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. 

Writing · Writing Guide

Don’t Flatter a Fickle Muse

I bet a lot of us have had a conversation about our “muse” or the “muse.”  I recently was in one of those conversations myself, and it sort of surprised me what kind of advice was bandied about.

Many professionals don’t wait for “the muse” or “flow” when they write, mostly because they can’t due to deadlines.   Yet, I watched another writer, one who I admire, claim that one should “wait for the flow” to write.  This person is a mentor within their writing community and the writing was more for fun than for work, but the advice didn’t jive with me, even though I definitely respect the writer that gave it.

The muse is not the writer.  You are the writer.  She doesn’t have to show up and do the work, you do.

I’ve watched too many friends who “wait for the muse” and never write a single thing.  They have amazing ideas, they have stories I want to read, but they don’t buckle down and write it.  When this happens, the muse becomes an excuse.  She is being uppity and refusing to join you, so oh well, you just can’t write without her.  Gotta wait for that flow of inspiration, right?

Sure, for some that flow comes regularly, but for the most part, a lot of writers have to show up and write whether they like it or not.  Writers who work professionally, either in fiction, journalism or content creation, have deadlines.  There are times I am not in the mood to write, but if I have a deadline, I write anyways.  Generally, it isn’t a joyful process but it is a productive one.  And 9 times out of 10, when I come back to revise that piece of writing, it is nowhere near as bad or lacking in flow as I thought it would be when I plunked those words down.

And honestly?  It amazes every time when I come back to a piece of work and it is not half as bad as I thought it would be.  There are certainly times where that is not the case, where the work needs a lot of editing and improvement, but if the writing has been done that still puts me one step ahead of someone who is waiting for inspiration.

Please note:  I’m not talking about moments when you are stuck or unsure of a direction for a story.  There are times where thinking too hard on a project, and lacking flow because of it, is certainly more detrimental than helpful.  Those moments, I find it’s best to take a step back.  You usually only get to those moments if you’re doing the work, though, whether your muse has shown up or not.

So I think the best advice I can give you is this:  Don’t flatter the muse.  She isn’t the one putting in all the hard work.  If you keep giving her all the credit, she just gets a more inflated ego and then she won’t work at all.  Show up, do the work, and she’ll probably get all jealous and want to work with you more.

 

Writing · Writing Guide

Don’t Go Chasing Synonyms, Please Stick to the Words and Phrases You’re used to.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of article writing and editing for clients.  I have been pulling out my thesaurus a lot, which always makes me think about times I’ve seen words in sentences where they don’t belong.

I have spent a fair amount of time in online writing communities and writing-based roleplay communities.  For some reason, in many of these groups, the need to sound “smarter” tends to become highly valued.  A lot of the writing eventually evolves into over-written, flowery prose that is both difficult to read and often the synonyms are used incorrectly.  Big words don’t always elevate the quality of your writing, and if they are used incorrectly, they actually might make you look more like an amateur.

This is why I advocate for using words you are familiar with when you are looking for a synonym.  There is something to be said for using a simple word, rather than a complicated one.

Good writing should be both descriptive and accessible.  Synonyms are often words with similar meanings, but that does not mean they are completely interchangeable.  So it’s something to watch out for, as you try to find the right words for your writing.  More flowery words, or bigger words, does not necessarily mean better.

If you do have a “big” word that you love, you can make it understandable by ensuring that the sentence it is in has contextual cues so that your reader can figure out its meaning.  Imagine if you read a book where you either had to constantly re-read paragraphs or pick up the dictionary every other paragraph.  It would take you out of the magic and deeply impact your love of the story.

By sticking to the words you know and trying to make your writing accessible, you will find you are able to offer a seamless experience to your readers.

 

Writing Guide

Ways to Quiet Your Inner Editor

It generally takes me about a week to quiet my inner editor during NaNoWriMo.  For the first week, I fight with her a lot.  She tends to want me to go back and fix plot ideas, weird sentences and anything else she can think of.  I have learned one thing from her, listening to her is the quickest way to stop myself from getting my writing done.  I’ve also watched a lot of friends become crippled by their inner editor, so they don’t make their daily word counts and end up quitting before they make that one week mark in NaNoWriMo.

So I decided to share a few handy tools to circumvent your inner editor.

ILYS

Ilys is a great website that even lets you test drive their software. When using their software, you set a word count goal and then it brings you to a screen where you can only see single letters as you type them.  You cannot see if you have made errors and you cannot go back and fix them if you did until you hit your word count goal.  This is a great way to set a word count goal and just go for it.   It basically forces you to complete your writing without any sort of editing.  You also cannot see the errors, so it may make you less anxious about making them.

