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breaking bad habits

Quick Edits: Passive to Active Verbs

Quick Edits, Writing

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

Changing a passive verb to an active verb is pretty easy. Have a look:

She was sitting on the barstool.

She sat on the barstool.

 
Drop the “is” or “was,” take the -ing verb, make it an -ed verb, and you’ve got an active sentence.

He was laughing at the clown’s antics.

He laughed at the clown’s antics.

 

Which one would you be laughing at?
My answer: Neither. I’d be running! 😉
(Photo from the documentary, Pennywise: The Story of It)

Advanced tip: Once you’ve made your passive sentence into an active sentence, you might consider revising it to use an even more vivid word. Usually when we’ve written a passive sentence (often without realizing it), we haven’t chosen the most interesting verb, so it’s worthwhile to reassess when you’re rewriting the passive to active verbs.

Happy writing!

 

 

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!

 

 

 

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New Idea, Wait Your Turn! 3 Tips for Capturing the New Shiny

Writing

So, you’re tooling along, hitting the middle of your story. Things are slowing down a little bit in your production (because middles are hard!). Or maybe you’re a bit stuck; the words aren’t coming, and you’re struggling.

And then it happens.

That voice.

You know that voice.

We all know that voice.

“Hi! I’m a new, shiny idea! Come play with me!”

What do you do? Your good, steady story is a little boring right now. It might be frustrating you a little bit.

And there’s this beautiful, new, shiny idea right there! It’s just right there! Waiting for you. Winking at you. Telling you how awesome it is and how much fun you’ll have with it instead of your old tried and true story.

The current story was once shiny and new too. But the luster has worn off. It’s easy to want to stray.

What do you do?

If you’re like I used to be, you set aside the current story and dive straight into the new-shiny!

Glorious!

And it is glorious!

The characters are exciting. The story is fun and different than the old thing you left sitting in your other window. You’re learning about the world, about what makes the characters tick. It’s just so stimulating! So sexy!

You’re writing and writing and writing. And soon, you’re in the middle. Things slow down. You’ve learned the characters pretty well and the thrill of discovery has faded.

And then it happens.

That voice.

You know that voice.

We all know that voice.

“Hi! I’m a new, shiny idea! Come play with me!”

What do you do?

I suspect all writers have been there. And it’s fun to work with new story ideas, of course. But if we repeat the above pattern (and I’ve definitely been guilty of that!), we never actually get back to the half-finished stories. We never actually finish anything. And if we never finish, we never publish. If our goal is to get our work out there, then that never, ever happens.

So how do you keep that new, shiny idea but still focus on your current project? I’ve got a couple suggestions.

Write it down

This seems pretty obvious, right? Get the new, shiny idea down on paper. Write as much about it as you need to in order to both get the concept recorded and to get it out of your head. I have an entire Scrivener project that’s just for ideas. (Though I only actually have 4 ideas of my own; I steal the rest 😉 )

Give yourself some time to play with it

Allocate yourself a certain amount of time — an hour or a day — to play with the story idea, engage the characters, write a little bit, whatever. You can wallow in the new shiny as much as you want during that time! But once that time is up, you go back to your current project. Because that’s the priority and that’s the decision you made.

Tell yourself the story

Get out a recorder (your phone, computer, an actual recorder if you are one of the few who still owns one 😉 ), and tell yourself the story of your new, shiny idea. Babble about it. Be excited. Talk about ALL THE THINGS. This is an especially good resource too for when you’re able to come back to this idea to work on it, because you’ll have yourself and your original enthusiasm to help you get back into the excitement of it.

New story ideas are what give us longevity as writers. So you shouldn’t ignore them. They can be hard to ignore anyway, so you must give them some attention. Just don’t lose sight of the overall goal.

Do you have other ideas for capturing those wild new-shinys? What’s worked for you in the past?

 

 

 

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5 Simple Things to Help You Reach Your Writing Goals This Year

Writing

Writing goals. They can be hard to reach, especially if the goal is a novel. Finishing can take so long that we easily lose our way or get distracted by the new shiny idea rattling around in our head. But if you have a publishing goal, whether self-publishing or traditional publishing, you *must* finish. Writing goals should always include finishing the project.

But as we already agreed, it can be hard to get there. I want to share some tips that I’ve learned over the years. Not about setting writing goals. I mean, I think we’re all just fine at setting the goals. But these are things I think will help in actually getting to those goals.

