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.” 

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.

NaNoWrimo · Writing

Intro to NaNoWrimo – Countdown to National Novel Writing Month

The moment October 1st hit, the thought “You need to start planning for NaNoWriMo” hopped into my mind, because it confirmed that November is just around the corner.

If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, this post is a quick introduction to get you up to speed.  I decided I would post a blog each Monday this month to give my readers tips and tricks about participating in this event, based on what I’ve learned over the last three years.

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, since November 2013.  NaNoWriMo is an annual event where writers commit to write 50,000 words in a single month.

First of all, head on over to nanowrimo.org and sign up!  The great thing about the website, is it will give you a place to keep track of your novel’s details and word count.  You can also add friends (aka Writing Buddies) who are participating and track each other’s progress once November starts.  I tend to be a competitive person, so if I am falling behind and my friend is killing it, seeing their word count grow motivates me to keep working on mine.  My screenname on nanowrimo.org is freudianslipped, feel free to add me if you are participating this year!

Every Monday for the next month, I’ll be covering topics related to NaNoWrimo, and here is what I’ll cover:

Oct. 10  – Plotter or Pantser?  Do you like to outline, or would you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go?

Oct.17 – Writing Sprints.  What are they and how can they help you make that daily word count goal.

Oct.24 – Write-ins.  Whether you are going to a coffee shop, or participating on Twitter, these can be a great way to get writing.

Oct. 31 – Keep Going!  Ways to help you catch up if you fall behind in November.

 

Are you participating in Nano?  Is this your first year or are you an old pro?  I’d love to hear about it!

 

 

Writing · Writing Guide

5 Ways to Stay Creative

  1. Keep a Pinterest board for inspiration

When I see prompts, pictures or other things that spark an idea in my head, I usually save it to one of my pin boards, either for writing ideas or story inspirations.  Pinerest boards are great to look at when you get stuck and want to feel creative again.

2. Schedule time for your creativity

I know it sounds like this goes against the way we typcially picture creative types, but I promise having a routine can really boost your creativity.  If you schedule a time each day to write, paint, create, you will start to find you no longer need to wait for the muse.  You can work without her.  I think you will find that the work you produce when you are not inspired is likely as good as what you created when you thought you were inspired.

3. Be patient

Sometimes, especially for writers, you need to sit and think for awhile before a creative idea can form.  Matt Fraction calls this kind of moment “Catching Butterflies.” This is where you just need to sit, think and make sure your mind is not distracted by facebook, or the laundry.  It may look or feel like you are not doing anything, but the wheels are turning and things are happening as long as you are not distracted.

4.  Don’t force it

If you’ve sat down to catch butterflies for two hours and have nothing to show for it, it is probably time to change tactics and give your brain a break.

My best friend has a thing called a “Meta” list.  On that list she puts all the things she can’t quite process yet, but still needs to think about.  It’s sort of like putting your creative problem on the back burner for a bit, allowing your unconscious mind to work through what your conscious mind isn’t ready to tackle yet.  So switch gears, find another task to work on, and go back to your project after you’ve taken a break and washed a floor or folded that laundry you weren’t thinking about earlier.

5.  Follow people that inspire you.

Social Media can be full of posts that drag you down, but there are lots of tools and places to find posts that lift you up or get you thinking.  If you follow posts that make you feel depressed or like you are not doing enough creatively, unfollow those pages and seek out the kinds of content that make you want to do something new or make more of your art.

 

What are ways you stay creative?  I’d love to hear what you do when your mind/muse just won’t help out.

 

 

Writing · Writing Guide

A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline

I am not great about setting goals.  I mean, I do set them, but I am the kind of person that will easily be distracted from the things I am pursuing.  The thing is, without a goal a dream is just that, something intangible and not achievable.  The goal is the thing that gives you a map to work towards, a way to get to that dream.

I’ve met lots of writers who have said something to the effect of “I could have a story published if only I had all the time you have.” or “I could have a story published if only I didn’t have other obligations.”

I do not have a 9 to 5 job, but I don’t lack for distracting obligations that would love to keep me away from the writing desk.  Writing gets done thanks to dedication and goals, not thanks to a wealth of time (though that may help).  Many hugely successful writers were not able to sit at their desks all day, but they still managed to write and finish their stories.  This is because of dreams, deadlines, and dedication.

If you aren’t sure how to start or what kind of goals a writer should set and how to go about being successful at them, here are some tips for you.

Set a daily word count goal

It doesn’t have to be an ambitious goal like 1000-3000 words a day, it can be something small like 200-500 words a day.  It adds up quickly if you stick to doing it each day.  In a week, 200 words a day will equal 1,400 words.  500 words a day will equal 3,500.  You do not have to set goals that are hard to achieve in order to be successful.  Set a goal that you know you can accomplish and then see if you write more and need to set your bar a bit higher.  There are lots of word trackers out there, but my favorites are from Svenja Gosen, who has several available here.

Treat writing like a job

Don’t get me wrong, writing should still be fun, but if you treat your writing like you are a professional, you will get very different results than your friends that treat it like a hobby.  I still write for fun, but I also have set hours each day during the week that I devote to my “Job.”  I show up on time and I do my work.  For some, this will mean writing for 30 minutes each night, uninterrupted and not distracted.  For others it will mean spending a few hours doing writing sprints each day, working toward their goals.

Give yourself a deadline

Make a deadline and do your best to stick to it.  Tell others about your deadline, so that they can help hold you accountable to it.  Your deadlines may shift, mine almost always do.  If you write shorter fiction, find places to submit that have deadlines that you can’t wiggle around.

Be accountable to someone

This can be a writer’s group, a group of friends, or just someone on the internet.  Just make sure it’s someone who knows what you are working on and will expect you to finish it.  You should do the same for them.  I have a group of women (including my best friend) that I email when I want to do writing/work sprints, most of them are working on their PhDs.  We might be doing different work, but we are excellent at making each other accountable and cheering each other.  Writing can be lonely work, and sometimes a good “Hooray” or a good kick in the pants can be just what you need.

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.