Writing Fantasy – The Story Isn’t About Your Setting

If you’re like most writers drawn to fantasy, you can get lost in your setting. Maybe the most fun part about writing is dreaming up the cool places and cultures that will be featured in your world. That’s fine. But don’t make the mistake of letting the setting take the center stage. Make no mistake about it, your setting is the backdrop to the drama that unfolds, no matter how compelling the world is. Or if you want to put it another way, your setting is the flavor of the ice cream; it’s important, but no one wants to chug a bottle of vanilla extract (let’s pretend no one wants to guzzle chocolate syrup either, even though I can’t promise I wouldn’t—or haven’t, for that matter).

moon-703538

Characters Are Not Just Eyes

If you’ve ever poked around writing forums or read unpublished fantasy writing, you’ve seen characters that are little more than a pair of eyes to show readers the world. Unless you’re extremely brave or simply don’t care if your work gets published, your story should take place within the setting. I’ll say it one more time for the stubborn among you: Setting is not story! This mistake can manifest in somewhat subtle ways. The simplest test to make sure you’re using setting properly is to ask if it is doing more than one job for your story. Let me give two examples:

“Brynn crossed the main street of Acretia. Above him, a tower of polished black stones thrust upward and into the clouds. Beyond the tower, and taller still, was the southern wall of the city, which bent inward to form a half-dome that cast its shadow over half of the southern district.”

So let’s say I really like the details above and want to include them in my book. I would ask myself some questions about these few lines:

  1. Do they move the plot forward? Not really.
  2. Do they reveal character? Not really.
  3. Do they demonstrate theme? Not really.
  4. Do they build subtext? Not really.
  5. Do they show writing voice? Maybe, but not really.
  6. Does it sound like I’m trying too hard? Maybe the part about thrusting upward into the clouds.
  7. Are they interesting? A little bit.
  8. What would I lose if I cut them from the story completely? *This would depend. If, for example, the domed shape of the wall became relevant later, it might be worth keeping. Or, for example, the tower of black stones could be referenced and then readers would remember having seen it. Otherwise, if this was just for flavor, then I would say no.

Okay. That’s a lot of questions. Should you literally write these out and run every two or three lines of description in your story through them? No. But you should get the general idea that these questions are striving toward and apply it to your writing. Essentially, how many ways can I make this detail about setting rich—and I don’t mean more descriptive, I mean more dense. Density is the key! The more purposes you can pack into a single line, the better.

Alright. If I really wanted to keep those details, I could try to make them more enriching to the story and address as many questions as possible like this:

“Brynn had to shove several beggars to cross the main street of Acretia. His father had told him tales of the city, but they had been just that: tales. The “towering pillar of shadow” was actually a crooked pile of dirty bricks no larger than a Varox. The “scantily dressed women” were things of questionable gender that he would rather have seen veiled in tokars. And the “impenetrable dome” was a lone patch of wall standing at the far end of town with a slight lean to it. No, Brynn thought, If Gurvus could be stopped, it was not going to be here.”

Maybe I got a little carried away. I also ended up changing the details that I originally liked in a way that felt more interesting. But that’s actually the point of questioning your details. Even if you don’t think these particular details are interesting, you can see that my attempt to make them more rich did do something interesting. It made my goal of “describe what he sees” transition into what now describes something about the character (he’s the type of guy to shove beggars) and he’s preoccupied with finding a way to stop someone named Gurvus. It moves the plot forward (whatever is going on with the army shows that he’s actually examining how well the city will stand up to an attack). I also showed his evaluation of the city through the lens of his father’s words, which provides some background on character. Theme and subtext are only hinted at slightly with the beggars and Brynn’s dismissal of them, but if we knew Brynn’s social class, those moments could show theme and subtext more strongly.  And finally, I changed the descriptions a little because I caught myself trying to sound too writerly when describing the tower before. By taking a different angle, I was able to describe the scene in straight-forward language that was more efficient.

And that’s the key. Efficiency.

Final Thoughts

So  if you haven’t already decided to, take a magnifying glass to your story. Look at the moments where you convey setting. And ask yourself if they are at least doing two jobs. In an ideal world, no sentence in your entire 100,000 word novel should be there for one reason only. When you realize how much actually needs to fit in those 100,000 words, it suddenly starts seeming like a limitation instead of a goal. You’ll also realize the need for efficiency. As a reader, efficient writing is like biting into a very satisfying and filling steak. The texture is just right, the flavors are just right, it’s warm, it’s juicy, and it smells great. Single-purpose writing is like snacking on unsalted crackers. They are dry and take a lot of work to chew, and you can eat them all day and still feel hungry (okay maybe you can’t, but I can. I have a big appetite).

