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.
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
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.
In 2017, I entered a Maryland-based writing contest and ultimately had my short story submission “The Pawnshop of Intangible Things” place second. You can read about that more here (link). It’s been a pretty amazing experience that has involved an awards ceremony, a nice check, and free admission to a Sci Fi writing conference where I read my story on a panel. Last of all the honors, I was asked to be a judge for this year’s contest.
Over the last few weeks, I have been reading the five finalists that had been selected by the first round of readers. With the other finalist judges, I am charged to rate each story between 1 and 10, and those rating will be compiled and totaled to determine first, second, and third place. I am also able to write commentary that will be given to the authors.
While I gladly volunteered, there was a little dread when I received the attachments of the stories in my inbox. See, I have a Bachelors in Creative Writing, and if you are familiar with creative writing classes, you might know that they are usually done in the workshop model. We would read two to three of our classmates’ stories for in preparation for each class, write critique letters, and discuss them in round table fashion. I read a lot of boring, not good, and pretentious stories in my pursuit of that degree, to the point where I lost all perception of what was good and what wasn’t.
Had I just volunteered to relive that experience and read through five boring-ass stories?
I clicked on the first one, opened it, read the first line and had my fears realized. The line was outright amateurish -- bland and generic. I was back in undergrad.
Thankfully, that did not end up being the case. After reading the story in full -- although avoiding it by saving it for last -- it did improve once it got into the story proper. It was still a weak opening, but fears did not realize completely.
What I ended up doing was reading five stories ranging from decent to heart-eyes-emoji (that’s the technical scale) and learned a lot from it.
What I Learned:
Point 1: Story is King.
The story I subjectively thought was the best wasn’t the one with the best prose. It was the one with the best story. Of course, story is both concept (but ideas are cheap), and the execution of that concept.
Point 2: Execution makes all the difference.
All the stories had interesting concepts. The contest was SF/F focused, so they were ‘high concept stories.’ Listen: AI’s as narrators, folk tale demons, space-time travel, visions of the future, and werewolves. Come on. That’s a goldmine. But as I (and of course many before me) have already stated, ideas are cheap. It’s all about how you present those ideas.
As one would expect, to get this far in the competition all were competent stories. It’s that fine polish of execution that makes a difference between competent and awesome.
Language and prose are part of the execution, yes. The narrative strategy of POV, timeline, voice, and what not. When to start the story and when to end it and when to hit the other beats in between. All important.
Point 3: Setups and Payoffs are a balancing act.
Reading this selection of stories, one aspect of execution I became very aware of was ‘setups and payoffs.’
My favorite ‘heart-eyes-emoji’ story was a well-paced space adventure with the setups and payoffs interwoven from the first page to last. In contrast, there were stories with not enough setups, or not early enough, sapping the pay off of its power. There were stories that had a lot more setups than were ultimately paid off, which is like having a question without an answer.
That balance is so important to the reader because a story needs to make sense. It’s like laying out the clues in a mystery novel. All the plot workings need to be laid out for the reader bit by bit.
Point 4: Pacing is Important.
Like setups and payoffs, good pacing is essential to a well-balanced story. I saw one particular pacing hang up occur over a few of the short pieces I reviewed. The stories were… front-heavy. They spent too long in the beginning on things that weren’t the main point of the story.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s great pieces of writing advice is “Start as close to the end as possible.” Every writer should take that to heart. I often think about this, if not in the drafting stage, than the editing stage. (It’s very common in first drafts to start too early.)
To bring back another memory from my undergrad creative writing days, I recall how often a particular fiction writing professor of mine would often instruct students in workshops that their story actually started on page three, or five, or nine. There was always some sort of silent-eyed horror that passed over the face of whoever’s story it was, because there was a lot of hard-worked prose in there they were being asked to cut, but it was an important lesson. Remember you can integrate backstory in a lot of ways without starting at the very beginning!
My heart-eyes-emoji story dropped the reader right into the moment. All the world-building and character growth were part of the actual scenes.
Point 5: The Little Things Don’t Matter (When Everything Else is Right).
There will always be stuff to nitpick. There will always be an awkward sentence, or a moment that could’ve been tweaked to be stronger.
But when a whole story is a strong, compelling, and well-balanced all the nitpicky sand falls from your eyes as a reader. Your too engaged being carried along by a well-crafted story to let the other things ruin the mood.
