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What Do We Look For in a Story Pitch?

We received a question on our Discord, seeking guidance on writing a pitch for our newest anthologies, She Wears the Midnight Crown and He Bears the Cape of Midnight. Answering it led us to look through the pitches we received when we put out our first call for applicants earlier this year. At that time, we didn’t include story pitches in the ratings, and we were also more open to authors changing their pitches, since we weren’t rating them. However, we still read them because we were really curious and excited to see what people had in mind, and I (hi, it’s your friendly neighborhood @unforth, owner and usually-the-blogger) highlighted my favorites and shared many of them with our backers on Patreon to whet their appetites.In response to the question on Discord, I shared a few of my favorites, and multiple people expressed that it was helpful to them, so I thought – why not turn it into a blog post, and let everyone see?

A few notes on this:

1. We do not claim this list will be generalizable to other Presses or calls for story pitches. You may find these strategies effective elsewhere, but you may not!

2. The pitches for Add Magic to Taste were restricted to only 200 words; our new call allows up to 400, so if you’re writing a pitch for us you’ll be able to get a bit more in than the examples were provide.

3. If you’re coming to this in the future when we’ve pitched a new anthology that you’d like to apply to, it will still be applicable – just swap in the specifics that make sense to our new project, because the essentials won’t have changed even when the specifics do.

4. If you’ve read our Submission Review Rubric you’ll already know that the only rubric item we have specifically for the Story Pitch is inherently subjective. While yes, we will consider the content, grammar, and technical aspects of your story pitch, that won’t have a huge impact on the ratings for our less subjective categories, and the main place we’ll rate it will be on a 0 to 4 scale from “I’m just not feeling it” through “I NEED 10K OF THIS YESTERDAY.” As such, because it’s subjective, what each reviewer will look for will vary. However, I wouldn’t be writing this post unless I thought the advice in it didn’t have some general applicability – our personal preferences will alter how precisely we rate pitches but in a general sense, a pitch that considers the criteria to follow has a good chance of appealing to all of us, even if it doesn’t end up a personal favorite.

With all that in mind…what should you consider when you write us a pitch? 

Basically: we’re going to want to know who the most important characters are, where those characters are, and what those characters are going to do/how they’re going to interact with each other and/or the world around them

Less basically…how do you do that?

1. Have characters. Don’t pull a “I want to tell a story kinda like a romance, but it takes place in a spaceship, and the ball is for…” without telling us about the people. Be the worldbuilding ever so cool (and don’t get us wrong, we LOVE cool worldbuilding!) we’re looking for people to tell stories about queer romance. So, we need to know who the characters are, not just where they are. All the most successful story pitches we’ve read are character driven. For example, here are some lovely character introductions from our Add Magic to Taste calls:

Ex. 1: Layla was born a witch—specifically, a witch who can make anything she touches taste sweet and delicious, which is a pretty lame magic to be born with. 

Ex. 2: Xee is Asexual, graduated from school a decade back, and works the Tea Shop his parents have owned since they moved there from the Fae realm four or five decades back. 

Ex: 3: Teravilis, a dragon shifter escaped from the government lab where she’s lived her whole life, is already feeling overwhelmed before a towering, beautiful woman sits down on the next couch. 

2. Have a setting. However lovingly your OCs are assembled, if we learn nothing about the type of masquerade you’re portraying or the surroundings, then we won’t be interested. Look again at those three examples of characters: all three not only tell us about the character – they also integrate information about the world that character inhabits. A pitch like “Character A is an engineer who is tall and blonde and very good at what they do; Character B is a sec op who has perfect aim and a give-um-hell attitude” is interesting but…what does Character A actually engineers? Why Character B would need to be a sec op wherever they are? It doesn’t have to be in the exact same sentence, but it needs to be in the pitch somewhere

2a: The setting and the characters must inter-relate. We want these characters to inhabit living, breathing worlds, and we do mean inhabit. If they just seem plastered over the setting – like if we took the characters out and plonked them down somewhere else they’d be completely the same – then that’s a problem. 

Some examples of settings that enhanced people’s pitches for Add Magic to Taste:

Ex. 1: Airmid, an undercover health inspector with a love for busting the dirtiest cooks in the business, stops by her gleaming city’s newest restaurant: The Drakery Bakery. She can’t believe what she sees. The miniature dragons who work as everything from oven flames to waiters can’t be up to code, and no matter how delicious the pastries are she’s certain that a dragon shouldn’t be breathing on crème brûlées to crisp their tops. 

Ex. 2: 35+ hedge witch who runs a bookstore (or similar) keeps magically bambozzling postal workers to deliver to the wrong address so she can talk to the cute owner of the bakery three doors down.

Ex. 3: Kyle hates that he has to put on his human skin every day and work at the coffee shop, but ocean jobs are reserved for those that can’t work on land. 

(and again, note how all three of these could have been easily swapped in as examples for item 1. The setting exists to serve the narrative about the characters, not the other way around, so a strong pitch is likely to integrate the worldbuilding aspects by describing where and how the character(s) fit into the world.)

3. Be specific. It’s okay if you don’t know the character names or haven’t decided on the name of the spaceship where your ball takes place – that level of specificity isn’t necessary – but a pitch that says, “Character A is a spaceship pilot who has snuck into the ball after making a mask out of discarded reactor core parts” is much more appealing than a pitch that says, “Character A works on the spaceship and sneaks into the ball.” We want to see that you’ve thought about who these characters are, and where they are, and what they’re going to do. 

Ex. 1: Then one morning, right in the middle of the dullest lull there ever was, the girl that works at the yarn shop across the street – the girl Merrily has been quietly pining over from afar since the first time she saw her three months ago – makes a dramatic entrance, slaps her hands down on the counter and says, very sternly, “It’s you, isn’t it?”

Ex. 2: Then he meets Nigh, a customer who hates the ocean but smells of kelp and salt and rides a skateboard like he’s underwater. He’s everything Kyle might want if he had time to do something foolish like fall in love.

Ex. 3: This story begins when Shiloh heads to La Vie Café to meet with the Reincarnation Support Group (for women who believe they have been reincarnated) in Philadelphia. She claims that she is the reincarnated version of a man who died 25 years ago. 

4. Introduce the plot…but don’t feel you have to tell us everything. If you really want to summarize your entire story in 400 words, go for it, but it’s not necessary. It’s absolutely okay to leave us wanting more – you can treat this like a back-of-the-book blurb rather than like your cover letter summary. “The problems they face seem insurmountable…what will they do?” is a perfectly okay way to end your pitch, especially if you’ve adhered to our first three points and made it clear through your characters, setting description, and specificity that you do have a plan. Most of the pitches we’ve liked in the past treated the pitch as a teaser rather than as a synopsis or a book report. (Read the full pitches below for an idea what we mean).

5. How you write your pitch is almost as important as the actual story you propose. We want a compelling story, yes, but we also want to see – how do you approach character building? How do you work within a word limit? How do you approach building tension? Your story pitch is about the story you want to tell, but it’s also literally about how you pitch it. The classic AO3 “sorry I suck at summaries” isn’t going to cut it here: you have to take the dive and act like you know your story pitch is the coolest concept ever, and you are out to convince us it’s the coolest also. You love your characters? Tell us enough that we also love your characters and get invested in their fates. You built a lush world for them? Paint that world concisely and accurately with your words. You know that a reader who reads the first 1,000 words of your 6,000 word story will be so intrigued they won’t be able to put it down? Show us that by making the 400-word introduction to the concept so fascinating that we don’t want to put it down either. (Again, instead of excerpts, see the full pitches below.)

6. Don’t neglect your spelling and grammar. Good technical aspects won’t necessarily save a pitch that is flat in other regards, and poor technical aspects won’t necessarily sink a pitch that’s otherwise intriguing, but your attention to detail speaks to your genuine interest in working with us, and if the editing is poor, even if we loved your story submission and your pitch, we’ll worry ‘how much editing will this person really need to bring their story up to professional editing standards?” It’s definitely worth sweating the small stuff and getting your SPAG clean for your pitch as well as for your writing sample submission!

To boil these six points down to a tl:dr – we are looking for story pitches that are character-driven, keep in mind our main theme components (happy ending queer romance at masquerades or in masquerade-esque societies/settings), show that thought has been put into the details, and leave us wanting more!

Here are all the full pitches that we used for the above examples, and some we didn’t pull examples from. All are used with author permission and credited according to author request. If the story ended up in Add Magic to Taste, we make a note of that, but remember that we did not rate these pitches as part of our applicant review for that anthology. Not all of these authors were accepted to our first project, even though we love their pitches, but all of these authors are currently involved in the Press. (Many are in our upcoming anthology And Seek (Not) to Alter Me.)

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Pitch by anonymous:

Sugar and Spice: Layla was born a witch—specifically, a witch who can make anything she touches taste sweet and delicious, which is a pretty lame magic to be born with. Her quest to trade it in for something cooler, or at least to learn some flashier spells, brings her to Sweetheart’s Cakery, a sweet and sugary establishment run by the most powerful necromancer alive. Stephanie Drybones, professionally known as ‘Sweetheart,’ has spent centuries honing her baking skills the hard way and isn’t impressed by Layla’s woes… but she is intrigued by Layla’s determination and acerbic wit. 

The two women make a deal: if Layla can produce a better sweet than Stephanie within a week, Stephanie will teach her some awesome spells to revive the dead in a sanitary manner, leech the warmth from her surroundings, and generally annoy the neighbors. If Layla can’t, however, she must come work at the bakery until she understands the importance of cake as a concept—which, considering how pretty and disarmingly nice Stephanie is, shouldn’t be a chore. Let the bake-off commence.

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Pitch by Lucy K. R. (@/lucywritesbooks on twitter):

Airmid, an undercover health inspector with a love for busting the dirtiest cooks in the business, stops by her gleaming city’s newest restaurant: The Drakery Bakery. She can’t believe what she sees. The miniature dragons who work as everything from oven flames to waiters can’t be up to code, and no matter how delicious the pastries are she’s certain that a dragon shouldn’t be breathing on crème brûlées to crisp their tops. 

But Calida, the dragon mage who owns the place, gives her pause. She doesn’t know what brings her over to Airmid’s table, but she has to confess that she finds her charming. And pretty. And confident, and talented, and… One more visit couldn’t hurt before she calls in the health department, right? 

Airmid finds reason after reason to give one more inspection rather than shutting down The Drakey Bakery, always hoping for one more chance to chat with its enigmatic owner. And as she does so, she finds a new appreciation for dragons, the deliciousness of imperfection, and most importantly for Calida— a woman as irresistible as she is lawless.

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Pitch by Willa Blythe (@/willaablythe on twitter):

Merrily Berkshire finds her quaint, old fashioned town boring and dull, and her shifts at the local coffee shop are the most boring of all. She knows she probably shouldn’t do it, but to keep her busy she has begun practicing her spellwork on unsuspecting patrons: a bit of a brightening charm here, a wakefulness spell there, an enchantment to be more open, an enchantment to be more closed, an intention to draw in funds, a quick-but-unfortunate curse to cause unrelenting hiccups that she feels immediately guilty for… It passes the time, and she’s getting better at it every day. 

Then one morning, right in the middle of the dullest lull there ever was, the girl that works at the yarn shop across the street – the girl Merrily has been quietly pining over from afar since the first time she saw her three months ago – makes a dramatic entrance, slaps her hands down on the counter and says, very sternly, “It’s you, isn’t it?” 

Can Merrily right her wrongs and woo the yarn girl? Get your most beloved mug ready: it’s time for a tale of magic, mistakes, and making your own meaning when nothing feels like it means anything.

(A version of this story pitch is in Add Magic to Taste)

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Pitch by @/theleakypen:

A Chinese fox spirit, a Russian river spirit, and a love story measured in coffee dates. 

Lara Yan spent one hundred years cultivating to human form and she’s not going to waste this opportunity just to tear out men’s hearts to steal more qi. She frequents the Chashka Kofe on Morskoy Prospekt, working on her papers for her Master’s in Philology — language, she thinks, is the best thing about having a human mouth. 

