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Happy chocolate - er, Valentine's - Day!

Everyone knows what Valentine's Day is really about: chocolate!

I ran a search on my books, and predictably enough, nearly all of them mention chocolate. Some examples:

Summer Term:
He set down the glass, thought a moment, and said, “I would like to make chocolate chip cookies.”

Persephone’s Orchard:
Adrian peeled the plastic wrap from the brownie, broke it in half, and handed the larger section to her.

Immortal’s Spring:
Must be the scents and nourishment of a proper home-cooked meal at last. And the wine. And the chocolate cake—from scratch.

Of Ghosts and Geeks:
When Gwen heard the knock, she imagined it was a local kid selling fundraiser chocolate bars, or Uncle Bert dropping in to beg more details about her “student’s” ghost.

The Ghost Downstairs:
“But he did. He had chocolate with me.” Lina closed her mouth before disclosing what happened after the chocolate.

What Scotland Taught Me: (To my surprise this one has the most references to chocolate of any of my stories. Here are a few.)

“Can we just get some chocolate,” I said, “and go home?”

“Be a dear and serve your boyfriend some chocolate trifle, won’t you?”

Coffee, I needed coffee. No, better yet, chocolate. Chocolate might put my calendar in perspective.

“I was wondering if an old friend could stay at your flat tonight, if that friend brought like a cubic buttload of Cadbury Fruit and Nut bars.”

Valentine’s Day resolved nothing. That afternoon apparently featured Amber wearing lingerie and chocolate body paint in Laurence’s room, and still not getting laid.

My apologies for the damage this post may have done to anyone trying to cut calories.

14.     Listen to your critique team.

When you’ve acquired beta readers (or alpha readers, or critiquers, or whatever their chosen label is), and they’ve read your rough draft and sent you their thoughts, now is the time to exercise gratitude, as all the self-help books urge lately. Believe me, I know from experience that it’s nerve-racking to hand over your literary concoction to other people and open yourself up to anything they might say about it. But chances are they’ll be nice—those dreadful creative-writing peer-review small-group college classes being the only likely exception—and in any case they have definitely done you a favor by devoting time and thought to your draft. So listen to what they say! And consider all of it.

You don’t have to make all the changes they suggest. Use your intuition on that. Also consider doing it by democratic vote: if you have more than one beta reader (which is best if you can swing it), and the majority of the team agrees on a proposed change, then it’s probably a good idea.

Sometimes they’ll suggest changes that you do not like. But spend some time with the suggestion anyway, before responding. I’ve done this on many occasions, and have gone through the following succession of thoughts:
“Noooo, I don’t want to write it that way.”
“I mean, if I did, it would change X, Y, and Z, which…hmm, that might not be too bad…”
“Oh! Wait! I might not do it exactly like they said, but if I make THIS change, which is similar, it’ll be even better!”
“Yay! I love this book even more now! My beta readers are awesome!”

And, on the bright side, they’ll probably also tell you stuff they loved about the book, which you won’t have to change at all. So bask in that part. You’ve earned it.

Go write! Go be grateful! We’re done here! :)


13.     Read rough drafts for other writers.

Chances are you know other writers who are seeking feedback, or you’ve seen open calls asking for beta readers among the social media outlets in your life. So, as your schedule allows, volunteer your time, read their stuff, and critique it as constructively and thoughtfully as you can. Not only is this good karma, payable in the form of them reading your drafts in return, but it helps you see your own work more realistically, both its strengths and its flaws, when you get back to it.

It’s probably most useful if you choose to beta-read projects that are the kind of thing you like to read anyway, but it can also be a good stretch for your mind to try something different from your usual tastes. Most writers—as you know, being one—are grateful for any kind of feedback, whether from the typical reader of the genre in question or from someone less familiar with it, and you can really make a difference in your friend’s revision process by providing your thoughts. Be the change you want to see in the writing world, and help a colleague out!


12.     Read! Lots! And review. Nicely.

This one’s easy, because (I would hope) you’re already doing it: read! Read books you love, whatever they are. I won’t go as far as some advice-givers go, and tell you to read mainly books in the genre you want to write in. I think it’s more important to read books that captivate you for any reason. That way you’ll not only be enjoying your reading time, but you’ll hone your unique voice, which is fed by the specific collection of interests that only you possess.

When you finish a book, review it online. Goodreads is a useful place for this, as of course are Amazon and B&N and Kobo and iTunes and…well, wherever you bought the book would likely be a good place to review it, but mirroring the review on other sites is a nice touch if you have the time. This not only gives you a handy record of what you’ve read and what your impressions of it were, but it serves as a bit of marketing for you as an online book-related person. People might like your review and look up the stuff you’ve written.

