"One of the best things this book does doesn't actually have to do with the story, but the fact that each time any of the characters have sex, either one or both of them have condoms ready. It's explicitly stated. It's kind of a shame that so often sex is just a spur of the moment in YA and NA with no mention of safety, either pregnancy or STDs (unless the entire book is based around those subjects). Safe sex needs to be mentioned and I'm glad it was here, especially in such a natural way within the moment."
I completely agree and am glad it felt natural, which tends to be the tricky part. I know that a lot of writers don't want to mention the birth control/protection because it's unromantic, a trip-up in the tango. But personally, anytime I'm reading a book with male/female sex and they DON'T mention protection, I spend the rest of the story wondering when we're going to find out she's pregnant. Or, with any couples, it's possible they could have caught something, but I don't suspect that in general, since STDs aren't nearly as common a plot device as pregnancies. I mean, if you think birth control is unsexy, wait till we talk about sores in uncomfortable places...
So, right--thank you for noticing and backing me up on my stance, reviewer Tori! High five.
Since I keep seeing things in stories like a full moon rising in the middle of the night, or a “waning” moon showing up at sunset, or the points of the crescent moon pointing toward the sun in the sky, I figured it was time to write this brief guide. Because none of those things are astronomically possible if you are writing about planet Earth as we know it.
This doesn’t matter very much, I know. But the small section of the population who does notice moon phases, and/or are astronomy buffs, will appreciate your being accurate about it. So here is the quick-and-dirty guide to how the moon works:
The waxing moon (the phase in which it’s gradually getting more illuminated—“bigger,” we say) begins as a very thin crescent at sunset, just above the sun in the west. Its back, its illuminated edge, will face the sun; the points will point away from the sun.
That’s how it always works, of course: the sun illuminates the moon, so the bright side of the moon is the side facing the sun, and the points of the crescent therefore always point away from the sun.
As the waxing moon gets brighter, it rises a little later each night, so that it’s a bit farther to the east at sunset than it was the previous night. Waxing moon can thus be seen in the afternoon too, before sunset, but not in the morning and not for very long in the night; it sets sometime during the night.
The full moon always rises right at sunset. Sun in the west, full moon in the east, shining at each other from opposite horizons, sun fully illuminating face of moon.
And then we are in waning moon phase. After the full, the moon starts rising after sunset, later and later each night as it becomes less illuminated (“smaller”). Waning moon can thus be seen in the morning too, till it goes fully dark and starts over again. (That's the new moon, which rises and sets with the sun, which is why you can’t see it.)
This page has some good tables and explanations on moonrise and moonset too, written by a proper astronomer.
We have some lovely waxing moon going on right now, by the way!
So: I have a completed contemporary male/male love story (95,000 words, rom-com/coming-of-age) that has undergone some beta-reading, but what it still needs is a Britpicker. Though from the POV of an American, the story takes place partly in London and has plenty of English characters. (Yes, this is the one about Sinter, for those of you who've been around this journal a really long time.) So if anyone with London (or at least UK) linguistic instincts is willing to go through it for accuracy in terms of dialect and Brit-related details, I would be so grateful!
I will happily beta a manuscript for you in return, or read and review a published one, or Yankpick (is that the word?)--whatever it is you need lately.
Message and/or email me! (writermollyringle at gmail dot com)
I get the feeling that the collective mood of the world lately is—understandably—stressed and cranky. And this stress seems to be emerging in all kinds of ways, including fault-finding with things (like novels, music, or cool art projects on Etsy) that are not in any way to blame for the state of the world, but people are feeling the need to complain, so they complain about more stuff than they used to.
So today I’m asking you to balance the score by doing the opposite. Go out and say something nice. Leave a good review. Praise those who are creating stuff you enjoy. And make sure you put your words where those creators can see them. Because believe me, it will help. You will make their day, if no one else’s.
When you’ve acquired beta readers (or alpha readers, or critiquers, or whatever their chosen label is), and they’ve read your rough draft and sent you their thoughts, now is the time to exercise gratitude, as all the self-help books urge lately. Believe me, I know from experience that it’s nerve-racking to hand over your literary concoction to other people and open yourself up to anything they might say about it. But chances are they’ll be nice—those dreadful creative-writing peer-review small-group college classes being the only likely exception—and in any case they have definitely done you a favor by devoting time and thought to your draft. So listen to what they say! And consider all of it.
You don’t have to make all the changes they suggest. Use your intuition on that. Also consider doing it by democratic vote: if you have more than one beta reader (which is best if you can swing it), and the majority of the team agrees on a proposed change, then it’s probably a good idea.
