Essential Skills for Writers: Reading Critically

Story time: I have a post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since July 2017. I last added to it in February 2019. Its working title: “If You’re a Writer, Read These Books.” I started it when I read The Poisonwood Bible, and it seemed like a thing everyone could learn from. Whenever a book or series struck me as having something particularly strong about it, from a writerly perspective, especially if it was rare in my experience, I put it on the list.

The problem was that it took me almost two years to come up with three entries for it, and I never actually wrote the whole post. Here are my notes, which for posterity’s sake I have not altered at all:

The Poisonwood Bible: this is how to juggle five (!) different first-person narrators with profoundly different character voices. Not necessarily the best for pacing, but you can always tell who’s telling you their story by the word choice and tone of the narrative.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Using show don’t tell to define the main character, who hardly ever speaks. Clear characterization through reaction to other people.

Graceling Realm and/or MaddAddam series: multibook “trilogy” structure doesn’t have to be chronological if you plan carefully for it

But I never wrote that post, and now I never will. I’m going to write this one instead.

It’s not my job as a writer to tell you which books to read to get better; it’s your job to learn from the books you choose to read.

So when I say “read critically” in this context, I don’t mean “read like you’re going to trash the book in a review.” I have definitely learned a great deal from committing to reviewing every book I read, but a) that’s a lot of work; b) reviews are generally for sharing and not everyone wants to share their thoughts; and c) you’re not necessarily going to pick up a new tidbit of learning from every book you read. I’ve read four books so far this year, but I’m only going to mention three of them.

So what did I learn from…

Full Dark, No Stars? This doesn’t apply to me directly, as I write novels and not short fiction, but I definitely find anthologies more enjoyable when a theme connects all the individual stories somehow. I saw this before, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness–those novellas had a strong central theme. On the flip side, it’s why I found Ray Bradbury’s The October Country relatively hit-or-miss, for example, despite loving his work in general. If I ever do write short fiction again (I did a lot of stories and poems in high school and college, not so much since) I will put together collections that “go” together, rather than a random sampling.

Sunshine? This one hit close to home, because the most pressing issue I had with it was something I struggled with myself in the first draft of #spookyromancenovel: overindulgence in world-building. In Sunshine the title character will go on pages-long tangents about interesting but ultimately obscure facts about her world; in the NaNoWriMo-fueled race to finish #srn’s first draft, I did exactly the same thing. If a thing was interesting and I had thoughts about it, I wrote about it, even if it broke the scene into pieces. Perfectly fine for a first draft! But in Sunshine it got to print that way, and while I enjoyed the book, I consider that its biggest flaw. In #srn’s second draft, I cut as much world-building as possible based on relevance, shortened the rest, and left copious questions for my beta readers at the end of each chapter begging them to tell me where it was too much and where they had questions.

Autonomous? This gave me an even stronger example of not seeing the forest for the trees–as hard sci-fi this was so focused on building the tech of its world that it left hanging a huge number of questions I had about the societal and political structure that created the setting for this story. While its over-indulgence in world-building did mess up the pacing too, it was more that I felt like I was getting to examine this new world through a microscope but never being allowed to look out a window. The bigger picture just wasn’t there.

If I boil this down to writing advice snippets for consumability:

  1. Central themes can enrich and connect the various stories in anthologies.
  2. Over-indulgence in world-building details can bog down the pacing of a novel.
  3. Consider the scale of your world-building; don’t focus strictly on the micro and ignore the macro (or vice versa.)

Have I seen this advice floating around before? #1 and #2, yes, definitely. I don’t really think I’ve seen anyone address #3 in any great depth (not saying it doesn’t exist, only that I haven’t been exposed to it.) But even if I knew the first two bits of advice already, finding them illustrated so clearly in my reading drives them home more than just reading an article someone else wrote about those bits of advice. And “discovering” #3 for myself is even more powerful.

This advice applies equally to positive and negative aspects of your reading–admire and emulate the things you find successful, even if the scale is too ambitious: I wouldn’t tackle five first-person narrators in one go, but I could use my experience with The Poisonwood Bible to help me craft two or maybe three distinct personalities. And avoid or minimize in your own work the things you don’t like in what you read. Which seems an obvious conclusion when stated so clearly, but the how of getting there is the important part.

