Category Archives: Writing Advice

Writing Conference 2020–Business

I hope you will forgive me for postponing this post while I talked about other things. 🙂 I didn’t drop it entirely, and here it is!

From my writing conference notes, there were way too many classes to include all of them in one post, so I separated out the business ones. If you’re not interested in the business side of being an author, I recommend you skip this one. For the rest of you, here you go, in rough notes. Disclaimer: NOT LEGAL ADVICE. If you need legal advice, get a lawyer! Or maybe an accountant, if more applicable.

How to self-publish
Read contracts carefully.
Don’t spend more than you expect to make.
First-free doesn’t work. (If you query this, you’ll see a huge controversy.)

Amazon SEO
Cover images might be searchable in the future.
Covers will be more important.
To profit on Amazon ads, must have 1000 keywords.

Covers
Check best-selling in category
Keep cover promises
Make sure element that defines your book the best is visible on thumbnail
Use a release for copyright / contract
Pay artists to have legal standing to their work
If you can’t judge book by cover, time is wasted
Covers need to intrigue readers
Purpose of book cover is to attract matching reader
Amazon is changing rules: must be able to read title in thumbnail
Covers are identifiers.
Pay for a professional
Need to have contrast, boldness to draw eyes
Put tropes on cover to convey story
What gives zing factor?
Update every 5-10 years to stay current
To see what people are buying, go to www.yasiv.com (Visual map, compare to comp titles)
Does your cover convey tone, etc of story?
Sometimes cover doesn’t convey scene, but something else.
Cover should change for foreign countries
Pay attention to composition
Give 6 examples of covers you like to designer

How to avoid rookie mistakes
Get an editor
Learn from your mistakes
Go 3 days without responding to flames
Don’t mortgage your house
Remember your family
Backup your work
Ask dumb questions
You have never “arrived”
Marketing can’t copy word of mouth
Keep improving craft
You are your agent’s boss
Fight for your work /dream /etc
Take ownership of your business
Don’t say yes to the first opportunity unless it is right for you
Take advice with a grain of salt
Accept that you are a creative being and will be better when you are creating

Taxes for Authors
Writers will be audited by 2 types of auditors: those who want to be writers, and those who want to catch you red-handed.
Several gray areas: income from books is passive income, so some auditors want you to account for it as rent/royalties up to $65K (no SE tax).
Hire an accountant.
Be aware of state taxes & regulations.
Book advance is same as rent/royalties.
You will receive 1099s for each short story published and from each distributor.
PayPal is not rent/royalty. It’s regular royalty on schedule C, including teaching/presenting.
Offset income with expenses.
Tax deductions: Conference fees, mileage, meals at certain percentages, hotel, computer & software (if you replace regularly, takes 3 years to deduct), office space outside home or part of home used exclusively for work (percentage), phone (get separate phone/plan), internet, research (books, movies, travel, Netflix).
You are a professional writer if you can show you’re actively writing & working toward pro.
Use one credit card for business only. Keep receipts (or make own).
Itemize expenses & income.
Make sure to overpay taxes by few hundred dollars to prevent audit of prior years.
If auditor says you can only have loss for 3 years, ask them to show you the law (no federal law).
Take trip to do research but be careful it’s applicable.
Get an LLC to protect copyrights.
LLC can hire spouse in business (give 1099).
If you get income from other countries, you might have to pay tax there.
Quarterly taxes: don’t worry about <$10K? (Disagreement–some say worry about anything.) Always estimate your best.

Embracing imperfections
Be flawsome
Write it first, fix it later.
Like reality
Be consistent

Business Writing
Treat it like a job, not a hobby
Trad pub: 99.9% rejection rate
Indie: you vs 100K authors. How do you get audience?
Use your business background in your business.
Be prolific: the more you do, the better you get; the better you get, the more people will like you.
Always create more products.
You make money off your backlist. Longer is better. New books remind people to look up other books & keep you on the lists. Need 10 books for backlist to be productive.
Agents take 15% of what you make. Don’t need one.
Always review contracts with contract attorney, $2-300.
Contracts: read & understand! A lot of publishers are predators. What rights are they getting, for how long, non-compete clauses & right of first refusal.
Sublets: to publish in other languages (do not sell UNLESS they specialize in other language)
Dramatic rights: movies, tv, etc. (do not sell without good reason)
Audio: don’t sell rights unless publisher does it well (research on Audible)
How long will they hold rights? Maker sure rights will revert. If publisher goes out of business, you lose the right to publish.
Ebooks: rights might never revert.
Taxes: pay! Talk to attorney re: S-corp or LLC. In Utah, most writers are S-corps.
Deduct reasonable business item.
Pay quarterly taxes once you start making good amounts of money. Work with CPA.
Work out schedule for new books. Schedule your time appropriately for you.
When you lose money by going to work instead of writing, it’s time to quit your day job.
Branding: create one for yourself so fans will follow you. Be yourself.
Marketing: What’s your product for? Success breeds success.
Advances: come from future royalties, paid in thirds.
1 book out is okay, 5 is good, 10+ is really good.
Should family member be employee? Probably not.
Quarterly reporting: min $600 income
Backlist sales: series vs stand alone: make sure 1st book has solid happy ending
Series is where the money is. Give 1st book satisfying conclusion.
Epic fantasy series: people won’t start until it’s finished. Do in timely manner for next book.
Business taxes change all the time.
Indie cover sells the book. Spend $300-500.
Go to bookstores to promote yourself. Be positive! Promote other writers books, too
Ancillary products: related to business & brand: games, comic books, kickstarters

