouldn’t show up on corporate Zoom meetings. Coffee cups and button-downs replaced tea cups and cardigans, and the aroma of lavender and scented candles no longer lingered.

My husband offered to carve out a corner for himself in the basement or the bedroom, but neither of those solutions were practical given his working hours. And even if he found space elsewhere, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to my office. I’m not a big believer in cosmic energy, but I could feel that the room wasn’t the same. Instead of my cozy nest, it now had a corporate feel, and it would take more than rehanging some art to change the vibe.

So instead, once again I became a nomad, carting my laptop and bag of files and notes from room to room. The kitchen table worked until lunchtime, when my fellow inmates needed to eat and couldn’t understand why I was surly about stopping my writing mid-sentence. The bedroom made me sleepy. The basement was quiet, but the lack of natural light made me irritable. The porch worked well on days when the weather cooperated and there were no mosquitoes, which meant about once a week. During the first surge, coffeeshops and libraries were out of the question.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Who Are You Writing For?

From Writer Unboxed:

What do I, as an author, owe to myself? What do I owe to my publisher? To my readers?

I think about this often as I promote my debut novel, Waiting for the Night Song, while simultaneously revising my forthcoming novel, The Last Beekeeper, and drafting what will hopefully become my third novel.

To whom do I owe what?

I wrote Waiting for the Night Song with no expectations. I created a story I needed to tell, not knowing if I would ever sell it. I wrote the book for myself. After landing the elusive book contract, I incorporated changes based on suggestions from my editor. At this point, I was still writing for myself — sort of.

New expectations started lining up.

I wanted to please my editor and my agent, both of whom took a gamble when they signed me. I wanted to make them proud. I wanted my book to succeed commercially. But mostly, I need this book of my heart to be mine, to be the book I had envisioned for so many years.

It was still my book, right?

Ideas, many of them bad, started sneaking into my head. Should I add more surprise twists? Books with twisty plots were topping the charts, so I added a poorly-conceived plot contortion, for no reason other than I thought readers wanted it.

I quickly deleted the ridiculous subplot because it didn’t serve the theme of my book, and this book was, after all, for me.

To be clear, my editor and agent have never pressured me to change my writing in ways that didn’t feel right for my story. They make suggestions, not demands. But after years of writing just for myself, I now feel the burden of writing for other people, as well.

I started to wonder: Was Waiting for the Night Song still mine?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Benefits of Writer Friends

From Publishers Weekly:

I’ve never been particularly great at making friends. As a woman with both ADHD and autism, small talk is hard, and reading social cues is even harder. I tend to either overshare or clam up entirely, and both have led to plenty of awkward moments that felt mortifying at the time but give me a good laugh when I look back at them. Adolescence was challenging, and masking my neurodivergence always left me exhausted, but taking off that mask and embracing neurodivergent info dumping about special interests and my directness with my peers often left me on the outskirts of social circles. My best friends in middle and high school were the characters in the books I devoured.

. . . .

I wrote, queried, and went on submission with my debut novel, A Brush with Love, without knowing anyone else who had endured the process—who could share useful strategies or advise what to expect and what questions to ask. Navigating the emotional roller coaster of the process without someone to commiserate with was tough.

As authors, our careers are steeped in vulnerability. We must be soft enough to create yet tough enough to take criticism, and then brave enough to try again. It’s an isolating journey, and one I was quickly feeling burned out from without any writer friends to lean on.

But I didn’t know where to start with finding them. I think a part of me—the awkward tween who never quite fit in anywhere—had clutched on to the hope that friends would find me, that I could be a passive bystander in developing the friendships I so greatly craved.

. . . .

So, one day, with a glass of wine providing liquid courage and absolutely zero couth, I made it a mission to actually do something to make a friend. It was as simple, albeit terrifying, as telling an author how much I loved their work and that I’d like to be their friend if they were open to it.

Can you believe that actually worked?! Because sometimes I can’t. I had no idea being direct and honest—something that had so often made me a weirdo among my peers—could allow me to form some of the most fulfilling friendships I’ve ever had.

