15 writing resources to keep you going through NaNoWriMo 2017

That time of year is upon us once again, fellow writers – National Novel Writing Month. While some of you may know that I have never attempted NaNoWriMo myself, I am an avid fan and follower of the influx of writing inspiration and advice the month invariably brings.

1. Fiction Writing Tips by Kris Noel

Author Kris Noel is an on-and-off Tumblr user, but come NaNoWriMo she floods feeds worldwide with all kinds of helpful tips on how to actually buckle down and crank that novel out.

2. Writrs

This blog runs prompts all year round, but it focuses on what aspiring writers need to keep them creative and inspired in November.

3. Fuck Yeah Character Development

Characters are pretty much the most important part of any written work, so if you ever find yourself struggling with that aspect, this site provides all kinds of brainstorming questions, as well as insight into how to write characters of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences.

4. It’s a Writer Thing

You are not alone! The lovely folks at It’s a Writer Thing have plenty of support and advice to offer if you’re struggling with an aspect of your story, whether it’s scene, dialogue, character – no matter how small it is, you can find someone or something that can help you here.

5. Sacha Black

While author Sacha Black’s website isn’t dedicated specifically to NaNoWriMo, it is dedicated to her own journey as a writer and the experience that comes with it. She also offers writer resources and interviews other writers for their perspectives.

6. The Spinning Pen

This site is dedicated to YA authors, but the advice and insight available on the writing and publishing processes are useful to any writer.

7. Shannon Thompson

Shannon Thompson is another author whose blog is focused more on her own work and what’s relevant to her in the writing world, but I continue to find her experience incredibly useful and encouraging. Thompson is a YA author, so if that’s your genre you may find her writing experiences particularly relatable.

8. Cecile’s Writers

This blog is an offshoot of Cecile’s Writers magazine, a publication dedicated to intercultural voices. Their blog is a great way to get insight on the industry from a diverse set of writers.

9. Eye of the Writer

If you need a little humor as you sit chained to your disk, your digits slowly numbing from hours of typing, Eye of the Writer is the place to be. The style is hilarious and the advice is excellent.

10. The Muffin

The Muffin is WOW! Women on Writing’s official blog. They’ve been online since 2006, so there’s no shortage of advice for women looking to break into the business and keep themselves motivated through the month.

11. Creative Writing Contests

This is a more of an “after” resource, but if you’re focused on publication and want to give your novel its best chance, this website has an endless list of competitions, grants, and literary magazine issues that can help you focus your plot and give you a prize to keep your eye on.

12. World Building Question of the Day

Every day, this Tumblr blog gives you something to think about as you create the world your story exists in.

13. And World Building Too

This website I especially like because it provides visual inspiration to help you think about what your world looks like.

14. I Suck At Writing

This is a great resource for writers looking for help with productivity and creating clean, professional copy.

15. Silly OC Prompts

Another blog focused on character creation and development, this provides daily questions that will give you a much clearer focus on who your characters really are.

There you have it folks! What are some of the resources you rely on to motivate you through NaNoWriMo? Share in the comments!

Putting a hand on pop culture: An interview with Daryl Muncaster of Creature Creation

You know what’s cool? Things. Physical things. You can touch them, activating a sense that’s really crucial to the human experience.

I think this why people like to sculpt things, or why we as a human species invented sculpting. The sensation of running your hand over material, carving it – that’s something special. And that’s what artist Daryl Muncaster does for a living.

I found Muncaster on Facebook and then Instagram (he goes by creature.creation), where he displays the sculptures he makes of pop culture icons like The Joker, Groot, Batman, and Hellboy.

Photo courtesy Daryl Muncaster

Needless to say as a pop culture weirdness junkie, I was immediately fascinated. Muncaster was nice enough to share some of his experiences as a working artist and the inspiration behind his unique pieces.

How did you get into sculpture? Where did you learn?

