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?

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?

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!

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

Nitty gritty: narrative timelines

So this post isn’t about how much time it takes to write something, or caring about a project for months, or about planning your writing schedule. It’s about the timeline within your writing. How much time passes from the first page to the last? How much in a chapter? And how can you make it clear?

I’ve read books where the chapter titles are dates or even, in the case of Rewind by Catherine Ryan Howard, timestamps. (This is especially useful for books that aren’t presented chronologically.) But of course you don’t have to do this to indicate how much time has passed. You can work it into the text via either the characters or the narrator – say, the way The Princess Bride uses “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

We’re going to think about this one for a moment.

If you’ve never read or seen The Princess Bride, it’s a book-within-a-book scenario. William Goldman presents it as the book his father read out loud to him when he was sick, so he’s never actually read it himself. He tracks it down for his own son, who deems it boring, and that’s when Goldman finally picks it up … and decides to publish his own “good parts” edition because the book is boring. In the “original text,” for example, those three years of Buttercup’s life and her training to be a princess are explained in excruciating detail. Goldman, therefore, writes what his father said as he skipped over all those pages: “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

S. Morgenstern, the “original author” of The Princess Bride, should probably have listened to Elmore Leonard:

I try to leave out the parts that people skip

Elmore Leonard

But the question is: what are those parts? How do authors know what to skip?

For Not Your Mary Sue, I have some Very Important Plot Points that happen in June, all close in a row. There’s pretty extensive coverage for a couple weeks, and then … well, the next part I really wanted to write was almost a year later. But it’s not as easy as just writing the parts we want to write. There had to be snapshots of what happened in between in order to set up the proper emotional situation for the almost-a-year-later section.

In my initial draft, I had a bunch of information there. New places, new relationships, new activities. And it was helped along by timeline cues: references to seasons or holidays, which is easiest in the fall and winter. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas New Year’s, Valentine’s Day … they’re easy touchstones because I imagine most of the people interested in my writing would know when they happen, so I don’t have to explain.

Now here’s the tricky part: I actually edited out a bunch of that myself before sending out the full manuscript. Trying to leave out the parts I thought people would skip, you know? Keeping some of the timeline touch points and making it clear time was passing, but … not in as much detail as those first few weeks, or the days covered almost-a-year-later. Those, I figured, were the interesting things.

Well. On the plus side, I still have all those scenes hanging around for when I was asked to put more detail in that middle section. By leaving all of them out, I’d whacked off the opportunity for emotional investment and therefore weakened some of the things that happened almost-a-year-later.

So, if you’re sitting down to plot out or write a story, what are some things to consider about timelines?

  1. Sketch out a calendar. I’ll print out the months my story covers because I tend to use real time, but even giving yourself seasons works. This helps me see when things are happening that will be important to the plot or offer that emotional connections for readers, and what time can be skimmed over. It also helps me make sure I’ve put in all necessary clues and foreshadowing so nothing that happens later should feel like a trick – the seeds should be there.
  2. Use signposts for readers (and yourself). If real-world things like “It was almost Halloween” aren’t going to work, then consider opening a scene or chapter with “It had been three weeks since she’d seen him” – something to help your reader know that yep, there was a time skip. Nothing important happened. (Or, if something did, it’ll come out in the dialogue when she sees him again.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to add too many details to that first draft if you’re not sure. And, when you cut them for a new draft, keep your old draft intact, or cut-and-paste things to a separate file. Don’t ever fully delete your work or kill your darlings, just in case they’re going to be useful later. Go ahead and take your time with the important plot elements – those can expand to fill more pages. Take the time that needs to be taken during your first draft, because you can always massage it later.
  4. Have someone else read it. Get more eyes on the page than just your own. Can they follow what’s going on and when? Do they have enough to form the emotional attachments you’d like them to? Are there in fact parts your beta readers would like to have skipped? (Are there parts that need more emphasis earlier on?)
  5. If things still aren’t working, draw out the timeline again, this time based off what you’ve actually written (and not what you’d planned to write). I like color-coding these and tracing them across characters so that I know what all the important people are doing during a certain week or month, even if they’re not currently “onscreen” in the novel. It can especially help when considering characters’ motivations and their actions: did they just come off of an emotional moment? Or have they had weeks to adjust to something?
  6. And of course remember that your rough draft is a rough draft. It’s for you. Nobody else ever has to see it. This is where you can try to cram in as many clues as possible, or cover that “boring” day if you think it’s important to show changing character relationships, or meticulously explain that cool thing you know how to do just because it brings you joy. Then, when you’re revising, you might sigh and take those things out … or leave them in and see what your beta readers have to say about them.

