I don’t just watch tv, tips for writing reviews part two

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Last week we talked about my job as a horror critic for Haunted MTL. And it turned out that I had more to say about the topic than one post alone could hold. So I’m back today with more advice for any aspiring critics. 

Whereas last week we talked about the writing of reviews themselves, today I want to talk about building a career as a critic. Because there are things to consider that I never thought of before I started writing reviews. Some are pretty common sense. Some, I wish I’d understood sooner. 

What are you going to write about?

When writing reviews, what you write about is as important as how you write about it. I can write the best review you ever read in your life, complete with witty quips, background information, and a detailed explanation of the content. And it doesn’t matter at all if it’s for a story nobody gave a damn about in the first place.

I find it’s worked well for me to specialize, but not strictly. I review just about all of the works of Ryan Murphy, for example. This allows me to compare and contrast his work, with a greater understanding of his career as a whole. Sometimes that means I’m hit with a massive load of work at once, like late in 2022 when The Watcher, American Horror Story, Dahmer, and Mr. Harrington’s phone all came out at once. Sometimes I have nothing Murphy-related to review, though. So I have a few sub-specialties. I review horror podcasts and true crime content.

However, this doesn’t stop me from reviewing other work. It’s based on what is trending, what is coming out soon, and what I think people might be interested in. 

(By the way, if you are a horror writer and you have a book you’d like me to review, hit me up. I am currently accepting arcs.)

Keeping a professional relationship with creators

In the last post, I talked about reviewing bad works. I mean, really bad. And yes, it is my job as a critic to talk about bad work. It’s my job to explain why it’s bad. It is not my job, nor is it a good idea, to tell the creator that their work was bad.

Occasionally, I am sent arcs and screeners for upcoming works. These are always met with a heartfelt thank you. I do not care if the work is bad. I am happy they thought enough of my reviews to send their work to me. And, as a creator myself, I always want to treat them as I’d want to be treated. 

If I don’t have the time, I’ll respectfully decline and suggest another critic from the site. If I do accept their work to review, I always make sure to send a follow-up email after the review is posted, thanking them again and providing them a link. 

I never give a creator unsolicited notes on their work. I certainly would never tell them that their work was bad. That is rude, unprofessional, and frankly uncalled for.

You’ll notice that I’m also not badmouthing any of the work here. That’s just in poor taste. I did my review, I don’t need to drag a piece all over the internet. 

The point is that I’m a professional. It’s important to keep a professional relationship with creators. 

Creating trust with your readers

More important than my relationship with creators is my relationship with my readers. People who read reviews are doing so for one reason. They want to know if a book, movie, tv show, or podcast is any good. Is it worth their time? Should they read or watch or listen to this one over another one? And I always want to give the most honest answer I can for that.

This is why I am upfront when I get an arc or screener. This doesn’t impact whether or not I like something, of course. And I’ll never lie and say I like a show that I don’t. 

I want people to know that I’m going to be honest with them. Even if I love a creator, I’m going to say if their work is trash. There have been some shining examples of bad work from good creators. There has been some work that I wanted to like, that I just didn’t. I am always honest about that. Integrity is essential for a critic. If you lose that, you lose your career.

I also don’t get into arguments online with people about content. Art is subjective as hell. Just because I liked something, even though I have very good reasons to like it, doesn’t mean everyone is going to. Just because I thought something was hot garbage, and I sure have very good reasons for that too, doesn’t mean someone’s wrong for liking it. Again, I am a professional. I need to act like one. Besides, arguing about art online is like getting into a shit-ball fight. No one has fun, no one wins, and everyone stinks. 

If you have any questions about critic work, please feel free to ask them below. I’ll be happy to answer them as best as I can. 

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I don’t just watch tv. Tips for writing reviews, part 1

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As some of you may know, I write reviews for a site called Haunted MTL. And yes, being a critic has always been a dream of mine. I think it’s probably a dream a lot of people have. I won’t lie, it’s pretty awesome. I get free books and foreign screeners. And I get to do my favorite thing, talk about fiction work that I love. 

That being said, it’s not always easy. I’ve turned a relaxing activity into work. Because a lot more goes into writing a review and cultivating a career around reviews, than one might assume. So today I thought I’d talk about how I do it. How I write reviews, the work that goes into them, and how I manage my critical career.

