Typing, Print, Cursive

With news of the standard curriculum changing to no longer include cursive making the rounds, there have been a number of arguments surrounding the usefulness of teaching children to write in script. While many make the argument that it is an antiquated skill (and they possibly have a point, what with more and more documents being produced electronically) I have a much more personal connection to cursive than it seems many my age.

You see, when writing, I often prefer to write my first drafts out long hand. Sometimes I actually find it necessary (more than once on my most recent work in progress, I’ve only been able to write long hand while I just end up staring at the cursor on a word processor).

A sample of what nine out of ten notebooks in my house are filled with

When writing long hand, I also tend to solely write in cursive (print is reserved to mark what I intend to italicize when typing everything up). While I am able to write in both print and script quite legibly (I believe), I find writing in print much slower than writing in cursive (what with having to lift  your pen between each letter). The printing shown above was very deliberately my “nice” printing. In fact, if I try to print as quickly as I write in script, it ends up something more like this:

Why it also wobbles up and down, I don’t know.

Still legible, perhaps, but certainly not as pretty as cursive tries to sneak its way back in (I seem to be unable to separate the ‘h’ and ‘e’ in ‘the’ when writing in a hurry). As I tend to write whatever comes to me, I am thus not able to print quickly enough to keep up with my mind without the letters beginning to resemble chicken scratch (perhaps what those who knew me in middle school would remember as just my writing…)

But Jessica, you may be asking, if you don’t like printing, why don’t you just type? That’s what kids will likely find most useful in the future anyway. To which I say, fair question, rhetorical person. Typing likely will be a more important skill for children to learn in their lives–especially if their writing ventures tend to consist of school papers and emails.

As a writer, though, I still must make my case for writing longhand (and thus cursive) for a just a few reasons:

1. You think better writing longhand.

Seriously. There have been entire articles about it. While I don’t know if it is the reason (or only reason) I have been able to power through writer’s block with a pen when Microsoft Word fails me, there have been plenty studies that prove students learn better when writing things out by hand than with typing. To quote the article linked above:

“Writing stimulates a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on at the moment—something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront.

“Dr. Virginia Berniger, who studies reading and writing systems and their relationship to learning processes, found that children’s writing ability was consistently better (they wrote more, faster, and more complete sentences) when they used a pen rather than a keyboard…The difference, Berniger notes, may lie in the fact that with writing, you use your hand to form the letters (and connect them), thereby more actively engaging the brain in the process. Typing, on the other hand, involves just selecting letters by pressing identical-looking keys.”

Of course, some people are much more comfortable typing and that allows them to work more easily when not worrying about writing, but the very act of writing longhand engages the brain in ways typing does not, and that is helpful for many.

2. You can write on the go.

As smartphones and tablets become more and more common, pen and paper may begin to lose their advantage here, but for now, pen and paper wins out for easy writing on the go. You can get a small notebook from Office Depot for 99¢ (you aren’t going to get the cheapest tablet for that) and throw it in your purse without giving up much space, worrying about it running out of battery, or having to figure out how to type with any speed on a touch screen. Even lacking a notebook, you can almost always find a scrap of paper somewhere to scribble down ideas. There’s something poetic about starting a best seller on a napkin (like J.K. Rowling!) that just isn’t there trying to type out something on your smartphone before it dies.

3. It streamlines the editing process.

“But you’re just going to have to type it up anyway,” rhetorical question-asker argues. “Agents/publishers aren’t going to take handwritten manuscripts.” Well, yeah, but you also aren’t going to (hopefully) be sending in a rough draft of a work to an agent/publisher in the first place. Once you have finished your first draft, you then have the chance to start first-round edits as you type up what you have already written. Really hate this one scene? Rewrite it. Think that sentence could be better? Tweak it as you’re typing things up. Rearrange. Cut scenes. Add scenes. You can do it all while typing what you’ve written up. It’s all stuff you should be doing anyway.

4. You always have a backup .

Hopefully you already have a backup of your manuscript (or multiple), but in the event that the machines finally rise up and become our masters, it’s always comforting to know that there’s at least a draft of what you’ve done somewhere to work with rather than losing everything (or, perhaps more likely, should your laptop and external hard drive get stolen, it’s far less likely for a burglar to grab a stack of already-used notebooks on their way out). Can you lose a notebook? Of course. Could it be destroyed? Yep. But it isn’t going to be taken out by clicking on the wrong link one day or an airport scanner wiping your computer hard drive (latter one has happened to me in the past. Thank god for external hard drives).

5. You won’t get (as) distracted.

Ok, there’s really no limit in being able to find distractions when you don’t want to write (I really should reorganize this bookshelf…) but by writing on paper, you have one less potential time waster easily accessible. Sure, there are writing programs that allow you to write “full screen” these days, so you don’t see things popping up to distract you while you type, but really, it’s so much easier to hit that little escape button and check Facebook “just for a second” then it is when you’re writing in a notebook.

