Random Writing Tip #13: Vacuums Suck

Don't be this guy. (Picture by JD Hancock, via Flickr)

Don’t be this guy.
(Picture by JD Hancock, via Flickr)

A lot of writing is done as a solitary activity. We write, we rewrite, we wrestle to make it the story we want it to be. But we can’t do all of it alone, shut away from the world.

Writing in a vacuum isn’t good for the writer or the writing.

We should also look outwards and get input from external sources. It could be other people, or other works of fiction, or real-life stories. We should gain context and an understanding of how our work fits into the world.

We should also reach out and get feedback on our work from external parties. Take in the fresh perspectives of others on the story and on our writing. We mix up this information with everything we’ve come to know, add to it the context we understand, and aim it towards the goal we’re striving for with the story.

And we learn. We improve. We hone our skills as a writer and we polish our stories with this new information.

By stretching out, we expand our vision and experience, and we enrich our writing.

So don’t write in a vacuum. Surface once in a while, let other things fill your eyes and ears, and bring it back to improve your story. You’ll be better for it.

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Random Writing Tip #12: Rest

Cats are masters at resting. Look at Jasmine. Resting. (Photo mine)

Cats are masters at resting. Look at Jasmine. Resting.
(Photo mine)

Getting caught up in a piece is great.Slogging to the end of a piece is, in some ways, better.

But what happens if you get stuck along the way? What happens if trying to move forward with the writing feels a lot like bashing your head against a wall?

I’m a firm believer in pushing through, pushing yourself, and not letting things stand in your way. It’s important to recognise that that’s not always the best thing to do.

Sometimes, you have to recognise that forcing the writing isn’t going to be the best thing for you or your writing. Sometimes, forging ahead regardless can lead your story down the wrong path, or bog it down as your disgruntlement bleeds through, or make you hate it as much as you’re hating the process of writing it.

Sometimes, you just need a break. Step back. Take a breath. Close your eyes and let the words fall away. Rest.

Sometimes you have to find the right way to 'rest'. (Photo mine)

Sometimes you have to find the right way to ‘rest’.
(Photo mine)

The same goes for when you reach the end of a piece. You’ve finished the first draft, so now what?

The next step is to re-draft it, edit it, tidy it up. The problem is, you don’t know if it’s any good. Trust me, you don’t: you’re too close to it. So how do you see it clearly enough to know what you need to fix?

Step back. Know that getting to the end was the first stage, and that the second is to put it down. Take a break.

Let yourself rest. Let the piece rest.

Close the file and put it away. Tuck it in a drawer, file it away in a folder on your desktop. Put it where you won’t see it. Put yourself in danger of forgetting about it.

Try not to think about it for a while. How long? That’s up to you, but at least a week. If you can, a couple of months. The longer the piece and the longer you’ve been working on it, the more time you should allow yourself before going back to it.

It may not be graceful, but if it works, it works! (Photo mine)

It may not be graceful, but if it works, it works!
(Photo mine)

Do something different. Clean the house. Join a gym. Paint a self-portrait. Do some spring-cleaning.

A change can be as good as a rest, so you could write something else. Occupy your brain with something different. Try not to think about the thing you’re resting.

When you come back to it, you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll see things you couldn’t before. You’ll have fresh eyes and fresh ideas. Some ideas may have cropped up during your rest, blossoming the moment you weren’t looking any more.

Then you can get to work and do wonderful things with your words. So do it! Rest, and then kick ass.

(Note: yes, these cats are all mine. From the top, it’s Jasmine, Cinnamon, and Honey.)

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Random Writing Tip #11: Reach Out

Reach out. You know you want to.  (Picture by Joey Gannon)

Reach out. You know you want to.
(Picture by Joey Gannon)

Writing is a solitary activity. We build worlds in our heads, make up characters that make sense only to us, imagine stories, and then put fingers to the page, pushing it all out into a story or poem. We shut ourselves up in garrets, or sit alone in cafes, or close the door to our room or office. We put in our headphones and tune out the world.

We struggle, we strive, all in the privacy of the writer. We get used to not speaking to anyone about it. We get used to not trying to explain this strange, wondrous, draining, hard thing we do.

We’re also pretty damned stupid.

Writing does not have to be a solitary activity. There are people just like you, all around you. They might not be your family, your colleagues, or your friends – yet. If you look for them, you’ll find them everywhere.

So reach out. See if you can find some like-minded people in your area. Online works, too, but try closer to home, too. You’ll be surprised!

