Not Set In Stone

This morning on an online writing group someone asked for advice. He was halfway through writing his first chapter and wanted to make a change to his protagonist without having to go back and rewrite anything.

Oh, sweetie. I have some terrible news for you.

Most writing—good writing, anyway—is rewriting. Just because you wrote it or typed it doesn’t make it sacrosanct. If anything, having written it down is exactly what makes it malleable. Which is as it should be.

We’re a world of instant gratification. Rapid technology makes us increasingly impatient. We want to write the thing and be done. You can do that. You can write it and publish it and never look at it again. That’s the dubious wonder of self-publishing. But if you want to write the best possible book, you’re going to need to 1. take your time, and 2. rewrite, get feedback, revise, hire an editor . . . Basically, you need to work the book like you would work dough, pulling and pushing and folding and rolling until it’s right for baking. (There’s a reason some rushed books are called “half-baked” yeah?)

If I were writing something and realized halfway through the first chapter that I needed to tweak, well, I’d be ecstatic. I’d be so glad that I hadn’t gotten too far in before needing to rewrite that bit to pull it through the rest of the story. Better now, at the start, than to get halfway through writing your book before realizing you want to make a major change. Not that you can’t do that. I’ve dismantled and rewritten big chunks of books. I rewrote the entire first half of The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller and the entire back ends of Manifesting Destiny and Brynnde. They are all better books now than they were.

In short, you have to be willing to do the work. You have to be willing to expend the effort and the energy.

You have to be willing to rewrite.

Your words are not written in stone. Not yet. If you want them to be lasting and have impact, you must make your story the best it can be. And your first draft should never be your final draft.

SFWC 2018: Why Am I Not Writing?

Writers love when the dam breaks and the words flow. If only that could be all the time. However, sometimes the words dry up. Sometimes life simply gets in the way.

One of the final sessions I attended at SFWC this year was a presentation by David Rasch. While on the surface it can be easy to say, “I’m too busy,” Rasch delves deeper into reasons we might stop writing. He pointed out:

“Writer’s block” is a universal issue for writers, but it’s not the same for everyone. The consequences are profound. It causes internal distress. Once you can write again, however, your mood improves.

I’ve generally found this to be true.

Why is writing so hard?

Writing is a neurologically complex task. It may seem simple—you put some words on paper or type them on a screen—but there’s a lot more going on than that. Effort and concentration are required—it’s work! Hard work! And it’s often solitary work, so a writer has to be okay with being alone. He or she has to find the time and space to focus on the task. Sometimes the practical demands of daily life pull you away, or sometimes mental chaos and distractions do it (the Internet, anyone?).

Also, the public nature of the final product, the fear of exposure, imposter syndrome can all play a part in writer’s block. Past bad experiences with writing can cause trauma that prevents you from making progress as well.

What are the barriers to productivity?

Well, first you need motivation—a desire to write. Then you’ll make writing a priority. There’s an old saying that if you can walk away from writing, you should. If you can’t, then you’re a writer. Time management, too, can be an issue for some people. If you don’t plan well or are disorganized, you may not be as productive.

Also, health issues (physical, mental, emotional) may impact your ability to write. Natural talent or ability, too. Writing is easier for some people than others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write if it doesn’t come easily, but you should be aware that the challenge of writing may stop your progress.

Making sure you have a writing space that works for you, a place where you can concentrate and relax without interruption, is key. And developing writing habits and a regular routine is also important. Pinpoint your behaviors for when you’re avoiding writing. Do you clean the house? Bum around on YouTube? Once you’ve figured them out, put a stop to them.

In school we were given deadlines for our work. Now that we’re grown, if we don’t have an agent or publisher, we may have no deadline either. Setting one for yourself is too easy to ignore, so have someone you trust set a deadline for you—someone who will hold you accountable and not let you off the hook too easily. This person might be a fellow writer, or even members of your critique group. They should check in regularly so you can account for your progress (or lack thereof).

