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Quick Edits: Action Scenes

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Let’s talk about writing action!

What Is Action and What Makes a Good Scene?

Action scenes are any scenes that require high tension and lots of movement by the characters. Obvious sorts of action scenes are fights and chases, but they’re not the only types of action scenes. Sex scenes are also action scenes.

Clarity and high tension are the hallmarks of an effective action scene. The reader should have absolutely no opportunity to put the book down. She should be grabbed and pulled through the scene with so much need that turning the page takes too long.

Action Scene Toolbox

Clarity

The reader must understand exactly what’s happening in the scene, so clarity of language is very important. You don’t ever want him to have to stop and reread things in order to envision who is doing what.

You want to use concise and vivid words. No wishy-washy descriptors, like “fast” or “large.” Instead, use “breakneck” or “colossal.” While a thesaurus will be useful in the case of substituting a word, don’t limit yourself to that. Consider whether rewording the sentence altogether would make for a more exciting and memorable description. Stretch yourself. Don’t take the easy way out.

Active and evocative verbs are your friend, but don’t go overboard and use so many or so unusual words that the pacing of the scene gets bogged down.

High tension

Writers have much more in their tool boxes than just words. One of the most effective tools for getting readers to feel what you want them to feel is sentence structure. When writing action scenes, you want to use shorter, punchy sentences. Simple noun-verb-object structures with the occasional phrase at the beginning or end.

Why? Because shorter, simple sentences are very easy to parse, and we can read them faster. Complex sentences make us slow down to make sure we understand what’s being said. In an action scene, you want the reader to read faster and not have to slow down. This serves the purpose of raising the tension. Used in conjunction with your actual writing — ie, how you describe what’s happening and the words you use — you get a bonus on top of the natural tension of the scene.

As a writer, you should use all the tools at your disposal to get the reader to feel what you want him to feel. 🙂

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Distancing

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Distancing is when you are using 3rd person limited or 1st person point of view and then use language, usually in descriptions, that distances the reader from that POV. Here’s an example:

She watched Thomas get out of the car.

If we are firmly in our character’s POV, we don’t need to be told that she’s watching. All we need is:

Thomas got out of the car.

We will know she watched that happen, because if we’re in her head and she didn’t watch him getting out of the car, we wouldn’t even get the action at all.

Another example:

As he closed the car door, he felt the chill of the metal on his palm.

Instead, consider:

As he closed the car door, the metal chilled his palm.

The first sentence is the author telling the reader what the character is feeling. Do you notice how we are pulled out of the character’s head? It puts a degree of separation between the reader and the character that you, as the author, may not want. In the second sentence, we are invited to experience the feeling along with the character, which, in my experience as reader and a writer, is infinitely preferable.

Words you can search your manuscript for that might identify distancing sentences:

  • Saw
  • Watched
  • Heard
  • Felt

There are others, but that is a start. Now, of course, not every instance of these words will need to be removed, but they should each be evaluated individually. Push yourself to think outside the box, to think about how a sentence can be phrased differently.

Pulling these words out of your writing encourages you to create better, more vivid and interesting sentences. This will make you a better writer.

And isn’t that the point? 🙂

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Quick Edits: Word Echoes

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

This week we’re looking at word echoes. Word echoes can be used as a writing device to emphasize some aspect of the scene, character, or plot. Therefore, you don’t want accidental word echoes. You always want echoes to be a deliberate choice.

There are a couple different types of word echoes.

One type is crutch words. These are words that, as a writer, you lean on heavily, usually in first drafts. I keep a list of my crutch words (which includes “actually” and “smile,” also “so,” among others) and when I finish a first draft, I search on each of the words to see where I can change them up. Notice I didn’t say “find a different word.” We’ll talk about word choices in a minute.

A second type is words that commonly connect with each other in some way. This is an echo I began to recognize as I edited professionally. Words that have a natural opposite, like “up” and “down,” “in” and “out,” often find their opposites within a few lines. In my experience, it’s very common that if I see “on” somewhere in a sentence, “off” shows up, usually within three lines of it (and vice versa). And that pairing is usually repeated two more times within the next page or two.

A third type is simply when we use the same word too many times in too short a span. I find that I do this most often when I’m not in the zone of writing and just trying to get the words down on paper. I will usually mark it and come back to it later.

