The Power of the Ugly Draft: How I Wrote a Novel in 22 Days

I just wrote 60K words in three weeks and no one is more surprised than me! We are 22 days into NaNoWriMo and this morning I typed “THE END” on the first draft of my third novel, Weirfall: The Timekeepers’ War Book 3.

Figuring out my process as a writer has taken years of fumbling and frustration. My first novel, The Timekeepers’ War took nearly ten years to get from concept to published manuscript. Not only is is the first book I have every published, it was the first book I ever wrote. There are not many authors who get to see their first novels published, and I am forever grateful to be one of them.

It wasn’t easy. My drafting process was painfully slow and I ended up having to cut 50K words from my first bloated over-written draft. I made a lot of mistakes. I am still making mistakes. And every time I make a mistake I learn something new.

So how did I go from writing one book in ten years to writing a book in less than a month? Here is what has worked for me:

  • Plan ahead
  • Study craft
  • Let go of perfectionism
  • Make time

Plan for Success

Whether or not you consider yourself a plotter, a pantser, or a something in between, having some kind of a plan is going to make your life easier.

I have always been a bit of a pantser. Drafting is like “flying by the seat of my pants.” One of the reasons my first book took so long from start to finish is that I didn’t really know what my story was about. I floated through plot ideas, exploring hundreds of possibilities, and struggling to connect the dots in a cohesive way.

Exploratory writing is great. Many people find a lot of joy in this process. But if you really want to finish a book, you will benefit from having a plan. It doesn’t have to be a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown with character backstories and 100K of world-building files cluttering up your desktop. At the very least, you should learn how to outline a novel.

I resisted planning and outlining for years before I finally read a book that made everything click. If you like to plan, you probably already have a favourite craft book. But for those of you who really don’t want to let go of the explosive creative joy of pantsering your way through a draft, I highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel.

Weiland showed me how to put all my exploratory creative energy into the outlining process, so that the drafting process became faster and more organized. You won’t lose any of your creative mojo, I promise. You will save time and effort with a good plan.

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland is a life saver!

Study Your Craft

Learning how to outline is a great segue into learning the basics of story structure. I have always been a great lover of story. I read a lot, and I read widely. I have a good instinctual sense for when stories feel “right.” Many writers are like this.

Somehow, for me, this did not translate into a strong working knowledge of story structure. How to properly structure a novel is something that I have had to learn. I spent hours re-structuring my first book after realizing that I’d gotten the pacing all wrong.

I re-wrote my second book three different times before I realized I had messed up the overall structure of the trilogy and was trying to jump too far ahead of myself with book two.

Studying writing craft can be intimidating. There are thousands of books and courses available that purport to teach you how to write “the right way.” I recommend avoiding all of the nitty gritty details of line editing at first. Don’t worry too much about show vs. tell or grammar or fillers and filters. First, you have to get the structure and the character arc in the right place.

I recommend Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, both of which use screenwriting techniques to help writers understand universal principles of story telling, using examples from popular culture that are accessible and easy to understand.

K.M. Weiland’s Structuring your Novel and Creating Character Arcs were indispensable next steps in my own craft study. I find Weiland’s work extremely well organized and easy to cross reference. Creating Character Arcs saved my bacon when I got off track drafting book three. I read each relevant chapter as I was drafting and used the character arc to drive me through my plot points when I felt I was wandering. I am confident that my third book will be my best yet, simply because I put character development front and centre.

With a better understanding of structure, a solid outline in place, and a stronger sense of Ghost’s character arc, writing Weirfall has been a dream in comparison to my struggles with the first two books.

Let Go of Perfectionism

If you want to be a great writer, you have to stop trying to be a good writer. Let go of perfectionism. Let yourself be messy and make mistakes. Write badly. Dump all of your ideas on the page, even if they sound stupid.

A badly written but complete first draft will make your revisions faster and easier. It seems counter intuitive, I know. But all those poorly written sentences–rife with cliches and repetition and placeholders for words you couldn’t think of–act as a memory trigger when you come back to your second draft work. If you have stuck to your outline and have a decent macro-structure in place, revisions will be a piece of cake.

You didn’t waste time getting the imagery perfect in the first draft, but you didn’t lost any of your wonderful ideas, either. Now that you have time to play with the language, you can decide which images to keep and perfect, and which are no longer necessary. You can replace your telling with showing where you want the reader to linger and you can cut the over-written filler where you need to speed things up.

The best part is, you can do this without shedding any tears as you “kill your darlings,” because you haven’t spent hours and hours perfecting and getting emotionally attached to beautiful sentences that simply don’t fit.

Once your structure is in place and your draft is complete, you can add to your craft knowledge with books like Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. There are hundreds of great craft books out there. Swain’s Techniques is my favourite, even if it’s a little old-fashioned, particularly for the genre fiction writer. He taught me about the evils of simultaneity and how it killed my pacing in book one. The way he breaks down sentence and scene structure completely changed they way I write.

But you can’t edit a blank page, as they say. And you have to let go of you perfectionism if you want to finish that draft.

Make Time to Write

One of the most common complaints I hear from other writers is that it is impossible to find time to write. There is this idea that you have to sit down at your computer and slave for 8-12 hours a day in order to finish a book in any kind of reasonable time.

This is a lie!

I wrote a 60K novel in 22 days writing for 2 hours a day.

Finding an “extra” two hours a day isn’t necessarily easy. I wake up at 4am every day in order to get my hours in before the rest of the house wakes up. Then, for the rest of the day I am home-schooling three kids, bookkeeping for our trucking company, writing blog posts, updating social media, and doing my business writing (aka the “real job”). I am in bed by 9:30pm every day.

Whether you are an early bird or a night owl, finding time at the beginning or end of your day is usually the easiest. Be sure to either go to bed earlier, or let yourself sleep later, so that you aren’t sacrificing sleep. If that’s not possible, perhaps you have to write on your lunch break. Whatever works for you, what is important is sticking to it.

Have a schedule. Sit down and write whether you “feel like it” or not. You are not waiting for inspiration, you are writing because you have a plan. You will learn to make your muse come to you. The more frequently you write, the easier it gets.

Last year, when I did NaNoWriMo it was my first “win.” I spent 3-4 hrs every day fighting against my internal editor to get the necessary 1667 words a day to hit 50K in November. That draft, after two months of revisions and edits, become Ghostlights: The Timekeepers’ War Book Two.

This year, I wrote 2-3K a day in a 2hr window without breaking a sweat. The early morning quite probably helped. More than anything, though, keeping a regular schedule helped my brain jump into productivity mode that much faster each day. In the end, I was flying through my words faster than I’ve ever written before.

So, That’s How I Wrote a 60K Novel in Three Weeks

Is it pretty? No. But it has potential to be. In another 20 days I will have Weirfall revised and ready for beta readers. I will have finished Book Three before Ghostlights is even released. This is the publishing schedule I could only dream of when I started this journey more than a decade ago.

There are novelists who blow my productivity out of the water. I aspire to release 6 books a year some day. After my success with outlining and ugly drafting last year, and recreating that success this year, I’m ready to commit to a more rigorous writing schedule.

Doubtless I have more mistakes to make and hurdles to drag myself over, but I’m ready to handle it.

Conclusion

What is your biggest hurdle in drafting and revising your work? Do you think any of these tips could help you take your process to the next level? Let me know in the comments!

Creative Business 101: The Best Way to Create Valuable Content and Build Your Audience

Creative Business 101: The Best Way to Create Valuable Content and Build Your Audience

Every creative entrepreneur wants a bigger, more engaged audience. We want more eyes on our content, more people sharing our stuff with their friends, and ultimately, more buyers for our work. But how to you go from knowing who your ideal audience is to actually building that audience for your platform?

It’s all about valuable content.

If you are new to this series, you can check out the other articles here:

The Best Way to Create Valuable Content and Build Your Audience

If you are reading this piece, you should already have answered the question “Who am I creating for?” and have a pretty good idea of who your target audience or ideal audience is. If not, make sure you read the last post for Tips on How to Identify Your Audience.

