Posted on Leave a comment

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. 🤣

*

Have a question about writing? Drop us an ask!

Like what we do and want to support us? You can buy us a ko-fi – or get access to exclusive content by backing us on Patreon!

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

*

Have a question about writing? Drop us an ask!

Like our posts and want to support us? We have a Patreon, or you can buy us a ko-fi!

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

*

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.

*

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.”

*

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!

*

Have a writing-related question for us? Drop us an ask!

Like our blogging and original content and want more of it – and a chance to influence what these posts are about? Back our Patreon!

Posted on Leave a comment

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!

*

    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!

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

*

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!

Posted on 2 Comments

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!

Posted on Leave a comment

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!


Have writing questions or want some advice? You can drop us an ask any time!

Like our writing advice? Why not get us a ko-fi!

Want to support Duck Prints Press? We have a Patreon!

Posted on Leave a comment

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!

Posted on Leave a comment

What is an Alpha Reader?

Stories don’t exist without writers – that much is a given. But the best stories are never a solo effort, even if they have only a single author. Other people will contribute, in big ways and small, and potentially fill many roles to help the author see the work through to completion. Three of the most prominent of these roles are:

Alpha readers

Editors

Beta readers

Each does something different, but often in fandom-based writing spaces they’re used interchangeably in ways that can lead to confusion and a mismatch of expectation and performance between the author and the person helping them. As such, Duck Prints Press will be doing a series of three posts over the next few weeks that discusses each of these roles in detail. The purpose of these posts is 

  • to provide a definition of each role (alpha, editor, and beta)
  • list examples of services a person in each role might provide for an author, 
  • provide insight into some appropriate ways for an author to interact with their helper, and
  • to suggest some points that an author and their selected feedback provider should discuss before the alpha/editor/beta begins work, to ensure that both individuals have a positive experience and that the helper is providing the kind of information that the author is seeking.

Two things of note before we proceed:

  1. There is no single definition of these terms. We’re not claiming to be an authority or to say, “these are the correct definitions and all others are invalid.” Instead, our goal with these posts is to provide a common framework to help authors and individuals interested in helping them communicate about the nature of the roles to be undertaken, and to give information to help both writers and people who want to help writers understand what help is desired and how they can support each other.
  2. If an author hasn’t said “I’m looking for an alpha/editor/beta,” then it doesn’t matter what form of feedback you provide – unsolicited alphaing, editing or betaing is generally unwelcome and often unhelpful. Yes, some authors DO like and appreciate it. However, most don’t. Never use these posts as, “now that I know what alphaing is, I’ve read your story and now I’m alphaing for you!” That’s not how this works. Alphaing, betaing, and editing are always collaborative, undertaken between an author and feedback provider that they’ve entrusted to help them. If you’d like to give feedback to an author about something of theirs you’ve read…ask them if they want it! And respect their response! It’s really, truly that simple.

What is an Alpha Reader?

Alpha readers are generally one of the first “outsiders” brought in to support an author, and, depending on how the author approaches their process, may be sought before the story has been written. The primary roles of an alpha reader are to brainstorm with an author, flesh out the plot, fill plot holes, solve conundrums and issues that arise, and help the author get their vision of the story put down in concrete words. Alpha readers may be recruited short term, to help an author work through a specific issue, or they may accompany the author from conceptual inception through the entire first draft or beyond – some may even end up credited as co-authors, depending on how many ideas they end up contributing! In fandom spaces especially, alphas are often described as cheerleaders, and in many cases, they are explicitly asked not to provide extensive criticism and editing – alphas work with the understand that they have been brought in to help an author complete a first draft, and so the issues they help with are those more relevant to a work at an early stage of development.

Many people short-hand alphas by jokingly refer to them as “rubber duck debuggers,” inspired by the habit many computer programmers have of talking out a problem to an inanimate object until they figure out the solution. The idea is that alpha readers often don’t have to do anything – they just have to listen to the author until the author figures out the solution themselves! Sometimes, that’s truly all that an alpha will need to do, but don’t assume that’s all an alpha will do, and don’t play down the critical role that many alphas have played in the development of stories by giving timely, insightful feedback. An alpha can be invaluable in solving issues, seeing through thorny challenges, resolving points of uncertainty and confusion, and providing the author with the motivation, support and encouragement they need to see a first draft through to the end. Alphas are great, and are definitely not interchangeable with a rubber duck (however much we at Duck Prints Press love our rubber ducks).

