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About Susan J. Morris

A very logical child, Susan grew up reading stories about monsters by night and looking for them on the playground by day--scientifically rigorously--because she couldn't believe the world would be so boring as to be born without monsters. Dark, poetic, gritty sci-fi/fantasy and YA are her favorite inspirations, but she maintains that "It was there" is also a perfectly valid excuse to read a book.

Posts by Susan

Writers Don't Cry 2012 Picks: Five Books for Writers

Writersdontcry WDC PicksWriters crave a steady diet of fierce, thoughtful, and heartbreakingly well-worded books. These books should have the paragraph structure of the gods, dialogue to die for, and a narrative voice you would follow through gates of hell (though it would never lead you there). And it is through enjoying and analyzing these rare and inspired books that writers can best hone their craft.

But which books in particular are good examples of such technical expertise? Well, you could make the argument that you can learn something from just about every book you read—brilliant or not so brilliant. And that even if something is not to your taste, there is something to be gleaned there. But, I have to say, I prefer to learn while enjoying my pants off.

So! To that end, I’ve put together a list of five books I think make great studies for writers. Now, I understand that traditionally, these lists are temporally discriminatory, in order to keep Harry Potter, Twilight, and George R. R. Martin from ruling the world (or rather, this corner of it). However, since I don’t just read books that came out this year, this is not going to be such a list. Instead, I will attempt to immortalize five (just five!) of the many inspiring and instructive books I read this year. (Or maybe the year before. Hey, it’s my first list, cut me a little slack!)

May I present, in no particular order, five books for writers, how I found them, what they’re about, and what you can learn by studying them.

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Writing Meaningful Description

WritersdontcryEvocativeTo the reader? The world of your book is a black box. Devoid of all sensation—no sights, sounds, tastes, smells, or aural pleasantries beyond dialogue. It is up to you and your prowess of description to fill that world out—to let the reader experience it as you would have it experienced. Such power! Such responsibility.

If you do it right, you can grant readers the ultimate experience: the immersive feeling of actually being in another world. And trust me when I say readers will re-read the same book over and over again just to get that sensation, if you get it right. If you get it wrong, readers will at best set your book down and never pick it up again—and at worst, laugh in all the wrong places. No pressure, eh?

So—what goes into writing evocative descriptions? Strangely enough, it’s not just adjectives. It’s also character reactions, dead-on comparisons, and a sensory smorgasbord.  (Not to mention point of view, pacing, structure, narrative distance, and the sounds of words, as those are addressed in entirely different articles.) And luckily, these things are pretty easy to put into practice, once you know what you’re looking for.

Show Don’t Tell

I know, I know! This is the oldest advice in the book. So old, it’s kind of cliché itself. But here’s the thing: it’s largely true (with notable exceptions, of course), and nowhere is it truer than in writing description. Writers often feel a powerful urge to make the reader feel exactly what they want them to feel—to make them experience the world exactly as they mean it to be experienced. And in doing so, new writers often make the mistake of telling us how to feel about everything that is being described—using authorially judgmental words—and symbolic words--instead of sensory, descriptive words.

For example: “The evil trees were scary and dumb looking.”

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Help, My Writing Is Broken! (Or, How to Deal with Writer’s Block)

WritersdontcryBlankpageEvery once and a while, when a writer sits down to write, nothing comes out. Like—nothing. All right, the writer will tell themselves, I’m a grown-up, I can make this happen. So the writer swallows down the fear starting to build in their throat and slaps words onto the page with a fearlessness that dares the writing to just try and suck. And if it doesn’t suck? Congratulations! You wrote your way out of writer’s block! That is both awesome and awe-inspiring.

But if it does suck? Like, badly? Don’t hyperventilate just yet; writer’s block isn’t permanent (usually, anyway). It’s a totally normal phenomenon many professional writers experience at least once per novel (and twice during outlines). And even though almost everyone has at least a tiny part of them that is afraid the writing will never, ever come back—it always does, in the end. Even if it takes its own sweet time.

Of course, that’s just dandy when you need to be brilliant on a deadline. Dandy and completely impractical. So, for those of you on deadlines and at your wit’s end, here is a three-step solution attempt, geared at helping you find the source of your discontent and getting you back into writing mode pronto.

Step 1: Did You Leave Your Critical Side On?