What are some of the problems writers run into?

  • Time (scheduling/prioritizing) – Write every day, even if only for 15 minutes, and protect that time. Eventually it will become a habit.
  • Difficulty starting – Better to jump into a cold swimming pool than dip a toe in. Else you might never swim.
  • Freezing up – Sometimes you stare at the blank screen and can’t think of anything, which causes anxiety.
  • Feeling overwhelmed – The project or idea might feel too big, and you feel like you can’t start writing until you’ve figured it all out. But the best way to figure it out is to start writing. The writing itself will help you clarify the story.
  • Procrastination/binge cycle – You put off writing for days or weeks and suddenly sit and write for hours at a time.
  • Excessive early editing – You feel the need to fix that chapter, that page, that paragraph before you can go on. This causes you to write at a micro pace. Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect the first (or second, or even third) time. Just get it written.
  • Perfectionism – Similar to the previous. Save your perfectionism for the final polish.
  • Excessive research – Falling down the Wiki rabbit hole.
  • Revision loop – It’ll never be perfect, and at some point you’ve got to stop revising and say it’s good enough.
  • Unable to finish/not wanting to share your work – A fear of criticism may keep you from submitting or publishing. But not everyone will like what you write. That’s just part of the package. If you want to write just for you, that’s fine. But make that decision early on.
  • Fear of success – Rasch told the story of a man who couldn’t finish his book because he was afraid Oprah would pick it for her book club and he’d have to go on TV. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Take things one step at a time.
  • Fear that you’re a fluke – A one-hit wonder? Beginner’s luck? Maybe you’re afraid you only have the one book in you.

Hard work often pays off after time, but procrastination always pays off now.

Every time you procrastinate, you strengthen the habit of not writing. You feel relieved at first. At the end of the day, you may say to yourself, “Well, I just didn’t have the time. Oh well.” But eventually you feel terrible.

How do I change my habits?

  • Make success unavoidable – Be consistent by writing every day, even if you’re not working on the “big project.” Write anything.
  • Know your avoiding behaviors and create a strategy for dealing with them
  • Set realistic goals and break things into bite-sized chunks
  • Be okay with imperfect drafts
  • Set contingency plans – As in, “I can only go online after I’ve written for at least 15 minutes.”
  • Have a relapse strategy – If and when you fall off the wagon, have a plan in place for getting back on.

I’ll tell you some of my writing obstacles: I’ve had some bad experiences with criticism and a lack of overall success with my work. These things really undercut my motivation to keep writing. I begin to ask myself why I bother and whether I’m just wasting my time.

Also, I’ve recently gone through a serious bout of depression. That definitely impacted my desire and ability to write.

This session helped me see my way clear to getting back into writing. The energy of the conference overall was good for that as well. And it’s so important as a writer for me to have support from friends and family. So be sure that you go support your fellow writers because you’ll need theirs in return.

Do you have avoidant behaviors that cause you to procrastinate? What are your coping strategies when you’re finding it difficult to write? Tell me about it in the comments!

SFWC 2018: Beta Readers

There are three types of pre-publication readers:

  1. Alphas
  2. Betas
  3. ARC Readers

Alpha readers are your earliest critics. These are the members of your writing group that see your roughest work.

Betas are the ones we hear about most. They read the manuscript after you’ve tidied it up from the feedback you’ve received from your alpha readers.

ARC readers are seeing the final product. You’re not looking for feedback at that point so much as people to review your book and generate some buzz.

There is one other kind of reader, and those are live readers, meaning people who are reading the book as it’s written. This is specific to display sites like Wattpad, where you may post a chapter at a time to build an audience.

Finally, there is a subcategory of readers: sensitivity readers. Those are people from a certain backgrounds that can advise authors on whether or not the representations in the book are accurate—or potentially offensive. For instance, a white hetero author writing a black transgender character would probably want a sensitivity reader to look at the manuscript prior to publication.

