5 Great Books For Writers

I’ve written all my life, but I only seriously started writing a handful of years ago, and I didn’t know nearly as much about writing or what it takes to get published as I thought I did.

In part, that might be a good thing. Sometimes being naive when starting a journey can be helpful. After all, when you don’t know how difficult something is, it can be easier to begin.

While there’s no substitute for putting your butt in the chair and actually writing, there are a lot of books out there that can help point you in the right direction. These are some of the ones I’ve found most helpful.

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On Writing, by Stephen King

Part how-to, part encouragement, there’s so much great advice in this book. Whether or not you actually like Stephen King, this book should be on every writer’s shelf.

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Story Engineering: Mastering the Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks

This book is my writing bible. No, seriously, it really is. It’s highlighted with tons of post-its stuck to the pages. It lays the structure of a story out in a concrete, simple way that works for my literal brain.

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Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress

My writing critique group told me that my characters needed more agency until I was ready to explode. They also told me that my main characters were “wishy-washy” and “gray.” It’s not that I didn’t agree with them; it’s just that I had no idea how to fix the issue. This is the first book that actually made sense to me as to how to build good characters and sustain them through an entire book.

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Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert

As much as I love writing, sometimes I just get burned out from doing it. I do it because I love it, but sometimes keeping all the balls in the air of juggling plot, character, conflict, etc drives me a little crazy. I read this book at exactly the time in my life that I needed to, and it helped me remember why I fell in love with stories.

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Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, by Laura Vanderkam

This isn’t technically a book on writing, but if there’s one thing I hear from most people who write, it’s “I wish I had more time to write!” This book has an excellent practical and philosophical take on how to get more done and make the most use of the time we have.

If you write, are there any books you’ve found especially helpful?

10 Ways to Waste Time Instead of Writing

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Want to be a writer, but don’t actually want to write words? Here are some great ways to waste time while complaining that you don’t actually have time to write.

Here are 10 ways to waste time instead of writing:

1. Social media

Any of them! There are so many rabbit holes to disappear into. Want to be enraged about politics? There’s something for that! Cute cat videos more your style? They’re everywhere! Want to voyeuristically spy on everyone you know and read vague statuses about people who are upset about things but don’t actually want to tell anyone what they’re talking about? Oh boy, does social media have those!

2. Play games

My personal favorites are Words With Friends, Soda Crush, and Cribbage. But don’t worry, if those aren’t your style, there are plenty more where those came from.

3. Read

This one hurts me to call “wasting time,” but when it cuts into designated writing time, I think it counts. Bonus points if you pretend it’s research because you’re reading in your genre, or outside your genre, or something with a vague relation to something you’re writing about.

4. Watch TV

After all, you thought about typing four words. Your brain needs to rest now. And maybe that rerun of Jersey Shore will spark creativity.

5. Talk about all the stories you want to write instead of actually writing them

Loudly inform everyone you see that you’re a writer, and tell them every detail of the plot you haven’t actually written yet. Bonus points if their eyes glaze over. Double bonus points for drool.

6. Do all the chores that desperately need to be done RIGHT NOW

Dishes that have been in the sink for 12 hours really can’t wait any longer while you write for an hour. That laundry that’s been there since the weekend isn’t going to fold itself. Do all those leftover chores immediately, then look at the time mournfully and realize that you were once again, too busy to write.

7. Stop writing and do something else if it seems difficult.

All successful writers write in a cloud of rainbow sparkles as the words effortlessly flow from their fingertips. If it feels like work, that means today isn’t the magical writing day. Maybe tomorrow.

8. Look for lots of encouraging quotes and memes on writing

Find the perfect bit of encouragement before you can start. This will mean reading approximately 8,362 web pages, and oops! Writing time is gone today. Too bad you’ll need a different encouragement tomorrow.

9. If it’s not perfect, don’t even write put it on paper

Writing crap isn’t a learning experience that counts toward your 10,000 hours until you’re an expert. Only writing perfect words counts. So what if you only write 6 words a week? You’ll get to that expert level in 30 or 40 years.

10. Obsess over any and all criticism (but don’t learn from it!)

Criticism means you suck. You’ll never write anything worthwhile. You should be better than this by now. Read it over and over again until your self-esteem is shot and you couldn’t write a sentence if you tried. But whatever you do, don’t try to find ways to improve. That would lead to productivity.

