Wherein the New Contributor is Introduced, Justifies His Existence, Gives Thanks and Shares Some Advice


Wow! Just look at this place. It’s all shiny and clean. I can’t believe they’re trusting me with the keys. Pfft, they’ll learn soon enough.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes!

Hello everyone and welcome to my first post here on Sarcastic Muse. I’d give you the tour but Amanda is experimenting in her horror corner and I’m not even certain I’m safe in there.

But, I digress.

As you’ve all no doubt gathered, I’m Chris Musgrave. The new guy with the overactive imagination, drafted from many highly-qualified applicants (well, just one actually) to fortify the horror/fantasy department in case of zombie outbreak (did I mention that I have an overactive imagination?). Anywho…I’ve been writing for nearly twenty years now, mostly in the genres of horror and fantasy with a brief venture into the murky world of graphic novels.

I’m currently working on the second book in my urban fantasy series, Harlequin. The first book of which is due out (hopefully) in April 2015. Between that and other projects, I write weekly tip (Tuesdays) and flash fiction (Fridays) posts over at my blog: Chris Musgrave – Writer in Training.

What can you expect from me?

I’ve spent the last twenty years writing, rewriting, banging my head against assorted objects in the pursuit of ideas,  and generally getting it wrong. This writing lark can be a lonely and difficult occupation, and I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes I have.

What you can expect from me is advice, advice on what has and hasn’t worked, the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years and, if you’re really interested, help on most writing topics from crafting horror to editing flash and much much more.

Thank you

We have some amazing writers here at Sarcastic Muse (and I’m here too, still not sure how that happened) and even more amazing readers. I just want to take the opportunity to say thank you to all of you for giving me such a warm welcome and for the time you take in reading our posts.


Before I go, I’d like to share with you a few pieces of writing advice that I’ve picked up over the years. They’re written here in no particular order:

1. Write

Kind of goes without saying but to be able to call yourself a writer, you really should be writing. It doesn’t matter what you write or how often to set yourself clear goals and stick to them. Get the words out of your head and down on paper/screen/sticky notes. Don’t worry about quality just yet, just write.

2. Read

Reading should be like breathing to anyone serious about writing. Read like your life depends on it, read whatever you can get your hands on. Ignore genre, ignore what others have said about the thing you’re reading, ignore that guy sitting opposite you on the train who keeps giving you funny looks because you’re a grown man reading Twilight…on second thoughts, he might have a point about Twilight. You get my point. Read good books and learn from them. Read bad books and learn from them too.

3. Edit

This is where you add the spit and polish to your work. This is where it gets tough. When you write your first draft, do it in a way that gets the story from your mind onto the page. Forget about repeated phrases, forget about quality of the grammar/spelling (this goes for you too, Michelle), forget about plot holes. Just write. When you edit, you have to break each sentence down into its component parts, question the necessity for every word and, here’s the hard part, you MUST cut away all the crap. I don’t care how long you’ve spent searching in your dictionary and thesaurus for that word, I don’t care if you LOVE that last sentence. If it doesn’t fit the story, it has to go.

4. Get yourself a good team

Writing may be a lonely pursuit but that is only true to an extent. If you want to be successful as a writer, you have to get your work out there. That means that, brace yourselves, someone will have to read your work. I’ll just give you a minute there…are you alright? Do you need a cup of water? Just take deep breaths, it’ll all stop spinning soon. You good? Great. Writers need reader, but before that, we need people we can trust. Writer’s groups are essential. They give us support, an honest opinion, test readers. They also give you that much needed boot in the rear when you find yourself procrastinating. Trust me on this.

5. Finish your work

How many manuscripts do you have on your desk? On your hard drive? How many of them are finished? See what I mean. When you first start a project, everything is shiny and new and you can’t wait to launch right in. By the time you reach the midpoint, you’re already looking for something else, or you’re doing anything that doesn’t involve finishing your project. It happens to all of us. Some call it block and give up, others pursue other projects making empty promises about returning to it one day. Stop that now, sit down and get it done. I don’t care…stop crying. You’ll thank me when you have your book deal…preferably with money.

So, that’s about it from me. I better go and find out what that screaming is all about over in Amanda’s corner, or “The Lair”, as she likes to call it. See you next Monday….

…what’s this box of fingernails doing here…?

When the Words Refuse to Speak, Use Torture

When I was a kid, I wrote effortlessly. Not well by today’s standards, I’m sure. Definitely not well by my standards. But I wrote every day, for hours, without thinking about form or technique or word choice. It was the most natural thing in the world. I’d go to the store, buy a notebook, and fill it up with a story over the course of a weekend.

