Writing Advice, Writing Process

What Writing Is (and is not)

Writing is not an arcane activity. You don’t need to be an expert in anything to be able to write. Having good grammar, spelling, and punctuation helps, but as long as you have a story to tell, you can write fiction. You don’t need to take a writing course or follow certain rules. You can self-publish a book, and the only critic that can deny you that option is yourself. (The only exceptions to this are that companies have policies against publishing illegal or other extremely objectionable content, but this isn’t about your writing.)

So now that I’ve talked about what writing is not, here’s what writing should be most of the time: fun. Yes it can be hard, scary, or even boring at times, but it’s often fun. Reading stories is fun, and so is writing them. Most fiction is read for entertainment purposes, and even works with great literary merit can and should be enjoyable to read (and write.) Creating a good story is hard work but so very rewarding and entertaining.

If you don’t enjoy writing, think about why not. If you do, consider why you do. Maybe it’s the genre, the characters, or the setting. If one of those really makes the words fly onto the page, keep going! If not, change one of them. Just because you like to read a certain genre of novel, doesn’t mean you will like to write in it. It’s always fun to try a genre and find out if you like writing in it.

Once you really get into a story, it tends to tell itself. Your hands type on a keyboard or move the pen, but the story just is.

Writing Advice

A Couple of Great Reasons to Write Fiction

Lots of us love to read fiction, but have you considered writing some? Here are two great reasons why you should.

The news is often frightening, confusing, and bad. Some people post on blogs or social media, some write physical letters or e-mails, and some, like me, turn their fear and uncertainty into fiction. Here are some examples.

There are many novels where Hurricane Katrina is part of the setting.

If we go further back in time, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables explores what was happening in France in the early part of the 19th century.

Current events are things people want to talk about and explore, and fiction is a safe way to do that. You can get into many characters’ heads, and explore events from various points of view.

You may end up in The Zone. There’s very little that is better than finding yourself in The Zone. Time is great. It jumps, and suddenly, hours have passed. Blank pages fill with amazing things and nothing from the outside world troubles me while I’m in The Zone. I live other people’s lives, feel their emotions, have their thoughts, and run their businesses. I can be a child again, a baby even, or live what I haven’t yet — to a ripe old age. There are universes out there to find, planets that need you to imagine them into being, and the plain old rich experiences of characters’ daily lives. For me, it’s like being immersed in Essential Oil of Inspiration. It’s pure life. It’s raw existence. It’s infinite, but it’s fresh and exciting every time.

A couple of days ago, I started wondering what The Zone looked like. I’m not sure, but maybe a little like the castle on a cloud from Les Miserables, but instead of rooms full of toys and children to play with, there are rooms filled with settings impatient to be described, plots waiting to unfold, and characters craving their own creation.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, there is a Zone for nonfiction, but it’s different.

Writing Advice

How to Overcome the Fear of Plotholes in Your Fiction

Are you afraid of the following: You’ve spent a lot of time crafting a wonderful story, but when you read it over, you find something that doesn’t agree with something else — a plothole.

I’m pretty sure it happens to every writer at some point. It’s certainly happened to me. The question isn’t weather writers are going to find plotholes in our work, but what we’re going to do when we stand on the edge of one.

There’s no sure way to avoid or prevent plotholes. You can outline, try to be meticulous in your writing, but people can and do make mistakes. Besides, what if you’re a Pantser like me and find that you need to just write in order to be able to tell a story? No. Don’t run. Don’t give up on writing fiction. Even the plotholes don’t want that!

What would happen if every chef in the world gave up cooking because they were afraid of burning their fingers? No more Chicken Cordon Bleu, coq au vin, or coconut rice. No restaurants would serve Caesar salad, spring rolls, or sushi. What a sad place that would be! The same is true of writers. If we ran at the thought of a plothole, then Stephen King couldn’t keep us awake all night, Tolkien wouldn’t have inspired generations of fantasy writers, and J. K. Rowling wouldn’t have told magical tales of wizards and muggles (well, okay, muggles aren’t magical, but you know what I mean!) That’d be terrible, but luckily for their Readers, they didn’t let the fear of plotholes rule them, and we shouldn’t either.

