3 Action-Reaction Misfires That Flatten Your Writing

From Writers Helping Writers:

Cause and effect. Stimulus and response. Action and reaction. Everything in a story depends on what the characters do about whatever the story pushes them up against.

Stiff, disconnected, or missing character reactions snap the chain of cause and effect that constitutes your story. When readers can no longer see how and why the characters are doing what they’re doing, they lose the thread.

Let’s talk about the three most common action–reaction misfires I see in manuscripts.

1. Missing or insufficient reactions
2. Jumbled responses
3. Purposely obscured stimuli

Missing or Insufficient Reactions

When characters fail to react to what’s happening around them, it’s as if nothing is happening at all. A snappy line of dialogue goes nowhere if it doesn’t get under someone’s skin. The first glimpse of a long-sought clue builds no excitement if nobody notices it. A punch in the nose might as well not have landed if it doesn’t start or end a disagreement.

When characters don’t react to the conversations and events around them, readers will assume they don’t care. If the characters don’t care, why should readers?

Keeping your characters engaged in the story keeps readers engaged with it too. When writing viewpoint characters, you have access to both internal and external responses. For other characters, you’re limited to whatever visible manifestations of those responses that the viewpoint character or narrator can perceive.

Internal Responses

All but the last type of internal response, thought, are involuntary reactions.

1. Involuntary sensations—These include physical sensations such as feeling a lump in the throat or a stomach full of butterflies.

2. Reflex reactions—These are the so-called knee-jerk reactions, such as jerking away from the source of pain.

3. Emotions—Before you can reveal emotions using any of these reaction modes, you as the writer must know what the emotion or blend of emotions actually is.

4. Thoughts—What’s the uncensored commentary running in the privacy of the character’s mind?

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Coordinating vs. Subordinating Conjunctions

From Daily Writing Tips:

When I received not one, but three emails telling me that I’d punctuated a sentence with because incorrectly, I decided I’d better write a post about adverbial clauses of reason.

Here’s the example that drew the criticism:

Incorrect: The famous author lives in a small town, because she doesn’t like the noise of a big city.

Correct : The famous author lives in a small town because she doesn’t like the noise of a big city.

Here are the objections I received:

1. Number five conflicts with my 11th grade English teacher’s rule. Separate the two halves of a compound sentence with a comma. Was she wrong?

2. I disagree with #5. Two independent clauses should be separated by a comma.”She doesn’t like the noise of the big city.” is an independent clause. Remove the word “because” and you have two sentences that can stand alone.

3. ERROR. “she doesn’t like the noise of a big city” is also an independent clause, and the comma is required. This is a compound sentence with “because” joining two independent clauses.

The readers are perfectly correct about the rule for punctuating a compound sentence. Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction are separated by a comma:

Polio would have stopped a lesser man, but Franklin was determined to follow his cousin into the White House.

The conjunctions used to join independent clauses in compound sentences are coordinating conjunctions. The most common coordinating conjunctions are: forandnorbutoryet, and so.

A coordinating conjunction used to join clauses has only one function: it joins clauses of equal importance. Removing the conjunction between two independent clauses will leave two simple sentences whose meanings remain unchanged. They can stand alone as complete sentences.

subordinating conjunction, on the other hand, has two functions: it joins, and it shows a relationship between the clauses that it joins. Removing a subordinating conjunction defeats the purpose for which it exists.

The subordinating conjunction because is used to introduce an adverbial clause of cause or reason. The fact that the author doesn’t like the noise of the big city explains why she lives in a small town.

Adverbial clauses of reason are also introduced by the subordinating conjunctions sinceas long asasinasmuch asinsofar as, and due to the fact that.

Reminder: When the adverbial clause comes first in the sentence, it is followed by a comma. When the adverbial clause comes after the independent clause, there is (usually) no need for a comma. For example:

Since you asked nicely, you may go to the library on Saturday.

You may go to the library on Saturday since you asked nicely.

Modern business style tends to reject lengthy conjunctions like inasmuch as and due to the fact thatBecauseas, and since are the least wordy choices. Some speakers object to using since to introduce a clause of reason because since is also used to introduce clauses of time. Ordinary attentiveness to revision ought to be sufficient to avoid ambiguity with since.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Writing the Science Right

From Science & Fantasy Writers Association:

Getting the science right in SF can make the difference between writing cute stories and great science fiction. If you are a non-scientist writing SF and want to know how to do that, then this blog post is for you.

Doing Background Research

If science is critical to the overall plot, research before writing. In the movie Armageddon, a Texas-sized asteroid is discovered eighteen days before it will destroy Earth. The movie’s drama hinges on that time pressure. However, an asteroid that size would have been discovered years earlier. Researching first avoids creating such critically flawed stories.

In most cases, however, the science is not plot-critical, and your research will be more efficient if you write your story first. Now, I understand that sounds crazy, but you are not writing a technical manual. What is important is how the technology is servicing the story. For example, if you want to show your commander is technologically smarter than the captain, when drafting you write:

“Commander, we need INSERT INEFFICIENT OR SLIGHTLY INCORRECT SCIENCE to fix the engines.”

“Captain, Couldn’t we INSERT BETTER SOLUTION?”

It doesn’t matter whether the engine needs rubies or milkshakes. Later, when you figure out what’s plausible, you would re-write this as:

“Commander, scan for diamonds.”

“Our scans won’t detect diamonds, Captain, but I am detecting diatreme volcanic vents. Diamonds often occur in kimberlite deposits at such structures.”

By drafting this way, we create a focused list of science questions to research.

Once you have specific questions, your purpose is to learn key vocabulary and get a broad overview. Given that more accessible information is less precise, you’ll want to do the research in stages. Museum information and online curricula for children are simplified and curated for accuracy. Wikipedia has variable quality but is good for high-level overviews. Avoid googling or using tech company brochures. Though attractive, these sources are often rife with inaccuracies or hyperbole. With your overview, you then have the tools to go deeper using science-journalism sources like PBS and Scientific American.

Beyond this, the best sources are those reviewed by scientists, e.g. public information sites from NASA, the CDC, or national professional organizations, like the American Medical Association. Finally, reviews in professional scientific journals including CellScience, or Nature are usually in-depth and balanced; and more accessible than the original articles. 

If you still have questions, you can attempt to read the original scientific articles. These can be found using specialty search engines like pubmed.gov or georef. However, these are often too technical for laypeople.

If at this stage you still have questions, then you need to speak to a subject matter expert.

Where to find your experts

In addition to authors, SF conference panels often contain well-qualified scientists. These scientists are often open to being approached and will understand what you need. Remember, however, that expertise is field-dependent, and you should target people based on their area of science (also remember this when writing fictional scientists, e.g. don’t have the physician know how to rebuild a nuclear reactor). If your question is not in their field, they may direct you to someone else. 

Alternatively, you can contact experts referenced in the papers you read. While companies may be hesitant to reveal industry secrets, academics are often excited to talk about their science. Being approached by a SF writer is often novel for them, and many will be curious to speak with you. However, it is important to be:

  1. Brief
  2. Professional
  3. Ask for a short time commitment
  4. Offer phone or email so they can choose
  5. Provide succinct questions up-front. The majority should require yes/no or one-word answers. 
  6. State at the end if you offer anything in exchange

If you are a high school student, tell them. Speaking as an educator, that fact alone would almost guarantee a “yes.”

I ask for a phone call, as scientists will often say more than they type, and it gives me an opportunity to clarify things, but never record without asking permission.

Providing the questions shows this is not a big ask and gives them the opportunity to prepare, answer by email, or re-direct you to a better authority. 

Link to the rest at Science & Fantasy Writers Association

Converting Direct Speech into Reported Speech

From Daily Writing Tips:

This post is in response to a recent reader request:

I would be grateful if you could write about these two topics: Reported Speech and Indirect Speech.

To clarify, “Reported Speech” and “Indirect Speech” are the same thing.

I’ll assume that the reader intended to ask about the difference between Reported Speech and Direct Speech.

Direct speech consists of the exact words spoken by someone.

“I am glad to be here this evening.”

Indirect or Reported Speech consists of a report made of what was said by another.

The speaker said that she was glad to be there that evening.

Direct speech requires opening and closing quotation marks. Indirect speech is written without quotation marks.

Rules for reporting speech

The report of what someone has said begins with an introductory clause and a conjunction:

The speaker said that . . .
The witness asserted that . . .
Robert Redford was overheard expressing the opinion that . . .

First person pronouns change to third person:

“I am glad…” becomes She or he was glad . . .

The verbs of the original quotation will change according to the sequence of tenses.

Present tense is changed to past:

“I am glad…” becomes she was glad . . .

Future tense is changed to conditional:

“I think that you will be glad too” becomes He thought the audience would be glad too.

Words that signify proximity in time or place change to corresponding words signifying distance away: now, today, yesterday, last week, here, these become then, that day, the day before, the previous week, there, those.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

becomes

Lincoln said that the world would little note, nor long remember what speakers said there, but it could never forget what they had done there.

Sometimes explanatory words or phrases are added for the sake of readers who afterwards read the quoted speech. For example, the indirect quotation from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would be clearer with the insertion of additional information.

Lincoln said that the world would little note, nor long remember what speakers said at the Gettysburg battlefield commemoration, but it could never forget what the Union soldiers had done there.

Two other types of quotations require special handling: direct address and questions.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Rejection

From Writers Helping Writers:

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

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

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

. . . .

Fear of Rejection

Notes

One of our basic human needs is to be loved, wanted, needed, and accepted, so it makes sense that people generally want to avoid rejection. When this fear is taken to an extreme, it can hold the character back in their career, relationships, and their basic enjoyment of life. As a result, characters with this fear often feel stuck where they are, unable to grow.

What It Looks Like

Being overly agreeable
Exhibiting a strong work ethic (to prove their worth to others)
Being a perfectionist
Being passive aggressive rather than straightforward about their feelings
The character not standing up for themselves
Sticking like glue to the people who accept and love the character
Being conflict-averse
Being shy with new people and in new situations
Taking extra pains with their appearance so they’ll always look their best
Being a people-pleaser
Being evasive or dishonest about beliefs and opinions that others may not agree with
Jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking or feeling
Getting their feelings hurt easily
The character keeping mostly to themselves
Avoiding romantic relationships unless they’re absolutely sure of the other person’s feelings
Underachieving and encouraging low expectations (so people won’t expect too much, be disappointed, and reject them)
Having secret hobbies
Ending romantic relationships and leaving jobs prematurely (rejecting others before they can reject the character)

Common Internal Struggles

Wanting to open up to others but being afraid their true thoughts and opinions will be criticized
Wanting to stay in a relationship but also wanting to get out of it
Being afraid of failure or letting people down
The character despairing of ever reaching their full potential
Longing to be in a romantic relationship but being too afraid to put themselves out there
Struggling with loneliness but not knowing how to build deep connections with others
Feeling unwanted or unlovable
Constantly worry about what others think
The character wondering what’s wrong with them

Flaws That May Emerge

Antisocial, Cowardly, Disorganized, Insecure, Jealous, Needy, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Suspicious, Timid, Withdrawn

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Great Dialogue is the Art of the Unsaid

From Writer Unboxed:

As a not-professional editor who nonetheless gets to edit my friends’ writing, one of the most common questions I get is, “Does the dialogue sound natural?”

And often, because my friends are talented, the answer is most definitely “yes.”

But is “natural” really the highest form of dialogue? We all want our dialogue to sound natural, as opposed to stilted, but dialogue can sound natural and still be missing that extra spark that takes it from “good dialogue” to “oh my god, Becky, I will remember this line for the rest of my days” dialogue.

As I looked up some online sources on writing good dialogue that I could share with my friends, I found that many of them repeated the same advice. Most of the focus was on what characters should say, or else how they should say it: dialogue must move the plot forward, dialogue must reveal something about the relationship between characters, dialogue should sound natural but not too natural, dialogue should be unique to characters’ backgrounds, don’t pad your dialogue with unnecessary small talk, avoid greetings and soliloquies and goodbyes, have characters be indirect.

These are great pieces of advice, but even if you follow them to the letter, your dialogue still may come out sounding wooden.

I’d like to offer a third way to look at dialogue, and ironically, it’s through what isn’t said.

“But Kelsey,” you say, “that sounds like ‘show, don’t tell,’ which is the oldest advice in the book.”

Yes. I mean, it is basically that, but “show, don’t tell” was usually framed around character actions, not dialogue: e.g., “Sally was mad” versus “Sally stomped to her room and slammed the door.” Similarly, there is plenty of advice out there that recommends having characters be indirect in their speech (one of my favorite tactics), but that’s not what I mean here, either.

The classic example of the art of the unsaid—and it’s a classic for a reason—is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story, the topic of discussion between the man and woman is never made explicit; readers must complete the story by insinuating the couple’s meaning from what they say and how they speak. But if we take our analysis even further, we can see that part of what makes this story so compelling is not just because of what was left unsaid, but how it was left unsaid.

Take this passage, for example:

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

Aloud, the man says, “But I don’t want you to do it [spoiler alert for a nearly century-old story: they are talking about her having an abortion] if you really don’t want to.”

But when the woman asks, “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” he replies, “I love you now. You know I love you.”

His non-answer tells us everything we need to know about the man’s true feelings. First, by simply avoiding any acknowledgement of the woman’s first two questions—“you’ll be happy and things will be like they were”—we, the audience, can infer that he is not comfortable promising those things because he does not believe them. Had he outright lied to her, this would be a different story: they likely would not be having this conversation at all, because the man would have told her what she wanted to hear in order to get what he wants.

Second, his reply to her third question—“and you’ll love me?”—is equally a non-answer. He replies in the present tense, while she is looking for reassurance about the future. Again, rather than being forthright and telling her that he cannot make promises about the future, he avoids and redirects the conversation.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Should I Hire an Editor to Help Cut My Manuscript?

From Jane Friedman:

Question

I’m a newbie writer, working on a memoir about a trip I took in 1976. It’s a tad long, and I’ve been trying to pare it down from its three million words to its most important story lines. At what point do I call in an editor for help/advice?

—Needing Help in the Pacific NW

Dear Needing Help:

Writing a long memoir draft is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’ve collected all the material you’ll need to write an interesting book. On the other, you’ve got to figure out what’s important.

Identifying those important moments and revising is a daunting process for all new writers, but it’s trickier for memoirists. Unlike a novelist, you can’t solve your story’s problems by making stuff up. Instead, you must find meaning in the chaotic parts of your life, a process that can feel a lot like describing your face without looking in the mirror.

Many memoirists believe an editor is the mirror they’ve been searching for. While the allure of a trained eye on your manuscript can be difficult to resist, high-quality editorial feedback is expensive. Before shopping for an editor, it’s important to know when to contact one, and how they might be able to assist you—something your Spidey senses have already alerted you to.

To help answer those questions, let’s talk about the three skillsets new writers need to develop:

  • Foresight
  • Storytelling
  • Stamina

Foresight: To revise well, writers need to develop a clear vision of what’s next in both the writing and publishing processes. This will help them create a logical plan of steps to take.

Storytelling: Recording life events and telling a story are not the same thing. Even strong writers, and avid readers, must learn how to do the latter. Cultivating strong storytelling skills makes it easier to hack a million-word draft into the most meaningful chunk, then craft what’s left into a succinct, well-written story.

Stamina: I’ve only met a handful of unicorns who can complete a publishable book in less than twelve months. None were new writers. That means most of us need to figure out how we’ll sustain our enthusiasm throughout what might be a long and bumpy ride.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG knows quite a number of indie authors who write and publish more than one book per year. And, if Amazon sales rank is to be credited, some of these authors earn quite a tidy sum, more than they would likely earn if they wandered down the dusty path of traditional publishing.

PG just checked one of his favorite fantasy/scifi authors, Brandon Sanderson, and discovered, that at the age of about 47, he has published (per his website), 33 novels, 3 graphic novels, 5 illustrated books and 5 short fiction pieces.

Excel says that’s 46 books Sanderson has written or published (Short fiction may be pieces published in periodical form). Sanderson’s first book, Elantris, was published in 2005, when he was about 30 years of age. Per the OP, Sanderson would qualify as an uber-unicorn. Per his website, Sanderson also teaches one university creative writing class each year.

