Category Archives: Writing & Publishing

Time Traps and the Productive Writer

Time trap

Time traps is one of the biggest problems a writer today faces. I know this from experience. Once upon a time I called it procrastination, and as a journalist and then a freelancer I knew it well. I’d spend tons of time doing the laundry, twiddling my thumbs, walking the dog – anything to prevent me from starting my piece. Because I knew that I worked better under pressure, that my thoughts unfurled when my deadline approached.

As a novelist, however, I only have a self-imposed deadline. Now, unfortunately, procrastination has turned into time traps – time traps such as trolling Facebook, getting side-tracked on my daily dose of Trump nonsense, falling down the sinkhole of Google, and playing Words with Friends.

How to Sidestep Time Traps

Yes, it is possible. Going cold turkey and saying you won’t ever go on Facebook is the same as saying you’ll never touch another carb again. It’s just not sustainable. Instead, set aside a half hour to catch up on Facebook. Let’s face it – you don’t really have to ‘like’ and comment on every post you read, and if you’re like me – you don’t actually post a whole lot.

CNN and Trumpian Nonsense

Give yourself fifteen minutes to catch up on Trump’s latest nonsense. He’s not worth much more.

Google

Here, you need some self-restraint. It’s hard not to get distracted from the valid research you are doing. I find the best way to stop myself from going crazy on  links within links is to just not click on anything. Stay focused on the article you are reading and exercise control. You can do it.

Words with Friends

No words of advice here. As those of you I play with know, I have absolutely no self-control whatsoever. The physical game of Scrabble was a family favorite growing up, and Words with Friends is my comfort game. So – time trap or not – I don’t care.

What are your time traps, and how do you deal with them?

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Story Craft

Is there such a thing as story craft? You betcha. Doctors learn to diagnose and treat patients, lawyers master the rules of law, plumbers plumb and scientists tap the secrets of the universe. So why is it so difficult for aspiring writers to believe they should learn how to craft a story?

Writing is Writing is Writing

No, it’s not. There are many different kinds of writing forms, and just because you can write an essay or a technical document does not mean you know how to craft a story. When I was a reporter/journalist/freelance writer, my world revolved around making sure I had the facts down correctly. One of the first things we learned was the upside down pyramid where you cram in all the most interesting information about the subject you are reporting on. That’s because chances are the reader may never get beyond the headline and the first paragraph.

While you do use a similar technique in crafting a story, you only give away enough to hook the reader and reel them in.

Crafting a story means exposing yourself by allowing your imagination to run free. And that can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and open yourself up to ridicule. But it can also allow you to create an incredible world with characters that are so interesting, they fly off the page and become real. As Jim Butcher of The Dresden Files says “Writing is the original virtual reality.”

The Novelist’s Toolbox for Story Craft

1. It all begins with a workable idea. Ideas are cheap, and are everywhere. But your idea is just an extremely flimsy skeleton. The hard work is figuring out whether you have enough meat in that idea to cover those bones.

2. Structure and technique are necessary constructs that a novel must possess in order for the reader to not be confused about what’s happening. This includes choosing a point of view and deciding where to begin your novel. In media res which means ‘in the middle of action’ is the best way to begin. Capture and hook your reader.

3. Creating a plot (and sub-plots) that is cohesive, exciting and full of conflict for the protagonist. Throwing in a few red herrings helps, if you can carry it off. But most importantly, learning how to manipulate your reader’s emotions so he/she cares about the protagonist is one of the tenets of story craft. If you can get the reader to care, he/she will have no choice but to continue reading

4. Learn how to write engaging dialogue that furthers the plot, and has a specific purpose. Story dialogue, as I’m sure we all know by now, is not conversation. It should sound like a well-honed conversation, but devoid of all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and inane bits that conversation usually is jammed with. Dialogue is always there for a reason. Read it out loud so that you can ensure that it sounds realistic.

5. Think about a baseball player. They make it seem so easy to catch a flyball, or wham a home run. But that comes after hours upon hours of practice. Write, write and re-write until your story reads like it was so easy to write.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

What Motivates You to Write?

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What motivates you to write is such a fundamental question, but so many of us don’t know the answer. Or the answer is mixed up in a whole bunch of other ones so that the motivation gets diluted.

What Motivates You?

There are a heap of answers to this question, but I’ll list a few:

1) You want to make money, or make a living on your books. I’ve got news for you. You probably won’t, certainly not the oodles that Stephen King and J.K. Rowling make. A first contract is very humbling. So, if your plan is to make money – you really ought to think again. Your best bet is to retain your day job, and write when you have time. If you make it the best-seller list, you get your big chance to march into your boss’ office and tell him/her where to stuff it. And good for you.

