Writing Guide

4 Pieces of Bad Writing Advice You Should Not Listen To

I’ve been in and out of various online and offline writing communities for over a decade now. In that time, I’ve seen some great writing advice and some really bad writing advice. 

Bad writing advice is often offered with good intentions. It sounds like good writing advice, but at best it isn’t really practical advice and at worst…it’s the blind leading the blind. I want to share four pieces of bad writing advice that I wish I had never listened to. I hope they help you avoid any pitfalls! 

Only Write When You Feel The Flow

I love those moments when I feel like everything is flowing, the story is coming alive, but if I only wrote when I felt like that, I would nothing finished or published. 

I think it was Neil Gaiman who talked about how if you go back and read your writing during those moments of “flow” versus the moments you just force yourself to get it down on paper, you’re not going to see a huge difference in quality.

Another tip with this: I have had a lot of writer friends over the years who wait to feel inspired. Many of them have never finished a project. You have to work when you feel it and when you don’t. Pushing through is the only way to get to the other side of things and finish your work.

Long, Flowery Text Is Better Than Basic or Accessible Writing

It’s easy to romanticize the writers that filled their stories with flowery prose. To be honest, the flowery stuff never really appealed to me, even when most of my friends were in a phase where they would be looking through their thesaurus more than actually writing.

Think about the last book you read that you loved. Did you have to read the text multiple times to understand what they were trying to communicate? Most of the time the answer is no. 

Good writing is usually concise and accessible. Even if you use big, beautiful descriptive words in your sentences, your entire sentence shouldn’t be filled with those big words. You should contextual cues and other more accessible writing so the reader can figure out what you’re saying, without having to pull out their dictionary. 

Write What You Know 

Okay, this advice works within reason. It is way easier to write cultures you are familiar with, to write about your own experiences and such. 

But do you think George Lucas knew what it was like to fight in a revolutionary space war? No. He pulled inspiration from a variety of sources and crafted a story he wanted to tell. It’s okay to break out of the box of what you know and go beyond it. 

If you plan to write a culture or experience that is very different from your own, you just need to do your research. Study that culture and talk to people with those experiences. One thing that is important to remember, is people are going to figure it out if you write from a place that isn’t authentic. 

I grew up the mountain west and when I read books or see TV shows that portray where I grew up in a way that’s not authentic, it sticks out like a sore thumb and oftentimes ruins the experience for me. That’s something to keep in mind as you write outside your box. Figure out how to make your writing as authentic as you can.

You Aren’t A Writer Until You’ve Been Published

I was sort of lucky, when I started really pursuing writing, I had a short piece of fiction published pretty quickly. It was validating, but that did not mean I was not a writer up until that point. I’ve sort of felt like I was a writer and a storyteller most of my life. Even after that initial publication, I’ve had other contracts and “sure thing” opportunities fall through, I’ve dealt with a lot of kind and not-so-kind rejections. 

That’s sort of the nature of the beast, when you’re a writer.

You don’t need someone else to validate you. If you write, you’re a writer. 

Free Resource

Why I Love the “Save The Cat” Plotting Method

I found the “Save the Cat”  beat sheet about a year ago. I can’t remember if it was recommended at a panel I had been to or if it came up as a suggestion on another blog I read, but I fell in love immediately.

Plot structure has been something I’ve been trying to study more and more over the last few years. I had read articles and books on the Hero’s Journey and Three Act Structure, and even though I could pick the plot points from those out of movies and books, I still struggled to use those structures to outline my own stories.

For one, a lot of examples I found for the Hero’s Journey had male protagonists and some gender bias written right into them. The gender of your protagonist isn’t the most important thing about them, but a large part of my goal is to write stories where the ladies are the heroes. There are definitely more examples now (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc). I still found that Save the Cat was easy for me to learn and apply to my own favorite films and books, without bias.

Until I read Save the Cat and Save the Cat Writes a Novel. I highly suggest getting either of those books, even after you read this blog. I’m going to talk about some of the basics that helped me and share the worksheet I use for personal reference, but the books break it down in a detailed and easy-to-understand way that can’t be substituted in a quick blog post.

I’ve also created a worksheet that I used to have an “at-a-glance” look at my plot for NaNoWriMo, here’s a preview and you can grab the link to the PDF at the bottom of this post.

The Basic Structure

One thing that majorly helped me understand how the Save the Cat structure worked was seeing it applied to one of my favorite movies. 