What ways do you waste time instead of writing?

Five Things Friday- August 2018

One- What I’m Writing

I submitted my YA thriller, Not Dead Enough, to Pitch Wars! (Keep your fingers crossed for me!) I’m editing my YA horror novel, Acheron Crossing, along with my amazing critique groups. And I’m outlining/ brainstorming/ writing/ cursing another YA novel, currently titled Hide in The Light.

Two- Random Fact About Me

I used to practice with a roller derby team. I had to quit before I could ever join (because I got a new job that conflicted).

Three- What I’m Grateful For This Month

I’m grateful for no kill shelters and rescues… they do great work and have amazing volunteers.

Four- When I Wasn’t Reading

I went on a ghost walk in Austin and went to a roller derby bout, both of which were a lot of fun. We also brought a new dog home.

Five- Favorite Picture This Month

Ripley and Midnyte never could have lay this close without grumbling and growling, but Comet and Ripley get along with no problems. It really warms my heart to see them together.

10 Things That Help Me Unblock Creativity

I’ve been sort of in a funk lately. Not like, depressed. But just feeling like the story I want to tell wasn’t going well.

For me, I’m doing well with everything or nothing. While the writing wasn’t going well, I wasn’t having much success with other things either. I was feeling disorganized, as if any item I put on my “To Do” list went off and died there. I was struggling with eating healthy, and wasn’t taking my dog for regular walks.

It wasn’t that I felt unmotivated; far from it. I wanted to accomplish all those things, but when it came down to it, I found myself reading a book or playing a game on my phone (I love 1010!) or aimlessly surfing the internet. And then the day was gone, and I’d managed to check off one thing.

Two weeks ago, I couldn’t do what I’d planned to, and was sort of forced to steam vac my carpets. (Let’s just say I have lots of pets and leave it at that, okay?) And it felt kind of good to move around and play music really loud and sweat and have something tangible I accomplished.

None of that week went as planned, but I got lots of things done. And then the following week rolled around, and all that motivation I’d stored up but hadn’t used just kind of burst to the surface.

I decided that I needed to clean off my desk and make my workspace a bit more appealing. In the midst of doing that, I saw my kaleidoscope collection and realized that I haven’t looked through them in a while.

In the past, when I’ve been searching for inspiration, I’ve sat down and looked through a kaleidoscope. More recently, I take out my phone and play 1010! It’s not the same.

I found my fountain pen, disassembled and cleaned on my desk, and realized that I haven’t been using that either. I love my fountain pens.

With all the other life clutter going on, I decided it was a good idea to make myself a list of things I love, so that next time I’m in a funk, I can remember to reconnect.

  1. Kaleidoscopes– Looking at the swirling colors is a form of meditation for me. I can slow down for a moment and just concentrate on one thing. If you want to get metaphysical, I can also remember that like life, they’re beautiful and constantly changing.
  2. Fountain pens– I started using a cheap plastic fountain pen when I was in my teens, and I just love them. Actually, I love all pens: gel pens and sharpies and nice ballpoints. But I have a special love of the smooth writing of a good fountain pen. I love to see ink on my fingers.
  3. Journaling– I seem to get away from this just when I need it the most. I’m trying (again) to make it a daily practice. I always use the excuse that it’s hard when life gets busy. But when isn’t life busy?
  4. Doodling– I’m trying to get more into art journaling. I’ve always wanted to be able to draw, but am TERRIBLE at it. (No, seriously, visual art is something I’m bad at.) But I’m okay with loving something and being terrible at it. Lucky for me, Pinterest has about a million boards for inspiration on the topic. Right now, I’m mostly working with banners and arrows. Gotta start somewhere, right?
  5. Stickers– I can’t draw, but I can put stickers on everything.
  6. Healthy eating– I really do feel better when I eat better.
  7. Logic puzzles– While just playing random games isn’t all that helpful (and is actually a time waster, I know!), logic puzzles use the logical part of my brain. I guess that makes my whole brain work better? I don’t know; I just know that mindful game playing works for me.
  8. Coloring– For me, coloring is like meditation. I can’t draw, but I can stay inside the lines. The biggest decision I have to make is whether to use the blue or the purple crayon. It helps me turn off my conscious mind for a little while. Sometimes, that’s the space where answers find me, instead of me looking for them. Adult coloring books are a thing now. You can find them anywhere, even Wal-Mart and Amazon.
  9. Taking a Walk– We have a lovely greenbelt near our house. Getting out and listening to the birds sing and the breeze moving through the trees is relaxing, and sometimes helps my brain get moving again.
  10. Candles– There are more and more articles out there about the benefits of aromatherapy. It can help improve mood, help with wakefulness, even help with physical issues like headaches! I love burning candles and filling my office with scent. Because it’s what I do when I write, my brain knows that when it smells vanilla candles burning, it’s time to get to work.