You can join writing groups, or if there aren’t any that suit what you’re looking for, start your own. You can join NaNoWriMo. You can hold your own write-ins. Join forums and boards and Twitter conversations.

You don’t have to get together for formal meetings. You don’t have to read each other’s work (or share your own). You could do all of that, or you just get together to sit in companionable silence in a cafe or someone’s lounge, typing and scribbling down words. What you do is completely up to you, but make sure you do.

Everyone needs a support network, and we shouldn’t underestimate the value of those who understand those voices in your head, the plot point you’re struggling with, or the word you just can’t think of. It’s startling how productive a session of writing with a bunch of people can be, when common sense says that you’d probably be too distracted.

It’s not about writing the same piece, or collaborating, or comparing notes, or who can write the most in ten minutes. Writers are the least competitive group I’ve ever come across (though word wars (writing sprints) do work!). It’s about people who get you. It’s about sharing something and feeling supported. It’s about knowing that you’re not really alone, even when you’re writing something deeply personal and private.

So reach out. Find those other writers who are just brimming to talk about that thing they’re working on, to someone who just gets it. Revel in the wondrous feeling of an awesome community. Call each other by internet handles, or pen-names, or random nicknames. Laugh about wayward characters who won’t behave. Bounce ideas off each other. Be lifted up by the enthusiasm of the group. Be inspired.

I did. I’ll never look back. Best decision for my life and my writing I’ve ever made.

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Random Writing Tip #10: Perfection is the Enemy

(Warning: inappropriate unicorns below)

This is where we would all like to be: an armour-toting rainbow unicorn of awesome. (Picture by snakeman1992)

This is where we would all like to be: an armour-toting rainbow unicorn of awesome.
(Picture by snakeman1992)

Writers are always striving to write better. (Or at least, the good ones are, and that’s who I’m writing these tips for, so let’s stick with that assumption, okay?)

We take classes, read blog posts, buy numerous books on writing by writers, read at least some of those books, write stuff, cry over feedback, write more stuff, entrust our precious work to editors, write more stuff. We are always chasing that better phrasing, the more fitting word, the image crafted so finely that it shines. We try to pin down a character in ways that will really reach people. We search for ways to twist the knife that will make people ask for more.

In short, we are always, always trying to perfect what it is that we do.

This is absolutely the right thing to do. We will never learn or grow if we aren’t constantly reaching for something better.

But there is no such thing as perfect writing. It is a myth, the unicorn at the end of a rainbow we can’t even see. That unicorn is laughing at us.

Why is it laughing? Because we know our work isn’t perfect. We sit and squint at it, and poke, and prod, change a word here, a phrase there, throw our hands up and switch tense in the whole piece, cut a paragraph out there, add another page in here. We primp and stroke and preen. We tear it up because it’ll never be any good. Our hands hover over the Delete key. We tuck it in a drawer because the next one, that’ll be the one that works. It’ll be right. But this one, this piece right here, it’s not good enough, and it’ll never be good enough. We just need to keep working at it, at our craft, at the next four pieces, until we’re good enough.

This is closer to reality. (Picture by Christian Hellman)

This is closer to reality.
(Picture by Christian Hellman)

The thing is, we’re our own worst critics and the whole notion of ‘good enough’ means, for most of us, ‘perfection’. And like I said, there is no such thing as perfect writing. We’re sitting there, brushing and brushing a Shetland pony in the hopes that it’ll magically turn into a unicorn. In the meantime, the poor pony’s going bald and has probably started to eat our shoes.

Magic. Unicorn. You see where I’m going here.

So should we stop trying? No, we should not. Self-improvement is the lifeblood of good writing. But there’s trying to improve something and there’s going beyond all need and reason.

Because too much editing and rewriting can suck the life out of a piece. In chasing perfection, you can write away all the spark and passion it had when it was fresh and raw. Just like with cooking, at some point you need to stop stirring and poking and adjusting, or you’ll overcook it and then no-one will enjoy it. Or like whittling, paring and paring away at a carving until there’s only a nub of wood left.

More than that, it can stop you ever feeling like you’ve finished something. You miss that feeling of achievement.

This is where it becomes counter-productive. This is where it damages more than helps.

If you’re never submitting because that piece ‘isn’t quite right’? If you never show anyone your work because you’ve just re-written the first paragraph for the fifth time? If you never get to the end because you’ve been working on the first chapter for three months? If you tinker until you hate the sight of a piece? You’re chasing unicorns and you need to stop. Right now. Put that pen down; step away from the keyboard.

