Perfectionism and Reading Fiction

Overhead shot of a boy sitting on the carpet in a library, reading a book.

I’ve taken a few writing workshops lately that teach craft by having me read books to figure out how the writer did something cool.  It’s been a fun and interesting experience.  Writers always get told to read fiction to learn from other writers.  Normally, no one ever explains this, other than treating it like we were in a college class getting graded, then complain when a writer tries to imitated a best selling writer.

I was in a monthly writing call and was reminded of this because the topic was on studying books.  One of the questions was “What writer weaknesses do you identify and how do you use it to improve?”

One of the writers said that she didn’t read for pleasure any more—only for study.  That’s a terrible!

The reason I became a writer is because I had all these wonderful books I was reading and I wanted to do books like that.  I wanted to go on adventures even if I really couldn’t go on adventures and besides, fictional adventures are fun.  Real adventures are quite a bit more dangerous.  Ahem.

Woman in a bikini surfing on a green and purple surfboard

But I got stuck into the critical analysis, too.  By 2003, I thought that the new releases I was reading were terrible!

I thought books had gone downhill from what I remembered reading when I was growing up.  So one day at work, someone had left out a bunch of freebies on the break tables: Mack Bolan, the Executioner.  That was a men’s adventure series, written by many different writers.  I’d read that during the those years, along with Nick Carter, so I snatched those bad boys up.

Man in suit fighting with a man in a yellow hat and red jumpsuit.


They weren’t as good as I remembered.

Could it be me?

I thought about how much I looked for what was wrong in books.  Sure, I did run into ones that had geniune problems, like the one that ended on a cliffhanger.  Man!  That was an annoying book.

But I also went into a book as I was reading and looked for flaws.

And, as I thought about it, I really wasn’t learning anything from doing it.  At least other than hating books.  I was expecting perfection as a writer and lost my pleasure as a reader.

So I went cold turkey.  I decided that I was going to stop critiquing published books and work on enjoying them.  That next book was I read was The Da Vinci Code.

I did  enjoy reading it. I also thought, after I read it, about why it might have been such a runaway best seller.  I think the answer was timing, because it came out about the time we had all the scandals and cover-ups in the Catholic church.  The book provided escapism, and yet, played right into the headlines.

Writers on the message boards I was on nitpicked the words and the sentences as not being “perfect,” whatever that means.

No one asked what this runaway best selling writer did right.

This is what negativity does.  It holds people back.

Miss USA on Women in Combat

Miss USA has largely become of those events that time has passed by, but still hangs around. But the winner of last night’s event was a military reservist.  When she was asked about women in combat, this is what she said:

“As a woman in the United States Army, I think it was an amazing job by our government to allow women to integrate to every branch of the military. We are just as tough as men,” she said to lots of cheers from the crowd. “As a commander of my unit, I am powerful. I am dedicated. And it is important that we recognize that gender does not limit us in the United States Army.”

I don’t have an opinion on women in combat one way or another, other than if the doors had been opened to the infantry while I was in the service, I wouldn’t have volunteered.  However, there was something inherently wrong with the old system.  Combat was always ranked higher in importance, and soldiers got more awards—and promotion opportunities—for it.

But honestly, it all boils down to this:

If you have two people on the same incident involving guns, artillery, and things blowing up do the same things to save lives, there’s something wrong with giving one of those people medals and recognition and telling the other person, “Sorry, women aren’t allowed in combat, so it doesn’t count.”

Combat Doesn’t Respect Anything

I find a lot of veteran articles and videos posted on Facebook–curiously, not by the veterans.  This one is on a woman who served during the Vietnam War and shows some of the unrealistic expectations the military had when they say “Women are not allowed in combat.”

The problem is that combat doesn’t respect that declaration.

The door-to-door salesman of developmental marketing

When I was a teenager, we had a visit from a door to door salesman. It actually wasn’t a common thing, partially because of our location, which looked like an alley, and partially for reasons like below.

The salesman was young, very handsome, and very charming. No doubt, he expected to find the woman in the family at home so he could charm her into buying the bottled water he was selling.

He got my father.

