A few quick-ish and not-so-dirty tips for short stories, fanfictions, and other needs that suit your fancy
The eternal struggle of writers… now that I’ve written it, how do I come up with a title?
I’ve been writing and titling for over a decade, so I’m going to share my tips and tricks for title-coming-up-with.
Disclaimer: I am specifying this guide as for short stories (although this would apply to fanfiction too) because I do not have significant experience in titling novels (or screenplays or poetry or essays). My understanding from reading on the subject is that titling for novels has more pieces in play, such as genre-branding. Additionally, if you go through traditional publishing your much-sweated-over title could be changed along the way from industry and marketing people anyway.
Disclaimer disclaimer: I’m not saying these tips won’t be helpful -- in some measure -- in titling over things. I have used some of these titling methods for library programming, so there’s that.
Tip 1 - The Scan and Rip
Scan over your story and note any interesting word combos or turns of phrase, and rip it right on out of the text for your title.
My stories ‘Another Life,’ ‘Pit-Stop Existence,’ and ‘Castles at Night’ had their titles taken from the text of the story.
The benefit of this is you get to pull off that Hollywood ‘title drop’ in your story, even though the title drop has in fact been reversed engineered.
Another benefit is the title is in your own words, because you wrote it, and is likely to fit the theme and style and feel of your story.
The caveat to this is that it is possible to discover an interesting turn of phrase in your story that just does not work as a title for your story as a whole. Maybe it thematically implies a completely different tone or genre. Maybe it just does not work or mean the same thing out of context.
Maybe you can’t find any interesting turns of phrase in your story, and you weep at the genericness of your prose all night. No judgement.
Remember -- interesting word combos or turns of phrase. Not generic ones.
Tip 2 - The Brainstorm Explosion
Ever do brainstorming exercises in elementary or middle school where you were supposed to very quickly just come up with and write down ideas? Yeah, this is the idea here. Brainstorm free writing of potential titles.
Either type (if you type fast) or hand write. I’ve done both with success just depending on what I had available or where I had been working at the moment.
What you need to do is push aside all that perfectionism and anxiety about a getting a good title and just write down every title that comes to mind. Stupid titles. Generic titles. Titles that are already taken but would’ve worked so good if you had just gotten to it first. Variations on titles. Minute variations on titles. Minute like dropped and added articles, plurals, or changed tenses. Just all of the titles.
Man, I think I delete (when typed) or discard (when handwritten) my title brainstorming, so I can’t show you my process. I have not only used this to title short stories, but also to title a new re-ocurring library program I started at my job.
Listen, free writing and brainstorming are good ways to get past your internal editor that swats down ideas before you can even get them on to paper. Get them on to paper. Get the creative juices flowing. You will be surprised what you can come up with when you just let yourself.
After you’re done brainstorming, review for potential contenders. Although, honestly, in my experience, when you hit on a title that’s the right fit for your story, you just know it.
Tip 3 - One Word Titles are Dangerous
This is a cautionary tale. At one point, when you are struggling to derive a title for your masterpiece, you might think, “Stringing multiple words together is hard, so if I just choose one word for my title that will be easy.”
Woah, boy. Hold your horses.
Coordinating a lot of people to move a piano is difficult, yes. But imagine having to lift that piano all by yourself ... Is this metaphor making sense?
When you have a one word title, that title has to do a lot of heavy lifting.
And there is a lot of no-gos in the world of one word titles. No vague, broad words that label emotions or abstract concepts: Love, Death, Hope, Sadness, etc. No words that you can reasonably assume are overused or may be just as vague in implication because that have obvious symbolic value: Ashes, Night, etc.
A title should be specific to a story, but a one word title should be even more specific.
‘Seeds’ is the title of my Hades and Persephone retelling. If you aren’t familiar with this Greek myth, Pomegranate seeds play a major and myth-defining role.
Another one word titled short story I have is ‘Renaissance.’ As the story is about a character’s sort of ‘rebirth’ this thematically fits the story. Also, there are several artist characters in the story, so it doubly plays on that word in terms of its artistic connotations. ‘Renaissance’ is also a more particular, less common word than ‘Rebirth’ which is also too on the nose.
Interestingly, originally the story was titled ‘The Renaissance’ but the article at the beginning was eventually cut in one of the drafting stages, and I think it is a stronger title for it. (Nevermind that ‘the renaissance’ refers to a historical period.)
The takeaway lesson here is (and please, please take away something) is that if you go with a one word title, the word has to be specific and particular to the story in question, even more so than a multi word title has to be.
Tip 4 - Steal. *Cough* I mean, Reference.
Or as references are sometimes called in the literary world, use ‘allusions.’
You don’t want to use whole cart another title, or trademark, or catchphrase… However, there is a long history of titles being references to or lines from other pieces of literature. The Bible and Shakespeare have been been pulled from a lot.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner are titles taken from Shakespeare’s works. A Time to Kill by John Grisham and Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson are titles taken from the Bible. I hope you can see from the variety of types of books hear how allusion-titles can work for a variety of stories.
