Tag Archives: writing process

It’s All About You #amwriting #writingtips

Over the weekend, I chanced to have an interesting chatroom encounter with a person claiming to have multiple neurological diagnoses. I say “claim” because it’s a chatroom, and you never really know. I spend a fair amount of time in that particular chatroom, and most folks seem honest. I try to be when I’m not goofing around or being ridiculous.

I’m going to refer to this person as a male called “D”, though I have no idea of their gender, and this is clearly not their real name. I’m just doing it for simplicity.

D had been in the room before, and wanted help with writing stuff. Being myself, I stepped up and offered to help. During his previous request for assistance, he’d announced he enjoyed writing fanfic, and wanted help with mashup ideas.

To be clear, I think fanfic is great. I don’t spend my time writing it, but I have daydreams and such, and my brain wanders through what ifs for characters I like. To those who write and read fanfic, that’s great. If you ever have the urge to use my stuff for fanfic, knock yourself out. Anyway.

It soon became clear this person had a narrow list of ideas, but couldn’t pick one and wanted someone else to pick for them. Of the things on the list, I didn’t know much about most of them, so I didn’t say much once that list was revealed. I will say that I still think Harry Potter vs Predator would be neat. But I digress.

On this second occasion, the one which prompted this post, D entered the room and posted, “I hate writer’s block.”

If you don’t hang out with writers, you may be familiar with only the basic idea of writer’s block as some mystical creature shaped like a wall that writers bang their head against while producing nothing. Some writers see it that way too. In reality, it’s not a mythological beast or even an actual thing. Writer’s block is just another way of saying that you’re tired, overworked, burned out, need a vacation, should eat, could use some exercise, or have some other problematic issue with self-care. Either that, or you did something wrong in the story and your brain knows it, but can’t figure out what it is.

Whenever people try to cop the writer’s block excuse around me, that’s what I tell them, one way or another. As I did in this case. More or less–do some exercise, take a nap/get a night’s rest, and/or eat, then come back and try again. If that doesn’t work, switch to another project for a while. This is what the professional writerfolk (and, for that matter, most artistfolk) do, because we can’t wait around for airy fairy muses to flutter out of the sky and wave a magic wand around our heads with ideas. We hunt muses and seduce them so they never want to leave in the first place.

If you subscribe to the muse theory, that is. Anyway.

Other folks in the room did what they do, which is offer suggestions, none of which seemed to satisfy or appease D. He then did what I later realized was whining with a post which roughly translated to: you’re all jerks, I don’t know why I bother asking for advice here, this is a waste of time.

To which, I, being me, pointed out that yes, it is a waste of time because he doesn’t need outside ideas, he needs to think about what kind of stories he wants to tell and figure this stuff out for himself.

Which apparently made me sound like a sanctimonious bitch, but that’s not the point.

The point is this: any average human can string together words to make grammatically understandable sentences, draw lines and shapes, or arrange elements on a canvas. These are not especially challenging activities to the average human.

What makes writing, drawing, or design into art is the pieces of yourself that you put into it. It’s the tools you select and how you apply them. In writing, it’s about your word choices, the beats of the plot, the nuances of the characters, the descriptive details. It’s about expressing something in a way that evokes emotion.

What a writer needs from the outside isn’t ideas. It’s a sounding board. Someone to whom you express ideas and they help refine or shoot down the really stupid crap. If you can’t come up with an idea in the first place, taking someone else’s won’t solve the problem.

As a side note, this is why there are some specific challenges inherent in writing with a co-author, but that’s a whole different ball o’ wax.

Happy writing!

#My5: Inspiration, or Weird Associations #amwriting

One question most of us penmonkey types get asked often is how we come up with these wacky story ideas, what inspires us, and what exactly is a “heckbiscuit”? That last one might just be me, but the point still stands. Many folks just want to know what makes artist brains do art. KM Alexander, a delightful gentleman who writes disturbing things, asked me to participate in a celebration of this question and its various answers, called My5. As such, I present five things that have inspired my stories. Specifically, the Maze Beset trilogy of superhero novels.

