Embracing the Holiday Dash

Southern Christmas decoration

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

It’s that time of year again. Fueled by our Thanksgiving feasts we’re ready to begin the holiday dash. We enter the frenzy of buying, wrapping, shipping, stamping, mailing, cooking, baking, and battling the long To-Do list for preparing a “magical” holiday for family and friends. It seems impossible to find a spare minute to focus on putting words on paper. I’ve discovered that THIS is the time of year to read or plan a project. I feel I’ve accomplished SOMETHING during the holiday season when I focus on WORDS.

Read-magazine

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

It’s not so much about putting words onto paper but on keeping a pulse on the rhythm of words. When I focus on words, I’m able to embrace the holiday dash—and feel I’m made a little progress toward my writing while crossing off items on an ever-growing To-Do list. These tips may help you too:

Tune into language. You can do this two ways. Listen to holiday songs and note the phrases that paint images as well as evoke emotion. Songs and poetry rely on specific word choice to get a meaning/scenario across to the listener very  quickly. Or while reading, notice vivid verbs or phrases that conjure images and/or emotion. For example, while reading a fantasy novel recently I made this list:

  • hulking machines
  • enormous iron beetles
  • stabbed up from the earth
  • billowing smoke
  • snorting steam
  • wreathed in smoke.

In another story, I listed strong, vivid verbs and modifiers:

  • swirled
  • twisted
  • blooming
  • sprouted
  • jagged
  • crumbling
  • loomed.

When you tune into language like this, you’ll soon find yourself reaching for a more vivid and creative phrase, rather than relying on the first word that comes to mind.

Return to the Pre-Writing Phase. As a nonfiction author, I can make progress by reading for research and then planning an article or section of my book project. But fiction writers can also use this time to plan and pace out story scenes. Remember that the phases in the writing process are recursive. This is NOT like baking cookies. (Though I use time spent mixing, rolling out, cutting, and baking sugar cookies to play with story pacing or focusing a nonfiction topic.)

People watch. Rely on a writer’s power of observation by watching people while you’re stuck in line or waiting somewhere. (If you’re not already a keen observer, now is a great time to develop this skill!) Make a mental list of specific actions. What do they reveal about personality? Note outfits and how people interact with those around them. What clues would these provide a reader about a character’s inner workings? How might you spring-board from these observations to enhance your work-in-progress?

All of these things can be done while you’re working on crossing off items on December’s lengthy To-Do list. I’ve found it balances out the frenzy of the holiday dash.

May you cross the “finish line” to happy holidays and make a little progress in the pre-writing phase in the coming month. HappyHoliday

Summer Writing Slim down

IMG_0059Summertime. Freedom. More time for fresh air, sunshine, outdoor and leisure activities. Many of us focus on watching what we eat and getting healthy. Why not put your summertime writing on a diet too?

Drafts can be padded with excess phrasing and vague or unnecessary words. The point of the draft, after all, is to get thoughts to paper. But, once a writing session is completed, I like to go back and trim the empty calories–the “filler”–then focus again on drafting more. (Later, during revision, I’ll rethink and rearrange, but I’ll spend less time wading through the excess.)

Just as we focus on shedding winter weight, reread your MS and learn to cut the empty words. Keep your prose as lean and energized as possible. Each phrase should add substance to your story or article, otherwise it adds nothing but padding. Think of empty words as empty calories. They ruin good writing; they pull true talent out of shape.

Edit-MSCut to trim the filler. Here are a few things to look for:

Hedging Words: These show insecurity, uncertainty, lack of confidence

▸usually, probably, maybe, rather, fairly, perhaps, sort of, kind of, somewhat, quite, a little, look, seem, -ish, -looking, -seeming

Weak Modifiers: a modifier is a helping word. It adds detail or intensifies meaning, but weak modifiers dilute the meaning.

▸just, so, such, very, really, even, at all, certainly, all, definitely, exactly, right, anyway.