Okay, so why even have beta readers? Well, think of it as similar to a Hollywood test screening. When a studio makes a movie, they’ll host small screenings to get feedback from general audiences. Then they may make changes to the movie based on that feedback. Beta readers allow you to fine tune your book. At the same time, you can build a fan base or community, a group of core supporters who (hopefully) are excited about your book and will spread the word.

How do you find beta readers? The easiest way is to simply ask. Start with friends and family, but also look into online communities where members might have interest in your subject matter. Put a call out in your newsletter or put links in your ebook back matter. There are readers who would love to feel like they’re part of an exclusive group that gets a sneak peek at a new book.

How many readers do you need? The number of alpha readers will usually depend on how many people are in your critique group. If you don’t have a critique group, well, you should definitely find one. But if you can’t, at least try to find around three people to read your rough work. When you’re ready for a beta read, you want more like 10-20 readers. For ARCs, you want as many as you can get. Same for live readers—you want to hook as many as possible.

The most important aspect of getting and keeping beta readers is engaging them. Make them feel valued and special, like they’re part of an exclusive club. Create a Facebook group just for them, and keep in regular touch with them. Give them something to do—be specific about what you’d like from them. And always thank them, even if they’ve given you feedback that’s difficult to swallow. These people have given you their time for free, so they deserve your gratitude.

You’ll get the best (meaning most useful) feedback if you ask specific questions. Just don’t ask too many, or else your readers will feel overwhelmed. I use the rule of three when considering feedback. If one person says they don’t like something, it might just be them. If two people say it, I’d better take a look. If three or more people have the same issue, I need to fix/change it.

That said, don’t start editing until your results are in and conclusive. It helps to give readers a deadline and maybe send a couple of reminders. Just don’t pressure them too much. Again, they’re giving you their time for free.

When do I beta? I wrote a post a while back about the order of the writing process. You will normally beta after your critique/rewriting loop is done but before the professional edit. This is because a professional edit costs money, and you don’t want to pay for that only to have to change everything due to beta feedback. Still, that’s no excuse for giving your betas shoddy material. It needs to be clean and polished for them in a way it doesn’t need to be for your alphas.

I’ve written all this in a lead-up to introducing a site I learned about while at SFWC. It’s called BetaBooks and I’m giving it a try with Hamlette. So if you’re interested in beta reading for me, please let me know! I’ll be posting chapters on BetaBooks as I revise. I hope you’ll consider reading and giving me some feedback. At the same time, we’ll be checking out how well the BetaBooks site works. Should be fun, so please join us!

WIPjoy #31 & Final Five Answers

31. Your dream cosplay from your WIP!

My characters live in the modern world and dress fairly normally. Maybe slightly better labels than I do. At best, I could dress up in some haute couture like my characters do for the big memorial service. I like dressing up, so that could be fun.

 

***

 

16. Weird personal writing quirk.

I can’t write with other people around. Like, even with other people in the house, no matter how quiet they’re being. I really have to have separate space. That said, I can sometimes manage it in a hotel room, so long as I can’t hear others. And I make my home office work with a very loud white noise machine. But ideally I’d have a little writing cottage separate from the main house. A bungalow or something.

17. Notebook or computer?

Usually my laptop, but not always. I keep a notebook next to me, and when I need to stop and plan a scene, I switch to that. I use a kind of flowcharting method and then write the scene on the laptop. I seldom write any actual amount of the book in longhand. Only if I don’t have my computer and really want to get something down—then I’ll pull out my notebook (I always carry one) and write in it.

18. Favorite setting to write.

I don’t understand the question. Are you asking where my favorite place to write is, or do you want to know my favorite place to write about? I guess since you already asked my favorite place to write, you must mean fictional setting. Most of my work is set in London, or at least England: my Sherlock Holmes stories, The K-Pro (an English film set), Brynnde, the recently finished Hamlette . . . I guess I should say that’s my favorite setting to write. Mostly I enjoy big houses and gardens and parks. I write about places I want to be.

