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

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

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

For those who feel they are not paying their dues.

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

1)  Embrace the Jackalope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

Your villain makes Hannibal Lecter look like a pussycat.

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

The prose sparkles.

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

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

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

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

You’re survived without food and sleep.

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

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

However:

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

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

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

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Leading

From Writers Helping Writers:

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

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

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

. . . .

Notes:

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

What It Looks Like

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

. . . .

Common Internal Struggles

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

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Confusing details can pile up quickly (page critique)

From Nathan Bransford:

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

. . . .

Title: Discover
Genre: YA Fantasy

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

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

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

. . . .

Here’s my redline:

Title: Discover
Genre: YA Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Introducing…The Fear Thesaurus!

From Writers Helping Writers:

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

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

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

PG regrets his oversite.

From Tiffany Yates Martin via Jane Friedman:

Creating a story without at least some idea of your plot is like planning a trip without a route: You’re likely to wind up meandering, stuck, or lost.

But strong plot is more than just a series of interesting events. It’s a foundational element of what creates story—the road along which your character travels and is changed en route to a strongly held desire.

This basic definition of story means that plot is intrinsically tied to character. As a story element it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is both driven by and drives the protagonist: what she wants, the steps she takes to get it, and how she’s affected by each step on that journey.

You can adapt how much you decide to plot in advance of drafting based on whether you’re a die-hard plotter, a pantser, or something in between (“plantser”), but framing the overarching story as well as each scene within it through the lens of your characters and these three key elements—the want, the action, and the shift—will help guide you through creating a consistently cohesive and propulsive plot.

Think of your protagonist(s) as Tarzan.

If you want him to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, your job as the author is to make sure there’s a vine within reach when he needs it, that it swings him smoothly through the jungle canopy, and that there’s another vine ready for his grasp when he reaches the end of that arc. He can travel the whole jungle that way, all the way home to Jane.

That’s the sense readers should have of your character’s journey—that they’re effortlessly borne along with your protagonist on an unbroken series of arcs toward the final destination. The want is the vine awaiting the character’s grasp; the action is the swing; and the shift is the transfer from one vine to the next awaiting vine.

If any of these three stages fail, that smooth momentum is broken and you risk sending your protagonist—and your reader—plummeting to the forest floor, or stranded in the treetops or on a motionless vine.

This formula applies not just to each individual scene, but to the story as a whole. Before you even begin drafting, see if you can define your story through the lens of the want, the action, and the shift:

Hypercautious Marlon is desperate to keep his sole remaining child close to the safety of home and his protection after the rest of their family is killed, but when his son is swept out to sea, Marlon must face the dangers of the open ocean in trying to find him—and learns that life must be lived fully, despite the risks.

Did you recognize the key plot points in Finding Nemo?

  • The want is clownfish Marlon’s desire to keep Nemo safe in their little anemone and corner of the sea.
  • The resultant action is his journey to track Nemo down and bring him safely home, and all the challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and advances along the path to that goal.
  • The shift is Marlon’s realization that he can’t shelter Nemo from every danger, and that a meaningful life can’t be lived in fear.

Link to the rest at Tiffany Yates Martin via Jane Friedman

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

3 Things to Ask Yourself Before Writing about Trauma

From Jane Friedman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Essential computer skills for writers

From Nathan Bransford:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

Understand email etiquette

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

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

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

Be conversant in Microsoft Word

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

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

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

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

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

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

10 Dangerous Critiques: Beware Misguided Writing Advice

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

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

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

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

. . . .

I learned some things.

. . . .

Sources of the Most Dangerous Critiques

1)      The Realism Brigade

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

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

They must be so miserable in superhero movies.

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

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

2)      The Detailers

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

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

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

3)     Grammar Enforcers

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

Not exactly what people read for entertainment..

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

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

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

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

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Mentor and Protégé

From Writers Helping Writers:

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite—derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth—or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

. . . .

Mentor and Protégé

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

Relationship Dynamics:
Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict.

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

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

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

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

From Writers Helping Writers:

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

1. Appeal to the Senses

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

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

2. Use Concrete Metaphors and Similes

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

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

3. Sprinkle in Details

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


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

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

A Room of My Own

From Writer Unboxed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Who Are You Writing For?

From Writer Unboxed:

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

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

To whom do I owe what?

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

New expectations started lining up.

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

It was still my book, right?

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Benefits of Writer Friends

From Publishers Weekly:

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

. . . .

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Benefits of Writer Friends

From Publishers Weekly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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

From Writers Helping Writers:

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

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

The Developmental Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Listening Hard to Write Well

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

Words of the Year

From Daily Writing Tips:

Since the 1990s–beginning with the American Dialect Society—various entities, including dictionaries and individual lexicographers, have announced Words of the Year in English. (The Germans started their Wort des Jahres in 1971.)

In 2021, the US dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and the British dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, are almost on the same page.

For M-W, the word of the year is vaccine. which has been given a revised definition to include the new kinds of vaccination made possible with RNA.

For the OED, the word vax is the choice, along with its related forms:

vax (noun): a vaccine or vaccination
vax (verb): to treat with a vaccination to produce immunity against a disease
vaxxie: (noun) a photograph of oneself taken during or immediately before or after a vaccination, especially one against Covid-19, and typically shared on social media; a vaccination selfie.
anti-vax: (adjective) opposed to vaccination
anti-vaxxer: (noun) a person who is opposed to vaccination
double-vaxxed: (adjective) having received two doses of a vaccine

Another British dictionary, Collins, has chosen the initialism NFT as its number one word in a list of ten words of the year.

NFT: (noun) non-fungible token—a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or collectible; an asset whose ownership is recorded by means of a non-fungible token.

The other nine words on the Collins list include three pandemic-related words:

double-vaxxed: (adjective) having received two doses of a vaccine.

pingdemic: (noun) the epidemic of absences from work caused by “pings” from apps that warned users if they’d been in close contact with an infected person.

hybrid working: (noun) the practice of alternating between different working environments, such as from home and in an office.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

To Everyone Who Wants Me to Read Their Writing and Tell Them What to Do

From Jane Friedman:

Every year, countless people attempting to write their first book will reach out to me directly and ask if I’ll read their work and tell them what to do next.

The request is perfectly natural, especially for those who know me in some way. I’ve spent 20+ years in the writing and publishing community, and my name gets around as an expert. Yes, I can often read something and know exactly what a writer should do.

But here’s the real superpower: I often know what writers should do without reading a single word of their work.

Here is what I say, assuming it’s someone’s first book.

Maybe your loved ones have told you to write this book, or you’ve long wanted to give voice to a story or an experience—or share your expertise. Possibly you’ve been holding onto a story idea for years and now you finally have time to realize it on the page.

But as you get started, uncertainty creeps in. It’s hard to keep moving forward, alone, as innumerable questions arise. Questions like:

  • Is this any good? Am I any good?
  • How do I know if this is worth my time?
  • Should I continue based on what I have?
  • Am I wasting my time? Does anyone care about this except for me?

You might be seeking a verdict on your effort or validation of the idea, or even permission to continue. Maybe you don’t know much or anything about writing and publishing and feel it’s better to secure guidance before making any further investment of time and energy. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you want help. Hopefully encouragement.

Here’s the tough part.

You’ve just taken the first step in a long journey. Right now, you’re likely at a delicate stage, where I could either crush your dreams or provide that encouragement.

To write, to create something, then open it up to the judgment of others, requires courage. I hope you continue, but at the same time, I have to be straight and honest that most people’s dreams of what will happen with their book do not come to fruition because they give up early in the process. At some point, the criticism (both constructive and not-constructive), along with rejection, arrives. And what so often determines success is what you do in response. Will you shut down and stop, or will you grapple with the challenge and grow?

If I were to tell you today that your project is a waste of time, would you abandon it? If so, perhaps it’s best that you did. To keep writing in the face of rejection is required of every professional and published writer I know. I can offer encouragement and tell you it’s a wholly worthwhile endeavor—and that will be true—but to achieve results that spell success (especially on a commercial level) requires more than my blessing or validation or permission. It requires an inner drive that pushes you forward no matter what feedback you receive. In the end, I believe it requires enjoyment of the writing process in and of itself—to see that as the reward.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

To Comma, or Not to Comma

From Writers in the Storm:

Welcome to comma central, where we’re talking about all things comma. Among most writers, you’ll find a consensus when it comes to this tiny, ambiguous mark. They don’t like it. It’s too confusing. When do you use it? Where do you use it? Why do you use it? And who even cares, really?

Trust me, as a writer, you do!

. . . .

In this section, we’ll cover essential and nonessential information in a sentence and how that plays into when and where you add in commas or leave them out.     

But first, a quick review.

Crucial Definitions

CLAUSE is a group of words with a subject and predicate that make up part of a complex or compound sentence.

Or think of it this way. A CLAUSE has both a noun and a verb and is part of a longer sentence.

SUBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) doing the action.

A PREDICATE is a verb that tells you what action that noun is doing.

An OBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) receiving the action. Not all sentences have objects, and that’s okay.

Here’s an example.

Mr. Jones (noun) walked (verb) his yippy dog (object) at the crack of dawn.

Nonessential vs Essential Information

When it comes to your sentence, what information can you afford to lose and what information do you have to keep? How do you figure it out? And what do you do once you know?

The quick answer is:

  • nonessential information is the part of a sentence you can do without. 
  • essential information is the part of a sentence you can’t do without. 

Nonessential Information:

Let’s start with nonessential information—the parts of a sentence you can do without. That doesn’t mean we’re putting those words on the chopping block. It just means we need to set them off with commas.

What we put inside commas or after a comma is usually considered NONESSENTIAL information. It isn’t needed to decipher the meaning of the sentence.

In the examples below, the bolded words are nonessential.

Inside Commas: The book on the shelf, which is exciting, is the one you should read next.

After a Comma: The weather in Texas is hot, which I really don’t like.

Do you see how the bolded information doesn’t really matter when it comes to understanding the sentence? The important part the author is trying to get across is that it’s hot in Texas.

The key point to note here is this. If we were to take out anything between the commas or after the comma, the sentence still has to be grammatically correct and make sense. It has to do both.

Nonessential words are red shirts. Like in the original Star Trek. Treat what’s in between commas of after a comma as a red shirt—an expendable part of the team, usually the first to die. At any time, I could sacrifice it without losing a crucial member of the sentence squad.

Inside Commas: A week off for vacation, I think, is great.

After a Comma: A week off for vacation is great, I think.

Removing “I think” in either instance above changes nothing grammatically or in terms of what each sentence means.

The red-shirt idea works for clauses, phrases, and single words too. Any of the words in bold below can be deleted and still keep the sentence grammatically correct without changing the essence of what I want the sentence to mean.

  • Clause: Next October, which is my favorite month, works for our writing retreat.
  • Phrase: You’re a great guy. Your brother, sad to say, I could do without.
  • Word: I usually like my English teacher. Today, however, I do not.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

How to Write a Compelling Antihero

From Writers Helping Writers:

What is an Antihero?

Heroes embody courage, perseverance and skill. They can easily turn into villains when they use their talents for personal gain. This means antiheroes are like their name suggests … a character that DOESN’T have or has twisted the classic hero attributes, for whatever reason.

Lots of writers believe antiheroes ‘have’ to be protagonists, but this is not the case. An antihero can be ANY main character – protagonist, antagonist or even secondary – that has ‘gone wrong’ when it comes to being a hero.