Here are some signs that you may have left your critical side on:

  1. You have a hard time reading books you normally enjoy. You’re either restless or it just doesn’t grab you the way it normally does.
  2. Every word you write feels mechanical and forced, and when you read them? You have to restrain your fingers from instinctively deleting them.
  3. You’re not so sure your idea is a good one anymore. In fact, you can’t believe anyone ever said they liked your idea.
  4. The writing you did earlier you either hate and can’t believe you ever thought it was good, or love, and are worried sick you’re going to mess it up.
  5. You just can’t seem to visualize the scene you’re about to write. Your brain keeps missing the idea and catching on the words.

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For Those About to Write, I Salute You (with 5 NaNoWriMo Tips)

WritersdontcryBrainstormOnly two days left until the start of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month—the one time of year where hundreds of thousands of writers set out together on a terrifying quest to each finish a complete, 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. It’s perfect for beginners, inspired to write but intimidated by the time and scope of a novel. It’s perfect for advanced writers with overdeveloped critical faculties, looking to fall back in love with the creative side of things. And it’s a perfect excuse for just about anyone to get in some practice—both in writing, and in that good old fashioned butt-in-chair discipline.

So: for those about to write, I salute you. And on top of that, I offer you these tips to being one of the awe-inspiring 14% who walk away 50,000 words and a new story richer.

1. Write Outlines for Your Plot and Characters: I know, I know! Outlines suck. They really do. I have yet to meet a person who, when I suggest an outline, goes “yay, outlines, that’s my favoritest part!” And there’s a reason for that. Outlines force you to work through all the muckiest parts first. It points out conflicts you just really didn’t want to have to think about quite yet, and spotlights holes you’re positive weren’t there when you thought up the idea. It makes you hold the whole book in your head at the same time—like a giant Rubik’s cube, where every piece you fiddle with breaks some other piece, so you have to mess with yet another piece--generally making your head feel like it's going to explode, until the whole thing finally--mercifully--clicks into place. But once you understand your plot and your characters, it’s easier to visualize your story. And once you can visualize it, all you have to do is write down what you see. Easy-peasy, right? But one more thing: since this is NaNoWriMo, do not spend too much time on this stage. Normally, I endorse spending as much time as you need to untangle plot and character elements before moving on—as there’s nothing worse than encountering a novel-breaker three-quarters of the way in—but set yourself a time-limit on this one: no more than three days. That’s 10% of your time, and that’s about right for NaNoWriMo.

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Frightening Writing: Tips for Scaring off Pants

WritersdontcryNHowtoscareyourreaderearly every fantasy story I have ever read has at least one moment where the author tries to scare the pants off me. Often I’m supposed to fear the villain. Sometimes I’m supposed to fear his minions as well. And other times, I’m just supposed to fear a horrific situation, or the probable consequences of a character’s questionable choices. But any way you cut it, knowing how to scare your reader is an important skill—and one whose lack would undermine your entire novel. (The last thing you want when the Masked Moo finally battles the Dehoofinator in your super serious fantasy epic, is laughs—except maybe yawns.) But that’s no problem! Just throw in a couple of gaping maws and some evil-looking claws, and you’re done, right?

Tragically, no. Being scary isn’t just about word choice (though that’s totally important), or choosing between needlelike teeth and toothless sucker-maws (both perfectly valid choices). Being scary is a kind of climax. And just like every other climax, it’s something you have to build up to, deftly orchestrating the slow increase of tension and intensity until you reach the bloody finale! (Okay, maybe not just like every other climax.) You can divide said climax into three different stages of scary: anticipating the threat, perceiving the threat, and suffering the threat. Or, more simply, fearing a monster, seeing the monster, and experiencing the monster chewing your arm off.

While each of these brands of terror stands on its own, the complete scare package generally starts out with anticipation, moves to perception, and ends in suffering. However, within that greater arc, we can actually use all three tactics to slowly build the tension and intensity to a heart-stopping finish. These waves will start by using primarily the first level of horror, and then use increasing amounts of the latter two levels. And, of course, the very best “sufferings” carry in them the promise of new “anticipations.” (See Alien: the facehuggers.)

Easy enough, right? But let’s break it down a little bit.

Anticipating the Threat

Playing on a reader’s anxiety and fear is horror’s version of foreplay: and hot damn, does it work. It masters the double threat of both scaring you onto the edge of your seat—and then keeping you there. In fact, anxiety-based scare tactics are so effective that they are often undermined by the reveal of the monster—particularly if the author is not as skilled at the other two stages (or, in old horror flicks, if they special effects budget wasn’t quite there).

