General Writing, Uncategorized

Software for Fiction Writers

Judging by how often would-be writers ask what software to use, you might think their choice would make them a better writer. It won’t, of course. The only useful answer is to use whatever application with which you are comfortable. However, there are other considerations, such as stability, security, and price that you might want to consider.

Here are some of the popular choices, and what you should know about them:

MS Word

For many, MS Word has the advantage of being familiar. Many, too, already have a copy of it on their computer. However, Word is not designed for files of more than about thirty pages. Manuscripts of several hundred pages can crash in Word, risking corruption.

Nor should you use Word’s infamous master document feature, which allows you to create a mini-TOC of files so that you are never working with a single bulky file. Technical writers used to say that master documents in Word are always in one of two states: corrupted and about to be corrupted. I’ve seen no evidence the situation has improved in recent releases, and, anyway, the interface is awkward.

If you must use Word, the only sane way is to use one file per chapter. Any other approach risks disaster.

Google Docs

Google Docs has the advantage that files can be accessed on any computer. If you are one of the legions of users who treat word processors like a typewriter, it may be adequate for you — and it is convenient for adding comments when you critique. However, it barely comes with styles, let alone standard features like fields that can automate your work. Possibly, a careful choice of extensions would make Google Docs tolerable, but why make the effort when other choices are available, and do the job better?

However, if you do use Docs, preserve your privacy by uploading only encyrpted files. You should take the same precaution with online storage. A variation of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) can teach you to encrypt and explain the process.

OpenOffice & LibreOffice

Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both descendants of Both are free for the download, but LibreOffice is more streamlined and has more features. Both are far more stable than MS Word — I’ve loaded 900 page files into them without much problem, and never any corruption.

Like MS Word, OpenOffice and LibreOffice include a master document feature. However, unlike Word’s, their master document features are stable. Both also include a complete set of features to automate your work.

Scrivener and Its Alternatives

Scrivener is valued less for its word processing tools than its tools for organizing and outlining information for planning. It has numerous fans, although some admit they don’t use many of the features. Others balk at paying for the full version of the software, despite the fact that discount coupons are often available online.

If you still would rather not pay, you could use LibreOffice and develop templates that mimic most of Scrivener’s functions. You can also find free alternatives like Bibisco. Personally, I am cool towards this kind of software, finding that it creates an illusion of progress that is really busy work, but many dedicated outliners swear by it.

For me, a more practical solution solution might be to install a personal wiki. Wikis were originally designed for software developers to plan and collaborate, and support a wide variety of file formats in a single document, making them equally useful for writers. The greatest drawback is that their ever-changing content encourages chaos, but with an effort you can slow down the chaos by imposing some basic structure.

All these applications are easily available, so shop around before settling on one. If none of these suit you, there are numerous text editors that provide a minimal tool, with few distractions. In the end, it’s you, not the software, that matters.


The Last Words: How to End a Chapter

I admit, as a writer, I have a bit of a “thing” when it comes to writing endings. While overall I do not consider myself a perfectionist, the ending is something that I will re-do again and again — on first draft, mind — in order to get it it just perfect.  The final page, the final paragraph, right down to the final sentence, each need to pack not only an emotional impact, but they need to set the stage and make the reader eager to keep reading. There are many ways that a chapter can end, and depending on where you are in your overall narrative, you will find yourself using different techniques at different points in the chapter. If, like me, you sometimes find yourself struggling to end things, here are a few suggestions for writing the end of a chapter that I have picked up along the way.

Cliffhanger ending

Most readers find books that end on a cliffhanger to be irritating, particularly if they have a long wait in store for the next book in the series. However, ending a chapter on a cliffhanger can be a great way to keep the reader interested. The advantages are obvious — your reader needs to keep reading in order to find out what happens. However, if your chapters consistently end on cliffhangers you risk irritating your reader, who will soon catch onto your (let’s face it, rather cheap) trick. The other problem with a cliffhanger ending is that you do not necessarily end the narrative arc of the chapter, meaning that you will have to begin the next chapter where the first one left off. Personally, I prefer to treat each chapter like a short story, making sure that I see it through to the end. There can be exceptions to this rule, and at times a cliffhanger chapter is exactly what is needed for maximum tension, but use it sparingly.

Ambiguous ending

A close kin to the cliffhanger ending is the ambiguous ending. The ambiguous ending has a slight advantage over the cliffhanger ending in that the author can end ambiguously while also having wrapped up the narrative arc of the chapter. In one of my chapters of my current manuscript, at the end of all of the chapter’s action the main character has to have an conversation with her husband. She is going to tell him something that will not make him very happy, but rather than show the conversation, I end the chapter with the first words of the conversation. Later on, in the next chapter, we learn what his reaction had been. This isn’t exactly a cliffhanger — it is reasonably clear from context that the husband won’t like what the wife has to say. However, we leave on that slight note of ambiguity, leaving the reader curious about how everything ended up between the couple. You can create ambiguity by introducing a puzzling line of dialogue. I find the ambiguous ending to be a compromise between a cliffhanger and what I call a neat ending. You can wrap up the threads of the chapter, but still introduce question that needs to be answered next chapter.

Introduce a new conflict or question

Sometimes the very end of a chapter is a great place to introduce a new problem or conflict for your characters. In one of my early chapters, in the last few paragraphs my main character learns that her mother was murdered but she does not know who did it. This complicates things, obviously, for my character, and creates a mystery that must be solved. On a lower stakes note, in a later chapter, in the final sentence my main character invites her cousin to stay at her home, despite knowing that her husband strongly dislikes the cousin. This sets up a potential conflict between the husband and the cousin as well as between husband and wife. The conflict that you introduce does not have to be a high stakes game changer. It can be any kind of fly in the ointment, something that will vex your character in the coming chapters.

