Declutter your text: Don’t dump details

There is such a thing as too much information.

I know how tempting it is for beginning writers to tell the complete history of their world in chapter one, or to describe characters so thoroughly that no place is left for the imagination, backstory included. “Been there, done that,” like they say.

When you have a very detailed image of a character or place, or when you’ve spent hours over hours working on world building, it’s normal to want to share all of it. But what keeps people reading is the plot, and an excess of information can get in the way, in much the same manner that an excess of pretty words can create a heavy and somewhat dull sentence (see Use modifiers in moderation). Anyway, there is only so much information that the reader can remember at once.

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Details are to be sparkled, like spices. I like to compare words with images. Look at the picture on the left. You see the shape of a bird’s body, hints of feathers, a closed eye and an open beak, from which a heart is coming. You don’t have to think to see that 1) it’s a bird and 2) it’s singing a love song. Simple, yet effective. Stripping your text to its bare essentials is a great way to understand what the bare essentials are. Once you understand that, it’s easier to manage huge amounts of details, should you decide that simplicity doesn’t suit your style.

I like to pretend that I am writing a mystery, and what needs to be discovered is what characters look like, especially inside. If my lead female is an undiagnosed autistic, for example, I don’t just go and say it. There are loads of undiagnosed high-functioning autistic people out there, and they don’t go wearing a label on their forehead. But they go interpreting people’s words too literally, and they go anxious that they will miss social cues and embarrass themselves, etc. Instead, I show my lead female paranoid of being accidentally rude, realizing too late what people’s intentions are, internally debating whether something was said in a sarcastic way or not. And I show her pissed off when she feels like others think she’d dumb because she has trouble figuring out social interactions. I don’t even have to say that’s she’s been picked on because of it in the past. It’s backstory sans backstory.

Same if my lead male is pushy: I show him pushing and pushing until the other characters feel he’s overstepping the boundaries, and then I show him trying to restrain himself from pushing too hard, because of course that’s been reproached to him in the past. It might even have cost him a girlfriend or ten. Again, backstory sans backstory. Both examples also illustrate the right interpretation of “show, don’t tell,” which I used to find tricky since stories are inherently “told”.

Every time I write something that is not immediately linked to the plot, I ask myself:
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  1. Does it reinforce the characters, the themes, the scene or the voice/tone?
  2. Does it provide the story with an important element, like a hook, a comic relief, a change of pace?
  3. Could I write it in a more concise way, integrated into a plot-oriented scene?

Sometimes I’ll ask myself those questions during the first draft stage, but most of the time, it’s during the second draft… and all the ones that follow.

Of course, sometimes bits of historical information dumps are necessary, or a character’s backstory is an integral part of the plot, and such like. When that happens, there are a number of ways to make those more immediately interesting: you can insert a bit of history to slow the pace between two scenes heavy in action, for example. Or a sweet memory can add some relief to an otherwise angsty main plotline.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! You can check out the following articles for more writing advice on how to declutter your texts or subscribe to be notified when I post a new article. Take care and happy writing!

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation, Beware of repetitions.

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Confession of a scatterbrain, or how to fail fast

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What my pile of projects end up looking like…

It always starts with good intentions. “I’ll focus on this one book,” I think. “Plus my blog. This one book and my blog, I can manage that much! Well, that plus a creative course once in a while. Oh, but here comes a short story challenge! I want to try that too! Just one short story per month, I can manage that much! And what a nice – free – writing contest! I want to try!” Urgh.

I get exhausted. I miss blogging weeks, I neglect my novel.

I translated something a few weeks ago on the concept of “failing fast” in business: you try new products, give up quickly those that don’t work and pursue the ones that do – it’s often more cost-effective than extensive market research. At the time, I failed (haha) to see how I could use it in my own life; it seemed more of a business-oriented concept. Plus that implies… you know… actually failing. I hate failing more than the average person. I hate failing like only a perfectionist can. I’ve been to unreasonable lengths to avoid failing.

That’s plain stupid.

In February, I said how Joanna Penn’s How To Make A Living With Your Writing inspired me to make a plan for my writing career… Career. I’ve always been disgusted at the idea of considering writing as “work” because, for me, work was inherently boring and repetitive, and something you’d never do if you were rich enough. I could be a billionaire, I wouldn’t stop writing. Writing is what I live for. I want to write for a living only so I can have more time to write. But now might be the time to change my mindset regarding work.

