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Blog revamp

What I’m doing now

Hey, so, it’s been a while.

I’m in the middle of a big overhaul of this blog’s content. If you’ve come here for my Gillian Key reviews (all three of you), you’ll see then disappear, but never fear! I’m in the process of revamping them too in a new format. Stay tuned for more info on that.

I’m still working out a sustainable publishing schedule. I’m aiming for once per week, or more if it’s feasible.

What you’ll see in future posts

As I said above, I plan on revamping the Gillian Key reviews. My posts will be a mix of stuff about the business of writing and publishing and stuff about my own writing practice.

Thanks for hanging with me and for your patience while I rebuild!

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Revising vs. editing your writing

What’s the difference between revision and editing?

Well, to some people, nothing; they’re both words to mean approximately the same thing. But I’m an English teacher, and I use these two terms intentionally to distinguish levels of changes made to a text. Before we get started, I’ll give brief definitions for clarity.

  • Revision: revision is about high-level stuff. You’re making changes that affect aspects of the big picture, like plot, pacing, verisimilitude, character development, point of view, and so on.
  • Editing: editing is looking at the smaller picture, things like wording, grammar, spelling, capitalization, and format.

I also want to emphasize that neither of these things is more or less important than the other. If grammar is causing your reader to misunderstand big parts of your narrative, it’s a big issue. If your reader hates your main character, it doesn’t matter if your wording is always perfect or there are zero typos in your novel.

Where to start?

I was engrossed in writing center theory for several years as a grad student and professional, and one of the slightly old-school theories was “HOCs (higher-order concerns) before LOCs (lower-order concerns).” In other words, high-level stuff (revision) has priority over lower-level stuff (editing). At first glance, this makes sense, and I agree with this—to an extent. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Part of the reason this philosophy came into being was a somewhat snobby view of revising writing, but part of it came from seeing students focus almost exclusively on correctness: finding misspellings, grammar mistakes, incorrect words, etc. Making these changes feels good because they’re concrete and easy to see. The red squiggly spell check line goes away, or Grammarly is happy, or whatever. These errors are also semi-objective and much easier to find.

However, only looking for and fixing these mistakes is, as my (very southern) band teacher used to say, like putting lipstick on a pig. If there are problems with the bigger picture, changing the details won’t fix them.

Hence, HOCs before LOCs. It makes sense to make sure your plot is in order before you worry about what Grammarly has to say for two reasons:

  • You don’t want to put lipstick on that pig unless the pig is at least clean and smelling good. Lipstick doesn’t hide the effects of that mud wallow or a foul-smelling breakfast.
  • You save yourself a lot of labor by addressing your high level issues first.

What do I mean about saving labor? Say you have a 120,000-word novel. You lovingly comb through every word, correcting spelling, agonizing over wording, making sure there are no dangling participles. Then you realize there’s a giant plot hole. And you don’t even need this character. How many words are you then going to remove or add? How much effort and time have you then wasted on the words you removed and now need to repeat with the words you added? Why not just do it all at once? Get your big stuff down, even if it’s kind of ugly, and then you have it all there to make it pretty.

Draft 1.0

So you’ve put the final few words of your story down on the page. Awesome. If you’re reading this, you know that’s not the last step. You might feel daunted by what comes next, but you can do it. Think of it as an opportunity to make your story become the best it can be, rather than just making it exist.

We’ll use revision and editing our two post-first-draft phases.

Phase 1: revision

Here are the first things you should look at (and have someone else look at) in the revision phase. I’ll be doing a series of posts on these issues, so keep an eye out and subscribe to my blog for more info.

  • Plot (what happens). Plot needs to be logical, engaging, and well-paced.
  • Character (who does things). Likewise, characters need to be engaging and logical in the sense that the reader needs to understand them.
  • Verisimilitude (how believable your story is). Stories need to follow their own internal logic and need to feel believable.
  • Point of view (how your story is being told and by whom). Point of view determines a lot more than you think. It needs to be consistent, and the point of view character(s) need to be well-chosen.

The revision process takes a while, as you might imagine. It is a process, and often not a linear one. I write a big chunk, then revise a lot of it, then write some more, then revise more, then eventually finish Draft 1.0 and revise the whole damn thing over again. There are several revision passes in my writing process, and I recommend that you have several in yours, too. Don’t try to handle everything in one go, because you’ll miss something.

Phase 2: editing

After you’ve added, reorganized, and taken away, you can look at the narrative in more detail. Editing can include

  • Grammar. I’ve written a blog post about grammar rules writers should know, so I won’t say a ton about it here, except that grammar is vital for clarity.
  • Spelling. In addition to our good friend the spell checker, you’ll have to do your own pass to make sure unique names of people, places, and things, as well as any made-up words, are consistent. If your main character’s name is inconsistently spelled, your reader will notice–say, if you sometimes write Gavriil and sometimes Gavril, your reader will notice. (No, I haven’t done this exact thing, why would you ask?)
  • Capitalization. Names of unique people and places need capitalization. The first letter of every sentence needs capitalization. The word “I” needs capitalization. If you’re capitalizing something else, you need to have a reason for it. It’s one of those details that can drive readers nuts.
  • Wording. Make sure you’re using a word the way it should be used, and according to some logical meaning. Perfect example: the word “keen” as a verb means to wail in grief. It does not belong in a sex scene, unless you really mean someone is wailing in grief while bonking. If you’re not 100% sure of a word’s complete meaning, look it up. There’s no harm in it. I do it and I teach this shit.
  • Format. This is how the document looks. Spacing, paragraph formation and indentation, italics, bold, etc. all need to be consistent. Some people like to italicize the names of species they made up, for example. That’s cool. If you do it that way, you need to do it that way every time. Also, indent your damn paragraphs, add a space between them, or both.

The editing process can likewise take a while, and it can feel a little bit tedious, but there are a couple of things that can make it easier.

Bonus: the editor’s best friends

  • Make liberal use of ctrl + F (cmd + F for you Mac users), which is the find function. This helps with all sorts of problems! If you want to change a character’s name or the spelling of a name, find and replace. If you overuse a certain word or punctuation mark, use the find function to review all uses of that word. If you’re a barbarian and still press the space bar twice between sentences instead of only once like you fucking should, type two spaces into “find” and one space into “replace.” Bam. Fixed.
  • Read your writing aloud. You’ll be surprised at how many issues you find when you’re forced to hear your text at a speaking pace rather than zipping through it at a reading pace. If that idea makes you want to vom, run your text through a text to speech app. There are free apps everywhere, and Microsoft Word 2019 will also do it for you. If you don’t mind the robot voice, it’s also helpful.

A final word

When I mentioned the HOCs before LOCs/revision before editing philosophy, I said I agree with it to an extent. For the reasons I mentioned above, handling the high-level stuff first is often a good idea in order to save yourself from having to repeat work.

However, sometimes the small-scale stuff can become a big issue. If your grammar is preventing your reader from understanding what you’re saying, it’s impossible to tell whether you wrote a good story or whether your character is awesome. If you’re constantly using “there” when you mean “their,” your reader is going to get frustrated. If you don’t indent your paragraphs or put spaces between them, the page looks like a giant wall of text that’s visually hard to follow. In these cases, you need to handle these along with, or sometimes even before, handling the high-level stuff. As a teacher, the way I judge this always comes back to clarity and reader immersion. Is it unclear? Fix it right away. Is it frustrating for the reader? Fix it sooner rather than later.

What do you call the stuff that comes after Draft 1.0? Do you make any distinction between revision and writing? What do you start with first?

Pin it:

revision vs editing

My writing practice, Writing Business

Tools for organizing writing notes

A few ideas for organizing writing notes

I’m showing my system of organization, but also giving some suggestions for methods to try if you haven’t already. I’ve used a number of different programs and methods that have worked only marginally for me or that just didn’t fit my needs. I’ll be mentioning them later on. They might be just what you need, since you’re a different kind of writer with a different kind of thought process.

Caveat

Everyone has a different way of organizing writing notes. My way may not work for you. The important thing is that you find something that does work for you. Don’t try to conform your entire thought process to one method unless it makes sense for the way you think. If something isn’t gelling with your thought process, change it, adapt it, or ditch it.

