Writer vs Distraction, Round 478.

You’re reading this post, but you’re also checking Twitter. And Facebook. And maybe Reddit? How about G+? (Heh, just kidding.) Perhaps there’s a link suggesting that you click to discover the 14 best celebrity butts. Or how this corgi will make you weep with joy. Are any of those things helping you get writing done?

click-bait

 

Seriously, you do have about 12 windows open on your screen RIGHT NOW. Either that, or you’re caught in the Spiral of Despair, where you check each Social Media Thingy in succession–clicky, clicky, clicky—-until you realize none of those things is going to fill the void in your soul and none of those things will help you write the thing you need to write.

I know this is true because you’re a human living in 2014. Well, buck up, friends. There’s a solution. It’s called turning off the internet!

Yes, yes. Easier said than done. Yet this problem of infinite distraction is so well recognized that people are writing books about it (presumably, they did so after turning off their own internet). At least one person, Michael Harris, has started a thing called Analog August, and I think it’s worth a try.

The overall concept is broader than just reducing distraction, but you have to start somewhere. The less you look at the many, many screens you own, the healthier you’ll feel. The less distracted and stressed you’ll be. The more TIME you’ll have. And the more brain power you can pour into creative projects such as writing.

Based on this idea, I’ve come up with a few ideas for analog newbies, or just peeps who want to stop wasting time digitally,. Throughout the month of August (or whatever month you stumble upon this), try to teach yourself to do at least one of these things:

  • Check your email at predetermined times. Do it at the beginning of the day to check if you need to act on any work/personal emergencies, after lunch, and in the last hour of your work. Only respond to emails during those times. Tell people they might have to wait a few hours for an answer. Imagine them swooning.
  • Turn off all your notifications. Those little beeps and red dots are turning you into Pavlov’s dog, slavering at a cue but rarely getting a tangible benefit for all your devotion.
  • Put. The phone. Down. Walk away. Take a breath. Here’s a secret: the internet is gonna be fine without you for a while. Hours, even.
  • Tell yourself the computer is a tool, not a connector. Turn off the internet (or use an app like Freedom, if you need help). Then just….write your thing. Don’t click away from the writing app. Just write. When you need a break, don’t go to Facebook. Just stare out a window and imagine what Jack Kerouac/Jane Austen/Stephen King would do about the next chapter.
  • Go full analog. That means pen and paper. Write down your ideas. Draw a mind map. Doodle. You may find that you can retrain your mind to make new connections. There’s also something pretty cool about rediscovering whether you have good handwriting or not (Fact: I do not).
  • Turn of your TV/screen/shiny device and read a paper book. If you’re like me, you still have a stack of really real books to be read. Yes, even if you love your Kindle. So go pick one up and start reading.
  • Put away your devices and talk to a human who has also put away their device. Crazy? YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

These are just examples of ways to unlearn your addiction to digital stuff. Some of them are tougher than others. Some require more thoughtful ways of going through your day. But the main point is to realign your priorities so you are not at the beck and call of your devices. Make them work for you. And also, there is a world outside the digital. Live in it. It’s a pretty neat place.

 

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Free Writing Resources Online

FreeSo you think you have to spend thousands of dollars on books and classes in order to learn how to write? Well, you probably will over the years, but there are also some great free resources you can use right now to either get yourself writing kick-started for the first or 400th time. Here’s a selection of some awesome free writing resources I’ve found:

Writer’s Digest Free Downloads: http://www.writersdigest.com/free

Including blogging to setting deadlines to plagiarism to grammar rules for novelists, there’s a lot of great information here, for FREE. Most of these are excerpts from Writer’s Digest books on writing, but they’ve got some excellent books on writing so jump right in!

10 Universities Offering Free Writing Classes: http://education-portal.com/articles/10_Universities_Offering_Free_Writing_Courses_Online.html

Note: A lot of these are geared towards academic writing, but there are some fiction courses here. Some of these are youtube videos of classes while others seem to be online classes. I haven’t tried any of these, but it looks pretty neat.  If you have done any of these courses, please let me know what you thought in the comments.

