READING TO LEARN HOW TO WRITE BETTER

A great trick for helping your own writing is to read other fiction similar to what you write and see what you skim through because it doesn’t interest you or bores you.

Does anything in particular annoy you about the book? Examples:

  • Present tense
  • Starting with one character musing or waking up. No conflict, no action
  • Too much description is a good example. Or maybe even, not enough, which results in no sense of place.
  • Characters with annoying habits that distract you from the plot. One recent read had several characters puckering their lips, apparently in confusion or disgust—I was pretty disgusted myself after about the fourth use of this word. Another one I saw by a best-selling author was; “Her eyes crunched.” What? Like cereal?
  • Anything that distracts you from the plot
  • Long descriptions of travel routes. Who cares how the character got from A to B, unless something exciting happens along the way? I don’t mind a mention of a few streets so that people familiar with a real setting get a better visual, but no need for every single turn, IMO. Or telling the reader every time a character climbed into the car, and then exited again. Anyone find it amusing, as I do, at how hard we try to use different words for ordinary actions, like sitting and getting in and out of a car (climbing in and exiting out of)?
  • Too much jumping around—with too many character POVs, settings, and/or timeframes. All this can be handled well by a good writer, but it can be hard to read by a not-so-talented one.
  • Weird attributions. The latest one I saw by a best-selling author was; “Her eyes crunched.” What? Like cereal?

Bottom line, try to figure out why this particular book was easy to put down.

On the other hand, notice what you liked about a work:

  • The characters? Why? What actions and emotional responses made them come alive for you?
  • The setting? Why—because it was simply interesting to you personally or because it was done so well, or?
  • The plot—because it had great twists or was unusual, or what? What plot points worked well for you? How can you make them your own in your writing?
  • The writing itself—was it voice, or word choices, or theme, or pacing, or something hard to define? See if you can nail it down

As soon as you figure out that the book you are reading right now might be a favorite, start taking notes. For each chapter, do a short synopsis.

  • Pay particular attention to how it starts and ends
  • What was the main conflict in the chapter, or questions raised?
  • How did the writer describe things that made you actually see them in your mind’s eye?
  • What did you like about the characters, including the villain(s). What made you love to hate them?

Is there anything in particular that almost always makes you love or dislike a book? If so, what is it? And what do you try really hard to do well with your stories?

For a much longer blog post about reading to help your writing, I recommend this:

How to learn to write while you’re reading

LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT DRAFTING A NOVEL

The list below of things to do after writing each chapter of your novel came about because I’ve edited nine novels now, and learned from personal experience that they would all have been easier to edit if I’d done everything on the checklist before continuing to write the next chapter. I’ve gotten timelines mixed up, character names mangled, forgotten whether it was spring, summer, or fall, left out sensory input where it would have worked brilliantly, and used “was,” “a while,” and other pet words way too often. Following the checklist should only take a few minutes and will make your first full run-through edit a lot less painful. See what you think. I only wish I’d done it for all my books, including my latest:

clutteredatticsecrets-08After each chapter is written:

1. Read it over and make minor changes and to refresh your memory.
2. Make a chart (word processing table or spreadsheet) with columns for Chapter Number, Day of Week, Time, Location, and Outline (synopsis).
3. Nail day of week, time of day, and location, put on chart.
4. List all new characters on another chart with first name, last name, and description so you can sort by first/last name to be sure not too many characters have similar names or begin with the same letter. Usually I do a small description of characters as they’re introduced, so I often just copy and paste the description into that column. If later on I mention something else about the character (eye color, make of car, for example), I put those details into that column, too.
5. Have yet a third chart to list names of businesses. My current novel has a made-up museum, funeral parlor, theater, and restaurant. It’s easy to forget many chapters later what I made up. It’s just two columns—name of business, and what it is. It won’t take you much time at all to add anything to it.
6. Check that senses other than sight are included–smell, hearing, touch, taste.
7. Find and replace your frequent words, for example, “was,” “that,” etc.
8. Check for your own personal demons—lack of description, echo words, tags missing making conversations confusing, mixed-up names, character positioning, and so on.
9. Do a final spell check.
10. Save your day’s work on your computer and back it up (I do that on the cloud).
11. Write the outline/synopsis for your chart.
12. In your notes file, (you have a notes file, right? With maps, research, anything else related to your particular project. I put these two charts in that file, always open when I’m writing the novel) list anything you want to cover later on, and any good ideas you have for later action. This is especially important if you are not an outliner, and it can help prevent writer’s block.

