How to Keep What You’re Reading Out of Your Writing

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

I read a lot of non fiction, mainly social psychology books on the cutting edge of our understanding of the human condition. I’m interested in why we do what we do, why modern society still enjoys a public shaming, why we follow charlatans into oblivion, and why a certain segment of the population falls asleep after copulation. I consider these books general research materials. I don’t use them to inform any specific projects, but rather all of them. I read them before the conception stage and they educate my characters’ behaviors.

When I read social psychology books as I’m writing something else happens. I get so enthralled by these new concepts that I feel an urge to include them.

I just finished Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. The book started as a joke about texting in Ansari’s standup act, but it’s become the definitive volume on dating in the information age. Ansari investigates gender ratios in the online dating scene, Tinder hookups, texting etiquette, social media breakups, and sexting. What he uncovers was surprising.

The entire time I was reading Modern Romance I couldn’t help thinking, “That’s an interesting stat. I wonder which of my characters might know that?”

This desire to use Ansari’s ideas in my work in progress creates problems. One of my characters uses a dating site in the story, but he isn’t very well informed. If he was privy to Ansari’s information he’d make better decisions. As it stands, the character has a quick aside on the climate of online dating, armed with Ansari’s information he’d have a full on rant. My character could put his own spin on Ansari’s observations but without a citation, even in fiction, I run the risk of committing plagiarism.

This got me thinking about all the media I consume and the checks and balances I use to prevent it from appearing in my writing.

Never Steal from Similar Stories

When I’m working on a book I avoid reading stories with similar subjects. This wasn’t always the case. When I first tried my hand at writing a novel, a werewolf story, I rented every werewolf movie I could find. My original concept was a memoir about my dorm experiences at an arts high school, with a wolf-man thrown into the mix.

I decided my villain needed to contract werewolfism from an STD, because I liked the idea so much when I saw it in Ginger Snaps. He’d also be haunted by each of his victims, because I was convinced that was part of lycanthropy lore by An American Werewolf in London. I decided that the security staff needed to be members of a secret werewolf society after watching The Howling.

My idea, as I’d conceived it, involved the student body coming together to conquer the lone wolf that was preying on them. Now it was a convoluted mess, filled with ideas I couldn’t justify, because they were no longer my own.

I wasn’t confident enough in my own scribblings. I felt I needed these borrowed beats to help prop them up. I wasn’t writing anymore. I was remixing, trying to find my voice in other writers’ tunes.

Had I stayed away from the video store and dug deeper into my own experiences, I might have found a story that was my own.

Similar Stories Can Kill Your Ideas Before They’re Fully Formed

In an effort to curb my creative kleptomania I find myself censoring my own ideas. I’ll discover a story that’s similar to something I’m developing and go back to alter the resemblance.

For instance, Twin Peaks, Under the Dome, and Wayward Pines are all mysteries that take place in small towns with a 50s-style diner. Since my current story takes place in a small town I want to set it apart. That’s why I zoned all diners out of the plot, excluded waitresses from my cast of characters, and froze the town’s design scheme in the 1980s. I replaced all the neon signs audiences usually see in theses environments with text written in desert chrome. I ripped out the classic checkered tiles and tore down the diamond wallpaper, replacing them with magenta grids and glowing triangles.

Sometimes this self censorship forces me to be more creative. Sometimes it takes story elements off the table that are more universal.

The cenobites that skulk throughout the pages of Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels wear their flesh wounds like military stripes. They sport nails through their skulls, chains through their nipples, and rods inside their open craniums. Barker’s cenobites take body modification to a whole new level. The more gore they sport the higher their station is in Hell’s ancient Order of the Gash.

I read The Scarlet Gospels and realized I had to deny all the demons in my story similar accessories, or else it would look like I was trying to stand on Barker’s shoulders.

Avoid Picking Up Another Author’s Accent

Sometimes it isn’t another author’s ideas, plot, or characters that want to infiltrate my stories. Sometimes it’s their voice.

I’m bewitched by some of my favorite authors’ obscure word choices. Every time I read Edgar Allen Poe I feel a strong urge to use words like: turgid, cacophony, and phantasmagorical in my prose. When I read H.P. Lovecraft I want to use words like: eldritch, and effulgence. He also makes me want to preface every sensory description with the word faint. When I read Clive Barker I want to use words like: rivulets, torrents, tempest, and din.

When I binge read all three I want to write things like:

“Eldritch winds carried phantasmagorical shapes out of the turgid blackness. There was a din, followed by a cacophony of deafening splashes. The tempest came down in effulgent red torrents. Rivulets spilled over the roof, until the walkway was slick with blood.”

It’s one thing to borrow another author’s favorite word choices. It’s another thing to steal the voice right out of their mouth.

Chuck Palahniuk uses a device he calls choruses. These choruses are stock phrases his narrators use, ongoing inside jokes that he calls back to throughout the story.

In Palahniuk’s book Choke Victor, the hero, uses multiple variations of this phrase:

“Parasite” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

“Stalking” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

“Vandalism” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

I found this chorus so infectious that it worked its way into my casual speech. I’ve used it so often that I’ve mistaken it for a thought of my own. I’ve had to prevent myself from letting it appear in my writing.

Palahniuk’s writing style is littered with so many of these fun phrases that I have to remind myself they’re not common idioms that belong to everyone. These astute asides belong to him. I’ll just have to come up with choruses of my own.

Closing Thoughts

Every author inevitably absorbs their influences. The best time to do this is before you take on a new project. If you already know your story will dabble in modern psychology check out those books before you start writing. Research first. If you’re absorbing while you’re writing everything you encounter will be fair game.

If your imagination has a tendency to embezzle other author’s material you might want to keep it deprived. A creative fasting can keep you from plagiarizing. Writers should read as much material as they can in their genre, but they should avoid stories whose summary bears more than a passing resemblance to their work in progress.

Reading effects us all at the unconscious level. Writers need to be conscious of how they absorb that material.

Point/Counterpoint: Should writers fear missing out on other things?

Point CounterpointPoint: Why Write About Events When You Can Live Them?

Something big is happening tonight. It’s the mixer of the season. The gathering to end all gatherings. So, why are you staying in?

Didn’t you hear? They have the best musical lineup you could ever hope to listen to, the best film screenings you could ever want to see, and the best dance floor you could ever feel beneath your feet. They have seven of the most delicious courses you’ve ever tasted, paired with the finest wines that will ever pass through your lips, and just wait until you see what’s for dessert.

The people that are usually too attractive to mix with your social circle will be there. Bottles will spin. Numbers will exchange hands. Magic will happen behind drawn shower curtains. Tonight is that once in a blue moon when all the gorgeous people feel like humoring you. You don’t want to be stuck at home in your PJs when their desire changes phase.

There’s just six degrees separating you from the right networking connections. They’re listening to pitches, shopping for exactly the kind of story you’re selling. Better get here soon. Their window is already closing with the changing of the trends.

