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.

Tonks vs. Mini-Tonks

Tonks vs. Mini-Tonks

Crocheted Antihero Kreative logo

While I admit I’m not one for celebrating or making a big deal out of my birthday, this year saw the arrival of one of the best presents. If you’ve visited my Heroes page, you know my extremely talented sister designed the logo for this site (and my freelance writing business). And I love it. It came out exactly the way I pictured it. And, yes, it’s based on Tonks. So when I opened the present and found a crocheted version of the logo, I was over the moon. It was the perfect replica – and the perfect size to sit in front of my computer screen.

For those who HAVEN’T skipped over to that page (for shame – those people are amazing and the reason my world runs as smoothly as it does), Tami is a genius. She CREATES her own crochet patterns out of her brain. And then she sells them in her Etsy store for people who want to recreate the same pieces (so sorry, but my logo isn’t up there – that’s a one-of-a-kind piece). How she does it, I’ll never know. And she never told me she was planning to make my cute little Antihero. It captures everything, right down to the card suites on the butt. And once I’d snapped the requisite pictures (and bragged on social media), I set it on my computer stand – right where it belonged.

Of course, Tonks felt a need to check it out while everyone admired it on the coffee table. But I didn’t think anything of it at the time. She poked her head into every box and bag. It’s what she does. (And she usually claims the bags as her own) Nothing seemed out of the ordinary in her exploration. Sure, we laughed that she was interested in her little mini version, but then we dropped it.

Until things changed.

It didn’t take long before a new pattern emerged during her “Assistant” duties. Allow me to clarify. A typical morning starts with her “helping” me get dressed and brush my teeth. Then she jumps on the desk, surveys the monitor stands to decide what she wants to mess with, and plops her butt in front of one of the screens. The biggest distractions used to be my shark teeth, followed by my mini How to Train Your Dragon stuffed dragons. And, of course, my pen is always up for grabs (though that happens less often now that it sits in a tray on the second monitor stand). If she felt particularly adventurous, she’d jump onto the lowest book shelf and knock down one of the tiny stuffed cats, Zoidberg, or the Tentacle Kitty. If I had a sweatshirt on, she’d finish by coming over to chew on the drawstrings. And when she finally moved to her chair (or went to spy on the neighbors in a window), I’d straighten everything again.

Tonks with Antihero Logo

Now, though? Now she goes straight for the Antihero Kreative logo. She ignores EVERYTHING else on the desk (with the exception of drawstrings – those remain a popular distraction). She doesn’t chew on it, but she HAS to sniff it and knock it over. And this remains a daily ritual. Nothing else gets touched anymore. And the dragon she’s leaning over? It stays upright! She’ll step carefully around it without toppling it in order to reach the crocheted logo.

Of course, she obscures the computer screen the entire time, which is one of the most helpful things she’s done as an “Assistant.” (Good thing I have two monitors and can move the window over) I’ve tried reminding her that she isn’t see-through, but she doesn’t listen. She’s too busy carrying out her investigation of mini-Tonks.

I finally sent my sister the photo and shared the story. She laughed and complimented Tonks on her good taste. And I have to admit, it’s true. The logo’s astounding. And since it distracts that little demon from her USUAL routine of destruction, there MUST be something to it! (It’s a working theory, anyway)

People (non-animal people, mostly) like to argue that animals have no sense of self and other garbage. No one’s EVER going to convince me that Tonks doesn’t know that little figure isn’t modeled after her. Not with this kind of response. She knows the logo came from her pictures. And she checks on the crochet version every morning, without fail. I KNOW it’s her way of saying, “Yup, mini-me is still here and still looks awesome.” (You won’t convince me otherwise) How else to explain why she’s abandoned everything else? Including new additions since then? (So no use trying to say it’s a novelty thing)

Tami’s right – she has the best taste. And, honestly, if it keeps the desk destruction down to minimum, I’m okay with that.

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)

Double Vision

Double Vision

Two computer screen set-up

When you like habit and routine, it gets difficult to admit you MIGHT need some change. Add in that you already went through a whirlwind of change in the past nine months, and your mind wants to put on the brakes. After all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But when you’re doing twice as much work to accomplish a task, that’s a kind of broken logic. It disrupts your productivity, stresses you, and prompts unnecessary errors.

Time to bite the bullet.

Utilizing double computer screens is a freelance writer’s (actually, ANY writer’s) best friend. You half your work load, ease that knot in your shoulder (literally), and find yourself typing away MUCH happier. Why? Because you can see your notes and research material on one screen while you work at the other! It’s pure genius! And unbelievably simple. Yet I fought the temptation for nine freaking months. (Maybe you’re denying yourself this handy writing tool even now)

I’ve watched people use double screens in other fields before, and I shook my head. What was the point? You can always set up two windows on a single screen. And if you don’t want to squint, you can upgrade to a larger monitor without too much trouble. Why turn yourself into a human ping pong? It seemed a ridiculous notion – not to mention a complete waste of time and money. I rolled my eyes at my husband with his double screen set-up. It seemed absurd (and his computer desk comes out smaller than mine!).

