What Is Better than Productivity?

So many blog posts for writers focus on how to be more productive. How can you fit in more writing time, more words, or more sales. Maybe just maybe 2021 should be the year you give yourself something else.

In 2021, give yourself the gift of a little sloth.
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Give yourself a break.

Give yourself space.

Give yourself just a bit of sloth.

Writing takes a lot of energy so you may think this is a post about recharging. And to an extent it is. But writing also takes a certain amount of head space. You need time to contemplate what you could write. Once you come up with a story premise, you need to contemplate story challenges, characters, settings, and more.

If you don’t take the time to mull things over, your ideas may not be bad but they probably won’t be as original or far reaching as they could be. So give yourself a break. Get up from the computer and go do something else. Give yourself space. This might mean going for a walk. It may mean spending some time in a hammock. And what better thing to undertake in a hammock than just a bit of sloth.

It may sound Polly Anna to say that 2020 did bring some good things to life. Me? I’ve loved not having to run errands most days. I loathe errands especially if they involve shopping. Meetings? I don’t miss those either and Zoom really is better when it contains that 40 minute limit.

But I’m going to try to do 2020 one better. I’m going to try to be intentional about this in 2021. That means that I’m planning to not work on evenings or weekends. That means that my Monday posts will need to be completed Friday but that will help Sunday be more restful.

And time off will not only recharge my batteries, it will give my stories room to grow. Who knows? It may look a bit slothful but it will improve on what I produce.


Octavia Butler’s 5 Rules for Writing Science Fiction

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Since I’m working on a science fiction story, I clicked through when I spotted an Open Culture piece on Octavia Butler. That link led me to an interview she did with Essence magazine. The piece has been reprinted at Common Good Collective. You can find it here. From what she had to say, I’ve culled five rules for writing science fiction. All of these rules have to do with predicting the future.

Study Today’s Troubles

What problems are people neglecting today? Are they long standing problems in our society/world? Then they would likely make good story fodder. Imagine where these problems will be 30, 50 or 100 years in the future.

Leave the Reader with Hope

A student journalist irritated Butler when he asked her what was the solution for the problems described in her story. He quoted her as saying, “There isn’t one.” But what she really said was “There isn’t one . . . “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

Study the Past

Butler recommended that science fiction writers study history and look for repeating cycles. Specifically, she said that people should look for cycles of strength and weakness, wisdom and stupidity, empire and ashes.

Look for Your Own Biases

When she was talking to a group of students, Butler mentioned the Cold War fear that a nuclear strike was almost unavoidable. The students, born around 1980, couldn’t fathom this because they grew up without constant talk of the Soviets. Know what your biases are and try to identify those of earlier and later generations.

Surprises Happen

One of the things that makes the future hard to predict is the fact that surprises can and do happen. What surprises have occured in your own life time? Can you work something similar into your story?

Clearly, I’ve got some things I need to think about as I prepare my novel!


3 Reasons Students Need Updated Reading Lists

I have to admit that until recently I was fairly ambivalent about updating school reading lists. Shouldn’t young readers still be exposed to Catcher in the Rye and 1984? Note: I did not say Ethan Frome. I read Ethan Frome in American literature in high school. My only positive thought about this book is that at least it is short.

But at a certain level, it bothered me to see classics pulled off reading lists and replaced. Then I picked up H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. A friend recommended this to me when I asked for titles since I am writing a middle grade science fiction novel. This book was first serialized in 1897. I am finding it challenging. The style is wordy. None of the female characters have names. “My wife.” “The women.” I will not be defeated by this book, but I now stand firm on 3 reasons young readers need to be exposed to new titles in the classroom. Unlike Meghan Cox Gurdon who recently panned #DisruptTexts in the Wall Street Journal (Even Homer Gets Mobbed), I get it.

