Practice: can you have a writing ‘leg day’?

There’s a question that’s been posed a few times on various writing pages – all, given some variance, asking the question whether – and what – components writing can be broken down into and practiced individually.

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I realize this does not depict ‘leg day’ but it does show a writer’s brain procrastinating via lifting 

Previously I dismissed such ideas, writing certainly does have plenty of components all of which require practice and development, but good writing isn’t just an amalgam of those components, but all the aspects of a great story are interdependent  upon each other and thusly practicing individual parts would be less like leg day, and more like ‘left leg day’ (just checking that’s not a thing right??)

However I’d been reflecting on the idea lately and it just happened to come up on r/writing recently and I figured it was a good prompt to get my thoughts onto the screen/blog.

Suffice to say I’ve revised my position, of course I still believe good writing is a complex interdependent process, but I do think there are some possibilities for compartmentalization for a developing writing.

Before I dive into my opinion of the possibilities I would like to add a caution. There are simply some things you can’t escape in regards to writing, such as prose. It’s going to be pretty hard to practice any part of writing without some focus on the words you use. This might sound kind of obvious, or perhaps so basic as to be pointless to discuss, however I think prose is an undernourished discussion point in writing (which I plan on being a whole other post) and to attempt to practice anything else writing wise while not considering your words, style, tone, sentences and so forth would be a fools errand at best. Similarly you would have a hide time separating certain aspects of fiction from others, dialogue from character for example.

My key point is that if one does embark on a journey of component practice to simply ensure one is aware of the interconnecting factors and not to sabotage their practice by neglecting vital components.

Caveats said, what are some ways a writer might practice, and what components are important?

First I’m going to dive into a controversial area:

Fanfiction

Personally I am not a big fan of fanfiction, I don’t write or read it. The closest I get is enjoying TV adaptations. BUT I do believe supporters that fanfiction is a good way to practice writing. The fact that a known universe is being used allows a writer to practice more ‘2nd act’ type writing focusing more on action tension and resolution without having to worry so much about introducing characters or settings.

One caution I would add here however is that what people are looking for in fanfiction is not always the same as mainstream fiction,.

 

Another area that can be compartmentalized is story structure and scene order, which can be practiced by:

The dreaded synopsis and/or outline

I think beginning writers shy aware from synopsis and outlining perhaps understandably being intimidated (well at least I am) by a surprisingly challenging task, but I am a strong advocate for the benefits of writing these out. I’m not saying that people have to through their pants away and become outline gurus, what I’m saying that if people wish to practice different components of writing then outlines and synopsis’ can provide the tool to practice the macro-level stuff of a book, for example planning character arcs, act structure, rising and falling tension and so forth.

 

Now as to other components I think there is a bit more of a requirement to combine pieces of the puzzle. As I said earlier some parts of fiction simply rely on others. You can technically write dialogue only, but all on its lonesome it simply won’t be as powerful (it would be akin to trying to practice long jump without the run-up). My advice for the following components would be to develop flash fiction or short stories with a predominant focus on that component, for example a character driven tale with little action, or a very vivid descriptive piece.

Which of course brings us to what components are there?

To be perfectly honest I don’t know if I can safely list all the important components of writing that one could practice to mastery, but I will take a crack:

  • Prose (including style, tone, voice, word choice, sentences, paragraphs etc)
  • Characters (including intros, backstory, development and arcs)
  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Description
  • Settings
  • Exposition
  • Narrative summary
  • Act structure
  • Scene structure
  • Scene order

I’m sure there are other components to practice in writing, what do you think?

Ninety-Nine Ways to Fail in Writing, Publishing, and Marketing — A Writer’s Path (by Kent Gustavson)

by Dr. Kent Gustavson When it comes to writing, publishing, and marketing a book, there are many mistakes to be made (many more than 99). The #1 most important mistake NOT to make is over-investment. I’ll give a quick anecdote about that, and then give the whole list of my 99 favorite book mistakes. […]

via Ninety-Nine Ways to Fail in Writing, Publishing, and Marketing — A Writer’s Path

More Indie Publishing Tips

Great advice on self-publishing frmo Don Messenzio

Don Massenzio's Blog

TandEFor me, indie publishing has consisted of a lot of trial-and-error to determine what things work and what things do not. Unlike other types of sales and marketing, as an author it is not only about selling books, but, to some degree, you are selling yourself. This is something I’m extremely uncomfortable with, but I’ve found some ways to adjust my approach to make it more tolerable.