But the bigger issue is when we don’t see those echoes on the page. This is where beta readers can come in. I wrote a post on how to best utilize beta readers. One of my suggestions is to give beta readers specific things to watch for or comment on. So you can task one of your beta readers with watching for echoes. That is probably the easiest way to catch them. If you hire a professional editor, they will definitely catch those echoes. (If they don’t, you need a new editor 😉 )

A word about word choices

See what I did there? 🙂

When looking at word echoes and deciding how to fix them, don’t always go for a synonym to substitute for the offending word. Look at the entire sentence. When we echo, it’s a good indication of sloppy writing. Not necessarily bad writing, but when we wrote, we went for the easy words, the expected words. That’s why we echoed.

If you look at the sentence and can work out a way to revise the sentence itself so that the echoed word is no longer necessary, I will bet that the sentence you come up with is much better than the original sentence.

Why? Because the sentence was built with intent, rather than just tossed together in the midst of a writing sprint. Intentional writing is almost always better than off the cuff writing.

My advice: try not to think in terms of synonyms. Think in terms of recreating the sentence to get rid of the echo.

~

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

Doing What We Do (Rough Draft Writing – Part Two)

Craft of Writing

Last week, I wrote Part One of this two-parter, so if you missed it, you might want to pop back and have a peek.

I talked about writing character sketches and setting sketches before I even begin writing the beats. And all of this is done before I start working on the actual story.

Once I’ve gotten through the characters and the settings, I’m ready to get started on the beats. I think of the beats as notes to myself about the story. I definitely don’t think of doing it as outlining. It’s more like me telling myself the story. Not as it will eventually be written — a novel or short story — but as if I’m sitting next to myself, literally, telling myself about the story.

The beat listing begins as just a bunch of bullet points. This happens. Then this happens. Then this other thing happens. And I just list things out, as far as I know them, all the way through to the end, if I can. Sometimes, I only know the beats for the first third or half. And that’s okay. I often get the rest as I’m working on the ones I do have, so I have the entire story out in beats before I begin writing for real.

Once I have my bullet points — I’ve usually already divided them into chapters at this point, but not everyone does it this way, of course — I start at the beginning. I take the first bullet point, which might look like this:

  • Jacob awkwardly asks Sophie out

Okay, that’s actually a bullet point from my YA post-apocalyptic novel Hovel Rats, and it’s not the first bullet point, but about halfway in. You get what I mean though.

So now I take that bullet point and expand on it. You know how in writing, people always say, “Show, don’t tell”? In this case, it’s all about the telling. I just write down a few sentences about what is to happen in the scene. I also might make notes to myself on things to remember to try to convey. Here’s the above bullet point as a beat:

Out scavenging, Jacob starts talking about missing dates. Not the asking so much as the anticipation and getting to know someone. He knows that sounds a little lame, but it’s part of the “normal” that he misses.
Sophie thinks about how she hadn’t ever been out on a date before “normal” ended.

After a bit a hemming and hawing, which Sophie doesn’t recognize as Jacob being nervous, he asks if she would like to have dinner with him. Sophie is confused. They have dinner together every night. She finally gets that he’s “asking her out.” Make sure to convey her blushing and her feeling a little dumb for not getting it. Also, her excitement.

They make plans to have dinner on the patio by the roses.

 

That’s it. Simple.

A couple paragraphs, just so I know what’s going on and who’s feeling what. The scene I wrote from that beat was about 1200 words, but only half of it was the actual awkward asking-out part. The rest of it was the “out scavenging” part that is just two words at the beginning of that beat. Generally speaking, a beat will be about 10-20% of the length of the actual scene that will be written from it.

One of my issues with traditional outlining is that it didn’t seem to leave room for creativity. It felt very draconian. In doing the beats, I have more than one opportunity for creativity. I found that when writing the beats themselves, that’s when my plotting muse kicks into gear.

I play with the plot at this level, almost exclusively. This is where I learn exactly where my story is going. It’s much more efficient than learning in the writing phase, because if something doesn’t work, I know much sooner and after much less effort. I’ve only written a couple hundred words versus a couple thousand or more. I can pivot and adapt more easily and quickly.

Once I’ve done my beats, either all of them (preferable) or as far as I have in my head, it’s time to sit down and start writing. I use Scrivener for pretty much everything writing-related (including this blog post!) and Scrivener has a split-screen feature. Word also allows you to have two files open and split the screen, so if you’re still using Word, this is workable for you too.

