Let’s Talk About Writing – New Writers: Stop Taking Writing Advice and Just WRITE

I love writing advice. I love writing advice blogs (like mine), I love writing advice YouTube videos made by AuthorTubers, I love writing advice Twitter threads by authors and agents… I love it all. However, I also think it can be detrimental to new writers. Let me explain why.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – Use Your Scenes (And Use Them Well)

Scenes. I love ’em. I love reading them, and I love writing them. My favorite thing to do is sit down and write out a random scene from one of the many story ideas kicking around in my head. It’s almost like a stress reliever, and it’s a surefire way for me to push past any writer’s block I might have. However, during my time at Columbia College Chicago, I learned that, for some people, scenes are difficult to write. It shocked me to learn that some people actually prefer summary to scene. I mean, don’t get me wrong, summary can be a great tool. We all know that not every moment in a story needs to be a scene. The last thing I want is a step-by-step account of how a character gets ready in the morning. But to write a story entirely in summary? Well, I’d argue that’s not really a story at all.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – Creative Writing Degrees: Yay or Nay?

When you go to Google and type in “Are creative writing degrees…”, the very first auto-fill that pops up is “worth it?” And, it’s a legitimate question. If you’re going to go to college and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a higher education, you want to make sure you’re getting some bang for your buck, right? Because the last thing you want when you leave college is to feel like you not only wasted your money, but your time. I get it. And, having gone through four years of college to graduate with a BA in Fiction Writing, I feel pretty damn qualified to help you make that decision. So, with that said, let’s get started.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – The Shiny Thing

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “The Allure of the Shiny Thing” in which I discussed how I was struggling to write one novel because ideas for a million other novels were vying for my attention. The phrase had been one I’d learned from a professor at Columbia College Chicago, and at the time I was adamant that pursuing the shiny thing was the worst thing I could possibly do. However, recently I actually did give in to the shiny thing. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – Dust Off Those Vocal Chords

The title says it all. Dust off those vocal chords, because today we’re going to be talking about the benefits of reading your writing aloud!

“But Leighton,” you say, “why would I have to read my writing aloud? The whole point of reading is that it’s done silently.” To that, I say: Tell that to the audio book listeners out there. No, but seriously, this advice that I have to give you has nothing to do with whether your book will be read aloud someday or not (which, it totally will). It has to do with making your book the best it can be. That may also seem confusing, though. Like, how could reading a manuscript aloud make it better? Well, it helps in a few ways. Allow me to enlighten you.

First, it clues you in to how your novel’s language flows. As you’re reading aloud, you’ll be two thousand times more aware of any awkwardly-phrased lines, and you’ll be able to get a sense of the rhythm of your writing. For example, when reading your manuscript silently, those five sentences in a row that consist of seven words each may not even register. But when you’re reading aloud, the odds are better that you’ll realize the rhythm is starting to get monotonous, and then you’ll be able to pinpoint the problem and shake things up with shorter and longer sentences.

Second, repeated words and phrases will stand out to you more. As humans, we can sometimes become fixated on certain things. I’m especially guilty of this. Once I hear a word or phrase I like, I use it until I’ve run the well dry. In high school, I had this problem with the word “juxtapose.” I used it EVERYWHERE. The thing is, I didn’t realize I was using it everywhere. But if I had read my essays and writing aloud back then, it would’ve stood out like a sore thumb, and I would’ve been able to exchange a few of the “juxtapose”s with some “compare”s and “contrast”s. And, in case you’re wondering why it matters if you use the same word or phrase a lot, here’s the long and short of it: Word repetition just sounds clunky and lazy to a reader. The general rule is that common words (like “the,” “and,” “had,” “my,” “it,” etc.) can be repeated without someone noticing, but more complex words and any phrases should be used sparingly and interchanged with synonyms when possible. So keep your ears peeled for those repeated words while you’re reading your novel aloud.

Third, it gives you a better idea of your narrative voice and/or the first person narrator’s voice. When writing in your own voice, you want the narration to sound like… Well, like you! And when you’re writing in a character’s voice, you want the narration to sound like your character. As it turns out, this is easier said than done. A lot of the time, novice writers fall into the trap of writing awkwardly, for lack of a better term. They don’t use contractions, their language is stiff… There’s just nothing to the narration. And if a writer doesn’t read their writing aloud, it’s going to stay that way. If they do read their writing aloud, though, there’s a much greater chance that they’ll hear the awkward stiffness, and they can then work on correcting that. (On a related note, if you’d like me to make a post specifically about writing voice in the future, let me know in the comments!)

