Posted in Writing

Why You Should Never Have to Explain Your Fiction to Readers


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Daily critiques force you to write with the door constantly open, and in my mind that sort of defeats the purpose. The pressure to explain is always on, and a lot of your creative energy, it seems to me, is therefore going in the wrong direction.

You should never have to explain elements of your story to your readers.

What Stephen King is talking about in the above quote specifically is how when it comes to workshop critiques, you might as the author feel the need to explain, explain, explain — especially with the other members of your workshop begin discussing an element of your work that confuses them.

Whether you’re a part of a workshop, or if you’re just talking to a person who read your latest work and wants to give you feedback, you the writer will always want to explain things that for whatever reason didn’t make sense. You will want to make it clear that the writing isn’t the problem, it’s the person who didn’t read your writing close enough.

Now sure, it’s possible that something you wrote will make sense for 99.9% of your readers, and that it just so happens that one particular person didn’t pick up on something.

But there’s about a 0.01% chance that’s the case, sorry to say. Especially when two or more people don’t understand something about your story.

If a part of your story doesn’t make sense to readers, don’t explain. Instead, do another revision.

This is why beta readers are so important. This is why workshops can be helpful most of the time. You can discover what a group of people don’t understand in your latest work of fiction and then you can figure out what you need to do next to improve upon it.

Again, don’t feel the need to explain to the readers what they don’t understand. I took ten creative writing workshops over five and a half years, and this happened all the time. For the most part the author wasn’t allowed to speak during a workshop, but here and there an author would chime in, and it was usually to explain something many of the readers didn’t understand.

The explanation might be a good one, and it often is! Twenty seconds of explanation, and all the readers say, ohhhh, okay, I get it now.

But this isn’t good enough. You know why?

If your story or novel gets published, you can’t always be there to give an explanation!

Your novel gets published, and when a reader sits down to read your book, you’re not there, like in a workshop setting. You’re not there to whisper explanations into your reader’s ear… so you better make sure your writing makes sense.

This is why revision is so important. This is why I always tell other writers not to stop at draft five, but to push yourself to draft ten or twelve or fifteen. To get your story or novel to the best possible place.

You don’t really have an excuse to only take your fiction 85% of the way. My feeling is that if you’re going to spend months and months and months on a project, why not do everything you can to make sure it’s 100% what you want it to be?

So ignore the desire to explain, explain, explain. Let your writing, always, speak for itself. And if it doesn’t?

Time for the next draft.

Posted in Writing

6 Quotes from Cassandra Clare to Make You a Better Writer


Cassandra Clare (born in 1973) is a celebrated young adult author most famous for her Mortal Instruments series.

Here are six of her fantastic quotes that will help you in your writing life!

1. Creating characters is like throwing together ingredients for a recipe. I take characteristics I like and dislike in real people I know, or know of, and use them to embellish and define characters.

I didn’t even realize I often do this until I read this quote! Always remember how important it is to create well-defined characters in your fiction, and pulling from stereotypes of things you’ve already seen in other books and films and TV shows is never a good direction go in.

Instead, you should absolutely take things you like and don’t like about people you’ve met in your life and infuse your characters with these realistic and sometimes unusual traits. Your fiction will be the better for it!

2. I work on a word count basis, so I have to write three thousand words a day. I can write them in the morning, I can write them in the evening; as long as they get done.

3,000 words a day is super impressive! 3,000 words a day means 90,000 words in 30 days’ time. A fantastic length for a novel in a month, wow! I guess you can consider me on the lazy side when I say I aim for 2,000 words a day, which takes me anywhere between 2 and 4 hours. I’ve sometimes reached 3,000 words in a day when things are really rolling and I just can’t stop. But usually I feel I’ve done good work for the day when I reach 2,000 words.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you do what works for you. If 3,000 words a day sounds too difficult (and it probably will for most writers), aim for 2,000 words a day, or maybe 1,000 words. My suggestion is to start at the shorter end of what you think you can do, and then you can write more than that each day if you feel the desire to!

3. Read everything! Don’t just read things that are in your comfort zone or things that you think you’re already going to like. Experiment; try new stuff and try new genres. If you read a lot of romance, then start reading mystery. If you read a lot of mystery, start reading fantasy.

A story is a story. It shouldn’t matter the genre at the end of the day, really. I mean, sure, there are genres we prefer more than others. I walk through my local library every three weeks, and I never go down the Romance aisle. But you know what I was thinking recently? I bet there’s a novel in that aisle I would absolutely love, and because of my disinterest in the genre I’ll never, ever have a chance to read it.

