17 writing things I learned in 2017

Since I haven’t posted about writing advice in a while, here’s what I learned from 2017!

  1. Clarity super omnia.

    Probably the most important thing for me to remember in my writing: at the end of the day, no one cares how beautiful the prose is if it’s not communicating what you need it to effectively. The audience needs to understand what you’re saying or else they won’t know what’s going on in the plot (was the protagonist just injured? what happened to the dog in that scene?) or they may not understand a character’s actions (what are they even doing in this scene, what’s happening?).

    And sure, sometimes you want that ambiguity: I love confusing the reader when my characters are injured, out of it mentally, or acting in extreme distress. Playing around with how you narrate is great fun and can be super useful for showing how dire/extreme a situation is.

    Still, there’s always the temptation to make every sentence this glittering bauble. And I love it, do not get me wrong: I didn’t choose baroque prose, the ornate life chose me.

    But okay, more seriously: if your metaphor or description is getting in the way of the reader actually understanding what’s going on, then it’s not working and you need to revise it. It can be really annoying, because sometimes you’ll have this great idea for how a sentence should sound and you might have to compromise on it to make sure the reader gets the action (that is, if your first goal fails and you can’t figure out how the make the sound work and be clear at the same time). Ultimately, clarity takes priority most times.
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  2. Some work is better than no work.

    I almost always feel better when I work a little bit on a project per day. Some days it can feel like I’m not getting enough done unless I have a big win–revise a few chapters, solve a major plot problem, etc– and some days it can feel like it’s not even worth it to spend time writing if I don’t have the time to do something that will have that kind of large impact.

    At the end of the day, though, a manuscript is made up of a lot of tiny changes. Sometimes you can devote hours and hours to fixing Chapter 14. Sometimes you’re only going to have time to set up the romantic arc for Chapter 14 and that’s fine. Sometimes you fix one paragraph in Chapter 14, but it’s the right one. As long as you can cross a few more items off the to-do list you have for the revision (or even figure out what needs to change! another big thing that often gets lost when when we talk about revisions: actually figuring out where to begin) you’re coming out ahead.

    Other people may like to put things on hold until they have huge blocks of time to work on them, and that’s also fine. I think the most I keep my head in the project, the more my brain’s going to work on it when I’m not looking, and then more I’m going to know how to attack it the next time I pick it up.
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  3. Balance information relevance & a sense of being lived-in in worldbuilding.

    So we all know about the dangers of info-dumping: no one likes to sit through years of paragraphs of stuff that’s not relevant and is honestly kind of boring when we could be in the main action. Sometimes it feels like writers can also go the other way too, where the only information about the world we get is the stuff that’s innately tied to the plot. It feels kind of mercenary: okay, this bird is mentioned once as a legend here, so clearly one of the characters is going to be the reincarnation of the sparrow deity.

    I don’t think that every single piece of information about the world has to be relevant to the plot. I like hearing the random stuff. Like: “oh, this? it’s a spell I messed up as a little kid and now this corridor’s always like that, sorry” or “this is how we get food in this city and it’s not going to be exploded or relevant to the plot, it’s just how it works.”

    The key is balance. Too much random stuff and the throughline of the plot gets lost (also, see above, no one cares). Too little random stuff and it’s like a murder mystery where it’s too easy to spot the murderer. You need enough likely-seeming information to give the world depth and breadth, to make it feel like it’s something lived in, to make me not sure where the story’s going to go next, even as you’re laying the foundation for things to get cracked wide open.

    My general feeling about a world, especially in fantasy/science fiction literature, is that I want to feel like I could tell stories in this place, whether writing fanfic or pretending that I lived there. There’s enough of the place/time/general vibe down on paper that I get a good idea of it without it being overwhelming or sparse.
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  4. Even (and sometimes especially) if you didn’t like a book/movie/show/art/piece of media, you can still learn something from it.

    Usually when I DNF (decide not to finish) a book, it’s because I know why it’s not working for me. It’s surprisingly hard to condense into a single sentence why you dislike something! (And not just saying, “it’s bad, ugh” but breaking it down into a critical argument like “this is not how I think cat-and-mouse arcs should go because I want the detective not to be a buffoon/source of comic relief but actually present a real threat to the phantom thief–there’s a lot of missed tension here.”)

    It actually becomes a fun game: why the hell do I hate this thing so much? What precisely has this creator done wrong? How would I fix it? Or, in what way does their choice advantage them versus what gains do you get from doing it my way? I may not always agree with the way that people tackle problems, but I gain an appreciation for a creator’s choice (unless it really is just a stupid one) and learn more about what to do or not to do in my own stuff.
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  5. Don’t be precious about your process/work.

    This is actually something I realized about myself when I was in the digital art scene: I have no patience for muses. None.

    It’s hard not to have an emotional connection with your work– the emotional connection is what makes it so damn good. It’s what inspires you to keep working on it even when it sucks or you’re doing tedious stuff, and it’s what’ll compel people to pick it up and read it.

    But I also think that if you deify inspiration or say that a particular project is your child, it’s only going to make it harder to revise or take feedback on it later. If inspiration becomes this thing you’re constantly waiting on to ring the doorbell, you’re wasting valuable hours of your own time. You’re also taking power away from yourself: if the reason you’re good is because you were inspired to be good versus earning your skills through sweat and blood, then that’s not saying a boat load of complimentary things about the human condition. You’re not born talented enough to write a book. It’s not a gift, not an inheritance, not a divine or demonic calling. One of my favorite Leigh Bardugo lines of all time: steel is earned.

    What’s holy isn’t the final draft or the idea that made you start: it’s you, sitting at your desk for hours, putting in the work to translate the item in your head to those words on paper.

    Earn your steel.
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  6. On the flip, don’t be too cynical/gritty about it.

    Idk, it could just be that I also have no patience for assholes but no one likes this. Of course writing is hard. Try writing for an hour straight; it’s probably going to be hard (if it’s not, what are you doing, go back to that draft and ride out this wave out because you are clearly in the zone).

    We’re never reading industry posts or writing advice columns because we need to be reminded out how hard it out there for a dude. Assume your audience has taken a few punches, that they have a basic idea of the shape of the jungle and its dangers. We’re reading because we want hope.
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  7. Map it out (story maps).

    2017 was also the year when I admitted to myself that I am actually pretty bad at holding an entire novel’s worth of structure in my head. Previously on Alex Yuschik Does the Thing, I had used post-it notes to help me get a sense of the main arcs in a project. This is still useful, but I’ve also found that making a story map in a notebook has also been effective.

    This is one of those your-mileage-may-vary deals, but I thought I’d share since it’s literally helped me figure out a short story that I have been stuck on since 2016.

    As its name suggests, it’s just a map. You need to know where you’re starting (boy in dorm) and where you need to go (boy offering himself up to tornado) and then you chart out the intermediate steps needed to get there. This personally has been super helpful not just for figuring out the action, but for figuring out what scenes I need to show the reader and which points I can fuzz over in the exposition.

    Next time you’re stuck, try it out and see where you go.
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  8. You can tell a reader anything, but you make them believe it through detail/evidence.

    I love this one and it’s totally one that reader!me learned, which is why the old adage about “read like an addict” really works for authors– some things are just easier to see from another point of view.

    As a writer, you can tell me anything. Whether I take you seriously or not as your reader is another story. If you tell me that someone loves another person, then okay. I have one line telling me this information and I have no idea what kind of love this is– the true, unending kind, or the half-love that is going to mostly be okay until it’s not and everything shatters. It’s really non-specific and it can feel kind of tacked on there.

    The way you make a reader believe you is by building a case. You present the evidence and allow them to draw the conclusion. He knows how to make his best friend’s favorite kind of tea. He knows this guy would never wear a tie and so gifts him cuff links instead. He destroys a computer he spent hours building so his friend doesn’t get in trouble.

    You never have to say a word about love, but you can tell that there’s a strong emotion present there. (also, it’s more fun to drive the reader crazy suspecting it.)
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  9. Organize things to streamline them (email labels, submissions tracking).

    On the business side of writing, organization makes your own life easier.

    I use flashcards to track my poetry/short story submissions: each card is a piece and it lists the places and dates I’ve submitted it to on the card. If the piece is accepted anywhere, it gets pulled out of the box and put into a different box. You can also do this for query tracking; it makes your life so much easier.

    Another thing I highly recommend is using filtering and inbox labels. If you use gmail like I do, you can color-code your email or tell gmail to assign certain labels to emails from certain people. The search function is pretty good, but if you want to pull up all the emails from a certain group of people or falling under a certain category for easy reference, like queries or agency emails or submissions, labeling makes it a hell of a lot easier.
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  10. When you’re stuck/uninspired, try attacking from another angle.

