Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

From Writers Helping Writers:

Have you ever felt unqualified for a job even though you have extensive training? Do you ever shy away from giving advice because you believe that what you have to say is wrong or unimportant—even though you know what you’re talking about? 

When I graduated and took on my first clients, I had nightmares about how others would receive me. I questioned myself constantly; Do you know what you’re talking about? Who would trust you to guide their writing? Regardless of the knowledge and experience I had, that little voice in the back of my mind continued to cast doubt, uncertainty, and fear.

I lived with this feeling for years. In fact, I still struggle with it. I figured it was a part of my brain trying to make me better at my craft, so I continued learning and growing. What I didn’t know is that this feeling doesn’t go away, at least not on its own. You have to consciously work to eradicate it.

I didn’t know until recently that this feeling had a name: impostor syndrome. It’s not a diagnosed syndrome, but around 70% of creative minds struggle with this issue. That’s a sizable portion of us. Impostor syndrome is the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite accomplishments. It is the feeling that all of your accomplishments result from luck. It is a psychological phenomenon to which most creatives can relate.

For writers, impostor syndrome attacks your unique “voice”, and it can be the worst feeling in the world. It causes anxiety, stress, fear, low self-confidence, and even shame and depression. If allowed to go unchecked, it can lead to less risk-taking and missed opportunities. 

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Touching Your Audience Deeply through Viewpoint

From Story Doctor Dave Farland:

Almost every time a book is made into film, you will hear the comment over and over, “The book was better.”

Some time ago I was talking to a friend of Christopher Paolini, whose novel Eragon was made into a movie, and some fans of the books were so disappointed in the film adaptation, that they actually sent death threats to the author. Sorry folks, but in this case, poor Christopher didn’t have any control in making the movie. Maybe there will be a better adaptation in a couple years.

There’s a huge reason why the book is better, or should always be better. The reason is that the book can transport you into the story better. But it only works if you do it right.

When you write a story, for each scene you need to choose your viewpoint character. Often this is the protagonist. Let’s call him Brad. As an author, you use your protagonist as something like a camera. You show the reader the world through Brad’s eyes, just as if he were a camera. You let us hear the world through Brad’s ears, just as if he were a camera.

But Brad is more than a camera. You show us through internal dialog what Brad is thinking. Now, a voiceover can do that on film, but the technique is not often used. You can also let us smell the world and feel the world—two things that cameras can’t do. You can let us know what Brad is feeling—something that the camera might reveal but only if the actor and the director are talented enough to catch it. You can report on Brad’s motions, give information on what it feels like to jump or run—things that cameras can’t do. You can report on variations in temperature or the texture of surfaces.

In fact, if you think about it, a novel allows you to transport Brad in several ways that a camera can’t, and that tends to make your book a better medium for storytelling than a film.

Here’s the thing. Readers subconsciously recognize the lack. Have you ever gone to the dentist and had your mouth numbed with Novocaine, then gone out to eat afterward? Even the best meal doesn’t satisfy your taste buds when they’re out of commission.

A film doesn’t normally convey the sense of smell, taste, touch, kinetic motion, or the character’s thoughts. Film can be poor at revealing a character’s interior emotions and intent. In other words, watching a film is like being anesthetized. The reader is cut off from so many senses, that really, it’s surprising that viewers get much from it at all.

But the thing that I want to point out is that the book as a medium for storytelling only works if you put it to use. For example, I’ve read a lot of stories where the writer won’t even commit to a viewpoint character. The writer won’t show us the character’s thoughts and feelings, their internal hopes and fears.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Theatrical Shortcuts for Dynamic Fiction

From SWFA:

I’m often asked if my professional theatre and playwrighting background helps me as a fiction writer. It does in countless ways. Theatrical form, training, and structure are holistically integrated into how I see the world and operate as a storyteller. I adore diving deep into character, creating atmosphere, and ‘setting the stage’ for my novels. I became a traditionally published novelist many years after I’d established myself on stage and published as a playwright.

I teach a workshop called “Direct Your Book: Theatre Techniques Towards A Blockbuster Novel” about using theatrical concepts to invigorate, inspire, and problem-solve in fiction writing. Here’s what I’ve found to be the most consistently useful takeaways:

Physicality. One of my favorite aspects of character building when taking on a role is figuring out how they move; where their “center of gravity” is, whether the gut, the chest, or the head; what part of their body leads the way? Thinking about this can really ground you in the bodies of your characters and how they interact with their world.

Environment. I’m a licensed New York City tour guide and there’s really nothing like moving through the streets your characters move through and truly living in all those details. In my Spectral City series, I utilize many of the city’s most haunted paths as the routes my psychic medium heroine takes to navigate the city. Her noting the various haunts of the city creates a sort of ‘lived in’ feel to the prose and to her experiences as a psychic detective. There is something to be said sometimes for writing ‘what you know’. If at all possible, visiting a place that informs your world directly, or inspires it if your world is a secondary one, can add so much in detail and expansive sensory experience. You can pair the experience of walking and drinking in this environment by thinking of the characters’ physicality and qualities of movement as you do so.

Clothing. Even if it isn’t a period piece, clothing tells a lot about a world and how characters live in it. Every clothing choice is an act of world-building. If your work is historical or historically informed, I suggest spending time in clothing from the time period. Try to rent something or commission something you could walk, run, move, and interact in for a period of time that helps you understand how garments inform movement, posture, breathing, existing. These things change radically across class and area of the world. For my part, as most of my novels are set in the late 19th century, the most important gift the theatre gave my historical novels is a tactile reality and personal experience ‘existing’ in other time periods with which I can paint details. In the 19th century, for example, women could be wearing an average of 40 pounds of clothing and that significantly affects one’s daily life. Knowing what it is like to move, sit, prepare food, lift, climb stairs, walk, trot, run, seize, weep, laugh, recline, jump and collapse in a corset, bodice, bustle, petticoat, hat, layers, gloves, and other accessories–all of which I’ve personally experienced in various historical plays and presentations I’ve acted in–is vitally important to taking the reader physically as well as visually and emotionally through a character’s experience. It changes breathing, posture, and interactions with the environment and others in a core, defining way.

Link to the rest at SWFA

The Power of Pronouns

From Writers in the Storm:

Some of the smallest words in English (and other languages) are pronouns, but they have a profound impact on meaning and emotions. Using them well in our writing is a powerful shortcut to help our readers.

Pronouns can be proclamations of our psyches to the world, about how we feel about ourselves and others around us. Pronouns can bring us comfort and they can bring us pain. Pronouns can drive us to rage or drop us into tears.

Pronouns are declarations separating us from them. They can bring us together. And they can accuse them.

Sit with this simple sentence for a moment:

Look at what they are doing to my city.

More than likely when you read that sentence, your inner voice reacted. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think about?

Consider this sentence below and notice what changing the pronouns does to the tone, feel, and imagery.

Look at what we are doing to our city.  

Pronouns are debated in Washington. Laws are made surrounding them. The usage of the right pronoun can make us feel included. Conversely, the misuse or misattribution of a pronoun can be used as a weapon.

It is for these reasons that the proper use and care of pronouns should be given in our writing. All our writing: articles, books, emails, and social media. As writers, we have a responsibility to use pronouns with the highest level of ethics and personal moral standards.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Writing and Hiking

From Writer Unboxed:

Charles Dickens died this day, June 9, 150 years ago. He gave many pieces of writing advice throughout his incredible career, the most famous, and probably best, of which was: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” It was the motto against which he judged his own work.

He also recognized the toll writing can take on an author, the “wear and tear,” and saw the importance of taking a break from writing, of having distractions away from quill and ink, computer and keyboard.

You must remember that in all your literary aspiration, and whether thinking or writing, it is indispensably necessary to relieve that wear and tear of the mind by some other exertion that may be wholesomely set against it.

For many writers, that relief comes from walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. For Nietzsche, “Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.” And JK Rowling finds inspiration in walking too: “Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.”

. . . .

Research backs up the idea of walking to improve creativity. A 2014 study by behavioral scientists Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University stated that, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

The study, entitled Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking, goes on to say that, “Walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after.”

. . . .

There are many parallels between walking and writing. Just as walking is about putting one foot after another, writing is – in its very basic form – one word after another. Remembering that as you go for a walk, especially a long walk, can help you get over any blocks you might be experiencing in your writing.

Five, ten or fifteen miles can seem like a long way when you first set off, just as the prospect of writing an 80,000 word novel (perhaps more the equivalent of the entire Pacific Northwest Trail) can be daunting. But one foot/one word in front of the other eventually gets you there. And the sense of achievement at the end can be exhilarating. Even more so, I’d argue, when completing a novel.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

My Experiences Writing and Publishing as a Teen

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

For me, the biggest difference between writing as a teen and as an adult is being able to write how teenagers think, what it’s like to be in school, because you’re not looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, looking back on it with nostalgia; you don’t have to remember what it was like, you’re still there. Even just after having been out of school for a few years, I read my work and think the choices of my characters are somewhat idiotic. But I wrote it when I was their age. When it seemed reasonable. And I’m aware that I have to hold on to that as I get older if I want to keep writing about teenage characters. 