5. You have something to auction off when you’re rich and famous.

I know, I know, this one’s a bit wishful thinking…but what author really doesn’t want to think about their first drafts being auctioned off for big money once they’ve hit Stephen King levels of fame? Selling a flashdrive with an old draft of your Word Document just doesn’t have the same draw.

And so, there are my reasons for still writing longhand (beyond “it helps me write” and “I like it”). Do I begrudge schools for finding other skills than cursive more important these days? No, I completely understand the argument. Do I plan on teaching my children how to write in script all the same? If at all possible, you can bet on it.

The End?

Happy Halloween! And with the last day of October here, midnight means one thing–the start of NaNoWriMo.

Yeah, I’m the second one.

Now, I’ve never done a midnight kickoff party (probably as Halloween hasn’t fallen on a Friday or Saturday since I started participating), but all over the forums tell me there are novelists ready to head out for their first write-in as the clock hits midnight.

What the forums also tell me is that a number of plotters out there are feeling the crunch for figuring out the ending of the novel they’ve spent much of October outlining.

For those who aren’t familiar/haven’t heard me use the term before, NaNoWriMo tends to divide participants into one of two groups: the Plotters (who outline their plot before the start of NaNoWriMo to work off of) and the Pantsers (who “fly by the seat of their pants” and write whatever comes to them at the spur of the moment). Both for November and in general, I tend to be the latter. If I don’t have a good reason to work out some rough outline (namely it’s a part of a series) I tend to start writing whatever comes to me. So far it has served me pretty well.

So why, then, do I feel at all qualified to address the plotters out there about their style? Mostly because, even if you need everything else plotted out, I feel there is some merit in not knowing your ending. If your story doesn’t spring to life with the ending already in place in your mind, there is no need to stare at your outline worrying about how you can’t write until you know if the Main Character (MC) is going to die, if the final game will be won, or really anything that happens after your climax. Once you get to that point, where you’ve been with these characters for thousands of words, figured out the tone of the book, and seen how everything actually fits together–sometimes it suddenly makes sense.

And so, if you are furiously wracking your brain trying to come up with an ending before the stroke of midnight, relax. Sometimes outlines change as you are writing. Sometimes you just need all the pieces before the last one will fall into place. Just certainly don’t feel like you’re going to fail November if you can’t think of an ending right this second. NaNoWriMo is about being a little crazy, so go with the feeling and just start. Who knows, you might be like me and find it more interesting when you don’t know how the story will end before you get there.

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To learn more about NaNoWriMo, go to nanowrimo.org. Good luck to all participating! 

Writing Shakespeare

As prolific as Shakespeare has proven to be with his plays, most people at least have a passing familiarity with a few of his plays. With Baz Luhrmann and Kenneth Branagh out there, it’s even likely many have seen at least one of Shakespeare’s plays performed more or less with its original dialogue–even if some have guns in them.

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
(photo: Romeo+Juliet [1996])

While Shakespeare has been adapted and re-adapted in just about every setting possible at this point, the language is still a sticking point for many readers. This exposure to what sometimes is mistakenly referred to as “Old English” (Shakespeare wrote in “Early Modern English” much more understandable than true Old English), many times seem to give writers who wish to set a story in Tudor England the feeling that they need to break out the prithees and thous (and perhaps try to figure out how the heck to write in iambic pentameter) if they are going to be “accurate”.

The first time I received a question about how to properly do X-time period language in writing, I admit I was a bit confused. Having grown up on a steady diet of historical fiction as a child, I’d never considered having to make someone “sound” 16th century in a novel by going so far as to write in Early Modern English. It makes sense to some extent (you wouldn’t have someone in 1620’s Massachusetts saying “cool” or “what’s up”) but there is certainly a difference between refraining from using modern slang and trying to get your PhD in Renaissance Literature so you’re able to properly use Elizabethan phrasing.

Have your PhD and want to write in historically accurate language? Awesome, that sort of rocks. Just find the time period fascinating and want to write a story about it after doing non-PhD-level linguistics research? Don’t drive yourself crazy.

You see, the main reason Early Modern English finds itself questioned so much when it comes to this set up is that it is a version of English that is obviously different, but still possible to understand. Writing in it is not outside the realm of possibility, so some authors feel like a fraud not even trying.

But then, if you’re writing a book set in ancient Rome, do you have to write it in Latin? If your characters are from China, do you have to write in Chinese? Do you have to come up with an entirely new language for your aliens who would obviously not speak English on their home planet?

Of course not.

Creative fiction comes built in with a very handy tool for writers–suspension of disbelief. To a certain extent, the reader is willing to believe what you (the author) say is true simply because you say so. There are dragons in your world? Sure, let’s read about them. There’s no such thing as a smart phone? Sure, why not. You have to be careful to stay within the set rules of your universe and not strain/break that suspension of disbelief, but it is a very handy tool.

