Tips for Writing with a Busy Schedule (Reblog)

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Even on my days off from my “day job,” it always feels like I have a million things to do. Between course work, childrearing, and running the errands on my never-ending to-do list, trying to squeeze in 3,000 words a night can feel impossible. Luckily, here are some great tips published by author Ed A. Murray.

Hope you guys enjoy as much as I did!

We live busy lives, and they only seem to be getting busier. So on top of everything else, where in the world can we also find time to do that thing we love?

via 3 simple tips for writing around a busy schedule — Ed A. Murray

Creating Suspense: 9 Tricks to Create and Heighten Suspense in Your Writing

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As a writer, I have always had a difficult time committing to a genre. I enjoy trying out different voices and styles, tweaking the world building or altering the setting until I often wind up with a “cross-over” manuscript. No matter what genre I drift towards, however, my love of suspense always seems to leak through. While it can be difficult to master the art of creating suspense, a novel that maintains a decent amount of suspense throughout the story can keep a reader’s attention despite possible plot holes or underdeveloped characters. Human nature is a curious thing, making suspense vital to an engaging story.

So, how do you hook a reader on the edge of their seat? How do you keep them reading until the last page?

  1. A strong hero requires a strong antagonist. This doesn’t mean you must write in the toughest of tough guys or the evilest villain you can imagine. It means that the hero’s opposition must be at least equal to his strength. If the hero is very obviously stronger/smarter/more resourceful than the conflict, readers will lose interest. Give your villain strengths or resources the hero lacks. Make the struggle an internal one the hero might not be quite ready to confront. Whatever the problem is, make sure your character suffers a little. Your readers will bond with them during their struggle.
  2. Raise the Stakes. Maybe your hero initially just wanted to steal enough money to pay his rent. Raise the tension by raising the stakes on his success. Perhaps instead of stealing rent money, your character is stealing food to keep his family from starving. Perhaps your hero was spotted, and now must evade law enforcement while trying to fix his cluttered life. Much like the point above, make your character suffer a little. If the stakes of the conflict aren’t high enough, readers are unlikely to be invested in the outcome.
  3. Break Your Reader’s Expectations. Chances are, your book will not be the first one a reader has opened. Avid readers are often difficult to surprise, having studied the same tropes and common set ups we analyze as writers. While many readers might prefer the predictability of a formula (the romance genre comes to mind), there are no set rules to writing fiction. Who said your romance novel must end with a happily ever after? Does good always conquer evil? It’s your story; feel free to challenge the reader’s expectations of where it is going and what comes next.
  4. Use Time to Your Advantage. Few things put the rush on a character quite like a ticking clock. Use time to create a sense of urgency for your character. Give him a deadline, and consequences if it isn’t met. Perhaps your character will lose the man of her dreams if she doesn’t tell him how she feels in time, or her father will die if she can’t find the antidote. Time is often a cruel master in the “real world.” Why should fiction be any different?
  5. Cut Down on the Action. Suspense is not created in the action-packed scenes filled with violence or action. Suspense is created on the pages between. The action-packed murder scene is not where suspense is created; suspension occurs during the abduction, or the attempt to locate the missing person. Suspense is created with questions, while action scenes offer deliver answers.
  6. Evoke Your Reader’s Emotions. Don’t just give us the logical reasons to care about the outcome of the conflict. Make us care. There are a variety of ways to do this, from introducing more emotional language to internal monologues or revealing dialog with other characters. However you tackle it, make sure your readers can feel why it matters. Don’t just tell us he’s nervous, show us the sweating of his palms and knots in his stomach.
  7. Add Uncertainty. Your character has been struggling along the same conflict for the first half of the novel, and they’ve finally identified a solution. Want to keep the suspension going? Add uncertainty to that ‘solution.’ Maybe it’s an approach no one has tried before, or one that has failed others in the past. Perhaps the last person to try things this way didn’t live long to talk about it, or maybe your character is in a situation there is no historical precedence for. Give your characters uncertainty and anxiety to go along with their plan, and let it transfer onto the page.
  8. Don’t Give it All Away! This one is difficult, I know. When we’re first learning to write, many of us learn to “set the scene” by giving an overabundance of information in the first few chapters. Some writers will try to fill in the entire backstory of their fictional world within two chapters, making sure to explain exactly why the conflict at hand matters. While this is great, it often removes a lot of the suspense and questions from the plot. Instead of wondering why things are done differently in World Q, the reader feels as though they already know all the answers. What could be left to learn? While it can be tempting to flood your readers with information early on to ensure they “get it,” resist the urge! Readers are often savvy people who enjoy connecting the dots on their own. Instead of squishing your character’s entire life story into the first two chapters, play around with weaving in bits and pieces gradually throughout the story. Your pacing, and suspense lovers, will thank you.
  9. Kill Someone. But Ivy, you just said murder isn’t suspense! Well, that was true. It’s not. I am also certainly not advocating stabbing anyone with your pen. When I struggle with suspense, I love dragging my friends together for a game of Clue. Pay attention to how the game plays out; the more the murder mystery increases, the more you want to know who killed him! Aim for the same feeling in your literature, and your readers will be hooked until the end.

