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Writing and Publishing Tips and Links
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Welcome to the Writing and Publishing Tips and Links sticky! This sticky aims to be a basic guide for all things related to writing and publishing, answering your most-asked questions. To keep things organized, this sticky is divided into two sections. All the posts on this page are about writing and all the posts on the second page have to do with publishing. Please use this sticky for all basic questions about either, to avoid cluttering up the main forum with repeat questions. However, if your question requires more than just a short, quick answer, feel free to make a thread to discuss it!

As always, please read and obey the rules of and guidelines of this forum. Spam posts will be deleted and the poster warned. And while we like to know you've found this sticky useful, please don't post just to say "thanks!" Go out and put this information to use instead!

Writing Tips and Links

From plot and characters to inspiration and critique, we've got you covered. In this section you can find information and tips for the basics of writing, which should be enough to get you started. Feel free to post if you have any questions that aren't answered here or if you want to discuss the information presented -- or if you have anything to add!


Publishing Tips and Links:
NOTE: This guide is primarily about writing stories/novels. For guides to writing poetry, check out the stickies A Guide to the Art of Poetry and PL's Peak, located in the Original Poetry/Lyrics subforum.

Getting Started: The Basics

So you want to write something. This sticky is going to try to help you through from beginning to end, even if you know absolutely nothing about writing and have never written anything beyond a few (boring) essays for school. Even if you're not the most creative person on the planet, don't worry. We can help.

You should have a basic idea of what you want to write already. If not, the post below this one, Inspiration & Writer's Block, will help you get started. Got your idea? Good. Let's get going.

  • What are you writing about? Are you writing fiction or non-fiction? Non-fiction means writing about things that have happened or are happening. It could be an biography of your life or someone else's life, a retelling of an event, an essay, an article, or a speech. Fiction includes things like fantasy, science fiction, realistic fiction. Anything you can imagine: things that might have, haven't, or couldn't happen in reality or in another world somewhere. Knowing roughly what genre you're writing will help you when you get down to polishing up the finer points of your plot. Remember, you don't have to limit yourself to one genre -- maybe you're writing a supernatural sci-fi romance adventure! -- but don't worry if it doesn't fall neatly into a category or if you're not quite sure what it should be. It's just a useful guide, and will help in the long run.

  • Who is your story about? Don't worry about their name or appearance or personality yet; we'll talk about that later. As long as you have at least one character in mind, you're good to get started. Maybe they're a down-and-out drunk, or a princess in another world. Maybe they're not even human -- an alien, or an animal, or something else entirely. Whoever they are, their circumstances are about to change. That's when a story happens.

  • What happens in your story? Plot and characters are on par with one another for the most important part of a story. It's very difficult to have one without the other. A story should have a goal; if you know the ending, the beginning and the middle will be easier to figure out. Something is going to happen to your character, something that will change them or at least make things interesting. Maybe your down-and-out drunk encounters a bit of kindness that inspires them, your princess gets kidnapped, or your alien's home planet gets invaded. At the end, something has to have happened. Does your drunk manage to pick himself up and ultimately help others, your princess get rescued and marry her knight in shining armor, or your alien come to terms with and starts to understand the invaders?

  • Where is your story set? You don't have to be exact: "somewhere in America" or "a fantasy kingdom" or "a spaceship" is good enough for the moment. A lot of the time, once you have a plot or a character the setting will follow naturally. If your setting is a world other than Earth, we'll figure out how everything works in the Worldbuilding post later on. You should also figure out the general time period, if you're dealing with Earth.

Got it? Let's move on.
Inspiration & Writer's Block

Inspiration. You can go looking for it and not find it, or can hit you just when you least expect it. You should always be ready -- and you should always know where to look. Waiting around for inspiration to strike, however, is a good way to never get anything done. When working on a piece you may lose your inspiration. Don't worry, keep going. If you don't keep going, nothing's going to happen and your idea is not just going to come back to life. You've got to breathe life into it if you want it to live again -- and just like giving mouth-to-mouth, it's not always going to be pleasant.

In addition to failing you, inspiration can also drag you along too fast. Don't let this happen! If you're doing good on one project and an idea hits you, don't drop everything and start on the new idea. If you do, you may never finish the first project. Instead, file the new idea away -- write it down, take some notes, and come back to it when you've wrapped everything else up. Starting something new is always exciting, but finishing something is even better.

This brings us to the million-dollar question: where does inspiration come from?

The answer: from everywhere and everything. In the words of Neil Gaiman, "You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it." That may seem like the "easy" answer, but it's the truth. The trick to finding inspiration is to know how to look, and to know what you're looking for. That's what writers do.

Here's some good places to look to get you started:

  • Nature. Let the world itself be your inspiration.
  • Music. Song lyrics are a great place to get ideas.
  • Dreams. Your subconscious is a natural idea reservoir.
  • People. Do some people-watching (and listening), and speculate.
  • Books. Read what other people have come up with before you.
  • Television. Same as books, only visual -- and educational shows are good, too.
  • Life. Look into your own past experiences, and draw on them.
  • Art. Paintings, sculptures, architecture -- they're all brimming with inspiration.
  • Math & Science. There's beauty in numbers and chemical reactions.

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Writer's Block. The polar opposite -- and bane -- of inspiration. When you're in a writing funk, the block is what gets blamed. Breaking out of it can be hard. Some people will say that there's no such thing as writer's block, that it's just writer's lazy instead. We're not here to argue whether or not there is or isn't such a thing as writer's block, or who's right and who's not. We're here to get you back on track, and back to being inspired.

Writer's block can last anywhere from a few days or hours of frustration up to years and years. It's not just a lack of ideas. It's a bog, a place where everything you think of and everything you write (if you can manage to write) just...sucks. There is no spark. It's dead, dull, dreary, and flat. So how do you get that spark back? You can look in the same places as the list above, but sometimes that's not enough.

Here are a few things you can try:

  • Freewrite. Sit down in front of your computer and type whatever comes to mind.
  • Take a bath or a shower, and change clothes. Give yourself a 'clean' start.
  • Listen to music. Depending on how you write, you can either jam to your favorite tunes or find something instrumental.
  • Go hang out with friends and forget about writing for awhile.
  • See a movie you haven't seen or read a book you haven't read.
  • Inversely, watch your favorite movie or read your favorite book. You might pick up on something that you hadn't noticed before.
  • Play a game. Board game, video game, card game, it doesn't matter.
  • Physical activity gets the creative juices flowing. Lift weights, go for a swim, do some gardening.
  • Mindless chores allow your mind to wander. Do the dishes, do the laundry, clean your room, vacuum, whatever.
  • Think of what you plan to do tomorrow. Now think of what somebody else might be planning to do tomorrow.
  • Read a book. Now, strip it down to the bare plot and imagine how you would have wrote it.
  • Write something small, like a poem.
  • Write something silly, something that makes no sense whatsoever.
  • Get into the habit of writing every day. Set a daily word goal, be it 100 or 1,000.
  • Use reverse psychology. If you didn't have writer's block, what would you write about?
  • Go to Google Images. Type in the first thing that comes to mind, and look at the pictures that come up.
  • If you've kept diaries or journals in the past, dig them out an read through them. Something in there might trigger other memories.
  • Get a dictionary and open it to a random page. Then close your eyes and put your finger down on the page. Write about that word.

