Tag Archives: writing tips

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!

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.

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.

Writer’s Block – #amwriting

I do not, as a general rule, suffer from the condition commonly referred to as ‘writer’s block’. There is never a time when I cannot think of anything to write, or when I am so thoroughly disinterested or stumped that I cannot carry on with a particular story. That said, I do get stuck for a variety of reasons in one project or another.

1. New! Exciting! While I’m working on one project, I frequently have other, unrelated ideas. Most of the time, I can jot down a few notes and get back to what I was working on. Once in a while, the new project engulfs my brain and becomes Glenn Close with a pot full of pet rabbit: it won’t be ignored. Unlike a demanding toddler, it needs to be indulged until I’ve got enough to go back to the original project.

2. Stress. I’m actually a pretty laid-back person most of the time. Very little riles me up to the extent I actually get “stressed”. When it does happen, I obsess over the thing stressing me, and lose the ability to focus on anything remotely creative. I even find it difficult to sit still long enough to read books, and wind up playing stupid, mindless games instead of working. When the stressor is significant, it can take a while to get back on track.

3. Stuck! This is as close as I get to real ‘writer’s block’. There are times when I’ve done something wrong in the story, something that, deep down in my subconscious, I know needs to be changed. Non-strenuous exercise, like walking or riding my bike (on the trainer, not on the streets – it takes too much brainpower to ride on the streets), will normally tease out the problem. Switching to another project for a while can work, too.

Remarkably, being sick doesn’t affect my ability to write. In fact, it makes some parts of my brain go into creative overdrive, cranking out ideas faster than I can take advantage of them. Maybe it has something to do with being miserable. Suffering, so they say, builds character.

For those who suffer from the real deal, I recommend exercise, talking out your ideas with friends, and doing stream-of-consciousness writing. Remember, the only way to really be a writer is to write words. Lots of words. They don’t have to be good, they just have to be written. Making them good is what editing and revision is for.

How to Write a Review

Because I, like many indie authors, need book reviews to prosper, it’s crossed my mind to wonder why so few readers write them. There are lots of theories.

1.Readers are lazy and/or can’t be bothered to take the time. They read books, toss them aside, and move on.

2. Readers don’t think their opinion matters; the pros do the reviewing, and no one cares what anyone else thinks.

3. Readers aren’t sure what to put into a review.

As for #1, there’s nothing I can do except implore you to reconsider. When you like a book, the only way other people get to share your joy is if you tell them about it. Likewise, when you hate a book, you can help others avoid inflicting the pain on themselves.

With #2, I’ve written about this before. There are professional reviewers out there, sure. They read what the Big 5 publishers give them. That’s it. The ones that lower themselves to the level of reviewing indie books require payment to spend their time doing so. That’s where you, the ordinary reader, come in. You read it, you have an opinion, and there are probably at least ten thousand people who will agree with exactly what you liked or hated about any given book. It’s a small way to help your fellow readers find something awesome or steer clear of something awful.

The issue then becomes #3: what the heck do you put in a review? If you were a writer, you’d be writing your own books, after all, and if you had the skillz to be a pro reviewer, you’d do that. Fear not. It’s not that tough.

What makes a good review?

It’s about how the book made you feel. Did you race through the story, eager to discover what happened next? Did the characters feel like real people? Would you pick up the author’s next book? Was there any point at which you thought something along the lines of ‘that’s just plain ridiculous’? Were there editorial problems bad enough that they distracted from the story (typos, confusing turns of phrase, continuity breaks, etc.)? How seriously did it take itself? Does it delve into controversial topics?

The answer to every single one of the above questions is good to put into a review. If you read my reviews, you know I take a little time and put some effort into it. No one is required to do that. A few simple statements suffice. For example, with my most recent review, of Strike, I had a few hundred words to say about it, but I could just as easily have put the following:

Entertaining, but a little empty. Not enough happened, and most of the characters didn’t feel real. Campy, cute, and a straight line from start to end. I liked it without being awed by it.

That doesn’t quite say all the same things, but it gets the message across. A review like that helps other readers set expectations. It sounds like a light-hearted summer beach read, probably best suited for those who aren’t looking for lots of depth and complexity. Which is useful information.

That’s it. Give others a hint of what to expect, and say what you think. Be brief if you want. Just please, please say something.

Everything Is A Learning Experience

Whoooeeeee. I’m selling my house and moving, which has sucked some of my time away from writing and everything else. Things I have learned:

1. It’s really, really hard to part with paper books, even books I didn’t really like all that much. At this stage, I’m just randomly wandering through the house, mentally evaluating what I must keep, what I must get rid of, and what I have no strong opinions about. Every single physical book I own falls under the ‘must keep’ category, even the three copies of my own first book that have typos and the original cover, and probably could be safely recycled.