I’m a fantasy writer, so I have to keep a lot of notes about worldbuilding as well as plot. I also tend to think all over the place, so my challenge over the years has been to streamline the way I document notes so I can easily reference them later, but also to find a way to add ideas quickly that won’t create complete chaos out of my neurotic organization.

Worldbuilding notes

This is the most extensive type of notetaking any writer needs to do, especially if you’re writing in a genre that involves research. I choose to do a lot of mine on paper. I’ve tried doing it digitally, and that might ultimately be more efficient (it’s flexible and searchable), but I’ve found that keeping a notebook rather than a file or Google Drive folder or a bunch of bookmarks works best for me. I can flip through it like a physical book to find what I need instead of having to figure out what goddamn file I put that one note in.

I combined the concept of the story/worldbuilding bible with a bullet journal, because it’s much more pleasant to add and read notes if everything looks pretty. I use a dot grid notebook, bullet journal style, because I do have the occasional sketch or family chart or whatever, and I just think it looks nicer.

You can see my first page index here. I’ve also added labeled tabs for the stuff I reference most.

Each section has colored titles, headings, and subheadings.

 

What’s in it?

I’ve adapted various worldbuilding bible templates, especially this one created by Patricia Wrede many, many moons ago. There are plenty of other templates out there. I didn’t use the same order, but it was a good checklist for what to think about when creating a new world and new cultures.

I also have extensive character notes, again adapted from various character questionnaires and such, notes for future plot points, lists of tertiary character names, lists of ideas for character names, and some notes on plot. I tend to start my plot notes on paper and eventually move them digital, as you’ll see in a moment.

Pros

There’s evidence that writing something by hand helps you remember and process better (or at least differently). Because a) I’m able to do this and b) my working memory is like swiss cheese (i.e. full of holes), I tend to like working on paper. It helps me be as meticulous as I want to be, and I’m also not bound to a computer if I need to look something up. This is helpful especially because I also hand write most of the time.

Cons

If I don’t have the notebook with me, I don’t have the notes. This has been annoying when traveling, for example, when I don’t want to carry around one more object. There’s also the small, nightmarish chance that I might someday lose it or it will get damaged. Believe me, I’ve thought about that.

Spur of the moment ideas

Everyone gets them, and usually at inopportune times, when you’re not near your notebook or computer. I’ve managed to confine spontaneous brainwaves to two things: sticky notes and my phone’s note app.

Sticky notes

I’m a teacher and also obsessed with office supplies, so I pretty much always have sticky notes at hand. I’ll scribbled down an idea (that will hopefully make sense to me later) and put it either in a writing notebook or the most conspicuous place I can think of, e.g. my laptop keyboard, for filing and adding to my worldbuilding bible later. If I’m in the middle of something else that’s writing-related, I can also scribble a note and slap it into the back of my actual-writing notebook if my worldbuilding notebook isn’t to hand. Eventually, it all gets written into the worldbuilding notebook. In the meantime, it’s safely documented somewhere that I know it will stay and be seen later on.

Pros

Super easy, low tech. I can write notes in places where I can’t or shouldn’t access my phone, like in class. Whipping out my phone while I’m teaching is not a good look.

Cons

Very easy to lose. I’ve learned to take a couple extra seconds to make sure the note goes somewhere safe and conspicuous. It never ever gets stuffed somewhere random.

Note taking app

I have an iPhone, so I use the Notes app for everything. There are plenty of other, more elaborate apps, like Evernote, but I like the simplicity of the Notes app. If I don’t have a sticky note or pen with me, or if it’s four in the morning and I just woke up with an idea, I can grab my phone and type it in. Occasionally, if I’m in the car, I’ll get Siri to take notes for me.

Pros

Convenient. I have my phone near me 95% of my life. I use the app for grocery lists and other things, so having my writing notes there is also great. Since I also have a Macbook, my notes sync between my laptop and my phone.

Cons

While I like the simplicity of this app, it’s not great for actually organizing the notes. It’s also bad form to use your phone while driving, obviously, and Siri does not always understand me. I made a series of notes while stuck in traffic at one point, went back and read them later on, and saw several references to “the rain.” Actual conversation with myself:

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK KIND OF RAIN ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, AVERY?

Ummm I have no idea. This book has nothing to do with weather. Was this idea about weather?

Oh. OOOOHHH. Therian.

Plot notes and outline

I’ve tried so, so many methods and apps and programs for plotting and outlining. Nothing, including much-loved programs like Scrivener, have worked for me. Their way of organizing the program just doesn’t match up to my writing or mental organization.

The app I’ve found most useful is Trello, which is a little like a digital version of the plot card method, only better. Essentially, you create categories and cards within those categories that you can title, tag, and add notes and attachments to. You can also add to-do lists and collaborate with others if you’re working on a joint project.

I have three Trello boards for The Taste of Fire, which I created at different points in my process.

I had several plot threads to juggle, so I made each thread into a list. Specific plot points or events went onto the cards, which I tagged to categorize them across lists: e.g., actions, reactions, relationship events, background events, and so on. Each Trello board has slightly different tags according to the purpose of the board.
I didn’t try to organize these cards in any chronological way at first, but I eventually did, as you can drag and drop the cards within and across lists. This board was really about laying out what was happening across plot threads without worrying about the specific order of scenes.

The second board I created was similar to the first, except in this one I laid out plot points in rough order according to act. The salient thing here is that I was thinking about plot points and not about specific scenes. There could be several scenes surrounding the same event.

Tags are similar in this board. In fact, I copied a lot of the cards from the first board, laid out in a different way. It’s good to keep both because 1) it’s digital and I can, and 2) I can reference plot points by plot thread and by their specific position in the narrative as well.

The third board, which I’m referencing more often these days, is development, editing, and publishing-related. I’m serializing The Taste of Fire on Patreon, so these cards are separated out scene by scene and tagged according to their development/publication status status, POV, and what needs to be done with them if they’re already written.

Pros

It’s free, and there’s a mobile version that’s also free. You can link documents from Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive for easy reference. It allows you to collaborate if that’s your thing. You can add as many tags as you want. You can also incorporate to-do lists and due dates for each card. A card can exist in multiple lists within the same board or in multiple boards. Cards can be easily moved around. It could be great for taking notes, too, and I might try that if I ever want to give up my beautiful bullet journal.

Cons

For me, not many, but for general use, a few. Attaching documents has very little functionality. It’s basically just like attaching a document to an email: if you want to edit it, you have to download it, edit it, then upload it again. Cards can exist in multiple places, but making an edit to one place won’t change the card in other places. There are no sub-lists, so if you have a big collection of cards, you’ll end up with many smaller lists or several big ones. Minor quibble: deleting a card isn’t straightforward–you have to “archive” it instead.

In sum: if you like the plot card approach and are interested in a digital version, try Trello.

Another caveat

If you’re like me, you get enthusiastic about a new program or method, try it for a bit, then drop it after a while. Most of the time, this happens because that new program isn’t incorporated into your established practice or routine. This is the reason why I’ve dumped a bajillion different programs and systems and methods–I just ultimately couldn’t sustain them. They were either too hard/inconvenient to make part of my habits or too boring to keep my interest, and I don’t have time for either.

If you find this happens to you, you can do one of two things: try to incorporate it or find something else that’s easier to incorporate. Don’t stick to something that isn’t working for you. If it’s not working for you, it’s working against you.

Other tools I’ve tried

These things didn’t ultimately work for me, but they’re interesting and might work for you just fine.

  • Evernote: Evernote is probably the thing that comes closest to an all-in-one for me. You can write text files, save clippings from online articles, scan and mark up documents, attach pictures, create to-do lists that can send you reminders at a certain time or at a certain place, and more. I have no idea why it’s never clicked for me. Just one of those things. It’s free, but if you pay for it, you get more space and more stuff.
  • Scrivener: well-regarded in general and made for writers. It’s a really dense program with a lot of very granular tools, which is ultimately why it doesn’t work for me. That said, there’s lots of space for world building, character creation, plot carding, and so on. It does cost money, so keep that in mind.
  • WriteitNow: similar to Scrivener, but it also includes a different storyboard. The layout and functionality is somewhat different, and it’s a bit more old school.
  • World Anvil: a very, very cool project built for RPG campaign running as well as world building. You create a world, name it, and describe it. It has predetermined categories (e.g. religion, species, etc.) where you can add articles and notes. It’s free, but if you’re a subscriber on Patreon ($3/month), you can make your world public, add co-authors, and get subscribers. I wasn’t able to fold this into my writing process, but I still want to use it somehow in the future.

