Writing in Flow

Guest post by Vicki Hunt Budge.

Vicki Hunt Budge grew up in southern Idaho with a mother who read to her and a father who taught her how to golf and swim. She attended Idaho State University and the University of Utah. Vicki began writing for the Friend magazine when her children were young and she’s published many stories and articles for LDS church magazines since that time. She is the author of three LDS Women’s Fiction in the Hope & Healing Series: Intercession, Renewal, and the newly released, Deliverance. Her books explore the miracle of addiction recovery, and are available on Amazon.

What is flow?

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” He claims that flow begins when you are working on an activity that you really like and that your challenges and skills are higher than average.

Writers recognize this experience when they are so absorbed in their work that they don’t feel tired or hungry, and they lose track of time. For me, I first experienced this complete immersion in writing when I worked on Intercession. The feeling of working in flow increased with each book as I became so engrossed with my characters and their story that I forgot about dinner, or didn’t realize the sun had gone down. It is a time of pure contentment.

So how do we find this state of flow in our day-to-day writing?

Here are some things that have worked for me.I improved my skills by reading books and blogs on the fundamentals of plot, characterization, point of view, and motivation. I watched Dan Wells’ Seven Plot Points online and studied the fundamentals of the Hero’s Journey. I joined Indie Author Hub and other online writing groups, gleaning everything I could from other authors. I attended workshops.

Many times when I learned something new and important from my studies, I went back to my manuscript and rewrote what I had written. After hearing Jeff Savage talk about first chapters in a writing class, I went home and rewrote the first chapter of Intercession. The following week, as a follow-up, he critiqued several students’ first chapters. I went home and rewrote the first chapter—again. It took nearly four years to complete Intercession and publish it. The more I learned and the more I wrote, the more I experienced flow.

Several years ago I served as a Cub Scout den mother. I learned an important concept in the initial training. No matter how much fun the boys were having, stop after one hour. I was told that the boys might whine because they were having so much fun, but they would remain excited to come back next week if we ended on time. The same principle works with writing for me. I try to stop with a scene that I’m looking forward to writing. When it’s time to work on the story again, I’m excited to start. Writer’s block is eliminated.

Don’t waste time finding the perfect word for a scene.

I’ve heard that a lot, but it’s hard to do because I’m in love with words. Words are one of the things I love most about writing. Now I’ve trained myself to type xxx when I’m not sure what word or thought I need at that point in the manuscript. I keep writing and viola! When I later go back to reread and edit, the elusive word or phrase almost always flows into my thoughts.

I also don’t stress over how many times I use certain words—like was or that. It breaks the flow. Once again, when I’m rewriting, I love to spot It breaks the flow. Once again, when I’m rewriting, I love to spot problem or repetitive words and enjoy the challenge of making the writing better. Tighter.

Elmore Leonard advises writers to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I’ve found this to be true. Too much description and too many unimportant details cause me to skip ahead when I’m reading. After my first book, I found it easier to spot and avoid unnecessary parts to my second and third books. The writing became more natural—allowing me to get into the flow of things without having so much to cut in the revisions.

As writers, we’ve all heard of “show, don’t tell.” Sometimes, when I’m stuck with what to write next, I tell instead of show. I place the computer on all caps and write myself a note right there in the middle of the manuscript. I don’t have to struggle with how to begin the scene or who says what. I simply tell myself about the scene as I envision it. Those notes to myself are the jumpstart I need the next day or the next week to fully write that scene and show instead of tell. Because I have a blueprint in front of me, it enables me to get right into flow. Naturally, I delete the note from my manuscript.
Often when I start these notes to myself, and I’m not at a stopping point for the day, the storyteller in me takes over. I’m able to drop the all caps and continue the story with dialogue and action.

Several years ago our family had a small farm. Every spring we flushed the irrigation pipes by pumping water through each of our three lines. We almost always flushed a rock chuck or two out of those pipes. Sometimes writers struggle with brain fog that, like a rock chuck in a pipe, causes blockage. I’ve found that cutting sugar and dairy out of my diet flushes brain fog right out of my head. I can think and imagine scenes clearly. Writing flows just like water in a pipe.

In high school, my friend, Jeanie, taught me to play table tennis. She was far above my skill level. When I got discouraged because of the disparity in our abilities, she encouraged me by saying I would improve faster by playing against someone better. I found this principle to be true with writing too. To improve my writing skills, I have read hundreds of books by best-selling and polished writers. And like table tennis or any activity, I’ve found that my writing improves by the number of good books I’ve read. To quote Stephen King, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

Not every writing day is fun and full of flow. Writing is hard work and sometimes frustrating. But we can set ourselves up with opportunities where flow occurs. When we are completely involved in our writing, and our challenges and skills are higher than average, we find true immersion possible, and can truly enjoy the process of writing.

