Fending Off Them Pesky Writing Demons

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There will be days, despite all the brilliant advice you’ve collected up to this point and your very best intentions, when you will not be able to write a single word. I just need you to realize:

You. Are. Not. Alone. In. This.

Every writer falls victim to these pesky writing demons at some point, but what marks your ability as a serious writer is how you rise to the challenge and get your writing back on track, secure in the knowledge that you have the power to keep the negative mental beasties at bay. As always, I offer a few tips for you to stuff inside your writing rucksack for a rainy day:

  1. When you pluck an idea from the ether, jot it down immediately. Ideas arrive without warning and evaporate from your mind like a dream upon waking. When you’re hit with an idea, you’re always sure you’ll remember it. Foolish mortal. How many story ideas have you lost relying solely on your overtaxed memory? When an idea hits, take a moment to put it in writing—we tend to remember things we physically write down—or carry around a digital voice recorder or use that recording app on your smartphone that you forgot you have.
  2. Don’t start on a blank page. La página en blanco. La page vierge. Die leere seite. La malplenan paĝon. Den tomma sidan. Built entirely of writers’ blocks, the blank page is the fire in which writers burn. The abyss that stares back and makes us overthink committing words to the page. The way to combat it? Don’t start with a blank page. Put something at the top of the page. Anything. A random sentence, the story’s mission statement, or ask a question. Better yet, have a character ask a question and then set out to answer it. Whatever you put there isn’t set in stone and can be altered or eliminated entirely once you work out what you truly want to write.
  3. You don’t always have to begin at the beginning. Sometimes you’re hit with a juicy dialogue exchange, a powerful scene, or an intense interaction…but it belongs somewhere in the middle of a story that you haven’t quite sussed out yet. That’s all right. Take what you have and get it down on paper without worrying about the order in which scenes are written. Once you have that, you can begin fleshing out other connecting scenes and when your basic draft is done, you can go back, reshuffle the order and polish it.
  4. Stop waiting for the perfect word. When you sit down to write, write. Flipping through your mental thesaurus is not part of the creative process of capturing your ethereal ideas and solidifying them on the page. Keep writing. Don’t let anything take you away from the act of committing words to the page. Write first, and show your brilliance later.
  5. Cheat on your favorite writing spot. Yes, yes, cheating is a bad thing and I would never condone it anywhere else, for any other reason (honest), but sometimes you can become so comfortable writing in one particular place that it ends up being the only place you can get your writing done. By venturing out and writing in new locations—the park, public library, coffee shop, public atriums—you’re training yourself to put words on paper wherever you are. The ideal location doesn’t make you a writer, your ability to write no matter where you are situated does.
  6. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. There’s only so much revision, re-editing, and perfecting a story can take. There comes a time in each story’s life when you’re going to have to accept that your baby is all grown up now and it’s about as perfect as you can make it. Also, continuously reworking a story is a little mind game you play with yourself. It’s an excuse for not starting on the next story, the one that really needs your attention. Stop holding yourself back. On to the next one.
  7. Develop agitation towards procrastination. It’s not your friend, really, it’s not. Despite how clever you think you’re being by justifying your reasons for not writing, you’re only hurting yourself because writing doesn’t get easier the more you fob it off. It simply means you have less time to do it. Writing isn’t the enemy here, time is. Make time to be heard.

There are many other writing demons and sometime in the future I’ll address the more serious ones—insecurity, self-doubt, jealousy—but I will leave you with two parting thoughts: 1) Part of maturing as a writer is coming to the realization that your writing will never be the perfect little darling in the real world as it is in your mind, and 2) Writing something that’s acceptable (but not quite perfect) is a damn sight better than not writing anything at all.

Sally forth and be demon fend offingly writeful.

Do You Blindside Yourself With Your Writing? If Not, Why Not?

“Surprise yourself.  If you can bring the story—or let it bring you—to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader.” — Chuck Palahniuk

Has your writing ever blindsided you? Have your characters ever caught you off guard by saying or doing something clever or revealing a bit of information that you yourself didn’t know? When re-reading a piece that you set aside to cool, have you ever wondered where the ideas, voices, and speculative elements came from and if you have any more of that inside you?

The answer is: Of course, there’s more.

Writing is a journey of discovery, and one of the great pleasures of storytelling is that you discover the amazing things that dwell in your brain, things about yourself and your thought processes that you might not otherwise uncover. And besides self-expression, isn’t that the major point of writing?

So, how do you blindside yourself with your talent? You simply let go.