So, basically, this is the same advice as tip numero uno except instead of finding interesting turns of phrase from your own prose, you are finding it from someone else.
But your options aren’t limited to just literature. Consider idioms and localisms, or nonfiction quotes.
The reference does not have to be whole cart either. You can twist it, play with it, manipulate it, subvert it in a whole lot of ways to make it a better fit for your story. You might notice that a lot of comical television shows have episode titles that are plays on references or titles to other things. The Simpsons and Psych are two shows that do this that instantly (and without having to do any research) come to my mind.
For example, one of my working titles for a short story of mine was “Through the Aquarium Glass” which was a play on “Through the Looking Glass” (aka, the Alice in Wonderland sequel). The cadence of phrase would (hopefully) be familiar to the audience even if they did not immediately recognize it, and I also hoped (for those who did recognize it) it imparted the feeling of madness that was a theme running through both tales.
Tip 5 - Don’t Be Afraid of Long Titles
This is the opposite side of the coin of the other advice, tip3. Here I am telling you to channel your inner Fall Out Boy, and no be afraid of giving a story a longer or more wordy title.
I think people tend towards shorter, few word titles. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you can’t quiet come up with one that works, that is original and isn’t generic, well, open yourself up to longer.
One my most successful original short stories is titled ‘The Pawnshop of Intangible Things.’ It is only five words (It was six until I found out pawnshop is one word and not two), but it quite a mouthful of syllables. Any shorter version of the title like ‘The Pawnshop’ or ‘Intangible Things’ would not have as strongly conveyed what the story was about or its genre: a piece of Twilight Zone-y magical realism. ‘The Pawnshop’ could be any number of things set in a pawnshop. ‘Intangible Things’ sounds like a poem or piece of lyrical literary fiction. Having those two together, boom.
Conversational-style long titles is subgenre of the long title. This means words that you can imagine coming out of someone’s mouth. A little wordy but real. Not overly rot or poetic.
One story of mine I could just not come up with a title. I scanned and no turns off phrase seemed to hit the mark of what the story was as a larger entity. It was ultimately a story about characters heavily involved in toxic and unhealthy coping behaviors, so what came to mind was ‘everything wrong with me, and then some.’ This is ultimately what I went with because I wanted to post the story and was tired of waiting for a better title to come to mind. This will segue into my next tip momentarily...
The benefit of long titles is that they are more likely to be original than short titles because more words equals more variables, and more variables is more potential variety.
Tip 6 - Sometimes good enough is good enough.
A Meh Title is Better than No Title
No one wants to read your story called ‘Untitled,’ not even your mom. (Okay, maybe your mom.)
At the end of the day, you need to title your story if you plan on sharing it with the world in any which way. Literary magazines want your story to have a title. Agents and editors and publishers want your story to have a title even if they might change it down the line. Think you’re home free if you’re just writing something to post online for free perusal (whether fanfiction or original fiction)... There is plenty of stuff online to read for free. You need to distinguish your story.
You know what ‘Untitled’ looks like to a reader? That this author didn’t even care enough or put enough effort in to come up with a title. Why should I, the reader, care enough to give this story a shot?
A title is part of the polish and presentation, like proofreading and good formatting. Maybe you have a brilliant story, put if it is in one stream of consciousness-like blob instead of in paragraphs I ain’t reading it. Lack of titles causes the similar effect when I’m browsing a fanfiction website. I don’t even give that story a time of day, because if there is no title I don’t trust that the author put even passing time and care into the writing itself. Is that being unfair? Well, I don’t care.
If I’m done convincing you the importance of titles (and if you are reading this you probably already agree so… ) then time to get to the point.
Maybe you can’t find a title you love. A title that’s dazzling and original. A title that perfectly encapsulates the tone and theme of the story as well as hooking readers.
Sometimes -- or even most of the time -- that’s okay. Push over your perfectionist self. Sucker punch your internal editor. Perfection is impossible. Artistic endeavors have subjective standards. You are your hardest critic and need to get over yourself.
Use various tactics, like the tips above, to create a list of potential titles, and then pick the one that is good enough. After a few… days, weeks, months, etc... of caling and thinking of the story by that title it might very well grow on you.
“The Witch and the Runaway” was a unique submission experience for me in that I was accepted in the first and only publication I submitted to. That is that power of a perfect match. Briar’s Lit -- the online literary magazine which accepted and published my work -- is a publication for queer-themed fairy tales. And that is what I had written.
While I had only written this fairy tale back in October 2018 (this is quickest turn around from written to publication too), the inspiration is already a little fuzzy for me. I’m not sure if I ran across Briar’s Lit and its mission during my regular perusal of literary magazines and submission calls, and then this story sprung to me, or this story sprung to me and I fortuitously found Briar’s Lit. In truth, I think the two of them were more messily mingled together.
I think the inspiration and how it repurposes fairy tale (and Disney movie tropes) is evident. Take the princess who doesn’t want to be in an arranged marriage because she wants to marry for love, and chop off that ending and make it that she doesn’t want to get married at all. Add a crotchety but fundamentally good witch and some found family themes, and there you go.