Post an example of either some really rich setting sentences you’ve written, or some really shallow setting sentences in the comments.  We all write both of them, so there’s no shame in it. It’s actually easier to learn from the non-examples most of the time too. And as usual, if you enjoyed this please consider subscribing (the only emails you’ll ever get are when I post a new article) or sharing the article.

 

 

The Biggest Difference Between Average And Extraordinary Fantasy

If you’ve been a fan of the genre for an extended period of time, you’ve likely found out that for every amazing fantasy novel, there are at least ten average novels—and in some cases, “average” is being too generous. As someone who almost never puts down a book once I begin, I’ve become unfortunately familiar with the qualities of bad fiction. Fantasy authors in particular seem the most likely to ruin the second half of their books with excessive action scenes.

Botching The Last Half

Mishandling the last half of a story is by far the most common mistake published authors make. In the fantasy genre, action overload is rampant and comes in two primary flavors:

Getting carried away with action scenes. Many novels begin with an interesting premise and a few moments of tense action that contribute to character development. The Warded Man comes to mind as a good example. While there is action early in the novel, each scene shows character growth and thus feels meaningful. After the middle of the story, the action scenes became more and more frequent. The vast majority often existed only to show a “cool fight” or show off the protagonist’s moves.

I think the action epidemic stems from a misunderstanding about readers of the fantasy genre.  Many fantasy readers do love a good sword fight or duel with magic, but the reality is that most of them think they want more action than they do. The trick is to use action as a delivery method for the substance of your story—the nutritional value, if you will—that will leave readers feeling satisfied. It’s not unlike wrapping a vitamin in cheese so your pet will eat it. But that’s what good writing is about. The elements of your story should be so entangled with one another that all types of readers can’t help but gobbling it down. Every reader has preferences. Some love character. Some love world-building. Some love action. Some love tension. Some love political intrigue. So it only stands to reason that the more you can mix in each element into a scene, the more readers are going to enjoy reading it. Most authors understand this intuitively, but for some reason begin forgetting past the mid-point of their book when it comes to action.

My article on Action Overload goes into more detail on how action can be misused, so I won’t go further here.

Making the climax of the book about a big battle. This is similar to my previous point, but I feel it deserves its own explanation. So many fantasy books choose this route. Whether it’s a castle siege, an open field battle, a confrontation with an evil force in abandoned ruins, it’s the same problem with different wrapping-paper. In an of itself, a battle isn’t a terrible choice for an ending, but some authors seem to forget that more needs to happen. For readers, satisfaction after the middle of a novel should come from characters recognizing their inner-demons (having trust-issues, for example) and overcoming them. The climax should be the ultimate expression of their character arc, showing how far they have come from the beginning of the story in conquering their faults.

In many novels, the character growth gets paused during the entire battle, only to pick up several chapters later when it has all ended, or in the final moments. These novels tend to wrap up with the key characters having shown little to no change internally. Maybe they are stronger or defeated the antagonistic force, but as individuals they are largely the same. If the character isn’t changed significantly by the events of the climax, the climax didn’t succeed. It’s not enough to wrap up the plot at the end of the story.

Final Thoughts

I challenge aspiring authors to think twice before using action. Ask yourself why you want to use it. Is it because you just want to describe something gory and vicious? Is it because your character has a cool power and you want to play with it? Remind yourself that in real life, action is exceedingly rare and one of the highest points of human drama. If it wasn’t so rare, we wouldn’t be so interested when it happened. The same principles are true in novels. When authors start using action in scene after scene, readers become desensitized. If they have seen the protagonist survive battle after battle, their sense of tension decreases. Use action sparingly so that it remains a naturally compelling element of your story.

And finally, consider a climax that doesn’t revolve around action. A Song of Fire and Ice comes to mind as a series that uses non-action climaxes more often than not. These moments are arguably more satisfying because the author hasn’t lost sight of what readers truly crave in a climax. They want to see characters growing. When a character has been scheming for chapter after chapter and maneuvering politically, it’s just as thrilling to watch the pieces fall into place as it is to see a physical confrontation. The satisfaction comes when everything inevitably doesn’t go as planned and the character is forced to confront their limitations and inner-demons to set things right.

 

Are Your Characters Three Dimensional?

