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K. Bird Lincoln on Plot Turns and the Short Attention Span Writer

Writing

I stop reading a lot of novels before I get anywhere near the end. My thinking is that these days, there’s far too much available to read in the world for me to stick with a novel that doesn’t have me hooked or pay off in some big way. Books by authors I’m trying for the first time often suffer this fate, but so do classics and bestsellers. It doesn’t necessarily say anything bad about the story, just that a particular novel isn’t for me.

However, if I stick with a novel to the end and continue to be deeply engaged in the story, that does say something good about the story and the author. Not everyone will share my taste in stories, but it’s an important feat to keep even one reader on seat’s edge for hundreds of pages.

As I started reading K. Bird Lincoln’s new Kindle novel Tiger Lily, I half-expected never to finish it. The main character, Lily, is plagued by self-doubt and pessimism, and that’s just not the kind of character that tends to draw me in. It wasn’t far into the book, though, that the story took an unexpected and intriguing twist, and I decided to keep reading until that problem was resolved–except that before that issue came to a complete close, the story took another twist, and then another, and then another. Halfway through, the story walloped me with a twist that made perfect sense but that I would never have imagined, and I knew the book was a keeper. Straight through to the climax, these reversals and surprises never let up. I was impressed enough with Lincoln’s mastery of these attention-trapping skills that I asked if I could interview her on the subject. She kindly agreed.

Luc: In your novel Tiger Lily, it seems that as soon as we begin to get relief from one suspenseful situation, a new one comes up as a natural part of the story. The result, for me, is continuous suspense and engagement. Is this something you consciously set out to do, or does it just happen automatically because of how you write? 

K. Bird Lincoln: Yes to both?

I’ve got a fairly limited attention span. Also, I’ve read quite widely and deeply in Science Fiction, Fantasy (urban, historical, epic, paranormal) over the years and so have come across quite the range of tropes for these genres. I kind of know what’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to most of the time when reading. So for a story to keep my interest, there have to be continuous issues for my main character to overcome.

In short, get me attached to someone, and then give them big and small problems. Think about X-Files when it was blazing new trails in TV-Land for having an overarching question that we got hints about (are there aliens? who is the cigarette smoking man?) at the same time as smaller, more bite-sized monster-of-the-week issues were resolved in each episode.

Books that keep my interest do this. So when I’m writing, I keep in mind the overall issue that’s going to need to build up and be resolved by the end of the book. In the case of Tiger Lily, it’s the confrontation with the Pretender Emperor on the plot level and Lily’s feelings for Ashikaga on the inner-character level. When I come to the end of a chapter, I try to give the reader a dramatic pause, as well a reason to go on to the next chapter that involves smaller obstacles. Those are the monsters-of-the-week.

But here’s my confession. This sounds all very purposeful and consciously planned out. The truth is, I’m a “by-the-seat-of-my-pants” writer, not an outliner. So my short attention span kind of naturally guides my writing towards the dramatic pauses (such as Tiger Lily encountering a kami for the first time) every 3,000 words or so….because if I don’t, I get bored. Then writing is work and not fun any more. If writing isn’t interesting/fun, then I’ll go watch an episode of Vampire Diaries or do the laundry or bake cookies.

So it happens naturally when I write, but I tend to rework chapter breaks during editing to make sure they hit a dramatic pause. Or else I end up eating too many cookies 🙂

Luc: So let’s say you’re getting to a point where something new needs to happen: 3,000 words have passed, or you find yourself starting to think about cookie recipes. How do you decide what that “something new” is going to be? Has it been brewing already over the past 3,000 words, or do you sit and think “What can I do to shake this up?”

K. Bird Lincoln: Oh, I don’t have anything planned. I totally just make it up as I go along.

K. Bird Lincoln’s Unconscious (KU): You’re kidding, right? You’re so full of it. I’ve been working like a dog thinking about the character, and the overall arc, and where the character is, and the other characters’ motivations while you’ve been sitting poolside drinking a latte and watching the kids’ swim lessons. “Totally just makes it up” MY PANTS!

K. Bird Lincoln: I get into that writing zone after the first 200 words or so and the next line jumps magically on to the page. I don’t have to consciously “shake things up.” The crisis just happens naturally.

KU: *palm to face* As if you never read that Scott Westerfelt interview where he said he always started off a writing session by going back and editing the last few pages he wrote. It’s not magic, doofus. When you’re editing, I’m getting bored, so I am figuring out how to make things more interesting before you crack open the 101 best chocolate chip cookies book.

K. Bird Lincoln: Okay, okay, I do go back and edit the prior day’s pages before writing. And so, of course, whatever happens there usually plants the seeds of the next impending crisis. But you can’t take credit for planning that crisis while I’m daydreaming or editing. I’m a seat-pantser writer, not an outliner!

KU: Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Luc: I’m not sure whom to ask this final question, so I’ll throw it open to both of you: how much of the suspense emerges in the first draft versus what comes out in editing? 

K. Bird Lincoln: I guess I’ll take over for my Unconscious. She needs to get back to work figuring out how my plucky boy adventurer, Eli, is going to escape from a cave full of giant centipedes in my work-in-progress.

When I first crack open a blank Word Document, I have a vague plan how the big, ending battle is going to go down. In Tiger Lily’s case, I pictured her using forbidden Jindo songs to fight evil. I started writing- and life intervened.

One month passed, my children started school, my job required overtime, and I’d completely lost touch with my original excitement about how she was going to fight evil. That’s such a MARVELOUS feeling. And it happens to me all the time.

So I sat down to write anyway, and my husband interrupted with some news about an active volcano in Southern Japan, and I remembered climbing Yamadera (awesome, shrine-laden mountain stairs in Yamagata Prefecture) ten years ago. Suddenly Lily’s climbing Hell Mountain to save Ashikaga.

The official answer is that suspense emerges in the first draft, but by the time I’ve finished the “First Draft”, I’ve probably gone through three or four different tension-building scenarios.  Then when I’ve written the end, I go back and erase aborted ideas and false starts, and layer in little bits of tension that (hopefully) foreshadow the big, ending battle.

That’s how to to be a constantly interrupted, short-attention span writer: be willing to change ideas mid-scene (no matter how painful) if the romance suddenly dies, and also put your butt in the chair and write even if you’re not sure where your characters are going. You can always fix it later.

After you’ve made cookies.

