Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Don’t Forget Your Audience (Especially if they’re ON FIRE)

OKAY GUYS, WRITING RANT TIME! Buckle in for some CAPITAL LETTERS and also LITERAL FIRE!

For this rant, I have my day job technical writer hat on, but the general principle applies to fiction, too. It’s about knowing your audience. What does knowing your audience have to do with ACTUAL FIREBALLS? Read on and find out!

So there I am, trying a new recipe for zucchini tacos, and I am substituting the broiler where it calls for a grill, as I have done several times in the past with good results. Everything is going great until I flip my not-even-browned-yet tortillas and put them back in the oven for LITERALLY THIRTY SECONDS to try to get them toasty and suddenly SMOKE! SO MUCH SMOKE!

And I open the oven to try to rescue my tortillas in case they haven’t turned to cinders yet, and HOLY CRAP THE OVEN IMMEDIATELY SPAWNS A BALL OF FIRE!

SHIT SHIT THAT’S ACTUAL FIRE, I think, like you do, and slam the oven door shut on the INSTANT HELLMOUTH I have unwittingly created. Smoke is billowing everywhere. My ten-year-old begins asking me a number of pertinent questions from the next room, like, “Mom, is something on fire?” and “How much fire?” and “Should I leave the house?”

I pretend to be a calm and responsible grownup, saying things in a relaxed voice like “Yes, it’s on fire, but I have this under control, why don’t you go to another room to get away from the smoke?” when in fact what is actually happening in my head is that I am staring at the fire in my oven and realizing that there is STILL FIRE and I am the only adult in the house and it’s FIRE and I had better do something about it.

I figure okay, if I keep the oven door shut, that should starve the fire for oxygen, and it should go out, right? So I wait a bit, and sure enough, the fire seems to die down, so I open the oven again and NOPE MY MISTAKE FWOOSH STILL ALL KINDS OF FIRE IN THERE.

So I slam the oven door again, which does seem to help, and open all the windows and turn on the vent fan, and then for lack of a better idea I run to my laptop and Google “Oven Fire.” And lo, the internet delivers! Several articles appear titled helpful things like “How To Put Out an Oven Fire” and “How To Put Out Kitchen Fires.” Great! YAY THANK YOU INTERNET!

I click on the first one, very aware that there is likely still ACTUAL FIRE burning in the oven behind me, and I get like A FULL PAGE OF INTRODUCTION with scene-setting crap like (and I’m paraphrasing, here) “There are many reasons fires can start in a kitchen…” and “Cooking can be awesome, but also dangerous,” and “Let’s set the scene…picture this… you’re cooking, but you spill some grease…” and I am like NOPE and go to the next article, where I get MORE OF THE SAME. Paragraphs and paragraphs of flavor text before you get to anything like the promised instructions for how to put out an actual fire.

And I want to lunge through the screen and throttle the writers, because OH MY GOD THERE IS AN ACTUAL FIRE IN MY KITCHEN AND YOU ARE TRYING TO PAINT ME A LITTLE PICTURE OR GIVE ME RELEVANT CULINARY CONTEXT WHEN WHAT I WANT IS TO PUT OUT A FIRE.

Luckily, by the time I find an article where I only have to scroll down a LITTLE bit to find a clear numbered list of what to do, the fire in my oven is basically out, because in fact, in case you were wondering, closing the door and trying to starve the fire to death is apparently actually the right thing to do. (Note: I am clearly not an expert on things on fire, given that I was googling oven fires on the internet, so don’t listen to me.)

So here’s where this becomes a writing rant. In instructional writing, and for that matter in lots of other kinds of writing including fiction, one of the very first things you do is consider your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What are their interests and concerns? Etc.

Well, for an article about How To Put Out a Kitchen Fire, I would argue that:

  • Your audience is PEOPLE WHOSE KITCHENS ARE ON FIRE.
  • They want to PUT OUT THE FIRE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
  • Their interests are AAAAH SHIT SHIT FIRE, and their concerns are FUCK MY OVEN IS ON FIRE HELP HELP.

They do not want paragraphs of lovely flavor text setting the scene. They want to PUT OUT THE GODDAMN FIRE. You can tell them the history of kitchen fires AFTER THE FIRE IS OUT.

