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You Need a Cover that Appeal To Your Readers, Not Just You

We don’t do any marketing posts (well, we don’t do a ton of blog posts, if you didn’t notice) as marketing is not within our area of expertise. However, we’ve run into a number of authors with wonderful stories who have the initial urge to market their book well, but they gear their blurbs or covers toward themselves rather than representing the actual story told within the book’s pages.

So, this post is a marketing-adjacent account of what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, and what we would like to see more of.

Let us take an example! You have a book about a sorcerer who takes a hero’s journey to salvage his or her own soul but instead ends up sacrificing their soul for the sake of humanity. Great! AWESOME! This could also be the chosen one/the prodigal son type of story. Now that we’ve established that, let’s say that to reach this goal, the sorcerer must obtain an object that does magic. And that object does magic GOOD. Okay? You with me still? So, let’s say this object is an orb. A colorful orb in which souls are trapped or released. That sounds cool, right? Yes. I bet it looks cool, too! But maybe it’s a bit busy because you have the simplicity of the orb versus the complexity of its function. Maybe you, as the author, love the idea of placing that orb, with all its colorfulness and all the souls floating from it, right on the cover of your book. Doesn’t sound bad, does it?

And it isn’t bad. Not inherently. But let’s take the story into consideration here; you have a main character with a name, with a background, a history, interactions with other characters, and events that move that main character toward that orb over the course of the story. The orb isn’t as important as what allows your protagonist to reach it. The journey is always more important than the end goal. Or as important, at the very least. The orb only appears in a single scene or two. If you place the orb on the cover of your book, you’re inviting your potential readers to believe it holds more importance than it does. Setting up expectations that will never be realized.

What then, should you do? Well, read your story from the point of view of an actual reader if that’s possible. Say you’ve sent it to your editor. Re-read that story once it comes back to you. It should be different enough that you’re able to view it through the eyes of a reader, so long as you’ve placed enough distance and time between yourself and that particular piece. What is your impression of the story? You’re likely going to feel more of a connection to the sorcerer than to the orb, right?

Well, damn. There goes that cover idea! What would the reader like to see on the cover? What would set up their expectations so that they aren’t misled or disappointed? We would likely suggest something that tethers the orb to the actual character. Let’s say the sorcerer has a wrist tattoo. Maybe it’s a sign or a symbol of their soul and that soul’s attachment to the body that holds it. This is an important character. He’s the main character, so let’s call him Sorcerer Steve. We would likely suggest something like this (we’re also not graphic designers, so bear with us here): the silhouette of a hooded man (Sorcerer Steve!) in the background with that tattooed wrist reaching forward, and the orb in his hand (the not-yet-activated orb for simplicity and so that the author still has that element; we’re not monsters, for god’s sake). Obscure the arm up to the point where the tattoo is clearest, focus on that, and boom! A cover that better reflects your story! Maybe. Again, we’re not graphic artists (find a good one).

In any case, make sure the cover has something to do with the story you’re telling as a whole. Of course, symbolism is almost always acceptable as well. Many authors use, for example, objects of things that are thematically relevant to their books as the focal point of the cover. Perhaps a symbolic line linking dust motes to humanity’s insignificance in the world pops up in a science fiction novel where that is an underlying theme. Try a black cover, a sliver of grey light, and glimmering dust motes. Or something simple like that. This brings me to my final point:

Simplicity is so important. Jamming your cover with too many elements (unless you’ve written an absurdist novel, perhaps, but even then, I would say just don’t do that) doesn’t get anyone’s attention. It’s busy and messy—easily glossed over.

For the love of God, don’t make your name bigger than the book’s title. That tells the reader far too much about an author’s ego, and if you’re a new author, you don’t want to appear hubristic to your base.

That’s the most basic advice I can give at the moment. I’m learning more about marketing, but I’m not quite at the stage where I am able to earnestly advise a person on it and would absolutely suggest hiring a professional marketer. Happy writing and make good choices. If you’re an independent author (especially a first-time one) these are super important considerations. Appeal to the type of person you want reading your book when making decisions that can affect how it’s marketed.

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PREY 2017, Likes and Dislikes

Warning: Spoilers for Prey (2017)

I’ve always been a huge fan of sci-fi horror. There are subgenres of horror that I zero interest in (Jason with the hockey mask, not my thing—but I’m not judging). The type of horror I enjoy and find the most fascinating is usually based around some chthonic or cosmic unknown; a completely foreign entity, idea, or force from that infinite ocean of emptiness that surrounds us.

Fragmented ideas for this subgenre aren’t too difficult to produce in my opinion; the real difficulty comes in when one must put the pieces together and create a compelling story that the sci-fi horror lives in.

This idea was born as I began a replay of Prey from 2017. The POV is first person, journeying the game through the eyes of the protagonist, Morgan Yu. The entire narrative—the whole of the story—never leaves Morgan’s first-person perspective, just like Gordan Freeman in Half Life. (Man, I really, truly love Half Life and Half Life 2, but there comes a certain point where it gets weird and unnerving when Gordon doesn’t talk—especially to Alex—who accompanies the player through much of the sequel. Blank slate character for self-insertion and all that, I know. Wonderful world building and details to immerse in that universe, spectacular gameplay, but the character-player bond is not there—you know, I’ll save that for another time. It’s not like Morgan Yu in Prey is especially talkative, but he has a voice and a character, even a character arc if the player so chooses.)

The story begins with Morgan still “Earthside,” preparing to join their (you can play Morgan Yu as a man or a woman) brother, Alex, on the moon-orbiting space station Talos I. Morgan must undergo some “standard” testing before being cleared to join Alex aboard the station, in which the Yu family and other unknown entities have a large financial stake. There are some expositional snippets at the very beginning to ground the player: there is literature scattered around Morgan’s apartment that you can read, introducing you to the in-game world. This type of expositional world-building continues throughout the game, as you have the option to read very short articles, brief accounts of different characters, and emails, or (often listen to) other communications. Not dissimilar from the books and tomes your character can read in Skyrim (albeit, much shorter in word count). Much of this exposition is optional, but they help with immersion into the fictional world. And some give you clues to advantageous knowledge or items.

The emails, voice recordings, and video footage that Morgan gains access to as the game progresses help tell the story once the player is fully grounded. More secrets are unearthed, and they continually get darker and darker.

And as is tradition, as it was in the Sacred Book of Half-Life, during the tests/experiment is when shit hits the fan. A black, almost shapeless creature kills the head scientist administering your tests in a gruesome fashion and causes a panic. Morgan is rendered unconscious (he was protected behind glass) and wakes back up in the original apartment as if nothing has happened. A mystery voice contacts Morgan, stating they are in extreme danger and need to escape the apartment ASAP. The friendly maintenance woman from your apartment hallway seems to have been killed just as the scientist was—looking almost as though the life was straight up drained out of her, face deformed, and frozen in a kneeling position.

The illusion that was Morgan’s life is shattered once the player heaves a piece of furniture through the apartment’s floor to ceiling windows. My first playthrough, the “looking-glass” technology struck me in its presentation: strafe to one side of the glass and see this beautiful and sunny cityscape from a high-rise apartment—what Morgan was meant to be fooled by; strafe the other to see that it’s just a plain window you can peer into the apartment with; a bit like a two-way mirror for watching a suspect under interrogation. Just beyond the looking-glass, Morgan steps into a laboratory. The entire beginning of the game was a simulation (this theme comes back) onboard the Talos I. The mystery person stays in contacts Morgan as they progress, offering advice and giving story information when necessary. There’s been an outbreak of the aliens on the station, killing nearly everyone.

The mystery contact tells you the creatures are called the “typhon,” extremely hostile to any non-typhon organisms. There is a wide variety of typhon lifeforms Morgan must sneak past or kill to survive. (As it was in The Sacred Texts of Half Life, thou shalt verily bludgeon little nasty critters into mush with a large tool at the beginning of the game, till thou equipeth a firearm.)

Early in the story, Morgan finds out that they are the VP of Talos I’s operations. The Yu family/investors are attempting to perfect a technology called Neuromods: with a simple injection (into the goddamn eye, for some reason), an individual is instantaneously granted skill that would typically take a lifetime to master; or a neuromod can grant superhuman strength and reflexes. Sort of like the Matrix (“I KNOW KUNG FU”). Neuromods are sold for big bucks to rich people on Earth. Morgan eventually gets access to this tech, and later discovers the experimental version of it—which hasn’t left the station yet—which allows one to perform acts and abilities reflected by the typhon lifeforms; shooting balls of pure energy (Hydukens), resurrecting a corpse to transform it into a typhon ally, and “mimicry,” which allows Morgan to select an item within view and take on its shape. Morgan can turn into an itty-bitty teacup and roll under a broken door or turn into a lamp to blend in with the scenery, hiding in plain sight from some of the more difficult foes. I mean, it’s just plain fun to turn into a random object and bounce about merrily.