This is only a small sampling of things you can do to try and beat the block, from The Writer's Block & Inspiration Thread here in the Writers forum. Go on -- take a look through it. It might be just what you need.
Creating Characters

Creating memorable and relateable characters is important to developing an interesting story. Even if your plot is mind-blowingly original and filled with twists and turns, the reader won't care about what happens in the end if they -- and the character -- have no emotional stakes in the outcome.

You can fill out character templates/outlines to your heart's content, but in reality most of what you put down will never be used in the story and is useless for fleshing out a character. However, you should jot down some basic information about each character, just so their eye color doesn't accidentally change halfway through the story. Here's a short list of the most basic info:

  • Gender (and race, if there's more than just humans in your story)
  • Hair, eye, and skin color(s)
  • Age (an approximate range is usually fine to start with)
  • General appearance (body type, any scars/tattoos, glasses/jewelry they always wear, etc.)
  • Their cultural/educational/job background and social status
  • Their relationships (family, friends, and enemies)

But most importantly you need to know what that character wants. Ask yourself these questions:
  • What are their goals?
  • How have they tried to accomplish them?
  • What do they want now?
  • What are they doing to get it?

You should do your best to answer this question for minor characters too, not just the main/major characters, as it may help you in their -- and the story's -- development.

Creating sympathetic characters
This is just what it sounds like -- a character that the reader can sympathize with and relate to. Allowing the reader to relate to the character(s) in the story will make them much more likely to take the time to read the story, because they will become emotionally attached to the character. They will want to know what happens -- not because they're interested in the plot, but because they want to know what the character will do, how they will react.

Your character can be unlikeable and still sympathetic to the reader. Everything boils down to the character's motivations -- what they want, why they want it, and how they're going to go about getting it. Don't forget to give them a good side; no one is grouchy and mean all the time. For example, if a character does horrible things but believes it was something they had to do in order to save someone close to him, readers are more likely to sympathize with and be able to relate to them. However, don't give your villain a pet puppy just to make them more sympathetic. Remember that while they may work toward their own goals at the expense of others, most villains don't think of themselves as evil -- it's just that in their case, the end justifies the means.

Adding flaws =/= creating depth
A few people seem to think that the more flaws they pile into a character, the "deeper" a character will be. It's true that nobody's perfect, and "perfect" characters without flaws are generally classified as Mary Sues, but simply piling flaw upon flaw into a character or flinging all the horrors and tragedies you can think of into their past is not going to instantly give them personality and character depth. These things can only come from developing a character throughout a story. Shallow characters developing depth throughout a story is fine, but having strong characters from the start who become stronger is even better.

Some readers prefer to know everything about a character's appearance, and some don't want to know anything. You should have a basic idea of what your character looks like, even if you don't describe them much in the story. For example, you might think it's unnecessary to say what ethnicity a character is, but it can cause you to slip up if you don't keep those kinds of details in mind.

In many cases, you can get away with minimal description of your characters. If you're the kind of writer who likes to describe every little detail, make sure that you are providing this information in an unintrusive and interesting way which doesn't disrupt the flow of the story. Try to introduce this information naturally. When you bring in a new character, pick out one or two details, and then move on and add the rest in slowly, later. If you're introducing many characters at once, it's not necessary to describe each one.

If you can't think of a good name, don't be afraid to use a placeholder until you think of a better one. Instead of choosing a name that has meaning to the character, instead consider what names would have meaning to that character's parents (unless it's a name other than their birth name that the character chooses to call themselves). And remember to consider as well what kind of cultural/ethnic background the character comes from, as well as the time period. If you're stuck, take a look at The Naming Guidebook sticky here on Gaia, which has plenty of naming tips and links.

Useful Links
How to Create a Character
Creating a character profile
Character and Setting Integration Worksheet
Creating Plot

The general description of plot is simple: something happens, and this event leads to some kind of change.

The basic outline for a plot is Freytag's Pyramid. I'm sure you've all seen this before in your grade school English classes:
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The story starts out with exposition, a.k.a. the introduction: introduce your characters and setting. Following that is the rising action, the introduction of the story's central conflict, which all work up to the climax, the point of the story where the change occurs. Then comes the falling action, which is the effects of the climax, and finally, the denouement (resolution).

If you want something more detailed, we can look at the Hero's Journey outline:
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Image from Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey, pg. 9

The Hero's Journey is derived from Joseph Campbell's analysis of the themes present in mythology all over the world; it's viewed as something of a standard for which stories are created. Any story can be analyzed according to the plot elements examined by Campbell and later outlined and condensed by Vogler. For a full list and detailed explanations of each element, you'll want to read the books yourself.

The premise of the Hero's Journey outline is similar to Freytag's Pyramid, but addresses the plot in terms of events rather than generalized sections. They do match up, however; the four acts of the journey roughly correspond to the exposition, rising action, and falling action, where point number 11, "Resurrection," is the climax and the last, "Return with Elixer" is the denoument. There are more plot events which have been analyzed other than those on the diagram, but we'll focus just on these for now.

In "Ordinary World," the hero is introduced. This is followed by "Call to Adventure," wherein something happens which upsets the hero's ordinary world and starts them on their journey. The hero may resist this, as in "Refusal of the Call," and have a "Meeting with the Mentor" to discuss their issues, helping them with "Crossing of the Threshold." This is followed by "Tests, Allies, and Enemies," all that juicy rising action as they "Approach" the "Central Ordeal." They gain their "Reward" (something not necessarily concrete) and start upon "The Road Back." However, things aren't over yet, and the hero must face a second ordeal, "Resurrection." This doesn't mean the hero has to die; the rebirth can be symbolic, a test to see if the hero has really learned anything. Last is the "Return with Elixir;" again, the elixir is a symbol, not necessarily a concrete object -- it can be knowledge, a lesson learned. This is what your hero has become, a change from who they started out as.

It's not necessary to have all these elements, or even in this order; take some out, add some not mentioned in, and shuffle them around to your heart's content as long as it still makes sense. Likewise, don't try to over-analyze your plot by trying to fit each part into one of these niches.

Now that we've analyzed the elements of a plot, let's put this knowledge to use!

What is your story's goal?
Every story should have a goal -- the Elixir of the Hero's Journey method. This goal is the end point towards which your main character is moving. It can be something concrete, like "the princess gets rescued" or some sort of knowledge gained or lesson learned. Whatever the case, this goal should also involve some kind of change in the main character, either in their personality or in the way they view the world. In some cases, such as in tragedies, this end goal may be failure or even death.

How is this goal achieved?
The goal is the ending. How the characters reach the goal is the bulk of the story, and the most important part. This is the stuff that makes them change. For example, you don't just give a hobbit a ring and say "When you've time, go next door and throw this into Mount Doom, will you?" No. There is a journey, there are personal struggles; friendships are made, tested, and broken or healed; physical and emotional limits are tested to their extremes. There is death and betrayal and there is life and promises fulfilled. All these things create change within the characters, and without this change there isn't much of a story.

If the person who went into all of this craziness comes out exactly the same, what does that say? They did some stuff, saved the world, and went home. All in a day's work, nothing epic about that. No story here, folks, just move along. If the story doesn't change the character, then it's certainly not going to change -- or engage -- the reader. Remember the old adage, "the only constant is change?" This is doubly true when it comes to literature, because everything is ultimately about us, humans, a.k.a. the reader. Change is what keeps us going, and it's also what keeps us reading.

