So You’ve Finished Your Novel: Now What?

Absolute Blank

By Dee Ann Ruffel

Recently I completed my third work of novel-length fiction. The senses of relief and pride overwhelmed me as I typed the two most beautiful words in the world, “The End”. But still I did not kid myself; I knew my tale needed honing, major editing. I didn’t mind. I loved the story, and enjoyed the tuning as if my novel were a scuffed Steinway in need only of a little tenderness to be beautiful again. After two overhauls and an exhaustive search for the perfect agent, I was finally ready to unleash my story. So what happened? What did I hear back on it? The two ugliest words in the world, “Slush Pile”.

Background Image: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Think it couldn’t happen to you? Read on, please. Oh, I know what you might assume (just as I once smugly presupposed of unpublished writers), her novel must not be that good. Don’t think that about my work, and don’t think it about yours when you get that first rejection letter. Writers Digest books, Writer’s Market and all of the ‘resources’ for aspiring writers can be dizzying with scarcely veiled promises of that big nugget—cue the bongos—a contract. So we buy the books (are you catching my hint?), read the articles, brush up on copyright laws, overseas rights, film rights, agent percentages, ah yes, and then come the money fantasies. Reading about $50K-plus advances can get even the most hard-boiled of realistic writers dreaming of hot tubs and a spot on the David Letterman show in a jiffy. But unless you’re a cousin of a friend of a publisher who owes your gangster father money, getting your foot in the door of the publishing industry is more like going twelve rounds with Mike Tyson than a happy-footed skip to the post office.

And speaking of snail mail, do not send manuscripts via the expensive priority route. See, while you may be in a giant rush to have your novel read and adored, agents I’ve spoken with (the Donald Maass Agency, to list one), say it doesn’t do a whit of good to overnight, express, return-receipt, or buy into any of Mr. Postmaster’s extra extras. If you want to insure your package, go ahead, but why would you waste your money? Without a contract, that copy of your novel is, well, worthless to anyone but you.

Discouraged yet? Don’t be. If you’re a Writer with a capital W, as Stephanie Lenz (Baker) says, nothing will stop your locomotion. Your itch to burrow into the literary world will drive you onward, deeper, inch by hard-earned inch, until one afternoon you realize that a year ago you would have popped champagne for the penny-a-word magazine sale you just made. And you stop worrying about the golden nugget for a moment and give thanks.

You’ve just smuggled one toe in the door of the publishing industry. And what you’ve accomplished, not just by making a tiny sale but having completed a novel of your own mood, characters, scenes, action, dialogue, plot, and conclusion, is a level more than many aspiring writers ever make it to in a lifetime. You say that isn’t enough, and you want more? Good, because with an attitude like that, you’ll eventually get your work published. You will because you can suffer the rejections and keep improving, keep submitting. Your first novel may never leave your hard drive, but neither will it leave your heart. You will build on your experiences and grow into the writer you know you’re destined to become.

In the meantime, there are a couple of facts you should know about the publishing industry—and you can’t take them personally or let them take your money. You just can’t, or they might destroy your will.

The Publishing Industry is about Making Money. That’s right. From agents to magazine editors to the almighty giant publishing houses, the fruit of your labors must sing, “I’ll pay your mortgage, I’ll make you rich, I’ll sell, sell, sell.” Now, how could they possibly turn down your novel when you know it’s better than half the crap you’ve seen on the shelves at Barnes and Noble? Because they aren’t clairvoyants, and they know it. They want numbers, a proven track record. They’ve published novels they personally liked, and ended up eating the extra copies the author’s family and friends did not buy. So it comes down to one question, one that has nothing to do with the quality of your prose. Can you prove that your book will make them money? It is no wonder more than ¾ of all publishing houses accept only non-fiction work from the masters of respective fields. Textbooks are guaranteed to sell.

The Publishing Industry Makes TONS of Money from Unpublished Writers. There are books about writing, about publishing, about ‘breaking in’. There are book doctors, agents who charge reading fees, writers’ conferences, and the list goes on. Not to say these practices can’t help, because I’m sure they can. But if you don’t have the wherewithal to become your own Book Doctor, how will you ever make it as a professional writer? These sharks claim the ability to whip your work into bestseller quality, but what I want to know is, where are their bestsellers? Why do they need our work and our money to survive? And any person (agent) who would dare charge a writer to have her work merely considered is not an agent, in my opinion, but a carpetbagger, a parasite who gorges on gullibility. Don’t be that naïve with your money, because if you’re anything like me, you don’t have much to begin with. There are too many resources (Toasted Cheese for one!), that are there to help you and don’t cost a dime. Most of the books for sale can be found at your local library, and the kind of contacts that can be made at conferences can also be made on the Internet. It just takes a lot of work and a lot of time. But you’re a novelist! You should be used to research and hard work by now.

So you’ve completed your novel. Now what? Search the Net and books like Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents for non-fee charging agents and publishers who accept work from unpublished writers. Find out what kind of books they’ve sold, and to whom. Look for fiction similar to yours, then re-read your novel and pretend someone else wrote it. Is it ready? Are you sure? If you were looking for a good book to buy, would you buy yours over everyone else’s? Are you ABSOLUTELY certain? If yes, see if you can get someone to rub your aching neck while you pound out that query letter and synopsis, then double-check your submission for requested guideline adherence and get that sucker in the mail. But if no, you would not buy your novel over the likes of the bestselling authors who reign in your genre, then don’t expect anyone else to either. Keep writing, keep burrowing, and you’ll get there. As will I.

Final Poll Results

Enter At Your Own Risk: The Strange, Twilight World of Writing Competitions

Absolute Blank

By Janet Mullany

Writing competitions are everywhere, offering fame, fortune, and great expectations. It’s fairly simple. All you have to do is meet a deadline, follow a few simple directions, and write something so outstandingly good that it beats the pants off dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other entries.

If it sounds like Publishers Clearing House, you’re not that far off the mark. The world of writing competitions is addictive, frustrating and exhilarating—just like writing itself. Entering a competition can be as simple as polishing your story, writing a check, and mailing both into a black hole. The only evidence that you entered at all will be your bank statement showing that the check cleared. Someone, of course, has to win. But it might not be you, and depending upon the size and prestige of the competition, the odds vary tremendously.

Background Image: erika dot net/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Be aware that there are tremendous odds against you,” writer Loree Lough, a judge in the prestigious Writers Digest competition advises. “You have a much better chance of placing in a small competition.”

Her category, one of the smaller ones, the Inspirational Short Story, received a mere 2,000 entries, from which she had to select 100 entries to proceed to the next round. She reports that a surprisingly large number of entries were just not ready for submission to a major competition, and even though they may have had good points, she had to toss them onto the slush pile.

Ms. Lough added: “Make sure that you’re entering the right competition for the right reason. Accept that in most competitions, you will never know the reason why you didn’t place.”

So why enter writing competitions at all, with those sorts of odds? Many offer winners a publication credit, and a competition win is one of those useful things to mention in a cover letter when you submit to an editor. As with any other submission, you must make sure your work is polished to its highest sheen, formatted correctly, and like the US army, as good as it can be. Some competitions, particularly smaller ones, do offer feedback to contestants, and that can be both valuable and frustrating. What your critique group may have loved, may leave an anonymous stranger unmoved. As with any critique, you must take what you can, and disregard the rest.

One advantage to submitting your work to a competition is that there are specific time frames to which the sponsoring organization or publication is committed. Finalists or winners will be announced—generally only those who reach this stage receive personal notification—so you escape the agony of never knowing whether your baby is working its way up the food chain of a publishing house or languishing behind a file cabinet.