    If you’re not feeling excited to write a scene, no one on god’s green earth is going to want to read it either. Something that’s been a game-changer for me is keeping a scratch notebook/practice notebook around– it’s literally just a notebook that I can treat as a sandbox and play around in. Sometimes I use a spare Word .doc for this– you just have to get yourself in a place where you’re not writing in the main draft and you don’t have that pressure on you.

    Maybe you try attacking from another POV. Maybe you try writing it from a different point in time– is it more useful to show the aftermath than the actual fight? Maybe you try another structure for the character entirely. You have to get back to what makes you hyped up to write: why did you decide to write this scene to begin with? Was it because you were stoked to include this one interaction between characters, or was it because you felt like you needed this scene here?

    If you have a point in the scene you’re dying to write, focus on that! If you don’t, look at ways that you can restructure things so that something fun for you to write is happening. Otherwise, evaluate whether or not you truly need this one.
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  11. The MICE Quotient.

    I don’t want to say too much and not have people read the post, so I’ll just also recommend the Writing Excuses episode on this, as it is excellent.
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  12. Voice is hard to balance with action.

    This is one of those “this is why the hell that thing is so hard for me” light bulb moments from earlier in this year: what is my problem with voice?

    It’s not so much that I dislike voice– there some books that I love because of the voice! Meg Cabot’s Mediator books were like my ideal as a teen reader– but there are books that I either find the voice too grating and kind of infuriating, or books where the voice overwhelms the story. It’s a safe bet to assume that we’re reading for character, but a good voice doesn’t mean that every single action is commented or snarked on.

    Sometimes it’s okay to just have a character say something straight-up (“it’s a bus”) without pronouncing judgement on it (“it’s a sad little dumpster on wheels”). Especially meaningful to me in the case of a snarkier narrator is when they take things genuinely. Humor can be a defense mechanism, anything to keep them from having to be serious and open to being hurt. When you show them being open and not dissembling about something, that can say a lot.
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  13. It is a long game.

    I think about it like you’re building a city. Each project you complete is a new building. Maybe it’s a small house that only a few people know about or a project that only a few people read. Maybe it’s a huge skyscraper that people want you to construct more of. Maybe you’re building on the structures that you had before, taking things from older projects and resurrecting them into something bigger and newer.

    It can get frustrating to feel like you’re not doing anything, or that it’s taking a long time for things to happen. A lot is out of your control in publishing, except for the things you make. So, get passionate about creating stuff. You have your whole life to build a city; it’s okay to start small. On the flip, it’s also okay to build a ton of huge things and see what happens. You have a lot of time to devote to learning how to do this well.

    And there’s a ton of stuff to learn– you don’t just want to build the same thing over and over, it’s more exciting and looks cooler when you’ve mastered a variety of styles. It can be easy to obsess about the business side of things, but ultimately you remember more why you’re in the game when you remember why you love creating stuff.
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  14. Emperical evidence: track revision hours and words per day.

    The more you know about your process, the better you can get at estimating how long things will take you. Granted, sometimes things are just going to go wrong or be more difficult than anticipated, but having a baseline is a good place to start from.

    Another helpful thing to do, especially if you’re reading for others, is to track how long it usually takes you to read a friend’s manuscript. If you know you can do about two or three manuscripts per month (while still managing your own life responsibilities and writing goals) then you’ll be able to keep commitments better for your friends and CPs.
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  15. It’s always better to finish things, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking about stories as widgets/commodities. 

    Forward momentum is important, and it really does feel good to get a story to a state where you can be proud of it and okay with other people reading it. However, it can also be easy to feel like you need to constantly be turning out new projects. Generally, I learn more from the projects that I get stuck on and spend a ton of time on rather than ones that I cranked out for NaNos and other one-per-month story events.

    Everyone’s process is different, but from time to time examine how you’re doing things. Is it difficult for you to finish stuff because you give yourself too much downtime (or is your life just kind of in a difficult place to finish stuff quickly)? If life stuff is going on, usually you just have to wade through that, unfortunately, but if there’s something you can fix, maybe look at that.

    On the other hand, are you whipping out a lot of projects and feeling like they’re all kind of the same? One of the reasons why I really detest beat sheets is because they can make a story feel formulaic and boring if you rely on them too heavily. Each story is different, even if you’re following the same structure– challenge yourself to look deeper and see where the emotional resonance is in the story for you.
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  16. You’re always going to win me over with the emotional arc.

    Wow, what a segue.

    I like sparkling prose and hilarious characters, and I’ll be happy if I can find a plot that surprises me, but the one thing that makes a book truly great to me is a satisfying ending. Sometimes I feel like the emotional arc is the hardest thing to nail down: you need to know where the plot is going (something I usually discover in the zero draft), you need to know what your characters look like, and you need to have an idea of what internal struggle the protagonist is going to need to overcome (which is not as easy as knowing who they are and what bad guy they have to beat at the end makes it sound).

    Everything in the book contributes in some way to the emotional arc. For example, usually I’m fascinated by the concept of strength. You tend to see my protagonists approaching strength and power from different angles– a power-thirsty warrior sent to another dimension to cool her jets, a fallen heir taking back his company, a boy out for revenge when his girlfriend is killed.

    Sure, there are external obstacles preventing my protagonists from achieving their goals, but there is also necessary internal growth that the audience sees. They are not the same person as they were at the beginning.

    One of my favorite things is seeing a protagonist succeed at something at the end that they either failed at or would have failed at before the story/at the beginning. It’s like, wow, look, hanging out with this guy for four or five hours actually did something! We read this whole book and now they’ve gained this new ability/perception, awesome.
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  17. You never truly leave the training grounds. 

    Once upon a time, I was really into digital art. Like, I saved up and bought my own extremely economical tablet for drawing (I still dream about getting a Wacom someday, maybe after grad school), would devote time to it during the week. There was a site I loved going to (does anyone else have fond memories of Oekaki Central, aka the One True OC to me), and they had you draw in different rooms depending on your image content and skill level.

    I thought this was the literal coolest thing. If you wanted to draw hot guys, you went to the Stove. If you wanted to draw cute girls, the Jewelry Box. Outdoor landscapes? Check out the Garden. General 2-star stuff was in the Patio. Want to practice your colorist skills on premade lineart? Coloring Book it was. General 3-star stuff went in the Living Room, and so on. There was a star system– if you were a beginner, you were 1-star, if you were intermediate you were 2-star, if your work could be accepted into magazines you had 3-stars. Most rooms were 2-star and above, but if you were a determined 1-star like me (or someone with a higher star level who wanted to experiment) you could practice and get better by drawing in the Training Grounds, the general 1-star room.

    I used to get so mad because I’d practice my everliving ass off and I still wouldn’t be good enough for the 2-star rooms. I’d always have to go back to the Training Grounds, work on my stuff there for a few weeks, and try again. I just wanted to be a Cool Artist and not have to swim in the kiddie pool all the time.

    But if there’s anything that experience taught me, it’s that there’s always going to be something that you have to learn and you have to be okay with that. Admitting that you need practice isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you any less of a creator to spend time learning how to do something properly. It’s an ars longa, vita brevis kind of lifestyle and that’s actually kind of awesome. You’re never going to run out of stuff to learn.

    And it may seem kind of annoying, not always churning out 2-star or 3-star work, but there’s a whole lot of expectation that comes with that. Giving yourself the space to practice, and more importantly to fail, can really help you move your craft forward.

    So, I think that’s what I’m going for in 2018: be clear and fail boldly, then fix it all in revisions.

    And on that note, happy new year! 🙂 Let me know what your favorite writing tips from 2017 have been!

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takeaways from the nebulas

Switching things up a bit and adding a little variety to our Wawa Wednesday series, here’s a list of things I learned while attending the Nebulas this past weekend.