As I kid I always played around with bluetack, making little sculptures of creatures and animals. I later had a play around with more traditional pottery in my college years. It wasn’t until university, studying Fine Art, when I really decided to move away from my painting and focus on sculpture. I pretty much sculpted day and night until I’d taught myself the basics, and continue to teach myself with each new sculpture now!

When people think of sculpture, they usually think of Venus or other Ancient Greek museum-based work. What inspired you to do

Photo courtesy Daryl Muncaster

pop culture icons?

Strangely enough, my favorite sculptors are Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They are mostly known for the wrapping of famous landmarks and buildings, transforming them into some amazing visual art. The sculptures they create have nothing technically to do with my own, but I’ve always admired their ability to take something already existing and change the way we view it.

How do you approach a work? Walk us through your process.

My own creature designs started from a project I set myself in University. I researched folklore and mythical creatures from cultures all over the world and collected text from each of them. I’d read the descriptions of alleged sightings and stories, then sculpt what I envisioned from them. This is a process I still use when coming up with a creature.

You make accessories too, how do you get all that detail on something so small?

Most of what I do is learning by doing. Whether it’s a commission I’m taking, or a project I’ve started myself. Each project has it’s own challenges that are part of the fun to figure out and overcome!

What’s your favorite piece you’ve worked on so far?

I really enjoyed working on my mythical creatures and folklore sculpts. I set them all up as a sort of museum for a show, some in glass cages, some wall mounted. I also made masks so that the viewers became part of the exhibition, it was a lot of fun!

What are you working on now? Any cool projects you can tell us about?

Well, I’ve really been wanting to take some of my sculptures to a convention for the first time. I’ve been working on lots of fan art style works based on characters I love. I suppose this is all one big project for me, with the end goal being a convention stand.

What’s your advice to those looking to pursue this kind of art professionally?

I’m very new to selling my sculptures but I can say that the best thing I did was start a social media page. In my case Instagram seems to be working for me. I started it almost a year ago now, and it’s allowed me to keep an online portfolio as well as attract people that want to buy my work. This pushed me to start my little Etsy shop. In short, make something and post it somewhere! The chances are, if you like it, others will too. It might take some time for them to find you but it needs to be there for them to find.

The Apocalypse has been rescheduled: A review of “Good Omens”

It’s old news now, but Amazon is making a television show of “Good Omens,” the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel on nuclear Apocalypse and what happens when the Antichrist decides he’d rather have an idyllic British country childhood instead.

Good Omens

I originally read “Good Omens” years ago when I was on the tail end of a Terry Pratchett binge-athon. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a non-Discworld offering, as I’d read “The Nation” a year or so before and hadn’t enjoyed it nearly as much, but “Good Omens” came highly recommended and with a back cover covered in praise as opposed to a description of the plot, which I normally abhor but will admit is generally a good sign.

Spoilers ahead!

The story goes thusly: the Apocalypse is upon us, and the demons of Hell have enlisted a Satanistic order to pose as nurses in order to bring Lucifer’s spawn to the world and give him to an important American family. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), there’s a bit of a miscommunication and the spawn of Satan ends up with an ordinary British family that lives in a small country town.

Meanwhile, Crowley, a devil, and Aziraphale, an angel, are busy keeping an eye on the child they think is the Antichrist, each trying to persuade him towards their side. The result is that the real Antichrist has an incredibly ordinary childhood. Admittedly, he is a bit more charismatic than your average 11-year old, but still. Mostly he just rides his bike around, pulling pranks with the posse of children who are attracted to him.

Meanwhile meanwhile, there’s Anathema Device (I know), a young woman trying to stop the Apocalypse. How does she know it’s coming, you ask? Well, her ancestor was a seer, condemned witch, and author of “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,” the only truly accurate prophetic book written in history.

At least the Apocalypse will be funny…

So as you can see there’s a lot going on, as there would be when the Apocalypse is at hand. You’d think it would be stressful for the reader, but “Good Omens” is written in that quintessential Pratchett style – a humor that is derived from the idiosyncrasies of human beings and the ways that morphs their perspectives and priorities. Take Shadewell, a witch hunter whose morality is derived directly from his medieval predecessors – except for the part where he takes advantage of both Aziraphale and Crowley by pretending there are way more witch hunters in his organization so that they’ll pay him more.

