Category Archives: Writing

Can a Blog Post Be Too Short?

Eliza tweeted this to me last week in response to Why I Don’t Agree with Padding Out Blog Posts. I thought it would make a great idea for a follow-up post today.

In order to answer that question, I must ask you a few more questions first: How short is a poem allowed to be? Is there a specific word count it must have to be counted as a poem?

The shortest poem I’ve ever loved was five words long. I’ve also been thrilled by other poems that are six and sixteen words long respectively.

Despite their minuscule word counts, at least one of them has become so famous that children study it in school because the people who created them spent so much time packing many layers of meaning into every single word.

The same can be said for blog posts. Just like some of them are meant to be thousands of words long, others can be much tinier than you might imagine.

For example, there is a blogger who regularly challenges himself to write 100 word blog posts. He’s written dozens of them so far, and all of them are thought-provoking because of the close attention he pays to making every single word in them has a purpose and can’t be reduced to a simpler, shorter explanation.

When you’re writing something that small and concise, there is no room for error. If you don’t cover all of the material that your post was attempting to cover, your post will be too small. If you’re able to do justice to your topic with your word count, how big it is won’t matter.

What about blog posts that are smaller than 100 words? I have heard of people blogging nothing but photographs, but I have yet to come across anyonewho has tried to limit their post count to less than 100 words. It would be fascinating to see what you came up with if you gave yourself a 70, 50, or even a 10 word limit as an experiment, though.

The Connection Between Poetry and Blog Posts

With that being said, Eliza, I’d strongly recommend reading and writing poetry if you want to routinely create very small blog posts. It’s not easy to condense your thoughts down into such a small amount of space, especially for topics that aren’t clear cut or incredibly narrow.

Figuring out how poets handle conflicting emotions and topics that could easily be expanded into a full-length book will give you all kinds of tools for trimming out unnecessary words, sharpening your vision, and making sure that what you see is also what your audience sees.

If you or anyone else is interested in learning more, start reading as many different types, styles, and lengths  of poems as you can. The hashtag #Haiku and #Poetry on Twitter are great places to start for the contemporary stuff. There are hundreds of amateur and professional poets who use those hashtags to share their work and introduce everyone to other wonderful poems that they’ve discovered.

I’m purposefully not sharing any specific usernames of Twitter poets with you because of how important it is to seek them out yourself. Poetry is a subjective field. What speaks to me might not have the same affect on you, and vice versa. I’ve also found that my favourite poets have shifted wildly over time, so I’d recommend occasionally seeking out new poets and styles of poetry even for people who have been immersed in this genre for years.

Now I will end this post with a picture of cactuses. They were my original metaphor for blog post lengths in my first draft of this post, and I can’t bear to stop typing before I show you just how much they can vary from each other as well.

May your poems, cactuses, and blog posts always be exactly as big as you need them to be.

Why I Don’t Agree with Padding Out Blog Posts

As I promised last week, today I will be discussing why I’m so against the idea of padding out a blog post in order to reach a specific word count.

One of the most widespread trends in the blogosphere these past few years has been to write incredibly long posts. Yes,  I know that this is happening because longer articles give a site a better chance of being highly ranked by Google search engines, but I don’t like how this trend is changing the blogosphere.

 

Clean It Up

I really don’t like it when a blogger stretches what could have been a concise, 500-word post into something several times larger than that.

Not every topic is going to require that much explanation, and readers can tell when you’ve stretched out your points or repeated the same idea in several different ways in order to reach a specific word count.

When I run across posts like this, I skim them. I’m also much less likely to share them because It’s  irritating to read something so padded out.  The pacing of posts like these often becomes sloppy and uneven no matter how well written they are otherwise.

Many of my posts hover around the 1000 word mark, but some of them do not because the topic I chose for that day didn’t require that many words. I’ve read spectacular posts on other sites that only needed a few sentences to get their point across. If you genuinely require 2,000 or 5,000 words instead for a complex topic, that’s also wonderful.

The important thing is to match your ideas to how you express them.

Mix It Up

Some of my favourite blogs are the ones that mix up their writing styles. They might write 2000 word essays most of the time, but they’re also not at all afraid to push out something much longer or shorter than that if their subject requires it.

I trust them so much that I don’t hesitate to read whatever it is they publish. If they’re giving me a 3000 word post today, I know every paragraph in it is going to be crisp and concise.

 

Basically, this all boils down to looking out for your audience instead of worrying about SEO analytics in situations where bigger isn’t better.

 

 

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The 7 Deadly Sins of Writing

1. Not Explaining How Things Work

One of my favourite books when I was a preteen was Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s an excellent example of what happens when authors don’t explain how their worlds work.