In this article we will discuss:

  • How to provide value to your target audience
  • How to take what you know about your ideal audience and apply that to ideas for creative content
  • How to target multi-genre or multi-interest audiences in a cohesive way

How To Provide Value to Your Audience

When you’re starting a creative business and brainstorming ideas for what to put in your newsletters, blogs, or social media posts, it can be very overwhelming. Many entrepreneurs put off building their platforms because of this. We know what we’re “supposed to” do. But when it comes to actually doing it, we draw a blank.

If you have been dragging your feet over taking those first steps to building your audience, I have a pretty good idea why.

You don’t have anything to say.

First of all, that’s a lie. But what if I told you that your content is not really about you, anyway. Your content is about the value you provide to your audience. In order to provide valuable content for your audience, you have to stop thinking about yourself and think about them.

Why are they interested in your work? What other interests might they have that connect to your work?

Valuable content can be entertaining, educational, inspirational, or motivational. You do not have to pull ideas out of thin air. You can do things that have been done before. Find inspiration in the articles and posts that you read and love, then figure out how to make that idea work for your audience.

Valuable content is all about your audience. It is something you curate with them in mind. You are the merely the glue that holds it interesting bits together.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
–Helen Keller

The Easiest Way to Create Content Catered to Your Audience

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel here. The internet has been around for a long time, and we have a pretty good idea of what kinds of articles we are drawn to when we have time to kill. And you don’t have to be some kind of super genius algorithm hacker to figure it out. Here are some easy ways to apply basic blogging techniques to your own creative content:

1. Lists

Have you ever read a Top Ten list? Lists are a great way to start producing creative content. You can make a list about anything that your audience might find interesting or entertaining. Anything, that is, that connects your audience to your work.

If you are a romance writer, you won’t probably want to post a list about the funniest ways to die. As entertaining as you might personally find this topic, it’s not about you. It’s about your audience. You want to drive the right kind of traffic to your platform.

Depending on the kind of romance you write, you could to a list of everything from romantic getaways and best valentine’s day gifts, to hilarious safe words and underrated sex toys. What would your audience like?

2. How-Tos

No matter who you are, there are some things that you are good at. Have you ever followed an online How-To type article? Did it work? Was it a terrible fail? Either way, you have material.

The How-To is a great way to bring your audience into your creative process, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Many people in your audience will be amateurs themselves, and targeting burgeoning creatives is a great way to build one leg of your platform.

If you are an artist, for example you can do an How-To for basic skills in your craft. Or you can share something that you’ve tried that didn’t work out with a “How-Not-To” twist. Or go all in on a fail and share “How to Ruin a Painting in 5 Easy Steps.”

3. Inspiration/Motivation

This is one of the most popular type of blog post, and you can spin it a number of different ways.

If you have recently overcome a challenge, share a personal anecdote and a favourite quote to let your audience know that you are in fact human. Motivational stories, even about seemingly insignificant moments, can really strike a chord with people. I shared an experience with teaching my children how to skate, and what that taught me about writing, and my followers loved it! Sharing our failures is a great way to connect with your audience.

You can also share quotes, passages, and images that have inspired your creative work. A science fiction writer might showcase futuristic landscapes by artists which have inspired them. This draws the right kind of people to your feed. If they like the artwork that inspired your novel, this will make them curious about your novel. See how it works?

The Possibilities are Endless!

If you are interested in exploring this topic more, I’d be happy to brainstorm more ideas with you. Let me know in the comments!

“All knowledge is connected to all knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.”
–Arthur C. Aufderheide

How to Target Multi-Genre or Multi-Interest Audiences in a Cohesive Way

I said earlier that you are the glue that holds your content together. You might write in different genres or paint in different styles or record many different types of music, but in the centre of it all is you.

I know I said it’s not about you. Just listen.

The content is still not about you. It’s about your audience. But the way it all comes together and becomes cohesive? That’s all you, baby. You are the part of the equation that will keep your audience with you instead of one of those other platforms (or as well as, we can share!)

When you’re trying to find ways to tie multiple genres of work together, potentially with separate audiences, connection is the key. You need to think of ways that you can connect your interests/ideas to each other.

An author/blogger friend of mine expressed frustration with how to express three seemingly unconnected aspects of her identity in one platform. She’s a writer, a make-up artist, and a cat lover.

Any of these could be its own platform, but if she focuses on them each individually it all falls apart. She either has three separate platforms to grow, which would need separate accounts, and be completely overwhelming. Or she ends up with a random collection of make-up videos, writing updates, and cute kitty pics that looks more like a personal account than a business.

You may have many interests that inform your work, and as different as they are, you are the glue that holds them together. There is something about each of them that you connect with, and your connection is what will connect your audience.

Here were some of my suggestions to her:

  • Do a mood board for your current book (writing or reading) and do a post it with a make-up tutorial using the same colour scheme
  • Do a cosplay of your favourite literary character
  • Dress your cat as literary character (or attempt to dress your cat and take video of the calamity)
  • Share a picture of your cat along with a cat-themed passage from a favourite novel (there are so many books with cats in them!) or a quote from a writer about cats
  • Share a quote from a writer about beauty, identity, or strength, and share it with a look that makes you feel the same way

This technique works for multi-genre writers as well. How can you connect readers from one genre to readers from another and target them in the same post?

  • Share two of your favourite characters, from different genres, and compare and contrast their personalities
  • Compare one of your characters to a character from a different genre
  • Ask your followers a “Would you rather…” with a question from two different genres
  • Compare and contrast mood boards
  • Chose a theme and relate it to books from different genres

The ways to connect our work to our audience and our audience to us. Look for inspiration in the posts and articles that you like to read and brainstorm ways that you can do something similar in your own words.

Discussion

How are you feeling? Do you have a better idea of how knowing your audience helps you create valuable content and build your platform? What topics would you like to see next?

Upcoming articles will address:

  • How to Synchronize Your Platforms
  • How to Turn Your Platform into a Brand
  • How to Convert Followers into Customers
  • and more!

If there is anything else you want to know, please ask! Thank you for joining me in Creative Business 101. Happy creating!

10 Quotes About Humanity to Inspire the Science Fiction Writer

One of the things I love best about Science Fiction is the scale of thematic elements that we get to explore. This is true for creators and consumers of SF art. Of course, the best SF still tackles tangible “real life” conflicts. Some of the most common themes in literature are equally represented in Science Fiction:

  • Coming of Age
  • Courage and Perseverance
  • Love
  • Revenge
  • Good vs Evil
  • Redemption

However, the scale of these conflicts is often scaled up in Sci-Fi to encompass the world beyond human experience. What does it mean to fall in love with a machine? Is humanity ultimately good or evil? Will the planet seek revenge for the things we’ve done to it? Is there any way that humanity can redeem itself?

So I’ve collected some quotes about humanity that might inspire your next creative work. Enjoy!

#1 Educated Monsters

The more humans learn, it seems, the more monstrous we become. Tribal societies of the past were often brutal and difficult, but humans have survived by their capacity to form strong bonds and work together within our communities. It seems that the more we learn, the more we become distanced from one another. What is it about knowledge that twists our humanity? What does the future look like for our knowledge seeking species?

#2 Control Freaks

Humans love to feel in control: of themselves, of their environments, of their destinies. But the more we try to control, the more things seem to get away from us. This quote encompasses two great thematic questions from SF works. What happens when we lose control? and How do we continue in the face of our own destruction, when our enemy is our own hubris?

#3 The Human Race

People love to have an Other. The people who represent, to us, everything that we are not: human/animal, black/white, rich/poor, scientific/religious, liberal/conservative. We like to draw lines between ourselves and feel superior in our perceived “normalcy.” But what happens when the Other is bigger than we are? An alien species, perhaps. Or sentient beings of our own creation. What happens if we have to band together against a threat against our very humanity? Can people abolish the lines drawn in the sand between us in order to save our species? Or will we fragment and be defeated by imaginary divisions?