(Why are Aziraphale and Crowley paying him at all? Apparently witch hunting is one of those things that is encouraged on both sides).

There’s a lot of Pratchett in “Good Omens.” I haven’t read anything by Neil Gaiman, so I obviously can’t comment on how his style influences the book. What I can say is that it reflects a recurring theme in Pratchett’s writing: humanity as being above the morality of Heaven and Hell. In the Discworld books, Pratchett repeatedly positions the complexity of the human experience against the black-and-white morality of traditional organized religion. He challenges the idea that God’s Will is always good and pure, and instead positions our own free will as being morally superior.

As a religious person myself, this theme is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I believe that God has given us free will, and that morality is indeed complex. Indeed, I would say that God gives us free will so that we can tackle that complexity. But on the other hand, I do believe in the ultimate judgement of God, and that He is the arbiter of good and evil and right and wrong, whereas Pratchett would suggest that it is human beings who must take on that task.

So as you can see, for being a comedic romp through the Apocalypse, “Good Omens” is deceptively complex, and a book I would highly recommend. If you’re a fan of the Discworld, you’ll enjoy the patterns it takes from those books, but even if you’re not familiar with Pratchett’s work, I think it serves as a good introduction to his style.

With the television show coming out I’m hoping that style will translate, because it’s really one of the major selling points of “Good Omens” to me. These kind of adaptations are really hit or miss, and I feel like given that the book has a definite end maybe it would do better as a movie. I do have Amazon Prime so I might give it a shot – stay tuned!

Are you planning to watch the “Good Omens” adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Interview with actress and director Asil Moussa on The Riveter!

As any conscientious reader (of which I assume there are MILLIONS) of this blog will know, I love me a good interview with a professional creative. As a writer, there is nothing more inspiring than seeing not just other writers, but artists, directors, musicians, and really all creative people, make it in the real world.

So many times we’re told that our passions are just a hobby. And when we’re struggling to get off the ground and make those passions viable sources of income, it can feel like we’re kidding ourselves about our ability to make it work. But there are plenty of people making the dream work every day, and actress and director Asil Moussa is one of them.

I interviewed Moussa for The Riveter, a magazine I’ve had the opportunity to write for a few times so far. She talked to me about her movie, The Card, and how she’s carving an acting career for herself as a Muslim woman:

It is 7:30 pm in Windsor, Canada, when Asil Moussa calls me for our interview, but she’s only just woken up.

Twenty-four-year-old Moussa, an actress, writer, and director, was at a film shoot until four that morning back in July, and came home in the zombie makeup she’d been shooting in.

“My mom was like wow, you look terrible!” she laughs.

When it comes to her looks, Moussa’s are perhaps the first thing a film audience will notice. A Muslim, Moussa wears the hijab, or headscarf, in public.

Way back in the boonies of this blog I interviewed director Logan Leistikow, and I think what both filmmakers have in common is the determination to make it work. Both were willing to trek out to Los Angeles for career-defining opportunities, and both have fully invested in their own projects as a way of bringing their vision to the big screen. I think it’s a lesson that not only aspiring filmmakers, but creatives of all types, can take to heart as they work their way towards their dreams.

Read my interview with Asil Moussa on The Riveter website and let me know what you think!

Hand-lettering 2: This time, with a brush!

A couple weeks ago (ish) I gave hand-lettering a try for the first time. Loyal and devoted readers (which I assume is all of you) will recall that I found it surprisingly difficult and was unsure that I would pursue it further. But it occurred to me – maybe it would be easier with paint?

LDRs, (loyal devoted readers, pass it on) will also recall that I am a big fan of Amy Tangerine, an artist who shares her work and skill via YouTube. Amy has a brush-lettering series, so I picked a few videos to try out.