We’re never going to get it right for everybody – there will be parts people skip, and parts people wish you’d said more about – but paying close attention to your timeline (and not just your plot outline) can help guide you, your characters, and your readers through the story.

Do you think about timelines during your writing process? Is it part of your planning, plotting, revision … or not even on your radar?

Nitty gritty: tense and POV

Last week’s writing post led into a conversation about creative writing courses and how they don’t always teach the actual basics of writing. So I was mulling over what I could say about the subject without getting too bogged down, and how it might relate to my life, and … well, I’m currently shifting a novel from first person present tense to third person past, and I’ve got some Thoughts about that.

Tense

Some people have Very Strong Feelings about books written in present tense. (She sees the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretches out a hand.) The first time I picked up a book in present, I was thrown. We’re generally used to past tense, depending of course on genre and trends. (She saw the dog. The dog looked up at her. She stretched out a hand.)

Why I like present tense: it’s immediate. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen, either. They’re living through it and we’re trailing along over their shoulder.

Okay, granted, your character doesn’t have to be writing in past tense from an advanced age, meaning she clearly survived the encounter with the dog. I specifically remember reading Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David, which is told from Apropos’ point of view as an old man recalling his life, and thinking “Okay he’s going to survive everything” because clearly he already had. The tension there is in how he got out of all of those impossible-sounding situations, not if.

Depending on what genre you write, you might be more pressured to pick one or the other. The main thing, though, is not to mix them. (She saw the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretched out her hand.) If it’s present, keep it present. If it’s past, keep it past.

Here’s a fun thing about past tense, though. (Can you tell I’ve taught grammar before?) Take a look at these two examples:

a) He had a cat.
b) He’d had a cat.

The second one is further in the past than the first. Weird, right? If you’re writing in past tense, sometimes you need to reference things that happened before the thing you’re writing about – things that are even paster than the past. So, if he owned a cat when he was a kid, but doesn’t now, you might get something like:

Chris looked at the cat and wrinkled his nose. He’d had a cat once, but once had been enough.

In the moment of the story, he’s looking at the cat and wrinkling his nose. Before the moment of the story, he’d owned a cat. Cool, right? (Or weird and complicated. It’s okay. You can say it.)

POV

Point of view is when you decide where your camera goes. We’ll start with first, second, and third.

  • First person: I. This is when you’re deep in someone’s head. You can hear all of their thoughts without them having to say “I think” or “I wonder.” It’s just “Whoa, Jenna’s skirt’s a bit north of the knee” or “What the heck did that mean?” So your first person would be: I saw the dog. The dog looked up at me. I stretched out a hand.
  • Second person: you. This one isn’t very common outside of choose your own adventure books. (And don’t get confused – the book You by Caroline Kepnes is actually in first person. The POV is inside Joe’s head. He just talks to Beck in his head. A lot.) You saw the dog. The dog looked up at you. You stretched out a hand.
  • Third person: he/she/they. This one’s outside of everyone, and comes with more choices: how many of your characters do you want to follow around? Whose shoulder does the camera peek over? How many people’s thoughts can you hear? How often are you going to move the camera to follow someone else? They saw the dog. The dog looked up at them. They stretched out their hand.

