Book Review · Writing

Review – Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t

I’m a fan of Steven Pressfield’s books on writing and creating.  If you have not read them, his books “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro” are amazing and their influence literally changed my life as a writer.  I went from haphazardly writing stories that I never finished, writing whenever I felt like it, to treating writing like a real endeavor that I wanted to pursue.  They are perfect for the artist/writer/creative types who just can’t seem to get their fire going.  If you suffer from chronic writer’s block, I definitely recommend picking them up.  Pressfield refers to that sort of stuck-ness as the Resistance and shows you how to beat it and move beyond it, for the most part.

The first two books in the series teach you how to become a professional and practice the right habits to become more successful as a creative person.  His third book in the series, “Nobody wants to read your sh*t” takes you in a slightly different direction.  In this book, Pressfield talks about how you shape a story, what you need to have in your story and why concept and genre are important.  This book is very much one where you can learn the rules of writing a story, and then later break those rules.

Pressfield also outlines things in a very simple fashion and revisits the lessons he has taught throughout the book.  Not all of his anecdotes were interesting to me, but I greatly prefer being taught things with a story alongside them, so it still worked.

When I started this book, I thought there might be some magical tidbit of information about how to get people to read my writing.  Instead of a fancy how-to guide on getting people interested in your story, Pressfield teaches you the basics of writing a good story, one that will satisfy the reader and make them want to read more of your work.

This book also reminded me that good writers are always learning.  Writing a good story is not an accident, as so many people who are not writers might think.  It’s intentional and a significant amount of work goes into such a story.

If you are a writer/artist, especially one at the beginning of your career, I would definitely recommend picking up all of Pressfield’s books on the subject.  This third installment was a quick read, just as the other two were, so they are worth both the investment and the time it takes to read them.

Writing · Writing Guide

Bleed on the Page

You’re probably looking at the title of this blog post and going, “Umm, that’s a little violent, Aubrey.”  It’s okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds.  Let me explain what it means to me.

I usually have my best friend proofread/edit my writing before I send it off into the wild blue yonder to be published.  Sometimes her feedback includes, “Bleed on the page, Aubrey.”  What this has come to mean for us, is that the writing is either not deep enough or it doesn’t have enough of my voice in it.  I need to dig deeper, I need to expose more of my core in the writing.  My blood needs to go into that story.

The hard part about writing, even writing fiction, is that you tend to expose the parts of yourself that make you vulnerable.  Not only do you bare it for the world to see, but then the world can come back and say they don’t like your weak spots, they don’t like the things you love, and the worst of all, they don’t like you.  There’s a flip side to that, though, and really, that is what matters.

Pain and vulnerability are universal.  If you are speaking from the heart about real feelings, it is more than likely that your story will feel real and weighty to your reader.  They will be able to relate to your characters because you’ve put real emotion into them.

That is why we bleed on the page.  I let my life force drain from me into the words I craft, in the hopes that someone will read it and go, “I see myself.  That’s what’s inside me too!” as they read.

The first piece I ever got published was all about a verbally/emotionally abusive relationship I was in.  It was raw and sore and I got to write a better ending for my character than perhaps the one I got myself.  It was cathartic and I’ve had more than one person ask if they could share that piece with a friend or family member that had been in an abusive relationship.  I think that is part of why we bleed on the page, to share our stories and to feel a connection with others.

Neil Gaiman put it much better than I could in his book Fragile Things:

“I believe we owe it to each other to tell stories.”

I believe that too, and when we bleed on the page and dig a little deeper, we’re sharing our truth.  That’s what makes good stories into great stories.


Writing Guide

What Does Your Character Want?

When I was a teenager, I used to cut out pictures from magazines and comics and post them around my room.  Usually it was stuff like Batman or Wonder Woman or NSYNC, but occasionally it would just be an ad I liked.  One image in particular has stuck with me.  There’s a male model giving someone an incredulous look.  He sits on a box and the text above his head says “What’s my motivation here?” It wouldn’t be until many years later that I would understand that phrase, I just thought the model was good looking.

Like many writers, I dabbled in high school theater.  I wouldn’t say I was a particularly great actor.  I could sing and I’ve always loved to pretend I was other people, but my interest in acting was more about loving characters than being on stage.  Motivation is something that’s talked about a lot in when you act.  Your character needs motivation to cross a room, to pick up the phone, to say something.  They don’t do anything without motivation.