A plothole is nothing more than a problem with a plot. Like potholes, they’re not nice and they need to be fixed, but they can be fixed, so let’s fix them!

How to fix them depends on your story, but in general, they go away when you revise. Change one thing to match the other, and the problem disappears. Back up, call the concrete company, and fill ‘er in. Smooth the top until it’s invisible in the road that is your story. Nobody will ever know or even suspect that it was once there. It takes time and effort to fix them, but they can be vanquished, just as the chef who burns their fingers plunges them into cold water for a bit of damage control, your pen (or keyboard) does the same thing for your story. Unlike burning yourself, plotholes don’t hurt anything except possibly our pride, but that will respond to what doctors call tincture of time.

So what are you gonna do when you spot a big ol’ plothole? That’s right. Fix it!

Writing Advice

When and How to Self-Edit Your Fiction

Should you self-edit your fiction? If so, when and how?

Yes, every writer should self-edit. To do otherwise is to be untrue to your stories. No, that last statement wasn’t meant as some kind of high-horsed snobbery. Self-edit and revise are synonyms, but self-edit has a further connotation of “doing it all yourself.” Some writers only self-edit and never use professional editing services.

You’ve written a first draft. Your imagination spiraled and spun, soared and swooped, and left you with a tale of magical mystery, dark dystopia, or something else entirely, and now you’re back to Earth and seeing typos in it. Great! You’ve got exactly what a first draft should be. It’s what all writers get after completing a rough draft. The ones who have written two or three books, the ones trying their hand for the first one, and the ones who make huge amounts of money from writing. It may be a little messy in the margins, and it doubtless contains errors, but it’s not what you’re going to publish. What you will and must do is revise or edit it.

Step 0: Rest your manuscript.

For short pieces, such as a scene or a short story, I recommend waiting until the next day or longer before you begin revising. If you’re going to revise a large chunk at once, I’d recommend leaving it for at least a week.

Step 1: First read.

You’ve written it. Now it’s time to read it. How does it look? How does it sound? How do you feel? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Is it good, but not great? Chances are extremely high that you’ll find errors, mistakes, and yes, plotholes. Make notes of these. Don’t worry about typos for now. This is a right brain “big picture” read. The aim is to determine if you’ve told the story you wanted to tell. You’re very likely going to end up with a long list of things that need to be addressed. That’s great.
Copy your first draft. One of my biggest regrets as a writer is that I didn’t keep the original draft of Wounded Bride before I started to revise it.

Step 2: Implement the changes you want to make.

Copy, paste, add, and delete. If your book is long, this could take quite some time, but there’s no substitute for it.

Step 2.5: Rest.

Repeat step 0.

Step 3: Search and Destroy.

Typos must go. Awkward sentences must vanish. Incorrect words, missing words, and repeat words must be changed, added, or disappeared. Now’s also the time to do what I call “touches.” What that character really say that? Think that? Do that? Feel that?

Keep Going

Repeat steps as necessary until you can’t find any more problems with your draft.

Step 4: To go pro, or not to go pro.

As Bob Dylan once sang, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” If cash is a barrier, don’t feel guilty and do what you can. You can try crowd funding, saving up, or decide not to hire an Editor. You can pay a pro to edit your sci-fi, but self-edit your romance (or the other way around.) You could hire somebody to do the nitty gritty copy editing but do the big picture stuff yourself, or vice versa. You have a field of options, even if your wallet thinks otherwise.
Purchase a punctuation book. It’s a great investment, even if you hire an Editor.
I recommend The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande.

Step 5: Publish and Live with your choice.

It’s live. Your book is out. Somebody will see that missing word on page 33. Whether or not you hired an Editor, they can and do make mistakes. Don’t blame them or yourself. Most Readers will forgive one or two typos per book. Most self-publishing companies and websites offer ways to make post-publication revisions, although possibly at a cost to you, so decide how many typos must be found before you will correct them.
I know I would not do this for any fewer than five, if there was going to be a cost to me, but I would fix even one if I could do so for free.