▸avoid this and that in excess

▸for ‘just’ to have the impact it has in spoken form (often provided through inflection) use it sparingly in written form

If you use the above in dialogue, they can show an insecure or boring character. If this is not your intent, trim from dialogue as well.

The more aware you are of unnecessary words during the draft, the cleaner and clearer your draft becomes. This allows more time during revision to focus on content, plot and character development for instance, rather than editing for clarity.

May your summertime writing be trim and healthy!

A Sense of Place: The Power of Observation

I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.crown-molding

These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.

big-shoes-to-fillSoon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)

Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.

blackbird-amcr7Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.

What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.

Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.

Notes of Spring in the Air

IMG_0184This morning I woke from a restless dream but once I inhaled the fresh and dewy air and heard the birdsong, I felt renewed. Memories of the dream evaporated on the wind. It’s no wonder I push my writing students to incorporate sensory detail into their stories and memoir—it is something I notice in my everyday life. Scent and sound are especially important to me and these are two of the little used senses in prose. Too often writing focuses on the visual. Sure, it paints a picture, but to give a sense of a situation, the reader needs more—and sound, scent, or taste can provide it.

I especially love spring mornings. This is the time of year in Florida when the greens are varied shades and vibrant from morning dew. The air is fresh and clean, and the winds are gentle, warm, and dry. A nest of squirrels live in the pine tree near my lanai screen and as they scurry from the branches to the trunk, the bark crackles.

IMG_0183This morning, though, the scent is less pleasant than usual. We had heavy rain showers most of the day yesterday and so my first few breaths smelled like worms. This is not entirely bad; it reminds me of where I grew up in Michigan. The wormy scent soon subsided but a lingering fishy odor wafted up from the huge pond along the golf course. Thankfully, after only a short time, the wind replaced this with the scent of rich loam, wet earth, which again reminds me of home.

Somewhere nearby, a spring-break visitor is either playing music or has his or her cellphone on speaker. The sound is faint, like murmuring, but I know it’s not a neighbor’s TV because it wavers as if this person is walking (likely around the pond).

IMG_0277I’ve lived here long enough to tell when the clink of a golf club from the 3rd tee is a solid stroke. If not, I’ll hear a clunk, thwup, or ping. If the palms and pine trees didn’t hide the tee, I might be able to connect those sounds with where the club struck the ball.

But these observations, noted as I drink a cup of dark French roast, do not merely help me wake. They prime the creative pumps. Whether I record these sounds and scents in my journal or not, they WILL make their way into my stories and personal experience pieces. Because they provide more than just the visual, they will enrich the scene. Sound and scent and taste (when that can be woven in) add depth to a scene and sometimes clues and hints about a character’s personality.

So listen to the world around you and note the details. Inhale deeply and note the scents and odors. Now draw on these details when you’re writing. Your readers will thank you.

A Matter of Style: How you say what you say

typewriter-OnceUponATimeOnce upon a time and long, long ago (a few decades back) in a frozen country far, far away (southeast Michigan) business writing was coming out of the fog (there was a push to eliminate unnecessary words and phrasing). Gobbledygook and doublespeak (it WAS around 1984) was out and succinct writing was in. During this time I was an undergrad majoring in English and was instructed to “replace every ‘which’ with ‘that’ and then cut every ‘that’ possible.” While my professor had good intentions, this is so very wrong!

Still, his advice had an impact on my writing style. An author’s voice and style evolves out of sentence structure. It’s related to your word choice and sentence length. In simple terms, how  you say what you say. This is one of the most difficult aspect for my writing students to grasp (whether they’re elementary at-risk learners, college students, or budding freelance writers). There is no single, correct way to convey an idea. Instead, we have a multitude of options to get our thoughts across in writing.

While my college professor did help me learn to write succinctly, the question on when (or whether) to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ is an issue of clarity. Each word has a purpose dependent on whether the clause the word is a part of is necessary–or optional–to the meaning of the sentence. Clauses (a group of words with their own subject and verb) add to a base sentence and provide more information. If the information is optional, use ‘which’. If the information is essential, use ‘that’. For example:

Claire selected a green blouse to wear with the grey skirt.
Claire selected a green blouse, which had white buttons, to wear with the grey skirt.
The green blouse that complemented Claire’s eyes made the outfit memorable.