 

What are some of your favorite ways to introduce and maintain the suspense? If you’ve got any tips, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Creating Your World Without Sacrificing Plot

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For some writers, setting and descriptive detail are a piece of cake. My best writer-friend, for example, thrives in the sci-fi and steampunk genre due to her intricately designed universes and strangely warped alternative timelines. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely positive she has written one piece of “realistic” fiction during the course of our six years of friendship. While her dialog is often a bit choppy and awkward, her use of imagery and compelling language tends to rope you into her universe before the end of the first page.

      For others of us, creating an entire universe is no easy feat. Tweaking the world I occupy currently? Sure, I could do that all day. I could provide intricate, in-depth descriptions of the coffee shop the couple is quietly arguing at, or describe an abandoned insane asylum in such expressive detail a reader can imagine the cobwebs in the corner. Creating entire towns within cities within worlds though? Please, someone tell me, what the hell was I thinking?

      It all started when I decided to work on my latest novel idea for last month’s Camp NANOWRIMO. Though I tend to lean more towards horror and dark fiction writing, I found myself drawn to a compelling plot landing closer to the dystopian fantasy end of the spectrum. Though I tried ignoring the idea at first, after day three it became pretty clear this story wanted to be written. So, I sat down to do what any semi-professional tries to do: research and pre-writing, working on crafting my world and characters before beginning the novel.

      Within the first hour, I wanted to slam my face into my keyboard.

      Luckily, I made it through, and it only took me until 4 A.M. (sorry, honey!). While it requires a lot of originality and creative thought, creating your world can be almost as fun as creating and getting to know your characters! Here are some fun little tips to help anyone like me, who might be better with character development and dialog than the setting.

      1. Draw a map of your story’s world. If you’re anything like me, this will feel kind of silly to you at first. After all, we are writers, not artists. However, when creating a new world composed up of smaller towns and cities or villages, it can be easy to get it all confused or lose track of where you were or what belongs where. Readers will be confused if your character initially lives on the north side of an urban city, only to suddenly begin describing his life in the east part of town. By drawing yourself a map with a small index key, you simplify your own writing process as you navigate throughout different parts of your world.

      2. Don’t freak yourself out by over-researching before you start writing. I am guilty as all hell of this one, which is why I know it’s a valuable tip (if you can help yourself)! When we first begin developing an idea, many of us rush to start researching so we can hopefully pack in as much detail and accuracy as possible. While working on my dystopian universe, for example, I found myself spending hours on Google and Pintrest looking up themes and inspiration, which was tons of fun! However, when I started the research, I had a very different idea of where this novel was going then after putting the computer away for the night. While research is an important part of the writing process, too much research too early into your draft can lead to distorting the story in an attempt to incorporate the research. I personally find it much easier to do research for my short stories and novels as I write them, or even after jotting down the initial first draft. This way, the research is used to support what I have already written instead of suggesting what I should write.

      3. Consider all of the different aspects of your world. While the sensory details and setting are important, there’s a lot more that goes into creating an alternate world. What is the history of your world? Who is in charge of creating and enforcing the laws? What are the laws, and what type of punishments do lawbreakers face? Is religion present? Technology? Mythology? Magical or supernatural elements? Does your fantasy world ever intersect with the world we live in? What happens if it does?

      4. Familiarize yourself with the worlds other writers have created. What elements of craft does J.K. Rowling use to make Hogwarts and the wizarding world come to life and feel real for the reader? How does Tolkien transport readers into the Shire? What techniques do you need to practice to create your very own Wonderland or Westeros?

      5. Don’t be afraid to borrow from things you know and understand. While you might not know anything about mysterious elves or zombie apocalypses or practicing magic, you can fake it to an extent. After all, this is your world and your story. Having trouble coming up with a futuristic device for your badass alien assassin? Don’t be afraid to pull inspiration from the world around you. Maybe the aliens don’t use .45s these days, but that doesn’t mean the plasma laser can’t possess the same shape and basic mechanics. Hell, if you’re feeling especially clever or creative that day, find ways to repurpose common household items. I can’t tell you how many neat futuristic devices I’ve written about after an almost deadly encounter with a child’s toy in the middle of the night. It’s common knowledge in this world that Legos were sent to kill parents. Why not look at that creepy Furby you’ve hidden in the back of your closet and use it to inspire your next creature of terror? As long as you do your job right, your readers will never know how you created such a fearsome monster, and you can throw the little ball of evil away when you’re finished exploiting its ideas.