Your future self will thank you later for doing all this. So will your editor. Anyone have any tips to add to the list?

THE 80/10 RULE FOR WRITERS

You’ve probably been told how important good grammar and punctuation are to becoming a good writer. And they are.

You may have been made aware of certain “rules” or even current fads for writing fiction. “Show don’t tell.” “Eliminate all ‘wases.’” “No head hopping.” Then you scratch your own head when you see a best-selling author do all of those things. On one page.

You might have learned about story arcs, the snowflake graph, the best way to outline, structure, beginnings, endings, and a huge amount of other tips and tricks.

But still you don’t get it done. You don’t finish a story or a novel. You get stuck in the middle. Or even at the beginning. You think your skills are pretty darned good, but what good are they if you can’t finish what you start, or even get started in the first place?

There’s a new “thing” (I don’t know what else to call it, although it’s usually called a rule) going around about the 80/20 rule. This rule says that 20% of whatever you’re trying to accomplish is worth more than all the other 80%. So, you should concentrate on accomplishing that 20%.

I believe the 80% for writers are all the rules, guidelines, and mechanics of writing, and throw in the business side there, too. The 20% is the story, which is made up of words, sentences, and scenes. If you’ve read a lot and paid attention to how things are written, your subconscious probably knows a great deal about what is good writing and what isn’t. But all that reading, both about writing advice and fiction, can’t teach you how to put words on the page.

So, is there a trick for that? I think there are several.

First, stop worrying. Quit wondering where your next idea is going to come from, how you’re going to set up the murderer to be caught, how you’re going to fill the page.

Second, if you don’t have an idea right now, just pick one at random. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, who the characters are, pick anything. An object, a place, a person, a situation. Pick one of those things and start writing about it.

Third, eventually your idea will tend to peter out. This is where you stop and think consciously. Up until now, your subconscious was just doing stream of consciousness about what you decided to write about. Now, you need to start focusing more on a story.

Fourth, be pro-active in thinking about what to write next, about where your story can go from here. Use either pen and paper or your computer keyboard to let the ideas flow. Ask yourself “what if” questions. List all the possibilities that could happen next, no matter how outlandish (you may decide to write humor where outlandish is good).

Fifth, pick the idea you think is the most interesting, the most fun, the most unique, the best of all you’ve thought of.

And sixth, write some more until you come to the point where you have to repeat steps four and five.

If you insist on outlining, you use the same process. As you outline, just as those who do not, you will come to spots where you are stuck. Personally, I don’t outline for this reason. My first draft is basically my outline more fleshed out. And because this system is the way I write, I rarely have to make major edits to the story. So, I save a lot of time.

Some of the ease from this comes with more writing. Like most things, the more you do, the easier it gets. Usually.

And getting back to the 80/20 “rule.” Do the process steps over and over again while learning the current rules and fads for writing in this decade. In other words, pick them up as you go—don’t make them your main focus.

This works for me. I’ve had days when I’ve written three thousand new words in a novel. Most days I can get one thousand down, and many days I can pretty easily get close to two thousand. Each thousand words takes me approximately an hour or so to write, after a short time brainstorming with the what if/what happens next process.

I believe in learning by finding out how other people who are experts in their fields do things. I don’t classify myself as an expert—I’m not that arrogant. But I can tell that many prolific, successful writers, use this method. They may not even realize themselves how they’re doing it.

Give it a try. And let me know if it works for you.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN CRITIQUE GROUPS

Besides some basics, such as “show, don’t tell,” stay in point of view, eliminate passive language and voice, and watch out for too many modifiers, I also learned the following:

How to listen with an open mind, knowing you can always decide against making the particular change suggested.

What each particular critiquer brings to the table because of different backgrounds and sets of knowledge. Find out what that knowledge consists of and use it to help your own writing. There’s the one who knows about grammar and punctuation, and is always right about that. The police officer who can make sure you’ve got your facts straight about procedure. The gun expert who can help you with selecting the best guns to put in your story. And so on.

That each critiquer has a strong suit about the writing itself. One will point out the grammar errors, one will point out when you stepped out of point of view. Another will show you where it would be a good idea to put in what the character is thinking and/or feeling. Yet another will suggest you haven’t nailed the setting or your transitions are weak. And so on.