That should have told him right away to leave and go onto the next house. My father’s first words were, “We don’t buy door to door.”

That should have also told the salesman to leave. The good ones will, once they realize they’re not going to make the sale. No sense in wasting time. Either this salesman wasn’t good or corporate policy was to be aggressive.

He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Finally, to get rid of the guy, my father bought the water. Once he closed the door, he went to the phone and called the water company. He cancelled the order and told them why.

So I have a cynical eye when someone asks me for money. Even so, it started out tough as a writer. Much of what I saw early on was marketed to beginners who didn’t have any knowledge and didn’t know what questions to ask.

I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and got put on a mailing list from an agent. He sent me a four-page advertisement for his agency. It was impressive looking. On the first page was pictures of authors the agent represented, none of whom I had read or heard of. Still looked impressive.

It was a sales pitch. The agent said he would look at my manuscript for a reading fee of $500. I didn’t have the money, so I didn’t get taken, but if I had, I would have sent it in. The brochure said all the right things and made me feel special.

Of course, it should have been a warning that I was sent it at all.

Then there’s editing. That’s a big business, where people make a lot of money off beginning writers. When I first got on line, there was a big scam where agents were rejecting writers and referring them to an editing service. Since the agent had referred them and knew what he was doing, the writers trusted this and happily paid for the service. The agent and service counted on the writers not educating themselves and reacting emotionally.

When I was ready to go indie, I didn’t even have to think: I was going for copy editing.

Not developmental editing.

I’ve had writers predict dire results or tell me I was cheapening my writing. I even had a panel at a con try to embarrass me into getting developmental editing. I had shown up for the panel early, and they asked me what goals I had. I told them I was looking for a copy editor. In front of the crowd of people that finally showed him, they admonished me about not going for developmental editing. Granted, most of the panel was developmental editors, so it wasn’t hard dismissing the source.

It bothered me that a whole lot that people had their hand out for potentially thousands of dollars (one I looked at would have charged me two grand for a 40K novel) for developmental editing. It reminded me of that door to door salesman coming to the front door expecting to make the sale on emotion and not facts.

The facts are that developmental editing is essentially paying for an in-depth critique. The person may or may not be qualified to do it. Some writers will look at one or two published books as proof the editor knows what they’re doing. But especially after taking so many writing classes given by writers with that qualification, I found out how little they actually knew. Because I didn’t outline, I often ended up with a front row seat to their lack of craft knowledge.

Besides, why should I pay someone to tell me how to write?  Seriously, if I have a weak area, surely the money could be better served to buy craft books on that area, maybe take a really good class (not one of the ones above!), and spend the time working the skill.

That seems like a better investment of my money and time and would give me the most benefit.

Software Makes Us Lazy

I remember when computers first came out (yeah, it’s dating me). Until then, I’d done all my writing either by hand or on a typewriter. Newsflash: I make the same types of “typos” when I write anything out by hand.

So the computer – absolutely! I didn’t have to spend hours retyping pages to correct the many typos, and make more typos to replace them. I didn’t have to fuss with correction fluid. I could just save the document, and then run (eventually) the spellcheck.

It’s a great tool, especially for writers, but I also find that it makes people generally lazy.

It also makes us busier, which is a strange combination to say the least.

It hit me the other day because I deal all the time with people who “trust the software.” They sign legal documents with barely a cursory glance (in some cases none), not even checking to see if what they’re signing is correct.

Imagine it’s a corporate timesheet program. It fills in the times automatically for you, eight hours a day, as a courtesy, but you have to make changes when you had a doctor’s appointment or took leave.

Yet, I’ve run into people who will somehow think the software connects to their brain and can tell they went on sick leave, so they will sign the document as is and then are puzzled when they find out its wrong.

“I thought (the software) was right!” they said.


When I started hearing about the massive amounts of submissions that agents were receiving, I wondered if the same problem existed. Part of being a writer involved the hard work of physically typing on a typewriter on a piece of paper. That was probably enough to scare aware some people who weren’t really serious.

But now the computer makes it easier. Too easy. Some people who would be discouraged by the amount of work a manual typewriter are writing books. They’re probably puzzled when they get rejections for multiple errors.

