C. Aubrey Hall's Blog
March 12, 2014
I tend to focus on cutting manuscripts because I can spew out words and words and words and words. I always have more manuscript than editorial permission. My very first novel published required me to cut it in half before the editors were satisfied.
However, there are folks out there who write lean and mean. A friend of mine has always written so tightly, so sparingly that her prose–while superb–always comes in under length.
So if that’s your revision problem, here are some tips and suggestions:
1. Don’t pad.
Never lengthen your copy by injecting material that’s extraneous, flowery, or rambles. If it doesn’t contribute to your story, it shouldn’t be there.
2. Look at your scenes.
Can you strengthen your protagonist’s motivation so that he or she will push the conflict harder? If you don’t let the protagonist give up just yet, can you wring another three paragraphs–or even three more pages–from the scene?
If it’s possible, without having the conflict become repetitive or mere bickering, then write it!
If you don’t see how you can alter character motivation, then raise the stakes.
If you can’t raise the stakes, then let the antagonist pull an unexpected maneuver. Such a twist is unpredictable, a nasty surprise for the protagonist, and needs dealing with. Hey! It means you’re adding plot!
3. Have you rushed the climax?
I’m one of those writers that wants to wrap up the story fast. Often I rush the dramatic climax and don’t give it as much attention as I should.
Go back through the ending of your story. Have you made the sacrificial choice hard enough? Is your protagonist in a tough enough quandary? Does everything look lost for the protagonist and have you let your lead character stew enough in apparent defeat before you bring in the reversal?
It’s so easy to rush the Dark Moment and so important not to.
If these three suggestions don’t add enough length to your short story, or if you’re writing a novel that needs a lot more content than just a few extra pages, then consider the following solutions:
4. Add a subplot.
Maybe you’ve been busy focusing on your protagonist’s external plot problem, but you’ve neglected to do much with his inner arc of change.
Ask yourself if your protagonist has inner flaws. If so, are there any scenes or confrontations dealing with them?
Look at your secondary characters. Are any of them interesting enough to supply a subplot to the story?
5. Add characters.
Maybe your protagonist needs a sidekick. Maybe you’ve omitted a love interest for your main character. How would such secondary characters add to the story? Would they bring the potential for subplots? Would they add another layer or more dimension to your protagonist–or even the antagonist?
You don’t want to clutter a novel with more characters than are needed, but consider where an extra character or two might help.
6. Have you established a strong sense of place?
While description is often the first thing a writer cuts from a manuscript, sometimes a busy author forgets the setting altogether.
Or–more commonly–a writer envisions the setting clearly in her mind and neglects to remember that her readers aren’t telepathic enough to read her thoughts.
Descriptive passages are risky in that they slow down the pacing, but we still need them at key points to help readers imagine where the action is taking place. Or the clues of lipstick, a broken button, and a deck of cards scattered around a mysterious corpse. Or the silky touch of the blouse the heroine slips on. Or the thunderous downpour in a Malaysian monsoon doing its best to drown the rubber plantation. Or the fragrance of a man’s aftershave as he enters the courtroom to seek custody of his only child. Or the glutinous taste of the sludge that passes for Andorian coffee. Or the shot that rings out in the dead of night.
7. Have you explained?
I frequently caution my students against the urge to explain all the background in their opening pages, but in the middle of a novel readers need to know something more about the protagonist’s motivations or why these events are happening. Act II infusions of back story make a desirable change of pace. They don’t have to go on and on and on, but they can provide readers with a breather after an explosive opening section of a book.
March 6, 2014
It’s one thing to declare, “Thou shalt always tighten thy prose!” and another thing to accomplish it.
I’ve heard all the tricks and advice. Haven’t you?
My favorite is, Imagine you’re being charged by the word instead of paid by the word. What would you eliminate?
Dick Francis was one of the leanest writers out there. His mystery novels were never superficial, but he possessed a knack for conveying vivid imagery, taut conflict, and internal anguish without gush or flowery sentences.
Blame that on his highly competitive nature. According to his autobiography, when he stopped riding as a steeplechase jockey and began writing for a racing publication, his editor would mark up his copy. Francis didn’t like that, so he learned to trim his words and convey his meaning precisely. His aim was to deliver copy that the editor couldn’t mark or shorten. By the time Francis turned his hand to writing mystery novels, his distinctive style had developed.
