How to Get Storytelling Right Every Time

As I peruse social media (which I do a lot for *cough* marketing), I see writer after writer step up and ask the same question:

What makes a good storyteller?

Or, to put it another way,

What makes a story engaging?

Lots of answers go into technical detail about how to tell your story well. For example, engage the senses. Get the pacing right and cut the fluff.

But great storytelling isn’t about perfectly arranging technique like flowers in a vase. Think about it. Dickens isn’t Rowling, Rowling isn’t Patterson, and Patterson isn’t Hemingway. They all have wildly different approaches, yet we’d never dare to say that any of them stink. And that’s because great storytelling is far less about voice and much more about empathy.

What this means in a nutshell is that, if you want to write well, you have to connect to the audience. And doing that, paradoxically, requires you to forget your own story for a moment and hone in on theirs. What have they experienced? What makes them excited? Sad? What dreams do they have?

It’s only after you know their story that you can match them to you, that you can pinpoint what elements of your story that they’ll find relatable. People don’t really like to hear that, because learning someone’s story can take time–lots of us want immediate gratification and results, the ability to create a draft on demand and at rhythm of our own choosing. But once you have reliability, you have engagement.

It’s all about knowing who you’re talking to. And by “know”, I don’t just mean what you write in a proposal package (e.g., Caucasian females, aged 18-40). You have a sense of how they think and what they do, and you have to know how to use what they know to paint your picture. You have to feel as though, even though you’re putting words to the page in a way that’s your own, you are having a very instinctive, reverent conversation. Everything you write is something your ears have spoken.

So don’t worry so much about your paragraph size or any of that. Worry about how deeply you know people. That is what will train your pace, give you the analogies, and allow you the important details all great stories are built on.

Yes, Opinion Writing Is Real Writing with Real Value. Here’s Why

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Let me start by saying I don’t lose the irony that this entire post is, in fact, going to be my opinion.

With that out of the way (phew!), I’ve been trying to spend more time interacting with writing groups on social media, and not too long ago, someone happened to make the comment that opinion or editorial writing had no value compared to “real” journalism. They accepted the philosophy of Bill Bullard, who quipped that “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before and likely isn’t going to die any time soon.

But it’s also a sentiment that, to me, is flat-out wrong.

I’ll make it clear that I have intense respect for “real” journalists, the people who go out and report news and studies with serious integrity related to the facts. They are absolutely storytellers in their own right and have a fantastic understanding of how to both inform and engage people quickly. Done well, those stories can change how people think and inspire them to take action, even if the journalist achieves relative objectivity in the way they report.

But opinions can be transformative, too. As an example, I’ll point to Steve Jobs. As Simon Sinek summarizes in his TED talk, for years, people believed that to sell well, you need to focus on the product, highlighting its features and quality. The “what” came first, and the “why” was secondary. But Jobs believed that the real way to engage people and market was to tap into emotions. If you could communicate the why behind your business and get your audience to feel something first, then you could find the people who shared your vision and get them to respond not just to a single product, but to any product you made. That’s why Apple customers don’t just buy iPhones. They buy music players, televisions, speakers, computers, and all kinds of tech gear. If Jobs hadn’t asserted his thinking and challenged the status quo, then Apple wouldn’t be the successful company it is today.

Or take Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He didn’t step up to the podium and give an “I have the facts” speech. He simply communicated a dream. A vision. An opinion. His work dramatically changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement. And in the same way, people today lobby for different shifts based on what they believe, including women’s rights and sexual orientation. Protections and liberties that are in place exist only because enough people came to hold the same views.

Some of the most well-known and respected authors of all time are also some of the best thinkers, writing their observations and concepts about the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, wrote many essays on nature, self-reliance, and experiential living. Jean-Jacques Rousseau championed the idea that the people had the right to rule, and he also promoted education and moral character. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote on everything from history to religion. Should we ditch all of their manuscripts simply because they don’t require fact-checkers or appear on the front page of The New York Times?

In sum, writers have penned opinions–and subsequently changed the world–practically since the beginning of time. This is not to say that their work is superior to traditional journalism, but rather to say that neither form of writing should be minimized. Both have purpose, influence, and sway, because people always will want to understand as much as they want to connect. They want to know what other people experience and feel like insiders. That’s one of the reasons why real-life autobiographies, along with reality TV, are so popular.