  1. Do your research on naming conventions.
    If you plan on writing a character with a non-Western name, it’s often not as simple as picking a given name and a surname. Some cultures have different naming structures (e.g. Thailand, India, Russia) that require more research. If you plan on basing a fantasy culture or nation after a real-world one, study how people and places are named. You can make up names that sound close to the inspiration culture but aren’t quite real, or you can google names (movie credits are great for this) from those cultures.
  2. It’s never too early to get ready for taxes.
    It’s probably not going to save you any money on taxes if you incorporate as an author before you’re earning ballpark $100k/year on average, but when you do you’ll probably want to do it either as an S-Corp or an LLC (ask your accountant). When you start publishing your taxes are going to get harder, so getting an accountant if you don’t already have one may save you some trouble down the line. It’s also never a bad idea to start saving receipts for writerly business expenses like conference fees, travel, office supplies, books, etc. Even if you can’t deduct them or choose not to early in your career, it’s good practice for when you have to separate your writer expenses from your personal expenses.
  3. At the heart of almost every conflict, people want to feel respected.
    I went to a panel on conflict resolution and it was insanely helpful, both for managing character conflicts as well as real-life ones. Respect permeates a lot of our interactions: you can tell a lot about characters’ relationships with each other, who respects whom, on the small ways they either show they respect each other or not.
  4. 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron
    I just downloaded this a few days ago on the suggestion of one of my excellent new friends from the con (thanks, Karen!), and I’m already in love. Highly recommend, especially if you’re like me and struggle most with the drafting process. I’ll definitely be using this on my next project.
  5. More trans guys in fiction, please. Also, more incidental transness. 
    We’re not seeing a lot of trans men in stories. Granted, we’re still not seeing a lot of trans characters, period, and often when those stories are told the gender of the character is still used as the twist or the central issue of the piece. What about all those trans princes or trans wizards having adventures?
  6. It can almost certainly be shorter.
    Flash fiction is a great way to practice writing concisely. In all forms, from flash to short stories to novels, you can probably cut your word count by 10% without losing much. Some people have done a flash piece a day for years (this is awesome, it also sounds really hard). Flash also makes for nice bonus #content for newsletters, rewards, or your blog.
  7. Any big project can be broken into smaller parts.
    This may seem kind of obvious, but this was a huge revelation for me. Clearly, drafting a book can be broken down into the smaller tasks of writing 2k a day, but revising a book is harder to quantify. Still, you can break it into tasks that you can accomplish in a few hours or over the course of a day, like fixing a scene, changing a character’s name, etc. The smaller you can break down your to-do’s, the more you’re going to feel in control of your project. Give yourself tasks that you can complete in a day and you will feel so much better about how revisions are coming along versus just nebulously attacking the whole project for hours.
  8. Just talk to people. It will be fine.
    General con advice: probably the person you’re standing next to at the elevator is just as nervous as you are, and you might make a really cool connection. Be polite about it, obviously– if they look busy, it’s clearly not a great time to approach. But if they’re just chilling, introduce yourself. You never know.
  9. Sometimes you need a distraction and this is okay.
    You will actually work better if you take a break and recharge after a job well done instead of running yourself into the ground.
  10. Noise is a thing.
    I tend to do a lot of my writing in cafes listening to music. Some also people really like ambient noise, and this was a mixer people recommended. Apparently it works extra well if you listen to it with this playlist at the same time.
  11.  Ask, “what will I cry about not doing by the end of this week?” and prioritize your tasks based on that.
    One of my favorite organizational tips from the con, because directly combats the problems I usually have in prioritization: ask what’s going to make you feel awful in the future if you don’t get it done. What is going to be something you’re going to have to scramble to pull together if you don’t do it early? What’s something that you’re going to be upset at yourself for not making progress on? Make yourself consider the possibility of not doing it and how much that would suck, and then do it.
  12. A lot of markets really like flash fiction.
    It’s short, easy to tell if it’s working or not, and editors can often afford to buy more flash stories than short stories. Check out the Submissions Grinder for markets that accept flash (also this is a great resource for short story markets too!).
  13. Study what you love.
    Last but not least. Look at the stories, games, films, any media that you are incredibly invested in and ask yourself why. How does the story work with the form? Are there tropes or aspects that you keep coming back to? Do you like particular types of characters or plots? The stuff you’re passionate about is going to be the stuff you tell the best stories about– research it and know how it works. Engage with it as an author and not just a reader.

And that’s a sampling of my thoughts from the con! Hope this helps, and as always, if you like these weekly tips, definitely leave me a comment and let me know!

un-purpling prose

Hello and welcome back to Wawa Wednesday, more properly known as Writing Advice with Alex, week two edition!

Anyway, this week I thought I’d tackle the dangerous dramatic darling of writing world: purple prose. *mood lighting comes on, there is a bongo in agony somewhere, you cannot find it, trust me I’ve looked*

A few years ago, I was working as an intern for a literary agent. This was really cool and I learned a lot before I queried (if you get the chance, definitely apply for these remote internships when they come up). The agent I was interning for also set up a private forum for us to discuss craft and therefore help us identify promising queries faster, and one of the very first topics we discussed was purple prose. So, in keeping with that fine tradition, it will also be one of my inaugural topics.

Purple prose is, most generally, an overblown or overdramatic description of something. It can be a little easy to get trigger-happy here and say that any long description is purple, when this isn’t necessarily accurate– purple prose is more like, you’re trying so hard for an effect you don’t realize when you’ve achieved it and when you’re running the poor metaphor or whatever into the ground.

(Aside: sometimes it’s tempting to say that writers from previous centuries have purple prose when they’re describing scenery for pages or farming techniques or hats, etc. It’s more like, the audience’s tolerance for description has just shifted to preferring smaller, pithier details than a full-blown dissertation on Russian farm culture or cetalogy, interesting though both of those things are.

That’s more to do with knowing your audience though, which we’ll cover sometime in the near future here. Back to actual purple prose. *bongos out* )

My goal when writing descriptions is to always either talk about a new thing or some new feature of an old thing.

If I’m just saying the same thing as the last sentence over and over, chances are that I’m just searching for the best way to say a single thing versus actually describing multiple parts of a thing and adding depth. (Sorry this is so vague, I’m trying to make this apply to as many situations as possible.)

Let’s have an example.

Meillin’s gaze drifted to the clocktower. His eyes were twin lavender orbs, lilac spheres glinting like daggers in darkness. This was a killing gaze, the same he trained on assailants, almost as though he wished to murder time itself. He smirked.

What doesn’t work here ?

  • The orbs. Okay, this is a personal bias, mostly because I read and wrote fanfic as a Youth™️, and back then one did not suffer the word “orbs” to be used for eyes. Same deal with purple eyes and heterochromia. Unless you had a cool and new take on it, it just made you look like an amateur. Maybe it’s different now; maybe you have a cool use for it, fine, go for it. I’m never using it, ever, because it makes me feel dumb and I think when you write you need to feel awesome. Anyway and more importantly,
  • The repetition. Right? Like, man, do I super have to tell you about both the lavender orbs and the lilac spheres? No. This is you as a write subconsciously trying to find the best way of saying this. Pick your fave, or find another way to do it. Same with “killing gaze” and “the same he trained on assailants”– it’s saying the same thing about his eyes, aka that he can look like a Real Bad Dude when he’s being attacked.
  • The not-so-subtle metaphor. Murdering time! Well, gosh, I wonder what this guy’s personal conflict is going to be about.
  • The lack of action. Okay, granted, sometimes you’re going to have to slow stuff down to get some good details in, but if you’re just having our guy pause and look sadly at this clocktower so you can describe his eyeballs, rethink. Your prose should be pulling at least twice its weight almost all the time. That is: you should always be looking to accomplish multiple things at once with any sentence/paragraph/chapter.

Okay, so what’s the root cause of purple prose? If we can see what some exemplars of it are, can we go for the jugular and identify the root cause? *koolaid man voice* Oh yeah.

You’re not trusting the reader.

The reason why people repeat stuff over and over is because they don’t think you’re listening. Same deal here: the writer is repeating the eyeball nonsense because they’re secretly worried that the audience is going to miss the fact that this guy has purple eyes. Same deal with the time thing. The writer risks being heavy-handed in order to assure that that metaphor is signed, sealed, and delivered.

And the thing is that your reader is usually going to be paying enough attention that this stuff isn’t going to just slide right by them. When in doubt, my professional opinion is to err on the side of “my reader is smart.”

So, let’s try to rescue this thing.

The clocktower struck midnight and Meillin’s purple eyes glinted like daggers in the darkness. His gloved hand found purchase on the slate tiles of the tower and he hoisted himself up gracefully until he reached the massive clock face. Threading his body through the wrought iron numerals, he waited until it was 12:15 and then pulled himself up on the minute hand. He smirked. This would be the greatest heist in history.

Obviously this isn’t the only way to do it–maybe you thought the part about the killing gaze was better than the daggers in darkness, that’s also fine! The idea is you choose your favorite of the ways you’ve come up to describe a thing, and you go with that. You have extra space to add more stuff: look at all the junk I added about what he’s doing. Instead of just getting a picture of his eyes and whatever, we see him interacting with the environment and sort of have to augur his goals more from there.

Exercise:

  • Choose a character or a setting of yours. Write a paragraph (let’s say 4-5 sentences, more if the spirit moves you) describing one of their features. Think about describing different aspects of that feature with each sentence. For example, here’s mine:

The flat was really just the attic of a coffeeshop, and countless roasts from the store below always made you feel awake when you entered it. The only way up was a trapdoor that always got stuck in the up position that needed to be yanked, firmly but not roughly, for it to open. On the back wall, a modest bed was pushed up by the room’s one window, and along the sides were various discarded shop ephemera: old houseplant, bags of beans, tools for fixing the faulty wiring, and several dead siphons. An ancient cathode ray tube television took up most of the space on the single table, and the threadbare sofa was covered in dust.

(Yes, I’m obsessing about Persona 5’s protagonist’s awesome room, but that’s beside the point.)