THEREFORE: look, I can’t dictate to you what to do. But in your reviews I strongly suggest you avoid snark and trash-talk. If a book didn’t work for you, find the nicest way possible to say so, and even with those books, try to include a line about what your favorite part was. I mean, think about it: when you rip other people’s books to shreds, anyone reading your review is going to expect some pretty fabulous material from your pen if you hold such lofty ideals of literature. Can you live up to that? If you don’t, are you ready to get equally dumped on by people reviewing your stuff?

Now, unfortunately, people might trash your work even if you’ve been 100% nice in reviews. It happens. It hurts. It sucks. But at least you can take some comfort in having the moral high ground, which, seriously, a lot of people will respect you for. Be the class act.

Exception I will grant you: if a book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has thousands of heart-eyed five-star reviews, and you just don’t get it, you can say so a little more flatly. I admit I did this with the third Twilight book, for example. But even then, I recommend holding back from a full-out immature rantfest. You’ll thank yourself later.

Anyway, go read books! Enjoy them! Final hint: if you aren’t enjoying a book, don’t finish it. Stop halfway, DON’T leave a review, and move on to something new. There. Happier already, right?


11.     Spend a little time every week familiarizing yourself with some aspect of the business side.

This is one I definitely need to do more, and better. Sure, we’re artists. We like to create, in solitude, and share only when we’re ready, which might be approximately once a year. We hate the shallow, commercial, look-at-me marketing side. But, assuming we do want to be published, we need to know something about how the publishing industry works. So, just for a few minutes a week, do some Googling. Read articles and blog posts by those who are savvy about this stuff.

For example, find out what exactly it is that makes professional cover art look cooler than DIY cover art. What should go into a back-cover blurb. What kind of social media persona you’re currently presenting, how much online-marketing time you’re willing to commit to, how you might best reach your target audience. Consider who your target audience actually is. Read about what types of marketing have worked (and haven’t) for other authors. Check out what’s up in the publishing world lately in general.

One of the reasons it’s important to do this, aside from merely not sounding like a noob in your query letters, is that the industry is changing rapidly, and frequently. Ebooks are now a hugely profitable thing when not that many years ago no one thought they’d take off. Self-publishing likewise has become far more respected than it used to be, in a short amount of time. The role of agents and editors has shifted accordingly. Lots of posts and articles out there are discussing these kinds of things, and they’re good to know.

Another reason to do this kind of research is that you might stumble into a fabulous networking moment. Here, I’ll give you an actual useful tip: check out the #MSWL tag on Twitter. MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List, and it’s what agents and editors sometimes use when posting the kind of books they really want to see submitted to them right now. You might just find someone who sounds perfect for you to work with, who’s looking for exactly what you’ve written. May it be so!


10.     Try writing something different from your usual, once in a while

This is good for flexibility. Could be a poem, or a nonfiction article, or a letter to someone. Or a scene that’s light and funny if you’re usually inclined to dark material. Or a thoughtful, honest Yelp review of a restaurant. I keep a file in which I describe and review perfumes I’ve tried, which is mainly for my own practical reference, but also can count as a writing exercise since it demands that I pay attention to the way something smells and put the impression into words.

As with your free-write journal, this doesn’t necessarily have to be anything you share with anyone else. Goodness knows the poems I’ve tried writing are not ready for prime time. (Poetry is decidedly outside my wheelhouse.) But it’s another form of writing practice and is thus good for the creative mind. Then you’ll be feeling more ready to get back to your fiction!


9.     Keep a free-write journal. Stay in practice.

Today’s tip is actually about writing something OTHER than your fiction. As we all know, there are some days when the fiction doesn’t want to flow. Or you’re between projects (as I’ve been lately). Or for whatever other reason, the story is not what you’re ready to write today. I think most days it’s best when we still TRY to work on the story anyway (because usually the writing doesn’t end up as bad as we think it’s going to), but for days when you just can’t, write in a free-write journal instead.

Mine’s a regular old Word document, though once in a blue moon I take a spiral-bound notebook to a park and write by hand. My cursive is atrocious, though, and my hand tends to cramp up from holding pens or pencils after a while, whereas my typing is nice and fast and comfortable. So most of the time if I go this method, it’s on screen.

As they probably told you in creative writing class, the free-write can be anything at all. It’s just you doing stretches and jumping jacks, not you tackling a marathon or an ambitious hike. You can write about the lyrics of the song that’s in your head and speculate on what the heck they mean. You can write about how annoying your brother is. You can write about what the problem is with your current story, and see if you can unravel some of the tangles. Anything your mind feels inclined to produce.