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Unnecessary Words, Blah Words, and Just Plain Wrong Words

Writersdontcry Death by WordsThere are some things you want to be invisible, like panty lines, pet hair (that’s taken up residence on your shirt), and pimples. And there are other things you definitely don’t want invisible, like doors, fast-moving cars, and your pants. One of the jobs of a writer is to successfully sort things into those two camps, and assign words accordingly. Otherwise, you end up with plenty of panty lines, pet hair, and pimples, but no pants, as you slam into an invisible door, fall, and are painfully but not fatally run over by . . . something. Look, it had tires, if the tracks on your shirt are any indication, but after that, you really have no idea.

Anyway. That was a really long metaphor to tell you something that’s actually pretty simple: choose the right words. Simple right? Not exactly. Hence the metaphor. There are three basic ways words can sin in the world of writing, thus earning their execution at the hands of the almighty editor. They can be unnecessary, they can be blah, or they can be just plain wrong (for the occasion, anyway).

We tend to develop an instinct for this as we read, but it can be super helpful to break it down sometimes, especially when editing one’s own work, or when trying to figure out why a sentence just doesn’t have that special oomph you wanted. For your convenience, I’ve broken out the three types of bad language I mentioned above, why you should cut them out of your prose, and when you can actually use them to better your book.

Unnecessary Words
ran forward
fell to the ground
nodded his head
blinked his eyes

Unnecessary words are just that: unnecessary. Meaning, the reader gets just fine what you’re trying to say without them, so all they do is slow the prose down. For instance, when you use a word like “ran,” the default is “forward,” so unless your main character’s running backward or sideways or in some other entertaining direction, you can leave the direction out. Likewise, when you “fall,” we assume it is “to the ground,” unless you tell us otherwise. And what else would he “nod” but his “head”? Or “blink” but his “eyes”? Cut, cut, cut, and cut.

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Read the Way You Write: Classify It, Deconstruct It, Play with It

Writersdontcry Writing and Reading JournalsGreat writing is often borne of an almost absurd level of appreciation and dedication to reading. It takes a special kind of reader—one with incredible patience—to take the time to savor what she reads and to figure out how she herself could create something similarly beautiful.  

But, paradoxically, the more we write, the less we tend to read. I mean, I suppose it does kind of make sense. Whole evenings regularly and easily disappear in the pursuit of reading—and writing takes loads of practice and hard work. Which makes for two incredibly time-consuming passions, both likely already outside of the money-making and romatic parts of ones life. Sacrificing reading for the pursuit of writing, though, I feel is a mistake, as it can lead us to lose touch with that which inspired us in the first place.

Of course, it is good to want to work on your writing, and it’s perfectly normal to want to spend every waking moment getting better at it. And sure, reading can feel a bit frivolous when compared to that necessary hard work. But reading is not procrastinating, even if it is fun (and I sure hope you think it is!): it is an important part of maintaining and honing your skills, staying inspired, and keeping in touch with why you write. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that being an appreciative and reflective reader is one of the best ways to work on your writing. After all, where did you learn most of your skills: from a classroom, on the internet, or from thoughtfully reading great books?

To take the best advantage of your reading for your writing, I recommend keeping a reading journal. In it, you can keep track of what you like, play with particular paragraphs to figure out how they work, and experiment with the styles and ideas you read about to improve your own writing. Here are a few ideas for how to start a reading journal of your own:

Keep Your Favorites

Whenever you run across a line you love, no matter what it’s from--be it movie trailer, song, or fantasy epic—write it down in your journal, along with where it’s from and the date you read it. Do the same for paragraphs you love, and even whole scenes. Yes, it is time consuming to write these things down—legibly, anyway—by hand. But think of it as a valentine to the author. By taking the time to express your appreciation in this way, you allow more of your brain to work the words over, to figure out what makes them so resonant. And, as a bonus, you end up with a fascinating record of your favorites over time—as well as a source for inspiration, and a way to revisit the best parts of your library whenever you want to.

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Sentence Length Matters: The Anatomy of a Perfect Paragraph

Writersdontcry Dr EmoticowBefore we think about it, every sentence we write is pretty much the same. He did X. He did Y. Ready-set-repeat. But this is boring. Apocalyptically boring. And even our seven-year-old selves can figure that much out. Who wants to read an endless laundry list of he-did, she-dids? But figuring out what to do about it, without starting to sound like Yoda? That is an entirely different matter.

