Thursday, March 24, 2016

Writing Tip #10: Flex Those Little Writer's Muscles Wherever You Can

One of the biggest traps we can get into as writers? Finding a comfort zone, and sticking to it.

Yes, today's going to be getting right to the point again, since I've only got a few hours before it's back to retail purgatory I go, I've got a pile of work to get to for my two current clients (contracts, and edits, and website builds, oh my!).

But anyway: comfort zones = BAD NEWS. 

I remember when I was finishing elementary school and then starting high school, I was still really figuring out how I could write and the kinds of emotions I could get across. Around this time, I discovered, which was insanely helpful in getting me writing in a way that forced structure, and exposed me to feedback from actual readers (who weren't related to me, and so didn't feel obligated to tell me I was great even if I stunk). 

For those not familiar with the site, it's one where you go to write your own stories based on existing stories and characters - anything from books, to movies or TV shows... you name it. You take established universes, and you get to play with them in a way that gives you invaluable practice in working with voice, tone, character arcs... all of the essential story building blocks. Can't stress this enough: if you're getting going as a writer but need some warming up, that might just be your golden ticket (it sure was mine).

Anyway, at the time I started on that site, I was reading all sorts, but was mainly watching a variety of law enforcement-based shows (NCIS, Numb3rs, CSI, Bones, etc.), and really took to writing stories around my favourite characters within those. And it served me really well for years as I found my footing as a writer and pinned down a style for myself. 

The problem was however that I got so used to writing those cop dramas/action-adventures/comedies that after a while I found I had a hard time thinking in other terms; I had found a lovely comfort zone, and gotten good at it, and gotten better and better feedback and stuck with it for a long time because of that, but in consequence, I hit a block when I tried to branch back out to working with strictly my own characters and scenarios.

The answer? I had to use what I had learned, and carve out new avenues for myself to write my way down. Time and time again since then, I've found myself writing just one type of story for so long, that when that one type runs dry, I find myself stuck on where to go - and again, I have to purposely change direction to kick-start my little writing engine once more.

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at

So this week, especially if you have ever or recently found yourself in a writing rut, consider the fact that you may have gotten yourself too comfortable in your personal writing niche. 

The best thing you can do for yourself at that point is to deliberately step outside your comfort zone and explore other directions; when writing muscles hit a plateau, switch up your routine - if you only ever write short stories, try writing a novella/novel, or vice versa; if you only ever write gritty dramas, try for a comedy; if you're used to strictly doing action-driven work, try exploring more character studies; or any combination thereof.

Even if you try one or even a dozen avenues that don't work out for you, or if you never quite find another good fit, the efforts to write outside what you know will help you develop new skills, build on those little writer's muscles in a way that you can incorporate into your pre-existing niche to drive your writing to new heights.

What've you got to lose? Go. Caffeinate. Pump literary iron. Be writing-buff. Chicks (and dudes) dig that.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Penny Reviews #4: "And Then There Were None" (a.k.a: "Ten Little Indians") by Agatha Christie

Did I really say that I'd do one of these every week? What was I thinking?

Oy. I forgot one very key point that nixes that plan: while I wouldn't call myself a "slow" reader... I'm definitely not an incredibly fast one (I like to really absorb everything I read as I read it, so it started as a conscious decision... now I can't seem to help it; go figure).

And with my schedule of two jobs (one of them an upstart business, where a big part of it is reading client authors' work), my not being a fast reader is a big problem for having this thing here as well.

So to amend, there will be a Penny Review once every two weeks, starting now. 

But anyway: on with the show!

Image courtesy of

Ten strangers stranded together on an island during a storm. A murderer in their midst. A nursery rhyme counting down their demise, one by one. Who is guilty? Can anyone survive the murderer's plot, or their own spiralling into paranoia, even madness? So goes the classic who-done-it mystery, "And Then There Were None" (a.k.a: "Ten Little Indians") by the renowned Agatha Christie.