Introduce a new character or setting

While quite the same thing as introducing a new conflict or problem, introducing a new character or a new setting can have a similar effect. It creates a question in your reader’s mind: who is this person? How will they effect the story? What is this place? How will being here be different from being elsewhere. Aside from arrivals often being a good natural stopping point, arrivals which introduce a new setting give the reader something to anticipate. Ending which introduce a new character into the mix likewise can be intriguing to the reader. This can be a particularly effective way of introducing both love interests and antagonists, people who will change things for the main character in a big way. Introducing new elements at the end of the story draws attention to them, and signals importance, so do not use this technique on inconsequential characters or places. In one of my chapters my character meets her cousin, who she has not seen in more than a decade, at the end of the chapter. His appearance at the end of the chapter is a signal to the reader that this person is important, and will play a major role in the narrative. Introduce a new character at the end of a chapter and your reader will automatically take note.

The neat ending

This is the chapter that ends on a satisfying note. It completes the narrative arc of the chapter, and signifies a point in the narrative where all is well. The neat ending is more likely to be found in the first half of the story than the second. This could be the point in the story where the characters have what they think they want, when they are moments from losing everything. This could be the moment before everything changes, or, it could be a moment later in the narrative, building towards a happy ending. If your story involves romance, this could be the chapter ending where the characters are happy and together. This could be the moment when your characters defeat a major foe on the battlefield. The neat ending could also be simply the natural stopping point for those particular scenes. Maybe your characters are on a journey, and they’ve stopped and made camp for the night. That’s going to be a fairly natural place to stop a chapter, and if they get ambushed in the middle of the night, well, you’ve got the perfect beginning to the next chapter. A note of warning however: readers will get bored if every chapter ends with your character going to bed, and begins with them waking up. Once in awhile is alright, but vary things a bit.

The philosophical ending

Every chapter should have a central theme, the message that the chapter is conveying, in addition to the overall theme of the novel. Strengthening the theme of your chapter or novel is one of you duties as the author. You may not incorporate the theme into every sentence, and some chapters will have a clearer theme than others. Deeply thematic chapters often call for a philosophical ending in which the final words of the chapter reflect upon the theme in some way. I have a chapter in my manuscript that reflects upon the relationship between bravery and pride — what pride makes us do, why it is important to some, and why it is ultimately unimportant, and how true bravery often means giving up one’s pride. Towards the end of the chapter the narrative is mostly within the mind of the main character as she reflects upon what pride has cost her, and decides the truly brave people in her life are not the proudest ones. A chapter that comes to a sort of thematic conclusion can be very satisfying to read, and both gives us greater insight into the inner minds of the characters and adds overall depth to the narrative.

One last note about chapter endings

Remember, the way that you end the chapter will have a direct effect on the way that your next chapter starts. Starting or ending at the wrong place in the narrative can have a disastrous effect on the narrative. Occasionally, I have become so enamored with a final image or final line that I have forced myself to end a chapter at an inappropriate place, leaving unfinished action to carry over into the next chapter. This can create a thematic disconnect between the beginning of a chapter and the end. Overall, the main job of the author in crafting a chapter is to create narrative that is cohesive and satisfying to read. A disjointed chapter, or a chapter that seems to end too soon, too abruptly, or, on the other end, one that seems to drag on for too long, can disrupt the overall pacing of your novel in a major way, so choose your ending point with care.




Using Prompts for Character Development: An Experiment

For me, drafting a novel is only partly about getting words down. It’s also a chance to experiment with writing habits. Recently, for example, I experimented with using existing prompts, like photos or music CDs, to help create characters. It is a new technique for me, and I was curious what the results might be.

My usual approach is begin with the needs of a plot, and keep asking questions. What kind of character might fill the necessary role? What relevant back story does the new character have? And, in some ways, most important of all, what other roles might the character play so I don’t have to invent another one? Many of the answers only come as I write, sometimes after several rewrites. From my feedback, this technique can produce colorful characters, but it’s not quick or efficient. If an alternative technique could save time, I was ready to try it.

In this experiment, I wanted a love relation for a heroic figure. More – I wanted a lover who could stand up to him, and was maybe heroic herself. Immediately, I thought of a tentative character for my next novel attempt, an older woman, a widow, who is a major figure in the Sisters, a group of vigilante women who punish predatory and abusive men. I based this character on a publicity shot of folksinger June Tabor:

In this picture, Tabor has a “don’t mess with me” look. She looks sardonic, with a flare for the dramatic in her black. She may be in her sixties or thereabout, but she is someone who can take care of herself. The only difficulty is that she is thirty years too old for the character I want. I easily found pictures of a younger Tabor, but none of them had the same look (these are, after all publicity shots, and may have little connection with Tabor herself). So I set about the task of imagining the Tabor of the original photo as a younger woman.

Tabor herself has traces of a North Country accent, and I might have given my character the same voice. However, while I developed the character, I came across a documentary about the folksinger Kate Rusby. I was especially interested to learn that Rusby lives in a village near where my father grew up – and before I knew it, my character had a Yorkshire accent. Not a thick one – I wanted to have mercy on readers – but some of the cadence and a few of the words.

