Category Archives: Writing Inspiration

Beginner Is Not A Bad Word

Dan_Wheldon_2011_Indy_500Now that self-publishing is easy, inexpensive, and available to everyone with a computer and an online connection, a growing number of writers are trying their hand at producing fiction. But there’s a basic problem: these aspiring novelists don’t know what they don’t know.

I’m reminded of an experience I had in first grade. As I recall, the teacher was taking us through the beginning steps of learning to read. She put a word on the chalkboard (this was actually back in the dark ages when, yes, they still had chalkboards, and they were actually called blackboards)—something like cat. We were to think of words that rhymed. Easy-peasy.

After a while of this oh, so simple work, I tuned the teacher out and said something to a classmate near me. And that’s when the teacher called on me for an answer. We’d moved past the “rhymes with cat” exercise. Not only did I not know the answer, I didn’t know the question.

The truth was, I was a beginner. I hadn’t mastered a thing and needed to pay attention to every piece of the reading puzzle the teacher was giving us. I just didn’t know it. I thought if step 1 was so simple, surely step 2 would be also. Except, what I overlooked was that I actually needed to know what step 2 was.

I think a lot of writers who have a story in mind make the same mistake I did. They know how to write, and they have a story. What else is there? Well, actually, a lot.

Recently I used an analogy with one of my editing clients to make this same point. Generally adults in the United States know how to drive. Especially out West, there are miles and miles between places and little affordable mass transportation. Consequently we learn to drive and apply for a license as young as possible (not to mention that driving can make a teen feel very grown up).

Imagine that a driver who got his license when he was sixteen and has been driving for twenty years decides he wants to try his hand at auto racing. Is he qualified to do so? He thinks, Of course I’m qualified. I’ve been driving for twenty years, and during all that time, I’ve never been in an accident, never gotten a ticket. I’m a good driver! Sign me up for the Indy 500!

Here’s the problem. Yes, race car drivers do drive, but their type of driving is not the same as the kind of driving that the average commuter does on a daily basis. Race car drivers have much more to learn—about the car they’re driving, the race track, their competitors, the team they’re working with, handling a car at high speeds, safety regulations and equipment, emergency procedures, racing etiquette, and undoubtedly a host of other things I haven’t even heard about.

But Mr. Good Driver doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thinks he’s ready for the races because he’s good at the level he’s been operating at. He doesn’t realize, however, that there’s another set of skills required of the race car driver.

In the same way, writers who have mastered written communication for their job or with friends and family, may be fooled into thinking they know all they need in order to write fiction. They don’t know what they don’t know.

One of the give-aways that a writer isn’t ready to publish their novel is that they are overly concerned about mechanics and formatting. They want to be sure they have all the commas in the right place and the right words capitalized. They want to know how long a chapter should be and if they are to set their margins at an inch or an inch and a half.

I’m not saying mechanics and formatting are unimportant, but they are down the list and are the things most easily fixed. The harder things act like worms burrowing into and eating away at the heart of a story—things like point of view errors, underdeveloped characters, weak description or overdone description, a lack of tension, or a bland voice.

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

The bottom line is this: if you’re just starting out, realize you are just starting out. Yes, you know how to write, but you are just a beginner when it comes to writing fiction.

There is no shame in being a beginner. It’s actually wise to realize you have things you need to learn. It’s wise to sit up, listen to the teacher, and take notes when necessary. It’s wise to practice, practice, practice. It’s wise to get evaluated from time to time in order to know if you’ve graduated from beginner to intermediate. It’s wise to be patient and learn what you don’t know so that you can turn that black hole into a brilliant star.

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Photo credits:
Indy Car by Greg Hildebrand via Wikimedia Commons
Black Hole, unknown artist, in the public domain

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Filed under Writing Inspiration, Writing Process

Writing Groups

PowerElements_of Story Structure finalWriting groups are invaluable. They may provide critiques, encouragement, inspiration, friendship, brainstorming, and beta readers. Maybe all of these.

Some people may not live in a place with easy access to a physical writing group, but in this day and age, the computer solves that problem. There are online critique groups, Yahoo! groups, forums, Facebook pages, team blogs, editor blogs (like this one), writer blogs, agent blogs. There’s even an author, Donita Paul, who holds weekly chats on Mondays (and I just learned that she’s presently discussing Power Elements of Story Structure–how cool is that!?!) If a writer wants to find a community, one is out there waiting to be found.

Some writers may think they don’t need a writing group because they have lots of support and encouragement from their family and friends. Which is great! The problem is, our family and friends may not be as hard on us as we need. And they also may not be as educated in writing techniques us as we need.

Why should they be?

Most lawyers don’t ask their sister or cousin to critique their brief, do they? Not unless those relatives are also lawyers who have studied the law and know what they’re talking about.