My only caveat for any and all classes is try out new techniques and approaches, but don’t take anything as gospel. Otherwise you end up like me when I first began writing, starting every fiction piece with a dead body on the floor because that’s how you hook the reader… One of my favorite writing professors often says (paraphrased), “There are no rules for writing. There only the rules you find for yourself, but every writer, once finding her rules will then cheerfully and from the best place work to hammer them into everyone as though they are ‘the rules.'”

10 Amazing Free Writing Courses: http://freelancefolder.com/10-amazing-free-online-writing-courses/

These are geared to the freelance writer, which you might be doing as you work on your great fiction opus, so it’s worth taking a look at.

And a grab-bag of daily writing prompts:

30 Sci-Fi Writing Prompts: http://www.justinmclachlan.com/684/sci-fi-writing-prompts/

 Creative Writing Prompts for Sci-Fi & Fantasy Lovers: http://www.writingforward.com/writing-prompts/creative-writing-prompts/creative-writing-prompts-for-sci-fi-fantasy-lovers

 Daily Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Prompts: http://www.promptinspiration.com/category/writing-prompts/science-fictionfantasy/

 Writing Prompts That Don’t Suck: http://awesomewritingprompts.tumblr.com/

And here’s my personal favorite:

Nanowrimo: http://www.nanowrimo.org

I’ve been doing Nanowrimo almost every year (I took a year off in Japan) since I read Chris Baty’s Book “No Plot, No Problem” years ago (I don’t remember how many, but at least six). The best thing about Nanowrimo is you can do it any month of the year (though in November, you get the fun of doing it with a whole world of writers). Not only have I written four and a half novels through Nanowrimo, it has really given me a different relationship with my prose. I’m not so wedded to creating the perfect sentence or even chapter, but instead I understand that the book has to be finished before you can edit it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’re in a rut, it’s a fun, high intensity way to kick yourself out of it. Most of Nanowrimo is volunteer organized with forums and local events in your area. I’ve met some wonderful friends all over the world doing Nanowrimo. Give it a shot, you won’t regret it, and all it costs is time and a clean house :)

So here’s some weapons for your arsenal! Check it out, put your butt in the chair and get that writing in gear!

Naima

Learning the Craft: A Writing Cheat Sheet for Newbies

Having been critiquing for a while now, I’m starting to recognize what I would call phases in a writer’s growth. These phases include making certain kinds of mistakes, similar to how children learning a language make predictable errors. In English, for example, a child often says “brung” as the past tense of bring. Which makes plenty of sense—it just happens to be that bring has an irregular preterite form (brought). But eventually the child figures out the grammar and learns to speak the way the adults and older children nearby do. Really, learning any art is like that: you’re a beginner stumbling your way through, first copying the work of those you admire, and then branching out and discovering your voice, and finally honing that voice so that you can tell/paint/sing in a way that’s wholly yours.

Most of us go through these phases—I guarantee my fellow Sirens and I have made many of the mistakes detailed below!—but it’s important to keep working at your craft so you get past them. Ways to do this include being in a critique group with people who are (currently) better than you, study the books you read to see why they work and don’t, and above all, keep writing.

And here’s a little cheat sheet of problems to look for and avoid in your own work to help you level up that much faster.