I usually have the beat on the bottom and my writing space on the top (because I like it more or less eye level). Then, I simply start writing as I would have any other time, but use the beats as guidance. What I’ve found is that I’m much more focused and I can belt out words a lot faster.

If I’m in the zone, in general, I can write about 2000 words an hour. Note, I said in the zone. If I’m not in the zone and if I’m trying to decide on things as I write and I’m trying to think about how whatever I’m writing is going to affect what I’ve already written and what I’ve yet to write, then I have a much lower word count per hour.

Write or Die helps me to keep up with how fast I can write. He’s releasing a WoD 3, but it’s pretty ugly, so I stick with version 2 🙂

Because I’ve written the beats and I’ve worked out, mostly, how everything relates together, I don’t have to think about any of that. I can just focus on creating great description or natural dialogue. I can focus on creative ways of bringing the emotion out of the characters and onto the page.

And I can write faster.

You’ll notice that there’s tons of creativity in this stage, too. Obviously, to create a striking description requires it. To bring the characters to life on the page requires it. So creativity isn’t stifled at all using this method. I’d say it’s just organized differently.

Instead of the creativity being in a great big jumble as I write, instead, I’m carving the plotting aspect out and doing it separately. I’m doing the character and setting descriptions separately. There is still room in the writing for all of these, but the heavy lifting of them is already done. So whatever I still fiddle with in the writing itself is smaller, less pressure.

So that’s my system! Instead of just writing by the seat of my pants or rigidly creating an outline I must adhere to, I mesh the two. I create an environment where I have the guidance of an outline, but the creative openness of writing by the seat of my pants. And this works for me.

Let me know if you decide to try this way; tell me how it works for you!

What’s your process? Do you do a lot of planning or pre-writing? Or are you a write-what-you’re-inspired-to-write sort of person? Drop a comment below!

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

Doing What We Do (Rough Draft Writing – Part One)

Craft of Writing

I mentioned in my New Year post that 2018 is going to be dedicated to writing. I’m refocusing on the words.

I thought it might be interesting to post about how I actually do that. What my “process” is, so to speak. Fair warning: this is going to be a two-parter. This is mainly because as I wrote, it got really, really long! So you’ll get a bit here and you’ll get a bit next week too 🙂

Back before I got into publishing, before I’d even taken one course about writing, I was a dyed-in-the-wool pantser. I came up with an idea for a character or a situation and I’d just sit down and start writing, without any idea where I was going.

This is a perfectly valid way to write. Lots of people do it successfully this way. For me, what I found is that it was really inefficient. I spent a lot of time meandering around, not really sure where I was going. I strongly resisted any suggestion I do anything like outlining, because the story was in charge, not me. I had to go where the story took me.

As I connected with other writers and also worked through my graduate program at Seton Hill, I realized what my problem was and it was inherent in the way I was writing.

My husband is Dutch. When his mom came over to the US to visit us the first time, one of the things she really wanted to do was go to a grocery store.

I know. That seems weird. But in the Netherlands, grocery stores are small, neighborhood businesses. They don’t have sprawling jungles of produce and glaciers of frozen foods.

So she wanted to see a grocery store here in the US. We obliged, of course. We let her loose in a Kroger (I think… maybe it was Publix) and I went around, gathering what I needed from various sections. A little while later, I got to the dairy section and I found my soon-to-be mom-in-law standing in front of a dairy case. This older woman, just frozen there, staring at the butter.

Why do you need so many different kinds of cream cheese?

You know… that wall of butter that is generally four feet wide and six feet tall. She was just standing there, looking a bit dumbfounded. I went up to her and asked her if she was okay. She turned to me, her eyebrows furrowed.

“Why do you need so many different kinds of butter?”

Too Much Butter

I realized that, in having literally no path for my writing, I had way too much butter to choose from. There was too much I could do. Too many paths I could take. And having that much choice, having to make that many decisions (this, but not that; those, but not these) froze me up more than it freed me.

I had so many places I could go, I had no idea where I should go.

Several years ago, I started playing with other ways to write, other processes. I tried out different methods that other people use. Some are pretty well-know, like the Snowflake Method. Others are just systems that writers have devised for themselves. I’m still exploring, but I feel like I’ve found a method that works for me. Not only does it keep me focused on where I need to go for the story, but it also greatly speeds up my actual writing, so I get things done much more quickly. (When I, yknow, actually focus on my writing.)