Every day, I fight the battle over baroque, excessively complicated and convoluted sentences, the likes of which are being displayed to you at this moment in a dizzying display of my ability to write the most overblown rhetoric and purple prose possible.
I LOVE sentences like that!
Unfortunately for me, almost no one else wants to read such stuff. So I let myself go in rough drafts and then I edit, edit, edit, burn, slash, cut, tighten, grumble, and edit.
Let’s use the above sentence as a little exercise. I believe it’s 42 words long, nearly twice the length an effective sentence should be.
First, we’ll label its parts:
Every day, I fight the battle over baroque [adj.], excessively [adv.] complicated [adj.] and convoluted [adj.] sentences, the likes of which [archaic phrasing] are being displayed [passive verb] to you at this moment [circumlocution] in a dizzying [adj.] display [repetition] of my ability to write the most [qualifier] overblown [adj.] rhetoric [incorrect word choice] and purple [adj.] prose possible.
#1–Use fewer words to convey your meaning.
Daily, I fight using baroque, excessively complicated and convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a dizzying display of writing the most overblown rhetoric and purple prose.
#2–Weed out as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
Oops! If I take away those adjectives, there’s no meaning left. Better put them back in, for now.
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, which are being displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
[The sentence is growing shorter. It's not better ... yet.]
#3–Shun passive verbs.
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in a display of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
#4–Check your copy for echoes.
It’s easy to get caught up in the meaning of your prose and reach for the same word more than once in a paragraph or page without realizing it.
Always look for repetition. There’s more of it in your copy than you may think.
Wait! Did I just repeat a point?
Let’s move on to the example:
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in an example of writing rhetoric and purple prose.
#5–Are your word choices correct?
The shorter and clearer sentences become, the more an imprecise vocabulary will stand out.
Daily, I fight using complicated, convoluted sentences, displayed to you now in an example of diction and purple prose.
#6–Is there flow?
Once you’ve whittled a sentence or paragraph down as demonstrated above, there may not be much left. Or the thing may lack smoothness. It may not convey your meaning the way you intended. It may have become a lousy sentence.
At this point, I ask myself if I should delete the sentence entirely.
If I need it, then I’ll correct bad flow by rewriting the whole thing, taking care to remain simple and clear.
I struggle daily against writing the complicated sentences best described as purple prose.
It’s clear, but it seems stilted.
So how about this?
I face a daily struggle against writing what’s known as purple prose.
I’ve gone from 42 words to 13 to 12. My meaning is clear. I’ve retained a colorful term. A flowery sentence that once read like something from a bad Victorian novel has become concise and modern.
Best of all, even I understand what the heck I’ve been trying to say.
March 5, 2014
Okay, so you’ve written a short story, or an essay, or a novel. You’re happy with it. You feel you’ve conveyed what you intended to say.
Trouble is, the piece is too long. It won’t fit the length requirements of your target market.
How do you cut? What do you cut? Where do you cut?
#1–How far over the limit are you?
This will determine if you’ll be tightening or cutting.
For example, if you’re 200 words over length for a 100-word essay, you need to cut. When reducing your manuscript by more than half, such a major reduction involves finding a new, better, leaner way to express your point. You’ll not only be cutting, you’ll be rewriting as well.
On the other hand, if you’re two pages over length in a short story, then all you need to do is tighten your prose.
#2–Avoid gimmicks and face the problem.
I once had a man ask me if he could shorten his novel by using one space between sentences instead of two.
When it comes to writing, I seldom consider any question silly, but this one qualifies.
Such gimmickry is evading the problem instead of coping with it. You won’t accomplish anything, and you certainly won’t find the solution you need if you don’t accept the fact that your manuscript needs streamlining.
#3–Know the editorial terms.
If you’re researching a potential market, and the guidelines say “5,000 words maximum,” obey them.
If you’re working with an editor and she says, “This needs tightening,” she doesn’t want you to slash entire chapters.
So here are the terms:
Tighten: Means to cut passive verbs and insert active verbs instead. Means to reduce usage of adjectives and adverbs. Means to eliminate rambling dialogue and excessive description.
Cut: Means to delete paragraphs, scenes, or chapters.
Small Cut: Means to delete only what’s repetitive or extraneous. A small cut could involve tightening a scene by removing the three paragraphs of dialogue that are moving the conflict off track.
Large Cut: Means to reduce sizable portions of a manuscript by eliminating the least important subplots, unnecessary minor characters, and excessive description; combining two secondary roles into one character; removing set pieces; and getting rid of too much background explanation.