Language works the same way. Would someone born and raised in China likely speak English everywhere they go? No. Does that mean you can’t write that story until you become fluent in Chinese? Again, no. As we have been trained to do since before most of us would be able to even really think about it, suspension of disbelief allows the reader to assume that the novel is a modern-English translation of whatever your characters would likely be speaking. You can easily break this disbelief by throwing in too-modern language in historical pieces, but you by no means have to learn some different dialect just because you are writing historical fiction. And that really is for a few reasons.

1. Suspension of disbelief covers you.

As I said above, people aren’t going to condemn your WWII story for not being written in Polish when that’s your setting. They aren’t going to condemn you for not writing in Early-Modern English for a Tudor period piece. Just keep the modern slang out of it, and it is assumed your work is a “translation”.

2. You’re more than likely going to get something wrong and be more distracting.

Unless you are a linguistics protege/actually did get your PhD and are now fluent in the vocabulary and syntax of whatever time period you’re setting your story in, trying to make your characters sound Shakespearean is just going to make the dialogue stilted, and annoying to people who might be more familiar in the usage (that’s not how you use thou!) You will end up with better writing writing as you are comfortable.

3. It makes it easier for your audience to read.

As well-remembered as Shakespeare is, there are still plenty of people who just “don’t get it” and thus don’t especially like struggling through the Elizabethan language while attempting to follow along. Perhaps you know all the nuances, perhaps you don’t, you still have cut your possible readership down to people who understand Early-Modern English/don’t mind muddling through. Generally your sales will thank you not to do so.

And so, don’t worry too much about what your characters would actually speak when you’re writing, even when writing historical fiction. Worry about not throwing someone out of the time period altogether with modern slang. As long as you are careful about that, you’re in good shape.

(Note: When it comes to using a word that you feel might sound too “modern” I highly suggest looking at etymonline.com. An online etymological source, it has the historical usage of most words in its database. So can you use the word “crazy” to describe the man yelling about the world ending outside the Globe Theatre? Etymonline says if it’s after 1570, yes if you mean “diseased, sickly” or after 1610 to mean (the more modern usage) “of unsound mind, or behaving as so”).

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Guest Post – Marianne Sciucco: Book Signing 101

Today’s post comes to us from Marianne Sciucco, author of Blue Hydrangeasreleased earlier this year. Find out more about her below or follow her onFacebook or Twitter.

To see my author interview on The Kelworth Files up today click here.

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Book junkies everywhere know the thrill that comes when a beloved book is signed by its author, especially when the author signs it just for them.  The only thrill sweeter is when you are the author signing the book for a grateful reader.  Even in this world of e-publishing and e-commerce, when readers and authors can develop relationships online without ever meeting, the book signing event is alive and well.  Selling books hand to hand is time-consuming and slow, admittedly, but to interact with a reader face to face is priceless.

I recently published my first novel, Blue Hydrangeas, in paperback on September 11.  A week later, I was the featured author at a Harvest Festival at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, New York.  This venue stands on the site of the original Woodstock concert in 1969, and many consider it hallowed ground.  Thousands of people – locals, leaf peepers, and city folk – attend the Harvest Festivals.  I’d like to share with you what I learned from my first book signing ever.

How did a newbie author with few sales and little following procure such a plum selling spot?  Simple – I asked.  I knew the event, held every Sunday in September, sponsored a local author.  Weeks before, I sent an email to the organizer and told her a little about myself and the book, and next thing I knew I was on their schedule.  They provided me with a space in their craft tent where I worked elbow to elbow with jewelry makers, wood carvers, weavers, candle makers, and other artisans.  They also provided publicity about my book signing.  I saw it on their web site, in my local newspaper, and had people tell me they learned about my book on the radio and on the internet.  The advance notice went way beyond my expectations.  I had posted on my social media – facebook and Twitter – but their outreach had eclipsed mine, and brought in the crowd.  Lesson 1: Know who puts on such events in your community and ask to be included.  Many venues and events are looking for local authors.  Most will include you in their advertising.

As expected, the festival had a huge attendance and traffic in the craft tent was heavy and steady.  My husband, Lou, had accompanied me for moral support and help setting up my display table.  I had put together an assortment of items to help promote my book.  I framed an 8 x 10 photo of the book cover, bought a lovely framed print that read, “A true love story never ends,” gathered some blue hydrangeas in a Nantucket lightship basket, and, of course, placed a stack of books in the center of it all with a sign that read, “Meet the Author Today.”  I also had, on one end, information about the upcoming Alzheimer’s walk, and, on the other end, information about the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, the recipient of a portion of my book’s profits.  Scattered across the table were Hershey’s Dark Kisses, because experts say dark chocolate may ward off dementia.  It soon became apparent the table was cluttered and confusing, so we began to pare away the items that didn’t help my cause, which was to attract attention and readers for my book.  Lesson 2: Don’t try to accomplish too much.  Although my intentions were worthy, I needed to keep the focus on my book.  Once people realized I was an author with a book for sale they were able to either move on or engage with me, and not waste either of our time.  Of course, the chocolate remained.

