Nurturing the Writing Habit

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Almost all of the professional writers I’ve seen advice from, foremost among them being Stephen King, says the most important aspect of writing – specifically, of finishing a project – is to get your butt in the chair and get writing, to create a routine, a schedule, because this is a job, no matter what non-writers think.

Now, I am aware this seems easier said than done for those who have dayjobs and family obligations. Note: I said seems. Carving out this routine is more like getting blood drawn or jumping off the high-dive: the anticipation makes it far more difficult than it actually is. I wrote earlier about time management in the second half of my New Year’s Resolution post, so I will leave the tips about setting alarms and making appointments with yourself there. Today I’m going to talk about setting.

When I first started this blog, I had gone from teaching middle school to working a desk job. The downtime was inconsistent from day to day, but I was always in the same chair at the same desk, and that made all the difference in the world. (When I was teaching, they discouraged us from sitting down or staying behind our desks.)

When time is difficult to manage or predict – or you really just don’t work that way – setting becomes the best reinforcement.  Have somewhere where you can go just to write. If space is an issue, get a lapdesk you can decorate, or find a way you can modify your existing workspace (lighting, candle, propping up a backdrop, etc). Sitting down in this workspace should provide a visual cue that it is time to start writing, akin to Pavlov’s bell ringing.

In order to nurture the visual cue, you must sit and write. Do not sit with your materials out and stare at the blank page. Write anything. It is also important at this time not to get on the internet, unless you are doing research. I have several tips on getting started, but here are some methods you can use if you’re having trouble:

  • Outline – Even if you generally consider yourself a panster, create bulletpoints of your story and where it might go. Create it knowing that it can, and most likely will, change.
  • Freewrite – Just start writing about anything related to your story. Illustrate a character, follow the plot, or jot the type of response you desire from your readers. I find freewriting especially useful when I have a rough idea what I want a scene to look like, but don’t know how to start narrating it.
  • Character outlines – These were my favorite exercises in school. Describe a character’s appearance, history, relationship to other characters, what makes that character tick. You may even draw the character.
  • Worldbuilding – This is like a character outline, but for the setting.
    • Even if your setting is a real time and place, this is important. Your setting should never be interchangeable (unless that is the point of the narrative, in an everyman man). What makes this setting important to this narrative? (I justify setting COLOSSUS in Atlanta here.)
    • If your world is fictional, it is important to know more about how it works than what goes into the book. A lot of worldbuilding details are extraneous and too many could bog down the narrative, but it is important to know them inside and out.
  • Experiment – If you’ve already gotten started, and you’re just stuck, now is the time to play. Remember, the goal is to write anything, whether it ends up in the draft or not.
    • Change POV / narrator (first person to third, one character to another)
    • Change narrative tense (past to present)
    • Thrust your characters into a vastly different setting
    • Explore an incident in a character’s past or future
    • Lock two characters in a room together
    • Have your character react to a historical event
    • Choose one character and kill their dog, mother, or another loved one

Once you have sat and written for several minutes on a few consecutive days, it will be easier to get into “the zone” when you sit at your workspace, but carving out that time, even ten minutes a day for three to five days, is essential to developing the habit.

A NOTE ON EXCUSES

I’ve had a few people make comments about how they don’t have time to write. No arguments, no intervention, they just don’t. When it boils down to it, these people just don’t want to write, for whatever reason (or they concealing a darker explanation, but that aside…). They like the idea, but they’re not willing to clutch at it.

If you really want to write, put the excuses aside. Stay up an extra hour, or wake up an hour early. Keep a legal pad in the bathroom and steal a few more minutes than you normally would. These little efforts add up. No excuses.