So if you want to write a news piece to inform, do it. If you want to share your views or a story from your life, do it. And it’s okay to do both–I’ve written advice-oriented pieces about my experiences or ideologies on the same day as I’ve written about a science study, and often back-to-back. You are not limited or confined, and you shouldn’t let anyone discredit you because you’ve written one style or the other. The only rule is that you write in a way that is clear and easy to understand. Follow that, and to hades with the trolls.

Traditional Publishing, Independent Publishing, and Self-Publishing: What’s the Difference?

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If you’ve written a book of any sort, you’ve got three big options when it comes to putting your pages into the hands of readers–traditional, independent, and self-publishing. These three options are very different animals and will suit different authors in different ways.

Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing usually involves the so-called Big Four publishers (Penguin Random House/Simon and Schuster, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan) or any of their imprints. You typically need an agent to editors seriously consider your work, and you query the agent in much the same way you would any publisher/editor. Work is extremely competitive, with houses publishing just 1-2 percent of submissions.

Working with a traditional publisher can be ideal in that large houses generally are expert marketers. They know how to get your book into all the major retailers and can help you set up all kinds of publicity events. You can sell a larger number of books as a result. A big downside, however, is that the publisher often takes quite a bit of control over the production of the book, which can take years. You might be asked to do significant rewrites and typically don’t have too much say over elements like cover art.

Pay from a traditional publisher typically includes a small advance ($2,000-$20,000). Royalties can be on either gross or net sales and generally are between 5 to 15 percent and max out around 25 percent. But remember, you need an agent! They’ll take another 10 to 15 percent of your earnings. However, going with traditional publishing requires zero upfront investment.

Independent publishing

Independent publishing tends to combine elements of traditional and self-publishing. You still submit to houses, but the houses are much smaller and typically are more willing to take some risks in terms of what they publish. They tend to offer their authors more flexibility and a more collaborative relationship through the publication process. They can handle the printing and warehousing of physical books, which often would be too expensive for authors to do alone. They also can set their own royalty structures and usually provide larger advances than traditional publishers do. Many independent publishers are open to writers who do not have an agent.

Self-publishing

With self-publishing, you have to cover all upfront costs, including marketing and distribution. You use a service like CreateSpace to format your manuscript and get a formal ISBN. Then you use a service like Amazon to take the prepared manuscript and distribute it. Distribution can be purely digital or include print-on-demand (POD). You can get your book into bookstores with the POD option, but because the distribution is so expensive, you likely won’t make any money. If you opt not to distribute into bookstores, however, you can earn royalties of 40 to 60 percent, and you don’t need to worry about finding an agent or paying them additional fees. Payments also usually happen faster.

Most writers who self-publish do so because they want to maintain control over the creative aspects of their work. But successful self-publishing requires considerable marketing work and business savvy.

The bottom line

If you don’t mind losing some of your artistic control to have an experienced publisher do the heavy lifting for you, and if you don’t have a lot of money to put up upfront, traditional publishers likely would be a good fit for you. Independent publishers might be the best option if you need some guidance but want more of a say in publication. Self-publishing can be the easiest path to producing your book and usually offers the biggest royalties, but you’ll need to invest upfront. It’s a good choice if you want maximum artistic control.

All this said, as an author, you don’t have to stay in one camp or another. Some writers self-publish some projects and use independent or traditional publishers for others. Simply consider your preferences and the goals for specific work when deciding which path is best for you.

 

6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing

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I want to get better as a writer. Most other writers I know have that goal, too. They feel obligated to improve, not just because there’s a better chance they’ll make more money, but also because they want to show everybody else just how rich the craft can be.

By far the best thing you can do to get better at writing is just to practice. But there are other easy ways to improve your ability to write well, too.

  1. Read

The more you read, the more you get exposed to different writing worlds, voices and vocabulary. You also get more general information, which helps you make decisions about what to include or exclude in the world you craft.

