Establish Your Code: Navigating the Rules of Writing

Pirate (Johnny Depp) looking at other pirate with parrot on his shoulderIn Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the pirate code is brought up often. It’s a code of conduct for pirates on the high seas to abide by, set down by the pirate brethren. But not long into the story, we realize the code doesn’t mean much to swashbuckling pirates. As Captain Barbosa explains, “The code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.” And while the code’s informality becomes the running joke throughout the film, it implies that most rules, no matter what they’re governing, are not “one size fits all.”

There are books upon blogs upon interviews of writing rules to absorb nowadays. The rules of grammar, of story structure, of technique, of discipline. Many of them overlap and reiterate the same points, but the question remains: when is it okay to break one (or all) of them?

We writers, like those pirates, need to establish our code: the circumstances in which we’ll veer from the precedent and try something new, and the times we’ll follow the rules without question.

It’s a gamble to stray from the tried and true because your heart or gut is telling you it feels right—when the muse is guiding you to write an entire short story of run-on sentences or to eliminate a vital plot point from the hero’s journey. But writers have made similar choices. To follow their right way and not the right way. Some of them have failed miserably, but some have succeeded far beyond their expectations (Many writers since Hemingway and Faulkner have successfully employed run-on sentences, for instance).

The most reiterated rule I came across when I told people I was writing a book was: don’t start working on a second project until the first one is one hundred percent complete.

It’s a great rule, to be sure. How many people do you know that start gardening one day and the next the flowers have wilted and the herbs have shriveled up because they’ve moved on to knitting? And then their living room is strung with unused yarn while they learn to decorate cakes in the kitchen? And then the dishes lie dirty in the sink while they learn to roller blade? You know that person I’m speaking of—you might even be that person!

I can sometimes be that person. So when I was told not to jump ship, I didn’t. Even though a year into writing my book, I got one of those ideas that demands to be known. That idea that stops you in your tracks and has you grasping for a pen or your smartphone, so you don’t forget a detail. The one you can’t wait to tell someone about. The one you’re itching to work on at any given lull in the day.

But then there was that rule: Don’t. Jump. Ship.

So I continued with my first project for another year. But all the while the other project called to me. And all the while I wanted so badly to work on it. And so instead of having a half-completed story, I ended up completing a story with half a heart behind it.

It took me another two months and a writer’s conference to finally, consciously, decide to jump ship. At first, it felt like I had wasted two years of work. Like I had given up or failed somehow. But as I dove into the new project, I began to employ all the rules and techniques I had learned in the past two years of writing. And the words were pouring out of me.

I did not fail, I grew.

Sometimes breaking the rules yields the greatest learning experiences.

So while you’re skimming this blog, or reading an interview with your favorite author, or referencing Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” remember that your inner compass doesn’t have to point north for your writing to become a treasure.

Read the rules. Accept the rules. But make your own code.

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Keep Your Opinion to Yourself: How to Prevent Authorial Bias From Poisoning Your Writing

black and white photo of person wearing gloves holding a mirror in a snowy forestAll artists have a distinctive style, but have you ever thought about how they acquired it? I’ve worked alongside character sculptors for many years and noticed that whether they sculpt animals, monsters, or humans, each creation resembles them to some degree. It’s not a conscious effort but rather a subconsciously learned habit from looking in the mirror every day and seeing the same familiar features staring back.

For writers, it’s not so different. There’s no way to turn off the constant stream of thoughts, emotions, ideas, and annoying jingles swirling around in the figurative mirror of our minds. So, just like those visual artists, our writing is imbued with “features” of ourselves.

By “features” I don’t mean in the sense of “write what you know.” Anything you create will reflect your personality and interests. But there are other “features”—the subconscious ones—that you don’t intend to include.

While you inform how your characters think and act, this doesn’t mean they should think and act how you would in a given situation, or that your opinion of them should affect their identities. In my current project, my protagonist has two love interests vying for her attention. About halfway through my first draft, I realized that not only did my critique partners dislike the second love interest, but so did I (and so did my protagonist)! Far from making him compelling and attractive, I made him deplorable! His actions and dialogue completely discounted his strengths. Upon reflection, this was because the first love interest was someone I would want to be with. So when I was knee deep in the writing trenches, the mirror in my head had a thing or two to contribute to the second love interest’s character. Luckily, with a few dialogue tweaks and sequences where he could be more active, I was able to redeem him.

