5 Tips for Writing About Something Technical

06092019 Writing Club witty nib

Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at something I personally have struggled to get better at: writing about technical things.

Do you want to write a book in which cars take a central role? A fighting style? A complex system of magic? All of those things can get technical, and there’s a fine line between not enough and too much information!

5. Do Some Research

Unless you are already an expert on the subject, you’re going to want to bone up on what you’re writing. Let’s say your main character uses a bow to hunt or, like Katniss from The Hunger Games, kill people. You might, then, want to know words like “fletching” or “nock” and what that means. And there’s two ways to do your research.

One is to experience it yourself. Go to a shooting range and get someone to teach you about bowhunting. Your experience will sharply deepen your ability to understand your characters. It will also help you speak with some authority on your subject.

Unfortunately, gaining real life experience is often expensive, time consuming, or completely unavailable. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to read as much as you can, look at pictures and – most definitely – watch YouTube. There’s tons of videos of people doing sword fighting, bow hunting, almost anything that ordinary people won’t be experts on. Keep a list of resources, and follow some of the tips in my Research post.

If you’re doing a fantasy or hard science fiction system, of course no one else knows what you’re doing; the difficulty of this research is looking into yourself and establishing the rules of your world’s system. This can be hard because you’re inventing the knowledge yourself!

4. Establish the Limits of Your Knowledge

Unless you’re an expert who can’t be easily questioned or pressed about their knowledge, you want to better understand where you are and how much you know. There are two main reasons you should do this: one, and the most obvious, is to see if you’re ready to write extensively about a technical subject.

Another, and the more devious, is to avoid the Dunning Kreuger effect. This is when a person who doesn’t have any expertise considers themselves to have more knowledge than they really do. Think about the last time you talked with someone about driving, and you’ll realize almost everyone says they’re an above-average driver. That statistically can’t be true. And, what’s worse, I believe I’m an above-average driver and there’s no reason for me to think that.

We tend to over-inflate our skills when we think about things we’re just ok at or even just dabbling in. When we’re talking about our driving skills, it probably won’t affect us much (as it never has). When we’re writing a book, though, it does matter. Establishing how much you know and how much is possible for you to know will help you avoid saying incorrect things, help you establish a path forward, and decide when your research stopping point will be.

3. Figure Out Your Target Audience’s Typical Knowledge

Most fans aren’t going to be like the Game of Thrones superfans who know more about the setting than the author. You really can’t write for those people because you’ll always be wrong. But, if you’re writing any specific genre (which, let’s be honest, you’re inevitably writing some genre), fans of those books have an idea of what to expect. If you’re writing a steampunk story and put your characters in polyester, the fans are going to call you out on that. If you have a medieval fantasy and your character uses a steam engine, your readers won’t stand for it.

One way you can do this is be familiar with your genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, how do other authors handle the information about the time period? How do other people review this author’s book, especially when it comes to analysis of the period pieces? How do people of that time period write about themselves?

Another wonderful thing the internet and modern technology is extreme connectivity. You can look up forums in which people discuss the topic or books relevant to your interests. Connect with people and figure out what other people know.

2. Less > More

If there’s anything I can’t stress enough in this article, it’s this one:

Don’t. Over. Do. It.

Yes, you just gained all this information and have thought critically for untold hours. You’ve just decided exactly why your plot will work given the constraints you’ve researched. You’ve established where your readers’ knowledge ends and yours begins.

And now, I swear to you, you don’t want to go much further than your average readers’ knowledge – if at all.

When one is reading a novel, we’re reading for characters and plot. We’re reading for themes, symbols, metaphors. Technical information gets in the way very easily.

If your reader wanted to know the extra tech, historical, or other info that you’ve gathered, they’d have done the research themselves. And, you know, there will be readers who know that info. You don’t need to tell them about it as long as you’re self consistent. Consistency is what you do your research for, not for your writing.

What I’ve experienced happening with runaway explanations of technical information is that they either bore a reader or they make them feel stupid. Use the most common terms as you can without being incorrect. Don’t talk about numbers if you can avoid it. Even if you’re talking about cars, it’s probably best to avoid things like horsepower or torque unless essential to the plot.

Most of all: don’t brag or act like you’re bragging. There’s nothing worse than feeling debased by reading a book.

1. BETA READERS

You’ve done all of the above. You think you’re spot-on. But it’s not over!

All sorts of guesstimates about your average reader can be off. Once you do enough research, it’s hard to go back to where you were before. For example, I recently wrote a story that includes 19th century cannons, and I used cannon terminology like “caisson” and “limber”. Both these words are common in books about the Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars, but when I tested it with a purely fantasy audience, I got a lot of “wtf” and “this is confusing – I’m going to ignore this word.”

That means I estimated using the wrong standard! I shouldn’t have chosen a Civil War buff as my standard audience. The people willing to read the book showed me that. A test audience will help you figure out just how technical you need to be – and it’s almost never as technical as you believe it should.

What obstacles have you come across when reading or writing technical things? Have any opinions about info dumps? Let me know in the comments!

5 Ways to Use Weather In Your Book

06092019 Writing Club witty nib

Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at something I find desperately under-used in fiction: weather.

Weather can do a lot for a story, but a lack of weather is common in stories. I hope this article can convince you to consider the weather in your chapters!

5. Set a Mood

It was a dark and stormy night…

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Sure, this may be a cliche beginning and something to be eschewed – even in an ironic manner – but you gotta admit it tells you exactly what the following passage will feel like. The sentence establishes a sense of foreboding, gloom, and struggle.

And you can still use a dark, stormy night to set such a tone as long as you don’t state it in such a straightforward manner. A streak of lightning, low-lying clouds, a drip-drip-drip from the guttering, all ways of getting a mood going.

4. Create a Disaster Story

Disasters create trauma and tension and can be the central aspect of a story. Whether as a force that creates a need to rebuild or as a looming terror that gives characters a time frame within which to act, a storm or natural disaster can create as well as it can destroy.

Even if you’re not creating a disaster story with a storm at its heart, think about how storms and inclement weather may have created a disaster at another time or place in your world. How does this affect your characters now? Are there any lingering fears or lasting national/regional trauma?

A story I’ve recently read that makes excellent use of storms is the Brandon Sanderson series The Stormlight Archives. The storms are semi-predictable, absolutely terrifying, and the character must plan their entire lives around them. It’s a great (if painfully long) fantasy, but I can at least attest that the first book is worth a read and makes great use of weather.

stormlight archives way of kings

3. Create Symbols and Metaphors

As your main character goes from brooding to passionate, you can change the weather from a gentle drizzle to a thunderstorm. You can go from freezing cold to blazing hot to symbolize the movement of the plot.

Similar to the #5 comment above, weather can be used to represent other parts of your book and complement the way your plots and characters change. Weather gives a sense of feeling you can’t easily replicate without “telling” rather than showing,

2. Enhance Sense of Time Passing

How many books do you know take place in the winter? In the summer?

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Many books do show seasons or a single season, but many do not. Many, of course, take place over the course of a couple days or a couple weeks, but several are supposed to take place over the course of years. Seasons are something people can grasp, especially those who get to experience all four of them, and we can feel the passage of time.

The aforementioned Stormlight Archives book has a lot of storms, but the passage of seasons and years isn’t outlined that well. There are no winters or summers, though there is a small season of gentle rain called “The Weeping”. While storms do make a massive impact on the book, weather as a sense of passing time was absent – and I tend to think it would have improved it.

A book (er, series) that does use weather to justify time passage is Harry Potter. Though the asides and descriptions are brief, winter comes and goes during the school year. Summer arrives at the end of every book, and it leaves at the beginning of the next. It helps put the books in line with the passage of time during and between them.

1. Establish Location

I wrote – YEARS ago now – an article about the importance of climate on the shaping of culture. Though things such as natural resources are important to establish culture, weather and the ability to grow crops is also essential for the purpose.

Yearly Precipitation in the Continental United States and Puerto Rico

A climate that is wet and warm is entirely likely to have a different set of expectations and celebrations than one that is hard and cold. The puritanical northern colonies planted by the British could not have been so established in the south – and vice versa. The location and environment molded what would happen, even if people were the instruments to make it happen.

Weather is essential to helping to define the location of your book. Are the winters hard, leading to increased time spent indoors, or are the summers long to encourage the gathering of crops? Does rain fall little enough that people can’t live in close quarters lest they risk running out of drinking water? Using weather can help your readers establish, even if only subconsciously, things such as this. Make use of it!

Have you ever mentioned the weather in one of your stories? How did it play into the scene or book? Let me know in the comments!

5 Tips for Writing Action Scenes

06092019 Writing Club witty nib

Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at the excitement of action scenes as I compile some of the best advice I’ve found and accumulated during my quest for exciting books.

5. Give Your Hero a Chance to Lose

The first step to determining this is to think of your character’s and villain’s powers. Is your character so powerful that there’s no reason for them to lose? Is your villain and their henchmen so comparatively weak that their winning wouldn’t make sense?

hadokenPictured: overpowered

If your character is too powerful and the outcome of the fight is foregone, the fight is going to have less importance to it. If a reader can start reading the fight, skip the details, and get to the end without feeling like anything unexpected happened, the fight might not be done right. Consider which you might be able to do: take away your character’s powers, or add powers to your villain.

Sometimes, your answer might be “no, my character is not overpowered” even if it should be “yes”. In this case, you may have accidentally created what some people call a “Mary Sue”. This isn’t necessarily bad – Breq from Ancillary Justice and the rest of the Imperial Radch trilogy is most definitely a Mary Sue, but the story is interesting enough that Leckie mostly gets away with it. If you’re worried that your character might be a Mary Sue, this is a fairly good test that may help you figure out if your character really is overpowered (as long as you have a reasonable view of your character and aren’t too close, and yes, I realize the person who made this test no longer believes in it).

*Note: You may not have as much a problem if, by winning/losing a fight as expected, unexpected consequences occur. Such as, if your character just straight up ganks a villain, what happens mentally? What if it breaks them somehow, and it becomes a major plot point or character growth moment? These sorts of things can help, but it probably means the fight needs to be over fast.

4. Vary the Techniques

“And Batman punched the guy with the left. Then he gave a right hook. Then he punched him repeatedly with his hands. Then he punched with a left.”

How did that read? Pretty crappy, right?

batman punch

Read this:

“And Batman punched the guy with the left. Then he backed up, tossed a bat-hook into a beam in the rafters. He held onto the cable of the bat-hook, and swung into the guy.”

Both are written crappily, but the second one is more fun to imagine. The first is a repetitive set of circumstances which grows old quickly.

The difference between them is that the second takes two totally different methods of beating up the bad guy. Unless you’re reading a book about boxing, just punches and kicks aren’t going to keep as much interest as something with greater visual interest.

3. Shorter Sentences and Paragraphs

Something soothing deserves words that are long, flowery, and quiet. It deserves sentences that meander like a long river, as slow as the Mississippi though with high informational flow rates. Purple prose has no purpose in fight scenes and should be avoided at all costs.

Fights are visceral, punchy, tight. Character thoughts are jarring and can fly anywhere. Short sentences raise tensions, and good use of verbiage makes better images.

Shorter paragraphs can also help – a shift in the battle can cause a shift in the paragraph, a shift in how the narrator reacts. Keep an eye out for any point where you think a paragraph should begin and end, and keep the action moving with the changes.

2. Feel More than Think

I’ve seen multiple articles out there about “correct” representations of martial arts, or bows, or shooting. And yes – if you’re going to have fight scenes wherein you’re using a weapon or fighting style, by all means look those up. Learn as much as you can about techniques, training, whatever you can.

But remember, nuances about a fighting style aren’t going to be interesting to a broader audience. Sure, you may know every part of a cannon, or you may want to show that you’re informed about flintlock pistols, but people don’t care about those things. You’re not Herman Melville, and you don’t have a publisher who’s willing to overlook half a book detailing information relevant to his characters’ day jobs.

Moby Dick

What makes a difference in the flow of a fight scene is how the character(s) feel about developments in the fight. How does this last punch change everything? How does hanging off the edge of a cliff change the hero’s fear levels? Can – or should – the reader feel these things with your character?

So look up all these details, but be careful not to come off like a know-it-all just trying to brag on yourself. Use knowledge to be complete, but use your feelings to make that knowledge really count.

1. It’s Not About the Action

That’s right.

An action scene in a book (and, let’s be honest, movies too) is merely a vehicle for change. Much like sex scenes, a fight is just an adrenaline rush with no purpose in and of themselves.

It’s what happens around the fight that must support a fight.

If you write an absolutely garbage fight scene, you can still have it work out if the bones surrounding it gives 1) good reason for there to be a fight and 2) a plot- or character-important result of said fight. It also helps if the result of your fight makes sense, but even that can be forgiven (as long as it makes even a shred of sense – Bambi’s not taking out Skeletor).

Skeletor

So get people to check over your fight scene just as you would get people to look over any other scene. For people who read your entire book, I’d suggest paying attention to whether or not their attention seemed to flag across the scene. Together with the #2 suggestion on this list, you’ll be able to make a more enduring scene than a 20-page, action-packed, “high-adrenaline” fight scene extravaganza.

More

If you want to know more, this is the best YouTube video I’ve seen on the subject. Though a lot of the advice relates to film, it’s rather fantastic for novelists too.

The Big Blog Question: Quantity vs. Quality

Choose Two: Quantity of posts, Quality of posts, or Your Non-Blogging Life.

Well, one of those is probably going to take priority (unless you’ve gotten past that ‘needing food’ conundrum), so the rest of blogging is just figuring out how to deal with balancing the other two.  Here’s some hints and tips I’ve learned to help with that balance.

Schedule Posts Ahead of Time

By scheduling your posts ahead of time, you can bank up time for when you need to be busy.  If Saturdays are your blog days, you can make all your blog posts then and not worry throughout the week.

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As well, many people can work faster when they’re on a roll.  If you write all your blog posts at once, you won’t have to get into or out of the mood as much.

Keep Most Posts Below 1,000 Words

The longer your post, the more likely people will get bored somewhere in the middle.

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By limiting the size of your posts, you reduce the chances for boredom and, thus, reduce the chances that your reader will leave before finishing.

As well, limiting the size of your post will help you decide the scope.  If you don’t have a scope, you might end up with enormous articles that take too much of your valuable time.  Remember – you can do a lot of work, but that will eat away at the time you could be writing your books or other publishable goods.  Keep scope creep down and cut your posts off when they need to be.

Decide On A Pattern

Do you post weekly?  Daily?  Something else?  Once you’ve figured out your routine, decide on what kind of posts you’ll make.

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I post daily, and right now I follow a week-by-week schedule as follows:

Monday – Book Review
Tuesday – Tanka Tuesday (Poetry practice!)
Wednesday – Prompt Showcase
Thursday – Blogging/Writing tips or Longer Stories
Friday – Carrot Ranch Prompt (Flash fiction!)
Saturday – Sammi Scribbles Prompt
Sunday – #CountVlad Guest Posts from Dracula

Because I follow this schedule, I know which posts I can write ahead of time.  I know what formats and types of information needs to be written.  This can almost act as a prompt, helping to give me a start on each of the posts.  That takes care of the hardest part – just starting.

Don’t Waste Your Readers’ Time

If you wouldn’t want to read the article, you can bet your bottom dollar that other people wouldn’t want to.  If you start an article or story and can’t stand it, think about if it’s worth your time to finish it.

If it’s a very short article, like a prompted flash fiction, you might as well finish it.  But if you’re prepping your major articles, stop before you think it’s going to fall apart.  Save what you’ve written and try to repurpose it – WordPress let’s you have plenty of drafts, so make use of them!

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How do you save time?  Are there methods you use to ensure quality?  I’d love to hear about some of your tips in the comments!

5 Ways Getting Personal Can Affect Your Blog

Now before you think this post is going to get raunchy, settle down.  Get your mind out of the gutter.

This is about when your Real Life intersects with your blog (and perhaps business, depending on the importance of your blog) life.

5. Posts About Your Life Let People Connect with You

It’s all over the ‘how to blog’ or ‘how to market’ world – you, yourself, are a major part of what needs to be sold.  If people like you, they might be more likely to buy your stuff.  They might just want to hang out with you ’cause you’re cool.

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Cool as f*ck.

By depicting your journey, whether it be in writing or video gaming or even mommy-blogging, you can also elicit help and advice from people who know what to do.

Or, if you get famous like J.K. Rowling, people will flock to those posts and think they know you.  It’ll give superfans something to focus on without mobbing you, y’know?

One of my online heroes is MRE reviewer Steve1989.  He’s one of those people so invested in his hobby that he’ll probably die of it.  And, surprisingly, he’s one of the few internet famous people we know very little about beyond the fact that he didn’t have health insurance in 2016.  You could use this as proof that you don’t need to be personal to get famous, but then again you’re comparing yourself to a guy who’ll eat a 150 year old cracker on Youtube.

If you don’t want to be extreme, consider letting people into your life a little more!

4. Your Memoir Stories Are Great!

This is probably the benefit of being personal that I take advantage of most.  If you’ve had an interesting life or are basically cursed to live through unlikely circumstances, you can write something that people don’t even realize is real.

Your connection to your own life allows you to tap deeply into the emotions.  You can play off relationships, events, and knowledge from your own life.  You can make that time your great-aunt challenged your mom to a pudding contest seem much more intense than if you wrote about some vague, unreal people.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Not only that, you don’t have to come up with a plot for a memoir-esque tale.  On a day where you just can’t put something together, drawing from your own life can give your writing that extra ‘boost’ so you can finish it.

3. Make use of “Stay Tuned!” Moments In Your Life

Do you follow people and root for their success?  Do you look forward to posts about “I published my book” or “I published a short story”?  I do.

A lot of people want to watch you to see how you might succeed.  There’s this secret hope that you’ll crack into the published and/or famous world, then it’ll all seem possible.  And, as long as you don’t give up, people will want to check in and see how you’re doing.

Unless you give up on a goal or die, your life story is basically constant episodes of a soap.

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Every episode leaves a reader at a cliffhanger, and every post gives this need to keep following up.

2. Heckin’ Cathartic

Life sucks hard sometimes.

And, sometimes, it can feel pretty good to just get something off your shoulders.  In 2018, Hurricane Florence had my house clearly in her sights, and I was feeling pretty wary what with all the intense forecasts.  I wrote a lot of frantic, overly-zealous articles about getting ready for the storm (which last-minute zipped around me).

Even so, people online are usually nice and can help you out.  Sometimes they can be a bag of awful, but that’s when you can bring down the ban-hammer and know they won’t be back in that guise, at least.

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So write about your life.  Put what you need to say in order to move on.  Accept what comfort randos give you.

1. Sometimes, It’s Easy

I hinted to this one earlier in #4, but it’s true.  Writing about yourself can be easy.

Copying is terrible, since it’s basically cheating if you don’t cite (and sometimes if you do). However, you can copy your own life and no one will give a crap.  No one’s going to ban you from art school for writing about yourself and taking credit for it.  And, yet, it’s kind of like copying a story from a known source!

So use your life as a cheat sheet.  Write what you know doesn’t just improve your quality – it can also just give you an easy time.

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Have you shared personal stories or updates on your website?  Have you found any additional bonuses or – perhaps – downsides to sharing your own life story?  Tell me about it in the comments!

Worldbuilding in Fiction – Geography 1: Maps

While setting usually doesn’t make a story in and of itself, a well-defined setting that is fitting with its plot can make a story far more rich and engaging. At the same time, a poorly thought out story can confuse readers as to locations, distance, and travel.

One book with fantastic geographical features, a well-thought out set of locations, and gorgeously written pieces on travel and setting is Watership Down by Richard Adams. A classic novel written for children but enjoyable on a different level for adults, Watership Down follows a set of male rabbits as they leave their home warren in search of a new one.

So why praise this book, a book about anthropomorphic rabbits, on its geography? Don’t many fantasy books have maps and plans and fantastic journeys? Does not the average fantasy writer have a much wider variation of settings, with grander and more pointed importance?

Perhaps. But what Adams does in Watership Down is make the journey come to life. The obstacles that are carefully and purposefully placed are intrinsically important to the story. The lay of the land, the placement of roads and railroad tracks, the idea of the existence of an ocean, and the presence of enemy forces are all important to the way the story plays out. It’s one of those stories that feels like the place existed before the plot.

So how can this lesson be applied?

Even if a reader won’t keep up with exactly all the directions and landmarks of a place, they can keep up with whether or not your travel times make sense. If you travel between the same two places and take half the time in one instance, there better be a reason!

It is easy to forget, though. A reader can focus on the inaccuracies in subjects they care about, whereas the writer must be concerned with inconsistencies in every realm. One way to make your geography and travel make more sense as you write is to make a to-scale map to help remind you.

Making A Rough To-Scale Map

A functional map doesn’t need to be very in-depth, just have a rough outline and enough room to write details as you figure them out.

If you have already written your story, it’s always a nice idea to make a map to be certain that your geography was consistent. Read over your work and take notes like “Main character traveled from the city to the village in 2 hours.” Collect all geographic information you can. Below is a table of cities and travel times that I came up with for a modern setting.

Travel Time in Minutes by Car

New Alcaran Karlotte Port Rumber Davistown
New Alcaran 38 89
Karlotte 38 51 46
Port Rumber 89 51 18
Davistown 46 18

In your book, you may not have so many details concerning your cities or places. Don’t worry, that’ll be fine. You’ll have more leeway to change up your places and positions.  If you have as much data as I have above, you’ll easily be able to tell if your story’s geography makes sense – you’ll see why later – but you won’t be able to adjust and make a different map.

Gather Your Materials

To make a useful map that makes sense, you can take a long time measuring distances (take the travel times above, figure out a scale with a ruler), or you can cheat with the following materials:

  • Materials for Map MakingPushpins – the number of these should match the number of locations on your map.
  • Wide rubber bands – the amount of these could vary depending on the distances and amount of data you have, so I suggest having more than you think you’ll need.  I guess you could also use string, but you’d have to tie knots and that could mess up your scale and be tedious.
  • Ruler – to help you determine the scale
  • Scissors
  • Paper(s)
  • A bulletin board would be nice, but I’m cheap and lazy and just used a couch (don’t tell anyone…).
  • Permanent Marker, Pencil and Pen
  • Scanner and GIMP or Photoshop if you want to make it pretty later

The first batch of steps is determining the scale.

  1. Label your pushpins using the permanent marker so you can identify which landmark or city is which.  I numbered mine 1 through 4.
  2. Cut the rubber bands so that they’re flat strips rather than curved bands.
  3. Choose the two landmarks with the largest distance between them.  Poke each of these pushpins through the ends of a rubber band.
  4. Measure the distance between the center of the two pushpins with a ruler.  Divide the distance by travel time (see note at the bottom of the page for multiple travel methods) to get your scale.  Calculate the length of each trip in rubber-band-distance by multiplying this number with the travel time (as seen in the table above).  You’ll come up with a new table like this one.  My scale was 19 cm/89 minutes.
    Rubber Band Distance in Centimeters

    New Alcaran Karlotte Port Rumber Davistown
    New Alcaran 8.1 19
    Karlotte 8.1 10.8 9.8
    Port Rumber 19 10.8 3.8
    Davistown 9.8 3.8
  5. Cut pieces of rubber band so that your trips are the right length.  For instance, I cut an 8.1 cm rubber band for New Alcaran to Karlotte.  Then, poke the two appropriate pushpins through the rubber band.  You may end up with some pushpins that have collected several rubber bands.
  6. You’ll have what looks like a mess of rubber and pushpins.  Choose one of the pushpins connected to your longest rubber band and poke it through your piece of paper.  Push the other end of the longest band into the paper, keeping it taut (or, if your travel must necessarily wind, leave it appropriately loose).  Here it is helpful to have a bulletin board so your pushpins will stay in place in your piece of paper.
  7. From there, take a connecting pushpin and extend so the rubber band is taut but not forcefully stretched and push it into your piece of paper.  Keep going until all the pushpins have been inserted.  You can rearrange to get everything onto one page, or just add paper to use multiple pages in a pinch.

Push Pin MapSo, as you can see to the left, what I made was pretty simple – only four landmarks, or cities, as per my plan.  More cities will take more time and be more confusing, but it can be sorted out.  These towns worked out nicely, with taught lines between them.

This is also where you’ll find out if your geography makes sense or not.  If you have any three cities that connect with each other, your bands will form a triangle.  However, you may experience floppy lines that you can’t get rid of.  Why?

The rule for triangles is that the lengths of two sides added together must be longer than the remaining side.  So, let’s say that my Port Rumber to New Alcaran rubber band length was 20 cm.  This is longer than the sum of Port Rumber to Karlotte and New Alcaran to Karlotte, or 19.9 cm.  If I don’t want to add ‘difficult terrain’ or have my cities be in a straight line, I’ll need to re-think my travel distances.

You may have cities with only one connection, so you can move those around until you have what you want.  If in the end you have nice, straight lines, everything makes sense and you can continue to the next step.

The next set of steps are how to draw your map and have more than just a piece of paper with holes in it.Map Scan

  1. If you have a lot of connections, consider drawing penciled lines beneath your connecting bands.  That way you have a nice guide once the pins are gone.
  2. Pull out your pushpins and, using a pen or pencil (pencil can be erased, so I’d go with that), draw the coastlines, rivers, roads, and any other feature that you think important for your map.
    (You can depart from what you saw exactly with the rubber bands – in fact, natural barriers make it preferable for humans to build curving roads!  You can see a scan of what I drew to the right, complete with a few leftovers of what was on the back of the page.)
  3. Get a new sheet of paper and poke new holes if you don’t like what you come up with and can’t erase it all.
  4. If you want to stop here, label your pushpin holes with city names and call it a day.
  5. If you want to make your map pretty, scan in your lines to the computer or ink them with a pen.

Making Your Map Pretty

You can try inking your page and carefully drawing your letters, which is a good option and can lead to some gorgeous maps, but I’m not going to detail that process here.  You can take some ideas from my computerized process into account, though.

I have Photoshop CS6 because my company has a contract that allowed me to get it without paying from my own pocket, but you can achieve the same quality of work using the free program GIMP.

Map LabelsIn Photoshop, I opened my scanned sheet and shrunk it down to make a smaller file (and a smaller photo to work with for a website space).  After that, I added a new layer (CTRL+Shift+N for those on PCs).  On this new layer, I used a 1-px black brush to follow the outline of the coast.  You can alternatively use color selection on the background layer to re-draw your coasts or roads, but this act can give you the chance to make a more detailed coast or fix some of the problem areas on your map.

I then added another layer, switched the brush to orange, and drew in the roads.  If I were actually going to use this map, I might consider adding a few more roads to nowhere, perhaps making up a few random towns as I went.

Anyway, after that, I made the labels using the text function, then the key by making a straight line of the appropriate color next to my labels.  After that, I cropped the picture to cut off the edges, made a new layer underneath that was white, and deleted the old background to get rid of all the trash from the backside of my paper.  Map Colored

You can stop here, or you can add color or more details.  I suggested above to put your roads and coasts on a different layer because, here, you can copy the coast and paste to a new layer.  This will allow you to select either land or sea to mess with.  You can use the magic wand to select, for instance, just the land pieces.  From that, you can use brushes however you want and not worry about coloring outside the lines.

You can see to the right that I chose to make Port Rumber and New Alcaran port towns on the coastlines.  I used green round brushes with 60% opacity to make the trees around New Alcaran, then 100% opacity left slanted brush to make the eastern shrubbery color.  100% opacity gray brushes created the city color.

For the ocean, I paint bucketed blue then used the magic wand to select the ocean.  For a quick wavy look, I filtered in the oil paint effect then blurred it just enough that you couldn’t tell that’s what I’d done.  Spending more time on this could have given you a better look, but I think that’s pretty good considering the effort I gave it.

All told, this took me about an hour.

You can also make these maps look old, or give them a photographic feel (I have an example of this below).  This will probably take significantly more time, but it can feel rewarding once a major effort is complete.

Now… I didn’t make up these distances.  I copied the driving times from Google maps for four cities in the San Francisco Bay Area and, from that, constructed my map.

Map Side by SideSo, as you can see, if you have appropriate travel distances when you make your rubber bands, your distances between your towns on paper will be roughly what they have to be.  If your map cannot work, you may want to make some changes to your geography to keep everything aligned.

Making Your Maps Super Pretty

I’ve made several maps.  Below, see a world map I made to go with my novel. I tried to give it a futuristic feel.  Whereas the above took me an hour, this took me several.  I find this to be my prettiest, so that’s why it’s here.

World Map

I’ve also made other maps for a more fantastical setting, with older appearance.  It’s one of my favorite parts of worldbuilding, so I hope you can enjoy map-making too.

Notes

What if your travel times aren’t all the same?  For instance, what if your characters are flying on dragonback between two landmarks, but riding camels between a couple of others?  You can take that into account with your scale.  Divide the speed of the ‘normal’ (or most common) travel method by your second travel method to get your relative speed.  To get the length of your rubber band, multiply your travel time by your scale (described earlier) and then by your relative speed.  Here I’ve tabulated the speeds of several common travel methods.  Unfortunately, you’ll have to determine the airspeed velocities of dragons and unladen swallows on your own time.

Transportation Method Speed in mph Speed in kph Notes
Ships
WWII Era Aircraft Carrier 37.4 60.2 Other battleships in the group can be estimated at the same speed
Modern Era Aircraft Carrier 38.7 62.2 Other battleships in the group can be estimated at the same speed
Modern Ocean Liner 25 40
Spanish Galleon 9.2 14.8 As in pirate ships
The Mayflower 2 3.2 Other old sailing ships
Land Vehicles
Car on Highway 65 104.6
Car in Cities 25 40.2
Steam Engine Train 78 125 Technological developments may alter this. Estimate for late 1800’s.
Electric Train 300 482 Technological developments may alter this.
Subways 33 52
Bicycle 15.5 24.9
WWII Era Tank 28 45 M4-Sherman
Modern Era Tank 45 74.2 M1-Abrams
Aircraft
Commercial Jet 591 951
Modern Fighter Jet 1385 2228 F22-Raptor
WWII Era Fighter Plane 400 643 P51-Mustang
Horses
Horse, Walking 6 9.6 Normal horses for long distance
Horse, Trotting 8 12.8 Like fancy walking, but less sustainable
Horse, Gallop 28 45 Only over short distances
Horse, Ambling 15 24 Sustainable over long distance, but only select breeds
Horse with Wagon 3 4.8
Humans
Walking 3.1 5
Jogging 6 9.6
Running 12 19.3

Note: This was published by me in June 2015, way before I was trying hard with the blog.  I think this post could be useful for way more people than the 2 I think read it before, hence why I decided to post this again.

Don’t Quit – You Didn’t Mess Up Your Blog!

I’ve blogged seriously for long enough to have done several dirty deeds, yet somehow I’m at what I find to be a satisfying position regarding growth and participation.  So how did I come back from blog-killing mistakes?  There’s a key lie in that question:

There are almost no blog-killing mistakes.*

you right about that sugar

Here’s some hints to handle some of the boo-boo’s and uh-oh’s that come around.

I Accidentally Turned My Comments Off for Like A Week!  How Do I Survive?

I just got through this mess – and Lord knows it ain’t fun.

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If you’re lucky, you’ll have friends who’ll take the time to make the way over to your contact page (MAKE ONE IF YOU HAVEN’T) and submit something on that little form.

If you’re just starting out or your readers are on the new/untested side, you might want to schedule a check to make sure your comments are on your new posts.

Right now, you can check each article by clicking on ‘more options’ on the post maker and finding the “Allow Comments” checkbox.

WP Comments

Unless you’re really neck deep in trolls and hackers, do a double check before you post.  It’s way easier to comment if the comments are on!

Oh Snap – My Post Didn’t Make the Reader!

Sometimes this happens, and I’m not even sure why.  Most of the time it’s because you accidentally backdated your post so that it appears on the reader last year or something silly.  Sometimes blogging software is like, “Screw it, just not going to work.”

But that SUCKS.  Having your post not make the reader is about the same as missing a post entirely – and if you’ve been looking at any how to blog help articles, you know that consistency is important.

But don’t panic.

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There are some silver linings to this. First, a post not making the reader doesn’t mean your post was bad.  You can try to rescue it.

If you want to rescue it now, make a copy of the post, check all the settings, and publish it.  Take down the old post so people don’t think you’re spamming (and so comments don’t get strewn around), then leave a note explaining potential email shenanigans to your readers.  You should still get most of the benefits of the original post with only a trifle more effort.

Something else you can do?  You can easily mark that post to reblog again on a later date.  With so few people seeing the post, you should be able to publicize it again without seeming lazy.

And those people who still read your blog post anyway?  Well, it means someone loves you.

Why Are Other People Politically Idiots!?

Tip one: stay out of politics if it’s not your professed thing (oops, I suck at that).  But, you know, sometimes you just gotta get some dip and speak the truth:

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And those fools out there just don’t understand!  Still, the best thing to do is to ignore it or block them.  Here’s how you can do that: Go to Settings, then click the Discussion tab.  Scroll down to Comment Moderation.

Capture

You can also block annoying people without political aspirations like I have (I reserve the rights to moderate anyone with the words ‘sexy,’ ‘id,’ ‘.website,’ and ‘.ru’ in their names, comments, or URLs – this has blocked quite a few annoying spammers, actually).

The bigger problem is if someone is being real mean to you.  Do you ban them?  Try to ignore it?  Or do you spread dirt around about them?

Just ban them like an ordinary spammer.  There’s nothing you can do to make yourself look like the winner of an argument like that.  Who knows – that person may even be popular or influential, and you don’t want to tick off your mutual friends.

But, you know, what if you’re the person spouting stuff and getting banned?

Well… you’re gonna have to get off that high horse.

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There are a couple things you can do to save yourself if you say something obtuse:

  1. Ignore it and DON’T KEEP STOKING THE FIRE.  Wait and see if the blog author thought it was funny too, or if it’ll slide away unnoticed…
  2. Apologize privately if you can, publicly if you can’t.  This will let the person know you recognize the mistake.  As long as you’ve not been mean in the past, they’ll probably understand the limitations of written word and forgive you.
  3. If you can’t stand letting them win, write up the argument in a document you’ll save on your computer and NEVER POST.  Once you take the bait, you run the risk of becoming a target.

As far as I’m aware, the goal of most writing bloggers isn’t to win arguments – it’s to meet people, improve our craft, and create a community.

But I guess if your goal is to put the smackdown on as many people as possible, go for it?

Have You Nearly Killed Your Blog?

What’s happened on your blog that made you want to quit?  Is there anything frustrating that you wish could be done better?  Let me know in the comments – maybe I or someone will know some work arounds!

*You may be able to kill your blog if you do something illegal or so distasteful that you get permabanned.  Be reasonable, folks.

5 Tips on How to Use WordPress Tags, Categories, and the Reader

WordPress has a lot in common with other social media outlets in that you use things like tags, but there’s also categories, which seem so similar!  If you’re new to WP, it becomes pretty obvious that the help pages don’t really give you much to work with.  That’s why I decided to write this, even though many people will think these tips old hat.

In this series on how to get the most out of your WordPress writing blog (for beginners!), I’ve already shown you some ways to get yourself motivated and find communities.  In this post, I’m getting a little more nitty-gritty with a few technical details concerning how WordPress works.  So strap in and put your thinking caps on!

5. Use The BEST Tags First

Take a gander at your WordPress reader.  (If you’re super new, you can find your reader by scrolling to the top of almost any WordPress site and clicking ‘Reader’ or the newspaper icon.) Here’s a pretty typical Reader entry with the tags circled:

tags

This person may have used more than three tags, but three is what will show up on the reader.  Because these are the ones that will show up, you should choose the best ones first.

If you’re into writing, here’s some hints:

  1. Choose a wide-reaching tag: Writing, #amwriting, creative writing, poetry, poem, and fiction are good ones to include.
  2. Show  your reader a little more about specifics: Get down into genre!  Use things like science fiction, memoir, fantasy, literary, tanka, or haiku to show a more detailed description of your post.
  3. Link to Others’ Blogs: If you are participating in a prompt or tag game, it can often be good to look at what people use to denote that.  For instance, I often participate in the Carrot Ranch prompt and so put the tag “Carrot Ranch” on those posts.  Look at your prompt and some of the other responses to the prompt to see if there’s a way to connect with that tag.
  4. Get Really Specific: If you aren’t participating in a prompt, your third tag should be something very specific so your story can look unique.  For instance, this post has ‘how to’ as its third tag, which lets you know that this is intended to help.  I’ve used things like ‘Steampunk’ before or ‘#CountVlad,’ which includes the hashtag for the rare and unlikely case that I can start a Twitter fad.

To get an idea which tags you might want to use, click on some of the tags from posts you’ve liked.  The point of tags, in WordPress’s viewpoint, is to help show useful blogs and posts to other people. It’s like hashtags on Twitter that help organize and collate similar information.

4. Use Categories for Self-Organization

Categories are shown on your post, but they’re not the same thing as tags.  Whereas tags help WordPress show your blog post to others, categories help you build pages.  You can link to your categories, like this one to my Flash Science Fiction in category:

Science Fiction

You can also add your categories to a menu using the ‘menus’ option in your dashboard (yourblog.wordpress.com/wp-admin/).  Here’s a picture of how you do this in January 2019:

menus

If you decide to use a category as a part of your menu, that part of your blog will automatically update when you add a new blog entry with that category.  So, if you want to have a category ‘short stories,’ the category will add to that page, like a blogroll, anything that includes the category.  It’s super handy if you don’t want to be always updating a page.

3. Decide on Categories Early!

When you first start out, decide well what categories you want.  It gets really hard to perform this organization after the fact – adding categories to 300 posts isn’t fun!  Keep up with it from the beginning and it’ll be so much easier.

While it’s true that you can always add new categories, you’ll have to go through and manually add categories later.  For instance, it would have helped me a lot to have the categories ‘Short Story,’ ‘Flash Fiction,’ and ‘Poetry’ a lot earlier.  As it stands, I’d have to do a lot of work to go back and organize some of those into my posts (soon I’ll be announcing that the work is done… mwahaha).

So think well about your categories.  Make more than you think you’ll need – it’s easier to just ignore a category than it is to make one and implement it retroactively!

2. Use More Tags Than Three

So, we said above to put your best tags first.  But what about those other tags?

tenor

Those other tags can be super useful, too.  Let’s say you choose ‘writing’ for one of your first 3 tags, but you think ‘creative writing’ is also good.  Put ‘creative writing’ in your fourth or later slot – whenever people do searches in the reader, your post will come up in ‘creative writing.’

So if you use more tags, your post becomes more accessible in the search function.

1. Follow Yourself

I know what you’re thinking:

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It seems like cheating because you’re artificially inflating your follower numbers.  It seems weird because it’s not entirely easy to get to the page where you can follow yourself (the easiest way to find it the first time is to go to the bell in the upper right hand corner, find a link to one of your posts – like when it announces ‘Post is Live!’ – and click that.  You can then find the follow button under your site info on the left side of the page).  But trust me, it’s clutch.

If you follow yourself, the big benefit is you get to see what your post looks like to other people on the reader.  If you turn email-alerts on for your site, you get to see how your emails look (and, if you’re on the free plan, how bad that is).  If you made a mistake – like forgetting to name a post – it becomes obvious quickly and you can fix it.

Not only that, you’ll get to see your stuff right next to the things you read.  You’ll get to see if your categories are making sense, and you’ll be able to wonder, “Would I click on that if I didn’t write it?”

I did this simply because I wanted to know if it could be done.  Since then, though, I’ve definitely decided it was an awesome mistake.

***

Do you have any hints for how to make your experience with the reader better?  Tips for how to choose which blogs to follow? Got some tags you think are pretty legit? Tell us in the comments!

How Writing Prompts Can Help Your Blog

When you start a writing blog, there’s only a couple ways to start interacting with other writers and readers:

  1. Depend on people you already know to follow links to your blog
  2. Start using your blog to interact with other bloggers

If you’ve got #1 set because you’re a Twitter star, congrats!  That’s awesome!

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Most of us, however, have to (or want to) deal with #2, and a great way to do that is through the use of prompts.

If you’re not convinced, keep reading – otherwise, scroll down to find a list of active prompts (curated by me and checked at least monthly for dead links).

Why Prompts?

“Aren’t prompts just limiting my creativity?” you may say.

To you, my fine friend, I must admit that it’s possible!  Sometimes I answer a prompt and feel like the sliver of garbage I spewed out would have been better left with my other thoughts that go completely forgotten.  You may, as well, be a person who isn’t blogging for interaction and, instead, want to just have a place to send your mom when you come up with something.

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Ah, mom.

But prompts can give you an in on something it’s hard to find otherwise – other great blogs.  Just reading some of the responses to the prompt – usually in the comments – can lead you to other blogs to follow.  You can comment on these blogs and start talking with people.  Most of the blogs I follow were found by sifting through prompts and finding some of the authors I enjoyed reading most.

As well, you can respond to the prompt.  If you leave a comment along with all the others, a permanent link to your blog will show up on another page – a page that probably has more viewers than a fresh, new blog does!  Other people may take a liking to your work if they click on it, and they may leave comments for you.

A lot of the prompt-followers are some of the most die-hard bloggers, and that’s something you’ll want in your back pocket to encourage you during the hard times when the blog isn’t growing and giving your brain those sweet, sweet dopamine hits.

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Select Prompts

Unfortunately, I cannot cover all the bases – if I could, I would probably be a computer!*  Anyway, here are some blogs that post prompts and a brief description of how those work. Prompts on hiatus and legacy prompts are listed at the bottom.

BlogBattle

1,000 word stories for this monthly challenge!  New challenges appear on the First Tuesday of every month.

Carrot Ranch

99 words – no more no less – for this amazing Thursday flash fiction prompt based off a word or small group of words.  This blog gives you everything: a large community with a tight-knit feel, a round-up based on a submission form, and even a yearly competition.

Crimson’s Creative Challenge

A smaller writing challenge blog that’s just starting out (as of January 2019), join this if you want to grow with the site.  It’ll probably do great, since it’s attracting several microinfluencers.

dVerse Poets

A set of poetry prompts that comes out on a well-defined schedule.  Tons of people join in, so it’s a great place for poets to go for extra challenges.

Eugi’s Causerie I

A phrase or word is used for inspiration with Eugi’s weekly prompt. Any format or type is acceptable here. Quickly growing popular!

Fandango’s One Word Challenge and Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge

#FOWC, well established, is a moderately popular challenge.  This one gives you a word that must be used in the post.  No word limits on this one!  Curation is done through tags.

Similarly, the Flash Fiction Challenge (#FFFC) has no word limits, but there is a photo to spur your creativity.  Thanks to MyForeverBlog for pointing this one out!

Fiction in a Flash Challenge

A challenge without many constraints, Suzanne Burke’s Fiction in a Flash Challenge also showcases different writers in the prompt post itself. Just as an aside: the link will bring you to the contest category of Burke’s page, but she shares every response with a reblog and you may have to search a while for the prompt page itself.

Frank J. Tassone’s Haikai Challenge

I’ve seen some fantastic entries for this syllabic poetry challenge that goes live every Monday. The current set of regular participants are some very high quality writers, so join in!

(You’ll need to follow Frank J. Tassone to easily find the challenge, or you’ll need to use this link to find the challenges. His blog isn’t organized for you to easily find the challenges – otherwise I’d have gotten this link up earlier!)

Friday Fictioneers

Limit your tales to 100 words as you respond to a photo prompt.  Uses an In-Linkz linkup to quickly show you who else has posted that week.

Imprompt Prompts (On Hiatus 8/1/2020)

A daily  prompt site with very light curation. Participants and friends do comment, but it’s very low pressure. This is great for people who might not want a community to join so much as a challenge.

Linda G. Hill Prompts

Linda G. Hill has the weekly Stream of Consciousness Saturday and One-Liner Wednesday.  There is the monthly Coloring challenge, and Just-Jot-It Januaries happen throughout the month of January each year.

Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie

A different kind of prompt with different rules appear nearly every day on this site!  If you don’t know what kind of prompt you want to do, this is a good place to play around.

On-Line Writer’s Guild

A list of three prompts that you can mix and match between – try to get all three if you can! This prompt has been rather long-lived, so you can depend on the creator of the OLWG to keep you going.

Putting My Feet in the Dirt

Putting My Feet in the Dirt gives a new prompt for every day by posting a monthly plan on the first of the month.  At the end of the month, Michelle Cook organizes your posts for a round-up.

Reena’s Exploration Challenge

A phrase or word prompt that has no word count or format rules.  Currently a smaller set of regular respondents – join this if you want to get into a tight community, and follow Reena regardless because of her raw talent!

Ronovan Writes Haiku Challenge

A Monday prompt for Haikus!  A rather popular prompt to follow, this one will get you started well on poetry prompting.

Six Sentence Story

A Thursday prompt word sparks a story measured in sentences – not words or characters – which gives this prompt a rather interesting feel.

Six Word Story

A six word story including 1 word as a prompt? Wowza! This is harder than you’d think!

Song Lyric Sunday

Everyone’s been wanting it, and now it’s finally here! A music-based inspiration prompt! Curated and invented by the reliable Fandango.

Sunday Muse

A photo-based prompt that comes out every Sunday. Curated using Mr. Linky links. This might be a good one for WordPressers to get into, as it’s a BlogSpot blog and can introduce you to another world of writing fun! Thanks to Joem18B for pointing this out to me!

Sunday Whirl

A weekly wordle to get you inspired. Curated by a Mr. Linky.

Tanka Tuesday

A form poetry prompt every Tuesday, this prompt is great for beginning poets.  The community is friendly, and it’s big enough that someone is sure to stumble upon your stuff too!  Excellent instructions are provided, and the Mr. Linky curation is easy.

Teensy Writing Contest

A seasonal contest wherein authors write something aimed at children.  There tends to be prizes!  Thanks to Chelsea Owens for pointing this one out.

Three Line Challenge

A 100-word flash challenge that must be completed in three lines – no more no less!  This is a photo challenge that posts on Thursdays.

Three Things Challenge (3TC)

A daily prompt that I see come on my feed quite often. Paula provides three words that may not seem related for you to weave into a quick tale.  (Previously run by The Haunted Wordsmith).

Twiglets

A short phrase or smattering of words is given on Tuesdays.  Respond with something short and sweet.  Moderately well-followed, curated through comment sharing.

VJ’s Weekly Challenge

VJ makes a Monday post talking about life and winds it up with a related prompt.

Weekend Writing Prompt

Sammi Cox’s Saturday prompt is great because the word length always changes.  The community is still growing, but the prompts are solid.

Weekly Smile

A weekly challenge posted on Thursdays by Trent on Trent’s World.  Response posts must be dedicated to things that make you smile.  Well curated, and VERY positive. Thanks to Marsha Writes for pointing out this challenge.

Word of the Day Challenge

A daily prompt that gives a single word as a thought provoker.  Also posts the Kira’s Sunday Scribbles (mentioned above).

Yeah Write Challenges

A set of true contests, one of which has a cash prize, winners of the various challenges are announced weekly.  Uses InLinkz software to collect submissions.

#writephoto

A popular Thursday photo prompt with excellent curation.  A ton of people participate, so you’ll be seen out and about on this fantastic blog.

50 Word Challenge

This page is hard to navigate; to find the most recent challenge, you’ll need to have some reading glasses on and scroll through the recent posts on the left side of the page.  However, every Thursday a new prompt from Kristian surfaces, and the participants seem to have fun!  The Haunted Wordsmith makes roundups.

On Hiatus

On Hiatus prompts are those that have missed 3 or more predicted prompt postings (or a month without a post, if it’s a monthly or biweekly posting) when I check up on them.  The dates are the dates I decided to move them into the Hiatus category, not the dates they went on Hiatus.

Kira’s Sunday Scribbles (On Hiatus 9/6/2020 – Will go legacy after 10/1/2020 with no changes)

A picture drawn by Kira for your inspiration!  Give a story or poem based off the art given.

Legacy

Legacy prompts are those prompts that have either been on hiatus for a couple months without indication of return, or those prompts which announced an end date.  They are saved here for posterity’s sake and may return to active use if the author chooses to update them. However, I won’t check these links as often – if your prompt is in here and you need it taken out, give me a comment.

Aether Prompts (Legacy as of 8/7/2019)

An weekly image prompt that theoretically had a real (real!?) prize for the best speculative fiction story at the end of the year. These stories were short enough (100 words) to fit on the image prompt – I suggest looking at past entries and winners!

Capture a Critter (Legacy as of 06/09/2020)

A writing prompt based off animals! A very cute idea that deserves a bit of love. Thanks to Chelsea Owens for finding this one! Went legacy because I think all the links died.

Daily Inklings (Legacy as of 9/20/2019)

If you were to look at these prompts as a Wheel-of-Fortune category, you’d get something like ‘common phrases’ or ‘weird things.’  These prompts can be any form of writing – it just asks for a blog post, not necessarily a story or a poem.

Don Massenzio’s Stock Photo Challenge (Legacy as of 7/21/2019)

A sadly short-lived photo challenge. The photos are all royalty free, so you can feel good that research has been done to give you something you’re allowed to use.

Flash Fiction Challenge

Joanne the Geek sponsored this monthly challenge.

Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers (Legacy as of 1/2019)

Ending in January 2019, this epic, long-lived photo challenge series still exists in the form of a flash-fiction archive.  Even though it’s over, you can still comb it for inspiration.

Foto Flash Fiction Challenge (Legacy as of 6/9/2020)

An In-Linkz curated flash fiction challenge for stories of 500 words or less. The blogger is mostly a photoblogger, so the link still has some interesting places to go.

I Write Her Weekly Haiku/Senryu Challenge (Legacy as of 3/1/2020)

Using only a haiku or senryu, respond to an intriguing stock photo.  New challenges every Tuesday.  I think this one looks hard, so go here if you want to stretch your abilities!

Just Start Writing (Seems to keep going on and off Hiatus, but went back on 3/26/2020 and is currently legacy)

A prompt on most Mondays for 200-250 word works of any genre.

Menage Monday

A contest for flash fiction between 100 and 250 words with a rotating judgeship. The prompts are a combination of picture, phrase, or words, depending on what the judge wants. Winners will be touted on Twitter or other social media. Contest only lasts one day, though – Monday – so get those writing engines revved!

Peter Wyn’s Writing Prompts (Legacy as of 8/1/2020)

An eclectic sort of writing prompt that died in its cradle

Speculative Writing Challenge (Legacy after a somewhat confusing, sputtering end)

A monthly challenge with a wide variety of prompt types.

Sunday Photo Fiction (Legacy as of 6/30/2020, though I should have realized far earlier)

A 200-word-or-less story based on a provided photo.  Popular around the town!

Tell Tale Thursday (Legacy as of 8/21/2019)

In-Linkz curated prompt for fiction up to 250 words.

Terrible Poetry Contest (Legacy as of 5/2020)

No, it’s not just about writing poetry poorly – it’s also about writing a poem with a terrible subject, like crappy bosses or other poopy things.

Time to Write (Legacy as of 11/17/2019)

Rachel Poli’s popular, and you’ll get prompts with a lot of variety from her site.  It’s a little more difficult to see comments and get involved, but they’re great prompts nonetheless.

Tuesday Photo Challenge (Legacy as of 8/1/2020)

A VERY popular prompt set, this would be a great place to jump in to generate hoopla quickly.  Run by a photographer, you’re sure to get great prompts.

Twittering Tales (Legacy as of 9/6/2020)

A picture prompt that requires a response so short that it’s Tweetable!  A really popular prompt, and one you can use to expand your presence on Twitter as well as WordPress.

Wacky Weekend Challenge (Legacy as of 4/6/2019)

This prompt was run by the Dark Netizen.  Check out his blog and follow in case he revamps the challenge!

What Do You See? (Link removed because it started taking me to weird places)

A weekly photo prompt where you can write anything you want (within reason, of course!) in response.  Curation is done through pingbacks/comments.

What Pegman Saw (Legacy for sure as of 6/20/2020)

Unlike any other prompt I’ve come across!  This one chooses a location on Google Maps and encourages you to take tours and write about the place.

Write Now (Legacy as of 5/20/2020)

Though not yet very well followed (at least not on WP), the posters are regular and happen to sport a very nice-looking site.  The prompts come in the form of phrases.

(5) Word Weekly Writing Challenge (Legacy as of 3/13/2019)

Challenge responses must contain all FIVE words given in the prompt, but you aren’t limited to poetry, prose, or (unless self-imposed) word count.  Prompts are posted on Mondays.

100 Word Wednesday (Legacy as of 11/17/2019)

A photo based prompt, 100 Word Wednesday is a mid-week prompt from Bikurgurl.  Use tags 100WW or #100WW to help people find your response.

See you around!

So come along, choose a prompt – or two! – and join in.  If you join one of the prompts I participate in, you’ll probably see my little icon slithering around the comments on your site!

*HRR is, sadly, not a computer as of 6 September 2020.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this fateful transformation has occurred prior to your current reading.

5 Devious Ways to Improve Your Writing

I’ve written as a hobby for a long time – as such, I’ve had a lot of inspiration from friends, family, people on the internet, and (a few times) teachers. I’m not formally trained in linguistic arts, so I try to keep the best tidbits of advice close at hand whenever I put my fingers to my keyboard.

5. Comma Rules on Coordinating Conjunctions

When I was a freshman in high school, I found out that my elementary and middle education had been sorely lacking in grammar. I taught myself parts of speech and some other pieces of basic grammar, but as a sophomore I got a red-inkedCommas paper back from my teacher that showed just how lacking my skills with grammar were. I got a book from my teacher and taught myself one of the most easily forgotten and easily broken comma rules.

The rule states that if a sentence has two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction, it needs to have a comma before that conjunction.  Just as importantly, if one of those clauses is dependent, the comma should *not* be there.

I wrote an entire series on my favorite comma rules, complete with examples, mnemonics, and other goodies.  If comma rules are something you’d like to brush up on, these are some of the most easily forgotten and useful rules.

Click here to go to my first of a series of comma articles

4. Minor Characters Can Enhance a Story – Or Bog it Down…

justice_league_unlimited_primary

Justice League Unlimited – somehow I liked it, but wow… terrible idea.

In high school English, I had a teacher who made the class spend a long time focusing on how Beowulf, titular character of the English epic, made certain to pay tribute to the poor sod who had to remain with and guard his ship.  With that one action, in just a small stanza, Beowulf’s honor and concern for the common man is accentuated.

When minor characters serve as foils, drive the plot, or serve to embellish a main character’s traits, they are extraordinarily useful.  Minor characters can have as much depth through what is left out as what is written plainly.  Named or unnamed, minor characters add a richness and depth that you can’t get without them.

At the same time, I’ve beta read and edited enough books to know that there are ways to overuse minor characters.  One book I read introduced a named character approximately every 1,000 words, and in a 100,000 word story, it became entirely untenable.  It was impossible for the writer to do justice to each of the characters with so little time dedicated to any of them.  If a character is invented just to show off an item, have a magical skill, or sit around being pretty, they may be better off excised from the story.

3. The Hidden Way to Indicate a Speaker During Dialogue

group of people in a meeting

If you’ve followed my site for a while, you may remember that I am an engineer by trade.  I learned this technique very late in the game, so I’m pretty sure it’s not obvious.  I even made a more detailed post about it here.  There are three ways to indicate speaker: directly tagging, back-and-forth with no tags, and interspersing with action.

Direct tagging serves a great purpose and makes it easy for the reader to pick out the speaker with almost no effort.  This is the way that you learned in grade school, and it should definitely still be in your repertoire.

Using actions around your dialogue adds another dimension to your writing and makes it more interesting for your reader.  The reader forgets that you’re telling them who said something and instead falls into your narrative.

Click here to read a more detailed article about dialogue.

2. How to Seek and Reduce Passive Voice

dr strangelove

Passive voice can be really useful, but it can also make a passage drag.  Being able to identify, assess, and change passive voice sentences tightens writing and draws a reader into the activity.  While passive voice has its uses, they are a bit more obscure (and for obfuscation!).

A quick and dirty explanation of passive voice sentences is a sentence where the actions are performed on the subject, and the subject seems to take a passive role.  I.e.

The dog was rewarded.

vs the active version:

I rewarded the dog.

Note that in the passive version, the actor – the person giving the reward – is completely missing.  If you want the focus off the true actor and onto the person receiving the action, that’s when you want passive voice.  It’s not quite as powerful or engaging for any other purpose, so identifying the voice and being able to change it is important.

For greater detail on passive voice, I wrote an article you can find here.

1. The Best Word Isn’t Always the Biggest Word

This is something I would have balked at before reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  It doesn’t just serve to use a word with more syllables or more arcane qualities.  The goal of writing is to communicate thoughts, not to impress people with your intellect.

Aim for clarity, precision, and ease.  Sure, you’ll probably use a couple words your readers won’t know just out of general differences in people’s vocabularies, but people in your target audience shouldn’t have to look up many words as they read your book.  Be wary – if people reading for fun have to work for it, it’s going to stop being fun.  Once a book stops being fun, people are much more willing to put it down.

For more on this topic, you can find an article here.

See you Around!

Hope you enjoyed this ‘Greatest Hits’ article!  Are there writing tips that have helped you through your ventures?  Any that you wish you’d known long before now?  Craft books that you love?  Pop that in the comments!  I’d love to find out more things that I need to learn!