About all those writing rules that everyone should follow …

So a couple weeks ago now a friend of mine made an observation on Twitter:

And that, combined with some other recent twitter discourse, makes me want to repeat my response to Danielle a bit louder, and a bit longer.

The thing is, writing advice isn’t one size fits all.

Except it’s like math: they start of telling you that you can’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number. You just can’t. If you’re kid who pipes up about negative numbers, they shush you until the curriculum says that it’s information you’re allowed to receive. “Don’t confuse the other kids!” (That may have been the last time in my life I was actually ahead of the other kids concerning mathematical knowledge.)

Here’s another elementary school memory that resonates: in second grade we had to write storybooks with a partner. Stephanie and I wrote about a bunny who went on an adventure to a strange land and then came home and … I don’t remember exactly what, but it was very Hero’s Journey of the little rabbit. We even included dialogue to prove we’d learned all the punctuation rules.

But I remember Mrs. Knitz reading it and telling us that we couldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (In this case it was “and.”) So we had to erase our carefully-penciled text and cover up the weird gap it left.

It goes beyond learning the rules so you can break them.

More recently – I guess this post is a bunch of anecdotes – I had someone tell me that you have to learn the rules before you can break them because I said I don’t know the beats of Save the Cat. The internet’s a weird place, and you don’t always know who you’re talking to. I’m sure they meant it for the best. But I had to point out that some of us learned the rules before the original Save the Cat was published in 2005.

And yes, it’s important to know the expectations of the genre you’re writing. That’s really the whole point of a genre: it tells audiences what they can expect. It helps us pick the thing we want to engage with next. Some days you’re in the mood for horror, and others you just want a romantic comedy. The third-act misunderstanding (and maybe a breakup) is absolutely expected and necessary, but so is that happily ever after (or at least a happily-for-now).

Can you mess with generic formats? Yes, but. That’s getting complicated beyond what I’m trying to say here. Hold on to your knowledge of negative numbers until the rest of the class is ready to learn.

The point I’m trying to make is that there are all sorts of rules about how to write.

You get grammar and punctuation and formatting rules. You get genre- and format-specific rules. If you take a class, you get instructor-specific rules. (I had one in college who was obsessed with food. Your characters had to eat something, and it was always meaningful.) Pick up a book on writing and get a few more rules.

So now we’re circling back to Danielle’s lament that a very common writing rule doesn’t work for her. And my response:

I think I’ve generally seen it as “Don’t edit while you write … if it’s going to bog you down and stop you from making progress.” Or maybe I’ve just always added the second bit in myself?

Danielle agreed that yes, that’s the context, but it’s also the quiet bit. That’s the kid trying to tell the teacher that yes, you can subtract a bigger number from a smaller number, because negative numbers are a thing! They exist!

Writing advice is some big blanket statement that someone (presumably with authority) makes to some sort of audience. If you’re in a classroom, the speaker has a better chance of knowing that audience, but even then you don’t know everything about everyone. You don’t know where someone is in their writing journey or how many years they’ve spent honing their craft, or how, with which books or which trends, so really it’s just easier to make big proclamations.

And miss the nuance of the quiet part.

Writer, know thyself.

Yes, you should know the rules and expectations. You’re entering into a conversation as a writer and not just existing in some sort of void. (That might be my They Say, I Say college composition syllabus coming through, considering I taught it for years.) You do need to know how you fit and what various people are going to expect.

But.

The point of writing is the writing. And the reason so many of us talk about writing is because we’re not going to be relevant to everyone. And even then we’re not going to be relevant to someone on every project. Writing, and writers, continually evolve as they read and write and engage and revise and daydream and scrap and edit and polish.

So: you don’t have to take every piece of writing advice someone hands you. If you think it’s going to work (for you), then absolutely put it in your pocket. If you’re skeptical, you might stick it in a drawer of your desk to pull out when everything else seems to have stalled.

Or you can chuck it in the circular file if, instead of helping you get words on the page, it’s going to stop you completely.


In the interest of those of you who already know about negative numbers: yes, this changes when you’re working with an editor or an agent who suggests changes or a publishing house that has its own style rules. There are always exceptions. But, like my math teachers, you have to start somewhere.


What “writing rule” can you never seem to follow? Do you even try anymore, or is it something you’ve decided you don’t actually need?

First Draft Rebecca

I’ve been working on revising a novel I drafted during NaNoWriMo in 2019. I picked it up again recently, read it, and thought “Hey, I still really like this. I could probably do something with it.” So here I am, working through it.

I’ve talked a bit about rough drafts before (see Do your rough drafts ever get less rough? or “Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product” or Remember to look back) but I think it’s a good topic to revisit. You learn different things about yourself with each project, and you learn new things about yourself with each revision. And I think it’s helpful for writers at all levels to talk about their current process and just … share a bit about what goes on behind the scenes.

First Draft Rebecca can’t be bothered with limiting POVs

The first draft is in third person and I didn’t limit myself to using only certain characters. I was just trying to get the story down and follow it through to the end, so if I wanted to know what was happening over there more than halfway through the story, even though I’d never used one of those characters as a POV character yet … it didn’t matter. I hopped into their head and figured things out from there.

