Research and Restructuring

Working out the details for a new story can be a time-consuming pain in the butt. That’s what makes the Internet so great: there’s a wealth of information out there to help you decide where your story should take place, what kind of weapon your antagonist should carry, or what is the perfect name for your main character’s best friend. During National Novel Writing Month time that information is compressed into a neat little bundle in the form of the “Reference Desk” forum on the NaNoWriMo website. On the Reference Desk, NaNo participants from all over the world help each other answer the tough questions, and give assistance and opinions based on their own personal experiences.

I haven’t made great use of the Reference Desk in the past because most of my NaNo novels took place in made-up worlds where I could write whatever I damn-well pleased to make my story make sense. This year, however, my novel idea takes place in the real world, and requires my main character to travel the world a bit. So off to the Reference Desk I went, to ask for help. What I was looking for was assistance in choosing a main location for my story. I wanted a place that was a little off the map, somewhere were things like cell phones and massive amounts of entertainment are more scarce, but also somewhere where the residents celebrate Halloween, or a similar creepy-stuff-abounds kind of holiday.

What I quickly determined from the replies I received was that there aren’t many places these days where my requirements make a lot of sense. A few people pointed out, for example, that even in less civilized areas, cell phones are abound, and that some of the least likely places actually have higher cellphone-per-capita numbers because they never caught up on land-line installations and instead skipped right to cell. As I continued to read through the replies from people more knowledgeable than me, scene ideas and plot holes ran through my mind, and I began to realize that there probably is no good location that will suit all my needs for this particular story. I had a moment of frustrated indignation just thinking about it.

And then I realized something. I realized that I’m a writer, dammit, and writers improvise. The world might not always conform to meet our needs, but we have the power to change the world.

All of a sudden I had a plethora of additional ideas fluttering through my mind. My story wouldn’t take place in the present, no…but in the near future, yes. And there would be a disaster of some kind – nothing that would completely destroy the planet, but would lessen the planet’s population and destroy many forms of present-time technology. It all began to come together. I could see how this would work, how it would enhance the story, and even how it would flesh out the background of the main character. The fellow writers who responded to my post couldn’t give me exactly what I’d been looking for, but they helped me realize that I can give myself exactly what I’m looking for, if I’m just willing to be a little more creative.

The take-away from this post is two-fold:

1. The writer community is huge and helpful. The Reference Desk at the NaNoWriMo website is not always active in the non-NaNo season, but you can always find fellow writers in places like the #MyWANA Twitter feed, critique sites like Critique Circle, and the multitude of writer blogs (like this one!). Point being, there is always assistance out there if you need it.

2. Writers are adaptable, and improvisation is often the mother of some of the best ideas. If the details of your story aren’t working out, reconsider them. What would need to happen in order to make the details work out? What do you have to do in order to make that thing happen? Now do it!

Writing has a lot of facets other than the literal sitting down and writing. Tons of research is (unfortunately) one of them, and adapting your story ideas as a result of that research is (unfortunately) another one. But neither has to be as horrible as they sound. Join the writer communities popping up everywhere, and the whole system will feel that much simpler.

Not to mention, significantly less lonely.

Are you a part of any writer communities? Why or why not? Have you ever recruited the help of others in working some of the details of your story? Did it help? Have you ever completely changed a story based on researched information? Please share!

The Golden Internet Rule

Yesterday on her blog Kristen Lamb spoke about the “three NEVERs” of social media. Without going into too much detail (you can check out her post if you really want to know…it’s a good one!), what the “three NEVERs” basically break down to are “don’t be a jerk to people on the internet because it could come back to bite you in the ass”.

It’s a good point, one that I thought could bear repeating, because so many people are so very, very bad for this. A lot of times it’s unintentional – people say terrible things in the heat of the moment, and social media makes it possible to express those terrible things immediately and to millions of people – but many and more times it’s just people being flat-out jackasses.

