Tag Archives: writing

Posts about writing, my writing process, and similar stuff.

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.

Wampa Butts #amwriting

This time of year is supposed to be filled with denouements, light revision, and reading. Ha! And perhaps, Bah Humbug.

For the second time in my publishing career, I had to scrap a book and start over with a new manuscript. The first one was Chowndie, which is still stuck at about 1/3rd complete. The second was Backyard Dragons. This book should have been an easy slam dunk for me to write. I know the characters, I had the concept already, I’d been chomping at the bit to get to it all through October. I wrote it in a little over a week, dove in for revisions over two weeks, and sent it to someone I paid to feedback for me so I could get it back quickly.

I was so confident about this book I hired a line editor in October for work in January, and set myself up to publish in time for FLYA, a young adult convention in mid-March I’ll be attending with Clockwork Dragon.

Long story short: it sucked big wampa butt. Over the past week, I feverishly rewrote the whole thing except the first chapter. Prologue? Ditched. Plot? Ditched. New side characters? Ditched. Approximately 62,000 words were murdered and dumped on the side of the road.

As a result, I had no time to read. This week, I’ve got two plane trips between now and Friday, and I can only write so much on a plane. There will be book reviews again in the near future!

The Home Stretch #NaNoWriMo

I’ve been busy. While I wasn’t paying much attention, November slid past in a whirlwind of words. As I write this, I’ve blown past my 100k goal and am heading at full steam ahead for 150k. Interestingly, as the weeks have passed, my publishing priorities have changed drastically.

Backyard Dragons will be ready in March. Chowndie…will not. It may have to wait a while. I’ve come up with the basic scenario for the as-yet unnamed book to follow Backyard Dragons and think I might be able to get it done in time for the summer. There’s a nonfiction book in the near future. An anthology was delayed until the New Year. I’ve simmering four different anthology submissions. I’ve outlined a new five book series, unrelated to anything else. Some of my backlist will be getting new covers. Snap up those early editions while you can.

And then there’s the book my son wants me to write so he can do a book report for it. He’s ten years old and would like a book that features lightsabers, dragons, pirates, and airships. We had a long chat about intellectual property, trademarks, and similar subjects, which means there won’t be lightsabers after all. They’ll be magic laser swords instead. I’m not sure I can write a serious draft of this before he needs to start reading it, but I’m going to try. Because I’m crazy like that.

My NaNo region is full of people surprising me by managing to win for the first time this year after several previous failed attempts. Go team! We’re losing the West Coast Capital Challenge by a wide margin, but with these individual successes, I hardly care.

To those folks with very small word counts and only these last few days to stew in the impossibility of your task, keep trying. Write a little as often as you can. As soon as it becomes a habit, it becomes easier to squeeze in. Beyond that, if your region is involved in any word wars, you’re part of a team and every word matters.

To those folks with the finish line in sight but too far to seem reasonable, you’ve got this. You’ve so totally got this. Don’t falter and don’t despair because you’ve hit a wall. Grab a sledgehammer smash that thing down. Go off on a tangent. Slap in unnecessary backstory. Above all, keep going.

If you, like me, have already crossed the finish line, congrats! Now comes the fun part. Step 1: Finish the story. Step 2: Set it aside. Step 3: Pick it back up in a month or two and re-read it. Fix it.

Whatever else you do, keep meeting with the people you’ve found through write-ins. Those folks are writers, just like you, and no one understands a writer like another writer.