“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.

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.

Skipping the Free Lane

Skipping the Free Lane

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Let me preface this post by reiterating a simple statement: I have the best job in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for ANYTHING. After all, I took the time last week to explain why freelancing is the most amazing concept in the world. But, in all fairness (that’s such a terrible concept, isn’t it?) I now need to bring the excitement level down a few notches.

That’s right, lasers and jellybeans, it’s time for the crash. (Feel free to boo – I know you want to)

Why You May NOT Want to Freelance

No one likes to think about the “negative” side of things. And I want to make sure I clarify that these little snags aren’t necessarily BAD – they’re just less glamorous than the shiny bubbles I mentioned before. If you can swallow them, then you’re good to go. I just have this obligatory, guilty conscience prodding me to make sure I put ALL of the information out there. (That tiny creature in the back of the mind is annoying, by the way)

1. Organize or Die

Remember getting to stand on your own? No boss except you? That means all responsibility also falls to you. No one else keeps your shit together. Assignments come with deadlines, some come with templates, and all come with specifications. You have to keep track of ALL of those details. Slip up, and you’ll screw an article. Unhappy clients don’t pay you. If you’re part of a job board such as Upwork, those clients submit poor ratings that get published on your profile for potential clients to view. Guess how many want to hire someone with a poor performance review?

You can’t be the kind of person who “wings it.” You’ll end up overwhelmed and sink FAST. I use a TON of tools to keep my work streamlined:

  • Color-coded white board calendars
  • Excel spreadsheet of ALL assignments (also color-coded)
  • Evernote
    • Every client has a notebook
    • Each assignment is an individual notecard
    • All mandatory information gets bolded at the top
    • I create a checkbox with due dates (and cards are in order of due times)

Color-coding assignments by client makes my life a THOUSAND times easier. A quick glance at the calendar tells me who’s work is due when. The system allows me to usually finish my work early. I’ve definitely never missed a deadline. Can you hire a virtual assistant to handle all of this for you? Sure – but that’s money out of your pocket. The choice is yours.

I don’t have a 100% satisfaction rating and a solid string of five-star reviews for nothing.

2. Paperwork

You WILL need to do homework. That means investing in some books. If you can, talking with people who’ve done the groundwork helps, too. Freelancing is WORK. That means filing paperwork. Why? Because the government still wants taxes. And guess who has to file them? That’s right – you. You’re your own boss, remember? No one else is going to do it for you.

I lucked out. An awesome friend dumped two vital books in my lap and shoved me off the cliff as a start. I also had friends and family with their own businesses. They gave me the information I needed to set up my sole proprietorship. Every city and state is a little different, so make sure you look up the rules where you live. Just remember, as the money rolls in, YOU have to set aside the tax portion. YOU have to keep track of your client contracts. YOU have to be ready to juggle all of those W-2s come tax time (or fork over more cash for an accountant to do so).

It sounds overwhelming, and if you don’t do your homework, it WILL be. Once you have the basics under your belt, you’ll be fine. But you don’t have a boss or corporation to handle that pesky paperwork for you anymore. And when you’re used to someone else handling the tedious chores, it can get irritating.

3. Got a Healer?

Know what else you sacrifice as a freelancer? Insurance. Well, in theory. Basically, you just lose the comfort of a job that COMES with insurance. Freelancers don’t have a cushy life, much as society likes to think we do. In fact, if you poll most writers, they’re rampant with chronic illness. Most artists, in general, suffer from chronic disease and even cancer. And we don’t have the safety net of job-funded health insurance.

You have a few options:

  • Get a bubble (just kidding)
  • Find insurance on your own (watch your pennies)
  • Get on your spouse’s/partner’s insurance
  • Roll the dice and hope you never need insurance (may the odds be ever in your favor)
  • Start a GoFundMe

This is one of the biggest drawbacks to being a freelancer. Because healthcare in the U.S. SUCKS! Even WITH insurance, health costs get ridiculous. And if you fall ill and can’t complete your work? You’re out income. It’s a dangerous game. You need to take care of yourself (which is why you get my Dead Pool posts). And, honestly, you need to find a way to get yourself insurance. The risk is too high.

