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Sex, Swearing, and What You Don’t Want to Write

A few years ago, I found myself staring tensely at my computer screen, fingers hovering over the keyboard as I wrestled with a problem that every conservative writer must face when trying to keep fiction realistic. One of my characters was going to swear. And I did not want to write a swear word.

What do you do when your novel takes a turn for the nitty-gritty details of life? You might want to keep your story clean and family friendly, or you might simply be uncomfortable writing about those aspects of humanity. Either way, it’s a problem best confronted head on. Your readers are as human as you, and (trust me!) they will know when you’re keeping things unrealistically soft. One of my favorite writers once said that he had a problem getting a book accepted because, as an editor friend finally told him, all of the children in the book were perfectly behaved. So don’t sugar-coat it.

Her? Mischief? No...

Her? Mischief? Who’d have thought!

I’m not perfectly versed on how to deal with this problem. It’s cropped up in several different stories I’ve written, and I’ve combatted it with different ways. Sometimes, if it’s something more mild–a romantic caress or a milder swear word–I do let it slip in. And I find it surprisingly satisfying. I’m letting the characters do and say what they want, it fits with the rest of the story and I don’t have to force anything. When things want to get more extreme, I have to use the reins. Since I do not think sugar-coating it is a good option, I try to allude to it instead. This is a risky approach. It slips into the category of telling instead of showing, but it does let me out of having to write something that I am not comfortable writing. In the case I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I ended up writing the sentence, “She swore.” It was blunt, honest, but didn’t force me to write something I didn’t want to. It was also in the middle of a conversation between characters. I treated the swearing like an activity instead of like words, and I think in that case it worked pretty well. For sex scenes I tend to skip over the scene itself and then allude to it afterwards in a tamer situation.

"Now, about last night..."

“Now, about last night…”

This is an area where I am very open for discussion. Please share your thoughts on self-censorship and writing possibly controversial material in the comments section below! What approach do you think is best? How do you approach a situation that you don’t want to write about? I look forward to hearing from you.


How to Set up A Productive Writing Routine

Routines are popular among creative writers, and for good reason. They enforce the habit of writing and help you stay productive and consistent in your work. But they’re also tragically easy to fall out of, and finding a routine that works for you can take a lot of time and energy that you would rather save for other things. If you want to start your own writing routine, here are some things you should consider to get the most out of it.


Image credit: Sanja Djenero

Image credit: Sanja Djenero

1. Don’t expect too much. One of the biggest mistakes I make when I try routines is that I try to commit myself to an ideal amount of work. But life is far from ideal. Things come up, you get sick or find yourself buried in other commitments. Some days you won’t right as well or as much as others. The best routines are the ones that won’t take up a lot of time and ones that you won’t feel stressed about making. You’re better off aiming for 100 words a day than 1000 if you don’t know you can keep up with that.


Hey, if confetti fish make it more fun... Image credit: Billy Alexander

Hey, if confetti fish help you write…
Image credit: Billy Alexander

2. Make it fun. Create a pleasant atmosphere, or give yourself regular rewards for meeting your goals. Your writing time should be a time of enjoyment, not just of stressed scrambling over a keyboard. I often fix myself a delicious beverage and listen to music that makes me think of my story. I know I’m in a good routine if my writing time is something I look forward to!


Image credit: Christa and Michael Richert

Image credit: Christa and Michael Richert

3. Prepare for changes. Life changes. Sometimes dramatically. My writing routines now are different than they were a couple years ago, before I was married, which were still different from my routines in college. If you’re undergoing a major lifestyle change, take some time to re-evaluate your writing routine and see what might need to be changed. Even if it means committing to a lower word count or less time spent typing, it’s better to commit to something you know you can keep than something that you might not reach.


