Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

Why does everyone want to be published?

August 25th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 55 Comments

I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY so many writers want to become published authors?”

A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically Keyboardwant to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence.

That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for a writer to become competent. Rarely do you see a novelist get her first completed work contracted. The industry average is five complete books before landing a deal… in other words, if you’re starting out, it will probably be your fifth completed novel before you get a contract. That’s why so many writers give up after one or two — it takes persistence to complete five novels before a publisher will pay attention to your work. So, in my opinion, many writers get into the business as a way to express themselves; as a way to get noticed.

Yet most writers who have achieved some level of fame fairly quickly eschew it in favor of craft. They may still enjoy the warmth associated with being recognized, or having someone come up and praise their words, but most successful authors discover that fame is not only fleeting, it doesn’t make us better people or better writers. And that, I think, is why so many successful writers I know spend considerable time attempting to improve their craft. In other words, the best writers are always trying to get better.

If that’s true (and it might be too much of a leap for some readers to accept), then the one thing a beginning writer ought to do is to devote himself or herself to improving their craft of writing. As an agent, I see hundreds of manuscripts every year that I reject for representation. Nearly all of these are rejected for one basic reason: the writer simply isn’t good enough. The ideas may be interesting, and the marketing may be slick, but the authors simply aren’t good enough to publish. That’s a message I’ve tried to get into the heads of beginning writers everywhere: Don’t try seeking “the secret” of writing; improve as a writer. I’ve yet to meet a great writer who is not published.

And how does one go about doing that? I don’t think it’s all that complicated – write regularly and expose yourself to great writing. A beginning writer should read widely, and should focus on great, not just popular, writing. A beginning writer should set aside time to write regularly, and should make writing a habit in his or her life. A beginning writer should find someone who can help him or her improve – a writing instructor, a writing mentor, an experienced editor, even a writing critique group, so long as the members can bring some wisdom to bear on the issue of craft.

I know of no other craft that promotes beginners before they are ready. Surely a young pianist doesn’t take a couple lessons and rent a concert hall to present Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A first-year ballet student doesn’t expect to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. An artist cannot expect to move directly from paint-by-numbers to creating fine portraits. Yet I often meet beginning writers who are hell-bent on publishing “something.” They often have no clue of their motivation or message (though they can dress it up with fancy talk and make it sound like “a calling”). What they really want is to be noticed — to have be able to show someone “I did a book.” So my advice to beginning writers is to study the craft of writing by reading and listening to those who already know it, in order to become more like them.

Now, having said that I realize there are those in the industry (including a couple editorial friends) who disagree with me. They think “market” is more important than “craft.” In other words, “Don’t focus on becoming a good writer, focus on creating a salable book.” I understand that thinking, but I don’t agree with it. Right now ANYBODY can get ANYTHING published. Go to Amazon.com, and you can find a way to get anything (your company reports, your school papers, your nutcase political screeds) into print. Lulu and PublishAmerica and Author Solutions will print anything you send them. We’ve made “becoming an author” into the easiest, most-accessible form of “art.” You may not be able to paint well enough to sell a still life, or sing well enough to be a finalist on American Idol, or dance well enough to get cast in a show… but you CAN become an author!

Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not really legitimate. One of the things that real publishing professionals provide is a filter. There is training and evaluation involved as agents figure out who can write, and editors determine what is valuable, and publishers produce books that offer something of merit. So part of the role of those of us who work in the industry is to strive toward some sort of quality. As I always say, if I were in this strictly for the money, I’d do porn. (It’s cheap, it’s easy, and there’s a huge market for it.) But I can’t make myself go there, since I still think part of my job is to help writers become better, and to help publishers sell good books.

So what’s the motivation? In writing it’s probably to tell a story, I suppose. We write to inform, to entertain, to expose, to convince, to enlighten — there are a ton of motivations. But from a personal perspective, I think every good writer wants to be a great writer.

Editing for Authors: Part 4b, The Great and Powerful Style Sheet

August 12th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on editing for authors. Last week, I started to talk about the role of a style sheet in the editing process, specifically the story and character-related elements. This week, we’re looking at the craft and style-related elements of a style sheet, as well as how to use a style sheet to focus your editing.

As I said last week, style sheets are largely descriptive rather than prescriptive– in other words, your style sheet is based on the writing voice/habits that are already in evidence in your manuscript. When you’ve finished a draft of a manuscript and are ready to start editing, you want to look at your manuscript and determine which conventions you’ve used most often and which ones you want to define your voice, and build your style sheet accordingly, adding entries addressing usage, punctuation, spelling, style, and formatting questions that will arise as you edit your manuscript.