Dimensions are often thrown around when discussing characters. Maybe you’ve heard this before: “Your protagonist was very one-dimensional.” Or, “your protagonist was flat.” If you’ve only vaguely understood what that criticism meant, I’m here to dispel your confusion in plain language. Let me emphasize that last point, because I think it’s important. Plain language. If you’re like me, you’re dead tired of hearing authors discuss the craft, especially character. The reason you’re tired of hearing it is because every author romanticizes the process, pretending it can only be explained in poetic language and vague metaphors. Breathe life into your characters, we are told, or make them jump off the page. That’s all well and good, and maybe somebody out there really takes something away from that kind of fluff, but that’s not what this post is about. This is about pulling away the skin of the robot and explaining what makes it work at the most basic level.

Dimensions

Characters are essentially made up of three dimensions.

1st dimension – This is what you see on the surface. All that meets the eye, so to speak. For example, if you see a guy walking into a gas station covered in tattoos and wearing a leather jacket, you now understand him in a one dimensional way.

2nd dimension – This is the backstory. It’s the explanation for what you see on the surface. For example, if the biker guy in the above example mentions to you that he’s an accountant but is riding across the country in memory of his brother, who was a hardcore biker before he passed away, then you understand him as a two-dimensional character.

3rd dimension – This is what the character does. For example, if the biker guy tears off his jacket at the end of the ride and throws his helmet into the bushes before calling a cab back home, we see what kind of person he is despite or because of his backstory and appearance.

For some of you, this might be enough to understand a lot more about effective characters than you already knew. For others, you may be wanting a little more.

The First Dimension

Before I get deeper into the first dimension, it’s worth noting that no dimension is more important than the other. It would be like saying that a support pillar is more important than the foundation of a building. Take away either and the building will fall down. However, you can have a foundation without a support pillar, just like you can have a one dimensional character without layering on more dimensions.

Should a character ever be purely one-dimensional? Absolutely. A common mistake is to get carried away by giving every single character a backstory and trying to create a character arc for them. Save that for your protagonist, antagonist, and key supporting characters.

One common mistake in giving first dimension details to a character is to give eccentricities for the sake of eccentricities. For example, you might decide to make your protagonist OCD and describe him organizing his refrigerator by expiration date. Why? Well, because it’s kind of interesting to read about? Maybe it is, but unless you can manage to tie the OCD into your characters 2nd and even 3rd dimension, it will end up feeling clunky and unrewarding. That’s not to say you shouldn’t add quirks and unique flavor to your character, just make sure they are relevant to who your character is.

The Second Dimension

Many writers understand intuitively that a character needs to have a backstory. However, they tend to make a mistake in either over-showing or more rarely under-showing. Also, keep in mind that a flashback is rarely the most effective way to show backstory. There are certain story types that lend themselves to flashbacks, but unless it’s a major part of the story, you’ll be better suited by finding creative and effective ways to weave backstory into your story. Implying backstory, if done well, can be extremely effective as well. For example, a character who masquerades as a hard-ass being seen leaving a dance class or a soup kitchen (cliche, but you get the idea). The previous example ties together the first and second dimension. His masquerade is part of his first-dimension, but the fact that he’s trying to be seen as a tough guy when he’s clearly something more implies a certain level of backstory. This is an example of how you can more effectively layer a character. The first dimension should make a reader crave the second dimension, which should enrich the first dimension. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The Third Dimension

Satisfying character moments can only come when a strong first dimension and second dimension have been lain. Skilled writers make it clear to readers what is at stake for each character. If we return to the biker example, you can see and even extrapolate so much from just three snapshots of the character. On the surface, he’s a biker. Look a little deeper and he’s actually a loving brother paying respect in a very touching way. But then follow him through his journey and see something perplexing, but not all-together unbelievable. Why did he throw down the helmet and seem to disrespect the memory of his brother after such a long show of devotion? Is he such a principled man that he valued his word more than his brother? Did his brother die on a motorcycle and the man now resents everything about riding, only fulfilling his promise out of respect?

With the proper foundation and support down, the actions of your characters become much, much more interesting. If we knew less about the biker character, his actions wouldn’t invite nearly as much speculation.