Image credit: Billy Alexander

Maybe not this simple… Image credit: Billy Alexander

4. Keep it simple. For all I’ve written above, I personally am not currently sticking to a word count or set time that I spend writing. The only writing goals that I keep to are writing an article (or fixing something up or adding something awesome) on Finish That Novel! every three days and writing something every day. Unless I’m taking part in a writing challenge, I don’t hold myself to any strict goal, and I think that for right now that’s the best thing for me. A routine doesn’t need to be elaborate, so long as it involves writing!


Image credit: Pawel Kryj

Image credit: Pawel Kryj

5. Keep it regular. I was terrible at writing journals until I committed myself to writing in them every day (even when there was nothing to write). Maybe you can only spend ten minutes of your lunch break scribbling some words or maybe you can only write on weekends. So long as you have a regular schedule, you will become much more productive as a writer.


Image credit: Sanja Djenero

Image credit: Sanja Djenero

6. Set goals! I don’t always have a goal in mind when I write, but when I do it helps. Sometimes I decide to reach a certain scene in my novel or point in the story by a certain time. Sometimes I decide to do a certain word count or write an entire chapter. Shake your goals up a lot so that they don’t lose their freshness. Then let them motivate you!


Image credit: Belovodchenko Anton

Image credit: Belovodchenko Anton

7. Break your routine. I know many writers who can only write under the proper circumstances and who cling to their routines. If that works for you, great. But I need variation and experimentation to keep things interesting. Try writing somewhere else for a change, or sticking to a stricter goal for a while. Join an event. Just remember that it’s always nice to come home to your routine at the end of a writing adventure!

What’s your writing routine? Do you have any awesome tips to share? Please let us know all about it in the comments below!


Why Your Strong Female Heroine Needs to Die

Image credit: Belovodchenko Anton

Image credit: Belovodchenko Anton

That’s it. I’ve had it. I’ve seen her too many times on the big screen, small screen and in the pages of otherwise awesome books. I’ve even seen her in some of my own writing. The Strong Female Lead is dominating Western culture, and she needs to die.

I’m not saying that your main character can’t be an awesome, butt-kicking woman… but she can’t be just like every other female lead who’s been popping up everywhere for the past twenty years. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Beatrice “Tris” Prior from the Divergent trilogy to Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire, even to Marvel’s Black Widow and Once Upon A Time’s Emma Swan. . . female lead characters have become more and more cliche and predictable. I will list her traits below. If you recognize this woman in your own novel, you should either (preferably) kill her outright and cut her from your writing or make dramatic changes to her.

Physical Appearance: She has a good figure, though she’s a bit smaller than most. She doesn’t look at all muscular but is incredibly nimble and flexible. She’s usually blonde, but not always. She is also usually in her teens or early twenties, though there are occasional exceptions.

Skill Sets: SFL (Strong Female Lead) can aim better than any man. This goes for both guns and archery. She is incredibly fast and flexible and light on her feet. In addition, she is intelligent without being bookish and great at coming up with plans at the last moment. She might not be perfect at improvising but usually can use her charm to get by. She is fearless and will not hesitate to kill anyone in her way (unless she can see the good in the person and is obligated to spare him or her).

Morality: This woman has a free and wild spirit. She follows her heart and does what she thinks is right, even if it means going against societal custom or breaking the law. She is very emotionally driven and often acts on impulse. She refuses to be bound either to a normal life or (more likely) to the heroic life she is forced into largely against her will.

sadEmotions: SFL starts out being more tender and naive but becomes hardened by her experiences. She is hesitant to reveal her emotions to anyone and usually will only break down from guilt after doing something she changes her mind about later. She is NOT a sissy, but she does get sentimental at times thinking about her dreamy past.

Flaws: Well, she certainly won’t pick her nose or anything, but of course our SFL isn’t perfect. She is too independent and stubborn for her own good, too willing to give of herself to protect and save others. She doesn’t know the value of her own life. She also doesn’t have a problem going to extremes to get what she wants (which is always for the good of everyone around her). She only has the most heroic of flaws. You can’t expect her to face an addiction or mental illness or eating disorder (because who’d want to read about that?).

