Polishing a Manuscript

Well here’s an interesting article about polishing your final manuscript.

I agree with much that’s here, but not everything. I do however, believe that any manuscript can benefit from going through this process.

Do you have to replace every adverb you find? Absolutely (<—- adverb) not! Should you examine each one and make sure it’s doing something that you actually (<— another one! the sneaky little bastards are everywhere) need. When I was polishing my manuscript I went through with a search for ‘ly.’ I removed most of them, in particular almost every appearance of ‘completely,’ ‘really,’ and qualifiers like ‘apparently.’ Don’t use ‘suddenly’ unless you are certain it’s really sudden. But sometimes you need an adverb. They exist for a reason.

On other hand, some of the words that have been suggested ought to be removed, I don’t know. ‘Seemed’ is a great word when you’re dealing with a limited 3rd person point of view. Your pov character can’t know some things for certain. But again, be 100% you want that word. It can be weak if not used precisely (<—- adv– okay, yeah, you get it).

The rest of the advice is spot on. Honestly (<— oh, nevermind).

Writer’s Block: Myth or Reality?

Here‘s something Neil Gaiman had to say about writer’s block. It’s short. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Okay, so what do you think of that? If I understand what the inestimable Mr. Gaiman has written, he suggests writer’s block is a glamorization of a few more mundane and more easily solved problems. (Well, laziness is not easy to solve. Laziness is a lifetime’s work and a hard habit to kick! Believe me, I speak as a knowledgeable lazy person in this.) Is writer’s block really just a name writer’s use for other problems with their work?

Naturally, I’m going to give my opinion. I think so. Of the three culprits Mr. Gaiman lists: perfectionism, laziness and a stalled story that needs to be reassessed, I think perfectionism is the sneakiest culprit.

Laziness might be hard to combat, but it’s fairly easy to identify. There are two distinct symptoms.  One is sitting in front of your preferred medium (computer, tablet, wax tablet, chisel and flat rock) and staring at it and not doing anything. Not even agonizing about not doing anything, just thinking you ought to do it and not doing it. I’ve been there. You can disguise it if you try by blaming your muse, or the weather or what have you, but what’s really happening is you just don’t want to do it. The other symptom is not sitting down at all. Telling yourself you should and then watching tv or surfing the net (or writing in my your blog). Inspiration gets blamed again, but you should know better. Writing is hard work. Deal with it.

Stalled stories, ones that have gone off the rails as Mr. Gaiman says, are the easiest of these three evils. It’s sometimes hard to recognize your story has gone wrong somewhere (hence the identification as writer’s block) but if you think hard you’ll see it’s not that you can’t write, it’s that you can’t write this. At least not the way it stands right now. When inspiration seems far off, reread what you’ve written. See if you’ve wandered down a blind alley. Take some steps back and plot a new course. It feels good.

And now the true evil: perfectionism. It’s insidious and I’ve written about it before on the blog. The biggest problem a writer faces when trying to pin down why she isn’t writing, and what to do to combat it, is that perfectionism feels like work. You give yourself the illusion of getting somewhere because you are sitting down and working with words. “I wrote for three hours this morning, but I didn’t seem to get anywhere. Must be writer’s block.” What you really did is spent three hours crafting the first paragraph over and over. In theater they say it’s all about bums on seats. In writing it’s all about words on pages. Don’t judge your success by how long you worked. Judge your success on how many words you wrote. You’re not a writer if you don’t write. The words might not be the perfect words, but that’s why first drafts exist.

I’m guilty of all these sins. I did finally shut down my inner editor. I can get words on page, but I have had derailed stories and I know I’m lazy… but I promise never to blame writer’s block again!


Of Pitches, Poetry and Passion

So I’ve been working on verbal pitches for both my novels (and on synopses, but the less said about that the better!). What’s a verbal pitch (also called an elevator pitch)? It’s a minute long description of your book meant to hook an agent or editor well enough to want to read what you’ve got to offer.

Pitches are perhaps the hardest thing a writer will ever have to do. It’s harder than writing a novel, in my opinion. When you write a novel you can say whatever you like, express it in any mode you choose. The only things you need are a certain level of clarity (no aspersions cast upon James Joyce) and a decent skill with words.