So… that’s what I learned. Maybe other people judge stories for competition by other criteria. Maybe they have a checklist or grid, giving out points to certain factors like this was an episode of Chopped: Presentation, Taste, and Creativity.
I read with my intuition. I can never exactly turn off my writerly brain when reading, seeing the tricks of how a writer pulls off a certain twist or thinking how I would’ve different (or even better). I acknowledge there is always a measure personal taste in something like this and any judging of the creative arts is subjective.
However, we humans are storytelling animals. We are surrounded by stories from birth on -- books, movies, television shows, the stories we tell each other, narrative in video games and other media, and on and on and on. We love a good story and absorb some feel for when a story works or when it feels off. We might not all be able to identify exactly what is off, or have the vocab for it, or be able to analyze it or write it ourselves, but we have the intuition.
I was glad I was able to use my storytelling intuition, in combination with my learned and practiced knowledge of creative writing and literary analysis, to learn about making and reading a good short.
In the debates of qualities between 1st person narration versus 3rd person, or 3rd limited versus 3rd omniscient, or the absolute scorning of the dreaded ‘head-hopping’ there is one point of view that is more polarizing than any of them: Second Person Point of View.
Que the dramatic music.
Quick primer if you’re rusty on your terminology.
1st person pov - I said.
3rd person pov - he said/she said.
2nd person pov - You said.
After seeing that list, you might be thinking you’ve never seen anything written in 2nd person, or you’ve never seen it outside poetry or fanfiction (which tends to allow for more experimental forms). If you’ve been around the block submitting short stories to literary magazines, you might’ve noticed that “2nd person” often ends up in the “What we’re not looking for” list of their submission guidelines.
Not only in 2nd person rare in fiction writing, it is also often unwanted and unliked in fiction writing. If you drop a 2nd person story in a writing critique circle or workshop, you will probably get people who hate it because it is second, with no other consideration. You’ll have people quote the writing rule “No second person” at you. You might have some people who just like it because it is different and they’ve never seen it before. Amongst that, maybe you’ll get someone who gives you actual, meaningful feedback.
But this is not a rant about critique groups. It is, however, a commentary on how second person is received by writers and readers in general. But me? I believe in second person and its potential.
I first experimented writing second person when I was fist experimenting with writing overall: in high school while writing fanfiction. I’ve always harbored belief in the potential of second person narration even through years of hearing nothing good about it from most corners of the writing community.
In my adult writing life, I’ve written two original short stories in second person, one speculative and one literary. How have they fared?
One of my second person stories placed 2nd in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Scoeity’s Ameteur Writing contest, which allows entries from across the state of Maryland. Meeting the facilitators of contest, I was told the competition was particularly tough that year. A few months later that same story made me not an ameteur anymore as I made my first pro sale with it to Deep Magic E-Zine. They told me it was the 1st time they had published a second person story.
The other second person story of the realistic literary genre has just made the long list of finalists for a different writing competition, the top ten percent out of 600 entries. Fingers crossed for how that will turn out.
What this proves? That people can like reading second person. That second person stories are publishable. That they are able to place in contests. That my long held believe in the potential of second person stories has been validated.
But wait, you say, that’s only two short stories.
Yup, that’s right. I usually write in 3rd person, and very occasionally first. Second person is definitely not a point of view that should be used for most stories. It is very particular and, as I stated before, very polarizing.
Second person should not be used willy-nilly. Sure, experiment with it. Have fun. Learn. Practice. That’s what writing is about. But if you’re looking for direction on when to use second person… I’ll get in to that right now.
For both of my original second person stories, I chose to use second person for a particular reason. For -- to use a wonderful term I learned from Larry Brooks in Story Fix -- a narrative strategy.
The concept and the plot are the story.
The narrative strategy is how we tell said story: POV, order of events, narrator, length, style of prose, etc and so on. These are things we consider to tell the story in the best way or with maximum impact.
Second person, when used, should be a deliberate part of your narrative strategy.
In my speculative story, I was trying to create a Twilight Zone-feel. The second person was supposed to enable the reader to step in the main character’s shoes, and for the “character” aspect to almost vanish. I go out of the way to avoid gendered details. The character doesn’t have a name. The character is you-the-reader living through the motions.
In my literary story, I had quite a different reason for the strategy of second person. The character is very particular, has a name, and has a detailed life. She is also suffering from depression. The second person, with all it’s “you” statements was used to create a sense of dissociation, like the character was watching herself go through the motions.