Whether you call it self-editing or revision, it’s a must for all works of fiction. If you do hire an Editor, they’ll have less work (and charge you less), because you’ll already have found and fixed many errors. If you don’t hire a pro, your story will be a million times better than your first draft.

Oh, and about that punctuation book: Where is it?
“Right there on the new bookshelf Dad built,” you might say.
Or you might say, “I’ve got it on my iPad.”
“Wonderful,” I say. “Just make sure that you read it!”

Writing Advice

3 Tips for Fiction Writers Struggling with Setting

Setting is crucial to creating something your Readers will love, and if you struggle with it, then you’re like me.

Getting setting right might be easier if stories took place entirely in one location, but they seldom do, so writers have hard work ahead. We have to constantly change the scenery, move in and out of it, and describe it just enough for it to serve its purpose. Since only the Author knows the story, I can’t say how much or how little you need to describe the places your characters are in, but these three tips are intended to help you, the Author, figure that out.

  1. Remember it. It’s easy to sort of forget they’re in a room when your characters are talking to each other. That’s okay, because you’ll revise and you can add setting details later. Just remember it and make notes to yourself to add some description and actions in between dialog.
  2. Imagine the setting and write it down. You probably don’t need to do this with every part of your setting, but you might find it useful to draw a picture of your teenage character’s bedroom where she and her two friends will spend a large part of the book, or make a rough sketch of where the furniture is in a living room if there’s a big family meeting and you need to keep track of who’s where and what they’re doing. Even if you don’t need all those details for your story, it’s nice to have them available.
  3. Have fun. Setting isn’t a chore. It’s an integral part of a story. Your story. The one your Readers are going to love.
Writing Advice

Writing Advice – The Long and the Short

Featured image: tranquil lake reflecting house and forest — Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

There’s nothing like sitting down with a thick book or tucking into one on your tablet. But at other times, you probably want something lighter. There’s no reason you can’t have both.

Does the idea of writing a novel fill you with dread or even terror? How will you stay on track? How will you keep things interesting? How will you produce writing that keeps your Reader engaged all the way to the last word?

I don’t have a formula for this and I don’t think there is one. I also don’t think there should ever be one. Writing is organic. It’s art, even if it’s about science. An artist may know the science of light, color, and paint mixing in order to obtain the exact shade desired to depict a lake, but the creation of their painting isn’t a matter of plugging arguments into a computer program or numbers into an equation. Instead, they must visualize what they want to paint, and then translate those thoughts into the hand movements that will allow their ideas to be realized. If you’ve ever picked up a pen or a brush, you know it’s often quite difficult to get the translation of thought into words or images to happen smoothly. But humans don’t balk at seemingly impossible tasks. If we did, we wouldn’t be here. We keep going, we keep trying, we keep reproducing, writing, learning, painting, and partying, because not doing so would be deathly boring.

It takes courage and persistence to create anything, be it play, painting, poem, novel, or short story. Yes, it is possible to write a book in a few days, or a short story in hours, but neither of them would be ready for publication. I know this for sure: I wrote Wounded Bride in six days, but it took more than two years from first word to published book. I also write parts of my short fiction in a couple of hours, but I need at least an hour to revise them and eliminate those pesky typos. Yes, short fiction is “faster” to write, but if you keep writing short stories, you reach a certain point where the total number of words equals that of a novelette, a novella, and then a novel. You’ve done it. No, you haven’t written a novel, but you’ve proven that you can write that much and it never got boring. The leap from short to long isn’t anywhere near as big as it first appears. It’s not a chasm you’re about to try to bridge, but a stream you can walk across.

The difference between a collection of short stories and a novel is cohesion. Mark Kurlansky’s Edible Stories: A Novel in Sixteen Parts is a beautiful example of how novel-building works. In most novels, chapters or scenes wouldn’t be so great if read on their own. You probably wouldn’t want to start reading chapter 4 of a detective novel, or chapter 7 of a romance, but the Author may have written that chapter first. You can write your novel in any order you want, in any way you like, as long as it comes together to give your Reader a satisfyingly full picture of your characters, setting, and plot.

