Thursday, April 29, 2010

I love editing - Part Three

In part one, we talked about viewing our manuscripts as "fixer uppers" that we'd just bought. We talked about taking care of the big stuff before we started prettying her up. In part two, we prettied up, and today we're talking about being honest with ourselves about the job we did.

My friend Sally, who runs Bradley Writing and Editing services, gave a fabulous class on self-editing, during which she shared this quote from Michael Seidman (Editing Your Fiction). Seidman says, "If you cannot, or will not, see the errors in your work, no one will be able to lead you to the corrections that have to be made."

I've seen this happen a lot with new writers. They're in their first critique group, they claim they want honest feedback about their work, and when the group starts making suggestions or talking about problems they saw, the writer immediately goes on the defense. If they're a real writer, they eventually calm down and start listening. If they're what we call a "hobby writer," they have an argument for everything you bring up, and soon drop out of the group.

Taking criticism is hard. I know it - I've been there. But learn to do it now with writer friends because you know who else will have changes they think you should make? Your agent. And if he or she doesn't, it'll be your editor. Followed shortly by your readers.

So when you're looking at your manuscript, be as honest with yourself as possible. Sally said to us, "There's nothing wrong with admitting that your Work In Progress (WIP) doesn't yet read like a published novel. In fact, admitting that is the first step to improving it."

Work on developing your eye for improvement.

If something doesn't read like a published novel, figure out why. What is it that sounds wrong - a paragraph? Line? A transition? What's keeping it from working?

And then work on it until it reads like it came from a published novel. Sally said she'd reworked one chapter over and over for a month. While frustrating, when she had her "breakthrough," she was able to spot the problem quicker in the rest of the manuscript.

The last tip that Sally had, which I think is brilliant, is to read quality fiction ONLY. When you read quality fiction, you absorb all those wonderful techniques and word choices. And you aim for higher standards with your own fiction.

Have a great weekend everybody! Questions? Shoot 'em my way.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Perseverance for finishing a book

I've decided to no longer call you guys "readers." When I used that term in the past, I meant people who read GTW and sent questions. From now on, I'll refer to you guys as "writers." Because if you're writing, you're a writer.

So. A writer e-mailed me to ask, "How do you keep up the perseverance necessary to finish a book? I've never gotten past the early middle."

Totally normal.

First of all, it sometimes takes a bit to find a story you're passionate enough about to finish. Finishing a book is hard work, especially in the beginning. I didn't finish my first one until I found a story that I was passionate enough to see it through.

But passion is fleeting. And not every minute you spend with your manuscript is going to feel magical and meaningful. So when the passion is gone - or taking a leave of absence - the only way you'll be able to keep going is if your story has a spine.

Sometimes I'm super excited about a story idea, I breeze through the first couple chapters, and then I realize I didn't have a story idea, I had a story premise. I had the set up, but I wasn't really clear about where the story was actually going. That's okay. When that happens, I'll brainstorm some ideas, but if nothing is really clicking, I'll set it aside and work on another project. As time goes on, you'll get better at determining, "Yes, this is an idea that can sustain a novel," or, "No, this idea needs fleshing out before it can become a book."

Thirdly - don't stress yourself out. I spent a decent amount of time in high school stressing out that I wasn't taking my writing serious enough, that I was already failing by not having a publishing contract, and now I look back at that and think, "What was wrong with me?" Sometimes you can be too motivated for your own good. There's nothing wrong with being serious about your writing - I love that in new writers! - but if the manuscript isn't working, feel free to move on to a new idea for a while. Or to take a break from writing all together. You'll be the envy of professional writers everywhere :)

Have a great Tuesday, guys!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I love editing - Part 2

Last week we talked about how to start editing: Look at the big picture stuff. For those who missed the first post, you can check it out here.

Once you've got your big picture items taken care of - POV, plot, characters - you can start "prettying it up," as Sally Bradley puts it.

This means to do things like trim unneccessary words, delete speaker tags cluttering up your dialogue (he said, she said), and get as much backstory out as you can.

This is also a good time to work on balancing out your balance of dialogue and prose. I'm a "dialogue heavy" kind of writer. During this stage of editing, I spend time sprinkling in actions, descriptions, and emotions amidst the dialogue. If you're the opposite, you'll spend more time getting the story between the quotes.

Something Sally brought up in my session with her was the idea of working in scenes. At this stage of editing, since you've already taken care of all/most those big picture things, you can now take it scene by scene. This will help you to make sure each scene has a purpose, is tightly written, and packs the kind of punch you want.

I'll be back on Tuesday answering questions. If you have one in the meantime, shoot me an e-mail.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Writing Characters who are older than you

A reader e-mailed me and said, I'm worried because my story is about adults and I don't have the life experience necessary to write the story from the perspective of someone over my current age. How would you overcome this?