As the player learns more about the origins of the typhon and the neuromod research surrounding the species, and as you progress through the game, Morgan has these jarring “visions.” In one, Morgan watches as their arm is enveloped in typhon tendrils, consuming them. In some, his inner monologue voices cryptic, distressing ideas. I liked these visions and voices as a storytelling element, as they make the player question what is really going on underneath everything—the secret of all secrets—and it ties into the ending nicely.

It turns out that the entire space station was built around typhon lifeforms that had attached themselves to an orbital satellite many decades ago and has been a secret research facility for a long time, experimenting with the typhon. The station has changed hands several times, but the veneer of a marvel of modern engineering and a symbol of the human conquering of space was always smoke and mirrors to hide the typhon lifeform and the questionable research within (throwing prisoners dubbed “volunteers” at a random typhon lifeform in controlled environment to witness how it brutally murders the volunteer). A potential existential threat parked next door to Earth, but financially lucrative.

The base story: Morgan Yu fights his way through Talos I and ultimately decides the fate of the station and the typhons and humans inhabiting it.

The story within the story: Morgan and Alex Yu were attempting to perfect neuromods, and it just so happens the ingredients of these are typhon-based. The problem with neuromods is that if you want to “undo” a neuro-modification, it can be done, but it resets your entire memory to the moment just before you injected that purple goo into your eyeball.

Morgan apparently “volunteered” to have their memory erased day after day by testing the experimental typhon neuromods, with the goal of replicating typhon abilities (as mentioned above). After so many iterations of the “forgetting,” Morgan experienced a shift in personality. Morgan grew suspicious that he was being forced to “forget,” and that Alex was keeping Morgan trapped in a Groundhog Day-type situation for nefarious purposes. Morgan has built AIs and recorded secret videos as reminders of “being kept prisoner” (that mystery voice at the beginning of the game? That was an AI Morgan built in secret). There’s evidence to this, and to the contrary: Morgan did originally volunteer to do the experiment. Things got… complicated as Morgan scrambled his brain repeatedly, as Alex insists when he chooses to communicate with Morgan as the story moves forward. Even so, can one consent to something they cannot remember consenting to? There was the Morgan before the neuromod experiments—a cold, “ethically-flexible” scientist (just like Alex)—and there’s the Morgan after the repeated brain scrambling. The player ultimately decides who that current Morgan is, and if their moral compass has truly changed for the better.

The ending and ultimately, the real story: Morgan Yu died some time ago when the typhons escaped containment and inevitably invaded Earth. The blurred and rapid “visions” during key parts of the story are either Morgan’s real memories, or the actual setting: a small room with Alex and his AI assistants. The player is physically a typhon entity with Morgan Yu’s memories and identity rooted and anchored into its consciousness, restrained to a chair, having undergone an experimental simulation (the entirety of your time as “Morgan Yu” on Talos I). Alex Yu and his AI assistants monitor “Morgan’s” progress through the simulation, based on the real events of Talos I, to determine if typhons can feel empathy if the right human consciousness is anchored to it. Alex sees it as an angle to help save Earth from complete typhon infestation.

Alex and his assistants’ determination comes down to some key decisions that “Morgan” (the player) made during the story. Did you help others in need? Did you kill humans without reason or cause? Did you save or kill Alex? Did you choose to blow up Talos I and any trace of the typhon, or did you assist Alex in saving the station to preserve the typhon research?

If Alex and the AIs agree that you “passed” the simulation test, he takes a chance. Alex releases the bindings on Typhon-Morgan and asks for their help. Here, at the very end of the game, the player can either morph their typhon tendril into a human hand to shake Alex’s and solidify collaboration, or choose to massacre him and his AI assistants—likely dooming Earth.

I personally don’t like when stories end with something like this: It was all a simulation. It was all a dream; it just seems like a copout—my struggle, my story, my time spent on Talos I didn’t even happen? Did the writers back themselves into a corner they couldn’t write out of?

I’ll give Prey a bit of a pass on this one, as the story was told well, and it was a fun ride. The ending was in theme with the merging of consciousnesses, but this time a typhon was subject to a human’s interpretation and perception of what a mind should do. Alex is attempting to apply morality—ultimately, humanity—onto a blank slate, onto something he doesn’t fully comprehend: the player and their choices are the wild card.

That being said, I’m still not a huge fan of the ending. It undermines some of the largest stakes in the story—they weren’t reality. Morgan’s actions, all the player’s actions; they were fake/virtual in the story canon. Everything you did amounted to nothing (aside from Alex’s decision at the end). I haven’t reached the end of this playthrough yet, so I forget exactly what Alex says regarding the accuracy of the events of Talos I portrayed in the simulation. After I’m taken out of the simulation, I have no grounding in the core world, and just have to trust that Alex is who he portrays himself as, and most interactions with him were in the simulation (in a somewhat negative manner, which seems it would invite mistrust from Typhon-Morgan). Now that I’ve had a chance to type it out, I think I’m gonna bash Alex when the time comes. Ending any story in this manner has the likelihood of annoying the player/viewer/reader by “waving off” the journey and experience as a side note. There were no danger or stakes or… aliens attacking you. Did Alex also compose an OST for his simulation? At least he did a good job with that. The dynamic and unsettling soundtracks are great for the setting.

Okay, enough about the ending.

The Typhon lifeforms are imaginative in their concepts and variety. They are ultimately meant to be disturbing, unsettling and once they get you in their sights, they are relentless; I think the artists and devs did a good job with their design. The way the “phantoms” appear to weakly mimic human voices and sounds is eerie. The advanced typhon are challenging as foes until you are farther along in the game; even then, they can still surprise you, startle you, or gang up on you to the point where you must flee. (And as it was written in the sacred texts of Half Life, Morgan Yu dons the same form of plot armor as Gordan Freeman, whereas typhon mimics cannot insta-kill Morgan as they do non-player characters, just as it was written in the sacred texts that headcrabs cannot insta-kill Gordan as they do the NPCs in Half Life.)

Typhon kill indiscriminately to harvest human consciousness. While playing as Morgan, you begin to see this golden webbing; it’s been dubbed “coral.” They’ve harvested enough human consciousness to construct enough coral to act as a beacon for a leviathan Typhon that ends up bearing down on Talos I (previous to this, the typhon research team couldn’t figure out the purpose of coral). The webbing begins appearing all over the station as the story progresses.

Are these people who were killed still conscious in some manner against their will… a reaping of minds? Morgan encounters many mind-controlled humans in the story. Advanced typhon behavior involves forcing human behavior to serve their needs, while keeping the human consciousness intact. Nasty stuff and a great sci-fi horror story concept.

And as I stated before, the OST is cool. For example, the first time you encounter a “poltergeist” typhon, the music is perfect; this invisible creature is attacking you in a dark room, leaving you fairly disoriented, and the discordant music adds to the dread.

I’m out of stuff to say. Although I prefer Dead Space, Prey is great. Fun gameplay, and a cool story.

Thanks for reading!

  • E

Wait, I can’t not mention the Nightmare typhon. At a certain point in the game, this thing will show up randomly for the sole purpose of hunting down and killing you. It’s a fun gameplay mechanic that keeps you on your toes, and you can choose to fight or flee—the thing is a badass. The first time you see this thing, it’s a big NOPE, I’m not fucking with that thing. I remember ducking into an office, running away from it, thinking it was too far too large to get past the door. I watched as it squeezed through that little doorway as if it were nothing—morphing its anatomy to force its way in—then it stomped the ever-living shit out of me. (Eventually you figure out ways to deal with the nightmare, but the first few encounters are the best.)

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My Experiences with Stories in Games

I game in my free time – PlayStation. I haven’t upgraded to the “5” series yet because I refuse to pay above retail price out of sheer principal; there’s a scalping ecosystem that’s taken over the market for the time being, and it’s gross (although I think it’s lessening as time goes on), but that’s not what I’m writing about.

A good story can come in many forms: books, movies, television, and many other mediums. A more active and immersive approach to storytelling through games has become more prolific in recent years. Donkey Kong from 1981 was considered the first game to have a story attached to it. This was communicated to the player via short cutscenes, animations, and on-screen text for dialogue.

Tangentially, looking that up reminded me of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, in which competitive Donkey Kong players duke it out for the world’s highest score in the arcade world. I recommend it as it’s a really fun watch—the filmmakers turned the documentary into a fascinating story. I am sometimes wary when a documentary has been put together to tell (sell?) a story—as entertaining as they may be—because hundreds or thousands of hours of video footage can be spliced together or edited any which-way to lay out a narrative intended to lead the viewer to draw conclusions that may not necessarily be wholly truthful. Producing a bias, essentially. I digress.