Having a good sense of what the character looked and sounded like, I went to work on her back story. While I already knew she had been in the militia, I wanted some heroic proportions in her. Inspiration came in the form of “Thomas the Rhymer,” a song I first heard at fourteen. The song tells of how Thomas of Ercildoune accompanies the Queen of Elfland to her realm. The song was my introduction to medieval ballads, and what has always fascinated me is that its hero was a historical figure. Go to Scotland, and people will show you the tree Thomas stood beneath when he met the Queen of Elfland, centuries ago.

During the trip to Elfland, Thomas is given “the tongue that will never lie,” although he begs the elf queen to take it back. Upon returning home, he becomes a prophet – and some of his alleged prophecies still exist. Perfect, I thought. With such a gift (or curse), my character would speak carefully. Like Cassandra of Troy, prophecy has warped her life, except that, instead of never being believed, my character would have suffered because she tried to keep a prophecy or two from coming true.

At this point, I had enough to start writing the character. When I completed the chapter in which she first appears, I was pleased with the result, and the first critique was reasonably positive. In terms of results, the experiment of finding prompts worked.

However in terms of efficiency, I am not so sure. I did not save any time, and if I had not already had a photo as a starting point, I could have spent much longer developing the character. More disturbingly, my critique partner warned me that I seemed to have become obsessed with the character, which was quite true for a few days, and in a way that couldn’t be justified by the character’s relatively minor role.

So, a mixed result overall. While I might use prompts if my usual plot-driven character development fails, I can’t see any reason to switch to it exclusively. You might have different results.


Pffft, I Could Totally Do That: Five Misconceptions About Writing

Have you ever told someone in your life that you’re a writer? Did you immediately regret it? As with any other profession, there is no lack of misconceptions about what it is like to be a writer. Some of these misconceptions are simply annoying, but others can be downright harmful. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions about life as a writer.

You’re rich and famous (and if you’re not, you will be soon)

In 2020 one sad truth is that for many people, average people with average educations, writers are only notable if they’re famous household names. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin are names that the average person over the age of say 20 would be able to recognize (even if they couldn’t come up with the title of one of their books). It should come as no surprise then, that most people have no real conception of the thousands upon thousands of full time writers who are not rich and famous, but who make modest incomes more comparable to that of a teacher or a nurse than that of a NFL player. This misconception seems harmless on first glance, but it does lead to some dangerous assumptions — such as the belief that pirating books only hurts the rich and that writers who object to piracy are greedy, rather than worried about how they might pay the rent. And if you’re considering writing a book as a fast track to fame and fortune, understand that you might have better luck just buying lotto tickets.

Writing isn’t a real job

Has a friend or a family member ever said something to you along the lines of “wow, it must be nice to not have to work!” Most non-writers imagine you sitting at your computer after a leisurely lie-in, a nice cup of coffee in hand, sitting down to a relaxing few hours at the keyboard, doing that a few days a week for a few months, and then boom, you’ve got a book. Very few people have any idea how much work goes into producing a novel — the multiple rounds of revisions, the re-writes, the editing, the frustrations of the query process. Then, if you are lucky enough to get an agent, comes more editing, sending your book out on submission, waiting anxiously and hoping someone buys your book. Once you have a book deal, then come the pressures of marketing, knowing that if your book doesn’t sell well you might not be given the chance to publish another. All in all the process of writing a book involves several years of intense and stressful work. Is it the same as an office job? A teaching job? No. Writers have more control over their own schedules, it is true, but they tend to have less control over their income, and a lot more uncertainty, especially when they are just starting out.

Everyone has at least one book in them

Tell someone you’re writing a book and there’s a good chance that person will tell you they’ve always wanted to write a novel too.  One of these days, they say, they’re going to do it. After all, don’t they say everyone has at least one book in them? Peek your head into any amateur Facebook writing group and you’ll see plenty of people in those groups who harbor big dreams of big book deals but have absolutely zero sense of how much skill, practice, talent, and hard work goes into writing a book. Perhaps because writing itself is a basic skill — we are all taught in grade school how to string words together to form sentences, even to write essays. “I got an A in English,” they might think, “how hard could it be?” Some of them may even have dabbled in fan fiction even, receiving accolades from fans so hungry for content that they’re willing to overlook the occasional lapse in voice or shifting POV. However, the truth is that writing isn’t easy, and not everyone can do it. Even if most educated people do understand the mechanics of writing, actually crafting a novel requires more than just an idea and the ability to write coherent sentences. A writer must understand how to create tension, how to craft believable dialogue, how to write interesting characters. Simply the act of actually completing a full length novel takes more patience than many people.

Ideas are a writer’s most important currency

This misconception seems to be particularly common among people who have had one good idea that they think would make a great book (or sometimes movie). Once I saw a wannabe writer unironically ask a group of fellow writers “how much do you think my idea is worth?” as if an idea alone has inherent value and that authors should be paying top dollar for such quality inspiration. I’ve seen amateur writers ask, in writing groups, “how do you all protect your ideas?” and other equally amateur writers suggest, in all seriousness, that you should guard your ideas tight, never let them see the light of day, lest someone steal them. These sorts of comments are a sure sign of someone who has no real understanding of what goes into making an idea into a book. Most writers will gladly tell you that the ideas are not the hard part. I have at least a dozen book ideas rambling around inside my head, and have no need to steal anyone else’s ideas. The ideas are easy — what’s difficult about writing is taking that idea and molding it into roughly 100,000 words with characters, description, dialogue, conflict, the works. In fact, give the same idea to two writers and the end result might be two entirely different books, one might be a Nobel prize winner, the other one garbage. The idea doesn’t make the book, the execution does.

