Many new authors slog out that first book, editing every word to perfection, revising, reworking, redoing. When I used to be a part of critique groups, it was not at all uncommon to find writers who’d been working on the same book two, five, eight and even ten years.
Still see them at conferences, shopping the same book, getting rejected, then rewriting, rewriting…..
Great, maybe Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help took five years and 62 revisions to get her story published. Awesome for her. And yes, her book was a runaway success, but ‘One Title Wonders’ aren’t the norm.
Trying to hit big with one book is playing Literary Lottery with our careers. In the new publishing paradigm, it can be career suicide.
For most writers, it will be next to impossible to have a long-term successful career if our pace is a book or two a decade.
Go visit a bookstore, new or used and you’ll see my point. Most authors who’ve made it to legend status were (are) all talented/skilled, yes. But many were (are) also prolific. Their books take up entire shelves.
It isn’t a singular title, rather a large body of work that has made them into household names (J.K.Rowling, Debbie Macomber, Stephen King, John Grisham, George R.R. Martin, Isaac Asimov, H.P. Lovecraft, Liane Moriarty, Sandra Brown, etc.).
Does Writing Quickly Produce Inferior Work?
I’m a huge fan of Fast Draft. One of my early mentors, Candy Havens, is an amazing lady as well as a talented and prolific author. She’s who introduced me to this technique. I was initially skeptical—okay, terrified—but I hadn’t managed to ever finish a book. What did I have to lose? I gave it a try and can attest fast-drafting works.
Write your novel in two weeks a month, whatever, but write fast and furious. No looking back. Always forward. You can fix stuff later.
I’ve heard some writers criticize this method, believing that writing at this increased pace somehow compromises quality. Many writers are afraid that picking up speed will somehow undermine craftsmanship, yet this isn’t necessarily so.
To prove my point, here are some interesting factoids about writing hard and fast, some taken from James Scott Bell’s WONDERFUL book The Art of War for Writers (pages 79-82):
William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks.
Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises in six weeks.
After being mocked by a fellow writer that writing so fast created junk, John D. MacDonald wrote The Executioners in a month. Simon & Schuster published it in hardback. It was also serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear TWICE.
Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days on a rented typewriter.
Isaac Asimov was the author/editor of over 700 books over the course of his career.
Stephen King writes 1,500 words a day every day of the year except his birthday. He’s published over fifty novels, and I don’t even know how many short stories and novellas. Let’s just say he’s written a LOT. Could he have done this writing a book every three years? Every five?
While fast-drafting is NOT for everyone, I ask you at least entertain the concept. Stories written at a glacial pace aren’t, by default, superior (most are never finished).
I’ve posted on this before, and I like to explain the benefits of fast-drafting using—DUH—Star Trek.
Meet ‘Captain Kirk Brain’ and ‘Spock Brain’
Here’s my explanation of why writing faster than we ‘are comfortable’ can produce fiction just as good (if not better) than a work that’s been written slowly and deliberately. And, since all roads lead back to Star Trek…
When we write quickly, we get into The Zone and pass The Wall. We become part of the world we’re creating. Fatigue wears out the cerebral cortex (the ‘Inner Editor’ which I will call our ‘Spock Brain’).
Fatigue diverts us to the Limbic Brain (also known as the Reptilian or Primal Brain, or for today’s purposes—‘The Captain Kirk Brain’).
The Captain Kirk Brain is emotional, visceral and has no problem kissing hot, green alien women or cheating the Kobayashi Maru. He out-bluffs Klingons, outruns Romulans, starts brawls and throws the rulebook out the window.
He’s pure instinct, raw emotion and all action.
In short, Kirk is the stuff of great stories. No one ever got to the end of a book and said, ‘Wow, that book was riveting. The grammar was PERFECT!’
Captain Kirk Brain can do its job better—write fiction—when Spock Brain isn’t there saying, ‘But Captain, you’re being illogical. It clearly states in Strunk & White….’
The BEST line in the movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness is when the villain of the story (Khan) says to Spock, ‘You can’t even break rules, how can you expect to break bones?’ So, I’m going to apply this to writing.
Are you breaking enough bones?
Many writers hold back emotionally when writing. Why? They aren’t going fast and hard and so Spock takes over and he wants us to use a seatbelt and our blinkers. He isn’t the guy you want in charge if you’re going for the GUTS and breaking bones.
Kirk is Great for Action and Spock is Better for Rules
Spock Brain is a perfectionist and wants us to take our time, make sure we follow all the rules and put the commas in the right spot. He’s seriously uncomfortable with ‘suspending disbelief’ and he tries to explain everything so others don’t get confused.
The trick is to hop on a cerebral crotch-rocket and outrun Spock. He is seriously uncomfortable with speeding and you can easily lose him in the school zones or the parking lot of Walmart.
Don’t worry, Spock will yell at us later….at the appropriate time which is during revisions.
Thing is, Kirk and Spock make the perfect team, whether on The Enterprise or in our head. They balance each other, but they are also antagonists. Kirk wants to put phasers on KILL, and Spock wants to check and see if the rules for the Oxford Comma allows this.
Blogging & Writing Quickly Helps Us Learn to Shut off The Spock Brain
Blogging helps us ship and get comfortable with going FAST. No maybe every piece isn’t the quality of a New Yorker article, but who cares? It’s a BLOG. We aren’t looking to win the Pulitzer.
We’re looking to get better riding a Cerebral Ducati and ignoring all of Spock’s protests that ‘This isn’t safe’ and ‘Where is our helmet?’ and ‘Clearly the speed limit forbids you going this fast.’
When we get the stories out faster, they’re more visceral. We get more practice with more stories since we aren’t letting Spock nit-pick for the next ten years…which he will do if Kirk doesn’t go running the other way despite Spock’s protests.
Remember, you get the recording for free with purchase 😉 *dangles candy*.
What are your thoughts?
Has your inner Vulcan taken over and edited all the life out of your story? Has Kirk been allowed too much sway and now you’ve got to let Spock whip it into structure shape? Does the idea of going faster scare you?
Optimism is essential for a healthy life, healthy vision in particular…sort of like Vitamin A. In fact, for the purposes of today’s post, optimism IS Vitamin A for AWESOME.
Why is the song ‘Everything is Awesome’ from the Lego Movie queuing in my head?
I’ve not blogged in almost a MONTH. This has NEVER happened in all my years blogging. The longest I’ve ever missed is one week. I’ve been away for good reason, though.
Back in February, I cracked a molar. This was a HUGE deal.
Admittedly, I DO grind my teeth and have all my life. But, I’ve always been the person who got the sticker from the dentist. I’d never had a cavity, never needed braces.
I’ve always had healthy teeth to go with my very healthy levels of optimism. I figured I was almost forty-five, and teeth wear out and it SURELY wouldn’t be a big deal. The dentist rushed me in to tend the broken molar and O…M…G.
I literally wept when I got the prognosis.
