I recently recovered a cache of old blog posts, from the early days of this blog (before the archive got blitzed). Some of them I quite like, and think it’s worthwhile to reshare them.

I didn’t notice the tiny bug on this daisy until I was home in front of the computer doing all the alterations that one does in Photoshop that help you make up for your lack of skill as a photographer. I certainly wasn’t trying to take a picture of the bug, so the fact that it managed to get itself centered in the minuscule focus area of this particular lens is pretty remarkable.

Close up of daisy with white petals surrounding a yellow middle, and a small insect on one of the petals

On the whole, it does nothing to alter the overall composition of the photograph. You would never miss it if it weren’t there. But, at the same time, it adds a depth and meaning to the image that transform it into something entirely different. It’s not just a picture of a pretty flower anymore, but speaks (I think) to the scale of life, and to how many layers of our world we pass over every day without ever really noticing.

I often feel the same way about writing. You can have a perfectly good story—plot, characters, narrative, dialog, theme, all the elements in place and competently executed—but it is the unexpected detail that magnifies the story into something greater, something truly memorable. It might be a particular phrase or image in the narrative; it might be a quiet insight the POV character has, or an off-hand comment by a minor character. It can be anything really. But it’s something small. Nothing that changes the overall course of the story, only how the reader relates to it. You probably would never miss it if it weren’t there.

The thing is, you can’t go out and say, “I’m going to go out and take a picture of a teeny-tiny bug on a daisy petal today.” You only chance on this sort of mini-revelation when you pause in your wandering through the garden to crouch down over a daisy, armed with your camera and
most powerful lens. It’s hard keeping balance there, keeping the camera steady as you try to get just the right focus. You snap a few times, not even aware what it is you’ve got until later.

I’m trying to keep this in mind as I work on the “zero draft” of my current WIP novel. It’s handwritten,1 because I know it’s the only way I can silence my inner editor until I get through the whole story at least once. My handwriting is messy and disorganized, so it’s okay if the story is too. There’s no temptation to go back and polish things up, even things I know are really broken in the way I’ve written the story so far. Plus, I’m avoiding all the distractions that are available when I work on the computer. So, it’s a win-win solution.

But there is a converse temptation that I find is harder to resist: because I know it’s a zero draft, there are times where I’d like to skip over the less-exciting parts (transitions, descriptions, exposition, etc.) and get to the high-points of the drama. I know the general course of events, beginning to end, so it’s not that I need to do exploratory writing to find out what happens next. “This is just a sketch,” I tell myself. “You can fill in the details later.”

But.

But, but, but. It’s those details that really make a story come alive, isn’t it? That turn it into something more than just an exercise in plotting and characterization. And you can’t find those details if you don’t stop and pay attention to what it is you’re writing. And you can’t set out with the intention of putting meaningful details into the text, either, without running the risk of becoming preachy, or surgical. This sort of thing can only be discovered naturally.

So I try to make myself stop, crouch down over the story with my pen in hand and see what develops. What is the color of the dress she wears to the feast, and what pattern is embroidered in its hem? What sound do the paddles of the oars make across the water? Why does she notice one particular vendor in the marketplace? Stop and look, I tell myself.

Listen.

Observe. Don’t rush by. Take the time to write it all down. I may not know what I’ve discovered until much later, when I go back and start rewriting the next draft. It may be that whatever it is I’ve captured is too blurry and out-of-focus to be of any use at all, but if I don’t at least try, there won’t be anything at all when I go back. I’ll have nothing but an empty shell of a story—which might be entertaining, if I’m skilled at my craft, but otherwise lack heart and soul.

They say god is in the details. Well, I guess I want god to be in my story, too.

You’re part way through your first draft and you’re stuck about where to go next.

Writing a book is a long, hard haul, with many complex pieces that need to fit together just so. Sometimes, when you’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to keep track of everything. All your ideas are great, but how do you know which are the right ones to pursue?