Services/Responsibilities/Activities Associated with Alpha Reading:

  • Meet with the author to establish the scope of help the author would like. This post includes a thorough list of tasks often undertaken by an alpha reader, but it’s unlikely that an alpha reader will do all of these tasks. 
  • Listen to and incorporate world building and character information provided by the author, and work to provide feedback that fits with what they’ve established.
  • Read an author’s notes or outlines to get a general idea of what the author is trying to accomplish
  • Discuss story elements with the author to whatever degree of detail and specificity the author requests.
  • Offer insight and ideas to help solve problems that the author approaches you about, within the scope of what the author has said they’re willing to change or modify about their story.
  • Cheerlead, praise, and support the author as they write their first draft.
  • Indicate sentences, passages, and/or chapters that work especially well, and those that lacked adequate explication for the alpha to understand what took place.
  • Point out issues with representation, areas where the author might need to do more research, use of racist or sexist tropes, and other aspects of the story that may be problematic. (Please remember to be careful of the difference between “this story contains problematic elements” and “this author is problematic.” Many authors intentionally playing with these elements.)
  • Make sure to offer feedback on what is good and what you like!!
  • If given a full first draft manuscript to review, post-reading you may be given a list of questions the author would like you to answer, indicating specific areas that the author would like more information about and/or help with.
  • Very rarely, an author may ask for an alpha to edit for grammar, structure, word choice, and other technical elements. However, in “standard” definitions of alpha reading, these roles would be excluded.
  • Be honest and objective! Don’t say something is good if you don’t think it is, and don’t say something is bad just because you didn’t like it.
  • Understand that an author is never obligated to take an alpha’s advice!

Services/Responsibilities/Activities Associated with being an Author Working with an Alpha Reader:

  • Have a clear idea of what an alpha reader will be asked to do before recruiting one – ideally, any request for an alpha should include this information! Don’t just say, “I’m looking for an alpha reader” and assume that anyone who responds will understand that to mean the same thing as you do. Instead, say, “I’m looking for an alpha reader to help me with…” and indicate the specific area(s) that you’re requesting support for.
  • Don’t ask for feedback if you’re not prepared to be given feedback. Understand that requesting an alpha may mean opening yourself up to criticism; never forget that you invited them, so respect them and appreciate them. Don’t ask someone to alpha for you if you don’t respect their opinions and assessments.
  • Communicate your expectations and needs clearly.
  • Listen to the alpha reader and take their advice under consideration.
  • Indicate when you’ve reached a decision, so the alpha reader doesn’t continue to focus on a point that has been resolved.
  • Be kind and polite, even if ultimately you reject the alpha’s recommendations.
  • Ask clear questions directly related to what you’re trying to find out about what works and doesn’t work in your manuscript. Don’t try to be vague or passive to try to “get at” if something worked; it’s better to be honest and straightforward.
  • Employ multiple alphas to get different viewpoints.
  • Do not take criticism of the work as criticism of you as an author and person.
  • Respect the alpha reader’s boundaries.
  • Understand that the alpha is never required to agree with you, and may ultimately dislike your work.

Communication is critical! If both parties aren’t clear about their expectations and responsibilities, how can they effectively work together? It’s also critical to set and maintain boundaries. An alpha doesn’t agree to be “on call” 24/7. An author doesn’t agree to hear endless criticism of their ideas. An alpha should never be subjected to material that they’ve indicated may trigger them. An author should never be subjected to an alpha harping on a pet idea that the author has already indicated they don’t wish to use. If the relationship isn’t working for both individuals, it should be terminated. Furthermore, just because the relationship doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean either individual is “bad” at fulfilling their role; often, it’s simply a mismatch in communication and work styles. And that’s okay! Don’t bad mouth someone you failed to work effectively with…but also, don’t feel you need to keep working with them!

Suggested Questions an Alpha Reader and Author Should Discuss Before Working Together:

Not all of these will be relevant to every author/alpha relationship, but they’re worth being aware of!

