Tag Archives: writing tips

#NaNoPrep Season: Being Creative When Life Sucks

For many professional arting types, such as writers, this has been a rough year. A lot of us have been exhausted by all the things going on for the past 12-15 months. This isn’t even solely about politics. Natural disasters and terrorism are horrible for creativity. The economy isn’t exactly fantastic if you’re not already rich. I’ve been watching politicians press to take away my health care, either wholly or partially, over and over, and again. As a value-added bonus, my father passed away last November.

This stuff is exhausting. Things which are exhausting are problematic for creative expression.

Here, have a refreshing pic of Supercat, my personal writing helper.

If you like writing, you’ve probably seen quotes about why writing is more important than ever lately. Which is great, but doesn’t help if you’re struggling to put ideas together or if you feel like your work is frivolous in a time that seems to demand seriousness.

This is how I’ve still managed to produce work over the past year:

  1. Stop spending so much time on social media. At least half the crap you find there isn’t even real anyway. Check in, catch up with your friends, and check out. Don’t argue with anyone unless it’s silly or frivolous and you need some silly or frivolous. No one has their mind changed by arguments on FB or Twitter.
  2. Get into a routine. Creativity is a lot like a muscle. Flex it every day at the same time, and your brain starts to expect that. Treat it like an exercise regimen. Go easy on yourself at first, and slowly add more weight (by which I mean time and demands).
  3. When something happens that you don’t understand and/or can’t process, like a terrorist opening fire on a crowd of people having fun, set aside your WIP for the day and write a loose story about how you feel. Write a story where you save all those people through some improbable means. Or tell a story about an imaginary victim who finds true love, or meets their maker, or whatever else pops into your head. Get that crap out so it stops festering inside. No one else ever has to read it, you just have to bleed it.
  4. Don’t watch the news for more than one hour on any given day. Keep up with current events, especially local ones, but pass on all the editorializing and opinionating.
  5. Exercise. Like, actual physical exercise that gets you off your butt for at least an hour a day. Writing is a sedentary job. Break it up a bit. For every hour you spend writing, get up for five minutes and do something that needs doing around your dwelling. Between chapters, take a walk or lift some weights, or whatever works for you.
  6. If you don’t have one already, find a social writing group that you can meet with in person on some regular schedule. This is not the same thing as a critique group. Critique groups are great and important, but you need a few folks you can just chill with and talk to who understand the plight of being a writer. NaNo write-ins are a great time to find folks for this purpose.
  7. Take a day off every week or so. Unplug. Go for a hike in the woods without your phone. Get away from your writing, from the news, from Uncle Bob’s opinions, from everything. If you can’t take a whole day, take as much of one as you can. At the least, treat yourself to something you consider decadent–an activity or foodstuff is a great thing to spend some time savoring.
  8. Make time to experience new things once in a while. Go someplace you’ve never been. Watch a webinar about a subject you’re not familiar with. Try the cheapest possible version of a handicraft you’ve never tried. Play a new game. Taste a new flavor. Take a different way home. Something.

If none of that helps, I strongly suggest seeking professional medical assistance. You may have depression or some other medical or psychological issue standing in your way. Mental health issues are exceedingly common among creative types. Modern medicine and/or psychology can fix a lot of those kinds of problems, or at least make them less debilitating.

As a side note, clever readers will notice I didn’t address the frivolity issue. That’s because it’s not a real issue. Everything doesn’t have to delve into serious, timely topics. Everything doesn’t have to address problems in our current culture. Relationships matter, buttkicking for goodness matters, the struggles of gods and mortals alike matter. Whatever you write, so long as it’s from your soul, it matters.

Next week: Panicking with style.

#NaNoPrep Season: Basics of Writing an Outline

You may think you don’t need an outline, but odds are good that your first draft will turn out better with one. More time spent before the writing on figuring out how to work the plot means less time spent during the writing on that very subject.

What is an outline?

