Hey, everyone! I’m Julie, and I’m a writer. In case you’re wondering why I’m introducing myself like I’m at an AA meeting, to me, writing is an addiction. Even when I’m not sitting-with-my-butt-in-the-chair writing, I’m thinking about writing, or about my characters, or how to finish a scene I’ve been struggling with…or which craft tips I can share with other writers.
That’s right, folks! Today, I’m here to share some tips with you on inline editing. I’ve been creative writing since around 2002, shortly after I discovered the TV show Gilmore Girls and felt compelled to write. I started by dabbling in fanfiction, which helped me to find my voice as a writer, but, more importantly, it gave me a crash course in editing-as-you-go.
Inline editing is THE thing, you guys! And while many writers prefer to write the story first and edit later, I am of the edit-as-you-go school of thought. Here’s why:
1. It saves time later.
2. You have a cleaner manuscript to work with.
3. You’ll have more word awareness.
1 – The more inline editing you do while writing the first draft, the less you have to do when you finally type those blessed two words: The End. #winning
2 – Some writers will make notes like ‘insert sex scene here’ and move on with the intention of addressing (or undressing) it later. Some will leave scenes half-finished so they can advance to a more action-packed section. As a writer who edits as I go, maintaining the flow of my story is crucial. By skipping a large chunk in favour of doing the work later, you risk losing the momentum you used to get to that point in the first place.
Having a clean first draft allows me to concentrate on more important things like plot holes, characterization, dialogue, voice, and consistency. I’m able to polish, refine, and strengthen these critical story elements without getting distracted by ‘finish this laters’ or ‘insert heres.’
3 – I just learned the other day (thank you, trivia calendar!) that the average person’s vocabulary contains 20,000 to 35,000 words. And YET…books are FULL of repetition. We all have these words, our go-to words, that spill out of our brains, and we keep subconsciously typing them, over and over again. Words like that, was, and, because, before, when, as, so…and the list goes on.
I recommend making a list of words you tend to overuse so you can find-and-replace them later. I don’t worry about the repetition as much until the end, but if I’m at least conscious of my go-to words, I can try to actively avoid using them while writing. I’m always adding to my list, too, because different words become crutch words with every new book you write.
I’m not a fast writer, but if the words I do write are grammatically correct, typo-free, and achieve what I set out to do, then I’ve really done two jobs in one. Of course, there will be rewrites later to tighten things up, but I don’t need to worry so much about any glaring mistakes or awkward bits a reader might pick up on.
Lastly, when you’re ready, if you’re an indie author, be sure to hire an editor. Though I edit my own work religiously, it’s too near and dear to my heart to release into the wild without another pair or two of eyes reviewing it. Get yourself a critique partner who isn’t afraid to show you some tough love, one who is wise, has a wonderful way with words, and an equal affection for alliteration. No, you can’t have mine. Maggie Wells is my preciousssss. A professional editor is worth their weight in chocolate. Ask your friends or writing group(s) for recommendations. Or ask me!
Well, that’s all from me for now. Hope you found that helpful! If you’d like to follow me on social media, you can find me…
Thanks, and happy writing! 😊
Julie Evelyn Joyce
Julie is a loud and proud Canuck. When she’s not writing quirky and witty romances, she spends her time molding young minds, playing sports, singing karaoke, juggling, and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. Sometimes simultaneously. She’s also in hot pursuit of her own happily ever after, and anxiously awaits the day serial dating becomes an Olympic event. Last but not least, she worships peanut butter and wants to have its delicious babies. And that’s Julie in a nutshell!
Very excited to share that my debut contemporary romantic comedy, STEEPED IN LOVE, is a finalist in the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize! I’ll find out at the end of the month if I’m the big winner! Cross your fingers for me!
My website: http://julieevelynjoyce.com
I have been using Scrivener daily for nearly ten years now. I find Scrivener such a flexible tool for my fiction and nonfiction projects such as creating web pages, presentations, and the occasional blog post.
I like Scrivener because it's flexible and because it suits my workflow. I tend to work on my projects in a non-linear fashion. The graphic is how I’ve set up my Scrivener.
One of the first things I did when I started using Scrivener was to change the default toolbar to meet my needs. I removed the icons which I don’t use and replace them with those I often use such as Copy and Paste Formatting, Start and Stop Speech, and Sync with External Folder icons. I also rearranged them on the toolbar to suit my needs.
Modifying the toolbar is simple. Right-Click on the taskbar and then select Customize Toolbar. A window will open, allowing you to drag icons from the window on the toolbar where you can move them where you want them.
I also use the Right-Click extensively on my mouse to bring up the Context Menu. Depending on which part of Scrivener you are pointing your mouse at, such as the editor or the binder the Context Menu, it will display a slightly different set of task commands.
There are also keyboard shortcuts available which you can find in the menus. The only ones I remember are the cut and paste commands.
Syncing & Backup
If you are on the go, you can sync Scrivener with other devices such as tablets and smartphones. Under File>Sync menu, the following options are available: With Mobile Devices, With External Folder, and With External Folder Now.
The simplest is to use Scrivener’s IOS app and to sync via Dropbox. Be aware Scrivener recommends not to keep the same project open at the same time on multiple devices to avoid syncing problems. You need to close Scrivener on one device before working on your project on another.
I have been playing with this option, but unfortunately, I have the habit of keeping Scrivener always open on my Mac and I know I will forget closing it before I head out to the local coffee shop. Also, syncing using Scrivener’s IOS app would require that I upgrade my current Dropbox account to get additional storage space since some of my project files are quite large.
Instead, I sync my projects with Alfons Schmid’s Notebooks using the With External Folder option via Dropbox. I’ve created Draft folders for each of my projects, and I simply sync my drafts in plain text back and forth. It has been working quite well for me.
Also, I’m a great fan of using Scrivener’s Snapshots feature because it allows me to easily compare differences in the text before and after syncing.
