Category Archives: Craft

Getting to ‘What if…’ Sparking Ideas For Your Writing


by Christine Hennebury

Writers often say that their stories started with a ‘What if…?’ Sometimes, though, it’s a challenge to get to that starting point. 

It’s okay if you have trouble coming up with ideas, even if it happens frequently. But, to save yourself some stress, I recommend having some idea-generating techniques ready to go so you can get back to writing as soon as possible.

So, what should you do to get your ideas flowing?

In the big picture, you’ll want start cultivating idea-generating habits like going for walks, and regularly reading books, listening to podcasts, or watching shows that get you into creative mode. You can also spend time with other writers and chat about ideas, and you can practice capturing fleeting ideas in a file or a notebook.

Those big picture plans are great in the long term, but they won’t be much help if you are already facing a blank page.  If you need to get your brain in gear right now, perhaps one of these techniques will help:

 

1) Gather Some Information

You don’t want to go down the rabbit hole with this, so be sure to set a timer for your info-gathering.  Start by googling something really broad that you *might* want to write about – frogs, dinner parties, annoying habits. Have a look at the sorts of things that come up, especially in the image search. Does anything there spark a ‘What if…’ for you?

 

2)   Look Around

This can be closely related to point one but it is a bit more specific and hands-on. Pick any object in your immediate environment. and ask yourself a few questions about it.  What kind of person (aside from you!) might own this? Why would something like this be important to someone? What could it be used for? What *else* could it be used for? Why might someone keep this? Why might they try to get rid of it?

(This is inspired by Julie Duffy’s Story-A-Day May instructions for short story writing.)

 

3) Compare and Contrast

If one object doesn’t spark something for you, perhaps two will. Either look at objects in the space around you, use a prompt generator, or just do a search for ‘common objects.’  Select two and think about how they might be used together or why they should never be used together. What kind of circumstances would lead to someone having a wrench and a chicken nugget in their back pocket?  Why would someone need to keep a knitting needle and a rubber boot in their trunk? How could a hand print and a heart-shaped locket end up on the side of the road?

 

4) Go Off On A Tangent

Take a simple word or concept and go off on a tangent about it. What different things could being green mean? Do you have a character that would be particularly interested in green? Or that might look particularly good in green? Could green mean elves? Environmentalism? Being new at something? Being rich?

The point is to generate ideas, so it doesn’t really matter how odd your suggestions get. Just keep jumping from one to the next.

(This is inspired by a technique described by ‘Renegade Writers’  Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell.)

 

5) Write About Your Writing

If you don’t have any ideas, it’s okay to start by writing about writing (actually, it’s okay to do this even if you *do* have ideas.)  Grab any old sheet of paper or open a new computer file and start writing about writing. Complain if you want. Talk about the kinds of things you like to write, or settings/people/concepts you might want to write about. Once your brain gets into writing mode, a useful idea might just spring forth.

 

6) Ask Someone For Ideas

Call a friend and ask what they would like to read about. Ask a kid how they would build a spaceship from tinfoil. Get on Facebook and ask about the weirdest thing someone has found in their purse. You may not use any of the specific things that people say but getting other people thinking will help you get started. Go ahead and have some fun with it!

 

Getting to ‘What if…’

The point of all of these idea-generating techniques is to get you into a creative mode of thinking. 

After all, you don’t have to stick with any idea that comes up for you, you can just use them as a springboard to the next idea.  As long as you are open to seeing where those first ideas lead, you will eventually get to something you can write about.

If you build the habit of getting into that idea-generating mode regularly,  then it will get easier and easier for you to think of things to write about.


Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her  hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her  at  christinehennebury.com  or visit her on Facebook .

 

Top 16 Close-Talking, Double Dipping Tips to Succeeding At Nanowrimo!

Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month.

For 30 days in November every year, hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world try to get 50,000 words on paper. In a perfect world, these words would be brilliant and profound. It’s far more likely that the words are a big hot mess. If you are participating, this is the perfect time to organize your ideas and get ready! The objective is to write as much as possible, you know, yada, yada, yada, not to be beautiful doing it. Sign up here so you can participate this November!

I believe that the objective of 50K words in 30 days is doable for anyone who wants to try.

I also believe that much is to be gained from the whole exercise, even if it isn’t a coherent story. I’ve broken down the steps to writing a story for Nano into super-easy steps. If you follow them, you’ll easily make your goal. (It’s only 1,667 words a day. You can DO that!)

So here we go! (This is the Seinfeld version so I suggest you regift your label maker, put on your puffy shirt, and spare a square!)

 

Step One: Start your story with Did you ever notice  . . .. Is that cheating?  NO! It gets you going and now you only have 49,996 words to go.

Step Two: Pick Two Names: Almost any two will do. Let’s go with Jerry and George

Step Three: Describe these two characters. List their favorite things, their appearance, and their relationships. They also need a job that is unrelated to the genre of the book, like say, make them work for Vandalay Industries! In the import/export business! Say they really, really like velvet!

Step Four: Give them an antagonist. This determines your genre. If it’s a mean girl/boy, then it’s chick lit, (Susan?) If it’s a tall, dark stranger who they think is a pain in the butt (at first) it’s a rom-com, (Putty?) If it’s a mysterious colleague with secret who may do something violent to protect it then it’s a thriller, (Tim Whatley?) If it’s someone who had committed a crime and he doesn’t want our couple to find out about it, it’s a mystery, (Newman and what he did to that poor dog!) If it’s bigger than a personality, like, say, a government agency, then it’s a spy thriller, (Kramer probably knows something about this!) If it’s a non-human but nothing technological is involved, then it’s a fantasy. (“The sea was angry that day, my friends!”  If it’s a non-human but technology IS involved it’s science fiction.(The Bubble Boy!) Okay, so these are loose definitions, but this is Nanowrimo! There is no need to get technical, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Step Five: Give them a setting. Make it consistent with the antagonist. Delis in NYC are more for romantic comedies than for science fiction. You could also hang out in Jerry’s apartment, but the local soup Nazis will do too.  But you know what, it’s NANOWRIMO! Go ahead, break the rules, and while Jerry and George are waiting for the baddie to show up, they can order twenty-seven things on the menu, as long as they follow the rules, because that will pad you with a lot of words! Or maybe Kramer drops by because he wants something!

Step Six: Give them an objective: All this means is that the characters want something. They want to be loved. They want to be famous. They want to be secure, forgiven, avenged, or safe. These are primal needs and everybody wants them. You don’t need to worry about the specifics of the objectives, that will come later.

Step Seven: Give them a handicap: What will keep them from meeting their objective?  Sure, the antagonist will do his part, but there’s got to be more. Let’s say George is an incompetent Yankees employee who thinks uniforms should be made of cotton. Let’s say Jerry has the bad habit of bringing Pez dispensers to piano concerts. Be as nonsensical and illogical as you want because HEY! THIS IS NANOWRIMO! 

Step Eight: Give them something to say:  Open your scene with dialogue. Your pair is bickering because of something. This shouldn’t be hard to come up with. As they bicker, the reader learns about their big objective. There is no topic too small to talk about. You can talk about Snapple. You can talk about why the girl you know wears the same dress every day. You certainly can talk about Superman.

“It all became very clear to me sitting out there today that every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat – it’s all been wrong.” –George Costanza

Step Nine: The antagonist makes an appearance OR someone challenges them to acquire something. They are sent off on their mission. They bicker about it some more. They get distracted. Now write about this! NEWMAN! 

Step Ten: Stuck? Tell us backstory! This is where Nanowrimo is beautiful. Tell us all about George’s struggle with his parents and how his fiancee died licking wedding invitation envelopes. Tell us about the trauma that Jerry had when he his girlfriend ate peas one at a time. Tell us about that time that Elaine, ahem, danced. In Nanowrimo (unlike your best work) you can have as much bleedin’ backstory as you want. This will add to your word count, will help you flesh out those characters, explain what happens in chapter 47 and help you understand where the story is going. Trust me.

Step Eleven: Stuck again? Put something unexpected in their path! Japanese businessmen! An NBC pilot!  A new J. Peterman catalog! Have your duo fight it out and regroup and get back to the task at hand. (That could kill a couple of thousand words right there!)

Step Twelve: Take a break and think about your ending. What do you want to happen? Do you want them to meet their objective or not? Brainstorm for 10-20 things that need to happen before your duo gets to the end. This is your very loose outline. From now on, as you get stuck, refer to this. Put Jerry and George in these situations or scenes and then get them out.

