Tag Archives: writing process

Split Personality

I’m working on two manuscripts right now that are really the same story told two very different ways. It’s kind of an interesting experiment, even if it is a lot of work.

Imagine you had twins. You love them both but only one will survive to adulthood. And you don’t know which one to nurture. That’s a bit how I feel about it. I keep spooning baby food into each one’s mouth, all the while wondering which will grow to be healthy and strong and which…

Maybe it would be better to think of them as plants. I feel less terrible about one plant withering and one thriving.

Actually, no I don’t.

Anyway, I’m terrible with plants. The harder I try to keep them alive, the more likely they are to die. I like to think the opposite is true of my writing. That, unlike plants that suffer when I touch them, my writing projects benefit from my efforts.

So will I write two full manuscripts and then discard one? Or will I realize before I’m finished which is the stronger prospect? No idea. I’ll just keep going until it becomes clear, one way or another. “Two roads diverged” and all that, but one of them will come to a dead end. Eventually.

Notes from an Editor

Recently, someone asked for help editing something. It was a small thing, so I gave my feedback and suggested changes and left it at that. But then the small thing returned with additional changes. Yet many of my suggestions had been rejected.

That’s fine. As an editor, I know not everyone is going to agree with my revisions. Some of it is a matter of personal taste. Sometimes the author sees the need for changes but doesn’t like my particular rewording, so they go make different changes on their own, something more in their own voice. Some authors are simply too married to their own works to truly want an editor; they want the editor to simply say, “Yes, this is perfect.” (I won’t do that, so if that’s what you really want, please hire someone else, or better yet, save your money and ask friends and family to cheerlead for you.)

Edits, after all, come in two flavors: necessary and recommended. Necessary changes are, say, problems with grammar or big flaws that can’t be ignored. Massive plot holes, for example. I’ve read drafts where some characters completely disappear halfway through the book for no clear reason. Or even appear and disappear mid-scene! Those are necessary fixes. And then some edits are recommended for things like clarity or flow. Notes might say something like, “This seems out of character for So-and-So.” At which point the author can change it, or add more motivation for the character to behave that way, or whatever. (If I have an idea for that, I’ll usually note it with my feedback.)

This small thing, though. It returned with mostly the same verbiage as the original. The author had added a couple lines is all and hadn’t seemed to take many of my suggested rewordings for the rest. So I had to wonder… Why? Why would you continue to send something to an editor if you don’t intend to take any of the advice? I’m not offended that this author didn’t make those changes; that’s up to him. But it feels like a waste of time on both sides to keep doing this. He seems to already have decided he has it written the way he wants. What good is my input then?

As an editor, I won’t keep suggesting the same changes. But I also refuse to go over the same ground multiple times if the author keeps going back to their original choice of words, or plot point, or whatever. In other words, DON’T send me the same thing over and over again. Please. If I try to help you once, and it turns out I can’t (either because I don’t have the expertise or you don’t like my style), there’s nothing to gain from continuing to go rounds with it. Find someone whose suggestions resonate more with you, someone whose experience you trust more than mine, or someone who will tell you it’s all good if that’s what you really want to hear. And if you are an author looking for an editor, be clear and honest with yourself about what you do and don’t want, what you do and don’t consider acceptable, before ever hiring someone. Because you’ll need to be clear with the editor, too, about what you’re looking for in terms of feedback. Don’t waste time and/or money on advice you’re not willing to take.

Rules Need Not Apply

I have a Master’s degree in Writing, Literature and Publishing. I worked in publishing for ten years and have been writing and publishing my own work for almost as long. But today, when I posted a question about which of two names I should possibly use for a new project, a old, white man responded with: “My writing books say…”

Patronizing? Absolutely. Mansplaining? Yup. And completely useless. Because how-to writing books are for losers.

Yeah, I said it.

Let me tell you a story about when I was learning to read tarot. I bought every book about tarot that I could find, and every time I read a spread, I’d check the books to see what each card meant, trying to suss meaning from what was in front of me. I was trying to follow “rules” but it wasn’t working. Then one day I just read a spread on my own. It was intuitive. It came easily. The cards made sense. The how-to books had been a buffer between me and the natural flow. They’d been a crutch to me because I’d been too afraid to try on my own.

Grammar has rules, ones you should stick to… mostly. Writing has rules, too, but they’re better learned from actually reading than from a stack of manuals. Why? Because I’ve found that people who write based on how-to advice produce stilted, dry prose and often terrible dialogue. Writing isn’t math, despite the use of the word “formula” being tossed around now and then. You don’t learn the rules and then apply them universally, not if you want to write anything with actual heart and emotion—basically anything compelling and, well, good.

