Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Big List of Writing Writing Resources, Part One

You can write your story with nothing but a reasonably flat surface and something that leaves a mark, but it's a lot easier when you have the right tools. Happily, there are a lot of useful resources out there. Here are some of my favorites. 

I encountered a few while writing The Starter Guide for Professional Writers (about which I have exciting news: revisions and expansions are underway for a second edition! The past two years have seen some interesting changes in the publishing landscape, and even perennial advice can benefit from an update, right?). Others are from writer's blogs, apps, 'zines, and books developed since. 

This first list includes structural advice to find the right words, put them in the right order, and keep putting them down. 

Finding the right words: This dictionary is free online, which may have something to do with why it's one of the more common reference dictionaries. Bookmark the site for whenever a word is giving you trouble. For many words it includes not only spelling and definition but synonyms, antonyms, and suggested rhymes.

Note: one thing you won't find in many dictionaries are brand names. For example, Merriam-Webster doesn't give results when I search for for "iPhone." To make sure you're spelling a brand name correctly (in this example, lowercase i and no hyphen), it's a good idea to look it up on the official corporate website. 

Visual Dictionary Online - Merriam-Webster's visual dictionary, great for connecting words with images. You may know what a thing looks like but be unsure what to call it--or on the other hand, you might have always been wondering where to find a carburetor on a motorcycle or the calyx of a flower.

Rhymer from WriteExpress -A rhyming dictionary for all sorts of sounds, including beginning rhymes, end rhymes, even interior rhymes! 

Tip of My Tongue - For when you almost remember a word, or remember part of a word, and need help searching a dictionary for it. Note this is an algorithm, and it's useful but not always nimble--it took me a few tries to get a word when I knew what I was looking for. I started with gr- and looked for words meaning "awful" (no dice), "scary" (no results here either), and "ugly" (success at last, with my goal word gruesome, but I hoped to get a suggestion for grotesque too, and didn't). 

One Look Reverse Dictionary - Somewhere between Tip of My Tongue and a Thesaurus, this website finds concepts related to the words you enter in the search bar. I like the variety of results (and got gruesome, grisly, and grotesque as results when I entered "awful, scary, hideous." As an unexpected result, I also got arson.) Remember, though, to always check the definition and connotations of a word you're unsure of before using it. 

The Phrase Finder - A UK website with a subsection for American idioms. Type in a phrase and learn its meaning (or have your spelling and/or pronunciation corrected, as when a search for intensive purposes provides intents and purposes as a result). 

Words to describe someone's voice - Ideas to jog your thinking, to show rather than tell a character's emotions, and to add sensory detail (specifically, sound). However, descriptions of a character's voice (or anything) can slow the pace of your story, so use judiciously. 

Cheat Sheets for writing body language - As above, this provides tools to show instead of telling, this time with visual cues and action rather than description. I think these can be especially useful for "action beats" to break up dialogue, but as before, use judiciously.

45 ways to avoid using "Very" - Stronger words to consider before using an adverb on a more moderate term. Not all these will work in every story, so combine with a thesaurus and/or dictionary for best results!

50 Writing Tools: Quick List - These are writing techniques at the smallest levels of sentence and word choice. All of them habits worth building. Getting practice at picking the right word and constructing sentences with deliberation will pay off with clearer, more powerful prose. 

Varying Your Sentence Structure - Sentences that all begin with the same word (usually "I" or "S/he") or are similar in length or structure can get dull. Luckily, the solutions offered by the Walden University Writing Center are simple and can even be sort of fun to put into practice! It's like Sudoku with clauses. Go ahead, call me a word nerd; I'll take it as a compliment.

Finding ideas for plot and story structure:

Random plot generator - Suggestions for characters, setting, situation, and theme. Sometimes disagreeing with the generator is half the fun--consider beginning a story by saying "I can't write about ___, because..."

The Story Starter - Generates a random opening sentence setting up protagonist, setting, and goal. As with the plot generator, sometimes finding a suggestion that doesn't work can be as helpful as finding one that does.  (Although on second thought, I might want to try something with "The hilarious dress designer composed a song in the skyscraper in July to prevent the bloodshed.")