“I can’t die with dignity. I have no dignity. I want to be the one person who doesn’t die with dignity. I’ve lived my whole life in shame! Why should I die with dignity?” –George Costanza

Step Thirteen: When you get about 10K from the end, try to wrap it up. Get your main characters in positions where they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re having trouble, make a coincidence work out for them. Have a high school buddy show up with a solution. Don’t even worry about the logic of it. The important thing is that YOU ARE 10K FROM THE END! You need to fill that space up with something. Sometimes all we need to see what happens next is to put our fingers on the keyboard and plow through. You might be surprised what you figure out for your characters.

Step Fourteen: When you hit 50K, CELEBRATE!  You deserve that badge! You deserve a pat on the back And don’t worry about the story.

Put it aside for a minimum of three months. Do it, Jerry. Do it!

Step Fifteen: When three months have passed, get the story out and go on a search and rescue mission. You are now digging through the haystack looking for the needle. You are digging through the stable full of ca-ca, looking for the pony. You are mining for diamonds in the cave. DO NOT PUBLISH THIS, JERRY! I repeat! DO NOT PUBLISH THIS, JERRY! If you have any kind of sense, you will take that 50K words and see if there’s something salvageable, like an exchange of dialog, a good description, a well-drawn character or a little bit of a plot line. This is your good stuff. SAVE IT.

Step Sixteen:  Question my method completely. “What’s the point of writing like a madman for a month if all we’re getting out of it is a little bit here and there.” I’ll tell you. You are learning discipline. You are learning to think fast. You are learning to appreciate the struggle. You are learning basic storytelling elements. You are learning what doesn’t work. You are learning what is good and what is drivel. You are learning to write the hard way.

Nanowrimo is not HOW to write a novel. It is however, a way to build muscle and skills. To stretch your story-telling abilities. To gain perspective and insight. It’s good for you. And your car will look nicer too.

So, veteran Nano-ers? What do you think? How has past Nanos worked for you? 


Conquering Twitter in 10 Minutes A DayWant more tips on how to make Twitter work for you? CONQUERING TWITTER in 10 MINUTES DAY is available for pre-order! Specifically written for authors, this book will help you think about yourself, your brand, your books, and your goals on Twitter, create great questions to ask and organize your time in such a way that you can get the most out of every tweet.

Available for $.99! 


I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community. 

How to Write Foreigners in Dialogues


by Joanna Maciejewska

Last month I was writing about how to insert foreign phrases in your novel, but what if your character doesn’t speak perfect English? How do you write foreigners to reflect their struggle with English?

There are many ways you can convey foreigners through dialogues, and since I’m a second language speaker myself, I tend to notice my fellow non-native speakers’ struggles (not to mention my own experiences in the matter!), so I’d like to share some of them with you.

Articles

For a native English speaker, there’s a clear difference between “I saw a cat outside” and “I saw the cat outside”, but it’s not necessarily the same for the non-native speakers. Many languages don’t have articles or use them in a different way and for different purposes, so beyond knowing the school-taught rule that “a/an is for singular, and the is for plural”, your foreign character is ready to mess it up. This might lead to some confusion and make mundane exchanges between your characters more interesting.

“I saw a cat outside.”
“So what?”
“It was the same cat we saw at the murder scene.”
“What?! You saw THE cat?!”
“That’s what I said.”

Some characters, if their command of English is rather simple, might even skip the articles altogether, making an opening for some unintended humor.

“Can you give me address?”
“Why do you need a dress?”

Prepositions

Another great way to show your character making mistakes in English are prepositions as often they don’t translate directly. I’ll give you some examples from my native language. In Polish you don’t say that you see something “in the picture”. You see it “on the picture”. You also wouldn’t say “welcome to New York”, but… “welcome in New York”.

Of course, research will be necessary to make sure your “messed up” articles match your character’s native language.

“There’s coffee on the picture.”
“What?! I told Matt to be careful and not spill any!”
“No. I mean, the girl on the picture is drinking coffee.”

Phrasal verbs

If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve likely never heard about them, but phrasal verbs can be a real struggle for second language speakers. If you look it up online, you’ll learn that “phrasal verb” is an “idiomatic phrase consisting of a verb and another element” (often a preposition). They come to you naturally, because you’ve been surrounded by them all your life, but the second language learners have to actually memorize them. To them, “knock down”, “knock out”, and “knock up” can be very confusing. Moreover, if they hadn’t come across a particular phrasal verb, they might not be able to figure it out without context.

Foreigners are also less likely to use them when they speak if they struggle with English. They won’t ask you to “put out” the fire: they might say “extinquish” instead. This is something that doesn’t require foreign languages study or research. You just need to find a replacement for a phrasal verb.

“We will have to hit him unconscious.”
“He’s too big. There’s no way we’re going to knock him out!”

 How to Write Foreigners in Dialogues

Idioms

Since I mentioned phrasal verbs, I should cover idioms in general. They are always a great way to show the character’s struggle with the language. If you watched NCIS and got to know Ziva, you’ve probably witnessed her language slips more than enough. Sadly, throughout the seasons, it was very inconsistent from perfectly done to artificially made up, so if you want your character sound real, there are few things to remember.

Even though some second language speakers might use a similar sounding word, it’s not that common. It’s more common to use a word with a similar meaning. Second language speakers are more likely to say “don’t beat around the thicket” than they are “don’t beat around the plush”. To give you another example (it’s one of my own slips), once I said “the coast is free” instead of “the coast is clear”. I remembered the idiom had something to do with the lack of obstacles, but I couldn’t nail the right word.

Literal translations

If you’re willing to do a bit of research, using idioms can be a lot of fun. Did you know that in Polish, when someone is going to try something out on you, you won’t become their “guinea pig” but an “experimental rabbit”?

Also, people in Poland and Scandinavia don’t cross their fingers for luck, but instead they wrap other fingers around their thumbs. It’s literally “holding my thumbs”. Of course, experienced second language speakers will know idioms don’t translate directly, but if your character struggles with English, it’s a perfect opportunity to add a bit of flavor to their speech.

“I’m going in. Wish me luck.”
“You can do it!” Bartek raised his clenched fists, almost like in a boxing stance. “I’m holding my thumbs for you!”

Not all of the expressions will be good to use, as they might not be obvious, even in the context. I mentioned “don’t beat around the bush” above, and using Polish equivalent, “don’t wrap it in cotton”, would be confusing for a reader. But it’s definitely worth exploring.

False friends

Did you know that some languages have words that sound the same or similar, but mean something else? In second language learning, these are called “false friends” as they seem familiar to a learner. In English, “transparent” is adjective meaning something is see-through or clear, but in Polish this is the word for a… banner. Similar goes for “sympathy” which in English is most commonly used to describe the feeling toward someone based on relating to their misery. While in Polish, “sympathy” would be a noun and an old-fashioned word used for a person who’s an object of one’s crush.

This is a relatively easy way to mess up your character’s English as the Internet is full of “false friends” lists for various languages. There are also some available on Wiktionary (like those for Polish and Spanish), so all you have to do is get creative with it.

Lost words

It probably happened to you more than once to have a word on the tip of your tongue, but you couldn’t remember it? The same happens to the second language speakers. It’s no surprise, since they had to memorize all the words in English and their meaning in the first place. What’s interesting, it happens to even more advanced speakers. But while the basic learners will just get stuck, the advanced speaker will try to ask for the right word.

“Is everything ok?”
“I ate too much for lunch and now I have… What’s the word for when your food is in your stomach and falls apart?”
“Digestion?”
“Yes, this one! I have digestion problems.”

As a downside, this will only work with characters that are supposed to be smart and knowledgeable, because they need to be able to describe the words they’re looking for. On the other hand, you don’t need to know any second language to make it work.

Foreigners in dialogues

The speaker’s origin influences the mistakes they make, so depending on their first language, the way they speak English might differ. It’s not only about the accent and pronunciation of the words, but also about mistakes they make. If you’re lucky to have second language speakers around, you might take this opportunity to listen to how they speak and what are the mistakes they most commonly make.

But what if you don’t have any foreigners to listen to? You can always go online and read through posts on forums or social media. You can also make friends with someone who speaks English as a second language and ask them what they found different about English language or what were they struggling with the most when they were learning it. They’ll likely provide you with a plethora of examples.


