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Job Title – Writer

In Midcoast Maine we have an abundance of artists and creatives. My small town has 2 world-class museums and fifteen galleries. The first Friday of every month town turns into a party as residents and tourists wander in and out of art spaces. The energy is palpable. Catch up conversations, opinions of a month’s offerings and gossip abound. The spring and fall bring open studios. Arrows point toward destinations out one peninsula after another. It’s a lovely way to spend a day. Seeing the art of others spurs creativity for other mediums. There is only one creative school invisible in this sea of plenty – writers.

This was brought home earlier this week when I went with a writing group to surprise one of its members. The surprise? A Sudden Fiction group, spent months compiling the stories of CJ Quigg (Carol to her friends). An artist Nina Holland designed the cover, Chris McLarty did the design and Pamela Evans served as editor to ensure a professionally finished book. In addition, they paid for the printing out of pocket. Why would writers invest so much time and money on a fellow traveler’s work? It’s simple. These writers have met for years. Each week they write from a prompt and read the result aloud for immediate feedback. Over the years the group has liked and respected Carol’s work. She has been encouraged many times to submit her stories for publication. Carol’s fear subsumed her talent. And like many writers, her stories collected on a hard drive or in a desk drawer. Faced with ill health Carol thought her work if ever published would be done posthumously.

Publication does not a writer make, but there is nothing more thrilling to a writer than to hold a book with your name under the title.  We have no galleries. We invite no one to view our workspace. Our community congregates in small, quiet groups in libraries and living rooms. Our work is heard by other writers who we support and who support us. If you meet a writer, don’t ask, “What have you published?” Say, “Tell me about your writing.”

Prepare to be enchanted.  How do I know? I’ve worked with writers for decades and have hundreds of unpublished story threads in my head as a legacy of those classes. The above mentioned Sudden Fiction group has continued to meet since learning of the practice in one of my classes. Beautiful writers all, they have for their own reasons not published. That does not negate their ownership of the job title, Writer.

 

The Right Editor for the Right Job

Think of an editor as a medical professional. If you have an infected foot, a brain surgeon may not be helpful. Your manuscript must have vitality, to be submittable or published independently; it must be fit, throbbing with life, well-formed, well-groomed, and dressed in its Sunday best. The editor needed for the job depends on where you are on your path to print.

Post Second Draft Check up – Manuscript Critique

You’ve survived your first round of revisions, cleaned up obvious errors, filled story holes, polished tone and pace, and digested feedback from beta readers. Now what?  Time to put on your big writer pants and seek a professional. Genre is key to finding the right (write) editor. If the editor is neither experienced nor aware of your market, save your money. Find an editor well versed in your genre. If you write memoir, you want a seasoned creative non-fiction editor, not a  fantasy/sci-fi editor.

What can you expect from a manuscript critique? The editor is an attentive reader who provides feedback regarding content. Think of it as a physical. Expect a 5-10 page report that highlights the health of your work — both the good and possible trouble points. Anticipate criticism and comment about the opening, structure, POV, style, pace, dialogue, and ending. Specific pages, passages, and plot points will be highlighted. Is the work compelling, does it work as a whole, and if not, what steps need to be taken? Prepare to be relieved, with moments of associated delight and terror.

Terrified about what a manuscript critique might cost? Editing, like a good diet, is an iterative process. The more you improve your practice, the better you can manage the ultimate cost.

Identify your writer’s habits. with the help of an editor/writer’s coach. Your habits: qualifying phrases, word overuse,  complicated dialogue attributions, a preference for stutter verbs, voice shifts, adequate pace, and characterization can be identified in as little as three chapters. The editor will mark up the work with highlights and suggestions. It is up to you scan your full document for other examples and make corrections to achieve the third draft. The cleaner the draft, the more focus on content by a developmental editor.

Developmental Editing – Penultimate Draft

If a manuscript critique is equivalent to a physical at a GP, a developmental edit is on par with a full work up at the Mayo Clinic. You look for a developmental editor when you have taken the manuscript as far as you can toward a goal of submission or independent publishing. Expect in-depth feedback on all issues: word use, historical accuracy, questions regarding writer’s choices, under or overdeveloped characters, pace, a tone in keeping with the genre, marketability, and praise for strengths. Don’t waste your money on developmental editing if your work is not ready. Patients do not go to the Mayo Clinic for hangnails or two or three bouts of indigestion.