The importance of conflict
Conflict is the meat of the story. You may think that action is what engages the reader, and that's true -- to a degree. It works better for movies; people like to see things getting blown up. But books require something more engaging than explosions and sword fights. This is where plot and characters really start to run together along the line of "which is more important?".

Again, conflict is something necessary to plot. Without it -- like without a goal -- there is no plot. If a character doesn't have to make any decisions, what's the point? As humans, we're conflicted about every decision in our lives -- whether it be as simple as "coffee or tea?" or as life-changing as "should I really marry this person?". If a character doesn't have to make these decisions, or doesn't worry about something major, or just makes decisions without any explaination, then the reader has no reason to care about them because they can't understand them. To put it simply, conflict adds character depth.

There are seven basic types of conflict:
Character vs. Self
Character vs. Character
Character vs. Society
Character vs. Nature
Character vs. Supernatural
Character vs. Machine/Technology
Character vs. Destiny/Fate

Most of them are pretty self-explanatory. If you want a more in-depth explanation of each, you can easily look them up.

How do you come up with a plot out of a basic idea?
Let's walk through getting started on a plot together! We'll use the "princess gets kidnapped" plot from the Getting Started post. What does the idea tell us? Well, it says we have at least two characters: the princess, and the person (or people) who kidnap her. Presumably, there's someone who's going to rescue her. We'll call the setting Kingdom X, which is where the princess lives. We said our goal above: the princess gets rescued.

Now we come to the rest of the story: how is this achieved? Is she rescued by someone, or is she the sort of princess who goes against stereotype and rescues herself? But first she has to get kidnapped, and for that there needs to be some kind of motivation. Without motivation, there is no purpose; and with no purpose, there is no story. From here, of course, we could go all sorts of different directions with the plot. What if the princess just wanted to escape the castle and go exploring (or run off with her suitor), and the king blamed her disappearance on someone else? Or what if the princess framed her own kidnapping? Maybe she really was kidnapped -- but by who, and to what end? For a ransom, to provoke war, or because she was some sort of "key" to a prophecy that would save (or doom) millions?

Obviously you can take a basic idea and go literally anywhere with it, but for the sake of this guide we need to narrow it down. Let's say she was kidnapped by some outside person or group, to be held for ransom. The motivation is something you can play around with, to discover the most appealing or depth-giving option. Do they just want money, or land, or something more? And why? Are they just greedy bastards or were they cheated out of or robbed of something they legitimately owned and end up becoming a sympathetic villain? This cycle of coming up with ideas and picking and choosing the right ones is what creating a plot is all about -- and what is the "right" idea depends on you.

Subplots and story arcs
A story with a single, simple plot is usually going to be short. Novel-length works need more action to keep the reader engaged, and this is where subplots come in. Subplots are incidental events that keep the story moving during dead time. For example, say that your characters are going from point A to point B in search of information and there's not a whole lot that happens while they're on the road. Yes, you could just skip over the journey -- or you could have them attacked by robbers and have one of their members taken hostage and they have to go off and save them. Then this could uncovers another subplot that's integral to the main plot -- they discover that these robbers are working for the same people as the princess's kidnappers!

Story arcs work in a similar way, but they're a lot larger than subplots and closer to the main plot. Story arcs work best in a long series, and help with plot cohesiveness and continuity.

Organization and outlines
Everyone has their own way of organizing plots. There is no one "correct" way. Some people can write a brilliant story without noting down anything, and other people need every single scene outlined before they can even think about starting. How detailed your outline is depends on your own preferences, so figure out what works for you and go from there. If you check out the link to the Snowflake Method below, you can see the different level of details. Where you stop on that scale depends on how comfortable you are with what's already outlined in your head.

Useful Links
The "Basic" Plots in Literature
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method
Help with Plot Development
Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps
Hatch's Plot Bank (archived)

Suggested Readings
Campbell, Joseph - The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Read it on Google Books)
Vogler, Christopher - The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Buy it on Amazon)
Setting & Worldbuilding

Whether you realize it or not, setting is a crucial part of everything -- characters, plot, and the overall "feel" of the story. This is doubly true if you're making up your own setting. It isn't just about accuracy and consistency; besides letting the reader know where your story is happening, it also sets the mood. If you want your story to have a dark, gritty, down-to-earth feel, you don't want some sunny Caribbean beach. You want the bad side of town, a dirty, dangerous place where the buildings rise up and blot out the smog-filled sky. Setting isn't all about location, either; consider atmosphere as well. Season can provide this, and weather, and even the time of day.

Choosing a setting can be a tricky thing, whether your story is set on Earth or in another place altogether. Often, when you get your plot or characters you also have a setting in mind, or the plot will dictate the setting. Let's go back and look at the three settings from the "Where is your story set?" portion of the Getting Started post: "somewhere in America," "a spaceship," and "a fantasy kingdom."

Somewhere in America
Even if you narrow it down to only America, but there's still plenty of choices. East coast, West coast, down South, Midwest, Alaska or Hawaii? Maybe you know you want your story set in a major city, like LA, Chicago, or New York. Maybe a landmark like the Vegas strip or the Alamo plays a part in the plot. Big city or small town, downtown Manhattan or a cornfield in Iowa, you still need to know about the place you're writing about. The same goes for places in other countries around the world. If you've been there -- or lived there -- so much the better, and you probably won't need to do too much research.

If not, and you're entirely serious about getting this story eventually polished up for publication, you may want to invest some money in a trip to the location you're going to be writing about. Details are crucial, especially with real places (and their histories, if applicable). You don't want somebody who's lived there picking up your book and going "that's not right at all! This author didn't do their research!" and putting your book back down in disgust. If you don't have the time or money to visit a place you're writing about -- especially if it's another country altogether -- then don't despair. Most places and cities have information about themselves on the internet. If it's a popular travel destination, even better. Your local library may even have books about it.

Another option, of course, is to make up a fictional town or city. Pickax, Moose County, located "400 miles north of everywhere" and the setting of Lillian Jackson Braun's "Cat Who..." series comes to mind as a good example of this. It's modeled on an actual city (Bad Axe, Michigan), but because it's a fictional place the author gets more say and flexibility than if she were writing about the real city. Another example would be the world of Neil Gaiman's American Gods; in a small "Caveat, and Warning for Travelers" at the beginning of the book he writes, "While the geography of the United States of America in this tale is not entirely imaginary -- many of the landmarks in this book can be visited, paths can be followed, ways can be mapped -- I have taken liberties. Fewer liberties than you might imagine, but liberties nonetheless. [...] I have obscured the location of several of the places in this book: the town of Lakeside, for example, and the farm with the ash tree an hour south of Blacksburg. You may look for them if you wish. You might even find them."

What you need to be careful of is that the place you're making up fits in with the real world. You don't have to name the place; you don't even have to tell the reader where it is within a country. But if you give your reader clues that point to the setting being America and you're telling the reader it's somewhere in Europe, then there's a problem and you might want to rethink your setting. The same goes for writing about Earth's future -- make it believable, make the reader believe that things could change in such a way -- but don't go changing it so much that it makes it unrecognizable as Earth, or you may as well just call it something else.

