Tag Archives: writing process

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.

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!