What Do You Meme?

What Do You Meme?

Meme of cat face
Image by DivvyPixel from Pixabay

Following close behind cat images and cat videos, the internet has turned into a meme-generating machine. And you can’t deny that you’ve shared one or two – probably in the past week. People find images that spark the message they want to share, and they add the appropriate text. Often, one image ends up expressing a variety of emotions and conversational topics. Because pictures? Yeah, that whole “thousand words” thing is genuine.

But there’s more to memes than meets the eye.

Have you ever found yourself taking a few extra moments to study a meme? Not because you feel the original author (artist?) did a fantastic job with PhotoShop (or whatever program they happen to use). No, it’s something more. Maybe it’s the picture. You could care less about the words – even if they make you laugh/think/cry/grit your teeth. The image the person chose bores into your brain and sparks a glimmer of imagination. Your writing brain starts churning out a story the longer you stare.

Or maybe it IS the words. The phrase twists and turns inside your mind. Dialogue for a character? The main theme of a tale? An opening line? The description of the world? Whatever it is, the writing starts flowing. Before you know it, you have a short story, a novella, an entire novel. From a meme.

Sound crazy?

Inspiration comes from EVERYWHERE. And you never know what’s going to catch your imagination’s attention. Is that the purpose of a meme? Probably not. I doubt people are sitting around their computer thinking, “I’m going to help a writer out there get a story off the ground.” (I mean, MAYBE they are. You never know) Does that mean you can’t start combing through social media feeds LOOKING for that tiny bit of inspiration? Of course not. Because memes are laid out differently than simple photos. They include someone’s point of view. And it may differ from yours – which is what you need! It gives you a glimpse into a character’s head. It lays out a world you don’t exist in. And it challenges the way you think.

I’ve pulled ideas from funny memes that turned into horror stories. No, that’s not what the original author intended, but that’s where my brain took things. Because turning things on their head is what writers DO. And I’ve looked at serious memes and made comical stories (one was accidental. You know how characters take on minds of their own). Sometimes the words did it, other times the images, and now and then the two together. But it’s made me look at memes in an entirely new light.

Memes are a GOLD MINE for writers.

Okay, yes, some aren’t worth a second glance. And the ones with grammatical and spelling errors make me cringe. But when I get past that (or mentally correct them), I find fresh ideas to add to my list. And writers NEED ideas. When your brain dries up, leaving you without a resource, you feel empty. A writer HAS to leave themselves open to the possibility of finding inspiration anywhere – even in a silly social media tradition.

(And, yes, that means you can look at the cat pictures and videos, too. You can always add more cat-centric literature to the world)

Broadening Your Brain Pool

Broadening Your Brain Pool

Shelf of non-fiction books

You’re never going to find a writer that doesn’t read. It’s completely impossible. Writers come from readers. The desire kicks in when we fall in love with the written word, discover our own inner worlds and characters demanding breath, or find out the book we WANT to read doesn’t exist. Enter a writer’s house, and you’ll find a library somewhere. (And usually see books here and there, as well as the obligatory notebooks needed for when ideas strike out of the blue) We’re the literary squirrels of the world. Which is fine – even encouraged. You need to know what’s current in your genre – WHO’S current in the genre – if you have any chance of surviving the publishing industry.

But there’s another category of reading out there.

If you’re not drifting into the various non-fiction sections in the bookstore, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Those books are research GOLDMINES. You can find ANYTHING. And while some are easier to get through than others, they offer foundations in everything. It’s a necessary exercise for any writer. But freelancers? You should have shelves of non-fiction books (that you’ve read – I hope that’s understood) at your work station. Because over half of your work day is what? Research!

No one knows everything about everything. No one knows everything about anything. You have to tease and pull apart details in order to provide a coherent argument. And that means digging into a topic. There’s so much garbage on the internet it isn’t funny. I spend WAY too much of my time gritting my teeth and shaking my head when I dive into research about animal-related topics. Anyone who’s owned or loved a pet declares themselves an expert and runs off with the bit in their mouth. But the information they share is usually skewed – or 100% wrong. And how do I know?

Research.