For example, if you hyphenated a word the first three or four times you used it (“birth-mother”), you would probably make the hyphenated version an entry on your style sheet, the idea being that you will use that entry as a reference by which to determine that you will alter any subsequent uses of that word where you didn’t hyphenate it. If, however, you hyphenated it the first time but then used it seven more times in the first three chapters without hyphenating it, you’d probably want to let the majority dictate your style-sheet entry, and use the non-hyphenated version as the rule to be followed on your style sheet, since, again, the goal of a style sheet is to define the elements of your style that are already in evidence in your writing and your voice so that you can ensure that they are reflected in your whole manuscript, since precious few of us write with perfect consistency throughout a 75,000-word manuscript. Use this process throughout the first several chapters to determine the “measuring stick,” based on your personal writing norms, that you’ll use for editing the remainder of the manuscript: if you use a serial comma in two out of your first three lists, make a note on your style sheet to always use the serial comma in lists, then change and all subsequent lists to reflect the style sheet; if you usually use italics-only for your first several instances of internal dialogue, add that to your style sheet and then edit all subsequent instances in which you used quotation marks and italics; etc. You get the idea. Types of entries that should be added to your style sheet as you begin to edit your manuscript include:

  • Hyphenated or compound words (e.g., “ebook” vs. e-book,” “web site” vs. “website”)
  • Rules for using numerals vs. spelling out numbers
  • Punctuation rules– serial comma, quotation marks around internal dialogue, etc.
  • Abbreviations (what words you abbreviate, what words you spell out, how abbreviations are punctuated, e.g., “US” vs. “U.S.,” etc.)
  • Intentionally stylistic but technically “wrong” or questionable usages and the exact circumstances or character where they are used (“nothin'” or “sumthin” used to evoke a dialect or a lack of education on the part of a character)
  • Dialogue formatting guidelines (“new indented line with every change of speaker”)

And all of this assumes that your personal writing norms mostly exist within the rules set by recognized authorities such as a dictionary or a common style manual or writing handbook– that you have consulted some reputable resource such as a dictionary or style manual and can defend your stylistic choices as being “correct” at least according to one authority. If I were actually using “birth mother” in manuscript, I theoretically would have done enough research to find that it’s virtually never hyphenated and my style sheet entry would reflect that. The exception to this is, of course, any grammatical or usage decisions that preserve your voice as a writer, the voice of a character, or the tone of a story– books like The Help or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Just So Stories, in which the unusual syntax or incorrect spelling or grammar connote a dialect or level of education or tone on the part of the narrating character or the author. In these cases, the special conventions of the specific choices would then end up as entries on the style sheet to ensure consistency in the formatting and voice, such as “Contractions: never used by the narrator,” or “Civilize: spelled “sivilize” when used by Huck.”

This process of adding entries to your style sheet can be painstaking, but it’s absolutely worth it– a slow, careful read of your first several chapters during which you take the time to notice inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation, usage, or grammar and make a conscious decision about which version you’re going to use as the “correct” one going forward saves you hundreds of additional decisions/questions later in the manuscript. The more complete your style sheet, the less you have to wrestle with questions of usage and grammar and punctuation– having a style sheet entry for a word or a punctuation scenario means that every time you encounter that word or scenario, you can automatically correct it for internal consistency based on the style sheet rather than having to debate each instance throughout the length of the manuscript. The act of compiling a style sheet both trains your editorial eye to notice various types of inconsistencies throughout the manuscript and preemptively answers dozens of editing/style questions for you before you’ve encountered a tenth of them. When your book is contracted for publication and assigned to a professional editor for further editing, he or she will compile a style sheet of their own to ensure the manuscript’s adherence to the publishing house’s specific style conventions (such as always putting internal dialogue in quotation marks, or always spelling out numbers greater than ten), and there’s a chance that some of these will differ from the decisions you made, but the point of authorial editing using a style sheet is not to turn out a manuscript that is ready for publication with one specific publishing house, but to turn out a clean manuscript demonstrating consistency and strong voice that will make the best possible impression on whoever reads it. When I’m reading a manuscript, I’m not passing judgment on whether or not the author’s style conventions agree with mine at every turn, but on whether or not the whole of the document is in agreement with itself.

A style sheet is the tool a professional editor uses to ensure that your book is consistent throughout as well as conforming to the guidelines/style dictates of their particular publishing house. By compiling and using one yourself, you give yourself a valuable reference manual that can both help you identify writing and story inconsistencies within your manuscript as well as shave hours off the editing process.

I’m a Writer Because I Write

August 10th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 18 Comments

A writing friend sent me this question: “Are you a writer because of your distinctive ideas, the volume of material you produce, or because of a call or skill or gift?”

None of the above. I’m a writer because I write. It’s my venue for sharing truth and beauty and all that is important to me. It’s how I express myself. My friend Rebecca is a singer because she puts herself into her songwriting and musical performance. My buddy Brad is a doctor because that’s how he connects to the world and shares himself and his abilities. Maybe that constitutes a calling — it’s certainly a gift. But I’ve always seen books and words as a reflection of who I am. Some of us have to write, the way others have to sing or run or paint or speak or run or lead. With me, words tend to pour out.

The thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the fact that not everybody can be a writer, and few of us can ever be great writers. I’m all for writing conferences, because I often get to meet and encourage diamonds in the rough. And I’m a big supporter of mentor/protégé relationships because they allow an experienced person to share with an inexperienced person. But I’ve come to believe there’s a limit to the talent that can be shared. I believe I can make a writer better, but I’m not convinced I can ever make a writer great — some people just have the gift. Some people can paint, some people can sing, some people can dance – we can write.

Occasionally I come across a writer whose talent is enormous, and it usually leaves me in TomRobbingsawe. I love that. At a conference this past weekend, I had a chance to host a salon with one of my favorite writers, Tom Robbins — an author whom many believe is one of the great American novelists of the past 50 years. I need to do a blog post just on his words, because he was amazing — insightful and funny and encouraging and very practical. And he didn’t need to be any of those things, since he’s one of the greats. He could have been arrogant or dismissive (um… I’ve met my share of successful authors who have forgotten how to relate to beginning writers), yet he wasn’t at all. Instead, he just shared some of his wisdom, telling the folks at the conference what he thinks is important, and what they need to consider in their writing.