Each critiquer probably has a weak spot. Some will insert commas that are not needed. Some will have a list of items he wants to see at the beginning of each new submission such as setting, description of characters, whether the character is male or female, even the weather because he doesn’t like learning later that he’s wrong about any of those. The problem with this is if you do that every time, it becomes boring and most likely will slow down the story. And you might have two people disagreeing about what they want to see in the beginning. Do what works for your story and you.

Each group will have a set of rules made by consensus, perhaps long before you joined;  for example, no semicolons in fiction. Groups often label “bad” words, which can include: “was,” “walk,” “went,” “got,” all words ending in “ly,” and so on. Generally, it’s best to follow these “rules,” but not slavishly. Sometimes it’s better to use a modifier. Sometimes a “was” gets the job done the quickest and best way. And so on.

You can learn how to be a good critiquer yourself–what to look for in other people’s work, and then apply it to your own so it becomes part of your tool kit for writing well.

To listen even if you don’t like the person doing the critique. And not to give undue attention to someone else because you like her so much. In other words, while being critiqued, only concentrate on what the critiquer is saying, not whether you like her as a person or not. Even a person you almost hate may say just the right thing to take your story from good to fabulous.

Realize that if you have to explain what you wrote, you need to fix what you wrote. If your story is published, you won’t be around to sit at the reader’s shoulder and explain what you meant. It has to be on the page.

If more than one person mentions the same problem, pay particular attention. If three or more mention something, you’d better fix it, even if you don’t totally agree. There is usually a way to fix it that will make both you and everyone else happy.

Learn to separate yourself emotionally from the piece being critiqued. You must learn how to do this. The critiquer is not trying to put you down, he is trying to help make your piece better. (Unless he’s just a jerk, but remember, even jerks have their good days.)

When you get home, go over all of your piece, word by word, with the critiquers’ notes in front of you. I like having them all printed out. Then I staple all the pages of the critiques together page by page. In other words, all the Page Ones are stapled together, and I look at my Page One draft and make changes, line by line.

As a critiquer, be kind. Some folks are quite sensitive about their writing and need a more gentle touch. Others seem to welcome a harsh critique–it gives them something to work with later. A good rule is to start off by saying something positive, then give the changes you think are needed, then end by saying something else positive. I’ve never seen any piece of writing that didn’t have something good in it to compliment the writer about. Usually, more than one thing.

Learn to enjoy the process. It’s exhilarating getting that first draft done and ready to be read by others. But editing what you wrote is just as important. It’s a four-part operation. First, get that draft down and completed to the end. Second, edit it, either with others, or by yourself. Third, submit it. Fourth, when it’s published, publicize it. In today’s world, if you skip any of those steps, you won’t get as far as you might like. So, it’s best to enjoy doing it all.

 

WORD BY WORD

If you write 1,000 words a day it can equal a lot a year. Here’s how:

SIX DAYS A WEEK

If you write 1,000 words a day for six days a week for one year, you will have 313,000 words written by the end of the year.  Divide by four, and you will have four 78,250-word books in rough draft.

Your novel or nonfiction book may need to be a few thousand words more than that, but you can, no doubt, squeeze those words in before the end of the year.

Write a short story every month. = 12/year by writing 1,000/words or less one day a week.

Write an article every month. = 12/year when you have some extra time

At the end of one year you could have three novels, one non-fiction book, twelve short stories and twelve articles written.  This means that you have to do only two things:  Write 1,000 words a day, and edit 1,000 words a day, Monday through Friday, plus write and edit 1,000 words for your short story quota (could do 500 words in one story, and 500 in another, for example) every Saturday, and squeeze in that article when the mood strikes, but aim for one a month.

RADIATE

 FIVE DAYS A WEEK

If you write 1,000 words/day, five days a week, you will have 261,000 words at the end of one year.  Divide by four, and you have exactly enough for four 65,250-word books.  Make one or two a bit shorter, and you can squeeze in a two-week vacation.

If you get most everything you write published, each will help sell the others.  Someone may read your nonfiction book and find out you wrote a mystery, so will try that out, or vice versa.  Someone may read a couple of your short stories or articles, see your bio, and decide to try one or more of your books.

The trickiest part is to keep up the pace and to make sure that if you edit out a whole chuck of one of your pieces that you also write enough words in that day to make up the deleted words.