Thinking back, my first remembrance of playing a story-driven game was the old Space Quest series on PC… this was early ’90s. My dad had a computer and would play Space Quest 3 (I think subtitled St. Elmo’s Ire?). He enjoyed it, but I think he eventually felt a level of guilt over putting time into games as a parent—that’s when opportunity struck for me. I took over. Of all the games that could get a kid into gaming for fun, this was the one got me, weirdly enough. A game where most of the comedy went over my head and was very challenging for a kid. Just drawing from memory, you play a character named Roger Wilco who travels from planet to planet attempting to accomplish some mission. I remember a hot-volcano planet where you needed to equip an item called “thermoweave underwear” before you could explore the location. (There was some goofy line that I still remember to this day, and I probably don’t remember it completely accurately: “It’s 350 degrees but you don’t care, you’re beatin’ the heat with your thermoweave underwear!”). You would have to type in command prompts correctly too, so “put on thermoweave underwear” is what you would input to avoid immediate disintegration into a pile of ash upon exiting your ship. There were so many absurd ways to die in that game, and then a text box would appear informing you that you’ve died and further chastise you over how stupidly you must have acted to die in such a manner. Unfortunately, it was so long ago, I don’t remember it well enough to summarize Space Quest 3’s plot. I think it had to do with saving two game developers (they inserted themselves into the story) from some place or person. I could look it up, but I don’t wanna. I’ll save the nostalgia deep-dive for another time.

All the games I played on old PCs and Macs, Nintendo64, Nintendo Gamecube, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 had stories. There had to be a story for every game; to what extent the story mattered relative to the gameplay was always a dynamic interaction. In those early years, I was either too young to care, or the story wasn’t shown in a way that left any impression. X-Wing by LucasArts was one of my favorites, but it kinda just rehashed Star Wars tropes in place of story (you’re in the Rebel Alliance and the Imperials are doing blah blah blah). But the gameplay was FUN.

Blizzard’s StarCraft had a story in the campaign mode, and I remember that one fondly. They showed it through cutscenes, in-game/in-mission, through main character interaction and events. There were some fun sci-fi concepts and three distinct factions the player could control: The Terrans (the humans), the Zerg (nasty critter-like aliens with a hivemind), and the Protoss (advanced aliens with superior technology). It was neat to navigate the campaign and watch this war unfold from each race’s unique perspective. StarCraft isn’t known for its amazing storytelling (nor should it be); it turned into an extremely competitive Esport. I can’t speak to StarCraft 2, as I had moved onto consoles by then.

I fondly recall the first time I played Fallout 3. I was blown away by the open-world concept around a time where exploratory environments were first trending—I vividly recall the feeling I had when the player character exits “the vault” for the first time, and your (character’s) eyes adjust to the outside light, and then you see this seemingly limitless, vast world just waiting to be explored. That was next-level shit for me at that time. I was like, holy shit this is what games are like now? Awesome.

Fallout 3’s primary storyline wasn’t anything to write home about in my opinion, but the setting and world the developers had created (note: I have not played the first two Fallouts) was really cool. The game’s backdrop was post-apocalyptic and had the player exploring a post-nuclear war Washington DC (two-hundred years after the bombs dropped), and I count that as part of the setting which contributed to my immersion into the story. That part was done well. The side quests, the random events when I was exploring, the NPCs; they’re all telling me more about this world and how it works. I’ll find myself imagining/wondering if the in-game world or setting could exist in a vacuum without the player character or protagonist—are the people, places, and creatures developed enough to operate as an ecosystem or universe without me being there. If the answer to that is yes, then I think that really adds to the experience, so props to dev teams who put in enough effort to accomplish that feeling.

What’s neat about the gaming medium is interaction. One can participate in the story on different levels, depending on the game. Fallout 3 gave the player options, and you could directly influence the game’s story and world. Fallout New Vegas did this even better: the game allowed you to decide which of the several warring post-apocalyptic factions you would ally with. And none of them were clearly the good guys or bad guys (well, one had a slave trade, which is objectively terrible; but you could still ally with the Legion if you so wished). You could play an evil character if wanted to. It was a sandbox; do whatever you like, and your actions influenced the world and setting.  

I enjoyed the blank-slate/be-whoever-you-want template for characters, and I still do, but I can really appreciate when a game’s story is driven by a well-designed protagonist.

Red Dead Redemption 2 comes to mind for me, and probably many others. Here, the player takes on the role of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw and gang enforcer. You still have a degree of control over Arthur’s choices (and face the consequences), but the main story doesn’t diverge or deviate heavily from its central narrative based on player choices made as Arthur. There’s an “honor” system, which to my knowledge, has been around as a game trend for decades—there was one in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and many others I’ve played. Red Dead 2 is character-driven, with the player taking on the role of the antihero. Arthur’s done bad things throughout his career as an outlaw (story cannon, separate from player decisions), and it’s catching up with him and his cohorts. Shit hits the fan when the gang’s leader starts losing control. Of everything. I’m not going to explore the whole plot here, but the story and main characters were widely regarded as really F’ing good. The interactive and participatory aspects of RDR2 as a game rather than a movie or TV show create for the player a connection to the characters and setting that couldn’t be achieved in any other way. It’s a fantastic illustration of how a great story can be beautifully executed in the gaming medium.

I also love the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne, but I’d rather talk about them in a separate post. Entirely different mode of storytelling with blank-slate style characters.

Storytelling in gaming has been written about before, but I just wanted to share some of my personal experience with it. Thanks for reading!

Are You a Writer? A Storyteller? Or Both?

I’ve wanted to cover this for a while, but I’ve found it hard to articulate what the differences between the three are, how to marry the two if you are both, how to become a storyteller if you’re a writer, and how to become a writer if you’re a storyteller.

Confused yet?

Great! I was too. For a while.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of authors. Many can write but can’t tell a story. Many others have the opposite problem, and while some can do both well, they still need help merging their talents into a cohesive book/story.

We’ll start with writers. This is an easy one.

You’re a writer if you can make a good sentence. Sentence structuring isn’t too hard once you’ve learned that most sentences are effective if the subject goes before the verb. That’s pretty much it, and all that’s really required of you. You can string together many good sentences until you have a full, 60-90k novel. But there’s something missing. Your characters may not resonate. You may lack tension in the necessary areas. Your dialogue may not reflect the personality of the characters whom you’re trying to depict. Your story points may be in all the wrong places. I encounter this sort of manuscript more often than anything else. Now, some writers may have other issues (we all do), such as unnecessary repetition (please don’t show and tell. There’s a time and place for both, but when you do both, that speaks to your lack of confidence in your own work. Please have more faith in yourself!). Some may like to use dramatic proclamations too often in dialogue so that it doesn’t feel realistic. But for the most part, a decent writer can write, but (in the context of this blog post) but they fail to effectively tell their story. They may have a few good plot points, or a decent subplot, but their manuscripts will be filled with, well, filler.

A good writing coach can help you, along with you committing to reading books. I love working with writers who can competently spell, use homonyms, and just generally write well. Adding those story elements in is something I love to help with. Brainstorming with my authors is one of my favorite things to do! There’s help for you yet! <3

Storytellers!

I like helping storytellers with the writing aspect, as I honestly believe that it’s easier to learn to write than it is to learn to tell a great story. Storytellers are bursting with fantastic ideas, and they have them all written on the page, the story moves along at a great pace, there’s tension, action, denouement, climaxes, and all sorts of exciting elements. What do storytellers tend to lack, when their primary talent is telling a story? And how can this be detrimental when writing a book is mostly about the craft of telling a story?

(Note: These are all my own personal observations. Others are free to disagree. I’m not necessarily right about this. This has been my experience only.)

Oh, it can be so detrimental. Because a storyteller is that author you speak with who has a thousand ideas, and you worry they may be either micro-dosing Adderall, or perhaps already on a steady diet of cocaine and Pixie Stix. These authors more often than not need extensive line edits, restructuring, as well as intense copyedits.

Natural storytellers (you know who you are) can run ideas by their editors, friends, family members, at an alarming speed. And most of the time, the problem is that they’re all good ideas, you just can’t tie everything together in a cohesive manner, so you shove all the action into the story, and often suffer from a lack of character attachments as well as reader attachment because everything moves so fast the reader doesn’t have time to catch their breath. This is where the editor comes in to tell you to put the cocaine down and take a deep breath. We help you to emotionally bond your reader to your story. You’ve got some great events, a great foundation for your protagonist and antagonist, you have a cool world surrounding them—but what are you missing? The small things. That’s what you’re missing. And those small things really are what can help a reader attach themselves to your story.