Which brings us to Lesson 3: Engage your audience.  I know this is a hard thing for most people, especially authors who often work alone, but this is not a time to be shy.  People will not flock to your book table just because you’re there.  You need to reach out to them and entice them to come see what you have to offer.  I simply said, “Hi, I’m Marianne, the featured author today,” and those who were not readers or didn’t care for books simply smiled and walked by or ignored me.  The book people in the crowd were quick to come over, because book people love other book people and are always looking for something good to read.  This gave me the opportunity to pitch my book and draw them in.  For the first time, I had the opportunity to gauge the public’s reaction to my work.

Blue Hydrangeas is an Alzheimer’s love story, the tale of a pair of retired Cape Cod innkeepers struggling with the disease.  Alzheimer’s is a tender subject and touches so many lives.  Some people cried just talking about it, such as the woman who recounted the story of her good friend and the husband who cared for her with love and patience until the last day.  Then there was the woman who lost her dad to Alzheimer’s last year and had to walk away because the pain was still so raw she could not speak of it without choking up.  Others were curious about the book and didn’t hesitate to buy a copy, including the woman who lost her father years ago, yet still reads everything she can about Alzheimer’s to further understand what happened to him and what may happen to her and other family members she loves.  I was not sure if those who currently live with the disease would be interested in my story, but was surprised to sell a few copies to current caregivers.

The majority of my customers were middleaged women, avid readers, with a personal interest in either the disease or a good love story.  Some bought the book as a gift for someone they knew living with the disease.  I had the good fortune to sell a copy to a local newspaper columnist and his nurse wife, and an English teacher from my daughter’s high school that had lost his mother to Alzheimer’s a few years ago.  Lesson 4:  Don’t prejudge a possible book buyer.  We never know what passions or interests another person carries.  The little old lady with the tight perm might be hot for steamy romances while the jock may have a soft spot for sensitive love stories.  To prejudge is to lose a possible sale.

Finally, Lesson 5, the most uncomfortable to learn: If it’s an outdoor venue, pay attention to and heed the weather report.  This day was cold, cloudy, and blustery, just as the weatherman had predicted, but did we listen?  No, Lou and I were under dressed for the weather, and it was tough to keep smiling.  This in itself became a topic for conversation, an icebreaker of sorts that helped keep us busy talking about the book and making sales.

At the day’s end, we had sold and I had signed fourteen books.  I hear that’s a good amount, but, even if not, I consider the day a success.  I met many people.  I told them about my book.  I perfected my pitch.  I learned what to bring to a book-signing event.  I made my first sale, ever.  Best lesson: I experienced one of the perks of being an author.

Other suggestions for a successful book signing:

  • Make sure the venue offers shelter (a tent, indoors), a table and chairs.  If not, bring your own.
  • Take along a small cooler with snacks, drinks, and a meal.
  • Stay hydrated.  You will talk a lot and your throat will become dry.
  • Keep plenty of singles on hand to make change.  If possible, arrange to take credit cards.
  • If you’re outdoors in sunshine, wear a hat and use sunscreen.
  • Provide cards or bookmarks with information on how to buy your book for those who are not able to purchase that day.
  • Listen to your customers whether they buy or not.  They may remember you cared and buy the book next week.
  • Never get discouraged.  One single sale is more than you had before the event.

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Marianne

Marianne Sciucco is not a nurse who writes but a writer who happens to be a nurse, using her skills and experience to create stories that bear witness to the humanity in all of us.  A graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Regents College, she lives, works, and writes in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Find her book, Blue Hydrangeas, here, or find out more about her at her blogs, http://www.mariannesciucco.blogspot.comhttp://www.MyTOSLife.blogspot.com, or http://www.the-reading-writer.blogspot.com. She can be followed on Facebook at facebook.com/marianne.sciucco.1 and on Twitter @MarianneSciucco.

Guest Post – Bernadette Marie: Why I Became a Publisher

Today’s post comes to us from Bernadette Marie, Romance Author and founder of 5 Prince Publishing. Learn more about her here

Regular posts will resume Monday. In the meantime, you can also read my “Author Spotlight” Interview on World Lit Cafe live today here

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There are always ways to get to where you want to go. Look at an Internet map. Plug in your destination and you will get multiple routes. You chose the one best for you. Becoming a publisher was the best for me.

Let’s start with why I even bothered.

I did my foot work. I put in my time. I sent queries (and I’d done so since I was 16 years old.) I pitched, took classes, had the critique partners…and so on and so on. And like many aspiring authors I was shot down often.

I take everything as learning experience! A “no” is just a stepping stone to the next level. The hardest part knowing what you’re supposed to change to get better.

Self-promotion has always come easy for me. So I began to do so as soon as I decided I was a serious author. I was approached by a publisher who wanted me. What a thrill! Well, let me get that out of the way…publishers do not seek out authors. Authors seek out publishers. Needless to say it was a bad business move.

After years of basically having my books held hostage and no royalties paid, I had to move on. With my experience as an entrepreneur I knew I could do this myself. I was right.