A Spaceship
Writing a story which takes place in a closed location -- whether it's a small abandoned office building downtown, a sprawling mansion in the countryside, or a massive interstellar spaceship -- presents its own set of obstacles and rewards. With a closed setting, there's going to be more focus on characters and their development and interactions. The smaller the space, the more important such things become. Organization is an important thing to keep in mind; you don't want the study to be next to the master bedroom in one chapter and across the house next to the drawing room in another. Even if it's not an entirely closed location, if your characters are spending a lot of time in one place or another it's a good idea to draw maps of the insides of buildings and other structures so you -- and your characters and your readers -- don't get lost. The bigger the structure the harder this becomes, whether it's a spaceship or a small town, and the more important knowing where you are is to the credibility of the story.

When designing something like a spaceship, whether it's a small cruiser or a fleet's mothership, the same sort of things that go into making a whole other world still come into play. You'll need crew quarters. You'll need storage areas, kitchens and mess halls, rec rooms in addition to conference rooms and the engine room and offices and the bridge, and you'll need the people to do all those things. If it's an alien ship, built for a race that's not human, you'll have to factor all their needs in as well and make sure that everything fits together and makes sense.

A Fantasy Kingdom
Creating a whole new world can be a daunting task. Geography, culture, economics, religion, politics, climate, history -- everything needs to exist and work together in a believable way. You don't need to tell your readers every tiny little bit of information about your world and make the system flawless, but you should have a general idea of how everything works together.

Let's start with a single country, a kingdom, and work our way up from there. A country has borders -- things like coasts, mountains, rivers, deserts, and dense forests or jungle all help form borders naturally. Unless it's an island nation, the country will share a border with at least one or two other countries. Within the country's borders, there needs to be enough resources to keep that country running. Fresh water for drinking in the form of lakes and rivers; forests and hills or mountains to provide wood (and food, from hunting) and stone or clay for building. Farmland for growing crops and raising animals for food and transport. Perhaps the geography also produces luxury goods to trade with other countries -- gemstone mines, or soil and climate just perfect for growing a certain type of plant.

Next question: who lives in the kingdom, and where? Are they human, or a different race such as elves, dwarves, werewolves, something you came up with, etc.? Where is the capital, and where are the major cities or towns? There should be a large source of fresh water nearby -- a lake, a major river, or a water table so they can dig wells. Smaller towns can get by with just a stream or deeper wells. A city might spring up around a profitable mine or quarry, fertile farmland, or another place that has the natural resources to generate wealth.

Both geography and location influence culture. People in the desert people live much differently from people in a forest, and likewise for people who live high up in the mountains or down on the coast. Make sure to take geography, physical location, and available natural resources into account when forming your ideas for the cultures and religions of different people and races. To get really in-depth with creating your cultures and religions, check out the link to The Mythopoet's Manual.

Now let's talk about politics and economics. No matter what, your country is going to have interactions with other countries. They are going to be importing and exporting goods, services, and people. Conflicts will arise, or have already arisen. History comes into play, as well as geography, culture, and religion. Countries are formed for a reason -- to place a monopoly on resources or land or to bring together people who share common ideas, language, culture, or religion (or any mix of the above). For a serious look at politics in action in a constructed world, George R.R. Martin's fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire" simply can't be beat.

If your world contains magic, you'll have to figure out the rules for that as well and everything that goes along with it. The same goes for the technology available in the world.

The above paragraphs are only a small taste of everything that goes into making a world. For everything else, the links below are some of the best worldbuilding guides on the internet. If you've got a specific question, try posting it in The Worldbuilding Thinktank and see if anyone here on Gaia can find an answer for you.

Useful Links
A Way With Worlds
Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions
The Mythopoet's Manual
Magical World Builder's Guide
30 Days of Worldbuilding
Creating an Earthlike Planet
How to write about a real location if you haven't been there

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Making a Map of Your World

Making a map is a good way to keep track of where everything is -- borders, cities, mountains, forests, rivers, etc. -- and it's also lots of fun! Everybody has a different technique for making maps. The two most common are from the outside in and from the inside out. With the first, you start by drawing the outline of a landmass and then fill everything in; for the second, you start with a location and then expand out around it. Maps aren't just for worlds, either -- use them on a smaller scale to map out individual cities or towns or even get some graph paper and make maps of the interiors of buildings. The links below are mapmaking specific, and the third, the Cartographer's Guild, is a great place to both show off your maps and see examples of what other people are coming up with. Browsing DeviantART for maps people have drawn is also useful.

Useful Links
Peter's guide to map creation
Fantasy Mapmaking 101
Cartographer's Guild
"Map" search on DeviantART

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Creating a Language

If you want to go whole hog, making an entirely new language for your world is the way to go. Be warned -- it's not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged, and having taken a linguistics course is advisable. The links below will help you on your journey. Right here on Gaia, The Constructed Languages Guild is a nice place to discuss conlangs and to post your work for others to help you with and critque.

Useful Links
The Language Construction Kit
A Naming Language
Online Etymology Dictionary
Racheling's avatar

Moonlight Sailor

Style: Finding Your "Voice"

Voice can be hard to define, but every writer has their own unique voice and style -- even if it takes a little time to really develop your voice.

Any writer can follow basic grammar and spelling rules, but it's the other choices you make that gives your writing a unique voice. Imagine two writers sitting down and trying to tell the same story. Each writer will add their own flair, details from their own background and research, and write every sentence differently.

Voice is more than writing grammatically correct sentences, and it's not just about having a good grasp of language, either. It's about your delivery -- the tension you put into a sentence, the details you choose to put in or leave out, the length of the sentences, the pace of the scene. Every choice you make is contributing to your own voice.

Voice and style can evolve over time, and you may find yourself writing with a stronger voice depending on the type of story you're trying to write. Your voice may change depending on the type of story you're writing, and it can also be influenced by whatever you happen to be reading at the moment.

Don't try to force it. For practice, you can try writing in the style of a writer you admire, but when you're writing a story, just keep going and let yourself make your own choices. Read a lot, and decide what works for you and what doesn't. Try to emulate styles you like without trying to force yourself into a box created by another writer.

It's also a good exercise to look at other author's styles and try to figure out what makes them different from each other. Let's take a look at a few different authors right now:

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein
The Elves sat on the grass and spoke together in soft voices; they seemed to take no further notice of the hobbits. Frodo and his companions wrapped themselves in cloaks and blankets, and drowsiness stole over them. The night grew on, and the lights in the valley went out. Pippen fell asleep, pillowed on a green hillock.

Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire. Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt. The Elves all burst into song. Suddenly under the trees a fire sprang up with a red light.

'Come!' the Elves called to the Hobbits. 'Come! Now is the time for speech and merriment!'

Pippin sat up and rubbed his eyes. He shivered. 'There is a fire in the hall, and food for hungry guests,' said an Elf standing before him.
Tolkien focuses on the sky and the stars and the mists, creating atmosphere that reflects the character's actions and the relaxed and almost dreamy feeling of being with the Elves. He uses simple sentences, and varies sentence length, even having a sentence of just two words.

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
Rincewind found that looking ahead meant that he would have to turn and find out what a sea troll actually looked like, and he wasn't sure he wanted to do that yet. He looked at the Rimbow instead.

