Know When to Stop or Step Aside

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I am guilty of the same error that many writers are guilty of: Because I fear rejection, I quit writing. I’ve done it in the past, I’m doing it now, and I will likely do it in the future. But the fear of rejection should not result in my NOT writing.

As a writer I know once said, “If they don’t like your stuff, write new stuff!” Rather than banging your head against a dead-end , wishing that your readers would respond to what you are writing, turn and try another path. This could lead to a new genre, or just a new idea in your current genre. It will certainly help to open new horizons for you, horizons that might offer pay dirt, or at least potentially a more fertile arena.

I have many starts in my writing files — and far fewer finishes. These arrested starts still call to me, and there is a chance that I will get back to a few of them in the future, though certainly some are fatally inert and best left that way. But I don’t see these unfinished creations as a waste of time, or as failures.

What I have found is that stepping away when I am having trouble writing often frees my blood circulation, literally and figuratively, allowing me to see a way around my writer’s block, or to recognize that the block is too massive to overcome and I’m just wasting my time assaulting it.

The best thing I can do at that moment is to abandon the path I am on and seek out another, where my creativity can thrive and sing on the page.

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HOWEVER, that is not to say that we writers should abandon every project when it gets hard. Certainly not. Part of the fun of writing is pushing through the obstacles, getting over hurdles, finishing what we started because we know it’s worth it. The fun is seeing how you can find creative ways past those obstacles. Typically, your writing is stronger because of those challenges overcome.

But know when it’s time to call a halt. Sometimes, certain paths just shouldn’t be followed. You’ll know when it’s time.

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Editors Are Not Your Friends

It’s a fact: Editors are not your friends. You pay us to be more.

So many times, I’ve received a manuscript to edit where the author has informed me that it has been read several times, “and my family and friends love it,” so it should need very little editing. They send the manuscript to me just to check off the Edit box before launching it for publication.

Inevitably, I have to tell the author that the manuscript needs so much more than a pat and a kiss before being sent into the world. This isn’t mean-spiritedness on my part; it’s what I am paid to do. I am both cheerleader and trail guide.

It is my job to look at all aspects of the book, separate from who wrote it, which is something that friends cannot do. I can tell the author that the characters aren’t fully developed, or that they are a bit stereotypical. Or I can point out flaws in the plot, or gaps in motivation. Again, I’m not being unkind. I am showing the author how to improve the story.

That’s not to say that I won’t be positive and encouraging. I am always happy to cheer, as well, emphasizing what is right and strong in the book. My task is to help an author achieve that power throughout the book.

By all means, let your friends read your drafts, and listen to what they have to say. But before you rush to publish, here are a few reasons why you should send your manuscript to an editor:

  • Editors take the broad view. While family and friends might find it difficult to unlink the author from the story, an editor takes the broader view, allowing the story to stand on its own merits, separate from any feelings about the author. This allows honesty without circumspection.
  • Editors ensure a solid foundation. Editors do more than just read the story; they take it apart to its basic elements and verify that all elements are where they should be, and that nothing is missing. This strengthens the structure of the story. After all, you can build a glorious tower, but if it isn’t on a solid foundation, it will quickly flounder and crumple to the ground. Editors ensure that foundation.
  • Editors question your characters. Too often, authors create characters who do exactly what they are told, exactly what they need to do for their role in the story. But a good editor will question your characters, ask why they are who they are and why they do what they do. This helps to make your characters come alive on the page, rather than existing as cut-outs for the story line.
  • Editors test your story line and plot. It is the editor’s task to test your story line and to challenge your plots, all in the name of strengthening your book. The editor will look for gaps in the story, lack of continuity, and errors in reasoning or motivation for the plot to develop. This is hard for the author to do alone, being close to the story and so very aware of where the story needs to go.
  • Editors give your manuscript the chance to thrive. Editors understand the effort you have made to create your story. We know the love and pain that has gone into the writing. Our only goal is to give your manuscript the chance to succeed in the vastness of the world.