The anonymity of the internet gives people a false sense of security in being able to act like a jerk without consequences, but what most people fail to realize is that the internet isn’t as anonymous as it appears. If people really want to, they will track you down, and most of the time we make it very, very easy. How many of us have Facebook accounts, linked to Twitter accounts, linked to personal websites, linked to forum usernames, and so on and so on? And once something is on the internet, it’s pretty much there to stay. Just ask the plethora of celebrities that have tried to have unflattering images cleansed from the world wide web, only to have a billion and one more copies pop up in the blink of an eye.

As kids (I’m looking at you, know-it-all-teens) we can be forgiven a bit of stupidity…we think we know better, and later on we find out we’re wrong and (hopefully) smarten up a bit. But as adults, and professionals, this kind of bad behavior is unforgivable and just plain idiotic.

Recently an old schoolmate of mine posted a status update on Facebook. She’d done an interview on a prospective new hire for her employer, and afterwards went on Facebook to look up the interviewee, as many companies are wont to do these days. What she found was a scathing remark about how the prospective hire had apparently had to dumb down everything he said so the “moron” doing his interview could understand him. What do you think…did she hire him?

It’s a sad truth that people simply don’t think when posting their every thought and whim on the internet. They don’t take two seconds to think about the possible consequences of what they’re about to say. Everyone is guilty of this, even me, but some offenses are much worse than others.

I’ll give a personal example. Though I haven’t been the victim of many trolls or cruel internet japes in my day, I did come across one particular individual during the time I spent at the Critique Circle. This individual seemed to take a deep pleasure in writing scathing critiques of everything he came across. Nothing he read was good enough for him; everything was drivel, pretentious, blatent wish-fulfillment, and so on and so on. Nothing he said was constructive, he simply enjoyed telling everybody he came across how absolutely terrible their writing was in every way. The result? Very simple: no one would critique any of his work. On a site where the entire point is to upload your work and have people beta-read it, he’d ostrasized himself so that no one would touch anything he wrote with a (digital) fifty foot pole.

It all boils down to this: when you’re about to write a Facebook status update, Tweet something, or make a comment on someone’s blog or website, consider for a moment the impression you’re creating and the possible consequences you might incur. You wouldn’t tell an interviewer to their face that you think they’re a drooling moron, so why would you say it online where that same person could easily find it? You wouldn’t tell your editor or publisher that you think everything they do is crap, so why would you say the same thing to people who are supposed to be helping you become a better writer for free?

I’ve heard it said a million times, but rarely do most people seem to listen. None-the-less, I’ll say it again because it needs to be said:

If there’s someone you wouldn’t want reading it, don’t post it on the internet.

Have you ever said or done anything stupid on the internet that you later regretted? Have you ever been in a position to “reward” someone for being stupid on the internet? What are your thoughts on this lovely digital trend of ours? Please share!

Breaking Bad (Habits)

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

53. Breaking bad writing habits

Breaking any bad habit is a trial and a half. They say it takes doing something every day for 60 straight days to make it a habit, so inversely it takes 60 straight days of not doing something to stop it from being a habit.

Writing habits are a little different because they might not necessarily be something that you can address on a daily basis. For example, say your bad habit is that you tend to make all your female characters overly girl. You can’t really work on that on a daily basis because you might have days, weeks, or even months during which you don’t write any scenes that involve female characters.

I think the key to breaking a bad writing habit is to first admit that it is a bad habit, and then make a dedicated effort to acknowledge when you do them and immediately rectify it. For example, I’ve been told by a number of members on Critique Circle that I use too many adjectives in my writing. It took a while to train myself to recognize it, but I began stopping myself every time I felt the need to use an adjective somewhere that was not entirely necessary. I reassess my sentences as I’m writing them and rearrange words in order to avoid superfluous adjectives that gum up my writing. It’s a process for sure, but I believe that it is making my writing better, so it’s worth it. And that’s the real trick: in order to break a bad writing habit, you have to want to break a bad writing habit.