Writing Like a Hybrid

To give credit where it’s due, I completely ganked this method from Sterling & Stone, which is a trio of writers who not only publish books, but also produce a great podcast on self-publishing that I recommend to anyone interested in that avenue (among many other podcasts).

The method involves creating “beats” for the story as a method of pre-writing. It’s not outlining, so much as it’s note-taking for the story.

How It Works for Me

First, before I do anything else, I make character sketches. For each major character, I fill out a worksheet which details what the character looks like, their background, etc. I don’t necessarily know all the things about them at this point. I leave a lot of stuff blank to be filled in later, as I write. But I get the major stuff down now, early.

Once I’ve got the sheet filled out, then I write a page or so about the character in relation to the story. What is their goal in the story? How do they change? What is their overall attitude to what is happening? How do they feel about the other characters? How do they connect?

I don’t get into details about the story itself here, just the general implications on and attitudes of the character I’m working on. I’ll also note down how the character’s background might affect their reactions to the general plot or other characters. For example, if a character had an abusive girlfriend, maybe that character is wary of women, in general, and so holds the main character at arm’s length and doesn’t trust her.

I do this worksheet and write-up for all the major characters. For minor characters, I will do a more sparse version of the worksheet and maybe write a few lines about who they are within the story and why they are in the story. (I find it’s important for supporting characters to be in the story for their own reasons, rather than my needing them in the story.)

That done, I’ll do something similar for any major settings. I’ll write a few paragraphs with the description of the place, any general significance, and then significance to soecific characters and/or plot.

Westminster Abbey ~ London
An awesome setting 🙂 Photo by Aja.

These worksheets and write-ups are important to do ahead of time for a couple reasons. First, it allows me not to have to worry about figuring out what someone or something looks like when I’m in the flow of writing. I’ve already worked out how they look.

Second, it brings me closer to the characters (and the settings) before I’m actually writing. I get to learn about them as separate entities from the story itself, which, I think, helps make them more realistic. I don’t want characters who didn’t exist before the story and only exist now because of the story. If I connect with the before-story characters, then I will convey them much more richly within the story itself.

Okay! That might seem like a lot of pre-writing, and it is! But it’s not the main pre-writing. This was the pre-pre-writing. But don’t be intimidated. It seems like a lot of work on the front end and putting off the fun of the writing itself. But what I’ve found is that when I do this (and the beats, which I’ll talk about next week), the writing is much easier and goes faster. Honestly, the writing comes 3x+ quicker if I do this stuff first.

And even besides those good outcomes, I’ve also found that because I don’t have to focus on creating all these details when I’m writing, my first draft comes out much more polished. This is because I’m able to focus on the writing itself — the scenes, the plots — rather than the details of the characters or deciding what a place looks like. It cuts down on the decision fatigue happening during the actual creation process.

Next week, I’ll talk a lot more about writing the actual beats: how and why.

What do you think of the pre-pre- writing so far? Do you do something similar? Entirely different?

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

My Top 5 Most Useful Books About Fiction Writing

Craft of Writing, Writing

Let’s face it, writing a good story is hard. It’s entirely different from telling your best friend the story about what happened Friday night. Face to face stories are easier, because you have tone of voice and inflections, as well as body language, to help convey your meaning. With a novel or short story, you only have the words.

I am an addict. I admit it. I have more books on the craft of writing than my local library does, I’d bet. I use these books for my writing, of course, but also for when I’m editing or teaching other writers. I learn a lot from reading the stories of authors, but there’s also a place for an educational slant — for having an explanation of why something works.

To that end, I’m listing my Top 5 craft of fiction writing books. These books sit on the shelf right beside my desk. They’re always right there.

Now, these are the top 5, but they’re not in any specific order. You can’t really say that a book about creating character is better (or worse) than a book about writing a synopsis. They’re about different things. So while this is a Top 5 post, it’s not a ranked top 5.

Also, a while back, I wrote a post about my two favorite books on revision. Since I’ve already mentioned those, I’m not going to include them here.

And with all that said, here we go!

