Writing Advice

7 Signs You’re Stuck in Research Hell

26 May 2017

From Writerology:

I used to be the absolute worst at research. It wasn’t the research process I couldn’t handle—just that my research never ended. I didn’t know when I had enough information to reinforce my outline. I never called my research “done” and turned my attention to writing.

A lot of my story ideas languished in the research phase, never making it to draft form. Certainly part of the problem was my inexperience. I didn’t know how to slap myself on the wrist and say, “You’ve googled enough.” But insecurity also played a big part. I had convinced myself that I didn’t know enough to write my stories well. I thought that if I just read one more book, watched one more video, visited one more museum, I would finally have “all the information” to write the story.

. . . .

Sign 1:

Your Story Sounds Like a Textbook 

People read textbooks to learn. They read fiction for entertainment. A book that is dry, lacking a compelling plot, and devoid of sympathetic characters will lose readers’ interest within five pages.

If this sounds like you, the problem might be that you’ve spent so long reading academic and technical books for your research that you’ve shut off your “fiction brain.”

. . . .

 Sign 3:

You’ve Forgotten What Your Story is Really About
Maybe when you started it was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set at the height of the Mongolian empire—and now there’s all kinds of stuff in there about bow mechanics, religious rituals, horses, a side plot about tattooing, and what was the climax supposed to be again?

It’s okay to be inspired by your research, as long as that research doesn’t send you off on a tangent (or twelve) that will confuse your view of the plot.

Link to the rest at Writerology

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A Crash Course in YA Taught Me How to Write

24 May 2017

From The Literary Hub:

This is how I wrote when I was in my early twenties: I would get an idea or an image for the beginning of a story and I would hope that the rest of the story would sort of suggest itself (this hardly ever happened) and I would try to find a structure that would help the story along (this hardly ever happened, either) and I would start writing and hope I could make the story longer than six pages (this almost never happened) and that the story might have a plot (in fact this never did happen), and then I’d stop writing and go out and get falling-down drunk with all my writer friends (this happened a lot).

Now I’m in my mid—okay, late—forties and while I’m not a fan of the aging process (I recently learned that 50 percent of one’s lifetime supply of freckles appear after age 40 and I’m not sure I have space for them), the good news is that writing gets easier. It doesn’t get easier on its own, but it does get easier. Lots of stuff happened in the intervening 20 years to make it easier. I wrote and published over 20 young-adult novels, for one thing. The very first young-adult novel I was contracted to write was the 24th book in a series of teen romances, and along with the contract (which I signed recklessly, as I was to sign a great many other contracts) was a detailed outline by the original author of the series. I saw right away that this author knew something I didn’t: how to plan ahead. Worries about the structure and plot, which had plagued me for so long, were no longer a problem. And then I realized that the contract I’d so casually signed stated that I needed to write a 125,000-word novel based on the outline and it was due in six weeks, and presto! that took care of the worry about the page-length, and regrettably, also the falling-down drunk part, because it meant I went from being a writer who hardly ever wrote to a writer who wrote all the time. My publisher liked my first book (to this day, I remember none of it, remember nothing but an animal fear of the deadline), and then I wrote the rest of the series (three more books) based on ever-sketchier outlines from the author, outlines that I learned to fill in myself. Then I wrote other books, for other series. Eventually, I was allowed to start several series of my own, under my own pseudonym, based on the publisher’s ideas (these ideas were often vague, like, “We want a series about a group of college kids in Colorado”), provided I showed them detailed outlines for the books in advance.

Before I was really aware of it, I was writing a book every two months.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

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Television’s Best Shows Are Taking Their Cues From Literature

21 May 2017

From Vulture:

Over the past decade, there’s been a continual debate about whether TV is, in one sense or another, “the new movies.” This lively argument has drowned out another, more fascinating development: scripted television’s raiding of literature for devices that it places in service of its own storytelling, then transforms into something that’s part literature, part cinema, but ultimately and distinctively television.

. . . .