On the Mac Time Machine does an excellent job of backing up your files to an external hard drive. However, in case of fire or theft, it is important to have copies of your critical files off-site.
I use the File>Backup option to create a zip archive of my projects in a backup folder when I close Scrivener. The contents of the backup folder are then uploaded to one of my cloud accounts.
Under the Scrivener>Preferences>Backup you can configure how, when, and where your backups are created.
Scrivener>Preferences gives you a variety of options to configure Scrivener to suit your needs. In most cases, you can leave the defaults as is. If you are new to Scrivener, I would take a few minutes to review them. Then modify the ones you feel would make your life easier.
In the Preference>Editing I’ve set the Default Text zoom to 150% since I find myself squinting at my computer screen.
In the Preference>Editing>Formatting is where I’ve set the default formatting for all my projects since they don’t change much from project to project. The simplest method to set your default settings is using a document you already have formatted the way you like it then click on the Use Formatting in Current Editor command. The other method is to select each of the icons in the ruler to modify the formatting in the Preference>Editing>Formatting window.
If you need to change them for a special project, you can do so under the Project>Project Settings menu.
Preference>SharingThe Conversion preference specifies how your documents will be converted into Microsoft Word or OpenOffice formats. Also, under File>Compile you can set how Scrivener will convert your document into an ePub.
Getting to work
The Binder is where you organise your drafts and research. Organising your binder is a personal and whatever works for you. Depending on the project, I will create a different structure. Some are by dates other by scenes and chapters. Scrivener gives you the flexibility to plan your projects as you see fit.
One thing I like about Scrivener is that it is a plain text editor with limited layout capabilities. I write all my first drafts longhand using a fountain pen in notebooks. When I finish a scene, I type it into the Scrivener where I will polish it until I’m happy with it. I can’t create fiction typing on a computer screen. The constant red squiggly lines interrupt my train of thought.
While Scrivener does allow you to create Tables and insert graphics into your documents, these tools are not as sophisticated as Word or OpenOffice’s layout tools. If I need to create a document-heavy with tables and graphics, I find Word to be a much better tool.
Scrivener styles, under Format>Styles, are more geared towards plain text documents. The Format>Show Styles Panel will display a floating styles window. I don’t use this very much since I usually use only three default styles: one for the headings, one for the first paragraph, and one for the body text.
Also, on my Toolbar I have two icons, Copy Format and Paste Format, which I frequently use to apply to format.
In Scrivener you can view your project as a Document, as a Corkboard, or as an Outline. I usually have the main window split into two views; with the top in Document view while the bottom is either in Document or Outline depending on what task I’m doing. If I’m reviewing and editing, the bottom is in Outline view which helps me gauge my progress.
If you wish, you can vertically split the window by holding Option key and clicking the split icon in the document header.
Locking the Editor
I frequently lock the main Editor to keep it in place and in focus when I’m conducting research or consulting other documents in the bottom view. To lock Right-Click on the document header, then select the Lock in Place command in the menu when it appears. The title bar will change to a red colour to indicate it has been locked.
SearchOne of the more useful is the Search and Replace functions in Scrivener, especially when you have a great many documents in your project. Quick Search is available in the toolbar. Also, Project Search is available at the top of the Binder.
Scrivener will return all the documents which contain the search term. In text documents, the search term will be highlighted. Scrivener also provides options, Right-Click in Project Search Box, to expand or restrict how it searches. In most cases, the defaults work very well.
Under the edit menu, there are several useful tools which I use such as Edit>Transformations such as changing cases from upper to lower to convert Straight Quotes to Smart Quotes.
The Edit>Text Tidying is useful for removing double spaces and cleaning up some of my text.
The Edit>Writing Tools> Name Generator is useful for creating character names.
I recently discovered Linguistic Focuswhich is found under the Edit>Writing Tools menu. The feature allows you to select various parts of your text such as Speech by fading the surrounding text to highlight it. I haven’t used it extensively as yet, but it looks interesting. I’m planning to play with to see whether it will prove useful.
In the Inspector, you will find several metadata fields. I usually create a synopsis in the Notes panel by copying and pasting text into the Synopsis field. For multiple documents, I use the Set Synopsis from main text command under Documents>Auto-Fill menu. This grabs the first paragraph of the document and displays it in the Synopsis Field. I find this useful when I’m in Outline mode or in Corkboard as it gives me a general idea of the scene.
You aren’t restricted to text. You can also drop an image in the Synopsis field.
I use Bookmarks frequently as I consult various documents. It saves me time when several months later, I’m trying to find the source of the fact that I had used. You can bookmark web pages, Scrivener files, or files you have stored on your hard drive.
There are some standard metadata fields such as Due Date, Title, Metadata etc. I rarely used the standard ones except when I’m created a Web page. I would then complete the Title, and Description fields as these are key metadata for Web pages and search optimization.
Scrivener allows you to create your own metadata fields. For most of my projects, I have deleted the defaults and created two new metadata fields: Speech Check and Grammar Check. They are simple checkboxes which I tick which finished editing the scene.
Tracking your progress
Scrivener provides a wealth of statistics on managing your projects. The Project>Statistics menu gives you basic stats on the number of words, characters, sentences, and page counts in your project.
Project Targets, Session Targets, Document Targets
Scrivener allows you to set target word counts for your project, daily (Sessions), and at the document level.
The Project>Show Project Targets menu allows you to set the total number of words for your project. Clicking between ‘of’ and ‘words’ will activate a text box where you can input your project’s word count.
Clicking on Options allows you, in the Draft Target window, to set a deadline date for your project. In Session Target, clicking Automatically calculate from draft deadline checkbox Scrivener will calculate your total workdays and the daily word count you will need to write to meet the deadline you have set.
Once you set your Project Targets Quick Search the Toolbar will show thin colour bars to indicate your progress.