Copyediting – Final, Final

You can be a brilliant writer but be a horrible technician. I’ve coached many writers who insist on creating their own document structure rather than follow standard submission guidelines. A unique document structure may feel creative at the beginning of a draft, but it is hell to clean up at the end. Ignoring structure and punctuation rules is like living on Tostitos and soda until 5:00 and happy hour appetizers and alcohol until bedtime for ten years. A seven-day detox will not correct the underlying and long-term issues. Writing is a practice. Copyeditors are perfectionists. They want every comma, paragraph indent, en dash, and period in its proper place. Many a prospective agent has dismissed a manuscript for sloppiness, not content.

Many a Mayo Clinic visit is built on a foundation of bad choices. Ensure that your work is the best you can make it for a clean bill of health. A strong, healthy, and clean manuscript increases publication chances and happy readers.

 

I Can’t Afford an Editor

I Can’t Afford an Editor.”   

I hear this claim in every class I teach or writer’s group I attend. The complaint hides two fears: bloody red ink on your manuscript and the idea that a supposed, expert stranger will tell you what to write. The cost is a factor but it is not the factor. 

 

To allay your fears and minimize the cost know that editing is an iterative, not a one and done process. What do I mean?

  • Only you can write your 1st draft. Introducing an editor at this phase is a form of creative suicide;
  • Create a full draft, celebrate, and self-edit after you take the following steps:
    • Celebrate your accomplishment
    • Allow the text to marinate in a safe inaccessible place for 2-6 weeks
    • Read the full manuscript as a reader, not a writer
      • Understand that you can never be a fully objective reader
    • Return to the text to read as a self-editor
      • Is the point of view consistent?
      • Are there adequate transitions?
      • Have you used enough dialogue to move the action forward?
      • Is the pace and tone in keeping with the genre?
      • Did you use the five senses as tools to show not tell your story?
  • Use your self-edits to write a second draft.
    • Be amazed by how you have improved the text
  • Do a copyedit of the second draft, use online tools to help you
    • Spell & grammar checks
    • Grammarly.com
    • Search and replace tools
  • Ask other writers to act as beta readers:
    • Specify what you want from readers
    • Specify the desired turn around time
      • Be sure the anticipated return is reasonable for the length of the manuscript
      • Don’t resent a no response, timing is everything
      • Be willing to reciprocate
  • Read through the provided edits with care
    • Consider every comment and use those that resonate to complete your third draft

Presuming that you’ve made edits to the manuscript based on reader feedback, re-read the text with the above-bulleted self-edit questions in mind, performed a second tools scan, and made all changes you can identify you will have a completed third draft and you haven’t spent a cent. Congratulations!

Time to hire an editor.

How do you find the right editor?

See you next post. Happy writing.

 

 

 

                         

 

 

What is True for Your Story?

 

Truth is a tricky word. It is especially tricky for writers. Some of you may think truth is only relevant to non-fiction. Some of you may argue truth is fact. Truth in writing is a kaleidoscope or crazy quilt. There as many truths in a book as there are characters. Our job is to write characters or memories (another tricky word) true for each personality, in keeping with the story told. Is it factual? Did a hurricane happen on June 12, 1956, at noon or at 6:00 p.m.? You can look up facts online but the said search will never relate how you felt during that storm or how your character reacted to immediate danger in an intense situation. The fact cannot convey the terror, the cruelty, and wonder of the act. It does not define a family’s reactions as their home is destroyed by a fickle wind while their neighbor’s house escapes damage. It cannot convey the grateful sense of survival when life is measured as greater than tangible goods.

 

Truth plays another role in writing. As we write we may decide to include topics that make us uncomfortable. We may worry about what others will think when they read the material or we fret that we are going too or not far enough. The concerns can be evidenced by our physical reactions: a headache, tightness in the chest or a queasy stomach as we write. Often we avoid topics that cause us to feel vulnerable.

Vulnerability is where truth in writing resides. When you have a physical reaction to your work, meditate on the reaction. What is at the root of the fear, the tension, the sense of dis-ease? When you write a section that challenges your intellectual ideas of truth, it doesn’t mean that the words are emotionally invalid. Truth in writing is more complex than facts. Truth in writing may not be equivalent to truth in your daily life, but it can be true for your character, the plot and the outcome of your writing.

