Why Taking Breaks Can Be Good For Writers

Today’s post is inspired by the all-too-familiar phrase, “If you don’t write every day, you’re not a real writer.”

hamster wheel for sale
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Would we ever tell a teacher, “If you don’t teach every day, you’re not a real teacher.”?Would we tell this kind of thing to a lawyer? A doctor? A cook? A janitor? Take your pick of any profession out there. Which fits into the “If you don’t do X every every, you’re not a real X?

If we truly believe that to be a “real” something, then why don’t we make everyone work seven days a week? Why don’t we tell them they must work 365 days a year, except in the case of leap year. In that case, it’s 366.

Do you see how absurd this sounds? Why is it writers are held to this standard? There’s no reasonable explanation for it.

Here’s the truth: a real writer is one who writes.

Writing is the only thing a writer must do to be a real writer. It doesn’t matter how often they write. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow they write. It doesn’t matter if they write by daily word counts or by a certain number of scenes or chapters that day. It doesn’t matter if they write only one book at a time or work on multiple books at the same time. It doesn’t matter if they write first thing in the morning, in the afternoon, or in the evening. It doesn’t matter if they write in 15 minute chunks at a time or if they reserve two hours of nonstop writing at the keyboard. (Now, it might benefit a writer to step away from the computer to avoid eye strain, something I deal with, or to avoid hurting your wrist or back. But that has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a real writer.)

You know what does matter?

The quality of the story.

I realize this isn’t popular thinking. We’re led to believe that if we take days off or go on vacations (while leaving all writing behind), we’re lazy. Because if we truly loved writing–if it was our real passion–we would have to do it every single day. I’ve read the “write every day” advice in blog posts and books. I’ve seen it in videos and heard it in podcasts. It seems to be everywhere. I’m not saying that every single writer says this. But a lot do. And quite frankly, I’m sick of hearing it.

I think it’s time to change the mindset on this one. Breaks are good for the health and wellbeing of the writer. They allow the creative mind a chance to simmer over what’s going on in the story. They offer us a chance to spend time with friends and family. They offer us a chance to pursue something else that will help us grow as individuals. They give us freedom to be a more well-rounded person. And I think they will actually make us better writers.

I used to think that if I took the weekends off, I would lose momentum in writing. My daily word count goal is 3,000 words. I used to think, “I’ll lose 6,000 words if I don’t write on Saturday and Sunday.” But something funny happened. I noticed my daily word count went from an average of 3,000 words to about 1,500 when I pushed myself to write every day. No matter how hard I tried, I kept getting blocked because I hit a point in the story where I didn’t know what to do next. So I had to force myself to stop and give myself time to get the creativity flowing again. You know what happened? When I came back to the story, the ideas returned. The words came a lot easier. And I think I ended up telling a better story because I could see the characters moving around and hear what they were saying as if I was watching a movie. My average word count on days I wrote went from 1,5000 to 3,000 again. I’m able to get more done on writing days again. I owe that all to the breaks.

Breaks are great. Breaks allow writers to work smarter, not harder. I think breaks help buffer writers from burnout. I understand you’ll often make more money if you publish more often, but sooner or later, you’ll only be able to publish so much. We’re not robots.

We’re human beings. Human beings need rest. All writing every single day is going to get you is the sensation that you’re a hamster in a wheel that just spins around and around. It depletes you of your energy, and it takes time away from other things that are also important. Yes, writing is important, but it’s NOT the only thing that’s important. Next time someone tries to make you feel like you’re not a real writer because you don’t write every day, politely smile and leave them to their hamster wheel. Just because they want to run around in it, it doesn’t mean you have to.

The Inner Dialogue: A Method for Figuring Out Your Stories

So if you didn’t hear, a novel I’ve been working on since college is getting published, and I’ve been working with a professional editor to make sure that the story is the best it can be before publication. During the revision process, we agreed that the number of flashbacks in the story were actually getting in the way of the story, so I should nix them. Unfortunately, that meant a third of the book went out the window, and another third that relied on that first third had to go as well.

Yeah, that got me depressed for a little while, and it took a lot for me to climb out of that funk. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m actually here to talk about what happened with my story. Because you see, now that essentially the majority of the novel had been chucked out, I had to figure out where to go with the story. I couldn’t go the original direction of the story, because the flashbacks I’d tossed out were so essential to that direction.

Luckily, I was able to come up with a new direction for the story using a method that I’d never used before, which I call the inner dialogue. I can’t remember where I picked this method up,* but it’s stayed in the back of my mind for years, and I figured this was as good a situation as any to use it.

The inner dialogue is where you simulate a conversation with your inner writer (we all have one) when you’re struggling with what to do with a story. This could be trying to overcome writer’s block, figuring out why what a character is doing in the story feels wrong to you, having to rewrite a majority of the story, or any other issue you may be having during the writing/editing process of a story.

Here’s what you have to do:

Get a notebook and pen, or a typewriter and paper, or open up your preferred writing program on your computer. Imagine that you’re sitting down with your inner writer at a cafe, in your favorite writing spot, in a dark basement underneath a seedy dive bar, wherever you feel most comfortable talking to your inner writer. And have an honest conversation with them, writing down what you say and writing down what your inner writer says back. Think of it like texting, only you’re texting with a part of your mind you use for storytelling.

Bounce ideas off them, talk about the criticisms people have with the story, discuss what about the story is bugging you. Something about this method, writing out the problems and some possible situations to remedy this, allows your mind to open up and see new possibilities and solutions.

It might also make people wonder if you’re channeling spirits and doing automatic writing and/or if you’re having some sort of psychological crisis. But I think that’s a risk worth taking for finding what you need to make a story as good as it possibly can be.

Here’s an example conversation of me and my inner writer (who I’ve found to be very sassy during our conversations) discussing a hypothetical book idea I’ve been working on. My dialogue is written normally, while my inner writer uses bold letters:

So we’re doing this again, are we?

Yes, we are. Alright, let’s talk about my idea for a novel I’ve been working on. It centers on a group of cheerleaders.

I’m sure it does, you naughty dog.

Ha ha, very funny. Anyway, we’ve gone over what would happen to them once they arrive at the main setting of the story. But why does it happen? There’s always a catalyst that sets things up. Even if we don’t see it until the end of the story, there’s always something that starts the horror off.

