Monday, February 25, 2013

Books for Writers # 5: Starve Better, review by Steven Young

Today's post is a book recommendation for all us writers, by fellow CCer Steven Young. He grew up in a village you've never heard of, but currently calls South London home. A marine biologist of sorts, he works at sea out of exotic locations like Singapore, Antarctica and North Yorkshire. With a single fluke short story sale, he is not yet a writer (or that's what he'd want us to believe...), but day by day, he learns.

You can find Steven on Critique Circle, along with the rest of us. Take it away, Steven!

When I discovered Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life by Nick Mamatas, my head was spinning. I’d devoured all the how-to books and blogs I could find. And suddenly- oh my!- there were all these rules I had to follow! “Never use adverbs,” I was confidently informed. “Said-bookisms are a bad idea,” another source snarled. “Your writing will be ruined by passive voice,” said yet another. I felt paralysed, as though my mind was being poisoned by advice-overload. When I saw the opening chapter, “All Advice is Terrible Advice, Plus Other Useful Advice,” I knew I’d found my antidote.

After listing a bunch of, often contradictory, rules (“don’t be a pretentious Little Miss Fancy Britches. Make your prose purple and poetic,”) the author proceeds to debunk the very notion; pointing out that there “are no rules. Only the results matter.” The Harry Potter books, for example, are infamously littered with adverbs, and at least a few people seem to like them.

Before going further into his critique of traditional writing wisdom, the author detours briefly to highlight one recurring focus of the book worth emphasising here. He is primarily a short fiction writer, and much of what is said stems from that. This section is interesting in itself, going into the reasons why someone would write short fiction; for all that it is so uncommercial. And the reasons why someone should not write short fiction made me reassess some of my own assumptions. Turns out, it is neither easier than writing a novel, nor good practice for doing so.

The author goes on to discuss various structural elements of storytelling. One chapter discusses the importance of choosing a focus for the story, for a writer to capitalise on their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Not every author can be a master of the intricate plot. Not every writer can break the reader’s heart with their characters’ plight. Work out what you are good at. Do it.

Something currently close to my heart is that dread beast- The Hook (Quick! Read the first sentence of this post again. Did it draw you in? If you’ve gotten this far, hopefully so. But believe me, I fretted about it.) The author has issues with the phrase ‘start with a hook.’ He considers the hook the “motor of the story.” It can be many things, from an unexpected plot twist to the quality of the writing itself, and can be found at any point in the story. Too often, ‘start with a hook’ leads a writer to include whizz-bang excitement in the first paragraph, followed by pages of irrelevance. No. The important thing is to begin the story at the place when the story actually starts. The purpose of the beginning is to show the reader that the writer knows what they are doing.

Via analysis of the role of the sentence in writing (including several pages rhapsodising about two sentences from a story by Raymond Chandler) and advice on writing dialogue (listen) he gets to an interesting discussion about how to end stories. Specifically, he suggests writers avoid neat, everything-is-resolved endings, to “leave room for that post-reading daydream”.

The part of the book dealing with the writing process itself ends with perhaps the most important question. “Why Bother?” Why deal with rejection after rejection, instead of self-publishing immediately. Reputation, essentially. Whilst I’m not sure I agree with his claim that being “not terrible” is sufficient for publication (as I think back to my own rejections, I certainly don’t want to agree), I can’t help but see publication as a kind of ‘proving ground’ for new authors.

The second half of the book shifts emphasis towards the nitty-gritty of getting cash for words. The focus is very much on non-fiction. The chapter on publishing non-fiction includes some eye-openers. I had no idea how much better paid non-fiction can be compared to fiction! He takes the reader through the process of finding and soliciting markets, and highlights the differences from fiction- work your way up, not down, and don’t bother trying to find market listings and submission guidelines.

The author also mentions writing for non-publication. Remember, this is all about fast money, not getting a six-figure advance and the Pushcart Prize. As he describes gigs from writing business letters to church newsletters, he gives the impression of being bloodhound of writing, forever sniffing around for the next easy dollar.

Considerable space is devoted to content mills and his time ghost writing term papers for students. Content mills seem to be the sweatshops of the writing world, with writers churning out online fluff for a pittance. There are perhaps ethical concerns regarding the ghost writing but I’m reviewing the author’s book, not his moral code, so whatever your stance, he highlights yet another way of getting paid to write.

