Posted in General, Writing Advice

5 Tips for Writing an Unreliable Narrator

One of my favorite elements in stories is the use of an unreliable narrator. As a reader, you want to implicitly trust what the narrator is telling you, but I like when I feel as if I have to piece together the truth for myself. If this appeals to you as well, check out my tips for crafting an unreliable narrator.

1. Give Them a Vice

When I say give them a vice, I don’t mean make them clumsy or someone who can’t resist buying a pack of Oreos at the grocery store.

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Although I get it.

What we’re looking for is something debilitating, an addiction. Drinking, drugs, anything that might skew their memories. One of my favorite examples of this is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Rachel is an alcoholic, devastated by the end of her marriage, and she frequently loses gaps of time due to her drinking. She even admits to not remembering certain events, so as the reader, we have to go off of her guesses or what other people have told her happened. Of course, the reader then has to assume that what others tell her is the truth, even if it conflicts with what Rachel remembers. Therein lies the brilliance of the character–there are so many people with so much to lose, we need to decide, as the reader, who to believe.

2. Make Your Narrator the Product of Trauma

This is a tactic I’ve used in my own writing. I once ghostwrote a book about a young man who is under an immense amount of stress after his best friend dies. But things aren’t what they seem and when his friend reappears, the reader isn’t sure if the young man is losing his mind due to stress or if there is something else going on entirely.

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It’s totally normal if these things start talking to you, right?

Another thing about trauma is that the human brain can block out past traumatic events as a coping mechanism. Use this to your advantage! Even if the narrator does remember a traumatic event, they might not be truthful about it with the people around them, which can leave your reader wondering if the narrator is being truthful to the reader. We all have stories we tell others in order to craft a certain narrative; let your character do the same.

3. Use the Secondary Characters

In Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn, the narrator is a high school student named Nick who is in anger management after hitting his girlfriend, Caitlin. Nick maintains that he only slapped her across the face once, but the way his former friends and the rest of his classmates treat him imply that it might have been more than that. Use these secondary characters to your advantage. Your narrator might have a certain story of how something happened, but you can make them unreliable by examining how the other characters in the story treat them. Do they believe your narrator? Or do they know more than the narrator is letting your reader know?

4. Lie by Omission

Let your unreliable narrator lie to the reader by omission. You could have them frequently reference something in their past like “that thing that happened on Halloween” but don’t let them elaborate. That’s going to leave the reader wondering what happened, especially if that event seems to have affected the present. Leaving out details will leave the reader wondering if they can trust the narrator to tell them what’s true or not. Trust is sort of a two-way street when it comes to the narrative; if the narrator doesn’t trust the reader with the truth, then the reader won’t feel they can trust the narrator to tell the truth.

5. Make Your Narrator Nuts

My favorite recent example of this is Joe Goldberg in Caroline Kepnes’s You. We know from the first page that Joe is a stalker and is slightly off his rocker (to put it mildly). Joe is honest with the reader, but because we know he’s crazy, we can’t trust his version of the truth. His perception of interactions is skewed by his mental state, making him very unreliable. Of course, that’s what I found so compelling about the narrative (to read more of my review of this book, you can click here).

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We all knew this is how Dan Humphrey was going to turn out.

Here’s to you and writing your unreliable narrators! Did I leave out anything you’ve found helpful? Let me know in the comments!


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Posted in General, Writing Advice

Writing Advice from 8 Famous Authors

Happy Friday!

If you subscribe to my Patreon, you’ve already gotten a preview of today’s blog post.

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Today, we’re going to take a break from my own advice and listen to some great writing tips from famous authors. Clearly, they’ve done something correctly, so here are some pieces of advice from some of the greats!

“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”
 Zadie Smith

Remind everyone that you love them, but they need to GTFO while you’re writing.

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”
— Jonathan Franzen

Zadie Smith also has a quote about disconnecting your computer from the internet while you’re writing. She doesn’t specifically mention the distracting nature of cat memes, but we all know it’s true.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
— Anton Chekhov

A prime example of show, don’t tell!