Not always, baby boy. Remember The Haunting of Hill House? That really didn’t have a–no wait, that’s not right. The catalyst was that they entered the house for the investigation, and one of the subjects is mentally still very much a child, which puts her the most at risk to the house’s charms.

Yeah, catalysts in stories can be debatable or hard to pin down sometimes. But what could be a catalyst for this story. Why does this happen to these characters?

You were playing around with the idea of the setting being an illusion, weren’t you? Something created by the characters and the dark secrets in their minds. Can we do anything with that still? Maybe a variation?

You see where this is going, right? But it is very effective. I got ideas for this hypothetical novel just from doing an inner dialogue here in this blog post. And if doing it as a demonstration in this blog post can give me ideas for a novel, imagine what it can do for your work at home.

With that in mind, I just want to leave you with a couple of tips for doing this. You don’t have to use them, but I find them useful:

  • Be honest and write down everything. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll find it helpful to write down everything in these dialogues. Especially if you want to go back and see what you’ve come up with. Any thought, any idea, could prove useful, so write them down, even if your thoughts are kind of weird (mine certainly are).
  • Give your inner writer a voice. Like in your stories, the inner writer is also a character, even if they only exist inside you. That being said, you’ll want to give them a voice, motivations, everything you’d give a normal character. That way, they can speak to you just like any other character, and make the dialogue that much more effective.
    It also helps to give the inner writer’s dialogue some distinguishing characteristic, so it doesn’t get jumbled up with your own. A different font, italics, as long as it helps you differentiate, it’s all good.
  • Mark the dates and times of the dialogues. Often these dialogues can last a while. Mine lasted two weeks while I was trying to find a new direction. So mark the date and times you had these dialogues in the document you’re using. You’ll find it very helpful for later.

Nobody wants to find out a story is flawed or that they can’t figure out how to fix its problems. But there are a variety of methods to overcome these issues. Perhaps the inner dialogue is a good one for you, and will help you write, edit and publish your best work. You just have to sit down, and commit to talking to yourself for a little while. You never know what you’ll unlock.

*For some reason I think it might have something to do with Stephen King, but I think I’d remember if I came across this method in a King novel. If you have any idea where it came from, let me know in the comments. I’d like to give a proper acknowledgement to whoever or wherever I got the inner dialogue.

Only You Can Write Your Story

only you can tell your story blog post image
ID 110705309 © Ivelinr | Dreamstime.com

I was listening to a song that was sung by someone other than the original artist, and I went through my music library because I wanted to hear the song sung by the original artist. Why? Because there was a certain “edge” in the way the original artist sang the song that the other person couldn’t get right. It’s the same song, but the artist brought their own style to it that makes me like the song a lot more.

Then I started thinking of how important our writing voice is. Writers, just like musicians, have their own style that they bring to the story that no other writer can do. This is what makes us unique. It makes us different. This is why I think it’s crucial for writers to embrace their creativity. Creativity is what helps writers explore their voice. It’s the natural flow of the story. It’s all in “how” things are worded. The “how” is key.

This is why I’m not a fan of critique groups. When critique groups come in, they often kill the writer’s voice because they impose their own voice into the story. I know that using critique groups is a safer way to go, but I think it can end up ruining what makes a writer unique.

The reason a certain reader is going to be attracted to your story is because you wrote it. A readers becomes a fan of a certain writer based on how strongly the writer’s voice has connected with the reader. There’s a reason why some readers put you on their “auto-buy” list. You bring something to the table no other writer can. You bring your own way of telling the story. You are using words in a way that no one writer can do.

This is why one person will like a book by one author but hate a book by another author. Sure, there can something to do with the content in the book itself. Some readers, for example, love strong heroines while others prefer them to be softer. That speaks more of the reader than it does the writer. You can’t worry over stuff like that. The reader’s preference is out of our control. If you try to write for every reader out there, you’ll end up with mediocre stories. (I know because I’ve tried this, and looking back, I wish I had done a couple of stories differently.)

Being true to your voice is going to require some risk. You’ll have to go into the story knowing that not everyone in this world will like your book. You won’t even please everyone who likes the genre you’re writing in. But, you will find some people who will fall in love with your stories because of the way you tell the story. They will seek you out. They will want your other books. They will prefer your books over another writer’s because of your voice.

It’s like the singer I was listening to. This singer doesn’t appeal to everyone. My husband, for instance, hates this particular artist because of the way she “sounds”. But I love her because of the way she sounds. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to producing a song any more than there is to producing a book. The more you write, the more you will discover your voice. The more you embrace your voice, the more authentic you’ll be to your ideal reader. So don’t fret over elements out of your control (like “why” someone won’t like your book). Instead of focus on elements you can control, like the way you tell a story. You’re the only one who can tell a story in your style. There will be someone out there who will love it.

Writers Shouldn’t Have to Fear the Future

Edited May 9, 2018: Author Kevin Kneupper has a legal background, and he explains the details of this situation which sums things up much better than I ever could.

This post is inspired by a very unfortunate situation that has developed recently in the indie author community. An author took a commonly used word and trademarked it. I won’t go into specifics, but suffice it to say now this author wants other indie authors (as far as I know she’s only gone after indies) to remove this specific word from the titles of their books.

I’m not affected by this because I’ve never used this word in a title of one of my books. However, it does make me concerned about the future of indie publishing. Are we to expect more of this stuff to happen in the future from other authors? Will we wake up one morning to an email sitting in our inbox from the author or Amazon telling us we’re in violation of a trademarked word because we used it in a title?

That scares me. I’ve been doing this since 2009, and I have never come across anything that’s scares me like this, which is why I feel like I need to write a blog post addressing this topic.

A title change Is NOT simple.

This would be a nightmare if someone asked me to change one of my titles, and I only have ebook and paperbacks. So we’ll forget how much authors spend on making audiobook versions for a moment.  Let’s just think about how much other work and money would go into changing a title.

You have to redo the ebook and paperback covers. Then you have to fix the interior files (the actual book itself). You’d have to update the title page, the copyright page, and any headers with the title in it. Then (this is where it really gets time consuming and scary), you’d have to change the back matter in all of your other books, including the one you just changed the title on.

