Writers, give yourself 10 minutes a day

Don't Give Up Dinosaurs

Honesty time.

I’m at this weird point in my writing life where I know I’m getting better, but I’m the least motivated I’ve ever been.

Let me back up and explain. I’m about a third deep into my WIP, which will be my third novel (fourth if you count that one I started in high school and never finished). At the same time that I’m writing it, I’m querying my previous novel and starting to wonder if I’ll ever get a manuscript request, let alone get it published. Even after two years of writing/revising and rounds of query critiques (including by published authors), it may not happen, folks. The query — for whatever reason — isn’t hooking agents.

So I’m feeling kind of discouraged. Like, what’s even the point of trying?

I know I’m usually all about preaching, “YOU CAN DO THIS KEEP TRYING,” but the truth is, even those of us who understand the value of persistence to a successful writing career aren’t immune to struggling with confidence. I’m feeling pretty lousy.

Yes, I take comfort in the fact that for many published authors, it takes multiple books before they get published. Maybe even ten books. Or twenty. (Seriously, read this post — it will give you hope.) And pretty much every book can feel like “the one” and not be it.

And I know I’m growing and getting better. For my first book (not counting that high school attempt), I finished the first draft but not revision. For my second book, I finished the first draft and several rounds of revision with several critique partners, but the foundation is perhaps too weak to fix. For this book (third), I’m much more confident in the world-building, characters, and the foundation of the novel — it’s going to be better from the start.

All signs point to “it will happen someday.” I will get published. But the “someday” part throws me off.

And then I watched author Rachael Stephen‘s video about how it’s important just to try, every day, and keep trying. “You don’t want to write today,” she says, “but all you have to do is try. For ten minutes. … Once they’re up, you can get up and walk away. And at least you tried today.”

After that, she says, chances are you’ll get over the feeling of “oh my god this is so grueling ugh why even do this” and actually get carried away in the writing and start to enjoy yourself. You’ll start to remember why you wanted to write a book in the first place, and that will support you through the process.

Stephen admits that the video is as much a reminder to other writers as it is to herself, and I think this blog post is the same thing for me.

So I’m going to put in my ten minutes today. Even though I don’t want to. Even though I’m not feeling it. Even though I don’t particularly believe in myself right now. Because if I don’t at least try, then it will 100% never happen. And if I do try, and keep trying — well, even if I can’t predict whether it will or won’t happen, those are far better odds.

How to use Scrivener minimally to write a novel

Scrivener corkboard

I will never, ever go back to Microsoft Word.

Scrivener is a godly writing platform at a stupidly affordable price (under $50). But dozens of writers are hesitant to switch over because it’s “complicated.”

Let me ask you this: How many things do you know how to do in Word? Maybe … 10%? 20%?

Scrivener is easy. I know it can do some pretty fancy things, but even at bare minimum, it’s amazing. You absolutely do not need to pay someone to teach you how to use Scrivener.

Here’s the gist.

Your novel consists of “folders” and “texts”

When you start up Scrivener, you make a new project. Choose “Fiction” and then “Novel.” Give it a title, and voilà.

Your chapters and scenes all go in the sidebar so you can quickly switch between them. Select “Manuscript,” right-click, and then add a new folder for a chapter. Right-click on the folder and add a new text for a scene.

From there, you can drag folders and texts around to put them in whatever order you want. I give my chapters a name, but I just list scenes as “Scene 1.1,” “Scene 1.2,” etc.

(The below screenshot is from the Mac version, but I’ve used the PC version as well and they’re both equally good.)

Scrivener Mac

You only really need two modes

Wherever your three “Group”/”View” mode buttons are (these vary on PC and Mac), toggle between them to try them out. One looks like a blank sheet of paper; another looks like a notecard. There’s a third mode, but don’t worry about it.

These are the only two modes you need. Actually, you only need the mode that’s a blank sheet of paper. It’s the only one I use.

Scrivener mode

Delete a bunch of stuff

Delete everything under “Research.” Delete the “Template Sheets.” Delete “Sample Output.”

You can always recover these from the Trash if you want them later.

Scrivener binder

Write in any font you want

One thing I really like about Scrivener is that you can write in whatever font or size you want. None of it matters when you compile the document because Scrivener formats your manuscript for you.

And that’s the single best reason to use it.

