Category Archives: Writer Tips & Tricks

Tips from writers or for writers.

Creative Collaboration

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of a few collaborative projects, of which working with Tom has been by far the longest and most rewarding. Usually creating is a solitary process, where you go away, make something up and return when it’s ready for sharing. Working with someone else, even if you do your bit alone, changes things.

Given what happened with today’s webcomic page, I thought it would be interesting to talk about that particular process as an illustration of how collaborating is different. (If you’ve not been following Personal Demons, a brief synopsis – a small girl called Salamandra is found in a gothic, decaying house by a witch (Annamarie Nightshade) and taken to the local orphanage, where she is unhappy. She runs away and meets another girl, and they get along. A demon is destroyed. Sal is taken back to the orphanage and fids she may have caused a death. Her new ‘friend’ becomes increasingly unpleasant. At this point she and Sal have just had a parting of the ways, and Sal has encountered something scary in the graveyard.)

When I wrote it, the point of today’s scene was just to convey that there is a bigger picture. I hadn’t entirely thought through the character implications, just suggested that someone in the graveyard scares Salamandra and she runs away. Now, this is the girl who has recently run off on her own into the night, and tackled a demon. She doesn’t scare easily. That could have created an inconsistency. Fortunately for me, Tom started from the assumption that what I’d written made sense, and went on to contemplate who, or what exactly in the graveyard would have the wherewithal to scare our young heroine. It won’t be obvious yet, I suspect, but as the plot develops, people will be able to look back and ponder. He’s made it work.

It’s not the first time one of us has thrown a random thing into the story mix, and the other has made sense of it. Usually it’s the other way round because Tom has a knack for coming up with strange and lovely things, and then passing them over to me to see if I can explain them and make them fit. When we started out, Tom had by far a wilder imagination than me, but I’ve always been good at filling in the gaps and creating plausible narratives. I’m happiest when I have his ideas to play with. Tom does write, it’s amazingly dense and full of potential, and looking at it takes me off down huge narrative arcs. We’ve argued about this (very gently) because I can see how everything I write for him stems from his original inspiration, but he finds the process more like my description of today’s comic page, with me taking his vision places he’d never thought of.

The work that emerges from collaboration is very different from anything either of us had done on our own. Not only is there the effect of someone else’s inspiration, but we feed back to each other, and that constant support changes the process too. I can see Tom’s influence in my other work now. I’ve become more confident about my writing, more able to lay down a wild thing and go ‘it’s like this folks’ and let the story unravel from there. I think the process has made him more confident, too.

Collaborating isn’t always this easy and doesn’t always work – as I’ve found on other occasions. It takes a lot of trust, but when you have two people on the same wavelength, wonderful things can be achieved. I’ve just finished editing a Jaime Samms / Sarah Masters collaboration – an excellent piece of work that both authors clearly enjoyed, which also got me thinking about this as a topic. That blending of ideas and perspectives can be so exciting, and a huge opportunity to learn. It’ll be interesting to see if it changes what either of them does independently.

If it’s a way of working you get the opportunity to explore, I do recommend it. For me, it’s been a totally life changing experience.

A Thicker Skin?

It’s one of the first pieces of advice new authors tend to hear – you’re going to need a thick skin. I watched with interest a facebook debate yesterday, talking about harsh criticism and a tough industry, stinging knockbacks, and critiques that rip your work to shreds. A surprising number of folks saw these as good and useful things. On an egroup this week there was also some talk about the more brutal end of being reviewed, and what that does to an author. So you’re a creative soul and you want to share your work with the world? Grow a thick skin.

What makes us creative? There are undoubtedly a lot of answers, but it’s very hard to make art in any form unless you posses some sensitivity. Creative types, bard souls put work out into the world because we have something to share, a desire to be heard, perhaps a need for affirmation. Sure, there are people who are also doing it for ego, and a desire to be famous, but it’s hard work creating something and finding a way to share it. Anyone who gets that far has to be worthy of some respect just for trying.

It’s a learning process. Every creative person, when they first start putting work out there, will not be as good as they have the potential to be. There is always more to learn. Editors, reviewers, agents and so forth often have more experience, and there’s scope to learn from them. Being over-protective of what you’ve made and unable to hear where you need to develop, is a recipe for failure. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the integrity of your own work and let an editor make you sound just like everyone else. And some will try. There’s a balancing act to find between commercial viability, and artistic integrity, and it’s a challenging balance to strike, but it can be done.

