Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Writing Expectations

I was talking to a friend the other day about expectations in writing. I mean, people who have never read a book by you before might not have expectations. They might--they might expect that your book will be good. They will probably at least hope that your book will be good.

If you've written a book and people have read it and liked it, then you have set a bar for yourself, right? The next book has to be better. And you think about how much work went into the first book, and how proud you were when it was finished, and how sometimes you weren't even sure how you'd managed to tell the story, so how are you supposed to do it again!?

Now you have to start all over again. From scratch.

Don't get me wrong: there is an incredible excitement that comes from a new story and new characters (or revisiting old characters from a new perspective, in the case of sequels). But if you start to think about what you have to do to make this one more, to make it better, to make it exceed expectations, to make it use less italics, you can really stress yourself out.

Sequels can seem even more this way. When you have a standalone book, you still might feel like you need to exceed yourself on the next book, but with sequels, you might feel the need to exceed in your writing and your previously created world. Either way, it's a lot of pressure we put on ourselves as writers.

Pressure isn't always a bad thing. It can push you to keep going, to improve, to make your writing better--if it's channeled constructively. It can also crush you under its weight if you're not careful. It can suck you into the despair of I won't be good enough this time. Look at my last polished manuscript. Look at the hours I put into it and the three thousand revisions it got and look at how nice it is. Look how messy this book I'm working on right now is. It's never going to be that good.

There became other fears once publication was involved. What if the next book isn't good enough to publish? What if no one likes it?

I've been finding that if I focus on whether the books I'm currently writing are better than the ones I previously wrote, it takes away my joy in writing the story and makes me stall on writing at all. I need to be able to let the story come out, to follow the characters and see what adventures they take me on, and if I'm holding this giant ball of expectation over my head, it's going to be a huge struggle to write anything.

Should we always be trying to grow and improve and make our writing better? Absolutely. Should we have no expectations on ourselves? Of course not. Should we be putting so much pressure on ourselves to try to outdo ourselves that we lose faith with what we're writing? No. Like so many, many things in writing, there's a balance, and learning how you work best, and learning how to improve without letting your writing dry up or giving yourself a panic attack.

Sometimes, we just need to give ourselves permission to write. To write knowing it won't be perfect, and parts of it will probably be horrible and in need of a lot of work, and that all this book needs to be right now is written on its own standards. The more you practice writing, the more you learn and grow, and your writing will likely reflect that growth anyway.

Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself when you're writing? Do you find it makes you focus better or does it make your writing train derail?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fear in Writing Characters. Also, Artwork!

I have this thing with artwork. I find it very, very inspiring--kind of like I find music inspiring when I write. There are certain songs that come to "belong" to certain stories or characters, and listening to those songs helps me so much when writing those characters or that story.

My friend Holly (who has done artwork from my books before, and who did the cover art for Confessions from the Realm of the Underworld (Also Known as High School), made more art from the books I'm currently writing. There are two books for this particular story, because it got too long to cram into one book. The first book is written, polished, betaed a gazillion times, and edited a gazillion more times. The second book is the one I'm writing, and so having art of my two main characters to look at makes me giddy and inspired more than I can say.

And because I am totally sharing her talent whenever possible, here is my friend Holly's art of my two characters, Lachlan and Brenna, from my books Rising and Rising 2.

Brenna and Lachlan, Rising and Rising 2 © Laura Josephsen
Art © Holly Robbins

This also gives me a chance to talk about fear in writing characters. Those two characters portrayed above? When I first realized that in order to do this story justice, I needed to use their points of view and tell their story, I was terrified. I have never been scared of writing characters before, because exploring characters gives me the opportunity to get out of my head and into theirs, and to delve deep into a lot of things, and I love that.

Delving deep into Lachlan and Brenna's heads was daunting and scary, because I knew it was going to push me out of all of my comfort zones. Writing quite a lot of parts of Rising was already difficult and emotional and intense, and I knew that Rising 2 was going to be even more so. My characters have been through a lot, and I'm only adding to what they're dealing with. I worried that I wouldn't be able to do justice to their story. I worried that I was going to cross some lines that I might not be comfortable with. I came to realize, though, that to not tell their story would be unfair. Characters aren't cookie cutter people. I couldn't just say, "These characters would only do this, because that is ALL I am willing to write." Well, I could, but it would have made for a really flat story and characters who weren't true to themselves.

