Embracing the Holiday Dash

Southern Christmas decoration

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

It’s that time of year again. Fueled by our Thanksgiving feasts we’re ready to begin the holiday dash. We enter the frenzy of buying, wrapping, shipping, stamping, mailing, cooking, baking, and battling the long To-Do list for preparing a “magical” holiday for family and friends. It seems impossible to find a spare minute to focus on putting words on paper. I’ve discovered that THIS is the time of year to read or plan a project. I feel I’ve accomplished SOMETHING during the holiday season when I focus on WORDS.

Read-magazine

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

It’s not so much about putting words onto paper but on keeping a pulse on the rhythm of words. When I focus on words, I’m able to embrace the holiday dash—and feel I’m made a little progress toward my writing while crossing off items on an ever-growing To-Do list. These tips may help you too:

Tune into language. You can do this two ways. Listen to holiday songs and note the phrases that paint images as well as evoke emotion. Songs and poetry rely on specific word choice to get a meaning/scenario across to the listener very  quickly. Or while reading, notice vivid verbs or phrases that conjure images and/or emotion. For example, while reading a fantasy novel recently I made this list:

  • hulking machines
  • enormous iron beetles
  • stabbed up from the earth
  • billowing smoke
  • snorting steam
  • wreathed in smoke.

In another story, I listed strong, vivid verbs and modifiers:

  • swirled
  • twisted
  • blooming
  • sprouted
  • jagged
  • crumbling
  • loomed.

When you tune into language like this, you’ll soon find yourself reaching for a more vivid and creative phrase, rather than relying on the first word that comes to mind.

Return to the Pre-Writing Phase. As a nonfiction author, I can make progress by reading for research and then planning an article or section of my book project. But fiction writers can also use this time to plan and pace out story scenes. Remember that the phases in the writing process are recursive. This is NOT like baking cookies. (Though I use time spent mixing, rolling out, cutting, and baking sugar cookies to play with story pacing or focusing a nonfiction topic.)

People watch. Rely on a writer’s power of observation by watching people while you’re stuck in line or waiting somewhere. (If you’re not already a keen observer, now is a great time to develop this skill!) Make a mental list of specific actions. What do they reveal about personality? Note outfits and how people interact with those around them. What clues would these provide a reader about a character’s inner workings? How might you spring-board from these observations to enhance your work-in-progress?

All of these things can be done while you’re working on crossing off items on December’s lengthy To-Do list. I’ve found it balances out the frenzy of the holiday dash.

May you cross the “finish line” to happy holidays and make a little progress in the pre-writing phase in the coming month. HappyHoliday

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Summer Writing Slim down

IMG_0059Summertime. Freedom. More time for fresh air, sunshine, outdoor and leisure activities. Many of us focus on watching what we eat and getting healthy. Why not put your summertime writing on a diet too?

Drafts can be padded with excess phrasing and vague or unnecessary words. The point of the draft, after all, is to get thoughts to paper. But, once a writing session is completed, I like to go back and trim the empty calories–the “filler”–then focus again on drafting more. (Later, during revision, I’ll rethink and rearrange, but I’ll spend less time wading through the excess.)

Just as we focus on shedding winter weight, reread your MS and learn to cut the empty words. Keep your prose as lean and energized as possible. Each phrase should add substance to your story or article, otherwise it adds nothing but padding. Think of empty words as empty calories. They ruin good writing; they pull true talent out of shape.

Edit-MSCut to trim the filler. Here are a few things to look for:

Hedging Words: These show insecurity, uncertainty, lack of confidence

▸usually, probably, maybe, rather, fairly, perhaps, sort of, kind of, somewhat, quite, a little, look, seem, -ish, -looking, -seeming

Weak Modifiers: a modifier is a helping word. It adds detail or intensifies meaning, but weak modifiers dilute the meaning.

▸just, so, such, very, really, even, at all, certainly, all, definitely, exactly, right, anyway.

▸avoid this and that in excess

▸for ‘just’ to have the impact it has in spoken form (often provided through inflection) use it sparingly in written form

If you use the above in dialogue, they can show an insecure or boring character. If this is not your intent, trim from dialogue as well.

The more aware you are of unnecessary words during the draft, the cleaner and clearer your draft becomes. This allows more time during revision to focus on content, plot and character development for instance, rather than editing for clarity.

May your summertime writing be trim and healthy!

A Sense of Place: The Power of Observation

I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.crown-molding

These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.

big-shoes-to-fillSoon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)

Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.

blackbird-amcr7Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.

What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.

Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.

Writing is Like an Iceberg

icebergOnly the writer knows all that lies beneath the surface.

As northern weather begins to cool, the mention of icebergs may feel like hitting below the belt; however, it really is the best analogy for crafting a solid story or informational article.