The first sentence is the base sentence. In the second sentence, the clause added to the base sentence is optional. While it adds to the information about Claire and her outfit, it can be removed without being missed. The third sentence expands on the idea behind the first sentence. It includes a clause that offers additional but necessary information about the rest of the sentence; if this clause is removed, we do not understand why the outfit would be memorable. It is an essential clause.

Bonus tip:
Note that commas surround the non-essential clause: Claire selected a green blouse, which had white buttons, to wear with the grey skirt. Whenever you can remove a clause from the sentence without losing meaning, the clause should be “cradled by commas.” If removing the clause would make the sentence less meaningful or confusing, do not use commas to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

So, when we receive advice to write tightly, it’s not about changing ‘which’ to ‘that’ and then eliminating ‘that.’ It’s about getting your thoughts across with only the words needed. Whenever my college students ask how long their story, essay, article, or research paper should be, my answer is, “As long as is necessary to convey your point.” It’s really a matter of style.

Learning from your Published work

My writing clients and workshop participants constantly want to know what I did to get where I am. I know they hope there is an easier way to reach their publication goals; there isn’t. It comes down to this: the more you write, the more you learn, and that combines toward your first publication credits. It doesn’t end there, of course; you’ll continue writing and learning.

MS-editAs I teach/coach, I draw on nearly 30 years of publishing experience, but I was in the “pre-publication” trenches for some time before that. When I look back, I see two things I did that rocketed my skills toward publication: 1) learning to read with a writer’s eye, and  2) learning from the editorial changes made to my writing.

Obviously, the latter was a result of the former. The key detail here is ‘continuing to learn’ and reading my own published work, comparing it to the manuscript I had submitted, and learning from those  changes. This is what made the difference.

This “issue” of editorial changes has come up many time over the 20 years I’ve been coaching and teaching writers. It is often in the form of complaints: “They edited my final paragraph” or “they rearranged my article–the paragraphs are all over the place” or “how can they change words/phrasing without checking with me?”

In response, I tsk tsk and shake my finger. “Did you not listen during the marketing segment?” I want to shout. “I did cover this in class.” Then I calmly remind them that magazines and websites work to a serial schedule and have a layout to fill. Time and space is vital. Was your cut paragraph due to space? Was your phrasing changed because you failed to edit empty words or echos? Does the “rearranged” text have better flow? Did you study the publication’s audience before the final edit and change words/phrasing that might be offensive, or too difficult for the target audience (this mainly for children’s authors)?

Tight schedules and contract terms (these vary and depend on the rights you sold) for magazines/online publications warrant editors doing their jobs and tweaking your prose to fit target audience, publication mission, and layout/space. Major changes are often passed by the author first, but not always.

Read-magazineThe best thing to do is to stop griping and look at these changes. What can you learn from them? Early in my career I was lucky enough to submit repeatedly to a small girls’ magazine and the editor really liked my writing. She provided a brief explanation for editorial changes when she sent my first contributor copies and check. It amounted to: “make every word count.” In comparing the manuscript I sent with the version that appeared in print, I realized helping verbs were replaced with strong, specific verbs. Adverbs were cut and again, specific phrasing that showed (not told) replaced them. My next effort was more polished and this editor went on to purchase many articles from me during the next few years. These credits opened doors to larger and better paying markets.

Something similar happened to a former workshop participant and writing friend, Cheryl. She contacted me to “catch up” on what she’d accomplished since taking my local writing classes. I celebrated her publishing credits and her gig writing blogs and articles on insurance for an industry site. But, she had a new issue: after a nice run, a change in editors resulted in Cheryl hardly recognizing her own articles.

I shared my story and made this suggestion: Try to back up to see the full picture. Read the heavily-edited posts from the publication’s perspective. What can you learn about the handling of the topic that might help you with the next batch of articles/blogs?

