writing

Beginners: A “Writing Strategy” Isn’t What You Think It Is

I like to keep track of which questions I get asked about writing and how often. Sometimes I’m surprised by the results. For instance:

One of the most common questions I’m asked by aspiring and beginning writers is “What’s your writing strategy” or “What should my writing strategy be?”

If you’re asking established writers this question, a “writing strategy” is not what you think it is. Yes, you need to understand writing strategies – but no, I don’t have just one, and neither should you.

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What a Writing Strategy Isn’t

When beginners ask “what’s your writing strategy?” or “what should my writing strategy be?”, they typically mean “How do you get your writing done?” or “How can I get my writing done?”

Since a “strategy” is by definition a means to achieve a goal, it makes sense that some people would express a question about how to do the writing in terms of a “writing strategy.” If the goal is to have written, what are the means by which writers achieve that?

There’s just one problem:

The goal of writing is never “to have written.”

It’s really not. And I say this as someone who will fill entire notebook pages just because it feels good to make the pretty letters with my nice pen with the good ink. Even then, the goal is not “to have written”; the goal is the sweet, sweet dopamine rush I get from putting the letters on the page.

All writing has a purpose beyond having been written. Most writing has several purposes. When I write a novel, for instance, one of my purposes is to entertain my audience. Another is to tell a coherent story, with a coherent message (though what that message is will depend in part on the reader’s interpretation). Yet another is to add to the depth and complexity of the universe I’m creating through the novel series.

Likewise, when I write marketing materials for clients in exchange for pay, I’m pursuing a set of goals set by me and by the client. I’m seeking to persuade or inform a particular audience on a particular topic. Because so much of my paid work focuses on thought leadership, I’m often trying to build my client’s ethos with a professional audience – usually their professional peers, or other businesses that might seek out my client’s expertise. I’m trying to write something an editor will accept without too much reworking. I’m trying to write something I haven’t written a million times before already, because I, personally, loathe boredom.

“How do you get from having an idea to having written it down in A Form” is the writing process. “How do you make that writing fulfill its intended purpose” is the writing strategy.

What a Writing Strategy Is

The reason I wince at the question “What is your writing strategy?” is that I don’t have just one writing strategy. No good writer has only one writing strategy. Rather, we cultivate a collection of strategies, which we deploy in various ways in order to meet certain goals.

One of the oldest writing strategies in fiction, for example, is “Show, don’t tell.” But it’s not the ideal strategy for every fiction situation. Plenty of things in fiction can be told rather than shown. Need to inform the reader about some background detail or explain quickly how these six people got in the same room at 10 am on a Sunday? You can tell that stuff. It’s fine.

Another fiction writing strategy is to reveal details about characters through dialogue, rather than by exposition or other means. Again, this is not ideal in every situation. Deciding when to use dialogue and when to use other ways to build your characters is part of the art of writing fiction.

The question is: What are you trying to do in any given situation? When you’re sitting at your desk, writing this scene in this story, what does the scene need to do? Does it need to set up the stakes of the story? Does it need to plant seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind that maybe Sneaky McCruelVillain isn’t as trustworthy as they claim to be? Does it need to demonstrate that the character really has learned their lesson and can now defeat the bad guy (who or whatever the “bad guy” is)?

The choice of things like showing versus telling, dialogue versus exposition, and so on will depend on the goal to be achieved by that particular line or scene in the piece. No writer has one singular “writing strategy” for fiction because no one “writing strategy” can do everything a particular scene might need to do.

There are probably hundreds of different strategies that can be used for writing fiction. I’ve probably used most or all of them at some point in my career, and I’ll probably use most or all of them again before I die.

Non-fiction, too, has a vast range of strategies. Most readers are aware that these strategies often differ from strategies for writing fiction, even if they don’t realize they know. For instance, finding dialogue in the middle of a peer-reviewed research article on RNA transcription would baffle most readers. No matter how effective dialogue is as a strategy for developing a story in fiction, it is not an effective strategy for explaining the methods used to draw certain conclusions about RNA transcription in a laboratory setting. And neither the fiction story nor the lab report use the same strategies that a marketing writer would use to get someone to buy a product.

So What Should Beginners Do?

First, embrace the difference between a writing process and writing strategies. You need both. You’ll spend your entire writing career learning more about both and refining both. (Trust me; I’ve been at this for almost 40 years.)

Some basic tips for your writing process:

  • The most effective process will always be the one that works for you when you’re trying to use it. If anything stops working, try something else.
  • Many people find they get more writing done if they have a daily writing routine. The bare-bones version is “pick a time and place, and be there every day, doing writing.”
  • Don’t let perfection stop you. If you don’t have a really good first sentence, skip the first sentence or skip the first paragraph/scene entirely. Just start writing some part you really like. You can always come back later and fix the beginning.
  • If it helps, password protect your document or hide your notebook so no one will ever see your draft. You decide when people see the finished work.