I currently have sixty-nine romances published. Some will have the book with the title I need to change in the back matter. I’d have to search through them to find out where they are, change them all, and republish them. While D2D updates back matter for you, Amazon and Smashwords don’t. I don’t know if Kobo, iBooks, or Barnes & Noble do since I rely on Smashwords to go wide.

Then you have to update your blog and/or your website to reflect this change. You’d also have to update all of your swag material such as bookmarks and pens. Then, as if that isn’t enough, you’ll have explain to anyone who asks you, what happened and why the title is now different.

This is time consuming and can get expensive.

Also, since I have registered my copyright to all of my books with the US Copyright Office, what happens to the copyright?  Will that copyright still hold up? I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know.

I’m just a writer who publishes my own books. I don’t have a lot of money. In fact, I’m losing money overall. I could seek out an IP lawyer and get a consultation, but how would things shake out? Is this a slam dunk win for me since I never set out to copy another author by taking a commonly used word and putting it into my title? Or would this result in tons of money being spent in court–money I don’t have in order to prove my innocence?

Do you see why this kind of thing could be a nightmare for authors if this becomes a trend? Every single author could be vulnerable. That’s why I’m addressing it.

The nature of indie publishing

I’ve been publishing on Amazon and Smashwords since 2009. And I’ve noticed some things along the way.

Similar (or even the same) titles get used a lot. Stock photo images from places like Dreamstime.com and Shutterstock.com get used a lot. Same/similar character names get used a lot. Certain fonts get used a lot. Plot ideas (such as a hero and heroine who are forced into marriage or “the beauty and the beast” scenario) get used a lot. Aliens attacking earth, a hero going on some kind of quest in a fantasy, or vampires falling in love with mortal women get used a lot. These types of things are broad. There’s lots of room to move within these basic plot ideas. The authors then take the basic premise and spins a unique story from it. As long as the story is spun in their own way, everything is fine.

Now, here’s when red flags should be going up. If someone plagiarizes your book or if someone outright steals it, then yes, you have a problem. If someone takes your exact cover and uses EVERYTHING in it the EXACT same way you did, yes, that would be problematic. If someone uses your actual series name word for word, you have a problem. If someone uses all of your characters’ names (the first and last) in their books, you might have a problem. (I would be super worried if the other author took multiple characters that were in one of my books. Just one or two with the same first name would not bother me.) If someone takes your author name and uses it as their own author name, you could have a problem. (You have to really look into this one.) You’d have to see if this person’s name is legally theirs, too. There are people who have the same first and last name out there. My suggestion is to either have a unique name (one that isn’t common) or use your middle name to help make you distinct. Ruth Nordin is very common. So I put in Ruth Ann Nordin. The chances of you and this other person have the exact first, middle, AND last name would be suspect.

My personal experience

In the past, I have gotten emails from a few readers who thought someone stole my book because there was a similar cover. The cover was a bride holding flowers. It wasn’t my exact cover, but it was something I could have picked. Keep in mind, there were A LOT of romance books with brides holding flowers back in 2010-2012 when I was getting my feet wet in indie publishing. Now, it’s mostly the hero and heroine in some kind of embrace. And often, the same models are used in these covers today. This is very common. And it is acceptable because the license for that stock photo allows other authors to use those photos. If you want to make sure no one uses that exact picture, then you’d need to get exclusive rights to it. But even then, you might end up with other authors using the same models in other poses.

Anyway, I think it’s only been about five people (a low number) over the course of my indie publishing career that thought another author was stealing my work and putting it under a similar cover. I went to check the books out to see if the readers caught another person stealing my books. Most of the time, the author name’s was different, the actual cover was different from mine (though it was “similar” or had the same model(s), and the title wasn’t one I had used. Fortunately, most these weren’t my books. It had the same “look” but a lot of covers in romance have the same “look”, esp. when you narrow down the sub-genres. It’s just the nature of the romance market in general. Upon looking inside these books, I saw the stories were totally different from mine. So no, these were not a violation of my copyright.

However, I actually have had a couple of cases where my books have actually been plagiarized or stolen. It does happen on occasion (unfortunately). So it’s smart to investigate these cases. Sometimes readers catch something we need to know about.

Also, I’ve have other authors who used my name in a keyword so their books come up when someone searches for my books. This happened early on in my writing career. (Like back in 2011 and 2012 when I hit the radar of the indie community. Since then I’ve pretty much faded into oblivion, so this doesn’t happen anymore.) I’ve heard marketing gurus tell new writers to mention popular authors in their genre order to attract their target audience. So I’m not surprised a new author would put a popular author into their keywords in the meta data for the book or in an ad they’re running. This is common practice. Some authors will even put, “If you like POPULAR AUTHOR A or POPULAR AUTHOR B, then you’ll love my book” in their book description. Usually, they put in traditionally published authors like JK Rowling. Sometimes, they’ll put the popular author’s book title or series instead of the author’s name. So it would read, “If you like Twilight or The Hunger Games, you’ll like my book, too.”  As long as the authors aren’t copying your actual book, I wouldn’t worry about it.

Bottom line:

I don’t know what the future of indie publishing is going to look like. Will trademarking a popular book series, which will then be used as an excuse to tell other authors to change their titles, become a trend in the future? I hope not. But I don’t have control over what another author does. I can only control what I do. I’d like to say this isn’t going to happen again, but I can’t.

The main thing comes down to support. If indie authors supported and cared about each other, it would be a nicer place. I think understanding that readers have a lot of authors they love to read is important to keep in mind. There’s no reason why a reader can’t enjoy Author X’s AND Author Y’s books. There are more readers than there is a single author who can write books for them all. This is especially true in romance. As soon as I publish a book, a reader finishes it within a day or two. What is that reader supposed to do while they wait for my next book? They read other authors’ books. This is why I don’t think we are in competition with each other. There’s enough room for everyone. Sure, some authors will pick up more fans than others. I write more for a niche within romance anyway, so I don’t appeal to the largest fanbase.

My advice (for what it’s worth) is to focus on your own books. Concentrate on writing the best stories you can. Don’t worry about what another author is doing with their titles. Your fans will find you. They will stay with you. The world is big enough for all indie authors.