This list consists of some of the things I’ve tried that have worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

Hard sell concept.

  • Blatantly asking people to buy your books doesn’t work. Instead, I’ve tried to use my blog, Facebook, and other social media to try to convince people that my work might be worth checking out. I do this by trying to entertain or teach with the material I post.

wordofmouth

  • Word of mouth is extremely important. Your existing readers are your best salespeople. I like interacting with them…

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Silly Answers to Silly Questions

Do I have to write down every action of my character?

Yes I’m afraid you do. The truly great authors have this down to a fine art of describing every micro-twitch and the minutiae of every thought running through a characters head. That’s why so many classic novels feel like ‘nothing happens’

Can I change POV within the novel?

No certainly not. The reader will see this as commitment issues, once you’ve settled on one POV you’ve got to stick with that for all time.

Is technique important in writing?

Not at all. Everyone knows that exciting stories can be seen among the abysmal prose, just ask any agent or editor.

When does inspiration become plagiarism?

Probably at the point that you have someone else’s work sitting open next to you to copy while you write your own.

How do I put my ideas into a story?

Are you sure writing is for you?

Should I quit my job to write full time?

Yes but first please send the details of your current work and who the hiring manager is.

What if someone steals my work?

Didn’t you say you just wanted to get your work out there and read?

Why did I just read this garbage?

I dunno, you saw the title right?

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Obscure tip: Writing with Gravity

 

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Do you ever read a piece of writing and find yourself not into it, but unable to pinpoint why? Like all the content is fine, even of the typical fare that you be into, but you find yourself realizing you wouldn’t mind if your kindle froze, or your dead-tree book spontaneously combusted and you had to throw it out the nearest window?

Well I’m not going to explain the entirely of the reason for that, but one of my goals as a writer is to identify and understand the more specific, subtle aspects of prose that make it ‘good.’

I’ve read or critiqued a few pieces recently and noticed one factor which can contribute to that dull factor of poor writing:

Writing without Gravity

Now, I don’t mean that a book’s characters float around with no gravitational pull to keep them grounded! What I mean is that the there is the crafting of the words doesn’t give any sense of whats important and what is less so.

In one example I was reading a piece about a young family that (as revealed by the blurb and title of the book) were about to be tragically hit by a bomb. The scene began with the father and his daughters interacting in the front yard, taking photos etc before prom. It wasn’t hard to see that the scene was intended to develop some empathy for the characters before a sudden shocking explosion. The problem with the scene (Aside from perhaps being somewhat melodramatic) was that when this bomb hit, there wasn’t really any variance in the flow of the prose.

To be more specific, the nature of the words describing the family’s interaction beforehand was much the same as the words describing the flames and impact of the bomb killing all the characters we’d just met.

Just to clarify I’m not saying that prose always has to vary in specific ways, but rather that prose needs to be crafted to give a sense of the importance of different content. It’s similar to filmography and editing, a cheesy example being a zoom into a characters face before an important piece of dialogue. Again not saying that this is the specific method that is needed for good storytelling, but just that ‘gravity’ is one aspect of prose a writer should be aware of.

Professional writers (or the books they sell) tend to show skillful attention to this level of craft. Have to ever noticed that in a good book you don’t tend to miss anything? And not because you remember every single detail of the novel (well maybe you do but most of us don’t have that kind of attention and recall) but because the writing successfully highlights and draws attention to key elements.

So how does one give their writing a sense of gravity?

Well here are a few things I’ve noted from good works:

  • The description supports the story – I’ve noticed that in my earlier writing I tended to try and describe everyone and everything near to the MC. Good work uses description overtly to set the scene, but more subtly to signal what is important and whats not. Another example is cookie cutter descriptions of characters, rookies tend to give everyone in their book a profile, whereas a good work tends to use description as needed.
  • Using format for advantage – you’ve probably noted that most novels that use chapters will typically end chapters in a suspenseful way, whether with cliffhangers important revelations or some other equally compelling content. Most people present this as a slightly mercantile strategy to keep a reader turning the page, but equally important is that this technique gives weight to whatever you present in the final words of a chapter. A similar approach can be made towards sentences and paragraphs. (Always a caveat) Important content doesn’t have to be at the end of a chapter or sequence but it should be placed intentionally for impact.
  • You might also have seen this tidbit before about varying sentence length. I agree with the premise, and believe that this technique helps to develop gravity. It’s not about any specific sentence structure being particularly useful for important content, but how sentences interact. Having a short, sharp sentence among longer run-ons will make the shorter sentence stand out.