“Research” is for everything else

I took out everything in the pre-formatted “Research” section and made folders for:

  1. “Characters” — literally, profiles on each main character
  2. “World-building” — magic rules, politics, geography, etc.
  3. “Plotting” — For me, this consists of things like chapter and act word counts, a table of macro problems to fix, scraps and random brainstorming, ideas for a sequel, and discarded chapters.
  4. “Other” — For tentative query pitches, a sample query letter, a novel synopsis, an elevator pitch, thoughts on theme, and so on. It was super helpful to see those in one place, side by side. (More on that later.)

And that’s it

I don’t really use the corkboard (digital index card feature) in Scrivener because I do a lot of planning in a good old-fashioned paper notebook before I even open a word document and start typing. That’s just my style.

You can go a lot deeper with Scrivener, but at the end of the day, it’s no more complicated than using Microsoft Word. Probably less so, because Word is annoying and dumb.

When you’re ready to print or make a non-Scrivener file type — a Word doc … or, on second thought, anything else, like a Kindle file or PDF — all you have to do is hit “Compile.” Easy peasy.

I’m happy to talk more in-depth if you have questions or want to bounce around ideas, so leave your thoughts in the comments.

 

Here’s a trick for eliminating unnecessary exposition in your novel

dark willow buffy bored blah

As I revise my novel, one of the problems I’m working on is too much exposition, especially in the beginning chapters.

I’ve devised a little trick to help as it’s not always apparent to me when I have too much.

What is exposition, anyway?

Author Beth Amos defines exposition as “information that is offered to readers to help them understand the plot, characters, or setting in a story. Exposition is telling, not showing, and passive rather than active.”

What is too much exposition?

Amos has a nice way of explaining when you’re hitting the danger zone with exposition:

The key is to use it piecemeal, doling it out in small chunks and only when absolutely necessary. To involve readers in your story, you need to maintain their interest and pique their curiosity. You do that by revealing just enough details to make a character or situation intriguing without insulting the reader’s intelligence by spelling it out for them. And if you can offer those same revelations through dialogue and action, so much the better.

Think of real life. When we meet a person for the first time, we know nothing about their past, their personalities, or even much of their present day life. Over time, if we continue to be exposed to this person, we will glean these details through the person’s actions, interactions, and conversations. The more puzzling and complex a person seems, the more our interest is piqued. In contrast, when you meet someone who is so fascinated by his own life that he proceeds to tell you every aspect of it in excruciating detail, the impulse is to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

Here’s my trick to reducing exposition:

I’ve been rereading each scene and chapter looking only for tell-ish exposition — anywhere I’m stepping out of the “present” to explain something so the reader better understands the deeper context — and I highlight it in yellow. I especially look for exposition that feels like it could be taken out without affecting the action or flow of the scene. In other words, it’s just not that relevant or necessary.

If the highlighted portion is more than two lines, I trim it down to two (or less). But instead of simply deleting the offending text, I cut and paste it into a text document in my Scrivener project that I titled “Scraps.” This way, I’m not losing the extra information — and I don’t forget what it is, either. I’m taking it and moving it to the side, out of the way, so I can recycle it later, or so I can remember why it was so important in the first place.

What this has taught me:

First, it’s made this exercise has made it much easier to spot heavy exposition in my novel. It really is true that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to look for everything (character, exposition, description, etc.) at the same time — you need to take a pass for one thing, then a pass for another.

Second, I’ve learned to take out the bits I don’t need and find more creative ways to incorporate them. For example, in my novel, I realized I had told the reader what my character’s unusual routine was each morning when I could have shown her going through it at the start of the story.

What techniques do you use to eliminate unnecessary exposition in your stories?

A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done

12 tips for new writers working on their first manuscript (aka, a letter to my past self)

writing a book

Writing a book is dang hard. And even though experienced writers know that writing the thing is the easy part, that doesn’t diminish what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish a book. A lot of people don’t get that far, so it’s pretty incredible if you do. I mean, you are awesome.

You learn a lot going from your first completed manuscript to your second. In no special order, here are 12 things I wish I could go back and tell my former self — a newbie fiction writer with a lot ahead of her.

#1: No one gets it right on the first try

Dear past self: You just finished that manuscript, wrote “the end,” and your whole body is shaking. YOU WROTE A BOOK. You’re excited and proud, and you damn well should be.

