Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

Tag: writing tips

It’s NaNoWriMo Time: Are You Writing?

Yessiree kiddies, it’s that time of the year again.

Yesterday was November 1, which kicked off the annual National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it’s known. (There really ought to be a better acronym – that sounds like an ugly creature from a bad fantasy novel.)

Just about every writing-type site and magazine is talking about the event – how to do it, why to do it, and even why not to do it. There are classes and groups and advice galore on how to take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month.

So here’s my tuppence worth on the topic.

If you’re embarking on NaNoWriMo, then I salute you. It’s a tough thing to step up for writing fiction every day, bad or good, and just keep going till you hit the finish line, especially if you haven’t done that kind of writing before.

If you aren’t, you have your reasons, and I salute them too. There’s something to be said for quality over quantity, honoring your own creative timeline and all that. Or maybe you have a demanding job and two small kids and a new puppy or other things to do. Don’t feel guilty or worry about missing out on something grand.

The thing is, there’s just no one way to produce these mysterious, wondrous things called stories. While you can’t wait for the muse to strike, you also can’t force yourself into someone else’s framework for doing creative stuff. Maybe your month to write a novel is May. Or it’s six months, not one.

Creative types tend to worry a lot about that thing called The Work. And there’s no shortage of well-meaning writing advice that fuels those worries while claiming to help alleviate them. And when “everybody’s doing it” (writing a novel this November) it’s easy to feel that you’re failing in your creative calling if you aren’t.

Please don’t. If you’re working toward that story, even if it’s just a few scribbled notes or a notion in your head, then you aren’t failing. If you’re the only one of your writer friends not doing NNWM (see, that’s easier!) but you know you’ll write that novel one day, you aren’t failing.

Am I doing NNWM? Don’t think so. I’m not comfy with artificial constraints like that – and I have a lot of freelance work right now, writing about things like cerebral bypass surgery and the Internet of Things and what’s happening in the Oort Cloud.

But I am working on the backstory of A Patch of Cool, a Moon Road adventure about Luka the Bone Angel, saboteur and assassin extraordinaire, whose exile in Soledad City makes him the one person who can save the City from the Shadow War.

Coming soon – character sketches for everybody in this novel and its prequel short story, The Bone Angel.

Write a novel in a month, write a story in a day, or a year – but see, there are only three things to do that really matter.

Write it.
Clean it up.
Send it into the world.

Those things are non-negotiable. Especially that last one.

How you get there is up to you.

Making Sense of This Whole Writing Thing

OK, I’m gonna do it.

I said I wouldn’t. There’s so much advice and information out there for writers of every kind.  Everyone’s got a course, a blog,  or a resource list that’s going to help you overcome your fears, deal with procrastination, find clients,  publish your work!

Does the writing world really need one more?

I never thought that it did.  But maybe I was wrong.  As a  working denizen of this online writing world and a longtime observer and participant of the writing biz, I see a lot of advice about “making it” as a writer (in all the many ways that “making it” can be) that means well but can end up discouraging and disempowering the very people it purports to help.

And I also realize that every one of us who is fortunate enough to move in this wild and woolly world of digital creativity has a duty to talk about that experience and share what we know.

This is  a time when personal stories rule.  In order to be “real,” they say, your origin story needs to be a part of your public persona.  But I suspect that the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt” can also apply to the obsession with sharing the often boring details of everybody’s life.

So I focus this site on creating cool worlds I hope readers will enjoy visiting, rather than writing about my dogs or my love of webcomics or the rattlesnake on my carport the other night.

However . . .  a running commentary on the good, the bad and the really ugly of the writing advice that’s out there just might be the thing someone, somewhere needs to hear in order to take that next step toward creating something awesome.

And that’s where I’ll put my stories. About my years of teaching people to find their writing voice and the strength to share it.  About really stupid mistakes that tarnish a writer’s credibility.  About my often rocky journey toward becoming a full time writer and publisher.

Maybe it’ll be more useful for writers than the story about the snake.

