how do I get better at self-editing prose?

There’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do in a revision, whether you’re making large developmental changes or smaller in-line ones. Personally, I still struggle with the big stuff; it’s just hard for me to spot where something is flagging in my own plot or world without a lot of effort. But something I tend to feel really confident on is prose revision, aka, making your individual sentences and paragraphs shine.

Take a look at how you begin sentences. Do you shake things up every now and again? Or are you starting a lot of sentences the same way?

Brad unloaded the dishwasher. He dried the forks, then the spoons, and then the plates. He leaned on the counter. He was the only housemate awake before noon. He was so tired.

Subject-verb-object. It’s repetitive and while there’s nothing technically wrong with it, it’s also just kind of boring. We recognize the pattern here. Instead, let’s try rewriting it just by shaking up the order:

Brad unloaded the dishwasher. Drying the forks, then the spoons, and then the plates, he leaned on the counter. Once again, he was the only housemate awake before noon. And he was so tired.

It’s not a lot that changes, but it does make the paragraph feel a little fresher.

Seek and destroy. What words do you lean on more than others? Are characters always tentatively doing things? Does everyone sigh? How many things get described as impossible or immeasurable?

Especially if the word is more uncommon (like milieu, for example), your reader will notice if it comes up multiple times in close succession. Therefore, head that problem off at the pass by doing a quick search for your most common crutch words in your manuscript. Even if it’s just making sure that the two times you use “ethereal” aren’t in the same chapter of your book, it makes a difference.

This is also something that builds and you get better at the more you know what words you default to when writing.

Calm down the wild punctuation. Or, at least, challenge yourself to use less of it if you find yourself popping ellipses in every other line. My personal weakness is dashes. I will interrupt myself or other characters or just like, whatever, throw them in for spice when a normal period will do.

Challenge yourself to see if you can pull off the same effects without overloading on nonstandard punctuation. That’s not to say never use it, but notice how much you’re breaking the rules and, if it’s happening pretty frequently, ask yourself if it’s really that needed.

Like, if you find yourself trailing off and dot-dot-dotting every other page, then see if you can pare it down to once per chapter. Again, you don’t have to never use it, but try to make it more like a treat versus like a regular weeknight meal, if that makes sense.

Change the font or print it out and read pages out of order. I realize this might drive some people up a wall, but I personally really like this.

Change the font, then do a random number generator, go to that page, and read through it. Obviously, you should also read through and edit in order so that you get the emotional weight of the book, but this is fun and helps spice things up when you’re tired as heck of editing sometimes.

Plus, if you’re finding that you have pages that just…aren’t very interesting or are just plain boring to read, it’s an opportunity for you to ask “what could I do to make this part more fun?”

Because, let’s face it, you can’t have dinosaurs exploding on every page. But there are other ways to make things fun for the reader– maybe someone does a pun! Maybe there’s a really well-crafted line of dialogue or a beautiful succinct description. It doesn’t have to be a big, grand thing to still have an impact.

Can you identify speakers without dialogue tags? To cover my butt here: yes, you definitely still need and should include dialogue tags! We run a pro-dialogue tag establishment here. What I’m saying is that characters have a way of speaking. And it’s not just giving everyone weird accents or misspelling words on purpose to denote that it’s just ~that one character’s way of speaking~, it’s more that there are some word choices that jive with who characters are.

For example, your ragamuffin street urchin isn’t likely to talk about “the secret adoration of the night sky” but your poetic courtier might. Who uses slang and who doesn’t? Is one character more likely to contract words than others (“do not hit me with that again, you knave” versus “don’t hit me again, idiot”)?

Make your descriptions earn it. Whenever we slow down for a description, we’re doing exactly that– we’re taking a breather from the action to spend time looking at something. If the description is just telling us the same thing over and over in different words, then we’re going to get bored and wish we were back when the story was moving, versus hanging out and looking at a wall or whatever.

I’ve probably repeated this trick in other places, but the system I use for this is the three-point-touchstone rule: if I’m doing a description, I’ll maybe limit myself to talking about three or four important things about the object and then that’s it, show’s over. The other part of this is to make sure that each piece of description you add tells the reader something new and isn’t just the same information rephrased for beauty points.

Like, if you’re describing a love interest, don’t blow two of your description points on the eyes (unless, I dunno, they have really bananas glowy eyes or something deeply nonstandard)– tell us about how they move, the pitch of their voice, their scent, the little crinkle by the side of their mouth just before they unleash the punchline of a joke. Bonus points if you’re using the other four senses besides the just visual to perceive them.

And that’s that! Give it a try, and see what stands out to you the next time you’re polishing up your prose.

Any favorite tricks for making prose tighter before sending your work off? Let me know in the comments! I love learning new things.

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what’s the beef with sit-down dinners or scenes where characters eat?

Here’s the world’s biggest non-secret: I love to eat. Food culture in fiction? Cannot get enough of it. And probably, if you ask most other living people, you’ll find that this isn’t uncommon. Food is good, books are good, combine it and you should get something good.

So why are scenes in which characters eat delicious food, described in loving detail, usually kind of boring? Or why do people give you advice about not having sit-down meals in your manuscript? Is this something to be avoided entirely (like the dread First Chapter Mirror Moment) or can you get away with feasts, breakfasts, and family meals if you’re careful?

Here’s what I came up with.

Stakes Before Steaks. What’s the end goal of every chapter? To move the story forward and convince you to keep reading. What do we need for that? Conflict. A story is not built on things going well. And as great as eating with other people is, it’s also not typically a conflict-ridden situation– people tend to be more invested in eating rather than fighting.

It also points to a possible antidote for a dull meal scene: add a dash of tension! If your society gala or royal feast is all small talk and no political legerdemain, then chances are we’re not going to be particularly invested in whether or not everyone has a good time. It’s also hard to advance a we-need-to-save-the-world plot at the table, but you might find that you can drive a little more on emotional or internal arcs during these scenes.

For example, in one of C.S. Pacat’s CAPTIVE PRINCE books, Damen and Laurent share a meal at an inn while concealing their identities. That scene isn’t driving the main plot as aggressively as others (Damen isn’t trying to escape back to Akelios or kill Laurent), but no one would say it fails to increase tension between the two characters (it’s arguably one of the first times Laurent shows weakness around Damen) and is an important moment in their romance arc.

What’s often missing when meals feel boring is a sense of what matters in that scene/what we have to lose. Probably the main character’s food isn’t going to be snatched from them, so what else are they worrying about in that moment? Is their meal poisoned? Are they going to learn something about one of their tablemates that harms one of their relationships?

A Sit-down Kind of Place. Part of why meal scenes are difficult to make compelling are because there’s often just not a lot to do besides eat. If everyone is sitting, then they’re probably mostly communicating with their faces, which is going to feel repetitive and a little boring the fourth time someone communicates disappointment with a sigh.

One possible way out of this is to have your characters use physical cues that aren’t facial expressions to communicate their feelings. And certainly you can get characters to engage with their environment more by getting lunch to go, walking and eating, or having ice cream cones by an interesting spot like the ocean.

But there are also many ways to make sitting down at a table dramatic– just watch any Regency TV show. Hone in on those tiny ways we communicate with our actions while dining: a fork pausing after a tasteless comment, someone spilling a glass, griping a cup too hard, eating to avoid having to answer, the habits of careless eaters, careful eaters, engulfing food versus savoring it, etc. You can clue us into a character by how they eat.

Ripe for Info-Dumping. Meal scenes often struggle because, being a lull in the action, it’s really tempting to work in overly ambitious amounts of worldbuilding while people take a breather and savor their food. How many fantasy cookfires have you sat around where the main character(s) know they’re safe and there’s pages of exposition on how magic works or why the ~great cataclysm~ happened?

What’s the fix? Maybe some of that information does get conveyed over a meal– especially when you’re working in a world that takes a long amount of time to build, sometimes you do need to slow down and just tell people what’s going on. It doesn’t have to be pulse-pounding action-action-action all the time, but see what other arcs you can tug on while you’re layering that information in. Maybe the wizard’s familiar is pulling on the ranger’s hair while they’re trying to explain what happened to their village, maybe someone’s overcooked the stew and one of the party members walks out in a huff mid-prep to catch a fish that they can cook properly this time, or whatever.

Maybe there’s another solution entirely where you don’t have to use an eating scene to explain it! Maybe we see the village being destroyed on the page, or maybe there’s a battle and the characters demonstrate their powers and abilities that way.

If you’re relying on a dinner scene to give us a breather from the action and also to explain things, chances are there’s probably an opportunity to show rather than tell earlier in the manuscript. Your instincts are probably still right about the reader needing a release of tension, though, so you might need to find another way to accomplish that, with or without food.

This falls under the Yuschik School of “it pulls double or treble its weight or it gets the yeet.” If you’re feeding them because you need downtime to explain stuff, you’re taking up valuable page real estate with a scene that’s doing only one thing.

Above All, Savor the Meal. If showcasing the food and dishes important to the cultures of your characters isn’t important to you, then ask yourself: must this be a food scene?

