Friday, October 30, 2020

When Do I Get An Editor?

 I actually see this question quite a lot - someone writing their short story/novella/manuscript is just about finished, and they start thinking about the next step. It's natural to get that feeling to call an editor once those last words are typed and finalized, but that might be a little hasty. I offer this little checklist to go over before getting an editor, and some of the steps should start before the work is even finished.

Workshopping. Whether it's a book, a screenplay, a comedy routine, or whatever creative medium we choose, there is always a benefit in trying out the material on a sample audience. Sometimes this means getting a few beta readers to go over the work, but it should start even before that. I prefer writing workshops for this part of the process, but it works with any readers who are willing to be critical and constructive in their analysis. For a short story, run the first few introductory paragraphs past your trial audience. For a book, see if the opening chapter grabs their attention. This can (and should) be done before the whole story is finished, and the feedback can help you tune up your writing for the next step.

Drafting. Once you finish your work, you have completed the first draft. Pro tip: No editor wants to do a hard edit on a first draft. This should be the phase where you get a few people to give it a read to see if they like the story, if they enjoy the characters, etc., but you don't call an editor. More to the point, some people suggest stepping away from the work for a few days or weeks to provide some intellectual distance. Let the preconceived ideas of what you have written wash away, then reread it with a fresh, critical eye. This usually reveals all too quickly why editors hate first drafts, and should show you a bunch of things that need reshaping.

Rewrites. A 70,000-word novel might seen like a big accomplishment, but only the author should know about the 100,000 words that it started off with, the 40,000 words that got changed, the 20,000 words that were added, then the 50,000 words that were ultimately deleted. This is the rewrite process, and you never want to bring in an editor before you have gone through this step. Why have an editor correct sentences and paragraphs you will delete anyway? No - your first few run-throughs are yours alone, changing scenes, characters, and plot arcs all in the name of hammering out a pretty sound story.

Cut out the fat. I don't remember the author, but some famous writer said that the difference between a good book and a great book is that the great one is shorter. The general meaning of this is that a writer should dedicate one read-through to cutting out unnecessary words, sentences, descriptions, and even sections. This may sound brutal, and it is, but it forces the writer to really consider what is important to the story and what was just a fun scene to write. It might be difficult to eliminate beautiful but meaningless descriptions, but it creates a greater focus on the storyline and a more intense experience for the reader. 

Are we ready to hire an editor now? Not quite yet. We have one more step to take - what do we want from the editor? An editor will gladly do a spellcheck and a grammar screening while fixing all our semicolons, but is this all we want? This is our opportunity to have an outside person tell us if our drafting and rewrites paid off. All the questions that came up in the workshops - were they addressed? Did we create the intensity we had hoped for with our brutal cuts? We need to decide if that editor is going to provide us with any feedback, or just polish the work we are already confident in. We need to have a very firm idea of what we need from those outside eyes.

That's when we get an editor.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Writing When Nature Gets In the Way

Fifty-thousand words. That's the minimum requirement for next month's NaNoWriMo competition, and not coincidentally the amount of words necessary for something to be considered a novel. Broken down to daily terms, this means writing about 1,700 words a day, every day, in November (including Thanksgiving). That's quite the challenge, but very doable. In fact, many people have gone on to publish books written in this manner. Many more have completed the writing marathon and grown as writers. But as we are learning here in the Midwest, writing in November is not as easy as it seems.

The end of October is when the days really start getting noticeably shorter. Furthermore, the weather gets colder, the skies stay gray for days on end, more rain, less sun, and the urge to just curl up in a comforter for the next five months. Nature calls for us to hibernate, which is not conducive to writing. NaNoWriMo was established in November in part to take advantage of the bad weather, but that doesn't make it any easier for those of us who want to curl up and go to sleep. So what does a writer do?

Well, as any long-time follower of this blog will know, a part of writing is adapting to situations by creating regular, dependable habits that motivate us to write. I always mention that gin and tonic is a drink that accompanies my writing mode, and scotch on the rocks is there for editing time. This may sound weird (and signal a borderline alcoholic), but it conditions my mind to think as a writer or an editor, and push me toward that goal even when the day might not motivate me. The mere smell of scotch makes me subconsciously want to reach for a red pen. The taste of lime (which is mandatory in a gin and tonic) wakes up creative parts of my brain. These signals are conditioned responses, and they help me move forward when sometimes I need a little boost.

Now, for those people who do not want to explore substance abuse as a part of NaNoWriMo, it might be safer to think about things that associate with comfort and security against the dismal weather of late October and November. If this weather triggers the primal urge to hibernate, perhaps it would help to do some writing wrapped in your favorite comforter, or layered up and cozy on a couch by the fire. This turns elements associated with the bleak days in the Midwest into cues to start writing. After a few writing sessions within the security of your blankets or whatever, the association changes from the need to sleep to the urge to create. 