So maybe you should put the bit about how to put out the fire RIGHT AT THE TOP, in a numbered list or bullet points that jumps right out at you, or maybe a nice graphic. JUST A SUGGESTION, INTERNET.

Now, this is super extra true for instructional writing—you always want the information people really need to jump in their faces right away—but it’s something to consider in fiction, too.

Who are your readers? Adults? Teens? Kids? What genre expectations do they have before they even open your book? What do they want to see first when they start reading?

Also, what’s going on in your book? Is now really a good time to start telling us your cool, detailed backstory or worldbuilding? If your main character is desperately fighting off a giant spider that’s trying to eat her face, maybe you can wait until the fight is over to tell us that she was trying to collect the precious silk of its webs, which the Y’Kreeth people have used to make the sails of their ships for thousands of years, and which is found only in the deep chasms of the Marimata Rifts that separate the North from the South, but only on dry days in autumn, and… yeah. Fight off the spider first (or the ACTUAL REAL LIFE FIRE, for example, not that I’m still bitter), and THEN tell us all about your amazing fantasy world.

It’s great to think about your characters and their arcs, but it’s just as important to think about your audience. Your readers are the invisible bonus character/fourth wall/fifth element/secret ingredient that makes your story real in their heads. So consider where their heads are before you put your story in it.

And here’s a tip: if their heads are JUST A FEW FEET FROM A FIRE, maybe get to the point a little faster.


Don’t Drop That Line

You know what I wish I’d figured out earlier in my writing journey? The importance of through lines.

Take right now. I’m working on a revision of THE DEFIANT HEIR (Book 2 of Swords & Fire). I got about two-thirds done with a first draft, then realized I needed to go back and revise before I wrote the last third where everything comes together. Why? Because the Everything that needed to come together was pointing all over the place, like a pile of dropped sticks, rather than forming a bunch of lines converging inevitably toward the climax. And I had a whole section of the book that was kind of just sketched in, with caution tape strung around it saying “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.”

I didn’t have a clear through line.

A lot of definitions will describe the through line as a theme, idea, or goal that continues from the beginning to the end of a story. I personally find it more useful to think of the through line visually, as a pure structural element.

The scenes and events in a story are beads, and the through line is the thread that strings through them all to make a necklace. Without the through line, you just have a pile of beads. The through line is what makes it a story.

If your through line is working, every scene leads to the next in a natural progression of cause and effect. Your protagonist has a goal, and is driving the action toward that goal. The core conflict runs true at the heart of the story. There’s a clear emotional arc to the story, too, as well as a plot arc; everything bends toward the climax.

It’s all too easy to drop your through line. For instance, I know one way I often do it is when something unexpected happens to cause a plot turning point. That’s good! Yay surprises! But if now suddenly my characters are doing and feeling all new things that have nothing to do with everything they were doing and feeling before, it’s going to feel disjointed to the readers. Even if the new things are all exciting and cool, if we’ve dropped all the threads the readers were invested in and excited about, they may lose interest or feel lost. We need core elements of the story to continue, sticking with us through every zig and zag, propelling us through to the end.

Another common way to wind up with a dropped through line is when you have insufficient agency for your main character. They have to be the one threading that string through those beads. If they’re running around reacting to things that fate or the antagonist keeps throwing at them, without having driving goals of their own which they’re actively pursuing, there’s no clear thread to connect the events of the story and carry it forward…and the readers with it.

The through line gives the readers something to wonder about, to be excited about, to be emotionally invested in. It’s what keeps them turning pages to the end.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to define your through line in an explicit word or phrase or statement. Really, it’s a combination of things: core themes, your character’s emotional arc, the main plot arc, the central conflict, your character’s goal. It’s the heart AND the spine of the story.

But you should KNOW your through line. At a deep, instinctive level—and you should also be consciously aware of it. You should be able to trace its passage through your story.

In this particular revision, I realized I didn’t know my through line well enough. I had a bunch of events, and I saw how they lined up with cause and effect to create a story, but I needed to clarify my character’s motivation and goals and emotional arc to give those events life and purpose, and to bring them all together. Once I got a better understanding of my through line, suddenly all the pieces I’d been having trouble fleshing out or fully integrating came clear. A lot of the bits that were giving me trouble or that I didn’t have energy for suddenly seemed easy to tackle.

