Tag Archives: writing

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

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.

First Drafts and Madness #NaNoWriMo #amwriting

NaNo has taught me many things over the years since I started doing it. Mostly, these things are about writing, specifically my writing process. I’ve learned my strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes I can plan around them. Usually, NaNo is a humbling experience that shows me how little I’ve managed to overcome my weaknesses in first drafts, then a triumph as I crush them under my heel in revisions. *cough* pacing *cough*

The biggest thing I learned right away with my first NaNo involves the concept of a First Draft. Like many would-be-but-not writers, I always thought that novels sprang from mind to page in a nearly perfect state, requiring only minor tweaks and grammar fixes. After my first NaNo, that illusion was shattered irretrievably. It’s like being told Santa Claus is just a cultural construct used to convince kids they need to pretend to enjoy Thanksgiving in order to get presents a month later.

This year is no different. I finished the first draft of Backyard Dragons on Monday, and boy is it a steaming pile of crap. I’m now working on the first draft of Chowndie, and it’s alright, but far from brilliant. What I have to share now are a couple of analogies about writing that entertained me when my brain came up with them, so I thought I’d pass them along.

A novelist’s brain is really a giant cauldron of bland stew simmering over a fire. It’s got the minimum of things to make a stew: vegetables, meat, and water. To spew out a First Draft, the writer dips in a ladle and fills a bowl. We’d just work with the cauldron, but we’re fussy and like lots of different types of stew. They add a few herbs and spices, taste it, add a few more, and then pass it on to a beta taster. Ideally, that taster makes some additional herb or spice suggestions, or maybe would like a cracker or biscuit to go with it. Great! Soup! Sometimes, the things the taster suggested sound like they’ll go well with any iteration of the stew, so the writer tosses an herb or two into the cauldron and lets it simmer, or maybe makes biscuit dough ahead of time before repeating the process.

Obviously, one is the writer and the other is the reader. Image credit: What's Next

I’m not sure who is who here, but that cauldron is definitely my brain. Image credit: What Next

I might be hungry.

Anyway, on to analogy number two. Baseball!

I have no idea who this is because I hate baseball. Image credit: Keith Allison

I have no idea who this is because I have zero interest in baseball. Image credit: Keith Allison

Stay with me, because this one is good. Anyone can throw a baseball, right? Sure. To be able to actually pitch, you have to learn the rules and all the pitches. To pitch for the high school team, you have to practice some, but not a whole lot. It’s high school, after all. You can maybe ride on your talent, even. Most people who try could learn to pitch this well if they wanted to. The skill set is kind of particular, though, so it might not be worth the time and effort.

To become a minor league pitcher, you have to practice a lot more. And probably spend money on a trainer or coach, some equipment, that sort of thing. A lot of people could manage this if they wanted to, but it’s a lot of work to get this good at something, and even when you are this good, that doesn’t get you much because there’s plenty of others playing at the same level.

You see where this is going, I’m sure.

Then there’s the pro players. They pitch in the MLB. They’ve devoted a significant portion of their lives to being good at pitching and they do it all the time. It’s their job. Though they may not execute perfectly all the time, they know all the rules, they know all the pitches, and they know all the tricks. They do well enough to earn their right to the spotlight.

And then there’s Nolan Ryan and Orel Hershiser, and those other really famous superstar hallf of fame pitchers. I don’t know their names because I don’t care. The point is, writing is baseball, swimming, playing an instrument, coding, detectiving, drawing, etc. It’s a skill. Even if you have a natural talent for something, it takes practice, learning the rules, and probably some investment in yourself and/or gear & coaches (editors) to be genuinely brilliant at it.

Week 1 is (almost) done! #NaNoWriMo

If you’re like many WriMos, you’ve had a pretty good start. You’ve been plunking down those words every day, maybe in fits and spurts, and you’ve kept up with the daily goal. Pretty soon–maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week–you’ll crash and burn in a puddle of incomprehensible failure. Why?

  1. The excitement wears off. Yeah, it’s pretty great to be one of the cool kids for a week or two, but meh. You don’t really get anything for it. People give you an attaboy and move on. Whoopie-^&%*ing-ding-fizz.
  2. Exhaustion sets in. As it turns out, writing is a skill, and every time you do it is a form of exercise. If you’re not used to using the muscles that make writing happen and all of a sudden dive in to cranking them to eleven every day, the same things happen that also happen when you start a new physical exercise program cold. Your muscles cramp, you get exhausted.
  3. Frustration nips at your heels. The story isn’t coming out the way you envisioned it in your head. The stuff isn’t happening. Or the stuff is happening too much.
  4. You ran out of ideas. You thought you knew where the story was going, but it took a weird turn someplace and you have no idea how to proceed. Or you’re doing fine with what you planned, but it’s turned out to only be enough planning for a short story.
  5. You need to do the laundry. And take a shower and eat and sleep. If you’ve skipped out on self-care and household chores, you’re either living in filth already, starving to death, or living with irritated people who’d like you to make a damned meal or pick up your damned socks once or twice.
  6. That thing called “work” or “school”. Your boss/teacher doesn’t give a crap that you have goals and dreams. They want your work done or they’ll withhold/downgrade your paycheck/grade. You don’t want to get fired/fail.
  7. Something else–a medical problem, a family emergency, friend drama, your kids need you, your DVR is full so you either have to watch something or lose your favorite episode of [whatever] forever, etc.. Stuff happens. Life gets in the way.

What can you do to prevent/ameliorate this (in order)?

  1. Reaffirm the reasons why you started in the first place. Whatever they are, remind yourself and remember why they’re important to you.
  2. Take a day off. Write a little bit to stay with your story, but otherwise, watch some TV, read a book, take a walk, meet some friends for a bit. Let your brain chill and percolate. One day off can do a lot for you.
  3. Suck it up, buttercup. That’s how writing works. Add a comment to anything truly hideous and move on. Now is not the time to edit.
  4. See #2.
  5. Ew. Do some laundry and take a shower. Eat. It’s writing, not an Olympic event. Set boundaries and limits. Your health–physical and mental–is significantly more important than NaNo. If this is what you have to do to get your daily word count, maybe NaNo isn’t for you. Maybe you’re better off scaling back your goals to better suit your life.
  6. Priorities. Paycheck > NaNo. School > NaNo. Do what you can. Whatever you write this month will be that much progress toward your goals.
  7. Nothing. Life happens. Keep your risks low by not doing stupid crap like drunk driving and you’ve done all you can. Remember, NaNo is just a program to help you meet a goal. It’s not a contest. Winning doesn’t get you anything but a sense of accomplishment and a first draft of a novel, and maybe some attaboys. Losing isn’t a statement about your moral character or work ethic. NaNo winners are good at doing NaNo, they’re maybe good at writing. That’s it. Winning NaNo doesn’t get you a publishing contract, it doesn’t sell books, it doesn’t make you famous, it doesn’t fulfill anyone’s dreams. It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, stop and don’t look back.

Happy writing, folks. Seriously.