NO. STAHP.  You see how it can all go horribly wrong? (Picture by Sin Amigos)

You see how it can all go horribly wrong?
(Picture by Sin Amigos)

Because perfection is the enemy of done. Perfection is the enemy of looking at a piece and thinking ‘I’ve done something great here’ or ‘this is ready to go’. Perfection is the enemy of pressing ‘send’. Perfection is the enemy of saying ‘look at what I did’ and being proud of it.

That unicorn is not your friend. I’m telling you, it’s laughing at you.

Do you want to know a secret? The definition of what’s ‘good enough’ is mutable. It’s a line you can move, completely at your own choice. And if your line is pushed right up against your desirable perfection, then you need to move it.

It’s a learning process. Don’t expect to get it right every time. But learn to recognise when you’re starting to beat the horse because it’s not a unicorn and you’re about to end up with a dead horse no-one wants to play with any more. Learn when it’s time to put the tools down.

Take a deep breath. Accept that there is no such thing as perfection. Be brave. Let your writing grow wings and fly to wherever you aim it to go. Let it go.

Treat every submission or publication as a learning experience. Know that you’ll take what you learn from one into the writing of the next, and that each piece brings you closer to really good writing. Share your journey and your stories, because it’s good to be human and imperfect.

Know that, in that one way at least, you’re like every other writer on the planet, and that’s okay.

Aim high, my friends. Aim higher. But don’t be afraid to pull the trigger.

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Random Writing Tip #9: Rent Space

Upload your imagery and action here. (Picture from Wikipedia)

Upload your imagery and action here.
(Picture from Wikipedia)

Often when we write, we see the story like a movie in our heads. Sometimes the picture is complete; sometimes it’s not. Sometimes only certain elements are in focus. Sometimes it all rolls by in a technicolor wave we can’t hope to do justice to with our meagre writer’s hands.

Whatever that picture is, it’s one of our challenges as writers to transplant it into the mind of our readers. We have to write in such a way that they see what we do. Words are the film and the book is the projector, whether it be electronic or paper.

Actually building an image in someone else’s mind is impossible (at least it is with current, non-invasive technology, so let’s go with it as fact for now). So how do we do it?

Easy: we cheat. We make the reader build the image themselves.

One writer described it as ‘renting space in your reader’s imagination’. It’s your reader’s imagination that you need to speak to, because this is what will do all the heavy lifting for you. All you need to do is give it the right prompts.

When you’re describing something, less is more.

Building an image in a reader’s mind isn’t about describing every single little detail, every tiny shift, and all the spaces in between. The brain is an amazing machine and can operate well on shockingly little information. It’s about giving the reader the right details so that they’ll fill in the rest for you. It’s about giving them enough to understand the scene. It’s about clues and nudges and those key things that you need to bring into focus.

Your reader has a hungry brain, ripe and empty, and it’ll slather all over itself to work for you, so use it shamelessly. Don’t waste a single word.

But where do flowery language and florid descriptions fit in? Readers enjoy those too (or some do!). They have their place and the same rule applies: you don’t need to describe absolutely everything. Describing one perfect plant in a garden might take half a page (or four pages), and that might be all you need for the entire garden; you don’t have to describe each and every plant the same way. Again, with the right cues, the reader will do it without thinking.

This rule of thumb doesn’t just apply to descriptions, either. Action can be picked out in its key moments (do we need to hear about every jarring step, or the angle at which the protagonist slid around three different corners, or just that last slither to a stop when the quarry is within reach?) and the reader will assume the whole journey; reactions can be hinted at (especially when the reader knows the characters well); and background information can be inferred from many sources (avoiding the infodump).

Focus on what’s truly important to your story: that’s what should appear in your words. You are renting space in someone else’s head and setting up spotlights. Your reader will come in and turn all the other lights on. They’ll join all of those dots while you’re busy doing something bigger, and they won’t even realise they’re doing it. They’ll paint the walls and tile the floor. They’ll figure out how to get from one spotlight to the other and sort out the plumbing. They’ll draw patterns and pitch the lighting at just the right level. They’ll know how long the character’s hair is without being told, and know what that curl of the lips means. They’ll hear voices in their head without any aural input. They’ll be dazzled by your stars and colour the sky in between them at the same time.

So don’t worry about putting every detail into your piece: worry about putting in the right details. And trust your readers to do the rest.

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Random Writing Tip #8: Write your Heart

Let your heart tell the story it wants to, even if it's unconventional. (Picture by vampiredragongirl66)

Let your heart tell the story it wants to, even if it’s unconventional.
(Picture by vampiredragongirl66)

It’s so tempting to look at the book market and think ‘ooo, stories about albino baboons finding their one true banana are selling well, I’ll write one of those!’. It’s also very easy to think ‘I have this wonderful story in my head, but no-one will be interested in it’.