For all my ego, I still appreciate someone who can do something better than me. I have represented several writers who are simply marvelous wordsmiths, and much better at writing than I’ll ever be (off the top of my head, I can name Lisa Samson, Ann Tatlock, Susan Meissner, Elizabeth Musser, Gina Holmes, Jessica Dotta, Mark Bertrand, Rachel Hauck, Mindy Clark… there are others). It doesn’t bother me one bit to know they’re better at their craft than I am – I’m just happy I get to represent their work. As a man, it doesn’t bother me that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than I’ll ever be, or that on an off day Diana Krall still has more musical talent that I could ever hope to have. And I’m at peace with that.

A couple questions for writing friends… Why do you write? And if you could sit and talk with any living writer, who would you like to chat with? 

Editing for Authors: Part 4a, Meet the Style Sheet

August 5th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on editing for authors, I’m talking today and next week about the role of a style sheet in the editing process and why a good style sheet can be an author-editor’s best friend.

To better understand the value of a style sheet, let’s consider first the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript. Compared to an unedited manuscript (or one that has merely been proofed for typos), the following is usually true of an edited manuscript:

  • The voice has been refined
  • Plot clarity has been improved
  • Story universe is more clearly defined
  • Pacing is more consistent
  • Syntax is tighter/cleaner
  • Word choice is more effective

Some of these qualities are dependent on the author’s experience/writing skill– it generally takes a more practiced ear to pick up on and critique things like sentence structure, weak word choice, or inconsistent pacing. Others, however, are virtually entirely dependent on good record-keeping and a disciplined adherence to the established norms– plot and character details are vivid at first because the author wrote them that way, but they stay sharp and clear in the reader’s mind because the author kept track of and stuck to the initial rules he made for that universe/character. An author’s voice is most effective when it is consistent and clear throughout rather than weakened by distractingly inconsistent usage, punctuation, spelling, or grammar. That’s where a style sheet comes in.

What is a style sheet?

Think of a style sheet as a reference tool written especially for and tailored specifically to your manuscript. Remember the APA or MLA reference books/handouts your teachers in high school or college gave you and expected you to use when writing your papers? If a teacher wanted your paper in APA style, you consulted your APA style manual to determine whether or not to use an oxford comma, how to format a quotation, which spelling of “cancelled” to use, etc. A style sheet (and don’t be confused by the name; it’s rarely a “one-sheet” document, and is often several pages long) is the reference manual you compile based on your experience with and knowledge of your story, your voice, and your writing. It helps you keep track of story details, such as characters’ physical appearance, backstory, and style of speaking, and the writing “rules” you’re following, such as which spellings you’re using of words/names, words you’re choosing to hyphenate or not, what numbers you’re spelling out versus using numerals for, etc. Once you’ve established your “official” stance on the details/rules/practices of that particular manuscript, the style sheet becomes an all-powerful oracle you can consult during editing to quickly provide direction and answers to dozens of questions and uncertainties. We’ll look this week chiefly at the components of a style sheet that speak to story– characters, plot/timeline, setting, etc.– and leave the writing/style elements of a style sheet to talk about next week.

Compiling a style sheet.

A style sheet is a living document, meaning it changes and grows as your manuscript takes shape. At the beginning of its life, a style sheet is mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning it’s simply reflecting/recording the choices you’ve already made rather than dictating your next steps. It would be exhausting and unrealistic on multiple fronts to compile a complete style sheet for a book before writing it– you would have to anticipate each and every possible scenario that could arise while writing the manuscript (“If I write the word ‘seat-belt,’ I will hyphenate it.”), know each of your characters and your setting in detail in advance (“The coffee shop that the main character will meet her birth-mother at in chapter 24 will be called “The Mud Hut,” and the furniture is orange and brown”), and then painstakingly consult the style sheet as you wrote to make sure you were following your rules. Obviously, most authors prefer to write freely and let their story pick up momentum as they go, even the ones who plan or outline their books in detail before writing them.

The difference between an outline and a style sheet is that an outline merely dictates the direction and events of the plot (“protagonist will meet her birth-mother in a coffee shop”) while a style sheet records the exact details and keystrokes (“hyphenate ‘birth-mother’ every time you write it,” “coffee shop will be decorated in orange and brown”) of a scene, usually after it’s written, for the purpose of achieving consistency throughout the remainder of the manuscript– in the case of my made-up example, the information on the outline tells the author what to write; the information on the style sheet reminds the author of what they already wrote so that they can make not to contradict themselves in additional scenes set in the coffee-shop or additional uses of the word “birth-mother.”

Because most of these tiny decisions are made in the moment, while you’re writing, it’s much easier to go back after the manuscript is complete and tweak certain scenes or details to conform to the rules/details you settled on than it is to think through every punctuation and biographic and setting and spelling decision before you put words on paper. That being the case, you want to start with the bare minimum on your style sheet– names, basic descriptive information, etc.– and add details to each entry as you reveal/establish/discover more about each character, the setting, or the events of the plot.

So what kind of info should end up on your style sheet by the time you finish your manuscript?

