Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing Manuals Revisited

Interesting, isn’t it? Those of us who have decided to trod the writing path usually did so because, above all, we are dedicated readers. Before we learned to write, we loved to read. One leads to the other. So, naturally, one of the first things we do (at least one of the first things I did) once we come to understand that writing, and writing fiction in particular, is not really as easy as simply making up a story is to turn to a book for help.

Enter the writing manual.

There are literally dozens of books designed to help the newbie writer. Some are good; some aren’t worth the paper. Over the years, I have settled on my favorites, as much as for how much they inspire my efforts as for any concrete advice they offer.

But first, a general warning: there are some things you honestly cannot learn from a book. Yes, you can learn the general principles and guidelines, but the art itself can only be truly mastered (if it can at all) by old fashioned trial and error.

Reading a writing manual makes you a good writer in exactly the same way that a sex manual makes you a memorable lover.

That said, I do have some writing manuals on the shelf in my office. Yes, I will share them with you.

On Writing by Stephen King.

By far my favorite book on writing. Ever. Part manual and part writing memoir, this book does much more to convince the writer that she can do it, she can be a good writer, than telling her how to do it. It does, however, offer great writing advice—such as removing every word ending in –ly from your rough draft. (He then, a few paragraphs later, uses an adverb, saying that the rules holds unless using an –ly word works. Then ignore the rule.)

Perhaps the best feature of the book and the one that keeps drawing me back is the tone Mr. King uses. It’s a friendly, low-key narrative. Reading it is not like reading a normal textbook, or even a normal writing manual. Reading this book is more like sitting on the back porch, sipping iced tea and chatting about writing while the kids play in the yard.

He makes you feel like an old friend and he’s just telling stories. By far it is my favorite book on writing.

Technique in Fiction by Robie Macauley and George Lanning

Another of my favorites, though this is less a hardcore manual of methods of writing as an in depth look at how various accomplished writers handle aspects of their stories. With chapters titled “Beginnings,” “Characterization,” and “Point of View,” their study is like a short cut for aspiring writers to examples of how the masters handled various problems. The best way of learning is to imitate those who do something well, whether your intent is to write a novel or to build a chest of drawers. The fun part is finding and remembering a novel where a master dealt with a problem similar to the one you’re facing. This volume finds them for you.

It is also great background information for general writing knowledge.

Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich

Like its title implies, one of the great features of this book is the writing exercises included at the end of each chapter. Just like taking a live writing workshop, the idea is to immediately make use of the tips and ideas you’ve just been exposed to. And just like a live workshop, the best way to do that is to make use of them immediately in an exercise. A wise teacher once told me that you never really have learned anything until you could perform the activity on your own, outside the classroom.

An example from the chapter “Plot”: “Take a character, a place and a time, and write three one-page plot outlines of potential stories. In the first place the right person, at the right place, at the wrong time. In the second, the right person, at the right time, at the wrong place. In the third, the right time, right place, wrong person. In the end, choose the outline that promises to become the best story and write one page, plunging into the main action in detail.”

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

This was one of my early favorites, but has dropped as I matured and found better sources. As indicated in its subtitle, this book is directed to young writers just starting out and that is where its value lies. It too, has exercises, which is what initially drew me to it, but they are relatively basic.

The drawbacks to this work are its basic nature and the amount of time Mr. Gardner spends arguing against the value of literary criticism. While his points may be valuable (aspiring authors shouldn’t be writing so as to impress the literary critics) he does beat us over the head with it a bit.

Still, it is a good beginning manual.

These are the writing manuals I keep on my bookshelf. There are others, concentrating on a particular aspect of fiction, such as characterization, description, et cetera, but these are the general manuals I have and use. They’ve done me good over the years.

Perhaps they will do you some good also.

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Writing advice

The Dreaded Rejection Letter

So you’ve opened that email (or self-addressed, stamped envelope you sent out with such hope a few weeks ago) and read those words we all hate. “We regret to inform you…” Your story, article, novel, or whatever has been rejected by a prospective publisher. Maybe not for the first time.