Characters aren't me. I may not like what they do. I may not be comfortable with what they do. I may not agree with with it. But because they're not me, they're them, sometimes that means stepping way, way outside of my comfort zone to do justice to who they are and what their story is.

Nine months after realizing I was going to need to write their points of view, I am not terrified of writing them anymore. I am excited about it, and I'm plugging my way through the first draft of their story.

My questions to you today are: Have you ever been scared of writing a character? Did you do it anyway? Do you think that you could write a sympathetic character who behaves in ways that you completely disagree with?

I know there are a lot of people who write characters they disagree with, and by the end of the book, the character has seen the error of his/her ways based on what the author thinks is correct. That's fine. But what if the character never thinks what they're doing is wrong? People aren't clear-cut, and characters aren't either.

I'm very, very interested in others' thoughts on this, since I've spent many months contemplating a lot of this.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Circle of Writing

I have this circle when it comes to writing. It kind of goes like this:

Everyone writes differently, of course, and even when I'm not writing, I'm doing something writerly (shh, it's a word). If I'm not writing, I'm editing and revising, or working with my publisher (or in the case of my last book, self-publishing), or getting feedback from betas and making more revisions. Sometimes I'm editing books for other people, which actually helps my writing immensely.

But over the past ten years of writing, I've noticed something about how I write. When I get through a novel, my mental energy for coming up with plots and pounding them out on the keyboard seems to have reached its limit. I struggle to type even a hundred words.

Know what else I've learned? I can't force it. I've had to learn there's a difference between "persevering even when I don't feel like it" and "my brain really just needs a refresher." There's a definite difference there--it's something you learn to distinguish.

After I finish writing a novel, my muse goes on vacation so I can recharge. Even though I'm still working on edits and everything, it can be frustrating not to be writing. I miss writing. I want something to come out when I put my hands on the keyboard and open a document file. I'm supposed to be a writer, right? But it's been three weeks, and no new story. Three months, and no new story. Oh, look, now it's five months and that second book I was supposed to have already written? Yeah, it's not written yet.

Inevitably, though, if I keep working on cleaning up other projects, let my brain rest on the writing front, watch some movies, read some books...a new story comes in and clobbers me over the head, and then I'm back to pounding away on the keyboard. I know I can type a huge amount at once if I need to. I also know that some days, getting out just a little bit can be like pulling teeth.

On my best day, when I was on a deadline, I wrote 10,000 words. Some days, I'm doing good to get out two hundred.

Writing isn't easy--anyone who has written even half a book can tell you this. Sometimes it is frustrating, and annoying, and you just want to throw your book against the wall or shout at your characters for being so uncooperative.

And some days, the writing flows and the thrill of excitement hits you. The characters are doing their thing and you're just going along with it, and everything seems so easy.

No matter whether I'm in a difficult stage or an "everything is working wonderfully" stage, I really do love being a writer. I love it that I can tell a story that was never told before. Sure, there might be things similar to it, but nothing that is exactly like mine. I love the words and the characters and the uniqueness that belongs to each one. I love learning new things--from my writing and from others' writing.

If you're in a writing slump right now, remember that it won't last forever and that sometimes you just need a refresher. If you're on a writing high right now, I hope you are having a blast. Beyond anything else, even when you are tired, and exhausted, and frustrated, I hope that you can look at what you do and remember why you love it.

I also read two encouraging blog posts about writing and stories today, so I'm going to link those here.

Susan Kaye Quinn posted about the lies we tell ourselves as writers: Four Nasty Lies We Tell Ourselves About Writing

Peggy Eddleman wrote about the need for stories: The Need For Stories

Where are you with writing right now?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Grammar Daze Guest Post - Misused Words: The Epic Fantasy Edition

Hello everyone! I am not Laura. I am Emily Kate Johnston, a friend of Laura’s. Laura has awesomely let me do a guest post here, and I will be continuing her theme of “Grammar Daze”, but with my own twist to indicate my style of writing. I’m totally cribbing the paint drawings, though. Those are the best part!

Misused Words: The Epic Fantasy Edition

The chief problem with word misuse in Fantasy is that the more epic your Fantasy gets, the more you draw on older words, and the more you draw on older words, the more derivations, combinations, linguistic shifts and plain old confusion can muddle you up. Personally, I love the way that words do this, but at the same time, I am also a fan of using words correctly.