This book may not be for everyone. It looks at the world of professional writing with a cynical eye. It may poke holes in fondly held preconceptions about writing, but does so with a distinctive acerbic wit. Despite being the very definition of the “barely published neophyte writer” whom the author disparages, and despite all advice being terrible, here’s some advice. If you are open to a perspective that differs from the norm, if you want to know more about life in the writing trenches, if you want to be entertained, read this book.

Thank you for your review, Steven. It's been great having you here!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Three Tips for Tweeps

It’s time for some more Twitter goodness! In previous posts, I tackled hashtags and offered you 30 Hashtags for Writers and 40 more Hashtags for Writers.

In this article, I want to give you three tips on using Twitter:

1)    Identifying Hashtags
2)    Tracking Hashtags
3)    Hooting Hashtags

Identifying Hashtags
Most hashtags are self-explanatory, such as #amwriting or #selfpub, but what happens when you don’t understand a hashtag? What the heck does #asmsg mean?
When in doubt, you can always refer to Tagdef. On this site, simply write in the unknown hashtag, and check the definition:
#asmsg is Authors' Social Media Support Group : A Talented Group of Independent Authors from Around the Globe Offering a Diverse Collection of Books.
You won’t find every single hashtag (for example, #WLC –World Literary Café—isn’t in the database), but it’s a good place to start. What’s more, if you know the meaning of a hashtag, you can always add it to the database and help out others.
Tracking Hashtags
Another great site to check out hashtags is But beware! Signing up is quite expensive for the humble writer (fees go from $49-349 a month). Nonetheless, that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a look. Snooping around, I found a little trick around the system. Just click this link for a taste of the free service (access to the demo is somewhat buried in the website). At the top of the page, you’ll see a search box with a giant hash symbol at the front. Simply type in your hashtag and watch the magic unfold.
Here’s an example. Let’s type in #asmsg. Remember that one? Author Social Media Support Group. Here’s what we get:
This is the 24-hour trend graph for this hashtag. It shows an approximation of how many times the hashtag has been used in the past 24 hours. As a paying customer, you can track hashtags over periods of 12 months (very useful for commercial purposes).
What’s so important about knowing when a hashtag is most prolific? It’s a sign of when people interested in that hashtag are using Twitter. If you want to, say, promote your blog about writing with the hashtag #writetip, it’s a good idea to check this graph to see when the hashtag is most used. It’ll probably have more chances of being seen with the #writetip community is at a peak.
The website offers three more delicious morsels:
As you can see in the image, even in the demo we get a short list of prolific users of that hashtag (in case you’d like to contact or follow any of them), part of a pie chart with other related hashtags (you have to upgrade to view half the chart, but still—it’s better than nothing), and a short list of recent tweets related to the hashtag you just looked up.
What to do with all this new information?
Hooting Hashtags
At first, I used just Twitter. Then, I went over to Tweetdeck so I could manage my tweets and schedule them for when I was away from the computer. However, I quickly left Tweetdeck because it was unreliable. I would spend several minutes organizing my tweets, leave, and hours later I’d find out not a single one of them had been sent. There wasn’t any apparent reason; the site just sometimes didn’t want to work.
My current recommendation is the social media management dashboard Hootsuite. It’s reliable, sturdy and intuitive. You can see all your streams in columns: Home Feed, Mentions, Scheduled Tweets, Direct Messages and Sent Tweets. I won’t delve into the intricacies of Hootsuite, but I will point out that it’s a great tool to manage your tweets.
At the top of the page, there’s a schedule button. Click it and you’ll get a very easy-to-use menu. Just write your tweet, select the time and date for it, and click schedule. The new tweet will appear in your Scheduled Tweets column.
The only drawback I see to Hootsuite is that the scheduling intervals run each five minutes. Options such as 10:48 aren’t possible, it’s either 10:45 or 10:50. This constraint gives the tweets a bit of an artificial flavor, but the application is still well worth the time.
So that’s it! With these three tools, I’m sure any tweep will be able to make the experience more valuable!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Books for Writers #4 - Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint

(Sorry for the delay posting this, but I somehow managed to superglue the pages of the book together...)