Some basic tips for your writing strategies:

  • Whenever you start writing a story, scene, essay, or anything else, ask yourself, “What does this story/scene/essay need to do?” (Hint: Teachers usually give you this answer on the assignment sheet. For writing your own stories and so on, you’ll need to decide what the writing needs to do.)
  • Once you’ve decided what the thing needs to do, ask “What would be a good way to make that happen?”
  • Try things that sound weird, just to see what happens. If you hate cheesy villain speeches in which the villain reveals their entire plan just before the hero escapes, write one anyway. You might still think it’s a terrible strategy for understanding the villain’s plan, but you might learn something about your villain you didn’t know before. At the very least, you’ll be able to say, “I hate the cheesy villain speech strategy because I’ve tried it and it is not effective.”
  • For highly-structured writing like legal motions and lab reports, ask “What does this document need to do, and how does the structure help it do that?”

One of the most baffling things for new writers encountering the concept of the writing strategy is that there are very rarely hard and fast rules. Strategies are chosen based on what the written piece needs to do, whether that’s entertain, inform, persuade, or something else.

A lot of new writers are used to having other people set the parameters for a piece of writing, which makes choosing strategies easier. When it’s just you and the page, there are fewer rules. Suddenly, you’re not just in charge of making the words go on the paper. Now you’re also in charge of why that matters. What do the words need to do? Who do they need to do it for (or to)? What result should come from someone reading what you write? Does that result change if the reader changes?

It’s fine to change your mind about the answers to these questions mid-draft. The whole point of a draft is to put something down, so you can work with it in editing. If you decide halfway through the villain is really the hero or that in fact you hate Local College U and never want to attend, roll with it! Just fix it before you let someone else read it.


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writing

How to Fake a Conlang

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m a complete nerd when it comes to languages. I even invent my own languages for fun, a hobby known as “conlanging” (“conlang” is short for “constructed language”).

But not everyone finds fun in inventing a new language. Some folks just want to write science fiction or fantasy or related works involving made-up languages, without actually having to bother constructing an entire language. And if you’re only looking for a few names or scraps of dialogue, you probably don’t need to create an entire language.

Here’s how to fake a believable invented language without actually inventing a language.

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Decide which sounds the language uses, and which letters you’ll use to express them.

Every human language can be broken down into a basic set of sounds, which are used in various ways to construct meaning. Linguists call these sound-chunks phonemes, and they’re what give every language its characteristic sound.

For your fake conlang, the first decision to make is which sounds you’ll use and what letters you’ll use to write those sounds.

Hooked on Phonics

If you haven’t thought about phonemes since elementary school and need a head start, try searching for “phonics list” or “English phonemes.” Lists like this one are plentiful, and they can start helping you think about how a language’s sounds break down by showing you how those sounds are broken down in English.

My own novels contain several faked conlangs in addition to the real ones. For the fake ones, I usually start by choosing which vowel sounds I want to appear in the language. Niralanes, my primary non-fake conlang, has four vowel sounds. American English has 14. French has 16. Fewer is usually easier when you’re trying to fake a conlang.

Then I decide if there are any consonants I don’t want to use. “C” almost never makes it into my conlangs, for instance, because its sounds can be addressed with either “s” or “k.” Also, decide which “sounds made by letter groups” are in or out. Does your conlang use “sh,” for instance? What about “ks,” as in “axe” or “talks”, or “ng” as in “reading”?

I find a list of vowels or consonants to avoid is just as helpful as a list of vowels and consonants to use. Niralanes, for instance, never uses u, b, ch, or ng. This list helps me make sure that words I’m inventing fit within the overall look of the language.

Why Johnny Can’t Write

Once you know what sounds you want, decide how you’re going to write them. For a fake conlang, I highly recommend following these two rules:

  • One sound per letter or letter grouping. If “a” is pronounced like “father,” for instance, try writing the “a” in “cake” as “ay” (“cayke”).
  • Stick close to the pronunciation used in the language the book is written in. Few things are more annoying than seeing a word like “annerd” and later reading that it’s pronounced “fishes.”

You certainly don’t have to create an entire writing system for a fake conlang, unless the entire writing system somehow relevant to the plot. You can describe writing in general design terms, like “spiky” or “rounded” or “flowing” and let your audience imagine it.