Specifically, what I’m saying is: you have a very limited amount of space in a book. It doesn’t seem that way when you’re writing it all the time, but what you choose to include says a lot about the feeling of the setting and how we imagine it. In THE SCORPIO RACES, food isn’t central to the plot at all, but we know what people on Thisby eat and how meals look different when you have money or you don’t. It’s part of the beauty of Maggie Stiefvater’s worldbuilding that we instantly think Malvern’s a weirdo and kind of gross, all from the way he adds butter in his tea.

There’s apple cake, meat for water horses, and all this is before we even get to the famous November cakes. It’s the small touches that give us an idea of what daily life is like on the island and builds the world.

How many feast scenes have you read where all these kings and noble dudes are just waving nondescript turkey legs around (and enjoying, presumably, whatever else pairs well with turkey legs)? Contrast that with the specificity above– we’re not in Anyshire, Fantasy Realm or even Anytown, UK: this is a place with its own distinct flavor.

(Sorry, I had to do it.)

So in short, my feelings are: there’s nothing wrong with a scene where people are eating as long as it’s not being used as a crutch. Done well, banquet scenes can be the most fascinating in a book (I’m looking at Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books, which all open with a different POV character’s perspective on a seminal, disastrous feast).

What are some of your favorite feasts in fiction? Least favorite? Drop ’em in the comments– I’m always up for new recs.

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why don’t we like dreams in fiction?

One of the things I love about reading is that it makes me ask a lot of questions: why do I love this? Why do I hate that? What makes this archetype attractive to me and this other one less so? The more I thought about the kind of craft posts I wanted to write, the more I realized it’d be most natural to just write this stuff the way I think about it, which is asking myself questions and then answering them.

So, welcome to my latest reincarnation of craft talks, in which I ask myself questions about why I like or don’t like stuff in fiction and then answer them.

Today’s question du jour is: how do you write a dream that your reader is invested in and doesn’t skip or get frustrated by? More specifically: what makes an effective dream and what makes a frustrating one? Is including dreams in fiction worth it?

Some positives to dreams are that they’re a compact little scene where you can play around in a different world beyond the waking one. Maybe dreams are part of your magic system, or maybe your character has a mysterious dream that plagues them that they can’t figure out. Certainly for us as real people, dreams are something we want to have meaning or, at least, we either ascribe meaning to or at the very least, dreams invite us to ask questions. They blur the boundary between the subconscious and the conscious minds. They’re just plain neat!

But a lot of times with dreams it’s easy to make the reader feel frustrated or pulled out of the story. Personally, there are very few dreams in fiction that I have enjoyed reading, because most of the ones that I encounter don’t have much of a purpose.

Let’s dig in a little more.

The big question I have in mind here is: what’s the dream’s endgame? If it’s a cheap scare– oh my god, someone I love is dead! everyone is naked! aliens are invading! worst case scenarios!– then as soon as the reader cottons on to their being in a dream, it’s game over for your emotional stakes.

Why? Say it’s the night before the final battle and the new chapter begins with the protagonist watching their friends die as the antagonist laughs. Sounds plausible, yeah? You’re no stranger to making your reader squirm: you’re killing people after you’ve made us care about them (as you should), you’re not making it completely out of the blue (it’s happening before a battle), and it’s a very possible thing that could happen. We might confuse it with reality.

Here’s how I’m going to feel when I figure out it’s a dream, though: bored. I’m going to be suspicious that all these important characters (and they should be important if you want their deaths to mean something to the reader) are dying either off-screen or with little fanfare, and then once I figure out that we’re in a bad dream, I’m not going to take any of the action that happens after that realization seriously. It’s going to be tedious to wait for the dreamer to figure that out and deal with the melodrama in the meantime.

One of my big tenets in writing is to trust the reader. This can also be read as: be wary of your reader’s intelligence when you’re trying to play tricks on them. Your audience is smart. Respect that. Maybe some people won’t realize they’re in a dream, but assume some do, even when you’ve revised and you know the dream is at its best. Does the scene still hold up? Or are you relying on jump scares for your effect?

So my question is: why are you putting this dream here? Is it to remind the reader of what’s at stake if the protagonist fails? Chances are, you have that built into the story in other ways (if not, there’s a great starting point for revision). Is it for fun/your own enjoyment? I might be biased as an affirmed dream-hater, but for me, if it goes in the manuscript it’s got to be pulling at least double its weight.

Here are two hard truths:

1) Everything that ends up in the final/people-safe draft should be something you enjoy (no, you do not have to enjoy getting there).

2) The book isn’t for you.

If you’re just popping in a dream because you need to fluff up a word count (we’ve all been there), got tired of playing in the world you normally hang out in, or just felt mentally exhausted and wanted to show the characters from other angles, then cool. The dream is a writing exercise; it doesn’t belong in the final. Cut it.

And sidenote: in general, if you’re hating a scene, ask yourself why! You’re the one in charge here, you can change it to be anything you like. What I’m trying to say is that, there are better ways you can sneak in the information you’re using the dream to communicate, and you might be doing them already.

Also, if you know you’re going to make your readers mad at you, the writer, for including a dream and literally toying with their emotions or boring them when they realize it’s not real and they don’t have to care, then…why do that? The book isn’t for you. You get to write it (and that’s awesome), but ultimately, you’re not the one the end product is meant for. What your reader wants is important. The goal is to help them put the pieces together, not hit them over the head with emotional wrecking balls and then say “jk! it was all a dream!” That just damages your credibility with your audience.

And okay, obvious disclaimer: if you’re writing stuff just for yourself, then do whatever. Rock and roll, buddy– your audience is you. But if you’re looking at making stuff and sharing it with other people, then I’d suggest, you know, thinking about what those other people are like and what they want.

And answers vary! I write for and about smart people who build things to fight monsters. That’s it, that’s my whole entire brand. It’s general, because I like a lot of different genres, but it’s also pretty specific: I write stuff for readers who like tricky, intricate puzzles and who want a strong emotional arc, in whatever form those things manifest. It’s not a specific demographic, but it’s enough that I can tell you what my audience is and isn’t going to dig.

And I know the emotional below-the-belt punch is not going to fly. My reader would expect something more satisfying than that.

It begs the question: what makes a satisfying dream?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few scenarios where I could see dreaming being useful: if your magic system or world or what-have-you relies on dreams as a mode of communication (think: SHADOW OF THE FOX by Julie Kagawa, aasimar and their deva guides, if you’re doing an Endymion retelling and it’s literally in the OG myth, etc), or if the dream is a reflection of the dreamer’s id or subconscious in an interesting and unexpected way and also conveys something important that the reader may not be able to understand or grasp the significance of (the prophecy/foreshadowing angle).

What’s different? If you’re communicating in the dream world or if your character knows that they’re dreaming and this lucidity doesn’t defeat the stakes, then awesome– the events in the dream are influencing what happens in the real world (e.g. Endymion meets the Moon, falls in love, and decides to spend the rest of his life asleep) and this moves the story forward.

If physical woes carry over from dream state to waking state (e.g. protagonist is a magical girl saving a city in her dream world, she’s awesome and a hero, but all her cuts and bruises from defeating monsters carry over into her waking life) or if the emotional stress of the dream/fantasy state influences the real world (e.g. a group of friends play a TTRPG, one of their characters dies, and the person playing the dead character gets steamed af at the other players who let their character just die), then we don’t see the same disruption in stakes as we would with a garden variety dream because what happens in the dream state matters. You can’t cut the dream out, because the dream has become what moves the story forward. Maybe that’s my litmus test for “do we keep the dream or not?”

Notice also that in these cases it doesn’t particularly matter anymore if the reader figures out that we’re dreaming– we’re in another world/state of being, sure, but actions still have consequences. Maybe they’re not always physical ones, but sometimes the emotional fallout is worse. I’ve probably said this a million times, but if it costs you something (goodwill between friends, physical wellbeing, magic) it tends to be compelling.

Last, let’s talk about dreams as foreshadowing. This is the other thing that I see a lot of in fiction, beyond a false reality scenario. And prophetic dreams can be really cool! My question here is more: how do you still keep this fun for the reader? If we’re getting dreams of this wholesome peasant girl dancing around in ballgowns and being crowed empress of all Russia, then it’s not really going to shock us to learn later that she’s Anastasia.

For this, take cues from what your own dreams (the ones you, as a person, have when you are sleeping) are like. Make your reader work to figure out what dreams mean, if they mean anything at all! Maybe the dream is communicating something is about to happen, but maybe it’s done so weirdly that the dreamer only gets a feeling and not an in-depth meteorological forecast of the future.

Like: you stumble into a kitchen. You don’t know why you’ve been running, but it’s important that you are hidden. There’s a young man working some dough in a bowl, a careless streak of flour down his cheek and tousled hair. He’s also kinda confused why you’re here, but the oven is heating up, there’s herbs growing on the window sill as it rains outside, and the dark wood cupboards give the room a cozy look. He gives you a look and motions for you to hide under the table with its long white tablecloth. You do so, thanking him, and he puts a finger to his lips. There’s the sound of measuring cups, then the people who were chasing you surge into the kitchen, sounding very important and questioning the young man about you. He’s annoyed that he’s being bothered in the middle of his work and gives them wrong directions. When they’ve left, he gives you the all-clear, then sends you on your way with a thumbs-up and a croissant from the basket on the table. It tastes melt-in-your-mouth good as you run through lavender fields outside the cottage and into the mists. You wake up, surprisingly grateful, and get back to work on the project you’ve been stressing about.