2) Fame – again, I’ve got news for you. Same as above. Your chances of fame are possible, but not probable. Of course, you can always become a Stephanie Meyer or a Cassandra Clare, but sadly, the odds are against you. Yes, I know, I don’t sound very positive, but the truth is the truth.

3) Writing because you love it – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all, and that’s because you’ll be doing something you enjoy doing, and it will show. Jumping on to some successful genres or plot-type will not get you published, because the trend will probably be over by the time you actually get your novel ready to be submitted. Better to stick with what you know and love.

4) Writing because you’re addicted – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all. That’s because that ‘genre’ comes with ‘stick-to-it-iveness.’ You will discover a whole new world of critique partners and writer friends who enjoy the same things you do. And that camaraderie is hard to come by. I know I cherish it.

Motivation is important because it is so difficult to actually get published. There are so many gatekeepers to get through that it can be a disheartening procedure. I’m talking about traditional publishing of course. If you self-publish, then you bypass many of these hurdles. There are other hurdles, but that’s the subject of another post.

Why do you write? What motivates you?

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Writing out of Sequence

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Does it matter if you are writing out of sequence? Not starting your novel at the beginning, progressing through the middle and finally to the conclusion? Do you jump around and write the scenes that excite and titillate you, make you feel alive and then try and rope the scenes together to make sense?

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not necessarily a good thing.

Advantages to Writing out of Sequence

Crafting those crucial scene allows you to capture your characters’ thoughts and emotions and allows your own thoughts and emotions to flow. When they do -hey, there’s no better time to hit those keys.

Allows you to stay energized and get the best parts of your story down. Why wait, when you can write? Go for it. It can help your story take shape, and/or set it on a path you didn’t think of before.

Skipping ahead allows you to fight writer’s block. Perhaps one character’s needs and actions are clearer than another’s.

Disadvantages to Writing out of Sequence

It makes it difficult to know where to slot your already-written scene in. The scene stands out like a giant thumb, and can drive you crazy trying to figure out how and where to stuff it into your novel.

If you have written all the juicy scenes, it can sap the strength out of your writing. Leaving only transitional scenes to write can be boring, and taxing.

It can be risky. You might not know what to do with the scene once it’s written – it may not fit into your overall plot.

If you are a pantser, this might hinder you since you don’t necessarily know where your plot is heading to.

How do you write – in sequence, or out of?

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you from Writer’s Digest:

Instinctive Writing

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Instinctive writing is like breathing. You do it naturally. If you pretend you are Robertson Davies (who I loathe) and try to write in his literary style (I call it dull and boring) you will fail. Similarly, if you mimic the high fantasy style of Georges R. R. Martin, you are dooming yourself to failure. That’s because you are not using your instinctual way of writing.

Talk to Your Readers

When I started this latest novel, I wanted to write high fantasy. It’s not an instinctive way of writing for me. And what I found was, while the nub of the story was exactly what I wanted – the style sucked … big time. I was copying someone else’s style, and of course, it didn”t work. Only when I used my instinctive style (which is more conversational, and in the contemporary/urban genre) did my story start to pop, and work.

Can Instinctive Writing be Taught?

Yes, I think so. If a writer is struggling and his/her prose sounds stilted – STOP writing immediately. Get a recorder, or your phone and tape what you want to say. Better still, tape yourself telling someone else your story. Chances are the words will flow because you’re allowing your instinctual self to take over. Not thinking about words, and phrases, and sentences – just the story. You can fix the flow later. What you want is the raw emotion and power that flows out of you.

I’ve said this so often I’m sick of hearing it from myself – but, GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel a character must say or do something even though it’s not in your plot outline – go with it.

Write the Clichés

Sounds like crazy advice, but this is your first draft and if the cliches allow you to show what your character feels or does – go with it. You can fix up the clichés later.

Stop Line Editing

You can do this later. Instinctive Writing means go with the flow. No over-analyzing and over-thinking. Let your gut take over.

 

 

The Saggy Middle Blues

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Boo hoo – You’ve reached that awful part – the saggy middle of a story where your initial excitement has faded, and the horrible thought that you may actually not have enough material to go on shoves its nasty head at you. And there’s a heck of a long way to go before you can type in those two final words – The End. What to do?

Kill Someone

Not literally – just in your book, silly. Killing someone off always causes chaos, especially if it is someone the reader thought was important. That will wake them up, and you too. Figuring out how to continue will wake you up from the saggy middle blues.

Introduce a New Character

There is no law that says you have to introduce all your characters up front. Let this new and (maybe) creepy character bring some angst and fear to the rest of the cast. Someone that can cause chaos and rev everyone up – including you.