Set Yourself up to win with your writing goals

The work we do on the front end can really impact how (and when) we get to the finish line. And I’m not talking about outlining or anything like that. I’m talking about processes. If you want writing as a career, you should treat it like a business, and that means creating efficient processes for yourself that will help you get things done.

Create time in your schedule

Yes, I know. You can’t create time but you can create space in the time you already have. Even if it’s only 15 minutes, create a space in your schedule that is dedicated solely to your writing. Think about it. You dedicate time to sleep. You dedicate time for meals. If you’re working in a company, there is dedicated time where you’re expected to be working. If you have kids, you likely have dedicated kid-time. All the important things in your life have room in your schedule. The least you can do for your writing is to dedicate a portion of your time for it.

Get important folks on board

If you co-habitate, with parents, significant other, children, roommates, whoever, get them on board with what you’re doing. Let them know how excited you are to be able to dedicate X amount of time to writing your story. Get them excited too. Keep them updated on your progress. And then they will be less likely to interrupt you during your dedicated time. They’ll be more understanding when your brain is a little fried from a productive writing session. And they’ll be ready to celebrate with you when you write The End.

Track your words or pages

Writing a story, especially a novel, can be long, hard work. It’s easy to get bogged down in the process, because you don’t have any quick gratification. Keeping track of your progress via some sort of tracking system will give you visual gratification for how far you’ve come. And if you don’t usually keep running track of how much you accomplish, you might be surprised at how motivating it is. Success breeds motivation.

Create deadlines

There’s a reason newspapers and magazines get to print on time. Deadlines keep people in gear and motivated to get finished. I know that I work my hardest when I know a deadline is looming. And I think most people are the same. A couple things to note:

  • Create a big deadline, like the end of the project, but also create smaller deadlines: chapter 4, due by X date; chapter 5, due by Y date. As noted earlier, success breed motivation, so if you can check things off a list, you’ll be more enthusiastic about remaining on track, because you’ll want to check off those other things on the list

  • Make your deadlines short — and by that, I mean to allow for the least amount of time you will need to achieve the goal. Don’t build in extra time “just in case something happens to throw my schedule off.” If something happens to throw your schedule off, deal with it when it happens. Don’t build in time for something that doesn’t exist.Why? Because of Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Meaning if you set yourself a goal for two weeks, even though you could really finish that thing in six days, it will take you two weeks because that’s the expectation you create for yourself.
    So no long deadlines!

Don’t cater to the muse

I know. You’re probably all O.O at that. Of course, I don’t mean that you should banish the muse. But the muse is capricious sometimes, isn’t she? Be honest. How often have you been in the middle of a project, slogging along, and the muse entices you to start another project? “It’s new! It’s shiny! It will be SO much more fun to write than what you’re working on!” I know you know what I’m talking about 🙂

So when I say not to cater to the muse, I mean: don’t bounce from project to project throughout your writing time. The muse gets to be capricious. She’s a muse. Writers don’t. Well, not writers who want to actually finish anything. And, yknow, reach their writing goals.

When you decide on which project to work with that day, focus on it. If the muse tries to entice you away, jot down her new, shiny idea, but stay on task. You can devote a little bit of writing time another day to sorting out the new project. But for now, you decided on this project, so work on it.

And the other question I know is brewing is: But what about if I’m not feeling that project that day?

To which I answer: I don’t feel like cleaning out my cats’ litter boxes, but guess what?

Writing isn’t always going to be a walk in the park. Sometime it’s going to be hard and sometimes the muse is going to desert you (or, worse, try to drag you away). But if you want to do this as a career, or even just a serious hobby, you need to finish things. And that means slogging through the crappy parts.

Do a review every 2 weeks

Huh? What? Yeah, this isn’t something I see suggested to writers very often. But it’s important. We’ve already talked about success breeding motivation. But sometimes you can’t see the success very easily. We need to close that feedback loop so we can see what we really accomplished.

At the end of a two week stretch, go back and look at your word/page tracker (here’s a handy-dandy one!). Look at the number of words you wrote. Think about the things that happened this week. Did something set you behind? Did you lose momentum? Did something motivate you more than normal? What was good? Bad? How much closer are you to your next small goal? To your big goal? Write all that stuff down.