Based off my previous experience, I was prepared for this to be difficult, and I ran into issues almost immediately. For one thing, it’s been a long time since I pulled out my watercolors, so I needed to use a lot more water than I expected to get an even brush stroke.

You can see where the brush clumps and skips from the dryness.

Then I overcompensated and added too much water, which diluted the color and spread the paint out so much that you couldn’t even tell which letter was which anymore. I scrapped that attempt and started over.

I also had to try out several different brushes before I found one that had enough length in the tip to create nice strokes while at the same time being short enough for me to control. I can’t really tell properly from the video, but I think the brush I use has a shorter tip than the one Amy uses.

As I suspected, I did find it easier than my previous attempt with markers, but I still had trouble with the upstrokes. Although it’s easier to get a thin line on the first attempt, if you try to go over it to get a better color saturation you end up making the line too thick.

Once again, I found caps easier than lowercase letters.
You see that capital N? The upstroke on the end was much thinner when I did it the first time, but it was too light and when I went over it I ruined it. Womp womp.

One thing I really like about Amy is that she encourages you to take your cue from your own natural handwriting, and that changed my approach to the process from last time. Instead of trying to copy her exactly, I made some adjustments in the style and I think that’s part of why I found this easier.

I think I might actually do this again! It was fun and I do think I improved more than I did the first time, probably because I’d had that previous practice.

Which do you prefer, hand-lettering with markers or brush-lettering with paint?

A beginner dives into hand-lettering

If you’re involved with the planner/bullet journal community at all, you’ve probably seen countless examples of hand-lettering using Tombow markers or other tools.

And if you’re anything like me, you’re obsessed.

This week I decided to continue arting by trying out hand-lettering, something I’ve always been curious about. I quite like my handwriting as it is, but when it comes to headers my go-to is caps. Sometimes I alternate caps and lowercase letters for (what I think is) a cute, quirky effect, but otherwise I’ve very limited in terms of variety. I thought hand lettering would shake things up for me a bit.

Some quick YouTube searching led me to this introductory video by freelance graphic designer Will Paterson.

This, I figured, would be ideal for me, because while I do not have any expensive Tombow markers (nor do I intend to purchase any in the near future; you’ll see why in a second), I do have cheapy Crayola markers. Mine aren’t exactly the kind Paterson has (his are short and fat, mine are short and skinny) but the basic premise is the same. I pulled out some colors and dove in.

Then I hit the bottom of the hand-lettering pool with a resounding thud.

Guys. Guys. This is much, much harder than it looks. Paterson gets into this a little the video, but it really does require a lot more dexterity and physical control than I anticipated. In particular, I found it very challenging to get real definition between the upstrokes and downstrokes. Particularly with letters like m and n, where there are repeated up and down patterns, it’s really hard to get any distinction between the ups and downs.

(Apologies for my terrible photography skills.)

You can see me struggling to create proper upstrokes and downstrokes here.
Trying out the alphabet and continuing to struggle…

It’s also an incredibly slow process because you really have to think about how you’re holding the pen, what angle the tip is at, how much pressure you need to apply to get it right; so many things that you don’t see at all when you watch people do this on YouTube.

I did find uppercase letters marginally easier to do than lowercase letters. I think possibly the increased space makes it easier to have that room to move the marker to the correct position for a different stroke.

You can see I’m doing a little better here.

I do think it got a little easier just in the hour and a half I spent practicing, but I honestly don’t know that I’m going to pursue this again. It’s a lot of work for a payoff that I’m not particularly invested in because as I said, I do like my handwriting as it is. I do think it’s a good exercise for anyone pursuing art more generally, because it really does promote control and deliberation in the creative process.

Has anyone tried hand-lettering before? What’s your advice for those looking to perfect it?

Writing, war, and Terrorist-ish: An interview with writer Shymala Dason

I’m going to be completely honest and say that I rarely read literary magazines. I have a hard time getting invested in short stories – in my experience, they’re either spectacular or…meh.