It hung in the mists a few lengths beyond the edge of the world, appearing only in the morning and evening when the light of the Disc's little orbiting sun shone past the massive bulk of Great A'Tuin the World Turtle and struck the Disc's magical field at exactly the right angle.

A double rainbow coruscated into being. Close into the lip of the Rimfall were the sever lesser colours, sparkling and dancing in the spray of the dying seas.

But they were pale in comparison to the wider band that floated beyond them, not deigning to share the same spectrum.

It was the King of Colour, of which all the lesser colours are merely partial and wishy-washy reflections. It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself.

But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.
Pratchett does some world building, talking about the Edge of the Discworld and the Great A'Tuin and the color of magic -- all things Rincewind is also concerned about, being so close to the Edge. Note his use of the word "coruscated," and the focus on adjectives. He, too, varies sentence length a great deal.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
"Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts," she said. "Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned."

Then she changed her desk into a pig and back again. They were all very impressed and couldn't wait to get started, but soon realized they weren't going to be changing furniture into animals for a long time. After taking a lot of complicated notes, they were each given a match and started trying to turn it into a needle. By the end of the lesson, only Hermione Granger had made any difference to her match; Professor McGonagall showed the class how it had gone all silver and pointy and gave Hermione a rare smile.

The class everyone had really been looking forward to was Defense Against the Dark Arts, but Quirrell's lessons turned out to be a bit of a joke. His classroom smelled strongly of garlic, which everyone said was to ward off a vampire he'd met in Romania and was afraid it would be coming back to get him one of these days. His turban, he told them, had been given to him by an African prince as a thank-you for getting rid of a troublesome zombie, but they weren't sure they believed this story. For one thing, when Seamus Finnigan asked eagerly to hear how Quirrell had fought off the zombie, Quirrell went pink and started talking about the weather; and for another, they had noticed that a funny smell hung around the turban, and the Weasley twins insisted that it was stuffed full of garlic as well, so that Quirrell was protected wherever he went.
Rowling focuses more on her characters and incidental background information and skipping over exactly what was going on in the classrooms. She uses long, compound sentences -- in this excerpt, only one sentence that's not dialogue doesn't have a comma in it.

Although all three of these samples are from books aimed at different audiences, they are all fantasy novels, and each of the authors has a clearly defined voice. Their word choice is different, as are what descriptions they decide to address and what they leave out.

All of these things (and more) contribute to each author's voice. Once you've found the right mix for you, the words will flow easier. All it takes is practice.

Useful Links
Finding Voice in Writing
Definition of Voice for Creative Writers
Develop Narrative Voice in Creative Writing
Getting Down to Writing

You have a plot. You have characters. Now it's time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and actually write something. Beginning a story can be a nerve-wracking experience; you can fuss and moan over your opening, trying to make it perfect the first time because you want to get started off on the right foot. Or you can just start writing and not worry about it, come back to it later and fix it after you've gotten started.

Your story should start with a hook, something to draw the reader in. Don't waste time presenting your main character's entire life story -- dive straight into the action. You should, by the end of the first chapter (or even better, the first paragraph!), have presented the central conflict to your reader, or at least an inkling of it. You want to introduce the setting, and at least one character. You want the reader to ask questions -- why did this happen? What happens next? Let's take a look at a few examples of opening paragraphs from published books.

Friday by Robert A. Heinlein
As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.
Why it works: Right there, third sentence, bam. The main character kills somebody. That's conflict. The setting is established -- it's some sort of station for whatever the Kenya Beanstalk is, and from Kenya we can assume they're in Africa. It sounds slightly futuristic; a capsule, the door contracting instead of opening. The main character is introduced, but nothing is known about them yet except that they've just killed a man. We want to know the why. Why was he following her, the main character? What's her importance? Why did she kill him?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means--it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

The only person for whom the house was in any way special was Arthur Dent, and that was only because it happened to be the one he lived in. He had lived in it for about three years, ever since he had moved out of London because it made him nervous and irritable. He was about thirty as well, tall, dark-haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too--most of his friends worked in advertising.

On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent's house for what was to be the last time.

It hadn't properly registered yet with Arthur that the council wanted to knock it down and build a bypass instead.
Why it works: Adams has a very particular, conversational voice, and his writing reflects that -- it goes off into tangents, but he still manages to present the initial conflict by the fourth paragraph. He starts off by describing the house, then its occupant. We learn that it is a Thursday in England, the day after a heavy rain, and that the main character is one Arthur Dent. Some information is provided about his looks and disposition, giving us a very good picture of what he looks like. Then some foreshadowing is introduced, along with the conflict -- the sun is shining on his house for the last time, and the the city wants to knock it down to build a highway. Something is going to happen, and from the way it begins it appears that Arthur's house is going to be demolished. Or is it...?

The Gunslinger by Stephen King
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Why it works: again, right of the bat -- characters (the man in black and the gunslinger), setting (a desert), and conflict (a chase). Who is the man in black, and who is the gunslinger? Why is the man in black fleeing across the desert, and why is the gunslinger chasing after him?

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice 'without pictures or conversation?'

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, 'Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
Why it works: Again, right at the start the characters are introduced (Alice, the White Rabbit), the setting is established (on a bank with daisies nearby, probably in the summer because it's a hot day), and the conflict is introduced (a talking rabbit with a pocketwatch runs by, and Alice decides to follow). Why is there a talking rabbit? What is he going to be late for? What will Alice find down the rabbit-hole?

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you, he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get."

"That's what you said about the brother."

"The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability."

"Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He's too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will."

"Not if the other person is his enemy."

"So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?"

"If we have to."

"I thought you said you liked this kid."

"If the buggers get him, they'll make me look like his favorite uncle."

"All right. We're saving the world, after all. Take him."
The start of your story doesn't have to be description; dialogue, if done right, can work as well. In this example there are no dialogue tags, nothing to indicate who the speakers are or any sort of setting; but it's who or what they are talking about which is interesting. They're talking about a boy, a kid, who they've been watching -- watching pretty intently. This boy has a brother and a sister, who weren't found acceptable for whatever these two are scheming about. Who is this boy they're talking about, and why is he important? What are these "buggers" who might get him? What's this threat to the world, and how does the boy figure into their plan?

All of these openings get people asking questions, which makes them want to keep reading. Dive straight into the conflict. If you have to, start writing where you think your story should start and write until you get to the action -- then go back and get rid of all that exposition and work in any pertinent information later. If you're truly struggling with the opening and you need some hands-on help, check out The "I need help with the beginning" Guide here in the forum.

If you're trying to get published, the first chapter or so is what agents want to read. If you can't hook them, then you're going to have a hard time of getting published. The link below about What Agents Hate has some useful tips on things to avoid if you don't want to get rejected right at the start of your story.

Once you get started, don't stop! Keep going, and once you get into it your story should start to write itself. If the entire thing becomes a struggle and doesn't seem to flow, then maybe you need to go back and rethink some of your plot. And remember -- an outline is just an outline, and it's not set in stone. If something comes up that looks promising, take it and run with it and don't worry about deviating from what you'd originally planned. Let your story evolve, and you may end up with something even better than you'd anticipated.