To be honest, this story probably reveals a lot of myself and my worldview in an explicit way more than my other stories.
If you missed it or haven’t had a change to read it yet, check it out Here.
…and the philosophy behind her book limit.
(Not that she needs me to defend her.)
Wow, it’s like deja vu. A snippet of Kondo’s tidying advice has gone viral and a lot of people are reacting to -- from joking and memes to more serious responses -- without actually knowing the context or Kondo’s tidying philosophy that goes behind it.
A few years ago it was about only keeping things in your like that spark joy. Now it is her comment from her new Netflix show (or promoting her new Netflix show… I’m not sure of the source of the screenshot) about only owning thirty books.
Now look… I’m a librarian, a writer, a reader, and a booklover, and maybe if I hadn’t had a previous experience with Kondo’s work I would be reacting like the rest of the book-loving internet, but have had previous experience -- positive experience and an emotional emotion -- with her work. Needless to say, I’m a Kondo fan and I’m defensive and I’m going to get into it right here.
I have not watched any of her new Netflix show, but several years ago I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and, more importantly, used her methods to clean out my childhood bedroom. When I say childhood bedroom, this was the room I had lived in since I was a toddler through my mid-twenties. It had a closet I didn’t even go into, built in cabinets, shelves full of knick knacks collected over the years. I could never keep it organized and tidy, and I would often lose things in the mess that would take me a long time to find. I had a lifetime of stuff in there: toys, collectibles, magazine clippings on my favorite actors from various times in my adolescents and so on. Almost all had nostalgic memories attached.
Kondo’s method helped me sort through this childhood of accumulated stuff, pare it down, and get organized. Which is not as easy (or un-emotionally fraught) as it sounds.
Kondo’s method is built on a couple tenants.
The first is that the reason you can’t get organized and stay tidy is that you have too much stuff and you need to get rid of some of the stuff.
The second is that you get rid of stuff by categories (as opposed to a room by room process). In the book (and in her cleaning method when she works one-on-one in people’s homes), that starts with clothes, goes through several others (including books), and ends with sentimental items.
The third is that she uses an emotional gage for judging what items you should keep and discard. This is where the ‘sparks joy’ thing comes in that so many people make fun of or just don’t plan understand. She defines joy broadly, and honestly, it is not until you are going through the mountain of stuff you have that you realize how so much stuff that you keep is because of negative or neutral emotions. It’s obligation or guilt, because it was a gift, because you spent a lot of money on it, because you used to like it, because you really meant to get around to using it but never did, and so on and so forth.
Look, if you think ‘sparking joy’ is kooky, then you’ll think the part where Kondo suggests you thank each item you are getting rid for the joy it gave you in the past really kooky. Which I did think when I read it, but ended up being very useful in practice, because getting rid of your possessions can be very emotionally fraught it turns out. (Especially ones you that attached guilt to.)
Please note that Kondo, in broad strokes, is not one of those minimalist that usually ascribes numbers to the amount of this and that possessions you should have. The nature of sparking joy is very individual. We have different interests and tastes, so where on person may have a lot of… sports memorabilia that sparks joy, some others have none of that but have a lot of cooking supplies that spark joy, and someone else has a lot of, say, books.
Alright, books. We’re moving onto books.
Books is one of the categories Kondo has in her process of purging and tidying. I don’t recall -- although it has been several years since I read it -- Kondo giving that ‘30 book’ ideal in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. What I do remember her writing about winnowing down your books collection was this:
Imagine looking at a bookcase and it is just filled with books that you love. Imagine how good that would feel.
Seriously, just take that idea and seperate it for the rest of the conversation here for a second. Isn’t that a lovely image in your head? Doesn’t that fill you with an inner warmth?
Maybe you say you love every book in a 300 book collection, and maybe you do. I know I love more that thirty. But I also know that there are many on my shelves right now that I don’t.
Anyway, yes, I did purge a significant number of books from my collection, selling some via amazon and others at a new and used books store. (And then used the store credit to buy more books :P.) Many of them were books I had acquired at used books stores and had never read. Others were books I had acquired (as gifts or purchases) as a young person. I may or may not have read them in the past, but had no attachment to them in the present.
Did I keep more than thirty books? Yes. Could I purge that book collection I have built up again since then? Yes. Would it still be more than thirty books? Yes.
But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers may very well have more books that they L-O-V-E love than the average person. I know that between just a few book series that I do. But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers might like to remember than not everyone reads as much as they do or loves as many books, and that is totally okay. Thirty books might be a lot for some people and a little for others. Marie Kondo, who clearly greatest pleasure in life is tidying, may be part of that second group.
(And also, just because you don’t own a physical book doesn’t mean you aren’t reading. There are e-book and audio books people. People that use this thing called libraries that lets you borrow books. People that purchase books and then, once done, resell, give away, or donate.)
Sometimes I feel the booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers put a little too much stock into owning books for just the sake of owning them. I may be saying this as a perspective of a librarian who borrows most of the books I read (and then only buys the ones I love after reading… I rarely purchase a book before reading it unless it is in a series or from a beloved author). Maybe I say this as a person who has purged books via the Marie Kondo method and doesn’t regret it (it sure made moving easier a year later), and as a librarian because weeding (aka removing books from the library collection) is literally part of my regular job duties.