If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Writing Conference Report 2020–Character & Setting

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This covers character & setting/world-building topics. Structure & plot was last month, and business topics will be next month.

Poison 101
Very few things will kill you quickly. Most of them are inhalants. Nothing will kill you immediately.
Animal: venom, sting, bacteria, penicillin & antibiotics, smallpox, viruses, allergen, etc
Vegetable: alkaloids, ricin, mushrooms (non-poisonous mushrooms can pick up poison from nearby poisonous ones)
Mineral : carbon monoxide, chlorine, radiation, arsenic, (accumulate in liver and hair)
Synthetic : drugs, pesticides, herbicides
Methods : Inhalation, topical (mucus membranes or skin, ingested, injection (including snakes and insects and platypus)
Symptoms : find in material safety data sheets
Can build a small immunity to some things (but iocane powder doesn’t exist).

Oaths & honor
Before breaking a norm /belief can touch the reader, the importance of the norm must be established.
Secondary characters are for contrast.

Loving the other (mermaids, vampires, etc)
Use a variety of internal conflicts, physical conflicts, external conflicts like societal norms.
Girls like the thought of someone extraordinary loving them.

Lost Technologies
Watch PBS Nova
Why can’t we do stuff anymore?
Tech disappears at height of its use. Mechanical calculators gave way to digital, etc.
Flint-mapping (artwork), Damascus steel, oiyas potteries (auto-water plants by seepage), metal knife for fire-starting instead of flint, Iroquois lost skills when trading for easier products, obsidian surgery tools, Saturn V rockets (each hand-built), heirloom seeds, craftsmen, enigma machine (tech parts have changed), Thor Heyerdahl, obsidian arrowheads (some made to break & slice)
Rediscovered after WWII: colossus encoder (decoder?)
When writing, if an idea doesn’t advance story, toss it.
M.S. Stirling recreated lost technology.
Why would you need to? Eric Flint (book 1600?) Town went back in time & had to fit in.
If your beta reader says bored, listen!
Look at leap tech (rich can afford) vs common tech (context is key). Example: shovel for the rich (need shoes to protect feet), poor used sticks.

Pointy Sticks & Fried Dough
What are constants in many/all cultures?
Stereotypes dominate thing that describes them.
Funeral rites: how does your culture handle it? Describes human value.
Celebrate special events, holidays, commemorations: yes, no, how?
Taboos? What do they look like?
Superstitions, myths about monsters, fears.
Ask family/friends “what did you eat for dinner growing up?”
Who has power, who makes choices?
Money, form of wealth, trade.
Social economic differences: clothing, education, where allowed to live.
What is your starting point and how do you build around it?
Show-not-tell through character’s eyes.
Read outside your genre. How do other genres discuss food, etc. Transform it to your culture, deepen & change it.
How do you balance different languages & slang?
How does language fit in the story you’re telling?

When Should Your Character Outsmart You?
Writing species smarter than humans: their learning, interactions, emotional intelligence
Smart characters come up with solutions faster than you.
Construct character from back: you do research, they have answer
Many ways to demonstrate intelligence, and they shouldn’t have them all.
So much research.
BS to make them sound smart. Make up words, things they can talk about.
Don’t go into more details than needed for story.
Make character relatable. People like human disasters.
What are environmental pressures? How do they evolve?
Culture, species, political. What was childhood environment? Vulcans=logic, Klingons=violence, etc. Find ways to relate.
What pressure drove human evolution processes? Prey or predator? Evolution & culture values?
Facial features demonstrate emotion in humans.
Communication with each other is valued.
What leads to higher intelligence?
Hive mind? For greater good?
How much do they worry about food & shelter? Once safe, can think about arts, etc.
Why does one race think they’re smarter than another?
Can intelligence be warm/welcoming?
They have something we don’t understand.
Need to be in competition with something.
Repercussions of getting intelligent?