Joanna MaciejewskaJoanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science-fiction writer who was born in Poland, spent a little under a decade in Ireland, and now resides in Arizona. She had stories published in Polish magazines (“Nowa Fantastyka”, “Science-Fiction Fantasy i Horror”) and anthologies (Fabryka Słów, Replika, Solaris), and she also writes in English (“Fiction Vortex”, “Phantaxis”). You can find out more about her and her stories at melfka.com or follow her on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

Bring Them With You: Writing Vivid Descriptions


by Christine Hennebury

Readers come to fiction to immerse themselves in the world of the characters. If you want your readers to really connect with your writing, with your characters, you need to master vivid descriptions.

When you put in the work to make your book’s world as real as possible, you reward both your readers and yourself.

Creating a detailed world doesn’t mean that you need to overload your text with adjectives. Instead, it means that you need to be precise in your language and selective in the details you share. It means that you connect your readers with your characters through their senses.

Vivid description lets you fully inhabit your world, your characters, and your setting, and that makes your work more fun.

 

Sidenote: When I’m telling stories aloud, I know exactly what each room I describe contains but I don’t share all of those details. Instead, I pick specific items to describe that will connect with my audience. That practice can be useful for your readers, as well. Even if you know every last detail in a room, you can just share the most vital ones.

Creating precise descriptions  is probably not something that will happen in a first draft. You may need to go back and layer in some extra details in your scenes to make them richer.  If you want to ensure that your writing is rich in detail but not a blast of sensory information, perhaps you could consider the following approaches:

Choose a Perspective

Last year, I took a workshop with a local writer who is well known for her engaging descriptions. She had lots of great advice to share but my most important take-away was that every description is from someone’s perspective.

It’s obvious, really, but I hadn’t thought about it before.

Every scene in your book is through someone’s eyes – even if that person is you! So, you have to emphasize details that would be important to them. You have to show their knowledge or their ignorance. And, you will want to add emotional content to details so your readers know what your character thinks about their surroundings.

Descriptions from their point of view can be part of ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling.’ There is a big difference between the person who describes the moon as looking like the bald head of a baby and the person who describes it as looking like a dinner plate.

 

Find a Similar Place

Go to a place similar to the setting in your story and pay close attention. (If your story is set in a fantasy realm, you will have to wing it a bit.)  Look around – we tend to think of visual descriptions first so that’s a good place to start.  What can you see? Do those items have specific meaning in that context? Which items say the MOST about the location?

Next, close your eyes and listen. What noises can you hear? Can you describe them without referring to what’s making them? This is a good chance to use some onomatopoeia!

How about smells? Textures? Tastes? What kinds of other sensory details are available in your chosen setting?

Take some notes so when you get back to your writing you can infuse your events with specific and relevant detail.

The relevant part is key. After all, there may  not much point in mentioning the crimson curtains if no one goes near the window!

However, as I warned above, you don’t want to overload your readers. So, it may be useful to consider which details from the environment stand out. Or, which ones contain the most powerful information. You can convey a very dirty room with a quick description of a rat on a counter eating a piece of what must have once been bread, you don’t need to describe every single dirty thing.

Sidenote: If you cannot go to a similar place, you may want to put the power of Facebook or Twitter to use for your writing. Trade scenes with another writer who can find a similar location and you can do one for them – both of your scenes will be richer for it!

 

Feel It More Than You See It

Standard writing advice tells you to write what you know.  However, when you delve too far into specific language, you can end up with a highly  technical, jargon-filled description. Or in an effort to make your scene clear, you can write one that is too heavily slanted to a single sense. That’s when you should consider how your character is feeling.

For example, it would be easy for me to get mired in details when I’m writing about Taekwondo. I could spend paragraph after paragraph describing certain strikes and blocks and call them by name, telling the reader specific angles and details. It would be technically correct but it wouldn’t draw the reader in.

It would be much better for me to describe how each blow feels. Then, by layering that with details like being out of breath, having sweat running into my eyes, being able to hear my own heart, and being afraid of an opponent’s power, I can immerse my reader in the battle. 

You can do the same in the fact-based sections of your writing –  help them to *feel* what’s happening instead of baffling them with details.

 

Bring Them With You

 

Your reader is accepting an invitation into your imagination so you want their experience to be a rich one. You want them to be right THERE with your characters.

Layering details of sensory information within your characters’ actions and observations will make your world REAL for your readers, it lets you bring them with you on your characters’ adventure.  And, making them FEEL what’s going on will keep them coming back to your stories.  Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for?


Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her  hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her  at  christinehennebury.com  or visit her on Facebook .

What Good Writers Do


by Sara Marschand

Kindergartners learn what “good writers do,” but all writers can apply these universal lessons.

Kindergarteners practice tracing letters and numbers as the first steps to becoming literate.  Even at this early stage, they are taught the basics for a lifetime of writing. The sign on my daughter’s classroom wall reads simply “What Good Writer’s Do.” Only a handful of the recent preschoolers can read the sign at the beginning of the year. As they come to understand the words, the sign becomes a useful reference. It provides guidance on how to communicate clearly to readers.  From editing to formatting to effective storytelling, all writers benefit from mastering the basics.  They must to entice readers and agents. 

The rules for good writers found on a Kindergarten wall apply universally.

Good writers think about their topic

This is true on every level and at every stage of a writer’s career.  What do you want to write about? All fiction, boiled down to its simplest element, contains a character and a conflict. A kindergartener writes a sentence about their cat. For flash fiction, you might need a character, two points of conflict and a twist, but longer works require thinking in the form of outlines, scene cards or the Snowflake Method. Even a pantser percolates their story in their head before the words flow.

Good writers ask if it makes sense  

Every day. Every word. Are descriptions clear and vivid enough for the reader to see the story? Have you given your character a twenty-eight-hour day? Does your magic system work one way in chapter one and differently in chapter two?  Check the continuity of the elements in your story from one scene to the next.

Good writers write neatly

 For the kiddos, this specifically refers to handwriting. Many advanced writers still write by hand before entering on a keyboard, but this idea of ‘neat’ writing can be expanded further. Are your thoughts organized on the page? Are you following the scene and sequel method where something happens, your character reacts and then makes a decision? Do you have a purple prose problem where all your sentences are flowery, wordy and full of excessive adverbs and adjectives? All of this tidying doesn’t have to happen in a first draft, but self-editing gives everyone a chance to neaten the work. 

Good writers read it over and over  

Kindergartners check if their letters were formed correctly, but we experienced writers all know this step is about editing and finding the more insidious flaws in our work. Start with the overall plot and structure. Does this sequence of events tell the story you want? Are the character arcs complete?  Once it’s in order, tweak the sections for flow and readability. With each additional pass, the work is polished until the only the grammar remains to be wrestled with.

Good Writers use punctuation at the end

 The kindergartners have a tough job here. They have to learn when to use a period, a question mark or an exclamation point. Formatting work incorrectly for submission earns red marks from the teacher. Grown-up writers can get confused by the exclamation point, too. People use them to show excitement, but overuse of the exclamation point is a sign of weak writing to the gate-keepers of publishing. Use them, but know why.

Good writers use Capital Letter at the beginning

 For professional markets, an improper format can mean the difference between instant rejection or an agent or editor actually reading your work. No one wants to slog through pages of poorly formatted paragraphs.  Stick to standard formatting guidelines—Times New Roman, 12pt, double-spaced. Check with each individual recipient what their standard is, where they want your name and word count information or if they want it at all. To be respected as a professional, give the agents and editors what they want. Follow the rules.

Good writers use finger spaces 

Kindergartners are taught to use a finger width space between their words. Except for ensuring you type only one space after a period, this isn’t useful advice for the experienced writer. However, it acts as a reminder to keep up with changing standards. Two spaces after a period morphed into one due to changes in printing capabilities. Most agents, publishers, and editors prefer electronic submissions to printing and mailing from the pre-email era. Changing standards go beyond typography issues, though. Follow your genre and know what they are looking for (or not) in terms of story elements, types of characters and pacing.

Mastery of writing starts small.

We all began by learning letters. Then added grammar and punctuation. Advice for what makes good writing evolves as we grow as writers, but everyone started at the beginning. What basics do you still have trouble with?

 


Sara Marschand has been writing Urban Fantasy and Science fiction since she ended her full-time career in engineering. When not writing, she enjoys everything produced by Marvel Studios. Sara lives with her spouse, 2 noisy kids, a frog and a goldfish that spits rocks. Visit her blog here.