Pick-up Lines

We often hear about how every story needs a killer first line that hooks the reader and drags them into the story. But how often do we really stop and think about the opening lines we read? If you’re like me, you probably barely even notice them, and don’t remember them when you’re done with the next line, let alone the story.

So how do we learn to write great first lines? Well, one way is to find some examples to study. I recently had just such an opportunity when I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s short story collection, “Word Puppets”. Two of the stories have won Hugo awards, and one was nominated.

So let’s look at her first lines:

Light dappled through the trees in the family courtyard, painting shadows on the paving stones. (The Bound Man)

Dear Grandma, Your letters beat me to Husa and I’ve told the computer to dole them out at the intervals that you sent them. (Chrysalis)

As the warrior guided his horse back home, she pondered what the future might hold. (Rampion)

Kahe peeked over the edge of the earthen trench as his tribe’s retreating warriors broke from the bamboo grove onto the lava field. (At the Edge of Dying)

The clockwork chickadee was not as pretty as the nightingale. (The Clockwork Chickadee)

Saskia leaned into the darkness above the stage, only vaguely aware of the wooden rail against her hips as she re-tied the left headstring on her marionette. (Body Language)

The sun peeking through the grapevines felt hotter on Bharat Mundari’s neck than twenty-four degrees. (Waiting for Rain)

Mary Elois Jackson stood inside the plain steel box of the time machine. (First Flight)

Sliding his hands over the clay, Sly relished the moisture oozing around his fingers. (Evil Robot Monkey)

The afternoon sun angled across the scarred wood counter despite the bamboo shade Elise had lowered. (The Consciousness Problem)

His keys dropped, rattling on the parquet floor. (For Solo Cello, op. 12)

With one hand, Rava adjusted the VR interface glasses where they bit into the bridge of her nose, while she kept her other hand buried in Cordelia’s innards. (For Want of a Nail)

I was born Rosa Carlotta Silvana Grisanti, but in the mid-eighties, I legally changed my name to Eve. (The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland)

Melia adjusted Dora’s salt-suit, feeling as if it were futile because the two-year old would have the sweatband off her head the instant Melia’s back was turned. (Salt of the Earth)

Half-consciously, Kim put a hand up to cover her new nose ring. (American Changeling)

Viola leaned across the white tablecloth of Luigi’s Interstellar Cafe and Pub. (The White Phoenix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Ninjas)

Doubled over with another hacking cough, Fidel Dobes turned away from his 1402 punchcard reader. (We Interrupt This Broadcast)

Watching his mother kneel awkwardly in her rented space suit, Aaron worried his lower lip inside his own helmet. (Rockets Red)

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. (The Lady Astronaut of Mars)

Is anyone else thinking the same thing I am after reading all of these: wow, these are…underwhelming? I’ve read every one of these stories–and liked them a lot–and yet very few of these seem all that spectacular.

A large portion of them simply describe an image: the sun through the leaves or blind-slats. A person in a pose or engaged in a minor movement. Only two begin with more than casual energy; the keys dropping to the floor and the character coughing violently.

Not one begins in anything typically considered in medias res. There are no explosions or gunfire, no fistfights, no crashes–nothing jarring at all, for the most part.

And yet nearly all of them begin in the middle of something. Most of them present an image that sets the stage, dangling a little tidbit sufficiently unusual or out of place to make the reader read the next line to see if it sheds light on the “out of place” detail:

The sun angles across the counter in spite of someone having lowered the blind. Why?

Why does this person have her hand buried in someone’s innards, and why are VR goggles involed?

Why are we talking about a clockwork chickadee (let’s face it, those two words alone are all the hook the story needs)?

Why is the writer stealing the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz”?

Why did the guy drop his keys?

All of these first lines, whether unremarkable or not, are designed to make the reader want to read the second line, which is usually designed to raise more questions than it answers.

Studying these first lines is a relief, in a way. This is an award-winning writer, and yet her hooks are not overtly phenomenal. They’re not what I would normally think of when someone tells me my first lines really need to grab the reader. We don’t need to spend a lot of time crafting the perfect opening line that would make Hemingway or Bradbury weep at the sheer beauty.

But we do need to pluck the reader’s mental guitar strings. We need to make them ask questions. We need to present them a vivid image to grab onto and explore further. We need to make them wonder what is going on–without scaring them off with sheer unfamiliarity (An opening line like, “Flarren zigged the gormlesh with the capachegger” probably isn’t going to invite the reader to continue–it’s just too much unusual in one go).

I think, though, that too often we get he feeling that our readers need to be dragged into our stories against their wills, and I don’t think that’s the case. If they’re picking up a story they’re wanting it to be good. They’re wanting it to get their attention. It won’t need the absolute perfect lure to do so, just an opening line that gives them a little spark of imagery and mystery enough to move on to the next line and the next.

It’s not easy to provide that, but it’s probably not as hard as we’re made to think.

How Long is a Story?

Guest Post by James Wymore.