Five Elements of a Story (chart) - A useful brainstorming and organizational tool, especially for developing character arc and motive.

All the things that are wrong with your screenplay in one handy infographic - A professional scriptwriter read 300 scripts and kept track of why he passed on 203 of them (as well as providing interesting breakdowns on things like gender of protagonist, genre, and setting). Even if you're not a scriptwriter, the insight into storytelling, craft, and cliche may prove enlightening (encouraging, even?). 

How Not to Write a Novel (book) - A humorous, enlightening, and sometimes painful guide to many different ways a manuscript can go wrong, mercilessly covering everything from missteps in characterization and poor decisions in premises to failures in plotting. Complete with illustrative and side-splitting "excerpts."

Writing a scene and incorporating details:


11 Steps to Writing a Scene - A sort of checklist that can be helpful either while plotting a scene out (as part of a larger story outline or just before you write a particular section) or editing one.

Dos and Don'ts of Adding More Description - Some general (it not universal) advice for when you might want to expand on a scene, and when not. 

Remember, description can be active. When possible, it should be. Watch for overusing "to be" verbs. She was sad, gut-wrenchingly sad, more miserable than she had ever been in her life can become more convincing spelled out: Sobs ripped through her throat until it was raw. She dropped her mother's beloved porcelain dog, dropped the dust rag, and curled up on the floor, not caring for once about getting grime on her jeans. If anyone asked, she could blame her wet, red eyes on the dust. Assuming she was ever going to move on from this room. 
On the other hand, it doesn't have to. Maybe you don't want to spend that much time describing your character's grief as she cleans her late mother's home. Readers will grasp that it's a difficult time for her. (Personal confession: I love to indulge in description.)

All the same, it can be useful to find ways to show rather than tell--which remains popular writing advice for a reason. Along with some earlier-mentioned resources, these Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language can help communicate emotion more effectively and in ways unique to each character.

5 Ways to Increase/Decrease Suspense in Your Writing - A blogger's thoughts on how to draw out suspense or to decrease it. At first I was skeptical why anyone would want to decrease suspense, but the "decreasing" advice looks quite good as a way to build irony, use subtlety, and sometimes move the story along at a faster pace.

Just Writing:

When you need to get words out, Write or Die and Written Kitten offer negative and positive reinforcement, respectively, for typing some. And typing some more. If you fail to meet the wordcount goal you set, you either miss out on a cute kitten picture--or get your ears blasted by an unpleasant noise. Or even more creative rewards/punishments. Whatever works! 

Help! For Writers by Roy Peter Clark (book) offers a lot of suggestions for troubleshooting your way through writer's block, disorganization, and confusion. While Clark's focus and specialty is writing non-fiction articles, I think much of his advice travels well to other forms and genres.

The Varied Emotional Stages of Writing a Book - At least you know that feeling, whatever you're feeling, is normal. 

I hope these resources make your job a little easier! My next posts will include links for brainstorming plot ideas, self-editing, understanding what goes on in a slush pile, and even creating an audiobook.

Monday, August 10, 2015

"The Grace of Turning Back" at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

"The Grace of Turning Back," the final story of the Curse-Strewn World sequence, appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #179, which can be read on the BCS website or in the Kindle store.

The Tynesi merchants, who traded everything from the silver rice of Timru and perfume leaves from Simrandu to chips of ivory off the Keld’s temples, had a term for a particular sort of improvidence: to throw money, time, or strength into seeing to completion a bargain they had already got the worse end of. It’s all After-Bad, they’d say.
A useful phrase. Aniver vaguely remembered his clearheaded pleasure at first learning it.
That pleasure blossoming within his soul had been sacrificed to fuel a magelight to chase away Semira’s nightmares as they approached the edge of the world. It hadn’t meant much to him, had not made up more than a candlelight’s worth of his being, but Aniver was down to the dregs of his power now. And he was draining those dregs, perhaps After-Bad, but he didn’t think they would do much good where he was going.
Has Aniver thrown so much of himself away After-Bad that he has nothing left for his last great spell, returning Nurathaipolis and her sister cities to their proper place in time? At what cost? Can Semira help him without losing herself, too?