4. Motivation

You’re the boss. No one can MAKE you do the work. Except you. If you don’t “feel like it,” nothing gets done. Which means you don’t complete your assignments, and you don’t get paid. No biggie. Freelancers can’t have “off days.” You can’t submit sub-par work. If you aren’t at your best, you have to step up and tell a client you need more time. It requires a level of frank honesty that you didn’t have to present at other jobs. (Face it – were you always as sick as you claimed? I know for a fact people I worked with lied through their teeth)

You don’t want your reputation to slip. Your work is YOU. You’re representing yourself on a public platform in a way no other job really does. And lazing around doesn’t work. No one’s going to walk through your office and bang on the desk to urge you to get to work. (Okay, so I have a tiny demon that jumps on my desk, but it’s not really motivating)

You have to have an inner drive to get up and work every day (or whatever you set your schedule to). You need to tackle every assignment with the same level of enthusiasm. If you can’t, don’t accept the work. It’s better to turn a job down then submit half-assed crap.

5. What’s a Vacation?

Surprise! Freelancers don’t get time off. Not officially, anyway. No paid vacation, no paid sick leave. Sorry. You DO make your own schedule, so you can elect to take time off whenever you want. You just won’t get paid for that break. So consider those vacations wisely.

If you’re a writer, you CAN use trips to a certain advantage. For instance, you can pitch a story to a magazine centering around the location, the activities you’re planning, etc. The fact you’re not asking them to foot the bill for the trip AND already planning to have boots on the ground helps to sell the story. You just need to make sure you choose the appropriate market and find a unique angle for the story. And you need to realize there’s a good chance they’ll reject the pitch.

Tempering the Excitement

Freelance writing IS the best thing that ever came into my life. It just came with strings attached. (Newsflash: everything does) If you want to follow your freelance passion, make sure you shine a light on EVERY aspect of your chosen path. If you know where the pit traps are, you’ll be better for the journey. You may still fall into them, but you’ll have a better chance of climbing out the other side.

Freedom!

Freedom!

Freelance Writer Needs
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I won’t lie: I have the best job in the entire world. In my down time, I marvel that it took me so long to get my act together and start on this path.(Here’s a huge secret, lasers and jellybeans: if you have a dream – GET TO IT!) That’s how fantastic my life is. And, so , out of purely educational purposes, I’m going to run through all of the reasons you might consider making a similar career choice.

Why You Want to Be a Freelance Writer

When I first ventured into the freelance world, I wrote a sample blog article about working from home. Of course, now most people are pros at working from home. That ISN’T one of the points I’m going to hit on (exactly), though it’s certainly a perk. Nope, I have five other reasons to delve into.

1. You Get to be You

While I fully admit I’ve never worked in the food service industry (which is for the best, as I lack the grace and dexterity required), I’ve worked in most other industries in the past. They all have one thing in common: soul-sucking requirements placed by management. Uniforms, rules about tattoos/piercings/hair, and restrictions on office decor. It’s conformity at it’s worst.

When you freelance, all of those little nit-picky details float away. Case in point: for work today, I’m wearing Harley Quinn socks, comfy shorts, and a Bruni tanktop. (And before you snicker about my being a slob, all of them have purple on them – so there) The majority of my clients communicate via direct messaging or email. Which means I have the freedom to dress exactly as I want. My personality gets to shine. I can experiment with whatever hair color I want and play around with my pixie cut. I tossed out my boring, practical tennis shoes in favor of adorable Demonia Cult shoes. My geeky wardrobe might raise eyebrows out in public, but it makes me happy and keeps me smiling.

My office is ME. (I promise, photos will come as soon as the new prints I ordered arrive and get framed) Oh, sure, I have reference books on my shelves, and there are sticky notes, notebooks, my whiteboard calendars, and pens (well, at least one that Tonks hasn’t stolen) present at all times. But I also have tiny stuffed animals, Funko POP! figurines, shark teeth, and signed photos and posters from my theatre days. I don’t have to suffer with the decor foisted upon me by others. I get to decide what I want to have around me, channeling my creativity. It’s the best kind of freedom!

2. You’re the Boss

You decide who you want to work with. At this point, my work schedule is full. (I’m not exaggerating, either. My calendars – yes, I had to break down and buy a second one so I have two months up at a time – have up to three assignments due every day) While I still duck onto the job boards and submit proposals here and there, a lot of my work now comes in through invitations. (Awesome feeling, by the way) I make the calls on what I accept.

If you don’t want to work for a certain price, you can make that call! If you don’t want to accept a job, you have that choice! You hold the power to make all of those decisions! There’s no weight sitting on your shoulders, telling you you have to do something because…well, you can fill in the blanks. If you aren’t comfortable, or you feel something’s off, you have the right to step back and say, “No.” It’s the most liberating feeling ever!

Even better, for people like me who demand nothing less than perfection for themselves, freelancing grants you to outlet you always wanted. Clients WANT the best, and they respond to the exacting standards you set for yourself. I have a 100% satisfaction rating on Upwork (one of the job platforms for freelancers). I’m damn proud of that rating, too. I’ve rejected job offers that prioritized quantity over quality. I don’t compromise my standards, and I can do that because I’M THE BOSS!

