Tag Archives: Editing

Writing in Flow

Guest post by Vicki Hunt Budge.

Vicki Hunt Budge grew up in southern Idaho with a mother who read to her and a father who taught her how to golf and swim. She attended Idaho State University and the University of Utah. Vicki began writing for the Friend magazine when her children were young and she’s published many stories and articles for LDS church magazines since that time. She is the author of three LDS Women’s Fiction in the Hope & Healing Series: Intercession, Renewal, and the newly released, Deliverance. Her books explore the miracle of addiction recovery, and are available on Amazon.


What is flow?

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.” He claims that flow begins when you are working on an activity that you really like and that your challenges and skills are higher than average.

Writers recognize this experience when they are so absorbed in their work that they don’t feel tired or hungry, and they lose track of time. For me, I first experienced this complete immersion in writing when I worked on Intercession. The feeling of working in flow increased with each book as I became so engrossed with my characters and their story that I forgot about dinner, or didn’t realize the sun had gone down. It is a time of pure contentment.

So how do we find this state of flow in our day-to-day writing?

Here are some things that have worked for me.I improved my skills by reading books and blogs on the fundamentals of plot, characterization, point of view, and motivation. I watched Dan Wells’ Seven Plot Points online and studied the fundamentals of the Hero’s Journey. I joined Indie Author Hub and other online writing groups, gleaning everything I could from other authors. I attended workshops.

Many times when I learned something new and important from my studies, I went back to my manuscript and rewrote what I had written. After hearing Jeff Savage talk about first chapters in a writing class, I went home and rewrote the first chapter of Intercession. The following week, as a follow-up, he critiqued several students’ first chapters. I went home and rewrote the first chapter—again. It took nearly four years to complete Intercession and publish it. The more I learned and the more I wrote, the more I experienced flow.

Several years ago I served as a Cub Scout den mother. I learned an important concept in the initial training. No matter how much fun the boys were having, stop after one hour. I was told that the boys might whine because they were having so much fun, but they would remain excited to come back next week if we ended on time. The same principle works with writing for me. I try to stop with a scene that I’m looking forward to writing. When it’s time to work on the story again, I’m excited to start. Writer’s block is eliminated.

Don’t waste time finding the perfect word for a scene.

I’ve heard that a lot, but it’s hard to do because I’m in love with words. Words are one of the things I love most about writing. Now I’ve trained myself to type xxx when I’m not sure what word or thought I need at that point in the manuscript. I keep writing and viola! When I later go back to reread and edit, the elusive word or phrase almost always flows into my thoughts.

I also don’t stress over how many times I use certain words—like was or that. It breaks the flow. Once again, when I’m rewriting, I love to spot It breaks the flow. Once again, when I’m rewriting, I love to spot problem or repetitive words and enjoy the challenge of making the writing better. Tighter.

Elmore Leonard advises writers to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I’ve found this to be true. Too much description and too many unimportant details cause me to skip ahead when I’m reading. After my first book, I found it easier to spot and avoid unnecessary parts to my second and third books. The writing became more natural—allowing me to get into the flow of things without having so much to cut in the revisions.

As writers, we’ve all heard of “show, don’t tell.” Sometimes, when I’m stuck with what to write next, I tell instead of show. I place the computer on all caps and write myself a note right there in the middle of the manuscript. I don’t have to struggle with how to begin the scene or who says what. I simply tell myself about the scene as I envision it. Those notes to myself are the jumpstart I need the next day or the next week to fully write that scene and show instead of tell. Because I have a blueprint in front of me, it enables me to get right into flow. Naturally, I delete the note from my manuscript.
Often when I start these notes to myself, and I’m not at a stopping point for the day, the storyteller in me takes over. I’m able to drop the all caps and continue the story with dialogue and action.

Several years ago our family had a small farm. Every spring we flushed the irrigation pipes by pumping water through each of our three lines. We almost always flushed a rock chuck or two out of those pipes. Sometimes writers struggle with brain fog that, like a rock chuck in a pipe, causes blockage. I’ve found that cutting sugar and dairy out of my diet flushes brain fog right out of my head. I can think and imagine scenes clearly. Writing flows just like water in a pipe.