But as amazing as you think your book is, it’s going to need a lot of work — a little thing called revision. There’s a reason most writers consider their very first finished MS their “practice novel.” You’re flexing a muscle you’ve never used before, at least not so rigorously — it’s gonna take awhile before you compose a masterpiece.

So don’t feel bad if this isn’t “the one.” First drafts are never, ever perfect. First novels rarely ever are.

#2: Listen to what your gut is telling you

Dear past self: When you were writing that book, you thought that this was the hard part. But now revision looms ahead of you, and you just can’t bring yourself to get past the first few chapters. You’ve polished them each about ten times, and you still have tens of thousands of words left to go. How can you even.

Truth is, you’re procrastinating for a reason: You don’t love your book. You don’t believe in it. You think it’s boring, and that’s hard to admit, and it’s going to take you a year or two to finally concede to it. But hey. That’s okay. You can put this one in a drawer somewhere and start working on something that’s going to excite you again. Because if you don’t love your story, chances are no reader will.

writing happened

#3: Publishing isn’t the point

Dear past self: The totally delusional write to make millions. (Not gonna happen.) The semi-delusional write to get published. The realistic write because they love writing, and if publishing follows at some point, hey, that’s pretty awesome.

Every writer wants to get published, but as soon as you accept that that’s not why you’re doing this — that you’re writing because you can’t not write — then things will fall into place. You’ll become more disciplined, more serious about getting the work done in a timely manner. And that’s what counts. That you treat it like a profession. That you hone your skills. That you keep writing. Publishing is not proof that you’re a writer. Your writing habits are.

#4: Study your craft

Dear past self: You’ve got a lot to learn, kiddo, so you better study up. Start researching story structure. POV. Character development. Info dumps. Show versus tell. Internalization and dialogue. And most importantly, REVISION.

Fiction University is going to help you a lot. You’re going to recommend it to every writer you meet who’s struggling with the basics. You’re a whiz at grammar and punctuation, and that will take you far. Now it’s time to master technique.

#5: Get over your fear of sharing

Dear past self: The best revision you’ll ever do will be the product of having other writers look at your writing. No writer should revise in a vacuum — you’re too close to your work to see what needs fixing, and you have no sense of what you should be focusing on.

Without the guidance of critique partners and beta readers, you’ll be changing things that don’t need changed and making edits that don’t have much impact. Having someone provide feedback on your work will be ten times more valuable than trying to figure out revision when you have no idea where you should even begin. Revision is hard enough; don’t do it alone. The only way to get over your shyness about sharing your writing is to share your writing.

write trashy

#6: Negative feedback isn’t a death sentence

Getting critiqued is hard. You’re going to cry the first few times. You’re going to feel nervous. You’re going to have to train yourself not to get angry when someone thinks your story needs work.

But guess what: The more you do it, the less sensitive you’ll be to negative feedback, and the more you’ll crave it. Because this is the good stuff. This is going to make your writing better. And with time, you’ll start to realize that the difference between a bad chapter someone hates and a good chapter they love can come down to a few key edits. It’s not as a hard as you think. It’s practically magic.

#7: Revision will get easier

Dear past self: Just like getting critiqued, revising will get easier, too. Right now, you hate it. It’s so much work. You spend so many hours on one chapter. You feel like this is going to take forever and that you’ll never get there.

But listen: You will get there. And you will get used to revision. In fact, you’ll actually start to love it more than writing a first draft, because revision is how your story transforms. How it becomes everything you envisioned it to be. As the changes you make pile up, you’ll actually start seeing the forest for the trees. And revision becomes … fun. Imagine that.

#8: Schedules are VERY important

Dear past self: In order to write a book, you have to stick to a schedule. That could be anything — 300 words every day of the week, or 500 words every other day. You decide.

And just like with writing, revision only gets done when you set a schedule. And as soon as you make that schedule a habit that you follow, it won’t be so hard to stick to anymore. And hey — you’ll learn that if you plan your schedule at the start of each week, you’ll get so much done. And getting shit done is a GOOD FEELING. You’ll want as much of that good feeling as you can get.

#9: Stop worrying about word count

Dear past self: Okay, so you’re an underwriter. While other writers can churn out 130,000 words and then have to spend their time trimming, you’re stuck adding to your novel more than you need to take away. You basically have to flesh out every scene — paint in the details.