It is a major, and costly, decision to hire an editor once you have finished your book. Absolutely. But it is a necessary step for achieving what you dreamed about when you started your story. Take the step.

“Sonder” — A Delightful Concept for Writers

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My son just exposed me to a new word, which now enchants me: sonder. According to the Dictionary of the Obscure, it is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

I have always intuited this idea, but never put it to words like this. We are in this life together, but living it uniquely. It is brutish to expect that others will live their lives as we do, to have the same values and purpose as we have. How could they? Their experiences of life are distinctive to them. We must embrace this concept of individual perspective, in life and in our writing.

This concept will now more consciously inform my writing. I make it my habit to know my characters inside and out, as complete creations, not as cookie-cutter personae who simply do what I need them to do on the page. With this concept in mind, I will be more aware of how life experiences can be diametrically different for each person involved, depending on their perceptions.

In grad school, I  wrote something that I thought incredibly profound, but which my roommates and friends found remarkably inane. I think, perhaps, it was my version of “sonder”: I think everyone in the world is exactly as I am, except those who are different, warped versions of the universal type, which is me.

Okay, not quite as profound now as it seemed then. But therein lies truth. I stand by it.

 

Characters Are Key

Who would you be sadder to see die: Daenerys Stormborn or Bran Stark?

For me, it’s Daenerys, all the way. I care about her. I’ve rooted for her since we first encountered her. She has a story I have embraced, and I want her to succeed and become queen.

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As for Bran, his character (in the TV series, anyway) is so underdeveloped (though with great promise) that I simply don’t care about him. We haven’t been given enough to buy into him emotionally, at least I haven’t. His great knowledge has yet to be shared, and since he became the three-eyed raven, he is cold and aloof from everyone. Will he live, or will he die? Meh. (Even as I write this, I am aware that there could be a HUGE surprise awaiting us where Bran is concerned. Still, as of this moment, I say Meh. I might retract it, I know.)

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Brianne of Tarth, on the other hand, has just been sent into harm’s way. Not Brianne! We want her to marry Tormund Giantsbane and have giant warrior children! They’re not main characters, but oh do we care about them!

When you are writing your characters, whether hero or villain, or even secondary characters, try to make your readers care about them. If readers become invested in your characters, you’ll keep them engaged in your story. If not, it won’t matter how wonderful your story or plot is, the reader will be able to put the book down and walk away.

We recently watched “Rectify” on TV. The characters were so engaging, even damaged, that we found ourselves talking about them as though they were real, discussing their reactions and fears, eager to watch the next episode to know how they were getting on. Now that’s good writing!

Even less-dramatic shows, such as “Better Call Saul,” can have us caring when someone does a favorite character evil. Are the stories unique and memorable? Not always. But they make us care about the characters and remember the plot because of those characters.

In your writing, do your best to bring your characters alive. Make your readers invest in them. Good or evil, your characters will make you story memorable.

Finding the Essence Is Crucial

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Mark Twain

As each year passes, I find that I require fewer words to write. I still love long, languorous sentences if they serve a purpose, but I find more often that pithiness is key, and powerful. Often, I review what I’ve written and immediately see what to omit. First, I get my thoughts out, and then I edit.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain

It takes time to write well. It takes time and effort to edit well. But the result is worth it.

How much better to write of the “spare Lincolnesque man who limped through the grocery aisles surreptitiously filling his pockets with soups and raisins,” than to write, “He was a tall, thin man, with chin whiskers and a top hat, who dragged his leg as he haunted the aisles stuffing the coats of his pockets with canned veggies and soup and bags of food such as nuts and raisins.”

“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.” Mark Twain

I am currently forcing myself to finish a book where the author desperately needed an editor to clean up his prose. If the reader knows the facts of a situation, and one character goes to share those facts with another character, the author can imply that the facts were conveyed, not make the reader sit through yet another iteration of said facts. Cut that part and get to the consequence of sharing that information.

