When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

facepalm gif

Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

facepalm gif picard

You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

radcliffe

But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

the office

Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.

The benefits of creating a chapter outline for your novel

chapter spreadsheet template

Making a chapter outline is one of the best things I’ve done for my work in progress (WIP).

I’m in my second draft now, so this chapter outline (pictured above) is different than the one I made for my first draft. It’s a lot more focused on what I wrote, not what I planned to write, and it helps me to spot the strengths and weaknesses in my story.

To make the outline, I used Google Spreadsheets. First, I “froze” Column A and Row 1 (click “View” –> “Freeze”), which locks them in place. I set columns for chapters, color-coded by point-of-view (my WIP features multiple character perspectives). Then I created rows for all the major aspects of storytelling that I wanted to keep track of — plot summary, conflict (external, internal, and escalation), the quality and content of the writing (dialogue, body language or action beats, description or sense of place/setting, verb strength), worldbuilding, and character relationships and subplots.

Here’s how I color-coded the rows:

Plot = bright yellow
Conflict = bright green
Writing = medium blue
Worldbuilding = bright blue
Character relationships, arcs, and subplots = medium purple

I made a lot of different purple rows — for a character’s relationship to another character, a character’s interactions with and feelings about the world, and any side issues that I wanted to explore. Basically, these rows let me track a character’s arc, relations, and development, as well as any subplots.

I always colored in the cells for plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding and added notes — but I only colored the purple cells when something in the chapter contributed to those elements. For example, if Character 1 and Character 2’s relationship changed, I colored that cell and wrote how.

If one of the purple cells should have been colored in, or one of the main cells (plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding) weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be, I colored the cells orange and wrote notes on why they were lacking and ideas for how to address the problem. These orange cells are basically a “red” flag to tell me that I need to work on a certain aspect of the chapter — I just used orange because it’s a less stressful color than red. :)

This chapter outline has been crucial for getting me to analyze and reflect on how each chapter is contributing to the novel overall. Each chapter should pull its weight and be invaluable to the story. It should deepen character development and relationships, reveal a new aspect to the world, intensify or add conflict (or sometimes resolve it), and occasionally introduce or develop subplots. The writing itself should also be the best it can be. Filling out the outline for each chapter gives me a better sense of where the gaps are, which helps me determine where I should focus my self-edits and revision.

I made a separate spreadsheet for assessing each character’s relationship to another, which gives more “life” to characters other than the protagonist, but maybe I’ll cover that in another post. :)

Tip: This is just my personal strategy. Your spreadsheet (if you want to use one) can look however you want. In fact, I’d love to hear what you’ve done with yours!

But remember, anything you can do to help yourself revise smarter is important — because revision will make your novel awesome:

novel tv in your head

Do you make any spreadsheets to help you with writing/revising your WIPs? Let me know what approach you take in the comments!

Encouragement in unlikely places: a review of The Forest for the Trees

“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one,” explained John Updike in an interview reprinted in his collection Hugging the Shore. “I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy LernerYou’d think a book subtitled “An Editor’s Advice to Writers” would be about useful editing techniques, right? Wrong — at least not in Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, which views the process of writing and and publishing through a literary editor’s lens. This is an insider’s look at the business, with juicy secrets from within the publishing house, from an editor who fearlessly bares her soul and, by way of it, encourages her readers to do the same.

As someone who discovered the world of copy editing only a couple years ago, has made mistakes and learned what the editor-writer relationship means and should be, and has since filled both shoes at once, I expected pages of wisdom about good, hard editing. What Lerner provides is much different: I knew it wasn’t going to be Strunk and White, but I wasn’t prepared for a collection of experiences throughout the years. Lerner reveals the beautiful and the ugly sides of the industry — and the bitterness and optimism that comes and goes for editors, agents, publicists, publishers, and writers alike. These people must all work together for a common goal, but their perspectives and priorities couldn’t be more different from day to day.

First, Lerner tackles the needs and neuroses of the writer, who is simply someone, of any walk of life, who must write. It doesn’t matter whether you’re good or bad, chronically unpublished or successful. A writer is someone who writes against all hardship and commits to whatever amount of work is necessary to improve — even if that means rewriting an entire book from a different character’s perspective or surviving a storm of criticism that never seems to clear.

And as far as the phrase, “Write what you know”? Lerner says it’s redundant — all writers, by fault, write what they know.

Lerner also urges aspiring authors to write like they don’t care if their mother will read it. You’re not going to shock, awe, or inspire any other sort of emotional reaction unless you’re fearless in what you put down on the page.

But to editors, agents, and publicists, writers are like children. So easily can they stray from the well-lit path into any manner of darkness: writer’s block, desperation, jealousy of peers, an insatiable need for attention, and even drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. They’re naive and impatient, and so often the rewards of publication are built on hopes and fantasies that, once shattered, can never be repaired.

