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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.


From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Planning and Research

Maps Are Key - Repost

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

In the transition of importing my blog posts from my Blogger account, there was one post that was lost. Seeing as it was posted so long ago but was still pertinent to my other writing advice posts, I wanted to share it with you guys once again. Maps Are Key - Original Post:

There are a lot of places I could start when giving advice to new writers and/or editors. Be open. Try different things. Writer about things that inspire you. But I'm not going to start with any of those things. In fact, I'm going to start with a part of writing that doesn't even involve writing for the most part: maps.

Sooner or later, you will need to create a map for your writing. Probably several. You'll need to have many different types of maps too. You'll need an outline of your projected piece of writing, for example, which literally serves as a map to the work you're going to create. Even if you're writing non-fiction, this holds true. If your story is one of fiction, you'll still need an outline, but you'll also need a different kind of map, and maybe more than one. You'll need a literal, physical map of the area you plan on covering in your story. What do I mean by that? Well, if your story takes place in a school, for instance, you should draw a map of that school. If part of the story takes place in a house or several houses, you should come up with the layout of them. If your story takes place in a made up world, draw a map of that world. And yes, this does mean that you'll have to use the ancient method of pencil/pen to paper for a while. If the ominous glow of the computer screen is too much for you to resist, it's faint humming beckoning for you to stroke it's various keys....well, just forget about it for now, okay? Turn it off, leave the room, and don't come back until you have a few maps drawn (or at least started) and an outline written.

Keep in mind, this doesn't mean that you can't do any writing at all until your maps and outline are complete. Most of the time, I get a beginning paragraph or two, jot down a few ideas in a notepad, and even hammer out a few character descriptions in Word or Excel before I set to drawing maps and writing outlines. And my maps constantly change shape. But drawing maps for your story forces you to step back from your writing before you get in so deep that you have to go back and figure out the structure of everything, and it keeps you well organized along the way. Particularly for longer books and novels, maps serve as very useful guides for keeping your story descriptions straight. You might have a general idea of how a place looks in your head, but sooner or later, you'll need details. You'll find yourself revisiting places in your story, and you don't want to contradict in a later part of your story what you said in the beginning. Consistency is key to good writing. Maps help you to be consistent, which in turn, makes your writing more accurate and believable.

You might think I'm someone who just loves to draw maps. On the contrary. I actually despise this part of writing. I'm not exactly skilled with it, and because I don't enjoy doing it, I tend to scribble enough down to get me through the story. That's not always exactly the best approach, especially considering I usually have to go back and redo a portion of my maps (which must be deciphered first since I didn't do a great job at depicting what I wanted the first go around) at one time or another during the writing process. Moral of the story? Take your time with maps. Draw them carefully. A lot of them. They'll help improve your writing skills before you ever even do any actual writing.

Though my early scribbles are usually made on computer paper or in a sketch pad, I really recommend using graph paper or drafting paper. It's easy to work with, especially if you have trouble drawing straight lines like I do, and it will help you keep everything in proportion. You'll be able to peg a more exact size of the areas you are covering in your book.

As you can see, maps really are essential to good story writing, for both fiction and non-fiction. Make maps an integral part of the writing process, and I guarantee your chances of writing a clear description or transition between sections will increase before you even set pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard.

Why Good Writing Matters: Internal Consistency

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

This is the final blog post in my "Why Good Writing Matters" series. My husband gets credit for the idea on this one. His profession is pretty much the complete opposite of writing, but he always holds great insight in the field nonetheless. One of the many reasons I love him! Now, onto the good stuff...

Have you ever read a book that had a great plot, intriguing characters, and a distinct voice but lacked consistency throughout? If so, did it irritate you and ruin the book for you, or did you view it as no big deal?

This may not be the case for everyone, but stories that lack internal consistency—that is, they have plot holes or material that contradicts some other part of the book—really grate on my nerves. In my brief research mentioned in the introductory post for this series, I found this topic held the most disagreements. Some readers weren't overly bothered by inconsistencies, and others equated them to blasphemy, ruining an otherwise perfectly good book. There was also a spectrum of opinions in between. Where people stood within that spectrum depended on the type of inconsistency and the frequency of it for any given book.

That just goes to show, there’s a lot of gray area with this one. I'm not certain only a few minor inconsistencies are enough to deem an otherwise well-written book garbage. However, there are a few things regarding internal consistency that really do matter. These are the things that your readers will pick up on and remember even after they've finished the book.