All writers do is write

While it is true that the bulk of a writer’s job involves the physical act of putting words to the page, there is actually a lot more to writing than that. If I am writing historical fiction, for instance, I have to spend hours upon hours doing research, almost as if I were doing a dissertation for a PhD rather than writing a novel, and that’s before I ever write the first word. I will need to find pictures of the places I’m depicting, know the dates and timelines and people involved, and know all of the details about life in that era. If I get even one detail wrong, you better believe my readers will be ready to pounce: “This writer clearly didn’t do her research. Actually, in medieval France the type of head covering worn in 1345 would have been an escoffion and not a gable hood.” Don’t think readers are this petty? Read some of the reviews of popular historical fiction authors, and focus on the one and two star reviews. Historical accuracy will no doubt figure heavily. And research isn’t just for historical fiction writers — fantasy writers have to do research, as do contemporary writers, thriller writers, horror writers, and well, practically all writers. Say you’re writing a book set in a British boarding school, yet you’ve never attended a British boarding school yourself. Good writers don’t just “make things up,” they make sure that the details of their story are as realistic as possible, which requires a tremendous amount of preparation work.

There’s no doubt that writing is a very misunderstood profession, and one that, like many artistic pursuits, inspires at the same time both envy and derision.  The next time you find yourself making generalizations or assumptions about the profession of writing, keep these things in mind. The writers in your life will thank you for it.



Looking for a way around piracy

Like many writers, I am concerned about piracy. I hope to see my own novel released one day, and worry about whether piracy will cost me income. However, I don’t see any point in complaining about the problem. When you publish, whether traditionally or privately, you choose a method of distribution that has been plagued by piracy long before the Internet. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you run into the same problems as countless writers before you. Instead of complaining, you are probably better off exploring other distribution models. While you may not eliminate piracy, you might at least dodge any effects on your income.

Granted, if you are a new writer, finding that model is likely to be hard. Neil Gaiman can point out that in countries where he is most pirated, he also has the most sales, but first-time writers seem less likely to see the same benefits — their sales are small already, and so are most likely to be more affected by piracy than Gaiman’s. Piracy may help to build reputation, but that argument sounds too close to an invitation to write for the exposure, even should it prove true.

Still, if you want to avoid the losses due to piracy, look for a way around it. One place to look for alternatives is free and open source software (FOSS), which has shut down piracy by the simple expedience of giving software away for free. In fact, FOSS often allows others to alter the software for themselves. Instead of selling software, FOSS creators may depend on support from companies with the foresight to realize that limited cooperation with others — including competitors — is cheaper than reinventing everything themselves. Some companies even give the software away while selling support and custom development. The result has been wildly successful, so much so that if you use the Internet, you have used FOSS without knowing it.

I can vouch for the validity of the FOSS approach myself. In March 2016, a non-profit called Friends of Open Document gave me an advance to write Designing with LibreOffice. The book was released under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License, meaning that people could use it as they wanted, publishing their own version or even making it part of a larger work, so long as they gave me credit and released their changes under the same license. Because I had been paid in advance, the book was available as a free download, and people could tip or pay for a hardcopy. The result was over 30,000 downloads, and an income that was probably not that different than if I had published traditionally. And if I am not overjoyed to see people selling my book on Amazon, the license has also resulted in Chinese and French versions that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. Moreover, I ended up adequately compensated, so I really have no reason to complain.

A similar model has been tried by SF writer Cory Doctrow. Patreon, too, is full of writers who release their work in segments for supporters. And when I see how indie bands sell their own merchandise, I have to wonder why writers do not routinely do the same, selling t-shirts and other gear and special editions of their work. Alternatively, writers could imitate Dean Wesley Smith, who publishes Smith’s Monthly, a magazine of his own work.

Or why not enlist the power of crowdfunding? Used for technology, crowdfunding has helped numerous small companies launch successfully and create innovations. In fact, I am typing this blog on an ideal keyboard created with the help of crowdfunding. Some art books and comics are already using crowdfunding, but, so far, not much fiction.

Crowdfunding could even create a popup publisher, by analogy to the popup restaurants that appear briefly in an attempt to raise the reputation of an emerging chef or entrepreneur. Writers would be encouraged to submit their works, and contributors would have the right to vote on which work to publish. The writers would be paid up front, and any piracy would be irrelevant. As with my book, the writers would be adequately compensated regardless of any piracy.

Such efforts would not be easy. No doubt, many would fail, because what works is still mostly unknown. Still, trying them seems better than complaining. Sure, piracy is annoying. Personal financial loss always is. However, short of finding a way to eliminate piracy — which is unlikely to happen before the sun explodes — finding a way to minimize any effects from piracy is a more practical way to go.


Why I Won’t Pirate Books

As a leftist, I’m meant to take a stand against profit driven enterprises. Many people on my end of the political spectrum decry copyright law as inherently exploitative, keeping art and literature in the hands of the privileged class and denying the working class access to content. To some extent, this is true. We’ve all heard stories about giant movie studies going after small YouTube creators for using movie clips, or HBO suing individuals who downloaded one episode of Game of Thrones. When multi-billion dollar industries, and the corporations behind them, take on individuals, people who usually have limited resources with which to fight these companies for small copyright infractions, it is hard to side with the creators. Those of us who were downloading music on Napster in the early 00s remember how much ridicule Metallica endured for suing Napster and asking the company to ban users who downloaded Metallica’s music (which they did). When piracy is seen as a conflict between the big guy and the little guy, we tend to side with the little guy.