At its most basic, an outline for a novel is a list of notes about the plot in chronological order. Outlines can be vague or detailed, terse or verbose. The right way to outline is the way that provides you with what you need to write the story. Which is to say that there is no right way to outline, there’s only the way that works for you.

Like this, except with plot points.

Of course, that’s not helpful if you’re not sure what to put in an outline to start with.

How Does One Do This Outlining Thing?

To start your first real outline, you’ll have to know some things about your story. You’ll need your genre, basic setting, character ideas, and what story you want to tell. Let’s go back to my ridiculous example of Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim from last week.

The genre could either be fantasy or science fiction. I’m going to go with fantasy, then further refine to modern fantasy. It’ll still have sci-fi elements, but this lets me have teenage wizards and witches, which is kind of the point of Harry Potter. I’ll include giant mecha and kaiju because that’s also required. So, my teenage wizards are piloting giant mecha to fight kaiju created by an evil wizard who wants to control the world. Because that’s what evil wizards do. It’ll take place in near-future Earth where magic exists for some reason I don’t need to identify right now.

Now that I know the basic premise, I can begin an outline. The more information you have, the easier it is to make up a robust outline, but you can start with just this much.

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to work up a full outline for a novel-length story and post it publicly. If you want to write Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim, you’re welcome for the idea, but figure out the story yourself.

We know the plot will center around our teenage wizards working to defeat the evil wizard. We need to decide if they defeat him for good in this story (thus making this book a standalone), or if they only defeat him temporarily (for a series). I’m going to say this will be a trilogy. So the evil wizard gets defeated, but only temporarily.

Now we know the end. How does the story start? Since this is a Harry Potter knockoff, it’ll start with kids in a school. I don’t want to do 7 years and cross age category from middle grade to YA, so we’ll do YA. Our teenage wizards are 14 years old and attending wizard high school so they can learn to pilot giant mecha and fight kaiju. A lot of kids start high school at 14, so let’s begin with our heroes on their first day of magic high school.

Tip: Don’t follow the plot of any existing story with precision unless that existing story is public domain. Ripping off other authors is bad. Getting caught doing it is worse.

I now have two important pieces of my outline: the beginning and the end. Neither has much detail, but knowing where to start and where to end is an excellent way to begin an outline.

From here, you need to make an important decision. About how long do you want this book to be? A 50k word novel is less complex and has fewer plotlines than a 100k word novel. A 75k novel is in between. For my purposes, I’m going to go with 75k as my ideal target wordcount.

Notice how I use “ideal target wordcount” and don’t make it a concrete thing. Don’t be surprised if you pick a target number and shoot way under or way over. Part of the learning process is discovering how many words it takes to tell the story in your head.

Next, you need to decide what kind of story you want to tell. I could take this outline in several directions. It could be relationship-driven, focusing on the connections between the characters and how magic impacts their lives. I could go action-heavy, throwing them into the mecha and onto the front lines for some reason. I could make it a mystery, with the kids working to discover why the evil wizard is using kaiju. There are other options, but these three appeal to me the most. Since my target wordcount is 75k, I’m going to pick action for a major focus, mystery for a secondary focus, and relationships to bubble underneath.

For a 50k work, I’d use only two. For a 100k work, I’d take all three, plus see if I can come up with another one to bubble with the relationships.

This is the part where you start doing the real work.

Figure out the evil wizard’s goals. Why is he evil? (Because you need an antagonist is not a good reason.) What does he think “control the world” means? How does he intend to accomplish that?

Take your major focus and figure out the simplest path to defeating the evil wizard if everything goes right for the heroes. My major focus is action, so my wizards are going to learn to use their magic and mecha well enough to fight the evil wizard’s kaiju and smash his headquarters. The simplest path is for them to jump in, learn everything they need to know on the fly, and wade through the kaiju to reach him.

Which is not a compelling story.