Both sides of my mouth needed to be rebuilt immediately for any hope of saving my molars. If I didn’t do this, then the other teeth would crumble and I’d require a mouth full of dental implants.
I was mortified.
How could this be?
I brush all the time, have floss everywhere…even in MY CAR. How could a person who doesn’t LIKE sweets, who drinks water and not soft drinks have SO much damage?
No, there was a mixup and these were someone else’s X-rays. I wanted to believe that so badly, to get another opinion, but I knew my dentist was right. I’d sensed something horribly wrong long before the one tooth broke.
Between the stress (grinding) and the Shingles and multiple illnesses that just obliterated my immune system? My teeth had been destroyed.
Cracked then rotted from the inside out leaving only shells of teeth. No matter how much I cleaned the outside, the INSIDE was the problem…the place I couldn’t reach with conventional care methods.
How dismally metaphoric.
Call Me, Ms. Optimism
In 2009, when my grandmother (who reared me, so essentially my mom) was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, I kept a good attitude. There were new medications, new treatments to slow down how quickly the disease could progress.
I’d bring Spawn (then a baby) to see her and they’d play Bubble Guppy games on my—okay, his—iPad. Brain games to combat the Alzheimer’s.
Then, my favorite aunt’s heath began failing, the woman who still did her own yard work even though she was ninety-four. Often, she’d be in the hospital at the same time as my grandmother, sometimes in the next room.
Optimism to the rescue. Hey, I can visit them at the same time. Read to them, bring flowers, bring the baby, and save time and gas.
In 2010, when my husband received orders to deploy to fight in Afghanistan, I maintained my optimism. We could do this! Sure, I was a new mom with a baby and a once-solid family that suddenly was crumbling and now my husband was heading for a war-zone, but I could do this.
Maybe I’d write a book about it.
On and on, death after death, loss after loss, through hurts, illnesses, and betrayals so deep I wondered if I might die…I maintained my optimism. Granted, I didn’t shine nearly as brightly, but the world had enough darkness. I didn’t need to add to it.
Nobody cared about my sob story.
When it comes to being a writer, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve been the newbie who wrote when I felt like it, when I was ‘in the mood.’ I let everyone and everything get in the way of sitting down and putting words on the page.
Then, I learned that amateurs listen to their feelings and professionals get to work and get $#!@ done anyway.
I blogged no matter what. Someone died the night before? I’d cry after I posted and made word count. Deadlines gave no figs about feelings. If I wanted to be the best of the best, I needed to adopt habits of excellence.
This is very true.
I’ve been blessed to meet and know many of my author heroes (mega authors, names y’all would KNOW), and I’ve seen them make deadlines and keep writing when their world was literally falling apart.
Writing through pain, through parents dying and children passing and health crises and on and on. Putting words on a page in hospital rooms, during dialysis, right before and after major surgeries.
Granted, I want to point out these incredible authors did this for more reasons than simply being professionals. Writing was also a way of easing their pain.
But, still…pretty inspiring.
Suffice to say, when I’d meet a new ‘aspiring’ writer who told me they couldn’t write or even think of building a platform because they were SO BUSY. Because of the day job, kids, and family they simply ‘couldn’t find the time’ (as if time was laying around in the couch cushions).
My response? Pick another profession.
I didn’t have a lot of sympathy.
To be blunt, I still don’t.
We’ve become a culture driven by moods and that isn’t healthy. I can’t count how many writers I’ve encountered who claimed they wanted my help to be to be the next J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Stephen King, Sue Grafton, etc. etc. but after we talked? They lost all their enthusiasm because being a mega-author was just so much…WORK.
Years of work, and life doesn’t stop in the meantime just because we have a dream.
Granted, optimism sometimes is the lone lifeline we will have to keep hold of that dream. Optimism in the face of loss, suffering, pain, and betrayal can often be the only thing that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other.
It’s been that way for me.
When people I loved, whom I believed also loved me did the unthinkable? Hurt me in ways I still can’t wrap my head around? I HAD to believe something good would come out of it or risk coming apart at the seams.
Light Through the Cracks
There’s a meme/story I’ve seen passed around Facebook, particularly in spiritual circles. The idea of a broken vessel fashioned back together and how the light can shine through the cracks. Thus, the vessel is all the more beautiful for being broken, blah, blah, blah.
That is a lovely story, one full of optimism. It’s a story that I wanted to punch in the face…provided a story could be punched in the face.
After barely making it through the holidays (NOT a good time for me)…
TADA! Massive dental work you didn’t expect and can’t afford.
Once the dentist repaired my teeth, I’d be past the worst of it. Thank GOD the one tooth broke before it had gotten to the ‘you need all implants’ part. I willed myself to look at the upside.
I had the entire left side of my mouth rebuilt and thirty-six hours later was on a plane to San Francisco to speak for five days. And I DID. I somehow also managed to be funny and do my job and not come unstitched. Yay me!
Then I got home and the complications hit.
I still blogged and worked and pressed on. Then the dentist did the OTHER side, the side that theoretically should have been easier. Yeah. She spent three and a half hours on one tooth trying to save me from needing an implant, and was successful. Again, THANK GOD.
But it was still six and a half hours of drilling in my mouth and having to stop because I was bleeding so badly. At the end of it, I had a brand new mouth.
It’s only now that my teeth are repaired that I can tell the difference, how frail my natural molars had all become.
Cracked and rotted from the inside. Mere shells of what they once had been.
I come from a rough background and Viking stock. Was taught to have a pretty high tolerance for pain. After my dental visit, I kept doing my job even though I felt like I’d gone a round or five with Mike Tyson.
Getting up, getting to work, willing myself through even though I was all over.
I used the methods that have gotten me through more tragedies than I want to relay, namely listening to positive books and forcing myself to focus on what I am thankful for.
Surprise, surprise, it didn’t work. When the books that normally brought me peace only sent me into depression or a rage, I downloaded a new book.
I $#@! you NOT, the first five minutes were full of that SAME STUPID ADVICE. Optimism is the answer. Focus on your blessings, on gratitude. Be thankful. Choose your attitude.
I lost it. Furious, I returned the book. I’d had enough. So help me, if anyone ‘sent in the clowns,’ I might have set them on fire. A daisy? I would have stabbed it. Our culture is dying because of a sugar addiction literally and metaphorically. Not only that but…
We are ALL TURNING ORANGE from too much Vitamin Awesome. And here we thought it was a bad spray-tan….
And I get it. We are a society out of whack. One side is all doom and gloom and manufacturing reasons to be in perpetual despair. Our social media feeds are filled with social justice warriors newly enraged over some fresh drama de jour.
Rage porn is the new social addiction.
Humans are addicted to being outraged. They ‘spread awareness’ all over our feeds so much that our every nerve-ending is exposed and raw. We can’t bear to open Facebook, let alone consider using it to ‘build a platform.’
And, since everything hurts, we shut down.
