Go To Your Setting

when it’s reasonable, of course.

GO TO THE PLACE YOUR BOOK IS SET!

…okay if you’re in the US and your book is set in Paris and you have no money, don’t go bankrupt for it…watch as many documentaries and street walk about on YouTube as you can.

This piece of writing advice has a personal anecdote.

This past Monday I drove down to the Mena, Arkansas area and planned to spend the morning hiking at Queen Whilamena State Park and the afternoon exploring the little, teeny-tiny towns surrounding the state park.

The drive down was really pleasant. But then it started raining. Thankfully, by the time I got to the Queen Whilamena Lodge and Restaurant the rain had stopped BUT there was fog EVERYWHERE!

I had not checked the weather app on my phone. I didn’t even think about the possibility of anything but clear skies and humid air (summer in Arkansas, y’all). But that is not what I got.

There was a fleeting moment where my heart sank and I thought, “I drove all this way and now I have to go home…”

But then I took another look at the fog, which was literally getting thicker by the minute and I thought, “HOLY SHIT THIS IS PERFECT WEATHER FOR A HORROR NOVEL!”

I mean look at that! That’s amazing!

If I’d gone on a “normal” day I’d have hiked, got some nice pictures of trees and buildings, and gone home with nice things to think about but this–the fog, the rain–gave my setting character. Or my setting looked at me and said, “Acknowledge that I am a force of nature!” while slapping me in the face.

And there was this really nifty fungus on the trail that was all glistening and fleshy. I almost walked face first into a MASSIVE spider webs trying to photograph it.

A new beginning to one of my books bloomed in my mind. I got to make rough stage blocking for an action scene and took pictures of this one specific outcropping from multiple angles for reference later. I was so inspired IT WASN’T EVEN FUNNY!

So the moral of this story here is think about what your setting is like in bad weather. You never know what will happen. But also, it’s important to visit, if you can, where your book is set because you’ll get to think about concrete details you may not have considered from your chair at your writing desk.

And I learned that my main character’s favorite food is not pizza like I thought it was, but fried green beans.

You never know what’s going to happen when you go out on location.

Good luck and happy writing!

Research Tips

DO THE WORK: RESEARCH!

In my humble opinion, it is the WORST IDEA EVER to make up something, especially for science fiction or fantasy and not put work into researching your subject.

Example:

I have a character that became a vampire in 6th century Britain. As I was working on his backstory a spontaneous cemetery scene popped into my head. I wrote it and then re-read it and something felt off.

Specifically, the setting. I got the clothes and the political climate right–because I researched them–but I had no idea what a 6th century Cornwall/Devon-ish cemetery looked like. I knew nothing about the burial customs of Anglo-Saxon England.

I do now.

Because I researched it. Cremation was a thing. Pretty cool stuff. Here’s a link. And then I had to go a step further and research battlefield burial practices in Anglo-Saxon England. Here’s another link.

Now you might be thinking: but if I’m writing science fiction or fantasy isn’t everything already made up? Why does it matter?

Because if your details, timelines, or invented technologies don’t add up your writing isn’t going to be strong and you might face a lot of criticism once you put your book out into the world.

Another Example:

As I was summarizing the plot of a science fiction novel A writer acquaintance of mine once commented, “Laser fire won’t work, you can’t have lasers as weapons in space. Light doesn’t hurt things in space.”

And while I told her the word “laser” was just a place holder for the IDEA OF THE THING until I figured out what would work as a super spacey technologically advanced weapon system that NO ONE ELSE HAS DONE YET (haha yeah right), I really appreciate her comment because even though it means more work for me, it also means that when I get the work done and figure out what would work instead of a generic and inaccurate trope.

I’m still researching and working on that one, by the way.

Helpful Hint #1:

I will often use Wikipedia as a starting place for narrowing the specificity of my research but I DO NOT take everything on there as fact. Anyone can add things to a Wikipedia page, it might not all be true.

I like to use newspapers and academic sites (.edu) for sources because they usually have to fact check, have additional source material, and have to adhere to some standard of quality and credibility.

Academic and research papers from sites like JSTOR are good as well.

Helpful Hint #2:

When you’ve finally found your source you want to make sure the information is presented in an objective manner. If you found a nifty academic paper with a thesis statement, that’s cool, but you don’t want to waste your time reading someone’s 20 page treatise on their OPINION of the subject when you want facts.

Objectivity is key. Look for facts, not opinions.

Helpful Hint #3:

This may seem like a time waster but you’ll be better off in the long run. VERIFY YOUR INFORMATION by finding multiple sources that say the same thing. If more than one person repeats the same fact/date/whatever, it’s more likely to be true.

My teachers in college always told me to do this and me, being a terrible student, was all like, “I am not wasting my time like that!” And then I got an F on the paper because I’d used fraudulent sources. Because I didn’t check to see if my source material was actually right. I was so embarrassed. Don’t let that kind of thing happen to you.