Unfortunately, rejection is a part of the writing business. Everybody gets rejected. In the early going most writers get rejected a lot. Even successful (whatever your definition of that might be) writers still get rejected, just not as consistently. However good we are, however talented, everything we write is not going to be liked by everybody.

We, as writers, have to expect to be rejected by editors and publishers. We will probably be rejected a lot. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.

But it doesn’t mean we have to let it destroy us, or our confidence either.

Rejection hurts. Humans are hardwired to need affirmation from fellow human beings. (Unless you’re a sociopath. In that case ignore this section.) We need to know that our lives, our ideas, and our work has value. Rejection seems to say the opposite: that our work (and by extension, everything else about us) is not good enough. Notice that I said “seems.” The truth is the rejection of your story has absolutely nothing to do with your worth as a human being. There is a very good chance is doesn’t really have much to say about the value of your work.

All a rejection tells us is that this particular piece was not accepted by this particular publisher. Form letters (which most are) really don’t even tell us why the piece was not accepted. It usually just says something like “does not meet our current needs.” It says nothing about quality. It just says “no.”

For those who have never worn an editor’s shoes, a lesson. Imagine you and a handful of your friends decide to start a magazine publishing fiction. You advertise in all the right places and receive a hundred submissions. Now you sit down with the rest of your editorial board to decide which ten of the hundred submissions you’re going to include in your magazine.

Fifteen of the submissions are quickly eliminated because, frankly, they just aren’t very good. Another twenty are eliminated because the authors didn’t follow the submission requirements you established. They’re too long, or too short; they’re written in the wrong genre, or in the wrong format, or even handwritten on both sides of legal paper. You are busy people. Many of your editors might be working day jobs and running the magazine at night. You don’t have time for authors that can’t be bothered to follow your rules.

That leaves sixty-five submissions left. Of these, everyone agrees that six are very, very good and need to be included in the magazine. That leaves fifty-nine submissions competing for the final four slots. Of those fifty-nine stories, none are noteworthy either because they are very bad or very good. All are pretty good. All may have some weaknesses. So you and your friends start finding ways to eliminate entries. These three here might be similar to one of the exceptional stories we’ve already accepted; those four are pretty close to something you’ve published in previous months. But finally, when it comes to the final four stories you choose for your magazine, you basically go with your gut, your instinct. You might not even be able to explain exactly why you chose them.

All those ninety other stories will get rejection letters. You would love to write individual letters to all the authors, but you simply don’t have time. You have a magazine to work on. You might scribble an encouraging note to a handful of authors who were the last to be cut, but it depends on how much time and energy you have.

Those ninety authors all receive the rejection letter. Only fifteen of them were rejected because their writing wasn’t very good. But none of them knows who they are.

When you think about it, the odds are enormous. We have to send the right work (right theme, right style, right genre, right word count, etc.) to the right editor, at the right time (she hasn’t just accepted something very similar) in order to be published.

Seems like a long shot, doesn’t it? But there are a few things we can do to improve our odds. First of all, we need to make sure we’re not among that group that is eliminated because we didn’t follow the submission guidelines. Don’t make it easy to reject us.

Second, make sure that whatever we submit is as good as we can possibly make it. That includes proofreading.

Third, and perhaps the most important of all. We need to get as many editors to see the work as we can. The best way to hit that sweet spot of the right person, time, and place I spoke of earlier is to keep submitting it until someone accepts it. It might be the first place you send it; it might be the tenth. However, that tenth editor will never get the chance to publish that story if you give up after the second rejection.

Now we’re back to the opening. You have just received a letter rejecting your story. What do you do?

Allow yourself a few moments of disappointment. You are human after all. It’s allowed. But then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and submit it again.

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Writing advice

Nine Bad Habits That Hurt Your Writing Career

I recently came upon one of those inspirational lists aimed toward business people who want to be more successful. Since I am the sort of person who is always open to change and personal improvement I read it. I was impressed. More important (to me and this blog anyway) I immediately noted that many of the author’s observations made as much sense for writers as they did for business people. Often, the bad habits that prevent us from being successful in one aspect of our lives prevent us from being successful in every aspect of our lives.