For example: the way your characters bond with one another or are repelled from one another. You may lack intense connections between the characters you want to endear the reader toward. Character reactions may not suit the characters themselves. Character development may happen too quickly and with no relapses back into their old ways. There are so many things that you are great at, as a storyteller. But filling in the blanks is what you need the most help with. Again, the small things. Body language. Meaningful statements from main characters. Meaningful gestures from main and side characters.

It’s great to be a natural storyteller. I love that. I’ve often found that storytellers are much more willing to learn the craft of writing, than writers are able to learn the craft of storytelling.

So How Do I Fix This Shit?

Come closer. Little closer.

READ! READ BOOKS!

That’s step one. Pay attention to what you’re reading. Whether you love it or hate it. Find the “why” behind that love or that hatred. Try to emulate the things you love about stories and try to firmly avoid the things that you hate.

Reading various opinions from random writers and editors won’t help you. Yeah, sorry. I’m just here to waste your time! Here’s why: You’re going to get so many different means of guidance from so many different “professionals” that you won’t know whom to trust. If you’re a natural writer or a natural storyteller, reading, and reading often, will help you to bridge the gaps between what you do well and what you do poorly, simply by taking in the words on the page, the events, how they’re tied together, and how they succeed or fail in impacting you as a reader.

BOTH

If you’re both—I love you. I love you. I love you. All I have to do, for the most part, is go through your work, tell you what needs help, you do it, and then we move on and everyone lives happily ever after. You still have weak points, but you’re willing to learn. You’re willing to grow. BLESS YOUR HEART YOU WRITER/STORYTELLER COMBOS! You make my life easy! Not fun, because I don’t get to tell you how much you suck and why, but you do make the workflow so much faster. But yeah, the excitement is lacking. Sorry. That doesn’t mean that you can’t cobble together something completely subpar and submit it to me to spice things up, though. I’ll still take it.

One Does Not Simply… Become Both.

It takes hard work and dedication. An open mind, and a willingness to hear out constructive criticism. Now that I’ve listed all of your weaknesses—forget about them for a while. Try to passively work on improving them. But mainly what you need to do is evolve in what you already excel at. If you’re a writer who can’t tell a story, keep working on your writing. But pick one aspect of storytelling and work on that as well. Write short stories that contain all of these: a main character with a motivation, something that gets in the way of that motivation, how the character overcomes that obstacle, how they change or regress because of that, and then wrap it up with a proportionate ending. End with a story question. Don’t wrap everything up in a nice bow. Challenge yourself to give the readers something to wonder about. They’ll want to read more of your shit. No cliffhangers (yeah, there’s a difference between a story question and a cliffhanger).

If you’re a storyteller who can’t write… READ BOOKS! See how other authors do it. Work on your worldbuilding on a smaller scale. Build characters, develop them, give them motivations and flaws, obstacles, etc. (Though, to be fair, most storytellers are great at coming up with obstacles). Play to your strengths, and if you need help, people like me are here to help guide you with your writing. That’s what I do. And I love to do that. I want to help you evolve your work, because you’ve spent a lot of time working hard on it. I want to work hard to help you obtain the story you’ve always envisioned. That’s what we’re here for.

I think that covers it. I don’t know. There’s a storm. I got distracted.

Happy writing!

And no, I don’t proofread my own blog posts because I’m off the clock. And just for Julie, I’ll make sure this one isn’t ONLY a cat picture.

Exposition: Not Even Once

We all do it. Exposition. Let us stop.

It’s not the easiest thing not to do, in any case.

If you’re writing your first draft, you may want to skip this post, but revisit it when you’re revising. At the same time, if you’re dedicated to writing a great first draft, please proceed! It’s never a bad idea to learn all that you can before starting any book or story.

First of all—what is exposition?

Well, in fiction, it would be a huge block of text, describing nothing more than information that’s relevant to the story, but in a way that is clearly intended as an explanation. In other words, it isn’t worked into the story. It doesn’t advance or enhance your story; it just sits there, that block of text, like a light poo floating atop the toilet water. You’ve cut your story up to maybe “creatively insert a flashback”, and the present story you are telling takes a backseat, for a time, for the past story you shouldn’t need to tell.

Exposition is clearest when the author inserts themselves into the story to tell the reader what is happening. And that is not something that should be necessary. Why? Because you’re painting a picture. You’re using your words to show. Not tell.

Let’s take an example here. Say you have a person who is terrified of storms because when they were a child, their father left them during a thunderstorm. There would be a preferred way to set this scene while still weaving that backstory into it, and then there would be the expository manner of dumping that information.

Exposition: James stood in the doorway as the rain pelted the pavement. Soon it would turn to hail. The sky was dark everywhere and James couldn’t bear to stay on the porch any longer. Instead, he went indoors. He sat on the couch as the thunder rolled overhead, and lightning flashed behind his living room curtains. Storms bothered James. To the point of panic. This panic stemmed from his childhood. HIs father had left him during a similar storm. He was only ten years old and James and his mother had to fend for themselves after that. The day his father left, a large thunderstorm rolled through town, and as James’ father slammed the door on his way out, a thunderclap struck simultaneously.

You might be thinking that that’s not so bad. It’s not, I suppose, except, well, I wrote it. But other than that, fine. But is there a better way to do this? To show the reader why James fears storms the way that he does? Perhaps.

Sneaking exposition into the current storyline:

James stood in the doorway. He watched the rain pelt the pavement beyond his front door. Soon, those quick and stinging droplets would turn to hail. The sky was dark and James couldn’t bear to stay on the porch any longer. Instead, he went indoors and sat on his couch as the thunder rolled overhead, and lightning flashed behind his living room curtains. He shook at each thunder clap. At each lightning strike. The storm weakened him. His heart pounded, and with each boom that rattled his house and worked through his body, James shook even more. He pictured the front door of his childhood home slamming in tandem with the thunder; his mother’s tears that flowed just like the rain as her husband and James’ father left their home for the last time. With each strobe of lightning, James saw his father’s back as the man retreated from James and his mother. They watched through the window, cradling one another. Neither James nor his mother spoke a single word.

The curtain of ongoing rain reminded him of his mother’s tears; of his own ten-year-old tears, mixing together.

James brought his knees to his chest and plugged his ears. He fought the urge to call his fiancé, to ask if she would come home that night. She’ll come back, he reassured himself. Another clap of thunder. James’ heart leapt and so did his body. He was on his feet, the area rug displaced by his sudden movements.

He went upstairs and climbed into bed. He pulled the comforter over his face and plugged his palms into his ears to block out the nature raving outside.

Storms were ruinous, but so were humans.

So, maybe that second one wasn’t so great, either, but you get the point. That time, the writer attempted to incorporate the main character’s fear of abandonment with the panic attacks he has any time there is a storm. This shows the readers a few things.

1. His past. Yes, I worked it into the current storyline because it was relevant at this point in the story. James is struggling with whether he needs to call his fiancé to verify that she’s not leaving him.

2. His present. This is a man with abandonment issues who is plagued with anxiety.

3. How he deals with the past and that anxiety (avoidance).

4. His self-awareness regarding his issues (he decides not to call his fiancé).

So, while the first example shows the reader James’ past while the current storyline takes a backseat, the second example is stronger because it tells the story James’ present and explains how the past contributed.

Maybe your main character had a traumatic childhood, too. Maybe that’s very important to the character’s development. It makes sense that you want to explain that trauma to the reader as soon as you can, but there are ways to sprinkle the pain of the character’s past in with the current storyline. Let’s take another example. Maybe Sandra’s mother used to beat her as a child. Sandra is now a grown woman working a lucrative job. She’s happy and successful, but she is mistrusting of people. You can show that mistrust in many ways, one of which would be for her to question the motives of coworkers who ask her to spend time with them outside of work. She could assume that they want something from her. Maybe Sandra doesn’t have many (or any) close friends. Maybe you have her decide to spend time with those coworkers. Perhaps alcohol is involved. Perhaps any time a coworker makes a sudden movement (non-threatening), Sandra flinches.

Now, a scenario like the one above doesn’t tell the reader exactly why Sandra acts the way that she does, but it certainly shows the reader that there’s a reason for Sandra’s behavior. Perhaps she sees a child with normal bruising from playing and she takes the child aside and frantically questions the child about how the bruising occurred. OK, now we’re closer. The reader can then assume that Sandra either has experienced such pain or is at the very best worried for children who do. If all else fails, once Sandra develops and learns to get close to someone (a friend or a romantic interest), she can disclose the story of her past to that friend in dialogue. This could still be a bit of an info-dump, so be careful not to have Sandra doing a monologue here. A few short sentences are all it really takes for the reader to understand the impact Sandra’s childhood has on her, and still has on her.