Shymala Dason’s “Terrorist-ish” definitely falls into the former category. Dason is an Indian-Malaysian American NASA consultant turned writer (we got one! woop!) and editor. “Terrorist-ish,” which was published by the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in 2015, is familiar in the sense that it covers those scary places where people of color are scrutinized, dug up and around and under. But it’s also completely different from anything I’ve ever read before – how many books have you read that have an Indian-Malaysian college dropout and accidental porn star as their main character.

Exactly.

I talked to Dason about how she found her way to writing, and what familiar-but-different stories she’s planning for the future:

1. You come from a heavily scientific background, and even worked for NASA! How did you make the transition into writing?

Courtesy of Shymala Dason

I’ve written for as long as I can remember, poetry, journal or memoir. The first more or less proper (though dreadfully bad) poem was when I was about eight. I began to play with fictionalizing with adolescent angst stuff in secondary school, and writing remained my sanity mechanism through math grad school and NASA. But always on the side. Then my father died, and I thought about all the dreams he had died without fulfilling. He was a young man during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, and instead of going off to medical school he became an ambulance driver, and an Air Raid Warden, serving his family and community. Whereas all I was serving was my 401K, which isn’t all that noble. So I switched my focus. But I’m still not ‘transitioned’ in the sense that I’m not making my living from writing.

 

2. How does your scientific experience influence your writing, whether it’s subject matter or style?

There are two elements I think come from science. One is trying for a fuller picture rather than writing from my own particular perspective and idea. The other is in the method of writing, which is rather like putting together bits of code from a library to make a new program, or working in separate layers in PhotoShop and then merging them.

I always have random bits of text floating around – little bits of dialogue, descriptions of place or atmosphere or character, story sketches… And I put these together and shuffle them around until patterns emerge. That final process, though, is more poetry than science.

3. You’re a manuscript editor as well. How did you get into that, and how does it impact your own writing process?

I’ve been fortunate to have the bestselling historical novelist Beverly Swerling as a mentor for some years. Beverly is the literary half of Agent Research & Evaluation, and she also does critiques for selected clients. A few years into our relationship, I was able to make a useful suggestion for one of her books, “Bristol House” (I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!), and some time after that she got a request to critique a science fiction novel. She’s one of many literary people who don’t work with science fiction, but she remembered my science background and that my first couple of short story sales were to Marion Zimmer Bradley, so she referred that client to me. And then he referred another. It’s both exhilarating and frightening to put one’s hands into another person’s work. I’ve received good editorial advice, myself, and bad advice, so I’m very conscious of the responsibility to do it right. I don’t think editing impacts my own writing process. It’s more my writing process impacts the way I edit.

4. Your short story, “Terrorist-ish,” is about an undocumented immigrant with big dreams and a head for songs. What inspired the story?

I was running errands, driving in Columbia, MD one day not to long after 9/11, with the car radio on. First there was the news, which was full of arrests and alarms – wholesale detention of Arab students, and so on – and then when I surfed away from that I hit a Bollywood-Bhangra station which was reporting on the same news, but instead of NPR it was, “Yo, Badmash, be careful out there, yaar! They are simply rounding up people…” It was Hinglish, it was vulnerable, it was incredibly brave despite being afraid, upbeat in a Bhangra-rap sort of way, and the first sentences of “Terrorist-ish” popped into my head. The rhythm of that voice was irresistible. I pulled over in a DSW parking lot and jotted down the opening lines. I had to stretch pretty far back in memory to my high-school days to find people who spoke the way this character speaks to get the rest of the story, but if I’d used a normal voice, the story would just have been depressing.

The [main] character, like me, is Indian diaspora by way of Malaysia, from a community of people who’ve been in Malaysia for several generations. I’m Christian, I wrote the character as specifically Catholic (rather than Anglican/Episcopalian, as I am) so I could be more colorful in the Christian references, and not just joke about Mothers’ Unions but also about confession and penance and so on. All tongue-in-cheek, broad humor to balance the horror of an ordinary guy needing to worry that someone will decide he’s a terrorist.