How to Use a Long-Form Synopsis to Plan Your Novel

From Jane Friedman:

Years ago, author Jen Malone mentioned in an #mglitchat discussion that she sends out a rough-form synopsis to critique partners during planning stages with the expectation not that they’d heavily critique it, but that they could ask 10–12 “what if” brainstorming questions to get her creative juices flowing. I thought it was a fabulous idea, so my critique group tried it. The results were amazing—this tool is now a permanent part of my toolbox and it can be part of yours too. Here’s how.

Draft your long-form synopsis

Unlike the 500–1000 word synopsis that often goes out to agents or editors with pitch packages, this one is meant to be messy. There’s no set format, length, number of named characters, or any of the things that tend to strike fear in the hearts of writers when creating that other type of synopsis. Instead, think of this type of synopsis as a brainstorming document. It’s a dumping ground for all the things you’d like to work into your new story based on the prewriting you’ve already done on your concept and characters. It covers all the major characters, the main plot and character arcs, but also the subplots, the twists, the unexpected turns.

Step One: Put whatever you know about the story down on paper, but make sure you at least have the following:

  • Age category (MG, YA, adult)
  • Genre
  • Your “what if?” big-picture idea
  • Protagonist’s story goal
  • Antagonist’s story goal
  • Protagonist’s change arc

Step Two: Now it’s time to start to fill in the gaps and shape this into something with some story logic in it. I use the Tent Pole Scenes Outline to start my brainstorming on potential story structure. It’s based on classic fairytale structure (with a dash of Aristotle) for this. Not because I only tell fairytales, or because I think Aristotle’s three-act structure is the only way to tell a story, but because this familiar format helps me tease out my plot from all the various threads floating around in my mind.

  1. Once Upon a Time (ordinary world)
  2. But then…moment everything changed (story problem)
  3. It was awful until (confrontation)…
  4. Then the hero figured it out (climax)…
  5. And they all lived happily ever after (resolution)

Step Three: The first draft is likely to be a total mess. And that’s OK. The point here is to capture everything you know. Now read through what you’ve written and make a list of questions you need to answer before you’re ready to send this to your writing pals for their round of “what if?” questions. Answering those questions might involve looping back to look at craft resources you have on hand around character, plot, world-building, genre and age category. That’s normal—take the time you need to really feel good about this step. Keep taking passes through the document until you’ve addressed everything from steps one and two above.

Your resulting document should be somewhere in the range of 3–7 pages. If you’ve written 20, that’s too long to share with your critique partners. Go back through and pull out extra details and store them elsewhere. You want something high-level enough that you can read it aloud during a critique group without everyone getting lost or starting to scroll Twitter.

Note: It can be tempting to send this to your pals even if you know there are plot holes. Don’t do that! Take care of all the low-hanging fruit on your own so that they can really focus on deepening the work you’ve already done.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Write a Sympathetic Villain Your Readers Will Love to Hate

From Jane Friedman:

When most people think of villains as they are writing a novel, they think of evil, heartless characters who are out to destroy or conquer the world. While these types of villains can, at times, be amusing, they can also be one-dimensional and uninteresting.

A great villain should have complex motivations and evoke sympathy from readers. Here’s how to build one.

Weave an intricate backstory.

For your story’s antagonist to be truly effective, they need to have a well-developed, and perhaps even tragic, backstory.

Just as your story’s protagonist should be more than just a one-dimensional character, your antagonist should be a fully formed individual with their own motivations, fears, and desires.

The best villainous characters have a deep, rich backstory that makes them relatable and ultimately human. Here are some ideas for interesting villain backstories:

  • The villain could be someone who was once a hero, but circumstances (or choices) led them down a dark path. They might be haunted by regrets for their evil actions, and their fall from grace only makes them more dangerous.
  • The villain could be someone who was born into a life of crime. They might have never known anything else, but they’re not necessarily happy with their lot in life. There’s always the possibility of breaking free from their criminal past, but they would need someone to show them the way.
  • Another option is for the villain to be an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere. They might be rejected by society and use their powers for evil as a way to get back at those who have wronged them.
  • Finally, the villain could be motivated by something other than money or power. They could be driven by revenge, love, or even a cause they believe in. No matter their motivation, they’re sure to be a force to be reckoned with.

A great example in literature and film is Frankenstein’s Monster, a creature made up of random body parts and shunned by the world as a result. His hatred of humanity is understandable, given his tragic history and desire for little more than sympathy and companionship—both of which are denied to him at every turn.

It begs the question: who is the true villain in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster or its creator?

By giving your antagonist an intricate or tragic backstory, you’ll make them more believable and give them greater depth and dimension. Also, by understanding your antagonist’s backstory, you’ll be able to better craft scenes in which they interact with your protagonist.

Give your villain a personality.

As an antagonist, your villain stands in the way of your protagonist’s goals and must be defeated for the hero to triumph. As such, you must give your villain a strong and distinctive personality. Why? Because a well-developed villain makes for a more suspenseful and engaging story.

Think about some of the most memorable villains in fiction: Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Professor Moriarty, and The Wicked Witch of the West. These characters have unique motivations, histories, and quirks. By contrast, a generic and one-dimensional villain is immediately forgettable.

If you want your story to be gripping, make sure to put some thought into making your villain someone who readers will remember.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

5 Unbreakable Rules Of Cozy Mysteries (And How To Bend Them)

From Frolic:

Every genre has its conventions and rules. Romances need a Happy Ever After. Historical fiction has to be accurate to the era. A YA protagonist is a teenager.

And then there are cozies.

Cozy mysteries fall under the larger suspense and mystery umbrella, and what sets them apart are several unbreakable rules that exist to keep cozy mysteries light and accessible. When you pick up a cozy, you know exactly what you’re going to get—a delightful romp, with a side of murder. These are fun books with quirky characters in quaint towns you can share with your mother-in-law.

Cozies appeal to a wide audience, and as that audience grows, some of these hard-and-fast rules are becoming hard-and-fast suggestions. Cozy authors are pushing the boundaries, which opens the doors for writers like me. I write quirky, unconventional, character-driven cozy mysteries. Emphasis on “unconventional.” Because while the rules of cozies are unbreakable, they can be surprisingly flexible.

RULE #1: Although cozies revolve around a murder, all violence—including the central death(s)—has zero blood or gore. For example, in Laurie Cass’s Checking Out Crime, a dead body is barely glimpsed on a dark, lonely road. Cozies shouldn’t subject readers to a gory description of a murder scene, which is ironic considering how many classes on blood splatter patterns, body decomp, and other forensic sciences I took to complete my Criminology degree. But people don’t read cozies for graphic details. In fact, the death in most cozies takes place “off screen”. Here’s the first place I start to bend the rules. Killer Content‘s main character, Odessa Dean, witnesses the murder on an actual screen, a cell phone screen, as the victim’s death is caught in a proposal video gone viral. The death is bloodless, at least from the reader’s point of view, so the rule is bent but not broken.

RULE #2: No “adult” situations—particularly no cursing and NO sex. Cozies can include romance, but it isn’t a central top and there are never explicit romance scenes. To be completely honest, this is one of the many reasons I love writing cozies. I can’t write a kissing scene that isn’t cringeworthy. Over the course of the Brooklyn Murder Mysteries, characters have relationships, but I never describe what goes on behind closed doors. Some recent cozies, including Mia P. Manansala’s Arsenic and Adobo, almost straddle the line between rom-com and cozy while others have no romance at all. None of the characters in my books are going to drop an F-bomb, but they do talk, text, and post in modern language. Traditionally, cozies also steer clear of political or controversial topics, but recently, writers are weaving serious social issues into diverse stories.

RULE #3: In cozies, the main character is not law enforcement, is normally female, and is often in her forties or over. Many cozies start with a life-changing event that causes the heroine to move from a big city to a small town (more on that later!) which can range from needing to take over the family business from an aging parent to starting over after a divorce. Odessa, in comparison is only twenty-three at the beginning of the Brooklyn Murder Mysteries when she moves from a tiny town in Louisiana to New York City. She joins other fantastic millennial cozy sleuths as Mia P. Manansala’s Lila Macapagal in the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery Series and Abby Collette’s Bronwyn Crewse in the Ice Cream Parlor Mysteries.

Link to the rest at Frolic

What Makes a Cozy Just That?

From Cozy Mystery List:

Imagine your terror at finding out that Jessica Fletcher was moving from Cabot Cove to your neighborhood! Would you stay up at night just wondering when this unassuming, friendly woman was going to befriend you? Would you wonder which of your friends would be the first, and then second, third, even fourth to die? I have loved watching Jessica solve all the murders in Cabot Cove, and then, when she ran out of neighbors, have to move to New York. If you are reading this article about cozy mystery books, you probably have enjoyed watching Jessica solve her way through one community after the next. She is a prime example of a Cozy Mystery Heroine….

Cozy mysteries have become a booming business. Many cozy mystery readers are intelligent women looking for a “fun read” that engages the mind, as well as provides entertainment… something to “look forward to getting back to.” This is not to say that intelligent men don’t read cozies…they do!

The crime-solver in a cozy mystery is usually a woman who is an amateur sleuth. Almost always, she has a college degree, whether she is using it or not. Her education and life’s experiences have provided her with certain skills that she will utilize in order to solve all the crimes that are “thrown her way.” The cozy mystery heroine is usually a very intuitive, bright woman. The occupations of the amateur sleuths are very diverse: caterer, bed and breakfast owner, quilter, cat fancier/owner, nun, gardener, librarian, book store owner, herbalist, florist, dog trainer, homemaker, teacher, needlepoint store owner, etc. These are just a few examples of what the amateur sleuth does…. When she’s not solving crimes, that is!

The cozy mystery usually takes place in a small town or village. The small size of the setting makes it believable that all the suspects know each other. The amateur sleuth is usually a very likeable person who is able to get the community members to talk freely (i.e. gossip) about each other. There is usually at least one very knowledgeable and nosy (and of course, very reliable!) character in the book who is able to fill in all of the blanks, thus enabling the amateur sleuth to solve the case.

Although the cozy mystery sleuth is usually not a medical examiner, detective, or police officer, a lot of times her best friend, husband, or significant other is. This makes a very convenient way for her to find out things that she would otherwise not have access to… Do you know any caterers or dog trainers who have access to autopsy reports? I don’t! (Unless you count some of my favorite cozy characters…)

At the same time, it is probably safe to say that the local police force doesn’t take the amateur sleuth very seriously. They dismiss her presence, almost as if she doesn’t exist. This of course, makes it convenient for her to “casually overhear” things at the scene of a crime.

More and more, cozy mystery books are being written as parts of a series. The reader becomes emotionally involved and connected with the reoccurring characters. It’s almost as if the reader is “going home” to a familiar place when she reads her next cozy mystery book in a series. (Of course, publishers of these series must enjoy knowing that fans of a series guarantee the success of each book in the series. It’s not uncommon for fans of a cozy mystery series to pre-order a book before it is available at the stores.)

In a series, it is important that the characters are likeable, so that the reader will want to visit them again. The supporting characters are equally important to the reader. It is for his reason that there are so many funny, eccentric, and entertaining secondary characters. Can you imagine wanting to read the second book in a series that has all of its characters as scummy, low-life people, perpetrating evil deeds and being downright mean all of the time?

Link to the rest at Cozy Mystery List

How Cosy Can You Get?

From Writer Unboxed:

In my workshops for aspiring writers, I am often asked how best to categorize a manuscript when submitting it to an agent or publisher. As I’m mainly a writer of fantasy, this question usually comes from fledgling writers of speculative fiction. Where does their work fit into the various sub-genres of fantasy, or is it actually science fiction? If there’s a love story, maybe it’s romantic fantasy, fantasy-romance, paranormal romance? Fantasy comes in many varieties. We have epic/high fantasy (think Tolkien), fairytale fantasy, low fantasy, urban fantasy. Then there are sword and sorcery, grimdark, and magic realism. And don’t forget cosy fantasy, a sub-genre I hadn’t heard of until a couple of weeks ago. I’ll come back to that later. A similar range of variants exists in other kinds of genre fiction, such as romance, crime and mystery.

When this comes up in a workshop, I usually say, forget this for now. First get the manuscript all set for submission. That means not only finished, but polished and edited to the very best standard the writer can achieve. I explain about the value of critique partners or writing groups, the need to seek feedback from someone with the appropriate expertise, the value of beta readers and so on. A writer who reads widely is less likely to ask that question about sub-genre – they will already have a fair idea of where their work fits in. Others may need to think it through, in particular to be clear about the difference between science fiction and fantasy. The generally accepted definitions are that SF contains elements that do not and cannot exist in the world of today, but that might exist in the future, eg human contact with life elsewhere in the universe, where fantasy contains elements that do not and could not exist in our world now or in the future eg magic, supernatural beings (though that definition is crying out to be challenged.) Just to confuse the issue, it is possible for a story to be a blend of science fiction and fantasy. Steampunk, with its combination of magic and technology, has the potential to be both at once. Once the manuscript is as perfect as it can be, the writer does need to decide how they’ll describe it in their cover letter to the agent/publisher. I remind them that if they’re lucky enough to have someone read it, that person will first be looking for outstanding storytelling and originality, whatever the genre or sub-genre.

Genre categories can be misleading. They don’t mean the same thing to everyone. What led me to write this blog post was an invitation to participate in a panel about Cosy Fantasy. I was startled, to say the least. I had never thought of my books as in any way cosy. To me the term suggested the fantasy equivalent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, something set in a quaint English village or equivalent, with a cast of (mostly) loveable or amusing characters and a story the reader can breeze through without being too troubled. As it happened, I couldn’t do the panel in question because of time zone problems. I asked why they would put me on a cosy fantasy panel when I don’t write in that sub-genre. The answer was, more than one reader had identified my work as cosy fantasy. I was shocked. I imagined a person unfamiliar with my work trying out one of the books on the recommendation that it was a comfort read and being confronted with characters battling severe mental illness, scenes of fratricide, assault, torture, cruel incarceration, and human sacrifice (not all in the same book, I hasten to say.) So I decided I’d better investigate.

It was true. Bloggers and other readers had recommended my work – very positively – as cosy fantasy. Had those dark plot lines and troubled characters somehow been overlooked because I sometimes included a cast of small, benign uncanny folk? Or was it the fact that most of the books/series include a happily resolved love story? Was I writing cosy books without even knowing it?

Next step: find a definition for cosy fantasy. Google brought me many results. ”A feel-good story with low stakes in a fantasy setting.”  ”It’s light-hearted and fun. The characters are not constantly in peril.” Or this one, from the Cosy Fantasy forum on Reddit: “Cozy Fantasy is a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure that gives a feeling of comfort, warmth, and relaxation.”  The comments on that forum were enlightening – it seemed like serious themes could be included and stakes could be high, but the dark scenes were in the background rather than shown graphically on the page. I’ve included the link to that discussion, as it makes insightful reading.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

How Big of a Problem Is “Head Hopping”?

From Jane Friedman:

Question

I am a professional writer and former journalist, but I’m new to writing fiction. I’m wondering whether I’m guilty of “head hopping,” or of author intrusion, by allowing the reader to peek into the thoughts of minor characters of the story. If this is the case, is it a problem or is it the natural role of an omniscient narrator?

—Ready to Revise


Dear Ready to Revise:

I’m so glad you asked!

It’s natural for those new to writing fiction to revel in their ability to enter the mind of different characters in the story. It feels like a superpower, and it is: No other storytelling mode offers you the ability to enter into the point of view (POV) of the story’s characters in such an intimate and revealing way.

But like so many things with fiction, it’s important to realize that what’s fun for us as writers may not be fun for our readers. And that, like many things we admire in the work of our favorite writers, we may not yet have the chops to do these things well.

Yes, revealing what’s in the minds of minor characters is indeed a privilege of the omniscient POV. But the omniscient POV is an advanced technique, and therefore not something I recommend to those just starting out with fiction.

I’ll explore both of these in more detail, but first, an important distinction: When we talk about “head hopping,” we’re not talking about a story with multiple POVs. Rather, we’re talking about a story that includes multiple POVs within the same scene, without benefit of a line break or chapter break. “Head hopping” is what happens when an inexperienced writer fails to do it well.

Here’s why “head hopping” can be no fun for readers.

It can be jarring. Imagine cruising along in a story at top speed (we read fiction fast, in part because we feel like we’re really in the mind of the POV character, living the story), and then suddenly, it’s not clear whose head we’re in, or even what’s supposed to be happening.