Both of those thoughts are wrong. They will lead you to a sub-optimal outcome and, most likely, a weaker story.

Because that wonderful story in your head? The one that is scrabbling to be written, whispering to you when you least expect it (or are trying to sleep), or growing every time you trip over something in your day-to-day life? That’s the story your heart wants to tell.

When you write it, it’ll be full of all the passion that is pushing it into your consciousness. It’ll carry with it the love you feel for it, even if the story itself is dark and painful, or disturbing, or tortured, or sappy, or playful. It will carry those emotions with it all the way to your readers, like a heady scent.

When a story is forced and not felt, it shows. It lacks the fire of true purpose, and if you don’t believe in it, right down to your core, neither will your readers.

If it makes you laugh and cry and hide under the bed, it’ll do the same for your readers.

Does it mean you can’t experiment and try something different? Does it mean you shouldn’t try to write something marketable? Of course not.

But if you want to write the best story you can, fall in love with it. Find a way. Build in the things that move you. If it touches your heart, that’s a good start. If writing it spills your insides out onto paper, even better.

Writing what moves you will move others, and they will love it even when they’re crying.

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Random Writing Tip #7: Write for One

Is this the reader you're writing for? Because Stitch is adorable but his tastes might be a little alien. (Picture by calling_all_angelz)

Is this the reader you’re writing for? Because Stitch is adorable but his tastes might be a little alien.
(Picture by calling_all_angelz)

Crap is relative. One man’s flower constructed of perfectly-selected words in lyrical proportions is another man’s unnecessary navel fluff. One woman’s riveting background full of juicy details is another woman’s journey down a random tangent full of annoying barbs that get stuck in her hair.

What does this mean? It means you can’t please everyone (just like with everything else in life), so don’t try. Trying to please everyone is simply setting out to fail.

So what do you do? How do you know if you’re writing the right stuff?

Write for one person. Make it the best that you can for that single person; make it their literary diamond.

Chances are, the one person you should write for is you. Writing what you want to read is a great place to start. You might be the only reader you ever write for. But considering all the different types of things that you like, is that a problem? No, not at all. It’s a focus. It’s a way to know that your story is the right one for the right audience.

What if you’re writing for an audience that you can’t represent (for example, children)? Then pick someone who represents the type of reader you want to aim your story at. Understand that person. Know what they love and what they hate. Know how they read and what and why, and all of those juicy things that will help you craft a wonderful nugget for them to love.

Write for that single, solitary reader. Speak directly to them through the words you wrangle. Make your story a conversation they can get engaged in.

And the rest? They’ll like it or they won’t, and that’s okay. The right people will like it: that’s what’s important.

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Random writing tip #6: You’re wrong

You can see your work as clearly as this cat can see your smiling face.  (Picture by Alida Saxon)

You can see your work as clearly as this cat can see the green blanket.
(Picture by Alida Saxon)

You know when you read your work, and you’re stunned by how utterly awesome it is? How no-one has ever put words in that exact, shining order before, with such cleverness and richness?

You know when you read your work, and you’re appalled by how terrible it all is? How you have somehow forgotten how to string words together, and there’s no way anyone will ever understand your slack-mouthed drivel?

At both of those times, you’re wrong.

Writers are their own worst critics. It’s not that we always criticise ourselves too negatively; it’s that we are bad at criticising ourselves, positive and negative. I’ve seen both polarisations happen, though the negative is far more prevalent; writers are very keen to stamp on their own work. As a rule of thumb, the more extreme the polarisation, the more wrong you’re being.

It is a matter of perspective and distance. Our internal editors chitter away on the edges of our brains, like ants. They cover our eyes and cloud our judgement, until we’re so busy swatting that we have no perspective on what we’re smacking and sweeping away. Or they cover the bad parts and all we can see are the bright, shining sections.

Chances are, you’re being too hard on yourself. Maybe you’ve edited and reworked and massaged the piece so many times that you can barely see it any more. Maybe you’re having a bad day. Maybe someone said something to you that has dented your confidence, and now it’s reflecting on your writing. Does any of that mean that your piece is crap? No. It means that your perspective is wonky.