You’re at home writing when you could be out experiencing something worth documenting, doing something worth humble bragging, taking the kind of selfie worth posting on Match.com. There are so many incredible places to checkin to, so many beautiful sights to put a low-fi filter on, and so many interesting people to name drop when you update your status. Yet you’re busy coaxing dialogue out of people who don’t exist.

No one is forcing you to make a decision. Just say, “Yes!” to all of your options.

Put down your pen. Check your notifications. You might still have an in. Put down that notepad and pick up your phone. Come on no one wants to be alone. Quit your writing application and refresh that Facebook button.

Doesn’t your fortress of solitude put you in a foul mood? Go out and see the night’s sky. The moon is eclipsed. There’s aurora borealis. There are fireworks and comets. There’s a wall of water on the horizon and UFOs are ushering in the arrival of the four horsemen.

How can you keep writing when there’s so much happening?

Okay, fine, stay in, but shouldn’t you be watching television? Shouldn’t you at least have other voices in the room? If you caught up on that popular serial series you’d have conversation material for the water cooler on Monday. If you caught up on what’s trending you might just have a social in. Embrace someone else’s fiction for a change.

Go on, your characters won’t mind.

Fear of Missing Out

Counter Point: How Artistic Endeavors Can Be More Rewarding than Fleeting Experiences

Writing isn’t a waste of time. Endlessly cycling through your options is. Playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe with your schedule is. Fantasizing about what else might be happening is a waste of time and your imagination. Ask yourself: how much time do you spend contemplating the best way to spend it? Just imagine how much more you would have accomplished had you been writing.

The average person gets more satisfaction from spending money on experiences than they do on items, but the average person rarely gets to experience crafting items of their own. A well written story has the power to last longer than the memory of another night on the town.

Writing takes dedication. Alternatives are always trying to test your resolve. They want you to put off working on your novel until you call your characters by the wrong names, until you forget what folder the document is in, until it’s forever a work ‘in progress.’

There are well laid plans, then there are excuses to avoid what you ought to be doing. Stop confusing new atmospheres with adventures. Stop confusing interruptions with interactions. Stop confusing options with obligations. You could have a flexible schedule or you could flex your self-motivation muscles.

Writing can feel repetitive, but repetition takes many forms. You’ve been out dancing recently. Have you picked up any new moves since then? You could go to another concert or you could give your ears time to stop ringing from the last one. You could go out to the bar and talk about the same things you did last night, or you could give your friends time to develop new topics of conversation.

Boredom doesn’t care if you’re home alone or in public. It will hunt you down. You’ll find yourself at the karaoke bar thinking, “I’d rather be writing.”

At home it’s tempting to stop typing and go looking for a party on the same screen. Instagram need not be a menu of foods you should’ve eaten or a guided tour of places you should’ve been. You can’t afford to eat out every night and you’re still getting over your last round of bug bites. So your ‘notifications’ tab has a big number next to it. It will get even bigger if you stave off checking it until you’re done for the night. Then it will feel even more rewarding.

Writing might seem like a lonely vocation. The slower the words come the more it seems like there’s a party that you’re missing. Abandoning your work in progress might feel freeing, until you fail to find a creative outlet in any of the other options.

There’s far more satisfaction in following through than there is tapping your phone, looking for something else to do.

Why the Best Characters Overshare

Oversharing

A Big Difference Between Film and Fiction

In film we sympathize with characters that are introduced in vulnerable situations. In fiction we get to see that vulnerability underneath their skin. In film we judge characters by their actions. In fiction we get a broader sampling of information. In film a character’s charisma makes up for their shortcomings. In fiction a character’s rationality makes all the difference.

Characters in novels shouldn’t be burdened by the same like-ability standards as characters in films. Characters in movies have a few hours to get their motivations on screen. Characters in novels can slow time down to give us a play by play of their every thought. This is why villains in text tend to make more sense than their big screen counterparts.

Writers Should Stretch the Limits of Empathy

You’d be surprised with what people can empathize with, things they’d dislike characters saying on screen, but could understand them thinking on the page. These are universal conditions that often go soft spoken.

We all feel like we have the right to be angry when we’re in traffic. When we have the right of way we’re mad at the asshole behind us honking as we’re trying to turn. When we’re stuck behind someone who’s turning we’re mad at all the opportunities they’re missing.

We all fear judgement. When we’re surrounded by people with more academic experience we fear they’ll see the gaping hole in our intelligence. They’ll catch us rephrasing their statements, citing dated information, or misdefining terms.

We’re all jealous of someone else’s success. We watched them prepare for the opportunity and still have the audacity to call them lucky.

A character in fiction can have terrible thoughts and still be a good person so long as their actions are decent. Those terrible thoughts, that seldom find their way onto film, might help us relate to them.

Let Your Character Keep It Real

If you’re writing in the first person, or third person omniscient, you should give your audience a peek inside your character’s inner workings. If your character’s conscience is always clear it will alienate the reader. Your character shouldn’t think the way they’d speak in a job interview. They should feel free to put their worst foot forward, to let it all hang out, to embarrass themselves.

Don’t just give us a record of what is actually happening to them. That’s what we get from films. Frame scenes through your characters eyes, through the patterns they recognize. Project their biases onto every surface. Fill our ears with their sneaking suspicions.

Don’t tell it like it is. Tell it like your character believes it to be.

These Aren’t Your Secrets

People who know you can differentiate between your beliefs and those of an embarrassing friend. Astute readers know the difference between the subject and the author. If a character’s nature is established early on you shouldn’t feel like you’re putting words in their mouth. They should have a strong urge to speak their mind as it’s been defined.

Even when a character is rooted in you allow them to do things you’d never do. Let your audience think an embarrassing character moment is rooted in reality.

It’s good if a reader thinks, “Only a genuine psychopath could write from a killer’s perspective so convincingly.” or “Only a serial cheater could rationalize betraying their lover like this.” or “Only a sexual deviant would know the lingo for this nuanced fetish.”

If readers are trying to figure out what makes you tick then you’re doing something right. It means your characters feel real.

Here are some other methods for showcasing your character’s flawed nature.

Rationalize Wrongdoing

It’s easier for people to rationalize selfish decisions than stupid ones, even when they’re one in the same. If your plot needs your character to go somewhere they’d be smart to avoid, you need to make the reward outweigh the risk.

How do people always rationalize cheating on their spouses?

“I never wanted to hurt anyone.” Which is another way of saying, “I didn’t think I was going to get caught.”

Make the devil on your hero’s shoulder more articulate than their angel, at least until the climax of the story when the angel drops the mic on them.

Use Logical Fallacies

I’ve linked to yourlogicalfallacyis.com as a tool for arguing with trolls online. Now I’m recommending it for another purpose. Look through some of these poor arguments: the straw man, the slippery slope, and special pleading. Now find one for your narrator to use in a fit of anger. Your hero might be a smart person, but it’s hard to think rationally in the heat of the moment.