  • Character names, descriptions, and brief bios (as far as you know them): Think doctor’s-office-questionnaire or job-application-type info here rather than introspective psychological profiles– spelling of full name, eye color, hair color, body type, height, occupation, hometown, education, immediate family’s names and statuses (alive or dead, location, etc.), important relationships– spouses, children, etc. Obviously, you won’t know/have as much info for minor characters as for main characters, and you probably won’t have all your characters established at the beginning of the writing process.
  • Setting info: Names and spellings of towns/states/neighborhoods, if applicable, demographic information– size, population, weather, major characteristics.
  • Timeline info: The order in which things happen in your story.

By compiling this kind of information during your writing process, you can avoid conflicting descriptions of a character or setting, making sure you’re not contradicting yourself or confusing your reader. At the end of the first draft, you should have a pretty good collection of the characteristics of your major characters and setting to refer to when editing, as well as a clear timeline to refer to when examining your pacing and your clarity of exposition later in the editing process.

Next week, we’ll look at the craft/style-related elements of a style sheet and how to add them to your story/character-related elements to create a really strong style sheet, as well as how to use that style sheet to focus your editorial eye and save you hours of editing time. Thanks for reading!

 

 

Writing Lessons from The Hunger Games (a guest blog)

July 30th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 14 Comments

Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.

  1. Jump right into the action and then insert background info.

Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.

Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.

What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)

  1. Show, don’t tell.

Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.

Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.

Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you tell the reader something. Challenge yourself to show it instead. It will be slow work at first, but (like any habit) it will become easier and eventually become second nature.

  1. This takes practice.

Now the bad news. No one is born writing this well. Not only did Collins write seven books before The Hunger Games, but she was also a screenwriter for years before that.

Everyone (myself included) wants to believe that their first book will be amazing, but good writing just takes a lot of practice. If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one really good, this might not be the industry for you.

  1. Our stories should be eerily familiar

The most disturbing thing about The Hunger Games was not children fighting to the death (though that was enough), it was how familiar Katniss’ world looked to me. The Capitol was not that different from modern America. The Hunger Games not that different than watching “Survivor.”

Someone (I think it was Robert McKee) said that we read fiction in order to visit a world we’ve never been to, but then find ourselves once we get there. Sometimes we’ll like what we see about ourselves. Sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will give us encouragement, sometimes a sharp rebuke.

The first part of that lesson is that our stories must connect with something deep inside our reader. But the second part is the danger of creating stories that we think they’ll relate to. But this results in stories that feel contrived. Better to tell stories that we relate to, then make sure the reader can see what we see.

That, by the way, is how The Hunger Games was born:

Flipping through the channels, Collins was suddenly struck by the lack of distinction between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war. “We have so much programming coming at us all the time,” she says. “Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?…I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.” Biography.com

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts – which of those lessons catches you the most? What would you add?

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Josh Kelley is a speaker, writing coach, and author of Radically Normal: You Don’t Have to Live Crazy to Follow Jesus (Harvest House). As a writing coach, he uses an affordable “single session” model. If you’d like more information, visit his website: www.joshkelley.ink.

 

Editing for Authors: Part 2, Perspective and How to Find it

July 21st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on being your own editor, I’m talking today about the importance of the right perspective when editing your own work, specifically the role that time plays in your editorial success.

Writing is an up-close-and-personal business. You live and breath your story while you’re writing it, spending hours with your characters while thinking about and planning your story, talking about it with friends and family or your writing group, and then when it’s time to write, your creation appears on the page literally seconds after you conceive it– writing is, in essence, a largely improvised art form. Even if you know the general direction your story is going to take, even if you plan out all the names and scenes in advance, the truth is that when the time comes to put words on paper, you’re making it up as you go along. The words that come into your head are the ones you put down on paper; that’s the only way anything ever gets written. If I sat here and waited to write my blog post until I knew every word I was going to say in exactly the order I was going to say it from beginning to end, I would die before I started a single sentence– that’s not how writing works, and many writers’ favorite thing about writing is the instantly measurable nature of it– “I wrote 1000 words today!” But while that stream-of-consciousness creation is great for getting words on the page, it’s not so good for editing.

Editing is a process in which the majority of your decisions are made on a comparative basis— this line isn’t as clear as the rest of the paragraph; this scene’s pacing is slow compared to the rest of the chapter; this character/plotline is less developed than this other one, etc. To be an effective editor, you have to train yourself to take one or two (or ten) steps back from your manuscript and see it in pieces bigger than the individual words or lines so that you can make these comparisons. Because this is so different from the process by which we write, many authors have trouble shifting their perspective to one from which they can edit effectively. Mentally, it can be hard to switch gears from that one-word-at-a-time mindset to a more global approach to your work, and emotionally, it can be even harder to look critically and objectively at shoddy writing, confusing storytelling, or plot holes when you’ve been as  invested in your characters and as present in your story as you’ve been when writing. Fortunately, there are several ways to create some healthy mental and emotional “distance” between you and your manuscript. This week, we’re looking at one of the simplest and most effective strategies for gaining perspective– time.

Time is the Best Editor.

