Category Archives: Writing Process

Take Time To Learn

Writing fiction is problematic. Most people who decide to write a novel have already been writing most of their lives. Some have had success in school. Others have developed their writing skills through blogging or in some other Internet capacity. None of that is fiction, however.

Fiction is a different animal.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have the skills that non-fiction requires. But the grammar, the structure of an article, even of a non-fiction book, is not the same for fiction.

Many who decide to write a novel have been life-long readers. And that’s great. Steeping ourselves in good books is one way we can develop our own writing skills—much as we did our speaking ability. We heard others talk and we imitated them. But let’s face if. If we were still speaking as we did when we were children, we would only talk in simple sentences and our vocabulary would be quite limited. In other words, imitation can take you only so far.

If we are serious about writing a novel—a good novel that will draw readers—we need to do the hard work of learning fiction technique. We need to read writing instruction books. We need to attend writing conferences—and not just for the relationships we can build. We need to allow others to critique our work, and we need to revise, revise, revise.

Writing fiction isn’t for the faint of heart.

Too many people think they are ready to publish when they haven’t taken the time to learn as they should. They have an idea for a story but they haven’t taken time to study story structure. They pepper their manuscript with cardboard characters. They don’t hook the reader with their opening, and they wonder why their manuscript isn’t picked up by an agent or why their self-published book isn’t more successful.

I was just such a person when I first started writing fiction.

Now I know, all these years later, after reading and studying, writing books and teaching on the subject, after editing numerous manuscripts and participating in various critique groups, that nothing replaces taking time to learn fiction technique.

There are various was to go about studying fiction. One is to do the hard work of tearing novels apart yourself to see how they are structured, what makes the characters interesting, and so forth. That’s particularly hard because fiction, while different, is still a living, breathing animal. One novel of quality is quite different from another. In addition, writing fiction goes through fads and trends. So you might study your three favorite novels and discover that they are very different from the novels that sell well today.

Another way to study fiction is to subscribe to a magazine like Writers Digest to read articles about fiction and fiction techniques, written by industry professionals that are currently involved in the business.

A third way is to subscribe to writing blogs like this one and others written by agents or editors who willingly share their knowledge.

Still another way to learn fiction technique is through how-to books. Many I would suggest are listen on the Resources page here.

A fifth way to develop skill writing fiction is to attend writers’ conferences. A new one which is coming up in June is the SoCal Christian Writers Conference. An old one that will take place on the West Coast in the fall is the Writers’ Digest Novel Writing Conference.

Finally, if you can’t get away and if you want more interaction with your own particular work in progress, there are on-line courses. Some of the best I know are put out by agent Sally Apokedak. Her latest is “Writing Novels That Move: Write Page-turning Fiction

Whatever method or methods work for you, employ them often. Writing fiction is a different animal from writing non-fiction, and the best way to develop the techniques that will help you is to be willing to learn, learn, learn. Keep an open mind—the professionals might actually know something. Your critique partners or agent or the editor you hire might actually understand the way fiction works better than you do. But you’ll never know if you assume you’re already at the top of your game and nobody can teach you anything. That would be unfortunate.

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Evaluating Criticism

writing groupEvery writer can benefit from feedback, but not every bit of criticism is equal. Some may come from readers who can tell writers little about how to improve a story. Primarily they can point to what they liked or where they lost interest or what rubbed them the wrong way.

Those bits of feedback are still helpful, but a writing group is the best way to get useful information about how to make a story better. However, a writer needs to evaluate the feedback coming from their group because all criticism is still not equal.

When I first joined an online critique group, I discovered this problem. Some critiquers would write how much they loved a piece I submitted, and others would tell me how bad it was. In fact, both might point to the same line, even the same word. How can a writer know which voice to listen to?

Author and writing instructor Nancy Kress pointed out some years ago in her Writer’s Digest article “Critiquing the Critics” that there are basically four types of criticism: line editing, story structure, character development, and prose. The feedback a group gives in each of these areas needs to be evaluated differently.