  1. Whether you’re writing in first or third person, never varying sentence structure and ending up with blocks of text that look like this: “I went to the market. I bought apples and mangoes. I spent a lot of money, and I carried home lots of bags.” Basically, I, I, I, I, I or she, she, she, she, she. Vary your sentences and find ways to avoid using all those pronouns!
  2. Using too many dialogue tags. If you do your job right, the reader will figure out who is saying what. Plus you can take the opportunity to add some action beats like “Sarita bit her nail. ‘I don’t know’” rather than “‘I don’t know,’ Sarita said” and show us what’s going on. (Don’t overdo this, either, though!)
  3. Using verbs that are actions to mean “say” like: “‘Close the door,” she sighed/laughed/shrugged.”
  4. Using weak instead of strong verbs. Here I’m not talking about grammar but precise language: see the difference between “The child was mad” and “The child screamed how unfair it all was.”
  5. Using cliché details again and again, like the color of a love interest’s eyes. “They were so blue, I lost myself in them.” “I stared into his blue eyes.” “His blue eyes were full of fury.” Once is enough. ;) Also, eyes really don’t convey all that much specific emotion.
  6. Giving the reader too many details about things that don’t matter to the story, like every piece of furniture in the room.
  7. Conversely, not giving the reader enough details about a setting or what someone looks like. (White room syndrome.)
  8. Overexplaining a character’s actions through internal monologue instead of showing the reasoning through context.
  9. Not delving into the emotional consequences of a character’s actions. For example, let’s say a woman discovers her husband of ten years has been cheating on her but just shrugs it off and goes on with her life, no emotional reaction, or at most a shallow one, displayed. Not only is that unrealistic, but it cheats the reader. What ultimately makes a story work is the raw and difficult emotional struggles characters go through.
  10. Having characters repeatedly gasp, storm across a room, grab people’s hands, burst into tears, shout. Good characterization is usually much subtler. Look at one of your favorite books to see what I’m talking about. The dialogue, the choices the character makes, the way the character reacts to adversity . . . all these things will add up to form a much more believable person.
  11. People’s jaws rarely drop in shock in real life, just like their eyes narrowing in anger. These tics are something we learned from fiction.
  12. Flat characters who have only one or two defining qualities, like being brave or nervous or even the generic brooding love interest. Round your characters out!
  13. This goes for protagonists, too. Don’t tell us what they’re thinking or why/how they supposedly are as people; show it! Showing is much more powerful and allows the reader to connect to the character.
  14. Thinking every detail matters. This goes for internal monologue (what the character is thinking), adjectives, and adverbs. Less is often more; then every detail you give the reader will matter.
  15. Using too many punctuation marks that call attention to themselves. These include semicolons, em dashes, and exclamation points. Like salt in a dish, use them sparingly and trust your writing to do the rest.
  16. Adhering too closely to plots and formulas you’ve read rather than telling your own story. This one especially comes with time and practice.
  17. Not having a unique voice for each character.
  18. Forcing theme and message rather than letting them flow naturally from the story.

I hope these are helpful. Readers, can you think of anything to add?

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, active dreamer, devourer of books and tea and chocolate, occasional harpist, and part-time nagini. You can learn more at www.shvetathakrar.com.

Siren-ish fiction on the web!

Barb here to interrupt your regularly scheduled blog programming with a moment of shameless self-promotion:

1) My story “The Swan Maiden” (originally published in the October 2013 issue of Flash Fiction Online) is one of the audio stories featured in the latest episode of the new fantasy fiction podcast Far-Fetched Fables; and
Unburied Treasures cover

2) Unburied Treasures: An Illustrated Anthology of Speculative Fiction, which includes my story “7:74 p.m.”, is now available as an ebook from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and iTunes. It’s only $2 and is full of all sorts of fantastical goodies—including a talking pug, ’cause that’s how my story rolls.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.

Crit Confusion

I’ve been working on a lot of critiques in preparation for a writing workshop next month, so I’ve kind of got criticism on the brain right now. I generally find critiques to be hugely helpful. I sure as hell have my blind spots when writing, which makes good crit partners invaluable for pointing out the things I’ve missed, be they plot holes, muddled character motivations, inconsistencies, or what have you.

The hard part for some writers is figuring out what criticism to take. You can’t—or shouldn’t, rather—try to address every single comment you receive. Fiction is a largely subjective thing, so inevitably, people are going to have different opinions. Try to incorporate all of their comments and you’re going to end up with a serious headache and a hot mess of a story.

So which comments do you address?