5. Why did you choose the title “Terrorist-ish”?

It’s a spectacular title, isn’t it? I can say that without being immodest because I had several truly horrible ideas for the title – “Boy-type Illegal with Dark-Dark Skin” was one, so you can see titles are not my strong point – and Anelise Chen, who accepted the story for publication in “The Margins” (and was a spectacular editor), suggested this title, which was perfect since the story is about the post-9/11 paranoia where, suddenly, all Brown people, particular young Brown men, were suspected of being terrorists.

6. You have two upcoming novels, one on the Malaysian global diaspora and one about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War II. What are the inspirations for these novels, and what issues will they touch on?

It all comes somehow from the Malaysian community. Probably half of the people I grew up with are now scattered around the world. So that’s the inspiration for the global diaspora story, as well as my short story collection. What drives the expats, what it’s like being strangers in a strange land and having no ground under your feet at all except the ground you create, and even then – as the present times are making clear – we are only welcome on sufferance that may change at any moment. And then there’s the strain in family bonds, the chasms between people who once ate out of the same dish and now, values shifting with time and movement and location, we look at each other, stay-at-homes at expats and vice versa, or from one generation to another, and everything is simultaneously as familiar as one’s own face, and yet totally strange.

The Japanese invasion of Kuala Lampur, 1942

As for the WWII novel, I wanted to tell the story of Malayans in WWII Malaya. Not British, not Japanese, but the local people. It’s their story. My father’s story, the story of that entire generation. One out of 25 Malayans died of the war. That’s a lot of dead. And for the rest, from 101 recipes for tapioca and water spinach so they didn’t starve, to a resistance as heroic as anything in France and against an Occupying force that decorated the streets with decapitated heads to maintain ‘discipline’, it seemed a story worth celebrating. I want to tell the survivors’ tale before time washes it away.

6. What do you hope to achieve with your writing?

I’ve never thought, “This is what I want to achieve.” It’s always, “These are the stories I have to tell, how do I tell them?”

I suppose all my writing is about disagreement and reconciliation, or hardship and reconciliation, even if it is reconciliation as the wartime generation had to do it, reconciling themselves to irreversible loss. I would like my work to contribute somewhat to reconciliation – between peoples, between generations, between expats and stay-at-homes.

Connected with that is the impulse that is making me write the WWII book. True reconciliation means nobody gets written out of the story. So, telling forgotten or overlooked stories is important to me.

You can find out more about Shymala Dason at her website, and read “Terrorist-ish” here.

Going to back to the basic basics: Illustration using shapes

Hobbies are an odd thing. They straddle the line between “things I do for fun” and “things I take seriously” to create an awkward, noncommittal space wherein one’s approach to said hobby can vary widely.

By which I mean to say, what?

No sorry, that’s Bertie Wooster. What I mean to say is that it has been a long while since I did any art. Since I arted, if you will. Finding myself aching for the feel of smooth sketch paper beneath my forearm and the weight of a colored pencil in my hand, I dug out my long dormant supplies and…

Paused.

It’s hard to find art tutorials on YouTube that don’t assume a much higher level of expertise than I currently possess. Plus they go too fast. So I opened a new tab and turned to Skillshare, an online learning platform, and found a class even I couldn’t mess up.

The class is called Start with a Shape – An Illustration Challenge, and is taught by Amarilys Henderson, an illustrator and painter based in Minnesota.

Essentially what Henderson teaches you is how to start with a basic shape and use it as a launching pad to make something more complex. She uses watercolors in the class, but I used color pencils and was very happy with the results.

First, I started with a triangle and made this weirdo (please excuse my poor photography skills):

What is it? Is it a gnome? A Borrower? An off-brand leprechaun? The point is that it has a triangle for a hat.

Then I did a circle and made this cactus, because cacti are in this season.

This I’m actually quite proud of. Not that I’m not proud of gnomey up there. But this in particular turned out better than I expected.

I also used a triangle to make a butterfly, and a circle to make a flower. I haven’t tried my hand at squares yet, but I have (awkward, noncommittal) plans to.

