A Few Things I’ve Learned About Writing

Reflecting on recent lessons learned, I made this list of highlights, all to do with being a writer.

If…

• If the passive voice were to be used along with conditional or subjunctive or some such mood, and if I were to be given material from a client that happened to include such longwinded and painstakingly constructed language, it might be possible that, as the person being compensated for simplifying the client’s material so that a stranger to the topic might be able to comprehend it, I found myself reducing a lengthy sentence into one declarative statement of few words.

How long?

• Varying the sentence lengths in a long-form piece rocks.

Teacher, teacher!

• My clients and the writers in my writer group are excellent at teaching me how to improve my writing.

• Also, the fictional Emily Starr, protagonist of Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s trilogy, reminds me to keep at it. Emily’s writing career can be a great example of persistence and doggedness, traits that can get the work done, done well, and out the door.

I noticed three copies of my book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, at a local bookshop last week.

Bookstores

• As rewarding as writing is for its own sake, it is also cool to see a book you wrote on the shelf of a local bookstore. [Hazard of visiting my books at the bookstore: Now I want to read all the other books on the shelf….]

• It’s also even cooler to be paid for books that sold off that shelf.

Funny

• Humor comes in lots of flavors and strengths. It’s often just the ticket (even in nonfunny writing).

An invitation, or a rebuke?

Joy

• Writing can be a pleasure, and a blank page an invitation. When it isn’t, it can be worthwhile to explore why that is. Sometimes even a small change can switch it back into something that feels OK or even good.

Connection

• Writers have a lot to learn from their readers. Sending out the completed book or story or article doesn’t need to be the end of a writer’s (one-sided) connection with readers. Some readers want to know more about – even get acquainted with – the author of that thing they enjoyed reading. And in non-creepy ways.

For me?

Gifts

• Beta readers are generous. When someone volunteers to read your new work before it’s released or published, and then gives you structured, useful feedback about it – that’s pretty much the ideal gift. At least for a writer. Well, online reviews are pretty wonderful, too, now that you mention it.

Like water

• A writer group can make a wannabe writer into a legit one. So can a writing coach. It’s like water on a stone. Slowly, over time, edges are delineated, and rough surfaces polished.

• There’s always more to learn.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Her first nonfiction book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

Proofreading and Editing

Like every reader, I’ve come across typos and small continuity errors in novels and short stories, but few created the world-wide uproar as the error found on page 667 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the First American edition, July 2000.

Voldemort and Harry’s wands had met in battle and the result was Voldemort’s ghostly victims spewing out in the reverse order that he killed them, that is, his last victim coming out of his wand first. When Harry’s parents appeared, his father came out of the wand before his mother.Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

My son was seven years old in the summer of 2000. My husband, my son, and I were reading aloud this fourth book in the beloved Harry Potter series and we immediately realized the mistake. Since it was Lily Potter’s love of her son, Harry, which destroyed Voldemort, she should have come out of Voldemort’s wand before Harry’s father. See http://www.hp-lexicon.org/about/exp-wandorder.html for more details about the wand order problem.

What lessons did I learn?

Primarily, I learned that even one of the bestselling authors of all time makes mistakes! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors).

Secondarily, I learned that writers must utilize many proofreading tools to minimize typos and continuity errors.

Here are a few of my favorite proofreading techniques:

One:  Read what you’ve written and then read it again. And again.  Read it until you can’t find any errors. But don’t submit yet. Your proofing has just begun.

Carolyn at her desk

Carolyn O’Neal. Editing, editing, always editing.

Two: Read it out loud. Hearing your words is like turning on the light in a dim room. Errors shine in the spotlight of the voice. Words should flow off the page. If you stumble as you read your own writing aloud, imagine how it will sound to others.

Three: Record your voice as you read what you’ve written. My favorite way to record my voice is with my I-Pod. Under Extras, I select Voice Memos. I record a piece and listen to it over and over until I catch all the elusive logic and continuity errors.

IPod Shuffle, Nano, Classic, and Touch
IPod Shuffle, Nano, Classic, and Touch

Four: Ask others to read your work. This is when being a member of a great writing group REALLY pays off. Having three or four or five other people read and discuss your work helps you find everything from simple typos to major plot problems. Yes, you can ask your parent or spouse to read your writing, but can they give you objective feedback?  Probably not. For more information on creating a great writing group, go to https://baccaliterary.com/how-to-create-a-writing-group/ the BACCA Literary logo

All of the above works well for small pieces.  Short stories or poems.   But what about novels?   Reading 80,000 words aloud would be exhausting.  The answer:

Five: Text to Voice software. Text to Voice software converts the words you’ve written into a natural sounding voice. This is especially helpful when listening to multiple chapters. I use NaturalReaders. A downloadable free sample of NaturalReaders is available at http://www.naturalreaders.com/download.php.