One sneaky trick here is to include a lot of reviews and comments in your reading. These will give you invaluable insights about what readers thought worked and didn’t work in the given content. You can avoid their mistakes and incorporate tricks writers used well with your own unique spin. As a bonus, familiarizing yourself with reviews and comments–which can be harsh, I’m not going to lie–can help you develop a thicker skin so that, when people say something about your own work, you have a better understanding that it truly isn’t personal. That keeps your confidence high so you can continue to write your best.

2. Subscribe

Your options here are far-reaching–podcasts, word-of-of-the-day texts or emails, and masterclass videos on Youtube or other sites are just some of the ways you can educate yourself and hear what other writers think and do. The best thing about subscriptions is that, once you’re signed up, everything comes to you directly with no extra research effort. All you have to do is come up with a system to keep the incoming episodes or other materials organized for later.

3. Make to-do lists

It’s OK if you’re more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer and like spontaneity in your day. But writing any kind of to-do list teaches you to prioritize what’s important to you and to see the chronology of time better. That can help you hone in on what writing tasks deserve your time for the day so you stay out of the weeds. It can transfer over into general, loose outlining, as well.

4. Set boundaries

No, I’m not talking about telling your family to scram while you work on a draft, although doing that in a kind way certainly isn’t going to hurt. I’m talking about knowing when to stop researching, drafting or tweaking. At some point, more information just isn’t relevant, the draft is too long and all your editing is just making the work different, not better. So whether it’s saying that you’ll only Google medieval swords for an hour or that you’ll create a more digestible series if your book crosses 100,000 words, create your rules and stick to them.

5. Cross platforms

No, you don’t have to be a Twitter star or podcaster or do a million interviews. But a little fun on different platforms can get you more comfortable accepting your identity as a writer. You have to promote yourself and your work in more venues and really have to own it. Platform crossing also teaches you to present your writing in lots of ways and gives you the opportunity to interact with different audiences. You also can have opportunities to share your insights, and teaching is one of the best ways to confirm for yourself whether you really are sure of what works for you and what your philosophies behind writing are.

6. Let go

I’m a firm believer that good things can come from hanging on to unfinished drafts or ideas. The reality, however, is that you don’t need to hang on to everything. Some concepts really are *cough*….yeah. Some days, you just know it’s not right. So let those words go. Identify what really energizes you and ditch what doesn’t. Remind yourself that crossing out words, paragraphs or entire paragraphs is normal, and that it’s necessary to get an end product that’s engaging, lean and true to who you are at your best.

Writers are always growing and improving. But this isn’t just something that happens only because we get older and get more experience that can shape our content. It’s also because we make a conscious choice to grow and improve. Decide right now that you’re going to take action, and then let your ideas lead you wherever they might.

5 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Writing Instantly

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If you want to improve your writing, then the best way to do it–by far–is to just write, and to do it a lot. There’s no magic quick fix for honing your own style and becoming comfortable with the entire process. But there are some habits and strategies that can make a dramatic improvement in just minutes.

1. Say the words.

Yes, you have to go back and clean things up. But part of what makes writing work is that it feels conversational and relatable. Reading your writing aloud or verbalizing as a part of outlining process helps you find your flow. If you’re tripping all over yourself in a spot, then you probably can say it in a simpler way or find alternatives that fit the rhythm of the writing better.

2. Download a tool.

My favorite here is Grammarly, but there are increasingly sophisticated options. Some even are starting to utilize AI to generate content and predictive analysis to make suggestions. The key here is to remember that the software is not the boss. It is simply a second pair of eyes, your Editor-in-a-Pinch. YOU still have to be smarter than the technology and think about how the suggestions/changes will influence the reader’s experience. But they can help you notice areas that need clarity or correction very quickly. They also can get you to think more out of the box and feel OK about chucking what doesn’t work.

3. Psych yourself up.

As a writer, your job isn’t just to tell the story (e.g., Fact A, Fact B, Fact C). That’s boring as hades. What makes it engaging is empathy. Readers have to feel something for the work to be memorable and have an influence on their thinking or behavior.

Conveying feelings in your writing happens more naturally if you’re feeling those emotions as you work. In this way, it’s every bit of performance art as acting or singing. It can be exhausting if you truly embrace and put everything into it. To get yourself in the right mindset for a scene, do anything that gets you in the mood you need to convey. Listening to music tracks is an easily accessible option I use all the time. But you also can go for a walk, go somewhere new, drink your favorite drink, play a video game or even sort your stuff. The only rules are that whatever you do has to be 1) easy to stop and pivot from 2) safe for you and others.