1. The X-Men. Back in college, which happened so long ago cellphones hadn’t been invented yet, I read X-Men titles. I wound up in enforced proximity to these comics often and picked them up to pass the time that otherwise would been blank boredom. Prior to college, I had been exposed to the X-Men cartoon, so when I had the choice of several different comics, I picked up the X-Men ones.

My favorite X-Man is Nightcrawler. Because duh.

On the whole, the movies have been kind of disappointing, but they came out too late to blunt my interest in the characters.

This is the basis for the humanity of the supers in the series. They have lives and families, and the story isn’t really about the superpowers. The powers are just the cool guns and tech they use.

2. The Heroes TV Show, Season 1. Never mind the later parts where it got really weird. The initial season showed supers in a way I hadn’t personally seen before. Superhero as everyday person with a bizarre power and no spandex really appealed to me on many levels. I know comics have been exploring this idea for a long time, but aside from X-Men, I never got into comics much. I like lots of words and not many pictures. This show happened during a segment of my life when I had time to watch TV, and it hit a lot of buttons for me. I looked at that and Hmmed and muttered a lot.

This is where the basic idea of the novels came from. Genetics, conspiracies, modern day action, and all that.

3. Marvel Super Heroes RPG (MSH). Technically, this happened first. I started playing D&D in high school, which turned out to be a gateway drug for Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, and MSH. That’s right. D&D is, in fact, a gateway drug. For other RPGs.

MSH is ridiculously silly. I once used random chargen to create a character made entirely of strawberry jell-o. I’m not saying it was a good character or I ever played it, but random chargen gave it to me. Another time, it gave me a character with two forms. One was stupid and the other was smart. Ah, MSH, you’re adorable. Because of you, I have a lot more d10s than I need for anything else, ever.

But this is where the idea of random, bizarre superpowers entered my head, which is the foundation on which the trilogy sits.

4. Mutants & Masterminds RPG. Like MSH, M&M provided an opportunity to be a superhero, only this time with less silly rules. Before starting the novels, I started an M&M game on the Myth-Weavers RPG bulletin board site. The game, now in its sixth year and still chugging along with two of the original players, began with exactly the same premise as the novels.

More importantly, I present a quote from the character generation section, specifically the (Alternate) Form power:

Swarm: Your “body” is actually thousands of other tiny creatures: insects, worms, even little robots.

It’s not hard to see where the idea of a person being made up of a swarm of tiny dragons came from. Thanks, Green Ronin Publishing!

5. Friends. (Sorry, no pictures!) A staggering number of my ideas come from chatting with friends. I say “What if…” and then we ramble on tangents via chat or in person until the idea is awesome. In this particular case, the two players mentioned in #4 are friends who’ve been playing the characters of Jayce and Liam for all of those six years. I shamelessly yoinked their characters (more or less with permission) and used them. Bobby came from having an NPC of that name who interacted with their characters and became a real person for having done so.

Those are my five. Check out these other #My5 posts for more ramblings on inspiration: KM AlexanderMichael Ripplinger, Laurie Tom, Eric Lange

The Agonizing Process of Titling Stories #amwriting #writingtips

For most books, I have little trouble with titles. By the time it’s gone through revisions, I have a solid enough grounding to spitball some ideas and mush words together. Sometimes, I start writing with a title already in mind, as with the Spirit Knight series after book 1.

For short stories, that’s a whole different ball of wax. I hate coming up with short story titles. There’s no functional difference between titling a novel and something shorter, but I still view it in a similar fashion as this:

Nope. Nopity nope nope with a side of nope and some nopesauce on top.

Ah, the stuff of nightmares. Here’s what I do to come up with titles when they don’t spring forth.