      6. Do your best to avoid the cliches and stereotypes. It’s incredibly easy to get caught writing what has already been done a million times: damsels in distress and white knights coming to their rescue, sad orphans who go on to be the “Chosen One,” one-dimensional characters who all look and act suspiciously alike…honestly, it gets really freaking boring to read the same plot over and over with different details. While the stereotypes and archetypes have been popular for centuries, and provide a great template for how to structure your world a bit, you want to make sure your world is unique to your plot and characters. If you happen to write a novel about a group of three magical teenagers with special powers who all go to school together to learn to use their powers, but one boy is somehow the Chosen One born to save the magical community…you’re already dangerously close to essentially writing Harry Potter fanfic. If fanfic is your genre of choice, awesome! If you’re attempting to create your own story with unique characters and plot, though, you might want to rethink that idea. While reading is a great place to find inspiration and ideas, be careful not to duplicate another writer’s world or fill it full of stereotypes and cliches. Much like no two countries are the same, no two fantasy worlds should be either.

      7. Give your world character! No, not characters (although we’ll add those later), but character of its own. To create great fiction, your world and setting need to come alive from the beginning. Think of your setting almost like an invisible character of its own. What is the biography or history of your setting? How has it changed over time? What changes are anticipated to come? How does your setting affect the way your characters feel or behave? The two biggest pieces of advice from my undergraduate studies I try to incorporate often are that settings should have imperfect histories much like characters, and sensory details should be linked to emotions. Instead of just telling us it is raining outside, tell us how the rain feels and smells to your main character. Does your character have any special memories about rain in this particular spot? Does your character feel a knot in his stomach every time he passes the burnt down library, or a spark of happiness every time she enters the dining hall? Share those details with your reader, helping them connect to your world as much as you have.

      8. Above all else, remember your setting and world are not your entire story! Even though you might have created a fantasy universe you really love, the world is there to support the plot and characters, not overtake them. Build your world around your story and characters in a way that serves their needs. Don’t be afraid to cut out parts that aren’t necessary or don’t add to the plot, regardless of how cool they might seem or how fun they were to write. Remember, you’re writing a fiction novel, not a LOTR world guide. Use action and dialog to explore your world and draw your reader in. Keep in mind, the reader is there for the plot and characters. The kick-ass world you spent weeks making is just a supporting detail at the end of the day, as much as that breaks my heart to acknowledge.

              Planning and world creation are supposed to be the “fun parts” of writing (or so I keep getting told). If you find yourself pulling your hair out trying to figure out how to squish it all together, set it down for a while. Come back to it later, when you feel relaxed and ready to spend time exploring the inner workings of your imagination. It takes practice, but if authors like Rowling and Tolkien have shown us anything, it’s that well-crafted worlds can live on with readers for years to come. I’m off to go work on the pieces to my fantasy puzzle now. Happy writing, everyone!

Writing with Distractions: When the “Real World” Screws Your Creativity

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      If you’re anything like me, writing during the summer months can feel particularly challenging. Between the warm weather and all of the opportunities to socialize, finding the time to sit down and write can feel like climbing a mountain. Imagine this: you’re on a crowded bus or in the middle of a social event when inspiration suddenly strikes you. This person would make a great anti-hero, or perhaps this setting would be perfect for that one scene in that one story you’re working on. You end up shifting in your seat, biting your nails anxiously waiting for this to finally be over, waiting for the ability to make it back to your journal/laptop/typewriter to start bringing your ideas to life. You race home, full of excitement and inspiration…

…only to remember you live with your children/roommates/spouse, or you left the dishes in the sink in your hurry to leave earlier, or there’s just too much background noise and distraction for you to focus on actually honing your craft. Believe me, I get it. As I write this, there are little squeals and shrieks filling my home as the children play. Later tonight, my partner will be home excited to discuss the events of his day, regardless of what I seem to be working on. Our two fur-babies seem to have the most interest in cuddling on my lap when I’ve opened up my laptop to do something productive. Every few minutes, my focus will be torn away by a cry for mommy, or a cat attempting to climb across the keys, or the occasional loud conversation from the neighbors above us.

      All of this is, of course, an attempt to pretend I don’t get distracted by social media surfing and memes.

      So, what’s a writer to do living in a world full of distractions? Do we stifle the creative thinking in an attempt to be more present and engaged with our surroundings? Do we do our best to remember our ideas and place them on a back-burner until we finally find some time for ourselves? (Okay, seriously, if your life is anything like mine I do not advocate that last idea; you’ll never write anything down but ideas.) How can you tune out the sights and sounds of your environment long enough to accomplish your writing goals? Well, friends, buckle up, because I’m about to tell you how to get away with writing through distractions, otherwise known as making crazy creativity look normal.

