I’m reading “Make Your Words Work,” by Gary Provost, an essential book for every writer. This is a book I wish I’d read before ever attempting to write a novel. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and already I’ve learned so much.
One of the exercises in the book was to write a paragraph using all five senses. I did, and came up with the following scene.
Btw, try this exercise yourself! I’d love to read yours in the comments.
The Coffee Shop
I opened the glass door of the Java Hut with a jingle of the bells, which made way for the low murmur of conversation, along with the occasional clink of China. The rushing sound of the espresso machine served as background noise, a sweet symphony of sound as I took my place in line. I’d skipped my morning coffee when I woke up, and my mouth salivated in anticipation of the earthy brew.
I reached the front of the line, taking in the cashier’s colorful dreads, a rainbow of pink, purple, and turquoise, paired with blue eyes lined with kohl and a black painted mouth. If it weren’t for her smile, I’d have assumed she was unfriendly.
“What can I get you?”
I ordered my usual – two cups of drip, one with extra cream, and one black. She took my crinkled dollars and replaced them with a couple cold coins, which clinked in her tip jar as I dropped them.
With coffees in hand, I took a seat by the window, placing the pale coffee on the opposite side of the table, and holding the heated ceramic of my own dark brew. I breathed in, inhaling the roasted air mingled with the scent of bacon from my neighboring table. Then I raised my cup toward the empty seat in front of me.
“Ten years is a long time,” I murmured. “Think you’ll ever give up the charade?”
I clinked the cup of milky coffee, then brought my brew to my lips, sipping the scalding liquid. When I lowered my cup, the other was already empty. I picked it up and looked inside, reading the words in the bottom of the cup.
Every November, hundreds of thousands of writers commit to a month of solitude for a national (even worldwide) phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. The goal is to have a 50,000-word story at the end of 30 days.
I have taken part in NaNoWriMo since 2010, and it’s a big reason why I am now a published author. I don’t think I would have had the stamina to finish writing a novel if I hadn’t been writing alongside (virtually) all the other crazy writers taking part in this insanity. Now, 4 of these NaNo books are published, and my writing process has been affected by this fast-paced way of penning a novel. In fact, much of what I learned through NaNoWriMo has been applied to the tips I offer in Reclaim Your Creative Soul, my guide to creating more time in the day for your craft.
I often hear from other people, I wish I could write a book. Or they’ll say, I wish I had the time to write. Or, I’ve always wanted to write a book, maybe someday.
Someday is this year, this November. I encourage you to try writing a 50,000-word story during NaNoWriMo (it’s only 1,667 words a day). Aim to finish, of course, but even if you don’t, you’ll have started that thing you’ve always wanted to do.
Here are 3 tips to get you on your way.
Start plotting NOW. I know there are writers out there that swear by “pantsing” (writing a story by the seat of your pants with no plan whatsoever). But if you are just starting out as a writer, plotting is the way to go. You can’t just go in with a good idea and wait for the magic to happen. You need to make a plan on how that good idea is going to work, who will be the characters that will fall victim to this good idea, and what the repercussions of this good idea will be. My suggestion is to jot out a simple story plan, start to finish. Then, dig a little deeper and create outlines for each chapter. Trust me, when you’re faced with needing to write 1,667 words every single day, it’s a lot easier to write from a plan than to battle chronic writer’s block. …
Make writing a priority. The best way to do this is to set the same time every day for writing. I like to wake up extra early and take two hours for writing. If you’re a night person, you may find inspiration hits after everyone has gone to bed. Whatever time you like for writing, make that time sacred. No TV. No cellphone. No Facebook. No family. Just you and your story, making things happen. …
Don’t give up! There will be days when the writing is crap. Let it be crap. There will be days when you’re tired of writing. Write anyway. There will be days when you wonder about your sanity. Embrace your craziness. There will be days you miss going out with friends or kicking back with your favorite TV show. They will be there in December. If you keep writing, you will have written a novel by the end of the month. That’s a major accomplishment, and a serious bucket list item. But if you throw in the towel before the month is over, you’ll only have regrets. Keep plugging away. Trust me, your whole world will be changed once Dec. 1 is here.
