Category Archives: writing tips

Assorted writing tips #9: Sharing your work

Reader

Reader (Photo credit: Thokrates)

It’s happened to all of us. You get a great idea for a story, you spend some time frantically working on it, and then the enthusiasm dies down and you can’t get motivated to keep going. Sound familiar? I thought so.

Now, I don’t have a magic bullet answer to this. Motivation is a fickle friend and sometimes it just deserts us. Sometimes, though, there are things you can do, and today I’m talking about sharing your work.

By sharing, I don’t mean putting it out there for others to use. I mean, instead, finding someone (or a group of people) who are potentially in your target audience, and letting them read what you’ve done. There are a number of ways to do this.

  • Post online. I know that this won’t work if what you are writing is something you would like to get traditionally published one day. If, though, you are looking at self publishing, or just writing for the love of it, then it’s an option. This works particularly well if you’re writing a chaptered book, because if you post a chapter at a time then you can really get people involved. Serialising work like this can get your readers really hungering for more: two hundred years ago it was common practice. (Now, the equivalent is TV shows.) Plus, you can get feedback on how you’re going and what you’ve done so far. If you are getting comments saying things like, “post more, I need to know what happens next!”, then chances are you’re doing a good job. If you get feedback saying, “this isn’t working for me, I find character X bland and the scenarios clichéd”, then there are things you need to work on. Note, this is not for the thin skinned – but then again, neither is writing, is it? So long as people are constructive, though, then you have built-in advice – from people who might buy your work in the future
  • Join a writing group. If you’re not already part of one, this can be really beneficial. Not only do you get feedback on how you’re going from fellow writers, but meeting once a month (or whatever) gives you a deadline to get new work done. If you’re expected to have an extra 3000 words written before the third Friday of the month, you’re much more likely to do it than if you just set an internal deadline. Disappointing other people is something no one likes to do. Again, the feedback is really helpful and if your fellow writers like what you’re doing, then chances are you’ll want to impress them again next time. :)
  • Find a beta. Preferably one who’s not related to you. Ideally, it’s good to find one either through someone else, or online, because the less close this person is to you, the less worried they’re going to be about hurting your feelings. Again, though, with any luck you’ll get them engaged in the story and wanting to know more, so that will make you want to write more. Like I said above, everyone likes to be praised. Besides – and you’ll see this is a common theme – you will get feedback about what the reader likes, and what isn’t connecting with them. Assuming this person is part of your target audience, this is something that’s worth paying attention to.

So there are a few ideas for sharing your WIP and getting some feedback on it. If you’re struggling for motivation to write that next chapter, then maybe letting someone else have a look at it will spur you on to do some more. After all, who is it you’re writing for? Yourself, or your audience?

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Assorted writing tips #8 – Characterisation

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

 

I’ve written about writing exercises before, but this time I just wanted to talk about one that has really helped me.

Last week, I started a five-week (or really, five-fortnight, but you know what I mean) novel-writing course at my local writers’ centre. I’ve been a member there for a while but haven’t actually been to much – with the kids, most of the things they’ve had on have been either at a bad time or took too much out of the day (say, 10 till 5 on a Saturday, which is really hard for me to do). I figured I could manage two hours a fortnight, though, so off I went.

The first session was about characterisation. Characterisation is something that I find a lot of fun – getting to know one’s characters is always an enjoyable process, and I love seeing where they take me. Often it’s places I don’t expect, but that’s half the fun of it, don’t you think? Anyway, I’ve been given (and used) different character sheets over the years, but there is something about them that seems, I don’t know, sterile. Filling in a form about someone, while it can be very instructive, doesn’t really give me a feel for them. Thing was, I didn’t know of any other way so I persevered.

Then along came Thursday night, and Lucy Clark, the author who is running the course, made the comment that they don’t really work for her either. Hurrah! I knew I couldn’t be alone, but it was great to see someone who has been really successful facing the same battles. What she did, she explained, was write a biography of each character. This is a page or two – or three or four, depending on how small you write and how far you get into the character – written in the first person, telling the story of that person’s life. It’s not really structured, and it’s not intended to be edited (much), just a jumbled narrative of one thought after another. We did a sample in the class, given just a name and an occupation, and it’s amazing how much I could turn out. (In fact, I’m considering using the character I came up with in that session in a future novel.) This is free writing at its best – rambling, unfocused and full of tangents, yet extraordinarily useful when it comes to characterisation and character development.