As always, feel free to post your attempts in the comments– I love reading them.

the one narrator to rule them all

One thing I’ve really wanted to do for a while is a weekly post about writing. So, without further ado, here’s the first installment in Writing Advice With Alex (affectionately abbreviated as Wawa Wednesdays, because I live too far away from the sandwich empire not to miss it).

A good question one of my freelance clients had for me a while back was about tense and POV, that is, who’s doing the narration and how in a story. There are three main choices you have here:

  1. Tense: Past or Present?
  2. POV: First or Third? (Okay, yes, you could also go with second, but as that’s a tricky kettle of fish I have not attempted yet I feel less qualified to speak on that.)
  3. Scope: Omniscient or Limited? aka the bounds of perception: how much information do(es) your narrator(s) have access to? all of it or selected bits?

Tense, for me, is most useful for immediacy of action. I really love present tense for action scenes, especially for stories where I have some really slick lines planned (I guess I usually think in present tense? I have all these post-its with phrases or one-liners that I know belong in a certain story, and usually they’re in present tense). When I was writing fanfic hard-core in high school, I would always write all the battle scenes in present tense (even if I was writing the rest of the fic in past, this was a really annoying habit to break) just because it felt that much snappier and dramatic to me to have the battle happening in real-time. There’s a desperation that comes from writing in the now.

On the flip, past is really helpful for descriptions and setting up stages. NB: just like you can still do action scenes without a problem in past tense, you can still describe things perfectly well in present. Sometimes past tense will make a story sound grander and lend the 20/20 of hindsight, and sometimes the uncertain present can keep the pacing tight. It just depends on your goals for a project.

For example, if I know I have to build a lot of world in a project, say like a fantasy, I might look at past tense and see if that would make my life easier than trying to do it all in present. If I’m working in the real world– like, contemporary YA or modern day fantasy– I might go with present, because my reader’s already going to know a lot about the world and while I’ll obviously still describe junk I also don’t have to tell you about Houses and foreign dynasties.

Likewise, POV or point of view tells me who’s narrating: is this a third person perspective or a first? Some people advocate for writing YA in first person because of the close psychic distance (you as the reader are right there with the character as they experience their greatest triumphs and deepest humiliations, art imitating teenage life), but this isn’t the only way to write it, by any means. There’s a big difference in how SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA handles first person YA and how Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE or Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF does. It’s definitely not like third person YA doesn’t sell, though: tell that to SIX OF CROWS and THRONE OF GLASS. There really isn’t a category or even a genre standard here– it’s just whatever’s right for the story you’re telling.

Another example if YA fantasy’s not your jam: you usually see regency-era historical (or alt-historical) in third person, since part of that genre is this idea of polite distance– dry humor also requires some room for its sleight of hand. Right now I’m reading Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN and loving how much gets communicated in these quiet turns of phrase as well as how easy it is to miss something scandalous because someone’s maneuvered the conversation to avoid it extremely politely. It’s not like you couldn’t write this in first (see the hilarious KAT, INCORRIGIBLE middle-grade books by Stephanie Burgis), but you might have to come up with another way to channel that style (Kat, for example, is a wit but certain things do sail over her head as she’s younger), since it’s something that we look forward to in this type of story. Also, the word reticule is fantastic.

Scope is all about perception and what boundaries you impose on it, if any: in short, how much does your narrator know? If they’re a regular person, probably it’s limited. Limited means the narrator don’t know everything that’s going on, i.e. they’re limited to being in a single place at a single time, only seeing events from a single perspective (their own). You can have multiple limited third person narrators (e.g. SIX OF CROWS) or a single one. You could also have omniscient narrators who can see all the players’ hands.

You can pull some truly epic shenanigans that subvert your readers’ expectations by playing around with narration.

Like, first omniscient. We are lucky enough to be living in a time where Ann Leckie is one of our contemporaries and her masterful Imperial Radch books exist. If you convince the reader that the narrator has certain skills and limitations (in this case, Breq’s perspective, as she is/was/is still occasionally a ship) we’ll follow you through these wild set-ups and believe you when you say that our narrator friend knows what’s going on effectively everywhere.

So much of writing is just getting the reader to be willing to suspend their disbelief. Sometimes you do this through detail and sometimes you do this through crafty world-building.

So, Aesop-style, what’s the moral of the story?

There is no tense that is “right” for all stories in a particular genre. I’ll be blunt: anyone who says you have to write YA in first past or whatever’s in vogue these days to sell or get agented is silly. The type of narration you should use for your work is the one you think you can write your project best in. The more comfortable you are with different tenses, POVs, and scopes, the more tools you have in your writer toolbox to do some damage with. If you only really prefer writing in one narrative style, that’s fine too! You’re probably really good at it!

The other moral (this is our inaugural post in the series and therefore is a two-for-one moral occasion) is that you can do any damn thing you want, as long as you can pull it off. At the end of the day, your reader has to be able to follow you and be on board with your fanciness. I’m not talking about every single reader ever, since that’s impossible, but you should have some type of ideal audience in mind and write to them. More on that later.

And now, because I always loved these:

Exercise:

  • Write a short story or a scene in a narration style you’re less familiar with. Maybe that’s second person limited in present, maybe it’s third omniscient past, etc. See what’s easier and more difficult for you. For added zest, take a scene from your WIP and write it in a different POV and tense. To get the best effect on this, open a separate Word doc or Scrivener dude or what-have-you and type that sucker up afresh. What changes for you when you’re writing, besides the obvious flipping verbs and pronouns?

Feel free to ask questions or comment with your exercises! Shocking as I know it will be to you all, I love talking about craft and analyzing stuff and am totally down for chatting in the comments. Obligatory self-promo outro: if you’d like to hire me to read over your manuscript or query, I also offer freelance editing services here.

 

 

16 writing tricks for 2016

Since this is getting to be a tradition, here are 16 of my favorite writing tips and tricks from the last year. Some are oldies but goldies that I’ve gained new appreciation of in my last year as a freelance editor and newly agented writer, and some may be new! Either way, hopefully they help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1 :: imagine it like a movie

One of the best tricks I learned when I was interning under retired agent Mary Kole was to pretend that your manuscript was a movie and you were its director. This helps you make sure that the characters are always doing something and not like, thinking for ages inside their heads or spending too much time explaining things to the reader.

Actors like projects where they have to communicate information by acting— see Mad Max: Fury Road for a great example of this. If all your stage directions to your book actors are “sit on bed, look sad, and think” that’s hard to get your reader engaged. If your instructions are instead “sneak out of house, silently bribe younger sibling, and steal parents’ car” then that’s something we’re going to be more interested in.

2 :: adverbs cost extra

You shouldn’t cut all of them, but you should make damn sure that you’ve tried really hard to cut all of them and have come up with a compelling reason not to for the ones you keep. Imagine that all the words in your book are groceries and you’re on a budget. You can totally buy some expensive stuff, like adverbs, but you can’t buy them with everything. Make sure that the places you’re purchasing adverbs for are the ones that actually need them for you to get the meaning. For example:

Dominic says jovially. can just be Dominic laughs. But you might want to keep the adverb in something like Dominic certainly was not a part of that. because the “certainly” is a part of the character’s voice and tells us that he’s just a little bit affronted you thought that about him. As long as an adverb is pulling its weight in multiple ways, it’s probably okay.

3 :: swears are like spices

On a similar tack, the same can be done with swears. If you find yourself using a lot of curses in your manuscript, especially all in one scene or very early on, think about swear words like sriracha or ghost peppers. If you throw a lot of them at your reader at once, their tongue’s going to get burnt or their mouth will go numb and they won’t really be able to taste any more spiciness.

When you throw a lot of these at a reader in short order, it sets a tone. If a lot of your characters are swearing at the story’s climax, then that’s likely okay– you want it to be shocking for everyone! But if it’s the first scene and everyone’s losing their junk, then that’s not going to leave you with a lot of ammo for the higher intensity scenes later.

4 :: cut thinking/perceiving verbs

I have linked to this article from Chuck Palahniuk so many times in 2015 it’s unreal. It’s honestly some of the best advice I’ve heard about taking my show vs. tell game up a level.

He’s not kidding when he says this is going to be a long process. Months is not an overestimate. It’s annoying as hell when you catch yourself doing it (and once you see how common thinking/knowing/perceiving verbs are, you can’t unsee them) but if you’re serious about becoming a better writer, read this, work through it, and meet me on the other side. It’s worth it.

5 :: KB’s list of ten

These next two are courtesy of one of my CPs and fellow freelancer-in-arms, Kate Brauning. I love them both so much that I have stolen them from her, and I am shamelessly including them in my favorites list.

Don’t know where your plot is going or why a character is even doing a thing? Make a list of ten reasons why they’re doing it, why your worldbuilt world is the way it is, why the villain hates the protag, etc. The first three will probably be boring or the ones that everyone thinks about. 4-6 will be harder to think of. By the time you reach 7-10, you’ll see the cool ideas come out and play.