Reading is Fundamental

If you’re already lost or overwhelmed, it’s fine to borrow the sound and spelling system of the language you’re writing the book in. While actual conlangers will scoff at it, this kind of borrowing can save you and your readers a lot of grief, especially if you’re only trying to generate a few words or phrases. And if you were here to please actual conlangers, you’d be creating an actual invented language, not a fake one.

Are there any rules for particular words or word types, like place or person names?

An alien examining human languages would eventually start to notice certain patterns, especially in how we create names of places and people:

  • Places in English-speaking countries often end with suffixes like “-burg,” -“ville,” and “-ton.” Examples: Vicksburg, Centerville, Bridgeton.
  • Hebrew names often end in “-el” for men and “-ah” for women. Examples: Daniel, Samuel, Hannah, Leah.
  • Japanese girls’ names often end in “-ko.” Examples: Mariko, Aiko, Naoko.

If all you need is names for places or people, save yourself a lot of grief: Invent a few prefixes or suffixes that indicate place and slap ’em onto other letter blobs that fit your sound/spelling scheme.

In my novels, for example, a bunch of Niralans have first names that end in “-ya.” Entire nation-states on the planet Viida have names that end in “Kan.” And so on.

Keep a vocabulary list.

As you invent words or names, write them down somewhere, along with what they mean. This will keep you from repeating them when you don’t intend to.

I keep my fake conlang vocabulary lists in a Google Sheet with two columns: The invented word in one and its meaning in English on the other. Sheets lets me sort by column, so I can have either one in alphabetical order depending on whether I’m looking up the English translation of a conlang word or the conlang translation of an English word.

Google it before you deployment.

Finally, run all your invented words and names through a search engine before you plug them into your final draft. Few things are more embarrassing than letting a book go to print, then waking up to 500 Twitter comments asking if you really meant to name your main character “Wet Goatpoop” or “I’ll Fight Your Mother” in some language you forgot existed.

If, after all this, you decide you’d really rather be a nerd who invents entire languages for fun:

  • JOIN US. JOIN US. JOIN USSSSS- I mean, um, welcome to the club.
  • I highly recommend Mark Rosenfelder’s books, including The Language Construction Kit, as well as Rosenfelder’s website (to which the link will take you).

Happy conlanging!


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writing

So You Need to Name a Fictional Character

One of the writing questions I get asked most often is “How do you come up with character names?”

Or “can I give two characters similar names?”

Or “I want to name my characters after the seven deadly sins/the four classical elements/models of Ford automobile, but I don’t want it to be obvious, what can I do?”

Or “I hate name generators but I can’t think of a name for this character, what can I do?”

If you’re at a loss what to name a character and you don’t want to use name generators, try this method instead.

First: List all your character’s major traits.

Start by listing your character’s most obvious traits. These can be physical traits, personality traits, quirks, preferences, whatever you like.

For example, the main character in a fantasy story might be:

  • female
  • redheaded
  • pale-skinned
  • a princess
  • lost/missing from her kingdom
  • cat lover
  • gets jealous easily
  • the eighth child in her family

The idea is to generate a list of starting points for exploring different name ideas. You can put pretty much anything on this list, as long as it describes the character in some way.

Decide how obvious you want to be.

Which traits, if any, do you want the reader to pick up on just from reading the character’s name? How obvious do you want the connection between that trait and the character to be?

If you’re writing an allegory – a story in which characters are basically ideas or traits in disguise, like Justice or Peace – you might want the names to be pretty clearly linked to character traits. Likewise, if you’re writing about a character with one particular trait that plays a huge role in the story, you might want to give them a fairly obvious name linked to that trait.

Some names that are just the names of traits characters might have:

  • Hope
  • Charity
  • Joy
  • Baby
  • Cash
  • Messiah

You can also use names with direct “trait” meanings, but in languages other than English. For example:

  • Esperanza (Hope, but in Spanish)
  • Jizen (Charity, but in Japanese
  • Joie (Joy, but in French)
  • Angelo (Angel, but in Esperanto)
  • Octavia (“eighth,” in Latin)

Try a baby name book or website.

If you want a name that means or evokes a certain trait, but isn’t just [Name of Trait], try baby name websites. Many allow you to search for names by meaning.

In the case of our red-headed cat-loving jealous princess, some name options might be:

  • Akane (meaning “red” in Japanese),
  • Alba or Blanche (meaning “white” in Latin or French, respectively)
  • Eadoin (meaning “jealousy” in Irish)
  • Latifah (meaning “kind” or “gentle” in Arabic).

For these, I used the name search tool at BabyNames.com. This tool also lets you search by nationality, by letter, and in other ways, so you can further narrow down your search.

Use a thesaurus.