In high school, my friend, Jeanie, taught me to play table tennis. She was far above my skill level. When I got discouraged because of the disparity in our abilities, she encouraged me by saying I would improve faster by playing against someone better. I found this principle to be true with writing too. To improve my writing skills, I have read hundreds of books by best-selling and polished writers. And like table tennis or any activity, I’ve found that my writing improves by the number of good books I’ve read. To quote Stephen King, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.

Not every writing day is fun and full of flow. Writing is hard work and sometimes frustrating. But we can set ourselves up with opportunities where flow occurs. When we are completely involved in our writing, and our challenges and skills are higher than average, we find true immersion possible, and can truly enjoy the process of writing.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

The Joy of limits

A few weeks ago I wrote a short story to submit for an anthology and, since I had a few weeks before the deadline, decided to let it sit for a while so I’d be more fresh with I came back to it. Well, it’s time to start editing it for submission, and I decided to check the submission guidelines.

Oops. I’m over on word count.

I think this is more serendipity than word count, however. Knowing I’ve got to cut close to a page, I’m going through it with a more ruthless eye than I might have otherwise.  I’ve identified several scenes that can be cut, several characters that add nothing, and some weak spots that need to be shored up.

I might not have been so ruthless had I not needed to cut words. In the interim between writing and editing I’ve thought of a few things that need to be added to enhance the story, so I not only need to cut, but more than what I may potentially add. That, in turn, encourages me to make big cuts.

When writing their novel “A Mote In God’s Eye” Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were told by their editor they needed to reduce the word count by about ten percent. In looking for what to cut they decided to go through the book chapter by chapter and cut ten percent of the words in each chapter. The result not only met the editor’s request, but forced them to tighten their writing by eliminating unnecessary words, an ultimately resulted in a better book. This novel remains one of their most popular.

Some writers insist that the Niven-Pournelle approach should be standard procedure for writers for that very reason. I have to admit that had I not over-estimated the word limit I would have been much less concerned with trimming the story down, and that may have been a fatal mistake. As it is, I’ll hopefully end up with a much better story.

It’s human nature to balk at limitations, but perhaps they’re not always so bad. Sometimes limitations simply encourage us to do more with less.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

SENTENCE OLYMPIANS: LEARNING THE POWER OF THE SENTENCE

Guest post by Daniel Noyes

Daniel Noyes writes books for children and is currently seeking DanielNoyesPhotorepresentation for his work. He is a member of SCBWI and a winner of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 LDStorymakers Conference first chapter contests. He has an MBA from Idaho State University and works as a critical infrastructure cyber security analyst.


Everything we write involves three choices: what to write about, the words we use, and the order in which we place them.

Gertrude Stein once asked:

Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?

As writers, our tools are words and sentences, and with these two things we write mountains of books. From these two things are birthed a plethora of pleasing sentences, some you may have memorized.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

—–

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . .

Consider the following sentence.

He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

Wow, right? What a power-packed sentence. It starts so simple and clear and then builds and builds all the way to the very last word. Would you have guessed it was forty-one words long? Forty-one words. Did you have any trouble comprehending it?

Did you know that the sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” goes on for over a hundred words?

There will be many willing to teach you the “rules of writing.”  One rule I see too often is to keep sentences short. Some even say not to exceed a certain number of words and that if you do, you need to start trimming. They say long sentences only confuse readers. They tell you that Hemingway used only short sentences, unaware of his 424-word monster in The Green Hills of Africa, among others.

In a course titled, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Brooks Landon, English Professor at the University of Iowa, says this:

An assumption exists that long sentences are bad, but it is usually the case that bad sentences are long.

It’s time we shrug off our fear of long sentences. Fear is for things we don’t understand, things we can’t control, and as authors, we control our sentences.

There are many ways to write long sentences that are both crystal clear and replete with pleasure. One such way is through cumulative syntax.

In his course, Professor Landon goes on to say:

I think cumulative syntax is…the surest way for writers to immediately improve the effectiveness of their sentences.

