writing advice

It’s true! Writing very short fiction can improve your novel.

I’ve had great success teaching flash fiction, and my students have gone on to be more widely published, and better writers. But I often hear from people who say something like:

“Oh, that sounds cool, but I don’t write short stories. I mostly write novels.”

Fear not, friend. Flash fiction is for you, too.

Writers Digest suggests learning to write flash because “no matter what you write, stringent word limits can challenge and sharpen your skills in ways that can improve even your long-form work.” Writing great flash requires the same skills as writing a great novel: descriptions that show instead of tell, concise language, poetic (compact yet evocative) style, and clear vision.

Microfiction (work that begins, ends, and feels complete under 1000 words) isn’t a fragment of a story. It’s not a scene without an anchor in the rest of the tale. It is its own moment. That kind of writing focuses on using the best words to speak clearly to your reader, giving them the impression of something larger than that space allows, so they don’t walk away unsatisfied. You want to give enough information so that the rest of the story, the history and potential future, are hinted at, but the reader doesn’t need to see them spelled out in order to have enjoyed what they read. If you can do that with a handful of words, you can do that with a hundred thousand. Even better – you can take away all the bits you don’t need before they get in the way of the words you want, confusing or even boring your reader.

Writing and reading short fiction show you successful ways to tell a story with the excess stripped away. I’ll help you learn the two major approaches to handling the challenging word count: how to write into the space that you have, and how to edit down to your limitations. Applying the lessons from my workshop to your novel will help you cut the fluff from your pages, turning your epic into a lean, thrilling, can’t-put-it-down adventure for your readers. Who doesn’t want that?

Keep an eye out for my next flash fiction workshop! I’ll post my teaching schedule here.

#SFWAPro

10 Things You Should Never Say Before Your First Book Is Actually Written, and 3 Things You Should

I get it. I really do. Writing your very first* novel, travel guide, collection of short stories**, how-to text, or any other long form work is exciting. You think ahead to how it will be received, how much money you’ll make, and it’s tempting to jump forward to the good parts… especially when the act of writing it can sometimes be slow. Or painful. Or, impossible, at that particular moment.

So much more fun to talk about it as if it’s a real thing, with potential!

But there are 10 things you should never let yourself say out loud, online, or to other humans, before at least a solid first draft of the project is complete. Some are cardinal sins, some are merely pointless, but all should be avoided (caveats noted):

1. How do I get my book published?

Variations include: Do you have any advice on how to make my book sell? What do think I need to do to make my book popular?

The shortest, truest, answer is: “How would I know?”

Authors, editors, agents — none of us can tell you the “secret” to getting published because there isn’t one. “Write the best book you can” is standard advice, because it’s true, and because each book is different. If you’re writing exactly the same novel as I did, sure, maybe I can tell you who loved mine and wanted to buy it, but why would you want to write a book that’s already been published? Unless it’s the same all the way down into its bones, I couldn’t tell you for certain who would buy it. Acquiring editors base their decisions on the quality of the work, but also on marketing trends, what’s selling now, what’s already been bought but isn’t yet published, how long it will take to get your book out compared to how current/trendy it is, and so on. Generally, a book takes a year or more to see the light of day, and if you’re offering a work “just like that new book that’s selling so well!” by the time a buyer accepts it, gets it edited, laid out, proofed, printed, and distributed, you’re too late. Readers will have moved on.

Once a book is finished, edited, revised, and ready to be shopped around, then you can ask for advice. Once you have a tangible item that your mentor can actually read, it’s so much easier for them to say, “I think XYZ House would love a book like this because their editor was just telling me she wanted the [specific bits] I see here” or “I’ve seen two or three of these exact books out last year, but none of them had your chapter 11 — I’d expand that section to make your work stand out”.

Until then, you’re basically saying: “I’m going to make cookies with lemon juice and ginger in them. Can you tell me if they’ll be delicious? How many people will buy them? I don’t have any for you to taste, but can you tell me what I need to do to make them better?”

Exception: Certain types of non-fiction publishers will hire writers to create books that fit a pre-established line (like the “For Dummies” series). If you want to write specifically for them, you need to first contact them and pitch your idea. This isn’t true for most types of publishing, and if you’re planning to write the book your way, and find a publisher who won’t want to have strict control over every single aspect of it, you need to write it before you worry about publishing.

Your unhatched chickens? Do not count them yet.

Your unhatched chickens? Do not count them yet.

2. How do I get an agent?

Variations include: Will your agent read my book? Hey, agent, my book isn’t finished yet but do you want to read it?