This week’s recommendation is Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. It's part of the Write Great Fiction series, and a great read for anyone wishing to add more depth to their stories.

Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint is loaded with useful advice, information and exercises that you can apply from the very beginning--no matter the writing stage you're in.

Chapters one to seven focus on creating deep and believable characters, chapters eight to eleven discuss emotion, and chapters twelve to sixteen manage point of view. The transition from one topic to another is very well done and easy to follow, as each chapter builds on the previous ones.

Kress delves into so much detail—and offers so much advice—that it's difficult to choose just a couple points to comment on in this review. There's just so much going on in this book and it's all so great!

For example, in the chapters on how to create characters, the author defines each type of character, gives advice on making (good or bad) first impressions, tackling a character's social masks and true motivations, offering interesting backstory, giving your characters inner turmoil and conflicting desires… She even gives specific character portraits for genre fiction (characterization in romance, in westerns, in sci-fi...). 

A great chapter on characterization is Chapter 5: Showing change in your characters—If I knew then what I know now. Showing character change and development can be, as Kress says, overwhelming. Her main advice is to break down the task and write in scenes—and specify exactly what each scene "is supposed to accomplish". I have to admit I learned a lot from this section, and have been trying my best to apply it to my own work.

After the section on characterization, the author goes on to comment emotion. Kress offers us this great example:

All the following statements […] are made spontaneously by characters who have just learned that their dogs have been run over by a speeding truck:

- "Oh my God, no! No! Oh, not Cinnamon—no!"
- "Goddam $#%@*& driver! I'll kill him!"
- "Where is she? Can I see her? Who picked up the body?"
- "Did she suffer? Oh, please say death was instantaneous!"
- "I just let her out a minute… oh, God, I should have put her on the leash… oh, it's my fault… poor Cinnamon…"

- Silence.

All these examples are very short, yet they already show us character emotions—and character traits, thus reminding readers of everything we learned in previous chapters. See how it's all linked together?

Other techniques Kress comments on while discussing emotion are clichéd techniques, showing emotion through metaphor and sensory detail, special cases of emotion (loving, fighting and dying) and frustration. Yes, the author dedicates an entire chapter to introduce frustration as a valuable tool to nudge characters along and keep readers interested. Very interesting indeed!

As for point of view, Kress starts out by defining protagonist and point of view character, and then gives advice on how to choose the point of view character, as well as how many there should be (hint: as few as possible to still tell your story).

After giving a quick description of each type of point of view (first, third, and omniscient—as well as experimental and combinations of first and third), the author gives us in-depth information and guidance on the three main types of point of view. This is great help for anyone who struggles with defining clear points of view.

All in all, Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint is yet another great reference book for creative writers. If you’re having trouble showing emotion, if your characters act more like paper dolls than real people, or if you need some guidance on choosing the right point of view, this is a must-read! Along with The Emotion Thesaurus, it can give you all the tools you need to breathe life into your story.

Apart from the wealth of exercises at the end of each chapter, another added perk to this book is that each chapter contains special question boxes with writing-related topics, for example:

Question: Is a thesaurus useful in writing descriptions of people and places?
Answer: A thesaurus is either a great aid or a disastrous deceiver, depending on how you use it. [The author then goes on to give an explanation.]

I don’t know what I would have done without it! (And yes, I managed to salvage the pages I had glued together...)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Welcome Weekend Writing Warriors!

This post is several days late--but hopefully not too late!

As many of you know, Six Sentence Sunday closed on January 27 of this year. I hadn't participated much (because I'm a mess and can't keep track of my own schedules), but I was still very sad to see this engaging initiative come to an end. Many thank yous to the administrators of the site for their hard work and dedication.

Here's a moment of silence for Six Sentence Sunday. You will be missed.

Luckily for those of us who need our Sunday literary fix, we have a new site rolling:

Weekend Writing Warriors, or the tongue-twisting WeWriWa!

The premise is the same as before: sign up on the website and post your submission on your blog or website by Sunday morning. There is only one difference: texts are eight sentences long. That gives us a couple more sentences to breathe--and boy do I need them!

For more information on the rules and deadlines, check out the website (linked above). You can also receive updates on Twitter with the hashtags #WeWriWa and #8Sunday.

Happy writing, everyone!
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