Writing Styles: 6 Things to Consider

Once we get into writing, we all start to develop personal writing styles or preferences. Some of us focus on fiction, some of us focus on journalism or copy writing, and still others focus on startup white papers and b2b marketing. But at some point, you will find a set of writing styles that you like so much, that the time you spend on them will make you face this one big question:

Is writing your career, or is it just a hobby?

Your journey as a writer, especially as you improve or deepen your writing styles, will be heavily influenced by the answer to this question. So, to help you out (since I’ve had to answer that question for myself already, SPOILERS: I want to be a professional writer!), here are 6 things to consider as you decide how you will continue your writing journey.

1. Am I constantly trying to improve, or reading about how I can improve, my writing?

If you answered yes to this question, then writing can and should be a business for you! As you write, your personal style starts to enhance the genre or writing style you write about. And like any other profession, your ability to write within certain genres or writing styles is contingent upon your ability to keep up with the always changing world. The more you seek to improve your writing, the more opportunities you will find to profit from your writing.

2. What writing style should I focus on?

This question is good for both hobbyists and professionals. It’s hard to know what writing style to focus on. If you don’t have a style that has grabbed your attention, it can be daunting to try and focus in on one. To that I say, don’t focus on one. Play around in the giant sandbox that is writing until you find something that you want to work on. Chances are, if you like something, there’s a professional way to write about it. But if you want a more focused approach, a website called Small Business Trends has a great article detailing 50 different types of writing styles for professionals.

Personally, I started writing fantasy, then moved to science fiction. Now I write a little bit of everything, including blog and academic writing, and a little bit of copy writing. But the one thing that keeps me writing is my passion for science fiction is what keeps me writing.

3. Do you have the time to devote yourself to a professional writing career?

This one is a bit tricky to answer. For those of us determined to be writing professionals, we will answer ‘yes’ every time. I know that’s my first reaction. But if you take an honest look at your life and determine where you spend your time and where you have to spend your time, you’ll be able to get a better idea of your answer. You have to keep in mind familial obligations, your day job (which you should have unless you find a sustainable, repeatable writing salary), and your personal health and wellness. Also, keep in mind the various writing styles you want to focus on, some take a lot more time than others.

For myself, I had to sacrifice some things (mostly video games and other media, but some diet related things as well) for writing, and even though I still struggle to write every day, I’m only getting better the longer I work for it.

3 pieces of advice

1. Don’t take on more than you can handle.

This one I had to learn the hard way, and I’m currently still working through it. When I decided writing would be my career, I started two blogs (this one and another for my editing/design business, hybridhouse.cc), I started working on a nonfiction book about writing query letters, was revising a science fiction novel, and was starting a new YA science fiction novel. I was also holding down a near full-time job, was a full-time student, and was married. Your writing style will help you determine how much you can write. Writing technology-based whitepapers will be far more time consuming that a 900-word blog post every other day. Honestly, if you take on too much at once, the best-case scenario is that you’ll burn out or get behind. The worst-case scenario, you give up writing all together or you experience trouble in your real-life relationships. So only take on what you can handle.

2. Don’t quit your day job.

This piece of advice has shown up at every writing conference I’ve ever been to, yet every year I hear more stories of authors who signed a big, six-figure contract or freelancers who get a high-paying client and think they can quit their job. But publishing companies spread out the full payment of the advance across a 2-3 years making “six-figures” unlivable. On the freelancer side, companies will sometimes take advantage of freelancers and never pay at all. If you decide to freelance, you are in a better situation than novelists because the amount of money you make is relative to the amount of time you chase down leads and the types of writing styles you’ve decided to focus on. But whether you freelance or get a book deal, don’t quit until you have regular payments that take care of your expenses.

2a. Exception to Advice #2

If I don’t have a job providing for my day to day expenses, and I can’t predict money coming in from my freelance work, I hit a wall of anxiety and worry that makes it impossible for me to work.

Here’s the exception to the rule: If you are the type of person that gets motivated in situations like that, where you have no other choice but to find a way to succeed, then quitting your job might be great for you.

But if you aren’t that person (like me) don’t quite until you have a guaranteed monthly income.

3. Don’t give up.

Writing is not a get-rich-quick type of career. It won’t make you thousands in a month without a ton of effort. Writing styles can take years to master, and some can never be completely mastered. Most likely, you won’t be able to rake in the money while you’re typing away at a computer on a beach somewhere. At least, not at first. Eventually, you’ll find ways to make money while you sleep. You’ll expand your expertise to a more profitable market and make more each and every year. But that can only happen if you keep trying, keep learning, and most importantly,

Keep Writing.