It starts with a fresh watch or read

When I review something, I like to read or watch it myself and get my first impressions down before I let the opinions of others pollute my own. I’ll watch the content with a notebook in hand, making notes about scenes or actors as I go. This scene went on too long, this was gross in a good way, and this was gross in a bad way. That sort of thing.

Research

Once I’ve consumed the content, I’ll go into research mode. Who was in this piece? What else have they done that my readers might have seen? What Easter Eggs were hidden in the content? What references might a casual viewer have missed? These are all things to consider in writing an entertaining and informative review. 

This is not, of course, the main focus of the review. So it’s best not to get lost in the research too much. But it’s fun, especially for nerds like me. 

Making stylistic choices

In any form of writing, you’re going to make some stylistic choices. Some of those will depend on genre, others on your personal preference. For instance, I write for an audience of horror fans. So I tend to write using more adult language and about adult subjects. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever used the word boobies here on PBW. It comes up often on Haunted. 

The important thing here is to pick a style and stick with it. Yes, your style is going to change over time, but you want to avoid any dramatic switches.

Conveying information about the content, without giving too much away.

Spoilers suck. I will never get over having the death of Rita ruined for me in Dexter. And if you as a critic are spoiling the endings of things all over the place, you’re not going to be a popular critic. So you’ll have to learn how to tell part of the story, without telling it all. 

The way I do this is by focusing more on my opinion of the story, rather than explaining what happened. 

Now, there are some situations where it’s really hard to avoid. For instance, when I wrote a review of The Mist. A big reason why I hated that movie was the twist ending. But I didn’t want to give the ending away in case anyone still wanted to see that piece of shit film after reading my review. (The book was way better.) So, I had to sort of dance around it. I let on that the ending was different than in the book. I called it intentionally mean, and unsatisfying. And I mentioned at the start of the review that it might be spoiler-esq. It’s tricky, I’m not going to lie. But it’s vital. 

Knowing why something works or doesn’t work.

What’s the difference between a critical review and asking a buddy if they liked a movie? While your buddy might tell you a movie sucked, a critic will tell you why from a professional standpoint it sucked.

Many critics are professionally trained in film school, or deeply involved in content creation like myself. The reason is that it’s not enough to say that something is good or bad. Why was it good? Why was it bad? 

I do this in part here, with my Why It Works series. But while that series is aimed at teaching you how to write better, a review is aimed at telling a fan exactly why I wanted to pitch my remote at the screen in disgust. 

This is something that is best learned by watching a lot and reading a lot, then considering why you liked or didn’t like what you consumed. Was that film really hard to see because the lighting was bad? Was the dialog realistic? Were the characters likable? It requires an understanding of good writing and good film work that you only develop over time and practice.

But there are worst ways to spend your time.

Watching and reviewing bad content

Speaking of worse ways to spend your time, I want to end off with this. Sometimes I have to review stuff that is just terrible. And I have to watch the whole thing, to explain to other people exactly how terrible it was.

Several times, this has meant I have had to watch a movie that I pray no one ever knows I watched. There was one whose title I will not mention that emotionally scarred me. Sometimes it means I have to finish a tv series that I would have given up on long before the end.

There is an upside, though. Bad content is often really fun to review because you can use some of your most colorful languages. I despised the ending of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and enjoyed explaining in detail how lazy and damaging it was. It made me feel like watching the ending hadn’t been a complete waste of time.

There’s a lot more to be said about writing reviews, but as we’re nearing a thousand words here I’m going to stop for now and continue next week. But I want to hear from you. Do you enjoy reviews? Who is your favorite go-to critic? Have you ever dreamed of being a critic? Let us know in the comments. 

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My review of Shut Up And Write The Book

I received an arc of this book in return for a fair and honest review. And that’s exactly what you’re getting today. 

Jenna Moreci’s Youtube channel is one of my favorites for smart, sweary writing advice. So, when she announced that she was publishing a book about writing, I had to get my hands on it. When I found out she was offering arcs to select reviewers, I jumped on that like a rat on a pizza slice. 

Shut Up And Write The Book is essentially a step-by-step manual to, obviously, writing a book. It is specifically tailored for fiction authors, so if you’re writing nonfiction, this one might not be for you. But as I don’t write nonfiction, it was delightful for me.

I will say that, as an experienced author, some of the information was redundant. I did find myself skimming some of the early chapters especially, because of course I’ve read a ton of writing advice books. I’ve also written writing advice for writers since 2014. And watched the vast majority of Jenna’s Youtube videos. 