Alisa Rusakova just wants a cup of coffee before another long day diving for a sunken barge in the River Ob. She spends her days in the water, hiding her rusalka nature in plain sight. Gone are the days when she and her sisters drowned or tickled men to death and haunted mortal women for their combs. 

When they run into each other — literally — on the way to the coffee counter, they have no idea that they’ve finally met someone who understands what it is to straddle the world of the human and the monstrous, someone they don’t have to hide from.

(A version of this story pitch is in Add Magic to Taste)

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Pitch by @/arialerendeair:

In a world where the Fae, the Magical, and the slightly-more than normal live side-by-side with humans as a part of their daily lives, I would love to tell the story of Xilmys (he goes by ‘Xee’) and Areon. Xee is Asexual, graduated from school a decade back, and works the Tea Shop his parents have owned since they moved there from the Fae realm four or five decades back. Areon, he, well, they, but that’s rather new, has lived in the city since they were a kid, and they have been getting tea (both literal and metaphorical) from the Tea Shop for years, always from Xee. 

The only thing larger than their tea addiction is their crush on Xee. Now, if only Areon’s hair didn’t turn bright pink every time they talked to Xee, giving away how embarrassed they were, that would be great! 

One day, though, Aeron walks into the Tea Shop, determined. Their hair is purple, and they manage to do what had been impossible. Ask Xee on a date. Or coffee. But not tea. Definitely not tea. 

Xee agrees, of course, and says that while he loves all of Areon’s colors – purple is his new favorite.

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Pitch by Shea Sullivan:

Kyle hates that he has to put on his human skin every day and work at the coffee shop, but ocean jobs are reserved for those that can’t work on land. The bipeds assume he’s one of them. His friends at home don’t have the recessive gene that would give them skins. 

He really is a fish—octopus—out of water. 

Then he meets Nigh, a customer who hates the ocean but smells of kelp and salt and rides a skateboard like he’s underwater. He’s everything Kyle might want if he had time to do something foolish like fall in love.

(A version of this story pitch is in Add Magic to Taste)

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Pitch by A. A. Weston:

35+ hedge witch who runs a bookstore (or similar) keeps magically bambozzling postal workers to deliver to the wrong address so she can talk to the cute owner of the bakery three doors down. Tooth rottingly sweet (pun intended) disaster gay/bi shenanigans.

(note on this one and the next that detailed, appealing, and plotty doesn’t have to mean long – it’s possible to get the entire idea across very succinctly and still have it be appealing!)

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Pitch by G. Hendrickson:

A wlw bakery run by a witch and her familiar. A new customer has become a regular and the witch is besotted. Her familiar tries to get them together, even though she also loves her witch. Love triangle shenanigans are ended when the witch reveals she didn’t want to pursue her familiar because of the power imbalance. The new regular reveals they don’t want to choose between the two because they thought the familiar was just the messenger for both. The solution is a happy, bubbling bakery run by that cute poly-triad.

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Pitch by Adrian Harley:

Maria Birch, former child star, ducks into Genre Blends Tea Shop on a summer afternoon to escape the prying eyes of paparazzi and be left alone for a few precious moments. She strategically picks one of the couches closest to the back exit and hopes her new seatmate won’t recognize her behind her sunglasses and floppy hat. But when her new seatmate burns her mouth on her tea and tears up staring at a crossword, Maria breaks her own isolation to see if she can help. 

Teravilis, a dragon shifter escaped from the government lab where she’s lived her whole life, is already feeling overwhelmed before a towering, beautiful woman sits down on the next couch. The wider world has too many people, too many pastry options, and too many crossword clues that make no sense. When Maria reaches out, though, Teravilis learns that some things outside a lab-controlled environment can still be simple. 

Will disgruntled paparazzi and furtive government agents interrupt this blissful afternoon? Not if a mild-mannered, glasses-wearing barista has anything to say about it.

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Pitch by T. S. Knight:

This story begins when Shiloh heads to La Vie Café to meet with the Reincarnation Support Group (for women who believe they have been reincarnated) in Philadelphia. She claims that she is the reincarnated version of a man who died 25 years ago. Convinced that she is (or was) this person, Shiloh has discovered that her widowed wife is still alive and working nearby. Shiloh hopes that the support group will help her decide if and how she might talk to beautiful Aline. While the group of fabulous and predominately queer women are glad to chat, Shiloh quickly realizes that none of them actually believe in reincarnation and instead see the group as an opportunity to spend time together. Though these are kind and lovely women, socializing isn’t going to solve her frighteningly real reincarnation problem, but at least there are pastries and coffee and new friends.

(A version of this story pitch is in Add Magic to Taste; note that T. S. Knight requested and was granted permission to slightly edit this pitch from the original submitted one, as there were things in it that didn’t end up in the published version that they hope to use in a future story)

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Transitioning from Writing Fanfiction to Writing Original Fiction

We received the following ask anonymously on Tumblr:

I loved your “what is a story” post! Aside from structuring stories, are there any other things you think writers shifting from fanfic to original works tend to struggle with, or would do well to keep in mind?

Hey anon! I’m sorry this has taken me so long to reply, but it’s such a big question, it required a big answer. Especially, it’s a challenge to address because, as a creation medium, “fanfic” is far from a monolith. From a “how hard might a transition to writing original content be” standpoint, there’s a huge range – from people who write canon-compliant short stories coda stories that feel like they’re a living, breathing part of the source world, all the way through people who write epic million word AU stories about their own OCs who maybe at most tangentially interact with canon. Some people see writing fanfiction as “canon, the whole canon, and nothing but the canon,” while others see the original media as a jumping off point to play with other settings, tropes, archetypes, and story elements (“canon? I love canon! It makes a lovely whooshing sound as I fly on by…”). What a fanfiction author prefers to write, to some extent, influences what challenges they’ll face when they try to transition. 

For those who specialize in “all canon,” their strengths will often lie in research, analysis, understanding metatextual themes, and finding holes or gaps to fill with new content. They’ll likely be weaker in world building and character creation.

For those who specialize in “what canon?”, their strengths will often lie in world building, character development, and recognizing tropes and archetypes and reapplying them to new settings. They’ll likely be weaker in analysis and recognizing plot holes.

These are obviously generalizations; an “all canon” author who does, for example, post-canon or uses OCs, might have lots of experience with world building or character creation. A “what canon?” author who, for example, writes historical works or field-specific ones (eg, a super detailed hospital AU) might be fantastic at research. And, further, hardly any author will be 100% one or the other; most writers will fall somewhere in between those extremes, writing some pieces that are canon, some that are AUs, some where they try to write the character IC-to-a-tee, some where they go “OOC is the new IC!” 

Regardless of where a given writer falls on this scale (from “all canon, all the time” through “canon? what canon?”), the best two things any writer can do are: write more and read more. Especially, focus on reading (note this doesn’t have to mean literally “read a book,” it can be, “watch a show,” or “read a comic,” or “listen to a podfic”) original stories you enjoy, and engage with them “like a writer” (how to do that could stand to have a full post written about it, and doing so is on my list…). Look at how the author(s)/creator(s) use language, what the features of their world and characters are, how their plot is structured and paced, all the elements of the story. If it’s too much to take in at once, read multiple times and focus on one thing each time. You need to learn to recognize tropes and character traits, to see them and interpret them and understand that any given story is simply an assemblage of these features, and you can take the ones you like, discard the ones you don’t, and recombine them in infinite ways to tell any story you want. Take notes as you read – scrawl down tropes you recognize, character features that engage you, plot elements. 

Having trouble? Try to tag the work like you’d tag an AO3 story, if you’re having trouble recognizing tropes and how to subvert them.

Would you tag it “angst with a happy ending?” “Emotional hurt/comfort?” “Mutual pining?” Congratulations, you’ve found tropes. 

“Engineer!Character?” or “Character Needs to Learn to Use Their Words” or “Character is a Bad Parent” or “Asexual Character?” Congratulations, you’ve found character features, traits, and archetypes.

“Slow burn,” “getting together,” reunions,” “arranged marriage,” hey look, it’s a whole bunch of plot elements!

Learn to recognize tropes, and see how different creators use them and subvert them, will also help you see that when you write fanfiction you already do all the things necessary to create and write an original story

It can help to take a step back and consider your own oeuvre. What kinds of works have you already done? Which pieces have you pushed yourself on? What do you feel your strength is? Write more. Read more. Read posts like this one – there are so, so, so many excellent writing resources on the internet. And, when you write your own work, experiment with different approaches – learn about yourself as a writer. What time of day do you work best? Does outlining help you? Do you need an alpha reader to help keep you motivated? Grow your experience by writing – any writing – and get a handle on what works best for you.

Still at a loss where to start? Read on…


Worldbuilding

Every world, whether it’s high fantasy, hardcore space opera, or modern contemporary, will require worldbuilding. Worldbuilding isn’t just the big, universal questions like: “how does the magic/science work, where are the cities located, how do people live?” Worldbuilding is also: “what does the corporation where they work look like, what is in the characters’ neighborhood, what are the places and things that will need to exist to make the story idea function?” You don’t need to treat this as “all the biggest stuff,” and I guarantee that, as a fanfiction writer, you’ve done worldbuilding – even if all you write is 1k coda fics. You may cut some corners, relying on context, on the “big stuff,” but the small stuff still needs to be in a story or it won’t make sense. What works in fanfiction, by and large, is the same as what works in original fiction. You should never be leading your reader through a lovingly crafted description of the surroundings/magic system/neighborhood/space ship while the plot languishes. You never need to have all the details up front.. If you’re a planner, go for it, plan the minutiae! But if you’re a plantser or panster, don’t feel you need to transform magically into a planner just to write original fic! You don’t. I’m a plantser. It’s fine.

You can often assume a reader will know what’s going on (even if they won’t!), especially if the character would know what’s going on. Weaving information into a story isn’t a “thing you don’t do in fanfic” – improving your writing in fanfiction will teach you how to do this as surely as writing original fic would. The writing itself isn’t different. Drop a reader in, and introduce them to elements as you go. 

Introduce elements gradually, avoid info dumps, make sure the characters act like…this is just the world…they’re not going to (for example) explain things in detail if they’re eminently familiar with them. Use all the same tools you’d use when writing fanfic. Indeed, I think one of the biggest challenges a fanfic author will face isn’t “how do I worldbuild?” but rather, learning how to do consciously and intentionally something that they’ve surely been doing all along, because no story can be done without worldbuilding! 

Thus, we circle back to “read your own work and the work of others and see what you’ve done and what others have done.” Force yourself to see that you do worldbuilding when you describe their surroundings, when you introduce story elements, when you say what they’re wearing. All the details that make your fanfiction rich and vibrant are worldbuilding. You build the world around the characters – whether they’re canon or OC – and then they interact with it to tell your story!

(Now, all that said, if you’re like, “that’s all well and good but how do I even start when I want to create a whole new world?” There are a lot of good articles on that; I’m personally partial to this list of questions by Patricia C. Wrede.)


Character Design

You create a character every time you write. Yes, if you’re creating fanfiction, that character already exists in some form, but you’re still creating: you’re deciding, in the context of your fanfic, what aspects of that character you want to explore, what behaviors of theirs you want to highlight, what things they do you’d rather ignore. You dictate their actions, decide how they’re established canon behavior applies to the unique and different circumstances you are exposing them to be. This is true even if the story is “all canon;” that said, the more AU a story is, the more likely the characters are to be essentially “original characters in a mask” – yeah, you might be using the names from canon, but when all is said and done what you actually are writing about is a new character, featuring the archetypes you chose from the base character and manipulated into a new environment. AUs change character ages, professions, surroundings, backstory, appearance, species, gender, sexuality, family, birthplace, native language, ethnicity, religion, intelligence, presentation type, I could go on…when you make them from Ancient Greece instead of modern America, when you decide they’re a half-octopus, when you say “oh, they’re ace,” when you go, “what if they were trans,” when you think, “I’m really in the mood for some pwp A/B/O…” you’re creating new character with aspects of the original character. The goal is often to keep them “enough like” the original character to be recognizable, but that doesn’t change that, in many AUs (and sometimes even in canon fics!), if the character names were swapped out with a find-and-replace, a reader coming in would be hard-pressed to recognize the source material. They might even guess the wrong ship (this sounds just like a Stucky story! they say, while you know it actually started as Destiel).