—–

Cumulative sentences are easy to write, a process of adding modifying phrases to the base clause of the sentence, each phrase adding to our understanding or sharpening our visualization of the preceding phrase or of the base clause.

Let’s refer back to that corpse-in-the-trunk sentence, one that Professor Landon uses as a poster child in his course.

It has one base clause: He drove the car carefully,

Followed by five free modifying phrases: his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

They’re called free modifying phrases because they can be placed in any syntactic position relative to the base clause, unlike bound modifiers, which have a tendency to curtail comprehension in long sentences.

Go ahead and try it. Start with a simple base clause, add a comma to the end, and pile on some modifying phrases.

If your modifying phrases all refer back to the base clause, it’s called a coordinate pattern.

D1

If you’d like, each modifying phrase can refer to the clause or phrase immediately preceding it to create a subordinate pattern.

D2

Of course, we can mix and match coordinate and subordinate phrases as we desire. This is known as a mixed pattern.

D3

Here’s an example I found in one of my manuscripts. My main character, Ricky, has just arrived at the Colosseum in Rome where he is to change into an animal and compete in an Olympic-style tournament. Given how we’re just coming away from the summer Olympics in real life, this seems particularly fitting. Here are Ricky’s thoughts as he studies the arena.

Ricky imagined a Roman chariot flashing by, dust whipping and swirling in the air behind it, the horses galloping with every mite of speed they could muster, each hoping to finish first, to earn their master a laurel crown, to finally retire and grow fat and sire the next generation of champions, the next generation of stars.

Fifty-seven words; not bad. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Our goal as writers shouldn’t be to follow a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather to become sentence Olympians, able to perform syntagmatic and paradigmatic feats that give our readers ample pleasure.

(Cue epic music) No, we writers don’t win gold medals in live events with millions cheering us on. We don’t perform in vast arenas with tens of thousands screaming our names. Many of us will never earn enough to pay the bills with our writing. But our words, our sentences, our characters, our stories fill the minds of the world, expand the knowledgeverse, and live on, and on, and on.

Every book you read, every blockbuster you watch, every hit pouring through your speakers, all were spawned in the mind of a brave soul, a writer who slapped rejection in the face, saying, “You don’t own me; you don’t choose the words I share or decide when I give up, because I won’t give up; I will write, creating something where there was void, telling stories you said couldn’t be told, and if someday in a quiet corner of Earth, a beautiful bag of blood and bones reads my words and in them finds comfort or adventure, longing or courage, or whatever manner of happily they desire, then I’ve changed the world, made an individual difference, held an empty hand, dried a lonely tear, nourished a starving soul, and all by taking a single word and writing it down and adding to it another, and another, until I’ve reached the end and created something beautiful—a thing alive.”

Words are our nails, sentences, our lumber. From a blank space, we create characters who are as real to our readers as any pop star or gold medalist they’ve never met. Scientific discovery is engaged by our conceptions. Newborns are named after characters sparked from our minds. Our words, our sentences, are not accidents. They are decisions, choices we make every time we set off to write, choices we can be proud of, choices we can cherish.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

Editing: It’s Not Just For Big Publisher Novels

I’ve been reading a great book lately. I am really enjoying its fresh and whimsical tone that keeps you from otherwise crying over what is a truly ghastly plot (ie. the plot is about something ghastly, not the plotting is ghastly). At the same time, however, I really wish there had been a more thorough editing job done on it before it went to print.

The book I’m reading is either small-press or indie-published. I understand that at this level the resources just aren’t there to catch every error. I get that. But there are an inordinate number of errors ranging from typos and missing words, to fragments of sentences fused together, to entire paragraphs being repeated within a few paragraphs of one another. It’s bad enough it throws me out of a story I really don’t want to be thrown out of.

As I said, the writing is so good I want to keep reading, so I overlook these errors and I move on. But deep down inside I resent being treated this way. It’s almost as if the writer is saying they don’t care about the reader, and that’s not the message an author wants to convey. I want so much to enjoy this book, but every time I encounter one of these errors it’s as if someone splashed mud across the page.