May Only Read for School

As much as we hate to admit it, some tweens and teens may only read what they are assigned in school. If that. We are much more likely to sell them on books in general of the books we expose them to are readable. A big part of that is going to be assigning them contemporary titles because…

Books That Are Relatable

If they only read in school, it is especially important that they be exposed to books that are relatable. That means the books need to reflect today’s language and today’s issues. These need to be books that help young readers see that we understand them. This is why feeding them literature with racist, sexist and other hateful attitudes can be harmful. They feel the hate when it is directed at them.

Not All or Nothing

Lists don’t have to be all contemporary books or all classics. Especially in honors classes, it would be easy enough to pair books – a contemporary book that deals with racism (The Hate U Give) with a classic (To Kill a Mockingbird). Students could then discuss similarities and differences in how the various themes are handled. Classic books could also be worked into history classes. I had a college class on modernism in art, science and literature. It was one of the best classes I had.

I hate to think that young readers will never touch To Kill a Mockingbird and I know some teens love the book. My son is one of those readers. But I also hate the idea that some teens will be permanently turned off reading because they never see a book that they can relate to.


Storystorm 2020: Begin Your New Year with a Flood of Ideas

Storystorm 2021

I’ve already registered to take part in Storystorm 2021.  If you’ve never heard of Storystorm, it’s a great way to start the new year with a batch of new story ideas.

I always find it a good way to reboot my writing after a holiday break.  And, let’s be realistic.  Who doesn’t need a reboot coming out of 2020?

Originally, it was known as PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) and took place in November.  But Tara Lazar, who sponsors the event, wanted to expand it beyond picture books. Now all types of children’s writers participate.

The basice idea is very straightforward. Throughout January you keep track of the ideas you generate.  The goal is to have 30 ideas by the end of the month or one a day for 30 days. There are inspirational posts and prizes for all who complete the program.  You can find out more about it and register  here.

Personally, I don’t quit recording my ideas when February rolls around.  I keep my list going all year long.  I came out of 2020 with 171 ideas.  No, I didn’t maintain my momentum of 1 idea a day but I’m happy with my list.  After all, this doesn’t include my blog ideas.

Some people discredit maintaining an idea list.  After all, should it count if you don’t write the idea into a manuscript?  Pfft.  Whatever.  Here is why I do it.  

  1.  Not all ideas are created equal.  Some simply do not measure up.  That’s a fact but writing them down is still helpful.  Read on to find out why.
  2. By getting into the habit of generating story ideas, you develop your idea generation muscles. You generate more ideas and can afford to weed out the ones that just don’t measure up. As a result, your stories become more original.
  3. Your list of story ideas also becomes a handy tool.  Need an idea for a contest, a pitch, or an example in an article? Peruse your list.  Combine ideas.

Lazar is now taking registrations.  Comment on the announcment post on her blog (linked here) to register.

For more on idea generation, see “Idea Generation: Where Do You Get Your Ideas” and “3 Places to Turn for Story Ideas.”




Merry Christmas: Taking a Few Days Off

I know, I know. Today is Christmas Eve, not Christmas. But I hope that those of you who celebrate are taking a few days off. I’ll be back Monday with a new writing related post.


A Christmas Gift for You: Back Things Up

Give yourself a gift.
Back up your files, sites, and blog.

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After dinner last night, I came back into my office to write my post for today and saw the “safety reboot” screen displayed on my monitor.  With a sinking feeling I realized that I had not backed up my site since my recent redesign.  No, the site isn’t stored on my computer but my manuscripts are safely backed up. 

For whatever reason, the first thing I thought of was my site. I rebooted and waited while my son asked me what was going on.  As I responded to him, the screen flickered.  “That’s not good, Mom.” 

Why thank you, son.  I certainly didn’t realize this might be a problem. 

I finally made myself leave the room until the machine had rebooted.  Then the first thing I did was back up my blog and site. 

If you have a WordPress blog or site, this is easy enough to do.  All it takes is these three steps.