So I adapted them specifically to apply to those of us who are trying to make a mark in the world of writing and literature.

Do you know why the odds of being a successful writer are so low? Because it is insanely difficult. Unfortunately, many of us have slipped into bad habits that actually work against us as we battle those odds. Changing those bad habits is the simplest way to increase those odds.

Simple, not easy.

So let’s get to it. Below are the nine bad habits that prevent us from writing success:

Denying Responsibility

We have to accept responsibility for every aspect of our writing career. Don’t blame our spouses, editors, publishers, or the buying public. Don’t blame circumstances. Don’t blame luck. The success or lack of success in our writing career is a direct consequence of the choices we make. We need to own it.

Procrastination

Procrastination is like a credit card. It can be fun at the time, but sooner or later the bill will come due. Procrastination is a career-killer.

Perfectionism

Perfection does not exist. Anywhere. It is only a great excuse to keep from getting started. Instead of seeking perfection, we need to do our best. We need to strive to be good. We need to strive to be better than we were yesterday. But we need to forget about perfection.

Fear of Criticism

If we are going to achieve anything worthwhile, we must expect tons of criticism and haters. We must learn to handle them. Take the criticism that helps us grow under consideration and ignore the rest. We cannot let the fear of criticism keep us from creating. Trying to please everyone is a sure route to failure.

Fear of Failure

Failure is absolutely necessary. It is a life lesson designed to bring out the best in us. No one likes failing and a little fear is normal. But we must guard against becoming discouraged about our failures. It really is not about how many times we fail, but about how many times we get up and try again.

Laziness

If we’re working just as hard as everyone else, we have to consider ourselves lazy. Writing is an extremely competitive vocation. If we want to stand out above the masses, we will have to work harder and longer than everyone else. We have to work our butts off. It will show in what we create.

Self-doubt

We have to drop all our self-limiting beliefs, all the “I can’t”s. If we want something with a strong enough passion, we will find a way to make the impossible happen. Our only limits are in our own minds. Change them.

Inconsistency

Develop the habit of writing all the time, whether we feel like it or not. The pro writer doesn’t make excuses. She just gets the work done, day in and day out. Short bursts of fiery enthusiasm is the stuff of amateurs.

Complacency

The most successful writers understand that they need to sharpen their skills all the time. We are never, ever, good enough. Once we stop improving our skills, we will immediately fall behind our competition, who are still improving. We need to decide early to become as excellent as we can and to do the work necessary to stay at the top of the field.

Many thanks to Jeremy Ng for the original list.

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Writing and Editing

The Writer’s Notebook

Someone recently asked me whether I have a “writer’s notebook.” A simple question, right? The answer is not quite so simple. Personally, I do have something like the classic writer’s notebook, but it isn’t exactly what most people imagine it to be. It’s kind of a hybrid.

The writer’s notebook has a long and storied history. Many writers, great and not so great, have compiled notebooks full of ideas and experiments. Henry James had one. So did Mark Twain, Emily Bronte, Herman Melville, and Jack Kerouac, among others. Literary scholars love notebooks because they often demonstrate how a writer developed a particular work and what his or her intentions were. (Sometimes the original intention has nothing to do with the finished work).

As the name implies, a writer’s notebook is where the writer keeps his or her notes on their work, projects, and often life in general. Sometimes it resembles a notebook from our school days, full of doodles, disjointed poems and randoms thoughts. Sometimes, it appears to be more of a journal, or diary. There are no firm rules about how to set one up. Each artist finds what works best for them.

Should you have a writer’s notebook? Sure. It certainly wouldn’t hurt and it might actually help your writing.

And how would it help?

For one thing, it gets you in the habit of writing. Every day. Furthermore, having a notebook helps you save and capitalize on inspiration. How many times have you been driving somewhere when the muse strikes with a beautiful idea? How many of those ideas have you lost because you couldn’t get them on paper in time? No one knows. But there are probably quite a few. While it’s never a good idea to try and write anything while you’re behind the wheel, if you have a notebook with you, you can jot it down as soon as it is safe to do so.