For example, consider the following:

John perused the menu. That burger sounded good, but then again, he was trying to watch his weight—his wife was right, he wasn’t getting any younger, and Dr. Sykes had been warning him for years about his cholesterol. Maybe the salad? But then he’d be ravenous at his four o’clock.

All these finance guys always spent forever looking at the menu but then always ordered the same thing. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so stereotypical. Erik smiled, marshaling his patience. “Would you like me to come back?”

That second paragraph is likely to give your reader whiplash, because it’s not clear whose head we’re in—or even who Erik actually is (the server).

You want readers to read quickly, because that’s part of what creates what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream” of fiction.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Writing Empathy Series Part Two: Empathy For Your Character

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Empathy for your CHARACTER

I have a bunch of best friends. Evangeline, Lyra, Mac, Calliope, Fauna. They happen to be protagonists in my novels. I love them! They’re full of life and loss, like most of us. And, like the real people in my life, I want to protect them, hide them away from harm, so the world doesn’t beat them down. 

Only I can’t. 

Because I’m the one bringing the world down on them!

It’s the paradox of writing fiction; we love our characters but we make their lives miserable. We are the ones who upend their lives and make them suffer. We have to. Our stories would be boring if we didn’t. 

But how is that showing empathy to our characters? Why do we even have to be cruel to our characters in the first place?   

Because life can be cruel to us. Our characters become avatars for our readers; the audience of my YA fantasy Evangeline’s Heaven may never have angel wings, but, like Evangeline who learns the truth about her beloved father, they may have had conflict with their parents.

Which brings us to another paradox of writing fiction. Yes, we’re the ones who destroy our characters’ lives, but we’re also the ones who show them the greatest amount of empathy. 

As writers, our job is to ensure our readers feel what our characters feel. To do that, we need to get inside their head. We need to understand what they’re thinking and why. We need to explain not just how they solved their problems (assuming they do) but also their thought process leading up to their decisions. 

It’s the difference between “showing vs. telling”, that age-old writing adage that seems spectacularly vague and at the same time fundamentally essential. I used to think I understood the difference. I thought “telling” was simply explaining to the reader how the character felt. “Mom was angry when her son Luke came home late, long after curfew.” And I knew enough not to “tell”. I’d show my readers instead. “Mom crossed her arm and tapped her foot, glowering when her son Luke snuck in the back door two hours after curfew.”

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

PG will ask, “Is Snuck a word or not?”

It didn’t used to be, but Donald Trump didn’t used to be a former president.

How to Write an Absolutely Great First Sentence

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

I wrote this post on writing a great first sentence as a companion-piece to Anne’s recent post on writing a great first chapter.

With apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by writers and certainly by agents and editors, that no matter what genre, your first sentence must compel the reader to continue.

Because your first sentence is the first thing your potential reader sees in Look Inside, you must come up with something that’s one hundred per cent absolutely, positively come-hither irresistible.

Those few words must establish the voice, set the tone, induce curiosity and promise the answer to an urgent question.

In your first sentence you must present yourself and your book with confidence and authority.

If you’ve written a thriller, your first sentence must promise thrills.

If you’ve written a romance, your first sentence must promise romance.

Whatever genre you write, you must make your reader an offer s/he can’t refuse. You can choose from a menu of approaches when you compose that crucial first sentence.

Here are a few of the possibilities—

  • A tease
  • A jolt
  • Or a shock
  • Or a dare
  • Perhaps a provocation?
  • An invitation
  • A seduction
  • Maybe a declaration
  • Or a promise

Depending on your genre, consider—

  • Creating danger.
  • Laying out your character’s inner struggles.
  • Invoking deep emotion.
  • Introducing suspense.
  • Defining — or hinting at — the mystery.
  • Initiating the quest.
  • Starting the mission (whether it’s to find love, get the Bad Guy, or save civilization).
  • Establishing the mood: light and humorous, dark and dangerous, or daring and scary.

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

Urgency, Exigency, and Moonshots

From Daily Writing Tips:

Can you explain clearly the difference between urgency and exigency? Thank you. Also, any thoughts on the concept or process of “moonshoot”? Heard the term when President Biden was talking about cancer.

The nouns urgency and exigency are not synonyms, but they are related in thought.

Exigency
An exigency is an urgent need or unforeseen calamity. Anything, ranging from a wildfire to a car breakdown is an exigency: a situation that calls for immediate action to set things to rights.

Exigencies can be chronic. People living in poverty have daily exigencies relating to food and shelter. School districts must weigh the exigency of plant maintenance costs against hiring needs.

Here are some usage examples from the fraze.it site:

In determining exigency, the board should consider the degree of urgency involved.

This will have a posting if the event is delayed due to weather or other exigency.

Analysts note that the ideological volte-face is a matter of exigency, rather than conviction.

They were there, crammed in but alive, disciplined by exigency to subsist on tiny rations of tuna, biscuits and sips of milk.

Fort Bend ISD is one of several districts this year to declare financial exigency, a move that allows the elimination of jobs.

Urgency
Urgency—the perceived need for immediate action—is often in the eye of the beholder.

The urgency required following a disaster, like a flood, is apparent to everyone. Urgency to act to prevent disaster, on the other hand, is not necessarily felt by everyone.

From marketing experts to environmentalists, millions of words are expended daily in an effort to prompt people to feel a sense of urgency about one thing or another.

. . . .

The expression “to shoot for the moon” has been around at least since 1911, with the meaning, “to set one’s goals or ambitions very high; to try to attain or achieve something particularly difficult.”

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Writers, be wary of Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers. Very, very wary.

From The Washington Post:

I suppose, as a child, I learned the art of padding a school composition from the 1967 musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” specifically from the song “The Book Report,” in which the “Peanuts” characters are tasked with providing 100 words on “Peter Rabbit.” Lucy, bless her, painfully counts her way word by word, eventually crawling to the finish line by noting that, after their adventures, Peter and his siblings were “very, very, very, very, very, very happy to be home … 94, 95. The very, very, very end.”

Cleverer methods of cheating — sorry, more sophisticated workarounds — followed for me, including the age-old trick of bloating typewriter margins (back in the 1970s, mind you) in an attempt to put one over on teachers foolish enough to assign papers by number of pages rather than word count. But it’s Lucy’s “very”s and the concept of word fat that stuck with me over the years, especially once I got into the copy editing racket.

Now, it’s a common misapprehension that “editing” is a synonym for “deleting.” Yes, by all means trim away what I call the Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers — “to be sure,” “that said,” “of course,” “in sum,” “rather,” “actually,” and, to be sure (ahem), “very.” But I have learned that prose often benefits from the cushioning of a few extra words — for rhythm, for sense, sometimes simply to counter the airlessness of sentences that are so straitened they can’t breathe.

That there are few absolutes in writing is why a case can be made for just about any word on a list of the proscribed. My British friends chide me about the ones cited above, noting that if they can’t utter these words, they can’t speak at all.

Good writing, I think, ultimately exists between the twin goal posts of as-few-words-as-you-need and as-many-words-as-you-want. I, a natural natterer, lean toward the latterer.

. . . .

But one must draw the line somewhere. I recommend striking out “actually” at every opportunity, unless it’s in a discussion of the movie “Love Actually,” in which case we might want to focus on the title’s confounding commalessness. Similarly, though I would never fault the supreme lyricist Johnny Mercer for the gorgeous “You’re much too much / And just too very very,” I am on constant alert for “very,” always looking for the chance to dispose of it. I’d encourage you to do the same.

For one thing, “very” is a fraud, masquerading as a strengthener when it merely wheedles and pleads. To call someone “brilliant” is to make a bold assertion; to call someone “very brilliant” attempts to persuade others of something one appears not to truly believe. Moreover, it’s a dull adverb and encourages duller adjectives. What, after all, is “very hungry” compared with “ravenous”? What’s “very sad” up against “despondent”? Who’d want to be “very strong” when you might be “herculean”?

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

The author of the OP, Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

Crafting an Unforgettable Villain

From Writer Unboxed:

The actor Louise Fletcher passed away a few weeks ago (September 23rd), and though she had a career spanning over half a century, much of it in television, her signature role, the one for which she is most remembered, is that of Nurse Ratched in Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Why is it that in a wide open field of other notable villains—Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Francis Dolarhyde (the “Red Dragon”), Tom Ripley, Noah Cross—this gentile, soft-spoken nurse continues to represent a particularly insidious form of evil?

In a Vanity Fair profile written by Michael Shulman in 2018, Ms. Fletcher explained her unique approach to the role and shared some other insights into the making of the film. The article was at least in part prompted by news of an upcoming Netflix series, Ratched, based on the same character (Sarah Paulson serves in the series role),

The TV series purports to tell the story of how the title character came to become such an iconic embodiment of evil—i.e., it focuses entirely on events that took place before those depicted in the novel. That backstory, created entirely by the show’s writers, bears little resemblance to the character in Kesey’s novel.

To be fair, Louise Fletcher’s portrayal also differed significantly from how the character was presented in the novel, but the difference between her approach and that provided by the TV series is striking.

The TV series portrays Nurse Ratched as diabolically evil by nature—malformed by childhood trauma, hardened during service as a nurse in the Pacific theater during WW2, and progressively more unhinged as the series progresses—with the ultimate effect that of a meticulously crafted mask concealing the soul of a self-aware monster. (The TV series makes little attempt to restrain its over-the-top inclinations, to the point it often approaches grand guignol. Its showrunner, Ryan Murphy, lists American Horror Story and The Jeffrey Dahmer Story among his credits.)

The film, on the other hand, sought to temper the more exaggerated elements of the novel. Forman, a veteran of the Prague Spring and an important figure in the Czech New Wave, escaped Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968, saw in the novel an analogy to his own experience under totalitarianism. (Kesey wrote the novel as a critique of U.S. conformity in the aftermath of WW2.) With respect to the character in question, Forman said, “The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched.”

Ms. Fletcher took a slightly different approach. Consumed by the Watergate hearings, she saw in Nurse Ratched a reflection of Nixon’s abuse of power, but both she and Forman knew playing the character as an idea wouldn’t work, just as they agreed the portrayal in the novel was cartoonish—in Ms. Fletcher’s words, “she’s got smoke coming out of her ears.” Instead, she focused on a simple human observation: Nurse Ratched is convinced she’s right.

She thought back to her childhood in Alabama and “the paternalistic way that people treat other people there … White people actually felt that the life they were creating was good for black people.” She saw how that dynamic translated to Nurse Ratched and the patients under her care. “They’re in this ward, she’s looking out for them, and they have to act like they’re happy to get this medication or listen to this music. And make her feel good about the way she is.”

This approach resonated with Forman, who realized that Ms. Fletcher’s Jim Crow Alabama shared many of the dehumanizing elements he’d experienced under Communism. In a 1997 interview, he said, “I slowly started to realize that it will be much more powerful if it’s not this visible evil. That she’s only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.”

By taking this more down-to-earth, human approach, Fletcher and Forman managed to make Nurse Ratched even scarier, revealing in vivid terms how good intentions do indeed pave the road to Hell.

In creating the character’s physical nature, Ms. Fletcher asked celebrity hairdresser Carrie White to come up with something unique, and boy did she. “[T]he hairdo, the dress, everything I had on under it that I wore to be the way she was, the white stockings and the undergarments,” all underscored how the character was “stuck in time.”

She also created a detailed backstory for the character, but she kept the details a secret for the rest of her life, except for a few she shared in the Vanity Fair profile:

“She had sacrificed her life for other people. She hasn’t married, hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that, and was self-sufficient on her own leading this life, because she dedicated her life, her earlier life, to other people who needed her.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Opening Your Story with Conflict to Hook Readers

From My Story Doctor:

There are many ways to hook a reader who opens your book–a great cover, a catchy title, luscious descriptions on the back cover, an endearing character portrait, a captivating first line, and so on.

Yet all too soon, much of how well the story grabs a reader will depend upon whether your conflict is engaging. Interestingly, I can only see a couple of ways to introduce a significant conflict.

1. Open Your Story with Massive Conflict

The first method is to front-load the book, giving the reader a massive conflict on the opening page. Brandon Sanderson did this nicely in Elantris. Robert Jordan does it in the prologue to The Wheel of Time. Both novels sold extremely well as a result.

On a biological level, the reader experiences a rush of adrenaline as he or she is faced with a conflict, as well as increased levels of cortisol as stress is induced. The fact that the stress is unresolved suggests that there may be an element of mystery, so the body supplies a bit of dopamine to incite the reader to go on reading—and since the reader is looking for a pleasurable experience, the brain will also gush serotonin to signal that, “Hey, we found the good stuff.”

All in all, this seems like a very heady mix. (Pun intended.)

2. Open Your Story with an Intriguing Mystery

The second method is to create a mystery in the opening pages, taking perhaps a dozen chapters to reveal the main conflict. This technique is very popular with young adult fiction. For example, we see it handled well in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.

On a biological level, when we read a mystery the body dispenses dopamine to keep the reader on the trail for clues, but of course since there are growing conflicts and a sense of “Hey, we found the good stuff,” the other chemicals will come into play to lesser degrees. As a mystery is resolved, the brain is treated to a rush of serotonin.

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

James Scott Bell’s 10 Commandments for Writers

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

When I started to teach writing in the late 90s, I channeled my inner Charlton Heston and announced 10 Commandments for Writers. A cheeky thing to do, I admit. But when I reviewed them recently, I found I wouldn’t change one of them. So here they are, with attached comment.

1) Thou Shalt write a certain number of words every week

This is the first, and greatest, commandment. If you write to a quota and  hold yourself to it, sooner than you think you’ll have a full length novel.

COMMENT: I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days, or life intrudes, and you can run yourself down. So set a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others. How many words? Figure out what you can comfortably do in a day, then up that by 10%. And take one day off a week to recharge your batteries.

2) Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts

Don’t edit yourself heavily during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Your plot and characters may want to make twists and turns you didn’t plan. Let them go! I edit my previous day’s work and then move on. At 20k words I “step back” to see if I have a solid foundation, shore it up if I don’t, then move on to the end.

COMMENT: If you outline, tweak it as you move forward in discovery. If you “pants” do a “rolling outline.” Record a summary of your scenes after you write them, and jot ideas for the next couple of scenes.

3) Thou Shalt make trouble for thy Lead

The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the Lead character. Keep turning up the heat. Make things harder. Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down.

COMMENT: Think in terms of “death” stakes. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional/vocational, and psychological/spiritual. If you don’t have death on the line in one of these forms, your plot is not as gripping as it could be.

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

When Should Writers Stand Their Ground Versus Defer to an Editor?

From Jane Friedman:

Question

I write dark fantasy stories for adults that explore survival after sexual trauma and war. My work focuses on the aftermath of sexual violence and the way my protagonists stubbornly live well after the unthinkable. There are no on-page depictions of SA in my work. Naturally, edits are a must and I am very receptive to feedback (I’m in journalism, so tough deletions and red pens are familiar friends of mine).

As a debut writer who was previously represented by a literary agent, I made structural, style, and developmental edits to my manuscript on the guidance of my agent. I wanted to ask how an agent’s edits differ from those of a publishing house’s editor?

Since I work as a newspaper editor, I often have strong opinions about what accessible writing looks like. Should I stand my ground with regard to edits (professionally, of course) or is it best for unpublished authors to trust the expertise of their agents and editors? Especially when it comes to issues such as sexual violence, racism, or war, I am very firm that my work shouldn’t be edited purely for the sake of “good taste” or “finding the book a home” in the commercial market. How can a debut writer navigate this challenge?

—Writer Who Writes Entire War Scenes But Is Afraid to Even Politely Disagree


Dear Polite War-Scene Writer:

These are three great, intertwining questions, and the answers to all of them depend on a fourth: Do you want to traditionally publish?

For authors who self-publish, there are no gatekeepers and no intermediaries between their vision and the audience’s eyeballs. There’s also no one to save us from ourselves when we’re so wedded to our vision that we can’t see the red flags waving.

But questioning agent-editor-author relationships sounds like you do want to traditionally publish. Part of that process is finding an agent you trust and believe in, who trusts and believes in you, who will then negotiate a publishing deal that will support your vision while getting your book to as many eyeballs as possible.

