Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I have one lesson left from reading that book I didn’t enjoy. That is, even though it frustrated me, it was still worth it to read. Many of my author friends seem to feel that they have to stop reading in order to get their own stories written. Time is short, and they can’t do both. I certainly can see that a gripping book would distract you, but I still believe it’s a mistake to give up on reading.

For one thing, a writer sometimes needs a break. Especially if you’re a pantser, like me, and you need to think your plot through before proceeding. You can break a writer’s block by focusing on other things for a while.

More importantly, reading other books can give you great ideas. If you’re an SF writer, reading about the latest scientific research might spur a story. Romance writers who read about a heroic firefighter might get the spark for their next lonely lover. Even a familiar children’s story might inspire a contemporary re-telling.

Finally, reading other work can give you insights into your own. The whole point of this thread has been finding value in a so-so book, right? If you write in a specific genre, you have to keep up with what’s current in that genre, or you may hear from editors that your work is too old-fashioned. Do you want to work hard on a book, only to find out your whole approach is stale and tired?

So my last lesson is this: keep on reading!

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Last time, I mentioned a book I’d read that left me disappointed. The villain was a caricature who talked a bigger fight than he delivered. Today I’m thinking about issues with the main characters.

First of all, there were too many of them. There were about four groups of characters in the same locations, but nine points of view. It was hard for me to keep track of which were working together and where they were. I could have looked for maps or a family tree, but honestly? If you have to stop and read the footnotes, the author is not expressing relationships clearly.

In addition, several characters were only the POV when they died or were otherwise taken out of the story. My lesson here is that the author could have chosen one POV for each of the four groups (including the villains) and the story would have been more consistent over all.

My second issue was with the power levels of the main cast. In this setting, all witches and wizards drew their power from channeling a divine source. But some of them had a much stronger connection, so that they basically mopped the floor with every opponent. The author would build up to a battle, and try to make you worry, but then it fell flat because the MCs were so much stronger than their opponents.

This isn’t so much a lesson for me, since I usually focus on the humble characters, but your MC cannot be too godlike. The essence of a great story is how characters overcome obstacles. Even the most powerful characters have to be challenged.

In other words, when you have Superman in your story, don’t forget to pack the Kryptonite.

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Creativity is a muscle. It gets flabby when you don’t use it.

Am I right?

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Stock characters. Stereotypes. Tropes. Whatever you call them, they both exist and do not exist simultaneously. They are pervasive, and very sneaky. You sit there writing, and a stock character pops out of your subconscious mind without your realizing it.

A stereotype, according to Dictionary.com, is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” So you think of a particular place or kind of person, and a certain picture immediately appears in your mind. An “Arab” with a head-rag who is hateful to women and Jews. The country of Thailand as a haven of drug use and prostitution.

This kind of stereotype is not real, because nothing in life is that simple and concrete. When you take the time to learn about the country of Thailand or “Arabs” as part of the world’s heritage, it immediately becomes clear that there is so much more nuance and variation than the trope captures.

Yet stereotypes are real, because they show up again and again. They are ingrained in our minds. One time, I was working on a short story and it felt very off to me. Reading back through, I realized that every one of the men characters was an ugly trope. There was a mean dad, a deceitful preacher, a lazy cop. Actually, there was only one woman character, and she was a stereotype, too — a weak mom who should have stood up to the dad but didn’t.

I was annoyed with myself for falling back on these negative types. As a writer, I pride myself on doing better. So I tore that story down to the ground and started over again. The dad became strict but concerned, rather than dominating his son, who was the main character. The policeman was honestly doing his job. The preacher vanished entirely. The mom offered her son words of support.

When we’re trying to get that first draft down, it can be all too easy to rely on stock characters. But when you get to revisions, it’s always better to resist the stereotypes. Allow interesting variations, or even deliberately turn the character to make readers question that stereotype. Turn those tropes into treasures.

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Word counts can be useful for more than helping you decide where and how to market a particular story. You can also use them to track your productivity. Writing… and productivity. Ha ha, right?

Word counts really can help you set goals, though. Say you’ve been working on your WIP for a while, and you need a push to the finish line. If you have a goal of 7,000 words total, and you have 5,000 already done, you might set a goal such as “write 2,000 words in the next week.” Then, knowing how many words you typically get in a day, you can calculate how many days you need to finish the story. Or, if you usually get a certain number of writing days in a week, you can calculate how many words you need to write each time.

Where word counts can be problematic is when we flog ourselves for not meeting a goal, or when we use them to compare ourselves to other writers. If you’re like me, there’s a steady stream of people posting stuff like, “I wrote 1,700 words today.” For the person who wrote that, it’s a celebration that they met their goal, and maybe a way to inspire themselves for the next day’s work.

But if you’re having a rough day and only wrote 170 words, it can be a real downer. Lots of people get Imposter Syndrome when they hear that someone finished a story, or sold one, or have a new publication. Generally speaking, it’s never a good idea for writers to compare ourselves to other writers. The process and the finish products are so different, it really is like apples and oranges.

For myself, I’m more of a “it will be done when it’s done” type of gal, but everyone has their own ways, right? So try to keep your goals in perspective and be kind to yourself.

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I was lucky enough to be invited for an interview over at Dave Koster’s blog, On Writing Dragons. It’s up there now, so please take a look.

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I’ve previously mentioned that my ongoing project for this winter has been to gather all my books from around the house and put them in some semblance of order. As I go through this, I’m constantly discovering books that I’d forgotten I have. And then I want to put them on my reading list.

But I can’t just drag them back upstairs, or what happens to all my careful sorting? So I’ve borrowed that old wedding rhyme to help me decide what I should read next. You know the one: “Something old / Something new / Something borrowed / Something blue.” This is my version:

Something old — This includes almost everything on my selves from the 20 years since we moved into this house.

Something new — Much as I enjoy revisiting a tale, it’s important for writers to keep up with what’s currently being published. For this purpose, ‘new’ is a book published two years ago or less.

Something newsprint — I’ve read comics for ages and also subscribe to several magazines. This prompts me to keep up with the issues.

Something true — All great stories include Truth, but in this case I’m referring to nonfiction.

Something friendly, made by you! — Lots of my friends are writers, and I try to support them by buying their work. I also run programs at my local convention, and it’s good to know what my speakers’ areas of expertise are.

It doesn’t go in that strict of an order. I just got done reading Something True, and I’m now in the midst of Something Newsprint (the latest Mother Jones Magazine.) Something new will probably be next. Perhaps the bigger challenge is to be sure I put them back on the shelves after I’ve read them.

How about you — do you have your own rhyme to decide what to read next?

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