It’s that kind of subtlety that I think you’re looking for. You could sneak more foreshadowing into that (maybe the dreamer has the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, or meets someone with a birthmark under their eye and feels kindly toward them), but we’re not watching the dream to know what happens next– we’re watching it to know how the character feels. Maybe a more ruthless character is a little more inclined toward kindness after a dream like that and it influences the way the they treat the people around them.

Because, again, your reader is smart. They’ve seen a ton of dreams too, and chances are they know the same narrative tricks you do. If you want to give them something to think about, then kick it up a level.

And those are my thoughts on dreams: ease off the worst-case gotcha! moments and lean more into the weird emotional angles and the stuff that carries over into the waking world and creates change there. At the end of the day, you are playing the stakes game: how can I manipulate the reader’s emotions in way that’s going to be most satisfying long-term?

If you liked this and want to cajole me into making more craft posts via monetary encouragement, behold, I have a Ko-fi! If these Uncertain Times™ are not ~finding you well~ then nbd fam, I’m just glad you’re here.

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Now get out there and make stuff.

18 writing tricks I learned in 2018

In what has now become my traditional yearly post, here’s my summary of some of my favorite pieces of writing advice I came across or learned in 2018.

  1. We love progression. 
    You want the inside line to my heart as a reader? Show me someone slowly getting better over time. That’s it, that’s the whole thing. I want the squire learning to slay dragons. I want the long-shot freshman practicing on the field after dark, changing his diet, going from last-ditch quarterback to taking his team to the state championship. Incremental change is believable and adds up over time. This is the big romance everyone carries on with years ending and beginning– it’s a convenient way to measure where you start and finish with respect to your goals. Even if it’s just a side character or a setting, I love the hell out of it when a fictional cafe changes with the seasons or expands into a second location, when things change as time goes on. It makes us as readers feel like we helped somehow, maybe just by being there, to make these things happen.
  2. Sometimes you have to go it alone.
    Sometimes your critique partners will not be able to read for you. Sometimes you will have a crisis and every reader or person you trust will be busy, and it’s not because they don’t care about you or anything like that; it’s just because they have lives too and sometimes everyone’s crisis points stack up. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t get help from other people because obviously you should! But when your usual system breaks down, you’ve got to have a back up plan and know you can finish things if all you have to rely on is yourself.
  3. No one cares about it as much as you do.
    The good news: no one agonizes over mistakes and imperfections as much as you do, so you can’t be too down on yourself. The bad news: no one is going to push yourself to be better more than you. When I first came across this, I was kind of appalled– there are so many people involved with publishing that everything feels so much like a team effort. This is still true, and everyone on your team will be likely be enthusiastic, talented, and incredibly helpful. It’s just that at the end of the day, it’s going to be your name on the cover, not theirs. No one is going to have the same kind of personal investment in it as you do, and that’s okay. Learn to ask a lot of yourself in your work, but also get a good sense of what reasonable expectations are from the people working with you.
  4. The rule of three.
    If you’re not sure how much description is enough/too much, pick three different things as touchstones to set a scene or describe a feeling. Sometimes you’ll feel like you should use more or less–it depends a lot on how important the feeling/person/place is to the story!– but if you’re wondering if you’ve done enough, generally focusing three different aspects to talk about is pretty sufficient without being overwhelming, and you can always cut back or add more when you revise to suit the scene.
  5. Just finish it. 
    Perfect is the enemy of done. You have to be able to give your very best, and then be satisfied with it. It’s brutal and I get it– it’s hard as hell to learn to walk away and say a project is Done, especially when you’re convinced a few more months will make it better. But that’s the eternal problem: of course a few month whatevers is going to make it better, because you’re always improving. Eventually, you will need to let it go, and that’s okay. My goal is to be able to confidently say I fixed everything I knew was wrong at the time, and then head on to the next adventure.
  6. You don’t have to write daily; you have to train so you can turn it on when you want.
    I think about this like a tap. Like as in, literally, a sink faucet. When you first start writing with the goal of being professional, sometimes you turn the faucet on and nothing comes out. Sometimes actual, potable water comes out and it’s awesome. Sometimes gross, grunky water comes out and you’re like eugh, what the hell, and you have to take out the wall and uncrust all the pipes. Your goal is to make it so that whenever you sit down to write, it’s just like turning the tap in the kitchen sink: clear water comes out (you may still need to install a filtration system, aka edit, to make it drinkable, but that can be for later). Daily writing is a good way to do this, but also it’s not the only way. It’s more about treating the act of writing as training versus divine intervention. There is no muse, only the tap.
  7. Plan for the next steps of your career. 
    If you fail at any stage of your career, that’s relatively easy to handle: you keep on working hard until you succeed. But if you succeed, what then? Sketch out how you’re going to take on the new challenges that leveling up will bring you: will you need an accountant? Would opening an additional bank account help so that you can put half your advance away for taxes and not think about it? Follow and read up on how other people a step or two ahead of you in the process handle things, and make a battle plan so that after the euphoria has worn off you have an idea what you need to work toward next. If you have an agent or editor you’re working with, they’re also great resources to consult on planning ahead for next steps.
  8. Establish a ritual. 
    This is part of the tap thing– often it’s really helpful to have things you can do that get you into a creative mindset. Perform the ritual, get in the zone, and then write. Mine is music. If I have my headphones on and a song from a project playlist going, chances are I’m into it by the first chorus. Some people have very elaborate rituals depending on places or time of day– I used to wake up super early and write before dawn (also highly recommend) at a cafe– but it doesn’t have to be any fancier than what gets you to write at the drop of a hat. If I can have it, I’d love a high stool by the window watching the dawn come up in a rainy city with a latte, but I also know the only real essential for me is music. And okay, I even can do it without that, but it’s hard and I don’t like it. Experiment and learn what you need to get you in the right mindset.
  9. Once you know the heart of the story, all you have to do is make your work resemble that.
    I like this one because it makes it sound easy to know what the heart of a story is. I usually have no idea what the hearts of any of my stories are until after I’ve written at least the zero draft, and honestly probably not until I’ve gone through a few revisions. Sometimes I’m revising and I have to stop and just look at the ceiling and really figure out what my character wants and what this means for the story I’m telling. Sometimes I try to write with the heart in mind from the start, and then I get it wrong anyway.

    One way to get at the heart of a story is to ask what you want to evoke in the reader. And not just like “a sense of hope for a better world” because that is too nebulous and unhelpful, but approach it like a reader: what were the stories that resonated with you emotionally? What did you take away from them? When you settle on what you want your reader to come away with, build the heart out of that: make it essential to the main arc (chances are, it already is so emphasize it), make the growth stages more emotional, have the climax bring everything to a head, and then the resolution echo it.

  10. Suffering is currency.
    You buy readers’ emotional investment with how willing your characters are to suffer for their goals. We judge someone more on their actions rather than what they say, and showing us not only someone working toward a goal but being willing to go through discomfort for it will convince us how badly they want it.
  11. Detail is king.
    Research is crucial in literally everything. The more I write fantasy and any kind of fiction, the more I appreciate nonfiction. I like learning about new things, because I also learn about why our world is the way it is and what would change if I shifted up stuff in worldbuilding. Detail is also how you buy a reader’s faith. We believe more that you’re an authority on something if you can prove that: it’s one thing to tell us that a character is a master swordsman, but it’s a whole other level to talk about the tang of a blade. A reader is going to put their trust in a storyteller who knows what they’re talking about–and it makes sense: you want to listen someone you think can tell a good story. To become that person, you’re going to need to either be well-versed in what you’re writing about already, or do some legwork.
  12. You are an idea factory, act like it. 
    If you have an idea, use it. Sometimes there’s this worry that “oh, if I use this secondary character idea now, I’ll never have any other cool secondary character ideas in the future” or whatever like your brain is something finite. You’re always going to think of new things. You’re always going to think of ways to use old things in new ways. There is no end to this. Use whatever you have that you want to use, because the more media, art, and life that you encounter, the more your creative side will make new ideas for you. Go all out.
  13. Can you take a class in it?
    Disclaimer: there are obviously some varieties of lived experience that you cannot participate in or get firsthand experience with in a short amount of time, and here sensitivity or expert readers should be your go-to. However, if your protagonist has a certain skill, it may be helpful to try experiencing doing that in real life. Like, if they make candles for a living, maybe you can sign up for a session to pour some candles. If they kickbox, try out a kickboxing class. It’s fun (who doesn’t want to act like their protagonist or characters for a day), but it’ll also help you be aware of new things about the skill that you maybe wouldn’t have been before. Again, it all comes back to detail and belief.
  14. Voice is hard, but immediately compelling.
    A lot of what draws me into a story is character. Plot is cool, but if I’m sold on a character I will follow them forever, plot or no (this is probably why I have had to rip up various projects multiple times to fix plots). The hardest thing for me in my own writing is voice. I think there is a huge gulf between voice and style, and I may love one and hate the other in the same book. When both work together, though, it’s something else. Voice can be overwhelming and intrusive (who wants to hear every second of someone else’s thoughts), it can be robotic and spare (does this narrator not have feelings), but when done well it’s electric and makes us want to keep going, because it’s like our best friend is telling a story and we just want them to keep talking to us forever.