I can see the differences in my writing from when I was teenager, both in that my writing ability has improved, and that my ability to plan and plot has improved. I’ve also moved past the fear that people are only telling me my writing is good because I’m a kid and they want to be encouraging.  

I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I started with fanfiction of whatever was my favourite book, movie, or video game at the time. Eventually, I started introducing my own characters into these worlds and stories, and then I moved on to creating my own world for my characters to live in. I quickly realised that I wanted to be a writer, to publish books, to share my stories. 

The only reason I was able to publish at my age was because of my parents. They saw that I had a passion for writing and were willing to indulge me for at least one book, to pay to have it self-published so that I could have that achievement under my belt. It was their idea that I would write more as a hobby, a side career, but would do something else as a main job. Then my mum, whose favourite author is Tom Clancy, read my young adult fantasy book, and said it was good. Amazing. Better than she had been expecting. 

. . . .

The hardest thing about publishing as a teenager was that I couldn’t work full time. I was trying to finish my manuscript to submit while in the last years of high school. I never had time to work on it because I either had school work to do, or I was too stressed out to have any good ideas. 

However, when it wasn’t so stressful, school was the source of my inspiration. I would sit in class and daydream about what my characters running across the rooftops of the other buildings and what adventures they might be off on; what evil they could be fighting while everyone else in the school was none the wiser.

I also came up with ideas as a result of being bullied. I would imagine what it would be like to be the characters in my favourite books; to have problems that didn’t revolve around who I was going to sit with at lunch, and if I could take the constant jibes from a certain girl, always delivered under her breath so no one else would hear. What if I could be Valkyrie in Skulduggery Pleasant, going on grand adventures and saving the world? What would I have to save the world from? Who would my villain be? Certainly, someone I would stand up to for taunting me.

Because of these thoughts I decided that I wanted my main characters to be from different walks of life – at least school life. I wanted to make a scenario where it wasn’t just the quirky kid that gets bullied who goes on a magical adventure, because as much as I wanted to escape some of the people I went to school with, I couldn’t. I wanted to bring the social environment of school into a different situation, and try to experiment with how this would make the characters interact.

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

The Shiver Test

From David Farland, Story Doctor:

When you’re brainstorming a new story, how do you know that it will be good?

Recently a young writer presented me with an outline for a novel that was nicely formed, had an interesting protagonist, and appeared to be well designed. She said, “It’s almost all there, but I don’t quite feel that it’s bestseller material yet.”

She was right. It was excellent in several ways, but it felt as if it lacked something. I had to think a minute to decide what that “special something” was. I realized that the story didn’t pass the shiver test.

What’s the shiver test?

It’s a phrase that I came up with years ago. I remember sitting in on a meeting with some producers. I was working as a greenlighting analyst at the time, and we were looking at a script that was nicely written. One of the producers came up with a little plot twist and said, “What if we did this. . . .”

The lead producer in the group said, “Oooh, that gave me shivers!” And the others in the room said, “Yeah, that gave me shivers, too!” I knew immediately that we’d need to rewrite the climax of that film to incorporate the change.
At the time, I recalled hearing an agent and an editor talking about a novel, and both had mentioned that the very concept “gave me the chills.”

A great idea for a story will give you shivers. Your basic concept for a story, even a little short story, should generate the combined sense of wonder and excitement that causes your reader to get chills. In order to arouse that sense of wonder, the idea has to be fresh, perhaps even unique. You can’t arouse wonder with an idea we’ve all seen done before. And the idea has to be weighty enough so that it causes excitement, so that it gets each listener thinking about the possibilities.

Sometimes it’s not the story idea as a whole that gives us the chills, but a smaller component of the package.

For example I might get the chills when I hear a cool concept for a setting, or a stunning idea for a character, or an exciting idea for a conflict. Other times it might be an exhilarating plot twist, or a great way to raise the tension. A great metaphor can give me chills. So can a beautifully written hook or a lovely description.

Link to the rest at David Farland, Story Doctor

Here’s a link to David Farland’s Author Page on Amazon

How to Become a Self-Published Author

From Stage32.com:

It was back in 2010 when I was first approached about publishing a novel. I was a lighter shade of Latina actress who had met the frustration of waiting for casting directors and agents to notice me, and see me as Latina enough…so I decided to write my own stage play. It was my autobiographical, coming of age story, that would show people once and for all who I was, instead of waiting for them to see and find a place for me. My one-woman stage play (Brownsville Bred) took the festival circuit by storm and within one year I was performing it Off-Broadway and to critical acclaim.

The book packager, who shall remain nameless, was absolutely wonderful, experienced and best of all she loved my story and believed in me as a writer.

. . . .

My book packager sat me down and told me how it “Usually” worked. It seemed that “usually” they (the packager or publisher) hire a GHOST WRITER–someone who comes in, listens to your story, and reads your work, before diving in to write their version of your story. The ghostwriter never gets credited as the Author, but they are still the person who is actually writing the book.

“Hold up…wait a minute,” I said. “I am a writer!” But it wasn’t that easy. I had to prove that I could write in prose and that I did. One sample chapter later and I proved to her (and to myself) that I was able to write prose just as well as I wrote for the stage. I was handed the STANDARD publishing contract–which is…to put it delicately…HORRIBLE. For the most part, it says you get about twenty-five cents per book, and you give up your rights to the book, TV, and Film.

As a writer/filmmaker, the cents didn’t matter to me nearly as much as the TV and film rights did, and luckily for me, she quickly took it out of our contract. So we had the deal and now it was time to write the book, right? Kind of. I learned the lesson that most book publishers only want a package that would include an intro, an About The Author page, and about three or four sample chapters–this because anyone who picks it up will want a hand on the direction they want it to take.

Long story short, within three months we had a great package, sample chapters, and people willing to bring it into their publishing house pitch meetings. I was never in on those meetings so I can’t tell you exactly how those went. But I can tell you that my packager described these folks as “LOVING” the materials. I even got the words, “No one could love it more than her”…but still, it was rejected by the ultimate decision-makers. That process repeated a few times and before long, my one-year agreement with my packager was up.

. . . .

It was also around the same time that the publishing world was changing. Kindle was managing to do to the book publishing world what Napster had done to the record industry. The world was changing and my story, about a Puerto Rican girl growing up in the welfare projects of Brownsville Brooklyn, proved “too dark” for the YA readers they had in mind for it.

With that, I took the experience and told myself that it had veered my journey away from the on-screen journey that I had hoped for the story. But I am a firm believer in “everything happens for a reason…moreover a GOOD reason and it’s up to us to find that reason.”

Fast forward a few years later, I was in the thick of filmmaking. I had a few episodes of a web series that I’d written, produced, and directed and found filmmaking to be my greatest passion. I knew I wanted to make my stage play into a feature film. It was then that I sought the advice of a great feature film director, Rashaad Ernesto Green, who told me that if I wanted to direct a film I should, “Make short films”.

. . . .

It was while at the Official Latino Film Festival in late 2019 that I received the next big great piece of advice. During a panel of professional writers–people who had all of the experience of being in a pitch room, I asked, “what is the number one thing that gets projects sold?” The answer sent bursts of colors through my brain– “I.P.”–Intellectual Property. Intellectual Property like a book lends any story credibility.

The writer went on to say that he had an idea for an alien series, and so he wrote and self- published a graphic novel to support the idea. When asked where the story came from, he simply took out the book and said, “this graphic novel”.

. . . .

I dug up all of the chapters I’d written and spent the next two days immersed in what I had and figuring out what was missing. I looked to my stage play and then to my new screenplay’s beat sheet. I added some parts that would reinforce the decisions I had made for the screenplay version. Within a week I had my first manuscript.

. . . .

My eyes were strained from reading, and so I uploaded my manuscript into Speechify and listened to it read back to me over and over again as I noted the errors to correct.

I googled everything I could about self-publishing…and it wasn’t the first time I’d done that but 2019 proved to be the year when technology would finally catch up to me, without the demand of financial investment. It took me a few weeks to consume the self-help videos and seminars made available through KDP Amazon. Yes, people, we have to thank Jeff Bezos on this one.

. . . .

After you’ve gotten through the editor’s changes you should get BETA Readers. These can be hired or just ask people who you know are avid readers if they’d give you feedback on the manuscript. I recommend creating a questionnaire specific to your book.