When attempting large cuts that will significantly alter the size of your manuscript, make sure that you lop off background, research, explanation, and description first and remove any story-advancing scenes only as a last resort.
February 25, 2014
As a fantasy author who used to write historical fiction, I’m always wrestling with the eternal problem of establishing setting without stalling the story pace.
Description is notoriously slow going. It basically puts the action on “pause” while the author inserts whatever details of the locale are deemed important.
Too much description too often leads to reader boredom and the sense of nothing happening.
Too little leaves readers lost, confused, or disoriented.
Now, I was trained to use dominant impression when describing a place or person. Dominant impression is simply selecting the primary detail or information that you most want the reader to absorb and focusing on that in a brief, vivid paragraph.
My natural inclination, however–and one that I’ve fought against for years–is what’s known as the laundry list. This type of description is most likely to lead to reader snores. It involves listing detail after detail after detail. An anxious writer, uncertain of whether the sense of place is coming across, will tend to pile on more and more information with the unhappy result of overloading readers and bogging down the story.
However, I’ve encountered a third way of creating a setting which I think is effective in fantasy.
It involves telling readers where they are–for example Dickensian London or the fire pits of Ustan. And then plunging the viewpoint character into immediate trouble–either in scene action, conflict, or peril–and presenting the dialogue and character reactions true to their particular locale.
There’s no other explanation from the author. The reader, reading quickly to stay with the story action, has to keep up, orient himself to the locale, and envision the kind of place where characters would speak and behave in this particular manner.
It’s quick, engaging, and anything but boring. Avoid the temptation to explain and embroider. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.
And if you want to read an example of this technique, try THE ANUBIS GATES by Tim Powers.
February 18, 2014
Yesterday, with the afternoon temperature mild and spring-like, I finally got around to pulling dead morning glory vines off my backyard rose bushes. Underneath the brown, ugly vines–brittle and crumbling to the touch–the roses that have survived the onslaughts of harsh winter temperatures, drought, and my terriers digging holes beneath their roots are putting forth delicate little buds.
There’s still a lot of vine- and weed-pulling ahead of me if I want my roses to achieve beauty this spring. Some of these roses are fine old varieties known to the Victorians–or the Tudors. They bloom only once a year unlike the Knockout roses stocked by Lowe’s and Home Depot.
One month out of twelve, and yet what a divine fragrance, what glorious petals and colors.
By contrast, the Knockout roses bloom and bloom and bloom, yet they have no fragrance.
What would William Shakespeare think of a rose by any other name that smells not at all?
Over the weekend, I attended an antiques show and spent several enjoyable hours wandering around booth after booth of eye candy–the most glorious Art Nouveau lamps, Victorian glassware, fine porcelain, American Brilliant cut glass, silver, etc.
At one booth, I stopped and admired a pair of large silver candelabra–so big and ornate that they come apart in sections for polishing.
Another booth featured crystal stemware that was tissue thin, and yet it was intricately cut and etched by a master hand.
I know people who can’t be bothered to admire such beautiful things, much less own them. “Can’t be put in the dishwasher.” As though that has become the measure line of our lives or culture.
Well, I don’t mind tissue-thin crystal that has to be hand washed. I do own glasses that I toss in the dishwasher every day, but I haven’t surrendered the exquisite beauty of fine crystal either. I do own a few Knockout roses, but I haven’t surrendered Souvenir de la Malmaison. And I don’t mind polishing silver on a November evening while I watch MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET for the countless time.
Is my silver going to tarnish again in a few days? Yes. (If it’s left exposed to air and not used.)
Don’t writing skills, if unused, grow rusty in about two weeks? Yes. (If I sit around on past laurels and don’t keep myself working on prose and plotting every day.)
Life isn’t disposable. It isn’t always about convenience or ease. Worthwhile things take effort, time, and attention, whether we’re tending a rose garden or writing a novel.
How I wish I could just snap my fingers and will a book into existence. Alas, it doesn’t work that way.
It takes hard work, daily effort, concentration, and the sacrifice of time. It takes dedication to maintaining a high standard of craft, of being willing to work through the manuscript one more time just to change active verbs for passive ones.
It takes constant use of good punctuation and seeking the best words instead of the most convenient ones to prevent the rust of ambiguity.
It takes steady polishing of concept, plot, characterization, narrative, and scene structure to rid a manuscript of tarnished plot holes, contrivance, and poor motivation.