Useful Links
What Agents Hate: Literary Reps vent about their Chapter 1 turn-offs
The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings
American Book Review: 100 Best First Lines from Novels
Things to Avoid

Common Errors
These errors are the simple kind that are usually caught during editing -- misspelled words, word confusion, switching tenses, improper punctuation, those kinds of things. If you can catch them as or before they happen, you've already given yourself an edge.

Some of the most common and easily avoidable errors are word confusion: the difference between its and it's, there/their/they're, and other homonyms (words that sound the same but have different meanings). Other things, like switching tenses, are harder to look out for and are best caught when reading over your work later. With spelling, you just have to memorize the correct letter order -- there's not much in the way of tricks unless you want to count the saying "i before e except after c or when sounded as a as in neighbor and weigh."

Down in the Useful Links section of this post you can find a whole slew of sites which address these problems and how to fix them. A good book to consult -- and one every writer should keep on hand -- is The Elements of Style. On Gaia, Fizzlesticks has put together a useful Grammar and Punctuation Guide where you can go if you have questions about a certain sentence that's bothering you.

Clichés & Tropes
Let's begin with the dictionary definitions of both of these words:
1. a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.
2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.
1. Rhetoric .
a. any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.
b. an instance of this.

Okay... so what does that mean? Most people assume they're the same thing -- but that's not true. Clichés are, as the definition states, sentences or phrases that are used over and over again until you cringe every time you hear it, like when your grandpa starts off with "Back in my day...". Tropes, on the other hand, are literary devices -- usually ones that are used over and over so much that they are easily identifiable (like "evil overlord" or "spunky sidekick" ), which is what leads to the cliché/trope confusion. So when you hear someone say "The princess needs saving? That's so cliché!", you can gently remind them that it's not a cliché -- it's a trope.

Now, you may notice this section is located under Things to Avoid. Clichés are the part you really want to stay away from, unless they're being used in dialogue or you're writing in first person and that's just the way your character thinks/speaks. Tropes, on the other hand, are where you have to be really careful. Used in the right (or wrong) way, they can make (or break) a story. It's all in the presentation.

If you head on down to the Useful Links section at the bottom of this post, you'll find a link to the TV Tropes wiki. This wiki is not just for TV as the name implies: it also covers books, movies, anime, manga, and other comics. Each trope page has lists of media the trope appears in, and each media page has a list of tropes that appear in it! It's a very handy guide, but be warned -- you're liable to waste several hours just clicking around. On Gaia we have the wonderful Anti-Guide thread, which is a collection of tropes, clichés, and general what-not-to-dos. Just be careful to read the first post -- the thread is prevented in reverse format, so what everyone is posting that you should do is actually what you should avoid. Of course, avoiding them is not necessary just as long as you make sure you know what you're doing!

Mary Sues
A Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, if the character is male), is generally defined as a "perfect" character, often highly idealized and serving as wish fulfillment and/or self-insertion for either the author or reader. They tend to lack flaws, have good looks, always get the girl/guy, and are generally all-around unrealistic and two-dimensional. They're also usually (but not always) associated with strange hair/eye colors, superpowers, strange origins, a tragic past, and other similar things.

There are quite a few "tests" floating around the internet which can supposedly determine whether a character is a Mary Sue (such as the popular Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test). It weighs the answers to questions such as "Is your character impervious to any of the normal limitations and/or weaknesses of his/her species?" and "Does your character succeed at virtually everything he/she tries?", and subtracts points for answering yes to questions like "Is your character honestly ugly, and stays ugly throughout the entire story?" and "Has your character ever run away from anything simply because he/she was a coward?", things Mary Sues would never be or do. However, all such tests like this should be taken with a grain (or a spoonful!) of salt. The only true determiner of whether or not a character is a Mary Sue is how they perform as a character within the story. For example, Bella Swan from the Twilight series is a Mary Sue from pretty much any angle. She's a blank slate, meant for the female reader to insert herself into -- one reason why the series is so popular. Stephanie Meyer herself backed this up, saying she "left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes."

Useful Links
ClichéSite.com - Clichés, Euphemisms, & Figures of Speech
Common Errors in English Usage
English Grammar Errors
Five Grammatical Errors that Make You Look Dumb
Houghton Mifflin Textbook - 10 Most Common Grammar Errors
Listology: A list of all Clichés
Television Tropes & Idioms
Anything and Everything Else

This post is basically going to be a FAQ section for, well, everything else that's not covered in the rest of this thread! We went through the old thread, as well as paying attention to the questions which seem to pop up in the forum from time to time, to bring you this section. It's not laid out in any particular order, so you'll have to browse it until you find what you're looking for.

And of course, if you have a question which this guide doesn't answer, please ask! Someone will certainly know or be able to find out the answer for you.

Novel/Chapter Length
Two questions that seems to crop up often are "what is a good length for a novel?" or "how long should I make my chapters?" The first question has a more concrete answer than the second. A "novel" is usually defined as 50,000+ words, though most novels run higher -- in the 100,000 to 175,000 word range. Massive tomes such as Tolstoy's War and Peace come in at almost 600,000 words, while something like Orwell's Animal Farm at just 30,000 words is more of a novella.

Chapters, on the other hand, are more subjective. What's a good length for a chapter? However long it needs to be. Chapters, like books as a whole, should have distinct plots -- a beginning, a middle, and an end -- as well as conflict that is resolved by the end of the chapter. Chapters can be further subdivided by scenes; either scene could be its own chapter, or a chapter can contain multiple scenes. If this can be accomplished in a sentence or a paragraph, then that's as long as the chapter needs to be; if a single chapter takes up a quarter of the book, then that's fine too. Chapters don't need to be all the same length throughout the book, either.

Point of View
Choosing which point of view (POV) is best for your story is a problem in a league by itself, and could probably merit a whole post to itself -- but we'll make do with a condensed version. To start off, there are three main POVs: first person, second person, and third person.

  • First person is when the story is narrated by a character in the story. It uses the pronoun "I", as in "I did this. I watched him do that." Stories narrated in the first person are most often used when you want to really get inside the character's head and look at their thoughts. The character whose POV the story is told in can be the main character, close to the main character, or an outsider looking in. The character does not have to be the same throughout the story; you can switch between multiple characters, each telling the story from their own POV.
  • Second person is the least commonly used. It addresses the reader as the character: "You open the door. You hear a sound." The Choose Your Own Adventure books you may have read as a kid are an example of this kind of POV.
  • Third person has the greatest flexibility. It's told from a POV completely outside the scope of any of the characters inside the story: "He did this. She did that." This POV also has the most variations: objective, subjective/limited, and omniscient. Third person objective tells the story without revealing any of the character's thoughts, only their actions. Subjective/limited allows the author to get inside the head of one or more characters, sort of an 'over the shoulder' view. Omniscient, as it implies, is an almost god-like perspective which can get inside all the character's thoughts and present facts to the reader that the characters might not know.

Ultimately, it's up to you to determine which POV is the best way to convey the story you want to write. First person generally works better in character-driven pieces because it allows you to develop the specific "voice" of that character and allows the reader to interact with the character more fully. Third person, with its varying degrees of depth, allows you to reveal more information to the reader than what the characters themselves know, which is better for plot-driven pieces.