The top blue line is your project total word count, while the bottom green line indicates your daily Session Target progress. When you mouse over Quick Search, your current word count will be displayed.
I rarely use the document target since my scene count varies, but it is available in the document footer by clicking on the Target icon.
Depending on your workflow, you can use Scrivener to created Word docs, Pdf, ePub as well as other formats. I usually convert my document into Word which I then send to my editor for copyediting and proofreading. There it will remain until final editing is completed, then sent to my print book designer and ePub creator.
If you need help?
Under the Help menu, there are plenty of resources in case you need additional help. There is an extensive manual, 900 pages long, a Scrivener interactive tutorial, user forums, and video tutorials.
Frank Rockland is the pen name of an Ottawa based writer. In 2013 he published his first novel, Fire on the Hill, a suspense novel about fire that destroyed the Parliament Hill Centre Block on the night of Feb 3, 1916.
He recently completed the third volume, Sharpening the Blade (1916), in his Canadian Expeditionary Force series, to be released late in 2019. Forging the Weapon (1914) and Hammering the Blade (1915) were released 2015 and 2017. He is currently working on the fourth volume Hardening the Blade (1917). Visit his website www.sambiasebooks.ca and at twitter @FrankRockland
I’ve been reading and reviewing indie paperbacks for some years now and read a lot of traditionally published work. I also run a small indie press, producing a handful of books by several authors each year.
Something too few self-published authors, and, to be fair, micropress publishers, fail to consider is the interior design of their books. We know covers matter, but inside that cover, a book is more than its words: its story should be set off by good interior design the way good framing sets off a picture. Established publishers know this, and they have art and layout departments dedicated to this. They know a reader, even when attracted by the blurb, will open that book, flip through it, and if the interior turns them off, they are unlikely to read it. Indie authors and little presses rarely have design expertise, but there are still simple things that can be done easily and will improve the interior appearance of a book.
I may run a very small press, but the books we produce are competing against those published by big houses, and when a customer picks up one of our books in a bookstore, I don’t want it to be the interior design that makes them put it down. I want it to look no different than the others. (If your work is avant-garde or experimental, you have good reason to want a different look. But if you’re not, then my view is why start off one step – or more – behind?)
So – what’s important?
Pick up any traditionally published book, paperback or hardback, and almost without exception the text is fully justified. Practically nothing screams ‘self-published’ to me as much as left-only justification. Any word-processing program will fully justify a manuscript, and yes, you do get some odd spacing occurring. Often those are caused by a hard return where there shouldn’t be one, and sometimes it’s because of very long words. It’s not my intent here to list all the solutions but one: google it, including in your search the WP program you’re using. The answers are out there!
Between-line spacing does depend to some extent on the genre, but generally, you’re looking for about 32 – 38 lines per page for an adult book, if every line is text. Unless there is a scene break, paragraphs should not be separated by a space!
If you decide to mark scene breaks, whether time shifts or POV changes, with a marker (and it’s not necessary: you can just use extra blank lines), you can use the conventional three (or five) asterisks. But there are other options. Consider using a symbol appropriate to the story for a POV change, as seen here. (This book has a rural, Prairie setting.)
I have seen some creative uses: different symbols for different speakers, for example, but don’t go overboard. You want a clean interior, not clutter.
First chapters start on a right-hand page. After that, well, there was a time when all chapters started on a right-hand page, even if that meant the opposing page was blank, and this convention is still used sometimes in non-fiction. But it has been abandoned in fiction by most publishers, and using it would not be my choice.
Options abound. Dropped caps are popular, and most WP programs do them.
Another popular option is the partially-bolded first line (sometimes combined with an initial dropped cap.) The text body font can be used, or the chapter heading font, if you choose to go this route.
After that first paragraph in each chapter, your indent should be five letters. Or a bit less.
This sentence was indented using the default first-line in Word, which is 1.27 cm.
This line was indented using a first-line setting of 0.4 cm
The default first-line in Word creates too large an indent, so set your WP defaults to custom settings.
Chapter headings, running headers and footers, page numbers
The placement of your chapter numbers or titles is up to you: centred or right-justified are typical. So too is the size. Many publishing houses like to start a chapter nearly half-way down the page, with the chapter title or number in a large font suitably balanced in the space above it. But not all. Your chapter heading should be in a different font, one appropriate to your genre (see the section on fonts below), and larger than your body text, and there should be three lines or more between your chapter heading and the body text. The larger your chapter heading font, the more space you need to leave between them, for a pleasing-to-the-eye balance on the page.
Usually, these have the author’s name on one page (usually the left-hand page) and the title of the book on the right-hand page, but there are other versions. A quick perusal of books on my bookshelf shows title on left and page number on the right; title on the left and chapter name on the right, and just about any other combination you can think of, including no running headers at all. This one is entirely up to you, but if you use them, keep them small, and greying them down from full black isn’t a bad idea. They are fiddly to set up (at least in Word) as they only belong in the body of the book, after the front matter, and not on the first page of Chapter One, either.
Header or footer, centred or not, your choice. Necessary, though! Convention (why?) says the first page of Chapter One may not have a page number, and if it does it is 3, 5, or 7, although I am beginning to see this abandoned by some publishing houses. Right-hand pages are odd, left-hand even.
The next big ‘self-published’ scream for me is white paper. Of the hundreds of books on my shelves, fewer than 10% published by large publishing houses use white paper, as opposed to ivory, and all but one of those are non-fiction scholarly research works. Ivory or cream paper is easier on the eye, especially but not only for older readers. You want your reader to keep reading, not put the book down from eyestrain.
Font choice is an art and a science. I won’t pretend I’m an expert: I google it, see what the recommended fonts are for genres, and then work with our authors to find one within those they like. For my own books, which are set in an analogue world similar to dark-ages Europe, with some strong Roman influences, I use ARJulian for titles, chapter headings, and first-line bolding, because it has a strong Roman feel.
Marian L Thorpe
Author of the Empire’s Legacy series.