Make the holes in your hero’s argument obvious. This will create dramatic irony. The audience will know something your hero hasn’t come to terms with. Your hero should realize their fallacy when they go through a change by the end of the story.

Plan a Crime

Some of the nicest characters plan murders, they just don’t follow through on them. They confide in the reader about what they’d like to do to their bosses, their in-laws, and their own children.

Think of this as an intrusive thought that’s lingered in your character’s imagination. It’s not something they’d commit to doing, just a dark fantasy they escape to now and again. There’s no one in the character’s life they can confess this to without coming across as a homicidal maniac. So they tell you.

Launder Envy

We all know jealousy isn’t something to be proud of. So we code it when we vent. We’re envious of the beautiful person who nabbed our position. We just happen to notice how little they did to get what we wanted. We have a front row seat to an injustice. Sure that injustice came out our expense, but we witnessed it all the same. If anything we’re the most qualified to give criticism.

Perpetually envious people aren’t particularly likable. Socially adjusted people know this, but jealousy is just part of the human condition. The more a character works to rationalize their envy the more they reveal how much it consumes them.

Talk Dirty

Talking dirty isn’t just about kissing and telling, it’s about letting your character share their sexuality with the reader. A timid character might confess to a crush, while another might walk you through their bedroom fantasy. There’s a way for characters to do this without coming across as smarmy.

Just as characters can launder their envy to build a better rapport with readers characters can launder their lust with innuendos and euphemisms. Feel free to be unambiguous. Just give your character a big heart to go with their libido. It’s hard to hate someone who intertwines their sexual fantasies with their emotional ones.

Closing Thoughts

I love characters without filters, characters who think it like it is. If they spoke everything on their minds they’d come across as creeps talking about their exes on first dates, but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re gossiping with their most trusted confidant. They know the reader is someone who gets them. The hero over-shares because they count the reader as their friend.

Raise the Curve: Why Writers Should Surround themselves With Passionate People

Raise the Curve

I have lived with my share of slackers; people who couldn’t be bothered to clean their hair dye out of the sink, to sweep up all their broken glass, or close the door on their way out of the apartment. These were people who used scuffed CDs as coasters for the beer bottles they were using as ashtrays. They stacked towers of dirty dishes in the sink, too high to soak.

One night, at the old place, a girl was too drunk to figure out how to get the toilet to flush. She lifted the lid, found it was too heavy and dropped it into the tank. It fell straight through the bottom, shattering it. The toilet gushed its gallons across the hall and into my room. Later that day she tried to superglue the porcelain pieces back together. When that didn’t work she left an envelope full of cash on the counter. This was the same envelope the roommate who’d invited her in used to paid his rent.

My room was a mess, with a closet overflowing with laundry, but compared to my roommates’ spaces it looked immaculate. That’s the thing. If all of your roommates are lazy slobs the act of sweeping makes you a neat freak, tossing expired milk makes you anal retentive, and taking the trash out means you have OCD.

In school some teachers graded on a curve, giving A’s to the top 10% of the class, B’s for the next 10%, C’s to 60%, and D’s and F’s for the bottom 20%. If the majority of the students were putting in failing work it didn’t take much to earn an easy A.

As my roommates illustrated, this curve exists in all areas of life: in offices, customer service, and even creative endeavors. If all of your classmates are tapping on their phones then simply looking in the professor’s direction counts as participation. If all of your coworkers punch in late and leave early then merely working your entire shift makes you a model employee. If all your fellow writers are in the idea stage then just typing a page puts you ahead of them.

If you surround yourself with people who do the bare minimum you won’t feel compelled to rise that far above them. If your peers set the bar too low you will plateau before you peak. Writers encircled by slackers will have a hard time getting to the professional level.

When you’re writing it’s important to distance yourself from people who regularly declare their boredom. Dissociate with the couch ridden binge watchers jonesing for junk food. Step away from the compulsive status checkers, declaring their envy of people they haven’t seen in years. Get clear of the habitual heralds; the hot headed hurricanes spinning through the bad news cycle. You need to find peers who will pressure you to work harder.

How the Right People and the Right Places Can Improve Your Writing

Writers should surround themselves with passionate people who aren’t afraid to challenge them. Writers can find this in a writers’ workshop, but be sure to select the right group.

A writers’ workshop full of hobbyists won’t do much to raise novices to expert status, not when the sole goal is to create a nurturing environment. Here’s how I recommend auditioning a writers’ workshop to see if it’s right for you. Bring an old short story that you don’t like, or an old draft of something that didn’t work. Act like you have a lot of pride in this piece. If the workshop praises it without giving any constructive criticism find a different workshop.

Writers should seek out people who humble them not people who inflate their ego.

Sometimes it’s the people you know who challenge you to work harder, sometimes it’s the people you don’t. Try sitting shoulder to shoulder with productive strangers, people erecting their own walls of text, typing so fast they give you keystroke envy.

Find a coffee shop full of freelancers, someplace where you don’t know anyone, someplace that makes you feel uncomfortable, where people are always replying to important messages in their inboxes, where the clientele seem further along in their careers than you. I’ve found that these intimidating spaces inflate my word count, because I’m less inclined to fall into a black hole of click bait articles and movie rumors.

It turns out this method of surrounding yourself with passionate professionals can be done on social media as well. I’m starting to understand why writers on twitter post their hourly word counts like high scores. It gives the rest of us something to aspire to.

What Beds and Writing Spaces Have in Common

It’s hard to work from home when you don’t live alone. Home is where most people go to relax. Good luck getting any writing done in a minefield full of legos and children competing for your attention. If you have roommates good luck resisting the lure of entire seasons of television, viral video recommendations, and marathon gaming sessions. Good luck visualizing anything with all those screens in your sightline. Good luck hearing your thoughts with speakers blaring all the time.

Writing can be just as tough when you live alone, especially when you use your writing space, and writing tools, for other things.

There’s a reason sleep experts tell you not to browse the net, watch TV, or eat in bed. You risk developing insomnia, because your mind stops associating your bed as a place for rest.

You should treat your writing space with the same respect as your bed. Whether it’s in a home office or a cafe downtown you should only go there for one reason: to get work in. That’s why I have a coffee shop I go to write and another to have conversations with friends.

I still associate with my share of slackers. I have people I only hangout with and others I can also work around. I try to surround myself with creative individuals. When none are available I go to places where I can at least rub elbows with them. I go to these strange lengths because I’m always trying to raise my personal curve.

What Writing a Novel and Quitting Smoking have in Common

Former SmokerWhen I quit smoking everyone I knew still smoked. I didn’t have to buy a pack for the temptation find me. A friend would see me standing with my hands in my pockets and wave a cigarette in front of my lips. I didn’t have to ask for it. Hell, I didn’t even have to light it. As far as they were concerned, I looked wrong without it.

