Tag Archives: be a better writer

Says the Editor: A Million Words of WHAT?


If you’ve followed me for these past 12 years, or if you’ve ever taken the time to wander through my archives, you may get an inkling of one thing about me that I don’t overly try to hide: I live life large. I’ve done all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy things in my life. Of course, that leaves me with a lot of scars, a lot of painful memories I don’t talk about. Most, I don’t like to revisit. I’ll be honest about that.

Sometimes, something comes out of the buried ether to torture me, amuse me, or give me perspective.

What happened recently was the latter: all about perspective, baby.

It was right after I’d graduated from Pitt with my BA. I was taking graduate-level classes, trying to figure out if grad school was what I wanted or where else I might turn my face to a new path. We were meeting in the professor’s house because, hey, we were grad students and this is what we did. (Come to think of it, all these years later, that was the only time I had class at my professor’s house, which was quite a shame) We were a small group. Diverse, but not in the way you might think. One of Chuck’s favorite students had paid for her undergrad degree as a phone sex worker. Her writing never met my expectations, which was that I wanted to see that she’d lived life large.

Anyway, we were sitting around one night, and I’d put up a few chapters of a novel I was working on. It… got panned. Like really bad. That was the day that Chuck told me he wanted a German satellite to drop on my main character. And as much as it stung, I had to jab my tongue into my cheek — I still remember this moment clearly — and nod and agree. “When you put it like that, so do I,” I told him.

And then Simon spoke up. Simon was a Brit, he was a few years older than most of us, he had long brown hair, and I can’t remember if he had bangs or not. He was both scruffy — a ton of razor stubble, but not in the sexy way men wear it now — and polished. He would sit cross-legged on the floor and when he wanted to speak, he’d straighten out of his slouch and somehow rock on his crossed knees, raising himself up a good six inches. It always reminded me of a cobra, uncoiling from the basket the charmer kept him in. He’d tuck his hair behind his ears. His eyes would sparkle, and he’d weave his torso, purse his lips, move his hands (when they weren’t tucking his hair, which he’d do repeatedly while he waited for a break in the conversation) until he got to speak. We always liked it when Simon spoke; he was smart as hell. I bet if I could remember his last name (which I maybe never even knew, so maybe there’s nothing to remember), I’d discover he’s got a backlist of publications that puts my 15 to shame and he’s probably got some awards on top of all that.

Needless to say, I respected Simon. I was a little scared of him, but I respected him. When he spoke up in workshop, he tended to be right on.

“I believe,” he started cautiously, and I steeled myself, “that all of us writers need to write a million words of crap before we find our writer souls. You’re clearly talented, Susan, but…”

I winced.

“I believe this is part of your million words of crap.”

Ouch. And, like always, he was right.

“You are young,” he continued. “Get your million words of crap out of you. Write as much as you can. All of you,” he said, eyeing the room. “We all need to write as much as we can. Make sure those million words of crap are out of you. I know mine are.”

That was many years ago. I am not sure I believe that all writers have a million words of crap in them. I’ve met too many really good writers who knock it out of the park on their first attempt. (I’ve edited a number of them, too.) And while I agree that the project I was working on at the time was a mere seventy thousand of my million words, I’m not sure I ever hit a million. (Although, of course, there are some who’ll gleefully disagree.)

That memory got dredged up a few weeks ago, and hasn’t left me yet. I was working with a new author who didn’t take kindly to the realities of the editorial process.

But even now, all these years later, Simon’s words and assessment were right on. Even when I’m not consciously aware of it, his words are the basis for my belief that authors have to give ourselves permission to write utter crap for our first draft. Feel out the work. Get to know the characters, the setting, the message. Embrace the million words.

Not everyone can do that. It’s hard to embrace crap. I learned that day in Chuck’s house, sitting one person over from him and with Simon about five more to Chuck’s left. Because the comment about the German satellite, and Simon’s comment about the million words — they weren’t meant to be mean. They were meant to tell a writer to cut her losses and move on to something better. That if I could admit this was bad — which I did, right there, because everyone who’d spoken up had made great points about how and why it was crap — I could let go of the emotional attachment I had to the work and move on to something better.