Is my method of organization efficient? Maybe not the most efficient in the sense that it’s not all in the same place. Does it help me keep track of things better? Definitely. Is it for everyone? Unless your brain is scattered in the same why my brain is, no. But I hope you find something you’d like to try from this list.

What tools do you use to organize your writing? What have you tried that didn’t work?

Writing Business

Representing LGBTQIA+ characters in fiction

I was invited to write this guest post on Richie Billings’ fantastic writing blog. This post is cross-posted there.

We’ve all seen more LGBTQIA+ representation in popular media in the past several years. Some of it is great (Good Omens) and some of it really not (too many to list). What distinguishes the good from the not so good from the absolute shit? How can you, as a writer, represent queer people with respect for their gender and sexual expression? I have some guidelines for you.

A little side note: I’m using the term “queer” here to denote those across the LGBTQIA+ rainbow. If you’re not familiar with queer abbreviations, or if you’ve always been too awkward to ask, here’s a brief glossary. There are many excellent, in-depth dictionaries of terms out there, an easy google search away.

  • Cisgender: a cisgender person is someone who identifies with the sex characteristics they were born with. Also written as cis.
    • Cis-het: an abbreviation for cisgender and heterosexual.
  • Asexual: someone who generally feels little or no sexual attraction to most people. This person may still enjoy sex, but in certain contexts. Also written as ace.
  • Aromantic: someone who generally feels little or no romantic attraction. This person may still consider themselves sexual (or not). Also written as aro.
  • Demisexual: someone who generally feels little or no sexual attraction to someone unless romantic feelings are present. Also written as demi.
  • Non-binary: someone who doesn’t identify as solely masculine or feminine. Another name is genderqueer. Also written as NB or enby. I’ll be using NB.
  • Intersectionality: a term to explain the fact that a person can have more than one important identity–for example, a queer person of color or a disabled queer person.
  • This guide contains advice from the perspective of myself, a queer person. Other queer people might have different perspectives.

Don’t tokenize

The problem with a lot of fictional depictions of people outside of the dominant social power structure (i.e. white, straight, cisgender, male, wealthy, able, and in the west, Christian) is that they’re very often half-assed. Specific to queer people, there might be one gay guy or lesbian couple, or, if the writer is feeling extra generous, a trans person. This is often well-intended, but it’s a shallow gesture.

Why? Three reasons:

  • One queer character in a cast that’s overwhelmingly straight makes that queer character become the center of all that is queer. A white gay man can’t represent the concerns, thoughts, or dreams of a black lesbian, for example. Representation is super important, and one person isn’t real representation.
  • These representations are often made for very mercenary reasons. A lot of queer people will watch a show or read a book if there’s a queer character, but one token queer person isn’t actually for queer people: it’s for cis-het people to feel good about the diversity of a cast. Isn’t that great? They have a gay character! This lets producers of media off the hook: we gave you this gay character. We’ve done our duty. What else do you want? Uh, actual representation would be nice.
  • Token characters of any type are often painfully shallow and stereotypical. They’re a cis-het person’s cursory interpretation of what a queer person is.
  • Announcing that a certain character is queer or showing a brief queer encounter isn’t enough, especially if you draw out cis-het romantic relationships elsewhere. I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling. Knowing that Dumbledore was gay and never seeing him being gay is not representation. Another, more recent example is Wendy from Mindhunter. She’s in a relationship in the first couple of episodes she appears in, but then she’s single and nothing more is shown of her sexuality. In the meantime, the two other (straight) main characters’ relationship is shown in detail, including some bare-assed sex scenes.

No such thing as too many queers

I’ve always found the tokenized queer character weird for one simple reason: when we can, queer people tend to travel in flocks.

The amusing image of a rainbow bird flock aside, queer people really do tend to stick together, for obvious reasons. We get each other’s experiences, problems, and lives better than our cis-het contemporaries. I can count my close straight friends on one hand. The rest are super queer, and usually more than one type of queer. I also don’t know a single queer person who spends their time only with cis-het people being the sole representative of our rainbow flock, so it’s weird when I see only one queer person in a show or a book.

And guess what? Your entire cast can be queer.

Give queer characters a variety of roles and dispositions

This goes right along with tokenizing. Often, a tokenized queer character will take one of a very limited number of roles. Two common roles are the queer sidekick and the tragic victim. 

  • Queer sidekick: readers of a certain age will remember the “gay best friend” stereotype of early 2000s American TV. This gay best friend (usually male)’s entire role was to support the protagonist. If he did get plot of his own, it almost always related to his sexuality. He never got to be the hero. This is the perfect example of a token queer.
  • The tragic victim: if you’ve seen Brokeback Mountain, you know what I’m talking about. This poor gay guy gets gay bashed to death. Another common scenario is a love confession is followed quickly by the death of one of the partners. As a queer person, boy am I tired of being represented as a tear-jerking moment. How would you feel if you went into a movie or a book always convinced that the one person who represented an important part of your identity was going to be tortured or die for being queer? It sucks and it hurts.

 

This isn’t to say that you can’t make your sidekick character queer, or you can’t kill a queer character. I’ve killed and roundly abused queer characters, and I have at least one queer sidekick. My point here is this: make your queer characters more than either of these things. Make them likeable tertiary characters. Make them your protagonist’s parents. Make your protagonist queer, and have a queer sidekick, and give them a lover or friend who doesn’t die horribly.

Remember that identities are intersectional

You’re not just one thing, are you? You can probably recognize your gender, sexual, racial, religious, national, language, and cultural identities if asked. All of those things make you who you are. The same goes for any character.

Why is this important?

The intersections of identities matter. Being a queer, English-speaking, American-born white person is a very different experience from being a queer Filipino immigrant who grew up on a Catholic household. You could put those two queer people in the relatively liberal bubble of the Pacific Northwest, and they would still have different experiences. The Filipino Catholic immigrant has different vulnerabilities than the American-born white person. Filipino and Catholic social structures are at best unfriendly to queer identities. Add being an immigrant to the mix, and that person’s life is all the more complicated. 

These two people would have different senses of themselves as queer people. Someone who grew up in Seattle seeing the Pride parade every year might have gotten the message that being queer is just fine. Someone who has had to hide their gender and/or sexuality to stay alive has gotten the message that being queer is dangerous, and their identity should stay hidden.

Let’s put these two people in a different scenario. For the sake of not having to type out their full labels, I’ll call the white, American-born queer person WAQ, and the Filipino immigrant FQ. Let’s assume both of these folks are 22 years old, and they were both kicked out and disowned for being queer (a common plot point for queer characters).

  • WAQ speaks and writes fluent English. They have legal government ID. Things are getting really hard; they have to find housing, food, and a job. That fucking sucks and it’s hard, but they know they can walk into a shelter or social services building, show their ID, and hopefully get some support.
  • FQ is in a new country. They may not speak fluent English (or any English). If they’re lucky, they might have a passport but probably no work visa, meaning they can’t legally work in the US. They could go to a shelter–if they knew about shelters–but what then? If there are any social services available, they may not even know about them. Assuming they have a visitor visa, after that visitor visa runs out, they’ll run a constant risk of deportation by everyone’s favorite government-sanctioned Nazis, also known as ICE. Another possibility is that they’ve been brought here by a “fixer,” who promised a place to stay and a job, who then holds their passport hostage for free labor. They don’t speak English and now don’t have ID.

Both of these characters have a social problem based on their sexuality that is all too common among queer people. However, the expression of that problem and the existence of other problems depends on their additional intersections of identity and life statuses. As a writer, you can’t ignore this. 

Intersectionality goes back to representation, too. I’m an asexual, non-binary person of color. I was born in the US, but other than that, I’m about as far from that stereotypical white, cis, gay best friend as you can get. He doesn’t represent me, and he doesn’t represent most queer people. 

Queer people exist across all cultures and areas of the world. We always have. If you want some queer characters, don’t make them all white Americans. Keep in mind how different intersections can affect your queer character and be mindful of them, but don’t let that stop you from writing characters that are more than one thing.