#4 We’re Fucked

Perhaps the ultimate hubris of humanity is thinking we have any say in what goes on here at all? The planet has been around for billions of years, seen the rise and fall of species far more long-lived than ours. We like to think we’re pretty important, “saving” the whales, “saving” the planet. Arguably, the best way for humans to save anything is to disappear. Blink! Like the tiny inconsequential specks of space dust we really are.

#5 The Comparison Trap

We still have a lot to learn about being human. As far as we know, there are no other species out there that are quite like us. The more we learn about other creatures, the more special we seem to become (in our own eyes, at least). The human brain is the most complex computing organ/machine there is, and even we don’t understand exactly how we work. But this won’t always be the case (hubris again!) will it? What happens when we create an intelligence beyond ourselves, and bigger than ourselves? What will we be taught about our perilous superiority then?

#5 Compassionate Intelligence

Okay, okay. It’s not all doom and gloom. We are the ones attempting to create an artificial intelligence, so we must have some say in how it turns out. Right? What if, from the very beginning, we teach this AI compassion and kindness? How might compassionate computers, robots, and eventually sentients change the world? Hopefully they don’t decide the most compassionate outcome for earth is to eliminate humanity… Better double check that coding.

#7 Human Together

Being human is kind of a team sport. As communal animals, the entire makeup of our brains becomes a bit off-kilter when we’re left to our own devices. This is why the dangers of distancing ourselves from others, and from our humanity, are such poignant themes in literature. Without a “you” who am “I?” What does pure isolation do to a person? Can I be human if I’m the only one left? Or am I just another animal, waiting to die upon an ancient and indifferent space rock?

#8 Human Computers

If AI is an extension of human intelligence, are sentient robots Humanity v.2.0? Will we cause our own extinction by forcing human evolution and effectively rendering the Mother Species redundant and obsolete? For centuries now, scientists have been accused of playing God. What happens when we really do create new life? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein offers up one suggestion, which has been explored repeatedly in SF media. But what if, like Victor Frankenstein, humans are the true monsters and our creations choose to slay us rather than worship us? Humanity is dead, long live Humanity.

#9 Idealist Humans

Like the idea of compassionate AI, it is nice to wonder about less bleak eventualities on the human timeline. Perhaps scientists have a breakthrough on empathy research, causing people around the globe to truly feel one another’s pain? Octavia E. Butler explores this idea in The Parable of the Sower and… well, lets just say it’s not easy to be a chemically induced empath. She does pose in important question, though. If everyone were forced to literally feel the pain of those around them, how would society change? What are some other ways that humanity might rise above its petty concerns with religion, race, and nationality? Maybe there is hope for us beyond the alien invasion scenario in #3.

#10 No Hard Feelings

Back track to #4 again, and we’re fucked. Unless humanity addresses it’s destructive tendencies, there isn’t really any way for the development of self-teaching AI to end other than in our own demise. Even we know we’re pretty bad for production in the big picture. Is there any way around being offed by our own robot babies? What redeeming feature does humanity have that no other creature can recreate? There’s an argument for creativity, I think. There’s an argument for mythology as a way to communicate with people (and possibly other species) that we don’t know. Will it be enough to save us? You tell me…

Discussion

What is your favourite book that discusses the potential and limitations of humanity in the future? Have you ever addressed these themes in your own work? Have any of these quotes inspired your next project? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out 10 Gardening Quotes to Inspire the Sci-Fi Writer as well!

Creativity and the Fear of Being Seen: Guest Post by Katri Soikkeli

Creativity and the Fear of Being Seen: Guest Post by Katri Soikkeli

Today, I have a wonderful post on creativity and courage from one of my most favourite creative souls of all time, Katri Soikkeli. She brings a sense of whimsy and joie de vivre to everything she does and has inspired me with her kindness and her playful view of the world.

I hope, after you read this post, you will visit her website and Instagram to tell her how much you loved it! And head over to the Protagonist Crafts Etsy shop to do a little holiday shopping.

Without further ado, here is Katri!

Katri Soikkeli Bio

Creativity and the Fear of Being Seen 

If you’re sitting on a creative project that you’re afraid to share with the world, you might think the people putting themselves out there have something that you don’t. Something that makes them impervious to whatever it is that you’re afraid will ruin you as soon as you let the world see you.

I have a little secret for you. They – we – are not that different. We just made a decision.

If you don’t know me yet, I can tell you I am a published writer and I continue to write and try to get my work out there in front of people. During the corona crisis I started an Etsy shop while knowing pretty much nothing about selling handmade products, and later I started a blog that celebrates living a creative life your way. All the while I’ve been active on Instagram where I continue to share my struggles with creativity, my mental health and ADHD and life in general. Knowing this you might think I’ve been made particularly brave, or that I just have a knowing that my work is “good enough” to be shared, whatever that means.

You would be very silly to think that, but I don’t blame you.

I am a highly anxious, highly sensitive person, which doesn’t seem to be uncommon among us creatives. You should know I once got disqualified from an entrance exam because I didn’t speak up in group when it was my turn. Although it had nothing to do with creative work, that school was my dream at the time, and I still didn’t find it in me to speak up. That’s how afraid I was of people hearing my voice, of them realising they would dislike the very concept of me. That is the level of being afraid to be seen that I started from.

Katri Soikkeli, having fun at work.

If you’ve been alive on this planet for more than five years, you’ve probably heard of Dan Brown, the writer of Da Vinci Code. Most people probably have the impression that he was just hanging around, sitting on his laurels until he decided to churn out a best-selling novel that would be turned into a top-grossing film which would immediately launch him into success and into being regarded as a Real Author.

What you probably don’t know is that Da Vinci Code is Brown’s FOURTH published novel. His other best-seller, Angels and Demons, actually came out before Da Vinci Code, not after, which you might not have known either. We are not here to discuss the quality of Mr Brown’s prose, as that is a subject for another blog post which I have no intention to write, this is just a great example of how even well-known people have been plucking at their trade even before we became aware of them. Do you think Brown sat frozen at his desk, proclaiming that he wasn’t going to put his work out there until he knew he would become an instant success? I doubt it, because he would probably still be there.

Let me confirm something that you’re probably afraid of: your work isn’t perfect. Some of it might not even be great. If you’re feeling a bit rattled right now, GOOD, because that means there at least is some work for you to feel insecure about. If, on the other hand, you’ve been too paralysed to start because you can’t let even yourself see your imperfect work, please, for the love of all that’s good and beautiful in the world, remember how short and unpredictable life is. Write that stupid poem! It’s going to be terrible and then you’ll make another and another and another, and eventually one of them is going to be better!

Not saying I’m psychic, but I happen to know what’s really your problem.

Your “I don’t know how” and “I’m not as good as Jane” are just excuses, and you know what they say about fighting for your excuses? It means you get to keep them. Your real problem is that you’re scared of being seen. You don’t feel like you’re really good enough, so you’re hoping you’d come up with something that’s so great that you’d get to hide behind it, use it as a shield. You don’t want to expose parts of yourself that might be vulnerable to scrutiny, and thus you would rather suffocate them than ever give them a chance to grow. You don’t want to be seen starting out, because the world would get to see the supposedly imperfect parts of you, so you never start. But if you’re still reading this, I know there’s a small part of you that still wants to create something, maybe even change the world somehow, no matter how small portion of the world it might be.

Do you finally want to know what the decision was that I mentioned in the beginning of this post?

Let’s go back to the entrance exams, although slightly unrelated, because that was my first decision. Ever since my horribly failed exam, I found out you get extra points if you’re the first person to speak in the group, so I decided to do exactly that the next time. It felt like throwing up. Actually, it felt like taking off my shirt, climbing onto the table to sing Happy Birthday to someone who didn’t have a birthday and THEN throwing up, but I did it anyway. Twice, because I didn’t get in that first time, although it was close. (You could say the Universe had other plans for me, because at the second school I met the father of my children. You never know when a no is actually a yes to something else.)