This is because characters are composed of archetypes and personality traits. They’re aggressive, they’re shy, they’re brave, they’re risk-averse, they’re selfish, they’re a martyr, there’s a huge menu of options, and any given character is rarely black or white…and when you decide how to portray a canon character in your fic, you’re automatically, often without thinking about it consciously, saying, “these are the archetypes and personality traits I want to focus on, these are the ones that’ll be paramount for this iteration of this character, the others won’t come up.”

So, much like worldbuilding, the concern you have when you transition to original fic shouldn’t be, “I’ve never had to make a character WHAT DO?” it should be, “I’ve been making and modifying characters all along, how do I bring myself to do intentionally what I’ve been doing anyway?”

I’ll give you one guess what the answer is, ha. Also, yet again, there are a lot of resources to help an author learn to do this “on purpose.” A Google Image Search for “character design writing sheet” turns up zillions of results, for example – look through, try a few, see what works for you, make some characters just for fun!

If you’re really struggling, try using one of those sheets to write up different “versions” of the same character you’ve written in multiple fanfics. Like, pick a canon fic you’ve written, and make a sheet for the main canon character, then pick an AU you’ve written, and make a sheet for that same canon character. You’ll notice pretty quickly that they each write up differently – they’ve got different goals, different motivations, different ways they react, even though they’re the “same” character. Pick the two “most different” versions you’ve written of that character, and compare, and it’ll start to be pretty clear: you’ve been making characters all along, so just…keep at it.


General Concept/Plot

“But what story should I tell?” can be a tough question to answer, especially for fanfiction authors who usually write shorter pieces, inserts, codas, and the like. The first thing to remember is…there’s no reason you should tell different kinds of stories! You can write a 2k fluffy meet cute between OCs. Not every original fic needs to be a 500k epic fantasy world saving adventure. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t write exactly the same kinds of stories. Yes, you’re not going to write a “fix it” or a coda for your OCs, but you can absolutely write “moment between” original pieces. You can write drabbles. You can write shorts, novellas, pwp, anything.

However, if you want something more involved…I think you’re starting to get the gist here but I’ll reiterate one last time…look at your source canon material and at the fanfiction you’ve been writing. What were the story elements you chose to incorporate when you made your transformative piece? What do you love about that source material that you’d like to emulate? Do you enjoy a good mystery? Do you like the agonizing drag of slow burn? Do you crave that “I COULD JUST SMACK THEM BOTH” of idiots to lovers? Do you want historical drama, political machinations, high adventure, space battles? Consider what story elements drew you to that fandom, what about it made you go, “THAT’S the one I want to write for!” Consider which story elements you most enjoy playing with when you write fanfiction. Then…do more of that. If you love a good plot twist, or an air of horror, or BDSM, or, or, or…that’s a good start for figuring out what story to tell. 

It doesn’t have to be what you’ve written the most of, to be clear – but absolutely it should be something you love and want to emulate. If you don’t love it, what’s the point in writing it?

Figuring out what story you want to tell with OCs isn’t magically different than figuring out what story you want to tell for fanfiction. Your best bet, truly, is to go about things using exactly the same strategy you use for fanfiction. If it helps, you can even plot it using fic characters – pretend it’s an AU, figure out the story you’d tell with canon characters in that AU. If you’re playing with archetypes as discussed above (spoilers: you are), and you’ve put together a world for them to play in, creating a story to tell in an AU using “established” characters is exactly the same as writing original work, except you give them different names, and you don’t throw in random references to canon or quotes that insiders will get.


The biggest mistake most writers make when they transition from fanfiction writing to original fiction writing is treating original fiction as some ineffably Different And Unique And New form of writing. It’s not. A good original fic and a good fanfic will have many, many elements in common (YES, even if the fanfic is set in the canon verse!).

The best advice I can give, honestly?

Do exactly what you’d do when you sit down to conceptualize a new fanfic, but every time you hit up against “Oh I can’t have them say that, that’d be OOC,” or “Oh, I can’t make that happen, that technology/magic doesn’t exist in that world,” or “Oh, I’m going to have to change that, there’s no canon character that makes sense for a role like that,” you can go “OH WAIT THIS IS ORIGINAL I DO WHAT I WANT!” and you make that thing you want them to say be IC for them, you change the technology/magic/whatever so what you need exists, you create a character that’ll fit that role.

Fanfic or original fic, the story is always your sandbox.

Now – go build some castles!


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Ten Things We Hate About Trad Pub

Often when I say “I’ve started a small press; we publish the works of those who have trouble breaking into traditional publishing!” what people seem to hear is “me and a bunch of sad saps couldn’t sell our books in the Real World so we’ve made our own place with lower standards.” For those with minimal understanding of traditional publishing (trad pub), this reaction is perhaps understandable? But, truly, there are many things to hate about traditional publishing (and, don’t get me wrong – there are things to love about trad pub, too, but that’s not what this list is about) and it’s entirely reasonable for even highly accomplished authors to have no interest in running the gauntlet of genre restrictions, editorial control, hazing, long waits, and more, that make trad pub at best, um, challenging, and at worst, utterly inaccessible to many authors – even excellent ones.

Written in collaboration with @jhoomwrites, with input from @ramblingandpie, here is a list of ten things that we at Duck Prints Press detest about trad pub, why we hate it, and why/how we think things should be different!

(Needless to say, part of why we created Duck Prints Press was to…not do any of these things… so if you’re a writer looking for a publishing home, and you hate these things, too, and want to write with a Press that doesn’t do them…maybe come say hi?)

1. Work lengths dictated by genre and/or author experience.

Romance novels can’t be longer than 90,000 words or they won’t sell! New authors shouldn’t try to market a novel longer than 100,000 words!

A good story is a good story is a good story. Longer genre works give authors the chance to explore their themes and develop their plots. How often an author has been published shouldn’t put a cap on the length of their work.

2. Editors assert control of story events…except when they don’t.

If you don’t change this plot point, the book won’t market well. Oh, you’re a ten-time bestseller? Write whatever you want, even if it doesn’t make sense we know people will buy it.

Sometimes, a beta or an editor will point out that an aspect of a story doesn’t work – because it’s nonsensical, illogical, Deus ex Machina, etc. – and in those cases it’s of course reasonable for an editor to say, “This doesn’t work and we recommend changing it, for these reasons…” However, when that list of reasons begins and ends with, “…because it won’t sell…” that’s a problem, especially because this is so often applied as a double standard. We’ve all read bestsellers with major plot issues, but those authors get a “bye” because editors don’t want to exert to heavy a hand and risk a proven seller, but with a new, less experienced, or worse-selling author, the gloves come off (even though evidence suggests time and again that publishers’ ability to predict what will sell well is at best low and at worst nonexistent.)

3. A billion rejection letters as a required rite of passage (especially when the letters aren’t helpful in pinpointing why a work has been rejected or how the author can improve).

Well, my first book was rejected by a hundred Presses before it was accepted! How many rejection letters did you get before you got a bite? What, only one or two? Oh…

How often one succeeds or fails to get published shouldn’t be treated as a form of hazing, and we all know that how often someone gets rejected or accepted has essentially no bearing on how good a writer they are. Plenty of schlock goes out into the world after being accepted on the first or second try…and so does plenty of good stuff! Likewise, plenty of schlock will get rejected 100 times but due to persistence, luck, circumstances, whatever, finally find a home, and plenty of good stuff will also get rejected 100 times before being publishing. Rejections (or lack there of) as a point of pride or as a means of judging others needs to die as a rite of passage among authors.

4. Query letters, for so many reasons.

Summarize all your hard work in a single page! Tell us who you’re like as an author and what books your story is like, so we can gauge how well it’ll sell based on two sentences about it! Format it exactly the way we say or we won’t even consider you!

For publishers, agents, and editors who have slush piles as tall as Mount Everest…we get it. There has to be a way to differentiate. We don’t blame you. Every creative writing class, NaNoWriMo pep talk, and college lit department combine to send out hundreds of thousands of people who think all they need to do to become the next Ernest Hemingway is string a sentence together. There has to be some way to sort through that pile…but God, can’t there be a better way than query letters? Especially since even with query letters being used it often takes months or years to hear back, and…

5. “Simultaneous submissions prohibited.”

No, we don’t know when we’ll get to your query, but we’ll throw it out instantly if you have the audacity to shop around while you wait for us.

The combination of “no simultaneous submissions” with the query letter bottleneck makes success slow and arduous. It disadvantages everyone who aims to write full-time but doesn’t have another income source (their own, or a parents’, or a spouse’s, or, or or). The result is that entire classes of people are edged out of publishing solely because the process, especially for writers early in their career, moves so glacially that people have to earn a living while they wait, and it’s so hard to, for example, work two jobs and raise a family and also somehow find the time to write. Especially considering that the standard advice for dealing with “no simultaneous submissions” is “just write something else while you wait!” …the whole system screams privilege.

6. Genres are boxes that must be fit into and adhered to.

Your protagonist is 18? Then obviously your book is Young Adult. It doesn’t matter how smutty your book is, erotica books must have sex within the first three chapters, ideally in the first chapter. Sorry, we’re a fantasy publisher, if you have a technological element you don’t belong here…

While some genre boxes have been becoming more like mesh cages of late, with some flow of content allowed in and out, many remain stiff prisons that constrict the kinds of stories people can tell. Even basic cross-genre works often struggle to find a place, and there’s no reason for it beyond “if we can’t pigeon-hole a story, it’s harder to sell.” This edges out many innovative, creative works. It also disadvantages people who aren’t as familiar with genre rules. And don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an argument that, for example, the romance genre would be improved by opening up to stories that don’t have “happily ever afters.” Instead, it’s pointing out – there should also be a home for, say, a space opera with a side romance, an erotica scene, and a happily-for-now ending. Occasionally, works breakthrough, but for the most part stories that don’t conform never see the light of day (or, they do, but only after Point 2 – trad pub editors insist that the elements most “outside” the box be removed or revised).

7. The lines between romance and erotica are arbitrary, random, and hetero- and cis-normative.

This modern romance novel won’t sell if it doesn’t have an explicit sex scene, but God forbid you call a penis a penis. Oh, no, this is far too explicit, even though the book only has one mlm sex scene, this is erotica.

The difference between “romance” and “erotica” might not matter so much if not for the stigmas attached to erotica and the huge difference in marketability and audience. The difference between “romance” and “erotica” also might not matter so much if not for the fact that, so often, even incredibly raunchy stories that feature cis straight male/cis straight female sex scenes are shelved as romance, but the moment the sex is between people of the same gender, and/or a trans or genderqueer person is involved, and/or the relationship is polyamorous, and/or the characters involved are literally anything other than a cis straight male pleasuring a cis straight female in a “standard” way (cunnilingus welcome, pegging need not apply)…then the story is erotica. Two identical stories will get assigned different genres based on who the people having sex are, and also based on the “skill” of the author to use ludicrous euphemisms (instead of just…calling body parts what they’re called…), and it’s insane. Non-con can be a “romance” novel, even if it’s graphically described. “50 Shades of Gray” can sell millions of copies, even containing BDSM. But the word “vagina” gets used once…bam, erotica. (Seriously, the only standard that should matter is the Envelope Analogy).

8. Authors are expected to do a lot of their own legwork (eg advertising) but then don’t reap the benefits.

Okay, so, you’re going to get an advance of $2,500 on this, your first novel, and a royalty rate of 5% if and only if your advance sells out…so you’d better get out there and market! Wait, what do you mean you don’t have a following? Guess you’re never selling out your advance…

Trad pub can generally be relied on to do some marketing – so this item is perhaps better seen as an indictment of more mid-sized Presses – but, basically, if an author has to do the majority of the work themselves, then why aren’t they getting paid more? What’s the actual benefit to going the large press/trad pub route if it’s not going to get the book into more hands? It’s especially strange that this continues to be a major issue when self-publishing (which also requires doing one’s own marketing) garners 60%+ royalty rates. Yes, the author doesn’t get an advance, and they don’t get the cache of ~well I was published by…~, but considering some Presses require parts of advances to get paid back if the initial run doesn’t sell out, and cache doesn’t put food on the table…pay models have really, really got to change.

