The Art Of The Novella

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach an in-person novella class for years now, but I knew it would be both time and cost prohibitive. I love novellas and I love discussing them and I love reading them and writing them and…

We tried a novella “workshop” kinda sorta after the in-person workshops. I would tell the attendees a short-hand way of doing a novella in the same world they’d been writing in, and then they could submit the finished novella few weeks later.

I don’t think that was satisfying for them. It certainly wasn’t for me. It felt like a Band Aid. Teaching a class in-person would be tough, because I figure it would take a minimum of two weeks. We don’t have a cheap place for people to stay here in Las Vegas, and even if we did, the kind of teaching and writing wouldn’t really blend.

Finally, I decided on a faux in-person workshop. I’m going to do the workshop I planned, only spread over 9 weeks, not counting the writing. After all the learning, the writing starts. Participants turn in their novellas and I will read them. (Note: I will not edit them. People who’ve been to my workshops know that I don’t edit. I read for story.)

I’m very excited about this. More importantly, I think it’ll work.

I planned a leisurely announcement, but success got in the way. I just found out that the novella class that focuses on science fiction is more than half full, and that was only with it being announced to Dean’s people. I want you all to have a chance to get into that one, so I’m announcing now.

I mentioned a science fiction workshop. Yep, there is one, and one for mystery, romance, and fantasy as well.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books.

Sharpen the details

From Nathan Bransford:

Now then. Time for the Page Critique. First I’ll present the page without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to CBwriter, whose page is below:

Title: Come As You Are
Genre: Bookclub psychological thriller
(pls note British English!)

Marc took the narrow turning for Wigpool passing a warning sign for wild boar. The Forest of Dean was nothing like the well-behaved woodland that bordered his garden in Surrey. A damp, earthy smell invaded the car as he pictured a family of boar, all bristles and tusks, running through the undergrowth, gathering speed and then erupting in front of him to total his new 4×4.

He had wanted to bring his wife to the reunion, but Penny had been adamant: no partners. There was something unsettling about the prospect of spending the weekend with his ex-housemates without the comforting buffer of his spouse. He tried to remember the last time he’d slept alone and couldn’t. Night-time in the forest would bring the kind of blackness you could slice with a knife. No comforting car headlights or friendly glow of lights from neighbouring houses. He would have to keep his bedroom window open because of the heatwave which meant he would be kept awake by foxes, boar, and who knew what else, making noises indistinguishable from a murder in progress. Then a bat would fly in.

Surrey bats wouldn’t do that, but he was certain anything was possible in this borderland between England and Wales.

He glanced at the sat nav. The car was a red arrow on an empty screen, the metalled track he was driving along apparently unknown to modern mapping systems. Hard to believe there was a “pretty cottage” with “an enormous lake” nearby.

I like that this page immediately situates us in a particular place and there’s a strong voice to guide us through the opening. The reference to animals making scary noises in the forest gives a tantalizing taste (presumably) of what’s to come in a psychological thriller. I enjoyed the distinction between Surrey and forest bats, which showed some fun personality.

My concern with this opening is that it feels a bit choppier than it needs to because information and context is dribbled out rather than just situating us cleanly the first time a concept is described. We first have a car, then it’s specified that it’s a “new 4×4.” We hear about “the” reunion, then eventually find out it’s with ex-housemates, then much later on that it’s at a pretty cottage on the border between England and Wales. I’m still not sure who Penny is.

There’s not much to be gained by forcing the reader to piece everything together. Err on the side of being clear the first time around.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Nathan continues his post with a redline of the page.

The Enduring Lessons to be Found in a Jane Austen Novel

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books:

Why has Jane Austen endured?

The question is asked so often, as the film industry magics up more adaptations, and the publishing industry burnishes our shelves with more spinoffs and retellings (have you read Death Comes to Pemberly, or seen the television adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberly? So. Good.) Austen fandom is alive and thriving, but how is it that, of all those who have put pen to paper in the past, it is Miss Austen whose works sail forward century after century like this?

When balls and carriages and courtships are long gone, why are we still turning over her pages?

Well alright, the allure of balls and delicate courtship might be easy enough to explain. When modern dating can be reduced to swipe right or left, there is something entrancing in the idea of flickering candlelight and gentlemen murmuring eloquent compliments; of the handsome Mr. Darcy becoming enraptured with Elizabeth Bennet’s sparkling eyes.

The escapism to be found in these novels and that faded world is incredibly tempting, but it is not escapism alone that holds our attention. The sparkle of the Regency world, so well described in Austen’s works is merely the window-dressing, the powdered sugar on top. The underlying substance of the novels are the characters themselves; so rich in detail, so complex in their psychology, so wholly real, that they can, and do, inhabit our modern world.

I mean, who amongst us hasn’t been trapped in conversation with a Mr. Collins? And who hasn’t been taken in by the charm and flattery of a Wickham? Not just in romance, but think of that boss who had seemed so great in the interview process, but turned out to be a horror six weeks into the job, or of that new friend who turned out to be not your friend at all.

When Elizabeth Bennet realizes she has been deceived by Wickham, she reflects back on the clues that were there for her (and us the reader) to have seen all along. She realizes how inappropriate it was for a stranger to single her out in a party and tell her his life story, and how obvious his constructed victim narrative was. She realizes that his actions never matched up with what he said he would do, or said about himself, and that he often ghosted her. She realizes how much he flattered and flirted with her, so that she never looked rationally at his behavior. In contrast, she realizes the awkward Darcy, for all that he always said the wrong thing, in the end always did the right thing.

There are no pantomime villains in Austen’s world, no cardboard cut-out character of a dashing hero. Considering the birth of psychology as a field of study was still some decades away, Austen’s grasp of reading people is a marvel, and she teaches her reader to do the same.

And how did she come by this knowledge? Her life was so limited, her experience of the world so small. Drawing rooms and visiting neighbors, the occasional trip to London or Bath. But perhaps it was her limitations that gave her such incredible insight, to delve so deeply into her subject matter, to really consider all the minute details and foibles of characters like those neighbors coming to tea, to then create such real people in her novels.

Or maybe it was necessity.

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

Character Type & Trope Thesaurus: Newcomer

From Writers Helping Writers:

DESCRIPTION: This character is new (in town, at work, to school, etc.) and has to learn the rules for fitting in. The newcomer is frequently used as a narrative device to introduce the reader to the world and explain its various aspects in an organic manner.

FICTIONAL EXAMPLES: Bella Swan (Twilight), Claire Fraser (Outlander), Dorothy Gale (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code), Thomas (The Maze Runner trilogy)

COMMON STRENGTHS: Alert, Cautious, Courteous, Curious, Diplomatic, Independent, Innocent, Introverted, Objective, Observant, Patient, Pensive, Private, Resourceful, Responsible, Sensible

COMMON WEAKNESSES: Apathetic, Childish, Evasive, Gullible, Ignorant, Insecure, Needy, Nervous, Suspicious, Timid, Withdrawn, Worrywart


  • Having a fresh perspective
  • Being curious about their surroundings
  • Not knowing or understanding the rules of the new environment
  • Standing back and observing rather than jumping right into things
  • Adaptability; learning quickly
  • Noticing everything; being highly observant
  • Keeping to themselves until they get the lay of the land
  • Naïveté
  • Being an easy target due to their innocence or lack of knowledge
  • Trying (and failing) to understand the new world through the perspective of their old world

Meeting someone new and not knowing if they’re a friend or foe
Facing hostility and rejection simply because of their outsider status
Being expected to meet certain standards before they’ve developed the skills needed to do so
Getting lost in the new environment

. . . .

The intern who must master the skills they’ll need to be successful in the industry
The “chosen one” newcomer who is the only person who can solve the the new world’s problems

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Structure: The Safety Net for Your Memoir

From Jane Friedman:

Structure is the safety net readers fall into. Nailing it is the way we hold space for them and let them know that while we might keep them guessing, or stir up challenging emotions, we’re taking them somewhere important.

Structure is a safety net for writers too. When it’s missing, they send anxious emails to me and other writing coaches asking what to do. As a writer, I know what it’s like to hang from the trapeze bar of an idea and wonder if I can hold on long enough to find both a point and a satisfying ending.

Writers need to cultivate two types of structure: process and project. Process structure sustains you while you’re drafting and revising. Project structure is what you employ to give your work shape.

. . . .

Build a secure process

Your first task is to choose a process to follow. Better yet, form a group that can do this work with you. That way, you’ve got a posse to lean on when the predictable struggles follow.

It doesn’t matter if you select the model Allison K Williams shares in Seven Drafts, the experimental invitations of Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode, the journey Sue William Silverman takes you on in Acetylene Torch Songs, or the first-draft guidelines I offer in this post. Pick one. Use the content as your safety net—at least for your next draft—but don’t be afraid to wander off on your own.

When the inevitable doubts creep in, refer back to your safety net. Bask in its comfort and fall into its guidance. If you’re still lost, explore what’s going on with your writing group. When you’re feeling more grounded, wander off again.

Build your memoir’s structure

Once you understand what your story is about, you’re ready to tackle your project’s structure. Some of you will know exactly what this should be. If you don’t, consider whether a simple or complex structure is best for your book. Some structures, like the three-act, will feel like their own safety net, because they deliver a certain level of predictability. The more experimental you are, the more you must serve as that safety net for your reader by truly understanding the story you’re trying to tell and ensuring that the structure you’ve chosen leads them in the direction you’re hoping for.

After you’ve chosen a structure, learn both the basics and nuances of working with it as well as the skills needed to successfully execute it. As you do this, identify one or two exemplar texts to study, and feel free to pick something everyone’s raving about (it needn’t be a comp title for your work). As you mull over which structure might be the best fit, read reviews for these books to see what resonates with readers. Attend to the things people say about how the book is structured or how the story unfolds.

Now, pick it apart. Map the major turning points on note cards. Analyze the thematic threads woven through the narrative. Find the beats where inner change occurs. Do everything you can to understand its construction.

In your next revision, emulate this text’s structure. At this point, don’t worry if it’s a perfect fit. Just see if you can mold your content into it using note cards. After completing this exercise, see if you can expand, fracture, or break free of this constraint to make it your own. If you get lost, or it feels like you’ve broken your book, go back to the map you’ve created for the original text and look at what you might have missed. Once you’ve regained your footing, try again.

If it still fails to work, or it feels like you’re trying to strong arm your story into a structure that simply doesn’t fit, stop. This is a sign that you’ve chosen the wrong structure.

While this might seem like extra work, this process will allow you to truly understand your story and why a specific structure works. The more faith you have in your story’s structure, the more you’ll become the safety net your reader is hoping for.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Writing and Music: a Not-So-Odd Coupling

From Writer Unboxed:

As some of you may already know, in addition to being a highly sought-after shirtless model for romance novel covers, I am also a longtime professional musician, having earned my first money for playing drums at the ripe old age of 14. In fact, music was my fulltime profession until my late 30s. And I didn’t start seriously writing fiction (inasmuch as anything I write could be considered “serious”) until I turned 40. (So you might say that as a writer, I was a 40-year-old virgin. But I digress…)

Coming into a new-to-me art form with a lengthy background in another, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how many parallels I’ve encountered between the two creative paths. It has also been interesting to note the very different experience of learning one art form as a child, and learning another as an adult (inasmuch as a person like me could ever be considered an “adult”).

But I’ll leave the exploration of the whole young-versus-old-artist rabbit hole for some other day. Today, I want to explore five similarities I’ve found in pursuing two art forms – writing and music – at the professional level. I’ll start with the one I think is most important:

1. It’s a business.

Thus far I’ve been calling them art forms, but when you start actively seeking a paying audience for your work – whether written or musical – you quickly become aware that you are dealing with a business, which brings with it numerous rules, obstacles and rites of passage, many of which are not clearly stated or even openly acknowledged. Yeah, it’s fun like that. Trust me: You’re gonna want to wear a helmet.

In each case, because it’s a business, many decisions that will affect your success are A) based on money, and B) out of your hands.

As a musician, this could come down to who is willing to hire you, or to pay to see you perform, or to publish your music (an area that used to be where the money was in songwriting), or to finance your recording and/or tour, or to buy your recordings. Bottom line: It’s about who will spend their money on this thing you chose to do. As the artist, all you can do is make whatever product or service you’re offering as appealing – and as competitive in terms of financial value – as possible.

Writers are in a similar position. Whether you’re pursuing the traditional publishing route, or self-publishing, or trying to get a piece of your dramatic work produced either on stage or screen, somebody else has to decide that what you’re doing (or promising to do) is worth their money.

In both cases, as an artist, you are free to express yourself in any way you see fit. But as an artist who wants to be paid for that art, it quickly becomes obvious that some pathways lead a bit more directly to potential revenue generation than others. Hence my next observation:

2. Genre matters.

For example, a thrilling 70,000-word whodunit with a strong, confident protagonist stands a better chance of selling some copies than a 600-page second-person diatribe exploring the modernist paradigm of discourse that forces the reader to choose between subcapitalist situationism and the dialectic paradigm of consensus. (Incidentally, I have no earthly idea what that means. I got it from the oh-so-useful Postmodernism BS Generator. You’re welcome.)

Similarly, a catchy three-chord pop song performed by an attractive singer whose only formal dance training clearly involved a pole is likely to get far more airplay than say, one of Conlon Nancarrow’s experimental pieces for player piano. (Warning: cannot be un-heard.)

While my examples above focused on some artistic endeavors being more accessible and/or commercially viable than others, genre is about more than simply what happens to be popular. Probably even more important is the way that genre establishes expectation. Genre helps promise an experience to the consumer, sometimes without them needing to read a word or hear a note. When you see one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels in a bookstore, you know what you’re getting. Ditto when you see a recording by AC/DC, or a poster for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Like it or not, fitting neatly into a genre makes it MUCH easier to package your work. But that doesn’t eliminate your challenges, because of the next fact I’ll bring up:

3. There’s no “right” way.

If simply checking off some genre boxes was a foolproof formula for success, everybody reading this column would already be a bestselling author. Just because Lee Child earned more money while you read this paragraph than I did in a year, doesn’t mean I can simply write a “Zack Preacher” series of thrillers that will sell equally well. There’s still some magic, mojo and luck involved, along with things like talent, confidence and savvy. And don’t forget determination – most of the “overnight successes” we hear about were years in the making.

But the lack of a “right” way extends beyond genre. There’s more than one route to successful publication, from traditional to self-published, or combinations of both. There are plotters and pantsers sharing space on the NYT Bestsellers list. There are Hero’s Journey writers and Cat-Saving authors and people who’ve never heard of either, all selling beaucoup books. Which is French for “a crapload of,” if I’m not mistaken.

The same goes for music: There are classically trained virtuosos, and self-taught musicians who can’t read a note. There are incredibly polished performers, with seemingly supernatural abilities and machine-like consistency; there are unpredictable punk rockers who can’t be bothered to learn to play or sing, and who may or may not commit a felony during the course of a performance – and that’s if they even bother to show up.

Hell, just among us drummers, there are those who hold their sticks in that rather fancy-looking way you see in Revolutionary War paintings, and those who grip them like a pair of hammers – and an age-old schism between the two schools that can rapidly go off the rails in ways you’d never believe, in the consequence-free verbal-cage-match environment of an internet discussion forum.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

How to write the perfect plot twist: Anthony Horowitz’s 5 top tips

From Penguin UK:

It’s fair to say that Anthony Horowitz knows his way around a killer plotline. The bestselling author has not only captured readers with his mystery novels, Magpie MurdersMoonflower Murders and the Hawthorne mysteries, but taken on the mantle of his predecessors with two acclaimed Sherlock Holmes novels – The House of Silk and Moriarity – and three James Bond novels. So when he agreed to offer a masterclass in writing the perfect plot twist, we knew we were getting one of the best. 

It’s definitely worth watching The Art of: The Murder Mystery in full to get the depth of Horowitz’s wisdom, as well as stories about how he wrote his fantastic novels. But here are five nuggety takeaways to keep by your writing table (perhaps, like Horowitz, you eschew the keyboard for a fountain pen?) in the midst of your murder mystery-writing. 

1. Don’t underestimate the planning

Horowitz acknowledges that some writers like to sit down and let the story flow out, but he’s not one of them. “I often spend longer planning a book than I do writing it,” he says. “A good example is Magpie Murders, which took me something like 10 years to work out and then about two years to write, but it was a very, very complicated book and required an enormous amount of thinking.

“I put everything down on paper. I make copious pages and pages of notes until I am ready to write and by the time I do sit down at my desk, I have a sort of a map of where I’m going and everything is going to work.” Make sure, though, that you leave a little room to surprise yourself when you get to the page: “If I can’t surprise myself, how can I surprise my reader?”

2. Start with a simple formula

Not sure how that plan should begin? There’s a Horowitz Hack for that: “Start with a simple formula,” he advises. “A plus B equals C. A equals one person, B is another person, C is the reason why A murders B. That’s your bullseye. If that’s original and interesting and surprising enough, then you can tell us who A and B are, and and that’s your next ring.” Once you’ve got the basics, he explains, you can build out into the worlds your characters occupy, who knows them and how they know each other.”  

3. People should be able to guess the twist

Want to know the secret of a killer plot twist? It should be obvious enough for people to potentially guess it – but surprising enough that they rarely actually do. One of the major influences on Horowitz’s work was Agatha Christie, an author who he says always surprises him but “you always feel you could have guessed because all the information has been down there in front of you. When I’m writing my book, I’m very influenced by that. When my publisher or my agent or anybody else reads one of my books, the first question I ask is not ‘Did you enjoy it?’ but, ‘Did you guess it?’ Because that, to me, is the crux of the matter. If they do guess it, I feel a sense of disappointment but at the same time, if they can’t get it, then I haven’t played fair. What I prefer to do is for them to say, ‘No, I didn’t get it, but I should have.’ That’s what I’m aiming for.” 

4. Live inside your book

The best way to bring a story to life? Inhabit it. “There’s one piece of advice I would give to writers: don’t stand on the edge of the book, looking over the edge of the chasm. Live inside the book looking around you,” Horowitz says. “What my characters see, I see. What they feel – the wind or the sunshine – I feel. If I’m inside the book, I’m not thinking about it as being something that you or anybody else will read. I am merely inside the world of the book – all that comes later.” 

5. The only rule is originality

Link to the rest at Penguin UK and thanks to NC for the tip.

Writing Rules That Beg to Be Broken

From Jane Friedman:

The following are some of the so-called rules of writing fiction that I take a special delight in breaking. Creative writing is about possibilities, not about restrictions and limitations.

Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.
In 1962, in a letter to a young writer, John Steinbeck added six tips for writing well. The above was one of those tips. Its error lies again, as all rules do, with its use of the absolute never. I frequently will not, because I cannot, begin a story or novel until I have crafted the perfect first paragraph. Of course there is no such thing as a perfect sentence, but the temporary confidence instilled by thinking that I have crafted one is what allows me to tackle a project that will consume my waking and sleeping hours for the next year or more. Stopping now and then to polish a faulty phrase or image is like taking another hit of confidence.