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How to Write 10,000 Words a Day, Part II (Luc Reid)

Writing

Yesterday, I posted novelist James Maxey’s response to the question “How do you write 10,000 words in a day?” Here are my own thoughts on the matter, from my experience writing that much and more. This was written before I read James’s take, but not surprisingly, it turns out that our responses have a lot of comment elements.

  1. Don’t expect the result to be publishable unless you have a lot of experience writing. That’s not to say that you won’t produce something that can eventually become publishable, or even that you’ll necessarily miss the mark even if this is your first attempt at long fiction, but if you are going to be miserable if your work isn’t terrific, you may want to think twice before trying to write at this speed.
  2. Be a fast typist. If you can’t type quickly already, you’ll want to do some typing tutorials to improve your speed before attempting 10,000 words in a day. In theory you can write over 1,000 words an hour if you only type 20 words per minute, but in practice you’ll need to do things like make quick fixes and notes, use the bathroom, and especially think. If you know you won’t be able to type at least 40 wpm, set your sites lower than 10,000 words per day. 5,000 words a day is still an amazing accomplishment, for example–and any personal record or completed piece is worth celebrating.
  3. Clear your schedule; remove all distractions. Don’t check e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter; turn off your phone; make sure you’re alone (or at least will be left alone); prepare food ahead if possible; take care of anything pressing that might otherwise interrupt you before you start.
  4. Have all the ingredients you personally need to drive the story forward. If you’re an off-the-cuff writer, that’s fine, but make sure you understand what you’ll need in terms of research, premise, setting, character ideas, plot ideas, or whatever else you use for starting stories. For instance, although I sometimes like to use outlines, if I come up with two interesting characters having an argument, I’m off and running: setting and plot can emerge for me out of those. Other people will need a few key scenes to shoot for, or will need to know the beginning and the ending. Yet others will need a full-blown outline. Know what you need. If you don’t have enough writing experience to know what you need yet, be willing to experiment, be comfortable with the idea that you may run out of steam, and keep a copy of The Writing Engine handy in order to use the troubleshooting section as needed.
  5. Don’t revise yet. If your story gets off track, you can go back as far as you need and restart from there (while still counting the discarded words in your daily count if you like), or you can go back and insert notes as to what future revisions you’ll need, but don’t try to go back and fix things: you’re likely to lose all of your momentum and begin getting bogged down in editing rather than creation.
  6. Have a vision. If you have a vision of what will make writing so much in such a short period of time wonderful for you (for instance, the excitement of having a finished novel draft, however rough, or exploring a story idea that you’ve been wanting to explore for a long time), you’ll have something to sustain you when you almost inevitably hit those moments of “This thing I’m writing is junk!” or “What am I doing this for, anyway?”
  7. Immerse yourself in the story. The more involved you are in the story and the more you care about spending time with the characters and “seeing” what happens to them, the more likely you’ll be able to keep up the pace, and the more likely you’ll be to create something your readers can be excited about, too. Just as importantly, immersion in your story is another way of saying that you’ve achieved flow, which means maximum productivity and high quality (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated“).

Photo by lscan

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How to Write 10,000 Words a Day, Part I (James Maxey)

Writing

One reader of my interview with James Maxey, “Writing a Novel in One Week,” had this question:

This is an interesting article, but fails to answer the question that every writer must be asking: HOW? He’s writing 10,000 words a day! That’s great! Can it be done? Well, one writer was successful at it. Presumably, others can as well. How? What steps made this goal actionable?

It’s  a pretty practical question, and I passed it on to James to see what his thoughts were. Also, I have some answers to that question myself, because while I’ve never written a novel in a week, I’ve written more than 10,000 words in a day from time to time, including when I wrote the the majority of my novelette “Bottomless,” which won the Writers of the Future contest and appears in Writers of the Future, volume XX.

How do you write 10,000 words in a day? Here’s what James had to say.

Right now, I’m slogging away on a novel called Witchbreaker, wistfully dreaming of those 10k days of Burn Baby Burn. I’m once again back in my 10k words a week territory. Every novel is different, so I’m not overly concerned about my slower speed. Still, while I’m struggling, it’s easy to look back and see what my advantages were at the time.

The things that made Burn Baby Burn a fast novel are actually pretty simple:

1. I’d been thinking about the story for a long time. I had a big list of events and themes I wanted to include. I had enough material to fill a novel ready to go, and a minimalist outline gave me a structure to fit everything into.

2. The unique circumstances that kept me away from work, at home, with no other commitments will be difficult to duplicate again. One thing that’s causing me grief on Witchbreaker is that I bought a house in March that needed a lot of renovations and repairs. Those took time, moving took time, and now we’ve been working on our old house to improve its chances of selling. I have a lot of distractions, and it takes me a long time to ramp back up when I do sit down to write. That said, I’ve carved out some additional time in June to have several sequential days with butt in chair and hope to beat 20k words a week at least a few weeks this month. The more I write in a short amount of time, the better my ability to keep the narrative thread.

3. Burn Baby Burn is a fully developed novel, but it’s also a fairly simple novel. Witchbreaker is the third book in my dragon apocalypse series, and I have dozens of characters I have to keep track of, and at least seven or eight characters with story arcs that have to weave together. Burn Baby Burn really only followed the character arc for Pit Geek and Sunday. The other major characters, the superheroes, remained more or less static. They were fleshed out with backstories and conflicts, but pretty much exited the novel unchanged by the events. This simplicity also provides intensity. By the end of the book you will really be emotionally invested in Pit and Sunday. With Witchbreaker, you have a whole buffet of characters to sample. Some you may fall in love with, some may leave you cold, but all weave together in a grand soap opera. Writing an epic fantasy like this is really kind of like writing a half dozen smaller stories and fitting them all together seamlessly, which is more time consuming.

4. This is probably the biggest factor of all: I’ve been practicing. A long, long time. If Burn Baby Burn were my first or second novel, I would have almost definitely gotten bogged down. Instead, it was maybe the eight novel I wrote? The ninth? On top of what, a hundred short stories? I’ve easily written a million words of fiction by this point. If I count multiple drafts of the same works, I’ve probably got several million words under my belt. I’ve measured my output enough to know that I’ve had several peak days in the past when I did get out over 10k words in a day, usually when I was really swept up in the heat of a story. So, while 10k words in a day is still ambitious, I know it’s possible, so when I have a day where that’s my goal, I can approach it with confidence. Fifteen years ago, 10k words would have felt like a lot of writing. Now, meh. It’s about ten hours of my life. Finding 10 unclaimed hours is an increasingly difficult trick, but, when I do have an hour, I know I can trade it for a thousand words, at least. Last summer, life handed me a week of unclaimed time. I swapped them for a book.