But a pitch—

Most importantly, you have one minute. One minute. Think about how long a minute is. And you mustn’t rush. Words can’t flood out of you in a breathless, panicked stream of nonsense. So, one minute. Let’s put that at 200, maybe 225 words.

Not a lot of words.

Not just not a lot of words, though. Oh no. It needs to be fascinating and exciting. You need to catch the interest of an agent or editor in those 200 words. You need to instill in them a desire to read your story. And those 200 words need to be typical of the voice or style of your work. Oh, and those 200 words should also include works already published that are comparable to your own, to give your listener a sense of who your audience might be.

My first reaction—and the reaction of many writers I should think—was “If I could do it in 200 words, I wouldn’t’ve written the 97,000 words I did write.” I’ve already written more than 200 words right here!

So bitter.

But I’ve learned to love the pitch. A pitch is a distillation. It’s a piece of poetry, a scrap of blank verse about your book. You love your book, right? Of course you do! If you’re not passionate about your book, don’t bother to try to get it published. So write a little love poem to your book. Tell it what you like about it best. That great moment when the protagonist first sees the Nazi-zombie she’s destined to kill? Give it a sentence in your pitch. The perfect paragraph where the cattle-rustler dies so elegantly? Give it a sentence in your pitch. Whatever you love about your book goes in there.

You’ve got about a dozen sentences, give or take. One of them is your introduction. Goodness gracious, don’t forget the “Hi, I’m John Doe and my book is The Clockwork Cop, a fill-in-your-genre novel.” which goes at the beginning. One of them is your “My book will appeal to readers of Captain J. L. McFrizzbog’s Book of Much Steampunk and Ophelia Spotlock’s police procedurals.” which should go at the end.

That leaves you ten sentences or so of pure book-love. Every word counts. Invest in your protagonist with a quick physical description early on. That gives a mental picture to your listener. You want that agent or editor to fall in love with your main character and no one falls in love with a blank face. Then go for it. Love your book. Rhapsodize.

Then edit it, because it will start too long. Then read it out loud. Then edit again, because bits that read well will sound funny being spoken. Then read it out loud again with a stopwatch (there’s probably one on your smartphone). Then edit again because it’s still too long. Record and listen to it. Does it excite you? If not, edit. Read it to anyone who will listen. Pay attention to what they say. Edit. Memorize it, but don’t make it sound like a speech.

And then you have that perfect little love poem to your book.

P.S. The Clockwork Cop is a great title for a book!

Talk Talk

I went to a great talk this past weekend. Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada (literary agents to be found here) came and spoke to our division of the California Writers Club. They were engaging speakers and they came to talk to us about what each of us needs to be a successful writer and why now is such a great time to be a writer.

Well, according to the talk to be a successful writer you need commitment, passion and focus. Obvious? Maybe. But I argue, not as obvious as you might think. I talk to a lot of people who want to be writers. I don’t talk to a lot of people who have written books. I don’t mean published books. I mean just lots of words on paper (or computer screen). So many people intend to write. So many people want to write. Not many people do write.

Hearing Mr. Larsen and Ms. Pomada speak was an inspiration not necessarily because they told me something I didn’t know, but because they confirmed what I did. And because, more importantly, they brought their own passion with them. This is a pair of people who love books. Who appreciate writers. Who want more books to be in the world. Who want every voice to be heard.

If you get an opportunity to hear them speak, take it.

And why is now the best time to be a writer? Well, for me, it’s a bit Dickensian. It is the best of times and the worst of times. As Larsen and Pomada pointed out, there are more resources available to writers to self-publish and self-promote. An eager audience is reading more than it has in years, though not necessarily in the ways it used to. However, big publishing houses are spending less time and energy on new writers and more on established writers.

Is it a great time to get rich on your writing? Oh, probably not. But there are so many ways now to get your voice heard.

You could blog, for instance.

Well, Ms. Pomada, whom I spoke to at the end of the talk, was kind and encouraging. She does not represent fantasy and so I was unable to make a pitch to her. If I had thought about it sensibly beforehand, I’d have gotten a pitch ready for my mystery novel. It’s a little short (55K words instead of 60K) and so I’ve been sitting on it.

Oh well, I’m going to shine it up for the conference I’m going to (in two weeks!).