Iconic Antiheroes

In I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, our protagonist Pilgrim is contrasted with the antagonist, Saracen. Pilgrim is supposed to the ‘classic’ American spy thriller hero, whereas Saracen is the threat to the Western world from the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’.

As the story continues, it becomes clear the two are both not only antiheroes, but doppelgängers. They are the same men, but on opposite sides. In contrast to reader expectation, Pilgrim is arguably NOT the ‘good’ one, nor is Saracen the ‘bad’ one.

In the TV series Breaking Bad, Walter White’s arc is ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface‘. Facing a terminal diagnosis for lung cancer, White’s intentions to provide for his family after his death are understandable and good. However, in doing this he descends onto a rocky road where he becomes a drug kingpin. NOT good!

In the Marvel movie Black Panther, Erik Killmonger is a genocidal murderer and wants to bring Wakanda down, whom he blames for his father’s death. He is evil, but he is right: Wakanda did him a terrible wrong. His own family abandoned him as a child to keep up appearances.

In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne is the voice of spurned women everywhere. She discovers her husband Nick has betrayed her, so decides to take him down by utilizing society’s misogyny in her favor.

Amy proves she will stop at nothing to make him pay. Knowing most women are murdered by the men in their lives, she fakes her own disappearance and frames Nick.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

From The Guardian (4 March 2017):

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

. . . .

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do. . . . Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Imagination

From Dave Farland:

Come Original

The first thing that I seek in a great story is originality. You may not realize it, but the most common problem with stories is that they’re tepid. The same ideas crop up over and over again. So I look for new and intriguing concepts, especially when I’m judging science fiction and fantasy.

. . . .

[S]tories come along in thematic clusters. For example, the quarter after the sheep Dolly got cloned, I had dozens of stories come across my desk about cloning. Now, were any of them publishable? Sort of. The writing was often good, the story fairly interesting. But I don’t think that I had a finalist about cloning that quarter. The idea felt tepid.

One quarter, I got several good stories that featured mind transference. The quarter before that, it was ghost stories. One quarter, I got no less than twenty stories written from the point of view of sperms making a heroic journey. (Life is hard when you’re dodging gobs of spermicidal gel, white blood cells hell-bent on destruction, and struggling not to get bounced out of the race by the sperms of Hitler wannabes.)

Stand Out

So when I see several iterations of the same idea, I have to ask myself, “What makes this story stand out? What makes it better than others?”

The truth is, that sometimes one of the authors stretches himself or herself further than others. They look for a new idea to couple with an old, twisting it, so that we get something that I haven’t seen before.

For example, in that quarter of Writers of the Future where I got several good ghost stories, one of them stood out to me. Alisa Alering’s take, “Everything You Have Seen” is a ghost story in an unusual setting—Korea—during the Korean War. In it, a young girl meets a ghost, a young American boy who can communicate by holding his hands up and creating visions, windows into his own world, that the girl can peer into.

So we have a ghost story in a bit of an unusual setting. It features two interesting characters, one of whom has a unique power that I haven’t seen before. Beyond that, Alisa writes beautifully and evocatively, with subtle twists of phrases that “recreate” the language, heighten it. So she scored higher on the originality scale, than did some of the other authors who had written ghost stories that quarter. I sent hers on to the other judges, and she won first place for her quarter.

 Do you see how a story can manifest originality in a number of ways?

1. Premise

Your story may explore an idea that no one has ever written about before. Greg Bear’s “Blood Music,” for example, is a story about a man who engineers the DNA in his blood so that each cell becomes a miniature computer. The cells begin creating their own vessels to explore his body, and become sentient . . . and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But it’s a great idea. Similarly, the concepts of mathematical sociology that lead to social engineering in Asimov’s Foundation series really intrigued me as a teen. In science fiction and fantasy, the unique idea shows the highest form of creativity.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

The Static Hiss

From Writer Unboxed:

I don’t much listen to my car radio. With my phone connected via Bluetooth, I can listen to audiobooks, stream podcasts or enjoy my own playlists. Plus, the top hits of the Eighties and Nineties were great back then but I don’t want them on an endless loop in my head. If I stream a radio station it’s jazz, like Newark’s WBGO.

Still, once in a while I’ll want traffic news or weather or Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” because Steve Winwood always lifts me up. But when I switch to radio receiver what I get is static hiss. I punch the Seek button to find a station. The receiver jumps to the next signal, which might be Blondie singing “Heart of Glass” or it might be static hiss. Yes, I could have presets. I don’t, so I punch. Hiss. Punch. Hiss.

Static hiss is electronic interference to a radio signal. If the signal-to-noise ratio is low then the signal is overwhelmed and rather than music you get hiss. The interference itself comes from different sources. It can be neighboring radio signals, electrical switches, motors, computers, or thermal noise in circuits. There’s also electromagnetic interference such as lightning, explaining why static hiss gets louder when you see a zig-zag flash in the sky. There’s also cosmic background noise coming from the sun and even the center of the Milky Way.

The radiation that produces hiss is, in essence, louder than the radio signal that you really want. It is a signal but it’s random and erratic. Our brains do not process the hissing into anything meaningful. It’s just noise. We turn down the volume dial and punch the Seek button, looking for a stronger signal carrying more intelligible and interesting sounds. Hiss is natural. It’s part of the universe. It’s there in the background all the time but we find it irritating and quickly dismiss it.

Manuscripts are like a radio signal. Too often static hiss interferes with the story. Static hiss is anything we don’t need in order to understand and enjoy the tale we’re reading. It’s the stuff we tune out, if not immediately skip. Hiss. Punch.

Why do manuscripts, and published novels too, present material that we don’t want? Obviously, the author set down what seems important—but is it? Not always. Think about it this way: Is every page of every novel you read absorbing, exciting and memorable? Obviously not. While we don’t expect that level of memorability from every single printed page, we do hope always to get something interesting, or at least something we won’t skim or skip.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG loves the sound of “Static Hiss”. It occurred to him that it might be transferred to a character in ancient Rome named Staticus.

Writing Down the Bones

From Nilichoandika:

Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg was published the year my elder sister was born. I read it . . . thirty five years since it broke into print

. . . .

1. Claim your writing. This is something I struggle with. Hearing someone say they loved my book, or a character so much that they want to talk about him/her or even that they hated my work- and with the star rating index, anything short of a 3-star review is enough to have me put my music player on shuffle. She shares how important it is to claim the good and bad- to accept that you wrote it.

. . . .

4. Don’t marry the fly. I laughed so much reading this chapter because I have felt it as a reader. Sometimes when I read a book and I am following what is happening, there are certain sentences or details that throw me off- and often I feel like the author lost me, or that the author’s trend of thought changed and Natalie explains why this happens. Simply put she says, “If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander.” In another sense, details are important but if you focus on one detail so much you may lose the reader.

Link to the rest at Nilichoandika

Why Writing Second Person POV Appeals To Marginalized Writers

From SFWA:

You open the SFWA Bulletin to start reading an article about second person point of view (POV), and immediately you’re put off. You didn’t expect the article itself to use this POV, since most articles don’t. What a cheap gimmick, you think. You wonder whether you should stop reading at this point, because you’ve been told how you feel and what you expected in the span of a few sentences, and you’re growing increasingly uncomfortable—angry, even—with these assumptions made by the writer. She doesn’t know you! Why is she trying to put words in your mouth and thoughts in your head? Why is she presuming to control your actions?

But seriously, how did that make you feel?

Of all the points of view available to writers when choosing how to tell a story, second person seems to be the most maligned. Common objections include that it’s confusing, unsettling, and weird, that it breaks suspension of disbelief and forces the reader out of the story rather than drawing them in. Dig deeper and you may hear that it’s more than discomfiting, it’s downright presumptuous, even aggressive. The writer is forcing you to think or feel a certain way, crafting a costume and then jamming you, an innocent voyeur, inside, tying you up with strings and putting you on a stage to perform the story like a puppet rather than allowing you the comfort and distance of being in the audience.

In recent conversations about this topic, an interesting trend emerged: many marginalized writers, especially BIPOC ones, expressed that they had written second person POV stories and found the form quite natural, even desirable for their specific purposes. Why might that be, and what are those purposes precisely? As with most other aspects of society, much of this is rooted in how marginalized folks are already expected to adjust our needs and wants to what’s available, while those in the perceived “mainstream” expect what’s available to be created with their needs and desires already in mind.

. . . .

For many marginalized folks, as readers we often experience fiction as a window rather than a mirror. We are more likely to be accustomed to dealing with discomfort or a lack of familiarity related to the characters we’re reading about, their lives and thoughts and choices and so on. The mirrors that do exist may be flawed, warped like carnival glass, reflecting not merely an alternate form of a particular identity, but one that is rendered so imperfectly, regardless of intent, that its subject is barely recognizable. Many of us have become reconciled to the fact that fiction with experiential reality is a form of labor that becomes natural with time and repetition, by necessity. Without that skill, it’s challenging to, for example, navigate situations like basic educational systems and standardized testing due to their use of presumed “universal” touchstones that are only really “universal” to a select group.

Link to the rest at SFWA

Build mysteries around whether characters will succeed or fail

From Nathan Bransford:

One of the most common missed opportunities I see when I’m editing novels involves mysteries.

Do you want to know what it is? Am I being mysterious?

Often, when trying to be mysterious, authors just end up being vague. It’s really hard to invest in a mystery when we don’t have enough information to understand what’s happening entirely.

Instead, it’s often better to let the reader into the mystery in order to build anticipation. Orient the reader around whether a character will succeed or fail.

. . . .

You’ll often see novels start off with something that nominally feels high stakes, like a character running through a dark forest as fast as they can… only the author doesn’t tell us why they’re running. The author wants us to wonder: why is this character running as fast as they can through the forest? Mysterious, right?

But it’s downright confusing to not be given more information that that, particularly in first person narratives when we’re tied to a character’s inner thoughts. We should generally know what the protagonist knows, and it feels vaguely hostile when the author is just holding out on us.

Then, in the climactic moment, we find out everything all at once in a chaotic jumble. The character slays what was chasing them and then we find out: Oh. Actually it was an evil moon demon and had the protagonist not succeeded they would have gotten ripped to shreds.

. . . .

Vague mysteries are missed opportunities to build suspense and anticipation.

What’s the better mystery: Why is this character running through the forest, or is this character going to avoid getting ripped to pieces by a nasty moon demon?

Had we known from the start that there’s a demon after the character, we would also learn the contours of what’s at stake. We would start imagining what might happen if they fail and get ripped to shreds. We would start investing in the outcome, and thus would feel more satisfied when the protagonist barely escapes.

When we only find out what was really happening after the fact, it invariably feels like a letdown. The reader’s reaction is more like: “Yeah… had I known the situation was life or death, I might have been worried. Instead I was just confused.”

The moment we learn what a character wants (to escape) and what’s at stake (if they fail they’ll get ripped to shreds), it’s almost like a clock starts ticking, and every bit of delay and extra effort the protagonist expends deepens the reader’s investment in what’s going to happen. It builds suspense for the eventual showdown.

In order for formula that to work: the reader needs to know what’s happening.

Beware rug-pulling

It’s even worse when the vague mystery is an excuse for a cheap attempt at pulling the rug out from under the reader.

In the “just kidding it was a game of tag” example, it erodes trust in the narrative voice for the mystery to be just a matter of the author leading the reader astray. After that moment, the reader will have a very hard time taking anything in the novel at face value, which is an exhausting way to read.

Authorial trust once lost is difficult to regain.

