Good Writing Advice: Not everything you write has to become a novel

Said another way: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

On Monday I went to see Lauren Oliver. After her reading, Ms. Oliver took questions and talked a bit about her writing process. She mentioned at one point that she is ALWAYS working on something, and that if she finished one book on Tuesday she would start another on Wednesday.

“WHAT?” squeaked my inner editor. “How!”

And so I raised my hand and calmly asked her, “So how much do you have planned going into a new book?”

She answered,  “Nothing.”

Then she laughed and said that wasn’t entirely true; she’d been writing long enough that she always has a steady stream of ideas on backlog to work from.

Still, a principle remained: she always had to be working on something, and as such was willing to write without being secure in the knowledge that what she writing would end up a novel.

“I’m not sure why people think that way,” she said (referring to a writer’s mindset/need to have ALL work end up a book). Earlier that evening she’d mentioned writing 40 pages based on her first core concept for Rooms, and having to put it down for a while because 40 pages in she’d realized she just “hadn’t found the story’s heartbeat.”

So what’s the big stigma with false starts? Why are we (am I) so afraid of them? They’re still writing, aren’t they?– and don’t they allow us to explore possibilities, conduct trials and errors, flex our writing muscles? Are they not still valuable? Do we not learn from them?

Perhaps more importantly: Wouldn’t a mindset of exploration free us from the crippling pressure of writing a book in the first place?

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Good Writing Advice: Start with the logline.

What is a logline? Well, if you’re an author, you may have had that classic moment where you tell someone you’re writing a book, they ask what it’s about, and then you ACTUALLY HAVE TO TELL THEM. A logline is that crisp, convenient, one-sentence-ish premise that falls effortlessly from your lips in answer, smoothly summing your story and sparing all parties embarrassment in a single breath. You know– that description you can give for like any book or movie ever, whether you liked or watched or even finished reading it or not. That you definitely don’t stumble over when describing your own work. Goodness, no.

Because chances are you are sensible: that at some point you’ve developed a brief oral pitch to use as a flotation device. Me? I know what it is to flounder. I floundered a lot with my first book. I still splash a bit, but I’m getting better with time and each subsequent novel.

One thing that really helped in defining my last book, both to myself and to others, was starting with the synopsis. Plotting roughly what was going to happen before I actually started writing not only gave me a road map for the novel ahead of me; it made it easier to talk about.

That’s why I can really get behind screenwriter Blake Snyder, who emphasizes the importance of starting with a good logline in his screenwriting book, Save the Cat!:

“If you don’t have the logline, maybe you should rethink your whole movie.”

The same should hold true for books. If you can’t answer what your story’s about (in Snyder’s words: “What is it?”) succinctly and compellingly, there’s a chance that you don’t really have one.  Or that it needs work. And why waste time writing something that doesn’t sing to you and to others? Without a north? A logline is your novel at its barest: the bones upon which the story rests. It only makes sense to build from the foundation up.

That said, I am curious to hear your thoughts, fellow writers! I know there are pantsers as well as plotters out there, and some people feel stifled by any planning prior to writing.

What is your approach? What do you find works best?

Good Writing Advice: The 45 Minute Session

Yesterday I tried something different.

I wrote in blocks of 45 minutes at a time.

Let me back up a minute. I’m currently at work on a MG project. Ideas for this book had been steeping for months before I ever put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard); as a MG novel I intended to keep it under 60k; by the time I started writing I had an extensive outline to work from. Given all this and the fact that at peak form I have no problem writing 1,5000-2,000+ words a day, I expected this book to practically fall out of me.

Ha.

I’m not sure what it is, but with this book I seem to be capping at about 1,000 words a day. I’ve been feeling sluggish– like I needed to try something different. So the last week or so I’ve spent more time in a hardcover notebook, typing up what I’ve written at the end of the day. Effective? In some ways, yes.

But I’ll tell you what I like better.

Heather Sellers recently contributed a list to the 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far column in Writer’s Digest. In her seventh point she borrows Billy Joel’s term “in harness” to describe the butt-in-the-chair, door-closed, no distractions discipline with which a writer does her best writing. Take a moment to visualize what “in harness” might mean for you. No internet? No company? Music, TV, cell phone off or left in another room? Blinds down on a beautiful day? Think of it as making a space for you and your manuscript. An intimate, secluded table for two.

Now– how does one realistically commit oneself to such an intense focus without burning out or wrecking one’s eyes? Sellers answers: One writes in manageable sessions. Sessions of 45 minutes, to be exact (with 15 minute breaks in between if they are consecutive).