Yet we expect anyone to be able to give knowledgeable feedback about fiction or memoirs or devotionals or how-to instruction.

Of course readers can tell writers what they like, and that’s always helpful. But to learn what needs to improve–how to make an argument flow logically, how to structure a story for maximum impact, how to correct passive voice, what point of view is strongest, and a hundred other particulars–other writers who have and are studying the craft will give what non-writers cannot.

Writers are essentially on a continuum, some just starting out and some working on the crowning project of their epic career. Wherever we are in between those extremes, there’s someone we can help and encourage, and there’s someone from whom we can learn and find inspiration. Consequently no one should shy away from a writing group because they think they have nothing to offer or nothing to learn.

I remember years ago attending a local writing workshop. I had considerable insecurity about being there–until I started talking to the people at my table. As it turned out, I was the only person who had been to a writing conference. I’d talked to agents before and to editors. I knew some things about formatting manuscripts and following guidelines. Of course, as the day wore on, I learned a great deal too, from others more experienced than myself who had signed book contracts and had agents.

That’s the way writing groups work.

Mind you, I’m not saying a writer can’t work in isolation. For years, that’s what many writers were forced to do. But even before the Internet, writers sought each other out. See for example, English writers such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley during the Romantic Period or the Inklings in the twentieth century or Americans Emerson and Thoreau during the early 1800s.

Today, with so much information available, and with self-publication on the rise, it seems more necessary to me, not less, that writers take advantage of the opportunities writing groups afford. After all, traditional publication “gatekeepers” aren’t there to tell writers that their work isn’t ready. And honestly, many of us think our work is ready to be in print much sooner than it actually is. That’s because we don’t know what we don’t know.

Other writers, however, might know what we don’t know. And they just might have the unbiased guts to tell us. That’s what you hope to find in a writing group, though it may hurt at times. But honest feedback is the road to better writing, and better writing is the best road to publication, whether via traditional means or through self-publishing.

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Filed under Resources, Writing Inspiration

Going For the Participant’s Certificate

London_2012_Olympic_Games_MedalsSome while back, educators got the idea that all students needed to be recognized, not just the exceptional ones. Youth sports especially seemed enamored with this idea, so race entrants and members of Little League teams all received participant certificates, no matter how they performed.

Undoubtedly there is validity in recognizing the fact that someone stuck with whatever they set out to do and finished. But few contestants actually aim to win a participant’s certificate. Most have some other goal in mind. Perhaps they play because they’re having fun. Or maybe they want to improve so they can succeed at the next level. Maybe they’re doing it for the exercise.

In contrast, in the writing community I think too many people are working for their participant’s certificate–a published book. I suggest there should be a greater reason for writing a book than simply holding a paperback with your name as the author or seeing it on the cover of an ebook. As thrilling as that may be, in this day and age with self-publishing being easy and inexpensive, the finished product is little more than a participant’s certificate. Writers can do better.

First, determine why you want to write and publish a book. If the answer is, “To cross it off my bucket list,” then you’re going for the participant’s certificate. If, however, you want to build self-discipline, improve your writing skills, develop perseverance, these are noble and good goals–they will be their own reward.

If, on the other hand, you want to write because you have something you want to say, then your audience is your reward. This audience doesn’t have to be big, in the same way that not every race is part of the Olympics. But the point is, you’ve determined you want to speak into the lives of other people–to tell them something you believe, either through story or fact-based prose.

If this is you, then you are separating yourself from the pack, but how do you actually get the job done? I mean there are lots of people wanting to win an Olympic gold medal who end up getting participant certificates in lesser races than the Olympic trials. There are even people who would like to play high school ball but who don’t make the final cut.

So you who are setting your sights higher than a participant’s certificate, here’s the game plan.

First, study.

There are great resources available to those who want to learn how to write well. For example, Writer’s Digest magazine continues to provide invaluable information–from tips about how to start a novel to mastering pace and avoiding story mistakes. There are also numerous writing instruction books (see a list of those I recommend on the Resources page here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework) and any number of writing-tip blogs such as this one.

Another avenue a writer can take is to attend conferences where you can learn from professionals teaching workshops on various craft issues.

Of course there is also the more formal route–many community colleges offer creative writing classes and there are schools that have programs in which a student may earn an advanced degree in writing.

The key in this first step is for the writer going for more than a participant’s certificate to accept that you do in fact need to learn and then find the way to do so that works best for you.

Second, write.

Many instructors would put “read” in first or second place on a list such as this. I am not discounting the value of reading. However, a writer writes. At some point, a person with the aspiration to write so that others will read what you have to say, must write.