9. Fanfiction writing doesn’t count as writing experience

Hey there Basic White Dude, we see you’ve graduated summa cum laude from A Big Fancy Expensive School. Of course we’ll set you up to publish your first novel you haven’t actually quite finished writing yet. Oh, Fanperson, you’ve written 15 novels for your favorite fandom in the last 4 years? Get to the back of the line!

Do I really need to explain this? The only way to get better at writing is to write. Placing fanfiction on official trad pub “do not interact” lists is idiotic, especially considering many of the other items on this list. (They know how to engage readers! They have existing followings! They understand genre and tropes!) Being a fanfiction writer should absolutely be a marketable “I am a writer” skill. Nuff said. (To be clear, I’m not saying publishers should publish fanfiction, I’m saying that being a fanfiction writer is relevant and important experience that should be given weight when considering an author’s qualifications, similar to, say, publishing in a university’s quarterly.)

10. Tagging conventions (read: lack thereof).

Oh, did I trigger you? Hahahaha. Good luck with that.

We rate movies so that people can avoid content they don’t like. Same with TV shows and video games. Increasingly, those ratings aren’t just “R – adult audiences,” either; they contain information about the nature of the story elements that have led to the rating (“blood and gore,” “alcohol reference,” “cartoon violence,” “drug reference,” “sexual violence,” “use of tobacco,” and many, many more). So why is it that I can read a book and, without warning, be surprised by incest, rape, graphic violence, explicit language, glorification of drug and alcohol use, and so so much more? That it’s left to readers to look up spoilers to ensure that they’re not exposed to content that could be upsetting or inappropriate for their children or, or, or, is insane. So often, too, authors cling to “but we don’t want to give away our story,” as if video game makes and other media makers do want to give away their stories. This shouldn’t be about author egos or ~originality~ (as if that’s even a thing)…it should be about helping readers make informed purchasing decisions. It’s way, way past time that major market books include content warnings.

Thank you for joining us, this has been our extended rant about how frustrated we are with traditional publishing. Helpful? No. Cathartic? Most definitely yes. 🤣

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Ten Quick Tips to Help Writers Edit Their Own Work

Learning to edit your own writing effectively and thoroughly is a difficult skill to learn. It can be especially hard to spot small errors when you, as the author, know what you meant to say – your eye will often gloss over what your document actually says. To learn to edit your work well requires practice and careful reading of work you admire and want to emulate – we could give advice on how to do that level, certainly, but no amount of advice will negate the need to work at it until you get the hang of it and experiment with different strategies until you find one that works for you. However, spotting small errors that are easy to overlook in your own work is a much more solvable problem. Here’s some suggestions to help you look at familiar words with fresh eyes!

  1. Write a first draft in a font you’re comfortable with (most of us here at DPP use either Times New Roman or Arial), and then when it’s time to edit, switch to a radically different font – like Comic Sans, or, if you struggle with sans serif fonts, Courier.
  2. Change the background color of your document. Do you usually write in day mode? Try editing in night mode! Do you usually write with a colored background to reduce eye strain? Try a different color, or white!
  3. Change the font color in your document. If you default to writing in black, try red, or, if doing this in tandem with a background color change, try switching the font color to one that looks just awful with your chosen background color.
  4. Change the font size in your document. This can be especially helpful because it’ll radically change where in any given line your words fall – it’s often harder to spot issues at the very end of lines, because our brain fills in the end when we move to the next line, so adjusting where things fall on the page can help.
  5. Switch what medium you’re working in – if you typed your first draft, print it out or re-write it by hand. If you hand wrote your first draft, edit it as you type it up!
  6. Read it out loud. Yes, the whole thing. Yes, every single word. This will help spot typos, missing words, weird commas, etc., and can also help identify sentences that are off, repetitive, or otherwise wonky.
  7. Alternatively, find someone else to read it outloud to you! You can take notes and make changes as you listen to them.
  8. If you use an outline, go back and compare your draft to the outline. This can help make sure you didn’t miss anything, and also doing a side-by-side reading can help find small things.
  9. Change the characters names using a simple find-and-replace, it can help it feel like you’re reading something different.
  10. Put it aside for a few weeks and work on other things, then come back and read it through straight, making no changes – read it like you’re a reader, rather than reading it like you’re the author, and try to spot what you may have left out or been unclear about.

Getting a story “clean” from a SPAG (spelling and grammar) point of view is hard, and even for an experienced copyeditor, it usually takes multiple read-throughs. If you’ve found it’s something you struggle with, one of the perks of the above suggestions is that nearly all can be tried with minimal effort – you’ll quickly be able to tell whether, for example, changing the font helps you or not. If it does help – great, you’ve found a new tool to help you edit! If it doesn’t help – there’s plenty more things on the list for you to try!

Do y’all have any different tricks you use to help you edit? Let us know, we’d love to expand our list!

@licieoic and @nottesilhouette (on Tumblr) contributed ideas to this list.

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Devililsh Details: Adjective Lists

As we do our final copyedit to catch any tiny errors that may have slipped through into the final version of Add Magic to Taste, I (@unforth, the Press’s lead editor) have been reinforcing and formalizing my knowledge of how to use punctuation when dealing with the following sentence structure:

adjective1 adjective2 noun

Whether commas and/or hyphens are needed depends primarily on two factors:

  1. Is adjective1 modifying adjective2, or are they both modifying the noun?
  2. Are adjective1 and adjective2 coordinate or cumulative adjectives?

I’m not going to get in-depth on this post about what coordinate and cumulative adjectives are – there’s already some great resources for that, such as this Writing Fundamentals Guide post and this article by Grammar Girl. Covering that as well as the below is too much for one post. Instead, this post will focus on strategies for telling the difference between three cases:

adjective1-adjective2 noun (Case 1)

adjective1, adjective2 noun (Case 2)

adjective1 adjective2 noun (Case 3)

For starters, carefully consider what the meaning of adjective1, adjective2, and noun is when they’re used together. As in, what, specifically, is being described, and what is being established about it? You (as editor or writer!) need to know what you’re actually trying to say before you can make sure it’s written in a grammatically correct way. You also need to keep in mind the context of your story, because that might change your aimed-for meaning (for example, in one story, a box being wooden might be an incidental description, and in another, a box being wooden might be absolutely essential and noteworthy, and that could potentially influence the punctuation).

Once you know what you’re trying to say (“I’m trying to say that the box is wooden and beautiful;” “I’m trying to say that the wooden box is beautiful;” “I’m trying to say that the beautiful box is made of wood;” etc.) analyze your options by taking your three words (adjective1, adjective2, and noun – though note that adjective2 may not look like an adjective – it’s often a noun or verb that’s functioning as an adjective, because it’s modifying the noun) and consider iterations of them as sentences.

  • Does adjective1 + noun make sense and, if it does, does it also preserve the essential meaning of adjective1 + adjective2 + noun? Which is to say – is the only difference that, if adjective2 is removed, noun is described a little less, but the meaning is still clear and is what the writer intended? (If yes, see Cases 2 and 3 below; if no, see Case 1 below)
  • Are adjective1 and adjective2 in the same or different adjective “categories”? In English, adjectives make the most sense if they’re used in an order determined by the category they fall into – you can read more about that in this Grammarly post. Different sources use different lists of “categories,” and what “order” they go in can vary contextually, but they are essentially: opinion (beautiful, ugly), size (big, thin), age (three-years-old, ancient), condition (worn, new-made), shape (square, cylindrical), color (blue, whitish), origin/nationality/religion (Muslim, London-based), material (wooden, painted), purpose (archival, athletic). If adjective1 and adjective2 are in the same category (large, wide house; slippery, slick spill) then you should most likely refer to Case 2 below; if they’re in different categories (slow rectangular train; beautiful archival paper) you should most likely refer to Case 3 below.)
  • Similarly, does adjective2 + noun make sense and, if it does, does it also preserve the essential meaning? (If yes, see Cases 2 and 3 below; if no, see Case 1 below)
  • If the sentence is reworded as “adjective1 and adjective2 noun” does it make sense and preserve the intended meaning? (If yes, see Case 2 below; if no, see Cases 1 and 3 below)
  • If the sentence is reworded as adjective2 adjective1 noun, does it make sense and preserve the intended meaning? (If yes, see Case 2 below; if no, see Cases 1 and 3 below)
  • Visualize your sentence as units – does each word function more-or-less “alone” or do they make most sense when imagined as couples, as in (adjective1 + adjective2) + noun makes the most sense (if yes, see Case 1 below), or adjective1 + (adjective2 + noun) makes the most sense (if yes, see Case 3 below)? (if neither makes more or less sense, see Case 2 below)
  • Try plugging your words into following examples – the one that makes sense and preserves meaning is almost certainly the one you want. Option 1: “the noun is adjective1 adjective2” (and doesn’t make sense if a word is put between adjective1 and adjective2, in which case go to Case 1 below). Option 2: “the noun is adjective1 and adjective2” (in which case, go to Case 2 below). Option 3: “the adjective2 noun is adjective1” (in which case, go to Case 3 below). This can be especially helpful for figuring out if you’re dealing with a case where context makes a difference the adjectives cumulative (because, as I said, sometimes “the box is wooden and beautiful,” and “wooden” and “beautiful are equally meaningful – though they’re in different adjective categories – and sometimes, “the wooden box is beautiful” (especially as compared to a different box made of another material) is more what you’re aiming for – and that will affect the punctuation.)

All right – so far, so confusing, right? On to the specifics and examples!

Case 1: adjective1 is modifying adjective2, and combined, they make an adjectival phrase which modifies the noun – in which case, a hyphen is needed between adjective1 and adjective2.

Case 1 Example 1: his blue-green eyes. Explanation: the color of the eyes is a combination of blue and green; if you say “blue eyes” or “green eyes,” neither conveys the same meaning/communicates the same color. Instead, blue and green are combining to BOTH, together, give significant information about the color of his eyes.

Case 1 Example 2: the load-bearing wall. Explanation: “the load wall” and “the bearing wall” and “the load and bearing wall” are all gibberish that in no way preserve the intended meaning. “Load” and “bearing” need to be coupled together and interpreted as a single adjective “unit.”

Case 1 Example 3: the half-eaten muffin. Explanation: once again, consider our bullet list above – “the half muffin” could make sense but doesn’t preserve the intended meaning (for example, it could have been cut in half instead of eaten). “The eaten muffin” sort of makes sense, but again doesn’t preserve the meaning – the muffin is only partially eaten. The “half eaten muffin” is nothing – an “eaten muffin” isn’t a thing – and “the half and eaten muffin” is obviously nothing – and “the eaten half muffin” changes the meaning, implying someone ate all of half a muffin – and there’d need to be a hyphen between half and muffin. Only with a hyphen does the sentence make sense AND convey this specific meaning.

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Case 2: adjective1 and adjective2 are both equally modifying the noun, and all of the following sentence re-structuring examples lead to new phrases that make sense and preserve the intended meaning (if…with slightly less descriptive power): “adjective1 noun,” “adjective2 noun,” and “adjective1 and adjective2 noun.” adjective1 and adjective2 are most likely to fit these pattern examples if they’re in the same category, as described above. In this case, adjective1 and adjective2 are functioning as coordinate adjectives, and the correct phrasing will be: adjective1, adjective2 noun -> a comma is needed between adjective1 and adjective2.

Case 2 Example 1: the wide, open field. Explanation: “the wide field” – okay, we know a little less about the field, but it still makes sense. “The open field” – same. “The wide and open field” – it’s a little clunky, but it also makes sense. “The open and wide field” – sounds slightly odd, because in English we like our adjectives in a certain order and if we change that order it makes (especially native speaker’s) eyebrows twitch, but it does function as a sentence. “The field is wide and open” – also makes sense. They’re also arguably in the same category (size). So, these are coordinate adjectives, and a comma is needed between them.