If  you’re just starting out as a writer, your art is just like learning to play a musical instrument or learning to master an athletic skill. Talent only takes you so far. You have to dedicate the practice time if you want to get good. There really are no shortcuts.

I’ll follow up based on my own experience in tomorrow’s post.

Photo by sundaune

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Inspiration: Essential Magic or a Load of Hooey?

Writing

Ah, Sweet Panic!
Cartoonist Bill Watterson cranked out one brilliant Calvin and Hobbes comic strip after another for about ten years. Even if (bizarrely) you aren’t a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, it’s clear Watterson knew how to create art that spoke to a lot of people in a clever, funny, and meaningful way. Here’s a conversation his two main characters  had about inspiration.

HOBBES: Do you have an idea for your project yet?
CALVIN: No, I’m waiting for inspiration. You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood.
HOBBES: What mood is that?
CALVIN: Last-minute panic.

It’s interesting how effective last-minute panic really is. I don’t know if you’ll have as many examples in your life as I do in mine, but can you recall an incident or two in which you delayed doing something because you didn’t feel like you had any good ideas, then were forced to do come up with an approach at the last minute that came out great?

I’m not suggesting this is a formula for success, because a lot of last-minute efforts are terrible. What’s interesting about this phenomenon, though, is how often just sitting down and doing the thing can force inspiration to appear out of nowhere.

Angels and Bounty Hunters
The “inspiration on demand” idea seems directly in conflict with the “angel whispering in my ear” idea of inspiration: in the latter, a really good idea comes out of the blue and is out of the artist’s control. I actually do believe in this kind of inspiration. Our brains are chugging along all the time doing all kinds of stuff, and if on some level we’re looking for ideas, some chance collision of elements will sometimes create something spectacular. When something like this comes along, there’s nothing wrong with seizing it–although treating it as holy writ can be a problem, since there’s no guarantee the idea is already in its ideal form (see my Futurismic columns “There’s Always Another Way to Write It” and the “What Else?” portion of “Writing Differently: Picking Up the Scary Tools” ).

The problem I’m concerned about here, then, isn’t using inspiration that appears out of the blue, but rather waiting for that kind of inspiration, like Calvin. Good ideas can arise on their own, but they can also be dragged out kicking and screaming. Here are a few ways to do that, with an emphasis on ideas for writers (though many of these approaches can work for any kind of artist).

Juxtaposition
Take a story line, emotional state, event, character, or situation that interests you and throw it in with something else that isn’t usually associated. Think of Blade Runner (androids and private eyes) or Watership Down (rabbits and prescience) orEnder’s Game (children and space).

Reversal
Take a cliched story setup and reverse it. Make the private eye deeply in touch with his emotions; make the bunny deadly (although admittedly, that’s been done by Mssrs. Python); write a coming-of-age story about a 72-year-old. Make those cliches wail and gnash their teeth.

One of the most engaging ways to create gripping writing is to find a way to make things worse–ideally, the worst they could possibly get (prior to you then coming up with something even worse that will happen later). Suzanne Collins starts her gripping novel The Hunger Games with a character worrying about being chosen for a deadly contest–until that worry is completely erased when the character’s relatively helpless younger sister is chosen instead.

What happened to you
One of the great things about real life is that it doesn’t get upset when you steal ideas from it. J.K. Rowling created some of her most engaging characters based on people she knew growing up. Bringing your own experience into a story creates an emotional immediacy that’s otherwise often hard to come by.

Yadda yadda yadda
At this point in this piece I find I’m coming closer to giving advice about writing than talking about motivation for writing, which means I’m getting off-topic. Let me steer back on to point out that one of the things that creates excitement about writing a story is having wonderful ideas about who and what will come up in that story as it proceeds. When the ideas (about characters, plot, setting, incidents, problems, etc.) are strong enough, we can’t wait to see what happens in our own stories, even when we already more or less know how things will come out. When we instead depend solely on ideas that volunteer themselves, really compelling ideas may be too scarce to keep us fired up–but when we generate the ideas on demand, stopping to create something amazing whenever something amazing isn’t already there for us, then we create our own propulsion, carrying us forward further and faster into our own work.

This piece is adapted from my Futurismic column “Brain Hacks for Writers”

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The Most Troubled Plurals in the English Language

Writing

It’s funny, but I haven’t been able to find a post on the Web about the most difficult pluralizations in English. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. Regardless, I decided it was easier to put together my own than to keep looking; here it is.

The thing about plurals is that you start running into a lot of trouble about “common usage” versus “correct usage” and whatnot. I’ll say right here that I think that language is defined by usage. At the same time, I hold the completely contradictory belief that sometimes lots and lots of people are making the same mistake. It’s not a tenable position, but I’m holding it anyway. It seems to work for me.

Even if you’re not in love with the English language, as I and many of my writer friends, are, I can think of three reasons to care about getting plurals right. The first is pretty minor, and it’s clarity: expressing yourself in a way that’s precise and unlikely to lead to confusion.

The second is attention to detail, because people who feel very attached to “proper” language may tend to judge your speaking, writing, and/or general intelligence ungenerously if they don’t like your plurals.

The third is steering clear of something that’s for some people is a pet peeve, as a compassionate and charitable act. Good plurals are good karma (or at least less likely to get you dragged into tedious conversations about “octopi” and “octopodes”)!

With those initial notes, let’s dive right into the plurals and plural-related expressions. Where possible, I’ve listed each by the singular followed by a colon and then the plural. Here we go!

dwarf: dwarfs or dwarves
“Dwarfs” used to be preferred, but J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings used “dwarves,” and that has since become the most popular plural. You’re probably safer with Tolkien’s version, because who can gainsay Tolkien on the topic of dwarves? Still, if you like the retro feel, “dwarfs” is perfectly acceptable.

roof: roofs
Australians and people from long ago have been known to use “rooves,” but most contemporary English-speakers (at least in the northern hemisphere) will look at you funny or shout you down if you use that, so “roofs” is the best way to go unless you like to rile people, in which case feel free to drive some people through their rooves.

