Insight Into Handy-Dandy (But Mostly Useless) Writer Tools

Sep 11, 2010 6:00 pm
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Without FreeCell, I could not survive as a writer. As you can see by my stats, I’m, er, slightly obsessed. It’s a great way to let your mind wander without getting too caught up in something else; I mean, sure, you’ve got errands to run and dishes to wash and floors to vacuum and kids to feed, but all those things take time and you won’t be able to run back to the computer the moment inspiration hits again.

Do not underestimate the power of the dorky card game.

And also I just really wanted to show off my stats.

Wordle

Another silly-but-fun thing: Wordle. Stick in your manuscript and see which words occur the most. If you’re at all like me, it’ll be really embarrassing :D

Then there’s pretty bookmarks, like those you get from The Book Depository or Ms. Magdala Twistleton… (I guess these help with reading more than writing, but hush. It’s book-related, I love it, and it totally counts.

… but I suppose tea and ice cream really do conquer all. Jodi Meadows and I have scientifically proven that ice cream increases writer productivity. True facts, guys.


I’m currently on vacation, so may take a while to read your comments – this post was written and scheduled beforehand. Also, there may or may not be a post with slightly more useful writer tools coming up.

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Unreliable Narrators

Jul 24, 2010 4:41 pm
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Shockingly, I’m still alive. Between beta reading, short story editing, and plotting my next novel, I just haven’t had a heck of a lot to write about.

But then I read The Hunger Games the other day, and a lightbulb went off. Especially after my last WIP, The Hands of Cally Wu, I’m very intrigued by unreliable narrators. As far as I can see, there are three types:

  1. The narrator who lies to or purposefully omits information from the reader (see: Justine Larbastelier’s Liar, or any number of first-person detective novels who hide information only to info-dump later)

  2. The narrator who is somehow manipulated into thinking or acting a certain way
  3. The narrator who makes false assumptions/is biased in some way

The first type can be easier to pull off, because you don’t always have to read between the lines – though depending on the kind of lies, their reactions, etc. you can still make it plenty complex – but at the same time risks irritating the reader. Especially if it’s a first-person narrator, it can feel like a huge cheat to realize you’re not as 100% in the character’s head as you thought.

The second and third usually go over better with readers, but are tricky to pull off in different ways. If it’s too subtle, the full impact of the later revelation that they’re mistaken isn’t as strong as it could be. If it’s too on-the-nose, the reader can easily tell they’re being manipulated into thinking a certain way.

Take Katniss’s initial feelings about Peeta in The Hunger Games, for example. At some point these feelings are so strong (without enough action on his side to justify it) that the reader already knows they’re likely false. This can be intentional – and it’s fun to see narrators go off in entirely the wrong direction sometimes – but risks making the book predictable. Just like, in a heck of a lot of books, the characters who hate each other most will likely end up as love interests.

In another example, I finished an urban fantasy novel a few weeks ago wherein Our Heroine was convinced Character X was evil. The problem: she had very little evidence to base it on. Now, with personal entanglements (like Katniss/Peeta), it’s fun to see characters flounder. When it comes to plot – not so much. I was annoyed at Our Heroine for jumping to conclusions when she could be off chasing actual leads. Even more annoyed when she had Character X beaten savagely because of her suspicions. And even more annoyed when she didn’t really seem to feel all that guilty after she was proven wrong.

I love flawed characters, but, er, there are limits.

Anyway, there were also moments in The Hunger Games when I truly didn’t know if Katniss’s suspicions about some characters were correct. This worked on multiple levels – characterization and plot – which, IMO, was a great way to keep the reader guessing and intrigued.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the topic, as well, if you have any to share!

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Community: Why Y’All Should Watch It Right This Second

Jun 26, 2010 8:09 pm
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Man, I’m stealing blog topics lately like… um… is there any kind of animal out there that regularly steals blog topics? No? Okay. That’s probably what makes that simile fall kind of flat.