  1. Look for words or phrases that pop up often, aside from common words. This is where Girls Can’t Be Knights came from.
  2. Use the main character’s name, title, or job as either the whole title or part of it. This is the source of Al-Kabar and Street Doc.
  3. Make a list of words similar to the one I use for writing the blurb. Smoosh them together until you find something cool. This is where the titles from The Greatest Sin come from.
  4. Get frustrated when none of the above work and spitball stupid titles with friends until something accidentally fits or is close. This is how I wound up with Dragons In Pieces and the rest of that trilogy.

The title is important for a book because it’s one of the elements on the cover. As such, it needs to contribute to the ability of the cover to sell the story.

See? It kinda helps. You want to read this, at least partly because of the title. Really, you do. Trust me. I’m super trustworthy.

With a short story or other piece not intended to stand on its own–because it’ll appear in an anthology, ezine, or similar venue–the title isn’t as important. In that case, the title is more about differentiating stories by the same author and giving some context to the story. The title isn’t going to appear on a cover, and it’s not going to sell anything on its own. In reality, we could probably all just number our short stories and achieve the same effect.

Sadly, no one seems to think that’s acceptable. “Story A4.3” Probably wouldn’t work for a fantasy or romance title anyway, so this may be for the best.

To find some exemplar short story titles, I mined a few award nomination lists and ezines, trying not to select famous ones on purpose.

Selkie Stories Are for Losers
If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love
A Green Silk Dress and a Wedding-Death
Today, I am Paul
Ten Half-Pennies
The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family
Jackalope Wives

As you can see, there’s a lot of variance, which means you can do whatever you want. Ideally, a story title will offer some insight into the story by providing a piece of context the reader might not otherwise grasp in a nod to the theme. If that’s too daunting a task, smoosh words that fit the theme together until something makes you happy. That’s kind of what writing is like anyway.

Why I Love and Hate #BeautyAndTheBeast @DisneyStudios

I took my daughter to see the new version of Beauty and the Beast. She’s about the same age now that I was when the original came out. As far as I can tell–she has fairly severe autism–she enjoyed it. The music is mostly familiar, she already knows the story and characters, and the visuals are stunning. I liked it quite a bit.

When I first saw the original, I was an unsophisticated teenager who preferred action movies. I am now a professional writerfolk who prefers action movies. The difference is minor, as I’m pretty good at shutting off my brain and enjoying visual media in the moment. But there is a difference. That difference lies in how much I think about the story later.

Perhaps predictably, the Stockholm Syndrome memes and discussions popped up before the new movie even came out. I don’t subscribe to this view of the story, and I’ll explain why in a minute. The homosexual tones of LeFou didn’t bother me, as it felt as authentic as anything else in the story. Really, it explains a lot about LeFou the original movie left vague. In fact, I quite liked that many plot holes in the original were filled by adding bits and bobs to the characters and their stories. Bravo, writerfolk! And thank you so much for explaining the whole weird seasons thing. That’s always bothered me. A lot.

On to the main point!

Stockholm Syndrome: strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.

I think the accusation is unfairly applied to this particular story. People point and say here’s a captor and a victim and they fall in love. Textbook definition! But the reality of the story is more complex than that. Here’s why:

In this version of the story, Belle does not have a character arc.

If you take some time to consider the plot and what really happens, you’ll notice that zero female characters have actual arcs. Only men do. Gaston’s arc takes him from almost-charming, not-really-that-bad narcissistic town hero to brutal villain. The Beast’s arc takes him from selfish asshat to empathetic human. Maurice’s arc is about learning to let go of his fear of losing Belle. It can be argued that LeFou has a bit of an arc, but that’s questionable since he really only reacts to how Gaston changes.

That’s it. Those are the character arcs. No one else grows or changes. Yes, Belle falls in love, but she doesn’t do that because she changes. Belle starts as a smart, empathetic person and ends as a smart, empathetic person. She begins capable of sacrifice and compromise, and also ends that way. The scene where she lifts her bowl to drink from it instead of using a spoon isn’t a growth point, it’s an obvious gesture because she’s compassionate. The things she learns reinforce her viewpoint without challenging it. She stands up to the Beast the same way she stands up to Gaston and everyone else.