So to sum up:

1. Research your subjects

2. Use credible sources

3. Get concrete facts

4. Check those facts across multiple sources

Fact checking is so important, not just in research for your work in progress, but in how you conduct yourself as a creative person, especially on social media. Make sure you have all your information before you post that tweet or that blog post.

Follow up question:

How does researching treat you? Do you love spending hours jumping down knowledge rabbit holes or is it a necessary evil?

Don’t Limit Yourself

If you want to make yourself a better writer, in my opinion, one of the best things to do is:

DON’T LIMIT YOURSELF

If you have the thought: I can’t write (insert thing here).

If you have the thought: I don’t want to write (insert thing here).

Take that thought and throw it away. Write that thing. You may not like the thing you’ve written when you’re done, you may not ever publish it or let anyone else read it, but you will be able to learn something through the process of writing it.

If you only write novels, try writing a short story or a poem, see where it gets you.

If you only write poetry try writing fiction, or just a paragraph of prose. See what happens. You can turn it into a poem later if you really, really hate it.

Here’s an example of how this worked for me:

Say you have a problem with endings, I certainly do. I have so much trouble figuring out how to end big writing projects. Whether its a short story or a novel–yes a short story is big for me–I have problems.

But I don’t have problems ending micro-fiction or ending poems. So I looked at how I wrote the endings to poems, what I was feeling/thinking about when I came to the end of the poem and tried applying that to ending a short story. And then I had the ending. And I was more satisfied with it than I thought I would be.

I just looked at the concept of “the end” in a different way and I gained new insight into how I make endings happen.

If you’re one of those people who thinks: why should I write poetry when I’m only going to be a published novelist or vice versa. Trying something different, if you’re open to it, or looking at something from a different angle will expand your brain.

Writing other things is PRACTICE. If you don’t practice, you don’t grow. If you don’t experiment you won’t ever become a better writer.

So go write. All the things.

DON’T LIMIT YOURSELF

Another example:

I hate writing sonnets and rhyming poems but I still try my hand at writing them. And they are terrible. And I hate figuring out how to calculate meter. Meter hurts my brain. But every so often I do it anyway because I don’t want to limit myself.

Follow up question:

What are some of the things that you hate to write or are opposed to write?

Do. The. Work.

PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE

One piece of advice I love hearing from established writers is PRACTICE.

Several professionals have made this analogy:

When you start playing piano you don’t become a star overnight.

Same for writing.

When you start a new job you don’t go in on day 1 knowing everything right away, even if you’ve done the job before you have new coworkers and new procedures to learn.

For some reason people think that if you’re a writer you have to be THE BEST EVER right out of the gate otherwise you’re shit and nobody loves you.

To be a writer you need imagination, vision, talent, whatever etc, etc, etc.

But you also have to work.

Some people argue that writing/making art can’t be taught. That you’ve either got “IT” or you don’t.

Well, I can’t teach someone how to “IT” *waves arms around head and makes mystical sounds* facilitate whatever neural/chemical/hormonal/whatever thing actually MAKES stuff.

But I can give someone tools to inspire the creative parts of their brain so that they can turn on their imaginations and make things.

And you can (practice, practice, practice) write to make yourself a better writer.

When you write you DISCOVER.

You can see what works, what doesn’t work; you can revise, you can do all the things.

When you write, you don’t just learn about your story or your characters or what your poems are, you also learn how you yourself make things.

I practice writing by doing free writes/stream of consciousness writing and using writing prompts or exercises.

Not everything I write is for my work in progress or even a planned project. I don’t keep a journal but if I get stuck on a plot point or a character I take that as a sign that I need to switch it up and write something else, even if that something else is just complaining and whining about all the horrible things in my day, I’m still writing. I’m still forming and expressing an idea with words.

It’s all practice.

So even if what you think you are writing is worthless, it’s still words you’re getting out, still something you can work with later. And it’s still work.

DO THE WORK.

“Practice makes perfect” is trite but it’s also true.

Follow up questions:

How do you practice writing?

Do you have writing routines?

I’d love to know.

Love All Your Characters

Much of my writing advice comes from years and years of poetry. My thoughts on imagery and diction are fueled by my medium. It is this lyrical perspective that gives my prose writing its unique voice. That and my brain is just weird.

But sometimes you have to learn and discover as you go along, otherwise what’s the point of doing anything. And, as a new writer to the world of genre fiction–specifically horror and the multi-omni-many-things-at-once-paranormal genres–there are things that I don’t actually see or realize until I mess them up and then I have the, “Oh, that’s where that went wrong,” moment.

One thing I learned while writing fiction is you have to love your characters. Not just like them and not just the main characters or even the side characters. You have to love all of them. Because if you don’t they won’t sound or look genuine on the page. They’ll look like cardboard stand-ins for real people and, most importantly, they won’t talk to you and tell you what they are doing in your story.

