2020 – Week 2

It’s week 2 of 2020 and I’m pleased to say that I have completed the scene I was working on in my last post, added an additional 949 words.  It is now 1687 words, an excellent scene length. Of course, this is the first draft of it, so I’m going to let it sit for a day or two and then go through my editing process, which you can learn about here on my blog Editing Tricks That Don’t Cost a Dime.

My goal for week 3 of 2020 is to figure out what the final scene in this chapter will be–from whose perspective–solidify what exactly is taking place in the scene, and at least get my opening paragraph drafted.

Here’s to keeping up the progress!

Happy writing!

 

Meaningful Writing – How to Not Quit

I’ve been struggling to make progress with my book for some months now. It’s not that I don’t know what happens next, but everytime I sit down to write I find myself easily distracted.

I began to think back to my unstoppable days, where churning out two or three thousand words daily was a default occurrence. How was I able to do it?

Honest answer? I didn’t have much of a life. I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, didn’t have a job or a house to clean. Instead, I was a loner with no friends. By creating a new world through writing it was an escape from the mundane. The characters I wrote were my friends, I aided their struggles, shared their grief and success. Writing back then was so easy because it was more meaningful!

So what is writing now? Does it hold a similar meaning?

Well, no. I have a great job, a wonderful husband, and three beautiful kids that I love spending time with. There’s no going back to the way it was, and I don’t want to!

But I’ve been hanging onto this same story for 17 years, wanting to finish it and not being able to. Now I realize why–it’s no longer an escape, but I still love my characters dearly, and I’ve invested too many years to just give up on them.

So it’s sentiment. Sentiment has helped my writing survive, but it hasn’t propelled it forward. It’s a feeble reason to keep writing. Which is why I haven’t been very successful doing it.

That’s why other things distract me, that’s why I can’t write more than 300 words in a sit down even when I do carve out the time. I need to find real meaning for my writing again.

Obviously, my previous purpose is no longer feasible, I’m no longer a miserable teenager, I’m a content adult. I don’t want to escape reality anymore. So what substantial meaning can I attribute to writing now?

My answer: Drawing support from others who share the same struggles is a time proven method for success in almost every aspect of life from religion, to disease, to exercise, to entertainment, etc. So I’ve decided to begin meeting with other local writers at least once per month just to write together and support each other in the writing process.

I met with my group last weekend to test it out, wrote 400 words, and worked out several kinks in my storyline–a definite win!

If writing is a struggle for you and it wasn’t before, even though you’ve carved out the time and gathered your notes, then maybe the reason for your writers block goes deeper.

I suggest doing some soul searching to determine what remedy will work for you to get back on track. It may be trial and error for a bit, but once you figure it out I bet you find that writing comes to you much easier.

Perhaps joining a writing community is the answer for you too. If there isn’t a local group where you are, try searching for an online group, and don’t be shy about shopping around for the right fit.

Good luck and happy writing!

 

Editing tricks that don’t cost a dime

Editing.  It’s such a dirty word for authors because it means returning to  place you’ve already been, going back over something you’ve already done, and performing the tedious task of proofreading, grammar checking, rephrasing, rewriting etc.  In short, it’s a chore, one most writers despise.

I’ve read some articles and heard a lot of people say not to worry about editing until your manuscript is finished, and then to hire someone to do it.  I think this is a mistake.  While it’s likely true that you won’t be able to catch all of your mistakes or plot holes and you need a separate set of eyes, there are a lot of free avenues you can take to weed out as many inconsistencies as possible so when it comes time to pay a professional, you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

1) Write your manuscript in Courier or Courier New font.  This is old school typewriter font.  A few people have told me that it’s hard on their eyes or looks weird.  If this is you, then choose a different font, just choose one that is significantly different than Times New Roman, which most final drafts are submitted in.