Getting published isn’t an instant miracle. Sometimes it makes the struggle harder, Lerner tells us, and she backs up what she says.

She also explores all angles of the book world and shows how the people caught up in it interact with one another. Publicists get little love. The inside of a publishing house is a brutal environment where discouragement and thrill go hand in hand. And the business is always changing — with the growth of social media and the constant yet unpredictable threat of competition. No one ever really know what’s going to sell.

But Lerner shares the little joys, too — those rare, literary wonders that you fight for, and the ones that are runaway hits and a fleeting source of euphoria for everyone who made them happen. What’s even more amazing, though, is how safe the author makes readers — and writers — feel despite the hostility and enormous chance of disappointment. She holds in her hands not a pen, but a little flame of hope that refuses to go out.

Bottom line: Not for practical applications, but contains invaluable insight into the publishing industry that any aspiring writer should take the time to read.

What I liked: The author’s swift use of language and her bravery.

What I wasn’t expecting: No concrete editing tips and advice to speak of.

The importance of voice, flow, and courteous editing

Luc Sante wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal recently about finding (and listening to) the editor within. He hits some really good notes—like how being a good writer is not the same as being a good editor, although the two are closely linked.

Toward the end, Sante offers what is arguably his best advice:

One of the means to assure such things is constant rereading. I reread from the top—or some similar landmark if the work is long—whenever I take a significant break from writing, and that doesn’t just mean overnight but includes eating lunch, going to the bathroom, answering the phone and searching for elusive facts.

Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don’t trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.

In the time I’ve worked as a writing tutor and copy editor, I’ve learned two undeniable tenets of the trade: Ripping other people’s writing to shreds is easy. Doing as much to our own happens far less frequently.

The key is a balanced approach. Take a little space and time to let the writing simmer and breathe, no matter whose it is. Reread not only for flow, but to concentrate on various aspects of the piece and allows yourself to catch different sorts of problems. Keep the voice, cut the excess, and dispose of words that hinder effective communication—no matter how enamored you are with a particular phrase. Most importantly, trust your gut. If something feels wrong when reading a sentence, it probably needs work. This instinct applies to whole paragraphs, too.

Be gentle with other people’s writing. As much as you might want to because you’re a Grammar Nazi or the Best Writer Ever in your world, don’t take sadistic joy in tearing another person’s efforts apart. I learned this through experience. The best method is to look for weak openings in grammar, punctuation, and style while keeping a close eye on readability and clarity. Don’t overload sentences and make sure, whatever you do, that the author’s voice is intact. Have a firm, irrefutable reason for changing anything.

Voice is important for our own writing, as well. Sometimes when we edit we’re tempted to iron out any hint of personality for fear that it might sound too informal or risky. But often a little flavor can elevate even the most perfected writing, taking it from flat to extraordinary! Like Burrito Kitty here.

The hardest part of the writing process

If you’ve peeked at my “About” page, then you know I’m polishing up my first novel. Currently I’m shoulder-deep in revision, which is ten times harder than actually writing the book was—and that’s quite the accomplishment for anyone, especially aspiring authors, who often stop before they finish.

I’m proud to say I finished, and no matter how hard the work the remains is, it won’t stop me from getting the book done.

I’m interested in knowing what other people think is the most difficult part of the writing process—be it book, poem, or short story. Here’s an outline of the major steps.

Writing — To attempt any writing task, you must sit down, leak those creative juices for however many hours it takes, and stay your hand every time it tries to edit or nit-pick. You also have to finish it, and that’s often where beginner writers get stuck. I found that following a disciplined schedule (x number of words per night, or every other night, or per week) greatly facilitates completing the work by your personal or official deadline. For example, if you’re shooting for a 60,000 word book, you can calculate how many words you should write and how often in order to finish by a certain date.

Reading and trying light writing exercises can help struggling writers power through those dreaded blank screens. Blogs—or any kind of vehicle for practicing writing every day—make it easy to stay in shape and fend off writer’s block, which is really just a poor excuse!

Revising — It makes logical sense, to me anyway, to start with heavy revision and then top it off with a final dusting of editing and proofreading. Revision involves fleshing out characters, tightening dialogue, livening descriptions, and correcting any errors in the narrative. This part takes longer to complete just because it doesn’t necessarily mesh with a set schedule or routine. At a certain point a writer must say, “Enough!” and move on from a given section or chapter, but revising devours the writer’s time and energy because so much of it is spent going over the same sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters numerous times. Revision requires a slow progression, rather than one that involves moving from the first chapter to the last and then repeating the process several times, a troublesome strategy that allows for more continuity mistakes and increases the likelihood of missing out on those “ding!” moments—mental clicks that lend the added depth and richness your story needs.

I usually refresh by reading previously revised chapters, making small edits along the way without lingering for too long, before starting the next chapter and working on it five or six times until satisfied. Your first draft is where the magic happens; revision turns that magic into a presentable magic show.