I’ve used this since on the characters I’ve been writing for the past couple of years, and I have learnt so much more about them by doing this that I have in two years worth of scene creation. Sure, a lot of it I already knew, but I found myself delving so much further into them, especially some of the secondary and tertiary characters, that finishing this manuscript is going to be a breeze. Instead of wondering how someone is going to react to a certain situation, I feel now that I’m at the stage of just putting them in the scene and stage managing – and some of my best writing has been doing just that.

So, there it is. My tip of the day for really getting into your characters’ heads, especially if character sheets don’t really work for you. Of course, not everyone is the same so this might really not appeal to some people. For me, though, it’s been amazing.

 

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Assorted writing tips #7 – finding inspiration

A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898...

A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

It’s not easy, is it? Finding inspiration on days when, quite simply, you’re just not inspired. After all, we are at the mercy of our muses, right?

Well, perhaps it’s not as simple as that. I’ve written before about dealing with writer’s block, and about just writing anyway when you have the time and opportunity to do so. And sure, that works, to an extent. It’s just not the same as doing it when you’re feeling inspired, though, is it?

So today I’m going to talk about ways you can find inspiration on days when it’s just eluding you. Ways you can perhaps pick up the threads and get going, rather than doing any number of writing exercises which, while they are generally beneficial, can also feel remarkably dull. Naturally these won’t work for everyone, but they will for some people so I figure that’s worth sharing.

  • Watch a movie. Or read a book, or watch a television show, or something like that. The important thing here is to subject yourself to someone else’s creativity, and it’s even better if it’s in the same genre as what you’re trying to write. You can see how other writers have crafted their plots, put in the twists and turns, dealt with what are very likely similar problems to what your manuscript has. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t in that story, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for your own.
  • Try something new. Do something you’ve never done before. It doesn’t have to be huge – something as minor as trying out a new recipe or going on a walk around your neighbourhood using a route you haven’t used before, but test your boundaries a little. Give yourself a new experience and see how you react to it – was it enjoyable? Did you learn anything from it? Was it worth it? The thing about this is, once you start thinking outside the square when it comes to your own activities, it becomes almost second nature to do it for your characters.
  • Watch / listen to / experience something that moves you. Whether it’s the cannons in the 1812 Overturethe World Cup final from 1990 or the end of Forrest Gump, there is bound to be something out there that moves you in a significant way. With the Internet, it’s also available at your fingertips. Subject yourself to something that tugs on your heartstrings, makes you irrationally proud or elicits some other major emotional reaction. Succumb to it. Enjoy it. Live it. Because if you’re moved to that extent, then that can set the creative juices flowing like nothing else.
  • Talk to a child. Children have a very different take on the world than adults do, and they make you look at things in different ways. For example, my five year old told me quite authoritatively yesterday that if a playground has bark chips underneath the equipment, it’s called a park, because the word “park” is a contraction of the words “playground” and “bark”. (Okay, the word contraction wasn’t used, but you get the idea.) It’s amazing how a conversation like that can make you re-think things.
  • Exercise.Sure, a lot of you are probably sedentary sorts who would rather sit in front of the computer or television than go for a run. Heck, I would too. But getting some exercise and raising a sweat works wonders for your mental activity. It reinvigorates you, wakes you up and gives you a real boost in your cognitive processes. More invigorated and more alert = more likely to find that inspiration that’s been eluding you.

Like I said above, these things won’t work for everyone. But, if you’re looking for inspiration and there’s something on this list that you haven’t tried, then why not give it a go? You never know what might happen.

Good luck!

 

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Assorted writing tips #6 – dealing with writer’s block

When struck with writer's block...

When struck with writer’s block… (Photo credit: kaniths)

 

We’ve all done it. Finally managed to get a couple of hours that will be free of interruptions, only to sit down at the computer and stare at the screen, unable to type because we have absolutely no idea what to say. The ideas are there, but the words just aren’t coming. We have writer’s block.There are a number of ways to try to get past this. What I want to do today is list some of the methods that – for me at least – work best, and also those that work worst.