Then my freelance work started to pile up.

Even when I split the screen with windows, I struggled. I could only keep one active at a time. (Maybe there’s a work-around for that, but I’m not the most tech-savvy person in the world) So I found myself constantly flipping between one and the other. Then I needed to pull up different tabs here and there. Half the time, the computer got confused on where to put the new tab, and I’d panic over lost work. (It wasn’t lost, thankfully, but when you think hours of work just vanished, you have a mini stroke) I doubled my work time flipping from program to program. And the tension up my dominant arm? Yeah, talk about a pain in the literal neck!

It took some convincing – I won’t lie. I needed a reminder that, as a freelancer, a new computer monitor falls under a business expense (one of the pros of freelancing). And I needed a reminder that better productivity falls into my wheelhouse. But I finally caved in. The double monitor settled in on my work station, and I divided up the icons on my desktop. Everything work-related went on one side, and the rest stayed on the primary monitor. I stumbled a bit, initially, figuring out how to move things from one screen to another (and learning where that critical “dividing line” exists for the mouse), but I’m a quick study. And, to be honest, this wasn’t the most complicated thing in the world.

Holy increased productivity-olee!

Having one screen where I could keep my notes while I worked made everything SO simple! I could write on the first screen and glance at the second. No more flipping around in the windows. No more fighting with tabs and worrying about where my current work disappeared to. And fewer mistakes, too. Everything moves more fluidly. I use the mouse less, so my arm, shoulder, and neck ache a thousand times less (always a bonus), and the battery drains at a lower rate. I kick myself for not moving to a double screen set-up sooner!

I don’t have monster-sized monitors, either. They’re both 21-inch screens. But I’m not a gamer or programmer. I’m a writer. I don’t need a mammoth computer screen – for either purpose. I need a large enough space to read my research material and whatever I’m writing. And while the second monitor currently lacks the polished stand of the first (what can I say, Ikea doesn’t make them anymore), some creative searching through the house yielded enough books to keep the pair level.

Double screens have cut down the time I spend on my writing projects. They’re a HUGE life-saver. I pull up my notes, and I’m ready to go. The fumbling and frustration are gone. If you’re not working with two monitors already, consider the upgrade. You won’t regret it. You’ll take the strain off your body (seriously, you’re eyes alone will thank you), the stress off your brain, AND the workload off your peripherals. Well, maybe not the keyboard – that still ends up working about the same.

It’s definitely a change, but it’s worth it. And if I can grudgingly admit that this big change was a good thing, you KNOW it’s true.

Matter Over Mind

Matter Over Mind

Trust your gut instincts
Image by athree23 from Pixabay

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Sound familiar? People like to throw that bucket of ice water around whenever you get your hopes up over something. And your response is often defensive. They don’t understand or appreciate how amazing the chance you’ve stumbled upon may be. They’re jealous of your opportunities. They’ll see when you’re looking down on them from the pillar of success.

Except the saying’s dead right.

Whether we’re talking about speculative fiction or a freelancing job, you need to keep an important tool in your arsenal to prevent yourself from falling for those obvious pitfalls. And it’s one everyone has (but we often forget to dust off and take down from the shelf): gut instinct. The lurch inside that tells you something feels off – which your brain and heart cheerfully overwhelm with rationalization and hope.

Now, I’m not saying you have to abandon all hope, but that twist in your stomach deserves more credit than we tend to give it. Most of the time, it grabs our attention for a reason. It’s a buried instinct that tells us something feels off and needs a more critical eye. It we’re just willing to stop, set the heart aside for half a second, and employ THOUGHT (not rationalization), we might unravel the truth. Your gut can save you A LOT of grief down the road, but you have to USE it.

BEFORE you make the mistake.

Hope springs eternal, though, and the bugger gets in the way of that gut instinct.

There’s a market out there you’re haunting. It’s not currently accepting submissions, and the notice says they’re working on a Kickstarter – dated five years ago. Your gut assures you that market is dead and gone, but your heart tells you to keep checking, just in case.

Just in case what? Come on. If things were still functional, there’d be an update. Publications DO go under. Move on and find another.

You find another market, but even their submission guidelines tell you they have no response time. You’ll never know when/if they’ll get around to your story. Your heart wants you to try, on the off chance your work might find a home. Your instinct screams it’s a waste.

Again, there are so many markets out there WITH response times and ways to follow-up on submissions. Do you want to roll the dice with someone that isn’t willing to do that for a writer?

You take a contract with someone who tells you they won’t pay you for 45 days. You’re so excited you have a freelancing job that you rationalize the finances. After all, you’ll get paid…eventually. Your gut instinct tells you this is suspicious.