In common practice, the third dimension, or your characters actions, will often follow the expectations laid by your first and second dimension for about the first half of the story. If the character is a bad employee who always shows up late and does a terrible job (1st dimension) because he knows his boss stole his girlfriend from him during high school (2nd dimension) then the third dimension is how you show character growth. For much of the story, the character would act resentfully toward the boss – perhaps struggling with a desire to get over it and move on. As an author, you can show his growth when his actions finally confirm who he is, at least temporarily. Maybe he’s called to put his resentment aside when his boss suffers an accident. Does he move in to help, or does he let the man die or suffer? His actions (the third dimension) will define his character. The moment will be all the more powerful if the first and second dimension have been clearly laid out for the reader.

It’s also worth noting that even if your character does save the boss, for example, he can revert back to his old ways while still having shown growth. The third dimension is all about culminating moments. When it really counts, how did your character act, and how did that action reveal who he or she truly is?

 

You’re Probably Making This Mistake When Reading Critiques Of Your Work

Your writing is precious. In many ways it’s a part of yourself. So it’s understandable that when people want to criticize it and try to tell you to do it differently, many of us get defensive. But defending your writing is not going to make it any better. In fact, the mentality that defensiveness comes from is only going to make your writing flat-line. As someone who has been through countless creative writing courses in college and beyond, I feel I can offer some helpful advice on how to accept critiques of your work.

Your Writing Must Speak For Itself

This is the most important point to remember when listening to or reading a critique. Many authors want to step in and say, “well, actually. . .” Actually nothing—when someone critiques your story, they are doing exactly what readers will do. They are reading the story, sometimes missing details that are there, sometimes skimming parts, sometimes misinterpreting other parts, and then making a judgment based on how they read your story. So maybe a reader claims that it didn’t make any sense when Character A sacrificed himself for Character B. You might be tempted to point them back a few chapters to when Character A gave some hint that he cared more deeply for Character B than it seemed. So what’s the problem with that? Didn’t you do your job as a writer and plant the evidence? Isn’t it the reader’s fault if they missed it?

The answer isn’t “yes”, it’s “maybe”.

Why? Because storytelling isn’t black and white. Maybe you did technically include a detail or allude to something, but if one reader missed it, more will have missed it. That leaves you as an author with an important question—are you willing to let a portion of readers go through your story with the same confusion your critiquer had? Whether you decide to keep the portion as it is or not, the most important distinction to make is that no one who critiques your story can be wrong. You almost have to imagine you’re back at that minimum wage customer service job. “The [critiquer] is always right.” However, just like in customer service, that doesn’t mean you have to believe them. It just means the right thing to do is to keep your opinion to yourself, take their feedback, and consider what to do with it.

What Do You Say?

The best thing to say to anyone who criticizes your work is “thank you.” You may want to elaborate on why a specific piece of advice they gave you was really insightful or comment on how you plan to implement their advice into your work. Maybe you even want to offer to take a look at something of theirs to pay back the favor—because that’s what a critique is, it’s a favor. But what shouldn’t you do?

Never defend your work to a critiquer! Someone’s opinion can’t be wrong. A sure sign of an amateur writer is when I get a response to a critique that is a long list of the points I made, and why they will be addressed later in the story (and are therefore invalid) or why I just need to look at something differently to see that it is actually working very well. Personally, that’s also a great way to discourage me from offering future critiques.

Think of it this way. There are many different types of feedback. And people ask for feedback for many different reasons. Sometimes we ask for feedback because we want a confidence boost: “Does this make me look fat?” No one actually wants to hear you tell the truth. But when it comes to feedback on your writing, you really should want to hear the truth. It would be like deciding what you were going to wear for the next five months. Wouldn’t you want to actually know if that was going to make you look fat? If you’re going to be working on a story for hours and hours of your life, it’s a good idea to ask for and expect honest criticism.

What Do You Do With Feedback?

So you know that your story has to speak for itself. You know that you’re just supposed to be polite and appreciative of someone who offers you a critique. But then what do you do with the information? Do you take every suggestion as golden and re-work your story to fit everbody’s desire? Absolutely not! The point is to consider every criticism. Maybe someone suggests that your story should start with a sex scene. Okay. . . Some suggestions will take less time to consider than others. However, maybe you can look at a suggestion that seems completely off target and ask yourself if the critiquer is actually trying to say something else. Are they saying your story’s hook is too weak? Are many people suggesting you do something else with the beginning of your story? When you go back to edit, that’s a serious consideration you should make. The fun part is that you get to fix it however you want to. That’s why it’s still your story and not the story of your critiquers.