I also work on the editing side. I’ve had fleeting encounters with authors who do not believe that their work needs anything doing to it. I’m aware of prima donnas who won’t be told and who cry ‘but this is my style’ when you try and explain that really, the mixed metaphors are not a good thing. Again there is a balance to find. If you are an arty person, then yes, odds are you are a sensitive soul and you may have some artistic temperament, but when you start dabbling with the business end, with the industries who might or might not pay you, a change is needed. Like it or not, you become a business person with a product to refine and sell. A cool head is handy.

All of that said, I strongly resist any suggestion that it’s good for creative types to be ripped to shreds by anyone who decides they know better. The pressure to ‘grow a thicker skin’ is not a healthy one. The industrial end of creativity may find it more convenient to make us behave like cogs in a machine, but we are not cogs, we are people. Industries of all kinds, institutions and anywhere that treats people as numbers, can be guilty of this. There’s a culture of expecting people to take whatever heartless crap is dished out, and to label as immature, over sensitive or otherwise neurotic anyone who cannot tolerate being bullied.

It is possible to tackle flaws in a piece of work without totally demoralising its creator. It is possible to nurture talent without ripping anything, or anyone apart. Having your work verbally annihilated is not a necessary rite of passage.  It is as well if you can learn from bad experiences, but they should not be celebrated. People who set themselves up as authority figures do not always know best. I once had an editor who edited out my subplot and tried to change the description ‘sex fiend’ into ‘sex kitten’ making nonsense of the entire story. She thought that bullying me and telling me I needed a thicker skin was the way to go when I disagreed with her. I protested to the publisher and got someone decent to work with.

I may be naive, but I believe that we should, as far as is humanly possible, treat each other like people, regardless of the circumstances in which we are working. Start from the assumption that the person you are working with is a decent human being. Treat them with respect. There may be a flaw in their work, or they may have just given you a shitty review, but they remain a person, and the world would be a radically better place if more of us could remember that. Then no one would need to grow a thicker skin, which could be a really good thing.

Fellow Author Marc Vun Kannon has blogged on a similar theme – so do check out his thoughts too.

Thoughts on Writing “The Other”

Once again I got the increasingly common question from a white writer about how to write non-white characters (in this particular case how to write Cherokee characters) without getting it wrong and offending someone.

There’s always a risk of “getting it wrong” when you’re dealing with writing about anybody outside of your own experiences. I worry about it all the time as someone who writes characters of different cultures, nationalities, even characters who live with disabilities that are beyond my personal experiences. The best you can do is research, talk to as many people as possible within that group, and when someone from that group tells you said or did something offensive or problemsome, listen and learn. Another important thing to remember is to respect when someone from that group says “No.” It is not their responsibility to educate you, but if you are respectful and open, your chances are pretty good at finding someone more than happy to talk to you.

As far as how and where to gather your research outside of the obvious talking to people from that group and asking respectful questions ( and honestly listen to the answers), go to the experts. Not just a random person from that particular group, but one of their scholars, educators, community outreach folks, etc… For example, every tribe, in my experience, will have departments dedicated to historical and cultural information.

One very important thing to remember is do not assume if you know about one nation’s traditions, that information will suffice for all Native American traditions you write about. It won’t. This may sound like a “duh!” statement, but I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a writer send me something that was a mismatch of tribal tradition, region, housing, food details, etc… When I told them Native Americans were not hive minds and the author had to “choose a tribe” they didn’t understand what the big deal was. It’s a huge deal.

For me personally, if you want to write Cherokee, or any contemporary Native American character ( please are plenty of poorly done historical depictions, unless you must do history fiction to keep your muse happy, please set your native character in a contemporary or even futuristic setting) hit up the website of the Cherokee group you want to center the character in, and not only talk to the cultural department, and see what books on the website or by e-mail they recommend to learn more about their traditions, stories, and history. There is a lot of crap out there. The experts within the tribes themselves can help guide you through the minefield of garbage to where the the gems lay.