I Had to Give Up Writing to Market in Order to Find My Passion Again

It’s been ages since I posted anything on this blog. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas. I had a lot of them. But as soon as I sat down and wrote a paragraph or two, my mind came to a screeching halt. I waited and waited…and waited some more for inspiration to come so I could finish the blog post. But inspiration never came. I deleted most of those drafts. Why? Because my heart wasn’t “in” writing anymore, much less trying to figure out how to tell other authors how they might sell more books.

I had lost my creative edge, and the scary part is that I didn’t even know it. Writing had started to become a chore. I was doing good to chug along and write my books. It’s like I was running on a gas tank that was almost empty. All of the gas left in my tank was going to my books. I had nothing left to give to a blog post.

feeling trapped
ID 40361529 © Artistashmita | Dreamstime.com

I got some criticism for writing a blog post on here about losing income. But it’s true. I did lose income. I lost about 1/3 of my income from 2015 to 2016. I barely remained steady in 2017. I was even tempted to go exclusive with Amazon by putting new books in KDP Select so I could take advantage of page reads in Kindle Unlimited. I had to spend serious time in prayer and talking with a couple of friends in order to make the best decision for me longterm. (KU is not a good longterm plan.) I knew this, but I had started to focus on short-term plans.

Which is why I was writing to market when 2016 came around.

I wrote to market for two years. Fortunately for me, I happen to love historical western and Regency romances, which happen to be popular genres anyway. But what I did was pick heroine types, hero types, and plot types that I felt had the best chance of selling well. I broke this rule with one book (which is now one of my all-time favorites). That book didn’t do as well as the others. The thing is, I know what is popular in my corner of the romance market. I know what pleases the most readers. How? Because of all the feedback I’ve gotten over the years and watching what other (very successful) romance authors were doing.

I always picked plots I was interested in doing. I could never bring myself to write something I didn’t like. But after two years of writing as fast as I could on projects that I felt would sell, I realized I had used up all of those ideas. I was exhausted. I knew I was burning out. Still, in January, I wrote another romance to market. Then February came. By this time, I was wiped out, but I already had a pre-order set for an April release, so I went through that month and pushed myself to finish that book. Thankfully, this book wasn’t a “write to market” book. It was a passion project. I was venturing into new territory I was excited about. If it had been a “write to market” book, I don’t think I would have survived the month as well as I did. Because even though it was a passion project, my joy for writing had already been hit hard.

And yet, as I write this, my income is still dropping. Writing to market was not a long-term solution to my problem. It was a temporary one. I don’t know if it’s because the market is saturated, or if my readers from early on were tired of the new stuff I was doing (since it was not longer my passion projects), or if it’s because I never went into KU, but my income never did return to what I made in 2015. Ads had minimal effect, and quite frankly, with tax payments based on last year’s income, I don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of money on ads, which are the latest promotional tool. (I’m sure the effectiveness of ads will run out in due time, just like the effectiveness of free, $0.99, and other tactics have diminished over the years I’ve been indie publishing.)

Anyway, when I saw my efforts were not paying off, I asked myself, “Why am I pushing myself so hard?” And it all came down to money. I wanted to make more money writing books. But the thing was, I wasn’t making more money. I was making less.

Early this month, I caught myself thinking, “I hate writing. I wish I could leave the computer and never write another word for as long as I live.”

And that scared me. When I was in the 6th grade, I first discovered how fun reading was, and from there, I started writing. I had always loved writing. Up until 2015, I couldn’t imagine never writing because I loved it so much. When I died, I was hoping I could continue writing in Heaven. So when did it all stop? Looking back, I realized it became “work” in 2016 when I started to seriously write to market. I stopped taking story ideas I felt was risky. I was no longer putting myself into every story. I was playing it safe.

My stress level went through the roof. Whenever I wrote, I was asking myself, “Will someone object to this? Will someone give me a 1-star over that? Will someone stop buying my books because I put this in it?” Everything I wrote (with the exception of two books) revolved around what I thought the market wanted.

I didn’t realize I was paying attention to something Dean Wesley Smith calls “critical voice”. I just got through reading his book Writing into the Dark last week (scroll down the page to find it). Anyway, the book mainly tells writers how to write without plotting, but in it he mentions how harmful critical voice is to writing. And he’s right. Critical voice was in full control when I was writing to market. Critical voice stepped in and stopped me from pursuing books I really, really, really wanted to write because, “No one is going to buy it because of (insert reason here).”

I had a good list of things I had to avoid writing while I was focused on the market, and because of this, I ended up having to work within a narrow parameter of what my critical voice had told me was acceptable. I still picked things I was interested in, but I wasn’t able to go beyond the box I had put myself in. And that was slowly killing my creative voice. I didn’t even know this was happening. That was the scary part. It’s only now as I’m looking back that I can see what was going on. I shake my head and wonder, “How could I not see it?”

This is something all authors are probably going to have to come to terms with at some point. Yes, writing to market can yield high income. (I’ve seen writers do it.) But is it possible to do this for the long term? Can they keep producing these books in a way that is fresh and new? Can they keep doing this at breakneck speed?

This is a bit of a side note, but I’ve noticed that (at least on Amazon), in order to stay relevant, I had to get more books out. Romance authors are now putting out two or more books a month. I’ve seen a couple of authors doing one book a week. Yes, they’re novellas, but still…  And the other day, one author was going from one book a week to two books a week. How long can this momentum stay up? I’m a firm believer that it’s possible to write fast and write quality, but even I can’t see how going that fast is a manageable long-term strategy.  But I’m not the only one who noticed this trend on Amazon. Cait Reynolds did a post on Kristen Lamb’s blog called “Kindle Unlimited: Good Plan or KU Hamster Wheel of Death?” (The post is hilarious, especially with the hamster pictures.) I have this article on my desk and read it at least once a month to remind myself that KU (and Amazon) is built for speed. You must constantly have new books out to keep income up. And there’s a point where I can’t write any more books that I currently do each year.

So I need a long-term strategy because I want to love writing. I want to keep writing. And more importantly, I want to love what I’m writing. I want my passion back. I want my creative voice to flourish again. Just recently, I finally decided I’m going to stop writing to market. I have officially dropped out of the rat race. I’m going to start embracing projects that I can give my whole heart into. If it fits the market, fine. If not, fine. But I’m not going to let that critical voice rule over me anymore.