    How do you do voice well? That’s the million-dollar question, and I think it depends on the project. The easy answer is that you have to know your narrator and their arc extremely well. The hard answer is to read through a chapter and ask if you feel exhausted (or even just not excited, honestly, because if your reader isn’t hype, they’re not going to keep going). If so, then the voice is wrong. In my case, it meant I needed to cut things and stop slowing down the action– you may also need to add things in.

  15. Different characters need to sound different.
    Sounds easy in theory, more difficult in practice. If you have multiple POV characters, you should be able to read a page (ideally, even a paragraph) from anywhere in your book and know who’s narrating. People have different styles of talking (this also parallels to dialogue, but I feel like a lot of people miss this in exposition) and, unsurprisingly, different ways of thinking about stuff. As a reader, I love dual POV romance but I also get a little nervous when both POVs sound super alike– clearly the ways in which both characters interact with the world aren’t the same! What are their obsessions, what are their unique perceptions or quirks that come through? For exampole, if I have to walk back the same way I came, I make a circle instead of retracing my steps. A friend thinks this is hilarious because he just walks the same route back. He’s thinking about efficiency; I don’t want to retrace my steps because it feels like I’ve messed up (and a circle…doesn’t make me feel that way, I guess).  Even simple decisions can be influenced by different perceptions.
  16. Learn from everything.
    Sit at the feet of many masters. Read widely. Do you write YA? Awesome, read romance. Write romance? Read SFF. Write SFF? Read mystery novels. Read fiction and nonfiction. When you have an idea and need to flesh it out, read like a maniac. Right now, I am devouring nonfiction on the NFL. One of the key solutions to fixing my WIP came from a cozy. Follow your obsessions and push yourself outside the genre(s) you write in. Observe movies, shows, books, everything, and ask “what story is this telling and why is it telling it the way it is?” You may not end up using the information immediately, but it’s going to be useful eventually.
  17. Revisit the stories you loved and ask why you loved them. 
    On a similar track, study the things you love. I feel like there’s often a huge emphasis on reading new books all the time, but I have the learned the most as a writer by reading and re-reading the stuff I’ve loved and asking myself how the author achieved certain effects. And I get it, it can be nerve-wracking to revisit a beloved story and fear that it may not hold up, but I’d much rather understand why I love something than leave it a mystery or doubt my past self’s taste. Usually I find that I like the story more because I see more of the work involving in it. And if it really is something that hasn’t held up, I can at least analyze why my younger self liked it and what parts of it I wasn’t seeing or didn’t pay attention to. Sometimes that’s even more valuable, because it tells me what tropes I love so much I literally ignore bad or sloppy storytelling for.
  18. Remember why you love the work. 
    Whenever things get hard, revisit the good stuff. When I had to go scene by scene and rip out the lymphatic system that was the voice in my WIP, it sucked. I was excited about my new idea for the voice, but rescuing scenes felt like pulling them out of molasses, gross and kind of unwieldy. When you’re feeling tired and still have a lot of hard work ahead, read back through the good stuff– prove to yourself that the changes you’re putting in place are worth it. If you’re drafting and frustrated, remind yourself how awesome the climax will be to write.

    The best advice I know to help you produce something you’ll feel proud of is to enjoy doing it. Writing is talking to other people, and people are excellent at reading emotion. Make sure you’re coming into it with positive ones and it’ll translate.

And those are the top things I learned in 2018! I might try to elaborate more on a few of these in craft posts to come, so let me know if you have any faves. 🙂 Happy 2019!

17 writing things I learned in 2017

Since I haven’t posted about writing advice in a while, here’s what I learned from 2017!

  1. Clarity super omnia.

    Probably the most important thing for me to remember in my writing: at the end of the day, no one cares how beautiful the prose is if it’s not communicating what you need it to effectively. The audience needs to understand what you’re saying or else they won’t know what’s going on in the plot (was the protagonist just injured? what happened to the dog in that scene?) or they may not understand a character’s actions (what are they even doing in this scene, what’s happening?).

    And sure, sometimes you want that ambiguity: I love confusing the reader when my characters are injured, out of it mentally, or acting in extreme distress. Playing around with how you narrate is great fun and can be super useful for showing how dire/extreme a situation is.

    Still, there’s always the temptation to make every sentence this glittering bauble. And I love it, do not get me wrong: I didn’t choose baroque prose, the ornate life chose me.

    But okay, more seriously: if your metaphor or description is getting in the way of the reader actually understanding what’s going on, then it’s not working and you need to revise it. It can be really annoying, because sometimes you’ll have this great idea for how a sentence should sound and you might have to compromise on it to make sure the reader gets the action (that is, if your first goal fails and you can’t figure out how the make the sound work and be clear at the same time). Ultimately, clarity takes priority most times.

  2. Some work is better than no work.

    I almost always feel better when I work a little bit on a project per day. Some days it can feel like I’m not getting enough done unless I have a big win–revise a few chapters, solve a major plot problem, etc– and some days it can feel like it’s not even worth it to spend time writing if I don’t have the time to do something that will have that kind of large impact.

    At the end of the day, though, a manuscript is made up of a lot of tiny changes. Sometimes you can devote hours and hours to fixing Chapter 14. Sometimes you’re only going to have time to set up the romantic arc for Chapter 14 and that’s fine. Sometimes you fix one paragraph in Chapter 14, but it’s the right one. As long as you can cross a few more items off the to-do list you have for the revision (or even figure out what needs to change! another big thing that often gets lost when when we talk about revisions: actually figuring out where to begin) you’re coming out ahead.

    Other people may like to put things on hold until they have huge blocks of time to work on them, and that’s also fine. I think the most I keep my head in the project, the more my brain’s going to work on it when I’m not looking, and then more I’m going to know how to attack it the next time I pick it up.

  3. Balance information relevance & a sense of being lived-in in worldbuilding.

    So we all know about the dangers of info-dumping: no one likes to sit through years of paragraphs of stuff that’s not relevant and is honestly kind of boring when we could be in the main action. Sometimes it feels like writers can also go the other way too, where the only information about the world we get is the stuff that’s innately tied to the plot. It feels kind of mercenary: okay, this bird is mentioned once as a legend here, so clearly one of the characters is going to be the reincarnation of the sparrow deity.

    I don’t think that every single piece of information about the world has to be relevant to the plot. I like hearing the random stuff. Like: “oh, this? it’s a spell I messed up as a little kid and now this corridor’s always like that, sorry” or “this is how we get food in this city and it’s not going to be exploded or relevant to the plot, it’s just how it works.”

    The key is balance. Too much random stuff and the throughline of the plot gets lost (also, see above, no one cares). Too little random stuff and it’s like a murder mystery where it’s too easy to spot the murderer. You need enough likely-seeming information to give the world depth and breadth, to make it feel like it’s something lived in, to make me not sure where the story’s going to go next, even as you’re laying the foundation for things to get cracked wide open.

    My general feeling about a world, especially in fantasy/science fiction literature, is that I want to feel like I could tell stories in this place, whether writing fanfic or pretending that I lived there. There’s enough of the place/time/general vibe down on paper that I get a good idea of it without it being overwhelming or sparse.

  4. Even (and sometimes especially) if you didn’t like a book/movie/show/art/piece of media, you can still learn something from it.

    Usually when I DNF (decide not to finish) a book, it’s because I know why it’s not working for me. It’s surprisingly hard to condense into a single sentence why you dislike something! (And not just saying, “it’s bad, ugh” but breaking it down into a critical argument like “this is not how I think cat-and-mouse arcs should go because I want the detective not to be a buffoon/source of comic relief but actually present a real threat to the phantom thief–there’s a lot of missed tension here.”)

    It actually becomes a fun game: why the hell do I hate this thing so much? What precisely has this creator done wrong? How would I fix it? Or, in what way does their choice advantage them versus what gains do you get from doing it my way? I may not always agree with the way that people tackle problems, but I gain an appreciation for a creator’s choice (unless it really is just a stupid one) and learn more about what to do or not to do in my own stuff.

  5. Don’t be precious about your process/work.

    This is actually something I realized about myself when I was in the digital art scene: I have no patience for muses. None.

    It’s hard not to have an emotional connection with your work– the emotional connection is what makes it so damn good. It’s what inspires you to keep working on it even when it sucks or you’re doing tedious stuff, and it’s what’ll compel people to pick it up and read it.

    But I also think that if you deify inspiration or say that a particular project is your child, it’s only going to make it harder to revise or take feedback on it later. If inspiration becomes this thing you’re constantly waiting on to ring the doorbell, you’re wasting valuable hours of your own time. You’re also taking power away from yourself: if the reason you’re good is because you were inspired to be good versus earning your skills through sweat and blood, then that’s not saying a boat load of complimentary things about the human condition. You’re not born talented enough to write a book. It’s not a gift, not an inheritance, not a divine or demonic calling. One of my favorite Leigh Bardugo lines of all time: steel is earned.