And it takes vigilance in staying focused, in believing in the plot and characters so that the weeds of doubt and distraction can’t sprout up and force me to abandon my story before it’s finished.
A lot of trouble? Yes. But how the finished result will shine for readers.
February 11, 2014
The relationship your readers feel for your characters shouldn’t be left to chance. You’re in charge of how readers respond to your story people.
Or you should be.
We want readers to either love or hate our characters. What we don’t want is a “meh” reaction. Or even worse, “Who? I don’t remember her.”
1) The best place to start in creating a likeable character is to think about the qualities you like, the traits that you respond to.
For example, you might admire someone who’s good, honest, loyal, sensitive/empathetic, intelligent, and has integrity.
2) Think about characters you’ve loved in books. Not just enjoyed, but loved. Can you remember their traits? What aspect of them did you admire most?
3) Combine these two lists into one and see if any or all of the qualities on it could apply to the character you’re designing.
4) Add some flaws, but make them endearing or provide shortcomings that readers can relate to.
5) How can you show your character demonstrating these qualities in action? Can you build scenes or show confrontations where integrity–for example–would be tested?
1) Think about behavior you despise. Is it cheating, lying, being abusive or manipulative?
2) Consider the most vivid villains you’ve ever read. What made them stand out? What made them memorable to you?
3) As before, combine your lists and award your villain with some of these despicable qualities.
4) Make sure to give the bad guy a likable quality or a bit of charm because you don’t want a cartoonish Snidely Whiplash villain. In other words, this individual has the potential to be good but has chosen not to be.
5) Figure out opportunities for your less-than-likable characters to behave in ways that will make readers hate them.
For example, in Naomi Novik’s novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, the protagonist meets a character who seems cheery, friendly, helpful, and refined at first but is in fact neglectful of his dragon. Again and again, readers are shown the valiant dragon drooping in his pen, depressed and insufficiently cared for. We see the man criticizing his dragon unjustly. And when the dragon is wounded and dying, his handler has to be coerced to pet the creature and give him a few kind words.
Character actions will have much more effective impact on readers than any amount of description.
February 5, 2014
A lot of attention is paid to physical fitness at this time of year. However, I think it’s important to remember that bookworms and casual readers alike also need to stay fit when it comes to reading.
As a working writer, I’m always trying to stay aware of the market, which means a certain amount of reading within the trendy stuff.
For example, the YA/new adult market currently favors first-person viewpoint, present verb tense, multiple viewpoints, flashbacks, extremely short chapters, page breaks between scenes, simple sentences, etc.
Those elements are aimed at producing a rapid, easy-to-read story that can be read in short bursts of attention without loss of comprehension.
But it’s like deciding to stop cooking from scratch and only nuking frozen dinners in the microwave. After a while, you may find you’ve lost the knack of stirring a roux or prioritizing the tasks necessary to set a three-course dinner on the table with everything timed correctly.
You shouldn’t ONLY read for your target market. You shouldn’t ONLY read books written in the past five years. By the same token, you shouldn’t read ONLY 19th-century classics if your ambition is to write for today’s mystery crowd.
Maybe this is an obvious point, this suggestion to take a more eclectic approach, but in my busy life I tend to forget and overlook obvious things. Don’t you?
For example, in the past three weeks I’ve read four recently published novels (Charles Todd, Paolo Baciagalupi, Scott Westerfeld, Karen White), one published in the 1990s (Lois McMaster Bujold), and one published in 1953 (Theodore Sturgeon). The book from the ’90s made me blink in surprise at how the pace seemed slightly slower than the modern stuff. The book was NOT boring or tedious, but neither was it frantic. Bujold took time to describe the setting–not at length, not in a boring way, but just enough for me to have a good sense of place. I felt I was there, and I enjoyed it.
Sturgeon’s book also caught me by surprise. It served up omniscient viewpoint, with more narrative and description than dramatized scenes. Oh, yes, I thought. I used to read more books like this when I was a kid. I’d forgotten.
Would I want more of it? Not much. I like scenes better than narrative, but Sturgeon held my attention and I enjoyed the story he gave me.
His 1950s book dealt with some pretty grim issues of disability, abuse, and child neglect, but the worst stuff happened off-stage and not splat! right in my face. Baciagalupi–by contrast–crammed brutality, beastiality, and horror right down my throat, leaving almost nothing to my imagination.