(I should also mention here that as a patriotic Canadian with a patriotic English mother, my linguistic tendencies have a definitely British slant. I’m all about the o in foetal, the u in colour and the extra a in encyclopaedia (and I sort of love that JRRT spells connexion with an x, even though I don’t do it myself). So keep that in mind.)

Let’s begin with something that might occur in your Fantasy setting. You have a Queen and some knights, some courtiers and some palace servants…and depending on your politics, you make also have a royal council. This seems as good a time as any to talk about the difference between the word “councillor” and the word “counsellor”.

Councillor and Counsellor

A “councillor” is a person who is a member of a council. A “counsellor” is a person who provides advice. This seems fairly straightforward, until you remember that a member of a council who has given you advice has counselled you, and that someone who ignores the words of their counsellor could also be ignoring their councillor and is, in either case, keeping their own counsel. Perhaps I should start this explanation again…

Okay, so a councillor is a member of something; a group of people who sits somewhere and chats. If you type the word “councillor”, think about what that person belongs to. If it’s a summer camp or a high school guidance department, you have probably used the wrong word (you are also, for the record, writing my kind of epic fantasy and we should totally talk!).

For the history buffs, “counsellor” is the older word, predating “councillor” by about a century.

Prophecy and Prophesy

Another word combo that can be problematic is “prophecy” and “prophesy”. The difference here is that the former is a noun and the latter is a verb. So if you prophesy, you are making a prophecy. This can be remembered one of two ways. The first is the same way you tell “practise” from “practice”: the “ice” (or the “c”) is the noun. The second way is one I invented just now, and only works if you pronounce “prophesy” with a “sigh” at the end (instead of a “see”…both are acceptable, but I think it makes the whole thing needlessly complicated). Anyway, “sigh” is a verb too, and in addition that, it’s also what I tend to do when a character prophesies (prof-a-sighs), because it drives me a bit crazy.

I can only think of one example of this off the top of my head. At the very end of “Caprica”, Sister Clarice says “I am going to prophesy now”, which is great, except she pronounces it “prof-a-see”. On the other hand, she’s English, so maybe that explains it.

Nauseous and Nauseated

For my third I am going to pick two words that aren’t technically “epic”, but are still a personal bugbear of mine: nauseous and nauseated.

Now, a quick look at dictionary websites will tell you that “nauseous” has come to mean the same as “nauseated” thanks to usage patterning. Even though I championed linguistic shifting just a few paragraphs ago, this is where I draw the line. It’s a thing.

If something is nauseous, then it makes something else feel sick. If something is nauseated, then it feels sick. As my mother liked to put it: if you are nauseous, you are making someone else nauseated.

I encourage you all to stick to your guns on this, lest we end up with another “I could care less”.

That’s it from me for now! Come on over to my blog where you will find…well, not much, to be honest, as it’s a work in progress, but there are links to my book reviews and short stories. So it’s a start!

Emily Kate Johnston is an aspiring writer, an obsessive grammarian, a compulsive reader, and a classic procrastinator. You can find her at her new blog, Emily Kate Johnston on Wordpress, just as soon as she comes up with something cool to launch it with. In the meantime, she does a lot of book reviews.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Grammar Daze - dialogue tags

Today's topic is dialogue tags! Dialogue tags are those little tags you put when using quotation marks. He said, she said, she exclaimed, he asked. Those are four dialogue tags.

"I want to go to the mall," she said. <-- she said is the dialogue tag.

"Are we done yet?" he asked. <-- he asked is the dialogue tag.

Here's the thing about dialogue tags: first, if they start with a pronoun, the pronoun is never, ever capitalized. Second, not everything can be a dialogue tag.

A dialogue tag is part of the sentence in quotation marks—even if that sentence ends with an exclamation point or a question mark. I think that's the thing I've seen throw people off the most. Here are some examples:

Correct: "Can we go to the mall?" she asked.

Incorrect: "Can we go to the mall?" She asked.

In this context, she asked is not a sentence by itself. It cannot be capitalized. You just have to imagine that the question mark is a comma when there are quotation marks right after it. Same goes for exclamation points.

Correct: "I'm so frustrated right now!" he said.

Incorrect: "I'm so frustrated right now!" He said.

When using dialogue tags, you use commas instead of periods:

Correct: "I have a dog," she said.

Incorrect: "I have a dog." She said.

Correct: "My dog likes to eat car tires," Billy said.

Incorrect: "My dog likes to eat car tires." Billy said.