Case 2 Example 2: my pretty, erudite friend. Explanation: “my pretty friend,” “my erudite friend,” “my pretty and erudite friend,” “my erudite and pretty friend,” “my friend is pretty and erudite,” all of these make perfect sense, so – comma! (also – same category – opinion)

Case 2 Example 3: the soft, fuzzy toy. Explanation: I could go over it a million times – why not try it your self? Break it down into adjective1 + noun, adjective2 + noun, adjective1 and adjective2 noun, adjective2 and adjective1 noun, the noun is adjective1 and adjective2…all good, right? Some may niggle at the ear because of English adjective order, but they all essentially work. (and again – category is descriptive opinion – so, same)

Note: As I keep saying, whether something is Case 2 or Case 3 can be contextually dependent. There is no hard-and-fast rule – even the examples above, which I tried to make clear and straightforward (the clear, straightforward examples?) could arguably have no comma, depending on context. This is “indefinite” enough, often, that no one is gonna come down on you if you don’t do it right; if you’re really not sure, it’s probably better to err on the side of “no comma,” Case 3. But, you can also keep in mind that the “weirder,” “clunkier,” “awkwarder,” “more stilted” a sentence sounds when you put “and” between the adjectives, the more likely we are to need Case 3. And also, even with context, it’s usually best to use Case 3 if the adjectives are in different categories.

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Case 3: adjective2 is directly modifying noun, and adjective1 makes most sense considered as describing the “unit” made of “adjective2 noun.” “adjective2 noun” still makes clear sense, but “adjective1 noun” is missing essential meaning that contextualizes the information being presented. “adjective1 and adjective2 noun” reads like gibberish, and “adjective2 adjective1 noun” similarly makes no sense. In this case, the adjectives are cumulative, and they should not get a comma between them.

Case 3 Example 1: the elderly American tourist. Explanation: “the elderly and American tourist” does vaguely make sense, but it loses essential meaning – we’re not describing the tourist, we’re describing the American tourist. Whether “American” is critical information will depend, somewhat, on context, but try changing the order – “the American elderly tourist” reads as wrong almost always – unless we’re dealing with a case where there’s a whole hoard of elderly tourists and we specifically mean the American one. From a category standpoint, they’re also clearly in different categories – elderly is about age/description, American nationality. Thus, no comma should be used.

Case 3 Example 2: the wide road shoulder. Explanation: this one is more clear-cut than the previous, because essential meaning is lost when the order is changed or the middle word (which, yes, is a noun, but it’s modifying/altering the meaning of shoulder) – without “road” there, “shoulder” means something completely different. “Road shoulder” makes sense alone, but “the road wide shoulder” is nonsense, as is “the wide and road shoulder.” And, different categories – wide is size, whereas road describes purpose.

Case 3 Example 3: your orange knit sweater. Explanation: again, this is about establishing a category (the “knit sweater”) that is then being described as orange. While, yes, “orange sweater” makes sense and could arguably cause this to fall into Case 2, “the knit orange sweater” reads oddly (again, unless we’re differentiating one orange sweater from the others), as does “the orange and knit sweater.” Further, for categories – color and material/means of making are again, clearly different, and so this is an instance where adjectives in different categories pile, and the entire unit of “knit sweater” is what is being described by “orange.”

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I know it’s hard. Especially for non-native speakers, who may not have the exposure to the language to know “by ear” what “sounds weird,” it can be hard to recognize the subtle differences. Sadly, this is an instance of grammar where “it just sounds right that way” is often a good way (especially for a native speaker) to gauge which Case is right. But, in general, if adjective2 + noun make a unit that would clearly distinguish noun from other forms of noun (the American tourist, the knit sweater, the peaked roof, etc.) then you probably want Case 3 and shouldn’t use a comma.

In the end, there’s no simple rules for this. It’s complex, and there are tons of exceptions to the “rules,” and even if you’re super careful, some of these kinds of cases will likely slip through. Further, even if you do your best, and go with the most “technically correct” approach, you’ll end up with things that look weird (“the bright-blue bird” is the most technically correct way to write it – bright is definitely modifying the color blue – but no one would actually write it this way because it reads “weird.” Like, yes, the bird is not bright, which means the hyphen is “necessary” but…it’s not actually.) So – consider what you mean, and what reads smoothly, and what you see other people doing, and do your best.

On the plus side – if you’re an experienced writer/editor/reader, and you’ve read all this and you’re still confused, your readers are in the same boat as you – hardly anyone who reads your edited work will know these rules well enough to even notice that you might have gotten one or two wrong.

So, don’t stress about it much – this is definitely on the most pedantic end of technical copyediting grammar shenanigans – but hey, now you know!

Now, go write some words!

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Advice for Writing Trans Male Characters

Hi everyone, and welcome to our second guest post!  We approached a trans man, and fellow writer, to put together a list of suggestions for cis people who want to write trans male characters! He has chosen to remain anonymous. Always remember, there is no one trans experience, and no one trans person’s knowledge will reflect the range of ways that trans people live. Our post author writes from his perspective, based on his knowledge and research, and much of this is relatively specific to the modern United States. Always use multiple sources when writing a character with an identity or identities that you don’t share!

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    So you want to write a trans male character but you’re not a trans man yourself. Good! We need more trans male characters out there in the world. There are a few things to consider, however. This is not a perfect list (I would never claim to be perfect), but here are some thoughts from a trans man about writing people like me.

    Trans men are men. They talk like men, think like men, and walk like men, except where socialization as women has forced otherwise. By this I mean that descriptions should not include things like “he walked delicately, like a woman”. However he walks, it’s like a man, because he’s a man. Other characters should not note that he “thinks like a woman” or that he “acts like a woman.” If you talk about a trans man transitioning and you mention that he is working on ways to masculinize his speech patterns or walking, that’s fine, but make sure it’s done from his perspective, e.g. “Michael tried to lower his voice, attempting to sound more like his father.” Do not use “Michael tried to lower his voice, not wanting to sound like a woman.” It’s his voice and he sounds like a man. Also, many woman have deeper registers and many men have higher registers, and there’s honestly not that much difference between a woman who speaks in a low alto and a man who speaks in a high tenor. Avoid gendering voices, mannerisms, and other things. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s a concept, idea, or an inanimate or non-sentient thing, it is physically and/or emotionally incapable of having a gender and you should not assign one to it.

1. A trans man who has decided that all he needs to do is come out to be a man is still a man, with a man’s body and male genitals, because he says he’s a man. Even if he is not out, he is a man. He can be uncomfortable with his body, or with how others perceive his body, but it should not be described in terms of “womanly” aspects. 

        EX: David’s breasts made him uncomfortable, reminding him that others looked at him differently than how he would have liked. 

2. 72% of trans men do not ever want full gender reassignment surgery, and this doesn’t make them “less of a man.” The surgeries are expensive, invasive, and don’t always result in a fully functional genital apparatus. Also, there are a lot of them. A trans man, to have a full semi-working penis (one that will not be useful for sex but will at least be useful for urination), is looking at at least three surgeries: to remove the labia, to ‘bulk up’ the clitoris, and to move the urethra. There are also surgeries to remove the cervix and/or the uterus, to create a scrotum, and to add a pump inside the scrotum attached to a surgical implant in the penis to assist with arousal. Even if a man has all these surgeries, the penis he gets loses most of its sensitivity and won’t become physically aroused (as in, achieve erection) without medical intervention. He may also need electrolysis to remove pubic hair. Ultimately, many trans men opt not to deal with it. Many still want top surgery, or a hysterectomy, or both, and often testosterone is used to help deepen their voice and change their body shape (but, again, gendering a trans man’s voice by suggesting it’s “feminine” because he’s not on testosterone or because his voice hasn’t dropped yet is not a great idea). It depends on the type and amount of dysphoria a person experiences, versus their financial and mental ability to deal with the different choices. Some trans men are happy with no hormones and only top surgery. Others want or need everything. There is no “correct” way to be trans. 

3. Unless your story revolves around their transition (which, as a cis person, maybe it’s best you don’t do, honestly), there’s no reason to go into detail about your trans male character’s surgeries. If it’s not plot relevant, it’s probably not necessary. 

4. If you’re writing porn, make sure to always use male pronouns for him, even if he has chosen not to go through surgery. If he has gone through surgery, what he has will be indistinguishable from a cis male penis except that he may need  viagra or a surgical pump. 

5. Reactions to testosterone are different for every trans man. Some men never have their voices drop, never grow a beard, and/or never bulk up and get all muscle-y. Some men are on testosterone for two weeks and have a Gandalf beard with a voice low enough to sing bass. It just depends, mostly on genetics. If your character’s father is a super hairy mountain man who sings bass in his lumberjack quartet, then your character is more likely to end up similar. If your character’s father is basically an elf, then he’s likely to be similar to that. Also, for a number of reasons, a trans man may choose not to or may be incapable of taking testosterone. Most doctors won’t prescribe it if the man wants to carry his own children in the future, for example. 

6. Keep in mind that the order in which testosterone produces effects on a man’s body isn’t predictable, so don’t worry too hard about ‘getting it right.’ Even trans men can’t predict what they’ll look like after being on testosterone for a while. 

7. Also, a note: If your character is transmasculine and nonbinary, and taking testosterone, it’s likely they will be on a lower dose than a trans man. That’s not always true, but testosterone can be given at a few different doses, depending on how drastic a change a person wants and how quickly they want that change to occur. There’s still no guarantee: a trans man may never be able to grow a beard on a full dose, while a transmasculine nonbinary person might be on a very low dose and have a beard within the first month. But, generally, lower doses are meant to bring out smaller changes over a longer period of time, while higher doses are meant to bring out larger changes over a shorter period of time.

8. A non-fluid trans man is going to consider himself a man at all times, and always use he/him pronouns for himself, whether or not everyone else does. If you’re writing a trans man point-of-view piece where he’s not out or where he’s not fully accepted, make sure he or the narrator always uses the right pronouns when others don’t. That helps remind your audience that he’s not the person other people think he is.  

        EX: Daniel was frustrated. His grandmother insisted on calling him “Sarah” no matter how many times he corrected her.

9. Menstruation is a difficult topic for a lot of trans men. Some men lose their ability to menstruate when they take testosterone, while others continue to menstruate. If they retain their uterus, however, the possibility of a menstrual cycle is always there. If/when menstruation happens for a trans man, it’s often a time of major dysphoria. A trans man may have a lot of issues surrounding menstruation. Having a cervix also means yearly Pap smears, which can also be uncomfortable or dysphoria-inducing. Dysphoria can also happen during ovulation, when a person is most fertile. The body during this time is “getting ready for a baby” and the changes can be very triggering. 

10. Testosterone may stop menstruation, but it doesn’t necessarily stop pregnancy. Also, some trans men will go off their testosterone in order to carry their own child. During their pregnancy, it is important that they are still referred to as men. A trans man will generally prefer to be called “father” even if he carried the child, but some may prefer the term “mother.” If a cis person wishes to write a pregnant trans character, it would be better to err on the side of caution and use “father.” A trans man who has gone through top surgery will not likely be able to nurse his own children, but a man who has chosen to use a binder instead will be able to (probably – some people don’t/can’t lactate for other reasons). Whether or not he chooses to will be up to him. 

