Mistakes of a New Writer

As some of you may know, I offer manuscript critique services to people who may not have found their writing circles and don’t have someone(s) to beta read their projects. Having written my fair share of books, been through the editing wringer  process many, many times, beta read for some amazing writers, I feel like I’m in a place where I can give good, objective advice on fiction projects.

Now, it doesn’t matter what genre, or what age a writer is, it seems like most new writers make a lot of the same mistakes. Yes, I know, in fiction there are no mistakes! But, really, there are still grammar rules and there are things you can do to break the magic a story can weave and take your reader out of the moment.

1- It’s okay for characters to just say things. I know repetition feels terrible, and it often is, if you have a tick (a word or phrase) you just love and you keep using it over and over, it stands out and bugs the hell out of readers. So, new writers will often think the same of dialogue tags. They’ll see the words says or said all over the book and panic. Suddenly the characters are “exclaiming” “declaring” or “crying/cried” rather than just “Jane said” or “John says.” Everything just becomes so melodramatic but not compelling.

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Writers, yes, you can vary your tags, if someone really is screaming and it’s appropriate for them to scream, or if there’s another good reason to switch it up, then by all means do. But don’t do it all the damn time. And if you end a sentence with a question mark, the correct tag is “asks/asked.”

2- Telling instead of showing. I know this one can be hard. You need to move things along, sometimes things aren’t important enough for details, you’ve already gone over this in detail but Character A  needs to tell Character B so, yeah, hurry up. So it’s hard to know when it’s okay to tell versus show.

The three things I just said are good examples of when to go ahead and tell, for example, “John wanted to know what happened yesterday, so I told him about the fight I had with Tom.” We’ve seen the fight with Tom, we don’t need a replay. When should you show? When the fight happened. If it’s important enough to bring up, let’s see it.

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Another bad tell versus show? “Jake was a scary man.” Now, okay, you can write that line, but then back it up. I’m not going to be scared of Jake just because the narrator says so. “Jake was a scary man. He was a man you didn’t cross. His heart was a black as the boots he wore when he crushed Mike’s head.” I mean, something. Build it, give it backstory, draw us into the fear of the other characters.

3- All your characters are the same person. If all your characters think the same, react in the same way, have the same motivations and backstories, that will be one boring book. Yes, we keep circles of friends who have things in common with us, maybe there are things that we would say/react in the same exact way, but not everything.

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Supporting characters need to be their own people. They need their own personalities, their own motivations. They can’t always agree with the other characters. If they’re in your book, they need to be interesting enough not to all be killed off in the first act.

4- Writing what you don’t know. So, the old adage is, “write what you know.” Now, obviously that could lead to some really boring books too and we’d probably miss out on some awesome Fantasy Fiction if everyone stuck to this rule. But for me, this rule means, if there’s something you want to write or add into your books, you need to know it inside and out and if you don’t, fix it. I know I have researched for hours for one line in a 300+ page book. I know every Scribe on here has done the exact same thing.

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It feels insane when you’re doing it, but if you want that line, if you want that character to sound like they know what they’re talking about, you need that research. What I live by: If I want readers to believe my fiction, then my non-fiction has to be correct. And if you’re not willing to become as close to an expert as possible on something, then why is it in your book?

5- Older writers want their stories to be set in the days of their youth, and yet it’s current day. Honestly, I get it, okay? When I watch Stranger Things my nostalgia is strong! I lived outside when I was that age, my bike was my world. I had to be in by dark. If my mom wanted me home earlier, she had a whistle she blew, if I was too far to hear it, I got in trouble. No, she wasn’t panicked, calling the cops, she was waiting at the door, foot tapping because her first thought was that I went too far of my own accord. And she was totally right.

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But kids these days don’t do any of this. If I set a book in 2017 with 10-13 year old kids, it would look nothing like my childhood. Kids have smart phones and their parents take them everywhere. If you want a book to be like it was in the good old days, then set the book in the good old days. Do not have anachronisms sprinkled throughout. So many things in books can be solved with cellphones these days, you want to fix that but keep it current? Smash the phone. Lose the signal. Or, even more realistic? Have the battery ticking down from 5%–oof, that’s some real tension there!

There are more things, but these are the most common that I see. Try to be aware of these things. Best thing to do is write your first draft, just get it on paper, don’t stress about any of these things or anything else. But! On your second pass, on the third? Look for this stuff. Correct it. Make it stronger. Then read it again, look for bigger things, like plot holes or dropped plot threads. But that’s for another post.

On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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Revising, editing, and all the rough drafts.

As I sit down to work on yet another rough draft, I thought it might be interesting to read about how I revise and edit a new book. Because I also offer manuscript critique services, I see a lot of books before they’re ready from new writers. It’s always hard to know when a book is done and it’s time to let it go out into the world and flourish or die by its own merit, but you do need to spend a significant amount of time on it before that happens.

