Category Archives: Editing

The Cliff’s Notes Version of How to Be a Writer

A lot of my posts come from questions I get from aspiring writers struggling with some part of the writing process or another. The other day I got an email peppered with questions I had mostly already answered. However, it occurred to me that there might be others out there who, like this particular reader, who haven’t had the chance to wade through the 700+ posts here to find what they want.

So instead of cutting and pasting a whole bunch of links to essays in this side, I went for the short answer, knowing I would post the results in a kind of Cliff’s Notes version of this blog.

So here’s the short answer version of many popular writer’s questions. For more detail, see the rest of the blog.

(Note: questions in parenthesis are paraphrased by yours truly for the sake of brevity)

(Reader mentions different jobs he has had, including a recent stint in the military)

Thank you for serving in the military. I can’t thank you enough for doing that.

It sounds you have a lot of different experiences, which is a good thing. A writer doesn’t have to have experience in a lot of different jobs and rely solely on imagination, but I think experience helps. Your resume sounds a lot like my early one before I settled down.

(Reader asks about how one should go about tackling a writing project)

If you’re reading my blog, you’ve probably found tons of information about writing from my particular point of view. You should hunt up some blogs from other writers to see how they’re handling things. I’m a big proponent of finding out what works for you as a writer, because what works for me or another writer might not be your cup of tea. Plus, the way I write has evolved over the years.

I’m 39 and I’ve wanted to write my entire life but have yet to finish a book. I have multitudes of ideas streaming in my head with good ideas.

Yup, you’ve got it bad. Welcome to the club. Most writers have tons of ideas (I even do a writer’s seminar called “The Idea Is The Easy Part” to show how easy it is to come up with a concept for a novel). Our big issue is time to do something with those ideas.

I have a friend who is a brilliant idea man. He’s always coming up with a new idea for a book. His problem is, he gets these new ideas when he’s supposed to be working on another book, and he gets so taken with the new idea that he abandons his in-progress for the new idea. Those writers who are published learned to discipline themselves and pick one idea, working on it until it’s done. If the new idea is really good, it won’t go away.

I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.

I do that too. I have notebooks with notes and starts of books all over the place. It’s like buying a new notebook and/or pen validates the new idea. But again, that discipline is the key.

But I make excuses and think that I can’t make money doing that.

It’s hard. And it’s hard for outsiders to understand that, for every Tom Clancy or Stephen King, there are 1,000 writers like me who do it for the love of writing, and of course, for a shot at that brass ring.

Fortunately, with the advent of the Amazon Kindle and other e-readers, it’s become easier to make money on one’s work by self-publishing. Good money. One woman just signed a $2 million contract with a major publisher based on the Twilight knockoff novels she was self-publishing. But it needs to be good. Or shamelessly commerical.

Do I need an agent?

There’s a joke in the industry that you can’t get a book sale without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you have sold a book. If you want to get published by the Big Six, you need an agent. If you’re willing to go the self-published route, no. If your self-pubbed stuff catches on, the agents will find you.

The story of how I got my agent is on my blog. It helped that I went in through the Science Fiction/Fantasy Door. That genre is more open to new writers and unsolicited submissions than the more mainstream stuff.

How do I get a book contract?

By writing a darn good book. And you do that by writing and writing and writing and writing. Every time you write you get better at it. No anabolic steroids necessary.

How can I get a publisher to pay me while I write?

1) Write a darn good book

2) Sell it to a publisher

3) While you are marketing the first book, start on the next one. This way you can tell your publisher you’re working on a new book and they will understand that you’re serious about writing.

4) If your book gets buzz, or hits it big, or perhaps even breaks even, your publisher will want to tie you down with a multi-book contract. When that happens, congratulations!

That’s approximately the way to do it. Fortunately for us all, publishers want to make sure an author can go the distance and produce something both readable and salable before committing to their writing careers.

I’m sure some people have gotten contracts without going through some version of this, but they were either celebrities who could be hooked up with ghostwriters, or had established themselves as writers in another area (short fiction, journalism, etc.)

When you were writing the Angel’s Luck series what was your writing process?

It depends. The first book, Desperate Measures, was the first novel I ever wrote. During its writing I was going to college, getting married, and looking for a job. It was written piecemeal over the course of 4 1/2 years, and the original version was twice as long as what was published. While it was at market, I wrote A Death Of Honor, then The Mushroom Shift (about police work – I worked for a few years as a sheriff’s dispatcher), then The Company Man. By then I was a better writer and was able to hack the mess that was DM into shape.

The other two books in the trilogy I was under contract to write. I had said I was never going to write a trilogy, but the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. So I pitched DM to my editor as the first book, said a few words about what the other two books would be like, and Del Rey bit. I wrote those two as a full-time writer, and I treated it like a full-time job.

How many hours a day did you write?

Again, it depends. When I’m writing a novel, I tell myself my daily goal is 5 pages, and I take however long it takes to get there. Many days I’d get on a roll and write more in just a couple of hours. If I was having a bad day, I told myself I had to get through at least one page. More often than not, getting through the first page made it possible to write four more. But sometimes one was all I could struggle through.

