We need more writers. More women writers, more POC writers, more LGBTQIA writers, more disabled writers. We need access to ideas from a broader pool of diverse perspectives. We need to share inspiration from unlikely sources, hear the voices that have been silenced. This is a ubiquitous truth but it is especially true in size-fantasy writing. We can’t afford to close the door in anyone’s face, not if we want a robust and highly creative literary community. This doesn’t mean a given reader will necessarily be into everything that’s produced, and they don’t have to be, but there should be plenty of material for everyone.
Here are some resources to encourage and empower new writers.
Reverse Dictionary: very helpful when you know what you mean but can’t remember the word.
Common Errors in English: another way to clarify what you meant to say.
Fifty Writing Tools: Quick List: essential writing and editing techniques to clean up your act.
Conscious Style Guide: review this resource periodically to understand the front lines of writing for inclusion and diversity.
Short Story Elements: the basic components for composing a solid short story.
The Chicago Manual of Style Online: if you don’t have your own style guide, here’s the authoritative source for literature.
InspiroBot: the pick-me-up you may need in the dark moments.
Pomofocus: a simple, customizable timer that works with the principle of long and short writing burst alternated with short breaks, to support clarity and productivity.
Calmly Writer: a markup word processor with stripped-down features to reduce distraction. Saves in various formats, customizable layout, and even a typeface that assists dyslexic readers.
Forgive yourself. Feel free to make mistakes. Attack the page with no intent of ever showing anyone, just to get your body in the habit of typing and your mind in the habit of producing. Hack out a few thousand words of rampant, unfettered, unrefined writing, giving yourself permission to say whatever comes to mind, and then scrap it! Then start over and do it again, and something useful will emerge. Something will engage your interest and you’ll produce something you like and can work with. You just have to detach from all concerns of making a mistake, so you can learn and develop through your experiences.
It may not be helpful to put a lot of energy toward blocking negative internal messaging, your “inner critic.” Creative energy comes at a premium and expending it purely on defense can be draining. Instead, learn to deflect: give your inner critic the voice of someone you hate, someone who disgusts you, so when you hear them speak up it only motivates you to defy them and prove them wrong. Another technique is to honor the critic, say “not right now,” and mentally shelve it to deal with later. Visualization goes a long way toward managing your internal process.
Be boldly yourself. One common attack by the inner critic is that you, the writer, are not special and you have nothing useful to say. Hundreds of people have already written your story, and better, so why are you wasting your time? And what’s supposed to come of this, anyway? Think you’re gonna get rich or famous? And haven’t we had enough stories by [your demographic] anyway?
What’s damning in this is that the questions are based in reality. There are no new stories. You’re not likely to become rich or famous in your efforts. But we’re not writing these things to make a living: we’re writing our stories because they’re our passion. There’s as much point to writing a story that no one sees as there is to going swimming by yourself, making a nice meal for yourself, even dressing up when you have no intention of going out. It just makes us feel good, it’s something we like to do, and it doesn’t have to be anything else. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said, “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
As for what you bring to the table, that should be obvious. You are you, and no one else is you—hopefully you’re not dedicating your efforts to being someone else, because obviously that’s been done. You are the aggregation of very specific life experiences as processed through unique genetic recombination. You can go ahead and tell the story that’s been told a hundred times, because no one can tell it like you’re going to. Herein lies the paradox of imitating others: the people you admire did not imitate anyone else, and that’s the only trait you should emulate.
Be curious. Get out of the house and go people-watching. If you can’t overhear the word choice in conversation, you can still watch people’s expressions and posture. Practice cold-reading an individual: study their outfit and make up a story about what it says about their character, their values, what they intended to transmit to the world and what they’re actually saying about themselves. Watch people when they think they’re alone and isolated in their cars. Keep an eye out for an unusual piece of trash on the ground, imagine how it ended up there. Or just sit down in a room, wherever you are, and systematically attend to every sense in turn: search for the smells, pick apart every sound, think about how the parts of your body feel. All of this can go toward creating realistic situations and characters with depth.
This can also mean exposing yourself to things you wouldn’t normally. Read a novel by a writer whose skin color or expressed gender doesn’t resemble your own. If you’re into sci-fi/fantasy, pick up a fishing/hunting catalog. “Write what you know” is great advice, but if you find your writing is extremely limited by what you know, you’ve got to cultivate some strong curiosity and meet the world in its own context.