The idea of growing up in a society that had no suffering, premature death, disease, or pain of any kind mesmerized me. I spent hours fantasizing about what it would have been like to live there, especially early on before I realized what price the characters had to pay for that slice of paradise.

There was one part of the plot that drove me up the wall, though. Jonas, the main character, explained in an early chapter that  100 babies were born every year in his community. All of those babies were placed with adoptive parents, no single parent families were allowed, and no family was ever given more than one son and one daughter to raise.

The women who were chosen to give birth for the colony only needed to give birth three times in their entire life. Once they completed those pregnancies, they spent the rest of their lives as single adults. They never were allowed to marry or have/raise other children.

So out of Jonas’ 50 female classmates, about 17 of them would need to be classified as birth mothers in order to produce the next generation. This means that 17 of his male classmates would never be assigned a spouse. If you continue to do the math, each generation of this society would be smaller than the rest because of the restricted family sizes and the large numbers of people who were never assigned a life partner.

This problem bothered me for years. I couldn’t figure out why Ms. Lowry wouldn’t have added a throw-away comment about some women giving birth more than three times and/or some families being assigned more than two children. If my math is correct, both of those things would need to occur in order to keep their numbers steady from one generation to the next. Small details like that would have gone a long way in explaining why Jonas’ society had survived for so long.

2. Forcing Endings That Don’t Fit

Lately I’ve read several different books that pushed two characters who barely even liked each other into falling in love. No, I do not have a problem with romantic plots or subplots in general. There is definitely a time and a place for them, but not every story needs to end with two people falling in love and pledging to be together forever.

Some characters are better off as friends. Other characters might make a great couple in the future once they’ve gotten to know each other or have solved at least some of the problems that are currently preventing them from being a good partner to anyone.

I have also noticed this happening a lot when it comes to happy endings. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a happy ending tacked onto a movie or TV show when there was absolutely nothing in the beginning or middle of the storyline to indicate that anyone would be lucky enough to end up that way.

Do I have a problem with characters living happily ever after? Of course not! I love it when a plot unfolds in such a way that every single character in it gets everything they need and want in it. With that being said, not every tale is meant to turn out that way.

If the ending doesn’t fit, don’t force it.

3. Telling Instead of Showing

Earlier this year I began reading a story whose blurb sounded amazing. I was excited to begin it and sure that I was going to love every single second of it.

By the end of the first page, I knew I was wrong about that. It was a real struggle to finish it, too, because of how much time the author spent telling the audience what was happening instead of showing it to us. When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t visualize anything that had happened in the scene I’d just read.

None of the characters’ adventures caught my imagination in any way because everything from what they ate for dinner to the battles they fought were described so vaguely that they almost might have been the same thing.

There was nothing to pull me into that universe, and so it was quickly forgotten.

4. Chasing Trends

Some people say you are what you eat. That may be true, but I also say that you are what you read.

The first time a teenage girl in a supernatural universe fell in love with a 200-year-old vampire who turned out to be a pretty decent person despite his sunlight allergy and intense cravings for human blood, it was fascinating. The twentieth time it happened, I didn’t even bother to finish reading the description on the back cover before I put it back on the shelf.

This isn’t to say that I’m totally against the idea of a normal person falling in love with a vampire. If I ever stumble across an author who has come up with a fresh twist on this idea, I will read his or her work with joy.

In general, though, it’s best to follow your characters instead. Maybe someday someone will write about a teenage girl who meets a vampire she finds vaguely attractive, gets extremely weirded out by the fact that he’s several centuries older than her, moves far away to attend college, and then eventually meets back up with him for a cup of coffee after she’s graduated and come back home to take over the family business.

5. Not Researching Your Subject Matter

No, this advice isn’t only for people who are writing nonfiction or historical fiction. After listening to one of my writer friends talk about this on Twitter lately, I’ve come to agree with her stance on this issue: everything that can be researched should be researched!

For example, if you’re writing about a character who has a  peanut allergy and you don’t already have personal experience that kind of medical condition, go research why allergies occur, how Epi-Pens work, and what could happen to someone who starts wheezing after they eat something that was accidentally contaminated with peanut oil and then realizes that they can’t find their Epi-Pen anywhere.

One of the things that will make me close a book and stop reading immediately is if the author gets something very wrong about a topic I know a lot about. I don’t expect perfection in every single detail, but it sure is nice when writers at least attempt to get the facts straight.

6. Only Reading Books in Your Genre

Last year I wrote an entire blog post about why everyone should at least occasionally read books that aren’t from their favourite genres.