    What’s holy isn’t the final draft or the idea that made you start: it’s you, sitting at your desk for hours, putting in the work to translate the item in your head to those words on paper.

    Earn your steel.

  6. On the flip, don’t be too cynical/gritty about it.

    Idk, it could just be that I also have no patience for assholes but no one likes this. Of course writing is hard. Try writing for an hour straight; it’s probably going to be hard (if it’s not, what are you doing, go back to that draft and ride out this wave out because you are clearly in the zone).

    We’re never reading industry posts or writing advice columns because we need to be reminded out how hard it out there for a dude. Assume your audience has taken a few punches, that they have a basic idea of the shape of the jungle and its dangers. We’re reading because we want hope.

  7. Map it out (story maps).

    2017 was also the year when I admitted to myself that I am actually pretty bad at holding an entire novel’s worth of structure in my head. Previously on Alex Yuschik Does the Thing, I had used post-it notes to help me get a sense of the main arcs in a project. This is still useful, but I’ve also found that making a story map in a notebook has also been effective.

    This is one of those your-mileage-may-vary deals, but I thought I’d share since it’s literally helped me figure out a short story that I have been stuck on since 2016.

    As its name suggests, it’s just a map. You need to know where you’re starting (boy in dorm) and where you need to go (boy offering himself up to tornado) and then you chart out the intermediate steps needed to get there. This personally has been super helpful not just for figuring out the action, but for figuring out what scenes I need to show the reader and which points I can fuzz over in the exposition.

    Next time you’re stuck, try it out and see where you go.

  8. You can tell a reader anything, but you make them believe it through detail/evidence.

    I love this one and it’s totally one that reader!me learned, which is why the old adage about “read like an addict” really works for authors– some things are just easier to see from another point of view.

    As a writer, you can tell me anything. Whether I take you seriously or not as your reader is another story. If you tell me that someone loves another person, then okay. I have one line telling me this information and I have no idea what kind of love this is– the true, unending kind, or the half-love that is going to mostly be okay until it’s not and everything shatters. It’s really non-specific and it can feel kind of tacked on there.

    The way you make a reader believe you is by building a case. You present the evidence and allow them to draw the conclusion. He knows how to make his best friend’s favorite kind of tea. He knows this guy would never wear a tie and so gifts him cuff links instead. He destroys a computer he spent hours building so his friend doesn’t get in trouble.

    You never have to say a word about love, but you can tell that there’s a strong emotion present there. (also, it’s more fun to drive the reader crazy suspecting it.)

  9. Organize things to streamline them (email labels, submissions tracking).

    On the business side of writing, organization makes your own life easier.

    I use flashcards to track my poetry/short story submissions: each card is a piece and it lists the places and dates I’ve submitted it to on the card. If the piece is accepted anywhere, it gets pulled out of the box and put into a different box. You can also do this for query tracking; it makes your life so much easier.

    Another thing I highly recommend is using filtering and inbox labels. If you use gmail like I do, you can color-code your email or tell gmail to assign certain labels to emails from certain people. The search function is pretty good, but if you want to pull up all the emails from a certain group of people or falling under a certain category for easy reference, like queries or agency emails or submissions, labeling makes it a hell of a lot easier.

  10. When you’re stuck/uninspired, try attacking from another angle.

    If you’re not feeling excited to write a scene, no one on god’s green earth is going to want to read it either. Something that’s been a game-changer for me is keeping a scratch notebook/practice notebook around– it’s literally just a notebook that I can treat as a sandbox and play around in. Sometimes I use a spare Word .doc for this– you just have to get yourself in a place where you’re not writing in the main draft and you don’t have that pressure on you.

    Maybe you try attacking from another POV. Maybe you try writing it from a different point in time– is it more useful to show the aftermath than the actual fight? Maybe you try another structure for the character entirely. You have to get back to what makes you hyped up to write: why did you decide to write this scene to begin with? Was it because you were stoked to include this one interaction between characters, or was it because you felt like you needed this scene here?

    If you have a point in the scene you’re dying to write, focus on that! If you don’t, look at ways that you can restructure things so that something fun for you to write is happening. Otherwise, evaluate whether or not you truly need this one.

  11. The MICE Quotient.

    I don’t want to say too much and not have people read the post, so I’ll just also recommend the Writing Excuses episode on this, as it is excellent.

  12. Voice is hard to balance with action.

    This is one of those “this is why the hell that thing is so hard for me” light bulb moments from earlier in this year: what is my problem with voice?

    It’s not so much that I dislike voice– there some books that I love because of the voice! Meg Cabot’s Mediator books were like my ideal as a teen reader– but there are books that I either find the voice too grating and kind of infuriating, or books where the voice overwhelms the story. It’s a safe bet to assume that we’re reading for character, but a good voice doesn’t mean that every single action is commented or snarked on.

    Sometimes it’s okay to just have a character say something straight-up (“it’s a bus”) without pronouncing judgement on it (“it’s a sad little dumpster on wheels”). Especially meaningful to me in the case of a snarkier narrator is when they take things genuinely. Humor can be a defense mechanism, anything to keep them from having to be serious and open to being hurt. When you show them being open and not dissembling about something, that can say a lot.

  13. It is a long game.

    I think about it like you’re building a city. Each project you complete is a new building. Maybe it’s a small house that only a few people know about or a project that only a few people read. Maybe it’s a huge skyscraper that people want you to construct more of. Maybe you’re building on the structures that you had before, taking things from older projects and resurrecting them into something bigger and newer.

    It can get frustrating to feel like you’re not doing anything, or that it’s taking a long time for things to happen. A lot is out of your control in publishing, except for the things you make. So, get passionate about creating stuff. You have your whole life to build a city; it’s okay to start small. On the flip, it’s also okay to build a ton of huge things and see what happens. You have a lot of time to devote to learning how to do this well.

    And there’s a ton of stuff to learn– you don’t just want to build the same thing over and over, it’s more exciting and looks cooler when you’ve mastered a variety of styles. It can be easy to obsess about the business side of things, but ultimately you remember more why you’re in the game when you remember why you love creating stuff.

  14. Emperical evidence: track revision hours and words per day.

    The more you know about your process, the better you can get at estimating how long things will take you. Granted, sometimes things are just going to go wrong or be more difficult than anticipated, but having a baseline is a good place to start from.

    Another helpful thing to do, especially if you’re reading for others, is to track how long it usually takes you to read a friend’s manuscript. If you know you can do about two or three manuscripts per month (while still managing your own life responsibilities and writing goals) then you’ll be able to keep commitments better for your friends and CPs.

  15. It’s always better to finish things, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking about stories as widgets/commodities. 

    Forward momentum is important, and it really does feel good to get a story to a state where you can be proud of it and okay with other people reading it. However, it can also be easy to feel like you need to constantly be turning out new projects. Generally, I learn more from the projects that I get stuck on and spend a ton of time on rather than ones that I cranked out for NaNos and other one-per-month story events.

    Everyone’s process is different, but from time to time examine how you’re doing things. Is it difficult for you to finish stuff because you give yourself too much downtime (or is your life just kind of in a difficult place to finish stuff quickly)? If life stuff is going on, usually you just have to wade through that, unfortunately, but if there’s something you can fix, maybe look at that.

    On the other hand, are you whipping out a lot of projects and feeling like they’re all kind of the same? One of the reasons why I really detest beat sheets is because they can make a story feel formulaic and boring if you rely on them too heavily. Each story is different, even if you’re following the same structure– challenge yourself to look deeper and see where the emotional resonance is in the story for you.

  16. You’re always going to win me over with the emotional arc.

    Wow, what a segue.

    I like sparkling prose and hilarious characters, and I’ll be happy if I can find a plot that surprises me, but the one thing that makes a book truly great to me is a satisfying ending. Sometimes I feel like the emotional arc is the hardest thing to nail down: you need to know where the plot is going (something I usually discover in the zero draft), you need to know what your characters look like, and you need to have an idea of what internal struggle the protagonist is going to need to overcome (which is not as easy as knowing who they are and what bad guy they have to beat at the end makes it sound).

    Everything in the book contributes in some way to the emotional arc. For example, usually I’m fascinated by the concept of strength. You tend to see my protagonists approaching strength and power from different angles– a power-thirsty warrior sent to another dimension to cool her jets, a fallen heir taking back his company, a boy out for revenge when his girlfriend is killed.

    Sure, there are external obstacles preventing my protagonists from achieving their goals, but there is also necessary internal growth that the audience sees. They are not the same person as they were at the beginning.

    One of my favorite things is seeing a protagonist succeed at something at the end that they either failed at or would have failed at before the story/at the beginning. It’s like, wow, look, hanging out with this guy for four or five hours actually did something! We read this whole book and now they’ve gained this new ability/perception, awesome.