Writing & Procrastinating at the Same Time

I have a friend who is also an aspiring author. Let’s call her Kelli. Kelli said to me that she was busy working on her writing and I asked how far she’d gotten. Kelli said she hadn’t started the novel itself because she had been busy working it out first, summarizing what she wanted the novel(s) to be.

She’d been doing this for some time, it seemed to me. I asked her if she was planning some unusually byzantine piece. It turned out she was creating a long and somewhat complicated story, but what was really going on was that she’d write a summary, look it over and either find problems with it or decide it just wasn’t good enough. Those things decided, Kelli would start her summary over.

At first glance it seems like Kelli’s being productive. She’s not. She’s procrastinating.

Summarizing is not writing. Summarizing–for some authors–is a necessary step before diving into the novel headlong, a sort of putting your toe in to test the water. While full summaries are not for me, I totally accept it could well be for others, Kelli included.

That said, repeated summaries, edited summaries, rejected summaries are like putting your toe in the water, and deciding to wait a few minutes because it may be warmer later. You wait, then put your toe in again. Still not quite warm enough. You wait and put your toe in again. Nope, still not warm enough. This is the surest way to guarantee you never have that swim.

Summaries, even the most perfect, will change when the writing starts. While some writers create a plot and stick to it and there is no variation (their novel is basically a fleshing out of their summary), for most authors plot holes will be found, character development will change your view of events, subplots will morph to serve your story in ways that hadn’t occurred to you before your novel started its slow crawl toward completion. The perfect summary, no matter how long you work on it, will not be exactly your novel and the more time you spend summarizing, the less time you spend really writing.

A novel is a cold pool. You can wait for it to warm up, but it will only get so warm. Sooner or later you must dive into it, temperature mostly unknown, complete lack of knowledge about possible sharks, electric eels or rips in the time-space continuum lurking in the depths. You must swim, and you must relish the adventure that swim represents.

Remember that editing is where your book really starts to work. You can’t fix the book before you write it. Summarize if it’s your thing, but once the summary is done, the very first summary, write.

Write. Write. Write. Write!

When you’re done with that, write some more.

Then edit.

Finding your place

A friend of mine is unhappy in her career and she plans to go back to school and change her direction. The problem is, she hasn’t figured out what it is she wants to do now, and she said something that struck me. She said “I always thought I’d find what I wanted to do and I’d just know.”

This sort of bowled me over.

I thought about how it’s true that we are told as children that we’ll know. We’ll decide what we want to be when we grow up and we’ll just do it and then we’ll be happy. Well, that’s sort of silly, really. When you’re a kid the world is full of teachers and doctors and firefighters and all kinds of good, obvious things. No kid has ever said “I want to be a claims adjustor when I grow up,” but there are still a lot of claims adjustors. Sometimes you just end up somewhere, and maybe you love it and maybe you hate it, but you probably didn’t plan it.

Second I realized that I always knew. I’ve always been a storyteller. As I told someone in the comments on an earlier post (here), I’ve always wanted to write, for as long as I knew what it was, probably before then. It’s what I always wanted. Yet here I am, no longer in “My salad days, / When I was green in judgment,” finally pursuing that dream. I ended up somewhere else, even though I knew what I wanted. I had to ask myself why.

Why is a big question. Why did I let my dream go and only write intermittently for most of my adult life and then only for my own pleasure? Well, there was my mother when I was young for starters. My mother was a wonderful woman, but she was a single mother with little financial help. She worked hard, far too hard, and she took wonderful care of me. However, she always worried about my making money. When I was fifteen or so, she suggested I become an insurance underwriter. How many people would come up with that dream for their teenaged daughter? Well, it sounded profitable and stable and so it was a good idea. Writing, on the the other hand, was poorly paying and unstable, somehow suspect and certainly not a decent way to make a living… maybe even smacking of laziness. Now, these things are quite true (except the laziness–writing is hard work!) and I don’t blame my mother for worrying. But it scared me. It scared me enough that I never truly considered writing as a primary career. It was always something I was going to do on the side while I had some other, sensible career.

Still, that’s not what happened either. I didn’t write. I kept my hand in with a few short stories just for myself now and again, but I didn’t write, not really, and I never did anything with any of it. What was the reason for that?