So that’s two different reasons I used second person and two different ways I used it. There are probably plentiful more to be discovered.
I think it stands to reason, like most writing rules, guidelines, and cultural preferences, when you as the writer are going to break them, you have to do it with a sense of strategy. Or… just to have fun.
Alright, so I’ve talked about my disagreement with this piece of writing advice here on my blog before, but the time for moderation is out. I’m taking a hard stance. This is a horrible piece of advice and, in fact, the exact opposite of it is true.
You’ve probably run across this piece of advice if you read writing blogs or following different writing-themed tumblrs, or just a lot a lot of writers on social media. This advice goes something like ‘don’t reread your work in progres, just keep writing onward, no looking back’ with the idea that rereading is distracting, disheartening, a time waster, or will lead to cycles of rewriting/editing that compromises writing any new stuff or finishing projects.
And, le sigh, I find this entire sentiment garbage, unhelpful, and completely antithetic to what I find helpful for my writing progress.
Now, I know I just said this was a hard stance, but I will put in my one caveat. Always rewriting beginnings and never finishing anything is a detriment to writing, but I believe that is a separate issue that rereading. If you can’t reread without needing to open a new document for a new draft then maybe you shouldn’t reread, but that’s not rereadings fault. Rereading, in fact, can be very helpful.
Why Rereading Your ‘Works in Progress’ is Good For Your Writing
1) It gets you back into the flow, man.
If you are sitting down to write for the day, working on an in-progress work and you can just pick up where you left off with no refresher, than I commend you. It is a rare day that I can do that and only if I have a new scene well-imagined and ready to go inside my skull. Rereading the last few paragraphs, the last full scene, or even farther back, can help you, the writer, to pick up the threads of the plot/characters/themes.
2) It reminds you of things you forgot.
Rereading from the beginning of your work in progress, whether its a short story or a novel-length work (or some length in between) will knock you in the head with details you had dropped earlier in the story and then forgot. Don’t feel bad about forgetting. The writing process takes longer than reading does, so use that reading speed to your advantage. Rereading may help you discover a character quirk, a plot detail, or thematic element that you had started to develop but hadn’t followed up on yet. When you get to your new writing for the day… Well it’s finally time to follow up, punks.
3) It inspires new ideas.
Hey, sometimes when you reread you see a detail that you hadn’t forgot, but one you had just put in there incidentally… and you’ll be all like… ‘Fuck, what if I turned that into a thing?!’ It’s the same point as above but more about the happy accidents you the writer takes advantage of. When you build on ideas set up earlier in the text that employs a whole bunch of great writing techniques: foreshadowing, build ups and payoffs, reveals, narrative parallels, and all that great stuff that makes for good plot, themes, and/or character development.
And another thing) Building on these last three points, if you have a writers block (or whatever else you might call it), when you get back into the flow, discover old ideas left unexplored, and discover new ideas… well, that’s all fertile ground to break through that writer's block, isn’t it?
Writing original stories is enough of a process of working from scratch. Don’t make it harder by divorcing your process from all the hard work you’ve already done. Writing is not just new idea followed by new idea. It is ideas that build on and tangle with and reflect on each other.
Stop eschewing reading, and instead embrace it as a preparatory step of writing.
*Only reccing things that I actually read/use
Find Where to Submit Short Stories (and/or Poetry) for Publication (and also contests)
Ongoing blog feed.
Only lists magazines/journals/anthologies/contests that pay monies, even if just a nominal amount
Downside: Because it lists magazine et al as they put out calls for submissions/when they open for submissions, it misses (and you will miss) magazines with rolling and always open submissions.
AKA - Great source, but don’t use it as your only source
They too focus on pay gigs
At their website you have to subscribe for their newsletter
They don’t spam you with irrelevant stuff
It’s not too much/too often that you stop looking at them.
What you get are lists of different writing opportunities, advice articles, and some free ebook links to said writing topics
Downside: You have to wait until they send you stuff, so you can’t search their website whenever.
On the flipside: Those regular updates remind you to start submitting again.
Known as The Submission Grinder
(but it is not kinky)
It’s like the famous Doutropes but it’s free
Like Writers Market but it’s free
Lists paying and non-paying markets
Focused on short stories, and also been adding poetry recently
Can search magazines by a whole lot of factors (by name, genre published, pay rates, and so on).