James Wymore grew up on a heavy diet of movies and books that morphed his real life adventures into imaginary worlds. His james-wymore-bwpublished works span the fiction spectrum, including many different genres in the best-selling Actuator series. He’s an acquisitions manager for Immortal Works Press and can often be found at conventions running games with hundreds of players.

One thing about writing that I never liked is the endless counting and sorting of stories. I just wanted to write great fiction. Then I found out it has to be classified by genre, sorted by audience age, and submitted by word count. All of these ways to dissect narrative bothered me from the beginning. Is Star Wars a sci-fi or fantasy? Is The Lord of the Rings for teens or adults? If I write 17,503 words, it’s a novella. But if I take six of them out, it’s only a short story.

I wanted to write for everybody, teen or adult. I liked stories to span all the genres. Most of all, I couldn’t accept arbitrary word numbers as a hard-fast rule for what gets published where. So I imagined a different kind of story-world. What came out of it is the Actuator series. Literally spanning every major genre for all audiences, I wanted a world expressed by characters of all types, which meant many different story lengths. Only it rapidly became clear I was in way over my head. So I put it aside and wrote something else less complicated.

When I met Aiden James, co-author for two of the books in the series, he offered to help me work through it. The idea intrigued him.

The Actuator, a machine capable of literally changing reality, was created to make a utopian paradise. Before it happened, a saboteur used it to transform the world into patches of every kind of genre fiction, scattering the keys necessary to put it back across the globe. Everyone alive found their lives radically altered, some living in fantasy realms with real magic and others in incomprehensible horrors. Thrown into chaos, people struggled against aliens, pirates, orcs, and vampires. Many died. Only a handful of people on the planet, called Machine Monks, even knew why it happened or how. Now they have to put it all back before humanity is destroyed.

As the first book (Fractured Earth) came together, I realized we were just telling one story in a whole planet covered with broken and altered lives. Other authors began to express interest in the setting and even said they had ideas for stories set in this world. I had my hands full keeping track of the dozen or so characters in what was rapidly becoming an epic. So I approached my publisher, Curiosity Quills Press, and pitched the idea of a short story collection to them. I loved that they were willing to publish something outside the box—this box being standard genre, age, and word counts. They agreed, and I became the “editor.” We made guidelines and opened to submissions. Then I just waited, wondering if anybody would even want to play in somebody else’s sandbox.

The response was overwhelming! I had stories set all over the world, from authors all over the world. The depth of ideas blew me away. The stories spanned the genres in all different sizes. What shocked me most, was how much it expanded my own understanding of the milieu I’d created. Reviews agreed, the tight theme improved the collection (Borderlands Anthology).

I wrote the next book in the series (Return of the Saboteur), incorporating some of the characters and ideas from those fantastic stories into the main storyline. However, once it came out, it felt like the main plot was too narrow. There were so many characters scattered across the world that weren’t getting page time.

Again I turned to my author friends and asked if any of them would be interested in picking up any of these loose threads. Several jumped at the opportunity. Some came back with novellas. All of them fleshed out secondary characters in ways that made me realize I needed them back in the main story line. Although it started as an anthology, I realized these stories had to be part of the super-plot because I needed all of them for the climax at the end. So we changed this book (Chaos Chronicles) to be book 3 and I steered the final book in a new and even more amazing direction.

So how long is a story? Some of the stories in this series are only 1,000 words. However, the whole series is really just one story as it affects billions of people. It’s really half a million words spread between genres and carried by many authors to become something larger. I know it won’t change how the industry rates and classifies books. Still, it proves what I always thought. Genre, audience, and word counts should just be guides. Authors shouldn’t be penalized for telling the stories they love because it doesn’t fit in a neat marketing box. I have a couple dozen authors that seem to agree with me, too.

I guess the old cliché is true—write what you love. Let the readers sort it out.

If you’d like to read some of this huge, crazy, and fun project, the first two books and the anthology will be on sale for just 99 cents each on Thursday and Friday, December 15 and 16. Book 3, Chaos Chronicles, just came out this week. The last book is in editing and scheduled to come out in 2017.


The Actuator Series:

Borderlands Anthology https://www.amazon.com/Actuator-1-5-Borderlands-Anthology-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00NH8V3SA

1 – Fractured Earth https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00EI77VS0

2 – Return of the Saboteur https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0120NKE64

3 – Chaos Chronicles https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MRWT2N3


Variations on a theme

By now many of you have seen the Marble Machine, a contraption built by a Swedish musician to play a complex tune with the turn of a crank. If not, take a listen/look here:


Less known is that the group Wintergatan, of whom the musician/inventor is the leader, has also created a live cover of the same song. The machine itself isn’t durable or reliable enough to be included in their concerts, but the song itself is famous, and many fans come to concerts just for the one song. Here’s their live version at a music festival:

But wait, they’re not done yet! Evidently a lot of fans have requested the sheet music for the tune so they can play it themselves. Happy to please, the group has provided the sheet music, a tutorial, and a live performance of the piano version of this same tune:

When I saw they were producing a third version of the song I admit I didn’t expect much. I mean really, who needs three versions of the same song? And yet the change of instrumentation, a change of tempo, and a little variation of the theme and it’s practically a new song with a much different mood.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Popular wisdom holds that there aren’t really any new stories any more, just retellings of the same original stories. We’ve certainly seen it in the recent trend of resetting fairy tales in modern or other settings. We’ve seen it in the Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven (Yul Brenner) / Magnificent Seven (Denzel Washington) variations on the same story. We’ve seen it in The Hidden Fortress / Star Wars IV / Eragon / Star Wars VII sequence of variations.