  17. You never truly leave the training grounds. 

    Once upon a time, I was really into digital art. Like, I saved up and bought my own extremely economical tablet for drawing (I still dream about getting a Wacom someday, maybe after grad school), would devote time to it during the week. There was a site I loved going to (does anyone else have fond memories of Oekaki Central, aka the One True OC to me), and they had you draw in different rooms depending on your image content and skill level.

    I thought this was the literal coolest thing. If you wanted to draw hot guys, you went to the Stove. If you wanted to draw cute girls, the Jewelry Box. Outdoor landscapes? Check out the Garden. General 2-star stuff was in the Patio. Want to practice your colorist skills on premade lineart? Coloring Book it was. General 3-star stuff went in the Living Room, and so on. There was a star system– if you were a beginner, you were 1-star, if you were intermediate you were 2-star, if your work could be accepted into magazines you had 3-stars. Most rooms were 2-star and above, but if you were a determined 1-star like me (or someone with a higher star level who wanted to experiment) you could practice and get better by drawing in the Training Grounds, the general 1-star room.

    I used to get so mad because I’d practice my everliving ass off and I still wouldn’t be good enough for the 2-star rooms. I’d always have to go back to the Training Grounds, work on my stuff there for a few weeks, and try again. I just wanted to be a Cool Artist and not have to swim in the kiddie pool all the time.

    But if there’s anything that experience taught me, it’s that there’s always going to be something that you have to learn and you have to be okay with that. Admitting that you need practice isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you any less of a creator to spend time learning how to do something properly. It’s an ars longa, vita brevis kind of lifestyle and that’s actually kind of awesome. You’re never going to run out of stuff to learn.

    And it may seem kind of annoying, not always churning out 2-star or 3-star work, but there’s a whole lot of expectation that comes with that. Giving yourself the space to practice, and more importantly to fail, can really help you move your craft forward.

    So, I think that’s what I’m going for in 2018: be clear and fail boldly, then fix it all in revisions.

    And on that note, happy new year! 🙂 Let me know what your favorite writing tips from 2017 have been!

awards eligibility 2017

I’ve been kind of quiet this year, mostly due to dissertation research and manuscript revisions, but I do have one (1) SFF short story eligible for awards! 2017 marked my first pro sale, which I am very proud of, and that means 2018 will be my first year of Campbell eligibility.

Short fiction:

“Texts from the Ghost War” (Escape Pod, June 2017) A mecha pilot and an heir text each other in a city filled with violent, sky-scraper tall ghosts.

Thank you for your consideration! It’s still kind of surreal making an eligibility post, and I’m incredibly grateful to the fantastic people at Escape Pod and everyone who’s read/listened to and enjoyed this.

takeaways from the nebulas

Switching things up a bit and adding a little variety to our Wawa Wednesday series, here’s a list of things I learned while attending the Nebulas this past weekend.

  1. Do your research on naming conventions.
    If you plan on writing a character with a non-Western name, it’s often not as simple as picking a given name and a surname. Some cultures have different naming structures (e.g. Thailand, India, Russia) that require more research. If you plan on basing a fantasy culture or nation after a real-world one, study how people and places are named. You can make up names that sound close to the inspiration culture but aren’t quite real, or you can google names (movie credits are great for this) from those cultures.
  2. It’s never too early to get ready for taxes.
    It’s probably not going to save you any money on taxes if you incorporate as an author before you’re earning ballpark $100k/year on average, but when you do you’ll probably want to do it either as an S-Corp or an LLC (ask your accountant). When you start publishing your taxes are going to get harder, so getting an accountant if you don’t already have one may save you some trouble down the line. It’s also never a bad idea to start saving receipts for writerly business expenses like conference fees, travel, office supplies, books, etc. Even if you can’t deduct them or choose not to early in your career, it’s good practice for when you have to separate your writer expenses from your personal expenses.
  3. At the heart of almost every conflict, people want to feel respected.
    I went to a panel on conflict resolution and it was insanely helpful, both for managing character conflicts as well as real-life ones. Respect permeates a lot of our interactions: you can tell a lot about characters’ relationships with each other, who respects whom, on the small ways they either show they respect each other or not.
  4. 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron
    I just downloaded this a few days ago on the suggestion of one of my excellent new friends from the con (thanks, Karen!), and I’m already in love. Highly recommend, especially if you’re like me and struggle most with the drafting process. I’ll definitely be using this on my next project.
  5. More trans guys in fiction, please. Also, more incidental transness. 
    We’re not seeing a lot of trans men in stories. Granted, we’re still not seeing a lot of trans characters, period, and often when those stories are told the gender of the character is still used as the twist or the central issue of the piece. What about all those trans princes or trans wizards having adventures?
  6. It can almost certainly be shorter.
    Flash fiction is a great way to practice writing concisely. In all forms, from flash to short stories to novels, you can probably cut your word count by 10% without losing much. Some people have done a flash piece a day for years (this is awesome, it also sounds really hard). Flash also makes for nice bonus #content for newsletters, rewards, or your blog.
  7. Any big project can be broken into smaller parts.
    This may seem kind of obvious, but this was a huge revelation for me. Clearly, drafting a book can be broken down into the smaller tasks of writing 2k a day, but revising a book is harder to quantify. Still, you can break it into tasks that you can accomplish in a few hours or over the course of a day, like fixing a scene, changing a character’s name, etc. The smaller you can break down your to-do’s, the more you’re going to feel in control of your project. Give yourself tasks that you can complete in a day and you will feel so much better about how revisions are coming along versus just nebulously attacking the whole project for hours.
  8. Just talk to people. It will be fine.
    General con advice: probably the person you’re standing next to at the elevator is just as nervous as you are, and you might make a really cool connection. Be polite about it, obviously– if they look busy, it’s clearly not a great time to approach. But if they’re just chilling, introduce yourself. You never know.
  9. Sometimes you need a distraction and this is okay.
    You will actually work better if you take a break and recharge after a job well done instead of running yourself into the ground.
  10. Noise is a thing.
    I tend to do a lot of my writing in cafes listening to music. Some also people really like ambient noise, and this was a mixer people recommended. Apparently it works extra well if you listen to it with this playlist at the same time.
  11.  Ask, “what will I cry about not doing by the end of this week?” and prioritize your tasks based on that.
    One of my favorite organizational tips from the con, because directly combats the problems I usually have in prioritization: ask what’s going to make you feel awful in the future if you don’t get it done. What is going to be something you’re going to have to scramble to pull together if you don’t do it early? What’s something that you’re going to be upset at yourself for not making progress on? Make yourself consider the possibility of not doing it and how much that would suck, and then do it.
  12. A lot of markets really like flash fiction.
    It’s short, easy to tell if it’s working or not, and editors can often afford to buy more flash stories than short stories. Check out the Submissions Grinder for markets that accept flash (also this is a great resource for short story markets too!).
  13. Study what you love.
    Last but not least. Look at the stories, games, films, any media that you are incredibly invested in and ask yourself why. How does the story work with the form? Are there tropes or aspects that you keep coming back to? Do you like particular types of characters or plots? The stuff you’re passionate about is going to be the stuff you tell the best stories about– research it and know how it works. Engage with it as an author and not just a reader.

And that’s a sampling of my thoughts from the con! Hope this helps, and as always, if you like these weekly tips, definitely leave me a comment and let me know!

un-purpling prose

Hello and welcome back to Wawa Wednesday, more properly known as Writing Advice with Alex, week two edition!

Anyway, this week I thought I’d tackle the dangerous dramatic darling of writing world: purple prose. *mood lighting comes on, there is a bongo in agony somewhere, you cannot find it, trust me I’ve looked*

A few years ago, I was working as an intern for a literary agent. This was really cool and I learned a lot before I queried (if you get the chance, definitely apply for these remote internships when they come up). The agent I was interning for also set up a private forum for us to discuss craft and therefore help us identify promising queries faster, and one of the very first topics we discussed was purple prose. So, in keeping with that fine tradition, it will also be one of my inaugural topics.

Purple prose is, most generally, an overblown or overdramatic description of something. It can be a little easy to get trigger-happy here and say that any long description is purple, when this isn’t necessarily accurate– purple prose is more like, you’re trying so hard for an effect you don’t realize when you’ve achieved it and when you’re running the poor metaphor or whatever into the ground.

(Aside: sometimes it’s tempting to say that writers from previous centuries have purple prose when they’re describing scenery for pages or farming techniques or hats, etc. It’s more like, the audience’s tolerance for description has just shifted to preferring smaller, pithier details than a full-blown dissertation on Russian farm culture or cetalogy, interesting though both of those things are.

That’s more to do with knowing your audience though, which we’ll cover sometime in the near future here. Back to actual purple prose. *bongos out* )

My goal when writing descriptions is to always either talk about a new thing or some new feature of an old thing.

If I’m just saying the same thing as the last sentence over and over, chances are that I’m just searching for the best way to say a single thing versus actually describing multiple parts of a thing and adding depth. (Sorry this is so vague, I’m trying to make this apply to as many situations as possible.)

Let’s have an example.

Meillin’s gaze drifted to the clocktower. His eyes were twin lavender orbs, lilac spheres glinting like daggers in darkness. This was a killing gaze, the same he trained on assailants, almost as though he wished to murder time itself. He smirked.