Fourth, it makes it easier to notice grammatical errors. When you’re reading your writing silently, you tend to skim. I mean, odds are you know your story inside and out, so skimming is only natural. The problem with this is that you can’t catch errors if your eyes are flying over the words faster than your brain can actually comprehend any of what you’re reading. When you read your work aloud, however, it forces you to slow down and actually read. When you do this, most of your grammatical and punctuation errors will be pretty obvious. They’ll make you stumble, trip over the awkward phrasing or oddly placed comma. For me personally, my biggest sin is accidentally putting a period where a question mark should go. Reading aloud helps me spot those moments and correct them without anyone else having to point them out to me.

Fifth, your dialogue will improve tremendously. It’s kind of like the voice thing I mentioned earlier. Many writers really struggle with writing realistic dialogue, and it’s because they allow it to become stiff and awkward. Reading the dialogue aloud, however, is the perfect cure. Doing so will help you recognize all of the parts that feel not-so-realistic. Then, you can work toward writing something more true to life. Sometimes I speak my dialogue aloud before I even write it down, in order to make sure it sounds how I wanted it to sound.

And if you take my advice and find that reading your writing aloud really does help to improve your writing, then I’ve got a challenge for you to take it one step further: Have someone else read your writing aloud for you. Or, at the very least, record yourself reading it aloud and then listen back to the recording. Trust me. Reading it aloud to yourself is one thing, but listening to someone else read your writing is so enlightening. You’ll be able to hear all of these things I’ve talked about in this post, especially if you recruit a friend to help you out and don’t just record yourself. This is because your friend won’t know the nuances of your story, while you do. So, with someone else reading for you, you’ll hear how your reader will perceive things rather than how you, the writer, perceive them. It’s like a beta reader for your ears. This, of course, is not as necessary as reading your own writing aloud, but it will make your book even better if you do follow through with it.

The most important thing to take from this post, though, is to take the time to make your book the best it can be. Dust off those vocal chords and really put in some effort to tidy up your story. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Let’s Talk About Writing – Cutting Your Manuscript Down to Size

Today we’re going to be talking about one of the most dreaded words to a writer: “Cut.” The word that makes us quake and hug our manuscripts tightly to our chests. “No, please, anything but the cut!” we cry. No matter how much we hate the word “cut,” though, I think we all realize that sometimes there’s just no way around it. Some things just have to be cut.

Before we get into this dreaded topic, I wanted to remind you that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.

Believe it or not, even if you’re an underwriter, you’re not immune to cuts. It isn’t something that only plagues the overwriters of the world. Even the most bare-bones underwriters can insert a fluffy scene that adds nothing to the overall plot, and that’s exactly the type of thing that needs to be amputated from your otherwise beautiful manuscript. It hurts. It sucks. But trust me, it’s actually not as bad as we make it out to be. Us writers tend to have an air for the dramatic. The truth is, if you cut something from your novel, by the next time you pick up your manuscript you’ll have forgotten it was even there in the first place.

So how do you know what needs to be cut? Well, if you have an agent or editor, a lot of the time they’ll tell you what scenes they think are extraneous and need to be given the boot. You don’t have to wait for an agent or editor, though. In fact, you can increase your chances of being picked up by one or the other by taking a surgical eye to your own manuscript and cleaning it up before it even reaches them. It’s definitely more difficult than being told by someone else what needs to go–because odds are, to you, everything seems important–but with a little practice you can definitely pick out a few scenes that really don’t need to be taking up space in your novel. So I’ve got a few tips for you when it comes to cutting scenes from your own manuscript.

1.) Is there a lot of pointless dialogue that goes nowhere? Cut it.

I’m serious. Even it holds some of the funniest lines you’ve ever written, it’s got to go. Your readers aren’t going to want to sit through a shit ton of banter that ends with no real conclusion or purpose. In fact, it may frustrate them enough to shut the book and never pick it back up again, and, like I always say, that’s not what you want.

2.) Is there a scene where there’s one or two important issues surrounded by fluff? Cut the scene and add the issues into a different, fuller scene.

By this I don’t mean over-saturate an already full scene with even more information. But if you’ve got a nice, rounded scene that has room for one or two more bits of information, squeeze them in there. For example, in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy, my main character needed to learn a bit of information about his new teacher. Originally, I had him learn the information while being fitted for his school uniform, a scene that was mostly fluff with only a little bit of stuff. In one of my later edits, however, I cut the fitting scene entirely and gave the information to his new friends to tell him during a fuller scene that was all about learning about the teacher and the school anyway. It just made more sense, and made the novel flow much smoother.

3.) Is there a scene with information in it that really isn’t all that important? Snip snip.