But the recent iterations of voice-overs have been more ambitious and varied — and while some of these started out as the by-products of an attempt to be faithful to a literary source, there have been as many or more original examples, and their execution has become confident and sophisticated. Jane the Virgin’s narration is third-person and slyly aware of itself as a device. Ditto Netflix’s House of Cards (adapted from a British original with the same device), in which Kevin Spacey’s anti-hero tantalizes the audience like a monologuing Shakespearean hero. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel) and USA Network’s Mr. Robot (an original series) have narration in the manner of a Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick film, granting us access to thoughts that the main characters can’t speak out loud because doing so would trigger their arrests. The most provocative narration makes the audience question the narrator’s relationship to the story they’re watching and ask if they can trust their eyes and ears. An ongoing argument about the reliability of Jane the Virgin’s narrator appeared to be settled this season when the oft-foreshadowed death of a main character finally came to pass.

. . . .

Television’s literary touches aren’t confined to voice-over. We’re seeing more series that break their stories up into chapters that are pointedly identified as chapters, complete with onscreen titles identifying them as such: Netflix’s Stranger Things, Master of None, and Dear White People all do this. The Coen brothers–derived FX anthology Fargo — whose producer, Noah Hawley, started out as a novelist — made similar literary affectations official in season two, when it kicked off a new episode with a framing device narrated by actor Martin Freeman (who appeared onscreen in season one) establishing that everything you’d seen in both seasons of the show was drawn from a book about violent crime in the Midwest.

. . . .

The most fascinating development of all, though, is the way that scripted TV shows uniformly seem to be striving to develop an instantly identifiable voice, one that’s as strong as anything we’d hope to encounter in a thoughtful work of fiction. This is increasingly true, whether the series runs a half-hour or an hour, is ongoing or an anthology, and whether or not it has voice-over narration, and whether it is drawn from a book or play. Look back at television from as recently as the mid-’90s and you’ll notice a tedious sameness in the storytelling, an almost factorylike capitulation to norms. Discounting such striking outliers as The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, Miami Vice, and other pantheon-ready classics, it was rare to encounter a TV show that could be described as having a voice in the way that you could say that a play or novel had a voice. There often wasn’t much difference between the way a typical sitcom, a mystery, an action series, and a nighttime soap told their stories. Things usually unfolded in a reliably linear way, with characters pausing occasionally to verbally sum up what we’d just seen.

Link to the rest at Vulture

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Why Continuity Is Key for Authors

19 May 2017

From Digital Book World:

Writing a book is a herculean task, but writing a series is even more difficult. You have to keep track of so many elements: plot, characterization, setting, narrative arcs, subplots, relationships amongst your characters, and which character to kill next—assuming you’re a mystery author, and maybe even if you aren’t. Then there are all those pesky little continuity details that you swear you’ll remember because you created this world and the people who live in it, and no one knows it better than you.

All goes well until you hit “publish” and a reader writes in asking why the hero has blue eyes in Book 3 when they’ve always been a dreamy chocolate color. Then another reader asks when the mother character got a dog, and whatever happened to the cat she had? Now you’re scrambling to find the errors and wondering how you could have forgotten such basic details.

. . . .

A compelling story that keeps your reader engaged relies on your efforts to maintain continuity. Continuity creates a bridge between your books, continues the timeline, and maps out your story world. With strong continuity, your fictional world will be more descriptive, more interesting, more unique, and more real.

. . . .

I once attended a talk with a very successful author who confessed that she didn’t write descriptive prose because she didn’t want to forget anything. What a loss to her readers! Descriptions about the physicality of your characters and the world they inhabit bring the story to life for the reader. If your descriptions are too generic, then your world becomes more of a prop than a real place, and your characters become interchangeable and forgettable.

