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Archive for Writing Tips

Write well. And remember what to do with commas and conjunctions

I often see manuscripts and drafts that are relentless about using a comma whenever the word “And” or “But” starts a sentence. English teachers must have drilled this into us. Comma use right after but or and start a sentence is simply incorrect.

From The Editor’s Blog, these examples are incorrect usage.

X But, not because of the answers I gave.

X Or, she would have to do it alone.

X For, it was a mistake right from the start.

X And, my brother needed me.

But, and, or — these are among the conjunctions we know as FANBOYS. They include the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. It’s completely accepted to  use them to begin sentences, but that makes them connectors — and that means the clauses that follow them must refer to the sentence or phrase that precedes them.

You don’t need to make a pit-stop with a comma when you’re using a but or an and to start a sentence. Just get on with the connecting.

Photo by Chris King on Unsplash

Open your wheelhouse: submit your requests

You might have been fortunate enough to have an agent request pages for your book. You may have taken a lot of time to make them better first. For example, if you’re writing crime fiction (a mystery) you may say

1. My book is too long today
2. I don’t want my mystery to be obvious.

Also

3. My plot is intricate, so I’m wary of severing the links throughout.

Those are all related. Your book is probably running as long as it does so it will contain everything to keep the plot bolted together. The complexity of the plot makes a mystery deeper, for example. If it’s longer for any other reason, it becomes a bit easier to cut. If it was a piece of seasoned beef, it might be overseasoned with characterization or scenes that run long.

That effect of “goes on too long” is a matter of taste and talent. Even when you’re writing well, you don’t get as many extra pages as you think. You get more pages, but you have to keep readers turning those pages.

If you want to be double sure that your plot is durable, you will need a second check. That’s a set of outside eyes. I’m talking development editing, not copy editing or line editing.

Letting your story loose into the world is the solution to these problems.

“I want a book that holds together and keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen.” That’s noble. It can be a road sign toward complexity, of course, depending on how many subjects are in play. Your book should have a primary story mission, and that mission had better fulfill the protagonist’s desire.

Just because a book’s structure has come together over years of work, like it does for most of us, doesn’t mean it can’t get streamlined. I think here about the rivets in the planes that Howard Hughes built for competition. Always streamlining. He set records, his accomplishments you can see in The Aviator.

I once edited a book from 140,000 words to 75,000. The author went too deep in many passages and her protagonist was inside internal monologue at great length.

I edited my novel Viral Times down from 144,000 to 98,000 words. To do this, I discovered Scrivener and used it to identify what was in the book and what could go. It helped that I’d already worked 30 years as a copyeditor. Cutting isn’t easy, but it feels good after you face it down. At some point every creator has to have some compassion for readers who, frankly, would like to get to the next book, either in the series or from another author. Savoring a big novel is a delicious thing, of course.

It also helped that I performed in and watched many hours of theatre — where the dramatic arc includes nothing but scenes, and they each must have good work to do to serve the narrative.
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Is there a memoir in your journals?

Journaling is a worthy element of the writing life. The material is right at hand, all those things that have happened to you. Or your journal might run to dreams and wishes, or deconstruct the events you’ve been witness to, yesterday or long ago.

A journal though, no matter how carefully and faithfully kept, is just a single tool in the crafting of a memoir. Just because you have four decades of bound journals in your closet doesn’t mean you’re ahead of the curve on writing a memoir.

Journaling, by its very name, sets out an episodic structure of storytelling. On this day, once upon a time, these things happened, and here is how I feel about them. If there’s detail in your journal entries, it can help you recreate and remember parts of the story you captured in a journal.

Your memoir is both bigger than that journal, and smaller as well. A memoir is bigger because the memoir gives us context and meaning to surround events in a life. A memoir is smaller than a journal, especially a box-load of them, because memoirs examine a slice of a life. You might have a journal that kept note of the year you kicked cocaine, or the year you started that horse farm that you eventually sold to the mall developers.