The key is moderation. There will inevitably be good suggestions, and there will be bad suggestions. There will also be suggestions that are really tough to consider. The easiest kind of good suggestion is when someone points out a continuity error. Those are obvious fixes. The harder kind are when someone lays down a difficult truth, like that your main character is flat and uninteresting. Tough considerations often would require major reworks.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, feedback is golden. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, good, or ridiculous. Part of your job as a writer is collecting those viewpoints, putting them through your filter, and deciding which ones you want to act on. But if you take nothing else away from this post, don’t be the guy who writes a thesis defending his story when someone criticizes it. Even if the criticism is so off-base as to be laughable, just nod your head, say thank you, and move on with your life. Jokes and writing are similar in that neither have succeeded if they have to be explained. 

Is It Okay To Sideline a Project If You Get Bored?

We’ve all been there: it’s a few weeks in to our newest project—maybe a sci-fi novel—and the words have been flowing like nectar from the writing-gods. But one day, that sweet juice slows to a trickle, and then the nozzle just sputters out dust. So what do you do? Do you keep opening up your story day after day, trying your best to get words down even though they aren’t coming?

Or. . .

Do you take the forbidden path and start working on something new?

This has been an issue that I’ve struggled with personally ever since I started writing novels. I tend to start strong and then feel doubt around the middle, wondering if it’s worth continuing or if I’d be better off finding greener pastures. I’ve concluded that my problem, as well as others in my position, stems from a few factors.

Practice

The first issue is that when you allow yourself to restart every time the going gets tough, you’re accidentally creating an imbalance in your writing skills. It’s almost like you want to do a set of curls so you start with your right arm. You do three sets on your right arm and then do a couple on your left arm and think, “Yeah, I’m actually pretty tired now. Maybe I’ll continue this later.” So the next time you work out, you start on the right arm again. Sure enough, when you pick up the weights in your left hand it’s so much harder that you find an excuse to stop again. What’s my point?

If the majority of your practice is in writing the first fourth of a book or the first chapters, that will get easier because you practiced it. It makes sense that the middle starts to feel more difficult because that’s where you have the least practice.

 

Psychology

Another factor to consider is the way your brain is inclined to work. Whether you try to or not, you’re programmed to make connections, especially when emotion is involved. If an experience causes an emotion, that experience begins to have an association. Maybe you love nachos, but you start to get heartburn. Eventually, the negative association of pain will overpower the desire for deliciousness and you’ll choose not to get the nachos. The same process is at work when you start and stop projects. How so?

At times, it pays to think of your brain and body as two separate entities. In this case, think of the brain as a reluctant teenager. It’s fine doing something (such as writing the fun beginning of a story) until it becomes hard. Once it becomes difficult, like a teenager, it whines and complains (by releasing neurotransmitters that cause any number of negative feelings). If someone asked you what to do about the whiny teenager, the answer would be obvious, right? “Make them do it anyway, because if you let them get out of it by whining they will just whine even harder next time it gets tough.”

Yet. . .

What do most of us do when our brain whines? We listen. Of course, if you just lost a leg in an automobile accident and your brain is “whining” at you to do something, that’s a different story. You probably should do something. However, if your brain is trying it’s tricks to get out of something mildly unpleasant, then try working through it. It can help to remember that the vast majority of doubt and fear you feel once you hit that point in your story is really just your brain trying to manipulate you into doing something easier. Basically, your brain is that bad friend who just wants to stay home and watch TV so he tells you that you look fat in everything.

The Big Picture

Maybe the most compelling reason of all to continue with your story even if it’s getting hard is to look at the big picture. So many writers start and end their aspirations of writing before they ever finish a book. And the vast majority of those writers who fail to finish book have written over a book’s worth of content—often they have written several books worth of words. But they let doubt stop them from finishing anything. Doubt has killed more careers than poor book sales, lack of talent, and bad luck combined. 

If You’re New To Writing, You’re Probably Making This Mistake

This particular problem likely exists among males more than females, but I won’t generalize any further. I’m sure there are females out there just as guilty as us guys. What am I talking about? Action scenes. New writers abuse and misuse action scenes more than any other type of scene. I’ll explain how you can identify this in your own writing, convince you that it really is a problem if you are skeptical, and show you how to go about fixing it and keeping the problem from cropping up in the future.

Too Much Action

Probably the biggest error with action is including too much of it. There’s a really simple explanation for why new writers do this. When you read skilled writers, they are often adept at making the reader feel as though there’s always about to be action. You may also feel like there’s always the threat of action. To use a well known example, Game of Thrones certainly has its moments of action. However, they are few and far enough between that much more of your time as a reader is spent anticipating action or being caught off guard by it. Think of a horror movie for another example. The best part of the movie and the scariest part is often before you ever see the monster. Once you’ve seen the monster, anticipation, fear, and interest tend to wane. Action isn’t much different, but there’s an exception.

