Building your writer’s tribe

I was reminded the other day (after a massive bout of self-doubt) of the importance of surrounding yourself with other writers.  Aside from the companionship and understanding angle, a strong writer’s tribe can really help you move forward in your writing.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses as writers and people, but we can’t always see that.  Having someone there to not only look over your work, but to be a sounding board for problems and possibly a font of advice is a great help.

Build your writer’s tribe with care.  Find people who you like and whose work you like, and who like you and your work in turn.  It is important that your tribe likes what you do.  They don’t have to love it; in fact, blind love can do more harm than good.  But they should at least be on the same page as you.

Here are four essential members of your writer’s tribe.  You can certainly have more, but try and find at least one of each of these types.  Having all of one type of tribe member isn’t good for you.  Balance is the key.

The Overachiever is everything you would like to be.

The Overachiever

This is the person we all wish we could be.  She’s sold so many stories.  She has a novel out to agents and is just cranking out another one.  She’s driven and dedicated and sometimes she just bloody drives you nuts.  She’s perfectly nice but you can’t help but feel inadequate when faced with her productivity and success.

Knowing an Overachiever is good for you.  This person has done the things that you are just coming up to, and her experience could save you a lot of time and pain.  She’s also good as evidence of all you can achieve if you really work at it.  Reading her work should make you want to work harder, should inspire you to tackle something a bit tougher than you normally do.

Beware of the Overachiever who comes with an ego.  If they are constantly rubbing their success in your face, it can be demoralising.

The Nurturer will always be there for you.

The Nurturer

The Nurturer loves everything that you write.  They can see the promise in even the worst draft.  They listen to your woes with patience, and tell you that yes, it is okay to write a shitty first draft.  Above all, they tell you to keep writing, because you will get there someday.

Nurturers are wonderful people.  They may not even be writers.  They may be friends who read your work and love it.  They may be your mother.  Either way, they are your support crew when the whole writing gig becomes overwhelmingly difficult and you cannot seem to write a cohesive sentence.

Nurturers are important.  You have to have someone who loves your work, who sees your talent.  However beware of surrounding yourself only with nurturers.  While it’s lovely to have so much affirmation, you need a cold dose of reality now and then.  Otherwise if you do hit a setback and you have only Nurturers around you, you may be tempted to blame everything except your writing.  Critical analysis is as important as support.

The Lawyer has read every writing book known to man.

The Lawyer

Rules, rules, rules.  This person knows grammar and writing and structure like the back of their hand.  They know how to structure a query letter.  They know what agents like.  They know the hero’s journey AND all the variations.  They can tell you what should happen in each Act of your story.  They have read every writing book known to man, and can recite important passages to you on demand.

Lawyers are very useful people.  They can tell you what standard manuscript format is.  They can help you to understand what theme and motif are.  They are a veritable encyclopedia, and save you a lot of time and research.

The problem with the Lawyer is that he is often paralysed by all these rules, to the point where his creativity suffers.  Be grateful for their guidance, but don’t be afraid to step outside the boundaries in your quest for a good story.

The Destroyer will find the weakness in your story and kill it with fire.

The destroyer

No matter how small the flaw is, this person can see it and will point it out.  They’re not being malicious; they just have a sharp eye for things that feel off, and aren’t afraid to tell you.  They will take your perfect final draft and reduce it to a sea of red scribbles.  They may, on occasion, make you cry.

Agonising as it is to get a really critical review of your manuscript, it is the best thing you can do to yourself, at the right time.  At the wrong time, it can be a confidence breaker of epic proportions.  But at the right time, the Destroyer can really help you find the hidden problems in your manuscript.  They can help you to see where the story could be sharper, tighter, stronger, better.  They are an invaluable resource, mostly because they will always be truthful with you.

The important thing with a Destroyer in your tribe is that they still like your writing.  A Destroyer who doesn’t enjoy what you write, or one who is trying to rewrite your story they way they would write it is very damaging.  Find the right critical partner for you.

The Neophyte’s enthusiasm is contagious.

The neophyte

This person may be just starting out on their writing journey, or they may have just made the decision to submit stories, or they may have decided that they are going to take things seriously now and really learn the craft.  Either way, they are setting out on a magical journey and their enthusiasm is wonderful and infectious and inspiring.  They might look up to you as an Overachiever or just as someone else who is on this wonderful journey.