An outside perspective can be invaluable in your creative process. If you’re lucky, you have a good writing buddy who can be a responsive sounding board as you run through ideas, or you belong to writing group that is all to happy to point out where you’ve gone astray. If not, a developmental editor can serve as a story coach. We can review what you’ve written so far, listen to your ideas and offer potential solutions to help you untangle the story you’re trying to weave.

You’ve finished your first draft and you want guidance before you start revisions.

Congratulations! Writing the first draft is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do as a writer — except for writing the second draft. Chances are, the draft you finished isn’t anything like the book you set out to write, but is that a good thing or a bad thing?

When you bring your “messy first draft” to a developmental editor, we’ll look past the unpolished prose and grammatical errors to get at the story structure underneath. Does the plot make sense? Is there enough character development? What scenes need to be expanded, and which can be cut? You’ll come away with a roadmap for your revision process that will make it significantly easier to transform your work into a story you’re really proud of.

You’ve finished a few revisions, but your beta reader response is lukewarm.

You’ve gotten your manuscript to the point where you feel confident enough to get feedback from a few readers. Your mom loves it, of course, but a few writer buddies and maybe some paid beta readers don’t seem too excited. Maybe they don’t love the characters, or the plot is confusing to them, or they are just bored by what they’ve read. Maybe they even stopped reading partway through!

A developmental editor can help you sift through the early reader responses to get at the core problems, and offer solutions that won’t demand you go back to the drawing board. Your editor will help you refine what you’ve written, so that your readers become as enthralled with your story as you are.

You’ve revised and polished your manuscript, but agents and editors keep saying “no thanks.”

It’s rare to get critique back from submissions, so you probably have no idea why your manuscript keeps getting rejections. The truth is, there could be many factors involved, some of which have nothing at all to do with the quality of your manuscript.

An editorial appraisal or developmental edit can help you get a clear picture of just where you’re missing the mark. You probably don’t need deep revisions at this stage, but an expert outside perspective can help you find some teeth for your story, that little extra something that will help you elevate your story from “a good read” to “I can’t put it down!”

No matter where you are in the writing process, if you’re stuck or overwhelmed or just bewildered, a developmental editor is an investment that can make a concrete difference in the success of your book. Click here to read more about the developmental editing process and how I can help you tell the story you imagine.

 

There’s an old joke among writers about where we get our ideas: an idea of the month club, of course! Sadly, such a thing does not exist, at least not in our world. Even if there were, the best ideas are not something we can be given. They are something we make, by filling our brains with as many words, images, and concepts as we can, and letting it all clatter around in there until something new and exciting emerges.

Fortunately, the Internet is full of ingredients for new ideas. Finding the best resources is not always easy, though. I’ve assembled some of my favorite stops online for filling my brain with idea-ingredients. It’s hardly a dent in what’s out there (I didn’t even consider podcasts), but it’s a start. Bookmark what you love, and then be sure to come back and share your own favorite resources in the comments!