Figure out your evil wizard’s simplest path to victory if everything goes right for him. My evil wizard wants to control the world. He’s using kaiju to lure out all those who would resist him and crush them so he can take control of the weak, who’ll then be his slaves. His simplest path is for the kaiju to wade through his enemies and smash lots of stuff, including that school with those damned kids.

Also not a compelling story.

Those two boring stories, when pursued concurrently, have a lot of potential. The heroes and villain have a direct conflict in their goal. You can now see that the villain has a reason to target the school, which is why the kids are going to be involved in the fighting.

At this point, you fill in the path from the Starting Point to the Ending Point with ideas and notes. Whatever you think of, write it down.

Once you have some basic ideas for that, repeat for your secondary focus, weaving them together. Then slide in your bubbling option wherever it feels right. As you go, get specific enough that you can write a scene from your notes without being so specific that you feel like you already wrote the scene.

Here’s the trick.

Outlines end as a list of notes in chronological order. They rarely start that way.

For example, I think this book should have a scene involving the heroes getting into trouble for breaking some school rules. I have no idea where that fits in my plot, but I’m making a note, and I’ll pull it out when I reach a point where I need one or more of my heroes taken out of commission, or to be in a place where they can do a thing they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Think of Harry finding Filch’s squib letter or the three kids running across the troll.

One option is to write your scene ideas on index cards and move them around until they make sense. If that isn’t your style, figure out what works for your brain and do that instead.

One Last Point…For Now.

There are lots of ways to get into your first outline. If you’d rather have a book, there are plenty of excellent ones to try. I recommend 21 Days To A Novel and No Plot? No Problem! as good, all-purpose guides by people who know what they’re talking about.

And it’s worth saying that every time you set out to write a book, your process will probably shift, at least a little. The important part is to start, not to start perfect.

#NaNoPrep Season: Learning Your Pre-writing Style #NaNoWriMo

There are many writers who claim to pants their stories. That is, fly by the seat of their pants, aka no plan, no outline, no nothing before starting to write. The other option is planning, which consists of drawing up a complete outline, character bios, detailed setting documents, and so on.

Pantser vs. Plotter

I wish to submit two controversial opinions:

  1. Pantsing and plotting are not two options, but rather two ends of a spectrum.
  2. As with many linear scales, most of us fit most comfortably somewhere between the two extremes.

The popularized term for folks who do “both” is Plantser. My argument is that we are all plantsers. Or, at least, the majority of us are.

Planster

The hitch: until you start writing, you have no real idea where you fit on that spectrum. You may think you’re on the Pantser end, then you get stuck on Day 4 with no idea what to do. Or you could Plannerize everything down to the details, then discover you only want to write a few of those scenes because the rest is already fulfilled in your head. Or your plans fly out the window because on Day 3, you thought of something brilliant.

My advice to any writer who isn’t sure where you fall on the spectrum is to aim for the middle. This list is not in order, because no one uses exactly the same process:

  1. Draft an outline focused on the major plot points. Leave out details and keep to the basic facts.
  2. Figure out the broad strokes of your main characters.
  3. Do some pre-writing of 1-3 short scenes that would take place before the novel starts to settle into the characters’ voices and mannerisms.
  4. Figure out what your setting needs to accommodate your plot and characters.
  5. If you have any mystery elements at all, come up with the clues.
  6. Come up with your ideal “It’s this meets this!” line. Example: “It’s Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim!” (I have no idea what that would look like, but I’d read the hell out of it.)
  7. Do your research, whether it’s about a place, a person label, a culture, clothing, technology, or whatever. Bookmark web pages with useful information about whatever topics you need.

For the average writer, this list should cover your prepping needs. You may discover you need more detail. Maybe you’re better with less.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to toss your outline if your brain takes you in a direction than your outline. Be flexible. But when you decide to veer off course, take a little time and figure out why. Is the new idea really better? Does the new journey suit the character/theme/conflict you want to portray?

If you feel good about the new direction, do a fresh set of plot points with it in mind and carry on.

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.