Don’t squash their enthusiasm.  The realities of the writing life will hit eventually.  Encourage them, enthuse with them, assist them when they ask for help.  It’s lovely to have a Neophyte in the group, to enjoy that precious innocence and joy, to remind you why you started writing in the first place.

And sometimes, it’s also nice to look back and see how far you have come.  The important thing is to guide them without trying to make them write like you, to recognise their talent as valid and different from yours.  To have the pleasure of watching that talent develop.

Your Tribe

You may not have five people who fit this exact mould.  You may have a couple of people in your tribe who take on multiple roles.  You may find some of these roles outside your personal writing tribe. You may have just one writing partner who is all of these things and more.

And don’t forget, you will be performing one or more of these roles for someone else.  Be aware of how you fit into your writer’s tribe.  Build lasting, long-term relationships and you will be happier writers.

Do you have a writing tribe? Are you missing any of these roles?  Can you think of another role you find valuable?

How do you know how long your story will be?

One of the comments left on my last post was:

Wolf Lahti said:

How do you know you’re writing a novella?
Knowledge of end word count is something that always boggles me, but many writers toss off phrases such as, “I have 28,142 words to go before I’m done!” How can they know this? To me, I never know whether I’m writing a short-short or a multi-series epic until I’m finished with the durn thing.

It’s a good question.  How do you know, before you even start, how long your story will be?

Well you can never tell exactly (unless you are more special than me) but you can usually work out an approximate wordcount.  And the wordcount really depends on the scope and complexity of your story.

Lets start with the easy stuff.  What’s the difference between a novel and a novella?  In terms of word count a novel is usually 80-120k words (depending on genre) and a novella is usually 20-50k words.

How you know you are writing one and not the other comes down to the elements of the story.  Novellas have no subplots and they generally have only one protagonist.  You’re writing a simple story, usually about one person, where the road travels from A to B without deviation.  To tell the story, you will probably need between 20 and 40 scenes.

If the story involves multiple characters, subplots and a complex world, you’re more likely writing a novel.  You will need up to 100 scenes to tell the story.

If the story in your head is simply a character and a single event, you’re writing a short story.  Depending on the depth of idea and character, this can be anywhere from 1k words to 15k words.  You’ll usually only have a few scenes, anywhere from 1 to 10 to tell the story.

So the rest of the question, how do you know how many words you have left to write?  You can usually judge from your own writing how long it takes you on average to write a scene.  I vary between 1,000 and 2,000 words to complete a scene.  So I know that if there are only 3 scenes left until the end, that I will have about 4,500 words left to write.  Sometimes it’s more, sometimes less.  It’s never an exact science.  But you can make educated guesses based on your history.

As to knowing how many scenes you will need to finish your story, well, that’s another post entirely.

5 cures for Writer’s Block

To begin with, let me be clear that I do not think that writer’s block is some psychological malaise that strikes creative people.  Writer’s block is just a symptom of a larger cause. Whether it’s a personal issue (stress, exhaustion, grief, depression) or a story issue (no strong conflict, weak characters, no idea of the destination), if you cure the cause, you cure the block.

I’ve spoken before about writer’s block, and there’s a great guest post in my archives by Emma Newman on the same topic.  So today’s post is going to be quick and simple; 5 cures for writer’s block.

5. Get some rest

Seriously.  If you’re staring at the page and trying to keep your eyes open, don’t expect amazing words to flow from your fingers in a glorious rush of creativity.  Close the computer, go to bed an hour earlier.  Then tomorrow, come to the page early and fresh, and see what a difference it makes.

4. Work out your issues

Whatever it is that’s keeping you from your creativity, work it out.   Sometimes it just takes a good mental talking-to.  Sometimes you need to vent to a friend and get some reassurance.  Sometimes it’s more serious, and you just need time to get through it.  Do whatever works.  But while you are doing this, stop thinking about writing.  Stop trying to write.  Concentrate on your issue.

If you are really meant to write, the drive will come back.  But it won’t do that until you are ready.

3. Do some outlining or freewriting

If it’s a story issue, then it might be time to get out the pen and paper, or the index cards, or the spreadsheet, and start working out a map.  Work out your destination, spend time thinking about your story and you will get that spark of an idea that sends you running back to the page.

If you’re a pantser and you don’t outline, then pull out some paper, find a comfy chair and do some exploratory writing.

2. Have a shower or go for a walk

I get so many, many fantastic ideas in the shower.  Or walking (on my own, without the distraction of conversation) or, unfortunately, driving, which can be terribly distracting in traffic.  So if you’re stuck and not sure what you’re doing, hop in the shower, get the water nice and warm and just think.  Let your mind wander in the direction of the story.  It’s all about helping the subconscious come up with the next great idea.

