Category Archives: Writing tips

Listening Room

A few years ago, back when I was a cubicle dweller, I had the privilege of representing my publishing house at a local writers’ conference. I stocked up on Altoids (licorice, because that’s just how I rolled back then), made sure there was a pitcher of water nearby, sat down at my table and awaited the first of twelve victims…um…I mean hopeful authors.

I’m far from a conference expert, but my limited experience has taught me that the one-to-one meetings with unpublished authors can be endurance tests for both the editor and the writer. The editor, though hopeful to find that rarest of creatures – a writer with more talent than even she knows – instead usually finds himself queuing up “not for us” and “needs work” sentences that will temporarily destroy the writer’s dreams no matter how politely they’re delivered. Meanwhile, the writer sits on the edge of her chair (literally and figuratively) listening for words like “promise” and “potential” while attempting to excuse other words like “not for us” and “needs work” as evidence of the editor’s obvious inability to identify great writing.

Every once in a while, that rare creature does appear and the editor (and author) both walk away from the conference giddy and hopeful.

But this isn’t a post about that sort of rare creature. It’s about another kind.

The writer who hasn’t learned to listen.

She sat down at my table just before noon, her navy blue three-ring binder held tight to her chest like a child she might accidentally suffocate. She presented it to me and began to explain why her novel about an angel who saves a man from suicide was probably the best novel ever written about an angel who saves a man from suicide. “Lots of people have said so,” she added, then started to describe the plot while I tried to read the sample chapter in front of me.

It was not good. And by “not good” I mean “bad.” The writing was amateurish, the plot (or what I could determine of the plot) was somehow both meandering and predictable, and the dialogue was just this side of awful. I can’t remember the specifics (thankfully), but I do recall the feeling I experienced while reading. So in an attempt to share that feeling with you, I present this completely fabricated excerpt:

* * *

“I am going to jump off of this bridge,” Simon yelled. He was standing on the edge of the gray metal bridge that was also rusty and at least fifty feet above the water below that was rushing by like a rushing river.

Just then, a bright light came on on the opposite side of the bridge except there wasn’t a lamp post there so it couldn’t be a light. Could it be an angel? Yes it was!!!

“Do not jump!” said the angel. “I am here to save you!”

“I do not want to be saved,” said Simon. “I want to kill myself.”

“Why?” said the Angel.

“Because my wife left me and I drink too much alcohol and take drugs and say curse words and look at porn.”

“Those are very bad things, but that does not mean that you should kill yourself.”

“Why not?”

“Because life is worth living!”

“Not mine.”

“Even yours.”

The bright light that was actually an angel moved closer to him and reached out her hands (she was a girl angel) to him. When she got close enough to touch him, he grabbed her hands…and threw her over the bridge.

* * *

Okay, that last part wasn’t in the story. I wish it had been, then I would have had something encouraging to say about “out of the box thinking.”

Instead, I gave her some of my best (and most polite) “not for us” and “needs work” sentences. I didn’t want to discourage her desire to write, but believed I would be doing her a service if I gently lowered her expectations about being published through traditional methods.

She stared at me with open-mouthed horror, as if I’d just said aliens kidnapped her dog and impregnated her husband.

This is when I made my fatal mistake: I decided to fill the awkward silence with helpful editorial advice.

Oops.

She had a ready excuse for everything I offered. It was essentially the same excuse, whether I was offering tips on dialogue or character or plot.

“You’re wrong,” she said.

I was glad when the next appointment walked into the room, but she wasn’t quite ready to leave. She kept saying over and over “everyone I know loves this story” while I refrained from explaining they were probably high at the time. Or just trying to be polite. Probably high. Finally, she left.

Later that day, I thought about what had happened. She obviously believed she was meant to be an author. And she was certain everyone else would agree with her. But she had made a critical error: she hadn’t learned how to listen.

Listening, like writing, is an art. You can always tell a writer who’s mastered the art of listening by the way the prose leaps off the page. A writer who knows how to listen is someone who studies the experts – the great writers and the great writing teachers – and learns from them all. She is someone who knows how to get past the sudden stab of feeling like a failure to find wisdom in the criticism of others.