Get out of your own head and write on instinct. Park the perfectionist on the soft shoulder and write your ever-loving heart out. This is part and parcel of learning to be kind to yourself as you write. Your genius can’t flow steadily with someone backseat editing the entire trip. You can always swing back around and pick up the bugger when you’re ready to begin the rewrite.

And don’t begin your story fretting about how it will end. Your story is smarter than you give it credit for. When it’s done, you’ll see the pop-up timer.

It’s essential to keep in mind whenever you pick up a pen or touch fingertips to keyboard that you’re doing it from a position on the shoulders of the literary giants who came before you, the ones who surprised you with their words, so every time you write, you should follow their lead and surprise yourself.

Until next time, sally forth and be surprising yourselfingly writeful.

PS. If you have roughly an hour to kill—I know, it’s the internet and you’ve got memes to see and threads to troll—you could do a lot worse than lending an ear to Ray Bradbury’s 2001 “Telling the Truth” keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea.

Not only does he counsel aspiring writers to spend their time writing lots of short stories—even if they’re mostly bad, there’s gotta be a couple of good ones in the bunchbut he also suggests to write with joy and for fun, and to let yourself be surprised by your writing and by life.

Hone, Hone, Hone Your Writing Craft, Gently on the Page

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I hate to be the one to break it to you, but solid writing skills don’t suddenly blossom overnight. Like any skill, it has to be learned before it can be mastered. Your writing ability is a weapon unique to you, no one else has your voice, but raw talent isn’t enough to help you wield this weapon effectively. First, it needs to be honed by patience, determination, experience, and the 10 practical tips listed below:

  1. WRITE EVERY DAYWriting is a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger. The blank page is that jogger’s path in the park you walk past everyday, the treadmill tucked in the corner of the garage, the exercise DVD that never quite found its way into the player, the dusty and unused gym membership you purchased at the beginning of the New Year. It’s the thing you need to show up for every day in order to get it to work for you.
  2. DON’T PROCRASTINATE – Sometimes you can be too smart for your own good. Knowing how difficult and painfully agonizing writing can be, you begin hearing the siren call of all the things that attempt to lure you away from planting your butt in a chair and committing words to the page. Sometimes you justify it with useful endeavors (housework, laundry, errands, and the like), other times you hide behind the white lie of doing research on the internet, or you flat out vegetate and do absolutely nothing at all. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of these activities…you simply don’t do them when it’s time to write.
  3. FIGHT THROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK – I’ve already addressed this in a previous post and since I’m not in the mood to repeat myself, you can read my thoughts on writer’s block, as well as some possible solutions to get you back into the flow here.
  4. LEARN FROM THE MASTERS – You may have noticed (head to the back of the class if you haven’t) that I continuously post lists featuring the thoughts, rules, and writing habits of famous authors. The reason should be obvious. They’ve been where you are now, handled what you’re currently struggling with…and they made it through. Who better to get advice from?  It’s like that old story:

    A man walks down the street, not paying attention where he’s going and falls into a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?”  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, “Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?”  And the friend jumps in the hole. The man is dumbfounded, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