Back in those days, I finished things: stories about horses, about amazons (man, was I ever fascinated by amazons), about alchemy and magic. I didn’t learn how to write. I simply wrote. And as I practiced, I discovered my voice.

And then I started my first “true” novel at twelve years old: my self-proclaimed magnum opus. I had dreams of publishing with DAW, seeing my name in print as my characters ran rampant in the minds of my readers. But with the birth of my voice came the birth of something else: my perfectionism. And with the birth of perfectionism came a bad, bad habit: the refusal to finish a story that I deemed unfit for human consumption (which was just about everything I wrote, by the way). So I began rewriting that self-proclaimed magnum opus. Over and over. For ten years. I’d get to a point — somewhere halfway in the current version — and then I’d toss it. To be honest I have over twenty different versions of that story saved somewhere with a word count probably totaling well over 200,000 words. And yet I’ve never finished any of those drafts.

TortureThe good news is that I began to actually learn a thing or two about writing. The downside, though, was that I was letting my perfectionism win — to the point that, eventually, I was refusing to write words altogether if I didn’t feel they were the right ones. By the time I reached my 20s, I quit trying to write that magnum opus altogether.

So confessions aside, I’ve been struggling to regain control of my writing. What has been the most effective option?  Torture.

On W&W a few days ago, I mentioned that I tried out (forced myself to use) one of those online writing applications — you know, the ones that won’t let you delete no matter how many times you slam your finger on the backspace button. Torture, I tell you. The thing is, it seems to be working (the program, not the backspace button). For the past week, I’ve been writing an average of 3,000 words a day. What normally would have taken me 6-7 hours and burned me out for weeks on end took one hour max and didn’t leave me feeling as if I’d been slamming my head against a large pile of firewood for half a day. The prose may not have been up to par with my perfectionist standards, but it was understandable enough that the other Muses didn’t run away screaming.

For the first time in probably 10 years, I’ve been writing fiction effortlessly. Like a child. Not well by today’s standards, not well by my own, but well enough to keep going. Well enough to tell my perfectionism, “Sorry, we’re closed for vacation. Come back (or don’t) later.”

If, like me, you have trouble finishing: Try one of these applications and see if it helps. Give it more than five seconds (this is for people who are as resistant and stubborn as I am). Keep going back, again and again, until you’ve learned to suppress the backspace demon.

ilys: This is my current favorite, so it gets the top spot. You put your word count in at the beginning, hit start, and then you’re stuck looking at a large box that only permits one letter at a time. One letter. You like seeing the whole word? Not today! Perfect for people who constantly go back and reread as they’re writing.

Write or Die: This program doles out consequences or rewards, depending on your progress, and is therefore intended to motivate you with the threat of well-meaning torture. If you’re the kind of person who only runs when you’re being chased or refuses to back down from a challenge, then perhaps this one will work well for you. They have a free online version and a downloadable (but not free) desktop version.

Written? Kitten!: Do you spend hours of potential writing time looking at cat pictures? Look no more. With this program you can kill two birds words with one stone. Set your word count, reach it, and voila: a cat photo. The program also has the option of puppies or bunnies, if cats aren’t for you.

Scrawl: Scrawl uses the power of sound as motivation. You start stalling with the word count? Your ears will be begging you to write, write, write. It’s just annoying enough that you’ll probably listen (to your ears, that is). The rest of the site is pretty cool. Give it a look.

Have you tried one of these programs? What do you do to maintain your word count? Do you have stories of slaying your inner perfectionist demons? Let me know in the comments!

A Multitude of Story Ideas

“Ideas are like buses. You sit around for hours in the freezing rain waiting for one and then twenty turned up all at once.”  ~Chris Musgrave

A common fear for new writers is losing The Great Idea, whether it be the tail end of a dream or something that flits through your mind while driving. Experienced writers worry about this on occasion, but I’ll let you in on a little secret.

You’ll have more ideas than you can write in  your lifetime.2671981947_33527ffb82_m

It’s true.  Writing generates ideas (as does conversation) and you’ll never have more ideas than when you’re in the midst of writing something else.

“I get so many ideas from talking with my writers group, regardless of topic.” ~ Kirsten Blacketer

If you are truly worried about losing ideas, there are a few things you can do.