But if you feel like you know everything in this book, you are wrong. It’s an egotistical fool who dismisses advice because they think they know everything already. So I always do my best to come to every bit of writing education as a novice. I never regret this.

The first thing I loved about Shut Up And Write The Book was that Jenna writes how she talks. I can hear her voice as I’m reading, which is delightful. She has a quick, supportive way of talking about writing that makes it feel more like a small business project instead of an ethereal endeavor that we mere mortals have no sort of control over. 

If you are one of those people who feel like writing a book is overwhelming, this is a book you need. It walks you through every step of the novel writing process. And I mean every single step. If you have nothing but a desire to write a book, but not a single damn idea for that book, that is perfect. The first chapters start with brainstorming in a realistic and accessible way. Then, it continues to walk you through each step of the process.

Now, I did think that the outline and brainstorming section of the book was a bit heavy. I don’t generally go into as much detail as Jenna does with her character creation and world-building. But, to be honest, maybe I should consider trying this out for my next book. It can only help.

Each chapter ends with a summary of the information that the chapter included. At first, I thought this was a little irritating. I mean, I just finished reading all this content. I don’t need a summing up. And yes, while doing a read through there’s not any value in that summary.

However, as I go through the book again and use it as it’s intended, as a workbook, I find that summary to be really helpful. Because I can check in with the summary and see if I need to re-read this chapter, or if I have the basics down.

I found that as I got closer to the end of the book, I found it more and more useful. I certainly have my writing weaknesses, and one of them is finding beta readers. I learned just a ton about that process, which I’m looking forward to utilizing as my current novels come closer and closer to completion.

If you’re a writer, this is a book to grab. It’s full of smart advice that’s easy to use. Here’s a link to pre-order it now. This is not an affiliate link.

How Nickelodeon made me a better adult

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I was born in the mid-eighties. That means that I need aspirin for my back most days, I will never own a house, and I grew up in the golden age of Nickelodeon. I can recall the premiers of the first three Nick-toons.

Probably I’m biased, but I think people my age are pretty cool. We have twisted senses of humor, a love of horror stories, and are more politically active than generations before us. Some of that’s because the internet became more and more prevalent as we got older. But I think some of the credit goes to Nickelodeon.

Or, without making sweeping generalizations, I am at least convinced that I am the funny, horror-loving socially aware person that I am at least in part because I grew up with these five shows.

Pete & Pete

This stands as one of the weirdest shows I have ever seen. It’s the adventures of two brothers who were for some strange reason given the same name. And their world just gets weirder from there. They exist in a world with adults who take their jobs far too seriously. The bus driver who nearly runs Big Pete off the road. The school principal who makes the whole school attend an assembly on ear hygiene. A quality inspection agent who inspects everything and demands perfection. A mail woman who keeps careful verbal notes on her route every day. And Artie! The strongest man… in the world!

The show certainly gave me a taste for the quirky, with a slight touch of darkness. It also taught me that grownups are just big kids. No matter what we might tell ourselves.

Are you afraid of the dark

Maybe one of my favorite shows from childhood, Are You Afraid of the Dark was a creepy anthology series. In each episode, a group called the Midnight Society came together to scare the hell out of each other around a campfire. There were stories of ghosts coming back for a visit, demons that came out of comic books, killer clowns, and hypnotic music boxes.

My love of anthology horror was sparked by this show. But something else was sparked. These kids were telling decent stories, stories they wrote themselves. It led me to think that maybe I could write a story.

Maybe. 

All That

I’ve always considered All That to be kind of like a farm league for Saturday Night Live. Long-running cast member Kenan Thompson got his start on All That.

All That was funny. Sometimes it was smart funny, and sometimes it was just dumb funny. But it was always a good time. 

I was, sadly, a pretty serious child. All That was one way I got a little bit of much-needed funny in my life. It was also my introduction to some iconic musical artists. It was the first time I saw TLC, Coolio, Brandy, and Outkast. It was an important musical education for me.

Nick News with Linda Ellerbee

I didn’t grow up in a very politically aware house. I’ve never seen my mother with a newspaper. She never turned the news on, and never seemed aware of world events. Whenever we talked about ‘current events’ in school, I was largely lost.

So watching Nick News was instrumental in me realizing two things. One, there was a big world out there where people were living very different lives than I was. And two, I might be able to understand it.