You need more to make a memoir. You’re likely to research that special year of journals to search out the details that are not readily available as you write your memoir. The details might be sparing. Journal entries don’t often include the smell in the air or the cast of the light in a room, or what the drug counselor wore every day there was a group meeting. Most of all, the journals don’t revolve around a theme, unless you know your life’s patterns and prejudices before you take down the events and feelings. Read More →

How to give readers a break with chapters

Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash

“I like big chapters, long ones,” said just about nobody who reads books. Readers need rests, like the rest stops on a 100-mile century bike ride. I did one of those rides a couple of times. Never ride the century, we’d say. Just ride to the next rest stop.

Books can be centuries, with historical fiction running above 100,000 words and even more. Unless you’ve got extraordinary break points within a chapter, though, readers need rest.  Locations shift, and times of the week, month, or year advance. Even a POV shift or just a focus on a new character’s activities calls up chapter possibilities.

Creating chapter breaks gives your skills of transition a way to shine. When a reader picks a book back up, they can restart easiest at the chapter break. Good, obvious section breaks will do the same kind of job.

The biggest chapters I ever read in a book were All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize winner. I got to the end of each of them (maybe 10 in all, for a 80,000-word book) gasping for a break. You’re always going to want to make 20,000 words represent four chapters of a book. It serves a story well to break it into episodes. If not, let’s hear your reasons for leaving it as one chunk.

As to what’s inside that chunk, it’s more of a matter of how well does the material serve the main mission of the main character. We need color and context. Making choices is important, I and I like a willingness to cut things out. Just because something is interesting doesn’t automatically win it a place in the finished story. As a novelist, you can make me trust you when you cut something out and make the leap. “Two weeks later, she had different ideas about that.” Just skip over time, for example.

I’m reminded of the line in the movie Wonder Boys about the main character, award-winning novelist Grady Tripp. He’s had a real problem finishing his second book. One of his students discovers the 2,600-page manuscript draft and reads it (somehow). She says, “Professor, you taught us that making art means making choices. And with the details in here, the geneology of the horses of the characters, for example — it doesn’t look like you’ve made any choices.”

I hate making choices and need outside eyes to help. We all do. Grady Tripp never had anybody read his book while he made it. Then a windstorm boiled up and threw all of his pages into a riverside breeze. He had to start over. Wonder Boys is a great book and a great movie. Make your book great and find the points where the story can rest. Not everybody has time to binge.

Ten Key Scenes get your book on the road

Writers dry up and falter all the time in their quest to create.  One great process to keep words flowing into the big file is to have an outline at hand. It’s like your writing to-do list. Saying the word outline makes some writers roll their eyes and sigh. Creating by the seat of your pants is one way to put 50,000 words into a file. Making it into a story will keep you coming back to the months-long task.

Dreaming up 10 Key Scenes gives the pantsers and the plotters a middle ground to make that to-do list. You imagine the 10 turning points for your novel, each represented as a scene. Write the scene and all of the juicy narrative you want to lead in and fall away from it. Space them out so you’re getting one key scene written in rough draft every 3 days. Start with any scene you want, but get them all mapped out before hand with dead-simple summary. Something like “Anna gets arrested at the march.”

The Ten-Scene method is from the great guidebook The Writer’s Little Helper. The swell graphic shows off how to set up the sequence. Five of the ten are essentials and you can do those first. James V. Smith says “every novel I’ve ever written, ever read, or ever heard about can be deconstructed into ten scenes. Plan the central story line of your novel to go ten scenes or fewer.”

NaNoWriMo, the November writing contest-collective, was started by Chris Baty, who wrote a guidebook for the process called No Plot, No Problem. He’s not completely incorrect with his advice for those 30 days, because characters are the soul of plot. You can fill up that big file with a lot of character writing.

Putting those heroes and villains of your story into action in scenes shapes them to make them real. We all start with gusto in November, but about Day Six we wonder if our story is worth all the time at the keyboard or in the pages of our notebooks. The Ten Scenes are lighthouses to steer the boat of your story toward. Make yours, and then get to work on sailing the course to a rough draft.

Making sentences great again

Francine Prose wrote a fine book about writing, Reading Like a Writer, which includes a chapter on Sentences. (Chapters are titled with names such as Words, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Gesture, Dialogue, and more.) In her book, she celebrates the sentence and crafting wonderful ones.

To talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re most often asked, such as: Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas? Where can you cook up a sentence like the one below?