WARNING: Telling friends and family that you are writing full time will often lead them to think that, since you are home, you are “not doing anything”, and are therefore eligible to do things like help them move pianos.

How did you find a decent Editor to read your work?

I was marketing A Death of Honor, and since it was Science Fiction, I was going the Slush Pile route (SF is institutionally more friendly to unsolicited submissions than any other genre – although romances may be this way also… I wouldn’t know). A bunch of smaller houses turned it down. A big house wanted it, but they wanted changes that I felt would have damaged the integrity of the story. My wife kept telling me to send it to Del Rey, and I kept saying no because they published Heinlein and Clarke – what would they want with me? She persisted. I gave in. And I can’t count over the years how many times I have been grateful for my wife’s encouragement.

I do want to write and I feel that is my talent.

If you really, really want to write, nobody can stop you. Not even yourself. All sorts of people have told me they wanted to write, but when it came down to it, no encouragement I gave could make them actually sit down and write. A few did and succeeded, but if they didn’t have that spark inside driving them, they never would have made the commitment. Many others tried and gave up, or ended up not trying.

I said that it took me 4 1/2 years to write Desperate Measures. That’s because I wanted to be a writer more than anything else. And I wrote whenever I could steal the time to do it. A lot of times it was a half-page, page, two pages here and there. It added up. When I finally finished, I learned that I could write a novel. I started to get an idea of how I worked as a writer. I learned that, every time I wrote, I got better at it. And I learned that, having done it once, I wanted to do it again.

And I’m still trying. I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer, either. But I haven’t given up because I know how much writing means to me, and I know I’d rather be writing novels than anything else.

So steal what time you can to pile up those pages and see what happens.

And that is Volume One of the Cliff’s Notes. Feel free to question or append in the comments.

The Cold Reptilian Eye

Jodi over at My Literary Quest has made a shocking discovery. In her latest post she describes her discovery that the first draft of her novel will need a lot more work before it is presentable to an agent or editor. And that discovery is unnerving her.

Take heart, Jodi. That’s a good sign. It tells me that you can look at your manuscript with a cold reptilian eye and see that there are miles to go before you sleep. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that.

Once upon a time, I used to visit schools and talk to students about writing. Many times, at the request of the teachers, I was asked to stress the importance of editing one’s work. “You’d be surprised,” they would tell me, “how many of then think that once they write ‘The End’ on a piece, they think it is done. They need to see it’s only the beginning.”

That was always an easy thing for me to do. I would lug along a giant box containing the various drafts that just one novel went through. I would pull out a 500+ page mass and let them look at it, at the trails of red and blue ink across the print that made each page look like a road map. I’d watch their eyes go big and smile.

After it was over, I’d hear from the teacher: “That was great! I had a bunch of different colored pens on my desk and they all came up and got one so they could work on their papers like a Real Writer.”

Why do so many new writers think they’re done when the last page of the first draft rolls out of their printer? Simple ignorance, I suspect. They may not have researched the issue, and simply have no idea of the amount of work it takes to get a novel written.1 I’m sure a lot of these well-intentioned folk think that Stephen King ripped the final page of Carrie out of his typewriter, stuffed it in an envelope, and the money began to roll in weeks later.2

Don’t think so. When the first draft is done, that is when the fun begins. The Editing.

I learned how to edit when I was made Associate Editor of the college paper. Part of my duty was to clean up other people’s writing to make it suitable for inclusion. It was an odd thing. When I looked at someone else’s work, I could instantly assess what was wrong with it. There wasn’t that closeness, that attachment. I had that cold reptilian eye. I was a predator, and as an efficient predator, I had to look for the weakest prey. It wasn’t long before, knowing what to look for in the work of others, I could turn the same cold eye on my own stuff.

But I have to get a little distance first. When you’re done with a book, there’s that moment of euphoria that you went the distance, you finished the race. If you were coming off of a marathon, you’d be filled with endorphins.3. And those little feel-good thingies are going to predispose you to feel toward your manuscript as a mother bear feels toward her cub: Ain’t nothin’ gettin’ near this young’un!

And this is just what I do to my outlines...

That’s why I let the manuscript sit for at least a month. This is a good thing for me. It gives me a chance to catch up on the stuff that I’ve let go during the writing of the first draft – taking out the garbage, talking to the wife and kids, whatever. That’s when I pick up my editing pen (the one with the red ink) and go after it.

And yes, I edit the book in print form. It started as a holdover from my typewriter days, but I like the tactileness of having the whole manuscript right in front of me, not having to scroll, and turning the whole thing into a red-blotched mess. Besides, the jump from computer screen to printed page is one more degree of separation.

Occasionally something goes wrong. I’ve got at least one manuscript that got through the first draft when I discovered that there was going to be a fat lot of work involved in rehabilitating it into some semblance of commerciality. I thought a longer break was in order, so I moved on to something else… and then something else… and you get the idea. I might go back and fix it someday, but for now I’m considering it another chapter in the saga of me becoming a great writer.