The problem with book piracy is that often the piracy of books is not about the little guy versus the big guy, it is about the little guy versus the other little guy. Authors may be under contract with publishers, who are indeed large companies with a lot of resources, but the authors themselves have little control over what these companies do with their money. Authors themselves, contrary to what many people think, are not rich. Those six figure advances that the public hears about are the exception, not the rule, and for every J.K. Rowling there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who struggle to make even the equivalent of minimum wage for their work. While you may think that by pirating a book you’re sticking it to a big corporation, a publisher like Random House or a bookseller like Barnes and Noble, you’re also directly impacting authors.  Every book that you download is a sale the author does not make, and money that the author does not earn. Are the large corporations impacted? Yes and no. Because large publishing companies publish thousands of books a year, including bestsellers guaranteed to sell regardless of whether or not pirated versions are available, downloading one pirated book is unlikely to make the same impact upon say, Random House, as it would upon the author of that book.

Nor is book piracy similar to the piracy of television shows or movies. If you download an episode of Game of Thrones you can rest assured that the directors, actors, and writers will be paid regardless (and paid well). Downloading an episode of a television show means that you did not pay for the subscription service or view the advertising that funds these shows. Still, these shows are massively successful and piracy does not generally jeopardize their existence.  Book sales operate on an entirely different premise. An author is paid an advance for a book, and must make the amount of that advance in sales before they see a penny in royalties. Most advances are modest, and rarely amount to more than what would be a year’s salary for most people, say $30,000-$50,000, even though books represent sometimes two or three years worth of work on the part of the writer. Sometimes advances are even less. Again, an author does not start earning royalties until their books have earned back the advance. At that point, the author earns money, or royalties, on every book sold.

Authors, by and large, do not have many other ways to make money aside from book sales. While bands might sell merchandise and play to packed stadiums, or sell the rights to their songs to movies, TV shows and films, writers, for the most part, must rely book sales to make money. There is the slight possibility that a writer might sell the television or movie rights, this doesn’t happen to all, or even most authors. Some authors like J.K. Rowling may create an entire intellectual property based upon their works, with toys, posters, and t-shirts, these authors represent a tiny minority of the whole. The vast majority of writers rely on book sales and the occasional paid appearance to earn a living.

Many people who complain about greedy authors who oppose piracy seem to imagine the author as a figure of immense privilege, when in fact writers often work several jobs in addition to writing because writing alone rarely pays the bills. And while being able to write at all certainly implies a degree of inherent privilege — an education, perhaps, enough time each day to set aside for writing — writers are not, by and large, wealthy people. They struggle to pay the rent. They’re paying off college loans. They’ve got kids to support. Writers are not sitting in castles counting their stacks of cash, they’re people, just like you and I. Authors are not trying to deprive people of reading material out of greed, they simply want to be properly compensated for work that represents years of time and effort.

While it can certainly be argued that the entire capitalist system of modern publication is something that needs to be revamped, leftist thought has never involved denying workers the right to make a living. Writers provide an essential service, creating stories that entertain, educate, and inspire us. If writers cannot make a living, these stories will cease to exist. And in our current society, if publishers deem certain books unprofitable, those authors will lose their contracts, those books will cease to be published. Writer Maggie Stiefvater most famously planted a fake pirated copy of the fourth book in her Raven Boys series after piracy took its toll on the sales of the third book. When would-be pirates downloaded the fourth book and found it incomplete (with a message at the end the portion regarding the impact of piracy), they were forced to purchase the book outright, and sales of that book far outpaced those of the third. When we download books illegally, not only do our favorite authors lose the ability to make a living, we may lose the ability to read these authors’ books at all.

So, you understand that authors are not rich, and you don’t want them to lose money, but you still can’t afford books. What can you do? In the year 2020, if you live in the English speaking world, there are a great number of ways to access books online without violating authors’ copyrights or interfering with their ability to make a living. If your town doesn’t have a good old fashioned brick and mortar library, or your library’s selection is limited, most libraries now allow for the borrowing of e-books. Libby, for instance, is an app that lets you connect to libraries all over the country and will give you access to potentially millions of e-books for free. You are not limited to simply one library either — you can sign into multiple libraries with one device. Again, Libby is entirely free (I’m not being paid to plug Libby, I promise, I am just a big fan!), and because libraries have contracts with publishers that grant them legal licenses for the books that are in their systems, authors get paid when you use the service. Aside from Libby there are services such as Scribd which are relatively low cost — a subscription to Scribd costs $9.99 a month and grants access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks. And of course, any books that are already in the public domain are freely available on a multitude of sites.

Perhaps one day society will be remade and artists will be supported by state funding or endowments for the arts, and books, artwork, movies, and music will all be available to everyone at no cost. Certainly writers and artists would be the first ones to rejoice if there were a way to ensure that  not only would they be fairly compensated for their work, their work could reach an even broader audience. In the meantime though, we do not yet live in that society. It is cruel to argue that writers should have no control over the products of their own labor. And while there are some writers today who are willing to write for the sake of it (I’m receiving no money for writing this blog, after all), and who will freely disseminate their work, it is unfair to expect writers to do this on a regular basis while maintaining consistent output and professional standards. If we think of authors as workers, writing as labor, and books as the fruits of that labor, then taking books away from the writers who created them and giving them nothing in return, is hardly a progressive stance. What’s even more shameful is treating authors as the enemy because they have the audacity to ask that people not pirate. Authors are simply people trying to make a living. Speak out against an unjust system, against publishers, Amazon, big box stores, but authors? All authors want is some small compensation for their labor, and if that makes them the enemy, then so is anyone else who refuses to work for free.