  5. FIND YOUR MUSEIf you haven’t found your muse yet, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. And woe betide the scribe who only seeks inspiration online. There’s a time to interweb—truth of the matter, you can overload your brain to the point of creative blockage or total shutdown—and a time to get back to basics by venturing out into the world to experience things that catch your attention and identify the things that motivate you to be creative.
  6. KILL YOUR DARLINGS – You love your stories to the point of looking at them through the eyes of a proud parent. Nothing wrong with that, you should be proud of them, they’re your creation, after all. But are they healthy? Are they at the right weight or are they unnecessarily bloated? Editing is the balance in your writing, the order in chaos, and it’s every bit as grueling as struggling through writer’s block. But once you master this, you’ll be amazed to discover how your writing style changes.
  7. ASK FOR FEEDBACK – Don’t even fix your mouth to ask me why. You know the reasons (you’ll become a better writer, writing will become a less painful process, blah-blah-blah). When you might need feedback is probably a better question to ask. Maybe you’ve just plotted out a story and want to run the idea past a family member or friend? Or perhaps you’re halfway through a draft and you’re unsure about the direction you’ve decided to take. Essentially, asking for feedback helps you break out of the isolation of writing and you’re no longer working in a vacuum, wondering whether or not you’re making yourself understood. Seeking feedback from others is taking positive, constructive steps to improve your own writing and develop as a writer. And develop a tough skin because not all of the feedback you get will be positive.
  8. READ, READ, READ – Stephen King once wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” and if you don’t believe that and don’t like to read, you shouldn’t pursue writing as a profession. Reading good writing can teach you about structure, dialogue, pacing, plot, using symbols and imagery to convey a point. Reading expert writing gives you something to strive for, as well as keeping you humble; there will always be writers out there who are better than you, just accept it. You can even learn lessons from reading bad writing (Why doesn’t the dialogue flow? Why are scenes dragging? Why don’t i care about the characters?).
  9. STUDY THE RULES, THEN BREAK THEMLearning to be a more efficient writer can be a chore—it’s always daunting trying to adopt a new way of working. Stepping outside your comfort zone is never fun and rules generally tend to seem restrictive. But before you ask, “Why can’t I just pick and choose stuff that suits me?” consider that in order to be able to choose the bits to use and the parts to leave behind, it’s necessary to first learn all the rules before you can go cherry-picking through them.
  10. KEEP THE DEMONS AT BAY – That brainbox of yours is a Pandora’s Box jam-packed with surprises and miracles and as-yet-untapped genius…and the counterbalance to that are the demons that nurture that tortured writer’s spirit you possess. They feed on rejection and whisper fear and doubt in your ear, but since they’re a necessary evil, it’s important that you develop the ability to silence them while you’re writing. Nothing gets between you and your writing, especially not some crabs in a barrel mind demons.

Sally forth and be honing-your-craftly writeful.

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

“To believe a thing impossible is to make it so.” – French Proverb

Everyone talks about the writer’s toolkit and all the utensils it should contain, but writers also need to have a storehouse equipped with a shelf that holds just one thing:

The belief that anything is possible.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that if someone has already done a thing, you can do it, too, once you’ve set your mind to it. But have you ever stopped to consider that even if no one has done this writing task that’s swimming around in your brain, you still can do it? All you need to do is cut out the middleman. You really don’t need anyone else to prove that your project is possible. You can just go on out there and do it for yourself.

Don’t worry, I’m not gonna sell you a load of universal law nonsense like “everything in life is possible because you’ve been gifted with all the necessary tools, skills, drive, and connections you need to make it happen.” If your aim is to do the impossible, you’re gonna have to work at it. Hard. And that’s a fact, Jack.

Now, you’re no doubt saying. “Okay, I get that it takes drive, dedication, passion, and the right mindset, but let’s get to the meat of the nutshell. Just how do I do the impossible?”

Well, my friend, I’m glad you asked.

1. Find the cost of your impossible.

You know very well I’m not talking about money (you can cross that financial bridge when you come to it). Failure (as discussed in a previous post) is the coin of the realm if you don’t reach your seemingly impossible goal, and you pay by taking in the pitying glances from the mundanes that use you as an example of why the impossible must never be strived for. You pay by watching your dreams burn to ash before being scattered by the winds of harsh reality. You pay by having your creative center scooped out of you with a melon baller. Or, you might pay in some other way, but make no mistake about it…

You. Will. Pay.

As stated previously, very few things in this world are truly impossible. Most times the price is just too high. You need to take a moment and truthfully examine what the personal costs to you will be (time, relationships with friends, family, etc.) and if you’ll make the commitment to remit payment should the ferryman demand a toll for crossing impossible waters.

2. Take baby steps towards the impossible.

Once you’ve zeroed in on that impossible writing endeavor, start small. Slip on your water wings, dip your big toe in the shallow end of the pool and learn the basics. The impossible isn’t one gigantic thing, it’s a series of things that increase in difficulty or complexity. Splash around in the kiddie end of the pool and get yourself acclimated to the waters before you decide to breaststroke your way into the deep end.

3. Handcuff yourself to inspiration.

Some people create a vision board with images, inspirational sayings, and the like. I know, these received a bad rap after Rhonda Byrnes’ book, The Secret, came under critical fire, but having a visual reminder of your ultimate goal is akin to keeping your eyes on the prize.

Others surround themselves with like-minded people or people who have achieved some level of success in the same or similar fields. Buddy up to them, pick their brains—politely and tactfully, of course—and find out what motivated them. Learning from someone else’s experiences, though your own will undoubtedly be completely different, can help you avoid potential pitfalls up ahead.