I have a premium Skillshare account because I teach classes there myself, but if you don’t have an account you can use this (affiliate) link to get two free months to try your hand at this class or any other.

What should I try my hand at next?

 

 

Using Instagram to market your art: A guest post at Nevue Fine Art Marketing

Last week I got the chance to write a post for Dave Nevue of Nevue Fine Art Marketing. Nevue is a professional graphite artist committed to helping professional artists achieve success, and as a supporter of professional creatives, I was happy to collaborate with him. I dug into my experience in online and social media strategy and wrote a post on Instagram marketing for artists on his blog, which you should absolutely check out because it is chock full of helpful tips for up-and-coming artists looking to turn their passion into a profession.

From the post:

For artists whose media are inherently visual, Instagram offers an excellent opportunity to capitalize on an engaged user base to market themselves and their work. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re using your Instagram to its greatest capacity.

If you simply post photo after photo of your art, your audience may get bored – and it’s not a very good use of Instagram, either. The platform is a great place to promote sales and giveaways, announce new products or projects, and, perhaps even better, show off your art at work!

Social media is a great way to connect with people and take charge of your own media presence, but it needs to be part of a wider strategy. Make sure to include a link in your bio to your website where you can collect email addresses, make sales, and demonstrate your knowledge and skill. If you primarily sell on Etsy or a similar platform, include a link to your profile there.

These are just a few pearls of wisdom Nevue was kind enough to allow me to share on his platform. Read the whole post here, and be sure to leave me a comment and tell me what you think!

 

 

Writing: Why you gotta go and make it so complicated?

A few weeks (or has it been months? Who knows! Time is relative) ago, I joined Pinterest as a way of sparking some visual creativity, which some of you may know I’ve always been a fan of. And Pinterest did not disappoint:

It’s beautiful!!! *heart eyes*

(While we’re here, you can check out the Creative Quibble Pinterest Board here, and also check out this board if you’re only really here for the books).

But one thing I’ve noticed that I’m not so crazy about is the plethora of writing advice infographics along the lines of “Words to Use Instead of X.”

Before I start talking about why I don’t like this and don’t think it’s helpful, let me say that this isn’t a criticism of those dispensing this kind of writing advice, or even the advice itself. It’s not bad or wrong – I’ve personally found it useful in certain circumstances – but I think for aspiring writers to get the most of it, there needs to be a very specific approach.

When 1+1=3

Writing isn’t a science where you can replace one thing with its equivalent and get the same result. When you tell someone to use “enraged” instead of “very angry,” you could be legitimately improving their writing – or you could be ruining their work. The only way you can know for sure is if you see the word choice in the context of the piece itself.

Remember the scene in Friends where Joey tries to write Monica and Chandler a recommendation for their adoption agency but gets a little overenthusiastic with this thesaurus feature?

That’s basically what you risk when you follow this kind of advice willy nilly.

For example, one of these posts suggests “deafening” as a replacement for “very noisy.” But these two are not necessarily the same thing. What about “piercing”? It may well be a better replacement for the meaning you’re trying to convey. What about “cacophonous”? Riotous? Clamorous? Ear-popping? And that’s just off the top of my head. All of these words mean “very noisy.” None of them refer to the same kind of noise.

Another post gives 50 alternatives to the phrase “looks like,” including “mirrors,” “reflects,” “parodies,” “mimics,” and “parallels.” Personally I prefer this kind of post because it gives the writer a chance to consider what works best for their meaning, but that still requires one to be very familiar with the language and confident in what they want to portray.  If you’re in that category, then you may well find these posts exceedingly helpful. But if you’re just starting to get comfortable with writing, I think you need to approach this type of advice carefully.