Be careful with movie and TV show mystery tropes

This is also another area where screenplay-izing your novel and relying on tropes in film and TV can lead you astray. I’m sure we can all think of countless hit TV shows and movies that start with a character running and we don’t know why. In visual mediums there’s more leeway to just show a character running and let the viewer see what shows up and let that be the surprise.

Novels are different. We’re more connected to characters’ inner consciousness, so it’s more confusing to not be let into the story to see their motivations. And in a novel, it’s hard to process as much information in a flash as we can with film and TV, so it feels overwhelming to find out everything all at once when the demon arrives.

. . . .

Motivation is everything in a novel, and this extends to mysteries too. If you can connect your mystery to the things your protagonist wants, the reader will be far more invested in the outcome and feel those stirrings of suspense.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Here, Here! vs. Hear, Hear!

From The Grammarly Blog:

If you want to voice your agreement with someone during a debate (especially if you’re a member of the UK Parliament), you will shout “hear, hear.” But as long as you’re shouting, no one will notice you’re wrong if you shout “here, here” because the words are pronounced the same.

The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of parliamentarism. The current incarnation of the country’s Parliament, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, has a history that can be traced through its predecessors, the Parliament of Great Britain and the Parliament of England, all the way to the early thirteenth century. As is often the case with places and institutions that have a long tradition, we can find relics of the past that persist in modern times. For instance, MPs are still offered snuff before they enter the Chamber. There is still some use of Norman French in the legislative process. And MPs still shout “hear, hear” when they agree with something one of them has said.

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

The business phrasebook

From The Economist:

Reed hastings has built the culture at Netflix around it. Ray Dalio made it a founding principle at Bridgewater, a successful investment fund. “Radical candour” is the idea that bracing honesty is the best way to run a business: no one dances around the truth, and swifter feedback improves performance.

Most firms rely on a messier doctrine. People rarely say what they mean, but hope that their meaning is nonetheless clear. Think Britain, but with paycheques. To navigate this kind of workplace, you need a phrasebook.

“I hear you”

Ostensible meaning: You’re making a legitimate point
Actual meaning: Be quiet

“Let’s discuss this offline”

Ostensible meaning: We shouldn’t waste other people’s valuable time
Actual meaning: Let’s never speak of this again (see also: “Let’s put a pin in it”)

“We should all learn to walk in each other’s shoes”

Ostensible meaning: Shared understanding results in better outcomes
Actual meaning: I need you to know that my job is a living hell

“I’m just curious…”

Ostensible meaning: I’d like to know why you think that…
Actual meaning: …because it makes no sense to anyone else

. . . .

“Do you have five minutes?”

Ostensible meaning: I have something trivial to say
Actual meaning: You are in deep, deep trouble

“Let’s handle this asynchronously”

Ostensible meaning: We’ll each work on this task in our own time
Actual meaning: I have to go to my Pilates class now

“It’s on the product roadmap”

Ostensible meaning: It’ll be done soon
Actual meaning: It won’t be done soon

Link to the rest at The Economist

Relationship Thesaurus Entry: Stepparent and Stepchild

From Writers Helping Writers:

Successful stories are driven by authentic and interesting characters, so it’s important to craft them carefully. But characters don’t usually exist in a vacuum; throughout the course of your story, they’ll live, work, play, and fight with other cast members. Some of those relationships are positive and supportive, pushing the protagonist to positive growth and helping them achieve their goals. Other relationships do exactly the opposite, derailing your character’s confidence and self-worth or they cause friction and conflict that leads to fallout and disruption. Many relationships hover somewhere in the middle. A balanced story will require a mix of these dynamics.

. . . .

Stepparent and Stepchild

Description:
Many factors play into the dynamics of the stepparent/stepchild relationship. The child’s age and receptiveness to the stepparent will have a lot of impact. Similarly, the stepparent’s willingness to fill a parental role, their experience with children, and their relationships with the child’s biological parents can all determine how things play out. This relationship is anything but simple, making it fertile ground for plot and character development.

Relationship Dynamics

Below are a wide range of dynamics that may accompany this relationship. Use the ideas that suit your story and work best for your characters to bring about and/or resolve the necessary conflict. 

  • A stepparent and stepchild who deeply fulfill relationship needs for each another
  • A stepparent who pursues harmony with the stepchild’s biological parent for the benefit of the child
  • A stepchild who is treated the same as the stepparent’s biological child
  • A stepparent filling a void for a child who has no relationship with their biological parent
  • A stepparent who fully embraces their role, regardless of the child’s feelings toward them
  • A stepparent being introduced into the life of a young adult child—smoothly, without much upheaval
  • A stepparent who tries to be the stepchild’s friend more than their parent
  • A reluctant stepparent who is playing the role of father or mother out of obligation
  • A stepparent whose efforts are largely controlled and limited by their spouse or the child’s other biological parent
  • A child rejecting any notion of a relationship with the stepparent 
  • An apathetic stepparent who is more interested in gaining a spouse than being a mom or dad
  • One party struggling to accept or love the other
  • A stepchild actively seeking to sabotage their stepparent’s success or marriage
  • An estranged relationship between the two

Challenges That Could Threaten The Status Quo

  • The stepchild becoming injured or ill on the stepparent’s watch
  • The stepparent separating from or divorcing the child’s biological parent
  • A situation in which one of the two parties is lying, forcing the biological parent to choose who to believe
  • The stepparent and biological parent having a child of their own
  • The death of the stepchild’s biological parent
  • The stepparent needing to relocate for work, resulting in a major move for the child
  • The teenaged child rebelling against the stepparent and rejecting their authority
  • One of the child’s parents dealing with mental illness or addiction
  • The stepchild being treated differently than the stepparent’s biological children
  • The stepchild being diagnosed with a physical, learning, or mental health difficulty that the stepparent doesn’t understand or accept
  • One of the stepparent’s biological children bullying or abusing the stepchild
  • The stepchild discovering a harmful secret about their stepparent
  • The stepparent abusing the child’s biological parent
  • The stepparent taking a work-from-home job, resulting in them being around all the time
  • The stepchild preferring the stepparent over their biological parent

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Easy-ish Way to Create Believable, Unforgettable Fictional Worlds

From Writer Unboxed:

Worldbuilding gets a bad rap sometimes. If you ask certain people, worldbuilding is either for nerds looking for almanacs, not fiction, or it’s a useless distinction that should be an intrinsic part of writing.

But there are plenty of writers who recognize the essential nature of worldbuilding separate from the act of storytelling—for science fiction and fantasy, sure, but also for all genres. And there are a ton of amazing, detailed guides to creating worlds. But years ago, when I was first looking to build out the world I had created for my first foray into fantasy writing, I looked up resources for worldbuilding and quickly got bogged down in the sheer number of details these guides wanted me to know.

These guides offer hundreds of questions about the world you’re creating, insinuating that answering each one will lead to developing a believable, original world. I found weeks-long online courses dedicated solely to building a world from scratch.

I like to call these types of resources sandboxes. They give you lots of blank space to play around. “Where are the mountain ranges in your world?” they ask. “What military tactics does each nation in your world use?”

These are good questions, depending on the type of story you’re writing. Sandboxes are fun places for free play and for letting the mind run wild.

But once I had determined the election procedures of a specific political party in my book, which was decidedly not about election procedures or political parties, I was left no closer to a better story. I wondered: “…Now what? What does this have to do with my story?”

This is how I came to begin thinking about story-first worldbuilding.

Story-first worldbuilding falls somewhere on the worldbuilding opinion spectrum between “almanac” and “intrinsic” by exploring the details of the world around the story you want to tell. You don’t need to know where every mountain range is in your world unless your characters intend to cross them. What follows are a set of exercises that are geared mainly toward writers of fantasy who are creating secondary worlds, but hopefully applicable to all writers. The goal of these exercises to help you build a believable world that will add depth and color to the story you want to tell—without making you spend hours writing out the dominant flora on a continent your story will never visit.

How to Build a World Around the Story You Want to Tell

To complete the following exercises, I will assume that you have at least a smidgen of a story idea in mind. It’s okay if it’s not a fully fleshed-out plot yet. I will also assume that, since you have a story idea, you also have a vague impression of the world in which it’s set. It’s okay if most of the world is a blurry mess at this point.

This section contains a couple of exercises to get your mind thinking about how your world interacts with your story. The exercises are intended to be done in order, but this isn’t school. Do what’s most helpful to you.

Exercise #1: Write down everything you already know about your story’s world.

Set a timer for five, 10, or 30 minutes—however much time you think you need—and write out everything you already know about the world in which your story takes place, stream-of-consciousness style. Focus on the parts of your story you’ve either written or can picture clearly in your head. For example, if you know a critical scene in the climax involves an escape from a desert prison, write, “There’s a prison in the desert.” Do not consult Wikipedia’s list of desert flora and fauna. Even if you list things that are contradictory or illogical, write them all down anyway. Give yourself permission to let your mind run free. Important: This is not the time to make up new things about your world. If new ideas come to mind as you’re writing, don’t stop to examine them—just write them down and keep going.

When your time is up, read back over what you wrote. What are the things that are intrinsic or critical to your story and/or characters?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

How to Write the Sense of Smell

From Writers in the Storm:

Great writers make their stories authentic by allowing us to experience what their characters hear, see, smell, taste, and touch—capturing the senses so we are fully involved. Adding sensory details about smell into your writing creates a stronger story bond for your reader.

Scent memory is potent.

Memories fade as time passes, but a faint whiff of a loved one’s perfume can send your mind’s eye smack into a scene from a forgotten past. Sense of smell is a person’s most robust sense. You can be in a familiar place with a blindfold on and your nose will let you know where you are.

  • The sense of smell is more closely linked with memory than any other sense.
  • It brings emotions to mind. We are attracted to each other by smell.
  • It helps us survive. A foul smell warns us of danger, like when we smell food gone bad or smoke choking the air.

. . . .

Writers can use the sense of smell to show a character’s background or to move a plot forward.

Say your main protagonist is a child in an orphanage trying to come up with a way to run away from her situation. A fire breaks out somewhere in the building. She smells smoke, alerts whomever she can to the danger (she is a good-hearted character). Recognizing her chance to leave in the chaos, she grabs her belongings and runs, thereby moving the story forward.

Ways to develop a sense of smell in writing.

Smelling danger

Our brains are wired in a way that makes us hyper-alert to unfamiliar sensory information, including smells. If you want to unsettle you characters, add in rotting, chemically, goosebump raising smells into your story.

. . . .

Smelling recall of another time, person, or place

Smells can cause flashbacks to warm, wonderful times or a place of horror. The same smell can bring joy or pain dependent upon the individuals experience at the time they were exposed to that particular odor.

Some people love the smell of lilies. I cannot stand them. To me they reek of death. I don’t know why, and probably would need hypnosis therapy to figure it out.

. . . .

The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.” Bruce Barcott, Weed the People


“We moved on the Tuesday before Labor Day. I knew what the weather was like the second I got up. I knew because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms. She always does that when it’s hot and humid, to make sure her deodorant’s working. I don’t use deodorant yet. I don’t think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve. So I’ve still got a few months to go.” Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

“Chili dogs, funnel cakes, fried bread, majorly greasy pizza, candy apples, ye gods. Evil food smells amazing — which is either proof that there is a Satan or some equivalent out there, or that the Almighty doesn’t actually want everyone to eat organic tofu all the time. I can’t decide.” Jim Butcher, Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Adversaries in Fiction: Who Is Standing in Your Character’s Way?