Writing the Breakout Novel

by Donald Maass

I got this book relatively early on in my fiction writing journey and it really opened my eyes to the idea that a book can be planned. Not in an outlining sort of way (which it can, of course, and which I was highly resistant to doing at the time), but in a larger-scale sort of way. From a 30,000 foot view, so to speak.

The purpose of the book is to write a novel that pushes past the mid-list and becomes a breakout seller. Think Harry Potter, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey. A book that captures the minds of millions of people, rather than thousands or hundreds.

Donald Maass, who is a very successful agent who owns his own agency, identifies the things that he observes as pillars of a breakout novel. With section headings like Premise, Stakes, Time and Place, Characters, etc, this is a high-level view of story creation that every author can benefit from.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends

by Nancy Kress

What author hasn’t struggling with slogging through the middle of their novel? We’ve lost the bright, shiny feeling of the beginning and we’re not yet at the exciting, climactic end. There’s a reason many novels are abandoned in the middle. Fiction writing isn’t always easy.

Nancy Kress addresses all these things — the bright, shiny, the exciting, climactic, and the slogging — in her book. She gives authors tools on how to stay on track in their fiction writing, especially in the middle, which is arguably the longest part of a novel.

Each chapter ends with exercises designed to give writers practice in implementing the author’s suggestions. Some of the exercises involve reading and identifying things she’s discussed (such as reader expectations after the beginning), some involve writing, both new and assessment of current writing.

If you have trouble finishing your stories, you might find this book especially helpful.

Writing the Fiction Synopsis: A step by step approach

by Pam McCutcheon

If you’ve ever struggled with creating a synopsis, this book will be your savior! There are actually very few books on writing a good synopsis (compared to other writing topics). Mostly, writers are just expected to figure it out, maybe from talking to other writers, maybe by osmosis. In recent years, there have been a few more books (but only a few), yet this one, written almost twenty years ago and for most of that time the only book on synopsis writing, is still the gold standard.

McCutcheon takes you through the steps of writing a synopsis using three relatively well-known movies as her test subjects. She provides a number of worksheets to help you along, but that are also useful in the writing process, as well. She focuses not just on what should be in the synopsis, but also on tone and voice, as well.

This book also has exercises at the end of each chapter, but the result, if you do them all, is that you’ll have a synopsis by the time you’ve finished the book.

Characters & Viewpoint

by Orson Scott Card

This is probably one of my most recommended books. A lot of newer writers don’t understand the difference between omniscient point of view and 3rd person limited point of view, and so I often see a lot of what is called head-hopping: jumping from different points of view within the same scene, paragraph, or even sentence. This book explains those points of view very clearly, using a camera lens as illustration. I’ve seen more than one writer have an “Ah-ha!” moment after reading the section on viewpoint.


The guidance about character creation is also valuable, especially in conjunction with the character creation advice in the other books on this page. Card gives information about where characters come from and what makes for a good fictional characters. And then goes into more in-depth things, such as how the reader should feel about the character, what the stakes are for the character within the story, and transformations.

This is one of those books that I believe should be on every writer’s shelf!

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

edited by Michael A. Arnzen & Heidi Ruby Miller

I’m a bit biased about this book, I admit, because I have an article in it called, “Demystifying What Editors Want.” However, even if I didn’t have work in it, I would still have this book by my desk.


It’s a collection of over eighty essays about everything about writing popular fiction, from craft topics to life balance topics to promoting and marketing. Contributors include authors from all over the genre spectrum, from smaller published authors to mid-list authors to heavy hitters like David Morrell (First Blood [Rambo] and others), Tom Monteleone (Borderland Books), Nancy Kress (her name should look familiar 😉 ), and Tess Gerritson (Harvest and others). I’ll sometimes pick it up and just choose an essay to read when I’ve got 5 minutes. There’s always something to learn.

I often joke that this is my MFA program in a $30 book (the Kindle version is only $10!). 🙂 This is a really comprehensive collection of experiences and advice from authors and editors working within the commercial fiction publishing industry.

Okay, so those are my Top 5 books for fiction writing. I’ve tried to choose books that run the gamut of information that authors need to know about, from character creation, to doing the writing, to stuff needed to get published.

What fiction writing books do you find indispensable? Drop a line down in the comments!

Keep writing!

Quick Edits: Pronouns

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Pronouns

If you have two or more people of the same gender in the same scene, it’s easy to use pronouns in a confusing way. (I’ll be using male/female pronouns in these examples, but neutral and non-gendered pronouns are also subject to this issue.)