19. Biggest writing fear.

That it’s all in vain. That I’ve written these books and no one cares, no one will read them. That I’m wasting my time.

20. Biggest writing hope.

The opposite of my fear: that people will read my books and enjoy them, and that my stories will outlast me.

WIPjoy #30 & 5 More Answers

30. How do your characters celebrate Halloween (or other holiday) if they do?

Nerissa isn’t much for parties, though she doesn’t mind dressing up. She thinks it’s kind of fun, actually. But she’s too old to trick-or-treat. Her ideal Hallowe’en is hanging around a bonfire.

 

***

 

11.Your first MC.

Uh . . . I don’t remember. Back when I wrote those Fanta-C magazines, I wrote about characters from movies and television. I’d give news on what Han Solo and Indiana Jones were up to (they were identical cousins, you know, because my mom would come home for lunch and we’d watch Patty Duke reruns).

My first original MC would have been the Hemlock sisters? My best friend and I made them up: a pair of sleuthing sisters who lived with their Aunt Miranda. Their parents had died under mysterious circumstances, so the running thread was to discover how and why their parents had died. In the meantime, they solved other mysteries in their small town.

12. Favorite trope.

I use metaphor a lot. Really, though, I’m not sure I have a favorite trope (if by “trope” you mean a common theme or structure seen in many books, television shows, and movies). I have a lot that I dislike, but few that I think: I love that! I guess maybe the repressed personality that is moved to express emotion? Because I identify with that.

13. Least favorite trope.

Oh, here it is! I don’t have a least favorite because I dislike them all equally. The chosen one/snowflake (yes, even though Cee is kind of one of these); the overwrought love triangle (again, even though Cee sort of has one); the perfect MC who still somehow thinks she’s ugly or stupid, even though guys are tripping all over themselves for her. I’m sure there are a ton more that I’m just not thinking about this minute because I try not to think about them ever.

14. Least favorite OC.

Of mine? That I made up? That’s just mean, asking me to pick on one of my literary children. I love them all, though probably not equally. I think Akkad—the MC of my thesis—might be one of my least favorite characters. If I ever go rewrite my thesis, I’ll flesh him out a bit more and make him less whiny.

15. Worst writing habit.

Procrastination, often in the form of doing just this kind of thing: blogging, tweeting, faffing about online instead of writing.

WIPjoy #29 + 5 More Answers

29. What’s something that’s creepy in your WIP?

Well, there’s a ghost. But it’s not a very creepy ghost. I think the second death in the manuscript is creepiest. It happens off the page, and the main character sees it on the news, and I think it’s probably one of the creepiest situations in the book.

***

 

 

Yesterday I started this little list, too. So let’s do five more answers.

6. Favorite place to write.

London? When I can get there. Really, anywhere I can get away. I love retreating in order to write. But I do most of my writing in Little London, which is my home office. You can see a video of it on my Facebook page.

7. Most overused word.

My thesis advisors pointed out that I used “just” a lot. I don’t know if that’s still true; I try to be cognizant of it. I think I use “was” too much. A lot of my revisions and edits involve going back and trying to remove as many of those as possible by replacing them with stronger verbs.

8. Most overused punctuation.

Depends on the genre! When I was writing The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, I definitely was fond of my semicolons. When writing young adult, I tend to possibly use exclamation points more than absolutely necessary.

9. Long or short sentences?

Again, depends on genre. My upmarket work has much longer sentences than my YA. Romance is in between. But truly, a good book will have a variety of sentence lengths and structures to keep in interesting.

10. Plain or purple prose?

Fairly plain. I do embroider a bit now and then, but that’s usually because I’m following a character’s thoughts. Thoughts can be complicated!

WIPjoy #28 & Facts About Me

28. Protagonist – Worst way to die?

Nerissa: I would think dying at all would be pretty bad. But, you know, poisoned toothpaste is right up there on the list of bad ways to bite it.