I suggest starting with projects that will give you a sense of accomplishment and some objective feedback. Writing exercises (a number of writing instruction books include these) give the practice and may provide the sense of accomplishment. Take advantage of writer prompts such as Writer’s Digest makes available. Watch for writing challenges like the one Speculative Faith recently held. Enter short story contests or beginning-of-your-novel contests. Joining a critique group is another way to keep you writing as well as to give you objective feedback

Third, revise.

No matter how much a writer learns or how much feedback you receive, none of it will make a difference unless, you take all the input and apply it. This means revise what you’ve written. Please note, this is far different from checking your spelling or making sure your commas are in the right place.

In his excellent article on rewriting, agent Steve Laube quoted from an interview with Earnest Hemingway in which he said, “I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

I don’t doubt that there are some brilliant writers who can get it right the first time they put their thoughts into words and type them onto the screen of their computer, but I tend to think they are the exception to the rule. In fact E. B. White has been quoted as saying, “It is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is common in all writing and among the best of writers” (from “Rewriting/Quotes by other writers”–emphasis mine).

Too many writers starting out do not want to accept this step. The idea that they have spent weeks, even months, getting a story down, and then must turn around and tear it all apart and do it over, seems ridiculous and definitely too hard. I used to hold this view myself. Wouldn’t it be better just to write it right the first time?

The problem is, it’s really hard to tell if it’s right until the whole thing is down. Only then can you see if your characters are properly motivated in every scene, if their voices are unique, if you have the tension you need on every page.

The fact is, stories are complex and nonfiction requires order and transition and logic. These are things that are hard to keep track of in the midst of getting the content down. And of course we haven’t begun to talk about syntax or word choice.

Last step, read.

Yes, do read, particularly in your genre. Read the best writers and the most popular ones (not always the same) so that you can get a glimpse where you fit, so you can learn how those writers handled the things with which you’re grappling.

2012_Olympics_Gold_MedalWhy be content with going for a participant’s ribbon when you can reach for the writer’s greatest prize–readers who will read what you’ve written. Study, write, revise, and read, putting yourself on a path to win an audience, your own particular gold medal.

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Love What You Write

disappointed_manI don’t generally use this space to write inspirational pieces. For the most part, I assume someone who is reading a blog offering writing tips is probably already motivated and doesn’t need too much sideline cheerleading from another writer.

But for most of us, there comes a time when we start to wonder what it is we’re doing. Whether it’s agent rejections, tough critique group responses, contest failures, low sales, a scathing review, few blog post comments, dwindling followers–need I go on?–there will come a time in our experience that we might get discouraged and wonder why we’re writing.

It’s at those points I believe that we writers should focus on what we love. We should write what we love, but more than that, we should write it so that we love it.

Most often the writing advice we receive is helpful, but there can come a time when it all seems conflicting or vapid or repetitive.

I’ve been in groups before in which one person praises the very thing that another person rips apart. So which view is right?

I’ve also seen critiques that are so bland, they are meaningless. “This is nice” might be the worst comment of all. Or “It’s fine.” How is a writer to learn, grow, improve from that?

Then there are the comments that continue to be the same no matter what your write. “Needs more description,” or “the character’s voice isn’t strong enough”–week after week, no matter what changes you make, the comments remain the same.

It’s possible, after a time, for us to write ourselves in circles, trying to fix all the problems others point out in our work. And it gets discouraging, so much so that some writers might consider stepping aside and letting go of their dream.

It’s at that point that I think we need a little inspiration, and it comes from what we love. We writers generally made the decision to tell a story we love or discuss a truth we believe in. In other words, we had a passion for communicating something with others. In times of discouragement, then, it’s important to focus on that story we love, on that truth we believe in and ask if we still want to communicate it with others.

But that’s really writing what we love. This post is about loving what we write.

In those times of discouragement, it’s important to love what we write. That can be hard to do when we have the voice of critics running through our heads as we read our work. But at some point, we need to decide if the critics are right or not. If they’re right, then we need to do the hard work and revise our story or our article until we love it.

What if the critics are not right? One thing I’ve learned about writing feedback–well, two things: no piece of writing is ever perfect and if someone says there’s a problem, they may not be right about how to fix it, but they’re probably not wrong about the fact that a problem exists.

I think there are far too many writers out there who simply have not done the hard work and yet think they are ready for a publisher. After all, I was one of those writers. I went through the process of joining a critique group, growing from their feedback, and eventually receiving glowing comments. I was going to conferences and placing in contests. I was ready! Except I wasn’t. There was still more hard work for me to do.

But here’s the thing. Even as I am doing the hard work to become a better novelist, I still love the story I’m writing. That, I think, needs to be the baseline to which we return. Some stories can get so gummed up by all the changes this agent or that editor or critique partner has suggested, that we stop loving them. Maybe those need to be put aside for a time. Maybe we need to pick up something else, something that expresses our passion, and tells the story we love in the way we love.

Maybe then we will remember why we write and we’ll recognize our own voice again.

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