Five or six hits every morning keep me flying through the hours. But if I cannot fix a weakness within a minute or two, I will not allow my momentum to stall out with fretting and hand-wringing. Placing parentheses around the offending phrase, or highlighting the entire scene, will call my attention to it during the first rewrite.

I do not believe, as some practitioners apparently do, that a morning’s work is like a fast-moving stream through which one must dare not stop paddling, not even for a moment. Go ahead and stop if you want to. Pull ashore. Have lunch. Creep up as close as you can to that egret in the tree. Take a nap if you feel like it. In short, do whatever works for you. The imagination is resilient and flexible, and your routine should be too. But only if that works for you. I am most productive when I adhere, albeit loosely, to the discipline of beginning the morning with a bit of meditation, followed by four to six hours at my desk, followed by a good workout or hike. That’s my routine. It doesn’t have to be yours.

Write what you know.
In the days of Thoreau and earlier, when it was necessary to walk several miles to consult with someone more knowledgeable than you, Ernest Hemingway’s write what you know might have been sound advice. Hemingway also said that every writer needs a friend in every profession, someone whose expertise can be accessed—a statement that appears to contradict the earlier statement.

In order to do my research back in the 1970s and 80s, I had to visit a small-town library every week to order another load of books on interlibrary loan, which made the librarian my best friend. Today, a writer’s best friend is the internet.

I feel certain that Hemingway’s write what you know admonition was not intended to be an absolute. A clearer rendition of that advice would be to write what you know after you’ve done a ton of research and before you forget it all. And always remember that you are writing fiction. Fiction is stuff you make up. You can do that too. You can make stuff up.

Back at the turn of the millennium, I signed a contract, based on a single opening scene, to write two historical mysteries featuring Edgar Allan Poe for Thomas Dunne Books. I had never before written a historical novel and was not confident I could create a convincing New York City of 1840. In one scene it was necessary for me to get Poe across the East River in short order so that he could hotfoot it to Manhattan. I spent weeks trying to find a bridge he could cross or a ferry that would convey him in the allotted time. No such luck. I was stuck. I moaned about this impasse to a friend of mine who was also a writer, and he said, “It’s fiction, Silvis. Make up a bridge.”

Frequently it is the not knowing that brings a story alive, the writer’s desire to know what he does not, which then leads to the character’s discovery of what she did not know, and then the reader’s delight in participating in that discovery.

Show, don’t tell.
A favorite admonition among writing teachers all over the world. This admonition is only half false. The true part is that good fiction is built on dramatic scenes comprised of action, dialogue, description, and conflict—i.e. showing through visual and other sensory details and strong, active verbs. But a certain amount of telling is necessary too. Summary and exposition hold the scenes together. Telling bridges the time gap between scenes and between relevant beats. A little bit of telling, even if it’s something as simple as “Two weeks later,” opens nearly every new scene and every chapter.

So, once again, the problem with the rule is not that it is wholly false but that it is stated too rigidly. Summarization complements dramatization in every novel. In some, it shoulders the narrative load. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, for example, is a brilliant novel that is almost wholly told rather than shown.

In general, the more “literary” a novel is, the more it relies on reflection, speculation, and summaries of events. That is why a literary novel is so hard to adapt for the screen; so much of the momentum of the story is interior, taking place only in the characters’ heads.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ran into this very problem when attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction The Orchid Thief for film. The problem was so infuriating that he finally seized upon introducing himself into the story as twins, one of whom was being driven mad by attempting to write the adaptation without sacrificing the book’s artistic integrity, and the other as a hack only too ready to pander to Hollywood’s lack of artistic integrity by changing the story willy-nilly. “Show, don’t tell” is fine advice if you are aiming for a quick sale of movie rights, or if you are fifteen years old and learning how to write in scenes, but the proper amendment of the phrase for the rest of us should be “show when you can, but tell whenever showing isn’t necessary.”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

A Handy Trick for Brainstorming Your Plot

From Writers in the Storm:

You don’t have to know everything about your story before you start plotting.

Since writing is fairly split between character writers and plot writers, you can bet that half the writers you meet have had struggles with plot (the other half with characters, but that’s another post). Even when you enjoy it, and are good at it, plotting has its challenges.

How do you know what your protagonist has to do? What types of problems and conflicts should your protagonist face? How do you fill in the middle so it doesn’t drag?

Figuring out how to get from the inciting incident to the climax is a head-scratcher—even for hardcore plotters like me. But the key to making this easier is structure.

Structure helps a lot when figuring out your plot.

Structure is like the line drawing of your story. It contains all the key turning points and general flow of how the novel will unfold. Once you know the general shape of it, you can color it in any way you want. For genre novels, it’s even easier, because you’ll have expected tropes to further guide you. You won’t have to draw the image from scratch—you only have to color in the lines.

For example:

  • In romance, there’s a meet-cute that leads to romance, and eventually a Happily Ever After.
  • In mysteries, there’s a body or crime that leads to an investigation, and eventually solving the crime and finding justice for the victims.
  • In non-genre novels, there’s a problem discovered that leads to attempts to fix that problem, and eventually resolving that issue and the protagonist finding happiness.

These turning points and expectations can help you develop a rough concept of your plot.

Maybe you know the details early on, maybe you don’t, but that’s okay. The goal here is to find that general framework for your plot to get you started.

I’m in final edits right now for a science fiction detective novel I plotted using this concept. Detective novels have a “formula” of expected tropes and a very clear structure of what happens when. But that didn’t mean my plot would be the same as every other detective story. The tropes and structure gave me a framework that helped guide my brainstorming. I made it unique to my story, based on what that story needed.

Let’s look a little closer.

Readers expect a detective novel to open with either the crime or the PI getting hired. But I didn’t want it to open with the client hiring my PI, because I felt that jumped in too fast. I wanted time to set the scene and ground readers in my science fiction world first. If they didn’t understand the world, they wouldn’t understand the mystery.

So I knew I had to have an opening scene that included the two big tropes of my mixed genres—introduce the PI nature and establish the science fiction world. I didn’t know what that scene would be at first, but it was clear I needed to show my PI at work in that world to accomplish both of those goals. That gave me solid place to start brainstorming.

Using that and the general trope and structure format, I was able to craft a basic outline:

  • Protagonist’s job and world introduced
  • Client hires protagonist to solve problem
  • Protagonist investigates and finds connections to his past
  • Crime escalates and new problem occurs (in most mysteries, this is another body)
  • Protagonist investigates new crime and tries to figure out the personal connections
  • Suspects stack up and are investigated
  • Connections are figured out and perpetrator is revealed
  • Perpetrator apprehended, case solved

It’s rough, but it’s something I could work with.

This works for genre and non-genre stories.

A romance novel will have a similar conceptual outline. It begins with the two love interests and their problems. Then the plot moves to the meet-cute, the attraction dance, problems with getting together, getting closer and then being torn apart. It ends with working things out, and then finally getting that happily ever after.

A non-genre novel will be more general, beginning with the protagonist living their life. They then encounter a problem and make a lot of mistakes that create more havoc in their lives as they try to solve it. Eventually, they face a moment when they want to give up, but they struggle to pull themselves together and keep going. Finally, they face the main conflict and resolve the problem.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Fairness: the hidden currency of the workplace

Not exactly about writing, but possibly a good writing prompt. And a very effective use of video.

From The Economist:

Some videos are almost certain to go viral: wild animals that pilfer food from unsuspecting families, cars that career through the windows of crowded cafés, pilots trying to land planes in high winds. Some are less obvious candidates to ricochet around the internet. Take, for example, the case of Brittany Pietsch, whose recording of a call in which she is laid off from a tech firm called Cloudflare went viral last month.

The recording lasts nine minutes, shows no one save Ms Pietsch and involves words like “performance-improvement plan”. Despite these unpromising ingredients, it makes public a moment of human drama that could occur to almost any employee. It also tugs at a fundamental human instinct. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Ms Pietsch’s dismissal, the manner in which she was fired, in a summary call with two people she had never met before and for reasons that are never properly explained, seems unfair. And few things matter more to people than fairness.

In experiments where one person decides how to allocate a pot of money with another, recipients will routinely reject an offer if they feel they are being given too little, even if that means neither party gets any cash. A fair share matters more than free money. Equity matters in non-financial life, too. A study conducted in 2012 by Nicholas Wright of University College London deliberately made some participants thirsty by hooking them up to a saline drip; they would still reject offers of water from fellow participants if they felt they were being offered too little.

Given how much weight humans place on fairness, it makes sense that managers should think about it, too. For questions of fairness arise almost everywhere in the workplace—not just when people lose their jobs but also in who gets hired, who gets the credit when things go well and who has that really nice desk right by the window.

Fairness is not just a preoccupation of workers. Last month a judge in Delaware ruled against Elon Musk’s eye-watering compensation package at Tesla on the ground that it was unfair to shareholders. A recent study into ceo compensation by Alex Edmans of London Business School and his co-authors found that bosses care about fairness, too. Money is not just about what it can buy; ceos think it is only right to be rewarded for better performance, and to be paid in line with their peers. A sense of fairness can be responsible for driving up bosses’ pay and fuelling anger about it at the same time.

Customers value fairness, too, not least when it comes to pricing. Consumers instinctively recoil at the idea of prices rising in response to surging demand, whether for Uber fares on a busy night, face masks in a pandemic or snow shovels the night after a big storm. Such views are deeply ingrained. A recent paper by Casey Klofstad and Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami asked Floridians for their views of anti-price-gouging legislation that would prevent shops from raising prices after a hurricane. Even when told that economists and other experts believe that mandatory price ceilings would exacerbate shortages and lead to store closures, respondents supported the law. (Depending on your point of view, this either proves that the public is irrational or that economists are not human.)

. . . .

This combination of salience and subjectivity makes fairness a tricky area for managers to navigate, but not an impossible one. No hiring decision will feel fair if qualified employees do not even know that there is a job going; a survey of 3,000 jobseekers by Gartner, a research firm, in 2021 found that half of them were not aware of internal career opportunities. No lay-off will feel fair if it is too impersonal.

Link to the rest at The Economist

How to Develop Your Unique Writing Style

From C.S. Lakin:

When tackling the art of fiction writing, it’s common to immerse yourself in the fundamentals: plot, structure, characters—the building blocks that demand time and mastery. Surprisingly, writing style often takes a backseat initially, with early attempts appearing clunky and derivative. It’s all part of the growth process.

I think it wasn’t until my fifth novel that I hit my stride and found my writing voice for my fantasy series. If you’re just beginning to venture into fiction, be patient! You have a lot of plates to juggle, and developing a unique, fresh, and compelling voice will take time and work.

Keep in mind, of course, that genre sets the rules. When the publisher of my fantasy series read my relational drama Someone to Blame, he told me he never would have guessed that I wrote that. He couldn’t recognize my writing style at all.

As it should be. Every time I’ve written in a different genre, I’ve studied best sellers and taken notes. Then I practiced until my prose fit right in.

. . . .

Much like a toddler learning to speak by mimicking adults, new writers often start by emulating established authors. This imitation is not just flattery but a smart learning strategy. By studying and imitating the style of great writers in your genre, you gain insights on how to craft your stories.

However, at some point, you must release your tight grip and venture into writing with your unique style. There’s no magic moment, but as you experiment, take chances, and let your imagination roam, your distinct voice begins to emerge.

Listening to Your Body

Okay, I know that might sound weird, but I learned this truth from mystery writer Elizabeth George. Your body will tell you if what you are writing is “spot-on” or if there is something off about it. The key to finding your unique writing style lies in being true to yourself.

Have you ever written a passage you really liked and wanted to use, but you had this nagging feeling it didn’t work? Then, when you squelched that warning and shared your passage with your critique team, what happened?

They all responded the same way. It doesn’t work, they said. It feels wrong. Maybe they had more specific responses for you that helped you see why and in what ways that passage didn’t work. But, hey, you already knew that. Or, you would have, had you listened to what your body was telling you.

There’s an uneasy feeling of discomfort a seasoned writer gets when she veers away from a true and honest writing voice and starts forcing the style for one reason or another. Then again, a writer can just get burned out, or have days or weeks in which she feels uncreative and can’t seem to come up with effective prose that feels like her true voice.

Listen to your body as you write—it will be honest with you. That uneasy feeling when deviating from your true voice is a signal to course-correct.

Inspiration and Creativity

Inspiration for just the right writing style can come from various sources. Reading exceptional prose before writing, as suggested by Elizabeth George, can jumpstart creativity. However, fine-tuning passages, experimenting with different tenses or tones, and using prompts can all be part of honing your style.

You’ve probably heard the adage “garbage in, garbage out.” And then there’s “you are what you eat”—which could be rewritten to “you write what you read.” Keep in mind that reading a lot of drivel (you can determine what constitutes that) can adversely affect your writing.

Be wary of asking for feedback from others. Oftentimes well-meaning critics will end up curtailing your creativity. Conversely, if readers are noticing problems with your style, pay attention and see what you can learn from their criticism (which, I hope, is kind and encouraging).

Link to the rest at C.S. Lakin

Lessons In Chemistry

From Notre Dame Magazine:

I have a confession to make: I am a writer. I have a hard time reading a book just for the story. Often I’m peeking behind the curtain, sussing out the tools the writer uses to make that story — point of view, verb tense, the objective correlative — see what I mean?

Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, still on The New York Times’ bestseller list more than a year after publication, came into my life after a very long spell of my own not-writing, so I had the pleasure of reading the story for the story. I did not get hung up on tools or structure. And I had fun.

Garmus had me on page 1: It is 1961 and a mother is packing her daughter’s lunch, albeit in a laboratory and with the certainty that “her life was over.” 

The premise is believable. What mother hasn’t had a bad day? And despite that, she’s the one packing the lunch, getting the day started. Just, what was that part about in a lab? I’ve packed lunches in some unusual places, but never in a lab. And it’s 1961. How many women were there in labs? And her life is over?

I wanted to know what would happen to Elizabeth Zott. Spoiler alert: I am giving away the ending.

Zott is the host of an afternoon cooking show, Dinner at Six, that is famously famous. Even the American president has seen and glowed about it.

But before she became a television host, Zott was a graduate student in chemistry at UCLA. More intrigue. Not a lot of women were studying chemistry at that level in the 1950s — but this is the University of California, the geographication of liberal for American readers.

However, in Zott’s case, no degree ever follows. She is 10 days shy of graduation when her faculty mentor finds her in the lab late at night checking test protocols, which is to say, putting in the extra effort she knows she must make to stay on his otherwise-all-male research team. Again, things are tracking.

When Zott tells her mentor of an error she believes she has found, he is irritated and determines to cover it up. He starts by putting his student back in her place, which means he tries to rape her. She escapes by stabbing him with a pencil. While he is rushed to the hospital, campus police pressure Elizabeth over and over . . . and over to make a statement of regret. She finally does: She regrets not having more pencils. 

Clever, and all too real.

From there, Elizabeth finds a position in a lab. Male colleagues mistreat her. Only one does not.

The tragedy in Lessons in Chemistry never overpowers the story. Garmus is a genius at buoying inequality and trauma with humor, resilience and the stark reality of a character who has nowhere else to go but through. Even Zott’s dog is a full-fledged character with emotion, motivation and internal dialogue that is just, well, so very much dog. The writing is brilliant.

I eagerly bought into the fictional dream until the very end: Elizabeth is saved by a wealthy female benefactor.

Can women save women? You bet. Were there wealthy female benefactors in the early 1960s? Absolutely. Did I want Elizabeth to prevail in her field of choice due to her intelligence and ability? One hundred and ten percent.

Because women don’t actually need saving. Elizabeth is no damsel in distress. She is a woman emasculated — pun intended — by a system seeped in misogyny. When women outsmart the system . . . and change it? That’s the ending I want.

I do not want one opportunity to open up for one woman at one point in time. I want change. I want laws to change. I want men and women to change. I want society to change.

Perhaps, however, that revolution of change begins with one woman helping another woman. Perhaps it takes a deus ex machina kind of shift because that shift is so incongruent to society.

. . . .

Lessons in Chemistry is well worth the read not only for the insight and inspiration but also for Garmus’ sharp wit and excellent writing. It is a story that stays with the reader, encourages her to think. It encouraged me to look at what I can do, how I can support people on the margins in a meaningful way.

Link to the rest at Notre Dame Magazine

The First Rule of Write Club

From Writer Unboxed:

Fight Club, the book and the movie, comes at you like a right hook. In my experience, you love it or you hate it. But unless you’re tragically hipster or a Gen Z nihilist, the last thing you are is ambivalent.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s post.

Welcome to the Suck.

I’ve been in the publishing industry for nearly 25 years. It’s always been the Wild West. Lately, though, it’s been looking less like a Western and more like a post-apocalyptic dystopia. We went from High Noon to The Hunger Games in six seconds flat.

In this landscape, your story is either a Sherman tank, or a ghost.

“One size fits all” fits no one.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve talked to who say their story “could appeal to everyone… anyone from age ten to seventy, any race, any gender, any walk of life!”

No, it really, really doesn’t.

Because nothing appeals to everyone.

Hell, I know people who don’t like pizza, and if that’s not proof there is no universally appealing thing on earth, I don’t know what is.

More importantly, appealing to everyone should never be your goal when it comes to writing, especially now.

“Universally appealing” generally means average, safe, standard.

That’s DMV beige. That’s unseasoned boiled chicken breast.

That’s ghost territory.

Turning it up to eleven.

It started with the rise of the internet, when a plethora of images, information, and interaction were suddenly, literally at your fingertips. Ironically, in a time where we have the largest buffet of brain candy in the world, people are starving for all the choices.

(If you’ve ever spent an hour perusing Netflix titles while choosing nothing, you know what I mean.)

As a result, it takes something truly vibrant, amplified, and dare I say polarizing to connect with the right readers… the ones who will not only love your work, but spread it like an underground rebellion through their various whisper networks.

In this environment, “meh” is the enemy. Ideally, you want people to either love it or hate it, but by God, they have strong feelings either way.

That’s what we’re looking for. Strong feelings.

But how do you do that?

  • Start with the right project. Impact has to be baked in at inception. Start by identifying three main elements: personal passion, reader experience… and, quite frankly, a hook that could bring in a marlin.What are you genuinely thrilled to write? What will readers in that genre adore about it? And in the intersection of those two, what will surprise them, compelling them to find out more about it?
  • Amplify. You’re then going to turn up the volume on these elements. Ultimately, you want to write things that make you grin and rub your hands together gleefully. Even if it initially feels self-indulgent, a darling that’s going to be slaughtered later, toss it in.

    Repeat with reader experience. Think about what draws readers to your genre. For example, in mystery, they love the puzzle, the challenge. They want the clues, the twists, the red herrings. They want to feel smart, but challenged. They want to know they could solve the murder – but still be pleasantly surprised at a fair, believable, yet unexpected finale.

    Add depth to your characters without “reinventing” the genre or sacrificing pacing. Play off their expectations, leading them to a lull of “oh this again” before belting them with a surprise.Look for universal fantasy elements, those primal emotional hooks that are irresistible, and incorporate them as often as possible. What are the core emotions for the story and the set pieces, and how can you make them shine? How can you look at each scene, and think about adding in things that will delight your readers?