I know many people who love this woman, girls who try to emulate her in every way and young women who talk about her nonstop. But she’s not a good character. She’s so predictable and always exactly the same. I listed only a few examples above of the many, many SFL’s who have claimed pop culture, and I say it’s time for a breath of fresh air. Why not have a heroine who’s aging or struggling to manage her weight? Why not make super-girl squeamish at the sight of blood or downright terrible at fighting?

Your novel will come off much better written if your characters are distinct and separate from the filler heroes that are so common. Please share your thoughts below in the comments section–I’d love to hear from you!


Stillborn Novels (And What to Do about Them)

From the fan-fiction loving high schooler to the serious literary master, almost every writer has a graveyard of stillborn novels. It just happens. Some stories don’t work out. Some run out of steam only a few pages in. Some survive the drafting but fall apart as soon as you begin editing. Some just die on the page. These aren’t novels that still have potential, that could still work. These are books that are very likely completely dead, lifeless, and rotting with old ideas and tired techniques.

I'm afraid a quick fix won't help this time...

I’m afraid a quick fix won’t help this time…

People don’t like to talk about these stories, the ones that didn’t make it. What are you supposed to do with them, after all? Some writers become disheartened after writing so many. Some get stuck on the first one and endlessly try to breathe life back into it, refusing to move on.

Don’t delete these stories. Don’t get hung up on them either. If a story is really dead, then you’re probably better off moving on to something new and alive. It’s better to leave a book in the middle than to force and manipulate a story out of it.

But don’t forget about them. You never know what could happen years from now. I have files from all through my writing career. Finished novels, dead novels, mysterious short stories that I still can’t figure out. Every so often I review them. I look back on my old ideas and see if there’s any way I can still use them in my current writing. O’Malley the poetic side gangster still wins my heart even though the play I wrote him into never came through. The aunt of young wizard David Jones got cut entirely from a book that died later anyway, but I still giggle to myself when I think of her odd brainwashing methods and exquisite housekeeping.

Clearly witchcraft!

Clearly witchcraft!

Some people say you should never delete anything without first saving a copy of it. There might be truth to that. Just because a book dies doesn’t mean that everything in it is still dead. Keep the good ideas and characters, and keep dreaming about it, and they might make a surprising re-appearance later.

What dead stories do you wish you could bring back? Please share your thoughts on stillborn novels and what to do about them in the comments section below. I look forward to reading them!


5 Ways to Kill Writers’ Block (After It’s Started)

Some people say writers’ block doesn’t exist. It’s an excuse for laziness, one of the weakest reasons why not to write. But I know better. The past few days especially have been hard for me. I’m finally moving on from my NaNoWriMo book as it enters the advanced editing and less creative stages, and I find myself at, quite literally, a loss for words. I look at my other stories, open a few documents and review some older ideas for stories, and then close everything down again because I just don’t know what to write.

I don’t have the cure for writers’ block, but I do know some methods of working past it that can speed the writing process and make things more fun for you as the writer. It might be a setback, but it shouldn’t mean the end of a potentially brilliant writing career.



1. Write through it. This is my oldest way of breaking through it. It’s especially effective if you know where you’re going in your story but don’t know how to get there from where you are. Type a word onto the end of what you have. At least one individual word. Don’t tax yourself; you’ve been writing words since you were a kid. Then take a break. Listen to music, grab a snack, play solitaire or read a chapter in a good book. Five to ten minutes is ideal. Then return to your story and write another word. Repeat the process until you’re past the hard part. This sounds like a slow way to work it out, but I usually break several thousand words a day when I do it. The trick is to keep writing until you sense yourself slowing down and then force a break. When you come back you have to write at least one word, even if you don’t know what the rest of the sentence will be.


Bengal Cat jumping in snowy Garden

Don’t like the boring, grounded parts? Skip them!