My Most Common Editing Advice

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As some of you know, I am a freelance editor. I offer both copy editing (proofreading) and developmental editing (story feedback, to put it briefly), but I never quite stay in one lane or the other unless explicitly directed. Below is a list of the most common feedback I give, as well as a few other pointers:

First and foremost: Always, always, always re-read your work. Re-reading is the best way to catch the most glaring mistakes, such as an instance where you repeated yourself (She said with a gasp, “Over there!” she gasped.), repetitive words or phrases, or other inconsistencies. I know you are thinking, I’ve read this thing a million times, but what you did and what I’m describing is probably not the same: While writing, we’re reading things piecemeal, or we start reading, then get bored (yes, because we’ve read it a million times). What I’m referring to is allotting time to read it all the way through, as a reader would, in as few sittings as possible.

editingNote: Never send an editor your first draft. You should re-read and tweak it at least once before you send it off. For agents, wait until after at least one round of heavy revisions after your editor has returned it. You can get away with sending unrevised first drafts to beta readers, but it would be courteous to clean it up a bit for them beforehand.

For my own revisions, I refer to Nat Russo’s checklists (especially for words to ctrl+f and delete). I recommend bookmarking these. A few other notes are below:

Show, don’t tell: Describe the physical symptoms or responses associated with emotions rather than saying, “I became angry.” Say, “I clenched my fists” or “My face flushed with rage.” This will be especially useful when describing emotions like lust, anger, and fear. This gives the reader a familiar physical sensation they can relate to; It makes the book come to life. (for more on this, I recommend checking out Angela Ackerman’s line of books) Likewise, include sensory language. To make a book an experience, hit three of the five senses in every scene. I have other posts on this specific topic here, here, and here (as if it’s important or something).

Perception filters: Remove the character from between the reader and the action. Rather than saying “I heard tires squeal” or “I saw people dancing,” say “Tires squealed” or “People danced.” (These examples are plain and stark. Build the scene with more description of what this would look like.)

Said tags: There is a great war over the use of said tags, which is anything that states a person is speaking (He said, she groaned, I replied, etc.). I recommend using them like salt, just enough to follow who is speaking without getting lost. Also, use a tag if it’s not obvious how a line is conveyed (“whispered”). Allow the action that frames the dialogue, as well we the words being said, to imply how the words are said. Too many tags, in too many forms, tend to be jarring and slow down the reader.

Pronouns: (Re-reading will also help with this issue) If it’s obvious who is doing what, use a pronoun. Don’t use names too often, because it tends to sound repetitive. You run into issues, however, if there are more characters of the same gender in the scene. It may be necessary to kick around how best to phrase your sentences; Spend some extra time on it.

Contractions: Re-read all dialogue aloud. It’s OK is a character does not use contractions as a part of his manner of speaking, but don’t be arbitrary. More than one character like this makes the dialogue feel awkward or unnatural. Real speakers use contractions, and you want your characters to sound like real people.

“It” sentences: Avoid beginning sentences with “it,” unless you are referring to something identified in a recent sentence. It is OK to break this rule occasionally.

Cut most adverbs: Opt for verbs that convey how a thing is done, rather than a weaker verb and an adverb. Especially avoid using a strong verb and an adverb, because then it sounds redundant. For example: “I screamed loudly.” Screaming is already loud; Emphasis is unnecessary unless you say, “I screamed as loud as I could.” Even then, you can refer back to “Show, don’t tell,” and scream “to the point my throat felt like it was tearing.” (If you’ve ever screamed like this, I’m sorry.)

On that same note, avoid “just then / instantly / suddenly / without warning.” These phrases tend to slow down the action rather than speed it up. However, using the proper verb helps the reader feel the necessary urgency.

Active voice vs. Passive voice: Active voice is “[Person] [action verb] [thing].” For example: “Jim threw the ball.” It’s very straightforward. Passive voice either does not have [Person] (whether the person is unknown), or [Person] is not identified until the end of the clause. This could build suspense, or it could just be awkward. For example: “The door opened.” We don’t know who opened the door. Spooky. “The door was opened by Jim.” This sentence is unnecessarily long and awkward. One example I assisted a friend with recently was “A string of obscenities were yelled by Jim” (content modified, of course). Putting this into the active voice would be “Jim yelled a strong of obscenities.” The active voice is shorter, but stronger and less awkward.