This week I was a guest on Culture Dept., a podcast that, in their words, “features interviews with artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights on building a sustainable, contemporary creative life.” Host Daedalus Howell and I discussed how to make creativity a huge part of one’s life, accomplishing creative goals even with a busy schedule and full-time life. These insights were from my latest book, Reclaim Your Creative Soul.
The podcast is only 20 minutes, perfect for your drive into work. I hope it inspires you! Also, I encourage you to subscribe to the Culture Dept. podcast. I’ve listened to almost every single episode, and each one is brilliant.
Here’s where you can find the Culture Dept. episode that I am featured on:
I remember when I first started publishing my books, my marketing focus was on the whole wide world. With the internet at my disposal, it made sense to me. I could reach anyone, anywhere, and sell to hundreds of thousands of people without ever having to leave the comfort of my own home.
My first book did pretty well. I marketed to everyone in the world, which was a hard sell since no one knew of me yet. However, my family and friends knew me, and they bought wholeheartedly.
My next book didn’t do quite as well in sales. I won a small award and sold to some of my family and friends. But the rest of the world ignored me. The story was the same for my next book, as well. By the time my fourth novel was published, I was worn out and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I questioned my career path as an author, and considered throwing in the towel. After all, I was spending thousands of dollars on this dream of mine, and had nothing to show for it except for some books that no one except a handful of people who loved me seemed to be interested in.
This was around the time that I found the inspiration for Reclaim Your Creative Soul. If you’ve kept up with this blog, you remember when I went on a personal soul retreat that changed my life. It was on this retreat when I addressed all of the dilemmas I had with my life path, conferring with God on how to move forward. I came away from that day with answers to my questions and a new purpose for life, and the seed that would become Reclaim Your Creative Soul.
With this last book, I was very clear about my message and the people I was writing to. I wanted to reach other creatives who felt pulled between their busy life and their craft. Most of us must have a day job to be able to afford our lives, especially when our art isn’t make us money. I wanted to show that it’s totally possible to have both, and I wanted to inspire people to NOT give up on their dreams just because they needed to work for a living (or whatever else was getting in the way of their craft).
With this message in mind, I let go of trying to reach the world, and instead just reached the people around me. The message started out small. I, or course, let my family and friends know. But I also started to spread the word to people I didn’t know, but on a more personal level rather than through the anonymous space of the internet. In this, I signed up for readings and read chapters aloud. I verbally shared about my book to those people who wondered how they could fit creativity in their lives. My marketing endeavors weren’t about making money or selling my book at all. Instead, they were about helping other people to make the most of their time so that they could fit more creativity in their life. That was my main objective.
Fast forward to now. A week ago, I read my book in front of a group of writers and sold a bunch of books who were affected by my message. Word about my book reached a podcaster, and our interview will publish on Monday. I’ve been asked to take part in an exclusive sales opportunity with a small group of other authors I admire. Opportunities are coming my way, and all I’ve done is to refocus my intentions and the audience I hope to reach.
Instead of trying to reach the world, I’m starting out with my own community and then going from there.
This not only takes a ton of pressure off me, it also makes things so much more natural. I am now preparing to publish my next book, Loving the Wind, and my hopes are that this book will reach the most readers I’ve ever reached with any of my books. This time, instead of pushing out ads and promoted Facebook posts to a bunch of people I don’t know, I am utilizing my friends and family to help me spread the word. As of right now, a few dozen of the people I know and love are reading this book as first readers. I contacted each of these people personally, handpicking them because I trust them and know that they like many of my books. When the book publishes on Aug. 18, many of these first readers will be key in helping me to spread news about this book because it’s something they read and enjoyed.
If you’re wondering how you can get your book into the most hands possible but coming away with disappointing results, it’s possible you’re trying to market to too many people. Rather than selling to the whole world, consider starting with your own community. Sign up for an open mic or two and read aloud from your book. See if your library is interested in a reading from a local author. Join an active writer’s group that offers events that will help you reach readers. Contact local book clubs and offer to talk with them if they decide to read your book. Think about the people that you want to reach with your book. Who would be interested? Not everyone will like what you write, but there is a group of people who will love it.