From Jane Friedman:

Is there anything better than well-written conflict? The vengeful enemy, sharks circling the sinking boat, a carefully guarded secret getting out in the open.

Readers, fearful for the characters they love, grip the book tighter when conflict is close.

What will happen? Will everything be okay?

The more dire the threat, the more uncertain they feel.

Conflict holds power in storytelling because it touches everything: pacing, plot, stakes, characterization, character arc, emotion, you name it. Internal or external, subtle or obvious, readers invested in the book will find themselves in a near-constant state of tension as they worry about the character’s ability to dodge story knives.

One of the biggest sources of conflict comes in the form of an adversary—someone (or something) that has goals, needs, desire, or a purpose that clashes with the protagonist’s own. Once their paths cross, BOOM. Friction, tension, conflict! A battle of wills, might, and minds ensues until one is victorious.

Adversaries generate a lot of conflict, meaning it’s important to know their motivations and intentions. If they have a big role, we should brainstorm them just as we would the protagonist . . . to understand what’s driving them. But are all adversaries the same? Not at all. Depending on what you need, you have a variety of adversarial players to choose from. Here are some considerations for each.

Competitor: This foe is someone who has the same goal as the protagonist and will compete for it. Whether your character is up against a peer for a scholarship, a job, an award, or something else, make sure their competitor has abilities, skills, resources, or other assets that will make the outcome uncertain.

Rival: Like a competitor, this opponent wants the same thing as your protagonist. What’s different though is that the rival is also invested in defeating the protagonist. The victory is personal because there’s some sort of history between the two.

Consider the ongoing friction between Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (and, later, their competing dojos) in the TV series, Cobra Kai. Johnny and Daniel took very different paths since their initial battle in The Karate Kid. Daniel became a wealthy and successful businessman while Johnny worked handyman jobs and flirted with alcoholism as an escape from his personal failings, losses, and abuse trauma. Old wounds are reopened when Johnny reopens Cobra Kai to empower youths, and Johnny’s son trains with Daniel to get back at his dad. Further complications abound as their teenage kids start dating and Johnny fights to become someone better while Daniel holds firm to old biases. The result of all this friction? A boatload of rivalry-fueled conflict.

Antagonist: This is often a catchall term for the main adversary. If the antagonist is a person, they will have a mission or agenda that counters the protagonist’s and most likely are prominent enough to have a character arc of their own.

Antagonist Force: The foe standing between your character and their goal doesn’t need to be a person. Depending on the story, the antagonistic force could be an element of nature (the brutal polar vortex in The Day after Tomorrow), an animal (the wolf pack hunting plane crash survivors in The Grey), or even a type of technology (The Terminator).

Villain: A villain is different than an antagonist in the sense that there is an element of evil or a specific intent to hurt others. Something has skewed their worldview and made them into who they are—a person whose moral code runs on a completely different track. Villains have no qualms about mowing down anyone who gets in the way of their goal.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Need Conflict? Just Let Your Characters Talk

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

Story conflict has many purposes. It provides opportunities for failure and growth, elevates what’s at stake, and escalates emotion for the character and readers. We also know that our stories will need many instances of conflict, both at the story (macro) and scene (micro) level. But how do we know what kinds to add to the mix?

First and foremost, conflict must further the story. There are lots of interesting and compelling scenarios that we authors might like to pursue. But, as with every aspect of storytelling, we must separate ourselves from the process to make sure we’re not projecting ourselves — our interests and desires — onto the character and the story.

Sure, we might want to write a drunken brawl scene, but would that scenario be likely for our protagonist? Will it reveal something about the character, like a weakness or need, or is it just there to “spice up” a boring scene?

The best way to incorporate convincing conflict scenarios into a story is to pull them organically from the elements that are already there. Conflict is lurking all around your characters and the story world, so grab a stick and start poking to see what shakes loose.

START WITH THE STORY’S CAST

Where does most of our conflict come from in real life? That’s right: other people. Loved ones, extended family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, friends, complete strangers—each one can cause us grief on a number of levels. The same is true for our characters. Anyone interacting with them is a potential source for trouble.

This is why planning your story’s cast ahead of time can be so beneficial. Think about what kinds of people might have crossed swords with your character at some point, will rub him the wrong way, or have goals that are in opposition to his own. Think about which traits might get under your character’s skin. What attitudes or morals will be difficult for him to accept?

Then — you guessed it — build characters with those traits, habits, histories, and goals into the story. If each character stays true to form, tensions will inevitably rise.

Not a planner? Not a problem. When you need a reasonable conflict scenario that will provide a certain outcome, consider who in the character’s life you could use to make that happen.

. . . .

LET YOUR CHARACTERS TALK

Once you’ve assembled your cast, just let them talk, and conflict is sure to follow. Dialogue is a great troublemaker because it can cause minor, surface-level tension or set the ball rolling for something huge, like the end of a relationship or a global clash. You’re already including it in your story, so make it do double duty and use it to initiate problems for your character.

Here are just a few conversational techniques you can use to generate conflict in a scene.

Unintentional Clashes

So much of conflict is unintentional — meaning, the person causing the problem isn’t trying to ruffle feathers. Often, it comes down to basic personality quirks, such as someone who is always interrupting, a tactless party who unknowingly causes offense, or a chronic multitasker who doesn’t listen carefully and makes your character feel undervalued. Of course, any of these irritations can be applied to the protagonist instead of the other party, and you get the same result.

Enough of these slight aggravations can add up throughout one conversation (or over the course of many) and lead to explosions.

When a character loses control of their emotions, they are much more apt to speak their mind, cut the other person down, or reveal information they meant to hold back. And what do all of these responses lead to? More conflict.

Confrontational Communicators

Purposeful conflict in dialogue can be subtle or overt, depending on the situation and the goal. The character may be looking to manipulate an exchange to achieve a specific outcome, inflame emotions, damage a reputation, or completely eviscerate an enemy with words.

Characters who are purposely looking to cause trouble in a conversation might…

  • Make a threat or say something to intimidate
  • Deploy insults, sarcasm, and belittlement
  • Manipulate the conversation toward a topic or away from one
  • Shift the focus to someone else to put them in the hot seat
  • Purposely ask about something that will make the other person uncomfortable
  • Deceive the other party through lies, omissions, and exaggerations
  • Bring up a sensitive topic to provoke an emotional reaction
  • Reveal a secret, stance, or mistake to damage a rival’s standing in the group
  • Ask questions the character knows the other person can’t answer, making them look bad
  • Call the protagonist out (for a mistake, something they said or did, etc.) to steal their self- esteem
  • Deliberately provoke an argument
  • Make insinuations (about someone’s loyalty, capabilities, etc.) to sow doubt
  • Make a derogatory statement and pass it off as a joke
  • Suggest disloyalty if the other party doesn’t agree, which forces them to do just that

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

Three Mistakes In Tone

From Dave Farland:

One of the most common problems I see with new writers is a “mistake in tone.” You know what I mean if you’ve ever played in a band. A new kid comes in, you’re trying to play a song, and he blats out a sour note on a trumpet. The same thing happens in writing.

It usually happens because the writer wants so badly to impress the reader that he tries too hard, thus calling attention to himself and sounding a sour note.

Over-exaggeration

For example, the writer might want to put a character in gripping danger, so he might say, “The crocodile opened a mouth as wide as the Nile.”

Well, that’s exaggeration.

Usually the writer will continue exaggerating, telling us that the crocodile is a “perfect predator,” “honed by a three hundred million years of evolution,” “with bullet-proof armor” and so on. But really it’s just an oversized lizard.

The writer doesn’t understand that truth can be terrifying in fiction. If you give us the right details of sight, sound, smell and texture, creating the perfect descriptions, you can bring the crocodile to life and you don’t have to exaggerate. They’re scary enough.

 In fact, by over-exaggerating a description, the reader is silently thinking, “Yeah, right.” And because they know that you’re stretching the truth, instead of creating greater danger, you may be undercutting your work, actually reducing the sense of fear that you’re trying to engender.

Maudlin Prose

You can also ruin your tone when you’re trying to arouse strong sympathy for a character. Perhaps your heroine Penelope starts out in a story doing just fine, and then her boyfriend dumps her, her kitten dies, her evil stepmother tries to sell her as a whore, and she discovers that the pimple on her face is filled with flesh-eating bacteria.

Somehow it seems that when an author tries to overemphasize a character’s problems, they just start piling them up until they sound absurd.

Now, in real life, a person can indeed have problems stack up until they are overwhelming. I was just reading about albinos in Tanzania who are hunted and killed because the locals believe that they’re reincarnated ghosts. A young albino girl with skin cancer was attacked by her father and a bunch of machete-wielding men. It turns out that witchdoctors like to make potions out of the albinos’ body parts, which can sell for up to $75,000 on the black market. I can imagine that if I tried to write a story about that 14-year-old girl, it might sound maudlin even if I didn’t exaggerate her problems at all.

But that’s the point: sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. A true story written as fiction can feel contrived. Just because something happened in real life, doesn’t mean that it should happen in fiction.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Older Women Writing / Writing Older Women

From Writer Unboxed:

This post is about two things: growing old and storytelling. At seventy-three I’m definitely an older woman writer, and that increasingly concerns me. Can I tackle another trilogy, or will I be too old to maintain the pace and quality by the time I get to Book 3? How do I balance that with the expectations of readers who want a book a year, delivered promptly? Is it time to put myself out to pasture? And by doing that, would I be erasing myself because of age, making my story just another in which the female protagonist must be below a certain age to be considered interesting? There is a lack of older women characters in fiction, especially in my genre of fantasy. I’ve been guilty of this myself as a writer. Many of my novels have young central characters. It’s not because I ever thought older protagonists were boring or wouldn’t sell. In the historical periods of these novels, lives were generally much shorter than they are now. Folk died in childbirth, in nasty farm or workshop accidents, in battles, or from diseases for which there were no known remedies. They were living adult lives by their early teens, and were lucky if they made it to the grand old age of fifty. It’s realistic for my active central characters to be in the age range of sixteen to thirtyish, with a sprinking of (mostly) wise elders.

I stepped out of that pattern to write the Blackthorn & Grim series, in which the two central characters are older (though still youngish by contemporary measures) and severely damaged by trauma. I loved writing that series – it was so rewarding to live the journey with Blackthorn and Grim as they worked their way out from the shadows of PTSD. Those two felt the most real of any characters I had created. But for the following project my agent steered me toward a style of story that was faster paced and featured a younger central cast. At the time I was not happy, feeling my artistic judgement and skills as a writer had been devalued. But he knows the business and his advice made good sense. We reached a compromise that satisfied both parties. The Warrior Bards series has both young protagonists and significant supporting characters who are much older, plus cameo roles for my favourite duo from the previous series.

Then came the pandemic, along with political instability in many parts of the world and the escalating climate emergency. I was not the only writer who found it difficult to be creative in a time of such uncertainty. Many of us struggled, not only to find motivation, but to deal with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. A year went by, and I had not only failed to write a new book, but could not even complete a book proposal to my own satisfaction. I wrote many words but they all went in the bin. And I grew a year older. I started to see people of my own age group move to retirement villages or become so frail they could no longer function without help. And I found that people who did not know me sometimes treated me as less than capable, speaking down to me as if I were infantile, or offering help that was not required (for instance, when I was in the supermarket staring at the broccoli while my mind was on medieval battle strategies.) My white hair and very short stature didn’t help in such situations. I started to doubt myself. Every time I couldn’t put a name to a face, every time I mislaid my phone or keys, I wondered if I was developing dementia. That’s despite knowing the women in my family retain clarity of mind to a very advanced age.