When I was attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Michael A. Burstein was one of our guest lecturers, and in reference to critiques, he paraphrased the Talmud: “If one person calls you a donkey, pay him no heed. If two people call you a donkey, buy a saddle.” In other words, if one person has an issue with your story but no one else does and you’re happy with it, then leave it alone. But if multiple people all point out the same issue, then that’s something you should probably address.

Unfortunately, there are also those head-desk inducing times when you get conflicting opinions. Half the people in the room were blown away by your twist ending while the other half thought the story was too predictable. Four people think the story’s well paced, four others think it moves too slowly, while yet four others think it speeds along too quickly. Or worse yet, everyone agrees that the story doesn’t quite work, but they all have a completely different opinion as to why.

That’s when things get tricksy. There’s no scientifically proven method or magic spell for figuring it all out. The best I can do is offer up some things to keep in mind:

1) What people say the problem is may not actually be the problem. Ending doesn’t work? It could be that your ending is fine; you just didn’t set it up properly, so it’s the beginning that needs to be tweaked.

2) Give the story, the critiques, and yourself some temporal distance. Writers are only human, so often your initial reaction to receiving a critique is going to be a bit raw—you just handed people your baby, and they’re telling you it has three eyes and a missing ear. I usually set critiques aside for at least a couple days, often longer. When I come back them, my reaction is less defensive and emotional, and I’m therefore able to look at the comments more objectively.

3) Not everyone is going to be in your target audience. If you’ve written a story about albino goat herders and there’s someone in the critique group who absolutely detests stories about albino goat herders, then there’s probably not much you can do to make the story work for that person. Don’t automatically discount all of their feedback by any means; there might be something useful there. But, there will probably also be comments that you can safely ignore since this simply isn’t the reader you’re hoping to please.

4) Inevitably, there will be someone who critiques your work in the most dickish way possible. I’ve been fortunate enough not to run into too many of them, but they’re out there. Luckily, the dickishness means that you can generally ignore about 90% of what they say since it’s usually unconstructive feedback along the lines of, “Your story sucks.” Still, occasionally you’ll find a good point or two buried in the I-am-a-sad-tiny-person-who-needs-to-feel-superior snark that is a dickish critique.

5) Always remember that it’s your story. Be grateful for critiques, but don’t feel obligated to address every single comment. Even a perfectly valid point might be best discarded if it turns the story into something other than the one you want to write.

6) When in doubt, trust your gut.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.

The Deadline: Set It and Don’t Forget It

Set-it-and-forget-it

 

I just joined a book club. One of my main motivations to do so was because I already owned all the requisite books, but they’d just been sitting on my shelves, some for years. Life is busy, and I found many reasons and excuses to put off leisure time reading. But I just finished the first book for the first meeting, and it felt like a real accomplishment!

I know, I know. It’s just a book. But it still felt good. And I know that the reason I actually finished it was because I’d have to discuss it at the meeting. In other words, I had a deadline.

Sometimes, we need a little outside pressure to get things done, even if they’re things we want to do and love to do (like reading a fun book, or writing a fun book). As nearly all writers know, it’s very easy to say “I’ve got such a great story in my head! I’m going to write it someday!” And of course, someday never comes.

So don’t write someday. Write every day. Write on Tuesday. Write 500 words this Wednesday. Do it again on Thursday. Maybe on your lunch break. Keep doing that. Make it real. Make it banal. Make it a habit. By setting specific goals, you remove the misty someday from your work and you, well, get to work. Set a reasonable deadline and stick to it.

And here’s the second part of the plan: you make your deadline by making yourself accountable. How?

  • Make your goal public.
  • Post your daily word count on your blog or Twitter or wherever.
  • Tell your writing group what your goal is, and ask them to follow up when the deadline hits.
  • Don’t have a writing group? Find a writing buddy online through a group or a forum.
  • Participate in NaNoWriMo or something like it.

Choose whatever method works, and do it. Remember, your accountability buddies don’t have to read what you write. They just have to be the voices saying “Send me that file so I can see your word count” or “Remember when you said you we’re submitting that piece by the 30th? Well, it’s the 30th. Where did you submit it?”