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
— Neil Gaiman

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Also this from Neil Gaiman because…well, Neil Gaiman.
Have I mentioned yet that I’m a fan?
Because I don’t think I’ve made that abundantly clear yet by only mentioning him once per post.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
— Dorothy Parker

As much as we love writing, writers are admittedly a group of masochists. You know it, I know it, and Dorothy Parker knew it.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
— Mark Twain

Think back to that line from The Dead Poets Society: “So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.” It was true in the movie and it remains true outside of it.

“Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”
— Margaret Atwood

I think about this quote from Margaret Atwood every time I feel stuck. If something isn’t working, it’s because my character sat down in the middle of the woods, so I backtrack and change something until the story starts to flow again.

“The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’”
 Helen Simpson

Really, that’s the core of all of it; if you want to be a writer, write. No more excuses, no more snacks. The dishes and laundry can wait. Just do it.

Happy Friday and happy writing!


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I can’t guarantee that supporting me on Patreon will cause you to have endless good hair days . . . but I can’t guarantee that it won’t either.

Posted in General, Writing Advice

The Research Process

Sometimes when you’re writing, you need to do a little research. It’s why writers have notoriously strange search histories.

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However, this kind of research is essential because authenticity matters. Not every one of your readers is going to be a stickler, but for those of us who are neurotic and care, the lack of attention to detail takes us right out of the story. Which means, of course, that you need to make sure you do your research, either through your experiences or the experiences of others.

Family Pride

I co-authored a young adult historical fiction novel a few years back, and because it takes place in the 1920s, it required a LOT of research.

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Family Pride is based on the true story of when the famed MGM movie studio decided to fly their mascot lion from California to New York as a publicity stunt. They recruited a pilot from the disastrous Dole Derby and while takeoff went well, the powers that be had miscalculated the weight of the plane to clear the mountains in northern Arizona and the plane went down outside Payson, Arizona.

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Don’t worry, the lion was fine. He also survived a train crash and a sinking ship, earning him the nickname “Leo the Lucky.”

In order to make sure I knew what I was talking about, I had to do a ton of research about MGM, Louis B. Mayer, Payson, and airplanes. It felt daunting at first, but I knew how important it was so I scoured the internet and read books, taking notes along the way that I thought might be helpful. My method of research at the time was scraps of paper and post its stuck all over my desk like a conspiracy theorist, so I highly recommend getting a more organized system.

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It wasn’t my best moment.

Now, I keep everything in one notebook or, if I want to go digital so I can copy and paste specific paragraphs for reference, I use Google Docs so I can access it anywhere.

Travel and Talk to Experts

My co-author put me in touch with a pilot whom I interviewed to understand the step by step process that pilots go through when they takeoff and land. By talking to someone who knows what they’re doing, I saved myself days of research trying to figure it out on my own.

Because I happen to live in Arizona, my husband and I also took a day trip to Payson so I could get a feel for the town and do a little research about its history. Some things have changed, but other things have certainly stayed the same. For example, while I was there I learned about the annual rodeo that’s been happening for the last century that the pilot would have just missed when the plane made its unscheduled stop. This little bit of information enabled me to give some authenticity to the conversations the pilot had with the locals. I was also able to visit the local museum and learn about Payson’s most famous resident, western author Zane Grey, and see tons of historical photos from the 1920s. As a result, I felt I was able to do more justice to the town than I would have if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand. Traveling to your location isn’t always feasible, but I highly recommend it if you can swing it.

That One Thing

I’ve found that when I research, I often find myself with one detail that no matter how hard I look, I can’t find any freaking information on it. For Family Pride, it was secretarial equipment of the 1920s. I couldn’t find ANYTHING and it was driving me crazy.

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I know many places would be pretty analog considering the time period, but the secretary in question worked for Louis B. Mayer at MGM; Hollywood was going to have whatever gadgets were available. I wanted to create authenticity, but I also realized I was spending a ton of time researching equipment for two sentences out of the entire book. I finally found what I needed, but it ended up coming from an unexpected source. Which leads me to . . .