Rules of the Universe
Know the physical rules and laws of your universe. Record them. Memorize them. Following the rules of the universe is a tip for writers of any genre, but breaking said rules results in differing consequences depending on the genre. If you bend or break a given rule in a strictly standard fiction, your readers may notice but be a bit forgiving so long as it's infrequent. If you make this mistake in a fantasy novel, watch out. Not only will there be a dip in believability, but your readers will likely become irritated and more critical as they continue flipping pages, making the experience for them much less enjoyable. By sticking to the rules you set, you'll gain even more credibility for your awesome writing skills.

Writing Through the Ages
Historical fiction novels and even standard fiction pieces taking place a few decades ago lend themselves to a minefield of problems: clothing, language, and objects (particularly medicine and media devices) that are downright tedious to get right. In a full-blown fantasy novel, the author can make up materials, clothes, language, and whatever they wish. So long as they stick to the rules for those things, there is no problem. But when fiction is part of reality, consistency in these things isn't just a good idea; it's a necessity. Novels that take place in the early 1700s need to reflect the era being written. The same is true even with a more modern time period like the 1950s. If you try writing a novel that takes place (in the USA) in 1959 and mention someone getting a mumps vaccine, you're in for a bashing from your readers. The bottom line? Do your homework. Writing a novel that takes place in another era can be fascinating. It can also be frustrating as heck. But if you’re dedicated to doing the research required and you respond to critiques from your beta readers, editor(s), and sensitivity readers when needed, you’ll be greatly rewarded. Well-written pieces of these genres are easily some of the best books out there! Get them right, and you'll gain serious respect from your fans.

Character Facts
By far, the most common and widespread issues has to be with character facts. Think date of birth, relations to other characters, physical features, dialect and word choice, personality traits, etc. If you make a mistake in one of these areas, your readers will notice, and you’ll likely get flogged for it. Since this has nothing to do with research (unless you're dealing with a specific mental or physical illness) and everything to do with organization, make a point to catalog every character during the planning and drafting stages when you write a book. Find a method that works for you, whether it be index cards, a spreadsheet, a writing program, or something else. Then use it as a reference point any time you add a new fact, change an existing one, or are unsure what the existing ones are with any of your characters.

Cross-reference your facts constantly. Even when you've checked and rechecked everything ten times over, go back and check again. Have your editor (who should already be looking for them) check too. An inconsistency in this area can best be described as one of those nagging thoughts in the back of your head. When readers come across one of these errors, they make a mental note of it and never forget it. So do yourself and your readers a favor by making sure to keep even the smallest of facts about your characters straight.

This is an area that I personally struggle with the most; I tend to leap first, then go back and try to undo all the knots I've created. I can tell you from experience that this isn't the best approach. All it takes is just a few knots to produce a major unwanted kink in your plot. So set the facts and adhere your story to them, not the other way around.

Internal consistency soothes readers, increases credibility and believability, and is congruent with good writing. Inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb. Avoid them, and you'll avoid having to endure a painful sore that will blemish your otherwise beautiful masterpiece.

Take a Chance: Write What You Don't Know

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

One common piece of writing advice I often see is to write what you know. In fact, just a few days ago, I found a fellow blogger that had asked others about the best piece of writing advice they had ever received, and one person immediately responded with, "Write what you know!" I held my tongue, but my fists involuntarily clenched, and my lips formed a tight, white line. So after having some time to cool off about it, I've given it some thought and would like to approach this idea with a few (hopefully insightful) thoughts of my own.

There is actually some merit to the idea of starting out by writing things you know. All writers start out with topics, styles, and characters that they are familiar with. There's nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, it makes for a great foundation to your writing skills. But once you've learned the basics and how to express yourself in a way that is directly relatable to your own experiences, it's time to stick a toe into the icy waters of the unknown. Now, that's not to say that you can't fall back on the stuff that you're most comfortable with from time to time. Any writing is still practice, and there is always room for improvement, even with the stuff you're good at. But if you don't take that plunge and venture into the unknown, attempting to write something that you're unfamiliar with, you'll never learn or grow as a writer.