2) Briefly edit as you go.  I’ve heard so many people say “don’t worry about mistakes, just write write write.”  I’m not a fan of this.  While it’s important to not get hung up on wanting it to be perfect (don’t do that!!  Read my article about that here), it’s also important for my own peace of mind to proofread sections during breaks in muse to correct spelling errors, replace redundant words, and rephrase things to fix flow if it’s a fast read through.  I don’t recommend spending more than 5 minutes editing a paragraph at this stage, do a quick once over to correct obvious mistakes, and then keep writing.

3) Reread your finished scene.  Again, so many people have told me to just keep going with my first draft until it’s complete and then go back over the whole thing.  But I must be honest, if I did 0 editing until the book is done, I would be rewriting my book over and over (which actually I have done 4 times because I followed the advice to go go go).  By rereading scenes as I go, I’m giving myself opportunity to figure out that I want a different cliffhanger, that I’ve already stated something in a previous scene, or that I want some other character to show up and do or say “the thing,” which will change the whole story.  Catching things like this after each scene can prevent the overwhelming book rewrites that are inevitable if you wait until you’re completely done with your novel.

Now, sleep on these changes and move on to step 4.

4)  For Scrivener users (if you aren’t one, I recommend becoming one!!), compile your finished scene into a standard double spaced word document using 12 pt. Times New Roman font.  This will allow you to utilize Microsoft’s spellcheck/grammar check feature for the first time, and can help you find the contractions and mistakes that you missed.  Microsoft’s concise feature is also helpful in eliminating common wordy phrases that bog down your narrative.

If you’re not a scrivener user, then just change your font to 12 pt. Times New Roman and double space your doc.

Why? Doing this allows you to see a new visual view/line/word placement of your work, and can really help you see at a glance sentences, phrases, and words that hinder flow, sound redundant, or need to be reworked.

Now sleep on it and proceed to step 5 tomorrow.

5)  Compile your scene into a novel-formatted (usually 5×9 page size), Times New Roman, 10 point font .pdf file.  Again, this is providing you a new unique look at your scene, and one that is extremely close to how it will appear in print, the ultimate goal.  Being able to see it in it’s “published” form will help you weed out anything else you’ve missed up to this point.

Follow the same editing process from step 4, and proceed to step 6 tomorrow.

6)  Print the corrected version out.  Same as above, it’s a different visual of your story, and something about paper vs. computer screen really helps to further highlight things missed.  Make any necessary changes to your computer file.

7)  Find another pair of eyes to look at your scene.  At this point, you have looked at your scene from 4 different angles and made edits.  But it’s well known that writers still miss so much when it comes to their own work.  We’re too attached.  We know every line, and our brains sometimes fill in gaps or skip over things regardless of how different we make it look with page and font sizes.

Many suggest finding a family member or close friend to read over it, which is usually your quickest and easiest option.  Keep in mind though that family and friends may not be forthcoming about their true opinions of your scene, so I always recommend finding a non-biased person to review your work too.  A family member or friend also might not be very inciteful about writing style, genre tropes, or spelling or grammar because they may not be avid readers or writers themselves.  If they are, wonderful!

Critique groups are one of the best options for a non-bias perspective.  You get multiple pairs of eyes on your scene from avid writers (and readers) and they can help you with flow, plot holes, even weird cultural nuances and character vernacular that you may have not even thought about.  It also gives you a chance to share your writing knowledge with others and exchange tips and tricks (let’s face it, most family members aren’t interested in hearing about your writing process, but other writers might be!).  Best of all, critique groups are free!  Just find a group in your area and start attending.

One drawback (and advantage – it’s a double edged sword) to critique groups is that members aren’t shy about voicing their true opinion.  In the moment, this can be hurtful, especially if several members are commenting on the same thing, or they flat out tell you they don’t like it.  Members of critique groups don’t have a personal connection with you like your family and friends do, so be prepared to receive some criticism, but be confident that the feedback you receive is given by fellow writers and readers who are genuinely trying to help you improve your story and style.