To combat the rage porn, the sugar junkies post happy thoughts of the day and inspirational quotes on Instagram. Filtered images and cropped lives and tips for better this and better that, and how to enjoy the most from soup and laugh at salad.
I can’t help but look at my piles of laundry, the floor covered in grit because Nelson—albeit the fluffy adorable love of my life—flings kitty litter like friggin’ fairy dust.
I can’t stop staring the stacks of mail I have to sort through, the closets I need to organize, the…the…the…and all I can think is…
Did I FAIL Adulting 101?
You know that dream where you showed up to a class you didn’t know you were taking and it was the day of the final? And you hadn’t studied because you didn’t even have the book because you didn’t even KNOW YOU WERE TAKING THE CLASS?
THAT was the class that taught you how to be a functional adult, Kristen.
But don’t worry, these folks write scads of books giving advice on how to ‘turn that frown upside down’…and I want to burn it all down.
ALL OF IT.
Balance the Force
Oh how many times I need to just take my own advice. A while back I wrote a post about embracing all our feelings and giving ourselves permission to grieve. To be completely transparent, this year has had me questioning everything I believe about myself, my dreams, my future.
Did I even HAVE a future?
As many of y’all know, physical pain only magnifies emotional pain.
***Shout out to all who write despite chronic pain.
Dental work right at my birthday? I managed to ‘work’ through the next week drugged to the gills on pain meds (one of the crowns had to be readjusted). I kept trying to blog, but it was always a blank.
The more I tried to post, the worse I felt. I didn’t even have it in me to repost something just until I felt better. It took everything not to delete every social media account, take down all my websites and walk away.
THAT was when I knew something was horribly wrong.
I’d been fighting this war inside with optimism and more optimism. When that didn’t work, TRIPLE the optimism. My body, my spirit was rejecting it.
NO! SOMETIMES LIFE STINKS!
I started to get to work like usual yesterday and I couldn’t get out of bed. I’ve not felt such hopelessness in years. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stop crying. I went to grab my headphones for a podcast or an audiobook. Maybe clean the house.
Scandinavian aromatherapy–>Clorox and Endust.
Then a small still voice told me to be still and be quiet. Yes, I needed to clean the house and write the blog and edit the pages and do all the things, but I would not be given the grace to do any of these things until I cleaned out the rot in my soul.
Life Can Stink for Good Reason
Yesterday I hit bottom. Thank goodness for all the unwashed laundry or I might have broken a bone! 😛
Since I barely had the will to wash my hair, I finally complied with that small voice. No audiobooks or meditations or soothing ambient noise.
Once in the quiet, alone, I understood why I’d felt compelled to push it out with nonstop noise (even sleeping with headphones).
I curled up in a dark room and I cried and cried…and cried some more. I confessed how I believed life should be different, and how angry I was that it had gone so terribly wrong despite my best efforts and careful planning.
Finally, I admitted how much I missed the loved ones who’d passed away. But, more importantly? I FINALLY admitted how profoundly I was grieving all those who were still living but no longer in my life…and who never will be again.
Life can stink because we are holding onto dead things.
Dead relationships, dead dreams, dead projects, dead bright ideas, all rotting inside. All the while, our outer self can appear healthy while, in reality, it’s rotting away, getting steadily thinner, frailer, and on the edge of disintegrating (much like my molars).
Speaking as a person of faith, I think we can be particularly guilty of too much optimism. When life sucker punches us, we look to all the scriptures about hope and love and beauty for ashes which is perfectly fine…though not necessarily balanced.
Too much Vitamin Awesome is unhealthy. We need Vitamin Awesome in the right dosages. Also, we need MORE than just Vitamin Awesome.
We need Vitamin B as in Vitamin (This is) B*%!!$&%*, Vitamin Can You Believe They Did That? Maybe some Vitamin Don’t Tell Me It’s for the Best, and Vitamin Keep Crying it Out.
Optimism isn’t always the best answer when we’re hurting. We might be holding onto so many dead things, we aren’t being optimistic in the right ways. We have to let go, cry, grieve and sort through those emotions. Separate what can be restored and resurrected from those dreams, goals, relationships that are long dead and in need of a proper burial.
Great People Sometimes Break Down
I’m like all of you guys. We’re all wonderfully different, and we all view life through our own unique lens. My lens is as a Texan reared in the Bible Belt. I frequently joke to fellow Christians that 1 Kings 19:5-15 is the first documentation of an angelic visitation with a Snickers bar.
Angel: Elija, so want you to know He DID receive your message. ‘You want to die.’ Yeah, so, request denied. Also, He sent me to tell you that you’re a great prophet…but a total diva when you don’t eat.
My POV? We don’t need another coffee mug, screensaver or mouse track pad with inspirational quotes. I adore Ghandi as much as the next person, but some days…just stop.
For my fellow faith folks, sometimes we don’t need any more uplifting scriptures..though maybe we could modify them?
Oh the plans I have for you, plans to cry your eyes out, eat all the nachos and finally admit you miss that person who stabbed you in the back and that it is okay to miss them even if it is NOT okay to let them come back in and wreck your life again…Amen.
Book of Lambentations 😀 …
Lighten up. We’re all friends here.
So after all this, I (think) I’m back. Treading new territory and my Things To Do List is giving my inner super-perfectionist apoplexy, though not nearly as much as my Things I’ve Completely Forgotten To Do List.
There is a space between us being a total ditz people can’t count on who’s driven by moods versus us being rigid and unyielding until we completely break apart.
What can I say? I do all the dumb stuff so you don’t have to.
As hard as I try and as much as I love what I do, I mess up and flake out and overextend myself.
I’m like many of you—a hot mess, a parent, a spouse, an author who wants to be excellent at her job but who also really wants an immaculate house and can’t have both.
With all the setbacks, I’ve had to cancel and move classes, I’ve not blogged, I’m behind on edits (because editing while on drugs might not be the best thing for anyone) and trust me…there is no one who can beat me up better than ME.
Which is bad. And I am stopping that now.
Okay, my GOAL is to stop that now.
But, just like my books? I’m a work in progress. We all are. Anyone who is not a work in progress IS TOTALLY a work in progress just they’re starting in DENIAL 😛 .
Anyway, good to be back! I MISSED y’all!
What Are Your Thoughts?
Do you wonder if you missed the Adulting 101 classes too? Is it hard to look at social media sometimes? Either the whole world is crap and burning down or we have to learn how ten ways to fit yoga and green juice into our lives?
Do you miss being unreachable? I take time regularly off social media because I’m already aware I’m a nut…but STILL.
Is it hard to see what you do well, what you have accomplished? Do you have a hard time being negative, too? It’s hard for me to cry, to be angry, to confess that I don’t want to look at my blessings. I want to scream and eat nachos but that’s a good way to choke #DontDoThat.
Am I off base? I firmly believe in gratitude and optimism and how we do have a choice in where we focus, but the all-sugar-all-the-time seems just as toxic as the rage channel.