What doesn’t work here ?

  • The orbs. Okay, this is a personal bias, mostly because I read and wrote fanfic as a Youth™️, and back then one did not suffer the word “orbs” to be used for eyes. Same deal with purple eyes and heterochromia. Unless you had a cool and new take on it, it just made you look like an amateur. Maybe it’s different now; maybe you have a cool use for it, fine, go for it. I’m never using it, ever, because it makes me feel dumb and I think when you write you need to feel awesome. Anyway and more importantly,
  • The repetition. Right? Like, man, do I super have to tell you about both the lavender orbs and the lilac spheres? No. This is you as a write subconsciously trying to find the best way of saying this. Pick your fave, or find another way to do it. Same with “killing gaze” and “the same he trained on assailants”– it’s saying the same thing about his eyes, aka that he can look like a Real Bad Dude when he’s being attacked.
  • The not-so-subtle metaphor. Murdering time! Well, gosh, I wonder what this guy’s personal conflict is going to be about.
  • The lack of action. Okay, granted, sometimes you’re going to have to slow stuff down to get some good details in, but if you’re just having our guy pause and look sadly at this clocktower so you can describe his eyeballs, rethink. Your prose should be pulling at least twice its weight almost all the time. That is: you should always be looking to accomplish multiple things at once with any sentence/paragraph/chapter.

Okay, so what’s the root cause of purple prose? If we can see what some exemplars of it are, can we go for the jugular and identify the root cause? *koolaid man voice* Oh yeah.

You’re not trusting the reader.

The reason why people repeat stuff over and over is because they don’t think you’re listening. Same deal here: the writer is repeating the eyeball nonsense because they’re secretly worried that the audience is going to miss the fact that this guy has purple eyes. Same deal with the time thing. The writer risks being heavy-handed in order to assure that that metaphor is signed, sealed, and delivered.

And the thing is that your reader is usually going to be paying enough attention that this stuff isn’t going to just slide right by them. When in doubt, my professional opinion is to err on the side of “my reader is smart.”

So, let’s try to rescue this thing.

The clocktower struck midnight and Meillin’s purple eyes glinted like daggers in the darkness. His gloved hand found purchase on the slate tiles of the tower and he hoisted himself up gracefully until he reached the massive clock face. Threading his body through the wrought iron numerals, he waited until it was 12:15 and then pulled himself up on the minute hand. He smirked. This would be the greatest heist in history.

Obviously this isn’t the only way to do it–maybe you thought the part about the killing gaze was better than the daggers in darkness, that’s also fine! The idea is you choose your favorite of the ways you’ve come up to describe a thing, and you go with that. You have extra space to add more stuff: look at all the junk I added about what he’s doing. Instead of just getting a picture of his eyes and whatever, we see him interacting with the environment and sort of have to augur his goals more from there.


  • Choose a character or a setting of yours. Write a paragraph (let’s say 4-5 sentences, more if the spirit moves you) describing one of their features. Think about describing different aspects of that feature with each sentence. For example, here’s mine:

The flat was really just the attic of a coffeeshop, and countless roasts from the store below always made you feel awake when you entered it. The only way up was a trapdoor that always got stuck in the up position that needed to be yanked, firmly but not roughly, for it to open. On the back wall, a modest bed was pushed up by the room’s one window, and along the sides were various discarded shop ephemera: old houseplant, bags of beans, tools for fixing the faulty wiring, and several dead siphons. An ancient cathode ray tube television took up most of the space on the single table, and the threadbare sofa was covered in dust.

(Yes, I’m obsessing about Persona 5’s protagonist’s awesome room, but that’s beside the point.)

As always, feel free to post your attempts in the comments– I love reading them.

the one narrator to rule them all

One thing I’ve really wanted to do for a while is a weekly post about writing. So, without further ado, here’s the first installment in Writing Advice With Alex (affectionately abbreviated as Wawa Wednesdays, because I live too far away from the sandwich empire not to miss it).

A good question one of my freelance clients had for me a while back was about tense and POV, that is, who’s doing the narration and how in a story. There are three main choices you have here:

  1. Tense: Past or Present?
  2. POV: First or Third? (Okay, yes, you could also go with second, but as that’s a tricky kettle of fish I have not attempted yet I feel less qualified to speak on that.)
  3. Scope: Omniscient or Limited? aka the bounds of perception: how much information do(es) your narrator(s) have access to? all of it or selected bits?

Tense, for me, is most useful for immediacy of action. I really love present tense for action scenes, especially for stories where I have some really slick lines planned (I guess I usually think in present tense? I have all these post-its with phrases or one-liners that I know belong in a certain story, and usually they’re in present tense). When I was writing fanfic hard-core in high school, I would always write all the battle scenes in present tense (even if I was writing the rest of the fic in past, this was a really annoying habit to break) just because it felt that much snappier and dramatic to me to have the battle happening in real-time. There’s a desperation that comes from writing in the now.

On the flip, past is really helpful for descriptions and setting up stages. NB: just like you can still do action scenes without a problem in past tense, you can still describe things perfectly well in present. Sometimes past tense will make a story sound grander and lend the 20/20 of hindsight, and sometimes the uncertain present can keep the pacing tight. It just depends on your goals for a project.

For example, if I know I have to build a lot of world in a project, say like a fantasy, I might look at past tense and see if that would make my life easier than trying to do it all in present. If I’m working in the real world– like, contemporary YA or modern day fantasy– I might go with present, because my reader’s already going to know a lot about the world and while I’ll obviously still describe junk I also don’t have to tell you about Houses and foreign dynasties.

Likewise, POV or point of view tells me who’s narrating: is this a third person perspective or a first? Some people advocate for writing YA in first person because of the close psychic distance (you as the reader are right there with the character as they experience their greatest triumphs and deepest humiliations, art imitating teenage life), but this isn’t the only way to write it, by any means. There’s a big difference in how SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA handles first person YA and how Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE or Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF does. It’s definitely not like third person YA doesn’t sell, though: tell that to SIX OF CROWS and THRONE OF GLASS. There really isn’t a category or even a genre standard here– it’s just whatever’s right for the story you’re telling.

Another example if YA fantasy’s not your jam: you usually see regency-era historical (or alt-historical) in third person, since part of that genre is this idea of polite distance– dry humor also requires some room for its sleight of hand. Right now I’m reading Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN and loving how much gets communicated in these quiet turns of phrase as well as how easy it is to miss something scandalous because someone’s maneuvered the conversation to avoid it extremely politely. It’s not like you couldn’t write this in first (see the hilarious KAT, INCORRIGIBLE middle-grade books by Stephanie Burgis), but you might have to come up with another way to channel that style (Kat, for example, is a wit but certain things do sail over her head as she’s younger), since it’s something that we look forward to in this type of story. Also, the word reticule is fantastic.

Scope is all about perception and what boundaries you impose on it, if any: in short, how much does your narrator know? If they’re a regular person, probably it’s limited. Limited means the narrator don’t know everything that’s going on, i.e. they’re limited to being in a single place at a single time, only seeing events from a single perspective (their own). You can have multiple limited third person narrators (e.g. SIX OF CROWS) or a single one. You could also have omniscient narrators who can see all the players’ hands.

You can pull some truly epic shenanigans that subvert your readers’ expectations by playing around with narration.

Like, first omniscient. We are lucky enough to be living in a time where Ann Leckie is one of our contemporaries and her masterful Imperial Radch books exist. If you convince the reader that the narrator has certain skills and limitations (in this case, Breq’s perspective, as she is/was/is still occasionally a ship) we’ll follow you through these wild set-ups and believe you when you say that our narrator friend knows what’s going on effectively everywhere.

So much of writing is just getting the reader to be willing to suspend their disbelief. Sometimes you do this through detail and sometimes you do this through crafty world-building.

So, Aesop-style, what’s the moral of the story?

There is no tense that is “right” for all stories in a particular genre. I’ll be blunt: anyone who says you have to write YA in first past or whatever’s in vogue these days to sell or get agented is silly. The type of narration you should use for your work is the one you think you can write your project best in. The more comfortable you are with different tenses, POVs, and scopes, the more tools you have in your writer toolbox to do some damage with. If you only really prefer writing in one narrative style, that’s fine too! You’re probably really good at it!

The other moral (this is our inaugural post in the series and therefore is a two-for-one moral occasion) is that you can do any damn thing you want, as long as you can pull it off. At the end of the day, your reader has to be able to follow you and be on board with your fanciness. I’m not talking about every single reader ever, since that’s impossible, but you should have some type of ideal audience in mind and write to them. More on that later.

And now, because I always loved these:


  • Write a short story or a scene in a narration style you’re less familiar with. Maybe that’s second person limited in present, maybe it’s third omniscient past, etc. See what’s easier and more difficult for you. For added zest, take a scene from your WIP and write it in a different POV and tense. To get the best effect on this, open a separate Word doc or Scrivener dude or what-have-you and type that sucker up afresh. What changes for you when you’re writing, besides the obvious flipping verbs and pronouns?