You Don’t Have to Be a Pioneer

Don’t be afraid to use the research someone else has already done. You’re writing an entire book, so work smarter, not harder. One of the best sources of information is going to be Hollywood. Film studios have teams of researchers to create authenticity in period movies, so why not watch a couple of those and pay attention to the details you need? You won’t necessarily get specific makes and models of everything, but you’ll see if a secretary is using an intercom or not. Go easy on yourself.

Have Fun with Research

If you’re writing a book set in a specific time period, then it must interest you to some degree, so have fun! Search for details that are indicative of the time but also pique your interest because chances are, if you liked it, someone else will, too. Not everything has to be dreary and tedious; you’re writing a book! Enjoy yourself! There’s enough time for self-hatred during the editing process.

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What are you researching right now? Let me know in the comments!


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I can’t guarantee that supporting me on Patreon will cause you to have endless good hair days . . . but I can’t guarantee that it won’t either.

Posted in General, Writing Advice

How to Submit Your Work

So you’ve completed a piece and want to submit your work–great! But where to start? Here are some tips to get your work out there:

Literary Magazines and Contests

This is probably the best place to start for getting your work out there. There are tons of great databases out there of literary magazines and my personal favorite is Poets & Writers. It’s a free list and you can search based on genre. Another option is Publishers Marketplace. That one costs $25/month, but it is a much more comprehensive list and gives you access to tons of other resources. Publishing in literary magazines is a great way to get started because it’ll help build up your writing bio (ex: “My work has previously appeared in . . .”). Additionally, I’d recommend submitting to places that allow simultaneous submissions. That means you can submit the same piece to multiple places; just inform the other places you submitted it if your work is accepted for publication.

Additionally, consider submitting your work for contests. You can find lists of them on those two websites and that can be another way to get attention for your work. Many of them have entrance fees, but most of them are under $20.

Publish a Book

When it comes to publishing a book, you have three main options:

Option #1: Try to find a literary agent/connection with a bigger publisher for your book.

This is the traditional publishing model and the best way to reach a wider audience quickly. However, a downside is that you need to have a literary agent. Most of the bigger publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, which means they only take manuscripts from agents, not the writers themselves. It’s part of the vetting process; if the agent thinks you’re good enough to take you on, then the publisher might consider publishing you.

Publishing has changed SO MUCH in the last 10-15 years that many agents and big publishers won’t take on a new client who isn’t guaranteed to make money (i.e. someone like Stephen King). Even newer authors are unofficially “required” to have some kind of pedigree of validation, so to speak, like being a winner or finalist for a contest or having a huge social media following. That’s why you see so many celebrities and YouTube creators publishing books–the publishers are guaranteed to make money.

Option #2: Submit to smaller publishers.

Smaller publishers publishing houses don’t have the marketing resources or reach of larger publishers, but they do accept manuscripts from authors themselves instead of from agents. This is how I published my first book, a collection of short stories called Unraveled.

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Shameless self promotion alert!
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Option #3: Self-Publish

Another option is to self-publish your book through a platform like Amazon. By self-publishing, you have a much higher percentage of profits that go to you, but you’re also responsible for all the marketing (although this can be the case with smaller publishers as well since they don’t always have much of a marketing department). There are some free things you can do like offering a free copy of your book to a small group of people in exchange for reviews (like on BooksSprout.co) or, if you want a wider reach, I’d recommend hiring a publicist to help get reviews and write ups in bigger publications. You’d also be responsible for cover art, but there are tons of great artists out there with reasonable rates who can create something magical for you.


So now you know where to send your work, but how do you format it?

I’m so glad you asked!

Query Letters

Anytime you submit your work, you’re going to need some kind of query letter to introduce yourself and your work. The basic format is as follows:

  • Greeting (if you don’t know the name of the person you’re sending this to, just write “To Whom It May Concern”
  • 1st Paragraph: Your bio
  • 2nd Paragraph: A brief teaser of your work
  • 3rd Paragraph (really, just a sentence): “Thank you for your consideration of my work and I look forward to hearing from you.”
  • Sign Off

These don’t need to be very long and each paragraph can be only a few sentences. In fact, many places prefer something brief because they have such a high volume of queries to get through. A lot of places will also have submission guidelines and will tell you exactly what they want to know from you.