Of course, there are other senses you can appeal to. As I mentioned, my personal favorite is the sense of smell. Whether it's the aroma of my favorite adult beverage or just the slight hint of airborne dust and ozone when I fire up my laptop, it sets off all the chemical impulses necessary to turn my brain toward the creative side. For NaNoWriMo, I know some people who incorporate pumpkin spice into their coffee, etc., as part of their writing process in order to associate the season with writing. Say what you will about pumpkin spice, but if it can be used as a motivator for writing, I say bring it on!

I hope that you readers try the NaNoWriMo challenge, either formally or otherwise, in order to stretch your writing muscles. If not, at the very least I hope you use November as an opportunity to develop your habits and condition yourself to write more regularly, all while developing the capacity to get through those times when the short, cold days are leaving you uninspired and the weather has you thinking about a nap rather than some writing. I say this because if you think November can be kind of blah, well, you really won't like winter.

Friday, October 23, 2020

NaNoWriMo - Let the Writing Begin!

Over the past twenty years, November has become the unofficial National Writing Month thanks entirely to the event called NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. For those unfamiliar with this, it is not how to write a novel in thirty days, but it is a great way to challenge one's self to write regularly, consistently, and toward a goal. A number of NaNoWriMo manuscripts have become books, but many more have not. However, all of them have taught the writer something about their own process and just what they need to work on.


To offer a little more detail, the NaNoWriMo competition is a challenge to write a story of at least 50,000 words over the course of November - the length required to qualify as a novel. The rules and regulations for this event are on the NaNoWriMo website, but it is just as easy to start writing and hold yourself accountable for all those words over the course of November. Working through the website offers encouragement, tips and tricks for self-motivation, and a community of people going through similar trials. However, any writer's workshop or like-minded group of future authors will do in a fix. The important part during the event is to always be writing, and the key beforehand is to prepare yourself for what you are getting into.

As far as preparations go, this part of October is the ideal time to get ready to write the big story, and it doesn't take a lot to do this. Official NaNoWriMo rules say no writing any part of the narrative before November 1, but the writer can take notes, map plot arcs, and sketch character profiles beforehand. This is the important part, because we can use the tools discussed in different posts on this blog to set the stage for our story. Once those are defined, the writing part becomes that much easier.

Let's ask ourselves a few simple questions about our story before we decide to write it. Here's a simple one: What is the story about? This can be one sentence, broadly drawn and open to interpretation. A boy growing up in rural Kansas and learning the hard truths of life. Boom! Step completed. That's all we need to do - set the stage. This tells us our main character, our setting, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Now we drill a little deeper and ask for more details. What is the conflict facing the character? What event sets them on the hero's journey? Is their journey forced upon them or do they choose to go on? Let's look at our boy in Kansas. If he is challenged by the threat that his parents have come upon hard times and might have to pack up and move to Topeka, that's an external challenge. However, if his friends are starting to move to other towns and our hero decides to expand his horizons and see more of the world to keep them close, that's an internal decision. In either case, we see how this creates conflict - change in the boy's life forces him to make a choice, and deal with the repercussions of that choice.

As these ideas come together in your head, the big step is to consider what obstacles might be in the way for our hero. With our boy from Kansas, does he have controlling parents who would prefer he never left their side, or perhaps they rely on him for emotional support? Is he scared of the world outside his hometown, perhaps due to bad experiences that left scars on him that he needs to overcome? Depending on his age, a simple obstacle to leaving town might be his need to get a car (or a bike), which can be an adventure in itself. Real heroes have to overcome things, so think of some things that would hinder our hero.

I'll offer one last hint, and that is regarding the ending. It is best to have one in mind, but give yourself the latitude to change it as the end of the story approaches. As we write our hero's journey, we will also discover things we may not have felt or noticed in the beginning, and it could change how the story should wrap up. Don't hold yourself to one ending if it starts to feel like the wrong ending. Sometimes we realize the main character does have to die in the end, or they do not get the girl and live happily ever after. This is okay, especially for a first draft. Allow it to happen - you can rewrite it after the story is finished.

Now get ready to do some writing!

Monday, October 19, 2020

A Writer's Note About Editing

 I recently had the opportunity to be a beta reader for a novel that I expect will be published next year. As a beta reader for this particular task, my job is to read the manuscript and address a list of questions submitted by the author. Did the events flow naturally? Were the following characters believable or necessary? Did that big twist in chapter 12 catch you off-guard? And so on. I will tell you that my job as a beta reader has many good parts and gives me wonderful opportunities to think and grow as a writer while examining other works. However, there is one very difficult part: I can’t be an editor.

As an author, this is torture.

While the main duty of any writer is to write, there are plenty of separate tasks that come with it, and some are more difficult than others. One of the big tasks is to be an editor – to make a written work better. The editor hat is a very important one to wear, as it carries many responsibilities under its brim. However, as important as it is, there comes a time when we need to take off that hat for the sake of our writing.