    Finally, what are your (for lack of a better term) “viral moments”… the stuff that’s going to get people talking? Not in a general “I really liked this book” kind of way. In an “Oh my God, that scene, the one at the wedding? I couldn’t believe it!” kind of way. Specific scenes that make them strong-arm friends into reading the book because they’ve got to talk about it with somebody!
  • Distill. In a world that has the attention span of a goldfish with ADHD, you’ve got mere moments to make a strong impression. Once you’ve got all the delicious and deliberate material, you’re going to distill the experience down for the most impact. Streamline and reduce. Look at every element – characterization, plotting, pacing, dialogue, setting – for ways to tighten, strengthen, enhance. Story level and scene level. This is a diamond that you’re carving for drama, and polishing for emphasis.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Don’t Shave That Yak!

From Seth Godin:

The single best term I’ve learned this year.

I want to give you the non-technical definition, and as is my wont, broaden it a bit.

Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do. “I want to wax the car today.”

“Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I’ll need to buy a new one at Home Depot.”

“But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls.”

“But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor’s EZPass…”

“Bob won’t lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though.”

“And we haven’t returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it.”

And the next thing you know, you’re at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

This yak shaving phenomenon tends to hit some people more than others, but what makes it particularly perverse is when groups of people get involved. It’s bad enough when one person gets all up in arms yak shaving, but when you try to get a group of people together, you’re just as likely to end up giving the yak a manicure.

Which is why solo entrepreneurs and small organizations are so much more likely to get stuff done. They have fewer yaks to shave.

So, what to do?

Don’t go to Home Depot for the hose.

The minute you start walking down a path toward a yak shaving party, it’s worth making a compromise. Doing it well now is much better than doing it perfectly later.

Link to the rest at Seth Godin

The Power of the Prompt

From Writer Unboxed:

In 2010, the consensus was that a writer needed to have a blog.

As a dutiful rules follower, who at the time wanted an agent, I started blogging regularly about my journey, about a software program my friend had recommended called Scrivener, and—for more than a year—I penned a weekly blog post called The Sunday Squirrel.

The odd name comes from an experience I had in Toastmasters in my twenties. We had a member, Ken, who was truly a remarkable speaker. Anytime we had an unfilled speaking slot, he would give an impromptu speech using a random topic from the audience. His most memorable was a humorous, completely off-the-cuff, 7-minute speech about hunting squirrels as a kid, that may or may not have been complete B.S. I was impressed.

My hope was that I could grow a similar skill with the written word through extemporaneous writing. I especially wanted to hone my “show-don’t-tell” skills via short pieces of prose with low stakes. So, every Sunday, I picked a random word or topic and then wrote around it, publishing the result immediately, with minimal editing.

The very first squirrel was water bottle, and here’s what I came up with:

He reached for the water bottle tucked into the truck’s console, but it slipped from his grip as he lost the feeling in his fingers. The bottle fell to the floor with a thud, water pulsing out onto the dirty carpet. Every lost drop made him more desperate to quench the fire in his throat as his heart stopped beating and he gasped for his last breath.

A bit, morbid, but you get the idea. These grew increasingly longer, quickly becoming 800-1500 word scenes with a full arc.

Looking back, I’m shocked that I was brave enough to put the results of those impromptu writing sessions out there for all the world to see, and shocked that some of them aren’t too bad. It seems like limiting yourself to a word or specific idea would stifle creativity, but I’ve found that it actually feeds mine. The wilder the concept you have to incorporate, the more creative you have to be.

I’ve done similar prompts at writing conferences, and I’m always surprised how much fun it is and how easily my writer brain takes off when given an assignment.

One of my favorites used three words and a quote.

Words/Concepts: cocktail bar, Sunday school teacher, riding crop

Quote: “I’m just doing what the fortune cookie said. Who am I to stand in the way of fate?”

I somehow wrote a 504-word scene using all the elements in 30 minutes. There are a lot of days when I’d be happy to get 500 words in two hours, so that felt like a breakthrough. Sometimes a blank page is overwhelming. I can write anything! Except, oh, no, I can write anything, what should it be? Where do I start?

Narrowing the possibilities can cut through the indecisiveness and unfreeze your brain.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

How Improv Made Me a Better Writer

From Publishers Weekly:

Six years ago, I was a single mom with Wednesday and Thursday nights free in that strange, silent way only a recently divorced person can understand. So, I did what all normal and not-at-all-emotionally-unstable individuals do: I signed up for an improv class.

Over the next year, I completed the class series and auditioned for the theater’s house team, and—spoiler alert—I made it! Performing in front of a paying audience proved more intense than taking classes. And soon, improv became a great teaching tool in many areas of my life, including my writing.

At first, I thought improv and writing couldn’t be more opposite—one is performed in front of an audience, the other alone in a quiet space. But now, after hundreds of shows, I’ve come to see how wrong I was. Here are six things I learned from improv that dramatically impacted my writing.

How to think fast: I’m a self-diagnosed overthinker. With writing, I could retool the same three sentences seven times before I’d show them to anyone. I like that. It’s safe.

But improv is not a slow art. When a performer hits the stage, the show is in her hands. There’s no stopping, rethinking, or asking for an extension. Though writers don’t get rewarded for speed, and good improv takes its time in developing stories and characters, the pressure of creating in front of an audience has helped me quiet my inner editor.

How to think specifically: Improv has no props, costumes, sets, or special effects. When working in a medium of the invisible, it’s important to ground scenes in the familiar. Details set a scene, create an agreed-upon reality, and provide something for audiences to see.

In writing, creating a world for readers to perceive presents similar challenges. Just like onstage, offering some authentic details can heighten the level of realism in writing. It’s through specifics that we enter a shared world, whether through words on a page or actors on stage.

How to think boldly: One of the tenets of improv is to never negate another player’s ideas; instead, we respond with a version of, “Yes, and….” It’s not a hard concept, but I found it a difficult rule to follow. What if I make a fool of myself? What if no one laughs? Yet, over the years, I’ve found halfheartedly playing an uncomfortable moment only shares the awkwardness with the audience, whereas giving in to discomfort lets us find a shared humanity. And that’s what makes any art relatable.

As I’ve numbed my fears onstage, I’ve found my first drafts pouring onto the page and my mind open to more possibilities. For a writer, learning to adapt to new opportunities is important, and for me that looks like saying, “Yes, and…” more often: going to conferences, writing in a new genre, accepting speaking opportunities, writing this article.

. . . .

How to think about myself: My biggest mental shift since improv has little to do with my craft or career—it’s a change in the way I see myself. I no longer claim the title of writer or improviser. Instead, I gladly accept that I’m a creative person. All creativity takes an insane amount of courage, and every time I get onstage, I’m reminded how important it is to try new things in life. Only by taking inspired risks can we shift our thinking and continue to evolve.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Writing about Understanding

From The Paris Review:

The paragraph is perhaps an undercelebrated unit of writing. Sentences get their due, as do individual words, but paragraphs? At the Review, we’ve asked writers to select a favorite paragraph and write a paragraph—or several!—on it. This is our first piece in a periodic series.

Yes, I think you three have been quite happy. But I doubt if Cordelia has enjoyed a single moment of her childhood. It has all been a torment to her. She is not selfish. It is not what she has lacked that is an agony to her, it is what we all have lacked. She has hated it that all our clothes have been so shabby and that the house is so broken down. She has hated it that I have always been so late in paying Cousin Ralph the rent. She has hated it that we have so few friends. She hates it that your father has gone away, but not as you hate it. She would have preferred a quite ordinary father, so long as he stayed with us. She wishes she could have lived a life like the other girls at school. Your father’s writing, my playing, and whatever goes with those things, and the enjoyment we have had, are no compensation to her for what she has lost. Now, do not dare to despise her for this desire to be commonplace, to be secure, to throw away what we have of distinction. It is not she who is odd in hating poverty and”—she felt for the word—“eccentricity. It is you who are odd in not hating them. Be thankful for this oddity, which has brought you safe through terrible years. But do not think you owe it to any virtue in yourselves. You owe it entirely to your musical gifts. The music I have taught you to play must have made you realize that there is a great deal in life which is not affected by what happens to you. Also the technique has been more help to you than you realize. If you are not soft, it is because the technique you have mastered, such as it is, has hardened you. If God had not made you able to play you would be as helpless as Cordelia, and it is not her fault but God’s that she cannot play, and as God has no faults let us now drop the subject.

This paragraph appears late in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which is likely the novel I’ve reread more often than any other. And this passage is one that I return to all the time, both when life is hard and when life seems lenient enough to grant me a moment of reprieve. At the center of the novel are three sisters: Rose and Mary, twins who are prodigies on the piano, and Cordelia, their unmusical sister who dreams of becoming a world-famous violinist. This paragraph comes after Cordelia’s dream is dashed, and Mamma, their mother, who is a genius on the piano, speaks sternly to Rose and Mary and their brother Richard Quin, admonishing them.

There are many things I love about the paragraph. As I’m typing it out, I’m surprised how long it is. (In fact, many of West’s best paragraphs are long, sometimes occupying an entire page or two). Readily, West allows a character to speak without authorial interventions or interruptions from other characters. Were I discussing this in a writing class, comments would be bound to arise that this is not the right way to write dialogue, but who cares about the right way or the wrong way to write dialogue when one can listen to an extraordinary character like Mamma talk, as thrilling as listening to Shakespeare or a master pianist? The best writing—not only long passages of description but dialogues, monologues—always has an element of music and an element of poetry in it. This paragraph has both in abundance.

And what Mamma says—“Be thankful for this oddity, which has brought you safe through terrible years. … The music I have taught you to play must have made you realize that there is a great deal in life which is not affected by what happens to you”—is what I often repeat to myself, sometimes in a variation for my own situation: “Be thankful for your oddity, which has brought you safe through terrible years. … The books you’ve read and the books you’ve written must have made you realize that there is a great deal in life which is not affected by what happens to you.” Some people—perhaps many, one imagines—are ready to disagree with the sentiment, which goes against a kind of Americanness by which much of life (and literature) has to be seen and experienced only through the lens of the self: my angle, my story, my identity. Well, the more reason for me to celebrate a different sentiment along with Mamma.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Making dialogue sound natural

From Now Novel:

Whether you’re writing a novel or a short story, you are going to want to make your dialogue natural and true to real life, as it’s spoken in the real world. How do you go about achieving this, when ‘natural dialogue’ can be boring to read if you write it verbatim?

As to why you should make your dialogue sound natural, Daniel Boyko and Zoha Arif of Polyphonic Lit have this to say:

Unnatural, inorganic dialogue can make any character sound like an evil robotic Martian stranded on the great abomination of earth (with no hope of reconnecting with its extraterrestrial kind), trying to camouflage into human society and failing completely and utterly to do so.

. . . .

In his book  How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, James Scott Bell explains the difference between real speech and fictional dialogue. He writes that:

Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose. 

That’s a crucial distinction. We don’t want to merely capture reality in our fiction. We aren’t filming a documentary.

What we do is render something that feels real but is intended to create a desired effect. 

Real-life speech is meandering and often boring. 

Fictional speech doesn’t meander (unless, of course, a character has a strong reason to run on and on).

Firstly, you have to listen to natural dialogue. The best way of doing this is not to have a conversation, because then you are so busy being part of the give and take that you don’t really hear the natural rhythms of dialogue. One recommendation is to go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Listen to how people speak in the real world, note the rhythms and cadences: when people get excited, or sad, note how the tone changes. Note, too, how people don’t use complete sentences, how people pause, and sometimes the listener will rush in to fill that gap while the speaker is pausing. Notice when people lose their place, forget things, and just simply don’t complete their thoughts. And yet despite that, the meaning of what they are saying is implied by the rest of the sentence.

Link to the rest at Now Novel

What Sleeping With Jane Eyre Taught Me About Pacing

From Jane Friedman:

I’ve been sleeping with Jane Eyre, lately—courtesy of The Sleepy Bookshelf, a podcast designed to help me snooze.

Except it’s been keeping me awake.

I’ve loved this classic since childhood, every reread captivating me as if for the first time.

But it soon became clear that I was sharing my bed not so much with Jane, as with Charlotte Brontë herself. Listening to the novel has been showing me things I had missed on the page—the first-person narrative drawing me in so close I could almost believe it was memoir—and night after night I’ve been reveling in a writing-craft class led by the venerated author.

One such class addresses a storytelling weakness that shows up a lot in my writing and editing practice: high-tension scenes that rush to their finish with the speed of a bullet train.

Brontë’s talent for keeping readers on tenterhooks reminds me of Matthew Dicks and his hourglass technique, which he shares in Storyworthy (entire book, so good!).

Going too fast is one of the biggest mistakes storytellers make, Dicks says. When you arrive at the moment readers have been waiting for, “It’s time to slow things down. Grind them to a halt when possible.”

Consider the properties of an hourglass: the upper chamber containing story still to be told. No grain of sand before its time. All flowing inexorably to the same destination.

In one of my favorite scenes (spoilers ahead), Jane Eyre returns to Thornfield Hall after a year of yearning, desperate to clap eyes on her great love, Mr. Rochester, whom she fled upon learning at the altar that he was already married.

As she approaches the Hall, I itch to press fast-forward. Would he be there? Would they helplessly reunite, or would her moral restraint prevail? Had I been turning pages, I’d be reading very fast indeed—which is what readers do when narrative tension flames through the roof. How else to defend against an author’s merciless manipulation?

But because I was forced to listen and wait, I caught Brontë in the act of tipping the hourglass—again and again.

She sends Jane on four separate journeys to find Mr. Rochester, starting with a 36-hour coach ride from her home to Rochester Inn—ample time for reader anxiety to flare. Rather than simply asking the innkeeper for news of her lost love, Jane prolongs hope by walking the remaining two miles to the Hall.

It is a walk designed to drive the reader to the edge of endurance.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

14 Do’s and Don’ts of Time Management for Writers (from a Recovering Over-Achiever)

From K.M. Weiland:

For many of us, writing is one of the most important things in our lives. And yet, it can be all too easy to let that “most important thing” end up at the bottom of our to-do list. If yet another day has passed in which you haven’t been able to write—or a day in which you did write but getting it done was a struggle—you’re not alone. Time management for writers is possibly one of the key skills of the lifestyle. This is true whether you write full-time or write around your full-time responsibilities.

I’ve always been a schedule hacker and someone who tries to make every minute count. I’ve also always been someone who constantly laments that there isn’t just one more hour in the day. Time management is something of an obsession for me, probably because it’s a game you never completely win. In years past, I’ve gone down the overachiever path of absolutely flying through my days and trying to cram in as much as possible. There are seasons in which that is effective or even unavoidable, but eventually it becomes unsustainable. I’ve also gone through seasons in which circumstances dictated I do as little as possible, but that too is unsustainable over the long term.

Inevitably, the sweet spot is found in balance. Each person’s balance is different, depending on personality, health, goals, obligations, and other factors. No matter what your lifestyle, the demands of the modern day keep us busy and distracted. This can be especially challenging for a creative who needs downtime to breathe and think and wander, as well as concentrated go-time in which to enforce discipline and actually get words on paper.

Recently, I received the following question from reader Joan Arc:

I enjoy reading your blog posts and I like the fact that you like suggestions from your fellow writers. But as I am engaged in school and trying to balance life whilst I study, I find it is becoming more difficult to devote the time to read them. I was wondering if in the near future, you could give some helpful hints about time management and how to balance a writing schedule that will stay even when life takes priority. This is a thing that I, along with many aspiring writers struggle with, and consequently, I lose inspiration for my book. Do you have any suggestions for this?

In today’s post, I’m going to review some of the do’s and don’ts of time management that I have found most supportive throughout my writing career. First, however, I will say a word about consistency in general. I’ve written before about the pros and cons of writing every day, ultimately landing on the view that it’s not important that you write “every” day. What is important is consistency—whatever that means to you—since consistency is what staves off that loss of inspiration Joan references.

8 Do’s of Time Management for Writers

The following eight “do’s” of time management for writers are all practical steps to take in aligning your daily schedule to your vision for your writing life. Note, that it’s important to start with your vision. Start by getting clear on your own goals, not just for writing but for other areas of your life as well. This will help you identify your ideal schedule, as well as what is achievable at the moment.

1. List Your To-Dos So You Can See Them All in One Place

If your day is anything like mine, then it is made up of a bazillion little to-dos. Many of them are so infinitesimal (emptying comment spam on the website) or ordinary (brushing my teeth) that I don’t always think of them as “to-dos.” And yet, they add up fast. When trying to get clear about how to streamline your schedule and create flow states throughout your day, take the time to analyze everything. Time management for writers isn’t just about writing. It isn’t even mostly about writing. It’s about optimizing the entire day so the writing time comes as easily as possible.

2. Create “Batches” of Related Tasks

Once you’ve created a list, group your tasks thematically. A personal motto that serves me well in some instances and not so well in others is “do whatever is in front of you.” Sometimes this is the single best method for moving forward through a large task or for creating momentum when you feel stuck. Other times, it just ends up scattering your focus all over the place. Instead of eating the elephant one bite at a time, you eat a little of the elephant and a little of the giraffe and a little of the hyena—and you end the day feeling you haven’t accomplished anything.

Batch your tasks, so you can focus on one thing at a time. For example, don’t check email throughout the day. Reserve a slot at an optimal time of the day when you can sort through and respond to all emails at once.

3. Multi-Task (With Care)

Multi-tasking is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can undeniably help you move through multiple projects at a quicker rate. On the other hand, the growing amount of research on the loss of productivity associated with multi-tasking is sobering. Even though all that busyness can make us feel super-productive, the actual metrics don’t always weigh out. Use caution and consciousness when adding multi-tasking to your schedule.

That said, there are times when multi-tasking takes everything to 2.0. For example, you might plan to listen to an audiobook or podcast whenever your hands are busy elsewhere (e.g., commuting, doing the dishes, or, for me, designing weekly social media graphics such as the Pinterest image at the top of my posts).

4. Schedule Downtime Relentlessly

When we think of time management for writers, what usually comes to mind are all the tasks we want to do. But particularly if you’re wanting or needing to cram a lot into your daily routines, one of the most important things you can schedule is downtime. Make downtime your priority. Except in situations in which you have no choice (e.g., your paycheck is on the line, your child has an emergency, etc.), the downtime on your schedule should be the last thing to take the hit. I’ve learned this the hard way. These days, I adamantly schedule “downtime” and self-care first thing in the morning. If I don’t do it first, I don’t do it, and because it is the most important part of my day, I prioritize it relentlessly.

5. Make a Commitment With Yourself

Making schedules is the easy part; sticking with them is where the road can get rough. There are two key pieces to sticking with a schedule. The first key is creating a schedule that works. This often requires trial and error, some degree of flexibility, and self-forgiveness.

The second key is discipline. Think of your schedule as a commitment to yourself. Not only are you committing to do all the tasks you’ve laid out for yourself, but when you show up to one of those tasks, you’re going to give it your full attention. This is true for every task on your list, but as a writer, it’s the writing time that should be particularly sacred.

