Writing Advice

Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion

18 August 2014

From The New York Times Opinionator:

Failure in writing is not like failure in business, where you lose money and have to fire everyone and remortgage your house. When you’re a writer, most of the time, people don’t depend on you to succeed. Although you may starve if your books don’t sell, or your agent might yell at you for producing something that three people will read, failure in writing is more of an intimately crushing day-to-day thing. O.K., minute-to-minute. Measured against your ideal of yourself.

In the last few years, Philip Roth and Alice Munro decided to put down their pens.

Munro told this newspaper that she didn’t know if she had the energy “to do this anymore.” And Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” Roth and Munro have produced many admirable works. They should be allowed to stop failing on a daily basis, if they want to, in their eighth decades.

But the rest of us are stuck.

In writing, failing is not dramatic. There will be no news headline: ANOTHER WRITER FAILED TODAY.

. . . .

By the way, unless you come from a family of writers, you can be certain that your family will have no idea what you’re talking about when you mention that you’re failing every day. They will encourage you to become a radiologist. They mean well. They are likely to be worried about the thing that most families are worried about, namely your ability to support yourself in the fashion to which you are accustomed.

But for writers, early on, other kinds of failure demand attention. There is the logistical failure of getting to your desk. Then there is the failure of not being able to stay there. John McPhee once famously tied himself to his chair, which strikes me as a good way to deal with the torpor that overcomes many writers when faced with the blank page or screen.

But even if you succeed here, you can’t stop your mind from getting up and going over to the couch. Another potential failure: pacing. Writing is not like bingeing on “Breaking Bad.” You have to do it every day. Whatever happens.

. . . .

I remember the first time I felt like a bona fide failure as a writer. This feeling of nausea washed over me, but it was confusing because it appeared at the exact moment when I was supposed to be feeling success. It was when I finished my first book and realized there were some things in it that I hated, things that were made all the more hideous to me whenever people said, “You must have such a sense of accomplishment.” I asked a more experienced writer if she ever got over this nauseated feeling. She didn’t reassure me. “Oh, that never goes away.”

. . . .

Junot Díaz wrote convincingly about how his efforts at his first novel after many false starts made him a writer: “In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Sandra for the tip.

Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

13 August 2014

From Wired:

You have finally finished writing your article. You’ve sweat over your choice of words and agonized about the best way to arrange them to effectively get your point across. You comb for errors, and by the time you publish you are absolutely certain that not a single typo survived. But, the first thing your readers notice isn’t your carefully crafted message, it’s the misspelled word in the fourth sentence.

Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details?

The reason typos get through isn’t because we’re stupid or careless, it’s because what we’re doing is actually very smart, explains psychologist Tom Stafford, who studies typos of the University of Sheffield in the UK. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task,” he said.

As with all high level tasks, your brain generalizes simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas). “We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” When we’re reading other peoples’ work, this helps us arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.

. . . .

Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.

. . . .

But even if familiarization handicaps your ability to pick out mistakes in the long run, we’re actually pretty awesome at catching ourselves in the act. (According to Microsoft, backspace is the third-most used button on the keyboard.)

Link to the rest at Wired and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Year End Summary of Writing in Public: Year One

3 August 2014

From Dean Wesley Smith:

I did (not counting comments on web sites) 1,281,675 original words in the last twelve months.

745,175 words of that was original fiction.

51,700 words of that was nonfiction. (So just under 800,000 words of fiction and nonfiction combined. More than I thought, actually.)

That ended up being twelve novels and over thirty short stories and three nonfiction books. All the novels are in the general 40,000 to 55,000 word range. The short stories make up the rest of the fiction word count.

. . . .

I tend to write fiction about 2 to 3 hours per day. I work seven days per week. I write fiction last thing every day. With workshops, being CFO of WMG Publishing, and other projects, I tend to work about 50 hours at least per week away from fiction writing.

In July I averaged about 2 hours of writing per day, about 60 hours of fiction writing for the entire month. That produced about 60,000 words of fiction, which is about my average of 1,000 words per hour.

So those of you with day jobs out there, realize and watch that I also function in my life as if I have a day job that takes about 50 hours of my time per week. Day jobs are not an excuse to not write. (How’s that for blunt? (grin))

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith and thanks to Alex for the tip.

Here’s a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s books

Failure Is Our Muse

28 July 2014

From The New York Times:

July 8, in case you happened to miss it, was Fitz-Greene Halleck Day, a chance to remember the most intensely forgotten writer in American history. “No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1843. And yet, despite a Central Park statue that still stands in his honor, Fitz-Greene Halleck may now be the most famous man ever to achieve total obscurity.

Failure is big right now — a subject of commencement speeches and business conferences like FailCon, at which triumphant entrepreneurs detail all their ideas that went bust. But businessmen are only amateurs at failure, just getting used to the notion. Writers are the real professionals.

Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.

. . . .