Finally, never underestimate the power of being personal. A Facebook post about your book or an advertisement on a web page are easily ignored. A mass email is a little bit better, but can also go unread. But if you talk to someone one-on-one, the power in that is huge. In this day and age, it’s super convenient to socialize on a broad scale, being impersonal through social media, texting, or the like for the sake of convenience. But if you pick up the phone or meet over coffee? That means so much more to everyone.
As much as possible, try and be personal with those people you wish to reach. If your contact has to be done over email or social media, that’s fine. But make it a personal message, and don’t just rely on your social media broadcasts to reach readers. If you take the time to care about the people you wish to connect with, they can’t help but care about you in return. Their loyalty will increase. They may even wish to help you spread the word about your book.
In connecting with a few readers on a more personal level, you have the opportunity to reach the world.
Second, did you know you could read my book, The Road to Hope, for FREE? If you have Kindle Unlimited, this book is available for borrowing. Since this book published two years ago, it’s continued to be my most popular novel I’ve written.
As long as I’ve been able to write, I’ve known I wanted to be a writer. But as we all know, the desire to be a writer doesn’t create books alone. I’ve started writing novels, only to give up three chapters in. I’ve hidden my writing so that the world would never see my scribbles. I had aspirations of being a famous novelist, but didn’t know how to get there.
I was in my mid-thirties when I finally published my first novel. Three years later, and I’m gearing up to publish my fifth fiction novel and eight book. I can’t help wondering how many stories I missed writing because I lacked the courage sooner to write them.
Here are eight things I wish I had known as a newbie writer.
1. Don’t wait until tomorrow to start your book.
When people learn I’m an author, they usually tell me that they hope to write a book someday. Buy why wait? What makes someday a more perfect time than today? I put off writing a book for decades. When I finally started writing, it was a scary place to be. Publishing it was even scarier. But after that first book came the second, and then the third, and so on.
If you are waiting until your life gets less busy, stop waiting. There will always be obligations, a full calendar, and that 9-5 job. If something is crossed off your list, another responsibility is bound to take its place. That perfect moment to start writing may never exist. So make the time today to start writing your book.
2. Bad writing only leads to good writing.
The first attempt at anything is terrible. However, if you keep trying, things start to get better. This is true of anything in your life, including writing. I think back to the very first novel I ever wrote. It was awful! I put a lot of time and energy into that book, only to stuff it under my bed, never to see the light of day again. Without that first attempt at novel writing, I may never have gone on to write novels I was proud to share.
The same things goes for my rough drafts. I’ve stripped out chapters of books I’ve written that took days to create. While it hurt to let them go, I don’t regret having written them. They served as the bridge to the parts of the story I wanted to tell.
3. You are just as capable of greatness as the writers you admire most.
Many great writers had humble beginnings. JK Rowling began writing Harry Potter in a coffee shop, barely making it as a single mother. Stephen King initially threw away the manuscript that eventually put his name on the map. Diana Gabaldon started out as a freelance writer, taking any job that would pay her. Nicholas Sparks racked up years of debt and rejection letters before selling the manuscript to The Notebook.
If your writing isn’t where you want it to be, or your book is largely ignored, you may just be in your humble beginning. Remember this time. When you make it big, you can use your backstory to encourage other writers who are aspiring for greatness.
4. Write EVERY SINGLE DAY.
Once you start writing your novel, don’t skip even one day of writing. Even if you only write 50 words some of those days, you have to stick with that story. Otherwise, numerous obstacles are going to attempt war on your writing efforts. You’ll lose interest in the story. You’ll doubt your abilities as a writer. You’ll lose track of the storyline. You’ll fill up your writing time with other things.
To be a writer, you have to keep your writing muscle conditioned. Skipping one day may lead to a second skipped day. Before you know it, you’ll have missed a week of writing, and that novel will end up an unrealized dream.
5. Step out of the writing cave now and then.
Yes, you need to write every day. However, a great story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Get out of your house occasionally. Visit with friends, enjoy the fresh air, and practice your communication skills. After all, you never know when an experience might make it into one of your stories.
6. Learning is a lifelong process.
There will always be things you don’t know about writing. There are writers who are more talented than you are. There are ways your novel can improve. Rather than throwing in the towel, aim to be better. Take workshops or classes. Seek advice from other writers. Read, read, and read! Never stop learning.