Many contemporary Native Americans feel invisible in the eyes of the average American, only remembered as seasonal trimming during the thanksgiving holidays or as the mystical advisor for some white hero in movies or books. We need the faces of contemporary Native Americans in the stories read, as well as TV movies or any other sort of popular entertainment. Realistic examples of contemporary of Americans, not caricatures or unrealistic idealizations no one could ever live up to. It’s not as hard as some people think it is. The “Others” in a lot of ways we’re not so very different. It’s important that people remember that we can be heroes too, we can have romances, we can fly spaceships.

Authors do not have to be afraid to write POV characters who are not like them, as long as they’re willing to do the work it takes to do the best they can, and be willing to listen and continue to learn even if they do get something wrong.

Thoughts on Writing Sequels and Natural Order Peek

Lately I’ve been pretty focused on the subject of sequels. Before I started college this last fall I got e-mail from my publisher stating that my sequel for Ancestral Magic (currently named Shadow Magic), didn’t have enough back story. Now I admit, as a woman who enjoys a good fantasy or paranormal book series, nothing irritates me more than feeling like a previous book is being retold in the following one. Fortunately, for my sake and that of my readers would’ve been politely nudging me for the sequel, I finally got over the creative speedbump and now the newest version of Shadow Magic is in the hands of my publisher.

Since then I have been working away on my newest project, National Rebirth, the sequel to my novel that came out last month, Natural Order. It’s crazy hard. It’s been so long since I wrote the first one, I had to really reacquaint myself with the story, and the little details. Timeline was a huge one. The characters, those seem to always remain with me, but setting, dates, even name sometimes, those can be tricky. I found the easiest thing was to become a scholar of the first book, before I even started working on the second. While I have enough back story this time with all slowing the pace? Who knows. But I now have a better respect for the authors I used to be irritated with as I waited for the sequels and continuing sagas of their work.

So for my readers who have enjoyed getting to know the wonderful folks in the community of Green Grove, and who are waiting patiently to revisit there, I invite you to come and get to know the Archiquette family and their newest daughter, Elizabeth.

Here’s a sample of that community from my newly released novel, Natural Order. Elizabeth has recently lost Dusty, the woman she loved, to a violent crime, and now she’s going to live with Dusty’s family in northern Wisconsin. She is pregnant, weighed down by grief, and watching her life seemingly go on without her control. She is currently riding in a truck with Dusty’s brother Orion, a gentle natured Oneida man who has been Elizabeth’s support system since his sister’s death a month ago.

Chapter 3

The farmers’ fields were aflame with crimson and gold fire, and the air was crisp and clean, like a fresh canvas for the painted sunset displayed in the early evening sky. Beth watched the farmhouses and grazing livestock disinterestedly as they passed, at times closing her eyes as the cool air stung her face through the open window. The short nap helped, but now the churning in her stomach made sleep difficult. A wall of cold air was preferable to the waves of nausea that seemed to worsen in the enclosed vehicle. Dusty had tried to get her to drink special teas, but there was a part of Beth that never trusted “alternative” remedies. It was one of several things she and Dusty had spent a long time butting heads about early in their relationship, before deciding just to agree to disagree. As the next gut-turning wave hit, she grimaced, wishing she hadn’t eaten all her saltines that morning.

“I picked you up some ginger ale in town today.” Orion jerked a thumb toward the space behind the seat. “It’s back there if you want it. The soda’s warm, but Dad used to make it for Mitexi when she was pregnant, and it always made her feel better.”

Beth looked over at him in surprise. “How did you know I was having morning sickness?”

“I just pay attention, something my father taught me long ago.” Orion flashed her a boyish grin. “Told me the girls like it when you pay attention.”

Beth laughed and reached behind the seat. She found a flat box that held several glass bottles, and retrieved one. She read the label critically, raising an eyebrow. “All natural organic ginger ale. Sounds tasty.”

Orion chuckled at the sarcasm in her voice. “You’ll get used to it. As I’m sure Dusty told you my family runs an organic farm. Free range chickens, wild game, organically grown fruits and veggies, hormone-free milk. We rarely ever eat anything we don’t make ourselves.”

Beth looked at the bottle, and tipped it, the light from the sunset shimmering inside the amber liquid. She moved the soda around and the bubbles fizzled and popped excitedly. It looked normal enough. “Dusty used to drag this sort of food into the house all the time. I never touched the stuff.”

“Think of it as an adventure.” At the raised eyebrow he received in response, Orion smiled. “I promise. It’ll make you feel better.”