1. Write

The number 1, always successful way to work through writer’s block.  Sit down in front of the page, and write.  Set yourself a goal of a good thousand words, and don’t get up until you’re done.  Fight with the story.  Never give up.  The first few hundred words will be excruciatingly painful, but then the dam will break and you will hit your target before you know it.

This requires some tenacity and stubbornness, but those are good traits for a writer anyway, so you might as well cultivate them.

Go hard.  Break that block.  Never give up, never surrender!*

*Kudos if you can name that movie :)

Exploratory writing

We tend to think of writing in terms of drafts; first draft, revisions, edits, final draft.  Words on the page that will, eventually, end up as a finished story.

Most times we develop story in our heads, maybe produce and outline if we are so inclined.  But as any writer will tell you, words in the head don’t always equal words on the page.  The transfer from thought to written word is the difficult part.  Putting that idea into practice is when you find the flaws, when you realise how thin your plot really is, how cliche and uninteresting those characters look when they leave your imagination.

Sometimes it’s beneficial to write before you start writing – to get your ideas and thoughts out on the page and into view before you embark on the story.  It can be as simple as a character vignette or as complex as a pre-draft of several thousand words.

This is known as pre-writing or exploratory writing. Exploratory writing is useful at different stages of your process, whether you are a plotter or a pantser.  In fact for many pantsers, exploratory writing is part of their drafting process.  Lets have a look at a few examples.

1. Who are you?

If you aren’t the profiling type, or if your multi-page list of character attributes just isn’t doing it for you, it’s helpful to write a couple of scenes with your character in it.  It’s often not until your character is walking and talking that you find out who they really are.  Writing about the pivotal events that made them who they are is a great way to flesh them out and understand what makes them tick.  I don’t mean a dry expository paragraph about how they lost their kitten at a young age.  Put them in the scene, really live it with them.  Write the story.  They will surprise you.

2. Where are we?

Sometimes you want a deeper understanding of your world and what makes it unique.  If you’re searching for ideas, try this trick.  Pick a background character you might find in your world; a blacksmith, a cafe waitress, the cleaning lady on the space station.  Put them in your world and start writing.  Your subconscious will throw up all sorts of ideas as you write.  Let it all flow.  Don’t censor anything.  Explore your world through the eyes of someone who has to live in it; politics, architecture, race and culture, magic.

3. What’s going on?

You might have a great idea under your belt, but idea is not story.  Your plot might be a bit thin on the ground.  So start writing the story.  Not with any expectations of a finished draft; just for the sake of seeing where it goes.  As you write, you’ll come upon the same stumbling blocks as you would if you were writing the first draft.  But because you are just exploring, you don’t have the stress of considering language and plot and flow.  Just write.  You may find out that you are starting in the wrong place, or that you are following the wrong character.  You may go off on another tangent altogether.  All of this makes the story stronger before you even write it.

But isn’t this a waste?  Why not just write the story?

Firstly, no words are wasted.  Everything you write is either a story, development work for a story or a learning experience.  Keeping those words coming, even if you’re not actually writing a draft keeps your writing muscles limber.  And great ideas can come from exploration.  Thinking is what leads to creativity.  Think all the time, and then follow through on paper.*

Secondly, you can save yourself a lot of stress and pain by exploring a concept before you embark on a draft.  10,000 words of writing is not wasted if it means you come to the story with a clear vision, a perfect understanding of the world and the characters.  Exploratory writing makes drafting much, much easier.

Exploratory writing isn’t just useful before a draft.  You can also use it to great effect while you are writing the first draft.  Scene going nowhere?  Open a new document, start from your stuck point and just write.  Fiddle about.  Make your characters do something, then try something else.  You’re not writing the draft, so it doesn’t matter what you do.  Work out your issues on paper.  Then when it’s all flowing again, transfer the good stuff back to your first draft and keep going.

Exploratory writing is the best cure for writer’s block, especially the kind that is caused by fear.  When you’re facing a story that you know is going to challenge you, stop avoiding it.  Open it up, then open another document.  Start exploring.  You’re not writing a draft, so there’s no pressure.  Force yourself to put words on the page, even if they are stiff and clunky.  You will hit that sweet spot, and the writing will flow.