Kennedy: Kennedys
It’s the same for other names and places. You’d think it might be “Kennedies,” but proper nouns aren’t subjected to the -Y to- IES rule, I guess because it’s considered rude to muck with someone’s name. It definitely isn’t “Kennedy’s”: see the next section.

Never, ever pluralize with an apostrophe–except when it’s OK
So  you’ve probably seen signs on stores saying “Sale on shoe’s!” and “Sorry, we’re out of apple fritter’s.” These are simply and pitiably wrong. People have a tendency to throw in an apostrophe when they’re not used to pluralizing something, for instance saying “The only government that would do more of this would be one led entirely by Barack Obama’s.” This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

However, you can get away with pluralizing numbers and letters with an apostrophe (at least using some style manuals). For instance, you can write “I got all A’s and B’s” or “My scores have all been 3’s.” You can also write “As and Bs” and “3s”, though. I think the reason the apostrophe was allowed there is that the letters, at least, look like they’re trying to form words when you leave it out. Anyway, it’s your choice.

octopus: There is no good answer
The plural of “octopus” you’re most likely to get away with is “octopuses,” because it’s a standard English pluralization and is widely used.

However, “octopi” is also widely considered acceptable. Unfortunately, some people will insist it’s the only correct one (because in Latin words that end in “-US” are pluralized with an “-I” ending), while other people will insist it’s horribly wrong (because “octopus” comes from Greek, not Latin!), while yet other people will point out that even if it’s wrong, “octopi” has been in use for centuries, so it doesn’t matter whether it was invented for good reason or not: it’s part of the English language, and that’s that.

At a certain point people tried to correct “octopi” by substituting a more Greek-like plural, making it “octopodes.” This variant seems to be more popular in the United Kingdom and/or when talking about different species of octopus.

My recommendation? Stick to one octopus at a time and save yourself the heartache.

platypus: platypuses
“Platypus,” like “octopus,” is from the Greek, but there’s been a lot less arguing about this particular plural, and “platypuses” is a pretty safe bet.

nucleus: nuclei or nucleuses
syllabus: syllabi or syllabuses
focus: foci or focuses

These are regular old Latin plurals. Of course, most of us don’t speak Latin, so it helps to memorize them. Alternatively, the Anglicized “-es” forms are also acceptable (and sometimes, as with “focuses,” are sometimes preferred).

Worried about the pronunciation of “foci”? Don’t be. People pronounce it “FOE-kee,” “FOE-kai,” “FOE-see,”  or “FOE-sai.” Just pick your favorite!

datum: data
medium: media

I’m afraid this is one I actually care about, because I’ve dealt with a lot of data in my time.  One piece of information is a “datum,” while a bunch of pieces of information are “data.” So technically, saying “The data is wrong about this” is a little off. However, in common usage for at least a few decades, people have been using “data” as a collective noun (like “faculty”), because who cares about just one piece of information in an age that practically drowns us in information? Therefore most people will have no trouble with you saying “the data is wrong,” but a few of us will gnash our teeth, tear our hair, rend our garments, wail, etc.

“Medium” is in a similiar situation. Newspapers are one medium, while DVDs are another. Both are types of media. However, “media” is also sometimes used as a collective noun, like “data.”

criterion: criteria
This one actually has a right answer, and let common usage be hanged. One thing to take into account is a “criterion” (singular). If you have to take a lot of things into account, they’re “criteria” (plural). Please don’t say “This is the single most important criteria.”

Pretty please?

schema: schemas or schemata
Both “schemas” and “schemata” are used as plurals for “schema,” although in Schema Therapy, the plural is “schemas” only.

mother-in-law: mothers-in-law
sergeant major: sergeants major
court-martial: courts-martial
attorney general: attorneys general
Nouns made up of multiple words, like these examples, get the first word pluralized, partly because sometimes the words on the end are adjectives, and pluralizing an adjective just doesn’t make sense–except in Spanish or Russian or one of those other crazy languages that they speak in far-flung parts.

Proudfoot: Proudfeet
Another Tolkien reference. If it doesn’t amuse you, please disregard it and move on.

tornado: tornados or tornadoes
Either one is fine.

however

potato: potatoes
Enough said.

appendix: appendixes or appendices
“Appendixes” seems to be the best choice when we’re talking about the parts of the body, while “appendices” tends to be preferred when we’re talking about the information at the end of a book.

you: y’all: all y’all
I can’t think of many instances where a plural has a plural (unless you want to get into collective nouns, for instance “flocks of geese”), but this is one. In the American South, “you” is often pluralized “y’all,” although “you,” “you all,” and “you guys” are also used depending on the place and the person. Further, in all seriousness, if you’re talking to a large group, you can double-pluralize it and get “all y’all.” The difference seems to be a small group versus a large group. For instance: “Y’all want to go to the movies with me?” versus “All y’all at this movie theater [pronounce it thee-AY-tur] are too dang loud!”

After attending college in Florida for a couple of years, I came back to the North (also known as Them Yankees Up There) still using “y’all” because it was so useful. I gradually stopped, though, because I got tired of people looking at me funny over it. All y’all should stop doin’ that.

(By the way, I recognize that Florida doesn’t really count as part of the South, but there is a fair measure of y’alling going on down there.)

basis: bases
thesis: theses
parenthesis: parentheses
crisis: crises
All of these words ultimately come from Greek, in which (it would seem–I don’t speak Greek), “-IS” words are pluralized with “-ES.” More memorization fun for everyone! The nice thing about knowing the plurals about these is that you come across as extra-well-educated if you use them in grammatical crises.

species: species
Why? I have no idea. Sheep. Moose. Fish. Species.

cactus: cactuses or cacti
They’re both perfectly acceptable, and let no one tell you different. “Cactus” is a Latin word (although it comes from the Greek “kaktos”),  so the Latin plural makes about as much sense as the English plural.

there’s trees in the forest (no, there aren’t!)
It’s common for people to use “there’s” when talking about multiple things, but this is technically wrong, because “there’s” is short for “there is” (don’t tell me it can also mean “there has,” because that’s not what we’re talking about here!).

Did I miss any important ones (not including academic and scientific terms)? Please add in the comments if you have ’em.

A heartfelt thank-you to many writer friends who contributed ideas and facts for me to obfuscate and misconstrue here, including: Alter S. Reiss, Anatoly Belilovsky, Brian Dolton, David Steffen, Gareth D Jones, Gary Cuba, Grayson Bray Morris, J. Kathleen Cheney, Laurel Amberdine, Matt Rotundo, Melissa Mead, Patty Jansen, Rick Novy, Ronald D Ferguson, S. Boyd Taylor, Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, and Vylar Kaftan. Also to my sister, editor Su Reid-St.John, who made several improvements by catching goofs in my text before this was posted.