A “good” agent—one who is the right partner to help you make your best book and sell it—may or may not be an editorial agent (that is, an agent who will also edit your work). The best publisher to support and distribute your book may ask for hundreds of revisions, or none. In both cases, sometimes the first round of revision requests come from the agent or editor’s assistant, to fix larger challenges before the agent or editor wades in for a last pass. What’s important is that you, the author, believe this partnership will help you. Perhaps you’ve admired books from this press or agency. Perhaps they said something profound in an interview. Or you loved their ideas on the pre-signing phone call. But whatever it was, you’re on board the We Can Do This Together Express, destination Bookshelves.

You should, of course, fundamentally agree with your partners’ advice, even if you want to quibble on the details. If your agent or publisher’s idea of “good taste” doesn’t line up with yours, they aren’t the right partners. Yes, there will be suggested edits where you say, “I really think it needs to be this way.” Very often, the problem the agent or publisher has identified isn’t actually at that exact place in the text. Sometimes the real issue is that a scene or a moment hasn’t been set up well, and the fix is adding or changing information in the pages before.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Never Finding Happiness

From Writers Helping Writers:

Notes
A character who is afraid they will never be happy may feel unworthy of happiness. It’s also possible they’ve grown weary of life’s many disappointments and don’t want to get their hopes up any more. This fear creates a dichotomy of emotions, with the character either spending all their time chasing happiness or running from it. 

What It Looks Like
Searching for the one thing that will light the fire within them
Trying many different hobbies and pastimes
Researching philosophies, religions, and other ideologies
Spending a lot of time alone, soul-searching
Hopping from job to job trying to find the perfect one
Abusing drugs or alcohol, either as a way to find peace or numb the pain
Retreating or hiding from the world
Lashing out at others in frustration
Trying to be perfect
Engaging in negative self-talk
Struggling with making decisions
The character being unable to make a move toward something they desire 
Being unable to find things that excite them
Hating life and everything in it
Having a “why me” attitude

Common Internal Struggles
The character being unable to enjoy happy moments because they’re worrying about what could go wrong
Feeling numb even when something wonderful has happened 
Focusing on past hurts, even when things have gotten better
Worrying about the future instead of being grateful for the good things in the present
The character struggling with anxiety 
Being unable to see their own value 
Experiencing guilt or shame though they have done nothing wrong

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Outlining/Plotting vs Discovery Writing/Pantsing

From The Creative Penn:

Every fiction author will (eventually) find their own method for writing but all fall somewhere on the spectrum between outlining/plotting and discovery writing/pantsing/writing into the dark.

. . . .

Show notes:

  • The benefits and difficulties of outlining
  • How to outline and examples from authors who use this method
  • The benefits and difficulties of discovery writing (and why I hate the term pantsing!)
  • Examples of authors who discovery write
  • My writing process: Discovery writing with a hint of plotting
  • Links to books and resources that might help you

This is an excerpt from my audiobook of How to Write a Novel, narrated by me.

. . . .

Outlining (or plotting)

“Outlining is the most efficient way to structure a novel to achieve the greatest emotional impact… Outlining lets you create a framework that compels your audience to keep reading from the first page to the last.” — Jeffery Deaver, Wall St Journal

Writers who outline or plot spend more time up front considering aspects of the novel and know how the story will progress before they start writing the manuscript. It’s a spectrum, with some outlines consisting of a page or so and others stretching to thousands of words of preparation.

The benefits of outlining

While discovery writers jump into writing and spend more time later cleaning up their drafts, outliners or plotters spend time beforehand so they can write faster in the first draft.

When it’s time to write, outliners focus on writing words on the page to fulfil their vision rather than figuring out what’s going on. Outlining can result in more intricate plots and twists, deeper characters, less time rewriting, and faster production time.

If you co-write, outlining is the only way to ensure your process works smoothly. As a discovery writer, I have found it particularly challenging to co-write fiction, which is why I rarely do it!

If you have an agent or a publisher, or you want an agent or a publisher, you might have to write an outline anyway, so learning how to do it well can help. If you’re a discovery writer, you can always outline after the book is finished, if you need to.

“When you plan a story the right way, you guarantee a tight, compelling structure that keeps readers turning pages and delivers a satisfying reading experience from start to finish. And really, a satisfied reader is all you need for a ‘good’ book.” —Libbie Hawker, Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing

The difficulties of outlining

Outlining and plotting suit some writers very well.

But not all.

Some authors get lost in outlining and plotting and world-building and character bios and theme exploration and symbolism… and never actually write full sentences and may never finish a book.

Such writers may go astray through a combination of procrastination through preparation, a delight in the learning process without a desire to do the work to turn it into a story, or perhaps fear of what might happen if they do write.

Some authors outline a book and then decide it’s too boring to write it and never finish.

Some authors become so obsessed with the technicalities of outlining that they decide writing is too hard, so they give up.

Other writers try outlining only to find it is no fun at all.

If you can do it, brilliant!

If you can’t, don’t worry. See the next chapter on discovery writing.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

Objective Estrangement

From Women, Writers, Women’s Books:

As an American author living in Geneva, I am often asked whether I am working on a novel set in Switzerland. White-peaked mountains, banking intrigue, anything chocolate. The potential is massive. Usually I say no. My latest novel manuscript contains one brief passage relating to the country where I’ve lived for the past decade. 

But who’s to say I am not gathering material for the Swiss novel I’ll eventually publish? Used purposefully, time and/or distance can be a powerful tool for the fiction writer.

I wrote my first novel, An Unexpected Guest, which is set in Paris, Boston, and Dublin, while living in eastern France and in Brooklyn. I wrote my second, Shining Sea, which is set in Southern California, Arizona, the Scottish Hebrides, Manhattan, and western Massachusetts, after moving to Switzerland. I’d been to (nearly) all of the places that appeared in each of the novels and had lived in several of them. But I wasn’t living in them while I wrote these books.

There’s a unique clarity that comes through having distance from something, someone, or someplace with which or whom the writer is familiar. I call it “objective estrangement.” It means being able to see the forest for the trees, while still knowing the sound of the wind through their branches in deep winter, the color of their leaves in autumn, their smell in early spring. It means being able to recognize the universal that will make a story meaningful to others, while retaining the details that will make it feel rich and believable. 

Look at it this way.  

In journalism, immediacy is a valuable commodity. The journalist doesn’t want facts to become clouded by reflection. But literary fiction, the genre I write in, is about reflection. The intrusion of practical, real-life, and personal concerns that have nothing to do with the story’s narrative and characters–this is the street with a pharmacy where I should pick up a prescription; this is the neighborhood where the friend who hasn’t returned my call lives—into the writer’s mindspace is not going to be helpful. 

As Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose fiction often takes the reader to the East Africa he left to live in Great Britain more than a half-century ago, says, “Traveling away from home provides distance and perspective, and a degree of amplitude and liberation. It intensifies recollection, which is the writer’s hinterland. Distance allows the writer uncluttered communion with this inner self, and the result is a freer play of the imagination.” 

That freedom is one reason why, for example, I placed the family at the heart of Shining Sea in Southern California, where I lived for two years in my twenties but is clear across the continent from where I grew up in New York City. The emotionality of my young California years has long worn off, but I can still remember how it felt weaving through bikini-clad rollerbladers on Venice Boulevard or racing out of my stucco condo during an earthquake. At the same time, Southern California couldn’t be further removed and still be in the continental U.S from where (and how) I grew up. Keeping the story and characters in Shining Sea purely creations of my mind was easy, but so also was imagining and understanding the world they would inhabit.

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

7 Ways Houses, Homes (and the Rooms in Them) Can Rescue that Stalled First Draft

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

Home is where the heart is. Or is it?

Home sweet home. Or is it?

You can’t go home again. Or can you? You can go from:

  • Shirley Jackson’s spooky Hill House to the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas —
  • The Rosemary’s Baby creepy West Side apartment in NYC to Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s classic Gothic masterpiece, Rebecca
  • From the outhouse to the penthouse —

Well-written details of houses and homes — or any place in which characters live and work — become permanently lodged in reader’s memories.

Houses — or homes as real estate brokers refer to them — and the rooms in them can delineate character, set a scene, replace or enhance back story, establish mood, theme or genre. And can save that stalled first draft.

. . . .

The famous first line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s story, originally published in 1937 and never out of print, was written in a moment of sudden inspiration as the author, then pursuing an academic career, was grading papers. It tells us that—

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

***

In No Place Like Home, Anne describesJoe Torres’s tent—

“His little campsite looked welcoming in the moonlight. He had a patched but serviceable dark green pop-up tent with a cleared area in front, covered by a tarp. It was equipped with two camp chairs and a folding table. He opened the tent flap and shone the flashlight beam around.

The place looked amazingly neat and cozy, with blankets smoothed out on a sizable inflated air mattress, a little table with a kerosene lamp, clothes hanging from a pole, and in all the corners were books—piles of paperbacks, some without covers, but all neatly stacked.

An inviting interior. It didn’t even smell bad.

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

What to read to become a better writer

From The Economist:

The first words are the hardest. For many of us writing is a slog. Words drip with difficulty onto the page—and frequently they seem to be the wrong ones, in the wrong order. Yet few pause to ask why writing is hard, why what we write may be bad, or even what is meant by “bad”. Fortunately for anyone seeking to become a better writer, the works recommended here provide enlightenment and reassurance. Yes, writing is hard. But if you can first grasp the origins and qualities of bad writing, you may learn to diagnose and cure problems in your own prose (keeping things simple helps a lot). Similarly heartening is the observation that most first drafts are second-rate, so becoming a skilled rewriter is the thing. These five works are excellent sources of insight and inspiration.

Politics and the English LanguageBy George Orwell. Available on the Orwell Foundation’s website

Starting with Orwell’s essay may seem as clichéd as the hackneyed phrases he derides in it. Published in 1946, this polemic against poor and perfidious writing will be familiar to many. But its advice on how to write is as apposite now as then. (Besides, it is short and free.) Orwell analyses the unoriginal, “dying” metaphors that still haunt the prose of academics, politicians, professionals and hacks. He lambasts the “meaningless words” and “pretentious diction” of his day; many of the horrors he cites remain common. To save writers from regurgitating these, Orwell proposes six now-canonical rules. The first five boil down to: prefer short, everyday words and the active voice, cut unneeded words and strive for fresh imagery. The sixth—“break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”—displays the difficulty of pinning down something as protean as language. But this has not stopped others trying.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and GraceBy Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. Pearson Education; 246 pages; $66.65 and £43.99

In “Style”, Joseph Williams, who taught English at the University of Chicago, instructs writers on how to revise their scribblings into something clearer, more concise and coherent. (Aptly for a text about rewriting, it is the latest in a long line of reworkings of Williams’s teachings on the subject, which appeared under various titles.) Unlike Orwell, who devised high-level rules for writers to wield by instinct, Williams proposes nuanced “principles” and shows how to apply them. Whereas, for instance, Orwell exhorted writers to “never use the passive where you can use the active”, Williams explains how passives can sometimes help create a sense of flow. This forms part of his coverage of “cohesion” and “coherence”, which could upend the way you write. Insightful, too, is Williams’s guidance on pruning prose and on the ills and virtues of nominalisations—nouns formed from verbs (as “nominalisation” is from “nominalise”), which often send sentences awry. Such technical details, summary sections and practice exercises make “Style” the most textbook-like work on this list. It may also be the most useful.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG will note that some editions of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace are monstrously overpriced (Pearson nearly always overcharges for books it sells into the education market). If you do some hunting on Amazon, you can find much less expensive editions, including used books. PG will defer to others concerning whether Mr. Bizup and other co-authors of more recent editions have added valuable content not present in the original.

Additionally, there is a notable absence of Amazon’s Look Inside feature for easy browsing.

One additional point for those who do not wish to overpay for books is that PG was able to find copies available from his local public library.

You’ve Burned Out. Now What?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

For most of 2018, my solitaire app was my drug of choice. I could lie on my old, blue couch and play simulated cards for hours. And I had hours to kill because I was avoiding any and all work. I spent my mornings with students in classes, passing time by going through the well-rehearsed motions of teaching and mentoring, pretending I was fine before racing to my car and heading home to the couch. I retreated to solitaire after every trip to campus. It was a way of vaporizing time I “should” have been using for writing, planning classes, going to meetings, and generally being productive. But I just kept playing, win or lose, feeling ashamed of my laziness.

I must have played thousands of hands of solitaire, comforted by the logic of the game, the tedium, and the fact that solitaire wanted nothing from me except to turn the next card. The people on campus wanted things from me, expected a version of me that would shatter in a mental breakdown before Christmas later that year. That expected version of me had played the higher-ed game at a high level for her corner of academe — she published regularly, had a book with a highly respected university press, was a liked if challenging teacher, and actively served her institution (Elon University) and discipline (professional writing and rhetoric). She had a reputation for getting things done.

That was not me anymore. I had burned out, and it shocked my system to the core. It had been building for years: Every department meeting had to be maximally efficient, every class had to be perfect, every opportunity to show leadership had to be fully taken advantage of. The perfectionism and pressure had gradually worn me down. Sometimes after class, I’d stand frozen in an empty stairwell, trying to decide what to eat for lunch, as if it were the biggest decision of my life. I dreaded running into anyone — student or colleague. I had panic attacks over going into my office — even though it’d been my workplace for a decade.

And for all this I felt deep shame. Before my burnout diagnosis I didn’t have a language or rationale for what was happening to me. The brain fog, decision fatigue, panic attacks, inability to do any work that wasn’t publicly performative, the solitaire addiction: What was happening to me? I truly had no idea. The message I initially took away from my diagnosis was that I just wasn’t good enough anymore, and that higher ed would spit me out for falling short of the very productivity goals I’d once prided myself on. The idea that I was “a burnout” was crushing to my personal and professional identity. And I believed that once people found out about my burnout, it would be all over. So I waited, one game of solitaire at a time.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” By calling it a syndrome, WHO avoids defining it as a mental illness per se, instead as a collection of related symptoms, under the umbrellas of (1) exhaustion, (2) cynicism or depersonalization, and (3) feelings of reduced professional efficacy. When experiencing those symptoms, our ability to manage stress is lessened, making it easier for stress to compound and manifest in physical, emotional, and intellectual ways.

My experience aligned with that definition. I was exhausted, physically unwell, emotionally volatile, intellectually blank. I had distanced myself from everyone related to the university. I deeply questioned if anything I did really mattered. When I took the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most widely accepted research instrument to determine levels of burnout, I scored almost off the charts. I had nothing left to give, it turned out, even though my work demanded more and more of me. But it wasn’t all my fault. As Kevin R. McClure put it in these pages, “burnout isn’t just about people struggling to cope with stress; it’s about people struggling in workplaces where stress never subsides.”

The most important words in the WHO definition are “chronic workplace stress.” Burnout is a workplace phenomenon. Burnout is systemic; it’s a product of workplace cultures that value productivity above all else. Burnout is also a product of higher ed, a culture where productivity infuses everything we do, and where the longest CV wins. Wins what, I’m not sure. More work? In this vein, Jonathan Malesic argues that “burnout isn’t a failure of productivity but the continuation of productivity despite lacking the strength it takes to produce.” Burnout occurs when productivity becomes toxic.

Higher ed, as a culture, espouses the values of lifelong learning, discovery, contribution to a better world, and striving for excellence — all wrapped up in a view of the academy as a calling. Professors change the world through research and teaching. I love those values as ideals. In a sense, I gave myself completely over to them, to the cultural imperative that the vaunted halls of academe call only a few and that fewer still can belong in the long term. For me and for many faculty members with whom I’ve spoken, the idea of being “called” caused us to overcommit to our work, which, in turn, set us up for burnout.

When you “do what you love” — when you have a calling instead of just a job in higher ed — it’s easy to slowly give more and more of yourself to work. The heart of academic culture is an orientation toward competitive productivity. This is why we take work-related reading with us on family trips. This is why we check our email incessantly, regardless of where we are and whom we are with. This is why holiday breaks are spent revising and resubmitting. This is why we have colleagues we constantly measure ourselves against. Success is bound up in higher ed’s other core values: productivity, achievement, and the ability to keep up with the expectation escalation and ladder-climbing of the academic career trajectory. The “publish or perish” mentality is alive and well across higher ed, despite what this ideological imperative can do to one’s mental health and well-being. Amid this culture, intellectual joy and community are diminished greatly.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG notes that authors can burn out as well.