What kinds of things help you unblock creativity?

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Finalist in the Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest!

Hey everyone, guess what! My manuscript, Not Dead Enough, was a finalist in the young adult category of The Writer’s League of Texas Manuscript Contest! It’s a fancy way of saying I was a runner-up, but I’ll take it!

When Charlotte’s abusive boyfriend starts texting her from beyond the grave, she has to figure out if he’s haunting her, if she’s losing her mind, or if someone else wants her dead. He may be gone, but he’s NOT DEAD ENOUGH.

I got fantastic feedback on how to improve my book, and I’m eager to start working on it. Plus, I got a great compliment. The person who critiqued my manuscript said, “It is reminiscent of older horror books (like Christopher Pike) but the social media and modern voice stops it from feeling dated.”

For a while, I was getting frustrated by the fact that I keep getting close to winning contests and such, but don’t quite get there. I’ve put it in perspective now though, and I wasn’t even getting this kind of feedback before, which means I’ve improved. I only have a little more to go before I’m where I want to be.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that as long as I keep improving, I’m moving forward to reach my goal. Maybe it’s taking longer than I like, but that doesn’t matter, as long as I keep moving forward. And I’m learning so much writing and editing this book that the next one will be a little easier.

On a related topic, for the last two weeks, I blogged about writing groups, and I have proof that my writing group is awesome. My friend from my writer’s group, Mary Osteen, was a finalist in the same contest in the middle-grade category for her book, The Book With No Story.

Have you ever been frustrated by not making progress or reaching a goal as quickly as you wanted to?

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Ten Things I’ve Learned From My Writing Critique Group

Sorry I didn’t get to finish this series of posts last week, as planned. Life got in the way, as it sometimes does.

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I belong to one online and two in-person writing groups currently. I’ve belonged to others of both types in the past. Some of my experiences with writing groups have been better than others, but I’ve learned a lot from both the more positive and less positive experiences. I will say that both of my current in-person writing groups feel like family, and hanging out with them is the best.

1. Chemistry matters.

Critiquing can be a stressful experience for both the person giving and the person receiving the critique. No matter how much I try to tell myself it’s not personal, it absolutely is. I pour my heart into what I write (as most writers do) and any critique, no matter how well-intentioned, can sting a bit. Critique stings a lot less (and actually can feel good) coming from someone I genuinely like and respect. When everyone in a group respects one another, I can tell, and it makes a huge difference to how the group functions.

2. I always have more to learn.

When I first started the process of being critiqued, I’m not sure what I thought about it. But knowing me, I probably assumed I wouldn’t need someone else to critique me forever, that at some point, I’d “get it.”

I understand now that my learning will constantly evolve, and once I master one skill, it’s time to learn another. At this point, I want my writing to constantly improve, no matter how “good” I get.

Like most beginning writers, I used to have a love affair with adverbs. I don’t anymore, but I do tend to repeat words. I get a favorite word in a chapter, and that word is repeated 8,375 times. I don’t even notice, no matter how hard I look for it. But my critique group does.

3. Talking to other writers is like taking a mini-vacation.

In all of my groups, we stay and talk after we’re done tearing each other’s work to shreds. (Just kidding. We don’t do that… usually.) The conversations we have are generally the type of things that might make non-writers a little nervous. I speak loudly, and not everyone appreciates flippant comments on murder, the apocalypse, or how we can disagree and still respect one another. Luckily, my group does, and they laugh even louder when they realize we’re scaring people.