If you’re serious about being a fiction writer, it’s in your best interest to read every day, and to read in a mix of genres! Try a book in a genre you haven’t read in awhile. Read non-fiction. Read a book of poems. Think outside the box. Reading a bunch of different things will make you grow as both a reader and a writer.

4. I have specific playlists for different books and characters. So, I need to have those with me. It helps me get into the mindset of the book.

I love this idea. In the writing of twenty different novels, I’ve never actually made a playlist for one of my books or my characters. What I tend to do is find a score from a film and listen to it as I write to help get me into the mood of my story. If I’m writing horror, I listen to a horror soundtrack. If I’m writing something funnier, I listen to a bouncier soundtrack, although not necessarily from a comedy.

The soundtrack I’m most in love with as a writer is the score to David Fincher’s film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The score is by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and it’s the perfect music, I think, for writing a novel. The music somehow keeps me focused for the two-plus hours I’m writing each day. And it never gets old! It gets my highest recommendation if you want some music to listen to while you write.

5. I tend to write in coffee shops and restaurants with friends of mine because if I’m at home, I get distracted by the television or the cats or my husband, or… you know — all of those things that make it easy to procrastinate.

Now here’s one place I totally disagree with Clare on, but as my dad always says, different strokes for different folks! I’ve talked before about how I like to be at my home office when I write, with the door closed, with no interruptions, the only sound coming from the music playing on my computer. I get distracted really easily, and this environment allows me to stay concentrated on the task at hand.

I’ve tried writing in coffeehouses before, but I find it gets too noisy at times, and it’s also hard to slip over to the bathroom when you’re by yourself. And how in the world does she write in restaurants with friends? Any time I’ve tried to write with a friend, we end up just talking, and no writing gets done. Props to her for being able to get a sentence down in that kind of setting, let alone 3,000 words!

6. I think the main thing to remember when writing a novel is to stay true to the characters.

So simple and so true. It’s one of the elements of my fiction I’ve struggled with throughout the years, and it’s something I’m trying to pay more attention to in the latest novel I’m currently drafting. Conflict is important in a novel. So is suspense and action and surprises, and so on and so forth.

But the novel always has to stay true to the characters. You can’t push your characters aside to get to the next part of the plot. And you can’t make the plot lead the way; you need to allow the characters to do that. The more you stay true to the characters, the better shot you have at success in your fiction writing. Every. Single. Time.

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Subject-Verb Agreement


What is Subject-Verb Agreement?

Asking this question is a good place to start. Here’s the deal — you need your verb to always agree with its subject in person and number.

Let’s look at a correct example of subject-verb agreement.

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then the rest of the people speak.

Kind of a clunky sentence, but you get the idea. Notice that the verbs always agree with their subjects. ‘Boss’ and ‘the assistant’ are singular, so the correct verb is ‘speaks.’ On the other hand, ‘the rest of the people’ is plural, not singular, so in that case you would go with the verb ‘speak’ and not ‘speaks.’

Seems simple, right? Unfortunately, indefinite pronouns make this trickier.

What’s an indefinite pronoun? It’s a word that requires a singular or plural verb depending on its meaning and use in the sentence.

Let’s look at another example of subject-verb agreement, this time with an indefinite pronoun.

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then each of the other employers speak.

Perfectly correct, right?

Wrong. Even though it looks right, and even though it sounds right.

‘Employers’ at the end of the sentence is plural, so naturally the correct verb should be ‘speak,’ right?

Actually, in the case of the above example, the subject at the end of the sentence isn’t ‘employers’ but ‘each,’ which is an indefinite pronoun.

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then each of the other employers speaks.

This is the correct subject-verb agreement because, again, ‘each’ is the subject, and ‘of the other employees’ is merely additional information.

Now what if you changed the sentence to this…

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then all of the other employers speak.

The indefinite pronoun has been changed from ‘each’ to ‘all,’ and therefore, because ‘all’ is plural, not singular, you would change that final word to ‘speak.’

If you read your sentence out loud, and you’re still not sure, try removing the additional information and shorten the sentence to see how it sounds.

Each person speaks.

All people speak.

You wouldn’t say ‘each people’ or ‘all person,’ right? Sometimes all you need to do is take a minute to shorten the phrase to double-check.

There’s one more confusing item to look out for in your subject-verb agreements: noncount nouns.

Keep in mind that sometimes even a subject like ‘all’ doesn’t necessarily mean a plural verb.