6 :: KB’s start on the day that it’s different

Another great one from Kate: when you begin your story, make sure you start on the day that it’s different.

This is solid gold on a several levels. For one, beginning when things change means that you start with the action. “The day that it’s different” can also mean that everything is normal, slice of life time until this defining incident that turns things on their head for your protagonist. So if you’re very tricky, you can not only establish how things normally are, but then also show them falling apart and start the book off at a gallop.

7 :: your main character is always choosing something

This article has been tremendous help to me in my most recent revisions. Like, as in, I still have it open in a tab.

What makes a compelling story? When your main character drives the action instead of weathering all these things happening to them. How can you make them do that? By forcing them to make a choice each scene that either brings them closer to or farther from their overall goal.

8 :: post-it walls for plot and tension

I don’t have a picture of it because I am still on vacation, alas, but post-it walls are how I keep plot and subplot threads straight. I use different colors when I can for different timelines, and then follow how each of my subplots advance (each chapter gets a column, and if I see a subplot falling off the map at any point, I know I have to go back and bring it more to front). Granted, this is somewhat challenging to do in a studio apartment, but there are always doors, floors, and ceilings.

9 :: print it out and color code for subplots

I recently read Cheryl Klein’s book on editing, Second Sight, and I loved this trick. This was part of what made my post-it wall go so well: I went through my printed out manuscript, took all these different highlighter colors, and highlighted when a subplot came up. (You can also just use Word’s highlighting feature for this too.)

I’m someone who likes to be able to see the whole of a project at a glance, so doing this and the colored post-it method together was aces. I could look over from my desk and go “oh, there’s not enough green in this middle bit, I should up the election subplot here” and then voila, problem solved. Just remember to update it as you revise.

10 :: only tell your reader what they need to know to get the scene

Infodumping, the bane of literally everyone during first drafts of fantasy. Especially when you’re still figuring out where the story needs to go, it’s hard to know how much or how little to tell people. But when you’re revising and you’re realizing that half of your scenes are, perhaps, your main character sitting on their bed thinking how terrible obscure trade routes have gotten, you start to realize that maybe not all of this information is necessary.

Leave a little room for your reader to fill in the blanks themselves. This is true even in YA contemp, and I can tell you that from experience: hint at other stuff at the edges, but you don’t have to describe it all in detail. I also think of this as the here’s-where-readers-could-expand-on-in-fanfic tip– people are actually really good at imagining the rest of the picture for you if you provide them with some interesting sketches of the major buildings.

11 :: dying/survival isn’t necessary the best stakes

This was actually a hard pill for me to swallow. Like, why not?? IT’S LIFE OR DEATH, HOW IS THAT NOT STAKES? But for conflict and stakes to be effective, they always have to be choices that I don’t know a good answer to as your reader. “She must either give up her rough life or her loving family” how is this a choice? We already know the answer. Granted, some of my favorite stories are the “protag must choose between death and saving people” ones, and that’s also (often) an easy choice. It’s all in how it’s done.

We’re interested more in the stakes if it’s a lose-lose situation: “he has to choose between his bright future and avenging the girl that he loves.” If he doesn’t avenge her, then he lives well but regrets it always. If he does avenge the girl, then he’s ruined his life. What does he choose?

12 :: cut 10% each draft

This one is, again, very Alex-specific and your mileage may vary. I overwrite, often because I figure out where the story needs to go by writing through all the possible options. Oddly enough, almost everything I’ve ever written is over 100k (sometimes over 200k, I know, but no one reads/slays those monsters but me) during its first or zero drafts.

Cutting down not only helps me improve pacing, but if I know go into revisions being like “okay I need to try to get it under 85k this time” then it forces me to look at each word and see if it’s pulling double its weight or just taking up space. If it’s just taking up space, nix or rewrite something else to do its job.

13 :: agency agency agency

This dovetails on 7 from before about characters making choices. We’re interested in following a main character around when they are the ones driving the action. If all these things are just happening to your protagonist because they’re the chosen one, it’s harder to like them because of their choices– outside forces are steering the ship more than the person we’re stuck with!

Especially if you find that your protagonist spends more time waiting for things to happen to them than actively going out and changing things, consider making them more active, more desperate for change that they become its agent. There’s a reason that the Call to Action is part of the Hero’s Journey– it’s terrifying sometimes to realize that you have to be the one changing things, but ultimately a lot more interesting things happen when you start actively moving toward your goals than just getting swept along in the current.

14 :: each image tells me something new

The funny thing about purple prose is that usually the people doing it are trying really hard not to. They want to make their descriptions fresh and new, or relate this emotional response so accurately that it hits you right in the gut.  And usually what happens is that people just go overboard: either describing the same aspect about same thing over and over, or unpacking too much in too little time.

What I try to do when I revise is to look at each descriptive phrase or image I use and evaluate if it tells me something new about the scene or object. If you find yourself restating the same detail but with different words, cut.

15 :: lists of ten, redux: first impressions

Ha! And you thought we were done with lists of ten. NOPE this one is another gem from Cheryl Klein: list out the first ten things that your main character does. This is going to be our first impression of them as readers.

This can be really humbling, especially as the author. Like, you know these characters really well! You’re sure the audience will have the same picture in their heads as you because you’ve totally done a great job, and then you do the list and you’re like wow, my protag is coming off as super whiny and also kind of a jerk to his family.

First impressions set a baseline for how your character acts. Make sure that the first things you’re showing us (they should be a mixed bag of good and bad, as always) are things that you’ve curated.

16 :: you can do anything as long as you do it well

Still my favorite, because everyone has that one piece of writing advice that they just can’t stand. You should know what the rules are, but as long as you break them convincingly no one’s going to mind. How do you learn to break them convincingly? By learning why they’re in place, what disasters they avert, and learning how to write obeying them really, really well.

It’s once you understand what a rule does for you that you become capable of breaking it well– you’re going to have to make other things hang together more tightly because of the rule you’re breaking, and if you don’t know what the rule does for you, it’s hard to tell where the things you need to patch up are.

As always, happy 2016–and happy writing.

travel writing

(image credit: Lucy Cross)

It’s probably not surprising that I like to travel. Place tends to be integral in my work, and when readers tell me that they see the setting as its own character, it’s one of the highest compliments I can get.

My parents’ shelves had books on travel– and not those little brochures written by tourism departments, but hefty, novel-length efforts chronicling an individual’s progress through a foreign or unfamiliar land. Around the time I first visited a good friend in Miami for a week, my mother would update me on her quest to get through a travelogue by a man trekking across pre-WWI Europe, and how amazed she was by his perfect timing. He was able to record, in detail, what the places he’d visited in Germany, Austria, and dozens of smaller countries that ceased to exist after the World Wars were like.

What about travel writing now? These days, it seems like everything important has been documented already, stored, and protected. It’s weird to think of places becoming history, and not just in the literal way, but the figurative one as well: being so annihilated that the only way we can get to them is through secondary sources.

I visited Miami for the first time in 2012, on spring break. My friend had a two bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen, floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls in the dining room, and ocean-facing balcony (supposedly where you could see manatees from but we never did) that she shared with a fellow student in the creative writing program. In contrast, back then I lived in a miserable apartment in South Carolina by myself with a balcony too small to use and littered with my neighbor’s stray cigarette butts and cigarillo mouthpieces.

My friend was pursuing her MFA, and although our spring breaks didn’t align we hatched a brilliant plan: I would pretend to be considering MFA programs, specifically hers, so I could hang with her as she was in school. We went to the beach, read, and one day we went to the department interviewing a potential new faculty member.

It was a sort of lecture-audition: as part of her job interview, she had to give a seminar so that the grad students and faculty could observe her teaching style. The small room was packed, and the speaker talked about the necessity of living in a place eight months before you could begin to write about it.

I took notes religiously. Yes, of course you had to actually live in a place to get to know it. Of course that took time. Eight months sounded like a commandment.

But three years later, ask me what I know about South Carolina. I can tell you about stray cats sleeping on steam tunnel covers in the early hours before class starts, how mold chokes up the library’s columns by the lake. I can talk a big game about boiled peanuts and meat-and-threes, tell you how gameday traffic snarls every highway even remotely close to campus, how you better slow down if you have northern plates. I can even tell you how it is completely not uncommon to go into a bathroom and find out that some jokestore has installed the bathroom stalls or the cabinets upside-fucking-down and no one’s fixed it because effort and that’s just the way it is.

I can tell you all this but not much more. I lived there for a year, and the better part of the city, the sports, the slang, all that’s stuff I never got to.

Miami, though, is different.