It can be so easy to carve out an hour or two in your day for writing… and then spend half or more of that time twiddling it away. Now, sometimes twiddling is really just creative lollygagging or even dreamzoning, both of which are part of the creative process. But other times (and you know when those times are), the twiddling is just procrastination.

6. Schedule Writing Tasks and Writing-Related Tasks Separately

People often ask me if outlining, researching, and editing count as “writing time.” In my view, they do. However, when it comes to time management for writers, it can be valuable to schedule them separately. Depending on your preferences, the temptation to do a little of everything during “writing time” may end up being counter-productive. For example, if I’m trying to get myself into the headspace of flowing with a scene I want to write, I don’t want to interrupt that with the sudden urge to go research some tidbit. I try to schedule myself out of my distractions by penciling in a slot for researching or editing or whatever else at a different time from my writing.

7. Create a Quick Warm-Up Routine

After zooming through all the to-dos that fill the rest of your day, it can be tough to sit down at your desk and suddenly turn on your inspiration and creativity. And yet, you only have an hour, and you can’t afford to waste any of it!

One of the best tricks I’ve ever used for transitioning into my writing time is a personalized warm-up routine. At certain times in my life (when I’ve had more time), I’ve scheduled warm-ups as long as 30 minutes. These days, my warm-ups are usually quite short. I choose tasks that help ground me, pull me out of a mental space and into my deeper, body-oriented imagination—such as a quick grounding meditation, lighting a candle, breathing some essential oils, or taking a bite of chocolate or a sip of coffee. I may also read over what I wrote the day before or read a quick section from my research or character notes, to help pull myself back into the mindset of my story.

8. Write in Fifteen-Minute Spurts

There you are, sitting at your desk right on schedule, ready to write. And… the words just aren’t coming. The urge to twiddle is strong. You look at the clock and suddenly this precious hour seems like for…ev…er. Before you know it, fifteen minutes have passed and you’ve rewritten the same sentence a total of three times.

The brain hack I like to use is writing in fifteen-minute spurts. I tell myself I’m going to write 500 words (or whatever) in fifteen minutes. Writing 2,000 words in an hour seems overwhelming, but 500 in fifteen minutes? I can do that! Then… when the fifteen minutes is up, I take another drink of coffee or a bite of chocolate, and do it again.

Link to the rest at K.M. Weiland

For PG, reading advice about becoming more efficient with time is usually worth his time. That said, the time management strategies that are effective for one person are not necessarily the best way for another person to reach a high degree of efficiency.

Sometimes, the types of strategies included in the OP can be helpful for PG, but at other times, he needs to think deeply over an extended period of time to prepare himself to do something well. At other times, it’s more efficient for him to close his eyes and let his mind wander.

It’s not like his brain forgets what he needs to figure out, but relaxing and mentally wandering reduces the pressure PG has been putting on himself to get a mental task accomplished.

When the pressure is reduced by not focusing on a task to obsession, the less conscious and less logical parts of his brain present a solution that his logicbrain would never have considered.

There’s nothing particularly original or groundbreaking to what PG’s brain does and doesn’t do, but a conscious brain hack isn’t the best way for him to get mental tasks done. Sometimes the best recipe for success is no real recipe at all.

Character Type & Trope Thesaurus Entry: Bad Influence

From Writers Helping Writers:

DESCRIPTION: This character compromises others and leads them down the wrong path. They could be villainous, deliberately attempting to misguide others, or may be the friend who’s always getting people into trouble.

FICTIONAL EXAMPLES: Grima Wormtongue (the Lord of the Rings series), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Faith LeHane (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

COMMON STRENGTHS: Adaptable, Adventurous, Ambitious, Analytical, Bold, Charming, Creative, Decisive, Focused, Independent, Industrious, Intelligent, Observant, Persistent, Persuasive, Resourceful

COMMON WEAKNESSES: Controlling, Devious, Dishonest, Hypocritical, Impatient, Impulsive, Irresponsible, Jealous, Manipulative, Melodramatic, Mischievous, Pushy, Rebellious, Reckless, Selfish, Spoiled, Stubborn, Uncooperative

Manipulating and controlling others
Having a charismatic presence
Breaking social norms
Advocating for and taking shortcuts
Using bribes to entice others to their way of thinking
Encouraging risky or destructive behaviors
Shifting blame to others
Being cunning
Identifying threats or risks before they become a problem
Homing in on others’ weaknesses
Knowing how to exploit others’ desires to their own advantage

Being confronted by someone they’ve wronged and having to deal with the consequences
Encountering a cunning rival and having to up their game to outmaneuver them
Becoming friends with a positive role model who seeks to make the character better

Is being manipulated into manipulating others by a behind-the-scenes puppet master
Isn’t overtly trying to be a bad influence

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: “[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Editing Racist Language

From Writer Unboxed,

Once again, serendipity gave me this month’s topic.  Not long after I put up last month’s piece on cultural appropriation, the New York Times published an article on the controversy around plans to rewrite the works of Georgette Heyer.  Ms. Heyer, who wrote from the 1920s to the 1970s, essentially created the modern Regency romance.

She’s delightful to read in a lot of ways.  I love her use of early 19th century language, but her Jewish characters are cruel stereotypes.  Her estate has agreed to a new edition of her books with the anti-Semitism edited out.  It’s about time.

The NY Times article argued both sides of the question.  Readers are generally smart enough to see that things were different in the past, so posthumous rewriting to fit more modern sensibilities is unfair to the author.  On the other side, the racist language of the past may be so offensive that some readers will be unable to read it at all.

In Ms.Heyers’ case, the offensive characters are relatively minor and easily rewritten to erase any antisemitism.  In fact, because the characters are stereotypes, the book is stronger without them.

In other cases, the racism is so interwoven in the narrative that the story can’t be saved.  For instance, I couldn’t get through Gone With the Wind.  I mean, yes, great characters, wonderful romance, historic sweep, all of that.  But I couldn’t get past the Lost Cause narrative – that the Confederacy may have lost the war, but, gosh darn it, they were right all along.  The book can be taught in academic settings, where a teacher can give the cultural context, but by now it is more a historical document about the bad old days than popular entertainment.

Then there’s Booth Tarkington.

The house I grew up in didn’t have many books, and I think I read all of them – my older sister’s Bobbsey Twins collection, Oliver Twist (when I was far too young to follow it), a 19th-century edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, with woodcuts.  And Penrod and Sam, a collection of short stories by Booth Tarkington.  Later in life, I got hold of the first book in the series, Penrod.

Both books tell stories of Penrod Schofield, a boy growing up somewhere in the Midwest just after the turn of the 20th century.  Two of Penrod’s friends were black, the brothers Herman and Verman.  (That is correctly spelled, by the way.  As Herman explains when they first meet Penrod, their parents just like rhyming names — they also have an older brother Sherman.)  Because Tarkington was a product of his time, the brothers are often described using racist language.  But . . .

In one of the stories from Penrod, Penrod has to stay in town while most of his friends visit relatives in the country to escape the summer city heat.  While on his own, Penrod meets a bully, Rupe Collins, who menaces and humiliates him.  And in one of the nice bits of characterization that make Tarkington worth reading, Penrod falls straight into hero worship.  He starts spending more time with Rupe and emulating him.  When Sam returns from the country and runs into Rupe and Penrod, Penrod encourages Rupe to bully Sam the way Rupe bullied him.  Rupe is happy to comply by putting Sam in a headlock.

Into this scene walk Herman and Verman.  Their immediate reaction is to tell Rupe to leave their friends alone.  Rupe orders Penrod to throw them out of the carriage house where they’d been playing, referring to them with a racial slur.  Herman takes even more exception to this.  Rupe responds by towering over him and threatening him, much as he had threatened Penrod.

And then Herman and Verman just beat the sweet bejesus out of him.

Again, the language is extremely, unfortunately racist.  I remember one reference to Verman hitting Rupe with a rake, as hard as he could, tines down, “because, in his simple, straightforward, African way, he wished to kill his enemy and kill him as quickly as possible.”  And I can certainly appreciate why many readers wouldn’t be able to get past the language.  But the story’s stuck with me all these years because what the brothers actually do is brave and honorable and done in defense of their own dignity.

Especially since Tarkington is completely behind them.  They are the heroes of the story, full stop.  When they send Rupe packing, they are justifiably exultant with no hint of guilt or regret.  And their attack breaks Penrod’s hero worship, helping their friend get back to normal.  Despite the language, I find it hard to be offended by a story in which two black boys are celebrated for beating the stuffing out of a white racist.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG could argue the case that sanitizing the wording of old books to suit present-day mores is a form of whitewashing racist, etc., attitudes from an earlier time.

Is it not more instructive for students and others to understand how easily and readily writers and establishment publishers fell into the odious practice of using offensive racist terms to describe other human beings?

Are readers and society at large to assume that the American establishment has always been pristinely free of bad racist habits? One of the benefits of studying history, including literary and publishing history, warts and all, is to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Winston Churchill

Times When Commas Have Been Critical

From diyMFA:

It may appear to be a tiny little mark, barely bigger than a period. YET, the usage or omission of a comma can make a huge difference in your meaning and maybe even your wallet. Let’s take a look at three times when a comma could have or did change the course of history.

Tariff Act of 1872

I think we all hate paying taxes, but fruit importers got a break from theirs when a clerk misprinted a hyphen as a comma instead. The early United States began imposing tariffs (taxes) on imported goods as far back as 1789. Over time, these laws were modified and had to be copied into new documents.

Well, maybe they didn’t have their coffee that day, but a poor clerk writing up the new tariff made a boo-boo and added a comma where it shouldn’t have been. The original law (from 1870) had exempted “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.” But in 1872, a stray comma came in after “fruit,” which made importers argue that all fruits (not just full fruit plants) should be exempt.

People made arguments and debated on both sides. Congress eventually changed the comma, but not before refunding over $2 million ($40 million with inflation) to importers they had taxed while the comma was in place.

Maine Dairy Deliveries

Big corporations will do anything to save a buck—except check their commas. In 2014, five drivers for a dairy company sued the company for overtime pay, which they claimed stemmed from the lack of the Oxford (serial) comma in their contract.

The contract said that overtime did not apply to workers involved in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” perishable foods. 

Notice how this list does not have a comma before the “or”? Well, that lack of the serial comma in this sentence implies that the overtime exemption doesn’t apply to those who ONLY distribute and do not pack the items.

The courts officially agreed with this reading of the document and awarded a $5 Million settlement covering 127 drivers. So, before you go arguing for or against the Oxford comma, make sure your meaning comes first and your preference comes second.

Link to the rest at diyMFA

The Timeless Power of Universal Themes in Fiction

From C.S. Lakin:

As avid readers and writers of fiction, we often find ourselves drawn to stories that leave an indelible mark on our hearts and minds. Have you ever wondered what makes certain stories stand the test of time, resonating with audiences across the globe, regardless of cultural or geographical differences?

The answer lies in the artful incorporation of universal themes—the bedrock upon which the most enduring and impactful stories are built.

What Are Universal Themes?

Universal themes are timeless, fundamental ideas that are shared by humans collectively and individually. They are the threads that connect the human experience, delving into emotions, beliefs, and values that resonate with people from all walks of life.

Whether it’s the exploration of love, the quest for justice, or the enduring human spirit, themes speak to the heart of storytelling in a truly universal language. I like how Michael Hauge, Hollywood story consultant, puts it: Theme is the character’s inner motivation made universal. It’s what drives your character toward her goal that resonates with readers.

Infusing Theme Strategically

Incorporating universal themes into fiction is not merely a stylistic choice; it is a strategic move that elevates a story from being entertaining to becoming emotionally resonant and thought-provoking.

These themes serve as the glue that binds the narrative together, providing depth and meaning to the characters’ journeys and the plot’s twists and turns. When readers connect with a universal theme, they see themselves in the characters, fostering empathy and understanding across diverse backgrounds and experiences.

You don’t have to create a general setting or situation that everyone can relate to. In fact, the more specific and narrow the milieu of your story, the more the universality can resonate. Take a novel like The Kite Runner, a blockbuster book set in Afghanistan. The cultural setting might have been unfamiliar to the majority of readers, but the moral dilemma and thematic issues the characters face are extremely relatable—the humiliation, shame, and fear explored are all emotions people everywhere have experienced.

Another novel that highlights universal themes is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead’s powerful book reimagines the historical Underground Railroad as a literal network of trains, offering a harrowing portrayal of slavery and the quest for freedom. The themes of resilience, the pursuit of justice, and the human spirit’s capacity to endure in the face of oppression simmer through the pages.

Universal themes enrich the narrative tapestry by delving into fundamental aspects of life – love, loss, redemption, justice, and the human condition. By tapping into a shared reservoir of human experience, writers create stories that resonate profoundly. These themes serve as a bridge between the characters and the audience, fostering empathy and connection.

The Profound Impact of Universal Themes

Beyond emotional resonance, universal themes provide a platform for exploring complex and meaningful ideas within the framework of a narrative. They allow writers to delve into societal issues, moral dilemmas, and philosophical questions, inviting readers to ponder and reflect.

Link to the rest at C.S. Lakin

Why Activism Leads to So Much Bad Writing

From The Atlantic:

When artists turn to activism or introduce politics into a work of art, it’s usually taken as something virtuous, an act of conscience on behalf of justice. But artistic and political values are not the same; in some ways they’re opposed, and mixing them can corrupt both. Politics is almost never a choice between good and evil but rather between two evils, and anyone who engages in political action will end up with dirty hands, distorting the truth if not peddling propaganda; whereas an artist has to aspire to an intellectual and emotional honesty that will drive creative work away from any political line. Art that tries to give political satisfaction is unlikely to be very good as either politics or art.

Last month, 92NY, a Jewish cultural center in New York, canceled a long-scheduled event with the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen after he and 750 other writers and artists signed an open letter in the London Review of Books calling for “an end to the violence and destruction of Palestine.” The organizers insist that the event was only postponed, but that’s not how it looked. The cancellation was part of a wave of suppressed speech following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel: Pro-Palestinian student groups have been banned, speakers disinvited, and employees fired; a ceremony honoring a Palestinian writer was canceled and an Islamic art exhibit withdrawn; the only Palestinian American member of Congress was censured. All of these acts are hostile to the values of free expression in a liberal democracy.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

When Getting It Wrong Makes It Better

From Writer Unboxed:

In the late ‘70s, when I was a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, a film crew descended upon our quirky little town to shoot a movie. At the time I believe it was called “Bambino,” but that would change. The movie focused on an annual bicycle race the university hosted, called the Little 500 (a reference to the famed Indianapolis 500, the big annual auto race held 50 miles to the north). The Little 500 was the event of the year for students and townspeople alike, and to this day it draws crowds of 25,000 whenever April rolls around.

When you live in smalltown central Indiana, it’s not every day that Hollywood comes calling, and both the city and the university greeted the film project with open arms. It was the talk of the town, and soon we began seeing sections of the campus and surrounding area cordoned off while a cafeteria, courtyard or local street was commandeered to film some scene.

What was the movie about? Nobody really knew, other than that the climactic moment would be a reenactment of our big bicycle race. And – most thrilling of all – there was an open call to attend said reenactment as an extra, since they needed the stadium in which the race was held to be full of people. As a bonus, they also needed a ton of competitive bike riders, and since my dormitory floor had a team that had qualified to compete in the real race, the guys on that team were hired to ride in the reenactment, while the rest of their loyal floormates fake-cheered them on from the stands, hoping to be captured forever on film.

Suffice to say, we were stoked.

It didn’t take long for some of the novelty to wear off. The film crew seemed to be everywhere, and they showed no signs of ever being done. It became tiresome to have to walk around to a rear entrance of an academic hall, because the front of the building was being used for some scene they were shooting.

Even more troubling, we began to notice what they were getting WRONG. We heard talk that the movie would highlight rivalries between students and “cutters” – a derogatory name the filmmakers were using for the local townspeople, harkening back to a bygone era when Bloomington was home to a large workforce of limestone cutters. The problem was, the limestone quarries had been closed for years, there was little or no actual rivalry, and nobody called them “cutters.” “Townies,” maybe. A few called them “stonies” (for “stone cutters”). But what was all this “cutters” nonsense? No, this did NOT bode well.

And then there were the race scenes. Despite the initial surge of interest, it quickly became evident that there was no way to actually fill the stadium where the race was being filmed day after day, because nowhere near enough people were showing up. So the film crew would direct us (yes, yours truly was in some of the crowd scenes) to all shuffle back and forth to different parts of the stadium and sit together in crowded clumps of people. After one shot was completed, we would be ushered to some other section of the stands, and we began to understand that they would somehow stitch together the footage to make the stadium appear full, when in reality you were likely seeing the same much smaller group of people over and over again, sitting in whatever section of the stadium the camera was capturing at a given moment. Although this was long before the advent of CGI, even then we were skeptical of such a low-tech approach. (You’d be surprised how quickly a bunch of 19-year-old Midwestern punks become experts in critiquing filmmaking techniques.)

The movie didn’t come out until the following year, by which time it had been renamed “Breaking Away.” Back in Bloomington, we all flocked to the movie theater to see it, hoping to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the bike-racing scenes.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for the finished result. A film that we had assumed would be about our famous bike race was instead more of a buddy movie with a side order of romance, tacking on a trumped-up rivalry between students and townspeople that in no way represented the real dynamic of the artsy little town we all knew and loved. The verdict was swift and unanimous:

Clearly, this movie sucked.

So imagine our surprise – and righteous indignation – when the film became a hit, earning not one but four Academy Award nominations, and actually winning for best screenplay!

How could this be? The lead actor had skinny legs, and everybody knew that the best competitive cyclists had legs like sequoias. And during the “cute meet” when the male and female romantic leads first crossed paths, the girl rode away on a motor scooter (which nobody rode on that campus), and – wait for it – drove the wrong way up what any self-respecting Bloomingtonian knew was a one-way street! And in what had to be the worst blow of all, during the race scenes, the cameras swept past the crowds far too fast for any of us to recognize ourselves.

This was an outrage. How could Hollywood have gotten our world so wrong?

It wasn’t until many years later, when I began harboring serious thoughts about becoming a storyteller, that I realized that with little or no exception, nearly everything that movie got wrong actually made it a better story. More on that in a moment, but examining the success of Breaking Away made me start to realize that getting the facts right is not always the goal in fiction. Getting the story right is.

A hard lesson from a bitter pill

Still, that can be a bitter pill to swallow. I think most of us get bugged when a book or movie gets something wrong – particularly when it’s something about which we have highly specialized knowledge or experience. In my case, as a professional musician, I can tell you that music is something that they almost NEVER get right in books or movies. This can happen whether the music is the focal point, or merely a side detail.

