Rules We Love

This past Wednesday, the Insecure Writer’s Support Group question of the month was what writing rule do you wish you’d never heard? I had fun visiting various blogs and finding out what writing rules hurt rather than helped, or annoyed rather than bolstered. Some rules popped up multiple times. Some were unique like L.G. Keltner’s post that hilariously made me realize for the first time in my life that ‘i before e’ is actually not a rule at all because it’s only true about half the time. All in all, it seemed like everyone decided rules are meant to be broken!

So, I thought today I’d talk about the opposite: writing rules I love.

Here are some ‘rules’ (of course they can be bent and broken) that I felt really enriched my writing once I implemented them:

  • Get rid of filtering. This was like finding a hidden jewel. It was something I hadn’t even thought about until an editor brought it to my attention. It means getting rid of language that distances us from the point of view character. So instead of saying ‘she saw,’ ‘she felt,’ or ‘she heard,’ instead describe the sight, feeling, or sound, because we don’t need to be told the person is experiencing it–we just need to know what they’re experiencing. This makes the writing much more immediate.
  • No disconnected body parts. Hands don’t move on their own. Eyes don’t close by themselves. She moved her hands over the wall, rather than her hands moved over the wall. He closed his eyes, instead of his eyes fell closed.
  • Stop piling up actions. Separate multiple actions that can’t be happening simultaneously. Instead of “he walked across the room petting the dog and turning on the TV,” break it up into “he walked across the room, stopped to pet the dog, then turned on the TV.” I actually see this sort of piling up happening even in the books of well-experienced authors.
  • Action beats instead of ‘said.’ I shared this example on emaginette’s blog. One of my favorite ways to avoid using ‘said’ is the action tag: //”Oh my God.” Amy couldn’t believe this was happening. “Why today, of all days?” / “I know.” Roy’s heart ached for her. “On the day of your dead dog’s birthday!” // It shows who is speaking while also getting deeper into what the characters are feeling.
  • Get rid of gerunds. I used to be terrible about using too many ‘ing’ words. Once this was pointed out to me, I went on the lookout for them.

These are some of my favorite rules, even if I do bend and break them from time to time. What are your favorite rules?

Tucking Your Tentacles

This post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog hop. The first Wednesday of every month is Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. The awesome co-hosts for the October 5 posting of the IWSG are Beverly Stowe McClure, Megan Morgan, Viola Fury, Madeline Mora-Summonte, Angela Wooldridge, and Susan Gourley!

Today I’m co-hosting the IWSG! Check out the bottom of the post for information on the IWSG anthology contest.

OCTOBER 5th QUESTION: When do you know your story is ready?

This is a tough question to answer. By ‘ready’ I assume that means ready to send off to an agent/editor and cross your fingers. No matter how long you’ve been writing or how far along you are in your career, getting a manuscript to that point takes a lot of rewriting and editing. Have you read and re-read your work, fixed it up, changed it up, made sure all the slots fit in the holes, that things go from point A to point B, and let a few other people look at it? Are your eyes bleeding yet? Are you ready to never have to look at this story again as long as you live? Great, then you should put it away for a few months so you can go back and do it all over again with fresh eyes and a clear brain.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, says that trying to get a book ready is like “putting an octopus to bed.” You keep trying to tuck it in but the tentacles keep falling out. I think this is a great analogy. You might fix one issue only to find another issue has popped out from under the covers. You make yourself crazy trying to fit everything under the blanket, and all the while the octopus is just staring at you and squirting ink all over you. Somedays you start to question if you really love the octopus and want to keep it, or throw it down a storm drain.

For me, I know things are done when I can’t find anything else to fix. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that can still be fixed, but like a tall, teetering tower of blocks, I’ve finally got things stacked up just right so that it won’t collapse. It’s good enough. It might even be good.

Then, if a publisher picks it up, they’re going to knock your tower over and make you reassemble it so it doesn’t wobble at all, and you get to do this all over again. Welcome to being an author!

Announcing the 2016 IWSG Anthology Contest!

Eligibility: Any member of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group is encouraged to enter – blogging or Facebook member. The story must be previously unpublished. Entry is free.

Word count: 3000-6000

Genre: Fantasy

Theme: Hero Lost. It could be about a hero turned villain, a villain’s redemption, a hero’s lack of confidence, a hero’s lack of smarts, etc. It can be about any kind of hero including superheroes, mythological heroes, unexpected or unlikely heroes, or a whole new kind of hero. This theme has plenty of scope and we’re open to pretty much anything along these lines. No erotica, R-rated language, or graphic violence.