Because if writing is work, then I am allowed to fail any writing project. In fact, sometimes it could be desirable that I do. So, here’s me failing fast (and publicly) at the 12 short story challenge and the writing contest. I tried those on a whim, they got in the way of my novel and my blog, so they’re a failure and I need to let those go. And you know what? I don’t feel like I am a failure like I thought I would.

I feel free.

Now I can focus on what really matters right now: my novel and blog, and nothing else (writing-wise, I mean). Maybe a creative writing course in May if my finances allow it. Two projects plus my continuing education. Right now, with work and a preschooler to raise, that’s all I can manage, and it’s okay. Time is a precious – and limited – resource so I need to use it sparingly.
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But I know very well that I’ll still want to take on new projects… Hanging loose, they’d fly round and round my head and keep distracting me. So I made a list of those projects that tempt me the most. It’s an adequate cage for such creatures; I can go on my merry way, knowing that I can come back later, when I have more time, and pick one up without being scared of them flying away forever.

I failed and it freed me.

Of course, applying the “fail fast” strategy will be an ongoing journey, but I’m confident now that I can stop my hatred of failure from interfering with my productivity.

On another note, I’ll experiment with deadlines for publishing my blog posts in the following weeks… Mondays have been especially busy for me these last few weeks, so one less thing to worry about on that day will be much welcome.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
– J.K. Rowling

Review: Negociating with the Dead

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In my first creative writing class, three books on writing were recommended to the students: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (click to read my review of it); Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood; and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Having read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I figured I absolutely needed to read Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book on writing.

Review
Negotiating with the Dead is unlike any other books on writing that I have read in the past. I couldn’t describe it better than Atwood herself:

. . . what I had in mind was a grand scheme in which I would examine the various self-images – the job descriptions, if you like – that writers have constructed for themselves over the years.

It reads like a university-level book assigned for a literature course, which isn’t really surprising since it derives from lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge. The tone is rather formal (though sometimes witty), the language is recherché (sometimes even obscure for a speaker of English as a second language), the subjects explored are highly philosophical and of very little concrete use. However, the lack of concrete use does not equate with the lack of value. I enjoyed the autobiographical bits which, though interesting on their own, also explained Margaret Atwood’s style and her choices of subjects and themes as a bonus.

Margaret_Atwood_2015Born in 1939, Atwood has grown up in a Canada that’s very different from the one I know. As a result, some of the matters she explored felt outdated (e.g., I’ve never felt any less likely to succeed or be respected as a writer because I’m a woman – the prospects seemed equally bleak for both sexes). Most matters, however, remain true: I especially resonated with her chapters on the duplicity of the writer (how the writer seems to be a different entity than its human host… hello, persona), the Great God Pen (how easy it is to neglect oneself in favour of one’s art) and temptation (the correlation – or lack thereof – between the artistic value of a work, it’s popular success, and whether its author “did it for the money”).

The author supports her exploration of “being a writer” with a multitude of extracts from classic works, which contributed to that feeling of it being assigned for a literature course; it also resulted in my despairing at the sudden explosion of my want-to-read list.

At first sight, there is no recognizable structure. I kept on waiting for “the point” of the book, but after I finished it I realized the musings were it. Where Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, felt like a mentor giving her good friend the reader advice on how to deal with “the condition of being a writer” and how not to bang their head against the wall or commit suicide, Margaret Atwood feels like a university professor philosophizing about said condition, observing that it does bring its share of pain:

The suffering will come whether you like it or not. Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.

She asks a lot of questions, most of which remain unanswered like all philosophical matters.

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Writers, especially older, more experienced ones. If you love history and philosophy, that’s a plus. I’d recommend staying away from it if, as a general rule, you dislike the way philosophers talk or if you’re looking for a book that will be useful to you as a writer.

Review: How to Make a Living with Your Writing: Books, Blogging and More

How to Make a Living with your Writing coverContext
I have first heard of Joanna Penn through Twitter, then found her podcast on a list of podcasts for writers. From there, it wasn’t long before her non-fiction books caught my attention. Two weeks ago, ready to take my writing career more seriously, I finally bought How to Make a Living with Your Writing: Books, Blogging and More.

Joanna Penn is an independent author claiming to make a multi-six-figure income, and considering she makes almost 20k a year just on Patreon, I have no doubt she’s telling the truth.