Line editing, which many writers key on, is the easiest to validate or disprove. The kinds of problems uncovered in a line critique include factual errors, repetitious words, inconsistencies, and proper word choice.

If, for example, a quote is attributed to Shakespeare but it was actually from the Bible, a line critique will make that correction. Or if the protagonist is six feet five in the first chapter and six feet four in chapter ten, a line critique will point out the discrepancy. If the word turn shows up four times in two sentences, that’s a line critique issue. As is using words properly, according to any nuanced meaning rather than a strict dictionary definition.

Because these line issues deal with factual information, a writer should accept most suggestions. If there’s a disagreement, a good style book or dictionary can verify or refute a critiquer’s suggestion.

Story structure criticisms involve things like the direction of a scene, its pace, its necessity, whether or not it accomplished what the writer intends, whether it’s properly set up, if it’s confusing.

These criticisms are easy to evaluate when more than one person mentions the same issue. Even then, the members of the group may not suggest the best possible way to fix the problem. They may think the scene is redundant, for example, but you, the writer, know there’s some necessary information embedded in it. Consequently, you may wish to change key components to eliminate the similar elements rather than cut the scene altogether.

If only one member of the group identifies a problem area, then it’s important to weigh the source. Is this bit of criticism coming from an experienced writer who has studied the writing craft and completed several novels, or is this the idea of a beginner?

Of course, beginners can spot problems, too. It’s important to give the criticism consideration, but to be validated, it should not hinge solely on preference. Beginning writers and beginning critiquers sometimes critique based on how they would write if this were their work. In other words, the scene is not actually confusing—it’s just different from the way the critiquer would have structured it.

The third area of evaluation has to do with character development. Unfortunately not every person in your group may like your main character. In that case, it’s important to know if the problem is in your portrayal of the character or in the character himself.

In other words, did you mean to draw the character as clever and innovative but your critique partner perceives him as sneaky and untrustworthy? In that case, you haven’t portrayed him as you intended and you need to revise accordingly.

If, on the other hand, you meant to create a sneaky, untrustworthy character, and your critique group sees that, understands that, and doesn’t like him, should you make changes? Your decision here is tricky.

One point to consider is whether or not your target readers are similar to the people in your critique group. For instance, members of your group may say they don’t care for your protagonist because he’s a mind reader and they only like characters that seem realistic. Criticism like that misses the mark.

On the other hand, if your group reflects your likely readers, their reaction to your character gives valuable feedback. Do they not like the character but feel invested in his journey and want to see what will become of him or do they not like the character and want to stop reading? In many types of stories, the character needs to be plausible, interesting, well-motivated and not necessarily likable.

The fourth area of evaluation is prose, or style. Because style is a personal signature of an author, it’s not easy to critique and just as hard for the writer to judge the feedback. Ms. Kress explains:

Perhaps the most difficult criticism to evaluate—and to sit through without anger or despair—is stylistic criticism. You can rewrite scenes in your story, strengthen characters, fix line gaffs. But what do you do when you’re told that your style has problems—that same style in which you wrote not only this story, but all your others? (“Critiquing The Critic,” italics in the original).

When confronted with stylistic criticism, start by determining if there’s a group consensus. Next read the work with the suggested stylistic changes (fewer adjectives, for example, or more concise dialogue) and see if you think the piece is stronger. Third, ask you critiquer to explain why he is making a suggestion. Have you fallen into a common stylistic error—“head hopping,” using cliches, passive voice, incorrect use of participial phrases, overly descriptive to the point of interrupting the story, too much telling, and so on. A good critiquer should be able to give you a reason for any stylistic changes they suggest.

In the end, the story is yours. You need to decide what changes to make. Critiquers are there to reflect to you what they see. As the author, you must then evaluate what they’ve suggested. Keep things that make your writing and your story stronger; ignore whatever doesn’t accomplish that goal.

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Tighten Your Writing

wrench-899403-mI love contests. Besides reading and feedback from critique partners, contests may be the best means by which my writing has improve.