  1. Will the alpha reader be paid for their help? This is generally not relevant in fan spaces, but may be if the alpha is working on an original work destined for publication.
  2. Will the alpha reader be credited when the final product is made public?
  3. Will the alpha reader be expected to keep silent about what they’ve read, or perhaps even sign a Non-Disclosure agreement or other form of contract?
  4. When is the alpha usually available? When is the author usually available? Will meetings be held regularly on a schedule, as-needed, or elsewise?
  5. What software and/or accounts will the alpha be expected to use? For example: a specific word program, a gmail account, Discord, etc.
  6. How will the author and alpha communicate primarily? For example, by chat program, by e-mail, by telephone, etc.
  7. Is the alpha required to be familiar with other works in the author’s oeuvre?
  8. Is there any potentially triggering material in the work that the alpha should be made aware of?
  9. Does the alpha have any unusual triggers or squicks that the author should be aware of?
  10. At what stage of the project is the alpha reader being invited in – conceptualization? Writing? Completed first draft?
  11. What specific aspect(s) of the book is the author looking for feedback on? The plot? The characters? The pacing? If a specific line landed as intended? Is the dialog catchy? Is the world-building thorough? 
  12. Will the alpha reader be providing long-term help (eg, for the entire time an author is writing the first draft of a novel) or short-term help (eg, an author has gotten stuck at a specific point and wants to discuss that only with someone else)?
  13. Is the author looking for someone to primarily listen to them and let them work it out on their own?
  14. What are the main themes/tropes/elements/etc. the author hopes to communicate? It’s often best to discuss this after the alpha has read the work, so the author can see if they’ve succeeded, but it depends on when in the process the alpha has been brought on. If the alpha is helping develop plot and concept, it will be important for the alpha to understand upfront what the author is trying to accomplish.
  15. Is the alpha familiar with areas relevant to what the author is writing? For example, if the story is fanfiction, is the alpha familiar with the franchise? If the story is in a specific genre, is the alpha acquainted with the tropes of that genre? If the story is in a specific setting – especially if it’s a setting with a high degree of technical specificity – is the alpha able to offer insight and knowledge to support accurately portraying that setting?
  16. Does the author want criticism at this stage? (Usually, inviting an alpha implies the answer to this is yes, but don’t assume!)
  17. Does the author want editing done? (Usually, inviting an alpha implies the answer to this is no, but don’t assume!)
  18. Are there aspects of the story the author feels are “set in stone?” Are there aspects the author doesn’t mind changing, or would even prefer to change?
  19. Is the alpha welcome to provide suggestions for developments outside the framework of storyline and world building provided by the author? For example, would the author be open to having the alpha say, “maybe you should create a new character to fill this role,” or, “maybe you should change the entire ending,” or would they prefer that the alpha work with the plot, characters, pacing, etc., elements that the author has already created?
  20. Check in throughout the process – Is the way I’m doing this working for you? Is this feedback helpful? Are my responses as the author enabling you to do your work as an alpha? Do we need to change anything to ensure that this is providing the kinds of support that the author has requested? Talk to each other! You’re in this together. It’s okay if things need to be changed (in the story, in the relationship, in the communication style, you name it) – change them until you find a way to collaborate that works best for both parties.

You’ll see the common theme in all this advice is that the key to a successful alpha/author relationship is communication. Authors: be clear and honest about your project and your needs. Alphas: be clear and honest about your assessments and suggestions. Work together, not in opposition. Now, go forth and write things, and read things, and make amazing stories!

We expect part two of this series – What is an Editor? – to come out next week (5/23/21) and part three of this series – What is a Beta Reader? – to come out the week after (5/30/21). Depending on interest and the success of this series, we may also consider making posts for other roles (for example, sensitivity readers, language pickers, culture pickers, subject experts, etc.). We’ll update this post with links as additional posts are published.

Posted on Leave a comment

How can I write quickly?

I (hi, I’m unforth/Claire Houck) have been asked frequently over the years how I write a lot quickly. I’m a pretty fast writer – for example, I wrote the 5600 words of my May Trope Mayhem fill from yesterday in under 2.5 hours. 

First, a little of my personal history for context. I’ve always written, starting from when I was able to string letters into (very poorly spelled) words and (horrible un-grammatical) sentences. When I started trying my hand at serious, professional-level fiction writing, I joined a community called novel_in_90, which was founded by the author Elizabeth Bear. The purpose of novel_in_90 was “to be NaNoWriMo but more realistic.” Instead of 50,000 words in 31 days, it was 67,500 words in 90 days, or 750 words a day. I participated in multiple rounds of novel_in_90 starting in mid-2005, and in 2007 I completed my first (godawful) novel. When I started, even writing a couple hundred words of day took me forever, but it got easier with time. 

During those same years, I also got a job that required I do professional writing on a deadline: I was a grant writer, and I only got paid when the grants won. That often meant working fast under high pressure, culminating in the weekend I wrote and edited an entire 40 pages grant that was due on Monday. I think, if I hadn’t had a solid foundation of “regular daily plodding writing,” I’d not have been able to marathon when the moment came…and it came because I had to, not because I wanted to. However, I learned a valuable lesson: I could. Subsequently, I found that, when I had the time and space and was rested enough to use my brain, I could bust out a huge amount. Like, I wrote an entire 150,000 word novel in 17 days. 