2. No, I cannot pound out two thousand words on the same day that I clean the fridge, mop the floor, wash the windows, vacuum, have to leave for an hour for showings, and go through the kids’ clothes to trash stuff that’s borne the brunt of time. Realistic goals are important! So is prioritizing. Sometimes, I have trouble putting down the laptop to do things that need to get done. I may be a writer, but I’m not only a writer. I’m also a mom and a homeowner and a gardener and a cyclist. And a baker. Mustn’t forget the baking. I miss baking right about now. It’s too messy to do when you’re showing a house all the time.

3. Personal writing limit: 2 projects. I more or less already knew this, but the added work and stress of prepping a house for sale has really reinforced it, hardcore. I was floundering around with four or twelve different ideas, plus some nebulous plans and thoughts, and it all just barfed all over my brain when the other stuff got piled on, leaving me covered in sticky, stanky green goo. It forced me to buckle down and admit I can’t focus on ten things at once and do any of them well. I’ve got two (2) manuscripts in progress right now: the next installment of Bobby’s antics, and a novel to follow Damsel In Distress that’s shaping up to be a fantasy adventure romance (not erotica). I seriously have no idea what either will have for a title, but I do have deadlines for both, which I won’t reveal in case something bad happens and neither makes it (unlikely, but you never know). Sometimes I need to advertise my deadlines, sometimes I don’t.

4. While I’m cleaning things, my mind churns over a variety of thoughts. This isn’t the revelation. I’ve known that for years. The revelation is one of the things I discovered during these times when my brain cast Magic Missile on the darkness. It’s my brain, so it can do that. Bobby’s story, and that of the Maze Beset Trilogy, has a lot more to do with distrust of the government than I originally realized. Which isn’t a big deal, it’s just bizarre to have written something and talked about it to a lot of different people and written about it without realizing what one of the major themes turned out to be until nearly a year later. Who knows what else I’ve missed that my brain snuck into these things while I wasn’t looking.

5. It’s difficult to write about snow when I’m so fricking tired of it that the only reason I’m not primal screaming at the sky in my backyard is the sense that my neighbors would call the police because of it. Also because I don’t shovel my patio, so then I’d be standing in the accursed snow. Which would probably make things worse. Yay. (I’ve lived about 20 of my *mumble* years in places with significant snowfall, so I feel completely justified in becoming that tired of it in March, and continuing to be tired of it through April when it isn’t melting like it should.) It continues to be difficult to write about even after said snow is gone and the daffodils have bloomed. I can write about despair when I’m chipper and the reverse, but I sure as heckbiscuits can’t write about snow when I want to kill it.

6. Beanbag chairs are awesome. (Does this one need an explanation? I endorse Yogibo’s quality beanbag furniture, which is a Northeast-based company.)

7. Neighbors are like dragons: best when you either talk to them all the time, or never, ever to even so much as make eye contact. Also, they have the power to either protect or destroy everything, and you can’t control them.

Lee’s Writing Rules

I have a few rules I try to live by as a writer. They aren’t the same as anyone else’s because they’re mine. You may or may not get any value out of them.

I have this figure on my desk.

1. Never make my protagonist a writer. Clearly, I know what it’s like to be an author, but the idea of making my protagonist one is repugnant. It feels like trying to stick myself in a book, which is not only a gateway to the Mary Sue, but also arrogant and stupid.

2. Backstory must not be infodumped. If I can’t explain some facet of a backstory without throwing a glob of exposition at you, it’s probably not important. If it is important, I can find another way to say it.

3. Avoid the word ‘sexy’ at all costs, unless I’m being sarcastic/humorous. Every time I read ‘sexy’, I cringe. It’s one of those words that almost always gets used to tell instead of show, and the thing it tells is that the author is lazy. I don’t want to hear that her walk is sexy, I want to hear that the subtle sway of her hips with every step draws the eye and stirs the blood. Or whatever.

4. Swearing is best used like jalapenos. I’m not a fan of spicy food. If you are, pick something else that should be used sparingly and for specific effect. Personally, I have no issue with so-called swear words. They have only what offensive power you choose to give them. However, in a book, they stand out for many readers, myself included. When I read a swear word, I notice it. The vulgarity says something in itself, and I feel it’s best to be really sure I want to say that. Usually, I don’t.

5. There absolutely must be some major character for the reader to root for. They don’t have to be the good guy, or nice, or likable, but they do have to suck you in so you care about whether they live or die and succeed or fail.

That’s pretty much it. I follow the rules of grammar (most of the time) and try to offer the best writing I can. Everything else is detail, and usually specific to a particular story.

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