Foreign Phrases in Your Novel


by Joanna Maciejewska

Sometimes a foreign character wanders onto our pages, and they simply insist on speaking a phrase or two in their native language. But even if you’re lucky to know several languages, they might not be the ones you need for your current work-in-progress. With the limited time in any writer’s life, it’s impossible to start learning foreign language for the sole purpose of inserting a few flavor lines. At the same time, giving up on making the character more real is not an option. What to do then?

Should you use Google Translate for your foreign phrases?

I’ll be completely honest with you. I love Google Translate for the easy access to content in languages I don’t understand. It’s great when I have an article in French, and I want to have an idea what it is about. But if you ever used it this way, you surely noticed how choppy and somewhat chaotic the translation is. Now imagine, that your perfect phrases in English get translated the same way! If you haven’t come across it yet, go ahead and give it a try! Paste a paragraph in a language you don’t know and press “translate!”

Google Translate has limited context and not all the languages behave the same way. If you’ve ever a bit of Spanish, you know adjectives got after the noun, not before it. This is a rather simple example that Google Translate could handle, but there are many more complex issues that you might not be aware of. Proverbs, slang, lack of context, and so on.

Also, some foreign phrases might be translated correctly, but they aren’t used in common speech. If you character speaks this way, they’ll sound unnatural.

Let me give you an example. I speak Polish, so let’s assume that you want a simple phrase, “thank you” translated into Polish. Google Translate will promptly give “Dziękuję Ci” as an equivalent, and even though it’s not incorrect, it’s not used in common speech. We simply use “dziękuję” (it still means “thank you”, not “thanks” which would be “dzięki”). Saying “Dziękuję Ci” would make the character sound… artificial or even passive-aggressive. On top of that, “Ci” is only capitalized in letters, emails, and direct messages, when it’s directly addressing recipient. In fiction, it’s not.

Is your head spinning already? And I’ve only taken a very simple phrase! Imagine the pitfalls of the whole sentence translated by the machine!

What can you do instead?

The Internet gives you a lot of options that are much easier and cheaper, than hiring a translator.

First, you can search for “common phrases in…” and you might find websites that already list what you need. They’ll be the equivalent of the tourist phrasebooks you can pick up at stores. Those might be an option too, but depending on which language you need, it might not be easy to find one in your local bookstore.

If you belong to any writers’ groups, especially the online ones which usually gather writers from across the world, you can ask for help there. If it’s just several foreign phrases, someone will likely volunteer to help you. If you can, search for the native speakers, because they’ll be aware of various slang expressions, commonly used phrases, or even if something has a double meaning you’d prefer to avoid.

Twitter is another good place to ask. Even if you don’t have anyone among your followers who could translate the foreign phrases you need, they might know someone who does. Or they might retweet your message, because some of their followers might now. This way, you can reach out to people you wouldn’t have found on your own. Once, I had three followers of mine tag me in a thread by some author I’ve never met who needed help with some expressions in Polish, so I can attest it works!

Foreign Phrases in Your Novel

What if your foreign phrases are in a language that doesn’t exist?

This gets a bit more tricky, and it actually is a topic for a separate post, but let’s cover some basics.

I mentioned above that languages (especially languages that aren’t from the same family), don’t behave the same way. Which means that replacing English words with made up words won’t do, and applying the same grammar rules will make the made-up language feel unbelievable.

Once, I was beta-reading a story where there was an alien word for orphan. Let’s say it was “dadala”. The author promptly created “orphanage” and “dadalage” which suggested that aliens from across the aliens from across the galaxy used English grammar. And even if you look at the Earth languages, the word creation differs. In Polish, an orphan is “sierota”, but there’s no “sierotage”: there is “sierociniec” for orphanage.

I could point out more examples how different languages can be. In Polish, all verbs are conjugated to point out gender, so pronouns aren’t often used. Which means that Polish “went to the store” will tell you whether it was I, we, he, or she who went to the store. Meanwhile in Japanese, when you want to do something, for example go to the store, you’d attach the suffix -tai to the conjugated verb. So in a literal translation it would be something like “I to the store go-want”. (Yes, they have a different word order too!)

So, unfortunately, you need to study languages a bit. Mix and match different grammar rules, and keep track of what rules you’ve applied so far to keep consistent with any future foreign phrases. It might seem tedious, but at the same time, it can be very rewarding if you get into it.

Is inserting foreign phrases worth it?

When done in moderation, interesting sayings or foreign phrases can add a lot of flavor to the character, but at the same time it might feel like it isn’t worth the effort. After all, you don’t want to overwhelm your readers, so you won’t be using too many of them. Every writer can decide for themselves how much time they’re willing to devote to them, but with the easy connection the Internet offers, it seems like a good opportunity to get the foreign phrases right. Not to mention of possibly making some new friends along the way.


Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science-fiction writer who was born in Poland, spent a little under a decade in Ireland, and now resides in Arizona. She had stories published in Polish magazines (“Nowa Fantastyka”, “Science-Fiction Fantasy i Horror”) and anthologies (Fabryka Słów, Replika, Solaris), and she also writes in English (“Fiction Vortex”, “Phantaxis”). You can find out more about her and her stories at melfka.com or follow her on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

A Better Toolkit: The Value of Practice Writing


by Christine Hennebury

Note: I know that a lot of people don’t like to do writing exercises, or in fact,do any writing that isn’t their WIP. If that’s the case for you and things are going well, carry on! However, if you are finding it hard to get your writing done, you might want to consider the benefits of practice.

Writing is like any other skill, it improves with practice. You can get practice by regularly producing stories and articles, but there is also value in deliberate practice for practice’s sake.

I’d like to see more writers carve out a little time to write for the sake of practicing, without a ‘product’ in mind. Writing for practice sharpens our skills, hones our ability to write on demand, and improves our regular writing habits.

Practice gives us better tools. When we use those quality tools in our stories and our articles, we will be far more effective as writers.

If the idea of writing for practice seems odd to you, consider how practice works in another context. In Taekwondo, for example, I spend a lot of time practicing.  For patterns,  I break them down  into smaller ‘fundamental’ movements and do them over and over again. Then,  I slowly go over the whole thing, figuring out how the different sections fit together. For kicks and punches, I end up doing each one hundreds of times and I work on specific parts of the motion.

In the last few years, I have come to accept the value of doing the same thing with my writing. When I joined the 10 Minute Novelists 365 writing club, I got into the habit of writing every day which felt great. Despite feeling great, I still had some frustration because I felt that I wasn’t doing anything with my writing. It was just sitting there.

That’s when I realized that ‘doing something’ with the writing was not where the value of daily writing was for me. it was about establishing a pattern, it was about practicing. It was about learning how to get my brain into writing mode.

Ever since that first year with the group, I can now ‘force’ myself to write. I can choose to bring my focus to the page – a skill I developed in the 365 group – and just start writing. No matter what the topic,  the skills I developed though practice always see me through to a finished product.

That’s just one benefit of writing practice.

Practicing All The Pieces

Being able to choose to get down to work is not the only way that practice is helpful. When I write for writing’s sake, I practice things like character development, opening sentences, descriptions, and transition lines.  It’s just like when I break down my TKD patterns into chunks – that kind of practice is not intended to be visible to others. I never write a story by saying ‘Here is my opening sentence, here is my transition, now I will add my character.’ I don’t need to consciously choose each of those story aspects because my practice has made me confident about them.

It’s much like when I do my patterns for a competition, I don’t name each move in my head. I just let my body take over and pull the practiced pieces together. When I’m writing, my practice with the bits and pieces means I have lots of skills to apply quickly to a story or article.

“Writing is like a sport – you only get better if you practice.” – Rick Riordan

 

Good Use of Writing Time

I know that a lot of us are strapped for time. When you are short on time, it might seem counterproductive to use some of it practicing. However, any time that we spend practicing makes us better at our craft. That, in turn, means that, we will be able to write more quickly and be more effective  in writing our WIP. We will have a sort of ‘muscle memory’ for better writing.

 

Ways To Get Some Practice In

  1. Substitute – Pick one of your short writing sessions each week to dedicate to practice instead of your WIP.
  2. Warm up – Start each writing session with a few minutes of practice.
  3. Pick a Time – Choose a specific time each week/month/quarter to practice your writing. Choose exercises ahead of time and dive in.
  4. Find the cracks– Keep a ‘specific practice notebook in your bag or in your car.  Do practice exercises in little crevices of time in your day.
  5. Talk it out – Try describing things aloud as you drive. Dream up good opening lines and say them to yourself while you make supper. You are still practicing, even if it’s not written down.