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The book is written in a tight, conversational language, which I always like in non-fiction books. In the introduction,  Joanna Penn briefly explains how she became a full-time author. I identified with her a little, despite our different personalities, and was motivated by her success story. A few years ago, getting a book published seemed next to impossible to me, let alone making any money with it; now, even making a living with it seems possible.

In part 1, she discusses traditional publishing, self-publishing and independent publishing. That changed my point of view on both traditional and independent publishing: I have stopped idealizing traditional publishing and now see indie publishing as an equally good option, depending on the book and my goals for it. There is also valuable information on what to look for when reviewing a traditional book deal.

How to Make a Living with your Writing companion coverIn part 2, she talks more about her other streams of income, for you see: only 50% of her income comes from actual books sales. The rest comes from affiliate commissions, course sales, professional speaking, consulting and podcast sponsorship. There is also some information on marketing.

The last part of the book gives pointers to plan your writing career and make your first few bucks with your writing. That was my favourite part because it made me feel able to create a solid career plan – I’m getting on it as soon as this post is published. There is a separate paper-only companion workbook. I’ll tell you all about it later: I should get my own copy in about two weeks.

I wish the book had been longer and more detailed. However, all through the book, there are links to additional information (mostly free), which I’m sure will be useful. There are also multiple book recommendations.

Another thing I loooved is how this book teaches by example: it provides great value for the reader while also promoting all of the writer’s other products! It sounds like a good marketing strategy to me!

Author20Blueprint_coverIf you’d like to know what you can expect before you purchase anything, I recommend downloading a free sample through your favourite ebook retailer or signing up to her mailing list to get her free book Author 2.0 Blueprint. I am currently reading it myself and I find it very interesting. The author also has a free thriller for sale through her fiction website.

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Every writer who wants to make it pro, especially if they’re considering the indie path. It’s short and fairly inexpensive and offers great value.

12 Short Stories Challenge

xmas-65-x-smallWinter isn’t a very good season for me. I used to love it, but in recent years it’s meant exhaustion and sickness (I blame my working from home for the weakness of my immune system). I sat down yesterday to write a post while wishing I was napping with the rest of the family. I ended up writing a discouraging post about hope. Or was is a hopeful post about discouragement? It’s good for my mental health whine once in a while, so long as it allows me to move on. I’ll never post it, but it did help me regain some fortitude.

I was ready to write something better.

xmas-64-x-smallHowever, I didn’t feel like taking on the rewriting of my novel. I’m too tired and too busy for such a long project. I wanted to write short stories, but not one per week; it wouldn’t have been realistic in my current situation. That’s when somebody from my writing community brought 12 Short Stories to my attention. The goal is to write one short story per month, based on the given prompt and word count. Then you post it on the deadline and read and comment on 4 other stories.

It sounds doable.

I like that it’s not completely open: you get to share stories with a restricted audience composed of other writers and receive feedback. You get to never publish it publicly if you don’t want to, or to revise your piece using the feedback received before you do.

So I’ll try that. The January story is due on the 24th though – in two days – so I’ll start next month. Who’s with me?

Overview of 2017 and resolutions for 2018

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Happy New Year everyone!

I hope you were able to relax a little during the holidays. I have, and now I’m ready to start the new year head on.

However, before I make any resolutions I’d like to reflect on the past year: where 2016 was a year of breakthrough and dreams, 2017 was one of “reality check”. The first quarter of the year was marked by anxiety and frustration due to my lack of income. I also a hard time trying to edit my first novel, which led to the dispersion of my efforts.

Early April, I started working again with a revenge, some 50 and 60 hours a week, which I sustained surprisingly long before I burnt out in September. However, that didn’t prevent me from getting a sense of direction and starting the rewriting process on my first novel. In fall, I also took a creative writing course, which I think helped me improve my skills considerably, and got the amazing opportunity to beta-read Marnie Shaw and the Mystery of Yapton Farm by Deborah Wallace.

In November, I participated to NaNoWriMo, though I also took care not to exhaust myself again. In December, I slept a lot, did a lot of house cleaning and spent a lot of time with my family in order to start the new year in the best conditions.

I checked 5 of my 13 resolutions (#4, 7, 11, 12 and 13) which isn’t so bad considering everything that happened. Also: more important than those goals was “finding a source of income”, which I did.
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For 2018, my theme will be: the warrior’s training. Being a writer, I see my own life as a story (or a series of stories). If I gave up writing early 2016 and then went back at it with a revenge by mid-year, but was slapped in the face in 2017 by reality… I must be at that point in the story where the hero, after having been defeated, needs to train much harder than ever before to vanquish his enemy. That could also be the moment where the hero gets a mentor using unconventional methods.