This is probably why most high school students write stories set in high school. I know it's why I did - it's so much easier to just write what you know.

Writing about characters who are different than yourself in age, race, religion, etc. forces you to really use those creative muscles. Like right now, I'm making my first attempts at writing from a guy's point of view. Wow, is it hard. I've never been a guy before. I know how guys talk to girls, and how they talk to each other when girls are around, but that's about it.

So, I use research. Same as I will for my character who's in her last year of vet school, seeing as I know very little about vet school. The research just looks a little different. When I can, I eavesdrop on guys around me who are having conversations. I ask my husband questions about his feelings on things. (Like, "So, I'm thinking about having Jeremy do this. What do you think? Does this make sense to you?) I took a class offered at a writer's conference last September called Male POV that was pretty stinking explicit. (In a good, necessary kind of way.) And when I'm in the second or third draft, I'll ask my husband to read it and give me his thoughts and point out parts that seem unrealistic to him.

If you're writing adult characters, your research process will be largely the same. When you're out and about, eavesdrop on adult conversations going on around you. Ask your parents questions about situations in your manuscript. Or if you feel weird asking them, you can ask me. I don't feel like an adult, but I have a mortgage and a kid and other very adult-like things.

When you're working on characters like that, just be prepared to be patient with them. Skylar in my books was super different than me, and it took me several drafts of Me, Just Different before I felt like I really nailed who she was. Good characters take patience, but are sooooo worth it.

Have questions? E-mail me.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I love editing Part One

When the "creating" part of writing is going well - the story's flowing, the dialogue's snapping, and ideas are hitting faster than you can type - there's nothing quite like it. Want to know how many days I have like that during my first draft? Oh, maybe two or three. Maybe.

In general, the part of love most is editing. My friend Sally Bradley, who runs Bradley Writing and Editing services, says she likes to think of her current manuscript as a fixer upper she's just bought. It's got potential, but right now it's in rough shape.

There's nothing wrong with your manuscript being in rough shape. That's why we call them works-in-progress. Or WIPs. They aren't published novels, and there's nothing wrong with it not reading like one yet.

In the past, when I've reached the second draft, I've tended to focus on both the big stuff - how's my plot? are my characters good? is this the right pace? - alongside all the small stuff. So while I'm asking those big questions, I'm usually asking little ones too. To comma or not to comma? Is this line enough of a zinger? Is this the right word for my POV character to use?

After taking a class from Sally on Saturday, I've discovered that this is a bad way to do it.

I'm currently in the first draft of my WIP. When I'm done, thanks to Sally, I feel like I'll have a better idea for how to gut this baby and polish her up. And I'll start with the gutting. Here's a few questions Sally suggested you start with as you read through your first draft for the first time:

1. How are your plot and characters? Is your plot believable? Have you clearly defined your characters' goals, motivations, and conflict? (Sometimes referred to as GMC, in case you've seen that elsewhere.) Is there enough conflict? Is life hard for your characters, or are they getting what they want too easily?

2. Do you use POV (point of view) correctly? (We haven't really talked about proper POV on here, have we? We'll have to discuss that.)

3. Does your opening work? We talked about openings a couple months ago. Make sure it's appropriate to the rest of the story, and that it's gripping enough to hook your reader.

4. Have you created a good stage for your readers? Are you giving too many details? Too few?

5. How's the pace? Are we zipping from scene to scene to fast, or are you sitting for far too long in scenes?

Sally said she often has clients who want her to do a major overhaul on their manuscripts and give it a nice finish. She compared this to painting a room in a house, then ripping out the sheetrock.

Try looking for those big things first, then putting on the finishing touches later.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What should I study if I want to be a writer?

Last Friday I spoke at a Career Day here in town. It's my second Career Day talk and my third school visit, and at each event I've been asked the question What's the best thing for me to study in school if I want to be a writer?

If you want to be an engineer, you study engineering. A teacher, teaching. But writing is funny.

I know very few writers who actually majored in creative writing. It's more common to come across those who studied English, but usually they intended to teach, not write.

The beautiful thing about writing is that whatever your life experiences are, you take them into your writing. Like John Grisham likely wouldn't write the way he does had he not been a lawyer. Or my friend Sarah Sundin - pharmacist by day, novelist by night.

What's great about this is that you're not going to screw up your chances for being a writer by choosing the wrong degree. It's not like getting your degree in hotel management and then deciding you want to be an architect.

If I had it all to do over again, I think I would have majored in English and minored in business/marketing. I say English because I'd like to be "better read" than I currently am, and business/marketing because being a novelist is like being a small business. It would be handy to have some formal education in business and not just be "winging it."

If you're interested in writing historicals, I'd look for my opportunities to take history classes. Medical thrillers? Study up on science.

