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Showing posts from December, 2011

Shitty First Drafts

This post originally aired on 11-06-2008, and I thought a reminder that we can write garbage in our first drafts would be helpful. Getting it right the first time is rare indeed. Think about this as you head into the New Year. Writing is a talent, a dream, an obsession, a release, a thrill, but it is also a craft. The words don't just magically appear on paper - all arranged at their finest. The words we love to read were painstakingly crafted by the author, paragraph by paragraph, line by line. Anne Lamott, a wonderful writer describes the process in her book, Bird by Bird , this way: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts." And further: “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” What wonder

Hearing Voices

First published March 12, 2010. Writers often discuss development of their own writing "voices" but there is more to the idea than just this one aspect. Let's discuss some other voices in the writing process. I once reviewed a young adult manuscript that had many characters, all of whom had different voices. In this case, the reader was dealing with teen slang and regional dialect, foreign and biblical characters, as well as talking fantasy animals. Few of them at this point in the writing had really well-developed voices, easily distinguishable from each other, and they often left me confused as to who was saying what. It’s an issue that’s very important to the readability of a story, especially with an audience of young people who have shorter attention spans than adults. Each of your characters must sound distinct, and this is where revising plays a major role in honing a well-crafted story. The above scenario illustrates various kinds of character voices a writer

A Spoonful of Sugar

First published Wednesday, March 24, 2010   Recently, I had the less-than-stellar experience of editing a manuscript for a first-time writer who believed her every word, every comma, every sentence contributed to her perfect book and under no circumstances should be changed. Emotions ran high, and reason ran out the door. Resistance became the word of the day, every day. A few years ago, I attended a seminar where we were told that our books are not our babies. However, books are birthed after months, sometimes years, of hard labor. That does suggest a kinship between the two b’s—babies and books. What happens when our baby gets sick? Do we take it to the doctor? Yes. When the doctor writes out a prescription, do we fill it? Of course. We even get well-baby checks and follow a schedule of immunizations to prevent measles, mumps, chickenpox, tetanus, hepatitis, and other diseases. Why? We want our baby to be healthy, the best it can be. What about our manuscripts? When they are

Using Characters and Scenes to Trim the Fat from Your Story: Part Two

This post originally went live on BRP on January 14, 2010. It followed a part one . Having just finished a first major editing on a manuscript that challenged me on so many levels, I felt the need to bring this piece back for a look-see. I hope you enjoy it and get something from it. In addition to examining the characters in your story to trim unnecessary material, you can also look at your scene development. As I edited the VBB, I saw a major need for the client to edit scenes. Back in 2008, I wrote a short piece titled “ Developing Scenes ” that’s worth a check out. It’s important to remember that scenes don’t have to start at the beginning. Now, what does this mean? Let’s say you wanted to write a scene in which your main character’s conflict was revealed. You plan to do this by having the conflict blurted out during an argument between the main character and her boyfriend. In your scene, you start with allowing us to see the main character driving home, then she walks into her

Some Christmas Fun

This poem first appeared here at The Blood Red Pencil in December 2009, but the very first publication was in 1980, when I was writing a weekly column for a suburban newspaper. Throughout the years I have dusted it off to share again with a new group of readers. Enjoy. Tis the day before Christmas and all is not done, Things on the “to do” list number a million and one. There are cookies to cut while the oven is hot, And a gift for Aunt Mildred. Egad! I forgot. There are presents to measure, to balance and wrap, If the stacks are not even the kids will know in a snap. The turkey is snug in the freezer so cold, Will anyone notice if I put dinner on hold? Tis the day to test stamina, courage, and brawn, The survivors are heroes at next morning’s dawn. Just when I thought I was running out of time A stranger appeared with a smile so sublime. He was dressed all in silver from his head to his toe. And I blinked my eyes twice to see if he would go. He patted my shoulder and gave me a lat

To "Was" or Not to "Was"

This post originally aired on October 25, 2008, but since the debate continues in writing circles, I thought the refresher would be good. There is a lot said about avoiding the use of was in narrative because it can sometimes be a sign of passive writing. The danger there is that some writers avoid using that simple verb entirely. They hear in a critique group or in a workshop at a conference that they should get rid of passive verbs and replace them with active verbs. In many cases, that advice is right on, but there are times when using was is proper. That usage denotes an ongoing action or activity, something that started before the character arrived on scene and will continue when the character leaves. For example, “By eight o’clock preparations were underway in St. Peter’s Square for the general audience. Vatican work crews were erecting folding chairs and temporary metal dividers in the esplanade in front of the Basilica, and security personnel were placing magnet