Cause and effect: Whenever writing action, always consider that every action has consequences. I recently read a manuscript in which someone was thrown into the wall, and that was the end of that. We don’t know the condition of the wall afterward (the could be a gaping hole in the drywall), or where the someone ended up (sliding down the wall and crumpling to the floor), or how the other characters responded (gasping and running to break up the fight). Whenever something dramatic happens, and others are in the immediate vicinity, it’s important to know how they respond, to paint a fuller picture of the event.

All of this being said, these aren’t something to keep in mind for the first draft! For the first draft, just get the story out. Once it’s done, that’s when it’s time to arm yourself with your highlighter and red pen. For COLOSSUS, I printed out a later draft and highlighted passages specifically to elaborate on brief descriptions and add sensory details. (This is a bit extreme, but I could use the printer at work for free.)

 

If you have any pet peeves you’d like to add to the list, please comment or @ me on Twitter!

 


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Abandoned Projects

I hate abandoning writing projects, although up until two years ago, they were all I had. I keep all of my past material, jots of plot lines and snippets of scenes, in manila envelopes in a file crate (I keep my Heather crateStokes material in a separate crate).

Every once in a while, I pick through them and try to remember where I was going or what was going on. I enjoy seeing how much I’ve matured as a writer, and every once in a while I think of a project I want to pull out and bring back to life. Since I kept that material, it is easier.

Do not throw away material.

I know several writers who regret throwing material away, but no one who regrets keeping it. Even if you hate it or hit a wall, don’t trash it. Tuck it away somewhere and forget about it. You might encounter something that makes the idea you had click in a way it hadn’t before, or makes you remember why you thought it was a great idea in the first place.

Do not throw your idea away. Pick it back up, dust it off, and use your more polished writing skills to finish it up.


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The Resolutions I Didn’t Want to Make

resolution-2I was pretty convinced going into the final stretch of 2016 I did not want to make resolutions. Instead, I wanted to focus on improving myself as a whole, not only specific aspects. A goal like that is vague, and a vague goal is bound to fail. The point of making resolutions is to create something to focus on, even if one tends to lose focus quickly. The key is not only to make a resolution, but also to create a plan to go along with it.

In addition to this excellent reason,  I also just wanted something to share with those who asked, because resolutions are a good conversation topic that reveal a lot about someone.

I’ve made two resolutions:

  • engage in political activism
  • manage my time

 

Political Activism

In the past, I was always critical of current events without being active. I had only ever voted once, when I turned 18, and didn’t research before I did so. Even when I did research, I never did anything but discuss the topic. After last year’s political turmoil, I realized the importance of doing research, finding sources, and contacting legislators. My vote in the presidential election may not count for shit (I voted Kerry the first time), but my vote in local and state elections DOES. Therefore, I made a list of Maryland legislators, I am going to research bills going before them, find aspects important to me, and call their offices to ask for their support or rejection. Since I hate speaking on the phone, I’m going to make a script for each topic, based on the following template:

On date, bill number/name will come before you. This bill states excerpt, which means explanationI’d like for you to vote in support of/against this bill.

I will also be posting this script on my Facebook and Twitter for others.

The most time-consuming aspect of this is going to be researching the bills, because so often something important (and controversial) is buried among a seemingly-unrelated topic. Fortunately, there are sites and apps to assist with this hunt.

 

Time Management

I’ve tied my first resolution to my second, which is to manage my time better. This encompasses most of the other areas I’d like to improve: fitness, writing, editing, promotion. In the past, marking my calendar or setting alarms had temporary success, which continued to prompt me on occasion (For example, on weekdays I set an alarm for 7 PM to start editing. I usually ignore it, but if I haven’t already edited that day, or didn’t have anything else going on, I would sit down and edit). The lacking factor is determination and regularity in order to develop a routine. Eventually, I won’t need the calendar or alarm.