One genre in which competitions play an important role is romance. Many regional Romance Writers of America (RWA) chapters sponsor competitions as a fundraising activity. Generally an entry consists of a partial—the synopsis and the first few chapters of a novel with an entry fee in the range of $15 to $50. It is implied, or at least expected, that the work is finished, although some competitions, like the Golden Heart Competition sponsored by RWA National, require the inclusion of the full manuscript along with the partial. Most, but not all romance competitions, are open only to writers unpublished in full length romance fiction.

Volunteer judges handle preliminary rounds, and each contestant receives written feedback. Very few of these competitions offer anything substantial in the form of a cash prize-some offer a token such as a pin, a certificate, or even chocolate—but finalists’ entries are judged by an agent, or an editor from a major house. Potentially this could lead to a request for a full, an offer of representation, or a contract. More likely the reward will be euphoria, something to mention in cover letters, and then back to work. If you don’t make the final cut, you will at least get feedback and a scoresheet from people seeing your work for the first time—not always a pleasant or positive experience, but one from which you can learn something. At the very least, you can add to that extra layer on your skin that writers need to survive.

So what sort of competitions are good to enter? Just about any, so long as you win. The ideal competition does not charge any, or exorbitant, entry fees, offers feedback—and prizes are always nice, too—and a publication credit for at least the first prize winner, with copyright reverting to the writer at some point. A final piece of advice from Writers Digest judge Loree Lough: “Go into it hoping you’ll win, disregard mean feedback, and view it as a source of valuable free information.”

Janet Mullany is currently a finalist in the Missouri Romance Writers’ Gateway to the Rest Competition, and will shortly judge the first round of another RWA competition. So far her short story competition prizes include a mug, a t-shirt, and a book she gave away. She still uses the mug and the t-shirt.

Final Poll Results

Writer with a capital “W”: Treating Yourself Like a Professional

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

I am a writer. Better yet, I’m a Writer, with a capital W. My work is a source of income, pleasure, satisfaction and pride. When riding in the car, I think about a character’s background. While listening to people speak, I take mental notes on their dialogue. I run over the blocking of scenes as I drift off to sleep. Maybe I don’t exactly eat, sleep and breathe writing but it’s about as close as it can be.

A recent cover feature in Entertainment Weekly was an interview with Stephen King and the idea that he’s going to “stop writing.” The Writer in me doesn’t believe that. King is a classic capital-W Writer. A Writer never retires. Sure, those who dabble with the occasional poem or story might be able to walk away. Those who write, or “Write,” could no more think of giving up their passion than giving up eating, sleeping or breathing. King may not publish much more but no one will ever tell me he will be able to stop Writing.

It’s not as hard to evolve into a Writer as some may think. Sometimes it happens without our realizing it. It’s not a matter of volume or quality. It’s a matter of respect. Respect for your work and yourself. Even if you’ve never published (and want to) if you treat yourself like a professional, your writing can only improve.

Background Image: Monceau/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Your space

As a Writer, you already have a writing space or spaces. It may be a home office, your kitchen table, the local café or your bed. Think of the places where you write. Compare the spots where you get your best work done to those where you accomplish nothing. What works in the positive space? The view out the windows? White noise in the background? The solitude? Access to your supplies? By recognizing your space, you can begin to create a haven for your muse.

The first thing to do is to empty your writing space. If it’s a desk, clear it off. If it’s your bedroom, get rid of the stuff on the nightstand and floor. If it’s a notebook in your bag that you carry from place to place, dump the bag’s contents on the floor.

Physically clean the space. Get rid of garbage and dust. Give yourself a “blank page,” so to speak. Anything that has nothing to do with writing should be put off to the side. You can deal with that stuff in your own way. Just don’t leave it in your writing space.

It’s up to you to organize your supplies but remember to treat them with respect. Don’t cram your notebooks in a drawer full of hair bands and Snickers bars. If you need your stuff to be portable, it doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple laundry basket will do to start.

Once you have a working system in place, enhance your writing space. Notice if you write more effectively with your senses stimulated or subdued. If you like aromatherapy, add a scented candle or a light bulb ring. If music helps you write, put a CD player in your space. Anything remaining in the space that distracts you should be placed elsewhere if possible.

Your money

Some say “it takes money to make money.” It definitely takes money to write, whether it’s the cost of a pencil and paper, a computer or books about markets and agents. But it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

You have access to a computer or you wouldn’t be reading this article. Make the Internet work for you. Find a market that pays a couple bucks per story, sell one and use the money to invest in your work, like buying a copy of Poets and Writers or a file box for your hard copies. Your writing can pay for itself.

Your time

Writing appointments are an excellent way to respect yourself as a pro. Your appointments may last from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. five days a week or just through the commercial breaks on “Smallville.” To consider yourself a capital-W Writer, you must simply make the time to write.

If you want to treat yourself like a pro, make writing a priority. When scheduling time for your job, family, church or whatever, include “my writing” on your list. You deserve a few minutes once in a while to do what brings you satisfaction. Be selfish with your time.

Set deadlines. Enter contests with submission periods. Research themed issues of favorite journals and try to get something done in time. Get that next chapter finished by the end of the month. If you fail, you haven’t really failed. You may not make the deadline but in making the attempt, you succeed.

Your work

Writers write. There’s no way around it. Being a writer means producing work. Your goal may be to publish or just to get it out of your head and lock the story in a drawer. You don’t have to write every day but unless you’re producing some work, you can’t really call yourself a writer.

Sometimes Writers have to work in other ways because the muse isn’t always present. There’s always research to be done. Research on stories, markets, agents, websites, contests, etc. Your research may also spark your creativity.

There’s also the “Big E”–editing. Old stories can be improved with what you’ve learned since writing the original. They can also serve to show you how far you’ve come. Or, in these moments of doubt, they can remind you that you are indeed a Writer.

Value your work. We all have a certain amount of “crap” we churn out. No one writes gold every time. Recognize that even crap has its place and purpose. Even if it’s all you’re churning out, it’s work and is worthy of respect.

Never allow the Writer-you to get complacent. Keep learning about aspects of the craft. Challenge yourself. Branch into a new genre. When people ask what you do, answer “I’m a writer” and if you have another job, add “I also write” after your occupation. Maybe eventually you’ll capitalize that W.

Final Poll Results

The Musical Magic of Words

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Have you ever watched a great storyteller? The other day, during lunch with a group of women, one gal held our attention as she told about replacing her wood stove with a propane furnace. It sounds ho-hum, doesn’t it? Then why did we listen so intently? It wasn’t what she was saying; it was how she was telling her tale. She changed the tempo and volume of her voice; fast and strong as we heard of the workmen tearing open walls, soft and slow as she talked of dust settling and dreams of warmth throughout the winter nights. It was a musical tale of a mundane experience. As writers, we can make music with the sound of words.

A well-written story, article, or poem carries the cadence and rhythm of memorable music. Just as in oral storytelling, the tempo, or pace of words and the beat, or inflection help create feelings and images. These are the devices that distinguish your writing from forgotten pop to classical music. Music and words sprouted from the human need to communicate. Here are some seeds to plant in your creative garden. Allow them to grow from your material and strengthen your writing.

Background Image: eltpics/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

  • Alliteration – musically creates moods with sounds and meaning by using neighboring words beginning with the same consonant. Alliteration need not be a string of words to be effective.

Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail.