I have discussed the importance of editing before, so I will just briefly go over some of the points authors need to consider when they are editing. The process of editing starts from the big-sky view of the work, making sure it is readable and presented in a structure and manner that a reader can easily digest. It then narrows in to the next stage, where characters, plot, and motive are studied to make sure things flow organically. Then the magnifying glass comes out and we hit the last stage, checking spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other things that enter the realm of proofreading. As a writer, we should eventually become fluent in all these processes, but more to the point, we should know when we need to turn them off and just write.

In this regard, I am pretty bad, and I advise people to not follow that part of my process when they create their first drafts. My first drafts have perfect spelling, the semicolons are placed with precision, and my use of the subjunctive is near flawless. This may sound helpful, but the first draft should just be about creating a story, and that’s what I try to tell people. First, write down the story, then spell it right on a third or fourth pass. No publisher will, or ever should, read a first draft, so don’t worry about what it looks like. A lot of time can be wasted in a first draft making sure the commas are just right when the entire paragraph will probably be rewritten anyway.

This is where beta reading can be difficult for a writer such as myself. Beta reading should be an approach from the second pass – a study of what the story is presenting, how the characters develop, the progression of the plot, tension, conflict, suspense, and so on. Again – the spelling doesn’t matter. The Oxford comma is not important. Subject/verb agreement can be set aside. This second pass is really where a critical reader earns their paycheck, because this will make or break the story. A natural proofreader such as myself is not very useful here unless I can put away that hat and just be an engaged reader.

As National Writing month approaches (more on that in the next post), I think it’s important to think about how we can improve our processes and make sure when we are writing we are not editing. We can write new content while we edit, but when we are trying to create something, we set aside our editing hat and just be writers for the moment. It’s a lot to ask of someone, but it will pay handsome dividends, especially during National Writing month. 

(And yes, I will try to fix my own process as well.)


Friday, October 16, 2020

Author's Note: Public Relations

On October 24th, the Book Market in Crest Hill is hosting a book signing, and I will be selling and signing copies of my novel, The Book of Cain, along with a few anthologies I have contributed to. These are always enjoyable events, and I definitely like getting a chance to meet readers and talk about what their interest are and so forth. Signing autographs is also cool, but it’s so much more interesting to speak with my fellow humans.

When I do these book signings, I get the usual set of questions: What do I like to write? Which authors do I follow? What got me started as a writer? All of these are good questions and I have answered many of them somewhere during the history of this blog. However, one question that came up at a recent signing caught me off-guard, and I decided it was worth writing about. It was a simple question, but it had a lot of gravity in it:

“Are book signings really necessary?”

The answer, in short, is yes. But this brings up a bigger subject: Public Relations (PR). I know a lot of people who toiled for years to create the perfect novel, and only after it was finished did they start thinking about how they were going to promote it. This is a common mistake – and also a rite of passage – and writers have to realize that not only do they need to work on PR with the same kind of passion as writing, but unless they sign with a publicist, PR is largely their own responsibility.

(Note: This is only important to the writer who wants to get published and build up a career as a writer. For those people who just want to work on their process and develop their skills, PR does not have to be too high on their list.)

Now, the whole public relations game is not as difficult as it sounds in its first stages. The most important part about the PR game is just meeting other writers – networking with anyone any everyone who is interested in writing – and you can do this before you’ve finished a manuscript. Most local libraries have writing groups or workshops that take all comers, and many have programs for local writers. Community centers often have similar programs, along with local bookstores and coffee shops. Once you start looking through community sources, you will be surprised at how many resources are available for networking.

As your network grows, you will start hearing about chances to present smaller works – character sketches, poems, short stories – in a public forum. Take these chances. This takes you from being just someone in a writers’ group to that person who did that great piece the other day, and it is a huge boost to your confidence. As people start seeing you as a writer, you start seeing yourself as a writer as well. More importantly, you can reference those works you’ve presented as good examples of your work. In short, people start connecting you with your writing. At that point, when you eventually say you have a book coming out, your built-in audience is ready to snap it up and recommend it to others as well.

It should not be surprising when I say this takes a long time, but that’s the important part – since it takes a while, it’s important to do this while you are working on your process, voice, and style. The people you meet and the feedback you can get from them will help you grow as a writer, and your network will become just as important to your development as any study group or workshop.

Now, for those of you who are thinking this is a lot of work, well, it is. As regular readers will know, public speaking is not my favorite thing, and I am not a social butterfly when it comes to building a network. However, I do it because it is part of the hard work that comes with a career as a published author. It is uncomfortable at times, nerve-wracking, and even makes my hands shake (which does not help when I am signing books). And through all that, I know it builds my network a little bit more each time. If you don’t believe me, come to the Book Market in Crest Hill between 2-4 pm on October 24th and see just how I manage it.

And we can talk about writing too, if you want.