“Race Car Driver Excuses” for Writers

We all have them. Friends who are writers. Friends who are not-writers.

And friends who are wannabe writers.

Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. Like the ‘wannabe cowboys’ of the 1990s, who wore brand-new Stetsons and Justin ropers and drove brand-new half-ton trucks that they washed every single day, wannabe writers talk a good talk. But they never put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write. And their reasons include:

  • I don’t have time.
  • I have nowhere to write.
  • I had this great idea, but I have to do the research. That sucks.
  • I had this great idea, but I found out someone else already wrote a book kind of like it. It’ll suck.
  • I’m not as good a writer as Hemingway/Asimov/Stephen King/whoever. It’ll suck.
  • I’ve tried to write, but every time I sit down, I don’t know what to say, and I sit there staring at a blank screen and wasting time and then I feel guilty so I get up and go do something else.
  • I’ve tried to write, but it sucks. It’s not as good as I think it should be. I give up.

On Top Gear, there is – WAS, sorry, I hate you, BBC! – the “Star in the Reasonably Priced Car” segment. Invariably, guests immediately launch into reasons why their lap times may not have been very good:  it was too wet; it was too dry; the gearshift is on the wrong side of the car; I’m on the wrong side of the car; the car broke; I couldn’t see the track; there was a head wind all the way around the track . . . what Jeremy calls “race car driver excuses.”

Wannabe writers do this, too.

Guess what? Everyone starts out sucking. I have a dozen novels – some complete, some not – stuck in a box in storage, where I pray they never, ever see the light of day again. I have a half-finished romance in the style of Victoria Holt; I’ve got a little fantasy series a la Terry Brooks; I’ve got a completed time travel/spy intrigue novel that’s sort of like Diana Gabaldon (and I still like that one; that’s the first good novel I ever wrote). I’ve got another that I’d still like to finish, that I did in my early twenties, that is probably the first book I ever wrote in my own voice. But it took me 10 years to get there. Ten years, plus reading hundreds of novels in a dozen different genres, and at least a dozen attempts at my own novels, to get there.

Every new writer wants to know The Secret To Writing The Great Novel. If they only knew the secret, they say, they’d write.

It’s your lucky day. I’m going to tell you The Secret. And here it is. There’s just two parts to it. It’s so simple.

1.) Read.

2.) Write.

You can’t write a novel if you don’t read. If you don’t enjoy reading novels, why would you want to write one? Let’s say you want to be a professional Formula One driver, but you don’t enjoy driving. Then what’s the point? To be successful, you need to drive. Drive. Drive. Drive. Formula One cars are nothing like your Toyota Camry. You have to learn to handle something completely new. Learn how to get off the line and never, ever touch the brakes if you can help it; conserve your tires; handle the gear shifts; handle the G-force and speeds of up to 200mph; and how not to fear crashing at speeds of up to 200mph. Plus, you have to study every other driver out there, so you can learn how they drive, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. AND, you have to study the tracks! The best lines through corners, optimum speeds . . .

This is what reading is for writers. When you’re a writer, you read differently. You read for pleasure, but you also read to see how other authors do it. You study the craft by studying other novels.

And you can’t write a novel if you don’t write.

Here’s a sad fact:  You will suck at first. That’s a given. Because you have no idea what you’re doing. In writing, we talk about the phenomenon known as the “overnight success.” It’s a lie. No author claims to be an overnight success. They will flat-out tell you how many years, how many drafts, how many books about writing and creative writing classes and rejections they went through before they got that “overnight success.”

They did it by writing.

You will suck. I’m sorry. That’s just how it is. At first, we all suck at everything we do. Tennis. Photography. Driving. Writing isn’t any different. The only way to get better is to practice. The only way to practice writing is to WRITE. To stop the excuses and just do it.

Think about it this way:  If you don’t start writing now, and get the suckiness out of the way, then in two years, five years, ten years, you’ll still suck at it. But if you start NOW, then you’ll gradually get better. In two years or five years, you’ll be much better. You’ll have much more confidence. You’ll learn to trust your characters and your instincts.