4. Stop gabbing about it and start doing it.

It’s great having a goal to achieve and having done all your knowledge-gathering groundwork and psyching yourself up to the point where you become a one-person cheerleading squad, but a lot of people get stuck in that complacency gap between research and action. You’ll know you’re there if you spend more time talking about conquering your impossible task than you are acting on conquering your impossible task.

Making it happen is the point where your inspiration gets put to the test because it’s where you’ll begin running into obstacles and roadblocks, where excuses for why you can’t take action start springing up like daisies.

The workaround? Micro-goals. Remember when we talked about baby steps? Get used to them because you’ll be taking a lot of them. Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch. Set daily tasks, give yourself deadlines and milestones, and keep in mind that you will have bad days, encounter setbacks, and missteps along the way. It’s all part of the process when conquering the impossible.

And get out of the habit of beating yourself up when things don’t go your way. Things will change as you begin to work towards something new, but the great thing is that your plans are not set in stone. If something doesn’t work, switch things up until it does. You’re a shark from this point on, always moving forward.

5. Celebrate the completion of micro-goals.

Why shouldn’t you? You’ve just taken a chunk out of the impossible. You’ve pressed your nose to the grindstone, torn down mental barriers, plotted courses around obstacles. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back.

6. Do it again with the next plateau.

Sure, get into the habit of doling out self-attaboys (“boys” being gender-neutral) but don’t get too full of yourself because you’ve still got a long, long way to go. The good news is, you now know the impossible is possible, so Go get ’em, tiger!

Side Note: There is one circumstance in which I will advocate for the impossible. In your attempt to pull off your Herculean task, you will encounter people who will try to hold you back—strangers, acquaintances, friends, family members, and fellow writers—out of fear, envy, spitefulness, or even a misguided sense of love. They will make you doubt yourself, keep reminding you of your faults, constantly criticize your ideas, discount your strengths, and generally make you feel unimportant.

In order to see your way through to the finish line, you must make it impossible for these people, regardless of who the hell they are or what they mean to you, to stand in your way. Kick their obstacle-shaped backsides straight to the nearest curb. And if they happen to be a friend, family, or someone you really care about, have no fear, you can always swing back and pick them up upon your return from Successville (and allow them to gnaw on a slice of told-you-I-could-do-it pie).

I do have one request for you: After you’ve accomplished your mission, do me a favor and drop me a line to let me know about the sweet taste of breathing the rarified air atop your lofty perch. If I must live vicariously through your success, so be it! I accept my fate!

Sally forth and be impossibly writeful, my friend.

Braiding Tales: We Built a World, Row by Row (a true story)

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“We gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

I spent most of my early teens in the Bronx. The street I lived on, corner to corner, ran the length of three average city blocks and was the picture of diversity—the melting pot that New York had become famous for. It was all about migration. Italians were moving to new ground as black people nestled in and on their tail were Hispanics followed by West Indians. It was a neighborhood in transition where multi-cultures learn by cohabitation that differences in race didn’t make a person less human.

It was also the 70’s and I rocked a killer afro to end all ‘fros. Metal pronged afro pick with the handle clenched in a black power fist and a peace symbol carved out on the base, tucked in the back of my hair.

It drove my parents crazy. They rode my back constantly to get it cut but there was that preteen Samsonian fear that the strength of my personality—-my Madd-ness—-would be stripped away, were a barber to lay clippers on my precious locks. When I got the “as long as you’re living under my roof” speech, I knew I needed a solution and I needed it quick.

Enter: Cynthia Holloway. I mentioned my plight in passing and out of nowhere she offered to braid my hair into cornrows. So, we sat on the stoop of a private house and armed with only a comb and hair grease, Cynthia worked her nimble fingers like a loom.

She was one of those neighborhood girls that I’d never really spoken to before outside the odd hello. Not that there was anything wrong with her, she was simply a person that kept herself to herself. The type of person you’d have to make an effort to get to know.

It would take many years for me to become that type of person.

But in sitting with her I discovered she was both intelligent and imaginative, with interesting stories to tell. Her father was a retired Army Ranger colonel, who spent a great deal of his free time on the road in a jazz band.

I’m not sure how much of that was true. No one could ever remember seeing Cynthia’s dad, so maybe it was a story she invented to keep nosy kids at bay. Or perhaps it was one of the quiet lies that parents tell their children to spare them from the harsh realities of troubled marriages.

Since we had nothing but time to kill, we talked about our constricted home lives, mentioned the odd hobby, told a few jokes and had a couple of laughs, and when all the conversation wells had run dry, we told each other stories.