NaturalReader is a Text to Speech software with natural sounding voices. This easy to use software can convert any written text such as MS Word, Webpage, PDF files, and Emails into spoken words. NaturalReader can also convert any written text into audio files such as MP3 or WAV for your CD player or iPod.

 

 Additional proofreading suggestions

from guest contributor

Constance Renfrow,

courtesy  of DIYMFA

Constance Renfrow

Constance Renfrow is an editor at Three Rooms Press; an editor and publishing consultant at constancerenfrow.com

What to Know Before You Submit Your Novel

 

Check for Dumb Mistakes

It takes the trained eye approximately 0.02 seconds to notice the glaring typo on page one of a submission. And sometimes we editors are so stressed/exhausted/cranky that reading, “The tour-tooted animals” instead of the four-footed ones in the manuscript we’re looking at on our 4 p.m. lunch break is just the dose of hilarity needed to dissolve us into a dripping puddle of laughter-tears.

Read It As An Educated Reader

Now it’s time to read over your manuscript for anything an editor may find problematic enough to make her beg St. Francis de Sales for instant death. Are you making sexist/racist/controversial statements that have absolutely no bearing on the story? Get rid of them. Do you spend an entire chapter claiming your senator eats paint? Prove it with facts or rethink it. Does the book rely on stereotypes? That’s boring. No one wants to be bored and editors have especially short attention spans.

Exterminate all clichés. Even if they’re fairly new to the vernacular, just imagine how many times an acquiring editor sees them. I never want to see a person’s face described as a “mask of” horror/terror/ugliness/anything ever again.

Another thing. Pay attention to how many times you repeat words or phrases. Have you ever said a word so many times in a row that it loses all meaning? That’s what the editor will feel like if you use the phrase “so-and-so snorted” 381 times in a two hundred-page novel. I once had an author who used “shared” instead of “said” every single time, and I still can’t say/hear/read/think the word without wanting to throttle whatever good Samaritan is sharing her fruit platter with the rest of the office.

Mind-Expanding Writing Strategies

One thing that I love about “writing in community” is the accountability. Expanding the group of people who can give constructive feedback about our writing makes it a less lonely activity. Writing groups, partners, or teams help cheer us on when we’re stuck. And deadlines for those groups help us keep going even when – like at the end of Daylight Savings Time – we’d like to curl up on the couch instead of sticking to our writing goals. Here are some other mind-expanding* strategies that keep me writing.

1. Writing is an opportunity to be mindful

angkor_thom_image

The author captured this peaceful face beyond the doorways on an October 2013 visit to Angkor Thom, Cambodia

I recently learned the term productive procrastination, which means doing something that seems productive, to avoid doing The Thing that you should be doing – in this case, writing. Ever notice that when you sit down for your daily dose of writing, the dirty dishes or laundry start calling to you? Or for some reason it’s a good time to do your banking?

Even chores can seem compelling if you’ve been out of the writing habit for a while. So: next time this happens, expand your awareness to include this tendency. In other words, simply try to notice, to consciously register, when your mind tries to convince you that something else is more important than your writing. At first, you may still end up avoiding your writing. But after a while of noticing, you can change that habit (your brain is actually re-wiring itself). Now when I catch myself beginning to productively procrastinate, I’m usually able to override the impulse and keep on writing. Sometimes it helps to write down the item on a to-do list so I don’t forget. I just say to myself “You’re writing now, you can do that later.” And it’s true!

2.  Think outside the screen

In this age of electronic devices, sometimes I forget about writing strategies beyond my laptop screen. But interacting with a paper draft is different than on a computer or tablet. I find reading and editing on paper an especially important strategy when I’m working on chapters – or really, anything longer than a couple of pages. When I read on the page, I notice more easily if a sentence needs to be moved up or down, or I can see a whole section that can be edited out. Do you find it difficult to order the action in a novel or short story? Consider cutting up pieces of text and moving things around.

You can also use outlines however they work for you. For example, try outlining after you start writing, or make an outline of what you’ve written. This will show you the entire story and things that are out of place might pop.

3. Writing is part of the learning process

DSCF2278

One of many colorful Buddhas in a park in the Cambodian Cultural Village of Siem Reap. He might be saying “Don’t worry. Be happy. Just write. Then edit.”

I used to have a concept that I would understand something fully and then write it down. But I’ve learned that for me, writing is how I figure things out. In other words, I’ve broadened my definition of “writing” to include “writing to learn,” in addition to “writing to teach” (or explain, describe, or entertain). I’m not so hesitant anymore to start writing even if I don’t know where it might lead.

4. Expect to edit

Learning is a process. We are all in that process. Even experts write “crappy drafts.” Which is why another thing that’s just part of writing is editing. And to truly open a piece up to its possibilities, some parts of yourself may need to be uninvited from the editing part of the process. For example, the “that’s not good enough yet” voice and the “everything I do is perfect” voice do not belong in the editing room with you. Banish those voices and you will have more room to think.

*Credit to the great wordsmith, A M Carley.

— CE Cameron