Anyway, this blog post was inspired by a) Jodi Meadows’s excellent post on the things Stargate SG-1 taught her about writing and b) the unrelated realization that, yes, I love TV shows as more than just distraction from writing. I know a lot of people harp on how you shouldn’t watch TV if you can read/write instead, it’s just a waste of time, etc. etc. but I really think that, in addition to the sheer entertainment value and closing-off-your-brain factor you sometimes need as a writer, it’s a great way to study storytelling. It won’t teach you to write prose, but it can teach you plenty about other things, and studying how and why TV shows do what they do can be an excellent way to learn.

Which is a kind of long intro to me saying that, holy crap, I love the TV series Community and if you haven’t seen it yet, you ought to do so. Right this second. Or at the very least when the DVD-set comes out. It’s a very smart comedy which far exceeded my expectations based on its rather standard premise: community college! band of misfits! shenanigans ensue! It’s probably my favourite comedy series in a long time, on par perhaps only with Better Off Ted.

(Which you should also watch.)

Warning: as I discuss what I think Community does right, I’ll use comparisons from certain shows who try to do similar things but don’t pull it off, in my opinion. By ‘certain shows’, I mean Glee. I’ll try to be fair, but my unparalleled loathing of Glee1 may colour my analysis. Fair warning!

1. Know Thy Tropes
Whether you want to avoid them, subvert them, or ridicule them all to hell – know them. Your audience will, too, and they’ll appreciate being taken by surprise or seeing a clever spin on something they recognize.

This means reading/watching in your genre, and spending a lot of time on TV Tropes. If you don’t know the site, prepare to waste an ungodly amount of hours there.

(Note to self: next time you link to TV Tropes, do it at the end of a post, or you’ll lose readers.)

2. Go There – But Know Where You’re Going
This applies to anything ~controversial~ or otherwise shocking: go there. Don’t back down, don’t play it safe. It’s okay to be outrageous.

But please, know what you’re doing. Don’t just do random shit for the sake of being edgy and then wonder why people are annoyed or offended when you fuck up.

Community is a silly comedy and they regularly tackle issues of racism or sexism in the least PC way possible, and they succeed2. Glee is a silly comedy that regularly tackles issues of sexism or racism in the least PC way possible, and they fail on multiple levels, because they’re doing it for kicks without understanding what they’re doing. Sometimes this results in laughs. But usually, when it comes to the issues they address, they do more to alienate the groups they’re trying to support than anything else. I think that’s a shame. With that kind of cast and talent, they could do so much better.

3. A Little Goes A Long Way
Community is a comedy show and it KNOWS this, but it can still tackle solid drama. In one episode – minor spoilers to follow - the students have a Halloween party. One of them, Abed, dresses in a Batman costume and plays the role awesomely, raspy Christian Bale voice et al. Jeff, the lead of the show, is embarrassed by his friends’ immaturity and tries to avoid the party, but keeps getting dragged in. At one point, he snaps:

Jeff: Britta, I don’t care about your high school soap opera. Abed, you’re not Batman.
Abed: I know I’m not Batman. You could try not being a dick.


Paraphrased, since I can’t seem to find the quote online. When I watched this, I went, ouch. When I rewatched the episode with a friend, he gasped.

It’s so simple, so direct, and it works so damn well for both characters. There’s no need to harp on the point whatsoever.

4. Make Up Your Mind
For the most part, Community doesn’t try to be something it’s not, and I love it for that. It’s the same reason I love shows like Chuck: they don’t take themselves too seriously. This doesn’t mean that Community can’t do drama on occasion. Just watch the episode Introduction to Film.

But it does mean that it knows its genre and doesn’t bounce between different styles. Only very few shows (Buffy!) can pull that off without giving the viewer a mental whiplash.

Now, certain shows have a big problem with this. They try to be satirical high school comedies and then interject it with moments of tearful Very Special Episode-style drama, played completely straight. Even people who have liked Glee since the beginning have expressed issues with this, and the more pronounced it gets, the more people are getting annoyed by how the show can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be.

It pains me to say this, but here goes: In its first season finale, Community did the exact same thing. It went from a trope-subverting ensemble cast to a one-man-show that played entirely by the rules, annoying love triangle included, and it irritated a lot of its die-hard fans in the process.

(See? I can be fair and criticize the shows I love!) 


1 Believe me, I gave Glee a fair shot: I started the show fully expecting to love it, and gave it a full season to redeem itself when it didn’t quite catch on. It just ended up annoying me more and more. Sorry, Glee fans. (I still love the singing-and-dancing.)