I was the type of smoker other smokers pointed to and said, “At least I’m not as bad as him.”

When I saw the cigarette smoking man, on The X-Files, hold a cancer stick to his tracheotomy, I took it as a signal to light one up myself. The filter in my mouth was trigger enough for me to light another.

My smoker’s cough sounded like a donkey heehawing. My phlegm was the color of coffee. My nicotine headaches lasted for days.

Smoking was a part of my writing process. At the end of every page I’d reward myself with a cigarette. When I was blocked I huffed and puffed throughout. I did my best Hunter S. Thompson impression, balancing the filter in my lips while my hands were busy typing. My keyboard looked like an ashtray.

All of my characters smoked. I wrote long descriptions of the clouds they blew. I used smoke as a tool for expressing how they felt in the moment.

I didn’t measure my walk to work in blocks. I measured the distance in cigarettes. The walk to the coffee shop was two American Spirits. Blockbuster Video was three. The walk to the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts was four.

I smoked a pack and a half a day. I’d walk to the gas station at two in the morning to make sure a pack was waiting for me on the night stand.

Cigarettes were an extension of my body. My mannerisms required them. My eyes said more with firelight. My smile was always lopsided. The habit was part of my expression.

Even my self portraits featured cigarettes.

Selfportrait

I smoked indoors, before and after I’d brushed my teeth. I ashed into sinks, cans, and beer bottles. I smoked in bed. My cat stunk of ash. The smoke was so thick in the apartment anyone who stepped outside had red eyes, like they’d emerged from a pool of weapons grade chlorine.

One day I got so sick I couldn’t raise a cigarette to my lips. I had night sweats and fever dreams. I lost time, lying in bed for days. When I became lucid I tried to light a cigarette. It made me nauseous and lightheaded. This sensation was familiar. I’d gone a week without a cigarette before. The physical addiction had sweat its way out of my system, all I had to do was reacquaint the tobacco with my lungs.

Then I got an idea. What if I tested myself to see how long I could go without smoking? I wouldn’t tell anyone. My roommates, coworkers, and classmates smoked. If I told any of them I’d feel embarrassed when they caught me lighting up again, or worse, they’d test my resolve.

A friend who’d failed to kick the habit gave me the last of her nicotine gum. I had one precious sleeve of it, so I had to ration. I saved the pieces for when I felt like I was having an irrational anger attack, then I’d pop one in and park it in my cheek for as long as I could take it.

I didn’t out myself to my fellow smokers until I’d committed to quitting. It took months for many of them to notice. By then my cat was sniffing under my roommates’ doors to get her nicotine fix.

When It’s Safe to Tell People You’re Writing a Novel

If you tell someone you’re thinking of writing a novel prepare to be heckled in a couple of months if you find yourself working slow.

Writing a novel is a lot like quitting smoking. It’s best to tell people once you’ve already commit to it, once you’re a few chapters deep. Identifying yourself as a writer isn’t the first step to becoming one. You have to develop the problem before you can admit to having one.

When I started coming up with stories I became annoying company. I read some information on writing online and took my false authority out on the town. I talked a good game, but I wasn’t really a player. I used my desire to be a writer as a conversation starter. I was a cocktail conceptualizer, a party going poet, and a social satirist.

I changed plot details based on reactions I was getting. I switched genres depending on my audience’s tastes. I renamed my heroes on the go. I spoiled my stories before I even started writing.

I got good at pitching, but failed to realize that I wasn’t writing. I was more of a bard than anything. I could tell a scary story at a camp fire, but I was a long way off from getting one on the shelf of a major retailer. By identifying myself as a writer I’d made it harder to become one. The instant gratification I got from telling stories substituted my need to jot them down.

Why You Should Keep Some of Your Story a Secret 

When a screenwriter pitches a movie to producers it’s not uncommon for them to compare it to something else. The script reader who gave the thumbs up to Alien said it’s like Jaws, but in space. Often the comparison is this meets that. It’s Die Hard meets Titanic. It’s 28 Days Later meets Love Actually. It’s Predator meets Jurassic Park (no wait, they already made that movie).

The problem with this strategy is it sets false expectations for your story. Everyone’s vision of Die Hard meets Titanic is going to be different. One person will imagine an action movie set on a sinking ship. Another will imagine a period piece about hostages, with a romantic subplot. Others will imagine Under Siege with Steven Seagal.

This is why most screenwriters will tell you not to pitch with a comparison, but to have one in the tank in case you’re asked for one.

Fledgling novelists might have comparisons impressed upon them when they pitch their story to friends. You might mention you’re writing a young adult novel with a strong female protagonist.

A friend might say, “Like Katniss Everdeen?”

If you say, “sure,” your friend’s expectations could warp your story into a dystopian future like something out of the Hunger Games. All of that friend’s suggestions will try to shift your story in a direction they understand. Do this enough times and your audience will suggest you write something homogenous and bland.

People want stories that are familiar only different, but if you invite comparisons before draft one you’ll forget the “only different” part.

When you turn writing a novel into an exchange expect this type of input from everyone.

Hollywood producers throw out “what if” questions to test a screenwriter’s flexibility during pitch sessions.

“What if it’s not a musical? What if it’s a martial arts movie?”

“What if the Hindenburg doesn’t crash in this version?”

“What if Hitler isn’t the bad guy? What if he’s the love interest?”

Your friends will do this because they want to hold up their end of the conversation. The problem with their suggestions is that they’re fleeting. Your friends might not be as invested in their ideas as they’ve led on. It’s just that the only thing you feel like talking about is writing, so they feel pressured to weigh in.

On the other hand, sometimes friends can get too invested. They’ll check in to see how their suggestions are coming along. If you say you couldn’t make their ideas work they’ll debate you into putting them back in.

I’ve had to explain to friends why I don’t want to name characters after them. I fear I’ll imagine that person in the role and I’ll feel weird about making their character do anything embarrassing. Now I have a rule that if you pressure me into naming a character after you that character is guaranteed a brutal death. No exceptions.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re telling people about plot developments you haven’t written, or outlined, you’re not writing. If you’re telling people you’re almost done, it will be a long time before you have anything worth showing. The half way point doesn’t come once you’ve reached the middle of the story. The halfway point comes when your first draft is finished, sometimes not even then.

Wait to tell people you’ve been working on a novel until you’re several chapters in. Tell them what it’s about when you’ve already committed to a direction. Keep some details to yourself and learn to have a conversation about something other than writing.

How to Keep Intrusive Thoughts from Ruining Your Writing

How to brush those intrusive thoughts away

How to brush those intrusive thoughts away

Writer’s block doesn’t always come from within. Sometimes obstructions fall into our path. One of the most difficult challenges writers face is when real life drama proves more compelling than our dramatic narratives. I’ve blogged about how it’s hard to keep our memoirs out of our fiction. Sometimes it’s harder to keep our minds clear enough to leave a figment for our imaginations.