I contemplated, it’s true, going into my college’s creative writing program, but I found out they required a sample of my writing for me to be considered. Between being a genre writer (fantasy, mystery, historical fiction and some splashes of horror and sci fi) and a crippling fear of rejection, I didn’t apply. Those things stayed with me. Genre fiction is still viewed as suspect by the writing world, and indeed the world at large, and that makes it hard to find a support network. Writers groups don’t want you. Your friends might understand, but very few other people get it. Only the most specialized of publications want you. It’s tough. Then there’s that self-doubt and fear of rejection. Ooh, that’s a vicious little bugbear to escape. Eventually I did, but it plagues me still occasionally.

Top it all off with the fact that I went to school in a subject I loved and could convince myself was my true calling. Before I knew it, writing was gone. Then I ended up in a career not remotely related to my college major, but writing, for awhile, didn’t come back.

I’m better now. I’ve recovered (mostly) from self doubt and I know what I want. I will get my work out to the world by hook or by crook. It’s good. It deserves to be seen by eyes other than my own, to spark imaginations other than my own.

Wish me luck!

Nanowrimo tips

Well, we’re almost there. Halloween and then National Novel Writing Month. With that and the weather cooling down and Thanksgiving coming… Well, it’s no wonder this is my favorite time of the year! To heck with winter holidays, giving me overindulgence in candy, turkey and writing!

So in celebration of the most wonderful time of the year, I’ve got a few Nano tips. I’ve succeeded at Nano almost every time I’ve done it (exception: one year when I was very ill) and so that of course makes me qualified to give tips. (No it doesn’t. I made that up, but I’m giving tips anyway.)

1) It really depends on what sort of writer you are, but for me Nano works best when you have a solid starting point, and a solid ending point and perhaps two or three salient points you must touch upon along the way. Hold onto these for dear life. You need them. They are your life preservers in a stormy sea. Everything else: let it go where it wants. Let it flow.

2) Despite what I told you in #1, only hold onto those points if they aren’t ruining everything. Let them go if they no longer work for you. If your story is sinking because your life preserver turned out to be made of lead, let it sink and swim back up. Look for the next one. Or craft a new one from the flotsam and jetsam that rose as your wrote. (Am I beating this metaphor to death?)

3) Don’t be afraid to use too many words. Describe things. Allow your characters to have ponderous inner dialogues, or indeed, ponderous external dialogues. You may well edit this stuff out later (after November, please. See #4), but it clarifies the story, the setting and/or the characters to you. It helps you work things out you may not have considered before. Your readers may not need it eventually, but you probably need it now.

4) Whatever you do, don’t edit. Really. Don’t edit. Don’t even reread except to remind yourself where you were when you return to writing after a break. You have permission to fix the occasional typo you might run across but, otherwise, leave that clunky sentence, ignore that nonsensical soliloquy, pretend that bit about the fluffy bunny is perfect. Keep going. Nano is like being chased by hounds. If you stop, you won’t start up again. (Oh, now that’s a much worse metaphor. In honor of Nano, I’m leaving it.)

5) This one is sort of part of #4 and sort of not. Don’t pre-edit. Don’t sit and search for just the right word. “What is it when you add things, but you’re English or something? What is that phrase?” Doesn’t matter. This is Nano. Use “add” now and remember “tot up” in December when you’re at leisure to do so. “Do I want my heroine’s dress to be chartreuse, lime or mint?” Pick one and keep moving. Allow her clothes to represent her specific mood later when you have time. (Is chartreuse happier than lime?) Just keep moving. Remember those hounds. Or, if we want to get back to the ocean metaphor, you’re like a shark. If you don’t keep swimming, you’ll drown.

6) Have fun. No, really. Have fun. Take it only as seriously as necessary. Yes, you want a story when you’re done. Yes, you hope it leads to something wonderful. However, if you’re not having fun, if you’re not enjoying the mad race to the finish line, it’s not worth it. Let it wash over you like a wave and swim for the joy of swimming. Love the baying of the hounds. (Wait, I was swimming. Have the hounds started swimming now too? Are these metaphors strained at last to the breaking point?) Nano is, at least in part, a self-indulgence. That’s why it comes but once a year and (in my opinion) why it’s right after Halloween and still whizzing for Thanksgiving. It’s a feast. (Hold on; are we eating in the ocean now? Am I a shark again? Is there dog food for the hounds?) Enjoy it.