Posting Stories Online
If you want to post your work on the internet for feedback or critique, there are plenty of sites out there. For dedicated critique sites, check out the Workshops & Critique Groups post near the bottom of this page. If you just want a site where you can share your work and maybe get a few reviews or light feedback, here's a couple places you can go:

Just remember: if you're intending on publishing your work, don't post it online! Just some excerpts or a chapter is fine, especially if you're going to revise them heavily later. Sharing a piece with just a few people or working with a closed critique group/site is fine too, but posting it where anyone could potentially access it is considered first publication rights -- and that's what publishers want for themselves.

Using Copyrighted/Trademarked Materials/Names
When using trademarked items in your book -- say, your character has lunch at McDonald's, chows down on a Snickers, or goes to see Lady GaGa in concert -- usually you're covered with just a disclaimer stating that the trademark owner owns that name. If, however, you want to include something like the lyrics to a song or a passage from a book -- even if it's only a line -- you'll most likely need to get permission from the copyright holder, and may even have to pay some money for the privilege.

Writing Software
Notepad or MS Word, every computer comes with some form of writing software -- but not all writing software is created equal. Some people want more or less of something; some people need a program where they can lay out all stages of their novel in one place. This is a basic list of available writing and story planning software, both free and costly.

Writing with a Community
While some of us are cut out to be the sort of writers who hole ourselves up in our bedrooms and pound out novels without need of the outside world, the rest of us find writing to be a lot easier if we have outside motivation and belong to some kind of writing community. To this end, there's a whole slew of writing "contests" where the only goal is to write a novel in a certain amount of time -- and get other people to do it with you. NaNoWriMo was the start of this phenomenon, which spawned a whole year's worth -- or day's worth -- of noveling challenges which don't have to be taken on by you alone.

There's a slew of other unofficial ones for each month and with varying goals (such as NaNoMango -- draw a 30-page manga in a month; or National Novel Writing Day -- write a novel in a day) if you just look for them. Here on Gaia we even have our own version, the Gaian Summer Writing Months, with runs for three months (June-August). Or if you just want some cheering on or cheering up whenever, check out the Post your Progress thread.

Useful Links
General Information/Resources
Absolute Write Water Cooler
Hobgoblin.net - Resources for Writers
TOC About Writing

Writing Blogs
I Should Be Writing 2.0
Novelr - Making People Read
Racheling's avatar

Moonlight Sailor

The Revision Process

Once you've completed your first draft, it's time to start on the revision process. Everyone does things differently, so you'll need to figure out what works best for you. You may need to revise multiple times, and that's okay. It's all about what you need to do to produce the best work possible.

Revision can include different things, but overall your intent is to fix problems in your story which may include but is not limited to: spelling and grammar mistakes, character motivation, plot holes, inconsistencies in description, extraneous scenes, and clunky wording.

Proofreading is simple enough. If you know you have spelling and grammar problems, now's the time to learn. Critique partners are there to help, but it's much easier for them to help you when they aren't distracted by tons of little errors. Use spell check, ask your English teacher for help, and read a lot-- because the more you read, the more you'll get a sense of what sounds right and what doesn't.

Good =/= belongs in the story.
This can be a hard thing to remember, but it's important. Even if a scene is good -- well written, engaging, develops a character well -- you have to be willing to delete it if it would benefit the overall story. If you're writing a novel, sometimes you'll have to delete entire chapters. Is it hard? It can be. But don't let yourself get so attached to your own words that you're afraid to do what's best for your writing. This is part of the "murder your darlings" mantra you may have heard other writers say. Yes, it might be a good line. Yes, you may be attached to it. Cut it anyway.

Almost every story could use some cutting.
While some writers manage to write tight first drafts that may even need to be fleshed out, many more will need to cut 10-30% out of their first draft. It may sound impossible, like you can't do it without losing the story.

There are several ways to do this. One way is to look at your story on a sentence level and cut any extra words. Are you using two descriptive phrases when one is enough? Are you repeating information too many times? Are you overusing adverbs?

You should also look at the story scene by scene. For each scene, ask yourself what it's doing for the story. What is it trying to accomplish? (Moving the plot forward, scene setting, character development, etc.) Is it succeeding? If not, either edit the scene until it does do what you need it to, or cut it.

Watch for overemphasizing unimportant details. "Show, don't tell" can be a useful reminder, but it can be taken too far. Giving unimportant lines too much emphasis by trying to show everything and always avoiding passive voice can backfire by causing the more important parts to blend in rather than stand out. You need to understand why the "rules" are there and what they are meant to do for your work.

Another thing to watch out for when thinking about showing vs. telling is whether showing changes the actual meaning of your sentence. Think about these two lines:
Jackie looked upset.

Jackie huddled in the corner, tears streaming down her face as she hugged her knees to her chest.

One is more descriptive, yes, but also much more extreme. Yet sometimes examples like those are given to show how you can make your sentence better by showing rather than telling. You need to take the surrounding sentences into context. Sometimes telling is okay! Just find the right balance.

Finally, you may also have started your story too early. Often you can cut out part of the beginning and start later in the story.

What if you need to flesh out your story?
Maybe you're one of those writers who needs help adding details. Maybe you just can't seem to get the hang of subplots and fleshing out a scene. There are a few things that might help.

Do think about whether you're showing or telling. You may be telling everything and skimming right over scenes that could be dramatized and made more interesting. Are you summarizing dialogue and character interactions instead of writing it out? Are you adding a line here and there to develop the setting? What about the overall plot? Can you think of other things that might interfere with the resolution?

Everything Else
The other problems can be harder to identify and fix. If someone says your character is too much of a jerk to sympathize with, what's causing that reaction? It could be as little as one or two lines that just go too far, or it could be his motivations in general. When you get feedback, ask follow-up questions to help pinpoint where your readers began having issues with a character or the plot.

Again, read a lot. Analyze what works for you in published works and what doesn't. You'll need to read your own work over and over during the revision process. If you find that you're having a hard time seeing the problems because you're too close to the story, put it away for a week or a month and come back to it later. This often helps a lot with getting the necessary distance.

No changes are final
Remember to save a copy of each draft so you don't have to worry about making drastic changes. If it doesn't turn out like you hoped, you can revert back to an older draft. Keeping this in mind can help give you the freedom to hack away at your story without getting hung up on losing what you've done, but you may find that the changes are a great improvement!

Useful Links
Murder Your Darlings
Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.
Racheling's avatar

Moonlight Sailor

Dealing with Criticism

Receiving a critique can be tough to deal with. Even if you know your story still needs improvement, it can be hard to have all of your problems as a writer right there in print. And sometimes the critic gets things wrong. So, how do you deal with criticism?

Remember that the critic's intent is to help you improve.
If your story gets shredded, keep in mind that the goal is to give you the tools you need to revise and make it better. It can take hours to do a good critique. They are spending their time to help you improve as a writer.

It's not personal.
Sometimes writers feel so close to their work that a critique of the story feels like an attack on them as a writer. Critiques are not personal. A harsh critique of a story is just that -- a critique of the story and its flaws. No writer is perfect, and we all have room for improvement. Remember that the goal is to help you, not attack you.

You don't have to take their advice.
Maybe the critic, despite their good intentions, just doesn't get your story. Or maybe they're suggesting a change you just don't agree with at all. That's fine. Remember this is your story. You're in charge of making the changes. But take a few days to consider the advice you don't agree with to make sure it's not just a reaction to hearing negative comments. And if two or more critiquers give you the same feedback, it's worth taking another look, just to make sure.