Make up a chart for tracking how much you actually accomplish every day in a spreadsheet, and you will be amazed at how much you have done in just half a year.

Excuse me while I work on my second 500 words for the day. (But no, although I wish I could meet this goal, I haven’t yet. But there’s still time.)

 

 

HOW TO STREAMLINE YOUR WRITING

Here are some ideas I gave another writer who asked how to cut down a piece that is too long for today’s market.

 tango edit cut by warszawianka -

How many characters does it have? Can any be combined into one character to do the job? Or cut entirely?

How many subplots does it have? For a novel over 90,000 words, probably too many. For a short story, zero is the correct answer almost one hundred percent of the time. (I’m talking about the average short story which is between about six and six thousand words.)

Is it too heavy on description–in today’s market, short is better, especially for short stories. Three lines maximum is often suggested as a good rule-of-thumb, but if you do fabulous descriptions, of course, you don’t want to limit yourself this way. Do be careful when writing short stories, though, not to have too many. Frequent readers usually expect short stories to be full of character and plot and little else, unless you’re writing literary fiction.

After looking at the big picture, you can go in and look at each sentence. Is it pulling its weight? Look for trailing phrases that can be cut. Often the words at the ends of sentences mean little or are redundant or obvious.

Next look at excess words, mostly modifiers, making the words they modify as strong as you can.

And if you’re done and still not down to where you need to be, either get someone who’s published to look it over and make suggestions, or hire a professional editor to do the job. Or both.

WHY ATTENTION TO GRAMMAR IS SO IMPORTANT

What’s wrong with this sentence? (In previous sentences in the article quoted from, it is explained the writer is talking about great white sharks.)

“Researchers at OCEARCH, which captured, tagged and released the sharks aboard their 126-foot former Bering Sea crabber have found that the sharks swim south much faster than once thought.”

My mind immediately saw those sharks released on the former crabber. I pictured them flailing around on the deck. Then when I looked at the sentence again, I thought it was too long and complicated. I also realized that the researchers did not capture the sharks while the sharks were aboard their boat. Next I caught on that since it was the researchers who captured, tagged and released the sharks, the word “which” following “Researchers at OCEARCH” is incorrect. “Which” should have been “who.” It was the researchers who captured the sharks, not the organization they work for. Not to mention the missing comma after the word “crabber” and the needed Oxford comma. All problems could have been fixed by taking apart the sentence and rearranging everything so it both made sense and was easier to read. Making it two sentences would have helped immensely.

I do not claim to be an expert on grammar, and I’m only pointing out things that I’m sure were wrong. But if I’m mistaken about any of my points, I wish some of the experts out there would let me know. I know that learning does not end until the moment we die. I’m here to learn.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many errors in one sentence in a newspaper article, but I have to wonder. If you don’t believe me, it was here (unless they since corrected it):

http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/nation/2013/02/18/shark-researchers-trackers/1927825/?csp=tech

I am so flabbergasted, I am now speechless, a rare event for me.

HOW JOURNALISM GUIDELINES CAN HELP FICTION WRITERS

If you ever took a journalism class, you know the basics of writing nonfiction for newspapers and magazines. However, these basic tools can also help you hone your fiction into tight, sharp writing that is both clear and complete.

The basics are: Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Every journalism student has to memorize those words. Usually in that order. Sometimes one or more can be left out, but it should be a conscious decision with a good reason. The other day, for example, our local newspaper had an article about making the city greener, and explained about an organization giving away free trees in a few days. They did the who—the name of the organization. The what–a giveaway of three trees to anyone who showed up, The when–the date, The why–to make the city green. And the how–go and get the trees. They left out one vital fact, however. The where. No address, no clue about the location of the giveaway. So, both the reporter and the editor missed something really important. Oddly enough, they reported on the event after it was over (I believe this is yearly and they always give away the trees in the same location), told how many trees were given away, and—you guessed it, the location where it all took place. In this case, NOT better late than never.

The reader of fiction almost always needs all these elements, too, for the story to make sense. Leave one vital part out, and you’ve lost her. A good rule of thumb is to be sure you have them all there when you are finished with all your edits. Because you may have put them all in when you wrote the piece (or you may not have), and you may take something out that was really needed, or miss that something was left out in the first place. But if you look one last time for each element, you should be fine.

Have you gone back over a story and found you left out something vital? Let us know in the comments.