You get an agent by submitting a cover letter about your book. Sometimes they’ll want a sample as well, but mostly it’s the cover letter. Sure, you can write that before your book is finished, but if the agent likes the letter, they’ll want to see a sample. If they like the sample (often a complete outline and the first 3 chapters), they’ll want to read the whole book. This process could take months, giving you time to finish the project — or it could take a week. What do you think will happen when the agent finds out you don’t even have a first draft done yet?

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It takes three points to make a plot, or, how to write an interesting (complete) story.

A plot, also called a storyline or narrative, is the sequential list of events which make up a story. These events are linked together within the framework of the story, and occur one after the other as the reader progresses through the story. They may not be revealed chronologically, and multiple events may be occurring simultaneously, but the reader — going through the story line by line — is generally only able to see one event at a time. Events may be “seen” in the sense that they are described as happening at that moment, on the page, or they may occur “off stage”. Offstage, unseen, events can be recounted by a character who was there/heard about the event, to a character who is listening to the event being described, or can be hinted at by revealing the ways in which the event affected others without describing the actual event.

While a story can have any number of events, for it to be interesting and complete, it must have three event points on its plot. Less than that, and the story is either incomplete (a vignette or character study) or it usually fails to be interesting. Often, a plot with fewer than three events is both incomplete and boring. Think of it like this:

Event A and/or/but Event B, so Event C.

That’s a complete plot. Without those three points, you’re not telling a story.

Now, before we get more into what is a plot point, we need to rule out all of the things that aren’t:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Place
  • Genre
  • Passage of time without implied/stated change of events

A character is a person, or anthopomorphic animal or object, which has stated qualities that set them apart from another similar person/animal/object. Examples:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman.
  • Karl is a 35-year old German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur.

By themselves, those descriptions do not contain events, even when they are giving the character qualities not possessed by all others. Age, color, race, geography — these are not events. They do not place the character within a story. There is no history, no arc, no context.

However, there are descriptions which contain events, and therefore reveal plot points:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman waiting outside the diner for her date to arrive.
  • Karl is a 35-year old unemployed German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas, living in California.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s, where she was abandoned.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur lying in the backyard.

Some of the events are more obvious than others, but each of those characters now is fixed to at least one event. Jenny is waiting, in a particular place, for a date that has not yet begun. In order for her to be there, she had to have made a plan, traveled to the diner, and she has not yet met up with her date. She has three events tied to her in that one sentence. Karl, by being described as unemployed, must have either once been employed but was separated from his job, or is expected to be employed but has failed to do so.

Lee has moved from Texas to California. Taffy used to belong to people, but now she doesn’t. Rex was placed in the backyard, either intentionally or unintentionally, by someone else, or moved there on his own (depending on the type of story). Though more about these events can be inferred because the age, place, and other descriptors imply greater depth to the events (Lee was either moved there by adults who made the decision for him, or ran away, since a 15 year old rarely has the legal right to move alone; if he does, that’s even more complex) they are still single events: one move, one loss of a former life, one moment where the character is no longer where it once was. (more…)

Book Review: “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind”

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Pros: If you’re struggling with creating a organized routine for writing, and you haven’t heard these ideas before, there are a couple of good thoughts here.

Cons: The book is about as informational as a collection of motivational posters, full of corporate speak (talking about talking instead of imparting facts), and four page essays which only loosely support a single idea. Could have been reduced to a bullet list of ideas – which the book does include, at the end of each chapter – and would have been just as helpful but a lot faster to read.

I make it a point to only review books that I’m recommending, and in this case, I really am recommending it, but only to a small group of people. If you’re having a hard time balancing your writing, your dayjob, your family commitments, and the pressure to be brilliant at all of it, and you haven’t already read a bunch of these books – or you’re the sort of person who needs a lot of outside reinforcement to make changes in your life – this book might be what you need. The highlights:

  • Get plenty of sleep. If you can’t decide whether to go to bed or keep working, go to bed. Start going to bed a half hour earlier than you think you need to – if you need the sleep, you’ve got the time, and if you don’t, you’ll naturally wake up earlier and you can use that time for getting things done instead.
  • Get something done for yourself before replying to emails in the morning.
  • Make a master to do list that you don’t see every minute of the day, and instead write your daily to do list on a post it note. Nothing bigger than that – if you can’t fit it on a post it, you probably can’t get it done in one day. If you do all of those things, you can always make another list partway through the day, so don’t worry that you’re limiting yourself. You’re really freeing yourself to focus on just the things you really need to do first.
  • There will always be negative distractions. It’s impossible to get rid of them all (though certainly, if you can cut down on some of them without losing anything good, you should do that) but what you can and should do is bring in positive distractions to balance out the bad. Hold on to the bright, loving, happy, sexy, funny, relaxing, refreshing, and inspiring things/people in your life, and schedule little blocks of time to enjoy them. You’ll go back to your writing with more focus and more enthusiasm for your work.

The full review: (more…)