Feel free to ask questions or comment with your exercises! Shocking as I know it will be to you all, I love talking about craft and analyzing stuff and am totally down for chatting in the comments. Obligatory self-promo outro: if you’d like to hire me to read over your manuscript or query, I also offer freelance editing services here.




In light of all the sadness happening lately, I thought I would offer a cheering anecdote from my childhood. This is only tangentially about teaching and likewise only tangentially about Character and Endurance, and much more about the utterly bonkers things you convince yourself are necessary to do in junior high.

This is the story better known as That Time Alex Fell Down a Mountain.

It was sixth grade and I was kind of an idiot. I mean, I’ve already given it away: I fall down a mountain in this one.

Climbing Mt. Monadnock was a tradition. Some schools went to battlegrounds; we climbed this giant peak in New Hampshire. All the sixth grade classes before us did it and I imagine that if no one’s stopped them by now all the sixth graders after us will do it as well. The mountain’s actually not that giant, you can make a day trip out of it, and that was exactly what we did, all 64 sixth-graders and handful of homeroom teacher chaperones.

This number included my homeroom teacher, who taught French and was amazing, the art teacher (who was decidedly less amazing, for reasons not worth exploring in this story), several others who were just fine, and the drama teacher.

In the Austenian tradition of tastefully obscuring the identities of people one tells certain anecdotes about, I’ll call him Mr. B—. I will do my utmost to pass no judgement, to merely present the facts and invite the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Mr. B— and I had a somewhat turbulent student-teacher relationship. In his defense, sixth grade was not one of my most friendly and effervescent incarnations. I’d just transferred into a new school (my fifth), accidentally messed up some cliques (oops), and mostly lived in the school library during lunch and recess teaching myself how to draw (which honestly felt like a very positive arrangement at the time). That is, however, all the defense he’ll have.

In our first drama production, my character was a seasick delinquent aboard a cruise ship. (It was a student-written play.) The day of our performance, I’d clamped a hand over my dog tags so they wouldn’t clink and make too much noise as I, in full punk costume, got into position behind the curtain. I secretly did want to be a good actor, as any good consulting detective worth their salt could act, and my dream was to either become Sherlock Holmes or marry him.

Imagine my surprise when I slipped behind the curtain to await my cue and found Mr. B—  talking to a few of my classmates about me. Now that I’ve become a teacher, I’m still unclear on the finer points of why you would talk about another student’s failings to their classmates but since he, in this story, still has more years of teaching experience than I do as of the writing, I’ll allow him the benefit of the doubt of seniority.

The facts are these: Mr. B— told my classmates I was antisocial, he did not realize that I was standing there listening, and I lit into him just before my cue to go on stage.

I forget exactly what words were exchanged (my wit had certainly not peaked in sixth grade, so I probably just repeated “antisocial?” back at him like some demented adolescent parrot dressed in a much-beloved albeit very holey Commander Salamander black tee and sporting a fake nose ring) but I do know that I still had to perform afterward– we had a live audience waiting, after all. I angrily fake-vomited over the edge of the pretend ship that night with special aplomb.

All this is to say that by the time we got to the Monadnock trip, tensions were high and certain lines had been drawn. Mr. B— and I were in different groups, this was amenable to all, and I was prepared to have a great time chatting French and hanging out with Mme S— as we trekked up the mountain and reflected on nature.

The hike up was uneventful, and three hours later we ate our lunches at the peak. Mum had even drawn me a great picture on my lunch bag. My family, like most people in New England during that time (and likely even more now), were very into saving the environment so while we did have reuseable lunch coolers and used them often, I’d specifically requested a brown paper bag because I loved seeing my mom’s drawings on it.

The teachers talked about appreciating nature’s majesty and told us to be careful on the way down. Mr. B—, who I guess had had just enough of his students leaping around on the ascent, said that we all better be careful climbing back because he was definitely not carrying any of us down the mountain if we fell. I sniffed, finished my lunch, and folded up my delightful lunch bag for safekeeping.

As mentioned earlier, I had an obsession with becoming Sherlock Holmes. I trained myself in mirrors so my everyday movements would be more graceful and rewound Jeremy Brett on tape or on DVD doing the same, subtle wrist flick over and over until I could mimic it proficiently. Like all things I loved, grace became an object of study.

And oddly enough, there were a lot of avenues for practice. People are always in motion, and learning to carry weight in different parts of your body is a skill–anyone who’s attempted to pass as different genders on different occasions can tell you there’s a quiet change in the way you walk, how you hold yourself. This also factored nearly into my thirst for being the Best at Disguises, one of many necessary subgoals for becoming Sherlock Holmes.

So, I was doing pretty well, leaping gazelle-like from rock to rock, practicing for when I would escape my own Reichenbach Falls, when–not half an hour out from Mr. B—‘s lunchtime comments–I made a crucial miscalculation.

Possibly this was because I was still too smug about all those idiots who fell down mountains, possibly it was because I wasn’t paying attention and accurate depth-perception was hard, or possibly it was just because I was twelve and no longer completely in control of what my body did anymore.

I fell.

It wasn’t a big fall, maybe only eight feet. While I was ambitious as a detective gazelle, I was not stupid. I made the first rock but misjudged the second and landed on my ankle at a bad angle.

I cursed myself because I knew I looked stupid picking myself up off the ground, and I gamely walked on like normal. It didn’t bother me much at first.

One thing that is very useful to remember right about now is that it took us roughly half the day to reach the top of the mountain. We started around nine, summited and ate at around noon, and so would need about three hours to reach the buses waiting for us at the base.

An hour after I twisted my ankle, I began to realize that the pain was not just background noise. I ignored it and pushed on for another half hour, going through brush and rock trails. Actually telling a teacher that I had done the stupid thing and fallen down the mountain was unthinkable.

I had to hide it.

However, there is only so long you can do this with non-minor injuries before you have to make a decision: you either keep up the stiff upper lip and risk seriously hurting yourself further because you are too stubborn to admit you did wrong, or you alter your behavior and risk discovery in order to stop exacerbating the problem.

I opted for the second. Sure, I was dead stubborn, but the biggest goal was to make it down the mountain under my own power, and I knew if I hurt myself more I really wouldn’t be able to do that. So, with halfway left to the base, I let myself limp. Most kids did not notice– I think if you’re quiet enough about it, sometimes people in junior high are more inclined to play an injury off as a ploy for attention or you faking it for sympathy, and their best strategy is not to pay you any attention so you understand that what you’re doing is both not cool and not working. This worked well enough for my purposes.

Mme S— asked if I was okay, because she noticed and knew I would not keep this up for an hour without a great reason, but I said I was fine and not to worry.

But, then maybe half an hour from the promised land of humid leather bus seats and my ankle spending some quality time with my lunch’s cold pack, the terrain became rocky. My ankle wasn’t as taxed as it had been thanks to the limping, but after trying to maneuver over the rocks and nearly falling again, I was at an impasse. I could not get down the rocks as I was.

Mme S— had quietly alerted the other teachers that one of her students had had an accident on the mountain and was limping, but didn’t feel comfortable asking a teacher for help directly. And probably all the other teachers had discussed among themselves who would be the best suited to carry me, which logic dictated would have to be the youngest and spriest of the guy teachers. But being able able to figure all this out on the fly did not provide much comfort.

Because in true climactic fashion, Mr. B— came racing down the trail from above, calling out not to move, that it would all be fine and he was going to carry me.

And truly, in that moment, I understood what Candide had felt like when he wondered if he really was living in the worst of all possible worlds.

I was faced with an impossible decision: be the cautionary tale of the idiot who fell down the mountain, the idiot who had to be carried and would never live it down, or hurt myself proving a point, which would be equally stupid.

As Mr. B— rushed to my aid, I chose the third option.

Reader, I crab-walked away from him.

As it happens, crab-walking is a fairly effective means of traversing rocky terrain, especially when you don’t have full use of all your limbs. My hands got a little torn up and while it may not have been the most elegant mode of egress, one thing I will say was that it was quick. I crab-walked right on out of there.

Mr. B— did catch up with me, because it is unfortunately not hard to outpace a twelve-year-old doing the three-legged crab down a mountain, but I held my own. No, I said as I crab-grappled a rock, I did not want or require his help. This anti-social kid was doing just fine.

And that’s it. I crab-walked and limped the rest of the way down Mt. Monadnock. I think my parents kept me home a day after because, surprise! I’d sprained my ankle and no one wanted me walking on it for a while. Emails were exchanged, but that is another story entirely.

Was this dumb? I mean, probably. The third option was not that much better than the original two. And yes, as an adult, it’s easy to say, “well I would’ve just asked for help because there’s no shame in that.” And that’s true, there’s not. But coming at it as a kid who was already having a hard time at school and just wanted to make it out of this with her dignity intact? I can’t say I would have done much different besides, you know, not fall down the mountain in the first place.

But even that was okay, because my twelve-year-old self clued me into a valuable lesson: when faced with two unacceptable situations, it is sometimes completely within your power to crabwalk the fuck out.

You just have to be creative about it.

And as far as sixth grade stories go, the ones where you end up looking like an idiot no matter what, I’m pretty okay with this one.