Academic Writing vs. Fiction Writing.

Here recently I decided to take a series of college level online classes. Because why not. One of those ended up being English Composition I. Otherwise known as the ‘can I tear my hair out right now’ class.

I spend much of my time in the realm of words. I have a blog, I have an instagram page, I write stories, I journal. Between all of those things one would think that I would know how to write, or at least how to get my thoughts organized.

Yeah right.

Turns out that academic writing, or the infamous essay, is completely different from fictional writing (go figure). It is also different from my usual off the cuff blogging.

For one thing, there is no POV in academic writing. All of it is impersonal and if you ever say ‘you’ in the essay, you are doomed. It is considered unprofessional. In all honesty it is unprofessional, but is professionalism what I am going for in my blog posts? Only sometimes. Anyway, the point is there is no point of view. There are no characters, no plot, no tension to speak of. Unless of course it is an argumentative essay, and then the writer is bringing allll the tension to the table. *cacklesmadly*

I may or may not be writing about an extremely controversial topic for my essay. This is going to be fun.

Also, academic writing is so very, very, structured. Eheh. Yes, in fiction writing there is some structure. A plot is structure, and grammar, and punctuation. But here is the thing, I can break all of those rules in fiction, any time I want. And if I do it well enough, no one is going to care, or perhaps even notice. (looking at you Alexander Dumas)

In academic writing on the other hand, everyone is going to notice. Grammar or convention rules must be followed at all costs. Essays have a specific structure, so do paragraphs, so do sentences. There is enough structure in one 800 word essay to satisfy any outlining soul.

Can I die now? Rebellious writer over here, I find out what the rules are so I can break them.

However, in getting a crash course on paragraphs and essays (I promise did learn all of it in high school, I just promptly forgot it), was like learning to walk again. As I fussed over the way my paragraphs were lined up, it made sense why they were the way they were. There is something in my little brain that loves the organization inherent to academic writing. There is not much writers block, because you already know how things are supposed to be written, and laid out. I had an outline, and I followed it. It made certain things much, much easier.

I have a feeling what I am learning about academic writing will bleed into fiction writing as well. After all, those rules have been around for so long because they work. There is something aesthetically pleasing in having a well laid out essay. And when the paragraph works, there is not so much brain bending to be able to understand what the person is saying. Or trying to say.

So yes, academic writing is completely foreign to fiction writing. All the impersonal structure does not align itself well with good story writing. But writing it does help me to align my thoughts in an organized fashion, one that makes sense to other people besides myself.

Shaina Merrick

The Rebellious Writer: Talk to People

In the vein of being a rebellious writer, I have another piece of non-advice (as in a piece of advice that I am stating but not shouting on the top of my lungs) for all writers out there.

Talk to people. Do not bring your notebook with you. Bring yourself, and only yourself.

A very classy thing many writers are doing, or saying that they are doing, is bringing a notebook everywhere with them. The store, the party, the library. Everywhere! Some people take them for stray ideas that come in the most irritating places. Some people are actually working on their stories. Though I will admit it is a great excuse to hide my face from socializing. And one has the rush of ‘getting things done’. Here we are, multi tasking even at a social event!

My dear writing friend. Please leave the writing notebook at home. The things you will miss will far outweigh the words you gain.

Here recently I had the immense privilege of listening in on a conversation about a way of life far outside my own. I know the things I learned about cash crops will make its way into a novel. It was too interesting not to! Though I could have been sitting there surreptitiously writing down what they were saying. I chose not to. For one, I had left my notebook in the car, and for two, I would have lost the flow of the conversation if I had.

There may be people out there who can somehow listen and write at the same time, I am not one of those people. I can either listen, or I can write. Never the twain shall meet. I would have lost so much of that conversation if I had written things down. Things like facial expressions, hand gestures, and tones of voice. So much of human conversation is through non verbal gestures, what would I have missed if I had missed those cues?

I know that as a writer, there are some things I will have to give up and just not worry about. But writing while someone is talking, especially while I am in the conversation, is considered rude in many circles. Just about as bad as scrolling through a phone. Either way, the person is not paying full attention to the conversation. It irritates me to know end when someone is not listening to my words, how do other people feel when I pull out my notebook?

About a week ago I had a conversation with an extremely interesting person. I listened rapt to all of his experiences in working and life. We talking about education, and finding a job, among other things. Hello story ideas. And I never would have learned any of that, if I had kept my head buried in my own world.

People are interesting. But you will never know why unless you talk to them. Or if you listen to them. In the first example I mentioned, I spent the whole conversation listening. And that was all. I do realize that there are people who find starting conversations scary. After all, I am one of them.