I suppose from the librarian perspective I believe that a book’s value is in its use. It is meant to be read and referenced, or to store important information, and even to be aesthetically appreciated. (I wouldn’t own multiple version of Lord of the Rings with different cover art if it wasn’t for aesthetic appreciation… And, yes, they all spark me some joy). A book isn’t sacred because it's a book. A books is important because it is useful. For information or pleasure or entertainment or artistic enlightenment.
I feel that a book stuffed in the back corner of a bookshelf that is unread, forgotten, and unwanted is not, well, fulfilling a book’s purpose. And maybe that same book could be filling its purpose on someone else’s shelves.
I guess I am one of the rare booklovers that thinks it is okay and even appropriate to purge and weed your personal book collection every so often, the same way you would purge your wardrobe or any other collections of stuff you have. Most people are going to have to purge it at one point anway. Books are heavy, take up a lot of space, and are difficult to move. So whenever you move house… Just think about it.
So before you make reactionary posts about Marie Kondo’s thirty book comment, please consider the following…
That it is not a dictate or a judgement. It is just part of her tidying philosophy.
That the 30 books is just a suggestion for the average person, but that numbered dictates are not really a cornerstone of her philosophy. The ‘joy’ is. If you have more books that give you joy, than more books for you. But many people hold onto books (and other possessions) for negative reasons.
That if you ever need to weed down a book collection (such as for moving) rather than just spring cleaning, that her practice might be a guiding light.
And that if you prefer maximalism to minimalist, then that is your right, your prerogative, and more power to you. Kondo is there for the people who are seeking to organize and tidy, and her first step is purging. If you’re not looking for organization tips, then this has nothing to do with you and your life. Let the water roll of your back and please don’t engage in internet, snobby, booklover elitism or condensation that makes all of us books nerds look bad.
Please and thank you.
P.S. - Kondo’s method for folding clothes and how to fit them in your bureau draws is life changing. If you are constantly digging through your drawers unable to find the thing you’re looking for, messing up all that folding you dig, or otherwise have overstuffed drawers… seriously, look it up. There are diagrams and youtube videos. If you disagree with everything else here, please just do yourself and your drawers a favor. It’s so great. I’m serious.
P.P.S. - I’m just really passionate about how Marie Kondo changed my life, okay?
My “New Year's Resolutions” for the last several years have revolved around the same topics. How much I’m going to write. What writing projects I’m going to finish. How many books I’m going to read. Improvements in diet. To stop biting my goshdarn nails.
Some I’m more successful at than others. I’m least successful at stopping the nail biting.
As you may or may not have heard before, you are more likely to achieve your goals if you come up with specific plans on how the achievement them and to make the goals measurable. So, I will not just be blogging my resolutions, but how I plan to make it so.
I have written done my goals like this for myself the last two years and it has been a successful experience. Now I’m sharing them online so that is an extra level of accountability, ha.
Goal 1: Read 100 books
Why: I topped off at 79 this year. Which is pretty high but that includes a manga series I’m chugging through. I just want to hit that one hundred mark. I just always have such a long To Be Read list, and I want to get through more of it.
Please note I count audio, graphic novels, and children’s chapter books as books toward my goal.
Read during my lunch break instead of playing app games and scrolling social media on my phone.
Listen to more audio books (in car, while doing chores).
Always have an in progress ebook on my phone for when I am at places without a physical book. Sneak in more reading that way.
Dedicate at least a half an hour (ideally an hour) a day to reading either before or after work. In alternate measure, at least fifty pages of reading (ideally one hundred pages) of reading a day.
Dedicate at least an hour to reading on weekends and days off work.
Keep track of progress on Goodreads.
Goal 2: Write 300,000 creative words.
Why: Because I did it in 2017. In 2018 I made it to 250,000 words. Giving myself this goal has produced better almost-daily writing habits in me, pushed me to finish projects, and gotten me over so-called “writers blocks.”
Write a little everyday, with the goal being a little over 800 words a day. This counts original fiction, fanfiction, and blog posts for this website. This does not include school work or work work.
Stop trying to write in front of the television all the time. Actually use your writing desk.
Prioritize writing time before leisure activities.
If I’m too busy or too mentally drained to write on a specific day, I’m allowed to have a no-guilt skip day.
If I’m in the groove even after hitting the word count, keep going.
Keep track on writetrack website.
Goal 3: Submit to at least five writing opportunities a month (literary magazines, anthologies, queries, contests, etc.)
Why: Because you need to submit to be published. Because regular submissions means you have to look for new and diverse opportunities and that you catch submission periods that are only open for short periods.
Keep track on excel spreadsheet.
Submit stories on days/nights when you don’t have writing time or energy.
Make up for accidental shortages in one month with more submissions the next.
(I successfully have done this -- or a variation of this -- the last two years with good results in that I have consistently gotten several short story acceptances the last two years.)
Goal 4: Build my writer social media presence.