Dot Dot Dot to Death

This post last appeared 12/2/2008 and deals with one of my favorite (or should I say least favorite) subjects: the overused ellipsis. A comment on the chat line citing the overuse of ellipses just sent me whirling! This is negative with me as well, and as I mentioned in a previous post, will contribute mightily to a submission going into the NO pile. My Webster’s says an ellipsis “indicates an omission (as of words) or a pause.” Probably most writers insert the ellipsis to show a pause, but after seeing those little dots fifteen or twenty times on a single page, I begin to wonder what is missing. Perhaps the thing that is missing is effective writing. Sure, in a dramatic scene one can see how the ellipsis adds tension, conveys a distraught person’s dialog or disjointed thoughts. In examples where one character’s speeches are laden with ellipses, but none of the other characters have such a halting style, the use seems forgivable, as it goes to shape character. But if most or (pe

If You Can Read This, You Need An Editor

This post originally appeared April 4, 2011 CAN YOU READ THIS? if yuo can raed tihs, you hvae a sgtrane mnid, too. Can you raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can. i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! I don’t know about you, but after I’ve worked on a manuscript for weeks, months, even years, I become so close to the work that I cannot look at it objectively anymore. As you witnessed with the above example, your eye will see a misspelled word or a typo and your brain registers the wor

Using Characters and Scenes to Trim the Fat from Your Story: Part One

This post originally went live on BRP on January 13, 2010. Having just finished a first major edit on a manuscript that challenged me on so many levels, I felt the need to bring this and part two back for a look-see. I hope you enjoy it and get something from it. Every year, I edit a slew of manuscripts – short stories, flash fiction, novellas, novels, etc. The biggest book I had ever edited before this time was about 200,000 words, and that story was about 80,000 words too long. A lot of slash-and-burn occurred for that literary baby. But in 2009, I met my biggest adversary: a book that was over 330,000 words. No, this was not a Twilight saga. No Harry Potter. No The Lord of the Rings . This was a contemporary novel, a blend of street, urban, and literary fiction. It was, by far, one of the cleanest reads I have ever read. The writer is extraordinarily creative and talented. Despite these glowing praises, the book was way too long. Typically, I would have helped the writer sl

Loglines for Books

This article first appeared on The Blood-Red Pencil on January 26, 2010. A logline is a very short description of a script. If you’re going to pitch a script, you have to have a logline. More and more, though, writers will include a version of a logline in their query letter. Writing a logline for your novel forces you to get to the core of your book, to the nugget that will excite an agent, lure a publisher, and sell a reader. In general, a logline should be about 20 words long and should capture your storyline. The problem is that you rarely see actually loglines that short. Here's one I saw as a sample on ScriptShark : A college freshman girl's arrival to campus spawns mysterious killings revolving around the football team. Okay, from that we know the protagonist, where it takes place, and that it's probably horror ("mysterious killings", "spawns"). But we don't know what the protag's goal is or who the antagonist is. It fits the word c

Busted! Mark L. Danielewski Caught Building on Cliché

This post originally ran on September 3, 2010. If we run it again, will it become cliché? Stop in the name of love. You can’t hurry love, no you’ll just have to wait. Whenever you’re near I hear a symphony. If the Supremes sang it in the sixties, chances are it’s a cliché today. And what are we writers told? Don’t use clichés. This makes sense from a business perspective. Why should a publisher pay a wordsmith to regurgitate combinations so recognizable that readers are numb to them? We need to do the work of writers and come up with new word combinations that will snag the reader’s interest and inspire new thought. But don't throw the love child out with the bath water just yet. A known cliché could lay the groundwork upon which you could create a meaningful—even a Supreme—twist. In House of Leaves , Mark Z. Danielewski did just that in the following exchange between the narrator and a woman he just met. Even out of context it is easy to see how he uses a lyric from

How Do You Show Feelings?

This post originally appeared October 15, 2009. “Feelings…Nothing more than…feelings…” The words of that old song haunt me as I struggle to polish my manuscript. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through study, reading, and feedback from critique groups is that emotions are critical in creating three-dimensional characters. Have you heard the description, “The characters are flat?” That’s because the author is telling the reader what the character is doing and feeling, but the reader is not identifying with that character. Reading a novel is like donning the skin of the main character, jumping into his head, and living the adventures vicariously right along with him. As a reader, I want to see, smell, hear, touch and taste exactly what the character is smelling, hearing, touching an tasting. For just a short time, I want to “be” that character. Easier said than done. Suppose Gertrude is mad at her boyfriend. “I hate you!” she cried angrily. Doesn’t this let us know he