So enough race car driver excuses! Go. Read. Write. And get the suckiness out of the way. 🙂


Book Signing – Debra Dockter, Deadly Design

So excited to announce that Debra Dockter (my friend, beta reader, and debut author of Deadly Design) has her first book signing in June – Inkwood Books in Tampa, FL! Here’s the information:


Writing Every Day: Myths, Realities, & Why I Hate It

Pick up a writing book – any writing book – and I’ll bet you that somewhere in there, it says something to the effect of:  “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every single day. Even if it’s crap. Write.”

Or it’s “Set a goal of x number of words per day. If you write 500 words per day, in a year you’ll have a novel!” Or whatever the magical number is supposed to be.

I hate this advice. And here’s why:

1.) It assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality. News flash:  no one is the same. Painters do not paint in the same style as everyone else. That’s how art historians can tell whether it was really Rembrandt who painted this particular work, or one of the many assistants he kept on staff – or even a forger two hundred years later. Writers do not write the same, either. Yes, there are some who write every single day because if they don’t, they lose the rhythm, or the plot, or (like a friend of mine) turn into raving lunatics. But not everyone is like that.

2.) How much pressure is that to put on new writers? “Write every day OR ELSE!” Or else what, exactly? The world won’t end. You may take longer to get better at writing, is all.

2.) Sometimes, I literally don’t have the time to write. We all have busy lives. Some have kids and spouses; others, pets. Most writers have other jobs (maybe even 2 or 3 jobs) to pay the bills. Real jobs that require us to shower and go out into the world and interact with people that care whether we brushed our teeth this morning or not.

3.) Sometimes, I don’t feel like it. We all need breaks from everything in our lives. That’s why people take vacations. If I’m stressed and frustrated about other things in my life, it’s impossible to get my writing mojo in gear. My writing needs to be something I come to when I’m fresh and excited to be there. Like sex! Ever have sex when you really didn’t want to? It’s like that. Take the past two weeks, for example:  I had graduate tests to oversee, just found out my hours are getting cut at work much more severely than I originally thought, and I still hadn’t done my taxes. It wasn’t until the tests were done, taxes were done, and the job search was underway, that I felt like going back to my manuscript.

4.) I need to have something in mind when I sit down to write, a scene that must be written. If the characters aren’t in my head chattering away, I don’t write. All the times I’ve sat down at the computer and forced myself to type something out because I felt like I had to, it’s all been absolute crap. I’ve learned over the years not to force it. A lot of people will say “Write it anyway! You can revise it later!” But there’s revision, and then there’s I have to toss the five pages of dribble that I forced myself to write the other day, because there’s nothing here worth salvaging.

5.) It makes writing into a chore – and you resent it. You get home from a long day at work, the kids are screaming, the cat’s throwing up, you’re getting a headache . . . and then you think, ‘I’ve got to write 500 words tonight before I can go to bed!’ How good do you think those 500 words are going to be? And more importantly, how much are you going to resent every single one of those words?

6.) But the thing I hate most about this advice is that I believe it stops people from writing. New writers who read this advice and think ‘Holy crap, I can’t write 500 words a day, every day! There’s no point in even starting!” So they go do something else instead, and that dream they had? Of writing? It never gets fulfilled. Because of this advice.

Now, I admit that when I’m in the middle of drafting a novel, writing every day, or nearly every day, does help me stay connected with my characters and my story. But if all I’m doing is typing out cold dribbles of pudding that will never, ever end up in the finished version, what am I accomplishing? Nothing. I may as well be photographing in the dark without a flash.

The idea that all writers write every single bloody day is a MYTH. If you’re trying to get into the writing habit, then yes, a word count per week is a good idea – but for some of us, it just doesn’t work. We’re wired differently. I can go days – even weeks – without actually putting fingers to keyboard. But I’m mulling over ideas. Letting the story evolve in my subconscious. And then, when I do sit down, I write in spurts, doing two or three hours a day, every day, for a week or two, or even six or seven, depending on the project. It’s just how I roll. It’s neither right or wrong. It just IS.