  • In the Site Admin screen, go to the left hand sidebar, click on Tools.
  • When the menu pops up, select Export.
  • Under “Choose What to Export,” select “All Content” and then click “Download Export File.”  You will be e-mailed a link to where you can access your material online.  It took me about two minutes to back up my blog, in which I’ve been posting daily since 2008, and my entire site.  You can also download your graphics library.  

If someone hacks your password and tampers with your site, having things backed up can be vital.  

Many of us frequently back up our novels, books, articles and essays.  I have friends who store files in the cloud, in Dropbox, and more.  But I wonder how many of them consistently back up their blog or site.

Do yourself a favor.  Run all of your back ups before the New Year.  2020 isn’t over yet!  



Nonfiction Story Arc

If you are an SCBWI member, I hope you took the time to watch Melissa Manlove’s Digital Workshop. Manlove is an editor at Chronicle Books and among the things she discussed was the emotional arc, not for the story characters but for the reader.

Turning readers around in their thinking about Burmese pythons would create a strong emotional arc.
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Take a topic that readers find creepy or even frightening. Then immerse them in the topic and turn them around. By the end, if you’ve done your job right they will find the topic fascinating.

My son and I experienced this when he was home sick from school. PBS had a special about the Burmese pythons invading the Everglades and how they were virtually unbeatable predators. I have no qualms about admitting this – I have a problem with snakes. They fascinate me but they also freak me out. Under controlled circumstances I can hold them and have even had a massive python slither across my lap.

So it was easy for this documentary to start me off on the “snakes are terrifying and Burmese pythons are more terrifying than average.” I’m 3/4 of the way there all by myself. But then they brought in scientists who study the animals. These scientists spoke out heating sensing pits on the snakes’ faces, their rows of teeth, the speed of a strike, and more.

By the time the program was over, I knew all kinds of things about these massive snakes. They really are amazing.

So what kinds of subjects could you approach in this way?

Animal Predators

Animal predators are a rather obvious choice since we were discussing pythons. There is a lot to respect about the design of big cats, sharks, raptors and more.

Creepy Animals

What do I mean by creepy animals? Think of all the animals that aren’t really dangerous but people are still afraid of them. There are bats (which I adore), octopi, squid, spiders, and rats. None of these animals are especially dangerous but people are still afraid of them.

Natural Disasters

There is a reason that people are afraid of massive storms, earthquakes and volcanoes. But these are also powerful, and fascinating, natural wonders.

What other topics might allow you to use this kind of reader’s emotional arc?


3 Keys to Writing Suspense

My current project is a middle grade science fiction novel. My opening scene is eerie and suspenceful so I’ve been reading about how to create and maintain suspence. Here are three of the things I find most useful.

Creating suspence means promising something scary.
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Violence does not instantly lead to empathy.

One alternate history writer I knew reminded us that first you have to make the reader care about the character. Then bad things can start to happen.

Some writers try to craft an exciting hook by having something awful happen within minutes of meeting the character. Sure, there’s a certain level of natural empathy. We don’t want to see violence happen to other people.

But if we don’t know the character and care about them? Then it is just a cheap ploy. Rely too much on the cheap and tawdry and you rist alienating your reader.

Make promises and don’t break them.

When you create suspense, you have to follow through and deliver. That’s what I mean bake make and keep your promises.

Setting up a creepy situation (the character hears something, feels someone watching them, etc.) is a promise to the reader. Something is about to happen!

If it turns out to be nothing time and time again, the reader is going to feel cheated. Yes, you can get by with the noise being a cat in the closet (but how did it get locked in there) or some such but don’t do this too often.

My son and I were just discussing this. The Walking Dead and Aliens get by with a large number of jumps scares because then there is something there, it is awful. There has to be that chance of something dreadful happening.

Break the action with quieter moments.

Even with a very real threat, you can’t have nothing but suspence or action in your story. You need to break the stressful emotional contact with something that allows your reader to take a breather. Once your reader has relaxed, the next tense moment will be that much worse.