You'll have to read to find out, but I will say writing the ending of this one had me tearing up more than once. Maybe because I'm sentimental, maybe because the Palisades Library (where my friend got me in Tuesday evenings for weekly writing parties) was very dry, who can say?

Also, [slight spoiler follows] for those of you curious to see how a Grace with six wings might look, this gorgeous piece by Rebecca Yanovska might help provide an idea. I didn't see it until I was into the editing process, but when I did I had that feeling of recognition.

I'm very grateful to Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies for publishing the Curse-Strewn World stories, and of course to all of you for reading along with them!

While "The Grace of Turning Back" brings Aniver and Semira's stories to a conclusion, it isn't necessarily the last we'll ever see of them. Two prequel pieces are in my drafts notebook--"The Queen of Yesterday," referenced in "The Storms in Arisbat," has an interesting tale to tell, and of course there's the story of how Aniver and Semira met in the first place on The Glass-Clear Sea.

I can't promise I'll be able to smuggle a secondary-world version of the Sunk Cost Fallacy into those, but I'll surely have fun trying.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"Arnheim's World" in Analog Magazine

In the May 2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, alongside fiction from Rajnar Vajra, But Sparhawk, Robert R. Chase, Aubry Kae Anderson, and J.L. Forrest, my story "Arnheim's World" explores the economics, ethics, and (anti)sociability of terraforming.

Environment, economics, ethics, all stewing in a high-tension dilemma. Exactly the kind of thing you'd expect of me, I hope. 

I worked on this piece on and off from 2011 onward, intrigued by the idea of a person wealthy enough and motivated enough to shape a planet in their own image. The plot changed direction several times as I incorporated new concepts and found myself drawn towards one character's argument or another's as they addressed the central conflict. A lot of my science fiction stories deal with dilemma, and until I find a resolution that satisfies me they can sit unfinished for a long time. Mind, just because I pronounce myself satisfied with a story's ending doesn't mean I think any one character made the right decision--just that I sympathize with them all and find the outcome of events pleasingly...twisty. Or twisted. Sometimes I write an ending I find myself hoping readers will argue with (I still remember reading along with TV Tropes, trying to find loopholes to 'fix' "The Cold Equations"). 

For "Anheim's World," I think the conflict that most preoccupied me is less about economics than about friendship and betrayal--and times when betraying a friend may be the nobler decision.

You be the judge. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Common edits to improve your writing

A lot of editing and rewriting involves relatively minor mechanical and technical changes. A lot. Not that I'm complaining; making these simple changes is a routine part of my work, and if nothing else it keeps me steadily employed. Many of them are changes I make to my own writing on a second draft!

However, I thought it'd be helpful to share my "greatest hits": the advice I give most often, and make use of most often when revising my own work. If you can apply this advice to your own manuscript, it will become noticeably cleaner. This doesn't mean it'll be perfect--but once a story is polished technically, it can be easier to spot and address more subtle or individual strengths and weaknesses. If a manuscript is full of run-on sentences, it can be hard to even follow the plot, much less worry about how it meshes with the character arcs!

