“Advice” or “3 Ironic Tips for Writers”

Writers write about writing a lot. Go figure.

I don’t actually blame us. This is something we care about, so it’s something we talk about. It’s also one of those things where, no matter how good you are, you want to be better. …Unless the idea of attaining perfection repulses you, in which case I doubt you read many blog articles aimed at improving your craft.

For the rest of you who do read such articles, perhaps you’ve noticed some pieces of “recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct” come up a lot. Like, all the bleeding time. To the point where you stop listening and start looking for ways to entertain yourself by pointing out the irony inherent in the advice’s continued use.

…Am I the only one who does that? Oh, good. Then you’ll probably be able to read my alternate take on these 3 done-to-death writer tips without any sense a déjà vu.

1) “Avoid clichés.”

The irony: The criticism of clichés, in itself, has become a cliché – trite, hackneyed, and so overly commonplace that it’s lost potency.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): Life is a cliché. You can only get so original before your story stops making sense and nobody wants to read it. Readers, bless their/our contradictory little hearts, want originality and creativity both. They want to read something they’ve seen a million times before without it feeling like they’ve seen it a million times before. They want old made new. They want clichés dressed up in a WOW factor. They want the same old heroic journey/love story/tragedy with new characters in a new setting and a new reason for them to give a hoot.

My advice: Don’t focus on what makes your story the same as the rest. Focus on what makes it different. Because, as the Backstreet Boys sing it, that’s what makes it beautiful. (No, One Direction, not knowing your own beauty does not make you beautiful. It makes you oblivious.)

2) “Show, don’t tell.”

The irony: People will be forever telling you this instead of showing it.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): You know what writers are? Storytellers. “Storyshowers” isn’t a word. Unless we’re talking about silent films or picture books completely devoid of text, there has to be telling involved. We’ve got to tell to show. Call me a literalist, but these are just the facts.

My advice: Tell the darn story. Just tell it in a way that shows the story, rather than laying it out in dry summary. “Ollie died, and this made Joey sad” gives you less than “Joey wept over Ollie’s fallen body”. I’m telling you both examples (as opposed to showing you, which would necessitate pantomiming the whole thing for you on video, or something), but doesn’t the second one make you feel a little closer to the action? If “storyshowers” were a word, it would be the characters’ job description, not the writers’. The characters show, we writers watch, and then we tell what we see.

3) “Kill your darlings.”

The irony: This seems to be a darling phrase of writing advisors everywhere.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): Notwithstanding my frequent fantasies in which I knock somebody over the head with a large stick, I don’t actually like violence. And this phrase – much like talk of slashing at your first draft until it bleeds red ink – strikes me as unnecessarily brutal. Editing does not have to be a slaughter! Does a surgeon hack mercilessly at the patient on the operating table like a Viking berserker? If your answer’s not “no”, change doctors now. A qualified surgeon enters the problem area with delicate skill, gently removes the unsightly tumor, and disposes of it in the proper receptacle. Tumor removal: Still a nasty metaphor, but so much more elegant on an artistic level, not so?

“Alright, Nurse – it’s time to painstakingly extract the darling.”
“Alright, Nurse – it’s time to painstakingly extract the darling.”

My advice: No matter how much you love a thing – that character, that scene, that witty phrase – if it does not serve the greater good of your story, it is an abnormal growth of tissue that possesses no physiological function and needs to leave for the body’s health and quality of life. Put on your surgical gloves and work some writer magic.

What think, fellow writer-types? Any writing advice clichés you’d like to put under the knife? Show Tell me in the comments.

“Courtesy” or “Can You Write with All the Colors of the Wind?”

I took a break from the joys of book formatting* to maximize on the inspiration that smacked me in the face in the middle of that chore.

(* Not being fully sarcastic, here. I do rather enjoy arranging my words so they look as pretty as I can make ‘em. …Though I admit it’s a bit tiresome having to go through the same novella a dozen times in a week…)

There’s no shortage of opinions among writers, readers, and other pertinent people in the biz about what professional writing ought to look like. You’ll hear a lot of rules, regulations, and guidelines about stuff like italics, bold print, underlines, ALL CAPS, exclamation points!!!… the list goes on.

