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Why You Can Ignore Most Popular Creative Writing Advice

There are very few absolutes in creative writing.
With the proliferation of writing blogs nowadays, anyone can (and does) post their "secrets to better writing." While some are genuinely helpful, I frequently see certain tidbits that writers accept as gospel, even though they shouldn't. Many of these are derivatives of good, reasonable tips that have been twisted and transformed through a prolonged game of telephone until one day someone proclaiming themselves an authority shared the distorted version they'd accepted as truth.

Often the initially nuanced advice has been taken to a rigid extreme. So as you're improving your craft and applying various suggestions, how can you know if advice you're seeing falls into this category? By remembering there are very few absolutes in creative writing.

Conventions and style guides are undeniably important, but writers are constantly proving it's possible to convey their intended meaning to the reader while stretching those boundaries. Consider how commonplace fragments have become in literature, even though they used to be hunted down and eliminated. Nowadays we make many allowances for character voice and have even had books written entirely in list form or as multiple choice questions.

Basically, if something is effective, you can get away with it rather than strictly adhering to formal rules. If your work is having the impact you want, keep doing what you're doing.
    This is not license to ignore your editor! But you should feel comfortable explaining your reasoning and intentions, while remaining open to the rationale behind their suggestions.

Unfortunately, it's often newer writers who discover and end up applying these tyrannical distortions of good suggestions. While there are more than I could possibly address in one post, let's take a look at some examples of twisted tips:
  1. Twisted Tip: Eliminate adverbs.
    • Underlying Good Tip 1: Avoid unnecessary adverbs.
      • Meaning, if the adverb isn't adding anything to the text, don't include it.
    • Underlying Good Tip 2: Don't use an adverb to modify a verb when there's a more precise verb available.
  2. Twisted Tip: For dialogue tags, don't use speech verbs other than "said."
    • Underlying Good Tip 1: Don't use unnecessarily complex speech verbs.
      • If your narrator wouldn't use the word susurrate, then whisper will do.
    • Underlying Good Tip 2: Don't overuse various speech verbs, as this can detract from your story and slow your pace.
  3. Twisted Tip: Don't use words longer than 3 syllables.
    • Ridiculous.
      • Sure, I could have said absurd, but my choice made my point more effectively. That should be your goal with your writing.
    • Underlying Good Tip: Don't overcomplicate your language in a misguided attempt to appear more intelligent/literary/etc.
You may have noticed a theme in these "rules" that are presented as the path to better writing: they each eliminate a portion of the vocabulary available to you. English is an incredibly rich, diverse language, but if every writer followed all of these "rules" (and others like them), the resulting stories would lose all variety and color.

Writing tips are there to help you, not hamstring you. Adverbs, speech verbs, and multisyllabic words are all colors on your palette. When used judiciously, these elements add variety and depth to your story, allowing you to create something compelling and evocative. When you pour them on without restraint, they mix together into a muddy brown. But when you eschew them entirely, you may find yourself with an unfinished sketch that doesn't come close to the complete picture you wanted.

So remember, whenever you come across an "absolute" rule, dig around for the helpful tip underneath. Apply only as necessary.

    I'll be writing posts about each of the Twisted Tips listed above. Have another you'd like me to explore? Share it in the comments!

2020 Writers For Hope Auction for @RAINN!

2020 has been intense and challenging, and I hope you're all staying safe!

As we all continue to shelter in place, one event you can still attend is the seventh annual Writers for Hope Auction, happening this week! Each year, editors, agents, and authors contribute amazing auction items to raise money to combat sexual assault, and 100% of the proceeds go to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the United States' largest anti-sexual assault organization. This year is no exception.

There are over 80 items being auctioned off this year. Whether you're looking for a critique opportunity, new books to read, or a great gift for a friend, this is a wonderful chance to get what you need while also standing up against sexual assault and supporting a wonderful organization that fights back. Bids start at only $10!

The auction goes all week, and bidding closes at 8:59pm ET (5:59pm PT) on Friday. Watch out for those last-minute bidders, and thank you for continuing to support this wonderful cause!

Book Recommendations to Get You Through the Pandemic

We know the world is scary right now. The news is filled with warnings and grim statistics, grocery stores are chaotic (at best), and we're all being told to socially distance ourselves from our friends and families—or even shelter in place. Maybe you're self-quarantining, out of precaution or medical necessity.

Whatever you're going through right now, Anya and I wanted to let you know that we're here for you. We're all in this together, and it's more important than ever to practice kindness, both to yourself and to others. Take breaks from reading the news, limit the amount of time you spend checking your social media feeds, and don't forget to breathe!