Here’s what happens. You finish writing a sequence full of reveals: your heroine learns the hallucination that’s been haunting her is real. Her husband has known all along. He’s been lying to convince her she’s crazy. These twists move your story into the eye of the storm. You want to give your audience a chance to breathe before diving back in. Then something happens in your life that’s more insane than your writing.

Surprise, the girl you thought you were dating wasn’t as far along in her divorce proceedings as she’d led on. Surprise, the entire time you’ve been paying rent your landlord hasn’t been paying the mortgage. Surprise, a squatter has been living in your basement.

These situations get your imagination racing in the wrong direction. It’s exhausted when you need it for storytelling. You end up bringing your own tension to scenes that would be better off without it.

Only so many thoughts can fit in the same brain. When facts are stranger than fiction your fiction can’t compete with your situation. Your story pauses, while your imagination cycles through worst case scenarios. When something terrible happens you can’t help but wonder what kind of state it will leave you in. When the dust settles you fantasize about how things can get better. You’re too busy telling a story to keep yourself functioning to turn around and tell one to an audience.

How can you find the spark of inspiration when you’re so busy looking for a light at the end of the tunnel? First you have to acknowledge the situation. Then you have to develop an understanding of how your mind copes. Finally you have to come up with a system for working through it.

The Extent of the Problem

We all experience intrusive thoughts from time to time. If you’re afraid of heights you can’t help but picture yourself falling over a guard railing. If you’re responsible for children you can’t help but imagine something terrible happening to them. If you have to deal with a rude coworker you can’t help but hear yourself telling them off. Most of the time these nightmares are fleeting, but when you’re in the middle of a tough situation they haunt your daydreams.

These fatalistic flashes become obsessions you can’t help but dwell on, scabs you can’t help picking, songs you can’t get out of your mind. Your fantasy worlds are light years away while these terrestrial scenarios orbit you. You see triggers where you once found inspiration.

Writers are prone to neurosis in a crisis. We can’t help but imagine every outcome when we’re stuck in a bad situation. So what can we do to work this compulsion out of our systems?

Think About the Pink Elephant

Don’t think about a pink elephant. Don’t imagine a big pink elephant stomping through the dry wall. Don’t visualize it with a top hat on its head and a cain in its trunk, and whatever you do don’t imagine that elephant dancing.

If you tell yourself not to think of something while you’re trying to write, you’re going to think about it. That’s the irony of negative suggestion. The more you fear failing, the more likely you will fail. When you consciously try to push a thought to the back of your mind, the more it moves into the foreground. When you try not to think of the thing that’s bugging you, the more thought you give it.

If you have a pink elephant stomping you down: think about it. Think about the elephant in the room until it blends into the furniture. Run the elephant around your mind until its exhausted.

This is called exposure therapy. The idea is that everyone has triggers that call up their intrusive thoughts, things that remind them of their bad situations. Conventional wisdom would tell you to avoid those triggers to spare yourself the pain. This can turn the creative process into a minefield of ideas you need to avoid to keep yourself working.

If you have an intrusive thought, list as many of your triggers as you can. Expose yourself to the ones you can stomach and wear them out. Dwell on the thought until it’s a broken record, and becomes redundant. Think about your pain until you can predict how it will hurt you, until you go numb.

Tell people what you’re going through. Vent about the elephant. Give yourself a reasonable time frame to discuss your situation and cut yourself off when it feels like you might be getting too exhausting.

Cloud busting

Cloud busting

Methods for Writing around the Elephant in the Room

Outline

The easiest method for preventing a bad situation from derailing your train of thought is to map it out in advance. If you draft each scene, numbering them all before you write the first one, an intrusive thought won’t have a chance of making you forget what comes next.

This isn’t the ideal solution for writers like myself, who prefer to be surprised, but it never hurts to have some structure to fall back on. This is why I always have a vague ending in mind before I get started. I can always change it if I come up with something better along the way.

Keep a Routine

If you commit to putting your ass in the seat everyday, and keep meeting your word count goals, your routine will withstand a traumatic life event. You might falter, but once you prove you can write through a bad situation it’ll be much easier when you encounter another.

Compartmentalize

If you know what direction your story is heading, but something terrible happens to you while you’re writing, you might feel a strong desire to put it in your story. Your pink elephant will want a walk on role in your production. Ask yourself, if I wasn’t me would I like this story more or less with this new plot point? If the answer is “less” then put that pink elephant someplace else.

Closing Thoughts

Writing is always challenging. It’s even harder to spin a yarn when your head is tied in knots. Sometimes the best way to keep writing through a tragedy is to already have a routine going. Sometimes the best way to cast out an intrusive thought is to accept its presence. Sometimes the best way to avoid thinking of a pink elephant is to get used to it.

Do Writers Have any Responsibilities to Reality?

1. Cracks Begin to Show

Is there something wrong with perpetuating superstition through fiction?

The Power of Urban Legends

There’s a reason I put off getting my hair cut until the sides grow into big Wolverine spikes. I get nervous about the conversation with the hairdresser. I don’t like sitting in silence while the client next to me is laughing. I like to take on the appearance of a sociable well adjusted human being, if only for the time it takes to get my bangs trimmed. So I prepare material: funny memories I try to pass off as something that happened recently, news stories that aren’t politically polarizing, and list of the most recent films I’ve seen.

If I cycle through all my conversation starters and the hairdresser says, “You know I’m really not that into movies.” Then the weather better be doing something incredible, because there goes most of my material.

The last time this happened I decided to pitch a subplot from my work in progress We the Damned. It went like this:

Morgan lives with her husband, Tim, in a small town in Northern California. They’re surrounded by a curtain of giant redwoods, trees as old as the common era. Morgan is a popular gardener. She’s the breadwinner of the family while Tim aspires to be an entrepreneur.

Tim is literally trying to build his own job. He wheels woodworking materials out into the forest. He’s found a trail long forgotten by the forest service. He lines it with fake landmarks so he can give haunted tours. Tim lays out an orphan graveyard and grows moss on the stones. He hangs wind chimes and rusts the metal with chemicals. He builds an old shack, caves the roof in, and ages the wood.

Morgan gets concerned when Tim starts spending his nights in the woods. Afraid her husband might be cheating Morgan enables the tracking feature on his phone. One morning she traces Tim’s signal to the trail. She follows the chimes to the shack she’s seen on Tim’s computer. There’s something about it she hadn’t anticipated. It reeks of death. It’s possible a raccoon fell through the roof. Morgan decides not to check, but then the wind blows the door open and reveals a wall covered in crimson. There’s a mountain of animal skins on the floor, and a grid of corpses mounted to the wall. Worse yet, their blood is still wet.

Morgan flees the scene, hacks into her husband’s cloud documents, and finds his plans to build an attraction around a ghost story about a wronged woman. In the text he muses about how he wishes Pilgrim Valley had a suicide in its recent history. It would corroborate his claims of a haunting. At the end of this document Morgan finds instructions on how to tie a noose.