Caution: Avoid At All Costs

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

43. Mistakes to avoid in manuscripts

My three answers to this prompt are based on personal experience with what I’ve seen people do when submitting excerpts to be critiqued on Critique Circle. If you’re a writer and you’re reading this, feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments.

– One major thing I notice is that tons of people (at least when they’re looking for critiques) pass along pieces of their work that are drowning in spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors. This is a huge turnoff for anyone who is reading the piece, whether it be for critique, editing, or publishing purposes. I know that no one is perfect, definitely not myself, and that mistakes will be made, but when you’re reading a piece and you find ten spelling errors in the first half a dozen sentences, you begin to wonder if the piece was submitted to you by a five-year-old. Additionally, I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a half-decent grasp on grammar and punctuation, you might have to reconsider your field. Again, I know no one is perfect – I myself often feel that I’m putting in way too many commas while also feeling that every single one is justified – but if the person reading your piece is finding at least one mistake in every single sentence, you are absolutely not going to be taken seriously.

– Word abuse is a complaint I’ve come across many times, and I can definitely understand why. Have you ever read a book in which the author seemed obsessed with a few particular words or phrases and used them constantly to the point that it was both noticeable and annoying? I definitely have. It’s not something that any writer does on purpose (at least I don’t believe so), but sometimes there is just a word you enjoy and so it weasels its way into your work over and over again. I myself have a tendency to overuse the word “incredulous”. I don’t know why, but it seems to come up constantly and makes editing a nightmare as I struggle for different words to use to break up the bad habit.

– The dreaded Mary-Sue Effect, or more recently known as the Bella Swan Conundrum. If you’ve never heard of a Mary Sue, it’s a name given to characters who are unnaturally perfect, with no discernible flaws to speak of. These characters are written to be the ideal person, loved by everyone, someone who never makes mistakes and is naturally perfect at everything that matters. These types of characters have existed for a long time, but one of the new pop-culture-reference examples is Bella Swan from the Twilight Saga. Bella is not special in any way, other than for the fact that the psychic vampire Edward Cullen cannot read her mind. And yet, despite her decidedly common nature, she is portrayed as (to put it bluntly) the Center of the Universe. All the male characters love her, except for the ones who think her important enough to want to kill. She is constantly surrounded by danger, drama, and conflict, and she always comes out of it completely unscathed. She succeeds in everything she tries. This is not how a main character should be. Some readers love this kind of character because they like to imagine that they are that character…this is called wish fulfillment, and while it can serve it’s purpose, it is not good literature. Good characters should have flaws. They should make stupid mistakes and suffer for them. They should have to struggle for their successes, and they should have to deal with all the same issues that life throws at all of us. If you want to make a good character, make them real, not ideal.

Will you be my (critique) friend?

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

26. How to find a critique group or partner

This can be harder than it sounds. The problem, I think, is that lots of writers want someone to read and critique their work, but they don’t want to have to do anything in return. It’s not that we’re selfish people by nature or anything, it’s just that we’re very, very busy. How can we concentrate on our own manuscripts when we have to critique this story our crit-partner sent us? And lord forbid we have multiple crit-partners and have to deal with multiple story-swaps. Yikes!

So what seems to happen is that we’ll hunt someone down, we’ll think we’ve established a partnership, but then one or the other will start to slack off. Weeks or months will go by without a critique being passed along so that only one person is benefiting from the relationship, or even worse, both people slack off and no one is benefiting.

This is the reason I joined Critique Circle. It’s an online critique group with a bit of a twist. See, the way they keep everyone honest is that you need points in order to submit some of your own work, and the only way to get points is by critiquing someone’s work. You get 1 point for each critique you write, with additional points if the piece you critique is a particularly long one, and you need 3 points to submit something of your own. Submissions go up in week-long stints and if you want to submit more than one piece in a given week it will cost you 6 points for the additional submission. It actually works quite well. I believe I submitted 3 or 4 chapters of Nowhere to Hide before I took a break to actually, you know…finish the novel, and each of my submissions got 5 or more critiques, most of them very helpful. There will, of course, always be people who write quick and dirty critiques just to get the points, but that is why the site also has a rating system. You can rate and comment on critiques you are given. I’m not entirely clear on what happens with those ratings as I’ve never had to deal with it myself, but overall it’s a very good system that works well. So if you’re looking for a critique partner, you should definitely head on over!