This is just one example of how the internal mirror can take over. It can also manifest in dialogue, plot, or theme. And although sometimes it will enhance your project, it won’t always. So be aware of the “features” you pour into your writing and then decide if they should stay or go. Here’s how:

  1. Write uncensored. Especially in a first draft, it can be hard to discern where you’re giving away too much information and where the integrity of certain characters falls short. So get the first draft out with no regard for the mirror.
  1. Identify where the mirror takes over. Some instances you’ll notice as you’re writing and others upon immediate review, but certain cases—the ones that have infiltrated an entire character arc or thematic message—you’ll have a hard time identifying. So start with dialogue and plot revelations, and then look at the larger picture of arcs and themes.
  1. Evaluate what works—and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to depart from what you know and love. Remember that removing the mirror’s influence doesn’t mean the writing’s gone forever; you can always relocate it to your ‘killed darlings’ document.
  1. Let others read your work. While they may not know you well enough to recognize where the internal mirror takes over, their critique may show you where your story is suffering. Not to mention, they could help you solve a problem you may not have noticed on your own.

All that being said, this is your story—of course, your “features” will be reflected within! So allow the internal mirror to take over once in a while, and then evaluate if you need to fog it up, shatter it, or give it a good polish.


Play to Your Edge: Maintaining a Writing Routine

person standing on edge of rockWhen I tell people that I’m writing a book, they eventually ask about my writing routine. My response usually starts with, “It depends…,” because, while I generally write each night before bed—and occasionally can devote an entire morning or afternoon to writing—I may also go several days without putting pen to paper (or, I should say, fingers to keyboard). My routine (or lack thereof) seemed to fall into the “I write when I can” category.

I wanted to do better.

I knew, for instance, that Earnest Hemingway wrote daily, while standing up, and clocked at least three hundred words per day—he also weighed himself every morning and documented it in pencil on his bathroom wall (Okay, perhaps he’s not the best example.). On the other end of the spectrum, Neil Gaiman has revealed that boredom is the key to his creativity, and so he takes regular walks that allow him the headspace to come up with new ideas. I needed something in between to help me mend the gaps in my writing routine.

So I started waking up an hour early every morning. Whether I used the time to write, journal, read, work out, or some combination, this small adjustment to my schedule energized me and sparked a feeling of productivity that lasted the entire day.

Then one morning, I had to wake up earlier than usual for work. I forwent my morning ritual, stumbled out of bed, brushed my teeth, threw on the outfit I—thankfully—had picked out the night before, and left. When I got home, all I wanted to do was plop into bed and shut my eyes. And so I did.

The next morning, I woke up later than usual—and groggier than usual. Sluggishness and unproductiveness clouded my day. When I finally sat down to write, the task at hand felt monumental. I didn’t know what to write; I just felt an overwhelming pressure to do it. But the words were caught somewhere in transit, inaccessible.

The rest of that week was a downward spiral: My journaling was sporadic and uninspired, I finished my leisure book and had nothing lined up to read next, I had no idea what the point of my scene-in-progress was, both my critique partners had to cancel our weekly chat, and, on top of all that, I had no advice to write about for this blog post!

My intention for waking up early was to complete a task before I started my day, thus boosting my productivity. Failing to wake up early (a task in itself) meant I now had more to do in less time. And the more I thought about needing to do those tasks, the less I felt capable of actually doing them. I had taken motivation and turned it into stress.

I needed to take a step back.

There’s a yoga concept called “playing to your edge”—that place just outside your comfort zone but not so far past it that you’ll sustain an injury. The tricky part is, your edge today might be much further than your edge tomorrow. But the mind has already documented the progress you made today and established it as the new standard.

Therein was my problem. I was operating on the inherent desire to do better than yesterday, but imposing that standard was only hindering my ability to meet it at all! Instead, I needed to play to my edge.

The next morning I woke up with the sun, made some eggs, and got on with my day. And that night, the words flowed again.

So whether you operate on the level of “I write when I can” or on the level of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” embrace your edge—wherever it may be today—and let it guide your routine.

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Write What You Don’t Know: The Timesaving Concept of Apologetics

Futuristic Time Machine Time PortalWrite what you know—great advice, but sometimes, the best ideas surpass your knowledge. While the Internet has made research easier than ever, it’s still tedious to sift through the clutter. If you needed to earn a master’s degree every time you plotted a science fiction short story, then you’d never write anything! So, until time turners become available to the masses, we have to find ways to cut corners. This brings us to apologetics.

Now, before you Google the term ‘apologetic’ and wonder why I’m telling you to defend religious doctrines in your writing, let me explain.