I tend to think about POV as how limiting I want to be. If I stick to first person, then anything that happens without my POV character in the room can’t be shown. Will that work for the plot I’ve got in mind, or do I need to see some of that other stuff? Is there going to be enough tension that way, or does the reader need to see the bad guy getting up to something?

If I’m going for third person, then how many (or really, how few) people can I follow? Younger Me really, really loved pulling a Stephen King, writing up a few dozen characters, and then trying to follow all of them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. For multiple POVs, consider how quickly your readers will be introduced to them; how easily it’ll be for them to follow the switches; and make sure you don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene. (Jenny thought that was a bad idea. Jeremy wondered if it might work. That’s two heads, right in a row. If Jeremy is the POV character, he’s stuck with what he can see, unless he can read minds: Jenny wrinkled her nose, but Jeremy wondered if it might work.)

It can help me to color-code my scenes so I know which POV I’m following and how often I’m switching. Some books alternate chapters between two POVs; others jump all around and cue readers in with the character’s name as the chapter title. The important thing is to make it clear to your reader whose eyes they’re looking through and whose thoughts they’re hearing. Even if it’s meant to be the Mysterious Bad Guy chapter, make sure your readers knows it’s the Mysterious Bad Guy.

What can be seen? Who sees it? Who gets to think about it, analyze it, and interpret it for the reader?


One important thing to keep in mind in all this is that you don’t have to worry about it in the first draft if that’s going to trip you up. You can even switch tenses and POV partway through a draft if what you’d originally picked isn’t working. It’s not exactly fun to go through and change things into a different tense or POV, but it’s a lot easier than starting from a blank page. At least you’ve got the story down and a firm place to start.

What’s something you wish had been covered in creative writing class that nobody ever thought to mention?

What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Is it worth it? 

I was looking through 101 Author Interview Questions for some inspiration (and a distraction from my current writing to-do list), and came across this one. If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably already know how I feel about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but just in case …

First, what is NaNoWrimo?

At its strictest, NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That averages out to 1,667 words a day. You can’t start your novel until it’s officially November 1 in your time zone, and if you have to submit your final word count before the calendar ticks over to December. NaNoWriMo is also traditionally for new projects, partly so you’re not bogged down on trying to get it all “right.” The point is to get your first draft down. You can fix it later.

Traditionally it’s for fiction – single long works, since “Novel” is part of the name – but I’ve also used it for my nonfiction: drafting, revisions, editing, and proofreading. There are two “Camp” sessions in April and July that let you pick your own goal, but November (and 50k) is the main event.

What’s it cost you?

Nothing. You sign up for free and pick your screenname. Create a project – you can choose whatever filler title you want, or go all out and pick not just a title, but make a cover – and update your word count during November. Nothing happens if you don’t hit 50k. If you make it, you get sponsor prizes … and a first draft of a novel. Your own.

What are the negatives?

Well, November can be a busy month. You might get bogged down. Americans have Thanksgiving thrown in there, which usually comes with family commitments. And if you’re like me, you don’t pay attention to how many words per minute you write. Until I did NaNo, I had no idea where I fell along the fast vs. slow continuum. So you might not know how long it’ll actually take you to write 1,667 words.

There are lots of tips for time management floating around out there, specifically related to NaNoWriMo. Food prep, for example. Setting your schedule and taking advantage of even 10 minutes of down time. Following @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter for the prompts and the feeling that you’re writing along with other people. I’ve seen people talk about how they wear a special hat while writing to cue other household members into the fact that this is a Do Not Disturb time, especially when they don’t have a room with a door that can be closed.

I’ve also seen a lot of “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” Generally by people who wouldn’t dream of participating. And the thing is … you’re not going to turn around December 1 and query what you’ve written. What you’re doing is drafting, which is one very had and amazing step, but not the last one prior to querying. But think about it: you’ll have this draft by the end of the month, and you can’t edit a blank page. (Thanks, Jodi Picoult.)

What do you stand to gain?