If anything, I believe this even more firmly now than I did back then. There is nothing wrong with loving one or two genres, but I’ve seen the difference between authors who only read books that are from the genre they write in and authors who have branched out into other types of storytelling.

Every genre has areas it excels in and other areas that it usually handles poorly or even ignores altogether. It is only by moving from one genre to the next that you will begin to see what your favourite genre is and isn’t good at discussing.

7. Even Worse, Not Reading Books at All

I’ve met a few writers who have stopped reading anything that isn’t directly related to whatever project they’re currently working on.

While I completely understand being crunched for time, reading well-written fiction is almost as important as attempting to write it yourself. One of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read essays, stories, or books from authors who have spent years perfecting their craft.

They say you are what you eat. I say that you are also what you read, for better or for worse.

How about you? What do you think are seven deadly sins of writing? Come tell me about it on Twitter.

What Do Authors Owe Their Readers?

Lately I’ve been participating in an online discussion about a famous series that started off beautifully and ended in a way that irritated many of its longterm fans.

(No, I won’t be mentioning it by name here today. If you’re insatiably curious about this, send me a private message on Twitter and we’ll talk about it there).

The first few books in this series foreshadowed some fabulous plot twists that either never happened or were far easier to solve than anyone would have guessed based on how much time the characters spent worrying about them earlier on.

 

Several questions have popped into my mind over the years as I’ve listened to fans in this community debate what the ending means, whether or not it was satisfying, and why the author chose to tie everything up the way that they did.

My answers to them have evolved over time, but this is how I’d answer them right now.

Who decides what a story means?

We all do. In no way am I downplaying the importance of understanding what an author meant to say. That would be quite the silly thing for this writer to do!

With that being said, I also believe that an audience plays a key role in understanding any story. How they interpret certain scenes might not necessarily be how the creator thought about them when he or she was in the middle of the writing process.

This is a good thing. Sometimes I’ll write a story that I honestly don’t fully understand. Surprisingly, the writing process can be fickle like that, so I really appreciate it when readers come along with their own interpretations of what certain scenes could have meant.

If you mention a gun in the first scene, must it be fired later on?

Yes.

The difference between a gun in real-life and a gun in a story is that the latter was created for a specific purpose. If the writer was never intending for anyone to use it, why on earth would you add it to the scene? Everything that’s mentioned in a piece of fiction should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong there.

What about red herrings, you might ask? While I’m not a big fan of them in general, distracting the audience from what’s really going on does give them meaning.

Writing about something that you know is a distraction from the beginning is nothing at all like writing about something that doesn’t have any reason for being there in the first place. Red herrings generally leave small clues for the audience about their true reason for existing.

A gun that isn’t fired doesn’t do anything like this. It pops into existence for no reason at all, and it never bothers to correct that no matter how long the plot meanders forward.

As you probably already guessed, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I am completely comfortable being surprised by how something ends. I am not at all okay with having the wool pulled over my eyes.

What do readers own their favourite authors?

An open mind.

I am still a fan of the series I alluded to at the beginning of this post. I’ve been reading the first few books in it over and over again since I was 12 years old, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

With that being said, I will always be disappointed by how it ended. There were so many missed opportunities in the last book to tie up all kinds of loose threads.

Now we come to the heart of the matter.

What do authors owe their readers?

Consistency.

I’ve read plenty of other stories whose endings disagreed with me for any number of reasons.The difference between those stories and the series I discussed today is that the former are consistent.

If they mention a gun in the first scene, it is fired at some point. What happens to the bullet varies from one storyline to the next, but it does leave the chamber of the gun. It never sits there unused forever.

To give another example, the main character might die in the last scene of a tale. If they do, though, there will be plenty of foreshadowing along the way to prepare you for it.

Speaking of foreshadowing, some authors use it heavily while others barely touch it at all. I can happily adjust to either technique as long as the narrator delivers on everything they hinted at early one.

All I want is for what’s hinted at in the beginning to be properly carried out by the end. Don’t leave me hanging, and I’ll be a happy reader.

10 Pictures That Are Begging to be Turned into Stories

I come across the most beautiful, scary, haunting, and fascinating images when I’m searching for stock photos for this blog. It always makes me a little sad when I realize that nothing I’ve written so far fits them in any way.

They’re the kind of images that demand an audience, so today I’m sharing a few of these unusual pictures with you in the hope that you’ll be inspired by them. If anyone uses one of these images as a writing prompt, I’d love to know how you interpreted it! Send me a message about it on Twitter.