I read broadly in the cozy mystery genre, but I’m embarrassed to say I can only think of two series whose Midwestern settings feel authentic rather than generic. Of course, many cozy mystery series are set in the Midwest, and I’ve read most of them, but the worlds just don’t stand out. They have all blended together into a blur of vague small towns. Maintaining vibrant descriptions over the course of your series will set your world apart.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

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Espresso is all that stands between us and creative defeat

15 May 2017

From The Guardian:

Ideally I write in a silent room with a magnificent and inspiring view of the natural world. I do not always have access to such a room. Instead I have street noise and an inbox full of administrative email, and if I’m really unlucky, actual phone calls to make. When I was depressed and unpublished and in my early 20s, I developed a full-blown phone phobia. I could put off the simplest call for days at a time. I still hate having to talk to the bank or the accountant, and find it hard to concentrate on writing until I’ve dealt with that kind of task.

Both Katie and I write at home. When the sitter turns up at 10am, the household settles down. I used to waste an improbable amount of time, but I don’t have that luxury now. I create my space with headphones, big over-the-ear cans that block out the world. I play music, usually something very minimal at low volume, just enough to trick myself into the meditative concentration I need to write. No vocal music for obvious reasons, though vocals can be OK if they’re in a language I don’t understand. When something works, it disappears and becomes an environment in which I can think.

. . . .

I have a desktop computer and a laptop. For a novel I make a single Word document, but rename it every morning, so I have a way to track versions if I need to dig out something I cut. I make notes on paper, in spiral-bound notebooks, but my handwriting is terrible, particularly if I’m trying to set ideas down quickly, and it’s much faster to type. I back up. I can’t understand writers who don’t back up. I look at a monitor jacked up to eye height on a pile of books. My desk is usually cluttered. I recently bought myself a good keyboard (one with mechanical switches, but that’s not too loud) and I wish I’d succumbed to keyboard fetishism years ago. What can I say? It’s a nicer ride. I spend a lot of time on the internet, but some of it’s research. My concentration is better when I’m not toggling between my Word doc and 30 different tabs on a browser.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus

15 May 2017

From The Harvard Business Review:

The ability to focus is an important driver of excellence. Focused techniques such as to-do lists, timetables, and calendar reminders all help people to stay on task. Few would argue with that, and even if they did, there is evidence to support the idea that resisting distraction and staying present have benefits: practicing mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, for example, can enhance leadership effectiveness by helping you become more able to regulate your emotions and make sense of past experiences.  Yet as helpful as focus can be, there’s also a downside to focus as it is commonly viewed.

The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.

So what do we do then? Focus or unfocus?

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memories, goes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

. . . .

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

Link to the rest at Harvard Business Review

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50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

12 May 2017

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

I won’t be celebrating.

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

. . . .

After Strunk’s death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.

This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.

Notice what I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless. Some of the recommendations are vapid, like “Be clear” (how could one disagree?). Some are tautologous, like “Do not explain too much.” (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn’t.) Many are useless, like “Omit needless words.” (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.) Even so, it doesn’t hurt to lay such well-meant maxims before novice writers.

Even the truly silly advice, like “Do not inject opinion,” doesn’t really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.) But despite the “Style” in the title, much in the book relates to grammar, and the advice on that topic does real damage. It is atrocious. Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy. Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations.

. . . .

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying “The bill was paid by me,” with no stress on “me,” would sound inane. (I’m the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. “The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor” sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.

After this unpromising start, there is some fairly sensible style advice: The authors explicitly say they do not mean “that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice,” which is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.

Sadly, writing tutors tend to ignore this moderation, and simply red-circle everything that looks like a passive, just as Microsoft Word’s grammar checker underlines every passive in wavy green to signal that you should try to get rid of it. That overinterpretation is part of the damage that Strunk and White have unintentionally done. But it is not what I am most concerned about here.

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

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This Is Why Character Development Takes So Long To Master

10 May 2017

From A Writer’s Path:

On a page, you are in control of time. Outside of it, you aren’t.

I have read and experienced many fascinating stories in my lifetime.

I have also experienced many poorly executed stories.