Because I’m a drummer, people always ask me what I thought of the movie Whiplash, and I have to carefully temper my response in order not to go full Ebenezer Scrooge on them. I mean, sure: the film might have provided a platform for some powerful drama – and okay, some damn good acting – but it was utter nonsense in terms of realism, basically amounting to nothing more than a thinly disguised sports movie where a ball was swapped out for some drumsticks. Two thumbs down from The Keithster.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

One Well-Chosen Detail: Write Juicy Descriptions Without Overwhelming Your Reader

From Jane Friedman:

Have you ever read a description in a book and actually stopped to say to yourself, “Dang, that’s good.” And then maybe read it again?

If so, you’ve probably also read a book where you found yourself mumbling, “I really don’t need to know every detail about this guy’s library/tools/muffin recipe” as you flip a few pages to find where the story picks up again.

It takes practice to write immersive descriptions that draw readers in, without going overboard so that we bore them and lose their attention. It’s one of the more delicate elements of craft.

Let’s start with how to write lush prose.

Writing engaging descriptions

I was reading Moonglow, by Michael Chabon, recently and came across this description of an ominous figure:

His close-cropped skull was indented on one side as by the corner of a two-by-four. In the crevice formed by his brow and cheekbones, his eyes glinted like dimes lost between sofa cushions.

The specificity of the description just floored me. I can absolutely see this guy in my head and I wouldn’t want to bump into him in a parking lot staircase. It got me thinking about great descriptions, and their opposite: clichés.

The dreaded cliché

A cliché is any turn of phrase that you’ve ever heard before: fire-engine red, soft as a pillow, robin’s egg blue, fast as a speeding train. You get the idea.

Basically, a cliché is a symbol. It’s the literary equivalent of clipart. 

. . . .

Characters can be cliché too. If you’re writing an elderly lady and you tell us she has gray hair and wrinkles around her eyes, an image will form in the mind of the reader, sure, but an opportunity has been missed to create a specific character, one unlike any other.

As an example, consider this description from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping:

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

The difference is in the details. Specific details are what lift descriptions out of cliché. But digging deep for details is difficult because our brains are inherently lazy. We see something pale blue. We check our mental files for ways of describing it and come up with “sky blue.” Accurate, yes, but you’ve missed the chance to describe the object as only you can.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

7 Keys to Writing the Ultimate Spy Thriller

From ScreenCraft:

What does it take to write a great spy thriller?

From the James Bond franchise to every Mission Impossible installment — and everything around and in between — the spy thriller has long been one of the most intriguing genres in film and television.

We’ve had spy thrillers based on true stories (Bridge of Spies and Argo), slapstick comedies (Spy, the Austin Powers Trilogy, Top Secret!), action comedies (True LiesMr. and Mrs. Smith), slow-burn thrillers (Tinker Tailor Soldier SpySyrianaThe Third Man), compelling television series (Homeland24Jack Ryan), and so many more.

While there are many obvious variances of what makes a great spy thriller — due primarily to the popular subgenre that is often blended with other genres — here we feature seven essential elements to great contemporary spy thriller scripts.

Screenwriters can mix and match these keys to apply to their spy thriller scripts, depending on the genre they are blending it with.


If you’re not hired to write the latest James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Ethan Hunt blockbuster, you have to do your best to find a killer logline that will force Hollywood decision-makers to take notice.

It’s not enough to tell your version of those types of spy thrillers. You can’t simply create your own Bond, Bourne, or Hunt, give them a new name or gender and pass them off as your own. That’s not going to be enough to sell the script on spec.

You need to create a unique and original spin on the popular subgenre.

A logline is the expression of the intriguing concept you’ve conjured, answering the question of who, what, when, where, how, and why.

A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive. (North by Northwest)

Retiring CIA agent Nathan Muir recalls his training of Tom Bishop while working against agency politics to free him from his Chinese captors. (Spy Game)

A desk-bound CIA analyst volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer and prevent diabolical global disaster. (Spy)

A fearless, globe-trotting, terrorist-battling secret agent has his life turned upside down when he discovers his wife might be having an affair with a used car salesman while terrorists smuggle nuclear warheads into the United States. (True Lies)

A spy organization recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program, just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius. (Kingsman: The Secret Service)

A bookish CIA researcher finds all his co-workers dead and must outwit those responsible until he figures out who he can really trust. (Three Days of the Condor)

In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet Agent within MI6. (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

A 1960s secret agent is brought out of cryofreeze to oppose his greatest enemy in the 1990s, where his social attitudes are glaringly out of place. (Austin Powers: Internation Man of Mystery)

What’s your spin on the subgenre?

Is there a way to weave a spy thriller concept into the horror genre? Is there a MacGuffin that is intriguing enough to center your spy thriller around?

Whatever the concept may be, it has to stand out from the already ingrained spy thriller franchises. Hollywood has read so many versions of those stories. It’s up to you, the writer, to take the subgenre in a new direction or center it around something unique and different.


While some may believe that the big thrilling spy movie opening has become a cliché, you can’t deny the expectation that audiences (and studios) have when they sit down to watch a spy thriller.

But remember that there are many different versions of a big opening.

You can go the James Bond route, and focus on action spectacles.

. . . .

You can take a cue from the original Mission Impossible and focus on early twists, turns, and intrigue.

. . . .


You can’t just have a great hero go up against a cookie-cutter villain. It works in spy thriller franchises at times because of the fan base. But you also can’t just have a cookie-cutter protagonist go up against a unique and compelling villain either.

They have to be equally strong in your script — and they have to compliment each other through their characterizations and those character traits that are constantly being put up against each other.

If it’s just another spy or secret agent going up against just another leader of some faceless evil organization, Hollywood isn’t going to take notice. The studios have their own franchise for that.

What makes your protagonist and antagonist different than what we’ve seen before already?

Is your protagonist a disgraced spy rotting in a prison for a crime they did not commit? Have they assumed a new identity after leaving the CIA, now working as a kindergarten teacher to atone for the terrible things they’ve done in their past? Or maybe they are a spy hired by a spy organization because of their multiple personality disorder — thus able to beat any lie detector test.

Is your antagonist the thought-to-be-dead twin of your protagonist?

These are all horrible (or brilliant) ideas maybe, sure. But the point is that you have to think outside of the box.

Link to the rest at ScreenCraft

Beware These Big Baddies: 22 of the Best Book Villains

From Book Riot:

The Big Bad Wolf, the Evil Queen, the Stepsisters, Joker, Darth Vader – these iconic villains have stayed with us for a very long time. We read about them, we see them in movies, in the originals and remakes. What makes a villain iconic? What makes them timeless? For you to remember them years and years later and still know what the story is about and what the villain did so the hero couldn’t achieve their destiny. These book villains tell their story, you might even relate to them a bit, but the way they do things might not be the right one.

For me, a villain needs to have a reason. A reason for them to do what they’re doing. And for you to see it in a different light, it might be the way to change things, yes, but the villain always does it in their own way: not at all caring that they might create chaos. The hero, if you’re in a A+ story, is not at all that good. They might not follow the rules completely. So you have that gray area that you can see how easily the hero can turn into a villain. The villain also can work into that area. Take a look at these book villains.

Best Book Villains in Children’s Books

Dolores Umbridge From Harry Potter

When I first got introduced to her, I instantly didn’t like her. And with reason! Her whole story arc is to be a bad person. She tortured Harry, she was completely on Voldemort’s side, she fought with him. Through it all, Dolores Umbridge was a pain to read about whenever she was on scene.

The Grinch From How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

One of the greatest book villains. He hates Christmas and wants everyone to be completely miserable like him? So he decides to steal Christmas from the Whos. How does he do it? He dresses up as Santa, puts some antlers on top of Max’s (his dog) head, and call it a day. It’s wonderful.

Smaug from The Hobbit

A dragon who was drawn to the fortune of the Lonely Mountain? It’s pretty amazing when you meet him for the first time. Plus he pretty much doesn’t care about the world. He just wants his fortune and to lie there with it.

The Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid

You might know Ursula, the sea witch in the Disney’s retelling, but the Sea Witch from the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen is much worse and more cruel. Why is that? Well, she makes a deal with the Little Mermaid for human legs. Her tongue is chopped off, her fin is cut in half literally to make two legs, and whenever she walks on land, she will feel like she’s walking on sharp knives.

. . . .

Best Book Villains in Adult Fiction

The Wood From Uprooted

The Wood is a frightful entity. A living, dark entity that feeds constantly. If someone went inside the Wood, you probably won’t be seeing them again. Or if they did come out, they would come out changed, be it in the mind or on their bodies. The Wood ate you alive and good riddance if you so much as get neared it. That’s why everyone is afraid of it and the only one who can protect the town is the Dragon, another being that whispers fear.

Circe From Circe

If you’ve read The Odyssey, you know about Circe. The sorceress who was exiled to the island of Aiaia. Who was a very important part of Odysseus’s journey. But when you read that, you don’t stop and think about Circe’s story and upbringing. Madeline Miller’s book shows you how the stories vilify Circe, and in this love letter to her, Circe becomes a new being. There’s more than turning men into pigs, believe me.

Pennywise From It

One of the most terrifying clowns in history. Pennywise is still making people have nightmares. With the new remake, It came back into our lives. Pennywise is a shapeshifter that changes into people’s fears or loved ones in order to manipulate them and kill them. It’s a rather intelligent being that stalks the Derry kids in the form of a clown because it knows that kids love clowns so it would be easier to get to them.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

4 Paths to Redeeming Your Villain

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

Have you ever fallen in love with a story villain? Or at least found yourself liking them somewhat against your will? Seems a little weird, experiencing all the happy feels for this character, but I think we’ve all been there.

When a villain is well written and well rounded, they can tug at our heartstrings just like the protagonists do. This can be cruel, since the villain is usually destined to fail. I say usually because stories can include a change of heart for the enemy.

Is this what you’d like for your bad guy or girl? Let’s take a peek at the villain’s journey and see what their path to redemption might look like.

Understanding Character Arcs: Positive Arcs

First, we need to have a basic understanding of character arc. In essence, this is the transformation a character goes through from the start of the story to the finish.

In the opening pages, she’s lacking something internally. Often, this comes out of a wounding event from the past — a trauma that was scarring. She was compelled to don emotional shielding to protect herself from the pain of that experience and any possible recurrence.

This emotional shielding comes in the form of bad habits, defense mechanisms, personality flaws, biases, and skewed beliefs. While intended to protect the character, that only creates more problems. They’re so destructive that they create a void in her basic human needs. This void leads her to pursue a story goal (outer motivation) that will fill that need. But her emotional shielding cripples her, keeping her from succeeding and becoming fully realized.

Throughout the course of a positive arc, the character recognizes those internal problems and begins to address and change them. This enables her to grow and deal properly with her past, eventually ensuring that she meets her goal and achieves fulfillment.

Understanding Character Arcs: Negative Arcs

That transformation is the essence of a change arc. It’s the one most protagonists follow. But there’s another, lesser-used arc form that’s common for villains.

In a failed arc, the character is unable to overcome their issues and the demons of the past. She fails to make the necessary positive changes that would enable them to achieve satisfaction and fill their inner void. Characters following this arc end the story either back where they started or worse off than they were to begin with.

Very often, this is where you’ll find the villain in your story. She may be aware of the wounding event from her past, but she’s already tried to deal with it and has failed. Now she’s embracing her dysfunctional behaviors, believing they’ll make her stronger. Or she may never have faced her past and is living in denial, refusing to address it. Either way, she’s destined to continue living an unfulfilled life that lacks closure — unless she’s given the opportunity to try again, and this time, succeed. Then…redemption.

How To Go About Redeeming Your Villain?

So as an author interested in redeeming your villain, you first must know her backstory, which will tell you what she’ll have to overcome to succeed.

  • What wounding event from the past profoundly impacted her?
  • How did her view of herself or the world change because of it?
  • What new behaviors, beliefs, habits, and responses developed as a means of protecting herself from a recurrence of that event and the negative emotions associated with it?

There’s a lot of backstory to explore, but questions like these will get you started. 

. . . .

Once you’ve got a clear vision of your villain’s history, you can use one of the following techniques to get her back on the road to healing.

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

Character Type & Trope Thesaurus Entry: Lady of Adventure

From Writers Helping Writers:

DESCRIPTION: This self-sufficient and tenacious woman seeks out adventure and new discoveries, often breaking with the conventions of her time to do so.

FICTIONAL EXAMPLES: Arya Stark (Game of Thrones), Eowyn (the Lord of the Rings trilogy), Mulan (Mulan), Dolores Abernathy (Westworld), Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)

COMMON STRENGTHS: Adaptable, Adventurous, Alert, Bold, Confident, Courageous, Curious, Decisive, Efficient, Enthusiastic, Focused, Independent, Industrious, Passionate, Perceptive, Persistent, Resourceful, Spontaneous, Spunky

COMMON WEAKNESSES: Cocky, Impatient, Impulsive, Irresponsible, Obsessive, Pushy, Rebellious, Reckless, Self-Destructive, Self-Indulgent, Stubborn, Uncooperative, Volatile

Being street smart
Restlessness; needing to be on the move
Lacking patience
Thinking for herself
Rejecting the conventions that don’t suit her
Persistently pursuing her goals; seeing things through
Disregarding people in authority—specifically those who would try to force her into a specific role or keep her from certain activities
Avoiding long-term commitments (in case a better offer comes along)
Believing that romantic entanglements will slow her down

A romantic partner wanting to settle down
Sustaining an injury that affects her mobility
Getting pregnant
Rules changing that restrict women’s freedoms
Being saddled with additional responsibilities at home or work, making travel and adventure less possible

Has a stable home life, with children
Is elderly
Has an atypical trait: indecisive, nature-focused, sentimental, verbose, whiny, vain, etc.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

For more information about various character tropes, check out the Thesaurus Description Database which you can find via the Writers Helping Writers Home Page.

Roving Ramblers Make the Best Protagonists

From The Millions:

I often talk with other writers about the engines of stories: features of character, plot or even object that allow the narrative happenings to unfold. Sometimes this engine can be literal, as in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” O’Connor’s classic tale features a family on a road trip: An actual vehicle moves the plot along from moment to eventual tragic moment. In other iconic works, the engine is more difficult to pinpoint. By whatever strange magic Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore guides us through its pages, it is not so simple as the causal churning of gears endemic to most plots. More the hidden engine of dreams, which we are better able to intuit than we can explain.

Of all such engines, the “roving rambler” archetype has fascinated me most over the years: fast-talking, ever-moving characters of modern literature liable to take us on strange, unpredictable rides by way of their fidgety feet and hyperactive minds. Restless and unrestrained, they get themselves into trouble and have to work their way out of it. They are the consummate raconteurs; their stories are powered as much by their madcap interactions as by their introspective asides. There tends to be something bothering them, but they don’t want to disclose their distress, or will do so only discursively. Most often they’re found in cities, where the urban landscape’s constant onslaught of sites, sounds, and strangers naturally lends itself to rambling.  In fact, to allow the protagonist of my own novel, Pay As You Go, as much space to ramble as he would like, I went about making up a city from scratch, then populating it with as many interlocutors as would fit its tangled grid. His name is Slide, and the city’s name Polis.

In honor of the literary wanderers that precede Slide, I’ve composed a small collection of novels, novellas, and a short story that feature roving ramblers of various stripes. Some are chattier than others, but they all boast that penchant for discursive aside and spontaneous interaction characteristic of the archetype—and perhaps the only appropriate response to modern life’s mania.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie moves through New York with both the thrust of desire and the comfort in squalor mainly found in twentysomething city dwellers. Her apartment is a mess, the coworkers she’s slept with have taken to avoiding her, she’s jaded about the performative hypocrisy of her employer, a publishing house, and wary of the more pleasant-seeming Black woman they recently hired, as if to replace her. (Which they do.) She’s also sleeping with a married man. It’s an explosive cocktail, lit on fire by Leilani’s sharp wit and kinetic pace as we move from city to suburbs and back again. Edie misses nothing: She divulges about marital relations, erotic pleasure, absurdities of race, painting, and family ruptures, whether others or her own. As for what’s bothering her? It’s a little bit of everything.

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

A contemporary of García Márquez and a poet for most of his literary life, Mutis began writing this series of novellas in his sixties—almost as a surprise to himself—after a recurring character from his poems began to speak to him in more fully formed prose. Maqroll the Gaviero, or Watcher, is a standout in modern literature, a world-weary wanderer more at home in the worn tomes always on his person than in the brash, semi-legal farces in which he finds himself. We follow him up the length of a jungle-piercing river in search of dubious riches and to the heat-drenched bustle of a teeming port city, rubbing shoulders with various criminals, accomplices, lovers, and friends along the way. Farcical, baroque, and always in search of meaning, these stories operate in the highest echelon of linguistic artistry.

Link to the rest at The Millions

How to Exclaim!

From The Millions:

Noisy. Hysterical. Brash. The textual version of junk food. The selfie of grammar. The exclamation point attracts enormous (and undue) amounts of flak for its unabashed claim to presence in the name of emotion which some unkind souls interpret as egotistical attention-seeking. We’ve grown suspicious of feelings, particularly the big ones needing the eruption of a ! to relieve ourselves. This trend started sometime around 1900 when modernity began to mean functionality and clean straight lines (witness the sensible boxes of a Bauhaus building), rather than the “extra” mood of Victorian sensitivity or frilly playful Renaissance decorations.

Things need to make sense, and the ! just doesn’t, subjective and subversive as it is, popping out from the uniform flow of words on the line. Since the triumphal conquering of smartphone technology and social media, the exclamation point finds fewer and fewer friends: We live in a digital village, chatting to one another from across the globe, and will use emotive social cues such as the exclamation point, and plenty of them. And because we just need to press down a thumbbbbbb to reproduce any character at nearly no cost, we’re more likely to flood the digital world with !!!!!!. No wonder we’re a little allergic to the poor !, stigmatizing its ubiquity as annoying and unnecessary. Along came Donald Trump and gave ! the coup de grâce by larding his tweets with exclamation points during his electoral campaign and presidency. Through Trump’s posturing and the mark’s erect body and one-balled bottom, ! has become “aggressively phallic,” and is in bad need of saving.

Thankfully, neither attitudes towards the exclamation point, nor its functions, have always been as negative and harmful. For hundreds of years, writers enjoyed the punchy power of a well-placed !, wielding its mighty sword of “here be feelings!” with aplomb and persuasiveness. Here are five ways that literature can recuperate the abused exclamation point.

1. Conspicuously absent.

Ernest Hemingway is the king of understatement. Gruesome battles, gory wounds, death stealing a baby out of a mother’s arms—none of those deserve a relieving exclamation point, or narrative comment guiding our feelings. We have to do all the emotional labour ourselves, as the author serves us the bare bones of action only in his fusion of fiction with a journalistic style of observation. In his Nobel Prize-winning 1954 novel The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway holds the emotional tone as flat as an unruffled water surface, until the old man believes a giant marling has swallowed his bait, and he’s waiting for just the perfect moment to pull the pole:

Come up easy and let me put the harpoon into you. All right. Are you ready? Have you been long enough at table? “Now!” he said aloud and struck hard with both hands, gained a yard of line and then struck again and again, swinging with each arm alternately on the cord with all the strength of his arms and the pivoted weight of his body.