And that?  Has helped me a lot as I realized I preferred creating the characters over acting them out.

Every character in your story has to want something.  That’s art imitating reality, every person you meets want something.  It might be something small, like a turkey sandwich, or something big, like taking over the world.  They have to want it and as the author, it’s your job to put things in their way as they try to get it.  It’s often good to have a character with an internal motivation that is completely at odds with an external motivation.

For example:

Ally wants to be loved, but Ally lives in a dystopian society where love gets you killed.  Ally also wants to survive.

And tada!  Conflict.

If you don’t know what your character wants, just ask them.  Have a dialogue in your head, or on a piece of paper, and ask them what they want.  You can take small needs and find ways to make them bigger and put other needs in direct opposition of them.

This also may help as you are revising a story.  If something feels off, or if the character feels off, look at what the characters in that scene want.  You might find that what they are doing in the scene doesn’t actually match their motivations.  It’s a lot easier to fix something once you know why it’s broken.

What about you?  Do you have any tips and tricks for figuring out what your characters want?  Let me know in the comments!  I’d love to hear from you.

Writing · Writing Guide

Write What You Know… Or Don’t

I tend to write a lot of fantasy, sci-fi and superhero stories.  Sadly, I have never been given super powers by a science experiment go wrong, nor have I ever been a werewolf or been to space.

But, some days I fake it pretty well.  Or at least, my characters do.

“Write what you know” tends to be a confusing and limiting piece of advice.  People assume it means you can only write from your perspective about things you’ve experienced first hand.  While I do think research and experience are important, the stories I dream often outside of my area of experience.

It also comes back to writing the emotions you know, because that is what will resonate with your audience.  You may not know what it’s like to be an alien princess, but you probably know what it’s like to have your heartbroken.  Most of us, at some point in our life, have felt pain, loss, joy, exhaustion, anger.  If you think about the books you’ve read, even those with some mistakes about setting or details that research could have helped, you may still love them despite their flaws, because they made you feel something.

If you want to write a story about a mental illness, but you have never had one and don’t know someone who does, that is what research is for.  Many people want to share their story, so the best way to learn more, is to ask them.  I’d suggest this for any subject you don’t “know” but especially real places, real people, and real conditions that exist.  Readers will forgive small errors in these factual things, but too many will pull them out of the book.

In the end, it is all about balance.  Share what you do know about life, feelings, emotions and research what you don’t.  Try to remember the kinds of inaccuracies that pulled you completely out of a story, and the things that kept you in the story despite them.



Writing · Writing Guide

Finding Theme.

About two and a half years ago I went to a writer’s workshop taught by Kelly Sue DeConnick.  I talk about that workshop a lot, because it pretty much changed my life.  I had been writing for as long as I could remember, but that workshop was the first time I really started to see how stories are made.  She also said she often starts with characters, which leads to plot, which leads to theme.  

Not everyone writes this way of course. In both novels and comics, there are great writers out there that start with plot, or theme, and work at it from another angle.

Do what works for you.  If you are not sure what that is, play with with different ways of approaching a story.

This is what works for me, most of the time:

I start with character, sometimes I have a plot or backstory in mind for them.  That’s when I start to think about theme.  What do I want this story to say?  What do I want to say?  I may have a draft started or even finished at this point, or I might be half way through and not sure where the story is going.  Theme helps me focus those ideas.

I’ve been working on a lot of shorter stories lately (along with revisions on my first novel and the first draft of my second) so theme has been on my mind often lately.  For me, theme definitely does spring from character.  For short stories especially, you want that theme to run throughout the story, but not be so obvious that the reader feels like they are being hit over the head with it.

Theme can often be a way for the author to share their voice in a more subtle way.  In my story Teeth, Nails and Pain the theme was about overcoming an abusive relationship.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t write that story with a theme in mind.  That story sort of wrote itself, but the ones that followed were not quite so easy.

Once the story is written, the theme maybe clearly stated or just implied.  It is up to you as the author the approach you take.  In one of my more recent stories, the first words we read the characters saying are actually the theme.  I felt that it set the tone for the story and let the reader clearly know what I was about to write about.  Your story may start out with something like “The world is a wild place.” and follow with a plot about living in the wild, or maybe it’s about how humans live in cities, but we’re still savage animals deep down.  Either way, you’ve mentioned your theme, and in that story, your reader will know what to expect.

In  Teeth, Nails and Pain, I did the opposite.  The theme isn’t completely revealed until the twist ending.  Though my theme may have been less intentional in that story, the twist was not, and that is what ties my theme and plot together.