  1. Atlas Obscuraatlas obscura logo. This venerable site started out as an actual atlas — an index of interesting and obscure landmarks and roadside attractions from around the world, with tools to help you plan your next trip. It has since grown to encompass all manner of “hidden places, incredible history, scientific marvels, and gastronomical wonders” — all of which is great fodder for the inspiration mill. Amidst the quirky sights like a cement mixer transformed to resemble a space capsule and unbelievable natural wonders ( boiling rivers, anyone?), you’ll find fascinating stories like the Esie Figurines — 1,000 recently uncovered stone statues that just might be the population of a whole town turned to stone! The stories practically write themselves.
  2. Art Stationartstation logo. This portfolio showcase is where professional and aspiring artists show off their creative work. You’ll find every style of traditional and digital illustration, comic, cover and game art represented. If you want visual inspiration, hop on over to the fantasy art gallery to discover magical landscape, character and creature designs. For really mind-bending creations, be sure to visit the concept art channel.
  3. Wikipedi. The grand-daddy of all open-source information sites might have some issues when it comes to “reliable information,” but when you’re looking for fantasy fiction inspiration, is accuracy really critical? Start by repeatedly clicking “Random Link” until something pops up that grabs your interest. Then take a deep dive through in-article links until you discover some interesting nugget that sparks a creative idea. I just went from the Seven Warriors movie to the Warlord Era to the Central Plains War, which involved more than one million soldiers — there’s got to be some interesting plot ideas in there!
  4. Myth & Moormyth and moor logo. Terri Windling is an artist, writer, and editor whose work has been shaping the fantasy genre for decades. On her blog, she takes deep dives into the works of writers, poets, and scholars discussing the nature of storycraft, fantasy literature, myths, and legends, and how art and nature are intertwined. If you’re looking for big ideas to add depth to your story, start here. As a bonus, you’ll find evocative images from famous and not-so-famous fantasy artists accompanying every post, along with Windling’s own photography of the English countryside. If Windling’s blog doesn’t resonate with you, find another deep-thinking blog to tap into, such as The Marginalia (formerly Brain Pickings), Austin Kleon (more about the art of creativity itself), or Longreads (it’s right in the name!).
  5. Fantasy Plot Generatorreedsy logo. I have in no way done an exhaustive search of all the random plot generators out there, but the one offered by Reedsy has some great features, like being able to lock individual elements that you like and spin the wheel again until you get a combination that sparks your interest. The results offer lots of options for adding texture to your story, so you can make it uniquely your own. Check out this first-time prompt:
    MAIN CHARACTER : Character An outlaw, who is past prime.
    SECONDARY CHARACTER: An apprentice, who can be forgetful.
    PLOT: It’s a comic fantasy story about toppling the establishment. It kicks off in a graveyard with a prophecy. (Note that: not all is as it first appears in this story. )
    And there’s a twist! All the characters are animals.
    Reedsy’s Fantasy Book Title Generator is also pretty decent, if an evocative title is all you need to get your creative gears grinding.
  6. Pinterestpinterest logo. For pure visual inspiration, you can’t beat the magical overload Pinterest will provide. Whether you search wide (magical landscapes, fantasy characters) or narrow (evil swords, elvish treehouse), you are sure to find lots of ideas for worldbuilding and story generation. Even better, you can create albums of inspiring images that can help you build a comprehensive aesthetic for your story world.
  7. National Geographicnational geographic logo. Dive into luscious photo essays that explore history, culture, and the natural world. It requires a login to read most articles, but for topics like Argentina’s Land of Fire and the mystery of 500-year-old spines on sticks, it’s worth it!
  8. Mythulumythulu logo. This card-based inspiration system can be downloaded as an app on your phone or played in VR via Steam. Surprisingly robust, the cards let you randomly combine archetypal qualities such as “Torn,” “Water” or “Temple” into something that you can use to spawn story, character and worldbuilding ideas.
  9. Encyclopedia Mythicaencyclopedia mythica logo. This massive index will introduce you to gods, myths and legends from around the world. Whether you’re telling actually telling stories about divine beings or you just want some non-Greco-Roman ideas for your world’s religion, these real-world examples will intrigue you.
  10. Aarne-Thomson-Uther Tale Type Index. The Thompson index is an academic tool used to categorize folk tales. But there’s no reason you can’t use it in reverse. The tale type will give a bare bones description of a type, e.g. “A youth is sent to the land of the ogres by his stepmother who is, herself, an ogress. Youth finds out where lives of ogres are kept (usually in bees) and destroys them. Returns home and destroys stepmother.” There are also some links to the variants of the story that have been collected online. But don’t read those! Take the basic idea and see what your imagination can do! Types 300-749, Tales of Magic, might be of particular interest.