To map the path of your story, you need to know where it starts, and where it ends, and the lay of the land along the way. But just as much, you need to know who is walking that path, and why, and where they thought it was leading when they first set foot on it.

Your through line is Ariadne’s string, to guide your main character—and you, and your readers—through the Labyrinth. Lose it at your peril.


Justifiable Murder

One thing that bugs me as a reader (and I do realize this is a pet peeve that probably doesn’t bother lots of people) is when an author kills off a character and I get the feeling they did it solely to make things seem EXTRA DRAMATIC. As if they might get some kind of MY BOOK IS SERIOUS NOW badge because a named character died.

(Side note: It’s particularly annoying if the character clearly serves no purpose except to die tragically and make the main character sad. You know… when it’s like HERE IS MY BEST FRIEND/LITTLE BROTHER/INNOCENT RANDO I AM TRYING TO SAVE, WHO IS VERY SWEET AND NICE AND HAS NO PERSONALITY AT ALL BUT WOULDN’T IT BE TRAGIC IF SOMETHING HAPPENED TO THEM.)

I was thinking about this while doing laundry, and wondering how exactly I would define the difference between deaths for angst value vs. earned, necessary deaths. And lo, into my head popped a perfect test to tell whether a death is story-driven, rather than “I want some more drama here”-driven. It’s simple (“well, duh,” even):

Does the death change the story?

And I don’t mean just “now our hero is sad” change. I mean plot change, with effects in suitable proportion to the importance of the character who died.

Look at the deaths (and whoa, large data sample) in A Song of Ice and Fire. When George R. R. Martin kills a major character, you nearly always go “Holy shit, that changes EVERYTHING!”

If you take the death out, or swap in a different character to die instead, the story is completely different. You can’t do it. It wouldn’t make sense.

That is how you murder characters.

I’m totally using this as a test now myself anytime I’m thinking of killing off a character.


Breaking a Scene List into Arcs

In a previous post, I talked about color coding my scene list by stakes. That’s only one of the ways I use my scene list, which is really a super handy all purpose tool to look at a book’s structure in all sorts of ways. (To review, it’s just a list of all scenes in order, with a short phrase naming each scene.)

Another way I’ve used it that came in really handy on my current revision is to use the scene list to break the book up into arcs or acts.

I look at the scene list and try to identify turning points in the book, and map out arcs connecting those turning points. You can look at varying sizes of arcs, from a few major acts to lots of shorter arcs—whatever’s useful to you—and even nest them if you want to get fancy. For my current round of revisions on THE TETHERED MAGE, I wound up identifying 10 arcs of varying sizes.

After I identify these turning points, I break up my working copy of my scene list accordingly, and I try to name or label each section based on its overall arc. If I can’t identify an overall direction, or I want to label a section “A Bunch of Random Stuff Happens,” it probably means I have a bunch of disconnected scenes without a clear through line. (This happened to me on this latest pass, and it was super useful to catch it so I could find/make a through line.)

Here are a few of the redacted-for-spoilers labels for my current working arcs in THE TETHERED MAGE, for example:

  • Meet [REDACTED], Your New Problem
  • [REDACTED] Is Getting Worse And Maybe It’s [REDACTED]’s Fault? LOOK ALL THESE THINGS ARE CONNECTED!
  • Starting to Figure Stuff Out & Have Victories & Solve Stuff…
  • OH WAIT NO EVERYTHING GOES TO HELL

(Those aren’t consecutive, except for the last two.)

For other projects and past drafts, I’ve sometimes used more specifically descriptive phrases, as opposed to the more abstract and structural ones above. Here’s a made-up example of this approach:

  • Part One: Searching for the Golden Potato
  • Part Two: Potato Found, but Stolen by Void Bunnies!
  • Part Three: Hunting Down the Void Bunnies
  • Part Four: NOPE! Running From the Void Bunnies
  • Part Five: All Seems Lost (Void Bunny Ambush & Aftermath)
  • Part Six: Unlocking the Inner Potato (It Was Within You All Along)
  • Part Seven: Stealing Back the Golden Potato
  • Part Eight: Void Bunnies Destroy Seattle
  • Part Nine: Unleashing the Golden Potato
  • Part Ten: Post-Potato-splosion Wrapup (soup w/leeks & bacon, mmm)

It’s kind of like the scene list zoomed farther out.

