writing, writing tips

Become a Better Writer for Under $20

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How many times have you seen someone selling you a course or some other product on the internet that claims it will make you a better writer, or purchase a book that can supposedly help you get published, only to have it contain nebulous tips like “practice writing every day”, “be persistent”, and “create great stories”? Or worse, corporate buzz like “grow your brand”.

I really hate these things, and they seem to be proliferating across the internet as people try to take advantage of hungry writers.

In an attempt to subvert that which I do not care for, I’m creating this post. It’s a list of 5 things that should cost you under $20 total (in fact, probably under $10 if you’re not a pen snob like me) and will absolutely make you a better writer.

Here they are in no particular order, as pictured above.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White

This is the book if you want to improve your craft. The gold standard since around 1919, its beauty lies in simplicity. It provides straightforward, common-sense rules and style suggestions for writing the English language. Plus, clear examples of each rule so they are easy to understand. It’s quite short and easy to reference whenever you need it.

Buy it in paperback. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket if you don’t wear tight pants. My copy (pictured) is a tapestry of margin notes, dog-eared pages, and highlighter fluid. I own a bunch of writing references, but this is the one I use 97% of the time.

Cost: $5 to $10 depending on the retailer.

A Pen

People tell me they can be mightier than swords. Get one. Two if you’re prone to losing things.

Cost: $1 to $500 if you’re rich and crazy, but you’re a writer, so you’re probably just crazy.

Index Cards

Use the pen to write on these. Write notes, edits, even alternate plots and character bios. The beauty of index cards is you can re-arrange and lay them out. I’m a very visual person, and being able to “re-structure” a story by using these like Flashcards, or simply compare alternate ideas to what’s on my screen. If you have Scrivener you can type them into its “index card” system later. There are a million things writers can do with index cards, and stacks are cheap.

Cost: $1-4 depending on retailer

Notebook

Buy one and keep it with you, because inspiration shows up at the most inconvenient times. If you splurge on a pretentious one cough…Moleskine…cough they have a handy little pocket in the back where you can stash some index cards for easy access.

Cost: $1 for some Mead spiral-bound or Lisa Frank glittery unicorn action, up to $25 for the really overpriced ones that people make Youtube videos about.

Highlighter

I’m one of those people who highlights and makes margin notes in my books. Some people feel that is sacrilege. I disagree, because highlighting and writing notes is a sign of critical reading. Writers are constantly told to read, but reading critically will help you improve much faster. On top of that, I read a lot of books and I can’t possibly remember all the things I like about them them. The Kindle has a lovely “highlight” feature, but when it comes to ink on paper, I leave a yellow trail in my wake like a slug.

Cost: $1 to $1 (seriously, just buy these at the dollar store).

So there you have it. A kit for less than twenty bucks that is guaranteed to help you improve as long as you use all the tools it contains. It won’t help you “build a platform”, but it will help you with something far more important – your writing craft.

writing tips

Writing Tip: Reasons to Join a Writer’s Group

image of a writer's group
Image credit: Lulu.com

I recently joined a writer’s group organized by my local indie bookstore. I felt like it would be a great opportunity to network with other nearby authors and get feedback on my work.

After some months and numerous critiques, I finally feel comfortable blogging about it and advising that writer’s groups are a great way to improve as an author.

Critiques

Each writer in my group has similar but different goals. The shared commonality is personal improvement. I can’t stress enough how quickly your writing can improve with constructive criticism from people who are engaged in the same difficult work as you. A writer’s group can provide a varied audience who are at the perfect “degree of separation” to provide honest feedback. They are more familiar with you than strangers on the internet, but have more distance than friends and family who might try to protect your feelings.

I’ve recently had a few short stories picked up for publication, and I directly attribute that success to the valuable critiques I received from my group.

Encouragement

Every writer’s path is different. What works for one author might not for another. There are no silver bullets, and that can be tough to accept. It’s good to have a tight knit group going through the same trials and tribulations with you. It provides understanding ears to gripe about rejections, and voices to celebrate your successes.