What if you want your character to be a reformed murderer? One who was never caught or tried for the murder (yeah, I know, Crime And Punishment, but not really). Well, that’s tougher, but it’s still highly possible to pull of without a massive chunk of your book or a section dedicated to directly explaining this situation to the reader. You might instead have the character faced with his/her own robbery or beating. Perhaps this causes the character to think something simple, like; I didn’t know what I was doing when I did it. I didn’t know. Or some other vague allusion to his or her past.

Perhaps the character gets a normal job, joins the working class. Reforms themselves. But every time the character looks in the mirror, they imagine small speckles of blood on their face, or on their hands (sure, this is a bit cliché. Still better than exposition/an info dump).

The reader pieces together what the issue most likely is. Slowly revealing these details as they become relevant in the current story is your best bet.

What not to do:

Under no circumstance should you have pages and pages of backstory that do not contribute to the present story. Always move the story forward. Always. If you have to go back a bit to do that for a sentence or two—that’s different than blatant, in-your-face exposition.

Avoid shit like this:

· Dreams- Look, no one wants to hear about a dream (yes, there are exceptions to this, but most writers abuse this tool and it ends up reading like a five-year-old prattling incessantly about something that never happened, and worse; embellishing something that never happened). No one wants to listen to a person drone on and on about something that isn’t real. Now, if your character has psychic dreams and some magical ability to alter the future, sure, go ahead, devote a half-page to that dream. Otherwise, it’s obnoxious.

· Flashbacks- Again, these can be viewed as occasional necessities, but don’t use them unless you’re certain that they’re, once again, moving the story forward. Ask yourself this: “What would I lose if I cut this shit out of my book?” Really think about it. Perhaps you forgot that later on, you mention and summarize the events in a much more concise manner, or the subject of the flashback never comes up again. The answer to that would be: “Nothing”. Then do it. Cut that shit out, man. Kill those darlings. Yeah, it’s hard. I have a special folder for all my bullshit that was totally irrelevant so that perhaps I can use it later in another, better form. I would suggest you keep a folder as well if you have a hard time letting go. But you want to think of your story as the most important thing. If a flashback contributes little or nothing to the story or fails to advance the plot: cut it.

· Things that will come into play later on but that you want the audience to know right now- They don’t need to know now. I’ve seen this done in series’ before. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Sure, that historical battle and the history of the two sides involved may matter in your sequel, or later on in the book, but if it doesn’t matter right now and it doesn’t push the story forward, leave it be. Save it for later. Cut and condense.

· Prophecies- Okay, so I’ll probably get ragged on for this because a ton of fantasy writers love to use this trope and while it’s a well-hated trope; it’s also well-loved. When you have a prophecy, you’re telling the reader the story arc instead of allowing them to discover it organically. It’s the epitome of telling instead of showing.

· Speaking directly to the reader– again, this can be done tastefully. There are many books that do this, and they do it well. A Clockwork Orange comes to mind. But if you’re just starting out and you want to use that sort of narrative; don’t. Try omniscient or first-person before you attempt a second-person narrative as it’s probably the most difficult. Now, of course, you can do whatever the hell you want, and if you’re dead set on this, go for it! Just keep in mind that it’s an exposition trap waiting to happen. Since your narrator has those little “asides” for the reader, it’s all too easy to use those as an opportunity to launch into a backstory or history that doesn’t move the story forward.

While it may be damn near impossible to avoid all forms of exposition, you can do your best to curtail the instances in which they appear in your drafts. That way, your editor can hopefully catch them and advise you on how to better place them. A developmental editor is perfect for this because they specialize in reorganizing and helping the author build their story where it’s needed.

I’ll repeat an earlier statement: If you ask yourself what the exposition contributes to the story and you find yourself grasping at straws to justify it—cut it. Let it go!

That’s all for today.

Happy writing!

-Mel

#manuscriptadvice #copyediting #creativewriting #creativewritinghelp #Firstdraft #Maincharacterdevelopment #manuscripterrors #freelanceediting

Clichés! Tropes! Tired Sentences! Oh my!

Ok, so this might be another short post, but I’ve had a series of manuscripts lately (some very well-written by very skilled writers) that either have tedious and repetitious depictions of character actions/ feelings or have a spatter-pattern of useless phrases. I suppose that this could serve as a companion post to the “what not to write in your manuscript” blog post (yeah, I’m lazy and didn’t capitalize, sue me). And it would also go well with “the most common mistakes” blog post and a nice double-shot of cheap whiskey.

Even the best writers among us use tired phrasing, or awful clichés. Any first draft is sure to be chalk-full of them.

Let’s get this out of the way—the most useless phrase in the English language to use in a manuscript is this one: Needless to say…Why is it the most useless phrase? Because ten out of ten fucking times, the author goes on to then say the thing that was “needless” to say in the first place!

Oh! There’s also: There were no words to describe how he/she felt. What’s wrong with that, you may be wondering. Well, other than it being a cliché, nothing when it’s left at that, but all too often, I then see the author go on to fucking describe the shit that’s supposedly indescribable.

Don’t do that.

Suddenly.Sure, it has its place, but please avoid this if possible. Same goes for all of a sudden. Or all of the sudden. That just reads as if the author is uneducated. Now, in dialogue, fine, use them. Not in the general narrative.

If you’re telling a linear story, there is absolutely no need to ever start a sentence with the word then. You can use it inside your sentences, but don’t start one with it. Your readers should be able to grasp the order of events within your story. They don’t need to be told that anything happens next because a story is built on events that cause things, reactions that spawn more event, etc. And then. Ok, here’s my issue with this: pick one or the other. This reads unintelligently. By the way, I’m guilty of having done all of these (save there were no words), which is probably why I edit.

A lot of us lean on clichés a bit too often. I’ve found that in children’s books, or in MG, phrases like “stopped in his/her/their tracks” or It’ll knock your socks off”, are a bit more acceptable. I would still recommend all authors to avoid these, but there’s a certain level of acceptance with children’s books because children are still learning, and so the repetition can be somewhat helpful to the slower, dumber kids (sorry if that’s offensive).

It can be comforting for them to read familiar phrases. If you’re writing YA, romance, or anything else, don’t use clichés. If you aren’t sure whether the phrase you’re using is a cliché, feel free to use the internet to find out! There are so many sites devoted explicitly to terminologies to avoid

.I’ve said this before, but another wonderful thing to avoid in any genre, but especially horror/suspense is any phrase that resembles the following: Her gut told her something wasn’t right.

You’re giving the plot away. Ok? The reader knows something isn’t right, that’s why they’re reading a fiction novel—for the conflicts and the resolutions and the new conflicts that sprout from said resolutions. You don’t need to tell the reader that something is off. Show them something is off; The overcast sky split apart and droves of bats—blood dripping from their fangs—entered the atmosphere. A nearby tornado ripped the only home our hero had ever known from the earth. So, horrible sentence, but that’s an example of showing the reader that shit is going down.

You don’t need to allude to your character’s gut instincts, OK? Be creative. You’re a creative person, that’s why you’re writing.

While words can become trite and overdone, so can certain plotlines or character actions/behaviors. I am well aware that I did not include all of these in the title, but I decided it was tangent time.

If you’re writing a romance novel and your couple does any of the following, go back to fucking drawing board:

· Felt electricity the moment they met/touched/spoke/made eye contact. Or if they love each other right away without knowing each other (AKA; love at first sight, or insta-love).

· Have graphic sexual relations in a book that is not erotica. I have seen this too many times to count. It’s absolutely insane. If your book isn’t erotica, you can write soft sex scenes, but don’t talk about penetration. It’s not that hard (pun intended because I am that big of a loser).

· Have a third person influencing them (mostly referring to another love interest/ love triangle). Unless you can make the love triangle, cube, or octagon original, don’t go there. Rely on outside sources to strain the relationship.

· Characters have no personality but somehow the other person makes them “whole”. This makes me gag.

· Stare longingly into each other’s eyes, any sort of “gazing” (or alternatively shifting a gaze, which is a fixed thing and cannot be shifted), stargazing, carriage rides, flower deliveries, beach-walking, all the old-fashioned stuff. Write unique characters and have them engage in activities that match up with their personalities and that help advance the plot. The aforementioned things are so overdone they put the way Trump eats his steaks to shame.

· “Nice guy who stalks a friend he’s in love with and ends up with her by being a white-knight”. This can just die.

· Characters who are “just” special. No. Give me a reason why they are special. They’re interesting, which is why you’re writing about them and not someone else. Especially in a romance setting.

· “I’d never met a man/woman like him/her”. Oh bullshit.

