Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

Writing Lessons from The Hunger Games (a guest blog)

July 30th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 12 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 | 1 Comment

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.

Craft for a Conference: Part 3, Common Synopsis Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

June 9th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.

Synopsis format 

A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:

-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.

-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.

–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.

Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them

I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses I have known” archives:
Too long. Synopses should be comprised of two things: people, and the stuff that happens to them. The vast majority of 80,000 word books can be synopsized on ONE single-spaced page. If your book is truly non-stop action and your plot truly has dozens of twists, you may need more than one page, but we can usually meet your main players and follow the plot from beginning to end in a single page. Common culprits in a synopsis that goes longer than this are description and commentary– this is not the place to elaborate on the characters we meet or to provide extensive insight into their psychology. “JANE EYRE, a sensitive, solemn child whose parents died of typhus when she was very young, has lived all her life in the shadows of her AUNT REED’s house, starved for affection and greedy for books. Her widowed aunt resents the way Jane’s uncle seemed to love her more than he loved his own children and has hated and abused her since his death.” This is all true, but in a synopsis for “Jane Eyre,” all we NEED is “JANE EYRE, an orphan, has lived with her cruel AUNT REED since her parents’ death.” No extra adjectives, no explanation of why Aunt Reed has it out for Jane– just introduce important characters and lay out the plot of the book logically and clearly.
Too confusing. A common method for creating your synopsis is to write a brief summary of each scene in your book, in order. While this is a good place to start, it often results in a synopsis that switches back and forth from different points of view too often, includes an excess of information about minor characters or subplots, or include scenes which require more explanation than belongs a synopsis. Your synopsis doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of your book– consolidate three or four scenes of one storyline that, in the book, appear spaced out in between other scenes into a single summarizing paragraph in your synopsis. This makes for a more readable and more streamlined synopsis. For example, if your book goes back and forth between a man trapped on a desert island and the woman he’s supposed to marry in a month, summarize a week in her life in one paragraph and then a week in his in another, rather than summarizing each character’s individual days in 12 paragraphs alternating between events in the man’s life and events in the woman’s. The same applies for your subplots– provide occasional summary updates rather than trying to track each subplot parallel to the main story all the way through the synopsis.
Too aimless. Like I said, a synopsis should speak to your ability to tell a whole story, and part of that ability includes demonstrating how the events of the plot are moving the story along to the climax. A common side-effect of writing strictly in action is that the events of the plot can start to read like a list of stand-alone, unrelated snippets. Though you want to be careful not to add too much length to a synopsis with too much commentary/framing, it is okay to use a little of your space to identify the growing tension and point the reader toward the coming climax. For example: “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Jane learns from Mrs. Fairfax that Mr. Rochester is supposed to be courting BLANCHE INGRAM. Mr. Rochester leaves Thornfield to spend some time at a house party where Blanche is also a guest.” This list of events is fairly directionless, and I can’t tell from reading it what the point is of all these revelations– they’re just a series of facts to me, and therefore not very engaging. Without taking up too much more space, I can hint at the significance of these events and give the reader a better sense of what to expect from the story and the direction it’s headed and create some interest in finding out more. “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Mr. Rochester then leaves Thornfield to attend a house party where BLANCHE INGRAM is also a guest. Mrs. Fairfax confides in Jane that Blanche and Mr. Rochester are popularly supposed to be courting, and Jane is reminded of the contrast between herself and the worldly women Mr. Rochester seems to prefer.” I don’t have to delve into tons of detail about Jane’s feelings or spell anything out, but now the reader’s radar is tuned to pick up on further evidence that Jane loves Mr. Rochester and has some anticipation about where the story is heading.

Come back next week when I’ll be talking about how to choose and polish a writing sample for a conference. Thanks for reading!