The Winter Soldier is by far my favorite Marvel movie. My husband and I actually regularly cosplay Captain America and Black Widow. I know the movie by heart so when I found a beat sheet for it, it was easy to see how the story elements ran along with the plot. 

You can check out the beat sheet for The Winter Soldier and a ton of other movies here. For me, once I could visual the parts and elements of the beat sheet, I could start to create my own.

Here are the basics:

Act 1 

Opening Image – This sets the tone for the book and establishes what the “ordinary world” is like. We get a taste of the main character’s problem.

Set-Up – We learn more about the “ordinary world” before the adventure begins.

Theme Stated – This is the main theme of your story, stated by someone in the story to your main character. They don’t understand the theme yet. That will come over the course of the story.

Catalyst – This is like the inciting incident, it kicks off the action and now things are starting to change for your main character.

Debate – Your character has to make a choice based on the catalyst. The main character may doubt their ability to move forward. 

Act 2

Break into Two – The main character has made their choice and it’s time to start the adventure. The world of act 2 should be an upside-down or opposite world from the “ordinary world” either literally or figuratively.

B Story – The B Story usually centers around a love interest or close friend of the main character. You can have multiple B Stories in a plot. These characters help teach the main character the theme of the story.

The Promise of the Premise – The character goes on their adventure and explores the premise that the book has set out.

Midpoint – This is the point where the main character gets what they think they want, but they realize it’s not really what they need. A lot of act two is your character trying to solve their problem the “wrong” way.

Bad Guys Close In – This one is a little self-explanatory. The bad guys take their shot, whether they are physical enemies, the main character’s insecurities, or other entities. The main character has to keep going and keep fighting.

All is Lost – This is a lot like the Catalyst, it’s a call for the main character to act against bad odds. They may have lost friends, lost their will to move forward, or realized that they’ve spent a lot of time and effort for nothing. They may even lose more in this section, to really shake their hopes and motivation.

Dark Night of the Soul – This echoes the Debate in the first act. The character has hit rock bottom and they have a choice. Give in to the darkness and give up, or try again. Try something new.

Act 3

Break into 3 – The hero rallies behind a new idea, new motivation, a new will to try. The world of the third act combines the first two acts. It synthesizes the ordinary world and the upside-down world into a new combined world for the third act. Our hero is still the person at the start of the story, but now they’ve gained skill and wisdom.

Finale – The Climax! The main character has learned the theme, they fight and they win.

Final Image – This tends to echo the opening image, but now everything is different. It highlights the change and the journey that has been taken.

Grab the worksheet here:

https://app.box.com/s/z39sujjyvxiwlyi3dpcm45qsopt5uuuj

Productivity · Time Management

Writing Sprints – What They Are And How They Can Help You Finish What You’re Working On

I started doing writing sprints 5 or 6 years ago, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I still use them pretty often today. I am not the fastest writer when it comes to typing under a time crunch, but sprints are a quick and easy way for me to get some words on the page.

What Is A Writing Sprint?

A writing sprint is a set amount of time where you write like your life depends on it. During a sprint, I do my best to cut out distractions and just write. I usually set time frames of :15-:25 minutes for my sprints, with short breaks in between. The time doesn’t really matter, you can do whatever works best for you. I have friends who go for a full hour, and some that prefer 10 minute sprints.

Sprints led me to the Pomodoro Technique a few years ago. Pomodoros function in a similar way to Writing Sprints. You work for 25 minutes or so, then take a 5-minute break, then do another 25 minute “Pomodoro.” Once you’ve completed 4 Pomodoros (about 2 hours) you take a longer break, usually 30 minutes or so.

Sprinting Is Best With Friends…Or Co-Workers…Or Other Authors

I can definitely self-motivate when I need to, but during NaNoWriMo I actually schedule a daily sprint with writing friends. This means I’m more or less obligated to show up daily and sprint with them. At the end of the sprint, we all share our word counts or we talk about how productive the sprint was for us. 

To be honest, it’s a little competitive, but not in a negative or hurtful way. If I have friends who are writing 1K words in 25 minutes, it motivates me to go a bit faster, because I know I’m not really competing against them word for word. The only person I’m really competing against is myself. 

It’s a lot like having a gym buddy. If you know your friend is going to be there waiting for you at 6 AM to hop on the treadmill, you’re probably a lot more likely to show up and do the work out. 

If you aren’t sure where to find friends or people to sprint with, there are tons of discords and other places out there with writers just like you! I’ve found some on the NaNo forums and on the NaNo subreddit. 