Sturgeon was also refreshing in that he bothered to write well. The book wasn’t long, and the plot was decidedly odd, but the characters were vivid, the theme strong, and the sentences flowed with a beauty that didn’t shout, “Look at how poetic I am!” but nevertheless reflected the care and thought he put into them.
I’ll never choose style over a good story, but give me both and I’ll follow you a long way.
Last summer, I fell into the tar pit of rereading a favorite author’s books and no one else’s. That was okay for a month, but then I needed to stop and pursue something different. Only it was like reaching into a bag of tortilla chips again and again and again, finding it difficult to halt. (The fact that this author published about 137 novels during her lifetime didn’t help me break free.)
So I’m reminding myself both to vary my reading diet and to pull my attention away from the latest so I can venture back into other styles, other topics, other authorial voices. I used to read Dorothy Sayers annually. Sometime in the last decade, I stopped that tradition. I think it’s time I revived it.
I read one of Leo Tolstoy’s tomes about once every twenty years. Are my reading muscles toned enough for Tolstoy these days? Maybe I’d better start training!
Earlier this week, I heard a writer–someone who reads all the time–remark that he couldn’t get into a book because it had “old language.” Even sadder, he’s missing a wonderful story about courage and dragons and friendship just because he won’t make the effort to deal with a non-contemporary writing style.
We need old language from time to time, so we don’t lose it. We need fast stories and slow ones; easy, enjoyable ones and grim, difficult-to-read ones. We need challenges and comfort. We need to stretch ourselves and remember to try authors new and unfamiliar to us, as well as our beloved favorites.
As for me, I’m going to go read now ….
January 29, 2014
While there was a time when I believed that a story should be totally and deeply serious or else slapstick silly, I’ve come to understand that stories don’t have to be at one extreme or the other. Often, the most effective–or touching–tales evoke a combination of emotions.
While I love drama, if there’s too much grief, gloom, and bleakness unrelieved by any lighter emotion, I can find myself weighed down, depressed, and ready to toss such an unrelenting plot aside.
I enjoy comedy in many forms–usually situational, physical, or farce. In recent years, other types of comedy have become more fashionable, but satire, sardonic wit, and scatological jokes seldom appeal to my personal taste.
Good farce is delightful, but if it’s poorly done it can come across as nothing more than characters behaving stupidly. While there are gems among the American television sitcoms, too many of them rely on punch-line humor–often the hardest to put across–and a canned laugh track. Is there anything worse than so-called humor that isn’t funny? I am so not amused.
The Brits are masters of situational comedy. Such plots build slowly, taking their time in setting up the scenario, but then–like falling dominoes–the laughs come faster and faster to the end.
Physical comedy has been around for centuries, providing people with simple emotional relief. In the twentieth century, it hit its stride in the silent film era–due largely to the genius of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd–and then continued through the Great Depression with Hal Roach’s LITTLE RASCALS, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges.
Cartoons are another source of humor. Among the best would be the Looney Tunes from Warner Bros. Starting in 1930, when the Great Depression was probably at its worst, these cartoons served up zany slapstick combined with farce, situational humor, and punch-line jokes. As old as they are, they can still make me smile at the difficulties of a cat being trapped in a roll of sticky flypaper. I love the machinations of Tom and Jerry–provided the cartoons haven’t been sanitized for cultural sensitivity. And most of us can probably quote lines such as Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, doc?” or Elmer Fudd’s grumbling about that “wascally wabbit.”
Still, with a few exceptions among the Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton movies, I think the most effective comedy is short. String it out too long, without mixing it with drama or romance, as Buster Keaton was wise enough to do, and it could become mindlessly silly like the antics of the Keystone Kops.
Which brings me back to the point of the post … the advantage of mixing emotions in fiction.
Writers sometimes refer to this blending or combining as “the roller coaster technique.”
The delightful farce, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, combines horror, suspense, romance, and touching little moments of relationships along with the crazy comedy. Without those other emotions, the comedy alone would be impossible to sustain.
Or, give your readers sadness, but then switch up things with a touch of humor.
An example would be in the funeral scene of the film STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Sally Fields has lost her young daughter. The funeral is over, and her friends have gathered around her in sympathy. Sally starts chewing the scenery, with her usually controlled character finally letting go. She’s ranting and weeping, venting all the pent-up emotions that she’s been suppressing through her daughter’s illness, coma, and death. And then, just when this outpouring of grief has us reaching for our hankies, just when if the director had stretched it any further we’d have detached from it, Sally cries out, “I want to hit something! I want to hit it hard.”