· Soulmates or couples that are somehow predestined to be together. Ugh.

Most of my gripes are about romance or YA. I’ll list the common YA tropes now:

· Teenagers are always smarter than adults. Ok, well, whatever. But can’t you have one competent adult in your story? Just to set it off from the millions of others exactly like it?

· One girl/boy saves the whole world from some dystopian tyrant/regime. While this has worked well in a few books, there were so many copycats and horrible dystopian YA books inspired by this, it’s become a trope. Don’t do it. I love sci-fi dystopia. I wrote one. Please, write them, but make them unique. I worked with a client who wrote one that was brilliant; like a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men. The tyrannical government was present (that’s almost a must, not even really a trope. It just must be), but the author did a wonderful job of not anointing one character as the savior of the entire human race. And it touched on some very important topics. Make your YA dystopian novel unique.

· Apocalyptic wasteland or maybe a maze without any backstory. This is ridiculous. I won’t name books, but there’s a huge best seller out there where it was clear the author gave absolutely no thought to the story questions behind his plot. And he milked that failure for even more money. Pissed me off severely. Backstory is necessary for the world-building and character development in such novels. If you leave it out, you’re going to either have a lot of pissed off readers, or apparently become a millionaire. So, I guess if you have no conscious, go for it!

· Harry Potter rip-offs. If you like to write fantasy; that’s awesome! Write your heart out but respect the world JK Rowling built and don’t mimic it, you asshole.

· Christ-like figures. I guess this would be the whole Neo-in-The Matrix-thing. Your character shouldn’t be “the one”, the savior, especially without reason. If you can effectively break this rule, more power to you, and I applaud you, but it’s rare that anyone can overcome the immense weight of this trope. Your readers’ eyes will roll as soon as they discover that this is your grand plot device. It’s just lazy. Unless there are additional, supporting elements and a rich backstory. Even then, tread with caution on this one.

Other shit I’m tired of seeing—villains who are evil for no reason. Villains who turn out to be the good guy for no reason. Characters who act like assholes, but we’re somehow supposed to like them. Weak main characters, lack of a well-thought-out plot, hand of god bullshit and cliffhangers when the author has either no intention to write a sequel or hasn’t started it yet.

I guess this turned into more of a “Super easy ways to piss off your editor/readers” post, but really, these things are all best avoided 95% of the time. I did, indeed pull that percentage out of my ass. I have worked on and helped develop some awesome stories that effectively broke some of these rules. I challenge you to do the same. All great writers can.

Happy writing!

-Mel

#manuscriptadvice #freelanceediting #manuscripterrors #creativewriting #grammaticalerrors #creativewritinghelp #Tropesincreativewriting

How to Convey Unspoken Dialogue in Your Fiction Novel!

This will be a short entry. I just want to rant about this for a moment. Yes, The Chicago Manual of Style has a sort of shitty recommendation for this. It basically says that you can “use quotes or not” depending on “the author’s preference”.

While I appreciate and admire the author’s preferences, if it’s between quotation marks or nothing…

Fuck. That.

I’m currently editing a book where the publisher has set the standard that when a character is reading or writing a text message, it’s displayed IN QUOTATION MARKS.

What. The. Fuck.

Ok, so my problem with this is that, well, quotation marks have always been used for dialogue (text that is spoken aloud). And I’ve read many books myself (and I also recommend my clients) to write internal thoughts in italics, unless that internal thought fits into the general narrative, in which case they should just not do anything. Right? Anyone with me on this one?

My theory here is that text messages should also be presented in italics. Why? Well, because this bullshit looks ridiculous;

“LOL I <3 you, boo”, the text read—for not only the content, but the way it’s presented.

OR:

LOL! I <3 you, boo! the text read.

That’s… overly congested and could be interpreted in so many ambiguous ways it’s not even cute.

So, what should we do instead? Oh, gee, I don’t know, maybe something that makes more sense visually speaking? Something like this:

LOL. I <3 you, boo! The text read. Ashley rolled her eyes.

Darren. We’ve been over this, she replied.

Looks much better.

Automatically, when the reader sees the quotation marks, they are going to think that the words are spoken aloud because that’s how it has always been. And when someone is reading or writing a text, that is filtered through their—you know—brain; it’s an internal thought more so than it’s something that should be stated aloud.

So, if you have a futuristic sci-fi novel and you depict your text messages through whatever system you’ve devised (pupillary implant or whatever), it shouldn’t be presented the same as spoken language. Because it’s not the same.

Get your shit together, Chicago.

Writers—if we adopt this trend independently of the guide, it will eventually work its way into standard practice. Do not write text messages in the same manner as dialogue. It looks like dogshit.

That’s all.

Happy writing!

P.S. I write how I wish to write when I’m not working. No, it’s probably not good for business when the editor doesn’t care about her own grammar. I do care. I care that it’s legible and that I get my point across. I spend all day nitpicking every comma in whatever book I’m editing, so I do tend to let loose on my blog. I even leave typos!

Books That Will Boost Your Skills as an Author!

Are you struggling with getting that tense scene just right? Or perhaps the basic building blocks of constructing an exceptional story simple elude you. Maybe you need a boost from someone who has been where you are—struggling as an author to get a foothold in the industry.

Well, I’ve read countless books on writing, and while it was very difficult to pick the best of the bunch, I’ve complied a list here for those authors who may need help with several aspects of their writing process.

This post is a little different. It won’t tell you how to make your characters awesome, or the climax of your book explosive (for lack of a better term. Or not. I just wanted to write that). I do have another blog post that may be of interest to you if you’re struggling with character development, and that one is: How to Avoid Writing a Terrible Main Character.

This post will be a bit boring compared to my others, but there are just so many wonderful books out there that can be helpful when it comes to a lost author who struggles when it comes to one (or even several) elements of the writing process. So I’m going to tell you what my personal bibles are when it comes to content editing and certain element of creative writing. I’ll also explain why they are my favorites, and for whom they may provide the most assistance.

If you have any questions, you can contact me.

I would love to discuss any of these books with you. I love talking about books. I might just ditch the creative writing blog and start writing about books, instead!

For the Perfectionists:

So, let’s start with those who are super picky when it comes to proper punctuation and word usage.

Do you commonly find yourself worrying about comma placement? Does that semicolon go there? What should I do with an em-dash? What should I do with an en-dash Do I write numbers out, or do I spell them? What about abbreviations? How do I write out years?

For you, my dear perfectionist, I would highly recommend The Chicago Manual of Style. It has everything you’ll ever need right there, in that massive, five-pound tome. The layout makes it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for, and I have about forty bookmarks in mine.

If you’re writing (or editing) fiction—this should be your go-to for any question you have regarding all those technical aspects of writing most authors don’t have the time to think about while they’re crafting an elaborate world with intriguing characters. But once that writer has finished their first draft, they may want to focus more on the technical aspects of their writing. Yes, it’s time-consuming, and many of us would rather pay a professional editor to complete this stage for us. However, I honestly believe that any writer—fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, autobiographies—can benefit from the vast information available in The Chicago Manual of Style.

Downsides:

Well, it’s huge. It’s heavy. There are a lot of pages to sift through. I’m insane and I’ve read it cover-to-cover. I would recommend that no author do this. Look up the table of contents for the problem you need solved, flip to that page, and you’re good to go!

Another downside is that, while it’s very informative and easy to digest—it’s expensive. I paid seventy dollars for mine last June (2017), and now I’ve learned that the 17th edition has been released; however, from the research I’ve done based on the new edition, there have been minimal changes made; for example: e-mail used to be the accepted way of writing out that term. Now, however, you’re allowed to skip the dash and simply write: email. Also, you’re now allowed to abbreviate USA as simply the US. The font has also changed to one that’s a bit easier on the eyes, but I would say that if you already own the 16h edition—keep it. I don’t personally believe there have been enough changes which would require you to purchase the 17th edition. Now, if you own neither, obviously it would be in your best interest to purchase the newest version. I bought my 16th edition at a bookstore. I’ve found the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style for much less on Amazon (and yes, you can use Prime for the two-day shipping).

For Every Single Author:

I know, I’m supposed to appeal to certain groups here, but this book really is a huge asset to have in your “how to not be a shitty writer” arsenal.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. There is another, earlier version floating around out there, however, that one only has one author: William Strunk Jr. It is nowhere near as comprehensive as the newer version. I guess E.B. White can be accredited with launching the book into the conversations of every writing circle in America.