Great way to find niche magazines and just lots of opportunities over all
Downside: It’s relatively new so it’s statical data about replies is not necessarily accurate and in some places they have no data. They are still building/collecting that info from users (like you!)
Word Count Tracker
Know as WriteTrack
Ever want to track your word count like in NaNoWriMo but not during November? Want to create a year long, month long, or any other custom length time period/word count goal.
Well, here you go.
Writing and Publishing Blogs Worth Following
An aggregate of publishing and copyright news and writing thinkpieces from across the web
Great for keeping abreast of publishing and copyright news and writing thinkpieces from across the web
Curated by a lawyer who sometimes adds his two cents commentary on legal and business issues
The home website of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has been a published author under various pennames for decades, having experience in traditional and indie/self-publishing, and having run her own small press and published own literary magazines
As evident, a wealth of information
A lot of perspective and insider knowledge on the publishing/writing world
Is interested in helping series writers who want to freelance, self, or indie publish make good business decisions for a sustainable career
New blog post every Thursday
Various ‘series’ of blogs under the Business Resources tab, including “Freelancers Survival Guide” and “Contracts and Dealbreakers” amongst others, so definitely check out the backlog
The home website of Dean Wesley Smith who has been a published author for decades, having experience in traditional and indie/self-publishing, and having run her own small press and published own literary magazines
Seem familiar? Yeah, it’s because Kris Rusch and Dean Welsey Smith are spouses
He blogs everyday, but only ever so often is one of his blog posts a gem
“Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” is an interesting series he wrote about publishing myths that is definitely worth reading
This is the blog that got me to create my own writer’s website and also kicked me in the ass to get more of my writing career (I am in the very, very beginnings) into motion
**These two are very pro-indie/self-publishing and anti-traditional publishing and anti-agent in the modern age of publishing, although they started out traditional years ago
Traditionally published author Anne R. Allen’s blog, with Ruth Harris
And guest posts
“Writing about writing. Mostly.”
Writing about writing, blogging, publishing, agents, social media, and working through the myths the writer's blocks and all that stuff
A “slow blogger” who doesn’t stress about posting three days a week, or whatever SEO dictates you should do, or limiting certain word counts. Meaning that her posts are slower, but the content is quality
Home website (plus blog) of author Chuck Wendig
If you exist in writely circles on like tumblr, you’ve probably read some writing advice from him already; A few of his things have gone viral-ish on tumblr
Not all of his posts are about writing, but he blogs pretty much daily so you can skim through to find writing stuff amongst his career updates, guest posts, personal reviews of media, and other such commentary
Pretty much all his posts are imbibed with his strange/goofy sense of humor, so that’s fun
***Note these last two are both traditionally published authors. The strong with insight and strong leanings that way. What? I’m suggesting blogs with differing viewpoints? Yeah, that’s the point. It’s good to absorb well-rounded knowledge, folks.
****Also note that all four of these blogs are housed and written by actually published, professional, successful, working authors. Yup, that’s intentional. Working with your peers is good and all, but we need to include the advice of people who are seasoned and who have
‘Made it’ instead of repeating the conventional advice between ourselves like we known something special when we only know what we’ve been told.
Cut all Your Adverbs (and Adjectives too!): A Breakdown of The Overstated (and Under Explained) Advice
One of the often lofted pieces of creative writing advice that is tossed around is that one should eliminate all adverbs from their prose. A few months ago, a literary agent on Twitter extended the axe to include adjectives, and it kind of exploded into some drama in writing and publishing circles, including Chuck Wendig who engaged in a wonderful take down and break down of said remark which you can read here.
Now, I have never agreed with the starkness of this advice even when it was only applied to adverbs (and extending it to adjectives just blows my mind, Adjectives? Like even colors?). This is even though I’ve been hearing it repeated for years, since I started in my creative writing BA in 2008 (#old).
But I also do not not believe in it. By which I mean, underneath the rule™ is an actual kernel of helpful truth. We just have to mine it out a bit.
Writing Rules Overall
First of all, writing rules are more like guidelines than actual rules. To all rules there are exceptions. All rules can be broken.
Second of all, writing goes through trends. Many are long term trends. Still, trends. That’s why they split up literature classes into various periods and artistic movements. Writing rules that are repeated like fact right now have all the potential to change.
Third of all, writing rules are opinions. They reflect certain tastes and preferences. There is quite obviously many different types of creative writing being published in the world right now, and not just amongst different genres. There are wordy things and Ernest Hemingway-like succinct things. There are things that follow the strict rules of grammar and those that go with a dialectal grammar or voice. First person and third. Writing better at prose than story and writing better at story than prose. And so on.