Of course, that’s what works for her. Others might find 30 minute or 2 hour sessions more productive. I’ve even heard of 25 minute pomodoros doing wonders. The magic here I think is in tricking your brain to believe “Hey, 45 minutes! That isn’t long at all! I can commit to my writing and absolutely nothing else for that long.” In my own experiment yesterday I found it much easier to shut myself in a room and disconnect from everything in 45 minute intervals. How’d it turn out? Well, in only four sessions (3 hours total) I managed over 1,000 words. Not lightning speed by any means, but certainly not shabby for the edits-as-she-goes type. It’s the same result for considerably less time than I feel it has taken me to achieve lately.

Do you write in short sessions? For how long? Let us know below! And I really recommend reading Heather Sellers’ entire writing advice list. They’re all great points that go way beyond the common show, don’t tell. Check ’em out!

Good Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell = Action

I borrow today’s writing wisdom from author A.B. Westrick and her recent contribution to the “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” column of Writer’s Digest.

“Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.” —A.B. Westrick

That’s a long quote, but there’s a lot of good advice in it. In fact, I’d like to break it down a little and expand on several points Westrick makes in that one item.

Starting with Show, Don’t Tell: This is arguably the first rule of writing. It’s one that anyone learning the craft will encounter early, and often– from instructors, from fellow writers, and of course in How-To books. And yet, especially with starting writers, it is a guideline too often overlooked. A.B. Westrick says it beautifully above, but I would like to add that the “action” she suggests is not necessarily limited to characters. Casting objects, surroundings, and even weather into action (rather than describing these things solely with adjectives) breathes life into them and makes them more powerful. A famous example:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” –Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is right. Ask yourself which sentence is better: “The moon was shining,” (“shining” being an adjective), or “Moonlight glinted on broken glass” (“glinted” being a verb: action).

In a period in which I thought I might go into advertising, I read Ogilvy on Advertising. In a strange but highly relevant connection, author David Ogilvy touted the use of motion in any commercials pertaining to food. Food in motion (hot fudge being poured over ice cream, for example) was found to make it appear more appetizing, and thus led to greater sales. Lesson in translation: choosing active images (whether for characters, objects, setting, food, etc.) over stagnant ones makes them more appealing. In short: action (verbs and nouns) over adjectives.

The other thing I want to highlight is the importance of letting readers infer things. Westrick above discusses specifically how to show emotion rather than tell it, and again she’s right on the money. But one thing I have learned is that it is not only emotions a reader must infer; it is often thought process, backstory, relationships with other characters, etc.

Some straightforward explanation may be necessary, but I think especially for first-time writers, or even experienced writers writing a first draft, there is a tendency toward introspection and over-introspection. The main character over-explains things because we, as authors, are first telling the story to ourselves. This kind of narration typically makes for dull, dry reading, and detracts from– here’s that word again– action.

That said, here’s the second tip I come away with: if introspection detracts from the movement of the story, the things being discussed are probably things the reader needs to infer (and which should therefore be demonstrated with action, not explained). That, or the passages should be pared down.

Finally, Westrick points to the five senses. An excellent reminder: all five senses, not just sight, can be applied to active vs. stagnant language. “The grass was prickly,” vs. “The grass blades bit her palms.” “The alarm was shrill,” vs. “The alarm wailed against the walls.” “The cookies smelled divine,” vs. “The smell of warm butter and chocolate wafted from the kitchen.” Show with senses!

Good Writing Advice: Test Voice with Visceral Reaction

Voice: it’s one of the more difficult terms to define when it comes to writing craft. Not only is it the resulting synthesis of many different elements (language, punctuation, pacing, flow, character commentary, etc. etc. ad infinitum); it varies hugely writer by writer, and often even piece by piece.

For this segment of Good Writing Advice I’m sharing quotes on voice from two literary experts that I find immensely helpful.

First, if the term “voice” is still a bit broad, consider how literary agent Jason Yarn captures its significance:

“I want an author to take over my mind. When I read most queries, I am in “agent mode,” quickly getting a feel, seeing if something is cool enough to warrant further inspection, etc. Rarely, I will suddenly realize that I’ve stopped reading in my own voice and have been taken over by the author’s.  That’s when I know it’s something special.”

Nicole Resciniti of Seymour Agency gives an even more succinct definition:

“For sake of clarity, your “voice” is your unique way of telling a story. […] It conveys a tone (dark, humorous, sarcastic, light). It is a calling card of sorts, because it identifies you as an author.”

While coming into one’s own voice is a different process for everyone, Mr. Yarn suggests this:

“…look to your own favorite authors and see not only their technique, but try and feel how they get into your head.”

Even if we can’t imitate the voices of our favorite authors (surely we do not want to; we want to create our own voice!), this practice of merely actively observing can help us get a better idea of all the intricate details that voice comprises, and we can more consciously play with those elements in our own work.