11. Gender Dysphoria is the medical diagnosis given to trans people who want to do any form of medical transitioning. Being transgender is not in and of itself a diagnosis. A person can be transgender and choose never to transition medically. Dysphoria is generally most clearly understood as a form of discomfort in the body you possess. Sometimes a person experiencing dysphoria is uncomfortable with their body no matter what. He doesn’t like his breasts, for example, unless they are bound, no matter what his setting is, who is looking at him, etc. His dysphoria takes the form of nausea at the mere sight of them. Alternatively, some people only experience dysphoria relating to how others see them. For example, a man may not mind his breasts when he’s alone, and he doesn’t usually bind, but on a specific day while he wasn’t binding someone glance at his breasts before calling him ‘ma’am’ and now he can’t uncross his arms in case someone else looks his way. For some people dysphoria comes and goes, and they have good days and bad days. Also, images can be dysphoria-inducing. For example, seeing a pregnant person might remind a man that he has a uterus, and make him extremely uncomfortable all day. Other people may go several days, or weeks or months, without experiencing dysphoria, but when it hits it affects them for a long time or very severely. Or a person might experience dysphoria every day, as kind of a low-level mental fog they can’t shake. 

12. Gender Euphoria is as valid as Gender Dysphoria. Gender Euphoria is the idea that a person might be content in the body given to them, but will never be truly happy unless they make a change. These people can live their whole lives as the gender assigned to them at birth without severe mental issues or physical problems, but it’s like living a life without color. They can do it, but if there’s a way to get color back, why wouldn’t they? 

13. Changing names is complicated and takes time. It also differs in every state/country, and may need to be re-done when a trans man moves. In some states, all they need to change their name legally is a court order. In other areas, a trans man needs to have lived using their new name for a period of time, or have doctor’s notes and authorizations. Once the character has changed their name legally through the courts, they need to change their driver’s license, banking information, insurance, work papers, social security information, passport, birth certificate, and any other documentation bearing their name. It can take anywhere from a month to a year or more, and is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. It’s okay to have a trans male character who goes by “Mark” but whose parents or grandparents refer to as “Melissa.” The important thing is to make sure narratively you are confirming that those people are wrong.

        EX: “Melissa! It’s nice to see you come to visit!” Mark’s mom said. Mark cringed, hating the sound of his deadname, but he hadn’t yet been able to convince his mother to use the right one.

14. Do not portray a character binding for more than eight hours or with unsafe binders in a positive light. Just don’t. Binding, even with professional/high-end binders, is not safe. It’s a stopgap – safer than not binding at all for some people whose dysphoria is really bad. It constricts the lungs and can break ribs if not done properly. It can permanently alter a person’s chest cage if done for an extensive period of time. It’s a necessary evil for people who are waiting to get their surgery done, in order to keep them alive to have that surgery. It’s not a permanent cure-all. Binding also can cause dysphoria. A person who doesn’t have dysphoria surrounding his chest can develop it after wearing a binder. So, have your character bind safely, or discuss the issues surrounding unsafe binding. (And yes, this applies even in a fantasy setting or world where the technology may be different. A story is a story, but the impact it could have on a real trans man is potentially dangerous, so write with consideration, and if you do introduce a magical or technological solution to this, maintain awareness of the reality.)

15. Transitioning without an in-person support group is one of the most common factors in transitioning regret. Give your character someone to go to the doctor with them, someone to hold their hand when they get scared, someone to talk them through moments when they’re unsure. No one who goes under the knife is always completely 100% sure all the time. They need a community. Surgery and hormones are scary, even if a trans man knows he wants them, and trying to go it alone can spell disaster.

16. Given that a trans man will consider himself a man, it can be challenging to make it clear to a reader that he’s trans. If he’s the main/POV character, you can write him dealing with some dysphoria. For example, if you decide your character binds, mention that his breasts are bothering him particularly badly one day. Have him adjust his binder. Describe putting a binder on. That kind of thing. If he’s a minor character, it can be more challenging, but you can still have him do things like adjust a binder. You could also mention surgical scars, if a character takes off their shirt. Another thing you can do is just have the main character remember a time “before Mark went by Mark” (for example). Another way is to have the character mention some way in which they are fighting for trans rights, and acknowledge that the issue is personal to them. Try not to use the deadname unless he’s facing an actual microaggression by another character. The narrative or narrator character should never deadname the character.

17. FTM is not an accepted term anymore, as it implies that a person was one thing and changed. Generally speaking, if a trans man is not genderfluid, then he was never female or a woman. Likewise, the phrase “born in the wrong body” is not acceptable for use by cis people. The only real use it has is to explain dysphoria by transgender characters to cisgender characters who aren’t inclined to listen or try to understand. The accepted term is AFAB, or Assigned Female At Birth. Keep in mind that terms and labels change with time, so do your research. For example, if you’re writing a historical piece, different terms may be more appropriate, and if you’re writing a modern current-day piece, understand that in ten or twenty years the terminology you use will likely have grown outdated. 

18. The proper way to write the term is always “trans man” and never “transman”. Trans is an adjective describing a type of man, just like you might say an Asian man or a muscled man or a gay man. This comes back to the idea that a trans man is always a man, first and foremost.

19. An easy pitfall to avoid if your trans male character’s setting is modern or modernesque is: Don’t make the story all about their oppression. We are aware of the many ways in which the modern world is trying to oppress and harm the trans community, but trans men can still be happy and interesting people. They can have dysphoria without being depressed. They aren’t necessarily the “down in the dumps” character. Also, trans men have a long history of being activists, and are often erased in history, so don’t be afraid to make your trans men an out-and-loud activist. Yes, terrible things have happened and continue to happen to trans men, and any trans man who has done any research into trans history will know about individuals like Brandon Teena. Trans men know the dangers they face. Knowing that bad things can and are happening doesn’t mean a trans man can’t find his own joy in life, despite things not being perfect.

20. Keep in mind when writing in historical settings that trans men have existed for as long as people have existed. Many trans men were able to go through life completely “undetected” until they died and those around them conducted culturally-common burial practices. It’s not unreasonable to have a trans man in Regency England, Yuan China, or Roman times. If you’re writing about non-European-centric history, many cultures acknowledged those who didn’t present the way their AGAB (assigned gender at birth) would suggest, and do your research. Also, keep intersectionality in mind, and tread especially carefully when writing a trans man from a culture and period other than your own. This post is mostly applicable to trans men in the modern era, and especially in the United States. The trans male experience will be different in other places in the world, for people of different ages and of different religions and ethnicities and races, so the more traits your trans man has that are outside your own experience as a cis writer, the more you should consider if it’s wise for you write the story you have in mind, or if it might not be better to allow in-group members to tell those stories. And never forget – trans men can and are all things – all races, all religions, abled and disabled, etc. People have nuanced identities and multiple identifiers and trans is always only one of many.

21. In fantastical or science fiction settings, please always ask yourself if oppression of trans people or bigotry against them is even needed. Maybe a society doesn’t assign gender at birth, but waits until a child is old enough to tell the society where they belong. Maybe a society reveres those who are under the transgender umbrella. Maybe children are considered genderless until they reach puberty. You have a million and one options; why limit yourself to what modern predominantly Western white Christian society says? If you do make a society that doesn’t look anything like the modern world, for example they assign gender at age five, think about how that would affect society as a whole. What kind of pronouns would be used for children under five? Are young children genderless, or are they seen as genderfluid? What about people who age past five and are still genderless or genderfluid? What are the naming conventions for children? 

22. There are mixed feelings regarding how a science fiction or fantasy setting should treat transitioning. Should it be an easy fix, with magic or advance science doing it instantly or nearly so? Or should it be difficult, reflecting the modern situation where the process often years before a person can feel “finished?” That’s up to you. Trans people themselves are split on this, so there’s no pleasing everyone. Do your best, and whichever way you choose, make sure to tag it accurately or, for original fiction, be clear up front what approaches you’ve chosen, so people can choose not to read something that may make them uncomfortable at best or trigger them and profoundly harm them at worst. 

    Ultimately, your trans man is your character and you can do with him as you wish. Write responsibly, and do your research, and if you can, get a sensitivity reader or a beta who is a trans man. 

    So, go, diversify those stories, write the things, and present good representation! Happy writing!

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Giving Quality, Motivating Feedback

A guest post by @shealynn88!

The new writer in your writing group just sent out their latest story and it’s…not exciting. You know it needs work, but you’re not sure why, or where they should focus. 

This is the blog post for you!

Before we get started, it’s important to note that this post isn’t aimed at people doing paid editing work. In the professional world, there are developmental editors, line editors, and copy editors, who all have a different focus. That is not what we’re covering here. Today, we want to help you informally give quality, detailed, encouraging feedback to your fellow writers.

The Unwritten Rules

Everyone seems to have a different understanding of what it means to beta, edit, or give feedback on a piece, so it’s best to be on the same page with your writer before you get started. 

Think about what type of work you’re willing and able to do, how much time you have, and how much emotional labor you’re willing to take on. Then talk to your writer about their expectations.

Responsibilities as an editor/beta may include:

  1. Know what the author’s expectation is and don’t overstep. Different people in different stages of writing are looking for, and will need, different types of support. It’s important to know what pieces of the story they want feedback on. If they tell you they don’t want feedback on dialogue, don’t give them feedback on dialogue. Since many terms are ambiguous or misunderstood, it may help you to use the list of story components in the next section to come to an agreement with your writer on what you’ll review.
  2. Don’t offer expertise you don’t have. If your friend needs advice on their horse book and you know nothing about horses, be clear that your readthrough will not include any horse fact checking. Don’t offer grammar advice if you’re not good at grammar. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback on things you do notice, but don’t misrepresent yourself, and understand your own limits.
  3. Give positive and constructive feedback. It is important for a writer to know when something is working well. Don’t skimp on specific positive feedback — this is how you keep writers motivated. On the other hand, giving constructive feedback indicates where there are issues. Be specific on what you’re seeing and why it’s an issue. It can be hard for someone to improve if they don’t understand what’s wrong.
  4. Be clear about your timing and availability, and provide updates if either changes. Typically, you’ll be doing this for free, as you’re able to fit it in your schedule. But it can be nerve wracking to hand your writing over for feedback and then hear nothing. For everyone’s sanity, keep the writer up to date on your expected timeline and let them know if you’re delayed for some reason. If you cannot complete the project for them, let them know. This could be for any reason — needing to withdraw, whatever the cause,  is valid! It could be because working with the writer is tough, you don’t enjoy the story, life got tough, you got tired, etc. All of that is fine; just let them know that you won’t be able to continue working on the project.
  5. Be honest if there are story aspects you can’t be objective about. Nearly all of your feedback is going to be personal opinion. There are some story elements that will evoke strong personal feelings. They can be tropes, styles, specific characterizations, or squicks. In these cases, ask the writer to get another opinion on that particular aspect, or, if you really want to continue, find similar published content to review and see if you can get a better sense of how other writers have handled it.
  6. Don’t get personal. Your feedback should talk about the characters, the narrator, the plotline, the sentence structure, or other aspects of the story. Avoid making ‘you’ statements or judgements, suggested or explicit, in your feedback. Unless you’re looking at grammar or spelling, most of the feedback you’ll have will be your opinion. Don’t present it as fact.

Your expectations of the writer/friend/group member you are working with may include:

  1. Being gracious in accepting feedback. A writer may provide explanations for an issue you noticed or seek to discuss your suggestions.  However, if they constantly argue with you, that may be an indicator to step back.
  2. Being responsible for emotional reactions to getting feedback. While getting feedback can be hard on the ego and self esteem, that is something the writer needs to work on themselves. While you can provide reassurance and do emotional labor if you’re comfortable, it is also very reasonable to step back if the writer isn’t ready to do that work.
  3. Making the final choice regarding changes to the work. The writer should have a degree of confidence in accepting or rejecting your feedback based on their own sense of the story. While they may consult you on this, the onus is on them to make changes that preserve the core of the story they want to tell.

Some people aren’t ready for feedback, even though they’re seeking it. You’re not signing up to be a psychologist, a best friend, or an emotional support editor. You can let people know in advance that these are your expectations, or you can just keep them in mind for your own mental health. As stated above, you can always step back from a project, and if writers aren’t able to follow these few guidelines, it might be a good time to do that. (It’s also worth making sure that, as a writer, you’re able to give these things to your beta/editor.)

Specificity is Key

One of the hardest things in editing is pinning down the ‘whys’ of unexciting work, so let’s split the writing into several components and talk about evaluations you can make for each one.

You can also give this list to your writer ahead of time as a checklist, to see which things they want your feedback on. 