By being vulnerable and getting out of my own way, I’ve found that other writers are also looking for that connection. We spend weeks, months, years pouring our souls into our pages, holding our hearts in the tips of our fingertips as we craft our characters and story only to rework it, restructure it, experience the highs of it being loved, and the crushing lows of it being torn apart. Being able to share all those feelings with someone who gets it—really gets it—has both taught me skills and brought me unexpected joy.

The most important aspect of cultivating these bonds is making friends simply for the joy of the relationship, not for what transactional benefit someone else can provide. One doesn’t need an endless stream of bestselling authors texting them or tweeting about their work to make the publishing experience meaningful. I’ve learned that opening up and being vulnerable with others can create a safe space for everyone to be their truest self. And that’s where the real fun begins. Whether it’s a single person or an entire group, finding friends in the chaos of publishing carries with it endless opportunities to laugh, to cry, to cheer someone’s big wins or show solidarity in the group chat when someone experiences anxiety or disappointment.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Benefits of Writer Friends

From Publishers Weekly:

I’ve rewritten the opening to this column approximately 50 times because I can’t figure out how to discuss the difficulty of making friends as an adult without it sounding, quite frankly, really sad. But it’s not sad! It’s a fact of life, and one that isn’t talked about enough.

I’ve never been particularly great at making friends. As a woman with both ADHD and autism, small talk is hard, and reading social cues is even harder. I tend to either overshare or clam up entirely, and both have led to plenty of awkward moments that felt mortifying at the time but give me a good laugh when I look back at them. Adolescence was challenging, and masking my neurodivergence always left me exhausted, but taking off that mask and embracing neurodivergent info dumping about special interests and my directness with my peers often left me on the outskirts of social circles. My best friends in middle and high school were the characters in the books I devoured.

Many of these feelings followed me into adulthood. For the first few months after I got my book deal, I was surprised by the loneliness I felt. Granted, this was relatively early in the pandemic, and loneliness was a common issue for many of us, but I felt like a new kid stepping into a cafeteria, unsure where to sit. Was there a table where I even belonged? What nuances did writerly interactions have that I might be missing? And so much was happening around me—revisions and edits and a general sense of having no clue what was going on (or if anything was happening with my book at all… publishing epitomizes “hurry up and wait”).

I wrote, queried, and went on submission with my debut novel, A Brush with Love, without knowing anyone else who had endured the process—who could share useful strategies or advise what to expect and what questions to ask. Navigating the emotional roller coaster of the process without someone to commiserate with was tough.

As authors, our careers are steeped in vulnerability. We must be soft enough to create yet tough enough to take criticism, and then brave enough to try again. It’s an isolating journey, and one I was quickly feeling burned out from without any writer friends to lean on.

But I didn’t know where to start with finding them. I think a part of me—the awkward tween who never quite fit in anywhere—had clutched on to the hope that friends would find me, that I could be a passive bystander in developing the friendships I so greatly craved.

. . . .

So, one day, with a glass of wine providing liquid courage and absolutely zero couth, I made it a mission to actually do something to make a friend. It was as simple, albeit terrifying, as telling an author how much I loved their work and that I’d like to be their friend if they were open to it.

Can you believe that actually worked?! Because sometimes I can’t. I had no idea being direct and honest—something that had so often made me a weirdo among my peers—could allow me to form some of the most fulfilling friendships I’ve ever had.

By being vulnerable and getting out of my own way, I’ve found that other writers are also looking for that connection. We spend weeks, months, years pouring our souls into our pages, holding our hearts in the tips of our fingertips as we craft our characters and story only to rework it, restructure it, experience the highs of it being loved, and the crushing lows of it being torn apart. Being able to share all those feelings with someone who gets it—really gets it—has both taught me skills and brought me unexpected joy.

The most important aspect of cultivating these bonds is making friends simply for the joy of the relationship, not for what transactional benefit someone else can provide. One doesn’t need an endless stream of bestselling authors texting them or tweeting about their work to make the publishing experience meaningful. I’ve learned that opening up and being vulnerable with others can create a safe space for everyone to be their truest self. And that’s where the real fun begins. Whether it’s a single person or an entire group, finding friends in the chaos of publishing carries with it endless opportunities to laugh, to cry, to cheer someone’s big wins or show solidarity in the group chat when someone experiences anxiety or disappointment.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

“Perfect to Me”: How Self-Editing Can Take Your Novel to the Next Stage

From Writers Helping Writers:

Part of the trick of hiring an editor is knowing when your manuscript is ready to hand over to them. There’s no point submitting a draft that you already know has POV issues or structural problems. The ideal situation I like to be in when I deliver my manuscript to an editor is that I think it’s perfect. Of course, it never is, but “perfect to me” means I’ve done everything I know how to do. That way, the editor will teach me something.