But for the love of god, stop obsessing about word count. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Sure, publishers expect certain genres to be within a certain word count range. But you’re going to drive yourself crazy with this one, trust me. Focus on the story now — word count later. Story matters more, and oftentimes in filling out and also tightening your story, word count will take care of itself.

word count gif

#10: Stop comparing yourself to other writers

Dear past (and present) self: On your worst days, you’re going to hate every word you write. Don’t look at your novel on these days. Don’t go anywhere near it. And above all, do not compare your writing to someone else’s.

Your style is your style, and trying to be like That Author You Love isn’t going to change that. In fact, trying to emulate them won’t get you published. A fresh voice will. A unique voice. Your voice.

Every writer’s journey to success — and to publication (which are separate things) — is different. Some take longer than others. Some are harder than others. So a published author you admire is just a writer who’s been at it longer. Who’s practiced more. Don’t get down on yourself because they’re far along in their own story and you’re just starting yours.

#11: You will get better

Dear past self: When you see how much better your second manuscript is going to be than your first, you’re going to flip. It’ll be so obvious in the writing, structure, and characters how much you’ve grown. You’ve learned from some of your mistakes. You’ve gotten better. And of course, you still have more to learn.

But when you go for your third time around, you’re going to use that new knowledge and write an even better story. All stories involve work — involve rewriting. That’s how it’s done. And even if novel one through novel four don’t get you published, the experience of writing them — of revising them — will make you stronger. So much more than you think.

#12: Never give up

Dear past (and present) self: Never give up on your dream.

Writing is hard. It’s a thankless job. It takes years of your life. And sometimes you’re going to wonder if it’s even worth doing.

But in your heart, you know it is. Because you love this. Because this is who you are. And because you’ll never be truly happy until you see your first book on the shelves — and then your next book, and the next. Writing stories makes you happy. And when you don’t write, you’re anxious and grumpy and restless, and you know it.

So keep writing. Keep going. Whether it takes you two manuscripts or ten to get published. Write to write. Write because you want to. Because you can. Because you’re unstoppable. Because you’ve got a story to tell, dammit. And never let anyone else tell you otherwise — especially yourself.

6 important questions to ask a potential critique partner

gravity falls pretending to write

All good writing is rewriting, and no good rewriting is done in a vacuum.

At least, that’s what I believe. I could go through a dozen self-edits on my manuscript, but I’d get less mileage than I would from one good critique from a couple beta readers or critique partners. If I don’t have a little guidance, for all I know I could be fixing all the wrong things because writers are too close to their work to assess what’s working and what’s not — at least until we get someone else’s perspective.

But searching for critique partners can be a total gamble, especially when you’re trusting strangers online. Twitter is a great place to look (search “critique partners” — boom) if you’re already combed forums and hit dead ends, but you can scout any number of places. Here are six good questions to ask a potential critique partner (and yourself) to determine if you might be a good match.

Keep in mind that you should generally look for critique partners writing within the same genre and/or age group as you, so I’m going to assume you already know to ask that question. ;)

What kind of critique schedule do you have in mind?

Answer this question yourself, too. Determine upfront — before you even begin talking to the other writer — how much you can handle, whether it’s per week or per month. Are you able to swap one chapter a week? Three chapters a week? Are you open to swapping a full manuscript all at once? Know how much and how often you’re willing to critique so that when you ask your potential partner about their expectations, you won’t feel pressured to agree to a schedule that you can’t stick to.

Don’t forget to ask how long their manuscript is, too. A month might sound like a reasonable time frame to return a full MS critique, but if their story is 200K, maybe not so much.

How often do you want to check in?

This is a really important one because it holds you and your potential critique partner accountable. Most critique partner relationships begin with a “first date” — where you swap first chapters to see what the other person’s critiquing style is like and if it’s going to work for you. Use this step as a measure to assess whether or not they’re serious about the partnership.

tried to care

Critiquing is a mutual responsibility, and you should be professional about it. There’s nothing more upsetting than firing off your critique of their first chapter, only to wait … and wait … and wait for their critique of yours. Sometimes, they’ll never even bother responding. This sucks, because you did the work and they didn’t. Word of advice? Even if you don’t think the other writer’s critique style is going to work for you, be a good human and critique their first chapter. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t sit around waiting for their critique to roll in and then ignore them because you plan to ditch them anyway. It’s not polite.

nope

If your potential critique partner gets that first chapter back to you within a few days and you both like each other’s style, then you’re good to go. But you should set an expectation of how often you want to touch base and exchange critiques. Once a week is a good starting point — maybe over the weekend.