Self-publishing still has a reputation for poor quality; of books that are poorly written, poorly edited, poorly packaged and, as a result, poorly read. If this is ever to change we’re going to have to step up our game as writers. Readers will forgive a few small errors. Those even creep into top-published books. But if our readers begin to feel as though they are being asked to proof-read your book for you they probably won’t read another one. Proof-readers shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege of correcting your crap.

At the very least talk a conscientious friend into proof-reading your manuscript. And your ebook copy. And your POD copy. Not all errors are the fault of the writer–some software can make errors where none existed. But the writer still gets the blame. Sometimes you’ll get an Amazon review that points out your errors for you, but more often your potential fan will simply never become a fan–and you’ll never know about it–or why. You will only know you’re not selling as many books as you would like.

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

NOTES FROM BEHIND THE RED PEN

Guest post by Juli Caldwell.

Juli Caldwell holds a degree in English and technical writing from Weber State University. This award-winning, multi-genre author juleslives in northern Utah with a guy she calls the big hairy man, her hilarious teen daughters, a dog with an anxiety disorder, and a trained attack kitten.


As a published author as well as a freelance editor for indies, I have a unique perspective on mistakes we writers make, me included. I can honestly say your editor really doesn’t want to kill you. Okay, we can be honest here. Maybe sometimes the editor wants to kill you…most likely right around the same time you really want to kill her, but if you’ve picked the right one, they’re going to fight for the integrity of your story. We see things you may not see, as close as you are to your work. A good editor will base suggestions on what we believe will make your story stronger.

Since I know writers reading this blog are most likely already well versed in the basics of publishing and editorial, I thought I’d share a few tips for making the process go as smoothly as possible so you can be the award-winning, best-selling rock star I know you can be.

IT’s NOT YOUR BABY

Sorry to say this, but we can’t look at our books this way. I cringe when I see happy authors announce to the world that their book baby is born and ready to share with the world. I understand why we say it—we put months of work, sleepless nights, plotting, world building, and word crafting into our manuscripts. When we finally type those glorious words, “THE END,” it feels like we’ve given birth. It’s emotionally draining and thrilling all at once.

Looking at what we’ve written as our perfect little children, however, may prevent us from eyeing our work objectively.  It’s important to take a step back from those glaring, red, tracked changes giving us a death stare. Every red mark on the screen is an opportunity to learn and improve your craft. If you’ve asked for a comprehensive look at your manuscript, think carefully about every point your editor brings up. It will hurt to “kill your darling,” as they say, but in the end, you should have a more solid story, a tighter plot, and a better product overall to offer your readers. Your book is a thing that can be improved and refined.

To illustrate, I’ll share a personal experience. A writer hired me to do a line edit on her MS after complaining that her last editor only moved around a few commas. I commiserated and promised not to do that … but in the end, the biggest issue was her punctuation. Her manuscript had only a few inconsistent details to correct, but it was riddled with incomplete sentences. She had a serious addiction to the comma splice. So what did I do? Basically, I moved commas around. About a week after she published, she called me to complain that she had a bunch of typos in her book. I was mortified and promised a rush job to fix the book at no extra charge. I asked her to send back what she’d published so I could see what went wrong. (I use track changes and comments, and leave it to my clients to finish their changes unless they only need a proofread).

What did I find when I opened it? A book with most of my editorial changes rejected.

I always tell my clients it’s their prerogative to accept or reject my changes, but in this case, it didn’t work out so well for either of us. She protected her baby at the expense of a polished book for her readers to enjoy. She never hired me again, and I don’t blame her. It’s important that you have a solid working relationship with your editor. You have to trust that this person will make changes and suggestions not only based on a solid understanding of the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and mechanics, but a belief in you, your story, your writing, and a desire to preserve the integrity of the story you want to tell. Working well together will do more for your story than the editor can do alone.

SPELL CHECK IS A BANDAID ON A GAPING FLESH WOUND

It’s essential that your editor be well read and has a broad vocabulary, because let’s get real: spell check is coded by computer geeks, not grammar geeks. It won’t catch words you have spelled correctly but aren’t really right. Those darn homonyms and homophones!