Look at these two examples…

All of the speeches were efficient.

All of the working was efficient.

That second example offers what is known as a noncount noun, in that the word ‘working’ doesn’t necessarily translate to two or more things, yet you still would use ‘all’ as its subject and not ‘each.’

You wouldn’t say ‘Each of the working was efficient,’ and you wouldn’t say ‘all of the working were efficient.’

Noncount nouns offer strange cases where your subject is plural and your verb is effectively singular. Example of these nouns include sand, sugar, coffee, water, furniture, cash, learning, speaking, intelligence, and beauty, just to name a few.

Remember to read the sentence aloud if you’re not quite sure, and sometimes, you just have to go with your gut when need be.

You’ll get better at subject-verb agreements as long as you practice, practice, practice!

Keep writing often, and you’ll be able to master them each and every time.

Posted in Writing

3 Quotes by Tom Clancy to Make You a Better Writer


Bestselling author Tom Clancy (1947–2013) is most famous for his Jack Ryan novels, which include Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and The Hunt for Red October, all of which became blockbuster films.

Here are three quotes Clancy shared over the years that will help you with your writing!

1. Life is about learning. When you stop learning, you die.

I absolutely agree with this. As soon as you stop being curious, as soon as you become totally set in your ways and aren’t interested in other perspectives and don’t want to learn something new, you’re as good as dead.

Such is especially the case in your writing. One thing I love about writing novels is learning new things about people and places. Right now I’m drafting a young adult novel about something I knew hardly anything about a month ago, and now that I’m practically an expert in!

And since inspiration when it comes to writing is in the doing, not before the doing, oftentimes you will find yourself learning new things while you’re in the actual process of writing, which brings about a kind of magic that should never be taken for granted.

2. Learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it and keep doing it until you get it right.

It’s what I tell every person who wants to be a writer. You can take classes. You can read a thousand books. You can jot down ideas on notepads and research until the sun comes up the following morning. But the best way to get better at writing is actually writing. It can be any kind of writing. Just put your ass in the chair and write something. A short story. A poem. A Medium article. Do the thing, and the rewards will follow.

I’ve been a golfer since I was a kid, and I know exactly what Tom Clancy means by this comparison. There were three years I played golf a lot, between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. I played at least twice a week. I practiced almost every day. I absolutely loved it. And by freshman year of high school, I was scoring in the low eighties on a regular basis. If you golf a lot, you get better. And if you don’t golf a lot, you’ll never get very good at it. It’s just how the sport works.

The same is true for writing. If you are serious about it, and you find time to do a little writing every day, you will get better. I just started writing my twentieth novel. I don’t know if it’s going to be any good or not, but my skill has noticeably improved dramatically since I wrote the first one nearly ten years ago. Practice, practice, practice. And you’ll get there.

3. I think about the characters I’ve created, and then I sit down and start typing and see what they will do. There’s a lot of subconscious thought that goes on.

One of the best things that can ever happen to you as a writer is watching your characters live and breathe on the page. Where you’re so immersed in the story as you write that the characters start to actually feel like real people. This is what you want to have happen. You don’t want the characters to ever feel too distant from you, the author.

Recently I’ve received some criticism that my characters in many of my stories feel like pawns for the plot, not full-fledged human beings. This is an area of writing I still need to work on, still need to practice, practice, practice. Too often I go after the next suspenseful moment of my story than go to the moment that feels authentic to the character’s journey and experience.

I’ve started writing a new YA novel that’s much more about character than plot, and I’m going to do everything I can to follow these characters any way they choose to go in, rather than allow the plot to take over completely. I’m telling you, as soon as your characters start to feel like real people, that’s when great writing begins!

Posted in Education, Writing

Why You Need to be Cautious about Workshop Critiques


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

How valuable are [critiques in writing workshops]? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. Non-specific critiques won’t help when you sit down to your second draft, and may hurt.

It’s sad but true: I would argue that many workshop critiques are not helpful to writers in the long run.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying most workshop critiques. But yes, many workshop critiques are frustratingly vague, as King says, and do you more harm than good if you read them too closely and actually integrate a lot of the advice into the next draft of your story or novel.

I’ve been a part of a lot of creative writing workshops. I took my first one in the spring of 2012 and my last one in the spring of 2017. In five years of graduate school, I took part in ten semester-long workshops. Ten!

Some of these experiences were great. Others… weren’t so great.

The best workshop settings I took part in had less than ten students. My Spring 2016 semester I took a night workshop with just six other fiction writers, and all six of them were so smart and generous with their time that their advice for the three short stories I submitted to the class that semester were spot-on and super helpful.