I’ve even used the concept of sprinting/Pomodoros just to keep myself on task and productive. A friend and I have actually emailed back and forth for years during the weekdays, checking in with each other on what we got accomplished during our last “sprint.” 

Motivation · Writer Self-Care

4 Ways To Get Unstuck Creatively

This year, I’ve felt stuck and unmotivated to write or work on my writing projects more times than I would like to admit. There are a variety of reasons for this, sometimes I feel like no matter how much work I put in I’m not moving forward quickly enough, other times I don’t have the creative “flow” I wish I had. I’ve found some strategies to help me keep moving when I feel stuck though and I wanted to share them with you in case your struggling with the same sorts of feelings.

Make a list of what you’ve accomplished over the last year or so. Celebrate your accomplishments, even if they’re small.

I say the last year or so because sometimes it’s easier to look back at a longer portion of time, but you can go shorter if you need to. You can even review your goals for the year and take some time to pat yourself on the back for the things you’ve achieved. If you’re anything like me, sometimes you forget to stop and smell the roses and recognize the things you’ve accomplished.

Give yourself credit. Seriously, even if you’ve only hit 1/10 of your goals, hitting that one goal still puts you closer to your dreams than you were if you had not tried at all. You can also look at things other than your goals. This past April, I went to Wasatch Comic-Con, a smaller convention that focuses on creators. I went to workshops and hung out with creators in the industry I aspire to be a part of, I got great advice and I was brave to go to those workshops and do things outside the comfort zone. That experience has moved many of my comic projects forward and has helped me grow as a writer and creator. I may not be moving as fast as I wish I was in terms of getting things finished/published, but I can look back on that experience and acknowledge it helped me move forward.

Talk with other creators or creative friends.

This can be hard for those of us who spend a lot of time on our own during our creative process, but I’ve found that reaching out, especially when you feel stuck, can help immensely. Sometimes your friends can help you see your story or plot from a different perspective or by merely talking about what you’re trying to create, you can work towards clarifying your vision.

Ideally, it’s great to do this over the phone or face to face, because as humans, we’re social creatures and that social contact can help lift our spirits. For me, I live in a tiny, rural town so that’s not an experience I always have easy access to regularly. Sometimes I will contact a friend via email, Discord or other means and ask if I can chit-chat and bounce ideas off them for a bit. It always amazes me how sharing my ideas helps me improve them and make them more clear.

Read the stuff you enjoy.

I set a new goal for myself in the last couple of months where I try to read at least two books and two graphic novels a month, as well as trying to read for at least 30 minutes a day for pleasure. I have a terrible habit of feeling like reading is the time I could spend being productive, but by making reading for pleasure apart of my goals, it feels more like productive time. If you want to be a writer or author or creator, it’s good to consume books and graphic novels you enjoy so that you can see what other writers are doing and admire their accomplishments (and perhaps, learn from them).

Take a break. Or take some time to free write.

It can be tempting to sit at a desk and punish yourself for not being productive enough. If you find yourself doing this, step away from your work and try doing something else you enjoy for a while.

Alternatively, if you’re feeling stuck, but you still want to write something, try freewriting for a bit. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be great, you’re just putting words down on the page and acknowledging that you may have to edit or delete a good portion of them. Something I’ve discovered over the years is that self-punishment isn’t productive and it doesn’t help me motivate myself to do more, so sometimes I sit down and write for a bit, even if it’s not connected to my current projects. I’ve found that once you start writing, it’s easier to switch gears to one of your more cohesive projects and get going on it again.

Productivity · Time Management · Writer Self-Care

How To Declutter Your Digital Life – Digital Tools Vs. Digital Distraction

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” over the last few weeks. Like many people in their 30s, I started using social media in my early 20s and I’ve just continued to use it, without realizing how much digital clutter was making its way into my life. I did not realize the negative impact digital clutter was having on me. Our social media apps and programs are built to be addictive and to make us feel like we’re engaging and talking constantly with other humans.

There is some value in social media and other tools of the digital age, but not all of it is equal.

In Newport’s book, he discusses the concept of choosing your digital tools wisely and decluttering the tools you use that may cause you to become distracted or put you in a feedback loop for online approval. This hit me really hard last week. I have a wonderful husband who who has been really supportive of me lately. I had a sudden impulse that I needed to share how wonderful he was on Facebook…Instead of simply turning to him and telling him how much I appreciate his support. Sure, sharing on Facebook would show others how I appreciate him, but the point was to be grateful to him, not to showcase my gratitude to the world.