Say Tina enters a room and sees her sister, Marcy, who has been missing since the day before.

She ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and her bag fell onto the floor.

We might assume that the subject (she) is Tina herself. And that the first “her” is Marcy. But think for a moment. Couldn’t the subject (she) also be Marcy? The sentence works that way too. And then the first “her” would be Tina. And we have no idea, either way, which of them dropped their bag. See how that can be confusing?

I generally advise, at the very least on the sentence level, but it’s probably even more effective on the paragraph level, to choose one character for whom you’ll substitute pronouns.

So pick either Tina or Marcy as being the one that can have the pronouns. And the other, you’ll use her name. This doesn’t mean you can only use pronouns for that character.  You can still use the pronoun character’s name. Just don’t use pronouns for the non-pronoun character.

So the sentence could be changed to look something like this:

Marcy ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Marcy’s bag fell onto the floor.

See how the same sentence with ambiguous pronouns could be clarified to mean a lot of different things? We should shoot for clarity in our writing, and this is one that is really easy to flub up! But it’s a pretty simple fix, as you can see.

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

No, Virginia, There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

Craft of Writing, Writing

Ten years ago, I’d have fought you if you’d told me writer’s block didn’t exist. I would have told you that you were crazy, that of course it existed! Because I experienced it and how dare you tell me I’m a literary hypochondriac!

Now, I realize that people who told me that then — and lit fires of guilt in my heart — were right. Writer’s block doesn’t exist. Now, that isn’t to say that a writer won’t have trouble getting words on a page. Of course, some days are worse (sometimes a lot worse) than others. But there is no real block. There’s not some outside force that is taking away our ability to write. It’s not like there is poison on our keyboards that will kill us when we sit down to type.

I’ve found that “block” is generally one of two things: avoidance or apathy. They can show up together, but it’s usually at least one or the other.

Avoidance

I find that this usually happens when I feel pressured or when I feel guilty or sometimes when I’m afraid I’m going to write crap.

Often the pressure and the guilt are tied together and both relate to when I’ve slacked off or dropped the ball on my writing goals. I feel pressure, mostly internally, but sometimes a perceived external pressure too, because I’m “behind.” It’s like I feel that other people are judging me for being a writer who doesn’t write.

And then there’s the overcompensating for the guilt: I didn’t write yesterday, for whatever reason, and now I have to write twice as much today to get “caught up.”

And, of course, then I feel crappy, because obviously I’m failing as a writer, so guilt starts really eating at me.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I handle guilt and procrastination pressure in the most efficient way.

I stop doing everything.

Because I’ve found that helps with “feeling behind.” *nods* Really. It does. *cough*

As I’m sure you know, it doesn’t help at all. But that stopping is the writer’s block. It’s the avoidance of doing what I need to be doing because of emotions — guilt, fear, pressure.

Apathy

Apathy often goes hand-in-hand with avoidance, but rather than being about my emotions, this one is about the work itself.

Apathy happens when I have absolutely no interest in or excitement for what I’m writing. Have you had that happen? You just put off doing your writing because you’re just not that into it. “It’s not you,” I tell the story. “It’s me. I’m just not that into you.”

Apathy can also happen as a result of outside things. Perhaps you got a rejection letter, or someone close to you gave you bad criticism on something you wrote, an idea you had, or even just the thought that you could possibly be a writer (I hate it when writers have people like this in their families 🙁 ).

So it becomes infinitely easier to not write.

How to get out of the “writer’s block” rut

We all hate this answer, but the best way to get out of the rut is to write. Even if you just open a screen and start writing about how you don’t feel like writing or about how you feel you have writer’s block. The act of actually writing will get you going. Eventually, you’ll be able to shift to something you’re supposed to be working on. But even if you don’t shift today, getting into the habit of doing the writing is a good portion of the writer’s block battle in itself.

Here’s the other important bit here: When you’re writing, give yourself permission to suck.

Go into the writing with the idea that whatever comes out at the other end could very well be the most awful, horrendous, gross piece of writing to ever exist in the history of humanity.

And that that’s perfectly okay.

I find that once I’ve given myself permission not to write the Great American Novel in the first draft, my words come much more easily.