Insight

Writing and publishing is COMPLICATED. I’ve written about some of the most common publishing avenues available, and there are an overwhelming number of choices, services, potential scams, and opportunities across the landscape. Insight from active writers who are living this stuff alongside you is invaluable. A short conversation among a writer’s group will probably yield more insight than any paid “How to Publish” course you can find on the internet. The writer’s in my group are all at different stages, and everyone is able to provide useful tips and info to each other.

Love of Books

I’ve been turned on to new authors and books I’d have never known about, just by being around like-minded writer’s who are passionate about reading. It’s a wonderful social atmosphere to get suggestions, or have fun and engaging conversations about books.

For all the reason’s above (and more) I highly recommend writers of any level seek out a group. Keep in mind they are not without challenges! I believe anytime a group of creative people get together, there will be up’s and downs. I would also strongly encourage you to join an in-person group, rather than one on the internet. Writing is a solitary exercise, and the face-to-face interaction, along with the relationships you’ll build with other local writers are worth the time and effort.

Are you a member of a writer’s group? If so, what has your experience been like?

book, creative writing, writing

Writing Fantasy Is Hard

VHS box art for "The Iron Master"
“The Iron Master” VHS box art, aka “Every sword & sorcery cover ever”

Writing fantasy stories is tough work.

I’ve been slowly grinding out a fantasy/horror novel over the past year, and I have a whole new respect for authors of the genre.

I’ve always loved fantasy novels, especially the “sword&sorcery” sub-genre, but they are definitely outside my wheelhouse when it comes to writing. I stick almost exclusively to horror and weird speculative stories, but I wanted to venture outside my comfort-zone and dip my toes in the shimmering magical pool.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned.

World Building Sucks

“Sucks” might be kind of a strong word for it, but I find it frustrating. Sure, it’s really cool stretching your imagination to create all these fantastical places and things, but it’s also REALLY difficult! There are supernatural elements in horror, but they are often limited, and can be put into real world settings, like New Mexico or something. I vastly underestimated the amount of time and effort that goes into fantasy world building. Now I get why so many books rely on variations of time-tested tropes.

Names, Places, Names, and more Names…plus Dragons?

How do fantasy writers keep track of all this stuff? Character names, places, and magic systems. The number of things you need to record is mind-numbing. All novels require some level of research, but the nature of fantasy usually requires deep backstories, complex interactions between entire races, and “systems”. For the most part, other genres can safely assume things like gravity and physics are a given. Even Science fiction (at least the good kind) is grounded against certain rules, that provide a baseline to start against. TL;DR – If you write a fantasy novel, buy extra notebooks and Post-It’s.

Being Original is Difficult

Creating an original idea in 2017 is tough no matter what you write. We all have influences that shape our voice. Fantasy cliches and tropes are especially easy to spot though. As soon as “Orcs” or “Orks” show up, you’re already ripping off Tolkien. Kids who use magic? You might be treading on Harry Potter’s toes. The wide berth of stories and subjects in just the last five decades speak to both the popularity of the genre, along with the extraordinary challenges inherent in coming up with something unique.

 

I’m determined to finish my fantasy book, because I love the characters and the story, but my expectations have certainly been adjusted since I started the first draft. I have a newfound respect for fantasy novels and the people who write them.

 

writing, writing tips

You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer

image of a typewriter
image credit: College of New Rochelle

I’ve been reading a number of articles and blog posts recently about whether writers should get an MFA. Sarah Werner even covered it on the latest episode of the Write Now podcast. Must be back-to-school fever.

I’m in the camp that believes the only education you need to be a writer is a degree from “The School of Life”.

Irony alert: I have an (undergraduate) degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

Before we go any further, let me say I’m a proponent of education, both formal and self-driven. I believe a high school diploma and undergraduate courses in English can provide a strong foundation and wider exposure to both classic and modern literature. I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful teachers and professors I had throughout my education who gave me feedback, tough critiques, and encouragement.

With that said, do y’all REALLY need a Masters in this? Probably not.

Here’s a few reasons why –

  • Cost: MFA’s can be expensive. Like, up to $100,000. That’s a lot of debt for no guarantee of a successful career in a brutally competitive field. For that kind of money you’d be better off buying a laptop and a nice van to live out of while you travel the country as a starving artist. Being miserably indebted makes life tough, and a tougher life often leads to less writing time as you try to pay your bills.