However, I also took a workshop in the fall of 2012 that didn’t go so well.

The class was comprised of 22 students, all of them in different stages of writing skills, and I would say maybe 5 of the 21 responses I received on my stories were helpful. Many of them though were super vague to the point where I wondered if some of the students even read my story.

I was never mad about this, exactly. I mean, it makes sense. Each of us that semester had to turn in two short stories, so that meant we had to read and respond to 42 stories during the course of four months. It was a lot.

When you have six other students, when you have an extremely tiny group, there’s actual time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each writer and what they can do to improve.

22 students is more a crowd than a class, particularly when it comes to the workshop setting. Any workshop larger than about 15 students just becomes too chaotic, and after a certain point you have to be a little vague here and there with your comments to survive the semester.

The worst thing you can do for your next draft is try to incorporate the advice of every single critique!

Whether your workshop is comprised of seven students or 22 students, you can’t possibly integrate all that feedback. It’ll drive you mad to do so, to start, and it will make your story or novel so much worse.

Here’s what you should do instead. First, take an afternoon and read through all the comments, checking or underlining or highlighting any feedback you agree with. Second, once you’ve read through all the responses, now look over what you marked up and make a new Word document and type up all the feedback you want to integrate into the next draft.

Always start with the most valuable feedback of all (usually notes that many, many of the workshop students included in their critiques) and then work your way down.

As long as you don’t try to integrate everything, you’re on the path to a better draft. Use the feedback that makes sense, that you agree with, and toss the feedback that’s too vague or makes no sense or that you strongly disagree with.

Creative writing workshops can be helpful, but you should also be cautious when it comes to the critiques.

Just be smart at the end of the day, and do what you need to do to make your latest work of fiction its absolute best!

Posted in Writing

You Need to Write Every Day but Don’t Force It


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

One serious problem with writers’ workshops is that I hafta becomes the rule. You didn’t come, after all, to wander lonely as a cloud, experiencing the beauty of the woods or the grandeur of the mountains. You’re supposed to be writing, dammit.

If you want to get serious about writing, you should try to write every day.

I’ve been writing almost every day since April 2010. It’s how I’ve completed nineteen novels. It’s how I survived five years of graduate school. It’s how I keep improving (hopefully) year after year.

If you practice anything every day for a long, long time, you’ll get good at it. You might even get great at it. When it comes to writing, you’ll find that your use of language improves, along with the rhythm of your sentences and the pacing of your paragraphs. You’ll take more chances, too.

I’m lucky to get up every morning and not feel forced to write anything. I look forward to the writing part of my day.

Of course there were periods during graduate school where I was forced to write a research paper or something, and those writing sessions were always kind of deadly.

Because the truth is this — forcing yourself to write when you don’t want to write can be painful.

As soon as writing begins to feel like work, you’re in big, big trouble. It’s why on Medium, for example, I like to write about topics I have some expertise in, and that I enjoy writing about.

I keep seeing recommendations to write about technology, and artificial intelligence, and business, and so on and so forth.

I might try an article in each of these topics in the weeks to come, but the problem is I just don’t have a lot of passion in these topics and I feel like spending an hour or longer writing a story about one of them might feel like work, which is never fun.

I believe readers can feel when you have passion in what you’re saying. And as soon as the writing begins to feel passionless and dull, the reader can sense it. Then you have a writer not having fun writing and a reader not having fun reading, which is always a shame.

Forcing yourself to write if you don’t feel like writing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes I’m not in the mood to write, but I sit down at the desk anyway and start writing something and after a few minutes I get into a groove and begin to enjoy myself.

I recommend you try this if you’re stuck in your latest story. You might want to avoid writing because you have no idea what to write next. Trust me, I’ve been there.

But still sit down and start writing anyway. You might write twenty terrible sentences in a row, but maybe the twenty-first won’t be so bad and then you’ll find a rhythm and end up with 1,000 glorious words by the end of the session you never thought you’d achieve.

On the other hand, forcing yourself to write can lead to problems, too.

What Stephen King is specifically talking about in that quote is how writers’ workshops essentially force you to produce time and time again, and there’s no getting around it.

I love to write fiction, I write fiction all the time, and yet in more than one of my graduate writing workshops I had a short story due in a few days’ time, and I did not want to write it. That’s not to say I didn’t want to write anything. In fact sometimes during graduate school I was hard at work at revising a novel or adding new articles to my personal blog, and I didn’t have any use for a short story at the time.