Generally, your goal is going to be to help people improve incrementally. Each story they write should be better than the previous one, so you don’t need to go through every component for every story you edit. Generally, I wouldn’t suggest more than 3 editing rounds on any single story that isn’t intended for publication. Think of the ‘many pots’ theory — people who are honing their craft will improve more quickly by writing a lot of stories instead of incessantly polishing one.

With this in mind, try addressing issues in the order below, from general to precise. It doesn’t make sense to critique grammar and sentence structure if the plot isn’t solid, and it can be very hard on a writer to get feedback on all these components at once. If a piece is an early or rough draft, try evaluating no more than four components at a time, and give specific feedback on what does and doesn’t work, and why.

High Level Components

Character arc/motivation:

  • Does each character have a unique voice, or do they all sound the same?
  • In dialogue, are character voices preserved? Do they make vocabulary and sentence-structure choices that fit with how they’re being portrayed?
  • Does each character have specific motivations and focuses that are theirs alone?
  • Does each character move through the plot naturally, or do they seem to be shoehorned/railroaded into situations or decisions for the sake of the plot? Be specific about which character actions work and which don’t. Tell the writer what you see as their motivation/arc and why—and point out specific lines that indicate that motivation to you.
  • Does each character’s motivation seem to come naturally from your knowledge of them?
  • Are you invested (either positively or negatively) in the characters? If not, why not? Is it that they have nothing in common with you? Do you not understand where they’re coming from? Are they too perfect or too unsympathetic?

Theme

It’s a good idea to summarize the story and its moral from your point of view and provide that insight to the writer. This can help them understand if the points they were trying to make come through. The theme should tie in closely with the character arcs. If not, provide detailed feedback on where it does and doesn’t tie in.

Plot Structure: 

For most issues with plot structure, you can narrow them down to pacing, characterization, logical progression, or unsatisfying resolution. Be specific about the issues you see and, when things are working well, point that out, too.

  • Is there conflict that interests you? Does it feel real? 
  • Is there a climax? Do you feel drawn into it? 
  • Do the plot points feel like logical steps within the story?
  • Is the resolution tied to the characters and their growth? Typically this will feel more real and relevant and satisfying than something you could never have seen coming.
  • Is the end satisfying? If not, is it because you felt the end sooner and the story kept going? Is it because too many threads were left unresolved? Is it just a matter of that last sentence or two being lackluster?

Point Of View:

  • Is the point of view clear and consistent? 
  • Is the writing style and structure consistent with that point of view? For example, if a writer is working in first person or close third person, the style of the writing should reflect the way the character thinks. This extends to grammar, sentence structure, general vocabulary and profanity outside of the dialogue. 
  • If there is head hopping (where the point of view changes from chapter to chapter or section to section), is it clear in the first few sentences whose point of view you’re now in? Chapter headers can be helpful, but it should be clear using structural, emotional, and stylistic changes that you’re with a new character now.
  • Are all five senses engaged? Does the character in question interact with their environment in realistic, consistent ways that reflect how people actually interact with the world?
  • Sometimes the point of view can feel odd if it’s too consistent. Humans don’t typically think logically and linearly all the time, so being in someone’s head may sometimes be contradictory or illogical. If it’s too straightforward, it might not ‘feel’ real. 

Be specific about the areas that don’t work and break them down based on the questions above.

Pacing

  • Does the story jump around, leaving you confused about what took place when?
  • Do some scenes move quickly where others drag, and does that make sense within the story?
  • If pacing isn’t working, often it’s about the level of detail or the sentence structure. Provide detailed feedback about what you care about in a given scene to help a writer focus in.

Setting:

  • Is the setting clear and specific? Writing with specific place details is typically more rooted, interesting, and unique. If you find the setting vague and/or uninteresting and/or irrelevant, you might suggest replacing vague references — ‘favorite band’, ‘coffee shop on the corner’, ‘the office building’ — with specific names to ground the setting and make it feel more real. 
  • It might also be a lack of specific detail in a scene that provides context beyond the characters themselves. Provide specific suggestions of what you feel like you’re missing. Is it in a specific scene, or throughout the story? Are there scenes that work well within the story, where others feel less grounded? Why?

Low Level Components

Flow/Sentence Structure:

  • Sentence length and paragraph length should vary. The flow should feel natural. 
  • When finding yourself ‘sticking’ on certain sentences, provide specific feedback on why they aren’t working. Examples are rhythm, vocabulary, subject matter (maybe something is off topic), ‘action’ vs ‘explanation’, passive vs. active voice.

Style/Vocabulary:

  • Writing style should be consistent with the story — flowery prose works well for mythic or historical pieces and stories that use that type of language are typically slower moving. Quick action and short sentences are a better fit for murder mysteries, suspense, or modern, lighter fiction. 
  • Style should be consistent within the story — it may vary slightly to show how quickly action is happening, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re reading two different stories.

SPAG (Spelling and Grammar):

  • Consider spelling and grammar in the context of the point of view, style and location of the story (eg, England vs. America vs. Australia). 
  • If a point of view typically uses incorrect grammar, a SPAG check will include making sure that it doesn’t suddenly fall into perfect grammar for a while. In this case, consistency is going to be important to the story feeling authentic.

Word Count Requirements:

If the story has been written for a project, bang, anthology, zine, or other format that involves a required word count minimum or maximum, and the story is significantly over or under the aimed-for word count (30% or more/less), it may not make sense to go through larger edits until the sizing is closer to requirements. But, as a general rule, I’d say word count is one of the last things to worry about.

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The best thing we can do for another writer is to keep them writing. Every single person will improve if they keep going. Encouragement is the most important feedback of all.

I hope this has helped you think about how you provide feedback. Let us know if you have other tips or tricks! This works best as a collaborative process where we all can support one another!

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How to Edit an Over-Length Story Down to a Specific Word Count

One of the most wonderful things about writing as a hobby is that you never have to worry about the length of your story. You can be as self-indulgent as you want, make your prose the royalist of purples, include every single side story and extra thought that strikes your fancy. It’s your story, with no limits, and you can proceed with it as you wish. 

When transitioning from casual writing to a more professional writing milieu, this changes. If you want to publish, odds are, you’ll need to write to a word count. If a flash fiction serial says, “1,000 words or less,” your story can’t be 1,025 and still qualify. If a website says, “we accept novellas ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 words,” your story will need to fall into that window. Even when you consider novel-length works, stories are expected to be a certain word count to fit neatly into specific genres – romance is usually around 80,000 words, young adult usually 50,000 to 80,000, debut novels usually have to be 100,000 words or less regardless of genre, etc. If you self-publish or work with a small press, you may be able to get away with breaking these “rules,” but it’s still worthwhile to learn to read your own writing critically with length in mind and learn to recognize what you do and do not need to make your story work – and then, if length isn’t an issue in your publishing setting, you can always decide after figuring out what’s non-essential to just keep everything anyway. 

If you’re writing for fun? You literally never have to worry about your word count (well, except for sometimes in specific challenges that have minimum and/or maximum word counts), and as such, this post is probably not for you.

But, if you’re used to writing in the “throw in everything and the kitchen sink” way that’s common in fandom fanfiction circles, and you’re trying to transition only to be suddenly confronted with the reality that you’ve written 6,000 words for a short story project with a maximum word count of 5,000…well, we at Duck Prints Press have been there, we are in fact there right now, as we finish our stories for our upcoming anthology Add Magic to Taste and many of us wrote first drafts that were well over the maximum word count.

So, based on our experiences, here are our suggestions on approaches to help your story shorter…without losing the story you wanted to tell!

  1. Cut weasel words (we wrote a whole post to help you learn how to do that!) such as unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, the “was ~ing” sentence structure, redundant time words such as “a moment later,” and many others.
  2. When reviewing dialog, keep an eye out for “uh,” “er,” “I mean,” “well,” and other casual extra words. A small amount of that kind of language usage can make dialog more realistic, but a little goes a long way, and often a fair number of words can be removed by cutting these words, without negatively impacting your story at all.
  3. Active voice almost always uses fewer words than passive voice, so try to use active voice more (but don’t forget that passive voice is important for varying up your sentence structures and keeping your story interesting, so don’t only write in active voice!).
  4. Look for places where you can replace phrases with single words that mean the same thing. You can often save a lot of words by switching out phrases like “come back” for “return” and seeking out other places where one word can do the work of many.
  5. Cut sentences that add atmosphere but don’t forward the plot or grow your characters. (Obviously, use your judgement. Don’t cut ALL the flavor, but start by going – I’ve got two sentences that are mostly flavor text – which adds more? And then delete the other, or combine them into one shorter sentence.)
  6. Remove superfluous dialog tags. If it’s clear who’s talking, especially if it’s a conversation between only two people, you can cut all the he saids, she saids.
  7. Look for places where you’ve written repetitively – at the most basic level, “ ‘hahaha,’ he laughed,” is an example, but repetition is often more subtle, like instances where you give information in once sentence, and then rephrase part or all of that sentence in the next one – it’s better to poke at the two sentences until you think of an effective, and more concise, way to make them into only one sentence. This also goes for scenes – if you’ve got two scenes that tend towards accomplishing the same plot-related goal, consider combining them into one scene.
  8. Have a reason for every sentence, and even every sentence clause (as in, every comma insertion, every part of the sentence, every em dashed inclusion, that kind of thing). Ask yourself – what function does this serve? Have I met that function somewhere else? If it serves no function, or if it’s duplicative, consider cutting it. Or, the answer may be “none,” and you may choose to save it anyway – because it adds flavor, or is very in character for your PoV person, or any of a number of reasons. But if you’re saving it, make sure you’ve done so intentionally. It’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to do with your words, or else how can you recognize what to cut, and what not to cut?
  9. Likewise, have a reason for every scene. They should all move the story along – whatever the story is, it doesn’t have to be “the end of the world,” your story can be simple and straightforward and sequential…but if you’re working to a word count, your scenes should still forward the story toward that end point. If the scene doesn’t contribute…you may not need them, or you may be able to fold it in with another scene, as suggested in item 6.
  10.  Review the worldbuilding you’ve included, and consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. A bit of worldbuilding outside of the bare essentials makes a story feel fleshed out, but again, a little can go a long way. If you’ve got lots of “fun” worldbuilding bits that don’t actually forward your plot and aren’t relevant to your characters, cut them. You can always put them as extras in your blog later, but they’ll just make your story clunky if you have a lot of them. 
  11. Beware of info-dumps. Often finding a more natural way to integrate that information – showing instead of telling in bits throughout the story – can help reduce word count.
  12. Alternatively – if you over-show, and never tell, this will vastly increase your word count, so consider if there are any places in your story where you can gloss over the details in favor of a shorter more “tell-y” description. You don’t need to go into a minute description of every smile and laugh – sometimes it’s fine to just say, “she was happy” or “she frowned” without going into a long description of their reaction that makes the reader infer that they were happy. (Anyone who unconditionally says “show, don’t tell,” is giving you bad writing advice. It’s much more important to learn to recognize when showing is more appropriate, and when telling is more appropriate, because no story will function as a cohesive whole if it’s all one or all the other.)
  13. If you’ve got long paragraphs, they’re often prime places to look for entire sentences to cut. Read them critically and consider what’s actually helping your story instead of just adding word count chonk.
  14. Try reading some or all of the dialog out loud; if it gets boring, repetitive, or unnecessary, end your scene wherever you start to lose interest, and cut the dialog that came after. If necessary, add a sentence or two of description at the end to make sure the transition is abrupt, but honestly, you often won’t even need to do so – scenes that end at the final punchy point in a discussion often work very well.
  15. Create a specific goal for a scene or chapter. Maybe it’s revealing a specific piece of information, or having a character discover a specific thing, or having a specific unexpected event occur, but, whatever it is, make sure you can say, “this scene/chapter is supposed to accomplish this.” Once you know what you’re trying to do, check if the scene met that goal, make any necessary changes to ensure it does, and cut things that don’t help the scene meet that goal.
  16. Building on the previous one, you can do the same thing, but for your entire story. Starting from the beginning, re-outline the story scene-by-scene and/or chapter-by-chapter, picking out what the main “beats” and most important themes are, and then re-read your draft and make sure you’re hitting those clearly. Consider cutting out the pieces of your story that don’t contribute to those, and definitely cut the pieces that distract from those key moments (unless, of course, the distraction is the point.)
  17. Re-read a section you think could be cut and see if any sentences snag your attention. Poke at that bit until you figure out why – often, it’s because the sentence is unnecessary, poorly worded, unclear, or otherwise superfluous. You can often rewrite the sentence to be clearer, or cut the sentence completely without negatively impacting your work.
  18. Be prepared to cut your darlings; even if you love a sentence or dialog exchange or paragraph, if you are working to a strict word count and it doesn’t add anything, it may have to go, and that’s okay…even though yes, it will hurt, always, no matter how experienced a writer you are. (Tip? Save your original draft, and/or make a new word doc where you safely tuck your darlings in for the future. Second tip? If you really, really love it…find a way to save it, but understand that to do so, you’ll have to cut something else. It’s often wise to pick one or two favorites and sacrifice the rest to save the best ones. We are not saying “always cut your darlings.” That is terrible writing advice. Don’t always cut your darlings. Writing, and reading your own writing, should bring you joy, even when you’re doing it professionally.)
  19. If you’re having trouble recognizing what in your own work CAN be cut, try implementing the above strategies in different places – cut things, and then re-read, and see how it works, and if it works at all. Sometimes, you’ll realize…you didn’t need any of what you cut. Other times, you’ll realize…it no longer feels like the story you were trying to tell. Fiddle with it until you figure out what you need for it to still feel like your story, and practice that kind of cutting until you get better at recognizing what can and can’t go without having to do as much tweaking.
  20. Lastly…along the lines of the previous…understand that sometimes, cutting your story down to a certain word count will just be impossible. Some stories simply can’t be made very short, and others simply can’t be told at length. If you’re really struggling, it’s important to consider that your story just…isn’t going to work at that word count. And that’s okay. Go back to the drawing board, and try again – you’ll also get better at learning what stories you can tell, in your style, using your own writing voice, at different word counts. It’s not something you’ll just know how to do – that kind of estimating is a skill, just like all other writing abilities.