So if it’s true that there are no new stories, what is a writer to do? Well, keep the bones of the story and “re-orchestrate” the rest. Just like the second version of Marble Machine took the various instruments within the machine and “re-cast” them to live musicians, sometimes with several musicians covering a single part from the original, a writer can take the more flexible components of the story and rework them or hand them over to new characters.

Or, like in the third variation, we can keep much of the story intact, right down to one person doing it all, but change the mood entirely.

When Wintergatan set out to create their live version they undoubtedly took the original piece apart, piece by piece, and examined what they could differently with that piece. Some of it was obvious: take the bass line and give it to a real bass player, and then let him expand on what was written in the rather limited original. Some of it was less obvious: the machine sounds are part of the actual music, so what do we do with them? They imitated some of them (the “cranking” sound given to the snare drum), while discarding others (no one was dropping marbles on the stage). In other cases they used several musicians to cover a single instrument, such as the two vibraphone players and keyboardist to make the “xylophone” sound.

Similarly, when creating the piano version, they looked at the entire piece and looked for what they could do without. Clearly any other instruments were out, and they made no attempt at all to imitate any of the machine sounds. Instead they pared the song down to its basics, and then tweaked it to play better to the unique capabilities and timbre of the piano. They didn’t try to fight the fact that the same chords on the piano sound more soulful; the embraced it and adjusted the tempo to match.

So whether we’re deliberately setting out to rework a known story or simply trying to avoid being insufficiently original, we can apply the same approach: break it down to its essentials. What can we do with it that’s not been done before? How can we adapt core elements of the story to our own unique interests and strengths? How can we turn a common component completely on its head? How can we surprise the reader?

But last of all, don’t let any story become “automatic”. Just as the Marble Machine still required some musical interaction from the operator, we should never let our stories become entirely mechanical. If we find ourselves getting into that trap it’s time to put on the brakes and demonstrate our artistry, even within the confines of the framework we’ve given ourselves.

For writing, like music, is an art. We are artists. Just like my college music history professor could play the same Beethoven Sonata as Arthur Rubenstein and have them sound uniquely different, we each bring our own artistic distinctness to our writing. That is what makes art Art, and not just the mechanical reproduction of sounds, words, pigments, movements, or whatever it may be.

The Marble Machine is, in itself, a work of art. And yet there is a reason why many composers still use real orchestras instead of the increasingly authentic-sounding synthesizer/sampler keyboards of today. Variation is still the essence of art.


Just Do It!

Guest post by Laura L. Walker.

Laura L. Walker grew up in a large family in the beautiful Gila Valley of southern Arizona. From the time Laura was young, she spent hours drawing characters on paper and fantasizing about their imageadventures. Life became more serious, however, when Laura met her own hero and they eventually became the parents of six children. In between spurts of grocery shopping, sewing costumes or quilts, transporting kids to practices, and making dinner, Laura still enjoys putting her imagination to good use. She is the author of two LDS contemporary romances, Pierced by Love and The Matchup.


From the earliest time I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. I enjoyed thinking of new characters and making up stories for them in my head. As I grew older, I started to put these ideas on paper. But the only thing that remained consistent in my writing at that point was that I would start a project but never finish once I got bored with it. In retrospect, I realize now that the real reason I never finished any of my stories was because I didn’t know enough about story structure. But alas, I guess I didn’t really need to know this stuff because college came, then marriage, and a whole slew of other parenting challenges to keep me going. Writing took a huge backburner. In fact, at one point in my motherhood career, I realized in shock that I had no real talents other than cooking and cleaning because I couldn’t find time to develop any. I seriously thought that becoming a published author was an extinguished dream never to catch flame again.

Fast forward twelve years: As my personal challenges mounted and life seemingly became too overwhelming, I picked up the pen . . . er, rather . . . my laptop once again (technology changed dramatically in that time lapse). I pitched a rather sketchy story idea to my husband Rob and to my surprise, he not only encouraged me to write the story, but added vital details and helped me flesh out the plot more fully. A story was born. Mind you, still not a very good one, but you get the idea.