The hairdresser cut me off. “Wait, did this actually happen? She seriously found instructions on how to tie a noose?”

I shook my head. “Yeah, it happens in the story.”

The hairdresser tilted her head back and forth. “So this is based on actual events, right?”

“No, but if you follow urban legends you start to see storytelling patterns. Writers play with these archetypes until they create something that feels real.”

“But that’s a real town?”

“No. I built Pilgrim Valley with a well trodden template.”

A funny thing happened during this conversation. The more I kept trying to convince the hairdresser my story was fiction the more she believed it had actually happened.

I was tempted to say, “Actually, this was based on a local legend.”  just to see how far it would travel. Maybe one day I’d pitch it to a hairdresser across town and they’d say, “Wait, I’ve heard about this. This really happened, didn’t it?”

As a horror writer I love playing on people’s fears, but I can’t help but wonder how horror stories impact readers’ realities.

2. A Hole in Reality

Is there a Relationship Between Fiction and Superstition?

In The Omen, Father Jennings quotes a cryptic verse from the bible:

“When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet rips the sky, and the Holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his brother, till man exists no more… The Book of Revelations predicted it all.”

People continue to quote this verse in anticipation of the end times. The only problem is it’s not in the bible. Revelations is written in the first person, there are no references to comets, and it never rhymes. Screenwriter David Selzter made the quote up and viewers assumed it was buried in the scriptures somewhere.

In the weeks after The Exorcist premiered in 1973 a Boston Catholic Center was flooded with requests for exorcisms every day. Since then there have been dozens of films about demon possession. Many claiming to be “inspired by actual events.” According to a 2012 poll by Public Policy Polling 57 percent of American voters believe demon possession is possible.

As a horror writer, I love the idea that scary stories have such a powerful impact on people, but these superstitious beliefs can have deadly consequences. In 1973 Anneliese Michel started taking anti-psychotics to deal with the intense seizures she was experiencing. In 1975 she went off of her medication. She underwent a series of exorcisms, twice a week over a period of ten months. She stopped eating. In 1976, Anneliese died in her home. She weighed 68 pounds.

During the trial it was revealed by one of Anneliese’s physicians that she had epilepsy. The exorcists were convicted of manslaughter.

Anneliese’s story was adapted into The Exorcism of Emily Rose which implied she was possessed, not epileptic, and exonerated its priest of any wrong doing. It perpetuated the same superstitious beliefs that cost Anneliese her life.

Horror writers should be able to blur the line between fantasy and reality, but the thesis of our stories shouldn’t be that our fiction is really happening. We can use demon possession as a way of addressing mental illness without convincing people to go without treatment. Films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose make a compelling argument for epileptics to think they’re inhabited by Satan.

Why Writers Shouldn’t Dust Off a Superstition That’s Been Disproven

In the 1980s the United States was in the grip of something called “The Satanic Panic.” People were coming forward with stories of Satanic Ritual Abuse. The popular allegation was that cultists were raping family members, dragging them to black masses in the forest, and forcing them to sacrifice the offspring of incestuous unions. It was believed cultists were getting away with this because the victims repressed their memories. That all changed when regression hypnotherapy came into popularity. More and more people were going to see therapists and coming out with stories of blood soaked alters in the woods.

It seemed like a massive conspiracy was coming to light. Farms were dug up. Families were torn apart. Communities were shaken. Then the FBI investigated. Some of the women who believed their babies had been sacrificed were revealed to be virgins. The bureau found that none of the sacrifices had actually happened. It turned out that mass hysteria and regression hypnotherapy were the cause of the conspiracy.

Now in 2015, Hollywood is putting out a film called Regression that appears to portray these events as if they’ve actually happened. It is entirely possible that this film will come down on the side against superstition, but given Hollywood’s track record I wouldn’t count on it.

Suspension of disbelief matters, especially if your story hinges on a busted myth.

Closing Thoughts

I just watched a documentary on sleep paralysis called The NightmareI myself have suffered from sleep paralysis throughout my twenties. It got so bad I had to see a neurologist.

In the documentary, the subjects describe the same hallucinations I experienced: shadow people with big red eyes standing at the foot of their beds. The filmmakers even shot reenactments of their subjects’ terrifying visions. Half of the people interviewed believed their experiences were caused by demons trying to suck out their souls. I watched The Nightmare documentary right before I fell asleep.

That night I slept like a baby.

I know there is more academic information about sleep paralysis than the subjects of the film wanted to admit. Some preferred to perpetuate the shadow man urban legend, others wanted to believe they were important enough to be targeted by demons. I know better.

I know enough about the origins of monsters to build monsters of my own. I’m not about to lose sleep over someone else’s superstition.

How to Keep Writing From Weighing Your Life Down

1. DraggingI’ve blogged at length about how a writer’s life experience can improve their fiction, but I haven’t written on how the reverse is true, how fantasy can improve a writer’s reality. If the responsibility of writing weighs you down use it as an excuse to go outside and do something.

A Life Worth Commenting On

In screenwriting class our professor had us keep a journal, a place to document our fears. It was not a diary. It was a tool for scene building, a method for adding authenticity to atmospheric descriptions. We were to venture into unknown territory and write about it, to find a place that put us on edge, where the adrenaline heightened our senses, so we could chronicle everything we felt.

Turns out a lesbian bar wasn’t that far outside of my comfort zone, not because I was leering at the ladies, but because they seemed fine with me. Their DJs had good taste, the absence of frat boy posturing was freeing, and I even got drawn into a dance off (author’s note: if your best move is the moon walk save it for the end).

From there I went ghost hunting in caves along the Mississippi. The city had filled the entrance in with rubble, which meant we had to crawl with our backs covered in limestone and our chests full of gravel. It also meant the tunnels had poor ventilation. We risked running out of air and joining the spirits we were pursuing (author’s note: if you decide to venture into these caves, DON’T, but if you do bring your own oxygen).

I followed some friends onto a high bridge in the middle of the night. We were half way across the St. Croix River when a train came. Our legs dangled over the side, like we were reenacting a scene from The Lost Boys. The waters raged 180 feet bellow. If I leaned back I’d have gotten a metal massage. We had to wait for a fifteen minute eternity as the boards quaked beneath our asses (author’s note: I’ve always been afraid of heights and I consider this experience proof that fear aversion therapy doesn’t work).

These locations were beyond what my professor had in mind. Writers don’t need to go to such extremes for inspiration, but they should, to quote comedian Pete Holmes, try to “live a life worth commenting on.” This is something many of us forget to do while we’re sitting in silence working. As writers we want to prove we have what it takes to go the distance, but we have a habit of being so driven that we pass life by.