For this one, you’ll need an actual print thesaurus. Not the ones that have been rearranged in alphabetical order. An actual copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus is ideal.

Contrary to popular belief, a thesaurus is not merely a book of synonyms and antonyms. A properly-organized thesaurus actually shows the relation of every word in English to every other word in English.

Why does that matter here?

The thesaurus is a great way to generate character names, because you can see which words and concepts are closely related to a word or concept you want to associate with that character.

Suppose, for example, that you want to emphasize not your princess’s red hair or love of cats, but the fact that she vanished early in life and has been missing – from the point of view of her parents, anyway – for years. Maybe you want to make it clear that this disappearance was the result of a prophecy or curse: something inherent to the princess and out of her control.

Roget’s International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition, has an entry for “missing person” (it’s 222.5, for the curious). Entry 222.5 reads “absentee, truant, no-show, missing person.”

You can certainly run these words through a baby name search, if you like. BabyNames.com, however, didn’t give me much to go on.

Entries 222.3 and 222.6, however, offer closely-related concepts to that of “missing person.” They include “absence,” “loss,” “death,” “vacation,” and “nobody.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. BabyNames.com gives a whole list of names meaning “loss,” including “Adsila,” “Calantha,” “Hana,” and “Zarah.” Searching for “death” turns up the Slavic name “Morana,” which also means “illness.” Our princess is probably not experiencing her life as much of a vacation, but “nobody” can be translated nicely with the Japanese name “Mumei,” which literally means “nameless.”

Borrow names from existing literary characters or authors.

Yet another way to emphasize a certain trait you want readers to associate with your character is to name that character after an existing well-known literary figure. For example, we might name our fictional princess:

  • Anne (after redheaded Anne of Green Gables, or Anne Frank, one of the youngest published authors in history)
  • Lillian (after Lillian Jackson Braun, author of a series of mysteries featuring cats)
  • Desdemona (a victim of jealousy in Shakespeare’s Othello)
  • Phronsie (after Phronsie Pepper, famous youngest Pepper sibling)
  • Alice (after Alice in Wonderland, who went missing down a rabbit hole)
  • Penelope (Odysseus’s wife, who sits around weaving for ten years after her husband gets extremely lost post-Trojan War)

Will your readers make the connection between the literary figure and your character? Maybe! Maybe not! For those that do, your story gains another dimension, and they get the fun of feeling like they decoded an in-joke.

If you go this route, avoid characters with very recently-made-popular invented names, like Katniss or Khaleesi. You may find yourself on the receiving end of a cease and desist order. At the very least, your readers might confuse your work with fanfiction, and find themselves unhappy when your “Katniss” doesn’t live in a dystopia or your “Khaleesi” has never even heard of dragons.

A Note On Characters With Similar Names

As a rule, I recommend avoiding giving any two characters similar names.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a What Not to Do example of a novel in many ways, but one thing Rand got right was to scrupulously avoid giving characters similar names. Rand went so far as to introduce every character (and there are dozens) by both their first and last names – and to give every one of them a different set of initials.

The result is that, even in a dizzyingly long tome with a weak plot, an implausible setting, and ridiculous characters, it’s remarkably easy to keep track of which character is which – even if you only see them once or twice. Nobody else has the same initials as any other character.

For instance, there may be more than one character whose first name starts with D, but the only one of those whose last name starts with T is Dagny Taggart. You don’t have to deal with Dagny Taggart and Dave Thomas and Doris Trumboldt and Donald Trump. So the reader can just register “DT” and know which character this is, and that a “DS” or “DA” will be someone else.

I recommend avoiding not only similar names, but also similar initials. There are exceptions to every rule, however.

If you’re going to use similar names, make sure there’s a plot-based reason the names are similar. For example, maybe the characters Alissa and Alicia are twins. Or Macduff and Macbeth are rival soccer team captains and the story is a rather obvious retelling of Macbeth but with soccer. Maybe Sydney is the new girl at school who had to deal with queen bees Cindy and Candy, and mixing them up is key to how Sydney defeats them.

If there’s no reason in the story itself that characters have to have similar names, change one of the names so your readers don’t get confused – especially if the similarly-named characters appear in a lot of scenes together, or if the story will make no sense if the reader mixes them up. “Wait, why is Alissa the one activating the giant laser? I thought Alicia was the mad scientist” is not a problem you want readers to have at the crucial moment in the story.

(“Alissa” is an English name meaning “of noble kin,” and is related to names like “Alice,” in case you’re wondering. Other options that also mean “noble” but won’t get her mixed up with Alicia include Brianna, Earleen, Heidi, Katrice, Nabila, and Trisha.)

When all else fails….

…just name the character after your crush. No one will notice.


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