Using Action Correctly

One of the reasons I say new writers use action too much is that they are not using it correctly. Skilled authors fall into this at times as well, but more often than not, if you are reading a published author and an action scene is taking place, something more is happening. Look deeper and you’ll realize that in addition to action, there is a character changing or growing. Let me give two abbreviated descriptions of action scenes to show meaningless and meaningful action more clearly:

The lead-up to both scenes is that a man who has been learning a forbidden form of magic is confronted by two thieves in a back alley.

Meaningless action: The man fights the thieves and all sorts of descriptions are given to how the fight takes place – he dodges left and throws a bolt of energy that does something gruesome, etc. In the end, he emerges victorious and goes back home, having demonstrated how strong he is.

Meaningful action: The man fights the thieves, realizing that he’s going to die if he doesn’t use the forbidden magic against them, which may have farther reaching consequences like alerting authorities or starting him down a dark path. He grapples with the decision during the struggle, eventually making a decision to one side or another.

The difference is very clear. In one example, the author saw an opportunity to make a “cool” fight scene and had fun describing some gory details and exciting magic. In the other, the author used action as a catalyst for character change and growth. Many times, a character will be teetering on the edge of a decision, and one of the best ways to shock them into picking a side is some form of action. When action develops character, it is satisfying and meaningful.

Identifying Meaningless Action

Test your own writing. Go back through on your next round of edits and find all your action scenes. Test them. Does the scene serve any purpose other than to show action? Be careful when you answer this as well. You may say, “Yes, because it’s a castle siege, which is a really important part of the plot.” I would counter by asking if there are really no characters in that entire castle who are facing some sort of moral dilemma. I guarantee there has never been a battle in the history of humanity where lives were the only things at risk. Get inside your characters heads and find ways to make them grow and change from action. Remind yourself that in the real world, actual violence is exceedingly rare and leaves an intense mark on people. If you really have your character kill dozens of people in a year or two, imagine how much that would actually disturb and numb him.

Avoiding Action

There is a place for action. It adds tension, suspense, and allows for some reader satisfaction. However, think back on some of the most memorable action scenes you’ve ever read. I bet most of them were somehow critical to a character and his or her development. In other words, something far greater than lives was at stake, and every character involved likely walked away changed in some small way. That being said, using too much action is like putting too much salt on French Fries. Used sparingly, it can enhance the fries. Used excessively, it drowns them in its own flavor and the eater (or reader) has no chance of identifying or enjoying the flavor beneath.

So the next time you are planning out a scene or just feeling your way through one, think twice when action pops into your head. I would challenge you to even re-evaluate your story’s climax. Is it an action scene? Does it need to be? Is it facilitating a major change in your character?

These are questions worth asking yourself!

My Biggest Writing Distractions

Know your enemy. If you’re a writer, the enemy is distraction. For me, I’m much more likely to be pulled away from my story by a distraction than by running out of juice. I have found it helpful to identify my distractions so I can actively work to minimize them during my writing time.

Distraction 1 – Family

Before you stab me with a pitchfork, distractions are dangerous because they are things we love. As a husband and father to a five month old (as well as a needy Cockapoo, a parkour-practicing cat, and a closet-dwelling pervert cat) I have a lot to distract me around the house. I can’t exactly reason with my pets or my daughter, but I have talked to my wife about disturbing me while I write. She knows I won’t snap at her or get angry, but that she’s likely going to break me out of my writing. She’s also kind enough to grab my daughter if she starts crying when she knows I’m writing.

So whether your family is big or small, take the steps within your power to keep it from slowing you down once you get behind the keyboard.

Distraction 2 – Hobbies

I’m lumping hobbies together because it all falls within the group of “the first thing that comes to my mind when I’m in a difficult place in a story”. If I can’t think of what to have a character say next, where to have a scene jump to, how to fix a problem I just introduced, what to name some sort of creature or idea, hobbies are the first thing that pop in my head. Usually I get tempted to pop open a game on the computer or my phone. If not that, it’s opening the internet browser and checking Reddit or watching some random cooking videos on Youtube. Sometimes I convince myself that getting up to exercise is a nobler goal so I’ll go play tennis.