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Making Characters Feel Like Real People: The Becky Chambers Way

I’ve only read 2 books by Becky Chambers, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. Both are from her Wayfarers series, books that have easily jumped to some of my favorite of all time, and if you read them, I suspect they’ll be some of your favorites as well.

For what reason, you might ask, have I made such a bold claim? It’s because I love the people in her stories. Notice, I said people, not characters or protagonists, not heroes or villains, but people. Chambers excels at something that writers (including myself) have spent their entire career trying to learn to do well. She excels at making fictional characters seem like real people to a reader. She does this so effectively that even though most of the characters from the first book don’t even show up in A Closed and Common Orbit, it doesn’t mater, you still want to read it, and keep reading it until you finish. I literally pulled an all nighter just because I wanted to keep listening.

4 Steps of Making Real Characters the Becky Chambers Way

There are four things I think she does to accomplish this feat of character creation:

  1. Even though her characters live in space and among aliens, Chambers gives her characters problems that could be our problems in real life.
  2. Chambers makes her characters good people first (even if they seem bad at first), then makes them choose good repeatedly.
  3. Chambers makes them great at one thing, and terrible at others.
  4. Chambers makes a universe seem small because every character’s story ends up being connected to the rest in a completely believable way.

Specific Character Case Study: Rosemary Harper

Take Rosemary Harper from A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Without spoiling anything, Chambers gives us a mystery with Rosemary.

  1. We know something’s off about her history, but we don’t know what until near the end of the book. Rosemary struggles to fit into a tight spacer crew, she makes mistakes she has to fix, and she desperately wants to prove herself. For being a crew member on a ship that punches tunnels through the space time continuum, her problems of wanting acceptance are something we all experience.
  2. To make Rosemary a good person first, Chambers gives us just enough about her backstory that we know she’s running from something bad, and yet despite that, she tries to do as best she can for the crew of the Wayfarer and the people. She then has to constantly work to do the right thing, to try her best, and at times, ignore her own needs to keep things going. At any point if Rosemary just gave up, we’d hate her. If she chose to not help the crew, we’d hate her. If she chose anything else but the good she already had, then we wouldn’t love her so much we want to know everything about her. See Random Aside below number (4) for an example of how Chambers takes a character we don’t like and turns them into a good character we can care about.
  3. Rosemary fulfills a very important job on the crew, the accountant of sorts. She not only is a good at it, but she’s great at it. The only complaint she gets on the job is when she orders a part that is one serial number away from the actually requested part. But while she’s great at the records and money, she’s bad at just about everything else required of a spacer. This immediately puts her into state of separation from the rest of the crew, who have worked long enough that they know how they fit with everyone else in both the day-to-day and emergencies. One of the greatest parts about the thing she’s good at is that she’s able to use her talent to help the crew in an emergency as well, making her ability worth it for more than financial gain.
  4. Now I definitely don’t want to get into spoilers, but when we finally learn everything about Rosemary’s past, we find out that things from her past have created situations that the crew has either already had to deal with or are currently dealing with somehow. These connections made the universe seem small but were completely believable because of the nature of her past. Then Chambers goes another step forward and brings out the tension of the crew about the situation making the crazy, strange and beautiful universe she created feel even smaller.

Random Aside

The best example of how Chambers takes a character we think is bad, and then endears them to us by making them good, is a character from A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet named Corbin. For much of the book, Corbin is an ill-tempered perfectionist that seems to enjoy being difficult. He’s also kind of speciest (essentially racism except that its discrimination based on species). Without revealing his story, you find out that he has a lot of very justifiable reasons for being the way that he is. To start his transition into being a good character, Chambers does something akin to the master stroke of a painter, she forces Corbin to rely on his crew to save his life. She not only does that, but she forces Corbin to rely on a specific member of his crew (one he doesn’t get along with) for a full year. Because of this, Corbin learns how to respect others and makes decisions to help others that then endears him to us just as much as Rosemary or Sissix or Dr. Chef.

This making a universe feel small is a common way to make the characters of a movie or TV show quickly relatable. It’s like what The Office did for general, white collar America and what Parks & Rec did with general government bureaucracy. Those shows took a very broad, and widely variable setting, filtered it down to its most base parts, and then making the characters interact in the constraints of those base parts. Once they did that, everything about how the characters interact follows from that base setting.