And perhaps most importantly, she is someone who, long before putting a single word on the page, learns how to listen to the world around her. She learns about three-dimensional characters and realistic dialogue from listening to family, friends, strangers in a coffee shop. She learns about the power of silence by being silent herself. She learns about pacing and rhythm and tension and conflict from observing real life circumstances. She is someone who can be simultaneously engaged in a moment and pondering it. She doesn’t apply everything she discovers to her own writing, but she gives it all plenty of room to breathe before she decides what to use and what to discard.

Like the woman at my table, she too holds tight to her manuscript, but unlike her, this is not because she believes hers is a perfect child. The writer who has learned to listen holds tight to her manuscript because it is a mystery; a strong-willed puzzle of questions and answers and possibilities.

When she hands her manuscript to an editor, she gives him the result of good listening.

And then when he speaks, she listens some more.

Sorting Through the Noise

So you sit down to write, and that’s when you hear it. (Okay, maybe you stand to write, but…really? Are you one of those standing desk people? I’ll bet you have great calves and a resting pulse under 60, but you’re making those of us who would rather write from the horizontal office* look bad. So stop it. At the very least, sit down. At a desk.)

The noise.

No, not your character’s voices. Well, they’re in the mix somewhere, but it’s hard to hear them above the literary agent screaming about why it’s critically important to make your first page shine and the writing expert who keeps repeating the mysterious phrase “economy of words” and the blogger who is whispering something about the evils of adverbs.

All that noise leaves you paralyzed. Frozen. Stuck. And other similar words you can find in a thesaurus. But not because you don’t have good ideas for your novel. You have a bunch of ‘em. And you thought you were ready to lay down a few thousand words.

Well, maybe you were and maybe you weren’t.

If you sat down because you were truly inspired or determined to write, write, write, tell the voices to shut up. Be blunt. Be decisive. They’re good voices (mostly) and they want you to be a better writer, but inspired or determined writing moments are rare and you should really obey this one. Right now it’s not time to listen to writing advice. Put away the how-to books, close the web browser and focus on your novel. Write as well or as badly as you naturally write until you run out of words.

But if you sat down because you were ready to improve your novel, because you wanted to become a better writer, then open your ears to the noisy writing advice. And…give yourself permission not to write thousands of words during this session.

It’s craft time.

Here’s an important tip: When you sort through writing advice, it’s important to measure each bit of apparent wisdom against what you know instinctively (and from experience) about your writer’s voice. Maybe your voice is adverb-friendly. If so, go ahead and use your adverbs, but not before first understanding why writing teachers and experts preach against it. Or consider your wordiness. It could be that you have a verbose voice. That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible writer. There are plenty of successful writers who use a hundred words to say what might have been said in twenty. But again, examine the reason behind the advice.

Consider all advice this same way, always looking for the core truth that sits under the wisdom, then measuring it against your evolving writer’s voice.

Use your craft time to discover what needs improvement and to work on revisions, but also to be reminded what you already do well. Then walk away from the computer and do something else.

The next time you’re ready to write – I mean really write, write, write – all that craft time will pay dividends as the wisdom you gleaned quietly and organically begins to inform your natural writing style.

Or you could just do what I do and ping-pong back and forth between craft time and write, write, write time until you get so frustrated you put aside your novel and choose to write a blogpost instead.

Yeah.

*The horizontal office is also known as a bed. It’s probably the least ergonomically-friendly working environment. But it also happens to be the most sleep-friendly working environment. And that matters more.

The Beauty of Things Unsaid (Advice for the 2nd Draft)

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

~Anton Chekhov

Words are a writer’s currency. But too many words – or the wrong ones – will devalue a written work faster than an oil spill devalues an oil company’s stock.

This isn’t news to you. You know all too well the struggle to find the right words to tell your story. (Put down the thesaurus. That’s not what I mean. Have you even been reading this blog?) And so you write. And write. And write some more. And you finally finish your first draft.

And yet when you go back to read what you’ve written, it just doesn’t “feel” right. It’s not like you’re missing any key ingredients. The characters are believable. The plot is moving along just fine. There’s plenty of lovely description to set the scene.

But something’s wrong.