Sometimes I just want to be in pain, to feel it and be allowed to feel it. I don’t WANT another blog about how to fix it. And yes I admit that is COMPLETELY hypocritical but whatever. I love life tips, but also believe a good day of ranting and ax-throwing might make me feel better.
What are your thoughts…other than I’ve finally gone off the deep end?
Editing has always been a critical factor regarding any book’s success. This has NOT changed. If anything, proper editing is a complete game-changer now more than ever in the history of publishing.
Because too many writers fail to appreciate just how vital proper editing is. They skimp on the editing for the sassy cover and the cool promotion material.
Problem is, no one can get through Chapter One without risking a brain bleed.
Who cares how amazing the story is if we (the reader) keep getting jerked out of the fictive dream?
More importantly, in a world drowning in bad books, those rare jewels—books well-written and properly edited—shine like polished jewels scattered on chunks of asphalt.
Readers glom onto authors they know they can TRUST for great stories, professionals who went the extra mile to make their product the best it could be.
Alas, there is a common fallacy among many emerging writers. They believe (very mistakenly) that authors only write the books. Then, once finished, agents will fall in LOVE and someone else will do ALL the editing.
*clutches sides laughing.*
Yeah…no. And woodland creatures don’t help with housework. Sorry to break the news. Bummed me out, too.
The hard truth is the onus is on us (writers) to make certain our manuscript is properly edited before sending a query. Remember, agents are actively searching for reasons to STOP reading. Self-editing skills can mean the difference between a sweet deal or a spot in the slush pile.
Even if the story is amazing, agents know editing is time-consuming and costly. This means they’re more likely to wait for another ‘amazing story’ that doesn’t cost as much as a Caribbean cruise to get bookstore ready. They’ll be far more likely to sign an author who possesses solid self-editing skills.
But what was that old saying?
You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Applies to agents and to readers.
Self-publishing is a whole new level and new devil. If we’re doing our job, the self-published novel should be at least as good as anything legacy published. This means we bear the burden (and cost) of making sure our manuscript is the best it can be.
Superior editing makes the difference between releasing a novel versus unleashing one. Many emerging writers—once the novel is ‘finished’—make some major errors when it comes to ‘editing.’
Here are a few biggies:
The writer actually believes the novel is finished and hits PUBLISH (Ahhhhhhh! NO!);
Emerging authors fail to understand proofreading is NOT synonymous with editing. Proofreading is merely one type of editing;
New authors don’t research how much good developmental editors/substantive line-editors charge for services.
Since all novels require editing, the more we know how to do ourselves, the lower our costs will be. Trust me. Y’all do not want to pay a developmental editor to turn a 90,000 word mess into something readable (forget publishable).
Feel free to do this, but be ready to cough up a few thousand dollars and part of a kidney.
A more cost-effective option is to understand plot and the mechanics of story so we can repair the flaws ourselves. Sure, a good developmental editor will spot the massive plot holes and guide us how to repair them, but (again) it’s gonna cost us.
Additionally, we can pay someone to insert all our proper punctuation and correct poor grammar, OR we can learn how to do this stuff ourselves. Then we’re only paying for a proofreader to catch what we missed or goofed.
Trust me, no matter how good the writer, we ALL miss/goof stuff.
Self-Editing and ‘Cost vs. Value’
As I already mentioned, good editors are NOT cheap. There are also many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing oopses we could’ve easily repaired ourselves?
We’re burning cash and time.
Self-editing can be a real life (and cash) saver.
Yet, correct the problems we’ll be discussing today, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of our novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.
Over my career I have literally edited thousands of works, most of them written by emerging writers. My particular specialty is content and developmental edit. Though I’ll correct punctuation and spelling as I go (because I am OCD and generous) MY job is to make a STORY the best it can possibly be.
Problem is, most of the time I can’t even get to the story because it’s obscured under layers of bleh the writer could have removed in revision.
#1 DIY Adverb Removal
Despite what you might have been told, not ALL adverbs are evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly?
***Wow, glad the author explained how ‘whispering’ works.
Ah, but if a character whispers seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t inherent in the verb. Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones.
Either we need to choose a stronger verb, or we’re treating the reader like an idiot.
If a character walks quickly to the train platform, then choose a verb that means ‘to walk quickly’ (stride, jog, hurry) and use that one instead. If a character yells loudly, ditch the loudly.
We understand how yelling ‘works.’
#2 Cut the Cray-Cray
First and foremost, readers want a STORY. Stories are more than loads of ‘pretty writing’ using thousand-dollar words. Stories are about problems. A character thinks life is fine, then PROBLEM. The character then must struggle, grow, evolve, make choices to eventually SOLVE the problem (win, lose, draw).
Pretty description is optional. Big words are also optional. Alas, if we want to be a writer who uses description then we need to wield with economy.
Few things make me as giddy as a glorious line of description or a new vocabulary word. Many readers (and writers) are like crows.
When describing a miserable afternoon in late 19th century Chicago, the author had many options of how to do this. Instead of, ‘The day was humid and stifling,’ Erik Larson wrote, ‘The air hung with the heavy stillness of a tapestry.’
There’s nothing, per se, wrong with the first description. But Larson’s line was far more visceral because he made use of multiple senses simultaneously.
But some writers take similes too far.
I’ve seen writers who’ve used so much ‘wordsmithery’ that I had no idea what the hell they were even trying to say. The goal of a novel is to hook readers into a dramatic narrative, not prove we own a thesaurus.
***Word on the street is the NSA is contemplating either revoking Sean Penn’s permission to own a thesaurus OR they want to weaponize his writing.
Metaphors and similes are fantastic literary devices, but need to be used with intention. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using forty-two metaphors in five pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.
When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called ‘purple prose.’ Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes.
Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST.
Any kind of description must serve the story and propel the dramatic action forward. If it doesn’t do this? CUT!
#3 Cut the Stage Direction
Again, the more time an editor devotes to a project the higher the bill. Also, if an editor charges by the page, we could be paying for a lot of filler we could have removed ourselves.
Alfred Hitchcock said, ‘Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.’ Readers don’t need every single step of a day. We live it, why would we read it?
Yet, I see a lot of samples like this:
Fifi opened her eyes at dawn. She pulled back her covers and placed her feet on the floor. Padding across the room, she reached for a robe hanging on her door. Her stomach growled, so she went downstairs and opened the fridge for the carton of orange juice, then grabbed a glass from the cabinet. Turning around, she searched for a granola bar….
OH, GET ON WITH IT!
An editor is going to cut all of this because NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Also, readers pretty much know how the whole ‘getting juice’ phenomenon works. They don’t need a blow-by-blow.
Fifi reached out her hand to open the door.
Unless Fifi has telekinetic powers, do readers need the direction?
Filler pads the word count, but it also pads the editing bill. The verbs turn, look, grab, pull are possible red flags you’re doing too much stage direction. My advice is to do a Word Find and search for these verbs and their variations (I.e. look, looked, looking). See if the action is necessary or if you’re holding the reader’s brain.