It’s not uncommon to see words that are close but really not all that close at the same time. When you have the wrong word, you’re going to have a sentence that means something you weren’t going for. My critique group buddy sent out a chapter with a sentence that was something like the following: “She lay prostate on the ground.” I didn’t mock him for it (although I really should have). I changed it to what it should have been in the first place, “prostrate,” and finished up my review. He couldn’t stop laughing and thanked me for the catch. Because let’s get real…if your female protagonist is laying her prostate on the ground, she can’t be fixed in one novel.

Nothing was wrong with the word he used, according to spell check. He spelled prostate correctly. This illustrates the finer point: it’s easy to miss tiny errors like that. I’ve seen typos in books gone over several times by the author and multiple beta readers. A good editor will read one word at a time, all 100,000 or so words of it, and it can be an arduous process. Ever wonder why your editor takes forever and falls behind easily? Now you know.

We check for overused words that slow down your story’s pacing. Most repeat offenders are ‘that,’ ‘just,’ ‘simply,’ ‘very,’ and adding a preposition to the end of a sentence. “Where are you at? Where are you going to?” Drop the ‘at’ and the ‘to.’  I’m also brutal on sentences that begin with a relative pronoun or have reflexive pronouns in them. These make your sentences awkward and bulky. We’re going for word economy.

Sentence length and style matter, too. Most of the writers I work with tend to favor compound sentences. It’s a fine sentence construction, but readers tire of the same pattern over and over. When your editor alters or recommends altering sentences, we’re trying to help you improve your pacing,  dramatic beats, and the flow of your narrative. When you’re setting the scene, long descriptive sentences are fantastic. They don’t work as well when you’re building suspense.

Spell check is a useful tool, but it has its limitations. Consider it one of many things we use to help you.

IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU

You have a story to tell. Editors want to help you tell that story. Overlook that red on the screen and take a long, hard look at what your editor tells you. In my professional opinion, the best thing you can do for your novel is to hire an editor you trust and work well with. In an ideal world, you’ll develop a good enough working relationship that you will learn from editorial changes in each manuscript. Ultimately, you will become a better writer through the process.

 

 

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

FIVE WRITING RULES AND HOW/WHEN TO BREAK THEM

I found a statement in an old copy of Writer’s Market on line by Jessica Strawser (Feb. 13, 2012 issue) that made me laugh out loud, and I quote: “As wordsmiths, many of us rejoice in a single fact every day: “Writing is not math.”

The reason it hit my funny bone is that I know a number of writers who would agree. I, on the other hand, loved math when I was a kid in school — probably from early junior high school on — Oh, not even! I remember maybe in upper elementary (?) whenever we hit fractions, both dividing and multiplying. I got an old steno-notebook and filled a page, top to bottom, with a straggly column of fractions. I moved over an inch or two and made a second column. Between the two I placed a “multiply” or “divide sign”; then moved over another inch or two, and I’d see how fast I could write the answers. My form of playing “Angry Birds” or some other “game” on an android, or even a phone, before those were invented.

What does all that math have to do with writing? Actually, it has to do with the “rules” imposed on us. Math has rules. So does writing. And every conceivable language, whether written or spoken, has rules. In math, formulae and protocols must be strictly adhered to . . . I wonder if anyone told Einstein that? Or Newton?

We writers “know” our rules too, and sometimes understand how and when to break them:

  1. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
    But does that yield “bland protagonists? “Sleepy settings?” “Mild plots?” Instead, think “Write What You Know means Write What You See Differently, Feel Profoundly, Know is Important, Where You Find the Extraordinary in What is Universal.” Don’t limit yourself to what you know: use your imagination, exercise your human potential, stretch beyond your “borders.” And “The Rules.” Go ahead: Natalie Goldberg has advised writers to “lose control,” say what they want to say, break structure, and sometimes assigns them to write “what they’re not thinking of” or “what they don’t remember.” It’s the writer’s job, Goldman maintains, “to give the reader a larger vision of the world.” She claims everything — every person in Portugal or darkest Africa, the grass, bees, a horse, even a rock — all have different languages. And Donald Maass adds “. . . you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.”
  2. HOOK YOUR READERS ON PAGE 1.
    “Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an ‘inciting incident,’ or at least something that implies a main character’s status quo has been interrupted,” says Jerry B. Jenkins. Above all, he says, “it’s not gunfire, murder or mayhem,” but something wherein you want to know what’s going on — and you’ll stick with it until you find out. But, can we break even this rule? Steve Almond says most “student authors” refuse to orient the reader by providing “basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead we’re plunged into “[an] ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.” All because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” What the reader seeks to learn above all is “whom she should care about, and what those characters want or fear. Readers deserve clearly told stories, not high-watt histrionics.”
  3. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
    What, exactly, does that mean? Your job as the writer is to “transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. Details. We need details to let us envision. Back to Goldberg, “Writing is a visual art — and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract, it is full of particulars.” Later, she says to “Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view.” Donald Maass argues that, generally speaking, this rule is sound, but asks that we “make it concrete. Externalize . . . [what] is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four- letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph.” But, he argues further, sometimes, “what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.” He compares it to the change of mood in a stadium when fans know “with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose.” There’s “the buoyancy of . . . new spring fashions . . . or the intuition . . . for no solid reason that she’s going to leave me.” So how do we break this rule? Maas says “Realize there can be tension in the invisible. . . found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.” So the trick to telling is to base your passage “in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment . . . Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.”
  4. WRITE “SH*TTY FIRST DRAFTS.” (REALLY, DO YOU HAVE A CHOICE?)
    Nope. No choice in the matter. So “let it rip. You have nothing to lose as long as you make a deal with yourself: NO ONE will ever see it,” says John Smolens. “Here’s the thing about writing fiction : You’re alone. You work on your sentences, again and again. You have a chance to seem smarter in your final draft than you were in your first. Your character may not have the right rejoinder today, but by next Thursday she may come up with something . . . witty, urbane and wise and, despite your hours of labor, it may even appear to be spontaneous.” Musicians can jam — it’s not solitary, and what you hear is what you get — goofs and all. For writers, the first draft is a Solo Improvisation, “littered with sour notes and botched chords.” You’re just trying things out, what works, what fits. It’s the reason you write that “sh*tty” first draft: to see what you can’t/shouldn’t do before you discover what you CAN do. And with revision, patience, no one will ever know your first draft existed.
  5. WRITE EVERY DAY.
    John Dufresne believes in writing every day: says that writers want to write, but there’s the world beyond the writing room, intruding. And all those books to read! But “the doing, the intense activity of the mind . . . fascinates the writer . . . allows her to shape order from chaos. Writers write. Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.” He goes on to say “if you’ve tried to quit and catch yourself back at the desk — well, then don’t give up. Give in.” Good news: all the writing doesn’t go on at your desk. It goes on while you’re out in the world. So he advises carrying a pen, notebook; (today it’s more likely to be an Android or your phone). Whatever works. Gather evidence. With pen in hand (or other recording devise, perhaps), you think differently, observe more keenly, learn to pay attention, keep your senses alert. The note is repository, source of material, and refuge. “Go there when you need to think. Writing . . . engenders more writing. “And everything you write today informs everything you will ever write. James Scott Bell, on the other hand, is a big believer in word quotas. He claims the best advice he ever got was to set a quota and stick to it. He started doing a daily count, but life would intrude, and he’d miss a day (who hasn’t done that?), but when life intruded and he missed it, he became “surly and hard to live with.” He switched to a weekly quota, and has used it ever since: doesn’t have to beat himself up if he misses a day. He just writes a little extra on other days, uses a spread sheet (I, personally, let 750words.com keep track of my daily writing, and my total. Long ago, I passed a million words, and I’m almost 200K beyond that one now. And I can go look at any specific day since I started at ANY time!) Bell also intentionally takes one day off each week, his “writing Sabbath”. That seems to recharge his batteries. Meanwhile his projects are cooking away in his subconscious (like Stephen King’s ‘boys in the basement’ hard at work while King takes a day off). Bell also suggests taking a week-long break from writing each year. Use the time to assess your career, set goals, make plans — because “if you aim at nothing, there’s a very good chance you’ll hit it.”