It was amazing how quickly this single decision changed things around for me. I took a few days to decompress and re-evaluate my life. I did a lot of self-reflection.  But within a week, something magical happened. I got the joy back. I got my passion back. Finally, I have fresh and new story ideas again. I have characters who are exciting to write about. I didn’t expect this to happen so fast, but it did.

And last week, for the first time since 2015, I wrote because I “wanted” to. I had no idea there was such a huge difference between writing because I “had” to and writing because I “want” to, but it’s a huge difference.

What about you? Have you had any revelations about your own writing lately?

How to Write an Interlude

Have you ever been in the middle of a novel, and it’s been told almost entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, and then in one chapter it’s suddenly told from the POV of a character who may work in an office dealing with the fallout of the events of the novel, or of a love interest left at home waiting for the protagonist to come home, or from the villain who is slowly losing their mind as they see the price they are paying for their power? If you have, then you have come across an interlude, a break from the main narrative of a fictional story in order to receive the viewpoint of another character or characters, often to further the story or to give us an expanded perception of the story.

Interludes occur a lot in fiction. The Harry Potter novels had quite a few of them (the very first chapter of the series was an interlude, focusing on the lives of the Dursleys and the effect of Voldemort’s death on the Wizarding World rather than on Harry himself). The Help had one in the novel, written like a news article reporting on the events of the Christmas charity ball and the attendees’ individual thoughts. And my own work features interludes, including in my WIP Rose.

But how do you write a good interlude? I have some tips in this article that might prove useful in answering that very question.

But first, let’s ask ourselves this: why write an interlude at all? Don’t we want to stay focused on the main story? Well, not always. Sometimes changing POVs can help fill in information the reader may need without being expository or awkward as it might be in the main narrative. For example, in the first chapter of The Half-Blood Prince, “The Other Minister,” explains to the reader, from both the Muggle and the Wizarding point of view, how much Britain has been affected since Voldemort’s return. Now I’m sure JK Rowling could have told us that very well from Harry’s POV, but seeing it from both the Muggle Prime Minister and from the Ministry’s upper echelons’ POV adds a new dimension to the story that we might not have gotten from just Harry’s POV.

The interlude in The Help does something similar: in its interlude chapter, which isn’t told from the POVs of any of the main characters, we get the interactions between several characters at once, major and minor, as well as their thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t get that if the author had stayed in the POV of one of the protagonists.

So an interlude gives us, the reader, important information that we can’t get through the normal narrative.

But how do we write an interlude? Well, we should be careful about how we do it. If a reader is used to one particular POV, the sudden shift to another with just a turn of the page could be very jarring and ruin the illusion of the story. Thus the author must alert the reader immediately that an interlude has begun. This should be done in the very first sentence. Let’s take our Half-Blood Prince example:

It was nearing midnight, and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

See how Harry’s not mentioned at all? See how it sets up who we’re focusing on, what their location is, and what they’re doing? That’s a great way to start an interlude and alert a reader to the change of POV so they’re not thrown off course.

Another way to alert readers in the first sentence is by changing more than just the POV. In my WIP Rose, there’s a chapter in the latter half of the book where the POV changes from the protagonist to the father of one of the other characters. At the same time as this change, the narration changes from a narrow, first-person POV to a semi-omniscient,  third-person POV.  A change like that is a very good way to alert the reader of the change, though it does have its risks, and can cause readers to do a double or even a triple take.

This actually extends to more than just what person the narration is in: in The Help‘s interlude, the shift to a reporting style changes not just the POV and how the story is told, but in the book the margins are increased to make it seem like you’re actually reading a column in a newspaper. That is a very effective tool in alerting readers to how different that chapter is.

A third way to alert the reader to an interlude is to alert them before the chapter even begins. In Rose, I start my interlude chapter by naming it An Aside. Because that’s what it is, an aside to see things from this other character’s POV, as well as to further the story.  It’s as simple as that.

And after you alert the reader to the change in perspective, it’s as simple as writing a regular chapter. Tell the part of the story that needs to be told in this chapter, and as long as you tell it well, then you’ve written a good interlude. At least, that’s always been my experience.

Even if you don’t ever find yourself writing an interlude (plenty of authors simply don’t), it’s always handy to know how to do it. And knowing what an interlude is meant to do, as well as how to alert the reader to the interlude, is essential to knowing how to do it. And if you can master those, you can make any interlude part of a great story.

Do you write interludes in your fiction or find them in the books you read? What tips do you have to writing them?

 

Just a quick note: as 2017 is winding down, and this may be our last post for the year, we here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors would like to thank you for reading our posts. You are the reason we do what we do, and we always appreciate you coming back over and over and letting us know that what we put out there is helpful to you in your careers.

From all of us to you, Happy Holidays and a good New Year. We look forward to sharing wisdom back and forth between ourselves again in 2018.

What is the Mary Sue, and When Can You Actually Apply the Term to a Character

The original Mary Sue illustration, not just making fun of the character, but the stereotypical girl who might write Mary Sue stories. *shiver*

If you’ve been around the fiction or Internet scenes awhile, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue,” and wondered what it is. Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation about what the term actually means. Some people think it’s a super-powered, almost perfect character. Others think it’s a character meant to be an avatar for the author to go be heroic in their own story. Others think it’s a female character who’s a badass and has amazing skills. And a few people thought it was the name of a steamboat featured in a popular song (that’s the Proud Mary).

Except for the boat, all of those definitions are technically both right and wrong. Not only that, but the term Mary Sue actually carries some negative connotations, and the application of the term to a character, particularly a protagonist, can be seriously detrimental to a character and the story they feature in.

So what is a Mary Sue? Well, the term dates back to 1973, when author and editor Paula Smith wrote the satirical short story “A Trekkie’s Tale” for her sci-fi fan fiction magazine Menagerie. The story centered around a character named Mary Sue, a fifteen-and-a-half year old girl who says stuff like, “Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” and is the youngest lieutenant in the fleet. In the course of the four-paragraph story, both Kirk and Spock fall in love with her, the whole crew gets captured by androids, she tells Spock she’s half-Vulcan before freeing them, they all come down with a disease that Mary Sue is only slightly less-affected by, she nurses them back to health at the cost of her own life, and becomes an intergalactic heroine who is given all sorts of posthumous awards and tributes for “her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.”