Other things that I have decided since then: Sending out novel manuscripts that were not perfect, connecting with other writers despite the insecurities that years of being bullied left me with, registering as a sole proprietor before having a clear idea of what I was going to be doing, changing that vague idea to another during the pandemic, starting an Etsy shop despite having kind of ugly product photos and no idea how to market a handmade business, and most recently writing this guest post despite having awful brain fog this week and no idea what to write about. [We’re so glad you did, Katri! — Sarah]

I am constantly putting myself out there and I’m terrified while doing it.

Then I go to bed and do it again the next day. Just last week I posted something that I later realised was kind of boring and uninspired, but I would have never learned that if I hadn’t written and posted it first. None of this has killed me yet and I’m slowly growing my resilience so that I spend a little less time agonising over everything I allow people see.

Putting myself out there to be seen also means that people are free to bypass me completely. It’s natural to want to be liked and approved of, our survival as a species used to completely depend on it, but once you get started. you’ll soon realise you can withstand not being applauded for everything you create. Then, one day, someone is really going to see you, and you will experience the joy of your creations resonating with another person. That is true connection, and in my opinion, the core of human experience.

You don’t want to deprive yourself of that joy. Get out there and be visible. You were made for this.

Links:

Instagram – www.instagram.com/protagonistcrafts

Website – katrisoikkeli.com

Etsy shop – www.etsy.com/shop/protagonistcrafts 

Other posts:

Creativity and mental health https://katrisoikkeli.com/creativity-mental-health/ 

Ode to uncool interests https://katrisoikkeli.com/ode-to-uncool-interests/ 

Discussion

Thank you so much, Katri, for this fabulous post! You’ll notice some similar themes here if you’ve been reading some of my posts on creativity. Allowing yourself to be seen, as Katri has put it, is an essential part of the creative process. If you have any questions for us, please drop a comment below. And, of course, don’t forget to give Katri a follow at the links above!

Creative Business 101: Tips on How to Identify your Audience

Creative Business 101: Tips on How to Identify your Audience

Have you ever stopped to wonder why you are a creator? Many of us create as a hobby, for personal pleasure or relaxation. But if you are starting a creative business, you need to reframe this question.

“Why do you create?” becomes “Who are you creating for?”

In this post, I will share some quick tips for identifying your audience and how to use that information to design content that will appeal to your ideal reader or customer.

Creative Business 101: How to Identify Your Audience

What is an Audience, and Why Does it Matter?

When we talk of “audience” in the world of creative entrepreneurs (or any kind of entrepreneur!) we are referring to a pool of potential buyers of our work. Your work might be a novel, a painting, or a hand-knit sweater. It could be a song you’ve put out on YouTube or a film you’ve made. Even if you are not ready to sell your work, you can still make connections with your future customers. These people are your audience.

Identifying your audience is the first step you need to take when you decide to transition from being a hobbyist to a career creator. Who are you trying to reach? The answer seems simple. We want everyone to love us and buy our stuff. We want fame and riches and global recognition of our awesomeness, right?

(Okay, if you just nodded your head, go back and read Defining Success as a Creative Entrepreneur.)

The trouble is, if you cast your net too wide it doesn’t get deep enough to catch any fish. If you try to market yourself to everyone, you end up attracting no one.

How to Identify Your Audience

You cannot market yourself or your work to everyone on the face of the planet. We all like different things, and respond to different personalities. Identifying your audience comes down to two things: who you are, and what you do. This becomes: who is going to like me? Who is going to want what I have created?

Many creators don’t really stop to think about these things until after they have completed a project. We feel inspired, we work in a wild frenzy of creative activity, and after some crises of faith and existential dread, voilĂ ! We have a thing!

If you have never considered your audience until this moment, that’s okay. I’m going to help you out. Once you go through these tips and you do know your audience, your next project will be much easier to market!

First, let’s talk about you.

“To Find Yourself, Think For Yourself.” –Socrates

Who Am I?

I don’t necessarily mean this in a deep, existential way. But if you know exactly who you are, this part will be easy. When I ask “Who are you?” I mean “How do you present yourself to the world?” Here are some questions to consider:

  • How old are you?
  • What is your gender identity and sexual orientation?
  • What are your religious beliefs?
  • What are your political beliefs?
  • What is important to you?
  • What charities and causes do you support?
  • What kind of people do you like to be friends with?
  • What kind of people do you not get along well with?
  • Are you a cat person? A dog person? Do you like animals?
  • What kinds of food do you like?

This is basic stuff, but it’s surprising how many people never really sit down and think about these things. Go back to the days of those 20 questions surveys you used to be tagged in back in the early days of social media. Take a few, just for fun.

Now how many of these basic info-bytes make it into your work? Is the protagonist in your novel similar to you or different? Do you draw themes for your art from your personal belief system? Do you curse like a sailor or prefer a family-friendly dialogue with your friends?

These are all important clues in order to answer the next question.

Who is my Audience?

It can be difficult to make the leap from “Who am I?” to “Who do I create for?” because it isn’t always a conscious part of the process. Think of a particular piece or project you want to find an audience for. Think of one, ideal person coming along and seeing your work and thinking “Yes! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!” Who are they? Who will get the most out of everything you’ve put into this piece?

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Level of Education
  • Political Views
  • Income Level
  • Religious Views
  • What is important to them?

Your audience might be exactly like you, or they might be quite different. For writers, your audience might be more similar to your protagonist than to you. For example, if you are a middle aged woman writing a YA romance, your work is more likely to appeal to a 15 year old girl than someone who is married with children, and a full time job.

On the other hand, if you are writing a science fiction novel about climate disaster and you are passionate about saving the environment in real life, your audience will likely share this passion with you.

Example: The Timekeepers’ War by S.C. Jensen

I am going to demonstrate the different between “Who am I?” and “Who is my audience?” by using myself and my first book as an example. You don’t need to have read The Timekeepers’ War in order for this to make sense. [If you have, great! You’re my favourite ;)]

QuestionsS.C. JensenAudience
Age?3618-45, geared toward 20s or people who remember their 20s
Gender?FemaleMainly women
Race?WhiteAny, characters are racially diverse
Sexual Orientation?BisexualAny, queer friendly
Level of Education?Bachelor’s DegreeAny, but must be curious, have a strong vocabulary, and be interested in exploring “big” ideas
Level of Income?Upper Middle ClassAny, especially people who have experience with poverty
Religious Beliefs?AtheistAtheist, agnostic, or spiritually curious
Political Beliefs?LiberalSocialist, or people who like to explore many political models and belief systems
Interests?reading, SF&F, outdoor activities, cooking, new medicine and scienceSF&F, readers, dark humour, sci-fi concept art, alien species, post-apocalyptic preppers
Place in life?married, homeowner, business owner, mother, well-balanced and contentyounger, still trying to figure out where they fit (or remember this feeling), ambiguous identity, searching for meaning in life, discontent, questioning everything
Discovering your audience example, The Timekeepers’ War by S.C. Jensen

You can see where there are a few places where my audience and I diverge from one another. Partly this is because people change, and we often draw on past experiences in our creative work. Sometimes it is easier to discuss difficult themes and ideas after the fact, and our work will resonate with both people who are currently experiencing similar issues or who have in the past.

Remember, the more specific you can be in identifying your audience the easier it will be to market your creative business or product.

“Your Attitude is an Expression of Your Values and Expectations.” –Zabid Abas

I Know My Audience, But How Does This Help Me?

Once you know who your ideal audience is, it’s time to produce some content that will interest them. If you are stumped about what to write about on your blog or socials, imagine your audience. What is your ideal reader/buyer interested in right now?

  • Does your work tie in to any current public events?
  • What interests do they have?
  • Have you read any books or seen any movies that would appeal to them?
  • Can you provide insight into a problem they might be facing?

You must use what you know about your ideal audience and apply that to everything you put out into the world. Your content is the bait you use to lure future customers to your feeds. People can’t buy your work if they can’t find you, and they won’t buy your work if they don’t find a personal connection with what you post.