If you have written a story but you’re not sure what the theme is, go back through it and look at what the characters are fighting for or against.  What do they want?  What have they done to get it?  Why is it important?  Did they fail?

What does that all say?  What do you want it say?


Writing Guide

Short Story Elements: Themes

I’ve been studying up on what makes a good short story lately, as I work on my own short fiction and submit it for publication.  During this time I’ve learned a few things along the way that I wanted to share with you.  I have listened to several podcasts, watch youtube videos and read articles about what makes a good short story and there was one thing that came up in most of them:

Your beginning needs to match your end.

What does this mean exactly?  It means that if you read your beginning and your ending one after the other, that some of the same elements should flow through each of them.  For example, if your beginning is all about saving the planet from aliens, your ending should not be about how your hero has decided to be a chicken farmer.  They don’t match thematically.  Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be fully triumphant, she can fail, but it still needs to match your beginning in terms of theme.

In this video about short stories, David M. Harris discusses how to get ideas for short stories, but he also discusses how the protagonist can fail.  You simply need to make sure the failure is still a satisfying end for the story.  Going back to my previous example, maybe our protagonist fails at saving the planet from aliens, but she manages to steal a ship, save a portion of the human population, and plot a course for a different planet where the human race can start over.

She failed, but it’s a satisfying end for your reader, if you do it right.  It can leave them thinking of what the planet is like, what the possibilities are for this new version of the human race.

All parts of the story must contribute to the story as a whole.

“Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action”
– Kurt Vonnegut.

Because short fiction is condensed, you cannot have fluff or parts that are not doing the work of moving the plot forward in some way.  Kurt Vonnegut has great advice about this (As well as some great guidelines to short fiction, here), “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.”

If a sentence or paragraph is not showing us something about the characters or moving the plot forward, that you may want to consider either revising or cutting that section of the story.

The way I write characters drive the plot.  Plot drives the theme.  This is why both of these elements are things you should carefully consider as you craft your story.  If your theme does not match the story you’ve written, it may be time to reconsider the theme and do revisions with your new theme in mind.

Look to what the characters do and the plot to determine what themes would work for you.  As for the alien story, the themes we could play with could be something like “Woman faces her fear of her alien overlords and rebels.”  If we boil that down a bit more, it might look like “Woman rebels against corrupt system.”

What are your favorite tips about writing short stories?  What are you favorite short stories? I would love to hear them.


Uncategorized · Writing

And we begin again.

I spent a lot of 2015 figuring out the direction I wanted for my life.  I actually started this blog about two years ago, but for the first year or so it  laid dormant, until a friend of mine asked if I would write a guest blog for his website’s blog (Which has some amazing/inspirational posts).  At that point, I blew the dust off this blog and started to try post regularly.

I plan to do a lot of things in 2016.  Finish a novel, including all the revisions of it, so I can start publishing.  Submit short stories, hope they get published as well.  Make comics.  And blog a lot more.

I started this blog to highlight my writing, but as it has gone on, I’ve used it to share what I’ve learned about writing along the way.  I also wanted to hear from others and find out what they’ve learned along the way.  Our greatest resource is always the people around us.  I want to share things I love, and perhaps don’t love so much, over the next year.

One thing I’ve learned in the last year that I want to share with you is this:

If you don’t make a goal, a real and measurable goal, you aren’t going to get anywhere.

Let’s break that down for a second here.  The goal has to be real.  I want to write professionally and write comics professionally someday.  That is a real goal, but it would not be real if I put that I wanted to work for Marvel in 2 months.  That’s not achievable for me, yet.

How do I make a real goal that reflects that dream?  I could say that I’ll make my own comics, reach out to artists to collaborate, learn more about writing  comics over the next year.

Next, it has to be measurable.  I learned a lot about measurable goals when I taught special education.  Each student has to have individual goals that you can show real progress on.  If you can’t measure a goal, you can’t show progress.

One of my goals this year was to revise the novel I made last year.  At first I just wrote down “Revise VF novel” which is vague and not really measurable.  With encouragement from my best friend I wrote down deadlines for the completed first revision, when I wanted to send it to beta readers, when I wanted to start draft two, and finally, when I wanted to start publishing it.  That’s measurable progress.  If I miss deadlines, I’m not making the progress I need to complete that goal.

So make some goals.  Make them measurable and real.  Make sure they are something you can achieve in the time frame you plan to finish them in.