I doodled out a seven-day calendar and used bullet points to create a to-do list for each day. Once I have my routine figured out for each day, I’m going to make something more aesthetically-pleasing. Each day has a different main task, and other notes. For example, on Mondays, I will update and promote my Author Facebook. This doesn’t seem like much, but for me, Facebook is the most neglected page I have, especially since not many people engage with it. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, I will post Intermissions and Chapters (respectively) on Wattpad. On Fridays, I will update this blog. On Wednesdays, I will participate in #1lineWed on Twitter. On Sundays, I will research for my activism and develop my script, then contact legislators on Mondays (this, of course, is delayed until I update my residency. Technically, I am still a resident of Georgia). This may seem elementary to some, but that is really the point. Time management does not come easily to all.

When I have the aesthetically-pleasing calendar created, I will take a picture and post it.

 

I would love to hear about everyone else’s New Year’s Resolutions, but most importantly, I would love to hear your plan on how to intend to achieve your goals!

 


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Writing Tips I Learned in 2016

2015 and 2016 were wake-up years for me in so many years, and so much of it came down to one simple lesson:

SWALLOW YOUR PRIDE.

This started with learning to step back while listening to feedback from beta readers and editors. It extended later to any feedback gleaned from negative reviews (called “critical reviews” on Amazon). Even if the words smack you on the face, it’s [generally] c0s8jaguaaa0ww2not intended to harm you or your work. Take a deep breath, write the feedback down in an impartial fashion, and return to it in a day or so.

This is especially important when it comes to representation. If someone tells you representation of a character, especially one unlike you and like them in terms of race, gender, orientation, etc, is problematic, inaccurate, offensive, or simply grating, their opinion is valid. Accept their feedback with grace. I’ve seen several incidents lately where someone – using a civil tone – tells a writer or mentions that their content is offensive, and the writer bucks back as if they had been attacked, or argues and seeks to justify their piece. Don’t do this. Just nod and tuck it away in the back of your mind to do better next time. Ask or research how to do better. I would also go a step further to hire a sensitivity reader (More information about that here). They tend to run cheaper than editors, about the same as professional beta readers. If you are friends with someone who does work like this, they may even do it as a trade.

Be patient. I know you love your manuscript, and even if you don’t, you want it published NOW. Even if you’ve been through the ringer with querying for traditional publication, don’t self-publish. Don’t settle. (Note: I’m not dissing self-publishing. I’m saying self-publishing is only settling if you are giving up on traditional publication in order to do it.) If agents are not replying to your queries, or rejecting you off-hand, I recommend finding several impartial, honest beta readers, or hiring a content/developmental editor, if you haven’t already (not hiring an editor in the first place is a mistake).

This next one is a little bit of pride, but mostly insecurity: Stop worrying about anything but the story you are writing. I’m actually paraphrasing something Joe Lansdale told me earlier (OK, one of the best things about 2016 was learning that I could pick his brain, so the year is not an entire loss). I asked him about writing chronologically, and he answered that he does, then he added this:

I don’t worry about what I do. How it will turn out, who will buy. I just tell a story. 

It takes a lot of time to reach this level of chill, but it would serve you well to make this – or something like it – a mantra for whenever you grow anxious or bogged-down: Just tell the story.

Have you experienced anything in 2016 to reinforce these lessons? Leave a comment and tell us your story! Or if you’ve learned something important that doesn’t fall into the category of “Swallow your pride,” let us know what it is! Either way, let the learning continue into 2017, and pray to the Powers that Be it is a better year than 2016.


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Dad Wolf – The Reunion

This hearkens back to Dad Wolf: The Secret-Keepers.

Adult-ish content.

Posted under pressure.


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Hank was already there. Amber could tell by the flattened leaves around the clearing he had been there for a while. As soon as she slid down the embankment, he came crashing through the underbrush on the opposite side. Tongue lulling, panting in anticipation, he barreled down and jumped at her feet.

Ducking into a bow, he paused. His paws lengthened, claws shrinking. His muzzle receded. He whimpered and whined, clinching his fingers into fists as soon as his paws turned to hands. Taking a deep breath, he stood. Thick patches of fur still covered his body, but his face was recognizable. His tail still swayed behind him. It wagged enthusiastically as he wrapped his furry arms around her. She loved it when he did that. He nuzzled and nipped her face and neck.