Good ideas

  • Read through what you’ve already got. Do some edits here and there and maybe extend a scene or two. Just immersing yourself in your story
  • Jot down some ideas in freeform mode. It might be a whole scene, it might be a line of snappy dialogue, it might be an impression or an emotion. Even if it doesn’t make sense, write it down. You may find inspiration in your jottings at a later date.
  • If you’re a linear writer (ie, you start at the beginning and write in order till you get to the end), perhaps think about writing a scene that you haven’t got to yet. Most people have ideas about key points in their stories, and how they want them to go. Write them down. Construct the scene. Sure, when you get to it you might change bits of it (or lots of it), but it will get you writing again. (If you’re not a linear writer and simply don’t know where to start, do this too. Get those key scenes down in print. You can always change them later if you need to.)
  • Try free writing. Open a blank document and just type words (or, if you prefer longhand, open a new page of your notebook). Don’t think about the words, don’t try to modify them, and don’t worry if they don’t make any sense. Just the act of writing can be what you need to get back into it. (Also, free writing can sometimes free things from your subconscious. Don’t discount what you see on the paper once you’re done.)
  • Read something similar to what you’re trying to write to get your head in the right space for that genre.

Bad ideas

  • Opening Facebook or Twitter and scrolling through, telling yourself you’re looking for inspiration. Chances are you’ll just get distracted, start trolling through blogs and the like, and two hours later you’ll have achieved precisely nothing.
  • Letting yourself get bogged down in a particular scene. If there’s something you can’t seem to get past, just ignore it for the time being and come back to it when you’ve had a bit of a break.
  • Getting another coffee. Then noticing the kitchen bench needs wiping down, so getting out a dishcloth to do that. Then thinking that the dishcloth needs washing so putting a load of laundry on. Then noticing that the kids have tracked mud through the laundry so mopping the floor. Then thinking that since you’ve got the mop out you might as well do the bathroom and kitchen floors as well. Then noticing there’s a ring around the bath so cleaning that. Then remembering you haven’t brushed your teeth today so doing that. Then noticing that the toothpaste tastes odd because it’s not combined with the taste of coffee like it normally is, so going back to the kitchen to drink the coffee you made. Then realising you’ve taken so long to do everything else that your coffee is now cold, so tipping it out and making some more. Then noticing that the dishes need doing …

Of course, what works for me isn’t necessarily going to be what works for other people, but from what I can tell a lot of what works for me is almost universal. Naturally, sometimes writer’s block isn’t going to respond to anything listed above, whether recommended or not, but often – I find at least – it will. It’s just a matter of trying things out and seeing how you go.

Good luck!

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Assorted writing tips #5 – juggling points of view

Point of View - IMG_7561

Point of View (Photo credit: Nicola since 1972)

 

POV is always a tricky thing to get right in a manuscript. You have to decide whether you’re going to write in first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient; you have to get voice right; and you have to ensure that you don’t do too much head-hopping. Quite frankly, it’s enough to do your head in.

Firstly, here’s a quick rundown of what the above terms mean.

First person is when one character narrates:  I said this, I did that, I didn’t know what to think. Some people swear by it, and some hate it. I’ve had some success writing in the first person, but it’s limiting in that you can only really be in one person’s head and therefore there can be a lot going on in the story that simply isn’t told because the narrator doesn’t know about it. (Sure, there are exceptions – Helen Smith’s Alison Wonderland, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, has some chapters in the first person and some in the third, and Jodi Picoult has absolutely mastered telling stories in the first person, but from a different person’s POV each chapter. Generally, though, you are in one person’s head for the entire story, and that’s that.) This kind of limited narrative can be done really well because you’re always guessing at other characters’ motivations, and can be great for unexpected revelations, but it’s really a matter of personal taste.

Second person tells the reader the story: You said this, you did that, you didn’t know what to think. It’s not very common, possibly because a lot of people don’t like it due to the implication that it’s telling them what to think. I’ve seen it done very well, but I’ve also seen it done very badly and in general prefer not to read this kind of narrative. This is limiting in the same way that first person is – you’re only reading one person’s story.