I think Digital Minimalism has some great lessons to teach, even if I don’t feel like all the lessons fit perfectly for me. Since a lot of the work I do is online and through social media, I can’t abandon those tools entirely, but I can make them better tools and less distracting.

Digital tools add value and help us live better lives.

Digital distractions keep us from living that better life.

I definitely recommend checking out Newport’s book, but here are some ways to get started tossing out the digital clutter:

Delete The Apps That Aren’t Serving You

I went through my phone and removed applications that I don’t regularly use and I removed some that I felt like didn’t really add value to my life. I have a handful of “games” I play when I need to de-stress or take a breath, but I also had some games that had started to feel like an obligation, something I had to log into every day. Those went bye-bye.

I also deleted apps that I had downloaded with good intentions but hardly used or never used. If there comes a time that they server a purpose for me, I can download them again later.

Unfollow, Unfriend, Unlike and Leave the Group

Last night, I went through all of the groups I was in and pages I had liked on Facebook. I removed any group or page I felt like didn’t add to my digital life. I’ve already done this sort of thing with Instagram and Twitter. I joined a lot of these social media applications early on in their existence and over the last ten years or so, I’ve liked and joined so many groups and pages on a whim that add nothing to my life.

While these apps can still be more of a distraction than a tool for me at times, at least know the content I’m viewing when I use them is catered to the life I currently want to live.

It’s a lot like clearing out an old box of stuff from ten years ago. The woman I am now doesn’t have a use for some of the things she would have dearly loved in her 20s. It also helps me make space for groups, pages and people who actively add to my digital life and help me keep my focus on where I want to go in my real life.

Free Resource

Short Story Brainstorming Worksheet – Free Download

About a year and a half ago I shared the worksheet I use when I start brainstorming short stories.  If you check out the post here, you can learn more about where I got my inspiration for this worksheet.

I’ve created an updated version of the worksheet.  This version is a lot cleaner and can be printed on one page if you use two-sided printing.

As I said in my first version of this worksheet, it can be used backward or forwards, depending on what kind of writer you are. I tend to start with a theme.  I figure out what kind of truth I want to tell in the story, and that helps me nail down what kind of characters I need, what the plot will be about, etc.  I also tend to write details about submission due dates, word count requirements and other details in the “Title” section of this sheet, so I can keep track of what I’m working on.

You can start with characters if that is how you prefer to write story, or plot.  Or if you have an idea for a story, but nowhere to put it yet, jot it down on the worksheet and hold onto it until you feel ready to flesh it out.  By no means do you need to start at the top of the sheet and work your way down, make the worksheet work for you.  Fill it out in fits and starts, whatever works best for you.

You can download the sheet here:

Short Story Brainstorming Worksheet

Copy of Short Story Planning Worksheet

 

Motivation · Productivity

Conquering The Fear Of Failure

At my core, I am a perfectionist, so failing scares the crap out of me.  I used to fall apart when I thought I had failed at things.

This month I saw Captain Marvel.   I was brimming with both excitement and fear, because it’s no secret to people that know me that I love the character and I also adore Kelly Sue DeConnick, the writer who helped to breathe new life into Carol Danvers a few years ago.  I’ll avoid spoilers, but in the trailer and in the comic, there are discussions and visuals about falling down and getting back up. Failure is falling down, but you can make the choice to get back up.  

Failure is a tool that teaches us more about ourselves, about what we need to learn and how we need to grow.  Here is one of my favorite quotes from the Captain Marvel comics that outlines the concept very well:

“Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? There’s an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again… A moment when she’s outrun every doubt and fear she’s ever had about herself and she flies. In that one moment, every little girl flies. I need to find that again. Like taking a car out into the desert to see how fast it can go, I need to find the edge of me… And maybe, if I fly far enough, I’ll be able to turn around and look at the world… And see where I belong.”

– Captain Marvel Vol 8 Issue 1 – Kelly Sue DeConnick

If we don’t fail, we don’t grow.  Though we can definitely learn from a variety of sources, I think it tends to be the times we make mistakes or fail that we learn the most solid lessons.  

We also learn from feedback on our mistakes or failures. I am a big fan of constructive criticism because it can help you gain skills and knowledge you did not have before.  It’s like sharpening a knife. If you put a knife against a soft surface it’s not going to get any sharper. It has to be put against a rough surface over and over for the blade to get sharp again.  

So how do you conquer the fear of failure?