Nick News talked about some topics that were amazing to hear about. I remember when Magic Johnson was on for a special episode to talk about his HIV diagnosis. I remember kids my age asking him honest, intelligent questions, and getting real answers. Wars, politics, and environmental issues were laid out in a way that was attainable for a kid, but not condescending.

Kids Pick The President

After everything I just told you, it should come as no surprise that voting wasn’t a huge thing in my house growing up. I can’t remember Mom voting for anything but American Idol. 

And yet, I have never missed an election. Not presidential, not local. I have voted every year since I turned eighteen. And I was able to do that because of the education I got from Kids Pick The President. It seemed fun as a kid to vote, which led to me being ready to register to vote as soon as I was old enough. For kids who don’t get that education at home, Kids Pick The President was a blessing.

The point of this post isn’t just to take a self-indulgent trip down memory lane. Though, that is a perk. No, I told you all that to tell you this.

Some of you reading this, I assume, write for children or young adults. I write young and new adult fiction, at least some of the time.

If you’re writing for kids, teens, and young adults, I feel like you’ve got an obligation to give them something real.

I’m not saying you’ve got to teach them the state capitols or some great moral lesson. But I am saying that you should give them something good. Something that will help shape the kind of human being that you want to have around. And if you want to do that, you could do worse than emulate the qualities of these classic Nickelodeon shows. 

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I didn’t win Nanowrimo

I hate that I have to write this post. This is something that hasn’t happened to me in years. I mean, honestly years. 

I did not win Nanowrimo, 2022. And that really sucks. 

On paper, it looked like I did everything right. I had a plan in place for my novel. I had an outline. I had a plan. I had the will. I was ready. 

But somewhere around the middle of the month, things just started to fall apart. I had a few days when I couldn’t hit my word count, and it just snowballed from there. For about a week, I did my damndest to get back on track. And I did get back on track, only to fall right back off track again.

Finally, with over a week left, I decided to give up for the year. I just didn’t see myself getting caught up, I was too far behind. 

I can’t say there was any one reason I didn’t make it to 50,000 words this year. Certainly, I’ve had busier years and still achieved the goal. I even went on a Thanksgiving vacation one year and still hit 50,000 words. 

It wasn’t because I didn’t like the story. I actually think this might be the best book I’ve ever written. I say that about every new book. 

It wasn’t because the story was particularly difficult. Last year I wrote a season of AA, and it is a hell of a lot harder to hit a word count when you’re writing scripts than when you’re writing a novel, let me tell you. 

I’m honestly a little worried that I’m slowing down. I’m in my late 30’s now. I just don’t have the same energy as I did even a few years ago. Or maybe I need to just learn how to ration my energy better. 

One way or another, I just refuse to be brought down by this. There are upsides to this, even if they’re hard to see. For one, this is a wake-up call for how I’m treating myself. I need to take better care of myself so that I have the energy to do things like this. I’m not that old, I shouldn’t be slowing down that much yet. Bernie Sanders is still running just fine, and he’s got decades on me. He could have written 50,000 words without breaking a sweat. 

(I think that’s going to be my new mantra, what would Bernie Sanders do.) 

This is part of why my word for 2023 is self. I need to take better care of myself.

I’m also glad I tried Nanowrimo, even though I failed because I still got a decent chunk of writing done. I still wrote at times I wouldn’t have. I still wrote more than I would have if I hadn’t done Nano, is what I’m saying. And that’s not a bad thing.

Of course, the biggest reward of failure is always the lessons we learn. If we’re humble and optimistic enough to take the lesson along with the loss, that is. Next year I’ll do better, and here’s how. 

– I let myself get away with too many days in a row of just barely making my word count. Especially at the beginning when excitement was high and fatigue was low. In years past I’ve written extra, knowing that sometime in the middle of the month I’d hit a wall.

-I didn’t plan any writing only days. Every day I had errands to run, a day job to go to, or a million other things to take up my time. I’d forgotten how much I relied on those days when I do nothing but work on the work in progress. 

So that’s it. I didn’t win Nanowrimo, but I will next year. Now, I want to hear from you. Did you attempt Nano this year? Did you win or lose? Let us know in the comments. 

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My Writing Heroes, Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is one of my personal heroes. She was such an incredibly strong person and absolutely fearless. She was beautiful, body and soul. She is still one of the most influential poets in America, despite leaving us in May 2014.