I know I did, although I don’t remember what that was. It, too, wound up being trashed, stuck on a floppy disc somewhere, maybe a hard copy stuffed away in the cabinets here in my office. (I think I have the one that was so roundly trashed, too.)

The point is that it’s okay to write a million words of crap. It’s okay to write a million words of not crap.

But be a big enough person to realize that writing is a craft and it’s not a waste of an editor’s time to hire him/her/me and ask for help — but you gotta take that help that you’re given. Even when it hurts. Give it time. Go write something else. Live a little bit larger than you had been. And then come back to the page and make it better.

That’s the beauty of writing: for every million words of crap, there’s ten million of good stuff.


Purple Dinosaurs aren’t the Only Bad Purple #atozchallenge


No one’s beat up on Barney the Purple Dinosaur in eons, it seems. Is he even still on TV?

Unfortunately, his literary companion, purple prose, is. And like all unfortunate things, it shouldn’t be.

So let’s talk about it. Let’s learn to identify it so you can revise it out and avoid notes like Aaack! Who let the purple prose monster in here! or, if I don’t know you as well, This is veering a bit toward purple prose. How about wording it like this as an alternate?

I like to write fun comments.

Urban Dictionary (I kid you not) defines purple prose as, “a term used to describe literature where the writing is unnecessarily flowery. it means that the writer described the situation (or wrote the entire book, passage, etc) using words that are too extravagant for the type of text, or any text at all. basically, over-describing something. with stupid words.”

Now, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to add with stupid words on at the end there. Because obviously, if you wrote them, you didn’t think they were stupid, and since you haven’t revised them out yet, you continue to think they’re not stupid.

But over-describing, unnecessarily flowery writing… yep, that’s purple prose. I swear, we’re taught to write purple in high school, when English teachers everywhere encourage it as a model for good writing.

This is why you need to read a lot. A. Lot. And not just read but also pay attention as you read. Do you have a description of a room? Look at how the book you’re reading describes the room. Is your heroine overwrought? Examine how the writer of the book you’re reading describes it.

After you’ve observed until your eyes glaze over, come back to your own manuscript. Is your writing as clear? Does it snap? Purple prose never snaps. It goes on. And on. And sometimes on. And you stop caring.

The bedspread was quilted, by hand, Sienna was willing to bet, in four shades of yellow, from the palest Alpine glow to the brightest, sunniest yellow she could imagine. Just looking at it made her break out into a wide, uncontrollable grin that threatened to consume her entire face and half of her soul, too. But her favorite was the slightly less yellow than that brightest one, the one that merely suggested summer days and didn’t scream them and even though it didn’t make her smile as hard, she still wanted to smile. This one was a tender smile, touching her lips gently and caressing her soul with a soft spring wind.

“Hey, Sienna? I asked what you thought of Glen.”

Yeah… you see what I mean? Contrast that with this:

Sienna paused by the bed, letting her fingers run over the bedspread as she considered her best friend’s question. The spread was done in shades of yellow, the brightest of which reminded Sienna of Jenny’s smile whenever she talked about this Glen dude. But Sienna wasn’t feeling the love. What she felt was more like the pale yellow, a wariness, a hesitance to commit. “I see what you like about him,” she said carefully, her fingers picking the pattern of the perfect stitches, then finding one that was off.

“Isn’t he the greatest?” Jenny flopped on the other side of the bed, away from Sienna, and grabbed a stuffed rabbit, which she cradled to her chest.”

“I know you think he’s great,” Sienna said, trying to pick her words, “but you just met him a week ago. Maybe you should get to know him before you proclaim true love?”

While I say to my high schoolers all the time that sometimes curtains are blue just because they are blue, sometimes, the teachers are right and they’re blue for a bigger reason.