In my personal opinion, I think a writer ought to be able to use whatever typographic tools they wish to get their story across – and that goes for poor, maligned adverbs, too. An over-reliance on any of the features mentioned above can grow wearying on the eye and serve as a crutch for a feeble narrative, but used with thoughtfulness and intent, I call them all valid. To say you’re not allowed to ever use them is like telling a painter she can’t ever use a certain shade of yellow. And I’m not even particularly fond of yellow, but I believe it has its place.

Like I said, that’s my opinion. But I am well aware that others will feel differently. A page swimming in exclamation points may be as much of a turnoff for Reader X as conspicuously overused words or a lack of half-decent punctuation are to me.

(While we’re on the subject, it’s: “Whatever he said,” he said.

Not: “Whatever he said.” He said.

If you’ve made a habit of the latter, break it. Please. I can’t stand it.)

In the process of line-editing, I may come across a phrase that I’m perfectly okay with, but which I think might be likely to offend a reader’s sensibilities. In such cases, I’ll try to think of ways that I can modify it to be more widely acceptable.

Yeah, I know my rights. “The Swan Prince” is my book, to be self-published my way, and the number-one person I want to please with it is me.

That said, publishing a book isn’t just about throwing my authorial weight around with an “It’s my art! Take it or leave it!” attitude. It’s for the readers, too.

The School House Rock song never mentioned such rampant hate in the writer community.
The School House Rock song never mentioned such rampant hate in the writer community.

And in order to increase the chances that readers will like my story, I choose to extend them the “polite gesture or remark” of making the book as non-annoying for them as I feel I can. And if that means toning down the italics, all caps, and exclamations points a bit, I can live with that. Yes, that goes for adverbs, too.

(Don’t be sad, adverbs. I like you more than yellow.)

So yeah, those were the thoughts that hit me in the midst of proofreading. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

Also, if you’d like to get the jump on reviewing “The Swan Prince” before its May 31st release and/or post an author interview with me on your blog, mention that in the comments, too – or message me via my new website contact page. (:

“Backup” or “How Paranoia Saved My Life”

Once upon a time, an author lived in fear that her home would blow up the moment she drove down the street.

Well, maybe not that very moment. And maybe it wouldn’t so much explode as just, y’know, burn to the ground. In any case, it wasn’t so much the thought of losing her home and possessions that bothered her. Their destruction would be a grand nuisance, of course, but material things could be replaced (or stored safe in a fireproof box by her bed). What could not be replaced, however, were the many years’ worth of stories filed away on her laptop computer. If she lost her creative work, it would be gone forever.

Burning Computer

Terrified at the prospect, she made a careful habit of keeping a frequently updated “copy of a program or file that is stored separately from the original” on her USB flash drive, and was in fact in the very the process of trying to upload the latest edits of her upcoming novel when – without any warning other than its increasingly uncooperative moods, of late – the author’s laptop froze up, shut down, and has refused to reawaken ever since.

And that author… *solemn nods* …was me.

I shudder to imagine where I would be now if I didn’t have those backup files. I’ve wept hard enough for documents lost in the past that had nothing more than sentimental value. That’s got nothing on nowadays where, by some cruel twist of fate, I, a favorite target of the malevolent virtual force known by a select few of its enemies as the Technology Fiend, have my heart, soul, and potential livelihood bound up in cyber-whatsits. (Yes. Cyber-whatsits. That is how much I know about technology.)

Y’know what? Let’s not even depress ourselves by entertaining the dark fantasy of what might have been and, instead, celebrate our blessings.

The Wilderhark Tales” documents? Safe.

That day’s edits on Inspired”? Essentially dead; the computer-savvy people for hire weren’t able to recover a thing from the hard drive, and saw no way of its ever happening, unless I’m willing to pay through the nose for it (which, until I become a billionaire, I’m not). In any event, I had my weeks of progress up ‘til then saved, and was able to more or less recreate what I’d lost, thanks to my handwritten notes. (It pays to have hard copies of important stuff, too.)