Of course, also remember that you can take or leave anything they say.  You’re not under contractual obligations to make the changes they suggest.  Make notes, thank them for their feedback, and then decide what to do with the information.  If they have identified confusing segments though, consider carefully how you can correct these in your story.  Odds are, other readers (agents and editors too) will encounter the same issues.

If you’re unsure how to find a critique group, a good place to look is google, the meetup app, your library, or local college, or even Inkitt.  And if none of these options produce fruit, start one yourself!  I started the Augusta Writers Critique Group last October via the meetup app and it now includes 150 members.  There are always attendees at meetings and the feedback has been phenomenal!

After all of this, your scene has been edited and revised many times over and is in great shape.  Once every scene goes through this gauntlet and you’ve come to the end of your novel, reread your entire manuscript and tie up any loose ends you may have missed.

8)  Find a beta reader to read your book from start to finish.  If you can find someone to read your entire finished draft for free and give you their thoughts, fantastic!  Again, family members are prime suspects, or even a member of your critique group may volunteer.  There are also several online websites such as fiverr where you can find beta readers for free or for a small fee who will read your entire manuscript.  This step is important for evaluating the overall story plot and execution, which can be hard to do in a critique group where only one scene at a time is shown to a varied audience over a long period of time.

But now, if it’s in your budget, is the time I recommend hiring a professional editor to go through it and make suggestions.  Professional editors can be pricey:  4 cents/word is a common price I’ve seen, which is $3,200 for 80,000 words.  Ouch.  According to freelancewriting.com, basic copyediting on average charges anywhere from $25-40/hr and tackles 5-10 pages/hr.  More strenuous editing could cost even more for fewer pages.  Once your book reaches this stage, you want it to be as polished as possible to get the most bang for your buck.

The bottom line:  You don’t have to rely on expensive professional editors to produce a polished manuscript.  Further, skipping free ways to improve your book means that the intricate details a paid professional could find may not be found because of surface errors that you could have corrected yourself.  Also, a professional editor is still just one set of eyes, and one point of view, and no amount of money you spend on them will change that limitation.  The more opinions you have, the more fleshed out your manuscript will be.

This process has personally improved my writing by leaps and bounds, and has given me confidence to continue moving forward with my story.  I do not plan to completely scrap and start my novel over again from the beginning, and these steps are helping to ensure that the story I’m telling is readable, interesting, engaging, and free of mistakes, inconsistencies, and plot holes as much as possible.

Happy writing!

 

Writers Block :(

Writer’s block happens to the best of us, it’s inevitable.  We go strong for a bit, churning out page after page and then suddenly we get to a place where the creativity takes a vacation.  I’ve been stuck on one scene for about four months.  Four months!  That’s a long time to be stuck in one place.  How many pages could I have written if not for this problem?

We experience writers block for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes we just get too busy with life.  We start a new job, have to go out of town, a new semester of school begins, grass and hedges grow, or grandma bought us a new guitar for our birthday and wants us to learn how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb.  The reasons why we halt writing are endless.

Sometimes though we are genuinely stuck.  Life settles down and we have time put aside for our craft, but we spend it all staring at the screen until we feel like our eyes are melting in their sockets.  Our story refuses to come out.

This scene that I happened to be stuck on was a very important one.  It’s my main character’s first real scene, and it’s a pretty pivotal moment in the book.  A lot is riding on getting this right.  I’ve established several characters already with unique personalities and intricately woven story arcs that have ushered readers from page 1 to this very point in time.  Now it’s my main character’s turn to take the torch and shine.  So amid all the weeds to pull, babies to feed and read to, work to be on time for, groceries to buy and put away, somewhere in there I have the responsibility to my readers, myself, and to my character to write a first impression that is both engaging and intriguing–to create a new reader favorite.

And so, I’ve been stuck.

In addition to life things that get in our way, as writers it’s easy for us to get so caught up in wanting a scene to be perfect that we allow it to be a stumbling block to our success.  So many pages did not get written because I was hung up on how perfect this scene needs to be.