2 It doesn’t succeed all the time. I’ve been rather annoyed with its treatment of Britta and Shirley. Still, it does a lot better than 95% of shows out there, so I think the point is valid.

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How To Write

Jun 07, 2010 2:24 pm
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I love reading writing advice. Whether it’s plain grammar stuff, about style or flow, about scenes or chapters or characters or world-building, about how to balance writing with the rest of your life, how to manipulate yourself into getting work done – it’s great, and I suck it up like a sponge. I love to learn.

But sometimes it depresses me, too. I’m a very disorganised writer – probably because I’m a very disorganised person. I don’t work well with schedules, I get up ridiculously late, I procrastinate, I play games and watch TV when I should write, all those things. I can stick to a schedule of 1000 words a day, or 1500 words a day, or 4000 words a day, but never for long.

Here’s some random information about my novels:

My first book, Wielders, took from January 2008-August 2008 to write. Lots of times I managed 2000 words in a day. Lots of times I went weeks without writing a word. Writing this book was not a good experience: part of this is because I started writing it in the very last year of art school, so I was stressed out with graduating, and after graduating, I really just wanted to do nothing for a while. It got done, though, and after years and years of never managing to write more than, say, 4000 words on a single story, it felt amazing.

Which gave me the confidence to try NaNoWriMo that same year. And, lo and behold, I knocked out over 70000 words in ten days. Always Read the Fae Print was born. The first four or so days, I wrote at least 10k a day.

That, too, felt amazing.

In 2009, I didn’t write much in the way of novels. I wrote a few short stories, and spent a lot of time revising the two novels I’d written then. I tried NaNoWriMo again that November, fed up with my lack of new-wordage: the first hour, I wrote 1600 words on a sequel to Fae Print, shelved it, and worked on a different project. I got to almost 19000 words before calling it quits. The project didn’t feel right, I had to produce a lot of artwork on a very short deadline for an upcoming exposition, and my cat Shady, who’d been with me nineteen years, died.

In March 2010, I started up again, this time with The Hands of Cally Wu. I wrote on a mostly steady schedule of 1000-1500 words a day, rarely less and often more, felt good about my productivity, and wrote about 40000 words in three weeks.

Then I put it on halt. I needed to do some brainstorming and get other things done – short stories, another round of Fae Print edits based on awesome beta feedback, beta-ing books for others…

I didn’t get back to it until mid-May. Since then, I’ve written about 12000 words. This past week? I wrote 400 words. No more. Not because I had other things to do, because I didn’t, really, and not because I didn’t want to, because I woke up every day telling myself I’m going to write now.

It just didn’t happen. I procrastinated. Sat around uselessly. (Well, okay. I did a lot of plotting, and feel like 250% better about the new ending I have planned. But still. No words.)

So, like I said, I’m disorganised. It’s frustrating, sometimes, to see people knock out words on a regular schedule, to make self-imposed deadlines, and talk about The Right Way to Write. Because I’d like to be able to do all that. That’s the weird thing: I’m only disorganised when it comes to getting things done. In my head, I’m totally anal-retentive about making lists, compartmentalising, schedules, all those things. Getting something done, though, especially on my own schedule, is hell. I don’t know if it’s simply me, or because my brain tends to work differently – autism and ADHD are having a big ol’ party in there so that probably affects some things – but it doesn’t matter.

Because in the end, you know… whatever. I get books done, I get them edited, I get them shipped off to beta readers and agents. I plan new books. I write those, too. I’m not always happy about the way it happens, but I’ve tried every other way and those didn’t work. Apparently, for me, the Right Way to Write is to go to bed late and to get up late and to marathon TV shows and doodle a lot and read other people’s books and play Worms on my cellphone. And then, when I feel like I’m ready to write, I throw words onto a screen until I get burned out, and then I take a breather for a few weeks or a few months and I do it again.

And however frustrating it can be for my oh-so-organised brain… in the end, the book gets done, and that part always, always feels good.

All of this is a really roundabout way of saying that you should read these blog posts by Hannah Moskowitz and Elana Johnson, because they both made me scream “YES! WHAT THEY SAID!” out loud and freak out my darling cat.