The public nature of this exchange should be enough to spur you to get moving on your project. (If you still blow deadlines, raise the stakes. Miss a deadline? Pay your writing buddy $5, pay for your group’s monthly coffee tab, etc. Make it hurt…within your means, of course.)

Working to a deadline can make us dreamy, creative types nervous. Don’t you have to wait for inspiration?

No. No, you don’t.

The Muse is not a fairy to be coaxed from the aether with manna or honey or freshly-squoze brambleberry juice. The Muse is a sly ferret to be chased down and force-fed espresso until she chatters out all her inspiration into your brain and your laptop. Remind your muse that no one gets paid until you publish, and the clock’s ticking.

The deadline is your ally. Use it.

Now go write.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

 

 

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time. It’s a kind of immortality, I suppose, bounded by limits, it’s true, but then so’s everything.”

–Charles de Lint

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how telling stories goes far beyond the entertainment factor—though make no mistake; that’s plenty important. A story’s only as good as its ability to keep the reader/listener engaged—and how we often forget that no stories are told in a vacuum. Those oh, so “original” ideas we have? Our characters’ “obvious” and “realistic” actions and thought patterns? All shaped by the culture we live in. If you’re American, no matter how thoughtful you are, American values are going to come through, from the characters’ decisions to the very structure of the story itself. And of course, in the messages, like the idea that the will of the individual is more important than the will of the many.

Other cultures would lead to other messages and values. It’s inevitable.

Maya Angelou’s album (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Stories, then, are ultimately how we define ourselves and others. And the more exposure we have to experiences outside our own, the more we can figure out who we are apart from the narratives already given to us.

Plus, guys and ladies and those beyond the binary, why do we read? Because it’s just amazing to be able to read books and have adventures in all kinds of situations and through all kinds of eyes.

We all know of (newly deceased) poetess and civil rights visionary Maya Angelou, but how many of us were familiar with her past, including that she used to be a sex worker? Or a nightclub singer? Or even a cable car conductor? Most of have no clue about that, because it doesn’t fit the story people want to tell about her, even though those parts of her life helped shape the person she became. Because our society had decided what is “appropriate” for us to know—based on unquestioned societal values and norms.

YA author Marie Lu with her WNDB button (courtesy of the WNDB Tumblr)

But one thing we can do to honor Maya and ourselves is to start reading books from cultures different from ours—even subcultures within the greater umbrella of our own country, like the African American or Indian American experience—and examine the values we take for granted. It’s a way to better choose what messages we are actually putting into our work—and to choose which version of a story we’re going to accept.

So I want to point you, dear readers, toward a very important and related campaign: #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Spearheaded by Ellen Oh, author of the Korean-inspired YA fantasy trilogy The Dragon King Chronicles, and a group of diverse authors and book bloggers, this campaign has been raising awareness of the different books out there, the ones that rarely get any air time but deserve to be read as much as any other title. WNDB just had a panel at this past weekend’s Book Expo America BookCon in response to all of BookCon’s authors being white. (Oh, and a cat. We can’t forget the cat.) Here’s the panel. Hope you’ll give it a listen.

http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/post/87586495592/bookcon-panel

Then I’d urge all of you to scroll through the WNDB Tumblr and buy or check out books you hadn’t heard of, books about people not just like you. And then consider how the values and actions of those characters might differ from the ones you consider standard/expected. And then see how that affects your writing. I will bet it can only get better.

“That’s nice,” you say, “but I just want a good book. I don’t care about all this do-gooder, eat-your-vegetables stuff. Reading’s supposed to be fun.”

Well, guess what? I totally agree! Don’t forget that reading diversely means you get a whole slew of awesome books to read through—it’s like stumbling upon a candy store full of goodies you’ve never tried, but without the ensuing tummy ache. After all, the best books, no matter who wrote them or who they’re about, are at their heart good stories. So go forth and consume, consume, consume!