Sometimes they’ll suggest changes that you do not like. But spend some time with the suggestion anyway, before responding. I’ve done this on many occasions, and have gone through the following succession of thoughts:
“Noooo, I don’t want to write it that way.”
“I mean, if I did, it would change X, Y, and Z, which…hmm, that might not be too bad…”
“Oh! Wait! I might not do it exactly like they said, but if I make THIS change, which is similar, it’ll be even better!”
“Yay! I love this book even more now! My beta readers are awesome!”
And, on the bright side, they’ll probably also tell you stuff they loved about the book, which you won’t have to change at all. So bask in that part. You’ve earned it.
Go write! Go be grateful! We’re done here! :)
Chances are you know other writers who are seeking feedback, or you’ve seen open calls asking for beta readers among the social media outlets in your life. So, as your schedule allows, volunteer your time, read their stuff, and critique it as constructively and thoughtfully as you can. Not only is this good karma, payable in the form of them reading your drafts in return, but it helps you see your own work more realistically, both its strengths and its flaws, when you get back to it.
It’s probably most useful if you choose to beta-read projects that are the kind of thing you like to read anyway, but it can also be a good stretch for your mind to try something different from your usual tastes. Most writers—as you know, being one—are grateful for any kind of feedback, whether from the typical reader of the genre in question or from someone less familiar with it, and you can really make a difference in your friend’s revision process by providing your thoughts. Be the change you want to see in the writing world, and help a colleague out!
This one’s easy, because (I would hope) you’re already doing it: read! Read books you love, whatever they are. I won’t go as far as some advice-givers go, and tell you to read mainly books in the genre you want to write in. I think it’s more important to read books that captivate you for any reason. That way you’ll not only be enjoying your reading time, but you’ll hone your unique voice, which is fed by the specific collection of interests that only you possess.
When you finish a book, review it online. Goodreads is a useful place for this, as of course are Amazon and B&N and Kobo and iTunes and…well, wherever you bought the book would likely be a good place to review it, but mirroring the review on other sites is a nice touch if you have the time. This not only gives you a handy record of what you’ve read and what your impressions of it were, but it serves as a bit of marketing for you as an online book-related person. People might like your review and look up the stuff you’ve written.
THEREFORE: look, I can’t dictate to you what to do. But in your reviews I strongly suggest you avoid snark and trash-talk. If a book didn’t work for you, find the nicest way possible to say so, and even with those books, try to include a line about what your favorite part was. I mean, think about it: when you rip other people’s books to shreds, anyone reading your review is going to expect some pretty fabulous material from your pen if you hold such lofty ideals of literature. Can you live up to that? If you don’t, are you ready to get equally dumped on by people reviewing your stuff?
Now, unfortunately, people might trash your work even if you’ve been 100% nice in reviews. It happens. It hurts. It sucks. But at least you can take some comfort in having the moral high ground, which, seriously, a lot of people will respect you for. Be the class act.
Exception I will grant you: if a book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has thousands of heart-eyed five-star reviews, and you just don’t get it, you can say so a little more flatly. I admit I did this with the third Twilight book, for example. But even then, I recommend holding back from a full-out immature rantfest. You’ll thank yourself later.
Anyway, go read books! Enjoy them! Final hint: if you aren’t enjoying a book, don’t finish it. Stop halfway, DON’T leave a review, and move on to something new. There. Happier already, right?
This is one I definitely need to do more, and better. Sure, we’re artists. We like to create, in solitude, and share only when we’re ready, which might be approximately once a year. We hate the shallow, commercial, look-at-me marketing side. But, assuming we do want to be published, we need to know something about how the publishing industry works. So, just for a few minutes a week, do some Googling. Read articles and blog posts by those who are savvy about this stuff.
For example, find out what exactly it is that makes professional cover art look cooler than DIY cover art. What should go into a back-cover blurb. What kind of social media persona you’re currently presenting, how much online-marketing time you’re willing to commit to, how you might best reach your target audience. Consider who your target audience actually is. Read about what types of marketing have worked (and haven’t) for other authors. Check out what’s up in the publishing world lately in general.
One of the reasons it’s important to do this, aside from merely not sounding like a noob in your query letters, is that the industry is changing rapidly, and frequently. Ebooks are now a hugely profitable thing when not that many years ago no one thought they’d take off. Self-publishing likewise has become far more respected than it used to be, in a short amount of time. The role of agents and editors has shifted accordingly. Lots of posts and articles out there are discussing these kinds of things, and they’re good to know.