The Elements of Style is fantastic. It lays out in the simplest possible terms (and provides examples) the best ways to write sentences, and the best way s to conserve your words. This book is a must for any author. I see no downsides to this one, so …

Upsides: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is available on Amazon (the hard copy) for something like seven dollars. It’s a very short book, it’s an easy read, and you will flip through it every day for years. The Kindle version is likely cheaper, but I’m sure that many writers would agree that when it comes to needing a book as a reference point; it’s best to have the physical copy before you. This book, if you pay attention to its wisdom will improve your writing substantially. It goes into detail regarding how to achieve the most impact with your words, avoid ambiguity, say many things with few words—among many other droplets of wisdom. And that is absolutely invaluable.

Everyone: BUY THIS BOOK! And yes, I am yelling at you. You must own this. In fact, if you had to pick only one book from this list to purchase, it should be this one.

For Authors Who Struggle with Pacing and Flow:

OK. This is one I discovered entirely on accident, almost tossed out the window due to how “common sense” the first twenty or so pages were, but then quickly realized the benefits within and continued reading.

The book is called Scene and Structure and it’s written by Jack M. Bickham

At first, I thought to myself, Wow. This book is basically storytelling for dummies. But then I realized that we’re all that dummy on occasion. And while the book is loaded with what would seem like common sense to a content editor or a substantive editor (or, well, any editor, really), Bickham lays out the structure of a gripping story/novel in a very easy to understand manner. He explains how, when, and why to write the scenes that will make your book stand out from the crowd (which he maintains should be all of them, and so do I).

Do you have trouble pacing the climax of your novel? Are you unsure how long it should be in comparison to the build-up to said climax? How long should the sentences be in a tense scene? How should you show a character’s reaction after the major, life-changing event? Why shouldn’t you go on and on for pages about how your POV character feels about something? What’s the best way to show your readers the emotion, the impact, the action, the reactions, that conflicts have upon your characters? How should a chapter be constructed?

There are many questions that Bickham answers with ease, and there is one piece of advice from him that I want to bestow upon all of you who may struggle with writing scenes; make sure that every chapter has a conflict and that the conflict in that chapter moves the story forward. If there’s no conflict, the reader will lose interest.

It’s a phenomenal book that will help anyone who struggles with the quality/length of their scenes. Yes, the author does use his own work as reference points, which annoyed me at first, but then I realized that it was probably the best course of action for Mr. Bickham to take. After all, he didn’t have to struggle with copyright laws, and he is a somewhat decent writer. Hang in there through the beginning where it seems like the book is just an excuse to plug his own writing; it very well may be, but this book will help you to better pace your scenes, establish tension, create compelling sequel scenes and denouement from emotionally exhausting events.

The author does provide challenges to the author at the end of each chapter. Each one involves the writer coming up with a brand new story, which I think is amazing. Sure, you could use an old one, but what’s the fun in that?

With this one, I’m somewhat neutral. I think the upsides of this one far outweigh the downsides. Although I will say that even if you have the strength of Thor you will NOT be able to bend the spine of this book. Good fucking luck. This infuriated me, but I got over it because, hey, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?

For the First-Time Author:

I’ve got two recommendations for you.

1. On Writing by Stephen King

2. Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

Now, it’s been well over a decade since I’ve read the second recommendation, but I’ve read On Writing more times than I can count. It’s wonderful. Sure, it’s one man’s account of his successful career, but who wouldn’t want to take advice from the Master of Horror himself?

On Writing isn’t only about the writing process in the technical aspect. King goes into a lot of detail about the nature of being a writer, and how that sort of draws a person toward a certain lifestyle. Especially a persistent writer. He reveals excerpts of his bad writing, complete with the advice written on to the hard copies by his teachers/friends/ editors. He documents his struggle in such a relatable way. There is so much advice in this book, but it’s about a lot more than that. I think this one should be required reading for every author.

There are no downsides to On Writing, only upsides😊

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark is a book I picked up when I started my first novel probably eight years ago. This one is chock-full of advice which will help your writing not only be more orderly but hold more impact. There are workshops at the end of each chapter which I recommend you do because they will help evolve your writing abilities.

Upsides: If you internalize the advice and complete those exercises, your story/book will read much better than it would have had you never picked up this book.

Okay, guys. I’m almost done here. I don’t want to overwhelm with too many recommendations, though if you would like more (as previously mentioned), feel free to contact me!

For Editors:

Well, I’ve already mentioned the bible of all editors: The Chicago Manual of Style¸ but you’re also going to need other style guides if you intend to work on both fiction and nonfiction, short stories and articles, et cetera.

My favorite, so far is The Copyeditor’s Manual, 3rd Edition, by Amy Einsohn. This book has nearly everything you will need. If you have a question about how to insert a table into a document—this book will help you. It also covers all the basics like grammar and punctuation, as well as sentence structure. This one is a must have!

(Of course the MLA and APA are required as well).

That’s about all I’ve got for now. I would like to give credit to some honorable mentions here:

1. The Handbook of Good English by Edward D. Johnson

And

2. The New Oxford Guide to Writing by Thomas S. Kane.

That does it for today! Of course you all need dictionaries and a thesaurus. I didn’t think I should have to mention that, but, you never know.

Happy writing!

-Mel

#manuscriptadvice #creativewritinghelp #creativewriting #editor #Firstdraft #contentediting

Say More by Writing Less! (AKA; clean up your awkward phrasing and clunky sentences.)

Have you ever read your work and thought to yourself: This isn’t right? This reads terribly. The flow’s off and the sentences are bulky.

Well, there is a solution. Now, before you beat yourself up about having so many bulky sentences—let me tell you; all of us do it. Every writer on the planet writes terrible sentences.

I’m going to help you learn to spot a few of the most common errors that cause the dreaded clunky/bulky sentences and awkward phrasing.

A common habit I run into and must often correct/quell in many manuscripts is this: they make their points in the most wordy, clunky, roundabout way imaginable. This is something every writer needs to learn to avoid, and some word processors will help you—on occasion, to spot where you’ve done this.

Ever seen (in Microsoft Word) those little dots beneath a phrase that sort of resemble ellipses except the ellipses aren’t ellipses at all because the dots underline the length of an entire phrase? Those are there for a reason. That is Word trying to tell you, “Hey, asshole. Have you thought about condensing this long-winded sentence? Hover over me—I’ve got suggestions for you”. What you would do is then right-click over the dotted phrase and see what grand suggestions Word has for fixing the issue.

A word of caution (lol, get it? Word of caution while I’m writing about the Word program? I’m so funny): Word and Grammarly do not always get their flagging right. So if Word or Grammarly flags a phrase or a word, if you are positive the program is wrong—look it up online to confirm, then leave your statement alone.

I’ve already covered authors who choose to be ostentatious and show off their vast vocabulary, and I’ve also lightly touched on this topic in my grammar errors posts, so this post sort of ties into those, except this post is more centered around this idea:

“Cut every unneeded word.”

I discovered this quote many, many years ago when I was writing my first novel. I found the quote in Strunk and Whites’ The Elements of Style, which is a very easy, very helpful guide on writing well. Every writer should own this book. You can buy the paperback on Amazon for a whopping seven dollars, and it’s the best seven dollars you will ever spend if you are genuinely interested in improving your skills. Go buy it. Now.

Here are a few examples of redundant phrases you may not recognize yourself using:

1. It was a little bit cold outside.

You may not see anything wrong with this at first glance. Let me show you how I would fix it, and that might help you to spot the problem:

It was a little bit cold outside.

Here, I’ve suggested the writer remove ‘bit’ to help clean the sentence up. The word “little” and the word “bit” are so similar that using both adds nothing to the sentence. But, that’s not the best way to conserve words. Let’s try to make the statement even more concise:

It was a cold day.

There! Now that describes everything the first sentence does, removes the excessive word, and reduces the word count! Look at that!

These next few examples really chap my ass for some reason. They make me want to hurl my computer across the room. Here’s a comprehensive list of actual phrases I have read (and yes, likely written back in the day) and that are problematic for obvious reasons.

1. I nodded my head.

2. I squinted my eyes.

3. I shrugged my shoulders.

Here is how I would fix each of them:

1. I nodded.

2. I squinted.

3. I shrugged.

I’m sure most of you understand why I’ve suggested these cuts, but for those of you who may make these errors and see nothing wrong with them, I’ll quickly explain:

1. What else does a person “nod”?

2. What else does a person “squint”?

3. What else does a person “shrug”?

My point is that if you simply write I nodded, most readers are going to catch your drift immediately. Same with I squinted, and I shrugged. To add the body part into the mix is redundant for the purposes I’ve outlined here. If you find yourself writing such phrases—stop. Or go back through your manuscript and pick them out. Especially try to do all of this before you send this to your content editor, or your copy editor, and definitely before you send it to your proofreader.

Note: there are absolutely exceptions where such language is acceptable, especially if the voice of the narrator requires over-explanation, but to do that well, you must be a talented writer.