I’ve also discovered that writers who’ve armed themselves with “rules” often never get far in their projects, largely because they worry so much about whether they’re doing it “right.” That’s the problem with these books and this idea that there is a wrong and right way to put words to paper. I’d say some things work better than others, but even then that doesn’t mean if you do it differently it’s somehow incorrect. In any case, I always tell people to write first. Only after it’s written should you worry about fixing anything that isn’t working. If you worry about it being correct the first time, you’ll paralyze yourself. First drafts are meant to be edited. So are second, third, and fourth drafts. Writing isn’t about getting it right the first time. There is no correct answer to your story. YOU get to decide what’s right for it, for your characters, etc. That power can be scary, but once you learn to wield it wisely, it’s also very liberating.

Writing rules don’t account for personal writing style. And many writing books are old and don’t apply to newer, more modern methods of writing. Some things about the craft are eternal, but much of the business is fluid and ever changing. That’s why books written in the 80s sound so different from books published in the last couple years.

Going back to my tarot example, there are hundreds of various decks one can use. Mostly, they all have the same cards (there are, of course, exceptions). But a Queen of Cups in one deck might look and feel very different from the Queen of Cups in another. While some of the core meanings of the card are the same, depending on the deck (and the reader), you might intuit very diverse meanings. That is to say, not all possible meanings apply all the time. Nor do all writing rules apply universally or with equal weight to every story.

Find your voice. Find your style. Write. And only after having written, go back and figure out what does and doesn’t work and which rules to apply.

The Perfectionist Writer’s Struggle

There’s no misery quite like being a perfectionist writer. We want—expect, even—our story to spring like Athena fully formed from our skulls onto the page. In our heads, the story is perfect. Alas, when we try to make that perfection concrete by writing or typing it, everything crumbles.

I think this is partly to do with perfectionism and also partly to do with… How can I phrase it?… People for which most things come easily, people who aren’t used to having to redo their work… They have a particularly difficult time with the idea that their first draft will not and should not be their last. I am one of these people. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to show that having things come easily is not a wonderful trait. It makes me lazy. It makes me more whiney when I do encounter obstacles because I’m so used to sailing over them. It makes me want to to declare my first draft to be my final draft because of course I did it perfectly the first time.

And of course that isn’t true.

People who have spent their school days working hard in order to succeed have a much better chance of greater success in the long run. They’ve developed a work ethic and a willingness to continue hacking away at something until they get it right.

So maybe “perfectionist” isn’t exactly the correct word here. Though perfectionist writers have their own set of problems. They keep wanting to tinker with a manuscript indefinitely because they want it to be perfect. In that way, they’re rather the opposite of the ones who are so sure they are one-and-done. These perfectionists don’t want to let go. They’re often convinced there is some set of rules or a mathematical equation that, if they check everything off the list or get the right answer, then their book will be perfect. And only when it’s perfect will it be ready to query or publish.

What each of these types of authors has in common, however, is that in both cases the authors need to be comfortable with the idea of imperfection. The Type 1 author needs to be willing to admit a lack of perfection, and the Type 2 author needs to be willing to live with a lack of perfection.

NOTHING AND NO ONE IS EVER PERFECT

You’re going to find a typo in the final, published version. Or you’re going to re-read it and wish you’d written a sentence differently.

And no, you didn’t write it perfectly the first time.

I have never, ever been sorry that I went back and edited and revised. In every single case the book has been better for it, no matter how much I bitched and moaned that it was fine—perfect—the way it was.

It won’t be perfect. Ever. Your job is to get it as close to perfect as you can, up until the time that continuing to fiddle with it has little to no ROI. It becomes a waste of time rather than a benefit to the work… or the author. In fact, eventually the work and the author begin to suffer for it. Part of being a writer is learning to find the sweet spot of having rewritten/edited it as best you can and not going any further.

Part of being a writer—a big part—is learning to live with imperfect. Both at the start and the end of your project. And in yourself as well.

The Unpopular Truth

Much of the posts aimed at writers (and creatives in general) are bent toward one thing: encouragement. “Don’t give up!” and “Follow your dreams!” and all that. Which is good. Sometimes. But just as important is knowing when to accept reality, when to adjust your sails, or just plain quit.

A year or so ago, a young man wanted to meet to talk about screenwriting. Over Panera, I had to gently break the news that, no, Sony was not going to read his Sonic script. His only interest was in how to get it to them; naturally, he did not want to hear that it was fruitless. And sure, I suppose if he made the right connections and met the right people… But to do that, he needed to either get an internship or write something original that got attention before he could then make a play for a known property. That’s a lot of work, and there’s no instant gratification in that scenario, so he wasn’t interested.