As I said, the story was satirical, and was a parody of most fan fiction at the time, which was mainly the authors inserting themselves into their stories and having adventures that elevated them to the status of being more amazing than any other character or even the world itself. But that’s the essential issue with this sort of character: the entire story serves to show how awesome these characters are. The character just waltzes through life, universally admired by all and able to easily overcome any obstacle. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and if something does happen to them–usually death–they are immediately celebrated for being an awesome hero.

The problem with this sort of character is that it’s boring. The story isn’t about immersing the reader in an interesting world or taking them on an incredible journey. The author has decided this character is the most important character of all, so they write the story to highlight their greatness at the expense of their actual story. Imagine if Harry Potter wasn’t about a likable boy–one who wishes he grew up in a loving household, is happy to be in a world full of magic and friends, struggles through homework like the rest of us, and is clearly uncomfortable with his destiny and his fame–but instead was a perfect wizard whose past is only touched upon, and breezes through everything, from classes to fighting Voldemort, with nary a bad thought or a frown to trouble him. Important features like the cool magical world, Horcruxes, or the messages of love and tolerance that define the story would be downgraded in importance or thrown away to focus on Harry, how cool he is, how smart he is, how adept at magic he is.

Sounds boring, right? There’s absolutely nothing about the character to identify with or any exciting conflicts to overcome. And the vast majority of people agree. In fact, after “A Trekkie’s Tale” came out, the story went the 70’s version of viral, making “Mary Sue” a term applied to characters who exist only to show off off how amazing they are at the sacrifice of great character development or world-building, and forever marking the trope as a sign of bad storytelling. Menagerie even put out a statement in 1976 stating they hated Mary Sues (as well as their male counterparts, Marty or Gary Sues). And the hate continues today, with the Sues being rejected by all literature lovers, whether familiar with the term or not.

And in that statement right there comes the issue that has grown from the identification of the Sue trope: the baseless accusation. A lot of people, whether through ignorance or maliciousness, have accused characters from all sorts of works of being Sues. Usually these characters are front and center in their stories, highly adept at a number of skills suited for their environment, and, because the trope was first defined with a female character, female. For example, Rey from The Force Awakens was accused by some of being a Mary Sue,  as she is a protagonist, skilled in scavenging and fighting, and is apparently a Force prodigy. However, as defined above, Rey does not fit the mold of the Sue: the story does not become a tool to highlight her greatness. Rey is a flawed character, with skills that make sense given her environment and a need for someplace to call home. And while she is Force-powerful, she’s not using it to easily defeat her enemies with a flip of her wrist like a Sue would. Clearly the shoe doesn’t fit.*

But that there’s the issue: the Sue label can be applied so easily to characters possessing certain traits, and because of that, some writers are afraid to write certain characters or even to write at all due to the stigma of the Sue label, which can turn away audiences if too many people start believing a character isa Sue. And this is especially bad for female leads. Paula Smith, the woman who first named the trope, once led a panel of women writers who all said they never write female leads, because every time they’ve tried the characters have been labeled Sues. And in researching this article, I found a Mary Sue “test” where, if you answered the first question as “Yes, the main character is female,” it’s automatically a Sue.

But this is not the Sue, and there’s only one test to define one: is the story written simply to show off how “amazing” a character is, rather than tell a story involving a likable character with an arc? If the answer is yes, that’s the sign of a Sue. That’s all you need to identify one, and that’s all you need to avoid writing one. Stick with telling a story about a character who isn’t perfect, but has room to grow through the events of the story. You can still insert yourself as a character (God knows I did it with my novel Snake), but treat your insert as you would any other protagonist, someone who has to struggle both inwardly and outwardly in order to accomplish their goal. The Sue label may still get hurled, regardless of the gender of the character, but at least you’ll know that the accusation has less sticking power than if you actually wrote a Sue into your story.

What’s your take on the Mary Sue trope? Did I miss anything in discussing it? How do you avoid the trope?

*Plus no one accuses Luke of being a Gary Sue, despite Mark Hamill himself stating the character is an author insert (Lucas = Luke S.), he’s great at piloting any sort of ship, and he’s proficient enough in the Force to blow up the Death Star barely two days after learning it exists.

It Is Possible To Write Fast And Have Quality Content

I just saw a blog post from someone who was basically saying that writers should not produce more than 2-3 books a year.  (I assume this person meant 50K words or more per book.)   I’ve heard this argument a dozen times over the years, and each time, it boils down to the same thing, “You can’t produce quality content if you write fast.”

dog-reading-books
ID 57738106 © Okssi68 | Dreamstime.com

That picture was just too cute to pass up. 🙂

Today, I’m going to argue this thinking with a couple of points.

1. Quality is in the eye of the beholder.

What you might consider bad, another person will say is good.  Just a casual look through reviews on any book (especially one that has been a good seller) will prove this to be true.  Go on and take a look at books that are selling very well right now.  You will see a wide range of reviews.  Some people will say, “Best book ever!” and others will say, “Who wrote this piece of crap?” They might not say that in those exact words, but that’s basically what the reviewers are saying.  Which of the reviewers are right?  I’ll tell you who is right.  Both of them.  And you want to know why?  Because reading is in the eye of the beholder.  There is no one book that everyone on this planet will love.  And some of the books have been written and published fast.

2. Since we are all different, we can’t be all pegged into the same hole.

Who is it for anyone to decide how much a writer can or cannot write?  Maybe for some writers, it is impossible to write and publish more than 2-3 books a year.  If it is, they shouldn’t do it.  But why would you turn around and assume that every other writer can’t do it?   Not everyone writes the same way you do.  I can sit down and start writing by the seat of my pants.  Other writers need an outline, and some of those outlines are more detailed than others.  Some writers speak their book into the computer.  Some like to type them out.  Some even handwrite them first and type them in later.  Some writers have word count goals.  Some like to write a scene at a time.  Some sit down and write the entire book in one week.  (I know and have heard of writers who actually write an entire book in one week, and they have done very well.  I can’t do it, but some have proven it can be done.  It would be unfair for me to tell those writers they shouldn’t write a book that fast just because I can’t do it.)