So don't limit yourself to thinking being a writer means a degree in English or Creative Writing. In writing, you really benefit from being a well-rounded person. Gives you a better pallet for creating diverse characters.

Got a writing question? E-mail me. And if you've finished reading this post and thought, "Man, I really wished Stephanie had talked for longer," don't despair. I also blogged at Girls, God, and the Good Life today.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Writing Improvement Program

Today's nugget of wisdom comes from James Scott Bell's The Art of War for Writers. I recently read and fell in love with this book, so this won't be the last time you see me mention it on here. I think it's a great read for new writers as well as published writers.

I love Bell's idea for a writing improvement program, although I haven't had a chance to develop one for myself. Once I stop popping out babies, I hope to have a little more time on my hands and engage in more deliberate craft studies.

Bell has a Writing Improvement Notebook, in which he has three sections. The first he calls Exemplars, in which he keeps paragraphs or pages from novels that really sing. The second is Outside Comments. In that section he keeps comments he gets from critique groups, readers, editors, etc. These are reminders to himself of what he needs to work on. And the last is Self Study. This is for overcoming weak areas in your writing by setting up a self-study program. The example he gives is this: might need one called "Creating Sympathetic Characters. Write out a
specific thesis question: How can I create characters that readers will bond
with on an emotional level

Suggestions Bell has are making a list of novels you've read where you connected with the characters. Select a handful of those, then re-read them with the study question in mind, looking for how the author accomplished this.

In my self-study section (to clarify, I've taken time to make the notebook, but have yet to put it to much use), I wrote that I wanted to create "bigger" and more interesting plots. So that's what I'll be working on.

Happy writing everyone!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dealing with Writers Block

First of all, if you haven't already commented on my author blog for a chance to win Sarah Sundin's A Distant Melody, do so now! If you mention you're a GTW (Go Teen Writer) reader, you'll get entered twice. Sarah's an awesome writer and the book is amazing. Definitely worth taking 10 minutes to read the interview and leave a comment.

Moving on.

A reader e-mailed to say, I have ideas when I'm away from my writing, then freeze up when I have time.

I feel for you.

My guess is that most writers have their "break through" moments when they're not actually at a place where they can write. Mine often happen when I'm doing dishes or straightening my hair. I'm not sure why it happens like that, but it does.

Especially now that I'm doing the mom thing and often can't just dash to my computer when inspiration strikes, I've had to develop a system for jotting down ideas. This system has taken many forms over the years. Right after I read Bird by Bird, I carried note cards with me. But the problem then was that I never knew how to file them. So they just got stuck in a box, and every once in awhile, I'd leaf through them.

Then I started jotting notes to myself on whatever scrap of paper I could find lying around. When I was able to get to my computer, I put them on there. I had a word document for new ideas and scraps of dialogue that I liked, but didn't know how to use yet. For stories I'd already started, I had a separate document where I kept thoughts or ideas. Such as, "Chase knew she was with Palmer. Points out her lack of honesty." While this means very little to anyone else, I know what I'm talking about.

Now that I've joined the world of Smart Phones, I keep track of ideas in the notepad program and then (ideally) back it up to my computer. I've yet to do the "back it up" step yet, but I will.

There's probably as many systems for keeping track of ideas as there are writers. The important thing is to figure out what works best for you, so you can make use of whatever precious writing time you have.

See you back here on Thursday!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Opportunity for free books!

A rare Friday post from me.

Wanted to let you fabulous Go Teen Writer readers know about a couple of opportunities to be entered for free stuff.

I've interviewed Sarah Sundin, a historical writer who just released a fabulous debut called A Distant Melody. After you read the interview, leave a comment to be entered for a free signed book. And mention you're a GTW reader so I'll know to enter you twice!

A writing pal's blog, Carole Brown

Carole is giving away a whole slew of stuff in celebration of Easter, including a signed copy of my book, Me, Just Different, a five page critique, and an Amazon gift certificate.

Best of luck! See everyone back here on Tuesday!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Writing killer dialogue

Mastering smart, zippy dialogue is one of the keys to catapulting your manuscript from good to great. Readers love good dialogue, and nothing slows down a book more than stiff, clunky conversations between characters.

Dialogue is something we'll revisit in depth on Go Teen Writers, but for now we'll start with a few basic tips for improvement:

1. It's been said that a story is like life without all the boring parts. Your dialogue should be the same way. Yes, in the real world we have "filler" conversations. We make small talk. In your book, you should not. Which of this is better?:

"Hey, you're back from the store early," Mary said.

"Yeah." John set the bags of groceries on the counter. "I guess I just hit the lights right or something."

Mary peeked in the closest bag. "You bought Skippy peanut butter? I thought you only liked Jif."

"Skippy was on sale. So were those cookies you like." John took a deep breath. "I ran into Paul. He told me everything."


"Hey, you're back from the store early," Mary said.