For all the writers (and other creatives) out there, remember to be patient with yourselves. Some people may find comfort by diving into their work, using their own stories as an escape, whereas others may find themselves unable to write due to the stress and anxiety of our current situation. If you're in this latter category, go easy on yourself! Give yourself permission to wait until you have the mental space and energy to devote to your stories.

We're lucky to live in a time when we have so many options for communicating from afar, tools we can use to stay connected. It's important to remember that you are not alone. Make sure you keep in touch with friends and family you may not be able to see in person right now. If you can, get some fresh air (even if this just means opening a window). Do something that makes you laugh. Remember that this is temporary.

Personally, when I'm feeling overwhelmed and need to escape the real world for a little while, I turn to books. I bet many of you do, too. So Anya and I thought we would recommend some of our recent favorites for you.

Jennifer's recommendations:
  • Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston — This was my favorite book of 2019, and I've been recommending it to everyone I know. It's a queer romance set in an alternate 2020 where a woman is president and coronavirus doesn't exist. As if that isn't enough, it's also laugh-out-loud funny.
  • Witchmark by C.L. Polk — Another favorite of 2019, and another queer romance! This one is for the fantasy lovers. If the world and the magic don't leave you entranced, Polk's writing will. And book two just came out, so you don't have to wait for the sequel!
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman — This one isn't new, by any means, but it's a perfect blend of humor and nostalgia that's sure to relieve some stress. If you loved the movie, you'll love the book. And—and I don't say this lightly—the book really is even better than the movie!
Anya's recommendations:
  • Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert — A lovely contemporary romance, this story thoughtfully showcases life with a chronic illness, as well as the immense emotional impact of how others treat us, all while never losing sight of its uplifting core story and delivering on the promised HEA.
  • Uglies by Scott Westerfeld — I read this series many years ago, and in fact Westerfeld has now published two books in a derivative series set years later in the same world (Impostors). But I remember loving this fun, meaningful YA dystopian series about a world where every 16-year-old goes from regular "Ugly" human to joining the always happy, bubbly "Pretties." Planning to give this one a reread myself!
  • One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah MacLean — For the historical romance lovers in the crowd, this one delivers. A heroine who's aware she isn't quite like everyone else, a considerate, sexy, tortured hero, and some incredibly hot sex scenes make this romance a perfect escape.
We'd love to hear any recommendations you have! And if you've read any of these, let us know what you thought of them. Above all, stay healthy!

Warm regards,
Jennifer and Anya

Mini Lesson: Avoid Talking Heads

Today's mini lesson is all about the phenomenon called "talking heads." This term refers to a long stretch of dialogue with only speech verbs and no description of the physicality of the characters, or of the setting, aside from occasional movements above the neck. If you're only describing eyes, lips, eyebrows, and heads shaking/nodding/tilting, you have talking heads.

This is a problem for one very simple reason: novels aren't scripts.

When a playwright creates their script, they only include the dialogue, attribution (who's speaking), and rare scene directions. But a script is intended to become a performance. Its final form includes set design, costumes, and actors bringing the names on the pages to life with blocking (movement) and the characters' quirks or mannerisms. When we have only the dialogue and attribution, the experience of the story is incomplete.

The same goes for your novel, so you need to ensure all of those pieces are happening on the page the way they would on the "stage" of your story. It's up to you as the author to create the set, the costumes, the blocking, and the character mannerisms—plus internalization. If you only include dialogue and head-related movements, that's all the readers get to see, leaving your scene incomplete like a script.

The good news is that people are constantly moving. It's not practical or necessary to describe every time a character moves, but you want to ensure you're grounding your readers in the physicality of both the space (setting) and the characters themselves. How are they interacting with the furniture and items around them? How are they physically reacting to what is being said? 
    Examples include: crossing their arms after being accused of something; fidgeting with whatever little items are within reach; jumping out of their seat at hearing exciting (or infuriating) news; and pulling a blanket over their head and hugging their knees to their chest for comfort.

Including the elements aside from the basic "script" of your conversations helps to build a sense of your world, to break up stretches of dialogue, and to humanize your characters. Adding internalization does the last two as well, but you want to make sure to balance building the internal and external worlds of your story. If all we have is dialogue and internal reactions to what's being said, we still aren't getting a complete picture of your world or your characters, who in almost all cases will have bodies in addition to heads.

So if the only movements being described within long stretches of conversation happen above the neck, as if the bodies have disappeared or been paralyzed—and that isn't the effect you're intentionally creating—take another pass at your draft to help readers see the full scene.

    Do you have any special tips or tricks for fixing "talking heads" moments? Share in the comments!

Diverse Romance Author Special

Happy February! In honor of stories celebrating the power of love, and especially given recent RWA events, we have a special offer for diverse romance authors:

Book a romance project by 2/29 and get 20% OFF!

