Tag Archives: writing

Avoiding the Social Media Time Suck

Writers blog about it–the amount of time they spend on social media: monitoring blogs, writing blog posts, tweeting, facebooking, leaving comments on other blogs. It’s a huge time suck, and yet writers still do it. Guilty on all counts.

I’m still trying to figure out how to spend less time on social media time and more time on my passion–fiction writing. I don’t have the answer yet, but let me share what I’ve learned:

Be selective about the blogs you follow regularly. At first, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Every week I would discover a new writer’s blog and add it to my favorites. I spent hours on social media and my writing output suffered. Now, I follow a few blogs religiously: Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Kathryn Magendie, K.M. Weiland, Jody Hedlund, Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman. Well, I guess that’s more than a few, but you get the point.

Set aside time for social media and time for fiction writing. That’s an easy rule to set down and a much tougher one to obey. How many times have you said, “I’m just going to check my stats, respond to a few comments and check a couple of blogs and then I’ll start working on my work-in-progress?” Three hours later, you haven’t put a word on the page. It takes great discipline to treat these as separate activities, but the writer must.

Use technology to manage your blog feeds. There are a number of tools available. Subscribing to your favorite blogs through email is one that I find helpful. Getting your favorite blogs on Twitter is another useful way to keep up, while not impacting your writing time.

Devote large blocks of time to writing and use social media as a reward. I’m a binge writer. If I’m not feeling it, I will produce drivel, but when I’m on fire creatively, I can crank out 3,000 words in one sitting. OK, it might not be riveting prose, but in some cases I’ve done my best work while on such creative rolls. The trick is to tell yourself you are going to write for three hours, four hours, whatever, and stick to it. Then treat yourself to a couple of hours on social media.

Go someplace else to write. This is a sound strategy. Pick a place–your local coffee shop or the library. Find a quiet table. Sit down with your laptop, find some music that inspires you and plug in your ear buds, and write for two or three hours. Try it sometime. Do your social media at home or on a mobile device, but not at your writing place.

Is social media a time suck for you? How do you find the time to write?

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Word Counts for Revisions?

Writers know all about word counts. It’s drilled into us—1,000 words a day. Write for three hours, four hours. Achieve that daily word count. Writers get that. The only way to finish the first draft of a novel is to place the old “butt in chair” and write. The daily habit. Do what it takes to churn out a draft of 80,000 to 100,000 words in less than six months.

Simple enough, right? Okay, but what happens when the writer gets to the revision process? What’s the word count when revising a first draft? What is a writer’s daily production goal? What’s the benchmark? If a writer’s goal in producing a first draft is 1,000 words per day, shouldn’t our goal in revising a first draft be to review at least triple or quadruple that number? After all, we’ve already put all those words on the page. This may seem logical, but the hard part has only begun.

I’ve spent the last two weeks revising the first chapter of my work-in-progress. Heck, I’ve spend the last week on the first page of my draft. I’ve completely rewritten the opening scene twice now and it’s still not where I want it to be. There’s a valuable lesson here. When it comes to the revision process, there are no word counts. There are no benchmarks. The key is this: do whatever it takes. The opening line, page, and chapter must sing, or, better yet, must belt it out like an opera singer.

Once a writer gets the opening chapter right, the rest falls into place. It makes revising the entire work a whole lot easier. Well, not always. Sometimes the rest of the draft is just as much work.

So this begs the question: if there are no word counts for the revision process, how does the writer ensure the whole project doesn’t fall way off track? There may be no word counts, but discipline still counts. Revising is not fun—certainly not as much fun as writing. Ever spend an hour struggling to come up with just the right word or the right sentence? Your brain generates cliché after cliché. You know what you need to say. You just can’t conjure up the right word to say it.

It’s different when writing a first draft. If the wording isn’t perfect, move onto the next scene. You can fix it later. The revision process is when the later comes due. A writer can’t merely move on, unless he wants to go back and revise again and again. No, the writer has to get it right, word by word, page by page.

This is one of those posts where I can’t summon up a simple bullet point list, but I’ll give it a try:

  • Revisions are hard.
  • Revisions require supreme patience.
  • There is no word count.
  • It’s not fun, but
  • A writer must do it every day, just like writing.