Formatting

When you submit your work, you want to make sure you look like you know what you’re doing. Agents and publishers will take you more seriously if you follow a basic format on your first page. Up in the header, you need to have a few things. On the left, you want to list your name and contact information. On the right, you want to have the phrase “First Serial Rights” and beneath it, your word count. The First Serials Rights notation gives the publisher the rights to publish it for the first time, but then the rights revert back to you. 

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About a third of the way down the page, center your title. Don’t do anything fancy or weird with the title–just plain font, no need for italics, quotation marks, or underlined words. Then, on the line below that, type your story. Be sure to double space your document and use a simple font, preferably Arial or Times New Roman, size 12. Simple, clean, and easy to read!

Submission Tips

I can’t stress enough the importance of following the specific guidelines for each literary magazine, contest, or publisher. People in charge of submissions will find any reason to toss your work into the slush pile just so they can weed through submissions faster. Make sure you pay attention to the following items so your work has a chance of being read:

  • Spellcheck, spellcheck, spellcheck!
  • Make sure the query letter is addressed properly (i.e. don’t accidentally put the name of an agent from a competing agency)
  • Follow the submission guidelines very carefully. Sometimes they’ll want you to send a sample as an attachment, others will want it in the body of an email, and others will just want a synopsis. 
  • Be prepared for rejection. This is an unfortunate truth, but all writers have to deal with it. The nice places will send you a stock letter saying no thanks, but others won’t say anything. When I start feeling down, I remember that Stephen King was rejected by 30 publishers before someone finally picked up Carrie and J.K. Rowling had Harry Potter rejected 12 times before someone said yes. It can be hard and depressing to keep plugging at it, but it’s part of the process.
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A lot of people definitely got fired for rejecting Harry Potter.

Did I cover everything you wanted to know? Do you have any lingering questions about submissions? Let me know in the comments!


Click here to support me on Patreon and get writing tips, prompts, and exclusive content available only to patrons! 

I can’t guarantee that supporting me on Patreon will cause you to have endless good hair days . . . but I can’t guarantee that it won’t either.

Posted in General, Writing Advice

Ignoring the Haters

On Christmas Day, I woke up to a notification on my phone. Someone sent me an anonymous message telling me that although they’d initially enjoyed a fanfic series I wrote, they hated my main character. This was a character I’d spent a lot of time developing and working on and I’m not going to lie–it hurt to have someone tell me that I’d created “the worst character ever.” It wasn’t exactly how I’d hoped to start my holiday.

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Unfortunately, terrible people are a part of life, especially if you spend any time on the internet. People feel a lot braver behind the anonymity of a computer screen and will then say horrible things they might not say otherwise.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.

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Dealing with negative comments and people isn’t fun, but it’s going to happen as more people read your work. And it’s not a reflection on you–it’s a reflection on the person making the mean comment. Do they really not have anything better to do than go on the internet and tell someone that their hard work sucks?

Being told I created the worst character ever isn’t even the worst thing I’ve heard. I’ve been told that my stories suck, I’m a terrible writer, I chose the wrong ending for my work, I should give up, and, of course, the classic “kill yourself.”

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Joke’s on you, I have depression and am way meaner to myself than you are.
You’re going to have to try a little harder than that.

This isn’t to say that I think you shouldn’t listen to constructive criticism–that’s how you get better. But there’s an obvious difference between someone giving you authentic feedback with the intent of helping you improve and someone who just wants to be an asshole.

At the end of the day, you have to just ignore the senseless negativity, as hard as that might be. If you put your work out there for others to read, some people will tell you it sucks. Everyone hears it, from beginning writers to huge names like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.

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SAVAGE

The most important thing is to remember that you are creating something unique that didn’t exist in the world before. Not everyone is going to like it, but that doesn’t take away from what you made. Some people are just awful. But you, creator of something magical and new? You kick ass. Don’t let some pathetic weasel hiding behind the anonymity of the internet make you feel any less like the amazing writer you are.

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And don’t you forget it.


Click here to support me on Patreon and get writing tips, prompts, and exclusive content available only to patrons! 

I can’t guarantee that supporting me on Patreon will cause you to have endless good hair days . . . but I can’t guarantee that it won’t either.