If you’re a slow writer, or you need to do research, or life simply gets in the way and you think you can’t write because of that – of course you can! It’s a different path, is all. It takes longer to get there. But you CAN get there.

Writing should be a joy, not a chore. It should be the place we go to express ourselves, to find an outlet for our creativity, to give our characters voices and lives and beating hearts.

So just do this for me.

Write when you can.


Character Descriptions

Last week, I discussed setting descriptions (sort of; there’s an entire book there!). This week, I want to look a bit more at character descriptions.

Most writers have drafts sitting on their hard drive or in their desk drawers in which they describe characters by having them stand in front of a mirror and contemplating the way they look.Something like this:  “Petra stood in front of the mirror, contemplating her long blond locks. Her blue eyes stared back at her; she could count the five freckles dotted across her nose.  The high aristocratic cheekbones were a gift from her mother, while her heart-shaped mouth was from her father’s side. When she wore white, as she was doing now, it made her look even paler.”


But why? you ask? Veronica Roth did it in Divergent. Yes, she absolutely did. And she got away with it – but just barely. The reason Roth gets away with it is that she’s using Tris’ mirror-gazing as a microcosm of the larger whole, as a way to introduce us to the dystopian world we’re about to enter.

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. . . . I look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention – not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose – I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.

In reality, .Roth’s goal here isn’t so much to describe Tris – we don’t even know what color her hair is, or her eyes – but to describe Tris’ world. Factions? A mirror hidden behind a panel? She doesn’t know when she had her birthday? This evokes questions in the reader. And remember, the goal of your first sentence, first paragraph, and first page is evoke questions that the reader MUST have answered.

So why is it so bad to sit your characters in front of a mirror and describe them? Because every single word counts. And you need to do a lot more with your descriptions than convey what someone looks like. If all they’re doing is sitting and staring, that’s boring. And when readers are bored, readers stop reading. Your descriptions need to evoke emotion, feeling, atmosphere, what era your character is in, what their social status is, and who they are.

Last week, I said the best way to describe your setting is to have your character interact with it. And this extends to character description as well.

I have to go back to Diana Gabaldon here – she’s the queen of this. And she does it mostly by weaving the descriptions seamlessly into the conversations. Like this example from Outlander:

“You’ve the loveliest hair,” Jamie said, watching me.

“What:? This?” I raised a hand self-consciously to my locks, which as usual, could be politely described as higgledy-piggledy. . . . “But it’s so . . . curly.”

“Aye, of course.” He looked surprised. “I heard one of Dougal’s girls say to a friend at the castle that it would take three hours with the hot tongs to make hers look like that . . .”

Of course, if your main character is as vain as the day is long, maybe they do spend countless hours in front of a mirror, contemplating their own beauty, counting the pores on their faces, making sure they don’t have any new blemishes threatening to erupt. If they’re that vain, though, they better have some really good redemptive qualities, because no one is going to care about them. You could, perhaps, pull a Sunset Boulevard kind of thing if your MC is older, looking back on her life, and wondering where she got all those wrinkles and age spots. But I would find a different way to do it.

You can always have other characters describe each other, and in romance novels, this is usually how it goes. We see the heroine’s POV in which she sees the dashing hero for the first time (usually shirtless), and then we switch POV so we can get the hero’s reaction to the ravishing beauty he’s just been introduced to. Readers have come to expect this, in fact, so if there’s a way you can mix it up, do so.

Here’s an example from my own work in progress, from the point of view of Kai, who died more than 250 years before Erin shows up at his door. So I wanted to be sure to spin his reaction in that direction.

But then the car door slammed, and if he’d had any breath in him, the sight of the girl standing in the drive would have taken it away. She was tall. Nearly his own height, in fact. Her long blond hair was pulled away from her face, and she wore clothes that left little to the imagination. . . He watched as she struggled to pull a large bag out of the car, displaying attributes no single woman ought to display so well.