Now, it could just be that your writing sucks. (This is where you look around the room to see who else I might be talking to, because surely it isn’t you. I mean, your crit partners loved your short story about the fruit fly that preferred vegetables. “It’s a work of literary genius,” “a powerful metaphor about love and loss,” “like Animal Farm, but with insects,” they told you. Well, their actual words were, “it didn’t make me want to vomit,” but that’s essentially the same thing, right?)

Or it could be that you’re simply saying too much.

There are lots of ways “too many words” can steal the power from a story. Here are the three most common that I run into:

The Telling

I love the Chekhov quote at the top of this post. I haven’t found a better one to describe the difference between “telling” and “showing.” But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. You already know why showing is generally better than telling. So why, then, do you have an entire paragraph dedicated to telling us what the protagonist is anticipating immediately preceding paragraphs that so beautifully show us exactly what happens?

There’s nothing wrong with some internal thoughts here and there. Nor is there anything wrong with the occasional telling. But there’s rarely a need to have both the telling and the showing. I bet you can find at least a dozen places in your first draft where you do this. Yes, showing usually takes more words than telling (not always). But the showing words aren’t the problem. Trim the redundant telling. Your readers will thank you. (In their hearts.)

The Describing

There are very few writers who can do detailed description well. I’m talking about the sort of detail that reveals every shadow and wrinkle on a bruised white rose lit by twilight, or the font (and foundry it came from) that graces the title page of the book buried beneath a pile of similarly dust-deviled tomes that the protagonist reaches for with paint-stained fingers (Sherwin-Williams Rookwood Amber). (See? I’m not one of those writers. I’m okay with that.)

But just because we don’t have that skill doesn’t mean we don’t attempt it. What happens, though, is we end up with wordy descriptions that tell us stuff we don’t really care to know (or need to know). For example, if you simply tell me that a bowling ball rolls off the top shelf and lands on your hero’s head, that paints a clear enough picture for me to see it happen. Do I need to know that it was a 15 pound red and black Brunswick Evil Siege bowling ball? Well, maybe I do. Does the specific brand/weight/color play into the story elsewhere? Or are you being intentionally over-descriptive because it makes the scene funnier? In those cases, fine. But otherwise? I’ll paint the bowling ball black (or green if I actually owned one of my own that happened to be green) and assume it’s heavy enough to do the necessary damage.

I know what you’re thinking. All those writing books tell you to be specific. Hell, I’ll tell you that right here, too. Be specific. But…learn when to leave the rest of the picture to the reader’s imagination. If it’s not critical to the story (or the writer’s voice) that the character uses a Rachael Ray blue porcelain 10-inch skillet to kill the spider, just let the character use a plain ol’ skillet.

The Dialoging

I love this one. Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write (and edit). Let’s start here: Take a minute to listen to real-life dialogue. Now, imagine transcribing that verbatim. It doesn’t quite look right, does it. One reason for this is the fact that you can’t actually layer multiple conversations on top of each other. If two people are talking at the same time, you can say so in your novel, but you’ll still have to run their words one sentence after another because you can’t stamp them on top of each other. (Well, you could, but that would look like a printer error.) Because of this, if you include every actual spoken word, dialogue that only takes a moment to speak in real time can stretch on for pages when written. Think of your written dialogue as spoken dialogue that’s been edited not only for content, but also for clarity and rhythm.

Also, real conversation has lots of non-words and repeated-ad-nauseum words in it, things like ums and ers and likes and plenty of unintelligible grunts and groans. Put all of them on the page and your readers will wonder what sorts of drugs you abuse.

But I still haven’t gotten to the biggest wordiness problem with dialogue: hijacking the character to deliver information readers should get elsewhere. You’ll recognize this dialogue by the way your character suddenly appears to be a puppet for the plot rather than a real human being.

“Is the sword shaped like a cross with a sharp dagger end that’s dangling over your head making you nervous, Edward?”

“No, Jacob. But you should be scared because I’m baring my fangs right now and they’re really menacing because they’re sharp and I’m smiling at the same time which is ironic and therefore underscores my obvious lack of fear.”

Please. Don’t. Go. There.

Instead, establish the scene so we know Edward is standing under the cross with the sharp dagger end. Then all you have to write is this:

“Nervous?”