So, at it’s heart, this is a story about two physically intimidating men who each react to the presence of a woman who’s a fundamentally better human being than them. I’ve read there’s also a metaphor involved, where Howard Ashman wanted Beast to represent AIDS in our society, and that’s noble. Doesn’t change the point.

If this story has a victim to anything like Stockholm Syndrome, I argue it’s the Beast. He’s the prisoner. He’s much more locked in that castle than she is. Heck, she climbs out the window and rides away, proving escape isn’t that hard. She helps him out of compassion, then beats him in a contest of wills. The Beast is the one who caves and changes his behavior to conform to Belle, not the other way around.

From a certain point of view, Belle is effectively a MacGuffin that Beast and Gaston each want to possess for different reasons and pursue with different methodologies. For Beast, Belle is freedom from the hellprison Agathe (the witch) locked him into. For Gaston, Belle is the reward he deserves for a virtuous life.

As for Agathe herself, in the original, this was the real beginning of Disney moving away from women always being villains. In this story, she’s the cause of the story itself, but not in a bad way. I see her as a Virgin Mary figure who’s kind of chuffed that her son turned into such an ass instead of the wise ruler she’d hoped for. Perhaps she’s even intended to be Beast’s mother who, for whatever reason, couldn’t take the throne when her husband died and fled in exile from her son’s asshat advisors. Thus, in a way, she’s actually a much more important character than Belle.

Which brings me back to the point. (I think? I rambled and SQUIRREL!) Despite being the main character, Belle is really just a set of pre-programmed behaviors–a robot with more humanity than the two men vying for her affection. This is both good and bad because it creates the idea that women are good and human while also putting women in the awkward position of being not only capable of but responsible for changing men. Thus, it’s your fault if you can’t fix that asshat, and it’s also your fault if that asshat hits you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this story. The end makes me wonder if someone nearby is cutting onions or something every time. I love seeing girls think that books are awesome because Belle thinks books are awesome. It’s great that people walk away with the idea that people’s looks don’t equate to their value. The music is catchy and fun. But I love it with my eyes open, acknowledging the things I see as faults and incorporating those lessons into my own storytelling.

And hey, at least Belle isn’t a sexy lamp. That’s Lumiere.

So You Want To Be A Beta Reader #books #indie #amwriting

Authors need beta readers. Most of us can’t afford to pay anyone for this service. As a result, we wind up getting friends, family, and/or colleagues to do it for us. But what is beta reading? What does a beta reader do? Why do we need them?

A beta reader is a person who reads the first or second draft of a novel to give critique feedback for how to revise it. Fact-checking is also welcome, especially when the work involves real history, science, or a profession the reader is involved in.

A beta reader is not a person who checks grammar, spelling, or other mechanical issues unless asked to. Most authors do appreciate the catching of typos or repeated mistakes, but it’s not the point of beta reading because many parts may wind up being rewritten.

Authors need this for the same reason any artist needs this: we’re too close to the work to see the problems. Plot points, characters, and setting bits can be much less awesome on the page than in our heads. Someone outside our brains needs to tell us so the work becomes a better version of itself.

What is critique feedback?

Critique and criticism are not the same thing. The two words are considered synonyms, but they have different meanings in the writing world. In general, the intent is the difference.

Criticism is the kind of stuff you find in negative reviews, where readers complain about bad writing, not understanding the plot, or characters who lack believability. Those who offer it generally have no investment in the writer and don’t care if they improve or not. They may or may not have ill intent, just as they may or may not be petty or cruel. Regardless of intent, criticism is rarely helpful because it doesn’t offer actual insights for improvement. Or, if it does, the degree of negativity overrides any value the recipient might get from it.

