Tag Archives: writing is a craft

Says the Editor: Build Your Writer’s Group

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A good writer’s group can be really hard to find. I say that having been a member of many that weren’t great. There was the guy who took my manuscript one week when it was up for critique and, instead of being helpful, wrote lovelorn poetry to a girl he’d known in college who had shunned him. (I can’t say that I blamed her, but not because the poetry was bad.) Or the man who told me that I was marketing a different work to the wrong audience and should target it toward teenagers.

It was a Young Adult project, and it actually eventually landed me an agent.

So, yeah. I get it. Finding the right critique group or partners can be really hard.

But making the effor to build your own personal writer’s group is so, so worth it. When you have a group of motivated, like-minded people — and by like-minded, I don’t mean you’re all writing in the same genre or category. I mean you’re all interested in learnning as much as you can about craft and how to improve your own writing — you learn more. The group lifts each other and themselves, all at the same time. Maybe one has a great eye for detail and can help the others learn which details in a scene are important or vital, and which aren’t. Maybe one understands pace and tension.

Most groups, though, don’t operate on such a specific basis. They are simply groups of writers who seek the same goal: to improve. And maybe they don’t have the experience or language or desire to talk in technical terms. That’s okay, too, so long as they can say, “I don’t know what you’re referring to here,” or “I don’t believe this character would do this. Back in chapter 3, she did the opposite.”

Anything that makes you think, stretch, grow as a writer is a bonus. Yes, even the guy who talked about the audience for my then-project was helpful because at times, he could identify when the characters would act too adult. (The rest of the time, we’d hand him our cards for free cookies at the local grocery and let him make multiple visits to get multiple cookies because, hey, it was one cookie per visit, and one visit ended when you set foot outside the store.)

These days, it’s both easier and harder to find good groups — easier because there are so many. Start with your local library. Most have writer’s groups, and many have multiple groups, often with differnet areas of interest, but sometimes, they only have different instructors. The library can also help you find amazing writer’s groups. Some, like Romance Writers of America, are national, with local chapters. Some, like Sisters in Crime, are for both writers and readers, which is a good reminder that readers can be part of your own writer’s group. You don’t have to confine yourself only to writers.

And then there are smaller, regional groups. I continue to love and recommend Pennwriters to my clients; their resources are deep and their conferences top-notch. Best of all, when the conference is in Pittsburgh (which happens in odd-numbered years), you might get to hang out in the hospitality room with your favorite editor. Pennwriters isn’t just a local group anymore, by the way. We have members from across the nation.

Groups abound on Facebook. They gather among hashtags on other social media. They form in bookstores.

Get out. Get networking. A writer’s group can be as small as two people who exchange manuscripts and read and critique. They can be as large as the members can manage, with some offering vocal support, others offering critiques, and still others helping market when you have a publication.

There’s no one-size-fits-all, so get out there. Network. Build your writer’s group, and use that group to learn your craft. Let them help you take your manuscript as far as you can; learn as much as you can. Lean on your network to help you learn and develop as a writer.

No, a writer’s group can’t take the place of a really good freelance editor like me. (Even the groups I’m part of don’t get the full benefit of my abilities, much as they try to pry it out of me.) But what a writer’s group WILL do is help you maximize the investment you make into your editor.

After all, why are you paying me to teach you how to punctuate grammar when you can learn that for free? Wouldn’t you rather have your money and my time be spent on the bigger, deeper issues that will lift your manuscript from good to something more?

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Says the Editor: She Noticed

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Didja notice?

Yes, noticing things is the topic for the day. I find I’ve been making a lot of comments to my clients of late, asking them why someone notices something right then. What happens to trigger the character’s attention?

I get it: authors often use she noticed as a way of drawing the reader’s attention to something.

But she noticed is telling. It’s reporting what the character does, instead of letting us share her discovery. It could work, when used sparingly — and with reason.

She looked the gorgeous attorney over, head to foot, and noticed a stripe of fur across his shins, about two feet up. Small dog, or a cat? The difference would either increase or decrease his desirability in her eyes. That was a given.

So here, she’s looking him over. There’s your precipitating action, the prompt for her to notice.

Contrast that with

She was thinking about how hot he was, hotter than the coffee she’d bought that morning at Starbucks. She took a drink of her coffee, feeling the flavor spread across her tongue in that way only a good latte could, and was glad she’d taken the few minutes to stop in before the meeting. She noticed that a bird had pooped on the office window.