Assume intelligence on the part of your readers: they can remember facts, they catch implications, and they are likely ahead of the characters when it comes to tying things together.

Tighten your prose. Still paint with the glory of the entire English vocabulary, but write succinctly. Allow each word to carry its own weight.

Elements of Excellent Fiction

Fiction writing is a work of art. And, as will any art, it is a form that requires practice to master.

And, again, as with any art, there is no single way to write fiction. How we write depends on our personal experience, and on our goal in writing the piece. But for all fiction, there are guidelines.

Each story must involve characters. Whether we love them or hate them, no narrative is complete without characters. Journalism stories cite people involved in an event, but rarely do those characters come to life in those stories. In narrative writing, readers want to know the characters, so that they care about the outcome of the story.

As with any good story, conflict is vital in fiction writing. Think of the earliest stories you heard as a child: there was always an element of conflict. Think Snow White and her Stepmother, or Mowgli and Sher Khan, or Fern Gully and the evil corporation that threatened the animals’ existence. Without conflict, there is no story, only narrative.

The story connecting the events surrounding the conflict is called the plot. The plot is a series of events relating to the conflict, which leads to the final resolution of that conflict. The resolution is the climax of the story. Typically, the climax comes near the end of the story, leaving only room for final reflection.

When writing fiction (though, truthfully, in all writing), try to make your first line absolutely compelling. First lines should pull the reader into the story immediately. My favorite first line is: “Call me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The first time I read that book, I read the first line and immediately put down the book and looked up the name Ishmael, knowing that the name was key to understanding the entire book. Now THAT’s fine writing!

Or take the opening line in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Or the opening line of Lawrence Hill’s book The Illegal: “Go home.”

Immediately, we are intrigued by these lines. We are compelled to read on. That is the power of an excellent opening line.

Start with a powerful opening line and go on to tell your story from there, peopling your story with living characters, good and evil, who face a conflict … and tell the truth of that experience. When a story rings true, even if it’s fiction, you have the reader in the palm of your hand.

 

 

 

Describe, Rather Than Show: We all do it

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A couple of months ago, as she was editing the first draft of her latest novel, author Louise Penny wrote:

In the meantime, am writing away. had to severely re-write a chapter when I realized it was all done in retrospect – described – rather than seeing it unfold. Am being vague, I know. Don’t want to give too many details. But it sometimes happens, when I have, let’s say Gamache and Beauvoir analyzing something that happened, instead of showing it happening to them. Show don’t tell. Well I made that mistake and today had to un-make it. D’oh.

See, even successful published authors must rethink their writing.

“Show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard the phrase (commandment), but what does it mean?

It means to let the reader in on the action. Rather than having them read about an event in a newspaper account–“Plane Lands on One Wheel, Passengers Throw Bodies To Opposite Side to Balance Plane: A Wild West jet landed on one wheel today, safely, thanks to the quick thinking of the captain and the cooperation of the passengers”–let them be inside the plane with the passengers as the captain commands over the loudspeaker, “People, we have a situation here. Only one landing gear wheel has extended and locked. We must land, we can land, but we all have to work together to make this happen. I need everyone, and I mean everyone, to move to the left side of the plane. Men, women, and children … move. Find any empty seat, or sit on the seat of someone already in place, but get to the left side of the plane. Do it now. We have one minute til touchdown! Get over and sit and hold on, because it’s gonna get bumpy!”

Which of these renderings of the account gets your blood pumping faster, and your mind engaged in a whirlwind of thoughts? Was it the newspaper reporting of the account, or was it the in-the-moment account? I suspect it was the latter, even if you simply couldn’t accept that a captain would ask his passengers to do such a thing. You were engaged, and that means the writing was successful.

That is the difference between telling (reporting) and showing (putting the reader in the moment).

Review your writing. Do you engage your readers in the action? If not, perhaps you should try to rewrite, and Show, don’t Tell.

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