Writing Homework #20: Create a Style Sheet

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With my rewrite for #spookyromancenovel entering the home stretch, I’ve been thinking increasingly about the future line-editing stage and what I can do to make it easier on myself.

Looming large in my list of regrets from previous novels is the fact that I never made a style sheet.

From Romance Refined: “A manuscript style sheet is a critical tool for authors, editors, and proofreaders to use for ensuring consistency within a single manuscript or across a series. Traditionally, a copy editor creates a style sheet as they edit, and they pass that style sheet to the proofreader so they can adhere to the same conventions.

I’ve nudged at the edges of this topic before, but never covered it completely, so here goes.

In a traditional author-publisher setup, the style sheet, as described above, isn’t something you’d generate yourself, since you’re not your own editor. However, for independent authors who, whether by choice or necessity, do some or all of their own editing, this is going to save you time and stress throughout the editing process. And, of course, even most traditionally published authors spend a lot of time polishing their manuscripts before sending them in, so it’s not a bad idea to work up a personal one to ensure your submission is as clean and shiny as you can make it.

So what goes on a style sheet? Anything that will help you provide consistency in tone and appearance throughout your work.

That’s vague, but some of it will depend on your writing style and the project itself. I can give you some good places to start, however, based on my own experience:

  1. Any word or phrase where you choose your preferred usage. I covered this in my post on multiple accepted spellings. If you have to decide between two or more options, make a note of which you choose, so you’re not like me, looking it up again later, or worse, doing a Ctrl+F in your first book’s file to hunt down what you decided when you need to refer to it again in book three.
  2. Any word or phrase you’re deliberately avoiding. Not to be conflated or confused with filter words; let me explain. The best example I have from my own reading is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Universe series. In it, she never uses the word “thing” to refer to an object, situation, or concept–“Thing” is reserved for use in the Viking/Icelandic sense of a governmental meeting. The base culture of her alternate-history fantasy is French, and simply doesn’t have that word as we use it in modern English. If that seems like a pretty big ask for an author, it is; “thing” shows up on overused-word lists all the time. But your “do not use” word list doesn’t have to include anything so fundamental or pervasive–in fact, you might not start out with any prohibited words at all.
  3. Anything that defines character voice. For this, an example from my own works. In the What We Need series, Paul starts his sentences with “Well,” a lot. In the early drafts of What We Need to Survive, that wasn’t specific to him; during edits, I eliminated it from other characters to clean up the dialogue overall while giving him a more pronounced vocal style. I kept this up until book three, when, through long exposure, Nina has unconsciously picked up this tic and uses it occasionally.
  4. How you handle ellipses. Three periods with no spaces? With spaces between? Are there spaces before and after, or not? I’ve read various articles debating the truly “correct” form for ellipses, but I’ve seen several ways of handling them across published works, so there’s still probably an element of choice, at least if you’re an indie author. Note down whatever you decide on.
  5. Any special punctuation or formatting guidelines stylistically unique to your project. I’ve seen books that italicize internal monologue (common) but plenty that don’t, leaving it in plain text like so: “She thought, I don’t want to be here right now.” I’ve seen books that use alternate characters in place of quotation marks when the characters are using telepathy to communicate, like so: *This is stupid,* she thought at him. (Granted, that was ages ago when I was a kid, but I remember it, because it was so strange.) A much more modern issue–how do you format conversations via text? I just read a book that uses actual text bubble images, to make it look authentic, but in plenty of other works I’ve seen it handled exactly like dialogue, only the tags or context around it mentions it’s a text message; I’ve seen texted conversation formatted in bold, both with and without quotation marks; I’ve seen italics as well, though less commonly, since (as above) many authors use that for internal dialogue and don’t want to confuse the reader by making italics perform double duty.

What all of these examples boil down to is essentially this: if you have to make a decision about how you want something to be handled in your manuscript, then it probably needs to go on your style sheet so that a) you remember what you chose down the line, whether you’re coming back to the project after a break, or writing a long-running series; and b) during the editing process you can make certain your style is consistent.