7. Write what you love, and stop writing what you don’t love.
There are going to be days when the story you’re writing just isn’t there. As a novelist, your job is to keep plugging away until you hit your stride again. However, sometimes the story just isn’t there. If the book you’re writing has lost its appeal for good, it’s okay to put it down and start something new. Why waste your time on something you don’t enjoy? It could be keeping you from the story you were meant to write.
8. Being an author is not a way to get rich quick.
Three years ago when I published my first book, I had visions of the mansion I would buy with my millions, the movie contracts I would sign, how my kids’ college would be paid for, the speech I would give my boss when I quit my job…. Three years later, I am still working the same hours at the same job. I am a hundredaire on the income from my books, though I still haven’t made more than I’ve spent producing them. No movie director has contacted me. And I still get excited over each sale and review.
There are times when I am frustrated that I haven’t hit the jackpot with my books. When I focus on my numbers, it makes me want to throw in the towel. That’s why numbers are the wrong thing to focus on.
As an author, you MUST remember why you are doing this. You love writing. You have stories to tell. This is your creative outlet. You are passionate about creating books.
Don’t forget the reason why you started writing in the first place, especially when success proves to be elusive. And if you started writing as a way to make millions, start looking for a different profession.
How about you? What advice do you wish you had known as a newbie writer?
NaNoWriMo is coming up! All right, it’s technically coming up in November. However, it’s never too early to start thinking about NaNoWriMo, it’s only too early to start writing for NaNoWriMo.
What is NaNoWriMo?
From the website: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel.
Here’s a little history on how National Novel Writing Month began.
NaNoWriMo was founded by Chris Baty in July 1999 in the San Francisco Bay Area, with only 21 participants. The goal of 50,000 words was set after Baty grabbed the shortest novel on his bookshelf (Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley) and did a rough word count. Only 6 of those 21 participants completed the challenge. But doing NaNo in July proved too difficult due to the gorgeous weather outside. So after 1999, NaNo was changed to November to take advantage of the miserable weather.
The first official year of NaNoWriMo was in 2000, when the event had an actual website.
By 2001, 5000 people signed up.
In 2014, 175,002 people signed up, and 40,325 crossed the finish line with 50K.
So why was 50,000 words the magic number? This seemed like a difficult, yet not impossible amount of words, and the length makes it a short novel, about 175 pages.
Other novels that are 50K:
– The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
– Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
– Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
– The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks
Several bestselling novels that were first written during NaNoWriMo: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern Wool, by Hugh Howey Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
11 Tips to WIN NaNoWriMo
(Disclaimer: Winning NaNoWriMo basically means you have written 50,000 words or more before the deadline on November 30. Biggest prize is being able to call yourself a novelist. And the sponsors will kick in a few discounts and freebies to those who cross the finish line. But there is no competition here. The novel doesn’t even need to be good. Anyone can “win” just by writing 50,000 words.)
1. Plotting is better than pantsing.
This is controversial, as there are many pantsers out there who are probably reading this and ready to click away. But hear me out. First of all, let me explain what plotters and pantsers are. Plotters are the people who come up with a plan, any plan, before sitting down to type. Pantsers are the people who sit down on Nov. 1 with no plan at all, or maybe just an idea of what to write, but nothing else. They plot as they type.
Here’s my argument for plotting. Sitting down with your computer or notebook on Nov. 1, things are going to go much smoother if you have a plan. You can start with anything from a rough idea to a detailed play-by-play outline. Things may change along the way, and you can adjust your outline to reflect that. But things will go much smoother if you start out with a plan than it will if you start out staring at a blank page.
2. Kiss your family goodbye.
Not really. But do let those close to you know what’s going to be happening over the next month. Not only will it help you to be held accountable to your lofty goal, but it will also warn them that you are going to be less available this month than you are in other months. Skip all the socializing you can get out of, plan for easy dinners (or take out!) for the month, understand that the housework might go to the wayside (or get your family to help out), give the kids away (kidding!), don’t sign on for anything extra, fill up your DVR with all the shows you won’t be watching…. Make writing a priority. It’s just for a month. On Dec. 1, your family can have you back.