Next week, Five More Writing “RULES” and How/When to Avoid/Circumvent Them.

Working backwards

I ran across this fun video the other day, which got me thinking about writing. No really! I suspect most of us, whether we’re outliners or “pantsers” still prefer to let our stories evolve sequentially. But do we really need to work that way? Could there be advantages to working backwards?

The most obvious case where this might be an advantage is for mystery writers. While I’m sure you can write a mystery sequentially as well, there could be some clear advantages to, having figured out what the crime is, working backward from the moment the protagonist figures it all out to decide what clues need to be revealed at which point in the story for maximum effect. No, you probably don’t need to write the story backward, but it could certainly be mapped out that way.

But could this be applied in other ways?

What if, in planning your characters, you start at the end of their arch: what do you want them to be by the end of the story? How do you want them to have changed? Knowing where you want to end up, how can you bring this change about? What events need to happen in the story? Boom! Reverse outlining!

But what about “pantsers?” Can they do this too? Granted it’s not as easy–how do you figure out how to get somewhere if you don’t know where you want to go? Rather, I suspect this approach might be most useful in revision. If you’re satisfied with where the story went–or if you feel you need to make significant changes–you can look backward to see how you got there. Are the key turning points sufficiently dramatic or invoke the right amount of tension? If not, by looking backward you can identify key points where your editing can deliver the most bang for the buck.

This clearly isn’t going to work for everyone. Rather, this is merely a suggestion of yet another tool a writer could try to help with the messy process of writing. Starting with the end in mind and working backward could help write a more cohesive story that holds together better than it might have otherwise. At the very least this can be a useful technique for a single editing pass just to make sure everything in your story connects right.

Just a little food for thought.

And if you’re interested in knowing how the video above was made, here’s the corresponding “how we did it” video.  Or maybe I should have started with this and shown the finished video here…?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

To Query or NOT to Query — That IS the Question

Face it: if we want to get published, we MUST write query letters. Maybe many of them.

Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents had some interesting details to share about successful Queries. He has shared many actual queries and included comments from the targeted literary agent who actually accepted the author as a client following the reading of his/her query. The one I read was published online at Writer’s Digest: Guide to Literary Agents on March 1, 2016, if you’d like to read the entire article. He followed that up with an interesting article made up of agents’ thoughts on making connections with a new writer/client through their query letters. They had some thought‑provoking and informative ideas about what to do — and what NOT to do:

“. . . mutual respect for one another’s time and efforts goes a long way. I hate asking an author to drop everything and get me something ASAP, and feel similarly when the roles are reversed.” Elizabeth Weed (Weed Literary).

“A lasting relationship with an agent is not a guarantee. I have let go of clients and they have let go of me. For me, usually communication style is the issue or authors who push the boundaries of the relationship—i.e., try and tell me how to do my job, or when to do my job . . .” Elizabeth Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates)

“My dream client is someone who believes strongly enough in the work not to be deterred, but who can also be flexible enough to take good editorial advice.” Michael Bourret (Dystel & Goderich)

“A dream client is someone who writes wonderfully; understands promotion and knows how to build a tribe; always makes a deadline; is gracious with critique and direction; and is kind, grateful, smart and makes me laugh.” Rachelle Gardner (Books & Such Literary)

“Respect my time. Don’t expect me to constantly call if there’s no news to report. Trust that I know what I’m doing and don’t take the advice of writers at conferences or in your writing groups over mine . . . Understand that publishing moves slowly at times, and I’m just as frustrated as you are if we have to wait for a check, a contract, or a response to a submitted manuscript.” Jennifer De Chiara (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)

“A dream client is one whose talent continually surprises me, and my belief in it is what keeps me on my toes to make sure I’m doing right by his or her work.” Brian DeFiore (DeFiore and Company)

“The best writers I work with are flexible and adaptable.” Carly Watters (P.S. Literary Agency)

“. . . my dream client attributes: a natural ability to write—and well; a good idea of how to build a platform; a good attitude; and perseverance.” Dawn Michelle Frederick (Red Sofa Literary)

Trust Your Readers

I noticed some comments by our regular readers/writers on a pet peeve of mine. The use (and, in this case, the punctuation involved) of “then” or “then and.” The comments which came back, explaining the grammatical correctness of various examples were fine. But they skipped the idea of my pet peeve.