4. Good criticism energizes me.

Most of the time, I walk away from my writers’ groups eager to make the changes my fellow writers have suggested. There have been many times when I know something isn’t right about my story, but I can’t pinpoint what. When good critique is offered, I suddenly know exactly what needs to be done (or at least, where to start) and I want to get to it immediately. I wish I could bottle that feeling.

5. Other writers’ successes feel fantastic.

There’s lots of advice out there about how to deal with jealousy when the writers nearest to you are becoming more successful than you. I’m so competitive that I worried this would be a problem for me. But when two members of my group found agents, I waited for the jealousy, and it didn’t happen. All I felt was, “Of course someone recognized how amazing their stories are! I can’t wait to buy them!” Do I want to get an agent and start that path to publication? Obviously. But I want us all to be successful, and it doesn’t matter which of us is first. We’re all going to get there.

6. Everyone works at their own pace.

I can whip out a really good first draft fast, but then I have to spend a long time tinkering with it. I struggle with the editing process because my first draft is so close to being right that I don’t know what to change. (This is not a humble-brag. It really is frustrating and I haven’t learned how to edit my work the way I need to.) As a result, I probably spend more time editing and rewriting than anyone I know. It sometimes frustrates me because I feel like I should be able to get this faster than I do. But if I’m being honest, it can sometimes take me a while to learn a new skill. But once I get it, I get it. I’m frustrated with my “always a bridesmaid” status, in that most of the rejections I get say that I made it to the final round, or that they loved it, “but…” However, I’ve started telling myself that this is just part of my process, and the fact that I’m getting closer to success means that I’m on the right track. There was a time I didn’t even get to be a bridesmaid.

7. Most of us are socially awkward introverts.

We like books! People are… ugh. We’re not unfriendly (well, sometimes we are), it’s just that, as socially awkward introverts, we don’t always want to meet new group members, no matter how great they may turn out to be. It’s hard to be friendly and hard to welcome new group members. After all, we’re going to be putting our hearts on the table, handing out knives, and saying, “Go on, slash at it.” I remember being new to groups and feeling, while not unwelcome, not entirely welcome either. I also remember being wary of new group members, eyeing them suspiciously. I try to be better about it because what I’ve figured out is that no matter how “normal” they pretend to be, they’re just as weird in the same ways as me.

8. You really do have to be willing to put your heart on the table.

This is so hard for me. Most of my group members love my supporting cast of characters but call my narrators “secretive,” “gray,” or “blank.” (Most of them don’t come out and say this, but that’s what their comments boil down to.) It took me a long time to figure out that while my narrators aren’t me, they carry bits of me, and my normal habit of being secretive spills over onto them more strongly than any other trait of mine. People want to know characters; it’s what makes them sympathetic, even when they’re making bad decisions.

I have to keep reminding myself of two things. First off, no one is going to know what bits and pieces of my heart I used to mold and shape my characters unless I tell them. Secondly, even if they did, people love vulnerability. Presenting an impenetrable facade is intimidating. I know this, and I’m still working on it.

 

9. Not everyone wants you to succeed.

There are people join writer’s groups for their ego and they will tear you down if they get the chance. Sometimes those people are harder to recognize than others. But if you more often feel bad about their criticism than energized or good, it may be time to part ways. Writing is hard enough without the discouragers.

10. Some writers have no desire to improve.

Some people will never change, no matter how many times you offer the same feedback. There’s a difference between “I thought about what you said and I disagree” and “I’m not really interested in changing.” Those people can be difficult to deal with because anyone who’s growing and changing will feel dragged down by people who are stuck. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve found that works long-term with people who don’t want to improve is to leave them alone in their unchanging ways.

I found my current writers’ groups through Meetup.com, but I also use Scribophile for an online critique group. (Feel free to find me on Scribophile as Doree Weller.)

What have you learned from your writers’ groups? Is there anything I’ve covered in this series that you’re interested in learning more about?

Related posts:

8 Things To Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

9 Things To Remember When Receiving Writing Feedback

4 Myths About Critiquing

4 Myths About Critiquing

IMG_2068Over time, I’ve made changes in the way I critique. I read articles on how to critique and tried to follow the “rules.” But through giving and receiving critiques, I’ve found that there were some “rules” I agreed with, and others I didn’t.

Here are a few of the most popular ones I disagree with.

Don’t suggest big changes.