Like happens at some point in most long-term relationships, you and your manuscript are going to need (and benefit greatly from) a short (or perhaps extended) break from each other. Taking some time away after spending all day, every day in each other’s company can provide a radical shift in how you view your story. Elements that felt hugely significant when you wrote them can seem unimportant and cluttery upon revisiting the manuscript a few weeks later. A sentence you thought was particularly brilliant when it first popped into your head might, you sheepishly admit the next day, have been a bit cheesy.

Time away also helps you to recognize what you truly do like about your manuscript/what your priorities are. If you come back to your story and still grin when reading a scene you loved writing or still pat yourself on the back for a particularly great character, that’s probably something that should stay in, and something that should shape your editing process. Recognizing what is good and what is distinctive about your writing is as much a part of being a good editor as being able to sniff out the rotten parts, and just like time away from a significant other can make you appreciate their good qualities anew, so time away from your manuscript can bolster your confidence in its strong points and help you make decisions for what direction you want to take when editing.

The amount of time needed to attain an objective perspective for editing differs for everyone. Some authors have great success editing just a day after writing, following a routine of editing the previous day’s pages before writing new ones. Others prefer to allow more time to pass between edits, editing in bigger chunks at the end of every chapter or the end of every week. And many don’t want to edit their manuscript at all until they’ve finished a full draft, sometimes letting it sit for a few weeks after completing it so as to really be able to take a break from thinking about the charters and plot full-time.

The strategy that’s best for you depends on how emotionally involved you’ve been with your work-in-progress, how easy you find it to switch from your “author hat” to your “editor hat,” and how experienced an editor you are. If you have no problem snapping into editorial mode, you might not need more than a day between writing a scene and editing it to be able to make objective decisions about content and structure, and if you’ve edited your own work before, you may be able to recognize pacing problems or plot holes early on, before the manuscript has been finished. If, however, you’ve been very emotionally involved in your writing process– if the subject matter is highly personal for you, or the situations in the book are intense/difficult to write– you probably need a little longer to recover/recharge emotionally before you’re ready to step back and look objectively at the writing or storytelling rather than getting caught up in the associated emotions.

You also probably need more time if you haven’t had a lot of experience with editing (not to be confused with proofreading) your own stories. Recognizing major flaws in your plot, inconsistencies in your pacing, underdeveloped characters– these are all big-picture problems that are easiest to see when you have the whole manuscript to look at, so if you don’t have a lot of experience spotting them or fixing them, you’re setting yourself up for greater success if you give yourself the entire manuscript to work with and a nice two-or-three-week cushion to give the post-writing, self-congratulatory, “I wrote a whole book, I am a dang genius!” excitement a chance to die down and your more objective, “I wrote a rough draft of a book that needs a lot more work” side a chance to rise to the surface.

Success as an editor is largely dependent on being able to hold your work at mental-and-emotional arm’s length. Experiment a little and find out what your sweet spot is for time elapsed between writing and editing, and then let that shape your writing-and-editing routine. Editor-you will thank you for waiting, even if author-you rolls her eyes and tries to rush you. Next week, I’ll be talking about a couple more ways to develop perspective as an editor as well as some sample writing/editing routines to try. As always, thanks for reading!

 

Editing for Authors: Part 1, The Importance of Being an Editor

July 14th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my Tuesday blog on craft! I’m starting a new series this week in response to several questions that have come in from authors over the past couple of months on the subject of editing your own work. If you’ve spent any amount of time on this blog in the past (or read any resource on getting published, or attended pretty much any class on writing), you know the importance of submitting a clean manuscript to an agent or editor. “One chance to make a first impression,” “These people work with words for a living,” “We’re looking for a reason to say no–” you’ve heard all the warnings, and you would never submit pages without having thoroughly proofread them, right? The problem many authors have is that they equate “proofreading” with “editing,” and while proofreading is certainly an important part of the editing process, your manuscript usually needs a lot more than just a proofreading to be ready to submit for consideration by an agent or an editor.

“But I’m a writer, not an editor!” Obviously, writing and editing are not identical tasks, and the skill sets needed to perform each one well differ enough that some authors have a really hard time putting on that “editor hat” beyond a basic proofread for punctuation and spelling typos. Some people don’t have a great eye for editing, while others flat-out just don’t like the process, and many don’t trust themselves to see their own story realistically after being so close to it throughout the writing process. I understand that it can be hard to switch gears from neck-deep-in-the-middle-of-the-action author mode to cool-and-detached objective editor mode, but as many excuses as there are for not being an editor of your own work, there are a lot more arguments in favor of developing your editorial skills.

“Can’t I just pay someone to do that?” Sure, there are plenty of great editing services out there that will provide everything from developmental edits to line-by-line copy edits, but not every author can afford to pay for that service, and not every author is happy turning his work over to a stranger for editing. By developing your editorial eye, you can save yourself money by delivering a stronger manuscript to your editing service and so (hopefully) needing less editing done. Becoming a better editor also makes you better equipped to recognize the weaknesses in your manuscript and get more targeted results from an editorial service by steering you to ask for help with specific trouble areas, e.g., requesting help with your inconsistent pacing rather than requesting a full (and more expensive) developmental edit. Knowing the kinds of editing attention your manuscript needs can also help you find the right editor for the job– if you know you need help with refining your voice, you can seek out an editor who has a really good feel for voice rather than one who’s a better plot editor.