Failure doesn’t afflict only the lesser talents. John Keats, who died at 25 with a collection of bad reviews to his name, asked for his gravestone to read: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. He died convinced of his obscurity.

Herman Melville endured a stranger torture. His early, lousy novels were huge successes, and then the better his books became, the less anyone was interested in reading them. His travel story “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life” sold 16,320 copies in his lifetime. “Moby-Dick,” 3,715. Melville worked 19 gloomy years at the New York Customs House, self-publishing occasional poetry in batches of 25 copies. He ended up as a ziner, with “Billy Budd” unpublished in his drawer.

. . . .

Writers don’t fail like ordinary people. They fail in their bones. They fail even when they triumph. Bernard Malamud took the 1959 National Book Award for his short story collection “The Magic Barrel”; he left the check on the dais, and when he arrived at the dinner in his honor, the organizers had forgotten to set a place for him.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Jeff for the tip.

How Not to Start a Novel: Four Things to Avoid on Page One

21 July 2014

From author Janice Hardy via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent’s or editor’s attention. Readers often read the first page or two to determine whether or not to read the novel. If those pages grab them, they’ll buy the book. If not, they’ll put it back on the shelf. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words.

Which is why those words need to capture the reader.

Common writing advice will tell you to “start with action,” but that doesn’t mean blow up a car or rob a bank—and this can actually hurt your opening not help if it.

What it really means is to start with something going on. It can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, something craved—the list is endless. But no matter what shape this “something” takes, there’s a sense that things are about to happen, and that it won’t be good for someone.

This sense of anticipation creates questions readers will want answers to. Why are the characters casing that playground? Who is that woman following them? What’s the deal with these two people arguing way too loudly?

However, one question you want to avoid is, “What’s going on?” A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking. They should be able to guess what’s going on, even if they’re not yet sure what it all means.

. . . .

Here are four common mistakes to avoid when crafting your open scene:

1. Having too much backstory and explanation.

Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.

They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.

Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.

Think of it like this: you walk into a party and some guy comes up to you and starts telling you all about his grandmother and how important she was to him, and how that’s affecting his current decision on whether or not to move to Baltimore and take this job he’s not sure s the right position for him. Are you intrigued? Odds are you’re looking for any excuse to get away from this bore.

To fix: Cut the backstory and look for ways to show how that backstory affects your character in that scene (If it doesn’t, that’s a big clue you don’t need to mention it at all). If it’s critical to know the protagonist is scared of dogs, don’t stop the story to explain how he was bitten when he was five, show him seeing a dog and being too scared to move. 

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Writing: How To Boost Your Productivity

20 July 2014

From ALLi:

A couple of years ago, I realized that if I was going to have any success as an indie author, I was going to have to step up my game in a big way.

. . . .

It took me five years to write the first book, nearly 10 to write the second, and five years to write my third book. I’d made a total of ten thousand dollars for my entire career. It was either make some changes or consider another career path.

At that point in the time—the summer of 2012—I noticed there was a key factor which was consistently helping indie authors hit the charts, build followings and make careers in their writing. What those key writers had in common was that they were prolific, some of them putting out novels every three or four months.

. . . .

[T]he one idea I came across was on the blog of sci-fi author Rachel Aaron, who wrote a blog entry titled “How I went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words A Day.”

. . . .

In her blog (she later published a book about it which you can find here), Rachel talks about what she says are three core requirements to be able to write quickly: knowledge, enthusiasm, and time.

  • The knowledge component is simple: instead of struggling through, trying to write on the fly, sit down and first and block out your scene. Know what you are going to write before you write it.
  • The second requirement, enthusiasm, is also simple: write what you feel passionately about. If you don’t want to write it, other people probably won’t want to read it.
  • Finally, time: she recommends finding the times of day, locations, etc. where you can write consistently.

. . . .

The first book I wrote after reconsidering my writing process – Just Remember to Breathe – was completed in 14 days. Admittedly it was a short novel: 73,000 words. It has also been, to date, my most successful novel, with over 100,000 copies sold in three languages.

. . . .

So here are a few brief tips on how I’ve been able to consistently manage this kind of pace:

  • Be passionate about your story and your characters.
  • Have a road map. Sometimes the story will go off course, and it’s good to follow your instincts there. But I keep my map handy, and it’s helpful when I need to regroup and figure out where a story went wrong.
  • For me, going to bed thinking about the story is critical. During my most productive periods, the last thing I do before bed is write the first couple of paragraphs of the next scene. That way, when I wake up, I am ready to go.
  • When I’m driving, I listen to my book playlists and think about the story..
  • Finally, and this is the big one, don’t force my way through when I get stuck. Instead, diagnose the problem, move back, fix it, and move on.

Link to the rest at ALLi

The writing life: lonely, but not alone

30 June 2014

From author Belinda Williams:

I’ve written before about how the writing path can be long one, but I was in touch with a fellow writer recently and the subject of loneliness came up. Specifically, the loneliness that often accompanies writing.