Editor and Publisher, Arboretum Press.
Not content with two careers as a research scientist and an educator, Marian L Thorpe decided to go back to what she’d always wanted to do and be a writer. Author of the historical fantasy trilogy Empire’s Legacy, Marian also has published short stories and poetry. Her life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history informs her novels, while her avocations of landscape archaeology and birding provide background to her settings. As well as writing and editing professionally, Marian oversees Arboretum Press, a small publishing imprint run as a cooperative. Marian is currently writing Empire’s Reckoning, the next book in her series.
Book link: https://amzn.to/2QfvLn1
Writing is a form of communication. With all the text abbreviations, emoji’s, gifs, lack of grammar taught in schools, and a general decrease in people reading, seeing the written language is not as common as it used to be. Improper grammar and punctuation contribute to the degradation of the language, as well as confusion in meaning. If a book is full of typos, punctuation, and grammar mistakes, odds are it won’t sell well, and it will teach the readers incorrect grammar and punctuation. And as much of the meaning of the story will be lost in poor sentence structure and flow, it may even turn people off reading. It’s like a chair made with faulty glue. Sit in it, and it falls apart.
I read many Kindle books, and always start with the free sample chapters. Many of the indie books aren’t edited, because editors can be expensive. As a result, some are so full of typos¸ punctuation errors¸ and misused words that I can’t continue, and delete the sample. Ideally, a story should be professionally edited. But there are ways to improve your story that don’t cost anything.
If you can’t afford an editor, the first step in your process should be to run your story by as many beta readers as possible and consider their feedback carefully. A beta reader is a person who reads a work before it’s published, to mark errors and suggest improvements, typically without receiving payment. There are different kinds of beta readers; subject matter experts, people who look for character development, people who enjoy reading, etc. You can find beta readers among your friends, on social media, at your local library, or book clubs and writing groups.
The second step could be to find an editing buddy. This isn’t always possible, so it’s important to study your craft seriously, to maximize the quality of your work.
Recently an author’s rep DM’d me on twitter and offered me a free copy of their book in exchange for a review. Before accepting, I downloaded sample chapters of the book and was dismayed at how unclear and convoluted the writing was. I checked the reviews, of which there were many, mostly good, and saw only one that mentioned this lack of clarity. This could be due to no beta readers, beta readers who gushed over the work, or poor editing. Or perhaps the author wouldn’t take constructive criticism. There was a typo in the first paragraph, and in the first five pages many formatting gaps, extra words that should have been deleted, and words missing. So I suspect there was no proofreading either. And possibly it hadn’t been edited after all. I declined the offer.
Reviews on your own work will require Marketing, which is a topic for another day.
Study your craft
Learn your punctuation and grammar, google spelling you’re not sure of, listen to and act on your beta readers’ feedback, and above all proofread your work numerous times. When you’ve done the last proofread, wait a week and then do it again. Of course, there are exceptions. Some poorly written books do very well, but it’s like winning the lottery. Better to stack your odds by writing well. Your reputation and brand as a writer depend on it, especially for the first book, as shoddy writing can derail a career.
Read your story out loud. Often when I’m finished with a story, it doesn’t seem quite right, but I can’t tell what’s wrong. Then I remember to read it out loud. It’s amazing how this helps you identify stiff dialogue.
“Please hold still while I brush your hair, Melissa. Yes, Melissa, I know that it hurts you. It is a tangled mess.” Vs. “Hold still, Sweetheart, and I’ll brush your hair as gently as I can.”
Awkward sentences are sentences where the phrases are out of order. e.g. Often when I’m finished with a story, I can’t tell what’s wrong, but it doesn’t seem quite right. Not only is that sentence awkward, but the most important word, wrong, is in the middle. The most important word is the essence of the sentence. Putting it at the end emphasizes it, and it sticks in the reader’s mind. Sentences don’t always end easily with the most important word. Sometimes a writer will leave it, but when it’s required, will sometimes restructure a sentence so that the most important word is at the end.
I often try the phrases of a sentence in different orders to find the most effective one. That sentence took me five tries to write.
Who to write for yourself
Not everyone will get your work, and that’s alright. Some will. Trends are fleeting. What’s popular today will be cliché by the time you finish your book. Start your own trend.
We absorb the craft by reading. Read everything. Work that has been professionally edited will show you how to write, work that has not will show you how not to write. Learning grammar and punctuation will help you know the difference.
Practice proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure until it becomes a habit. I recommend starting with your second draft. This will save a lot of time in editing, and make it easier on your beta readers.
Don’t trust Spellcheck. It’s wrong half the time and doesn’t even know the difference between its (possessive), and it’s (contraction of it is.) And I is not possessive. I’m seeing and hearing this more and more. There is no such word as I’s.
No> This is I’s pet peeve.
Yes> This is my pet peeve.
No> Harry’s and I’s wedding went off without a hitch.
Yes> Harry’s and my wedding went off without a hitch.
No> Tiffany’s and I’s vacation was ruined by a hurricane.
Yes> Tiffany’s and my vacation was ruined by a hurricane.
“But,” a small voice from the audience pipes up, “I can’t afford or understand those complicated books on grammar and punctuation.”
I try to see the speaker, but offstage is only darkness. “Many people have trouble punctuating dialogue,” I reply. “But you can download a kindle sample of one of Jim Butcher’s or Stephen King’s books, and study how they do it, and it won’t cost you a cent.” Or, you could check out books on writing at your local library. Your librarian would be overjoyed to see you.
Do research your stories. Details enrich a story, and research can also give you ideas that will improve the rest of your story. For my own, I’ve researched Far Eastern religions, dates of inventions, and watched YouTube videos. When writing a piece about a ship, I was lucky enough to speak to a real sailor. He told me that when he’s reading, he wants to feel the ocean spray on his face. Details give verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real. So if you know anyone who has experience with the nitty gritty of your story, talk to them!