Critique, on the other hand, is about finding the problems and engaging with them. It comes from a position of wanting to help. Good critique points out positive points as well as negative. This specific difference is what makes critique valuable. If you only hear that plot point C is bad, you may not realize that plot point D is excellent, and your revisions may change both to produce something lesser on the whole.

Thus, a good beta reader does the following:

  1. Gives an overall opinion.
  2. Points out the best parts.
  3. Points out the worst parts.
  4. Avoids making it personal–this is about the writing, not the writer.
  5. Keeps their own ego out of it.

Beta readers should ask questions and tag sections that don’t work with an explanation of why (“I don’t know why” is completely valid). If you have ideas for how to fix problems, present them as opinion, not The Best/Only Way. Tag sections that work well. If you can, have a conversation with the writer to help them understand what went wrong.

Above all, don’t go into a beta reading with the expectation of loving or hating the project. If you have a predetermined opinion of the writing, you won’t notice anything that fails to conform to your expectations. And remember, you’re one of the first people to see the work! It might change a little or a lot after your feedback is taken into account.

So You Want To Make Your Own #Book Cover #indie

The average indie author doesn’t have very much money to spend on producing books, especially when they first start. I’m with you. The costs pile up fast.

Tools (computer and software)–$150 and up. Fortunately, this is a one-time or infrequent expense.
Copyediting–$500 and up for a novel-length work.
Cover–$100 and up for something worth paying for.
Marketing–$infinity, forever.

And these are just the obvious expenses. Not included: bribing your friends for feedback, attending and travelling to seminars, conferences, and/or conventions, memberships in assorted professional organizations, ISBNs, copyright protections, formatting, proof copies, structural editing, proofreading, and on and on.

Once you realize the cost of producing a quality book has four digits, you look for ways to reduce that number. This is why we have blogs, social media accounts, and email newsletters–all that stuff is free. Many new indie authors use friends–qualified or not–to beta read, copyedit, and proofread their first book or two. But that cover? Psh, anyone can make a book cover. Right?

Wrong.

Unless you already have experience and some expertise using a robust graphics program, such as Photoshop, GIMP, or CorelDraw, stop. You cannot make a quality book cover in Paint or the Createspace Cover Creator*. Full stop. Don’t do it, because those covers scream “AMATEUR HOUR!” Understanding how to use the majority of the tools in your graphics program of choice is essential. Take a class or run through tutorials. Some folks learn best by trying to do, but you have to get the basics down before you get to work.

Once you’ve got that under your belt, learn some basic graphic design. As above, you can take classes or run through tutorials. If you can find a tutorial specific to book covers, that’s great, but overall design concepts are important too.

Ready to get cracking? Great.

Step 1: Put Photoshop away and do some research. Go to Amazon. Browse Kindle books. Click into the subgenres until you find the one your book will fit into. Look at those covers. Check the Top 100. Do this at least twice over 2-4 weeks, because the subcategories fluctuate. These covers are what people associate with the type of book you’re trying to sell. You want your book to fit into this group well enough for readers to see it belongs in that category.

Are they illustrated or designed? Simple or complex? Which ones stand out and catch your eye the most? Which ones look stupid to you? What fonts do they use? Do they feature people or things? Get the idea.

If illustration is the norm for your subcategory, take a long, hard look at your finances and strongly consider hiring an artist, at least for the illustration itself. You can still design a cover and fit in, but the subtleties of manipulation are probably beyond your skills.

Step 2: Come up with a basic idea for the cover of your book. If you have no idea, start with your protagonist(s). Warning! The more people (or any other kind of element) you put on your cover, the more challenging the design becomes to balance. Don’t use more than two people, and use only one if you can. A book cover isn’t the same thing as a movie poster. Movie posters use recognizable stars or lavish costumes/makup/critters to sell the story. Book covers use elements to explain what the book is about and project an overall commitment to quality on the part of the author.