The exclamation point falls flat. All the expectation and excitement rushing into the uplifting mark, and then—nothing. The marling keeps on swimming for another 100 pages. This punctuation tsunami lifts itself out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Hemingway plays tricks on our feelings with this exclamation anti-climax, standing starkly out as the only ! in the novel, just as the rest of the lonely 59 exclamation points dotting Hemingway’s entire works. !‘s presence can produce big emotions. And so can its absence.

2. The more the better.

If Hemingway is the master of one, Salman Rushdie juggles with infinity. In his acclaimed 1981 novel Midnight’s Children, Rushdie uses the staggering number of 2.131 !s—and average of six exclamation points per page! That’s a lot of shouting. Rushdie’s novel traces the life of children born at the stroke of midnight on the day of Indian liberation from the British empire on August 15, 1947. All of them possess magical abilities, and the book portrays a world flush with supernatural energies, different languages turning into one another, thoughts, feelings, places, and motivations, all jostling for prominence. So much life, jumping from the page needs a punctuation springboard, and the exclamation point is happy to provide. Rushdie received the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children, as well as the Booker of Bookers among all winners—twice! There must be something about those !s that caught the judges’ eyes.

3. To hell with propriety!

Lovers of eighteenth-century literature like to tout Jane Austen as the prim pristine lady novelist representative of the tender emotions and unspoken rules of Georgian society. Her books, however, are watered-down versions of her unadulterated manuscripts, filtered through several rounds of editing that have erased the real Austen, passionate, spontaneous, and alive to the rhythms of conversation. Oxford Professor Kathryn Sutherland has published the surviving Austen autographs, witnessing a writer that’s much sloppier and real than we’re used to, and maybe comfortable with.

In Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, the heroine Anne finally has a clarifying conversation with her romantic interest Captain Wentworth after nearly a decade of will-they-won’t-they. In the posthumously printed text, Anne weakly berates Wentworth for thinking she is still the same young person: “‘You should have distinguished,’ replied Anne. ‘You should not have suspected me now; the case so different, and my age so different.’” The manuscript, on the other hand, shows a woman fervent and warm in her finally honest heart-to-heart with the man of her life: “You should have distinguished—replied Anne—You should not have suspected me now;—The case so different, & my age so different!—” Dashes, underlinings, scratchings-out, and the tell-tale exclamation point paint a much-needed new picture of an established author who doesn’t shy away from letting her “elegant females” exclaim in the name of love. Only that this was too much eagerness for her male editors who muted her voice through flattening out her varied punctuation. If in doubt, be Jane, and exclaim!

Link to the rest at The Millions

Why I Prefer to Read Fiction without Lessons or Messages

From Jane Friedman:

In an episode from the second season of The Simpsons in, yes, 1991, Homer hopes that allowing Bart to donate his rare blood type for a transfusion to save Mr. Burns’s life will result in a substantial financial reward. When they receive only a thank-you card, Homer writes an angry letter to his boss, who ultimately does reward them—but with a huge Olmec god’s head carving that of course is of no practical value to the family. A debate ensues about the moral of the story, but Homer concludes there isn’t one: “It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened!”

I feel the same way, though not dismissively like Homer. I don’t read fiction to be taught anything. For sure, there may be things in fiction that depict the way things are (or should be) in the world, but if that seems like the author’s main purpose, then for me it’s a hard no, as the kids say.

What I want in fiction is a virtuoso demonstration of the use of our messy, malleable, beautiful language. I want to see clichés avoided and in their place fresh, strong, exuberant images and descriptions and stories. I want the author to pay attention to how they are saying something even more than to what they are saying. One of the characters in the great short novel Lord Nelson Tavern (1974) by Canadian writer Ray Smith dismisses Jane Austen because all she wrote about were “the absurd concerns of silly small-town girls in England around 1800.” Another character disagrees, because regardless of subject matter, the important aesthetic for Austen was that everything was “closely observed and accurately rendered.” Again: it’s not the what that counts but the how.

Perhaps the icon in defending fiction lacking messages is the great American writer Vladimir Nabokov, who chose to push back against ridiculous claims made about his character based on some people’s reading of Lolita (1955). Modern editions of the novel now generally include an afterword, “Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita,” in which he states:

There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.

No morals, no messages. The John Ray whom Nabokov refers to is the fictional writer of the foreword to the novel, who says the exact opposite of what Nabokov believes: “for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson … ‘Lolita’ should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”

A few weeks ago I began re-reading the short stories of another great American writer, Raymond Carver, whose fiction was published mostly in the 1980s and 1990s (the movie Short Cuts is based on his stories). There isn’t much that’s offensive in the subject matter of Carver’s writing, and certainly nothing close to pedophilia, but there’s also not a single lesson to be found in or between the lines of his extremely spare prose. There are scores of examples. “Kindling” (1999) is about Myers, a man “between lives,” who rents a room in a couple’s home. The story presents the interactions of the three of them as well as the daily routine of the couple, which Myers adapts to. He starts writing things in a notebook, and the story ends after he writes an entry, and: “Then he put the pen down and held his head in his hands for a moment. Pretty soon he got up and undressed and turned off the light. He left the window open when he got into bed. It was okay like that.”

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG is kinda, sorta in the same camp with the author of the OP.

He won’t automatically reject fiction that has a message, (he loved To Kill a Mockingbird ) but he’d rather be transported most of the time.

Would You Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?

From Writer Unboxed:

Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

. . . .

Here’s the question:

Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter? With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents.

So, before you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse. When you’re done, decide what to do with those three dimes or the quarter and a nickel. It’s not much, but think of paying 30 cents for the rest of the chapter every time you sample a book’s first page. In a sense, time is money for a literary agent working her way through a raft of submissions, and she is spending that resource whenever she turns a page.

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good-enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

How strong is the opening page of this novel—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?

Henry’s eyes are burning into me from across the living room. “Your summer is going to suck.”

There’s an echo of snorts from my teammates, the loudest coming from Mattie, Bobby, and Kris, who all told me something similar when I said no to joining them in Miami this summer.

“Inspiring words, Turner,” I shoot back at my unimpressed roommate. “You should become a motivational speaker.”

“You’ll be sorry you didn’t listen to me when you’re stuck doing manual labor and team-building activities at staff training next week.” Henry continues to flick through the Honey Acres brochure, his forehead creasing with a frown the further he gets into it. “What’s night duty?”

“I have to sleep in a room attached to the campers’ cabin twice a week in case they need anything,” I say casually, watching Henry’s eyes widen in horror. “The rest of the time I sleep in my own cabin.”

“It’s a no from me,” he says, throwing the brochure back onto the coffee table. “Good luck, though.”

“Could be worse,” Robbie muses from across the living room. “You could have to move to Canada this summer.”

Were you moved to want more?

This novel was number one on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestseller list for October 22, 2023. Were the opening pages of the first chapter of Wildfire by Hannah Grace compelling?

My vote: No.

This book received 4.2 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Considering the “merits” of this opening page, I’m guessing it’s the author’s fans who propelled this to the number one spot. But would it have passed an agent’s muster if by an unknown writer?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG was about to opine, but was brought up short by the fact that he knows nothing about the romance publishing world after Romeo and Juliet, which he read when he was in college. William Shakespeare was a surprise guest lecturer and was terrific once you got past his heavy accent.

Confessions of an Arrogant and Humble Writer

From Publishers Weekly:

In my younger years as an author, I was, admittedly, a bit of a diva. All the workshops and conferences I’d attended failed to deliver this key piece of advice: don’t be a jerk. Now that I’m older and not quite so clueless, my top priority when working with editors, publicists, and booksellers is to be the World’s Nicest Author. Overall, everyone’s much happier.

The humility I now embrace isn’t phony. A writer’s life is brutal: the repeated rejections and disappointments have scraped off all the hubris, along with many layers of skin and pieces of my internal organs. I have definitely gotten over myself.

That said, I’ve noticed that the old arrogance isn’t really gone; it’s still there, squatting like a stubborn toddler in my rib cage. Furthermore, I’ve come to see it as a good thing, this tenacious trait—even an essential thing. I understand now that my ability to sustain a writing career through some really tough stretches is largely due to the fact that I can be both arrogant and humble.

Granted, arrogance and humility sound like opposite ends of a continuum in one of those personality schemes, like extroverted and introverted. How can a person be both? Also, why would anyone want to be either? Arrogance evokes images of an insufferable bore, and humility suggests a lack of confidence—a pigeon-toed wallflower with a squeaky voice. What if we drop the judgment, quit assuming that these two qualities are etched-in-DNA character traits, and instead view them as tools—like an air pump and a pair of needle-nose pliers?

Consider this: if young aspiring writers did not have inflated views of their abilities, they’d never persist. A strong puff of hot air keeps them rising. But if they don’t soon learn humility—that they actually are not able to churn out a perfect story in one draft—they won’t improve. They’ll be wafting in the clouds going nowhere, and they’ll be alone, because they’re windbags.

Remember: humility does not equate to low self-esteem, nor is it a weakness. It’s the ability to keep yourself in perspective, to see yourself accurately—as a person with flaws and talents, like everyone else in the world. As it turns out, that’s what we authors are: people. Unlike arrogance, humility brings us closer to reality. Even if we sometimes crave fantasy.

In my own writing life, I’ve noticed that arrogance and humility alternate. As I work on a first draft, I think my story is the greatest piece of prose humankind has ever seen. People will love it; literature professors will teach it; I’ll win a giant prize.

Then I put the draft aside for a few days and return to it in the guise of an ordinary human. Rereading the draft in a humble frame of mind, I see that, holy cow, it’s awful! How embarrassing! What was I thinking?

I start revising, and again I’m brilliant, soaring toward that pantheon of literary gods. Then I get stuck on some problem in the prose, and, oh no, I’m a regular human after all.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Marry ’em and Bury ’em: Weddings, Funerals, and Your Novel

From Writer Unboxed:

Rituals can hold deep significance in our lives, which is why they can be so powerful in stories. Because weddings and funerals can indicate an important moment of change, many novels open or end with them.

The emotional nature of such moments in real life can result in the misperception that the reader will be automatically moved by the inclusion of any such ritual. Take the backstory of a married character’s wedding, for example. In manuscripts I see, it usually goes like this:

We’d met at college, some twenty years ago now, and married the year after graduation. Everyone stood as I entered the sanctuary; tissues were pulled from evening bags. My father’s arm steadied me as he walked me down the aisle, the train of my white dress collecting rose petals scattered by my adorable niece. My rock, my husband-to-be, waited for me at the front of the church, his smile drawing me forward, step by step.

Take it from someone who cannot possibly get through a live wedding ceremony without tears: on the page, the wedding just described will be of zero interest to your reader for several reasons.

  1. We’ve all been to this wedding in real life—maybe, many times. We may even have starred in one or two. But that event that felt so uniquely personal to us, as written here, is so generic that it does nothing to give us a deeper understanding of this particular character’s story.
  2. Without raising a question about that wedding in the reader’s mind that will provide context and imply impact on the current story (such as, I thought he’d been looking at me when I walked down that aisle), the reader won’t appreciate the interruption in that forward movement.
  3. You must also trust that if the reader already knows this point-of-view character has been married for twenty years, they will simply accept that at some point, this couple tied the knot in one way or another.

Likewise, writers hope that readers will be moved by the tears of the protagonist and any number of other characters at a funeral. But not all funerals are inherently sad. Without added context, your reader won’t know how to feel.

As a novelist, you aren’t a borrower of story anyway. You are a builder of context; the emotional significance of any included scene must be mined. You will not find that significance in the ways such rituals are similar, but in the ways the scene is personal and unexpected.

Let’s look at some examples that work.

Unusual setting details

Abraham Verghese’s Covenant of Water, an Oprah’s Book Club pick, features a wedding in the second chapter. The setting is rural South India, in 1900. The groom, a 40-year-old widower, is late. Verghese did not waste time describing his 12-year-old bride’s visceral sensations; he let the setting do the work.

Light from the high windows slices down, casting oblique shadows. The incense tickles her throat. As in her church, there are no pews, just rough coir carpet on red oxide floors, but only in the front. Her uncle coughs. The sound echoes in the empty space.

The implication of that empty space—the unknown void she’s heading into—is chilling. Later that same page:

There’s a disturbance in the air. Her mother pushes her forward, then steps away.

The groom looms beside her and at once the achen begins the service—does he have a cow ready to calve back at the barn? She gazes straight ahead.

In the smudged lenses of the achen’s spectacles, she glimpses a reflection: a large figure silhouetted by the light from the entrance, and a tiny figure at his side—herself.

Imagine if you were twelve, and the first glimpse you caught of your husband was in the priest’s smudged spectacles—after a push from your mother, no less? These unexpected details drew me in, and the feistiness of her cow comment gave me hope for her future agency.

I suspect the majority of Verghese’s target readers, unable to imagine such a scenario in their own lives, will want to know what happens next.


On p. 5 of Blue Hour, a Barack Obama 2023 Summer Reading selection, author Tiffany Clarke Harrison’s narrator has just met a man while taking photographs of his store for a magazine:

In a few months we would be married. Stand before a judge. Me in black combat boots and a white minidress, and you in a trim burgundy floral print suit. We linked arms and held hands. Repeat after me, the judge said, and we repeated. Recited vows as somewhat strangers, then family. I could hardly bring my tongue to curl around that word family, to protect it. So why do I consider it now? Why do I consider my parents and sisters? Our baby, dead before birth? Now as the world bears down on Black bodies (and another man killed), and I am tired. Now that I’ve had enough.

All the wedding basics are there, but stripped down. That she’s speaking to the groom is edgy. This one paragraph evokes the premise of the entire novel: how a mother can sustain hope for a mixed-race child born into such an uncertain and violent world.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Writing Lessons from Singer-Songwriters

From Writer Unboxed:

On one of my initial panels as a first-time novelist, when asked what authors inspired me in my writing, I replied, “I was probably influenced as much by Steve Earle and Steely Dan as anybody I read.”

I stand by that.

I started my creative life as an accompanist for two superb women vocalists on the coffee-house circuit (billing myself as “The World’s Most Adequate Guitarist”), and then joined a bar band and toured the Midwest, performing in such famed musical Meccas as Kokomo, Indiana; Ypsilanti, Michigan; and Lima, Ohio. (Best compliment I ever got: “Who’s the guy who sings like a chick, he’s really good.”)

Music has always had a profound effect on me (my paternal grandfather was a music teacher). My first obsession was folk music, and I was particularly fond of revival stalwarts like Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Pete Seeger, and Dave Van Ronk.

It was from them, especially the traditionalists, that I gained an appreciation for the story song, especially old ballads such as “Pretty Polly,” “Barbara Allen,” and “John Riley.”

But the songs I came to love most deeply were written by the musicians themselves, which made them more personal. And looking back, I can see that I learned a number of writing lessons from those efforts.

Granted, in general songs bear a greater resemblance to poetry than narrative, and they have the twin advantages of rhyme and music to bring their messages home. What I’ll be talking about here are songs that do indeed tell a story with the familiar beginning-middle-end structure.

. . . .

Tom Paxton: “My Son John”

This Tom Paxton original from 1966 really affected me, possibly more than the traditional ballads, because of its relevance to the Vietnam War and my own close relationship with my father:

My son, John, was a good boy, and good to me
When we had hard times, well, he stood by me
We were in work and out of work and on the go
If he had complaints, I never heard a-one
He would pitch in and help me like a full-grown man
My son, John. John, my son

My son, John, went to college and he made his way
Had to earn every penny, but he paid his way
He worked summers and holidays and through the year
And it was no easy struggle that he won
But he laughed at the ones who thought he had it hard
My son, John. John, my son

My son, John, got his uniform and went away
With a band playing marches, he was sent away
And he wrote me a letter when he had the time
He was losing his buddies one by one
And I prayed and tried not to read between the lines
My son, John. John, my son

My son, John, came home yesterday, he’s here to stay
Not a word to his father have I heard him say
He seems glad to be home, but I can’t be sure
When I asked him what he’d seen and done
He went up to his bedroom, and he closed the door
My son, John, John my son
He went up to his bedroom, and he closed the door
My son, John, John my son

This is a classic example of less is more, in that it’s not made clear what the son has “seen and done”—that’s left to our imagination, and it’s all the more powerful because of that, especially after the long buildup showing the relationship between father and son and the profound respect the former has for the latter.

Also, the last two lines are repeated, which provides a haunting effect—something hard to duplicate literally in fiction. Instead we have to find ways to repeat an imagine or an idea indirectly so that the association is made unconsciously—for example, the use of water, fish, glass, and eyes in the screenplay for Chinatown

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Hero’s Journey: A Primer For Freelance Writers To Tell Better Stories

From The Write Life:

When you know how to tell stories and how to hold attention, it can make you a better freelance writer.

The Hero’s Journey is a great storytelling framework that should be a part of your writing arsenal so you can master the art of writing for an audience. While you will not always use this framework, there are elements of it you can sprinkle into your writing to make it even stronger.

It is one thing just to write for clients and churn out good, high-quality content, but knowing what holds the attention of readers and inspires them to stay hooked on every word will keep your career alive for a long time.

In this article, we will be diving into what The Hero’s Journey is, the basics you need to know, how you can use it in your overall writing, and a brief primer on some other storytelling frameworks you can use if you want to break outside of this method.

. . . .

Why Does Storytelling Matter?

Storytelling is an essential part of human communication and connection. No matter how much SEO and other marketing tools out there continue to take presence, the heart of good writing will always revolve around stories we read and share.

Storytelling allows us to convey complex ideas, emotions, and experiences in a relatable and engaging manner, making information more accessible and memorable.

Through stories, we can empathize with characters, share wisdom, pass down traditions, and inspire change, fostering a sense of unity and understanding among individuals and communities.

Depending on the type of writing you do, you can also use it to create fascinating ads, compelling blog posts, and shareable social media posts.

There are few downsides to learning the basics of storytelling so you can bring it into your writing. It is often something you will have to practice on your own so you can improve your skills in this area. It can also help to read fascinating and famous stories that use various methods so you can understand how they work.

Why Should Freelance Writers Know How To Tell Stories?

It is no secret that making it as a freelance writer is not always a walk in the park. When you are a freelance writer, you are battling thousands of other writers out there for a chance to make it.

While there is an abundance of work to be passed around, there is still something to be said for having tools at your disposal to make you a better freelance writers than other writers out there.

One of those tools is being able to tell stories that captivate and holds readers attention. One of the great storytelling frameworks is The Hero’s Journey. While you might not be able to tell the whole journey in everything you write, the summary you mainly need to know is that everyone loves a hero’s victory story.

That could even translate to you telling the story of a local business in your area and the business owner’s challenges as they had to get their business growing.

The Hero’s Journey is simply a framework for you to use to be able to tell a captivating story, and it is one we have used all throughout history to tell important stories over and over.

What Is The Hero’s Journey?

The Hero’s Journey is a narrative framework and storytelling pattern that was popularized by Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology and comparative religion, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces which was originally published in 1949.

Campbell’s work explored common themes and structures in myths, legends, and religious stories from various cultures around the world.