Consider this a challenge to truly pay attention wherever you are and whatever you are doing. It doesn’t matter whether you are speaking or listening. I think the notebook, and the flurry of writing notes, is a distraction to the conversation going on.

Leave the notebook at home. Listen and interact with real life people. You will have ideas. Listening to people is one of the best ways I have found to get inspiration. Soak those interesting people in. Pay attention and find out their why’s, their motivations. After all, as writers we are trying to create characters who resonate with others, not just a quirky character who only exists to be quirky.

Shaina Merrick

Hello World!

Well hey guys! Did you miss me? (for my sake just pretend you did) I didn’t mean to have such a long break. But I went to the virtual Realm Makers, directed Vacation Bible School, and moved. I am still recovering.

But I have my own house! With a gorgeous view of the mountains that already has my imagination stirring. There is nothing like eating dinner with a view of a mountain range to get your story whirring.

Speaking of. I have a New Story Idea. It be amazing. And it has things that are near and dear to my heart. For now, I will be referring to it as COD. For reasons that make me laugh, and unknown to you. For now anyway.

So what is the point of this post? I dunno. To say hello to all my blogging buddies? To tell you all I moved and somehow figured out electric bills and setting up wifi all by myself?

Oh yeah. Realm Makers was amazing! Even though it was virtual, I still felt connected to all my writing friends. The classes were spot on, and the best part is, I get to listen to all of them!! I have the classes for an entire year, so instead of agonizing over which ones to go to and which ones to skip, and I can watch them all!!! Yay!

And because of all I have learned during Realm Makers, there may or may not be changes on the horizon here. Or at the very least a better blogging schedule. (shame on my procrastinating self)

Anyway. I will get out of your hair now.

Shaina Merrick

Pitching, the hardest thing you will ever do.

I am attending the Virtual Realm Makers conference this year. Cue the confetti!! It is really exciting and it will be so awesome to attend all those classes and one of my favorite authors is speaking and… Oh yeah, I signed up for a pitch. *internal scream*

So I have never done one before. Ever. I barely even knew what a pitch was before this. I mean, it is just talking about your book to someone else, right? Not!

Have you ever written a resume? The ones where you are trying to convince the hiring manager that you are the perfect one for the job. Well, a pitch is, in its basic form, the same thing. You are trying to convince the editor or agent that your book is worth publishing. And the pitch is only the beginning. To complete you pitch, it is also a good idea to come up with a one sheet, a synopsis, one, or two, author bio’s (depending on who you ask), and to top it all off, a book proposal. I hate book proposals.

This is not something that was taught, or even mentioned, when I was learning about writing. None of the classes I ever went to discussed the book proposal. That is either because I didn’t go to the right ones, or because no one taught how to write the most important piece of writing you will ever do after your manuscript.

So now to give you a leg up, we are talking about writing a book proposal.

Step One: Like your Book

Are you excited about your book? I hope so, because you are trying to impart that enthusiasm to someone else. A someone who has the power to get your book into the hands of readers. If you aren’t excited about your book, they won’t be either.

Step Two: What is the plot?

This is one of the more important bits of your book proposals, you need to tell that agent/editor the entire plot. The synopsis. Sometime they will ask you for the short synopsis, which is generally what your pitch will be, and for an entire synopsis covering everything from the inciting incident to the conclusion. This is NOT the time to be saying, “But wait, spoilers!” You are spoiling the entire book for them. On purpose. The editor needs to know if you can stick the landing. Can you write a good beginning, middle, and ending? That is what your synopsis will tell them. So make sure all the important plot points are in the synopsis. Give them all of the tid bits that make your story interesting and unique.

Step Three: The author bio

I really struggle with this one. I can talk about my book all day long, but myself? Not so much. In its condensed form it is what would be on the back of a book. A short introduction of you. This is not the time to be cute and funny. Author bio’s are serious matters. The first impression the editor will have of you is that bio. So make sure it shines!

The long form includes your writing experience, any awards you may have won, any previous publishing experience, and why you wrote the book. That latter one may be included in a different spot so check the guidelines for each editor or agent you pitch to.

That is why I struggle with it so much. I don’t have much in the way of experience, and no awards to speak of. But that doesn’t mean I skip it all together or make a joke about it. Like I said earlier, this bio is serious, and so I treat it like I would any other resume. I say the bit I can, mostly about my blog, and that is all. If you are in the same boat as me, I give you the same advice. Do what you can, but don’t make up stuff. Also, it looks a little tacky if you talk about a writing award you got as a ten year old if you are an adult, so keep your experience relevant and fairly recent.