Structure your sentences, so the action is written in chronological order. This helps the story flow easily. This applies to sentence structure, not timelines, which can be every which way.
The following aren’t great examples, but they’ll give you the idea.
No > He saw the shooter, before ducking the bullet.
(Verb tenses are important here as ducking is present tense, therefore the action is ongoing. In the next example, ducked is past tense, the action occurs, and is over; the same way it happens in real life.)
Yes > He saw the shooter and ducked the bullet.
No > He sipped his coffee, before looking at his watch, which showed 9:00 a.m.
Yes >He checked his watch, which showed 9:00 a.m., and then sipped his coffee.
(Even time is tricky. I had to google how to write it. Three times!)
Beware the word before!
Do not wallow in your world. I was reading a sample of a thriller with a fascinating premise. But even after two chapters, the author hadn’t gotten to any action; they kept going on and on about the Main Character’s (MC) history, and intricate details of the law, and police procedure. Worse, the MC was doing nothing but complain. Even though I really wanted to find out what happened, I couldn’t take anymore and deleted it. Such information should be given in the body of the story, as it’s needed.
When introducing a new thing or idea that is not widely known, and has a specific name, include a description. I once used the word pseudopod in a story. I wasn’t trying to show off my vocabulary or impress anyone with big words—something you should always ask yourself when tempted to use a fifty cent word—it was the exact word I needed, and I thought everyone knew what a pseudopod was. Turns out, they don’t. So I had to write it as; No yellow pseudopod snaked out to wrap itself around his throat …
For a story to be realistic, a character’s actions must be justified, even if only in the character’s mind. E.g., if a person is killing, they must have a reason. If the reason is evident—if they’re killing zombies, or the enemy, or animals for food—there’s no need to explain. But if the story hinges on the killing, e.g. the MC is killing people with the generalized explanation that it’s because they’re causing trouble, and the trouble isn’t evident, the writer must give their reasons. If a scout ship lands on a new planet and one of the crew starts popping off the native creatures because they’re stirring up trouble, but no trouble is evident or explained, then you must give the crew member’s motivation for doing it. E.g.. they’re (non-gender pronoun) crazy, they’re testing their weapons, they like to kill things, they perceive the creatures as a threat to humans.
Finally, enjoy your work, and be patient.
Lord of the Rings took Tolkien twelve years to write.
Louise Sorensen has been taking writing courses, and workshops with a retired Literature and Theatre professor, for twenty years. Her short stories have been published in anthologies, Just a Minor Malfunction Magazine, and Cirsova Magazine. Duel Visions, a SciFi, Fantasy, Horror Anthology she co-wrote with author Misha Burnett, was published February 14, 2019, and is available on Amazon.
You can find her on Twitter as @louise3anne
Most writers struggle with the dreaded Writer’s Block—but I’ve never had this problem. Here are some of the tricks I use to keep the words flowing. Hopefully, they will help you too!
Reading really is the most important tool for becoming a better writer. With all of the formats available (print, eBook, audio, dramatization, graphic novels), there’s a storytelling format to fit everyone’s lifestyle. Be sure to read widely, not just within your own genre, as this will prevent you from accidentally emulating other authors’ styles. Read critically. What do you think an author has done well? What about their methods bother you? What would you do differently? You can learn from books you don’t enjoy as much as from those you love.
Try: Setting a limit (1 chapter or half-an-hour), and then sit down to write. See how your creative juices are jogged by imbibing stories.
Planning prevents you from stalling. Different types of writers prefer to be more concrete or more exploratory; some don’t anchor their outline until revisions. Whenever you choose to implement them, guidelines will help keep you on track and show the way forward when you get stuck. Figure out the answers to these basic questions: What do your characters want? What experiences will make them grow? What is their end-goal?
Try: Prepare point-form goals for each chapter (such as a key action, mood, or revelation); write a scene for each point.
Community builds your enthusiasm for the project, from gleaning insight into other writers’ processes, to trouble-shooting sticky points in your WIP. Your fellow writers provide fresh perspectives and may highlight inconsistencies you hadn’t noticed.
Try: Joining a critique group, forum, or exchanging work with beta readers. Send them guidelines for what kind of feedback you’re seeking.
Prompts can get you out of a rut. They can push you to explore genres, personas, or techniques you don’t typically use in your projects. They can help you discover backstory or motivations, and think outside the box. Find prompts online, in exercise books, or in writing courses. Consider prompts that test your weaknesses: unusual topics, dialogue, plot device, character, genre, time period, or circumstance.
Try: Working in short story formats; when the work is shorter, you can explore themes or ideas that you couldn’t sustain over a full-length book. You may even be able to polish and submit these exploratory works.
Change it up! If you’re having difficulty concentrating, getting up and stretching re-oxygenates your brain. Determine your ideal writing environment for lighting, hydration, comfort, ambient sound, etc. If you feel stagnant, try writing in a new location.
Try: Certain writing apps set reminders, rewards, or penalties; if you need an extra boost to hit your goals, consider Write-O-Meter, DabbleWriter, or Write Or Die.
Remember, every writer has a different pace and process. Set attainable and sustainable goals. You will feel much more productive hitting smaller regular goals that if you burn out writing six-thousand words for three days straight and then nothing for six months. Keep experimenting and find your sweet spot. After all, your story won’t write itself!
As a queer author focused on inclusive worldbuilding, Astra Crompton seeks to write complex characters whose identities, sexualities and motivations span across a nuanced spectrum. She has published short stories in anthologies including Blood Moon Rising and Anthology for a Green Planet, and for the tabletop RPG game Unity. She also has a number of self-published short stories, graphic novels, and a novel available. You can find her work at www.astracrompton.com
An anecdote, if you will.