How Do I Cater My Content to My Audience?

As a Writer:

  • book reviews in the genre you write in
  • top 10 books you look forward to reading this year
  • current events with parallels to your novel
  • personal stories that parallel the issues your characters deal with
  • entertaining tidbits in your shared interest categories
  • book nerdy posts about how to select your next read, organize your bookcase, or how to handle the emotional turmoil of a book buying ban

As an Artist:

  • behind the scenes in your studio
  • sketches to finished piece
  • other artists who inspire you
  • practical guidance on how to select a piece of art, how to hang a artwork, how to critique a work of art
  • news stories that connect with themes in your work
  • personal stories that your ideal buyer will relate to

As a Musician:

  • behind the scenes in your studio
  • live recordings
  • footage from performances
  • stories about your experiences as a performer
  • news stories that connect with themes in your work
  • venues reviews for areas you have performed in or would like to perform in

These are some idea to get you started, but as you can see knowing your audience is the key to producing creative content that works.

Be Valuable

In Creative Business 101: Defining Success as a Creative Entrepreneur we discussed the importance of providing value in your content. In order to do this, you must know who your audience is and what is valuable to them.

Use your platforms with intention, and focus on the platforms you feel most comfortable with. I spend most of my time on Instagram and WordPress, because this is where I like to hang out. Others enjoy the Twitter or Facebook experience. You don’t have to do everything at once, but whatever you do, you must product content designed to appeal to your ideal audience.

Discussion

Is there anything else you need to know about identifying your audience? Let me know in the comments and we can brainstorm!

If this article was helpful to you, please like and share so that it is easier for others to find.

As always, thank you for reading!

Creative Business 101: 5 Toxic Myths About Creativity

When you think of artists, or writers, or musicians, what is the first thing that pops into your head? One of the greats? Or some reclusive weirdo who seems perpetually at odds with “the real world?”

Creativity is often viewed as a mysterious thing. Something some people have it and others don’t. It can drive people to do incredible things. Or it can drive a person mad.

These dichotomous images of blazing success and blistering failure are burned into our cultural retinas. Often when we feel blocked in our creativity it is because we have internalized society’s ideas about what creativity is, where it comes from, and who is allowed to be creative.

What if it’s all a lie?

What if all our notions about creativity are wrong? Where does that leave us creative people?

Let’s take a look at 5 of the most toxic myths about creativity that could be standing between you and success.

#5 “She’s so talented!”

We all know people who are better than us at something. Maybe it’s math homework, maybe it’s painting, maybe it’s public speaking. It is tempting to believe that they are simply talented in a way that we can never be. In fact, having to work at something can feel discouraging.

But the fact is, talent has very little to do with skill. Sure, some people have a natural inclination towards some things more than others. While that might give them an initial boost, what really makes people “talented” is good old-fashioned hard work. No one gets good at something without trying, failing, and trying again. What separates average people from the talented ones is this: Talented people work harder.

#4 “You must suffer for your art.”

This myth is particularly toxic because it validates a lot of negative behaviours and mindsets that we really should work to fix. The very parts of our brains that help us to be creative–asking why and what if, deconstructing ideas and analyzing them, thinking differently from other people–can leave us feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and alienated from society.

Instead of seeking help when this happens, creative people often choose to numb themselves through substance abuse and self-harm. Depression and anxiety are common in creative people.

There is an idea out there that truly powerful works of art come from a place of great pain and suffering. While it is true that creativity can provide catharsis for past trauma, you do not have to suffer in order to be creative.

Treating your depression, anxiety, or substance abuse will not block your creativity. In fact, getting help for your mental health will more likely unleash a wave of ideas and inspiration that you can draw from for years to come!

#3 “He’s a starving artist.”

This is a big one. The starving artist myth allows people to take advantage of you and your creativity. It is the myth that makes it okay for people to suggest you work for free “for the exposure.” It is the myth that causes you to undervalue your own work.

See, we have this idea that you can’t make money as a creator. Writers, artists, musicians, crafts people… we just do it for the love of creating. We don’t actually expect to make a living at it, do we? That would be crazy.

Well, call me crazy, but I like to eat. I like to have a roof over my head. I like to be able to buy new shoes for my kids when they outgrow their old ones. And just because I’m a writer doesn’t mean I should have to work another job in order to do those things.

Creativity is a highly sought after commodity in the world. We need creative people to design our websites, to write ad copy, to entertain us with music and stories, to decorate our spaces. Your skills are valuable. The world wants and needs your skills. So whatever you do, don’t undercut your earnings by devaluing your own work.

#2 “Wow! What an original idea!”

Creative people often get blocked by this need to “be original.” We try so hard to be different from everyone else that we run out of ideas entirely. Why? Because original ideas do not exist. Like perfectionism, the quest for originality is a wild goose chase. Quit while you’re ahead.

I talked about this in my post “But I have Nothing to Say!” and Other Lies. You do not have to have a completely new idea in order for your work to be worthy of an audience. The way you approach a familiar idea is what makes your work interesting and unique. Your “you-ness” is the real product here. That is what you do that no one else can do.

#1 “She’s a bit of a loner.”

Are creative people introverts or extroverts? Most people would answer introverts. But they would be wrong. The truth is, creative people can be introverted or extroverted or anywhere in between. The idea that creativity is some kind of mad genius magic that only works in total isolation is about as crazy as it gets.

Even if creative people prefer to do their actual work in solitude (which not all of us do!) we cannot create in a void. We are all inspired by the works of other people. Successful creatives have a strong network of other creative people to bounce ideas off of, share with, and get feedback from. If you’re an extrovert, these connections might happen in galleries and coffee shops and other public places. Introverts might prefer online groups and the intimacy of small critique circles. The important thing is that we share our work with others.

Conclusion

So there you have it. Anyone can be creative. You don’t have to have an innate talent, you don’t have to be depressed and miserable, you don’t have to be perpetually broke, you don’t have to have a “new” idea, and you don’t have to work alone.

Can you think of any other myths about creative people that might be getting in the way of your creativity?

If you are still feeling creatively stifled and don’t know where to turn next, check out my post on Imposter Syndrome.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Creative Business 101: What to Say When You Have Nothing to Say

“There is nothing new.”

Anyone who has ever attempted to create something new has come across some version of this lie.

How can I write a book or a song, paint a picture, or start a business that is completely original? “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Well, guess what? You’re right.

That is not the lie.

The lie is the subtext of this thought. The lie is that we we think this means:

“There is nothing new, and therefore it is pointless to try.”

“I can’t say it better than it’s been said before, so why bother?”

“It’s been done before.”

WRONG.

People have been creating stories, images, ideas, and more for thousands of years. Why do we do that? Is it because we have all of these brand-new-never-been-seen-before inventions that pop into our skulls like a bolt out of the blue? No. It’s because ideas evolve. One thing sparks a slightly different thing, which goes on to spark a few more.

Human beings are especially primed to understand and love stories. We love stories because they follow recognizable patterns, but surprise us with their details. We see the same archetypes represented throughout literary and art history. They get little makeovers to suit the current generations, but the tropes have been around for a long time.

This is why books that follow a traditional structure become so much more successful than the experimental ones. This is why popular music follows particular trends. Why art can be categorized by the period it was created in. It’s even why we can pass five different sandwich joints on our way to work.

No one likes new ideas.

New ideas are scary. It takes people a really long time to warm up to new things. If you think you are going to become a successful writer/musician/artist/entrepreneur by doing something completely new and original…

It’s not going to happen.

Or at least, it’s very unlikely to happen that way. First of all, coming up with something truly new and original is extremely difficult to do. Second of all, even if you could do that, people would be too afraid to give you a chance.

If you want to pursue your passion for the sheer joy of doing what you love, go ahead and try for those new ideas. But if you really want to build an audience or a customer base, it’s best to stick to what people know.

But I don’t want to be like everybody else!

You aren’t. And that’s what makes this whole crazy thing work. Listen up.