What are your goals for the year?  How are you going to work towards them?  Tell me how you do it, I’d love to hear your feedback!

Writing · Writing Guide

Writing about Mental Illness

Last spring I had the pleasure of working on a fan comic project that was intended to give the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) a bit of well-deserved redemption.  Based on her portrayal over the last few decades, it is very likely that Wanda suffers from some form of mental illness, which directly effects her life, the use of her powers and those around her.  Last week I got to see the final version of the project and if you would like to read the comic, the CBR download is here and the PDF is here.  I wrote the script for the first two pages of the comic and helped develop the plot of the story, along with an amazing team of other writers and artists.

I can’t remember a time when mental illness, in one form or another, was not a part of my daily life.  Around the age of 7 or 8 my parents pulled me aside to have a talk about my father’s diagnosis.  He had Bipolar type I, but at the young age I was, I didn’t understand that technical term and took to calling it “Polar bear disease” because that was what I could remember.  My father actually went on to do a medical residency a few years later to become a psychiatrist and my mother later got her masters degree and additional certifications to become a licensed clinical social worker.

For this and many other reasons, mental illness was often a part of my life.  I grew up with a better understanding of it because of my exposure both to my father’s struggles and to his medical knowledge, as well as my mother’s knowledge of different sorts of therapy and different sorts of treatment.  This is also why when I see negative or horribly inaccurate portrayals of mental illness, I find myself quite bothered.  Many writers see things like Dissociate Identity Disorder (Formerly know as multiple personality disorder) or Bipolar in the media and then go on to repeat the mistakes of those portrayals.

There are many ways to avoid these pitfalls.  Here are a few I suggest as you consider writing a character with a mental illness.

Mental Illness can (and often does) effect daily functioning.

Even when a someone is medicate and in therapy, they may still struggle with small symptoms of their illness.  Where someone who is mentally healthy can make a phone call, go to the grocery store, have a conversation without thinking about it, someone with a mental illness may not have such an easy time with any of these tasks.  They may be too depressed to call a friend to go for lunch, or anxious about leaving their house to get groceries.

Mental illness is not a quirky personality attribute.  

I have seen character worksheets where a mental illness is mentioned but never addressed in the story.  It is treated like a character attribute, something to make the character unique and interesting, rather than treated with realism.  It’s disrespectful to treat mental illness like it’s just flavor text to make your character more eccentric.  If you write a character with mental illness, it should be an intentional, researched choice.  Not something you think will make them seem quirky.

Speak with mental health professionals about mental illness.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers spend years in school studying mental illness and the treatment of these illnesses.  Once they complete their schooling, they put that knowledge into practice.  They are a great resource to learn more about both the technical side of mental health and how treatment is put into practice.  There were times while developing the Scarlet Witch comic that I relied on professional knowledge to help shape my script.

Also, it is important to be aware of different roles that these professionals play.  I’ve often heard people complain that their psychiatrist did not provide therapy, which is actually to be expected.  Psychiatrists are medical doctors who tend to deal more with the medical side of treatment, including but not limited to things like medication management.  Psychologists and social workers tend to be the better contact if you are seeking therapy or writing about someone seeking therapy.

Speak with those that suffer from the illness you intend to write about, speak with their family and friends if you are able.

Though mental illness diagnoses carry similar symptoms, people can experience them in different ways.  If you intend to write a specific illness, you will want to reach out to those with that illness and get a realistic take on how they live and function with their illness.  Being the child of someone with Bipolar disorder, I am able to bring my knowledge of that disease and it’s symptoms to my writing.  I have also had many conversations with family and friends, including my father, about their experiences with mental illness.  If I did not have that knowledge base, I might feel very lost when approaching this sort of subject matter.

Remember that the character is a person first, that their illness is not the only trait they possess.

Unless the story is specifically about their illness (and even then) it is important to remember that a person is not just reduced to their mental illness.  I think a good example of this is movies like “A Beautiful Mind” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”  Both films have a protagonist that struggle greatly with mental illness, but there is so much more to them than their mental illness.  A personal with mental illness still has wants, dreams and aspirations, often which they must work doubly hard towards.  It is important to approach these characters as a whole person, so they do not become a trope or stereotypical portrayal.

Writing · Writing Guide

Writing Better Dialogue

We’ve all seen it at one time or another.  The writing could be amazing, great descriptions, good plot, but then the characters start to talk….