4. Pay attention to your body and environment.

I’m not talking so much about general self-care, although things like enough sleep and choosing healthy foods definitely influence your brainpower. I’m talking about your natural rhythm during the day. For example, most of us slump during the afternoon, and I find that I write more words per hour in the morning before everyone is up and it’s quiet. Try to figure out when you do your best writing and then make sure that you’re scheduling in those windows. Take care of the more routine jobs for your writing that you can do pretty automatically, such as backing up your files, when you know you’re not going to be at your creative best.

5. Conduct a poll.

Whether you need to know which ending scenario people like better or just want to see which phrasing people prefer, a poll is a super fast and efficient way to get feedback. Social media platforms make it easy to connect with others for this purpose. When all is said and done, you’ll be left with a draft that’s easier to understand and gets a better response from your target audience. It also can help make you more aware of your shortcomings or biases so that they don’t find their way into your work in the future.

Most great writers admit that improving at the craft is something that never stops. Like them, you should seek to get better and learn more about writing over your entire career. But sometimes simple changes can make a huge, immediate difference in the quality or quantity of your work (or both). Give these strategies a try, and then let me know in the comments if they’ve helped you along.

 

Why You Should (and Shouldn’t) Use Chapter Titles in Your Books

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Every fiction book has a title. That’s a given. But chapters? That’s messier.

The case against chapter titles…

Most fiction books I’ve read don’t use chapter titles. They use numbers. More specifically, writers generally put those numbers on the page as digits (e.g., 29), rather than writing out the words (e.g., twenty-nine). But every writer is a little individual about it.

Some readers like that chapter titles can give a sneak peek at what’s ahead in the next section of the book. But personally, I find that chapter titles usually give away too much, which ruins my anticipation. If an author only uses the chapter number, then I have clear start-stop points in the book, but the author hasn’t given anything away, and I still have a better sense of mystery and excitement.

From a technical perspective, chapters are meant only to break your book into smaller sections. And it can become hard to know where to draw the line with section labels. Paragraphs or pages, for example, are small sections, too, but you don’t title those. You just assume the reader will flow from one to the next and use the line break / indenting to understand your organization. So in this sense, I see chapter numbers as much simpler and less invasive.

…and the case in favor

But chapter titles have their benefits. They force you, as a writer, to have a clear sense of what the content in that section does or is about. If you outline before you write, then you can stay better focused so you don’t get into the weeds too much. You know exactly what purpose the text has for the reader. And if you place titles after drafting, then it still can help you see what to put in or cut. There’s also a fantastic creative challenge that can improve your writing overall. Instead of one title to come up with, you could have dozens. Many readers appreciate all this extra flavor and effort.

Chapter titles also can create a sense of unity through a book. Some readers need to see or how the chapters are related, because those associations help them make better sense of the book as a whole. And if you use a chapter title that includes something the reader is familiar with or that provides a good curiosity gap, then you can create some empathy to connect better and create intrigue without giving too much away. It’s possible to set the mood right away so that your reader more easily can settle in, imagine the world or scene, and feel invested.

In the end, the reader is most important

Ultimately, chapter titles are always forward-oriented. So if you’re going to use them, they need to give clear clues about the journey the reader is going to take, and they need to do it in a way that’s not distracting. If you don’t want to use them, though, then you don’t have to. There are all kinds of other writing strategies and techniques you can use to create anticipation (e.g., a classic cliffhanger chapter ending), help one section flow to the next, or offer clues. But in either case, think about your reader, both in terms of what they expect–some genres use chapter titles more often than others, for example–and what they personally are going to need. Create a truly immersive experience, and make conscious decisions at every step about how to present your story in a positive way that they’ll respond to.

Do Modern Writers Lean Too Much on Blunt Shock Value?

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Catching your readers off guard once in a while isn’t a bad thing. It can make your story seem more novel (pun intended) so that people are motivated to go all the way to the last page. But then I stumbled across this Tweet:

The tweet got me thinking about how writers are approaching fiction writing in general. Like Chris, I’ve been getting the impression that there’s a lot of emphasis on the “traits” or technical elements that go into a draft, like making characters more compelling. But you can have all of those elements and still have a book be less than incredible if your actual writing is subpar.