2. Write past it. This is best if you hate what you’re writing now but know things will be better lately. Some writers (like my husband) don’t like the confusion of writing out of sequence. That’s okay. I don’t really care, so long as I have fun and the book gets written. Sometimes it’s best just to drop the boring or hard-to-write scenes and move on to something that gets you excited. Remember why you fell in love with this story in the first place and what ideas first sparked in your imagination. Write those scenes and then bridge them later.



Maybe not at this level, but hey–if that’s what it takes…


3. Toss in a surprise. This is especially popular on NaNoWriMo forums and works best if you have no idea where your novel is going. Have someone die. Interrupt the conversation with a shocking confession or actually have a man walk in with a gun. It may or may not help your story, but it is a way to help you as a writer. Remember that you can always go back and change it if you don’t like it or if it doesn’t work. Don’t be afraid to be cliché or stray off topic or throw in something that doesn’t work with your novel at all. Sometimes you just need to shock the writers’ block out of your system. And who knows? Maybe it’s just the kind of pick-me-up your novel needs.



4. Enter the authorly intervention! Enter your book yourself as a character. Or as the narrator. Interview your characters, ask them how it’s going and where they think everything is headed. It might seem like a silly and worthless exercise, especially since you’ll have to cut it out anyway. But it’s also a unique way to get inside of your characters’ minds and get them to take the initiative needed to move the story forward in a way that won’t seem forced or manipulated. You might also learn a good tidbit or two about a character, while you’re at it, and have a few good laughs.



5. Take another path. If you didn’t think this scene was necessary on some level, you probably wouldn’t be writing it. But if it’s boring you, you can count on it boring your readers. Maybe you need to find another way to get to the point you’re reaching for. This can be scary and risky, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Take the novel in another direction, and you could find more excitement, engagement and emotion.

Hopefully these tips can give you what you need to conquer your writers’ block. If you have any to add to the list, please mention them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!


14 Reasons You Need to Finish Your Novel

endIt’s amazing how many people have started writing a novel at some point in their lives. There always seems to be a stack of papers in the attic or a mysteriously titled word document that could have been a book, but there were too many reasons not to finish it: “No one wants to read about that.” “I just don’t know what more to write.” “I’m too busy with work and/or school.” Those are all actual excuses I have heard from people who could have been serious writers, and I feel slightly cheated as a reader every time I hear another excuse. So today I’ve decided to patch together a list of reasons why you should finish that novel:



1. Your novel is unique. Even if the market is swamped with similar stories, none are exactly like your novel. None are written in your unique style or carry quite the same weight as your story. There is nothing just like it out there. Period.



2. You do have the time. If you really didn’t have any time in your day, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You don’t need a lot of time every day to write, even if you prefer to immerse yourself in it. If you just dedicate five minutes a day to pure writing, you’ll be shocked at how much material you can pump out.



3. Mood schmood. Writing is like working out or practicing a musical instrument. It’s easier when you get started. Commit yourself to writing fifty words, and it will be five hundred before you know it.


top hat

4. It is your debt to society. Well, maybe not in so many words, but there are a lot of dedicated readers who would love to read your book. You already have a market. And by keeping your stories to yourself, you’re robbing a lot of people of the joy and excitement of reading your book.



5. You can do it. There is nothing physically keeping your from writing. If you don’t have any more ideas, make a few words come out a bit at a time until you do. Writers’ block isn’t invincible.


Image credit: Gabriella Fabbri

Image credit: Gabriella Fabbri

6. WRITING A NOVEL WILL MAKE YOU A ROCKSTAR!!! Ok, not really. But it will make you a novelist, and that’s a pretty cool title. How would you like to add “author” to your list of accomplishments?



7. It won’t stop haunting you. If you start writing a novel and then stop, it won’t disappear. Even if you deleted the file or burned the written draft, the idea will still take up space in your head. You’ll still haven nights where you lie awake in bed and wonder what would have happened if you had finished it, how good it could have been. You will be haunted by that novel until it’s done.



8. You can be omnipotent. When you’re writing a novel, you are playing a god-like role in your own creation. It’s easy to forget that and settle for expectations, but you don’t need to if you don’t want to. Deviate all you like and explore hidden paths!