Whatever you are working on right now, you have been inspired by those who came before you. Your book could be inspired by an artist, your song could be inspired by a sandwich joint. It doesn’t matter. The point is, creativity does not happen in a void.

Are there any completely original ideas left? Not many. Can you still make your project original?

Of course!

You are unique.

Whatever it is you want to do has been done before. But it hasn’t been done by you. The way you do it will be just a little bit different from the way the next person does it, and this is how you find your audience.

You are the secret sauce, my friend. The way that you take all of those little bits and pieces of inspiration and mash them together is your brand. No one can do it like you can. Even with the exact same set of inspirations, with the exact same creative prompts, with the exact same business proposal, you will execute it differently.

Because there is no one exactly like you out there.

If everybody is special, then no one is special.

Okay, now you’re just being a downer.

Let’s take a moment to think about why we like the things we like. What do you like best about the bloggers you follow, the restaurants you eat at, the music shows you go to?

Would you rather go to a crowded chain restaurant where the server barely makes eye contact and you have to jump on your chair, waving your arms in the air just to place a drink order? Or would you like a small, family run business where the owner comes out and tells you how much your patronage means to them?

Would you rather go to a massive, sold-out stadium concert where you can barely see your favourite band? Or would you rather see them in a smaller venue, meet them with a VIP pass, and get your T-shirt signed?

Would you rather browse endless, sterile how-to blogs that read like an instruction manual? Or do you want to hear personal anecdotes, have your questions answered in the comments section, and provide feedback that affects future articles?

I can probably guess your answers.

So what makes you special?

The bits of yourself that you share, along with your process, that help people get to know you. To care about you. Essentially, it’s intimacy.

Intimacy matters.

In an increasingly digital world, intimacy has become more important than ever. We lack basic human connection in almost every facet of our daily lives. Even our relationships with our friends and family are filtered through screens most of the time.

Your project is a reflection of you. Even if you are doing a cover of your favourite song. If you’re writing fan fiction. If you’re duping recipes from Krispy Kreme donuts. There is a piece of you going into the final product (hopefully not literally into the donuts, though.)

Big famous writers, musicians, actors, and business people don’t have time for all of their fans. They might pay someone to answer fan mail and have scheduled meet-and-greets or do select interviews. But it is impossible for someone to keep up with thousands, if not millions of fans.

That’s good news for us little guys. That’s what gives us the edge. We don’t have to have a completely new and original idea. What is original these days is our ability to connect with our fans, followers, and customers. Intimacy is our edge.

Quit worrying about being original, and start being yourself.

What do you have to offer that no one else does?

Yourself. You must show people who you are, engage with your followers, fans, and customers. Give them a little piece of you beyond the “product.”

I’m a speculative fiction writer. My first book came out in 2014, The Timekeepers’ War. Is it the best book ever written? No. Is it completely original? Again, no.

Why should anyone buy my book? It’s pretty fun, for one thing, if I do say so myself. But this is the biggest reason I hope readers find my books:

I want to connect with them.

I love getting comments on the blog, or my Instagram account. I even started my Facebook page up again, so you can find me there, too (please do! It needs all the help it can get).

And I always, always, always respond to emails, comments, and DMs from my readers. I love it. That is my true passion. Connecting with people.

Connection is a win win. I get feedback on my published work and then apply that to my next book or short story. My fans make a difference to me, to my work, and I hope I make a difference to them.

And that is something no big-name block buster writer can offer them.

There is nothing new. So What?

Get out there. Share your work. Find your people. Start that business. Meet your fans and customers and start letting people in on who you are.

You never know. Your next super-fan might be watching.

Creative Business 101: Imposter Syndrome aka Why You Are Self-Sabotaging (And How to Stop!)

There comes a time in nearly everyone’s life when they are struck by a sudden fear that they are a fraud. No matter how much evidence you have for your skills, success, and potential, there is a niggling little worm in the brain that whispers “You’re a fake! You’re a loser! This is never going to work!”

In fact, the more successful one becomes, the more likely they are to suffer from these kinds of anxieties and insecurities. It’s called Imposter Syndrome.

Who Gets Imposter Syndrome?

Everyone is vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome, but some groups of people more so than others.

  • Entrepreneurs who see a sudden surge of success are more likely to be hit buy fear and insecurity than those who have had to build their business up slowly over time.
  • Creatives are more susceptible than those in traditional occupations because there is so much social pressure to have a “real job.”
  • Women and minorities are more likely to doubt their worth than others.

If you fall into more than one of these categories, you might be at higher risk than others.

10 Signs You Suffer From Imposter Syndrome

  1. You don’t think you’re anything special.
  2. You think others can easily achieve the things you have.
  3. You feel generic and replaceable, a placeholder in your field.
  4. You give other people credit for your success, thinking “I couldn’t have done it with out so and so’s help.”
  5. You feel uncomfortable when others praise your skills and achievements.
  6. You believe your connections are more valuable than your actual skills.
  7. You believe people who praise you are just trying to be kind, or you mistrust praise as flattery with an ulterior motive.
  8. You attribute past successes to luck or being in the right place at the right time.
  9. You believe you haven’t worked hard enough to deserve the success you have had.
  10. You are afraid that other people will realize you aren’t as great as they thought, that you have somehow tricked them into believing you are better at your job than you really are.

2 Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome That Are Hurting You

If you frequently find the above thoughts passing through your brain, you might be suffering from Imposter Syndrome. Unfortunately, the damage of Imposter Syndrome is deeper than just self-consciousness. Your fear of being a fraud can actually drive self-sabotaging behaviours.

Overworking Yourself

Some people, when struggling with feelings of inadequacy and a fear of being discovered as a fake, believe they must work harder than anyone else in order to make up for their perceived deficiencies. These people show up early, stay late, take on extra projects, and work themselves to the bone. Then, after they do all that extra work, they try to minimize their efforts as if anyone else would do the same thing!

Procrastinating

On the flip side, the belief that you must be perfect in order to be worthy can result in a paralyzing fear of starting anything. People suffering from Imposter Syndrome will often make excuses for why they can’t take the next steps they need to make in their business or creative projects, because they are convinced that failure is not an option. Failure will expose them as the frauds they are!

Cure Yourself of Imposter Syndrome

Negative thoughts have power over us when they are allowed to fester and squirm around our brains unchecked. The longer they exist without being challenged the more real they become to us.

If you believe you are suffering from Imposter Syndrome there are some simple steps you can follow to shine a light on that wormy dark place in your brain.

The Emotional Rx

  • Acknowledge the negative beliefs to yourself, and identify them as toxic thoughts.

The Social Rx

  • Talk to someone close to you about them: your partner, close friends, family members, and colleagues. Share your experiences, and listen to theirs. You may find comfort in knowing that others have the same thoughts and fears.

The Mental Rx

  • If these beliefs are out of control and are taking over your life, seek the help of a mental health professional. In fact, seeing a counsellor regularly can be a great tool for setting and achieving your goals, even when you aren’t suffering from negative thoughts.

The Physical Rx

  • Learn a new skill, completely outside the sphere of your usual work. Allow yourself to be an amateur. Allow yourself to fail and to learn. Get comfortable with not being perfect. Then see if you can apply this newfound freedom to your professional life as well!

Conclusion

As more and more people are working from home, pursuing creative work, and starting their own businesses, it is important for us to talk about the very real threat that Imposter Syndrome has on us and our livelihoods. Fortunately there are many resources out there to help you if you are struggling with negative beliefs about yourself.

Discussion

Have you ever suffered from Imposter Syndrome? How did you handle it? Do you have any advice for others in your field? Please share in the comments!

To Be or Not To Be: When To Avoid This Common Verb

Sorry, Billie. “To be” verbs are dead.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on writing craft, and I figured I’d jump into thick of it with one of the simplest but most difficult challenges you can give yourself as a writer. I want you to eliminate the most common verb in the English language from your writing.

For real.

This is another one of those bits of writing advice that people love to argue about. It ties into my posts on Showing and Telling and Fillers and Filters. So I decided to break it down in a little more detail and see if I can convert a couple of you disbelieving heathens.