Burnout is so common among lawyers that many bar associations provide lots of information in the form of in-person or recorded presentations about symptoms of burnout and where to go if feel you may be edging toward burnout. Burnout task forces, burnout hotlines, etc., are also commonly sponsored by bar associations, often with contributions from legal malpractice insurance companies.

Here’s a link to one lawyer burnout article that PG thinks isn’t behind a paywall. Here’s another. Here’s a link to a lawyer burnout study sponsored by The California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar (District of Columbia, e.g. Washington DC). Here’s a link to an article about Identifying and Managing Attorney Anxiety published by the General Practice/Solo Section of the American Bar Association.

Moving away from attorneys, here’s a link to a World Health Organization report titled, “COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.”

Smart Brevity

From The Wall Street Journal:

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” The remark, attributed by the authors of “Smart Brevity” to Mark Twain, nicely sums up the book’s theme: It’s hard, time-consuming work to say a thing briefly, but the work pays off. In fact, Twain wrote no such thing—the remark, in a slightly different form, belongs to Blaise Pascal. But the point is still valid.

The authors of “Smart Brevity” are Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, co-founders of the aggressively to-the-point news website Axios. Messrs. Allen and VandeHei left Time magazine and the Washington Post, respectively, for Politico, which Mr. VandeHei co-founded, in 2007. Before Axios, which began in 2016, Mr. Schwartz worked for Politico and Gallup.

The book is written in the style of an Axios news article: A one- or two-sentence lede, a terse paragraph labeled WHY IT MATTERS or THE BIG PICTURE, followed by a few short bullet-pointed paragraphs. The authors developed this style, which they call Smart Brevity, when they realized that consumers of news in the 21st century, overwhelmed by words issuing from every direction, generally don’t read news articles; they skim them, or glance at the headline and the first sentence or two. Their solution: If you want to influence people through the medium of words, use fewer of them. “Strong words, shorter sentences, arresting teases, simple visuals and smartly organized ideas,” they write, “transform writing from unnoticed to vital—and remembered.”

“The Elements of Style” and many other guidebooks enjoin writers to omit needless phrases, delete unnecessary modifiers, use active verbs, and so on. You get all that here, but Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz write for the online era of short attention spans and verbal incontinence.

They have a point. Most books and essays published these days are too long: gummed up with adjectives and pointless asides, laden with prolix displays of expertise. Many news articles, too, are repetitive, full of vague insinuation, and include figures and quotations whose import is not apparent. Then there are the ordinary modes of written communication. You have not experienced periphrastic confusion until you have tried to read emails from your child’s public school about matters that ought to be simple but, for reasons that perplex the greatest minds, are not—picture days, pick-up times, grade reports.

“Something went haywire in our evolutionary journey that turned us into long-winded blowhards armed with a few fancy words in reserve,” the authors write.

That “something” was, of course, the internet. Messrs. VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz don’t discuss the difference between print reading and screen reading, but it’s worth some reflection. An email or a web article can hold an infinite number of words. The temptation to keep issuing verbiage is too great, the discipline of economy too taxing, for most writers to bear. The printed page, by contrast, although it doesn’t guarantee good writing, does impose limits. If you are reading these words in print, you will note that the review comes to an end near the bottom of the page, where the dead-tree real estate reaches its end.

. . . .

Maybe the Axios style is the future of written communication. If so, please kill me.

I don’t get the bullet points, for one thing. The book’s short chapters are written in paragraphs, as all writing in English is, but about two thirds of these paragraphs have little dots to the left. “The bullet point is a wonderful way to isolate important facts or ideas,” the authors write. Maybe so, but the excessive use of bullets leads you to wonder why some bulleted paragraphs have no important facts or ideas, and some nonbulleted ones do. And anyway why am I thinking more about these little dots than about the subject matter? It’s a fine way to read if you want to go insane.

. . . .

The worst thing about “Smart Brevity,” though, is the way the Axios style does the work of interpretation for the reader. News journalism at its best presents you with an array of observable circumstances and no definite conclusion. The arrangement of those circumstances is itself an act of interpretation, to be sure, but in the end the journalist leaves it to readers to decide what it all means. 

Not in the world of Smart Brevity™. There you’re simply told WHY IT MATTERS and THE BOTTOM LINE and, in its online manifestation, if you doubt the reporter’s construal you’re invited to click the words GO DEEPER and read some other article. “Don’t make your readers pick what’s important!” the authors exclaim to reporters. “You’ve mastered your content, honed your idea and know what matters.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

If you’ve never seen Axios, here’s a link.

What Not to Say When Writing a Novel

From The Writer’s Nook:

When writing, it’s often just as important knowing what not to say, as it is knowing what to include, and this clearly includes all writing, but from my perspective, it’s easier to perceive when expressed through the eyes of my fictional characters and my very real readers.

As always, you don’t want to waste your readers time. Nor do you want the story’s pacing to lag, or the story to ebb and flow, so you need to be as concise as possible, cutting whatever you say to the bone. Yet still, there’s much more involved than just that.

Traditionally, new authors tend to do ‘data dumps’, where they simply create a rich intricate back story, and then dump the entire thing in the readers lap, creating a virtually unreadable mishmash of undecipherable gibberish. The obvious problem here, isn’t that the back story isn’t vital, but that readers simply can’t process that much information all at once.

Instead, it’s best to parse that information out over time, revealing each separate detail of their past one at a time, when it’ll have the maximum impact and the greatest relevance to the story. In essence, you parse the vital information out a single nugget at a time, getting the reader used to such emotional revelations, so they’re eagerly awaiting the next.

Yet, once more, that’s only a small part in what not to include in a story. Ultimately, if you tell the reader everything they want to know, you’re actively keeping the reader at bay, shoving them out of the story, so you can tell them everything, which is clearly a mistake. To make the story personal for readers, you need to pull them into the story with you and allow them to solve the inherent mysteries and solve the many conflicts, on their own.

Now this is by no means a simple process, but it’s a necessary one. Without this reader participation, the story will be all tell, and no show. All “John did this and Tom did that”, with no self-discovery or the reader actually feeling as if they’re living life through both John’s and Tom’s adventures.

The key to this sort of ‘non-detail’, is to lead the reader to the edge, giving them time and the encouragement, to figure the story details out for themselves. For the reader to feel a part of the story, they have to actively live the story, solving the crises, winning the girls (and boys) and playing a key role in the entire story!

Now, as usual, there are multiple techniques which help with this. Primarily, these consist of foreshadowing (ex: outlining things so that when they occur, the reader will understand why they’re so important to the overall story, rather than surprise ending which jar the reader right out of the story) and red-herrings, which intentionally lead the reader down unproductive dead ends, keeping them unsure of how things will turn out.

Link to the rest at The Writer’s Nook (on Quora)

The Power of Chiastic Story Structure

From Helping Writers Become Authors:

When writers put on their story theorist caps, nothing is more exciting than those moments when you get to recognize consistent patterns emerging within obvious story forms. This is the basis of all of our understanding (and musing) about story, including the chiastic story structure we’ve been studying these past few months.

Although writers sometimes think of story structure as something external (and therefore rather arbitrary) that we impose on a story in order to make it look a certain accepted way, it is actually just the opposite. Story structure, in all its many posited forms, is simply a record of the long-recognized patterns that have emerged from humankind’s millennia of stories.

By a certain point in the pursuit of story, most writers become familiar with what is now considered the “standard” Three-Act Structure. But as we’ve been exploring in this little series, another lesser-known pattern that emerges from this foundation is that of chiastic story structure. Sometimes called “ring structure,” a chiastic structure is one in which the two halves mirror each other in reverse order—in essence coming full circle.

In the last five posts, we’ve explored how all the major beats recognized in the Three-Act Structure are in fact inherently chiastic. We find important structural and symbolic links between all the following:

  • The Hook and Resolution
  • The Inciting Event and Climactic Moment
  • The First and Third Plot Points
  • The First and Second Pinch Points

And we also find a linked or mirrored structure inherent within itself at the story’s central pivot:

The Midpoint

. . . .

What Is Chiastic Story Structure?

As stated, chiastic structure is a literary technique of repetitive symmetry, designed to create insight and resonance through both comparison and contrast. We can witness chiasmus as a common technique in poetry, employing the pattern of “A, B, B, A” (and so on). It can also be used most simply on the sentence level, as we see in such famous sentences as:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.“–John F. Kennedy

“We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us.”–Winston Churchill

“All for one and one for all!”–Alexandre Dumas

“Man can be destroyed but not defeated. Man can be defeated but not destroyed.”–Ernest Hemingway

Chiastic structure is perhaps most famously recognized from ancient religious texts, including the Bible. Wikipedia shows the Genesis account of the flood to be structured like this:

Link to the rest at Helping Writers Become Authors

PG notes that there are a great many links in the OP that lead to more extensive exploration of chiasmus. As usual, this post provides an overview of the OP, but may be confusing to some because of the omission of the links.

Chiasms and Chiastic structure have been around for a long time and, as mentioned above, the Bible (at least in its English translations) includes what may be some of the earliest examples.

From Bible Discernments:

Several European publications in the 1700’s and 1800’s discussed the symmetric arrangement of Scripture, the most notable being John Jebb and Thomas Boys. However, it was not until the 1920’s that Nils Lund published articles about the chiasmus in the United States. Since the 1980’s, there has been an increasing interest in the chiastic approach.

. . . .

One of the most comprehensive reviews of this writing style was prepared by Dr. David Dorsey in 1999. In that book, Professor Dorsey described the structure and meaning of each Old Testament book using this chiastic approach. Dorsey found that the chiastic approach is particularly frequent in Genesis, but he shows examples from every book in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Bible scholars have also found examples of the chiastic approach in every book, but some books are more known for them than others.

Rather than using the term chiasm, some scholars refer to this structure as a “chiasmus.” A few people refer to it as “inverted parallelism”, and still others use the term “symmetric parallelism.” No matter what it is called, this structure was widely used during Bible times as it appears to add emphasis.

Those who first identified this literary structure chose the word chiasmus because in the Greek, the letter chi looks like an ‘X’. In this illustration from Matthew 23:12, we see one line of the ‘X’ which relates the word “exalt” in the first and last; likewise, the word “humbles” is connected by the other line.

The 'X' shape of a simple chiasm

Chiasmus literally means “placing crosswise, diagonal arrangement.” Wade White gives this simple definition: “chiasmus is the reversal of elements in otherwise parallel phrases.”6 Simply put, each chiasm is a structured repetition of themes starting at the outside and moving to the center.

Many attempts have been made to define and redefine chiasms over the years: some see a very simple structure while others provide a wide number of exceptions that becomes very inclusive. In Joshua’s Spiritual Warfare, we will see that a chiasm achieves its importance when the central point provides profound insight into the verses; therefore, the general focus is on those with a more simple structure. Where the chiasm has been identified, the center point often gives clarity and understanding of the full intent of these Scriptures either by revealing what is otherwise hidden or by adding particular emphasis.

Within the Book of Joshua, Bible scholars typically focus on the use of the chiasms in chapters 2 and 22. On the World Wide Web, for example, it is very difficult to find sites where chiasms are identified in other parts of the Book of Joshua. Similarly, there has been no association of chiasms with spiritual warfare on the Internet. Someone may have written about it, but as of the writing of Joshua’s Spiritual Warfare, it simply does not stand out.

This book attempts to add to the general understanding of the chiastic approach, namely that the center point of a chiasm can often be applied to the battle known as spiritual warfare. This is particularly true in the Book of Joshua. It is my hope that each of us will come to a new level of understanding with regard to spiritual warfare. We will study how to recognize these chiastic patterns for ourselves so that as we read other books of the Bible, the Lord can speak to us in a new way. Oh the joy of discovering God’s word for today!

Link to the rest at Bible Discernments (footnotes and links omitted)

PG first came across chiasmus a very long time ago when he was analyzing the structure of a variety of poems in college.

The concluding lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats are a well-known example of chiasmus:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

You can find a bit more about chiasmus here.

Buy a cat, stay up late, don’t drink: top 10 writers’ tips on writing

From The Guardian:

Over the past year, Helen Gordon and I have been putting together Being a Writer, a collection of musings, tips and essays from some of our favourite authors about the business of writing, ranging from the time of Samuel Johnson and Grub Street, to the age of Silicon Roundabout and Lorrie Moore.

Researching the book, it quickly became obvious that there isn’t a correct way to set about writing creatively, which is a liberating thought. For every novelist who needs to isolate themselves in a quiet office (Jonathan Franzen), there’s another who works best at the local coffee shop (Rivka Galchen) or who struggles to snatch an hour between chores and children (a young Alice Munro).

Conversely, it also became apparent that alongside all this variety of approach, there are certain ideas and pieces of advice that many writers hold in common. In an 1866 letter to Mrs Brookfield, Charles Dickens suggests that: “You constantly hurry your narrative … by telling it, in a sort of impetuous breathless way, in your own person, when the people [characters] should tell it and act it for themselves.” Basically: SHOW DON’T TELL. Three words that will be familiar to anyone who has sat in a 21st-century creative writing class.

. . . .

Leo Tolstoy and HP Lovecraft – pick the hours that work best for you
Tolstoy believed in starting first thing: “I always write in the morning. I was pleased to hear lately that Rousseau, too, after he got up in the morning, went for a short walk and sat down to work. In the morning one’s head is particularly fresh. The best thoughts most often come in the morning after waking while still in bed or during the walk.”

Or stay up late as HP Lovecraft did: “At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.”

William Faulkner – read to write
“Read, read, read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

Katherine Mansfield – writing anything is better than nothing
“Looking back I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

End Art Shame

From A Writer’s Notebook:

Stop being ashamed of being an artist.

Stop being ashamed of thinking of yourself as an artist, or of wanting to be one.

Making art, and/or wanting to make art, is just about the least shameful thing you can do. Whether your art is writing or painting or acting or something else, it should not be embarrassing. The most important person you need to please when it comes to making art is yourself.

The world has enough doubt and cynicism and general terrible feeling in it, without this unnecessary shame. Love something. Want something. Care about something. Do it with your whole heart.

Link to the rest at A Writer’s Notebook

Not Just Another Post on POV

From Writers in the Storm:

If you’ve whipped around the writing block a time or two, you may have lots of experience with POV. If this is your initial test drive, you might be Googling—P . . . O . . . What? Either way, this post is for you.

First, you can stop Googling. POV stands for Point of View. Some of you are nodding and saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We got it.” Others might be asking why we care about a view.

We care because the view is everything. You’ve heard the phrase, location, location, location when it comes to prime real estate. And where is the prime real estate on the page? Inside your POV character’s head.

What Is a POV Character?

Before we jump in, let’s define a POV character. It’s your main character. The one telling the story. You might have one or two or three depending on your genre. But unless you’re George R.R. Martin, be careful not to have too many. But that’s another post.

Sometimes it’s hard for writers to remember that their characters are supposed to feel like actual people to the reader. At least that’s the idea—to make a character so real, the reader can imagine living in their world. Better yet, living in their head.

I’d like to point out here that actual people, in general, don’t have psychic or omniscient abilities. They’re not mind readers, and they’re not gods, unless that’s part of your story world. If it is, feel free to check out here. If it isn’t, stay with me.

Two Rules To Stay Focused

You can go really deep when it comes to POV. There’s a lot of information, dos and don’ts, tips and tricks. It can be overwhelming. But if you start with two rules, you’ll almost always get it right.

Rule #1

While you’re writing, put yourself in the scene and become your POV character.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Imagine you’ve literally stepped into your character’s skin. Then keep that in mind as you take the movie running through your head and translate it onto the page.

If you are your character, this means in each scene “you” can only:

  • see what your character sees
  • hear what your character hears
  • smell what your character smells
  • tase what your character tastes
  • feel what your character feels
  • know what your character knows

This holds true whether you’re writing in first person (I) or third person (he/she). And if you have multiple POV characters, you will become multiple people as the point of view switches from scene to scene. Sometimes it helps to take a minute to really get into a particular character’s head. That’s okay. Give yourself that time. It will make the writing process that much smoother.

Rule #2

Don’t let your character do anything you (as a real person) can’t do.

This one is a little more involved. Let’s try to make it simple. The idea is to hold your POV character accountable as a “real person.” And that isn’t always easy. Below are some questions that can help you dig deep into POV. 

Remember, you are your main character. So if you, as a real person, answer “no” to the questions below, your character has to answer “no” as well. Spoiler alert: the answer to every question below is going to be “no.”