When I finished writing and editing it, I stared at the manuscript and thought, Now what? (If I had been smarter, I would have handed off my manuscript to a couple of beta readers other than my family members. Are you cringing? I do whenever I remember this.) Again, Rob helped me find publishers online to submit it to. We found a few that didn’t require queries (I steered clear of those since I knew absolutely nothing about pitching a query) and submitted my very first manuscript to a few small presses.As you might guess, I promptly received a rejection letter from one. But to our astonishment, I received an offer of publication from another and accepted. Heaven, right?

As you might guess, I promptly received a rejection letter from one. But to our astonishment, I received an offer of publication from another and accepted. Heaven, right?Not even close—for the simple fact that I was now required to market my book with my extremely limited computer knowledge (remember how I said that technology had changed?) and my story, as wonderful as I had thought it was, actually needed a LOT more work. Although my publisher and editors were great to work with, I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer amount they wanted me to change in a very short time. Stressful much? Yeah! I tearfully and hurriedly made the changes, not really taking the time I needed to absorb the reasons behind the required changes. I suspect that if I had done this, I would have understood story structure much better.

Not even close—for the simple fact that I was now required to market my book with my extremely limited computer knowledge (remember how I said that technology had changed?) and my story, as wonderful as I had thought it was, actually needed a LOT more work. Although my publisher and editors were great to work with, I felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer amount they wanted me to change in a very short time. Stressful much? Yeah! I tearfully and hurriedly made the changes, not really taking the time I needed to absorb the reasons behind the required changes. I suspect that if I had done this, I would have understood story structure much better.Unfortunately, this same scenario repeated itself a second time with my next book, which had been written shortly after the first while I was waiting to hear back from publishers, so I made almost the same mistakes the second-go-around. And my publisher again required an inordinate amount of reworking to be done on the plot in less than a month.

Unfortunately, this same scenario repeated itself a second time with my next book, which had been written shortly after the first while I was waiting to hear back from publishers, so I made almost the same mistakes the second-go-around. And my publisher again required an inordinate amount of reworking to be done on the plot in less than a month.By this time, I had become immersed in the writing world. I’d found my people online. I read article after article on writing and couldn’t seem to get enough. I learned about the try/fail cycle in which your main character needs to try something new and a little bit scary and then actually fail at it before he or she finally succeeds near the end. I learned that one or more characters need to hold a secret of some kind. I learned that for romance, the genre I write, the guy and girl need to meet in the first scene and there needs to be a moment about three quarters of the way through where it seems all is lost and then somehow show that love will prevail.

By this time, I had become immersed in the writing world. I’d found my people online. I read article after article on writing and couldn’t seem to get enough. I learned about the try/fail cycle in which your main character needs to try something new and a little bit scary and then actually fail at it before he or she finally succeeds near the end. I learned that one or more characters need to hold a secret of some kind. I learned that for romance, the genre I write, the guy and girl need to meet in the first scene and there needs to be a moment about three-quarters of the way through where it seems all is lost and then somehow show that love will prevail.

Yes, I published two stories without knowing most of these things (thank goodness the editors knew more than me!) It isn’t enough to have a talent for writing, although that helps and can certainly be improved upon. A real writer, though, is always learning. That is why I have found writing workshops to be so helpful for me in the last few years. Learn your craft and, like your characters, don’t be afraid to try new things.

I’ve spent the past seven months writing a story with a more intricate plot than I’ve ever written before. It contains three subplots. The seven months is only the tip of the iceberg, however. I started this story three years ago, reworked the outline/plot dozens of times, and finally hunkered down to really shape it into the story it needed to be. In the process, I learned more about writing than I can express. I’m still waiting to learn its fate. It’s a good story and I’ll either find the right publisher or self-publish it. (This is another new thing I’ve tried recently. With the help of my writing community, I found that it’s not as scary as I thought it would be.)

In some ways, I’m grateful that I was blissfully unaware in the early stages of my career of the dangers of writing. If I had known that early readers would mock my writing style as being “simplistic” and that one would even throw my book across the room, I wouldn’t have taken a step forward into that dark abyss. Nor would I have experienced the joy of a reader expressing that she enjoyed my story or, better yet, encouraging me to keep writing.

As Helen Keller put it, “Life is either a grand adventure or nothing!” Or as the old motto for the athletic shoes goes, JUST DO IT!

You’ll never know what you can accomplish if you take that first scary step. There’s an army of writers to support you. You have an arsenal of knowledge and talent. You have a hard work ethic. You are a fighter. Just do it and be glad you did!

Looking backward

When the time comes for young Anakin Skywalker to leave Tatooine to become a Jedi his mother tells him to go, and not look back. In the Bible when Lot and his family flee Sodom they are told to not look back. Every day we’re told to not dwell on the past.

Sometimes that’s good advice. But sometimes it’s good to look back, get some perspective, and see how far you’ve come. Dust off those old “trunk novels”. Re-read those old short stories. Pull out the partial manuscripts of projects begun but never finished.