The point isn’t to be strict but to judge how dependable they are. If your critique partner is constantly missing those “check-in” times, you may be better off without them. Having light deadlines will also ensure that you don’t end up doing all the work and then never getting anything back.

Where are you from?

The wonder of the Internet means you could be partnering with someone from a totally different country. Crazy, I know. It’s good to know upfront what time zone your partner is in because night for you might be morning for them.

What software do you use to critique?

There are all sorts of ways to annotate documents, but you might want to find out how your potential partner plans to critique so you can make sure you’re going to be able to access and read their comments. :)

Microsoft’s Track Changes is a safe route, but you could use other tools, like Google Docs. Just make sure that if your partner repels technology, you give them some tips or guidance to help them out. (Not everyone has used Track Changes before, for instance, or knows how to make the font in comment bubbles bigger.)

computer angry gif

What kind of critique are you looking for?

Some writers are looking for ovearching feedback, such as on big-picture issues, like character development and world-building. Others might need more help in the grammar and punctuation department. Asking what they’re seeking in a critique can reveal their strengths and weaknesses — and give you an idea of whether those strengths could come in handy for you.

If you’re good at grammar but suck at dialogue, for example, you may want to find someone who needs assistance with the mechanical stuff but has a knack for writing conversation.

Lastly, if you’re dumping them, is it for the right reasons?

If you read someone’s critique of your writing and flip out at what you’re seeing, take a moment before writing that “sorry, not gonna work” email and consider whether you’re rejecting them for the right reasons.

Criticism is hard to take, but remember: You’re not looking for someone to gush over your work and flatter you. You’re looking for someone who’s going to give you honest, constructive feedback that will improve your novel and challenge you as a writer.

Yes, you should try to be kind in how your phrase that feedback, but keep in mind that most writers, no matter how they critique, are coming from a good place. They mean well. So decide whether you’re saying “no” because they don’t think your work is perfect and you’re afraid you’ll have to do a little work, or because they’re just not giving you feedback you can use and grow from.

It’s tough love, baby.

grow up tough love

There are two types of writers in the world

sculptorThe world contains two types of creative writers.

While writing my current WIP, it’s occurred to me that people are either overwriters or underwriters — they either go crazy with the word count, or they struggle to hit their target. I’m an underwriter. I have about 40 chapters in my WIP, and my word count for my first draft was somewhere around 60,000. That’s not a whole lot for a novel, which means I’m knee-deep in some serious story, character, and world development.

Overwriters, on the other hand, have the challenge of whittling down their manuscripts into something with more shape and texture. There’s a lot of fat to trim. But how do you “fix” being an overwriter or an underwriter? How do you get your story in working order when what you put on the page is a mess?

I like to think of overwriters as sculptors. All writing is sculpting, in a way. You start with a block of a whole lotta nothing, and you carve it into a story. Overwriters spend a lot of time doing this. Even after their first draft is complete, they need to keep shaving off the edges. But if you’re an overwriter, don’t worry: You’re not going to chisel out a perfect story right away. Keep refining your manuscript here and there, in small measures, and eventually you’ll attain the dimension you want.

Underwriters are a little different — they’re more like painters, and painters work in layers. You might start with a manuscript that’s very bare, so you need to direct your focus toward fleshing out the details — every scene, character, and setting is going to take a lot more effort and thinking. Your second draft is the time to add color, tidy up the brushstrokes, and really make the whole picture pop. After a while, you’ll see that the measly sketch you started with has become a rich, complete work.

Are you an overwriter or an underwriter — a sculptor or a painter? How do you approach revisions?

Happy writing, and have a great New Year’s! See you in 2016.

The pros and cons of joining a writers group

Writers critiques gif

Critique partners, writing buddies, torture pals. Whatever you call them, having some writer friends who can give you honest, constructive criticism on your work is necessary when revision time rolls around. We aren’t trustworthy when it comes to objectively reviewing our own creative writing.

This is why I joined a writers group earlier this year. Well, two reasons: 1) I wanted to force myself to share my WIP with other people, which means being vulnerable and brave. And 2), I knew that without a little feedback and direction, I was going to revise in circles because it’s impossible for me to know what’s good and bad. Your readers determine that stuff. We’re too biased and close to the writing to make those sorts of decisions.