Without her typical fallbacks like saltines and toast, the ride was looking to be a miserable one. As sick as she was, Beth was ready to try anything to make the nausea go away. Besides, she told herself, Orion had taken very good care of her these last few weeks. Beth had learned to trust that, even if his ideas often sounded strange, there was wisdom behind the words that came from his young lips. With one more uncertain glance at the bottle, she unscrewed the cap and raised the glass in toast to him. “Bottoms up.”

She took a long drink. It wasn’t as sweet as what she was used to, but had a bite to it that was interesting. She finished the rest and set the empty container next to her on the seat. As they drove, Beth saw houses and barns that were adorned with intricate symbols. Each was unique, but they were all circular in shape. Some were brightly colored, while others were simply black and white. Common symbols caught her eye, but the details were more difficult to make out from a distance. She remembered reading about the use of similar symbols amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch. They were hexes used to ward off evil magic they believed could affect the health of their family and livestock or cause crops to fail. It was a fascinating superstition, but not a practice she was familiar with this far west.

By the time Beth saw the sign for the Fox River, the nausea was fading. She wasn’t willing to give up on modern medicine just yet, but this time there seemed to be some credence to “traditional” remedies after all. Whether or not she was ready for the full organic experience, Beth got the feeling that over the next few months things were going to be very different. They drove over the Fox River Bridge, speeding past cables that hung down from the steel arch. It reminded her of bars on a birdcage. Looking away from the cables, Beth’s gaze fell to the river below. “Dusty said you all live close to the river. Must be nice.”

“Sometimes.” Orion opened a small rectangular tin with one hand and threw a white mint into his mouth. “But you have to be careful where you fish or swim. There are people trying to clean up the river, but some of the local factories spent several decades screwing it up. Gonna take a lot of work to heal the damage they did to the water.”

He offered her a mint, and she shook her head. Beth remembered Dusty liked those things but they had always been too strong for her. “Heal? Now you sound like Dusty. You talk about the river as if it had been burned or cut, as if it was a real person or something.”

“The river is a living thing.” Orion’s eyes remained on the road, but a deep sadness crept into them. He spoke with great reverence and love. “She’s timeless in her beauty and strength. Without her, none of us can survive. She is sacred to my people, Beth, sacred to anyone who hasn’t forgotten how to listen to the land.”

Beth was uncertain how to respond to this, so she turned back to the open window and watched as the truck turned up a long, dirt road. In many ways, Orion was like Dusty. They both took their beliefs to heart, and it permeated every part of them. Beth envied that conviction. What did she really believe in?

Geez, Who peed in your Pepsi?: Typo Causes Uproar

I wanted to start my column off with a topic that is very familiar to me and to other writers, editors and publishers. It’s the dreaded typo. I never could have guessed a typo would cause such a problem for one publisher.

Due to a typo that caused outrage, a publisher had to reprint 7,000 copies of a cookbook called The Pasta Bible. The pasta recipe called for ‘salt and freshly ground black pepper,’ but instead, due to a typo, it was printed as ‘salt and freshly ground black people.’

Wow, I didn’t know that cannibals ate pasta.

The article did not reveal the identity of the enraged party.

This story really got to me because I know how difficult it is to find every typo or grammatical error in a manuscript even after reading it over and over again. A great editor will find most errors, but editors are human and can miss something. And spell check would not have caught this type of error because ‘people’ is an accepted word and spelled correctly. Sure, this is an embarrassment for the editor and the publishing company, but to make it more than that is ludicrous to me.

Mistakes happen. Live with it. The typo in The Pasta Bible is a silly, unintentional error, and I don’t understand why someone would become upset over it. I doubt that a group of cannibals are trying to push their recipes on unsuspecting individuals. As a society, are we really so sensitive that we cannot just laugh this off? Whatever happened to the days when we just brushed off a negative comment? Now, we cause a stink over every little thing that happens, suing people over trivial matters like this.

The reprint cost the publisher $18,500. What a waste of time and money. The good side to this situation for the publisher is that due to the typo, this book is sure to be a best seller. The books that were already shipped out with the typo will probably be a collector’s item someday. I am sure there will also be some people that will demand a replacement book because the typo bothers them.

Do you think people are just too sensitive these days and are too quick to get angry, especially over something so ridiculous as a typo? Are there any cannibals out there offended by this?