Umm… huh? Where’s the connection? What prompts her to shift from the hot guy and her coffee, and over to the bird poop? (Because this entirely made up story is going to turn into something akin to Hitchcock’s classic, the poop turns out to be important later on. Just so you know that — because many times, what I’m seeing with these odd, unprovoked instances of noticing, is that they are vital to the story somehow.)

Hey, did you skip over that parenthetical? There’s important stuff in there. The jist of my explanation, in fact: These odd, unprovoked instances of noticing are almost always vital details.

Remember: writing is a craft. Go and let your characters notice things all over the page in the first draft. Absolutely.

But when you revise, make a mental note to revisit all the times you use the word notice and make sure that what’s noticed is an action that’s prompted.

And, as always, holler if you need help.

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Says the Editor: Tom Swiftly

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I love that you guys are reading my posts and interacting with me and with them. This one, about dialogue tags, in particular has raised a number of questions and responses.

We’ve already talked about asks versus said.

But, another author asked, what about the Tom Swiftlies? Or maybe she spelled it Tom Swiftlys, which I suppose is actually more accurate, if we pretend that SWIFTLY is Tom’s last name.

At any rate, she’s got a point. When we’re talking dialogue tags and the power of the verb we use — ask, said, demanded, emoted, swore — we should also talk about those pesky little adverbs. You know: He said softly. He yelled loudly. He swore aggressively. He stated belligerently.

Notice how these are all TELLING words. They tell us how the speaker did his verb (said, yelled, swore, stated). But do they show?

Go back to the time-worn canon: show, don’t tell. Now, we all know that by and large, this is a truth of fiction. Show, don’t tell.

But we also know there are times when it’s okay, or even better, to tell, don’t show.

How do you know which is the right thing to do when writing dialogue?

For me, this one’s fairly easy, but it involves a lot of trust in your reader (which is where I think a lot of this breakdown occurs. That, or bad sixth grade teachers who thought adverbs with dialogue were all that and more). Can the reader figure out how something is conveyed if you remove the adverb? Yelling is a loud thing. You can’t yell quietly. (Admit it: you tried.) You can be forceful and strong but quiet, but you can’t yell. Even Webster’s agrees:

Definition of yell
intransitive verb
1 : to utter a loud cry, scream, or shout
2 : to give a cheer usually in unison
transitive verb
: to utter or declare with or as if with a yell : shout

Look at that top definition: to utter a loud cry, scream, or shout — see it? By definition, a yell is loud. There’s no need to tell us!

Sometimes, it’s not that cut and dry. You can state things calmly, quietly, belligerently, aggressively… the list goes on. So how do you still convey your meaning yet remove the adverb?

Two ways, and they don’t have to be exclusive of each other. The first is via word choice. Someone being aggressive is going to use a different set of words than someone who is being calm, or even someone being diplomatic. An aggressive lover versus a persuasive lover — “Come here.” versus “If you come over here, I’ll make it worth your while.”

The second way can be a little more challenging, and that’s by showing your speaker’s body language. “Come here” might be accompanied by a hand on a hip and a finger curling in and out, or pointing at the spot in question. The head might be held a little higher, the chest held upright in perfect posture. Contrast that with someone trying to persuade, where the posture won’t be so assertive: the shoulders might be hunched, the head drawn down on the neck. Instead of pointing at the partner or at the space the speaker desires the listener to occupy, maybe the speaker pats the couch beside him (or her). Maybe s/he is sitting, not standing.

There are a million ways to convey body language, and of course, this is a spot — just like those darn pesky adverbs — that can trip you up. Why? How? Didn’t I just say body language is good?

Yes, but too much of it, or when used at the wrong time, and you’ve undermined yourself.

I know. It’s hard. It’s confusing.

Remember, folks, that writing is a CRAFT. Sometimes, what seems vitally important in the early stages of a manuscript’s development becomes fodder for the delete key later on. And often, the reverse is true as you get to know your characters and the situations they find themselves in.

So give it a try. Take a hard look at your writing. Are you a Tom Swiftly? Do you over-adverb your dialogue tags?

If you need help, you know where and how to reach me. I’m here to help, after all. And in the meantime, keep the questions and good stuff coming!

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To Ooze Unctuously #atozchallenge

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One of those people who insist on living in my house and eating all my favorite foods has signed up to take a creative writing-fiction course next year in school. (To be fair, he does keep me in cookies, which he bakes himself.)

This really isn’t a post about food. It’s about how I groaned when I heard this. Not because I don’t want my kids to learn how to be good writers, especially of fiction. And not because I think all they need to do is read my blog and they’ll know how to be great writers.