This is similar to my earlier tip, but instead of moving the information, you cut it altogether. Obviously, make sure this isn’t information that’s pivotal to the plot or any of the subplots. This would be more like information about a certain character that isn’t really consequential in the long run. Maybe you learn that a character’s parents are getting divorced, but that information doesn’t really hold any weight in the grand scheme of things. If that’s the case, it should go.

4.) Is there a scene with too much information? Slice and dice, and sprinkle the information throughout the novel instead.

This is similar to tip number two, in that you’ll be finding scenes with space to add some information, but it’s different because instead of pulling from a mostly-barren scene, you’re pulling from an over-saturated scene. If you’ve info-dumped a ton of your research or your world building into one section, you need to split it up. I’ve actually made an entire post about fixing info dumps, which can be found here.

5.) Is there a plot device that keeps recurring over and over again? Get rid of it.

If we’re on the second or third time in the novel that your main character is having an argument with their significant other about how she wants to be with him but he’s too dangerous for her (I’m lookin’ at you, Twilight), and there’s no real progress being made, you’ve got to cut it. Each scene needs to reveal something new about a character, move the plot forward, or raise the tension. If you have a scene like this, where none of that is happening, why is it even in there? Kick it to the curb, my friend.

And remember, cutting scenes is important if you plan on self-publishing, too. Maybe even more so, because unless you hire a developmental editor, you won’t have anyone telling you which scenes to cut. It’ll be entirely up to you.

I know it may be tempting to just leave your manuscript how it is. To you, it probably seems perfect. Like no scenes are extraneous, like every single one has a reason for existing. This is where I stress that you should put on a hyper-critical eye, and view your novel not as the author, but as a reader. If you were a reader, would you really care about a scene where two characters exchanged small talk and then went on their way with no real reason for the exchange to have happened in the first place? Or would that drive you nuts? Of course, your novel should make you happy, but at some point you also have to think about what will make your readers happy.

Hopefully that gave you a better understanding of what to cut from your manuscript and when, and hopefully you’re able to walk away without too much emotional trauma. Cutting scenes from your novel is rarely fun, but trust me, it is rewarding in the end.

Let’s Talk About Writing – Taking a Big Ol’ Info Dump

Info dumps. They plague the writing community, and nobody is immune. Amateurs and professionals alike can find themselves with a bit too much information to give, and when that happens the test of a talented writer is whether or not they can get that info across without leaving it in a messy pile at the reader’s feet. And that’s why I’m here! To teach you the best practices for avoiding the info dump, or for polishing up your info dump when you find there’s no way to avoid it altogether.

But before we get into today’s topic, here’s an obligatory reminder that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.

In my earliest writing years, info dumps were my bread and butter. Why aim for subtlety when you can just get the world building and characterization out of the way right at the beginning and spend the rest of the novel writing the fun stuff? And I know of a lot of writers, be they aspiring or published, who think the same way. They stuff all of this really important information in the front of their novel, many times as a prologue, and never look back. They may even think that their world building and characterization is so unique and interesting that a reader will want to kick off their reading experience by learning all there is to know about this world the author has built or the characters they’ve created. The thing is, this isn’t usually the case. Kick off a novel with an info dump, and the reader will either completely skip it altogether (therefore missing out on some pretty important information that they’ll need to know if they hope to understand what the heck is going on in the novel) or they’ll just decide to read a different book.

The way I realized this lesson was after starting about seven or eight different novels and never making it past the info dump. It suddenly dawned on me that if I was getting bored writing these info dumps, the reader would inevitably get bored of reading them. After that, I found ways to incorporate the information I was dumping in the beginning of my novel into the actual meat of the story, and that made all the difference. So, my first tip to avoid writing info dumps is to refrain from telling the reader everything they may need to know in one large clump at the beginning. Evenly distribute the info throughout the novel, introducing it only when it becomes pertinent to the story.

This isn’t the only type of info dump out there, though. By this, I mean they don’t always come at the beginning. And in these cases, sometimes they’re avoidable, and other times they aren’t. This can be frustrating, because either way, correcting it is never as simple as if the info dump occurred at the beginning of the novel. In these cases, you really have to assess if the information needs to be in the place you’ve put it or not. Like I said, information should only be introduced when it’s actually pertinent to the story. So if your character is learning about a fantasy world you’ve created but they don’t need to understand the magic system just yet, don’t teach them about it until they absolutely have to have that information. Or, if your character is one who already knows everything about the world, avoid having them explain it all to the reader at once. Again, have them only explain something once it becomes pertinent. The reader will survive if they don’t know everything about the world or characters right away, and will probably really enjoy learning more about these things little by little instead of having them shoved in their face.