No, I Haven’t Written the Next King Lear

Many of us are currently under “shelter in place” orders, only allowed to leave our homes for supplies and essential work. Some of us are even quarantined, and not supposed to leave the house at all. It sounds, in theory, like a writers dream come true. After all, who among us hasn’t thought “imagine all the writing I could get done if I didn’t have to go to my day job?”

However, many of us aren’t getting much writing done. Twitter is full of writers who are stuck, unable to write, even under these seemingly “ideal conditions.” We are continually reminded that Shakespeare produced King Lear while holed up hiding from the plague, and feel guilty at being unable to do the same.

The problem is, these “ideal conditions” are actually anything but. These are uncertain times. Many of us have friends and loved ones who are ill, and even if we don’t, we are existing in a state of constant anxiety. It is hard for me to tear myself away from obsessively virus statistics, constantly refreshing Facebook, Twitter, and news sites, checking for new announcements. As of now, my state says we will return to school (where I work) on April 6th. I don’t see how that can possibly happen, but our state government refuses to make any long term plans. I am worried about the virus too. I am not technically part of the vulnerable group, many of my relatives are, including my mother, who lives with me.

Which is all to say, anxiety, worry, and uncertainty are not exactly the best conditions for creative output.  I was supposed to write this article on Sunday, but it has been hard for me to sit down and focus long enough to get it written. I know I am not the only one.

Creativity requires a particular mindset. Generally, writers work best when we’re not distracted by outside worries or pressures. Since writing takes a great deal of emotional energy, if your emotional energy is all used up worrying about the state of the world, about your loved ones’ health, about your job, or even how you’re going to survive being cooped up for another month or so, you’re unlikely to be at your creative best.

However, I want to write during this time, but paradoxically, in order to write, I have had to forgive myself for not writing. I cannot add disappointment with myself over being relatively nonproductive to my stressors at the moment. There is enough for us to worry about in March 2020, and we don’t need to add our inability to produce King Lear added to our worries. Give yourself permission to write, or not write, as you feel able.

For my own creative energy (and for my own mental health as well) I’ve also decided to make sure that I stay away from the news cycle and off of social media for a set period each day. No checking the news, no refreshing my Twitter feed, no turning on the television. I read a book, or watch a show, play with my pets, and sometimes I even try to write. We all need a break from obsessing over the increasingly depressing statistics about this pandemic. It is hard, I know. We’re experiencing something that most people reading this will not have experienced in living memory. The temptation to follow the news is greater for the newness of it all. It reminds me a bit of the post 9-11 days, when we the entire country was glued to our television sets, entirely unsure what was coming next. Eventually though, there comes a point when twenty four hour news cycle and the endless social media discourse only amplifies our anxieties. Give yourself permission to disconnect, even if it’s only for a few hours.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves and each other. Reach out and start a chat with someone if you’re feeling stressed out or overwhelmed. Pick up the phone and give that friend you haven’t spoken to in ages a call. Check up on your friends who you suspect might be having a hard time. Writers, by nature, tend to be sensitive people. We feel things deeply, which is what allows us to create moving stories that speak to our readers, but it also means that tragedies and crises like these hit us particularly hard.

If you have writers in your life, don’t pester them about why they haven’t written the next King Lear, ask them if they’re doing alright and lend an ear if they need someone to talk to. And if you’re a writer, remember, for every one of us who might be writing the next King Lear, there are many many more of us who are doing nothing of the sort. You are not alone.


Writing and Readiness: Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Share

Sharing your writing can be, perhaps, one of the most exhilarating and simultaneously terrifying parts of the entire writing process. Most of us seasoned writers have been there — the anxiety as your finger hovers over the send button, the way you refresh your email with a mixture of dread and anticipation, waiting for that feedback, the rush that only a compliment can bring, as well as the crushing sense of defeat that comes with a bad critique. As creators, most of us are driven to share our creations, no matter how terrifying that sharing may be. Therefore, what I am about to advise may seem counterintuitive to many writers, who, eager for feedback, are considering showing their work to others.

Creating something is a heady feeling, and it is natural, having created something, to desire some sort of recognition for your creation, a validation of your efforts. However, no matter how strong that impulse may be, don’t click send right away. First, ask yourself several questions.

First, you should ask is my writing ready to be viewed by others? That is, have I produced a clean draft that is relatively free of distracting errors, that makes sense, and can be read with relatively little background information or knowledge? Showing a potential reader or critique partner a draft that is overly rough is going to leave a poor first impression on the reader. Furthermore, while your draft of course doesn’t need to be perfect, if it is full of errors, has continuity issues, plot holes, or other issues that you should have been able to catch yourself, your reader will be distracted and tempted to comment on issues that are easy fixes versus commenting on your true areas of weakness.

Next, ask yourself, what do I hope to get out of sharing this manuscript at this stage? If what you want is to receive constructive criticism, to understand your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, then you’re on the right track. If your answer is validation, compliments, or encouragement, then think very carefully before sharing. If you are the kind of person who finds positive comments to be the best form of motivation, then you need to be very clear with your readers that you are only looking for motivation at this point, not criticism, even of the constructive sort. While I personally think there is limited value in this sort of reader interaction, I have known fanfic writers who find positive comments to be an almost addictive kind of positive reinforcement. However, the danger in receiving only positive feedback is that when you begin to receive honest, critical feedback, that feedback can be even more difficult to accept.