3. Set a daily writing goal.
NaNo’s goal is 1,667 words a day. I always set mine to an even 2,000. This way, I’m always ahead, even on days when the words aren’t coming. And on days when I have a lot more time to write, I will strive to double that amount—because, let’s face it, life happens, and there might be some days when writing isn’t so easy.
4. Set your writing time at the same time every day.
This time should be when you’re at you’re most creative. For me, that’s 5-7 a.m. before I need to start getting ready for my paying job. It also allows me to get my writing done first thing so I don’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day, or I know how much I need to make up if I don’t finish my goal. I will also use my lunch breaks and the evenings if I need to. However, the early mornings are when my writing muscle knows it’s time to get down to business. If you sit down at the same time each day, your body will soon realize this is when it’s time to be creative.
5. Avoid all distractions!
Another benefit of having a set time when you are writing is that you can make this time sacred. No one should be allowed to bother you (unless there’s an emergency – and not the “we’re out of milk” emergency, but “the house is on fire” kind). Anything that might tempt your attention, like your phone, TV, or internet, should be turned off and out of your reach. Best place for you is behind a closed, locked door. Even better, go write somewhere away from home, where no one even knows you.
6. Connect on the NaNoWriMo forums.
This tip is being given with caution. The NaNo forums can be a major distraction, especially at times when you should be writing and Writer’s Block is looming. During your writing times, stay FAR AWAY from the NaNo forums. But in off times, peruse the forums for a subject that calls for you. A good place to start is the one for your home county. For most of us, that’s Sonoma County. Here you will find a bunch of people who understand the craziness of trying to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, because they’re doing it, too. You’ll make new friends and connections here, and even learn about some of the write-ins going on around the county.
7. Attend a write-in.
Write-ins are NaNo meetups, usually at coffee shops or bookstores, where everyone hangs out, glued to their computer screen. It’s awesome! For one, it’s nice to put faces to the people you’ve been chatting with on the NaNo boards. And two, it’s powerfully motivating to be surrounded by the clacking of keys. For the most part, people at write-ins are writing under the same rules you are—no talking to the other writers, and utilize the time for actual writing. My one piece of advice is to try and buy something when you’re using a food or drink place as your write-in location. This will ease the stare downs from the wait staff when you tie up their tables for hours on end.
8. Don’t look back. EVER.
Once you’ve written something, leave it. Don’t re-read it. Don’t edit. Just let it be. If you think of something you want to change, make a note so you won’t forget when you edit in December (or whatever month you edit after November). But just keep moving forward.
9. End in the middle of a senten…
Never end your writing session at the end of a scene or chapter. Instead, leave a little bit left of the scene (even a sentence!) and write a note about where you’re heading. That way when you sit back down to start writing again, you can warm up that writing muscle with a part of the story you’re familiar with. By the time you’re ready to move on to the next scene, you’ll be moving full speed ahead.
10. Don’t give up.
The first week of writing is always the best. You’re going, you love the story. Things just keep happening. Then the second week comes, and the story you’re writing just sucks. Nothing’s going right. You hate your characters. You’re pretty sure they hate you.
Don’t give up.
You’re going to have slushy days, when the words are just not coming easily. I’ve found that if I just get my characters to talk with each other, they usually come up with the next scene on their own. If that doesn’t work, throw a scene-changing wrench in the story. Have ninjas swoop in and steal the main character’s love interest. Create a pink elephant that charges through the storyline. Drop a steep cliff on the path they’re headed on. Give them something to struggle about. Do whatever it takes to get you through your daily word count to ensure you don’t fall behind.
11. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
What you’re writing could be totally awesome. It can also be total crap. Who cares? You’re developing your writing muscle. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing until you get to the editing stage. For now, just have fun with it, and know that in 30 days, you’ll be able to say you’ve written a novel.
1. Plot your story.
2. Kiss your family goodbye.
3. Set a daily writing goal (1667 minimum!)
4. Write every day at the same time.
5. Avoid all distractions.
6. Connect on the NaNo forums.
7. Attend a write-in.
8. Don’t look back. EVER.
9. End in the middle of a senten….
10. Don’t give up.
11. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.
1. When can you sign up?
You can sign up anytime, but you won’t be able to update your novel until sometime in October. They should send out an email.