As with all our writing advice – there’s no one way to tackle cutting stories for length, and also, which of these strategies is most appropriate will depend on what kind of story you’re writing, how much over-length it is, what your target market is, your characters, and your personal writing style. Try different ones, and see which work for you – the most important aspect is to learn to read your own writing critically enough that you are able to recognize what you can cut, and then from that standpoint, use your expertise to decide what you should cut, which is definitely not always the same thing. Lots of details can be cut – but a story with all of the flavor and individuality removed should never be your goal.

Contributions to this post were made by @unforth, @jhoomwrites, @alecjmarsh, @shealynn88, @foxymoley, @willablythe, and @owlishintergalactic, and their input has been used with their knowledge and explicit permission. Thanks, everyone, for helping us consider different ways to shorten stories!

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Commonly Confused Words: Saucy Edition!

This week, we’ve got a special edition of “Commonly Confused Words,” featuring the word confusions we’ve seen come up in erotica! Needless to say, some of these words are a smidge on the saucy side, so only read on if you want to see that kind of thing. 

Often, which of these words an author uses marks the difference between a story being very sexy, and a story being very strange, so to all writers out there – it’s worth learning the differences, asking for help, or Googling if you’re not sure!

The confusions in this post were suggested by people on our Discord, and every single one is something we’ve seen actually happen!


wonton vs wanton

wonton (noun): a small dumpling or roll with a savory filling, common in some regional Chinese cuisines, usually served in a soup. For example: “The wontons in this soup are delicious!”

vs.

wanton (adjective): unrestrained, licentious, brazen, or flagrant, especially used in sexual contexts or to refer to the flirtatious and/or sexual behavior of an individual. For example: “His moans grew more wanton as his arousal intensified.”


bear vs. bare

bear (noun): a carnivorous mammal. Alternatively, commonly used slang for a relatively large and hairy gay man. For example: “The bear hunted for salmon,” or, “I love going to that bar, there are lots of bears there.”

vs.

bare (adjective): empty, exposed, without covering, or naked. For example: “She emerged from the pool, water sluicing from her bare skin.”

vs.

bear (verb): to have patience or tolerate. For example, “Please bear with me,” or, “She bore the hardship well.”

vs.

bare (verb): to reveal, expose or share. For example: “Stay and listen, and I’ll lay all my secrets bare,” or, “With the cameras on, he bared all.”


contraception vs. contraption

contraception (noun): a means of preventing pregnancy. For example, “When the Planned Parenthood open, people in the area were able to access multiple means of contraception,”

vs. 

contraption (noun): a device, usually arcane, strange, or unnecessarily complicated. For example, “When I asked you to build something, I didn’t mean you should put together one of those Rube-Goldberg contraptions.”


prostate vs. prostrate

prostate (noun): a small gland located between the bladder and the penis. It can be stimulated anally, and many people find the sensation pleasurable. For example, “A finger thrust into them and rubbed over the nub of their prostate.”

vs.

prostrate (verb): to lie down flat on the ground, or to suffer from severe exhaustion or a feeling of being overwhelmed. For example: “After his husband died, he was prostrate with grief.”


perineum vs. peritoneum

perineum (noun): the stretch of skin between the (scrotum or vulva) and the anus. For Example: “I licked over her perineum, then lapped eagerly at her clit.”

vs.

peritoneum (noun): the thin membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers the abdominal organs. For example: “The peritoneum plays an important role in protecting many organs, such as the spleen.”


semen vs. seamen

semen (noun): reproductive fluid which contains spermatozoa. For example: “She squeezed her eyes shut as her climax overwhelmed her, and semen spurted from her throbbing cock.”

vs. 

seamen (noun): the people who work aboard a ship. For example: “The navy employed many able-bodied seamen.”

cum vs. come

This one is a trick. There is no difference (despite what some websites say). Some people say “cum” is the noun and “come” is the verb but this is merely an attempt to formalize and rationalize usage; in reality, they’re the same word, but “cum” is more slang/colloquial, and “come” is more commonly used in writing and is more technically correct – however, neither is wrong.


And, finally, the hardest one (we mean “most difficult” one, get your head out of the gutter!)…

lay/laid/laid/laying vs. lie/lay/lain/lying

lay (verb): to place an object down. Present tense: lay. For example: “I lay my jacket over the back of my chair.” Past tense: laid. For example:  “I laid my jacket over the back of my chair.” Present participles: laid or laying. For example: “Where is the book?” “Oh, I laid it on the shelf over there” or “The book was laying on the shelf.”

vs. 

lie (verb): to settle into a prone position on a surface. Present tense: lie. For example: “He feels like watching TV, so he lies down on the couch and grabs the remote.” Past tense: lay. For example: “He felt like watching TV, so he lay down on the couch and grabbed the remote.” Present participles: lain or lying. For example: “I have lain still for many hours” or “She was lying on her bed, asleep.”

vs. 

to get laid (verb): slang for having sex. For example: “Oh man, I found the hottest guy on Tindr – guess who’s getting laid tonight?”

vs. 

lay (noun): slang for a sexual experience, usually applied as a description of a person along with an adjective rating how positive or negative the sexual experience was. For example: “Dude, no, whatever you do, don’t hit that. Worst lay of my life.”

Most of the confusion between these two derives from the past tense of “to lie” being “to lay,” versus “to lay” being the present tense of a different word. The easiest way to figure out which one you need between lay and lie is figuring out the subject of the sentence. If the subject is interacting with an object (a book, a jacket, etc.), then you probably want “to lay.” If you subject is moving themselves then you probably want “to lie.” For example: “After picking the cat up, she lay it down on her bed,” versus, “the cat lies down on the bed.” Or, in the past tense… “After picking the cat up, she laid it down on her bed,” versus, “the cat lay down on the bed.” Yeah, it’s kinda confusing – if you’re really struggling, try figuring it out in present tense first, and then switch it to the tense you actually need once you’ve figured out which one is the right word.

So, now that we’ve resolved some confusions – go forth and PORN!


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Writing Quick Tips: Apostrophes

A little thing that trips up a lot of writers is apostrophes, especially for the few words that don’t quite work the way apostrophes most commonly work in English. This post will talk about a handful of the most commonly mixed up ones: its/it’s, theirs/there’s, their/there/they’re, and whose/who’s. While there is a world of advice out there on how to learn the rules, I personally have found all those explanations do little when I’m writing and confused. Even after writing over 4 million words of fiction, I still mix them up sometimes, and when I do, I don’t look up definitions, I don’t ask for help, and I don’t think about parts of speech or anything. 

What do I do?

I replace the contraction (or, potentially, not-contraction) with the full, un-contracted version and see if the sentence makes sense.


For its and it’s:

It’s either means “it is” or “it has.” If you swap those in for “i-t-s” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t.

Examples:

“Momentum meant it continued in its established path” would become “Momentum meant it continued in it is (or has) established path” – a sentence that makes no sense, so no apostrophe needed.

vs.

“That belongs to me – it’s mine!” would become “That belongs to me – it is mine!” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need the apostrophe.

vs.

“It’s been a long day” would become “It has been a long day” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need the apostrophe.


For theirs and there’s:

There’s either means “there is” or “there has.” If you swap those in for “t-h-e-i-r-s” or “t-h-e-r-e-s” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t.

Examples:

“After placing the high bid, the house was theirs to decorate as they’d like” would become “After placing the high bid, the house was they is to decorate as they’d like” – a sentence that makes no sense, so no apostrophe is needed! Further, “theres” isn’t a word, so if there’s no apostrophe, you automatically need to use “theirs,” not “theres.”

vs.

“There’s no easy way to solve this problem” would become “There is no easy way to solve this problem” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe! Further, likewise, “their’s” isn’t a word, so if there’s an apostrophe, you automatically need to use “there’s,” not “their’s.”

vs. 

“There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of battles recently” would become “There has been a dramatic increase in the number of battles recently” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe, and again, ‘their’s’ isn’t a word, so if you need an apostrophe, then you want “there,” not “their.”


For (their or there) and they’re:

They’re means “they are.” If you swap that in for “t-h-e-i-r” or “t-h-e-r-e” or “t-h-e-y’r-e” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t need “they’re,” you need either “their” or “there.”

Examples:

“Their favorite food was pizza” and “Over there is our destination” would become “The(ir) are favorite food was pizza” and “Over the(re) are is our destination” – definitely two sentences that make no sense, so it’s their/there, not they’re.

vs.

“They’re my best friends” would become “They are my best friend” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe, and “they’re” is correct automatically, since “their’re” and “there’re” are not words.


For whose and who’s:

Who’s either means “who is” or “who has.” If you swap those in for “w-h-o-s-e” or “w-h-o’s” and you get a coherent sentence, then you need an apostrophe; otherwise, you don’t.

Examples:

“I found this hat, do you know whose it is?” would become “I found this hat, do you know who is it is?” – a sentence that makes no sense, so no apostrophe needed!

vs.

“Who’s going to the show tonight?” would become “Who is going to the show tonight” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe.

vs.

“Who’s got the pencil – please pass it to me!” would become “Who has the pencil – please pass it to me!” – a sentence that makes sense, so you need an apostrophe.


This is likely self-evident to some writers, but personally? I wish someone had told me it was this easy to figure out when I was a less experienced writer and confused. When I’m writing quickly, if I want to check if I’ve picked the correct one, I literally just try both options in my head “okay, if I do ‘it is,’ does this sentence make sense? Yes? I need ‘it’s!’ No? I need ‘its.’” It’s a simple writing fix for a really common problem, without having to learn and memorize the rules and figure out how they apply in different circumstances, and I’ve never had it steer me wrong! And that doesn’t mean the rules aren’t worth learning – but often we as writers know the rules, it’s applying them that’s a challenge, and this is a tip that’s helped me apply them.

I hope it helps all of you as much as it’s helped me!