I’m Not Your Search Engine

The online writing community is friendly, supportive, and helpful. As with any community, there can be exceptions to the rule, but I’ve found this to be true far more often than not. Other writers love to share experiences and knowledge, to commiserate, celebrate, and bond with others like them (or not like them!). However, being so willing to share what I know does not make me your secretary, your search engine, or your virtual assistant.

If you are genuinely having trouble finding information or understanding something you’ve read about, by all means, ask your questions to the online community. Someone will be able to help you. But if you are tweeting out a question simply because you don’t want to ask a search engine, that’s abusing the kindness of others. People notice.

An example I’ll give–though I will not supply screenshots or names because that is not the point of this post–involves the rules to a pitch contest. There is a website where anyone who wants to participate can find the rules to the contest, as is true with many such contests. I distinctly remember the first time I participated, there was some buzz about it on Twitter prior to the contest itself where many hopefuls were discussing it using the hashtag. Enter into the conversation a person who we’ll call Newbie.

Now, Newbie’s first question was when the actual pitch party would take place. Innocent enough. He could have meant what hours, which day, which time zone, etc. So many people obliged to answer his question and be as specific as possible. Newbie was very thankful and polite. He next asked what the rules were. He was given the web address for the site with any and all information he might need. It was his response that made us all step back. It went something like this, “That’s a lot of information to comb through, can you just give the highlights?”

No. For several reasons, but still no.

I started to list all the reasons that attitude was rude, but honestly, it started to irritate me just thinking about it. The biggest offenses are that it’s lazy and it implies that Newbie’s time is more valuable than the rest of us. We aren’t sitting around on our butts eating bonbons. We read through the complete rules page, so could Newbie. He was not unable. He just didn’t feel like it. It’s not a good sign in an industry known for deadlines and self-discipline.

This is just one example that sticks out in my memory, but there are so many more. Remember that while the writing community is a community, it is also a collection of people who are, in a sense, your colleagues. If you showed up to work and told your coworker that a task seemed too daunting and then asked them to do most of it for you, that wouldn’t go over well. At least not in any position I’ve held.

Be kind, be courteous, be engaged, but also be professional. I’m not saying you can’t wear pajamas, but when it comes to writing or promoting your writing, show initiative. If Google, Siri, or Alexa can answer your question, look there first. If you need clarification, the community is there and happy to help. We’re your coworkers, not your search engine.

I certainly don’t mean for this to discourage anyone from asking questions or having fun with the online writing community. That would be tragic. It’s a great place to connect. It’s a great place to get advice. It’s the virtual water cooler in an office filled with really cool people. Joke, laugh, connect. Just don’t abuse the kindness of those around you. It’s not a good look.

Don’t Hire an Editor You Can’t Afford

Recently, there has been some bad advice floating around social media for writers. It has been called out time and time again by much better-known personalities than myself, but I still thought I’d touch on the topic here.

Writers new to the writing community can be especially vulnerable to bad advice. More seasoned writers might start to doubt their own perceptions and believe it too. It’s important that we look out for each other. Because above all, the writing community is a community. It is not a competition.

The particular piece of advice du jour is to be willing to take out a loan or find a patron in order to hire a quality editor. No. There are several reasons this is bad advice, but the first and foremost is that it implies that if you can’t afford an editor, then you’ll never be a quality writer. That’s absolute malarkey.

When someone tells you to “go for broke” in your writing, they aren’t talking about paying for editing services.

Some writers, especially those who have decided to pursue self-publishing instead of a traditional route, do hire professional editors. And professional editors who charge for their services are not the enemy. After all, they are providing a service and expect to get paid. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not a requirement for a well-polished manuscript.

Don’t misunderstand, it’s still good to have other pairs of eyes look at your manuscript and give you feedback on ways to improve it. Not someone like a significant other, close friend, or family member–unless, of course, that person has experience and is likely to offer better constructive criticism than just “It’s great and I love you!” That’s what critique partners are for. I have already written a post about finding critique partners if you’re unsure how to connect with someone. Critique partners are invaluable and free at the same time. I strongly recommend having more than one, or more than one group even. Everyone will bring something different to the table and you’ll learn something new each time someone critiques your work or you critique theirs.