For nonfiction, a great deal of research goes into every article, and more so for a book. The writer cannot possibly share every fact and thought about the topic, though. The goal is to share information and insight, not overwhelm the reader. When I research for a nonfiction book, perhaps 75 percent of the research ends up in the finished product, sometimes less. Yet the percent “unused” is not wasted; it is essential to my understanding of the topic and so it is “present” beneath the surface.

The same is true for fiction. Though the author may not need to conduct research (unless writing historical fiction or centering around a real event) there is still a great deal of information, planning, and thought that goes into a novel or even a short story. Everything the writer knows about the characters’ personalities, back stories, relationships (past and present), events that shaped the “person,” how the characters act and react (and why), and even their futures is important to the story. Yet only a small percentage of that information is provided to the reader. (In comparison to my nonfiction, when I write fiction, perhaps 25 percent of research and background goes into the story.) The majority of all the writer knows is below the waterline, providing a foundation for what appears above the water. The reader must become engaged with the small portion visible.

King-good-booksjpgThis is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to understand, especially when writing fiction. This is also where the “show; don’t tell” rule-of-thumb arises. Inexperienced writers want to provide every detail about a character, want to ensure the reader “gets” what they have created, and want to be recognized for being clever. As they gain more experience, they realize that writers can reveal a lot and hint at plenty of background without sharing every detail and nuance of a character’s history or personality.

Truly, holding something back and providing hints at a character’s past makes the story more engaging. If the foundation is there, the story will stay afloat. Keep icebergs in mind as you write–and trust your ability to reveal details as needed for the reader to understand each moment in the story (scene by scene).

After the Draft

Many new writers confuse editing with revision. Editing is one of the later stages and is focused on cleaning and polishing of your prose. During this stage you (try to) catch typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and ensure you have clean presentation (check formatting) and have carefully followed the guidelines for your submission. Editing is often completed by someone at the publishing house. But it should also be completed by the writer and is often possible in a single pass.

onestepattimeRevision, on the other hand, comes a bit earlier in the writing process than editing. It is also completed in numerous passes and/or various attempts. During writing workshops when someone asks, “How many times do you revise?” I tell them it depends. I revise as many times as it takes to ensure it’s clear and the best prose I’m capable of writing at this point in my career. This is never what the participants want to hear but it’s a reality of the writing world. If you want to publish, this is what you do.

It helps to think of revision as “rethinking” your story. Now that you have your draft–your story framework and basics–on paper, you can shape it, like clay; refine and rework it as you ask yourself questions about characterization, point of view, use of dialogue and detail. Perhaps you’ll even try a different approach in plotting or viewpoint for a scene or two. Revision is about refining but also developing and deepening the story so the reader has the best possible experience.

not-writejpgMost writers break revision into section or passes. How you approach it is up to you; it depends on your creative approach. Some writers draft and then revise a bit, draft and then revise, but eventually, they reach a point where they are focused on reshaping and rethinking (rather than adding chapters and pages to the manuscript). I’m in the camp of getting a complete draft on paper and then playing around with the writing elements, expanding and deleting scenes, rethinking, shaping, looking at the draft with fresh eyes: re-visioning.

REVISION CLASSES:
If you’re ready to learn more about “looking again” at your draft and revising, I have a revision class starting Wednesday, October 28 through ACE (Adult and Community Education) in Naples, Fla. Find details on my website workshops page.

Learning from your Published work

My writing clients and workshop participants constantly want to know what I did to get where I am. I know they hope there is an easier way to reach their publication goals; there isn’t. It comes down to this: the more you write, the more you learn, and that combines toward your first publication credits. It doesn’t end there, of course; you’ll continue writing and learning.

MS-editAs I teach/coach, I draw on nearly 30 years of publishing experience, but I was in the “pre-publication” trenches for some time before that. When I look back, I see two things I did that rocketed my skills toward publication: 1) learning to read with a writer’s eye, and  2) learning from the editorial changes made to my writing.

Obviously, the latter was a result of the former. The key detail here is ‘continuing to learn’ and reading my own published work, comparing it to the manuscript I had submitted, and learning from those  changes. This is what made the difference.

This “issue” of editorial changes has come up many time over the 20 years I’ve been coaching and teaching writers. It is often in the form of complaints: “They edited my final paragraph” or “they rearranged my article–the paragraphs are all over the place” or “how can they change words/phrasing without checking with me?”

In response, I tsk tsk and shake my finger. “Did you not listen during the marketing segment?” I want to shout. “I did cover this in class.” Then I calmly remind them that magazines and websites work to a serial schedule and have a layout to fill. Time and space is vital. Was your cut paragraph due to space? Was your phrasing changed because you failed to edit empty words or echos? Does the “rearranged” text have better flow? Did you study the publication’s audience before the final edit and change words/phrasing that might be offensive, or too difficult for the target audience (this mainly for children’s authors)?