To help minimize this, I have a laptop devoted entirely to writing. It’s a little extreme, but I have no games on it and I turn off the wi-fi when I sit down to write. Even though it’s just adding the small obstacle of getting up to go somewhere else if I want to play a game, it’s often enough to squeeze out a few more minutes of writing. Speaking of which, I haven’t been using my laptop for the past week and my productivity is way down. I wonder why?

Distraction 3 – Work

I don’t know any kind of full-time job that doesn’t follow people home. As a teacher, my job doesn’t just follow me home, it stalks me and watches me sleep. Seriously though, I have about 80 essays I should be grading right now instead of writing this post. Either way, work distracts me in a different way from writing in that it often uses some of the same energy that writing does. Hobbies tempt to pull me away from my writing, but work usually causes me to never start writing. If I just finished grading a bunch of essays or planning a lesson, my mind feels too fried to do anything creative.

It’s not always possible, but to avoid this, I try to get as much work done as I can at work, and I go in early in the morning to do most of the rest. This helps keep me from doing it after work when I should be writing.

Distraction 4 – Ego

My own insecurities and expectations for my writing are often the real nail in the coffin. Family, hobbies, and work might push me off the track here and there, but nothing will bring a halt to a story faster than doubt. For me, it creeps up around 25,000 words. Once I’ve had time to  hit speed and transition into the point of my story where I can really look back at what I’ve put down on paper, doubt sets in. I’ll start to ask myself if the story is really turning out as I planned. I’ll tell myself that it should be better than it is. I’ll even feel that what I have written doesn’t honor the great idea I had for the story. These thoughts will come, but I’ve learned to have a plan in place when they do.

I don’t let myself read backward more than necessary to remind myself of where I left off. This keeps my eyes forward. I also remind myself that my favorite stories once existed in a muddy pile of questionable material like my own. It’s only through multiple rounds of editing that the real story comes through. That idea is particularly helpful for me when I get stuck in a moment because it reminds me that putting down something I know I’ll edit later is better than closing the word processor and losing the 500 or more words I might have gone on to type after the speed bump.

If everything else fails, I just think on all the mistakes, plotholes, typos, bad dialogue, and long-winded description I’ve read in otherwise amazing books. Nobody is perfect; granted, that’s no excuse not to try to be. Just remember that perfection comes in the editing. Just create a secret word for yourself (mine is rhubarb). Type this word near any extremely questionable moments. I can force myself to keep moving because I know that when I come back to edit, I just need to type ctrl+F and enter “rhubarb” to find all those terrible moments that were painful to push past. Yes, I would’ve found them anyway, but there’s a power in peace of mind. Sometimes I have seven rhubarbs in one writing session, but there’s a lot of delicious, delicious bacon in between (did that even make sense?)

 

 

Are You Reading Like A Writer?

Read Like A Writer

 

It’s hard to look at any collection of advice from writers without seeing the proverbial statement: to write well, you must read. Don’t worry, I’m not about to disagree. However, if you value your time as much as I value mine, you may want to give me a few minutes. Taking a few minutes to read this post may make the countless hours you’ll spend reading more fruitful. Reading is great and will absolutely make you a better writer. But. . . You do have to be careful. One danger is not using your time efficiently, or even worse, wasting a good book.

Reading Efficiently

So you’ve slapped around a few books? You’ve got a huge bookshelf full of your conquests? Good for you. Did you learn anything from them or did you just gobble them up without stopping to taste? Chances are, you learned from some and inhaled others. That’s natural, but every writer owes it to themselves to learn from everything they read. It can be hard to stop and really analyze a page-turner, but those will often teach you the most about what compels you. So how do you do it? Change your mindset before you read the first page.

Get Your Mind Right

The difference between reading like a writer and reading like a consumer is a mentality. It’s like visiting a theme park. You could visit as a casual tourist, or as an aspiring entrepreneur who plans to start his own theme park. Can you still wear your Mickey Mouse swag and enjoy the rides? Yes! But now, instead of closing your eyes on Space Mountain, you’ve got to shine your light into the dark places and figure out how it works.

Maybe your gut reaction is, “that sounds like work,” or, “that doesn’t sound fun.” First of all, even if it wasn’t fun, I would still advise you to do it because it will make you a better writer. But the good news for you is that peeking behind the scenes of a book can enhance the experience. You’ll also find yourself entertained by a wider range of books, because it can often be fun to pick apart less established authors as you read, learning from their mistakes as much as from their triumphs. As an added bonus, it’s great for your self-esteem as a writer to see published authors with large followings doing things poorly that you do well. To paraphrase Stephen King, the moment you read a published author and say, “I can do better than that,” is when you will really feel like an author. It’s also great to see that even really popular authors make mistakes and still find success despite it. Keep that in mind the next time you’re down on your own work.