And that is the hardest part: returning to the work-in-progress each day, knowing it’s far from perfect. The satisfaction of molding that imperfect first draft into a work of art must drive the writer forward. That is the only benchmark.

Do you set goals for the revision process? What sort of metrics do you use, if any?

 

 

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Get More Out of Writer’s Conferences

I am excited about the upcoming annual CAPA-U Writer’s Conference this Saturday in Harford, CT, sponsored by the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA), a fantastic organization composed of a group of dedicated independent authors and publishers. This is my third CAPA conference and I’ve met agents and talented writers and editors, while expanding my knowledge of the craft and marketing.

Advance planning will help writers get the most out of these conferences. Writers should ask themselves some key questions:

  • Who is the sponsoring organization? Is it a reputable organization? Is the agenda/schedule available? Are the workshop topics appropriate for a writer of your level?
  • What do I want to get out of a writers’ conference? What are my goals?
  • How can I meet other writers and establish connections?
  • Do a have a novel (finished manuscript) to shop? If so what agents do a want to meet? What will I say when I meet them?
  • What workshops should I attend.

So many questions…where to turn for answers?

Here are a few tips for writers to get the most out of conferences:

  • Study the agenda carefully. Choose workshops based on where you are as a writer. If you’ve just published a first novel, workshops on marketing and maximizing social media may be for you.
  • Dress appropriately. Business casual is the norm. Wear comfortable shoes, not sneakers. Don’t walk in wearing a pair of jeans and a rock and roll concert tee-shirt.
  • Get there early, collect your materials, and network. You don’t want to walk into a crowded general session late and slink into a seat in the back of the room.
  • Bring business cards or a marketing piece. Make sure it has your contact information, website or blog address.
  • Select the right agent, if there are opportunities to meet with agents. Review the agent bios and go on their websites. Pay attention to what types of authors and genres they represent.
  • Some conferences allow authors to sell their hard-copy books. Take advantage of this.
  • Select a mix of craft and business workshops. Take a notebook with you and take notes.
  • Network at every opportunity. I found my book editor because she happened to sit down next to me at lunch during a writers’ conference and we got to talking.
  • Be as positive as you can be when you meet with an agent. These meetings can seem like cattle calls. You only have ten minutes or so to make a good impression. Be friendly, tell the agent about yourself and your work and engage the agent in a dialogue. Be interesting and engaging. Smiling helps.
  • Never vent about frustrations you have experienced in getting your work published or represented by an agent.
  • Volunteer to “cover” a session for the sponsoring organization’s newsletter. Volunteer newsletter editors have a thankless job and are always looking for articles. You will make two new friends–the editor and the presenter you write about.
  • Make sure you are familiar with the work of authors you came to see. Check out their websites.
  • Be nice to everybody. Treat the volunteer who gives you your name badge and conference packet with the same respect you show to the author you came to see. A minute of boorish behavior can undo a lifetime of good will.
  • Prepare an elevator speech. Don’t make it long–30 second to a minute on who you are and what your work is about.
  • Take an interest in other people’s work. Actively listen to the other writers you meet. Get their contact information and drop them a line telling them it was nice to meet.
  • Don’t let a lack of interest by an agent ruin your day. Agents must be selective. Your work might not be appropriate for them.
  • Don’t walk around with hurt feelings and a scowl on your face because an agent doesn’t take an interest in your manuscript. It will happen more often than not.
  • Finally, if there is a reception where drinks are served, watch your alcohol intake.

For a low-cost resource with a lot more on attending writer;s conferences check out this book by authors Bob Mayer and Jen Talty.

Writer’s conferences will advance your knowledge of the craft, expand your network of contacts and possibly help you to land an agent. I recommend writers attend at least one writer’s conference a year and more if resources allow.

How do you get the most out of writer’s conferences?

 

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Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

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Are You Ready to Write?

You’ve decided to write your first novel. Congratulations. You can’t wait to sit down and write. You’ve come up with a blockbuster plot with loads of compelling characters. You’re only lacking two things: knowledge and experience.

Attempting to write a novel without knowing how is like getting behind the wheel of a car without taking driving lessons. Or, continuing the analogy, it’s like a driver trying to get to a destination without a road map or directions. You’re going to waste a lot of time going around in circles before you find your way.