Which leads to another question you need to ask yourself, how will I react to negative criticism of my manuscript? Am I ready to hear negative feedback about something that I have invested considerable time, effort, and emotional energy into? As an editor, I have given well-meaning and gentle criticism that a writer has nevertheless described as “tearing apart” his work. I have known writers who have fallen into writing slumps, and even into depression, after receiving less than glowing feedback. Understand, once you send your manuscript to someone else or post it online, the kind of reactions you will get are entirely out of your control. It can be extremely disheartening when a piece that you are particularly proud of gets a harsh critique, and being disappointed is natural.

However, the ability to take on criticism and not take it as a personal attack is essential if you are going to be soliciting writing advice from others. An inability to do so does not mean you’ll never succeed as a writer, it means at this point in time sharing your writing isn’t a healthy choice for you personally. Be honest with yourself. Are you currently in the mental frame of mind to handle criticism? If not, it is fine to write simply for yourself — everything you write, no matter who sees it or doesn’t see it, is a step towards you becoming the writer you want to be.

Further, even if you know that mentally you could handle negative criticism, if writing is a relatively new endeavor, there may be limited value in receiving negative criticism, even constructive criticism. So ask yourself, am I ready to receive criticism at this point in my writing journey? New writers who receive too much advice too early on can easily become confused and frustrated. It is important before you start receiving critiques from others that you develop some writerly instincts of your own, and develop the ability to tell good advice, advice that will improve your manuscript, from advice that you can discard.

Receiving criticism is something every writer, in order to improve, must one day face. However, soliciting criticism is a big step, and each writer must take it when doing so will be most beneficial to the writer and the work. Taking this step at the wrong point in the writing process could in fact do more harm than good.


Characters in Search of a Story

Over the years I’ve heard many writers say something along the lines of “so I’ve got this idea for a story,” but then they follow it up with something like this. “See, it’s about this girl. She has magic that hasn’t been seen for generations. Her parents died when she was a little girl, and she’s been raised by her grandfather. Everyone in the village hates her, and so she’s become very independent. She falls in love with the son of a lord, but his parents disapprove of her.” Or, they’ll approach me with ten pages of detailed character sheets, like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.  In both scenarios my reply is usually something along the lines of “great, but where’s the story?”

This is a mistake far too many beginning writers make, confusing story with character and assuming that a strong character alone is enough to carry a story. Even a character-driven story needs a strong plot to move the action forward, and the best stories are not those in which you could plop any old character down within the story’s world and the story would still hit the same plot points. If your story is designed this way, then congratulations, you’ve created a video game, and not a novel. After all, in a video game, the ending is pre-determined. You may choose various characters to act out the scenarios, and you may make various decisions along the way, but ultimately, your character is carried along by the plot, and not the other way around. Good storytelling in a novel, however, requires characters who are intrinsically tied to their plots, and vice versa.

The classic example often used to demonstrate the essential link between characters and plot is Hamlet and Macbeth. If you put Macbeth in Hamlet’s place, the play ends in the first act, Claudius dead, the end. If you put Hamlet into Macbeth’s place, then Hamlet never would have rebelled in the first place. The events of each play are intrinsically tied to the characters who create them. Events happen as a result of character actions and decisions.

This is why stories in which characters lack agency are often so frustrating. We keep reading, hoping that the character will act upon his circumstances, will make decisions, will do something to show why this character is so essential to this story. After all, if a character lacks agency, and is simply pushed along by the plot, then substitute literally anyone else, and the result would be relatively similar. No matter how interesting a character is, if that character’s unique traits are not driving the story, then the reader’s own interest will eventually wane.

This is why, for all that character sheets can be a fun and entertaining way to spend an afternoon, focusing too much on building a character without building the plot to go along with that character, can be a mistake. These sorts of stories are usually easy to recognize. The writer often starts off with a full cast of characters. We are given their full backstories, we meet their friends, their families, we see them on the job, we see them at school, but the story moves at a glacial pace and for all that the author has created a (sometimes interesting!) character, they have not presented that character with a conflict, have not given that character a motivation, have not written a story for that character.

The other type of character mistake occurs when a writer creates a character, and creates a plot, but there is a disconnect between the two, as if the characters and the plot each developed entirely independent of each other. Usually this happens when a writer starts with a character and realizes belatedly that the character needs a story.  Take our magical girl with the dead parents, raised by her grandparents. Perhaps the writer says, well, we need a conflict, so let’s throw in a war. Someone awful invades her country, kills someone she loves. She’s magical, and she makes it her mission to stop this invasion. There we go, plot. Rolling your eyes yet? Does this sound generic and interchangeable? It should! This scenario is where we end up with a character that lacks agency, who is pushed along by the plot, rather than being the force driving the plot. No matter how well developed our characters are, if they are not connected to the plot, the conflict will seem shallow.

It is absolutely fine to start with a character, or to be better at creating characters than at thinking up plots. The mistake is to create a character , or even a whole slew of characters, and decide that from that point you are ready to start your novel. Once you have created your character, more than identifying minutiae of your character’s personality, you need to identify your character’s motivation. Character sheets might suggest you ask yourself what your character’s favorite breakfast cereal is, or whether your character is a cat person or dog person, but the real questions you must ask about your characters are “what does my character want?” and “who or what is stopping them from getting it?”