Third person limited is like both the above in that you’re only in one character’s head, but it’s told from outside that character: John said this, John did that, John didn’t know what to think. This method is the most common, and while it’s limited to one character at a time, it lends itself better to POV changes. George RR Martin‘s Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, uses third person limited, but from the POV of a different character for each chapter. A lot of other authors use this technique – breaking up POVs by chapter or by in-chapter breaks (eg ****) and using that to delineate whose head they are inside.

Third person omniscient is when you’re inside everyone’s head, so to speak. The narrative isn’t limited by telling one character’s story at a time, and can reveal the thoughts of any character at any time. Believe it or not, this is the hardest to get right, because of the danger of head-hopping, which is when you tell us too many characters’ thoughts in a short space of time. This can just get overwhelming and confusing for the reader, and is apparently one of the main things that agents reject manuscripts on.

I know that a lot of people reading this are just shaking their heads, thinking, I know all this stuff; why is she spelling it out like that? Well, first, I know that a lot of people hear these terms but aren’t always totally sure what they mean, so I figured better safe than sorry. But it also helps me talk more about voice, and how that affects a story.

Voice is most important when you’re in the first person, because it’s that character telling the story. Having an individual voice for that character is very important since we’re stuck with them all the way through. It needs to be engaging, it needs to be consistent, and the thought processes and conclusions made within the narrative need be logical for that character’s opinions and experiences. This is why I’m so impressed with authors like Jodi Picoult, because she manages to have completely different voices for each character, so that a number of POVs within first person actually work. Too often, though, an author will try to do this, only to have each voice essentially sound the same.

Voice in third person limited is also important, though arguably not AS important as in first person. Again, we’re experiencing the story from the POV of one character (at a time, perhaps) so we need to understand their thoughts, their emotions, their motivations. Going back to George RR Martin (I’m currently reading that series, so it’s prominent in my mind right now), he delves into each character’s head very well, but the voice of each chapter isn’t necessarily very different from the last. Descriptions, dialogue tags and the like feel the same no matter whose story we are reading, which can be considered a flaw considering the ages of the characters involved range from seven to close to seventy. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the story in third person limited, but had he attempted to do it in first person it definitely would.

So, which one to choose? If you’re trying to work out how you want your story to read, POV is something you really need to get sorted. I’ve written in first person and in third person limited, mainly because I feel most comfortable staying in one person’s head at a time. If you’re really having trouble choosing, though, there are ways to help you decide. Usually there’s a key scene in the story that you’ve already got worked out – a battle, perhaps, a moment of high suspense, or maybe when your main pairing get together for the first time. In any case, it’s important to your story and it’s going to be in there, no matter what. Well, try writing it, even if you haven’t written anything else. Try it in first person, in third limited, in third omniscient, and see how you go. Normally one of them will feel more comfortable and will be easier to write than the other two. Then try it with another scene you’ve thought about. Is the same type of POV winning out? Then you’ve got your answer. If not, then you might need to work on a compromise. Either way, you’ve got something to base your decision on now.

Well, I hope this has helped at least one person deal with the complexities of POV. For the record, I’m using third person limited (with POV changes) in my novel, because that was how I thought it would work the best. It’s important to do what feels most comfortable for you, but just be wary of the pitfalls, because no one is immune to mistakes.

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Assorted writing tips #4 – how to take negative feedback

"Writing", 22 November 2008

“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: dr_ed_needs_a_bicycle)

 

Writing is subjective. There are no two ways about it. What one person loves, another will abhor. What one person thinks is good writing, another will criticise. The simple truth is that no matter how hard you try, you will never please everyone – and if you try to do just that, then the chances are that you won’t  please anyone.

Writers love reviews, and any other kinds of feedback. It could be a tweet from a stranger telling them how much they loved your latest story; it could be a formal, several-paragraph review on Amazon or Goodreads; it could be in the New York Review of Books; it could be from a prospective agent or publisher. Wherever it comes from, we all love to hear what people think of our work.

Or do we? Because for every positive review or person who loved what they read, chances are there’s a negative one waiting in the wings somewhere. It may never see the light of day (some people just don’t review if they don’t like something), but everyone will, at some stage, get some feedback that tells them their work is utter rubbish. And no one likes hearing that.