It’s not about the L,G, and T

Don’t forget that queerness encompasses a pretty big set of identity populations. Write characters that are NB*, ace/demi, or intersex, or bi/pan, or aro. Those groups need representation too. They have different concerns and ways of interacting with the world than lesbians, gay men, or binary trans folks, so it’s extra important that you become informed about them.

* Most NB people I know consider themselves trans, but some don’t. Media most often portrays binary trans people: those who are assigned one gender at birth (male or female) and transition in some way to the “opposite” gender. NB folks don’t fit the transition narrative most people think about when they picture a trans person because there’s no “opposite” gender.

Show a variety of relationships

I’m not going to lie, I love queer romance. Pretty much any book I write is going to have a lot of it. That said, queer romance is almost never an exact copy of straight Harlequin or TV-style romance: sexual tension –> hesitation –> kiss –> bonking –> monogamous love forever. It’s okay to break away from that mold.

I’m not a part of the Good Omens fandom, but boy is it hot right now. I’ve seen some tension in fandom between people who feel slighted because the main characters don’t kiss or bonk in the show and some who argue that the show is nonetheless very very gay and quite romantic. As a queer person, I absolutely do want to see more representation of queer characters being physically affectionate, and I’m an enthusiastic consumer and writer of queer sex. That said, not everything needs to be like that. There’s an unlimited variety of sexual interactions and arrangements. Don’t be afraid to break out of the mold.

  • Characters can fall in love and do all sorts of romantic things without being obviously physically affectionate “on screen,” as in Good Omens. Some people prefer this, and that’s fine.
  • You can write sex as explicitly or as euphamistically as you want.
  • Characters can hook up and never be romantic. A lot of us are millennials and Gen Zers. We can handle non-romantic hookups.
  • Characters can be polyamorous. Many of my queer friends are, and I am. Definitely almost all of my characters are. I love subverting the love triangle trope by just saying, “why not both? And a couple others too?”
  • You can add in non-typical relationship models like BDSM. A lot of people in the kink community are queer. Like, a lot. If you ever read my books, you can expect to see very queer, very kinky sex.
  • Queer characters can be–get this–just friends. I love all of my queer friends, but I only happen to be in a romantic relationship with one of them.

Show different ways of queer expression

Going back to the show version of Good Omens: it seems like people of my queer generation (I’m an elderly millennial) tend to see the show’s romantic elements much easier. I’m sure there are lots of breakdowns of those elements, but as I’m not a fan, I won’t try to lay them out. Suffice to say that we see certain interactions as queer, even when they’re not kisses or cuddles or sex. 

Likewise, people have different ways of expressing their queerness. Some people want to make it really obvious that they’re queer, like me, and some are more subtle for a variety of reasons. Here are some real-world examples of ways people present their queerness to the world:

  • Gay men of a certain generation are sometimes what I call “Barbara Streisand gay.” Their expression is flamboyant; they have certain mannerisms and tastes in pop culture. Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition is a bit like that. Some are a bit fussy and prissy. Some are what you might think of as the typical jock or bro types, or nerds or fashion-challenged average dudes. 
  • Some lesbians are butch, with short hair and masculine clothing and mannerisms, some are femme, and some are just average. Lesbians of the boomer generation and earlier often made certain style choices like shorter hair and non-femme clothing as a subtler expression.
  • Some trans folks go full masculine, some full femme, some mostly andro, and some, like me, a mix depending on the day and level of safety. Safety is another element in queer expression, but I won’t get into that right now.
  • Ask a queer person, especially an internet fossil like me, how many times they’ve been asked “so who’s the ‘woman’ in the relationship?’” and their eyes might roll out of their head. Granted, sometimes queer folks do tend to take on something approaching stereotypical gender roles (e.g. one partner is the “house spouse” while the other goes to work), but I think it’s less common. Partners don’t need to present as more masculine or feminine in their lives or relationships in order to “match up” with another partner.

If you write fantasy, you aren’t in any way bound by traditional gender or sexual expression. I really encourage you to break away from that structure. Fantasy and sci-fi are amazing chances to do that because we, as authors, create the worlds and cultures. They don’t have to mirror our own world. For example, in my current novel, The Taste of Fire, the fantasy race I created has a matriarchal, polyamorous social structure where most people are bi/pansexual and have multiple partners. It’s really, really queer. The one straight protagonist is seen as a tiny bit puzzling for not also sleeping with women. I made this decision because I wanted to create a society that celebrates queerness when our own society doesn’t.

That leads me to my last point:

Make queerness NBD

The best kind of queer representation is the kind that makes queerness no big deal.

“WAT?” I can hear you ask. “You mean, just ignore it?”

Not exactly. What I mean is this: normalize queerness. Make it such a seamless part of your story and your fantasy cultures that you don’t have to tokenize, and character storylines don’t involve some kind of homo-or transphobic violence. There’s enough of that already in fiction.

I’ve been listening to N.K. Jemison’s Inheritance trilogy on Audible. The three main gods are/were in a polyamorous relationship. Two of them were male, at least according to the way humans perceive things. They’re lovers, and they’ve reproduced together. That’s just part of the story world. The author doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact that they’re queer and poly.

Another example is Guild Wars 2. Three of the major characters are lesbians, and there are a few minor characters who are gay. They just are. No one comments on the novelty of their queerness. It’s just accepted as a part of their lives.

This is what I, as a queer person, think is true representation: queer characters aren’t bound by our real-world social structure, and so they get to have different concerns and conflicts. Cis-het characters are never questioned about their sexuality or gender expression. No one comments on it. They aren’t involved in storylines that make a crisis out of their sexuality or gender expression. They just are

Give queer characters the same treatment. Give them the freedom to own their gender and sexuality and pursue other parts of their lives, but don’t forget to celebrate their lives and their relationships just as much as you would cis-het lives and relationships.

Who are your favorite queer characters in fiction? What do you like about them?

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My writing practice, Writing Business

Finding Inspiration for Characters

This post is part advice and part insight into my writing process.

I like to think I’m good at creating engaging characters. I struggle sometimes, but mostly the people in my head develop fairly well and fairly quickly. I attribute this partly to being a roleplayer for many, many years and partly to consciously developing characters from my major sources of inspiration.

People I know

I definitely don’t translate people I know directly onto the page, but I use bits of their personalities and/or roles to create characters. For example, a little of the different relationships my brother and I had with our (abusive) father went into Cary and Lindsay, protagonists of the Twisted Tree books, but they are very very different people from me and my brother. Cary and Lindsay are also inspired by a lot of the people I grew up around in the Ozarks: their hobbies, likes and dislikes, cultural background, and so on. They’re fleshed out characters because I know the type of people they are.

Aspects of myself

Every writer uses parts of themselves to create characters, whether consciously or not. Almost all of my protagonists have anxiety and identity wounds. They aren’t carbon copies of my own anxieties and identities, of course, but I have that experience to draw on when writing about them. 

  • Gavriil, for example, has crippling anxiety (more than I do), is very sensitive and squishy, and also struggles with his racial/ethnic identity as a light-skinned person of color. Like him, he feels out of place and different no matter what group he’s with and feels self-conscious about being and looking different from the people around him. Part of his journey is reconciling that part of himself.
  • Coyal, Gavriil’s sibling, also has a little of me. She’s a little cynical, tends to keep her strongest feelings to herself, and deals with a disability, though not the same as my own. She has harder edges than I do, but she has a similar approach to problems, especially problems relating to her work.
  • Going back to the Twisted Tree books, Lindsay is the sibling in the family that is more or less ignored and neglected by the father. This results in some terrible self esteem issues, of course. He’s otherwise very different from me, but his role in the family is similar to mine.

Things I liked/disliked about fictional characters

Probably everyone does this: they steal what they love and remake what they don’t.