As you continue to write, you might find yourself splitting your style sheet into a master sheet and a project-specific sheet would be helpful. You’re not that likely to want to change how you handle ellipses, but anything character-specific won’t transfer between projects that don’t have the same characters. This leads me to my last piece of advice: label and DATE your style sheets so that you know what they are and when you created them. Your style might evolve over time; you might decide there’s a better way to do something in your next book. That’s fine. But you wouldn’t want to refer to an outdated style sheet for a new project, in that case, and with the amount of note files and draft versions and other associated digital junk that can accumulate around even a single book project, a style sheet is something you wouldn’t want to go missing or use incorrectly, when its entire purpose is to make your writing better.

Writing Through a Transitional Period

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I’ve been at my new job for a month now. I’m working on a different schedule, sleeping on a different schedule. It’s going well, and I’m happy there, but even with my best efforts, my writing output has taken a hit. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Try to make (or keep) your writing a daily habit, but don’t stress if you miss days. That’s solid general advice, but even more important to remember while you’re making big life changes. But if your writing style has never meshed with the “write every day” advice, don’t try to force yourself now while you’re under stress from other sources.
  2. Accept that you’re probably going to be less productive for a while. This will be a harder pill to swallow for some than others. I can crank out thousands of words a day during NaNoWriMo when I’m super motivated, but outside of that I can still usually slap down 500-1000 words on any random day. That’s not happening now, some days because I don’t have time, others because I don’t have energy. It’s okay. I have to remind myself of that often, but it really is okay.
  3. Your writing time frame might change. If you used to have large blocks of time to get a lot of writing done (like the weekend,) maybe you don’t anymore, and you have to become one of those “five minutes whenever I can” writers. Or maybe you suddenly have bigger chunks of time than before, but only on certain days. Prioritize your time, plan for writing sessions if you can, but keep #1 + #2 in mind.
  4. Write everywhere. Also good advice in general, but keep a notebook on you at all times, or write a few lines on the back of your napkin on break, or dictate a snippet into your phone. You can type it up later!
  5. Don’t allow your writing time to cut into your sleep. I’ve said it before in NaNo prep posts, and I’ll keep saying it until the end of time. Healthy sleep is basically the best thing for you, physically, emotionally, and creatively. Burning the midnight oil every once in a while is fine, when you’re inspired (or on a deadline,) but if your solution to a lack of writing time is to get an hour less sleep every night, that’s probably not going to work long-term.
  6. It’s okay to do other things with your free time. I’ve picked up cross-stitch again, and I’m spending more time listening to music (which I don’t generally do while I write, lyrics make me sing along and lose focus.) I need relaxing activities that don’t demand so much creative energy. Part of my brain is always chanting “but you could be writing right now,” and that’s true. But if I let writing stress me out, I’m not going to want to do it at all.

I’m hoping now that I’ve got a better handle on my new, rebooted life, I can be more productive in May, but I’m still keeping my goal pretty small: write for half an hour a day, more days than not. It keeps me writing actively, but it’s doable without a lot of time or stress involved.

Writing Homework #17: Do Something New

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I’ve never been scuba diving, for a number of reasons. I’m a decent swimmer and I love being in the water, but diving safely requires some training and a lot of expensive equipment (even renting isn’t cheap.)

Also, it helps to live somewhere with a body of water worth diving in. Which I don’t.

If I were doing research for a book that involved characters scuba diving, I’d have to fall back on doing lots of research online; watching videos and reading articles and all that jazz. And I’m glad I have access to that–the Internet is a freaking miracle goldmine filled with rainbows.

But if I could, I’d rather experience it myself. Nothing can fully replicate the knowledge I’d gain and the observations I’d make if I really went diving.

With that in mind, here’s this month’s assignment.

Do something you’ve never done before, then write about it.

This is vague, I know, but it’s meant to be. I can’t know what you already know how to do, or places you’ve already been.

Use this as a spur to visit the zoo and participate in a feeding–I’ve never done that either, even though at the Detroit Zoo you can feed the giraffes!

Or teach yourself a new craft and document the process. Describe what came easily and what you had the most trouble with.

Go to your local coffee shop and order a drink you’ve never had before. Write about how it tastes.

Call one of your Congresspeople, if you never have, and tell the nice staffer who answers whatever you feel about a pressing political issue. Or go to a local town hall meeting. Write about how you felt getting involved; write about what other people said at the meeting and the impression you got of them.