Step Four: Log Line

A log line is the very, very condensed version of your synopsis. A sentence is all it is. Two sentences at the very most. Think of it as the marketing line of your book. The one that goes first in the blurb on the back. This is the phrase that tells people what your story is about, and at the same time makes them want to read more. Sounds hard? You bet! One site I visited recommended writing 15 to 20 of them right off before even deciding which one was the best. No, I didn’t write that many, but I wrote quite a few! After I finally decided which one I wanted, I then refined it to make it as perfect as possible. This one is important, so do the work to make it good!

Step Five: Marketing

This is the part of the show where you tell the editors how you will help to market your book. The market is super saturated with books, if you couldn’t already tell, and the ‘build it and they will come’ mantra no longer works for books. Unfortunately. And while we may despise it, the hard truth is that the publishing companies will not do all the work to market our books. We have to take some of that into our own hands.

You will need to tell the editor what kind of platform you have, and how many followers you have. I did not say the exact number because 1) it is embarrassing and 2) it is changing all the time. So I just said it was small but growing.

It is also a really good idea to tell the editor what kind of contacts you have that you could exploit to get your book out there. (mwahaha…) I have lots of contacts inside the homeschool community, so I mentioned that. You can mention authors you know (as in know personally), business contacts you have, and things like that.

Do not. Do not! Give them your ideas on how to market your book. There are sites that recommend this, and I might be proven wrong, but other sites have said that that is what the marketing team is for. They probably have way better ideas than you have (unless you are amazing at marketing, and if you are, why are you trying to get published?). You are there to show them your platform. Not tell them how to do their job.

Step Six: Details

If your head isn’t already spinning, I commend you. Mine was when I researched all this! But I am not finished yet. Oh no. There is still more you must add in your book proposal!

These are all smaller details that you could have as one lines, or a small paragraph. Things like how many words and how many chapters are your book. Who you book is intended for. Is it middle grade, young adult, or adult? It is important to be specific, but not too small, because the editors are looking for how to market this book as they are reading it. If your intended audience is middle class extraterrestrial immigrants, it will be harder to market than a book for kids in elementary school.

You should also include other books that your book is similar too. Are you writing a book about talking animals? Consider citing Wind in the Willows as a similar book. However, avoid the urge to compare your book with classics, or best sellers. You don’t have the next Lord of the Rings. And when you say that it just sounds proud and pretentious.

When you are writing a book proposal, those are the main things you need to include in every single one. However, do your research. Different editors and agents want different things. One might want a full book proposal, another might want only a synopsis and a one sheet. A one sheet is a book proposal that has been cropped to one page. Don’t send editors pages and pages of things they don’t want! That is the fastest way to end up in the recycling bin.

Also, do not send your full manuscript. Send whatever chapters they want, and that is all. No one has time to sit and read a full manuscript they aren’t sure about. I’m sorry, I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.

As a quick reminder, a pitch is the quick synopsis of your book that is generally not beyond the first act. It is generally spoken directly to the agent or editor. It’s purpose is to pique interest and to promote excitement!

A synopsis is the full overview of a book. Try not to go over one page. It’s purpose is to prove that you can write an interesting plot from start to finish, and to help the editor understand your story.

A one sheet is a short book proposal. It’s purpose is to convince the editor to take your book.

A book proposal is to convince the editor or agent that you are serious about getting this book out there. It is a professional piece of writing that helps you to get your book signed by an agent or editor.

To all those who are jumping into the realm of pitching, good luck!

Shaina Merrick

The Rebellious Writer: I’m Taking a Break

No, I am not actually taking a break from blogging. Not a planned one anyway. You never know what could happen on Tuesdays…

If you are a writer, you know what Writers Block is. It is not an actual wooden block sitting on your fingers and cackling at your bleary eyes. This is much, much worse. A wall inside of your brain keeping you from the words. Or at least the good words. There are no ideas, nothing worth writing at all in your brain. Just a wall, taunting you with its despicable firmness.

And how do we get rid of Writers Block? “By writing of course!” Say the chirpy writers with a cute notebook in hand. “Just keep slogging away,” intone the serious writers dressed in black and a faraway look in their eyes.

I tried. The wall has been a constant companion in my journey as a writer, and I have chipped away at it, day after slogging day, hoping that someday I will reach the end.

Did I ever reach the end? Sometimes. I would also be five thousand words in to an unnecessary series of scenes that would need to be cut. The only reason they existed was to get me out of Writers Block. Cutting out all those words you just slaved over is depressing.