So here are a few lessons I’ve learned these past months from attending a local writing group:

Knowing other writers helps keep you stable

Writing is a lonely occupation, and it’s damn hard. So when you’re struggling or feeling discouraged, or you’re excited about something you’ve accomplished, it’s good to reach out to other people who get it.

My writing group has been super supportive, and it’s nice to talk to other people who understand about word counts and character development and stupid stuff like that without them looking at me like I’m crazy.

fist bump gif

Not everyone will be at your skill level

My writing group consists of 10 or so members, and every one of them is at a different skill level and has different interests. So while they’re critiquing your work, you have to decide whose opinions and thought processes match yours and whose don’t.

If you can find even two people whose criticisms are spot on, then your writing is going to be in better shape than it would be otherwise.

Critiquing other people’s work helps you learn

Most likely, your writing group will consist of beginners, which means you’re going to critique a lot of bad writing. Before you judge, yours is probably bad, too.

The good news is that pointing out the problems and areas for improvement in other people’s writing can teach you a lot about the writing process and how to avoid those kinds of mistakes. Because when you can recognize what’s boring, clunky, or ineffective, you’ll get better at detecting those sorts of flaws in your work. So try to keep this in mind while you’re waiting for your turn, and keep the groaning to a reasonable minimum.

awkward gif

There can be … drama (sigh)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but writers are neurotic people. And chances are any writing group you join will be a mixed bag of lovers and haters of different genres whose personalities are going to clash.

This is going to happen. It’s inevitable. The best thing you can do is try to stay out of the drama and set a good example. Especially if you’re younger than other people in your group, you’re going to wonder how adults can be so immature. So try to be as fair and accepting as you can, because most writers are weirdos with baggage, and that counts you.

Diversity also means valuable perspectives

In my opinion, the more diverse the group, the better. Not everyone in my group likes fantasy, my genre of choice. Or is anywhere in my age range. Or knows a whole lot about writing techniques and story structure. But that doesn’t devalue their opinions.

Why? Because first of all, your readers may not be educated about these things, either. But if they’re bored with your story or don’t like a character that you wanted them to like, these are still valid problems. So before you gripe about them not understanding the depth and subtlety of your dialogue, remember that every reader is worth listening to, whether you act on their feedback or not.

Secondly, I’ve found that every member of my writing group — despite their strengths, weaknesses, and hang-ups — contributes at least one smart and valuable comment when they critique my work. Because they come from a different background and see the world another way than I do, they catch things I might not. And that’s the whole point of having critique partners in the first place.

weirdos gif

Lost in type: She-Hulk author Marta Acosta talks miscommunication, genre confusion, and sexism

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Marta Acosta is frustrated. In our emails, she half-jokingly said that she was considering writing “I don’t write romance novels” at the top of her blog. I don’t blame her.

It’s an understatement to say the media overreacted to publishers Marvel and Hyperion’s announcement of a new line of prose novels, starting with The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch. They called it romance; it’s not. Others, like me, reacted to the overreaction and wondered whether this was the best way to portray these superheroines. The whole thing spun out of hand.

I wanted to share Marta’s story because she was caught in the middle. As a journalist, I want to stand up for those who have been treated unfairly or whose voice has been lost in a sea of others. As a blogger, I want to say that a lot of this was an honest misunderstanding — it’s hard to be a feminist (although it’s easy to be one in today’s world) and not overreact once in a while. But even mistakes like these can prompt discussion about bigger issues, like genre and the way we portray women in writing. Marta and I talked about the mishap from these angles and more.

Don’t forget to check out Marta’s guest blog post from yesterday.

Misprinted Pages: Marta, I’m mortified that the Internet has gotten She-Hulk so wrong. Fans fell for it; I fell for it. That’s why I feel so compelled to get the truth out there. Let’s start at the beginning, when Marvel and Hyperion had just made the announcement. What all happened that led to The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch getting mislabeled as romance novels?

Marta Acosta 3Marta Acosta: Hi, Stephanie, and thanks for having me here to talk about my next book! My fantastic editor Elisabeth Dyssegaard made the announcement about the She-Hulk and Rogue novels. First off, it’s great to have an accomplished woman editor at the helm of these new Marvel projects. Some publications and some bloggers cherry-picked words either looking for a reaction or outrage. So “traditional women’s novels” was twisted as meaning novels in which a female character is weak and subjugated to men. All the positive points about the characters were ignored, and “romance” was presented as meaning a romance novel, which is a separate genre with its own genre conventions.