 

Showing Emotion in Writing (a guest blog by Robin Patchen)

June 5th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 17 Comments

How do most of us (note—I’m one of the us) show emotions in our stories? Often, we use physiological responses. Here are a few:

  • Sad—eyes filling with tears
  • Angry—fists clenching or slamming stuff
  • Worried—gut twisting
  • Happy—smiling, grinning, laughing, chuckling, giggling

It works, it’s easy, and it makes the point. It’s perfect.

Maybe not.

It has been said that the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotional reaction. So let me ask you, when you read the words, “Her eyes filled with tears,” do yours? Because mine don’t. And I don’t even know what a twisting gut feels like. Those phrases may show us how your character feels, but they don’t evoke any emotions. So how do we make our readers feel along with our characters?

I don’t have a step-by-step plan. However, I have recently had an epiphany. Counselors tell us that thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions lead to actions. So what happens if you show us your characters’ thoughts and actions? Seems to me their feelings will be obvious, and you won’t need to tell us about their rumbling guts and teary eyes. And if you do it right, you can make the reader feel what your characters do. An example:

John hefted his bag and limped down the metal stairs, forcing himself not to rub that sore spot. Plenty of guys had worse injuries than his. He stared across the tarmac. A band played on the left. An array of dignitaries stood in his way. He scanned the crowd. They held signs that read Welcome home and God bless our heroes.

It was time to be a different kind of hero.

She stood beyond the suited politicians. His wife had curled her hair that day, just like he liked it. A year had passed since he’d seen her last. A year of dust and death, of protecting the innocent and chasing the guilty. A year he’d never get back.

He circled the official greeters, ignoring the protest from his colonel, and approached her. He stopped a few feet away and peered at the bundle she held in her arms. His wife shifted so he could look. Three months old. Blue eyes that looked so much like his own. Curly brown hair. The baby smiled and then turned away. John returned his gaze to his wife. “He’s perfect.”

“He looks like you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t—”

She stepped into his arms. “You’re here now. Home and safe. That’s all that matters.”

 

In that scene, we read the man’s thoughts, and we see his actions. His gut didn’t twist at the sight of those dignitaries. His heart didn’t speed up as he scanned the crowd for his wife. His eyes didn’t fill with tears when he saw his child for the first time. But he did feel something. Did you?

So how did it work? A few observations:

1-Start with a character your readers care about. I took the easy road and created a wounded hero, but I only had 200 words to work with. With an entire novel and some skill, you can make your readers care about almost anyone.

2-Let the character’s thoughts reflect his feelings. He thinks about his time overseas—“A year of dust and death…” and follows it up with, “A year he’d never get back.” Do you hear regret?

3-Give us a glimpse of the character’s desire. In this case, I added that one remark—“It was time to be a different kind of hero.” Life as he knew it was not enough for John. He wanted something more.

4-Use compelling dialog. He could have said, “Hello.” She could have responded with, “How was your trip?” But while those ordinary expressions are realistic, they don’t mean anything. Instead, dump all the banal stuff and make your dialog reflect your characters’ emotions.

5-Use snapshots to set your scene. Show the scene through the eyes of your character, so his description reflects his feelings. The dignitaries weren’t just in front of him, they “stood in his way.” He immediately looked past them to scan the crowd. And if you can think of a snapshot that resonates with readers, use it. In this case, I used a welcome home reception for soldiers. I think that touches a lot of us.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to charge your scenes with emotion, but it’s a start. I challenge you to go through your manuscript and find every place you’re showing emotions through physiological responses. See where you can use description, thoughts, actions, and dialog (another form of action) to evoke that emotion instead. You probably won’t be able to rid your manuscript of every tear, but maybe if your characters cry less, your readers will cry more.

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Robin Patchen lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with her husband and three teenagers. Her third book, Finding Amanda, released in April. When Robin isn’t writing or caring for her family, she works as a freelance editor at Robin’s Red Pen, where she specializes in Christian fiction. Read excerpts and find out more at her website, robinpatchen.com.

