Writing Advice #16

When you’re editing your manuscript, read it though, at least once, as if you know NOTHING about your story.

It’s so easy to get caught up in our own heads when we write, especially during the first draft. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want to catch errors and inconsistencies you have to not only get critical, you have to suspend your own imagination and forget–temporarily–everything you know about your own story.

Crazy talk, I know.

But doing that changes your perspective and can give you insights you might not otherwise have.

But one of the hardest lessons I learned in my college poetry classes was not to make internal references or “inside jokes.” I might get the reference but someone who doesn’t know me sure as shit won’t.

The same thing applies to fiction. Readers can’t read minds. You might write something that makes total sense to you either because you get the joke or you know what’s going to happen three chapters or three books down the road.

Your readers don’t know these things. They might get confused. They might stop reading.

It also shows you things that you might take for granted. For example: does everyone know werewolves are bothered by silver? Does everyone know what necromancy is?

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to spell out every little detail, dumb your writing down, or waste pages with info dumps but it is important to be mindful of what expectations you are putting on your reader and if those expectations help or hinder your story.

Looking at your manuscript this way doesn’t just help fill plot holes. It can show you ways to enhance your narrative structure.

Here’s an example from my own experiences:

I love prologues.

I know AuthorTubers and many a podcast host tell you to avoid prologues like the plague. But I’m one of those weird people who love reading prologues so I thought, “Fuck it, I’m gonna write a prologue and it’s going to be my MC, Regina, reporting on the death of another character. And it’s going to be awesome.”

Well, I gave the manuscript to one of my beta readers and she didn’t like it. She has no idea who was talking and no idea who these characters were. Because there was no context. I knew what was going on because I have the WHOLE STORY in my head. She didn’t. And it didn’t work for her.

Then another beta reader said the same thing. And I was sad…because I made the thing and would have to change the thing.

If one beta reader has an opinion you can take it with a pinch of salt. But if more than one person has the same problem, the problem doesn’t come from their interpretations or expectations, it comes from your writing.

And I thought, “Well, what if I make it an INTERLUDE instead?”

And that works so much better because by the time this character needs to die you, the reader, know a little bit more about the world and can follow along with the MC and learn the WHY and HOW without getting confused.

So now, whenever I’m editing I always make a plan to read through whatever I’m working on as if I have no idea what’s going on. This helps me get into the mind of a reader and I can think about what kinds of things I, as a reader, would want to know.

I recommend that at least once you read through your manuscript and pretend you have no idea what’s going on. See what happens.

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Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

Writing Advice #15

ALWAYS DOUBLE CHECK YOURSELF

This one is going to be short and sweet.

When you submit your work to a magazine and they ask you to write a cover letter…

DON’T

FORGET

TO

ADDRESS IT TO SOMEONE!

Don’t say “Dear editor”

or “To whom it may concern”

Go to the magazine’s website, find their masthead and PICK OUT A NAME.

And for the love of god don’t start your cover letter with “Dear, ____________”

and then forget to fill in the blank.

It makes you look like a fucking moron.

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Note: I just did that. I wrote “dear” and forgot to plug in someone’s actual name before I hit the submit button. Don’t be like me.

Photo by Cata on Unsplash

Writing Advice #14

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!

Writing Advice #13

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?

Writing Advice #12

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?

Writing Advice #11

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.

Writing Advice #10

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 🙂