Knowing where you are makes knowing where you’re going much easier!

Don’t get bogged down in defeat

 

Listen, life happens to all of us. Sometimes we don’t get everything done we wanted to get done when we wanted to get it done by. That’s okay. And I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to ignore the successes and beat myself up for the perceived failures. Don’t do that.

We’re going to talk more about this particular piece in next week’s post.

What things do you struggle with in achieving your writing goals? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

 

 

 

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Memories of My Very First Story Critique or Suck It Up, Buttercup

What I've Learned

I’ve been writing for a pretty long time. I’ve been editing for a long time too. And, truth be told, I edit way more than I write. (Yes, I’m outing myself to you, dear reader!) It tends to pay a lot quicker 😉 My editing style was influenced in a lot of ways by story critique that I’ve been exposed to over the years.

I am a graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. I won’t go into how awesome it is here (but contact me if you want to know; I’ll totally talk your ear off!), except to say that it is the single best thing I did for my writing.

It was also the hardest.

Giving your work over for a story critique is possibly the most difficult thing a writer can do, on an emotional level. It’s even harder than the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the manuscript itself. Writing a story isn’t easy. Getting feedback on the story can be even harder.

But it’s necessary. Because we, as authors, can’t look at our work with an objective eye — at least, not without a lot of time in between the writing and the revision. And even then, I’m not entirely sure we’re very objective. Getting the feedback of other authors, particularly, can be incredibly useful. So I believe all authors should find good people to give them story critiques.

When I started at SHU, I’d never had a real critique before. I’d had some really nice comments on writing websites, but never a story critique from someone I felt knew what they were talking about. I must have had some raw talent to get in, because lord knows I didn’t know a dang thing about the best practices of writing. I’d never hung out with real writers before. I was both excited and terrified to my bones.

The set up: critique sessions at SHU are something like a roundtable. Whomever’s story is being critiqued doesn’t get to say anything at all until the end, when s/he can finally address any questions or comments that others have put forth. It’s generally a group of 6 to 10 people, including one of the program’s writing mentors as facilitator. Each person takes a turn talking about their impressions of the manuscript (which is usually around 10 pages long), both good and bad, with the facilitator going last. We generally did 2-3 critiques per session.

My very first story critique was in a larger group of about ten people (at least, in my head it seems like a large group!). I volunteered to have mine done first, because — well, let’s rip that bandage right off, shall we?

So, yeah, terrified.

My submission was a short story (that most people were unanimous about it needing to be a novel, which I eventually turned it into) about twin girls who learn that they’re guardians of Pandora’s Box. Everyone had both good and bad things to say, which is pretty normal, as I learned over time. The facilitator for that story critique session happened to be the woman who would be my first mentor in the program, Leslie Davis Guccione. At that time, though, I hadn’t even met her yet. (She turned out to be a lovely woman and wonderful mentor!)

Leslie’s really big on active verbs. I, on the other hand, was pretty clueless about active verbs. (Like I said, raw talent rather than any actual knowledge.) Leslie started by telling me that she agreed with those who were saying it read like the opening of a novel rather than a short story. She also said how much she liked it. She pointed out strengths right away. And then she schooled me about active verbs versus passive verbs.

If you don’t know, passive verbs are any that are “to be” verbs. So “was,” “were,” “been,” etc. Apparently enamored of these sorts of verbs, I had a lot in my ms. Seriously, a lot. When she passed me my hard copy (Leslie, at that time, only did hard copy edits), she’d taken the time to highlight all the instances of passive verbs in the first two pages. Thanks, Leslie! 😉

My first two pages were as yellow as a fluffy chick. There was so much yellow, you might have thought the page itself was yellow. I had no less than 15 — fifteen! — instances of “was” and “were” on each page. Almost every single line. Sometimes twice!

So that’s how I learned about passive verbs.

But here’s the thing — seeing all that yellow made me really aware of the use of passive verbs. So after that, as I wrote, I recognized when I went to type “was” or “were” and I checked myself. Could I find a better way to phrase this so the verb is more active? And, almost always, a better verb was there, just below the surface.

That critique session, all by itself, made me a better writer. It taught me how to create more vivid sentences, more accurate descriptions. Leslie’s tough love about passive verbs stuck. Thanks, for real, Leslie!