It should have questions like:

  • “What was your favorite part?
  • What confused you?
  • What would you tell someone about this book?
  • Who would you want to read this book?
  • Did you feel that anything was missing?

In my case, I had added a whole end chapter to my book, after a friend who had seen the play, told me that she very much missed the end of the play where I gave a recap of the real people the book was based on and shared where they are today. Now in retrospect, I can report that, at my book-club readings, I am often asked to read that very chapter aloud.

Link to the rest at Stage32.com and thanks to Judith for the tip.

PG will note that, just like literary agents, book packagers are not licensed and are not subject to any effective regulation. A high school dropout on drugs can promote her/himself as a book packager or literary agent.

One difference between the two is that the literary agent typically doesn’t get paid until you receive some money from your book (although there are those agents who charge “reading fees” for scanning your ms.).

5 Ways to Improve the Action in your Story

From author Megan Ward via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Page-turners aren’t the only books that employ action. In every story the characters’ actions drive the narrative forward. Without action, a book would be a series of scenes full of dialogue and description, a literary Dinner with Andre that would put the reader straight to sleep.

. . . .

1) Evocative Verbs Improve the Action

The easiest way to improve the action in your story is through verb selection. Forget is and does and seems and feels. How about rattles and shakes and leaps and destroys? Forget was and did and appears and smells. How about hobbles and shimmers and carouses and spins?

You can even make verbs up, like “He drawered the manuscript,” “Her hair waterfalled across her face,” and “I watched the sand delta by the shore.”

We all know that active verbs are better than passive verbs, so try replacing “The book was passed down the row” with something like “The book jumped down the row from hand to hand.” Replace “The package was delivered to her house” with “The delivery man jettisoned her package from the truck before careening back down the street.”

Start by making a list of your favorite verbs. Think jitterspewfesterswagger, glimmer, squawk…if you run out of ideas try your thesaurus.

. . . .

3) Engage the Senses

Don’t confuse static “sensing verbs” (I feel sad, It smells good, You sound angry, She looks tired) with their dynamic counterparts (I feel the scalding water on my feet, I smell the loamy earth, The siren sounded throughout the town). And don’t confuse the use of sensing verbs with the use of sensory details in your writing. You should always aim to engage the senses in your writing.

Note how Sonali Deraniyagala uses dynamic verbs like hissed and rustled to engage the sense of sound in this passage from her memoir Wave:

“I moved on to make sinister noises when the phone was answered. I hissed, I rustled, I made ghostly sounds. The Dutch man spoke with more urgency now. ‘What is it you want?’ he said time and again. ‘Tell me, please. What is it you want?’”

Here’s a line from an LA Times article by Philip Caputo that engages the sense of smell. Note the use of the dynamic verbs overwhelmed and burned to convey the putrid odor of war:

“Their putrefying flesh overwhelmed the odors of smoke and diesel fuel and burned tanks, trucks and armored personnel carriers.”

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

Meghan is one of the authors of Writing Action

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Physical Exhaustion

From Writers Helping Writers:

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

ConflictPHYSICAL EXHAUSTION

Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, duty and responsibilities, losing an advantage, no-win situations, miscellaneous challenges

Examples:
The character’s body being pushed past it’s limits due to exertion
Being depleted due to poor nutrition or starvation
An illness that ravages the character’s strength
Forced wakefulness that takes a physical toll

. . . .

Resulting Emotions: anger, anguish, defeat, defiant, despair, desperation, determination, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, inadequate, powerlessness, regret, resentment, resignation, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, tormented, unappreciated, uncertainty, vulnerability, worthlessness

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

10 Ways to Feel Like a Real Writer When You Can’t Write Thanks to Coronavirus

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

You might have thought because you’re staying at home that you’d have more free time to start/finish a book or take an on-line yoga class. But in reality, because we’re all spending so much time at home, much of that time is consumed by eating which means food prep and cooking (which means there’s a kitchen to clean and dishes to be washed), bathrooms to be cleaned and tidied plus, of course, more toilet paper to be purchased (if we can even scrounge up a few rolls somewhere), laundry duty, garbage and trash removal, dusting, vacuuming and, of course, sanitizing.

As one day melts seamlessly into the next, and we can’t tell Sunday from Tuesday, weekdays from weekends.

Our moods whiplash between “This sucks” and “It could be worse.”

We’re bored, anxious, and tired. We’re having trouble sleeping and concentrating. Much less writing.

“A lot of us are mentally exhausted, because the energy it takes to mentally manage everything that’s happening is very draining,” says Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality for the American Psychological Association. “The habits we’ve worked to develop over time to keep us healthy and productive can fall by the wayside.”

. . . .

As Anne wrote in an earlier post, she’s heard from a lot of writers about the difficulty they’re experiencing writing in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

She had a meltdown involving a TV remote.

I had one triggered by laundry. I don’t know if there’s actually more laundry, or if it just feels that way, but it seems that no sooner have I finished folding and putting clean laundry away, magically new dirty laundry appears in its place to replace the old dirty laundry. Not good for my mental health—or my disposition.

Needless to say, feeling overwhelmed by an Everest of laundry or frustrated by a cranky TV remote even as we are bombarded by relentless reports of death and disease, does not contribute to creativity.

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

The Science Behind the Meet-Cute

From Writer Unboxed:

At the WU Unconference last fall, I gave a presentation on the “meet-cute.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s that moment when your characters meet for the first time. Sometimes they click immediately (Titanic; 50 First Dates), other times they don’t (Pride & PrejudiceWhen Harry Met Sally). Regardless,some kind of chemistry is established between them that makes the reader want to root for the characters as a couple. It’s a typical element of every romance novel, but it can manifest in other ways in other genres. The typical meet-cute goes a little something like this:

Sarah walked onto campus as a new freshman. While she wrestled one-handed with the campus map, her Human Anatomy textbook slipped from her hands and fell open on the sidewalk to a page her mother would have censored. Embarrassed, Sarah quickly crouched to retrieve the book before anyone saw, just as someone knelt to help her. She looked up and locked eyes with the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Sarah’s heart raced.

When I say this example reflects the typical meet-cute, I mean really, really typical. Too many meet-cutes I read are all about racing hearts, or some other obvious go-to like stammering, sweaty palms, or stumbling over words and/or feet. These common crutches got me thinking. How can we better delve into our own personal experiences to come up with more unique and inspired ways to demonstrate the interior landscape of a scene? How can we show our characters’ feelings through more unique physical reactions to those feelings?

According to a team of scientists at Rutgers University, romantic love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each of these categories is characterized by its own set of chemicals (or hormones) that manifest in physical ways.

With lust, the hypothalamus stimulates the production of the sex hormones, which shut off the prefrontal cortex, the origin of rational behavior. Sexual arousal also appears to turn off parts of the brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior. The younger and more outrageously hormonal you are, the more irrational you may act. (Romeo & Juliet, anyone?).

With attraction, the hypothalamus stimulates the production of dopamine. Dopamine is released when we do things that feel good to us, and it controls “reward” behavior, which partly explains why the beginning of a new relationship can be so exciting. When dopamine gets released at high levels, it triggers physical reactions such as giddiness, increased energy, euphoria, stress, and even an increased fight or flight response. (e.g., Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Love Actually or Notting Hill).

Finally, attachment is the predominant factor in long-term relationships. The hypothalamus stimulates the production of oxytocin—a bonding hormone—which has also been nicknamed the “cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin reinforces the positive feelings we already have for the people we love most in our lives.

. . . .

[O]ne way to write more creative meet-cutes is to step away from the actual meet-cute scene itself and instead look at other types of scenes that trigger the same chemical reactions as lust, attraction, and/or attachment. What I’m suggesting is that we write about those other things, then use those writing exercises to enrich the meet-cute scenes when we’re ready to return to them.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

What Is Emotional Context And Why Does Your Story Need It?

From Writers Helping Writers:

Have you ever had an editor or critique partner say “go deeper”? And you throw up your hands and glare at the screen because you DID go deeper.

Deep point of view is a writing technique that aims to create an emotional connection for readers by immersing them in real time in the character’s emotional journey. Because this is something my readers frequently ask about, I’ve been exploring it at my blog. 

. . . .

Something that trips writers up is that their character’s emotions lack context. Your character has a reason for feeling the way they do and reacting the way they do. In deep point of view, everything is filtered through your POV character’s perspective. What does this situation mean to THAT character, RIGHT NOW, based on their own unique past experiences, prejudices, fears/concerns, priorities, and goals (emotional context)? Even when a truly new experience presents itself, the brain is always searching for context, for something from the past that will help keep us safe in the present. Understanding this as a writer helps you show the WHY behind your character’s emotions, thoughts, and actions. 

Emotions Serve A Purpose

Emotions (I talk about them like they’re people – stay with me) are preoccupied with keeping us safe by giving us information, warning us about something, or raising a concern. The longer your character suppresses or denies an emotion, the louder and more insistent it should become. 