My personal record is about 200,000 words in one month (it was the month I wrote that novel; I wasn’t tracking when I did that so I don’t know exactly), 25,000 words in a day, and I’ve topped out around 3,000 words an hour. I do know people who can do more…but not many.

Not everyone will be able to do this. Flat out, I MUST preface the rest of this post by saying that. Some people will find that writing fast fits their brain, and for others, it just won’t, and that’s okay. Fast doesn’t equal better, and it isn’t inherently “good” to write fast. Furthermore, even for those who can write fast, not everyone will find the same strategies helpful. I can share what works for me. Try out one item, some items, or all of these – if writing faster is something you want to be able to do, which it certainly never has to be. Use what works for you, and discard the rest.

  1. Sit in your chair, put your fingers on your keyboard or touch screen, and write. You can’t write 1,000 words in half an hour until you write one word, however long that one word takes. I know saying this is obvious, but I’ve been asked “how can I write fast” by people who struggle to write at all…fast can’t be your priority until you’ve got a foundation of just writing. (Honestly…fast should never be your priority, but it might be helpful to you regardless, which can make it worth learning.)
  2. Start small. Set an achievable goal, and make yourself meet that goal (daily, weekly, whatever) come hell or high water, no matter how long it takes you. Keep the goal small at first; you’re not trying to torture yourself, you’re trying to build a skill. If you set the goal high enough that you consistently fail, you’re not teaching yourself anything. And, if you find the goal IS too high…lower it. There’s no shame in working within your limits. Think of it like starting a new work out regimen: you wouldn’t try to run a 10k at a record time if you can’t run a mile slow. Treat your fingers and your brain the same way you’d treat your legs and joints. Give them time to grow, learn, and improve before you try to push yourself.
  3. Trying to write daily is worthwhile if you want to work on your writing speed, because you’ll be forced to try to fit it in as you’re able – that might be ten minutes in your morning, or an hour in your evening, and it might vary from day to day, but making it daily means you have to fit it in somewhere
  4. Building skills takes time and isn’t easy. For some people, it will come easier than for others, and even when you’re fast, going from “I can write words fast” to “I can write damn good words fast” takes practice and dedication and accepting constructive criticism – speed alone will never be worth more than writing well.
  5. Having a community can help. Ya’ll will check in on each other, cheer each other on, remind each other that missing a day or a goal isn’t the end of the world, and keep each other’s spirits up. If you don’t know other writerly folks online, I recommend Weekend Writing Marathon as a good place to start (I used to be a mod there). Once you’re trying to work up to larger word counts in a day, remember that even writing fast will take minutes or hours. You can’t write 2,500 words in an hour if you don’t set an hour aside. Make sure you’re giving yourself the room and time you need to succeed.
  6. You will probably never be able to do high, rapid word counts every day, every week, every month. The best runners in the world don’t run marathons every day. Set realistic long term goals.
  7. Work on projects where you have a clear idea of where you’re going. I’m not saying “pantsers” can’t write fast, because of course they can, but if you want to write fast, and well, and coherently, to create a first draft that’s in pretty good shape, you’ll do better if you have a good sense of what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. That doesn’t mean you need to do all your world building up front, or have a complete outline (I never have either). All you really need is what happens next. I tend to plan projects – and write them – one full scene at a time, with only a vague idea what’s going to come after.
  8. Visualize ahead of time what you’d like to write…but don’t get too attached to what you visualize. When I go to bed, I plan the next scene I’m going to compose, often to the least detail. I then forget all of it overnight, at least all the specifics, and I’m left with a general sense and shape of what’s to come. You’ll never be able to replicate the “perfect” dialog you pre-conceive, so give up on trying to. Instead, play through the scene and think about the emotional beats you want to hit and plot points you want to forward. If you keep that in mind, you’ll be able to get the words out faster than if you’re agonizing over every word or regretting the “oh-so-great” idea that you’ve since forgotten.
  9. Practice different work styles. If writing every day doesn’t work for you, try instead saying, “this is my writing day each week,” and aim for a lot that specific day, and write little or nothing other days. Try writing at different times of day and on different days, fitting it into your schedule. If you’re beating yourself up for not writing when you “should,” it’ll be that much harder to succeed, so instead, as I said for point 2 – set a reasonable goal that fits your life and working style, fitting it around your other responsibilities, and push yourself within that framework, instead of trying to shoehorn into a style that you “think you should” use to succeed.