Whatever it is that you choose to do, notice the details of as many senses as possible. Smell might be more obvious at the zoo or a garden than that town hall meeting, but what if it isn’t? The meeting room could smell like coffee, or carpet cleaner, or too many bodies packed into a small space.

When you write, focus on the personal. What did you see or hear that another person might not have noticed, or wouldn’t think to mention if they were telling you about it? How did the environment affect you as an individual? What made your experience unique?

So, if you can go scuba diving, do it for my sake, who can’t, and tell me all about it. Everyone else, take a little time to have a small adventure (even a tiny one) and write about what you did.

 

Let’s Talk About Tropes #9: Exercise

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It’s no secret that in addition to writing romance, I read a lot of it. I’ve seen so many different types of heroes–white or black or brown skin, every hair color, every eye color, tall or not-so-tall. But do you know what they all seem to have in common?

Muscles.

Even when the book cover doesn’t look something like the guy in the picture above, he’s described as well-muscled. Sometimes lean but still defined; sometimes outright bulky; always noticeable.

I’m even sort of guilty of it in the What We Need series! Paul’s no gym rat, even before his life went haywire, but with the drastically reduced quality of his diet, I expected most of his body fat would be gone, revealing the lean muscle underneath. I never describe him as bulky–in fact, I have other characters call him things like beanpole and skyscraper and scarecrow, so you know he’s rail-thin, but I still let Nina admire his muscles.

Because who’s a man without visible musculature?

Well…a lot of guys, actually! I’ve been attracted to plenty of men IRL who don’t spend hours at the gym, who don’t have the ridiculous V leading to their groin, who can’t bench press a city bus.

I know the romance genre, the authors are often going for more-attractive-than-real, for the kind of swelteringly hot dudes we see in movies, for the guy you think maybe you could never get yourself, but at least you get to read about him. And I don’t want you to think I’m trashing books with those heroes, or the authors who write them.

But I don’t actually see most of those heroes doing anything to account for their crazy-hot bodies. Sometimes, sure, there’s a passing reference to him hitting the gym or going for a run. Or he’s got a job that does it for him, like construction workers. Or he’s a sports star, and the training’s built into the story. Which is fine.

Everyone else, though?

So let’s make this general, now. If you’re going to write yourself a super-fit character, male, female, or NB, make sure there’s a good reason they are that way!

  1. Why does this person exercise enough to have a hot bod? Healthy and unhealthy attitudes toward hardcore fitness abound, from things as simple as “I like working out and feeling good about my body” to “I have acute insecurity about other aspects of my life and work to perfect my body as compensation or control.”
  2. What do they actually do for those muscles? Weight training is obvious but not the only answer, not if you don’t make the person super-swole. Swimming is a fantastic whole-body exercise. Dedicated martial artists can get pretty buff. Or maybe it’s less traditional, like rock climbing. The gym is not the only place to get fit.
  3. What would someone dedicated to the activity you choose actually look like? Distance runners might have defined legs but less going on up top, if they don’t supplement running with something else. Yoga practitioners could be quite sculpted, but not necessarily huge and buff. Honest-to-god gym rats might be huge, but move differently due to less flexibility.
  4. When does this rigorous exercise fit into their day? What else aren’t they doing because of it?
  5. Does this exercise come along with a specific diet plan? Can this person eat a whole pizza by themselves reasonably, and would they want to? Or is their kitchen full of protein powder bottles and pre-chopped fruit for smoothies?
  6. Is this person a fitness-conversion fanatic, constantly trying to get the people around them to work out with them, or just in general? Do they offer advice? Do they offer unsolicited advice? Some gym rats are toxic and obnoxious about it–plenty aren’t. Which one is your character?
  7. How is this person’s mood affected when they miss a workout? Do they have to skip more than one before it hits, or is it more immediate? How does that manifest in their behavior?

Not every character (not every romance hero!) has to be a fitness guru, but if they are, that lifestyle should be on display in the story beyond someone else admiring their physique. I hope these questions help you think about how to make fitness a more integral part of the characters who require it!

Writing Homework #16: Housecleaning

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Is your writing folder as messy as mine, overflowing with WIPs, notes for ideas, multiple drafts, and non-writing materials?

I’ve got promotional images for my published novels stashed in five different subfolders, even though there are only three books.