This is how emotions work. Take a look at one of the more emotional scenes in your WIP. Can you identify what function the emotions in that scene are serving? How are they trying to protect your character, warn them, or get their attention? 

The Kids at The Table

Back to emotions as people. Imagine your character has a table in their heads and around it sits their younger selves from key moments in their past, but the seat at the head of the table is empty. The character hasn’t decided how to act or what to feel yet.

When a difficulty arises, each kid at the table does a quick evaluation, and those with a concern raise a hand and start talking over each other. Each of them believes their concern should be the character’s priority and the solution they used last time is the way to fix this current problem. Why isn’t your character listening – this is IMPORTANT!! (The pitfall is that putting a terrified five-year-old in charge of the emotional reaction to your adult boyfriend’s anger probably isn’t going to be helpful. The concern can be valid while the proposed solution can get the character in hot water.)

Internal conflict isn’t when more than one kid at the table is upset, it’s when those kids can’t agree on what to do or which concern should be the priority.

. . . .

The kids want to keep the character safe – they mean well. Does your character just give the head seat at the table to one of the kids? Or do they acknowledge the kid’s valid concern and attempt a new way ahead with a different solution? In essence, which past experience is going to inform the current reality? The emotion your character prioritizes will be influenced by their goal for the scene.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

If it’s not on the page, your reader doesn’t know it

From Nathan Bransford:

This is one of the hardest, nubbiest challenges of writing a good novel.

You know your world backwards and forwards. You know what makes your characters tick. You can picture what’s happening. You know what you’re trying to say.

But unless these elements actually make it onto the page, your reader is left in the dark.

It’s really, really hard to put yourself in the shoes of one of your readers and accurately assess what you have and haven’t told them.

. . . .

Err on the side of clarity

I was one of the less-promising students in my creative writing classes in college and I seriously doubt any of my teachers thought I would be someone who went on to be a published author. Among the many problems with my writing was one big flaw: I expected too much of my readers.

After receiving feedback that it was too difficult to follow one of my stories, I still remember the look of frustration on my creative writing teacher’s face when I insisted, “It’s all there on the page!”

Sure. Maybe. The problem was that it was way too difficult to piece everything together.

Don’t make your reader go digging for clues for the basics of what’s happening. Try not to beat your reader over the head with obviousness, but remember this: you’re probably not being as clear as you think you are.

This goes doubly for a character’s motivation and what’s at stake. You can’t possibly be too clear about these elements.

Always establish the physical setting

This is one of the easy ones and yet so many writers neglect it: The reader has no idea where they are unless you tell them.

Always set the scene. You don’t need pages and pages of paid-by-the-word 19th Century style description, but you should at least give the reader enough information so they can picture their surroundings.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

When Words Melt Away

From SWFA:

Writing classes and books are filled with tips on creating characters and developing plot, but very few ever offer the golden jewel that oversees all the other components meshing together to arrive at a story or novel: coherence. In fact, when an author discovers coherence for the first time, they will experience a place where words melt away, and the only thing that remains is a deep knowing and trust in how the story will take shape.

When the outside world interrupts our writing practice, we can find it hard to let it go enough to get back to work. Depending on the circumstances—job, social events, health issues, chores or family responsibilities, and certainly global changes—we might feel more like a chess pawn being moved around, than a disciplined writer turning out pages each day. If this resonates with you, then you understand incoherence, the state of mind we writers are most often trying to negotiate.

Incoherence tricks us into thinking ‘Time’ is our master and that there will always be a short supply of it. And if not lacking time, then some good old fashion quiet, a writer’s best friend—and by quiet, I don’t mean sheltering in the high mountains without Wi-Fi, but the mental silence that comes from coherence, which allows us to turn the tables on outer distractions, in order to regain our throne of peace, enough to create.

Every writer knows this secret place. How many times have you said, ‘The book just wrote itself,’ or ‘the words just spilled out like someone else wrote it?’ That’s the outer rim of what coherence has to offer. Coherence will help you regain control over your environment which is distracting or stealing your attention to write; or your body that will swing from being tired to super energetic impacting your productivity; or time, mentioned above, which appears to control your every attempt to write and complete things.

Coherence isn’t a mythological place like Narnia or Shangri-La that writer-heroes go in search of. No, it’s a state of mind that can actually be accessed and then utilized in your writing practice. In reality, if we stay writing long enough, we’ll reach this space of mental clarity—it can take hours or days or a long retreat. But what if you could access a deeper coherence quicker, or even better, never leave it?

That’s the golden jewel. It’s a writer’s superpower.

Link to the rest at SWFA

A Story in One Sentence

From The Paris Review:

To showcase the variety of the short stories published in the Spring issue, we asked the six writers to select a single sentence that marked the moment they first knew what story they were writing. 

This story was stuck in my head for months, so by the time I started writing it, I felt like I knew more about it than anyone needs to know about anything. Drafting is often a sweaty, anxious process for me, but there are always surprises that make it worthwhile. I wanted the story to have a slippery quality to it, but nailing down the narrative voice was a series of small discoveries. Writing the opening, and writing this sentence in particular, is maybe the moment when the story and its somewhat capricious voice slid into proper focus for me. —Senaa Ahmad, “Let’s Play Dead” 

. . . .

I initially thought I was going to explore this incident that happened in a neighboring town back home involving an elderly woman and her young-man neighbor. And I knew I wanted to start with the woman, Clara, at her kitchen sink, washing dishes and looking out her window. But I had no idea the story would unfurl like it did, and I ended up discovering the story wasn’t even about the incident after all. I love a good surprise. —Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, “An Unspoken”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Murder for Profit, Mystery Story Techniques Part 1

From The Writers Digest, April 1931:

Writing a mystery story is like playing a game of chess with a thousand unknown opponents.

As a matter of fact, the game is one more fascinating than chess, and more intricate, for in it the pawns and bishops and knights are replaced by human characters whose value as pieces varies as widely as the poles, and because the “moves” are twists of plot and situation which are not limited by neat squares on a board. But definite rules do exist, and if reader or writer does not conform to them strictly, his opponent may justly raise the cry “unfair!”

The regulations governing the reader’s part in the game are simpler than those controlling the writer. He can only cheat in one well-recognized way, by looking at the end of the story or novel before he should. The author-player, on the other hand, is bound by a number of restrictions. If he disregards any one of them, he has not played square.

But the writer, once he has these rules clearly in mind, can have no more entertaining diversion than this, of pitting his skill against his readers. In spite of the greater complexity of his rules, or perhaps because of it and because of the mentality of his reader-antagonist is an unknown quantity to him, his is the more exciting side to be one. He, after all, is the chief player; the reader must follow along as the author chooses to have him. And so, within the rigid formula, the writer of a mystery story is referee and umpire as well as player.

The rules controlling the writer are not as complex as they might seem at first. Everyone who has read detective stories has spotted various unfair tactics on the author’s part, and is familiar with certain of them.

From such criticism it is easy to collect a fairly obvious list of “do’s and don’ts” for the writer, a sort of Hoyle for the constructor of mystery fiction.

In the first place, the author must not introduce some character at the last minute, a deus ex machina, to be revealed as the murderer or thief. The guilty man must have put in an appearance early in the story, and be well known to the reader throughout. How he may be introduced, and still be covered up from the reader’s suspicion will be touched upon later. This is the chief rule, and the most evident one.

In the second, the writer must not deliberately inject inconsistencies with the narrative to blind the reader to the identity of his guilty person. This is equally evident, and should not be taken to mean that the murderer cannot have an apparent “cast-iron alibi” or apparently no possible motive for the crime. Only facts which cannot be, or never are, satisfactorily explained are barred.

. . . .

It is common experience, I believe, and I have found it to be true, that it is safer to work from the “checkmate” backwards, so to speak. The writer first devises the method of killing or an unusual motive; then, with this in mind, develops his characters and plot to work up to a revelation of this first idea.

The simplest way to do this is to ask, “If I were going to murder So-and-so, so as to escape being hanged by the neck until dead, how would I go about it?” Fortunately, all of us know people with whom we could do away with pleasure, and this adds zest to the work! The next bit of self-interrogation is, “Why do I really want to commit homicide on So-and-so?” With a strong intensification of the answer to this question, or a slight modification downwards of his own character, the author has his motive.

For example, with all my heart I would like to kill Editor Jones, I know his working hours, approximately nine to five. I know where his office is located, up how many stories he takes an elevator to work, and by what street-car line he travels between desk and home. But I do not wish to go to the Chair after killing him. Life though good, would be much better were Editor Jones not in it. Now, shooting this individual would be gratifying, but firearms make a loud noise and could be used only on a dark winter afternoon as he walks from the trolley to his house. I therefore note those conditions as the best under which to shoot the abhorred publicist. Perhaps stabbing editor Jones would be nice, and certainly it would attract less unwelcome attention. Where could that be done, and how? Perhaps a painful poison would be most amusing of all. Where may it be best administered? And so on.