“Um, isn’t that the editor’s job?” The idea that they need to be both author AND editor comes as an unpleasant surprise to many authors with a rosy view of the traditional publishing system. One author I heard from last month raised a pretty reasonable question: “I was told by an agent that my story and writing were pretty good but that I should consider having my manuscript professionally edited. I thought the publisher took care of that after I got a book deal.” That kind of mindset is understandable– somewhere along the line, someone whose job title is “editor” is going to be handling your manuscript, so why should you fall over yourself trying to do a job you’re not equipped for and not getting paid for? Well, yes, if you land a publishing deal, your manuscript will most likely pass through the hands of a professional editor, but– and I’m about to shatter some illusions here, so brace yourself– even after you’ve landed a publishing deal and a professional editor has started to work on your manuscript, you’re going to be expected to do a lot of the editing yourself. Unless you’re a celebrity author bringing little more than your name and photo to the project, you’re going to be expected to work with your editor to implement their changes and the suggestions they make, so the more familiarity with the editing process you have, and the more you practice looking at your manuscript with objective eyes and a big-picture mindset, the better equipped you’ll be to partner with a professional editor later in the publishing process.

The good news is that, even if it’s not your natural strong suit, you CAN learn to be a better editor of your own work. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about the editing process– the different levels of editing, the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript, and various strategies to help you develop your “inner editor.” If you have any editing questions you’d like me to address  in the series, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to respond in future posts. Thanks for reading!

Craft for a Conference: Part 5, The Art of Being Memorable

June 30th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.

Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.

With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest to make your book or story stand out at a conference (or in a query letter):

  • Identify what makes it unique. What are the elements of your book that are unusual or fresh? What do you bring to your cookbook/memoir/mystery novel/romantic suspense that I haven’t seen in others? One way to identify these unique elements of your book is to ask your beta readers what stood out to them/what elements of the book they found most interesting or exciting. Though readers tend to read within the confines of certain genres, they still appreciate and are drawn to novelty within those genres– that’s why people read more than one of the same type of novel, after all. Do romance readers really want to read the same story over and over? Well, yes, in the sense that they want boy to meet girl, boy and girl to overcome problems, and boy and girl to live happily ever after, but the unique details of each basic romance story are often what determine which novel a romance reader will pick up next– if a reader has a choice between nine romance novels in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of one child and one in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of eleven children, they’ll probably pick up the one that’s a little more unexpected, a little more surprising, a little less familiar.

    That doesn’t mean that you have to change the story you have written: if you wrote a nanny-falls-in-love-with-father-of-one story, figure out what DOES set it apart from those other eight, and highlight those elements in your pitch and conference materials. Does it have a unique/unusual setting? “Katie Nana isn’t sure how she ended up providing childcare on an archeological dig in Egypt.” Memorable. Does one of the major characters have an interesting/unusual vocation or workplace? “Katie’s mom, a former soap opera star, spends her weekends reminiscing to Katie about her glory days and spends her weekdays gambling away Katie’s inheritance.” What about some quirk or characteristic on the part of a major character that adds color to the story? “Katie Nana’s photographic memory makes her a great lawyer but a lousy girlfriend– who wants to be in a relationship with a woman who can always conclusively prove that she’s right?,” or “Katie’s best friend Valerie, who’s always claimed to be psychic, says that Katie and Clint are destined to be together, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince Katie.” Mine your manuscript for pieces that stand out or that you feel add color– a talent or hobby of the protagonist, an unusual pairing, etc. If you’re having trouble determining what parts of your story are unique, take a look at what else is out there in your genre– the more you read in your genre, the more you’ll pick up on what elements stand out.

  •  Make modified or combined comparisons. One of the best ways you can communicate a lot about your story to me in very few words as well as making it memorable is to make a comparison to something I likely already am familiar with. “It’s like ________ plus ___________,” (“It’s like Pride and Prejudice plus vampires”) or “It’s like ________ meets ___________,” (“It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor”) or “It’s like ___________ in _________” (a different setting– “It’s like Romeo and Juliet in outer space”) or “It’s _________ if ________ were different” (“It’s Bruce Wayne’s story if his parents had never been killed and he’d never become Batman)– etc. Hang your story on a story or franchise that is already in my memory and then tweak it so I remember your part, too, not just the big name. Obviously, you’ll still need to do a little more explaining– “It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor; a sailor is shipwrecked on an island and lives there alone for years until a second shipwreck brings five sheltered New York debutantes on their way to tour Europe to his island.” Beware unrealistic comparisons– don’t drag in a hugely successful franchise just because you think that makes your project sound more salable. It mostly just makes you sound naive. Make sure a comparison is actually justified and that it actually helps describe your book before say that your book is “like Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings,” which doesn’t really tell me anything and makes you sound a bit like a raging egomaniac (and is an excellent example of being memorable for the wrong reasons).
  • Tell me the twist. Think about some of your favorite books or movies with surprise endings or twists to them– chances are, those twists would be some of the first things that came to mind if you were telling a friend how great such-and-such was. No one left “The Sixth Sense” and told their friends that they should go see it because “the single mom storyline was very touching and honest.” The word-of-mouth on that movie was, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE TWIST AT THE END!!!” If you’re hoping to make a lasting impression on an agent or an editor and your book has a great twist, a great “wow” moment, tell them about it. I’m not going to remember your cryptic, “There’s a surprise at the end,” I’m going to remember, “My main character is actually dead the whole time!” or “The narrator is actually the murderer!” Tell me right away that cool thing about your story that I would remember vividly after I’d read it, because it will also help me to remember it before I’ve read it.