I am by no means perfect at this, but these are the things that have helped me:

  • Fake it till you make it.  If you want to be a writer, write and tell people you are a writer.
  • Remind yourself that failure is a part of the learning process.  
  • Give yourself time to feel the fear, then move on and push through.

And lastly, don’t forget to enjoy those moments of freefall, when you’re soaring for just a second.  The world will get hold of you again, but you’ll never know what you can accomplish until you push your limits.

Productivity · Review · Time Management

Trello – A Visual Way To Plan Your Productivity

I recently discovered a great new tool for productivity tracking called Trello that has helped me a ton! I still use my bullet journal as well, but I keep my monthly goals and planned projects on my Trello board as well so that way they’re just a click away when I’m working on various projects. I wanted to give a brief overview here on my blog so you can see if it’s a tool that might help you as well.

What is Trello?

Whether you are working by yourself or with a team, you can use Trello to track your tasks visually on a board. Overall, I found the user interface to be really fluid and easy to use, so there’s not much of a learning curve to figuring out how to use the boards.

How to Step Up Your Board

You can really set up your board in whatever way works best for you. You can make lists and then fill them with cards that represent different tasks.

I’ve set up some of mine by laying out goals for each of the coming months and each month was its own list, but I’ve also found I like the “To Do, Doing, Done” list layout as well, because it helps me focus on what my current projects are. Here’s an example of what your board could look like:

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You can also easily drag and drop cards between lists, so it’s simple to move things around your board as you need to.

Features I Love About Trello

Color coding, the ability to add checklists, and the ability to add deadlines are by far my favorite features! You can add a color label to cards, so if you have interconnected projects you can add the color label to them and easily see where all the different pieces are.  

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Checklists are nice if you are like me and love the feeling of marking something off the to-do list.  You can also see how many of the checklist tasks have been done by just looking at the board itself, so you have an easy idea of how much more you need to do. Deadlines are something I like to have, even if I miss them, so I have something to work towards.

If you haven’t tried Trello out, I would definitely give it a whirl! A basic account is free to use and it has all the features I mentioned here. If you’re looking for more advanced features, you can get a Business Class account for you and your team, which is super affordable at $10 a month.

Productivity · Time Management

How To Achieve Your Goals With An Accountability Buddy

Creative work can be isolating and it is easy to lose your motivation when you feel like you spend day in and day out working on your projects alone. Finding a friend or creative partner to help you stay on task is a great way to keep yourself motivated. I have had a few different accountability partners over the years and it has made all the difference.

A few years ago a dear friend and I decided we would work together through “accountability sprints” where we would check in via email every hour or so to see what the other had worked on. More recently, I’ve done weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with my accountability partner because that’s what our schedules allow for. If you need motivation and you want to start looking for someone to help hold you accountable, here are some tips and tricks I have learned over the years.

Make Checking in a Habit

I’ve done this a few different ways.  As I mentioned above, I have had partners I checked in with pretty frequently and some that I only checked in with every week or so. When we check in we always go over what we accomplished, what we did not quite finish, and what we want to do in the future.  You can use tools like a shared google doc to keep track of what you are currently working on, so your partner can visually see what your goals are and what you are working towards.

Build Trust and Be Comfortable

You need to be able to give and take constructive criticism from your accountability buddy.  If you can’t be honest about your productivity with your partner, then it may be difficult for the partnership to really push you to do more.   

The two best accountability partners I’ve had were people I was good friends with first.  We both knew when to say “Hey, dude, you are slacking” and when to say “Hey, I know you did not hit all your goals this week, but you worked really hard and that matters.” Finding someone that you share enough trust with that they can give you honest feedback and helpful praise is really important.

Make Sure You’re On Similar Levels Creatively

A couple years ago I met a friend who I thought would make a good accountability buddy.  They were just starting to build a writing career, so they needed a lot of feedback, but they seemed rather eager and willing to do start the work so I dove in.  As time went on, I realized that I was giving them a lot of constructive comments on their work and trying to motivate them past the planning/plotting stage of their work.  As the months wore on, they stayed stuck in that stage and I realized it was not working out for either of us.

It’s best to find someone who is on a similar level to you creatively.  If you work with someone who has some finished work and has shown they can start and finish their projects it is more likely you’ll both be able to move forward creatively together.

Be A Good Buddy

One thing from my career as a teacher that stuck with me is that you need to give a good amount of positive feedback and give negative feedback carefully and kindly.  This applies to being a good accountability buddy too! Think about the feedback you give and make sure it’s both helpful and productive. You want to be a good cheerleader for your buddy and have them be a good cheerleader for you too!