Then, why do I wish to remove this gentleman? Because he rejected that five-page narrative poem of mine called The Charge of the Violets, and was sufficiently rude about it, too. But changing myself into a Bolshevik, who has had an anti-bourgeois paper turned down, I may have an acceptable grounds for murder.

Link to the rest at The Writers Digest

How to Rescue an Endangered Book and Find your Author Mojo

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

You’ve kinda/sorta finished your book/first draft/whachamacallit.

In drastic cases, it could even be an outline that’s gone off the rails and landed in a ditch.

But.

  • Your original brilliant idea is drowning in a sea of ugly clutter.
  • There are dust bunnies in the corners.
  • An overflowing laundry hamper in the hall.
  • First chapter is suffering from ring-around-the-collar.
  • Inciting incident is ho-hum and forgettable (even by you).
  • Plot has more holes than plot.
  • Characters have mutated into unrecognizable forms (and you’re not writing sci-fi or alien invasion fiction).
  • Verbs are passive, the nouns flabby and adjectives rust in the front yard.
  • Ending limps to a conclusion.

. . . .

It’s obvious that double applications of the Quicker-Picker-Upper, Fantastic and Tidy-Bowl aren’t going to get the job done. Your book (or whachamacallit) is in deep doo doo, and, because you’re not in deep denial, you recognize that there is work to be done.

You feel out of control and overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ve been here before and abandoned the poor thing to gather cyber cobwebs in some dank, dark back alley of your computer.

Maybe Marie Kondo could help, but she’s not available. She’s folding t-shirts.

It’s our mess. We made it and, according to the gospel of Moms everywhere, it’s up to us to clean it up.

. . . .

1. Write — or Rewrite — your Blurb or Elevator Pitch.

Maybe it’s OK, but maybe it could be better.

What’s the headline? What’s the hook? What about a grabby ending?

Need some help?

Turn to other writers for inspiration.

Read blurbs for top selling books in your genre.

List the phrases and words other writers use to position their book to appeal to the same readers you hope to seduce.

Have you used some of the same words and phrases? Or can you do some creative — uh — “borrowing?”

. . . .

Four editors dish the details about how to write a selling blurb including standout examples from Lee Child, Diana Gabaldon and Nicholas Sparks.

What about your elevator pitch? Is it pulling its weight? Can it help inspire your blurb?

Remember whether it’s a blurb or an elevator pitch:  Sell the sizzle!

To your readers.

And, right now, most of all to yourself!

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

Red Herrings in Contemporary Crime Literature

From Crime Reads:

When plotting a tale of suspense, any writer worth her salt understands the importance of distraction—intriguing details that lead the reader down a path of uncertainty, false clues intentionally planted to mislead, and of course the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator. This is why the red herring is a staple in mystery writing. These sneaky devices can serve to ratchet up the suspense as the author gleefully provides twist and turns throughout the book.

When writers use the art of distraction, the reader remains off balance, constantly wondering if they will ever gain a sure foothold on the story. The best writers understand that red herrings are not simply shiny objects to avert your gaze—they are well-constructed traps the reader can’t help but enter, often against their better judgment.

For me, what happens in my mind while I read is just as important as what happens on the page. It’s the experience of reading a book that stays with me. The way my pulse pounded during certain scenes. The feeling of uncertainty that made me stay up later and read just one more chapter (and then one more after that, because I won’t be satisfied until I know the truth). The way the writer took me on a rollercoaster traveling through the dark, at the mercy of the treacherous track with no idea how it all will end.

Is it possible to include too many red herrings? There’s certainly no magic number, but the best writers understand how to distract in covert ways, never drawing too much attention to the false clues they’re planting. Understatement works best, and my favorite reading experience is finishing a book and then immediately having the desire to start over and read again from the very beginning, armed with the knowledge I now have, so that I can dig in and reassess everything I thought I knew.

Red herrings keep the reader turning pages, yes, but they also keep the reader wondering what the hell is actually going on. Just when you think you’d got it all figured out, another clue appears. Is this one a red herring or the real thing? These books play with the reader’s mind in wonderfully twisted ways, using red herrings masterfully and keeping the reader guessing. And second-guessing.

. . . .

The Witch Elm by Tana French

French’s masterfully plotted tales of suspense have earned her the devotion of fans, loyal readers who eagerly await her next book. The Witch Elm begins with Toby, a generally likeable nice guy, who has just been brutally attacked by burglars. He’s a bit foggy on all the details, and in need of assistance while recovering, so he moves back into the family homestead with his uncle. The place is full of teenage memories for Toby and at first the place is a comfort—until things start to get a little creepy. A skull is found in the elm tree in the garden, and so police descend onto the property and begin their investigation. Is Toby simply an innocent man lunged into unfortunate circumstances? French might want you to believe that, but as each chapter unfolds, she exposes Toby’s worst fears, using them to her advantage and laying fresh (and possibly false) trails at every turn.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Sounds of Silence – When writer’s block strikes

From The Smart Set:

It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up one morning to find myself unable to write creatively. For months, I could eke out a story or group of poems, but all attempts at another novel arrived stillborn, exhausting themselves after a few thousand words. My father suggested I had a form of postpartum depression, that seeing my first novel in print, and therefore out of my hands, was too much of a shock, temporarily. I didn’t have the heart to tell him this had been going on for years. 

I finished a decent draft of my novel in 2015, made revisions based on a publisher’s interest in 2017, and sold it to him later that year. The editorial process spanned 18 months, but I had plenty of downtime between rounds of edits to work on something new. A colleague inquired about just this at one point, mentioning, “I hear you’re supposed to have a draft of the next thing by the time the previous book comes out.” I smiled, nodded, and assured him I was on my way. 

That year, I even tried NaNoWriMo. 

Soon, the stories dried up, followed by the poems within a semester. I took an online “poetry salon,” recycling work I’d set aside for the lean months. For a flash-fiction workshop, I generated a few thousand words, most of them rescued from earlier failures. After spending 500 dollars on these two courses, I had yet to spur myself into action. By the time the first box of copies of my novel arrived, the climate in my mind had grown hostile to new growth. 

Around this time, I reread my copy of Richard Ford’s “Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges,” which I’d discovered almost 20 years earlier and had used as cover to justify periods of inactivity in graduate school. Bemused by his friends’ discomfort with fallow periods, Ford crows, “I have made a strict point to take lavish periods away from writing.” He defends his choice by arguing that “I’ve never thought of myself as a man driven to write. I simply choose to do it, often when I can’t be persuaded to do anything else.” Even as an MFA student with limited experience with Ford’s oeuvre, I didn’t buy this. I knew he wasn’t Simenon, Balzac, or Stephen King, but he couldn’t create Frank Bascombe as a diversion between baseball seasons. Later in the essay, he quotes Henry James’s admonition that one must fill one’s “well of unconscious cerebration,” though I doubt the famously-prolific James did so by taking off as much time as Ford does. 

. . . .

The publication process hasn’t helped. Someone who read my novel as soon as it came out tried to commiserate with me when I confessed my frustrations by saying, “given a chance, people will always disappoint you.” This has been the case more often than I would like to admit. Some of those I’d given advanced copies to, out of friendship and gratitude for their support, haven’t read it; most of the universities I attended, not to mention the one I work for, have responded with indifference; acquaintances tell me one day, animatedly, that they’re reading it but avert their gaze days later, having either abandoned it or disliked it by the end, I don’t know which. Many have responded kindly, posting glowing reviews online, but what writer remembers those in light of rejection or the revelation of unexpected petty grievances?    

Link to the rest at The Smart Set

PG can understand burnout, but isn’t sure if writer’s block is a variant or something different.

Legal writing is its own genre, one with some relatively strict rules concerning forms (how you cite statutes and cases, etc.), but litigation documents are written to persuade and, while some judges will say attempts to appeal to their emotions are a waste of time and paper, PG’s approach assumes that the judge wants to feel like he/she is doing the right thing, so PG essentially tries to show the judge a pathway to the right thing bordered with precedent, rules and statutes that assure the judge that no one will accuse her/him of ruling on the basis of emotion rather than law and fact.

(Yes, PG noticed that was quite a long sentence, but he was on a mental roll and didn’t want to stop. It may be his only mental roll for the day.)

Mrs. PG, the author who PG knows best, typically takes a bit of time off between books, but she says writing is generally good for her mental health and enjoys it while it’s happening.

PG suspects that, at least in some cases, writer’s block is related to an underlying mental illness of mild or extreme severity but he is anything but an expert on the topic.

