Tag Archives: craft questions

Why Word Count is One of the Best Tools in Your Writing Toolbox

Why Word Count is One of the Best Tools in Your Writing Toolbox

woman in exercise clothing doing a pushup

Word count–the workout your book needs. CC image “62” courtesy of Fit Approach on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing is a lot like exercise. Most of us like the end result more than the process of getting there.

We like being strong, healthy, feeling good about our weight. We don’t like going for a run, or taking the time to go to the gym, or changing how we eat.

Likewise, we like holding the book we wrote in our hands, the feeling of accomplishment, the glow of success and recognition. We dislike editing, revision, and sitting down to write when we absolutely, 100%, do not feel inspired to do so. In fact, more writers clean their bathrooms as a way to avoid writing than you could ever imagine.

The fact is, though, that we need to write, in order to have written. The best way to do this is through regular writing practice, and one of the best ways to adopt a regular writing practice is to set word count goals. Continue reading

Be True to Your Book All the Way Through

Be True to Your Book All the Way Through

boy wearing goggles and cape like a superhero costume

Great things can happen when you own your narrative voice. CC image “consumer confidence!” courtesy of Chris & Karen Highland on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“One day you’ll see,” he said with a wink. “And remember. Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids, because, trust me, there will always be some clown sitting in the back—somewhere by the radiator—who will raise his fat, flipperlike hand and complain, ‘No, no, you’ve got it all wrong.’”

This is how we meet Marisha Pessl’s unusual and wonderful narrator, Blue van Meer, and Blue’s father, in Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The instant we begin, we are caught up in her voice, her way of thinking, and the rhythm of her story. Whether she appeals to you immediately, the way she did me, or not, you can’t mistake her for anyone else.

Blue is different from the stereotypical teenage girl in so many ways that the only way to tell her story is to absolutely, 100 percent own her way of seeing. This is also what you must do for any book that you write, whatever the genre and whatever the perspective.

You need to own the voice, the tone, and Continue reading

The End Makes the Best Beginning

The End Makes the Best Beginning

boy crossing race finish line with his arms in the air to celebrate

The End! CC image “Mike to Mike Half Marathon” courtesy of Fort Bragg on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Most of your readers will start reading your book at the beginning. That doesn’t mean you should start writing there.

The beginnings of books are notoriously tough to pin down. So much rides on those first pages, even the first sentences. Continue reading

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

closeup of outline or mind map diagram

CC image “mind map” courtesy of madstreetz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Little divides writers as much as whether they should write a book outline or not. These two big categories are the pantsers, and the planners.

The planners, as you might expect, begin with a plan. They decide what they are going to write about, in what order the story should unfold, the main points they want to hit, and they typically create a detailed outline. Then, they write according to this plan.

Pantsers discover the story and the book as they go. Though they typically start out with an idea of what they want—the beginning and ending are common anchors—they don’t know, as they begin, how they’re going to get to the end. They “fly by the seat of their pants.”

Planners think of pantsers as disorganized and chaotic, and pantsers think of planners as rigid and unimaginative. Both these assessments are true and false in equal measure. Continue reading

Writing About Real People: Making sure they don’t hate you or sue you after you publish

Writing About Real People: Making sure they don’t hate you or sue you after you publish

old word processing keyboard with Ooops button. writing mistakes

You don’t want to feel this way about your story. CC image “Oops.” courtesy of Marcin Wichary on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writers of all stripes constantly draw from real life. Nonfiction and memoir material obviously depend on real people, and even fictional characters are drawn from what we know and have experienced. The question is: How much “real” information can we include in our work? Is there a limit, and if so, where is it? Can we use real names? What is OK to say, and how can we be both respectful and legally safe while maintaining truth and honesty in our work?

Not everyone is happy to find themselves portrayed in a book. Our writing has real-world consequences, some of them less pleasant than an uncomfortable holiday meal after we’ve aired our family’s dirty laundry to the world. There may be legal ramifications. Below I discuss best practices for writing about real people and factual events.

Note, this post is meant as a guideline ONLY. I am not a legal professional and in no way does the following constitute legal advice. Also, this article is not about journalism or journalistic ethics and obligations. If you have a question, please consult a legal professional.