In addition to helping spot structural issues, I also find breaking up the scene list into sections to be really helpful for tackling my edits in bite-sized chunks. For instance, if one of the 25 things I want to work on in this revision is strengthening character X’s voice, and character X doesn’t appear until my 3rd arc, I don’t even have to worry about that item on my list until I get to that section.

It helps me manage the revision a piece at a time, without having to juggle too many things in my tiny brain. And I can identify what I most want to focus on in each arc, and keep that focus in mind as I revise that section.

I’m sure there are a ton of other ways you could use this, too — and other writers probably have their own variations on this technique. I like making lists, because that’s how my brain works. Some people may prefer to map out acts more visually, or go crazy with sticky notes, or make an Excel spreadsheet, or name their cats after various plot themes and throw out some catnip mice and see what happens.

Some people may even be so awesome they can keep track of all this stuff in their head and not need 32 pages of notes to do a revision. (HA HA WHAT KIND OF LOSER HAS A 32 PAGE REVISION PLAN ANYWAY? NOT ME.) (*Switches tabs while you’re not looking*)

For me, though, the scene list is the X-Ray that lets me look at my story’s skeleton. And this is one way to make sure everything’s all connected properly, and not just a loose pile of bones.


Stakes Map

I did a new structure thing today which worked really well for me, so I wanted to share it with all my fellow writers!

I was side-eyeing my current revision, which involves adding a bunch of new scenes, and thinking there might be some patches where I had too many sitting-around-and-talking scenes in a row. I needed a way to zoom waaaaaay out and look at the story structure to check for places where I let the tension drop for too long.

Here’s what I did:

First, I had already made a scene list. I find this is super handy for looking at big structural things. It’s just a list of every scene in the book, in order, with short names (usually just a handful of words) for each scene. Here’s a made up example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one

Etc. You get the idea.

The new thing I did was to color code each scene in the list by the stakes. I might use a different color code for a different type of book, but for this one I did red for high-stakes action scenes, blue for high-stakes non-action scenes (the character has a lot to lose), and green for low-stakes talky scenes (the character doesn’t have much at risk, though plot points still happen).

This was awesome, because it made any places where I had a bunch of low-stakes talky scenes in a row really jump out at me. See what I mean in this example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Sophie fills Greg in over donuts
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg fails math test
Greg moping over lunch
Greg goes home, gets in trouble w/mom for missing bus
Greg catches bus fine next day
Greg has to do makeup work in math class
Ninjas kidnap Stanley

The middle has way too much green. I can see immediately that it’s a problem. Then I can experiment with different solutions in my scene list until I have a better balance of colors.

For instance, in this example story I might cut a bunch of scenes and insert a higher-stakes one to avoid dropping the dramatic tension on the floor while Greg messes around:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg tries to ask Stanley out
Ninjas kidnap Stanley
Sophie fills Greg in while they track down ninjas to get Stanley back

That might be too little green. Readers do need time to take a breath, dig in, and get to know the characters when they’re not in the middle of a huge crisis. But this color code technique will let me spot those problems, too, and identify spots where I need to give the reader a bit of down time or breathing space between epic fight scenes and shocking revelations.

When I tried this with my current draft, it let me get a bird’s eye view on stakes and pacing, move stuff around to fix problems, and make changes to up the stakes where needed. It not only made it easier to correct the issue I’d already identified, but it helped me spot another potentially slow stretch I needed to fix.

I’m totally doing a stakes map like this for every book from now on.


Lies Writers Tell Ourselves: My Beta Reader Doesn’t Get It

So you send off your draft to some awesome, kind beta readers, and they send you feedback. Most of it is great, but there are one or two comments that are way off base and show they really missed the boat.

Maybe they’re suggesting a character do something that character would never do. Or urging you to take the book in a direction that’s not at all where you want to go. Maybe their feedback shows a total lack of understanding about the genre. It might even make you wonder if they really read the book.