Many of us use our vocation to justify isolation. We’re less afraid to write 2,000 words a dialogue than we are to have an actual conversation. We’re less afraid to write a death scene than to go through a new life experience. Our therapeutic outlet takes up the majority of our time.

Life is Research

Colleges require students to take generals because they want to produce well rounded individuals, graduates who are more than their majors. This might be an excuse to squeeze more money out of students, but writers should take a page from these academic institutions.

Authors need a versatile knowledge pool to write about other professions with an heir of authority. I read a lot of social psychology nonfiction to inform my writing, but I find the best information comes from friends. If you’re having trouble turning off your drive to write, think of socializing as part of your process.

In the same way a great book can be a conversation starter so can a great work in progress. Survey your friends on issues raised by your story. They might help bring your characters more emotional authenticity.

Use writing as an excuse to pay attention to people. Listen to them vent. Note how they talk differently when they’re in the heat of the moment, and how they frame their memories once they’re past them.

Reconnect with friends in interesting professions. You’ll learn more about the physical reality of ERs by talking to an EMT than you will combing through wikipedia. You’ll learn more about criminal investigations talking to a retired detective than you will watching a marathon of cop dramas.

Use research as an excuse to call your parents. You’ll get more emotional material talking to people who’ve lived through events of their era than by watching the history channel.

This shouldn’t feel like a chore. It should be a springboard to have interesting conversations. Research should enhance your life just as much as it enhances your work.

2. Tie

How to use Everyday Conversations as Research

There are ways to get ideas from your friends without quoting them verbatim. There are ways to capture their spirits without having to pay likeness rights. Pay attention to the behaviors your pals are not aware of. Ask yourself questions like this:

  • Do you have a friend who can’t help but slip new fifty cent buzz words into casual conversation?
  • How do they react when you tell them they’ve been misusing the word all along?
  • Do they blame their word-a-day calendar or do they argue for their warped definition?
  • Do they insert phrases they just learned into every discussion?
  • Can you trace the phrase to the movie, book, or Ted Talk they got it from?
  • Do you have a friend who refuses to censor themselves no matter their surroundings?
  • Do they notice the angry looks they’re getting?
  • Do they double down on their polarizing statements or do they backpedal when they realize they have an audience?
  • Have you ever caught a friend trying to pass a political pundit’s words off as their own thought?
  • What does their expression look like when they do this?
  • Do they pretend to form the words in real time when you know they’re really quoting something?
  • Have they ever misquoted their sources?
  • How do they respond when you call them out on this?
  • Do you know someone who can’t help but over share on a first date?
  • Do they lead with a conversation about their crazy exes?
  • Do they go on about an interest their date doesn’t share?
  • Do they intentionally put embarrassing details about themselves out their to test to see how much their date can tolerate?
  • How are they at handling their date’s own embarrassing details?

Learn to ask these kinds of questions. Make use of your friend’s truth or dare answers. These are the details that inform characterization.

Closing Thoughts

Writers need support systems outside of their fiction. Sometimes we spend so much time thinking about our hero’s needs we fail to look out for number one. You have to have a vested interest in the well being of other people if you want to write characters worth caring about. You have to exercise empathy in the real world if you want to write sympathetic characters in your fiction. You have to try to live a life worth commenting on.

How to Write With Your Back Against the Wall

1. Hands Up

There are a lot of quotes on writing in need of correction, like this one:

If writing isn’t fun don’t do it.
CORRECTION
If writing isn’t fun don’t do it. do it anyway.

You’ve probably heard this old chestnut:
If you don’t think writing is fun you’re not cut out for it.
CORRECTION
If you don’t think expect writing is to be fun all the time you’re not cut out for it.

A work ethic is one of many things that separates hobbyists from professional writers (the others include: talent, an education, connections, a body of work, and luck).

It’s been raining all week. I haven’t felt like writing the entire time. I just wanted to lie on the couch and binge watch all the TV shows my friends are always assigning. I forced myself to write the first paragraph of a new chapter, some setting description to remind myself where the story was going.

I’m one of those writers who pauses in the middle of a scene so I’ll have somewhere to go when I come back. I kept adding details to make my life in the future a little bit easier. I wrote some dialogue and decided to press on until my characters finished their conversation. When I wrapped up the chapter I was working on I realized I had to set up the next one.

Needless to say I never did hunker down and watch Arrested Development.

It’s the weeks when I’m convinced I’m burned out that I get my best work done. Here are some of the ways I trick myself into getting started.

2. Let's see where this takes us

Life Hacks to Get Your Writing Started

Take It to the Notebook

Sometimes you need to take the “formal” out of your writing formula. You need to trick your mind into thinking you’re dabbling instead of writing. This can be hard to do on a computer screen where the text resembles the format of published work. This is why you should keep a notebook on hand. Your handwriting is far less formal than Helvetica or Times New Roman.

A notebook is the perfect place to workshop ideas before committing to them. If you’re working on a novel you shouldn’t just start journaling and expect to stumble upon something.

Stockpile a Term Arsenal 

If you’re writing a first person story think about some of the phrases your character is likely to use in different situations. Jot each of their preferred terms in your notebook. Draw a checkmark next to the ones you end up using. Not only will this help you find your narrator’s voice, it will help you figure out how to start the next sequence.

Here are some questions to help you figure out what expressions you should be listing:

– What lingo does your hero use to describe their surroundings?

  • What inside jokes do they make at the other characters’ expense?
  • What professional jargon seeps into their casual conversations?
  • Where do their favorite metaphors come from: sports, gambling, or the bible?
  • What famous phrases are they likely to quote from movies?
  • What generation-specific slang do their circumstance call for?
  • What are their dumb default phrases, the dad jokes they’re always telling that never connect?

Brainstorm Bullet Points

If you’re afraid the next scene you’re working on will be too boring, but you can’t cut it because it reveals obligatory information, list a series of “what if” statements. They might help you make the scene more interesting.

  • What if a character teased a reveal they were saving for later?
  • What if a character who was set to be cooperative in the scene was given reason to be conflicted instead?
  • What if there was a sense of urgency added to the event, like a blast door coming down, a ticking bomb, or a fire?
  • What if there’s room for subtext: gestures and language that reveal the characters’ secret thoughts about each other?

Hit PAUSE at Just the Right Moment

This was Hemingway’s life hack for making the next day of writing easier.

He said, “Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day… you will never be stuck… But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”

My addition to Hemingway’s hack is to give yourself options. Utilize the comments feature of your word processor and list some details in the margins (in MS Word it’s under Menu BarInsertNew Comment).

Use this space to list potential developments. Think of it as a choose your own adventure for your next day of writing. This is just in case you forget some details while you’re sleeping.