If you’re holding the reader’s brain? Return it, please.
#4 Beware of Painful & Alien Movement of Body Parts
Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.
His head followed her across the room.
Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.
#5 Ease Up on the Physiology
Fifi’s head pounded. She ran for the door, her heart hammering and wild pulse beating relentlessly in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs. All she could do was gasp. Panic made her throat clench and stomach heave. Mind numb, she reached for the door, fingers trembling.
GET TO IT ALREADY!
After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out. That and I read a lot of samples where the character has her heart pounding so much, I’m waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment.
Physiological reactions can become echoes. If every page the character has her stomach churning, roiling and rolling, our reader will need an antacid before finishing the chapter (provided she finishes at all).
I strongly recommend a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We just don’t need to be told this over and over and…over.
We (readers) assume the character’s heart is still pounding until she’s out of danger.
No need to remind us.
#6 Odd Sentence Construction
In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many emerging writers will craft sentences like this:
With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.
First, this is backing into the action. Though technically correct (enough), it’s easy to lose a reader if we have too many sentences like this. Active sentences are the easiest on the brain and keep the reader immersed in the fictive dream.
Then there are the picky issues with the example above. For instance, when we use the word ‘down,’ then ‘on’ is redundant.
Also, Jessie is either ironing or not ironing. ‘Started’ is overused and makes sloppy writing (this actually goes back to the whole stage direction thing).
Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.
Another way writers will vary the beginning of sentences is they’ll default to what’s known as passive voice.
The door was kicked in by the police.
Police kicked in the door.
If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.
Many writers end up with strange sentence construction because they realize every sentence is starting with the character’s name or the appropriate pronoun. They’re trying to ameliorate the repetition of Jessie, Jessie, Jessie, she, she, she. The problem, then, is not sentence construction, rather the writer needs to open the lens of the storytelling.
Remember our character doesn’t need to be the subject of every sentence. We’re telling a story. This means we can work with setting, other characters, etc.
#7 Get Rid of ‘Clever’ Tags
Ideally, if we do a good job with our characters, the reader should know who’s talking without tags because speech patterns differ. If all our characters ‘speak’ the same way, that is an issue we need to remedy.
Yet, we can’t always do this, which means we can use a tag. Tags are fine, but keep it simple. This isn’t the place to get clever.
‘You are such a jerk,’ she laughed.
A character can’t ‘laugh’ something. They can’t ‘spit,’ ‘snarl,’ or ‘grouse’ words either. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said used properly becomes white noise.
NOTE: Use said as a tag…just don’t get crazy. If you beat it up it gets distracting and annoying.
But again, used properly readers don’t generally see it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.
“You are such a jerk.” She laughed and flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.
Notice how sentences like the one above also keep us from beating said to death.
I swear the funniest instance of bizarre tags was a new writer who just would NOT listen to me and she insisted on using all these crazy@$$ tags. So instead of exclaimed when her character yelled something she tagged with, he ejaculated.
*Editor Kristen falls over laughing*
Okay y’all ALL sniggered at that one. So yeah be creative just not in the tags, ya dig? 😉
There you go!
SEVEN easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that’s why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.
Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?
And we should always be growing, learning and sharpening those skills, so please check out the upcoming classes. Remember, a recording of all classes is included in purchase price 😉 .
Play to win. For me, this is a tough phrase. Maybe it’s culture or society or sunspots, but ‘winning’ feels like a suit cut for someone else. No, worse.
Playing to win feels more like the pants I once wore to a conference. Even though they were too tight, I wore them anyway believing they’d ‘stretch out’ once I moved around a bit.
But they didn’t, and after a while they were uncomfortable…no, they were cutting me in HALF.
I couldn’t breathe, my kidneys hurt, and my lower back ached so much I didn’t hear a single word of the lecture.
All I wanted was to rush to the restroom, unbutton the pants and use my hair tie for some give so I could breathe (women know what I’m talking about).
I didn’t feel pretty in those pants I’d worked so hard to ‘fit’ into. Didn’t feel confident or sassy. No, I was miserable and beating myself up for not choosing the stretchy pants I usually wore.
Stretchy pants would never betray me like this. Lycra doesn’t judge. Spandex understands.
We’ll get to Amazon, Legacy NYC publishing, the book industry, etc. But, we can’t understand why any organization is failing (or winning) unless we take time to understand the people who comprise that organization.
***Fair warning. This is a longer post, but a vital one. Creatives are at a critical turning point in our industry where we must make tough and educated decisions if we hope to make it.
Too many of us want to remain comfortable because fitting into something new is uncomfortable…no, excrutiating. Often it will take a lot more work, work we don’t want to do. Perhaps work we feel we shouldn’t have to do.
Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe it’s unfair, but sadly fair is a weather condition and guess what?
A storm is coming.
Play to Win (at Letting Others Win)
I can’t speak for men, but as a female the whole ‘play to win’ thing was almost always discouraged when I was growing up. First, I was the oldest and thus almost always in charge of entertaining a little brother and (usually) three smaller cousins. Mainly keeping them alive.
Standards for childcare were far lower in the 80s. Thank GOD.
Anyway, being far older, it was kind of a dirtbag move to go all aggro on a six-year-old during a game of Candy Land.
Not that I didn’t try.
I joke I’m NOT Type A. I’m Type A+, because I did the extra credit unlike all y’all other slackers 😛 .
***’All y’all’ is correct grammar in Texas, FYI.
This said, my competitive nature was not always appreciated. There were plenty of times some adult figure chided me, instructed me to let the younger ones win once in a while.
Kristen’s Brain Even at 10: *LET them win? This…is…SPARTA!*
School wasn’t much better. I was reading Tolkien by fourth grade. I’d finish my work in a fraction of the time it took my classmates, and apparently that was not a good thing.
If I tried to read or draw, I got in trouble even though I was being quiet. Apparently, I was supposed to sit still and do nothing instead of cracking open the Heinlein book I’d swiped off my dad.
One time, I worked my entire reading workbook during the forty-five minutes allotted for a single assignment. My teacher, upon discovering my infraction, sent me to the place I would spend most of my growing up years…the hall.
True Story: I don’t even recall what my 3rd grade classroom looked like, but I DID figure out innumerable ways to entertain myself by making out patterns carpet.
It didn’t take long to figure out that I needed to wait a certain amount of time before I turned in my test. If I turned in my test when I actually finished, there was hell to pay from the teacher.
Teacher: Stop showing off. You are making the other kids feel bad.
Me: No, I am not showing off, I was finished. Also, for the record, ‘I am making the other kids feel BADLY.’ It’s an ADVERB. You JUST taught this. How are you a teacher?
*just heads to hall to my spot*
I was terrible at the whole inside words staying inside back then, too.
Play to Win (at Your Own Risk)
School taught me to hide any academic excellence. If I wanted to learn at the speed I craved, I had to work around the system. Learn on my time, not school time. Makes total sense.