But what makes it stand out?

For me, great writing is poetic, not in the sense of being flowery or verbose, but in the sense of having incredibly beautiful imagery, rhythm and metaphor that stirs deep feelings of empathy. You absolutely can have your own style here. But readers get the sense from your connotations and phrasing and analogies, from hints and implications between the lines, that the character has some real experience with life. It’s truthful and relatable in an incredibly deep way.

From my perspective, much of modern writing lacks this poetry. It is incredibly sharp and blunt, designed to drop the jaw and not waste time. Perhaps that is because there has been so much of an emphasis on pacing and driving the plot. Perhaps that makes us afraid of what will happen if readers are allowed a moment to think beyond the pages into the psychological or other realities those pages contain. Or perhaps it is the reader who is already so overwhelmed that all they want is an “easy” beach read, to be entertained instead of forced to keep thinking and feeling. Or perhaps we are all so conditioned to the dramatic, to explosions and fire defining “action”, to technology forcing us to want immediate gratification and response, that we think bluntness is the only way to communicate.

This bluntness can be problematic in any genre, but I think it’s especially visible in horror/thriller. The stories aren’t just more gruesome. They also quickly throw out events that are so unexpected that I cannot help but feel like seams are showing, like it was clearly the writer’s intent to shock. And because I see the intent, I am not shocked. I’m disappointed and distracted from the story.

The solution isn’t easy. It’s to focus on yourself. It’s to be so comfortable with who you are that you don’t censure, that you no longer worry about what anyone else is going to think as you pull from everything you know and have been through. You must listen to your own instinct and capture it in a way that makes purpose clear. You can do this listening even if you choose to change scenes or character traits, and it’s not about what you say, but how. Do it well, and your voice will never be lost, no matter how many revisions you go through.

4 Unusual Tips to Make Your Writing Go Faster

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I’m a firm believer that writing should take the time it takes and shouldn’t be forced. After all, sometimes life happens. We all have times when we feel like crap or are overwhelmed. In those times, it’s difficult to focus in a way that makes the result feel natural and pleasant to the reader.

But deadlines in life also happen, and there’s something to be said for balancing exceptional quality and high output. To make the most of your time and create even more content that could earn you fans or income, try these tips:

1. Verbalize.

Take a few minutes before you start writing to talk through what you want to say. You can use voice dictation software to take notes for you as you go. The process of talking through your idea for a second will help you mentally solidify your key points. Highlight those in your software recording or whip out a bulleted outline. Knowing what your key points are will ensure you don’t get into the weeds when you write, and that you have a logical, organized flow through the work.

2. Turn off editing options.

Tools like Grammarly or Word’s spell and grammar check can be pretty powerful, and they’re available at a crazy level. But if you use them during the actual drafting, the appearance of all those suggestions and red underlines can interrupt your flow, interfere with your natural voice, stress you out, and slow you down. There’s also no point in cleaning the draft until you’ve gone through and made sure that you actually want to keep everything that’s there. Turn your tools on at the end of the writing instead.

3. Skip the details.

Yes, you might be writing something super technical or that needs depth. But try to start with just the main concepts or steps for the bulk of the piece with the assumption that people 1) don’t have a ton of time, and 2) might not be at your level of expertise. There are probably always some points you could include, but the ones you must include probably are fewer than you initially think. Once you have the musts, then go back and consider what details actually would improve the value of what you have. Editors absolutely will tell you if something is missing, confusing, or needs to be fleshed out, and they’re experts at deciding which points out of them all are most important to expand.

4. Imagine it’s a journal.

Writers often get concerned with how others are going to judge them for what they’ve written and let that color what goes onto the page. They lose an enormous amount of time wondering what is right or acceptable.

To combat this, think of whatever you are writing more like a journal that nobody would see. Everything is safe and private. Forget that you’re going to hit publish or submit the piece, and just hone in on whether the work reflects you and is what you intended it to be. Then go back and think about how to improve areas like relatability, connotation or the number of people in your audience (e.g., gender pronouns). Writing groups, online services, beta readers,  friends and family members all can offer feedback to make sure that you’ve considered different points of view or realities. Once you have a draft to use as a template or core, you always can modify it deliberately to fit any publication you like.