The lion’s share of my novel drafts crafted over the last several years? Mostly safe, I think. I don’t yet have the heart to check my flash drive file by file and see which documents aren’t perfectly up to date. Whatever I’ve got, it’s leagues better than nothing.

I’ve no doubt that there’s plenty of not-as-vital stuff missing. Perhaps I should have, but I didn’t keep a copy of absolutely everything, and copies of some things didn’t get updated to the USB nearly often enough to be considered current. You ever hear the phrase “Only the paranoid survive”? Well, right now we’re dealing with a case of “Only the things I was especially paranoid about survived”.

So, the moral of the story?

If the file matters to you, KEEP A BACKUP! Do the USB thing, or put it on a disc, or e-mail copies to yourself – whatever works for you, I don’t care, I’m just begging you, as your internet pal who gives a darn about your soul: Do not let yourself live my dark fantasy.

This concludes my public service announcement / cautionary tale / show of gratitude to the Lord above for guarding me from a shattered heart (as opposed to a heart just kind of grieving a little bit for she’s not even sure how much).

If anyone needs to lament about a time the Technology Fiend did them ill, consider the comments section a shoulder to cry on.

“Overbooked” or “Learning to Live the Dream”

It may mean “to [have taken] reservations beyond the capacity for accommodation”, but when I hear the word “book”, my mind goes in a reading/writing direction.

For instance, it might make a good term for a writer who’s suddenly got so many awesome things happening on the publication side of things, she sometimes worries she doesn’t have the time to write anything new.

Anyone been there? ‘Cause I’m there right now.

I’m also talking about it over in the web space of writer/blogger Michelle Proulx, who put out a call for guest posts over the weekend which I was only too happy to answer.

For my full five-minute reflection on life as I currently know it, hit up the link. And if it sounds like a phase you’ve been through, feel free to leave your pearls of wisdom in the comments, hers and/or mine. (:

Of course, too much of a good thing isn’t always so terrible. (Pic poem by Arnold Lobel: Books to the ceiling, books to the sky, My piles of books are a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.)
Of course, too much of a good thing isn’t always so terrible.
(Pic poem by Arnold Lobel:
Books to the ceiling, books to the sky,
My piles of books are a mile high.
How I love them!
How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.)

 

“Overused” or “‘That’s My Name,’ said the word. ‘Don’t Wear it Out.’”

As part of the groundwork for their publication of the upcoming “One More Day” anthology and my debut novel “Inspired”, J. Taylor Publishing sent me a manuscript preparation guide – i.e., a checklist to help me line-edit my story to their tiptop satisfaction. One of my first tasks is to eliminate any overused words from the text.

Being a reader/writer who is swiftly annoyed by seeing the same words “used to excess” within a short space of time, I can appreciate the value of this editing step, though gosh knows it can be a challenge. I mean, just look at the list of words and phrases I’ve been instructed to look out for:

– again and again    – as it were    – at present

– at the same time    – basically    – completely   – could

– currently    – despite the fact that    – due to the fact that

– essentially    – etcetera    – extremely    – feel/feeling/felt

– furthermore    – had/have    – hear/heard    – in any way, shape, or form

– in order to    – in fact    – it is imperative that    – it is important that

– just    – knew/know    – look/looked    – maybe    – moreover

– over and over    – presently    – quite    – really    – see/saw

– simply    – smell/taste    – so on and so forth    – that    – then

– therefore    – totally    – very    – was/were    – watch/notice/observe

With my anthological tale, I was able to check off some of these words straight away, because they hadn’t made an appearance in this particular short story. However, had the story stretched into a novel, or been told with a different narrative voice, who knows? I may well have employed every item on the list many times over… rather like I did with “Inspired”. (It’s actually shocking how many scores of “have”s and “know”s you can cut out, and still be left with a hundred more!)

There’s a reason these words made the list in the first place: People use them. A lot. And while frequent use doesn’t make a word bad in and of itself, it can be a sign that your writing isn’t getting all the creativity it’s due.

But… b-but…” you may stammer, lip trembling, “every word in my story is there for a reason! I can’t just cut it!