Just as there's all kinds of writing (and the writers that created it), there are all kinds of readers who want to read different things and have different tastes.
Quick Definition Time
Adjectives are words that modify nouns. Ex. The large [adjective] house [noun].
Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Ex. The really [adverb] fast [adjective] car. He ran [verb] quickly [adverb].
You know how I mentioned the kernel of truth up there? Also, do you know how the cut adverbs (and adjectives!!!) advice comes with no or minimal additional information? Yeah, that’s where that kernel of truth is hidden. There is actual logic and reasoning and in depth writing advice in the notion of cutting adverbs, but is rarely or minimally discussed. Instead, people treat it as a call to begin an adverb cross out word search on your draft.
And honestly, it’s less of a case of cutting adverbs, but replacing them.
Let’s took at the cases of when/why you should cut (but really replace) adverbs.
Why #1: The specific adverb is clunky/awkward
Some adverbs are common place and fit smoothly into a sentence.
“The blood red car” (Yup, “blood” here is an adverb as it modifies “red” an adjective.)
“She said loudly.”
“He ran quickly.”
Some are awkward to get your mouth around.
“She said shakily.”
“He ran jaggedly.”
If it is awkward to say or awkward to the ear, that might be a sign that it will stick out like a sore thumb to the reader. In writing critique circles, when discussion the minutiae of prose, we often discuss things that ‘take us out of the story.’ Those are the awkward or confusing turns of phrases or sentences can confuse and stop up the reader, ruining the flow of the story. If you adverb is awkward and ruining the flow of the story, you should definitely considering cutting/replacing it.
Why #2: The verb/adverb pairing could be replaced by a stronger verb.
Taking the samples from above.
“She said loudly” ---> “She yelled” or “She shouted” or “She screamed”
Now, all of those alternatives have slightly different connotations and are not interchangeable, but that’s also part of the point. “Said loudly” can mean a lot of things, while the other options are more specific/more detailed, aka stronger verbs.
“He ran quickly” ---> “He sprinted”
In your mind’s eye, can’t you just see how much faster this fictional he is running when he sprinted. Isn’t it such a more powerful word?
While I am also do not fall on the side of ‘everything should read like Ernest Hemingway’ (I definitely love flowery F. Scott Fitzgerald too much for that), one of your writing considerations should be ‘How can I explain this fully but with the least amount of words?’
This ‘Why #2’ applies to any instance of the word ‘really’ (except all the exceptions for dialogue and voice and the cases you just 'really' need to use it). (In fact, I had a high school teacher who banned all uses of the words ‘really’ and ‘very’ in our papers, but that was academic writing not creative writing.)
You might rebuke me here and say ‘what if one of the stronger verbs doesn’t fit what I mean?’ Such as, what if you mean ‘said loudly’ and not ‘yelled.’
To which I say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to cut every adverb’ and also ‘Think creatively, though, about what you want to say.’
Which segues into…
Why #3: Can you say it better way?
In the case of this example, ‘she said’ is a common dialogue tag, and dialogue tags are rife with their own conflicting writing rules. One common rule that is mostly accurate is that most of the time you just want to use ‘he/she said.’ In the cases were you don’t, taking on an adverb might not be the best option to add emphasis to your dialogue.
For example, instead of ‘She said loudly’ ...
What about: She raised her voice to speak over the crowd. “Blah, blah, blah.”
Or: Her voice reached a pitch it only did when she was under the max amount of stress.
Or: She tried to tap down her anger, but her voice came out booming regardless.
Or: She said, like a roll of thunder.
Notice how these all say more than the adverb ‘loudly.’ Notice how they all even say more than the ‘strong verbs.’ When you choose to say it in a more creative or more detailed way, you as the writer have the opportunity to tell more than the pitch of a character’s voice (in this example), but can use your descriptive words to impart theme, reveal character, create mood, set the scene, and/or impart your voice/style into the prose.
Am I saying that you should replace every adverb with a piece of lyrical prose?
No. A hundred times no. Because that would be just as (or more) ridiculous than saying to cut them all. And as I said in the beginning, all writing rules (even mine here) can be broken, are trends, and are opinions.
What I am saying is that if it is so important that you added that adverb, that the reader know it was said ‘loudly’ that you balk at cutting it, maybe there is more in the story to mine.