  • Always keep paper and pen with you to jot them down.
  • Use the voice recorder on your phone (or buy a digital recorder) and speak them while you are driving.
  • Send an email to yourself with the story idea.
  • Use Evernote or a similar program to record ideas while writing (I just jot them in a notebook).
  • Keep pen and paper in the bathroom (or Aquanotes in the shower).

Feel free to record all the ideas you can manage, but don’t panic if one slips away.  Many more will appear.

Trust your writer’s mind. If the idea occurred to you, it’s already been planted in that fertile space. It may surface months or years later and be unrecognizable, but trust that the memory of that idea is still inside the writer’s brain.

I’m a visual person so it annoys me to not be able to write them down and read them, but I’ve learned that mourning a lost idea is a waste of time because there are just too many that come along. Some get developed, some just sit in a notebook, but the more I read, write, and listen, the more ideas I get.

If your problem is a dearth of ideas, which is a whole conversation itself and one I will cover next week, the solution may be simpler than you think.

  • Get adequate rest. A tired brain might be slower to make connections and produce ideas.
  • Make space in your schedule. Daydreaming and thinking time (even boredom!) help to foster ideas.
  • Eliminate stress whenever possible. A stressed body is worried about survival, not creativity.
  • Read. A lot. Anything that interests you.
  • Write. Writing generates ideas.

We’ll talk about generating and developing ideas next week.

Please share your favorite method of capturing ideas or when you seem to get the most ideas.

Inside the Macabre Mind of the Horror Writer

(c) 2014, Amanda Headlee

(c) 2014, Amanda Headlee

Within each and every one of us are those dark thoughts that causes our skin to prickle and muscles to shiver in terror, thoughts that horrifically shame us. Deep in the recesses of each human mind is darkness. That darkness is what fuels our terror and nightmares. It is what gives us our conscience, our morality. However, there is a breed of humans that feed off the darkness and wallow in pits of of human fear. Those special, select humans are the ones that dabble in the writing of horror. The key difference between horror writers and others is that those who script the macabre shine a big spotlight on the darkness within their minds, drawing attention to it, where the majority of other writers prefer to not acknowledge that aspect of their being.

To read the full story, please click here.



Writing 101: How to Treat your Beta Readers

BetareadingI have done a lot of beta-reading this past year, and in turn, I’ve had people read my own work. Nothing is more essential in the early stages of a manuscript than its beta readers, so if you have a collection of reliable readers, you should do everything in your power to hold onto them. Below I’ve amassed a series of points that I think are important to take into consideration when you ask people to read for you.

  1. ) Do not give them a first draft. The first draft is crap. You can write the first draft, edit the hell out of it, and then share it with your readers. And that’s okay. Because, by then, it’s no longer a first draft. But do not give away a draft you haven’t even bothered to edit yourself. That’s a waste of your readers’ time. If you’re desperate for someone to read your manuscript after you’ve completed it, then find an alpha reader to go through and do a developmental read-through while you have the manuscript in its “resting” phase.
  1. ) Offer your beta readers a list of points you want them to focus on while reading. I personally love when authors do this. This redirects the attention of your readers to areas you’re unsure about. Want to know how the reader reacts to a certain character? Want to know if a particular scene is working the way you want it to? Specify those questions throughout your document or in a separate attachment.
  1. ) Let your reader form his/her own opinions. This means, don’t bombard your readers with your (very biased) opinions of your work before they’ve even gotten to read it. Send out your document with your focus points and then thank them for their help. Don’t tell them what to think. Don’t tell them what you think. Don’t tell them anything. That defeats the purpose of having beta readers in the first place.
  1. ) Give the readers enough time to read the novel. Your beta readers are probably just as busy as you are, so be considerate of what you’re asking them to do for you. For instance, the Sarcastic Muse writers know that if they want me to read their 60,000 + word manuscripts during my school year, they need to give me a minimum of three weeks. Plan your beta reading around your own deadlines while keeping in mind the schedule of your beta readers.
  1. ) Accept your beta comments with grace, even if you disagree. It’s a given that you’re not going to agree with each and every comment you receive. It’s a given that occasionally comments may ruffle your defensive feathers. Your beta readers know this. If you have questions about a specific comment, then you should certainly ask, but don’t argue over or criticize feedback. They didn’t have to read your manuscript. Their time wasn’t compensated in any way by helping you. Squelch your ego, thank them, and move on.
  1. ) If you’re under an agreement of mutual exchange, honor it. If one of your readers is also a writer, then it’s polite to offer to read their work in exchange. If you are in a critique group of some kind, then you should give back what you get. Don’t be that writer who never returns the favor.