Consider doing four things before you attempt to write a novel:

  • Read as much as you can about the craft of fiction writing. The good news is you don’t have to get an MFA to learn about fiction writing. There are loads of free resources on the internet (more on that in a minute).
  • Read as much as you can in the genre in which you want to write.
  • Join a writers’ group, either in your region or an online group.
  • Try your hand at a short story before you take on a novel. The novel is a long, complex form of writing that takes years to master. There are no shortcuts.

There are scores of fiction writing courses, webinars and other resources out there, but before you spend your hard-earned money on these, know that there are abundant low-cost or free resources as well. Here are some great resources:

Online (blogs and websites)

I regularly read a number of excellent blogs and websites on the craft of fiction writing. My favorites are:

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

Author Joe Konrath blogs about writing, publishing, ebooks, and much more. His book, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, is a great resource for new writers.

Absolute Write

This site bills itself as a “comprehensive informational Website for writers of all levels. Absolute Write offers articles and information about fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, freelancing, and copywriting. In addition, we provide information about editing, publishing, agents, and market research. You’ll find links to classes, software, and a large and active online community of writers and publishing professionals.”

I especially like the Forum. Set up your own profile and post or respond to other posts. It’s a good way to find other writers and get some great guidance.


 Being Human at Electric Speed

Former publisher and current media professor Jane Friedman offers insights into writing, social media and the future of publishing.

Nathan Bransford, Author

Former agent and current author Nathan Bransford blogs about writing, publishing, social media, and much more. This is one of the best sites around.

Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers

Martha Alderson’s blog gives tips and techniques for plotting novels and screenplays.

Writerjenn

The blog of author Jennifer Hubbard.

Rachelle Gardner

Agent Rachelle Gardner’s website. Rachelle offers mature and sensible advice on writing, publishing and the role of agents.

Writer Unboxed

Writer Unboxed is a collaborative blog by authors Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton.

Books on Writing

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, By Jane Smiley

On Writing, By Stephen King

The Art of Fiction, By John Gardner

Write Away, By Elizabeth George

Writing the Breakout Novel, By Donald Maass

Writers’ Groups

Writers’ groups, whether online or in-person, allow you to share your works-in-progress with other writers. Some communities have writers groups that are affiliated with the public library or literary organizations. If you don’t have one in your community, you can approach your local library to start one or just start one by yourself. Online writers groups offer many of the same benefits of in-person groups, but they lack the
opportunities for collegiality that are so important to belonging to a community of peers with a common interest.

Once you have the knowledge of how to write a novel, the next step is to get some experience. Again, writing short stories is a good way to start. Bring you short stories to your writers’ group or submit them to an online group. You will begin to see what your strong points are and where your writing needs work. When you have a few solid short stories under your belt, you will have a better grasp of the elements of a successful novel.

When do you know if you’re ready to write? How long did it take you?

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Finding Your Voice

One of the most difficult, but essential, questions for beginning writers is this: how do I find my voice? Giving guidance about finding your voice as a fiction writer is a challenge. It reminds me of the oft-quoted statement by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote that he couldn’t define hard-core obscenity, “but I know it when I see it.” Voice in fiction writing is difficult to define, but readers know it when they see it.

Finding your voice has nothing to do with developing memorable characters. Voice is not the point of view of the main character. Your voice is your unique writing style. It’s what sets you apart from every other writer. Your voice is the way you write. It reflects your personality, your attitudes, and your beliefs.

Let’s take two of my favorite authors—Anne Tyler and Elmore Leonard. You would never confuse their writing styles. Anne Tyler’s subject matter is families. Her characters often find themselves trapped in unsatisfying marriages they cannot leave because their families depend on them. Elmore Leonard’s crime/mystery novels are filled with good guys and bad guys and those in-between—often cops and private investigators on one side and criminals and deadbeats on the other. Anne Tyler gets deep into the psychology of her characters. An Elmore Leonard  novel is a guilty pleasure. His novels are laugh-out-loud funny, but there are so many nuggets of human insight among the ‘yucks.’ The dialogue is so natural you feel like you know these people. One of the distinguishing characteristics of his work is that each character is at the same time both honorable and little shady. In some cases, the criminals display more honor than the good guys. You know when you’re reading Anne Tyler and Elmore Leonard by their voices.