Disabilities aren’t Superpowers
Write disabilities to give character depth
Disabilities are part of life; adapt & go on.
Are they an asset or not? Are a lot of work, but can gain a skill with practice.
Monk TV series: physical disability
Avatar movie skips training steps
Disabilities become normal over time
Don’t use disabilities to gain sympathy in romantic comedies
Mental disabilities still affects everyday life
Fight, flight, or flee? When is it life-threatening?
Sounds, like MedAlarms, are like WWII alarms & can panic vets.
Examples: Toth, Last Airbender; Numbers TV series; Captain America movie, Falcon character
Writing tips: people are people; don’t give backstory, give clues; research everyday details of disability; some people wallow until death, your character has to make an active decision. How do they compensate & get through life?
Is plot around disability or about character growth?
Borderline Curiosity Disorder & Hoarders are disabilities.
How do people live with someone with a disability? What changes are made? Look at people around character.

Casual Violence
Why is murder/honor killing acceptable? Make sure to answer why and motivation.
Killing vs murder: murder is against law/society.
Blood offerings: why?
State sanctions vs war: innocent person selected as scapegoat to satisfy god or natural disaster (usually low caste)
Honor killings by psychology today: Reputation is what protects you; if damaged, it ruins everything. Highest form of currency.
Honor: N. European gets honor by throwing lot with stronger man/best corporation. Middle/ S. European honor from family/family first. If can’t support family, someone must die. India: knock off bride for better bride. Mid East: groom pays for bride. Iran: honor killings frequent. Women used to be able to prevent, but now capital won’t listen to locals. Aztec: stage battles to capture sacrifices.
Willing self-sacrifice vs punishment: usually built into law structure.
US has so much killing (illegal but socially acceptable?) 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, etc.
Honor killings: video games, movies?
Untouchables & consequences: no one cares; tainted person becomes outcast, rejected to maintain order.
Castes of society: lower caste shame, dishonorable reincarnation, mental health issues

Horses
Cattle drive: each cowboy had seven horses. Grain-fed horses: only need one, but must bring grain.
Camping needs water, wood, and grass.
Horses are prey & prefer herds.
They sense tension & stress.
Stallions, geldings, or mares. Stallions have one-track mind when intrigued. Charge & hit hard. Mares have hormonal cycles; some will go psycho.
Read Horsetamer by Walter Farley
Cutting horses are like colliers for sheep: Youtube
Programmable.
Hard ground naturally trims hoof. Check hooves daily; stuff gets stuck in it.
Horses are afraid of paper bags & water.

Dragons
How do humans deal with being prey? Other species smarter.
Do you live in keeps? Trees, walls, etc.
Cooperative hunting, etc. Fight or flight?
Consider life cycle. Do they consume everything? Do they turn on each other? What’s the balance nature provides?
How much does predator move around? How much energy used?
Small predators: are humans scared of it? Snakes rattle, spiders, swarms. Just kill you or kill & eat you? (Hunt in groups)
Cats: watch their behavior.
Are there triggers for being attacked? (Non-threatening to attacking)
Other species attacking–do humans develop defense mechanisms?
How do humans defend against intelligent predators or societies?
How do you protect against night predators?
Species like us but different lead to war/death or truce/division.
Apex predators reproduce slower, try to protect the few left.
Can they walk among us & pass as one of us?
How can they communicate with us? What happens with the communication?
Mixed species association–learn to trust each other.
Trap/hunt together as pack.
Things that scare us are things most like us
United enemy or united problem?
Cats take care of small problems & live a comfortable life.

I always learn a lot at my writing conference, so if you have a chance to go to one, give it a shot!

Happy writing,
M.C. Lee

Writing Conference Report 2020–Structure

As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This post covers structure/plot topics. There will be another next month on character & setting, and one after that on business topics. Whew!

Firming Up a Sagging Middle
Use cliffhangers every chapter, such as physical danger, new characters, bad news, epiphanies, messages, romance, what’s behind the door, something to cheer about, decision to make, foreshadowing, awe, death, blow up something.

Everything about writing in 3 minutes
Stories are ripples in status quo.
Hero has problem. Acts. Makes problem worse! Deal with worse problem. Hero solves problem or problem solves hero. Can’t return to prior status quo.
To help your subconscious, clearly state the problem, then give it 1-2 days to work.
Write down the ideas.
Feed your subconscious with books, movies, walk, zoo, etc.

Story Mapping
Plotting or outline 3 ways:
1) Intuitive (pantser)
2) Plotters (story map), sometimes start at end & work backwards
3) Hybrids
Character-driven stories lend themselves to intuitive writing.
Plot-driven stories (mystery, thriller, sci-fi) have to know outline.
Historical & fantasy can go either way.
Why create story map in advance? Shorter writing time, place clues/red herrings, force reader to turn page by placing & answering questions, avoid dreaded blinking cursor, easier revisions, most publishers require story map in advance, helps with unexpected problems like ghostwriters/dead authors.
Proposal for trad pub is first three chapters + outline.
Does plotting story in advance stifle creativity? Depends.
Story mapping process.
1) Start with really cool idea.
2) Let idea marinate.
3) Record ideas.
4) Timing.
5) Write synopsis.
6) List of scenes.
7) Write book.
Some people like to color-code by POV or character.