For one thing, most contests give feedback, either through judges’ scoring sheets or through comments from other participants. Then too, contests provide opportunities to experiment—to try out a new premise or dance a little with a new point of view.

However, the most important thing contests have taught me is how to write tight. You see, most contests have some kind of word or page limit. In other words, you have to tell your story in 5000 words, or 1500, or 100.

One contest I entered, held by agent Janet Reid, was to write a 100-word story which included five words she specified. It’s quite the challenge, I can tell you.

My first version was nearly twice as long as the limit. Next came the editing process. What words were unnecessary? What phrase could I replace with a single word? What parts of the story were needed? All this to meet a stringent word count.

It dawned on me, however, that those questions are ones I should ask about my writing whether or not I’m constrained by contest rules.

Eliminating unnecessary words keeps a story or an article moving. Some unnecessaries are fillers that an author falls back on, often without realizing it—words such as just or even. I even told my writing partners contests were helpful, so I just decided I should enter, too.

Other unnecessaries are built-in redundancies. He stretched, raising up both arms. (Is it possible to raise arms down?) The unopened can slipped from her fingers and fell down on her foot. (Could the can fall up on her foot?)

The next phase of tightening writing is somewhat harder. What phrases can be replaced by single words? Prepositional phrases are good suspects. He touched the screen of his iPad can become He touched his iPad screen.

Hardest of all might be determining what parts of a story or article are or are not necessary. Everything needs to be fair game. Is a particular character adding anything new or is he merely taking up space? Is a particular plot point moving the story forward or is it veering away from the desired end? Is an article example shedding further light on the subject or is it duplicating the point of a previous illustration?

Writing tight takes work, and clearly readers won’t know how hard an author struggled to hone a story or article. What they will know, however, is that they remained interested from start to finish and their minds never wandered—something fiction and nonfiction writers alike should strive for.

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This article, with some editorial changes, is a reprint of one that appeared here in October 2010.

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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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Critique Groups, Conferences, Contests

EvaluationIn many respects, writing a book is only a beginning. The next big question is, will anyone read it? The only way to be sure is to get feedback–not from those who dearly love you like your husband or your mother.

In fact, you need readers who not only can tell you if they liked the story or connected with the character or had to resist the temptation to skim a few pages, you need to receive feedback from someone who understands writing well enough to tell you why. Why did your story succeeded or fail, why are readers connecting or are not with your character, or why are there boring stretches in the middle.

There are a number of ways to receive good feedback. One of the best is to join a critique group. Some writing organizations facilitate online groups, putting together those who work in the same genre.

In many cities there are established in-person writing groups that provide the opportunity for critiques. Organizations such as the Romance Writers of America (RWA) or the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) have chapters throughout the country. Some areas have independent writing clubs, and of course there’s always the option of starting your own group. If you’d like helpful advice about how to start a group, I suggest The Complete Guide To Writers Groups That Work by B. J. Taylor.

The advantage of a critique group is that you have unbiased people who have some knowledge of writing who read your work and give you their reaction. Of course some critiquers may be more helpful than others, based on experience both as a writer and as an evaluator.

Least helpful is the person who wants to rewrite your work as they would have written it. A close second is the person who only says how much they love your work. Neither of those help you to sharpen your skills.

Critique groups may lead you to a critique partner, who may become your most valuable asset. This is the person who “gets” what you’re trying to do, who has a level of proficiency that will help you to improve, and who communicates clearly.

Writing conferences provide another way for you to improve your craft. First there are workshops that provide instruction. Some have critique classes. Many provide a critique service, either paid by an additional fee or covered by the conference tuition. These critiques give you feedback from a professional in the writing industry and are invaluable. True, this is only one person’s opinion, but it is unbiased and the view of someone who sees many other manuscripts, good and bad, so they a knowledgeable point of reference with which to compare your work.

There are hundreds of writing conferences. Wikipedia has compiled a partial list, but a Google search will uncover a many more. The key is to refine the search based on genre and location. Some of the more well known conferences include the Writer’s Digest (East and West), SCBWI (LA and New York, as well as smaller local gatherings), and RWA. Christian writers’ conferences include Mount Hermon, Colorado Christian Writers, Writing for the Soul, Oregon Christian Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and Blue Ridge.