I know that feeling. And in some cases, it may be true; that word, whatever it is, could well be the only one that will perfectly suffice in that instance. Far more often, though, any given word can be replaced. Phrases can be rearranged, the thesaurus can be mined for a lustier synonym, some sentences can be deleted altogether.

It’s the job of the self-editing writer to decide a word’s worth on a case by case basis. If the heavily repeated word is easily interchangeable, make the change. If it doesn’t add anything to the sentence except extra syllables (and you don’t have some sort of rhythmic, poetic reason for leaving it in), remove it. If, after much thought and experimentation, there is simply no way to touch that word without damaging the integrity of the story, leave it.

Yes, I said “leave it”. It’s okay to use a word when it’s needed. That’s what words are for. It’s just a matter of intention. Maybe you chose that word with care for artistic reasons; maybe it’s a part of the story’s symbolism. Maybe you’ve got a character with habitual word choices; that’s fine, that’s just part of who they are, and could actually be a handy way of telling one voice from another at a glance. Decide for yourself why the word is there. Keep your mind open for words that might better say what you mean, or that do little to affect their own sentences, but which improve the story as a whole.

Thus shall I tell myself as I return to tackle my little mountain of remaining line edits. Back into the fray!

Tell me, readers: What words do you think get major overuse in the writing you see? How about words that you don’t think get enough love?

* For the sake of illustration, I’ve colored all the listed words used in this blog post in purple, a metaphor for things that make me happy (like words, and blue!) and things that make me tense if I see too much of it (lookin’ at you, red).

...Which some might view as a commentary on so-called “purple prose”, but I’m not going there, today.
…Which some might view as a commentary on so-called “purple prose”, but I’m not going there, today.

“Change” or “Believe It or Not, It’s Not the End of the World”

Don’t feel teased; I am still totally going to tell you about my Night of Writing Dangerously (tantalizingly alluded to here, here, and here. In fact, I had planned to make that post this post. But of course, plans “become different or undergo alteration”.

This day a year ago, I was writing a novel – the novel, incidentally, that I had intended to be my 2011 NaNoWriMo project, until the Holy Spirit nudged me to make that November my PerGoSeeMo instead. (Talk about recurring themes: This whole story started with changed plans!) So my novel writing month moved from Nov. 1 – 30 to Dec. 14 – Jan. 14. Not that I’d really made it a point to write the book in a month, mind you; that just ends up being my pace, sometimes.

I was pleased with the finished story, and after a couple read-alouds with friends and the usual hunt for typos, I began sending out queries, hoping to find an agent who loved this idea as much as I did. Don’t get your hopes up, readers – this narrative doesn’t end with that magical “yes” that gets me signed and published and famed throughout the world. But I did get a “yes” from a different quarter.

I’d entered my novel in a “Write Your Own Adventure” contest run by the editors at Cogitate Studios, and to my shocked delight, I was a winner! And my prize was absolute gold: A full reader’s report on my manuscript, plus a query letter critique. Professional feedback for free? Cue the authorial happy dance!

So time passes, I get the editors’ notes, and guess what? They loved the book as much as they thought they might when they first saw my entry. But just because you love something doesn’t mean you think it’s perfect. (There’s a lot that could be said about family and friends, here…) They had questions. They had issues. They had suggestions. And I, as the author, now had some executive decisions to make.

What, if anything, would I change, and how?

I don’t like the thought of change. It’s why it typically takes me so long to go to bed at night, and why I may get up only grudgingly in the morning: I’m reluctant to switch my state of wakefulness for sleep, and vice versa. It’s why I’m really bad about having my plans wrecked, particularly on short notice: I’d thought I knew what was going on with the world, and then the rug gets pulled out from under me!

I’m not arguing that change is not a good thing, because it often is a good thing, even a necessary thing. But it is also, often, a hard thing – particularly when it comes to an author and her literary baby.

Partly for this reason, I decided that I’d start revision on the novel sometime in January or February. Y’know; “later”. As “later” drew nearer, however, I began to feel the pressure of my impending start date. Know what I like even less than change? Pressure. And the only way to stop dreading what I knew, intellectually, probably wouldn’t end up being so dreadful an ordeal, after all, was to just do it. So that’s what I did.