Community. There are events during NaNoWriMo for everyone who’s made this commitment. You’re not alone. Other people are out there doing this too, struggling and succeeding and asking for advice. All 2021 events are going to be virtual, so check out the region closest to you to see how many writers there are and what platform events will be on. (I’ve been one of the co-leaders of the Michigan :: Upper Peninsula Region since 2012, and we’re on Discord. You don’t have to be a Yooper to chat – visitors are welcome.)

Accomplishment. Starting out is scary. Trying to write one word, knowing you have to somehow pull out 49,999 more to follow it. That you’re supposed to craft some sort of story, with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end. But every single word you write is one that wasn’t there before. Whatever you’ve got at the end of the month, you made all that.

Writer, know thyself. It’s not just a learning experience about getting the words on the page, but getting to know yourself as a writer. Do you like to frontload the month and get a ton of words down as padding? Are you a steady 1,667-words-a-day sort of writer? Does the panic of the final week make your word count jump? There’s also the chance to talk to so many other writers to figure out what they did, and whether it might work for you. How much prep work do you need? Do you do character sheets and maps? Or do you just wing it?

The thing is, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – Novembers and Camps – since 2010. The first half of Not Your Mary Sue is barely changed from my original draft in 2017 (so take that, “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” You’ll never know unless you try). I love writing, especially writing fiction, and the level of energy that happens during NaNoWriMo is just amazing. I get all antsy throughout September and October, wanting to start my novel but putting it off until my laptop clock tells me it’s officially November, and it just all builds up and floods out. I absolutely love NaNoWrimo, and if you’re looking for that nudge to finally write a novel, it’s totally worth it.

Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? Will you be joining me this year?

Do you always finish every piece of writing you start?

It’s a fairly common piece of writing advice. Neil Gaiman’s got a few quotes about it. For example:

Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.

Neil Gaiman

I general like Neil’s writing advice. We seem to have a lot in common. So, do I obey Neil and always finish everything?

I’m going to be optimistic and say “Not yet.”

Recently I found a CD of my fiction from 2000 through early 2007 and, out of over 70 files, maybe a dozen were “finished.” Call it a completion level of less than 20%. Or … is it?

A lot of those partial documents were attempts at what, in November 2010, became my first NaNoWriMo novel – a completed story. Each individual document is incomplete but, because I kept trying, I eventually completed it. How do I count that one?

In 2011, I stared a NaNoWriMo project that ballooned into a multi-part epic fantasy. I wrote 180k that month and then … stopped, both because the month was over and because I’d written myself into a corner. For over six years, that story was incomplete … until Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2018, when I’d figured out the ending and was able to finish it.

There’s at least one idea left on that CD that I want to revisit, so it’s still in the category of “not yet,” although … that still leaves a bunch of files that aren’t finished. And, at this point, that I don’t think would be worth finishing.

I’d say, like any rule, it’s a bit flexible. You can bend it. Finish things, yes, absolutely – if you never finish things, then that’s an issue. But it’s also okay to look at something, nod to yourself, and agree to put it aside for now. Because you’re not ready for this story, or because you need time to figure out how to get your characters out of this bind. It’s okay to set things aside for later. (The key here being the plan to indeed come back to it later.)

What I see when I look back on these files (from high school and college – go ahead and do the math) I can see both my determination to get it right this time and my acceptance that certain approaches just … weren’t working. The ability to sigh, hit save, take a step back, and try a new path in. (Note that “save” is an important step – save your work! You never know when your ideas will catch on again, or be able to see how far you come, if you get rid of all the evidence.)

There’s also a sense of seeing value in your ideas even when they aren’t working right now. The thought that it’s still worth pursuing, even if this isn’t the right way to do it. The fact that I even saved everything, all my half-pages and random ideas, means I figured I’d want to remember them. They might not be worth anything to anyone other than me, but … I count, right?