Nor was he interested in anything but his one script. I see this sometimes—writers with “passion projects” that they focus on. A good writer needs passion in order for his or her work to have impact, but having only one script or manuscript is the same as buying only one lottery ticket. You might win, but your chances are better if you buy several. I’m not advocating gambling, but writing is a gamble. You put time and effort into something that may never get published or produced. You’re betting your time will be worth it but, sadly, sometimes it comes to naught.

Your odds get better, though, if (a) you work on more than one thing, and (b) you’re realistic about your chances, the market, etc. That young man with the Sonic script had reduced his odds to nil by having only one script, and that being based on a copyrighted property. At best it might be a good spec sample for people to see his writing ability. But these days specs are less in demand; it’s better to have original content and ideas.

And sometimes you just have to stop chasing the white rabbit. No one wants to hear that they should set a project aside, “trunk” it as some writers call it. That maybe it’s not ready for prime time. That maybe wait for the market to change or… *ahem*… maybe it’s just not that good. Which doesn’t mean the time was wasted! No time spent writing is wasted because practice is so important. But not everything you write is going to be worthy of publication or production. That’s the thing people don’t want to hear or believe. That sometimes you just need to quit and move on.

Does Writing Get Easier?

I saw this question posted online recently, and my immediate thought was: If it does, you’re getting sloppy.

Writing is work. Sure, there are days when the words flow, the characters follow directions, and the plot comes together. Those days feel magical. But I’ve worked office jobs, and I know that those kinds of work days can happen anywhere. Good work days and bad work days are not exclusive to writers. It’s just the nature of the good and bad that can make it seem so different.

People who don’t write can’t quite conceive of writing as “work.” This is because writers, despite all the trials, generally love their work. And some non-writers feel as if loving your work means it isn’t really work. But again, that’s not any more true for writers than it is for anyone in any other field. A construction worker could love his job, but it’s definitely still a lot of work. A computer programmer could love her job, but again, still work.

“Oh, but you sit in a chair all day and make stuff up.”

  • Plenty of people sit in chairs most of their working days.
  • Making stuff up isn’t as easy at it sounds. If it were, everyone would do it all the time, right?
  • Making stuff up and selling it to people is even harder.
  • Making stuff up, selling it to people, and having people like it enough to want more is hardest of all. If your job does not require you to please large quantities of diverse and sometimes very picky people on a regular basis, consider yourself lucky.

Do you remember having to write papers for school? Sure, often they were essays, but sometimes your teacher wanted you to write a story or a poem. Wasn’t that work? Wasn’t it in some ways easier to write the essay because at least you had a starting point, a topic handed to you?

Bottom line: writing is work. And I know many authors say they can spit a book out every month, or six weeks, or whatever, but I have to question the quality.

Good writing seldom goes quickly, and it never gets easier.

IWSG: October 2018

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

I’m a mess these days when it comes to writing. I go from being hopeful and optimistic to plunging into the depths of despair and being sure no one will ever want to read my work.

By the way, look at the post below this one to enter to win a copy of my forthcoming book Faebourne. You can also read the first chapter via “Sample Chapters” on the sidebar.

Question of the Month: How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

Major life events usually disrupt my writing. Even minor life events can do that. This past summer, not only were the kids home but my husband was on sabbatical. We did some traveling and a lot of outings, which was a lot of fun. We made wonderful memories. But I got almost no writing done for three months.

As for writing helping me through things, sure. I sometimes write in a stream-of-consciousness way in order to figure out how I feel or what I think about something. It’s a good way to drill down and get to the roots of problems or ideas.

IWSG: Pitfalls

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Right now I’m insecure about 1. finishing this novel, and 2. giving a presentation at the local library this coming November. I know that’s a long time away yet, but I’ll be talking about writing and publishing for NaNoWriMo participants, which is why this month’s question is quite appropriate:

What pitfalls would you warn other writers to avoid on their publication journey?

There are so many! For one, don’t read too many how-to books on writing. You’ll get so worried about doing it wrong that you won’t do it at all. Also, don’t start querying the moment you finish your draft. You think you’re done—you so want to be, because you’ve been working so hard for so long—but you aren’t, not nearly. Much revision will be required! Don’t believe your baby has been born ready to walk and talk because it hasn’t. You’ve still got to raise it. Finally, be super selective about who you query. Do your research. It’s so exciting to get that nibble—or better yet, an offer! But not all [agents, publishers, offers] are created equal. So don’t celebrate until you’re sure.

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.