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First, I outline the story. I like to do this long hand, with a pen and a legal pad. I use the longer legal pads and, usually, one page = one chapter. It’s lame and mundane and in a bullet point list, just so I know what’s happening and how in each chapter. The magic happens when I’m actually writing. When I was a new writer, I didn’t outline because I lost the urgency to tell the story, so if you’re not an outliner, don’t freak out; everyone is different and things change from book to book.

Once the outline is done, I fast draft the book. This means I write daily, usually taking 1-2 days off a week so I don’t burn out, until it’s done. There are some days where I might just get 500 words or 1,000 words, but my goal is 2-4k words a day. But, again, every book is different. As long as I make some progress, I’m happy.

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Then, when that first draft is done, I back up my work in 2-3 different places. I like to email myself the document every day so I don’t ever lose any work. But when I finish, I email myself again the completed document. I also save it to a memory stick. This way, if something happens to my computer, my book is safely stored in two places that can’t also be damaged by whatever killed my computer. When I was writing my fourth book, Fire, my hard-drive crashed and I lost about 20k words because I wasn’t in the habit of emailing myself on the daily, just at the end of a draft. It was devastating. Never again!

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Then I walk away. I close the file on the computer and I don’t look at it again for at least a week, sometimes as much as six months. Again, it depends on the book (and deadlines). But I get away from it and do other things. I clean the house, I read other people’s books, I relax. I do things that have nothing to do with the book I was writing. I may even start writing (and finish) another book before I ever come back to it. There’s a few reasons for this but the main reason is so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

You just spent a couple of months to the better part of a year focused on this one story, it’s been loud in your head, the characters alive and and controlling. If you come back too soon, you’ll remember everything and you won’t see mistakes, you won’t find the plot holes, you won’t pick up on the weaknesses or the thin characters. You need to read your rough draft as though you weren’t the one who wrote it.

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I like to print out a copy of the MS to go over it the first time. This way I’m not working on it in the same medium that I wrote it. I am familiar with it on the computer screen, so my eyes and mind might trick me into reading it the way I wanted it to be, not the way it is. By printing it, it becomes a new book and I can take a bright red pen to it and make corrections and notes to transcribe back on the computer. That’s the second draft.

Now, depending on the book, this is the right time to give it to beta readers to go over. I like to have at least two readers, but three is ideal. You want readers who will give it back to you in 2-4 weeks. This gives you another break away from the book, but also ensures your readers focus on your book so they don’t forget what they read in the first half because they took so long to finish it.

Wait to make any changes to your MS until you hear back from all betas. This gives you the chance to see if critiques are just personal preference or if you really missed something because they all mentioned the same thing(s).

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Now I go over the book again, this time on the computer, comparing beta notes, seeing if I agree or not. If I agree with a change, I have to make sure I thread it through the whole book. That’s the third draft.

Now I put it on a tablet to read it as an ebook. You may need another break or you may be ready to just dive in. So, again, I’m reading it in a different medium and more like any reader who bought it would read it. I use the highlight and note function to keep track of issues and changes I want to make. Once I make those changes, I’ve got a fourth draft.

Only on the 3rd or 4th draft does my editor get the book. Because I self-publish, I pay my editor for her services, so why in the world would I send her a book before it’s ready? I wouldn’t, and neither should you. I often get MSs that are not ready and people are paying me a fee to go over the book and 90% of the time, most of my notes could have been caught by the author or by a beta reader to be addressed for free.

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Once I get my MS back from my editor and implement the line-edits and content-edits, I am up to the fifth draft. Guess what? It goes back for a proof-reader to comb to make sure we didn’t miss any tiny mistakes.

So, in the end, I’m publishing the 5th or 6th draft. I don’t always use beta readers because sometimes I’m up to the 5th, 6th, or 7th book in a series and I can’t expect friends to do that much work for me. But the first book in a series? A stand alone? A trilogy? Yes, I use beta readers for all of those.

You will get to the point where you start to hate your book because you’ve read it so many times, but that’s what it takes to polish it, to develop those characters, to make the plot compelling. This is the work that goes into a book. Getting that first draft is the easy part, making it a book is where the hard work really is.

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Writing is re-writing. This is the rule you should be living by.

And, speaking of working on a new, revised, and edited book, I just published one this week! If you’re a fan of witches and magic set in modern day, might I recommend my Matilda Kavangh Novels series. I just published the seventh book!

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Better late than never: A few writing/writer tips

So, as you can see, I’m posting a bit late today. Every once in a while the Spellbound Scribe of the week will forget their turn to post and we scramble to catch up. This week was my turn to post and to forget. So here I am, desperate to get this up today!