SOME EDITING TIPS FOR NOVELS

Some things I learned while editing my latest mystery novel might help make the process go more smoothly for you.

Nail the weather (season especially) and the setting before doing anything else. The weather didn’t play a big part in my latest novel, so I only mentioned it once in awhile. The problem was it was fall at the beginning of the novel, and only about ten days later, it was winter. I’d forgotten which it was! Not huge because the weather didn’t have a large impact on the story, but I just know some readers would notice.

Try not to have your main character have two of anything to keep track of. My PI drives two cars–one, nondescript, for business, one, sporty, for pleasure. But it got mixed up in there when she loaned her business car to her aunt. I didn’t keep good track of what she was driving, and now I will have to search the whole document and be sure it’s the right car!

Pick your character’s names with care and try not to change them. Yes, the search feature will work here, but if you use certain names, the universal search and replace will put them inside words or at the beginning or ending, making for strange new combinations. Easier not to have to correct that.

Use the page break feature in your word processor at the end of each chapter. Then each chapter will start on a new page–nice.

Read the ending–last quarter or the third–several times. You’ve probably read the beginning over and over again, but as you get further in, you will probably read the later stuff less. Make sure everything makes sense at the end.

Print it out. I bought a ream of cheap paper and printed the whole manuscript in draft mode, single spaced. Next I corrected everything with a red pen, then printed it on the back of the first printing, after making a red slash through the other pages so if I dropped them in a heap, I’d know which pages were the newest ones.

While editing, have lots of room for three piles of paper and for a notepad. You have what you’re reading in your first pile, what needs fixing in another pile, and what’s okay in a third pile. Make notes as you go through–during the first run-through you will probably find several things that need fixing on pages you’ve already edited, so you will have to go back and find the spot(s) where you need to make adjustments. But don’t try to do it during the run-through itself. It gets too confusing.

Plan for large blocks of time with few or no distractions.

Take your time. After the first run-through, let it sit awhile and mull things over. You may need to do this more than twice–I ended up doing three print-outs, read-throughs and edits. Each edit took me part of a week, but I didn’t begin on the next one until the following week. I think this time is needed, especially if you don’t outline, to be sure all the pieces are in place, all questions answered, all details correct.

Then have someone else, preferably a professional editor, go through it for you. Only then can you be pretty sure that everything is just right. But don’t be surprised that mistakes will still be found. Hopefully they will be so minor, hardly anyone will notice.

I’m sure I’ve missed some things others may have run across while editing a whole novel. I’d love to hear them so next time, it might go even smoother for me!

EDITING, GENERALLY SPEAKING

Editing is on my mind right now because I’m, well, editing. A whole novel, actually.

First I wrote the thing. I had a wonderful critique partner who helped me tremendously along the way. After I keyed, “The End,” I went back to the beginning and worked through it several times. Next I paid a professional editor, and she worked through it, making mostly minor grammar fixes and asking a couple of questions about the story itself which I will work on. And now, I’m fixing the minor stuff, then will fix the more major items, and then I’ll get it uploaded to Amazon for Kindle and print editions.

How long did this (starting with writing the whole novel, then completing the edits, getting a cover made, formatting and uploading) all take? A couple of years. How long should it have taken? About six months total, I think. Life got in the way. Life often does. We moved into a house—that was a huge undertaking, of course. We had to buy a houseful of furniture. We had to get the motorhome we’d been living in cleaned out and cleaned up, ready to sell. I was working on getting the short story collection, WARNING SIGNS, and another novel, REVELATIONS, published. We went on two trips. I got involved fixing up the family tree for my son. And so on.

I have three more novels to go plus several short story collections to do before my private backlist is published. In there somewhere I need to write a whole new novel because it looks as if I’m going to end up with three different series. One dark, one medium, and one light.

I think if I pushed myself, I could get a novel done in four to six months. That’s my time. But I have to depend on other people, too—the editors, cover designer, and if I end hiring one, a formatter.  So, although us “indy” authors like to think we are totally independent, we still rely on other people. The difference is that we do have more control about who we hire, and after the work is done, when it gets published.

Ideally, my days would look like this: One thousand words done first thing in the morning. Then some networking and marketing for about an hour. In the evening, one hour of editing, probably about thirty pages an hour if I don’t run into anything drastic. This would be on a different project. Then one more hour of networking and marketing. Should be doable. If life doesn’t get in the way once again, as it is wont to do.