What we’ve instinctively recognized is that talking about something interesting is not enough. A good paragraph also has varying sentence lengths, a good rhythm, and a word order that places the emphasis in the right spot. A paragraph that has all of these things, and an interesting subject matter, is a quick and easy read. Without these things, even a pulse-pounding fight scene will prove dense, slogging, and mechanical--at best.

You’d think the solution would be easy, given the problem. Just mess with the sentence structure more, right? But that’s like painting your whole face red to hide one pimple. The problem is not actually the sentence structure—that’s just a symptom. The problem—often anyway--is insufficient variance in the focus, distance, and subject matter discussed. But fixing it is a tricky issue! So, next time you find yourself slipping into he-did, she-dids, are a few tips on how you can break out of that pattern, and find a better rhythm.

Sentence Length Matters
"He could hide within his body. He’d fled to someplace very deep. She’d searched his internal organs. She’d searched his mouth and eyes. She found his soul in his liver. She followed it into a dream." —an incredibly, horribly mutilated quote from The Shadowed Sun (N. K. Jemisin)

When every sentence is the exact same length, as it is in the above mutilated sample (composed entirely of eight-syllable sentences), the effect is monotonous and boring, no matter how exciting the subject matter. But one thing that helps is to make it more specific.

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Turning Inspiration into a Plot

Writersdontcry InspirationWhen inspiration strikes, it is awesome. It is that moment we were waiting for. We quickly drop whatever we're doing, pull over if we're driving, and un-crumple gum wrappers, turn over that important memo, or flatten that Starbucks cup, and scrawl down the idea as quickly as possible, lest we lose it. If we are in the unfortunate position of not having any way to record the idea, we repeat it—sometimes even out loud—so as not to lose a single syllable. And our coworkers think we are crazy. But we know it’s worth it: after all, how often does true inspiration strike?

But the next part—turning it from idea into a plot? That part’s why so many people hate outlines. Inspiration is easy because it’s unlooked for. Plotting and outlining are hard work, even with the best of ideas. But there are some tricks that can make it easier. Here are a few techniques to play with the next time you want to try to wrangle that flash of brilliance and turn it into something storylike.

Determine the Conflict and the Characters

Everything comes back to your initial inspiration. All the events and characters have to make sense in relation to it, and every choice you make, defining those events and characters, closes off some options and opens up others. Why did the world chess champion kidnap a hacker? What made him so sure he would lose his next match against the computer, and why is it so important that he wins? How does he let the hacker do his job without giving him a means to escape and while ensuring he’s working with him—not against him? By following each thread, you will soon arrive at the beginnings of a plot.

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A Matter of Perspective: Using Distant and Tight Third Person

Lights Camera Emoticow WritersdontcryAnyone who has written or read more than birthday cards has more than likely heard the terms "tight (or close) third person" and "distant third person." And yet, when it comes to nailing down exactly what they mean, when and how to use them, and why something feels off about someone's use of tight third person, it can start to get a bit complicated. At its simplest, all the two terms do is describe the zooming in and out of a book’s literary camera. Tight third person means the literary camera has a tight focus on the viewpoint character (sometimes, so tight as to be just on their face) so as to emphasize the emotions and thoughts of the character. And distant third person means the camera is panned back a bit, to give us a less emotional and more literal view of things—and also to show us the character has feet.

But where it starts to get complicated is when you realize there aren’t just two kinds of third person. Tight and distant third person are actually part of a continuum that stretches all the way from outer-space distant--to right up inside your character’s skull. The more distant the narration, the more emphasis there is on the narrator’s voice and opinions (and the more important it is to have a strong voice). And the closer the narration, the more emphasis there is on the character’s experiences—to the eventual elimination of the narrator’s voice.

Writers tend to be very opinionated about—well, everything! But in particular about what distances are best. But, of course, in reality, you need all the distances (or at least, more than one). Sticking to just one distance would feel bizarrely monotone, like holding a single note for five minutes in place of a melody. Instead, most novels use different pacing, narrative distances, and vocabularies for different occasions, which the author weaves together seamlessly—and naturally—like a maestro.

Of course, that isn’t to say you should use all the distances all the time—and mixed up with each other willy-nilly. As engaging as the excellent use of distances can be, unexpected shifts in distance are discordant, and one of the surest ways to disengage your reader. So, to help tackle the issue, I’ve adapted the five “psychic distances” outlined by John Gardner in his genius guide to writing: The Art of Fiction, and gone over briefly some of the details of each distance and how to move elegantly between them.

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