3. Okay I'll Write

Take It Outside

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk writes in public. He refuses to chain his muse to a schedule. I imagine him going to parties with a notepad up his sleeve, a reporter getting the scoop on his friends. I picture him dressing up as a priest so he can take a memo pad into a confessional, or posing as a bartender so he can jot closing time quotes on napkins. Palahniuk’s party going process is perfect if you’re an extrovert. If you’re an introvert try…

The Egg Timer Method

Speaking of Chuck Palahniuk, another trick he recommends trying when you don’t feel like writing is to set an egg timer for an hour and write until it rings. If it’s still not working for you you’re free to leave, but hopefully you’ll be so enthralled that you’ll keep going.

Closing Thoughts

When I used to write poetry I’d find myself running out of the shower to jot my ideas down. I kept notepads in my work shirts, and covered my hands in words when I ran out of paper. As a poet, I was on call for whenever my muse needed something dictated. I waited for inspiration to strike and dropped whatever I was doing when it did.

Now that I’m writing narrative fiction my greatest moments of inspiration come after my ass has gone numb, after I’ve struggled through the introductions of my scenes, and I’ve been laboring for some time.

Sometimes writing needs to feel like work before it becomes fun again.

How to Fix Your Story Without Going Back to the Drawing Board

1. TitleThe Case Against Editing as You Go

When I first started writing I scrutinized every paragraph the moment after typing. I counted the syllables so I could adjust for rhythm and flow. I checked my metaphors to see if they mixed wrong, I ran every verb through the thesaurus, and I dialed all my hyperboles back.

By the end of the day my word count hovered around the same number I’d started at. Sometimes it was in the negative. My effort to fine tune the perfect page kept me from finishing my stories.

Writing is hard. I was making it harder than it needed to be, writing the way I’d seen authors work on TV. They’d type THE END, pull the last page out of their typewriter, set it on top of the stack of pages, pat it, and hand the completed work to their publisher. Their publisher called them back before the sun had gone down.

“Why, this is your finest work yet!”

Yeah, writing doesn’t work like that.

As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it, “first drafts are always shit.”

When you accept this your output increases. You give yourself permission to experiment, to stop worrying about grammar and punctuation, and press on without editing. Your focus shifts from quality to quantity. You can side step writer’s block and keep the momentum going. When you focus on the present you get more done. You measure your commitment to your craft not by your bibliography, but by your recent word count.

It’s easier to commit to writing every day when you don’t have to worry about publishing by sundown, about your reviews, or your target audience. You don’t have to bow to your inner critic, because you have no need to reread your story until its finished.

You have to paint a base layer before you can start adding the other colors. You have to carve out the rock before you can chisel out the sculpture. You have to shoot the scene while daylight is burning. You can fix it in post later.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing he recommends putting your first draft in a drawer for at least six weeks before coming back to edit. That way you can see your story with fresh eyes. This will make your darlings easier to kill, because your emotional attachment will have waned. This will make unnecessary scenes easier to cut, because you’ll feel like you’re working with someone else’s story. It’ll make everything easier to fix, except for spotty continuity.

2. Chalk

What Plotting and Knitting Have in Common

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the easiest parts of editing. Fixing a broken continuity is far more challenging.

A story’s continuity is what makes it believable. It keeps your characters consistent. If your hero has a fear of heights they shouldn’t be eager to check out the view from the balcony of a skyscraper. If your hero swears in church they shouldn’t have a polite streak when they’re talking to a police officer. If you break your hero’s arm in one scene they shouldn’t be throwing any punches in the next.

A story’s continuity allows readers to follow the plot, to understand the timeline, to trace its causes to its effects, and appreciate the ending. When you write by the seat of your pants, with a focus on quantity over quality, you do so at the risk of your continuity.

Continuity is a string that knots up every time your plot twists. Whenever you knit a new subplot into the story you risk forgetting the pattern you had going. Whenever you take a thread in a new direction you risk tangling the things you’d already set in motion. Whenever you follow inspiration away from your plan, you risk turning your first draft into a big ball of yarn.

If you leave a story with a spotty continuity in the drawer for too long you’ll forget which strings need to be cut and which ones to be rethreaded. You’ll have a lot of knots on your hands. I have two methods for fixing a broken continuity. The first is a bandaid solution. The other requires planning earlier on.

How to Fix a Continuity Error Without Going Back to Edit

A temporary solution for when you feel a plot hole forming is to let characters draw attention to it. This way you ensure your audience that you have every intention of filling it. This can be done organically if you’re writing a mystery. Let’s say you dressed up a crime scene with inconsistent iconography.

Your hero could say, “Why would the killer carve the Satanic goat of lust into the victim’s back, then draw Devil’s traps on the ground around the body. One symbol is made to summon evil. The other is meant to repel it.”

Just remember that every time the detective asks those questions, they’re promising the reader a mind blowing revelation. If you tie up a loose end with a cheap explanation you’ll reveal that you didn’t know what you were doing all along.

How satisfied would you be to learn the explanation for the above scenario was that the killer didn’t know the difference between the symbols?

Let’s say your hero does something out of character. They step out onto the balcony of a skyscraper and lean over the railing. A few chapters later you remember that they were supposed to be afraid of heights, but the story needed them to venture out onto that balcony. Do you go back and delete all mentions of their fear of heights? Do you rework the entire scene to keep that character trait consistent, or do you have another character comment on your hero’s strange behavior?

“I thought you were deathly afraid of heights, but I looked out my window and I saw you leaning over the balcony.”

“I know. I’m not sure what came over me.”

This exchange repairs the continuity by acknowledging the hero’s inconsistency, but it isn’t a very satisfying explanation. If anything it only promises better explanation later on. If you do this too often you run the risk of making your story feel convoluted.

3. Time Travel

What Editing and Time Travel Have in Common

In the story I’m working on, I’ve strategically placed moments of foreshadowing. I left comments in the margins of my documents to make them easier to find. I plan on coming back to them often. They will be the most frequently edited pages of my novel.

In these chapters, there are crime scenes where every detail is pivotal to solving the mystery later on. As I strive to make the solution to the mystery more satisfying I find myself returning to these crime scenes and making adjustments.

In my first draft I make sure to use the exact same phrases for each piece of evidence. This may sound redundant, but if you have a needle in a 90,000 word haystack you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to find. By using the same terms I can search out any element I need to go back and change.

My story is filled with these foreshadowing portals; places where I can go back in time and make safe alterations without upsetting the balance of everything else I have going. I have a prophetic story within my story that I adjust to fit future events. I have a tarot reading whose meaning I keep changing. I have an autopsy report that I keep fine tuning.

Another way to keep track of your continuity is to color coat certain setups and payoffs the same color. That way if you alter the payoff you can save time by cycling through all the setups that need fixing. For instance you could color code references to the murder weapons red, and references to the killer’s motivations in green. This way if you decide you’d rather the weapon be a lead pip instead of a candlestick you can go back and adjust the crime scene to reflect that.

Closing Thoughts

With these methods you can edit aspects of your story as you write. You can keep your momentum going while keeping your continuity consistent. This will leave less knots for you to untie when it’s time to edit the rest.