Writing lessons I learned from forum RPGs

Posted by on Apr 9, 2015 in Advice, Inspiration, Resources | 1 comment

Let’s talk RPG.

Cait and I both cut our writing teeth on these. Also called play-by-post RPGs, they are a form of collaborative storymaking in which a group of people come together on internet forums with their own characters (sometimes predetermined by admin, but more often BYOC) and throw them into a world–unique or a fandom–where they can interact and create a story together. This taught us many great lessons that apply to traditional fiction writing.

Listed below in internet brief are just a few of these valuable writing lessons. With gifs!

Your character has to be interesting and tied in some critical way to the world’s story. Otherwise, no one will want to play with you. (Or read your book)

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Collaborative writing can open up so many possibilities. In storymaking, two (or four, or six) minds really can be better than one. So don’t be afraid to call upon your writing group, critique partner, or editor to throw ideas at each other until rainbows of magic spout between your heads in rays of awesomeness.

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There is joy and value in people breathing down your neck with a deadline. Writer’s block? What’s that? My RPG buddy editor needs a post book STAT!

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When two characters are in the same scene, don’t rehash all the details. That’s Boooooo (wait for it) RING. Highlight the differences in their POVs and skim the rest. Keep the story moving!

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Don’t put words, thoughts, or actions into another character’s head.  Especially when it’s impossible for the invading character to know the info. That’s just rude.

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Writing on RPGs really does make you a better writer. So does writing fanfiction. So did writing that woodshed project you dust off every now and then. The lessons you learn from writing in these different modes will vary somewhat, but the ultimate outcome is the same: you’re a better storyteller by virtue of getting the words down, doing it a lot, and interacting with other writers.

Who knew learning could be so fun?


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Resource Review: EXERCISES IN STYLE by Raymond Queneau

Posted by on Sep 3, 2014 in Book Reviews, Resources |

exercises in styleExercises in Style by Raymond Queneau is a fantastic little book that I love recommending to writers still searching for their own voice. The book, published in 1947 and in French, takes an innocuous little tale of a simple interaction on a bus and re-tells it in 100 different styles.

The styles range from common (narrative) to unusual (notation) to downright absurd (anagrams), and it’s fascinating to see the distinctions in each one. When I first read the book, in my creative writing classes in undergrad, it introduced me to a much broader range of linguistic experimentation than I’d found just through reading.

Obviously not all the styles are applicable to fiction writing–they’re meant simply to explore language in a humorous way. But it’s a great way to break out of the notion of how writing “should” sound. My professor had us students write a scene in ten different styles, ones not used by Queneau, and it remains one of my favorite writing exercises. I chose styles based on authors, like Poe and Hawthorne, and even wrote the scene out as if it were a musical theater script.

If you’re feeling stuck in your style or chasing that ever elusive “voice,” pick up a copy of Exercises in Style and read through it. Try to write a scene ten different ways. It may give you the nudge outside the box you need.

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Editing Styles: Bear’s Take

Posted by on Feb 28, 2014 in From the Editors, Resources |

Every writer has a unique approach to their craft. As it turns out, so does every editor. In this series Bear and Black Dog share their approaches, which may provide some context for edits you’ve gotten in the past and the ideal edit you’re looking for.


The Tools

I use Microsoft Word, with either .doc or .docx files. Microsoft Word has two functions that are indispensable editing tools: Track Changes and Inline Comments.

Track Changes is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than printing out a physical copy of a manuscript and marking it up by hand, I edit the digital file and Word records the changes. Any changes I make are shown by a black vertical line along the margin, parallel to the lines that were edited, and in the paragraph itself through red text/underline/a cross out of what was changed. All the changes are obvious, though they can look messy too.

In-line comments are text bubbles that show up in the margins next to whatever piece of text I highlight and make a comment on. This is actually where a lot of the work of editing happens. I can’t just make a change and expect the writer to read my mind. In-line comments are where I explain myself and share responses to the text, ideas, and advice.


So that’s how an edited page looks. Sometimes there’s a lot more on the page; sometimes there’s nothing. This is actually a page from one of Cait’s manuscripts. As you can see, some manuscripts are so clean that editors are reduced to asinine comments about how “worldish” a word choice is!


I usually make the most comments at the beginning, when I’m explaining ideas or pointing something out for the first time. The further into the manuscript I am, the less likely it is that I will need to explain something, and it’s more likely that the writer has found their rhythm. In-line edits do tend to lighten up a little as well, but not as much.

I cut words. I am a word trimmer; a lean meat hunter. I look for simplicity, efficiency, and unity in writing. That doesn’t mean I reject flowery or poetical styles (actually I tend to write that way!). I mean that I try to make “awesome” the bulk of what can be found in a manuscript versus a bunch of “pretty good” and “acceptable.”  Unnecessary passages, weak plot points, using two words where one will do…those are always on my target list.