Editing/ProofreadingA more manageable task than revision, editing and proofreading iron out any remaining kinks in the writing, attending specifically to grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Hiring an editor to assist with this part is instrumental to successful publication. Even if you’re competent in this department like me, it’s probably a good idea to consult outside help.

Sharing — Depending on how high-profile your piece of writing is, you might choose to share you writing before pursuing publication. This is a definite step for me as an aspiring first-time author: I want to ensure my novel is as impressive and reader-friendly as it can be before shooing it off to agents and potential publishers.

Honest feedback from trusted sources is key. I’ve already talked to a few people about sending them advanced manuscripts in exchange for thorough criticism. If you do the same, do your volunteers a courtesy and pay for printing and shipping costs—and give them a mention in your book’s dedications, too.

Publishing — This is one of the biggest hurdles in the process for any writer. All that hard work and time is put to the test. Either it pays off now, or you’re stuck with an unsellable manuscript. If unsuccessful, self-publishing and/or entering the e-book market is another option, but prepare to make a substantial financial investment and, if you push past that, expect lower sales than normal. I’m aiming to publish traditionally because, while my chances of acquiring a book deal are naturally slim, the return can be far greater in the long run.

Marketing — The responsibility of marketing a book rests largely in the author’s hands, and it’s good to have an established platform (online blogs, presentations, community involvement, etc.) to help spread the news of your book’s launch. Failing to secure adequate sales can hurt your chances of publication in the future. Read up on marketing tactics and form a plan early.

Did I miss any steps? What part of the writing process do you struggle with? Please share any anecdotes or advice in the comments below.

Good books for word ninjas—and a couple favorites

Amazon.com blog Omnivoracious has organized a list of six recommended books for writers—from those wishing to add style to their writing to others hoping to simply avoid writing like an arse. You heard me.

Here’s the list at a glance:

  • Help! for Writers by Roy Peter Clark — Practical advice about turning writing into a lifestyle
  • Word Hero by Jay Heinrichs — Learn how to bring art and wit to your writing
  • Microstyle by Christopher Johnson — Thoughts on how we connect with language and how to do more with less
  • How Not to Talk Like an Arse by Richard Wilson — 101 phrases that should be exiled from the English language
  • Gobbledygook by William Wilson — See if you can spot the fake word in this dictionary game
  • The Bloomberg Way by Matthew Winkler — A trusty handbook for business writers

And a couple of my favorites:

Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style by Arthur Plotnik — Spice up your writing enough to make Strunk and White cry

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss — A humorous glimpse into punctuation

What books on writing, grammar, and punctuation have you found indispensable?

Errors, formatting, and other differences between e-book and print

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the varying quality of e-books. I’m not just talking about the relative ease of digital self-publishing, which for all its simplicity and convenience makes flooding the market with low-rate books an even bigger reality. Everyone should have the opportunity to bypass traditional channels and put their story out there for the world to see, but when it comes time to buy, prospective readers of indie books have to wade through a confusing pool of releases, playing a blind game of Marco Polo with the good and the bad—nearly all of them are cheap, but not enough of them are readable, let alone well-written, and how are people supposed to know a gem from a rock? A free e-book a day is a great luxury, but what use is reading more if what you’re reading isn’t very good?

Sure, reading bad books is just as important as reading good books, but more so if you’re a writer—you learn what not to do, just like the best prose and poetry instructs you on what to do and how you should go about doing it.

One thing I can’t forgive, however, is the often shoddy quality of traditionally published e-books. Some are worse than others, but most e-books I’ve seen contain at least one of the following problems:

  • An unflattering, bereft design and layout — If I’m replacing a normal print book with an e-book, I still want the same pampering. Give me a cover, even if it is in boring black and white. Give me a table of contents, copyright information, and all the other pages you’d typically include before the actual book begins.
  • Spelling and space errors — I know programming e-books is a newfangled task, but it bothers me when publishers (or self-publishers) don’t put as much effort into producing a flawless finished product as they would normally. I routinely spot extra spaces (sometimes big, very noticeable extra spaces) in between words or punctuation, common spelling errors, and similar issues. Embedding pictures is another complication—sometimes they don’t even appear on the page they’re supposed to, or they distort the text. Not okay.
  • Missing bold, italics, or headers — Honestly, I haven’t encountered many problems with italicized words, but bold words can do a lot to differentiate lines of text—especially when publishers neglect to format actual headers that are separated from the rest of the text body, given adequate room, and enlarged for standard reading purposes.

At least the Kindle (not sure about other e-readers) has page numbers available now. Who really used those long numerical locations, anyway?

What other problems have you seen in e-books that wouldn’t ever be found dead in their print counterparts? Do you think the sudden demand for a digital format is any excuse for sloppy editing and poor presentation? Do these issues deter you from buying e-books?