Pancake

It can be tempting to ignore feedback like that completely. But the fact is, even if they are completely wrong about your book, they still had a reader reaction that prompted them to give you that feedback. Instead of throwing out their ridiculous comment, take a good, hard look at your book.

Why did they have that reaction?

What’s the real problem behind that reaction?

Forget their suggested solution. How would you fix it?

If they’re suggesting out of character actions for a character, maybe that character isn’t developed enough, or needs to be cut, or needs a stronger arc or voice. If they’re urging you to take the book in a direction you don’t want to go, maybe the book needs more conflict, or higher stakes, or a more unique hook. If they show a lack of understanding of the genre, maybe your book could be more accessible to casual readers. If it seems like they didn’t read the book…Well, if they were skimming, they weren’t drawn in. You have work to do.

I know it’s easy for me to read a suggestion and instinctively have a resistant reaction. I want to defend my book. I worked hard on that thing!

But I didn’t send it to my beta readers for validation. (I mean, sure, part of me wants validation. But that’s not the part of me that should be driving when I’m getting ready to revise.) I sent it to them to find out how I could make my book better.

Sometimes, they’re wrong, and the problem is actually something else entirely. But there usually is a problem.

Translation

Other times, they’re right, and I just don’t want them to be right, because the revisions would be a lot of work. In which case, TOO BAD FOR ME. Back to work it is!

These days, I happen to be blessed with awesome beta readers, and the feedback they give me is generally spot on. I am super lucky that way. So sometimes instead of asking “What’s the actual problem?” I instead wind up asking “But should I do even more than they’re suggesting?”

A wise friend of mine recently observed to me that taking constructive criticism is as much a skill as giving it. She was so, so right—and it’s a skill all writers need to learn.


Lies Writers Tell Ourselves: Publishable Quality

Long ago, when I was young and innocent and just starting out on my journey through the world of publishing, I had the idea that my job was to write a book good enough to be published. Once I did that, everything else would follow—because if it’s good enough to be published, that means it’ll be published, right?

HA HA HA HA HA. Oh, what a fool I was.

I think this is a common myth, though. More than once, I had various industry professionals tell me my book was publishable quality, too, reinforcing my idea that there was this bar, and once you passed it, you were in. But this is a very dangerous illusion.

It’s a strange idea in the first place. Books get published all the time which you or I might very well not consider of Publishable Quality. And I’ve certainly beta read a decent number of books which I consider to well surpass that bar which have not yet found a home with a publisher. It’s not like you can put a manuscript on the Awesomeness Scale and see if it rates at 90% or above and slap a “Grade A” sticker on it and put it on the shelf.

One problem with the Publishable Quality idea is that it obscures the truth: publishing is incredibly subjective. If you and I did a blind taste test of 20 novels and had to check off which we thought were of Publishable Quality, we’d be extremely unlikely to come up with perfectly matching lists at the end. Nearly every published debut novel out there got rejected at some point. The idea that there’s some way to objectively gauge novel quality leaves us open to greater pain with rejection, because then instead of meaning we didn’t find our book’s  agent/editor soul mate, it means our book wasn’t good enough.

The Publishable Quality myth comes with another hidden catch. Even if you assume we could come up with some vague level of “Yeah, most people agree this is good enough to be a published book,” there are more books meeting that bar than there are slots for books to traditionally publish. Writing a good book is a rare skill, and one we should be proud of—but it’s not so rare that there isn’t still competition once you clear the elusive “publishable” bar.

Which leads to perhaps the most insidious danger of this notion of Publishable Quality. It can lead you to believe that once your book hits that level, you can stop trying to make it better. I know when I first started querying, I thought I just had to make my book good enough. But now that I’ve immersed myself in the world of writing and publishing for a while, I know that’s not true.

You can’t stop at good enough. You probably shouldn’t even stop at as good as I can make it. You have to keep going until as good as it can possibly be.

If you strive for less than that, you might still get published. It’s a subjective business, after all. But you’ll have failed to do your book the justice it deserves. You’ll have missed opportunities to make yourself a better writer.

So don’t ask yourself “Is this book publishable?” Ask yourself “How can I make this book even better?” You’ll go less crazy and write a better book.