If you’re in the same situation, don’t worry. All those chapters eventually add up. But you have to go the distance in order for it to pay off.

The other distance, that is.

  1. Click this link. It’s the best video I’ve ever seen about the writing process. I mean it.
  2. Oh, and that’s another blog entry…
  3. And I probably literally am, too, after finishing a novel since I usually write the endings in a massive (50 pages or more in a sitting) marathon.

Writing v. Storytelling

I came to a conclusion this weekend thanks to research for a novel that I decided not to write yet.

When I was in the throes of obsession with starting up a new writing project, my original idea was to bash out a comic mystery that could be the first novel in a character series. Fortunately, my subconscious informed me that this was not the project I was supposed to work on, but rather I was to write Deadline (which has already been chronicled).

But not before I asked my wife to pick up a Janet Evanovich novel for me during her next trip to the library. Evanovich writes comic mysteries about Stephanie Plum, a woman who stumbled into tracking down bail bond jumpers for a living. The titles of her books all have numbers in them; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, et al.

So this weekend I ended up with a copy of Hard Eight in my hands. Since I was struggling with allergies and the side effects of medication for same, I decided to put Cryptonomicon aside and breeze through the Evanovich.

Now I’m sure that Ms. Evanovich is a very nice lady, and she’s certainly had more success in writing than I have, but I didn’t particularly care for what I was reading. I got the distinct feeling that what I was seeing in the pages of Hard Eight was writing as opposed to storytelling.

To start off, early in the first chapter, she broke one of my cardinal rules of writing, the As You Know rule. This is a rule prohibiting dialogue between two characters who explain something that both already know solely for the purpose of enlightening the reader. Such bits of information usually begin with one character or the other saying, “As you know.” Here’s a sample:

COLIN POWELL: You called for me, Mr. President?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes I did. As you know, Colin, on September 11th, 2001, several teams of terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane was apparently scheduled to target Washington, but was brought down when the brave passengers mounted a counter-attack against the terrorists.

There are several literary crimes involved in violating this rule: such an exchange would never take place in real life, it sounds clunky, and it talks down to the reader, who is capable of figuring things out if they are delivered in a different way (such as through a “Why” character – someone who is not familiar with the main character’s world – reporters usually make excellent “why” characters, unless, of course, the novel is set in a news room).

I was ready to let this one pass by because we all make mistakes (although this is Evanovich’s eighth – eighth! – novel in this series). But as I read on, I saw other things that bothered me. For the first chapter or two, Plum (the narrator) would describe characters as being taller or shorter than she was. But I apparently missed the book where she said she was five-foot-two or whatever. The whole taller/shorter than me meant nothing (unless it was symbolic and dense old me just missed it). One character seemed to exist solely to remind Stephanie (and therefore us) of things that happened in the past (meaning other books). And a lot of the humor in the books seemed to exist simply for its own sake, as opposed to rising out of the story. Needless to say, when a character with the last name of “Cloughn” appeared, my first thought was, please don’t let this guy’s name be pronounced, “clown.” I think you can guess the outcome of that little wish.

Now maybe this is a manifestation of King’s Bloat in Evanovich’s writing. I don’t know because I haven’t read any of her other novels. She is a multiple NY Times Best Selling Author now, so her editor could be easing up on her. On the other hand, maybe she has always written this way, and it’s simply her style – in which case, I don’t like it.

Or it could be that she’s not yet in full control of her writing power.

What do I mean by this?

It seems to me that when we start out as writers, we reach a certain point where we realize that there is power in the words we are putting down on paper. We write things that make people laugh or cry or get angry, and when we see it work, we want to do it more and more.

For most of us in this racket, I suspect that this happens in high school, which is why most of our writings from that period are painful for us to read now. We haven’t been through that realization that (forgive me, Stan Lee) with great power comes great responsibility. If you use your power to write shamelessly manipulative fiction, your literary days will be numbered. So we develop internal editors in various ways that hopefully help us keep track of the fact that our primary purpose is to tell a story.

From there, we streamline our writing ability, learning how to ply the power of words while at the same time propelling the story forward. The trick is to integrate everything into the forward motion of the plot; this includes things like humor and characterization.

I’ve mentioned here before how I brazenly cut A Death of Honor by 20 percent, only to see when the reviews came out that I had gutted a lot of the characterization. Since then I’ve been working on having not two pieces of writing (a characterization bit and a propel-the-plot-forward bit) but one (a bit of characterization that propels the plot, or plot propulsion that reveals, develops or builds character).

So you take the step from writer to storyteller when you restrain the urge to plant a joke or a character bit for their own sake, instead making such things subservient to the plot. Even Al Capp understood that – and he was drawing a comic strip, for crying out loud.

Well, that’s the one good thing about writing. You get better as you do it. I may not be where I want to be yet, either, but each word I commit to a project gets me that much closer.

As for Ms. Evanovich – I’ll finish Hard Eight and see how I feel about it when I get to the end. Perhaps I’ll find a rationalization for Attorney Cloughn’s existence. But it had better be an amazingly good one.

NP – Dandy Warhols, Welcome to the Monkey House