But I had to write something, especially for the professor who only accepted short fiction and no novel excerpts, so I had to produce a story rather quickly, and some of those stories were good and some of them weren’t.

Occasionally being forced to write something I didn’t necessarily want to write in a way made me resent the entire writing process. It made me loathe the blank page more than usual.

And as soon as I turned in the story to my class, I wanted to avoid writing for a few days, because I was upset I’d been forced to write something I didn’t necessarily have any passion for.

So try to write every day if you can, but it’s okay not to force it either.

I still maintain the philosophy that if you’re serious about writing, you should try to write something every day. It can be for just ten minutes if you want. It doesn’t have to be four hours writing something you don’t want to.

But if you wake up on the occasional morning wanting to do anything but write, if you want to leave the house and go on an adventure and not even look at a laptop, then go on that adventure, do what you need to do.

Not writing here and there isn’t going to hurt you. It’s not going to make you a terrible writer.

Just write as much as you can, and try to enjoy the process! That’s why we do this, after all. Keep rediscovering your love of writing, and there’s no telling how far you can go.

Posted in Writing

Why Distractions and Interruptions Can Actually Help Your Writing


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl.

As writers we often dream of days with nothing for us to do but write.

Days where you wake up in the morning and there’s nowhere for you to be, nothing for you to do. Where you literally have the whole day to yourself, with no distractions, no interruptions, and you can write, write, write to your heart’s content.

I’m lucky enough to have days like these sometimes. Especially in the summer, when I’m not teaching, I’ll have at least one or two days a week where I don’t even have to leave my house. There are no errands to run. No meetings I need to make. I need to feed my animals, and I leave the house at some point to go for a run or go to the gym. There’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner to think about too, of course (writers need to eat!). And the rest of the day? I get to write.

These days can be glorious. I sit down at the writing desk at 9am or 10am and I have hours to devote to my writing, the thing I love to do. I’ve designed my life in a way to be able to find time to do this, to tell stories, to create.

But you want to know the really, really weird thing? The thing that makes zero sense to me to this day?

My writing is often better and more urgent when I have the occasional distraction or interruption.

Now I’m not talking about a distraction or interruption that suddenly takes over your entire day. Where you were planning to write between 10am and 2pm, and suddenly at 9:30 something comes up where you need to leave the house (and your laptop) until 6pm. Huge ordeals like that happen to me once or twice during the drafting of a novel, and it’s always frustrating.

But minor distractions and interruptions can actually have a positive effect on your writing day. A phone call from someone I haven’t talked to in awhile. A desire to make lunch early and watch an episode from the latest Netflix show I’m watching. A knock at the door that needs my attention.

One might think little things like these break the magic, but the truth of the matter is this: you can’t just write, write, write for hours on end without any breaks. Besides, in most cases there will be distractions, and you have to deal with them. To try to avoid them entirely is impossible.

I don’t know about you, but I have three really good hours of writing in me every day. Three hours where I can go without many breaks, where my creativity is high and where my ideas are constantly flowing. But after three hours I start to hit a wall, and I’ll keep writing if I must, but the joy of it begins to fade.

What I often find is that an occasional distraction, even if it’s just a minute or two, will give my brain a moment of rest so that I can continue writing or revising the scene and give it even closer attention than if the distraction hadn’t happened.

It’s not the end of the world, after all, if you have to step away from the laptop. That blank page will be waiting, and oftentimes that brief distraction will actually motivate you to make the next chunk of writing even better than the last.

Don’t try to avoid distractions and interruptions as a writer. Instead, do your best to embrace them.

Again, distractions happen. On Monday I started writing a new young adult novel, and I was about 1,500 words into the first chapter when a knock at the door broke my concentration, and I had to talk to somebody for a minute at the front of my house. You’d think this would have pissed me off, but in fact, after I closed the door, I kind of appreciated the distraction.

I chugged some water, cracked my knuckles, and went back to work. I managed 700 more words in just twenty minutes time.

It sounds really weird, but sometimes having the whole day to write isn’t the paradise you might think it is. And often when I have an obligation in the afternoon, like teaching sessions or errands to run, the writing in the morning is actually better and more urgent because I’m more focused. There’s no procrastination, no thinking I can write really, really slow since I have the entire day.

Distractions and interruptions are a part of life, they’re certainly a part of a writer’s life, and if you look at them in the right way, they can actually be useful.

Think of them as breaks for your brain if nothing else, and once the distraction has passed, sit back down, take a breath, and keep writing!