There’s a new category on this site now, called “On Writing” that gathers these articles together and keeps them separate from the fiction.  It’s going to tackle some popular stances and bust a few myths and make a lot of people mad.

But hey, isn’t that part of the job?

Stay tuned.


Which Writing Advice is Right – For You?


When you need help to make sense of this whole writing thing, who you gonna call?

Google “writing advice” and you’ll get 575,000,000 results.  Or more, by the time you read this.  It’s all too easy to drown in the vast pool of tips, tricks, success and failures stories and surefire systems for becoming a writer.

Whose advice do you follow? Whose model makes sense for the writing life you hope to have?

All of them. And none of them. And, it all depends.

One of the reasons writers become overwhelmed and confused about how to make this writing thing work in the digital age is that there are so very many kinds of advice, offered up by people who’ve made various systems work – for them. But if those systems don’t fit with the image you have of yourself as a writer, and the goals you want to accomplish, it’s likely they won’t  work for you.

There are several major “schools” of guidance for writers on the web. One is inspirational. You’ll find advice from successful authors on things like claiming your identity as a writer, embracing your writer’s journey, and overcoming your fears. (See my post on why so many articles about writing play the fear card.)   Jeff Goins of Goins, Writer does a masterful job of the inspirational/encouraging kind of advice.

Another is the bootcamp – hardnosed, sometimes confrontational, writing advice on overcoming your limitations and getting your career off the ground. These experts are often in your face, brutally honest and uncompromising in their assessments. You’ll see this kind of material in Carol Tice’s Make a Living Writing and occasionally even in posts from the great blogging wizard Jon Morrow of Boost Blog Traffic.

You’ll also find the nuts and bolts  school of writing advice – practical tips on things like managing your time, finding an agent, marketing your book and leveraging social media. Top writing experts like Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, Mary Jaksch of Write to Done and Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer offer useful, actionable information on getting your work in front of readers and managing the practical aspects of your writing career.

And there are many others besides. Including, dare I hope, Yours Truly, who aims to help digital writers on a shoestring find and use the free and low cost digital tools they need to become the writers they want to be – along with a hefty dollop of cynicism and snark derived from a lot of years spent writing, publishing and coaching writers with all kinds of dreams and aspirations.

There are times when you need the gentle hand holding of an inspirational writer who tells you it’ll all be OK, and other times when you might need a kick in the butt – and still others when you just need to know how to get it done.

Assembling your roster of go-to writing mentors starts with a deceptively simple step: know yourself.

What parts of the process do you need help with?

Overcoming your own creative blocks?

Creating a portfolio?

Outlining a novel?

Finding freelance work?

Starting a website?

Wherever you are – and wherever you want to go – in your journey as a writer, there’s a guru for that.  Gather the allies who can really help – and leave the rest behind.

Who are your writing mentors?  Where have you found your best writing advice?

In Defense of the Passive

The passive voice has gotten a bad rap.  This slightly complicated construction is the bogeyman, the standard bearer of bad writing, the ugly troll blighting good active sentences and scaring readers away.

My spelling and grammar checker tells me so every time I construct a sentence that could even remotely be considered passive – and writing guides solemnly warn that it should be avoided at all costs. (Gulp! I just committed a passive in public!)

The notion of “passive -bad,” “active-good” has even been extended to include a variety of constructions that aren’t really passive at all. I found this out in a recent brief from a client that warned that people with only high school diplomas are confused by passives. The brief referred to a peculiar page that lumped true passives in with a lot of other grammatical constructions such as subordinate clauses and sentences with gerund subjects like, “Adding a few spoonfuls of matcha tea makes your smoothie healthier.”

So let’s take a look at what the passive really is, and why it has very legitimate uses.

The “passive voice’ in English is a handy dandy little structure that lets you focus on the receiver of an action, rather than the agent performing the action.  When I was a college writing instructor we’d illustrate this with the written version of stick figures in simple sentences like:

Adrian read the book. (That’s active,with a subject, an active verb and an object -Sentence Structure 101.) vs The book was read by Adrian. (a true passive, with the object now the subject, a passive verb construction of BE + participle and the agent expressed by, well,  “by”.)