But because there’s something about high school and teaching creative writing that puts an emphasis on big fancy words. Like Unctuous.

And the purple prose. “Shit,” he swore!

Oh, I can go on.

On the one hand, it’s great to take a bunch of high schoolers and encourage them to expand their vocabularies. But on the other hand, using words like unctuous is a dead-on signal to me that I’m dealing with a young writer. Someone who is still learning craft and is going to need… well, to have these sorts of words beaten out of them.

Now, fancy words like unctuous aren’t necessarily bad. I have come across spots where they are dead-on the right choice. But those spots are few and far between. I mean, say it. Unctuous. It leaves a slime coat on your tongue, does it not?

Yick.

So here’s the point: sometimes, simple is best. Not all the time. But most of it.

And here’s the rule: don’t use fancy words and fancy language to impress your reader. Impress your reader with your knowledge of craft, of your ability to plot well, develop characters they want to spend time with, to write dialogue that rings true. And to use the right descriptive words, no matter how mundane and boring they are. (Did you see that? Mundane. Some would consider that word on the same plane as unctuous.)

Short and sweet today. Because I need to go find something to get the unctuous slime out of my mouth. But somehow, I have a bad feeling that if I go into the kitchen, my cupboards are going to be stripped pretty bare.

I do have young people who insist on living with me, after all. And they don’t like unctuous food any more than I do.

But they like the cookies even more.

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Revising Me #atozchallenge

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I have an editor friend (well, I have a BUNCH of editor friends, actually, but we’re talking about one editor friend in particular right here and now) who says there’s a difference between editing and revising.

Editing is what you pay for.

Revising is what you do yourself.

Either way, let’s face it: even my clients who send me their first draft have engaged in some form of revision. They have worked their prose as they’ve created that first draft, shaping and honing their past words as the present unfolds on the screen in front of them.

I say it fairly often: in the quest to make the best book possible, you have to recognize that writing is a craft. You have to hone your tools, push and pull and mold your clay, your canvas — your manuscript — into its final form. It doesn’t just happen by itself. You have to work it. And work it. And work some more.

So, yeah. Revising your work, whether you do it as you go or you go through multiple drafts, is essential. There’s no rule about how much revision work you’ll have to do, and not only does it vary from author to author, but it varies from manuscript to manuscript and project to project, too. Sometimes, even chapter to chapter, scene to scene, and yes, paragraph to paragraph.

But you have to do the work. Bring that baby up to its best possible form. And then, because revising is what you do and editing is what you pay for, you send your masterpiece to your editor, who sends you comments and sets you up for another round of revisions.

Whoever said writing wasn’t a lot of work was either amazingly blessed or lying.

Or they don’t care about quality.

Trust me. I’m a voracious reader. Quality matters.

And how.

*And hey, do you like my post title? It’s a play on a certain Metallica song. (I particularly like this version, so if you’re convinced you don’t like Metallica, or you’re not sure, this would be a SUPER link to click on. Seriously. As we say in Ultimate, chilly chilly chilly!)

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Open Sesame! #atozchallenge

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When I was in grad school, I had a classmate who’d repeat the old quote, “The first line of your book sells it. The last line sells the next one.”

There are also all sorts of memes and groups who focus entirely on first lines. They expect them to be powerful, to grip you by the throat and not let go. (Go on and Google this, but be sure to come back when you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of links.)

I am not so sure one sentence should have that much power. But I do agree that the first scene should.

Openings. Opening scenes. They matter.

For a young writer, finding the right opening of their manuscript can be the hardest part of the entire drafting process. Some of that gets back to giving yourself permission to puke on the page and get to know your story the hard, sloppy way. Some of it is because maybe you like the opening you wrote, and so you let your emotions cloud your wisdom. At that point, I tell my clients to cut it and save it in a separate file, either for use later in this book or maybe build a stand-alone short story from that scene. It can work for you as bonus marketing material.

But simply put, the general wisdom is correct: the opening has to grab a reader. That doesn’t mean every single book has to start with action. If that were the case, we’d be horribly bored with action-filled openings, even though there’s an infinite way to begin a project with action. I remember one client opened with a house fire that was epic. But it had less than zero to do with the rest of the story, other than it starred one of the main characters.

And there’s the next point: your opening may not have to start with action, but it has to set up the story you’re about to tell! Steve’s opening didn’t do that, as awesomely written as that house fire was. Readers were right there with those characters and… I spent the rest of the entire trilogy trying to figure out what it had to do with anything.