During this time of self-doubt, I continued to participate in online events with other authors and to present live talks and workshops on various writing-related topics quite capably. I was physically active and socially engaged, at least by introvert standards. I should have known that losing my keys did not necessarily equate to losing my marbles. More likely those vague moments could be put down to stress and anxiety. But I didn’t listen to my own common sense. I should have reminded myself of some remarkable writers in the same general age group, such as celebrated fantasy author Jane Yolen, who after a long and illustrious career is still busy each day writing poetry and children’s books, sending in submissions, and recording her activities on social media. I should have thought of the very popular Australian author Liz Byrski, who specialises in novels about highly individual older women who lead full lives. But I didn’t. I’d lost my faith in myself as a writer and as a human. So, did this story eventually get back on track?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Debuting at the Age of 66

From Jane Friedman:

Anna Sewell sold her only novel, the classic Black Beauty, when she was 57 years old. She had worked on it for six years while confined to her bed due to ill-health. It wasn’t until after Laura Ingalls Wilder had celebrated her 65th birthday that the Little House series came to prominence. And teacher-turned-memoirist, Frank McCourt, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Angela’s Ashes, at the age of 66.

When my debut novel, Lies That Blind, came out on October 19, I was two weeks short of my 67th birthday. Becoming a novelist has nothing to do with your age. Nor should you think that having invested your talent so far in one literary arena—as I did with nonfiction—that it’s impossible to shift gears. I’m proof positive you can do both.

In 2018 I left the United States, intending to retire in Malaysia, after a long career as a freelance journalist and the author or co-author of more than twenty mainstream published nonfiction books. Sensing that I wanted a simpler, less financially stressful life, I sold my house, my car, and all but a few personal belongings, and arrived on the island of Penang without ever having stepped foot in Southeast Asia before. My life as a writer, I’d convinced myself, would now take a back seat to reading all those books I never seemed to have time to devour, to learn the Malay language, and sample the delights of Penang’s world-famous cuisine.

But, as the Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs.” Or, for the irreligious among you, perhaps I was just about to stumble my way through a series of fortuitous events.

Writers don’t know the word “retirement”

I’d already bought the domain name “My Year of Doing Sod All” (British vernacular for doing nothing), having suspected that it wouldn’t take long before I was desperate to get back to tapping on my keyboard. My intention had been to write a blog about the joys of loafing! But I never got round to making that site public; I soon realized that I’d never worked as a writer, I was a writer—all the way through to my marrow—and that writers never “retire.” Plus, I had long nurtured a writing dream that perhaps now I’d be able to fulfill.

As a lover of crime novels and thrillers, my first thought was to try my hand at plotting a Penang-based murder mystery. (Think: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint, but featuring the peculiarities of Penang, rather than Kuala Lumpur.) I tried to come up with a compelling idea, but nothing gelled. Then one day, over coffee with a fellow writer and publisher, I admitted that I’d always wanted to write a novel before I died but couldn’t come up with anything that excited me.

Keith began to tell me the story of how Penang came to be possessed in the late 18th century by an agent of the East India Company (EIC) named Captain Francis Light. I was familiar with the basics: Penang was, at that time, part of the kingdom of Queda whose sultan was keen for the EIC to protect him militarily against his many regional enemies. The carrot that the sultan dangled was to allow the EIC to establish a settlement on Penang; the “Honourable Company” had been looking for a port further east than Madras where they might repair their ships traveling between India and Macau.

But the plan had gone horribly wrong. Yes, Francis Light had taken possession of Penang (rather cheekily christening it Prince of Wales Island in honour of King George III’s son, within days of setting foot there), and the island had become a thriving trading settlement not least because it imposed none of the tolls and taxes common to Queda’s ports. But by April 1791, frustrated that his demands for military protection had gone unheeded, the Malay sultan had amassed an armada of mercenaries and regional pirates to attack the tiny British stronghold, and take his island back. And by “tiny” I mean a garrison of 400 sepoys and EIC officers against an invasion force reputed to number over 20,000 men.

Even though I had made a career for myself as a nonfiction author, I knew enough about storytelling generally to recognize that here were the makings of an intriguing tale. I was reminded of Hilary Mantel’s quote in this Guardian article: “I began writing fiction when I discovered I wanted to be a historian.” I’d never adhered to the adage that you should write about what you know; as a nonfiction author and journalist I had always written about what I’d wanted to discover.

I believe that you will never compel a reader to turn the pages of your book—nonfiction or novel—unless you, as the author, love the process of writing more than almost anything else. Given a new lease of life, as far away from “retiring” as you can imagine, I spent the next two years doing as much research as I could about Francis Light, the early days of Penang, and what life was like in Malaya at that time.

But then my passion for this endeavour hit a wall. I’d tried to write a few early chapters making Light my protagonist, but nothing seemed to work. I guess I just didn’t like him all that much or couldn’t get into his head. I was starting to get dispirited, thinking I’d wasted my time, when I chanced upon an essay written by Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1758, “Of the Duty of a Journalist.” Having just read Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, I came up with the idea that my hero would be a similarly naïve, idealistic young man—a fledgling journalist—named Jim Lord, who maneuvers his way to becoming Francis Light’s assistant and chronicler. The further away I got from the themes of Lord Jim, as I played around with one draft after another, the more I felt inclined to change my protagonist’s name. He ends up in my novel as Jim Lloyd.

The value of lifelong learning

I’m tired of people perpetuating the myth that people over 50 are unwilling or unable to learn anything new. What rubbish! My early drafts were okay, but it soon became apparent that my thirty plus years’ experience as a nonfiction author had not prepared me adequately to write a novel. Already knowing that writing any book is like bringing up a child—it takes a village—I enrolled in online courses with titles ranging from Emotional Beats and Deep POV to Your First 15 Pages. I devoured Save the Cat; answered questions in What Would Your Character Do?; and listened to an audio seminar The Hero’s 2 Journeys, featuring those wonderful story consultants, Michael Hauge and Christopher VoglerI also engaged three successive writing consultants, one of whom—having seen the outline of my “final” draft, nudged me to tear the whole thing apart. Which I did. For me, writing is never about the destination but how much I can learn from, and enjoy, the journey. 

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

How to research your characters

From Nathan Bransford:

When I was writing the first draft of my novel, somewhere in the middle of a chapter I ground to a complete halt. For weeks I’d been riding the high of pounding the keyboard in a glorious rush, but now I was out of material. I had no idea what happened next. 

I sulked. I screamed. I ate too much chocolate. I considered a new career opening a chocolate shop where I could sample the wares. I did everything except write, because whenever I tried all I got was more silence. 

The epiphany came days late. I was stuck because I didn’t know my characters well enough. And because I didn’t know my characters, I didn’t know what they would do next. 

By day, I make my living as a nonfiction writer. When I get stuck, the answer is easy: I don’t know enough about the subject. The answer is to do your research.

Even if you’re writing fiction and you’re literally making up your material, it turns out the answer is the same: do your research.

But how do you research imaginary people? Pretty much the same way you’d research real people and situations. 

Conduct interviews

My favorite way to conduct research is to interview people. You don’t have to find someone who is exactly the same as your character (and that may even be impossible). However, search for people in similar circumstances whether it’s emotional states, careers, life situations etc. or experts who may be able to provide insight into your character’s setting. And for more tips on how to conduct an interview, check out my previous post on how to interview.

Start with background information

I’m writing a book inspired loosely by my partner’s childhood in Zimbabwe. I had no idea how to plot it and what should happen. So, to start with, I spent hours asking him about his childhood. Then I talked to his family and his friends and their friends. 

I was upfront about what I was doing and I think this helped people open up because they didn’t worry that I was going to use their names. Once I’d conducted several hours of interviews, I took a step back, read through the interviews and was able to put together the loose outline of a plot.  

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Unstuck: Writing the Beginning Over and Over

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

Every writer gets stuck at one time or another. Being stuck can trigger feelings of anxiety and self-doubt (to name just a few!) but it doesn’t have to spell the end of your project, or you as a writer. Ray Bradbury famously said: “Writer’s block is just a warning that you’re doing the wrong thing.”

In other words, we can think of being stuck as an alarm rather than a brick wall; something isn’t working but chances are you can fix it.

. . . .

Stuck Writing the Beginning Over and Over

Sometimes we must scrap everything and start over. But way more often we only want to scrap everything and start over. 

Maybe we’ve gotten feedback that makes us re-consider our original story idea. Maybe we have a different idea of a character’s motivation. All of these thoughts and concerns are good! Keep a notebook and write them down. 

But it’s also important to keep moving forward.

You could spend six weeks revising chapter one only to decide a month later that the story really begins at chapter three.

I’ve done that.

The Great is the Enemy of the Good (sometimes)

When I asked author and creative writing instructor Sarah Stone about this thorny issue, she reminded me that:

Early drafts are a place for play and discovery, so rather than going back to tidy it up when we get a new idea, it’s great to write a lumpy, mixed-up version that switches modes and voices and jumps from place to place, one that starts too early in the story or too late.

In other words, keep in mind that your beginning doesn’t have to be—and maybe shouldn’t be—perfect.

As writers, we’re learning useful things (details, character traits, overall themes) as we write our first chapters; for some of us, writing is the only way we can learn them. Others may have traits and themes, etc., plotted out beforehand, but the actual writing always brings some surprises. Characters come across differently on the page than they do in our heads.

So go ahead, be messy.

If you find yourself going back again and again to the beginning without moving on, take a moment to reflect on why you’re returning. It may be that the voice or the story direction isn’t quite right; that is, it isn’t helping you move the story forward. 

Sarah Stone advises us to pay attention to those warning signals: “If our internal mechanism absolutely requires of us that we get the voice right before we go on, then we should let ourselves follow our instincts and be kind to ourselves.”

But if you keep going back to the beginning because you are worried/scared/uncertain about what comes next, you may be returning for comfort or avoidance, not guidance. 

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

The Way to Win NaNoWriMo – Guaranteed

From Writer Unboxed:

Welcome to the first day of National Novel Writing Month, or as it’s generally abbreviated, NaNoWriMo! While I’m not signing up for NaNo this year, I’ve done it a number of times in the past, often “winning” in the way winning is defined by the NaNoWriMo organization: writing 50,000 words of a new project from scratch in just 30 days.

Given the timing of my post this month, I felt like writing about NaNo was almost a no-brainer, but one thing held me back: I wasn’t sure there was anything new to say. So I checked in with fellow writers on Facebook. Before long, it was obvious from the volume of comments that there’s plenty of interest in the topic! And I started to see a pattern as authors and other friends were quick to share their NaNo thoughts and experiences:

“Someone attempting NaNo might want to go into it with certain questions in mind, like ‘Does writing every day actually work for me?’ or ‘Do daily word count goals help or hinder me?’ or even more broadly, ‘What is this experience teaching me about myself/my writing process?’ I did straight NaNo last year for the first time ever and won (as in, started a brand-new draft on November 1st and finished it by the end of the month) and just felt like I learned so much about myself as a writer and about my process, which was really valuable.” – Alyssa Palombo, author of Heavy Metal Symphony and The Borgia Confessions

“I’ve never written a novel in 30 days (as if!) but I did do NaNoWriMo to write 500-1000 words a day of my then-WIP and it really got me over a hump.” – Kathleen McCleary, author of Leaving Haven and two other novels

“I think it’s important to stress not beating yourself up if you fall short. There is a lot to be learned about process with this event; it can be valuable in other ways besides word count.” – Elisabeth Carson-Williams

“I am a total fan of bending the event to work for the individual.” – Aimie K. Runyan, bestselling author of Across the Winding River and Daughters of the Night Sky

What do all these perspectives have in common?