Edward looks up at the cross then back to Jacob. He smiles, then bares his fangs.

“Not even a little.”

I know, my example is over the top. I did that on purpose. But you get the idea. If you need to deliver information to the reader about something in a scene, only use dialogue if it’s the sort of information the character would organically include in the course of the conversation.

Well, that’s all the questionable wisdom I have for you today, friends. Now get back to that second draft and start chopping.

Stuck In the Middle

For some, it happens around the 30,000th word. The lucky ones make it to 40 or 50K before they start to wade through it. You know what I’m talking about. Yeah, the dreaded Middle of Uncertainty. (Okay, no one really calls it that. I just made it up because it sounds imposing).

Just what is the Middle of Uncertainty? Well, it’s a lot of things, but in the simplest of terms, it’s that place where you start to lose hope/interest/momentum in this novel that you were certain was going to be a beautiful saga of love, loss, redemption and werewolves.

It’s the place where you’re suddenly stymied. Stuck. Or perhaps worst of all, beginning to fear that the rest of the book won’t live up to the first pages. Oh, and sometimes? You don’t realize you have a Middle of Uncertainty until the whole damn book is written and you’re starting work on your second draft.

Not every writer struggles with the Middle of Uncertainty. Some feel practically giddy when they hit the midpoint, then frolic to the finish line without the least bit of gastric or career distress. (We hates them, we does.) But most writers I know struggle here.

There are two main reasons for this struggle, and it’s important to know which is your root cause before you try to fix it.

The first? Writer fatigue. This is all about you. You’ll know this is the root cause when you start to write metaphors and similes that are as weak as other things that are weak. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. And you don’t notice even after reading and re-reading the paragraph six times. Sometimes this happens when you sit too long in the same place. Sometimes it happens when you try to write after a long, long, long, long day. Sometimes it happens when you’re feeling the pressure of a deadline.

The solution to writer fatigue is simple: take a break. I mean it. Stop writing. Writer fatigue isn’t quite the same thing as writer’s block. After all, you do have an amazing plot worked out for the story, right? Of course you do. That’s why writer fatigue is so frustrating. You know exactly where you’re going, but you just can’t get there from here.

Here’s the best way to fix it: do something that doesn’t involve writing. Go bowling. Plant a garden. Bake cookies. (Preferably thick, cake-like chocolate chip cookies.) Mail those cookies to your favorite noveldoctor. Run a marathon. Borrow your son’s Legos and build a scale model replica of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull.

Just leave the laptop alone for a while. I don’t mean ten minutes. I mean a day. Or two. (Yes, even if that deadline is looming. Your editor doesn’t want a crappy book on time. She wants a great book. On time. Or maybe two days late if you call and ask really nicely.) Then, just before you sit down to write again, think about the critical plot points that are yet to come. If they don’t shout at you and command your pen to paper so you can get there and then onto the big finale, well, you might need a longer break. Or…you might be suffering from the other reason for the middling struggle:

The broken story.

This is all about the work. It’s quite possible your book has no middle. Or no good one anyway. The beginning? You’ve got that down. And the ending is so perfect, anyone who invested six years in “Lost” will weep with joy when they read it. But that middle-to-end stuff? You don’t know what to write. Or maybe what you already wrote just isn’t working.

Try these second-half ideas:

  • Raise the stakes. Make the protagonist’s journey more dangerous. Don’t make it easy for the protagonist to get to the ending you know is coming. If the path is too clearly laid out, the reader will finish the book long before the final page.
  • Set a major obstacle in front of your protagonist. Kill his hopes. Kill his career. Kill his dog if you have to.
  • Stretch your protagonist. Push him to places he hasn’t yet gone, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
  • Send your protagonist on a quest that seems to pull him in the opposite direction from his goal.
  • Give the subplots their due. Remember when you locked uncle Sal in the insane asylum back in chapter three? Maybe it’s time he escapes. Or gets a visit from the protagonist.
  • Check your pacing. Does the action slow to a crawl in the second half after a blistering first half? Maybe you need to mix that up a bit more. Vary the rhythm to keep the readers’ interest.
  • Reveal more secrets. If everything is out in the open by the midpoint, readers won’t have anything left to discover along the road to the ending. Everyone has one more secret. Your character just hasn’t told you about it. Yet.