  • Laura Roslyn from Battlestar Galactica is my favorite female TV character ever. She starts out as a timid former schoolteacher and is made President of the Colonies by a fluke of fate. She shows her strength without becoming an asshole, makes mistakes, admits and fixes them. There’s a little of her in a lot of my female characters.
  • There are, unfortunately, a lot of examples of fictional characters I don’t like, especially urban fantasy characters, as you can see here. This is where I sometimes do something similar in concept but very different in execution. My worst favorite, Gillian Key, is a Marine and a therapist. Beginning with the second book of the Twisted Tree series, I have an Army vet who becomes a therapist. It was more coincidence than anything that made their concepts similar, but you can bet I’m going to make my character everything Gillian is not.
  • The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite favorite movie. The protagonist, Andy Dufresne, is a quiet, meticulous, thoughtful person who nonetheless is doggedly persistent in pursuit of a goal. There’s a little of him in Coyal.
  • Speaking of persistent, though nobody has met him yet, there’s a character in The Taste of Fire who’s inspired by Victor Frankenstein in that he goes absolutely batshit insane when he surrenders himself to his scientific endeavors. Whether he snaps back to reality at some point, I’m not sure yet.

Subverting character tropes

Every genre has its tropes, and if you haven’t figured it out by now, I enjoy messing with them.

  • Emotionally constipated male lead: Most of my male characters are subversions of this trope, because I hate it more than any other trope. Gavriil is exactly the opposite of emotionally constipated. He’s free with his emotions, wears his heart on his sleeve, is an anxious cinnamon roll but is also very competent in battle and in science. 
  • Emotionally constipated female UF lead: This is horribly common in UF. The idea is presumably that a woman can only be a badass if she’s essentially a man in a dress. She acts in a stereotypically masculine way (see also: emotionally constipated) and either disdains femme clothing or behavior, or she embraces it and in all other ways acts hypermasculine. She can kick the ass of any man around and can’t accept help from anybody because that would make her weak. I have this character in the Twisted Tree books, but it’s not framed as a good thing. I’m trying to show how actually fucked up this type of person is.
  • Prophesied hero: Cary and Lindsay subvert this. I remember thinking that a prophecy sounds like a horrible burden. What if it’s about someone who really isn’t ready to be the next world-saving badass?
  • Disabled person who’s magically cured: This one is kind of specific to Cary, who’s paraplegic. I was inspired by Avatar. It bothered me that Jake just took his kitty-smurf body at the end and started walking; it seemed too…neat. Yeah, I get that it’s more or less magical, but I wanted to see a character who continued to be heroic while also dealing with a disability*. The kitty-smurfs had mounts and flying things to ride around on, ffs. Suffice to say that my disabled characters will likely never be magically, completely cured of their disability. They can continue being heroic through their struggles.
      • There’s been mixed commentary from disabled folks, particularly wheelchair users, about this ending. I’m not trying to speak for those folks here. I picked up the idea because a) I wanted to figure out what I could do with it and b) I wanted to show something different.
  • Love triangle romance: I’ve always looked at love triangles and thought, “Couldn’t they just work it out so she can have both of them?” It always seems like shallow manufactured conflict to me. So, in answer to my question, most of my characters are polyamorous.

Historical figures

You don’t have to dig deep into history to find plenty of inspiration for characters, but digging past the surface, there’s even more.

  • Jim Jones: This guy is the cult leader of Jonestown infamy. Like most cult leaders, he grew more and more paranoid and anti-establishment, and he eventually lead his cult members to death. He’s not the only inspiration for Cary and Lindsay’s father, Lewis, but he’s one of them. Lewis is also an abusive psychopath with an ego the size of the entire state of Arkansas. You’ll have to find out what happens to him.
  • Salvadore Allende/Augusto Pinochet: There are a lot of dictatorships I could have used as inspiration for the dictatorial regime in The Taste of Fire, but I chose Chile. Allende was president of Chile in 1973 when he was assassinated in a coup d’etat led by Pinochet, whose junta then inflicted horrendous state violence until the dictatorship itself was overthrown. I won’t say too much about the plot of The Taste of Fire, but you probably get the idea.
      • Fun fact: the title The Taste of Fire comes from a Pablo Neruda poem. Neruda was a supporter of Allende and is suspected to have been murdered by opposers of Allende. That’s partially why I chose Chile.
  • Catherine the Great: Catherine is my favorite historical figure of all time. Don’t get me wrong; she was still a Romanov tsar, and she still had fucked up ideas about serfdom, etc. But her personality was a paradox that I find really intriguing. She made bold decisions and knew how to wield power, but she was also a softie for her dogs, her (several) lovers, art, and her grandkids. Her personal letters are very emotional. Marali, a character in The Taste of Fire, is a little bit like this.

Getting to know characters

Using the inspirations I just talked about, I tend to start with a basic concept: say, anxious bisexual disaster with identity problems fights dictatorship, or, rednecks with magical horses learn magic. I then tend to add more bits and pieces, and I start thinking about how a person like this would react to the plot I’m throwing their way. 

Because I’m an obsessive writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how they would interact with the real world, too. My partner (who’s also a writer, thank god) and I talked about what type of social media our characters would have for shits and giggles. (Gavriil: Instagram, Coyal: Twitter, Marali: Pinterest, Cary: the worst, weirdest Instagram.) This is fun, but it’s also enlightening.

On character sheets

I enjoy a good character sheet sheet sometimes. There are tons of them out there, too. If you’re looking for prompts to help you decide on characteristics or help you make notes about them, then by all means, use a character sheet. However, I think it’s easy to use them as productive procrastination tools. Characters are more than a set of characteristics, likes and dislikes, or background blurbs. They have to feel realistic. They have to interact with something or someone, and that means you have to start writing about them.

You can get started with a character sketch if you want. You can describe the character in prose rather than in a list, and you don’t have to worry about plot. The object is just to get to know the character rather than to make anything of significance happen to them. My character sketch of Gavriil involves him getting into a car. My sketch of Coyal involves her giving someone a tour. Both of them are really just to get a peek at them.

So, what about you? Where do you get your character inspirations? What inspired your current characters?

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Writing Business

Unnecessary Conceits in Urban Fantasy

Unnecessary Conceits in Fantasy Writing and How to Change Them

I must confess that I don’t read a ton in my own genre (contemporary/urban fantasy) anymore. I’ve read some amazing fantasy lately, particularly N.K. Jemison’s Inheritance trilogy, and I think people are doing some new and exciting things in more “traditional” fantasy, if you will–especially non-Eurocentric worlds. Urban fantasy seems to lag behind this inventiveness. There are tropes and conceits that authors just can’t seem to get rid of.

Partly this is because UF is an opportunity to create a unique blend of pop culture and fantasy, connecting with its readers by giving them something familiar and new at the same time. This can be great. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot out there that I find super off-putting.

Keep in mind that this is my individual opinion mixed with critical commentary. Take that as you will.

Because, why not I guess

There seems to be a long-running trend of doing things just because you can, especially in urban fantasy. Example: the hero collects unusual, never-before-seen powers until they become a Sue, and then the author throws in some equally weird “consequences” or “flaws” from being super powered. I’m looking at you, Anita Blake. I’m sure needing to have sex a lot is a real burden. 

  • Power creep is definitely a thing that happens in a lot of fantasy, and I don’t actually have a huge problem with it if handled well, but a protagonist’s amazing powers need to be balanced out by an equally powerful threat. If your protagonist is so OP that you’re having to twist the plot in pretzel knots to make it seem hard for the protagonist to get to their goal, it’s time to reassess what’s happening.
  • Another example is the world that contains every mythological creature, and they dogpile on the protagonist nonstop. I enjoyed the first few books of The Dresden Files, but eventually that drove me nuts. That’s both a world building and a pacing problem. If you’re chucking your D&D monster manual at your protagonist, your world starts to seem like a farcical critter variety show, and if you don’t give your protagonist a chance to breathe (or eat or drink or shower or sleep), you not only exhaust your reader, but you exhaust their emotions. It’s harder to show the emotional impact of a plot point if they happen one after the other in such rapid succession.

Rachel Vincent’s Werecat books demonstrate a few more of my fantasy pet peeves.  