Be Resilient and Responsible

From David Farland, Story Doctor:

I woke up this morning feeling great. A week ago, I decided to self-quarantine out of an abundance of caution, and pretty much everyone else is doing it, too.

But I got thinking last night of how resilient people are. Part of me would like to say that it is an American thing, but I’ve got friends in China, Australia, Europe, and Latin America—and they’re all resilient, too. Let’s call it a human thing. We can all be shocked, dismayed, and fall into the doldrums for a day or so, and then something inside us tells us that we have to get back to work.

However, I saw a message from a young writer this morning that said, “I found out that, due to the Covid19 outbreak, as of today I no longer have a job. I want to sit down and write while I’m in isolation, but I’m so worried that that is not the responsible thing to do, I can’t focus. I should be out looking for a job.”

I suspect that a lot of writers have those kinds of worries, and as I say, “Stress kills creativity.” You might find it a little tougher to write right now.

Or maybe not.  You can look for jobs electronically, and if you’re in a small rural area like mine, it will take all of an hour a day. So what are you going to do with the other fourteen hours that you’re awake?

I think of writing as an investment in myself. That’s how I make money, by investing in myself. Some projects make a lot of money, some don’t make much at all.  I wrote a short story a few weeks ago, for example, that probably didn’t make me $20 per hour. I had a lot of fun doing it, and I’d do it again in a minute. It relieves stress, gets something accomplished, and acts as an advertisement for my work, but it’s nowhere near my minimum hourly rate. Still, a lot of people only dream of making $20 per hour.

But it does bring up a difficulty that authors have: determining the worth of a project. Some writing projects have made me a lot of money. For example, years ago I wrote a movie tie-in novel. The advance for the novel was about $60,000, and I figured it would take about 200 hours to write, so I made something on the order of $300 per hour. I hoped that it might even make some royalties.

Sure enough, it made far more in royalties than anticipated. I still get small checks for it, twenty years later, and currently, I figure that I made over $2000 an hour on that project.

You see, with a novel, over its life, it can grow and dwindle in popularity around the world. A novel that doesn’t look like it’s worth much can suddenly become popular.

One friend, years ago, wrote some vampire novels that didn’t do well in the US. They sold so poorly, she gave up writing for a time, but she sold the foreign rights in Romania and became a #1 bestseller—and made millions. I’ve seen other friends do this in Japan, Germany, and the UK.

Then you have books that get turned into movies, and perhaps a book that you thought was dead twenty years ago comes roaring back to life.

So when you’re writing, you’re investing in an unpredictable future. You don’t know what you might get out of it, but you are investing in your dreams.

Link to the rest at David Farland, Story Doctor

Writing Unlikeable Characters Readers Will Root For

From Jane Friedman:

I’m a big fan of antiheroes. A flawed character is just so much more interesting than your classic Dudley Do-Right. Anyone can like a character who makes the right choices and defends justice all the time. But that just doesn’t feel very authentic.

Can I just say it? True confessions? Traditionally heroic, always-good characters get boring.

Give me a character who struggles. Give me a character with flaws big enough to get in their way. Give me a character with complexity and baggage. This is a character that might surprise me. Perhaps not for the better—but I’ll be on the edge of my seat for sure.

I follow this mantra as much when writing my own characters as I do in my reading choices. Some—okay, most—of my characters are really rough around the edges.

But as my editor is always patiently reminding me, a lot of people don’t like unlikeable characters, on reasons of unlikeable-ness. This can be an especially perilous with female characters, whose margin for likability is even tighter than their male counterparts.

. . . .

Can an unlikeable character still inspire readers to root for them? Heck yes—but it takes a little alchemy.

Here are a few key elements to create an unlikeable character readers will still be willing to root for:

Redeemable qualities

Einstein once said that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will believe it is stupid. Everyone is a genius at something. Likewise, when it comes to characters, every one has a quality worth respecting—something redeeming about them.

Elphaba was uncompromising. Dr. House was brilliant. Han Solo was charming. Redeemable traits can be found in almost any character if you spend enough time with them to understand their motives and underlying drives.

It doesn’t have to necessarily be a good quality. I enjoy Dr. House more for his wry humor at his interns’ expense than his ability to save lives—it’s just fun to watch, and I don’t have to want to hang out with the character myself to appreciate it.

If you can find and draw out these distinct qualities that make your character admirable (or entertaining), your unlikeable character will become a lot more root-able for readers in an instant.

. . . .

Action-Orientation

This was one warning my editor gave me about unlikeable characters I took especially to heart—a character who wallows and whines through the pages is no good.

A root-able character is a character who takes action. Taking the wrong action is far better than taking no action at all (see above). Action is the momentum that keeps the story moving forward—without it, it’s going to flail, and your readers are going to lose interest.

So when in doubt, keep your character moving. Then, make them wrestle with the consequences, for good or for bad.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Writing When You’re Not Writing

From Writer Unboxed:

Al is 63 years old and has been writing in starts and stops for 15 years. He says:

I’ve studied the craft of writing by taking some university writing courses, some online courses, and reading books and blogs about writing. My favourite way of studying writing is to write, in longhand, chapters of novels, stories or essays by writers I admire: John Steinbeck, Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith.

I know I am able to write as evidenced by winning four writing contests, but I am unable to write every day. In fact, I often don’t write for months and then suddenly have a flurry of writing.

I realize that this defeats my ability to hone my skills and I tend to beat myself up about it. I live in a state of guilt thinking that I am cheating my life by not knuckling down and committing to the craft.

One could argue that with every new story a writer is once again a beginner, faced with the task of having to learn all over again how to write. Knowing this though does not bolster my confidence. Do you have any motivational strategies that would push me over this hump?

This is an issue that affects many writers: that feeling of lacking the commitment to sit down and get the work done, if not every day, then certainly more than you currently do.

. . . .

First, you could try to be kinder to yourself and not blame yourself when you don’t write. Remind yourself that you quite clearly can write. In Al’s case, he’s already won four writing contests and published several stories. It’s also a big achievement to be able to just sit down and actually write anything rather than do everything else on your undoubtedly long list of routine chores, family duties, work (if any) and other responsibilities. Even if you only write sporadically, you can be proud of yourself if you manage to make the time to get any writing done at all.

Remember, too, that writing is not all about tapping at a keyboard or scribbling with a pen. In the time when you’re not doing that, you’re still writing. As John Irving said, “Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

Those months, days, hours and moments of not writing is when you’re noticing. That’s why you can have those flurries of productivity; you’ve already worked out so much of the story in your head, even if that was done unconsciously.

. . . .

Accept this as your way of working, your way of honing those skills. And when your mind starts telling you to feel guilty, recognize that as nothing more than the thought it is, and let it pass on by without paying it too much attention. It’s dwelling on the thought that makes it a problem, not the thought itself.

Therapists call this diffusion, and it’s a common mindfulness technique. Many of you will have heard variations on this. A common one is to imagine your thoughts as clouds floating across a clear sky. Let those clouds float on by without concentrating too much on any one of them. Another idea on the same theme is to see your thoughts as leaves on a stream, floating away till the next one comes along.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG is an expert at drifting thoughts in case anyone is interested.

. . . .

Interested.

. . . .

Interested.

How to write well

From TLS:

In high school a close friend told me about a lesson her father had received when he was learning to write in English. Any essay could be improved by the addition of one specific phrase: “in a world tormented by the spectre of thermonuclear holocaust”. We thought it would be hilarious to surprise our own teachers with this gem, but nothing came of it. Twenty years later, as I looked through the files on an old computer, I discovered my high school compositions. There, at the end of an essay on Hugo Grotius and just war theory I must have written for this purpose alone, was that irresistible rhetorical flourish.

As much as we might admire what is fresh and innovative, we all learn by imitating patterns. Babies learning to speak do not immediately acquire the full grammar of their mother tongue and a vocabulary to slot into it, but inch slowly into the language by repeating basic phrases, then varying them. Adults learning a foreign language are wise to do the same. Pianists run through exercises to train their dexterity, basketball players run through their plays, dancers rehearse combos they can later slip into longer choreographies. To be called “formulaic” is no compliment, but whenever people express themselves or take action in the world, they rely on familiar formulas.

Writing advice is caught in this paradox. Mavens of clear communication know that simple rules are memorable and easy to follow. Use a verb instead of a noun. Change passive to active. Cut unnecessary words. Avoid jargon. No aspiring author will make the language dance by following these dictates, but they will be understood, and that is something. The same holds for structure. In school, pupils are drilled in the basic shapes of arguments, such as the “rule of three”, the “five-paragraph essay” or, à l’américaine, the Hamburger Essay (the main argument being the meat). Would-be novelists weigh their Fichtean Curves against their Hero’s Journeys, and screenwriters can buy software that will ensure their movie script hits every beat prescribed by Blake Snyder in his bestselling book Save the Cat! (2005). And why not? Shakespeare patterned his comedies on Terence’s Latin romps, and Terence stole his plots from the Greek Menander. Milton copied Virgil, who plagiarized Homer. The history of literature is a catwalk on which the same old skeletons keep coming out in new clothes.