Why: Because I’m the odd millennial who is not a natural oversharer online. Because this is the way to network, connect with potential, and be part of the literary community.
Set aside time on weekend/days off to schedule posts.
When casually on social media, be more interactive with shares and comments.
Tweet once a day in the morning as part of morning routine.
Be more active/interactive on tumblr. I’ve been hanging out there for years, but not building a community.
Goal 5: Stop Biting Nails!
Why: Because I want to stop biting them. Because I want them to be long and pretty. Because biting them probably looks unprofessional and gross.
Take time to manicure and paint them when I’m not rushed so they will have proper time to dry and thus I am less likely to pick at messed up paint.
Use bad tasting polish to deter nail biting.
Keep track of nail biting on chart as to measure success and failure.
(Note: After writing, but before posting, I actually already started on this goal. This has involved youtube stop nailing biting hypnosis videos -- I kid you not -- and I am seeing some progress, albeit during a week while I’m wearing acrylic nails. Maybe 2019 will be my stop nail biting success year?)
Do you have any ambitions for the new year? Remember, the first steps are to write them out, make them measureable, and come up with plans to obtain success. Then -- start at it and start keeping track. Good luck on your new year’s resolutions!
2018 was an up and down writing year.
Five short story acceptances and five short story publications... Yay!
(I know this sounds like the same five stories, but it’s not. Some stories were accepted in 2017 and not published until 2018; somewhere accepted in 2018 and will not be published until 2019.)
Falling short of my yearly writing word count goal... Boo!
(Yearly writing goal was 300,000. Had to be lower to 250,000. Will likely make that.)
Getting to read my second place winning short story on a panel at a Sci Fi conference (and getting to attend that conference for free)... Yay!
(The Pawnshop of Intangible Things got second place in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Ametuer Writing Contest. Later it was published in Deep Magic, my first professional sale, thus making me not an ametuer anymore. The con was Balticon. It was really cool.)
No one showing up for the panel… Boo!
(Except the readers, the panel moderator, and one other panelists three family members. Still worth it though.)
Establishing official social media author accounts on facebook and twitter… Yay!
(Find me on facebook @margerybayne and on twitter @themargerybayne.)
Not really knowing how to use twitter… Boo!
(WTF is a subtweet?)
Learning much from my ‘write 1000 words a day for 30 days’ challenge… Yay!
(This wasn’t NaNoWriMo. Podcast on my experience to come.)
Struggling with original fiction… Boo!
Still making progress with original fiction despite the ups and downs, changing jobs, and making my halfway point through graduate school… Yay!
With great aplum I would like to announce that my story “Another Life” has found a home in Vol 3 of the sci fi anthology series Future Visions.
Buy it here.
“Nothing’s been right since Dana awoke from 23-year long coma: she hasn’t aged a day, her memories don’t feel like her own, and her husband Ben is having locked door meetings with her doctor. Secrets are being kept from her, and she’s going to figure out what they are.”
I don’t want to spoil this story, a la the secrets Dana is seeking out, so below in “Behind the Story” I will only talk in broad strokes about “Another Life”
What makes us human? This is a question proposed in a lot of science fiction as technology encroaches on our lives, for good and ill, and as technology advances in intelligence and human capability. Is our memories downloaded into a computer our continued existence or just a computer with memories? Can artificial intelligence reach the point of humanity? What standard even is that? What about androids? What about clones -- separate individuals or the same? How much of us can become technology and still be us? Are we bodies or brain or souls?
I took that classic quandary of what makes us human and what defines are personhood, and grafted that together questions of womanhood. At the time of writing, I was having a lot of personal anxiety about my personal identity and role in the world as a woman in terms of the set roles that are often expected of us. Motherhood, marriage, taking your husband’s last name, etcetera and so on. This definitely comes across in this and some other short stories I wrote about the same period. I think those themes of sci fi personhood and female identity converge as natural metaphorical partners.
It sounds so deliberate and grand when I explain it like that, but it was a lot more intuitive in the actual writing. I’ve realized certain anxieties and opinions that have influenced by writing after the fact.
I recall having a very specific vision for “Another Life” with the ending known and very specific beats imagined along the way. So I wrote it, beginning to end, hitting those beats and coming to the end in a pretty painless experience. Reviewing it, however, I quickly saw that all that emotional beats I had imagined weren’t enough to support the entire story. The ‘twist’ reveal of the end came out of nowhere and needed better set up. My rewrites of “Another Life” were, in this case, mostly additive.
This experience speaks a lot to my process of writing. What draws me to the story is the characters, the themes, or the emotional beats. Plot is of secondary interest. Plot is something I have to work on and build more deliberately.
“It was just there. Like paint on the wall.”
Sorry, this post is long enough, but I can’t help to stop and highlight one of my favorite, perhaps innocuous lines. I remember writing this line. I remember where I was when I wrote it. That’s how much I like it.
If you haven’t read “Another Life” yet this line drops when the main character Dana comes to a certain realization. She is lying awake in bed, on her side, back to her husband. I like this line because it implies a lot, it is a metaphor so integrated in the scene it is barely a metaphor. Like the wall she is staring at and finally noticing the paint color that has been there surrounding her the entire time, so to does she this revelation come to her. Just there. Like paint on the wall.