My first step was transferring the manuscript scene by scene from Word to Scrivener, which I wasn’t using at all back then. (2019 seems like eons ago.) While I was doing that, I labeled the scene’s POV – or double labeled it, if it was written from Z’s point of view, but X or Y was there. In the rewrite I’m limiting things to two POVs.

This means losing a lot. First off, the new, cut document was about 25,000 words shorter than my initial draft. But what about those scenes? The tension I created by jumping back and forth at crucial points, leaving things hanging?

Well. A lot of those darlings are dead. Or, at least, left behind in the first draft. I’ll figure out how to work around them, and then I’ll be one of only a handful of people who could tell you there’s something missing.

First Draft Rebecca likes to repeat herself

So first, remember that NaNoWriMo means writing your first draft at top speed, aiming for 50,000 words in 30 days. I … didn’t. 2019 was the year I hit 50k on November 3, which is why I went on to push myself to hit 50k in two days in 2020. (Spoiler alert: I did, but it also hurt my hands, and I’m never doing it that quickly again. A fact my writing group reminds me of every late October.)

When you’re drafting quickly, just trying to get the story down, you’re bound to repeat yourself. Overemphasize the things you’re pretty sure are going to be important. Reuse cool lines because honestly you can’t remember if you already wrote it, or just thought of writing it.

The first draft is basically a mess.

The second draft is where you go and gather together the fragments of the explosion and figure out what it is you did, and make it look like that was what you always meant to do.

Neil Gaiman

I think I’ve said before that I have friends who plot things out completely before writing them, but I am not one of these people. I’m definitely the explosion first draft type, and this second round helps me get rid of a lot of things – extraneous POVs, unnecessary repetition – but also add some things in: foreshadowing, since now I know how it’s going. The sort of repetition I want, because it matters for the characters and the story.

First Draft Rebecca is just excited to find out what happens in the end

One of the things I really like about NaNo is that speed: just keep writing. Don’t go back and edit. Keep pushing forward and see what happens.

Even when I try to plot something, I come to the end of what I’ve plotted and discover there’s still more story left over. I did that with Not Your Mary Sue – I’d plotted what happened in Part I and then a short epilogue. The book would’ve been about half the length it is now. But, once I got to the end of Part I, I felt like I couldn’t just leave Marcy there. I had to keep going.

My current revision is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. I love reading them (Robin McKinley‘s even written more than one) and I had more than one idea myself. I started with one and figured that would be the book, but then … the other idea rose up again, and the book kept going. It turned into two different Beauty and the Beast stories, swapping out roles somewhere around the middle.

I’d planned that first one, but the second was just me hanging on for the ride and seeing where things go.

… which doesn’t save First Draft Rebecca from the murky middle

It’s also called the muddy middle, or the saggy middle, but it doesn’t matter who you ask – the middle is a sticking point. It’s that transition between “what Rebecca thought the story was going to be about” and “what the story told Rebecca it wanted to be about.” It’s the part I’m editing right now, and yes, it’s murky. And muddy. And it sags. So there’s more cutting in the future as I put my characters on a much more direct path to their endings, but …

It’s fixable. That’s the good news. The best news, maybe.

And I’m excited about it, because this time I know how it ends, so I have a much better idea of how to get there. First Draft Rebecca has her issues, but she managed to get all of this down and figure out the plot.


All that being said, this book may never see the light of day. But the process of writing and revising is good practice, even if it doesn’t. Hey, at this point only one of my novels has been read beyond my little circle, so this is the same sort of thing I’ve been doing for a couple decades now: writing and revising because it’s actually rather fun, and because I like seeing how everything comes out, for the characters and for me.

Do you have any first draft quirks you leave for Second Draft You to deal with? Are any of them the same as mine?

this one’s for the writers

Since Not Your Mary Sue has been out for three weeks now (ahhhh!) there have been reviews being posted in various places that clearly mark it as a “debut novel” or “first book.” Which it totally is. All my other published books have been nonfiction, and this is where a bunch of people are encountering me for the first time. So this has nothing to do with the word choice of anyone kind enough to read my book and post about it – you’re factually correct. Not Your Mary Sue is my first published novel. But I want to offer a clarification for the writers out there.

It’s not actually my first novel.

I didn’t start off writing like this.

I started, the way many people do, with fanfiction. Some of that probably still even exists out there somewhere, under one of my old screennames, but I never had more than a handful of readers. Which was fine – I wrote because I had fun writing, not because of the praise. That was in junior high, which was … yeesh … over two decades ago.

Then, when I was 15, I wrote my first “novel,” which I talk about a bit in this post. I printed off a couple copies and one of them actually made the rounds of my classmates a couple years later – I let one person borrow it and it got passed around and people I barely knew mentioned it to me in the hall. Which was weird and kind of scary, but obviously didn’t scare me off writing completely.

In my post about failure I go into how many novels I haven’t finished – how many ideas I started but never quite figured out a full plot arc for. That’s where I get my 10:1 ratio of “started documents to completed novels.” And at 87 partial efforts, I’ve clearly written more than one novel.

Some people end up publishing the first novel they ever wrote.

It can be their first published novel or, as in the case of Stephen King, their novels can be published “out of order.” Carrie was his first published novel in 1974, but he wrote The Long Walk when he was only 18. (Granted, he wasn’t ancient or anything when Carrie came out, but still.) The point is that King had completed other novels, tried to find interested publishers, and then laid them aside as he wrote new ones and tried again.