Also, I’ll stop with the stupidly long introspective posts soon. Probably when I get back into the practice of throwing words at a screen. I need to get this new-and-improved ending written some day!

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Point of View, Tense, and Self-Censoring

May 17, 2010 2:02 pm
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You know, avoiding–

a) blatant telling instead of showing

and

b) straight-up exposition

–is really hard when your character is, you know, actually telling the reader what’s happening and straight-up explaining things. It means I get to be subtle in a different way – yum, unreliable narrators – but still. This is probably going to be one of those books that either works or is an abominable train wreck. Excellent!

I’ve spoken before of my reasons to go with first person, present tense, speaking directly to the reader before: intimacy, directness, and immediacy are the big ones, of course, but I’ve been thinking about it more and I have a number of other reasons that I’m only discovering as I write the book.

Cally, my main character, has to witness and do some very nasty things over the course of this book. Some of them I describe; some, I don’t. Since she’s ‘telling’ the reader what’s happening as they happen, what she does and doesn’t share tells us a lot about her mental state and priorities. Present tense doesn’t give her the time to censor herself afterward–which means that when she skips over vital scenes, she’s censoring herself in the moment. She’ll tell the reader, in one line or paragraph, “this is what I’m doing” and then move on. Doing so in past tense could give the impression that the scene just wasn’t all that important, or that she doesn’t want to talk about it; if the book were in past tense, in fact, it’s very likely she would describe the scene, because she’ll have had time to think about it, to give it a place.

Skipping scenes in present tense creates an entirely different effect – one I might be able to emulate by having her just be extraordinarily detached. With most characters, that would work, and it might even result in some very powerful scenes. The thing is, Cally is detached for 95% of the book, so for these kinds of scenes, I’d need to take it a step further. She’s not just detached, she’s tuning out. She’s on auto-pilot.

Plus: if a murder is summarized in one line and her son’s basketball tryouts immediately afterward get several paragraphs… well, it might piss off some readers – I know I’d prefer to read about a murder than basketball tryouts – but man, does it tell you about how fucked up she is or what?

(Oh man, I hope it’s the former. *g*)

So this is me, attempting to justify my use of a commonly misused storytelling mechanism. Whether it works in the book is something I’ll have to wait and see, but it’s probably a good thing to spell out my intentions so I can figure out later if it worked, yeah?

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First Person vs. Third Person vs. Why Must You Make Life So Difficult, New Book Of Mine?

Feb 22, 2010 1:57 pm
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Though I only started with this whole novel thingymajig back in 2007/2008, I’ve been writing for a lot longer than that. 95% of that writing was done in third person.

So if any of you can explain why just about every friggin’ novel that pops up in my head insists on being told in first person, I’d really appreciate it.

Part of me understands why: voice and character are huge priorities for me as a writer, and first person allows those aspects to shine. That’s been my rationalisation for all the books I’ve written so far and most of the ones I’m still planning; the thing is, though there’s nothing inherently wrong with first person, I don’t want it to become a crutch, either. I’ve spent years writing in third person, so why can’t I seem to write a danged novel that way?

So I figured I’d have to give that a try at some point. Maybe I could do Heirs in third person — except notsomuch, because the MC is recently deafened and hasn’t yet learned ASL or lip-reading. First person would be much more effective at getting across his immense sense of isolation.

Other novels, I told myself, would need to have a similarly good reason for needing first person. So when a new novel and MC presented themselves the other day, adamant on first person, I figured I could live with it. The MC’s situation is unique enough to warrant it.

Except then a first line popped up in my head. First person. Present tense. Talking directly to the reader. And I kinda felt like smacking this stupid book, because you need to be damned skilled to pull something like that off, and I’m not remotely sure I can handle it.

The thing is, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. This MC is quite possibly the most closed-off, least sympathetic character I have floating around my head – and I have a lot of them, believe me. In order to make her sympathetic, in order to make people understand her, I’ll need to dig deep. Present tense, talking to the reader, would make her voice so direct, so confrontational, so arresting that I hope it’d get the reader sucked in even while she’s doing some really atrocious things. It’d drag them along in a watching-a-trainwreck, can’t-avert-your-eyes kind of way.