In other words: the fastest way to elevate your story is by cutting the crap. I will question story choices and suggest substantial cuts/rewrites if I think it will open the door for something great. Cutting passages is painful, but excellent for growing.



I have weaknesses. It’s true, here is the chink in my armor! *points to heart* That means I’m likely to drop big-red-heart comments next to these things in manuscripts.

Humor! I’m convinced it’s the hardest thing to write. If you can make a reader laugh, *snaps* to you.

Strong characters. Not as in a character who is strong, but a character who is so well portrayed and their image is so strong in the reader’s mind that they become their own type. Sherlock Holmes. Scarlett O’Hara. Ron Weasley. Marmee March. There’s no mistaking who these people are; Ron’s private eye business would last about .2 seconds, and Scarlett’s parenting philosophies would result in four a** kicking hooligans for daughters.

More great elements that always, always earn my respect: diversity of relationships, tightly woven plots, and immersive (believable!) worldbuilding.

That is to say, Great Writing.


Definitely Doesn’t Love

I have preferences and quirks like any person, so keep in mind that I’m more likely to be critical/tough about the following:

Unbelievable romances. They’re no fun! More on this in a future post.

Gratuitous violence. For example, I sometimes have trouble appreciating dystopian fic. I have a very unpopular opinion about Mockingjay. Maybe this is a side effect of editing MG? Violence just doesn’t suit my tastes on its intrinsic value alone, so I tend to challenge writers to make sure it’s performing some other service to the story beyond shock value.

OK, and I can’t resist mentioned one almost silly, minor thing. I’m really forgiving of tropes, but there is one that drives me nuts. It’s the “woman died in childbirth” trope. I see that chestnut tossed in a story all. the. time.  It’s used as a romantic, noble, and convenient way to kill a female character. Which is dumb, because death and labor are none of those things. And it points back to a female stereotyping that I’ll feel obligated to challenge if it crops up in a manuscript.

That sums up where I am right now in my editing life. These things change as I change, as life is wont to do to a person. And editors are people. Not just hats with teeth that live in colonies in dark abandoned paper factories. Though I hear that those exist, and they will sometimes attack unwary writers…

Up next in the series: Black Dog shares her style, and it’s more different Bear’s than you would think!

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Five Ways to Make Your Writing Social

Posted by on Oct 11, 2013 in Encouragement, Inspiration, Resources |

Are you feeling lost with your writing project? Do you need fresh inspiration or direction? Do you find yourself staring at your manuscript, reading it without comprehending it?

It may be time to call upon the power of writing partners.

These can come in many forms. The five I’ve listed here are just five that have helped me personally, and I’m just scratching the surface! I’m sure I’ll post more ideas in the future, but for now, here are five ways to get out of the writing cave and into a writing village.

1. Critique Partner: This is a classic. Find a person who matches you well in reading preferences, writing genre, skill level, and availability. Swap manuscripts. Read. Critique the work. Return. Talk (a lot). Be amazed at the power of a fresh perspective.

2. In-Person Writing Groups: Say you’re blessed with actually having real life friends who are as writing-obsessed as you are. Don’t let that kinship go to waste–put it to work in a symbiotic critique group. Meet at a predictable time every week or month and rotate through the group members’ work, reading and debating. These groups can also work as actual WRITING groups, where you simply get together and force each other to write via peer pressure.

3. Co-Writer: This is a trickier option, though potentially a powerful one. If you can find the right person and the right project, a co-writer can make an idea double the fun, double the creativity…double the awesome. (Just look at Bear & Black Dog!)

4. Forum RPGs: It’s co-writing, but in a low-stakes environment. The premises for these vary greatly and range from “RL” (real life) games to fandom spinoffs. Forums RPGs can be found through companies like Invisionfree and are wonderful tools for improving your writing skills in a fun, addictive way.

5. Writing Forums: If you’d rather find support for your writing in the form of commiseration, tips about publishing, and craft chats, consider writer-specific forums. There are many excellent communities out there that are only a search away!

For all of these, there is the possibility that you’ll meet people you don’t get along with, or maybe your skill levels or philosophies are opposed. But honestly? Every time I’ve come across that situation, it’s been a great learning experience.

A fresh perspective is always useful. Give it a try!




A fresh perspective is always useful. Give it a try with Bear’s Five Ways to Make Your Writing Social: http://bearandblackdog.com/?p=267 Click to Tweet! 

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Resource Review: ON WRITING by Stephen King

Posted by on Aug 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Resources |

What is it?: On Writing is part memoir, part writing guide.

Useful for: starting out as a writer, yes, but I’d say it’s especially useful for getting yourself out of writer-doldrums.

If you haven’t read On Writing, stop what you’re doing and go get yourself a copy.

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