And that’s the situation with me: Not Your Mary Sue isn’t the first novel I ever wrote. By a long shot. I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – that challenge to draft a 50,000-word novel in a single month – since 2010, including the two extra “camp” months since 2011, and that’s added a lot of “novels” to my list. But I didn’t write Not Your Mary Sue until 2017, and it was around that time that NaNo reported I’d logged a million words on their site.

You have to write a million words before you find your voice as a writer.

Henry Miller

I doubt Miller meant a hard-and-fast million, and my NaNo stats are missing more than a decade of what I’d written prior to joining up my first November, but that’s where things stood for me: I’d written over a million words by the time I sat down to start Not Your Mary Sue (and I’ve written who knows how many since then). My current NaNo lifetime stats stand at 3,011,716 words.

It’s not about the word count – it’s about perseverence.

Writing a little bit each day adds up. Tossing an idea aside when it’s not working, but then picking up a different idea, adds up. Going back to one of those previous ideas (tossed aside but not into the garbage) adds up.

Not Your Mary Sue both is and isn’t my first novel. It’s only my first published novel because I kept going – I kept reading, kept revising, and kept writing. What you hold in your hands isn’t anywhere near a first draft, and it shows all the decades of experience behind it. All those words add up.


Do you have any tips for authors looking to push through that “first million”? How do you keep writing when it all feels like an uphill struggle?

going to the faucet

So we already know that I don’t actually write every day, as in putting pen to paper or my fingers on the keyboard 365 days a year, and I’ve written a bit about my writing schedule previously, but I wanted to add a sort of real-time musing update on this.

Yesterday the thought of writing made me groan. All of my emotions on the subject were “Nope.” Even though – or maybe even “because” – I’d written a bunch the day before that. I’m working on revising a project, which in this case basically means starting over from zero, and that’s not always something you want to do. Really it’s just one more reason to dig in your heels, pout, and say you’re not writing today.

But, since I’ve started actively working on this project, I figured I’d do it. Pout and all. I made some coffee and told myself I’d stare at the cursor for half an hour and then get breakfast.

I didn’t end up eating breakfast yesterday. I got working and didn’t look up for a couple hours.

So the moral to the story …

Here’s the thing: I’ve been writing for over two decades at this point, and I still can’t guess at which days hold the words and which days don’t. The wordful days are sometimes obvious (is that in the Newspeak dictionary?) but the unwordful days are frequently liars. Surprisingly frequently.

This sort of thing even pops up in my Facebook memories from time to time. “Yesterday I wrote a ton of words. Today I sat down thinking I just need a dozen, okay, please? And ended up writing two tons.”

It’s unpredictable.

So really, you do just have to turn the faucet on and see what comes out. I don’t particularly want to get all It in this post, but you don’t actually know what’s waiting (blood or water?) or what else might be down there in the sewers. Georgie Denbrough might tell you not to look, but we’re writers. We’re curious. And that second, oft-unspoken part of the famous cat phrase is “but satisfaction brought it back.

And okay, we’re talking about the magical wordful faucet and not the thing on your bathroom sink. Some days the faucet is rusty and refuses to turn, or somehow it’s grown tall and is nearly out of reach. Maybe it feels like it’s hot enough to burn if we touch it, or it’s shrunk down to Borrowers size and we’re more likely to step on it and break it.

It’s one sneaky, changeable faucet, but we still need to turn that sucker on.

And the thing is, I don’t think I’m being entirely negative here. There are some days when the faucet is shiny and bright and I can’t even conceive of a spider hiding in the sink, but … those are rare. Off the top of my head, I can think of two (fiction) pieces that demanded to be written and wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t turn the sucker off if I wanted to. Two, in two decades.

That’s a lot of forcing myself to the faucet.

But I go. I go because – as Stephen King apparently is the only one to remember Alfred Bester ever saying – “The book is the boss.” (Seriously, a Google search for the quote plus Bester’s name gets you a whole page of King quoting Bester, and who clicks onto the second page?)

The book wants to be told, and it’s not like anyone else is going to tell it. If it’s going to be written – if I want to find out what happens – I need to write it myself.

Go to the dang faucet. Turn it on. See what comes out.

And keep going, day after day, until you get enough.

If you’re lucky, I think, you won’t ever get enough.


Is your writing like turning on Louis L’Amour’s faucet, or do you see it differently? Does your faucet work better than mine? Have you ever had something entirely unexpected come out?

the overthinking of the author

The other day I was listening to someone talk about a book and they did something interesting. This was a public talk, timed and with an audience and everything, and it’s entirely possible that this was one of those mistakes you make on the fly and have to push through because hey, it’s a public talk, so I’m not being vague to be coy – it’s because I don’t know for sure that this was a conscious choice or an interesting verbal slip.

The speaker mentioned how an author said that the events in a specific book had been based in part on his own personal experience, as related in a past interview. In the book, though, it’s a woman that gets put in that position instead of a man, and with far worse consequences. The speaker said that the author put his wife in his place, and then continued to refer to the character as “author’s wife” instead of “character’s name.”