I spent a year-and-a-half in school to get my veterinary technician degree. Then I worked in the field for over ten years, where I needed to obtain continuing education to maintain my license. I attended conferences and sat through hours and hours of lectures by doctors and other technicians from around the world. I filled pages and pages with copious notes and tucked away USB drives with the complete presentations. I asked questions when I didn’t understand something. I read the proceedings. I worked every day with doctors with DECADES of experience. I asked them questions every day and added those notes to notebooks. I made my observations and had genuine experiences and cases embedded into my brain. And THAT’S the information I carry forward when I write an article now. Oh, sure, I own and adore my Minions, but my expertise? It comes from SO much more than that.

You have to invest your free time into reading non-fiction. Look up the credentials of the authors. Make sure they know what they’re talking about (because plenty of people land a publishing deal and are idiots), and then settle in to add their brilliance to yours. It’s research you’ll carry forward into your writing career. Because when you freelance, you KNOW the general subjects you tackle. They’re things you ENJOY talking about. That means learning about them WON’T end up as a chore.

You don’t have to pick up books on organic chemistry – unless that’s your thing. (It’s not. Like Skyler from Good Will Hunting, I’m going to call your bluff, “Yeah, it’s SO much fun studying organic chemistry. Are you mad? Have you completely lost your mind? Nobody studies it for fun. It’s not a necessity.”) I read books on animal intelligence, animal emotions, real-life cat stories, and, yes, shark books. They give me new perspectives on how to see the natural world. Have I yet quoted from one of them in an article? No. But have I noticed them influencing my writing on certain topics? Yes. Because I gained new information. They weren’t direct research on an article, but they gave me information.

Open brain – insert knowledge.

Research – and a drive to continue learning – is what sets you apart from the thousands (millions?) of other freelance writers out there. Some people prioritize quantity or quality. They slap an article together in a few minutes and pat themselves on the back. Is the information correct? They don’t care. As long as they fulfilled the minimum requirements of their contract, they’re satisfied. But people on the internet believe ANYTHING. And it’s unfair for incorrect information to start circulating.

Take a stand to be BETTER. Do your research. Improve your knowledge. Expand your mind as much as possible. You’ll start to appreciate things in a new light. And those non-fiction books help in the speculative writing, too. Nothing makes you sound sillier than when you try to describe something mundane and get it wrong. (And you can’t dismiss everything as “magic” and get away with it) There are shelves and shelves and SHELVES of non-fiction books out there. And you have plenty of topics that interest you. Look into the writer’s background, and then bring a few home. Your writing will improve. And your audience will appreciate it. Not to mention your clients.

Just maybe not the organic chemistry.

Rabbit Food

Rabbit Food

Typical healthy meal
Photo by Brodie Vissers from Burst

Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, take a deep breath. I am NOT going to advocate any crazy diet out there with this discussion. I’ve already gone on a rant over the stupidity of meal-planning, remember? (I also went to some lengths on the joys found in cake-tasting, so that should clue you in on the fact that I’m not some diet-Nazi) Every diet fad that’s broken from the surface of hell has peaked and crashed under the burden of scientific evidence. Also, not one works. The best these psychotic crazes manage is to dump any excess water you’re lugging around. You WILL lose weight, but it’s not exactly the fat you were looking to get rid of in the first place.

That said, you DO need to take a look at the food you’re putting into your body. Which is difficult for writers (or any freelancer, really). Why? Because when you get wrapped up in whatever you’re working on, you can’t be bothered to put together something from the…however many food groups the food…I think there’s a pie involved now instead of the pyramid they had when I was a kid. Nope, you grab whatever’s quick. Assuming you grab anything at all. I’ve gone an entire day without food or water because I zoned out completely. My writing brain took over and informed my stomach (and the remainder of my organs, I suppose) that they weren’t vital.

Awesome for the novel I was writing; terrible for my health.

So I graduated to the junk food routine. Mindlessly picking up chips or cookies while I typed? That didn’t require a ton of neurons. The package sat beside me on the desk, and any time I paused, I’d snag something. You know what that diet gets you? Fat. It gets you fat. It also makes your brain feel like crud, which interferes with the creative process. Of the two, when you’re a writer, let me assure you the second is the worse of the two. But it’s so much EASIER than:

  1. Pausing your writing brain
  2. Getting up from the computer
  3. Walking into the kitchen
  4. Putting together even a semi-healthy meal
  5. Attempting to eat and type at the same time

Who wants to go through all of that trouble?! No one. But if you want your body – and brain – to stay healthy and productive, it’s the only answer. (Trust me on this one) Which is why I grumble and fuss and complain EVERY day, but I make myself do it.

But it’s NOT a diet!