Who's the Hero: Interestingly, this little tale doesn't exactly have one since all ten main characters/visitors to the island in the story are reported to be guilty of crimes of their own, which is why they are now being targeted by the killer. By way of their crimes, our "heroes" are everything ranging from a drunk driver and a lying police officer, to a negligent drunkard doctor and an elderly housekeeping couple who killed their employer for the inheritance she would leave them. There are simply some among them who are in a way more innocent or less truly malicious than the others who you want to survive, while you anxiously watch the others be killed off.

What's the Story: When those ten strangers are all invited to an island resort by letters received apparently from past separate acquaintances of each of theirs, they all travel to the island via ferry, unaware yet that they'd been lured there by a killer. But on their first night, a recorded message plays which accuses them all of having committed crimes that they'd gotten away with, and which promises them that they'll pay for those crimes... a promise which is followed by the first among them dying from poison in their drink. To make matters all the worse, they find that bad weather has cut them off from contact with the mainland and left them stranded on the island, and so they begin to be killed off, one after the other, in ways eerily following the lines of the nursery rhyme (about the "Ten Little Indians") hanging on the wall of one of the rooms. As each character reflects privately on the crime of theirs which signed their death warrant, they alternatively range from resignedly awaiting their turn for death to trying desperately to escape the island or at the least to determine the identity of the killer in an effort to save themselves. Inevitably however, as the killer and the book's title make clear, all must pay for their crimes, one way or another.

How's the Aftertaste: This book was, simply and cheesily put, delicious. I'll admit, I'd already read this book years ago, but with how much I remembered enjoying it, I wanted to see how it held up almost a decade later. And boy, does it ever hold up. It's eerie, suspenseful, absolutely enthralling and sometimes downright creepy. It's the mystery genre at its classic best.

So the Verdict Is...

~Absolutely satisfying, creepy brain candy.~

Yeah, anyone who's read this book already saw that one coming. And for those of you who haven't read it yet... why not?? Go to the book store, or library, or whatever, and get cracking - you're missing out!

Until next time then :) cheerio -- and don't forget to leave a comment with any books you'd like to see reviewed in the future!


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Writing Tip #9: Don't Get Too Hung-Up on Your Heroes Being Hero-y

There's something I've started to notice in a lot of newer books I've read in the past several years (both professionally published, and not): a lot of people have a really hard time knocking their heroes off their pedestals. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

What do I mean? I mean the heroes are too darn hero-y... too darn perfect. All the time. And it's terrible.

It's not to say that the authors don't give them flaws... but... even they're perfect; by and large, they're not so much flaws as quirks, things (like being antisocial, or awkward, or excessively and damagingly snarky, or nosy and invasive, etc.) that end up being endearing and/or earn the respect of others in whatever way, and are not treated as flaws at all but as acceptable elements that move them along through the plot in a way that distinguishes them somehow from their co-characters. The heroes and their flaws/quirks go through some sort of emotional character arc, granted, but their flaws/quirks never factor in enough in as pivotal way as to be recognized as problems.

And this is what irks me: real people, with real flaws, are affected by them; their lives and actions are affected by them; they draw real setbacks and real struggles and real consequences that they are forced to deal with. With real people, their flaws are not synonymous with their strengths, as much as they may play parts with each other sometimes.

So what irks me is authors taking heroes that they've clearly fallen in love with and regard in a certain way, and not trying to make them into people with genuine flaws that hurt and genuine strengths (whether inherent and/or earned/learned) that redeem. They love them too much to want to make readers think less of them in any significant way, for any significant amount of time. So instead, they give them a few quirky drawbacks (to varying degrees of severity) that ultimately don't even significantly change by the end of the story. But "all's well that ends well", and we have our climax, and "The End".

This takes away any real element of humanity. They're not a hero any more - they're a caricature of a hero. And that makes them forgettable. A dime-a-dozen.

The most memorable and wonderful characters I've ever read and absolutely gotten attached to (and hurt/healed by) don't work like that. They work more like real people do, and so it makes us value them like we would real people: when they do good, we're happy; when they do wrong, we cringe; when they hurt, we hurt; when they screw up and hurt others, we're angry that they've let us and themselves and those others down; when they redeem themselves (if they can) we are wrapped up in their struggle to do so, and any success or failure feels like our own, and it damn well sticks with us.