Or you could dictate it into a voice recorder. There is no rule that says your notebook has to be made of paper. In fact, there are many applications for smart phones now that will do the exact same thing as an old-fashioned paper notebook. I don’t have a smart phone myself, (I barely have a cell) so I haven’t tried any of them, but I have no doubt they do what they’re designed to do. Plus, you already have your phone with you, so it’s one less thing to carry around (or forget).

I can hear the questions now. Okay, someone says, I have the notebook. What do I write in it?

Whatever strikes your fancy. Each writer needs different things and looks for different items. Some suggestions come fairly easy though.

Character names. Many writers (including myself) collect character names. For me, I collect them because I have a horrible time trying to name characters. I find it quite helpful to have a list or lists on hand to choose from, rather than having to make up a name on the fly. Many other writers, from Dickens to Mark Twain, also collected interesting or funny names. In Catch-22, did Joseph Heller name his character Major Major Major as he wrote the novel, or did he have the name waiting somewhere in a notebook? I don’t know.

Other things you might put in your notebook: town/city names (if fictional), business names, street names, story ideas, plot ideas, snatches of overheard conversation, impressions of locations, descriptions of people, places, things, scents, feelings, catchy turns of phrase, title ideas, technique experiments, fragments of poetry, notes on revision, and so on.

Some of it you may never use. Perhaps most of it will never be used. But when you come to a spot in your novel when your character is standing in the foothills of the Pyrenees on a summer’s day, it would be nice to be able to find the notebook from your vacation where you wrote down exactly what the breeze smelled and felt like.

So write it down while the memory is still fresh.

And write it down in your writer’s notebook.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

5 Dialogue Mistakes

It can be argued that nothing is more important to modern fiction (and to a lesser degree memoir, history, and biography) than dialogue. Dialogue shows character, can heighten drama, and it moves the story along at a faster pace than description or exposition. Face it, gone are the days of Dickens and Hardy when readers were willing to wade through pages of prose describing springtime in Scranton, or the interior musings of a character as they weed their garden. Maybe modern readers have shorter attention spans. Maybe we are all truly over-scheduled. Whatever the reason, the modern reader wants a story that moves along, and moves along quickly. Dialogue serves that purpose well, but it must be done right.

Following are the five most common dialogue mistakes I’ve seen among apprentice writers.

Using dialogue for exposition.
This mistake is most common in beginning writers. Putting exposition in dialogue does not make it more interesting, or faster paced than exposition. Generally speaking, it makes it less believable.

Consider an example:

A man greets his wife/girlfriend:
“Hey, honey. How did the interview at the University go?”
“Good. I think.”
“Did they give you the Assistant Professorship?”

Now, realistically speaking, one must assume that both the man and woman knew beforehand what the interview was all about. A more realistic depiction might go like this:

“Hey, honey. How did the interview go?”
“Good. I think.”
“They give you the job?”

The fact that she was interviewing at the University for a job as an Assistant Professor should be revealed in exposition.

Being too creative in attributions.
While “he said” and “she said” can seem terribly boring, for ninety percent of all dialogue it’s what works best. Attribution is used primarily to avoid confusion in the reader about who is speaking. As such, “he said” or “Sally said” works just fine and will pass along the information the reader needs while remaining almost invisible. When the writer starts using attributions like “he opined,” “she volunteered,” and “he stated,” it draws attention away from the story and to the mechanics. Not a good thing.

And please, please, avoid modifying your attributions. “She said sarcastically” is an immediate red flag. The dialogue itself should demonstrate that the statement is sarcastic. The writer shouldn’t have to tell me. As Stephen King says in On Writing, one of the first parts of revision is to go through your manuscript and eliminate all words ending in -ly. They’re unnecessary.