It’s possible the speaker blanked on the character’s name. I think we’ve all been there – we’re sure we know our stuff, but once the clock starts ticking and we’re confronted with all those faces (or black zoom windows), it all disappears. But, intentional or not, it got me thinking about the assumptions that particular naming practice implies. (And of course got me musing some more on the death of the author and who gets to argue which interpretation is true.)

First possible assumption: if a character isn’t the same gender as the author, then it’s totally not the author.

The speaker framed that part clearly: he experienced this thing in real life but then transferred that experience to the wife character instead of the husband character. The husband shared some characteristics with the author – all well and good – but the underlying assumption here was that the wife wasn’t the author, at all. She was The Wife, very much separate and other from him, and he put The Wife in his own real-life situation rather than putting himself in her shoes.

On the one hand, author surrogates are a recognized thing. But on the other, authors have stated that they put pieces of themselves in all of their characters. So do we have to limit the author-self within a piece of fiction to one single character that is him, and all of these other characters who aren’t? (Spoiler: I don’t think so.)

I’m not going to get into a full discussion here of whether authors can realistically write other genders, but I think part of humanizing our characters does mean giving pieces of ourselves to each of them. One of them might be the most me, but all of them are a little bit me.

Second possible assumption: characters who have real-life counterparts in the author’s life are automatically reflections of those counterparts.

In this case, it’s wife: the author had a wife, and one of the main characters was a wife. Therefore, the wife is the wife is the wife.

Back when my dad was reading the first draft of Not Your Mary Sue, there were certain points where I felt compelled to remind him that the dad in the story is not, in fact, him. (Not all of those scenes made it to the final draft, in case you’re curious – I’ll write more about that after the book comes out.) So clearly I’m aware that this is an assumption that can be made, and that a young woman writing a first-person point of view of a young woman can confuse the issue, but …

It becomes more problematic (to me) because the Book Wife had done some seriously morally questionable things. The book clearly positioned these as issues and then, like fiction can, punishes her for them. So are we supposed to assume that Author Wife did the same things Book Wife did? If we’re already calling one by the other’s name, where do we draw the comparison line? Are they the same as long as the reader doesn’t personally have proof that they’re not?

Third possible assumption: authors really suck at hiding the biographical.

We’re back to “the wife is a wife.” There’s nothing tricky there. It’s a very direct point. Say the author wanted to criticize – and then punish – his wife for her real-life actions, so he wrote a wife character who did those same things and then added his own plot with the bad ending for the wife character. Therapy he gets to sell, maybe, and then everyone reading it is privy to the deepest inner workings of his marriage.

Personally I think the majority of authors are capable of being a lot more subtle about the whole self-insertion thing. There’s a reason we mock Mary Sues: they’re wish fulfilment and therefore perfection. Author surrogates (presumably written “well enough” to be literary instead of Mary Sues) remain complicated and messy, like real people.

In my example, the author himself gave an interview explaining how an incident from his own past inspired the situation he wrote about, and the trouble he dropped his wife character into. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, really: this happened to me, so I dropped it into my book. The complication apparently springs from the fact that he didn’t make the bad thing happen to the me-figure, but the wife-figure.

At this point I can’t tell if the author stayed too close to real life, and that’s the trouble, or if switching the figure in peril is what’s causing the issue. But I will say that it’s something I do all the time: drop in real-life events or snippets or tidbits into the plot, regardless of how much “me” the character is, as long as they fit. If my novels are grounded in real life, then why not use my own real life as inspiration?


Okay so if nothing else, at this point you’ve learned that I can overthink anything. A simple verbal slip has me pondering all the author/character/reader interpretations all this time later. Do fiction authors interpret fiction different from readers who don’t also write fiction? Was it just a nervous speaker making a mistake? Or does this person know something we don’t about this particular book and its representations?

Here’s my question to you, whether you’re an author or a reader: how much do you think we can read into those kinds of characters? What’s fair, and what’s completely over-the-top?

Musings on unsolved crimes, inspired by the Writing Community Chat Show

I was on The Writing Community Chat Show last week – here’s a link to the episode – as part of a panel of authors. Panel talks are cool but also challenging: you want to talk, but you don’t want to go on and on and make it all about you, or cut in if someone else has something to say, or veer back if the topic’s already moved on. So, for instance, when a really cool question comes up … you don’t always get to answer it.

But this blog is all about me, so I’m answering it here.

When considering True Crime, how important is it to the guests that the crime is solved? Are there any unsolved crimes that intrigue and have inspired the panel?

Darren Pengelly

First, thank you, Darren, because I love this question. I could go on for hours about it. So it’s probably good other people jumped in and we moved on.

The thing about true crime is that, as a genre, it loves crimes that have been solved. When Ann Rule signed the contract to write about “the Ted Murders,” she knew she wouldn’t be getting it published until after there’d been a trial and sentencing. The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980, after Bundy had been found guilty of two murders, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of burglary. It came out quickly enough that an update needed to be added when he received his third death sentence for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but it still wasn’t sent to print until Bundy had been found guilty.

True crime likes stories that get wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. It’s all about the solved cases and the plucky law enforcement agents who went toe-to-toe with the cunning criminals and came out on top. True crime doesn’t like unsolved cases or systemic problems that can’t be pinned on a single person in a catchy mug shot.

Okay, there are some exceptions.