Now obviously you wouldn’t want to clutter up your writing with clunky bits like this.  The passive does add more words and it isn’t really necessary much of the time.  But fear of the passive also goes hand in hand with another fear: of the existential and linking verb BE. More about that one another time.

But to return to Adrian and his reading habit, if the book is really what you’re talking about, and if you want to add more information about Adrian, a passive construction could work quite nicely in ways that an active sentence might not.

The book on carnivorous elves was read by Adrian, who dressed in a bloodstained green tunic for the occasion.

The passive also comes in quite handy when you don’t know, or don’t care, who’s performing the action. Or if you want to keep that a tightly guarded secret.  That’s why one of the most famous examples of a passive construction is a quote from disgraced President Richard M Nixon, he of Watergate fame: “Mistakes were made.”

But the passive simply shifts  a different sentence element into the spotlight.  “The monument was erected in 1969” works just fine. We don’t need to establish who erected it, unless that’s highly germane.  If so you’re then faced with a choice between active and passive in how to express that.   Your choice will partly depend on the surrounding sentence framework, though.

The passive voice, like the active voice, and all the other voices and modes and tenses, is just one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox, to be chosen deliberately for its contribution to the overall tone and message of a piece of writing.  It’s not to be avoided at all costs as the mark of an unskilled writer – or as a nasty bug that could frighten readers.

How many times did I use passive constructions in this post?  Did you notice them at all while reading?


What Writers Really Have to Fear

If you’re a writer, be afraid. Be very afraid.

That old line from the movie The Fly seems to fit the current state of advice to writers.

Just a few minutes ago, a Google search for “writers fears” turned up 82,600,000 results in just 81 seconds. Topping Google’s page 1 were articles with titles like:

“10 Way to Harness fear and Fuel Your writing” Writer’s Digest

“Purging Your Writing Fears.” The Trite Practice

“The 7 Deadly Fears of Writing.” Men With Pens

The message in these and many other writers’ resources is clear: writing and fear go hand in hand. If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, you must face fears, you will be beset by fears, you must have the courage to face your fears, you must overcome your fears, don’t let your fears stop you!

These absolutely well-meaning articles, books and posts are designed, I’m sure, to reassure and empower new writers, writers in the making and even seasoned wordsmiths. Because it’s true, starting new endeavors can be scary – and creative work pulls up a lot of insecurities, some personal and some imposed by our culture.

In this scenario, writers are told it’s natural to fear:
Having no ideas
Having too many ideas

And the list goes on. It seems that the message to writers is that fear, paralyzing fear, mist be your constant companion on this writing journey, to be thwarted, conquered, crushed, or transmuted at every turn. There’s no way out.

We’re told that fear isn’t even always fear. Other things can masquerade as fear, so if you don’t think you’re afraid, you really are anyway – you just don’t know it, or you’re in denial.

While that’s certainly true in some cases – watching a silly TV show instead of spending an hour pulling words out of your head, for example – in others it’s simply not. If life situations are calling you from writing right now, maybe it’s because you have a life with situations that need to be addressed, not that you’re running from your writing.

Writers tend to be a self-reflective lot, living as we do in our heads much of the time. To judge from the proliferation of reassurance, encouragement and support out there, we seem to need a lot of hand-holding.

And the fearmongers are profiting from making you believe that. The number of coaches, courses and guidebooks on overcoming fears, writers blocks and crises of confidence is staggering. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the hypochondriac: that’s not me! Or is itt? I’m not scared! But should I be?

You don’t need that kind of insecurity undermining your work.

I was a coach and writing teacher for a lot of years – and I’m not here to dismiss those creative fears. They are very real.

But writers are no more vulnerable to them than anyone beginning a new endeavor or creative work. It takes courage to stand for your ideas, whatever they are. And if you do, you are not the fragile flower that all this advice makes you seem to be.