There is a danger, though, that you will end up using exploratory writing as an excuse not to write.  That you will write and write and rehash until you have lost the drive for the story.  If this sounds like you, if you are one of those writers who struggles to finish, then stop exploring.  Put your butt in the chair, put your fingers on the keys** and finish that draft.  Write until you are done.  Explore as you go if you need to, but make sure you finish.

Next time you are stuck with a scene, or facing a writing challenge, give exploratory writing a try.  Sit down in front of the page with no other goal than to explore a concept on the page.  It’s a useful tool for your writing skill set that you can use over and over.

If you’re interested in further study, Laini Taylor has a post on her technique for exploratory drafts which you might enjoy.  Find it at Not For Robots.

*Yes yes, keyboard and screen if you like.  Goodness you people are pedantic.
**Fine, pick up a pen.  You people are never satisfied, are you?

The Faber Method, or: Plotting as you go

Okay, there isn’t really a Faber method.  It just makes a nice title.  But I did want to share my technique with you.

I’m one of those hybrid writers; I plot when I need to and pants the rest of the time.  I don’t fill in character sheets or complicated plot outlines before I write, but I do make a lot of notes as I go.  I fill in scene cards in batches, as the scenes occur to me.

Why is my method better than anyone else’s?  Well the short answer is, it’s not.  It’s just another way of doing things.  And if you find filling out endless pages of detailed notes before you write bores you to tears, you might find something here that works for you. Continue reading

Them’s the breaks: where to put paragraph, scene and chapter breaks in your work

This post was inspired by two things; a blog post and comments lamenting the difficulties of putting scene and chapter breaks in, and a recently read manuscript with scene breaks apparently inserted based on whether or not the main character had just said something gnomic and profound. (You know I love your stuff ♥.)

Choosing where to break your text shouldn’t be, and isn’t, that difficult.  It is as simple as one, two three: focus, sequence, event.  These three concepts are all you need to consider when developing the structure of your story. Continue reading

Networking and Marketing: Lessons learned

I realised, at some point last week, that I know a lot more about networking and marketing than I thought I did, and that a lot of that information is applicable to someone launching a writing career.

Some background: I am one half of a consultancy business that services a subset of the mining, oil and gas industries.  I write every day (when I’m not tending a small-man) which is why my fiction writing takes a back seat when work-writing deadlines come up.

Part of running the consultancy is getting the word out about us and what we offer. I’ve learned quite a lot about networking over the years, and a good deal of that is very applicable to marketing your book as well.

Lesson One: Don’t talk about yourself.

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Applied description: a demonstration

This is not a tutorial.  It’s not a how-to article.  This is just me, showing you the way I look at writing.  It is blatantly opinionated and didactic.  You are free to agree, disagree or ignore as you chose.

I recently critted a story that opened like this.

Birds played and chirped among the young leaves of the big elm tree in the front yard. Blue skies highlighted a greening landscape of a small midwestern town. The scent of freshly mowed grass permeated the cool air.  Michael moved…

And a  novel that contained:

Crickets chirped, as a light breeze blew on a beautiful night.  The palm trees swayed like windshield wipers.

There are three reasons I don’t like these passages.

  1. They tell us nothing about the setting.  The description is so generic as to be meaningless.
  2. They tell us nothing about the mood.  Should we be happy, sad, scared?  I’ll go for indifferent.
  3. They tell us nothing about the character and who they are.

So what could the writer do?

In my opinion, sentences that are purely description should be ruthlessly culled from the second draft.  It’s all too easy to describe every part of your scene in minute detail and bore your reader to tears in the same moment.

Description is a tool.  Used wisely, it can show your reader so much more than the landscape.  Used poorly, it can drown your narrative.

So, the demonstration part.  Here’s our opening scene; a carnival.

(Image courtesy of Luis Vallecillo and used under a Creative Commons License.)

We could open like this:

Between the crowds the dancers leaped and spun, costumes glittering, skin shiny with sweat, feathers tipped with fire from the afternoon sun.  Light bounced off the buildings and sent long shadows streaming into the crowd.  Men drank beer and sweated; women fanned themselves and called their children back in tired voices.

Yeah, I’m bored too.  While it’s perfectly functional, it doesn’t give the reader a glimpse into the story.  And from here, we could go anywhere.  Two strangers could lock gazes across the street and fall instantly in love.  An assassin could stalk between the wilting crowd, the gun beneath his coat hard against his ribs.  A battered wife could look past the dancers and see either hope or despair in the setting of the sun, and make a decision that could change her life.