Photo by MacQ

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How Do You Research Characters and Settings So That They Feel Real?

Writing

Old Vermont barns like this one were part of my experience I wanted to use in the setting for my novel of curse-keeping in rural Vermont, Family Skulls (see left sidebar)

I try to limit the number of posts I make on the craft of fiction writing, because while I’ve been seeing some great success in my writing, it’s not as though I’ve written the Great American Novel and hit the bestseller lists, so advice on how to write a story seems like something I should be careful not to give out too much of. However, a reader recently wrote to me saying she was concerned that she might not be able to learn enough about her characters and settings to write a novel that feels real, and asking what kind of research I do when writing fiction to make sure that these elements work. Feeling that I had some useful information on the subject, I replied. Here’s what I wrote:

Based on my own experience and on many discussions with other writers, there seem to be a lot of different approaches to researching character and setting. Some of us just dive right in and either stop to do research as necessary or make notes about what we need to research and just keep writing around the blanks. Personally I’m not a fan of putting in a blank and expecting to fill in with research later, because I think good research can weave itself deeply into the story, but I can’t deny that it works for some good writers.

Using research to make a story work well and feel real isn’t especially difficult, but it does take time and effort.

Approaches for characters
I’d suggest taking different approaches for characters and setting. For characters, unless you’re the kind of person who (like me) likes to try to draw characters out while writing the story, I’d suggest putting down some key information about each major character first. Basic life facts and physical information are important, of course–What are their hair colors? How strong or weak, heavy or light are they? What kinds of medical problems have they had to go through? How tall or short are they? What were their families like as children, and who was in those families? What are their family or living situations like now? How do they get along with family members in the present? How far have they gotten in school? How did they do? What job, if any, do they have?

Even more importantly, though, you can delve into what drives them. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to know what a character’s favorite color is or what that character ate for breakfast unless that’s very meaningful to who they are or to the story–though some writers disagree and feel that this kind of extreme detail is worth gathering. For my money, though, what’s important is what the character desires, what they’re afraid of, what their doubts are, what kinds of situations get under their skin, and that kind of thing.

Strengths and schemas
I often use strengths and schemas, at least informally, to flesh out characters. The 36 strengths outlined by Marcus Buckingham, et al. (see http://www.strengthstest.com/theme_summary.php ) are one good way to find out what characters are good at. The 18 early maladaptive schemas from schema therapy (see http://www.lucreid.com/?page_id=1292 ) can be used to find at least one major personality flaw for each character. Real people have multiple strengths and usually multiple schemas, though some may be milder than others. Characters don’t necessarily have to be fleshed out with a cocktail of five strengths and three schemas, for instance, unless it’s really necessary to get that deep to figure out what they’ll do.

Have reasons for your choices
One piece of this process that seems essential to me (and that I forgot to mention to my correspondent on the first pass) is that I don’t see any point in coming up with arbitrary choices. I’d advise choosing character details because they grab you, because they make the character more interesting and complex, because they’ll drive the story, or because they make an interesting cocktail with other characteristics. If your character creation process contains steps like “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, because I know there are a lot of single moms,” then I suspect you won’t get much juice out of that fact of her upbringing. If you say, though, “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, and the mom was an alcoholic, so my character had to be the parent to her own mom as she was growing up,” or “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, being told her father was dead, and then in the story her father will show up at some crucial point when she can’t afford to spare any attention to connect with him.” … well, then maybe you’ve got something.

Personally, I tend to try to let characters emerge organically as I write them, and only stop and question myself about them when they’re not already coming alive. However, this approach takes some practice to work well, doesn’t suit everyone, and may not be ideal anyway. My suggestion in regard to how to come up with characters, as with everything else, is to try everything … then spend a few years getting better at the techniques you decided to use and try everything again. Write, grow, repeat.

Approaches for settings
For settings, I’d suggest starting with a place you have easy access to if possible and paying close attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience of being in that place. If that’s not practical, it’s worth digging up photos, videos, articles, or other materials that give you a lot of physical specifics. Writing comes alive when it’s full of fresh, unusual, accurate sensory details–and ideally not just sight and sound, but all the senses. If you go too far with this, it begins to get overwhelming, but one or two good sensory impressions per page really pack a punch.

The facts about a location are easier: you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to find out how things are laid out, look up construction of houses or how an office is furnished, etc. I tend to do a lot of research looking for images and videos, because they give me much more of a feeling of being in a place than a simple description.

A couple of writing books you might really like, in case you haven’t already read them, are Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint and Stephen King’s On Writing. Between the two of them, they can give you a lot of tools, explanations, and confidence.

Photo by Beth M527

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Writing a Novel in One Week

Writing

How fast can you write well? Don’t mistake slowness for quality: what speedy writing lacks in deliberation, under the right circumstances and with enough writing practice behind it, it can more than make up for in involvement, awareness, and momentum.

James Maxey, author of numerous successful short stories and of the Dragon Age trilogy of novels, has been used to a goal of 10,000 words written per week. This is pretty ambitious by almost anyone’s standards, and he doesn’t always hit the mark. Recently, though, he found he suddenly and unexpectedly had a full week without obligations, and he asked himself if for that time he might be capable of writing 10,000 words a day. Working like that for a week, he reasoned, it should be possible to write an entire novel.

Maxey planned a roughly 60,000-word sequel to his superhero novel Nobody Gets the Girl (Phobos Books, 2003; available in paperback and for Kindle), wrote an outline based on ideas he’d been having for years, and psyched himself up. At about 4:00 am on August 8th, he started writing. Stopping for little more than food and sleep, he pushed hard and completed the book in a 58,829-word first draft on August 14th at about quarter to three in the afternoon, with more than 13 hours to spare. His novel, appropriately enough, is called Burn Baby Burn.

And not only did he complete and survive the project, but he also kindly agreed to let me interview him about it a few days later.

Let me jump in with an obvious question: what in the world made you think you could write a novel in a week?

I knew that crime and adventure novelists from the pulp era often cranked out multiple short novels per month. Michael Moorcock claims to have written some of his Elric novels in a week, and I’d heard that Jim Thompson wrote The Grifters in a weekend (though I tried to Google that factoid this morning and couldn’t find it, so I may have been working under a false premise!).