The purpose of 5 Prince Publishing was to give me an actual business to publish under. Yes, in 2011, the independent publisher and author was still not a fully accepted method of publishing. Here we sit in 2013 and the format is the way to go.

What I quickly found out was authors wanted to embrace the smaller houses and have more control over their work.

I certainly wasn’t ready or thinking of publishing others. However, authors didn’t want to hear that. They liked my format for my business and they wanted me to publish them. So I began to accept other authors.

Taking my business seriously, as I was doing, to be a 5 Prince Publishing author, you had to be willing to have an understanding of how small my company was, work with me through the growing pains, and of course you had to write a good book.

I made some mistakes. I helped some friends and that didn’t go so well. Now I don’t accept the books, someone else with a fresh look at it does that. I have a great team of editors and line editors and the submissions just fly in. Our cover artist is amazing. Our authors interactive in the big picture, understanding that every little it helps when you help each other.

In January 2014 5 Prince Publishing will turn three years old and will have over 60 titles in its catalog. I can’t say I ever saw it coming. We have multiple bestselling authors and revenue grows as we continue to learn this new frontier of publishing.

5 Prince Publishing

Click to find more about 5 Prince Publishing

Wishlists and Trends

Last week, agents (and publishers) from all over posted to Twitter with types of stories they were currently looking for using the hashtag “#MSWL” (Manuscript Wishlist). A great (and very helpful) idea to help authors try to connect with agents/publishers who might be interested in the type of story they had written, it also turned out to be rather disheartening for authors who scrolled through not finding a single agent looking anything like their novels. Some accounts even went so far as to post things along the lines of, “I’m swamped with X, NO MORE STORIES WITH X.”

Pretty much there’s no way to react to that other than, “Ouch, harsh.”

So what do you do if you’re grouped in with the great “X” no agent seems to want? Scrap the novel you spent however long on and start on something it seems agents actually want? No and no.

The first thing all authors have to remember is publishing is a business. Our novels are our babies. Something creative that we see (most of the time) as great/worthy of being read. Publishers, sadly, don’t look at manuscripts with an eye towards what they think the world should read, they look at manuscripts trying to find something that will make them money. If that means thirty-thousand vampire novels or the same generic love story over and over again, that’s what they are going to pick up. Since agents only get paid when they sell your story to a publisher (or at least should only get paid when they sell your manuscript, if not get a new agent) they need to look for things they think publishers will think are going to sell. This is not to say publishers are some faceless, greedy, corrupt organizations–most people get into publishing because they love books–it’s simply if they can’t sell what they publish, everyone’s paycheck is going to bounce and they’ll soon be out of a job.

And so agents/publishers often end up buying on trends. A couple years back vampires were hot. Judging on new books I know are coming out/what many agents seemed to mention in #MSWL, time travel is the next thing on the rise (as far as fantasy goes).  Obviously these aren’t the only kind of stories that will be published during the life of the trend, but if they are what publishers are finding sell, they’re going to be easier to get published.

So you should set your other novel aside and get to work on a time travel novel, right?

Again…no. The tricky thing with trends is that they’re fleeting. They don’t all last the same amount of time, but each one always hits a point where it starts dying off and publishers stop buying them as much (if at all, depending on how saturated the market gets). And publishing takes time. First you have to write the book. Then you have to edit it. Then you have to make sure it’s polished. Then you have to submit it. An agent might take a couple of months to get back to you and ask for a full manuscript. Then they might take another month to let you know if they decide to take it. Then they may want to work with you to polish it even more. Even if you get through all of this and get to start shopping your manuscript while still at the height of a trend…you’re already too late. It’s taken you several months at this point after however long it took you to write the darn book in the first place, and it will take at least another year for it to come out (the publisher will send it through several rounds of edits, it has to go to layout, a cover has to be designed, you have to pre-market…publishing is a slow, slow beast). If publishers only start looking at your manuscript at the peak of the trend, they will probably assume the trend will be dying by the time your book gets out, and will be just as likely to pass on it as any other book at that point. Following the trend hasn’t given you quite the edge you were looking for.

So the only way to capitalize on a trend is to already have a completed book ready to shop when a trend hits. And since there’s no way to know when a trend is going to hit, what good does that do you? It just seems like dumb luck whether or not you have written a book that ends up being “on trend”.

And yes, yes it is. Like much else in publishing, hitting a trend or not is mostly just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

So why even bring this up? Just to be more depressing?

No, to make the simple point: Don’t force yourself to write a story just because it fits whatever’s big at the moment. Maybe you want to write a time travel story. Great, then go for it. If it’s a plot that interests you, you might do something amazing with it. If you’re only trying to capitalize on a trend, however, you’re likely to be disappointed. You forced yourself to write something you only sort of wanted just because it would sell–and now no one wants it because you’re too late to the party. Trying to find an agent and publisher can be frustrating enough as it is. No need to add to that frustration by making yourself miserable during the fun part (actually writing the thing).