Examples:

  • Can you see your own expression?

I had a sparkle in my eye. / She had a sparkle in her eye.

Unless you’re looking in the mirror or experiencing an astral projection moment, the answer is “no.”

  • Do you generally notice how you’re speaking?

“My tone was one of condescension.” / “His tone was one of condescension.”

We don’t often think about how we’re speaking. Sometimes that gets us in trouble when others take our tone the wrong way.

Side Note: you (as your character) can choose to be deliberate about speech. That’s different. It’s purposeful. A conscious choice. It looks something like this:

I made sure to pour on the condescension. / He made sure to pour on the condescension.  

  • Would you refer to yourself as “the girl,” “the boy,” “the naive child,” “Jim’s wife,” or anything else that distances you from yourself? This is mostly an issue when you’re writing in third person.

You could say: Myron handed the baby to me. Myron handed the baby to her.

I would think of myself as “me” in first person and “her” in third person. And so would your character.

But you can’t say: Myron handed the baby to his mother.

I wouldn’t call myself “his mother” in first or third person. This is an omniscient, eye-in-the-sky view, not a personal, I’m-in-the-character’s-head, I-am-the-character view.

I hope you see that the examples above are things you (as your POV character) would not observe about yourself. They’re things you would observe about someone else. Someone outside of yourself. Someone who is not you (as your POV character).

So, let’s move onto more things you (as your POV character) would observe about someone else.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

What’s the Central Conflict of your Novel? Keep it Center Stage.

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

“Conflict in Every Scene”

We’ve all heard this advice, and for good reason. Your protagonist has a goal—hopefully, an audacious and high-stakes goal that is difficult to achieve. “Difficult” is important. It’s one of the qualities of a highly engaging story because the harder the goal is to reach, the less certainty readers have that the protagonist will be ok. They’ll find themselves wondering: Will the hero win in the end? Can they overcome the odds? Will they be able to make the necessary internal growth for them to succeed?

To maintain this level of reader empathy and engagement, the conflict has to come hard and fast. There needs to be hardship in every single scene. Some of that strife will relate directly back to the story goal. This will be in the form of obstacles, adversaries, setbacks, and disappointments that push the character farther from their objective.

But not every conflict has to do with the overall goal. Some of it relates to an important subplot that’s impacting a key story player. And then you have inner conflict. This conflict exists solely within the character as they struggle with various aspects of personal evolution and internal growth.

As you’re drafting — as the story progresses and the protagonist’s difficulties compound — there’s always a risk of the central conflict getting muted or lost in the noise.

Too much conflict, or certain problems getting a disproportionate chunk of airtime, can lead to pacing issues and confused readers who aren’t sure what the character is working toward. Keeping the core plot and central conflict should be your main focus. That’s the best way to ensure that everything you add to the story is leading to that eventual climax.

How do we do that exactly?

KNOW YOUR STORY’S CENTRAL CONFLICT

The first step is to identify the main conflict for your story. A good place to start is with the six common literary forms of conflict:

  • Character vs. Character: In this scenario, the protagonist goes head-to-head with another character in a battle of wills. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Die Hard, The Princess Bride)
  • Character vs. Society: These stories feature a character who faces seemingly insurmountable challenges when taking on society or a powerful agency within their world. (The Hunger Games, Schindler’s List, Erin Brockovich)
  • Character vs. Nature: In this case, the character goes up against nature. (The Perfect Storm, Wild, The Revenant)
  • Character vs. Technology: This conflict will pit a character against technology or a machine. (The Terminator, The Matrix, WarGames)
  • Character vs. Supernatural: This form of conflict involves a character facing opposition that exists (at least partially) outside their understanding. ( Sleep, Ghost Rider, Percy Jackson and the Olympians)
  • Character vs. Self: Of all the conflict forms, this is the most personal (and often the most compelling) because the friction arises from within the character’s belief system or personal identity. (The Bourne Identity, DexterA Beautiful Mind)

Which of the six central conflicts is your story built around? Identifying it will help you keep it front-of-mind and in the spotlight. This knowledge can also help you choose the right conflict scenarios—the problems and friction-inducing situations that will test your character’s commitment, reveal characterization, and force them to reflect on how to become stronger so they can achieve their goal.

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

Persistence Pays the Weary Writer

From Jane Friedman:

The pandemic turned me to crime. Well, memories of crime: during the early months of the pandemic, I backed off from other projects and wrote a memoir on my years of teenage shoplifting, my first business success. But those 53,000 words didn’t emerge in singing sentences that built powerful paragraphs that made compelling chapters.

They emerged, as words do, in sputters and spurts. Or they hid behind walls, not coming when called, no matter the plaintive plea.

And yet, a book surfaced. All because of the power of incremental writing, a kind of compound investment. I wrote every workday, five days a week, for a scheduled half-hour. Be in the chair, manuscript up, cursor blinking, even if on that day the word pipe is clogged. A half-hour’s writing might be only 300 words, 500 words, sometimes a mere 100 words. But a half-hour’s writing over 7 or 8 months: a book’s worth of words.

That’s the subtle little secret to traveling from a work’s first word to its last: walk, don’t run. I don’t recommend a pandemic to move you to a long composition, but some of its isolations were helpful, at least in half-hour retreats. The allegorical wisdom of the tortoise vs. the hare—wise indeed.

Get your mind right

But before that galloping opening sentence breaks its reins, you need to address that inner voice. Or perhaps suppress is the operating word. Many people think “I could never write a book. Books, they are zillions of words. I wouldn’t know where to start. Or end.”

But the “I can do it” mindset starts with the simpler sense of “Yep, sure, I can write 100 words.” Turning that “yep” into 5,000 yeps is working on the power of habit.

First, determine when’s your best writing time. I’m an early riser, fueled by caffeine, mediated by meditation, but time has told me that writing at the first rooster call isn’t for me. I have to shuffle into it, go through email, perhaps read some wretched news headlines that make the scourge of writing seem an agreeable alternative.

Over time, I found that between 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. seemed the most productive writing period for me. So my mandated half-hours were announced to me by my electronic calendar, which dispassionately but commandingly told me at 10, every day, “write memoir.” Of course, your own schedule might demand that your only free hour is 5:30 a.m., but don’t let the initial misery of that daunt you.

Perhaps you only manage two sessions in the week, maybe three. Acknowledge that as good, without accusation, and begin the schedule again. A great boost to establishing the habit all the more firmly is seeing that you indeed did some writing, even if from A to B. The whole alphabet is now open to you.

Distractions are not delightful

When your half-hour calls, your phone is not your friend. Don’t have it buzzing and blurping at hand’s reach. My office is a 1960s Airstream trailer, and the phone signal out there is iffy; I don’t bring the cussed thing out with me in the morning. In concert with that, don’t have notifications active on your computer, so its buzzes and blurps do not sting you as well.

I wrote the initial chapters of my memoir with TextEdit, the Mac’s built-in word processor. I didn’t want Microsoft Word’s flush of ribbons and menus and choices to distract me from black text on white background, here and again. I minimize all browser and email windows, so just the active file is on the screen. Those windows and mails will wait for you—they always have.

Writers do have a rich gift for saying to themselves, “What I just wrote—that’s crap. C’mon! What’s the use?” But those are meaningless sneezes, not indicative of actual illness. You are always going to have setbacks or frustrations in your writing work, and you can train your thinking to see that setbacks and frustrations, no matter how sharp their needle, are temporary. The page is the thing, not sideways thinking.

One distraction I do recommend: if you’re able, get out and about at some point in the day. I find it remarkably consistent (and consistently remarkable) that many writing problems are solved by fleeing the computer for a walk in a park, or by the ocean or lake or just in the neighborhood. When you return to the keyboard, sometimes the complete and sweet cupcake of a new sentence, paragraph or idea will fall frosted on your writing plate.

Make research a scaffold, not a crutch

Let me backtrack a bit and say that in writing a memoir, I didn’t just jump swimmingly into the sweet pond of half-hours. Because my memoir is set during my high school years, and I am one of the craggy ancients now, I had to assemble a team of like ancients so that our collective brain was at least at 75 candlepower. I am still pals with many people from my checkered past, and they helped me refine (“Tom, you’re nuts! That never happened!”) some of my stories.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Prequels Always Suck (Unless They Stick to One Golden Rule)

From CNET:

We live in a world of sequels, reboots and spinoffs. But the absolute worst of a world where nothing is original? Prequels. Prequels suck.

Unless…

From Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Andor, a prequel has to follow one golden rule to justify its existence.

A prequel has to tell us something we don’t already know.

What is a prequel? It’s a story that delves back into an earlier point in the backstory of a fictional series. The term was apparently first used in 1958 by sci-fi author Anthony Boucher, though creators have stepped back in time to explore the history of their characters since ancient Greek epic poem The Cypria filled in events before The Iliad, or ol’ Bill Shakespeare followedeth Richard III by rewinding to Richard II. As franchises and cinematic universes have become the dominant force in media, we’ve seen a glut of such tales, including 2022’s biggest TV shows: Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon, Lord of the Rings story The Rings of Power and Star Wars series Andor — which is technically a prequel to a prequel!

It was Star Wars that brought the term “prequel” into the forefront of the modern media industry. In the late 1990s, I wasn’t alone in getting excited about the Star Wars prequels. George Lucas telling new Star Wars stories? Yes please! A bunch of cool stars, including the pitch-perfect casting of indie darling Ewan MacGregor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi? Sign me up! And the Force was strong with the Phantom Menace trailer, which marked a significant moment in the early history of the nascent Internet.

The excitement didn’t last.

I’m not going to rehash every criticism of the Star Wars prequels — which actually weren’t all bad — and I’m not here to single out George Lucas, who after all did give us the original trilogy. I refer to the infamous Star Wars films because they’re the first modern prequels, and in some ways they’re the apotheosis of the problem with prequel stories.

The pleasure of a prequel — or sequel or reboot or remake — is obvious. Any opportunity to spend more time with a beloved character is welcome. And if, as with Star Wars or Breaking Bad, the story has come to a natural end, a simple way to dip into that world again is to go back to an earlier point in the story. See the start of the Empire, or the origin of Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul. And it’s always fun to re-create a beloved story on new terms — basically, playing “Who would you cast in a remake of…?”, the fun game my friends and I used to play at school because we didn’t have girlfriends.

. . . .

And look at The Hobbit movies, a prequel trilogy to the Lord of the Rings series. OK, I know plenty of people love those movies and relish the return to Middle-earth. But that’s one movie’s worth of story stretched into three overlong epics. Do we really need these multiple movies, or could directors like Peter Jackson, Jon Watts (Spider-Man) and Taika Waititi (Thor) spend those years doing something new and original instead?

At least The Hobbit doesn’t actively contradict the beloved original films, another potential danger of a prequel. When a prequel messes with the continuity and canon of a series, it runs the risk of rendering the original nonsensical. Star Trek prequel TV shows Enterprise and Discovery both found themselves stuck in such a continuity cul-de-sac that they had to resort to time travel silliness to make it work (the same nonsense that hamstrung the big-screen JJ Abrams reboot). And once again, we can go back to Star Wars: When various characters meet each other in the prequels, it actually contradicts the original films.

But when it all comes down to it, the fundamental flaw with prequels is that all too often, all they tell us is what we already know. Ultimately, nine hours of prequel movies explaining Anakin Skywalker’s family history don’t have the emotional impact of the single line “No… I am your father.”

Link to the rest at CNET and thanks to F. for the tip.

Grow Your Writing Business by Stepping Away From Your Computer

From Jane Friedman:

There are two desks in my office. The one closest to the door is L-shaped and contains a laptop and external monitor. Next to my screens are a microphone, a pair of Bose headphones, and a notebook to-do list. This desk is where I run the administrative side of my freelance writing business. I take calls, respond to emails, track income and expenses, and deliver work to clients.

Against the far wall is the second desk. This one is smaller than the first but vastly more important. On it, you’ll usually find a large open notebook, one or two pens, and a few dozen books. This is my device-free workspace. No computer. No phone. The only electricity flowing here is to an antique lamp that illuminates my work from the right-hand side. This is where each day, pen in hand, I write.

Computers and access to the web are vital to the success of any modern freelance writing business. But I also believe that spending too much time at a computer holds writers back from reaching better clients and producing their best work. Here are six arguments for why freelance writers should spend less time at their computers.

1. Write without distraction

I don’t think I need to build a case for why the internet is distracting. To stay focused at any task online requires uncommon willpower, special software, or a rare hit of motivation. I mean, just look at how many tabs you have open while reading this article. Working from a computer, most of us have several things constantly going on at once.

I’ve tried many hacks and software over the years to reduce my internet consumption while working. Here’s what I’ve concluded: Nothing works better to ward off distractions than simply shutting down your computer and opening the blank page of a notebook.

2. Slow your writing process

Faster production is a good goal for an assembly line. It’s a short-sighted one for writers. I have no doubt that you can type much faster than you can write by hand. That’s exactly why you should write by hand.

Slowing down your writing process gives you time to think. Great writing is difficult to produce because it requires depth and craft. When you write using pen and paper, you are more likely to pause and think through an idea before putting it on the page. This slowed process during the first draft, in my experience, greatly improves the quality of my final work.

Author Robert Caro learned this same lesson during a creative writing course at Princeton. Caro writes:

We had to write a short story every two weeks, and I was always doing mine at the very last minute; I seem to recall more than one all-nighter to get my assignment in on time. Yet Professor Blackmur was, as I recall, complimentary about my work, and I thought I was fooling him about the amount of preparation and effort I had put into it. At that final meeting, however, after first saying something generous about my writing, he added: ‘But you’re never going to achieve what you want, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers…’ That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand.

3. Consume higher-quality media

Great writers read.

Foundational to maturing as a writer is reading the works of great authors. Steven Pinker describes reading as a foundational part of mastering the craft of writing. He writes, “Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive ‘ear’ of a skilled writer.”

My third argument for spending less time at your computer is to raise the quality of media you consume. Sure, there is outstanding writing to be discovered on the internet. The challenge is sifting through the abundance of mediocre or bad writing—especially found on social media—to uncover the hidden gems. Rather than wading through a noisy newsfeed, start your search for great writing away from the computer screen.

Author Haruki Murakami was once asked why he doesn’t use social media. He said, “Generally speaking, the quality of writing isn’t very good. Reading good writing and listening to good music are incredibly important things in life. So, to phrase it from the other way around, there’s nothing better than not listening to bad music and not reading bad writing.”

The fastest way to find high-caliber writing is to pick up a book, newspaper, or magazine. You at least know these works have gone through the revision and vetting process of an editor.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Lessons Learned From 11 Years As An Author Entrepreneur

From The Creative Penn:

(Almost) eleven years ago, in Sept 2011, I left my day job to become a full-time author-entrepreneur. Every year since I have reflected on the journey and what I learn along the way.

My challenges change and grow along with the business and you will likely be at a different stage, but I hope that you find my lessons learned useful along your own author path.

You can read all my lessons learned from previous years on my timeline so far – and remember, just like everyone else, I started out by writing my first book with no audience!

But with time and continued effort, everything is possible.

(1) It can take a long time to figure out what you think about a topic — but writing a book can help!

I finally finished and published How to Write a Novel in July 2022 after starting with an initial draft in 2016. It has taken me that long to figure out my thoughts and also to feel confident enough in my craft to publish a book on the topic.

I was only able to write it because I rewrote my first three novels in early 2022, and that exercise proved to myself that I know what I am talking about.

There is often an emphasis on writing and publishing fast in the indie author community. But some books take time to mature, and are all the better for waiting until you feel the book is ready to emerge.

Long-term listeners/readers know I have been talking about ‘the shadow book’ for years now, and that is a similar project. I have 30K words and I even had a cover ready, but I don’t know when it will be ready.

As I discuss in How to Write a Novel, I am a discovery writer. I follow the urging of the Muse. Once I settle on a book, I follow one of Heinlein’s Rules — I finish what I start — so ‘the shadow book’ will arrive at some point, but I still don’t know when.

I need to have some patience and give it time to emerge. Perhaps you have a book that’s similar? Maybe you also need to let it breathe and emerge when it’s ready.

(2) Physical sickness and mental health issues can have a bigger impact than expected 

The pandemic has taken its toll on all of us in different ways and of course, COVID19 is still with us. These days we are learning to live with it, but most of us have had it, or know people who have had it, to varying degrees of severity.