 

  • Voice: There is no factual evidence that MFA programs nurture authors to cultivate a unique voice. In fact, there has been a lot of criticism lately that they’ve begun to actually homogenize writers. Don’t take my word for it. Go read this great (but oh so lengthy) article by The Atlantic. They’re one of the hoity-est of hoity toity liberal magazines, so I trust them to criticize Masters programs.

 

  • Burn Out: I read somewhere that there’s “no one more bitter than a grad school drop-out.” Intensive writing and workshops can be great, but you run the risk of burning yourself out. Even in low-residency programs. Plus, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t handle rejection well, I’d have to guess it stings more to receive rejection letters if they pile up next to a $75,000 piece of paper that claims it made you great.

 

  • The Unwashed Low-Brow Masses of The American Readership: Let me take a moment to pick on the country I love so dearly. Americans don’t read much anymore. Google it. There are numerous studies citing how few books we are reading these days, and when we do, it’s NOT literary fiction. Balk all you want, but MFA holders often hold certain views and a level of pretension. They also die a little inside every time something like Fifty Shades of Grey lights up the best seller charts. It’s why forum threads discussing “literature versus genre fiction” are always such nasty things. TL;DR – Writing literary fiction is a tough road to an audience.

Before you think I’m just slamming MFA’s because I’m poor or bad at standardized tests, let me say I think there IS a reason to get one. If you intend to have a career in academia and teach others how to write, read critically, and critique then you should absolutely have a Masters degree (MFA, or MA). From there, by all means write as many dissertations and chapbooks as you please.

However, if you’re like most “aspiring authors” or even published authors that I’ve met in my travels, you probably write some type of genre fiction or you’re writing “Lit Fic” with the intention of selling it to a mass market. In either case, I don’t think you should ever be concerned or discouraged if you don’t have an MFA, because you don’t need one to accomplish those goals.

You just need paper, ink, and a whole lot of time and determination.

 

writing tips

Writing Tip: Avoid Perfectionism

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Perfect is the enemy of Good.

Do you struggle with perfectionism?

Figuring out when a story is ready to submit or publish can be the most challenging part of the writing process. Through all the edits, re-writes, and proofreading you need to find that “good enough” place. Good enough to submit. Good enough to push to Amazon. Even just good enough to show other people.

Perfectionism is one of the single biggest hurdles in getting to “good enough”.

My first brush with the perils of creative perfectionism involved being in a band. We would practice the same four songs, and re-write or tweak them on a weekly basis. We never made any true progress and declared them “done”. We rarely worked on any new material, and ultimately, couldn’t play any gigs because we didn’t have enough songs for a full playlist.

I only realized the real problem after I had joined a new band. There were no perfectionists, and we played plenty of shows.

If you’re a perfectionist, it can be extremely difficult to say “I’m done. Time to move on.” However, this needs to happen in the name of progress. If you’re forever working on the same project or piece of writing, you’ll never truly grow. The challenge is finding that balance.

Studying writing during college definitely helped me lose some of my preconceptions about writing. These are a few things I learned that helped me avoid becoming mired in the perfection trap.

  • First, understand that NOTHING is perfect. NOTHING. EVER. You’ll never create a piece of art that is truly perfect, because they don’t exist.

That said, each work you complete provides experience and the opportunity to reflect and grow as a writer. One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Vince Lombardi, who said,

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

  • Second,you need to be open to criticism.

Perfectionism is a great shield against criticism. No one can criticize your work if it’s never complete, right? You can just keep “improving it” forever.

Unfortunately, you’ll never grow as a writer unless you open yourself up to critique. I’m talking about meaningful, constructive criticism that helps you recognize issues and fix them. Not the scathing comments of jerks and trolls, which the internet is full of.

Find a person, or group of people who you trust to provide honest and helpful feedback about your writing so you can make it better.

Perfectionism can be difficult to deal with, but it’s essential you conquer it if you expect to get your writing out into the world and appreciated by an audience.