If you’re worried about what stops you from getting your work in front of readers, there are over 82,000,000 resources ready to help. Use them to find ways to overcome hesitation, identity crises and lack of confidence.

But don’t let anyone make you believe that writing must come with a built-in Pandora’s box of terrors – and that a part of writing must necessarily include beating back freezing fear at every turn.

And especially – don’t let anyone profit from making you feel fear. You’re a writer. You wrestle ideas down and pin ‘em to the page. You make magic with a keystroke. What you really have to fear is the helpful, disempowering message that because you are a writer, you are stalked by fear.

What do you think – am I right? Or not?

Don’t Let Your Ideas Down

“Your ideas are counting on you.” – Jon Morrow

That line comes from a recent guest post on Problogger by blogging guru Jon Morrow.

Jon is the wildly successful, insanely likable genius behind Copyblogger, Be A Better Blogger and many other resources having to do with blogging and entrepreneurship. He’s parlayed his experiences with blogging into just about the best advice anywhere on how to make a difference with your words. And among the many useful and inspiring things in that post was the quote that began this piece.

Writers are bombarded with advice about the writing process. Being the highly oppositional cynic that I am, I’ve come to believe that much of that advice actually enables writers (and other artists) to remain insecure and afraid so that they’ll keep on seeking out more advice. I’ll be challenging the conventional wisdom about writing in the coming weeks, but right now, let’s consider Jon’s point.

Ideas are our stock in trade. Ideas, and the emotions that go along with them. When we express them in writing, they gain form and substance – and go out into the world to make their way into the minds and hearts of audiences everywhere. They may change many lives, or only one. But they will create change.

They can’t do that if we keep them bottled up inside ourselves, or hidden away because we don’t trust them, or believe in them, or think they’re good enough to live.

And if we think of our creative brainchildren as living things, we might become kinder to them, more willing to stand for them, nurture them, and open a door for them to fly free and fully realized.

How about this for a daily goal: do at least one thing to stand for your creative vision and your ideas. They’re counting on you.

Want to talk about it? Drop a comment here or connect up on Twitter!

It’s All About the Magic

There’s a tradition among writers and artists these days to post a Manifesto – a concise statement of who they are and what they believe to be true about their art.  Manifestos come in all shapes and sizes, some angry, some reflective, some humorous.  But in all their forms, these statements help clarify what’s important and what’s not – and how that artist wants to live in the world.

This post is a manifesto of sorts, I suppose.  It’s actually an explanation of why there won’t be a blog in the traditional sense of the word here.

One of the key reasons writers are urged to blog by marketing specialists and publishing gurus and writing experts is to share their work with eager readers, to offer a glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak – to open the doors to the creation of their worlds and characters in order to engage fans.  It’s a good goal – and its true that many readers and viewers do want to know how all the nuts and bolts fit together to make a world, a universe, a bit of magic.

But you know what?  Too much information kills the magic.  It’s like seeing the strings in the puppet show, the man behind the mask.  Rather than telling you how the Moon Road came to be, I’d rather be writing a new story or crafting a video that takes you there. So what you;ll see in these pages are links to new pieces I’ve made for you, images and snippets and teasers and quotes. About the work, not me.  About the stories, not another rehash of the same old advice on writing.  My longer articles on creativity and writing will be showing up on BestThinking and other places on the web.

One of the best books I’ve read about writing and blogging lately is Kill Your Blog, by Matt Scott, aka Buck Flogging (say it out loud).  It’s funny and in your face and right to the point.  The key question he asks:  would you rather be known for 50 blog posts or 50 books for your readers?   500 words in a post or 500 words toward the next chapter of a novel?

I know what my choice would be – and so, I suspect, do you, dear reader.

So the manifesto you’ll find here is simple:  to craft magical worlds for you to visit and enjoy.  It’s a wonder and a privilege to be able to do so, and I’ll be putting all my efforts into making those worlds places of beauty, terror and mystery, an escape from whatever’s less than magical in our day to day lives.

Wish me luck.

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