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Archive for Writing Tips

How to avoid a too-big book

Even an author who’s published multiple books feels the siren call of a big book. One day, they might think, I can get that 150,000-word epic published. I’ve cut a lot, they might say, already 20,000 words. I need to stick to my guns, submit something that big, and not get talked out of it.

Don’t cut. Divide and conquer.

As a novelist who’s finishing a draft likely to be 170,000 words, I can relate. “The I-Like-Big-Books and I Cannot Lie” lure is always in the water for us. We pick up the scent of something like the Karl Marlantes epic about Vietnam, Matterhorn. We say to ourselves, “Somebody had to believe extra hard about a book of that size.” We think, Hey, that somebody could be me.

You’ll need two or three or four other people to believe in that mantra. Most of them have more on the line than you do. As an author, you poured months and years into a book of that size. Now you’ll need an agent to believe, then an editor, then sales and distribution, and finally the influencers and reviewers, that 150K is not all that big.

They all have books smaller to embrace, unless your agent only has you as their client.

Is a sequel a solution?

Why, you must ask yourself, is that Big Book so essential to your story? Be honest about whether what’s creating the bloat is really world-class scenarios that would spice up any narrative. Perhaps these are scenarios that belong in a related book. The second in a series. Volume II. A sequel.

Too-big books surface. But not many survive into readers’ hands here in 2021. Those that survive hail from the genres built for massive books. Fantasy. Science fiction. Historical fiction. Even those books are shaped and tempered by beta readers who are asked one important question by the author:

Where did you start to lose interest when you read it?

Until you’re ready to consider where your sails flagged, you’ll struggle to avoid your too-big book. Flagging sails can lead to flagging sales. That’s a condition that publishers and agents work hard to avoid. Make a couple of books. My own book is really two. I just need to find a better ending to the first half. It might be inspired by the ending to the second half.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Is it National Doughnut Day?

Marketing companies create national days. We enjoy a Secretaries Day, National Golden Retriever Day, and even a National Take Your Dog to Work Day (make plans to give Sparky a seat in your bedroom office on June 25).

Today is National Donut Day. But is it really spelled and styled that way? The question offers a look at three facets of copyediting: style, house-style, and usage. They all play a part in what that delicious treat looks like on a page of text.

All three also serve one key mission. Copyeditors say, “Don’t confuse the reader.”

On to the doughnuts. Webster’s Seventh has but one entry for the “small, usu. ring-shaped cake fried in fat.” It’s doughnut, using that spelling and style so we don’t mistake the treat with donuts you spin in the snowy parking lot with the car.

Webster’s only reports on language, though, like every dictionary. Language, as written in books and articles, establishes what the dictionary reports. This is how more than one spelling on this national day exists. No matter what Webster’s says, the comprehensive websites use donut for this day.

Webster’s reports on written language as an authorities on usage. Style, in contrast, is a matter of how you apply language to written instances. You spell out numbers at the start of sentences. US is the preferred abbreviation of the United States, but U.S. is permitted.

House-style is a publisher’s rulebook for punctuation and spelling. Anything not commonplace (there’s usage again) needs to be put into a style book. That keeps the expressions consistent, which is the most important element of styling text.

Consistency matters

That last part, the consistency, can be tough. Even the real pros have moments when they must deviate. Doughnut Day isn’t spelled that way at Shipley’s Donuts. However, they also use Donut and Do-Nut interchangeably — mostly because the founder, in the 1930s, exhorted the world to love “do-nuts” in early marketing copy.

Matters of whether to include a hyphen in air-conditioned, or putting an en dash (a little longer than a hyphen) between numerals for a score, all become things to turn to The Chicago Manual of Style to settle. Or other style guides, such as the AP, or the APA, or the MLA.

Making a house-style guide begins with the author, because a book contains proper names whose spellings must be consistent. There’s also keeping characters in line by using the same name in different scenes. It’s a good practice to give your copyeditor a working house-style guide with place and person names. The more time you can save your editor, the better job they’ll do on things that might vex you, like question marks. You use periods instead of question marks when you know the answer to a statement, don’t you. Like that. Or whether you capitalize the word “it” in the headline above. (You don’t, since the line works as a sentence.) Or when to italicize works of art and when to surround them with quote marks.

Go enjoy a doughnut today, or follow more common usage and buy a half-dozen donuts from Dunkin’ or Horton’s. Or if Shipley’s is your jam, take home a few raspberry do-nuts.

Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

Point of View: how many do you need?

Writing stories in first person is a electric thrill for many authors. You have easy access to emotions and sensations, plus the mystery of solving the problems of the plot are intense, too. Sometimes it’s tempting to want to use multiple first person points of view. If you can imagine Silence of the Lambs told in first person by Hannibal Lecter and Clarise Starling, you’re looking at a different book. Plenty challenging to write but maybe worth it.

How you decide to introduce first person POVs, and how many, is a juicy and complex choice as a storyteller. Julie Carrick Dalton even toyed with time, using her heroine’s point of view at age 11 along with the character’s POV three decades later. I began my second novel with a single first person point of view, then added a second as a character took a leading role in the book. Right now it’s just got a single first person narrator, with the rest of the book told in close third person. You don’t need a first person POV to show the heat of a character’s heart. First person gives and takes.

Willing to walk away

The choosing will mean revising and walking away from earlier attempts. Jessica Brody’s fine website Writing Mastery Academy examines many aspects of multiple points of view. As the author of the craft book Save the Cat Writes a Novel, she says you’ll need to decide who your book’s super-hero is if you have more than one protagonist. Each of the first person narrators needs a Beat Sheet, if you’re applying the Save the Cat method of storytelling.

It took her 13 years to write her novel. Dalton says, “The structure of this book gave me fits. In its final form, Waiting for the Night Song is a dual timeline narrative that switches back and forth from Cadie’s point of view at age 11 to Cadie’s POV three decades later. In the early drafts I wrote the story chronologically, including all the stuff in between – high school, college, and beyond.”

Then she reveals that the story’s middle section meant more to her than the reader. “After several drafts, I realized I only wrote the middle part for myself, so I would know who Cadie was and where she had been. I cut out the middle and wove the childhood and adult parts together to tell a single story. It was exasperating, but definitely the right way to tell this particular story.”

Remove filters to get your POV closer

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to preserve the showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words 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 none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

In third person, the telling is even more tempting. Make a list of these barrier words and post it next to your computer screen:

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

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you are permitted to do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter 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 filter 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 a while, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.

Give your characters agency to drive a story

Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach authors on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. Agency is not a term that is common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader, I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. When it’s done well, building scenes is hard work,  Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

When a character shows agency, they make choices or decisions, good or bad, and those can lead to action. If they choose not to act, we can be shown their decision to stand by that, too.

Finding power for change

In Orson Scott Card’s draft book  Characters and Viewpoint he says, “If a character is relatively powerful — powerful enough to make choices that change other characters’ lives — the reader will remember her better and expect her to amount to something more in the story.”

A compelling story makes it clear to us what’s at stake for the main character, and those stakes need to be high. Then the character takes risks to achieve what they yearn for — and they succeed or do not. And there are consequences for every risk taken, regardless of the outcome.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heroes and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that the character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to produce a particular result. Give them severe stakes if they make the wrong choice. Trouble drives great stories, and you can get into trouble by going somewhere.

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.