And heed these warnings:

  • Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily. Readers have good memories. Stop rehashing the fact that Becky is a loner with a drinking problem. We know this. Give her something new to do.
  • Don’t introduce a new plot element that goes against the story’s logic or “rules” just to mix things up. Readers will stop trusting you. Then they’ll stop reading.
  • Similarly, don’t introduce a new character late in the story who suddenly has a key plot role. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but readers will find it hard to swallow when a mysterious woman in black lands on the page just in time to save the hero, then disappears again because that was her only reason to be there.
  • Don’t fill the space with flashbacks. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but the second half of your book has to do more than maintain interest, it has to propel readers to the end with purpose. A bunch of “remember when” content will usually drag the story to a halt. Keep the tension high.

Of course, you could just read a good book on plot and structure like Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and do what he says. That would work, too.

Here’s the bottom line, writer-friends: The middle of your novel can’t be the boring part. Know which part can be the boring part? None of it. Sorry, there’s no “coasting” in a good novel. And there’s definitely no place for filler.

No one ever said writing was easy. Actually, someone probably did say that. But he was being sarcastic.

Write well.

Thief of Something

I am a thief.

There, I said it. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using my blog as a confessional. I feel so much better now.

Actually, that’s not true. I lied. I feel about the same as before. Except maybe a little guilty about pretending those four words assuaged some deep-seated guilt. Trust me, my guilt is almost always seated near the surface, like algae.

Also? This blogpost isn’t about stealing.

You probably shouldn’t trust anything I say from here forward.

Except, maybe, these lessons I’ve recently discovered (some for the hundredth time) in my role as a freelance editor of fiction:

  • Pet words and phrases that are used over and over and over and over and over and over and over again can make an author look far less skilled than she actually is. Please note: writers are often blind to these tendencies. Thus, editors.
  • “People who get all creative with dialogue attributions make me want to ban the thesaurus as a writing tool,” he burped. “Seriously, folks, ‘said’ is fine most of the time,” he hiccuped. “Sometimes you don’t need anything at all if it’s clear who’s speaking,” he reiterated with an annoyingly unnecessary attribution.
  • Christian fiction is allergic to the word “nipple” and it doesn’t matter if that nipple belongs to a woman or a man or, presumably, a pipe fitting.
  • Since publishers usually work with a tight schedule (and also because it’s the right thing to do, professionally), writers should never miss a deadline. However, no one will be celebrating if you meet that deadline with an unfinished, sub-par, plot-hole-filled manuscript. Obvious takeaway lesson here: Frequent, honest communication with your editor is critical to having a successful writing career.
  • You know those books you’ve read that have terribly unsatisfying endings? See note above.
  • If you can’t imagine how the protagonist of your novel would act after waiting in a long line at a packed Starbucks only to being informed by a surly barista, “we’re out of coffee,” then it’s quite possible you haven’t sufficiently developed your protagonist’s personality.
  • Showing vs. telling is still one of the greatest challenges for writers. But I’m finding that it’s equally challenging for writers to tell a story without resorting to flashbacks. I’m not a flashback hater. Sometimes a flashback is necessary. Sometimes a flashback works fine. It certainly is a convenient way to impart information. But is it the best way to tell that piece of the story? Before stamping a flashback scene with “It is finished,” consider other ways to reveal the critical info to readers.
  • A subplot that suddenly goes away is like a buffet that’s out of teriyaki chicken when you were just beginning to think how nicely that teriyaki chicken would complement your fourth helping of shrimp fried rice. Subplots that serve no purpose might as well not be on the buffet in the first place. (Just pretend the metaphor works, okay? Thanks.)
  • On a related note, subplots don’t need to be neatly tied up by the last page, but they ought to at least point toward appropriate resolutions.
  • If your monkey can’t fly on page 7, your novel demands that you develop a believable argument between pages 7 and 212 for why he can fly on page 213. For the record: “because that’s what the plot needs” isn’t good enough.

Guess what? If you’ve read this far, my opening line isn’t a lie after all. I stole some of your time.

And I’m not giving it back.

Have a nice day.