But they don’t need to be purple.


Susan Speaks: Meditate Your Writing into a New Place


This showed up in my inbox, and I thought I’d pass it along.

Here’s the thing: I love Madhu Wangu. If you haven’t read her fiction yet, what are you waiting for? I totally love her works, and I suspect if you like smart, woman-first fiction, you will, too.

But Madhu doesn’t just write. Oh, no! She’s way more versatile than that. She leads a local writer’s group at a restaurant near me. Why don’t I go, you ask? I wish I could! But it’s a many-hours-long enterprise and my clients, all of whom I love dearly, keep me busy enough that I can’t go routinely, and the meditation work is the sort of stuff that you need to do consistently in order to make progress. Plus, not being there consistently would lead to disruptions when I do put in an appearance, and who wants that? While the attention is nice, it’s the wrong time for the spotlight to be on me.

I wish I could go because I believe strongly in Madhu’s meditation guidance. Her practitioners say it makes them better writers, and they are certainly all — well, the ones I know — lovely people with amazing things to say. They have learned to find the stillness they need for their fiction in walks in the woods, in walks down city streets, at home at their desks… wherever they need to. And like most people with important things to say, Madhu wants to reach more writers — or even people looking to enhance their focus, their creativity, their… anything! — by producing a new CD with material that can be downloaded and accessed whenever you like. Perfect for people like me, who can’t be there in person.

Things like professional recordings cost money, though, so Madhu’s put up a Go Fund Me page. I know… there are a million Go Fund Me accounts, and all of them are for good causes, so why is this one different?

Because it benefits YOU. Need some help to stop screaming like a harpy at your kids? Trying to find the inner strength to do something new and difficult? This would work! And Madhu’s voice — I say this because I’ve met her in person — is hypnotic in the good, soothing way. I’d listen to her before some random YouTube person leading a meditation. Maybe that’s because I’ve met her and know how warm and caring she is.

Can you tell I’m a fan girl? Total and utterly.

Please. Take a new direction for your writing and/or your life. Even five bucks will help, and best of all, that’ll leave you money to get the CD when the recording is done and polished and ready to be listened to and absorbed. This is one of those Go Fund Me campaigns that will give directly back to you.

As Madhu says at the end of her Go Fund Me Page, “Thank you so much for helping me bring these meditations to the people who want focus, inner-depth, productivity and connectedness into their creative life.”

(and before you ask, nope, Madhu hasn’t paid me off to be her ad campaign. I’m doing this because I adore her and want good things for a really good person. Who can argue with that?)


#SaysTheEditor: Uber-bad and anti-this


We’ve all seen the derogatory comments about self-published books. How poor the quality is. Bad grammar. Poorly copy edited. Needs an overall editor. Facts are wrong.

Over and over, I’ve watched the anti-self-pubbed crowd turn up their noses at self-published books, claiming these are the reasons no one should ever align themselves with that drek. Getting a real book deal means you’re automatically lifted above the unwashed masses. It’s proof of excellence.

Stick a sock in it and get your nose out of the air.

I’m reading a book published by a relatively new imprint of one of the oldest, most well-respected houses out there. I’ve met the head editor back in the days when I was doing the author circuit. She may even recall my own name.

And this book is a total embarrassment.

The person who drives a cab? CABBIE. Even my teens got that right when I asked them.

Uber? Is a prefix. As in uber-bad. As in you don’t have to be an uber-editor to get this one in your sleep.

The book is a sports romance, and I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. This one’s a hockey romance, in fact. A sport I used to play. A sport I continue to follow, albeit not as closely as I once did. So yeah, I can pick up on the facts that are wrong, and the facts that are being fudged so the author looks like she knows what she’s talking about.

The storyline is poorly done. I keep thinking, “Okay, now we’re in the part of the book where we’ll deal with X issue.” — it should be integrated, and it should be seamless. There shouldn’t be parts of the book devoted to issues.