I went back earlier this year to visit the same friend, and more than ever it’s just a place that I like: the wide, bright expanse of Calle Ocho with its restaurants, car dealerships, lines and lines of celebratory palm trees opening toward the sun, the terracotta roofs and little lizards skirting over stucco, brick walkways, and Spanish still too quick for me to keep up. Storm clouds puff themselves up into sky-scraper battleships around four to five in the afternoon, parade over the highways when you go home and then morph into lilac-blue-pink soft-core clouds over the bridge to the keys at sunset.

(This is to say nothing of jellyfish season and man-of-war season, which are different, how the trick is to have friends with keys to their relatives’ private beaches, that there is really no good way to keep sand fleas off you, even at a classy lakeside restaurant, and that yes, you really do need sunglasses.)

The city speaks two languages, dipping back and forth as easily as you shift your weight walking. You can still move places fine using only one foot; it’s just easier with two.

During my last night there, my (now graduated) MFA friend and I hung out on a soft sand beach, watching planes and shooting stars in the clear night, and talked again about her old program. She mentioned that another applicant had been hired instead of the travel writing speaker.

“I didn’t like her very much,” she said. “That eight month thing was a load of bullshit.”

I didn’t realize until she said it how much I agreed.

Sometimes living in a city is like a marriage. Some people settle in places for life. Some people move a lot, divorce their places; some nomads can visit the old places and others need for it to be a clean and final break.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of living in a place and getting to know it. Sometimes you have to be creative. You follow local instagrams, blogs, and news accounts, you go through all the local state school’s online orientation prep that you can find like you’re about to be a freshman again, and watch 45-minute monster tours through the French Quarter someone’s posted to youtube. You work backwards and it works.

And on the flip side, sometimes you hate the place you’re living so much you don’t want to commit any of it to memory. You want to obliterate it, to strike off its letters from the annuls of your life so thoroughly that no historian would be able to reconstruct it.

You do the best with what you have, because sometimes you have to call bullshit when people tell you “write what you know.” Because really, it means less “write only things you have experienced” and more “find likenesses in the things you have experienced and the things you haven’t, and use those to write about the latter.”

Travel writing isn’t easy, and maybe that’s really what the speaker meant when she talked about eight months as a necessary minimum. You have to find an affinity with your chosen place. Because hey, I may not be a native, but if I can fool you when I write to make you think that I am, that’s enough.

stage magic

A craft post after an eternity of no craft posts, oh man.

Recently, I was talking on twitter using #betatips about what it means to be a good beta reader and critique partner. One thing I touched on particularly bothered me in a way I didn’t feel like I could sum up in 140 characters: how people are convinced that reading books critically will affect their ability to read them for pleasure.

I understand that, for sure. I used to feel that way, worried that if I poked around too much in something I liked that I’d analyze the magic out of it. It’s a very real fear: you’d much rather not mess with the TV if learning about how to take it apart means you’ll destroy it forever.

So, let’s talk about stage magic.

DEM HANDSMy favorite movie with Real People in it (my favorite of all time is, of course, animated and also Spirited Away) is The Illusionist. I love a lot of Wes Anderson films (and someday want to write a book like a Wes Anderson film but hey that’s a goal for later) and yet none of them have as of 2015 made me fall as in love with them as The Illusionist. Clearly Edward Norton is transferable, so I bet if I ever do shift favorites for the Real Human category, it will involve him somehow.

Norton’s character in The Illusionist is a stage magician named Eisenheim. I won’t spoil it too much for you if you haven’t seen it, but it’s got ghosts, tragic love, subterfuge, a cat and mouse game, detectives, dexterity, heirs apparent, stage magic, and an orange tree.  Also it is set in Vienna. Throughout the movie, an inspector attempts expose Eisenheim as a fake, to figure out the trick behind his shows.

Reading is a lot like stage magic. As a reader, you’re in Eisenheim’s audience. You see the trick performed and you’re like whoa! how did he do that thing? The author is performing on stage and you’re along for the ride.

Reading books as a writer is where it gets more complicated. You’re a magician sitting in on another magician’s show. You have now become the kind of person who wants to know how the trick is done. And sure, you know how to do some tricks, not all of them, and while you can still shift back into watching the spectacle as a member of the audience, there’s also this curiosity in you: you want to be able to make people vanish, throw birds into the air from nothing.

throws birds helloThe first rule of stage magic is to never do the same trick twice.  You don’t want to make it too easy for your audience to figure you out. You want them to be mystified enough to wonder about it on their own (which is relying on the fact that your audience/reader is smart, also good to keep in mind).

When you’re reading as a writer, though, you’re an apprentice stage magician. You need to see tricks multiple times. This is how you learn, watching the pros perform over and over until you see the sleight of hand and then can work to master it on your own. Reading is an essential part of writing development– how else are you going to acquire new skills?

But that brings us back to our original problem. You took the TV apart, you couldn’t put it together for hours, and after all the sweat and possibly blood and possibly also tears, you did it and for two minutes it felt like a miracle. The TV turns on, it even gets cable, and now you know about the switches, the cathode ray tube, the wiring, what constitutes high vacuum. It’s no longer just pressing a button and presto for you. But then you kind of hated it and hated it viscerally, all those working parts, for not being as magical as you thought they must be.

And that’s your worst fear: you learned the trick and the wonder is gone.

ghost vanishIs that the price of knowledge? Sadness, eternal cynicism? Does Art have to be this forever-mysterious capitalized word that you analyze at your peril? Yeah, sounds terrible, no thank you. Some people say art’s like wild magic, like a horse: once broken, you’ll never be able to get it to go as fast as it was untamed.

I disagree. I think there are many types of magic, and the one I subscribe to is the one born from technique. I’d rather have a magic school over a muse any day. Repetition and constant study give me control, and it’s control over the magic, over the writing that I want.

But what about the wonder?

I didn’t really have a good answer to this until I started teaching and had to present on a daily basis: most of what you’re doing is acting.  When I teach calculus, I already know how the triple integral needs to go. But to connect with my audience, aka my students, I have to remember the intimidation of all those integral signs, the points where it’s easy to mess up, the tips and mnemonics I used when I was learning the first time.

It’s same in writing. As you revise, you’ve known from the very first sentence where the characters are going to end up, what cosmic inevitabilities await them.  But you pretend you don’t to build the show for the reader and draw them in. You pretend that the tricks you’re doing really are some crazy power you have– you believe the illusion to make it real.

You learn to cultivate this weird split-headedness, sort of like separating yourself into characters or into an author and an editor but also a little different. The best way I’ve heard to describe it was an author’s character teaching someone to do magic: you have to believe something to be true, absolutely true, even when you know without a doubt it’s false, and you have to believe both things completely at the same time.

orange treeThere’s a part of you that knows exactly how the trick works, and a part of you that fiercely doesn’t, that’s convinced you’re performing real, actual magic and is in love with it as much as your audience is. And that’s why I love The Illusionist: it says magic isn’t something that gets lost when you understand it. Watch any of Eisenheim’s movements, and you can see that this is a person who’s just as into it as his audience.

That’s what storytelling is: performance. It’s lying to yourself and believing it 100% because you know that if you don’t your audience never will.

And when you get there and you study another writer’s work and see the trick, it doesn’t make you sad anymore. The TV for you now exists in two worlds: as the magic box and the logical array of parts and you revel in it. Because you got it, you figured it out, you got tricked and now you see the magic and you’re so damn excited to make it your own.

ORANGE TREE omgThis is how you do stage magic.

This is how you write.

tips for finding a CP

No one said finding a good CP was easy– in fact, it’s probably one of the harder things you’ll do as a writer. So why invest the time and energy into finding one or several who really click with you?

A CP gets you experience having your work read by someone else who’s well-read in your field. You also get to read and write editorial letters, or use Word’s Track Changes (depending on which, or both, methods you two decide to use). Both of these are tools that editors in the industry use when they give feedback to their authors, so getting familiar with them early on is a definite plus.

You may also discover cool new tools. One of my CPs raves to me about how awesome Scrivener is and fields my weirdo questions with it. Another one suggests great YA reads to me so we can both keep on top of where the category is going. A CP’s usefulness doesn’t end when she finishes your manuscript: this is a person who is with you for the whole ride, from querying to agented to published (or any other paths that end in published, really).

CPs and beta readers are often mentioned together, but the terms tend not to be interchangeable. Usually, a beta reader reads manuscripts on more of a book-by-book basis. Maybe you want a second opinion on the setting since you’re not from the area your book is set in and you want to make sure that it’s done right. There’s less of the inner circle aspect that you and your CPs develop, but also less of a time investment. If you’re still figuring out who you want to CP with or if you don’t have the time to commit to a CP relationship, finding a beta can be a good option.

So, how do you find CPs?

My biggest advice here is to just put yourself out there in as many ways as possible. I found one of my CPs through How About We CP, a super useful tumblr maintained by a literary agent. Other people use Maggie Stiefvater’s CP Love Connection to great success. My CP and I started emailing and we discovered that we were just awesome wow much write and it’s been shibes and manuscripts ever since.