Many writing organizations and some online sites conduct writing contests, and that’s another great way to get feedback on your writing, whether over the first 250 words, the first 15 pages, or the entire manuscript. Some contests come with monetary prizes, others with the promise that your work will receive feedback from a writing professional.

Online contests may be public, allowing other writers to give their feedback as well. One such contest is held by Miss Snark’s First Victim.

Some fiction contests, such as the various Writer’s Digest contests, are for shorter works while others are for novel beginnings. Some have non-fiction categories. Entry fees for these vary.

I suggest you do an online search for contests in your genre, then compare entry fees, list of judges, and awards to help determine with is most suited to your needs. Having an agent or editor read your work is a great reward in itself, but contests also allow you to measure your progress against other writers. And of course if you receive judges sheets from professionals, you have specific areas you know you can work on.

Feedback. It’s invaluable to a writer. When unbiased readers, especially those who understand the ins and outs of writing, give us their reaction to our work in progress, we can only get better as we listen and learn.

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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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Where To Start

812863_pink_fitness_center
At the beginning of a new year, thoughts turn to fresh starts. More people create bucket lists, start exercise programs or new diets, and make promises to stop smoking or staying up too late.

For writers, the new year is a good time to do a re-evaluation, too, or to start a new project. If you’re in the latter category and are planning to write that book you’ve been thinking about, I suggest keeping in mind a couple basic points.

  • Avoid jumping on bandwagons. If you’ve read a really good story about a boy wizard, a vampire, or a mermaid, I suggest you look for a different concept and avoid joining in with any number of others who might think they want to write about about those characters after reading the same books. If you’ve seen a successful movie about a hobbit, it’s not the best idea to write a book about a hobbit. If you’ve watched a cool TV program about fairytales, it’s not the best idea to write a retake of a fairytale. Why?

    For one thing, agents and editors will not look at your work as if it is fresh and original. For another, it is harder to make your work stand out above others trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do.

  • Avoid copying trends. This is a correlation to the first point. Because a certain genre is hot or because editors or agents say they are looking for this or that kind of book, this is not the time to start writing those books. For one thing, you well may be starting out when other writers who aren’t chasing trends but are writing to their natural bent, are finishing up. In other word, by the time you read that something is the new “in” genre, it’s probably too late to start a project in that genre.

    For another, by chasing trends, you may well write something that you aren’t particularly qualified to write. For example, if you hear that middle grade boy fantasies are the next hot thing, replacing young adult dystopian fantasy, you may not be well versed in what the differences are between middle grade and young adult books. You may also have a sharp learning curve to write straight fantasy as opposed to dystopian fantasy.

    None of these are impossible, of course. But if a writer is chasing a trend instead of trying to start one, he’s behind the pack at the start.

  • running marathonDon’t sign up to run a marathon simply because you’ve started walking the track. In other words, don’t set your sights too high too soon. Nothing can discourage a writer more than getting into a project only to find out that it is much more demanding than what he anticipated.

    The cure for this, of course, is to do your homework. If you decide you want to self-publish a book, then do the research to learn what all is involved–both in time, expertise, and money. Can you afford this project? Do you know enough about book covers and editing and promotion to make this work? Or can you afford to hire professionals to do what you cannot? With your other responsibilities, will you have the time to complete the project?

  • Study writing. Too often those who wish to write don’t realize that different types of writing require different skills. One of the best writers of non-fiction I know decided to write fiction. Unfortunately this author did not take the time to study fiction technique and the result is … less than successful.

    The point is, success in one area should not blind a writer to the need to do the hard work to learn the components of a new type of writing. For most of us, fiction is a new type of writing. We may have read stories all our lives, but we haven’t written fiction. We may have written blogs, articles, reports, letters, and emails all our lives, but those are not stories. Hence, we need to study what makes good fiction if we want to write a novel.