Okay, so there’s no junk food in the house in the first place. (There hasn’t been for years) So that eliminates the snacking temptation. I eat breakfast before work starts. That means I can sit down and break out utensils. When I hit the computer, I force myself to watch the clock while I work. When mid-morning comes around, I go back myself a protein shake. It’s a compromise between convenience (I can type with one hand and drink with the other) and health. It also doesn’t take very long to finish, even if I can’t chug the thing. And I’m usually at a place where I’m editing by then, anyway, so the typing’s minimal. It’s a perfect compromise.

A few hours down the road, and I’m ready for lunch. Yes, I have to MAKE lunch. If we don’t have leftovers (a rare occurrence), I have a few easy standbys. My personal favorite is rice cake sandwiches and celery with peanut butter (because I am an adult). Again, I can eat one-handed and type with the other. It’s a balanced diet, complete with protein, carbohydrates, fruit, and vegetables. But it doesn’t slow down my writing process. And my afternoon snack? A granola bar. (Yes, I focus on protein, but I also work out 5-6 times a week, so I’m feeding my muscles) Then my wonderful husband makes us a balanced dinner.

No junk, no AVOIDING meals, and my work doesn’t suffer in the process. I still think it’s annoying, and I complain that I have to GET UP and grab food. But my body likes me better. And I’m eating food I LIKE. Which is probably why I’ve maintained this so-called “diet” and haven’t others I’ve attempted in the past. You better believe I have chocolate now and then. On bad days? When everything falls apart and I want to hide? I have dessert. I refuse to deprive myself. Nothing gets cut from my world. Because as soon as you execute something, you make yourself feel miserable.

There’s a difference between dieting and eating healthy.

And that’s where all of those diet fads miss the message. They pick something out there in the world and condemn it to the depths of hell. And it’s usually something your body NEEDS! You NEED carbohydrates! They fuel your body. Protein rebuilds the muscle you break down every day. Do you need a ton of sugar? No. But is it going to kill you to have a reasonable amount? NO! It’s called a BALANCED diet for a reason. Fruits contain nutrients and vitamins your body needs – and they bring sugar with them. Maybe you need to take it easy if you’re diabetic, but you shouldn’t eliminate them from your life for good!

Diets are stupid. But eating HEALTHY isn’t. And you have to eat healthy when you’re a writer. You have to take the time to pause your brain, get up, and get the food. It’s HARD! You never want to do it. There are a MILLION reasons to avoid those meals (you can eat when you finish – in three months). But your body will HATE you. It devises revenge – trust me on this one. But if you put the proper fuel in the tank, it works happily, and your work improves as a result. It’s kind of a win-win situation.

Defending the Line

Defending the Line

You have to defend your boundaries
Photo by Burst from Pexels

What’s one of the best things regarding freelance writing (or any freelance job)? Getting to set and control your hours, of course. You have complete freedom over when you want to work. Which means you have ZERO obligation to keep a standard 9:00-5:00 schedule if it doesn’t work for you. Want to take an extended lunch hour? No problem. Feel like burning the midnight oil when no one else is up and about (and likely to pester you)? That’s your decision. Only want to work during the week and leave your weekends open for adventures? You have the right to make that choice.

YOU are in control of yourself.

As long as you complete the work and deliver it to your client on time, they don’t care if you “clock in” at 2:00 PM or 2:00 AM. It’s a huge perk. You aren’t squished into the box of regular work hours, staring at a clock and wondering why that minute hand never moves. And you don’t have to get on your knees to beg for time off when doctor appointments or other events pop up out of the blue. You simply schedule them to suit your needs and work around them. It’s one of the best situations out there. Honestly, freelance writing took a GIANT load of stress off my shoulders in that regard.

Until I realized people are time thieves.

The words, “I’m a freelance writer, so my schedule’s flexible,” are absolute poison. Suddenly, I opened a gateway for people to decide they have the right to invade my world with demands. That “flexibility” translates into excessive wait times, multiple appointments over several days (because one makes no sense), and frequent interruptions. After all, why should they worry about taking time out of my life? I can simply work later, right? I gave these idiots permission to intrude on a schedule I worked so hard to carve out.

You HAVE to set boundaries with the outside world. Yes, you have that flexibility – when it’s needed! Otherwise, people need to learn that you’re working! Maybe you don’t punch into a clock every day, with a boss hovering over your shoulder, but you still have assignments and tasks to accomplish. You ARE WORKING! It looks different, but it’s no less important than what they’re doing. How would they feel if you treated them the same way? (Ask them sometime) Stand up for yourself and defend that boundary. The freelance work you do is IMPORTANT, and if you can’t work? Well, you’re not going to pay those doctor bills (or whatever the appointment is for).