Sure, some people appear thick-skinned and just shrug it off, but you know what? I bet they’re just like the rest of us. I bet they get just as hurt as everyone else does – they just don’t show it. They’ve learned how to handle it. And how do I know this? Because I’m one of them.

I had someone ask me once how I managed to shake off the negative reviews and concentrate on the positive ones. This was when I wrote fanfiction, and while I had a good number of people saying “I love this story!” and other variants on that theme, there were always some who felt they had to ruin the party. “This is the fanfiction equivalent of a trashy, smutty beach novel,” one person wrote. Another told me that “your story = vomit in my mouth”. And then there were the more constructive ones … “Your characters are flat and lifeless”; “this story is going nowhere”; “the plot is laboured and predictable, the characterisation stereotyped and the narrative tries too hard”. Okay, I might have paraphrased as I don’t remember them  verbatim, but you get the idea.

My answers to these reviews, though, were always polite and respectful. Even those which offered no constructive criticism at all were dealt with in that way. Why? Not because I didn’t take them to heart, but because I sat on them for a while.

“How do you just shrug it all off?” my friend asked. The answer was, I didn’t (and still don’t). They stung. No matter how many people told me how much they loved the story and how it made them laugh and cry, and (in some cases) even how it had changed their lives, the negative ones were the ones that I thought about when I was going to sleep at night. Those were the ones that stuck.

What I did do, though, was wait at least 24 hours before responding. And in those 24 hours, I thought about what the person had said. No matter how much I didn’t want to hear it, perhaps they had a point. Perhaps my characters were flat and lifeless. Perhaps the plot was laboured and predictable. And I figured that, even if not all of it was warranted (I thought the ‘trashy, smutty beach novel’ line was a bit of a stretch, for example, as my story had next to no smut in it), the person who wrote it had taken the time to read the story and also had the courage to make their feelings known. If something is reasonably popular, it can be intimidating to go against the grain and say that you don’t like it, so I had to respect that. Besides, it was quite likely that these people knew more about writing than I did, so it would be worthwhile to take notice of their comments.

So my advice is this. Whenever you can, get your feedback in writing. This is of course easiest when it’s organised online, but even writing groups will provide written notes if you ask for them. If the feedback is also provided verbally, just nod and thank the person and say you’ll take it on board. Getting uptight in situations like this doesn’t help anyone. When it’s written, though, read it and then just sit on it for a while. A day, two days, a week, whatever works for you, but make sure you do it.

The reason, of course, is that any response written in the heat of the moment will come across as defensive and argumentative, because chances are you will initially think that the other person is wrong, no matter what. Once you’ve thought on it for a little while, though, you become more measured, and more likely to take it in.

And that’s how we become better writers.

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Assorted writing tips #3 – Read. Keep reading. Then read some more.

Image by Adrian van Leen

 

It seems so obvious that you may well be wondering why I’d bother writing a blog post about it. Really, though, it’s one of the best things you can do to improve your writing. Reading a lot not only broadens your overall experience, but can give you a number of handy hints for your writing career.

This is something I noticed when I started taking my writing seriously. I’ve been a reader all my life, and have rarely been without a book or two on the go.  My mother even used to put old magazines in my cot when I was a baby to occupy me when I woke up, giving her fifteen or twenty precious minutes before I called out to her. Reading is a huge part of who I am.

Anyway, once I started thinking about writing, I started to notice things about the books I was reading. Storytelling techniques (both good and bad), use of dialogue, examples of show rather than tell – all of those basic stock things that you have at the back of your mind when you write, were there when I read.

I’m a lot more critical now, I admit that. I have read books by previously adored authors and pulled them apart as I read, thinking of ways the plot could have unfolded more smoothly. I have looked at published books and been astonished at their predictability and the corners they cut in exposition. I have, in short, been critiquing them in my head.

Of course, the opposite has been true as well. There are books I’ve read where I’ve been in awe of the work that went into them. Accurate and detailed research cannot be faked, and as someone who has done that sort of research for a particular niche I appreciate the effort involved. I have been amazed by plot twists and been left hanging after every cliffhanger, dying to know what happens next. As such, I have begun to appreciate the quality of what I’m reading, especially when it’s by an established and successful author, and I’ve learned a bundle from it.