"Yeah." John set the bags of groceries on the counter, and Mary peeked in the closest one. "You bought Skippy peanut butter? I thought you only liked Jif."

John took a deep breath. "I ran into Paul. He told me everything."

The second one, right? All that other junk about the lights and what was on sale is just slowing us down from getting to the real information - HE SAW PAUL. If it's not adding to the conversation - cut it.

2. Learn the art of subtext. Basically, don't let your characters say what they mean all the time. For example, a few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend, Kelli. We were at one of our favorite restaurants, which was only about half-full and the service was SOOOOO SLOW. Like 10 minutes for a waitress to even acknowledge us. Another 10 before she came back to get our order. Then 20 minutes later my food came out, but Kelli's didn't. We sat there and waited for another 10 minutes for them to bring Kelli her sandwich, and then the waitress came over and asked me if I wanted the chef to make me a new lunch since mine had probably gotten cold while we waited. You know what I said, "No, thanks. I'm fine."

Do you think that's what I was thinking? No! I was thinking, "Yeah, right! I'm not handing you my plate of food. It'd be another 15 minutes before my new food was ready, and then Kelli's would be cold because she'd have waited on me!" So, if you're writing this scene from the waitresses POV, here's how that might look:

I tentatively made my way over to the table where the two young women sat. If only there was a way to explain to them that Britney had bailed this morning, leaving me stuck not only with her lunch shift, but also with finding a babysitter for her bratty son.

But there was no explaining tha to customers. I took a deep breath and said to the pregnant one, "Would you like me to have the chef make you a new scramble? Yours probably got cold while you waited for your friend's sandwich."

She smiled at me, but it was tight. "No, thanks. I'm fine." That's what her mouth said, but her eyes clearly said something else.

It's really fun if you have a mix of characters - like the girl who never says a mean word about anyone and the dental hygienist who shares way too much personal stuff during appointments, etc. But subtext is a fabulous way to build depth in your dialogue.

3. Last tip for this post - nobody likes a monologue. With dialogue, shorter is better. If you absolutely have to work in a long story through dialogue (I had to do this twice in So Over It and it made me CRAZY), break it up as much as you can. Make your character cry. Have her get interrupted by a ringing telephone. Whatever it takes. But no two or three page stories through dialogue.

And in conversations between your characters, don't let them prattle on too long. Here's an example from the first chapter of Me, Just Different:

Lisa linked our arms as we walked through the crowd. “Speaking of which, I hear you and a certain someone finally made it official.”

I couldn’t keep my voice from sounding panicked. “Who’d you hear that from?”

She blinked overdone eyes at me, my reaction apparently confusing her. “What do you mean? Jodi told me.”

“You heard from Jodi?” Despite the intense humidity of the July night, goose bumps raised on my arms.

“You didn’t tell her?”

“I didn’t have a chance yet.” I assumed Lisa would never point out the weakness of this excuse. I wanted to ask how Jodi sounded, but instead, I said, “Do you know who told her?”

“If it wasn’t you, I’d guess Alexis.”

“How did Alexis find out?”

Lisa shrugged. “How does Alexis ever know the things she does?”

I reached inside my purse before remembering I’d flushed my cigarettes down the toilet before leaving. “I shouldn’t have quit smoking today.”

“You quit? Why?”

“It’s so bad for you,” I said as we settled onto the metal bleachers. “Anyone who starts smoking these days is an idiot.”

Lisa didn’t answer right away, just chewed on her lower lip. “It’s awful expensive, I guess.”

From the team bench, Eli noticed us and waved, then turned his attention back to the game.

“I can’t believe you two are together,” Lisa said. “It’s great. Now John and I have another couple to do stuff with.”

“Like what stuff?”

“You know, couple stuff. Movies. Concerts. Dinner.”

“We do that stuff now.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be different.”

I frowned. That’s what I was afraid of.

“So what did it?” Lisa asked.

“Did what?”

“Why’d you finally give in? I mean, Eli’s been after you since we were freshmen, and you’ve always said there was no way. What changed?”

How could I tell her the truth? I didn’t want my behavior last night, so naive, to be privy to my friends. Yet, if I omitted the intimate details, I couldn’t think of a good explanation for my giving in to Eli.

So I gave Lisa a coy smile and said, “Well, that was before he got the Land Rover.”

Notice how neither Skylar or Lisa say more than three sentences at a time? It keeps the scene moving at a good clip for their discussion. If your dialogue is reading bulky, try shortening everyone's lines a bit and see if it reads better.

That's all for today. One quick note: Tomorrow, Friday the 2nd, author Sarah Sundin will be on my regular blog, and she'll be giving away a copy of her absolutely fabulous debut novel A Distant Melody. If you leave a comment, you'll be entered to win. If you mention you read about the interview on Go Teen Writers, you'll be entered twice.

See everyone back here on Tuesday!