What Are The Steps In The Hero’s Journey?

If you want the detailed version of this journey, you will want to read his book that is mentioned above. It is a much longer approach and analyzation of each of the steps along the path.

Here is the short summary of The Hero’s Journey path:

  • The Ordinary World: The hero begins in a familiar and ordinary environment, which may be mundane or even oppressive.
  • Call to Adventure: Something disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and presents a challenge or opportunity. This is the initial call to action that sets the hero on a new path.
  • Refusal of the Call: The hero may initially resist the call to adventure, often due to fear, doubt, or a sense of inadequacy.
  • Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor or guide who provides advice, training, or supernatural assistance to help them on their journey.
  • Crossing the Threshold: The hero decides to leave the ordinary world and enters a new, unknown, and often dangerous realm.
  • Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero faces a series of trials, meets allies and enemies, and undergoes personal growth and transformation.
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero approaches a central challenge, often a symbol of their ultimate goal or the villain they must confront.
  • Ordeal: The hero faces a major obstacle or battle, which is a critical and often life-threatening test.
  • Reward (Seizing the Sword): After overcoming the ordeal, the hero reaps a reward, which may be a physical object, knowledge, or personal growth.
  • The Road Back: The hero begins the journey back to the ordinary world, often facing new challenges or pursuing the final confrontation with the antagonist.
  • Resurrection: The hero faces a final, often life-or-death, ordeal that represents the climax of the story. This can involve a confrontation with the main antagonist.
  • Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world with the knowledge, experience, or object gained during the journey, which can bring transformation and positive change to their life or community.

Examples of The Hero’s Journey

We will not spend too much time diving into these stories and explaining what they are about, because that could be a whole article in and of itself. However, here are a few stories that embody The Hero’s Journey storytelling formula:

  • The Lord Of The Rings
  • Harry Potter
  • The Lion King
  • The Matrix
  • The Odyssey

Link to the rest at The Write Life

How Can I Set Aside the Cacophany of Writing Advice and Just Write?

From Jane Friedman:


I attend webinars and online conferences, to learn the craft of writing, though I was a poet in another life back when getting my BA. I was raising a child so hedged my bets by double majoring in developmental psychology and creative writing. Hedging my bets gave me less craft lessons.

Now, an empty nester with a lot of time on my hands, I’ve carefully added authors and writing coaches I follow. I used to follow anyone whom I thought could give me the best answers on writing/memoir. Now, though, my inbox is filled with newsletter advice I can’t possibly find time to read. I want to stick with the two and I know and trust: Lisa Cooper-Ellison and Jane Friedman.

Searching for the one author whose advice is the “key” is fruitless. Yet after a conference I still tend to follow a few speakers and their newsletters. Any advice on how to keep to a couple authors and editors I trust and stop the bouncing around between editor to editor and and settle into a chair and write?

—Elizabeth Undiluted

Dear Elizabeth Undiluted,

The great news here is that you already recognize what you need to do: Sit down and write. So why can’t you?

The answer lies in whatever underlying needs, fears/anxieties, and/or feelings of responsibility have been driving you to bounce around. And I must admit, as a long-time advice giver (who has no shortage of qualms about my position as one), I can be at fault in this predicament, along with my colleagues, at making people feel they need to stick around for my guidance.

Let’s cut to the chase: You can get by fine without it. Nothing bad will happen if you stop. Maybe you’ll take a little longer to figure out specific craft challenges. Or perhaps you won’t be as sharp on some business issues. On the other hand, you’re likely to have dramatically less anxiety that you’re doing things wrong, or that conditions in the market aren’t favorable for your work, or that you’re inadequate to the task of marketing and promoting. (A lot of inadequacy that writers feel is driven, IMHO, by advice givers.)

That’s the short answer, but here’s the longer one that explores specific reasons you might be avoiding the writing chair.

You have fear of missing out.

Speaking personally, I keep logging onto social media platforms I don’t care about and subscribing to countless newsletters because I feel like I’m going to miss out or become uninformed. That said, it’s literally my job to be informed about what everyone’s talking about in the writing and publishing community. But is it your job? Probably not.

It’s highly unlikely you’re going to miss out on a piece of valuable information or knowledge that would dramatically change your writing fortunes, which you seem to realize. It’s more likely, in fact, you’re going to come across harmful information from people who have no business giving you advice. Most important, a lot of the lessons to be learned about writing come from doing it, from the practice, from showing up. So that’s priority number-one. Everything else is secondary to supporting that effort.

That said, I think your strategy to focus on one or two people you trust is excellent. This gives you some reassurance that if there is something you probably ought to know about, one of these people is likely to bring it to your attention. Or you could ask them to point you in the right direction if a specific need or question arises. (I swear I would say this even if you hadn’t mentioned my name as one of your preferred sources! And thank you for that trust.)

The other thing I’d suggest is that the best advice and guidance still tends to come in either book form or class/workshop form, brought to you by experts you know and trust (or that have been recommended by the experts). This is not to discount the many wonderful newsletters, blogs (like this one!), social media accounts, podcasts, and so on that offer advice. But let’s be honest: Most of it is disposable. If it’s not bringing you joy, if it’s not something you actively look forward to (and especially if it’s something that feels anxiety producing or a burden), it’s time to let go of it.

You need more knowledge to tackle your writing challenges.

You mention that hedging your bets gave you less craft lessons, which implies you don’t feel as schooled or as advanced as you would like at this point in your writing life. I would dig deeper into this feeling, if it’s there. Is there something about your current writing project that you’re feeling ill-prepared to tackle? Are you feeling deficient in some area? Is there a weakness you wish you could eliminate?

One of the reasons writers avoid writing is that we don’t know next steps on a writing project. Maybe we’ve written ourselves into a corner or we don’t know where the story is headed and can’t figure out the answer. So when you sit down at your desk, you have no clue where to begin. Or you simply procrastinate to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being stuck.

If you can pinpoint what the writing problem is, then I’d look for books that might help you with a breakthrough. Or, if you have the resources, you could consider hiring a professional editor or coach to help you through the impasse. Alternatively, a class or workshop can help for less cost if you’re surrounded by both a great instructor and sharp students.

There are some writers I meet who simply fear messing up and try to gather as much advice as possible before they even begin. Unfortunately, the writing process is more or less defined by messing up and starting over. Writing is revising. Good writing advice can help you avoid the serious pitfalls, or bring clarity to a confusing process, but creative work of any kind is going to involve countless bad ideas. It’s important to work through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. (And hopefully you’ve gained enough self-awareness to know when you’ve moved past the bad into the good.)

You want to be a good literary citizen—you owe it to these people.

Maybe you’re appreciative of the speakers, teacher, editors, and coaches you’ve learned from. You want to support them, so you subscribe to their newsletters and follow them on social and try to engage. It’s a way to be a good literary citizen, to see and be seen—all good things when you’re trying to make your way in the literary community.

But at some point, your writing has to come first. And you’ll outgrow some of the people you used to learn from. A lot of writing advice, by necessity, is for beginners. It tends to get less useful over time as you become more experienced. The people who give advice know this. No one will get offended if you silently drop away. (And if they do, I humbly suggest they have a lot to learn about the business of helping writers!)

Not writing is more enjoyable than writing.

Writing is hard work. I mean, yes, it can be enjoyable, but it’s the joy we take in doing challenging work. It requires mental focus. For memoirists, there’s often the additional challenge of emotional drain.

So it’s natural to look for other things to do instead, especially activities that are writing adjacent, like reading writing advice or gathering with other writers to talk shop or joke around.

We all need a break and we can’t be writing all the time. But if you develop a habit of avoiding the work, especially by reading writing advice or attending conferences and classes, ask yourself why. Then read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, if you haven’t already, to delve deeply into the psychological challenge of producing art, to recognize how we all pretty much do anything to avoid such work.

You’re trying to prepare now for future problems you don’t have.

Don’t focus on problems that exist downstream. Focus on the problem that you face now. The experts will be there when you need them.

Imagine that you haven’t read a piece of writing advice for five years. You haven’t subscribed to any newsletters. You have no clue what you’ve missed. But you wish you had their insight on some new challenge or the next step in your journey. Go to Google and search for your favorite expert’s name, plus keywords related to the problem you’re facing. Presto.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

How to Create Character Mannerisms from Backstory Wounds

From Jane Friedman:

The best way to deepen and enrich our characters is to develop them from long before they enter the story we’re writing. Every character (really, every human being) struggles with one or more wounding experiences that create life-long emotional responses. These backstory wounds result in the lies our characters tell themselves, or what Lisa Cron in Story Genius refers to as “misbeliefs.”

By borrowing from acting techniques, especially those developed by Konstantin Stanislavski, writers can follow a logical sequence of development to create a character that feels real and alive while their wound and misbelief may remain buried and invisible—even to the character.

Backstory wounds in action

Backstory wounds come in all shapes and sizes, but they share one thing in common: Whether seemingly trivial or clearly debilitating, the wounding experience is unforgettable and causes lasting pain. The wounding can be singular or repeated, and because we each experience pain in our own way, even small wounds can be damaging. Examples include bullying, abuse, poverty, loss of a loved one, physical disability, fear during a natural event, failure.

Because we process pain by trying to make sense of it, we turn to self-reflection, and that can quickly turn into self-blame. Self-blame forms the lie or misbelief that dominates all future behaviors.

Here’s an example of the wound and the misbelief in action in a character:

A child witnesses her father leave when her parents divorce. She reflects that the divorce must be her fault—she was naughty, or cranky—and the lie that forms is “My dad left me and Mom because he doesn’t like my behavior, so I must be defective.”

The lie begins to emerge as a statement of fact: “Defective people (like me) can’t form relationships.” This fact perpetuates fear: “I’ll be abandoned again, because I’m defective.” And fear of further wounding holds this character in thrall: “To keep myself from being abandoned again, I won’t form relationships at all.”

This character will grow up with an emotional shield that could result in all sorts of possible character arcs: a cold woman who callously murders her partners; a broken woman who hops from one affair to the next; a timid woman who walks away from any possible partner; and so on.

Character behaviors and traits emerge from the wound

Character behaviors are patterned by the character’s emotions that result from the misbelief. Actors study human behavior to develop mannerisms or tics that are outward physical manifestations of those misbelief-generated emotions.

We can use the same sequence of developing our characters to create mannerisms, traits, and tics that reflect their deep-seated emotions in a way that shows the wound and misbelief emerging through those gestures.

Here’s the step-by-step exercise to help you uncover your character’s wound, its lasting impact, and how it reveals itself through your character’s actions on the page.

  1. Choose your character, and brainstorm 5 possible wounding backstory events for that character. Try to make them each a little different, with different impact. Remember that these events happened long before the start of your story.
  2. Choose what feels like it could be a powerful event for your character and write a full scene around it. You may or may not use this scene in your story; if you do I suggest burying it deep in the narrative.
  3. Identify the lie or misbelief that results from the wound that emerges from this scene. For example, bullying might result in the lie that your character must protect himself.
  4. Identify the lasting emotions in your character that are produced by the lie. The bullied kid feels that to protect himself, he must act tough; or, he might fear that trying to protect himself will lead to abuse.
  5. Identify the behaviors that result from those emotions. The tough kid might bully other kids, or take up boxing, or wear clothing that feels/looks like armor; or the fearful kid might run and hide from any conflict.
  6. Identify the mannerisms, traits, or tics that result from those behaviors. The tough kid might affect a swagger, or a sneer. He might wear all black. He might push others out of his way in his rise to the top. He might abuse substances, or conversely refrain from them in order to be fully in control. The fearful kid might have a speech impediment, or an odd way of not looking directly at others, or he might have OCD.

To take this back to our woman who was wounded by divorce, she may have traits like standing rigidly and speaking forcefully, or tugging on her sleeves as if to hide her skin, or insisting on perfection in everything and everyone around her because being less than perfect results in abandonment.

The traits that define your character will rise directly from their wound.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Why Genre Fiction Is So Effective in Tackling Social Issues

From Publishers Weekly:

When writing a novel, it’s best to show, not tell. When tackling social issues, it’s best to tell a story, not preach. The former is a rule every writing course teaches us. The latter is something I learned the hard way.

Novels have been tackling social issues throughout history—think of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The former denounces Victorian London’s inhumane treatment of the poor, while the latter depicts Dust Bowl migrants facing unjust labor conditions in California. Books like these are usually serious and biting, meant to expose problems and sway readers to the author’s stand on a particular issue. They’re sometimes called social novels.

In my native Philippines, José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere has stood the test of time and is widely regarded as the country’s greatest social novel. It was written in Spanish and published in 1887 as a blistering indictment of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. The book led to the author’s execution at age 35, but it also helped spark a revolution.

Today’s social novels don’t necessarily carry the gravitas of Rizal or Steinbeck or Dickens. Readers identify books such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears as genre or speculative fiction. This implies that their primary function is to entertain rather than shape opinions, despite the issues they tackle, which include the suppression of freedom of thought (Fahrenheit 451)women’s control over their bodies and lives (The Handmaid’s Tale), and homophobia and toxic masculinity (Razorblade Tears).

Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress explores racism faced by African Americans and political corruption in Los Angeles after WWII. It’s a quintessential mystery that follows a novice private investigator named Easy Rawlins. The book is a great example of how effective genre fiction is in presenting social commentary.

At the 2023 ThrillerFest, held in New York City in June, Mosley talked about how he uses mystery to explain what’s wrong with the world. “A book worth its salt,” he said, “is something other than the story and plot.”

Devil in a Blue Dress and the other genre novels mentioned above are popular precisely because they don’t preach. This little fact escaped me when I first wrote the manuscript that became my novel Multo, meaning ghost in Tagalog. The book follows a Filipino American bounty hunter named Domingo as he looks for the only quarry who has ever eluded him: an undocumented, biracial Filipina named Monica who can disappear like a ghost.

As a recent immigrant, the subject of immigration is close to my heart, so it’s only natural that my novel focuses on the struggles and aspirations of immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. For years I toiled on my manuscript from the perspective of Monica, who overstays in the U.S. in pursuit of her American dream: her white father who doesn’t know she exists. The father, an Air Force general, wants no political scandal. He hires Domingo to apprehend his daughter and take her to immigration authorities for deportation.

The manuscript was universally rejected by literary agents, who deemed it “un-commercial.” In hindsight, I admit it was a naive attempt at proselytizing. It took many years before an idea that ultimately saved my novel dawned on me. What if I told the story from the point of view of the bounty hunter? Domingo is a secondary character, a kickass hunter of fugitives and a wiseass observer. Unlike the protagonist, he’s a naturalized U.S. citizen. He can afford to make fun of the immigration system.

Changing my novel’s narrator organically revamped the tone and pace of the manuscript. Multo became a thriller. It tells the same story, but more effectively because it no longer preaches.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Dichotomy of Creativity and Order

From Writer Unboxed:

Earlier this week, my massage therapist called to remind me that we had an appointment that started…five minutes ago. Rushing in, hair askew, I apologized, and admitted that I used to have a lot more trouble with things like appointments before the iPhone was invented. It usually reminds me, twice, but we changed the time and I forgot to add the alerts, and…

She gently interrupted my whittering. “You’re just creative. That’s how it is.”

As artists we’re often forgiven for being scattered, losing things, forgetting commitments, and for good reason. It’s not laziness or lack of respect, it’s just that highly creative people are often lost in another world, with only a tenuous connection to this one, where the physical world of time and space and money and other humans exist.

But I have to tell you, I hate being late. I hate missing appointments. I hate feeling like the world is full of wind, knocking me around at its whim. I dislike clutter and mess. I hate to have nothing to cook for dinner so that I’m eating frozen macaroni and cheese for the third time in a week.

Left to my own highly creative, scattered mind, that would be the constant state of things. In fact, it was always the state of my life as a young woman and young mother. Things were often forgotten, or insanely messy, or I lost my keys or forgot appointments or we ate crappy meals because I forgot to plan.

It made me feel like a failure. Why couldn’t I juggle the world the way other people did, like my sisters and my friends?

The secret is so simple. Planning and routines. Good habits. I hate to sound like a self-help cheering squad, but honestly, I am a die-hard planner these days, and it goes along nicely with my diarist side. I can plan and then check things off to the satisfaction of the diarist who wants to know exactly what we’re doing with our days.

Learning to plan started when I began to write novels under deadline. At first, sometimes those deadlines were insanely tight—three books a year while running a household of elementary school children and making a budget based on advances work. I had to know what and when and where I was working, where I would be at a given time, and to do that, I made calendars with color coding.

It didn’t work that well.

I tried several systems. The calendar. There was a thing called Sidetracked Home Executives that used a file box with color-coded cards divided into daily, weekly, etc tasks that helped me stay on top of things for awhile, but it fell apart, too. Kids took priority, then work, then high nutrition over food I could fix in 10 minutes because I forgot to thaw anything. (Pre-microwave, young friends.)

Over time, I tried and discarded dozens of systems. And then came two life-transforming tools: the iPhone and the bullet journal.

I love the bullet journal. Planning, it turns out, is a deeply satisfying activity if you bring some color and systems into it. Everyone uses the BUJO differently. I’m not in the superfancy camp of little boxes to check off or special divisions for every one of my goals (though, you go if that works for you), but I do plan a lot. The overview of the year; two weeks spreads where I note appointments and loosely plan meals.

I create plans for writing, of course. This is the one area where I use boxes to color in for every thousand words of the work-in-progress. I also keep a log of what I write each day. (See Rachel Aaron’s post on 2k to 10K, which I’m sure I’ve talked about before.)

The iPhone is the big thing, however. I have created lists for shopping, grocery, Costco, others, and because you can train Siri to add things, I don’t have to stop and type something. I can just say, “Siri, add eggs to my grocery list,” or “add reminder to do laundry on Tuesday at 10 am” and the robot in my pocket does it.

She will also remind me that I have an appointment if I add it properly, and despite my recent lapse, I don’t miss many anymore.

Systems create habits. I like to have things happen at the same time, same day of the week, as much as humanly possible. Second Tuesday, 2 pm, massage. Fourth Tuesday, 2 pm, cleaners.

This goes to watering plants, Thursday morning. To making a grocery list, Sunday afternoon along with looking at the BUJO and weekly plan, and planning meals that work with this week’s tasks. Going to the farmer’s market, Friday morning.

I know, I know. All of you out there who don’t suffer this brain chaos are thinking, “Duh!” But for those of us who don’t have your gift, planning and habits are a godsend.

What is the connection to my creativity? It’s about making space for the writing (and the painting, which is another post). If I’m not backtracking to the grocery store for the forgotten butter, or rescheduling a missed appointment, or using up my creativity tring to think of what to cook for dinner, I can write more freely. External order creates space for wild internal creativity.

How does that work in reality?

This morning, I’ve been planning my upcoming year. I finished the first round of my book for next year and need to get moving on the next one. I’ll do revisions on WIP this fall, and I still have some visitors coming in August.

There’s also a side project that calling my name very insistently, and I want to give it some space.