In actual fact, very few of you guys have argued with me on any of my writing craft posts, which tells me that a) I have a great group of open-minded writers in my WordPress circles, and b) my posts are not reaching many beginners.

Or maybe c) If you want drama, stick to Facebook.

I’m going to pretend you want to argue with me, though, and present to you my thesis. Even if you don’t disagree with me, you might want a refresher on the secret wickedness of “be-ing.”

To Be or Not To Be: What Exactly is the Question?

“To be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, being, been, etc.) are ubiquitous. The are so common that we don’t even notice them as we read. We do, however, notice the effect they have on writing. If a description falls flat, or a scene reads like a list of actions, take a look at the verbs. “To be” verbs are the number one red flag that you are telling rather than showing.

Now, we’ve already talked about how telling is not always a bad thing and how to find the right balance for your story. So I’m not going to dig into that particular can of worms. But if you are telling a scene that should be shown, look at your “to be” verbs first.

The Quick Fix: Past Continuous

Some wicked “be-ings” are easily vanquished. Past continuous tense is almost never necessary and results in extra filler words that can be eliminated with extra work required.

Ex. 1. a) Billie was running to his play writing class.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class.

It doesn’t look like much, but applying this trick to an entire manuscript can result in thousands of quick deletes. Unless the action is about to be interrupted, you do not need to use past continuous. EVER. Just get rid of it and thank me later.

Ex. 2. a) Billie ran to his play writing class. He was rounding the corner when Milton stepped in front of him.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class. He rounded the corner and Milton stepped in front of him.

Okay, I realize these examples are dull, but technically you can get away with the “to be” verb in 2a. Is it necessary? 2b does the job without the “to be.” In this instance, you decide which you like better. My advice is to only use past continuous when you are interrupting and important action and you really want to highlight the interruption. Let’s spiff this scene up a bit with stronger verbs and eliminate the “to be” verbs:

Ex. 3. Billie sprinted up the stairs to his play writing class. He swung around the corner and crashed into a solid wall of muscle. Milton cracked his knuckles and grinned. He was peeling back his fist for a good right hook when Billie ducked, spun, and dashed into the classroom.

Like all of my so-called writing rules the trick is to know it, use it, and when you break it, break it on purpose WITH purpose.

Next Step: Kill the Narrator

All stories have narrators. It’s called “story telling” for a reason, right? Writers tell stories to other people. They either tell the story themselves, and are the narrators as in memoir, or they tell the story through a character who becomes the narrator in most fiction. However, modern readers are looking more and more for an immersive experience in their writing. Modern readers are extremely media savvy and modern writers have to work a lot harder to provide that immersive experience than our literary forebears. We are no longer simply telling stories, we want the reader to experience our stories for themselves as the characters.

To do this, we need to kill the narrator. We need to trick the reader into thinking they are the ones experiencing the story. We can do this in first person, second person, or third person narration with one simple (not necessarily easy) trick. Eliminate as many filter words as possible.

Filter words are unnecessary words that clutter up our stories and remind our readers that they are reading. THIS IS BAD. There are lots of kinds of filter words, and you can check out a broader example of what to look for in my article on Giving Your Writing a Fluff-Free Facelift. For the sake of this article we are going to discuss the dual offenders, “to be” verbs that are also filter words.

Ex. 1. a) There were deep lines around her sunken eyes.
b) Deep lines scoured the flesh around her sunken eyes.

In 1a, the reader is being told what the woman looks like. The words “there were” act as a reminder that they are not experiencing the moment themselves, but that someone is describing it to them after the fact. The “to be” verb in this example reduces the sense of immediacy.

When we eliminate the “to be” verb we are forced to replace it, which inevitably results in a more interesting description. “To be” verbs are the most common verbs in the English language. There are also, therefore, the most boring. Apply this rule to the verb “to have” as well and really give your descriptive scenes a boost!

Ex. 2. a) Daniel had auburn hair and there were freckles on his nose.
b) Daniel’s auburn hair stood up at irregular angles and freckles sprinkled his nose.

Try it yourself! Write a brief character sketch without using any “to be” or “to have” verbs. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is excellent practice. You will be amazed at how much more colourful your descriptions become when you are forced to give up this writing crutch. Post your example in the comments.

Advanced “Be-ing” Slaying: Telling What vs Showing How

If you use the Find feature in your word processing software to search for all of the “to be” verbs, you’ll find a few examples that don’t seem to fit the above scenarios. You’re going to have to use your discretion to decide if they are necessary or not. I often use the expression “telling what vs showing how” to decide if I’m achieving the effect I want with my writing. Really, it’s just another way of looking at the old showing and telling rule. But it can be a helpful way to subdue the evil “be-ings” before they completely infiltrate your work.

Here are some basic examples of Telling What something/someone is or is doing as compared to showing how they are.

Ex. 1. a) The house was big and white and seemed somehow cruel against the lush green lawn.
b) The house burst from the lush green lawn like a piece of bone, sun-bleached and jagged.

Ex. 2. a) The woman was old and there were streaks of dirt on her papery cheeks.
b) Streaks of dirt blackened the woman’s papery cheeks.

Ex. 3. a) Trudy was reading so intently her eyes were starting to water.
b) Trudy focused on the book so intently that her her eyes watered.

I haven’t made any major changes to these images, but eliminating the “to be” verbs has both forced me to come up with more interesting ways to describe these things and increased the sense of immediacy for the reader.

Conclusion

Okay, so you probably can’t completely eliminate “to be” verbs from your vocabulary. But I hope I’ve demonstrated how practicing writing without “to be” verbs will help you to expand and enrich the language you use, and how eliminating as many “be-ings” as you can will take your writing to the next level.

To be or not to be? Not if I can help it.

What do you think? Is this something you can use and apply to your own writing? Can you think of other ways these “to be” verbs can help or hinder your craft? Let me know in the comments.

Finding Your Balance: How to Show AND Tell Effectively

Writers love rules. Or love to hate them. If you spend any time in writers groups, or read a lot of craft articles, one of the rules that get tossed around a lot is “Show DON’T Tell.”

The reason this rule emphasizes showing over telling is not because one is better than the other. It’s that beginner writers tend to “tell” their stories exclusively. Other, equally new writers like to point out at every opportunity when others are “telling” and offer up terrible examples of how to show instead. Usually the result is an overuse of flowery adjectives (which are actually just fancy “telling”) or the purplest of purple prose.

In this post, I’m going to try to clear up what showing and telling are, and when to use them. Yes, both of them. Because showing and telling each have a place, and finding the right balance will vary depending on the type of story you are trying to write. As with everything, there are good and bad examples of both, and we’ll look at those, too.

What is Telling?

“Telling” in fiction writing refers to any time the writer makes a statement without providing any evidence. They are asking the reader to just take their word for something, that Jake was tall, that the sun was setting, that the wind was cold. Any time a writer “tells” the reader something, they are removing the reader from the sensory experiences of the POV character. Telling allows the reader to see something happening without feeling it.

Telling is usually the fastest, most efficient way of conveying information to your reader. It is most effective in action sequences, and to cover the more clinical aspects of your story: things you want your reader to know, but not necessarily to dwell on.

When a story is “told” exclusively, though, it comes across as emotionally distant. Your reader will know what happens, but won’t necessarily care. This is because most readers require a certain amount of sensory input in order to empathize with a character.

Exceptions to this occur when the writer has a particularly strong narrative voice, in which case the telling itself shows the characters’ personality well enough that the reader can identify with them this way.

The balance of show vs. tell in action and humour writing leans more toward telling.

Good Telling vs Bad Telling

Let’s look at a few of examples that show the difference between good telling and bad telling.