When you're #amwriting, give yourself permission to suck. #writetip #writerslife Click To Tweet

Strike apathy out by throwing a curve ball

Basically, be mean to your characters. Here are two questions that are great at getting you out of a boring story:

What is the worst thing that can happen to your character, from their perspective?

And I mean the worst, barring death (unless that’s a thing that characters can come back from in your story 🙂 ). Is it the death of their partner? Is it losing their job? Is it finding that the treasure at the end of their quest is really just a stone?

Whatever it is, from the character’s persepective, that is the worst thing that can happen, make it happen. Then see how exciting the story becomes!

What is something that your character would never do or want to do?

Perhaps betraying their best friend is something they’d never want to do. Maybe stealing or lying is outside their moral code. Maybe it’s something as simple as going on an adventure that’s completely outside of the character’s normal mindset.

Once you’ve got the thing they’d most likely never do, figure out a way to make them have to do it. Put them between a rock and a hard place such that they must choose to do that thing that is abhorrent to them. You’ll be amazed at how more interested in your story you’ll be (and, of course, you’re reader will be once it’s published!).

In the end, I’ve discovered that writer’s block is really the act of avoiding writing. Writing is simply putting words on paper (or a screen). And I don’t need a muse or brilliant words in order to do that. It’s okay if I write utter tripe. So instead of just staring at the screen or, worse, avoiding the screen altogether, I’ll put tripe on the screen.

Remember: You can fix anything you write. But you can’t fix a blank page.

Remember: You can fix anything you write. But you can't fix a blank page. #amwriting Click To Tweet

How do you handle the urge to avoid your screen? Any tips on battling that thing that people call “writer’s block”? Drop them in the comments below!

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

Why and How to Limit Flashbacks in Your Fiction

Craft of Writing, Writing

What Are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are breaks in the current story that are written in order to give the reader background information, something from the past, usually for what’s about to happen. Flashbacks are a legitimate storytelling tool — don’t let anyone tell you they’re not.

But like many tools in fiction writing (like adverbs, speech tags, etc), their use should be limited. The more background information you can insert into your stories without using flashbacks, the more skilled you are as a writer.

For me, I don’t consider a sentence or two to be a flashback. A flashback generally is a full blown scene, anywhere from a couple paragraph to pages. A flashback is turning your car around and driving back to the place, versus a quick glance in the sideview mirror.

Why Should You Limit Flashbacks?

The biggest reason to limit your use of flashbacks is because flashbacks pull your reader out of the story you’re telling.

Think about watching a movie with someone. Say it’s the second movie in a series. Would you find it distracting if your friend paused the movie every third scene to explain something from the first movie that he thinks would be good for you to know for this movie? It would probably get annoying after about half an hour. And, what might be worse, is you might be more interested in the stories your friend is telling you, rather than the story you’re watching.

When you use flashbacks, you’re essentially hitting the pause button on the story you’re trying to tell and you’re asking the reader to invest in a *different* story for a little while. Be sparse with this sort of request of your reader. Because the more often they’re distracted from the story you’re telling, the more likely they are not to feel invested enough to return to it.

How Do You Limit Your Use of Flashbacks?

When thinking about flashbacks, there are three things you should consider particularly.

Is it necessary?

Does the reader actually need information that you’re conveying in the flashback? Sometimes flashback scenes are ways for the author to convey things that the reader will already have inferred. Sometimes flashback scenes are included simply because the author wrote it and feels like it should be in there.

Think about what your key pieces of information being conveyed are. And then think about whether your reader actually needs them.

Must it be conveyed at this place in the story and in this way?

When I’m editing, it’s not uncommon for me to see a three or four page flashback where there’s only a single piece of information that’s important. That piece of information could have simply been dropped into the current story line in a sentence or two rather than yanking the reader into a flashback. Again, assess what the key pieces of information you’re trying to convey are and think about where else in the story you might weave them in, instead.

Sometimes, the flashback is important but the placement isn’t ideal. Consider your entire story; is there a better place for this flashback?

Is it?

Are you starting a new scene and rehashing everything that happened since the last scene?

If you’re telling the reader about everything that happened since the previous scene, there’s no reason not to start it from the the end of the previous scene, rather than some time later, then flashing back to what happened in the interval. This bouncing around in time can be confusing for your reader and it’s unnecessary. If you’ve decided that what’s happened between the previous scene and this scene is important enough to be on the page, then it doesn’t make any sense for it to be a flashback rather than simply part of the current story line.