Cleaning up your copy

This post originally appeared on Blood-Red Pencil in November 2008. One of the best things you can do to make the most of your editor's time is to ensure that you proofread your manuscript as thoroughly as you can beforehand. Does this seem like a bizarre statement to you? After all, the job of the editor is to edit and/or proofread, isn't it? But consider the issue more carefully. Many editors work on an hourly rate even if they charge per project. A good editor knows approximately how long it will take her to work on a manuscript of a certain length, and she factors this into her rates. Is the manuscript you send to your editor filled with extra spaces where you hit the spacebar too hard, rogue punctuation that has been left over from odd sentences you deleted, inconsistent use of quotation marks, characters' names in lower case because you forgot to press "Shift", simple spelling and grammar errors, and typos that are due to your fingers accidentally hittin

Insecurity - My Middle Name

This nonsense first appeared on 4-5-2009. I thought it might be time for a bit of fun again. Enjoy. As we all know, writers are by nature very insecure people, especially in the early years when perhaps the only thing we get published is a letter to the editor and that's cut from four paragraphs to three lines. In fact, for years, basic insecurity was the only thing I had to affirm my credibility as a writer. But even in my moment of greatest anxiety, I never reached the heights (or should I say the depths) of insecurity as did Glenda Gibberish. She wrote an entire book on squares of toilet tissue and hid each page in an empty roll. When her husband, Harry, asked about all the cardboard cylinders lining the dresser, Glenda told him she was making toys for the gerbils. That worked well until he decided to take an interest in the welfare of the pets. She lost one whole chapter in a single afternoon. Following that disaster, Glenda resorted to stuffing the rolls in

Writing as an Art: Marching to the Beat

Originally published July 9, 2010. Do you ever read aloud from a favorite book? Or does a particularly poignant or empowering passage or poem inspire you to verbally articulate its content? All good writing possesses a rhythm—a beat—that sets the tone for the action, the scene, the discussion. A competent writer “hears” it and uses it to reach out and touch the reader. He or she creates the rhythm, puts it in place, and marches to the beat. The reader follows along behind. Have you ever listened—I mean really listened—to a great drummer? Drums do a lot more than make ear-splitting noise. Drum solos can express a variety of emotions from the gentleness of a summer breeze (using the brushes) to waves lapping on the shore or a jog through the park (the sticks) to the power of a thunderstorm (the deep resonance of the bass). Morse code messages can be tapped out on the rim and worked into an overall piece. The rhythm can inspire an entire dance without benefit of any other instrument.

6 Questions NOT to Ask a Writer

Originally posted on December 8, 2010 and the author's most commented-upon post to date! People mean well. They do. But I believe there are certain questions you should never ask a writer - or never ask many of us. 1.  Are you still writing that novel? A 'no' answer will elicit more questions - like "When is it being published?" or even worse, "Why?". A 'yes' answer will usually result in the questioner giving you a puzzled look while they respond (with astonishment) "Really? Still?" Of course, you could be marvelously successful and have no problem answering this question. If this is true, you need to go soak your head. 2.  Are you famous? Obviously, since you've just been asked this question, the answer is no. How on earth could anyone answer yes? 3.  How much money do you make? This question never ceases to astound me. I thought it was impolite to ask about someone else's earnings. What kind of answer would satisfy

5 Steps to Surviving an Edit

This post originally ran on January 6, 2010, but its advice is timeless. You have decided to submit your manuscript to a freelance editor. On one level you are hoping that editor will identify any issues that might prevent a publishing house from purchasing your book so that you can fix them before you are rejected. But deep down inside—no matter how much you are paying for the service—you are also kind of hoping that editor will deem your work “brilliant as is” and return it with only a few typos changed. I know. I may be an editor, but I am also a writer who has previously hired a freelance editor. And it’s amazing how your thumping heart can squeeze all common sense from your brain as you open up your evaluation and wonder… does she think I’m any good? Ahem—wrong question. If submitting to a freelance editor is on your New Year's resolution list, please keep this post handy and read it through a few times before you read your edited pages. 1. Editors know how hard it is t

Writing for Wikipedia – Creating the Article in Draft

Another substantive post about writing an author Wikipedia page. This was first published here on March 31, 2010 and is part of an excellent series by former blogger, Charlotte Phillips. ~~~~ So far, we registered with Wikipedia , wrote our leads , learned about biographies , took the tutorial, and practiced making edits in Wikipedia. Yesterday we wrote the rest of our articles. Today we put our creations into Wikipedia using the article wizard. Follow these steps to get to the article wizard: 1. Go to the Wikipedia login page and login. 2. Go to the article wizard page and click the Create Article Now button: 3. Read the intro, then scroll down to the propose article topic area and click the I’m Writing About Someone Else button: 4. Read the definition of notable people, then scroll to the buttons and click My Proposed Article Is About a Notable Person: 5. Read the blurb about reliable and verifiable resources – including the lists in the sidebar. Note: onli