We writers (especially fiction writers) seem to get so fixated on world building, when authors like Becky Chambers are showing us that it’s not about how detailed the world it, it’s about the people in it. Instead, we just have to do one thing.

To make a world and its people feel real, practice making your world feel small instead of expansive. It will force you to examine character motivations to a higher level because we won’t be able rely on world building exposition to get in the way of character dialogue.

I wish I could outline the character Sidra from A Closed and Common Orbit because the character exemplifies the 4 steps better than Rosemary does, but no amount of talking around a bush or trying to be sly about it would stop me from spoiling A Closed and Common Orbit for you. You’ll just have to go read them and see how amazing Becky Chambers is as an author. These 4 categories will fit any character you choose in her books, so I definitely suggest you go read them, if not for the learning value of them, then for the entertainment value. I literally cried, got angry, and couldn’t stop reading at the end of A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and then cried, was elated, and put of a freelance project when finishing A Closed and Common Orbit.

Summary

Becky Chambers uses 4 major categorical tools (as far as I can tell) to make characters feel real, which in turn makes the universe her characters are connected feel real.

  1. Give your characters relatable problems, even if the universe they live in is very different from our own.
  2. Make your readers love your characters by making those characters good first, then make them choose good repeatedly (think Mal from Firefly).
  3. Give your characters something to be great at, and then make them terrible or mediocre at best in everything else.
  4. Make all of the back stories for your characters connect together (without being obvious) in some way.

If you haven’t read anything from Becky Chambers before, now is definitely a time to start! You can click any red link on the page (or these: A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet or A Closed and Common Orbit) and it will take you right to Amazon where you can buy her books (which yes means I get a little bit of a commission which will help me produce more content!).  

I think I’m going to do a writing prompt on this, so stay tuned for that! And as always

Keep Writing!

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Avoid Writer’s Madness: 6 definitive ways to stay motivated as a writer

Avoid Writer Madness
6 definitive ways to stay
motivated as a writer

I don’t know about you but staying motivated to write is hard. There’s always something family or friends related that seems more important, or something that actually makes money like a job or a freelance project that gets in the way. Writing always seems to be a third or fourth item on my plan for the day, and other things always eventually push in.

Writer’s Madness

           If I don’t have a good writing session for an extended period (usually about a month) I start to feel anxiety about getting things done. I’m more direct and short with the people around me. I will even find myself skipping out on fun activities I actually do have time for because I have this feeling I haven’t done enough that day. I like to call this state of mind Writer Madness. The reason for the name is because I often can’t figure out what the problem is. I toss and turn when I sleep. I wake in a bad mood each morning, and I often stop the little steps I should take each day to reach for my other goals.
           It feels like I’m crazy, and the longer I don’t write, the longer the madness lasts and the more anxious I get. My Writer Madness got worse when I finally decided to make writing a career choice rather than just something I might do one day. Now, if I don’t write, I feel like I’m putting my future family in danger.
           Ironically enough, this anxiety doesn’t make being motivated as a writer any easier. But I’ve talked with hundreds of writers and many other publishing professionals and there are a few things you can learn and do that will help you out.

1. Realize that writer’s block is a myth.

           Writer’s block isn’t some mental barrier holding back the flood of words we are trying so desperately to capture. Writer’s block is more like a sixth sense, an intuition that something isn’t right. If you feel like you can’t continue writing a story, it’s because something is wrong with your story. Whatever is wrong in your story, I can’t tell you, but your reader and writer intuitions are telling you that something in your story isn’t right. It might be a character or your plot, it might be that you have used to heavy a hand in forcing your characters down the path you planned before you started writing. It can be something as small as an individual word choice, or something as big as a character that needs to be ripped from the story. Whatever it is that is stopping you from writing, it isn’t that invisible and impenetrable wall we believe it to be. It is just something wrong, some issue you can fix, which will then free up your mind to keep writing. This was taught to me by one of my writing teachers in college, and since then, it’s been a guiding principle for my writing. If I’m stuck and can’t figure what’s wrong, I’ll switch to writing something new based on a writing prompt. If when I come back, I still haven’t figured it out, I’ll switch to a project I might be working on strictly for fun or one that I’m revising. Eventually, when I come back to the manuscript that had me stuck, all of that other writing will have helped me figure out what is wrong. This one thing has helped me work through writer’s madness more times than I can count, because now I have something to focus on, and I know I can write something else if I’m too stuck to continue.