Another CP and I met over twitter when she asked for publishing intern bloggers and I offered to help. Not only did she get me a running start with blogging, but we also stumbled into being each other’s CPs along the way.

Most other people whom I exchange work with I’ve met through twitter (if you’re not on that platform, or less active over there, step it up!).

Okay, so let’s assume you’ve discovered a few people who sound cool/interesting, they like you as well, and you’ve decided to swap first chapters. Here are some questions to determining who might be a good match for you long-term:

Do you write in/have familiarity with the genres and categories the other writes in? This is kind of the big one, so I put it first. Familiarity with the genre and category your manuscript is in is indispensable.

Do you have similar goals? Like how we asked this in the agent blog, do you and you potential CP also want to get traditionally published and agented, or are you exploring different paths? Obviously there’s no embargo law saying NOPE IF YOU WANT XYZ PUBLISHING PATH YOU CANNOT CP WITH THIS ABC PERSON, but it’s sometimes helpful to have a CP with same goals as you.

You can ask each other about querying (and omg exchange chat hugs, party, etc depending on how that goes), whether the agent who’s offering rep is a good choice, should you accept this publisher’s contract, etc. Likewise, if you decide to go indie, having a CP who’s been down that path can be a huge help both with setting deadlines for yourself, locating formatters, editors, and cover artists, and budgeting time and costs.

How long do you plan to be in this game? Similar to career goals, how committed is your potential CP to staying in publishing? It’s not like you guys need to make a blood pact to be PUB BUDDIEZ 5EVA but it sucks when someone whose work you really liked and who you jived with as a friend decides that they’ve had enough after the first book (or gives up during querying). One thing you should discuss with people is contingency plans– will you continue to write and attempt to get published even if this manuscript doesn’t sell or does poorly?

How slow or fast a writer are you? Sometimes it’s hard to read and crit two of your partner’s manuscripts while you haven’t even finished your own. Do you need someone who writes more at your pace, or are you okay with helping out a faster/slower person revise? Most CPs tend to work this out on their own if they’re not evenly matched– like, for example, the faster CP may promise to give the slower CP’s work priority over her other manuscripts for a quicker turnaround time.

How brutally honest do you want critique? Chances are, if you’re seriously looking for publication you want as honest feedback as possible. Make sure that this is something you and your potential CP agree on– no one has to be mean about things they find that need work (mean/deprecating honesty is nowhere on the scale), but you do have to agree that you’re ready for whatever the other finds.

Are you writing things that your potential CP is okay reading? Let’s face it: really no one can predict everything they want to write/will write ever. Writers and their tastes change. But, if you know off the bat that you want to write edgier YA, perhaps with more explicit sex scenes, maybe consider checking in and making sure they’re still up for reading that.

In general, if you and your CP like the same type of books you’ll probably find that you have similar tastes for how edgy or dark you prefer to write.

Is their critique actually useful to you? Is your potential CP about at your level of writing or are they providing you comments that you value? Your time is important– once you start writing professionally and getting on deadlines it will become even more important.  If someone is just not getting your manuscript or gives you feedback that doesn’t jive with your vision, they may not be the best match.

And that’s fine! It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends if you don’t click as CPs– it just means that you’re both mature enough to know what you need in a critique partner, and that you respect each other’s time enough to move on.

Are you willing to commit to a CP relationship? This seems kind of silly– obviously you wouldn’t be reading this page on finding CPs if you weren’t somewhat willing to put in effort–but it’s important to recognize that you are making a commitment to another person by agreeing to be their CP. It varies person to person– I have some CPs I speak with almost daily (and whom I am 100% there for any time of day) and others who I have a more relaxed relationship with, either over twitter DMs, occasional chats, or email.

No matter what kind of CP relationship you have, if it’s high-involvement, medium, or low, make sure you’re willing to put the time in. If it’s going to take you a while to get to a new manuscript from a CP, let them know. Put in your best quality work on notes, and be available to celebrate or mourn when something goes awesomely or catastrophically.

While you can’t share everything with the writing community at large, you can with your CP. I know they’ve helped me improve my writing and made my work the best it could be. Good luck!

15 ways to be a better writer in 2015

1. Write, a lot.

The first rule, the one true precept. You get better by doing, so therefore make sure that you’re out there making things happen. Maybe this is the year you finally attempt the sticker method (do it, it is so useful for keeping track of things and giving you a visual representation of how much you’re putting out each day). More than anything, the sticker method has helped me learn to…

2. Set reasonable writing goals for yourself.

If you know that you’re consistently able to produce 1k words that you don’t hate a day, then good! If you feel like you can get a better handle on your draft by writing more words, then write more words a day. If you feel, like I do, that you need to go slow and make sure that the words you do write each day are words that you’re mostly proud of, then cool, do that.

A resolution to write more is never going to stick if you make it exhausting to accomplish each day. Break down your goals: so you want to write one book, or two, or three. Figure out a basic word count (lit agent Jennifer Laughran’s post here is a good resource) and then determine how you can meet that writing your optimal– whether it’s big or small– number of words each day.

3. Read, a lot.

One of my favorite pieces of advice was that you should always be reading more than you’re writing. This sounds so haughty when you first come across it, like how dare you random internet blog I read what I want. But if the mind is a storehouse of furniture for you to use in your stories, then books are the shops and wholesalers you get the cool chairs and hip rugs from. That way, you have the luxury of choice when you want furniture for your own stories.

4. In fact, learn from many masters.

The way you get stuff in your stories that is new or different is to read a lot of different things. Diverse books, non-fiction books, poetry, even things that aren’t books. Watch anime, TV shows, play video games and analyze the stories, re-write newspaper articles to be more interesting, write an epic fanfic for that crack pairing that may or may not be your OTP. The exercises you can make for yourself are endless.

The thing is that you are constantly, actively or passively, thinking about story.

5. Realize it’s going to take a while.

Sometimes it won’t, but it’s always nice to be surprised pleasantly than unpleasantly. Sometimes you are going to feel like your writing life is either a comedy of errors or an epic tragedy. Your friends or people you consider your peers may already have agents or contracts, and you will look at your empty hands and wonder what god you left unappeased for this to happen to you.

But, hey, one: publishing is slow. Two: the people you’re comparing yourself to probably put in a lot of unseen work/time– it only seems like things are moving faster for them. Three: your hands aren’t empty– you have a lot more experience and manuscripts than you did before.

6. And find a way to relax.

Everyone tells you to go on social media and read up on the industry– which is great! don’t stop doing that!– but an equally important thing is to know when you’re being driven too insane and need a break. Find an activity that you can do that calms you down, whether it’s reading not on your laptop, walking the dog, crafts, welding, etc. For me, it’s drawing.

7. Commit to fixing one thing you don’t like about your writing at a time.

Do you know how long it took me to wean myself off of using telling verbs and onto showing verbs? (Hint: a long time.) Your writing is never going to get better unless you are actively trying to change it, unless you can identify a thing you don’t like or feel is clunky and then get to work fixing that. Don’t like your beginning? Read a lot of book’s beginnings– more specifically, read the beginnings of stories you love and study how those authors draw you in.

8. Don’t be afraid to imitate.

Obviously this goes with the slight caveat of DO NOT PLAGIARIZE but one of the ways you get better at telling the stories you want to tell is by doing it with training wheels on. Sometimes writing fanfiction helps a lot– you can write through a scene a different way than the author/creator and see why they chose to present it the way they did. You can do character studies, or you can practice description or thematic arcs.

Even if you don’t write fic, you’ve probably reaped the benefits of imitation. One of my earliest stories was this half-drawn, half-written thing that I am more or less sure was a rip-off of Akira, but it also taught me a lot about character archetypes and worldbuilding. Two years after I stopped working on it, I’d more or less realized it was terrible but it also provided me a more solid foundation to work on my next story, and the one after that.

9. Experiment.

Especially if you write YA, you’re in a great place to try something new. Push your boundaries as well as your readers’– I guarantee you that you’re going to feel like you’re jumping off a cliff writing a POC or LGBT protagonist for the first time if you’re a cishet white person, but ultimately you’re doing both yourself and your readers a service. You’re learning how to be a better writer by telling more stories (and also learning how to research culture and lifestyles like a bamf) and you’re learning to be fearless.

Will you mess up? Yeah. But you’ll also learn to…

10.  Ask for help.

Whether it’s having someone beta read for your character with a mental illness or you finding a critique partner long-term, one of the greater truths in publishing is that this whole thing is very rarely done alone. Traditional publishing usually means you and your agent (and your editor) will all be on your team helping to make your work the best it can be. There are tons of critique partners and beta readers out there who want to help you depict their culture/illness/faith/lifestyle, etc accurately.