So lets introduce some people into our opening scene.

Lucy pulled the collar of her dress away from her neck, but no cooling breeze touched her skin.  The heat didn’t seem to bother the dancers who gyrated just metres in front of her, flashes of colour and life in between the dreary shops.

“What’s this dance?” she asked their guide Mica.


The word meant nothing to her.  Her gaze drifted across the crowd, all of them in shorts and open shoes.  She shifted in her polyester dress, wondered what it would be like to wear a tiny bikini with sparkling sequins?  But she would never have the courage.

The dancers came together in a sensuous partnership and she blushed.  Why, why had she thought this holiday was a good idea?  Oh yes.  Kevin.  She needed to forget about Kevin.

Kevin would love this, would be laughing and cheering with the rest of the crowd while she stood beside him and blushed.

Same info; it’s hot, there are dancers in tiny, beautiful costumes.  But now we know what sort of story it is, and who is telling it.  The description has become part of the story.

Next character:

Jason let his gaze slide across the shimmering bodies, maintaining a vacant leer like most of the the men in the crowd.  A flash of light caught his eye, but it was only sunlight glancing off sequins.  He turned away, raised his camera and scanned the crowd on the other side through its lens.  A face caught his attention and he paused for a moment, snapped a shot and moved away.

He took a few more shots of the dancers, carefully focusing past them on the angular face of one particular woman and the two men beside her.  The sun on the back of his neck burned like fire and he knew he would be lobster-red by the time he finished.  But he was not about to abandon his position, not with Fraulein Nadetta just across the street, and oblivious to him.

He lowered his camera, and then felt something sharp poke him in the back.  He swung around, looked down at a street urchin’s wide grin.

“You owe me.  Ten dollars.  Pay up, Americano.”


Two different characters, two different types of story.  Same setting.  But I bet you can tell me a lot about the story to come from each of these passages, and I bet you would be right.

Because description, on its own, is a waste of words.  It’s not part of the story, but outside it.  Only when the descriptions tells us more than location and detail does it become useful, and powerful.  The details that your characters choose to notice tell the reader so much more than a shopping list of features.

However, there are occasions for opening with plain description; when you want to drop the reader into a sensory wonderland that brings the theme of the story alive.

Contrast the passages at the beginning of the post with this:

The weeds crackled in the summer heat, like tinder, brittle and brown. They swayed back and forth against grasshoppers popping toward the sky. The air smelled like gasoline.

What the writer has done here is paint a picture with words, leaving the reader sweating and wishing for a cool drink.  The passage is alive and brings the setting to life with precise, specific detail.  (If you want to read more, this excerpt is from a flash fiction piece by Michelle Davidson Argyle.)  This is description doing a day’s work.

In my opinion, this is the only way that description should be used on its own.

Think about your last piece of writing.  Think about how you used description.  Did you list the features of your scene at the beginning, and then ignore it?  Or did you weave the setting neatly through the narrative, using those details to bring your story to life?

How to Apply Criticism and Not Lose Your Mind

Here, at last, is the final post in my series on criticism, which started with The Yin-Yang of Writing and continued with How to Interpret Criticism.

So you’ve sent your story out to impartial and honest readers for feedback.  The results come flooding in, and suddenly you are overwhelmed with pages of conflicting advice, comments, praise and condemnation, often all in the same critique.

How do you deal with this?  Even if you only get comments from a few readers, you’ll be very lucky if they all say the same thing.  How do you decide what criticism to accept, and what criticism doesn’t serve the needs of your story?

Like any phase of writing, applying criticism works best when a logical process is used. In this post, I’ll show you my method and explain why I do things the way I do.

I’m not dictating that you must do it my way, just demonstrating.  This process was developed mainly for short stories, but I’m sure you can apply it, or something similar, to a novel.  Take from this article what you find helpful.

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How to Interpret Criticism

This is, finally, the follow-up post to The Yin-Yang of Writing.  I previously asked for examples of criticism from readers, and received some really useful comments, which I shall use here.  I’ll also be presenting examples from my own experience.

I’m going to stick to criticism of fiction, because non-fiction is a little different, and doesn’t apply to most of my readers anyway.

You get the most out of criticism when you look behind the words.

Someone once sent me the following crit:

Beautiful writing.  So what?

I’m sure you can imagine my younger self; the indignity, the fuck-you-buddy.  So what?  SO WHAT?  It was beautiful!  You’re just too crass and ignorant to appreciate it!

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