Light in Darkness: Horror Stories
Horror is 7% words, 55% body language, and the rest is voice.
Subtlety/description is better than all dialogue/narration.
Horror as genre is a myth, created by booksellers to sort books, first invented for Frankenstein.
Hollywood can’t replicate the feelings in books, so they use gore and shock. Books can convey feelings.
Uniquely moral setting genre–good vs evil.
Two kinds of horror: hostile (not good) and redemptive (you can climb out of dark pit of soul).
Bible is godly horror (redemptive story).

Future of Fantasy
RPG is going into fantasy & ebooks, like Choose Your Own Adventure.
Noblebright is next trend, trying to do good & right.
Need motivation that makes sense. Need to elicit emotional reaction from reader. Does character impact reader?
Covers for youth are different than covers for adults.
Jen Lyons uses footnotes in ebooks to do worldbuilding. (Big debate: distracting vs expansive. Runs risk of breaking narrative.)
If you rely on a map, rewrite it to let readers know where characters are.
Mental health stories (heroes & villains) are upcoming trend. Makes them more relatable.
Second-world fantasy will always have place but needs to be relatable to humanity.

Lines Between Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Sci-fi: technology
Fantasy: magic, nature
Marketing might be only difference. Genre exists for shelving purposes. Trappings determine how book is classified & need to be at beginning of story.
Star Trek is soft sci-fi (about people). Inception is hard sci-fi, then fantasy in dream machine.
Tailor presentation to audience.
Gandalf is soft magic system. Hard magic system/science needs same tone throughout book.
Don’t spend too much time worldbuilding. You can get away with anything if it’s entertaining.

Structure vs Character-Led Stories
Rules base vs follow heart type
Writer needs to know ending of plot-based story or will have issues.
Review structure & character journey
If you paint yourself in a corner, is that the story?
Needs to be a set up and pay off
Need red herrings
Get readers involved by the how (thought & motivation)
Character & world building is the what
Types of structure:
Heroes Journey
Broadway
3-act Hollywood
Shakespeare
Aristotolian structure: boom, everything goes
Characters: What do they want? Include foreshadowing/hints.
Sometimes you pants it, then go back & structure
Don’t write directly to story beats
Look at ending, promises you made.
Need a good motivation for characters.
Understand difference between plot (logical sequence of evens to reactions) & conflict (creates plot)
Characters in relationship & environment create conflict
Character vulnerabilities: why?
Character needs to CHOOSE, not be blown in wind.
Anything that makes you want to write is good for you.
Goal, motivation, conflicts (relationships), should be felt.
Need smarts & hearts.

Stereotypes & Tropes
Stereotype: usually demanded by fashion
Cliche: overused ideas, becomes tiresome
Trope: literary shorthand to achieve emotional effect. Can’t be the rule & the journey.
2nd world fantasy: have stereotype, then break it.
Stereotype reveals a lot about a character. They exist for reason–why? It’s reasonable to expect certain things, cultural expectations.
Make your villain somewhat identifiable.
Characters are more compelling when there are dynamic aspects.
Zombie: no reasoning, no race, an elemental force.
Write a story from the POV of an orc.
Tropes: when to avoid? When used wrong. What does it accomplish? Use for emotional response. Reflect reader’s expectations in your genre. Do not use trope to replace plot.
TVTropes.org
Examples:
Romance: happy ending
Horror: evil villain
Thriller: master mind
Action: needs romp at start
Sci-fi: tech, sounds futuristic
Fantasy: discover, sense of wonder
Western: watch Silverado
Things not to do:
Romantic comedy: She’s been terrible to him & he still kisses her. Or honorable the whole time & then turns bad.
Don’t use stereotype to avoid character development.
Read short stories to learn tropes.
Read reviews on genres you want to write, pos or neg.

If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Broken Writing, Growing Writer

I’ve had lots of people point out problems in my writing. That’s actually a good thing, since it lets me fix the problems. I’ve also had a few people say mean personal things to me because of my writing, and that’s not okay. So today, I’m going to talk about the difference between you and your writing.

Wait, you say, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not the same as my writing. I’m a person, not words on a page.

You’d certainly think so, but it doesn’t always work that way in real life. First, your words can be a reflection of yourself, and they’re a product of your creative soul. When someone is tearing into your heartfelt words, it can feel like they’re attacking you personally. (Usually they aren’t…) Second, some people forget there’s a difference between who you are and what you write. A few unfortunate souls DO attack the writer instead of the writing. Instead of saying “I’m confused at this point,” they say say “You don’t care if your reader is confused.” Instead of saying, “I didn’t believe the motivation,” they say “You can’t write good characters.” Instead of saying, “This plot is too convoluted,” they say, “You’re stupid if you think anyone is going to follow this.” Can you see the difference?