Realize that writing is a big job. You do not have to go it alone, and no one’s going to shame you for having CPs or hiring a freelancer or checking your work. They’re probably going to think more highly of you for it.

11. Always be learning.

Maybe this falls into a few of the categories above, but it’s important enough to also stand by itself, too. Always be bettering your craft. Read, challenge yourself to improve your writing, notice what your CPs are doing that helps give their scenes extra sparkle, make a list of things you want to change about your writing this year and cross them out one by one. No one is ever done learning– ars longa, vita brevis, yo.

12. But also realize your contemporaries are not your competition.

Hemingway had this great thing; when people asked him who among his contemporaries were his greatest competition, he said he didn’t think about them that way. Instead, he thought being a writer was more fighting the people who came before you, the established classics, and trying to be better than them.

I dig. It forces you to concentrate more on bettering your work so it can stand against some of the greatest storytellers of all time versus trying to take down your fellow ~students of the craft~

13. Make lists of ten.

One of my other favorite things from Kate Brauning, CP and good friend, is the list of ten technique.

You ask yourself a question: why doesn’t this adult C– like crowds? And then write up ten different answers to it. Your first three will probably be pretty run of the mill (his mother lost him once in a crowd and he felt helpless, he hates people, the city is suffocating) but as you go on to #5-7, your ideas will get more original (maybe he saw a crowd stone someone to death and has no faith in humanity). #7-10 will likely be the trickiest but also your most creative.

14. Be the consummate professional.

Publishing is both a slow business and a small one: relationships are forged gradually and can be destroyed quickly. It is almost never in your best interests to act on the spur of a moment (if it’s a good or a bad thing). Read your contracts carefully, return your critiques in a timely manner, and always always thank people for their time.

Neil Gaiman said in one of his keynote speeches that there were three things that you needed to make people want to work with you again:

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

15. Last, always be writing.

Always have something in your backpocket, another trick up your sleeve. Publishing is in many ways a long game. You’re in this because you love it, and that means loving it beyond the lifespan of a single project. If you’re serious about writing, then you’re not just in this because you have one single book you want to publish. You have hundreds.

The key is to develop a system, whether it’s draft-> revise -> query -> repeat, or draft -> revise -> send to agent -> sub -> repeat, and just keep going. More and more what I’m seeing of publishing is that its problems are stones that you have to wear away over time. Steady work will wear the stone down, but you have to be putting in that work even when you’re not seeing a visible reward.

Happy 2015, and happy writing!

state of the writer

I really want to do something summing up 2014, but because of the usual ~holiday madness~ and also Desperately Trying to Read All the Things before it becomes 2015 it’s been hard to collect my thoughts.

So, when my good friend L.S. Mooney (follow her and check out her stuff–she is rad) tagged me in a thing, I figured it was a great opportunity to forever memorialize and otherwise less illustriously record where we’re at as a writer at the end of 2014.

1. What are you working on right now?

NA Urban Fantasy: Constantine, but if Diana Wynne Jones was writing it. It’s really fun! I’ve known all these wackadoo characters since like, high school? I wrote it once before in 2009, then edited that version in 2011, and then came to the slow but accurate realization that I needed more practice before a fresh attempt could be made early in 2013. Now it is 2014 and while we are not yet done slow-drafting this one, I am much more proud of it.

2. What is your preferred writing program/word processor/etc.?

Word. I have Scrivener on this machine, I know it works, I have actually typed words into it even, but I still gravitate back to Word. My fanfic background has taught me to just type words anywhere and has given me a special fondness for shoddy text boxes. I also used to type all my essays in Word during high school and college, so knowing that this derpy little page on my laptop could someday become a book makes me feel all kinds of nostalgia~

so yeah Word basically I am a dinosaur.

3. Are you a rule breaker? (AKA do you love or hate adverbs?)

I am an experimentalist. I believe that you should be breaking rules (because how else are you going to do Startling New Things) but that you should know damn well what you’re breaking before you break it.

Adverbs are usually crutch words– they’re ways for you to be lazy with a lexicon, for a writer to get away with using a weaker word when a stronger one is better. In a first draft, fo sho, adverb it up. It’s like writing margin notes to yourself–pushing but with more muchness! But in a final draft, it’s got to be– I am using this word for a specific purpose. Do I need to use one of my adverb flares here or can I do this better with a different construction? That’s when you cross out “walked awkwardly” and write “stumbled” or replace “touched gently” with “caressed.”

Some you keep, because wow yes some do just sound better with the adverb. And that’s cool. But you know this because you have tried damn hard to get the same feeling without the adverb and you can’t.

4. If you could write anywhere, where would it be?

A coffeeshop (because I like ambient chatter, the feeling of anonymity in a crowd, the City) with affordable but excellent drinks (and yes not so much coffee because I am Naturally Excitable but chocolate- or tea-based drinks are A+), where no one would steal my stuff when I got up (important) and my headphones never made my ears feel tired (because how can you write without hip tunes).

5. Share one of your favorite lines/scenes that you’ve ever written.

I am just one more Shibboleth heir in a dress shirt and slacks, and this lets them forget all the other things I am. (SEVEN DEADLY)

Shelley Summers was a city map he’d cut into himself, and if he ventures too far from shore the old lines slice open again. (SLINGS AND ARROWS)

6. Do you prefer writing from the 1st or 3rd POV?

I crave facility with both. Right now, 1st is the harder one for me so the project I’m currently working on is in 1st person. 3rd tends to be my strongest, since most of my fic in high school was in that.

7. When did you start writing?

I’ve been telling myself stories for ages. Like, probably the moment when I knew that I wanted to write long stuff (as opposed to shorter stories or essays) was when I started filling up this notebook with my own ~Pokemon Adventure~.

It pretty much was everything you could hope for from a nine-year-old with a box of colored pencils. All the Gym Leaders decided to chill with me and be my friends, except that Brock was my best friend, because I had a crush on him and also because he was awesome.

8. How do you feel about short stories?

They’re fun. I have written exactly one short story (“The first time he wore eyeliner…”) and then I think I eviscerated the correct draft and left the crappy one on my laptop, so it’s currently Not That Extant. But, I found the hard copy print-out I had of the good version on my desk a few weeks ago, so maybe I’ll look at it again.

9. What is your favorite thing about your life as a writer?

I like that it’s a sort of a secret thing, this Other Job that I do between math research and teaching classes. It’s like a changeover between the Narrator and Tyler Durden, like oh you’re feeling sleepy? sweet, bro, hand the reins over and let’s make some magic.

10. What are your top do’s and don’t’s of writing, for yourself and others?

Okay, settle yourselves in for a bit of an Answer because I am eating some peppermint bark and feeling evangelical.

Always be learning. This is my biggest one. It’s very easy to assume you know everything when you tend to be the most well-read individual in your group of friends/people you talk to regularly.

Come at things with the attitude of a beginner. Ask yourself how the book or manuscript you’re reading can help you learn– pay attention to how the author is making the characters interact versus how differently the story is going from what you’d do in their place. I guarantee you’ll learn more by being like “okay writer-bro, take the wheel I will ride with you and we’ll see where we go” versus nitpicking a story.

Most of all, be humble. Humble never hurts. Your notes don’t have to be pedantic, you don’t have to have solutions for every problem you spot. Part of being a professional is acknowledging that you do not know everything, and that this is okay. This is why you’re learning and why you sometimes ask for help.

You are not as good as you think you are. This sounds all kinds of rough and sad, but let me explain. There are days when I’m like THIS MANUSCRIPT IS THE SALT OF THE EARTH THE VERY SALT I TELL YOU and hearing back from people that yeah okay, it’s decent, holds together well, but here are some areas where improvement can happen, that sort of sucks.

Thinking like your whole manuscript is perfect as-is is dangerous. Because yes, agree, there are some parts of it that are perfect already.  They are probably the parts that made you think that the whole thing is great. But there are always parts that can be stronger, and thinking that the book is finished means that you’re cutting yourself off from those learning opportunities.

Give yourself a policy, like, okay, I’m going to read through this one more time before sending it. Chances are, you will find an area where you can tighten things up. After that, send.

But you’re also not as bad as you think. The fact that it hurts means you have skin in the game. You want this. You see the gap, as Ira Glass so excellently says, between the art you want to produce and the stuff you are producing.

The first thing that I ever got serious about was drawing. I had sketchbooks that I carried around with me everywhere in 7th grade through high school. The thing is that you really do have to make a lot of art before you start getting good. I have sketchbooks filled with really bad drawings and I’m like what even is this but it’s a solid foundation for my skillz now.

Maybe this is not the story that gets published, or the story that gets you an agent. Okay. There are still beautiful things in it. You are better as an artist for having created this piece. Never stop learning, never stop filling up notebooks with stories or typing words into docs. Stay humble, sure, but don’t run yourself into the ground.

You are getting better and you are making things. That’s all you need. Period, full stop.

See you in 2015.