Ms. Angelou’s life was astounding. Which might be why she wrote so many books about it. She worked with Dr. King, with Malcolm X. She was in LA for the LA riots. She has seen so much history, much of it unpleasant. But through all of it, she spread beauty with her work, her singing, and her life.

I love reading her books. In each of them, I find bits of my own story within hers. I was also a young mother. I was also a child pawned off on relatives during my early life. 

I’ve learned so many lessons from Ms. Angelou. Today, I want to share just three of them that may help you be a better writer. They will almost certainly help you be a better person. 

Fake it, then make it.

I’m astounded by how often in Ms. Angelou’s life she applied for opportunities or was offered projects that she had no qualifications for. As a teenager she applied for a job as a cajun cook, having never cooked cajun food in her life. As a grown woman she calmly said she’d produce a tv series, having never done so before. 

In both cases, Ms. Angelou was calm and assured of herself. Then, she went home and taught herself how to do that thing. 

I wonder how often we assume we can’t do something, so we don’t. I wonder how our lives might change if we started saying yes to things, then putting in the effort to learn. I know that this attitude got me a job at Haunted MTL. And it got me to self-publish my books. Hell, it was that kind of attitude that inspired me to start this blog.

There is so much power in simple language.

When you read Maya Angelou’s work, you’re not going to find yourself tripped up much. Her poetry is in simple terms, and so is her prose. I think a lot of writers are afraid of simple words because it feels like we should be writing with bigger words. We should be using strange words like pejorative, just so people know we know what it means.

Don’t do that. Use simple words. Trust simple words. Because simple words can break someone’s heart. They can speak to a specific moment. They can make someone see exactly what you were seeing in a moment, and feel exactly what you were feeling. 

There is so much power in loving yourself.

One of my favorite Maya Angelou poems is Phenomenal Woman. It’s a glorious hymn of loving yourself. Not accepting yourself as you are. Not telling yourself that God loves us all as He made us. It’s saying that you are fucking beautiful. You are powerful. You are phenomenal. 

So what do you think? Who inspires you to be a better writer or a better person? Let us know in the comments. 

Check out 12 Christmas Tales on Amazon or Smashwords.

Four books for Nanowrimo inspiration

Halloween is over, Thanksgiving creeps ever closer and Nanowrimo has begun. Pages and word counts are climbing, and so far I’m feeling great about my new novel in progress.

Some of this excitement is because of the story itself. It’s a good one, I think. Some of it’s the positive peer pressure on social media. There’s something great to be said for a bunch of people working towards the same goal. Some of it as well is the energy of the season. I’m super pumped for the holidays and doing my best to put that creative energy to good use. 

But I think we all know those incentives aren’t going to last. Seasonal excitement in particular is like a sugar high. It’s great while you have it, but eventually, you’re gonna crash. 

Writing is my favorite thing to do, but it’s also exhausting. Especially when we get closer to the middle of a tale when I’m running low on ideas, and when the word counts are looming. Then, of course, we remember that it is the holiday season and I’m up to my eyeballs in crafts, cooking, and cleaning.

All good thing, but quite time-consuming. 

When my energy starts to wain, when the work begins to feel like work, when I start thinking I’ll just take up stamp collecting after all, I need something more substantial to sustain me. And what I have are the words of authors who have gone before me. Writers who I admire and respect. 

To that end, I made a reading list for myself for November. I might not get to all of them since I’ll be switching over to Christmas reads after Thanksgiving, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t run out of inspiration. Some of the books I’ve read before, some I haven’t. All are from authors who inspire me to do what we all love to do, write. 

On Writing by Stephen King

It’s the first book on writing I ever read, and it’s still one of the best ones I’ve read. I don’t want to waste a lot of time here because I’ve already talked about this book so extensively. If you haven’t read it, and you want to be a writer, go read it now.

Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg

What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? So many writers credit this book with inspiring them that it’s impossible to count. I can’t help but feel inspired to write deeper work that goes right to the bone. 

Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou

This book and the one after are autobiographies by the unparalleled Maya Angelou. They’re not writing advice books, but they inspire me nevertheless. Seeing how such an impactful author lived her life can’t help but make me want to be a better writer. And a better woman. 

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou

Ditto for this one. 

So that’s it. It’s a pretty short post today because I know we’re all busy. But if you have a moment, I’d love to know what book inspires you most as a writer or artist. Let us know in the comments.