My website: http://robinpatchen.com/

Robin’s Red Pen: https://robinsredpen.wordpress.com/

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Amanda-inspirational-Robin-Patchen-ebook/dp/B00VN0STLI/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1428171089&sr=8-3&keywords=robin+patchen

 

Craft for a Conference: Part 2, A Synopsis that Tells, Not Teases

June 3rd, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, Quick Tips, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wThis week, I’m continuing my series on how to best channel your craft in your conference materials by talking about your novel’s synopsis. A synopsis is an important part of any proposal– sometimes an agent or editor will read it at the conference when taking a look at your proposal, other times they won’t see it until you send them the requested sample chapters or full manuscript, but whenever they get around to looking at it, they’ll be expecting certain things from the synopsis, and if yours doesn’t deliver, you risk frustrating or confusing that important reader. Remember, agents and editors are looking for reasons to say “no” to a  project– not in a jerky, we-can’t-wait-to-stomp-on-your-dreams kind of way (well, not most of us…), but in a realistic, we-hear-pitches-all-the-time-and-have-trained-ourselves-to-listen-for-certain-dealbreakers-so-as-not-to-waste-our-or-an-author’s-time-by-pursuing-a-project-that-doesn’t-fit-our-guidelines/preferences/areas-of-interest kind of way. A synopsis that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to creates a potential place for us to say “no,” so make sure you understand the function of a synopsis in a proposal and how to make sure it provides what an agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis.

What is the purpose of a synopsis? When an agent or editor looks at a synopsis, they’re looking to get a feel for the WHOLE book, beginning to end. If they’re reading the synopsis, you’ve most likely already “hooked” them with a dynamite paragraph or pitch giving the main idea of the story– “some particular big thing or big problem happens to a main character or two in a particular setting and hijinks ensue as colorful secondary character’s arc or additional subplot unfolds in tandem with the main character’s journey to learning something.” This hook paragraph has given them the basic premise, a hint of your voice, and a feel for the most unique elements of the book, but now they want to find out more. Sometimes, they’ll read the synopsis first; sometimes, they’ll want to look at the writing first, but either way, before an agent or editor commit to reading a manuscript in its entirety, they usually want to find out where it’s going and what’s going to happen.

“Where it’s going,” or the way the plot develops from beginning to end, lets us glimpse your ability to construct a story arc that makes sense, that builds, and that resolves in a way that feels earned. The synopsis is the first impression we get of your storytelling ability. Your writing might be great in those first few chapters, but your ability to tell a story really can’t be proved until we’ve heard the whole story, so it’s to your advantage to tell the whole story in the synopsis. A common mistake I see in synopses created for use at a conference is when authors try to maintain suspense/keep plot twists a secret in the synopsis– this is not the place to perpetuate your aura of mystery. You know what we do when you essentially say (with a vague or teasing or nonspecific synopsis) that we’ll have to read the book if we want to find out what happens? We say, “Okey doke, thanks anyway, here’s your proposal back.” When we’re looking at your materials at a conference, we have time to read MAYBE 5 or 10 pages of your writing. While this can give us a good feel for your voice and let us know whether or not you can put a sentence together, it doesn’t tell us whether you can tell a story— whether you know how to keep the action moving, raise the stakes, develop the relationships, surprise the reader with twists or interesting developments, and tie up all the loose ends. Without knowing where the story is going, we can’t say very well whether we want to follow it there, so fill in all the blanks when writing the synopsis. Spoil the surprises.
“What’s going to happen” differs from “where it’s going” in that, while the latter refers to the overall direction and end resolution of the story arc, “what’s going to happen” refers to the specific events/scenes of a book. Agents and editors are (hopefully) going to be very familiar with the rules for the genre your book belongs to, and before they spend time reading a full manuscript, they want to make sure that you’re playing by those rules. If you pitched romantic suspense and your hook paragraph promises romantic suspense, they’re going to be looking for the “suspense” parts in your synopsis– where are the scenes of danger, the chases, the close calls, the scary parts, the climax? If you pitched Christian romance, they’re going to be checking to make sure your characters’ behavior is appropriate for those publishers’ publishing guidelines. If they personally are not interested in or not accepting certain elements/plot devices, such as teen pregnancy or cancer stories or widower-with-kids-falls-in-love-with-the-nanny stories, it’s better for you both that they are told about these elements in the synopsis as it can save you both from wasting another month waiting for them to run across them halfway into the manuscript. So, again, be specific in the synopsis about the action/events that take place in your book, especially those that really identify your book as belonging to the genre you’ve labeled it as. Be familiar with the characteristics/expectations of the genre you’re writing and make sure that your story’s “credentials” for belonging to that genre show up in the synopsis so the agent or editor doesn’t have any reason to question whether or not the project fits where you say it does.