Like so many things in writing, creating suspence is a balancing act. Not every creaking floor board is a boogy man. But enough have to be so that your reader doesn’t feel cheated. And every now and again, a break is 100% essential.


Less Than Brilliant Characters: What Works and What Doesn’t

Careless, Caution, Danger, Dead, Death, Electric
Good righters don’t let characters be needlessly brainless.

Back in March, I wrote a post about how to avoid dumbing down your characters. Basically you don’t want your characters to be brainless just to further the plot. Recently Dale commented on this post and asked me a question. “Can you explain why some popular TV shows dumb down their characters usually after the first 2 seasons to the extreme?”

I did some reading looking for an answer. What I found was a bit on what doesn’t work and what does. In 2012, K.M. Weiland blogged about what doesn’t work. She wrote about the need for a character to remain someplace dangerous or not call for help because the plot needs the character to be in this place alone at this time. As she pointed out, it works best when you can create a reason for illogical actions. Otherwise you risk alienating your reader.

I found another piece on the brainless characters that people love. These are TV characters that are more-or-less constantly dim. Included on the list were Andy (Parks and Rec), Joey (Friends), and both Woody and Coach (Cheers). These characters needed to be dim because that’s how much of each sit com’s comedy was generated, but fans not only accepted these characters but loved them. Why? Joey wasn’t brilliant but he was a loyal and protective friend. Each had a strength and in some way was very likeable.

So why the season 3 stupids among TV characters? In part, I think it is lazy writing. It can be tough to create a situation that excuses seemingly brainless behavoir. Doing it one episode after another gets increasingly difficult.

And this leads us to reason #2. Most TV shows exists in fairly narrow worlds. The setting is X. The characters are Y. They appeal to viewers because of Z. Each of these parameters limits possible stories. Add to this the Bible of previous behaviors and episodes and you have a long list of plots you can’t duplicate and other factors you have to include. Each of these things acts as a limitor on story ideas and character behavior.

This means that if you are writing a series, whether it is a book series or a TV series, you need to beware. Your character can do something ridiculous but there are limits? The situation that Dale described in his comment was an intelligent villain (Riddler) being fooled by “Look at that!” Fans may give you a pass on the occassional cheep move like that but do it to often and they’ll go elsewhere for their entertainment.


3 Tips for Completing that First Draft

Tippity tippity tap. That’s the sound of fingertips on computer keys. Clearly I don’t have a silent membrane keyboard. But I kind of like hearing the tap of keys. It let’s me know I’m laying out words and making progress toward the end.

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Recently I had a writing friend ask me how I manage to write so much. This year, in spite of it being 2020, I’ve written 3 work-for-hire manuscripts, drafted 3 picture books, and finished the first draft of a cozy mystery. Don’t get too excited about that last one. I only needed about 15,000 words to reach THE END.

But still, I’m pretty productive. How do I do it? Here are my three top tips for writers who are having troubles making it to the end of their first draft.

Don’t Rewrite. Write.

When you are writing a first draft, there is a very real temptation to fiddle and fix what you worked on yesterday. Don’t rewrite. Write. Yes, you are going to have to eventually fix things but keep moving forward.

Write Yourself Notes.

One way to avoid rewriting whenever you notice a problem is to write yourself a note. No, not a post-it. In the body of your manuscript, TYPE YOURSELF A NOTE IN ALL CAPS AND HIGHLIGHT IT YELLOW. Later on all you have to do is skim your text and look for those bright yellow blocks and then you can go back and fix whatever.

Set a Timer.

If you need a nugget of knowledge so that you can write that sentence, passage or paragraph, go online briefly to find this information. But set a timer for yourself. Writing is, after all, hard work while research is fun and oh so tempting. Limit the amount of time that you are allowed to spend in pursuit of destraction and then get back to your manuscript.

I know, I know. It seems too simple. But that’s really it. Write. Don’t rewrite. Easy to spot notes and only brief research breaks allowed. Writing is hard work but well worth it when you reach the end.