Remember your draft is about creation. A draft is a free fall. The time to let go. The time to trust you, the writer. Ignore the voice that urges you to cut and refine as you go. Simultaneous edits have a vampiric effect. The corpse appears alive but it has no lifeblood.

Surprise yourself by reviewing a full draft. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and create your strongest work. This is your free pass to get all of the truths, feelings, and reactions of your story on the page without internal or external critics.

 

Cara Caras, Baking, and Readers

Cara Caras, Baking, and Readers

 

I am a writer and a baker. When I feel stuck in my writing, I bake. I recently made a new recipe: Cara Cara Cake. A Cara Cara is a seasonal orange available in the northeast from late January until almost March. The bright rind is a color once limited to circus clowns. The semi-sweet, juicy flesh imitates the dark pink of Blood Oranges. I stumbled upon a recipe for a Bundt-type cake that included two whole unspecified oranges. I chose the Cara Caras to adapt the cake  chttps://food52.com/recipes/75095-sunset-s-whole-orange-cake as I choose the identity markers of a character, accessible and yet unexpected.

I don’t believe a recipe has to be followed to the letter for a good outcome. I am a pantser as a writer and as a baker. Recipes are concepts rather than scripture. First drafts, like a new recipe, are a test of imagination and skill. Submission-ready manuscripts are concepts tempered and coereced into final formats, like batter that becomes a fully iced and decorated cake.

 

Despite experience in both arenas I have yet to learn which of my creations will be a hit with my audience. I expected my new cake to be good, but I did not expect it to elicit rhapsody from the various audiences served. The response was so great I was asked for the recipe by a dozen people. Every event after the first serving brought a request for a re-bake. While flattering, I try not to repeat recipes just I try not to create stale characters. Yet, I have come to learn that an audience is a collaborator regardless of what I create. I have to trust that that the taster of my deserts or the reader of my work has accepted what I present and that in some way it touches on what is good food for him or her. I also have to accept when collaborators withhold feedback or give flat responses. Thank god for tasters, editors, and readers.

Make Your Own Rules

If you write and you want to learn more about your craft you’ve probably read dozens of articles that include the following:

The 3 rules of…

7 rules to…

If you want to be published follow the 10 rules…

Preface the word rule with a number between one and ten and you are well on your way to a silver bullet article or blog.  Why silver bullet? Like a diet that starts on New Year’s Day, our magical thinking likes to believe the last set of rules read will rock our writing world. We don’t like to accept that a successful diet requires less food and more exercise and successful writing requires, wait for it, writing. You become a better writer by writing. Bummer, huh?

As a writing instructor, I’ve seen eager faces wait for the silver-platter epiphany. I’ve also experienced the group reaction of eight students who become simultaneously crestfallen at the reality of writing as a practice.

If you need rules as a writer, make your own. Define your writing ritual. My writing ritual is of little value to you. I can’t tell you which space resonates with you. I can’t say whether you should sit or stand, use a keyboard, a number 2 pencil, or a quill, play music as you write or meditate before you begin. Writing is personal. Success is defined by you and the goals you set. Success is reached by the recipe you create to attain your goals. Stay true and practice, practice, practice until you become the writer you want to be.

 

Happy Writing.

Classics and Rereading

I have the good fortune to facilitate a monthly book discussion at a local library. The format consists of five titles related to a particular topic. The current topic Destruction and Redemption include the titles:

Emma Bovary by Gustave Flaubert  

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene   

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov   

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles   

Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler   

As a literature major, it is not the first time I have encountered these titles. And, I admit that I was not thrilled at the prospect of rereading some of them. I’m glad I did. It has made me a more careful writer and attuned to the idea that stories have seasons as does our life.

What have I learned? Readers and writers approach stories in the same way. What way? We come to the page based on the life parameters we have experienced at the point of writing or reading a book. A book that bored us twenty might be insightful or moving a decade later.

The experience is reminiscent of the following Mark Twain quote:

Sometimes you surprise yourself with what you have learned. The certainty of a first experience becomes tainted or enhanced by experience. It does not remain static. You might have a pleasant surprise if you revisit a book you previously disliked. Sad to say you may reread a title that you loved and find it no longer moves you.  Regardless keep reading.