But what do you do when you have a lot of info to give, and there’s no way you can put it off any longer? This was something I ran into a couple of times in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy. I did my best to sprinkle the world building throughout the book, but sometimes there were moments where I just had to spit out a bunch of it all at once. Dread filled me when I realized there was no way around it, and I thought that my novel was doomed to be boring and hated by all who read it. Then, I stood up straight, rolled my shoulders back, and decided that, no, I was going to make these info dumps interesting, damnit! So that was what I did, and though they by far weren’t the most exciting moments in the story, my beta readers assured me that they worked and didn’t slow the story down too much. And, really, that’s all you can hope for in those instances.

So how did I do it? Well, I used a couple of tactics: Dialogue and Textbooks. I’ll preface this by saying that these methods work best with information that the main character doesn’t know. If your main character does have inside knowledge that the reader doesn’t, then you probably won’t want to use these methods, because they can sound cheesy. “As you know” dialogue is one of the biggest no-nos when it comes to info dumping. It makes the reader wonder why these characters are even discussing this information if all of them already know what’s going on. The only instance this would really work is if another character doesn’t have this inside knowledge, and you have your main character explain it all to them (and, in turn, the audience). But, if this isn’t an option, then you’d be better off having your main character and/or narrator explain the information to your reader directly through inner monologue. If you decide to do this, though, try to give your main character and/or narrator a unique and interesting voice that could make reading all of this information fun for the reader.

If your main character doesn’t know any of the information, through, then dialogue and textbooks (or newspaper articles, news shows, etc.) might be right for you. If you decide to use dialogue, don’t just make one character yammer on and on endlessly at your main character. Have the two–or more–characters interact with each other. Have your main character ask questions. Have some back and forth, some teasing or misunderstanding. Add some humor. Do something, anything, to make the information just a little bit easier for your reader to swallow. If they see giant blocks of text with no end in sight, they’ll dread what’s coming next instead of eagerly pushing on to learn more. This goes for textbooks and the other forms of info dumping I mentioned, too. I mean, readers will put up with a lot from authors, but at some point they’re bound to break, and horribly boring info dumps could easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Also, combining the textbook and dialogue methods was the best thing I could have done for my novel. I would get a lot of information down in a couple of short paragraphs in textbook form, and then I would have my main character, Cas, ask his friends or teacher about what he’d read, gathering more information and getting their differently-biased views on the topic. This way, the readers got the information they needed, and an element of intrigue was added by giving my characters opinions on the different topics. If there were moments where I could only use dialogue, I also made sure to give the characters obvious opinions on whatever they were teaching Cas about, and sometimes I even made it where the characters didn’t know they were teaching Cas. Again, it’s all about adding those extra elements in order to give your reader a reason to care about what they’re learning, other than the fact that it’s important world building or characterization.

Info dumps are, frankly, a pain in the ass. They can give you  major anxiety when you have to get rid of them or, even worse, can’t get rid of them. But don’t fret. As long as you take the time to clean them up, they won’t ruin your novel. In fact, your readers may not even recognize them as info dumps, if you’re skilled enough at hiding them. So keep your chin up, and best of luck!

So, Your Local Aspiring Author™ Is Querying Their Novel… What Does That Mean Exactly?

So your local Aspiring Author ™ is ranting and raving all over their social medias about how they are “officially querying their manuscript.” Which is all well and good, except… What does that even mean? After all, you work a regular nine-to-five job like a normal person, and all of this writing hoopla that they’re always tossing about never actually makes sense to you. So, okay, they’re querying their novel. Does that mean it’s about to be published and you can finally get some peace and quiet on your Facebook news feed? Well, my good non-writerly friend, let me explain to you a thing.

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The Pressure of Finding the Right Agent

Hey guys! How’ve you been? That’s good, that’s good… Oh, me? Ah, well, to be honest, I’ve been pretty stressed. Why? Well, let me tell you why. It’s because I’ve been dedicating hours of my life to doing copious amounts of research on literary agents. It’s been a long and arduous process, one I’m hoping will pay off in the end, but I’m not going to lie. It’s taking quite the toll on my poor little brain. Because it isn’t as easy as you may think. Not if you’re me, anyway. It’s funny, because in most areas of my life I have the most Type B personality one could have. But when it comes to writing–and, in the same vein, researching literary agents–I’m a Type A fiend. The type of Type A that my Type B side would hate very, very much.

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Burning Myself out with My Writing

Yeesh, it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to write out a blog post like this. Over a month, in fact. There’s something freeing about this type of post, where I can just sit down and let whatever I’m feeling pour out. I don’t need to worry about you guys not gathering everything I’m saying because there isn’t really anything for you to gather. I guess what I mean is that I’m not teaching, I’m just talking. It’s hella relaxing, I’ll tell you what.

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