Prose show this example above of what a writer can do while the writer ignores the advice of writing craft books. Not just any writer, but Virginia Woolf, writing in her essay, On Being Ill. Not just any sentence, but one 181 words long, which appears at the opening of the essay. (It’s shown above). More important than the size is the way she’s made it clear. “It’s not the sentence’s gigantism, but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down into its component parts,” Prose writes.

Making a good sentence is the bones of good writing. Prose writes, regarding the revision of sentences

Writers need to ask themselves

  • Is this the best word I can find?

  • Is my meaning clear?

  • Can a word or phrase be cut without sacrificing something essential?

  • Perhaps the most important question is, “Is this grammatical?”

A novelist friend compares the rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage to a sort of old fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader’s the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette — because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially if you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.

Prose adds that she revisits Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style from time to time. But most craft books like this instruct a writer what not to do. Learning grammar from reading is a way to enter a new league of writing, once the fundamentals of grammar are in your dugout. Literature shows us what kind of great sentences are possible to write.

Use 10 Key Scenes to Win NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is November, a time when hundreds of thousands of authors make a public promise to write 50,000 words during 30 days. The contest amounts to writing just about anything in a file that grows to that size and sending it off to the NaNo website for your “certificate.” There are quotes there because nothing is mailed. Your smile and bragging rights are delivered, though.

The month isn’t about the word count for the dedicated author. It’s a rededication to your work in a public way. Most of all NaNo is about 30 days of work. If you’re aiming at 50,000 then writing every day puts the word count at about 1,700 each and every day. Every day is what NaNo is about, getting you into a flow for creating your book.

Writers dry up and falter in their every-day quest all the time. One great process to keep words flowing into the big file is to have an outline at hand. It’s like your writing to-do list. Saying the word outline makes some writers roll their eyes and sigh. Creating by the seat of your pants is one way to put 50,000 words into a file. Making it into a story keeps you coming back to the month-long task.

Dreaming up 10 Key Scenes gives the pantsers and the plotters a middle ground to make that to-do list. You imagine the 10 turning points for your novel, each represented as a scene. Write the scene and all of the juicy narrative you want to lead in and fall away from it. Space them out so you’re getting one key scene written in rough draft every 3 days. Start with any scene you want, but get them all mapped out before hand with dead-simple summary. Something like “Anna gets arrested at the march.”

The Ten-Scene method is from the great guidebook The Writer’s Little Helper. The swell graphic shows off how to set up the sequence. Five of the ten are essentials and you can do those first. James V. Smith says “every novel I’ve ever written, ever read, or ever heard about can be deconstructed into ten scenes. Plan the central story line of your novel to go ten scenes or fewer.”

NaNo was started by Chris Baty, who wrote a guidebook for the process called No Plot, No Problem. He’s not completely incorrect with his advice for these 30 days, because characters are the soul of plot. You can fill up that big file with a lot of character writing. Putting those heroes and villains of your story into action in scenes shapes them and makes them real. We all start with gusto in NaNo, but about Day Six we wonder if our story is worth all the time at the keyboard or the pages of our notebooks. The Ten Scenes are lighthouses to steer the boat of your story toward. Make yours and then get to work on sailing the course to a rough draft.

Find some support for your month, too. All over the country, there are Write-Ins where authors gather to tap away in the company of other artists. We’re having one on Saturday, November 3 at the Milwood branch of the library in Austin, starting at 1 PM. Bring your list of scenes and see where they can lead your writing.

Five simple steps to start with Scrivener

Sooner or later you’ll hear about writers using Scrivener. It’s a writing tool that makes projects flow faster and increases your production. You write more, and faster. You find what you’ve written easier. It’s only $40, and your writing in it will live on your laptop (you can back up to the cloud, if you want.) Using it for the first 30 days is free. Download it for free here.

You’ll also hear that Scrivener is complicated. Hard to get started with, and full of a lot of features that are hard to understand, let alone use. You might have heard that same thing about Microsoft Word, too, once upon a time. Look how simple you can make Word. Scrivener can be just as simple. And like Word, you can reach for the deeper features if you want.