Like most writers, I have a day job. I’ve pretty much been continuously employed since I left college. The vast majority of my writing takes place in stolen moments. When I’m in the zone, I can produce roughly 1000 words in an hour. But, it’s so hard to get in the zone. After I get home from work, I’m too burned out to sit down and write immediately. After I start feeling like myself again and get to work in an evening, right about the time I’m feeling warmed up, it’s bed-time, since I have to get up at 5:30 in the morning to punch the clock again.

And I’ve always wondered: What if I was punching the clock to write? Could I put my butt in a chair and leave it there for eight hours a day? Every now in then on a day off, I managed to do this. My record for a single day was 13,000 words. But, it’s rare I have a day off when I have a free eight hours. On weekends, I like to go biking and canoeing with my fiancée. My vacations are normally spent with family at the beach. I don’t want to be a recluse and cut myself off from all human contact. So, most weeks, I only get about 10 hours of writing time.

Then, in a surprising plot twist, my employer announced they were shutting down my workplace for a week to rewire the building for new equipment. I had only a month’s notice. Suddenly, I found myself with a week of time where I’d be home all day while my fiancée and all my friends would be at work. I had no plans to travel, no obligations at all. After fantasizing for the last twenty years about how much writing I could do if I wasn’t employed, it was suddenly time to discover if I had what it takes to write a book in one week, or if I’d been kidding myself all along.

I know this is already a long answer, but there are two more elements that play into this: 1. I discovered this year that I had a severe thyroid deficiency. One way I discovered this was that the records I keep of how many words I produce a week showed a declining trend. I’ve now been taking medication for several months to compensate, and just in the last few months have felt my brain wind back up to full speed. I wrote the bulk of my last novel, Hush, when my thyroid deficiency was at its worst, I felt like I’d been running a marathon wearing lead boots. Now, the boots were off, and I felt faster than ever. 2. The novel I had in mind was a novel I’d wanted to write for years, but hadn’t because I didn’t think I could sell it. But, the publishing world has been upended by e-books, and now I can write whatever I want to write secure in the knowledge that I can bring it to readers via Kindle and Nook. Knowing that what I’m writing is definitely going to see print (or pixels, at least) is a tremendous motivator.

What obstacle threatened to hold you back the most, and how did you get past it?

I would say that my biggest obstacle was that I can type a heck of a lot faster than I can imagine story details. So, after a big rush of words on the first day, each subsequent day got a little tougher as my imagination buffer kept running dry. By Wednesday, I really wondered if I should pull the plug on the project. I wrote a very clunky chapter that was also pretty short, but which still took hours to produce. I worried I’d reached a point of diminishing returns, and continuing might actually ruin the book if I kept cranking out bad chapters.

Fortunately, I was posting chapters to my blog at dragonprophet.blogspot.com as I wrote them. I’d announced I was going to finish a novel in a week there, and on Facebook, and on Codex. Failing to keep posting chapters would have been a pretty public failure. So, mostly to avoid embarrassment, I kept writing on Thursday morning. And, yay! I liked the chapter I wrote. I didn’t spend as much time at the keyboard Thursday – Sunday as I did Monday – Wednesday, when I was pretty much glued to the computer. I would walk away and think about what happened next, then what happened next, and not come back until I had three events to flesh out. Three events didn’t require a huge effort to think up, and proved sufficient to let me keep typing without feeling like my brain was running dry.

I do think that, if I hadn’t been so public with my goal, the temptation to quit after I’d gotten 30k words written for the week would have been difficult to overcome. I’d never written that much in a week before. It would have been very easy to call it a win and finish the rest of the book before the end of the month at my old 10k words a week pace.

How do you feel the book came out compared to books you’ve written at a more usual speed?

The plot was definitely more stream-lined. It’s still a fully developed main plot, but it only has two or three sub-plots. Through the book, there are only three point-of-view characters. Sunday and Pit’s POVs drive the main story, while the superhero known as Ap has a few POV chapters where the primary subplot is developed.

In comparison, my Bitterwood novels all have at least a dozen point of view characters, and more interweaving subplots than I can count.

But, I wasn’t aiming for epic fantasy. I was shooting for a page-turning pulp adventure featuring atomic supermen and space aliens drifting along dark desert highways. This is the sort of novel I used to devour on a single summer afternoon when I was a teenager. On the other hand, this novel isn’t mental junk food filled with empty calories. I think I manage to get to moments in the book that will prove thought provoking, and other moments that will provide genuine emotional catharsis. It’s a book I’m proud of, and can’t wait to get into the hands of readers.

You can also read James Maxey’s post “Five tricks for writing a novel in a week” here. The full text of the first draft of Burn Baby Burn is available permanently for free on Maxey’s Web site, though Maxey says “it may be a bit of a slog to read since I didn’t bother fixing the formatting for the web,” while you can get the finished and polished book for Kindle here. The result was entertaining and fairly engrossing, I thought. You can read my review on the book’s Amazon page.

By the way, James has a habit of coming up with pithy things to say about writing. You can see some of his writing quotes here.

This piece is adapted from my Futurismic column “Brain Hacks for Writers”

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Brilliance and Dreck: Using Good and Bad Writers to Self-Motivate

Writing

I’m not sure when I first began wanting to become a professional writer, only that by third grade I had that idea firmly in my head. It wasn’t until a few years later that I got a particularly awful SF book from a bookstore–I think it had a robot on the cover, one of those jobs with the dryer-vent-hose arms and the antennae on the head–and really got fired up for the job. I thought (and this may sound familiar) “God, if a lousy book like this can get published, I’m going to be rich!”

Let’s skip over the many misconceptions and sad bits of naïvete lurking in that sentence, if you don’t mind.

Good writers had at least as much influence on me as bad ones, of course: reading Tolkien and LeGuin as a kid, especially, gave me something to shoot for. Here are some accounts from writers I know who talk about authors who drove them to write in the first place, either in admiration or disgust:

Donald Mead, whose work can be found in venues like Fantasy & Science Fiction and Writers of the Future XXV, said

I suppose it was 20 years ago or more that I read Brooks’ Sword of Shannara. I found it to be an unrepentant rip-off of Lord of the Rings. I had no writing aspirations at the time, but after reading that disaster, I thought “Well, anyone can write a book.” And then it was a short step to “I can write a book.”