The Trick is to Learn From Them

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

22. List the biggest mistakes you made in your first manuscript

For the purpose of this post, I am going to use Nowhere to Hide, my zombie apocalypse novel, because it is the only (non-fan-fiction) manuscript I’ve ever finished (minus the editing part, which is happening now). So, without further ado:

– I didn’t plan anything. While I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the planning type and that I tend to prefer just writing, I suspect that having a general layout (at the very least) would have significantly decreased the length of time it took me to finish this story.

– I wrote a prologue. I personally don’t see this as a ‘mistake’, exactly, but after having a number of people on Critique Circle tell me that the prologue was pointless and detracted from the story, I guess it was maybe a mistake. :\

– I started a “shout-out” naming convention, giving my characters last names of famous horror-guru authors/directors/etc, and then promptly forgot about following through with it once I hit the fourth character.

– Looking back at certain sections of the story, I see that I rushed through things that I didn’t find as interesting, but are actually fairly important parts of the overall narrative.

– I didn’t establish character stories. I’m sure this isn’t a necessity for everyone, but if there’s one aspect of the planning process that I, personally, should be doing, it’s creating character backgrounds ahead of time. I tend to just go with the flow, and more often than not I find myself writing my main character’s feelings or actions to reflect how I think I would feel or act, but that’s not really a smart way of doing things. Not all of my characters can have my exact personal thoughts and beliefs. That’s just foolish. What I really need to start doing is establishing my character’s lives and personalities before I presume to write about them.

I’m sure there’s more, but I don’t really have to bash myself all night long, do I? 🙂

Critique Coping

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

20. How to cope with a substantial critique or edit

Reading critiques or edit suggestions must be the worst part of being a writer. I don’t care who you are, no one enjoys being told that there’s something wrong with the thing they’ve spent so much of their time and effort creating. Your initial reaction is always going to be one of defense: “This idiot doesn’t know what they’re talking about! I’m right and they’re wrong, end of discussion!” Even if you’re mature and composed enough to realize that the person giving you the critique has a very good point, part of you will still want to argue, to fight and say that there’s nothing wrong with the way you wrote it.

For myself, the way to deal with a critique is by taking a deep breath, reading it through a couple of times, and trying to see what the reader didn’t say. That is, I put a lot of effort into trying to decide whether the reader is being harsh because they really want to help, or if they’re just being intentionally cruel; whether their ideas have merit, or if they’re letting personal opinions get in the way of sense; whether they genuinely want to help you make the story better, or if they’re just shooting out some generic nonsense to mask the fact that they barely read the story.

The sad fact is that while you can’t have the knee-jerk defensive reaction to critiques, you also can’t accept them as gospel. One thing I learned while hanging out at Critique Circle is that, yes, some readers are knowledgeable people who truly want to help you make your story be the best that it can be, while other people are just going to force their opinions on you under the guise of giving you “advice”. That’s why it’s a good idea to have multiple proof-readers. For example, there is a scene near the beginning of the action in “Nowhere to Hide” in which the main character strips off her pajama top and wraps it around her fist so that she doesn’t hurt herself while breaking a window. When I posted this scene for critique, one reader told me that the whole scene was pointless and “smacked of fetish”. I was hurt and confused when I read that because I didn’t feel that way at all, and I thought the scene made a lot of sense given the situation. I was just beginning to wonder if maybe I was being a little sensitive when half a dozen other critiques came in and almost all of them mentioned how much they loved that particular scene. If I hadn’t gotten those other critiques I may have changed the scene based on one person’s opinion, which would have been foolish.

So in conclusion, take critiques seriously, but not always to heart.