Alternatively, maybe you’re so caught up in the idea of the piece that you’re not reading the words on the page. You have that image so clear in your mind that you can see it, regardless of what the piece actually conveys. Maybe there’s a phrase that makes you happy because it’s so intelligent and sharp that you’re proud to have come up with it. Maybe someone praised you today and you feel like you can do anything at all, including writing golden words with nary a flaw. Does that mean your writing is wonderful? No. But go enjoy the feeling while it lasts; come back to reality later.

The truth is, you’re too close to the work. When you’re feeling so strongly about a piece, you need to step back and clear your eyes. Accept that you’ve lost perspective and are wrong about it. Put the piece away for a while. Write or read something new. Distract yourself with something completely different.

Better yet, get someone else to read it. Get several someones, because many opinions are better than one. Make sure they are people you trust. Gather feedback and perspectives, and see what your rose- or mud-tinted glasses are really doing. Clear your eyes; adjust your mental view.

It’s never as bad as you think it is. Embrace the wrongness of the writer’s perspective, and then put it aside. You’re better than you think.

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Random Writing Tip #5: Cut the Crap

So, you wrote a bunch of crap. This is not a bad thing. You got to the end; now it’s time to weed out all those crappy bits and turn your turd into a diamond.

Look at that cute little face! Cut it anyway. You know it's right. (Picture by Richard Scott 33)

Look at that cute little face! Cut it anyway. You know it’s right.
(Picture by Richard Scott 33)

It’s so tempting to keep that adorable scene where the heroine stops to pat a puppy on the head, because it’s just so cute. Or the hero musing about that childhood friend he misses. Or the antagonist primping in front of the mirror before a big confrontation.

Cut it out. No, really. Be ruthless.

Is it necessary for the story? Does it serve any purpose? No? Then it’s crap and needs to be consigned to the editing room floor.

Extra bits like this are a distraction. They can ruin the pace of the narrative, taking the reader by the hand and skipping them off down a leafy tangent that, while pretty, isn’t quite what they signed up for. They were quite happy on the bus to Kickass Storyville, thank you very much.

Every pause and break is an excuse to put your story down and wander off for a cup of tea or a beer. Don’t give your reader excuses; nail them to the seat until you’re done with them.

So challenge all those little scenes. It could be a paragraph or a whole chapter, but if it doesn’t add something to the story, it doesn’t need to be there. It’s crap; cut it out. Refine your story down to its essence and bare it to the world.

What’s worth keeping, I hear you ask? What makes it not crap that’s just cluttering up my story? It must progress the story or reveal something important about the character.

While it might be interesting to know that the heroine has a soft spot for puppies, is this important to the story or her development as a person? Do we care about the hero’s childhood friend; does he turn up at all? Is the antagonist’s primping a way to show the reader that he needs to build himself up before meeting his opponent, a glimpse of the man beneath the makeup, or just filler?

Challenge everything. Make those moments earn their place in your story, because you want to give your reader the best story you possibly can. Make them do double-duty if you can, or triple, or more. Every word you spin is precious, so don’t let it turn into crap that weakens your story.

The word of today is: superfluous. Find it, know it, cut it out.

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Random Writing Tip #4: Finish

See this line? Go for it, with everything you've got (Picture by matea2506)

See this line? Go for it, with everything you’ve got
(Picture by matea2506)

You want to be a published author. That’s okay: there’s lots of us who share your dream. It’s good dream. Shiny.

So you start looking into your publishing options. You toss up the traditional vs self-publishing arguments. You look into self-publishing avenues and the latest advice for how to sell your book. You search for literary agents that deal with your genre and type of novel. You research the publishers that you could submit to. You scour the internet for publications that are looking for short stories just like yours.

Those things I just listed? They’re distractions.

Because you know what you need first? A finished story.

Sure, it’s easy to get side-tracked with the wealth of options available to you. Yes, it’s nice to get a ‘head start’ on the business of getting yourself published (whichever way you choose to do it). And there are plenty of blogs like this one full of advice and information about what you should think about when going about getting published. So much to read and consider, so many avenues to explore, like rabbit-holes in the arse of the publishing world…

Don’t let that get in the way of actually working on your story. That’s the sort of thing you worry about when you have a story worth frothing over publication. All of that reading and worrying and deciding and musing is for nothing if you never end up finishing that story in the first place.

Also, it’s not as productive as you might think. It’s a way of making procrastination seem like productivity; all you’re doing is putting off the real work: writing your story. Recognise it, name it, and kick that time-wasting sucker to the kerb.

Put all of that distracting shit aside. Focus on what you need to do to finish your story: write, edit, polish, research, edit some more. Produce that wonderful nugget that will one day grace a reader’s pages.

First you need a story. So sit down and write it.

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