Take a good look at where you were as a writer back then compared to today. See some progress? What have you learned since then? What bad habits have you overcome? What weaknesses have you shored up and turned into strengths?

What sort of stories did you like to tell back then compared to now? What kinds of characters did you find most appealing? How have your tastes changed?

One of the best results of a stroll down memory lane is the chance to see what actual progress you’ve made. People usually improve gradually–so gradually, in fact, that often it seems like we’re not actually improving. One of the best ways to notice that change and put it all in perspective is to compare your current writing to your old writing.

Need some encouragement and motivation? Take a look at your old writing. Chances are you’ve made progress. Cut yourself some slack. Most writers, like their projects, are a work in progress. Take a moment to look back and see how far you’ve come.

To borrow from the old cigarette ads, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Helping Readers Suspend Disbelief

Guest Post  by Loralee Evans

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with my mom or dad while they read me stories like The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, or Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. head-shot-for-booksThese memories, along with many great teachers who got me excited about reading, are what helped me develop a love of reading and writing. I have lived in Missouri, Texas, and Utah, and even spent a year and a half in Japan. I enjoy the works of many authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Harper Lee.

All writers want one thing: for readers to immerse themselves into the writers’ stories, care about the characters, and go along on their journeys with them.

In order for that to happen, writers need to convince readers to suspend their disbelief. Writers need to give readers a reason to put their day to day personal beliefs on hold in order to enjoy a story that contains situations that the reader may not normally believe in, like magic or anthropomorphic animals (animals that can talk, reason, and often dress like humans).

The phrase “suspension of disbelief” or “willing suspension of disbelief” was a phrase coined in 1817 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

Most readers going into a story want to suspend their disbelief. But suspension of disbelief has its limits. Readers are willing to believe in a world where there are unicorns or flying cars, but they won’t be willing to believe in a story that is inconsistent.

So how do we build a world that is fictional, yet believable at the same time?

Here are six suggestions that can help us do that.
1. Build Your World.
2. Remember Common Sense.
3. Do Your Research.
4. Create Convincing Characters.
5. Keep Your Narrative and Dialogue Consistent with Your World.
6. Keep Your Own Rules.

1. Build Your World with consistency. Establish your world’s societal laws, religions, customs, animals, plants, etc. around the natural realities of your world.

Author Brandon Sanderson is a master of this. In his series The Stormlight Archives, he created Roshar, a world that is regularly bombarded by hurricane force winds. These winds could easily rip a tree out of the ground, or kill the animals we’re familiar with. So he created plants called rockbuds and animals with exoskeletons like large crabs that could hunker down and withstand these winds. Even the world’s religion and swear words revolve around the reality of these storms.

When creating your own stories, keep the realities of your world in mind and mold your world around its natural laws. In short, don’t ignore universal laws or common sense.

2. Speaking of Common Sense, good writers are both creative and logical. Believable worlds are both fascinating and grounded in logic.

In the story Dinotopia, for example, meat-eating dinosaurs logically consider humans food, not friends.

Having said that, in certain stories, especially children’s stories like Matilda who had a horrible, abusive principal, it is one thing to ignore certain realities in order to tell a fun tale. It is another thing to create an inconsistency because of a lack of research on the author’s part.

3. In other words, when we take the time to do Research, the risks of getting something wrong, are reduced.

In my most recently published book, Felicity and the Fire Stoppers, my main character Felicity, an anthropomorphic sparrow, is trying to help a group of Hot Shot firefighters escape a wild fire that has gotten beyond their control. Before writing the book, I knew precious little about what real fire fighters would do in one situation or another. And so, since I wanted my story to be plausible, I did research. Not only did I find as much as I could on the internet, I also asked a couple of firefighters themselves. And they were helpful in correcting my misconceptions, validating what I did have right, and generally making sure I had my facts straight.

If we get something inaccurate because of our own lack of planning, research, or common sense, people will notice. And they won’t like it!

Remember: Most readers go into a story wanting to believe it. It is our job to make a story believable for them.

4. Another way we do that is to Create Convincing Characters.

Make sure your protagonist has goals and motivations to which your reader can relate, and that are believable. Don’t make him perfect, but don’t make him too flawed, either. You want him to be someone your readers can both believe in and care about. Readers do not expect or want perfection. What they do want, is a protagonist who gives an honest effort. If good things simply fall into his lap, your audience will not find him plausible or care about what happens to him.

With your antagonist, don’t make him evil for the sake of being evil. His reasons must be logical. At least to him.

In other words, characters need to be people. Not puppets!

5. One way to ensure that, is to Keep Your Narrative and Dialogue Consistent With Your World.

Have the language of your characters and narrator contain only words and ideas that people in that world/time period would know. Don’t say something like “The cloud was as thin as a jet’s trail…” in either narrative or dialogue if your characters are not familiar with what a jet is.

Additionally, make sure you use appropriate grammar that fits the story, the characters, and the setting. It’s okay to use “bad” grammar if it fits your story or your characters. But it needs to have a purpose.