Funny, many years later I was on a panel at Capricon with Peter Beagle and he mentioned that he was the first reader for Sword of Shannara. He told the editor it was a rip off of LotR. The editor said “That’s great! That’s what it’s meant to be.” It was for the reader who’d read LotR eight times and just couldn’t pick it up for the ninth time.

Please note, I have nothing against Brooks. From all I’ve heard, he’s a great guy. I’m just saying if I ever make it big, it’s because of Sword of Shannara.

Incidentally, I found out it wasn’t true that “anyone can write a book.” I quickly found out I had no idea how to write; it was a lot harder than I ever imagined. I have a lot more respect for Brooks now.

SJ Driscoll’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sEllery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere, and her successful works include plays, many articles, and poems. Her inspiration was

Poe. I started reading him when I was seven, while those moronic learn-to-read first-grade textbooks were being stuffed down my throat. Death from boredom…. I never wanted to learn to read–I wanted to be outside doing things. My dad tried to teach me starting at age four, and I despised it. Then elementary school almost murdered me with dreariness. Squash, crush, stifle. Man, did Poe revive me. The way he used language! By the time I was ten, I’d read all the fiction and poetry he ever wrote. I used to think the word, “poetry,” came from his name. He taught me to use words to give the world hard edges. He started me writing stories because stories gave my strapped-down childhood a shape I could control. I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to do real things, I wasn’t free, so I wrote. I still write to give the world hard edges, to be free. Poe was the first writer to save my life. I honor him.

S Hutson Blount (Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight MagazineEscape PodBlack Gate, etc.), said

Most of my formative examples were negative. There was once a section in bookstores called “Men’s Adventure.” Mack Bolan lived there, along with Remo Williams, Dirk Pitt, Casca, and a bunch of hypothetical Third World Wars. This was where I went when I needed to reassure myself that if these guys could get published, I could too.

Melissa Mead (Sword & Sorceress and others–no relation to Donald), on the other hand, said

I first tried writing for publication after reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress series. I commented to my husband that it would be such fun to write for something like that, and he encouraged me to give it a try. S&S was invitation-only by then, and shortly thereafter MZB died and the series ended. By then, though, I’d had a story accepted by The First Line, and I was hooked.

Years and years later, when Norilana revived S&S, I sold a story for the 23rd volume, and the inspiration came full circle.

Yep, it was as much fun as I’d imagined. 🙂

The takeaway here, if you’ll indulge me for a second, is that if at any point we want to be more enthusiastic about some kind of work we might do, one option is to immerse ourselves for a little while in the work of someone who is either very good or very bad at whatever it is. While this may not work for anyone who has evolved beyond all feelings of indignation, superiority, or envy, for the rest of us it can provide a damn good shot in the arm.

This piece is reprinted (with improvements) from my “Brain Hacks for Writers” column at Futurismic.

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14 Patterns for Successful Article, Post, and Speech Titles

Writing

I mentioned recently that I’m beginning to do speaking engagements, and one of my steps in preparing for this has been to take the topics I chose to focus on at the start and come up with the strongest titles for them I could find. I didn’t want hype: I wanted to come up with titles that loudly and proudly promised exactly what I was going to deliver, and did it in a way that would get the attention of my target audiences.

I already have an article on titles for fiction (“Luc’s Desiderata of Titling“), which is an entirely different process. It has similar intentions, but uses completely different methods. For non-fiction, I have experience but had never really thought out the possibilities, so I did some research, reading articles other people wrote about titling, evaluating titles I felt were really effective, and experimenting with everything I found.

Two of the most useful articles I found are freely available on the Web: “Presentation Titles That Attract an Audience” by Olivia Mitchell and the section I’ve linked to in “Answer People’s Key Question”  by Craig Hadden.

From this groundwork, I’ve come up with 14 patterns that can be used to brainstorm arresting titles for how-to articles, blog posts, keynotes, etc. For each pattern, I’ve made up an example to demonstrate, although many of these patterns can be used in a wider variety of ways than the single example would suggest. The invented titles are meant to demonstrate how each pattern can work well, so if it’s successful, each one should intrigue you (at least, if you’re in the right target audience for that title).

1. How to ___ (optionally include a benefit)
“How to Stop Micromanaging Your Children for Their Happiness and Yours”

2. How (noun) (verbed)
“How the Dishwasher Changed the Way We Eat”

3. X {keys, ways, requirements, challenges, ideas, etc.} to/for ______
“3 Keys to Never Forgetting Another Name”

4. (New research/information/etc.)
“New Research on the Best Way to Exercise”

5. X Common Mistakes ______
“3 Common Mistakes We Make When Choosing a Spouse”

6. The X Worst _____
“The 5 Worst Ways to Teach Math”

7. (The Truth/Secrets/Hidden Information)
“What Your Child Is Really Doing at ‘Student Council Meetings'”

8. How Can I ____ ?
“How Can I Be On Time, Every Time?”

9. Do (something desirable) by/with ______
“Get Crucial News Faster Using This Smartphone App”

10. (Catchy phrase or intriguing promise): (explanatory subtitle)
“Be Rich Instantly: How to Realize Your Desires Without Paying a Cent”

 11. ______ versus (something similar but suggestively distinct)
“The Successful Novel vs. the Best-Selling Novel”

12. What/How (some enviable group of people) ____ Differently
“How The Most Successful People in the World Learn Differently”

13. (Common thing or phrase) (uncommon contrast or claim)
“Safe Investments –Why They Haven’t Existed Since 1992”

14. (Brief time or other suggestion that this will be quick or easy) (action or role)
“12-Minute Math Boosters”

The general theme is the same throughout: all of these types of titles are promising something that’s valuable and new to the audience or reader. They only differ in how they’re attempting to capture someone’s interest. I’d suggest that this is what a non-fiction article or speech is about: offering new information that has value. We can just slap titles that are pretty or that play with words on if we just need a handle, but that means the title isn’t doing the work it could do. On the other hand, we may have a topic that does all the work itself, for instance “Archbishop Dies In Lemming Attack” or “Exxon to Convert to Worker-Owned Cooperative.”

Some of these title formats are familiar from magazines that over-promise, and I hope that neither you nor I will ever do that with our own titles. Titles like “The 4 Foods That Melt Fat Overnight” and “Make a Killing in Real Estate With These 3 Easy Tips” are hype rather than promise, and fulfilled promises are what it’s all about.