  • Continue to learn no matter how much success you have. One of the best professional basketball players in history used to spend his summer working on a new shot or move so that he would have something new in his arsenal for the new season. No matter how many championships he won, he continued that approach. The man was a millionaire, and he had wide acclaim from his peers and fans, yet he was not satisfied with what he’d accomplished in the past and knew that he had to master greater skills if he wanted to stay at the top.

    Unfortunately, it seems too many writers make getting published their goal, and once they have published, even if they self-publish, they relax. They no longer work to improve because they are satisfied. They make no effort to expand their audience or win others over by their improving writing skills.

  • Think past the obvious. Rather than settling for the first story idea that comes to you, push yourself to think of other possibilities. Rather than using the first descriptive word that comes to mind, look for something more interesting, specific, or unique.

    In the third point above, I originally wrote “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” It’s a familiar phrase–a cliché actually–but it communicates the thought I wanted. However, its very familiarity would most likely make it forgettable. Creating a new comparison has a greater chance of not only showing the principle, but of becoming memorable.

What tips do you have for writers who might be thinking of starting a new project?

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Do You Need An Editor?

writingAccording to Penny C. Sansevieri, CEO of Marketing Experts, Inc. and author of “Why Editing Is the Single Best Marketing Tool,” any serious author needs an editor.

I know my passing this information along might seem self serving, but the truth is, the editor you need might not be me.

First, why does every serious writer need an editor?

  • We have blind spots when it comes to our own writing
  • Our family and friends will love what we write, no matter how good it is
  • Our family and friends may not be able to tell us how to fix weak spots
  • Fiction without glaring errors is more apt to be the kind readers talk about
  • Critique partners, while helpful, may not have the knowledge or experience or ability to analyze what will move our fiction to the next level

If these things are true, and if Ms. Sansevieri is right, how should a writer go about picking an editor? According to Lauren Hidden of The Hidden Helpers, there are a few basics someone looking for editing needs to consider:

  1. Objectivity–someone who isn’t so close they will overlook mistakes because they are too afraid of losing relationship if they say what they really think.
  2. Knowledge–a person who knows your kind of project and who knows what changes to suggest
  3. Experience–an editor who other writers can recommend or endorse
  4. Price–an editor who offers services within your price range
  5. Service–someone who provides the type of editing you require
  6. Time frame–a person who can complete the work within the time period you specify

I think along with “Time frame” I’d add, “availability.” If you need your work edited at once and the person you contact has five other clients ahead of you, then you’d be wise to look for someone else.

I’d also recommend you do some comparative shopping. In the sidebar here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework, you’ll find a list of qualified editors. Some of those may also have links to other editors you may wish to investigate.

In other words, one editor does not fit everyone, nor are all editing services priced or structured in the same way. By doing your homework, you’ll have a much better chance of finding the editor that fits you and what you write. And that should be your goal.

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Help For The Stalled

From time to time it seems writers of fiction or non-fiction get stuck or stalled. Some people might even say blocked. There are pressures that may contribute to a mental attitude that screams, “I can’t,” but I’m not addressing those factors today.

Rather, I want to look at specific things a writer can do when the next scene or non-fiction article point doesn’t take shape in his head, when “what comes next” doesn’t have an answer.

Consider first that you might not know enough. You love to garden, perhaps, and have been to the nursery more times than you can count, so certainly you know enough about plants to make your protagonist a landscaper, right? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Aine Greaney, in her Writer’s Digest article “How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript” says

if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?

Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters — fictional or real — in a whole new way.

“Research” might simply mean, taking time to think through who your character is on a deeper level. Do you know what she fears? and why? Is she socially inept or particularly kind or fascinated with philosophy, and if so, what contributed to her becoming who she is? Was there a traumatic event she experienced as a child, an ongoing situation she lived with, a person who modeled a lifestyle or pointed her in a direction?

Knowing our characters well, especially knowing what he or she wants, can open up many possibilities for our stories to move forward.

A second step to take to get unstuck is to ramp up the conflict, even in non-fiction. Again from Ms. Greaney:

Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).

Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other.