“But the spell check was turned on!”

Software is training us to rely on it, rather than to use it as a tool and rely on our brains.

Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #2

This is the second part of some of the writing Mis-Advice I’ve heard all over the years. The scary part about all of these is that sound absolutely reasonable if you don’t dig deeper. Check out Part I.

  1. All description is boring.

Usually when I heard this one, it was accompanied by another piece of advice “Get rid of the boring parts.” I think it probably comes out of doing writer’s exercises, description is taken out of the context of the story and character. So all you’re doing is describing something like you’re doing homework.

Worse, writers repeat this mantra in critiques. A few years ago when I was doing reviews, I read a book where the writer said in the back he’d made changes at the recommendation of his critique group. It was really obvious they’d told him to take out the boring descriptions (in a fantasy where descriptions are part of the world building!), instead of telling him to work on his descriptive skills.

Description is only boring if it’s written that way.

  1. All writers need developmental editing

This is a recent one I’m hearing. Developmental editing is treated as if it were a one-size fits all thing for indie writers. It’s also the most expensive of all the editing choices, and, in my opinion, is essentially a paid critique.

It assumes that you don’t know how to write and need to be told how to fix it.

Think about how that infantilizes the writer. If I do something at work, I don’t send it to my boss to make sure I’ve done it right (not to mention my boss would have utterly no time to do her work!). So why on earth would I pay someone to tell me how to fix my story?

But some of this came out of the early indie stories where people were throwing up stories without even proofreading. Everyone starting saying, “You need editing,” and few thought that they might just need a copy edit to clean up the typos, grammatical errors, and style issues.

All I can say is try the copy editing first.

  1. Don’t use passive voice, usually based on using the word ‘was.’

This one’s always puzzled me. Are writers really writing in passive voice THAT much? Or are writers misidentifying it because “was” seems like an easier way to “identify” passive voice? I remember a writer using one of these programs that identified was as being passive voice, so he removed ALL the instances of it. Like it or not, was is an important word. It helps sentences make sense!

In my opinion, you have to work to get passive voice in the story. It doesn’t even seem like fiction would lend itself to passive voice as well.

Seriously, would you write the following in a story:

My breakfast was eaten this morning by the cat.

Or would you write something like:

By the time I got out to the kitchen, the silver tabby cat had jumped on the table and was lapping up the milk from my cereal with quick swipes of a pink tongue.

  1. No dream sequences.

Another one that comes out writers doing it badly. Dream sequences are often used by writers to info dump backstory they can’t figure out how to get into story proper. Why is that if writers do something badly, everyone says, “Don’t” instead of “Learn how to do it right”?

I remember asking other writers on a message board what would make up a good dream sequence. They admonished me that it was a Really Bad Idea, and then started backing slowly away like I was catching. No one even wanted to try it. At all.

Kind of sad that writers are limiting themselves. I’ve seen some wonderful dream sequences in books, wonderful because they added another level of characterization to the main character. It’s a given as a potential topic for science fiction. Star Trek—The Next Generation has done in twice, one great, one not. Anyone remember the Deanna cake?

  1. You can’t break the rules without knowing the rules first.

I saw this one on message boards, and really, really hated it. The problem was that there was no actual answer to this. There’s no rule book for writing fiction, no definitive source that everyone must go to so they can write fiction. Everything is just opinion.

Rules are a safety net. They make people feel better. But we’re not filling out forms to a picky bureucrat’s standard. We’re creating stories, and sometime the rules are the worst thing for that. Sometimes it’s important to try breaking the rules, if it means learning something new, or seeing how something doesn’t work.

I had to write all these out so I could be aware of all everything I’d heard over the years. These pieces of mid-advice were one of the reaosns I had to stop reading message boards cold turkey. Way too many writers repeat everything as if it were precious treasure that must be used, instead of thinking on their own. Even knowing that some of these really weren’t true, I found some of them creeping into my writing anyway, like the description one.