Take our magical girl. What is it that she’s always wanted? Acceptance? A family? Who is stopping her from being accepted? Her awful village and her boyfriend’s parents, right? So when the invaders come, is this perhaps her chance to prove herself? To win acceptance from her people? What about a family of her own — if she helps win this war, will her lover’s family accept her as his wife? And maybe she does win, but finds that is not enough to gain acceptance — what then? Or perhaps they do accept her, and she’s still not happy?  Maybe all along she didn’t accept herself either, and the conflict wasn’t between her and the village at all, but between her and her own self doubt? The story then is not at all about winning or not winning the war, it is about our magic girl struggling for acceptance and learning to accept herself, which is a much more interesting story (if still a bit cliched, forgive me, it’s an off the cuff example, not the result of actual novel planning) than a simple story of heroes and invaders.

Ultimately, character and plot are interconnected. The best stories take unique characters and put them in situations that are equally unique to that character. If your character lacks either a clear conflict or a clear connection to the story’s conflict, you’re bound to have a mediocre story, no matter how interesting the character is.

General Writing, Uncategorized

A Thesaurus for Scene Transitions

For years, I’ve maintained that the secret of writing well is understanding structure. Most people can learn to write a pithy statement or paragraph if they are willing to put in the effort, but developing a sense of how ideas fit together is much more difficult. Nor is learning helped by the fact that we have little analysis of structure and consequently can only talk about it with considerable difficulty.

Take scene transition in fiction. We can sometimes use analogies from movie making, but, being different media, both fiction and film have transitions that the other lacks.

Finally, after years of waiting for someone else to analyze scene transitions, I thought it was time to approach the task myself, studying several dozen of my favorite novelists and short story writers for examples. This is a list of tactics I have observed so far. There are almost certainly more.

I’ll start with the obvious:

1. Continued Narrative:
In the most common transition, the story simply continues. The main artistic choice is how much time elapses between scenes: A few minutes, so that what is saved is only a few sentences of narration about something mundane, such as walking from a house to the car? Or a much longer period of hours, days, or years?

2. Flashback: The second scene happens earlier than the first. Sometimes, the first scene introduces the second. Usually, the flashback scene is shorter than the first, because readers are apt to see a flashback as a digression from the main character.

3. Infodump: Giving background information can slow a story down. One way to minimize the slow-down is to take advantage of the boost in interest created by a new chapter or scene and begin the second scene with a few paragraphs of infodump before returning to the action.

4. Collage: A variation of the infodump first developed in John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. Short pieces of information, such as newspaper headlines or quotes from imaginary books are placed between scenes. The information informs either the previous scene or the next one, possibly both. Seemingly random, the pieces of the collage need to be carefully chosen and arranged to be effective.

5. Establishing shot: A variety of infodump in which the setting is described before anything else, even the characters. Victorian novelists made heavy use of establishing shots, but modern audiences have less patience with them, especially if they are longer than a few paragraphs.

6. Starting in the Middle (in media res): The second scene starts in the middle of the action, and what is happening is only gradually revealed This transition is handy for restoring readers’ interest – with any luck, they’ll wand to continue reading to know what’s going on.

7. Change of viewpoint: The transition also marks a change in viewpoint character.

8. Parallelism: One scene ends with a thought or image that is mirror, sometimes distorted, in the next scene. For example, one scene might end with knife chopping down at a character, and the next with another character using a knife to chop carrots.

9. Dramatic irony: What one character thinks or states in the first scene is found in the second to be incomplete, inaccurate, or wrong. This transition might be considered a variation on parallelism.

10. Comparison / Contrast: The opposite of parallelism. The second scene is markedly different or similar in setting, time of day, tone, or action. For instance, the first scene may be set at night with a lone character, while the second features multiple characters in the sunlight.

11. Cause and effect: The second scene happens because of the first. For example, because Hamlet doesn’t kill his uncle in Act 3, Scene 3, he is harsher to his mother in Act 3, Scene 4, which follows immediately afterward.

In addition, there are at least two transitions which connect a variety of shots:

12. Tracking shots: A series of scenes in which a character moves through a variety of settings or completes a task. For instance, the start of Fiddler on the Roof shows the milkman on his daily rounds, while he sings about his culture and the inhabitants of the village are introduced.

13. Panorama: A series of scenes in which each on gives a different perspective on the same event. Usually, the event is something complex, like a battle or a disaster. However, it can also be used with more subtlety. For instance, Paul Edwin Zimmer’s The Lost Prince begins with characters within a few miles of each other looking out on various parts of the same city. As the scenes progress, the sun sinks lower in the sky and finally sets.

The first three listed probably account for the structure of the majority of short stories and novels. Often, writers use the same types of transitions over and over. American fantasist Avram Davidson, whose later stories were usually intricately crafted, started nearly two-thirds of his scenes with an infodump, while science fiction writer John Brunner would use the collage to suggest the fast pace of the information age. Similarly, Shakespeare, whose plays continue to influence English-language fiction, was fond of contrasts, particularly in the first acts in which characters are being introduced. As these examples show, transitions can form a major part of any writer’s style.

That alone makes them worth a closer look. If we can identify the different types of transitions, we can talk about them with greater ease, and learn more about how to put a story together. If nothing else, on a practical level, when we are unsure how a story should continue, we can scan the possibilities and maybe see the way through – or, at least, some possibilities with which to experiment.