So what is your voice and how do you find it? Your voice must be authentic. It must be you. Don’t try to sound like somebody else. You will sound phony. Your voice must be consistent and it must be your own.

How do you develop your voice? Practice, practice, practice. When I started writing fiction in the late 1990s, I tried different styles until I discovered my own voice. How did I know when I found my voice? It just felt right. It felt natural. Over time, I became comfortable with a certain narrative technique: somewhat casual, down-to-earth, using simple words and images. My voice is heavy on dialogue. I enjoy writing dialogue. I listen to the way people talk. When I develop my characters, I focus a lot of attention on the way they talk, not just what they are saying.

Your voice does not limit the kinds of characters you can create. My first novel used a first-person narrative. The protagonist’s upbringing was similar to mine, so it was easy for me to find his voice. My current work in progress used a third-person, limited omniscient narrative. The main character is a son of privilege and an heir to a business and political dynasty. I could not draw on any personal experience here. The character was drawn through my understanding of and perspective on this young man’s life and experiences. Developing this understanding of a young privileged man required a fair amount of research. I chose very different language for this character than the protagonist of my first novel.
So how will you know when you’ve found your voice? Picture yourself in a shoe store. You try on a pair of classy shoes. You look stylish in the shoes, but they’re a size too small for you. You may look good, but you’re not comfortable. So you try on a pair of plain shoes and they fit perfectly. You walk around the shoe store and you don’t even know you have them on. It’s like that with voice in fiction. You don’t know you’re writing in a particular voice. You’re just writing in a natural, comfortable style.

Once you’ve found a voice that works for you, hone it. Develop it. Sharpen your voice. Read your writing with an eye toward strengthening your voice.

How do you know when you’ve found your voice? What challenges did you face along the way?

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Why Write Fiction?

So why does the world need yet another fiction writing blog? There are thousands of blogs out there on the craft of fiction writing. What makes me think I can contribute anything to the discussion? My perspective is that of an experienced writer and editor who made the difficult transition from a newspaper reporter to a fiction writer. Along the way, I made more than my share of mistakes. I want to share what I’ve learned along the way with other writers, especially new writers.

People who don’t write fiction don’t understand what makes us want to torture ourselves. We sit in front of a computer screen for hours on end, making up stuff we believe other people will want to read. Are we crazy? No, we’re just driven by a passion to write.

The job of newspaper reporter was fun, but it was grounded in real events. I could crank out a 1,500-word piece on deadline summarizing the major points of a white paper on public education financing, complete with quotes and context. Writing fiction is a lot harder. A critic might say, “But you’re just making it up. How hard can it be?” It’s plenty hard. You don’t have any real events or real people to draw upon. It has to come from deep inside you. There are no characters on your screen. There’s no story. There are no unexpected twists and turns. There’s no theme. It’s just you and a blank screen.

In fiction writing, you get to express your thoughts, your ideas, your dreams, your fears and your frustrations, and, even your secrets. You get to create appealing, but flawed characters, who stumble and fail, but persevere to reach their goals. You get to take a story in any direction you wish. You get to choose whatever genre you like. You’re in control.

So how did I end up writing fiction? When I left the newspaper business, I missed writing, so I joined a writers’ group and I was on my way. At least that’s what I thought. I discovered that calling yourself a fiction writer and learning the craft of fiction writing are two different things. I wanted to be a fiction writer. I just didn’t know how.

Thanks to the Internet, there are abundant free resources for beginning writers. All you need is a search engine and some motivation. You can teach yourself the craft of fiction writing without investing in expensive workshops or an MFA. It will take time, but you will learn the craft if you dedicate yourself and keep an open mind to what others have to share with you.

Okay, so you have the passion. You’re willing to put in the time to learn the craft. The final ingredient for success is commitment. You have to be willing to sit down and write on a regular basis—whether it’s every day or three or four times a week. You can’t “dabble” in fiction, any more than you can dabble in becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

Fiction writing is a lifetime commitment. You may not succeed with your first novel. You may not even succeed with your fifth novel. But you’ve got to keep writing

One more thing: if you want to write quality fiction, you must read quality fiction. As much of it as you can, while still finding the time to write. Pay attention to how good writers develop characters, plot a story and create themes that resonate. Re-read novels that you especially liked, focusing on the writing.

I’ve shared with you why I write. Why do you write?

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