Here’s the lecture part of this post: don’t be that person. Yes, point out problems you find, but do it nicely, with specifics, and only about the writing. That does not mean keeping your mouth shut “to be nice.” Friends don’t let friends send their writing public when they know it still has problems. It just means to focus on the issue in a way that the writer can fix the poor thing.

Here’s the encouragement part of the post: if this happens to you, and it probably will at some point, go ahead and cry (preferably in private). Then pick yourself up and repeat with me: “Their bad manners are not my problem.” Did you repeat it yet? Several times, maybe? Rinse and repeat until you believe it. Now repeat this: “I am learning. Though my writing needs work, I can learn from my mistakes and grow as a writer. I’m better than I was last year, and next year, I’ll be better than I am now. I am not defined by my skill, especially not by my current level.”

Okay, now sit down and edit their rude comments. Look for words you CAN use. “You don’t care if your reader is confused” becomes “confused.” Granted, that’s not the most specific advice, but at least it tells you where to start looking for specific problems. If they flat-out insult you with no actual advice included AT ALL, take a nice red pen and enjoy striking out the entire sentence.

Now, take your edited comments and solve what you can. Anything left over, run by a trusted friend/critique partner for help. “I was told this section is confusing.” (Yep, just skip the rest of what they said.) “Can you tell me where and/or why you get confused? Thank you!”

If you have no choice but to work with the insulting person again (English class, maybe?), it might or might not be worth talking to them about how to give feedback. (It depends on their personality and a bunch of other stuff.) If you can’t talk to them about giving better critiques, then buckle on your Impervious-to-Insults armor before you meet with them, and keep it firmly in place until you’ve finished going over their comments. If you do have a choice about working with them, it’s worth considering ending your critiquing relationship. (Please note that I didn’t say “end your entire relationship.” If they’re a friend/family, don’t do that…)

Remember, you the writer are a person, inherently worthwhile and full of potential, no matter your current state of anything. Your writing is not you, no matter how much it feels like a piece of you. Both you and your writing can be improved if there is a problem, but they are still two different entities that should be judged entirely separately and not by the same people.

Go forth, improve your writing and be a better person, but don’t confuse the two.

M. C. Lee

Science Fiction & Fantasy Conference

Every year for several years now, I’ve gone to the Life, the Universe, and Everything sci-fi/fantasy conference in Utah. Last year, I told you about it after the fact, so I’m trying to do better this time, in case you’d like to go. I’m telling you, if you like science fiction or fantasy, it’s a really cool conference to attend.

No, you don’t have to be a writer. They also have art classes, and a game room, and movies, and presentations of academic papers, and meet-and-greets.

Yes, they do have writing classes. And the art classes, and business classes, and worldbuilding classes. And oh-that-sounds-super-cool classes. Two of my family members got to attend a weapons class with real weapons. They raved for weeks.

Yes, you can meet writers there. Yes, you can attend any of the classes, presentations, movies, games, book signings, etc with your pass (except for a very few “bonus” things that either cost extra or require an extra sign-up). It’s a pretty reasonable price, as these go. Check it out at ltue.net

If you decide to go, here’s a little practical advice.

Have someone drop you off, or be prepared to walk from farther parking. Or stay in the hotel and don’t worry about it!

Wear good shoes and comfortable clothes/hairstyle. Layers allow you to go from Utah-winter-outside temps to variable inside-room temps.

Take food to eat, especially if you aren’t going to take an actual lunch break. (An actual lunch break is a great idea, but sometimes the classes are just too tempting…)

Look for a freebies table. There are usually bookmarks, business cards, and who-knows-what-kind of goodies.

Check out the book room. Besides books, they have swag and art and authors.

Talk to people–lots of people. Pretend you aren’t shy. Understand that lots of people around you are also desperately trying to pretend they aren’t shy, and just say something (nice) to them.

If hauling weight bothers you AT ALL, slim down your bag to lighter than you think you can carry all day.

Ask experienced attendees which bathroom tends to have shorter lines, and use it immediately after class.

Drink lots of water (if you lightened your bag, take a small bottle and refill it every hour). I know, it will just make you need the bathroom, but trust me, dehydration will not enhance your experience.

Wash your hands frequently. If you are sick, don’t shake hands with anyone, even your favorite author that you ran into in the hall. (Elbow bump, perhaps?)

If you have business cards in a related field, bring them. Give them out to anyone that wants one, or leave them on the freebie table. But be nice! If someone doesn’t want one, they don’t have to have one…

If the class you want to take is full, try something else or find someone for a conversation.