You don’t need to reach, though, in order to make Scrivener turbo-charge your creativity. There are only five steps to start writing in Scrivener, once you open the program for the first time. These First Five will give you chapters and even printed pages, if you need any these days.

Step 1. Start by launching your first project. Projects are the big box that everything for a book lives in. Project=book. “My Debut Novel” is a good name.

Action: When the program starts, the “Project Templates” window (above) opens. Click on “Blank” to the left, then double-click on the white page to the right. Name your project. You’ve now made your big box.

Important: Avoid the roadblock of choosing special Templates right away. Blank is good. Fiction, Nonfiction; all of that is for later. Using them right away will make Scrivener harder to learn. Choose Blank.

Step 2. Scrivener always opens with the Binder on the left. The Binder is important because you’ll see all of your book’s parts in it.  Name your first document; nlick where it says “Untitled Document” and rename it. “Chapter 1” or “Opening Scene.” Names don’t matter now; you can change them.

Action: Click on “Untitled Document” and rename it, then hit return.

Step 3. Start to write your book. The cursor is already inside what Scrivener calls the Editor window. Look — you’re already writing! Scrivener auto-saves. You can play with the fonts (right above your writing in the Editor Window) just like in Word. Or not.

Action: Start writing. Have fun. Watch the word count in the bottom of the window swell.

Step 4. Written enough of your scene, or chapter? Make the next one.

Plus Button

Action: Click on “Draft” in the Binder on the left. When it’s highlighted, click on the Plus + button, right overhead on that tool bar. A new document (scene, chapter, section) is created, right under the first one. Go to work and write in the editor again.

Step 5. Print a document

Action: Click on the document in the Binder you want to print. Go up to the Edit menu and select “Print Current Document”.

That’s all you need. As you write, you will be creating a set of book pieces in that Binder, using the Plus Button. This is your book in its earliest draft. You can see the pieces. If you write longhand and have sections, just transcribe them into new documents you’ll make with that big + button.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Your writing is now all in one place. If you quit Scrivener, it will start up again with the big box (project “My Debut Novel”) you were working on last time. It will even go to the last document you were writing in.

You can do countless things with the Binder. Or something called the Inspector (the blue i on the top right). Don’t worry about those right now. You don’t need them to draft or revise. Once you want to share your writing, or shuttle it into Word, there are other steps to use. Only a handful, too.  That’s for another blog.

Scrivener is a tool for writers at all levels. It makes it difficult to mislay writing you did, and makes it easy to compare versions and even passages. To find characters in scenes. So much more A lot. But these five steps get you writing, and drafting inside of Scrivener.

Okay, you have other questions.

Inspector

What are all those buttons, like the blue i?

At first you only care about the Plus button, the Magnifying Glass button (for searches)—and maybe the Inspector (Blue i) button. The Inspector will tell you when you created a document and when you last updated it.

Keep it simple for now. That Plus button can also make folders, but you probably don’t need them just yet.

What is a “Binder?”

It’s your road map, the address book, the list of pieces of your project, running all down the left-hand column. These are the doors. Your writing is inside them. Click one to select. Keep the Binder open at first, so you can jump from piece to piece.

Do I have to “compile?”

Only when you are truly, truly finished and ready to publish your book. Or, perhaps to share a bunch of scenes or chapters as a single file for your workshop group.

Go ahead, download Scrivener and try it out with the five steps. Start writing more and faster.

Search and replace barrier words for POV power

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing at the same time you remove barrier words from your writing. Barrier words are ones that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. (Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story.) Fiction has several key elements, and few of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even in first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it close at hand:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed
  • imagined

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue still has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict. Reflection, as with these barrier words, is not a great mission for dialogue. At the hardest end of the barrier word-cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t write even first drafts using these barrier words.

The 12 Disciples of Creativity

Creativity requires faith, and sticking to your creative faith is easier with exemplary practices to follow. I’m a Catholic boy if you go back far enough. We learned our faith in part by studying the lives of the disciples. The root of the word disciple means to show a devotion, so these 12 practices are the devotional work to do as we create stories.

Simplicity: Focusing on the immediate action at hand. Breaking the mission into the smallest parts, and doing them one at a time. Making each creative act look obvious and inevitable. Because writing a sentence is not complex, when done one at a time. Because creating an outline card is not hard if you only do it one at a time.