So, read. Read because you enjoy it – because if you don’t enjoy reading, then what are you doing writing in the first place? Read as a reader … but also read as a writer. Think about not only the content of the narrative, but also how it’s been put together. Think about how the sentences and paragraphs flow, and how you might be able to apply the techniques used to your own writing. Think about what you can learn from them. I know I do.

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Assorted writing tips #2 – don’t wait for inspiration

Image: Paul / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


I know what you’re thinking. I can’t write if I’m not inspired! What would I write about??

This is, of course, an excellent point. But the problem is, if you only write when you’re inspired, you’ll hardly ever do it. Besides, inspiration often comes at the most inconvenient times – in the shower, at 3am, when you’re making dinner, when you jump into the car to do the errands or whatever. In any case, it’s often when you are simply not able to make the most of it. But what of writing when you’re uninspired? Well yes, it can be difficult … but it can also be done.

Take my case – and I’m sure I’m not alone here. With young children, my writing time is limited to when they are either being educated or, mostly in the case of the baby, asleep. I rarely get more than an hour or two at a time to write, and even then I have no idea how long it will be before the baby monitor starts lighting up again, signalling that my attention is needed elsewhere. As such, I have arranged my time to have a Writing Day each week. (See? I’ve even capitalised it. That’s how important it is to me.) This is my day when I don’t do anything else – no extra-curricular activities for the kids, no shopping, no running down to the post office, nothing. For as long as I can (ie, when the baby isn’t complaining), I sit at my computer and I write.

The thing is, naturally, that I’m not always feeling particularly inspired on my Writing Day. Maybe the baby got me up at 4.30am and I’m crying out for a nap. Maybe the house needs cleaning. Maybe there’s something that I want to watch on television. Maybe I’m just not feeling creative. And I’m sure you’ve all been there.

However, I make myself do it. I have a look over what I’ve already written, and I can generally find something to do. Maybe it’s just the odd paragraph here or there. Maybe it’s editing – which I know I shouldn’t do till the first draft is finished, but I feel that any progress on a Writing Day is good. Maybe it’s a scene that I’ve been playing with in my mind, when I have been inspired (generally at 3am or when I’m doing the grocery shopping, I find), that I remember enough of to get a start on.

The thing is, just the act of writing is beneficial. I find it’s easier to edit and re-write a scene than it is to start it from scratch, even when there are a lot of changes to be made. After all, if you’ve already done it and you think it doesn’t work, then at least you know now what not to do with it. And of course, the more you write, the better at it you get.

Besides, who hasn’t had a day when they start out writing what they think is rubbish, only to look at it at the end and realise it’s actually quite good? I know I can’t be the only one.

So, if you have a time set aside to write, then make the most of it. Don’t wait to be inspired. Don’t spend that time surfing Facebook or Twitter or anything else that the net might throw at you. Just do it. You never know what might come out.

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Assorted writing tips #1 – don’t use your delete button

 

This, believe it or not, is actually some of the best advice I’ve ever received, and I’m afraid to say that I received it so long ago that I have no idea who initially suggested it to me. It’s exactly as it sounds, though – you don’t actually delete anything you’ve written.

By this, I don’t mean that every word must be kept, and certainly not in the initial manuscript it was written for. What I do mean, though, is that when you are editing your work, it’s a good idea to have a separate document open as a personal slush file. Whenever you cut a significant bit of writing from your story – say, more than a couple of sentences – try cutting and pasting it into that slush file instead of getting rid of it altogether. That way, when the time and inspiration is right, you can use it for another story, or as inspiration for another scene or character.

I guess this is a long-winded way of trying to stress that our creative juices should be valued. Just because a particular scene or piece of dialogue doesn’t fit one story or a particular place in that story doesn’t mean it’s not going to be good – albeit slightly edited – somewhere else. And, speaking from experience, it’s well worth it. I’ve adapted countless thoughts, conversation snippets and whole scenes from old stories to fit new ones, and usually they’re a much better fit the second or third time around, possibly because I’ve had that extra time to get them right.

Well, that’s it from me.  What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever received about your writing? I’d love to hear it. :)

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