Even the largest magazines pay ON publication. If they have your work and it’s displayed, you have the right to receive payment. Sitting around for over a month, waiting for a check is nonsense.

LISTEN TO YOUR GUT!

Because, honestly, that twist is right 99% of the time. It’s trying to protect you. Sure, evolution developed the gut instinct to preserve our health, but it works in your writing career, too. Maybe it doesn’t speak the way your heart and brain do, but you know the sensation. When that jerk behind the navel happens, take your hands off the keyboard and ask yourself, “What feels off?” It’s a tool that gets more accurate the more frequently you use it, believe it or not. It starts to save you from embarrassing gaffes. And you find yourself succeeding more and more.

That gut instinct? It works both ways. You get a funny swoop when something feels right. You’ll stumble on a writing contest that speaks to one of your stories perfectly. A new market will open up that suits your work perfectly. Or you’ll land a new contract with the perfect client. And you’ll feel a butterfly that lines up with your heart and mind.

Don’t discount what you’re body tries to tell you. It wants the best for you. I mean, it IS attached to you.

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.

Writing Police

Writing Police

Screenshots of Grammarly

Pop Quiz time! Hands up everyone that has never made a single spelling or grammar mistake in their writing. Everyone with their hand up – go to the closest chalkboard or pad of paper and write 100 times: “I must not tell lies.”

No one writes perfectly – EVER.

It’s a simple fact of life. You misuse words, use the wrong word, overuse adverbs, slip into passive voice too frequently, get fixated on one word through a single paragraph, and go into comma overdrive. And while you review your work, it’s still your work. Since you know what’s supposed to be there, you overlook mistakes and miss things. It’s why writers use beta readers to catch those errors.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting the mistakes. We’re HUMAN. If you think your favorite author types out perfection, boy are you in for a surprise. Editors exist for a reason (and, no, it’s not simply to reject you). And even they miss things. It takes an effort of sheer will for me not to grab a red pen and start marking up some of the books I read. (Don’t laugh – I’m not the only person who gets that way)

However, there’s a line.

If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t hand in work that resembles The Eye of Argon. (Anyone who’s ever attended a Con knows that novella) Which means you need someone or something checking behind you. It also means having enough brains and maturity to admit you USE some kind of checker in the first place. You’ll gain more respect for the honesty.

Anything I write – be it work or fiction – gets a minimum of four reads from start to finish. (Yes, blog posts are an exception. You get these straight off the cuff) And, yeah, I catch things each time. Sometimes it’s just rearranging words or eliminating a sentence I don’t like. Other times it’s a mortifying realization that my brain checked out on me.

Fiction sits for weeks between readings, letting the story mellow and settle in my brain. Which was why when I went back to “Everapple” I realized my brilliant idea to leave the main character unnamed at writing made a confusing mess at the first re-reading. I had to scrap that “genius” and give her a name to untangle the confusion. Had I plunged into my editing immediatley, I wouldn’t have caught the problem.

I don’t have that same chance with work. I still catch problems, though. I also use Grammarly (and, yes, I sprang for the Premium version). You have the advantage of deciding the tone of your work, the level of your audience, and several other parameters. It’s a deeper check than the standard spelling and grammar review you get with your standard word processor. And it watches over your shoulder in EVERYTHING:

  • Word processors
  • Online (you can upload documents there, too)
  • Email
  • Even here in blogs

It won’t solve ALL of the problems for you, but it coaches you through most of them. Which is nice, since it builds your writing in a better direction. My initial articles leaned heavily on passive sentences. Since I turned to Grammarly, they rarely make an appearance. I naturally made the switch. It’s a subtle writing guide in addition to a checker.

However, Grammarly doesn’t get to touch my articles until AFTER I’ve completed the first two reviews. I trust myself over the AI, and for good reason. Grammarly is computer-smart. It does see things and pick up on errors I miss. It also goes off-the-rail crazy and tries to fix style choices and quirks that make my writing voice unique. It is, after all, a program. And if I were writing…okay, I’m actually not sure what I’d need to write to make it completely happy.

We get into arguments sometimes, which devolve into my screaming at the computer screen (always therapeutic). And it’s HORRIFIC when I try to use it with my fiction. Teaching Grammarly to tolerate pathos, alien dialects, and fantasical turns of phrase is an effort in futility. But it flags the things I’m worried about (to-be verbs, adverbs, etc.). It lets me tighten my prose between bouts of shaking my head.

Whether you adopt Grammarly or another tool, check your writing. And tell your clients you use the programs. They appreciate the extra effort you use to police your writing. It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s a mark of professionalism. And it saves them some time. They’ll still edit your work, but it won’t take them hours of sorting through your bad day.

And happy editors are GOOD things.

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.