Craft for a Conference: Part 4, The “Why?” of a Writing Sample

June 17th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference. Today, I’m discussing the value of bringing a writing sample with you to a conference and how to make sure it represents you effectively.

Like I said the first week of the series, there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what you should bring to your editor and agent meetings at a conference. Some editors are happy to glance through a full proposal, some agents love to see a one-sheet on your project, and some people don’t want to look at anything on paper, preferring to hear you talk about your project and ask you questions instead. NONE of us wants to leave with a big stack of papers, and word is starting to get around that it’s increasingly difficult to get us to leave with any printed materials you bring us, so the practice of authors carrying around their sample chapters or first 50 pages or, heaven forbid, their full manuscript, has become much less common at conferences.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad fewer authors are trying to send me home with ten extra pounds of paper, but I have been disappointed, on many occasions, when meeting with an author who’s done a good job of hooking me with their story or concept through their one-sheet or pitch, to ask if the author has a writing sample with him and be met with a blank, slightly panicked stare and the stammered apology, “I– I didn’t know– I’ve heard you don’t want– I don’t have–” by which they mean, “No, I don’t have a writing sample, either because I didn’t expect to get this far, or because I’ve been told not to bring a big stack of paper to a meeting like this, or because I thought you would only be interested in hearing about my platform, and now I’m having a heart attack because you’re asking for something and I don’t have it and how could I blow my big chance like that, please excuse me while I go jump off a cliff.” The lesson here is that, while some editors will never ask to see a writing sample in a 15-minute meeting at a conference, some will, and you want to be equipped with a dynamite writing sample in case that happens.

There are several advantages to having a writing sample with you at a conference. As an agent, there are several scenarios in which I’ll ask to see the writing. First, I’m trying to determine whether or not I’ll be able to sell your project, so obviously, the quality of the writing is a factor there– I can’t sell a great story if it’s terribly written. Having a writing sample to show me right away adds to the impression I’m forming of you: when I get home after the conference and look over my notes from the meeting, they say “great idea, solid writing” instead of just “great idea, dot dot dot question mark,” and you have a better chance of standing out from the crowd in my memory and in the flood of material coming in after a conference.

I also want to know whether I connect with your voice as a writer– whether the way you tell your story resonates with me, whether I think I could champion you and your work to a publisher. There have been several times that I’ve met with an author at a conference and been pitched an idea that was only so-so in terms of uniqueness or saleability, but because I loved their writing/voice so much when skimming the writing sample, I’ve requested to see more/talked more with that author after the conference. I made the decision to stay in contact with those authors on the strength of their writing more than on the strength of that one idea/project.

It’s also a possibility that I’ve asked all the questions I need to about your story or your platform and already know your project isn’t going to be a good fit for me, but there’s still 7 minutes left of our meeting– in that scenario, seeing your writing can give me something constructive and concrete to offer you in terms of feedback/suggestions, so that I don’t send you away completely empty-handed. Obviously, this isn’t the ideal result of a meeting with an editor or an agent, but if you have 15 minutes with an industry professional, by all means you should be ready to take full, blatant advantage of having that opportunity to pick their brain/get their feedback on your writing, and having a writing sample with you in this situation could mean the difference between leaving disappointed 8 minutes early, and leaving still-disappointed but with some constructive pointers or specific encouragement– something with takeaway value– because they had the chance to take a look at your writing and give you their initial thoughts/suggestions.

So, you’re going to bring a writing sample to your next conference, “just in case.” What should it look like? Remember (also from the first post in this series) that the purpose of anything you bring to a conference is to get the attention/interest of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd as much as you can. With that in mind, here are some things to consider when polishing and selecting a writing sample to take to a conference or include in your proposal.

  • Proofread within an inch of your life. This is where a misused word or a poorly-placed comma has the power to break you. We’re using these pages as a representative sample of your command of the English language in print, and we don’t have to find too many errors or typos to conclude that your writing isn’t ready for publication yet.
  • Demonstrate your storytelling ability. Stories are told in action and dialogue. Writing samples that start out with a bunch of descriptive, biographical backstory don’t show us that you can effectively draw the reader in to the current action/conflict, and doesn’t demonstrate your ability to bring your characters to life and make them speak and interact naturally with their environment. This is a big reason to avoid beginning your writing sample with a prologue or a scene-setting chapter– even if this is where you believe your book starts, it’s not necessarily the most effective place to start your writing sample. Show us how quickly you can immerse the reader in your story.
  • Make sure your writing voice is in evidence. Figure out what makes your writing sound like you, and then make sure the sample you’ve picked is full of whatever combination of things comprise your voice– beautiful imagery, conversational tone, dry humor, clever wit, larger-than-life characters, evocative description, raw style, etc. I want a writing sample to excite me and to stand out from the start, so don’t wait until four or five chapters in to really hit your stride/find your voice– I might not make it that far. Show me right away what makes you stand out.

Remember (also from the first post on this series) that the purpose of anything you take to a conference is to catch the interest of the reader and stand out/make a positive impression they’ll remember. Your writing sample is no exception; don’t miss out on an opportunity to give someone more reasons to remember you and your book!