***

I borrowed this from Twitter, therefore the “Likes” thing doesn’t apply. I’m just going to answer these because I’m that self-interested. I’ll start with just five, though, because I don’t have a lot of time at the moment.

1. Age you started writing.

Well, I taught myself to read and write when I was three, but I think you mean, like, writing stories? Around age eight. I would make little newspapers and magazines for my friends to read.

2. Story that inspired you to write.

It was actually movies and television that got me started. Indiana Jones and Young Sherlock Holmes and animated Disney movies and such.

3. First WIP title.

Like, the first I ever wrote? Jesus, I don’t remember. I wrote these “magazines” called Fanta-C if that counts.

4. First, second, or third person?

Usually third. BUT. My most recent WIP was in first person and that’s the one that grabbed an agent’s interest, so I may be doing more like that in the future.

5. Favorite time of day to write.

I used to write from about 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. That was the ideal time. But then I had a job and kids and now I write from about 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and pick up again around 4:00 to 5:00 or so.

WIPjoy #7

7. A writing tip that has helped you.

There must be so many . . . I remember my thesis advisors telling me to watch for the word “just” because I used it too much. That was helpful. I know that it’s important to get a draft out and not pause to self-edit because then I’ll never finish the draft. That’s a useful tip, though I admit I struggle with it. Which is why it takes me forever to finish a draft. I’m trying to get better about that, though. Learning to query only agents at first and then publishers if I didn’t find an agent—that was good information, too. (I made the mistake of querying both simultaneously with one of my early manuscripts.)

In short, there are a lot of helpful tips out there. Some you’ll be able to implement, some may be harder. Some may feel unfair, like when I say, “Don’t rely on dreams and visions to move your protagonist through the story,” and then you see a successful author like Rick Riordan do that all the f***ing time, and you wonder why you can’t. The answer is: you’re not Rick Riordan. (And, really, it drives me up the wall when he does it, too.)

I’m always learning as a writer. I think that’s important. Publishing is a rapidly changing industry, and trends are also always in flux. (That’s another tip: don’t write to trends because by the time you’ve got a finished manuscript, that trend will likely be over.) So stay on top of what’s going on. And write what you like, what you feel passionate about, because it will show in your prose. Your enthusiasm as a writer is part of what pulls your readers in.

There must be a million more tips that have helped me but that I’m not thinking of right now. When I get good advice, I adopt it and it becomes part of my process, so integrated that I don’t even think about it any more. Meanwhile, be sure to follow #WIPjoy on Twitter for more great writing tips!

The Order of Parts

Writing has a lot of steps. People who don’t write don’t understand that. Sometimes people who do write still don’t understand that. So I thought maybe I’d break it down a bit.

1. Writing
2. Critiquing
3. Beta
4. Editing
5. ARCs
6. Release

That’s a simplification. In truth most of these stages loop.

You write, and you get your critique group to read your writing. Then you rewrite and get it critiqued again. You keep doing this until you feel like you’ve got something worth showing your beta readers.

Note the difference between critique partners and beta readers. Your CPs are going to be other writers and people who know about things like grammar and punctuation. Your betas are going to be people who just like to read. They may know when something is misspelled, but that’s not their chief function. Their job is to tell you whether your story is confusing at some point, if they notice a major plot hole, if a character is annoying—all the things you talk about if YOU read a book and have issues with it. That’s what they’re going to do to YOUR book. And it’s as fun as it sounds but also really necessary.

After your betas have ripped your baby to bits, you get to fix all the problems. Then you can do another round of critiquing and beta reading. Then, when you’ve finally crawled back from your beta round with minimal pain, it’s time to hire a professional editor. You may also at this point begin exploring cover artists if you don’t already have one.