I’m sure there will be more techniques to add gravity to a work, but I hope I’ve provided enough here to present a convincing thesis!

 

Do you have any thoughts on gravity?

What about other obscure tips that you don’t often see in typical writing advice circuits?

Anything you want me to blog/rant/discuss in the future?

How to spot a fake review

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So people following along with any of my stuff may get the impression that I don’t like self-published books. I assure you nothing is further from the truth. It’s pretty awesome how in 2017 you can work your own way through publishing work and get it out there to a wide audience. However I am very, very aware that this option has also opened the door to mass amounts of material that most probably should not have seen the light of day.

To complicate matters marketing work is a complex tasks typically involving several different techniques to promote, disseminate and work Amazon’s algorithms. For many indie authors procuring reviews is a necessary step in maintaining both visibility and credibility.

It’s that final point I’d like to discuss further here. I’ve noticed that some indie works, have far too good review rankings, sometimes better than well known published books. Can I truthfully say I know they are fake or extremely biased reviews? No. Can I truthfully say that I would put money on it because I am 99% certain. Yes.

Now just before I start snarking, I will quickly add that I don’t believe that all or even most indie authors procure dodgy reviews, but every now and tend I come across a pretty average to terrible book and become suspicious of their glowing reviews.

Here are the things I believe signal a fake, procured-to-be-positive or biased review:

The review states they are unbiased

There is a truism out there that if someone says they are being honest, they aren’t. This very much applies to book reviews too. I read one review that opened by saying that the review was “honest and unbiased”, now there are a few things wrong with that.

  • People who are unbiased have no reason to state this (i.e. why does the review feel the need to state this)
  • Reviewers of high caliber will typically note their connections/conflicts of interest for a reader to judge for themselves, for example stating whether they received a free-review copy, were bored at the airport, or are the author’s mother
  • There isn’t actually that much wrong with a biased review, some of mine have included preferring to write a review people will ‘upvote’, being sycophantic, or maintaining bitchiness towards authors I dislike (wow I’m actually a dick reviewer, time for a rethink of strategy)

Anyway, like a person saying “honest” at the end of their statement, reviews that claim to be biased should be treated much as the opposite, especially if there are particularly glowing (and let’s face is 1-star horrific attacks don’t usually bother trying to claim a lack of bias)

The Review reads more like a plot summary

I honestly (whoops) have no idea why this seems to come up so much, but I suspect it has to do with either well meaning friends and family being at a loss for what else to say, or misguided shrill accounts trying prove they ‘read’ the book. Now a good review will often include a brief synopsis or summary to set the context, but these gems will typically say something like “_______ tells the tale of Grahame the Ghost Buster who heroically saves the day with his proton gun. It was great”. This is often coupled with my next point,

There is a suspicious lack of actual detail

A while ago I received feedback for my writing saying that specific > vague, and this very much applies for reviews as well. It’s surprisingly easy to provide complimentary comments without substance. Compare the following:

  • The main character is someone that many could relate to
  • Presenting a main character from a well-off family having some relatable problems is a hard-sell but a refreshing change from typical rags-to-riches stories

Now the key difference between the two is that the first could actually be shoved into any review without much thought and probably sound good, and most beneficially allows for plausible deniability. The second actually shows that the reviewer not only read the book, but actually considered the context.

One might ask at this point – who cares Thomas? Just don’t read books you don’t like and certainly don’t read review of books you don’t like. Well call me old fashioned but I do actually read reviews to see what books are like. And it irks me that a. there are writers so oblivious to their own work they think that shrill reviews are what they need to succeed (when what they mostly need is a professional editor) and b. that people can seem to procure quite sizable number of reviews to make their books look good, when there are probably much better works out there looking bad because their reviews are honest.

My hope is that this post is redundant because most readers already see through this kind of crap and I’m just slow on the uptake.

 

What are your guys experience with fake reviews?

Any criticisms, am I off-the-mark, possibly paranoid?