There are absolutely lessons you learn from finishing things that you don’t get from abandoning them, but the reverse is also true. Although again, when you save something and set it aside, remember it’s really “for now.” Keep up the idea – or maybe the polite fiction – that this, too, will be finished one day. Maybe all it takes is the right spark, and those can come out of nowhere.

Plus it can be fun to look back on who you used to be, as a writer, and compare it to who you think you are now. (Then check in again, another 20 or so years down the road …) Keeping the old files helps you map out your literary journey in a way abandoning them won’t.

And who knows – maybe some day you’ll finish that one idea that still hasn’t let go. It’s just not done … yet.

How do you approach writing? Do you finish everything you start?

“Do you actually write every day?”

I’ve got a writing buddy who’s working on his dissertation, and his coach just told him that writing every other day isn’t enough – he’s never going to finish it. She wants him to write every day. Well, every weekday, at least. We’ve been meeting two hours a day, three days a week, so we’re going to start meeting every weekday morning. Which is fine, because whether or not we’re zooming, I set my mornings aside for my own work, but my dad asked “Wait, do you actually write every day?”

The snarky answer is “Define ‘writing.'”

As a process, writing isn’t solely “putting words on the page.” It’s a necessary step, but not the only one, and usually not the first one for me. There’s reading, both nonfiction research and fiction in various genres; outlining; planning; editing (and deleting); and so on. Do I try to do at least one of those steps each weekday? Yes. Does that mean I actually do them? Not always.

But I do set aside the time for it. I’ve got a two hour block open for it. Some days I know it’s not going to happen, and I ignore it. Sometimes I work on the weekends. And sometimes I put in more than one writing session in a day. For me, two hours is the optimal amount of time: long enough for me to get into it, but not so long that my concentration wanes.

The more you write, the more you’ll figure out what block of time works best for you – and whether you can trust yourself to give yourself “days off” or if you need to be sterner and make sure you sit down and do it. (I set my own writing deadlines for my dissertation and could make myself stick to them, but my office mate told her advisor that she needed someone to take a firm stand and not budge. If you know which one of us you are, you can negotiate the tools that you, personally, need so you can finish a project.)

One of the things it’s taken me a long time to accept is that there are some days when even sitting here in front of the laptop isn’t going to get me more words. Days when I need to take a break and do something else. Days when that means recharging instead of avoiding. Sometimes it’s a shorter break, and sometimes it’s an “until tomorrow” break, but the important thing is that it’s only ever a break, not quitting. I set the next writing time in my mind and let myself ignore all writing things until then.

I also do my best to write down ideas as soon as they hit, whether it’s in my little writers’ notebook or on my phone. “I’ll remember it later” doesn’t always work, no matter how big the idea seems – write it down. Make a note. On your break times, this helps you get back to whatever else you’re doing. If you’re working on one project and a lightbulb shows up for another project, you can write it down and then get back to what you were doing.

Does “getting one good idea and writing it down” count as writing for the day? I don’t know, but that’s just one place where “Do you write every day?” gets tricky.

The thing is, when I’m working on a project, or even when I’m between projects, I’m frequently thinking about it. Letting it churn over in the back of my mind. Coming up with these ideas and scrambling to write them down before I forget. Piecing things together or figuring out a way through the latest plot snarl. Sometimes this happens years later – I only finished my 2011 NaNoWriMo epic fantasy in 2018 after finally figuring out how to wrap everything up – but hopefully it’s faster when I’m on a deadline. I’ll think about characters and plot bunnies from ages ago, either to work them into a current project or to see if I can actually do something with them.

But that’s not as easy to track. It doesn’t fit neatly into my two-hour block of time, and I don’t have a word count increase to show for it. Some people might label it “useless daydreaming.” But it’s still a necessary part of the process.

If I’m going to wrap it up and try a concise answer, I guess I’d say “Yes, I write every day, but it doesn’t look the same every day.” That’s not my process. It’s changed over the years as I develop and grow as a writer, but that’s who I am now: writing every day, even if “writing” doesn’t always look like writing.

What about you? Do you have a writing schedule? What works best for you?