This and “The Pawnshop of Intangible Things” are two of my favorite short stories I’ve written. I have been shopping around “Another Life” for a while and have never wanted to give it up to a throwaway magazine. I’m excited that it found its place in this rather cool indie published venture of Future Visions and editor Brian J. Walton. I’ll probably write a blog on that experience when I’m a little farther down the road with it than now.
There is limited time discounted pricing on the ebook for launch week only, so check it
Cue the Inception soundtrack. How many metatextual layers are on this subject? (Three at the most; I need to stop being dramatic.)
I’m a bit of a connoisseur of writing advice. (Alright, here I am being overdramatic again.) I read, watch, and listen to a lot of it. I believe in it as equally as I believe in having a healthy skepticism of it.
And yes, I say this even as I put my own “writing advice” up on this blog. However, a lot of my “advice” is my perspective on adages that are being thrown around and some are for my own edification. There are answers to these questions: Can I explain my own process? In doing so, can I better said process better?
But this blog post is not about the value of writing writing advice, but about the value reading it. And all that comes from reading it, processing it, and learning from it. This is about what to read, and what is the best way to read, and why.
So, without any further ado...
The first advice of writing advice is… all writing rules are more like guidelines than actual rules. (Yup, Pirates of the Caribbean reference). Creative writing is… just that, creative. It is an artform. Language itself is an evolving thing. Favored forms of storytelling changes over time. There is no rigid formula, format, or checklist that all stories must match or that you must adhere to. Or that you can adhere to for perfect success.
We might call writing rules “best practices but use your judgement” situations. We might call writing rules “you do not have to follow these, but if you aren’t know why you’re not” type of things. What writing rules are not are laws that you will get thrown in prison if you break.
The second advice of writing advice is… Writing advice can come from a lot of sources. Embrace the sources. Read blogs and books. Listen to podcasts. Watch youtube videos. Good advice can come from multiple sources. I do not prestige one format of writing advice over others, because they are all coming from different places and times. A book of writing advice might seem more official, but it might just mean the writer is better connected. A successful indie author might share more about their writing process on a blog or in youtube videos than in a formalized book. Or that the book is just older from a time before the explosion of the internet. On the flipside, just because someone makes a well-edited youtube video does not mean their advice is sound.
No format is inherently more valid than another, it is just the avenue for delivering the information. By opening up to multiple sources, you get perspectives from new talent and old hats, indies and traditionals, and all that jazz.
If fact, I learn a lot about writing novels from watching youtube film critics. Film is a different medium than writing, and it uses different tools and techniques than novels to tell a story, but it still something that tells a story. Analyzing why or why not a story works is very helpful at understanding the structure and impact of stories as a whole. (Just a voice plot hole focused “film criticism” and instead look for stuff with more meat and analysis on the bone.)
The third advice of writing advice is… Don’t follow one person’s advice religiously. Do read writing advice that contradicts. This is a two sides of the coin thing. This builds off the last point of going to multiple sources. Writing is an artform and extremely personal. We all have different methodologies that click for us, or different styles. It is good to get a well-rounded perspective on writing and publishing that are provided on the internet, and through other sources. I am a regular to several writing blogs that have different advice on multiple issues (writing fast, rewriting, and traditional vs. indie publishing for prominent examples). Sometimes they react very different to the current event of the day in the writing/publishing world, and I can learn something valid from both perspectives. Sometimes they even indirectly respond to each other’s points in opposition. I, and you, do not have to take sides, and most of them time they aren’t asking you to. They are just trying to share their perspective and often hard-earned knowledge with you, the reader or watcher. It’s up to you what you do with it.
The fourth advice of writing advice is… Take advice from people who’ve “made it” but define “made it” broadly. Read advice from writers of different walks of life. That means best-selling authors, and midlist authors, traditionally published and indie authors, from your favorite fanfic author, from the authors whose books you read and the person whose books you haven’t. From this genre and that genre. Someone who is consistently writing and producing stories that either get published or find fans… they are onto something.
I say this because a lot aspiring writers will share their perspective, but their perspective is less theirs and more reiterations of the most common pieces of conventional wisdom without much insight or personal touch. Which leads me to...
The fifth advice of writing advice is… Interrogate writing rules of conventional wisdom that are repeated so much they have become meaningless or flanderized.
A good example of this is the adverb adage (cut all adverbs from your writing) that exploded in all directions when some publishing or agent person on twitter said to cut all adverbs and adjectives from your writing completely (like that would make any sense at all.) Of course, in response a lot people come out in defense of adverbs, and ‘in response a lot of people came out in the defense of adverbs’ is one of the stranger sentences I’ve typed in earnestness.
Honestly, to interrogate this advice, and both sides of the argument, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Fact is, -ly adverbs (a specific brand of adverbs) can make awkward reading and generally can either be cut as necessary or replaced with a stronger verb. Stronger verbs often make for stronger writing… but there are tons of potential exceptions to this. (I actually wrote a whole blog post on this particular adverb issue that you can read here). But the particulars of this particular issue isn’t the point. The point is that there is usually some grain of truth that these blanket writing adages come from, but they get a little too repeated without thought put into them, so yeah, interrogate. Do not blindly follow. Heck, maybe not blindly disregard either though.