Be gracious.
Whether you agree with the critique or not, thank them for taking time out of their day to try to help you. Critiques can take a lot of time, and it's important to show that you appreciate their efforts.

Useful Links
Rich Hamper's How To Cope With Critiquing Article
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How to Critique Others

How to Give Constructive Criticism
Constructive criticism, often shortened to concrit, is a form of criticism that, in addition to pointing out the flaws of a work, offers advice for improvement. Here is a simple three-part formula for giving concrit:

  • One part praise
    Find something they did well and comment on it first.

  • One part pain
    Identify a few of the major flaws and briefly describe them -- there is no need to extensively hammer on minor issues, especially if others have already made note of them.

  • One part prescription
    Give a suggestion or two for how to fix the flaws you pointed out, and/or ideas for future development.

Being Direct vs. Being Nasty
Remember that you are critiquing in order to help the writer improve, and while you may hate their story, it is not helpful to give a rude critique. It's a waste of your time as well, since excessive harshness will often result in the writer becoming defensive. This does not mean you can't be blunt about the problems you see in the work. But there is a difference between pointing out that the characters are flat and uninteresting and saying "This is a pile of crap."

Does the story make sense? If there are plot twists, are they hinted at previously, or do they come out of nowhere?

Do the characters resolve their own story, or is everything resolved a bit too conveniently by outside forces?

Are the stakes high enough for the story? In some cases, a girl not getting to go to a dance is a major problem. In other stories, it would be ridiculous because the whole city is at stake, so who's got time to worry about that?

Did the story start too early and include too much back story?

Was the ending satisfying? Did it make sense, and did it resolve the main conflict?

Are the characters believable? Does their dialogue fit them, and does it reveal things about the character? Do the characters change in believable ways throughout the story?

Are the characters unique? Are their wants and motivations made clear? Did you relate to the characters and care what happened to them?

Think about those questions while reading. It's often helpful to tell the writer what you felt about characters. Sometimes the writer may think a character is coming off much differently than they are, simply because the writer knows why the character is acting a certain way.

Does the story drag at any point? If you start to glaze over or get bored, try to pinpoint what made you lose interest.

Does the story go too fast? Sometimes you find yourself struggling to keep up with everything that's going on and there's too much happening at once. Point that out as well.

What's a Line Edit?
A line edit is when you go through a story line by line and point out all of those little problems on a sentence level. Line edits often don't address major plot or character issues in a work, and are more likely to be comments like: "Would John really say this?" or "You used the wrong word for this disease here" or "Your dialogue punctuation is incorrect, the comma goes here instead."

Line edits can be very useful, but if a story needs major work, sometimes it's best to leave the line edit for later and focus on the larger issues. If the writer completely rewrites the story because of feedback that addresses plot or character problems, those sentence level comments won't be relevant anymore. If you think this might happen but you still want to point out some mistakes, sometimes it's best to just focus on fixing a few of the bigger things and explain how they can use the same concept throughout the work.

Improving Your Critiques
If you aren't confident in your critiquing abilities, it's okay to only mention a few things that occur to you, or write down your thoughts as you read the story. It can be helpful to read other people's critiques and to decide whether you agree or disagree with them. The best way to improve your critiquing skills is to practice.

Critiquing to Improve Your Own Writing
Need more motivation to critique? Critiquing other writers' stories can help you connect with people who might be willing to give you a critique in return. But, more than that, learning to pick out flaws in other writers' manuscripts can help you improve when it comes to finding those same flaws in your own work.

Useful Links
How to Critique Fiction
Hardcore Critique Guidelines
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Moonlight Sailor

Workshops & Critique Groups

Critique Groups
A critique group is a group of writers who get together and exchange their work. Each critique group has their own rules for how much work is submitted by each member, how much time the group has to write up their critiques, and how often the group meets.

Critique groups can be online or in person. In person, they often meet at bookstores or libraries, so those are good places to check for news in your area. Online, they might be on their own special website, or a small offshoot of a writing forum. It could even be just a group of writers who all communicate over email.

Finding a Critique Group
Again, check your local bookstores or libraries. There may be local writing groups in your area. Or you can start your own!

To join an online group, think about the writing forums you belong to. You could even start a GGN on Gaia and invite fellow writers to join.

Remember that if you hope to get your work published, it's best not to post it publicly online. But a private guild on Gaia would be fine, as is exchanging stories over PM.

Writing Workshops
Writing workshops can be useful, but they aren't for everyone. They can also be expensive, particularly when they require residency (meaning you live on a campus for the duration of the workshop). There are workshops aimed at young writers as well as adult writers.

A writing workshop is basically a retreat where you and a small group of fellow writers listen to professional writers give lectures and help you improve. You get the opportunity to talk to writers who are being paid for their work and to ask questions about the industry in a small group setting. You are usually given "homework" and are required to complete brand-new stories while at the workshop. You will usually learn to give better critiques and to have your work critiqued while at the workshop.

There are also smaller workshops that are much shorter and more inexpensive. Are they right for you? Maybe, maybe not. They won't turn you into a brilliant writer in the span of a few weeks, but they can help point you in the right direction to improve.

Useful Links
Online Critique Groups/Forums/Sites
Critique Circle Online Writing Workshop
Critters Writers Workshop
URBIS - Peer Review for Writers
Young Writers Society - Ages 13 to 25

Writing Workshops/Retreats
Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers
Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop
Clarion South Writers Workshop
Clarion West Writers Workshop
Odyssey, the Fantasy Writing Workshop
Shared Worlds Creative Writing Program

Links to Writers' Workshops
Resources for Teen Writers
Creative Writing as a Major

The first and most obvious question is why should you (or should you not) choose to major in creative writing?

First, creative writing as a major is usually found as a specialization under English. Having a degree in English is very useful, and, since it's broader, can net you a bigger range of employment options. If you're set on creative writing as a career but you're unsure if you're "good enough" to get by on that alone, or worried that it's too specialized, consider a major in English with a minor (or even a double major) in creative writing instead.

Major or minor, creative writing isn't just writing -- it also involves a lot of reading. And if you think you're not going to have to write any essays, think again. Creative writing isn't just all fiction, either.

Can having a degree in creative writing help you get published? Listing it as a credential in your cover letter might get you a little more attention from an agent or publisher, but ultimately, it's your writing ability that will get you accepted. However, having that degree already puts you at an advantage because you've gone to school and learned -- and honed -- your writing skills there, putting you above the average Joe who sat down one day and decided to write a novel.

Keep in mind, though, that the writing market as a whole is flooded daily with people who are trying to "make it" in the publishing industry. Having this kind of a degree is not an automatic guarantee for anything -- though the same might be said of any other degree. If you think you're just going to do it for the money and will suddenly be able to churn out bestseller after bestseller, you're going to be disappointed -- and probably broke.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you -- as it is with any major life choice. If you are passionate about writing and want to turn it into a lifetime career, then by all means go for it. Even if you don't use it to become a world-famous novelist, the skills you pick up taking the courses and writing for them will be useful in a range of fields with a wide array of jobs. For a list of some of them, check out the Careers in Writing post at the bottom of page two.

Useful Links
Why Major in Creative Writing?

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