“You smell amazing,” he said, his voice still a growl.

Amber laughed. “You say that every time.”

“It’s true every time.” He pressed his face into her hair and took a deep breath. “I love the smell of you. I can’t get enough of it. I miss it.”

Spinning her, he lifted her off her feet and laid her down in the leaves. The fur was gone now, and her husband smiled down at her. She giggled as he tugged at her clothes, exposing her skin, sniffing, licking, nipping. When he reached her jeans, he buried his nose between her legs and took a big whiff.
“Mmm… You’ve been ready for me.”

Amber pursed her lips and nodded. “Mm-hm… But we should hurry; The kids are waiting for us.”

Hank tugged at her button with his teeth. “Would you prefer I wait?” His smirk told her he already knew the answer.

“No!” She wrestled her jeans down around her thighs, and he pulled them down to her ankles. “We just need to hurry.”

“We can take it slow later,” he murmured. His tongue slipped out to taste her. Turning her over, he took her hips and pulled her to her hands and knees. “I’ve been waiting for this all month.”


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Q & A

My wonderful tweep, Alex Micati, asked “How deep is the cut done to the middleperson, if one decides to self-publish?”

I was a bit confused. In self-publishing, there shouldn’t be a middleperson! He elaborated, “I meant, as a comparison with the idea of ‘old-school’ publishing (agent, publisher, external fees and so on).”

Although I have yet to be traditionally published (*crosses fingers*), I’ve studied and listened enough to say:

Traditional publication should cost you nothing but the fees to hire a lawyer to review your contract (and, yes, you should always have a lawyer review your contract). You should never pay to have an agent read or represent your work. All expenses after your book is picked up should be covered by the publisher.

(That being said, it would be wise, before you begin to pitch, to hire an editor (such as myself), and/or a sensitivity reader (click for more information), or acquire a small, diverse army of no-holds-barred beta readers who will do both of those things for free.)

On the other hand, self-publishing can be very expensive or relatively inexpensive. Anticipated and necessary costs are: An editor/proofreader, a sensitivity reader, a book cover, and you may even want to squirrel something away for marketing expenses/advertising.

The route I took was on the expensive side:

  • My editor is on the expensive side (.02 per word)-but well worth it! (I’m on the cheap side, $500 per 50,000 words, or a dollar per page for Moran Press writers.) This was after an army of beta readers, so my editor said, for the most part, his work was cut out for him. I did not have a proofreader, which I regret now, because I published it with several glaring typos. An alternative to hiring a proofreader would be to read your book backward, word-by-word, then sentence-by-sentence.
  • When I published, I had never heard of a sensitivity reader. However, I should have gotten one for Salvage. These could be free, such as a beta reader or swapping favors, or range from $50-$150.
  • Although you can find stock covers for as low as $30, but you run the risk of the cover not being exclusive. You can ensure an exclusive cover by paying a bit more, $100-150. My brother is a painter, and I had a clear idea of what I wanted my cover to look like, so I commissioned a cover for $300. (I also made an arrangement for five more books for $800.)
  • I have not paid for any kind of marketing. In fact, I suck at marketing. However, another tweep wished to do an experiment/competition, and paid $100 for an Amazon advertising campaign. The campaign was a bust-over the course of a month, I only received eight clicks and no buys. Amazon cancelled the campaign early.

I’ve seen other marketing strategies that would be very efficient, many of which can be found online.

The above guidelines are only for eBooks. For physical copies, expect it to be significantly more expensive: between $5-$8 for a full-sized novel, and much more for shipping. An excellent way to promote physical copies is to take copies to independent book stores and libraries, have author events, and go to conventions and festivals, such as Dragon*Con and local events (although I recommend smaller conventions and festivals). Reserving tables at events like this can be expensive, so do your research well in advance.

 

Readers, do you have anything to add? Any notes or tips you would recommend?

 


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