Debunking Writing Myths

Hi all!

In case you missed it, this Saturday, the ladies of Craftquest and I took on all the bad writing advice you’ve been told. The archived video is available here:

Poor Ari. What is that thumbnail!

We hope you enjoy it!

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Dogs Can’t Meow: Why Even Fantasy Writers Need Research

As an editor, a writer, and a vocal member of the writing community, I hear a lot of strange rules that people make up about writing. As a matter of fact, our next CraftQuest discussion will be exactly about that (subscribe to our channel for updates)! One of my absolute favorite ones is this: If you’re writing fantasy, you don’t need to research. You’re writing about things that don’t exist in reality–why would you need to search for clues within reality? No. Just no. As a writer, you NEED to research. It’s a fundamental part of your work. And it doesn’t matter what you’re writing.

In real life, i.e. not your imaginary book land, there will always be things you don’t know. I know that the infamous “they” tell you to write what you know, but I’ve gotta tell you, if I wrote only what I know into every manuscript I work on, my work would be painfully boring. I’ve written about powered individuals who fight monsters. I’ve written about a girl who is best friends with Aphrodite. I’ve written about spiking your brother-in-law’s martini with coolant. I haven’t done a single one of these things, no matter how sorely tempted I’ve been. What have I done? I’ve been terrified for my life and I’ve been in chaotic situations. I’ve been friends with someone who wanted more for me, and I’ve been friends with someone who thought I should be something I was not. I’ve watched someone abuse someone I loved and wished for a way to free them from the neverending spiral of abuse.

So, how do you write about the things you do not know? You have to do research. You have to learn new things, understand different lifestyles, different histories. You have to dig deep. But what about fantasy and science fiction? You don’t have to do research for those, do you? I mean, they aren’t even real! Why would you need to research something when it’s all made up in your imagination?

Because the key to fiction is relatability. We enjoy books because we relate to their characters or their worlds on some intrinsic level. They reflect something about our world. Which means they have to, at least somewhat, feel similar to our world. On a planet where the physics are different? You have to justify that change. Create a world where someone is immortal? Why? How does their body work that is different from how ours do? You can’t just randomly have someone buried alive for a week and have them survive. You have to explain that they don’t need a whole helluva lot of food, water, and oxygen to survive. You can’t just have a dragon without wings fly through the sky. How does he stay up? Is some kind of magic at play? Without that, they wouldn’t be aerodynamic enough to swoop through the sky.

If your character rides a horse-like creature, you have to understand how to describe riding a horse and relate it back, because when we read, we base the adventures on our own somewhat similar experience. Your job, as a writer, is to come as close to capturing a relatable experience while still balancing that with the new and fantastical ways of the world you’ve created in a consistent fashion.

So how do you make sure your world feels relatable to your readers, even if you play with changing some of the rules? You take what you don’t already know and you…research it.

When I Grow Up

Logan as a model again. I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and this was his face.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re all asked a few hundred times throughout our childhood. And I realized that now that I’m, at least technically, “grown up,” nobody asks me what I want to be anymore. It’s an interesting thing that we’re all asked about our future vocation when we’re far too young to do much about it or to even know ourselves well enough to know what we want. And when do we lose that? When do we start to know ourselves well enough to know what we want for the rest of our lives? What’s the imaginary age that we decide what we’re capable of?

From the time I started school all the way up to my pre-teen years, I wanted to be an English teacher. Teachers are our heroes when we’re young, until we either fall apart under the pressure of expectations and testing and regimented thinking, or we realize they’re just human like the rest of us. I loved English in particular, and there was this amazing writing teacher in my school, Michael Shaw, who was incredibly quirky and pleasant and wasn’t afraid to be silly as hell if it made the kids in the school love to learn. Every year, he would dress up as Johnny Appleseed to teach us about Earth Day before people really cared about ecology the way they should. He was so engaging, that I quickly decided I wanted to be him.

That dream died when I realized I was decidedly not him. I was prone to outbursts of temper I was not good enough at holding back to work with tiny humans all day without being labeled as the monster teacher. I couldn’t even teach my full-grown adult of a mother how to use a computer mouse without losing my temper and treating her like an idiot. Not cool, I know. But I was journeying into teenagerhood with very messy role models and a burgeoning battle with depression and I wasn’t handling it well. And then I met Dr. Jonathan Dzik.