I learned the hard way that characters, much like poems, have minds of their own. Even though I made up those minds I have no control over what they do. That’s part of my creative process. In one of my works in progress, my protagonist’s love interest has changed 3 times. The first one didn’t really want to be with her. And then she didn’t want to be with the second one. And then the third didn’t want to be with her either. Meanwhile, her real love interest was sitting backstage (yeah, my mind is called backstage) with a cup of coffee and a newspaper saying, “I’ll be right here whenever you’re ready, and if you’ve gone to all the trouble of giving me a newspaper there’d better be comics.”

And just so you know, my protagonist’s lover loves Garfield. Garfield translates across time and space. So does Hagar the Horrible. He likes that one too.

But back to what I was saying; those characters didn’t work out because not only had I not properly fleshed them out, I didn’t listen to what they wanted. I tried to force round pegs into square holes.

And I surrounded them with minor characters that existed just to be in this or that part of the chapter. They didn’t work either. And whole chapters of this book have fallen to pieces because I didn’t care enough about the characters to get them where they needed to be.

So, to sum up:

If you don’t love them, chuck them.

You can always make more. Just make sure you love and listen to them.

Love them even if you’re going to kill them. Love them even if you’re going to break their hearts and destroy everything they love. Love them even if they’re the biggest piece of shit-horrible villain you’ve ever seen. Because they are yours. And they matter. Even if they show up in only one sentence, they matter.

Share any funny or frustrating character shenanigans with me in the comments 🙂

Self-Sabotage

According to Psychology Today, “Behavior is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems in our life and interferes with long-standing goals. Among the most common self-sabotaging behaviors are procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.”

Mindtools.com also says that self-sabotage includes negative thoughts, indulging in unfulfilled dreams, anger, feelings of worthlessness, and worrying about all the things in all the ways (worrying about “things that really shouldn’t matter” and “fearing that if you fail, others will think less of you.”)

As a general human being and a writer, I do (and have done) all of these things. Some of these parallel with anxiety and depression.

So how does self-sabotage relate to writing if you enjoy writing? Surely you wouldn’t keep yourself from making your deadlines, you want your deadlines, you want your drafts finished. Right? Yeah, right.

There were times when I totally knew what I was doing and that yes, I chose to binge watch 5 episodes of Dancing Queen instead of write. Voluntarily. But there were other times, like when I spent the entirety of my 20s drunk because drunk was easier than dealing with the problems. Is self-sabotage the same as negative escapism? So many parallels.

To break the cycle or cycles of self-sabotage you need to (again from Mindtools.com):

1. Recognize your behavior

2. Monitor your negative thinking

3. Challenge that thinking

4. Make self-supporting behaviors

Easier said than done!

I’m a sociologist, not a psychologist. I can’t make all the bad things go away.

But I can say that, when it comes to writing, self-sabotage is a bitch and the best thing I’ve found to do, for me, is just ignore it and push through.

Because pushing through gets the words on the page.

I was supposed to have two new novels published last year. I’m still writing them because I got in my own way last year. This year I am determined, double determined to not let that happen again.

Because the worst kind of self-sabotage I indulge in is negative thinking. I tell myself this is going to be awful and I’m going to fail. I tell myself if doesn’t matter because I’m not going to meet my deadlines anyway, so why try?

Mr. J constantly tells me to relax and stop being so hard on myself. Easier said than fucking done. And really, there’s no good reason I should be hard on myself, I’m fine, I’m not doing anything wrong. But I could later, and it could all be shit. Therefore the now should be shit too because REASONS. That’s what I deal with in my head every day.

And the best thing I can do with that negativity is ignore it, even thought it’s coming from inside me. I just tell myself to shut up and write even if what I think I’m writing is the worst kind of shit imaginable. Even if I know for a fact I won’t make my deadline, I’m going to do it anyway because I want to, because I love writing.

That takes will power and sometimes I can’t ignore the negativity and I sleep all day because napping is easier than getting drunk and facing all the bad things. But that’s okay to because when I wake up I try to write again.

I have to constantly remind myself that I LOVE this, I LOVE writing and I’m not going to fuck up something I love. The negative thoughts can’t predict the future, my negative self doesn’t have a crystal ball. And neither do I. The negative thoughts are just my imagination and they don’t mean anything.

Mr. J told me no matter what happens, as long as I keep trying, he’ll still love me.

So that’s the advice for today: no matter what, keep trying.

Details (and why critical readers are important)

Be careful about being descriptive about one thing but general about another thing in the same sentence.

Specifics ground the reader in your scene.

Recently I wrote a paragraph and I gave it to Mr. J to read. He read it and said, “So you’re going to give me what kind of gun he has but you’re not going to tell me what beer he’s drinking. It’s (insert name of really fancy gun here) and just plain beer. At least say he’s drinking a stout or something.”

So I did. And it sounded better.