It got me thinking. It made me realise that it has never been a better time to be a writer. Sure, we still have to spend hours alone labouring over our manuscripts, but the concept of a writer being cut off from the rest of the world is as antiquated as this photo of an old typewriter. Here’s why:

Social media: I love social media, because it’s all about connecting people. In my time as a writer, most of the writers I’ve met have been online. Some of these have flourished into genuine friendships. At the very minimum, social media is a great place for sharing ideas and writing tips and I’ve learnt an incredible amount in the online and social media environment.
. . . .

Beta-readers are my cheer squad, my reality check and my sounding boards. I couldn’t do it without them! Whenever I feel like I’m alone, all I have to do is call up one of my beta-readers and after a a few minutes of discussing my latest project (yes, they’re genuinely interested!) I feel a sense of relief.

Link to the rest at Belinda Williams

You and Editors

26 June 2014

From author David Farland:

I got an email the other day from an unhappy writer who said that editors aren’t really editors anymore. He said that they’re just “choosers,” picking stories that need the least amount of fixing. Nobody edits.

I certainly see his argument. There are some incompetent editors. For example, I recently got an email from an author whose novel was rejected by a young editor because it was written in third person. She said, “Young adult novels are written in first person, not third!” The same editor wrote another rejection letter to another author saying, “You have adverbs in your manuscript. I would never publish a book with adverbs in it.”

. . . .

Let’s face it: traditionally, say thirty years ago, many editors weren’t formally trained. They often rose up from the secretarial pools, where they worked as slush readers. They may have had no training at all as a creative writer, or editor.

What they did have going for them was “literary sensibilities.” In other words, when they saw a story that moved them and they knew that it would touch other people, they had the good sense to buy it. Their literary sensibilities might have been their best qualification. A good eye is a gift. It can’t be trained into a critic.

. . . .

[T]hough I have worked with dozens of editors over the years, I probably have had more training than any of them. Does that mean that they weren’t helpful?

Not at all! A good editor brings his or her literary sensibilities to the table, along with their experience, which may indeed by quite vast. My editor at Tor, for example, has more experience as a book editor than anyone else in his field.

. . . .

Sometimes I will get letters from people who desperately want me to write their stories for them, or to teach them everything that they need to know to become a writer. I will usually respond by saying, “I really can’t do that.” There are just too many people who want to become writers without doing the work. I’m not a ghost writer, and I don’t have the time to be anyone’s tutor.

Editors will often feel the same. It’s not their job to go in and “fix” every manuscript. Indeed, most manuscripts can’t be fixed. Too often the authors will tell stories that are stale, where the basic concepts to the story make it so that the tale isn’t worth telling.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them

26 June 2014

From Writers Helping Writers:

I recently read a Huff Post psychology piece on Turning Negative Emotions Into Your Greatest Advantage and immediately saw how this could also apply to our characters.

. . . .

[N]egative emotions are not all bad. In fact, they are necessary to the human experience, and can spark a shift that leads to self growth.

. . . .

Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

. . . .

The big question: what is the catalyst? What causes him to take stock of the situation? What causes his self-reflection?

The answer is not surprising: EMOTION. Something the character FEELS causes him to stop, look within, and make a choice.

Let’s assume this isn’t a tragedy. If this moment had a math formula, it would look something like this:

Emotion + look within = change

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Writing Dystopias

21 June 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

The best dystopian settings arouse realistic fears in the reader. In other words, the author studies the world as it is today, and very often will look at social conditions and consider, “If this goes on, how will the world change?”

So, for example, in a book like 1984 we’re shown a world where Big Brother is always watching you, where history is instantly revised in order to support current government policies, where big government uses deception and propaganda to control the masses. Does it sound familiar at all?

When Orwell published the novel in 1949, he had seen how Hitler’s “big lie” campaigns had worked in Germany, and how the Soviets and other countries were controlling news broadcasts around the world.

To a certain degree, people in every society are constantly struggling to unravel their leader’s lies, so this kind of dystopia resonated with its readership.

. . . .

In the same way, if you look at The Hunger Games, you can see some ugly aspects of American society playing out. Certainly, the Hunger Games themselves echo the popular reality television shows likeSurvivor, where attractive men and women compete for a grand prize in a primitive location. The show is all about lust, betrayal, starvation, and competition.

Certainly in Hunger Games you don’t have to look far to see the comparisons to 1984, where a Big Brother character constantly watches and manipulates the masses, always on the verge of sending in his troops.

In short, both books play upon reader’s fears by echoing current problems.

. . . .

Some concepts are merely absurd. For example, you could write a dystopia in which giant carrot people are growing humans in hydroponic gardens. It might work as a comedy.

A story can easily move from sounding prophetic to becoming barely plausible to sounding absolutely stupid. It’s a sliding scale.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Next Page »