Just fifteen minutes of that—hell, even five—is good for your creative brain, and may turn out to be good for the story you’ll eventually work on, too.


It's a snowy day here in the Pacific Northwest, school has been canceled due to the weather, the kids are ecstatic, and I'll do what I can in the way of work today. So: we're in the second week of the daily writing tips, and today's tip is...

8.     Finish it. Unless you absolutely don’t care about it.

Finish that story! This is important! Exception: if you really, honestly don’t even like it anymore and don’t care if it ever gets finished, then go start writing something you do care about. But if you want to see the work in progress get completed, then finish it. The first draft doesn’t have to be awesome; in fact, it almost never is. You can fix it later, and anyway you’ll learn what the beginning needs (and probably the middle too) only by writing the end. This is one of those weird and annoying truths about the creation of fiction.

I also hate to tell you this, but even finishing the draft doesn’t mean you’re close to having a complete draft that’s ready for publishing. There have been more times than I want to think about where I’ve written an entire book, then looked it over with honesty, and realized I basically had to rewrite the whole damn thing if it was going to be good enough for the rest of the world to read. But that’s okay too! The writing of the substandard first draft still did its part in helping me learn what the book needed, and it definitely counted as writing practice in general.

Also, hey, I don’t know the actual stats on this, nor how we would ever get those stats, but what they keep telling is that if you finish a full draft of a novel, you’re ahead of the vast majority of people who attempt to write one and abandon it partway through. I could believe that. So yes: be one of the outliers. (Unless you seriously don’t care. Then move on to something else. But eventually, finish something.)


Today on writing inspiration, my idea is...

7.     Make a playlist for your story.

Sometimes visuals aren’t enough for inspiration, and you need the help of music. With my stories, I nearly always end up choosing certain songs as the definitive songs that mean this story and these characters. It’s their song, man! Or rather, their songs, plural. Once I’ve decided what those songs are—or, more accurately, once those songs have popped up in my life and self-proclaimed their perfection for my purposes—I put them on a playlist (iTunes, Amazon Prime Music, Spotify…choose your favorite method) and listen to them when going for a walk or doing housework, and daydream about the story. I often find that I can’t listen to them while actually writing, because it’s too distracting, but your mileage may vary.

If you’re the type who can be affected by music (which is most of us), this tip can work magic on your inspiration. However, don’t expect other people to feel the same about the songs you chose for your story. Even if you have a devoted fan base (which most of us don’t, and won’t), readers will likely come up with their own favorite songs they would choose for your work. Similarly, they’ll probably have different casting ideas from yours. But that’s okay. These tips are for getting you to write the story and love it. People get to read the story and love it in their own way, just as we all have, as readers with our favorite books.

That said, if you do want to listen to the playlist I put together for The Chrysomelia Stories (the Persephone trilogy), it’s here.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and I’ll come up with more daily tips for one more week before we’re done!


6.     Cast your story with actual photos.

This tip may stem from the fact that I’m primarily a visual learner, but nonetheless, humans in general do usually take in a lot of information from what they see. So use that to your benefit when trying to flesh out your characters by collecting photos of people who look like them. Essentially you’re casting the story as if adapting it for film, except you don’t have to limit yourself to actual actors, nor people who are still alive or still the right age for the part. You can cast Mae West as she looked in 1935, or some unknown civilian captured in a photograph from 1898, or someone in a modern stock photo. The important thing is that their face makes you think of your character.

Why is this any more useful than writing out a detailed description of your character’s appearance, sans photograph? Well, because if you’re like me, you don’t think of everything when you picture an imaginary person. You know their hair color and eye color and their height and build, but how clearly can you see their smile? Do you know which little wrinkles it brings out in other parts of their face? What shape are their eyebrows? Is their hairline low or high? You don’t have to copy every single physical aspect of the person in the photograph and stick it onto your character, but looking at the details of someone’s actual face in a picture makes you think about how human faces look, and what kind of realistic details you might mention. Most importantly, I find that casting the story with photos makes the characters become more alive to me while I’m doing the writing. It gets easier to picture how they’d move, what habitual gestures they’d make, how they’d dress, and so on.

Pinterest, by the way, is a handy place to collect these photos. You can make a board for your story (mark it private if you don’t want others to see it) and start pinning pictures on it, adding your own notes and captions. You can also include pictures of the setting: the city or part of the world where it takes place, or landmarks your characters visit. Or pictures of fashions they might wear. Or really any photos that spark thoughts about your story. Let your visual-learning abilities help your creativity. Just a caveat: it’s really easy to waste hours on Pinterest, so pace yourself lest you fall into a rabbit hole of procrastination.

More story-inspiration thoughts tomorrow! 


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