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In other words, I intend to get out of my comfort zone this year. I’d love to try variants of the exercises I did during my creative writing course (poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction). I have no plan yet, but something like one short piece every 2 weeks a sounds acceptable, though most likely, I’ll only start in April. And if I can gather enough courage, I might even publish some of them online.

Reading-wise, this year I’ll allow myself to indulge: I’ll read whatever I want whenever I want. Last year, I tried to read more modern novels, but though most of them were good and some even excellent, I often found myself wishing I was reading something else. That might explain why even just reading 13 books took some effort. I’m starting the year with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. ♥

Besides my theme, I’ve also set a few goals for the year:

1 – Rewrite my first novel

2 – Continue blogging weekly (or almost weekly) and being active in the blogging community

3 – Read at least 13 books

4 – Take another creative writing course

5 – Experiment with poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction… maybe even comics!

6 – Take care of my physical and mental health

7 – Furnish my house (at least one room)

Quite a bit fewer resolutions than in 2018, but I’m aiming for 100% success this year (or at least 85%)! I’ll print this list them and paste it on my wall to keep it in sight all year.

Do you make New Year’s resolution? Do they help you reach your goals?

Creative non-fiction: Happy Endings

Foreword: As part of my creative writing course, I had to write creative non-fiction with narrative elements: characters, setting, plot, etc. It was extremely challenging, even scary. I made a list of events I thought could be of some interest and started several drafts. In the end, I chose a fairly cheesy event, but I think it was worth writing. It could be extended, made more tangible, but I’m fairly satisfied with the current version. This happened 5 years ago, around this time of the year. It’s also an ode to happy endings in literature. They’re the best.

~*~

Happy Endings

            I graduated in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. All through my bachelor’s degree, teachers kept repeating that there was a huge need for translators and we’d never lack work. It turns out language professionals aren’t always up-to-date on the matters of economics.

I spent two years doing odd jobs before I finally got one in my field… in Ottawa – 5 hours from everyone and everything I know.  I went. I’d stay a year, get some experience, then find a new job back in Québec City.

By the end of my ninth month of exile, I was restless. I had gone to several job interviews in my hometown, but none of them had paid off. I was almost 25 and nowhere near “having my life together” as I thought I should. An existential crisis ensued.

I used several tricks to feel better. I started writing a middle-grade novel for NaNoWriMo to get my mind off things. My fiancé tried to help me, to find a way to bring me back home that wouldn’t put us in a financially unsustainable situation… But without him by my side to make me laugh every day, my mood only got worse.

Then, on my birthday, my roommate, who was also my landlady, told me I had to leave within two months because she was going to sell the house to move with her new boyfriend.

I broke.

I hate moving, and I hated the idea of having to move somewhere else in Ottawa. In my mind, the next time I’d move would be to go back to Québec City.

A few days later, I sent my fiancé an email that was more or less a break-up letter. I woke up the next morning more depressed than ever, dragged my feet downstairs and… saw my white Elantra through the window. The car I’d bought with him. The car he’d kept when I moved to the national capital. What was it doing there at 6 freaking a.m.?

No doubt he saw the light turn on, because he got out of the car and came to the door. I didn’t understand. How was he there? He lived 5 hours away from me, how was he there a Thursday morning at 6 a.m.? I opened the door for him.

“What’re doing here?” I asked. I am a fairly intelligent person, but, confronted with an improbable event two minutes after waking up, my mind was trapped in a loop of confusion.

“I’m taking you home,” he said.

“We went over this.”

“We’ll be alright, kay? It’s not healthy for you to stay here anymore.”

It was the climax of my own fairy tale. Prince charming had come to get me. This prince wasn’t rich, and a sedan is less romantic than a horse, and I was still in my pyjamas, but that moment seemed perfect nonetheless.

I quit my job the following Monday, became pregnant two weeks later. We had our struggles, but we made it. Besides, my Ottawa employer called me a year later to hire me as a long-distance employee.

There might be no real “happy ever after” in life, but there can be happy endings on paper. Of course, I skipped over the part between then and now where I wanted my life to end. But “happy” and “ending” are all a matter of perspective.

~*~

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and happy holidays!