When I was teaching English at Salt Lake Community, and later at Utah Valley University, we occasionally had an assignment where students were required to explain, in considerable detail, something which they knew how to do, but had to explain to a novice. It could be about making some woodworking item, cooking a meal, baking a cake, knitting a scarf, etc. The subject needed only to be something they knew and understood how to do. The object was to “teach” someone else how to do the same thing. On paper.

That was when I began to notice what I now call “Timeline” words: then, now, after, before, soon, first, next, etc. The problem, to my mind, is that when groups of such words clutter your explanation of “how to,” they project your distrust of your reader or audience.

Someone writes about mixing a cake:

“First, you need to decide on the type of cake you want to bake.”

“Before you begin, decide which pots and pans you’ll need, mixing bowls, utensils, etc.”

“Then you gather all your ingredients.”

On and on. Even for a fairly simple task, the instructions and constant reminders of what to do when make for a confusing presentation. I found that if students wrote their instructions in a logical order, clarifying where necessary what they meant by each section, they did not need words like “And then . . .” “After that . . .” “First, . . .” (and this was always one of the worst offenders because, too often, two or three paragraphs later they would say “First, . . .” again. How can two things be done “first” ? ? ? Worse still, many students would write “Then, . . .” Three sentences later: “And then, you . . .” and ‑‑‑ for variety’s sake ‑‑‑ they might throw in a “Finally, you . . .” or “Last . . .” (or even “Lastly . . .”) Ugh!

This even carries over into the writing of fiction. You’re so afraid the readers won’t be able to keep track of the sequence of events, you label each step to clarify. What it really does is muddle the issue.

If you write your instructions ‑‑‑ or your fictional events ‑‑‑ in chronological order, and the instructions or details are clear, you won’t need any Timeline. If you throw them into the mix anyway, you are telling your reader “I don’t trust you to see events or tasks in the right order, if I don’t keep labeling their order for you.” Please, don’t assume your reader is stupid.

Cut most, if not all, Timeline words. Your clarity and the logical order of your writing will be enough.

 

“I’m On a Mission Now”

I was looking over some OLD blogs I’d saved. In fact, some of them were SO old that they came up empty . . . this message had been “deleted” or whatever. That’s what I get for shoving them into a “to be read” file instead of reading them AT THE TIME of PUBLICATION. Still, some of them still had the information.

One that caught my eyes was by Larry Brooks. Some of you may have read one (or more) of his books: Story Physics, Story Engineering, or one of his fiction books. Also, he spoke at one or more writer’s workshops in Utah a few years ago. I found him very interesting at the time. And, yes, I ended up buying one of his “how to” books, and following his Storyfix blog (STILL get it, though he has “guest bloggers” more often now than he did at first. The man is a Master at the mechanics of putting a story together.

The part of the blog I was looking at today that really got my attention was that EVERY scene must have a mission. If it is “only” for “characterization,” or some such purpose, it may fall flat. Here were his four steps in considering the mission of each scene:

  1. Is the mission clear and easily comprehended?
  2. Is it valid and necessary to the forward motion of the story?
  3. Is there only one mission, one point, happening in this scene, other than the assort minutes of characterization?
  4. Is the mission of the scene itself overtly, proactively characterization, or is t just showing more of the same character stuff you’ve already established?

That step 4 was the real killer for me. I do have a tendency to “overwrite” and say things in slightly different ways, but essentially making the same point more than once.

So I’m adding this to my writerly “New Year’s Resolutions”: examine each scene carefully to take out redundancies and over‑writing. In doing so, make sure that what’s left is the HEART of the particular scene; that it is a mission with a carry‑the‑story‑on purpose.

What new resolve do you have to improve your writing this year?