Admitting you have flexibility is a dangerous thing. You’re trying to be accommodating. A lot of people struggle with their schedules because they’re trapped in those jobs with bosses that frown at them when they ask for five minutes to breathe. They need specific times. You don’t. So you’re trying to help out the rest of the world. But you don’t want to get taken advantage of, either. It’s a careful balance of being helpful while still setting up walls to defend YOUR time.

And, honestly, I’m still working on the balance.

I cut people off when they start tirades about how great it is to not have a schedule. I point out that EVERYONE tries to steal my schedule. I chop phone conversations short. And if I’m in the middle of an article and feeling overwhelmed? Those calls go to voicemail. I’ll deal with them later – as I would with a “normal” job. Maybe it shocks the doctor, but it reaffirms the boundary I’ve set. My work needs to come first. You need to figure out how to do the same thing. And if you work in the middle of the night, you need to build those walls to defend your sleeping time.

Our work looks different to the rest of the world. That doesn’t make it NOT work.

The Death Drop

The Death Drop

Story arcs need to follow a recognizable pattern
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

There’s nothing better than a roller coaster. Whether you prefer traditional wooden roller coasters that whip you around corners and over hills to the point you’re convinced you’re going to come off the seat. Or the latest launch coasters that fling you out at top speeds that water your eyes so badly you can’t see half the twists and loops you go through. Perhaps even hanging coasters where you get the sensation of flight, with the air rushing around your body to the point you can picture the wings attached to your back. Your heart starts racing, blood rushes to your brain, and synapses fire at an alarming rate. And then the car slams on the brakes, and you shudder into the station. Ride’s over, and you’re left with an incredible rush of adrenaline.

Kind of like the feeling you get from an exceptional story.

So imagine the sensation you’d get if someone forgot to finish the tracks on a coaster. You’d drop off the end and plunge to the ground. Not quite fun ride you were expecting. Or you experience so many twists, loops, batwings, and corkscrews that your blood pressure plummets and you can’t see straight. If your brain loses comprehension, your enjoyment isn’t quite there, either. (No one likes getting taken to the ER as a result of a carnival ride) And, of course, if you board a roller coaster that makes a single loop, with NOTHING, you’re going to complain (or wonder if you accidentally ventured into the kids’ section of the park)

Yet people do this ALL the time with their writing!

Regardless of the genre you write, or the form you choose to work in (I’ll exempt poetry because those rules are all over the place), you have one framework you’re expected to build your plot beneath: the story arc. And it’s the most basic skeleton in a writer’s tool box! The story arc contains these basic elements of your plot:

  • The beginning: Your introduction of characters and the problem
  • The middle: The conflict and action
  • The end: The resolution

At it’s most fundamental, that’s what’s required for ANY story. Do most stories resemble a real arc or parabola? No, not really. The best tales – even short stories – have dips and raises, and a few quick hairpins and corkscrews you weren’t expecting. However, the framework exists. If you leave out one element of the arc, your readers wander around scratching their heads. Or they get supremely annoyed. You’re not being clever or “breaking new ground.” You’re being an idiot.

Beginning, middle, end.

Introduction, conflict, resolution.

It’s really NOT that difficult of a concept. Or, at least, I wouldn’t think so. Nor should it get so complicated to realize you need to introduce dips and rises into the middle of your arc. This is an adventure for your readers (yes, even if you’re writing something heart wrenching). No one wants to get on a flat, go nowhere ride. SOMETHING needs to occur. How interested are you to read about someone eating their white bread and mayo sandwich? No one’s picking up that story. Give them a REASON to invest their time. Don’t bore them half to death with the mundane!

And don’t you dare leave everything unresolved and then have the nerve to pat yourself on the back and walk away. I’m not talking about a cliffhanger, either. I understand those; they’re employed all the time by writers intending to write a sequel, trilogy, etc. No, I mean I actually read an epilogue where the writers announced they’d FINISHED a story arc (their words, not mine) despite the fact every single ball was still in the air! NO! BAD WRITERS! You’ve finished NOTHING! That isn’t a story arc. It’s…it’s not even a recognizable piece of geometry. I threw the book across the room. That’s an affront to a loyal reader – and to writers everywhere that slave over their computers or ink pads.