–Helen Keller, The Seeing See Little

  • Consonance – subtly creates mood and lends musicality through the repetition of a pattern of consonants.

Linger, longer, languor
Rider, reader, raider, ruder

  • Assonance – unconsciously reinforces meaning and creates mood with the repetition of same or similar vowel sounds. This excerpt employs everything.

Night came on, and a full moon rose high over the trees into the sky, lighting the land til it lay bathed in ghostly day.

–Jack London, The Call of the Wild

  • Connotation – Choose wisely, words have a wily way. They evoke emotional and imaginative associations. Consider: fat, corpulent, obese, each creates a different mental image in the reader, yet describe a person not underfed.

In other words he was a carbon-based bipedal life form descended from an ape. More specifically he was forty, fat and shabby and worked for the local council. Curiously enough though he didn’t know it, he was a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernable Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in (him) of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the turn and a predilection for little fur hats.

–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • Onomatopoeia – you know this one, a word that imitates natural sounds or sounds like its meaning. What I want to know is, who came up with the word onomatopoeia? Here’s a lovely poetic example of words and sounds.

The moan of doves, in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

–Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Princess

  • Pacing – is the musical tempo of your writing. Think in terms of speed and movement. A slow, relaxed atmosphere is conveyed through long descriptive sentences or employing “ing” words: Sallie watched the ball hitting the glass. A fast paced world is conveyed with short sentences and action verbs: The ball shattered the glass.

Watching these small subliminal seeds grow in your creative garden is more an act of discovery than imposition. You can become a virtuoso storyteller when you listen to and orchestrate the musical magic of words.

Final Poll Results

10 Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Really Smart …or How Not to Peeve an Editor

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Spoken language is casual, peppered with clichés and idioms, and words that are mispronounced and misused—sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. In everyday speech, this is fine. This is how people talk. We have other ways of assessing people in person, besides their word choice.

But in print, word choice is everything. All people reading your words have to go on is, well, your words. So unless you’re writing dialogue, don’t write like you talk. Easy to say, not so easy to do. After all, even writers speak and listen more than they write. So it’s almost impossible for casual-speak not to sneak into our writing.

You probably know to edit overused expressions from your writing—that’s basic writing class advice. But what about the mistakes you don’t even know are mistakes?

Here are some common errors to check for before you hit send or drop your envelope in the mailbox. Strive to make your writing as error-free as possible at all times, even when you’re just composing a message board post. That way, when it comes time to write that query letter or put the final polish on your novel, correct grammar and spelling will be a habit.

Background Image: Duncan C/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

  1. Watch for HOMONYMS and make sure you use the correct one.

I once read a front page newspaper story where the writer used the word “grizzly” to describe a crime scene. Despite the graphic details, I had to laugh. Why? Well, a grizzly is a large brown bear with a hump. Ursus arctos horribilis, to be specific. The word the writer wanted, of course, was “grisly”, as in gruesome, an appropriate word to describe this murder scene. By using the wrong homonym, he instead conjured up images of bears romping through the victim’s house, à la Yogi and Boo-Boo.

Homonyms are words that sound the same. Some homonyms are spelled the same, e.g. “pool” (body of water) vs. “pool” (game), but many homonyms are spelled differently, and these are the ones to look out for. Often they’re very common words that you use in everyday speech—words you know so well, you don’t think “How do I spell that?” when you write them down, the way you do more unusual or complicated words.


  • here / hear
  • know / no
  • oar / ore / or
  • they’re / their / there
  • bear / bare
  • you / ewe
  • one / won
  • read / red
  • where / wear
  • which / witch
  • do / due
  • for / four / fore
  1. Don’t use apostrophes to create PLURALS.

Plural words are created by adding an S, or in some cases an ES, to the word. A plural is NEVER created by adding an ‘S. ‘S (apostrophe S) indicates a possessive, not a plural (see #3).

This error is so common these days that it’s become self-perpetuating. People and organizations who should know better make this mistake; others see it and assume that must be the correct way, so they do it too, and so on and so on… just like that old shampoo ad. But just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. Show an editor you’re smarter than the average bear and pluralize correctly.

Commonly mis-pluralized words are names, words ending in S or a vowel, numbers, and acronyms. If in doubt with numbers or acronyms, write the words out in full to double-check.


  • The Smiths live at 123 Sesame Street. The plural of the name Smith is Smiths, not Smith’s or Smiths’. Smith’s means something belonging to a person named Smith, e.g. Bob Smith’s car was stolen today. Smiths’ means something belonging to more than one person named Smith, e.g. We’re going to the Smiths’ house for dinner.
  • If the name ends in S, add an ES. For example, for a family named Hobbs, you’d write: The Hobbses live next door at 125 Sesame Street. If the Hobbs family were to put a sign outside their house, either The Hobbses or The Hobbses’ [house] would be fine, but not The Hobbs’s.
  • Similarly, when pluralizing an ordinary word ending in S, add an ES, not ‘S, e.g. the plural of glass is glasses, not glass’s. Glass’s indicates something belonging to a glass, e.g. My favorite glass’s rim is chipped.
  • When pluralizing a word ending in a vowel, just add an S. Bananas, not banana’s. Antiques, not antique’s. Portfolios, not portfolio’s. If the final vowel is a Y, change the Y to IE and add an S. Thus, ferry becomes ferries, not ferry’s. Baby becomes babies, not baby’s.
  • I went to high school in the ’80s. (I went to high school in the ‘eighties.) The apostrophe here indicates a contraction—the 19 of 1980s has been dropped. Writing the word or number without the preceding apostrophe is acceptable: 80s / eighties. 80’s, on the other hand, is not. 80’s means something belonging to the number 80, which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
  • I own 200 CDs. (I own 200 compact discs.) CDs is the plural of CD. CD’s means something belonging to a single CD, e.g. That CD’s case is broken. (That compact disc’s case is broken.)
  1. When you need an APOSTROPHE, put it in the right place.

Apostrophes are used for two reasons. First, to indicate possession, e.g. someone’s stuff. Second, to indicate a contraction, i.e. one or more letters have been dropped from a word.

Most people don’t have difficulty using an apostrophe to indicate possession when the word/name is singular and doesn’t end in S. But when either of those things apply, watch out.

Examples of apostrophes used to indicate possession:

  • simple singular possession: Jane’s dog = the dog belonging to Jane.
  • singular possession when a name ends in S: Chris’s dog = the dog belonging to Chris. You’ll sometimes see this written as Chris’, and that’s acceptable, but I don’t like it, and neither does Strunk & White. It’s inconsistent, and that leads to confusion with plural possessives (see next example). Besides, you say the extra S, so it makes sense that it’s there.
  • plural possession: The Smiths’ dog = the dog belonging to the Smiths. Here the apostrophe comes after the S, indicating the dog belongs to a family (more than one person) named Smith.

Contractions are words like can’t, ’til, y’all, nothin’ — words that imitate speech.

Examples of apostrophes used to indicate contractions:

  • can’t = can not. The ‘ indicates the dropped no.
  • ’til = until. The ‘ indicates the dropped un.
  • y’all = you all. The ‘ indicates the dropped ou. Knowing that, you can see that ya’ll (a common misspelling) makes no sense.
  • nothin’ = nothing. The ‘ indicates the dropped g.

Remember, if in doubt, write the word out in full, then place the apostrophe where the letters are dropped.

  1. Choose the right IT’S / ITS.

It’s / its gets its own section because it’s a special case.

It’s is a contraction meaning “it is”.

Its is a possessive meaning “belonging to it”.