The deal breaker for me are a story’s characters. If, by the climax of a story, I do not care what happens to them, if I am not devastated by the possibility of an imaginary person failing or dying, then I cannot in good conscience call it a good story.

But more importantly, if a story’s main characters don’t transform from start to finish with great significance, I walk away disappointed.

. . . .

Someone writing their first story will not have yet mastered the complex process that is fully developing at least one character. It doesn’t mean they’re bad at writing… this is just something that takes many, many pages’ worth of writing experience to come even close to getting right.

. . . .

A typical character arc, as you know, begins with some kind of life-altering event. What was once normal is no longer tangible. Character development is the process of a fictional person essentially “growing up” as they learn from the string of events that originally set their story in motion.

But that’s the easy part. Throw in the fact that people turn up their noses at cliches and stories that are too predictable. Keeping someone interested in a story as you work through on paper how to get a character from point A to point X is one of the most challenging parts of writing a full-length novel.

Link to the rest at A Writer’s Path.

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Put Baby in the Corner: Write Yourself Into a Corner

5 May 2017

From Janice Hardy’s Fiction University:

I’m about to suggest something that many folks will point to and say, “No! Bad advice, don’t listen to her!”

Write yourself into a corner.

I do this a lot, because I like to get my characters into as much trouble as possible without always knowing how they’ll get out of it. For me, this makes the story more unpredictable, because if I don’t know how they’re going to get out of it going in, how can the reader figure it out?

It keeps me very in the moment and close in the protagonist’s head. I get to decide what to do based on the information at hand (as opposed to knowing how it will unfold), and I’m not unconsciously (or consciously) nudging them toward the solution the entire time. I’ve found that when I know exactly how my protagonist is going to get out of trouble when I start a scene, I let my bad guys slack off and only do what’s needed to fit plot. The tension drops off because the bad guys aren’t really trying.

Link to the rest at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

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Thanks to My OCD, I Wrote a Self-Published Best-Seller

25 April 2017
Comments Off on Thanks to My OCD, I Wrote a Self-Published Best-Seller

From author Max Altschuler via MediaShift:

Whenever I leave a room, I flicker the lights on and off twice. If any object isn’t exactly where it belongs — a dish, the remote, the clock by my bed — then I need to fix it before I can move on to the next thing, let alone leave the house.

I know I have some level of OCD. But at this point, I’m not looking to treat it. That’s because I’ve learned to harness it professionally. Without it, I wouldn’t have written a book during a week-long vacation. I self-published it upon return, made six figure profits within months, and turned down an offer from a major traditional publisher — until eventually selling them the reprint rights.

While most people don’t share my obsessions and compulsions, anyone can learn from the steps I took to write and publish in little time.

My career focuses on sales and technology. As I learn things, I store them in compartments in my brain, filing them into specific folders where they belong.

Most people won’t do this mentally, but anyone can do it literally. Within your area of expertise, keep your knowledge organized somewhere, such as document folders in the cloud. As these build up, you’ll have the raw materials for a book. (This applies primarily to non-fiction, but can also help fiction writers store information necessary for the details they’re writing about — historical epics, industries, etc.)

. . . .

Specialized how-to business books of about 30,000 words can do quite well. This is particularly true when you sell a book about selling — to people who sell. I knew this about my market.

Just as importantly, I had established myself as a known quantity within my niche: where sales and technology meet. Through my work at Sales Hacker and the big conferences I was running, I had built up the right connections who would help spread the word. And I had a substantial e-mail list that would make initial marketing a breeze.

In my professional community, Amazon is generally the first place people turn to for books. So I hired an editor to format it and made it available on Amazon, as e-book and print-on-demand.

Soon after, I received an offer from a traditional publisher. But I saw no reason to give another company the vast majority of the money. Later, after months of steady sales, I had moved on to other projects. I agreed to sell the reprint rights to Wiley. They worked with me to expand the book a bit (it’s now at 35,000 words), and made it available in brick-and-mortar stores as well.

Link to the rest at MediaShift. Here’s a link to Max Altschuler’s book. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

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