Granted, not all stories have room for characters like this, and may actually be a better product without them; you have to know your audience, know your story's tone and intent, write with that in mind, and adjust the depth of your character accordingly (e.g: books like the Goosebumps series, or Agatha Christie novels, or any standard feel-good kids' book). But when the room is there and the story is built on the backs of the flaws and strengths of its characters (e.g: Game of Thrones), you write the shit out of those characters. You make them real people.

So today's tip in a nutshell: lose the pedestal. Bring your heroes into the real world; you and your readers will be grateful you did.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Writing Tip #8: Don't Wait for Inspiration - Seek It Out

So it seems getting back into the blogging habit is still harder than I give it credit for - no surprise there! I've got to stop underestimating this thing.

At any rate, two Writing Tips to post this week to make up for the lack of one last week. Alright. We've got this.

For this one, I'm going after the notion of "inspiration". This is one of the things I've heard about the most from people who've struck a wall and can't seem to get any writing out: "I can't get inspired", "I'm waiting for inspiration", "I'm waiting for a muse", etc.

For this tip, we're going for short and sweet (mostly because I only have so much time this morning, since I have to be at my retail day job soon enough - *sigh*): stop with the waiting, get with the doing. Simple enough? Well, let me explain anyway.

Image courtesy of kdshutterman at

Sitting around waiting for inspiration will very rarely pay off. It's not to say you can never just come up with an idea staring at your blank page/blank screen/blank wall/etc. and willing it into being... it is just so much more frustrating than it needs to be.

You know how people always harp on about the adage "write what you know"? Well, they're right. But how do you think you get to "know" things you can write about, if you can't come up with stories or characters or scenes just from what you've already got floating around in your skull's mushy grey matter? Go out and look for things to experience, to observe, to discover. 

Image courtesy of Geerati at

Discard the hours of tormenting your brain trying desperately to make magic out of a blank writing surface - read books about the world; go for a walk someplace in your city you've never been and imagine the things that could have taken place there; watch documentaries about anything and everything and imagine a character/characters neck-deep in a situation involving whatever you're watching; peruse through collections of photography or paintings or whatever and create stories behind the works; people-watch in a bus terminal and write down a character sketch and a mini story for every person you creepily stare at... anything that breaks you out of your normal thought patterns and gets you seeing new things/things from new angles. 

Go out of your way to expand your friggin' horizons, and you'll find that inspiration hiding in just about everything; new things equal new ideas, and/or new ways to tackle old ideas. So go forth, young grasshoppers - end the torture, and get to nerding out over writing again!


Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Penny Reviews #3: "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness

You know... every now and then a book comes along that surprises me. One that I don't think will add up to anything particularly significant before I read it, and maybe even as I'm reading it, until I reach the end and am changed by it.

This is one of those books. Welcome to the new Penny Review, presenting:

Image courtesy of,204,203,200_.jpg

A boy struggling to deal with his mother's illness and with life continuing on around it. A monster who "comes walking" at the beginning of a pivotal time. A tailspin of emotional chaos and nightmares at war with reality. This is "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness, illustrated by the incredibly talented Jim Kay.

Who's the Hero: Conor - a young school boy in the U.K. whose life and emotions have been thrown into turmoil by his mother's battle with cancer, leaving him isolated and struggling in the face of it all.

What's the Story: One night at just past midnight, after an un-described nightmare that has apparently been plaguing him for some time, Conor is visited by a monster that seems to be the yew tree which normally resides by the church graveyard near Conor's house. It quickly becomes apparent that, while outwardly menacing, the monster is there for more than typically monstrous things: rather than harm Conor, it wants to talk to him; it wants to tell him three tales and at the end, it says, Conor will tell the fourth tale. True to its word, the monster visits Conor again and again, telling him stories that never seem to end as they should, where those who seemed good became villains in the course of their actions, and those who seemed villainous in turn were the more honourable and/or right. As the stories progress, so does Conor's mother's cancer, appearing to be the worst it's ever been and making Conor steadily more desperate and angry. And as Conor's life and well-being get more and more unstable, the monster--claiming to be a tree of healing even as it encourages destruction of a sort--pushes all the harder towards that fourth tale, insisting that there is a truth that Conor holds which he must speak, and that it is that truth that brought the monster walking and that will decide how everything with Conor's mother will play out.