Doc, as all his students called him, took a chance on a moody student who purposely pressed his buttons for entertainment value. And, persnickety by nature, he had a lot of pushable buttons. While I actually attempted to drive him crazy, he actually attempted to guide my efforts to more useful things, like the school musical. He was right, I was a far better singer and actress than I was a teenage asshat. And just like that, I discovered a new answer to what I was going to be when I grew up. An actress and a singer, obviously.

The truth was, I wasn’t actually good at being a teenage asshat, my compassion and empathy often tripping me up and making me suffer after my various attempts at being an unfeeling wench. So, it wasn’t very difficult to be a better singer and actor than an asshat. Another truth? I sucked at acting. And while I still think I possess singing talent, that 1) often comes with a dancing requirement and I can’t do a choreographed step without tripping over myself; and 2) after a year and a half of auditions with professionals, I quickly learned that the industry was not ready for a singer who shopped in the plus sized section. I was in the era before Kelly Clarkson and Adele, when every singer looked like Britney Spears and were lucky if they even grazed the gorgeous sounds of Christina Aguilera’s vocal chops. I could have kept trying, but the constant requests to lose weight killed my self-esteem dead enough that I became determined to find a thing where people could value my brain and not my belly.

I had been writing since back in the days of Mr. Shaw, but I didn’t really think it could be anything. Mostly, I just wrote silly stories based on television shows. And then, one day, while I stood at the counter of the video store I worked at, stuck in the job-with-necessarily-flexible-hours I needed to go on auditions. It was an incredibly boring day. I was the only person on shift. So I picked up the pad I used for inventory lists, and started writing an idea that had been running around my head like a squirrel searching for a nut.

I’ve broken up with writing a few dozen times since then, but it’s always been a lie, and I always come back. My love for it birthed my intense desire to learn more about the hows and whys behind what works and what doesn’t. That led me to editing, to helping other people learn what will work best for their manuscripts.

That girl who thought she couldn’t possibly have enough patience to teach a room full of kiddies all about reading and language finds herself slaving over manuscripts written by authors of various skill and scope and helping to teach them what they don’t already know and guide them on the path to a more polished manuscript. And suddenly, I can hear that little girl’s voice, answering the question of what she wants to be when she grows up with a very self-assured “An English Teacher” and she doesn’t sound so foolish. Because she must have seen something within herself that the grumpy teenager somehow missed.

That kid wasn’t exactly right. She was close enough though, and it makes me wonder. I may not have known what I wanted to be, but I always knew I wanted to help others, to spread knowledge, to share. Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking children what they want to be when they grow up. I’m a legal secretary who writes and edits in whatever time she can scrounge up and that’s far from what I imagined. Perhaps we’d be better off asking who they want to be when they grow up. That, at least, lends them a greater chance of landing far closer to the mark.



Social Media Marketing 101

Hey all,

This weekend, despite the fact that I was recovering from surgery and had only just gotten home from the hospital on Thursday, I yanked myself together and managed to make sense in our latest CraftQuest episode. This episode was dedicated to how to operate on social media as a writer. Many important points were made by my colleagues, and hopefully by me! We hope you enjoy!

Book Review: Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It

I think any book lover worth their salt has a large To Be Read pile waiting to be tackled. Over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to work my way through mine, which encompasses an entire bookcase–I may have gone overboard. The book I’ll be reviewing today was acquired on the book convention circuit, picking up free ARCs. I never got to this book before it came out officially, and I, sadly, never even read the description before grabbing it up because the cover looked pretty. I know, I’m bad. I know, I should be more selective. But I’m a very eclectic reader. So I dove in.

Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It is a YA Romantic Comedy with a gorgeous cover.

Book Summary:

Jolie’s a lot of things, but she knows that pretty isn’t one of them.

She has mandibular prognathism, which is the medical term for underbite. Chewing is a pain, headaches are a common occurrence, and she’s never been kissed. She’s months out from having a procedure to correct her underbite, and she cannot wait to be fixed.

Jolie becomes paralyzed with the fear that she could die under the knife. She and her best friends, Evelyn and Derek, decide to make a “Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It (Which Is Super Unlikely, but Still, It Could Happen)” list. Things like: eat every appetizer on the Applebee’s menu and kiss her crush Noah Reed.

But since when did everything ever go exactly to plan?

What I Enjoyed:

The funny thing about Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It, by Kerry Winfrey, is that its concept strongly resembles the plot of a short story I wrote years ago, “One Percent.” “One Percent” was about a young teen who discovers she needs to have spinal surgery to repair her scoliosis and panics, her anxiety feeding the idea that she would be part of the small percentage of surgeries that failed. Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It starts in a very similar way but becomes so much more as the story evolves from its basic concept (and quickly becomes nothing like my short story.