At the end of every month, when the braids began to look a little ratty, I’d take them out and Cynthia met me back on that stoop to repeat the process. And after a brief bit of catch-up, we’d go back to telling each other imaginary stories and without meaning to, wound up designing an illusory sanctuary from the burdens and pains of our everyday pre-teenage lives.

While we mentally terraformed our neighborhood row by cornrow, we got to know each other in those months as the monarchs of our fantasy world. We explored the surroundings, went on adventures, and basically forgot the world for a few hours a month.

Come the fifth month, I sat on the stoop and waited, my hair a wild crop of imagination waiting to be plowed, but Cynthia never showed. I later learned from a friend of a friend’s sister that she and her mother had moved away in the middle of the night without telling a soul where they were headed.

I tried to imagine all the possible reasons that would cause them to make a hurried escape under the cloak of twilight and seriously hoped it had nothing to do with her retired-Army-Ranger-colonel-jazz-band-dad. Nothing negative, anyway.

And yes, I eventually had no other choice than to submit to the butcher shop barbershop haircut. Much to my surprise, I managed to retain all of my Madd-ness afterward. I was still filled with my nerdy sameness and when I missed her a bit, I’d sometimes sit on the stoop and give an imaginary Cynthia updates on the latest goings-on in the world we created.

Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.

PS. Cyn, if through some bizarre happenstance you should come across this, hit me up real quick. There’s a world in some need of serious upkeep.

The One Sentence You Should Get Used to When First Starting Out

You’ve done your research, worked your mental fingers to the bone, and devoted all your time, energy and attention to detail into nailing the anatomy, structure and formatting of your very first short story/novel/poetry piece/article/screenplay, before sending it out for mass consumption.

And you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait for a response. When it finally arrives, your eyes will skim over the body of the letter and lock in on one sentence:

“After reviewing your work, we’ve decided that it isn’t a good fit for us and we’re going to have to pass.”

Don’t let that sentence shake you. Very rarely is a writer’s first written work good enough to be marketable. It takes experience to craft a truly sellable piece, experience you’ll earn by pressing on. This written piece leads to a second and a third and eventually you’ll find an editor, publisher or what have you that believes in your potential.

Write until you get it right.

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Simple Anatomy of a Plot Outline

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Somewhere between the synopsis and the treatment lies the plot outline, also known as a one page. Typically one-to-three pages in length, the plot outline is the bare bones of your story before it’s fleshed out with action description and dialogue.

Although there are no hard and fast rules on the level of detail that should be included, a standard plot outline generally contains:

  1. The protagonist and their goal.
  2. The antagonist and their goal.
  3. The supporting cast and their main wants.
  4. The five major plot points (as mentioned in a previous post)
  5. The order of events and sequences.
  6. A list of scenes that properly convey the story.

And if want to keep the anatomy of a plot outline in mind but you happen to be the forgetful type, have I got just the t-shirt for you: Plot Outline Tee (Hey, don’t even @ me. There’s no point in having a blog if you can’t indulge in a little shameless promotion every now and again).

Sally forth and be writeful.

Skip The Tell And Bring On The Show

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“Show, don’t tell” is one of those bits of advice that gets handed to aspiring writers in writing courses, advice columns, blogs, seminars, and while it may seem simple on the surface, many scribes can’t differentiate the two in their own work.

Telling a story is the blunt delivery of facts. “She was pretty.” “He was hungry.” “They were angry.” Yes, it does get straight to the heart of the matter, which makes it ideal for journalism and academia. But for prose it’s too antiseptic and puts distance between your work and your audience. Your goal as a writer is to immerse the audience into the world and allow them to experience things, people and places for themselves.

How does pretty look on this woman? Is it in the way her terracotta hair carelessly cascades over her delicate shoulders? Or do her eyes have a certain indefinable sparkle to them, making them alluring and sensual, with a touch of mischief? How would you describe hunger? The growling of a stomach and salivation in response to the Pavlovian stimuli of the school lunch bell? And anger, believe it or not, offers you a larger palette to paint from when you explore the other emotions—hurt, fear, grief, exhaustion—at play within it.

So, how do you bring the “show” into your writing?

1. Dialogue – This is the easiest way to let your audience experience a character’s mood and emotions. The catch is to avoid “on the nose” dialogue (I’ll get more into this in another post) which simply means having a character say exactly what they mean. Not only is it bland and boring, it’s unrealistic. In real life people speak in subtext, hinting and beating around the bush, secretly nudging conversation toward what they want to know and even then have to decipher the other person’s true meaning.