Redefining the concept of what it means to “win” NaNo.

Maybe you win by writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Maybe you win by setting a goal for yourself of writing every day whether you feel like it or not, and see whether that produces better results than your previous practice. Maybe you dig a half-completed project out of a drawer and aim for NaNo’s brisk pace of 1,667 words a day – and either bring that project back to life or realize that more effort isn’t going to get it where you need it to be and abandon it, and either way, you now know something you didn’t know before. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Halloween Is All About Fear. Turns Out, so Is Publishing

From Writer Unboxed:

Who among us is without fear? Dumb question, really. I’d argue that fear is one of the single most formative emotions in our lives from infancy to death. It’s what paralyzes us or stunts our growth…or it’s what motivates us. We use it to shape our characters and to make their lives hell as they seek their greater truths and higher selves. But it’s also the emotion that infuses our daily lives as writers. This season in which we celebrate fear, I talked with some authors to find out what it is that frightens them as writers and what they do to silence the negative voices. This is what they had to say:

“I’m afraid that my readers will see right through me and figure out the plot by the third page. But then I remind myself that has never happened, and often some of the things I think are obvious come as a total surprise to the reader. It’s a reminder to me to trust my intuition.”-Crystal King, author of Feast of Sorrow and The Chef’s Secret

“My biggest publishing fear is never getting published again! As difficult as it is to get published in the first place – and it IS difficult – I often feel like the actual hardest thing is CONTINUING to publish once you’ve done it once, or even a few times. So many of the factors that go into a publisher’s decision to buy my book (or any book) are completely out of my control: market trends, how well my previous books have sold, what else that publisher has acquired recently, etc. Every time I publish a book I worry that it could be my last, which would be devastating since I love making books and bringing them to readers. But I try to combat this by meditating on what I really love about the writing itself. Publication may be out of my control, but the words themselves aren’t, so I try to focus on that as much as possible. If I can take joy and satisfaction in the work itself, in the stories I’m telling, the rest fades to the background. It is easier said than done, but I try my best!”- Alyssa Palombo, author of Heavy Metal Symphony and The Borgia Confessions

. . . .

What if what I’m writing isn’t what I’m meant to write? Not in some way related to fate or destiny, but what if, by focusing so narrowly on the projects I’ve decided to see to the end, sometimes doggedly so, what if I’m missing the opportunity to write the thing that would truly shine? What if I’m just not seeing the right thing? I read someone’s blog post about this a while ago, and it has sort of haunted me since then. “-Anjali Mitter, author of Faint Promise of Rain

“I fear letting go of a book, which makes it so hard to finish anything. What if the book isn’t as good as it could be? What if I’ve missed something more I could do—which would leave me open to criticism?”-Kris Waldherr, author of The Lost History of Dreams and Unnatural Creatures

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

The Half-life of Verbs

From Daily Writing Tips:

The term half-life existed before the term was applied to the breakdown of a radioactive substance.

One earlier meaning was “an unsatisfactory way of life.” Another was “the size of painting half life-size.”

The radioactive application dates from 1907. Now, the term is also applied to the time required for half the amount of any substance to be “eliminated or disintegrated by natural processes.”

Irregular Verbs
In 2007, a group of Harvard mathematicians developed a formula to calculate the half-life of English irregular verbs. The less frequently a verb is used, the more quickly will it begin to decay.

Irregular verbs are one of my favorite things about English. I see them as a link with the oldest form of the language, living fossils still in use.

Nevertheless, I accept the fact that many of the remaining irregulars are being lost daily to regularization: changing their distinctive past forms to -ed in both the simple past and past participle. This is a normal part of the development of the language.

The Harvard study calculated the half-life of 177 English irregular verbs. According to the findings, many have already reached their half-lives; others are nearing them. The most frequently used irregular verbs, however, look likely to outlast the language.

English has been developing (and changing) for more than 1,400 years. Irregular verbs with a half-life of 700 years are going or gone. Some have been operating as hybrids, with an -ed past and an irregular past participle.

Verbs with a 700-year half-life
Some of my favorites have reached the 700-year milestone.

bid/bade/bidden
cleave/cleft/cloven
slay/slew/slain
smite/smote/smitten
tread/trod/trodden

I’d like to keep them all, but the forms I cherish most are those of slay.

I have nothing against the form slayed in the sense of amusing or impressing people:

They slayed us with the little boy who couldn’t wait for Christmas,

Seth Rogen slayed at the Hollywood Film Awards last night.

With George Fenneman, as his announcer and straight man, Groucho slayed his audiences with improvised conversation with his guests.

A few minutes later, Calhoun went to the podium and slayed a roomful of journos with his usual combination of bombast, wit and defensiveness.

However, I do feel that vampires and dragons should be slain. Likewise, I prefer to read that Buffy slew the Chaos Demon, not that she “slayed” it.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Writing my Way Through Trauma

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

I never kept a diary or a journal. Writing was never my thing. I am a talker. Put me in a room with people and I will talk non-stop. Don’t get me wrong, I like to write, but it was never something I really did.

All that changed in 2010.

I was pregnant with my second child (after multiple miscarriages), and I went into early labor. This wasn’t just a little early. This was seventeen weeks early – meaning I was only twenty-three weeks pregnant. It was too soon. I had to make it to that magical viability mark of twenty-four weeks.

I spent six days lying in a hospital bed trying desperately not to give birth. My head was tilted down thirty-degrees below my feet. All the blood had rushed to my head. I was in pain, scared, and the only thing I could do was keep my eyes closed and breathe. I didn’t talk much those six days. Talking made me emotional and being emotional made it hard to lay still and stay calm.

My son, Sam, was finally born at twenty-four weeks and two days and weighed in at a whopping one pound twelve ounces. Two days after having Sam, I was alone for the first time in a week and it all started to hit me. Everything I had been through. Everything I had experienced. I was overwhelmed and felt like I was suffocating with all the thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head.

It was late at night, and the only thing I had nearby was my tablet. I opened it up and began writing an email to my brother who was living in Lesotho at the time. I wanted to update him on how his nephew, and I were doing.

Once I started writing, however, the email to my brother took on a life of its own. I ended up writing a long missive that was dumping ground for everything that was trapped in my head. I released it all on “paper”. The anger, the fear, the pain, the hope… all of it. When I was done, I felt relief. I was no longer weighed down by the thoughts swirling in my head.

The next day, after a long, hard day of learning about the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and what lay ahead for me and Sam, I turned to my tablet once again. Writing allowed me to process all the information I had gotten during the day and gave me a safe space to work through the trauma of it all.

It was then that I knew writing was going to save me. I quickly purchased a URL and installed WordPress. Two days after my son was born, my blog, Tales of the Anti-Preemie, was born. At first, the blog was just for my friends and family. But soon, I started seeing comments from total strangers who had either been sent my blog or found it on their own.

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

And here’s a link to Tales of the Anti-Preemie where, if the photo correctly depicts him, it appears that Sam is doing well.

Hubris

Hubris is character trait that features excessive pride or inflated self-confidence, leading a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or violate an important moral law. As a literary device, hubris is commonly exhibited by a tragic hero as their tragic flaw, or hamartia. The extreme pride or arrogance of hubris often consumes a character, blinding them to reason and resulting in their ultimate downfall.

. . . .

Examples of Hubris in Fictional Characters

Hubris is a common literary device applied to fictional characters whose excessive pride, self-importance, or arrogance leads them to negative consequences. Here are some examples of fictional characters that exhibit hubris:

Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)
Gaston (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)
Prince Humperdinck (The Princess Bride)
Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary)
Troy Maxson (Fences)
Willie Stark (All the King’s Men)
Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein)
Doctor Faustus (Doctor Faustus)
Blanche Dubois (A Streetcar Named Desire)

. . . .

Difference Between Hubris and Pride

Though pride is often used as a synonym for hubris, there are differences between the two. Hubris indicates an excess of pride, confidence, and self-importance. Pride, in its authentic nature, is considered positive and desirable. Pride is associated with healthy self-esteem, self-evaluation, and self-confidence. The outcome of authentic pride as a character trait is generally an individual who is considered conscientious, emotionally stable, and agreeable.

However, hubristic pride is considered negative and undesirable as a character trait. Hubris is characterized by low internal self-esteem, arrogance, egotism, aggression, disagreeableness, and even shame. In addition, the outcomes associated with hubristic pride are recklessness, impulsiveness, disregard for the well-being of others, and heightened attention to the individual’s image or persona.

Link to the rest at Literary Devices

How to Write Faster

From the Grammarly Blog:

In a perfect world, deadlines wouldn’t be a thing. You’d have unlimited time to complete everything you need to write, like essays, reports, reading responses, and even the kinds of writing you do for fun, like blog posts and short stories.

Obviously, we don’t live in a perfect world. But we do live in a world where you can learn how to write faster. Writing quickly is a skill that’s helped thousands of writers, especially writers with time-sensitive assignments like interviewers and journalists, meet their deadlines without breaking a sweat.

. . . .

Learning how to write faster is easy. To help you streamline your writing time, we’ve gathered a few helpful writing tips that will have you hitting deadlines in no time. 

Streamline the writing process

You’re most likely familiar with the writing process. It’s the six steps just about every piece of writing goes through to develop from an idea to a published piece. Working through these steps means doing a thorough job of brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and perfecting your work . . . but it can be a slow process. When you’re crunched for time, you simply don’t have the luxury of working through the unabridged writing process.

In a pinch, you can streamline it. One way to streamline the writing process is to combine steps one and two and outline your work as you brainstorm it. This might mean a less coherent outline, but that’s fine—you’ll smooth it out when you write. 

After getting an outline on the page, get right to writing. We’ll later on cover strategies that can help this step go faster. During the writing stage, the goal is to start getting words down. Don’t worry about irrelevant, superfluous, or awkward words winding up in your text—you’ll fix these up when you edit your work.  

Speaking of editing, you’ll also need to cut out an important step in the writing process: editing your work with fresh eyes. Ideally, you’d wait about a day after writing to edit your work so you can catch mistakes more easily. But with a limited amount of time, you’ll need to dive right into editing after you’re finished writing. Depending on how pressed for time you are, you might also have to combine the last two steps in the writing process, editing and proofreading. 

Type faster

It might sound like a sarcastic tip at first, but we mean it sincerely: Train yourself to type faster. You can do this by playing typing games and doing typing exercises that build muscle memory in your fingers. If you look at the keyboard when you’re typing, it’s time to learn how to type without doing that. Similarly, if you’re using the “hunt and peck” method or otherwise using any fewer than all ten of your fingers, it’s time to become a stronger, faster typist. 

Websites like typingtest.com can tell you how accurately you’re typing and how many words you can type per minute as well as providing typing lessons and exercises. The average person types about 40 words per minute, with 65 to 70 being the general target for “fast typing.” Typing 90 to 100 words per minute is considered to be very fast typing, with some of the fastest typists achieving more than 120 words per minute. When you can type faster, you can literally write faster. 

Write what you already have in mind

You might have no idea how to start your essay, but know exactly how you want to support your argument. Skip right to your body paragraphs. 

There’s no rule that says you have to write your piece in order of first to final paragraph. Write in the order that makes it easiest for you to start writing and maintain momentum, which often means jumping right to the parts that you’ve already worked out in your head. 