3. NO Co-Workers

Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration. After all, I have Assistants that wander into the office and interrupt my work every day. However, they’e not on the payroll.

However, in general, those obnoxious people you want to throttle on a daily basis? Yeah, they don’t exist! People who get away with breaking rules that you get slammed for, people who sit around on their ass all day while you get sniped at for breathing for 5 minutes, and people who lie through their teeth to get out of work? Not here! It’s just you, baby! You can stretch out and breathe in the freedom of not having to deal with those irritations ever again.

This goes in conjunction with being your own boss. You don’t have to deal with the inequality inherent in the workplace. While a client may employ more than one freelancer, odds are you won’t interact with them or even speak with them. (You may never even know who they are) Even if you exchange messages, they don’t share your workspace. You can always let messages pile up while you work and answer them when you’re finished. (The equivalent of a “mute” button you wish existed in the real world)

4. 9 to Whatever

Freelancers create their own schedule. Yes, you have to meet deadlines set by your clients. You negotiate a lot of those deadlines in the first place, though. (And, most of the time, they’re a day and not a time) As far as WHEN the work happens, that’s up to you. Want to work through the wee hours of the night? Go for it! Want to stick to standard daylight hours to match a family member? No problem. Want to skip a day? No one’s going to say anything (provided you hand work assignments in on time).

You’re in control of YOURSELF. (I know, it sounds crazy, right? Almost like you’re an adult) I don’t work weekends. I save those days for family. Obviously, holidays are hit or miss (since I am working today – but I did my research ahead of time to minimize my working hours), but you can make a decision not to work holidays, if you choose. I’ll take the week of the wedding off, which means working my ass off right up to that point.

It’s a freedom you can’t find out of the freelance world. But it makes my life a MILLION times easier. I can schedule appointments whenever and work around them. I don’t have to go grovel to a manager and face an annoyed or disappointed look because *gasp* I needed to see the doctor. I don’t have to apologize to a frazzled receptionist when I have to beg for a weird appointment time to avoid inconveniencing my job. It’s one less stress in my life.

5. Personality’s a Plus

Does your regular job hand you binders of precisely how you’re supposed to behave? Do you get scripts of recitations to make sure everyone speaks and behaves exactly the same? You’re such good little sheep. Freelancers don’t have that problem. In fact, clients seek out freelancers precisely for their individual personalities! Ditch the uniformity and find your voice!

I get templates for some of my work. Clients want specific formats for the blog articles they request. Which I don’t mind, because I understand the look they’re adhering to. But within that framework, the voice and writing style are mine. It’s what the clients liked in my proposal (or the writing samples they clicked on in my profile). If they wanted a different voice, they would have hired someone else. Instead, they picked out my little quirky voice from the pack.

Instead of focusing on trying to follow the pack, you get to stand out. You WANT to stand out. Find your voice and make it sing. Figure out what makes your writing (or other freelance work) unique and play it up. The humor and geek culture references I always slipped into my narratives in other jobs (and caught flack for) are what earn me clients and five-star reviews now. You have an element of your personality destined to shine, and freelancing will turn it into a diamond.

Fly Your Freak Flag

Drone jobs suck the life out of you. I know – I’ve been there. Now I work my dream job, the job I assumed was always out of reach and impossible. It took NOTHING more than having the confidence to step up and say, “I want it.” It sounds insane, but it was that simple.

If your dream involves a freelance opportunity, then start exploring your options. You won’t regret it. Languishing in a job you hate – you’ll regret that forever.

Out THERE

Out THERE

Natural waterfall near Natural Bridge, VA

Writers are, by nature, introverts. We like staying indoors, huddled in our offices with our computers (or laptops, or – for some – pens and notebooks). The outside world has people (ew!). The outside world has noise. The outside world has distractions. The outside world lacks electrical cords. It’s just not for us.

Except it IS!

Not the people part (I’m not crazy, don’t worry). No, just the outdoor part – away from people, noise, and, yes, electricity. The natural world provides exceptional resources for writers, if you’re willing to take the time away from your computer.

Regardless of where you live, there’s a natural space SOMEWHERE. It doesn’t have to be green to speak to the creative part of your brain. Forests and waterfalls call to the fantasy writer in me. I love waterfalls, and I’ve always been drawn to them. The sight of tumbling water – large and small – the sound of water bouncing over rocks, and the smell of moisture in the air. Not only does it spark creativity, it recharges my mind. I reconnect with the primal part of myself that savors escape from computers, noise, and other human beings.