Write Out of Sequence

Fire out a scene that you know you want to write – perhaps a sexy love scene, or a devastating death, or maybe even the climax of the novel. The excitement of writing something fresh and powerful will stab you with zeal to continue your story. Perhaps you’ll start seeing the characters in a different light, or track possibilities that you didn’t think of before.

Character Reversal

One of the best ways to throw your reader off the scent of whatever your writing about is to have the ‘friend’ be actually the ‘opponent’. Take this opportunity to start sowing seeds of doubt.

What do you do to prop up your saggy middle … of the story – that is!

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you from Writer’s Digest:

 

Trusting Your Gut Instinct

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Trusting your gut instinct is not as easy as it sounds. Years ago, when I first immigrated to Canada I worked as a secretary in a big paper company, right in the center of Montreal in the wonderful old SunLife Building. It was a great introduction to Canada, but I hated working as a secretary especially when I got promoted to be the Big Boss’ secretary. That meant I had to make him his daily cup of soup in addition to my other work. Grr, I absolutely detested it.

My Trigger for Change

But one day I visited a school friend of mine who worked at the World Bank in Washington. It was great fun until she made me cry. Yep, she got under my skin and made me feel awful because she made me realize one important thing (which I didn’t want to hear at that time) – I was in a job I hated and which did not suit me and … I could do so much better.

Once I got over my crying jag, I realized she was right. That’s when my gut instinct kicked in. I marched into my boss’ office (I wish I could say I told him where to stuff his cup of soup, but I didn’t) and quit to go back to university and get my Bachelor’s in Journalism.

That was the beginning of my belief in gut instinct. Whenever I’ve used it, it’s never let me down. When I’ve sat there analyzing my actions and decisions, I fall flat. My decision to become a writing coach was based on expertise – yes, but it was also based on my gut instinct that I could do the job. I had the qualifications, the knowhow and the temperament but most of all – my gut instinct told me I would be good at it. And it was right.

What does your gut instinct tell you?

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Sabotaging Yourself and Your Writing

You love writing your novel, yet somehow you can’t stop sabotaging yourself. What gives? Not sure, but I think it’s our innate way of trying to protect ourselves from rejection. Besides, it’s just so darned easy to blame everyone.

Sabotaging Strategies

Blame work and family for taking up so much of our time away from what we want to do – write, write, and write.

Blame agents for rejecting our work, not bothering to read the story, not getting it, and well – why bother if you can’t even get your query by the gate keepers

Blame our critiquing partners for not understanding what we’re writing and refuse to understand how their remarks and suggestions can help improve and texturize your work

Blame distractions like Facebook, email, google and housework.

Blame your own insecurities for not allowing you to pursue your goals of getting your novel published.

Is there any way to get past these sabotaging strategies? Sure. Just like any bad habit, it will probably take you a few months of concerted effort to force yourself to climb the self-esteem ladder.

Success Strategies

Writing books, teaching blogs, podcasts, magazines – there is something for everyone. But sometimes, this can actually be a problem. Too much information can be overwhelming. Troll a few sites, and see which ones appeal to you. Is the language simple and direct? That’s always a good clue.

Writing classes can be the perfect strategy for motivation and to snap the word ‘sabotage’ out of your writing vocabulary – but only if it is the right one for you. Small classes like in Beyond-the-Lamppost work well because the group leader has time for everyone.

Take responsibility for your own actions, and try to manage your time at home and at work. Setting aside a specific time to write – whether it is in the morning or late at night might help to keep you motivated and on track.

What do you do to nix sabotaging yourself?

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Cliches and How to Ditch Them

Cliches creep into your writing without you noticing them. I just started the first draft of a new novel, and discovered that not only was the working title a cliche – the entire piece I’d written was full of them. I counted perhaps four in the first chapter alone. Shocking, but it’s a first draft so who cares? The purpose of a first draft is to get your story down. Finessing comes later.

Once I noticed the amount of cliches, I started to look for them in my student’s work and discovered something noteworthy. You can often ditch cliches and your sentence not only works fine, it sounds better and the meaning comes through even stronger.

You can find any amount of cliche examples if you troll the internet, but here I’ve chosen some examples from work I’ve edited and critiqued. Once these writers realized their attraction to cliches, they ditched them and came up with novel ways of re-arranging their sentences and pumping up the originality

Examples of cliches (with apologies to my students)

He sucked in his breath
Blood rushed to his face
With a deep breath
Chalking it up
Caught in the crosshairs
Blood pounding in her head
Whipped around the corner
Stifling a cry
Heart jumped in her throat
Time stood still
Sweat rolled down my neck
Chin trembled
Breath bursting from puffed cheeks
Chill ran down her spine
The hair on her arm stood up

The problem with cliches is not that the words used are inappropriate – sometimes they can be just the wording you need. The problem is they have become trite through over-use, and it gives the impression that the writer is lazy and un-original.