There are three main types of edits: developmental, line, and proofreading. At each stage, an author can do a lot of self-editing to create a “perfect-to-me” manuscript.

The Developmental Stage

A developmental edit tackles big-picture issues: plot, structure, characterization, point of view and the like. It can be hard to see where a novel isn’t working on a substantive level. Sometimes you know it’s not working but can’t figure out why. In both cases, I find it helpful to work through structural exercises.

List the major structural elements that should appear in a novel and fill in the blanks. You can go as basic as three-act structure (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.) or you can get more detailed with something like a Save the Cat beat sheet. It amounts to the same thing: a novel must build momentum and it does this by hitting certain pivotal moments. If while doing this exercise you discover you’ve skipped a step or two, that’s probably where your problem lies.

Literary agent Hannah Sheppard boils this process down to a single sentence: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe). Try filling it in. If you can’t, you’ll know there’s a problem.

One of the most common developmental issues I encounter as an editor is the protagonist’s lack of a strong, measurable goal. This goal needs to power the main character through the whole manuscript. One way to test this is to write a synopsis of the novel. Yuk, I know. A synopsis shows flaws. It’s a scary process. If you can’t boil your story down to a few pages that clearly trace a protagonist’s quest for a goal, you’ve got trouble.

Another thing a synopsis will reveal is causality (or the lack of it). If you find yourself connecting plot elements with the words, “and then,” (as opposed to “but,” or “therefore”), your story won’t be building the momentum it needs to hold a reader’s attention.

Has your protagonist done something at the end of the novel that he couldn’t have done at the beginning? If not, you have a character arc issue.

I could write an entire piece on point of view—and indeed, many editors have. Go read a few of them. I will say one thing here. It seems like it would be easiest to write in omniscient so you have access to every character’s thoughts. In fact, it’s the hardest POV to master.

Don’t be tempted to add new business to a novel to solve an existing problem. Often, you simply haven’t delivered on the promises you’ve made.

Most clients I deal with believe one developmental edit is all their novel needs. In fact, it takes several passes to wrinkle out developmental issues. Writing a novel is (or should be) like building a house of cards. Remove one card and half the house topples. Developmental edits are hard for that reason. As soon as you solve one problem, you’ve created five others. You should not expect this to be a quick and simple job. Most writers are in too much of a rush. Good work takes time. A novel benefits greatly from smoking on the shelf for a month or so after a major edit. Indeed, time might be the best editor of all.

Sometimes clients are tempted to skip the developmental stage. Because they’ve worked for so long on their novels and have used beta readers, they believe they can jump straight into a line edit and (bonus) save some money. Skipping the developmental stage is like building a house on sand. Even when I’ve worked for a year on a novel and finally decide it’s ready to send to my publisher, the first thing they do is assign me—you guessed it—a developmental editor.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Listening Hard to Write Well

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

The acclaimed writer Eudora Welty once noted that “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them.”

Wow. There’s so much for a writer to unpack in this brief but profound observation. How many times have I rushed headlong into drafting a novel without taking time to listen for the real story—the story behind the story?

Welty wrote often about characters who were not listened to, but of course, that is entirely different from listening for the emotional beats that drive a story forward; the unspoken longings that define characters in a subterranean way; and source material that may come from anywhere and everywhere.

Welty had a way of boiling down the power of listening to a primal force: “Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

. . . .

I think there’s a strong case to add listening to the common list of five senses—hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. After all, the senses are the building blocks of fiction. Even in the most far-out, world-building sci-fi novels, the writer still grounds the reader in her senses, whether it’s the cold blackness of space or the terrifying grip of alien tentacles.

As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, rather cryptically, but with a nod to the all-encompassing nature of listening well, “We are listening. To the sun. To the stars. To the wind.”

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