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Six Youtube channels that will make you a better writer

We all spend more time on Youtube than we’d probably like to admit. Honestly, I think I spend more time watching it than any of the streaming services I’m paying for. Which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Here’s a platform where anyone can post their content. Yes, there’s lots of controversy around that, as there is about anything on the internet. But that doesn’t stop the videos on Youtube from being some damn entertaining stuff. Or horrifically cringe worth. 

Today I want to share with you six Youtube channels I watch that help me be a better writer. I’m not going over the channels I watch for pure entertainment or the ones I watch to learn Spanish or witchy stuff. These are just the ones that help me write. And I’ll bet they’re going to help you, too. 

Lofi Girl

Okay, I bet you’ve already heard of this one. But Lofi Girl is my go-to background music when I want to get some writing done without distractions. There are no commercials, the lofi music just goes on and on. The animation moves just a little, not enough to be distracting. It is perfect.

Merve

While I’m not a particularly social person, I love going somewhere public to write. Libraries and coffee shops tend to be cluttered with other people doing exactly what I’m doing. Typing away on a keyboard, working on some project or another.

I missed this during the pandemic, this feeling of working around other people in a warm fuzzy sense of companionship. Without actually talking to one another.

The Merve Youtube channel gives you exactly that. Merve is just a college student, working on her studies, while she sits in front of a beautiful view. It’s soothing to hear someone flipping pages, highlighting, and typing while I’m doing the same. 

I also like that there’s a timer on the video, reminding me to take occasional breaks. 

Temi Danso Art

This is a channel dedicated to art, by a fantastic artist named Temi. She gives tips and art advice, does draw-along videos, and talks art shop.

I love this channel from a writing perspective because the advice she gives for visual art applies to writing as well. The advice is sweet, uplifting, and super useful.

Caitlin’s Corner

This is an overall life Youtube channel, not so much writing advice. But it’s got a ton of beneficial advice. I am often humbled by this woman who’s a decade younger than me, but has so much advice to give! I learn about home care, time management, money, and self-employment. None of those things are writing advice, but all of them are writing advice if you want to be a working writer.

Author Level Up

This channel is full of the kind of writing advice I need right now. There’s info about trends, writing styles, and marketing. Listening to Michael talk is like listening to a really smart big brother. I just love it. And I for sure have gotten some awesome writing advice from him.

Writing with Jenna

Finally, there’s Writing with Jenna. It’s also a Youtube channel filled with writing and marketing advice. It just has a lot more swearing and a small dog.

Jenna’s not interested in your feelings. She’s interested in telling you how you’re being dumb with your writing career and how you can fix it. 

I love this because I’m not big on feelings when it comes to writing. I care about actually, you know, having a career that pays more than my Hulu bill. 

So that’s it. Hopefully, if we’re going to spend all our time on Youtube, we can become better writers as we do it. 

What’s your favorite writing Youtube channel? Let us know in the comments. 

I made a Preptober planner! It’s available in my Ko-fi shop right now. Plan along with me so we can successfully write our novels. 

Why This Is How You Lose The Time War Works

This book might as well have been titled This is How You Win All The Awards. In 2020, This Is How You Lose The Time War won the Hugo and Nebula award for best novella. I finished it in one day, laying in bed crying.

Needless to say, everyone should read this book. And every writer can learn something from it. 

Just in case you haven’t read it, the book is set up as letters between time travelers, on opposite sides of a war. Red and Blue are manipulating the future so that their side will have an advantage. Their letters to each other are at first mocking, then playful. Then, they become love letters scrawled out over trees and mountains. 

This is a story that took chances. I don’t read a lot of books that are just letters back and forth. This is an example of two authors (Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone) knowing their craft well enough to do something like this. To write a whole novella in letter form, you have to understand what you’re doing. You don’t have dialog. You don’t have a third-party description. You have a limited point of view. With all of these restrictions, you’ve got to know how to use what you’ve got left. (This is something I’m learning as I write the second season of my audio drama, AA.)

This book is also an example of trusting the story enough to tell it the way it needed to be told. Not every story could be told in a letter format. Not every story could be told in a journal format, like so many of my favorite books from childhood. 

But some stories can. Some stories won’t work any other way.

Don’t be afraid of writing your story the way the story wants to be written. Be it a series of letters, or even tweets. If you have a story that isn’t working, this might be a great way to fix it.