Tight schedules and contract terms (these vary and depend on the rights you sold) for magazines/online publications warrant editors doing their jobs and tweaking your prose to fit target audience, publication mission, and layout/space. Major changes are often passed by the author first, but not always.

Read-magazineThe best thing to do is to stop griping and look at these changes. What can you learn from them? Early in my career I was lucky enough to submit repeatedly to a small girls’ magazine and the editor really liked my writing. She provided a brief explanation for editorial changes when she sent my first contributor copies and check. It amounted to: “make every word count.” In comparing the manuscript I sent with the version that appeared in print, I realized helping verbs were replaced with strong, specific verbs. Adverbs were cut and again, specific phrasing that showed (not told) replaced them. My next effort was more polished and this editor went on to purchase many articles from me during the next few years. These credits opened doors to larger and better paying markets.

Something similar happened to a former workshop participant and writing friend, Cheryl. She contacted me to “catch up” on what she’d accomplished since taking my local writing classes. I celebrated her publishing credits and her gig writing blogs and articles on insurance for an industry site. But, she had a new issue: after a nice run, a change in editors resulted in Cheryl hardly recognizing her own articles.

I shared my story and made this suggestion: Try to back up to see the full picture. Read the heavily-edited posts from the publication’s perspective. What can you learn about the handling of the topic that might help you with the next batch of articles/blogs?

She did this and was able to see how the content changed. And, she noticed the blogs had been edited to be much shorter. This prompted her to contact the new editor. She also wrote her next submission to follow this new “format” it seemed they were using. It happened that their scope was changing and they were simply working with what she sent them. It seemed that during the change in her “handler/editor” no one thought to tell her that site’s scope was changing. But, they loved the new “sample” article and, based on that style, they said “it was much more what they are looking for.” Her motivation is back, and they are even more impressed with her writing skills.

pile-magsThis connects with another important skill for freelance writers: looking carefully at sample articles, stories on sites you plan to submit manuscripts to, or reading recent issues of magazines. Note the style, format of articles, and length for clues. You’ll then do your final edit with these in mind before hitting “send” on your submission. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better your chances at publication.

“Quiet Mind” Writing Days

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

I’ve created several creativity programs for writers within the past six months and I’ve noticed something interesting among the participants: they try to jump into the “words on paper” part. Sometimes we need to quiet the mind first to allow ideas to surface.

Why do writers think they aren’t writing if words are not flowing onto the paper? Sometimes we simply need to sit, think about our stories or projects, or even brainstorm with friends. If you’re a writer, it is okay to sit and stare off into the day and consider possibilities for your characters or plot. It’s okay to find the best events in a personal experience you plan to craft. In fact, current neuro-research suggests that quieting the mind is how we allow ideas from our subconscious to surface. (This is why you might get great ideas while you’re doing something monotonous such as washing dishes, gardening, or scrubbing the shower.)

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

Where does this idea come from that writers shouldn’t think about our stories or craft in our heads before heading to the computer? (Even my college students jump to the drafting stage too quickly.) Pre-writing is important, and while students learning how to write are expected to show their pre-writing in the form of mind maps or outlines, professional writers often do all that planning in their heads. I think this idea that we should not sit quietly may come from a need to be taken seriously as writers. If we look busy and are clicking away on the keys, maybe our families will allow us to make progress on our novel or project. If we look busy, maybe life won’t get in the way. Or, perhaps staring into space and thinking about plot events for a work-in-progress doesn’t feel the same as having something to show for the time and so busy work keeps you from actually writing.

I know that my own life gets busy too quickly and then that frantic pace sets in. Sometimes it’s not even frantic action but simply frantic thoughts. I used to clear my mind every morning by dumping all my thoughts and worries every morning. Then I could focus on my project or making progress on contracted work. Some may recognize this as “morning pages” suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I followed that advice when I worked full time and tried breaking into print part-time.

Now that I write full time I need to take breaks to recharge during the day. Sometimes I need to quiet my mind and I use painting or music or cooking, or what I call productive procrastination. People may think the character collages I create are simply a way to avoid writing but I’m making progress on a specific book project. In actuality, these “arts and crafts” activities help me clarify details for my story.

 

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

While I am actually making these collages, my mind is quieting and I have time to pre-write or plan plot details and so on in my mind. When I return to the keyboard, I’m mentally refreshed. The progress I make doing this is far exceeds the results when I force myself to sit in front of the computer screen until I reach my “word or page quota.” In the end it’s about making progress toward a completed manuscript. Some days our work is easier to show than on other days, than on the “quiet mind” days.

The next time you hit a wall with your writing, try sitting and quieting your mind. Think about options for your narrative, or how you might shape the story. If you can’t shake the feeling that you aren’t writing if you think about your project, consider it “pre-writing.” Since the writing process is recursive, remind yourself that you’re going back to “stage 1” to develop the idea and settle into the plan for the next chapters or scenes. Project do benefit from “quiet mind” days. You’re still working; you’re still writing.