Two for one!

Even as a kid, I’d find stories popping into my head when we spent time out in the real world. Camping, touring caves, hiking, going to the beach – each provided different backdrops for my vivid imagination. I haven’t lost my touch now that I’m older. While others my age might hit the beach to work on tans and down alcohol, I stare into the patterns of foam and conjure new worlds. When storms roll in and people whine about lost daylight, I envision monsters roaming among the lightning. I never step into a forest without fairies flickering in the corners of my eyes.

Nature doesn’t discount science fiction, either. Dystopian work bubbles out of vines climbing over ancient railroad ties. Last autumn, we went to Northern Virginia and walked along a river bed, desperately low from drought. Looking at the natural water line etched into the rocks, my mind raced with climate change possibilities. Beautiful, twisting tree growth superimposes over shattered buildings in my brain – nature reclaiming the world after some cataclysmic event.

The possibilities are endless!

When you go outside and let the quiet permeate your mind, creativity steps into the silence. You recharge yourself (yes, I’m one of THOSE people), and you recharge your ideas. And, as I said, you don’t even have to go that far. There’s a park five minutes up the road from our house. We can put our kayaks in and go up or down the river, with different views available. The Botanical Gardens are only a twenty-minute drive away, and they cover MILES. We have hiking trails and beaches within an hour – many lacking in popularity with locals and tourists.

Step away from the machines, tuck a notepad in your pocket, and step outside. Hell, even sitting on my back porch brings ideas! (Though I really think you need to go further) When storms roll in and lightning dances across the sky – how can that NOT inspire something?

Nature holds fascinating possibilities, and it reconnects you to the world in which you exist. If you gain inspiration AND recharge yourself – how can you NOT take that chance? Give it a try – you won’t regret it.

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.
Happy Dance

Happy Dance

Being a freelance writer involves a TON of work, most of which people don’t really get to know about since it isn’t glamorous and never makes it print anywhere:

  • Marketing yourself (I personally HATE this task and have to constantly work at selling myself and my skills)
  • Adapting your writing to fit into templates requested by clients
  • Adjusting your style/tone to fit requests of clients (not always – sometimes you get to keep true to your tone)
  • Waiting to find out if a new client is going to like what you submitted

So when a client comes back with high praise and tells you they love what you did (or extend you a contract), your little writer heart does the happy dance, and you feel like you scaled a mountain. Maybe not Mount Everest or Mount Kilimanjaro, but a mountain all the same.

Today, I got to scale a mountain, and my writer’s heart is happy and grinning a big, sappy smile.

Two Little Words

Two Little Words

Skull image with "What if" questions
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

I am going to hand you the keys to the kingdom, the magical secret to an infinite supply of writing ideas – no matter what genre you write in (okay, if you’re aiming for autobiographies or non-fiction, you’re out of luck – but, as I’ve mentioned before, those people aren’t likely visiting this blog). Like all dramatic secrets, it’s exceedingly simple, and you’ll kick yourself if you haven’t already been exploiting it:

What if…

That’s it! So simple and yet so amazing! Those two little words are a crazy gold mine of inspiration! You can apply them across the fictional board, creating pages of story ideas that span from flash fiction up to novel-worthy lengths. After all, we know writers have a surfeit of imagination, so it takes very little effort on our part to start wondering things. Let me demonstrate.

What if a fairy tale was swapped to a science fiction setting? Disney pulled it off beautifully with Treasure Planet (such an under-appreciated film). I’ve done so myself: my short story “Glissando” is a retelling of the “The Nightingale.” Yeah, it takes WORK to transplant something that is so well-known into a different setting, but it you’re willing to take on the challenge, the reward is worth it.

What if you swap the protagonists and antagonists in a well-known story? Neil Gaiman did an amazing job in “Snow, Glass, Apples.” Again, it takes a deft hand to flip an established story in the mirror (no pun intended), but who doesn’t relish a challenge? Best of all, it gives you a chance to explore the background of the antagonist, to give them motives and sympathy – something overlooked in those fond fairy tales.

(Side note: fairy tales get a lot of mention here – sorry, not sorry)

What if the story didn’t end where the author left off? What if there was something left out? What if there wasn’t a “happily ever after” after all? You can take something bright and glittery and turn it dark if you have the mind. Personally, I despise “Snow White and Seven Dwarves” – I always have; Snow White is a complete idiot, and I didn’t feel she deserved a happy ending. So in my short story “Everapple” I took it away. In a similar fashion, I really felt there was an injustice done in “The Little Mermaid” – that scheming princess lied and there were no repercussions. How could Hans Christian Anderson let that stand?! In “Sea Foam and Fire” I fixed it. Yes, both of my short stories fall square in the dark fantasy category, but they came out of my asking, “What if…”

You can do the same thing!