A good question to ask is, “What does my character want in this scene?” A corollary might be, “What is making it difficult for him to be successful?” And finally, “Why does it matter?”

Conflict, of course, can be inner conflict and not just a clash with another person or with external circumstances. One place to look to create more conflict, then, is inside your character.

Does he have warring values that you can bring into play? Perhaps he loves his job as a professional baseball coach, but he loves his family who he must leave every time his team takes to the road. Two values, both good, but at war with one another.

Your character might also have fears that war with her desires. She wants to spend time with Mr. Perfect, but his hobby is to rock climb. In fact he’s invited her to go on the next trip, which she desperately wants to do — except she is deathly afraid of heights. What’s she going to do?

If you aren’t at the stalled stage yet, read over your manuscript and see if you’ve introduced your character’s fear early in your story. If so, it can serve as a tool to ratchet up the conflict when you need it most.

Stalled may not feel like blocked, but it is nonetheless a detriment to our writing. Thankfully there are practical steps to take which should soon have the ideas flowing and our fingers once again flying over the computer keys.

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Writing Help

Writing has long been portrayed as a solitary endeavor. So many have an image of the angst-driven artist, pounding away at a keyboard in a lonely loft, far away from the masses. Or perhaps he’s sitting at a corner table in Starbucks, oblivious to the comings and goings around him.

All well and good, because a part of writing is us emptying our heads and sometimes our hearts. For this, no one can help us, so getting the story down is a work we must take on alone. Sort of.

More than one author testifies to the advantage of writers’ groups in helping to formulate story ideas. Christian suspense author Brandilyn Collins, for instance, has had a group of authors she met with for years in a large part to help each other brainstorm ideas for their next novels.

Other writers find groups that help cheer them on to the finish, or at least hold them accountable to complete the next chapter. Young adult fantasy writer R. J. Anderson said in her recent interview at Novel Rocket

I use critique partners at nearly every stage of the process. During the first draft, I have a couple of trusted readers who read each chapter as soon as I’ve finished it–that gives me a sense that I’m telling the story to an audience, and a reason to keep going so I don’t keep them waiting too long for the next bit. I know I can trust them to let me know if something I’ve written really doesn’t make sense or comes out of left field, but by and large their job is to keep my spirits up and reassure me that it’s worth it to keep slogging through the hard bits.

Critique groups also help raise a writer’s level of prose. This I know from my own experience. Shortly after I began writing full time, I received an invitation to join an online critique group. I had been praying for a group, though I thought this would be a physical group, and had gone onto the Internet in search of a writers’ organization in my area. One thing led to another, and I ended up in Working Writers Critique Group for three years or more. These dozen or so writers gave me feedback that showed me what worked and what didn’t. They helped me learn writing techniques I needed, and they gave me experience doing critiques. As I turned a critical eye on other manuscripts, I began to see my own in a much more objective light as well.

Along with a critique group, I prayed for a critique partner. In answer, I’ve ended up with several critique partners and a real, face-to-face writing group. Recently one writer in that group noted that before he began meeting with us, he had several partial manuscripts. Now he is a published author with a second book due out in May. Coincidence? he asked.

I’ve been blessed to find not only writers willing to interact with my work but writers who have become friends. Whether long distance or local, these authors understand the struggle. They share their own experiences regarding the process of publication, and they are generous with their time and resources.

In short, writing may be possible as a lone occupation — up to the point of turning a manuscript over to an editor — but why not reach for a little writing help? Why not take the initiative to invite a few friends to swap chapters or meet together for coffee just to discuss the business? Why not research to find a group near you or one online that meets your needs?

If you decide to break from Lone Ranger mode, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Groups work well when there are experienced writers to emulate and writers less experienced to help.

2. A group works best when all members have the same level of seriousness about their writing.

3. Groups only work if those joining understand the level of commitment expected and agree to meet it. (If a writer has the need for flexibility because of other responsibilities, it would not be a good plan to join a group that has strict guidelines and an enforcement policy, for example).

Perhaps you are already in a writing group or have been in the past. What things have been important to its success? What do you like most? What would you change?

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