Another reason to do this kind of research is that you might stumble into a fabulous networking moment. Here, I’ll give you an actual useful tip: check out the #MSWL tag on Twitter. MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List, and it’s what agents and editors sometimes use when posting the kind of books they really want to see submitted to them right now. You might just find someone who sounds perfect for you to work with, who’s looking for exactly what you’ve written. May it be so!
This is good for flexibility. Could be a poem, or a nonfiction article, or a letter to someone. Or a scene that’s light and funny if you’re usually inclined to dark material. Or a thoughtful, honest Yelp review of a restaurant. I keep a file in which I describe and review perfumes I’ve tried, which is mainly for my own practical reference, but also can count as a writing exercise since it demands that I pay attention to the way something smells and put the impression into words.
As with your free-write journal, this doesn’t necessarily have to be anything you share with anyone else. Goodness knows the poems I’ve tried writing are not ready for prime time. (Poetry is decidedly outside my wheelhouse.) But it’s another form of writing practice and is thus good for the creative mind. Then you’ll be feeling more ready to get back to your fiction!
Today’s tip is actually about writing something OTHER than your fiction. As we all know, there are some days when the fiction doesn’t want to flow. Or you’re between projects (as I’ve been lately). Or for whatever other reason, the story is not what you’re ready to write today. I think most days it’s best when we still TRY to work on the story anyway (because usually the writing doesn’t end up as bad as we think it’s going to), but for days when you just can’t, write in a free-write journal instead.
Mine’s a regular old Word document, though once in a blue moon I take a spiral-bound notebook to a park and write by hand. My cursive is atrocious, though, and my hand tends to cramp up from holding pens or pencils after a while, whereas my typing is nice and fast and comfortable. So most of the time if I go this method, it’s on screen.
As they probably told you in creative writing class, the free-write can be anything at all. It’s just you doing stretches and jumping jacks, not you tackling a marathon or an ambitious hike. You can write about the lyrics of the song that’s in your head and speculate on what the heck they mean. You can write about how annoying your brother is. You can write about what the problem is with your current story, and see if you can unravel some of the tangles. Anything your mind feels inclined to produce.
Just fifteen minutes of that—hell, even five—is good for your creative brain, and may turn out to be good for the story you’ll eventually work on, too.
It's a snowy day here in the Pacific Northwest, school has been canceled due to the weather, the kids are ecstatic, and I'll do what I can in the way of work today. So: we're in the second week of the daily writing tips, and today's tip is...
8. Finish it. Unless you absolutely don’t care about it.
Finish that story! This is important! Exception: if you really, honestly don’t even like it anymore and don’t care if it ever gets finished, then go start writing something you do care about. But if you want to see the work in progress get completed, then finish it. The first draft doesn’t have to be awesome; in fact, it almost never is. You can fix it later, and anyway you’ll learn what the beginning needs (and probably the middle too) only by writing the end. This is one of those weird and annoying truths about the creation of fiction.
I also hate to tell you this, but even finishing the draft doesn’t mean you’re close to having a complete draft that’s ready for publishing. There have been more times than I want to think about where I’ve written an entire book, then looked it over with honesty, and realized I basically had to rewrite the whole damn thing if it was going to be good enough for the rest of the world to read. But that’s okay too! The writing of the substandard first draft still did its part in helping me learn what the book needed, and it definitely counted as writing practice in general.
Also, hey, I don’t know the actual stats on this, nor how we would ever get those stats, but what they keep telling is that if you finish a full draft of a novel, you’re ahead of the vast majority of people who attempt to write one and abandon it partway through. I could believe that. So yes: be one of the outliers. (Unless you seriously don’t care. Then move on to something else. But eventually, finish something.)
Today on writing inspiration, my idea is...
7. Make a playlist for your story.
Sometimes visuals aren’t enough for inspiration, and you need the help of music. With my stories, I nearly always end up choosing certain songs as the definitive songs that mean this story and these characters. It’s their song, man! Or rather, their songs, plural. Once I’ve decided what those songs are—or, more accurately, once those songs have popped up in my life and self-proclaimed their perfection for my purposes—I put them on a playlist (iTunes, Amazon Prime Music, Spotify…choose your favorite method) and listen to them when going for a walk or doing housework, and daydream about the story. I often find that I can’t listen to them while actually writing, because it’s too distracting, but your mileage may vary.
If you’re the type who can be affected by music (which is most of us), this tip can work magic on your inspiration. However, don’t expect other people to feel the same about the songs you chose for your story. Even if you have a devoted fan base (which most of us don’t, and won’t), readers will likely come up with their own favorite songs they would choose for your work. Similarly, they’ll probably have different casting ideas from yours. But that’s okay. These tips are for getting you to write the story and love it. People get to read the story and love it in their own way, just as we all have, as readers with our favorite books.