Style unsettles this pedagogy of models and moulds. As the novelist Elizabeth McCracken once told Ben Yagoda in an interview, “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits … the trick is to make them charming bad habits”. Readers longing for something beyond mere information – verbal fireworks, the tremor of an authentic connection, a touch of quiet magic – will do well to find the rule-breakers on the bookshop shelf. Idiosyncrasies (even mistakes) account for the specific charm of a given author, and they slyly open the door to decisions of taste. Think of David Foster Wallace’s endless sentences, George R. R. Martin’s neologisms, the faux-naivety of Gertrude Stein. In his book on literary voice, The Sound on the Page (2004), Yagoda argues that style reveals “something essential” and impossible to conceal about an author’s character. The notion that the way a person arranges words is inextricably tied to their moral core has a long history, but its implication for teaching writing is what interests me here: convince or compel writers to cleave too closely to a set of prescribed rules, and you chip away at who they are.

This explains why John Warner’s book about writing, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the five-paragraph essay and other necessities, contains almost no advice on how to write. A long-time college instructor, Warner hints at his argument in his subtitle: his is a polemical take on American standardized testing practices, socioeconomic conditions, and institutions of learning that destroy any love or motivation young people might have for expressing themselves in writing. Against the perennial assumption that today’s students are too lazy and precious to work hard, Warner holds firm: “Students are not entitled or coddled. They are defeated”. The symbol of the US’s misguided approach to education is the argumentative structure drilled into each teenager as a shortcut for thinking and reflection. “If writing is like exercise,” he quips, “the five-paragraph essay is like one of those ab belt doohickeys that claim to electroshock your core into a six-pack.”

Link to the rest at TLS

4 Reasons to Spend Time with “Bad” Books

From guest blogger Susann Cokal via Jane Friedman:

We’re all so judgy. We peer at storylines and dialogue lines and individual words, and we snort when a writer makes a choice we wouldn’t have made. We snort even more loudly at ourselves, those times when we just absolutely hate what we’ve written and think the author (Me! I’m the author!) must be an idiot. And then we’re stuck. So maybe we turn to someone else’s book for inspiration. Someone else’s good book. And then we’re more stuck than ever.

Over and over, we’ve heard that we need to read the best books first, learn from them, and apply the lessons to our own work. Never waste time with books you know you won’t like, ones that aren’t at the very pinnacle of your chosen genre or category.

This advice, like all advice, isn’t right all of the time. If the best is all you are reading, you’re limiting the sense of what writing is. You’re limiting yourself.

Here’s a wrinkle: Books you don’t like can be great teachers too. And when you’re really blocked and despairing, a bad book might give you just the help you need.

Here are four reasons why.

1. “Bad” writing refines your personal aesthetic.

When you’re reading a bad book, it’s okay to let your nasty inner editor (let’s call her Judy) go to town. Let her eviscerate that best-selling whodunit with the plot holes a mile wide; she needs to get it out of her system. Dan Brown and Danielle Steel can take it; they have plenty of fans who love their work. Judy’s field day will give you a little break, and you’ll learn just as much from identifying what you don’t like as from what you do.

A gentler Judy can also show up to your workshop group and make it useful even when your writing isn’t up for discussion. By helping others identify weak spots in their work, you and Judy sharpen the eye with which you’ll read your own drafts later for revision. Being a discerning critic doesn’t mean you loathe the story or the writer, and you can honestly applaud the way each piece succeeds within its own parameters. As long as your comments are politely and helpfully phrased, it’s a win-win (a phrase often used in bad books).

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

End the Debate: Why the Oxford Comma (or Serial Comma) is so Cool!

From The Writers’ Dig:

Let’s start with defining the Oxford comma (also known as a serial comma—or even a Harvard comma apparently): It’s the comma that follows the penultimate item in a list of three or more things. And it’s apparently a thing that many writers and grammarians love to debate, though I’m not sure why.

. . . .

The Oxford Comma Debate

As far as I can tell, the main argument against using the Oxford comma is that it’s somehow easier to not insert a comma at the end of a list of three or more items. Let’s look at this example: We invited my parents, Thomas and Nancy.

This makes great sense if I invited two people named Thomas and Nancy, who both happen to be my parents. Plus, I included their names for easy reference. But if I actually invited four people, then this could be confusing, because I should’ve done one of the following:

Example #1 (with serial comma): We invited my parents, Thomas, and Nancy.

Example #2 (sans serial comma): We invited Thomas, Nancy and my parents.

While both of those examples are now correct and make sense, the door opened by not consistently using the Oxford comma seems to tempt a lot of possible problems for the sake of omitting a comma. I love streamlined language as much as the next person, but this seems like excessive laziness to me. Is it really so hard to insert a serial comma at the end of both lists?

What do you think?

Here are a few more examples:

Oxford comma: He shared the news, his breakfast, and coffee with his guests.
No Oxford comma: He shared the news, his breakfast and coffee with his guests.

Oxford comma: She reads young adult, science fiction, and nonfiction.
No Oxford comma: She reads young adult, science fiction and nonfiction.

Link to the rest at The Writers’ Dig

What Makes a Great Writing Group?

From Dave Farland:

I’ve been to or visited a number of writing groups. Some were very effective, while others were a waste of time.

You often get out of a group what you put into it, so before you join a group, consider thoughtfully how much time you have to invest and how much you really want the benefits.

Now, there are a lot of types of writing groups, and I’ve seen some of the various functions of the groups mushed together, but I suggest that you consider what you need in a group.

Here are a few things that a group can help you with, and what to watch out for.

Accountability Groups—An accountability group is simply a group of people who create specific goals and then report to each other on a regular basis as to how well they’d done. So, for example, you might set a goal to get 50 pages written on your novel each week. Your accountability group will ask you at the week’s end, “How did you do?”

For most writers, just knowing that they will be held accountable helps them set goals and keep on track with their writing.

Research Groups—Your writing group can study together in a lot of helpful ways. For example, when I began writing The Runelords, I took trips to Europe to research castles, armaments, and the medieval lifestyle. I read dozens of books on topics from medieval history and warfare to books on herbs and medicines. It would have been nice to have others who were studying on the topic to share info with.

If you’re writing medieval fantasy or science fiction in your group, for example, then you can pool research on topics of mutual interest.

. . . .

Critique Groups—When people think of “writing groups,” they almost always think of critique groups.

In a critique group, I recommend that you keep it small.  I once visited a critique groups where there were some 130 members exchanging manuscripts—that’s insane.  You can’t get a good critique if you’re one of 30 stories getting critiqued on a Saturday night, and no one has the energy and wisdom to critique 30 stories well in a couple of hours.

Keep your critique groups small—often 3 to 6 people is plenty—so that you don’t get overwhelmed trying to critique others’ work.

. . . .

Marketing Groups—A marketing group exists solely to help you figure out how to best market one-another’s work. For example, do you know how to prepare a book for pre-release? Do you know how long you can put it up for pre-order before it goes on sale on Kindle, B&N, or Kobo? Do you know how to build your list of readers? Do you know how to find covers and design your books, write back copy, create killer ads, and so on?

. . . .

Writers’ Rings—A writer’s ring is a group of writers all working in the same genre who share their audiences by recommending one another’s books on their blogs and social media.

Imagine that you’re a new writer and have built up an email list of 20,000 fans, but other writers that you admire have collectively got 200,000 more fans. By joining a writer’s ring, you might well find your sales growing by 500% with your very next book. If that isn’t reason enough to join a writers’ ring, I don’t know what is.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

The Web of Writing

From Writer Unboxed:

Two months ago, in the article on expanding your world beyond the confines of your story, a commenter asked how much backstory she should include.  I pointed out that your readers will assume that the history you’re giving them will play some role in the plot.  The questioner had never thought about the link between backstory and readers’ expectations before.  Now she is a little more aware of the web of connections between different parts of her writing.

I’ve written about this web in passing, while talking about genre, but it’s critical enough that it deserves a column of its own.  Quite simply, you cannot write well if you’re not aware of how every aspect of your writing affects every other aspect of your writing.

This awareness doesn’t develop overnight.  Most writers get into writing because they fall in love with one particular element of storytelling – getting to know an intriguing character, the joy of creating dialogue, the thrill of the slow ramp up to the denouement.  When you start out, you aren’t yet aware of all the different moving parts that make up a novel – how you need to use beats to anchor characters in a physical location, say, or make sure each character’s dialogue has a distinctive vocabulary and cadence.