Next week, I’ll be talking a little about synopsis formatting, as well as discussing common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them. If you have any other synopsis questions you’d like me to address, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Is it possible to over-edit?

June 2nd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 8 Comments

This question came my way via an email: I’m midway through an edit on a novel manuscript, and find myself wondering if it is possible for an editor to clean up a story to the point that it becomes too clinical and loses the author’s unique voice or writing style. I can appreciate the way the text is getting more fluid and easier to read, but wonder if I am losing something in the process.

Sure, that’s possible. For all the crud being released via indie publishing these days (and trust me, rsz_9780060545697while there are plenty of good books getting self-pubbed, there is a LOT of crud), there is an argument to be made that books with traditional publishers may in fact be over-edited. I had a discussion with a publisher about this recently. He argued that nobody edited Charles Dickens much at all; that Mark Twain had very little editing; and that more recent novelists like James Michener had only a bit of editing done to their work. He said he believes our desire to edit manuscripts to make them stronger is the result of three things: the big egos involved in publishing that require too much control and therefore demand manuscripts be edited; the rise of an educated populace that wants to believe all errors have been removed from a manuscript; and the inherent need editors have to be editing, and therefore keep their jobs.

I’m not sure I totally agree, but it’s an interesting thought. Basically he’s arguing that self-published books are under-edited, and traditionally published books tend to be over-edited. To get back to your question, I’ve certainly seen editors take over a manuscript, forgetting that their role is to help the author polish and produce the best book they can. When that happens, the author (and the author’s agent) have to stand up and reject some of the changes.

I’ve had this happen numerous times. Once an editor wants to remove every contraction from a novel, apparently because his English prof had told him contractions are only for the uneducated. Another time an editor wanted to change the story completely, since she felt the author’s take on history was incorrect (forgetting the fact that this is a novel, and the author can change history as much as she wants to). And sure, I’ve had editors who wanted to over-edit to the point that we lost the author’s voice.

Look, I respect editors, and tend to remind authors that they need to shut up and listen to most editorial comments. Why? Because there are a bunch of good editors in today’s publishing world, and the bulk of what they say is probably correct and will help improve the manuscript. But not EVERYTHING they say will be correct. So you, as the author, need to be strong enough to say, “No, I don’t think that works.” There’s a balance between listening and ignoring advice. Sure, newbie authors tend to ignore too much, and produce a lot of bad manuscripts. But the opposite can sometimes be true as well – that an experienced author needs to reject some silly editorial comments and be brave enough to put out the book they wrote.

If you’re one of those who appreciate the history of publishing, by the way, you need to learn the name Talcott Parsons. In days of yore, Talcott Parsons was the head of the sociology department at Harvard, and an influential American educator. We largely know about the works of Vilfredo Pareto, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber because of writings Parsons did about his sociology predecessors in other countries. However, Parsons is also the guy who wrote with such a flat tone, using confusing educational jargon (he brought us “structural functionism”), and making “educational” writing sound so bland, that nobody wanted to read textbooks anymore. When I began working in the business, people would make jokes about a boring manuscript by saying things like, “All the charm of a Talcott Parsons essay.” That’s what over-editing can do.

My two cents.