If you’ve written yourself into a corner, go to your publisher and admit you need more time. Don’t decide it’s “good enough” and walk away, dusting your hands. The story arc exists for a reason. It’s a principle of writing that dates back to the ancient Greeks. (Probably further than that, but we can document their work) People get annoyed with incomplete work. They lose interest. They throw things (literally). They refuse to pick up the next thing you put on a shelf (assuming your publisher decides to maintain a relationship with you).

It’s a simple framework to build a story upon. What you do under that arc? That’s completely open to you. So it seems like a small thing to ask you to respect it. Hell, even in my non-fiction writing, I use a story arc. I have a brief introduction, then I flesh out the topic, and then I round everything up with a summary. (Crazy how that works) It’s a respect for your readers. And it doesn’t take much work to follow it.

Use ALL the elements of your story arc. And you can pat yourself on the back that no one will throw your work across the room. At least, not for that reason. (I throw books for other reasons, too)

Cue it Up

Cue it Up

Playlist of records
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The ancient Greeks divided up inspiration among nine different Muses, crediting their influence for the creativity that flowed over the known world. Terpsichore held dominion over music and dancing. So the Greeks felt music held the same importance as poetry and comedy. Probably because separating music from writing is damn near impossible. And when you’re stuck, mired in writer’s block, Terpsichore lies in wait in the wings, waiting to assist you.

Simply put: Turn on the radio.

Nowadays, finding inspiration has myriad forms. Music lurks everywhere, in every form. CDs reside in hefty binders or stacks against the wall (don’t deny it – you know you have them), records have returned to weigh down shelves, and computer drives hold decades of MP3 files. Not to mention the variety of streaming services open to people – free or paid. If you can think of it, there’s a station for it. Type it in, and you have music blaring from your computer, laptop, or phone.

I’ve said before that I refuse to work in the vacuum of silence. The music calms my brain, but it also helps me when my writing brain locks up and refuses to work. I have playlists designed specifically for inspiration. They’re chock full of songs that take my breath away and energize my imagination. They transport me into different places, different times, even different worlds. They drop the curtain on the world around me, giving me a chance to breathe and reorient myself with what I’m struggling with. And they jolt electricity through my imagination, sparking new ideas into my writing.

Magical playlists? I guess you could say that.

The funny part is, none of the lyrics have every prompted a story idea. I don’t take inspiration from the words, from the scenery (a lot of the entries on the playlist come from Broadway shows), or even the original concepts. It’s the feeling generated by the music that does the trick. And I know you have songs that engender that feeling in you. Music that gets into every nerve fiber, causing you to freeze up. You find yourself in another place – somewhere YOU created – feeling emotions only your writing brain has words for. Maybe it’s the beat, or the harmony, or something less definable. You just have to stop and let the power sweep over you.

And then the words flow – so fast your fingers can scarcely keep up.

Maybe that’s why the Greeks felt there were demigods behind inspiration. It’s an immediate rush. Or, sometimes, it’s perfect quiet. Other times, you break down completely. The music provides the emotional connection your brain needs to break down that wall blocking your creativity. Or it ignites the imaginative spark in the first place. The rush is crazy, and when you “wake up” from it and see how much writing you’ve accomplished, you’re amazed.

Everyone needs that playlist.

Think over the songs that resonate with you. Start setting them aside into their own playlist. Organize them into the order you need – or leave them on shuffle. (I get some amazing results when I do that) Keep it labeled so you can find it the next time you need a jolt of inspiration. And each time you stumble over a new piece, add it. Will the songs have any kind of cohesion? Of course not. Will people look at you strange if they hear that particular playlist? Probably. (Mine bounces from classical music pieces, through musicals, to modern instrumental pieces, to hard rock, some pop, a couple 80s – it’s a crazy hodge-podge and I love it!) It doesn’t matter. If it resounds with your imagination center, that’s what counts.

And the next time writer’s block rears its ugly head, sit back and cue up the list. You’ll clear the obstruction in no time.

The Melting Pot

The Melting Pot

Blending all cultures, faiths, sexualities, and races is an author's duty
Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

Those of us that dabble in speculative fiction – more so than standard fiction – have a special duty we need to uphold. And now, more than ever. Gone are the days when you could populate your stories with a single race, religion, or creed and find a welcoming audience. Particularly if you enter the realm of science fiction. It’s not believable. (Unless you handle it well – and VERY few authors have ever pulled it off. Hint: they all involved alien creatures that challenged a human observer’s thought processes). If you pick up a piece written in the past decade, or even the past three years, you’ll notice a shift in the cast of characters.