Your editor may find more issues (a good editor almost always will). After you’ve edited and polished your manuscript yet again, and once you’re relatively sure it’s as good as it can possibly be, you can start looking for ARC readers and advance reviewers. These people are NOT meant to give you feedback so that you can fix the book. They’re meant to tell other people whether or not the book is any good. If they say it’s not, then something in the previous steps went horribly wrong. Or you’ve tapped the wrong audience to read your ARCs. That’s actually also possible.

Finally, you can release your book into the wild. Yes, let it go. Try not to hover. Don’t pin all your hopes on this one title, no matter how much time and effort you’ve put into it. You should be getting on with your next book at this point. Looking forward not back.

“What about marketing?” I hear you asking. And of course that is important, but that’s another post for another time.

Becoming a Writer: Step One

Someone asked me the other day, “So what do I need to know about being a writer?”

For context, this person is working on his first novel. I’ve read enough of his work to know he has the basics down: grammar, spelling, punctuation. He reads a lot, too. I feel like you have to read if you want to write well.

So all the nuts and bolts aside, my answer was: “You need to know what success looks like for you.”

This is the first step.

As-yet-unpublished writers will find so much information online. A swell of it, a tide, a flood. They will read of new authors getting six-figure deals with big publishers, and they will read about self-published authors building empires in which they make six figures a year, too. Then these new, young writers will get dollar signs in their eyes and think about how rich they’re going to be, just as soon as they write this novel.

But let’s get real. Most authors are living middle-class lives at best. I’m not saying it’s impossible to land a big agent, a big publisher, or reel in the big money as a self-published author, I’m just saying it’s not something that happens quickly or often. And what you really need to know is: Are you in it for the money? Or are you doing it because you love to write?

Before you start yelling at me in the comments, I know the two are not mutually exclusive. You can love to write and make money doing it. But publishing is a business and kind of a machine, and we all lean a little more one way or the other. Some of us are business people with some creativity in us, and others are creative people with a smidge of biz.

Bottom line: if you’re more focused on your bottom line, you’re going to approach the work a little differently than if you’re more into the writing part. Neither way is right or wrong, just different. Because all of this drills down to how you personally are going to define success for yourself and your work. You need to know this to map the path you want to take.

IF you want an agent and a major publisher, that’s one path.
IF you’d be happy with a small publisher, that’s another path.
IF you’d be content to self-publish, that again is another path.

Decide how and when you’ll feel “successful.” Set that goal. Those goalposts will move later, once you’ve reached your first goal, but focus on one thing at a time.

“I’ll feel like I’ve made it when I have an agent.” <— Is this you?

“My goal is to see my book in stores and libraries, which means I need a publisher with good distribution.” <—What about this?

“I just want to get my book out there. I’m not as concerned about how, and I’m happy to market myself.” <—Maybe you want to self-publish?

Once you’ve picked a road, you can begin your journey. I recommend finding out as much as you can about every possible option. And remember that it’s okay to change direction later on. But don’t let others’ stories of success or failure be what determines your path. Remember that no one gets there exactly the same way, and your journey will be unique to you.

As for me, when faced with these options, I chose to focus on writing things I want and like to write. Many times I’ve been told how much more money I could make if I’d just pick a genre and stick to it, or if I wrote faster. I know it’s probably true. But when I try to write in just one genre, I begin to feel confined. I stop having fun with my work. And for me, it’s more important that I enjoy it. Yes, I’m so happy when others do, too. And I’m flattered when they want more. I can never count out the possibility that I’ll write more of something. But it will take me a while. Because I’m also not a fast writer. I’ve tried, but it only makes me anxious and unhappy. So I go at a pace that is comfortable for me.

tl;dr: To be a writer you must first be a reader. And you also need to figure out your goal: an agent? major publisher? to self-publish? Do you want to make x amount of dollars per month or year? Do you want to sell x amount of books per month or year? Set a definite, concrete goal for yourself, and don’t be sidetracked by all the news of other authors’ successes. Focus only on reaching the goal you’ve set.