The sixth advice of writing advice is… no amount of writing advice read can replace the actual practice of writing. Do not fool yourself into think you can accumulate all the knowledge of the how-to of writing that when you sit down to write, suddenly all the words and plotting and character development and thematic resonance will come out perfectly. You wouldn’t imagine that learning about soccer from a book would make you a soccer star without practice; the same principle applies with writing.
The seventh advice of writing advice is… the point of reviewing a diverse amount of writing advice is not to find the Holy Grail that works for all writing, but to continue your writing education and find what works for you.
Those are the good days. The days when you find writing advice that just really works for you. That speaks to you and the way you think. That finally explains a concept you’ve heard explained a hundred different ways before and now it finally clicks. Not the Holy Grail, but your own personal holy grails.
So there we are. My seven pieces of advice for writing advice. Which may be something I’m more qualified for than giving straight writing advice. :P
Of course, Thanksgiving is the time of year we are called on to think about what we are thankful for. So, here I am, being thankful.
I am thankful for my new job. In August of this year I started a new job at a new library system. This was after several months of job searching after I decided I couldn’t continue with my current position due to the unsupportive and rough conditions at my place of employment. Just a few months in I am so glad of the change, of the new teamwork-oriented environment, and of how this has reflected positively on my mental and emotional health.
I am thankful of my new living situation. This October marks one year being roommates with my brother and it is a very nice situation.
I am thankful for the publications I have had this year. 2017 was a breaking point for me, getting some publication acceptances and placing second in a writing contest. That momentum has carried into 2018. I got to go on a panel at a scifi conference. I have several other publications and publication acceptances. One of them was my first ever “professional” publication, meaning the pay rate was at/over .06 cents per word. (It was also one of the two of my most favorite stories I’ve written, so I am thankful it found its place.)
I have two more publications coming out before the end of 2018. I’m thankful for that too.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
A few months ago, I was sitting in the audience of a literary panel for “Writing Characters with Agency” at Balticon, a science fiction and fantasy convention in Baltimore. During the panel, one of the audience members asked for writing advice on how to keep characters internally consistent when making them do something essentially “out of character” using an example of a lawful good character doing a bad thing. While the panelist shared many a insight, this question got my brain turning and coming up with answers that were not brought up at the time.
So I’m sharing them here.
So how you keep a character “in-character” and consistent while also working to a moment where they break that mold?
For the sake of this, I will use the audience member’s example of a character who is lawful good do something bad. (“Lawful good” is a Dungeons and Dragons moral alignment that writers, readers, and nerds all over the internet will align their favorite characters too. Learn more here.)
So let’s break down some different ways to get characters do believably do “out of character” things.
The Break Down
1 - Character Development
Character development can be either positive (with the characters become more brave, heroic, or “morally good”) or negative (with the characters becoming crueler, more selfish, or more evil). I bring this up, because many people only think of a character development in the positive direction -- becoming a better person -- but it can work in the other direction. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great example of negative character development, in that he becomes a more morally bankrupt person as the show progresses, starting out with understandable and sympathetic motives for his life of crime, but slowly becoming more power-hungry and/or more willing to do more and more drastic things (like murder) to keep on top.
A character can start out good and then through a series of circumstances, conflict, and drama that we will call the plot, slowly turn into a worse person.
2 - Conflicting Motives/Trolley Problem
Another point to remember is that people are complicated, conflicted, and complex. We have multiple belief systems, motivations, wants, and needs in our head at the same time.
Say we have our lawful good character. He is sheriff, a law man, who believes all crime should be stopped and put to justice because them are the rules. But he is not just a sheriff. He’s a family man whose family is the most important thing in the world to him. He loves them and would do anything for them to protect them and keep them happy.
And now it turns out his adult son is the no good head of the gang of bandits that have been terrorizing the local towns. And it is a trusty sheriff that has been called on to stop him, dead or alive.
Opps, now our character has to choose between upholding his moral system about the law or his moral system about his family.
I like option above because it is very internal, but you can also give your characters bad and worse options in an external conflict. Give them a trolley problem. Think of all those superhero films where the villain gives the hero an option to save like their girlfriend/sidekick or some innocent kids/the entire city. Usually the superheroes come up with the third option to save everyone, but not always (Ahem, the Dark Knight.) But much better is when the character has a much more active hand in the dark, bad and worse option. The ending of season 3 of the BBC show Torchwood had one of these. Make your character’s options a trolley problem.
3 - Breaking Points
Human beings… we’re complicated. We have belief systems but we are often hypocrites. We give ourselves or loved ones a pass when we wouldn’t give the same benefit to strangers or acquaintances. Beyond hypocrisy and exceptions, we have breaking points. On tv tropes, that can sometimes be called a berserk button.
Find a character’s breaking point and them drive to it.