This is an interesting one. On the surface, it seems logical. After all, it’s the writer’s story, and there’s nothing more insulting than a critiquer trying to remake a story into something they’d write rather than the story the writer envisioned.

But let’s dig deeper. My goal is getting published, a goal I share with many of the writers I  work with.

I’ve heard stories of agents who want different endings. For one of my published stories, I was asked to cut the entire first section. Right now, I’m making a major edit to the novel I was, until recently, querying.

Big changes to work are intimidating, but sometimes necessary. If you, as a critiquer, feel that a big change is necessary, isn’t it important to say so? How is it helpful if you think that a big change would improve the story, but you keep it to yourself?

I don’t think it is, which is why I call this one bogus.

Don’t rewrite

In my writer’s group, one of us uses Hemmingway’s short, terse, style as a model of good writing. Another person loves the meandering flow of literary fiction. I’m somewhere in between those two extremes.

If the Hemmingway guy were to rewrite the sentences of the meandering flow guy, it would be silly because their styles are at opposite ends of a continuum.

But rewriting a sentence doesn’t mean that you think the person should copy your style; it means that giving an example is the clearest way to illustrate your point.

I’m all for rewriting. Sometimes when I get feedback like, “This sentence doesn’t flow,” it frustrates me. What does that mean? If the person critiquing rewrote it to show me what they meant, that doesn’t mean I have to take it and include it verbatim; it just means that perhaps I now have a more concrete way to understand their feedback.

I rewrite sparingly, but I do it sometimes because it’s easier than explaining. I have a good relationship with everyone in my writer’s groups, so I think (hope) that they all know that when I rewrite, it’s not because what they wrote was terrible (though we all write terrible sentences sometimes), but because I think it can be better.

Don’t argue/ discuss

I believe I said this myself… when getting feedback, be quiet and listen. And I do believe that. What I meant was to not argue with the opinion. If Person A hates your character, don’t argue that the character is actually a great person, as they’ll see if they just stick around until the second act. Readers don’t stick around.

In a small group, sometimes a discussion can be exactly what the writer needs to figure out what they need to do. Through discussion, the writer can parse out why Person A hates your character, and then when they mention that they hated the part where the character ignored their mother, maybe others will say that part bothered them too, but they didn’t think that one moment was worth judging.

At that point, maybe you as a writer understand something that you didn’t before and you can address it.

One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Neil Gaiman:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Sometimes a discussion among the group is the best way for the writer to assess what it is that wasn’t working for people in the group and how they can best address their intention.

Having people suggest changes, even if you aren’t going to use those changes, is a fabulous way to brainstorm. I’ve had some of the best ideas come out of the most frustrating discussions.

Be careful of others’ feelings.

Okay, this is a tricky one. I don’t want to give anyone permission to just be consistently negative and horrible and disguise it as a critique. At the same time, if you’re being too careful of people’s feelings, it can lead to those ridiculous, “It was fine!” kind of critiques.

More important than being careful of people’s feelings is being respectful of them. Because I respect everyone in my writers’ groups so much, I want them to make their stories as polished as they can. I want them to be published. Because of this respect, I’m going to be honest and concrete.

It doesn’t always feel good to be honest. I know that sometimes, in my group, I would prefer not to point out a major plot problem. Sometimes I have so much to say that I feel like I’m “picking on” one person. When I’m the only one who says anything about a particular section, that’s hard. I feel like I’m just being a jerk. It’s even harder when all of us, as a group, say the same thing. Then I feel like part of a bullying gang.

But if we want to improve and want others to improve, we have to say the hard stuff and trust that they can take it. It’s important to focus on what you liked when there’s a lot that needs to be improved. It’s easier to build on a strength than to undo a weakness.

For example, people often tell me that they like my supporting characters and my dialog. They often struggle with my main characters (who tend to be “blank”). Knowing that I already know how to build interesting characters (secondary characters) made it easier to identify how to improve my blank main characters. I’m still working on it, but knowing what I do well helps me to generalize those skills.

 

 

Bottom line, be respectful and honest. In the end, other people own their own feelings, and you aren’t responsible. It’s hard to put your creative work out there, but there will always be people who would rather destroy than build. As long as your goal is always to build someone else up and you’re coming from a genuine place of wanting to help, it’s hard to go wrong.

Is there anything you’ve heard about critiquing that you disagree with?