 2. Writing Groups.

           I’ve had a writing group for the last three years. We met in a creative writing class and kept in touch by forming the group. There’s four of us, we meet weekly, but we only focus on two people each week. That means I have a two week period in which I can get an entry together for my group. Having that deadline socially enforced (since I feel bad when I contribute nothing) has kept me writing around 1500 words every two weeks. It might not be much, but it’s allowed me to finish a novel, pitch a couple news ones, and share knowledge about writing and world building. My writing group has been one of the best motivators, because not only is my writing getting finished, but someone is looking at it right away and giving me immediate feedback on how I can improve. Finding a writing group can be as simple as a google search, since there are tons of online groups. If you aren’t as comfortable with that, you can find chapters of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators or the SCBWI. They will often have a chapter in your city or in a more major city nearby that will have a monthly group. But the best way I’ve found to find a group is to take a writing class that focuses on your genre or go to a writing conference workshop, preferably a workshop that spans an entire week. This allows you to get to know the people before you ask to form a group with them, eliminates the need to group with online strangers, and lets you see what kind of writing advice they give. Once you’ve found a few you’d like to invite, approach them and simply ask. You can only benefit from having a group. It holds off Writer’s Madness because you have to write weekly or monthly, and keeps you motivated to write so you can contribute to the group.

 3. Celebrate the small victories.

           As writers, we can be very down on ourselves if we don’t see the wordcount on the page that we want. We say to ourselves, “You only wrote 300 words today, what’s wrong with you?” or we start blaming the world or our distractions. If you turn that dialogue around, and say to yourself, “Today was awesome, I wrote 300 words. In those 300 words I did ______” and you fill in the blank with something achieve in those 300 words, it’ll change a lot of your outlook on writing. You’ll get up the next day having had a positive experience with writing the day before, a small one I know, but a positive one, which will make it easier to sit down and keep writing, holding off the madness for another month.

 4. Give yourself a deadline.

           Despite this one not working very well for me, I know many writers that give themselves deadlines to have the novel finished, or even smaller ones like getting a chapter finished in a week. As soon as they set themselves a deadline, they get it done. While personal deadlines don’t work for me, external ones work wonders. National Novel Writing Month (NanoWrimo) is a “competition” set in the month of November (there are sometimes groups that do it over the summer) that gives you a month to write 50,000 words. I’ve only done it once, but that once I finished my first ever completed draft of a novel. The competition element is only with yourself. You’re challenging yourself to write 1,700 words or so a day for 30 days, and if you do it, you get this great certificate of completion. You also can find groups of writers that are participating in your area (another place to find a writing group) and have a great time writing with people. I’ll have to tell you about my experience meeting up with a group of ten people at a coffee shop to write another day, but it was incredibly motivating to be surrounded by writers who were simply set on making that deadline of 50,000 words in 30 days.

5. Personal Consequence Contracts.

           This one is what works best for me. A personal consequence contract is essentially like any other contract you might sign. It states what your responsibility is to fulfil the contract, as well as the consequences if you do not fulfil the contract. The difference is that you make the contract with yourself, and then have someone you trust enforce the consequences. For me, that person is my wife. If I haven’t gotten my words in, she takes my phone, puts away the PS4 controllers, and makes me write. Admittedly, this option does require that you have someone close to you, or someone that you interact with every day who will enforce the contract, but I found that the simple knowledge that my consequences for not writing are not solely in my own hands has helped me to keep writing each day.

6. Same time of day or restricted time limit.

           If you’re someone with a regular schedule, setting a regular time to write each day takes the scheduling guess work out of it. You know that you write from 4am to 5am and that’s that. You don’t have to try and fit it in between family and work, unless that time is the best time. Extending this concept, maybe you don’t have a regular schedule, but you usually have about an hour at some point in the day where you don’ have anything. What you can do is then write for that hour, whenever it shows up. As soon as you have some time, set a timer for an hour (or less or more) and just write. Don’t let yourself be distracted, just write. By the end of whatever time period you’ve set for  yourself, you’ll have achieved some word count, a word count you can then celebrate because you did it 

However you do it, keep looking for ways to motivate yourself. Writing is a very solitary art, and when we can motivate ourselves to write, we can finish any manuscript, any blog post, any article. I use everything I listed above personally. Try them all, try them one at a time, or try none of them, it’s up to you. But if you don’t try these suggestions, find others and, as always,

 Keep Writing!

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