  • The protagonist’s name is Faythe. Unique/unusual spellings of common names just isn’t necessary. Keep in mind that your reader has to look at this silly-looking name for hundreds or thousands of pages.
  • At the beginning of the first book, Faythe is an English literature grad student. This was why I initially started reading the books, because I was in grad school for English at the time. But this never appears again. If you set your character up with a certain characteristic at the beginning of the novel, it has to be relevant later. It doesn’t have to be super vital to the plot, but if you don’t do anything with it, it just makes me wonder why that characteristic was established in the first place.
  • In this world, female werecats are really scarce; I think there are seven or maybe eight available for baby making. Apparently, because females are rare, they Must Be Sheltered And Protected and are Obligated to settle down, marry and have babies. 
    • Vincent tries to create a really bizarre pseudo-feminist conceit in creating this aspect of the world, and in my view, it succeeds in doing nothing more than being only halfway relevant. 
    • Its purpose, I suppose, is to make Faythe seem like A Rebel Against Her Oppressive Society like early feminists. It just makes her seem unlikeable and unnecessarily contrarian. Faythe’s education and Oppressive Society serve as little more than either place settings or convenient complications, with no real purpose other than to seem like something hip and progressive.

Another, truly horrendous example is Talia Gryphon’s Gillian Key series. I’ve done in-depth reviews on these before, and I want to turn them into videos in the near future, so look out for those. They’re…special.

  • The protagonist, Gillian Key, is a black ops Marine captain who’s also a therapist for supernatural beings. On its face, that’s an interesting combination of professions, but it’s used and abused about as badly as you imagine.
  • As the series goes on, more and more pop culture and mythological creatures start to appear. Think Phantom of the Opera and Rocky and Bullwinkle. I am not kidding. There is zero reason for this.
  • Gillian Key is tiny and blonde and feminine but hates being feminine and wants to be just one of the guys. The reader is reminded of this constantly. I could go on about this for days (and I will), but this is a UF trope that raises my blood pressure. Like Vincent, Gryphon tries to make this a pseudo-feminist statement, but it turns out to be really, really sexist instead.

Style vs. substance

Sometimes in UF, magic itself becomes a conceit. It happens. It’s flashy. People are cool if they can do it. But it’s the worst kind of gratuitous literary special effect when it has zero bearing on the world itself. It might serve as a plot point (mostly for the protagonist, who is usually the one with the magical powers and is either ostracized or heroized because of it), but it doesn’t affect anyone else. It doesn’t exist as part of the world. 

If you have something that can be as pervasive as magic, why not have it affect societies, environments, governments–people’s daily lives? Not everyone has to be conscious of it (in UF, for example, a line is often drawn between People Who Know About Magic, which are usually supernatural people and those who happen to hang around supernaturals, and those who aren’t, who are the ignorant mundanes), but a sensitive, subtle narrative should take pains to show how it affects people in general. 

How could something like magic not affect the world it exists in? How could super-powered magical/supernatural beings not affect, intentionally or unintentionally, the environments they interact with? The Harry Potter series does a good job with this: it shows both the magical world and the real world. It shows the conflict between the two and the consequences of the magical world’s need to stay hidden.

Harry Potter isn’t necessarily urban fantasy, though. UF takes a different tack; a lot of novels try to make supernatural stuff pervasive rather than isolated. This is probably what the pop culture supernatural stuff is trying to get at. But there still seems to be a weird disconnect sometimes. Magic is just…a thing in the world, and everything else seems to happen in a very mundane fashion. If magic doesn’t affect your world and everything in it, there’s no point in having it. It would be cool to have your character pull out some badass trick like calling lightning, but honestly, who cares if they do when there’s no bearing on anything? 

Personal consequences or benefits of using magic or being of a certain magical species, while a step in the right direction, are not the be-all end-all, and they can end up a conceit as well. Don’t look for a reason for your character to be persecuted or adored. It’s patronizing.

The problem of “coolness”

I think a lot of these conceits stem from concern with making characters Cool. Want to add some Coolness? Add some badass powers, magical or otherwise. Don’t, you know, give them an interesting personality or anything. Who cares about that? Just add some dog ears and a tail. People will either think he’s adorable or they’ll think he’s a freak, and either can work in your favor.

Instead of focusing on making your character seem badass, make them someone your reader wants to follow through at least one book. Make no mistake, they can still be badass. One of my current protagonists, Gavriil, is a trained and seasoned warrior with a magical sword. But he also has a sympathetic personality. He’s sensitive and treats others kindly. The two protagonists from my Twisted Tree books, Cary and Lindsay, develop badass powers and royal titles (they’re prophetically known as princes). Cary in particular is kind of a jerk, but I made sure the reader understands why, and he goes through a lot of character development as the series goes on. 

Magic is fun to write about and fun to read about, but magic or certain conceits within your world, whether it be the rarity of female werecats, the existence of sex magic, the idea of a magical person being a private detective or a Marine therapist, a magical boarding school, the idea of multiple worlds, or whatever, cannot eclipse everything else, and cannot exist in isolation. Don’t get caught in the style vs. substance trap; stand out by not just doing something different, but doing something deeper and more thoughtful.

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Writing Business

Skills writers need: a growth mindset

How brain science can make you a better writer

I’d venture to guess that every writer has had moments (or days, weeks, months, years) of crippling self-doubt in which they feel like they’ll never get better, or they’ll never be able to get it–whatever “it” is–right. Or maybe they feel like they’re pretty good at something and don’t need to try very hard at it. We all fall into those traps about things we’re good at as well as things we struggle with. We develop an idea of ourselves as either good or bad at something, which affects our self-talk and, ultimately, affects our ability to learn and improve our skills. These ideas physically affect our brains. A little scary, right?

But what if I told you that you can change your brain by shifting your perception of yourself and your abilities? What if I told you that you can make yourself smarter by doing so? 

Even if you’ve had it up to here with articles about self-talk and positivity, hang with me here. What I’m talking about today is a little bit different. It’s not about cultivating relentless positivity; it’s about strengthening our resilience and our ability to weather challenges.

Cultivating your mindset

For many years, Psychologist Carol Dweck has studied what makes learners successful. The tl;dr version is this: it comes down to learners’ mindset when facing challenges, which has a physical impact on the brain. I’ll explain a few ideas here before I get into a more specific discussion of mindset.

Brain plasticity

I took classes in psychology and linguistics in college and learned about language acquisition. It’s always been a bit of a fascination of mine. The way I learned it, the child brain is extremely plastic; it has the ability to change, adapt, and develop with astounding speed and ease. Anyone who’s been around children can see that. Those who study brains used to think that brain plasticity all but grinds to a halt as we grow older, though; we’re simply not able to learn as quickly or as thoroughly once our brains are fully developed. The critical period hypothesis of language acquisition was seen as evidence for this.

When you look at learning this way, it’s easy to get the idea that you’re either good at something or bad at something, and that’s not going to change because your brain isn’t going to change, or it’s too hard to make it change. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks and all that.

But more recently, neurologists and psychologists have discovered that brain plasticity remains throughout our lives. Think about the incredible ability of a brain to heal after a stroke. A stroke survivor may not be exactly the same as they were before the stroke, but the very fact that anyone gets even a little bit better after a stroke is amazing.

I could go on about this all day, but just imagine what this means for your writing, and for other skills too. What if your brain wasn’t stuck at your current skill level after all?

Talent and intelligence

Most people, myself included, who are pretty good at something have probably heard, “You’re talented!” about that particular skill. You might have also heard, “You’re so smart!” when you got an answer right or did something well. Alternately, you might have heard, “You’re really not good at this,” or “You’re so dumb!” when you struggle with something or fail altogether. You might have even told that to yourself.

We tend to think about our ability or skill level in terms of talent or smarts, and we tend to think of talent or smarts as something we’re magically born with. If that’s so, then we’re either naturally gifted/smart or…not. This message is reinforced throughout our lives. Think about that for a second and how that might relate to brain plasticity.

Culturally embedded ideas

How we look at struggle, talent, and intelligence has a lot to do with the culture we’re raised in. Psychologist Jim Stigler argues that Western cultures tend to see struggle as evidence of lack of intelligence, so it’s something to be avoided. Eastern cultures tend to approach struggle as an opportunity to learn and build emotional strength. (Caveat: this is a broad generalization, but I’m doing my best to briefly sum up.) Since culture affects how we do and think about literally everything, it can have a serious impact on how we see ourselves and our abilities.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

Dweck’s studies describe two general mindsets: growth and fixed.