The old saying “A house isn’t built in a day” is a perfect analysis.  That beautiful mansion was once just a patch of grass.  So too are each of our scenes.  Keep this in mind when you get stuck, especially if it is because you really want to the scene to be perfect.

I finally completed the scene by writing a little bit at a time, and boy was it ugly at first, and at second, and at third.  A couple paragraphs here and there, some rework here, some scrapping there, and some tweaking all over took it from a patch of grass to a house with four walls.  It still needs paint, but the foundation is there now for what I had envisioned as the perfect scene.  And the most important part is that it’s done, it’s written, and I can finally move past this point in my book.

Writers block will happen, just accept it now.  And when it does, don’t ignore it, or it could set you back four months or even longer.  Some writers have given up on stories because of writers block, because the scene isn’t perfect, because the mansion is just a concrete foundation and studs.

I’m telling you as one writer to another, that it’s okay to write a scene that’s ugly, rushed, devoid of detail and emotion.  It’s okay if you have to scrap a couple paragraphs or even the whole thing.  These are not wasted efforts, it’s part of the process of beating writers block.  Embrace it, push through it, and keep adding to your house until it becomes a mansion.

The only way to finish your novel is to keep writing until it’s done, even when it’s ugly, even when you feel that the scene you’re working on deserves so much better than what you can currently do.

You will polish it to perfection.

But first, just keep writing.

Soul Searching for Character Development

One thing I’ve learned over the past several weeks is that life is full of surprises, excitements, and disappointments.  Sometimes life seems dull, but others it’s like an emotional roller coaster.  Those moments, the tough ones, the emotional ones, are an invaluable source of inspiration for your novel, in particular: character development.

I’m now several drafts into my novel, and looking back over my previous drafts I can see the stages my thought process went through, beginning with action scenes and quick dialogue to get to the next action sequence and move the story along.  Stage 2 added a little more thought provoking dialogue, a little more backstory to help the reader understand why these action scenes were taking place and to give a little more substance to the wider story arc.  Stage 3 was about tying up loose ends, embellishing certain scenes, smoothing out some rough edges and cutting out some redundancy.  In these 3 stages though, the most fundamental aspect of a reader’s experience was missing or sorely lacking: character development.  Sure, my characters did and said things and the reader usually knew why, but the feelings described were hollow or non-existent.  They didn’t feel real.  The human bond of emotional connection was missing between the reader and the character.

Character development truly makes or breaks a novel, and it can be tricky trying to figure out how to do it successfully.  Loss, grief, fear, anxiety, love, desire, hatred, thrill:  Real emotions which derive from real experiences and real relationships are paramount to character development.  But MJ Pankey, you say, my character did experience loss, his best friend was just badly wounded in front of him!  But as you read that scene, do you feel like your best friend was just badly wounded in front of you?  Tap into your inner psychologist, and tell me what that really feels like.

The emotional struggles make us who we are as individuals.  How we process those emotions, work through them, and overcome them is how we can connect with one another as human beings, and it’s also how we can connect and invest in fictional characters, even if their experiences aren’t real.

Every character who is important to a novel needs this internal struggle.  While my heroine can’t necessarily experience being offered an amazing job and then it falling through a week later in exactly the same way (being a fantasy novel kind of messes that up), I can still incorporate the familiar feelings of excitement and hope for the future, and then the following disappointment when it does not go according to plan.  I know what that feels like, and I can give that to my character.

Describing the internal conflict as actions happen and as scenes unfold is what character development means.  How does this character become better by these experiences, by these scenes, how does this event impact them now to have such a marked influence on a future thought or action?  And the best way to figure that out and get it on paper is to dig deep into your own experiences and describe how you feel/felt/would feel in a similar circumstance, and how did it change your expectations/circumstances/behaviors/beliefs moving forward?