6. Last, but perhaps most important of all, KEEP YOUR OWN RULES! Once you’ve established the rules of your world and universe, keep them.

I remember watching a documentary where George Lucas was talking about the Star Wars movies. From the beginning, whenever there was any ship in space, there was sound accompanying it. With the big ships, there was a deep rumble, and with little fighters, there would be this zipping sound increasing as it came toward the camera, and then decreasing as it went away just like cars do in real life. But at one point, after a number of the movies had already been made, someone pointed out that there actually is no sound in space. Mr. Lucas, however, didn’t say to his fans, “Oh, guys! I just discovered there’s no noise in space! I will now make sure there’s no noise in space!” He kept the first rule he had established, and noise in space remained. Mr. Lucas knew the necessity of keeping his own rules. His audience had already accepted the truth that there is noise in space in his world, and were okay with that. If he changed the rules of his story, he would have caused an inconsistency, which would have been more implausible than simply leaving the rule he’d already made that there is noise in space in his universe.

In conclusion, following guidelines like the ones suggested here, doesn’t means that you have to stifle your imagination or creativity. What it does mean, is that as authors, we owe it to readers to harness (not stifle) our creative energy and direct it in such a way that we can create stories our audience can believe. Remember to establish and keep your own rules, and create stories that are logical, populated with characters readers can care about and believe in. Readers want to follow you wherever you lead them.

Let’s give them a reason to!

Feedback for the win

My daughter is an artist. She recently discovered a video channel where two professional artists invite budding artists to send in submissions that they then critique in a video, often demonstrating what they’re talking about by touching up the artists painting as they talk. I’ve watched some of these with her, and they’re fascinating. I’m not an artist, and I still learned a lot about what makes compelling art.

We speculated about how cool it would be if someone would do the same for writing, though we admitted the differences in the art forms would make it difficult. These artists can critique a piece of art in a fraction of the time it would take to even read someone’s short story submission, let alone critique it. Any writer who attempted something similar would likely end up without enough time to work on their own writing.

But that’s why finding readers for your work is gold; be they alpha, beta, or “response” readers. Feedback of any kind is gold to a writer.

One of my co-workers knows I write during my lunch break. I recently mentioned that I was writing a short story for a submission, and after I told him a little about it he asked to read it when I was done. I sent him a copy and left it at that.

Yesterday he told me he finished it. He gave me a few compliments on it that as a self-deprecating writer I found easy to take with a grain of salt (I don’t know yet how “good” a reader this person is), but he did give me one piece of feedback that was difficult to take at anything but face value: he told me he wanted more, that I needed to expand on my story.

Made. My. Day.

Even if we don’t have the time for or can’t find a writing group, getting feedback of any kind can be helpful. It’s easy to get into the trap as a writer of thinking  we’ve got to get our work perfect before we let anyone else see it. I’m guilty of it. But thanks to my co-worker and my daughter I’m seeing the error of my ways.

While we don’t necessarily need to be pushing our work on everyone we meet, some occasional feedback can be helpful, if for no other reason than reminding ourselves that our own opinion of our work is biased and therefore suspect. We need a different perspective from time to time.

In my case this feedback came at a time when I’ve been questioning whether I even want to keep writing. Now I have to control my urge to drop my current project and go write some more of that story to satisfy my co-worker. A little confidence boost goes a long way.

Don’t be afraid to get your work in front of people. It’s hard to grow as a writer in a vacuum. Feedback, even on the most basic levels, can offer us new perspectives on our work we would not otherwise gain.

How to Write a Nonfiction Book in 10 Easy Steps

Guest Post by Jewel Allen.

Jewel Allen is an award-winning journalist, author, and ghostwriter who grew up the Philippines and now lives in Utah. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Utah State University and runs a memoir publishing company, Treasured Stories.jewel-allen-photo-by-tina-tate At one time, she fronted a rock band and wrote songs. When that phase passed, she decided she was more cut out to be a writer. She is the author of a young adult paranormal mystery, Ghost Moon Night, and a political memoir, Soapbox: How I landed & lost a columnist gig, fought a prison, and got elected. Soapbox chronicles her journey from journalist to activist to politician, with lots of how-to’s on grassroots / political campaigning. Visit her at www.jewelallen.com.

Have you ever wanted to write a self-help book or memoir?

Oh dear, I can already hear you saying, what do I exactly have to write about?

Plenty. For starters, if you are a successful at your line of work, and I don’t mean just as a writer, you probably have been asked by people for advice or about your unique experiences. My husband, who is a veterinarian who has specialized in sled dog races the past decade, is sitting on a goldmine of stories. He is largely unmotivated, so it probably won’t happen unless I ghostwrite it for him.

But I know you book types out there. You are always thinking of ways to write about your life experiences and selling it. Which is perfectly fine. Not only can you add to your publishing credentials and make some money, you can also help other people figure out a solution for their problem and give them an armchair experience.