 

 

 

Here Comes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Well I hope to learn something every day – today it’s the existence of Manic Pixie Girls…

Courtney Coherent

Recently I became aware of a character type: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She can be found in movies, TV, and even literature. Many sources converged to make me aware of this phenomenon at approximately the same time. First it was this post on John Green’s Tumblr. That led to the TV Tropes article on the subject. And finally, TV Tropes referred me to a Feminist Frequency video.

I should pause here to tell you exactly what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is. TV Tropes defines the MPDG as a quirky female character who breezes into the hero’s life and breaks him out of his humdrum existence. The trope is often linked to characters played by Zooey Deschanel. I was intrigued to find that many of my favorite movies have examples of Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters: Clementine (Kate Winslet) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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Q&P Episode 5: Agent W

Agent Analysis by C Hofsetz, love this stuff

C. Hofsetz

In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.

The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.

These are their stories.

A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.


Agent Analysis – Part 5


Previously on Query and Publish…

Navigate to posts in this series:
Part 6: Agent V (TBA).
Part 4: Science Fiction Special
Part 3:Agent Z.
All parts here.


Agent W

Agent W is a literary agent that posted information about 200 queries on twitter over the last few years.

She’s looking for Young Adult (mostly Contemporary realistic fiction and Fantasy), Women’s Fiction, Chick-Lit, and Fantasy.​ Do you want to know the difference between Women’s Fiction and Chick-Lit? I’m not…

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Lessons from: 1Q84

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I’ve been procrastinating on this post for a week and a half, 1Q84 is a complex novel and I’ve taken that long just to get my head around what the piece taught me, let alone compose how to present this all in a post.

To start with it may be worth mentioning that Murakami has a unique style (that I myself was unaware of when I read the book) that includes stories which tend to have meandering plotlines and supernatural happenings that don’t necessary resolve or end logically and in a typical 3-act structure of most novels. I mention this because I’m going to talk about lack of resolution as a negative, or rather an example of something you probably want to avoid, as Murakami has a solid fanbase and an eccentric reputation to maintain so can afford atypical plotting.

Secondly clocking in at more than 900 pages the 3 books of 1Q84 are also probably a little monolithic to read for some pointers (which I guess is part of the point of these posts right, right!?!?)

So what sorts of things did Murakami teach me about writing through reading 1Q84?

SPOILER ALERT

How to weave together separate storylines:

In 1Q84 there are two main characters. Aomame an, odd, aloof personal trainer who moonlights as a killer of abusive men, and Tengu, an eccentric, oblivious, teacher who hopes to become a novelist.

Now based on that there isn’t much connection between the two characters, other than the fact they held hands one day as school children and never saw each other again. But Murakami finds sneaky and subtle ways of interconnecting their tales which maintains their individual storylines without forcing any connections or constantly having the characters reference their shared history. For example Tengu’s inciting incident (if you will) is he is asked to secretly ghost-write a novel already drafted by a youth, the novel contains a number of supernatural elements, which Aomame starts to experience. Also the young writer is the daughter of the cult-leader who is Aomame’s next target. When Aomame finally catches up to the leader, the daugther also ‘catches up’ to Tengu. While the two MC’s are navigating their own plots the connections are clear to us.

And…

How not to resolve character stories and plot

It’s kind of hard to flesh this out appropriately, suffice to say that 1Q84 is a great example of excellent build-up, at about 50% of the way through the books I was gripping the edge of the chair, unable to put the book down the tension was so high. And while the tension started to trickle lower, the end of Book 2 was sufficiently shocking to demand a fast read of book 3. Unfortunately after some very intense events, including assassination, conspiracy, under-age sex and ever increasing bizarre supernatural events, Tengu simply sits next to his dying father reading him stories, and Aomame sits in a safe house thinking about Tengu, eventually being easily provided his address for them to reunite and without issue escape the supernatural world that is 1Q84.

Now I like pushing fictional boundaries as much as anyone, but I also like traditional work too, and one way or the other 1Q84 provides an example of a non-traditional approach to tension, climax and resolution in plotting and how a typical novel wouldn’t do it.

 

In terms of these posts, I plan on putting together an ongoing thread of all the things I’ve picked up from the professionals, at the moment it would be a little bare but once I have a few more books reviewed this way I will put it all together in one evergrowing place.