The only way to accomplish those goals is to be real with the amount of time I actually have. How much time will I need to revise the book? Not sure, but at least a month or two. Do I know what the next book is? It’s between two, and I have to decide which one goes first.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG has discovered that he can have too many systems. At this point in his life, PG is reconsidering how many/how few systems will handle what he needs to/should do during a day or week. He’s not certain if he’s ready to tackle a month yet.

How to Create Mood Effectively in Your Fiction

From Writers Helping Writers:

Every person or character, at any given time, is in a particular mood. Generally, mood is a person’s state of mind, but it’s more than that. Mood can also describe the disposition of a collective of people, a certain time in history, or the ether of a place.

Regardless of what kind of mood we speak of, it’s always subjective. Ten people can be experiencing the same event at the same place and time, yet, depending on their perspective, their individual mood will differ.

We all know about moods and have a range of them we express and feel, whether we’re aware of them or not. We can sense others’ moods just as they can sense ours. The mood of the character should affect the way he perceives his environment, and expert writers will carefully choose words and imagery that act like a mirror to their emotions.

First, Consider Your Scene’s Purpose

Your story may have an overall tone or mood, but every scene is a microsystem of mood that depends on the emotional state and mindset of your character. When you plot out your scene, you need to first think about how your character will interact with his setting based on his mood and the purpose of your scene.

Remember: it’s the purpose of the scene that determines all the setting elements—what you choose to have him notice (and not notice) and react to and why.

Words Are Everything

However, learn this truth: it is not the originality of a world or the degree of creativity in the world itself that makes a fantasy novel shine with brilliance; it’s the choice of words and phrases that the author uses that evokes not just a right sensory experience but makes readers fall in love with the writing.

Please note: this doesn’t just pertain to fantasy novels. Every novel involves the creation of a “world,” and so writers need to take just as much care in the creation of any world in any genre. Take a look at this hastily written sentence:

Bill walked through the forest until he found a cottage set back in the trees . . .

Now consider the reworked description below that I spent a bit more time on:

Bill slogged along the leaf-choked path, the spindly arms of the bare maples quivering in the cold autumn wind—a feeble attempt to turn him back. But he pressed on until he spotted, nestled in a copse of willows, the derelict cottage slumped like a lost orphan, the lidless windows dark and vacant. Hardly a welcoming sight after many tiresome hours of travel.

A specific mood is created by bringing out Bill’s mindset and emotional state. Without knowing anything else about this scene (if I’d written one), a reader can clearly sense the purpose of the action by the things he notices and the words used to describe them

To immerse your readers in the world you’ve created, you need to spend time coming up with masterful description. And the components of such description are the nouns, verbs, and adjectives you choose.

Mood Nuances

We all know about moods and have a range of them we express and feel, whether we’re aware of them or not. We can sense others’ moods just as they can sense ours. The mood of the character should affect the way he perceives his environment, and expert writers will carefully choose words and imagery that act like a mirror to their emotions. It’s a reciprocal factor: mood informs how the character sees his setting, but the setting also informs his mood—shifting it or intensifying it.

Take a look at this passage from The Dazzling Truth (Helen Cullen):

Murtagh opened the front door and flinched at a swarm of spitting raindrops. The blistering wind mocked the threadbare cotton of his pajamas. He bent his head into the onslaught and pushed forward, dragging the heavy scarlet door behind him. The brass knocker clanged against the wood; he flinched, hoping it had not woken the children. Shivering, he picked a route in his slippers around the muddy puddles spreading across the cobblestoned pathway. Leaning over the wrought-iron gate that separated their own familial island from the winding lane of the island proper, he scanned the dark horizon for a glimpse of Maeve in the faraway glow of a streetlamp.

 In the distance, the sea and sky had melted into one anthracite mist, each indiscernible from the other. Sheep huddled together for comfort in Peadar Óg’s field, the waterlogged green that bordered the Moones’ land to the right; the plaintive baying of the animals sounded mournful. Murtagh nodded at them.

 There was no sight of Maeve.

Culler is masterful in her usage of imagery to convey sensory detail. The feeling of rain on Murtagh’s skin is described by flinching at spitting raindrops. The blistering wind attacks his pajamas. Dragging the heavy door shows the sensation of his muscles working—proprioception. And of course we have visuals, which paint the stage for us.

We also have the sound of the brass knocker—used for a specific purpose—to tell us he’s concerned about the children waking. This is a good point to pay attention to: sensory detail should serve more than one purpose. Don’t just add a sound or sight without thinking of the POV character’s mood, concerns, mindset, and purpose in that moment. The more you can tie those things to the sensory details, the more powerful your writing.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers by C. S. Lakin

The Flashback: A Greatly Misunderstood Storytelling Device

From Jane Friedman:

They’re the bogeymen of publishing. Along with prologues, adverbs, and semicolons, flashbacks may be the most vilified—and most misunderstood—of storytelling devices, ones that work only if they don’t seem like devices.

Yet flashbacks are inherently artificial. Even when we are revisiting memories in life, we rarely replay an entire scene from start to finish, chronologically and in full detail. Memory doesn’t work that way; it’s slideshows and not a movie.

But one prime reason that flashbacks are a common literary convention is that, used well, they can be an effective way to present essential information and backstory. Readers have become trained, as with so many fictional devices, to accept the artificiality of flashback provided it doesn’t interrupt their experience of the story.

And there is where the trap lies that so often derails an author’s attempt to use flashback: If not woven seamlessly into the flow of the story, a flashback can draw attention to itself, reveal the author’s hand, and pull the reader out of the fictive dream.

But you don’t have to avoid this potentially potent device as long as you follow a few key guidelines in weaving flashbacks seamlessly into your story.

1. Determine whether a flashback is in fact necessary.

Before you start wielding this potent and potentially disruptive weapon, let’s examine why you want to brandish it at all. Flashback is like cayenne pepper—a little bit can add spice and depth to the stew; too much can overwhelm it.

The main misstep I see in flashbacks is using them as backstory dumps of information authors think readers need to know to understand the story or characters. That may in fact be the case, but paving in background via flashback can be like wielding a machete where you needed a scalpel.

There are three main forms of introducing backstory:

  • Context: This is information woven into the main story throughout, often so seamlessly you don’t even realize how much information you’re getting amid the forward movement of the story.
  • Memory: When characters call to mind details from their past—still within the action of the “real-time” main story.
  • Flashback: A scene from the past presented as if it’s happening “live” before readers’ eyes, which fully interrupts the main story.

It’s this last form that makes flashbacks so dangerous. Used unskillfully or too often, they lend an erratic feel and potentially compromise readers’ engagement.

A good, healthy chunk of the time (let’s say 80–85 percent, because you can’t really quantify story with math, but it sounds right), context is going to be the most fluid, seamless, and organic way to incorporate backstory. The rest of the time memory is the most effective device.

That remaining little sliver is where flashbacks come in.

So when you use them, use them judiciously—like that cayenne pepper. Ask yourself what makes flashback the strongest way to incorporate the backstory, worth its many risks. That will often be one of several reasons:

  • It’s an essential, defining element of the character’s past relevant to the current story and their arc—like their main “wound” or a formative event that dictates or materially affects the character’s journey in this story.
  • It’s a “secret” or reveal that’s finally being fully shared—one central enough to the main story to warrant a full dramatization.
  • It’s brief, woven into a “real-time” scene, and serves to heighten impact, stakes, or meaning in the main story. Often this type of flashback will be just a few paragraphs.

2. Determine the most effective placement for a flashback.

The most challenging place for a flashback is opening your story. It can disorient or confuse readers—like walking into a room looking backward—and risks feeling like a false promise of what the story is actually about. That said, an opening flashback can work if used deliberately and well, and usually kept ruthlessly short.

There are no real “rules” or systems for where to place a flashback, but a good guideline with all backstory is to ask yourself my version of the “Watergate question”: What does the reader need to know and when do they need to know it?

Overloading readers with backstory before we’re fully invested in the main story hamstrings its effectiveness. The author’s job is to find where a flashback most effectively serves and furthers the main story by offering essential backstory at the most impactful, germane time—which ties into the next guideline.

3. Move the story forward, both within the flashback and in the main story.

Imagine a friend is telling you the harrowing tale of her recent car accident when she stops suddenly to relive shopping for that car just days earlier.

That fact may be relevant to heightening stakes and impact for the wreck—dammit, it was her brand-new dream car!—but in the middle of the much more relevant action of the story it stops momentum cold.

This is when flashbacks fail, as if the author is putting the main story on ice while she takes the reader on a journey down Memory Lane.

It’s the trickiest balancing act. Authors should use flashbacks in a way that still move the main story forward, even as we are briefly glancing backward.

That means the flashback should not only encompass its own strong forward momentum within the scene it presents, but its use at its particular point in the story should also serve to move the main story forward—usually in one of the ways described above.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

7 Craft Books to Help You Become a Better Writer

From Electric Lit:

Craft is often thought of as the backbone of literature, the scientific and mathematical side of the creative process that examines an artist’s techniques. In prose, it often involves terms such as plot, pacing, point of view, characterization, scene-setting, structure, dialogue… It is the rational breakdown of those mechanisms that work behind the scenes in the stories we love and despise most—the ones we wish we’d written ourselves.

In literature, craft is fascinatingly unlike itself in any other subject. Instead of becoming more and more obvious as well as understood, it becomes subconscious, supposedly, once you’ve mastered it. But craft never ends. Even if it is turned on its head, that twist and distortion itself is a part of craft. It becomes a new and exciting way to design a story, to surprise a reader, to invent a structure that’s never been thought of before. This is the heart of craft and what the following seven books aim to describe each in their own unique way. 

The titles on this list are at the forefront of contemporary literature, engaging with experimental structures, rebelling against the canon, and carefully pointing out the ways in which our assumptions delude us. Whether you are an aspiring writer, a Pulitzer-Prize winning memoirist, or a curious reader, these books on craft will change you and the way you think about the world—as well as literature—within the complex confines of beauty and truth. 

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses

In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses—bestselling author and Assistant Professor of Writing at Columbia University—breaks down the meaning and implications of craft in fiction, redefines its terms, and elaborates upon the history and “rules” of writing workshops in the U.S. since 1936. He argues that literature should not exist in a vacuum and that the “responsibilities of actual life” also belong in the realm of art. Through thought experiments, examples, and anecdotes, Salesses masterfully upends the framework of many MFA programs and the way many writers have been taught how to approach feedback, revision, and cultural expectations in their work. This book is a must-read—as it significantly addresses the issues that have plagued white-centric literature for far too long and proposes alternative ideas and methods that will revolutionize contemporary fiction today. 

“Craft is about who has the power to write stories, what stories are historicized and who historicizes them, who gets to write literature and who folklore, whose writing is important and to whom, in what context. This is the process of standardization… These standards must be challenged and disempowered.”

. . . .

Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos

Body Work by Melissa Febos also goes against the tide of traditional craft books. In four essays, Febos beautifully gathers her own experiences, reflects upon what she’s learned from writing and from teaching, and analyzes specific examples from the historical canon while revolting against them through personal narratives. The award-winning essayist and University of Iowa Professor shows how navel-gazing and confession can still be moving without feeling overdone, especially for women who fear being cast out by a misogynistic bias in the industry. Febos encourages her readers to examine the assumptions they’ve inherited about writing, such as how to structure a sex scene, the scripts we follow in art and in life, and the true place for cruelty in literature.

Throughout the collection, Febos is unparalleled as she draws on the power of healing through art, makes philosophical arguments on the ethics of writing about real people, and shows just how deeply one must travel to eliminate the distance between the author and the nonfiction narrator. 

“Writer was the only role I could see myself occupying in society… It offered the gift of self-forgetting, a transcendence on the other side of which lay insight.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Plan to Write a Book When You Retire? Some Tips for Late Blooming Writers

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

A lot of people hope to write a book when they retire. And that’s a great plan. Late blooming writers can do very well for themselves if they learn to write well and have something unique to say.

Some writers who became successful authors in their later years were Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was 64 when she published Little House on the Prairie, Bram Stoker, who was 51 when Dracula came out, and Frank McCourt, who was 66 when his first book, Angela’s Ashes made it into print.

Late blooming writers have some advantages over younger people starting writing careers. For one thing, they have decades of experience to write about. And they’ve got a lot more reading under their literary belts. Presumably they’ve read a lot in their chosen genre, so they know their audience, and what that audience expects.

Well, unless they don’t…

The Trouble with Memoirs

Oh, you read mostly thrillers, but you plan to write a memoir about your abusive childhood and fight with prostate cancer? Yeah, most late blooming writers think they’ll start with a memoir.

So start reading! You can’t just sit down and write a memoir if you’ve never read one any more than you can write a mystery if you’ve never read Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler.

When choosing what to write about, it’s good to keep in mind that memoirs are the hardest books to sell — whether you’re querying agents and traditional publishers or self-publishing.

Why? Because it takes topnotch writing skills to write a memoir other people want to read, especially one that chronicles abuse and pain. This week, on Jane Friedman’s blog, editor Hattie Fletcher says, “if you’re asking whether writing this memoir is likely to justify your time and energy, financially — well, unfortunately, that’s probably a very short response letter. It’s almost certainly not.”

However, the “misery memoir” is an accepted genre, and some of them sell very well. Look at James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which was a bestseller until the revelation that it wasn’t a memoir at all, but mostly fiction. Then fans were furious. They wanted a misery memoir, not a novel.

But it’s still not the best way to break into the business. If you’re not famous, nobody much cares about your life story, unless you’ve got a great hook. (Like you’re Elvis’s love child, a kid famously rescued from a well, or you invented the creamsicle.)

Late Blooming Writers Should Think Outside the Book

I have to admit you couldn’t pay me to read most memoirs. Bad ones can be tedious and cringey.

But I’ll read anything David Sedaris writes. His short memoir-like essays are brilliant and hilarious.

If the book you want to write is a memoir, you might consider writing it in bits — otherwise known as “creative nonfiction” essays. You’ll have readers gobbling them up if you write them with a punchline, like David Sedaris, or an uplifting message, like the stories in the “Chicken Soup” anthologies.

Short essays are much easier to sell than a full-length book. They can also be a sales tool if you decide to write a book later.  Published essays help you gather a following and build a “platform.”

In fact, who knows — you may find those essays work well as blogposts, and your “book” should really be a blog.

Turn Your Life Experiences into Fiction

But you don’t have to write a memoir if you want to write about your life experiences. You can write those experiences as fiction. Change names and settings and you’ll probably find the characters take off and lead you to places you never expected.

Ruth Harris wrote a great post a few years ago on turning real life into fiction.

 “After getting bogged down over and over because I kept thinking “it really happened” was important, it eventually dawned on me that ignoring “it really happened” was even more important.”

You just need to be careful you don’t libel anybody. So make sure your bad guy isn’t recognizable as a real person. And if you’re writing about that tall, dark, handsome stranger who totally messed up your life, make him a short gnome-y bald dude and he’ll never own up to being that guy.

Miss Ellwood was a Great Teacher — in 1971

I’ve found that a lot of late blooming writers tend to fall back on what they learned in high school when they pick up writing again. This is fine when it comes to avoiding dangling participles and overuse of adverbs.

But writing in the style of Jack Kerouac is probably not going to impress many publishing professionals in 2023. Hey, Jack Kerouac himself probably couldn’t get a nibble from an agent today. Reading habits have changed.

And now that you’re writing as a grown-up, Miss Ellwood isn’t going to be here to give you a gold star for effort, or praise you for being “honest” when you write cringey confessions and navel-gazing musings.

The truth is, you’re not a student anymore, so nobody’s being paid to encourage your fledgling scribbles. If you want anybody to read your stuff, you have to keep that reader in mind. And she’s probably not Miss Ellwood.

Nobody’s going to read your book because you (sob) spent 4 whole years writing it. Most authors spend that long on their first book. It takes a long time to learn to write narrative prose with the right pacing, tension, action, and characterization to keep a reader turning the pages.

People generally don’t want to pay you for your learning time. You need to produce a saleable product before you can make sales.

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

Writing About Pain: Best Practices for Great Fiction

From Writers Helping Writers:

Show Don’t Tell

This one comes first, because if you want to create evocative and compelling descriptions, showing is the way to do it. Take this passage, for example:

Pain throbbed in my wrist. It radiated into my fingers. Tears sprang to my eyes.

On the surface, this description gets the job done because it adequately describes the character’s pain. But it’s not engaging. Lists seldom are—yet this is how pain is often described, as a series of symptoms or sensations. This isn’t how real pain registers, so it being described this way won’t read as authentic to readers.

Don’t stop the story to talk about what the character’s feeling. Instead, incorporate it into what’s happening. This keeps the pace moving and readers reading:

Cradling my throbbing wrist, I searched for the rope and loosed it from my belt. I drew a shuddering breath of relief to discover my fingers still worked, though the pain had me biting nearly through my lip.

This description is much better because it reveals the pain in bits and bobs as the character is going about her business. It uses words that describe the intensity and quality of the pain: throbbing and shuddering. There’s also a thought included, which is important because when agony strikes, our brains don’t stop working. The opposite is actually true, with our thoughts often going into overdrive. So including a thought that references the character’s mental state or physical discomfort is another way to show their pain to readers in an organic way.

Take Personal Factors into Account

The character’s pain level and intensity will depend on a number of factors, such as their pain tolerance, their personality, and what else is going on in the moment. Being aware of these details and knowing what they look like for your character is key for tailoring a response that is authentic for them. For more information on the factors that will determine your character’s pain response and their ability to cope with their discomfort, see the 6th post in this series.

Adhere to Your Chosen Point of View

Whether you’re telling your story in first person, third person, or omniscient viewpoint, consistency is a must, so you’ve got to stick to that point of view. If the person in pain is the one narrating, you can go deep into their perspective to show readers what’s happening inside—the pain, yes, but also the nausea, tense muscles, and the spots that appear in the character’s vision as they start to black out.

But if the victim isn’t a viewpoint character—if the reader isn’t privy to what’s happening inside their heads and bodies—you’ll need be true to that choice. Stick with external indicators that are visible to others, such as the character wincing, the hissed intake of breath through clenched teeth, the weeping of blood, or the skin going white and clammy.

Consider the Intensity of the Pain

All pain isn’t created equal, and the intensity of the pain being described will often determine the level of detail. Excruciating, agonizing pain is going to be impossible for the character to ignore; because of their focus on their own pain, more description is often necessary. On the flip side, a lot of words aren’t needed to express the mild, fleeting pain of a stubbed toe or bruised knee. The severity of the pain can guide you toward the right amount of description.

Don’t Forget about It

Remember that pain has a life of its own. Some injuries heal fast, with the pain receding quickly and steadily. Others linger. Many times, healing is a one-step-forward-two-steps-back situation, with things seeming to improve, then a relapse or reinjury causing a setback. And then there’s chronic pain, which never fully goes away.

The nature of the injury will dictate how often you return to the character’s pain and remind readers of it. Minor injuries can fade into the background without further mention. But moderate and severe hurts will take time to heal. This means your character will be feeling the pain well after it began, and you’ll have to mention it again. But when you do, the quality and intensity will be less, and your description will follow suit.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers