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‘How-to’ Category

  1. Time to Get Spoopy!

    October 31, 2014 by Kiersi

    Time to Get Spoopy!

    Some Halloween-themed Writing Advice


    Work doesn't stop on Halloween

    Sione made me wear my bear pajamas to our co-working date

    Why, hello there, my spectral visitor. I hope you’re enjoying your All Hallow’s Eve, whether your activities include watching Kate & Leopold at home alone, romping around town in a bear costume, or trying to make it to three different parties in one night and still make it home at the end.

    In other SCARY NEWS, NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow.


    Actually, I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve decided what I’m working on, hashed out a plan of attack, and properly psyched myself out for Abandoning My Social Obligations and Spending A Lot Of Time At Home Alone Writing.

    Sorry in advance if I don’t make it to your birthday party. (more…)

  2. When’s the Best Time to Write?

    February 26, 2014 by Kiersi

    This post was originally published on the group blog, Publishing

    A couple of years ago, a writing instructor at a conference advised us on how to segment a day’s work for maximum effectiveness. He told us, “revise in the morning when you’re fresh, and write in the afternoon and evening, when you’re creative.”

    Ever since, I’ve wondered a couple things. Is he right? Is the morning really the best time to do methodical work—editing, revising, rewriting? And is the evening really the bright center of our creative minds?

    I came across the notion of segmented sleep a couple of years ago in an article by BBC News Magazine called “The Myth of the Eight Hour Sleep.” It cites a 90s study on natural human sleep patterns that may shed some light on when human minds are at their ripest for creative work. (more…)

  3. Why I Always Write Adventure Stories

    December 6, 2013 by Kiersi


    Growing up, my two favorite books were written by a not-necessarily-obscure, but-also-not-particularly-popular fantasy author named Mary Brown. These two books were Dragonne’s Eg, about a poor schoolteacher who receives a mysterious inheritance–but the stipulations of the inheritance include carrying a supposed dragon’s egg all the way back to China; and The Unlikely Ones, where a deformed girl and her talking animal companions, all the ex-slaves of a fearsome witch, go on a quest to fix themselves and return the witch’s stolen gems to a dragon.

    The not-so-surprising part, if you know me at all: they are both great journeys across great distances, and both end with dragons. Obviously, I also loved The Hobbit (also, not surprisingly, an adventure book involving dragons at the finish line), and definitely Song in the Silence (about a girl who goes so far as to fall in love with a dragon. Ballsy). I also really adore a non-fiction adventure autobiography called The Long Walk, about a man who escapes from a Russian gulag in Siberia and treks to safety in India. (An incredible book, if gritty and emotional and thrilling is your jam.)


  4. On Finding and Harnessing Your Creativity

    October 23, 2013 by Kiersi

    Creativity - Dorris McComics

    This post originally appeared on the networked YA blog, YA Stands, to which I am a semi-monthly contributor.

    The Greeks were the first to label what it means to be creative. The muse, they called it, because the sensation of creativity–the experience of creating–seems to originate outside our own corporeal forms.

    We feel passive in the process of creating, like vessels, or mediums, for the work of some external force. I hear myself saying this kind of thing all the time: “The story just wrote itself!” Our fingers touch the keyboard and they create of their own volition. (more…)

  5. Pushing Your Writing to the Next Level

    October 18, 2013 by Kiersi

    I could spend all day talking about the craft of writing. And, most of the time, that’s what ends up on this blog. I know. I’m like a broken record, with “scratch scratch, story arc, story arc, story arc” on endless repeat.

    But today I have one piece of writing advice to you. It’s easy and difficult at the same time, though I can convey it to you in one word:


    If you stay inside all day, fingers glued to the keyboard and a butt-shaped dent forming in your office chair, what have you got to write about? How do you write a good fight if you’ve never been in one? How do you write a good romance if you’ve never fallen in love?

    Go out. Meet people. Watch people. Ride a bike. Ride a skateboard. Lie in the grass in a park. Go on a blind date. Go to a new bar and strike up a conversation. Try a food you’ve never tried before.

    Join a volleyball team, even if you can’t play volleyball. Take a day trip. Take an overnight trip. Go hiking. Go camping. Go hunting.

    Visit a family member you haven’t seen in years. Ask strangers questions. Ride the bus.

    The experiences that influence my writing the most are the ones I didn’t expect. Reconnecting with an old friend and having it turn into something more; going out for dinner on a Tuesday night and not coming home until 3am, and having made five new friends; trying on clothes belonging to my friend who passed away, and marveling at how they fit perfectly (and then crying for a while); setting up a typewriter outside a coffee shop and showing kids who have never seen one before how it works.

    Have you ever done a really intense workout and felt lightheaded afterwards–almost high? I have this every time I experience something wild and interesting and new and emotional, out in the real world. When I’m recovered enough to slingshot into a desk chair, creativity pours out like my mucous during this last cold season. My muse lands on my shoulders and covers me with her huge, batlike wings, and my writing is metamorphosed. It has a fluid, airy quality to it; something whole and thick it didn’t have before.

    So go out. Try a Korean taco. Walk around in a new part of town. Introduce yourself to a stranger. Have a strong, loose-leaf tea instead of coffee. Push your writing to the next level.

    If you spend your whole life writing and none of it living, what will you have to write about?

  6. The One Secret Thing Every Reader Wants

    October 15, 2013 by Kiersi

    One finger pointing

    Photo by Jon Yates (flickr)

    I have a secret to share with you–a big one. One that will inform and change your writing from the word-choice level to the story arc level. A secret that the greatest authors hold dear: Margaret Atwood, J. K. Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut.

    As writers, we live inside the world we’ve made. We know it inside and out. When I write fantasy, I map everything: History. Geography. Culture. Famous figures. Politics. Monsters. Mountains. Every character has been born, lived, suffered, loved, and changed before the story even begins. They have an entire manuscript’s worth of back stories.

    And it’s hard, as a writer–when we’ve spent so much time making and shaping our world and our heroes–to hold it back. To keep all that colorful, beautiful, complicated world under a thumb while we write, only doling out what’s necessary. Because it’s so near and dear to us! Shouldn’t our readers also know what we know? Isn’t that the point of writing–to explore an idea, to breathe life into it through its inky mouth, to make our readers understand what we’ve known all along?

    So, here’s the secret:


    They don’t. And no, it’s not the point.

    They care, of course they do; some more than others. (I had an hour-long conversation with someone once about the entire Targaryen bloodline. Especially if you write fantasy, you will have some readers like this–but they are not a majority by a long shot.)

    But the less we tell them, the better. Sounds crazy, right? I mean, don’t we want them to feel encompassed by our world–wrapped up in it like their favorite baby blanket? Well, yes. But pouring out every detail of your world, page after page, won’t do the trick. The key is to only give readers the bare minimum.

    I ask myself these questions:

    1. What is the absolute minimum the reader needs to know to understand what’s happening now? Provide it. Paint a minimalist painting. Your reader is:

    – Imaginative

    – Intelligent

    – Clever

    (Some more than others, obviously, but as writers, we have a habit of giving readers far less credit than they deserve. Any blank spots in your description of that hideous beast, and I guarantee the image your reader conjures up will far surpass any verbal paint strokes you put on the page.)

    2. Are there certain things they don’t need to know right now? It’s perfectly acceptable (even encouraged) for readers to have a few, specific questions as they read.

    This specificity thing is key: the reader needs to know what it is that they don’t know. (Okay, now I sound like a crazy person. Bear with me.)

    For example: Two characters (A and B) are discussing a third character (C). We don’t know much about this third character. I’m going to let my two bigmouths give the reader a few important details: A and B are friends; C is an enemy. A, B, and C all go to school together. But we don’t know what C did to piss off A and B–we know something happened, and the fall-out is big, but because A and B were both present when it all went down, they’re not going to tell the reader (because, obviously, they were both there).

    And that’s all right! It’s good for the reader to have a couple of questions, as long as they know what question they’re asking, and that the question is eventually answered. Leaving out too many details leads to confusion–the reader feels like he’s stumbling around in the dark, because there are so many un-filled gaps. Give enough detail to paint a picture, but leave a hole to keep the reader interested and turning the pages. (Imagine a 20-dollar bill on a fishing line.)

    3. Is there anything obvious about the scene that can be skipped over or avoided? We’ve talked a lot about the bigger picture, but I want to get into the nitty-gritty, word level. Read the following (made up) quote:

    She danced just out of his reach, holding his phone at arm’s length like it smelled bad, and waved it around. “Cory’s got a girlfriend,” she teased. “Cory’s got a girlfriend and they’re in love!”

    “Cory’s got a girlfriend. Cory’s got a girlfriend and they’re in love!” This is about as “teasing” as dialogue can get. To go on and say, “she teased,” is not only unnecessary (here’s a whole post about staying clear of overly-creative dialogue tags)–but it can even make your reader feel condescended. Obviously she is teasing him. The prose starts to sound like a broken record. Let your dialogue speak for itself.

    So what’s the big secret? Readers want to be trusted. Readers want to imagine, to fill in the gaps themselves. Doesn’t it feel good when your boss or your friend leaves a task completely up to you? “I trust you to do this right.” Yeah! I’m competent! And my boss/friend/parent acknowledges that I’m competent. And your own creative spark takes off and blooms and you get to feel personal ownership for the result.

    Your readers are competent, too; they want to become a part of the story themselves. Trust them! Believe in them! Let their imaginations do the heavy lifting. Give them more credit than your instinct suggests. And, frankly, trust yourself. Trust your own dialogue and description and story structure to let in the right details–the minimum amount a reader needs to keep going. They’ll fill in the blanks. And they’ll feel good about it.

    Because, again: as fantastic as Margaret Atwood/Kurt Vonnegut/J. K. Rowling are, the things they don’t say are sometimes as powerful as the things they do. Words are nothing compared to the power of an imagination–they’re just the tools to unlocking it.

  7. The Parallel Lives of Beginnings and Ends

    October 10, 2013 by Kiersi

    riding into the sunset

    I had a post go up yesterday on YA Stands about “Preparing for National Novel Writing Month,” where I talked briefly about my outlining process. The most important thing I need to have in my head (or, preferably, down on digital paper) before I launch into a new manuscript? The beginning image of the story, and the ending image.

    I use this phrase “image” intentionally. I don’t think it’s necessary–at least in my process–to know all the details before diving into a first draft. But what I need to know is:

    Point A: Where the story begins. The tone, style, and voice; the immediate image I want to place in my reader’s mind.

    Point B: Where the story ends up–usually parallel to the opening image (Point A) in tone, style, and voice, but changed, now that the character and plot arcs are complete. If the story opens with a man riding into town on a horse, then it makes sense for him to ride out of town on a horse at the end. (Even better if he comes in at sunrise, and leaves at sunset.) He is, of course, not the same man he was before, as a result of his time spent in the town. (more…)

  8. Refining Your Voice with Journaling

    October 1, 2013 by Kiersi


    Photo by woodleywonderworks (flickr)

    A big part of every author’s quest–to agent, to publisher, to first and second and third book–is finding his or her own voice.

    In the writing world we talk about “voice” a lot, both when discussing individual books, and also about careers and an author’s career trajectory.

    Wikipedia calls voice an author’s “style.” When I think about authors whose voices I know, and know well–Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling–there’s more to it than just the style of writing. There’s a way in which the story is told that I notice, that stands out. The way in which the plot twists, the secrets unfold, the characters develop. Sure, I could easily recognize a paragraph from Harry Potter, even if all the character names were changed; but it’s also the cadence of Rowling’s writing. It’s the underlying creepiness of Stephen King’s (even in a decidedly non-creepy book like 11/22/63). It’s the total suspension of disbelief in Neil Gaiman’s. (more…)

  9. Dodging the Cliché Bullet

    August 6, 2013 by Kiersi

    Matrix Cosmo by Pargon (flickr)

    Nathan Bransford posted a great piece today about avoiding formulaic storytelling. The Save the Cat! beat sheet to which he refers has been recommended to me by a number of fellow writers, and for good reason: it’s a great way to create a basic novel structure. Here’s an example of what’s on the beat sheet. Let’s say you’re writing a 60,000-word middle-grade or young adult novel. You pull up the beat sheet, key in your target word count, and the sheet calculates some targets for you.

    1 Opening Image Sets the tone, mood, type, and scope of the project. A “before” snapshot.  1  2  1  600
    2 Theme Stated Secondary character poses question or statement to MC that is theme of the movie.  11  2,730
    3 Set-up Introduce or hint at every character in A story; plant character tics to be addressed later on.  1  22  1  5,460


    The great thing about it is that it gives you an overall sense of what should happen and when. Obviously (and as Nathan points out), you don’t need to follow this structure rigidly; it’s more like a checklist and set of general guidelines to keep your story on track.

    For example, “the Black Moment,” which is our main character’s darkest, lowest point, is slated to hit about two-thirds of the way through the book. The last third is reserved for the solution, climax, and merging of A and B storylines–e.g. the main storyline and the romantic sub-plot finally converge. (more…)

  10. Writing is a Professional Job

    July 11, 2013 by Kiersi

    "Businessman in an office" by Victor1558

    Photo by Victor1558, flickr

    Usually I spend this space discussing the nuts and bolts of writing. I like to talk about craft. I prefer, in fact, to discuss and share things I’ve learned as it relates to becoming a better writer. (The surest way to getting published and finding success is to, well, be a good writer.)

    But today, I want to talk about what it means to be a professional, why you should consider yourself a professional, and why you should be annoyed when anyone tries to treat you like you’re not.

    Writing is a professional job.

    Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Let me say that again: writing is a professional job. I do two kinds of professional writing: copywriting (for a variety of purposes, such as marketing initiatives, technical documentation, and website copy), and fiction writing. Both of those are professional-type jobs that require professionals to perform them correctly. (Many fiction writers start as amateurs, and that’s fine. But working with editors, delivering manuscripts on time, and listening to critique–that makes you a professional.) (more…)