Last night, when I was falling asleep, I realized I’d forgotten to write up my post for today. I laid there and tried to think of something to write that wasn’t just self-promotion, because those can get a little boring (don’t worry, there’s some self-promotion at the end, don’t want to disappoint!). And I came up with a great idea! I even thought of the opening paragraph! Huzzah! I’ll wake up in the morning and write it straight away! I thought.

But, of course, because I didn’t write the idea down, I forgot it.

So that leads me to a new idea for today’s post. Tips for writing/writers.

1. Write your shit down. This seems like an obvious one, I know, but we all need reminding. We all think “eh, I’ll remember.” Or, “No, this is such a good idea there is no way I’m going to forget it.” You know what? Maybe. But what if you don’t? What if you don’t remember that perfect fix for that plot hole? What if you don’t remember that awesome name for a character and you end up with calling him Bob? What if you’re already late with a blog post and, because you thought of an idea as you were falling asleep, you’ll forget it? My phone charges on my nightstand, I could have easily opened the note app and jotted down my idea. I have a notepad there too. But I didn’t. Don’t assume you’ll remember. Write your shit down.

2. Back up your work in multiple places, continuously, as you write. Tuesday I went to open a manuscript doc that I finished back in September to finally start editing the rough draft, but when I did, only half the doc would open. The MS is just over 75k words, but for some reason only 39k would load. Half. Half the book wouldn’t load. I closed and reopened, closed and reopened. But still, just 39k words. Then I checked the properties and saw, yes, the file was just 39k words. Half my book was gone.

Luckily, when I’m writing a book, I will email myself every day the latest version. Sometimes I’ll only email myself every new 5k words, or 10k, but more often than not, I’ll email myself every day even if it was just a new 1k words. So I was able to go into my email and find “Completed First Draft of XXXX”. Crisis averted. I do also have an external flash drive where I save all of my completed drafts, but usually just the finals, not the roughs. I like email for multiple copies because of the unlimited space. Don’t depend on your computer or Dropbox (I’ve known friends who’ve depended solely on Dropbox to find that the only version saved in there was a corrupted one. Not cool.). And, with email, if your computer crashes, or your external hard drive does, you can log on to any computer, open your email, and bam! You’re back in business.

3. When editing, read your MS in different formats. Often, writers are staring at the same computer screen for months, writing their books. So, you’re used to seeing your MS this way. It is an easy way to miss things because your mind sees it the way it’s supposed to be. Open your doc on a tablet or ereader, read it the way you imagine thousands of people one day will, use the highlight and note functions to keep track of mistakes or edits. Print out your doc and go old school with a red pen – I do this. If you can’t do these thing, enable the speech option in Word and have your computer read the story to you. Yes, it’s a bit robotic, but you’ll hear mistakes. Change it up so you can be the best self-editor you can be.

4. Don’t only self-edit. It is so terrifying when you’re a new writer (yeah, okay, not just when you’re new) to ask people to read your work and give you feedback, but it is vital to becoming a better writer. You don’t have to take the notes you get, but hearing reactions from outsiders really helps. An honest beta reader/critique partner will help you make your work stronger. And they might even catch some mistakes you missed. Multiple sets of eyes are good. And you can build your own critique group, which helps with morale and getting through the tough times of writing. If you don’t have anyone who can or will do this for you, there are resources out there, look for them. I, for example, offer professional critique services. *cough*

5. Give yourself a break. Notice earlier I said I was just starting to edit the rough draft of a book I finished in September? It’s now March. When you finish a project, whether it’s the rough draft or the final, take time off. We have to replenish our wells of creativity, collect the spoons we’ve given out, we need time for ourselves. Go read someone else’s book for fun. Take a day trip somewhere. Sleep in. Binge watch something on Netflix. Go to a museum and see some beautiful art that isn’t the written word. You can’t be creative day in and day out without taking a break. This, I think, is what leads to writer’s block. Not a lack of ability or that your story is bad, but that your mind needs a break and replenishment. Don’t finish a rough draft one day and then two days later think you’ve had enough time to come back to it and start editing (no I did not take five months off from writing, but I did leave that particular book alone because I knew I needed a lot of time away from it. I worked on other projects in the meantime). Yes, sometimes, you can finish one book and are still able and ready to write something new. Go for it, if you think you can, but remember, it’s okay to take time to play.

(Now for that shameless self-promo. Just wanted to let everyone know that I’ve revamped my Patreon account and am actively working on it. I hope, if you’re a reader/fan of mine, you might check it out. For $3 or more a month, you’ll get access to exclusive posts of fiction and rewards depending on your level. I’m hoping to make it worth everyone’s while, so please have a look.)