That said, if you do want to listen to the playlist I put together for The Chrysomelia Stories (the Persephone trilogy), it’s here.
Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and I’ll come up with more daily tips for one more week before we’re done!
This tip may stem from the fact that I’m primarily a visual learner, but nonetheless, humans in general do usually take in a lot of information from what they see. So use that to your benefit when trying to flesh out your characters by collecting photos of people who look like them. Essentially you’re casting the story as if adapting it for film, except you don’t have to limit yourself to actual actors, nor people who are still alive or still the right age for the part. You can cast Mae West as she looked in 1935, or some unknown civilian captured in a photograph from 1898, or someone in a modern stock photo. The important thing is that their face makes you think of your character.
Why is this any more useful than writing out a detailed description of your character’s appearance, sans photograph? Well, because if you’re like me, you don’t think of everything when you picture an imaginary person. You know their hair color and eye color and their height and build, but how clearly can you see their smile? Do you know which little wrinkles it brings out in other parts of their face? What shape are their eyebrows? Is their hairline low or high? You don’t have to copy every single physical aspect of the person in the photograph and stick it onto your character, but looking at the details of someone’s actual face in a picture makes you think about how human faces look, and what kind of realistic details you might mention. Most importantly, I find that casting the story with photos makes the characters become more alive to me while I’m doing the writing. It gets easier to picture how they’d move, what habitual gestures they’d make, how they’d dress, and so on.
Pinterest, by the way, is a handy place to collect these photos. You can make a board for your story (mark it private if you don’t want others to see it) and start pinning pictures on it, adding your own notes and captions. You can also include pictures of the setting: the city or part of the world where it takes place, or landmarks your characters visit. Or pictures of fashions they might wear. Or really any photos that spark thoughts about your story. Let your visual-learning abilities help your creativity. Just a caveat: it’s really easy to waste hours on Pinterest, so pace yourself lest you fall into a rabbit hole of procrastination.
More story-inspiration thoughts tomorrow!
Sometimes, despite your enthusiasm for a story idea, you find yourself uncertain where to take the story next. Or a character just isn’t quite coming to life for you—which often, actually, is the reason why we’re finding it hard to move the writing along. One trick I like to employ when this happens is to interview my character(s).
I usually do it silently, in writing, in a separate document from the manuscript itself, though you can try conducting the interview out loud if you like. It could be that imitating the character’s voice is what really animates them for you. I recommend recording the audio if you do it that way, so you have a record of what you came up with. Whichever way you do it, ask them the basics about their background: what was your life like growing up, where do you live now, what are your hobbies and passions? Then ask them about the problem we’ll be dealing with in your fiction: how’d you get into this situation? What do you feel about it? What would you like to do to fix things, and what’s stopping you?
These are of course all the same kinds of questions you’ve already considered in coming up with the story in the first place. But I find you’ll get more lifelike responses if you put the answers in the character’s mouth, rather than in your own omniscient-narrator voice, which is likely to be more detached. This exercise also helps you hear how the character talks, what turns of phrase they’re inclined to use, what dialects or slang they embrace, what tone they take when describing their situation. Will they be polite and hold back emotions, even though we know they’re under there? Or will they rant and complain? Or perhaps display dry humor? Getting them to talk is the way to discover their individual voice.
Tomorrow I’ll post another idea for bringing characters to life, so check back for day 6. And have a great weekend!
Once you’ve chosen what your fiction will be about, how do you start writing? Well, this is where it comes down to the question: are you going to be a plotter, or a pantser?
Being a plotter has worked for me a lot of times, if I need to figure out what this story even is. If it’s going to be on the complicated side and/or my initial idea is still hazy, I benefit from writing out a synopsis of how things might go. (This always gets changed later, as I do the actual writing of the book, so don’t worry about having to stick to the outline too closely.)
However, if I have a good enough idea where the story will be going, and I have no crazy magical rules to figure out, nor intricate cat-and-mouse games to plot, I’ve also successfully written in “pantser” mode—that is, writing by the seat of my pants. (Apparently that’s the origin of the term “pantser.” But I also like the idea of “pantsing” the novel; i.e., just yanking its pants down and getting straight to business without any fancy planned striptease. Not that I actually think of novel writing as sex. Although…hm. You know what, metaphors can be a serious sidetrack. Moving on.)