Writing Mis-Advice Reported as Facts #1

Earlier this year, I took a class on writing produtivity, and one of the parts was listing all the writing junk that I’d heard over the years. You know, those things that get passed around by writers, sound reasonable, and yet may not actually be true. Here are five of them:

  1. You can’t make money writing

I’ve heard this one back since the 1970s. My uncle wrote during the pulp era and could never make enough money to write full time. What it tends to say is “You’ll never be successful” with the implication not to try too hard.

Granted, if I wrote one book every few years, I probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of money unless it hit the best seller list. A lot of indie authors are making money simply by producing a lot of stories.

  1. Build up your writing credits by writing for free

I also heard this one probably as early as the 1970s, but definitely into the 1980s. I remember looking at a Writer’s Market and seeing the percentages of writers submitting to pro-rate versus the non-paying. Then I’d think, “I’ll never have a chance, so I’ll try the easier one.”

I got a really rude shock when I applied to be a charter member of Interntional Thriller Writer, and they pretty much told me that none of it counted. Even submitting to the agents, I started finding that a lot of it didn’t count because it was non-paying, which, unfortunately, also said something about my writing that I wasn’t aware of.

What I also didn’t realize I was doing was that I telling myself that I was never going to be good enough to be professionally published and I wrote to that level. Once I started only submitting to professional paying magazines (.05 or more a word), I started improving dramatically and have been getting personal comments.

I wish I’d understood this one earlier.

  1. Delete the first fifty pages

I heard this one back in the 1980s I think. It assumes all writers spend the first fifty pages doing backstory and not story.

Of course, I was a writer who didn’t start with backstory. What listening to this gem of advice got me was starting a book in the middle, rather than where it needed to start. It’s not a good thing to start in the middle, especially for a pantser. Things came into the story out of order and distorted it into a mess.

  1. All stories use the 3-Act Structure

When I started writing in the 1970s, not one writing book talked about 3-act structure. It appears to have surfaced because of Blake Edward’s book Save the Cat, which is very popular. It’s gotten so embedded, I hear writers say, “Three act structure has been around as long as they’ve been doing plays,” as if all plays were in exactly that structure.

Uh, well, no. I was a theater major, I knew better. Just look up Shakesphere’s plays. See how many acts they have. I’ve attended plays with a very long first act (due to set requirements) and two short acts; a one act play; a two act play. It just depends.

Three acts started out in the movie industry because that’s when the reel ran out.

I’m not an outliner, so when I tried the 3-act structure, it put an artificial structure on top of the structure already in my story and turned it into a mess. I started thinking of adding something to end the second act and writing to that instead of following the natural flow of the story.

  1. To do (fantasy) world-building, you must start with a three-ring binder

Years ago, I was thinking of doing a fantasy novel. Then I heard the advice that to world build, I needed to do a tremendous amount of prep work. It was, “Start with a three ring binder and tabs.” Then I was supposed to answer a lengthy list of questions about the world.

I don’t outline at all, so I was so hugely turned off by this “requirement” that I never write the fantasy novel. Having to do all that prep work as described took all the fun of writing the story away.   It was years later that I discovered that the people giving that piece of advice were people who enjoyed building the world almost more than the story.

But it’s interesting that at a recent con I went to, the panelist in charge told a writer who asked what needed to do to world build was told “Write the story first.” No fussing about notebooks and tabs and tons of questions.

Any “facts” that you heard along the way that turned out to be really wrong?

Almost a Year Off the Writing Message Boards

It’s kind of surprising to realize that I’ve been off writing message boards for almost a year.  I woke up one day and just deleted all the links to the writing message boards, and I was done.  I’d been on the boards since at least 2007, and honestly, I haven’t missed them.

When I first signed up — early on, it was as many as six of them because I just couldn’t get enough of writing advice.  I was always like I was looking for this one piece that would help me solve problems I was having.

One of the problems though was that most of the advice was being given by beginners to beginners, so no one actually knew what they were talking about.

Over the years, that started become apparent, particularly as I started thinking about moving to indie publishing.  Going indie really changed my perspective because then it’s not about simply getting published; it’s about making enough money to live off it.  Most writers don’t fit into that category.  They want to get one book published.  Maybe it’ll be three.  But make a living at it?  Nah.