And I did. I had all kinds of hobbies growing up—reading encyclopedias, reading the dictionary, playing with my microscope, using my chemistry set.
Sorry about that chlorine gas.
Being a complete nerd, I was socially awkward (and not much has changed). I never understood the nuanced ways of girl tribes, only that they generally required an outcast (usually me).
Since I didn’t fit in with the girls, I tried sports. Very confusing. Apparently when a boy nailed someone in the face in a ‘game’ of Dodgeball that was winning.
If I did it? I was being ‘mean.’
The only team sport I was any good at was soccer. Problem was, there was no girl’s team. Much to the coach’s chagrin, he had to let me try out for the boy’s team, and it was brutal.
Those boys tossed everything they could at me. I was bruised, bleeding, and even knocked out once when I blocked the opposing team’s shot into the net…with my face (NOT intentional, but hey it worked). Yet, I pressed on through tryouts.
When it came time to see who made the team, however, the coach cut only one player.
On the bright side, the boys on the team nearly mutinied over me being cut. They’d thrown everything at me and I was one of them, part of the team. I’d earned the spot because I was someone who played to win no matter what. The boys tried to protest, but it was 8th grade and—again—the 80s.
I’d like to say it got better in the 90s, but not really. In college, I encountered several professors who chastised me for being the only one to answer questions in class.
Me? I fired back that they really should have been shaming the rest of the class who didn’t respect them enough to do the assigned reading.
When I graduated, I went to work in sales (as much of a meritocracy as one can find in the workforce…usually). However, I once stepped up to present our product line to an audience of waiting (and agitated) clients because the manager in charge no-showed.
Afterwards, even though the customers were thrilled, another manager (female) pulled me into a back office. She informed me I was never to do that again if I wanted to remain at the company.
Me: Never again do what? Sell a lot of stuff?
Her: Women aren’t taken seriously in business, especially in the South. Leave the corporate stuff to the men. In the meantime, you’re pretty. Be affable and make others feel at ease and leave the presentations to the guys.
Horrified, I told her she needed to get out of her time machine. It was the 90s not the 50s, and quit that day.
Play to Win vs. Play to ‘Not Lose’
My mom was and is a hardcore Scandinavian woman (tough). When I was seven, a male visitor didn’t get his way. He raised his hand to slap her (big mistake)…
…while she was cooking.
Good way to DIE mistake.
Without blinking, she swung that hot cast iron frying pan into him like she was going for a grand slam. Whooped him with that pan THROUGH the screen door and all the way to the street. He never returned and my mom was my hero forever and ever.
My father loved strong females. He enrolled me in martial arts when I was four, was the one to rig his old Navy sea bag for me to use to train to fight and toughen my hands. Being former military, he believed I needed to be able to protect myself. That and…we’re from Texas.
According to my parents, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do or be. Thus, the world was a very confusing place when it kept putting me in the penalty box for doing my best.
Odd message. Playing to win is for others. If you play to win, expect to pay a price.
Be nice. Be sweet. Share. Winning is not nice to others.
And you know what? I bought that pile of bull sprinkles until very recently.
But no more.
We don’t get what we work for, we get what we negotiate.
Death by Nice
Notice I used the word nice. Nice and kind are different. Kind has a spine. It IS possible to play to win and not be a jerk, bully, thief, etc. In fact, when we diminish our own light so as not to ‘outshine others’ everyone suffers.
Nice snuffs out the light so others don’t notice they are in darkness. Kind lends a flame so everyone can live in the glow.
Playing to WIN is good and you want to know how I know this?
Amazon is damn near taking over the globe in almost every arena from movie-making to groceries to music.
Personally, I’m fairly sure Amazon IS actually the foretold SkyNet. Good news is when Amazon finally assimilates the human race, I have Prime, so I get free shipping.
Meanwhile, the Big Six have steadily become the Not-So-Big-Five and I believe might even be down to the Spiffy Four.
While Amazon is expanding at a record-breaking pace, NY Publishers are condensing, shrinking, reorganizing, and living on the grace and passion of those sainted professionals who will work UNGODLY hours for crap pay solely because they love books.
***Bless you agents and editors.
Meanwhile, Amazon isn’t having to rely on volunteers willing to give up their lives, work for a fraction of what they’re worth for ‘the cause.’
Wanna know why?
Business has been in a cage match since the rise of Web 2.0., and while Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Bill Gates (Microsoft) and others have been throwing punches, the former contenders have been too busy shaking 20th century snow globe, too mesmerized by the past to even protect their face.
While bloggers like me have shouted warnings for over a decade, the industries we love have refused to get in the fight and play to WIN.
We kept begging for someone to step up and get into the 21st century, for publishers to recognize they were (are) in the story and information business…not the PAPER business.
Play to win. Better, still?
Play to Win in the Business You’re Actually IN
Amazon didn’t care HOW consumers wanted to consume a book: print, hard-cover, soft-cover, digital, used, new, audio….JAZZ HANDS. If the customer wanted a story acted out by mimes and was willing to PAY for it? And it could be profitable?
Amazon was ON it.
All the while, the big publishers clung to the Big Box model even as Borders was collapsing. After it died, not much changed. I detailed a lot of this in a post in January of 2018 when I AGAIN laid it all out:
From 2008 to 2017 B&N was forced to close an average of 21 stores a year. In 2008, they had 798 stores and as of September 2017 B&N was down to 634 stores, according to Forbes.
So in 2016, Barnes & Noble hired the former C.E.O. of the office supply giant Staples (Demos Parneros) even though he had ZERO book industry experience. This was also the guy whose business expertise launched Staples to unprecedented success….
…wait, no that’s wrong.
No, Staples had to hire another C.E.O. to save the company upon Parneros’ departure, because according to The Street:
As of May 17, 2017, Staples held $526 million in long-term debt and had total liabilities of $3.2 billion, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
Sounds like JUST the kind of business visionary B&N needed to hire; one with the skills to lead an already flailing company(Staples) billions more into the red.
In all fairness, these numbers are a year after the C.E.O. left, but I feel it’s reasonable to extrapolate that the company didn’t go from raging success to the 8th Circle of Business Hell in less than a year.
Oh, but there’s more….
Granted, Parneros did have the bright idea that B&N needed smaller stores. Points for him.
But these days, instead of B&N planning how to WIN in the book BUSINESS (or any business), they’re embroiled in so much drama they should have their own reality show Big (Box Store) Brother.
Hmm, kinda catchy.
B&N fired Parneros for ‘alleged sexual misconduct.’ Sighs. Parneros claims this is all a smear campaign and untrue and the only reason B&N wanted to oust him was for something I’ve already forgotten.