Maybe someday I’ll tell you how Leslie failed me on my initial thesis submission for messing up “further” and “farther” continuously (which I also never do anymore!).

Have you participated in critique sessions? Gotten a story critique? How was it for you? Did you learn things? What was your biggest take away? Tell me about it in the comments!

Stay awesome!

 

 

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10 Tips for Killing Off Impostor Syndrome

Writing

What I’m Listening To: “At Last” by Etta James found on The Chess Box

Something Cool: I’m binge-watching Timeless this week, which is feeding both the specfic chick and the historian in me!

~~

I’m working on some big stuff that I hope will be helpful to writers, especially new folks who are taking up the pen. (I’ll tell you all about it when it’s closer to being done!) I’m really excited about everything, but on some days I struggle. That stupid voice in my head that tries to undermine me starts up:

What makes you think you can teach people?

No one wants to hear what you have to say.

It’s only a matter of time before they figure out that you’re a fraud.

Any of these questions sound familiar? Judging from what I’ve heard from other creatives, this is a common, common voice. (Maybe we all have the same one?) I find that when I listen to this voice, I freeze. I have a lot of trouble moving forward, because the little whispers in my ear cause me to second guess myself. I’ve been doing some reading about how to handle Impostor Syndrome (what a dramatic name!) and I’m going to share ten things that I’ve discovered that help.

1. Be transparent

Sunlight cleanses. Impostor Syndrome thrives in the dark, like so many other things that like to hit our self esteem. So be open about it. When you share a problem with other people, it usually turns out to be a smaller problem than it originally seemed. I think Impostor Syndrome is exactly like that. I’ve found that one of the fastest ways to stop feeling fake is to tell someone I’m feeling that way. Or you can, yknow, write a blog post about it 😉

2. Focus on providing value

Impostor Syndrome thrives because we’re focused on ourselves. If we shift the focus and provide something of value to others, it’s much more difficult for us to believe that we’re frauds. This is because someone found value in something we did or gave. That, in itself, is un-impostor behavior!

3. Stop shooting for perfection

It’s really common to have been brought up to strive for perfection. I hear it from my coaching clients and I hear it in greater media. But this is a terrible idea. Perfection is unattainable, so when we strive for it, we are automatically setting ourselves up to fail. And when we inevitably do fail to be perfect, it only reinforces those feelings of being a fraud.

Instead of striving for perfection, strive for progress.

4. Remember that making a mistake or being wrong doesn’t make you a fraud

We all make mistakes. We are all wrong sometimes. That’s because we are all human. This goes back to the whole perfection thing, too. You can’t never be wrong or never make a mistake. So don’t put more emphasis on those things than they deserve. Rather than thinking of them as proof of your fraud, think of them as a stunning opportunity to become more awesome!

5. Accept responsibility for your success

So often, we pooh-pooh someone when they compliment us.

“Oh, that was nothing. Anyone could do it.”
Or…
“It’s just part of my job.”
Or…
“I could have done better if…”

Sound familiar? Yet when someone points out mistakes or failures, we’re often quick to berate ourselves. But it’s really important that we accept as much responsibility for our successes. They are as much ours as the failures and we deserve that self-pat on the back.

Own your victory.

6. Change your words

It may sound all woo, but words really do affect our thinking. There’s a big difference between “I don’t want” and “I want.” They create different expectations in your head. One is a negative expectation and the other is a positive. When things are always phrased in the negative, that ends up being the overriding vibe that you come away with.

Instead of saying, “I don’t want to be a failure,” try saying, “I want to be a success.” Even just looking at the words, there is an anxious, unsettled feeling when reading the first sentence. At least for me. So try recasting your words in a positive light. Instead of “I could have done more” try, “I did a good job.”

7. Value internal validation more than external validation

This one is really hard. Especially for those of us who suffer from or have suffered from low self esteem in our lives. This is one of those things that is often an ongoing work in progress for people, myself included. Here are the steps to dealing with this, as I see it.

First, I have to figure out what my life value is. What do I see as good, positive, and worthwhile action? Then, I measure myself by that, rather than by some metric that someone else might have that I have no control over (or, really, knowledge of). This can be hard, because we all like a pat on the back or a “good job!” And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting and enjoying those. I think where some of us run aground is that we believe that the only worth we can derive is from those things. That our opinion isn’t as valid as someone else’s.