Now: when we think we’ve got it, how can we be sure? Voice is a strange, elusive creature! Fortunately, Ms. Resciniti offers excellent insight on measuring [voice’s] success:

“That is a big secret of hooking an editor/agent—cause a visceral reaction. If we laugh/cry/shudder/smile/become afraid, you have physically made us FEEL something, and that means we’re totally immersed in your manuscript. Look at your opening chapter. Is the writing tight? Does your voice pop off the page? Do you make the reader FEEL?”

Good Writing Advice: Submit Your Best

To paraphrase Pat Benatar, “Hit ‘Em With Your Best Plot.”

Today’s writing wisdom deals with the submissions process and comes from literary agent Marisa Corvisiero of the eponymous Corvisiero Literary Agency.

In a 2011 interview with Chiseled in Rock, when asked what essential advice she would give to authors seeking representation, Corvisiero said this:

“Do your research and always put your best foot forward. Learn about the industry, but don’t forget that in the end your writing speaks for itself.”

Itis important to make sure that any writing sent is as polished as possible: not just complete, but thoroughly revised and in a mature stage of development. Doing your homework– knowing who might be interested in your work, why the agent/agency would make a good match with it, their submission guidelines, etc.– is all important, but ultimately it is your writing that must withstand scrutiny and critical eyes. Corvisiero underlines the importance of this:

“Agents are incredibly busy and will unfortunately review your work looking for reasons not to represent you…So don’t give them any.”

The ships an aspiring author sets in water must be watertight.

Good Writing Advice: 15 min/day

Today’s gem of writing advice comes from an interview with literary agent Laurie McLean of Agent Savant. The interview is given by Matt Garland of Winning Edits.

Garland asks what advice McLean would give to writers who are “stalled” (stressing, stuck, procrastinating, etc.) in their author’s journey. McLean responds,

“Write every day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.”

If you think of writing like speaking a foreign language or playing an instrument, you begin to understand the importance of this: if you don’t keep the skills fresh, they rust. What does any teacher tell you when you’re learning something new? Practice, practice, practice! Repetition is crucial to staying in top form.

On a similar note, McLean adds that it’s important to read in the genres you write. She does not emphasize “daily” here, but if you remember that last bit of advice about having a solid writing-to-reading ratio, you might consider making a commitment to reading each day also– even if it is sliver of time, like the minimum quarter hour McLean suggests for writing.

Good Writing Advice: The Writing to Reading Ratio

3-1 hours ratioToday’s pearl of wisdom for writers at any stage comes from Kate Southwood, author of Falling To Earth, in a piece she contributed to Writer’s Digest. It’s a simple rule, and one you’ve probably heard before:

Read good writing.

“Another writer once told me that if you have four hours to write, you should spend one of those hours reading.”

While Southwood immediately suggests that this ratio will vary, I think the fact of the writing-to-reading ratio is one of the very first rules of being a writer. In regards to this rule I often remember something my fourth grade teacher taught us when we were drawing sea shells with pen and ink: You should spend as much time studying your subject as you do replicating it. Again, even if it isn’t a half and half or a three to one quarter time split, good reading is essential to good writing because input influences output.

So make time for reading– and choose your books with care. As Southwood says, “I only read novels that make my jaw drop to the floor, force me to read slowly, and make me ask how on earth the writer did that.” Read other excellent writing tips from Kate Southwood in her contribution to the Writer’s Digest column, “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far.”

Good Writing Advice: A New Segment

Hey gang. So as I’ve been discovering some great resources on agent-finding, query-writing, synopses, general craft, etc., I have been keeping a file. That file is a running Word document composed exclusively of advice cut and pasted from various literary agents, authors, book doctors, etc. in interviews, agency websites, and magazines, and is presently twenty pages. That’s twenty pages single-spaced, and growing.

Since it’s too much information to just pour into the ear and absorb, I’m thinking I’m going to break it down (not unlike a snazzy boy band) and share it here in portions. In doing so I’ll make a regular segment called Good Writing Advice. The segment, like the document, will cover a broad spectrum of topics but is generally aimed at helping authors, aspiring and otherwise.

So here you are– an appetizer. Today’s tip is on cultivating a successful author/reader relationship. It comes from author Matt Mikalatos in a Writer’s Digest article titled “4 Ways To Build Healthy Relationships With Your Readers“. And the tip is…

Be Accessible.

You can use any medium you like for communication, so long as your readers know how to contact you.

Makes sense, right? There are many ways to communicate these days: through social media, contact forms, email, or even good, old-fashioned letters. Find the medium(s) that work for you and tell readers, in an easily-found location (a website, a fan page, or even, as Mikalatos suggests, in the back of your book itself!), how you prefer to be contacted. This opens the line for impressions, feedback, and fun (not to mention valuable!) engagement with readers.