2. Can I work on a longer novel?
It’s encouraged that you focus on once novel during this month with a set beginning on Nov. 1, and a set end by Nov. 30. But this is only to give you the satisfaction of writing an entire novel in 30 days. Other than that, there are no hard and fast rules.
3. What if I start late?
You still need to come up with 50,000 words by the end of November, so just set your word count a little higher each day to make it to that number.
4. Can I finish early?
5. What if it takes me 31 days?
You’re still awesome in my book, but you won’t win NaNoWriMo. Still, good for you for writing a novel!
6. What if I write 50,000 words, but I still haven’t reached the end of the story by Nov. 30?
You’ve still technically won! However, we should all strive to reach the end of the story by Nov. 30. The point of NaNoWriMo is to get you a complete first draft of a novel by Nov. 30. It will make Dec. 1 that much more satisfying. However, if the story still isn’t done by Nov. 30, just keep going at the same pace until it is finished. You don’t want to lose momentum before the story is done being told!
Have your own tips? Have questions? Leave them in the comments!
Crissi Langwell has participated and “won” NaNoWriMo every year since 2010. Three of her four fiction novels started out as NaNoWriMo novels, including her latest release, Come Here, Cupcake. See all of her books at crissilangwell.com/books.
Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Want to “win”? Here are 10 tips to consider:
1. Create a story plan before November 1. Whether it’s just a paragraph, or a detailed outline, it helps to know what you’ll be writing about instead of wasting time staring at a blank page.
2. Set a daily writing goal. NaNo has a goal of 1,667 words a day. I always set mine to an even 2,000. This way, I’m always ahead, even on days when the words aren’t coming.
3. Create a routine. Set your writing time at the same time every day. For me, that’s 5-7 a.m. every morning. Sometimes I throw in a few lunch breaks and evenings, but those early hour mornings are when my writing muscle knows it’s time to get down to business.
4. Connect on the NaNoWriMo forums. It’s motivating to know a bunch of other people who are going through the same thing you are.
5. Attend a write-in. These are NaNo meetups, usually at coffee shops or bookstores, where everyone hangs out, glued to their computer screen. It’s awesome! For one, it’s nice to put faces to the people you’ve been chatting with on the NaNo boards. And two, it’s powerfully motivating to be surrounded by the clacking of keys.
6. Don’t look back. EVER. Once you’ve written something, leave it. Don’t re-read it. Don’t edit. Just let it be. If you think of something you want to change, make a note so you won’t forget when you edit in December (or whatever month you edit after November). But just keep moving forward.
7. At the end of each writing session, leave yourself a note about where you’re going on the story. This helps you pick up where you left off easily.
8. There is magic around Day 10. This is when the story starts writing itself.
9. You’re going to have slushy days, when the words are just not coming easily. I’ve found that if I just get my characters to talk with each other, they usually come up with the next scene on their own. If that doesn’t work, throw a scene-changing wrench in the story. Have ninjas swoop in and steal the main character’s love interest. Create a pink elephant that charges through the storyline. Drop a steep cliff on the path they’re headed on. Give them something to struggle about. Do whatever it takes to get you through your daily word count to ensure you don’t fall behind.
10. Don’t take yourself too seriously. What you’re writing could be totally awesome. It can also be total crap. Who cares? You’re developing your writing muscle. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing until you get to the editing stage. For now, just have fun with it, and know that in 30 days, you’ll be able to say you’ve written a novel.
I remember when I first started writing for the newspaper. I was pretty green at it, and would turn in pieces I thought were flowing with ideas and beautiful language. My editor would look over my work and let go of a good 30% of what I had said by striking out redundant thoughts, simplifying sentences, and deleting all the extra words I liked to use (like “that”, as in “I thought THAT she was going to cry” – and it still slips into my work, even after all these years!).
I learned a lot about writing from this editor, and there soon came a time when her edits consisted of changing a word here or there, and allowing the rest to remain the way it was.
When I decided A Symphony of Cicadas was finished enough to be a published piece, I knew from experience I couldn’t just put it out there without seeing a professional editor first. I figured my many years of writing for the newspaper gave me a little bit of an edge, and she wouldn’t find much to change. I had already gone over my novel several times, and had handed it over to my husband and even my mom (who is very meticulous in proof-reading). I changed all the places they thought needed work or could sound better. By the time I gave it to the editor, that thing, in my eyes, was pretty near perfect.
