How Challenging Yourself With Short Writing Deadlines Can Boost Your Judgment and Confidence

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If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, then you already know that I’m a huge advocate of not forcing writing if you’re just not feeling it. Forced writing shows its seams and almost always loses its luster.

But let’s assume that you’re having a great day. The words are flowing faster than your coffee. In this case, it often can be worth it to challenge yourself in terms of pace/deadline. The challenge doesn’t have to be outrageous–a mild shift is totally fine. If you normally take three hours to write a chapter, for instance, just aim for 2 hours and 50 minutes. Or if you normally do 500 words an hour, aim for 525. But you can test yourself harder, too, such as doing 3 articles instead of 2. You just have to be realistic, because if the challenge is truly impossible, then you’ll only end up missing the mark and feeling defeated.

So why do this?

The point with this strategy isn’t to add stress. Remember, it’s something to use when the writing is working for you. The point is to encourage yourself to trim away the fat. When the deadline is shorter or the pace is a little faster, you have to trust your gut. You can’t get caught in the weeds when looking for sources. You have to make good decisions on the fly about what’s relevant or necessary. You start to grasp that you don’t need everything. It’s training your judgment.

I’ve found that, when you do all of these things, something miraculous happens. Your true voice starts talking. Even though you might be conscious of all your technique or audience or any number of things, your self-censorship deflates, because you just don’t have time to worry so much. You have to just do. It’s all about just finishing. And over time, you’ll start to feel more comfortable not waiting for yourself. It’s a major confidence booster.

None of this means that the draft you produce is going to be perfect. You still have to go back and polish. But if you combine this strategy with others, such as using a template, then you can produce solid content fast and reliably and increase the odds that the end result is closer to who you actually are. And in my view, the value for this can’t fit on a price tag.

Rethinking the Traditional Protagonist and Antagonist

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In traditional writing, there’s almost always a clear protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything good and right. The antagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything bad and wrong. The story is, at the core, not about the characters at all, but whether good will triumph over evil. We anticipate that good will win out, but we still pay attention because we want to see the novel path that the author chooses to get good to the finish line.

In an article for Electric Literature, Elyse Martin points out that there’s been a surge toward trying to blur the lines with characters, particularly when it comes to female villains. The concept, Martin argues, is that writers and producers have been relying on the idea of female virtue to “rehabilitate” female villains–that is, they’re trying to give the villains a “cause” or reason for being bad, under the pretext that the villains really are inherently good, “were it not for x”. And in Martin’s view, that’s a mistake. We should just allow the villains to be bad, just because they’re bad.

Martin’s article stands as evidence of how people are playing with the protagonist/antagonist idea and how people are responding to it. I take Martin’s point in that, sometimes, there really is no underlying reason for being bad. Sometimes, a person has no deep trauma or backstory–they just really enjoy being an arsehole. That’s it. And the predictability of them being a jerk–and the protagonist later squashing them like a bug–is oddly comforting and enjoyable.

But I’m not so sure that, as writers, we have to draw a strict line all the time. Part of what makes life so challenging–and interesting–is that people aren’t 100 percent consistent. Great people can make horrid mistakes, like the loving family man choosing to cover for his boss’ lies. People who always have looked out for #1 can decide to do the right thing, like a death row inmate who donates his organs and gives others a second chance at life. Emotions can disrupt the usual logic, and reason can become clear. A million caveats can change decisions. A great example is in Star Wars, when Darth Vader–a main antagonist–becomes a hero by saving his son, Luke Skywalker, from another antagonist, the Emperor.

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In my view, blurry boundaries between antagonists and protagonists can make a book better. We can be on the edge of our seats because we aren’t sure which side they’re on, what they’re going to do, or who to really root for. This lack of clean lines creates intense anticipation and curiosity.

The key, I think, is knowing your audience and setting. If you’re writing for little kids who don’t have a ton of life experience and who can’t think as abstractly, for example, then black and white roles can be more favorable. But if you’re writing for adults, then they’re going to be able to understand far more nuances that color the characters in different ways. And in the same way, if you’re going for a more modern book with a realistic setting, then having a person who does only bad or good all the time can seem too fake.

So think about what your reader is going to need, as well as whether positioning your characters as antagonists or protagonists is going to make sense for the circumstances and plot line. If black and white works in one book and not another, then that’s OK. Let the books be what they must, and just have fun.

 

 

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.