All of that would only work if it’s done right, of course, and I’m not saying I’ll be able to. But, well, the book has explained itself and turns out to have pretty good reasons for wanting to be told this way. I figure I should suck it up and give it a shot.

If nothing else, it’ll be a challenge, and those can only be good.

(Er, at least until they start causing mental breakdowns, but that’s a concern for later. Right?)

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Fantasy, Identity, and Talent

Jan 03, 2010 11:25 pm
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Taking a short break from line editing (page 235 of 356!) to jot down a couple of thoughts I had, spurred on by reading N.K. Jemisin’s fabulous post at Orbit, Power and Privilege in Fantasy.

One thing struck me in particular: her point about special protagonists in fantasy often being special due to their heritage, rather than skill. This is particularly relevant to me right now since I’m neck-deep in edits on Always Read the Fae Print, which, as some of you will know, features an utterly non-magical character as the lead. Her parents, and much of her extended family, have powers of various sorts. She doesn’t. At all. And it’s not easy on her.

For one, it means that her quest to save her dad depends on madd improvisation skillz and a really ugly bracelet, not any particular gift of hers. It doesn’t make it easy.

For another, it means she has a number of serious issues relating to the world she grew up in and her own identity.

Most of our identity, we’re born into. Our ethnicity, our sexuality, our gender, and often, our physical/mental ability. All of these are unique in their own way; most people are raised among others of their own ethnicity. (Note: I say ‘most’, because there are obvious complications here in terms of mixed-race families and adoption.) With sexuality and ability, it becomes more complicated, as that’s something you’re born into, but you’re not necessarily raised among people who share that identity.

Often, magic abilities fall into one of those categories: either it’s inherited, or it’s something they’re simply born with – even if the character doesn’t discover their abilities until a later age.

Rarely, they acquire it later. Similar to, say, acquired disabilities, a character may be bitten by a werewolf or vampire, or be cursed/blessed with abilities, or simply work hard and hone a particular skill.

I find all these differences fascinating. I drew a lot from my own experiences in the hopes of making my protagonist’s feelings regarding these issues realistic. Why, as a child, she wanted nothing more than to be like her parents. Why she later rejected that aspect of her life to live as what she is: human. Why she recoiled every time her mother wanted to help her with a spell. As a human, she has clear disadvantages to various magical family members – but human is what she is, and no matter her struggles, she accepts that and, eventually, is proud of it. It’s just as much a part of her as being American is, or Venezuelan, or German, or female, or straight, and nobody would expect her to change – or want to change – those things, even if they have drawbacks.

Her family just doesn’t always get that. (Which sounds awfully familiar to a lot of those other identities.)

How we identify is such a huge part of our lives that I’d love to see fantasy taking advantage of these similarities more often.

A related issue that likely doesn’t deserve its own post:

What I can’t help but wonder is where the line is drawn. When does something go from “learned skill” to “magical ability”? To use one example, in Always Read the Fae Print is a character, Merel, who works her ass off to become a witch, and succeeds because she simply has the talent. Others who worked just as hard and did the exact same things wouldn’t necessarily succeed. Is that inborn magical ability? Or is that hard work? Which of those would make her character ‘special’? What about Lillian, who has no magical abilities, but spent her lifetime learning as much as humanly possible about magic, and thrives in that world despite her eventual distaste for it?

Is it about drive, not ability? What about those of us who have the drive, but not necessarily ability? And vice versa? Or if you have both but something else holds you back? If someone is a fabulously skilled artist without putting any effort into their work, are they more or less of an artist than someone who works at it day in, day out, and produces work of a similar quality? When do we admire the person’s efforts and struggles and drive and when is the end result relevant?

Olympic athletes spend their lifetimes becoming the best at what they do, but if hard work alone gets you to the top, they wouldn’t be as special. No doubt hard work makes up 90% of it, but there must be talent involved, otherwise every random schmuck of the streets could be the next Michelangelo or Joe DiMaggio or Michael Jackson. Does talent make it unfair to other people who work just as hard? Why are magical abilities any different from our own random talents? If magical ability enables someone to, say, participate in the Olympics, would that be unethical? Why would that be different than some wildly talented – but not magical – athlete participating?