Or, if I was lucky enough to write words that kind of go with the story, they would have to be completely rewritten because they are, in all honesty, trash.

Yes I said trash, about my own writing. Don’t gasp so loud, I can hear you.

I don’t write well while I have Writers Block. Big surprise. The wall is just too intimidating, too big. And I got really sick of forcing the words to come. I know writing isn’t easy. But does it have to feel like torture?

So I stopped the torture. I stopped staring at the wall day after day and did something else entirely. I guess you could say I gave up. Which let me say right here and now was only possible because I don’t have a writing contract. No one is depending upon me to write thousands of words a week. Thank goodness!

I didn’t completely give up on my ridiculous novel, just took a really, really long break. I checked in on the wall every now and then, just to see if it was still there. Yep still big, yep still big, yep still… Hey, I’ve got an idea!

And just like that, the wall was gone. I was past Writers Block, and with a lot less headache than normal.

Sitting there and putting words on a page isn’t necessarily going to make Writers Block magically disappear. It isn’t The formula, just a formula. And I for one don’t find it useful.

Stories aren’t made up of formulas. They are made up of imagination, starry eyes, and something no one can put their finger on. Stuffing your story, and the creation of your story, into formulas will smother it.

So don’t. Don’t buy into the idea that you have to/must sit down and conquer Writers Block. Do your brain a favor and step back. Let your creative juices steep and simmer. Maybe you have been staring at the same black and white words for too long. Tried to wring something interesting from the same old ideas one too many times.

Get into the sunshine and see some color. Ideas don’t just come from other stories. They also come from sunshine and people and real life experiences. Take a break. It can be as long or as short as you would like. However I would recommend you stay away until thinking of writing doesn’t make you cringe inside. When you have an idea, when you are ready to pick up your story again, that is the time to come back.

So get out there and do something that doesn’t smell like writing!

In other news, I reached 101 followers on this little blog! Thanks guys, I never thought I would get this far. Honest.

Shaina Merrick

The Rebellious Writer: What’s in a Name?

I hate naming my characters. The whole process is a head achy bother. While some authors happily scour baby naming books for that perfect name, I flip through the pages with a scowl. And finding names that mean something in particular? That sounds like torture.

I didn’t used to be this way. A long time ago I slammed random letters together and made up all the names I pleased. In the ensuing years, I have either gotten wiser, or lazier. I haven’t totally decided which. But I never, even in those years, liked searching for a name.

Nowadays, if you listen to all the writers, names are one of the most important things about a character. For some authors, they don’t have the character until they have the name, and for others, it completes the character.

To all that I say phooey. Why name your characters? Ernest Hemingway didn’t in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. His character had a name, that was used all of once. The rest of the time, he was known as the ‘old man’. And the other character was ‘the boy’. No names, but you knew who they were perfectly.

And have you ever had this conversation? “I really like this one character, he is so nice, and the one time he saved his best friends was epic. What was his name again?”

How many times have you forgotten a characters name, but you did like the character? Probably more times than you can count. What you remember is what he or she did and said.

In my own writing, I don’t name a character until it is absolutely necessary. When I have no other choice but to come up with a name. And then I might.

In all honesty, I wrote an entire novella without one single name. No one had a name, only descriptors. I don’t think any of my characters suffered from a lack of a name, they trotted along just as well without one.

So really, what is the importance of a name? It is not necessary for the character. They can develop just as well without one. And since I don’t really need one, I suppose I don’t need any of those special ones either. The ones that mean a billion things all at once that perfectly match my story. Ain’t happenin’ folks.

Though I suppose they can be helpful for the reader to keep track of who is who. But isn’t that what a descriptor is for?

Okay okay, in all seriousness, we probably shouldn’t drop names altogether. As much as I would like to. I think all our readers would revolt. My current novel would be a wash of pronouns and confusion.

I just wonder if they are truly the big deal some writers make them. They are not strictly necessary to the character or the novel.

Now if finding the perfect name for a character gives you a thrill, then don’t let me stop you! However, if you are anything like me, and naming people and things are a chore, let this blog post be your excuse not to. Or at least, to procrastinate it longer than you already have.

You’re welcome.

Shaina Merrick

The Rebellious Writer: In Defense of Purple Prose

If you have been writing for any amount of time, you have most likely heard this phrase. Purple prose, the bane of every writers existence. A catch all word for any time an author is writing just for the sake of writing. There isn’t a reason for the paragraph or page (or chapter, looking at you Victor Hugo) of words and description. It is there because the author thought it sounded pretty.

Boring!

Or so they say anyway.