Says the woman who’s written two books on Jack the Ripper. But, in that case, the Ripper isn’t still out there, ready to murder anyone reading a book about him. (Imagine the Golden State Killer reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before he was finally caught. That’s the premise for Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man. The Golden State Killer didn’t actually go on to murder because of the book, but in that case, it was a possibility. He hadn’t been caught. Not enough time had passed to be sure he was dead.) But the Ripper was in 1888, he only killed poor East End sex workers, and he’s dead by now – all layers of safety between the Ripper and the average true crime reader.

If someone writes about an ongoing crime that’s unfolding right now – say, a serial killer – then there’s not that barrier. Maybe, like the Green River killer, there’s a clear victim type and readers can assure themselves that they don’t fit it. If we don’t get into cars with strangers, and never go out after dark, and always take a buddy, and learn self-defense, and message our friends to tell them where we are, and check in with each other, then we won’t be the next victim.

That’s what true crime wants us to believe, and it’s so much harder when there’s an unsolved case out there. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, and the Monster of Florence are the exceptions that prove the rule. Two of them aren’t even American, and we all know America likes to think it’s the world leader in serial killers, both having them and catching them.

Considering Ripper’s Victims and Media and the Murderer (and the whole Jack the Ripper tag on my blog) I probably don’t have to go on too much about any unsolved cases that particularly influence me, but I’d like to mull on a related topic for a moment:

What about unsolved crimes in fiction?

This is where it gets tricky. We like fiction because it doesn’t have to follow real-life examples. We can add a full narrative structure, including a proper beginning and an end, the way we do when telling stories about our own lives, but we don’t actually live in a narrative structure. (Narrative theory was one of my three comprehensive exam areas. Can you tell?) We try to make real life into stories, but we’re often restricted by details like evidence and proof. If we’re making the story up, though …

I do think there’s a difference between a character solving the case and the audience knowing the answer. It could be that the main characters have to give up, for whatever reason, before finding the solution. Or, like was mentioned during the chat, there could be a Hitchcockian suspense scenario where the audience knows the killer early on but can only watch as the main character tries to figure it out. That dual cat-and-mouse layer features in true crime: the police hunt the killer hunts the victims. It’s like one of those math problems where two trains are moving at different speeds toward a destination and you have to calculate how long it’ll be before one overtakes the other.

I’m thinking of things like the Lincoln Rhyme series where you can have a character like The Watchmaker who gets identified as the criminal … but not truly identified. He’s the Moriarty or the Big Bad, Rhyme’s intellectual equal and therefore more than capable of keeping out of the clutches of the police. Even the “real” name they come up with for him might not be right, and he’s been behind some of the single-book bad guys who don’t get to come back for a curtain call. The case isn’t solved in a legal sense, since he’s never put on trial and sentenced, but Rhyme knows. And the readers know.

It’s not like The Colorado Kid, which might be the only completely unsolved fictional mystery that I’ve read. Stephen King wrote a book about how frustrating it is for a crime to be a true unsolved mystery, with an unsolved mystery at its center. The main characters even say multiple times that it’s not a story, not exactly, because there’s not a single mysterious element and a single “must-have-been.” A man from Colorado ended up dead on an island off the coast of Maine with a Russian coin in his pocket and a bite of steak caught in his throat. And … that’s about it.

You don’t even know for sure that it was a crime, or just a very weird accidental death. There’s enough to make you think that yes, you’re missing a lot of the pieces, but even the characters who have spent decades knowing the story haven’t been able to find them. It’s an incredibly frustrating story that isn’t really helped by the fact that the characters let you know from the start that it won’t be neatly tied up with a bow. You’re right there with Stephanie as she hears the story for the first time, asks questions, and keeps running up against the fact that there aren’t any answers.

And honestly, it’s probably something only a household name could get published on a grand scale, because that’s not what we want from our fiction, is it? It doesn’t matter if Stephanie and the two older reporters don’t know the full backstory for the Colorado Kid, but King doesn’t even relent and let Constant Reader in on it. We just get to the end and think “Wait did I just waste my time reading that or …?”


Have you read any fiction that deals with an unsolved crime that remains unsolved at the end of the book? Did it feel like a waste of time? Do you think all crime fiction needs to be solved in order to fit the genre? Share your thoughts!

[Galinda voice] Popular!

I’ve been musing about this lately and today seemed like a good time to bring it out. What do I post? What should I continue to post? If the purpose of posting is to get engagement and eyes on my work, how do I judge what’s worth posting? Maybe my posts seem eclectic and weird and you wonder why.

Maybe when you look at my blog you see my posts about writing and wonder why I keep scattering in the true crime stuff. Sure, someone who writes about true crime would be able to do both, but why keep it up?

I get the most interaction – likes and comments – on my writing posts.

I get the most views on the true crime stuff.

For example, I’m pretty sure there was a school in Britain asking students to search for a specific Ripper suspect last week, because man, the views were up. Interaction, no, but views? My most-viewed pages are all Ripper- and Holmes-related.

Let’s take a step back and ask why I started a website and blog in the first place.

Drumroll, please: to build a platform. (Yes, that’s probably the most common answer.) To give people a place to come if they wanted to talk to me or learn a little more about me (before buying my books, of course). So I want that engagement, and I want those views, and it would be so nice if I found the magic formula that let me get both on the same post, but … we’re all out here doing our best.