You don’t want your reader doing that, reading with half a mind, the other half focused on looking for connections. You want them wholly immersed.

Just as, when I say that a book doesn’t have to begin with action, you also don’t want to bore your reader with excessive description or — WAY worse — navel-gazing. You know what navel-gazing is, right? A character who gets lost in their thoughts, in philosophy, in justification for their deeds… they’re sitting around and gazing at their navels, admiring the way the doctor or midwife tied off that knot and set him or her free from Mom.

So where’s the middle ground?

Well, action is okay. It’s just not mandatory.

And brief description is okay.

So are fresh scenarios, which means no waking up first thing in the morning, or listening to the birds sing. As a rule of thumb, it’s probably not the best idea to open a book with a character in bed, unless it directly relates to the conflict about to unfold.

I once read a book for review that opened with what was supposed to be a hot and heavy sex scene. It also contained no small amount of internal warfare as the woman involved tried to justify allowing herself to have sex with this guy, who she obviously hated.

It was really hard to connect to her, to feel the hot and heavy part of the scene. For one, we didn’t have an emotional investment in the characters. And for another, her wonderings made us wonder if this was something we were supposed to enjoy.

Go figure, but the rest of the book referred to this sex scene with the same tangled, mixed-up feelings, and that colored the entire book. The woman would sound like a harpy when she would shriek at the man about how they’d had this sexual encounter and she regretted it every time there was conflict between them.

The takeaway in all this? Openings are hard. Really hard. Books often wind up not opening where you originally think they should, and it can be hard to kill really good writing (like I said… save for later!).

That’s where a good editor can help. This is one of many reasons why smart authors hire a good editor.

Think about your opening. Drop me a line if you have questions. We can have a short discussion before I’ll ask you to cough up cash for a coaching fee!

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#SaystheEditor Character Consistency

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EDITOR  2

“Why is it,” I muttered under my breath, or maybe in that part of my writer’s brain that’s always writing and narrating, “that the boy is so damn good about getting up every day at 6AM for school but can’t get up at 8AM twice a week to volunteer at the local township’s camp?”

The answer, of course, is multi-layered:
1. Mom’s cranky when she has to get him up in the morning
2. He doesn’t care as much about volunteering at the local township’s camp as he does about not missing the bus
3. It’s summer and he wants to be lazy and have zero responsibilities, even though he’s started to work on his Eagle project
4. It’s summer and he’s been staying up late, as is the right and responsibility of every teenager ever. Circadian rhythms and all that.
5. He likes being awakened by a smart-aleck of a mom.
6. It’s two days a week instead of five, and harder to find a rhythm.

But if you strip out those reasons, you’re left without character consistency.

In fiction, this can be taken a few ways:
1. It’s bad writing because characters should be consistent to themselves
2. If this was Young Adult, it’s a Sign! Of a Big Problem! a Tragedy! And the parents must now investigate, but they are bumbling idiots, so it’s up to the younger sibling (usually a girl) who is the main point of view character and who will now save the day.
3. The author is using the lack of character consistency to signal a left turn in the plot and character arc that you didn’t see coming (refer back to #1)

Most of the time, it’s taken as a sign of bad writing, not a flaw in the character. (note: MOST of the time) And a lot of the time (note: A LOT, not all and not most), you can avoid being called a bad writer by taking a bit more time to show what’s going on. The mom who wakes up at 1AM to see the light seeping through the cracks in the door, or hears him talking to his friends via Skype or voice chat or whatever he’s using this week. Maybe you show that the kid needs the interaction with his mom, who’s a lot less cranky two hours later and a heck of a lot funnier or more reasonable (You’d have to ask him how different I am without the pressure of “No, I am NOT schlepping your rear the whole way to school so get moving” and all.) — as always with fiction, there are a million possibilities.

Which means that it’s okay to let your characters be inconsistent from time to time, especially in the early drafting stages. You can revise them into submission later. But, like I’m always encouraging you, push yourself. Stretch. Don’t fall into Reason #2 time and time again. Do you see how many cliches I packed into that one point?

Don’t be a cliche packer. (wow. That sounds… wrong)

Push yourself. Stretch your writerly wings. Once you do, you can either revise and work on crafting it into perfection, or you can revise and edit it out until no one knows you tried.

But you’ll know. And if you’re the kid of writer I know you are, all you who struggle with Inherent Writerly Insecurity, you’ll learn from the experiment. Which means that next time, you’ll be less likely to fail.

Go for it. Character consistency. Character INconsistency — except, it’s not inconsistent. Not when you get done with it.

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