Characters give speeches, rather than have conversations.
Writer’s have to be great (and unobtrusive) listeners, because in dialogue we are trying to create the illusion of people talking. If you pay attention and really listen to how people converse, you’ll quickly realize that real people seldom talk in multiple complete sentences. Most of the time they don’t speak in complete sentences at all. Most of our conversations consist of one or two word questions and responses. People interrupt and talk over each other. Really good friends can often communicate with a single key word or facial expression. Dialogue should reflect that.

Dialogue is written like a play, rather than fiction.
This is something of a stylistic choice, so take it for what it’s worth, but many inexperienced writers create long passages of nothing but dialogue, words within quotation marks, the attributions and nothing else. To my eye, this reads like a play. There’s nothing wrong with drama, mind you, but when I want to read a play I read a play; when I want to read fiction, I want to read fiction.

The key to fixing this lies in the writer’s imagination. She has the dialogue nailed, but the conversations seem to take place in a vacuum. The truth is, people don’t generally just sit there and speak with each other. They are shifting their position, fiddling with items on the table, fussing with their hair or clothing. It’s what the theater people call business. In a play, the actors and director add “business” to the dialogue in the play; the reader of fiction expects the writer to do this. (And it’s another great way to reveal character.)

All characters speak alike.
Perhaps the hardest part or writing dialogue is learning that all people do not speak the same way; neither should your characters. It’s difficult to do. As we imagine the scenes in our stories, we, naturally, fill in a lot of the characters in question with ourselves, which is fine. It’s the only way to write a novel, or story, to imagine how someone would react to a situation. The danger is that all your characters begin to sound like you. Sometimes, we need to step back a bit and take a lesson from the world around us.

We human beings are more alike than different, but there are differences, social differences, political differences, economic differences. Those differences are often reflected in how we talk. A twelve-year-old girl from the suburbs will talk differently than a logger. A philosophy professor will talk differently than a gas station attendant. A police officer from a small town in Iowa will speak differently than a police officer from Brooklyn. Different generations have different slang. Different regions of the country have different idioms, different pronunciations of the same word.

So keep your characters’ backgrounds in mind as you write their scenes and adjust their speech accordingly.

The way to correct all of these mistakes is to pay attention to your work as you create it. (The easiest manner is seldom the best). Also, pay attention to the people around you. Actively listen to how they speak. Listen to how their conversation flows back and forth between them and practice re-creating this. Pay attention to their mannerisms and nervous habits. It’s all material to help you create your fiction.

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Writing advice

Writers’ Conferences

I admit I was late to appreciate the benefits of attending a writers’ conference. Part of this, I’m sure, was because I had finished my college education, which meant I’d taken nearly every writing class the University offered. What more, I felt, could I learn from a one or two hour workshop? I’d just spent more than four years studying the art of writing for several hours a week.

Little did I know.

Oh, I did attend a conference once outside of Portland, mainly because it let you reserve a time slot to pitch your work to a real life New York agent. I did, but nothing came of it. In hindsight, I was over-reaching. I was not yet good enough. But it was an experience.

I attended all the workshops for which I’d signed up, but didn’t get much out of them. They reminded me of freshman-level courses at the University. There was a lecture hall full of about a hundred students listening to someone lecture. There was no discussion, little in the way of question-and-answer, almost no engagement. I also didn’t know a soul there, and it just being a day or two, never saw anyone often enough to make a new friend.

My opinion of writer’s conferences largely reflected that experience: me wandering alone from workshop to workshop, passively listening to the lectures, but gaining little or no insight into what I was trying to learn.

I decided writers’ conferences were not for me. The expense was simply not worth the meager returns.

I was wrong. For ten years I was wrong.

Flash forward to 2006. I had just moved to a little town on the Oregon coast and, as fate would have it, this little town hosted a writer’s conference every winter. Still, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t like writers’ conferences. Remember?

However, a family member talked me into going just once. Am I glad she did? Absolutely. That weekend experience at the South Coast Writers’ Conference truly changed my writing life. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I became one of the cadre of volunteers that help organize and host it every year. I’ve been doing it ever since.

I was converted.

So what made this conference experience so different?