Another thing that was striking about this book was its literary flow. The words are beautiful, they flow like a poem. And that’s something I wish more speculative fiction authors would embrace.

There’s still a disconnect between genre writers and literary writers. While one focuses on pure storytelling, the other wants the writing itself to be pleasurable. Both of those things can work together, but you’ve got to put the work in to make it happen. 

Now, a warning. The story should always come first. I’ve read some truly bad writing because of a damn good story. I’ve yet to sit through a boring story because the paragraphs were just so beautiful. 

Finally, This Is How You Lose The Time War was an achievement in co-writing. Each of the authors wrote for one of the characters. This worked wonderfully because it allowed both authors to bring their own voices and style to the story. In an episode of Writing Excuses, Amal El-Mohtar talked about writing in a gazebo with Gladstone, sending chapters back and forth to each other. This sounds like a blast. This is probably part of why the book was so fun to read. 

This could only be done because each writer trusted the other. They respected each other enough to follow along where the other one lead. Clearly, it worked out very well for them. 

To wrap things up, here is what you can learn from This is How You Lose The Time War. 

– Trust your craft enough to try something different.

-Trust your story to tell you what format it needs to be told in.

-Don’t be afraid of literary writing, even in speculative fiction.

-When you’re working with others, let both of your styles and voices shine. 

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Why The Travelling Cat Chronicles Works

Spoiler warning! I’m going to ruin the ending of this book for you. Proceed with caution.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not a speculative fiction novel. (By the way, that is the correct spelling of the title. It’s the UK version of travelling. My spellcheck is not happy with me right now.)

It is from the point of view of a cat. But it’s not a magical cat. It’s just a regular cat, traveling around Japan with his regular person. 

As someone who usually reads only speculative fiction, with the occasional dive into historical fiction, this was a step out of the norm. 

And I’m honestly glad I did. It was a great story. By the end of the book, I was crying on a public bus. Just, you know, as a warning.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles cover

As writers, we should never restrict ourselves to reading our genre. We should read as widely as we can. If a book catches your attention, read it. There’s always something we can learn from a story, no matter the genre.

One of the things that kept me turning the pages was the vivid descriptions of Japan. This is a country I’ve long been fascinated with. I loved hearing about Nana, the cat, and Satoru, his person, exploring the country. I was fascinated by the stories of Satoru’s childhood, his school tales, and descriptions of trips with friends. They had such rich detail. I loved every single second of it.

If your work takes place in a fantasy world, then it’s easy to talk up the details. But if you’ve got a story set somewhere real, it can seem less important. But it’s still just as crucial. Your hometown is probably boring to you because you see it all the time. But for someone who’s never visited, it’s fascinating. 

It didn’t take me long to realize that this story wasn’t going to have a happy ending. I’m willing to bet you can guess what happens. I guessed around page four. 

But that didn’t stop me from bursting out into tears when it was happening. Because by that time, I was connected to the characters. There’s only so much you can brace yourself. 

Your ending doesn’t have to be a shock for a reader to enjoy it. Yes, there should be questions. Yes, it’s better if someone can’t guess the ending by reading the blurb, which I’ve done on multiple occasions. But the main ending doesn’t have to be a huge surprise. 

I knew pretty soon that Satoru was going to die. (I did warn you that I was going to spoil the ending.) But I didn’t know what would become of Nana. And I desperately needed to know.

That I won’t ruin for you, by the way. Trust me, the book is worth reading to find out. 

I will tell you that the book has a happy ending. It wasn’t all syrup and perfection. It was great, though. Satoru doesn’t live, but he does touch the lives of the people he cares about for the better. He leaves the world a brighter place. And that’s a realistic happy ending. And a fully satisfying one at that. 

Some other good examples of this can be found in Pixar movies. This has been pointed out before, and by lots of fans. The toys in Toy Story go to a new home, so they’re not with Andy anymore but they’re still happy. Sully from Monster’s Inc doesn’t get to keep Bo, but he can visit her. There are lots of ways to have a happy ending. I love that we have so many that go beyond our expectations. 

To wrap it up, here’s what you can learn from the Travelling Cat Chronicles. 

  • Read outside of your genre. Read anything that sparks the slightest bit of interest.
  • The description of your story’s location can and should be a selling point. 
  • Your ending doesn’t have to be a shock to be satisfying.
  • You don’t have to have a traditional happy ending for it to be a happy ending.

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