I think the best, most authentic writing comes from where you are naturally in your vocabulary and your environment. When I was in grad school, I had several people tell me that my writing wasn’t “academic” enough, because I tended to use short sentences and paragraphs and everyday language. That was a direct result of my training in journalism – it was what I was reading and writing naturally, and so it carried over into my graduate work. I rather liked it – I find a lot of academic writing cumbersome to the point of being unintelligible. Here’s a pro-tip: if you’ve hit line four but you’re still in the same sentence, stop and find somewhere to put a period. No one knows what you’re talking about anymore.

But I digress. My point is this: I could have tried to mimic the academic style I was told to by my peers (for the record, my professors never took issue with my writing style), but it would have come off as awkward and artless. Writing is not a “fake it till you make it” skill. It’s something that needs time to develop naturally, and it’s also unique in that to perfect your writing, you need to do something else – read.

Reading is the only way to grow your vocabulary in a way that will organically feed into your writing. That’s the long and short of it. You can save all these posts and bookmark thesaurus.com and read the dictionary every night before you go to bed, but none of that will feed into your writing like reading does.

And speaking of reading…

Just say it!

One thing that really, really bugs me is when people give you a list of words to replace “said.” Guys. Guys. You do not need to replace “said.” In some cases, when you’re trying to really emphasize an attitude or a characteristic, it is appropriate to use “stammered,” or “demanded,” or “snapped.” In most cases, “said” is just fine. In fact, it’s better than fine.

Here’s why: your reader isn’t actually seeing the word “said.” That’s not how the brain works. It doesn’t read every individual letter or word. Instead, your brain scans and absorbs a context, and fills out the details from there. Have you ever been reading a page and suddenly stop and go, ‘wait, what,?” because what’s happening now doesn’t make sense with what you just read. So you go back, only to discover that you missed a crucial “not” in a sentence in the last scene, which is why the what happened afterwards was such a shock.

It’s not because you’re skimming or falling asleep or otherwise not paying attention. That’s just how your brain reads. When your brain sees quotation marks in the context of a story, it knows that there’s dialogue coming up, i.e., someone is saying something. It doesn’t need to read the word “said” to know that, so more often than not, it doesn’t.

So as a reader, you’re not registering the word “said,” and you’re certainly not nitpicking the author’s use of it. But of course as a writer, it’s a different ball game entirely. Because you’re typing it out so much, you become paranoid about your use of “said.” Is it boring? Is it evocative of what you’re really trying to express? You have an image in your head of exactly what your characters are doing and thinking and feeling; is “said” really doing them justice?

Yes. Yes it is. Don’t just take it from me. Author and publisher Rob Hart is a huge proponent of “said”:

Said and asked are beautiful in their simplicity. They are completely anonymous words. We know what they mean. We’ve seen them so often that our eyes recognize the shape and convey the meaning with zero effort. We glide right over them.

That’s very important when you’re reading dialogue. Dialogue flows. Conversations don’t stop so we can figure out what people are feeling. We intuit it. And having these nearly-meaningless words to steer you along means that you’re not pausing to figure anything out.

But when you see that a character retorted or blustered or hissed, your brain slows down. There’s something there you need to process. It’s momentary, probably imperceptible, but when it comes to writing a flowing conversation, the pause may as well last for hours.

In writing, everything counts. Where you put your periods. The white space between the paragraph breaks. Everything. And said and asked are very valuable tools in your arsenal. Because they get the job done and get the fuck out of the way. They’re so good at it, they can completely disappear when you need them to.

Hart makes an important point about the anonymity of “said” and “asked.” When you write, you’re trying to convey a certain idea or image, and often you become so invested in that image that you become obsessed with making sure the reader sees it exactly as you do in their mind’s eyes. So you use these unnecessary words and add emphasis where you don’t need it because you’re trying to force the reader to conform to your vision of the narrative, and instead you push them out of their reading bubble and force them to recall this outside force, you, the author, that has created this imaginary world.

They were immersed in your world. Then you dragged them out and beat them over the head with your complicated dialogue tags.

Sometimes, it’s better to just go with your instincts and not overthink these things. You can always go back and edit. And when you do, you may find that your work is in better shape than you thought!

*Feature image credit: John Davey via Flickr.