9. It will make your life more interesting. I never cared about how trees look in late autumn until they made an appearance in a story. You’ll need to study your own life for information and details, and you’ll notice that your life has myriad intricacies that you’ve never before picked up on.



10. It’s free entertainment. Writing a novel can (and should) be fun. Really fun. And it won’t cost you a nickel, and you can do it whenever you want, however you want. Seriously, does it get any better?



11. You might be great. You might be a horrible writer with cliche ideas, and you can still benefit from writing a novel. But you might also be much better than you thought. Great writers come from all sorts of backgrounds and interests. How will you know you’re not one of them unless you try?


Image credit: Ramzi Hashisho

Image credit: Ramzi Hashisho

12. People will respect you. It’s true. People respect writers, even if they’ve never heard of them or if they just have a book on a POD service. You write a book, and people will admire you for having the guts to do something that they never could.



13. Finishing your novel will make you a better person. It’s true. Writing novels will aid your creative thinking and problem solving skills, help your writing skills (obviously), give you better insight to others via your character creation, and give you more confidence as a person. Everyone should write a novel, if only for these reasons!



Image credit: Chris Baker


14. Why not? Seriously, the benefits outweigh the costs. Why not spend the next sixty seconds working on your novel?


What are your reasons for writing a novel? Please share in the comments section below–I’d love to hear from you!


Why Your Readers Will Never Know You’re A Bad Writer

Image credit: Cecile Graat

Image credit: Cecile Graat

Song, poetry, and regional or foreign accents are only a few of the tough calls you have to make in the process of writing a novel. Do you include them or don’t you dare? Little effects and “writing within writing” can bring your imaginary world to life that much more, but it can also give it away as just another work of fiction by a writer who’s not actually very talented with words. Objectively there’s no way to know your talent. Is it a good idea to take the gambles?

It depends. If you’re drafting, then absolutely–take risks, break from what’s expected from you, go crazy! Write your whole book in verse, if you want. Editing is where it gets tough. You need to take your readers seriously if you want them to respect you as an author. Rhyming couplets does not guarantee a good fictional bar song any more than a cow guarantees the presence of the Wild West. People will see through your writing if it drops dramatically in quality for the sake of adding a poem or two or a strong Scottish brogue.

Aye, bahck een Scote-lahnd mayn wear plaihd keelts!

Aye, bahck een Scote-lahnd mayn wear plaihd keelts ahnd play bahg-pypes!

The best way to handle these sections in your novel is to show them to others, to people you can trust to give you an honest critique. Scribophile is a great place to check out if you don’t know anyone who could do the job. Otherwise, a rule of thumb that I usually stick to in the revising stages of my work is “When in doubt, cut it out.” (Catchy, ain’t it?) If you’re not sure you can pull something off, then you should probably work around the scene in a different manner. You could say the people at the bar were singing a rowdy song about whatever, or add that a character was speaking in a Scottish brogue. Some writers and literary critics even look down on others who include any irregularities of the English language at all in their work–so don’t worry about people thinking you’re not good enough if you back out gracefully.

Don't grapple with painting the Mona Lisa when this will do!

Don’t grapple with painting the Mona Lisa when this will do!

Also, it’s better to write simply but well than to be overly elaborate. People like simple writing. They connect with it. They swallow it whole. If you show signs of straining, you can bet your readers will pick up on it. If you can write a conversation simply but convincingly, you’ve already done a better job than if you tried to write about a dramatic confession with all frills attached in your style and dialogue. That’s an area where far too many writers (including myself) fail. There’s a reason why people consider my children’s book to be my best work–it was simple and easy writing, writing where I wasn’t straining myself but sticking with whatever sounded like the easiest and most fun path. That’s the way it should be.

You don’t need to be a poet or a linguist or a world traveler to write an excellent piece of fiction. You just need to know your limits and work around them so gracefully that no one will even know they’re there.