Some of it done well, and some of it done so poorly, your teeth hurt.

True, some authors write from their background. Which is fantastic! You SHOULD read outside of your experience. It broadens your knowledge base, introduces new concepts, and opens your eyes to cultures you’ve never experienced before. It’s the next best thing to working your way into a friendship with someone of that upbringing. (I know, I know – we’re a bunch of introverts) When you come across those books, the writing is genuine and FEELS impactful. The characters come across as more than a stack of cardboard assigned attributes.

Other writers attempt to do the same, with ZERO knowledge or experience, and it shows. They use language that’s inappropriate, details from Wikipedia, and leave you with hunched shoulders, ground-down teeth, and a desire to beat them to death with their own book. The only thing you learn is the person should have stayed a million miles AWAY from their chosen topic – for the good of literacy.

We’re in the twenty-first century. You NEED to include characters in your work that are diverse. That means different races, different religions, different cultures, different sexual orientations. But when you do it, it needs to feel AUTHENTIC. Never describe a character using words you wouldn’t use if they were your friend (unless it comes from the mouth of an antagonist – and you damn-well better justify it). Don’t have a friend that fits that particular character? GO FIND ONE! Talk to the friends you have, explore their circle. Odds are, someone knows someone who can put you in touch with someone. Talk with them and ask questions. Take notes. Figure out how they like to be described, referred to, and WHY things are done or said certain ways. Become an informed writer – and STAY AWAY from Google and Wikipedia.

Don’t make your writers cringe!

Let me give you a nice little example. I’ve read two books recently that included characters of African-American descent. One was written by an Asian-American woman, and the other was written by two white women. The first book used ordinary words to describe the character – pleasant descriptors that explained the character without hitting you over the head. The second book assigned EVERY character as “black” or “white.” My head hurt, and I winced. (And, as you’ve noted from my photo, I’m as white as they come) It was like getting smacked in the face with a 2×4. I’d NEVER describe my friends that way! As a writer, I have an entire toolbox of words available to me! Why choose the most base words?!

The same happens when writers tackle different sexual identities or preferences. If it’s outside of your wheelhouse – TALK TO SOMEONE! Don’t go based on inference or generality! Do your homework! People ARE willing to talk to you and answer questions (in my experience). They want to see an end to baseless rumor and poorly-written scenes, the same as the rest of us with higher intelligence. Plus, education never killed anyone.

If the best you have is stereotype, EXCLUDE it!

We have a duty to do better than what’s been published in the past. We CAN do better. The world’s changing around us all the time. We can continue to shape and change our writing to reflect those improvements. Look at the names of authors on the shelves. More and more people are breaking through, introducing us to cultures we’ve probably never been exposed to. It’s an amazing opportunity. And if you want to find yourself included among those ranks, you need to open your mind and STOP sticking to the same old pathways. Populate your work with MORE. Explore, learn, and do BETTER.

Let’s kick the stereotypes to the curb where they belong.

Outside Opinion

Outside Opinion

Okay, so 2020 wasn’t the best example to use for this post. I’m trying to be more optimistic for 2021 (yeah, I know – it’s a big departure for me). Or I’ll save time and point out that writers are no longer trapped by the need to print everything out and submit things by mail like we did back in the stone age. Therefore, the adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way” applies, and this post will still work.

Moving on.

If you’ve never attended a writers workshop – whether a standalone or as part of a con – you’re missing out. These little affairs are gold mines for writers. And that applies to writers of any type. If you look, you’ll find a workshop for ANYTHING. And COVID-19 or not, most of those workshops persevered this year, through Zoom or other mediums.

Most writing workshops follow the same format:

  1. You submit a manuscript you want critiqued.
  2. Everyone in the workshop reads the piece and writes up their critique.
  3. You spend the workshop going through everyone’s work, one at a time.
  4. When it’s your turn, you take copious notes (while keeping your trap shut).

Easy, right?

I’ve attended a couple of speculative fiction workshops, and the information I received each time improved my writing. I also found myself with new ideas. Not from the other people’s writing, but fleshed out of notes they were giving to each other. For instance, I’ve killed every prologue I’ve ever written. It’s where I first learned to massacre my adverbs. And the first workshop I attended started me down the path to writing more science fiction – simply because the overwhelming amount of fantasy presented made me realize there was an opening.