Oh, there’s more! When you edit fiction (and non-fiction, to be fair), you’re going to see all kinds of crazy shit that might make you want to tear your hair out. Personally, I love it. Especially these small errors I’m discussing in my blog. These are so easy to fix, that I usually only need to point out a few instances to the author and they will be able to spot other instances while they revise. Though I do try to edit all of them for the author. I don’t know how many other editors operate, but as a substantive editor, I feel I should be providing edits that are, well, substantive.

Let’s talk about gerunds!

I hate gerunds. I hate them passionately. Now, many publishers are fine with the use of gerunds these days, and I’m trying to ignore the ones that function within a manuscript. But oftentimes authors will use them excessively or incorrectly. Here is yet another list of redundancies via gerund usage:

1. I was running across the street.

2. She was eating her sandwich

3. Harold was packing the box.

So, as you can see, this is very common when the manuscript is written in the past-tense. I’ve seen in in the present tense as well, but past-tense is the most frequent offender. Here is how I would edit these to conserve word usage, and clean the sentences up:

1. I ran across the street.

2. She ate her sandwich.

3. Harold packed the box.

As you can see, in most cases, simply recalling the past-tense form of the verb can save your ass from a clunky sentence. Sure, Forrest Gump was running but he had an excuse for they way he abused the English language that you likely don’t have. Taking out the ‘was’ is necessary. You’re doing yourself a few favors by finding and eradicating similar instances: you’re saying bye-bye to the gerund, you’re conserving words, and you’re also giving your sentences a more “active” feel to them.

Yet another example that may pertain only to me and my personal issues (I am easily annoyed, and I nitpick like crazy) would be this:

1. I sat down next to Clara.

2. I stood up to meet her eyes.

3. I ran away from the officer.

Now you’re probably wondering what could possibly be wrong with these, right? Well, here’s what I would suggest:

1. I sat next to Clara. (If you’re sitting, chances are your ass isn’t magically floating upward, so yeah, the “down” would be implied.)

2. I stood to meet her eyes. (Well what do you know? Same here. Usually when you’re standing, the “up” is implied so you don’t need it in your writing).

3. I ran from the officer. (I don’t know, I’ll be honest: “away from” just rubs me the wrong way when you can accomplish the same meaning by taking the “away” out of the picture.)

In those instances, there’s always something that’s already implicit, so you wouldn’t need to add the extra words. As I said, this could just be me. But I’ve not yet had many disagree with my outrage over such phrasing.

Here’s a list of phrases I often see worded excessively, and how I would edit them:

1. They both looked at each other.

They looked at each other

2. I’ve never seen that glove before in my life.

I’ve never seen that glove. (Alternatively: I haven’t seen that glove before).

3. She was pretty angry

She was angry.

4. The carnival was actually very fun.

The carnival was fun!

5. The cat slowly stalked the mouse.

The cat stalked the mouse.

So, those are a few random examples for you. If you’ve never seen something, you probably don’t have to add “before” or “in my life” because the fact that you’ve “never” seen it, well, “never” means “not a single time, ever”, so anything after “never” becomes excessive.

#3 and #4 contain qualifiers. I hate qualifies. Take the qualifiers out of your sentences. How do they read? Has the meaning changed? If not, take them out and leave them out. I do understand that in some MG or even YA novels, the MC’s voice requires that they use qualifiers occasionally. That’s not what I’m talking about. There are always exceptions to every rule.

#5 contains an adverb. As a general rule, I advise most authors to just not use adverbs. If the cat is “stalking” the mouse, “stalking” means that his actions are slow and deliberate, so the adverb doesn’t modify the verb in this instance. Cut it. Now, let’s try this:

The cat warily stalked the rattlesnake.

That usage of adverbs is A-OK in my book because ‘warily’ modifies “stalked”. The reader should probably know that the cat wasn’t fearless and was being cautious due the fact that, well, it’s trying to get one-up on a fucking rattlesnake. It sure makes me feel better to know the cat’s wary of the damn thing.

So, what this post boils down to is: there are so many ways for you to conserve words. I’ve also read the advice: “Never use five words where two will suffice”, which is fantastic. I love that advice and I give it each of my clients. If you keep some of these in mind while you’re writing your manuscript, I promise it will read smoother than it would had you littered your book with them.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’m sure I’ll be back with a second post on this topic. I have a tendency to enjoy my complaints. Whoops! I meant: I love to complain.

Happy writing!

-Mel

#manuscriptadvice #creativewriting #Manuscriptadvice #filterwords #creativewritinghelp #wordusageerrors #firstdrafthelp #contentediting

Thinking of padding your word count? Yeah. Don’t.

Is your book too short? Were you perhaps shooting for 50,000 words and ended up with 30k? That sucks. We’ve all been there. You may want to ask me what the solution is, aside from padding the word count to add that extra 20K, but I’m not going to answer quite yet.

I’ve seen it before: authors padding their word counts through the usage of excessive words or passages do nothing to enhance their work but instead cause the reader to slog through pages of bullshit that essentially have no relevance to the story at hand.

Why does word count matter? Well, if you want your book to be classed as a novel and not a novelette or novella, you might need as many as 40k words in your book. A novelette should have anywhere between 7,500, and 17,000 words. A novella should have about 20k-40k, and a novel would have at least 50k words total.

Most authors think they have a full novel. They sit down to write the novel, they tidy it up, and at the end, they find out that—oh shit!—my book is only 30k words! That person then does some research and finds out that for their novella to transform into a novel, they’re going to need a higher word count.

But the word count isn’t what makes the novel. It’s the content and the quality of the writing that constitutes a novel. If you panic and start adding a bunch of shit that has nothing to do with your story, yeah, you might have a novel-length piece in your hands when you’re finished, but it won’t be a great novel, and your readers aren’t going to be fooled. They’ll simply flip through the worthless passages, chapters, and sentences or they’ll give up reading because, well, your book sucks!

So what to do when you’re shy of that 50k? Well, you’ve got a few options. My absolute favorite option would be this: you wrote a novella. Cool. Why does it have to be a novel? If you have everything you need within that piece of work, and it’s shorter than novel-length, what the hell do you care? You’ve told a (presumably) good story. You’ve spent the time to write it. Maybe you had 45k to begin with, but your content editor tore you a new one and she was right, so you had to go ahead and cut the shit that was worthless in the first place. Now you have a shorter, more concise, easier to read novella instead of an almost-novel. What’s so wrong with that? If your editor has approved the work and everything is in order—so what? Leave it! It’s fine as it is! There’s no need for you to freak out over word count and start adding words/scenes that don’t matter.

Don’t make your book unreadable simply for the sake of word count. It’s reckless and it will compromise the quality of the book. Say you send that shit back to your editor, after you’ve padded the word count. Well, the editor is going to tear you another new one and just tell you to cut that shit out, anyway. So just skip the middle man and don’t add anything. Leave your novella a novella, be proud of your accomplishment, and move on with your damn life. Maybe next time you’ll have enough content for a full novel. But you don’t today, so it really doesn’t matter.

Another option would be to, I don’t know, add scenes that enhance the story and further the plot. This will be tricky after the fact and may require a rewrite because when you add scenes and passages, you have to go back through your manuscript to ensure the other details are in line with the new, added details (they won’t be), and you’ll need to tweak your entire book so the newer scenes and subplots feel organic and make sense.

Why do I advise against the second option? Because it doesn’t always work out for the best. Oftentimes, it’s easy for the editor to discern what you’ve done, which means; those added scenes? Yeah, those don’t feel original; they stand out as additions and don’t blend into the current storyline. Such scenes and subplots often feel forced. If you’re a highly skilled writer with a ton of experience, you’ll be much more likely to pull this off, but if you’re a first-time author, I’d advise you to think long and hard before attempting this because it can (and most often will) screw with the balance and pacing of your book.

The worst option is to just go ahead and pad the shit out of your manuscript against the advice of your editor and see what happens. Let me save you the hassle. Here’s what happens: your book sucks, everyone hates it, you get horrible reviews and you never write again. Does that sound pleasant to you? It doesn’t sound pleasant to me.

My point here, after rambling for almost 1,000 words, is this: don’t worry about the word count. Don’t worry over whether you have a novel, or a novella. Just write your story to the best of your ability, find a great editor, and whatever the final word count—that’s what you’ve got. Accept it.

Don’t pad your word count unless you can make those added passages relevant to your story, and/or unless they move the storyline forward.

What a short and sweet post from yours truly, huh? I just needed to get it out of my system. Next post will follow shortly, and that one will be about cutting all the words you do not absolutely need out of your manuscript.

Happy writing!

-Mel

#creativewriting #contentediting #wordcount #manuscriptadvice #manuscripterrors