 

Writing for practice is a very different thing than writing for a specific purpose. Practice writing may not produce publishable material but it will make you a sharper writer.

When you get lots of practice, you will find it easier to get down to work, and you will have a very effective set of writing tools at your disposal.


Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her  hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her writing & coaching at www.christinehennebury.com  or visit her on Facebook .

 

Great Advice for Writers of Short Stories

By Rebecca Dempsey

After more than a decade of writing short stories, here is what I have learned. 

  • Write. 
  • Read short stories. Read across genres, authors, places and times. I recommend Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carmel Bird, Ambrose Bierce, Etgar Keret, Tim Winton, DH Lawrence and Flannery O’Connor etc.
  • The shorter the work the keener the focus is on how it is written. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation matter. There could be as little as 10 words to grab and hold someone’s attention so errors are distracting.
  • Don’t have a cast of thousands, or a story crossing continents or time periods when there are only 500 words to do it in, it’s too difficult and rarely convincing. A short story is a moment, a slice of something, or an episode, or an event, yet always complete in itself.
  • Anecdotes are not stories. Real life is rarely story material, because life is just one thing after another. A story should have some kind of start, end and finish, with an arc or revelation to give it meaning or value.

  • Work on the ending. The ‘it was all a dream’ ending should be banished to the sixth circle of Dante’s Inferno unless you make it freaking A M A Z I N G.
  • Almost always use said or says rather than he ‘exclaimed proudly’ or she ‘enunciated snidely’ – we should understand tone and attitude from the context and the words said because there should be no wasted words in a short story.
  • Give speech context:  ‘You’re always so right,’ said Evie, before slamming the door in his face. Brian heard her turn the key in the lock and something inside him turned. He pounded the door. ‘No lock’ll stop me, Evie.’  Not my best effort but the attitude and emotions of Evie and Brian are conveyed by their actions rather than me interpreting how their words are said.
  • Write how people talk but providing a taste of an accent will do. Don’t overwhelm.
  • Stories can take minutes or years to finish. They can be five words or 7,000 plus long. Time to produce does not equal length.
  • Structure is everything. It affects tone, pacing, how the piece looks on the page and how people will read it.
  • Look at sentence construction. Look at the start of each paragraph and if the first word is the same for each change some.
  • Look at point of view and be prepared to change it. Should it be from Brian or Evie’s perspective?
  • Break up long sentences if you have many, or insert a long sentence in if your writing is always punchy.
  • Make repeated phrases or words meaningful. People see meaning in repetitions because they are word symbols and readers are always looking for clues. If repetitions are accidental, cut them out, as they are a distraction.
  • Be prepared to break rules.
  • Be prepared to defend your artistic decisions to editors; however, recognize when they are right. Editors are not killing your baby but saving it. For your story to thrive, you must let it go. Really, step away and let people read it and have opinions about it.
  • Don’t trust the opinions of those who are obliged to love everything you do.
  • Nothing is original except you. Work on your voice, rather than your ideas. If you don’t know what voice is in writing then you’re probably still developing yours. And that’s ok.
  • Expect that not everyone will love your story. Expect that you won’t either if you go back to something written a while ago. The writing hasn’t changed, you have.
  • Contests can be difficult to win and costly to enter. Try sending a story to a journal and getting a response from an editor.
  • Rejections are not about you. Sometimes they are not about your work. If they are about your work, edit it. Or send it elsewhere. Maybe the publication was wrong for your story or maybe your story isn’t done.
  • Write, finish and walk away. Come back to your story later. Read it with fresh eyes. Then edit.
  • Draft. Draft. Draft. Send. Draft. Draft. Send. Repeat.
  • Keep a database of titles, submissions, acceptances, costs, dates, earnings etc.
  • Most publications will not take submissions that have been self-published. Beware vanity publishers.
  • Celebrate your publications or milestones.
  • Short stories don’t have to be training wheels for potential novels. Nobody is forcing you to be a novelist. Especially with the return of the novella and digital media looking for short form stuff.
  • For novelists, just because you can pump out 100,000 words does mean a short story is a cake walk. Short stories need a deft yet delicate touch to contain their potential for power.

Rebecca Dempsey has been writing short stories since 2003, with works in print and online from New South Wales to Nevada. She holds a Masters in Writing and Literature from Deakin University, and a Bachelor of Arts, Honours in Humanities. Rebecca has written for newspapers and journals and keeps a blog at writingbec.wordpress.com.

More Questions To Ask After That First Draft Is Done

Your first draft is done!

And trust me when I say this, it is not ready to be published! 

How do you know this? No one writes a perfect first draft. You don’t either. Before you let your mom, your best buddy or the pizza guy read this draft, make sure it’s the best you can make it.

15 More Questions To Ask After That First Draft is Done by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelists

Here are questions you can ask about this draft.

Go on! Take your time to think about it! Make notes!  Each change you make will probably be for the better. And if you are serious about getting this published, then you’ll be far more marketable and competitive in this saturated markets. Your pizza guy? He probably won’t notice the changes precisely, but he probably will enjoy the pacing, characterization, and conflict. Make sure you tip him well.

Are there believable surprises in your story?

Your reader needs to be surprised, so think of ways to put the unexpected in. What if the sidekick decides to betray our main character? Or what if the getaway is interrupted by a car crash? What if the protagonist is recognized by the guard? Or what if the love interest is really that bully from her childhood? What if his food allergies give away his identity? It’s hard when you’ve read your work a million times to see a surprise (that’s where a beta reader could come in) but keep thinking! Surprises keep your readers turning pages long after they should be in bed!

 

Do the supporting characters contrast the main character enough in what they do or say?

When creating your cast of characters, think of the supporting cast as an ensemble. They should have different personality types, different life experiences, different points of view. And they should never get along perfectly. The main character could take turns listening to each one and yet changing his loyalties. What do you have in this draft? Consider each one carefully and make necessary changes.

Is every supporting character necessary?

Can you cut any out? When creating characters, think about variety and roles that each character plays. Just like our main character, each of the supporting cast should have desires and objectives. To make good conflict, you don’t want them to perfectly align with your protagonists. But if they are too similar, you may have a problem.  If you have characters that are too much the same either make one an extreme exaggeration or eliminate one altogether.

Do you have a subplot or two that can divert the reader from the main story, just for a moment?

A good subplot harmonizes with the main plot, it doesn’t compete with it. If you don’t have one in this draft, now’s the time to add one.  That’s why a romantic subplot often works in books that aren’t necessarily romances. Cutting away to the subplot, right when the tension in the main plot is high, is a good strategic move for story telling. Your readers will be invested in both if you do this right, and they’ll keep reading.

The FIRST EVER Conference for 10 Minute Novelists will be held August 9-11, 2018 in Cincinnati, OH. We’re featuring Donald Maass, James Scott Bell and Janice Hardy! Come and learn with us!

Is your antagonist too much of a cartoon?

It’s really easy to take a villain and put a mustache, beard and black hat on him. You can do that in the first draft. But the more you make him like a cartoon the less serious he will be to your reader. Have you taken the worst of your antagonist and exaggerated it to the point of caricature? It may be better to work with their nuances, their personalities, and their worldview rather than their quest for “one meelion” dollars.

Is your antagonist’s objective clear?

Does it oppose your protagonist enough? Do you want to have your antagonist monolog to reveal all of their intentions to your good guy? Or would it come up some other way? Antagonist development is really important. The richer you make this conflict between him and the protagonist, the more interesting your story.

Is your dialogue distinctive between characters?

The voice between the characters should be so distinctive that you could remove the dialog tags and still know what’s going on. If you don’t see any distinction, this could mean that you have too many characters or too many that are alike. Consider merging a couple together or killing a few darlings.

What do all of the characters learn by the end?

Every character needs to have some sort of arc. This means that by the end of the story everyone has had a change for the better or for the worse. The change could be a physical change, or it could be financial, spiritual, emotional, academic or professional. The point is that growth is evident to the reader.

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Do you add in touches of sensory description in each scene?

Sensory descriptions can make the scene come alive. Consider using three descriptors, but not too many more. A scene that’s too heavy handed with description can be boring, so take care that you don’t get carried away.

Is the mood and tone of the story consistent with the theme and the genre?

Tone is the emotional weight of the narration. For example, thrillers are mostly serious. Romances are more light-hearted. Comedies, regardless of their setting, are the lightest of all. If you’re writing genre fiction, you want to sound like all of the other books in your genre. If your tone is too different from what is expected, you may turn off some readers.