As a final note (and it’s sad I even need to say this), I’d like to mention that writers and readers talk. Beta readers, who are often writers themselves, will spread the word if you give them a hard time. If you lose one reader, you’ve probably actually lost several. Treat them the right way, make beta reading a pleasure for them instead of a chore, and you are one step closer to making your manuscript shine before getting it out to the world.

I’d love to know what you all think about beta readers? How have your experiences been? Do you have any specific way of going about it? Let me know in the comments!

Our Newest Addition to the Sarcastic Muse: Welcome Chris Musgrave

Since it’s not every day (as in this is the first time) that someone new joins the Sarcastic Muse, we feel introductions are in order. Of course, we are quite particular. Anyone mixing with us needs to be one part skill, one part talent, and a whole lot of nuts. When Kirsten discovered Chris Musgrave during April’s A-to-Z Blog Challenge, we knew he was something special. He’s a great writer, a great editor, and just crazy enough to hang with the rest of us. To say that we’re looking forward to working with him would be an understatement.

Be on the lookout for his weekly posts every Monday. We plan on keeping him busy.

Welcome, Chris, to the Sarcastic Muse!


If you want to know more about Chris, check out his personal blog. It’s got a ton of quality writerly posts.

Working With An Editor

Photo Credit: Joanna Penn via Flickr

Photo Credit: Joanna Pennvia Flickr

Well. The best laid plans of mice and writers, as they say. I learned a lot this week, and the most important lessons were not, as you might suspect, making sure you upload the copy that was NOT converted from .html back to .docx.  However, Shadows Wake is as flawless as we know how to make it. Watch that formatting as it can change between versions and file types. Whew.

Michelle wrote yesterday about her experience as the editor for Shadows Wake. I am happy to report that we are still on good terms! Today, I’ll try to give the writer’s side of her observations.

Relationship matters more than you think.

Picture yourself seated across from someone as you both tug a manuscript back and forth between you. This is not the kind of relationship you want with your editor. Instead, pull your chair around to sit beside her, and work together. Mutual respect is essential. Trust is essential. Patience is a real bonus. The editor is also working for the good of your story. You are on the same team. If this isn’t the case with your current editor, find someone else.

Editing is subjective.

I strongly recommend using just one editor per round or per project. Slight style differences and mark up methods can add up to a real pain. Agree on a style guide before you start and let that style guide settle any disputes. One part of editing is creating consistency throughout your book. Two or more people acting as editors on the same round or project will leave you correcting one’s preference for the other.

One thing I appreciated about Michelle was her willingness to research and provide documentation for anything I challenged. Fortunately, there were only a few obscure points that needed research.

Swallow the ego.

I don’t have a pocket full of ego when it comes to my own writing, but even so, there were a few moments when I bristled at a suggested change.  If that happens, get up and walk away. Come back later and look at it with fresh eyes. In all but one case, the editor was right and I made the change. A good editor isn’t going to try to change your voice, but they will help clarify your prose. If you feel your voice or style is becoming altered, step away for a while or come back to it when you are fresh. Trust that your editor is working for your story, not against you (and she was usually right).

Something else to keep in mind is that we, as writers, are very familiar with our story. Your editor is reading it from a fresh perspective and is better able to point out the areas where we miss because we see it in our mind’s eye instead of as a new reader.

Know what type of edit you want.

Though most people divide editing into three types, I have added a fourth to the list. These are not comprehensive and descriptions vary depending on who you ask.

  • Developmental edits take place right after the rough draft to smooth out plot holes and address both dead paragraphs and areas that need expansion. If you aren’t sure where your story is going or how to use conflict, a developmental edit is a good idea.  Beta readers or a writing group can serve you well here.
  • Content edits watch for continuity, check description, the balance of dialog to prose, identify spots where you are “telling” instead of “showing,” clear up present and past tense inconsistencies, and generally make sure your story makes sense, flows, and has both character development and conflict.
  • Proofreading works on spelling, word choice, dialog tags, grammar, and sentence structure.
  • Line edits check formatting, grammar, punctuation, spacing, and uniformity.

Fact-checking can take place at any level, so make sure you ask your editor if that is part of the editing plan for your book.

Do a good turn.

Include your editor (and her link) in your acknowledgements. I put my editor in the front matter right under my name as well as including her in the comments. Editing is a business just as authorship is. Promote each other. If you are happy with your editor’s work, recommend her.