Kelley Heckart

‘Timeless tales of romance, conflict and magic’

Letting the Child go …

The Owl Woman

I’ve just done one of the hardest things for me, and I’ve done it twice!

For a writer, letting go of your book is like letting your child go out into the world – the most terrible wrench. A psychologist friend who was consultant to the Society of Authors used to say we all suffered from post-parturition at this stage of the writing. It certainly feels like that to me. I’ve just let two of my babies go out into the world, get listed at, Baker & Taylor, and Barnes & Noble. Brick and mortar book-stores, NACSCORP, and the Espresso Book Machine may also stock the titles. It feels like a huge step :-). I’ve done it before with the other books but each time it hurts, I worry, panic a bit even … Is the book OK? Have I done the best I could? Once you take this step it’s very difficult to go back and make a revision.

But I shouldn’t want to. I’ve been all round that with revisions and edits and so-on and so-forth. Somehow that doesn’t take the wrench away. They’re off now, out in the Big Wide World, I must let go.

Moonpath to the Isle of the Dead

Which two have gone? Owl Woman and Moon Song. They’ve been in print for a while but this is the final distribution push.I’ve written them, they are finished, I mustn’t worry at them like a terrier with an old bone. Letting go of them, with the formal ritual of accepting and agreeing to their distribution is a rite of passage – for them and for me. It clears the space. I feel there is space now in which to concentrate on the first of the Ergyng Chronicles, Oak Man. Dyfrig and Jenni have waited a long time for me to give them my full attention, now I should be able to begin to do so. I can feel them brewing up at the back of my mind, little pictures and ideas, thoughts, words, relationships, conflicts, all the things that go to make up a story.

There are more potential children, ptoential stories, crowding the borderlands between Otherworld and Thisworld, wanting to come to life here, clamouring at me to bring them to life. Yes, yes, I can hear you! But I can only do so much at a time. I won’t forget you. You’ll all have your time.

Elen Sentier
… behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …
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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier Letting the child go …

Structure in Poetry

Most people who study poetry a bit are exposed to some of the basic forms – sonnets, haiku, limericks and ballad form are usual. Most popular songs are in something resembling ballad form, where the second line rhymes with the forth and line lengths are about even. Those who ventured further may have encountered meter, iambic pentameters, cinqain and other obscurities.

When it comes to writing poetry, the vast majority of people favour ‘free verse’ – because structure is difficult, often sounds forced and gets dull. Free verse can be incredibly beautiful, where the loose structure is shaped to support meaning and atmosphere.

However, structure does have merits. To say something meaningful within the restraints of haiku is an interesting challenge. Whether you want to use structure in your final pieces or not, I recommend exploring it, because it will teach you to write in different ways, and that’s an asset, however you then deploy it.

Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind with poetry structures, is that they are not like laws of nature. Someone made them up, and they have gained credibility and popularity through use. Modern western writing favours syllable beats in rhythmic lines, with rhymes at the ends of lines. Haiku is all about the number of syllables in each line, and should contain a seasonal reference. It’s a totally different way of thinking, and tends to be non-rhythmical. Cinquain is American, and is about the number of words in each line, stanzas consisting of five lines, which gives the name. Again, rhythm plays no part here. Celtic poetry and Norse poetry had radically different structures involving internal rhymes and assonance and alliteration. The best descriptions I’ve found of these forms so far are in Robin Herne’s book ‘Old Gods New Druids’.

Playing with other people’s rules and structures is interesting. However, it is also possible to create your own structure. You can use the number of lines in a verse, rhyme, rhythm, syllables, numbers of words, and alliteration to create all kinds of patterns and structures.

 Why bother?

I could take

The lines of prose I am writing

And lay them out like a poem

Call them a poem

And who is going to argue with me?

But really, aside from the capital letters and line breaks, that’s no different to writing prose. Surely, poetry should be more than prose with an eccentric layout? The poetry I love most makes each word work harder than they would in a sentence. It pares out a lot of the grammar and filler words, focusing on essentials. Doing so makes for more immediate and dramatic writing. The rigours of using a structure give you a tool for cutting down the words. To fit the syllable pattern, the meter or the rhyme, you have to do something other than prose with a funny layout. That’s why structure is useful. It takes you away from other forms of writing and demands a different approach to the words. Then things can get a lot more interesting.