Regularity: To make the act of creating as essential as waking from sleep each morning. To consider creating part of the day that can no more be skipped than the sunrise. To know you can’t leave the house without clothes, and to know that you can’t leave a morning without creating something, not in full. But a draft.

Solemnity: To light a candle, to close the door, to silence the phone, to feel as it you’re entering a church of a faith that propels you. To know and believe, in your soul, that what you’re about to do in creation is important, because it delivers meaning. To feel like a priest in prayer at a mass, or a minister in a sermon, or a pastor giving a benediction before an important event.

Honesty: To do, as Hemingway said, just write one true sentence. By true he doesn’t mean built of fact, but a sentence that delivers the essence of its intention. To be aware, always, that you’re an imperfect creation yourself and that only change and time will deliver your desires for your work. And to carry that awareness to your creations, imperfect always, full of the wabi sabi that makes them your signature. To be honest about your energy and your desire, know when it has flagged after good creative work.

Self-Direction: To understand and believe that you can master the course that you set out to complete the creations. Gifts of the sea come your way when you swim in a direction, and it’s always a direction you choose. Take actions. Know that it may not be the eventual course, but any movement you make toward the sometimes-distant light of your complete creation is an act of the self.

Intensity: To sit and write just a little longer. Go beyond where you are afraid. To allow nothing to break your dream state of conjuring. The practice characterization in performance, aloud, to see yourself as that person in the story, or as your genuine self standing before an audience, with your inner eyes locked on an immutable and immovable image, like Rushmore.

Presence: To be utterly in only one place, unreeling that spool of line into the water of creation, then to study the line while you wait for that fish of an idea to bite. To be in the very moment your fingers and your arms and your legs are dedicated to anything which is not the effort of the past, or the work in the future.

Ceremony: To embrace the act of creating with little talismans and icons and regular friends of habits. For example, “I always light this candle. I always play this music. I never allow my phone to ring. I always stand up to stretch after 25 minutes. I always bring a glass of water in with me. I always write one good sentence first, even though it has nothing to do with my creation. I always read the last thing I wrote, aloud, before I make my next passage. I always do toning with my voice, vocal exercises. I always stretch with a deep bend, then add my two favorite tai chi movements.

Joy: To love a life with less certainty than others because mine always holds unexpected pleasures. To revel in the persona that I create for myself as an artist, a creator, seeking meaning. To give thanks for an existence that can feed me and feed others’ hearts with one dedicated effort. To smile when I think of getting away with doing this as my life’s mission, because I play as my work.

Discipline: To love what I do, because discipline is getting what you want. To believe I am a disciple of my affection and devotion to my craft. To work with focus to make my mastery hours meaningful, not just ticks of the clock of life. To return to my creativity on a schedule and respect deadlines.

Self-trust: To make the doubtful moments a regular part of the life of creativity, and believe in their ability to make the work a thing I will craft to my intention. To know that I am making productive choices when I say no to an effort that I’m delivered, and to believe in the parts of my creations I adore because they’re essential to making meaning of life, especially mine. To trust in the future because no one knows what it will become, and so the confidence will carry me through times that look bleak or blurry.

Primacy: To make my life about creating, the thing that keeps me alive, the most vital and essential element of the human who is me. To make all other things serve my creation, even while I’m walking the dog or washing dishes or paying bills or changing a diaper. Everything is in my life like a handhold along a staircase or tread on tires — to deliver me to the moments and hours and days of creativity.

I do my creation early in the mornings, and I can pull from each of these 12 things, these essentials. I love the feeling of having created, because I’ve eliminated the dread of failing to create, erased it before I do anything else. Being a working creative person makes everything else, all the dreams of finding and sharing meaning, possible. Being fresh as a morning blossom encourages the bees of ideas, of scenes, of chapters, to pollinate me.

In the morning my strength of resolve and devotion is greatest. I ride my bike in the mornings with fresh legs. As a boy I served Mass in the mornings. My favorite meal is breakfast, breaking my fast. And morning is the place closest to the theatre of my dreams, the majestic stage of my unconscious.