Change: Sometimes it just makes cents.
Change: Sometimes it just makes cents.

Some cuts were stressful. Some additions were challenging. Some alterations were agonizing and got made anyway, and some I deemed, after much consideration, were just as well or better not made. (Remember: You’re allowed to say “no” to suggested changes. As the book parent, you have to do what you believe to be best for your baby – whether that means changing a thing or leaving it as-is. Use your best judgment, and pray your kid doesn’t end up in book juvie.)

The mass revision took my yesterday and today, meaning my intended blog post didn’t get written, but I have no regrets. For one thing, it gave me fodder and motivation to write this blog post while my thoughts and feelings on the experience are still working their way through my system. For another, my novel is better now. Is it perfect? Probably not. The fact that there may be no such thing as a totally perfect book aside, I just know that there are typos, awkward sentences, and formatting issues waiting for my next pass through the text. But the plot and themes and all that jazz is sound, and I think I’m now at lower risk for confusing and/or boring my readers. And I still love my characters and their story. Better yet, the professionals who gave it a read feel the same way. (Words are inadequate to describe how glorious that feels.)

So now it looks like I’m on track to start querying this book again, come the new year. And y’know what would make a great change for 2013? My becoming a published novelist. Let’s see what I can do to make that happen.

“Modify” or “When Word(smith)s Fail”

So, I was chatting on the phone with my bestie-forever-and-always (the one and only Tirzah “Ink Caster” Duncan, of course), and one of us (I forget which, now) found herself groping for a word meaning “to change in form or character; alter”. We eventually settled on “modify” as the verb that would most neatly suit, but it was a long, awkward road to get there. And henceforth, it has been a running gag of my character Bruno’s to suggest “modify” as the word we’re searching for, never mind how close or way off base the suggestion may be.

            One might think that one who does a lot of reading and writing would, more often than not, have the perfect word on hand for any situation. Well, one would be wrong. Teasingly on the tips of our tongues, sure. On hand, not nearly always. An extensive vocabulary can prove itself a curse as well as a blessing.

(Logo property of NBC)

            …The worse you feel when the one word you want is hiding behind a jumble of inappropriate others. It’s not so terrible when I’m writing, because I can always take a timeout to turn to the dictionary or thesaurus for aid – a habit of mine that’s best used in moderation during a literary sprint like NaNoWriMo, but otherwise quite helpful. Verbal conversation, however, is a different story. With next to zero time to edit, I’m left scrambling for words that will even quasi-accurately convey what’s going on in my head. (Of course, half of what’s going on in my head is gobbledygook anyway, but it makes no difference: I want that gobbledygook expressed just so.)

            So, what do you do when you’re caught in the headlights of a conversation with the perfect word nowhere in sight?

            Um, uh, y’know, like… shoot, hold on a sec… *elevator music plays* Leave your audience hanging. It’s not like they have anything better to do than wait for you to get yourself together; life’s long enough. And you just know this pointless anecdote will be well worth the ten-minute intermission. Everything you say is gold, because you take the time, however painfully long, to ensure that it is so.

            Fake it ‘til you make it. Just use made-up words to hold your place or distract from how inept your mouth is being today. Necessity was the mother of the invention of words such as “whatchamacallit”, “doohickey”, and “thingummy”. Rather than accept defeat, turn this oral failure into an opportunity to coin the slang of tomorrow!

            Settle. Maybe the word you meant will reveal itself in the next minute, or pop up out of nowhere half-an-hour after it’s lost all relevance. Maybe the word that kept slipping just out of your grasp never meant what you’d thought it did anyway. Maybe it just doesn’t matter as much as you feel it does and you should simply allow some lesser synonym to take The Great Granddaddy of All Words’ place because, for pity’s sake, your audience is aging! Talk around it. Make do with what your brain’s willing to provide. Let go your impossible ideals and adjust your speech to fit your current limitations.

            Because sometimes, even we wordsmiths (or especially we wordsmiths) just need to know when to cut our losses and modify.