But I digress.

Do not take out a loan because you think you need an expensive professional editor. Don’t feel like you have to have a patreon account, a single wealthy patron, etc. No. There are some writers who do have those things, but they aren’t necessary for a writing career in general.

Also, don’t quit your day job to completely dedicate yourself to your art unless you can afford not to have a day job in the first place. The vast majority of authors don’t make enough off of their work to support themselves entirely. There are perennial best-sellers who can and do. They are not the rule. They are the exception, and even they will admit that. I’ve never seen a career author–not once–say that you should quit your day job to write full-time.  For most authors, writing is at best a side-hustle. A passion. Perhaps a lucrative (or not so lucrative) hobby. Because publishing one or two–or ten–novels is not a guarantee of fame and fortune. But editing the first one shouldn’t send you into immediate debt, either.

And when an agent wants to sign you, remember this: money should flow toward the author. If an agent wants to sign you, but also wants to charge you for editing services run screaming for the hills. That’s not an agent, it’s a predator and you’re the prey. Don’t do it.

Now, if you are completely against critique partners (why?) and want to self-publish then hire an editor. If you have excellent critique partners, but want to have a pro look over your manuscript too, hire an editor. I’m not saying you should never, under any circumstances, hire one. That’s madness. You do you. But do your homework first. Not all editors are created equal and not all of them charge comparably. Research is your friend.

And your research should tell you that anyone who suggests you take out a loan for their services is not the kind of editor you actually want to work with. Ever.

 

**I know and follow several freelance editors. They are not all predators to be avoided. This post is meant to be a warning against feeling like you have to pay for editing services you know you can’t afford, or that if you can’t afford them you can never be agent/publisher worthy. There are good, affordable editors out there for writers who want to hire one.**

 

A Lesson in Storytelling from Star Wars

I don’t know anybody who cheers on Darth Vader in A New Hope. He’s scary, he destroys planets, and–while he looks very cool–he cuts down our newly beloved mentor with a lightsaber. He’s the bad guy, the villain, the terror that flaps in the night–wait. That’s Darkwing Duck. Anyway, you get the picture. But here’s the catch, we don’t just love to hate him, we love him too.

Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but by his untimely end two movies later, we’re sad to see him go. That’s the mark of a good villain. He was redeemable. And if you bring in the prequels, we can see his deterioration and understand why he made the choices he made to become the source of so much fear. It had a lot to do with the fact that he was super emo and brooding, but then his son started out the same way, so it makes sense. But I digress.

Nothing about Anakin/Darth Vader is out of left field when you know the story. It’s a natural progression. A slave boy who dreams of more is taken from his mother and trained in how to use the galaxy’s greatest power and then told he’s not allowed to love, fear, or hate anything. Naturally, this becomes a problem sometime after puberty. Then when he fears losing his lady love, his fear drives him to make questionable decisions. I know, it’s a very simplistic view of what happened, but when you break it down to the bare minimum, that’s his character arc. And it’s very relatable. We’ve all made questionable decisions out of fear, and I’m almost positive we’ve all made questionable decisions when it comes to whoever we’re attracted to. Just saying. It’s like a rite of passage. His decisions just had higher stakes than looking like an idiot in front of the whole class/school/whathaveyou.

So he’s relatable, and because he’s relatable he’s redeemable. And even while we hate him, we can’t help but be a little in awe of him. And if you don’t believe me, go to a Disney park and look at the line just to meet him.

As writers, our villains should be relatable on some small level. Leave some smidgen of a chance of redemption, even if you know they would rather die than take it. Give them dimension. Sure, you can make them terrifying. You can make them powerful. But make them whole in the process. Nobody is ever just power and fright. At some point, they got that power. At some point, they wanted to be frightening. You don’t have to give the entire backstory in an info dump, but leave traces of it. Leave hints and trust the readers to be smart enough to follow the breadcrumbs.

The lesson here is that in stories, and in my experience life itself, nobody is all good or all bad. Everybody struggles with internal demons of some kind. It’s how they face those demons that makes them protagonists or antagonists. While this post has solidly focused on making sure your villain is more than just one big ball of scary, the same rule applies to your protagonist. They have to be given the opportunity to make bad decisions. Because people do. And they can make the right decision or they can make bad ones and then redeem themselves.