. . . .

Those of us who write about writing tend to delve deep into one aspect of writing at a time.  If you read enough advice like this, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking a novel is made up of discrete parts that you can just fasten together, tab A into slot B.  If what you’re learning is something you’ve never thought of before, it’s easy to get so excited about it that it becomes the solution to all of your writing problems.  

. . . .

This lack of awareness of how everything works together leads many writers to try to write by the rules.  After all, if you see your story as a machine with discrete parts, all of which perform a limited function, then it’s easy to think you can just follow the instruction manual when you put it all together.  The truth is a lot sloppier.  A novel is an ecosystem, where every living thing in it connects to every other one with feedback loops that we might not fully understand.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Dear Authors: Here’s How to Avoid Writing Tech Gibberish

From Publishers Weekly:

It doesn’t take serious writers long to learn that we need to be fanatical about quality with every element of our stories. So why, when we demand quality everywhere else, do we embrace Hollywood hacker stereotypes when it comes to technology?

We’ve all seen the tropes: bad guys breaking into important systems and holding the world for ransom, until good guys save the world by guessing the secret password in the nick of time. Hollywood hackers tend to be the smartest people in the story, but awkward in social settings; the world would be a better place if only they weren’t so misunderstood.

There are plenty of other ways storytellers opt for superficial technical solutions. Want to hold a secret meeting? Bring in a superhacker dwarf to disable the security cameras by glomming onto the building Wi-Fi from an SUV in the parking ramp—with no prior recon and no advance knowledge of the video system. That’s what Brad Thor did in Blacklist, in which U.S. government agents use Skype for secure communication. But it’s okay, because good secret agents do their Skyping from behind a TOR proxy.

Want to bring the United States to its knees? Find a smart 21-year-old to write a virus and introduce it to every internet service provider in America. Then watch the fun as the president of the U.S. guesses the secret password and saves the world. That’s pretty much the story in The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. I wonder if Hollywood will turn that book into a movie.

. . . .

Why do we keep producing this stuff? I know, it’s fiction. We’re supposed to suspend disbelief. But come on—is this the best we writers can come up with? Our laziness has consequences. No wonder the public thinks they’re all just sitting ducks for any smart attacker looking to take over the world. The public deserves better. We can deliver better.

The real world offers plenty of sources of inspiration for technology-fueled tension. In 2015, two terrorists murdered 14 people at a San Bernardino Christmas party. They died in a shoot-out and left behind an encrypted iPhone. The FBI needed to get into that phone and threatened to bankrupt Apple unless the company built a software update to bypass the phone’s security safeguards. Think about being in the middle of that game of chicken.

Remember Stuxnet? Neither Israel nor the NSA will confirm that they introduced malicious software to Iran in 2008 to sabotage the country’s nuclear centrifuges. Kim Zetter chronicled it in Countdown to Zero Day. Imagine discovering an international software weapon. Tension? Drama? You betcha.

In my day job in the software industry, I encounter real-life situations that threaten to shut down the world all the time. I also routinely see smaller cybervictim scenarios that break my heart. Fiction writers should salivate at dramas like these.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG suspects that part of the problem is that persons with tech chops would avoid the traditional publishing world like the plague, assuming they even knew or cared about it.

Just a few reasons off the top of PG’s head: Too many clueless bosses, no meaningful career path, zero tech credits on a resume’, no opportunity to get rich with an IPO.

Business Musings: Nobody Cares

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Nobody cares. Such a sad phrase, particularly when uttered by someone without friends or family. I recently read a marvelous short story that ended with that very concept, although not the phrase itself.

I’m not going to talk about that use of the phrase. Anything I say would be facile, because I don’t know your situation. And the phrase can mean that no one is close to you, or that the one special someone no longer is a part of your life. The solutions for all of those things are deeply personal, and I would hope that if you find yourself in that situation, you find some kind of help—whether it is a counselor or a trusted advisor or an organization that specializes in whatever it is that has caused you to feel alone.

I will also add that in various points in my life, I’ve been surrounded by a lot of people, and I’ve still felt like nobody cared. Sometimes I was wrong. Often, I had to face forward and deal with loss and grief. Occasionally, I had to seek professional help. In all of those cases, I got better, and so, over time, did my circumstances. I wish the best for you.

What I’m going to discuss with the phrase Nobody cares is a different usage of it. In my professional life and in certain endeavors, I have found that the phrase nobody cares is completely freeing.

I mentioned this to Dean, and he asked, “Didn’t I just write about that?” on his blog. So I went and checked, and yes, while he used the phrase, he mostly said that he didn’t care about the way others feel about his work.

It’s a similar concept, but not the same concept. If he doesn’t care about what other people think, that still assumes that they think something. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But the assumption is that “they” care. And for someone like me, who was raised by a judgmental perfectionist, the idea that “they” care can hang over everything that I do, if I let it.

Nobody cares works better for me. It’s a relatively new mantra in my life, in fact. When I first moved to Las Vegas, I set a new schedule, which included a yoga class at the gym on Mondays and Fridays. I had never done yoga, but I knew I needed a regular stretching routine, so I figured I would try it.

That first morning, before I left for class, I ran around like a nut, trying to get my stuff in order, trying to get my routine finished, caring for the cats, and scurrying so that I wouldn’t be late. And then, suddenly, I realized that the only person who cared if I was late was me.

No one else did. The gym didn’t. It didn’t have instructions that any tardy student would be locked out of the room. The instructor certainly didn’t. I later learned that she was late half the time herself.

. . . .

And that class is one of the physical highlights of my time here in Las Vegas so far. I had a blast. And I wouldn’t have, if I thought someone was judging me and thinking badly of me.

The courage nobody cares gives me doesn’t just apply to physical things. It applies to things that terrify me. I am embarking on a new project, which I don’t want to discuss in specific terms yet. I do that sometimes, not because I’m worried that someone will care, but because I loathe answering stupid questions, and this project seems to bring out the stupid question in damn near everyone.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

As a group, authors tend to be very thin-skinned, particularly about their writing. Performers and artists often have similar feelings.

Other professionals feel the same way about what they do to support themselves and their families. While some might want to think, “It’s just a paycheck” or “It’s just a royalty check,” the fact is that most people hope for success in any endeavor for which they spend a lot of time or money or effort or all three. That hope may be hidden under a hard and thick shell of sarcasm, who cares or something similar, but PG thinks for most people, it’s still there.

The kind of balance that Kris suggests with Nobody cares is one way of coping with fear of failure/rejection/bankruptcy/homelessness/insanity/ etc., etc., etc. The breadth and depth of human fears and insecurities is breathtakingly large. And that’s only the part that PG has discovered.

One particularly disabling fear is that you will try something and another person will hate/laugh/scorn what you have done. One of the names for this trait is People Pleasing.

From Psychology Today:

Over the years, I’ve seen countless people-pleasers in my therapy office. But more often than not, people-pleasing wasn’t really their problem; their desire to make others happy was merely a symptom of a deeper issue.

For many, the eagerness to please stems from self-worth issues. They hope that saying yes to everything asked of them will help them feel accepted and liked. Other people-pleasers have a history of maltreatment, and somewhere along the way, they decided that their best hope for better treatment was to try to please the people who mistreated them. Over time, for them, people-pleasing became a way of life.

Many people-pleasers confuse pleasing people with kindness. When discussing their reluctance to turn down someone’s request for a favor, they say things like, “I don’t want to be selfish,” or “I just want to be a good person.” Consequently, they allow others to take advantage of them.

. . . .

Here are 10 signs that you may be trying too hard to please everyone:

1. You pretend to agree with everyone.

Listening politely to other people’s opinions — even when you disagree — is a good social skill. But pretending to agree just because you want to be liked can cause you to engage in behavior that goes against your values.

2. You feel responsible for how other people feel.

It’s healthy to recognize how your behavior influences others. But thinking you have the power to make someone happy is a problem. It’s up to each individual to be in charge of their own emotions.

3. You apologize often.

Whether you excessively blame yourself, or you fear other people are always blaming you, frequent apologies can be a sign of a bigger problem. You don’t have to be sorry for being you.

. . . .

5. You can’t say no.

Whether you say yes and then actually follow through, or you later fake an illness to get out your commitments, you’ll never reach your goals if you can’t speak up for yourself.

6. You feel uncomfortable if someone is angry at you.

Just because someone is mad doesn’t necessarily mean you did anything wrong. But if you can’t stand the thought of someone being displeased with you, you’ll be more likely to compromise your values.

. . . .

8. You need praise to feel good.

While praise and kind words can make anyone feel good, people pleasers depend on validation. If your self-worth rests entirely on what others think about you, you’ll only feel good when others shower you with compliments.

Link to the rest at Psychology Today

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.