Deadline: November 1st 2016

How to enter: Send your polished, previously unpublished story to admin @ insecurewriterssupportgroup.com before the deadline passes. Please include your contact details and if you are part of the Blogging or Facebook IWSG group.

Judging: The IWSG admins will create a shortlist of the best stories. The shortlist will then be sent to our official judges.

Prizes: The winning stories will be edited and published by Freedom Fox Press next year in the IWSG anthology. Authors will receive royalties on books sold, both print and eBook. The top story will have the honor of giving the anthology its title.


I Hate This Book

Can you write an entire book, beginning to end, whole and complete, and hate the result despite all the time you spent on it? Yes, you sure can. I’m going through this particular weird writer hell at the moment.

I wrote the perfect book. By ‘perfect,’ I don’t mean it’s a sweeping, flawless example of high literature. I mean I constructed it to every technical specification. It has a forward-moving plot that comes to a dramatic climax followed by a satisfying ending. The characters are all fleshed out with well-defined and sympathetic motivations, and believable backstories that influence their actions. I hit on every point and marker for the genre and intended audience. There’s no loose ends or anything frivolous. I even managed to construct a somewhat unique and interesting premise, if I do say so myself.

The problem is, when I finished it, I didn’t feel a great glowing sense of accomplishment. I didn’t feel creatively fulfilled. I just sort of felt like I’d finished a homework assignment.

I thought perhaps the passion would come in the revision, as it sometimes does for me; that when I clipped and rearranged and polished, I’d find the glowing gems beneath. It’s happened to me before, after all. I’m almost done revising it now, and I still haven’t found the gleam. Sure, there were a few scenes that gave me a mild feeling of joy like “hey, I wrote that,” but there’s been no overall thrill. I feel like I’ve written a long essay on some subject I have no real interest in and now I’m shoring it up so I can at least get an A on it.

In part, I think it’s because I just don’t like the characters. They’re great characters in their construction, as I said above, but I’m just not into them. It’s kinda like watching a show that everyone else loves but you just can’t get into. You can’t explain why, it’s a fine enough show, it’s just not your bag.

Earlier this year, in contrast, I wrote a story that I absolutely loved. I raced to the page each day to write it, and it all unfolded before me in brilliant clarity. I loved every aspect of creating it, I loved the characters, and when I finished I was breathless with the pounding of my brimming writer’s heart. Not to mention I was actually sad I was done writing it and there was no more. I wrote it in less than a month, revised it in a few weeks, and it was picked up for publication a few scant months later. It was a whirlwind romance of…writing a romance.

I find these two reactions are the extremes, though. Hating what you wrote and being absolutely in love with it are two ends of the spectrum, and most pieces we write fall somewhere in between. You may love parts of something you wrote and hate others, you may have to dig a while to find contentment in the prose, or you may just find that ‘good enough’ feeling eventually. Writing is a game of ups and downs, joy and sorrow.

But what of the hated, finished story? Should I complete the revision and send it off to a publisher? It definitely needs a sequel, and was always written toward having a sequel. I have some ideas for that sequel but I fear by a few chapters in, I would once again feel like I was writing a homework assignment.  Do I scrap it? The sunk cost fallacy involved will haunt me for weeks, I know. Do I repurpose it into something else? Change the characters? Chalk it up as practice and move on?

Isn’t writing just glamorous?

Have you ever written something you hated and couldn’t bring yourself to feel passionate about? How did you handle it? What did you do with the story?

Slow and Steady

If you’re an anxious sort of person who likes things to happen fast, the last thing you want to be is a writer. Writing and publishing are the slowest activities you can imagine. How anyone manages to make a stable career out of it is beyond me (I’m sure it takes a thousand years to get to that point). If you want to go fast, race stock cars. If you want to watch yourself slowly age while nothing happens, become a writer.

Every step of the writing and publishing process is slow:

  • Need an idea? If your brain is anything like mine, it’s going to take its sweet old time coming up with something for you to write. Even once you get that spark, the details need to be slowly untangled before you begin. If I try to push my brain for ideas it gets even more cranky and just goes to sleep.
  • Got an idea? Now write a book. How long do you think it will take? Weeks? Months? Years? Everyone is different. Sure, there’s some writers who can churn out a book in a few days or a week, but it probably took them a long time to get that fast, and also they probably sacrifice puppies to gain their dark magical power.
  • Now edit that book. This might take even longer than writing it, especially if it needs major rewrites.
  • Start sending it off to agents/editors. If you want to feel the true passage of endless time in all its horrifying reality, send a submission off and then keep refreshing your inbox while you wait for a reply. Stalk the agent/editor on Twitter as well if you really want to experience what eternity feels like.
  • Got an offer? Great! You think things will speed up now, don’t you? You sweet summer child. When they finally send you the contract, you’ll want to make sure you read that sucker thoroughly and consider all your options. Definitely not the time to rush.
  • Now your editor/cover artist/proofreader gets to make it into a real book. Days and weeks will go by where you’re fairly certain the publisher has forgotten they’ve taken you on board. Then, your editor will email you in the middle of the night with fifty pages of edits that they want back in two days.
  • Release day! Finally! …wait, I spent all that time waiting for this? Where is the choir of angels singing? Why isn’t Channing Tatum at my door ready to give me a lap dance? Why hasn’t Kim Kardashian called me up to take me on a shopping spree for being so clever and published? Now you get to wait for someone to care that you wrote a book.
  • Now wait to get paid. Keep waiting. Better start writing another book.

Writing is slow. Publishing is slow. But it’s all worth it in the end, right? Right?!

When Are You Done?

Sometimes, it’s just as hard to finish a story as it is to start it. When do you wrap it up? When do you stop editing? When is it ready ‘to go?’ How do you know these things? How do I stop tearing my hair out over it?

Let’s try to answer these questions one at a time:

  • How do I know when I’m done writing a story? For me, I often ‘feel’ when a story is done, there’s no more to tell that wouldn’t be flogging a dead horse, and things have reached a natural conclusion. I may want to tell more, but I know that I would just be doing it for my own amusement and dragging things out. Sometimes it might be hard to know where this stopping point is, though. A story shouldn’t drag on too long after the climactic sequence, or else you’re going to make the reader ask what you’re trying to prove. If you want to tell the story of these character’s lives after the BIG THING happens to them, write a sequel. If you go too far past the ‘point’ of the story that point will lose its edge.
  • When are you finished editing? When your eyes start to bleed. Truly, though, no matter how much you edit, there’s still going to be an editor who edits it more. You go over it, and over it again, for content, then grammar, then over it again to see how it flows. You set it aside for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes and realize it’s trash, so you need to edit it fifty more times. All writers have their own methods of editing. Eventually though, you just have to let yourself be satisfied that you’ve mostly got it together. If you’re traditionally published, then you get an editor who shows you that it’s not good at all, you big dummy, so let’s edit this some more. You breathe a huge sigh of relief when you finally get your ARC, because that means you’re done editing at last. And then, you find a typo in the published version.
  • When is it ready ‘to go?’ By this, I mean when are you ready to send it off to an agent or editor, or self-publish it? Have you completed the above steps over and over until you’re crying and no words in the English language look like they’re spelled correctly anymore? That’s when. Honestly though, polish it until it shines and you don’t completely hate it, and you’re pretty confident about it. Then give it a shot. Get forty rejections, revise it again, and then send it out again to a new batch of agents and editors.
  • How do you know these things? Magic. Take heart, though, you’ll get more instinctual about it the more you do it.
  • How do I stop tearing my hair out over it? You won’t. Get a wig.

Being ‘done’ is a complicated state. We’re never really done, until the day the book goes on sale. And then, we get a whole new set of neurosis to deal with. Writing is a beautiful profession, isn’t it?

The Ugly First Draft

Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. You’ve probably heard this before. Trying to get everything ‘just right,’ especially on the first try, can keep you from truly exploring your ideas and coming up with something that might be even better than what you were originally aiming for. Much like children, our imagination works better when it has time to play, instead of being forced to sit and learn the proper way to do things all day long.

I had a hard time with this when I first started writing, and for many years after while I got the hang of being a writer. I was always afraid to move forward until I had everything exactly where I wanted it. The problem is, in writing you may move forward only to discover you’ve toppled the precarious tower of blocks you already built behind you, but that’s okay. You can always return and set the blocks back up, in a completely different pattern if need be…after you’ve built the rest of the structure.

The best piece of writing advice I could ever give anyone is don’t fix your writing as you go. By this, I mean during the first draft. The first draft is a messy, convoluted, disjointed piece of work and it’s supposed to be. You’re dumping your ideas out on the page and then later, in rewriting and editing, you will go back and shape it into something a little prettier. It’s important when you’re writing the first draft to just write it, and don’t stop to correct things.

As I said, when I was a new writer I had a hard time with this. I know other writers do too. There’s a temptation every day when you sit down to write to go over what you wrote the day before and fix it up before you start writing again. But if you keep going back and tinkering, you’re not gaining any forward momentum. When you stop to revise what you’ve already written, you’re not writing the rest. It’s okay to have an unwieldy piece of work on your hands when you get to the end of the first draft, but the important part is you have a piece of work now, and you can fix it up. You might find yourself chopping out whole sections, adding new ones, and rearranging things completely. That’s okay. You need something to rearrange, so get that down first.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, says it best: Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. 