  • Which brings me to my first bit of advice, and the one tidbit of information that has been most useful to me personally this past year: the average sentence should be about 20 words long. Some will be shorter. Others will be much longer. You'll want to manage longer sentences carefully (especially if they're over 30 words), and you probably won't want to use more than one or two per paragraph. The first sentence in this bullet point is 35 words long; the third is 27. 
  • Check to make sure that a long sentence isn't in fact a run-on or a comma splice. I don't think you need to be a grammar expert to be a good storyteller. However, being able to write clear sentences is important to allow readers to follow along. Also, being able to spot and fix run-on sentences (as well as to avoid writing many of them in the first place) will save you immense amounts of time on your second draft--and, if you hire an editor, a manuscript with fewer sentence boundary errors to correct will save you money, too. 
  • When it comes to sentence boundary errors and sentence structure issues, such as parallel structure, I encourage all writers to approach them humbly. Overconfidence about my ability to write a clean sentence meant that I've taken a long time to acknowledge and fix several of my most awkward habits. I'm still catching myself using poetic comma splices or abandoning parallel structure without good reason. I suspect I'm not alone in my overconfidence, either, because sentence boundary errors are the single issue with manuscripts that I spend the most time fixing. 
  • One method to catch run-on sentences, which also is an excellent method to study your word choice and voice in general, is to read the story aloud. Listen to the places you pause--for effect or for breath--and try to make them match the punctuation on the page. Raise your voice when you write a question mark (which should only go after a direct question). Only take a breath at periods/full stops (and shorter breaths at semicolons, shorter still at commas). Learning to read aloud was an important part of my own long education in the fact that, hey, I really do write too many long sentences! 
  • The English language is not like German--it's likely that far fewer nouns need to be capitalized than you might think. That is, I more often have to put nouns in lowercase than I do capitalizing them in the manuscripts I edit. Some of these excess capitals may be hypercorrection (the same thing that causes people to say 'whom' instead of 'who' in the wrong sentence, or to say 'I feel badly' rather than 'I feel bad'). I believe you can trust your gut here. Unless a word would look distressingly wrong without the capitalization, it’s probably just fine in lowercase. 
  • However, if you don't trust your gut, here's a handy rule of thumb: a noun is capitalized if it names a unique item (the Thames river, the Story Addict blog) or is being used as part of a name (I thanked my doctor by saying "I'll never be able to repay you, Doctor Barnes"; I told my mother, "Good morning, Mom"). If not, then probably not. Note that 'Mom' is capitalized when it's addressing the mother, but lowercase otherwise. I was excited to hear Aunt Janie was coming for a visit. -vs - Her aunt, Janie, came to visit that weekend.  
  • Dialogue can appear clunky when it's always tagged in the same way. By this, I don't mean to encourage using "said-bookisms"-- "said" is a clear and invisible word. However, every line of dialogue does not need to be prefaced by "Character Name Said." That makes a manuscript look like a screenplay. Also, consider using a variety of dialogue tags--sometimes "Character name said" and sometimes "said Character Name" (odd as it sounds, I've read manuscripts that only used the latter form, and it invariably began to sound awkward). Sometimes action beats instead. The variety will keep a conversation lively and interesting to follow. However, dialogue tags that are awkward, unnecessary, or repetitive can distract a reader so much that it ruins the entire scene. 
  • Be careful of the phrase "and said". Often this is superfluous--readers will assume that the character who performs an action beat is also the speaker within the same paragraph (on which note, remember to start a new paragraph each time there's a new actor or speaker). Occasionally, adding "and said" will produce a sentence that overstays its welcome in an anticlimax--She felt her world crashing down around her, leaving behind only a hollow emptiness, a chilly void like she'd never felt before, and said, "I'm so unhappy."
  • In general, "and" sometimes links information within a sentence that doesn't need to be linked (a made-up example I enjoy sharing is She was crying on the stairway all night and she had never liked getting takeout, anyway.
  • Speaking of connecting information and avoiding anticlimax or bathos: details of character action, emotion, dialogue, and inner monologue should be carefully chosen to contribute to a particular mood and communicate specific ideas. Be careful of language that might be distracting or carry connotations you don't intend. Synonyms rarely mean the exact same thing. 
  • I always highlight repeated words in manuscripts. It's a good idea to avoid repeating the same word within a brief amount of space unless it is necessary to make a point or communicate clearly. Depending on how unique a word sounds, and thus how memorable or noticeable it is, I suggest avoiding an echo of it within the same sentence (always), within two adjacent sentences (usually), within a single paragraph, or even within a full page or entire chapter. Likewise avoid repeating the same figure of speech. 
  • Some of the most common verbs I find myself highlighting are turning/turned, looking/looked, walking/walked, and smiling/smiled. Some writers attack the problem of characters turning, looking, walking, and smiling too much by using synonyms, which is good for word variety but may still lead to characters behaving in eerily repetitive ways. Consider cutting some instances of these words and synonyms, but also consider when different word choice would be stronger. She looked at her mother angrily could become She glared at her mother. Likewise, She walked towards him could be She approached him or She stalked towards him depending on the nature of the scene. And lastly, these verbs can be unnecessary within context. Characters can be assumed to have turned to the person they're addressing (if they haven't, this is worth mentioning), to have looked at an object the narrative in their point of view is describing, or to have walked to the room they come into. 
  • A weird fact: 'blond/e' is one of very few English words that is gendered. Men are never blonde, they are blond