The trial account allows you to write up to 10,000 words before signing up for a member account.  When I looked into a paid account, it was only about 10 dollars a month.

Write or Die

Write or die is a program that sometimes scares me.  When I first used it, the program would actually delete everything you had written if you waited too long to keep writing.  Write or die now comes with several different options, and you can also try out the service to see if it is the kind of app that will motivate you.

You can still set the app to erase your writing if you pause for too long.  You can also ask it to provide negative reinforcement.  When I stopped writing, the app played horrible, off-key violin music until I started writing again.  You can also set it to reward you, if you buy the program, and it will provide positive feedback as you hit your writing goals.

Both of the apps are great ways to break things up and force yourself to write!  Are there any other tools you use to get yourself writing?

 

 

Writing · Writing Guide

Story Brainstorming Worksheet

Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo and I’ve already managed to get my 1,667 words in for the day.  I hope that all of you are making great progress as well.  I wanted to share with you all a great way to get a story started, if you are stuck and lacking ideas.

A few years ago I attended a comic writing workshop taught by Kelly Sue DeConnick and in the workshop, she walked us through a writing activity where we started with a setting, created characters with basic traits, and figured out theme/world/plot from there.

Eventually, that exercise inspired me to create this worksheet, so that I could easily run myself through it.  I use it whenever I am trying to brainstorm a story, but I’m unsure where to start.  For short stories, generally, this sheet and a brief outline are enough for me to write a story from start to finish.  For longer fiction, this sheet tends to be the first brick in the wall.  I will have a link to the PDF at the end of the post, here’s a preview of the worksheet:

 

This worksheet 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 and work from top to bottom with this sheet, you can make the worksheet work for you.  

That’s probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the last year of writing.  Make the tools work for you.  If outlining a certain way is difficult and you find you work better when you reverse engineer an outline, do that instead.

Story Brainstorming Worksheet Click Here to Download

NaNoWrimo · Writing Guide

Write-Ins – Countdown to National Novel Writing Month

Writing can be more fun when other people are there to share the experience with you.  Like writing sprints, write-ins can be a great way to keep yourself moving forward toward that awesome goal of 50k words.

If you’ve started an account at nanowrimo.org, you’ll find a tab toward the top of the page that says “Region.”  If you select “Home Region” from the drop down menu, you can usually find people who live in your area that are planning write-ins locally in the forums at the bottom of the page.

I live in a rural area, in Wyoming, so there are not a lot of write-ins in my area.  But, this is the age of the internet, so I rely on virtual spaces to fill needs when my physical spaces do not provide them.  As I mentioned in my last Nano post, you can look for writing groups online.  I have a group I sprint within email, but I also attend virtual write-ins in SecondLife.

Write-ins are a great way to connect with other writers, and not feel so alone as you are hammering away at your keyboard.

NaNoWrimo · Writing Guide

Writing Sprints – Countdown to National Novel Writing Month

I actually did a lot of writing sprints before I  knew what they were.  A friend and I would find a writing prompt, usually a word or a song lyric we liked, and then we would write for a set amount of time and swap what stories came out of those sprints.  Writing sprints are very commonly used by NaNo participants to bolster their word counts.

A writing sprint is where you write for a set amount of time.  Generally, you do not edit during this time, you just hunker down and get those words on the page.  During NaNoWriMo, these sprints can be essential to ensuring you get your word count.  I personally like sprints that are 20-30 minutes long, but you can do sprints that are 10 minutes or 15.  I’ve seen some people even do 45 minute sprints.

Sprint with friends!  Hop on twitter, email a friend, invite them over.  When I sprint with friends, I find I’m more motivated to get that word count going.  We will usually share our word counts when the sprint is over.  I am the competitive type, so it often has me typing like crazy to try and get the most words on the page for that sprint.  There are also apps you can use like wordWar by Dr. Wicked.  You can join competitions in progress, or get a Pro account and start your own “word war” with friends.

Twitters sprints!  You can check out NaNoWordSprints throughout November to sprint along with others working on their NaNo Novels. You can also check hashtags like #wordsprints or #writingsprint to find others on websites like Twitter and Tumblr, who are sprinting.

If you need a sprinting buddy for November, please let me know, and I will give you my email for sprinting.  Or check me out on twitter @TamingTheMuse.  I will definitely be doing some sprints next month!