The exception is if the actions between the scenes can be done in a sentence or two (which isn’t, by our definition here, a flashback anyway).

As a note before I sign off: one type of writing where you should especially avoid flashbacks is short stories. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough space in the story to support flashbacks. It ends up being a waste of precious words when you already have a limit as you do for a short story. Of course, it can be done, but as a general rule, it shouldn’t, unless you know you can do it very, very well.

How about you? Do you struggle with too many flashbacks or not knowing whether to include one or not? Comment below!

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

Do You Only Make Your Target Word Count During NaNoWriMo?

Craft of Writing, Writing

Motivation and Procrastination

Some writers have the drive to write even when they’re not at the computer (or the notepad). For some, they’ll ignore most of the rest of their life in order to get their words done. I’m not really like that. When I’m not writing, I forget that I like to write. This is especially problematic for me when I’m in editorial mode for clients, because it’s more challenging to get back into creative mode, which causes me to forget for even longer that I like writing.

My Struggle with BICHOK

As an editor, I advise my writerly clients to get their Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. You’ve probably heard that or something similar, if you frequent any sort of writer groups, whether in real life or on Facebook or some other social platform.

As a writer, I struggle with this myself. For some reason, I put off writing, as if it’s a chore like doing the dishes (which I also put off! lol). It’s really not until I’m in my chair and actually in the midst of belting out words that I realize how much I missed it and wonder why I waited so long to get back into the chair. And you’d think that when I make this revelation that the next time I have a plan to sit down to write, I’ll remember it and be excited. But no, I still think it’s doing the dishes. *sigh*

My Most Productive Writing Time Period

I was lucky enough to be able to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at Seton Hill University. During this program, students have a required page count that they are responsible to write each month. This number is decided on in conjunction with the student’s mentor for the semester, so it’s not arbitrary and the student has input in the decision. The common amount is 30 pages per month. There is also a critique group of, usually, two other students to whom a student sends these pages as well. So, at the least, you have three people every month who are waiting for your words.

As you might imagine, the years I was in that program were the most productive of my writing life.

If You’re Like Me…

…you do much better when you know someone is waiting for your work. I think this is a common issue for writers. It’s easy to push our writing off in favor of doing something with the kids, binge watching a few more episodes of Supernatural, reading the new Stephen King book, playing Halo, doing game night with friends, or even *gasp* doing the dishes. Sometimes it seems like we’ll do anything else aside from writing. Even when we know how much we like to do it.

But when there’s someone who’s looking over your shoulder, watching your progress…

Well, that changes everything.

A Tool to Help — AAMP

AAMP is the Author Accountability Mastermind Program. It’s designed to help you by giving you someone else to be accountable to. Essentially, you have your own personal cheerleading drill sergeant. 🙂

Why I created AAMP

At the beginning of the year, I joined the Single Malt Mastermind, which is helmed by Matthew Kimberley, who’s a fantastic sales and marketing instructor in the entrepreneurial space. While I was somewhat skeptical as to whether it would be useful for me, I was happily surprised. Having someone who watched what I was doing, even if he wasn’t directly involved at all, helped in making me much more productive. Knowing I had to write that email at the end of every week helped me keep my head in the game.

How does AAMP work?

AAMP is modeled on Matthew’s program, but structured a little differently and tailored for writers. There are two versions. A semi-automated version and a more personalized version. Whichever version you choose, you will receive an e-mail each Friday with writing tips, tricks, and/or advice. Then, depending on whether you’re a RockStar or a MegaStar, you’ll fill out a survey or reply to the e-mail directly.

RockStars will know that I’m reviewing the survey responses and I send out e-mails randomly to members for encouragement, help, or just to touch base. RockStars won’t get a personal response every week, but may get one any week.

Megastars have a slightly different path. They don’t fill out a survey. Instead, they reply directly to the e-mail and answer three questions. In the early part of the next week, I sent MegaStars — all MegaStars — a personal response.

Whichever version of AAMP you choose, I’m there, keeping tabs, checking in, and cheering you on!

When you can get access to AAMP

AAMP officially launches on August 1. That’s right. Just one week from tomorrow! There will be membership bonuses and a discount for everyone who signs up on Opening Day!

Want to make sure you’re in the loop?