Step 3: Find stock images. There are over a dozen good stock image sites, and you can also find free images of high quality on a number of sites. Do not use an image on your book cover unless you pay for a standard license (at this stage, extended licenses are unnecessary) or are absolutely sure you’re allowed to use it for commercial purposes for free. Random images on the internet are not free for commercial purposes unless explicitly described as such by surrounding text.

Step 4: Find fonts. If you don’t already have the most popular fonts in your subgenre, get them. You may have to purchase them, or you may be able to find them for free. If you do find a free font you like, make sure it’s free for commercial use.

Step 5: Check the file size requirements for everywhere you plan to publish your book. Ebook covers and print covers are different sizes and shapes.

Step 6: Arrange elements and manipulate them. Rearrange and re-manipulate. Look up tutorials for specific effects you want to create. Save intermediate versions with stuff you like so you can revert. Show your work to someone else for an outside opinion. Just like with the text of your book, you’ll grow immune to the glaring faults. Rearrange and re-manipulate again.

Step 7: When you feel like you’ve got a final version, compare it to the current Top 100 for your subgenre. Ask someone else to perform that comparison. If it seems like it fits in and doesn’t inaccurately depict the book, congratulations, you’ve got a cover. If not, go back to Step 6.

Looks like a lot of work, doesn’t it? That’s why so many of us pay people to do this. If you aren’t willing to invest your time in learning basic design principles and how to use the tools to create your cover, pay someone who already has. If you aren’t willing to put in the time required to find stock images and manipulate them, pay someone who is. Pre-made covers are often good quality for a low price, and an excellent way to begin your career.

Good luck, intrepid indie.

*This isn’t strictly true, but Paint and similarly simplistic programs don’t have complex enough tools to be worth using for the vast majority of covers. They work for poetry books, and that’s about it.

One Day More #NaNoWriMo

It’s Halloween. Around my house, this is also known as The Day Before NaNo. Tomorrow, I’ll grind out words. Today, I have to do all the things that come before grinding out the words.

My handy pre-NaNo checklist:

  • Cut all finger- and toenails. Consider painting them, then realize I only have glitter nail polish, which is super-distracting while typing.
  • Rewrite the outline that I just now realized is dumb.
  • Prep the document.
  • Tell my kids I’ll see them in a month.
  • Sign off Facebook. Alas, not forever.
  • Stare out the window for fifteen minutes so I remember what it looks like outside.
  • Tie off all other pending projects, either by completing or just finishing the current chapter, so I can focus on the three I’ll be working on for NaNo.
  • Wish I could take down the Halloween decorations today instead of taking up precious NaNo time to do that tomorrow.
  • Make sure I have a clear path between my beanbag and all of the following (may or may not intersect): my bed, the kitchen, and the bathroom. Front door is optional.
  • Remind my kids not to bother me unless the need is dire.
  • Have a conversation about the meaning of “dire.”
  • Feel smug that I’ve already voted. Mail-in balloting FTW.
  • Catch up on TV shows so I can’t procrastinate by watching them during the first week.
  • Finish the video game I’m in the middle of. Or at least get to a reasonable stopping point where I might have a chance to remember what to do when I load it up again in December.
  • Refresh my memory about basic stuff from Spirit Knights 1-3 so I don’t do anything really stupid while writing #4.
  • Stack on my desk a copy of every book I might write a sequel or related short story for. Add Plotto, my Writer Emergency Pack, and a small quantity of emergency snacks.
  • Realize I can’t stack anything on my desk until I clean it, so do that first, then pick up the stack I already made and relocate it to my desk.
  • Sneer in disgust at my Chicago Manual of Style, then stick it on a shelf where I can’t see it from my beanbag.
  • Wash my beanbag. It needs that once a year, right?
  • Prep one last make-ahead meal. Tip: cut your cheesecake into quarters and freeze each single-serving piece.
  • Panic.
  • Pretend to sleep.