But this all these examples lead up to this ultimate fact of writing characters and stories:
It Needs To Be Earned
We say that a lot in storytelling and fiction writing. That… twists need to be earned. That sad deaths need to be earned. That endings need to be earned.
Relevant to here -- when a character is driven to that breaking point, you as the writer need earn that. And all the other examples listed above.
But what does that mean?
In screenwriting, because I watch a lot of film criticism youtube videos, the idea is phrased as: set up, reminder, and pay off.
In writing, we talk about foreshadowing. I had a professor in college who always called these things “rehearsals” which is a really apt metaphor that I think should exist more preventable in the creative writing discourse. When I took dance classes as a youth at the end of the season we had a dance recital, but not until we had the stage rehearsal and dress rehearsal beforehand. If you are going to have a lawful good character do something morally reprehensible, you need to hint -- and in an escalating manner -- that he can do something bad.
To remix the earlier example … you have the lawful good lawman who always brings in his guy alive because they should stand before a judge and jury. He’s never killed and never will. Then he does when his son is threatened. Now a lot of readers might find that reasonable because of our understanding of family bonds, but you want to set that up in the story. Show how close he is with his family. Have a minor threat happen earlier in the story for him to break his cool over. The reader may not straight out know the character's breaking point before it happens, but it should feel natural once they get to that point. There would have been hints. We should’ve maybe guessed a second before it happens.
Like plot twists, character twists should make sense in retrospect.
Those big, defining moments for a character, good or bad, have to be earned. They have to be deserved. These are the results of character development.
Like many writers of the post-internet era, I can point to fanfiction as the thing that made me writer.
Some people stay in fanfiction all their lives, doing it for the love of writing and the love of fandom. Some people move from fanfiction to original fiction. While it used to be embarrassing or a secret, more and more writers embrace their fannish roots.
This is not a story about that.
This much is true. I discovered fanfiction around 8th grade after a recommendation from a friend. (It was Harry Potter related because with was 2003-2004, so of course it was.) I read it. A few months later I started to write and post. I haven't stopped since.
In 2008, I graduated from high school and started my undergraduate studies, in which I was majoring in Creative Writing. So, yeah, I fanficion got me pretty serious about writing. I had to actively apply for this major, along with the school, with a portfolio of my work. In 2012 I graduated with that degree, and even won an award for the best portfolio amongst my graduating seniors in my major. (Humble brag.) A few of my short stories had been published in the lowest entry barrier online magazines.
I'm zooming past all that, although I want you to know the context. I was serious about writing. I got a degree in it. A degree that involved loans to pay for tuition, knowing it wasn't a job secure degree, and graduating into a recession economy just scraping its way back.
During that time, I had told myself more than once it was time to give up on fanfiction and focus on original writing. I said that when I started college... of course, I made an exception for my ongoing fic. Had to finish. It was be cruel to my readers not to. (It was for Gilmore Girls, because Rory and Jess were made for each other, dammit).
And the exceptions just kept coming. I mean, why deny inspiration when it hits?
Of course, I was serious when I was going to quit fanfiction when I graduated college. I needed to write original work. It needed to be literary and important. I needed to get published.
Of course, fic writing crept in around the edges. (A lot of it was for Glee, because Klaine for life.) (Please stop judging my fandom tastes now. No regrets.) It wasn't serious, but it was fun. People were reading it. At least I was writing something.
I had sort of a different experience of shame, guilt, and writing fanfiction at this time in my life than the traditional narrative. I wasn't ashamed to write it from the get go. Geek chic, baby.
It wasn't that writing fanfiction was anyway bad, it was just that it wasn't what I was supposed to write at this point in time. I was supposed to be starting my writing career. And as many people feel in their post-college early twenties, the clock was ticking. I had landmarks I wanted to hit. I needed to get short stories published and, more important, I needed to write a novel.
I struggled to write and struggled to write and struggled to write.
I lost my passion. I had definitely lost my vision. I hadn't even yet to truly discover my voice. I was trying to write to the vague shape of an idea of what I was "supposed to write" as judged by my fiction writing education from college. My complex feelings about my college writing education is another post all together.
During this rough patch, a weird dispassionate and extended writer's block of sorts, fanfiction kept me writing. It was fanfiction that gave me inspiration for some of my original pieces that had ended up being accepted for publication in literary magazines in the next few years. It was fanfiction, which I finally embraced, and wrote a lot of, and wrote to completion, that helped me hone my style, practice storytelling, figure out my genres, and just enjoy writing. Fall in love with writing again, like I had been as a teen -- uninhibited and fun.
I have since embraced fanfiction as part of my writing diet. No shame or 'I should be doing this instead of that' attitude about it.
There are other steps in my writing journey that has gotten me to the place I am today, but I think this is important and not to be overlooked. Fanfiction made me a writer and saved my writing. In between there and now, it has honed my abilities.
Maybe fanfiction was for you or maybe it wasn’t or maybe it was for just a short while. That’s not the takeaway here.
Here it is: if it feels right, if you’re passionate about it, if you’re excited about it… then write it. That sort of artistic joy is a sign. It’s intuition. Go with it.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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