There’s no time like the present, so if you’ve been thinking about creating something, be it novel, painting, poem, or short story, get your keyboard, paints, notepad, and/or brush.

NaNoWriMo, Writing Advice

Writing Advice – Point of View

Pistol: Why, then the world’s mine oyster.
Which I with sword will open.

William Shakespeare — The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 2, scene 2

There are no rules about POV. That’s right, there really aren’t any.

In this post about Starting NaNoWriMo, I said that I was struggling with third person narration in a book with lots of point of view (POV) switching. As I reread my words from what seemed like a long time ago, I realized that there was no reason I couldn’t use first person narration or even use a mix of both styles.

There are no rules about POV. There’s the writer, and there’s the story, and that’s it. Since stories need people to write them down, the writer gets the fun and enviable task of deciding which POV to use.

First person is a very “in the character’s head” kind of POV. It can make some things challenging, such as describing events that the character wouldn’t know about, or not being all that pleasant if the character is self-centered, but there are also advantages. You can really get to know a character from the inside, and transitions are easier because you don’t have to keep zooming the “point” of third person POV in and out to focus on different characters, settings, and action.

Third person narration lets the storyteller become omniscient, and who doesn’t enjoy knowing everything?! However, third person doesn’t always work well, and if used ineffectively, can make the story read very clumsily indeed. If used well, third person can make your fiction captivate your readers.

You might be wondering, since there aren’t any rules, how do you choose the best POV for your story? The one-word answer is: experimentation. I wrote an entire novel in the third person, only to realize that parts of it needed to be in the first. I went back and changed every single “he” to “I.” I also had to change a bunch of “him” to “me,” but it was worth it. The character experiences events in a very internal way, and third person just could not get me deep enough inside his head for that to capture properly. There’s also no problem if POV shifts, as long as the transitions are smooth and clear. When I tell that same story from other characters’ points of view, I switch to third person and it all benefits the story.

As for my science fiction novel with third person throughout, I’m now toying with the idea of changing some of it into first person POV or maybe even all of it. I can use scene or chapter breaks for the switches, and having a lot of characters really isn’t a problem like I originally thought.

POV is a tool. You can do whatever you want with POV. It’s flexible and you can shape it any way you like to create the story you want and need to tell. There really are no rules, and the (fictional) world is your oyster. So get your keyboard or pen, pick up your pages or open that file, and start thinking about POV and how it can work best for your stories.

Writing Advice

Writing Advice – Subject and Object Pronouns

Pronouns can be a problem, and if your book contains many instances of incorrect ones, reading it can feel as frustrating as reading a book full of typos.

Here are some sample sentences.

  1. Mom bought some oranges for Lisa and I.
  2. Mom and me bought some oranges for Lisa.
  3. Lisa and I bought some oranges for Mom.
  4. Lisa bought some oranges for Mom and me.

Many people would accept three of these sentences, and some would accept all of them, but only two of them would be considered correct by everyone. All of them can be used in dialog, because it’s perfectly acceptable for characters to use what some consider “bad grammar.” It’s what your characters are saying in the moment, and when somebody’s talking about a scary situation, they’re probably not going to pause to think about sentence structure. The narrator, especially third person omniscient, does have time, and even if people choose not to follow them, it’s always helpful to know the rules.
In the sentences above, the first piece is the subject and tells you who’s doing the buying. In sentences 1 and 4, it’s a single noun, and in sentences 2 and 3, it’s a noun and a pronoun. The word “bought” is the same in all of them, and we can leave it for another post about misused words. The next piece is the object of the verb, which is “some oranges” in all four sentences. Then there’s the preposition “for,” followed by a noun and a pronoun in sentences 1 and 4, and by a single noun in sentences 2 and 3.

Let’s take a break for a minute. I don’t know about you, but my brain’s feeling kind of stale. Grab a cup of coffee, restart your playlist, or text your best friend.