And figuring out how to stay true to ourselves, of course. I’ve got books out about the Ripper and Holmes, so this is what I know. I’ve got the background knowledge and still, somehow, after all these years, the interest. So when it comes time to whip up another blog post or two, true crime and writing are easy topics. I care about them, and I think it shows in writing whether or not someone’s actually interested in their own subject.

But you can’t determine your own popularity.

One of my posts got a surge of hits (and still continues to see some action) because it was mentioned in a Smithsonian Magazine article about Holmes. I couldn’t plan for that. And that weird peak on one of the Ripper’s victims from last week? No idea where it came from, either. (For the record, it was Charles Allen Lechmere.) You don’t get to pick your own best work.

Right now I’ve got a thread over on Twitter that’s totally blowing up my notifications.

I posted it on a whim yesterday because I was frogging – ripping out – an old project that just wasn’t wearable. Beautiful, yes, but a shrug that won’t stay on your shoulders and just keeps falling off and hanging from the cuffs around your wrists isn’t useful in keeping your arms and shoulders warm. I knit it three years ago, wore it once, and left it in a pile of things.

So when I started undoing it, I documented the process with photos in a twitter thread. I don’t usually do twitter threads. Maybe I was in a weird mood yesterday. I figured my followers would see it, if the algorithm let them, and that would be that. But instead it’s blowing up my phone with notifications.

Why this? Why not my novel or my true crime or something I’d really love 15,000 people to see within 18 hours?

Because we don’t get to pick the things that blow up. The things that get likes and comments over the things that get over a hundred views in a single day … and no likes or comments.

Look, I’m glad it’s helpful. I’m glad people are seeing a part of knitting they’ve never considered before, or getting the push to frog their own projects, reclaim the yarn, and knit something they’ll love and wear. (I’m less glad at the people who, hours later, are insisting I should’ve kept the original because it’s beautiful. Yes, thank you, it was, but first off it was literally useless, and second, it’s my time we’re talking about. If I want to tear out my own work, that’s my decision. Hmph.)

But the thing is, once you post something, it’s out of your hands. Once you write something and put it out into the world, it’s not just yours anymore. Yes, you have an intention, but the readers can turn it into something else.

Writing is rhetoric. (Did you know I’ve got a PhD in rhetoric?) Rhetoric doesn’t end with the author, and it doesn’t matter if the author cries or laughs or any of that while writing or giving a speech. If you recall your rhetorical triangle, the audience makes up one whole side. Without them, it collapses. If the audience laughs or cries while engaging with the text (and if it’s the reaction the rhetor wanted to elicit), then it’s a successful piece of communication.

So things can fail. You can tell a joke that falls flat, or write what you think is a heart-wrenching scene and get told your beta readers only yawned. The audience can take the text and turn it into something you never anticipated.

So what can you do?

Write what you love. Or, as Chuck Wendig puts it a bit more colorfully:

I wanna read the book that pops out of your goddamn chest like a goddamn baby Xenomorph. No matter how many Tums you have taken. No matter how many guests you have at your dinner table. You cannot contain it. It’s just — oops, splurch, sorry, that book just kicked open my breastbone like a set of saloon doors and oh, shit, here it is, flinging itself into the room.

Yes, you’re probably writing to a schedule at the same time, with due dates and deadlines and all the rest, but … honestly, that authenticity of writing the Xenomorph is what tends to rise to the surface. My twitter thread of just me messing around? Authentic me. I was doing the thing. Something I’ve done multiple times before, but never documented, and I thought maybe it would be interesting to a handful of people.

And it’s nice to get the validation, don’t get me wrong. I totally wonder why all those people reading those posts don’t even click on the like button, but I know I’ve hit on something good when I get almost as many likes as views, even when those numbers are lower. But I like the kinds of things I post, and at least it’s reason enough to keep posting the different things, reaching different people.

And maybe finding even more who also like my Xenomoprh.

If you’ve got a blog, how long did it take you to feel like you got “into the groove” and found your niche? Does anyone ever really feel that way? Is this an imposter syndrome thing again?

current state of the (nonfiction) manuscript

I don’t often talk about my in-progress writing, except, whenever I do, it’s with other people who are also writing (or trying to write) and it’s a useful conversation for both of us. It’s also something I see less of when it comes to nonfiction/academic writing. I don’t think that’s just because I hang out with a bunch of creative writers, since it didn’t even really happen in grad school. We had to take that class and buy Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, but … that was kind of it.

I’m also going to be all superstitious and secret about the actual content of this project, for the record. Partly because hyping it all up and then still having to write it feels like knitting the second sock (I don’t knit socks because I have to do the exact same thing twice) and partly because … well of course my ideas are so good you’ll want to steal them. Right? [Insert sweat smile emoji here]

So this week I picked up a draft I’d started back in November. When it grows up, it’s going to be a book, maybe 80,000-90,000 words. I haven’t really touched this one since the end of last year. It was about 33,000 words when I opened it up again to see what, exactly, I’d been trying to say.

Since it’s nonfiction, I’ve got the whole outline established. (This is in direct opposition to my fiction drafting.) All of the chapters are there, and even major headings within the chapters. Perfect.