  • Dialogue is considered part of the same sentence as the dialogue tag.  “She said” is not a complete sentence. It should be connected to the line of dialogue by a comma. Capitalize appropriately. This one is worth stressing, being perhaps the second most common error I correct, and common among manuscripts that are otherwise very polished. 
  • I have a personal preference for showing only dialogue in quotation marks, and putting all other communication (such as written text the characters are reading) in italics. There isn’t complete consensus on this, though. All the same, I suggest avoiding reader confusion by never using quotation marks for a character's unspoken inner monologue. Instead, use italics (I thought, this story is harder to understand than I expected. I muttered to myself, "I could write a blog post about this."). The risk here is making it look like your character has just called his boss an unprintable word aloud, and readers will wonder why he isn't being fired.
  • Passive voice is to be avoided except for when there is a specific reason in favor of using it. Aside from being verbose, passive voice obscures the identity of whoever is performing the action, adding an unnecessary air of mystery (except for when the writer uses passive voice to build an air of mystery very deliberately). Passive voice can also blur the line between action and description--was the ladder set against the wall when they entered the room, or is the protagonist leaning it there right now?
  • Filters such as I thought, I felt, I heard, and I remembered are often unnecessary, and can be cut unless they contribute to clarity or sentence rhythm. 
  • It's common advice to "show" rather than "tell," but it's important to focus on "showing" the most important details (it is the storyteller's privilege and duty to decide what details are most important to the story). Use "telling" to communicate information that needs to be known to make sense of the story, but isn't dramatic or significant enough for showing. If a detail doesn't really add to the story, you don't need to mention it at all unless you want to. 
  • Melodrama is a matter of personal taste. In general, though, I believe most manuscripts benefit from making use of subtly and having extreme and intense moments stand out because of their rarity. If every character screams their dialogue in every scene, it becomes harder to tell when a disagreement is really serious. If a character bursts into tears over failing to find a parking space, it'll be a struggle to show how much worse the character feels when Aunt Janie goes missing. 
  • Once information is shown or told, it won't need to be introduced again, although it may be referred to as the character has cause to remember it. Outlining can help you keep track of when you introduced specific information, and that will keep you from repetition that leaves the reader thinking "Yes, I know already, get on with it!" Rereading will also help catch this. 
  • Nobody wants to think they have unwarranted tense changes in their first draft--but it's quite likely that you do. I almost always do, because I write my outlines in present tense and most of my fiction in the past tense. Sometimes when an author gets caught up in the moment, they switch into present tense. And authors who intend to write an entire story in present tense will sometimes slip up and use past. Luckily, this is usually quite simple to fix; just be aware that this happens so you aren't caught unprepared. 
  • Always look up the spelling of brand names, trademarks, and websites. They tend to be idiosyncratic. Also, once you've looked them up, ignore Autocorrect when it tries to tell you differently. 
  • Speaking of looking up spelling, the Merriam-Webster dictionary is free online, and can be very useful to check spelling and to make sure a word means exactly what you're using it for. Bookmark it.
  • Merriam-Webster will sometimes give you multiple ways to spell a word, especially when it comes to hyphenated ones (although as a quick rule of thumb, adjectives are often hyphenated when nouns are not. He's a blue-eyed boy with blue eyes.) Once you decide on a preferred spelling, you may want to make a note of it on a 'style sheet.' This is also a good way to keep track of formatting decisions (such as whether you spell out numbers or use digits--fiction writing leans towards spelling out most numbers under 1,000--and whether or not you're using the serial/Oxford comma). Copyeditors make style sheets for each manuscript they're working with. They don't have to be fancy. A Post-It note over your laptop that reads "always use hyphen when says so; spell one-nine hundred ninety nine and write 1,000<; no Oxford comma; A.M. and P.M." does the job as well. 
  • Metaphors are an area of great risk and great reward. Some people don't think in analogies at all, while others live in a parallel world populated by associations. I'm in the latter group myself, and I enjoy rich, poetic metaphors that build a story thematically and use language in fun ways. However, be careful of cliches, and do make sure your metaphors fit the tone and setting of the story (“The death of Romeo set Juliet on an emotional roller coaster.”) 
  • And lastly, a piece of advice for being edited: it will take time, but be sure to look over each change as you accept it. I always try to protect the voice of each writer, but sometimes I'll rewrite a sentence to offer an example. Or I'll suggest several different changes, and the author can pick the one that fits their story best. Perhaps I'll suggest something that absolutely clashes with the story's goals, and the author will have to click the "Reject Change" button. That said, editors do try hard to make a story the best it can be, and we don't make our suggestions lightly. If you're rejecting every change an editor suggests, consider why that is. Possibly your styles don't mix--but it's not a sign of disparagement for your original authorial voice to correct run-on sentences or suggest you double check the spelling of a word. Be an active partner in polishing your story, and you, your editor, and your readers will be better off from it. 
  • A lot of what I learned about writing I learned from being edited. I also learned a lot about writing by helping to edit others' work (both in critique groups and even now, as a professional editor). I learned several things about writing by carefully reading others' stories, both published and unpublished. And I learned a lot about writing from, well, writing! Never let pass an opportunity to learn. Reading, writing, and rewriting will also help you think more about stories and give you inspiration for your next work. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"For Lost Time" up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Lose no time in going to check out the latest installment in Across the Curse-Strewn World, a short story sequence following the wizard Aniver and his friend Semira's quest to rescue his home city, which has somehow become lost in time.