Writing the parts that you already know you want to say achieves two things:

  • It gets text onto the page: For you, seeing text on the page can be hugely motivating—it’s a lot easier to keep writing when you already have a foundation to build on, rather than starting with a blank screen.
  • It can help you determine what to say in sections you haven’t written: If you’re struggling with an intro paragraph, writing your supporting paragraphs can give you the phrasing and organization you need to introduce them in your opening section. Similarly, if you’re having a difficult time with certain body paragraphs, but you’ve written at least one, determine how that paragraph you’ve written fits into a broader piece. What does it follow? What follows it? Think of the piece you’re writing as a jigsaw puzzle and the sections you’ve written as puzzle corners you’ve completed. Which shapes fit into that partially completed puzzle? 

Link to the rest at the Grammarly Blog

Seeking vs. Suffering: The Secret of Passive Protagonists

From Writer Unboxed:

I’ll admit it. I fell for the title of Kelsey Allagood’s WU post on September 18th: “Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy”. Upon reading the title my blood pressure rose, not because of the heated word “patriarchy” but because of the chilly suggestion that “active” protagonists are inherently bad and therefore “passive” protagonists are fundamentally good, and maybe even a necessary political tool for activist fiction writers.

Of course, Kelsey was being slyly provocative. She did not strictly mean that writers should see passive protagonists as a weapon of change. Hey kids, here’s a great way to tear down patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, agism, homophobia, racism, capitalism, gentrification and more…let’s be more passive! There’s an idea, eh?

No, Kelsey was mostly speaking of “active” and “passive” in the technical sense in which we apply those words to protagonists in discussing fiction craft. The distinction is important and Kelsey’s point was a good one: not all protagonists are, or need to be, “active” in the sense of being imbued with agency and embarking on a planned course of action. Kelsey said, “I say let’s talk those of us who aren’t always in the driver’s seat.” Today I’m taking her up on that.

Not every protagonist is Odysseus. It is entirely possible that a main character can begin a story in a state of suspension. It’s a human condition to be oppressed, wandering, lost, stuck or even imprisoned. People don’t always make things happen; things happen to them. Naturally, there is no story without a response to an adverse situation. But does that mean a fist fight? Must a protagonist formulate a goal, or—ask me—engage in the more useful business of task, plan, scheme or gamble? Isn’t it enough for a main character to observe, experience, chafe, resist? Can’t a protagonist give voice to the powerless? Can’t a character just yearn?

More: Who says that women protagonists must be kick-ass, anyway? Must plot always drive toward something? Is a story climax always needed? (Whoa, so masculo-sexual!) Can’t a story be built of retreat, running, seeking refuge, healing? Is courage necessarily violent? Isn’t it equally dramatic to endure? Where is the line between passive as strong, admirable and uplifting and passive as weak, degrading and pathetic? There is a line. It has nothing to do with a character’s circumstances and everything to do with a character’s spirit.

This is where passive dissociates itself from the common, pejorative, unhelpful associations of the word. For fiction writers, a passive protagonist doesn’t have a commanding position in the story world but does have an inner light that says that this character is alive, aware, unbroken, strong inside and seeing. A passive protagonist might be helpless but is not hopeless. A passive protagonist may not be marching toward battle but nevertheless is on a journey to someplace better.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Think Like a Horror Writer to Create Better Villains

From SWFA:

You write speculative fiction for the same reason you’ve read or watched it your entire life. There’s something inside of you that craves tales of relatable characters overcoming adversity. It’s your inner hero, and it manifests on that illuminated screen when you sit alone, clicking away on the keyboard. That something becomes the characters that you put your heart and soul into, hoping to all things sacred that your readers will love them–because after all, they’re a part of you.

But what about the bad guy? Every element in good storytelling exists for one of two reasons: it either builds tension (conflict) or releases it (resolution). Genre fiction often utilizes an antagonist to build its tension. Since horror thrives on developing this character, authors of other speculative genres can learn a lot from horror writers about creating good villains. There are many ways to craft a good bad guy, but this horror author has found that they essentially boil down to three “R”s.

1) MAKE YOUR ANTAGONIST REAL.

Whether your bad guy is a malevolent mastermind from another realm, a big, dumb troll, or a serial killer, your task as a writer is to make me believe he is real within the world you’ve created. After all, how could something phony pose any real threat? If it’s sentient, consider adding a humanistic quality: Jealousy. Genuine anger. A moment of empathy. Maybe even a brief second-guessing of the morality of his actions. Anything with which your audience can relate, and therefore, believe. Unless this character is invisible, be diligent in your physical description of him. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many authors over-describe their heroes, yet under-describe their bad guys. Think of your story in terms of visual-media, and give your antagonist some close-ups. Tell me about his rancid breath as he leans in to place cold, steel chains on your heroine’s wrists. How do the warm drops of sweat feel as they roll off his bald head to land on her face? Are the threads that stick out from the bottom of his robe frizzed? You don’t have to describe every crack in his pinky-nail, but a few cleverly placed details will give him flesh.

2) MAKE YOUR ANTAGONIST REALLY MENACING.

Not just menacing to the world at large, either. This malevolent force should be particularly menacing to your hero or heroine. A manifestation of their fears and past failures. His very existence should threaten something dear, even if it’s only their sanity. Reveal just how terrible he is in increments, as the story unfolds, through acts of treachery. Deviate from your outline, and use him to kill a character you never intended to kill (if it hurts you, it will hurt your readers.) Progressively change the tone of your writing to reflect your hero’s growing distress with each revelation. This will cause the audience to sympathize with them, putting them in your hero’s shoes, and increasing the satisfaction of their ultimate triumph (or in the case of many horror stories, the impact of their failure).

Link to the rest at SWFA

Don’t ditch standard English. Teach it better

From The Economist:

Teaching english as a first language is not easy—many youngsters leave school feeling they never quite mastered its finer points. Recently some commentators have been wondering whether the standard version of English really deserves to be singled out as “proper” and worthy of teaching at all. The debate they set off has been unedifying because of entrenched views that have as much to do with politics as with language.

Speaking recently to the Daily Telegraph, Willem Hollmann of Lancaster University argued that standard English is not uniquely “correct”. This view is common among linguists. Today’s standard English just happens to descend from the dialect prevailing near the seats of power (London) and learning (Oxford and Cambridge) at the critical time when printing took off. It uses “you were”, and not “you was”, only because that dialect did so—not because “you were” is more logical. (If standard English were logical, “to be” would have a single past-tense form, as every other verb does.)

Linguists know perfectly well, though, that standard English does have a social superiority, if not a grammatical one. It is the language of serious writing (including linguistics journals) and formal speech. It binds together Dorset, Kent, Yorkshire and London, as well as Alabama, Massachusetts and California. It can be spoken with any accent, allowing a speaker from Belfast to talk to one from Johannesburg or Auckland with little misunderstanding. There is nothing wrong with black vernacular American or Yorkshire English; they just don’t happen to be the dialect that newspapers are written in, or parliamentary debates are conducted in. Both halves of that proposition are equally true, and pupils should be apprised of both.

But when linguists make this case, they are often misconstrued as saying students should not be marked down if, for instance, they write “you was” instead of “you were” when deploying standard English. No longer considering “you was” to be incorrect in formal prose would imply the end of any standard at all.

Even from the left-wing perspective that many academics share, that would be counterproductive. Sociolinguists are at pains to point out that all dialects are valuable to their speakers—Yorkshire English and so on persist for that very reason. But standard English is valuable to its speakers too. It is dear to those lucky enough to have it as their native tongue (a category that includes most newspaper columnists). But it is also hugely important to those many strivers who didn’t grow up with it—yet hope to master it, so that they can join the wider community around the world that uses it.

And there are ways to inculcate it without resorting to snobbery. To begin with, it helps to avoid irrelevant pet peeves. In a column in the Times replying to Mr Hollmann and supposedly sticking up for standard English, Clare Foges was distracted by things like accent (saying fencin for fencing), slang (including the British tag-question innit?) and minor variations such as off of in place of off.

These ephemera have nothing whatever to do with standard English. “G-dropping” isn’t lazy, merely an accent; it used to be an upper-class habit, too. Nor does relaxed have to mean incorrect: innit may not be common in the boardroom, but it has its place in casual British English. And off of is standard in America, if not in Britain.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Quite a number of years ago, competitive debaters on elite high school or college debate teams were advised to not use their normal Southern or other regional accents during debate competitions.

The rationale behind the advice was that debate judges, particularly at the most advanced levels of major debate tournaments, would likely speak standard American English and regard a notable regional accent as a sign of a less-accomplished intellect and judge the accented arguments more critically.

Could a machine have an unconscious?

From N+1:

IT WAS FIRST DESCRIBED to me by a friend who works in the industry as autocomplete on crack, after the technology that endowed our phones with the quality everyone pretends to, but does not actually, want in a lover — the ability to finish your thoughts. Instead of predicting the next word in a sentence, GPT-3 would produce several paragraphs in whatever style it intuited from your prompt. If you prompted it Once upon a time, it would produce a fairy tale. If you typed two lines in iambic pentameter, it would write a sonnet. If you wrote something vaguely literary, like We gathered to see the ship and all its splendor, like pilgrims at an altar,it would continue in this vein: 

I stood among the crowd watching each bus disgorge passengers onto wooden planks laid over mudflats. The guests swarmed into town for their free visit to another world: our island on Earth where strange new gods were worshipped; here they could gather at some primitive shrine from which they could send offerings back home or sell out-of-date clothes in pawnshops full of old junk salvaged from forgotten times....

If you wrote a news headline, it would write an article on that topic, complete with fake facts, fake statistics, and fake quotes by fake sources, good enough that human readers could rarely guess that it was authored by a machine. The potential for malicious use was so obvious that OpenAI, the lab that made it, agreed to grant access to only a handful of well-vetted researchers, spurring the publicity-friendly lore that it was “too dangerous to release.”

GPT-3 is a natural language processing algorithm. It belongs to a new generation of AI models called Transformers, a technology whose early iterations were named after Sesame Street characters (BERT, ELMO, GROVER, as though the somewhat frightening allusion to children’s television could be mitigated with a softer, more educational one. That GPT-2 and its later, more sophisticated upgrade, GPT-3, dropped this convention might be read as a sign of their terrifying power. With 175 billion “parameters” — mathematical representations of language patterns — GPT-3 had initiated what was being called a Cambrian explosion in natural language processing.

. . . .

I say that it “read” the internet, but the preferred terminology is that GPT-3 scraped the web, that it ingested most of what humans have published online, that it ate the internet — metaphors meant to emphasize that the process was entirely unconscious. The frequent reminders in the machine-learning community that the model is mindless and agentless, that it has no actual experience of the world, were repeated so often they began to feel compulsive, one of those verbal fixations meant to quell the suspicion that the opposite is true.

. . . .

I’D BEEN FOLLOWING all this because I was writing a book about technology, or rather because I’d reached an impasse and wasn’t writing at all. I spent hours each day doing what could passably be called “research,” trawling the feeds of Hacker News and machine-learning Reddit, where the lucky elite who had access to GPT-3 posted the results of their experiments. One trope was to ask it to imitate well-known authors. It could do Dante, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. It could do Ginsberg (Endless suicide of the real world! Solitary! Solitary! Sisyphus! the rock! the road!).It could do Harry Potter in the style of Ernest Hemingway (It was a cold day on Privet Drive. A child cried. Harry felt nothing. He was dryer than dust. He had been silent too long. He had not felt love. He had scarcely felt hate.) Because we were all on lockdown, and my social life had devolved into sending and receiving novelties from the internet, I sometimes texted snippets of these outputs to friends, most of whom seemed to think it was a gimmick, or some kind of fancy toy. 