You’re in an environment with people who want to help improve your writing. Some have publication credits, others don’t. Some have attended other workshops, some are there for the first time. Everyone has a different background. At my last workshop, I was able to correct a medical fact for someone – something they had no knowledge of but that was commonplace for me. Little things like that matter, and everyone’s grateful for the insight.

Are writing workshops perfect?

Of course not. Humans are humans, after all. You’ll encounter people who are focused on themselves. I had several people who’s feedback consisted of, “I don’t read this genre.”

Gee, thanks.

I mean, I wasn’t a fan of everything I read, either, but I did my due diligence and provided concise feedback on everyone’s work. I felt it was owed as a responsibility.

I also had one guy who went on a long tangent that made no sense and had nothing to do with my novel excerpt. (Pretty sure he just wanted to hear himself talk)

It’s hit-or-miss. However, there were plenty of people who DID care and provided me with information I could use. And that was the majority. I also got to read some amazing writing. Writing I want to see in print. And I told those people as much. Getting to connect with writers is another perk of such workshops. You never know where networking might lead.

Putting your work in someone else’s hands is always nerve-wracking. You don’t know what they’re going to say. (Think about it – how much do your hands shake when you submit something?) But if you have an opportunity to make it BETTER, isn’t that worth it?

In my book, it is.

So whether it ends up being virtual again this year or not, I’ll be hitting Dragon Con’s Writers Workshop in 2021 – my second visit. And this year, I’ll have more confidence under my belt than I did before. Because I know that, even if my piece gets ripped apart, it’ll emerge better at the other end.

Take a look at the workshops for your chosen writing genre. Swallow that knot of fear. And pick out a piece to submit. You won’t regret it.

Ghosting (for Writers)

Ghosting (for Writers)

Ghost hand prints
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

What do writers want more than anything else in the world? To see our work published. To run around and wave a book or magazine and point to our name on the cover or below an article. (It’s harder to wave the internet around, but when you work in online formats, you try to do the same) That’s the dream – to have the world think your writing is worthy.

Why else would we work day and night at our craft?

Which is why it can sound bizarre, crazy, or even counter-intuitive for a writer to sit here and tell you, you may have to work as a ghostwriter a time or two in your career before that magical byline happens.

What’s a Ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter, to be blunt, is a writer who does the work and receives none of the credit. Your writing goes up on another site, often under the guise of another person entirely. Occasionally, it even gets attached to another author’s name (which SUCKS!). You have no rights to the work, and (most of the time) you can’t include the work in the your portfolio – no matter how fantastic the piece might have been.

Some clients specifically label a job as “ghostwriting,” while others skip the step, and you find out down the line as your name disappears from the posts. (Reading contracts closely is always a good clue)

Sounds awful, right?

Why Ghostwrite

So why in the world would an intelligent, aspiring writer EVER agree to do such a thing? Because it’s WORK! Even if your name isn’t attached to it, your voice, style, and quality gets out there for people to read. You may need to work within a specific framework, but your voice always shows through. No one else writes the way you do – no matter what. The more you write, the more people read, the more they put 2 and 2 together.

Also, as you continue to do a good job and build a solid reputation, the more clients start to contact you. A healthy job satisfaction with positive reviews attracts new clients. They aren’t going to worry whether you have your name plastered all over; they want to know you’re reliable and competent. THAT matters more and more, especially as plenty of “freelance writers” out there feel quantity matters more than quality. If you stand out for solid, dependable work, you attract MORE work.

And some clients ARE willing to let you use that ghostwriting in your portfolio. They may ask for specific reference links, but if you’re allowed to keep it and hand it to future clients? That’s worth it, isn’t it? I’ve had a couple of clients who allowed me to do so, and it built up my portfolio nicely, especially in the beginning.

Staying Humble

Do I ENJOY writing without credit? Of course not. Who wants to do something and not get the credit for the hours they spent researching, writing, reviewing, and editing? However, it’s reliable work. Some of my highest bonuses have come from ghostwriting work. And it’s WORK. I’m not foolish enough to call myself a bonafide success and demand that I get a byline every time I turn around. (That’s how you STOP getting work)

Whether my name appears under the title or not, everything I work on SOUNDS like my writing. I have a distinct style and way of writing, and it comes across no matter the topic. As every assignment goes out and spreads through the internet, people start to get a feel for my voice. They recognize MY writing – even without my byline. That’s how I view ghostwriting.