Get that first draft down, without worrying about how ugly it looks. You can always cut its hair and do its makeup later.

Tell us what it’s about

I’ve been doing a lot of editing this week, preparing a novella for submission. That also means writing a synopsis, which I think is easily the most difficult part of any submission process. If you’re still preparing for your first ever submission and you’ve never written a synopsis before, you’re going to find out quickly that it’s an art form in itself–and that you’d probably rather write a thousand books than one synopsis.

The facts about a synopsis that will make you laugh with utter insanity:

  • You have to distill an entire story–no matter how long, even a book–into just a few paragraphs to one or two pages. The whole thing! All of it!
  • Remember, you gotta make it sound interesting and exciting!
  • You have to decide what’s important to mention and what can go without being detailed in the synopsis…but wait, isn’t all of it important?!
  • Good luck!

My method of writing a synopsis is to write the first version as long and detailed as I want to, and then go back through it and omit things that aren’t pertinent or don’t directly move the main plot. And then go through it again and remove more. And then again. And then again.

Here’s some other methods you might try:

Pretend you’re telling a friend what the story is about and they have to catch their train in two minutes.

Tell the bare-bones version of the story. Who is the main character, what do they want, what’s working against them, how does it get resolved? Remember, in a synopsis you have to reveal the ending. There are no ‘spoilers’ in publishing, agents and editors want to see that you can write a coherent story that gets resolved in a satisfying way. They’d rather read the two-minute “my train is coming” version of that first before bothering with the manuscript itself because they’re busy people.

Describe what your story is about in one sentence.

This sounds even more insane than a synopsis, but if you can do it, you can then expand on that sentence rather than whittling down a longer description. Work backwards!

Write the synopsis as you write the story.

I have grand plans to one day actually try this, but I haven’t done it yet. Each day after you write, also write a brief description of what you wrote that day, and then at the end shape this into the synopsis. It sounds much easier than working on a synopsis post-story, but I’ve yet to remember to try it.

Writing a synopsis is daunting, and I’d like to tell you it gets easier the more you do it, but I won’t lie. It’s never easy to distill an entire story down to just a few words and you always feel like you’re leaving out something vital. If you’re one of those people who can write an amazing synopsis effortlessly, kudos to you and also send your magic fairy my way.

Still learning

I recently finished edits on a novella that will be out this fall, and every time I work with an editor, I learn something new. No matter how tight I think my writing is, when I work with an editor who really knows their stuff, I find something that needs more cranking. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve gotten past the point where having my mistakes pointed out to me makes me defensive. Usually I slap my forehead, get a bit chagrined, but ultimately I’m grateful to learn something new and have the opportunity to make my writing even better. I habitually thank my editors for their insight and for being willing to teach me things.

That’s why I’m a writer, after all, not just because I like to tell stories, but because I want to understand writing and all its rules and usages and learn everything I can about it. A carpenter learns their trade not just because they love to build things, but because they’re interested in all the components of their craft–the tools, the wood, the techniques. I think it’s an important aspect of any skill that you want to keep learning about it and trying to do it better. A carpenter wouldn’t create a lopsided, precariously-built house and call it good enough, and I don’t want to leave my writing ‘good enough’ when it could be better.

I’m happy every time I learn something new, even if I look back at the already-published stuff and wince because I wasn’t doing it then. However, the thing about writing is you can’t keep going back and fixing up things that have already gone out into the world (and if you’re traditionally published, just try asking your publisher if they’ll take your book down and let you revise it–see how hilarious that reaction is) you can only apply the new things you’ve learned to future books and keep trying to be better.

I don’t expect to ever be perfect, I don’t think there is any such thing–I’ve seen even the biggest authors in the business make mistakes–but I love to write and I love to learn about it.

Editing is fun(ny)

Right now I’m doing a bunch of editing on a paranormal romance series I have in the works. I used to despise editing and rewriting, it was my most hated part of the process. I would much rather be writing! Over the years I somehow came to like it, (almost) as much as the writing stage. There’s something satisfying about plucking and cutting and rearranging, a bit like cleaning your house and watching everything get nice and orderly and tidy. Maybe you hate cleaning. Maybe you hate editing. I like the results of both though, so I suppose I have to do the work.

Editing can be hilarious too, if you’re willing to poke fun at yourself. When I read through my rough drafts I do a lot of head-shaking and chuckling at the things I’ve slapped down. Here’s a list of some funny things I’ve encountered when I come face to face with–myself.