 

NaNoWrimo · Writing · Writing Guide

Plotter or Pantser – Countdown to National Novel Writing Month

The first time I “won” NaNoWriMo was in 2013.  I read No Plot?  No Problem, created characters, and did my best to create a semi-coherent sci-fi book.  It was called “Equilibrium” and it was a meandering mess.  It was not a total failure though, I learned my first baby steps to writing a full-length novel that year.  I also learned I was a planner, not a “pantser.”

What is a Pantser?

A pantser is a writer who flies by the seat of their pants.  They don’t need an outline, they just write what comes next.  They start their journey at the beginning and they sail on until they meet their destination.

Even though I’m a planner, I do have pantser moments, where the characters go left instead of right, and I have to figure it out as I go.

What is a Plotter?

A plotter is someone who plans their story out in advance.  They might write it chronologically, or they might skip around, because they have an outline.  I love a good outline.  I like to know where my story is headed and what I need to write next to get it there.  There are lots of ways to outline a book, I tend to use Scrivener to do mine, and go scene by scene.  I try to hit major plot points, like the inciting incident, pinch points, midpoint and finally the climax, as I plot.

This year I’m going to try to plot out my story by “beats.”  It’s very similar to the way I’ve outlined in the past, and you can find lots of “beat sheets” online that give you an idea of when to hit what points in your story.

So, are you a pantser or a plotter?  Have you tried both, or only one?  

Writing Guide

Establishing a Daily Writing Habit

When people find out I’m a writer, I often have people tell me that they want to write a book too.  A lot of them don’t, but I think it is partially because they are not sure how to set goals that will help them get closer.  Setting small, but achievable goals is a great way to make progress when writing.

In the past, I have made the mistake of setting high daily word count goals, usually something like 3k or more.  The problem with setting a high goal, is if you don’t make that goal, it’s easy to give up.  I’ve found that 500 words a day is something I can achieve, and when I hit that goal, it’s actually easy to keep writing.  This means that I generally write more than 500 words.

I think 500-1000 words is doable for most people.  Many professional writers actually write between 1000-2500 words a day, and consider themselves accomplished for the day.

When my goal was high, if I didn’t make my daily word count, I felt discouraged.

But, here’s the thing.  If you hit your goal every day and your goal is small, it still builds up.  In a month, 500 words a day becomes 15,000 words total.  That’s 180,000 words a year.  It may not be fast, but you also have to consider your time constraints.  A lot writers have many other jobs they fulfill.  I’m a fast typist, so I can usually write 700-1000 words in a single writing sprint.

500 words will usually take anywhere from a half hour to an hour for most people, especially if you quiet your inner editor and just write.  Doing so daily, you will often find you write more than your prescribed word count and that after a few days have passed, you’ve made some real progress on your writing project.

What are your writing goals?  What is your daily writing habit?  Do you often make your goals or do you struggle with them?  I’d love to hear more about it in the comments.

Writing · Writing Guide

The Resistance

Sadly, I am not referring to the small military force led by General Leia Organa, today.  Instead, I’m talking about a concept outlined by Steven Pressfield in his book “The War of Art.”  

The Resistance is just about any activity, thought process or life event that pulls you away from your art or your “Calling”and stops you from creating it.  

It can be small things, like reading Facebook or deciding to clean our your fridge instead of sitting down and writing that short story.  It can be big things, like taking on a project that does not relate to what you actually want to do.  The Resistance distracts us from the things we want to achieve.  It gives us excuses not to do the things we love and pursue the dreams we want.

The Resistance can also look like a self-created drama.  I tend to know a lot of people who want to be writers, by they have dozens of excuses for why they have not started that blog/written that short story/outlined that novel.  They will hem and haw about how they have no time or how they have no money.  They will go into dramatics about how too many things are just terrible in life and they have no inspiration.

J.K. Rowling was a single mother living on state assistance when she started her famed Harry Potter series.  Stephen King was a High School teacher who wrote in the evenings and on weekends (and subsequently got so many rejections letters for his novel “Carrie” that he started to collect them) before people started to buy his work.

Many people have ideas for stories, but it’s only the people who do not give into the Resistance, who soldier on, that actually finish their work.  Writing and other creative endeavors are often solitary practices, but just like any other worthwhile endeavor, you must show up and do the work.

If you often find yourself avoiding your desk or avoiding chances you have to write, I would recommend Pressfield’s books on the matter.  His no-nonsense approach is a great way to get you to examine what your Resistance is and how you can stop giving in to it.

The War of Art is the best place to start, but my personal favorite is the next book in his series about creating, Turning Pro.