Fixed mindset

  • Someone with a fixed mindset about a skill believes they’re either good or bad at a skill because they have talent (or don’t) or they’re smart (or not). I can’t count the number of times when I’ve heard students say “I’m just not an English person.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “I’m just not a math person.” This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • When someone with a fixed mindset faces challenges or obstacles, they’re apt to give up or run away. What’s the point when your natural state of being is talented or not, intelligent or not? If you fail at something, it’s either proving you’re a talentless hack or flipping your perception of yourself as a talented person on its head. Neither of those are good feelings.
  • Someone with a fixed mindset also tends to compare themselves to others. If you see a really amazing writer, you might despair that you’ll never have that kind of talent. If you see someone who’s not as good at writing as you are, you might feel ever so slightly smug that you have more talent. 
  • Facing criticism? Yeah, forget about it. Criticism proves worthlessness or lack of ability.

Growth mindset

  • Someone with a growth mindset believes that they can improve a skill with effort. It may be super hard, but that skill can be improved. They may say, “I’m not good at this…yet. But I can be.”
  • A growth mindset completely changes how a person faces challenges. Instead of seeing them as pit traps of imposter syndrome, that person sees challenges as opportunities to learn and improve. Instead of “never mind,” it’s “maybe next time.” Failure at a task or challenge still doesn’t feel good, but it doesn’t indicate that you, yourself are a failure.
  • Someone with a growth mindset uses themselves as a measuring stick more than someone else. If they see an amazing writer, it doesn’t affect their self perception. They might say, “I want to be that good,” but they don’t see themselves as a failure if they aren’t there yet. Likewise, they don’t look at someone less skilled with smugness.
  • A growth mindset means taking criticism as valuable information for improvement. Like failure, it might not feel good, but it doesn’t prove anything about themselves as a person.

The Effects of Growth Mindset on the Brain

I can sum up Dweck’s studies this way: a growth mindset means more engagement in the brain, equaling more brain plasticity, equaling more and better learning.

When we learn something, our brain creates shortcuts called neural pathways that make it easier and quicker for us to retrieve information. It’s like paving a road. A fixed mindset maintains the same neural pathways, which naturally means you’re going to travel down those easier paved roads way more than the bumpy dirt ones. Our brains like convenience and efficiency, so it’s way easier to stick with the neural pathways you have: the skills you believe you have talent in (or not).

The thing is, learning isn’t easy or efficient, nor should it be. Paving that road takes effort. Once it’s paved, though, it joins a larger neural network, allowing you to access more stuff, making you smarter and more resilient. As a writer, resilience is super important because, well, writing is damn hard.

How mindset affects you as a writer

Hopefully you’re picking up what I’m putting down by now, but I’ll highlight a couple of things.

Your ability to take criticism

I think I’m a pretty good writer. I’ve been told I’m talented. This doesn’t exclude me from having a fixed mindset, though. In fact, I struggle a lot with my fixed mindset about writing. My long-suffering partner can tell you that I’m sometimes (often?) not great at taking writing criticism, particularly from them, as someone whose opinion I respect. I feel a huge amount of anxiety, as if I’m going to be found out to be a fraud, or if I’m actually a shit writer because I wasn’t clear about a description of something.

When put that way, it sounds ridiculous to me. At long, long last, recently I’ve gotten more perspective on the way I see challenges and criticism, and I’ve tried to cultivate a growth mindset about it. A setback or a bit of criticism doesn’t say anything about my worthiness as a person or as a writer. It means I have an opportunity to make my writing as good as it deserves to be. 

A short personal story: as an undergrad, I took a creative writing class from a teacher I did not get along with. I was writing a fantasy story, as I always do. She did not like fantasy. I don’t remember what it was in reference to, but she said, “Good writers can get away with this.” I’m not sure if she meant it this way (maybe she did because she was kind of a jerk), but the way I heard it was, “You are not a good writer.”

Naturally, this destroyed 19-year-old me. I don’t think I wrote for years after that. I definitely gave up on that story after a while, pretty well convinced that I wasn’t a good enough writer to tackle it. I can’t lie, I still resent the fuck out of that comment. I eventually picked myself up and decided I’d just try again, but it really damaged my self perception of my writing skill. 

Criticism isn’t meant to feel like a body blow. It isn’t supposed to crush you, and you don’t have to let it, even if that criticism is harsh. Did I learn anything from that teacher’s comment? It definitely did not help me improve the story, but I did learn that I could be resilient and move on despite someone’s passive-aggressive opinion of my writing. She probably still wouldn’t like my stories. But fuck her, really.

Your ability to improve

Because I’ve been told (up until that teacher) that I have talent in writing, I’ve limited my own ability to improve. If I’m good already, why bother trying too hard to get better? I realize this sounds smug, but it comes from anxiety rather than an inflated ego–as I said earlier, if you have a fixed mindset, trying hard might mean struggle, and struggle means you actually suck at something. Criticism is also necessary to improve, and if criticism is seen as this completely negative thing, you won’t seek it out.

In short, if it feels like you’re always on the verge of being exposed as a fraud, or if you just don’t want to be reminded of how much you suck at something, you’re going to stay in your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is not where you learn and improve.

How to Improve Your Mindset

  • First, recognize that this isn’t an overnight process, nor is it just about positive self-talk. I absolutely, positively despise relentless positivity. Sometimes I just want to say, “This is hard and it sucks” rather than, “It’s fine! THIS IS FINE.” 
  • But self-talk is an important component. Instead of telling yourself, “God, this story sucks,” say, “I’m not happy with it the way it is–what are some ways I can improve it?” and…AND…get someone to help you.
  • Develop a willingness to learn from your past mistakes. If something went wrong, don’t run from it. How did it go wrong, exactly?
  • Similarly, when you receive criticism, ask yourself why the reader felt off about this thing or the other. Ask them what could work better, or, if they’re not available to ask, figure that out for yourself. Detach yourself from the idea that criticism is a personal insult.
  • Observe what works and what doesn’t for you as a reader. Instead of saying, “I’ll never be N.K. Jemison,” admire what Jemison does well and see if you can use similar devices in your writing.
  • Keep your past writing. I’m fortunate enough to still have the novel I wrote when I was a teenager. It was decent, but I can see that my skill has improved, too. When I realize that I’ve improved in the past, I remember I can improve in the future.
  • Stop framing the quality of writing in terms of talent. I’m not actually sure if talent exists, but if it does, a presence or a lack of it doesn’t indicate whether you’ll ultimately be a super successful writer. Skillful writers can (and do) still write crappy things. Writers will less skill can write good things. Both need to put in effort to make their writing as good as it can be, and that has nothing to do with talent.

One last note

The idea of mindset has received some criticism because it implies that only hard work and positivity are necessary for success–whatever success means. The “hard work” narrative can get super toxic super quickly. Maybe a more rounded way of looking at it is developing resilience. Obstacles or failures don’t have to mean you’re a bad person or that you’re just bad at writing. You’re always going to have challenges, but you can survive them and, when it comes to writing, learn something from them. It might help to simply know that your brain has the ability to grow, and you have the ability to help it grow.

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My writing practice

Books that have inspired my writing

Everything a writer reads or observes forms their style, content, and to some extent, what they choose to say about what they write about. Today I’m writing about the books that have influenced me as a writer the most, even if that’s not directly observable in my writing.

My list of biggest influences obviously has some of my absolute favorite books, but even books I didn’t really like have shaped me and what I’ve chosen to do (or not do). I don’t consume a ton of fantasy compared to a lot of people–my virtual fantasy to-read list is pretty carefully curated–but I’ve chosen to include mostly fantasy fiction here because those are the stories that have had the most direct influence on my writing.

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

I was first introduced to this series in college, I think for a Young Adult Fiction class. Without exaggeration, it changed me as a writer. I’d never been a huge fan of super epic fantasy, but I hung on every word of this trilogy, and I’ve read it probably half a dozen times since then. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like and exactly the kind of thing I want to write: a series with compelling characters and a high-stakes plot that’s still very human (even if some of the characters aren’t) that has something bigger to say. 

I don’t see it as a huge neon sign of an atheist allegory as some people do. It is most definitely atheist, but I don’t think it’s anti-theist. Its messages are different than that.

How it influenced me

If I had to point to which of my books is most inspired by Pullman, it would have to be the Twisted Tree series.