I’ve been out of my normal routine for a while, so I wanted to re-establish that and make some realistic goals. Now in the past I have drafted academic writing at 5,000 words a day, every day, with no breaks, until it was done. That’s how I wrote Surviving Stephen King, for example, but a side note there: that was in April 2020, when I could pour all my emotions into my writing and let it distract me, and I’d just quit my job to write full time anyway, and I didn’t have any freelance work just yet. I’d also been researching King academically since 2014 and reading him longer than that. So. 5k/day was not a realistic goal for this past week.

I settled on a couple guidelines:

  • 1,000-2,000 words a day for all 5 weekdays
  • sit down to write by 10am

It looks so innocuous and simple, doesn’t it? But let me also explain why these were my goals.

First, like I said, I know I can produce 5k words a day. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally possible. I’ve done it before. But that was then, and this is now. It’s a different book, a different topic, and I’m in a different place in my life.

Plus I’m coming back from a pretty long break. So. I wanted it to be realistic and achievable, but with a push. A push with breaks – weekends are still weekends. No need to go into burnout and frustrate myself trying to expand this draft.

As far as the “sit down by 10am,” I’ve got a couple things going on there. If I say “write from 10am until noon,” I might not get my word count goal. If I get up early, then I don’t really want to force myself to sit around until 10am to start. My sleep is something I try to put into my schedule, but it doesn’t always happen when I want it to, so some flexibility is good. Start by 10, check. Can do.

I’ve also clearly got that time free to schedule as I want – some of my freelance work is at specific times – and I know what time of day I’m most likely to be productive. So the point is to set myself up for success as much as possible, but also to show up and get my butt in the desk chair even when I don’t feel like writing.

I’m still at the point in the draft where I can easily skip around and fill in different parts depending on what catches my attention the most. I like this part. Monday I worked on Chapter 7, Tuesday Chapter 6, Wednesday Chapter 3 … I’ll have to go back through and make sure things flow properly, sure, but I know where the blank spots are.

Here’s a tip:

One of the first things I did was skim through what I’d already written and add [more] at the places that still need something: a transition, a whole section, whatever. The highlight helps me scroll through the document and see where I still need to do some work, and I chose the brackets because I don’t use brackets within the text. This makes it easy to search and see exactly how many places I still have left to work on.

Some of them are small (a transition) and others are pretty big (the conclusion chapter), but that part doesn’t matter for me right now. The important thing is that I can easily tell where more work needs to be done, and I can fill in all of the 0ther [more]s before tackling the conclusion. That’ll save me from printing it out for what I think is a final proofread and realizing I’ve left out an entire section.

Now when I sit down at or before 10am to write at least a thousand words, I can search for the missing piece that grabs me the most and start there.

I also like the Pomodoro technique.

Some days it takes longer than others to write a thousand words, so that can seriously be an extended time when I’m trying to force myself to focus … and nothing else. So most days, and especially days when I feel sluggish and like there’s no way in heck I’m getting 10 words, much less a thousand, I’ll start the timer. 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Or I’ll use my Pomodoro – Focus Timer app (I paid the one-time fee and it’s totally been worth it for me) and set it to 15 minutes on and 5 minutes off.

For the record, when I use the app, I set my phone on a stand where I can see it count down. It helps me to know how much longer I have to force myself to focus, or how much longer I can be on Twitter, and I like how I can set it to automatically run. Once it starts, it’ll tell me when the focus session is over and I can take a break, or when the break is over and I can get back to work. There’s no messing with individual timers to switch back and forth between 5 and however long I’m focusing. I really only use it in the moment and don’t even look at my stats, but you can try the official 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off for free. It’s setting up your own timing that’s part of the paid app.

Otherwise, it’s really just one word at a time.

If I hit my minimum goal, that’s 5,000 new words this week. If I max out, that’s 10,000 new words. They’re not necessarily all keepers, no, but once again, you can’t edit a blank page. Right now I’m still in full rough draft mode: nobody ever has to see this. I’m just shoveling sand in the sandbox and telling myself the story. Once I get all of those [more]s filled in, I’ll have to switch gears and get into revision mode, but that’ll be a while yet.

Current state of the manuscript: rough draft, over half of the way there

the one about failure

All right, as promised (because I knew I could make myself write about this, but only if I’d actually put it out there): the failure stories. Okay. Honestly. Here we go.

*deep breath*

I actually feel pulled two ways about this. Some of my abandoned WIPs have gems buried in them: awesome phrases, sparkling dialogue, or a nugget of an idea that’s still worth pursuing. Others totally faltered for good reasons (mostly the reason being “I have no idea where I’m going with this”). But I think I’ve managed to hang on to at least 90% of them, so I can give you some actual numbers. (Even though I’m not sure I really want to look at the numbers myself.)

I wrote my first original “novel” in 2000, so in the past couple of decades …

I have 87 abandoned projects on record

Okay. I’m not sure if it hurts more or less to have the actual number written down like that. It works out to just under 4 abandoned projects a year, but in the cases where I’ve got the original dates, they totally group up. Some months I try and try and try and try and … nope.

Some of them are only a paragraph or two. Others are already tens of thousands of words (and I really want to know how they end, but … I still don’t). Many are variations on a theme, where I kept trying to find the proper path into the dark forest. For some of them, I eventually made it … after a dozen attempts. Others are just abandoned.