And Olympia Dukakis shoves Shirley Maclaine forward and says, “Here! Hit this!”
There’s a moment of shock, then everyone but Shirley Maclaine starts to laugh. Even Sally Fields’s character can’t stop her spurt of laughter. Olympia shrugs as she explains, “I thought we needed to lighten up.”
The tragedy, when contrasted with an appropriate amount of humor, will seem that much more moving.
One of the important themes of Preston Sturges’s film classic, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, is that we need humor in order to keep our balance and our hope, no matter how strong our problems.
The film is set during the worst of America’s Great Depression. Sullivan is a rich, successful filmmaker who mistakenly believes that the poor and downtrodden need movies of heavy drama. He thinks bleakness is all that poor, out-of-work people can identify with.
He’s totally wrong, of course. As he sets out on his journey among the homeless, he gets himself into genuine and deep trouble, so deep that he lands in an Alabama prison, the worst of all places to be. After chain gang work and much torment, he’s taken with the other prisoners to a small country church to see a film. Zany cartoons are shown, and Sullivan is at first offended as the convicts around him laugh. But then he’s caught up by the silliness, and soon he’s laughing with them. He learns that in times of trouble, we need anything but stories of grief and tragedy. We need to laugh.
This principle works for characterization as well. In the SF television series BABYLON FIVE, Security Chief Garibaldi is portrayed as a gruff, pragmatic little bulldog who’s very good at a very difficult and dangerous job. He’s also a recovered alcoholic who’s not so terrific at relationships. One of the lighter quirks assigned to his character, however, is that he loves Warner’s Looney Tunes cartoons. It humanizes him and shows us that there’s more to this man than a semi-paranoid, distrustful, wary grouch.
In the Dean Koontz thriller, WATCHERS, there are two creatures that are products of a secret lab conducting genetic experiments. Both creatures escape. One is a beautiful and highly intelligent Golden Retriever that everyone loves. The other is a hideous, deformed, violent monster that everyone fears. At a certain point in the book, government agents find the monster’s lair and search it for clues as to where the beast might be hiding. Koontz describes the agents picking up magazines where every photograph has been torn to remove the models’ eyes. When the monster kills, it always tears out the eyes of its victims. It’s so ugly that it doesn’t want anyone to see it and cringe in revulsion. But amidst the few possessions, there’s a battered, rusty statuette of Mickey Mouse.
It seems that in the lab, both creatures were shown Mickey Mouse cartoons as they were maturing. And now that they’re out in the world, the beautiful dog still shows delight whenever he encounters a Mickey symbol or cartoon. And in the monster’s den, Mickey represents possibly the only scrap of decency or vulnerability in an otherwise brutal beast.
In this example, Mickey doesn’t provide humor. Instead, he provides a poignant insight into a character that’s more dimensional than we first suppose.
Make ‘em laugh. It might be the best way to also make ‘em cry.
January 22, 2014
You want to be a writer. Daily you work hard putting words on the page, good words. You strive to improve your writer’s craft. You toil to transmit the wonders of your imagination into prose that others can enjoy. You submit your work to publishers, and wait. And wait. And wait. Or you self-publish electronically, planning for all the readers in the world to flock to your story. And you wait. And wait. And wait.
I don’t have to tell you how difficult the writing life is. We love it, but it’s not easy. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the isolation. We need to be alone in order to focus on our work. But we can’t help but crave feedback and response to what we’ve done.
Hard work and isolation can lead to discouragement. Writing is not for those who must have instant gratification. And so discouragement happens from time to time.
Here are a few tips for combatting it:
1) You are not alone.
Remember that every writer suffers. It’s part of the job description.
2) There is no such thing as an overnight success.
All popular writers endure a long apprenticeship. The ones that appear to be overnight successes either wrote obscure books for a long time, or wrote under pseudonyms, or may be a one-hit wonder unable to repeat that initial success sufficiently to establish much of a long-term career.
3) There are no shortcuts.
You learn your craft. You believe in your ideas. You nurture your talent. It takes as long as it takes, and you can’t measure your progress by anyone else.
4) You make your own luck.
I’ve always believed this. But just last week, I found it expressed better in a fortune-cookie proverb:
Luck happens when hard work and opportunity meet.