Take a shower (obviously), but please, please don’t wear perfume, cologne, essential oils, scented lotions, or other scented products. Not only are there a LOT of people, and scents pile up, but some people are allergic, and it’s not very polite to make things uncomfortable for them.

Be nice. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, do I?

And have fun! Maybe I’ll see you there,
M. C. Lee

So You Want to Be a Writer?

I don’t know if any of you are prospective writers or not, but since somewhere around 80% of the people in the United States have thought about writing a book, I figure there’s a pretty good possibility. Some of you may already be writing and doing well (at the writing–I’m not talking about publishing today). This article is not for you. Today, I want to talk to those of you that are still wavering about whether or not to write.

If the idea of writing a book sounds fun, in theory, but you aren’t sure if you’d like it in real life, could I suggest a trial run? NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) made me think of this post, but since it won’t be published until late November, it won’t actually help you with the trial this year. (Note to self: plan ahead next time!) Nonetheless, the idea is sound.

Let me back up and tell you about NaNoWriMo. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month (an average of 1667 words per day). Writers and prospective writers all over the world participate. There’s an official website, Facebook groups, and more. There are badges to collect along the way, buddies to encourage, a tracking chart to see your progress. It’s kind of fun. If you win, there are usually cool digital prizes (mostly discounts on things). The best prize, though, is the progress you make on your book and the chance to discover if you like writing well enough to make it through an entire novel.

But you don’t have to do NaNoWriMo to get those last two prizes. All you have to do is write. Every day. For weeks, or months, or years. If that sounds like fun, you might be a writer. If that sounds like torture, or if you just don’t know… well, maybe you want to try that trial period I suggested. Pick a month, any month. (November is the official NaNoWriMo, and they have Camps in April and July if you want to participate in their buddy system, but the calendar also has nine extra months you could use on your own.) Pick a goal (50,000 words, 20,000 words, “X” words per day, whatever). Now, for that month, write every day (or at least almost every day). Track your word count. Don’t worry about editing right now, though you should certainly put that on your to-do list for a different month. Just write. Keep writing. Write more.

If you start dreading your daily writing session, then writing might not be the profession for you. Consider dropping it to hobby status and only writing when inspiration strikes. If you look forward to sitting down with a computer or pencil and find yourself plotting when you’re washing dishes or driving or supposedly working, then keep writing. Write the whole month. Write like a crazy person, if that’s your style.

At the end of the month, look at what you’ve accomplished. Did you write (almost) every day for a whole month? Did you meet your goal? Did you come close? Did you enjoy yourself? Did the writing become easier? Do you want to keep doing it?

Notice that I’m not asking you right now if your writing is any good. I’m assuming that you will let it sit and then edit it before you try to make that assessment. Besides, quality can be practiced, researched, and improved. Enjoyment and dedication are more inherent, and that’s what this experiment was about.

So, what do you think? Now that you’ve tried it, do you still want to be a writer?

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Rubber Duckies

I’m imagining your faces now. “What in the *world,*” you say, “do rubber duckies have to do with writing? Or reading?”

That’s a great question! 🙂 First, let me assure you that no ducks, real or rubber, were harmed in the writing of this article. Second, this is not an article about bathtime or babies. Third, this is a writing post, thought the general idea is actually applicable to life in many ways. Fourth, a rubber ducky falls under the “writing tools” category in a very special way (when it isn’t applying to other life situations).

A rubber ducky, in the non-bathtime way, is a person who lets you bounce ideas off them. The “bouncing” explains the rubber. As for ducky… I have no idea. Maybe it just sounds like more fun, or maybe it falls better from the tongue.

Let’s make up some FAQs about rubber duckies. 😉

Q. Why do I want a rubber ducky?
A. Rubber duckies help you think through sticky writing problems, provide randomly generated [fill in the blank] choices, provide a check for “would character X really behave like this?”, and solve a lot of other writing problems.

Q. Oh, so, I should choose a more experienced writer for a rubber ducky?
A. If you have a more experienced writer for a rubber ducky, count yourself blessed! But no, your ducky doesn’t have to be any kind of writer at all. It’s frequently helpful if they’ve read some of your stuff (or listened to you talk about it ad nauseum), but sometimes even that isn’t required. Your rubber ducky might be a complete non-writer who knows nothing about your story.

Q. Wait, I’m getting really confused. If my ducky doesn’t have to be experienced OR informed, how do they help me?
A. And now we’re back to the “rubber” part. A good ducky bounces ideas BACK to you, so you can hear how they sound from another perspective. By restating your problem or idea and/or by trying to anticipate your next step or how it links with your other stuff, they can help you find plot holes, logic mistakes, character anomalies, and so forth. Because you have to simplify your problem for your poor ducky to even follow your explanation, it forces you to boil everything down to the essence, and mistakes are less able to hide in the minimalist forest.