While I don’t write romance novels — defined as having a love interest as the central theme — I’m always a little stunned at the nasty disdain the genre receives. There are great and crappy novels in any genre you can name, including literary fiction, and I can’t help but think that romance is a target because it’s predominantly written by women for women and it celebrates their emotional life and sexuality.

Continue reading Lost in type: She-Hulk author Marta Acosta talks miscommunication, genre confusion, and sexism

Novel progress update: Eliminating info dumps

info dumps writingSo this year I’ve vowed to work harder on revising my novel. I love copyediting (I do it every weekday for GamesBeat), but it’s much easier to look at someone else’s work with a clear eye than your own, trust me. That’s why I don’t edit my own articles! I have another one of our fine editors check over them.

The same problem occurs with novel revision, but it’s a lot deeper. Instead of dealing with the coherence of a 1,000-word body of text, you’re managing 60,000 and above. GULP.

I’m so glad I made an outline for my novel before diving into it. I got about halfway through writing the first draft of a fantasy novel in high school before I realized how badly I needed a roadmap, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. But when you’re editing a chapter that’s around 20 pages and trying to make it work within a much greater context, a lot more can go wrong.

I’m trying not to worry too deeply about that right now, though. I need to polish each chapter several times first before handing it over to anyone to read and provide feedback, which I want to do before moving forward with publishing. So right now, I’m concentrating on each chapter, one at a time.

info dumpsOne of my main goals is eliminating clumps of exposition or author-like material — the notorious info dump. I’ve noticed that anytime I’m spoon-feeding the reader unnecessary or convenient background info, either through description or dialogue, I need to stop and perform surgery. Just cut it out. If it sounds like I’m stepping in and talking directly to the reader, then I need to find a more natural way to integrate those details.

An article on writing.com suggests, “Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know everything, just what’s necessary to move and complete the story.”

This is sound advice, but I wanted a better idea of how to avoid and address info dumps, or narrative summaries. Here are some good tips from a professional editor:

When writers tell instead of show, they’re generally writing from the author’s POV and not the characters’. While the technique called “narrative summary” does have its place in a novel, it should be used sparingly.

Here’s a before-and-after example. The first version, written in the author’s POV, is a narrative summary:

But the site itself had been inhabited for much longer. The previous day she and Mike had jogged along an old path which edged the Knob, and she spotted the stark, vertical rock chimney of a burned-out cabin. It jutted from a weathered rock foundation that was now covered with thick vines and forest debris. The cabin had been built near the Knob’s edge, which plummeted almost two thousand feet to the valley floor.  She realized that, when the one-room cabin was built, its owner had probably cleared trees away to open the valley up for a spectacular view.

Notice the author is telling about the discovery, just as one tells ghost stories around a family campfire. She is summarizing what happened yesterday. There is no action. There was action yesterday, but that doesn’t count as action today.

I wrote that passage years ago. I thought it was fine writing until an old writing pro pointed out the problem. I read it again, and—by gosh, she was right. Following is the passage as I rewrote it to put the scene into a character’s POV and show the action, instead of leaving it in the author’s POV and tell about it:

Mike stepped aside and she saw a clearing. Grass, kept at bay in the deep woods they’d passed through, covered an area the size of an average yard.

She frowned. “This is it?”

“Yep. The original cabin site. See if you can find it.”

She saw nothing but the woods and grass. Blue sky appeared over a huge, waist-high stone outcropping at her left. She stepped to it and peered over.

“Why, we’re right at the bluff’s edge!”

“That’s right. Jump off that rock, and you’ll fall almost two thousand feet.”

And then she saw the vertical stone chimney. She’d overlooked it before, since it resembled the surrounding tall trees. She walked tentatively toward it. As her eyes adjusted she saw the stone foundation of a long-gone, one-room cabin. Its chimney rose from one corner, its hearth opening toward the center. Slanting rays filtering through the treetops brought the chimney and foundation to life.

She turned to Mike. “Look at that—it’s just like a shrine. Why, I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a time machine.”

The lesson? Write in real time. Don’t tell what happened in the past, but show it as part of the action now.

How do you deal with info dumping in your writing? What’s a good way to catch it?

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