I don’t think you need to commit strongly to one side or the other, outlining vs. discovery-writing. In my experience, every book’s creation has some elements of both. There are parts you’ll probably have to stop and work out ahead of time in order to proceed properly. But there are sure to be other parts you won’t know about until they happen, springing serendipitously from your keyboard and delighting you with how right they feel even though you just thought of them. So ultimately that’s my advice, which is sort of anti-advice in this case: don’t worry so much about “plotter vs. pantser,” a.k.a. “outlining vs. free-writing.” If you can’t figure out where to start or where it’s going, try some outlining. If you’re eager to get in there and write and just see where it goes, do that. You’ll be all right.
Welcome to day 3 in fiction-writing Ideas Off The Top of My Head! Today's tip...
3. Don’t write it unless you love it.
When choosing what to write your story about, pick the idea (perhaps from your story idea file) that excites you right now the most. Not what you think will sell the best, or what your friend says would be really cool to read, or what would make your high school English teacher proudest. Unless you get a crazily rabid fan base (which most of us won’t), it’s safe to say no one will care about this book as much as you do, nor spend as much time with it as you will. So pick a plot and a set of characters you will seriously freaking love.
That said: keep in mind you probably won’t love them immediately. It’s fine if you only like them at first. In fact, this rule, while lovely and simple and very important to follow, is actually perhaps one of the hardest to follow, because it’s not always easy to zero in on what you most want to write about. So start with the central bits, the idea(s) that you’re almost certain you want to include. A particular couple who should fall in love. A certain magical location. A historical time and place. A mood, even: funny, scary, romantic, suspenseful. Thinking back on stories you’ve loved will probably help you choose what you most want.
Then when you have your central kernel or two of inspiration, start embroidering around it. What might you do with this couple, this magic, this time in history, this idea of scariness or hilarity or what have you? Specifically, what do you want to do with it? Presumably this is going to be a book you wish existed in the world, because you would love to read it, so what kind of stuff would happen in a book like that?
It’s all yours. Make it happen. Keep working on it, and even if you don’t feel the love at first, it will engulf you as you write further, as long as you’ve chosen subject matter you can seriously dig.
2. Keep a story idea file.
You probably come up with a cool idea for a story from time to time, but are too busy to do anything with it, and in fact aren’t sure you’ll ever use it. But still, it is a cool idea…so write it down! Keep a story idea file. I use a regular old Word document, but you can use a notebook if you’re old-school, or a note-keeping app on your phone, or whatever you like. This is a small file; this isn’t where you expand your ideas into full story outlines. This is where you write down a sentence or two about your idea, so that later, if you want inspiration, you can look at your list of ideas and spark your imagination with one of these lines.
Where do you get story ideas? Anywhere, really. Could be an anecdote someone told you about their grandma. Or a quirky story in the news. Or a vivid dream you had. A piece of art (visual, musical, you name it) that enthralls you. Anything that triggers your curiosity. For me, books of fairy tales or mythology are instant story-idea generators, so that’s another good source: take an old story you like (as long as it’s in the public domain) and tell it in a new way, with your own unique changes. (Given I wrote a trilogy based on Greek-myth characters, and also a novel inspired by a Christina Rossetti poem, I obviously am fond of this source of ideas.)
Gender-swap is another fun tool for adapting old stories or common tropes into something new. Imagine a Sleeping Beauty who’s male, and a female in armor trying to fight through the brambles to reach him. Or a Taming of the Shrew where the tamer is a woman and the shrew is a guy. POV change is also interesting: pick a character whose point of view we don’t usually see, and tell the story from theirs. (Disney’s Maleficent, for example.)
So brainstorm a few crazy ideas, even if you aren’t going to use them anytime soon. It’s a good exercise in creativity, and no one’s going to see and judge your file except you; and hey, maybe you will turn one of them into an awesome story someday.
1. Analyze books you love. And TV shows and movies. Stories anywhere, really.
Take one of your absolute favorite novels, or TV episodes, or films, or plays, or other form of storytelling. Read (or watch or listen to) it again. Pick out exactly what the features are that make you love it. The setting and the way it’s shown and used? Certain characters’ personalities, and the way they change (or refuse to) over the story? The dialogue? The beauty of the language? The overall atmosphere and mood?
Then once you’ve listed the stuff you love, make another list; or rather, more like an outline, a sequence. What happens in the story, briefly, and in what order? Reverse-engineer the plot. How does it begin? How does the story introduce us to the characters and the conflict? How does it make us care what happens? Notice pacing: how quickly (or slowly) does the story unfold? What are the big events, and how much time do we (and the characters) have to recover and react between them? Notice mood too: how does each scene make you feel, and how did it accomplish that? Also notice what each scene is there for, because each one most likely serves some important purpose in the story.
Once you’ve vivisected a beloved story in this way, you end up with a better idea of how to construct one you’ll enjoy working on yourself.
That’s all for today. Come back for tip #2 tomorrow!