I had the delta variant back in July 2021 and I talked about how much it impacted me in my 2021 round-up, Not Quite the Year We Hoped For, so I won’t go into too much detail here. 

Suffice to say, I was much sicker than I expected — both physically and mentally — and it had a bigger impact on my life and business than I expected. I’ve never really been properly sick, so it was a wake-up call in terms of the impact. Some days I could only do one or two things per day and didn’t have as much time as I used to. I had to rest a lot, and my productivity was way down. 

. . . .

I also found the mental health side of it difficult, in terms of impacting my capacity for work, and also my tolerance for much else other than the basics.

My income dropped as I didn’t write or publish as much. I also stopped doing a lot of the affiliate stuff I was doing, as well as archiving many of my tutorials. I couldn’t find the energy or the will to redo older things.

. . . .

(4) If you can’t take time out for life events and goals after more than a decade running your own business, you’re doing something wrong! 

This is my last podcast for a few weeks as I am heading off to walk my Camino pilgrimage from Porto to Santiago de Compostela.

This has been a personal goal for decades and when I lay in bed really sick with Covid, I listened to audiobooks of people walking it, and promised I would walk it once I recovered. Walking the Camino is the one thing that I would be annoyed about not doing if I died right now, so it’s time to go do it!

. . . .

After more than a decade, I still feel that I need to be checking in with the business every day, but that is my own addiction, not a true requirement. No one will die if I don’t respond to an email or a comment, plus I have my wonderful virtual assistant, Alexandra, who will be managing things while I am walking.

I want to take more breaks and perhaps even a longer break in the coming year. To recharge and focus on other creative and life goals, and also to think about the bigger topics that impact all of us as technology continues to change and our business models shift.

Link to the rest at The Creative Penn

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Losing Autonomy

From Writers Helping Writers:

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

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

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

. . . .

Fear of Losing Autonomy

Notes
Autonomy fluctuates throughout life but will decrease with certain changes, such as getting married, having a baby, and growing old. A character who fears the loss of their independence will look for ways to maintain their freedom, sometimes at a cost to their own happiness or satisfaction.

What It Looks Like

The character moving out of their parent’s home as soon as possible
Living alone
Setting clear goals for autonomy within relationships
Maintaining superficial romantic relationships so they don’t infringe on the character’s independence
Avoiding family members who exert too much influence
Hiding signs of illness or mental struggles from loved ones

Changing the topic when the subject of assistance comes up
Refusing to use tools that are meant to help, such as a cane, hearing aid, or glasses
Refusing to move in with a relative, even if doing so makes sense
The character dismissing concerns for their safety or well-being
Being deliberately cantankerous or rude to caregivers
Continuing to engage in activities that have become dangerous (driving, drinking alcohol, running, etc.)

Common Internal Struggles

Feeling pressured to let others help despite a desire to remain independent
Fearing that a loss of autonomy will result in a loss of identity
The character wondering if they’re being selfish or stubborn for declining help
Living in denial about their need for assistance
Seeking to justify any loss of cognitive or physical abilities
The character feeling as if they’re a burden for needing any kind help
Feeling worthless
Becoming paranoid about signs of further decline
Resenting the people who are trying to help, then feeling guilty about it
Feeling as if life is no longer worth living

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Aphantasia: Writing Fiction With No ‘Mind’s Eye’

From Writer Unboxed:

Aphantasia: Writing Fiction With No ‘Mind’s Eye’

I’d been writing fiction for more than a decade before I encountered the term “aphantasia,” which describes a rare inability to see mental images in the mind’s eye.

I’d been instructed many times to visualize an image to meditate, relax, remember or write, but when I tried, I saw nothing. Over time, I assumed that “visualize” and “mind’s eye” were figures of speech. I didn’t know other people could literally generate images in their minds without a real-life image to look at.

Media reports suggest aphantasia affects about 2% of the population, or one of every fifty people. The condition may be genetic or the result of trauma. By their own reports, my parents see mental images; my sibling doesn’t.

People with aphantasia learn to substitute other mental processes to work around the lack of mental images to some extent. Instructed to “picture a lemon,” I can think of the color yellow and the classic shape of a lemon. Asked to “picture the letters of the alphabet,” I can sketch them in my mind’s eye, in monochrome, up to about the letter “h,” then I get a vicious headache and have to stop.

Aphantasia may be complete or partial, on a spectrum. The Aphantasia Network offers information and a self-assessment questionnaire.

As a fiction writer, my ignorance of aphantasia proved problematic and frustrating.

Conversations with my writing instructors typically went like this:

Me: I’m struggling with writing descriptions.

Instructor: Picture the scene in your mind. Write what you see.

Me: Huh?

Instructor: Just picture it.

Me: …?

So, how have I worked around aphantasia to write fiction?

Whenever possible, I visit my settings in real life and write notes about what I observe.

In writing my Fantasy novel, I stuck with Contemporary Fantasy — our world, our time — rather than write about an imagined world. Setting the story where I live, in Ventura, California, gave me plenty of places to see in real life. I scheduled time to visit my settings during the same season and at the same time of day as my characters.

When I’m unable to visit a setting, I rely on library books with pictures, Google Images, Google Earth, YouTube videos and other visual online resources as references to write descriptions. To create the fictional island in my novel, I relied in part on a U.S. Park Service video, I developed these strategies without knowing about aphantasia or having any idea why descriptions proved so difficult for me to write.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Get in Front of Readers’ Doubts and Objections

From Jane Friedman:

This is the one. This is the book that will help me help me solve my problem, get what I want, feel less alone, gain the advantage I need. This is the book that will help me finally do the thing.

When readers dive into a prescriptive nonfiction book, they have high hopes—and a healthy dose of skepticism. Will this book deliver on its promise? Will this work for me? Does this author know what they’re talking about?

As readers learn new concepts, gain knowledge, and consider acting on the author’s advice, doubts can grow into objections.

I don’t think this author gets it—or me. These ideas are outdated. This approach is not doable.

And when unaddressed doubts and objections stack up, they can become spoken criticisms of the book and the author.

“This book is a total disappointment. The author is out of touch. I’m better off using Google to get the answers I need.”

Ouch. So what happened to the readers’ hopes?

At the heart of nearly all reader doubts, objections, and criticisms is self-doubt.

I could do the thing! Can I REALLY do the thing? I don’t think I can do the thing.

In my work with authors, I emphasize the importance of putting the reader first at every stage of the writing and editing process, in every chapter and on every page. This includes considering and respecting the readers’ journey through the book. What is it like to learn these concepts for the first time? Where might they freak out? Where have I asked too much of them—or too little? Then, authors edit the book to address doubts, manage objections, and prevent criticisms. This helps a reader feel seen and understood. They start to trust the author. They keep reading. And they are more likely do the thing.

When readers do the thing, they get results. When they get results, they tell everyone about your book. And this time they say, “I love this book. You have to read it. I feel like this book was written for me.”

The best time to get in front of readers’ doubts and objections is during the editing stage, after you have a complete first draft. If your reader is an earlier version of you, start by thinking about how you felt going through the same process you share in your manuscript. For example, in his book, Profit First, Mike Michalowicz asks readers to complete an “Instant Assessment” of their business finances. After we wrote that section, I asked him about the first time he looked at his numbers in the same way. Mike said, “It felt like someone dropped a bucket of cold water on my head. I wanted to give up.”

If Mike wanted to give up after looking at his Instant Assessment results, the reader might feel the same. So we wrote some content that acknowledged the experience could be a shock, shared Mike’s own experience with it, and lifted them up with some “arm over the shoulder” encouragement. If we had left the task in the book as-is, without getting in front of readers’ potential doubts and objections, many of them would put his book down—forever. More importantly, they would not get the promise his book delivers, the thing they wanted most.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Writer Friendships

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

For the longest time I sat in my office diligently typing, inwardly moaning because writing is a solitary process. And I’m an ambivert with strong extrovert leanings.

But as it turned out—just this one time—I was wrong.

Writing is not solitary. You may technically be alone when you write (although it can feel pretty crowded in my brain as my characters chatter) but the best writers have strong connections. Good writers need strong connections. Whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert, nobody can produce in a vacuum. Well, I don’t know…maybe Stephen King can. I think he could produce in a vacuum, a washing machine, or a microwave.

It doesn’t matter where you live—small town, mega-city, or foreign country—as long as you have internet access, you can experience a writing community. Your community can be small and intimate or large and boisterous. You can get it via Zoom meetings, phone calls, emails, texts, and even snail mail. You can find people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, websites, blogs, and TikTok.

Just like those dating sites allow people to meet each other, writers can instantly hook up with other writers. We can find our tribe without even leaving our couch/desk/table. All we have to do is a smidge of research to see what sites suit us best.

I can’t remember now how my critique partner Susan and I met but her friendship has proven invaluable. She helps me add sizzle and polish to my writing, think about what’s missing (it’s usually tension), and catch errors. An incredible encourager, she always finds something positive to say about my writing. And, I fully admit, I enjoy hearing the positive.

It was Susan who encouraged me to submit to the publisher who will release my novel in June 2023. Which led me to another fabulous community—the people who share my publisher. This is especially helpful because I’m a debut author. I not only ask them about their experiences traveling the long road to publication, but I also glean invaluable advice on marketing.

Through Women’s Fiction Writers of America I’ve met more friends. I especially enjoyed being matched with three other writers for a critique group. What a boon that has been.

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

Should “data” be singular or plural?

From The Economist:

For more than a millennium after the fall of Rome, educated Europeans were distinguished by their knowledge of Latin. One of the three subjects of the trivium—the basic tier of a classical education, itself based on a Roman model—was Latin grammar. Europeans have long since stopped writing primarily in Latin, but learned people are still expected to be able to deduce that to “decimate” means to destroy a tenth of something (a mutinous legion was punished in this way), or sprinkle annus mirabilis and mutatis mutandis into their speech.

It is not for lack of knowledge of, or affection for, Latin that The Economist marks a change this week. The reform involves one of the most curiously polarising issues an ending on a foreign word has ever generated in English. We will now allow singular use of data alongside the plural. Specifically, when considered as a concept—as in data is the new oil—the singular will be acceptable, as well as when the data in question is considered as a mass (the data on this mobile-phone plan is insufficient). However, when data points are considered as a group of pieces of information, the plural should still be used: data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate the hottest summer of all time.

Data, as every child at a grammar school once knew, is the plural of Latin’s datum, “something given”. Originally that plural sense was carried over into English. But already in 1702, the Oxford English Dictionary records, came the first appearance of singular data, in an astronomy textbook. This was almost 60 years after plural data was first recorded.

The rise of computing has changed the balance. While an 18th-century scholar’s data might be a single column of numbers, today’s computers quickly manage billions of bytes. Data points begin to seem like the water molecules in the ocean and so, in such contexts, to be perceived as a mass. Singular data is now more common than the plural in books, and far more prevalent on the web.

Data is hardly the first foreign word to undergo grammatical change in English. The nearest equivalent is agenda, an old plural of agendum, “something to be acted on”. Once those collected agenda started being thought of as a list, the English singular was born. (Candelabrastamina and insignia were all Latin plurals, too.) The Economist’s style guide prescribes a list of Latin -um words in English that pluralise with -a (memorandastrata), but many more that violate Latin grammar and take -ums (forums, stadiums, ultimatums). It demonstrates that those words are now English; Latin rules need not apply.

Those who oppose singular data argue that the word refers to a set of numbers. Yet the properties of the thing itself are not a reliable guide to a term’s grammar. Go to a shop where dried goods are sold from barrels and note rice (a singular) next to lentils (a plural), and wheat (singular) next to oats (plural). Head to the pasta section and see what happens to other languages’ words in English: spaghetti and lasagne, both Italian plurals, are singular when served up in English.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Not Fitting In

From Writers Helping Writers:

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

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

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

Fear of Not Fitting In

Notes

As social creatures, we all have a basic human need to be loved and accepted by others. This requires us to be able to fit in with the people around us. When your character is unable to do this or they worry about failing in this area, their need to be accepted—in general or by a specific group—can become an obsession.

What It Looks Like

The character allowing people to mistreat them if it means being part of the group
Using self-deprecating humor
Sharing personal accomplishments to impress others
Hiding ideas or beliefs that wouldn’t be popular with the group
The character changing their personal habits (clothing, food preferences, the music they listen to, etc.) to fit in
Over-preparing to be sure everything is perfect
Mimicking the actions, speech patterns, and habits of others
Struggling to say no
Telling people what they want to hear
Laughing or smiling at things the character normally wouldn’t approve of
Putting others down if doing so pleases the group
The character being pressured into doing things they don’t agree with
Seeking out like-minded individuals
Being a loner
Being quiet, withdrawn, and content to stay in the background
Proactively rejecting others before they can reject the character

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

What is Your Character Hiding: The Power of Secrets

From Writer Unboxed:

In Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Joanna Hunter, whose mother, sister, and baby brother were murdered by a lunatic when she was six years old, explains to a police officer why she tells no one about this: “People look at you differently when they know you’ve been through something terrible. It’s the thing about you that they find most interesting.”

Most people, however—and characters—do not harbors secrets out of fear of being “interesting.” On the contrary, what we choose to keep hidden, and why we do so, says a great deal about what we fear, if exposed, will undermine or even destroy our standing among our friends and family, community and peers. That fear may be unreasonable, out of all proportion, but that’s far less important than that it exists—especially for writers.

Secrets provide writers with an intrinsically valuable way of conjuring depth in a character—there is automatically an inside and an outside, what is concealed and what is revealed. And the tension created by the character’s decision to conceal something about themselves provides an immediate dramatic payoff—we can’t help wondering what they’re hiding, why they’re hiding it, and what will happen if the secret is revealed.

Secrets also provide an economical way to depict vulnerability—the very fact a secret is being kept means the character fears being exposed.

That threat—of being exposed or “found out,” and therefore ostracized or abandoned—is one of the key dreads of existence. In a sense, our secrets hint at the isolation we associate with death, and our keeping them hidden is part of the magical thinking we perpetuate as part of the ritual of life.

The mask we call our ego or persona is crafted on the premise of concealing our fears, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities—our secrets. Instead we display to the world our confident, competent selves—with some allowances for self-effacing humor and sociable humility.

A great deal of modern drama is premised upon the peeling away of the mask concealing our secret selves, and the struggle to summon the courage and honesty to deal with the consequences of being known more authentically, more completely.

It may be that there is no such thing as living without a mask, and that the stripping away of one simply predicates the donning of another. It may be that what I think of as my honest self is really just a different one: slightly less dishonest, defensive, deluded. But it remains true that whatever mask I wear, its purpose isn’t mere concealment; it’s also protection.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Them’s the Breaks

From Daily Writing Tips:

Including an extract from Boris Johnson’s recent resignation speech, a reader suggested that a post on the expression “them’s the breaks” might be in order.

I was a bit puzzled, considering that the expression is quite common. I was surprised that the out-going British Prime Minister, a classical scholar, graduate of Oxford’s Balliol College, would use such an informal expression—an Americanism at that—in such a formal context.

It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister. … I know that there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.

Following the speech, a flurry of tweets expressed confusion as to what the retiring Prime Minister had meant by saying, “them’s the breaks.’”

A BBC article included some of the pleas for an explanation:

What does them’s the breaks even mean?? I’m lost on that one.

I missed the ‘thems the break’ thing and now everyone is saying it. Please can someone explain what it means?

Hi I’m from Colombia and I have no idea what ‘thems the break’ means. Can someone explain? Please, I’m so lost.

Thems the breaks?? What does that mean I don’t understand British English.

Origin

“Them’s the breaks” comes from the game of pool.

As the game begins, the balls are racked in a triangular frame. The frame is removed and one of the players takes the first shot. This is called “the break.” The balls go rolling around the table and land in random positions. The players must then make do with where the balls have landed.

Sometimes, the balls are lined up in such a way as to make it easy to take the desired shot. But if the balls are not in favorable positions, there’s nothing a player can do to change them.

The idiom describes a situation in which something not only does not go according to hopes or expectations, but is a fait accompli, a done deal. One can only accept disappointment and move on.

Still, I remain surprised that Johnson’s expression caused such a media uproar.

As may be expected of an American slang term, it has a wide use in the US. For example, a TV comedy series called Con Man has an episode called, “Them’s the Breaks.” A former Disney series called The Owl House had an episode called, “Them’s the Breaks, Kids,” and there’s a song by John Robert Matz with the same title.