Real-world effects of writing about real people

Negative fallout from telling real stories falls into one of two categories: people who never speak to us again, and people who sue us. Both of these are frightening for different reasons, although people who sue us can have a vastly broader impact on our lives.

And negative fallout typically comes because we share less-than-flattering stories. Let’s face it: if we’re being outrageously complimentary, who’s going to object to that? Legally speaking, compliments are a non-issue, while real or perceived insults need our more careful attention.

If you’re wondering whether you might face difficulties when you talk about real people, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can your portrayal be seen as unfavorable or slanderous?
  • Are you lying or being “malicious”?
  • Can the characters be readily identified by name or other characteristics?

Writing that is respectful and legally safe

Sometimes unhappy stories are the reason for your work in the first place. If you’re writing a memoir about overcoming a tough chapter from your life, that tough story is probably necessary. In nonfiction, real-life examples are important. If you’re writing fiction, your characters need to grow, change, and face obstacles, otherwise there is no book—and real experiences are great sources of fictional narrative.

In all cases, you need to maintain truth and honesty. However, this doesn’t mean you need to drag a specific person through the mud. Be respectful—even if you feel certain people don’t deserve it.

Think about the larger ramifications of what you’re sharing: what serves the story you want to tell? Do you need to identify your boss Jim by name, description, and personal habits? Or do you need to convey how his behavior affected you personally?

Strategies for how to write about real people in your book

Some writers are so concerned about reactions to their book that they wait until the affected people die before publishing. This is one way to avoid offending anyone and having them sue you, but it doesn’t suit everyone and I encourage you to explore other options.

Get permission.

This is the simplest way to include real information about real people. Get written permission from them to use it. Now, you may argue that this isn’t necessarily easy, but easy and simple are two different things.

Change the character name and other identifying characteristics.

You probably don’t want to name your awful character after your boss Jim. Re-naming your characters (whether real or fictional) is an obvious first step. Since we can identify people by more than names, make sure you also change other details, such as physical characteristics, habits, personal interests and hobbies, and so on.

Here’s where being honest to the story comes in. Fiction writers may have an easier time with this concept than nonfiction writers. Say Jim is obsessive: great, do we need him to obsess about baseball scores, the way live Jim does? How about making him a fiend for a perfectly mowed lawn?

Create composite characters.

Use professional back story from one person, the obsessive personality traits from another, a love of gardenias from a third, and so on. Jim could be a lawn-mowing-obsessed female mathematician. You get the idea. Use multiple real-life figures so that the new composite doesn’t match any one person. You can be faithful to the character’s agency in the story without insulting someone you hope to have Thanksgiving dinner with, or inspiring an erstwhile colleague to drag you to court.

The bottom line

Best practices to keep yourself safe and respectful, while staying true to the story that you need to tell, include asking yourself how unflattering your portraits are, how recognizable your characters are (or need to be), and whether you are making your characters ugly and stupid out of spite. Ask yourself: what serves the story? Get permission to speak about people if you can, and respect their privacy by changing identifying details that are not relevant to the lesson or insight that you want to share.

The legal ramifications of talking about real people in your book can be more complicated than you think. When in doubt, please do seek professional advice.

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What are some of your concerns when you write about real people?

Books to Inspire Writers

Books to Inspire Writers

word map using inspiration and related terms

CC image “Inspiration” courtesy of photosteve101 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

During this week when the word “love” is in the air—for all kinds of reasons, some of them commerce, I mean, Hallmark—I played on social media with the theme “book love.” I even used that hashtag (#booklove) on Twitter.

Now, Seth Godin I am not, though the idea got me thinking. None of us works in a void. As writers, we are inspired and guided by what we read. Writing well means reading. Some of what we read may be didactic—The Elements of Style, for example, or, in my case, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. Most of what inspires us does so because of what it is: good writing, a good story, characters we can’t let go of, the voice of an author that we recognize and admire.

In keeping with the spirit of #booklove, below are starting points for writing reference and inspiration. Honestly, this list is individual to me, and could go on forever. My hope is you’ll see a little of what you are looking for, when you write. Continue reading