Do your scenes feel like they build with excitement like the tension is increasing as the story plays out?

Each scene requires a push or a pull, toward the main character’s objective or away from it. There should be a sense of more gained than lost, and each scene is more treacherous than the last.

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Do your protagonist and antagonist have a final conflict where something unexpected happens?

This should happen late in the second act. There should be a point when all hell breaks loose and your protagonist and your antagonist are at each other’s throats. You’ve seen this scene in countless movies — the final showdown. Now, if you do this well, you don’t make it last too short or too long, you give the villain the upper hand for just a second and then BAM! Something unexpected helps the protagonist out and your bad guy gets the Disney accidental-death-by-falling-which-technically-doesn’t-make-your-good-guy-a-murderer. Okay, maybe that’s a big much for your romance, but you get what I’m trying to say.

Does your protagonist make a choice between two mutually exclusive desires?

This conflict is one of my very favorite things to create for my characters. They’ve have wanted to get to A for a long, long time — say 250 pages — and here they are, just about to touch it and have what they want but then, THEN, they realize they’ll lose B if they do! B?? B?? Oh, not B! This is good conflict. Set your characters up to make them choose!

Is your ending predictable?

This is the funny thing about endings: the need to be believable and probable, but not completely predictable. Before you write that conclusion, make sure you’ve considered all of the options. Make a list, if you have to, of what could happen and then choose the most ridiculous, most mind-boggling or most odd. Your reader would prefer a good surprise rather than an “oh, I saw that coming!”

Does your third act bring all the characters to a new, permanent place that makes sense?

Your third act is where everyone cleans up the mess of the climax and goes on about their lives. If you’ve done your job well, then each character has a new, permanent change in their life. Third acts should be much shorter than the second act, and maybe even shorter than the third. Don’t over do it. Just sum it all up in a tidy bow and write The End.

Your first draft is certainly something to be proud of, but a well-crafted novel is even moreso. Use these questions to make your draft the best it can be.


Did you like this post? You may also like:

Twelve Questions To Ask Yourself After That First Draft Is Done and 16 Questions About Body Language & Appearance For Your Character


 


Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.

Twelve Questions To Ask Yourself After That First Draft Is Done

You’ve finished your first draft!

You are so, so, so proud. This is an accomplishment worth celebrating!

And in the midst of your hard work, you’ve fought all kinds of self-doubt and torment. The quoted author was right, you really did just open a vein and bleed. 

But you’re not done. Please, for the love of all that is super easy publishing, please don’t think you’re done. If your goal is to be a serious writer, to be a viable literary force in your genre, to be a legitimate player in the world of books, please don’t stop with your first draft. You’ll need to improve on it.

Here are twelve questions to ask yourself as you go back and improve.

12 Questions To Ask After That First Draft is Done by Katharine Grubb

 

Have you captured the readers’ attention from the first page?

You know that you do if your main character takes action. The scene needs to be active and visual so that your reader can see well what is happening. If you have an inciting incident, then you’ve created a trigger that will get the story flowing. If you introduce an idea to your main character, one that could be interesting and adventurous, then you’re getting him ready for launch into the next couple of chapters.

Have you created a picture within the first two pages that the reader can visualize?

You can do this with specific description abut not too much. Also, you can do this by adding in sensory details, but not too much. You should also give plenty of clues to the time and place of the story so that the reader can be intrigued.

Is your inciting incident obvious and require the main character to react?

This is an event that begins the story. Everything that happens could be a result of that event. This incident may reveal the character and desires of the main character to the reader. You may not have done this with the first draft. No worries! Now’s the time to fix it!

What mysteries did you introduce in the first act that have been revealed in the third?

This could be something obvious, like ‘who killed Kevin?’ or it could be something more subtle. This will depend on your genre. Your main character may want answers and spend the whole book getting them. But this unanswered moment can potentially capture the reader and draw them in enough so that they want to know the answer the question and they keep reading. And now that you’ve completed a draft, you know where you’re going. You can go back to the beginning and scatter hints in the first act that will lead up to the third.

The FIRST EVER Conference for 10 Minute Novelists will be held August 9-11, 2018 in Cincinnati, OH. We’re featuring Donald Maass, James Scott Bell and Janice Hardy! Come and learn with us!

Does your protagonist go through a literal or figurative gateway about one-third of the way in?

This can be the set off to a grand adventure. It can also be taking a chance on a new romance. It could also be literal– your character flies to Bermuda. Everything that happens before this point is an introduction. Everything after is really what the story is about. Not sure if your draft has three acts? You can brush up on story structure here. 

Does your protagonist go on a literal or figurative journey after that point?

In this type of plot, a character needs to be curious too. He/ she needs to discover the world around them, get lost, misunderstand some sign posts and correct himself. This journey is the gist of the second act. Don’t hesitate to give him a lot of conflicts, dangers and moments in which he has to make decisions. All of this is what makes up the meat of the story!

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Do you have a character that exposes your main character’s secrets?

We are not angels. Our characters should be either. You could either give this job to the antagonist, which of course would make the reader love/hate him all the more. Or you could give the job of secret-revealer to a trusted friend who doesn’t realize what they are doing. Either way, allow exposure to be a problem for our main character. This will amp up the conflict and that’s what good storytelling is all about.

Does your main character have enough hindrances to their goal?

Besides the secrets exposed, you should also throw in a lot of obstacles in their way. Make some of it physical, like the car won’t start, they ran out of Omega 3 crystals for the transponder, or Hurricane Katrina is barreling into New Orleans any day now. But you could also make it from their own inner lives: they have a PTSD episode, the ex shows up with an engagement ring, or they get the call from a casting agent at the totally wrong time. All of these things add more layers of conflict!

Is your main character blind to major character flaws that are holding them back?

What if your main character has intimacy issues and pushes others away? What if they can only talk about themselves? What if they hate their appearance? This also can create some good conflict especially if the people they are pushing away are the very people they need to meet their goals.

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Does your main character make mistakes that cause the reader to want to read more?

You want to bring your reader to that happy balance of them cheering for your main character and then also wishing they get it right next time. This is tough to do, and in my humble opinion, likable protagonists are overrated. What ISN’T overrated is the need for a reader to want to follow a character’s choices without getting exasperated by them. If you want to get me started, ask me about my love/hate relationship with Rory Gilmore!

Does your main character show something positive in their personality within the first two or three pages?

Blake Snyder calls this the Save the Cat moment. In the first few pages, your reader needs to see your main character do something really good — like saving a cat. This moment should be altruistic, humble, kind, and compassionate. Your readers need this so that they know that your main character is not just the good guy (he isn’t, necessarily) but that he’s worth following on an adventure. This goodness should be enough to get your reader motivated.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Toni Morrison

Have you revealed to your reader what your main character fears most of all?

Personally, I think that real honest to goodness fear isn’t tapped into enough with main characters (but that could just be me, the PTSD survivor talking.) I think that well-drawn main characters have a foundational fear — if this should happen, then they believe that their whole world will fall apart. A good author should figure this out, have it revealed subtly in the first couple of chapters and then put their poor main character through the wringer as they face that fear over and over again in the story.

Now, these are just a handful of the questions that you should ask.

And ideally, the questions should prompt you to make a few notes in your first draft and fill in holes, move things around add in stuff and take stuff away.

Don’t freak out.

You’re supposed to have more than one draft. Some writers have dozens. Do what you need to do to make your story sing, even if it means getting to eight or ten drafts.

It’s well worth the time and effort to make your story great.


If you like this post, you may also like:

10 Writing Prompts To Help You Unstick Your First Draft and Five Signs To Keep Writers From Going Wrong


Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.

How The “There Are No Rules” Rule Can Set You Up For Failure & Mockery

I’m not sure who started the “there are no rules in writing” rule.

It certainly wasn’t an English teacher.

There ARE rules.

Rules for grammar, spelling, and punctuation bring order and dignity to our language. There are also rules for storytelling, rules for submissions, rules of common sense, rules of general communication that YOU MUST follow if you want to be taken seriously.

How The "There Are No Rules" Rule Can Set You Up For Failure & Mockery

 If you are a writer then your job is to communicate to your reader.

If you are deliberately being sloppy, apathetic or lazy then the message you’re sending to your reader is “I’m above the rules” or “You’re too stupid” or “Conventions aren’t for geniuses like me.”