  • I latched on to the idea of traveling through multiple worlds and decided to do my own take on it in the Twisted Tree series. 
  • The protagonist, Lyra, is described by Pullman as an urchin type. She’s not polished, polite, or even particularly likeable at the beginning of the book, but she is passionate and driven in her loyalty. I didn’t deliberately model Cary and Lindsay, the protagonists of my half of the Twisted Tree books after her, but they definitely share characteristics.
  • I’d dare to say that Pullman’s writing style isn’t super different from mine. Beyond the obvious (the fact that my style evolved to absorb his in some ways), from what I’ve read from his own non-fiction work, we have some things in common as writers. In particular, there are two quotes from a speech about the responsibilities of writers that struck me:
    • “We are responsible…for bringing fresh streams of story into our own cultures from all over the world, and welcoming experience from every quarter, and offering our own experience in return.” (Daemon Voices p. 10)–I would eventually like to come back to this with caveats later, but it definitely made me thoughtful.
    • “And there is a joy too in responsibility itself–in the knowledge that what we’re doing on earth, while we live, is being done to the best of our ability, and in light of everything we know about what is good and true.” (Daemon Voices p. 17)
  • Gay angels. I come from a very small town, and this series was the first one I’d ever read that featured a queer relationship of any kind. As a queer person, to see an identity like mine depicted as NBD was mind-blowing. It was an organic part of the story. They weren’t Teh Gay Couple; their relationship wasn’t about being gay, in other words, the way queer people are often tokenized in fiction. 
  • As I’m sitting here thinking about how to articulate Pullman’s influence on me, I’m now realizing that the “surprise! Both your parents are pretty terrible” plot point is something I absorbed. I won’t spoil the series, since I really hope you’ll read it, but I definitely did my own take on that.

Kushiel’s Legacy series, Jacqueline Carey

I initially picked up Kushiel’s Dart for a friend, who’d asked for it for Christmas. I opened it out of boredom and read the first few pages. I almost put it back down because, Christ, it begins with the “protagonist staring into a mirror and describing their physical experience” trope.

But you know…weirdly, it worked. 

So I kept reading, and I got hooked the way I got hooked on His Dark Materials. Carey’s style is very different from Pullman’s, with flowery language that somehow manages to not be stilted and an explicit adult expression of sexuality. It’s also epic in its way, but magic isn’t the forefront of the story. It’s about relationships and humanity, and that was really what kept me hooked.

How it influenced me

In terms of theme, The Taste of Fire is more closely inspired by this series.

  • If you’d told 16-year-old me that I’d enjoy a story that featured political intrigue quite heavily, I wouldn’t have believed you. Through Carey’s lens, though, I was able to see that that intrigue complemented character development as much as plot development. In The Taste of Fire, I ended up using intrigue in a similar way for Coyal’s character.
  • Kushiel’s Dart wasn’t the first book I’d read with explicit sex**, but in my memory, it was the first one that depicted 1) consensual explicit sex that the protagonist clearly wanted and enjoyed, 2) bisexuality, 3) BDSM, and 4) a society in which sexuality is totally normalized and accepted. I definitely used this for inspiration in selendi society for The Taste of Fire.
    • ** Imagine, if you will, me at 11 or 12 years old. I’m in some department store with my mom. I see a book called The Valley of Horses by Jean Auel. (If you’ve ever read this series, you know where this is going.) I realize it’s the second book in the series, so I find the first book and ask my mom for it. She’s pleased to see her pre-adolescent child reading such a big book. She does not realize that it features graphic rape of a child. I don’t remember what my reaction was, but it was probably something like, HEY WTF IS THIS OH SWEET MOTHER OF GOD. I still don’t think she realizes the actual content of these books. I obviously got through it without trauma, though I did receive some consternation from teachers who saw me reading it.
  • These books are long–like 900+ pages long–but they really don’t feel like a slog. Now, something I feel is relevant here is that I have ADHD, inattentive type. It is sometimes (ironically) very difficult for me to focus on reading for long periods, so sometimes I just don’t get through really long books. The fact that I blew through the books says something about Carey’s ability to sustain a long-game plot, and I’ve definitely tried to use her techniques to do just that in The Taste of Fire specifically.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

This one is a little different. This is my favorite, favorite book. I honestly couldn’t tell you why, except that it’s so beautifully crafted, and the prose really rings true with me. It was a Christmas present from my aunt when I was 13 or 14. It didn’t at first seem like something I’d enjoy, and if we hadn’t had a catastrophic ice storm between Christmas and New Years that year, I wouldn’t have picked it up at all. Because we lost power for days, I didn’t have much to do but read, and I devoured that book.

How it influenced me

The book didn’t really influence any one particular book. Its influence is really more scattered throughout my writing.

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t fantasy. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of a girl growing up in the 1910s in Brooklyn. It’s not just about her, but also how her family and environment shaped her. I’m sure I didn’t see that theme at the time, but it stuck in the back of my mind, and I’ve found myself writing about it many times since then. 
  • Along those same lines, there are several POV characters surrounding the protagonist, and each deepens the emotional tone and context of the protagonist herself. While my POV style is less omniscient, I try to make each POV add a different hue to the painting, if you will.
  • The descriptions of people and places are spare but articulate, almost the polar opposite of Carey’s. My style has shifted a little over the years, but it’s more on the Smith side in the Twisted Tree books. I’m not a super flowery writer in general, though I certainly tried to be for a long time. The aforementioned Jean Auel books tried to convince me that pages upon pages upon unrelenting pages of description were necessary to get a point across, where Smith did it in a couple of sentences, or a paragraph at most. The book taught me that this was okay and that I could give myself permission to write shorter descriptions that have impact without numbing the reader’s mind with the sheer tedium of reading dozens of pages with unsolicited descriptions of ancient landscapes and how they were formed since the beginning of time.
  • The book ends on a semi-hopeful but not entirely resolved note. There’s no guarantee that the protagonist is going off to live a much better life. There are surely trials ahead of her, but there’s also the sense that the story no longer needs you. And the very last scene is a beautiful echo of one from the first couple of chapters. The ending really stuck with me. In particular, I appreciated the idea that an ending didn’t have to have a neat and tidy or even necessarily happy end, as long as it’s satisfying. 
    • It’s also a pretty quiet ending: the protagonist is alone at home, and the book ends with her shutting a window. Though both the Twisted Tree and whatever I end up calling The Taste of Fire’s series’ books will end differently than stand-alone novels, I didn’t feel beholden to ending The Wicked Instead with a bang. It ends on a somewhat quieter note. The Taste of Fire will probably be similar–I’ll tell you when I get there.

Mythology, Edith Hamilton

I was lucky enough to be required to read this book in my eighth grade English class. It’s the quintessential collection of Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. I read that book over and over, highlighted it, bookmarked it, wanted to use all of the myths and the cool names in stories someday. This was pre-internet, so books were my only source of this kind of cultural storytelling.

How it influenced me

This part is actually pretty simple: it sparked my love of mythology and folklore, which is something I’ve come back to many, many times in my writing. I stole directly from Greek mythology for the novel I was writing in college, and the world of Twisted Tree is pretty well steeped in mythology. I seriously considered doing a Master’s or PhD in folklore after my BA. Though I didn’t end up going that route, I did do a Master’s in Cultural Studies. Not quite the same thing, but I did think and talk a lot (still do) about culture and storytelling. Looking back, I can attribute some of my most important lifelong interests to this little book.

Mediocre Urban Fantasy, misc.

This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of all of the mediocre-to-terrible speculative fiction I’ve read. I won’t try to make a list, because there’s just too much and that’s not the purpose of this post, but suffice to say that I’ve learned what I don’t like, why I don’t like it, how not to do that, and how I want to subvert tropes I find silly or annoying. 

I think it’s important for beginning writers to think about these things. I’m not going to say you have to subject yourself to mountains of shitty writing, but if you read a book you don’t like, think about what you found irritating and how you can do it better.

Honorable mentions

  • Redwall, for its giant ensemble cast
  • Watership Down, for the notion that a hero doesn’t necessarily have to be the biggest badass
  • Magic to the Bone, for the idea that magic is a resource that exacts a price when used
  • Game of Thrones, for no other reason than the fact that it brought several taboo subjects into the much-more-public eye and made people enjoy them, even if that enjoyment is kind of f’ed up. It makes me think people might not run screaming from some of my more taboo themes.

Writers, what are your biggest influences?