Their discoveries in the terrifying library of Arisbat have pointed Aniver and Semira in the right direction, but what a direction it is--the source of the blight that struck Nurathaipolis appears to have come from the Kingdom of the Dead. Aniver's reckless plan requires that he scout out the territory first...

"For Lost Time" appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #165, and can be read on the BCS website or on Kindle.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Free-to-use, high quality photography for ebook covers and more

It's been a busy start to the new year, which I appreciate but means that blogging has taken a backseat to writing, editing, etc. When I get really busy, I often find that lists are a simple way to keep me in the blogging groove. 
Writers, especially self-published writers, often need to find excellent images for their covers and websites--but on a budget. Luckily, the Internet (and some stunningly talented artists!) provides. Here are 8 websites offering images that are public domain, Creative Commons licensed, or otherwise suitable for personal and commercial uses. For free.

[One of my favorite images from Spiltshire)

Unsplash releases 10 stunning images every 10 days under a Creative Commons “Do whatever you want” license. They also take submissions of photography, if you’d like to provide your own images.

Little Visuals does something similar, releasing blocks of 7 images every week.

The Library of Congress has searchable image collections on its website.

Gratisography is the work of artist and designer Ryan McGuire, who offers his surreal and dreamlike images free of copyright restrictions.

Splitshire offers free stock photos for personal and commercial use, including images of food, people, and landscapes.

The WeFunction design blog offers some free high-resolution photos of locations, textures, and whatever else the volunteer amateur (but talented!) photographer wants to snap.

Picjumbo offers free stock images in several categories.

You can search Flickr for Creative Commons licensed images—be sure that the boxes are checked for commercial use and modification permissions if you intend to publish edited images or make money off your use of them.
Some of these sites require attribution, some do not. I suggest you always err on the side of attributing, both to give credit the artist and to spread the word about the image resource!