Quality always should be at the front of your mind when you’re writing. Nevertheless, there’s no reason to settle for poor efficiency. Use these tips to trim some of the fat and start getting more headlines or titles to your readers.

Why Standup Comedians Are the Best Writing Teachers Ever

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For a while now, I’ve been indulging in standup comedy online during my teeny bits of free time. (Netflix specials are fun, as are the late night shows.) If you’re a writer who doesn’t do the same, I highly encourage you to start.

First, good standup inevitably gets you in a better mood. And I’m convinced that you do your best writing when you are relaxed and happy. Even if you choose to write on a darker theme, there’s a clarity and ease that comes from approaching the theme without stress and worry.

But beyond helping you let go of your troubles for a while, standup comedians are also some of the best storytellers in the world. They have perfected the art of making tales engaging yet brief, and they understand the art of delivering their communication in ways that are easy to understand.

What really makes their efforts work, in my opinion, is that standup comedians are so beautifully aware of social constructs and expectations. They find dozens of instances in everyday life when people have challenged those constructs or gotten into sticky situations with them. Then they use the audience’s understanding of those violations or expectations to connect and get laughs. Through this process, they also relate the stories in a honest, often almost crude way. Their analogies or metaphors have a sense of poetry and rhythm, but they also can be so out of the box that those in the audience are happy that what the comedian is saying is novel. Those who listen appreciate that the comedian takes the risk of putting what is or could be considered taboo all out front in the open.

So it’s not that standup comedians are funny. It’s that they understand more deeply why something is funny. And if you start dissecting that a little bit as a writer, you start to see how people really work within the immediate culture. All of the biases and ways individuals and groups interact and influence each other are laid bare. And once that happens, it’s much easier not only to imagine viable situational plots, but also to establish characterizations based on expected behaviors and how characters adhere to or violate those norms. And on some level, you also gain a sense of how to balance kernels of truth against what others might see as offensive.

So next time you find yourself bashing your head against writer’s block, step back for a moment. Pop some popcorn. Go find a comedy show that appeals to your sense of humor. Take some relief in watching a great storyteller on their feet. Think about all the buttons they are hitting and understand that those strikes are part of an intentional, carefully scripted strategy, rather than the result of a spontaneous bit of luck and personality. And from there, it’s just a matter of choosing which buttons to line up for a story all your own.

The Burning Question: How Far Would You Go to Save Your Writing?

 

Firefighters rescued the survivors

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I come across intriguing and surprising things on social media just about every day. Today’s prize? This gem from the BBC:

Now, as you’ll see if you click on the link above and read the article, this piece is a few years old. But it showed up again on Twitter with just one question posed to writers–would you do what this guy did to save your writing?

Responses in the thread were mixed. But the majority of people had a common point. Why would you ever need to run into a burning building when there are tools like Google Drive that make it so insanely easy to back up drafts?

Dissenters gave two main rationales, the first of which was their choice of tool. The assumption is that writing will happen on technology like a laptop, but this isn’t always the case. Many writers prefer to draft on regular, old-fashioned paper, for example, while others use options like typewriters. In these cases, it’s the experience of the process that makes the difference.

Secondly, some writers mentioned that their writing needed plenty of revision away–that is, they simply didn’t have enough faith in what they’d produced to say they’d take a real risk for it.

Now, if you just think your work sucks and don’t care to save it, well, okay. That’s your choice. But I’d be quick to remind you that more than one writer has been shocked at their own success.

via GIPHY

And if you believe in yourself or at least have hope that someday you’ll have a draft others will care about as much as you do, then you have an obligation to figure out how you will create a backup for your work, whether that’s photocopies, to-self email attachments or the cloud. This is first and foremost because you need to respect both your life and the life of anyone who would try to rescue you in the emergency. But strictly from the standpoint of the craft, once a manuscript is lost, it’s usually lost forever.

 

via GIPHY

You owe it to your readers, be it current or those imagined for the future, to ensure that the worlds, characters and situations you envision will last beyond a lifetime.

So although the method is entirely up to you, just do everybody a favor.

Back that sh-t up.