In my late teens, I attended my first writing class. We were an eclectic group. Fiction writers. Poets. Even a few journalism enthusiasts. As an ice breaker, the teacher asked us to speak about our favourite books. I groaned. I always hated this question. I never knew how to answer. Could I rank a Hemingway above a Wilde? A Chekov above a Poe? How could I possibly decide?
The class went around, dropping names. All the big shots emerged. Shakespeare. Tolkien. King. Plath. This went on until we landed on a poet, a lanky boy in black who declared, “I don’t have a favourite book. I don’t read. I don’t want anything influencing my style.”
My first reaction was to stare. My second was to cry blasphemy. A writer who does not read? The idea was as foreign to me as a pianist who does not listen to music. I might have recoiled. I might have made a face. His answer lit a fire in me. When it was my turn to speak, I stood and said, with equal vehemence, “I don’t have a favourite book either, because I read everything.” I said this as though I had something to prove.
But why did I have such a reaction? Why did I feel such a drawing desire to rebut? In that moment, I believed, with every ounce of my being, that my answer was more correct than his. That a writer should always read, and not just read, but read widely.
The Well of Knowledge
One might claim that a writer does not need to read to write. This is true. Writing, after all, is merely a form of communication, and everyone knows, to some degree, how to communicate. My poet classmate, who did not read, still knew how to write. He understood sentences, and structure, and had creative ideas.
Yet writing does not happen in isolation. Not entirely, anyway.
Every piece of contemporary writing is a result of thousands of years of literary history—traditions that have percolated into our collective consciousness over time. Every genre is a plethora of established archetypes, patterns, and expectations. Writing itself is a transformative craft, constantly evolving, built on top of and alongside the ideas, styles, techniques, and successes of our writing peers and predecessors.
And herein lies my answer:
I read widely because I want to be influenced. Yes, I can write without reading, but to do so is to refuse the deep wells of knowledge sitting in my very backyard.
Learning from the Field
For writers, reading is akin to gaining field experience. The wider you read, the broader your horizons, and the better you understand your craft. Reading allows us to learn what has been done, what has worked, and, just as importantly, what has not worked. Better yet, it allows us to witness tools, techniques, and methods in action.
See, every literary genre has areas in which they excel. Prose does not read like a play does not read like poetry. Prose might prioritize narrative arc over imagery, whereas poetry might do the opposite. I am predominately a science-fiction fantasy novel writer. Yet every time I venture into genres outside my own, I find a wealth of transferable skills to add to my writing arsenal.
Graphic novels, for example, taught me how to better show. Subtle changes in lighting, angle, and colour can flavour a scene. A smile in sunshine feels different than a smile in the rain. I do not have pictures in my novels, but I have description, and that is a close enough approximation.
Poetry, on the other hand, made me more aware of connotations. An eternity of symbolism and cultural significance stands behind the word “rose.” This has made me more careful of my word choices in general.
And so on and so forth.
Let’s go back to that classroom.
It was not as though I did not understand my poetic classmate’s concerns. Originality is highly emphasized in all creative fields.
But what is originality anyway?
I would argue that originality is not so much invention than transformation. It does not spring from nothing. Rather, originality happens in reaction to pre-established norms. Fresh genres don’t pop out of nowhere. They are derived from existing ones. New voices don’t arise from the void. They counter traditional ones. To be original, you must first learn what is not original, per se.
Once you know of what is out there, you can change it. You can play, experiment, chop things up and put it back together in fascinating ways. Genre fusion, mixing and matching, purposeful deviations in structure and narrative—these are but a few examples of what you can try. See that familiar cliché? Invert it. That well-crafted sentence? Break it up. That hero’s journey? Apply it to contemporary romance instead.
To quote Dr. Seuss, “The more you know, the more places you’ll go.” If you’re worried about originality, don’t be. Reading widely can inspire originality rather than detracts from it.
Reading to Write
So, how does one begin to read widely? And how does one reap its benefits without writing hundred-page dissertations on craft? There is a lot out there, and our time is finite. No one wants to sift through every book in history on the off chance of finding a cool turn of phrase.
One of the safest ways to branch out is to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. Take a trope, setting, or archetype you enjoy and seek it elsewhere. Enjoy romance novels? Try romance poetry. Enjoy strong voices in fiction? Seek strong voices in memoir. See how they differ. See how they are familiar. See where they pull, where they push, and how.
Great. Now, get active. Ask questions. When we read as a writers, we are not simply consuming a product, but actively considering its creation. Look for those “aha” moments where your brain snags, where you find yourself reading the same passage over and over again. These are moments where something resonated. Then, consider: Why did I react the way I did? How did the writing evoke such a reaction? Do I want that for my own writing? How can I work that into my own writing?
And when you have those “oh no” moments (which you certainly will), ask yourself similar questions: Why didn’t I like this? What happened? How can I avoid making the same mistakes? A negative experience, after all, is just as important as a positive one when it comes to learning.
An analogy, if you will.
You are in a workshop. Here is your project. Here are your tools. You chip away at your project using your tools. You become excellent at it. Then, one day, a new wing springs forth with new projects and new tools. You stare at these projects. They are different than your own. You stare at these tools. They are new to you. Maybe you love this new wing! You find its projects fascinating! You’re excited about having new tools! Great! Or, maybe, you hate everything about it. You cover it up and refuse to set foot inside. This is fine too.
Because love or hate, you have a new wing at your disposal, to visit or ignore at will.
Reading widely adds more wings.
It never hurts to have more wings.
Let me finish by stressing this: You can be a good writer without reading widely. Reading widely is by no means a prerequisite for writing. If anything, it’s icing on top. It’s the optional reading you get at the end of each class for enrichment’s sake. This is simply to encourage you to explore. To give it a try, whatever it may be. To test new waters, and seek new tools. To try novel things. To stretch and bend and break some boundaries. To have some fun.
So read widely, write without fear.
You never know what you will find.
Like more authors, Jennifer Chen is a humanoid organism. She is usually found in front of an unfinished Word document, ingesting caffeinated drinks, and daydreaming. She enjoys writing so much she went ahead and got herself an MFA in creative writing from University of British Columbia for it.