Look at the stories that irk you and bother you, and start asking, “what if this..” Now, you can’t violate copyright (which is why fairy tales are a boon since they belong to the public domain), but you can still use them as a starting point. Those two little words will get your inspirational juices flowing, believe me. You can even mine multiple ideas from the same story, depending on how many questions you ask.

Using “what if” for broad questions works, too. I’ve done it for several of my novels, the questions just floating to the surface of my mind out of the blue (play the game often enough, and it’ll happen to you, too – inspiration’s fun that way). “What if there was a version of Neverland for adults?” Bam! – my novel Lethe started breathing. “What if the villain was the main character and you built sympathy in the reader from the start?” And Confessions of a Teenage Villain (title still pending – titles I’m never sure of until I’m well into the novel) came to life. “What if depression was a living, breathing character?” Suddenly, that vague idea I couldn’t figure out turned into Oubliette.

Those two words are a reader’s dream. Whenever you hit a brick wall, sit down and start asking, “What if…” and just write out the questions. Something will strike your writing brain in just the right way, and you’ll be zooming along in no time. You’ll be amazed at how many questions you can think of (and the kinds of questions you’ll come up with – believe me, I scare myself on a regular basis).

Two words – unlimited inspiration. Give it a try.

Shoveling…Something

Shoveling…Something

Writers are often told to sit down and write something – anything – at all times. All writing is just “shoveling sand into the sandbox” so you have something to work with later. It’s a beautiful thought, and, in theory, it works great. It stops you from working too hard at finding the perfect turn of phrase, and it get can you around writer’s block.

In reality? It doesn’t always work.

Sometimes, you look down and realize that what you’re shoveling isn’t sand – and you are never going to build a sandcastle out of that mess. When there are extenuating outside circumstances intruding and overriding your brain, you get blocked in other ways. In that case, there does come a time to set the shovel down.

I mention this because I’m facing such a time myself. Pain has invaded my entire brain, and everything I put down is absolute crap – literally. There’s nothing redeeming about it, and simply throwing words down to get words down is more frustrating than helpful. Writing when you’re frustrated?

Bad idea!

All I’m going to end up doing is erasing everything later – waste of time. So what do you do in these situations? You read. You read your previous work. You read someone else’s work (don’t edit someone else’s work – that isn’t fair to them). You read cereal boxes. Just engage the creative part of your brain in another form.

And let the sandbox have a break – the sand will be there tomorrow.

Written Word

Written Word

One of my personal bookcases.

Look at the image above and tell me what you see – what you really see if you look close. I could get dozens of answers, but I doubt I’ll get the one I’m looking for. Yes, there are all of the following:

  • Pictures
  • Stuffed toys
  • Old type-set tiles (if you actually said that you have incredible eyes…or you’ve been in my house, and I might be a little scared if I don’t know you)
  • Books

Those are easy answers, though, and they aren’t answers stated by true writers. What do I see?

A million possible story ideas.

Okay, yes, there are hundreds of stories sitting right, there – I know that (and, yes, I have hundreds of books. I refuse to subscribe to that nonsense that you should own less than thirty books; that is absolute crap). What I’m talking about is the fact that each one of those books contains the possibility of sparking hundreds of ideas in and of themselves. Not the fact that each story is based on a story itself – we all know that there are no original stories – but the actual words themselves.

Every written word!

Crazy, right? It’s true, though! I have seen a word or phrase in a book and felt that shiver of inspiration go through me. In the past month, reading two different books, I have felt the spark for THREE different short stories from just a handful of WORDS! The words weren’t even integral to the plots of what I was reading! Something in the order they were arranged connected the right synapses in my writing brain, though, and BAM! Idea central!

It can be that simple if you stop and think about it. After all, writers and first and foremost READERS. We’re fascinated by words (if we weren’t we wouldn’t be writers). We’re drawn to words like magnets, and we focus on them everywhere around us. I have friends who came up with stories after seeing signposts along the road!

So before you do something insane like whittle your book collection down because some insane person thinks thirty is a rational limit (seriously?! Only thirty?!), think about what you could be sacrificing. There is inspiration potential lurking on those shelves, waiting to be found. If you give that up for the sake of…okay, I can’t think of any reason a person would sacrifice that kind of gold mine. Seriously, there is always somewhere you can stack up more books. Get rid of something you don’t need like extra shoes or clothes.