Bestselling author Jim Butcher waited for three long years for editors to read what would become his first published novel. Three years! But during that interminable wait, he went on believing in his concept and writing the second and third manuscripts in the series he envisioned. When an editor finally read the first manuscript and wanted to offer a multi-book deal, Jim was ready to seize the opportunity.
5) Find litanies that encourage you.
If you’re into positive thinking and affirmations, then post them on your bathroom mirror, your computer monitor, anywhere you’ll see them frequently.
Here are a few samples:
“Publishers are looking for new writers, like me.”
“My next story will be better.”
“The struggle is worth making.”
“I do have enough talent.
“Anything I still need to know can be learned.”
6) Continue to write.
I’m repeating this point because it’s important. If you don’t work through your dark moments and find ways to continue, then writing isn’t what you really want to do.
7) Finish every writing project that you start.
I don’t mean you’re committed to writing every scrap of idea that floats through your mind. But if you’ve plotted a story, developed its characters, and written the opening scenes, then finish it, even if you get stuck along the way. Solving the writing problems you’ll encounter is how you grow as a writer.
8) Continue to submit your work.
Rejection is part of the job. Everyone gets turned down by agents and editors at some point. You might have initial success and then hit a dry hole where it seems that no one wants your work. Keep at it. After Danielle Steel sold her first two or three books, she was rejected again and again and again. Finally, she got past that roadblock and went on to produce a string of number-one bestselling books.
9) Be flexible.
Maybe the genre you love best has died, and public taste has shifted elsewhere. Do you quit or do you adapt? Be willing to switch your focus to a different type of story, a different genre of fiction, a different length, or a different style. Flexibility is part of survival.
Author Janet Evanovich was writing romance novels when her publisher dumped her. Forced to janitorial work in order to make ends meet, Janet didn’t give up. She created a new kind of mystery sleuth–Stephanie Plum, the zany bounty hunter–and now Janet laughs all the way to the bank.
10) Not all stories are the same.
Perhaps your last project went like a breeze. You were able to think of a plot quickly. The characters seemed to fall into place with little effort. You enjoyed the writing, and it was a marvelous experience.
Now, however, the new project isn’t going smoothly at all. The plot keeps hitting dead ends. You can’t figure out your protagonist’s motivation. The characters seem artificial. Their dialogue is worse. You hate the story, and you’re certain that you’re washed up as a writer.
Not at all! Either you’re challenging yourself with a more ambitious story that’s a little outside your comfort zone, or you’ve made some fundamental errors with plot or character design. Solutions can always be found.
January 21, 2014
Last week, I sat down to start work on a new book. My window of time was small. I was trying to be efficient and professional by working quickly and getting the project off to a solid start.
Instead, my mind was distracted by thoughts of all the other projects in front of me:
-The YA novel under consideration
-A novella set in my Nether/Mandria world
-A prequel novel set in my Nether/Mandria world
-A southern steampunk idea
Result? Brain overload. I felt stuck and tired before I began. I made the error of letting myself think about all these ideas and characters at once.
It’s like walking late into a party already underway. The noise level is deafening. Everyone is talking at once over the music. Your host is pulling you through the crowd, throwing out names and rapid-fire introductions.
Do you remember any names? Can you link faces to names?
The solution is organization and strong time management.
1) Work on one project at a time.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t work on multiple projects, just not simultaneously. Portion off segments of your day or week and assign each task its own appointment.
2) Remember that your projects aren’t parallel.
You aren’t starting three novels at page one on the same day. You will be writing a rough draft of one, editing/polishing something else, and developing a plotting plan for the third.
3) Avoid more than two writing projects at any given time.
This isn’t always possible, but it’s certainly recommended. Multi-tasking may be a fact of our modern life, but that doesn’t mean it’s efficient or desirable.
If you could give your entire attention to one writing project, would it be possible for you to complete the draft faster? And if so, could you do your best with it before starting the second project?
4) Assign a number.
Establishing a priority list among your projects and determining what you’ll work on first, then next, and so on will help you create order from chaos.
My ideas aren’t always happy about being pushed to the back burner, but I would rather give each of them my primary attention than trying to work on them in some distracted state of round robin.
Once you’ve prioritized and scheduled–and I would recommend that you book close blocks of time, such as YA novel on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings and southern steampunk story on Thursdays–then adhere to your plan faithfully.
If it’s still overwhelming and one project is distracting you from the other, then drop one and focus strictly on single-tasking until the rough draft is at least completed.