Jennifer will read anything at least once, and then talk about it over the course of several social dinners. Of all the genres available, she most enjoys speculative fiction and magic realism.
An important step in my editing routine is this: rooting out repeated instances of characters' sighs, frowns, smiles, head nods, head shaking, and (yes!) long, steadying breaths before acting or speaking. Repetition is often a sign of flabby writing, and this particular kind has cropped up often enough in my own work to earn itself a nickname: the bobblehead syndrome.
Characters who are limited to just a handful of generic responses become less real and less relatable for the reader. In effect, the flabbier the writing, the flatter the characters are. Therefore, I've trained myself to think of vague emotional indicators as placeholders in a manuscript. They're acceptable in early drafts, but only until I can substitute a more detailed, more telling, and more authentic description of what the character is feeling inside, or how it appears to a point-of-view observer. Here are some examples from recent stories:
First draft: “I can see where this is going,” she said, frowning. “But I'm not going to break the law."
Edited: “I see.” Her lips and brows contracted as though pulled tight by the same string as her old-timey purse. “But don't think for one moment that I'll break the law to protect you."
(Frowns are so generic. This is a much more vivid and revealing description of her expression.)
First draft: He drew and expelled a long breath before speaking. “Well! It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
Edited: “Well!” he declared after a beat. “It appears we are about to have a first contact situation.”
(This character is simply buying time to process an unexpected development. Save the long breath for a high-stakes pivotal moment, such as when a character is about to commit perjury on the stand.)
First draft: She shook her head. “Absolutely not!”
Edited: "What? No! Absolutely not!"
(Unnecessary repetition here, a silent response followed by an identical verbal one. Check to see which one is more effective in the given situation, then go with it.)
Sometimes a simple frown or nod is a character's most authentic reaction. When it's not, I've found it helpful to have an "emotional thesaurus" on hand. Here's the recipe:
Collect any apt or well-worded character responses that you come across in your reading. Classify them according to the emotion being felt. Add your own original phrases to the list as well. (I've mined drafts of earlier stories for spot-on descriptions that came to me in moments of inspiration.) Then, while editing, dip into it for interesting emotional reactions that will strengthen your writing as they reveal the various dimensions of your characters. Your readers will appreciate it.
Arlene F. Marks
Arlene F. Marks took up writing at the age of 6 and is now helplessly addicted to it. Since retiring from the classroom, she has completely surrendered to her muse, authoring two multi-volume literacy programs and a writing manual, along with a great deal of imaginative fiction. Her current project is Sic Transit Terra, a series of space opera novels set at the turn of the 25th century that she describes as "Dynasty meets Star Trek with a side order of 24". Book 5, The Cockroach Crusade, will be coming out later this year from EDGE Publishing. Arlene lives and writes in the beautiful Georgian Bay area of Ontario.
Arlene's website: www.thewritersnest.ca
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I love losing myself in a good story.
Whether I’m sitting on the couch with a fantastic show or film, whether I’m reading a phenomenal book, or whether I’m booting up my computer to reign supreme in Tamriel, a good plot with great characters can keep me occupied for hours.
Sometimes it’s because I need to shut down my brain, sure, but a lot of the time, these are not passive activities for me. They’re a work of study.
Seriously. You should listen to me, and my husband watch some of the new Netflix shows. We basically have notebooks out, noting each beat and marking the quality with which they hit it. It leaves us a bit more critical of what we’re watching than if we just sat back and enjoyed, but I have learned so much about great storytelling from the likes of the first season of Stranger Things or The Punisher*.
My particular favourite is watching relationships. Unique twists on romances or friendships, dynamics I’ve wanted to play with but haven’t quite figured out how. Stories are all about people, so if watching something triggers conflict between two characters in your head, you’re already off to a great start.
And have you ever read a book where the prose is so sharp and beautiful, the character so richly developed, that within five minutes of picking it up, you want to put it back down so you can make some words of your own? In my opinion, those are the best books. The ones that inspire, that spark ideas over the smallest details, and make you believe you’re capable of doing the same for someone else.
I’m also a big fan of video games. Not that I would call myself a gamer, per se. I don’t have the passion for them that, say, my husband does, or even all that many games in my history. The type of games I love take a lot of time, and I tend to get a little…consumed when I start a new one, so I have a habit of sticking with my tried-and-trues. But that’s okay! Each time I play I still get a lot out of them, which is the point of this post.
Video games, even more than watching or reading something, give that real sense of immersion. You’re not just watching someone else wield a dagger or some fancy magics, you’re the one defeating the big bads and having the wild romances, and saving the world from whatever evil is threatening it. You’re the one playing sneaky-sneaky thief, prowling in the shadows to pick locks and steal the sacred objects that, really, didn’t belong to the person laying claim to it either.
You can choose to be the villain, you can choose to be the hero, and all of your options are valid.
It’s pretty intoxicating.
And with a well-written game, it can set off a whirlwind of ideas.
At the moment, I’m replaying Skyrim for the umpteenth time**. This is not a perfect game, by far. The story is pretty shoddy, and beyond a few NPCs (non-playable characters), the character development is non-existent. But the Thieves’ Guild questline is always a joy to tackle (the first half anyway), and the characters involved never fail to spark an idea or five for some sneaky-stabby-rogue stories of my own. In a way, the lack of definitive story or development makes them that much easier to work with as a starting base. I have been known to pause games to write down ideas. My first publication, a serial called Greylands (no longer available to purchase), was based on just this kind of brainstorming session, and I know it won’t be the last time it happens
Stories are everywhere if you’re looking for them, so if you ever feel stuck, just lose yourself in someone else’s world with an eye to forming ideas of your own.
And the next time you’re playing a solid RPG or analyzing a great show, and someone says you should be writing, you can turn to them and tell them you already are.