The timeline is fuzzy. I’m not sure at any point how much time has passed, both since the beginning of the book and in relation to past events (see next paragraph). This is an easy fix! The author (and editor) should work from a timeline that clearly illustrates this.

The male lead has some serious issues. He goes to the cemetery to visit his dead daughter. Okay, fine. We’ve heard in spades how much he misses her and how badly he’s still hurting, some indeterminate number of years later. But on this day, he runs into his ex-wife. And he’s more focused on talking to her (and getting The Big Life Lesson, which hits us with some major neon signage) than he is on what he came here to do, which is pay respects to the girl. But in the middle of his conversation with his ex, he stops, sends a silent thought up to the daughter, and then goes back to the ex. Hello? And you claim to be torn up about losing her? So much so that you struggle to do your job?

Dude. You just lost ALL credibility with me. Do I really have to finish reading?

Yeah. Another bad book — I know this isn’t the first time I’ve come down hard on books from big-name publishers. It’s not that I’m anti-big publishing. I firmly think that every model has its pros and cons, and that publishing is big enough to need both models.

I’m anti-badly written, badly edited books. That’s the difference.

I see brilliant self-published books. I just read a brilliant historical romance from a major house. Man, that knocked my socks off. Book clubs everywhere should read this and talk about it. It brings up issues of what a happy ending truly is, of the value of getting to know a person before making judgements (although the character in question totally did come off as smarmy and gross, which is where the author’s brilliance really came through), of what it means to love. This book blew me away.

I’m anti-snobs. I’m anti- authors who look down their noses at other authors for choosing their own path. I’m more than anti- authors who won’t give a helping hand to their fellow writers. If we all push ourselves to do better and help each other reach for better craft, better editors, better publishing experiences of all kinds, imagine the literary works we’d be putting out. And I don’t mean literary in the sense of High Falutin’ Lit. I mean literary in the sense of basic words spelled right. Stories that are filled with believable facts and that push the cliches aside and give us characters and storylines we can buy and root for and never want to see end.

And one last footnote: In the middle of reading this latest piece of drek, I came across a job posting from the publisher. I thought about going for it, but it looks like I’d have to stop working for the authors who I currently work for, and I’m just not into that idea. I’d be glad to work something else out, however. It’s all about better books, right?


#SaystheEditor More Bad Writing from the Beard Book


Train wreck.

That’s the only explanation I can give this poor romance, and it’s certainly the only reason I can give for continuing to read. Heck, I sat in the car outside the library while my kid was inside. I read. She was looking for new books. She was the smart one.

I mentioned the stubble/beard problem in my last post. Won’t go there again.

But it’s been downhill, in terms of the writing, since then.

There’s a “Shit!” he swore moment.

Seriously? In today’s fiction marketplace, you, Big Five Publisher, are putting THAT amateur writing out? Seriously? Like the reader is too freaking stupid to know that shit or whatever the word actually was is what someone says when they swear?

As I say to my clients, “Why tell what you’ve already shown?”

Waste. of. words.

(Waste of reader brain cells, too.)

But then it got better. It did! How does it get better than something I have been making fun of since the 1990s?

He tasted her with his mouth.

Well, thanks for that clarification there, folks. Personally, I taste with my left elbow, so knowing that someone uses their mouth to taste… wow. Consider my mind blown.

Honestly, I’m not sure which is worse: that a real person (presumably) put her name on this drek, that some editor let it be published, or that the publisher is actually charging $7.99 for it. Maybe the absolute worst is that readers and libraries (where my copy came from) actually spent money on it.

My clients turn out better books on a daily basis. They come up with creative plots — and notice how I haven’t started on the plot of this one, which is cliched perfunctory leaning toward kitchen sinking — and characters who are real. And they work on the craft of writing. They rise above amateur hour. They push boundaries. They expect excellence from themselves.

And you, big publishing, are putting THIS out?

And people wonder what’s wrong with publishing.