But the phrase is not unknown outside US English. I have seen it used in the sports pages of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Them’s the breaks, I suppose, but we can more than hold our heads up high, considering we were the only team in the whole competition to come from outside the respective countries’ top tiers.

The New Zealand Film Commission has produced a dramatized documentary titled, Them’s the Breaks, based “on the experiences of a group of young Māori women in New Zealand.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Filling Your Writing Life

From Writer Unboxed:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could pick up a manual on “Best Writing Practices” and follow its advice all the way to publishing success? Reality is, though, we writers are each wonderfully and necessarily unique, and how we spend our days will reflect that. Because new opportunities and changing priorities have caused me to revisit the components of my diminished writing life, a recent episode of THE HAPPINESS LAB, a podcast hosted by Dr. Laurie Santos, clarified my issues by offering up a commonsense image of how to envision time in my overfull life. I share it here in case it might help you, too.

A professor placed a big, clear jar on his desk and then filled it with golf balls. When he asked if the jar was full, the students nodded. Then he poured pebbles into the jar, which filtered in between the balls. When he asked if the jar was now full, the students nodded with knowing smiles. Then he poured sand into the jar, which filled in even smaller gaps. When he asked if the jar was now full, the students said yes.

He said, “This jar is your life. The golf balls are the things that really matter to you. The sand is all the thoughtless ways we spend our time. If we put that in first, the important things won’t fit.”

. . . .

If you could spend your day exactly how you wanted, what would you do to be happier?

The podcast guest who shared the golf ball story, social psychologist Cassie Holmes of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and author of the forthcoming Happier Hour, had something to say that will be relevant to the writer who has fantasized about clearing eight hours day to finally nail their novel: psychologically, that might not be the best solution.

For an optimal sense of fulfillment, Holmes’ research suggests we seek a sweet spot of 2-5 discretionary hours per day to invest in activities that will make our lives feel fulfilling. So while there is such a thing as having too little discretionary time, there is also such a thing as having too much: on the regular, her data shows that having more than 5 hours per day of discretionary time results in a decreased sense of life satisfaction.

If you were to dump the contents of your jar, which activities would you add back in to foster the most fulfilling creative life?

Our answers will have much in common, since writers have little discretionary time. Writing itself requires a handful of golf balls right off the bat. Publication adds more. Many golf balls may well be devoted to the reliable paycheck that supports our writing habit. We must continue our education, be that reading novels or craft books, researching, or giving/receiving critique.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Shakespeare, Pronouns, and the New World Order

From Daily Writing Tips:

One of my favorite go-to news sources is the BBC Daily News. Reading an account of a shooting in Norway not long ago, I came to this sentence:

King Harald, Norway’s monarch, said him and his family were horrified.

The BBC is an institution I have long admired. During the seven years I lived in London, my main source entertainment was the radio. I even named a child after a character on The Archers. I often consult the “BBC Learning English” site for explanations and examples of standard usage.

And then came that sentence about King Harald and his family.

The error was corrected before the end of the day, but the fact that it found its way onto a BBC page at all left me feeling shaken. I suppose it seemed as if the last bastion had fallen.

For a long time now, I have been hearing subject/object pronoun errors in British productions like Father Brown and Midsomer Murders and even in the speech of members of the royal family, but to see something like this appear even briefly on the BBC site gave me a jolt. (I can at least comfort myself with the thought that the person who wrote it probably won’t write a subsequent article to defend the usage.)

Another institution that has represented canonical literacy to me is Harvard. I’ve always imagined that even Harvard freshmen must be much better-read than most teens. Then I read an interview with author Geraldine Brookes in the New York Times (June 16, 2022). One of the questions the interviewer asked was “What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

Her response:

I taught writing at Harvard last year and half my students had never read a Shakespeare play. That set my hair on fire.

She did not answer the question directly, but I infer that she means that the works of Shakespeare should be read before the age of 21.

That revelation did not disillusion me about Harvard, but about the feeder high schools that send students there. Ninety-three percent of the Harvard class of 2024 earned a place in the top ten percent of their graduating high school classes. When I graduated from a small-town Arkansas high school (nowhere near the top) years ago, my class (most of whom were not headed to college) had studied four Shakespeare plays—one per year, from ninth to twelfth grade. And we could quote from all of them.

. . . .

Does it matter?
According to a recent survey, Harvard is one of only four of fifty-two universities on the US News & World Report list of the highest-ranking educational institutions that still require English majors to study Shakespeare. English majors. (That fact sets my hair on fire.)

Some of my readers may be thinking,

So? Why the fuss about Shakespeare or pronoun case? Everybody knows that Shakespeare is irrelevant, not to mention misogynistic, racist homophobic, classist, and anti-Semitic. And, as for Standard English, the Conference on College Composition and Communication has decided that teachers should “stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm.”

The battles over Shakespeare and pronoun case are not mere academic quibbling. The BBC pronoun error made me realize that conflicts about language and literature are universal and that they mirror other clashes going on in the body politic.

Does having one standard English dialect for general use unify or divide?

Does rooting English instruction in a traditional literary canon enrich thinking and communication, or does it perpetuate a mindset unsuited to a modern secular and racially diverse society?

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Writing Elusive Inner Moments

From Writer Unboxed:

Some of the most important moments in our lives could not have been captured on video.  They happened inside.  Those moments define us even more, perhaps, than life’s observable milestones: graduations, marriages, births, trophies, moving, funerals.

I’m talking about the moments that define who we are and whom we are becoming: realizations, revelations, decisions, turning points.  When we relish our triumphs or recognize our follies we, for a moment, pin ourselves to a cork board.  When for a split second we see ourselves objectively, as others must, our experience of our own being is stone solid.  We know at those moments exactly who we are.

When we affirm a conviction we become even more ourselves.  On the other hand, when we change our minds we become someone different.  The self is not static.  It’s dynamic, meaning changing.  Our inner shifts are steps in an journey without end: our search for meaning and purpose, our quest for ourselves.

Call it the human condition but whatever it is, we humans feel a strong need to capture, mark and name those critical moments in our experience.  We journal.  We think in questions and expect that there will be answers.  We hunt for words to express that for which there are no precise terms.

Moments of profound self-awareness are different for everyone, too.  That is as true for fictional characters as it is for our corporal selves.  To bring a character alive on the page, then, requires finding words to capture immaterial inner states.  When something big happens wholly inside, how do you get that across?

Approaches to the Invisible and Inchoate

Despite the difficulty, writers have for centuries found ways to pin down the wispy fog of self-realization.  That is especially evident when an effective story brings a character to what is often called the mirror moment, middle moment or dark moment.  It is not exactly the moment of all-is-lost—that’s a step late in a plot—but rather the time when a character is sunk in despair, hollow inside, lost in the dark with no lantern or map.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted (2014) is a dreamy, magical novel set in a nowhere place in a nowhere time (although there are lightbulbs).  Denfeld’s protagonist is known only as “the lady”, who investigates prisoners on death row.  As the novel opens the lady visits a prisoner called York, who wants to die.  Finding the lady kind and non-judgmental, York opens up to her:

York talks and talks until his words sound like poetry even to him.  He tells her why he has volunteered to die.  “It isn’t just that it is torture,” he says, “being locked in a cage.  It’s never being allowed to touch anyone or go outside or breathe fresh air.  I’d like to feel the sun again just once.”

Her eyes show a sudden distance.  What he said is true, but it isn’t true enough.

“Okay.  I’m tired of being meaningless,” he admits.  “I’m done, okay?”

He talks about the confused mess inside of him.  He says everyone thinks sociopaths are super-smart criminals, but he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does.  Except there is like a switch in him, and when the switch flips, he cannot stop.

“If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says.  “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense.  But it doesn’t.  It never does.”

The lady nods.  She understands.

With each secret that he tells her, her eyes get darker and more satisfied…The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious.  Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marveling at all the beauty and pain in the world.

A couple of things to note about York’s moment of bleak despair: First, it doesn’t come in the middle.  It’s only a few pages into the novel.  Second, he is given a mirror into which to look, which is the lady.  Third, what he sees in that mirror isn’t what’s squatting inside him, it’s what isn’t there.  No meaning.  No sense.  He doesn’t understand why he has killed.

The lady in Denfeld’s novel is, like the author, a death penalty investigator.  The lady delves into York’s life and, naturally, her own.  Over the course of the novel, the lady comes to understand York, learns the horror inflicted on him and his mother, and discovers meaning in what, for him, is his meaninglessness.

The mirror moment, in Denfeld’s novel serves as motivation.  The lady seeks to fill an empty void.  There is in that opening darkness a sense that there has to be light around somewhere, somehow.  The very fact that early on York can express his hopelessness—that he is conscious of his condition—allows us to hope that the lady can succeed.

Thus, the “dark” moment is not only about darkness but about knowing that there is nevertheless light, even if that light isn’t present right now.  A lost character isn’t completely lost, it’s just that such a character just doesn’t yet see a path forward and maybe despairs of ever finding one.  But knowing what should be there is, in a way, an affirmation that what’s lacking nevertheless is able to be found.

Empty isn’t empty, then, it’s rather just the feeling that comes with waiting—waiting when you don’t even know what you’re waiting for.

Another approach to the dark moment can be through analogy.  Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel Missing Person (1978—translated Daniel Weissbort) is a detective-with-lost-memory novel about Guy Roland, who lost his past during the war.  He doesn’t know why.  Having inherited a detective agency from his retired boss, Hutte, Guy follows the few slender and ambiguous clues to his identity in the agency’s files.

At a certain point, for Guy, the contradictory hints about who he might be becomes overwhelming.  Maybe the truth about himself will never be known.  For some people, it never is:

Strange people.  The kind that leave the merest blur behind them, soon vanished.  Hutte and I often used to talk about these traceless beings.  They spring up out of nothing one fine day and return there, having sparked little.  Beauty queens.  Gigolos.  Butterflies.  Most of them, even when alive, had no more substance than steam which will never condense.  Hutte, for instance, used to quote the case of a fellow he called “the beach man.”  This man had spend forty years of his life on beaches or by the sides of swimming pools, chatting pleasantly with summer visitors and rich idlers.  He is to be seen, in his bathing costume, in the corners and backgrounds of thousands of holiday snaps, among groups of happy people, but no one knew his name and why he was there.  And no one noticed when one day he vanished from the photographs.  I did not dare tell Hutte, but I felt that “the beach man” was myself.  Though it would not have surprised him if I had confessed it.  Hutte was always saying that, in the end, we were all beach men” and that “the sand”—I am quoting his own words”—keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.”

Modiano finds in the analogy of “the beach man” an apt expression of how his protagonist Guy Roland feels.  A man is present—the evidence is there in holiday photos—but is unknown.  He’s real but at the same time it’s as if he doesn’t exist.  If you’ve ever looked at old family photos, say of a wedding, and wondered who is that?—and who hasn’t wondered such a thing—then you have briefly felt the bewilderment of Modiano’s existential hero.

Writers of the pulp noir period were especially good at using atmosphere to evoke alienation, emptiness and despair.  Their method was to conjure a dread state by suggestion.  Everything in the environment points to the inner feeling but the inner feeling itself isn’t named.  In a black-and-white world full of silhouettes and shadows, we sense what’s there but not fully seen.  We feel bleak because, heck, the place we’re in is bleak.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Is Decision Fatigue Standing Between You and Writing Success?

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

Steak or salmon?

Red or white?

Wash the car or mow the lawn?

Weights or barre class?

Do the laundry or empty the dishwasher?

Mustard or mayo?

Petunias or pansies?

Cheddar or Swiss?

So what?

What’s the big deal?

Why are you wasting my time with stupid questions?

I’ve got more important things to think about, you say, and then tell me to take a hike.

My polite response: Perhaps you might want to reconsider.

Decision fatigue.

Recent articles about the draining mental aftereffects of decision-making are, I think, relevant to some of the universal problems writers confront. Being, as former president, George W. Bush, once put it, “the decider,” takes brain power and has consequences.

You’re kidding me, right?

No. Not at all. Here are a few examples.

Doctors, brides, car buyers.

Judges, menu planners, college professors, and high school students.

According to recent studies, decision fatigue affects everyone from doctors who prescribed more unneeded antibiotics later in the day than earlier to car buyers who, after deciding on model, color, upholstery, and accessories, can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rust proof their new car.

Brides beware!

A clinical psych grad studying decision fatigue and ego depletion remembered how exhausted she felt planning her wedding. She recalled the evening she and her fiancé went through the ritual of registering for gifts.

What style appealed? Modern or traditional? Rustic or sophisticated? Feminine or tailored? Girly or grownup?

What kind of dinnerware? Matched sets or flea market eclectic? Corelle or stoneware? Plastic or china or melamine? Oh, and does it have to be dishwasher safe or are you willing to hand wash?

Plus flatware: What do you prefer? Stainless steel? Matte or mirror finish? Bistro ware? Your great aunt’s silver? Which needs to be polished.

Then: towels. What size? What color? How many sets? Hand and bath definitely, but what about washcloths? Do you use them? Or do you prefer sponges? Foam or natural? Matching tub mats? Or coordinating? And what about shower curtains? Not to mention soap dishes —plastic, wood, cork, silicone or ceramic?

Sheets. Fitted or flat? Cotton or linen or flannel? Plain or printed? Striped or floral? Plaid or perhaps something with a SuperMan or WonderWoman motif? Maybe an art deco vibe? Or an Andy Warhol pop art choice? Don’t forget Jackson Pollock!

“By the end, you could have talked me into anything,” she told her fiancé, “because I just didn’t care any more.”

. . . .

Shortcuts don’t cure decision fatigue

Decision fatigue routinely warps the judgment of everyone — doctors, judges, car buyers, brides — and, I wonder, writers? Few are even aware of decision fatigue, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

Decision fatigue is different from ordinary physical fatigue. You’re not consciously aware of being tired, but you’re low on mental energy because the more choices you make throughout the day, the more difficult each one becomes.

Your brain, deprived of glucose, eventually looks for shortcuts, usually in either one of two ways, neither of them helpful.

One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)

The other shortcut — the one that caused my friend to break into tears at a large toy store, is paralysis. It’s the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid making any choice at all.

Which leads to questions about the connection between writer’s block and procrastination.

Writers are the ultimate deciders.

Writers make choices from an almost infinite palette of possibilities. Basically, we spend our working lives making decisions about everything from what genre we want to write to the almost infinite number of choices about plot and characters.

The genre—

What, exactly, do you want to write? Mystery, thriller, superhero, romance, women’s fiction, historical fiction, cozy, sci fi, fantasy?

Gotta pick one.

Or maybe two if you have a mash-up in mind.

The title—

Too long? Too short? Or just right?

Anne’s post offering 5 tips for choosing a title points the way.

Plot, characters and POV—

Unreliable narrator, first person, second person, or omniscient third person?

Who’s the good guy/gal? How about the hero? Who’s the villain? And what about the side-kick? Or the incidental character who turns out to play an important role?

Not to mention the thousand (at least) details about what they’re wearing, where they work and what they eat.

Plus what they look like.

Blonde, brunette or redhead?

Touches of flattering silver or drab shades of grey? Dyed or natural? Highlighted? Straight or curly? Long, short or bobbed? Permed? Ironed? Bald? Comb-over? Fro? Mohawk? Pony tail? Pig tails? Dreads? Crew cut? D.A.? Elvis-style pompadour?

And that’s just hair!

What about everything else that brings a character to life and makes him/her memorable?

Blue eyes or brown?

But don’t forget green or hazel. Beady eyes? Almond shaped, wide-set, or small?  Near sighed, far sighted, color blind? And what about that squint? Suspicious? Untrustworthy? Or is that just the bright sun in his/her eyes? 20/20? Contacts or glasses? Goggles, a microscope, a telescope, or a jeweler’s loupe?

Fat or thin?

Tall or short? Bulging biceps or beer belly? Runner slim or linebacker bulky? Svelte and sexy or pleasingly plump? Stringbean skinny or XXL?

Big city, small town?

Mountains, beach or desert? House, mansion, apartment, penthouse, refuge camp, log cabin? Hotel, motel, tent, palace, homeless shelter, distant planet, undiscovered galaxy?

Jobs and careers?

Funeral director or Hollywood stylist? Cyborg or medieval knight?

Or? Or?

Need I continue?

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