It keeps me grounded. It reminds me to stay smart and breathe when a new contract comes up devoid of credit. And it makes that byline work all the sweeter.

If I never did any ghostwriting, I wouldn’t be the freelancer I am today – because I’d likely still be scrambling for work. Everyone starts somewhere. So before turning into a writing snob, stop and think through both sides.

Writing is writing. No one else will sound like you – and THAT’S what matters the most.

I Say No

I Say No

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil skeletons
Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

For anyone who reads YA books, you’ve likely encountered this unspeakable evil: present tense. My first experience was Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games. And while I’ve read the entire series, including her most recent prequel (where she thankfully abandoned that annoyance), I loathed the gimmick. Which is all the affectation is for most writers: a trend that makes no sense for the story they’re writing.

So don’t do it!

I’ve read YA for years now (I also write it – so the pairing makes sense), and I have no idea where this sudden surge in present tense came from. But it needs to stop. It’s an obnoxious style choice that lends nothing to any of the stories I’ve read over the years. As a matter of fact, it’s the number one reason I’ll put a book back on the shelf rather than bringing it home. I’ve encountered the fad so many times, I now crack an unknown author (and several known authors) open and skim the first few lines to check for the abomination before I take the risk.

Present tense writing hamstrings the author – and the reader! Both are trapped within the current moment, resorting to countless flashbacks (the bane of the reader’s existence) to recount anything that happened prior to that instant in time. Such books are also limited to first person, denying a reader the chance to explore the thoughts and motivations of others around the protagonist. Sure, you can label chapters with other characters to get around this shortcoming, but it’s still a limitation. It’s why the Hunger Games movies triumphed over the books (something I rarely say). They fleshed out a narrow concept Ms. Collins failed to bring alive with her choice of tense.

Present tense is a worthless evil!

I think authors (or editors – whoever’s making the stupid choice to champion this tense) feel that present tense builds suspense or heightens action. As a reader, I assure you – it doesn’t. Reading present tense is complicated. It bucks the natural rhythm we’re adapted to, especially with those frame shifts as a character has to constantly recall events from the past. It’s the worst roller coaster ride in the history of thrills. You jerk back and forth, falling out of the story constantly. There’s no suspenseful build, no creeping anticipation. Instead, you fight to hold onto the story with everything you have, screaming internally for one concise paragraph.

The affectation falls flat, and so do the stories. I’ve seen magnificent worlds and plotlines sink into the mud of barely readable because of poor tense choice. I’ve dismissed entire series because I barely made it through the first book. I’ve refused to even read some authors because they only work in present tense, and I can’t tolerate one more. The blurb on the jacket is tantalizing, but my brain refuses to swim through the murk.

Your tense choice MATTERS!

Can you use present tense in your writing WELL? Yeah, you can – if it makes SENSE! In Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well, she has a ghost character with a fragmented memory and distant sense of self. (Unhappily, all of her characters use present tense, which is why I never read the second book – much as I adore her as an author) THAT character? It makes sense to use present tense. A ghost adrift in a different age, attempting to regain memory? They would only move in the moment. I can applaud present tense use in that situation because it’s justified.

I’ve used present tense myself – ONCE. My short story, “Pains of Glass” features of character stripped of memory. She awakes with nothing. If you have no past, you only exist in the current moment. So I used present tense to reaffirm the loss of a history. It’s the only time I’ve done so.

Give me a REASON for the character to live and breathe in the moment, to race from breath to breath, and I’ll applaud your choice. Otherwise, all you’re doing is following a limping trend that contributes nothing to the story. Bethany Morrow’s A Song Below Water came the closest to annoying me the least with her present tense choice. Her character’s reside so much in their minds, in their thoughts, that the tense felt almost right. And then the action happened, and everything fell apart again. It was close, but not still not right.

Tense matters to a reader.

When you write, you don’t write for yourself (okay, you do – a little). You don’t write to match a trend. You write for your READERS. So think about them, and what they NEED. They need to sink into your world and characters. They need to feel emotion and share thoughts. They need to look up from the end of a chapter and wonder what time it is, what day it is. They need to believe those people and creatures you’ve imagined could be real.

They don’t need to throw the book across the room because they keep falling out of the plot, stumbling between tense changes. So unless you have a good reason for it, leave present tense alone. Let it die already.