Luke was a whiney brat who just wanted to go to Tochi and score some power converters. He chose to train with Ben Kenobi and Yoda to become a Jedi. He found out who his father was and was given the opportunity to go dark and rule the galaxy. He turned it down. And when he shows up at Jabba’s place dressed in all black, we all know that some questionable things happened since we last saw him, but we trust him to still be at least mostly on the light side.

I could do this for every major character in the story. And before you go pointing out, “But Palpatine!” I’m going to stop you. I watched the movies. I haven’t read the bajillion and one books and comics and read all the fan theories the internet has to offer. I don’t know his backstory, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would find reasons he became a Sith. Because nobody is all good or all bad.

Except for Leia. She’s perfection.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

A Matter of Distinction

A friend and I were talking about different books that we had started lately and decided to DNF. The premise of each book appealed to us, but we weren’t pulled in. We couldn’t immerse ourselves in the world the author created. After talking for a just a few moments, she said something about her book that was one of the main reasons she couldn’t connect. I realized it was the same reason that I couldn’t get on board with the one I was reading either. The character voices weren’t distinctive.

When I talk about character voices, I mean more than the way the character speaks in dialogue. It’s their attitude, air, personality. It’s their essence. If characters are distinctive enough, you could theoretically tell which one of them is “talking” without any kind of tag or beat.

Think about opening up a text from someone you know and immediately knowing, without needing to be told, that their significant other sent it from their phone. How did you know? The feel of it was all wrong. Your friend wouldn’t say it that way. But their partner would. That’s what character voice is.

Think about the music you listen to. If you heard a new song, just the first few bars before the lyrics begin, do you think you’d have a clue which of your favorites was performing? Perhaps. What if you read the lyrics. You might be able to figure it out. Because different artists/acts/bands do more than sound different. They feel different. Their voice is different.

So when you write characters, each of them should have a distinctive voice just like the people in your life. Even if there are similarities, no two people sound exactly the same. I have two sisters. They each look a bit like our mother in their own way. They shared a room growing up. They were taught the same idiomatic expressions. But they don’t say things the same way. When I answer the phone, I know which one of them is calling me without looking at the name on my phone. Even with similar tones and pitches to their voices, their “character voice” is very different.

Because this happens with real people, it needs to happen with fictional characters. Otherwise, each character comes off as a wooden copycat. Unless you’re writing a story about creepy Stepford clones, that shouldn’t happen. And if you’re writing a romance, character voices that sound too similar will seem like the main character is falling in love with himself/herself/themselves. And not just in a healthy self-esteem kind of way.

So when crafting characters, explore their personalities. What are their idiosyncrasies? Everyone has at least one. Do they use different idioms? Does everything they say have a passive-aggressive bite? Maybe they’re more direct? Do they say exactly what they are thinking, or do they expect everyone to hear what they aren’t saying? It will affect how you write their scenes. And it should. Characters should sound different because people are different.

Writing Resources

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I’m a newbie in the writing world. I finished my first manuscript last year. I was so proud of it. It was so dear to me. It was a piece of me. All of my life I have wanted to be a writer, and I did it.

What then? I did some research about what it would take to get published. I found out about a few twitter pitch parties and contests. Even better, I learned about the special brand of torture called a query. I got some likes and got some kind and encouraging rejection letters. Most importantly, I connected with other people in the writing community.

I learned what critique partners were and found great people who graciously took up the burden of being mine. They helped me to see some things I had been blind to. I loved that manuscript so much because it was my first and it was a part of me, that I had no idea how bad it was. But it was.

Y’all.

Awful.

But I learned from it. I found some great resources online, some by accident and some from recommendations. Crafting threads, podcasts, free ebooks and online courses. I learned how to tell a story, how to kill your darlings, the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and found some basic guidelines regarding how to write more inclusively.

Now when I sit down to write, it feels like a different animal than it was before. In some ways it’s harder because when you don’t know what you’re doing you don’t know how badly you’re messing up. But it also feels like I’m growing as a writer. Every time I sit at my keyboard and hack away, even if I end up deleting everything when I’m done, I’ve grown as a writer. Because I know why it needs to be deleted. I can hear my CPs in my head asking questions and know what won’t fly.