Note how I used both forms correctly in the opening sentence of this section. Sneaky, huh?

  1. THAT, WHO, or WHICH?

That applies to things. Who applies to people. Which applies to stuff that is not vitally important, which means if you left that part of the sentence out, it would still make sense.

Most people these days use that for everything, people included. But you’re not content to be “most people” are you?


  • The car that is parked across the street is green.
  • The man who just got out of the car is about six feet tall.
  • When I finish my shift, I’m going to see Goldmember, which is playing at the Octoplex.

Note that a comma always separates a which phrase from the rest of the sentence. No comma is required for that or who.

  1. Don’t say LAY when you mean LIE, and vice versa.

The verb ‘to lay’ means to put or place something down. The verb ‘to lie’ means to rest or recline. You lay something down, whereas you lie down. However, and here’s where the confusion probably started, the past tense of ‘to lie’ is lay. So if you were speaking it in the past tense, you would say “I laid it down.” vs. “I lay down.”


  • Present: Austin lays the book on the table. Austin is laying the book on the table.
  • Past: Austin laid the book on the table. Austin had laid the book on the table.
  • Present: Candace lies on the bed. Candace is lying on the bed.
  • Past: Candace lay on the bed. Candace had lain on the bed.
  1. ME, MYSELF, & I

And the winner of most incorrectly overused word of the early twenty-first century? Myself, a pretentious affectation used by people who are trying to sound smart. But since it’s wrong, it makes them sound dumb. Celeb interviews and reality programs abound with misused myselfs. Example: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and myself. It’s ME! The word is ME, people! Stop trying to be so clever, or else go all out and tattoo an L on your forehead.

This problem often occurs when more than one individual is referred to in a sentence. If in doubt, rewrite the sentence without the other names. The error will usually be glaring.


  • Incorrect: Dave, Gary, and myself met in high school.
  • Incorrect: Dave, Gary, and me met in high school.
  • Correct: Dave, Gary, and I met in high school.
  • Incorrect: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and myself.
  • Incorrect: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and I.
  • Correct: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and me.
  • Correct: I was so paranoid, I used to mail the lyrics to myself. Note how in this sentence there is also an “I”. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. You have to already have referred to yourself once in the sentence to use it. You may also note that you/yourself follows the same pattern. As do all the other pronouns. Funny how that works.
  1. You do know THEN and THAN are two different words— don’t you?

Yes, then and than look and sound similar. Yes, it’s only a matter of one little vowel. But please, people, please, use then when you mean then and than when you mean than.

What an editor never wants to see: My brother is younger then I am.

Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. Than is a conjunction, used to compare two things: My brother is younger than I am. Then is an adverb, used to indicate when something happened: First we finished our homework, then we went to the movies.

I’ll say it again: Please don’t use then when you mean than.

  1. Don’t use FAUX-WORDS.

Generally, these are words that are pronounced differently than they are spelled. Because you hear them more often than you see them in print, the spoken version starts to sound right. But it isn’t. So don’t be getting any wacky ideas.


  • Not a word: alot. Correct term: a lot.
  • Not a word: alright. Correct term: all right.
  • Not a word: could of (should of, would of). Correct term: could have (should have, would have) or could’ve (should’ve, would’ve)

My favorite faux-word: copywrite. Correct term: copyright. The term refers to “rights”, not to “writing”.

More of these gems can be found here: Common Errors in English

  1. CAPITALIZE consistently.

Proper names are capitalized. Generic names are not. When capitalizing a proper name consisting of more than one word, all of the words in the name should be capitalized.


  • Incorrect: Cindy attends High School.
  • Correct: Cindy attends high school. (Here the generic term is used. No capitals are required.)
  • Incorrect: Cindy attends Victoria high school.
  • Correct: Cindy attends Victoria High School. (Here a proper name is used. The name of the school is “Victoria High School”, not “Victoria”. All words in the name should be capitalized.)

Final Poll Results

Point of View:
Who’s Telling Your Story?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

Recently, I was working on a short romance story. The idea swam around in my head for a few days, and I was excited about writing it down. When I did start writing, though, something didn’t seem right. The character, who was so real and vibrant in my head, just wasn’t coming alive on the page.

This is how my story began:

Andie had never believed in psychics.

But her friend Joanne did, and when Andie asked her what she wanted for her birthday, this was it. A psychic reading.

She’d checked the Internet and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” nearby. She selected one of the names at random and made an appointment. She figured they’d spend the day together, have lunch. But Joanne wouldn’t let Andie get away with just taking her; she’d insisted that Andie have a reading done too.

I wrote about half a page and stopped. It just didn’t feel right. The story wasn’t flowing the way I wanted it to. It felt stilted, forced. After a few more days of mulling it over, it hit me. The point of view was all wrong. The third-person approach I’d chosen was too distant. I wanted the reader to identify with Andie, to feel like they were right there with her. I decided to try shifting to first person. This is what I came up with:

I never believed in psychics.

But my friend Joanne did, and she’d asked for a psychic reading for her birthday. I’d poked around on the Internet, and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” just an hour away from Buffalo on Lake Erie.

So even though I thought it was a waste of money, I told Joanne I’d take her. It was her birthday. I figured we’d make a day of it, have lunch. I randomly chose one of the “registered mediums”, Reverend Gladys Mitchell, and made an appointment. But I couldn’t just pay for Joanne’s reading and be done with it. Oh, no. I had to go too.

The rest of the story flowed almost effortlessly. I had a first draft down in hours.

Background Image: Phil/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Somewhere along the way, we all learned the basic rules of point-of-view. Some English teacher or creative writing professor set out the “rules” for us to follow. They explained first person and third person narrators, limited and omniscient points of view. They teach the basics, but most never cover that elusive, more difficult question:

How do you choose?

At some point in every short story or novel, we, as writers, must make a fundamental decision-who is telling this story? Is the narrator inside the story, telling it as it happens? Is she an unnamed, detached observer? Will we keep the reader inside one head, or will we use several point-of-view characters?

Sometimes this decision is easy-the story flows out and we fall into a point-of-view and stick to it. Other times, it isn’t. But before we talk about those choices, let’s review the basics.

In an essay on the subject, author Robin White referred to POV as “the hidden persuader behind any story” which “focuses your narrative, involves your reader, and temporarily suspends all other realities.”

The most common points-of-view are first person and third person. A first person narrative is told from the “I” perspective. The narrator is clearly involved in the story, and is most often the central character. The following example is from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale:

The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I don’t move. As long as I lie still. The difference between lie and lay. Lay is always passive. Even men used to say, I’d like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, I’d like to lay her. All this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say. I had only their words for it.

I lie then, inside the room, under the plaster eye in the ceiling, behind the white curtains, between the sheets, neatly as they, and step sideways out of my own time. Out of time. Though this is time, nor am I out of it.

The narrator tells this story, as it happens. First person narrators can also be mere observers, outside the main story, or detached, as if looking back on past events.

The biggest advantage of first person narration is that it fully involves the reader in the life of the central character; we experience her thoughts, her feelings, and we see what she sees. Certainly, it’s the point of view that best allows us to get completely inside the head of a character. First person can sometimes be limiting, though. Some writers struggle with a first person narrator, because they find themselves wanting to tell the reader what’s going on inside the heads of the other characters. The decision to use first person involves a certain amount of trade-off.

It is also important to remember that the “I” of the story and the writer are not necessarily the same. In fact, first person can actually be too close. I wrote an autobiographical short story when I was in college, using a first person narrator to tell the story. I found I had a problem with separating the narrator from myself. She was me, which made it difficult to write, and even more difficult to accept criticism. My professor made comments about my narrator, which I of course took personally. I now know that I probably would have been better off using a third person narrator, thus distancing myself from the story.

Third person narrative falls into three main categories, limited, objective and omniscient. The third person limited narrator tells the story through the eyes of a single character. The third person objective narrator simply tells the story without allowing the reader to take part in any character’s thoughts or feelings. The omniscient narrator can tell the story from the viewpoint of a number of different characters.

Here’s an example of a third person narrator, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

Harry lay flat on his back, breathing hard as though he had been running. He had awoken from a vivid dream with his hands pressed over his face. The old scar on his forehead, which was shaped like a bolt of lightning, was burning beneath his fingers as though someone had just pressed a white-hot wire to his skin.

For the most part, the Harry Potter novels are told from Harry’s point of view. Rowling uses a close third person POV, which can sometimes be quite similar to first person. So why not use first person?

Most likely, Rowling chose the close third person POV so that she would have the ability to occasionally change point of view characters. Some chapters and scenes are told from the point of view of other characters, giving the reader access to information that Harry couldn’t possibly have. This POV is known as “episodically limited”. The “who” of the story is determined by the scene. It’s the point of view most commonly used in genre and mainstream novels. In a novel, it is acceptable to have several POV characters, but you should be careful not to use too many. Generally, point of view shouldn’t change during a scene. This practice, known as “head hopping”, can alienate your reader.

In short stories, it is usually best to stick with a single POV.

The third POV, far less commonly used, is second person. A second person narrator addresses the reader directly as “you”. This POV is difficult to use effectively, so very few writers use it.

So now you’re probably still wondering, “but how do I choose?” Unfortunately, the answer just isn’t simple. Think about what you want to accomplish, and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. Beyond that, the best advice I can give is to trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it probably won’t feel right to your reader either.

If you’re struggling with the piece you’re working on, try rewriting it from another point of view. Switch from first person to third, or vice-versa. Try telling the story from the point of view of an entirely different character. Keep trying new things until you’ve got something that fits.

When you’ve found the one that fits, you’ll know.

Final Poll Results

Creating A Fantasy World

Absolute Blank

By Patsy Sheehan

When writing fantasy or science fiction, the writer has the opportunity to create an alternate world. It could be on earth, but in a mythological time, or hidden in another dimension. It could be on another planet. Or it could be a place of the imagination, like a fairyland.

Whenever the writer leaves familiar settings, she must create a three-dimensional geography for her characters to occupy. She must provide them with a civilization and culture. She must invent plausible characters, and other creatures to inhabit that world. No matter how fantastic a world the writer creates, the reader must feel comfortable jumping into it.

Although many writers like to let their fantasy worlds evolve, this can lead to rewrites if the narrative takes an unexpected turn. A well-planned fantasy world gives the writer a framework to work within and allows her to concentrate on writing.

To illustrate this, if the writer is doing an alternate-earth world, she should ask herself what the natural surface will be like. Will it be desert, forest or prairie? Are there oceans, lakes, and rivers and where will she place them? Will there be mountains or tableland? Now is a good time for her to start roughing out a map. This may seem like too much work at first. Many of these details might never end up in the story. However, these background details will help her write the story.

Background Image: Victoria Nevland/Flickr (CC-by-nc)


Geography influences the weather and the seasons. For instance, forests are rainy and deserts are dry. Cold regions are close to the poles and tropical regions are close to the equator. This seems obvious. However, some writers make terrible mistakes in this regard, like placing an arctic region on the equator of a planet.

“Yes, but this is fantasy,” the writer says.

True, but remember you want to make the reader feel comfortable in this world. A discerning reader will question apparent impossibilities, so the writer must have a plausible explanation. The arctic region could be on the equator of a planet tipped on its side with a horizontal rather than vertical axis. The reader must accept this situation as a fact. He won’t be comfortable if his logic is challenged.

When adding geographical features, the writer needs to keep the reader in that acceptance mode. Children can embrace a stream flowing with chocolate. The adult reader prefers that the white knight cross a stream consisting of water on his way to rescue the fair damsel from the dragon.

In science fiction about a distant planet, the stream could consist of some other chemical but it would have to be a liquid form of a chemical, like liquid hydrogen, to be consistent with the concept of a river. Help the reader accept this world by keeping it scientific, even if it is pseudo-science.

When the writer is satisfied with the natural features of her world, she is ready to create the artificial structures of a civilization.


The characters live and work in the farms, villages and cities the inhabitants have built. The writer needs to decide what level of civilization this society has achieved. Are they using fire or electricity? Have they harnessed some another form of energy?

When writing futuristic fantasy or science fiction, the writer can invent all kinds of technological and scientific advances as long as they seem plausible in her setting. Some level of scientific knowledge helps to explain those things that don’t seem real. If the writer doesn’t have enough scientific knowledge and is reluctant to do the research, it would be best to avoid this genre. A writer in this genre would need to have a plausible, scientific-sounding explanation for questions like: “How do the characters walk around a spaceship?”

The architecture of the buildings and layout of the farms, villages, or cities need visual explanations. What building materials are used? What are the roads like and what kind of transportation do the inhabitants use? Do they have parks or gardens? In addition, at what artistic level are they? Remember that civilizations that didn’t have electricity, running water and advanced medicine have produced some of the greatest works of art, architecture and engineering.


Next, the writer needs to create the culture of the inhabitants. Who is in charge? Do they have a king or are they democratic? Are their leaders elected, appointed or born into the job? Do they have a class-tiered society of rich, middle-class and poor? Are they egalitarian? Are they matriarchal or patriarchal? What is their religion and what are their spiritual beliefs? What is their economy based on? Are they peaceful or warlike? How do they heal themselves? Do they have writing or do they pass their stories and traditions down orally? What is their music like? What do they eat? What do they wear and what ornamentation do they use?

The deeper and more varied the details of the culture are, the richer and more nuanced the writing will be. Once the writer is satisfied with the culture, she is ready to create the physical appearance of the inhabitants of her world.


What do the characters look like? Are they human, humanoid, or intelligent beings of other species? The writer needs to take care when peppering her world with other species that they remain credible. For instance, if she writes a story that takes place in Africa, she needs to keep the species African. If she throws American buffalo into the Congo, she needs to explain how they got there.

Likewise, she shouldn’t put real Earth species on a fantasy planet unless they were transported there from Earth. She may have similar species, yet they must be a species unique to that planet. Creatures from Greek mythology, like griffins, would be inappropriate in Mayan mythology, unless the author explained their presence.

The writer needs to keep her characters within the context of her fantasy world. When J. R. R. Tolkien created Middle Earth in The Hobbit and his later works, his characters were rooted in northern European mythology. The same can be said about the wealth of literature surrounding the Arthurian legends. When Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, he created Martians who could inhabit what was known of the planet at that time. Frank Herbert’s Dune characters and society are an alternate earth-like society with very human denizens and institutions.


Sometimes, the writer may want to place her fantasy squarely in the middle of a real time and place on earth. When writing fantasy in a historical context, the writer needs to be prepared to do plenty of research. If the writer doesn’t like history and doing research, then she shouldn’t write in this cross genre. Without the historical background references, the writing becomes flat and boring or even nonsensical.

If she has a delicious vampire story, and she wants to place it in a historical era, she needs to get her facts straight. She must decide when and where her story will take place and find out everything she can about that period, which means researching the history and geography, literature, art and folk customs. After she has gleaned as much information as possible, then she is free to invent details to fill in the gaps in information.

Like all guidelines, don’t be afraid to break these. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy fiction is flexible. Some writers have placed castles in valleys, which in real life would make them vulnerable to attack. Yet, the reader accepted the situation because the writer explained why the story needed that castle to be in a valley.

To summarize, in order to make a fantasy world work, it has to seem possible and credible, while remaining fantastic.

Final Poll Results

Editing and Abandoning

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Poet Paul Valery said, “An artist never really finishes his work. He merely abandons it.” Once the creating is over, the editing begins. It doesn’t end until you bring yourself to “abandon” your work. And sometimes not even then.

Background Image: Vasile Hurghis/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

First Offense

There are some basic editing “tricks” you can use to strengthen your work and reduce the chances of rejection. There are exceptions to each of these. At this point, it’s the writer’s choice as to how to edit the story.

  • Correct typos

Running your document through Word’s spell check is a good step, but it isn’t enough. Print yourself a hard copy and give it a once-over with a red pen, if necessary. Make sure names are spelled consistently. Check your punctuation.

  • Read aloud

It might seem silly, but it helps. If you’re too embarrassed to read it aloud, mouth it. Doing so forces you to slow down. It also lets you listen to the cadences of your work and the music of your words. If you must stop to take a breath, your sentence is too long. Anything that makes you cringe should be changed.

  • “Pay yourself by the period”

In Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale relates a story about newspaper editors telling green reporters they are “paid by the period.” What does this mean for prose and poetry writers? Get rid of your conjunctions. Simple, straightforward sentences are more powerful than several ideas strung together.

  • Passives

Search and destroy “was” “were” “am” “are” “is” “be” “been” wherever possible. Use your “find” feature to do this.

Maintain your sentence structure variation while making your writing as active as possible. I had a newspaper editor once tell me, “A headline is a subject and a verb. Anything else is extra. But you have to have those elements and in that order.” For example, “Noise ordinance passed by council” is not as active a headline as “Council passes noise ordinance.”

Word can also check for passive sentences. Make sure the “check grammar” box is ticked on your spell check. One of the stats you get at the end of your spell check is “percent of passive sentences.” If you just want to check a single sentence, highlight it, then do a spell/grammar check. It’ll ask you if you want to check the rest of the document. Choose “no” and you’ll get the stats just for that one sentence.

  • Trim fat

If it has no bearing on the plot, remove it. Dump asides to the reader and superfluous information. If you have a grandiose word, consider replacing it with something simpler. You don’t want to send readers looking for their dictionaries mid-story.

We all put things in our first drafts that are just for us. It could be background that never goes anywhere or a character we meant to make more interesting. Remember: it’s easier to cut than write more. When faced with the dilemma, chop it.

  • Hook

Does the first line make you want to read the second? Does the opening paragraph put out promises that the story delivers? Are characters from the hook relevant or will the reader wonder throughout the piece “what happened to Skip from the bait shop?” Grab your reader from the start and refuse to let her go until the ending.

  • Ending

Have you tied up some loose ends but not all? Have you raised new, unanswered questions in the closing paragraph? Endings should be satisfying but they need not be neat.

Hand It Over

Have your eyes gone blurry from editing? Are you sick of your characters? Good. This means you’ve been working hard and your deserve a break. Whether you’re staring down a twelve-line poem or a 120,000-word novel, how do you know when you’re ready to abandon it?

You don’t. You hand it over to a willing party for shredding, even while you hope they’ll say, “It’s gold!”

This person doesn’t need to write; she only needs to read. Once published, your work will be seen by people who don’t write as well as those who do. So any second opinion will do at this point. Her job is to “proofread,” not to edit; editing is for you and for the editors. That’s how they get the title after all. A friend who simply enjoys reading can point out flaws in timeline or motive. Friends are wary of hurting a writer’s feelings and will give you the praise you’re looking for.

Another writer will probably alternate commiseration and brutality. “I like the main character,” he might say, “but her dialogue stinks.” He understands that you need a little criticism along with a dose of praise. If you want to get the piece published, he understands and has an understanding of what it will take to get your work to that point.

How do you find other writers to give you feedback? Check the bulletin board or schedule of activities at local bookstores, colleges or libraries. Sometimes the same critique group meets at Borders one weekend and at Barnes and Noble the next. Meeting in public places and posting notices indicate they are willing to accept new members. Hide in the “personal growth” section and pretend to read while listening to the group. Listen to their feedback and interaction; decide if you might want attend.

Maybe face-to-face critique isn’t for you. Or maybe it’s inconvenient to get to the meetings. Toasted Cheese offers critique boards and a writing buddy exchange. You can give and receive feedback when it’s convenient for you. Weigh your available choices for critique and get as many opinions as you can.

Repeat Offenders

Now that you’ve had a break from the piece, go through the steps again. Look at it with fresh eyes. There’s more editing afoot.

  • Get rid of adverbs

Good reasons for an adverb are few and far between. Sometimes one must stay, for clarity. Use the “find” feature in Word and do a “search and destroy” on “-ly.” Pick the best possible verbs and let the adverbs fall away.

  • Trim adjectives

Like adverbs, some adjectives have their place, but imagine how much more compelling your work would be with better-chosen nouns. Watch out for participles, where an -ing makes the word look like a verb. “Galloping horse” is an example. “Galloping” is an adjective, not a verb, and it’s a predictable word choice anyway. A gerund is an -ing word functioning as a noun, like “incessant nagging” or “constant editing.”

  • Metaphor, simile and metonyms, oh my!

Similes are comparisons using “like” or “as” (“She’s pretty as a picture” “I’m as corny as Kansas in August”).

Metaphors have the same function but do so in a more direct way, usually using a form of “is” to link the two ideas (“He’s hitting his head against a brick wall” “The landscape was a blanket of snow” “They’re a pimple on the face of humanity”). Be careful not to mix metaphors, like “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it” or “If you let that sort of thing go on, your bread and butter will be cut right out from under your feet.”

Metonyms are comparisons that substitute one idea for another to which it is closely related. (“The pen is mightier than the sword”). One kind of metonym is the synecdoche, which substitutes a part for a whole or vice versa (“our daily bread”)

When using a simile, metaphor or metonym, be as original with them as possible. If you’ve heard it before, it’s not original. Use them sparingly, increasing the power of the ones you keep.

  • Detail

With all this cutting, you have wiggle room to add some detail. Take a moment to show us what else is going on, physically and emotionally, with your characters. Have you forgotten to add anything that could be important to the story or to the reader’s mental picture?

  • Symbol

If you use symbolism, keep your symbol constant. If you use circles as a symbol for entrapment, take note of every circle in your story. If the symbol isn’t appropriate, remove or change it. Assume your reader will pick up the symbolism on his own and don’t be too obvious or beat him over the head with it.

Have someone proof it again. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the original reader or someone new. At last the story is cleaning up and turning into something you can abandon.

Round Up the Usual Suspects

Ah. It’s finally edited, polished and ready to go. Now what?

If you write for publication, editing is a fact of life. The fun of creating is only a tiny step toward your finished, printed piece. If you’re lucky enough to have an editor accept your work, you might get a note back with some editing suggestions. Some go ahead and edit the piece themselves. You might even read it over and wish you’d changed a bit of dialogue or come up with a more original metaphor.

The worst thing you can do for yourself is to submit a great story in an unprofessional manner.

  • Know the publication

Research the journals you’re interested in. Read their current and archived issues. If your story is “genre,” make sure that it fits with the publication (example: don’t send erotica to Reader’s Digest).

If the stories seem heavy and long, consider sending that snappy flash fiction somewhere else. There are many journals that “subspecialize” in genre, length and so forth. A good place to begin scouting for possibilities is at Mustard and Cress.

  • Include a professional cover letter, even when electronically submitting.

An electronic submission should get the same respect as a hard copy submission. Address the editor(s) by name when available. In lieu of a street address, include the submission e-mail.

Open your letter with the name of the story and your intention for it (publication, a contest entry, etc.). Give the story name, word count and a brief bio, including any writing credits. If you don’t have any writing credits, don’t bring up the fact. Tailor your bio to fit with the story and the publication. Don’t write a funny bio to go with your death poem or a 200-word biography to accompany your flash fiction.

Some writers also like to add how they heard about the publication or contest (newsletter, search engine, workshop, someone’s website, etc.). Depending on your style, you might also want to include a two or three sentence story synopsis.

Include your email address in your signature or in the body of the letter. If you use a pen name, sign your real name and add a parenthetical (writing as “___”) or include the information on a new line below your name.

Do not suck up; editors have a great b.s. detector. They don’t care if you’re a lifelong reader or a fan of their own work. They care about what you’re sending them for their publication.

Example of an e-submission cover letter:

George Langadoon, fiction editor
Electric Mayhem

Dear Mr. Langadoon,

I am submitting my short story “Yes Dear” (1000 words) for publication consideration in “Electric Mayhem.”

My most recent fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese and Frank’s Little E-Zine of Joy. I live in Brisbane, Australia with my two maladjusted cats.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Erma McThirsty
Writing as “Max McHungry”

An example of what not to do:

Hi! My name is Erma McThirsty and I’ve been writing all my life. I’m not published yet but I’ve dreamed of seeing my work in print. My story is called “Yes Dear” (attached).

I think it would be perfect in “Electric Mayhem.” I’m a real fan of your magazine and would love to be a part of it. I’ve read it for years and I love the stories you choose.

Let me know what you think!
“Max McHungry” (wink)

  • Follow submission guidelines

If a journal does not take simultaneous submissions, do not assume your story is so wonderful that they will make an exception.

Do not send your story in an attachment unless the guidelines deem it acceptable. Because of virus concerns, attachments almost always go unopened.

Many journals allow more than one poem per submission but only one prose or non-fiction piece. If the magazine wants only one piece per submission, comply with that request.

Put your story in a standard font face and size. For safety’s sake, stick with 12 point Courier, Arial or Times New Roman. If the guidelines are specific, respect that. A cute font will not get you noticed; it will get you sent to the slush pile.

  • Respect the reply time

Some editors reply to a submission on the same day. Some take up to three months. The site or auto-reply should tell you when to expect to hear about the story. Do not write to the editors and pester them about it. If you are in the “maybe” pile, doing so could put you in the “no” pile.

However, if an unreasonable amount of time goes by and you still haven’t heard, you have every right to ask, “What’s up?” Submissions do get misplaced, so inquire in a professional, courteous manner.

The same holds true when a story has been accepted but not yet published. You have the right to update your writing credits in a timely fashion. Go ahead and list the credit; you might consider adding a note that the publication is “pending.”

Case closed

If you write for publication, editing is a fact of life. The fun of creating is only a tiny step toward your finished, printed piece. If you’re lucky enough to have an editor accept your work, you might get a note back with some editing suggestions. Some go ahead and edit the piece themselves.

After it’s sent or published, you might even read it over and wish you’d changed a bit of dialogue or come up with a more original metaphor. This is natural. The important thing was that you sent out the best work possible at the moment. You were brave enough to abandon the project and send it into the world. Many who write don’t get that far. Be proud of your work and yourself.

Final Poll Results

Fan Fiction: Working With A Net

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I remember the first fan fiction I wrote. I was about 12, maybe 13. I was lonely and away from home, and had made new friends I wanted to impress. I wrote them into a Nancy Drew-like mystery that was just awful, but they loved it. I was in!

I’ve written a lot of stories based on stories, movies, television and novels that others created. Some were for friends who couldn’t let go of the romance of a character or actor, and some were for me. I can remember entangling Luke Skywalker in romance, or using pretty words to recapture the feeling I had when I first saw two of my soap opera characters kiss.

Background Image: Alaina Browne/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

But it’s stealing!

True enough, it is stealing. But, as Mason Cooley said, “Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation.” The ideas going on paper, the situations, thoughts, style and form are all original to each individual author. It’s the same character, but they’re doing something new and different.

We just can’t let the characters or situation go. We honor and obey the rules of the universe as set down by the original author or screenwriter, we pay homage to the actor who brought it to life or to the writer who sold us the characters so fully. We pay them the biggest compliment we could. We write about it ourselves.

So, why do you do it?

Like most fan fiction writers, I don’t write fan fiction for anyone but myself. I know going in I’m not going to make money from it, that it won’t make me famous, and that it probably won’t leave my little circle of friends. When I write fan fiction, I write for fun, for love, and for the sheer joy of creating. In the process, I’m honing my skills, learning a little something about character and continuity, and bringing my creativity back from the dead.

Fan fiction gives my creativity an energy boost. Like all writers, I sometimes run into a block about plot or about a character’s motivation, or I just can’t seem to write that day. On those days, I can drop my lagging spirits into a world I know intimately and play around. I might take a random comment or idea and follow that path to its end. I might write about a favorite lead character, create a new and interesting character, or bring a background character up into a lead position. No matter what I choose to do, I’m writing again. I’ve defeated that ‘writers block’ monster.

But fan fiction isn’t “REAL” writing!

I couldn’t disagree more. Fan fiction has all of the attributes of “real” writing, even if the framework was done by someone else. I still have to think of characters and situations, formulate plot lines and possibly chapters, consider setting and timelines and historical facts, and keep my work as error free as possible so it’s easy to read. It’s real writing work.

There are also hundreds of novels published every year based on the characters, work, and situations of others. A whole new “Star Wars” universe sprouted from the ground as soon as George Lucas said he was taking a four-year vacation from making those movies. “Nancy Drew” novels have always been written by a variety of authors, and readers who became writers, working under the same pen name, Carolyn Keene. “Star Trek” universes dominate three or four shelves in the library and bookstores. If fan fiction weren’t real writing, it wouldn’t be getting on the shelves.

This is all interesting, but why are you telling me?

One of the things we do at Toasted Cheese is inspire others to write. Three things I hear a lot are: I have writer’s block, writing isn’t fun anymore, and my writing skills are really (behind, out of date, lacking, gone, non-existent). Fan fiction might be able to help you with all those things.

For example, I belong to a “Xena: Warrior Princess” fan group called the “Themiscrya Amazons”. This is a very small band of women who were impressed by the ideals, ideas, language, adventure and fun of one part of the “Xenaverse” and expanded on it. One of the activities we do is write in a role-playing forum.

In this forum, each of the members has a character based on the Amazons from the television show. We write a history, find a niche that needs filled, give ourselves interesting lives, and then write about them. Each one is unique and different, and each writer brings something new and fresh to the story line in the forum. We build and weave around and through each other’s style and ideas, creating complex plots and stories that never seem to end up where I had figured they would go.

To make the forum work, we are allowed to ‘move’ the other characters. I’ve learned how hard it can be to be true to the nature and personality of a character while attempting to push your character where you want it to go. And how frustrating it can be when someone has yours do something against his or her nature. But it’s teaching me how very different characters are motivated.