Q. So all my ducky has to do is repeat back what I said?
A. That might be enough. A really GOOD ducky, though, will follow up by asking you questions. I don’t know what questions, because it totally depends on your ducky, your story problem, and what you proposed as a question or solution. But they might ask how that would affect plotline A or what character B would think or how clue C fits in now. And that might spark your brain into the next answer and the next answer and the… where’s my notebook to write this all down? Or it might bounce your answer right back in your face so you realize that if you change THAT, it’s totally going to break THIS thing over here, so you’d better not do it!

Q. You’ve sold me! Where can I get a ducky of my own? A really good, top-quality one, please.
A. Alas, they are not found in stores, not even online. But look around, and you might already have one you can use. Pick a test question and start bouncing it off potential duckies. Make a note of who gives the most useful responses (which doesn’t necessarily mean they know the answers, just that they make YOUR brain start moving in the right direction). There, now you have a starting-level rubber ducky, all your own. As for the really good, top-quality ones, they’re always homemade. Take your level 1 ducky and train them to level up!

Happy duck hunting (don’t harm any real ducks, please),
M. C. Lee

Forbidden Words

If you’re a writer, or a prospective one, you might hear a lot about “rules” of writing. What you don’t always hear is a good explanation of when to follow the “rules” and when to break them, or even an explanation behind the “rules.” Unfortunately, I’ve seen that lead to some really bad writing. I’ll work my way gradually through some of these rules, but the one I want to address today is “forbidden words.” (Did you hear the spooky theme music? No? Let’s try again… “FORBIDDEN WORDS…”)

You might think these are the kinds of words you disguise by typing on the top row of your keyboard, but that’s not what I mean. (Although you might want to watch those, too.) No, I’m talking about when other well-meaning people tell you to never use an adverb. Or an -ing word. Or was or were. Or “just,” or any other particular word. Don’t take their advice.

I’m not saying to ignore the advice, either. I’m saying you should understand it so you know when to take it and when to ignore it. I think it’s time for some examples. (Cue suspenseful music…)

If you search the internet, you can find lots of lists of “words to avoid in writing.” Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to look. Done now? They usually list words that are overused or nearly meaningless, like really, just, or completely. What’s the difference between beautiful and really beautiful? Maybe nothing, or maybe you want to use gorgeous as a stronger word choice for the second example. But sometimes you do need those nearly meaningless words. (They were invented for a reason.) For instance, “he slid into his seat just before the bell rang” is considerably more urgent than “he slid into his seat before the bell rang.”

Let’s look at adverbs for a minute. When shouldn’t you use them? When they merely reinforce a word that doesn’t need reinforcing. He whispered quietly. she smiled cheerfully, the bell dinged musically. Yup, we got the idea with the verb, thanks. When should you use adverbs? When it either clarifies something the verb can’t do alone (she painted frantically) or turns the verb on its head (“Death kindly stopped for me.”–Emily Dickinson).

In other words, if you CAN cut an adverb or a “meaningless” word, do, but if cutting it changes the sentence, keep it for the sake of the poor reader and your dear story.

Now let’s talk about verbs. You might have heard about “passive writing” and the horrible use of “was, were, and -ing.” Take a deep breath while I tell you the rumors of their demise ought to be greatly exaggerated. “If you can finish the sentence with ‘by zombies,’ then it’s passive writing and ought to be destroyed” (by zombies) is one I frequently hear. Okay, fine, I added the second “by zombies” because I wanted to make a point.

There are reasons to use passive sentences. Here’s one: you don’t know the acting subject. “She was murdered!” but we don’t know by whom. Here’s another: you don’t want the emphasis on the acting subject. “She was murdered!” and until we get over the shock, we don’t care who did it. Does that mean its okay to blithely sprinkle passive sentences all over your writing? No, I didn’t say that, either. Use them when you need to use them, and for the sake of your action, don’t use them when you don’t need them. (Which, really, is the basic rule for all writing techniques.)

One more point about was, were, and -ing. It might shock you to know that sometimes they are ACTIVE verbs, not passive! “The apple was red” is an active sentence. (Not a very interesting one, granted, but still active.) When you usually start getting in trouble is when you combine was/were/are and -ing verbs, because even if the verb is active, the sentence might not be as strong as it could be. “The robot’s eyes were glowing” is weak, while “the robot’s eyes glowed” is strong. But if you try to cut every being-verb in your story, you’ll end up with monstrosities like “She seemed a pretty girl, despite her plain brown hair.” She SEEMED pretty, or she WAS pretty? Don’t laugh; I didn’t quote, but I’ve seen sentences that were even worse, that didn’t make any grammatical sense at all because the author “heard WAS is bad” and cut them all without regard to necessary sentence structure. (Read the “pretty girl” sentence without either *seemed* or *was* to see what I mean.)

So, next time you see a writing rule, figure out the reason behind the rule before you start applying it wildly across your writing. Your readers will thank you.