And so, I think a tip @KMWeiland posted earlier today on Twitter fits the moral of the story perfectly:

“Don’t worry about what the world considers the perfect novel. Write your perfect novel, and let the world come to you.”

Who knows? Maybe by the time you’re finished, you just might catch the next trend.

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Character Flaws

A little while back, I wrote a post about Mary Sues. For those who are not yet aware of this term, TV Tropes gives a pretty good definition:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

“She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series. (See Common Mary Sue Traits for more detail on any of these cliches.)

Mary Sues as a whole are dreaded in writing communities. There are litmus tests all over the place for people to test whether or not their character is one, people debate whether or not characters X and Y are Mary Sues (or their male equivalent, the Gary Stu or Marty Stu), and I don’t believe that’s going to go away any time soon.

You see, one of the reasons Mary Sue/Gary Stu are so dreaded by writers is because they are just so common. I have jokingly called being an author “multiple-personalities for control freaks” Perhaps we authors don’t actually have multiple personalities, but we do have complete control over a world when we’re writing. And that can go to your head a little sometimes. Especially when you’re just starting out.

Of course, building well-developed, non-Sue characters is something that you learn to do as you get better at writing (writing is a skill, after all, the more you do it, the better you get). But there is one way I often see authors (especially new authors) trying to stay away from Mary Sues that I don’t believe works 99 times out of 100. The “traits and flaws” list.

Before, I talked about how often times Mary Sues become Mary Sues because of how the world reacts around them. To be interesting, characters as a whole should react in ways that are realistic to realistic situations happening around them. The world should not bend its rules for them (anybody else would be expelled for this, but you’re special, so…on your way) and other characters shouldn’t change dramatically in response to them (Well, I’ve been an evil, misogynistic bas***d this entire book, but you are so special, and logical, and sweet, and [X characteristic] you have melted my heart in one well-done diatribe and I now see the error of my ways!) The world shaping itself around the character is part of what makes Sues so annoying.

Another part is how perfect Sues tend to be.

Everybody has flaws. It’s part of what makes us human. When you have a character that doesn’t, it makes them naturally unrealistic, and generally unlikable (especially when they then spend half the book complaining about things that aren’t flaws being awful for them: “I wish I weren’t so much prettier and more popular than the other girls…it’s so hard being me…”) So, you’re worried you have a Mary Sue (or someone told you they’re Sue-ish) what’s the logical thing to do? Give them flaws of course.

And so more than once, I’ve come across posts like this:

Is my character a Mary Sue?

She is intelligent/clever, funny, witty, friendly, adventurous yet responsible, free-spirited, optimistic, talkative, creative/artistic, and basically talented. For faults, she’s a non-domestic woman in the time where a  woman’s job was to be at home, and maybe she is intolerant towards people who are slower than her in brain power.

Now, always the answer to “Is my character a Mary Sue” almost always is ,”depends how you use her.” But in this situation, my Mary Sue sensors are seriously going. For one, look at how many positive traits there are (intelligent, funny, optimistic…). Then look at the “faults”. One basically boils down to “free-spirited and people are down on her for it” (not a character flaw as much as a situation). The other could be a flaw, but prefaced by “maybe” it does not seem overly likely this flaw will be general, but just pop out as a token “flaw” to prove that the character isn’t perfect. It’s much like making a character’s flaw be “clumsiness” tends to boil down to, “Look, she isn’t perfect! She just tripped and…awww, look how cute she is with all her clumsiness. It just makes people love her more!”

And so writing out “Good Traits” vs. “Flaws” lists don’t do much to help you with a building a well-rounded character. A character, like a person, is a personality that is made up of a bunch of traits, but is not only those traits. It is not important to balance “one good trait for one bad trait” in each of your characters, it’s important to really think about their traits as one larger personality. As one of the best pieces of advice I have seen in the NaNoWriMo forums lately  puts it:

Usually, a person’s negative traits are the flip-side of their positives. For example, A person who’s unflinchingly honest may be tactless and over-blunt. A person who’s super dependable, who sees every task through to completion, may also be a person who doesn’t know how to admit he’s in over his head on some overambitious project.

“Your character is free-spirited and creative, among other things. What is the flip-side of that? Might your character tend to be impractical or a bit idealistic (naive) at times? And (this is a really important point) what are the consequences of being impractical, idealistic, or naive? How does this affect her actions, the other characters, and the development of the plot?

“If you can relate your character’s imperfections to her good qualities, and if  you can make her imperfections matter in some meaningful way, you will be well on your way to avoiding a Mary Sue.

So, don’t worry yourself with “Good trait, bad trait” lists. Consider the character’s personality, and what that means to how they relate to the world (rather than how the world relates to them) you’ll be much better off than trying to decide whether or not your character is well-balanced by “here are her good traits, here are her flaws.”

You can’t write that!

News Alert: The Bleeding Crowd is coming out August 27th, for those interested, from Melange Books. In the mean time, you can find my short story, In a Handbasket, available for free here through Boxfire Press. Please enjoy!