Writing advice now tells us to slash all bits of purple prose out of our writing, to take out anything that doesn’t have three different reasons to exist. Every phrase, every paragraph, must have a purpose other than to look pretty.

On the surface, the advice sounds great! Of course I don’t want to info dump, or to bore my readers with descriptions of characters and places that may or may not have anything to do with my novel.

But then I wonder, what would happen to a classic novel if I did that?

Far From the Madding Crowd would be a short story. O Pioneers would cease to exist. Both are chock full of lavish descriptions that only have loose ties to the story. Do those bits of purple prose have to be in those novels? Absolutely not, the story would go right along without them.

But so would half of their fans. We love those stories because of the descriptions, because of the way they were written, sometimes just as much as what was written. Can you imagine Fahrenheit 451 without the streams of thought and wonderings about the world? It would be a completely different story.

These stories were defined by their beautiful prose, and I think that if we took that out, those stories would cease to be beautiful as well.

The point of purple prose is to be beautiful. And when it shows up, it makes a story beautiful as well.

No no, I am not advocating info dumps, or random descriptions thrown in at random times. Unless of course you are Victor Hugo or Thomas Hardy, who can do whatever they want and still become famous.

What I am trying to say, is that prose is worthwhile. Writing for the sake of words is why we became writers in the first place. In essence, to write is to have a love affair with words. Prose is what makes our bare bones of a story into a work of art. The color in the picture.

Prose is where the voice of the writer comes into play. How you write descriptions and explain characters is uniquely your own. If you follow the bare minimum, your story will sound like a million other stories out there. Prose is what makes it stand out from all the rest.

So don’t be afraid of it. Throw in a bit of purple prose. Write because the words are pretty. If it ends up being too much, there is always the backspace.

Shaina Merrick

The Precarious Balance of the Writing Life

Writing. A career path only for those who wish to feel guilty every moment of their life. Every moment of every day becomes a choice between writing, and not writing. If you aren’t writing, you feel guilty because you should be writing. If you are writing, you feel guilty because there is a whole family outside of your novel who could be talked with. Or an email to be sent, or another hobby to be practiced. But if you don’t write at this moment you won’t at all, and you worked an eight hour shift today dang it!

Yup. It kinda sucks.

On the one hand, we know that if we don’t write we will never get better. On the other hand, if we commit to writing for so many hours every day, won’t we become kinda, well, like a hermit? The stereotypical author who spends all of their days writing, and only ventures out into real life when their groceries run low. If they haven’t decided to get all their groceries shipped to them already.

And that was all before the internet. Now, we have Facebook, Instagram, blogs, and countless other ways to be ‘doing the job of writing’, without actually writing. Now there is one more thing to juggle, one more thing to feel guilty over.

And here I almost forgot the infamous day job that every writer slaves away at, all the while hoping to someday break free and only write. Never mind the fact that their day job is the one place they never feel guilty at. They have to be there, and that is that.

The thing is, I am not about to give you some momentous advice about how to balance it all and still keep yourself sane. This is something I am not good at. In fact, you could say I am tremendously, awfully bad at it. Even when I have a schedule.

But sometimes those who are so terrible at it that any step is a step in the right direction, have more to say than those who have done it perfectly their entire lives.

Like this momentous realization that was probably obvious to the rest of you.

Multitasking doesn’t work.

Ever.

I can’t write an interesting scene and write a blog post at the same time, or color and try to teach myself grammar. The best I can do is listen to very, very tame music and write a blog post. But even then I have to pause the music if I really want to concentrate. I realize that some of you are wizards of multitasking. I ain’t. So I keep the tabs low and the projects one at a time lest I overwhelm myself and get nothing done.

The other thing I realized after a long time of trying and failing is that I can’t get everything done in one day. It isn’t possible. Unless of course I decided not to sleep, or eat, or talk with anyone. But that isn’t a good idea (though don’t think I haven’t considered it.).

I have tried to do everything in one day. And at the end of the day I either had a finished to do list and no energy whatsoever to read or be nice, or I had a half completed to do list and loads of guilt to go along with it.

Well. I don’t like feeling guilty, and I also like being able to read. So I stopped trying to do it all. Most of the time.

It’s called a weekly schedule, and I am still trying to figure it out. Turns out they don’t write themselves, and writing down the things you did after you did them doesn’t work. Also, it doesn’t really count if you never look at it during the week.

I still have a long ways to go before I can properly consider myself good at scheduling my days.

Till then, I will muddle through and do my best to have my blog posts done on time.

Shaina Merrick

Since we are one the topic, got any advice for the scheduling writing? Things that worked for you? I’m telling ya, I need all the help I can get!