Once you clue in to your cliched writing, you will discover that it’s quite easy to come up with new ways to say the same thing. Don’t believe me? Try it, and find out.

Aspiring Author Advice from Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is author of one of my favorite fantasy series: The Dresden Files. He’s also pretty inspiring when he rants. Aspiring authors – read on for great advice I pinched off his Live Journal blog.

The Most Important Thing an Aspiring Author Needs to Know

I’ve been giving a lot of advice on technique in this journal, an introduction to the craft and science aspects of writing a solid story. Now I’m going to briefly venture off into new territory. I thought I’d start by telling you the most important thing you need to know if you want to be a professional author: TANFL.

There Ain’t No Free Lunch.

Nothing worth doing is easy. Nothing worth having comes free. That’s as true in life as it is in your prospective writing career, but I think it’s important enough that it needs to be said.

Writing is a LOT of work. Breaking into the industry is a torment worthy of the fifth or sixth circle of Hell. Face that. Expect it. Deal with it. It’s going to be difficult.

It’s difficult from the get go: you’ve got to work your tail off and give yourself carpal tunnel just to make it to the front of the rope-line outside Club Author. There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get in. There probably aren’t going to be very many people who are actively supporting your efforts. You’ll probably have more than one person say or do something that crushes your heart like an empty Coke can. You’ll probably, at some point, want to quit rather than keep facing that uncertainty

In fact, the vast majority of aspiring authors (somewhere over 99 percent) self-terminate their dream. They quit. Think about this for a minute, because it’s important:

THEY KILL THEIR OWN DREAM.

And a lot of you who read this are going to do it too. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s just human nature. It takes a lot of motivation to make yourself keep going when it feels like no one wants to read your stuff, no one will ever want to read your stuff, and you’ve wasted your time creating all this stuff. That feeling of hopelessness is part of the process. Practically everyone gets it at one time or another. Most can’t handle it.

But here’s the secret:

YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO CAN KILL YOUR DREAM. *NO ONE* can make you quit. *NO ONE* can take your dream away.

No one but you.

If you want it, you have to get it. You. An author can’t help you. An editor can’t help you. An agent can’t help you. If you want to climb that hill, the only way to do it is to make yourself do it, one foot in front of another, one word after another. It will probably be the greatest challenge most of you have ever faced.

And here’s the kicker: THAT IS A VERY GOOD THING.

If you stay the course and break in, you are going to acquire a ton of absolutely necessary skills. You have to learn to motivate yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it: Discipline. You’re going to have to learn the ropes of the business, and how to work with an editor: Professionalism. You’re going to face what might be years of adversity, facing a monumentally difficult task and you’re going to overcome it: Confidence. You’re going to do it with very little active support, and when you look back at this time in the future, you’re going to know that it was something YOU did all by yourself: Strength.

TANFL, guys.

Breaking into the business is a daunting challenge. But you aren’t going to BEAT that challenge. You’re going to transcend it. The very nature of the adversity is going to give you the strength and skill you need to overcome and succeed.

You want in? Here’s what you do:

1) Make up your mind that you are going to protect your own dream. If you’ve got its back, your dream is invincible.

2) Cultivate patience. Prepare for the long haul. Building your skills to a professional level can take years. So can building your professional character.

3) Put your Butt In the Chair and start writing. Period. No excuses. There is no substitute for BIC time. It’s part of the price you pay.

4) When you get done with a word, write another word.

5) Repeat steps 4 and 5 until your dream comes true.

Secret number 2– THE PAIN IS WORTH IT. If it had taken me TWENTY years instead of nine, IT STILL WOULD BE WORTH IT.

Cause here’s what you get: ding.

When it’s all done and you’re holding your first novel in your hand, you’re going to look back at your breaking-in period and wonder what all the drama was about. All the things that wrenched you inside out during the torment will suddenly seem small and unimportant. Know why? Because much like Scott Pilgrim, you have leveled up. Ding.

You’re going to look back at that time with pride, having overcome seemingly impossible odds against succeeding. You’re going to look at upcoming challenges as if they were a bottle of champagne to be savored and then gleefully smashed.

The true reward of breaking into the industry against all the odds isn’t money. It isn’t fame. It it isn’t respect.

It’s you.

It’s confidence. It’s satisfaction. It’s well-deserved pride. Suddenly, the other challenges in your life are going to dwindle as well, because you know you’ll be able to handle them.

TANFL.

Ding, baby. Ding.

Go write.