How's the Aftertaste: As I said before even the beginning of the review (heh, guess I spoiled it a bit there - sort of jumped right to the punchline, didn't I!), this book was one of those rare few that surprised me. At the beginning, I didn't think much of it, aside from instantly falling in love with the artist's style in his illustrations. But gradually I found myself taken in by Conor's struggle (certainly in part because I can unfortunately relate to it, through the illness of several close family members), and especially by the monster's presence. I don't want to spoil anything for those who might be interested in reading it, but their interactions and the build-up to the climax... and especially the climax ultimately took my breath away. And broke my heart a bit, but in a useful and moving way. The book addresses suffering and coping in a way that I haven't really seen anywhere else. Don't get me wrong, the text wasn't perfect (though the illustrations certainly were), but it hit its mark where it really counted.

So the Verdict Is...

~I would name my next goldfish "Conor". Or "Monster"... yep, definitely "Monster".~

Aside from the monster and that climax, the illustrations definitely were a big part of it being four pennies instead of three; seriously, if you're going to read this book, don't read the novel version - get the above-pictured illustrated edition (it takes it from a story, and makes it into an experience). 

As always, thanks for reading! And see you next time :) stay tuned for next week - maybe time for a murder-mystery or a comedy or something... we shall see. And don't forget, if there's a book you'd like to see me review, let me know in the comments. Cheers!


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The A to Z Book Diary: "G" is for Getting in the Game

The last time this dear 'ol diary of mine left off a year ago, I had just finished the first draft of my first full-length novel, and I was so excited that, looking back on the post now, I seemed to be just about hyperventilating in typewritten form. SO many exclamation points. 

And since the book, in that finished form, didn't end up working out... heh, that reaction makes me a bit sheepish in hindsight. But I hold to it nonetheless; it was my first book after all - couldn't and wouldn't be helped! And I'm still proud that I made it through that one, even if it didn't turn out the way I'd hoped it would.

But now, as the title said, it's time to get back in the game and start over. "The Sentry" will sit on the shelf for a little while (pending a possible rewrite when I'm not sick to death of the sight of it any more), and in the meantime, I'll set my sights on a new project and get my writer's brain juices flowing again.

Which... man... this is really exciting again! A new beginning, a different track; new characters, conflicts and story lines to dive head-first into! A new book really does put the wind back in a writer's little sails, doesn't it? :)

But now... oh no... it's back to the trouble I was in before I really poured myself into "The Sentry": where do I start? Which story do I write?? So many ideas, and nowhere near the time to write them all at once here... hm.

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at

Do I go with one of the kids' books about dragons hiding in a mountain over a village? Do I go with a YA drama about a teen who's a single father in a disintegrating small town? An adult comedy about an agoraphobic and a bank robber? A pre-teen comedy/horror romp about ghosts, Death and ouija boards? A YA adventure about time travel? 

GAH!! I want to write all of them - but which one can I REALLY invest myself in and get excited about for the present until the somewhat distant future? And I don't want to make the same mistake as I did with "The Sentry", where my main problem was that I had an idea for a story that I liked, but I stuffed it into a niche that I thought would sell, and it ended up hurting the story...

...Maybe if I switch gears completely? Yeah... what if I pursue a book that's well and truly a fresh start? Go for a different tone, different age group, different all-around execution? I think that's it - I need to write a story where I can just have fun with it, and learn to have fun with writing as a whole again. I was focussed for so long on just getting out a finished book that I lost sight of the fun I used to have just creating something. Who knows? Maybe that hurt my writing as much as trying to stuff it into a niche did.