 

The Danger of Over-Editing (a guest post from Gail Gaymer Martin)

June 12th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

One of the plights of a novelist or writer is wanting to perfect your work so completely that you can’t move forward. I’ve known numerous authors who’ve never completed a novel because they continue to rework the first three chapters until they literally take the life from it. Though editing is necessary to create a story that moves forward with every page and every paragraph, over-editing can be destructive by adding too much unneeded description or pages of dialogue that becomes chitchat. Cutting too much causes a novel to become bare bones as it loses reality, emotion, and depth. So what can you do? This is the question I was asked by a reader who follows my Writing Fiction blog.

The question:
Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed! I’ve written my beginning over and over again. I have even gotten to 15,000 words but keep getting frustrated. How do you move on without going back and constantly editing? I am a perfectionist but that seems to be hindering me in my writing. Any tips?

My response:
Over-editing can hinder a writer’s progress and allow someone with talent to fail finishing a book. A novelist’s voice is important. Readers come to know the tone and rhythm of your writing and connect with it. When you strip the bones raw or pile on needless fat, you’ve changed your style and voice and readers can disconnect.

Editing is needed to make the book the best it can be, but being too close to it, you will reach a point where you lose judgment and end up doing more damage than good. Time spent tweaking stops you from moving forward. You can become stagnant and get nowhere.

Yes, all books need an editor whether traditional or self-published. You want your book the best it can be, but consider it a first draft and know that if the book is to be traditionally published, an editor will help you polish your work with fresh eyes. Self-publishing means hiring an editor to work with your book, and traditional publishing means numerous editors, your acquiring editor plus copy and line editors will go over your book with you at no cost.

Over-editing not only takes the life from the book, but it also steals energy and creativity from the writer. The book can become boring and loses its spark. Instead, here are some ways to help you move forward.

Techniques to avoid over-editing

Set A Deadline – Traditional writers sell a novel and then are given a deadline which is part of the contract. This means authors work with the deadline in mind to make sure the book is on time. Even if the book isn’t sold, make a decision when you want the book to be completed or when you want the proposal to be ready for submission to a publisher. Deadlines help move the book along. Assign so many words a day or hours a week. If you spend the time editing, you will have to work longer hours to meet the timeline you set. Give yourself a penalty if you don’t meet the deadline. No chocolate the next day. No TV in the evening. When you lose something you enjoy for not making the deadline, you will think twice about over-editing.

Read your Work Aloud – Aloud is the key. Listen to your novel either by reading aloud or by using a text to voice program. Many software programs have them. I use Natural Reader and find it very helpful in not only catching typos or the wrong word (meet instead of met, slide instead of slid) but also spotting overworked phrases or words, awkward sentences and redundancies. I highlight the area I want to look at or make notes on the page and then look at only those sections later.

Use A Critique Group – While the group is only as good as its members, hearing others’ opinions can help you discover areas in your work that need clarifying, cutting or reworking. What’s clear in your mind can be confusing in someone else’s. Ask them to view the action and dialogue of your character’s personality, values and beliefs in mind. Is it realistic and consistent. People change but only in time. Input on your work is important but not from your mothers, siblings or good friends. They aren’t always good judges unless they are also successful novelists. And we know moms and friends don’t want to hurt your feelings. . .or their opinion is skewed because they care about you. Critique groups are best when they are fellow authors. When readers don’t find an error or problem in some of the scenes, don’t change them.

Make A List of Common Problems -When you’re working on a list of specific problems, you will not get stuck in a rut. As you discover areas of weakness, such as: too much backstory, lack of or too much description, overuse of dialogue tags or not enough white space on the page, focus on those and once you’ve made the changes, let it be. To resolve a problem with redundancy, for example, keep a list of words you overuse. As you listen to the novel or skim the pages, notice words that jump out at you because you’ve used them over and over. Use a thesaurus and find alternatives for the same idea and use them. Cut as many adverbs as possible. Adverbs are a weak way to make your character come alive. Avoid adverbs in dialogues tags. Make the sentences come alive with the words you select rather than telling the reader if the character is excited, suspicious or angry and don’t use too many adjectives in your descriptions, but don’t cut them to bare-bones.

Walk Away – Give yourself a break from the novel. Put it aside for a few days and allow yourself to un-attach from the story. When you go back you can look at it with new eyes. What looked bad might be fine. What seemed amazing might be so overworked that it’s lost the spark.

A Final Thought
Editors will overlook correctable writing problems if you send them an amazing, unique story. Work harder on creating a fresh idea with real life characters and spend less time chopping up your writers voice. I received a contract offer on my third novel, but it needed a different ending. I wanted the sale and accepted making the change. Guess what. I loved the new ending better. The original had been too predictable and too coincidental. The new ending added a richer meaning to the story and added strength to the story’s theme. Even great novels need editing.

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Award-winning author Gail Gaymer Martin writes romantic suspense, romance, and women’s fiction, and has sold more than 4 million books. Her titles have received numerous national awards including the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice and the ACFW Carol Award for romantic suspense. Gail’s novel The Christmas Kite, a Holt Medallion finalist, was optioned for a Hallmark television movie. She was awarded the 2009 Heartsong Author of the Year, and CBS News listed Gail as one of the top four writers in the Detroit area. The author of Writing The Christian Romance, published by Writers Digest Books, she is a cofounder of American Christian Fiction Writers and a popular keynote speaker.