Keep a notebook. That can be a digital voice recorder, a text message to yourself, even a dozen photos you take to remind you of a scene. Scribble down an overheard expression or a moment of brilliance in your mental dialogue. Sketch a room, an outfit, a machine, anything that piques your interest and could be used later. Always, always write down any story idea you have. Never let anything go! Everything is worth something! Keep those ideas, crib them briefly or write them out in length, but preserve them for those dry days when nothing comes to mind. They might not always be useful, but you can never use the idea you let go. If nothing else, it’s interesting to look back on ten years later and marvel at who you were.
Develop a ritual. Writing is as much about muscle memory as it is honing your skill. You can condition your body to anticipate a routine, you can prime your brain to be productive on schedule. Some people prefer seizing every available moment to jot down an idea or writing a long story in very short segments, and that’s great, but if that doesn’t work for you, here are a couple things you can try. One editor waits until she’s been awake for three hours before having coffee, when her brain’s ready to receive the caffeine; another eats tuna before a large project, relying on the fish oil to help with cognition.
10-Minute Routine: Josh Waitzkin uses this to tap into his creativity and work past cognitive blocks. Thomas Edison said, “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”
- When you go to sleep, dwell on a particular problem you’re facing and frame a specific question on how to resolve it.
- Go to sleep. Let your unconscious mind knead the problem.
- When you wake up, do nothing else (no phone, no coffee; exception, brief meditation) except sit down to your notebook and start writing whatever comes to mind. With practice, something in this thought-dump will provide a solution.
Play, Write, Exercise
- Lose yourself in some form of creative activity for 30 minutes. This could be anything from a coloring book to a video game.
- Write for an hour, more if you feel like it.
- Get out and walk or do some light exercise to help you decompress from intense creation, process what you’ve done, and stir up some new ideas.
Study how it’s done. Keep a small library of your favorite author’s works—any time you have a question on technique or style, reread their stories to see how they treat the issue. (This doesn’t mean to imitate their sound: you have to find and cultivate your own voice, and that only comes through practice.) A good writing exercise is to actually retype your favorite novel, prop it open and type out the words on the page. This gives your mind an interesting contradiction between the author’s word choice and how you might have treated a passage differently. You can almost feel their decisions running through you.
Most importantly, good writers are great readers. Never stop reading, everything from acclaimed novels to subcultural fanfic. Everything has worth, everyone has something to teach you (whether it’s useful advice or a cautionary tale). You never know where a gem is hiding.
These are helpful conversations about technique, improvement, critique, and inspiration. They all offer something a little bit different, due to focus and experience, and they’re worth checking out.
A college-level course on story structure, plus how to learn through critique and analysis of other work. Hosted by “story expert” Lani Diane Rich. (Twitter)
Virginia Prescott interviews famous authors very briefly, getting straight to the meat of how to write, where to find inspiration and motivation, and how to work around obstacles like writer’s block and depression. Episodes are rarely over 11 minutes. (Twitter)
Various hosts talk about all aspects of building stories, from world-building to issues around inclusion. The hosts recommend books they’re currently enjoying and suggest writing prompts for you to practice on your own. Episodes are around 15 to 30 minutes. (Twitter)
Kristen Kieffer (Twitter) leads writers through lessons and concepts in storytelling and writing. She also offers courses and materials and hosts a weekly discussion group on Twitter to help improve your craft. Episodes are around 10 or 20 minutes.
KM Weiland (Twitter) discusses the nuts-and-bolts of building stories, creating tension, getting past fear and blockage, and developing realistic characters. Episodes are between 15 and 20 minutes.
Ann Kroeker (Twitter) walks new and struggling writers through personal lessons of writing, editing, publishing, and running an independent business. Lessons include estimating quality of life and ROI. Episodes are 10 and 20 minutes.
Welcome to Night Vale hosts Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink examine their personal experiences and adventures, going through everything that gets in the way of a struggling writer and how to develop habits and mindsets to stay productive and healthy. They also recommend writing and critique exercises. Episodes are around half an hour long. (Twitter)
UPDATES, as I find them.
Joel Friedman (Scribendi) has compiled the 30 best writing websites of 2020. There’s gotta be something here for you.