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A common theme I have been seeing on my favorite haunt, the NaNoWriMo forums, lately, are questions about what you are and are not allowed to write. The first time I saw this question, I was a little surprised, but now that I’ve seen it more than once, I figured I would take the chance to cover it here.

While the NaNoWriMo site came down for repairs before I could find the original thread (literally asking what you are and are not allowed to write), but today’s post which sparked this post includes this line:

But since a character in my novel is a rapist (and yes, this is essential to the plot and the ending) there are some rape scenes…I heard that you can’t actually show the act happening (I think that’s a bit weird, considering how other acts of violence are considered totally fine) but whatever, it’s not that important.”

Ok, rape is a touchy subject, I don’t think anyone is going to argue it isn’t (especially not after all of the news stories out in the past couple of days). There are many, many people who have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives (men and women) and there are several more who don’t care to read about things such as rape in their novels/short stories/etc. But does that mean you can’t write about it.

Honestly, my first reaction when reading that post was, “Where did you hear that you can’t write/show a rape happening in your story?” Part of me just really wanted to know if it was a passing comment the poster had picked up and internalized, or if someone in a creative writing class was teaching there are certain things that you can and can’t write about. Because honestly, when it comes to creative writing, there is very little you can’t write about.

This advice might be a little different in countries that are known to censor writing (there are a few out there where less-than-complementary writing about the government can end up with the writer in prison, I believe) but at least in the United States (and any other country with no state-sponsored censorship), the list of what you can’t write is pretty short:

1. You can’t plagiarise. That is, if someone has written something before you, you can’t take it word-for-word and call it your own. At least not without getting sued (same goes for things under copyright you haven’t gotten permission to use, even with proper credit given).

2. Libel. You can’t present something detrimental to someone’s character/life as true that is not. (This is more relevant in journalistic writing, but basically don’t write that your neighbor likes to kill people in his spare time and act like it’s true when it’s not [if it is true, you can write it, but please, call the police first]).

3. Child Pornography (if you’re in Australia or Canada). Both countries have laws banning cartoon, manga, or written child pornography. Outside of those countries, it isn’t illegal (though it is still rather icky, just saying).

And, well, that’s about it. There are a couple more things that aren’t protected under freedom of speech/the press that the Supreme Court has ruled on, but if you’re writing fiction, it more than likely doesn’t apply to you.

The long and the short of it is, there is no morality police who is going to swoop down on you for writing something that could be offensive. We don’t live in a police state. There is no Hays Code that prohibits, rape, drug use, swearing, graphic sex, blasphemy, or any other topic from being put into print. If you are ok writing it, you’re more than allowed to put it down on paper.

This does not mean, however, that people are required to give you a platform to distribute it. While you are allowed to write about something many people might find offensive/disgusting/reprehensible, publishers/distributors are more than allowed to not publish/distribute it on their site.

For example, for romance/erotica publishers, you will often find notices such as this on their submission page: “We  do not accept: scatological stories, incest/twincest, sexual content  involving anyone under the age of eighteen, snuff, rape or bestiality.

You are more that allowed to write something incestual, you may even be incredible popular with it in your story (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin), but that doesn’t mean you can demand that someone publish your book just because you wrote it.

Far too often, I come across someone who has had a post removed from a forum online, and they start railing about how the site is violating their First Amendment rights. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, A private company/person/other private entity cannot infringe on any of your constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights protects you from the government. The government isn’t allowed to take down your blog. Someone hosting it for you, however, can. It’s their site, they can choose what they’d like to put out there. (Note that I don’t just say publishers, but distributors. Many right remember some controversy over Amazon.com pulling books and banning authors from selling on their site. If you violate their content guidelines, even as a self-published author, they have the right to remove you. You can read more about that here.)

So, can you write about touchy subjects? Sure. Should you? That’s a little trickier. Like everything with writing, it’s about trade offs. Think about what your goals are. Do you want to market to a wide audience/be able to pitch it to every publisher in your genre? Maybe you should second guess how detailed you’re going to be about that scene. You know the one I’m talking about. Are you writing a gritty, adult novel that will most likely find a home in a niche market? Have at it. If you’re willing to write it, no one is going to stop you.

And so, write what your story needs. Most likely the only thing limiting your writing is you.

Finding Time to Write

All right, all cards on the table, just writing the title for this blog felt a little hypocritical right now. Obviously I have not had a lot of time to write this blog as of late, and I have written maybe a paragraph of my own writing. Life just sometimes gets in the way. For me, recently, it’s been moving, a nasty bout of tonsilitis, going over edits for books coming out in the next few months, and work, but it really can be anything. Perhaps you really want to write, have a great idea, are ready to go…but your kids need to be taken to karate, and dinner needs to be made, and you just finished a 70-hour work week, and you really should walk the dog… I understand, believe me, I understand. There are hundreds of things in life that take up time, and with less than 170 hours in a week, that hour you spend in traffic each way to and from work can really start adding up.