“What is the point of this device?” one asked.

Freud claimed that technology only solved problems that technology itself had created. The alienation and malaise caused by one modern invention was momentarily relieved by another, a process he compared to “the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again.” Nobody seemed capable of articulating what problem these language models were designed to solve. There was some chatter about writing assistance, about therapy bots, about a future where you’d never have to write another email (“Can A.I. bring back the three-martini lunch?” asked Fortune), all of which seemed to skirt the technology’s most obvious use: replacing the underpaid and inefficient writers who supplied the content that fed the insatiable maw of the internet — people like me. 

OpenAI was founded in 2015 as a nonprofit research lab devoted to creating a safe path to Artificial General Intelligence (AI that rivals human intelligence). Funded by an A-team of private investors, including Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Peter Thiel, its mission was to create artificial intelligence that “benefits all of humanity.” In 2019, however, the lab announced that it was transitioning to a for-profit model “in order to stay relevant.” Last fall, Microsoft exclusively licensed GPT-3, claiming that the language technology would benefit its customers by “directly aiding human creativity and ingenuity in areas like writing and composition.” 

From what I could tell, the few writers who’d caught wind of the technology were imperiously dismissive, arguing that the algorithm’s work was derivative and formulaic, that originality required something else, something uniquely human — though none of them could say what, exactly. GPT-3 can imitate natural language and even certain simple stylistics, but it... cannot perform the deep-level analytics required to make great art or great writing. I was often tempted to ask these skeptics what contemporary literature they were reading. The Reddit and Hacker News crowds appeared more ready to face the facts: GPT-3 may show how unconscious some human activity is, including writing. How much of what I write is essentially autocomplete?

. . . .

WRITERS, SOMEONE once said, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. The question of who said it is not really important. The whole point of the metaphor was to destabilize the notion of authorial agency by suggesting that literature is the product of unconscious processes that are essentially combinatorial. Just as algorithms manipulate discrete symbols, creating new lines of code via endless combinations of 0s and 1s, so writers build stories by reassembling the basic tropes and structures that are encoded in the world’s earliest myths, often — when things are going well — without fully realizing what they are doing. The most fertile creative states, like the most transcendent spiritual experiences, dissolve consciousness and turn the artist into an inanimate tool — a channel, a conduit. I often think of the writer who said she wished she could feel about sex as she did about writing: That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I’d felt it before — every writer has — but at some point during the pandemic, the recombinant nature of writing became, instead, an infinite puzzle, a system whose discrete parts could be endlessly deconstructed and reassembled. I could never get the combination right. My critical instincts had turned pathological. I wrote and rewrote until the language was hollowed out: Potemkin sentences. 

The blockage had a larger context, which I’m reluctant to get into here but is doubtlessly relevant. A number of things had recently surfaced: memories I’d repressed, secrets I’d kept from myself. The most significant was that I’d been shamed as a child for writing, that I’d been confronted and punished for words that were meant to be private. It had happened more than once, and the shame I felt then was more or less identical to the shame I experienced each time I published something. I had, according to my therapist, chosen a profession that required me to continually revisit this wound, under the delusion that I could fix it or control it, that if I wrote something entirely pure and flawless the curse would be lifted and I would finally be free. I knew all this, but knowledge is not everything when it comes to compulsions. Part of me preferred the French term, automatisme de repetition. Repetition automatism: the tendency to unconsciously seek out the pains of the past, like a machine stuck in a feedback loop.

. . . .

PSYCHOANALYSIS GREW out of the realization that the most fundamental stratum of the mind was essentially a machine. Throughout the late 19th century, the unconscious was known as psychological automatism, a term popularized by the pre-Freudian psychoanalyst Pierre Janet, who argued that it was an “elementary form of activity as completely determined as an automaton.” The question was: how to get the machine to speak? Janet was among the first to experiment with automatic writing, bringing a rite of the séance parlor into the laboratory. His patients — Parisian hysterics — had experienced traumas they could not remember, and Janet believed that their minds had become dissociated into “subsystems,” the lowest of which was devoted to mechanically reproducing past experiences. 

He gave the women pen and paper, hypnotized them, then clapped his hands and commanded them to write. His case studies describe them scribbling away “in a machine-like state,” producing pages of text that they did not recognize, upon waking, as their own. My ideas are no longer comprehensible to myself,one wrote, they come of themselves.... I am nothing more than a puppet held by a string.Many of the women could recall in their writing memories they’d repressed. One who suffered from an inexplicable fear of cholera wrote about seeing two corpses during the last epidemic, something she had no memory of when awake. Another revealed that her tendency to fall down — which she’d long attributed to dizziness — was a compulsive reenactment of a suicide attempt years earlier, when she’d jumped into the Seine. 

Link to the rest at N+1

PG notes that sometimes when people write about writing, they are subject to wandering about.

Multiple Narrators, Multiple Truths

From The Literary Hub:

In my teens, I read only Victorian novels. The multiple narrator is such a prominent feature of 19th-century fiction that it’s possible I internalized the device inadvertently. Books such as MiddlemarchFrankenstein, and Wuthering Heights fed my already over-exercised imagination to the point where reality and fantasy were occasionally indistinguishable. Multiple narrator remains my storytelling technique of choice, as a reader and a writer.

. . . .

Of course, the multiple narrator has many incarnations. There are collections of stories, alternate narrators, interwoven first and third-person narratives, epistolary novels, story-cycles, and composite novels. I am particularly absorbed by stories in which the multiple narrators offer alternate versions of the same event. While I have an undying admiration for Kazuo Ishiguro’s ability to tell a story with a single, unreliable narrator, as in The Remains of the Day and Klara and the Sun, multiple narration can give the writer access to a wider context and world view that can be equally helpful in communicating with the reader.

The beauty of the novel is its myriad forms and re-invention. You do not have to be an advocate of experimental fiction, or a member of OULIPO, to appreciate original ways of storytelling and be entranced when you find them.

. . . .

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Waters has perfected the historical novel with a twist with Fingersmith, a novel that employs alternating narrators. With echoes of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Waters’ Victorian novel tells the story of Sue and Maud and the complex conspiracy that entwines them. Waters’ skill is in the visceral detail of the period that provides a background that, while evocative of the time, avoids pastiche.

Told in the first person, the alternating narrative is a satisfactory way of concealing and revealing information to the reader that is not available to the characters. Other alternating first person narrators include Wuthering Heights in which Emily Brontë uses two peripheral characters to tell the story of Heathcliff and Cathy, and An American Marriage, where Tayari Jones uses the device to examine the different feelings and experiences of the married couple Roy and Celestial.

Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Told in three parts by three different narrators, Han Kang’s slender and disturbing novel uses first and third person narrative voice to tell the story of Yeong-hye a South Korean woman in contemporary Seoul who decides to become a vegetarian. Her subsequent transformation is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister who react with different levels of sympathy and understanding at Yeong-hye‘s deterioration. Interspersed with these interested parties, is the fragmentary voice of Yeong-hye and her dreams of blood and meat and slaughter, all connected to her guilt that she ever consumed animals.

The Vegetarian has a distinct three-part structure, and each part is a self-contained story. Other multiple-voiced narratives, such as Beatrice Hitchman’s All of You Every Single One, interweave the narrators to build more of a mosaic novel where the point of view may be wider, or inclusive of diverse perspectives such as David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Epistolary novels like Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple use the multiple narrator to great effect.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Navigating Self Doubt

From Writer Unboxed:

Some of us run into it right from the beginning, when we first begin to put words to paper. Others are luckier and don’t encounter it until later on their journey. But either way, if you’re a writer, at some time or another you are bound to run into Self Doubt.

Self doubt hits all of us differently. It can be an uncomfortable itch between our shoulders or a paralyzing force that prevents us from getting any words down on the page. Whatever form it takes it can be, if not conquered, at least managed.

There are three distinct branches of the self-doubt tree.

Competence is about craft and skill. Do I have the writing chops to pull this story off?
Permission is about judgment and authenticity. Who do I think I am trying to tell THIS story?
Worthiness is about self worth, agency, and voice. Who do I think I am trying to tell ANY story?

Competence

Of all the causes of self doubt, competence is the most easily fixed. It’s about rolling up our sleeves, digging in, and committing the time and energy necessary to get better.

But of course, if merely proving our competency were all that was involved, no published writer would ever have self doubts and I am here to assure you that is most definitely NOT the case. Many published writers find their doubts grow stronger the further they move into their career. Their initial doubts are compounded by a sense of expectations they must meet, or new milestones or metrics they must achieve. Which brings us to head games and hard truths, essential tools in any writers’ backpack.

We’ll start with the hard truths first.

Our story will never be as sparkling and fabulous on the page as the idea of it in our heads. In the act of trying to capture it, in choosing specific actions and details, it loses some of the glorious sense of infinite potential, which is always a part of a new idea’s magic.

Knowing and accepting that helps us adjust our expectations. We won’t be writing a perfect book, but we very well might be writing a terrific book, and that’s good enough.

Another hard truth: Your journey to publication will likely take longer than you think. The industry average is 10 years. Knowing and accepting that helps us give ourselves the time and permission to improve our writing skills. With patience and persistence, all of us can improve and draw closer to mastery.

Now for the promised head game regarding competence:

When your goal is paralyzing you and filling you with debilitating self-doubt, change the goal.

Mind blowing, right? But the trick is to find a goal that feels like a challenge but doesn’t suffocate us. Instead of finishing a manuscript to find an agent or land a contract, shift the goal to finishing a manuscript. Or, finishing a manuscript that has an actual plot. Or middle. Or distinct internal and external character arcs.

Focus on nailing one or two things in this manuscript rather than having the entire forward trajectory of your career hinging on it. Try on different goals until you feel that tight knot of doubt inside you begin to ease up.

It is okay to attempt a story you can’t pull off. If you only ever train for a 5k, you will never be able to compete in a marathon. Most writers have practice manuscripts! But the thing about practice stories is, you can often do another revision. Or start over from scratch. Also? Practice stories CAN turn into break through or even break out books. (That is what happened with GRAVE MERCY.)

Be willing to produce a lot of material that won’t make the final cut. Writers don’t have so much as a block of marble or lump of clay or even paints with which to create. So recognize that your early drafts and story journaling are essentially creating the material, rather than writing the story you will be telling.

Revising is not polishing. Revising is taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together again in an entirely different way. Or starting all over again, from scratch. Be willing to do that if necessary. Over and over again.

Most of us have one or two areas that we seem to know instinctively and do well from the get go. Then there are a number of other elements that we must work at. And usually most of us have a couple of areas we are going to really struggle with. The goal is to see if you can identify which are which. But here’s an important tip—it is a better investment of your time to identify your strengths, shore those up, and play into them than it is to try and become achieve expertise in your areas of weakness.

I want to repeat that for emphasis: It is a better investment of your time to identify your strengths and play to them than it is to try and achieve mastery in every area of weakness.

If you’re an amazing plotter–lean in to that. If your characters breathe on the page, delve even deeper into them. If your use of language is so lyrical or clever or quirky that people would read your grocery list, play to that strength.

The goal should be to become competent enough in your weaknesses that they don’t detract from the overall reading experience. It is your strengths that will make your work stand out.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed