“Who Writes Your Story?”

“Who Writes Your Story?”

Typerwriter saying, "Once Upon a Time"
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

“You can’t save the world.” I spent a few years in a writing group where that was a core principle. In other words, you can’t use your writing to as a platform to enact changes in the outside world. You’re one person, and your words won’t flip the world upside down. Setting out to make your work the next revolutionary piece of fiction that generates thought and conversation – it’s just not going to happen.

And do I agree?

Yes and no. See, I struggled with that concept a lot when I was within the group, and it’s one of the reasons I left. Because theme is such a subjective concept. Sit through any English class beyond elementary school and you’ll understand that much. How often have you listened to a teacher harp about “what the author meant” and wondered if said writer REALLY intended all of those meanings. (Or was their intent much simpler and your teacher’s gone insane reading too much into a handful of words – particularly if the author’s now dead and unable to speak for themselves)

Can you set out to write a Great American Novel that will change everyone’s perspective on something? Sure. Is anyone going to read it besides your mom? Probably not. Such books verge on preachy and dull. And while there IS a section for them, they don’t generate much revenue. I’m not discouraging you if you have your heart set on it, I just want you to have your facts straight.

No one likes being dictated to.

That said, can you explore a theme that holds deep meaning to you? That represents a point of view unique to you or your experience? Sure – why not? Can that theme potentially reflect something going on in the outside world? Absolutely. But are you going to change the world? No. I’m sorry, but no.

Here’s the kicker, though. You might change ONE PERSON’S life. You might influence the way ONE PERSON sees the world. You may flip the world for ONE PERSON. And THAT’S what matters. It isn’t changing the world. You won’t save the world. But you make the difference for SOMEONE. And that difference to ONE PERSON changes THEIR world.

Which is where I see the difference.

I have shelves of books that changed my life. They probably don’t mean anything to other people. Some have never been read by the bulk of the world. They haven’t influenced the world. They don’t change public policy. They aren’t groundbreaking thoughts. But, for me, the words mean EVERYTHING. And not because some teacher lectured about the author’s intended meaning or theme. I don’t even know if the theme I took away is what the writer meant in the first place (it may not be).

This is why we WRITE, though. To give our words to someone out there that desperately needs them. To connect with someone looking for SOMETHING. Someone experiencing the same things we are, seeking the answers we have (or don’t have but are really good at fantasizing). Those are the themes we explore in our books. Not groundbreaking revolution.

I don’t know what Madeline L’Engle intended when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time. I know that, as a smart little girl in the third grade, Meg became a hero. She was smart, too, and she told me that there was nothing wrong with being a smart girl. That’s what I took from that book, more than anything else. I held it close through years of taunting (from guys AND girls). It was my personal beacon and promise. No, the book didn’t change the rest of the world (I know thousands who’ve never read it), but it changed MY world from that point on. I pursued a science major. I refused to dumb myself down so I’d appear appealing to those around me and gain popularity. I embraced my intelligence in a way I may never have otherwise.

Teachers bored me into a stupor, carrying on about the themes and hidden meanings in Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. I held onto one thing: the woman who burned to death in her house of books. That was me – IS me. It’s literally me (there are books in every room of the house), but her determination, her commitment, her defiance – they spoke to me. It’s the most powerful part of the book, for me. I don’t know if it’s what he intended, but it’s what sticks with me.

Theme is critical – but not in the way people think.

You write what moves you. But it may not be what the reader takes away. You may write a single line that stops them cold and forces them to set the book down and cry. You may stun them with a paragraph you felt was a throw-away. Everyone approaches books from different places, and you NEVER understand what their story may be. You may craft the words they needed to hear without any intention. It’s saving a person unintentionally, and it’s beautiful.

My favorite line from Hamilton doesn’t appear on any of the licensed merchandise. I started crying the second I heard it, and it shook me to my core in a way the rest of the musical didn’t (Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing, and I love it. I just didn’t react as strongly as I did to this line):

“I wrote my way out.”

~Hamilton

It encapsulated my life in a way nothing else ever has. Is it what Lin-Manuel Miranda meant for the musical’s theme? I doubt it. But it changed MY world. Everything stopped, crystallized, and shattered in those fractions of seconds.

Write the theme that’s clawing it’s way out of your heart. Don’t TRY to save anyone. Don’t attempt to fix the world, because it’s impossible to accomplish. Reaching ONE person – however unintentionally – THAT’S possible. You’ll connect to someone in a way that will change their life. It’s worth more than saving the world.

Terribly Horribly Unacceptably Unavoidable

Terribly Horribly Unacceptably Unavoidable

ly bottlecap
Bottle Cap that Thinks it’s an Adverb from Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

Adverbs. These little pieces of grammar are hotly debated in writing circles. Along with the Oxford Comma, you find people aligned on both sides. You also find people that want to put banning adverbs into The Rules. While there’s some truth to cutting adverbs from your writing, outright banning of the poor things is unrealistic (and kind of impossible).

First off, what is an adverb? Adverbs, in the simplest explanation, are words that modify or qualify adjectives, verbs, other adverbs, or entire sentences. To eradicate the misconception, not every adverb ends in “-ly.” Do most of them? Sure, but not all. Want an example?

Deadpool’s costume is deep red.

In that sentence, “deep” is the adverb modifying the word “red.” It qualifies the color, adding additional meaning. However, (and this is where the debate comes in), it’s sloppy writing. You can do better than “deep red.” Just open a box of crayons, and you’ll see at least ten other options that substitute for “deep red.”

Deadpool’s costume is blood red.

Deadpool’s costume is maroon.

If you know the comic, the first one works from the merc’s perspective. The second appeals to the sensibilities of writers who hate extraneous words. Neither is technically wrong; one just uses an adverb while the other doesn’t. (See where the debate gets into the grey zone?)

Newbie writers tend to overdo adverbs. You read an average sentence and count ten of them. WAY too many. The sentence is clunky and difficult to read. Slicing it apart and trimming those excess adverbs in favor of stronger language improves the readability dramatically. It’s something that’s gained with experience. And, yes, I’m speaking from my own personal growth. When I go back and read things I wrote ten years ago, I cringe. Turn on Word’s tracking, and the paragraphs BLEED. I mean, look at this:

They were strong hands, large-knuckled but curiously delicate; unhappily, at the moment, they were shaking so badly he didn’t dare try to lift the knife to eat his cooling supper.

Horrible! Count the adverbs in there! And just try to get through reading that drivel without stumbling! (I can say this – I wrote it) Awful, terrible, and in need of ruthless editing. However, do I need to eliminate all of the adverbs? No. (Yes, the -ly words all need to go. I don’t know what I was thinking)

And this is where I argue against the “Death to Adverbs” camp. Adverbs aren’t the enemy. They DO serve a useful purpose, even in speculative fiction. The problem comes in when they result in sloppy, careless writing. We ALL use adverbs (anyone who denies is lying through their teeth). I know I was writing when I was tired or out of it when I skim over a passage and see adverbs sprouting like weeds. My brain switched off and let autopilot take over.

It isn’t the end of the world, it just means I need to rewrite and tighten up the language. Prune the worst adverbs out and choose better words. Am I using adverbs in dialogue tags? Okay, then I need to go back and examine the dialogue itself, see what I can do to make sure emotion’s coming through in my word choice so I can eliminate the tags. Have I zoned out and let “very” sneak in? Time to purge it and figure out stronger descriptors. (I will stand with the camp that opts to ban the use of “very” – it’s weak)

Then we get to the grey zone.

How many -ly words are there? I don’t think all -ly words are bad. People use them in normal conversation, so I refuse to ban them from my characters’ dialogue. Unless I’m writing a historical piece, I need human beings to speak like human beings. And guess what? Humans speak with adverbs. It needs to sound REALISTIC! I’ve deleted and then replaced adverbs within my dialogue numerous times, realizing I made my characters sound too formal. Not good.

Can you overdo adverbs? Of course. Can you find better word choices most times? Sure. Does that make adverbs the enemy? Definitely not. If you read over your work with a critical eye, you’ll see where the line is. But never let anyone tell you all of the adverbs have to go. You’ll end up writing like a computer, and no one wants to read that.

Running Log

Running Log

Screenshot of my Excel Tracker

If you decide you’re only ever going to write one thing in your life, maybe you won’t need this post. Just kidding – you still will. Plus, who wants to only write one thing? That’s just plain madness. Writers are infected individuals – consumed with a never-ending need to to create. And once our creations are complete and polished, we have to send them out into the world.

Which is where things get complicated.

Now, I spoke about my passionate love of white boards already. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d live without them. But they have their limitations. While a quick glance over my shoulder tells me where my short stories are right now (and how long they’ve been there), the board can’t tell me everywhere they’ve BEEN. Markets today have strict policies regarding submissions, and woe-betide the writer that fails to follow the guidelines. One of the biggest is that, unless they specifically request a rewrite from you, they don’t want to see anything twice.

While I have a great memory, it isn’t perfect. There’s no way for me to remember where every story has been. I mean, there are currently nine stories listed on my board, with more being written all the time. Recall where each one’s been?

Madness!

Asking my white board to do that is just as insane. (I’m not sure they make white boards that big). I also have personal essays, magazine articles, and novels to keep track of. While there’s some appeal to living in a house made of white boards, I don’t think my fiance’s is going to go for it. (Nor does he want to deal with the meltdown that would ensue if something got erased)

This is where Excel became my best friend. It took me all of five seconds to create a tracking spreadsheet. With one glance, I can see what genre a story is (newsflash: not every market takes every genre), the length, where it’s been, how long the response time was (helpful in case I’m considering holding out for a certain market), and my reference numbers. I never end up accidentally repeating a submission, I don’t accidentally send a simultaneous submission (some markets allow this, but most don’t), and I can see which markets have sent personal rejections over form letters. I log tons of valuable information for myself. All from a few minutes of my time.

And it takes no time to update!

Screen shot of the Market tab of my Excel tracking spreadsheet

Best of all, I keep a running list of markets. I know who accepts what, word limits, editor names (hint: never send a cover letter to “Editor” – use their name), and which markets are currently on hiatus.

Yes, setting up the Market tab took a lot longer. It’s worth it, though. I know when reading periods are. I know what restrictions are in place for various markets (i.e., must be clean, must contain a required science element, must have an animal, etc.). When I’m ready to submit one of my stories, instead of having to run through my bookmarks, hunting for a suitable match, I just consult the tab. (And, yes, I have the payment information right at my fingertips)

Wait – am I discussing organization again?

Of course I am! Organization is a writer’s best friend! You can definitely try to do everything by the seat of your pants. I wish you luck. When I first started, I just had file folders. And I wasted time combing through them, trying to figure out where a story had already been. I had to constantly read guidelines and search for markets. (Granted, this was also back when you sent submissions via snail mail) It SUCKED! I had to learn the hard way to be smart and make my life easier.

There are apps and programs available that do this for you, and you can definitely take advantage of them. Personally, I like Excel. I already own it, so it doesn’t cost me anything, and I can set it up however I want. As long as you find a system that works for you and keeps things on track, that’s what matters. You’ll be happy, I promise.

More to the point, the markets you’re submitting to will be happy.

The “Rules”

The “Rules”

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

~Neil Gaiman

I plan out most of my posts a month ahead of time; this gives me plenty of time to ruminate on what I want to say while also making sure I have some kind of structure for this site between my work assignments. This post, however, was not on the schedule. Instead, it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision prompted by an encounter with a complete asshat who felt the need to spout words I really despise:

“These are the rules for writing/publishing.”

Let me make things very clear for everyone – especially if you’re just starting out in the writing world and trying to get your feet under you:

THERE ARE NO RULES!

When I first started out, I felt victim to plenty of similarly-minded idiots: people who felt the need to rattle off lists and lists of rules I needed to obey if I was ever going to be successful. And I believed them, chasing my tail in circles until I was cross-eyed, exhausted, confused, and getting absolutely nowhere. Why? Because it was absolute crap. In fact, it took talking to people in the industry for me to learn it was crap, and then I felt embarrassed, humiliated…and finally, really angry.

Some of my favorites? You have to use “said” for every dialogue tag. Utter bilk. Are you supposed to bust out the thesaurus and use a different tag for every line of dialogue? No, that’s asinine. However, you can use a sprinkling of other tags without a problem, or you can omit tags altogether and let the dialogue stand on its own.

You can’t kill off a main character. Now, you better have a good reason for doing so, but why can’t you? If it drives the plot forward and contributes to the character development of other characters, execute the bastard! Just be prepared to have readers get mad at you.

You can’t use adverbs. Ugh, this debate kills me – mostly because I’m guilty of overusing them and have to edit mercilessly. There are often better word choices available, but saying that adverbs should be avoided 100% is crap. The adverb was created for a reason, and it does have a purpose. If you’re reading your work (aloud is best), you’ll catch the ones that don’t belong and change them. I refuse to follow the adage that they should be omitted en masse.

Write what you know. I don’t know what moron came up with this one, but they deserve a flogging. Research exists – has always existed – and it’s one of the most valuable tools available to a writer. If you have an interest in something, then write about it! Immerse yourself in it, drown in everything you can lay your hands on! If you only ever write about what you know, you are going to become stale, boring, and people are going to complain that everything you hand them sounds the same.

You’re not [insert author name here]. Follow the rules. I really hope you’re not so-and-so; you should be trying to be YOU. No one else can write like you. No one else has your voice, your tone, your view on a story. Why would you want to be that other person? Don’t you want YOUR books on the shelf? YOUR stories told? If all you want is to be someone else, go write fan fiction (note: I am NOT bashing fan fiction).

The ONLY rule that matters is to write well. Yes, you need to spellcheck and use proper grammar (sad but true), but otherwise, forget the rules. Tell a great story your way – it’ll be a way no one else has done before, and THAT’S what matters.

Want to write something completely devoid of dialogue? Go for it! If you can pull it off, someone’s going to love it.

Want to rack up a higher body count than George R.R. Martin? (First, good luck) So long as those bodies are justified (slaughter for the sake of slaughter is not a good reason), then write it.

Tell the story that is burning to get out of your brain. Write what inspires you. Make it the best possible story, whatever that looks like.

The next time someone spouts rules at you, go look at the books on your shelves. I guarantee that you will find examples that break those same rules.

I leave you with the remainder of Neil Gaiman’s rules for writing (the quote at the top is Rule #8) – they’re the best ones I’ve ever come across:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
The Modern Note Card

The Modern Note Card

Screen captures from Evernote

For those of us who lived through school without Google, there’s nothing quite like savoring the joy of shuffling our thoughts together via color-coded note cards. We were trained to think that way when researching, and a lot of us carried that training through to our writing (assuming you’re not an organic writer like myself). Character traits, plot points, scenes, quotes you dreamed up and didn’t want to forget: plunk them on a note card and then shuffle them into the appropriate order.

Nothing wrong if you’re still doing that!

However, if you have your own demon with a penchant for stealing note cards, I have an advancement for you: Evernote (available via the Apple Store and Google Play – and, no, I don’t receive any kickback from this). Evernote is the equivalent of those note cards, gathered into nifty notebooks, with the added bonus of being available to you 24/7. You can utilize the app on your computer (desktop or laptop) and your phone, so when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, you can grab your phone and type/write it out without needing to find a light source (or, as I’ve done, attempt to decipher what you wrote in the dark). The image above is a screen capture from my story idea notebook, the handwritten scribble from one such late-night idea. Best of all, with one account, you can link both devices, and they’ll sync with each other.

Sometimes, technology gets it right!

On the research side of things, Evernote has a great “clip” feature which allows you to save website clippings – complete with the original page, in case you need to refer back to entire page at some point. This works beautifully for me when I’m doing research. Since each “Note” functions as a standard document, you can also format it any way you want (hello, color-coding?). I use it to keep my work documents organized by contract and then assignment, noting deadlines at the top, as well as any particular notes the client has requested.

Evernote has a selection of built-in templates you can access, including several geared toward writers. I’m not a personal fan of them, but you can create and save your own. For one of my regular contracts, I’ve done just that since the same notes apply each time. If you’re one of those writers that DOES prefer to plan, the templates are a great option.

Best of all, you can set up your own tags for each Note, making it easy to keep track of your work. So if you set up a Notebook for your novel, you can then generate Notes for everything you need within, from character profiles, to background profiles, to plot points, down to world-building details, and then use your tags to link everything together. You can also rearrange your Notes into whatever order you need, as many times as you want – the equivalent to shuffling those note cards around on your wall.

Evernote is really user-friendly, and while there are paid versions available, I’ve been able to function with the basic free edition quite happily. It gives me the organization I need for work, while also giving me somewhere I can scribble writing ideas down – without a risk of losing them (not to mention being able to decipher them).

A writer held responsible for their work is a writer that gets work done!

We’re Awesome

We’re Awesome

"Smile and the world smiles with you"
Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Writing is competitive. Whether we’re submitting a pitch for a magazine article, sending in an essay for a competition, or submitting our novel to an agent or publisher, we know that hundreds of thousands of other writers are doing the exact the same thing. When we sit down to draft that cover letter or proposal or scrutinize that final draft, we’re trying to make sure that we’re doing something that will stand out from everyone else and shine all the brighter.

Nothing wrong there!

After all, we want to win that competition, or secure the contract to write that article, or net that agent/get to sign a deal with that publisher! We’re aiming for the dream of being a published author, seeing our name in print. Along with all of the others out there that we encounter in our writing groups and workshops.

What sets us apart, though, from other careers, other vocations, is that even though we’re in competition with each other, we’re also the biggest fans of one another.

Read that again:

Writers care about and cheer each other on!

Madness, right? Yet we do!

We sit down in workshops, and while we pick each other’s works apart, we do so with the intent of making the work BETTER. We aren’t sitting down to belittle each other or tell the other person they’re a hack. We sit down and analyze words on a piece of paper to figure out how to make them shine. We offer suggestions and marvel at the ingenuity and imagination of one another. We lift each other up and offer encouragement. We puzzle out knots and, when necessary, we murder useless characters. We’re frank with each other, and we emerge better for every session.

We post about our accomplishments and cheer for everyone, regardless of how small or large. We “hold hands” when one of us is going through a rough patch. We boost one another during our slow times. We send laughs and jokes when we’re down. We form a net of support and reassurance that is always there – unwavering, constant.

It’s wonderful, and it’s refreshing because I haven’t always experienced this circle of acceptance and caring. In my previous career, it was a false smile carried over a sharp blade that could be buried in your back at any moment. No one actually cared about you – everyone was out for themselves. No one wanted you to succeed, and if they said they wanted you to learn, it was only so it would benefit them. It was gutting, and it ate at the soul.

And I will never do that again!

Writers genuinely care about other writers, and we like to see each other succeed. Sure, we feel a twinge when someone close to us lands that publishing deal and we don’t, but it spurs us on to try harder. The best part is, our writing friends don’t just spontaneously ditch us – they continue to haul us around and demand better from us.

Writers seek the best from each other, and they know what each of us are capable of giving. We all want one another to succeed, and we want the best from each other. I think that’s why we form the support network we do, and why it’s so empowering to belong to this group.

You’ll definitely not find another group that’s better out there.