  • I shware I kan spel, I promus! I’m amazed at some of the words I manage to spell incorrectly, and then fail to correct, despite Word putting that red squiggly line underneath them. Usually I’m clipping along, getting words out in a rush, and don’t want to harsh my vibe, so I just throw down a few letters that resemble the word I want and move on. I’ve also hilariously mixed up homonyms or used a completely different word than what I meant altogether, much to my own amusement.
  • What the hell was I thinking? I’ve come across passages that made no sense in the context of the story. Some of these were things I meant to develop but fell by the wayside, which is understandable, but some completely baffle me as to why I put them in there to begin with. Did I actually write this? Did someone sneak in during the night and add it to my story? Was I sleep-writing? It’s a mystery!
  • Pronoun confusion. – Writing a scene between two people of the same gender is easy, but when you have two (or more) ‘hers’ or ‘hims’ you have to be careful to differentiate (without being hamfisted and distracting). I’ve had to untangle scenes where even I couldn’t figure out who was doing what. It would be much easier if I just decided that two people of the same gender will never speak to each other again in any of my stories. EVER!
  • Who the hell are you? I once wrote a book where a minor character showed up early in the story, then popped back up much later. However, when I was writing the later part I couldn’t remember his name and didn’t want to break my writing flow, so I gave him a placeholder name instead of going back to look. When I was editing and got to the later part, I was so confused who this character was supposed to be and why he seemed to already know everyone. I felt super stupid when I figured it out.
  • We don’t need no grammar! The cringeworthy grammar mistakes I’ve made while dashing out my story would make a professional editor drink themselves into a coma. Thankfully I clean it all up before I send it to mine, or she’d probably show up at my house and punch me in the face.

I have to laugh at myself and not take the editing process too seriously when I realize I’ve done really dumb things in my rough draft. That’s what the editing and rewriting is for, after all. It’s kind of like looking at yourself in the mirror before you leave the house to go out to dinner, and discovering you’ve put your dress on backwards and your shoes on your hands.

Have you ever had a laugh-at-yourself moment while editing?

The little secrets of writing

The first time I worked with a professional editor, I thought I knew a lot about writing. As it turned out, I knew much less than I thought I did. I was surprised, quite embarrassed, but I was also incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to learn new things and grow as a writer. Some of the things I learned were so simple I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized them before. I felt like a dummy, but I also felt like I’d somehow unlocked a great treasure trove of secrets about my craft.

One of the things this editor taught me remains to this day my favorite bit of knowledge. I’m so attuned to it now in my own writing that I see it all the time in the writing of others–even very professional, extensively published authors–and so I don’t believe it’s a hard and fast rule, but a wonderful guideline.

My editor called it Detached Body Parts.

Sound scary? It is. Here’s what it means:

Many times we forget that body parts are inanimate, and it takes the action of the owner to affect them. It follows the habit of eliminating the passive voice in writing. I had never thought about it before, but once she explained it, it clicked and I realized she was right. Is this the only way to write and is it always correct? No, of course not. However, it’s an exercise in using the active voice. Here are some examples:

Passive: Her eyes closed (unless she just died, they didn’t close on their own).
Active: She closed her eyes.

Passive: His fingers stroked across my cheek (I’m picturing loose fingers scurrying around).
Active: He stroked his fingers across my cheek.

The tone is much more active and present. She did this, he did that. The focus is on the person doing the action, not the action itself. Body parts don’t move on their own, we move them.

Likewise, here’s another favorite thing I learned. She didn’t give this an amusing name, but I like to call it “Duh, obviously.”

When you write from the point of view of a single character, write what happens to them the way it happens in your own head, because you’re in their head. What do I mean by this? Say your character looked across the room and saw a dog. If you looked across the room and saw a dog, would you think, “I looked over there and saw that dog”? No, you’d think “Hey, there’s a dog.”

Duh: She looked across the room and saw a dog.
Obviously: Across the room, a dog stood.

Why? Because again, you’re inside the character’s head. You don’t need to say they looked or saw. If there’s a dog standing across the room, what is instantly assumed? Indeed, that the character looked over there and saw it. Not only does it eliminate words, it makes the writing much tighter and much more ‘present.’ We don’t think of ourselves “I heard some nice music,” we think “some lovely music is playing.”

These are just a few of my very favorite writing tips. When I learned about them I smacked my hand against my forehead (see what I did there) in shock that I had never realized them before. I love learning new things. I hope I can teach others now and then.

How about you? What are the most startling and brilliant writing tips you learned along the way?