And boy, was I mistaken on that sentiment.
I found a fabulous editor through WritersMarket.com. We exchanged emails, and she had me send her a sample piece of my work so she could get a sense of my writing style, I could get a sense of her editing style, and we both could decide if this was a good match.
I had her edit my 5th chapter, because that was the one I was most proud of. In it, I had really gone to town with my description and prose, and the characters in that chapter were fully developed. But when she gave it back to me, I saw she had quite a few suggestions for edits. She left her edits marked, and added comments as to why things were changed. She noted where things didn’t “sing” for her, when she couldn’t picture what was going on, or when certain sentences seemed to interrupt the flow. She also mentioned a rule about adverbs I should be aware of – how I should show what’s going on instead of summing it up with “happily” or “morosely” or “softly”…you get the point.
I ended up hiring her, and sent her my completed manuscript to edit. I had gone through it one more time to implement some of the suggested changes she’d mentioned. But truth be told, I left many of those adverbs untouched because I still didn’t quite believe her on the adverb rule.
I came to regret this.
When she handed the manuscript back, she changed a few of the adverbs in the beginning to show me how to strengthen a sentence with the “show, don’t tell” rule. But she left the vast majority of them up to me so I could A) learn my lesson and learn it well, lol, and B) keep my voice in the piece when I changed those adverbs into “showing” sentences.
Along with the adverb situation, she also revised many of my sentences so they flowed. Here’s an example (click to enlarge):
This sentence started out as:
“…The sarcasm has left her demeanor, replaced with a sense of seriousness I had never experienced from her. I got the sense that she would do her best to answer any questions I had in the moment, but I had so much confusion I didn’t even know where to start….”
It was changed to:
“Her sarcasm was gone, replaced with a seriousness I had never experienced from her. I sensed she would answer any questions I had in the moment, but I was so confused I didn’t even know where to start.”
In the world of self-publishing, it’s tempting to take a few shortcuts to get a novel out there and into the public’s hands. We indie authors are working on a much smaller budget than those with a traditional publishing deal. Everything we do for the novel comes out of our own pockets – cover design, editing, ISBN numbers, marketing, etc. Editing doesn’t run cheap. Depending on the word count, it can cost $500 or more! That’s not chump change, especially when most self-published novels won’t come close to making up the cost of producing a novel.
Some authors get around this by trusting their mom or a friend to do their editing. Or they send it to beta readers and make the suggested changes from those avenues. There is nothing wrong with utilizing these ways to help edit a book. But if that novel doesn’t see a professional editor as well, I can guarantee your words aren’t going to flow as beautifully as they could.
A good editor is trained to use the red pen without mercy, ensuring your story is going to be told without anything distracting the reader. An editor has the ability to see your work through unbiased eyes. They are not your mother – they don’t love you enough to try not to hurt your feelings. They’ll give you honest corrections of what works and what doesn’t work. And they don’t hold your story so close to their heart they’re unable to let go of certain paragraphs that just aren’t jiving.
Let me put it this way. Stephen King uses an editor. JK Rowling uses an editor. Every great author you have read and loved uses an editor. I think it’s a safe assumption to say you are not a better writer than they are. So how can you expect your story to be told the best way it could without a professional looking it over and making your words sing?
Hire an editor. If it’s too expensive, push back your anticipated pub date and save for an editor.It’s the one expense you can’t afford NOT to spend. Waiting to publish something that’s been properly polished will be far more valuable to you in the long run then rushing to put something out there that could be considered sub-par. If you don’t hire an editor, it will show in your work. You will be judged for what you publish. And in the long run, taking the shortcut of NOT hiring an editor could murder your aspirations of making it big in this business.
Elmore Leonard, a crime novelist who penned many popular titles, including “Get Shorty” and “3:10 to Yuma”, died on Tuesday, August 20th. He left a legacy of bad-guy characters we loved, and a long list of adapted to screen stories. He also shared his ten favorite rule on writing with The New York Times. In honor of his passing, as well as his sage writing wisdom, I am re-posting his rules here:
WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle By ELMORE LEONARD Published: July 16, 2001 in The New York Times
These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)
If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.
What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”
”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.