What are your suggestions for working with editors and/or writers? 

My First Professional Edit: The Things I Learned

Today I have finished the fifth-ish round of edits for Robyn LaRue’s debut novel, Shadows Wake. I say ‘ish’ because, at this point, I’m not exactly sure how many times I’ve read the book. But, being the perfectionist that I am, I can’t help but go over it a few times to make sure the copy she’s offering to the public is as clean as possible. (Note to any new buyers: there was a mixing of copies and an issue with the original release version. Those minor errors are currently in revision and will be corrected ASAP.)

editingThe thing is, Shadows Wake was a debut novel for both Robyn and me: she as the wonderful writer, and me as her dictatorial editor. The entire process was a learning experience for both of us, and thankfully Robyn was patient — both with my 200 trillion edits and my back and forth of ‘put this back in’ and ‘no, I changed my mind, take it out.’ (I’m kidding . . . sort of.)

Regardless, thanks to her trust in my work, I was able to gain valuable experience, which I am hoping to use in pursuit of a future career in editing. Here is what I have learned.

1.) Preserving the author’s voice is just as important as fixing grammar, syntax, and punctuation. I read somewhere, and this is loosely paraphrased, that the goal of any editor is to take what isn’t working and make it work in such a way that the author says, “Yes, exactly, that is what I was trying to say all along.” Authorial voice is perhaps the backbone of any good story. No two writers will write a sentence exactly the same way. And being a writer myself, I can understand the pull to make something sound more like the way I would write it. But that’s not my job. My job is to ensure that the edits preserve the way my chosen author speaks through his/her written work.

2.) Your relationship with your client/editor matters. Working with Robyn has been a great joy. We both wanted the best for her novel, and we’ve both worked equally hard to get it to the point of polish. As an editor, if you’re not invested in your client’s novel — in his or her success — you’re going to have difficulties. I wanted her book to shine because it was her baby. Because she cared. And it deserved 110% of my effort.

3.) Line edits are not just about grammar, syntax, and punctuation. To be honest, I did much more than a line edit for Robyn’s novel. But I did eventually get to it. For me, a line edit is the road to making words sing on the page — finding and bringing out the song in the author’s voice. Sure, that comma there probably matters. My brain says it does, and I’ll tell you to fix it. Most of the time. But line edits are about making each line read like water passing in a brook. Smooth, fluid, beautiful. The dipping intonation of certain sentences, the fragments pulsing in beat to a scene. There was one moment in my edits where I encouraged Robyn to take advantage of the situation by using the rhythm of language and bending it to mirror the emotional discord and fright of the MC. This not only strengthened her prose, but it helped her to find a rhythm that worked for her and the scene — one that made the story flow and the words scream.

4.) Editing is subjective. There were moments when the Chicago Manual of Style would say, “A comma most definitely should be here.” But there were moments when I said, “No, for the story, it should not be here.” There are basic English rules of grammar and punctuation to follow, I know. Since I study linguistics, nothing irks me more than bad grammar. But part of being an editor (and a writer, for that matter) is knowing the rules of language — knowing the rules dictated by style guides and grammarians — and then knowing when and how to break them. Learning how to exercise this judgment has been an important part of my process. Which leads me to my next point . . .

5.) Style guides are friends, not food. No, but seriously. The CMoS was great help, and I referred to it on more than one occasion. Part of an editor’s best-educated choices come from knowing the rules or, at least, knowing how to find them. No editor knows everything. No editor should edit your novel without knowing how to use a style guide. Whether or not they need to use it is another matter entirely. But I think most editors would agree that there is always going to be at least one instance where some element of language or punctuation requires outside advice or a quick review.

6.) Reading is just as important for the editor as it is for the budding writer. They say you can learn a lot from reading. It’s true. My inner-editor never shuts up now when I sit down with a book. I find myself studying the editor’s allowances for punctuation. I look at the way the pacing works, the syntax used. The rules broken. Not only does this allow me to see what the pros are doing, it lets me see what has become the standard for editors in the traditional publishing world. Rules change as language evolves. What is correct in the technical sense is not always correct in the world of fiction. Knowing what other editors are doing keeps me up-to-date. Reading is like a window into their world. Use it to your advantage.

I’ve learned much more than these six bullet points could ever express, but these are some general things that come to mind when I think about the work Robyn and I have done over the past six months. What about you guys? Do you have any experiences with editors to share? What do you look for in an editor? If you edit, how do you go about it? Any advice?