In my current project, I was struggling to describe how a certain serum affected my characters. One of my critique partners, who works in the sciences, pointed out that my idea was not scientifically sound. And while I was grateful for his expertise, I was discouraged. I felt like I had to enroll in a biochemistry class to get my bearings on the subject—an option that was not viable for me financially or time-wise. That was when my other critique partner suggested I use an apologetic—a concept he learned from a sports podcast of all places! He clarified that the reader only needs an explanation that they understand, not necessarily one that works in the real world. So if I could give a concrete example or analogy that established how the serum worked, it would omit the need to divulge the actual scientific explanation.

In case I’ve lost you, let’s look at a classic case: A Wrinkle in Time. Readers want and need to know: what’s a wrinkle in time and how does it work? Madeleine L’Engle employs an apologetic in chapter five to explain. Her character, Mrs. Whatsit, states:

“If a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who’s right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across.”

Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together. “Now you see,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “he would be there, without that long trip. That is how we travel.”

While the rest of the chapter elaborates more on time travel and the fifth dimension, that simple imagery gets the idea across. The real explanation of wrinkling time may be far too complex for the characters (and readers) to comprehend, but what they can understand is that a line folded in half makes the distance between two points shorter than walking straight across.

Are you with me now?

More than saving time on research, apologetics is also a means of explaining the rules of your fictional universe to readers. Since the logic in science fiction and fantasy worlds often surpasses that of the real world, research isn’t always a factor. A perfectly reasonable answer for how anything works in Harry Potter, for instance, is: “because, magic!” (Though that is not to discount the carefully considered brilliance of J.K. Rowling’s world building.) That said, apologetics can enhance the believability of your world. If you establish there’s a certain spell that can only be performed once, readers will want to know why. Perhaps performing that specific spell is like firing a cannon from a canoe—after one attempt, the vessel will sink (a.k.a. the performer will be destroyed). While readers don’t know what exactly that spell does to the body, the image of a cannon capsizing a canoe certainly leaves an impression.

I’ll bet you’re starting to recall apologetics from various books, TV shows, and movies—think of any story where one character is rattling off lofty words and the other character says: “in English please!” While not every story requires it, apologetics is yet another helpful weapon to add to your writing arsenal. The infamous ‘they’ always say that there’s more than one way of doing things. And now there’s also more than one way of saying things! So take the pressure off when you’re overwhelmed by a pile of research, or building the rules of your world, and find an example that says it all for you.

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Stop Writin’ Solo: Why You Should Have a Critique Group

Group photo of people working on a shipWhen you hear the word “critique,” the next word that probably comes to mind is “criticism” (“constructive” not even a close second). Am I right?

 I get it—no matter what the field, being critiqued in any capacity exposes your vulnerability. But with all the grammar rules, generic conventions, and heaps of writing techniques out there, a critique group is going to be your secret writing weapon—I promise!

 I spent a year writing my book alone, cherishing ever word, every sentence, and every little world-building concept I conjured. My close family members were the only people I allowed to read my work, more as a way of holding myself accountable than for real advice. 

 Even after attending a writer’s conference and hearing again and again about critique groups, I was hesitant to share my work. But the thing was, my manuscript had problems. I’d already rewritten it once, and in both drafts, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to write the ending. Something wasn’t working, and I didn’t want to admit it.

 If not for an author whom I met at the conference, I’d still be guarding my writing and sending it over email to my mom, password protected. When the author found out I didn’t have a critique group, she introduced me to two people that she thought I’d get along with who were both writing in my genre. Perhaps it’s because we all trusted her that we immediately decided to trust each other. We started an email chain the next day, and the rest is history.

 My writing has improved immensely; my stories are more coherent, and my characters more four-dimensional. I’m better at discerning the problems in my own work, and never have writer’s block for longer than a week because I can use our weekly meetings for brainstorming instead of critiquing.

 This isn’t to say you should give your work to just anyone. Here are some tips for finding a critique group that’s a good fit:

 1.      Attend a writer’s conference or local writing event to scout some potential group members. Or peruse an online writing forum and post a thread seeking interested individuals.

2.      Get to know your group members before sending them any of your writing.

3.      Ensure they are in a similar stage of writing as you (and genre, if possible).

4.      Ensure they want to help you, and not just get help for themselves.

5.      Ensure they can commit to set meeting days and times (except holidays or crazy work weeks). 

6.      Ensure they are motivated and have goals they wish to meet for their own work.

7.      Find between two and six other group members. If you only find one person, you’re delayed for a week or longer when they’re busy. With more than six people, you won’t be able to give the proper attention to each submission.

 Once you find your group, it’s time to start critiquing! Here’s how:

 1.      Decide how often you’ll meet: once a week, bi-weekly, or once a month.

2.      Decide where you’ll meet, whether in person, over the phone, or via internet communication, like Skype.

3.      Submit via email attachment, at least a day in advance of your meeting.

4.      Start by submitting outlines so each member can get acquainted with the others’ stories. Then submit chapters, select pages, or plot brainstorms.