*There are exceptions to this critical viewing. Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place get a pass. They’re too good for critique.
**I know for a fact I’m not the only author who has enjoyed Bethesda games. Among the many of us out there, here’s a wonderful story about a wonderful writer and a wonderful character and a wonderful mod that shows how meaningful and impactful gaming can be.
Like many authors, Krista Walsh has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pen. At eight years old, she wrote three one-page ghost stories that she still feels are her best work. From plays and short stories through to fanfiction and novels, stories have always buzzed around in her head. After her first publication in April 2012, a short story in a dark fantasy anthology, Krista made her way through various collaborations and anthologies until she founded the self-publishing brand of Raven’s Quill Press.
One of my most favourite things to write is emotionally powerful scenes. They hit the reader square in the heart (or head), shed a tear or share a laugh, and perhaps allow them to make discoveries they hadn’t realized previously. But actually creating those moments is more than just a romantic kiss beneath a full moon or an epic battle between good and evil. It’s the little moments that build up to the climax that the reader will appreciate in the end.
If you are a writer or have ever dabbled in it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the “show, don’t tell” phrase before. But for penning a scene that is supposed to drive into your reader’s heart, you can only talk about ‘the slow flow of water leaking from his eyes,’ and ‘her heart beating wildly in her chest’ so much. When I am writing out this special moment for the first time, I get everything out - all the character movements, bad jokes, small nuances and subtleties: fingertips touching, a shift in body language, batted eyelashes. When the word well runs empty, that’s when the magic begins.
While reading over the verbal vomit I’ve thrown onto your page, imagine it as a movie scene. We all have ‘that one part in that one movie’ where we were enthralled with everything that was happening: the music, the words, the setting all seemed to flow in perfect harmony. I want to have that same effect on the reader, and so I play it out as such in words. For example, if you have a pair of friends that find out they’re related to one another when they thought they had no family left, tell us about how excited they are, about the small jig they dance around each other. Show us the choked up voices, the small hope growing over the disbelief, the laughter of relief that they aren’t alone anymore. Make them more human in that window of time than they have been in the entire story, and they will breathe life into everything else that happens, regardless if it’s related or not.
On the flip side of this ‘show and tell,’ try not to use words that you’re not familiar with. If a stranger walked up to you and asked you to explain that word to them, and you’re not really sure how it might be best to leave it out or find an alternative. Googling ‘100 of the most beautiful words’ may bring about inspiration, but who would know what moiety meant without looking it up? Being poetic and having creative license as a writer allows us to literally make up things that have their own meaning, one you would presumably remember better than something you pulled off of a website. Take the time to scout inspiration, but don’t forget that this is your story, not the internet’s.
Ashley J. Gallaher-Pollard
When Ashley was in elementary school, she fell heavily in love with reading, mostly mythology and fiction. At eleven, she penned her first story about a fearless princess and a tyrant king. Now, she's writing about gifted women and the power of family. She has written numerous poems, a handful of them published through Young Writers of Canada and the contests they hold, and several flash fictions on personal characters that she has developed over the years. Her favourite things to read and write are fantasy adventure and science fiction, and sometimes she dabbles in romance. Her current project is War Wine (working title), a mature high fantasy novel that covers familial bonds, love of all kinds, and friendship.
Would you read a book where the heroine had nothing to do all day, but get along with all of her friends, have a civil conversation with the antagonist and snap her fingers to turn the world into a utopia? Neither would I. It’s boring and flat has little potential for character development.
Conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s what causes (and forces) a character to grow, regress, or in some cases stay the same but watch those around them change in profound ways.
These are psychological and emotional struggles that the heroine faces, internal obstacles that prevent her from reaching her external goals. Let’s say the heroine has to confront a bully boss to get the recommendation needed for a promotion. She’s endured years of his verbal abuse and as a result, now has low self-esteem. But she also wants the promotion (external goal).
To regain her self-esteem, the heroine works through the verbal abuse of her boss. In one chapter she rallies her courage to enter into the boss’ office and then fails to ask for the recommendation. The next section, she confides in her friend that he didn’t succeed, and the friend gives her a morale boost. Throughout the book, the heroine is exposed to all sorts of people/situations that she internalises. Some of these events provide insight that change and alter the heroine until the moment of truth at the end where she asks for the recommendation (a happy ending), or she doesn’t and returns to her work station (a tragedy).
The heroine receives advice from her best friend, her mother, and a professional career coach. All three offer different strategies for dealing with the bully boss and the heroine can’t implement all three strategies at once. Her decision is also an internal conflict because if she doesn’t select her best friend’s or mother’s advice, she’ll hurt them and if she doesn’t take the career coach’s help, she’ll lose credibility in the eyes of the coach.
External conflicts are obstacles outside of the heroine that prevent her from reaching her goal. The bully boss (antagonist) is an external obstacle to her promotion. The three colleagues (supporters of the antagonist) that suck up to the bully boss and turn on the heroine are also obstacles. These characters actively work to suppress and deny the heroine in her mission.
Other external conflicts aren’t necessarily related to the antagonist. Suppose a new job position has opened up and three other colleagues have applied for it. They are in conflict with one another because they all want the same thing and not everyone can get it. There’s only one job opening.
Then there is the cast of characters that the heroine interacts with outside of work. She speaks with her mother about the situation at work, and her mother offers her a different approach/strategy to resolve the matter. The heroine doesn’t like the idea her mother proposes and is in conflict with the mother. The mother wants the heroine to take on the bully head-on, march down to human resources and report the boss. The heroine knows that the human resources manager is the husband of the boss and reporting on the boss will bring on a world of trouble. The mother says she should still report the bully boss.
Strong characters have layers of internal and external conflicts. If you feel that you’re stuck in your story, add two internal conflicts and two external conflicts. Play around with the conflicts and see how they internal conflicts influence the external ones. You’ll have more complex and interesting characters as a result.
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.