That was a great slice of toast with butter and cinnamon sugar! Now that I’ve gotten myself rebooted, let’s see about these pronouns. Whenever you see a preposition such as “for,” you know you’re in the land of objects. Using a subject pronoun here is hypercorrection. People kept being told not to say things like “Mom and me,” from sentence 2. What they’re really advising against is saying that when dealing with the subject of the sentence, but don’t always bother to say so, so now we have the problem of hypercorrection, like in sentence 1 — “for Lisa and I.” Even if Lisa gets between me and that preposition, an object pronoun is still needed. Isn’t grammar great? No, not convinced? Well, me neither; I often struggle with “whose” and “who’s,” and have to pay very careful attention to which one I’m using. I mean (whose who’s which one come on hurry up!) who’s thinking about that when writing fifty miles a minute and the scene is just so exciting and chaotic? Not me! And yes, I did just begin a sentence with a conjunction, and no, I’m not going to take it back. I also used “me,” where I might have taken my own advice and used “I,” because that “not me” was the subject of that long sentence about not taking the time to think while writing, but “not I,” sounds painfully formal, and I just couldn’t bring myself to use it. That brings me back to my opinion that people can and should say whatever they feel like, and if they need to disobey a grammar rule to do it, they should do so, but before you bend the rules, you should know them.

Sentences 3 and 4 will never earn you dirty looks from English teachers, and . . . hi Lisa, what’s this? Oh, thank you, I love oranges!

Writing Advice

Writing Advice – Characters

Without characters, stories would tell very little. Would you want to pick up a book and find that the whole thing was nothing but a description of a setting, a world, or several planets?

Whether you write sci-fi, fantasy, or romance, your story needs a set of characters. Don’t let the magic, technology, or amazing settings overwhelm your story and take away from its characters.

In A Letter to the Pacific Ocean, I conclude that a world without conflict would mean a world without stories. In order to have conflict, you need characters. Not just any characters will do. When I first started writing, all my characters were copies of me. They came with my likes, my dislikes, and my personality; they were static replicas of me. They fell in love, talked to each other, and did what characters do, but they didn’t make a story because they were all too similar. They didn’t learn from each other, and I didn’t learn from creating them, except that copying myself endlessly didn’t make for exciting reading.

To build good stories, good characters are needed. There’s more than one way to get them. Sometimes you might decide some of their attributes and personality in advance, and other times you might find out as you go along. For me, there’s almost nothing more magical than meeting a new character and finding out what they’re like and how it feels to be inside that person’s head.

Are you having trouble coming up with realistic characters? When this happens to me I deliberately make a character who hates something that I love or vice versa. For example, I love everything, so I might make my character a picky eater and discover what that’s like. It helps to make your characters more natural, and also teaches you things. Maybe you’ll end up researching strategies parents use to get their kids to try new foods, or imagine how that character might feel when presented with a table full of only food they’ve never eaten before.

A variety of interesting characters makes our stories interesting and allows us to go where they go, to venture outside ourselves, and to live for a while in the lives of others. That, I think, is what reading is all about.

NaNoWriMo, Writing Advice

Writing Advice – Tell a Story

There’s a lot of writing advice out there. Following some guidelines, such as the ones in my post about dialog attribution might make your writing more pleasant to read, but don’t let writing advice bog you down.

Things can be fixed later. There’s no need to wait until your idea is perfect, or until you’ve mastered all the conflicting writing advice in the world. If you try, you’ll never write another word. You can revise your rough draft, and even then, a book is not a perfect thing.

The true goal of writing is to tell a story, not to be perfect or even amazing. Sure, having your writing considered great would be nice, but the ultimate purpose of writing fiction for an audience is to tell a story. Starting may be a struggle. You might be uncertain of what you want to write, and there may be a voice inside your mind telling you that this won’t work or that that sentence you just wrote is bad. You might feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Just keep writing. Write until the end of the story you are telling. Write until the end. You can and should take breaks to eat, sleep, and do other things, but do not neglect your story until you’ve reached the end. (You can write the actual words “the end” and then remove them later, or just say them out loud while you save your document.)

So here’s my advice for today. Get your favorite pen or keyboard, find a good place to work, and start to write. In the words of NaNoWriMo, “the world needs your story.”