I’m not entirely sure why I saved them all, even if I’m grateful I did. Some were saved on a CD. Others were printed off and put into a three-ring binder. The more recent reside in the “nuggets” and “established beginnings” folders on my computer (with a sort of arbitrary line for when something’s long enough to become the second instead of the first).

And, if we compare my numbers with the titles in my “completed” folder, we’ve got 10:1 odds here.

For every plot arc I’ve completed, I’ve made 10 attempts

That’s just overall. Sometimes – the magic times – I complete a plot arc on the first attempt. Others take four or six or twelve false starts.

I think if I wanted to do more math I’d find that the ratio started out much higher and has come down over the years. I also don’t think it’ll ever be 1:1, but 3:1? Maybe. And I also think that’s only happening because I do keep trying.

I mean, aside from the obvious “You’ll never finish anything if you quit starting,” I like to think that bringing the ratio down is all part of the process. Maybe I’m finding myself more easily, or maybe I’m more wiling to circle the dark forest longer before trying to make my way in. And for me, finishing is the ultimate goal: getting a draft with a complete plot arc so I don’t flip the page years later and groan because it’s blank and I have no idea what happens next.

But I’m also really proud of Teenage Me for the fact that, despite the 20:1 or so ratio, I kept writing. Like I seriously want to go back and give myself a hug for it. I made repeated attempts and even kept the record of those attempts, even though it’s basically a record of failure. And that momentum has made it easier, or maybe even necessary, to keep saving everything like that. To keep on dropping breadcrumbs on my way.

So I’ve kept them, and every so often I’ll pull them out and go through them. I’ve even made lists of the lines that still strike me as good and the ideas that still intrigue me, just in case.

If I’m feeling very brave, I might even share some of those someday. (Right at this moment I’m not feeling very brave …)

When’s the last time you looked at your WIPs? How does your stack compare to mine?

To outline or not to outline: that is the question

I know I’ve already shared how I, personally, outline books – or, at least, how I outlined Ripper’s Victims specifically – but since I’ve also pointed out that each new project can feel like learning to write all over again (and since that first post is pretty darn old by now) I thought I’d come back to this question with a broader scope.

Yes, I outlined Ripper’s Victims using sticky notes before I ever started writing it. Yes, I’ve still got that poster board. And there are a lot of times I use sticky notes and poster boards to organize my ideas in the early phases, especially of nonfiction projects, but of course that’s not the only way.

I have friends who:

  • jump right into a project without any notes or outline or anything. She just sits down, goes “Hmmm,” and writes the first page. And it works. She’s written entire novels this way.
  • come to the first page with a pretty detailed world and the first couple scenes in mind, then see where that takes them.
  • outline everything very meticulously. And I mean very. To the point where it’s less of an outline and more … nearly-completed scenes. But she doesn’t like revising, and she can manage to keep up the energy not only of these outlines, but also then writing the book.

They’ve also all written more than one project, so these methods are the ones they’ve figured out to help them keep moving forward. It’s like Stephen King‘s “Write every day” advice (I wrote my own thoughts on that here): it works for him because he knows what doesn’t work for him. My outlining friend does so much work before “officially” writing because she’s seen what happens if she doesn’t. The friend who writes by the seat of her pants hasn’t had to change her method because it works for her.

And along with the “each project is new” aspect of it, I’ve also realize that – shock, I know – there are major differences between my nonfiction and my fiction approach.

I don’t outline my fiction with sticky notes.

Sorry. I should’ve warned you. That one’s probably a big shocker.

For Not Your Mary Sue, I don’t think I have any written notes … at all … before starting it for NaNoWriMo (at 12:01am November 1, because I’ll force myself to wait for November, but no longer). Even though the idea had been in my head since February that year.

I’d been thinking about Marcy, and her family, and her background, and how she’d react to waking up on that island, but I don’t have any character sheets written down. No timelines drawn out. I “cast” Jay in my head but I had even less on his background than Marcy’s.

Since it’s from Marcy’s POV, she was the one I needed to know better. I also knew Jay’s main goal would be talking and telling her all about himself, so … I figured that I’d be able to learn along with her. (Hey, it’s a first draft. Nobody ever has to see your first draft. If it crashed and burned, nobody ever had to know.)

And the thing is, the story I thought I’d be writing ended up being only about half of what actually came out. I saw where it could go, to a specific point, and assumed I’d then write a little tag scene to sort of wrap things up, but … the story didn’t want to be wrapped up there. I knew who Marcy was by then, had spent so much time with her, and realized her story wasn’t done yet.

So I had even less of an idea of how the second half of the book would go, but I followed her anyway and let her do her things and live her life, and followed her like Joe Goldberg and wrote it all down. (Maybe someday I’ll share how I thought Marcy’s story “should” have ended, before she told me how wrong I was.) But I was like my first friend and had no idea at all what was going to happen next until I typed it, and … it still worked. The story came out. It made a complete arc.

Okay but that’s a success story.

I get it – there are plenty of ways to outline a story or not, and they all work for different people, and look at how well they worked for me! Whee! But what about when something doesn’t work? What about all the failures and the discards and …?

Next post, I promise. We’ll talk about about the failures next. I’m going to need a lot of space for those.