Do I catch it all? Of course not. I’m human. And still learning. But now I at least have some inkling of how much more I still don’t know. It doesn’t stop me from writing. I’m not waiting on that magic day when I’ve read all the crafting blogs, listened to every possible podcast, etc. I do have a life away from my keyboard, after all. Blasphemy, I know.

So I write. And I rewrite. And I edit. And I cut. And I promise my fiction is more polished than my blog writing.

Anyway, I thought today I would pass along some of my favorite resources. If you’re even newer to the writing world than I am, maybe they’ll help you as much as they are still helping me.

Podcasts:

I have only recently joined the podcast craze. I’m not the best auditory learner and I’m a mom of little boys. Life is crazy and my attention span is short. All that means that while there are some really great podcasts out there, my favorite right now is Writing Excuses “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” As the tagline suggests, each show is only fifteen minutes. This makes it a great podcast to listen to while scrubbing dishes or folding laundry.

Blogs:

As far as blogs go, I have several favorites, so I’m going to narrow it down. First, I’ve learned a lot from Writing with Color and refer back to it often. I highly recommend it. Also, you should let yourself fall down the rabbit hole of their recommended reading. Before you know it, it’s dawn and your kids are up, but you have zero regrets.

K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors is another great resource. She breaks things down in easy to understand chunks. She even has a series where she breaks down story structure using the Avengers franchise. So many light bulbs went off for me while reading that. I will note that most posts have a link at the bottom to listen to the podcast version, but so far I’ve stuck to reading.

Vlogs:

If you’re more of a vlog fan, Ellen Brock has some very helpful tips regarding editing. You can see her videos and read her posts on her site, so there it’s really the best of both worlds. The videos are all short, so much like the Writing Excuses podcast, they are great to watch in the few minutes you have between other chores or activities.

Classes/Webinars:

If you are looking for specific topics and can afford to pay for classes or webinars, I recommend The Manuscript Academy and the webinars offered through the Pitch Wars site. I have had a good experience with inexpensive courses from both of these sources. And the experience doesn’t stop with just the class. The Manuscript Academy also connected me with a Facebook group for other people who took the same class I did, offered a live Q & A with the author, a podcast, and the class video. The Pitch Wars staff offers ways you can interact with other writers on social media through activities like Pitch Wars Movie Night. They pick the movie and appoint the time, you watch along and tweet with them on the hashtag throughout the show.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. It should be noted that I have a folder of bookmarks on my computer that is nothing but “Writing Advice”. It has five subfolders and I still have to scroll down to reach the bottom of the list. And that does not include the separate folder I have that’s just for podcast links.

Nerd and proud, y’all. Nerd and proud.

What are your favorite resources? I’m always looking for more tools for my writing toolbox.

Book Review: 5 Secrets of Story Structure by K.M. Weiland

5 Secrets of Story Structure Cover

If you are just getting started as a writer, or if you’ve been at it a while and can’t figure out how to solve your wandering plot issues, this book is invaluable. K.M. Weiland breaks down the concept of the three-act story structure in easy to understand ways and offers common examples.

The book is short, easily read in an hour, more or less depending on your reading speed. If you are already well versed in the three-act plot structure, then you are not the target market for this book. Though I will say, I knew what the three-act structure was, but this did make the pieces of it clearer to me. The examples were a tremendous help. And she has a database of examples. My list-making, organizational heart loves that she has a database of examples. A database. It makes me happy.

All of the information in the book is available on K. M. Weiland’s site, but to have it in a quick to reference book, organized away on my Kindle, is right up my alley–especially considering it’s free. That’s right. You heard me. Free. In it, she points the way to several other resources as well. Some of those are free. Some are not. Your mileage may vary.

I love the simplicity of what she says and will be keeping this one filed away with my reference books for some time yet. Because if I’m having pacing issues, there’s probably an issue with my structure that could easily be fixed if I take a step back and study it a little harder. This book helps me break it down and examine what each of my plot points are and what isn’t necessary or draws the reader out of the story by crowding out the important milestones within it.

It’s quick. It’s simple. It’s valuable and yet free. You have nothing to lose by giving it a shot.