And they are either wooden or awkward or they all sound alike.  I believe even writers with a talent for dialogue would do well to go back and look at what their character say now and then. The problem with bad dialogue is that is can take your reader out of the story very quickly.  I have few tricks I’ve developed over the years to help my dialogue sound and read better.

If you’re worried about wooden dialogue, stop, and read the words out loud.  Do the voices if you need to and change your tone, but read it out loud and see how the dialogue flows when spoken.  It’s a simple solution for a complex problem.  You’ll find as you speak the words, you will be able to tell if they dialogue is perhaps a little bit off.

Listen to the conversations around you and try to figure out how they flow.  Conversations tend to have rules, even if they are informal.  Listen to the back and forth of verbal turn taking, you could also watch the body language of people as they interact, but that’s more description than dialogue.  This could also help you figure out characters.  Do you have a friend that constantly talks over everyone?  Do you have a friend that seems to speak in as few words as they possibly can?  My husband is taciturn, and tends to only speak in groups when spoken to.  If the dialogue is true to character, it will be more likely to be good dialogue.

Try to make the voices distinct.  As I mentioned before, different people speak in different ways.  If I were a character in a book, it might be my habit of sayings things like “Ugh, no.” or “Totes my goats” that might set me apart.  I don’t say them all the time, but they pepper my speech along with similar phrases.  My husband on the other hand, would be more likely to speak in short phrases with the occasional bad pun.  Each of your characters should have a slightly distinct quality to the way they speak.  Watching real people can help you get a grasp of some of the more subtle nuances in the language patterns people use.

Read books with good dialogue.  Some of my personal favorites are books from Jim Butcher.  He makes his characters very distinct and his conversations, especially in the Dresden Files series, have really excellent flow.

Do you have any tips for better dialogue?  Please feel free to share them in the comments!  I’m always looking for other ways to improve.

Also, three days and counting until NaNoWriMo?  Are you ready?  I’m not.  But I’ll get there!

Writing · Writing Guide

Being Concise vs. Being Descriptive

I actually don’t think that concise writing needs to be at odds with descriptive writing, but I often see writers who will add a lot of fluff to their writing.  Usually this is for one or two reasons.  They either want their writing to come off as poetic and full of flow, or they want to sound smart.

There is a careful line to walk when you write descriptive passages.  Metaphors and similes can be used to communicate meaning and put your reader deeper into your story.  Good descriptions help the reader imagine the scene, but when the prose becomes overly poetic, it can actually work against what the writer is trying to achieve.  I have a rule of thumb when I read writing from friends.  If I have to read a sentence more than twice to understand it, it needs to be edited.  Realistically the goal should be that a reader only has to read any given sentence in your writing once to understand it.

The goal of writing is to communicate.  If your prose is too flowery or over written, it can get in the way of that communication.  Poetry is a bit different than prose, as it is often more focused on interpretation and art.  The goal of writing fiction or non-fiction is to tell a story.  If the reader has to dig through fluff to get to the story, then the writer is not doing their job correctly.  This is where the need to be concise and clear becomes important.  You want to tell a story that captivates the reader, one that they effortless fall into without realizing it.  If your descriptions are understandable, it removes one more obstacle for the reader, and they then can get lost in your story.  

Another trend I’ve seen among some writing groups I’ve been involved in, is the need to sound intelligent by using big and seldom seen words.  I’m going to rely on the wisdom of the R&B group TLC to help explain my point.  “Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”   This adage can also be applied to words.  In day and age where a good thesaurus is just a click away, it may be tempting to find a word that looks cool and replace the mundane word you had originally.

Do not do this!  Stick to words that you both know and understand.  Not all words that a thesaurus provides are completely interchangeable and really, if your goal is to make your writing sound edgy or smart, you will have defeated the purpose.  There will be readers out there who know what that word means and they will realize you’ve used it incorrectly.  So stick to words you know and try to expand your vocabulary. 

If you do have a big word and you know how to use it, make sure there are contextual cues for those that may not know the word.  This means that the sentence and prose surrounding the word give the reader enough information that they can infer what the word means.

Flowery and big words does not a good story make.  Many people argue that books like the Twilight series are full of bad writing.  Maybe, but it is writing you can understand and a story that is compelling enough that the books sold alarmingly well.  You want to assume your reader is intelligent, so do not talk down to them, but also do not make them pick up a dictionary every other minute while reading your work.  It’s the quickest way to get them to put down your story.