But the truth is that we can derive worth from ourselves. We can judge ourselves worthy and pat ourselves on the back.

We just have to remember that.

8. Take action — act even if you’re not quite ready

Ever felt frozen in place because you just don’t think you’re good enough? What often breaks me out of this is actually doing something. Getting off my butt and taking action toward my goal, whatever it is. It’s the equivalent of just holding your nose and jumping in the pool.

High achievers know that action = motivation. It’s like a perpetual motion machine. The more you do — and succeed at — the more you’re motivated to do things.

Maybe the “act even if you’re not quite ready” made you raise your eyebrows. Or maybe it freaked you right the heck out. But so many of us use the excuse of “getting ready” as a way to put off acting. It’s usually out of fear (that the narrator in our head saying those terrible things about us is right). How many times have you put off doing something because you needed to “tweak” it or “fix” it? Or put something off because you felt like everything needed to be perfect in order to act? Put off writing because you only had 20 minutes and that’s enough time to write? Missed that submission call because your story wasn’t perfect yet?
All of these are just excuses not to act. When we get out of the habit of looking for reasons why we can’t and in stead just focus on doing, we don’t give that voice in our heads enough time to talk us out of it.

9. Raise the bar

This might seem counter-intuitive. If we’re afraid to do the easy thing — because our nasty voice tells us we can’t — how could we possibly get ourselves to do the harder thing?

I know, right? Sounds crazy. But here’s the thing — when we set the bar too low, when we do reach it, we can discount it, like it was no big deal. We are more inclined to ignore it as a success, because it was so easy. Instead, raise the bar. Writing short stories because you don’t think you can write a novel? Commit to writing a page every day on the novel in your heart. You’re sending out your book manuscript? Send it to your dream agents/editors first, then move down the line if you get rejected. Raise the bar.

Now, will you always hit that goal? Nah. Sometimes you’ll miss. But even when you miss, you’ll likely hit a lower bar, which is still a win. But when you do make it? Lawd, watch out! 🙂

But even if you fail in a fiery display of suckitude, that leads us to…

10. View failure as a win

Wait. What? How does that even work?

Here’s the thing: when we succeed, yes we’ve gotten what we wanted, we’ve achieved something we set out to achieve. And those are wins! But when we fail, we get a whole different, but equally valuable set of data.

First, you can’t fail if you don’t try. That’s an old one, right? But it’s true. Failing means you did something. You acted. And that’s more than most people do, so that’s a huge win.

Second, when you fail, you learn something. It might be things about what you’re trying to accomplish that you can apply to the next attempt. It might be something about yourself that is either holding you back from succeeding or something you need to develop more strongly to help you succeed. It might be how you view the world or your tasks. You might identify something in how you work that you can improve. You might realize that you need help in some aspect and reach out to find it. Regardless, those are things you might not learn by succeeding. But you will learn many of them by failing.

Third, failing can give us the impetus to succeed. “My story isn’t right for you? Well, you just wait! You’re going to see my name in SF&F next year!” (Okay, don’t actually send that to someone; that’s what could be in your head 😉 ) Failure can be used as a motivational tool.

Don’t be afraid of failing; it’s how we improve.

~~~

There they are! Ten ways to deal with Impostor Syndrome.

We often learn in life that we have no control over a lot of things. And while there are things we don’t have control over, we do have total control over our choices. And we can choose how to deal with our Impostor Syndrome; we can choose how we view failure and success; we can choose what words we use to talk to or about ourselves. Those things are choices that we make every day. Once we get into the habit of choosing differently, the world can change.

Ask your self this: If I have the choice to feel good or to feel crappy, why should I choose to feel crappy?

Do you struggle with Impostor Syndrome? How do you handle it? Have you used any of the above strategies? How have they worked for you?

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

5 Reasons to Shatter the Editing-While-Writing Addiction

Writing

When I first started writing, for serious, I had a horrible, horrible habit. An addiction, really. When I would sit down to write, I would read over some amount of the previous work (sometimes all of it) and I would start tweaking and changing things. I’d spend a lot of time fixing wording and rearranging sentences. But not a lot of time actually writing.

Eventually, I’d get bored or something else would catch my attention and I’d start something new. Only to do it all again when I reached the middle-ish of that story.

Sound familiar? Continue Reading