Because love is love is love.

  • Manuscript must be a romance. Any length or sub-genre counts!
  • Any author who identifies as a member of a marginalized group is welcome to take advantage of this offer. The story does not have to be #OwnVoices.
    • We will not be policing your identity, and you are not required to disclose anything you don't want to. If you aren't sure whether this special is for you, please feel free to ask.
    • As a general guideline, if you would feel comfortable participating in #DVpit, you shouldn't hesitate to take advantage of this offer.
  • Project must be booked by February 29, 2020 and must be scheduled to start by December 31, 2020.
    • Note that your project doesn't have to be ready by 2/29, but you do need to book a spot by then.
    • A signed contract and a deposit are required to book a spot in our schedule. For more info, see our FAQs.
  • The 20% discount will be applied to the final invoice.
  • Only one promotion can be applied to any one service.

Questions? Ready to book? Get in touch!

Is Your Editor a Ghost?

Love it or hate it, you probably know that ghostwriting happens. And that especially in recent years it's shifted from a practice primarily in the nonfiction world to a known factor in fiction writing. From creating premises and outlines to drafting fully fleshed out, ready-to-publish manuscripts, ghostwriting fiction has become an undeniable reality, even as many writers and readers consider it to be a less-than-ethical practice to publish something you didn't write under your name.

But did you know that ghost editing happens too? We've talked before about finding the right editor for your work. Now I'm adding another tip: if it matters to you, make sure the person you're hiring is actually the one who'll be editing your manuscipt. 
    Unfortunately, authors working with traditional publishers may not have the clout to do this.

Because sometimes, your "editor" will be switched out for someone else, without you ever knowing. A few ways this can happen:
  1. The editor you hire sub-contracts out to another editor, without telling you. The money is split between the person whose name/reputation sold the service and the person who actually performs it. Who gets what percent of the money you pay will depend on the individual agreement. The person you think you're hiring may look over the edits, or they may not, depending on their own morals, the time they have available, and how reliable they believe the sub-contractor to be.
  2. A publisher assigns you an editor on their staff, but there's no way that person can handle all the books on the schedule needing to be edited. The publisher also hires freelancers. But they want you to have faith in the editor whose name you know, so they pressure the freelancer to perform the edits as "User" or "Editor," or even "Anonymous." Some may even ask that the primary editor's name is used (all of this is easily configured in MS Word), though I haven't personally seen the last happen.

    The edits are passed on to you by the primary editor, even if that person never actually provides any feedback. Again, they may or may not look over each round of edits done on your book. Sometimes they won't look at the notes you're given until they're evaluating the freelancer's performance, even if that's long after the book is published. 
    • Psst, freelance editors: keep in mind, you can say no if you're asked to do this! 
    • It's also possible that the publisher hires a freelancer who then sub-contracts out to another editor, without the author or publisher knowing.
  3. An editor (whether they work independently or at a publisher) agrees to mentor someone who wants to break into the field. In order to learn, that person needs hands-on experience editing manuscripts. Depending on the circumstances, the author, publisher, or both are kept in the dark about the mentoring arrangement.

    In this scenario, the mentor editor is more likely to look over the edits, since the whole point is that they help the less experienced editor learn. Still, at least the majority of the edits on your book would be performed by the mentee. And while the mentor will likely provide feedback to the mentee, that feedback may or may not be incorporated into the notes you receive.

These are not hypotheticals, and these practices are more common than you may want to believe. I've seen all of these either happen or be discussed in editor groups, and I've been pressured by publishers to remove my name from my edits.

Now this post isn't about criticizing how other editors choose to work. And all of the options above may be perfectly acceptable with one little tweak: if the author knew this was happening. Some editors who sub-contract the work do let their authors know. Many publishers who work with freelance editors do not hide that fact from their authors, who work directly with the freelancer actually providing the notes. Some editors who mentor others have them perform the edits in parallel, providing their own notes to the author and separate feedback to the mentee on their edits. Or again, they simply let the author know ahead of time that the work will be done by the mentee.

For that matter, maybe you don't care. If you're hiring a company rather than an individual, maybe all you care about is that the work gets done for the price you were quoted, not the name of the person doing the work or developing a relationship with a specific editor.

This post is to help you be aware of what may be happening behind the scenes. So that if it does matter to you—if you've carefully selected an editor based on a recommendation, their reputation, a sample edit, or all of the above—you can take steps to be confident they'll actually be the person helping you with your story.

    For the record: Touchstone Editing always connects you directly with the person actually performing your edits. If for some reason we do need to hand a project off to someone else, we'll get your permission first. We're committed to our authors, and we do not pass off anyone else's work as our own.