Why #4: Adjectives
I… I just don’t know what to say about cutting adjectives. That’s just ridiculous. The traditional advice is ‘cut all adverbs’ but this literary agent added adjectives to the chopping block and… really. Adjectives? Like color, shape, and size. Like saying brown hair or green eyes. How sparse and unimaginative that writing would be.
Like, the only sense I can come here is that maybe, sometimes, consider if you are relying on adjectives instead of interesting descriptions, such as…
The musty cave/The cave smelled musty ---> The cave smelled like a damp sponge
Her gossamer skin ---> Her skin was as thin and wrinkled as tissue paper.
(And those changes use adjectives. The real rule there is… your creative writing projects shouldn’t be about showing off all the vocabulary you memorized. It should be about creating eviseral images and emotions).
Keep your adjectives, folks. Like all things in creative writing, use them wisely, but keep your adjectives.
Hey folks, don’t take the ‘cut all your adverbs’ advice like it’s time to pull out the red pen and ink up your in progress manuscript. But also don’t ignore it totally and throw in all the adverbs.
Sometimes your adverbs will just flow and get the job done. Ex. The blood red car.
(Sometimes I think this adverb advice is really directed at -ly adverbs.)
Sometimes your adverbs/verb pairing can be turned into a stronger verb.
Sometimes your adverb means you want to focus on a detail of something, and then you should really dig into the details of something by using a more creative approach.
Sometimes in your writing you just need to get from point a to point b, and the adverb serves the purpose.
And sometimes your should cut it.
Instead of drawing blood with your editor’s pen, instead ask a series of questions:
Do you really need it? Is there a stronger option available? Can you make your writing stronger by exploring one of those stronger options?
The advice to cut all adverbs (and adjectives) is so misguided. But hidden in that advice is suggestion to give your adverbs a second look, and not to rely on fancy vocab words to convey images, imagery, and emotions.
Going into 2017, I had several writing and writing-adjacent New Year’s Resolutions. I had some somewhat successes and some outright successes, and along the way many lessons.
The Outright Successes:
1 - Finish draft of (Name Redacted) project.
I had started this particular project many times (It was an idea I’ve had since high school) and written a two-thirds draft the previous year. In 2017, I did finish a complete draft, around 70,000 words. Since then, some attempts were made to redraft, but I think the story needs more time in the drawer, so to speak.
2 - Write 300,000 creative words, counting all original fiction, fanfiction, and creative nonfiction, including this blogging, but nothing school or work related.
I have not reached this yet, but I plan to within the next few days before 2018. (Or get to a close enough negligible amount.) I’m a few thousand words away, but a few thousand that is doable. I used this wonderful word tracker called write track. I knew to achieve this or any word count goal I would need to track it like goodreads tracks reading or the nanowrimo cite tracks the nano word count. Searching around, I found write track which lets you set yearly and project-specific word counts, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a tool like this.
This word count achievement is all the more meaningful for the writing endurance it built up in me, writing (almost) daily and often writing when was I’m not initially inspired. It also helped me finish many, various projects.
The Somewhat Successes:
1 - Submitting two pieces a week to literary magazines/writing contests/publishers.
I started out strong, but withered away as the year went on. However, I continued to submit throughout the year, at least a two or three a month. I found some new tools, as such as the Submission Grinder, (which I promise you is indeed a writing website and not an erotic website) to use to find places to submit. I also have several acceptances! (3 short story acceptances and 1 contest 2nd place win).
I will continue submitting regularly into 2018. Because its become a habit, I think I won’t put specific numbers and keep doing what I am doing. Two a week wasn’t necessarily realistic with the limited number of short stories i had to submit and dealing with the deadlines, submission periods, and turn around times of the literary magazines themselves.
2 - Writing two blog posts per week (for this very blog).
Again, strong start, and then it withered away. I will continue to blog, but I think it is better to write when I have something to say than to force content. I will follow the advice of the one of the writing blogs I follow and ‘slow blog’ as I have been for the last few months.
(It’s not a failed resolution if you learned something about yourself!)
Writing Resolutions for 2018
I want to start journaling! For writing so much in my life, I have never been much of a journal or diary writer. In particular I want to keep a ‘mindfulness journal’ that I write in the morning as a way to start off my day. I have not particularly know what that means yet, but I’m going to do this. (I want this to be part to a bigger ‘morning routine’ resolution, which journaling is a part.)