I’m learning about my own style and voice as well. It’s important to be unique in an online world and hard to have a character not sound like your online self.

I’m also teaching others by doing. I think the members of the forum are learning a lot about mystery and revelation, sensory details and description, dialog and grammar. Like my writing, I’m showing, not telling, and I think it’s making a difference. Our forum is a lot of fun to read and participate in, and it’s one of hundreds on the Internet.

You’ve sold me, now what?

The Internet is full of fan fiction sites. You can write about everything from “Frasier” to “X-Files” to “Young Hercules” and back again. Heck, if you can’t find one you like, start your own. You’ll probably get six other writers not only commenting, but also posting work of their own.

The easiest way to find fan fiction is to type the title or name of your topic of choice into a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, Hot Bot, etc. To narrow your search, try “fan fiction, <name here>”. The rest is up to you.

You should look at the terms of service and disclaimers for all fan-related internet sites. Be sure your work remains your own, of course. Be certain that credit is given to the original authors or creators of the work. Double-check that the site won’t sell or steal your idea or writing. It’s always best to comb the rules and then to lurk for at least a week or two. Make sure the overall tone is one you are comfortable with.

Why not try it? You can start with the exercise that goes along with this article, or you can visit one of the Internet sites listed below. Give yourself permission to “steal” and see where it can lead you.

Personally recommended fan fiction sites:

  • Themiscryan Amazon Nation: Must be female and join the tribe to participate. Should have a working knowledge of Xena: Warrior Princess Amazons.
  • Eunice’s Frasier Fan Fiction Archive: A personal collection that accepts new stories also includes links to other Frasier fan fiction websites.
  • Fan Fiction Net: This site encompasses a variety of fan fictions, including poetry, books, television and movies. Asks for registration, which is free. Offers readers the opportunity to respond to the author and review the work.

Sites from searches:

Final Poll Results

Recognizing Your Voice

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“A defective voice will always preclude an artist from achieving the complete development of his art, however intelligent he may be… The voice is an instrument which the artist must learn to use with suppleness and sureness, as if it were a limb.” —Sarah Bernhardt

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably had a writing teacher encourage you to find your voice or heard a fellow writer claiming to have found hers. Maybe you’ve even used the phrase yourself.

So many writers seem to suffer from laryngitis that sometimes I wonder if there’s a mutant strain of streptococcus circulating through the writing community. Is voice really such an elusive thing that it’s lost this frequently and found only with much effort?

Voice is nebulous, in part because it can be hard to define—with respect to writing, that is. After all, you know what your speaking voice is; it’s that sound you make when you open your mouth. You can vary it by singing, whispering, or yelling, affecting an accent or peppering it with slang, but any way you serve it up, it is always indubitably you.

Background Image: Duncan C/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Voice in writing is, well, it’s like your speaking voice, only on paper. Your voice, the author’s voice. If you write fiction, don’t confuse voice with point-of-view—the perspective of your narrator or protagonist. Your writing will have voice even if you’re writing a technical manual.

Sometimes described as a combination of style, tone, and personality, in simpler terms, voice is the how of writing. It’s not what you say or who you say it about; it’s how you say it.

In a profession where an hour can be spent fussing over the placement of a period, it’s understandable that broader elements of writing like voice get fuzzy. It’s like looking at a photograph pressed against your nose. It’s right there—but you can’t see it.

Step back. Way back. Voice is not exclusive to writing. An example: I have before me two images, an Ansel Adams photograph and a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. I’m not going to tell you more; I don’t have to. Even if you’re only slightly familiar with these artists, you immediately pictured something. Though both lived in the western United States in the same era and portrayed similar subjects, each artist had a distinctive look. One of Adams’s monochromatic photographs would never be confused with one of O’Keeffe’s colorful abstractions, even if both subjects were the same.

That look is voice.

Everyone has a voice. Voice isn’t something to be found; it’s not lost. And unlike grammar and plotting, it’s not something that needs to be learned. Let’s dispel the myth of “finding your voice”; it’s a misconception. You don’t need to find it; you need to recognize it.

You’d think you’d know what you sound like, but in practice it’s much easier to spot another writer’s voice than your own. Much like speaking voices, really: you can recognize and describe the voices of your friends, family, and co-workers, but what about your own? Ever heard a recording of your own voice?

Ah. You see the problem.

Dig out some of your own unpolished, not-meant-for-publication writing—journal entries are best, but letters or emails will work. Try to find something old, preferably composed before you started writing seriously. Spend some time reading and absorbing your voice—and make a note to yourself when something clicks. Read the “now that sounds like me” sections aloud.

Now pick up something you’ve been working on recently—maybe something that’s been frustrating you—and read it over. Do you hear your voice—or someone else’s? When you find an awkward section, something that sounds wrong, read it aloud. Compare it to the other piece, the one you know sounds like you. Try to pin down what’s different. Have you used big words when normally you use small ones? Are you using dialect you’re not familiar with? Maybe you’re trying to be poetic, when your natural voice is spare.

When you start writing, it’s natural to imitate the voices of your favorite writers or writers you’ve recently read, much like your speaking voice picks up local accents and expressions when you travel. In fact, the better your ear for the sound of good writing, the more likely this is to happen. But if you know your own voice, you’ll recognize what you’re doing and slip back without fuss, just as you effortlessly return to your regular speaking voice when you come home from a trip. Mimicking another writer’s voice is a fun exercise, but in the long term it’s too damn hard. If writing has become arduous and you can’t figure out why—check your voice.

But don’t feel that you have to lose every trick you’ve picked up from other writers. Just as a lifetime of experiences influences your speaking vocabulary and pronunciation, what you read affects your writing. Keep what feels right; techniques culled from a variety of sources will only make your voice more decisively you.

The more you write, the more aware you’ll be of your own voice. Other writers will still influence you, but they won’t have the profound effect they did in the beginning.

Compare a story that’s at least a year old with a recent one. If your writing is progressing, the newer piece will sound more like you. Not sure? Listen to your readers. A definitive sign that your writing has a recognizable sound is a reader saying, “That’s so you.” Sounds obvious, but such comments are often brushed aside as unimportant. When this happens, make a note of it. It’ll give you a touchstone to refer to when your voice falters.

Because even when you know your own voice, it can be a challenge to stay true to it. Why? Well, one of the first things you probably did when you started writing was seek out other writers. Perhaps you took a class or joined a critique group. And while classes and critique groups are great for mastering the basics—things like good grammar, a consistent viewpoint, a plot that makes sense—they’re terrible for developing voice.

Think about it: grammar, viewpoint, and plot are objective elements. For example, “should of” is wrong. Period. If you’re writing in third person, you can’t start saying “I did this and that” halfway through the story. If a character dies (really dies) in Chapter Two, they can’t be seen ordering a cappuccino in Chapter Nine.

Objective elements like these receive consistent feedback. Everyone will notice your dead character drinking coffee and point it out. But voice is subjective. The more unusual your voice, the more likely it is that ten different critiquers will have ten different opinions about how you should tell your story. If you’re a good little writer, your instinct will be to try to accommodate all of them. Resist.

Trust yourself. Listening to multiple opinions will only muddle your voice. The purpose of editing is to polish and clear up discrepancies, not to please others. Say what you think and feel, not what you think someone else wants to hear. Keep reminding yourself why you’re writing. What do you want your oeuvre—body of work—to say about you at the end of your life?

If you know why you’re writing, you’ll stay focused on how you’re going to say it—even in the face of opposition from your best writing buddies—and your voice will be sure and true.

Final Poll Results