This book hit all of my happy notes. Each character, even the oddball side characters, felt like a person, each with wants, needs, desires–and nobody was a bad guy. This wasn’t that kind of novel. Jolie is actually her very own antagonist, in a very real way. As Jolie struggles with the very idea of what it means to be beautiful–inside or out–she struggles to create new relationships, and salvage the ones she needs to keep.

Her relationships with her family are well drawn, and we get to see a YA book with a family that acts like a real family. Sure, there’s drama, but the characters are loving and warm to each other, and they are not the bad guys in Jolie’s life. Jolie’s best friends, Evelyn and Derek, are uniqueand come with real problems that aren’t really even the point of the story, but are interesting side stories that become important to us because of how important they are to Jolie.

The romance here is a spoiler, but it’s so well done, and it doesn’t go anywhere you would think it was going to go based on the book blurb.

One of my favorite things about this book was that there weren’t enemies–there were competitors, and there were people who cause trouble obliviously, and there are people getting in their own way. But there aren’t bullies and an arch nemesis. Just life, in all the way that it is difficult, and in the ways it becomes more difficult when you have a physical deformity, a struggle I tangled with as a teen myself, as I coped with scoliosis.

What I’d Avoid: I honestly don’t have anything for this section. This book had a strong plot, strong characterizations, strong theme, humor and was just plain lovable. I’ve got no complaints.

Would I Recommend It: Absolutely! Hell, my nine-year-old son wants to read it and I told him to go for it (it’s always a miracle to hear him ask for something he actually wants to read, versus being forced to read). It’s a sweet story and a sweet romance, with only two small detours into subject matter that may be questionable, although when I say that, I mean it skirts the edge of what you’d probably see on your average prime time television show.

What Can I Learn From It: It’s rare to see a book where all of the characters were well-rounded, and not in any way the bad guy. I mean, we’re not even speaking about characters that are the bad guy, but have redeeming qualities. We’re speaking about characters that simply get in their own way, as we as people are wont to do. And not having a clear villain does nothing to damage the conflict of the story–it’s there and it’s strong. I’m eager to try something similar in a different setting, just to see if I can accomplish it.

All in all, Things Jolie Needs To Do Before She Bites It was a fun, well-told story I would recommend to anyone who is looking for a book that is about real life–ups, downs, quirks, and insecurities.

Habitually Yours

A Justine in her natural writing habitat.

When I was a kid, I had the wonderfully gross habit of chewing things. I was like a little rat. I chewed on pencils and pens until they would splinter. I would chew on bizarre things. I wouldn’t find out until way later that it was actually sensory seeking behavior—the product of a Sensory Processing Disorder I had, and have since inadvertently passed to my son (that’s the only way it even got diagnosed).

It’s a strange thing. I broke that chewing habit somehow long before I ever thought of having Logan, and yet somehow, he picked up the same habit. We’re struggling to break him from it now.

Habits, as it turns out, are strange and unpredictable things. Some are in our blood, our DNA, like my weird chewing habit. Some form accidentally, like the way you go to the store across the street for lunch, once, twice, and before you know it, we’re regulars. Some habits, the best habits, are the ones we form on purpose.

They say it takes twenty-one days for a habit to form. That kind of habit is a different brand. It starts with a commitment. You decide you’re going to create a habit and then you do it. That’s the intention of programs like NaNoWriMo. You write as much as you can for as many days in a row, and eventually you form a habit.

I used to have a fairly consistent writing habit. I wrote once a day, at least something. Lately, I have allowed that to drop. Life has been perpetually getting in the way of things, our editing business is keeping me in editing jobs (no complaints there), and I just haven’t been carving out the time to write.

That is about to change. For months, I’ve been agonizing about how to get myself started again. I have a few projects in mind, but none of them are jumping out more to me than the others. They all have their benefits, but I need to find which one is my next big project.

Last week, I received my second Scribbler box and it had a journal in it. It contained 300 Writing Prompts. It isn’t the first one I’ve had. The last time I used one it helped me get a handle on character. So, I’ve decided to restart my writing habit. As of this month, I will be writing at least a prompt a day. Each will be written in the voice of one of the characters I’ve been playing with. If I like them, I will post them here. If I don’t, it was worth the attempt.

And by the end of March, I hope to have figured out which voice I want to explore the most. Wish me luck, you guys. By April and Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m hoping to be back in the writing habit.