  10. Track your word counts, and take notes on how much you did and what project you were working on. If you’re also experimenting with different times of day and different days, make sure you note that too. I personally use a simple Excel sheet (well, Google Sheets, now) – column one is the date, column 2 is “starting word count,” column 3 is “ending word count,” column 4 is “=column 3 – column 2”, column 5 is notes. Pay attention to when you succeed at writing faster, and when you don’t, and consider what factors might have played into your success…and then try to replicate those factors next time you’re doing a sprint. Control as many variables as you can while you’re “training.”
  11. If you find social media distracting, trying getting a web browser extension that prevents you from connecting to websites for a set period of time.
  12. If you find you tend to dither before starting, I find it helpful to run through everything that I might do to procrastinate, and when I’m done, it’s like, well, I’ve done all those things, I’ve got no choice left, better write and get it done with.
  13. If you find you struggle with picking up a WIP, try leaving off in the middle of a sentence at the end of a session, one where you know exactly how it ends – or, leave off mid-paragraph, or when you are positive you know what happens next (and I mean literally next, as in the very next sentence.) It’s much easier to “pick back up” when your first words are super clear. (Do not do this if you think there’s any chance you’ll forget or end up in a situation where you won’t return to your WIP for months!)
  14. If you find you struggle to maintain continuity across multiple writing sessions, try rereading what you wrote the previous day before you proceed. Resist the urge to edit it! 
  15. Avoid stopping when you get stuck, even to do research. Don’t know a fact? Add a comment to your manuscript flagging the relevant text, “LOOK THIS UP LATER.” Can’t think of a word? Put in something you can use the “find” function on easily (I personally use “XX” since there are no words that have a double x in them) and so you can come back later, search for your chosen placeholder, and fill in the blanks. Not sure how a scene ends but know the next scene? Jump ahead. 
  16. That said, if you really don’t know what happens next, you don’t do yourself any favors by pressing on. As I’ve said previously, speed alone should never be your writing object. It’s better to slow down, consider your plot, figure out where you’re going, and then write, than to just plow ahead – or at least, that’s better if you want a manuscript you’ll actually be able to use for something at a later point. If you’re truly just practicing, you can also say “screw it, who needs coherence?” and keep going. I’d personally never have finished my first novel if I’d spent a lot of time worrying about making the pieces fit together and yeah, it’s a mess, but it’s a mess I wrote instead of a mess I got stuck on and never completed.
  17. Don’t move the finish line. If you’ve set the goal of 500 words a day, don’t beat yourself up if you get 550 because you think you think you could have done more. If you say you’ll write five days a week, don’t get mad because you DID have time the sixth day but chose to use it on something else. If you make yourself feel like shit when you succeed, what’ll happen when you fail? And when you’re comfortable and really think you’re ready, change the goal – reassess every month, say, and up your goals. While working for speed, trying upping your word count goal without changing the amount of time you allot for working.
  18. Your need to adhere to the above suggestions will change over time. Once, I always had an outline; now I often don’t need one. Once, I wouldn’t let myself stop even to use a thesaurus; now, I find I can look up words without breaking my flow or significantly slowing myself down. This is not an “all or nothing” prospect, nor is it a “do things the same way forever once you’ve found one (1) thing that works” prospect – you’ll experiment, and find strategies that work for you, and then at some point, your needs will change, and you’ll experiment more, and find new strategies that work for you, on and on, as your skills grow. 

To reiterate: writing fast should never be your objective in and of itself! Greater writing speed will come with practice and as a general side effect of improving your craft. Simply being able to write fast is useless; being able to write fast and well will enable you to get more of your ideas out there, so if that’s something you’d like to accomplish, focus on building your general skills and training yourself to be able to use those skills rapidly and in tandem with each other to produce decent writing, in a first draft, at a decent speed.

Once you try, you may find none of this works for you! That’s okay. That’s good! You tried, which means you learned something about yourself and your own writing style, and that too will help you to improve. Keep experimenting, keep learning, and find what does work for you – and accept that no two writers will ever be the same, and one of those differences will be writing speed. Some writers will never write fast, and that’s doesn’t make them any less awesome or valid. And some writers will always write fast, and that doesn’t make them inherently awesome or valid. Only with a suite of related skills that suit your individual life, personality, work style, writing capabilities, goals, etc., will you succeed as a writer (for various, personalized definitions of the word “success”); speed is only one of those potential skills, and not one that’s particularly important in my opinion…yet I still get asked about it fairly often, so here we are, these are my suggestions.

Go forth, and write some words! <3