So let's do this: I'll start small - go for short and sweet, and just plain fun. The kids' book about dragons. I'll start it today, and stop thinking so darn much - no over-thinking, just writing and having fun with it. 

I like this :) - off I go, let's see what happens!


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Penny Reviews #2: "The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower I)" by Stephen King

Aaaaaannnnd... The Penny Reviews are back! *Cue excitement - at least my own*

Remember my promise a year ago to do one of these per week? No? Well, maybe I didn't make it back then (or I did and just let it slide for so long that everyone, including me, has forgotten about it by now), but I'm making it now: every week, there will be one Writing Tip and one Penny Review posted here for your reading pleasure (or displeasure - I don't want to assume the best, after all; I'm an optimist, but a realistic one).

So anyway, on with the show!

Image courtesy of

An enigmatic stranger relentlessly pursuing his enemy across the desert, and beyond. A wasteland of horrors, and an innocent doomed boy caught up in the crossfire. The start of what, by all accounts and feedback, is going to be an epic quest to define epic quests. So begins "The Dark Tower" series by Stephen King.

This series is one that I've heard about since before I even knew the name Stephen King and before I was reading anything more intense than The Goosebumps books. One thing I never heard about however was just how tough it would be to genuinely enjoy it at the start. How does this first book stack up against all of the rave reviews of the series as a whole? Let's do this thing, and find out.

Who's the Hero: Rolland, a.k.a. the last gunslinger - a man of indeterminate age and questionable moral fibre who is out for revenge against the so-called "man in black" and to find the place known only as The Dark Tower.

What's the Story: From the novel's outset, Rolland is pursuing the man in black across a land apparently left crumbling in the wake of the downfall of a civilization (which we only really come to know through various lengthy flashbacks). He is barely surviving as he goes, but Rolland is blindly determined to catch and kill his foe for reasons of revenge (which are gradually revealed to the reader through those steady helpings of flashbacks). Eventually, Rolland comes across Jake, a young boy who has seemingly been leap-frogged to Rolland's world from a different dimension by the man in black, for reasons that are at first unclear. As the gunslinger and the boy travel together, the gunslinger's desire to protect him grows, leaving him eventually vulnerable to the man in black using Jake against him, with dire consequences. Because when all is said and done, The Dark Tower is the only thing that truly matters to the Last Gunslinger; everything else can be forfeit.

How's the Aftertaste: I'll admit that I am a latecomer to Stephen King, and as of yet have only read a small portion of his impressive body of work. In this, I've mostly read things from his mid-career onward. This being said... reading The Gunslinger left me, by and large, torn as to whether I loved it or I wanted to charbroil the thing and wash my hands of Rolland et all. Don't get me wrong, the writing and story hold all the hallmark talent of Stephen King, just... very clearly at a much earlier stage of that talent. There were parts where I couldn't stop reading, where I just had to know what would happen next; King has apparently always had that incredible knack in him. Other parts though... *gah*... the book was so bogged down by bloated, unnecessarily and excessively literary description and metaphor that it took me weeks of ignoring the book before I could bring myself to get back to it and slog on through to get to the other side. And by the end, there was a roughly five page existential rant that I ended up just skimming over, almost from start to finish. And I NEVER skim; it was just that painful, and I was just done. But at the root of it all... I still feel the need to know more, to see what comes of Rolland and the warnings of the man in black, and to find out, like Rolland, what The Dark Tower truly is... 

...Damnit, Stephen King is good at what he does.

It also helps that in the revised and expanded edition, which I read (and which is pictured above), King wrote in a new introduction where he actually apologizes for the pompous and convoluted bits, explains he did his best to polish it up to be less painful, and begs a bit of our indulgence to hang on through this first book, since the rest of the series improves on this first outing on a steep curve.

So The Verdict Is...


~I'll hang on with you there, Mr. King. I'm trusting you!~

I know, I know - just three pennies for a Stephen King novel? Shame on me. But I'm holding firm to it; that book was great at its best, but its worst was no friggin' picnic.

Anyway, cheers to our second official review! And more to come next week :) stay tuned.