She did this and was able to see how the content changed. And, she noticed the blogs had been edited to be much shorter. This prompted her to contact the new editor. She also wrote her next submission to follow this new “format” it seemed they were using. It happened that their scope was changing and they were simply working with what she sent them. It seemed that during the change in her “handler/editor” no one thought to tell her that site’s scope was changing. But, they loved the new “sample” article and, based on that style, they said “it was much more what they are looking for.” Her motivation is back, and they are even more impressed with her writing skills.

pile-magsThis connects with another important skill for freelance writers: looking carefully at sample articles, stories on sites you plan to submit manuscripts to, or reading recent issues of magazines. Note the style, format of articles, and length for clues. You’ll then do your final edit with these in mind before hitting “send” on your submission. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better your chances at publication.

A Measure of Productivity

measure-success How do you decide–day by day or week by week–whether you’ve been productive? When we work for someone else, the tasks are spelled out one way or another. Meeting deadlines, reaching the bottom of an in box, completing a project, preparing for a presentation. We often spend the day answering phone calls and emails and leave at 5 (or 6) p.m. knowing we’ll be paid for a full day of work.

pieces-add-upPerhaps, as I once did, you spend your evenings and weekends writing (or pursuing some creative project) hoping one day you’ll eventually get to quit your “day job.” Or, perhaps you are now a self-employed or freelance writer (or artist or musician or …) and so your progress fall squarely on your own shoulders.

How do you measure that your time is well spent? Writers often talk of word count. When I coach writers this concern for daily output seems to cause tremendous anxiety. It’s true that a book length project is especially daunting. (Not to mention the misconception that it’s completed in two rounds–draft and revision–when my published projects have taken anywhere from five and up.)

It’s rare that I track my word count during each writing session so when asked, “How much do you write each day? Each week?” I have no idea. I write as I always have–allowing sentences and paragraphs and pages to stack up. In the end, you are not “done” when you reach the 70,000 word target for your novel anyway. You simply have your draft and then can begin the real work of shaping it into a finished product.

onestepjpgIt wasn’t until I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November and then CampNaNoWriMo, that I realized why my coaching clients were stuck on this word count thing. For NaNoWriMo the goal is to draft 50,000 words in 30 days. That equates to 1667 words per day. That amounts to 6 or 7 manuscript pages (double-spaced) each day.

onestepattime Now I get how overwhelming a focus on word count can be to new writers. Now I understand why the thought of sitting down to write can be daunting. Now I see how important it is to place output into perspective. Do this: First, sit down to write. Write a scene and note how long it took. One hour? Thirty minutes? Fifteen minutes? Now, look at the output. How many pages? How many words? It’s true that every scene and every writing session will vary. But knowing what you accomplished in whatever time it took will help you see the words adding up. Second, ask yourself how many sessions you can fit into your week. Two? Three? Even one will help you make progress.

During CampNaNoWriMo in April, the word goal is flexible. It’s the end of season for me and very busy so I selected the lowest goal: 10,000 words. I wanted the challenge to make time to work on a new novel idea even in the midst of other commitments. Putting this into perspective, I needed to write 334 words per day to “win.” That’s only 1.5 pages (double-spaced MS format) OR not even a full single-spaced typed page. But, I didn’t plan to write every day. The first weekend, I wrote as I normally did and produced just over 2,000 words in one sitting of several hours. That was 1/5 the month’s goal and the equivalent of writing for 6 days. Setting time aside twice per week, I met my goal. (Actually, I ended up meeting this goal plus wrote scenes for a second work-in-progress for over another 5000 words.)

wordstackI put this into perspective, thinking: If I can write everyday (on this one project), imagine what I’d accomplish in a month! When you do the math and put your productivity into perspective, it’s a lot easier to see what you’re capable of–which makes it easier to commit to writing on a regular basis. In the end, it’s not how many words or pages you write per day or per week; it’s that the paragraphs, scenes, and pages add up. Getting started is the hard part. Once you do, it becomes easier. Until you do, commit to writing just one sentence a day. (I’ll bet you’ll find it hard to write just one.)