5.      Submit as often as you can so it becomes part of your routine.

6.      You can have a standing rotation to determine who goes first, second, etc., or you can go in order of who submitted first.

Don’t get discouraged if your first attempt at assembling a critique group doesn’t work out. Try approaching this like dating—there might be a few bad ones before you find “the one(s)” who will help take your writing to the next level!

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No One Likes a Copy Cat: Eliminate Word Echoes from Your Writing

B&W Two MoonsWhether a simple word like “quite” appears twice in the same sentence or a bigger word like “ubiquitous” finds its way more than once into a chapter, there’s something about these word echoes that really peeves me! (Note: sometimes there’s no replacement for a word like “word,” which I will continue to use throughout this blog post…)

I’ll apologize now since, most likely, word echoes haven’t agitated you at all, or you’ve never noticed them in your leisure books. But it’s like when you’re in the market for a red car—suddenly they’re everywhere!

Although in everyday speech we rattle off the same words multiple times without a second thought, in writing it’s different. In writing, there’s the opportunity to edit—to rethink how you say something until it’s said to the best of your ability. So why use the same word twice when the English language has so many others to choose from?

And while simple words may go undetected when echoed, bigger words flash like spotlights. Not only that, but their power is diluted. So, with the exception of writing dialogue for a character with a limited vocabulary, expand your word-choice horizons with these tips:

  1. The thesaurus is your friend. Keep one by your side while writing. It’s especially helpful when characters are grabbing things or running a lot. There are many ways to grab: are they snatching an object away from someone else, grappling for a door handle, or swiping their hand through the air to catch a rope? And how are they running? Stumbling forward, barreling into battle, or perhaps traipsing through a field? This is the fun part! Find new ways to say actions that happen over and over again.
  2. Save the micromanaging for draft two. Especially in the first draft, how you say it isn’t as important as just saying it. If your character is in the action of the climax, don’t worry about how they grab or run. Get the ideas down, and then change up the language later.
  3. Get a second opinion. Let someone read your work and see if they notice any word echoes you may have missed. Often they’ll pass right over them, but you’ll be glad if they catch a particularly egregious one! (Can you imagine if I used the word egregious twice in this blog post?!)

While word echoes aren’t a deal breaker—many traditionally published works are chock full of them—limiting them in your writing will force you to spread your creative wings as you discover fresh ways to express your ideas. So here’s your official challenge, feisty writer: say it once and then say it different!

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Killing Your Darlings

Vintage photo man on old-fashioned motorcycle in desertYou’ve heard the phrase everywhere: in how-to books, at conferences, and from many notable authors throughout the years. ‘Kill your darlings’ is widespread writing advice because it’s good writing advice. But, if you’re like me, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow. We’re told to write from a place of passion, to give it our all—and then we’re expected to go at our work with the delete button?!

The answer to that is, of course: yes. Unless you’re among the minuscule percentage of writers who never want their work to see the light of day, you’re writing for a reader. And readers can’t read your work if they’re stumbling over words, confused by phrasing or distracted by excessive simile use.

But, for all the people who preach why you should kill your darlings, none of them explain how. They are darling, after all (and not everyone can be as cruel as George R. R. Martin). I say, instead of deleting them out of cyberspace, relocate them.

Whether your go-to program is Microsoft Word, Pages, or a writing program like Scrivener, start a document meant solely for all of your darlings (I call mine, ‘Stuff I Might Use’). When a critique group member, beta reader, or even yourself (upon second or third or fourth reading), sees a problem, a ‘darling’ in your lovely writing, copy and paste that darling into that document.

Just because you have three-too-many similes in one chapter doesn’t mean you can’t recycle those into a future chapter or, for that matter, into a future project. But chances are, eventually, you’ll forget about that heart-wrenching metaphor from page forty-five that pulls the reader out of the moment, or that detailed description of light reflecting off the floorboards which contradicts your character perspective.

The more you practice writing, the more drafts you revise, and the more books and writing advice you read, the easier it’ll be to recognize and eliminate the parts of your writing that aren’t working. I barely flinch anymore when my critique group suggests I cut out a sentence, paragraph, or even an entire chapter.

That’s because killed darlings aren’t wasted words. They are vital to the writing process. Ideas build upon one another. You can’t get from point A to point C without passing through point B first. And if you hold on too dearly to point B, you’ll never progress to point C.

So the next time someone tells you to ‘kill your darlings,’ rest assured that you can always resurrect them. But you might be surprised where all the ‘killing’ takes you!

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