Some writers have day jobs.  Some write for a living.  Some have children at home.  Some don’t.  Some take care of parents.  Some don’t.  How much time is available in our day does play a part in how often we can write, and this will factor into how quickly we can write and publish a book.  Also, the creative process works differently for everyone.  Some people have ideas that come quickly to them.  Some need time to mull over ideas before the story is ready.  Some people write even when they don’t feel like it (which is what I do).  Some write only when they feel like it, which is the case for a couple of writers I know.

Not everyone will have the same editing/polishing process, either.  Maybe your editor doesn’t work as fast as another writer’s editor.  Maybe your beta readers take longer to read the book than another writer’s beta readers do.   Not all editors and beta readers are created equal, and this will play a big part in how tight the timeframe is from the moment a writer sends the story out to the team to when it’s ready for publication.

3. If you want to pay your bills or earn a living, you need to keep up the production.

I wish I could say it isn’t so, but it is.  More books equal an increased chance of making more money.  You need to consistently have something coming out if you want to maintain your audience’s interest in your books.  We live in a world of instant gratification, and people don’t like to wait long for the next book to come out.  The more books you have, the better your odds are of earning money.  (I’m not going to say it will guarantee you’ll make money.  It just means your odds of it will increase.)

4. The more you write, the better you get at it.

I didn’t start out writing as many books as I do now.  I got faster over time, and the reason I got faster is because the more you write and study up on the storytelling process, the better you get at it.  You also figure out how to organize your time better, and you have figured out who makes a good editor for you.  (Not all editors are a good fit for all writers.)  You figure out your target audience.  You know why they read your books, and you start fine-tuning your stories to meet their expectations.  You also get a good grasp story structure.  You don’t necessarily write to a formula, but at the gut level, you know how storytelling works.

You also notice red flags that pop up while writing the first draft A LOT sooner than you used to.  For example, you might notice your creativity seems to be slowing down.  When you sit to write, it’s getting harder and harder to come up with the words.  Usually, this is a signal that you’re taking the story in a direction it wasn’t intended to go.  If you persist in writing, you’ll probably end up having to do rewrites later on.  My advice: take a day or two away from the story.  You can work on something else, go for a walk, or watch a movie.  Relax your mind.  Then come back to it and see if you’ve figured out what the problem is.  The answer often comes to me when I’m not sitting at the computer.  Another red flag: you feel unusually tired when you try to write.  This often means you need a break and will burn out if you don’t take it.  (Though if you have been away from the story for a while, it just means you need to get your brain back into gear.) Now, if you’ve been writing regularly and feel this tired sensation, take a day or two off to get back your energy.

Those two red flags I mentioned above are the two biggest things I’ve noticed that will slow me way down in my publishing schedule if I don’t deal with them right away.  You might notice your own major red flags that pop up from time to time.

Here are some tips on how to increase productivity.

I’ve been writing and self-publishing since 2002, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I started writing more than 2-3 books in a year.  From there, I’ve been writing and publishing more and more books each year.  I honestly believe the more you do this, the faster you get because you become better at the overall process of producing a book.  These days I average 8-10 books a year.  (About 8 will be 50-60K words, and usually the others are shorter.)

1. Get the cover done before you write the book or while you’re writing the book.

2. Get the description done while writing the book and tweak on it as necessary.

3. Make notes for scenes before you sit down to write them.  I don’t plot a book in the traditional sense, but I do think of what I want to happen in the next scene.  I’ll mark down a few brief notes to remind myself of what I want to write in the next day or two.  (For example, “heroine finds wrong paintings in the den and freaks out”.)  Some of my best ideas come early in the morning while I’m in bed, so I have a notebook I keep next to me.  If you want to just think it in your head or want to write details, that’s fine.  Whatever works best for you is what you should do.

4. If you can manage it, work on more than one book at a time.  I know this doesn’t work for everyone, so do it only if you can balance the workload.  I write three books at a time.  (I’m trying to boost my way up to four, but I can’t seem to do it if I’m also in edits.)  If I get stuck in one book, I have another one I can work on.  Also, while my editing team is working on one book, I’m working on the others.

5. Notify your editing team you’ll have the book ready for them in advance so they can clear the schedule for you.  If you reserve your slot early enough, you shouldn’t have trouble getting your team to read your book when it’s ready.  I give my editing team a month to work on my book, but they usually get it back to me in three weeks or less.   Also, treat them well.  Pay your editors a good wage.  Offer beta readers a signed copy of the paperback or gift them the ebook when it’s out.  Give them something for their time.

6. If you do pre-orders, this can really help you tighten up your publishing schedule since it forces you to have everything done ahead of time.  If you take time to organize your schedule, it does help you become more efficient.  How many words/scenes/chapters do you need to write a week in order to finish the first draft by a certain date?  How long will it take for you to do the initial edits before you send it out?  How long will you give everyone in your editing team to work on the book?  How long will you work on it when you get it back?  What is your projected release date?  (Hint: estimate out at least 2 more months than you think you’ll need.  Real life and writer’s block do pop up.)  The nice thing about doing a pre-order is that on the day of the book’s release, all you need to do is announce it to your email list, in your newsletter, on your blog, and/or on your website.  (And you can have those all done in advance if you want.

Reestablishing a Writing Routine

We go through great changes in our lives. It’s frankly inevitable. In fact, I remember someone telling me once in high school that in a twenty-five year period, it was likely that we would change our city/town, home, job, education status, socioeconomic status, political party, religion, and/or a whole bunch of other stuff. And when that happens, writing routines established over time and perhaps uninterrupted for years, are suddenly thrown out the window. And then where are you?

A couple of months ago, I moved into a new apartment so I could start a new job after a job search that lasted several months. Now, prior to this move, I would’ve said to anyone who asked that I didn’t really have a writing routine, that I just wrote wherever I could. Well, that is kind of true, because I do tend to write whenever I can if it’s convenient for me. But after the move, I did realize I had a routine of sorts established, and that routine no longer existed.

You see, while I was job-hunting, I lived with my dad, and in the evenings, I would settle down on the couch downstairs in the living room and write or edit while I watched whatever show I liked was playing that evening (you can get a lot written during commercial breaks). This routine lasted from late October 2015 to the end of May 2016. And my God, did it work! I edited the same novel twice and wrote more than a few short stories and blog posts that way during the job search, and it kept me sane while I looked for employment.