In my case, I wrote and published a political memoir called Soapbox: How I landed & lost a columnist gig, fought a prison, and got elected.soapbox_cvr_med

This is why. A year ago, I was running for city council and wished I could have gotten concrete advice of how to run for local office before I threw my hat in the ring. So I decided to write a book about my experience. I enlarged upon it by including my experiences running a grassroots campaign. Before long, I had a book.

Well, okay, so my political memoir didn’t get done quite so easy-peasy. But it was a surprisingly streamlined process. (For perspective, I am on my nth revision of my historical novel, and I’m thinking it might need at least one more revision. On the other hand, Soapbox took nine months from draft to published.) So if you are thinking of writing that self-help or nonfiction book, here is my advice:

  1. Social media is your friend.

When you publish a memoir, your thoughts, insights, and opinions will be laid out there for all to see. You had better get used to it. In this post-blog age, social media, Facebook in particular, can help you build a platform even before you publish your book. Another advantage: your posts will already be chronological in order and you can easily confirm dates.

2. Post daily.

If you want to remember good, juicy details, you need to write them all down. Unleash all your fiction skills to make a scene memorable. Later, when you are writing your draft, you will be glad you did. Trying to remember what happened a year later is really hard.

3. Being transparent can avoid lawsuits.

One of the things I worried about writing a political memoir is if I would get people mad with how I characterize them or how I share details. One of my litmus tests was asking, “If they read this Facebook post, will they feel insulted?” If the answer was yes, I reworded it or skipped the detail altogether. You can be honest without being mean.

4. You can test the waters as far as the interest in your subject.

When I started posting about running a grassroots campaign and running for office, those “likes” encouraged me to keep writing. I got a sense, too, of what people were interested in reading about.

5. Set a publication goal and stick to it.

For me, my goal was to get out my book before the next election. Just days before this year’s election, my book went live on Amazon. Nonfiction subjects are usually time-sensitive. If that is the case with your topic, set a goal to get it out while the topic is still relevant or fresh in people’s minds.

6. Write your posts in usable chunks.

Your posts can be a good springboard for the first draft of your book. Save yourself time and effort later by writing them in a format that is publishable.

Each post could be a story that can drive home your point.

7. Write in a consistent style.

Casual or serious tone, it’s up to you. If you are consistent, it’s a lot easier to stitch together your posts into a book. Whatever style you choose, make sure it’s engaging.

8. Have fun experimenting.

Often, my posts written at the end of the day were raw and real. Sometimes, it was the equivalent of that 1 a.m. drunken call, and I don’t even drink. But those angsty posts can also be interesting. Sometimes, that late hour is freeing, and you tend to be more breezy, chatty, and entertaining. Be judicious in what you eventually use in your book.

9. Expect to do a lot of extra writing from scratch.

Initially, I thought that my draft would basically be my Facebook posts. I was wrong. I had to do a lot of writing from scratch. But at least I had a good framework for a narrative.

10. Get pre-pub feedback from readers both familiar and unfamiliar with your story.

You want those familiar with the story to vet your accuracy. You also want people who aren’t familiar with it to give you feedback on any confusing parts. For example, I used some acronyms in the first draft which I decided to spell out later.

Playing the long game

Keep writing. Lots of things. Different things. Always have something new ready to market.

That’s the advice I garnered from a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a published writer. He wrapped up a series with one publisher this year, and has just sold another to a different publisher. He’s also starting to shop around a third project.

It all sounds so glamorous, at least until you consider the business side of things. That’s a long run with little income. Even with what writers do get paid, that money is usually paid out over years. For example, when a writer sells a novel they’re usually offered an advance. But that advance is only partly paid out before the writer begins serious work on the manuscript. Another fraction of the advance is paid out when the manuscript is delivered, and the remainder is often paid when the book is released to the public.

There may be two years or more between the sale of the novel and the final publication and release. Even large advances get spread pretty thin over that long a time. Successful novels may go months beyond that before they begin earning royalties–if ever.

If the goal is to be a professional writer then chances are a writer can’t work only one project at a time. They need, like any entrepreneur, more product to sell. They need to have multiple projects in the queue. Focusing on one book at a time, while perhaps easier to concentrate, is going to make it difficult to survive.

Instead the most successful writers are usually the most prolific, turning in a manuscript and immediately begin work on the next project, pausing only to deal with edits from their editor as needed. They want to get the next project out there as soon as they can to keep that income stream flowing steadily. They can’t afford to sit around and wait for the money to come in from just one project. Being a starving artist, however romantic, stinks.

In short, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. A writer who wants to “go pro” needs to be working as many project as they can handle. They need to make sure there is little actual down-time, because down-time means no money coming in. And while writing shouldn’t have to be about the money, thinking about the money is how writers survive to publish their next work.

The Authors' Think Tank Podcast, a show for writers by writers with new episodes every Monday.


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