There have been debates about what exactly you can use as a dialogue tag. People will use all sorts of things: said, responded, replied, answered, asked, questions, queried, exclaimed, babbled, chattered, told someone, sighed, yawned, snapped. Those are just a few. I had one editor give me a helpful piece of advice: if you can't do the action to speak the words, it's not a dialogue tag. For example, you could probably yawn and say, "Yes," at the same time, right? So you might be able to write:

"Yes," I yawned.

But some would argue that it would be a lot better if "I yawned" was its own sentence and not a dialogue tag:

"Yes." I yawned.

And if you had an insanely long sentence, you are very unlikely to be able to yawn the whole thing. If you're unsure about something, see if you can say it while doing the action and whether it should be a dialogue tag or not.

When you have something that is not a dialogue tag, you treat it as a separate sentence. You do not use commas instead of periods before the quotation marks and you do capitalize after question marks and exclamation points. Some examples:

Correct: "I know that!" Her voice was angry. <-- Her voice was angry is not a dialogue tag. It is a sentence by itself.

Incorrect: "I know that!" her voice was angry.

Correct: "I just want to get out of here." He sounded tired. <--Again, not a dialogue tag.

Incorrect: "I just want to get out of here," he sounded tired.
You could add words to both of those to make them dialogue tags and have them be correct.

"I know that!" she said, her voice angry.

"I just want to get out of here," he replied, and he sounded tired.

Happy writing!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Experiment in Synonyms

Synonyms are so important when writing. It can get annoying to read the same word over and over and over and over and over and over (have I made my point yet?) and over again in the same sentence or paragraph or even the same page or chapter. Some words are so unique that if I see them more than once in a book, I'm going to notice. One thing I always try to pay attention to when I'm editing—whether I’m editing my book or someone else's—is word usage. Everyone has certain words they use all the time, and once I pinpoint overuse of those words, I try to suggest synonyms for some.

One way or another, my husband and I got on the subject of various words used for laughter. Hubby had some very particular thoughts about what came to mind when he heard each one, so we thought it might be interesting to write down his thoughts vs. the dictionary's definition.

Here's what we ended up with.

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word:
A witch's laugh.

Definition from Merriam-Webster:
1: to make the sharp broken noise or cry characteristic of a hen especially after laying
2: to laugh especially in a harsh or sharp manner
3: chatter

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word:
Somebody choking and laughing at the same time, where things are coming out of your nose. (Like when you laugh milk out of your nose.)

Definition from Merriam-Webster:
1: to sing or chant exultantly
2: to laugh or chuckle especially in satisfaction or exultation

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word:
Forcing laughter out.

Definition from Merriam-Webster:
1: to laugh inwardly or quietly
2: to make a continuous gentle sound resembling suppressed mirth

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word:
A high-pitched girly sound. Kind of like a horse neighing.

Definition from Merriam-Webster:
to laugh with repeated short catches of the breath

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word:
"Isn't that the guy on Aladdin?"

Definition from Merriam-Webster:
a loud or boisterous burst of laughter

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word:
A nice candy bar or a giggle for boys.

Definition from Merriam-Webster:
to laugh in a covert or partly suppressed manner; titter

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word: "Don't call me that!" Also, making fun of somebody, laughing behind their backs.

Definition from Merriam-Webster:

Hubby's first thought upon reading the word: To almost fall off of a cliff; right at the edge of falling.

Definition from Merriam-Webster:
to laugh in a nervous, affected, or partly suppressed manner; giggle; snicker

Here are some words that mean "laugh" that I'd never heard of before: cachinnate, boff (boff as a noun means "hearty laughter," whereas boff as a verb means "to have sexual intercourse with", so if for some reason you ever use this to mean laughing, be careful about context ;)), horselaugh.

Every time I think I've found words I use too much, I always end up finding more every time I edit. Do you try to pay attention to your particular "catch words" when you write? Are you still trying to pinpoint yours? I find words so much fun. :D

Thursday, September 8, 2011


You know how I mentioned last week was long? Yes. Well. This week has been long, too. My family has been dealing with scabies (tiny mites that live in your skin and cause itchy red bumps).

I've also been writing and doing edits for others and homeschooling and my poor, poor blog is just sitting here, looking all woeful and neglected. *pats blog consolingly*

I am so, so, so behind on reading blogs, too. So tell me, lovely readers and fellow bloggers, what have you been up to? Have you read anything recently that you loved? Seen a movie/tv show that you really enjoyed? How's your September going? I hope you all are doing amazingly.