      The first suggestion would be to try to limit your distractions. If you’re anything like me, you just read that last line and snorted, possibly even rolling your eyes. Don’t worry, I get it. It’s not like you can just send the kids off for a month long camping trip in the woods, or teach the dog how to use the toilet like everyone else. Distractions are going to happen, no doubt about it, and you can’t always turn your back on them or tune them out. However, not every distraction is unavoidable, or life and death in that moment. Don’t be afraid to tell your family, “Hey, I’ve got some work to do tonight, so I’ll be in my room/office/special chair for a while. Please only bother me if someone is literally dying.” Do your best to ask for support where you need it and limit the number of times someone breaks your concentration to ask for an extra juice box.

      If you notice you’re still struggling to focus even when you finally manage to lock yourself away for a bit of alone time, don’t be timid about switching up your rituals and routine to discover why. I once knew a girl who used music to help her fall into her “creativity zone.” She would spend hours building playlists of music she thought she’d enjoy writing to. Most of the time, however, she would then find herself tabbing out of her writing software to skip or change songs she found distracting. Eventually, she realized she was spending more time and focus on creating her writing playlists and finding acceptable tunes than she actually was writing. She switched over to listening to electronica (is it still called that? Pretty sure that’s still what the kids are calling it) while working, and her productivity has never been higher. When I asked her why, she laughed and told me, “Since I don’t listen to this stuff in my car or for fun or whatever, I don’t really have an attachment to what song plays next. When I’m in my zone and focused, it all honestly sounds the same to me.” While serious amounts of bass and auto-tune may not be the magic solution to improving your concentration, making small changes to your routine can help you cut out unnecessary distractions and time-wasters, an invaluable action when free time can be so difficult to come by in the first place.

      If Facebook and Twitter seem to be more your weakness, you’re not alone in that either. Social media has become one of the easiest ways to keep in touch with friends and network, but it can also present a major source of inattention for many of us hoping to be productive on the internet. Just “checking in” or “reading this one article really quickly” can quickly turn into two hours spent browsing memes and replying to comments, only to realize you’re out of time and you’ve written little besides your name on the page. The easiest answer? Shut that shit down. Close out all of your internet browser tabs before even opening your Word document; you’ll thank yourself later. Does that require a bit more willpower than you’re capable of? No worries, thanks to living in the age of technology, there are tons of apps and software available to help writers focus and limit distractions. While Microsoft Word may be the most familiar and easiest to use for most new writers, software such as Scrivener and Ulysses help writers limit distractions while fully engaging in the creation of their story (if figuring out the software itself doesn’t pose too much of a distraction!). Full-screening your word processing software can help minimize webpages and apps in the background just begging for your attention.

      Visual clutter can be as much of a distraction as having a three-year-old in your lap enthusiastically blabbing on about the bird they just drew. For me, nothing kills my motivation and creativity quite as quickly as slipping into my office, only to notice the empty cups piled on the desk or the pile of little papers all over the room I’ve scribbled notes on. While it can be tempting to start organizing that pile of sticky notes or washing the dishes before they pile up, don’t. Trust me. Just find a way to shove them out of your line of vision for now. I promise, that trash will still be waiting for you later when your house is too unsettled to concentrate on writing. If you’re anything like me, tidying up this one little thing will somehow turn into hours spent rearranging and cleaning your house, and while your office might shine you’ll have little else to show for it.

      But what about those times when writing is just not an option? Is there a way to continue working on your craft while supervising the small children with paint at the kitchen table? Well…yes and no. For me personally, there is no way I can focus on developing my plot or characters while the kids are climbing all over me. I’ve tried countless times throughout the years, but little people have a talent for demanding the majority of your focus and attention while they’re up and about. However, this doesn’t mean I have to put all of my creativity to rest until bed time rolls around. Instead, I find other ways to work on my story, things that require less focus and concentration than the actual writing part. Sure, I may not be able to churn out my quick-paced action scene while cooking dinner for the family, but I can use that time for researching parts of my story I need more information to write, or doing lesser character-development exercises. Occasionally, I can even accomplish my first round of edits and cuts while attending a tea party with Barbie and her friends. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it’s possible.

      In the end, you have to want it badly enough to make it work and find a way to juggle your work/life balance (or, in the case of many writers, work/work/life) that leaves enough time to perfect your craft distraction-free. You have to be willing to turn off the television, or tell your friend “not today” from time to time. Until we find a way to transport writers and artistic types to another planet to do their work distraction-free, one of the most challenging parts of writing will always be finding a way to squish time for your passion in with the rest of your life. While there are days it might all seem impossible, believe me when I say it CAN be done.

It just might require an extra couple of cups of coffee.