Anyway, according to an August 2018 article in The New York Times explicating the Parneros drama of ‘alleged sexual misconduct,’ the mudslinging and lawsuits over wrongful termination…THIS is what stood out to ME (and probably SHOULD have stood out to B&N, too):
Barnes & Noble’s stock price has fallen 60 percent over the last three years, and the chain has struggled to reverse years of declining sales and foot traffic. In the last decade, the company has closed more than 150 stores, leaving it with a base of 633. It waged a losing battle with Amazon, losing more than a billion dollars on its Nook e-book business.
Even as independent bookstores have bounced back and Amazon has expanded into brick-and-mortar retail (which, incidentally, I predicted would happen in multiple 2012 blogs), Barnes & Noble has still failed to recover ground.
In my not-very-humble opinion, NYC was so accustomed to being THE Publishing Pantheon, that they didn’t do so well when the rise of e-commerce and Web 2.0 cast them down to Earth.
Instead of being on the offense, sticking and moving and learning how to play the new game and dominate it?
They wasted precious time trying to rekindle ‘The Good Old Days’ and protect their besties Borders and Barnes & Noble at all costs. They couldn’t fathom a world where they weren’t the leviathans…and Amazon used their Big Box BFFs’ bulk to crush the life from all of them.
How ironic that the movie You’ve Got Mail has now come full circle.
Hollywood…I mean Amazon (or Netflix) should make a You’ve Got Mail 2.
In it, Kathleen Kelly reopens her indie bookstore Shop Around the Corner. She stocks the new store by buying the (ironically) bankrupted Fox Books’ store inventory for pennies on the dollar. But she is NOT a jerk.
She’s thoughtful enough to offer Joe a job purchasing office supplies, furniture, decor and specially requested books for her shop…from AMAZON.
Back to US
Anyone who’s read my blog over the years knows I have ranted, raved, offered suggestions and ideas to help legacy publishing and even big box bookstores. I’ve begged NYC to play to WIN.
Yet, here we are, the business landscape eerily similar to the late 19th century and early 20th century (when we transitioned from the agricultural age to the industrial age).
Once again we teeter on the edge, risk falling into the grip of ‘New and Improved’ trust giants and robber barons (as we transition now from the industrial age into the digital age).
So, if Amazon will use the brass knuckles on a major publisher that crossed their path…what about us? The little guys? What happens when a writer miffs them and they unleash the gorilla?
The giants are rising and why? Because they play to win. Or as Joe fox would have said, they’re willing to…
Go to the Mattresses
As writers, do we play to win or play to ‘not lose?’ Tell me any game, any sport where one can WIN playing strictly defense.
We’ve got to start taking this seriously. If you’re a writer, then you are a business. Trust me, Apple doesn’t work for exposure dollars and neither does Amazon.
Why should we?
Writers PAY to hear marketing experts tell them that, to be successful and make money, they should give away free bookmarks, free bags, free flair, free downloads, and free books. Give a FREE prize for someone giving them a free email.
They should speak for free, blog for free, give interviews for free, and work for free. Oh, one suggestion and I actually heard this from a promotion expert.
Give a FREE bottle of wine with your book.
I wish I were making this up.
In what universe do ANY of these ideas make mathematical sense?
Last I checked 0 + 0= 0. And 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 + 0= 0.
And zero is the least of our problems since bookmarks and prizes and books and time all have a cost. If these folks can’t grasp that no matter how many zeros one adds together, the SUM is STILL ZERO?
I can’t even broach the concept of how one adds negative numbers.
Besides, isn’t that how 21st century Apple became the mega giant it is? It gave away iPods and iPads for enough exposure and THEN consumers suddenly were willing to stand in line for ten hours and drop $900 for a new iPhone?
FREE Should Never Really Be FREE
Some free is fine, even necessary. FREE can be an amazing business strategy when used properly. When we play to win, FREE is NEVER actually FREE. It’s built into the price, or it’s actually a quid pro quo (something for something).
FREE can be a way the seller rewards the consumer in exchange for the consumer’s willingness to agree to a greater financial commitment (e.g. all purchases over $100 and shipping is FREE).
FREE is also something used to entice consumers into a longterm financial commitment. Apps do this all the time. Get a week free of all the meditations you could ever want, and after that FREE week, the app will be $7.99 a month (charged via iTunes). Cancel when you no longer want the service.
Your first trial month of Netflix is free, but after that Netflix costs money every month. On and on.
These are examples of FREE with a plan, FREE with dignity and design and a goal toward a profit.
Free without strategy is just begging sans the obvious tin cup.
Y’all are SO MUCH better than that kind of free.
We Have a Write to WIN
Yes, creating art takes time, work, training, tears and a lot of hard work. It takes love that surpasses reason along with stretching ourselves and learning new things.
Sacrifice, self-discipline and all the tough stuff. Pretty much like it’s always been. Only we now have new roles, roles we are wise to learn either so we can a) do them ourselves or b) be educated enough to spot talented teammates from smooth-talking cons.
We’ll be able to discern experts from “experts” (those folks still pushing marketing and social media strategies older than my favorite yoga pants).
This is how we play to WIN.
And yes, maybe this seems all doom and gloom, but I’m not in the candy business. It’s a Brave New World where artists (currently) have little to no protection.
But, good news is—as is usually the case—the pendulum is swinging back the other way with some things moving in our favor (I’ll talk about these in some of my upcoming classes, not my blogs).
Other good news? Legacy publishing still has a pulse and a place, but they have got to start playing offense. Play to WIN. PLEASE!
***Seriously, call me.
There are new business models emerging where creative professionals are being paid. Additionally, there are ways to Amazon-proof ourselves. Again, not bashing Amazon. Yet, while Amazon is great for the moment, but we need to have a structure in place that does not rely on us needing Amazon (or any ONE entity).
If Amazon fails to remain a good business partner/decision, we should be in a position to move on and have a plan for exactly when and how to do that.
For the traditional publishers, this IS your Rocky IV.
Amazon is Drago. Drago killed Creed (Borders) and you’re down. I get it, and totes understand. And Drago has the advantage of all this scientific equipment and super high-tech training, but suck it up, get in the snow and drag some logs.
Y’all didn’t rule the world for a century for nothing. Remember who you were.
As for the writers. Excellent authors (creatives) deserve an audience of givers, fans, and die-hard supporters. We deserve better than a race to the bottom of who can give away the most for the least. To do this, though?
Play to win. I know you can do it. It’s going to be uncomfortable and possibly scary, terrifying and painful. For a lot of us, this is new or not new but still terrifying. But we can change, grow and train how to be in it to win it.
Now, go play some Eye of the Tiger and get back to writing that book.
Kristen is away at a conference in San Francisco….so that means today, you get ME! And despite what the title implies, I’m not here to talk about the failed New Year’s diet (ask me if I even bothered).
No, today, you get a super special fun rant from me about food in the fantasy genre. Why? Because I can. But also, because it’s a real problem.
Not to mention that our characters are going to end up with some serious nutritional and health issues if all they ever eat are bread and cheese.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some bread and cheese as much as the next person. But…even if the story is loosely Ye Olde Faux Medieval, there seriously has to be more than just bread and cheese in the larder.
It seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it? Of course Our Heroes™ are going to pack food for their quest or steal it along the way (or buy it...why do they never have money to buy stuff?). Bread and cheese seems simple and safe to use. Yet, these details, as seemingly throwaway as they are, define the difference between amateur hour and professionals.
Because why have bread and cheese when you could have dried figs and honey, sweet spiced mead, smoked meats with cracked pepper crusts, and hard savory biscuits that soften when used to soak up the juices of any meat or stew cooked over the campfire?
The Locavore Diet
If we are dealing with a fantasy setting that is pre-any-kind-of-industrialization (magic notwithstanding), then there are certain things we have to keep in mind.
Good world-building includes consideration of climate and geography. Do characters live in tropical mountains regions or cold mountain regions? This question naturally leads us to comparisons with more familiar, Earthly parallels. For example, tropical mountains could easily be the rain forests and mountains of Rwanda and the Congo. Cold mountain regions could be Scandinavian or maybe Inuit.
While we might not be writing an exact transposition of those cultures into our fantasy world, there are some hard facts about climate, farming, and resources that we need to understand, and real information about those regions can help us. Year-round farming may be possible in the tropics, but food spoils faster in the heat. Farming is a bigger gamble in cold climates as there is just one shot at a growing season. On the other hand, characters have a refrigerator right outside their door for nine months of the year.
Geography and seasonality also determine the nutritional profile of a character’s diet. Colder climate settings could mean increased meat and dairy, possibly with fish and root vegetables. This is a diet that also happens to suit the body’s ‘insulation’ and energy expenditure needs to survive the cold. Warmer climates provide an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, all which have high water content which help keep the body regulated and healthy.
Locals might drink well water and be okay, but Our Question Heroes From The Kingdom Next Door™ probably shouldn’t. Without indoor plumbing, sewage systems, and water filtration, I’m pretty sure that giardia would also still be a thing. And magical springs are a whole other headache. I mean, what is the bacteria in our digestive tract supposed to DO with enchantments?
Too much? TMI? Whatevs.
Ye Olde Tupperware
Going back to the whole pre-industrialization thing, let’s stop for a moment to consider food storage.
On the one hand, it’s kind of awesome to think of a world that’s by default 100% organic and 100% non-GMO (mostly because they don’t have any other choice). Also, there’s no low-fat anything unless it’s a vegetable or straight-up starvation. And there’s the eternal toss-up between dying of hypertension/heart disease because of all the salt used to preserve food or dying of some really nasty gastro-intestinal parasite (that wears a little wizarding hat because hey, magic!) because Guidwyfe Jellichoe wanted to try this new-fangled thing the traveling physick had mentioned called a ‘low-sodium diet.’
In very general terms, food preservation breaks down into a couple of processes: salting, smoking, spicing, and sun-drying. There are probably more, but let’s just roll with these for now. The mains goals of preservation are to remove moisture or change the chemical balance to slow sensitivity and decay. Each has pros and cons that are dependent (you guessed it!) climate and geography.
Salting gives us delicious things like salami and bacon, but there was a time when salt was either hard to come by or fairly expensive if you didn’t live close to the ocean. Smoking works, but it’s pretty miserable to do when you live in 100F heat with matching humidity. Sun-drying is only as good as the number of hot, sunny days that coincide with a harvest. Using spices is one of the ways people change the chemical balance of food. An example of this would be making curries – which, incidentally uses spices that only grow in those climate regions…which is kind of a neat trick on nature’s part, though I still take issue with covering 2/3 of the world in UNDRINKABLE water. LOL
If Our Heroes™ need to take food with them, how are they going to carry it? What kind of pre-industrial packaging are we going to have? Leaf-wrapped lembas? Hard, smokey cheese wrapped in linen? Wax-sealed clay jars for wine? Again, think about the impact of geography and season on the food storage and transportation options for Our Heroes™.
Have a Snickers, Cait
I know that I tend to be a little over-enthusiastic about going down research rabbit-holes. It’s the frustrated ivory tower academic in my soul. And the beautiful part about fantasy is that it really doesn’t require all that much research.
But, it DOES require the time and effort to think things through. Just because we are writing fantasy doesn’t mean we get a pass on facts, logic, and realism. If anything, it SHOULD hold us to an even higher standard of rigor in order to help the reader become fully immersed in the world and invested in the characters.
Thoughtful, unique details can make a moment come alive. Illogical or trite details can turn a reader off faster than Gollum can say, “Sssssally sssssellsss sssseashellssss.”
Just a little time spent with Dr. Google, Professor Wikipedia, and Head Librarian Google Books (all free except for some parts of Google Books) will be worth its weight in cursed dwarvish gold when it comes to creating a fantasy world that readers want to visit again and again and again…
Have a Snickers, Cait (Redux)
No matter how ranty I seem, teaching about fantasy world-building is one of my favorite things to do (no joke). And, this Friday, I’m teaching one heck of a class on it. Three hours live (plus recording) of 1,001 things you can do to make your fantasy world stand out from the crowd (something that no amount of newsletter advertising or Rafflecopters can do for you long-term…).
Taught by USA Today BSA Cait Reynolds February 22nd, 7-10 PM EST ($99)
THIS IS A 3-HOUR CLASS BECAUSE THERE IS LITERALLY SO MUCH TO COVER! (Remember, you also get a recording of this class to keep forevernevernevernever)
Come prepared to take LOTS of notes and ask lots of questions!
This class will cover a REALLY wide range of topics, including (and certainly not limited to):
WTF is etymology, and why does it matter?: What are the fundamental rules of creating names, vocabulary, and language;
This land is your land…: We will dig into geology, geography, cartography, and probably some other ‘graphy-s’, and how to use them literally in world-building;
Keeping it real: Tips and tricks for keeping your characters relatable to readers, even if they have tentacles/magical powers/chip implants;
Trope is as trope does: What elements of fantasy are ‘required’ for the genre, and how to separate those from the eye-roll-inducing tropes (I’m looking at you, servant-girl-turned-magical-warrior-princess!);
Thinking it up vs. thinking it through: Just because it seems like a cool idea to have glow-in-the-dark dragons doesn’t mean it actually is, and who knew it would come back to bite you in chapter 17, stalling out your book, and…yeah…or, how to spot ye olde speed bumps before they wreck the carriage;
DETAILS ARE FUN!: This is the motherlode of all the different nitty-gritty details that either lure the reader into the deep end of immersion or leave them cold in the kiddie pool;
What is a brand? A platform? Why do we need one? How do we get one? Better still how can we create a brand with the power of driving book sales and still have time left to do THE most important part of our job? Writing more books.
This book demystifies branding and social media and harnesses the same passion and imagination we authors use to write books, then uses that to locate and cultivate a devoted fan base. The methods taught in this book can weather any technological upheaval, and is virtually fad-proof. The new cool social site might change, but your platform will remain.