 

An Unbroken Doll

The fact that this doll’s face was broken at one point doesn’t surprise me. Toys break all of the time.

Who painstakingly glued her back together, though?

That isn’t the kind of chore that can be finished in a few minutes. It probably took days of carefully sifting through the sharp porcelain pieces of her head to figure out how every piece fit together and what kind of glue works best for this sort of delicate project.

It would take a lot of determination to see this project through to the end. I imagine only someone who had a strong emotional urge to do it would succeed.

 

The Pretty Poison

None of the household poisons I’ve ever seen look anything like this.

The purple liquid sure seems like it would smell nice. I’m imagining a light, floral scent that almost disappears once air hits it. You’d have to be quite close to it to catch a whiff of anything.

That wouldn’t make it any less dangerous, of course. Every apothecarist knows that.

Leg Day

Look closely at the picture above. It may take you a moment to notice the strange twist in it.

My first thought when I saw it was that it was some kind of genetic engineering gone weird. The horses legs look almost human at first glance. Is a horse still a horse if some part of its DNA somehow came from a human?

I’d love to read that book and find out.

Happily Ever After

The bright colours and whimsical scenery in it caught my eye. immediately. They’re exactly what I’d expect to find in a fantasy romance novel.

This is the kind of cover that would make me pick up a book to find out more about its plot. If nothing else, I’d want to know if there was an entire forest of heart-shaped trees for the characters to skip through or if this tree was unique in that way.

Knock, knock!

This is another one of those photographs that seems perfectly ordinary when you first glance at it. I was actually planning to save it for a future post about something cheerful and ordinary like going on vacation until one strange little detail in it popped out at me.

That detail catapulted this post from it’s original purpose into possible story territory. The explanation for it could be completely logical and scientific, but there’s also room for science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, or even horror elements to it if you prefer. Stop reading now if you want to figure out on your own what I noticed.

For anyone who needs or wants a hint about, pay attention to the body language of the woman in the centre of the photograph. How has she positioned herself? Do you notice anything unexpected about it?

The Insincere Smile

The stock photo site that I use most often has dozens of pictures that are similar to this one. The models are always nicely dressed  but have completely insincere expressions on their faces.

There are many explanations for why that might be so. Sometimes I like to come up with some reasons for the fun of it. Were the models worn out from a day of posing? Are they trying to secretly warn their audiences about who or what might be lurking behind the camera? The possibilities are endless, and the sci-fi writer in me prefers the unexplainable ones.

All that Glitters…

What I like the most about this picture is how versatile it is. Off the top of my head, it could be interpreted to be part of the erotic romance, regular romance, science fiction, fantasy, or even the older end of the young adult genre. You could probably even find a way to turn it into a mystery or a thriller if you massaged the possibilities enough.

That ambiguity makes me smile. I like it when stories leave room for more than one genre to flourish in them. When its done correctly, this can be a wonderful way to introduce people to types of storytelling that they might not otherwise be open to trying.

Deep in Thought

I both love and hate seeing gorillas and other apes at the zoo for the same reason: they remind me so much of human beings.

Everything from their mannerisms to their facial expressions can be eerily close to the way that people behave at times. When I look at them, I feel like we are this close to having a conversation about the weather or which kind of fruit is in season now.

While I’m glad that they have a safe place to live, it also feels wrong to cage them up. They feel too intelligent for that fate to me.

The nice thing about this picture is that it could be used for non-fiction just as easily as it could for fiction. You don’t have to invent anything about the intelligence of other primates in order to write about them. We already know that while they might not be exactly like us, they’re also not exactly like other animals either.

When Justice Is Blind

Is it just me, or does that water look uncomfortably cold?

The first thing I thought when I saw this scene was that it looked like a test of some sorts. Is he expected to swim in that chilly water or simply stand in it blindfolded for a predetermined amount of time?

The One Who’s Watching You

Obviously I had to save the best picture for last today. This is the creepiest thing I’ve stumbled across in a long time.

Not seeing a character’s face always scares me.

The fact that we can see his or her hands doesn’t help the situation, though. Their nails look sharp and rough. Their skin looks leathery, and I’m not entirely sure it would still be warm to the touch if they brushed against you.

What does he or she want?

I’m afraid to ask, but I’m even more afraid to turn away before they do.

How to Survive a Post-Apocalyptic Storyline

Congratulations! You’ve just been selected to be one of the secondary characters in an upcoming post-apocalyptic novel. If you wish to die nobly in order to spur the main character on at a critical moment in the plot, please disregard the rest of this message. There is always a need for volunteers for this position, and so… Read More