Getting The Most From Each Book

You can either learn from a book or you can consume it. You may learn a few things from consuming a book, but it’s like tearing through a candy wrapper that explains how the candy was made and tossing it aside. You enjoyed the candy; maybe you can even guess at a few of the ingredients, but you definitely could have learned more. Reading to learn is about knowing where to look. As someone who has been reading like a writer for a long time, I can save you some time and point out the key areas.

  • Learn the common tropes. Even if you are not writing in a traditional genre, every field of writing has common practices and themes. In the fantasy genre, for example, readers expect a certain number of the tropes to be fulfilled. The best way to learn how many of those tropes are expected and what they are is to look for them. Over time, you’ll build an understanding of what is done and when it might be okay to break from the mold. It’s also a good idea to look out for gimmick ideas that are used again and again. For example, many authors try to create a drawback to the magic system in their worlds. This is both a trope and a gimmick. The magic system is somewhat expected, and the gimmick should be unique. The Wheel of Time had men going mad from using magic; Mistborne requires they eat certain metals, which could be exhausted; The Cycle of Arawn simply has “nethermancers” getting too exhausted if they push themselves (and the extremely underdeveloped “ethermancers”); The Warded Man requires physical symbols or glyphs; A Crucible of Souls requires the use of “trinkets” that channel and augment magic. But you may notice that fantasy authors aim to create a unique magic system and they typically introduce a drawback. So keep reading so you build your background knowledge – if your readers know more than you, you’ll risk boring them. 
  • Get a sense for what is overdone. I spent most of my previous writing career and early career reading relatively dated fantasy like Lord of The Rings and the Wheel of Time. So it shouldn’t have shocked me when I learned that my treasured idea about a fantasy world that was actually in the future, set on earth, had already been done. In fact, of maybe ten fantasy books I’ve read in the past year, only four did not allude to a past civilization of more technologically advanced people.
  • Absorb the basics. Have you ever wanted to maybe have a crowd of unidentified people shouting snippets of dialogue? Maybe you want a character to hear bits of conversation from around the room or as they walk but don’t want to stop and identify everyone who speaks. So keep an eye out. When you see unusual things being done, take a second to make a mental note. It will save you trouble down the road.
  • Study the middle. Another useful idea to keep in mind is that, as I mentioned in my post about the miserable middle, figuring out what to do with the middle of your book can be the greatest challenge you’ll face. To ease your burden, try paying special attention to what happens in the middle of the story. Is the author just stringing together scenes that appear random? If so, what makes them feel random and how can you avoid that in your own writing?
  • Look at characters. Do you have a vivid image of one but not another? Figure out why. You may find that characters who are described in great physical detail are harder to picture than characters with brief but efficient descriptions, as I mentioned in my compelling characters in ten minutes post. Seeing something like that for yourself will hammer the point home more firmly than any amount of advice.
  • Study their dialogue. Does it feel natural? Does it drag out? If so, why does it seem that way? Watch to see if each character has their own voice. Does any character have such a unique voice that the writer could almost get away with never tagging their lines? Try to figure out how they pulled it off.
  • Notice voice. Pay attention to how the author uses his or her unique voice to enhance the story. For many readers, a great voice is what keeps them coming back more than any other element of the story. It can make up for a lot of shortcomings and it’s worth your while to pay attention to how skilled authors convey it.
  • Mark places for reference. If you ever read a section that really just works, like an action scene, a conversation, a inner-monologue, or a section of prose, save it! It’s easy to say you’ll remember and can come back if you need to some time. Chances are, you never will. Take the time to write it down or mark the spot in the book so you can reference it when you’re writing. The time will come when you feel that a scene is dragging and you can’t find out why; you can refer back to examples to help yourself find out where you went wrong.

Final Thoughts

 

For some, my words may fall on deaf ears. Many people would rather jump into a sport and learn as they go. But some prefer to put in extra effort at the outset to learn proper technique and avoid having to go back and fix bad habits later. I can tell you that the former group is often slower to develop and does not reach as high of a skill level. While reading is hardly a sport, it is still a skill. The same principles apply. If you put in the work to make the most of it, your writing can only improve.

If you take your writing seriously, treat your reading even more seriously!