 

 

What is NANOWRIMO?

November is the month you challenge yourself. This is not a competition with others. This is a personal challenge to write 50,000 words in a month. Why?  November is National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO). Login to https://nanowrimo.org

Write 1667 words a day for thirty days. At the end of November, you will be well on your way to a first draft. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? As you read these words your internal editor is screeching, “Are you crazy?” Perhaps.

Let’s say you commit to the challenge but only complete 10,000 words. This is still a win. At the end of November you will have more words than you did at the end of October and if you truly ignored your internal editor, you might have a fertile seed for a new book.  Trust your creative self. Give it a try.

Writing Styles: Plotter, Visualizer, Pantser

There is no right way to approach writing a book. We all have our individual comfort zones. Consider how you work best. Do you require an outline to begin? Outline away. An outline can be an excellent blueprint for what you want to achieve. And speaking of blueprints, ask any architect if the final build of a plan is one hundred percent in line with the concept drawings. You might be surprised to learn that architects, like writers, find unexpected challenges along the way. You must be willing to abandon or adapt your outline to the story as it unfolds. Creativity lies in the surprises.

Perhaps you are a visual writer. What does that mean? The office wall of a visual writer is scattered with drawings or images of characters, locales, and proposed story arcs. It is not unusual to see a display of multicolored Post-it notes coded for characters, chapters, and/or plot points. The patchwork serves as a reference point as the writing develops. It is easily rearranged to accommodate story order and to insert new plot developments as they occur during the draft process.

 

The third most common variety of writer is a pantser. A pantser sits at a desk with his or her writing tools of choice and begins without an outline, without a storyboard, to create the story as the words come. Although this implies that the pantster starts with nothing, that is untrue. A pantser has an idea, a central theme, or a character in mind, but they want to see how the story unfolds as they write. The pantser approach reminds me of an old movie where a spunky character says, “Let’s build a barn and put on a show.” What will the barn look like? Not sure. What is the show? Don’t know yet. How many roles are there? Is it a comedy, a drama, or a fantasy? This is my preferred methodology. I wait to see what the story wants to be, and I trust that it will unfold.

Is one method better than another? NO! In fact, as your writing practice evolves, you learn that there are benefits to each method and you develop your own hybrid style. You may have to submit three chapters and an outline to a potential publisher; you may learn to rely on the Post-it scheme to reorder chapters for an enhanced story arc, and you may realize as you revise that you have to trust yourself to flesh out the story.

The trick is not to allow the way you attack or prepare for the work to become a limitation or a roadblock to the actual writing. If your goal is a one-hundred-percent detailed outline, that is what you will achieve—an outline. If you want a story with heart, imagery, and color, you must trust your words to write. Perfection in preparation is like perfection in creativity: resistance. Regardless of your style, you must trust your ability to tell your story.

 

 

Writer’s Block v. Writer’s Slump & Self-Rejection

You’ve heard of writer’s block. If you haven’t experienced it, you still fear it. Every time you sit down to write you think is today when the words stop appearing? Is today, the end of ideas? Is today, the death of my story. See a pattern here? Like maybe these thoughts are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe this pattern of thinking is a form steroidal self-rejection. If you imagine your creative spirit as dead, its spark falters, sputters and dies for lack of oxygen. The minute you form the words Writer’s Block as a self-descriptor,  SNAP OUT OF IT.

Maybe you need magical thinking, maybe you need a walk, maybe you need to try to meditate for the thousandth time. Shake yourself into the reality that only you can believe in the block of your work. Become a writer’s block atheist. You’ll thank yourself after you push through the self-rejection.

 

A writer’s slump is similar to writer’s block but instead of I can’t write, it manifests as I don’t want to write. During a slump, all external things become significantly more important, intriguing and entertaining than a pen in hand or fingers on the keyboard. Remember the last time you committed to the gym?  Worked like a charm until that morning you rolled over and hit the snooze button. Writing is no different. It doesn’t happen unless you show up. You show up even when your sister calls, there’s a great thread on Twitter or your sink is full of dishes. Once you push through, call your sister, check Twitter and hose the plates. They’ll all be there after you do YOUR work. This form of self-rejection diminishes the value of your work as less important than the ordinary tasks of the day. Only you can write your words. Anyone can wash the dishes.

© 2018 Lee Heffner – Author