When the time has come for you to start that new adventure, there are a few things you should keep in mind so that you don't drown in your attempt. First, be observant and ask yourself questions about the character/situation you hope to portray in your writing. Watch others around you, and perhaps even interview those with the experiences. If it's something you can't learn first-hand, hearing someone else's account of it is often the next best thing. For some helpful tips about interviewing someone for a book or other piece of writing, check out this blog:

Second thing to keep in mind: do your homework. Research. No, it's not always exciting, but it's necessary for making your writing the best it can be. If you're unfamiliar with a subject matter, what better way to get acquainted with it than to read about it? When you really know what you're talking about in your writing, it shows. Your piece will become not only more believable, but more enjoyable to read as well. Make sure you conduct your research thoroughly enough that you can approach a topic from multiple angles too. That will buy you even more credibility and respect from your readers.

Lastly, stick with reliable sources. The Internet is a bountiful source of information, but being such (and particularly being a place where anyone can publish anything), it's best to check credibility of your sources before actually using them. Stick with sites you know are legit, or sites that at least use citations, particularly with medical conditions. Check more than one site too. If you come up with two completely different sets of "facts" about something, you know something isn't right. And of course, the library is always a fantastic place to find information. It's a bit old school, but you can be sure that the information reliable. Just make sure it's up-to-date; that holds true no matter where the source.

Once you have all the information you need (and citations if necessary), put it to good use. Practice writing the scene, essay, paragraph, or what have you with your new-found knowledge, then take a step back and proof read your work. Do the words reflect your intended thoughts? Do they match up with your research? Don't worry if this isn't the case or if something about it isn't quite right yet. That's what practice is for. Take a break from it and try again later, or keep at it for as long as you like. Whichever method works best for you.

In the end, you'll be rewarded for your perseverance in tackling a new subject matter. Your writing will likely improve (as well as your knowledge and/or experience with the subject). Remember, one of the most important things to keep in mind as a writer is to try and try again. If there is no movement, no growth, in your journey of being a writer, your writing itself will grow stale and uninteresting, ultimately leading to failure. This is one of the biggest reasons why I disagree with the advice to solely stick with what you know. Being bold and taking chances can be very beneficial to a writer; you just have to go about it in the smartest way possible.

"Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student." - George Iles

A New Writer Is Born

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Ah, writing. Such a simple task. You have your characters, know your plot, and created a fabulous outline, complete with various conflicts to work into the story. That’s all you need for this journey . . . right?

When I first dipped my toes into writing fiction, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I did, as many new writers do, but it didn’t take long to discover just how wrong I was. Writing techniques eluded me, and what limited resources I did have (the World Wide Web was just in its infancy at the time) held various conflicting pieces of advice. To top it off, I had no clue who my audience was, nor had I established a strong voice and sense of self as a writer.

The result? Apart from the fact that I was only a teenager and had limited experience in the field, inevitable failure lurked just around the corner. Broken scenes, random snippets, and straight-up garbage filled each page, because I was clueless about the complex layers needed to make each story worthy of publishing. Revision wasn’t even in my vocabulary, sending me spinning in a never-ending cycle of write, trash, repeat.

Since then, I've gained considerable experience. I obtained a degree in professional writing, took additional courses in writing, editing, and poetry, published a few books, joined a critique group, and have found a writing group full of amazing people going through the same journey. I now know exactly who I am as a writer, and I know that my audience consists of young adults and adults, specifically those who are drawn to paranormal and supernatural stories, coming-of-age books, and emotional women’s fiction pieces. I know I’m a serial writer who loves short stories and hates being confined by genre. For me, falling outside the conventional realm of publishing isn’t the end of the world. It’s what makes me, me. I have my niche, I know my strengths and weaknesses, and more importantly, I’ve learned how to GROW as a writer.

Anyone who’s written a book will tell you it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Rivers of blood, sweat, and tears go into making a good book great. At the heart of every fabulous story is a passionate writer who doesn’t give up. Someone who takes the time to research, prepare, and often plan so many of the details you see on those final pages. And it all starts with knowing your audience. If you don't know your target readers are, I guarantee you will find yourself in my shoes, spinning in circles, eventually leading you to give up on the book that you've been trying to write for ages, or, you'll produce a piece of drivel you publish way too early, only to find out that you have to start all over.

Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Take the time to find your voice. Get to know your audience. It’s not a race to see how quickly you can publish your book or how many pieces you can finish in a year. Writing is a skill that takes time, practice, and a LOT of dedication. But it’s worth it—you’re worth it. And so is your story.

updated 3/23/19