The worst and probably the silliest piece of advice I heard was “You have to know the rules to break the rules.”  A writer usually got told this when they were perceived to be doing something beyond beginner level, and if they asked what the definition of when you knew the rules, they were simply told the same thing again.  It kind of came across as “Shut up and don’t ask questions.”

Honestly, how do you get above beginner level if you don’t experiment?  I never understand it either when someone wanted to imitate a technique they’d seen in a book by a favorite author, but all the writers promptly said, “No, you can’t do that.  Big name writer can get away with it.  You can’t.  Don’t even try.”

Seriously?  That’s the best way to learn!

Over the last few years, I found myself participating less and less because of silliness like this.   But the reason I finally decided it was time was because of a writer named Lester Dent.  He wrote the Doc Savage books during the pulp era, and I don’t know, maybe I connected to how he wrote in a way. My early experience with writing was an uncle who also wrote during the pulp era, and Lester Dent reminded me that writing doesn’t need to be complicated.

He also reminded me that none of the very early writing books talked about all the nonsense we get today: three act structure; story beats; character worksheets.  It was just story, characters, and setting.  Yet, on the message boards and even in some craft books, the writing process had become enormously overcomplicated.  Everything was about following a method, and not really about the writing itself.  It’s like everyone mistook the technique for the process.

Worse, I found some of this junk getting into my writing, in spite of the fact I knew better.  There was just so much of it that it was hard for it not to get into my writing.

I also discovered how shockingly negative most of it is.  It’s a lot of “Don’t do this,” or “Kill this,” or “If you don’t do this/do this, you won’t get published.”  Where exactly does the fun in writing come in when everyone is so busy trying to follow all these mysterious rules?

So the only thing that I could do was just stop.

I haven’t regreted it.  My writing has actually improved once I got free of all the junk and the self-inflicted rules we see.  Most of it isn’t necessary.  It’s tell a good story.  Have good characters.  Use whatever needed to get to those two goals.

Military legal gets involved on the ALS ice bucket challenge

Over the last few weeks, celebrities like William Shatner and Brent Spiner have taken the ALS Ice Bucket challenge — essentially dumping a bucket of ice water over their heads on video tweeted or Face Booked out to help draw attention to the disease that killed baseball player Lou Gehrig.

The lawyers for the military weighed in and said that personnel couldn’t do it in uniform because it constituted endorsement for the cause.  You know, that’s a shame.  This could have been a great way to see military in a positive way.  Most often, all we hear about is front page news about problems with failures in the Veteran’s Administration; homeless veterans; long lasting brain injuries; and sexual harassment.  One of the reasons I generally don’t talk much about any of those subjects is because it’s too easy to associate soldiers as only those things, instead of as diverse people.  Some soldiers have reported that it’s been hard getting a job because employers assume they will have a meltdown like the ones reported in the press.

Good publicity would make a dent in that.

Where are the Voices of the women Veterans?

A to Z Challenge Badge
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One of the reasons I do this blog is because the women in the military often don’t really have much of a voice. In fact, for the most part, they largely get ignored as the camera focus is put on the male solder.

How many of you have seen a picture of an old man with the shadow of a soldier in the background? Has anyone seen a picture of a woman like this?

How many of you have seen a picture of a male soldier kneeling down to pet a kitten? I’d really like to see one of a woman soldier with a kitten, but I’ve never run across one.

At a science fiction convention, panelist Janine Spendlove, who is a Marine, related a conversation she had with one of her fellow officers.  She told him that he would always be known as a Marine, but she would always only be known as a female Marine.  The same is true for the army.  The men are the soldiers, and the women are the female soldiers.

I’ve tried finding photos of women soldiers for this blog, and it’s hard work finding any at all. What I do find is usually not something interesting or exciting. The Army seems to gravitate straight to the male soldiers.

It’s like there’s a default, and it’s to the guy. I see this in writing, too. A writer will write a novel and have a cast of over 100 characters, and maybe one or two will be a woman (Clive Cussler, I’m talking to you). I read Redeployment which was a series of short stories about the Iraq War. There were girlfriends of the male soldiers, but no female soldiers whatsoever.

So you’re getting the stories that no one else tells.

Next up will be “Washing clothes in Desert Storm” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.