There’s so much overlap here and added complications and differences that this post could be another ten pages long, I’m sure, but in the end, I don’t have any particularly fascinating insight to offer. I just think these are intriguing issues that can be explored endlessly, especially in fantasy fiction, and I needed to get them out of my mind and on paper somewhere. Or on the screen, as it is.

On that note, if any of you have any recommendations for (speculative) books that deal with the above issues, do let me know.

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The Not-So-Mystical Writing Process

Sep 25, 2009 9:07 pm
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I can resist no meme. As usual, taken from KV Taylor. (The questions, that is, not the answers, though you wouldn’t guess it at first.)

1. Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter?”
Plotter, oh so definitely a plotter. I assign a notebook to each book and spend a couple of months putting together an outline of a somewhat coherent story before I write the first line. That’s not to say I’m unwilling to deviate from the outline should a better idea come to me later on, though, as it usually does – in every draft. The major changes happen in the second draft, where I flesh things out, add complications and fix the inevitable plotholes.

2. Detailed character sketches or “their character will be revealed to me as a I write”?
Both. I generally have a good grasp of a character’s personality beforehand, even if I can’t always put it into words. The character grows and evolves during the writing, and in the second draft I smoothen things out, removing contradictions and strengthening the aspects important to the storyline. Characters are crazy important to me, so I spend an awful lot of time figuring out backstory and psycho-analysing their relations to the other people in their life.

3. Do you know your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts before you start writing or is that something else you discover only after you start writing?
It’s pretty much the same as question #2 – I know their major goals and motivations beforehand (at least, for the main characters) but they can change and become deeper during the process.

4. Books on plotting – useful or harmful?
Couldn’t tell, never read one. Maybe I should, considering it’s a weak spot of mine, but since I’ve only been able to finish very few writing books… I think I’m just going to wing it until I find myself smashing my head into a brick wall.

5. Are you a procrastinator or does the itch to write keep at you until you sit down and work?
Both, disturbingly. I itch while procrastinating. I really have to force myself to focus and get work done unless I’m neck-deep in a rush of productivity – and those don’t tend to last longer than a week or so.

6. Do you write in short bursts of creative energy, or can you sit down and write for hours at a time?
Neither? If I force myself for long enough, I can often end up with long bursts of creative energy if I hit my stride, but those wear off after a couple of days and are fueled less by sheer force of will than excitement that things are going well.

It’s a crap process, to be honest. I’m working on it!

7. Are you a morning or afternoon writer?
Depends entirely on how well things are going and what time I get up. If I get up early, it’s easier to get started immediately; if I sleep in, it can take until evening. On top of that, sometimes it takes hours of procrastination before things get going, sometimes I can get started straightaway… there’s no pattern.

8. Do you write with music/the noise of children/in a cafe or other public setting, or do you need complete silence to concentrate?
Some background noise is fine, but I rarely work with music on. I can (and do) draw with music, for example, but writing is near-impossible. I always listen to the lyrics whenever I have music on, and since those words conflict with those of the story, it just doesn’t work.

9. Computer or longhand? (or typewriter?)
Computer. I type at 100-120WPM and could never hope to match that speed longhand. That said, I do all my plotting longhand. For some reason, it’s just easier that way.

10. Do you know the ending before you type Chapter One?
Absolutely. I need to know where I’m going. Details might, and probably will change, but I can’t work without a clear direction, both for character and plot reasons.

11. Does what’s selling in the market influence how and what you write?
Not really. I can get inspired by some things (did I ever mention how there probably wouldn’t be any Always Read the Fae Print without this post?, but that’s not really a conscious decision.

12. Editing – love it or hate it?
Effing hate it. I have no objectivity.

Do I need to waste more words on that? I hope not. (I’d just have to edit them out in the end, anyway. Insert inappropriate swearing here!)

That was fun. I’d love to see more people’s takes on this :D

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On Jealousy, Motivation and Giving Up

May 05, 2009 10:10 pm
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I’m knee-deep in editing Always Read the Fae Print, but I had to pass on this post of Maggie Stiefvater’s, fellow portrait artist-turned-writer.

Sound advice.

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