Later, he – not in a creepy way! – sneaks up to study her:

She rolled over in her sleep, one long leg slipping off the edge of the sofa. He stared at her toenails, fascinated. Since when had women bared their toes long enough to need them painted?

I wanted my descriptions to highlight the differences between them, to show as much about Kai as they do about Erin. Your character descriptions should not focus solely on the physical; they need to also show the things that cannot be seen easily.

Some authors – especially in literary fiction – seem to have no character descriptions at all. I hate this, personally. For one, I really want to know what the characters look like. For another, one or two GREAT choices can always remind the reader exactly who this person is and what they look like. I know this is weird, but think for a second about Adolf Hitler. Think of how he’s portrayed in movies. Let’s face it, all you need is an actor who is kind of short and has beady little eyes. Give him that mustache and the Nazi uniform, and everyone knows immediately who this is supposed to be. Same thing with your characters. Jamie Fraser’s slanted, blue cat-eyes and knife-edge nose – not to mention his red hair – are forces to be reckoned with. Claire’s riotous hair and gold eyes (YES, in the books she has gold eyes, Jamie says they’re whiskey-colored) set her apart instantly.

In Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, Russell has very long, straight hair, even though she’s a modern girl – she’s reading theology at Oxford and owns a Morris – and it’s 1915 when we first meet her, just on the cusp of the women’s lib movement. King has an unusual task in her novels, though:  not only does she have to create Russell, but she also has to remain faithful to one of the most iconic fictional characters ever, Sherlock Holmes. And she does, magnificently. Russell’s long hair is at first a source of confusion for Holmes. Later, when Holmes has been taken prisoner by a maharajah in India:

And then the maharajah said to me, ‘Do remove your topee, Captain Russell; you’ll be able to see better.’ Holmes tensed, his hand making a fist, his eyes darting to the guards as he prepared to fling himself to my protection.

But a topee is not a turban, and I had been my teacher’s pupil before I became my husband’s wife, learning to my bones that half a disguise is none at all. I lifted my topee, smoothed my regulation officer’s haircut with my other hand, and bent forward obediently to witness the lack of tricks up the magician’s sleeve.

The moment my short-cropped, pomade-sleek, unquestionably masculine hair passed beneath his nose was the closest I’ve ever seen Holmes to fainting dead away.

Character descriptions are just as important as any other descriptions, and just as tricky to get right. They need to convey more than the physical; they need to convey emotions, time period, changes in your character .  .  . It’s a tall order! But with practice – and lots of reading! – you’ll get there.

Why Are Descriptions So Hard????

After talking with a couple of friends this week, I realized something:  Descriptions are hard. We tend to either a.) go into WAY too much detail and bore our readers into oblivion, or b.) give so FEW details that readers aren’t sure of anything.

When I taught creative writing, it was one of the most difficult things to get across to students. They always wanted to sloooooow down and give paragraphs of information – an information dump. “The white two story house with an attic had a white picket fence, and the siding was weathered and one window had been broken out by a baseball back in 1994 and never replaced and the shutters were all askew except for that one at the very top on the southwest side that’s missing, and . . .” Or they went the opposite way. “There was a white house.”

Both are bad.

But how do you teach someone how to do descriptions? That’s what we were trying to do Friday. And honestly, as with all things, I think you have to go back to the Golden Rule of Writing:  Read and write. In this case, read is the operative word.

Some authors are brilliant at description. Some aren’t. Some struggle with it. But when you read, you really get to see how other writers deal with the issue.

Take this photo, for example:  How do you describe this house and this scene?

west house 3Do you say it’s tumble-down? Decrepit? Sagging? Ready for the bulldozer? (That one is WRONG, by the way!) “A still wind would have knocked it over.” Or better, “A STIFF wind would have knocked it over.” Depends on if you’re going for something Twain-esque or not, I guess.