In my humble opinion, I'd like to earn credibility, communicate well and set myself up for…

I also think that if you ignore the rules, then you’re setting yourself up for failure, obscurity and it’s very likely other writers will make fun of you.

This is why:

Rules restrict the chaos.

Have you ever been in a car accident because someone ran a red light? Traffic rules are there to keep everybody safe. Now, it’s is unlikely that a lack of grammar and spelling rules could send you to the emergency room, but nonetheless, if we didn’t have rules for grammar, spelling and punctuation, we’d have a mess on our hands.

 

Rules are like personal hygiene for the written word.

You know that guy, that guy, who thinks showering is optional, who believes that toothpaste and deodorant were invented by capitalists who have conspired to convince America about the necessity of their “products.” That guy is not the guy you want to share an elevator with, right?  If you’re a writer, then if you avoid “the rules” it’s like you’re walking around with body odor. Do us all a favor — check your spelling before you leave the house. We will take you far more seriously if you keep your words tidy.

Rules separate the hacks from the professionals.

If you are serious about your writing and have aspirations to be published, then you should take care to follow not only grammar, punctuation and spelling rules but also rules in story structure, characterization, plots, and genre. Then, if you do that and expect to be noticed by agents, publisher, and editors, then follow their rules too!  Pay attention to submission guidelines, write a decent query letter, act professional!  If you really think that your talent is so brilliant that you don’t have to play the game, then you won’t mind the cobwebs in your inbox. Rule followers get in the door. Rule breakers don’t.

Rules are the first gatekeepers.

With all of the millions of books for sale, a reader is far more likely to pick up a polished one than one that thinks “rules are for losers”. You are not e.e.cummings. Yet. Until you earn notoriety and readers, don’t even think about breaking the rules because that’s what you think the cool kids do. The cool kids shine and polish their work because they respect the time and money the readers will invest.

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Rules are your friends: without rules, you can’t be a good communicator.

The rules are not put there by “the man” to “bring you down”. Whether they are GSP (grammar, spelling, punctuation), storytelling or submissions rules, they are there to enhance your talent, to be your tools in your artistry, and to put your readers at ease. Imagine this blog post without nouns or commas or nice and tidy paragraphs: it would be a hot mess. I chose to follow the rules because I want to engage my readers and make this blog enjoyable.

Rules are not meant to be broken.

I’m all for imaginative writing. I love reading a story that’s innovative and creative. There aren’t enough fresh stories around!  But the very best of these new, exciting works are successful not because they broke rules, there are excellent because they used the rules to their advantage. Rule-breaking in the name of creativity or passion is often rebellion and anarchy with a better agent.

 

Deliberate rule breakers will not go far in this business.

Show me a new writer who says idiotic things like, “there are no rules!” and I’ll show you someone who is going to have a hard time receiving the fact that his thriller is a hot mess, that his characters are not deep enough and his endings are predictable.

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Writing is an art.

Just like any art, there are conventions and disciplines set up for a reason. Fresh, innovative, creative works are always welcome. Anyone can break a rule and call it “genius”, but true genius comes from those who see rules and works with them.

My suggestion for all you rebels out there who want to be that romantic, passionate, non-conforming writer that shows the world you’ve got what it takes?

 Sit down. Be quiet. Put in your 10,000 hours. Read every craft book you can get your hands on. Write regularly.

And more importantly?

Be Teachable!

Your talent, your art, and your readers deserve excellence.


If you liked this post, you’d probably also like:

Never Say Never: Writing “Rules” That Beg to Be Broken or,

Eight Ways You May Be Bungling Your Dialogue In Your Novel


Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.

Top 10 Ways To Improve Your Writing

You want to improve your writing? It’s oh, so easy and oh, so hard.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if you are reading this blog then you are a writer. Even if you don’t think you can call yourself that, you probably have aspirations for literary greatness, fame, or fortune.

The right kind of greatness, fame, and fortune only comes from those writers who spend their time improving their craft.

By becoming the best writer you can be, then you're more likely to attract readers, agents, and…

How do you get better? Glad you asked!

Top 10 Ways To Improve Your Writing

Top 10 Ways To Improve Your Writing

1. Read, read, read.

Read in your genre every chance you get. Try reading the Classics. Read your writing buddies’ stuff. Or read those literary giants that you hated in high school. Don’t just read, breath in language deeply and frequently so that beautiful words are a part of you like oxygen. Need ideas on what to read? This Pinterest board is all about books! 

2. Write. That means write a lot.

Write every day.Make it a ten-minute exercise or 1000 words but have a daily goal and meet it. Rewrite best first lines. Create new characters. Retell an old story. Just write. Need a prompt? This Pinterest Board can help! 

3. Observe.

Sit at your favorite coffee shop and write about every detail you see around you. Or you look at a person and describe them or try to tell their story. Describe the objects around your home. Keen observation skills will make you a great writer. Guess where you can find tips on great observation? 

4. Get a Mentor.

In Online Writing Groups, such as Facebook’s 10 Minute Novelists, you can meet people who are little further ahead of you in your writing journey. Ask them questions. Get them to read your stuff. Receive their feedback graciously.

5. Join A Group.

By hanging around writers who have the same goals as you, you will learn a lot about craftsmanship, character development, plot and setting. Also? Hanging out with other writers is just fun. They rejoice with you when you succeed and buy you drinks when you don’t.

6. Take a Class.

Check out your local library, community college or adult education center for writing classes. Some are even online! By working with an instructor, you will be able to get important feedback and grasp concepts you might not through just educating yourself.  This link has a list of free and not-so-free writing courses!

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7. Read books about writing.

Many famous authors have written books on writing. Check out Robert McKee’s STORY, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, or Stephen King’s On Writing. All of them are my favorites and have helped me improve too.

8. Watch videos.

YouTube has several video classes on creative writing. And K.M. Weiland’s is probably the best. These are an affordable and convenient way for you to improve your story telling skills.

“Make the most of yourself….for that is all there is of you.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

9. Be humble and teachable.

No matter how much you’ve written or how many books you’ve sold, there’s always room to improve. And even if you were Pulitzer worthy, you’d still need to know about publishing, marketing, and social media. Be open to learning all you can. Arrogance doesn’t go far in this field.

 10. Expect excellence from yourself.

Creative writing is an art. Show respect for what it is,  respect to other writers and respect the readers by doing your best to be excellent in all you do. That means learn the rules of grammar & spelling and taking the creation of stories seriously.

You can become better. Your dreams deserve it.


If you liked this post, you may also like:

A Writer’s Guide To Ruthlessly Killing Your Darlings or

Beginning Badly: Eight Awful Ways To Start A Novel


 

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.

Why Mutually Exclusive Desires Make Great Conflicts

 

Your story should be jammed packed with conflicts.

You should have conflicts about the setting, like the tropical storm that’s been seen down south is heading north and could turn into a hurricane. Or, you could have conflicts about every day life, like maybe the cat is missing and he has a history of getting caught in small spaces. Also, you could have conflicts involving sickness, like a character with Crohn’s disease can’t stop eating animal crackers. Or maybe a conflict regarding money: the bank may foreclose on the family homestead any minute now.

A great story has many kinds of conflicts all layered on each other, each eating away at the main objectives of the main character.

Why Mutually Exclusive Desires Make Great Conflicts

But the best conflict -- the one that will keep your reader turning pages is on that pits two…

Mutually exclusive desires are when our character, let’s say, Steve, wants to do one thing, but he also wants to do something else.

He wants to provide his family with a good home and oboe lessons for his daughter but he also wants to play the ponies at the track. Another example could be that Steve wants more power and responsibility in his neighborhood gang, but he also wants not to whack his best friend for ratting out.

Good mutually exclusive goals can work side by side for a while, but then, somewhere about 2/3 of the way into the story, Steve has to choose.

He realizes that if he takes what he wants all along, then he’ll have to sacrifice something that he wants even more. This is the hinge on which the entire second act sits. It’s this moment that sets up the climactic ending. The reader understands that he can achieve only one of these goals. This is the type of stuff that your reader will eat with a spoon. This is the type of story telling that keeps those pages turning. WHAT WILL HE DO?

But let’s back up a minute. How did you get to this point in your story telling? How have you set Steve up so that he can get into this great climactic situation?

You start with Abraham Maslow.

Maslow was this scientist in the 1930s who came up with this hierarchy of needs for individuals in society. He was not a novelist. I’m not even sure he knew how to create a character. But what he did do was articulate how people get their needs met.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Most of this is going to make a lot of sense to you.