  • a) Billy punched Jim and knocked him to the floor. Jim shook his head to clear his vision. When he tried to stand, Billy kicked him in the stomach. Jim pushed himself up onto his knees, swaying with the spinning in his brain. He wondered how he was going to get out of this one. Then Billy delivered the knockout blow and Jim knew nothing but blackness.
  • b) Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw, knocking him on his ass. Jim shook his head. He rolled onto his side and tried to push himself up. But Billy wasn’t against kicking a man when he was down. Air shot out of Jim’s lungs when Billy’s foot connected. He swayed on his hands and knees. How was he going to get out of this one? Jim didn’t even see the knockout blow. Billy smashed a boot into his temple and Jim was out cold.

In this scene, both examples are “told.” The difference between the bad telling in a) and the better telling in b) is in the strength of the word choices, and the elimination of some of those pesky filter words we discussed HERE. There is also a hint more narrative voice in the second example, which allows you to tell “with style.”

Some people will argue that “Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw” is showing “Billy punched Jim.” Technically this is showing, but it doesn’t call up any extra sensory details (beyond visual) so I’m going to call this a grey area. Feel free to debate in the comments!

Let’s look at another example of telling with style.

  • a) It was morning. The sun came up. Melissa was filled with a feeling of vague disappointment. She didn’t want to face Jordan again today. He was always so happy all the time and it made her feel even worse about herself. She wished she could disappear. Or, if nothing else, that he would.
  • b) Morning, again. The sun comes up, again. Of course it does. No matter how hard she wished otherwise, the days kept turning over and Melissa was still here. Alive. The last thing she wanted was to see Jordan’s smiling face knocking at her door. It was like he was being happy at her, to spite her for her own misery. His cheerful “Hello” made her want to die. Or made her wish he would.

Again, both of these examples are telling. Yet we have a much clearer idea of who Melissa is in example b) and we are able to empathize with her thoughts and emotional state even though we have very little sensory details to immerse ourselves into. This is the power of a strong narrative voice.

Adverbs: Telling in Disguise

Adverbs often show up in over-written purple prose, but contrary to many people’s understanding of show vs. tell, adverb abuse is a telling problem. Why? Because adverbs are shortcuts around showing. Writers often think they’ve shown a bunch of extra detail by tacking on some exotic adverbs, but really they’re just writing lazy, fancily.

  • a) Cautiously, Mary stepped precariously toward the edge, feeling her heart beat fearfully.
  • b) The tree was enormously tall, and John wrapped his arms around the magnificently thick bark and stared wonderingly into its trembling branches.

Arguably, these sentences are “shown” more than if I had simply said:

  • a) Mary stepped toward the ledge, her heart beating fast.
  • b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree and stared into its branches with wonder.

But all the extra adverbs don’t really tell us anything about HOW the character experiences these things. Really, the second version is better. It doesn’t tell us anything more, but it doesn’t clutter up the narrative with a bunch of extra words, either. “Her heart beat fearfully” is just a fancy way of saying “She was scared.”

Here’s how those sentences look with a bit more showing:

  • a) Mary stepped precariously toward the edge with her heart lodged in her throat.
  • b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree. Above him, branches whispered secrets to each other. He stared into their dancing leaves, his eyes stinging with tears.

Better? Worse? It depends on the effect your going for, of course. But I don’t think anyone will argue that the third set of examples is the easiest to imagine.

Everyone’s favourite “Show, don’t tell” quote.

What is Showing?

If telling is a statement without evidence, then showing is evidence without a statement. Showing allows the reader to delve into the sensory world of the POV character, it gives the reader something to experience rather than simply observe. And contrary to what a lot of writers seem to think, it does not have to be done in a flowery, poetic way.

There are degrees of “showing” as there are degrees of most literary devices. The above quote from Chekhov is simultaneously loved and hated by writers, and it has probably led more than one beginner down the garden path to Purple Prose Land.

Showing slows the reader down, gives them something to imagine in a way that they can relate to, and is an important tool for highlighting important moments in your story. If your story has too much showing, it will be slow and meandering, and probably horribly over-written. Your reader isn’t suffering from the emotional distance of an over-told story, rather they are drowning in it.

The balance of show vs. tell will lean more heavily toward showing in romance, fantasy, and literary fiction.

Good Showing vs Bad Showing

Bad showing is as much about what you are choosing to show as it is about how you show it. Showing calls the readers attention to whatever it is that you are describing, so a well-described image could be bad if it’s not being described for a purpose. Imagery is all well and good, but nobody cares what colour the curtains are unless the colour matters in some way. Deciding which details are important is another article for another time, though. So let’s just look at some other kinds of bad showing. That is, purple prose…

  • a) Stan strolled through the garden, gazing delightedly at daffodils as yellow as morning sunlight, blades of grass like tiny green soldiers, and droplets of dew glittering like the tears of angels from heaven. A delicate bouquet of floral tones cascaded through his olfactory passages like a rainbow bursting out of a rose-shaped prism. His tremoulous sigh shuddered, as if from the very soul of his being, across the blossoming field.
  • b) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils bobbed their heads gaily in the breeze, bright spears of grass shot through the footpath, and dew glittered across everything. A delicate bouquet of air washed over him and he smiled with every inch of his body.
  • c) Stan walked through the garden. Everywhere he looked, there were yellow daffodils, green grass, and droplets of dew. A floral scent filled the air. He smiled and sighed.

Here we have a) over-written showing, b) showing, with a purpose, and c) telling. What do I mean by showing, with a purpose? Well, let’s have a look at another way we could have shown this scene.

  • d) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils drooped their heads against the wind, sharp brown grass speared the footpath, and a drizzle of dew drenched everything. The sodden scent of rotting foliage oozed over him and his lip curled into a vindictive smile.

Example d) hits all of the same points as b) but with very different results. Showing is a very powerful tool in your arsenal. We see, not just the scene, but how your character feels about the scene when you show it to us through his senses.

When you tell too much and too often, you are missing a valuable opportunity to shape the world and the characters for your reader. When you are missing sensory details, the reader is free to fill in that information any way they like. This freedom can be disastrous to your intentions, if they fill in the blanks with the wrong information.

Now, that was an admittedly “flowery” example of showing. But not all showing has to be pretty or poetic. The way you show is as much a part of your voice as what you show.

  • Kendra twisted the knife into Billy’s chest. With a satisfying pop some internal mechanism gave way and his blood sluiced over her hands in a wave of regret as thick and black as motor oil.
  • Dave peeled his eyes open like he was trying to get into a squashed bag of chips. Crusty bits clung to his eyelashes. When he rubbed them, his fingers came away feeling slightly greasy.
  • Weak sunlight oozed out from between the trees. It pooled in the divots left by Graham’s feet in the gravel but never made it ahead of his shadow. He walked, perpetually, into darkness.

In order to show effectively, you first have to decide WHAT to show. WHY is it important? HOW are you going to show that? It’s not as simple as finding fancy ways to say things; your imagery should always serve a dual purpose. Imagery should evoke a feeling in your reader, usually the same feeling that your POV character is experiencing. And for the sake of your reader, you only want your POV characters to notice and experience things that are important to the development of your story.

Choose wisely, and show with caution.

Finding Your Balance

How do you know if you are showing and telling the right way, and in the right places? Know your readers, and then ASK them. If you are getting feedback that your story is dragging, disjointed, or wordy, you may be showing too much and at the wrong times. If you are getting feedback that your writing feels superficial, or that it isn’t ringing true emotionally, you may be telling too much and at the wrong times. This can be really useful feedback.

But knowing your readers is very important here. You don’t want to give your experimental literary masterpiece to someone who solely reads military sci-fi. I hear that my own writing is too imagery heavy ALL THE TIME. I only sometimes listen to those people. I personally love imagery, and to an extend “showing” is a key part of my authorial voice. On the other hand, you don’t want to give a fast paced spy thriller to someone like me, because I’m going to want to slow down and smell the gunpowder.

Just kidding, I’m pretty good at separating my personal preferences from my critiques on other people’s writing. But I will point out opportunities to dig into really great sensory details to get more out of your fast-paced action stories.

Discussion

What do you think? Are you a shower or a teller? Do you have a strong preference one way or another? What other writing rules do you love or love to hate? Show or tell me all about it in the comments.