2. Sensory language – Using words and details to add color and depth to writing by appealing to your audience’s senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell, emotion) in order to let them fully experience what you’re writing about.

3. More descriptive, less adjectives – The tendency of most fledgling writers is to slap a string of adjectives together to describe an action or scene. But being descriptive is actually about selecting the right words and using them in moderation to put your meaning across. Remember: Adjectives tell. Verbs show.

4. Be specific – Want to frustrate your audience? Try using fuzzy language. Offering up vague sentences like, “It was a pleasant night”, “She was a strange-looking girl”, “His life was a mess”, doesn’t serve you as a writer. Why not invest the time and effort into describing the feeling of a scene and working out the best way convey it to your audience?

Does this mean everything you write should be “showing”? Of course not. Especially when you’re dealing with the dull bits of the story such as travel, transitions, unimportant characters, etc. Instead of boring your audience by expounding on necessary but not particularly interesting details, just say it and move on.

Speaking of moving on, I’m out of here. Sally forth and be writeful.

The Four Important Stages of a Writer’s Development

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STAGE 1:

You write for yourself. More daydreams than proper stories, your writing at this point appeals to you more so than other people. These stories tend to reflect your desires and fantasies and may contain in-jokes and references unfamiliar to a general audience.

STAGE 2:

You strive to break free of your narcissistic writing shell and communicate with a broader audience, but your reach exceeds your grasp. You’re aware of what you want to write but you’re caught in that in-between space of partially-developed and fully-fleshed-out stories. This is usually where you begin receiving your rejection letters. Keep these. Sure, they’re crushing at the time but they’re great to look back on once you’ve sold your work.

STAGE 3:

Your stories have begun to flesh themselves out but they’re still not where they need to be structurally and/or technically. This is also where you begin to work on improving your character development.

STAGE 4:

You’ve acknowledged and tackled all the problems in the previous stages, and though you haven’t totally mastered them yet, you can compose stories competently enough to jam your foot in the doorway of the professional writer field.

Are there other stages? Sure, and I’ll address them in a later post (this should be more than enough for you to gnaw on for now), so until next time…

Sally forth and be writeful.

Don’t Be A Chump, Don’t Infodump

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Finding balance in your life isn’t simple. Balancing life and writing is even harder. Finding balance in your writing? That’s something you’ll be working on for the rest of your natural writing life, because a well-written story balances exposition, description, action and dialogue, but not in equal measure. You need to keep a watchful eye on exposition.

In its basic form, exposition is the part of a story that sets the stage for the drama to follow, introducing the theme, setting, characters, and circumstances, usually at the beginning of the story. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Well, writing good exposition that flows with the story and continues to draw the audience in, isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, many writers misuse exposition as an illegal dumping ground for information that not only causes a distraction that breaks the flow of a story, but also decreases interest.

And you don’t have to be an expert to spot the exposition dump (aka infodump) because we’ve all experienced and recognized it while reading a novel or watching a movie or television program. It’s that speed bump or sometimes roadblock in the story where the writer unloads a ton of information at once as a means of explaining things like backstory, characters, and the rules of the story world. If you’re a culprit of this, stop it now. We’ll forgive your ignorance in past works (go back and cull the exposition, if at all possible) but it’s a bad exposition technique and the line must be drawn here. This far, no further.

Typically, infodumping occurs when a character, new to the scene, is introduced to a foreign setting and is force-fed all the knowledge of the various individuals at play, the rules of the micro society, and the overall big picture of the story world. You’ll find this a lot in science fiction and fantasy tales.

Other bad/lazy infodumping techniques include “The Lecture,” where a speaker over-explains information the writer discovered during their research period of the writing process and thought would show their faux expertise in the subject. The other offender is commonly known in the sci-fi writing community as the “As You Know, Bob,” conversation, where one character tells another character information they already know. Please don’t do this. Not only is it lazy, but it comes across as unrealistic.

This isn’t to say that all exposition is bad, in fact, properly executed, it takes up roughly 10% of a well-balanced written piece (the other 90%, of course, being the description, action and dialogue that make up the scenes). Some of the information embedded within expository text is actually relevant, it simply requires a little finesse to fit it in seamlessly and not disrupt the story’s flow.

Of course, if you handle your description, action and dialogue properly, you can whittle that 10% down and most people won’t notice or care about the missing exposition.

Well, that’s enough infodumping for me today. I’m off to tear a story down and rebuild it.

Sally forth and be writeful.