Now that you’ve got your inspiration, it’s time for the hard work to begin. Every idea, no matter how original, takes thought and effort to spin into a captivating story. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

 

Dropping “suddenly” at the beginning of a sentence is a shorthand way of creating tension due to an unexpected change in circumstances. But it is not meaningful tension, and it can disrupt the pacing of a scene without adding anything of value.

I do think there are appropriate times to use suddenly — usually when tension is already high. For example, someone is watching a tightrope performance when, suddenly, the wire snaps. In this example, the “suddenly” is a release from tension you’ve already established, the cat jumping out at you after you’ve slowly creeped down the stairs to the unlit basement.

When “suddenly” pops out on you in a low or no tension situation, though, it’s like Bilbo opening his door and finding Freddy Krueger there. Sure, it’s startling, but does it carry any real narrative value? Surprises in fiction are better when they are anticipated, at least on a subconscious level, which the crafty writer can do by carefully weaving in atmospheric distractions and clues before and during the surprise, and by depicting the POV character’s surprised reaction after.

So before that knife-wielding assassin steps out from behind the arras, make sure the POV char notices the arras, and the way the moonlight is making puddles of shadow on the floor, and how many things they have on their to-list for the next day, and then when there’s a whoosh of heavy fabric as the figure steps out in front of them, moonlight glinting off the tip of their blade, the reader’s heart will stop right along with the POV character’s, no suddenly needed.

If I could make one rule for writers universally true, it would be this: join a critique group.

Now, that might seem like a self-defeating recommendation for me to make, when I’m over here trying to sell you editing services. Why would I suggest that potential clients seek out an alternative source for critique on their manuscripts — one that doesn’t cost anything?

I assure you, I’m not trying to run myself out of business.

Critique groups have much to offer writers beyond direct feedback on their manuscripts. And the truth is, the feedback you do get in a group is probably not going to be all that useful to you. While you may be lucky enough to have one or two writers in your group who are capable critiquers, the piecemeal nature of the operation — a few pages reviewed here and there over the course of many months — is going to work against you. Nobody can keep a whole novel in their head under those circumstances. Nobody is going to be able to give you holistic feedback. Which is not to say you won’t get good advice… but it’s only going to be partial advice.

So, no, I’m not suggesting that you join a critique group because they’re going to help you fix your story.

You should join a critique group because you will learn how to fix your story yourself.

How Critiquing Helps You Develop Good Writer Instincts

“You have to read to be a writer.” That’s pretty universal advice that I’m not going to dispute, buti it’s most often interpreted to mean, “You should read good writers.” By reading the best, you’re giving yourself a good example to aim for.

But while it’s easy to appreciate well-written stories, it’s harder to understand why it all works. You can study the rules, sure. There are countless books and magazines and websites where you can learn techniques for writing, everything from “don’t use adverbs” to the intricacies of crafting story beats. So much good advice out there.

But nothing will hone your gut-level instincts of story crafting so much as having to dissect someone else’s less-than-exemplary pages and then verbalize how they might be able to improve them.

It’s that verbalization that’s the key element. If you’re a writer, and you’ve been studying the craft, you probably have a pretty good idea of what makes a good story, even if it’s just a gut level instinct about whether it’s good or not.

But when you have to stop and constructively explain exactly why something is good or not, then you’re going to elevate that gut instinct to a true mastery of craft. Being able to tell another writer that the pacing is off, or the sentence structure is awkward, or that the characters are underdeveloped — when you can identify what the actual problems are and not just that they made you bored or confused — then you are going to internalize all those lessons from books and magazines and blogs and be able to apply them more effectively to your own work. It’s a version of that old teacher’s secret: the best way to learn something is to have them explain it to someone else.

Being part of a critique group, online or in person, can be a huge time commitment, but there is no better learning experience for a developing writer. Approach the work of other writers analytically (without being judgmental) and you will unearth a wealth of knowledge and experience that you can bring to your own writing.

Plus, you will gain the benefit ofinteracting with other writers. Writing can be a lonely journey. It helps a few to find companions along the way.