However, after I got employed and I moved for work, a lot changed for me. Yeah, I had increased independence, a nice location near work with a grocery store, a Target, and a library very close to where I live, and the chance to be as eccentric as I wanted within the confines of my own home without anyone judging me. But I also did not have a cable package, a TV, or a couch (though that’ll change soon with one of those). So suddenly the routine I had, which I’d been using for months and which I’d been comfortable with, was about as useful as an alchemy textbook at football practice.

For a while, I tried just writing or editing as much as I could when I sat down in front of the computer. Sadly, that worked horribly. I was moving at a snail’s pace, getting through only a couple of pages a week. A chapter could take up a whole month! With work getting busier and busier for me, I was starting to worry if I’d ever get back to the level of productivity I enjoyed prior to the move and in college.

But then a friend of mine gave me a recommendation that I found very useful. She had recently joined a group on Facebook where members sign up each month to try and write 250 words a day, and it had helped her get back into a routine of writing fiction after a pretty lengthy hiatus. That got me thinking: I can’t write every day, some days there just isn’t enough time. But what if I just tried to write 250 words every time I sat down in front of the computer? It couldn’t hurt to try.

To my utter delight, it worked like a charm. The first time, I ended up writing a little over the minimum 250. The next time, I ended up writing over 700 words! And the third, I managed to get out over thirteen-hundred words! It was amazing. Somewhere between words 150 and 250, a switch would flip and the story would just start flowing out of me like a river. In this way, I managed to get out the outline for my NaNoWriMo project in about a week or so.

Once that experiment had proven successful, I wondered if I could do the something similar with editing. It would have to be slightly different though, because editing is editing. Sometimes all you have to do work on is changing a word or a punctuation mark, and word count doesn’t change that much, but sometimes you rewrite whole sections and the word count changes dramatically. I ended up going with editing at least three pages per session, and that worked as well. After I rewrote the beginning of a short story I’d been working on and off with for over a year, I managed to finish editing the rest within a week (it helped that on the last night I worked on it, I was doing everything I could to avoid the presidential debates and I only had twelve pages to go!). Clearly this new routine I’d been working with was doing its job.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to adopt this routine if your old routine becomes impossible to do, but I am saying you shouldn’t just throw yourself into work and expect magic to happen. That didn’t work for me, and I’m not so sure it’ll work for you. Instead, take baby steps. Try writing a little a day until you find something that works for you and you’re at a level of productivity that works for you. If you do that, then I think that whatever life throws your way, you’ll be able to get back into the swing of storytelling with little to no trouble.

Have you ever had to change your writing routine? What did you do and how did it work out?

How to Deal with Idea Fragments

Imagine JK Rowling never thought of Harry Potter (I know, scary thought, but bear with me), and that you just had the idea for a boy wizard. You recognize that the story could be good. Very good, in fact. The question is, what else do you include? What does your boy wizard do? What is his world like? What makes him special enough to follow around? Obviously in the coming months you’ll come up with Hogwarts and Voldemort and all the other relevant characters and details, but until then Harry’s not really an idea but an idea fragment.

Is there a difference? Yes there is, at least how I write. To me, an idea has a bit more meat on it, like a summary or a prompt. You got this, and you can move forward coming up with all the details based on this little information. Using the Harry Potter example:

Harry is a boy who finds out he’s a wizard, and that when he was a baby, he defeated the greatest Dark wizard of all time. He goes to Hogwarts School to learn magic, and there his destiny begins to emerge.

Now in idea fragment form:

Harry is a boy wizard. That’s all I got so far.

See the difference? It’s just part of a summary. You can’t move forward without knowing a bit more, without deciding what direction you plan to go with Harry. That’s an idea fragment. And we all have them from time to time. Heck, I’m struggling with more than a couple right now. I know that with a bit of development they could be great ideas for stories, but until I add a few more details, I can’t write them down on any of my idea lists. And that makes them annoyances that you work desperately to make into full-fledged ideas. Which can be maddeningly difficult sometimes.

So in order to aid you with these fragments while you have them, here are some tips to develop them into full ideas:

  • First, write them down. Nothing is more infuriating than an idea you forget before you can find some way to make sure you don’t forget it (which is why I keep several lists for ideas and thoughts on my stories). While I’ve found losing idea fragments just to be slightly annoying–as far as I’m concerned, it’s just going back into the sea of the subconscious, to bubble up gain someday and maybe as an idea–it’s still good to write them down so they don’t slip your mind. Writing information down has actually been shown to help commit it to memory, so you’re making sure you don’t forget these possible great ideas-to-be.
  • Don’t stress on trying to turn them into ideas. You can spend your time turning over the fragments in your head, trying to do so until you’re frustrated will not help you come up with an idea. If anything, it’ll just keep you up at night and ruin your mood in the morning. So if you start getting frustrated with a fragment, here’s what you should do:
  • Take a break and distract yourself. Watch some Netflix. Read a book, especially if it’s in a genre or on a subject you’re not entirely familiar with. Go hang out with friends and talk about anything but the fragments. Dive into work, or another writing project, or your family, or whatever. When you come back to it, you’ll be a little refreshed and maybe also armed with new information or experiences to add to your potential idea. And psychology also shows that distracting yourself while trying to solve a problem actually leads to ways to solving it (there’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Einstein Approximation”, that illustrates this very well). So distract yourself. You never know what you might find.
  • Use a generator site. Idea generator, random word generator, story prompt generator, story plot generator, whatever generator. Do a Google search, you’ll find plenty of them. Each varies in what sort or how many parameters they require, and what sort of prompts they give as a result, but if you’re really stuck with some fragments, one of these sites might really be able to help. The downside is that some of the suggestions they give can be really silly sometimes (I tried a horror-themed one, and it gave me some odd plot summaries), while others ask for so many parameters you’re like, “If I knew all this, why would I need to be on this site?” Also, some people may feel that these sites are cheating or really lame last resorts, but it only matters if you think that.

While working on this article, an idea fragment I’d been struggling with for about two weeks finally became an idea. It helped that I was listening to a Stephen King audio book and that I read an article about a recent police operation leading to a huge arrest, helping me to think of something for the characters I had in my head whom I had no idea what to do with. So while these fragments can be a source of frustration, eventually they can become great ideas.

What tips do you have for figuring out idea fragments?