In a word: size. The South Coast Writer’s Conference is a small conference. It usually only hosts ten to twelve presenters and about a hundred-and-fifty participants. Instead of a lecture hall full of student writers listening to the presenter, most workshops consisted of fifteen to twenty students discussing the topics with a presenter. Students actually did exercises and discussed them with their colleagues.

I walked away from the weekend exhilarated and enthusiastic about the craft again. It was remarkable.

Ever since then, I’ve told anyone who asks (especially writers struggling to learn the craft and establish their careers) to by all means attend a conference. But choose carefully because different conferences offer different things. Not all conferences are the same. Like any business expense, you must decide whether the benefits are worth the expense.

Some of the larger conferences (such as the Maui Conference, or Willamette Writer’s Conference) can offer things the smaller conferences can’t, such as presenters who are wildly successful, household names, opportunities to meet one-on-one with agents and film producers, or to have your manuscript critiqued. These conferences, however, are relatively expensive (someone has to pay the higher speaking fees for the big name authors) and they are often so large that it’s difficult to get any personal attention.

The smaller conferences can’t attract or pay for the household-name writers, but they also are usually much less expensive. The presenters who do come are talented, perfectly good writers who just haven’t made it into the stratosphere of the best seller lists. Often, they are young authors who are on their way up. I’ve seen a presenter suddenly have a hugely successful book and become so much in demand that a small conference can no longer afford them.

But the biggest advantage the smaller conferences have is that you can receive much more personal attention. Attendees often chat with presenters over lunch and between workshops. Also, because the workshops are small, the attendees are often seeing the same faces in several workshops. Friendships are made. Connections forged.

And whichever conference you decide to attend, that is probably the most beneficial aspect of all of them. The knowledge that whatever challenges you might be facing in your writing career, there are others out there who know exactly how difficult it can be. Some of them even know how to overcome them.

Sure, the workshops might teach you a new way to handle point-of-view, or a promotional opportunity you weren’t aware of, but the most important thing any person who has chosen this maddening and often frustrating pursuit needs to have is a sense of belonging to a community. Writing is lonely enough without feeling you’re completely alone. Attending a writers’ conference can help with that.

So should you spend your hard-earned on the local writer’s conference? Absolutely.

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Writing and Editing

Revision: le mot juste

Gustave Flaubert, the brilliant French novelist, once advised a student to search for le mot juste, the perfect word in their writing. What does that mean? It means that in every sentence, no matter how basic, how routine, each word should be the perfect word for that sentence, with that meaning, at that particular point in the story. Every. Single. Word.

If you are looking at an 85,000 word novel this can be quite a challenge. And it is truly a challenge to make each word a conscious decision. But this is what we writers do, particularly if we’re striving to become one of the very best. It’s an integral part of the revision and editing process and it’s something every professional writer does. And every writer with dreams of becoming a professional should be doing

It’s making sure every. single. word. is the perfect word for every part of every. single. sentence. If being a great writer were easy, everyone would be doing it. Right?

This is all about mining language for the exact nuance our story demands. Only we, as the story’s authors, can truly know what the perfect shade of meaning is for any particular situation. After all, we’re the ones seeing it originally in our heads. However, should we get the nuance wrong, the reader will surely notice it, particularly if we fall back on the easy solutions of cliché and the mundane.

An example. For our purposes, we will only consider the verb.

“She walked into the room.”

It’s a sentence. It’s grammatically correct, uses an active voice, and gets the job done. As readers, we clearly know what happened. A woman walked into the room. It’s very utilitarian. But it isn’t terribly inspired, is it?

Now, let’s adjust the verb a bit.

“She glided into the room.”

The change of verb totally changes the mental picture in the reader’s mind. But it still might not be accurate.

“She sauntered into the room.”

Again a different mental picture.

“She trudged into the room.”

“She floated into the room.”

“She strolled into the room.”

All of these variations are fine. It just depends on what the story needs. The object is to find that precise word that most perfectly conveys the image in our mind.

And to do that with every. single. word.

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