A writer friend pointed out that some titles that use these patterns can come across sounding like hype even if they may have something real to offer. Obviously, we want to avoid that too.

I used this list to brainstorm titles for my four initial speaking topics, and then I asked people in my writing group to review the titles and mark any that they liked or disliked. In the near future, I should have a chance to post those brainstormed titles and the total response each one got. By the way, this survey process has turned out to be very educational: I recommend it for working out especially important titles.

Of course, these options don’t begin to exhaust the possibilities, but they do reflect a healthy percentage of what seem to me the most successful titles of this kind out there. I expect to update this article over time (completely screwing up the number in the title) as I come across more of them. Do you know of any? Suggest them in the comments, if you’d be so kind–or use comments to take issue with any of the above approaches you don’t like.

Photo by Amy

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Writing Differently: Picking Up the Scary Tools

Writing

In creating Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Joss Whedon picks up some scary tools of his own

If all has gone well with your writing so far, by now you may have some favorite practices: maybe you always outline your pieces, or have a moment in mind you want to go to, or you scribble a bunch of scenes on index cards and then try to figure out their proper order. You may have a sense of some special strengths and weaknesses: maybe people tell you you have an ear for dialog, or you have trouble with action scenes, or your settings come out convincing and vivid, or you couldn’t write romance if Jane Austen were sitting on your lap.

So, good: you have some favorite techniques to use. This now gives you an opportunity to do something very productive–specifically, to violate them.

Why, you might sensibly ask, would I throw away exactly the things that work for me best? Why put aside the comfortable tools for the scary tools that I’m not even sure I can operate correctly?

First, I’m only suggesting this as an exercise, or a series of exercises. There’s nothing to say that if you’re an outline writer now that you can’t stay an outline writer forever … but if you want to improve both the quality of your prose and your facility in getting the words on paper, you’ll want to up your game, and upping your game generally means not just trying harder, but trying differently. Good writing habits are valuable, and consistency creates them, but variation creates learning opportunities that consistency can’t offer.

Here are some of the advantages of trying differently:

  • You get insights into your process, into what advantages your current approach has and/or why you should start considering other avenues.
  • You may unexpectedly find a new favorite method of doing something. If you’re used to writing one way, you may have avoided another approach because you don’t have the practice at it and feel unsure of yourself. Experimenting with those other ways gives you the chance to try them on for size.
  • You’ll get a better sense of what your available tools and options are. For instance, if you generally write very little dialog and as an exercise trying writing an all-dialog story, you may find yourself working out dialog techniques that you had never considered before. These become new tools on your utility belt, ones that might come in handy if you hit a wall with your usual tools some time in the future.
  • Challenging yourself while writing is a good way to stimulate your brain and improve your chops. We get better at tasks through “deliberate practice,” which is to say challenging work plus feedback. If we fall back on our accustomed writing practices, we’re not challenged and therefore aren’t likely to improve much.

I’ll throw in the example of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which Joss Whedon (and friends) created for the Web during the writers’ strike a few years back. I find it hugely entertaining, although I know some fun and tasteful people who don’t. Regardless, Whedon took a chance not only in what he wrote but in how he brought it out. He had time-tested ways to get his work in front of people; he didn’t have to do something like Dr. Horrible, but he did, and it was brilliant. (By the way, fans, this just in: the sequel tentatively goes into production this summer.)

Those are some of the whys of writing differently; following are some of the hows.

The next time you’re bored with what you’re working on, or need to get warmed up, or have time for a side project, look at one or more of these areas and choose an approach completely different from your usual. Alternatively, get together with several writer friends and take turns choosing approaches from any of the categories below. (Examples: “Outline a short story by writing down a bunch of scenes and then finding an order to put them in”; “Write a very short story longhand based on a tense opening situation”) Mojitos are optional.

While of course it’s always possible that you’ll write something that works magnificently with one of these exercises, I’d recommend caring more about what you learn from the process than about how the final version comes out. Worrying too much about the story not coming out perfectly or being saleable while trying out a new technique can make it a lot harder to really throw yourself into the experiment. As Ken Robinson says, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Building your story
Some of us just start writing; others outline; others write scenes on index cards; others gradually develop sets of ideas into a coherent structure using a tool like Scrivener. Consider trying whichever method is least like the one you use now.

The kernel of your story
You may tend to start stories with an idea for an important scene, with a character, with a setting, with a plot idea, or with an initial situation. What methods have you rarely or never used to start a story?

The physical act of writing
Do you always write on a computer? Then what happens if you write longhand, or dictate into an audio recorder or voice recognition system, or try telling the story to a friend (or to yourself in the car) before writing it down? Does your style change? Is the process easier, harder, faster, slower, deeper, more unusual? Are there any unexpected advantages?

Story form
If you usually write novels, you might try a short story or two. If you write short stories, try flash, or even poetry, or just outlining a novel to see what that structure would look like. Consider writing a short stage play, radio play, or screenplay, even if it’s not in proper format, to focus more on dialog (stage), dialog and sound (radio/podcast), or sight and sound (screen).

Genre
If you always write science fiction or fantasy, try a non-speculative romance or a mainstream piece. If your stories are always full of clever talk, try writing a piece that’s mainly action. What kinds of muscles do you need to flex in these unaccustomed kinds of stories that don’t usually get much exercise?

Editing habits
If you tend to write freely and edit later, try writing something in which you concentrate on getting everything right the first time–not because this will necessarily work, but because of the different kind of focus it will create. If you always try to get everything right in the first draft, try writing more freely to see if it offers you better opportunities.

Asking “what else”?
Most importantly of all, consider more options. Many of us have a tendency, when we come to a place where we have a writing decision, to work on that decision only long enough to come up with a solution that works–one solution. Instead of settling for one, try to brainstorm five, say, even if a couple of them are a little loopy. Statistically, what’s the chance that your first idea for a character, plot turn, way of expressing something, etc. is going to be the best one you could possibly come up with? Tell yourself “Sure, that would be one good solution. And what’s a completely different one?”

My intentions here aren’t to derail your writing practices permanently, but to offer some approaches you can take to push the envelope and to develop and expand your skills. As writers, we’ll be tempted by any success to think that we need to keep doing things the way we’re already doing them. Certainly it’s sometimes possible to build a career by doing the same thing over and over, but constantly trying new angles will continue to build a writer’s skills in ways that eventually leaves stagnant writers eating our dust.

This piece is reprinted from my column at Futurismic.

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