So what do you when you don’t have the time to go to a writer’s retreat for a week, or even just spend the afternoon somewhere with a pen and paper and no interruptions?

1. Always carry pen and paper. This works best for those writers who like  handwriting over typing, but it works for just about any writer on the go. The last time I had a solid 40 minutes to write, I was sitting at a cafe waiting for a friend who had overslept our brunch date. While waiting for people who are late is never fun, while she was doing her best to get there, I had 40 minutes of finally just sitting and writing, because I had pen and paper in my bag. If you don’t have the ability to carry even a small notebook with you (small Moleskines or similar notepads are godsends for small bags/pockets) at least have a pen. In a scrape you can generally find something to write on, you just need to actually be able to write (after all, many great ideas have started written down on cocktail napkins and toilet paper...)

2. Make writer-friendly choices. With the new move, I have now sadly gone from walking to work every day to actually having to commute into the District. Luckily there are a few different ways I can get to work, the main ones being driving the entire way (about half an hour, depending on traffic) or driving to a Metro stop and metroing the rest of the way in (about forty minutes). While having the added benefit of being a little easier on my wallet, taking the Metro into work means that I have about half an hour on a train to sit and write rather than half an hour focusing on the road.

Now, I know that changing up a commute might not work for everyone. Maybe you live somewhere that doesn’t have available public transit, or you need your car with you, or taking public trans would change your commute from 15 minutes to 50 minutes…you definitely shouldn’t make your life harder while trying to find time to write, but try to fit writing in to times that would otherwise be busy. Maybe, if you drive an hour each way to work, you can get a recorder and dictate a story to yourself. Maybe, if you spend your child’s nap time watching television, you could try to write instead (or write while watching TV if you can multitask). Look at your day, and try to figure out if there are places where you’re just sitting waiting or “killing time”. It’s likely you could get some writing in at those points.

3. Schedule “Writing Time”. Routines can be a good thing when trying to find time for things. It’s sometimes easier to motivate yourself when you’ve gotten “Every Tuesday from 7 to 7:30 is writing time” in your head. It can also help if you’re the type of writer that needs an uninterrupted stretch of time to actually work out a scene (some people don’t work well with interruptions, it’s just what your writing style is like). Try to figure out if there’s a quiet night, or morning, or anything else where you can spend some time writing. Then set the time aside and actually do it. It doesn’t have to be hours on end, just try to give yourself half an hour Sunday morning, or Wednesday night, or whenever else you have the time and get some writing in.

4. Make it a group activity. If you have some writer (or want-to-be writer) friends, and trying to maintain a social life is part of what’s making it hard to find writing time, write-ins might be a great solution to get you some writing time. A NaNoWriMo staple, a write-in is basically what it sounds like, a bunch of writers get together somewhere all carting laptops or pen/paper and then spend however long they can stay alternating between writing and talking (when you need a writing break of course). Having other people around also has the added bonus of giving you a little more motivation to actually write (local cafes are often good places for write-ins, including those in bookstores. Starbucks and [my personal favorite] Panera Bread are also great choices for outlets and free wifi).

5. Remember your outside life is important too. Do you really just not have enough time to write even after all of that? Would you have to stop seeing friends, or doing something else that you love to fit in even a couple of words while on the train to work? Then don’t stress yourself. Writing will always be there, the rest of your life might not be. Allow yourself to take a break, and start writing again after you’ve finished wedding planning, or your kickball team’s season is done, or when that big project at work is done. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a life.

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NaNoWriMo and Me

Ok, it isn’t November, I’m aware, but there is at least still some life over at the NaNoWriMo Boards (I should know, I’m there pretty much at least once a day.) Even without the furious tapping of all of us NaNoWriMo participants typing away trying to reach 50,000 words by the end of the month, the organizers over at the Office of Letters and Light (OLL) are still hard at work keeping the site up and running until the next year. Something for which I am very grateful.

See, NaNoWriMo might have been one of the things that finally got me to buckle down and actually finish a novel (rather than getting distracted by a bright, new, shiny idea halfway through a manuscript) but it’s perhaps the forums that have been the most important part of NaNoWriMo to me.

The Braintrust that is the NaNoWriMo reference desk has answered more than a few questions for me while writing a story (and I’ve answered my fair share for other writers) because, really, how much Jello would it take to fill a swimming pool? I might not know, but it seems at least one or two WriMos do.

The All Ages Coffeehouse gives us all a spot to talk about writerly things.

Writing 101 answers all those tough grammatical questions for us (is it lay or lie?)

And Marketing and Self-Promotion, of course, gives all us writerly types a place to talk about our outside NaNoWriMo projects.

And those forums are up all year, helping us all even when we aren’t technically NaNoing.

For anyone who has ever wanted to try NaNoWriMo, or who did it this year but only goes to the site in November, I urge you all to come back and drop by the writing community that sticks around all year. (And donate if you’re able to.) We’re a very welcoming group. And I might not need NaNoWriMo to finish a novel anymore, but I fully admit to being a fangirl.