Do you go for something more literal? “The house had two stories – for now. The windows were long gone, the porch sagged, the rafters were exposed to the sky. The only inhabitants were rats and ghosts.”

It depends on you and your writing style. It’s a tricky balancing act.

In her book The Writing and Critique Group Survivor’s Guide, Becky Levine gives us a list of the things description needs to do:

  • Evoke an image or a feeling.
  • NOT distract the reader, but draw them further into the story.
  • Use all of the five senses, if possible.
  • Be necessary and ACTIVE. The characters need to interact with it. Live within it.
  • Create a sense of personality (especially in a first-person narrative).

Take the photo of the house again. Does your narrator consider it sad? Creepy? An eyesore? Is it in the way of something she wants to do? Maybe it’s more complicated than that:  maybe this is the house her grandparents built. Perhaps she had a traumatic experience there. All of those feelings and emotions will affect the words you choose to describe it.

In my descriptions, I didn’t use all five senses  – touch, taste, sight, sound, and hearing. And let’s be honest – most of us don’t. But did you know that the sense of smell evokes the most memories for us? So how does the old house smell? Maybe there are lilacs outside, or a seventy-year old rose rambling up a broken lattice. If your character goes inside, what does she smell? Decay? Mold? Rat and bird droppings? If she touches the porch railing, does she get splinters? Do the floorboards give under her weight, maybe even crack and groan? Can she hear the wind whistling through the rafters? The scratching of rats in the walls?

Taste is one of the hardest senses to work into a story, unless you’re Elizabeth Gilbert. But how many of us refuse to eat things we find disgusting? Taste is an extremely important sense in our everyday lives. It doesn’t have to be food, either. Fear has a taste. So do tears. If you bite your tongue hard enough, you taste blood. Look at your story. Where are there places you could gently work it in to add depth and dimension to the story, without distracting the reader?

One of the most important things we need to keep in mind is this:  our characters have to interact with their environment. So many writers give us an information dump, and then expect us as readers to keep all that in mind for the next several pages while the characters blithely move through life – but apparently, not through a setting! Ground your characters. Are your characters having a chat? Sit them down on the wide veranda with the mimosa tree overhead, and a pitcher of iced tea between them. Smell the mimosas. Taste the iced tea. Hear the ice clinking against the side of the glasses. Have the characters move. Make them interact with the setting. Open a window to let in a fresh, pre-storm breeze, or close the shutters against the first spatters of rain.

To write good descriptions, we need to be aware of how much we interact with our own setting, every single day. For a week, just observe yourself and others. If you’re having a conversation, what else are you doing? Fiddling with your cell phone? Making a mental to-do list? Pacing? Plucking at stray threads on the blanket over your knees?

And we need to read as many books as possible, in all different genres. Underline or highlight every time you see description of any kind. How do they do it? How seamless is it? Did you almost miss it? Or was it glaring? Did it evoke anything in you? How many senses did they use per scene? Could it have been better?

Some writers have a knack for dialogue, others for plot, still others for characterization; some have a knack for description. Like everything else in writing, it’s a skill you can learn. If you want yours to be better, you may even want your beta readers to read specifically for description, and give feedback. But above all, just read. Diana Gabaldon, Karen Marie Moning, and Jim Butcher are my go-to authors for description that is pitch-perfect. All three address it in different ways, but all three get it right.

Go forth. Read! Write! Describe! 🙂

Photo Challenge: Purple Blur

I DESPISE blur – I can’t stand to look at it for very long. So doing this challenge was a huge stretch for me – first, to even find a blurry photo because I usually trash them the second I see them, and second, to be able to look at them long enough to post them without needing a Dramamine. 🙂

In Kansas, these little purple flowers are in practically every yard and every ditch. We mow them and think nothing of it. Some yards – like mine – are seas of purple this time of year. I hadn’t realized, though, until I got down on the ground to photograph them, how wonderfully intricate and beautiful they really are.

And this is about as much blur as you will ever see from me!

purple blur 2

puple blur