So here’s the homework assignment for May: clean it up.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying get RID of anything. You can if you find files that are truly useless, or, say, if you combine all your plot bunnies into a single file, sure, delete the individual ones. But DO NOT get rid of any actual writing.

Organize it.

The system you choose is up to you. Some people go by year, if they’ve been writing a long time–last time I organized (years ago) I tried it this way, shoving all my writing prompt responses from my time at /r/WritingPrompts into folders dated for each month, because I was attempting the 365-day response challenge, so that made the most sense. I made a folder for the previous year and shoved everything else I had into it, because that’s when I wrote it, and I wasn’t working on any of it anymore.

But as I started working on larger projects over longer periods of time, I began the switch to project-based organization. I have a mega-folder for the What We Need series, named “Seeking Shelter” because that was first (potential, discarded) title for What We Need to Survive. Inside, each book has its own subfolder, and within those, I have divisions for early drafts and rewrites, the final drafts for publication in all formats necessary, the cover and other graphic files I commissioned, plus random other junk that accumulated around the books through their publishing process–author questionnaires and interview transcripts, my author bio, ARC files for reviewers, excerpts, and so on.

I can find what I’m looking for with some digging, but honestly it’s a mess that’s grown over the past three years. You know who doesn’t clean up their room for three years straight? Hoarders.

So, I’ll be taking a look at my bloated Writing folder and seeing what I can do to tackle the clutter. I invite you to do the same, to impose a little order on what could very well be the messiest corner of your hard drive. I know mine is!


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

Let’s Talk About Tropes #8: Fashion

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What characters are wearing is a near-constant frustration for me, both as a reader and a writer.

On the one hand, unless the character is obsessed with or works with fashion (Sophie from The Boss series comes to mind) I don’t want to read every detail of every outfit, right down to the precise shade of designer lipstick. That level of description is almost always unnecessary.

But on the other hand, I also dislike reading a story where I never know what any of the characters are wearing. If it’s a contemporary work, I can fill in basic styles from my knowledge of current fashion trends–if you tell me Scott’s a hipster but then don’t describe his outfit, I’m going to assume tight jeans, a tucked-in plaid shirt, and a floppy beanie hat–but sometimes an author doesn’t even give me that much to work with.

So how do you balance how much description to give, and beyond that, how do you avoid falling into the easy tropes like Scott the Hipster?

  1. Decide, for each character, how important their outward appearance is to them.
  2. Build them a (small) mental wardrobe appropriate to both that level of interest in fashion, and their life/job; write down a brief, general description, something one or two sentences long that you could use when introducing the character.
  3. Examine any contradictions that arise: do they have a business-wear job but would love to rock a boho look, so they can only do that on weekends? Does their job come with a uniform that prohibits much (or any) individuality? Do they not care about clothes at all, and wear what they have to with a minimum investment of money/effort?
  4. WRITE ABOUT HOW THEY RESOLVE THOSE CONTRADICTIONS.

That’s going to tell me far more about the character than giving me a piece-by-piece inventory every time they show up in a new outfit.

Other tips:

  • Include detail when something major changes. For example, if a character shows up to gathering of friends at a bar with a drastic new haircut or wearing something totally out of their comfort zone, there’s probably a reason, right? And their friends would (hopefully) notice and comment on that.
  • Caring about fashion/appearance is not solely the province of women and queer men. Let your straight men care, too, and don’t equate fashion with femininity or queerness.
  • Don’t fall into the vanity trap, either, unless you’re setting out to make a vain character. Caring about how you look =/= vanity, which is defined as excessive pride in one’s own appearance or accomplishments.
  • A similar argument can be applied to making fashion-conscious characters shallow, as well. It’s a common shorthand–but shallowness as a deliberate trait, rather than an incidental one, should be more concerned with the appearance of others, and what that says about them, rather than actually knowing them as people.
  • Finally, if a character springs to mind with a fully-formed look, great, you’ve got a head start. But be sure to examine your assumptions about why it’s the best look for that character. Check for obvious cultural appropriation or stereotyping. It’s fine for someone to fit into an established fashion mold–people can spend lots of time and money to do just that!–but don’t let your view of fashion bias you into lazy or actively harmful character building.

Want more character development prompts?