You’ve been in those places where you yourself had mutually exclusive needs and it caused conflict. Conflicts are not so much fun when they happen to us in real life — but they are great fun in stories. If your character, say, Steve, wanted to have this one thing in his life. But then it threatened another equally important desire. He would have to make a choice on what to do about it.

While you are plotting, consider all the needs that Steve has:

Are they at the bottom of the pyramid? He needs to maintain his immediate food, clothing and shelter needs. If your story is a wilderness adventure story, this will be obvious. Steve has to find a place away from the elements to sleep tonight. He’s not sure he has enough jerky for one more day. He also thinks he’s being followed by a bear.  If he stays here, he’ll certainly die from exposure. If he travels on, there is no guarantee of shelter. What will he do?

Or are they on the next level up? If your story is a thriller, Steve wants to keep the Soviets from destroying the military installation in his hometown. Steve is worried not just about his family, but also his neighborhood and maybe if he’ll lose his job at the bank to the communists. If he confronts the Soviets, then they could kill him. But if he doesn’t they’ll destroy capitalism anyway and he won’t have a job, but he’ll be alive. What will he do?

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Or do things get a bit complex with Steve’s relationships? If your story is a family saga, Steve’s issues may be harder to find. He may want to pursue his lifelong goal of touring with a traveling bassoon ensemble. But he’s worried what his father will say. He could lose this opportunity to play or he could lose the family fortune. His band adores him. They can’t function without him. But a cool ten million could buy him friends. What will he do?

Or Is it really all about Steve’s inner life? In the next level, Steve’s quest for significance could come from his life’s work: A book Amish Zombie Princesses. His manuscript has been stolen. The low life who stole it is really his loyal writing coach. These aren’t life and death stakes, but they are gripping nonetheless. He could fight for his book, after all it took him a whole week to write! But then he loses a friend and a mentor. What will he do?

And as for the upper level? To be honest, few books are written with those kinds of needs– the need for self-actualization. Les Miserables is one of the few novels I can think of that touch on those needs. You may find that your readers identify more with the needs on the lower levels.

And that fine, the lower the level, the more likely you have hand-to-hand combat and that’s always fun to read.

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All of this is well and good but unless you put your character in a position, about 2/3 of the way through the story, in which he has to choose between two needs.

He can also choose between two needs that are on two separate levels. Many of the great books you’ve read or films you’ve watched have this kind of choice. A great storyteller will bring his reader along for the ride. But then, a choice must be made, and to the reader it is excruciating.

What does Steve choose?

Steve makes a choice that is not necessarily predictable, but the one that makes the most sense. He can choose a third option that satisfies neither needs. He can come up with an option that satisfied both. The final choice he makes is the climactic moment. After that choice is made, the results should be final and permanent. Hopefully the reader will say, “Of course! That’s the only real choice after all.”

In your story, make sure you have many layers of conflict, but for your main character, develop his needs intentionally.

He’s going to have to make a choice. It doesn’t have to be the right one, but it does have to be the best way to end a story.


Did you like this post? Want to read more like it?

Try this:

Top 10 Questions To Ask About Authority Figures That Could Beef Up Your Conflict

Or,

Top 10 Things You Can Do When You Are Stuck, Either Literally or Figuratively


 


Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.

Why Your Spell Checker Is A Shifty-Eyed Hack

You can’t trust your spell checker.

Generally speaking, a spell checking feature on a word processing program will do a fair job in finding words that are misspelled.

That’s all it’s capable of doing. If you think that an automatic spell check will do enough work to make you a good writer, then you are mistaken. Your spell check is a hack — in that, it only does what it is programmed to do. And I’d even go as far to say that it’s shifty-eyed (if it had eyes) because good writers know not to trust automatic editing tools completely.

You’re going to need a bigger and better self-editing tools, or a human helper if you want to really get all the mistakes.

Why Your Spell Check Is A Shifty-Eyed Hack by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelist

Editing is far more than spellchecking.

Written communication doesn’t just need excellent spelling. It needs consistent grammar, active voice, clear nouns and adverbs, logical thought and your unique voice. If you are only using your built-in checkers to guide you in your writing, it’s like you’ve asked the cashier at Walgreen’s to diagnose your aquagenic urticaria.

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”…

Your spell checker knows nothing about purple prose.

The words, they come, they dance along the barre of your mind, pirouetting here and there, leaping and landing in a performance of grace and goodness in which every reader watches in amazement. There’s not a spell checker in the world that can keep you from over-writing, over-comparing, or over-describing. This is a shame. The world could stand a bit less nonsense and more straight talk. Does your self-important work get a little carried away with it its own verbosity? Find a good, honest friend and have them sit down with you and have a little intervention. You may want some of this. 

Your spell checker knows nothing about verb tenses.

You may have a verb tense problem when some sentences have past tense and some have present. It happens to the best of us. The solution? Read your piece out loud. You’ll probably hear where you messed up and can fix it easily. Or, if you’re a little nervous about someone overhearing you, read through the entire composition and circle the verbs.  From there change the passive ones to active one, the weak to strong and the vague to clear. And if you can, avoid the “be” verbs. They really aren’t your friends. Also check out Grammarly’s help here. I know that when I start thinking Grammar is like math, I feel a lot better about tenses.

Your spell checker knows nothing about punctuation.

Few of us have trouble with periods, question marks and exclamation marks. Our trouble comes with commas, colons, semi-colons, and possessives. A way to beat these issues it just to review the rules about them on great websites like this one. Or you could invest in Grammarly, which points out your errors for everything web-based that you write, like blog posts about punctuation. Or you could keep your sentences so short and boring that you have no need for commas. And really, people who use semicolons are just pretentious, aren’t they?

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Your spell checker nose nothing about homophones.

Do you see what I did there? Homophones are the wurst. If we get all excited about putting our thoughts down, we may go so fast that we put down one word when we really mean another. A spellcheck won’t help you here, because it’s not a spelling error you made, it’s a usage one. One way to combat this is to read your work aloud, but even then that’s iffy because your mistake may sound right. Get another set of eyes to review your work. And if you’re really diligent about this, do a little find/replace of common homophones. This is time-consuming, but anything that helps you correct mistakes before your readers laugh at you is worth doing.

Your spell checker knows nothing about filter words.

Filter words are sneaky little devils. They are the words that you may use habitually even though they add little value to your prose. In fiction, the worst filter words are those that do more telling than showing. Your characters may think, realize, feel, decide, look, start doing something, or believe. While all of these can be grammatically correct, spelled correctly and used correctly, they make your story weak and flabby. Your spellcheck can do nothing for you here. How to get rid of them? Do a find/replace. Or read you manuscript for the ten millionth time. Determine how necessary they are. Omit if you can. Substitute in vibrant verbs. Your story will be more interesting, I promise.

Passive voice is also one thing that your spell checker knows nothing about.

Do you see what I did there? Passive voice means that you have designed a sentence in such a way that the subject is not active. Rather, the subject is having something done to it. Simplified, the cat chased the mouse is active. The mouse was chased by the cat is passive. But I’ve learned with great apps like Hemingway, that I can write some might fancy-schmancy passive sentences. How do you get rid of them? Hire a pro editor to help you spot them, use apps like Hemingway to highlight them. And practice writing. I’m so much better than I used to be at avoiding passivity.

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Your spell checker knows nothing about your personal quirks and foibles.

These are the little writing habits that only you do. And as confident as you’d like to be, they probably shouldn’t be categorized as “personal style.” Instead, hunt down those repeated words or phrases — I often said my characters “sighed” — and get rid of them. Your spellcheck can’t find these, of course. The best way to minimize your personal quirks and foibles is to read your work out loud. You may be surprised what you discover. And paying a good, reputable editor is always recommended.

In my WordPress app that I use for blogging I downloaded Yoast and found it to be very helpful in making my prose better. You get a little dot at the top of your draft — red, yellow, or green — and if you get green, you’re good!

Now I’d like to think that I was a strong writer anyway, but with these tools, reading aloud, and my editing buddies, I’m far more likely to spot my mistakes and learn from them.

That spellchecker of mine is a shifty-eyed hack.

I don’t need him and neither do you.

 


Did you like this article? You may also like:
Seven Reasons Why You Should Read Your Manuscript Out Loud
Or, Top 10 Signs You’ve Given TMI & Need to Cut The Dickens Out Of Your Backstory

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.