2 - Write smarter not harder.
There was some consideration into increasing my yearly word count, which you read above was 300,000 for 2017. However, I think that is a good amount to shoot for, being a heft, y’know 300,000. It’s also manageable with my life with a full time job, being a part time grad student, and having a social life and other hobbies. So I do not want to write harder… I want to write smarter. So what the fuck do I mean by that? Several things… (Because when one sets goals they should be measurable and have a plan to accomplish them)...
a) Stop writing in front of the TV like I think I can write into the TV.
b) Use more structure/prep before writing novel-length original fiction.
I find I can ‘wing it’ when it comes to original short stories and to fanfiction of any length. (I believe this type of writer, in certain circle, is called a ‘pantser’ as in a seat of your pants writer, and as opposed to a ‘planner.’) Perhaps I can be a pantser with these because I’ve had more practice with both of those genres and perhaps because they are bit more low stake. However, I struggle with novel-length original fiction, often starting strong and then the story drifting away somewhere 30,000-40,000 words in. I want to finish things goddamn it! I need to prep better. My first plan it to use the advice I’ve gleaned from a wonderful writing book I just read called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.
I also have personal resolutions such as above mentioned morning routine and maybe, finally, getting myself to stop biting my fucking nails, but writing dominates a big part of it. Remember when you formulate your New Year’s Resolutions or any big goals throughout the year to plan them properly. Set yourself up for success! And good luck.
There are two intersecting, commonly espoused pieces of novel writing advice I see online that I disagree with.
One - Don’t reread your novel while it’s in process, just keep writing!
Two - Don’t rewrite anything in your novel while it’s in process, just keep writing!
I can understand the philosophies behind these. Purely guessing, these might have some roots in NaNoWriMo novel writing practices, where the focus is lots of words and forward motion. This also can be good advice for writers who struggle with finishing their novels, instead focusing on just polishing up the beginning or starting new projects whenever the lumps of a novel’s forward progress gets in the way. So it’s not that this is bad for all writers in all occasions, just that its general pronouncement as writing advice for all, as it is often framed, is wrong. I, personally, have rewritten and reread in ways that have helped me overcome writer's block and even finish my novel drafts.
When To ReRead Your In-Progress Novel
1 - When you’ve hit a writer’s block. Not a temporary writer’s block of an hour, or a day or two, but a longer term one. Rereading what you’ve written thus far can provide clarity. It reminds you what you’ve written, for one, and can provide inspiration. In a reread perhaps you’ll see a plot threat you dropped that you now want to pick back up. Perhaps a throwaway detail becomes a clue to a new twist in the story.
2 - Just “maybe sometimes” during the novel writing process, *if* you finds that rereading benefits you as a writer as opposed to the other option of just barrelling ahead. Novels are long and often complex with characters, subplots, and themes; they often take long stretches of time to complete. Sometimes the writers needs to review what they’ve written thus far just to keep themselves abreast of it all.
When To ReWrite Your In-Progress Novel
1 - For immediate small corrections. Author Dean Wesley Smith, who offers some great insights into writing and publishing on his website blog that you should totally check out, employs a writing practice he calls cycling in which he writes some, then ‘cycles’ back to reread, add, and edit in the passage, page, or chapter he had just written. This is something many writers probably do automatically in the age of writing on word processors that allow such convenience as opposed to writing in the era of quills or typewriters, where corrections and additions would be quite burdensome. This immediate correction option also works longer range. Say you decide to change a detail in chapter fifteen that was first mentioned in chapter three. It might be good to back to chapter three rewrite that detail while it’s on your mind and you don’t forget to later.
2 - For big plot holes. This is one I have personal experience with. If you discover a plot hole in your story when you write, there is little purpose to burgeon forward without fixing it. For one, that makes the ending your writing null and void. For two, because you know the ending your writing is null and void, it can make you uninspired to finished it. This is also true if it’s not a plot hole but just a major plot point you want to change. Depending on the structure of the story, it does not necessarily mean back to the drawing board or back to the first sentence. It could mean that… or it could mean just changing up a few scenes.
No writing advice is universally applicable. It changes per writer, per project, per change in the direction of the wind. Rereading and rewriting your novel in progress can be something that hangs you up, or it could be something that gives your the inspiration and clarity to go on. Only flexibility, the willingness to experiment, and learning about your own preferred process will reveal which it is for you.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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