Happy writing,
M. C. Lee

Author Goals vs Character Goals

This morning, I woke up realizing what problem was behind certain recurring issues in the books of a friend of mine. With her permission, I’m going to use her work to explain the difference between author goals and character goals, why they SHOULDN’T be the same, and how the conflict between them makes a better story.

Let’s start with a basic definition of character and author goals. Characters want “something” that will make their life better. The lover, the job, the house, the winning goal. Whatever it is, they think it will make them happy. Authors, on the other hand, want their characters to be unhappy. Temporarily! Because good stories are made of conflict against desires. It is the tug of war between what a character wants and what they get that leads us down story lane. Will they succeed or will life/villain/better team defeat them??

Now, on to the examples.

Example #1: Author “Jane” (name has been changed) has the goal of a big reveal at a dance. The reader knows earlier that character “Hero” is turning his life around and coming back to church, but the other characters don’t yet know that. Because Jane wants a dramatic scene at the dance, she decides that Hero must also wish to save the reveal until then. He feels nervous and secretive and unready to tell anyone about the changes in his life, but thinks unveiling the surprise at the big dance will be exciting. That’s great writing, right?

Well, no. There are a few problems. First, Hero is hiding things from people he’s close to, which is odd for his character. Second, Hero is hiding things from his desired “Heroine” which would knock down some of the barriers between them, AS HE HAS BEEN WISHING. Third, most people who are coming back to church are relieved and happy and want to share the good news with their family and friends. (There are exceptions, but those haven’t been set up in this story.) Fourth, if he doesn’t want to reveal it now, privately, why would he want to save it for a public event? So all this means that his idea of hiding everything until the dance feels very unrealistic.

Does that mean Jane’s hope for a dramatic reveal is sunk? Not at all! In fact, by acknowledging Hero’s desires, yet making his life detour according the author’s wishes, we can make an even more dramatic reveal. Let me illustrate how it COULD happen, with “old” and “new” examples from the story.

Old #1: The desire. Hero doesn’t want to tell his family, friends, or wannabe girlfriend because… they will tease him? They won’t be happy for him? He wants to shock them? This scenario, besides being poorly explained, makes him seem selfish and weak and makes his loved ones seem like jerks.

New #1: The frustration. Hero wants to tell everyone (notice the change in character goal and how it opposes that of the author). He decides to do so in person, as such good news deserves. Hero calls, gets a busy signal or answering machine, and doesn’t want to leave a message. He goes by in person, but people are gone or busy with the doctor (in the case of the friend in the hospital). Hero tries composing an email, but it just doesn’t feel personal enough. He will have to try later. This scenario has us rooting for Hero, who is trying to do the right thing and keeps hitting obstacles. When is the poor guy going to get a break? Now when Jane does the big reveal at the dance, we cheer that Hero finally gets to tell his family, and the author’s goal conflicting with the character’s goal has made a better story.

Old #2: The weekend. Hero attends a different church to avoid seeing his friends and family. Ouch! Again with the selfish and weak…

New #2: The unavoidable weekend. Hero is sent out-of-town for his job. Obviously, he won’t be attending church with his family, but it’s not his fault. Again, we get to root for Hero.

Example #2. In this case, Hero has been trying to find “Lady” who saved his life and then disappeared. Author goal: Keep the characters from realizing the other’s “secret identities” until the big reveal. Character goal: Find each other! Remember, the way we’re going to get the two goals to meet is not by aligning the character goals with the author’s or by letting them give up, but by yanking our poor characters off their chosen path and ramming them into obstacles until the only way left is the author’s way.

Old #3: The picture. Hero, who is a reporter, sees a picture on Heroine’s laptop that makes him realize she is probably Lady. When he says he wants to ask about “some picture,” (without mentioning Lady or the rescue), she tells him to go away, and he does. He’ll ask later. Wow, a reporter who gives up when his source isn’t cooperative? Since when? He gave up much too easily. Author goal has taken over at the expense of the story, and we no longer believe his goal is important.

New #3: The investigator. In this scenario, our intrepid reporter wants to actually tell Heroine which picture he’s talking about and ask if she is Lady. Remember, we’re going to FORCE Hero into the author’s path, despite his desire to follow his own goal. So, some ways to do this would be to have Heroine cut him off mid-sentence and walk away or tell him to mind his own business (she’s mad at him), or to have someone else interrupt with something that can’t wait, or to have his boss suddenly call with an urgent message, or… You get the idea. Keep the goal, create an obstacle! Now Hero can say to himself, “Well, if I can’t find out that way, I’ll put my reporter skills to work on the problem.” Jane will string Hero along for a while longer with more obstacles, while the reader chews on his/her fingernails. By the time we get an answer to the dilemma, we’ll be excited for it.

What examples (good or bad) have you found (or written)?

Happy writing,

M. C. Lee