To recap, a story is more than just events, places, things, and actions, it’s about people; real experiences, real emotions, and the kindred connection that a reader has with the character.  To create character development in your novel, you need to do some serious soul searching from your own life experiences.  When was a time you felt embarrassed?  Describe it, give it to your character.  When was a time you felt betrayed by someone?  Describe it, give it to your character.  You get the idea.

So if your novel is lacking some depth, look deep.  Dig up the emotional moments and give your characters a small piece of yourself.  Show your readers the raw humanity we all share between us as a species, and bring your characters to life.

Happy writing!

 

Treading the line between Inspiration and Plagiarism

Every writer is inspired by another’s creativity, it’s just inevitable, yet everyone wants to have an original thought or idea, and no one wants to plagiarize, unless they are specifically writing fanfiction, but even that, as E.L. James has proven with her Fifty Shades series, originally a Twilight fanfiction, can be considered original enough with the proper tweaks.

For the record, the formal definition of plagiarism according to google dictionary is as follows:

“the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”

That’s pretty vague and the line separating inspiration and plagiarism is fuzzy at best.  Obviously everyone has their own ideas and concerns about the line, and I can’t tell you how many times I have read a book and thought that it reminded me of another book, or that certain descriptions or names sounded really familiar to others in similar genres, as I’m sure you have too.  Is that plagiarism?

Well, I’m going to go through a few tips I use when I draw inspiration from other authors, and how I ensure that I don’t cross that line into plagiarism or some other muddled sibling.  And I’ll do it with an example.

One of the main sources of frustration I’ve personally encountered with my novel Isle of Elandia is writing battle scenes.  So, I decided to listen to an audiobook of the Iliad since it is one entire battle and one of the greatest books ever.

The Iliad is written so that the characters have unique personalities, the battle is expertly choreographed and visual, and it’s very heavy on the gore and details, I can fully immerse myself in the battle for Troy and that’s what I want in my own book!  So how can I do that without plagiarizing?

Firstly, it’s important to recognize the differences between my novel and the Iliad, and every author needs to understand the same when they are drawing inspiration from another author.  For my own part, I don’t really want to drag out the battle scene, especially after several authors in my critique group say they skip battles that drag on and on, even when reading their favorite authors or series.  Obviously this point alone will make it a challenge to plagiarize, since a book length battle such as the Iliad is already far different than a mere chapter.

That’s honestly the biggest tip, recognize the differences between your novel and your favorite author’s.

Rather than copy battle verbiage or incorporate similar specifics, which would be very out of place in my novel in addition to plagiarism, zeroing in on methods the author used to draw in the reader and further the plot is an effective way to draw inspiration.  For example, at one point in the Iliad, the Trojans focus their attack on one part of the wall guarding the Greeks’ ships, which not only added strategy into the battle but also furthered the plot, since once the wall came down it introduced a whole new plethora of emotions, battles, and hero clashes, and it focused the heroes on an attainable goal for a short period.

The inspiration that can be drawn here in my own battle scene is to focus my heroes on a goal within the overall battle, such as sinking a particular warship, destroying a battering ram before it breaks down the gate, or some other strategic sabotage that will introduce areas where I can expand character development, further along my unique plot, and keep my readers’ interest.  My one battle scene is a scene, not a book, and because of this fact, adding extra details, gore, and lengthy descriptions of individual fights –while that drew me into the Iliad and made me feel like I was on the battlefield– it just will not work for my story because the purpose of my book is not to glorify war, and neither is my battle scene.  My battle scene’s goal is just to destroy this warship.

Sidebar:  I think too often authors try to describe too much in scenes, and some of it is more fluff than plot thickening and is due in part to trying to replicate another author’s ideas to accomplish the same affect and achieve the same success.  However, due to the fundamental differences between the two novels, it doesn’t have the same affect on your novel, and it’s borderline plagiarism and will lose your reader.  So again, recognize the differences, capitalize on them, and expand them in your novel.

So to summarize, plagiarism and inspiration can sometimes seem like a fine line.  But the first step to defining that line is to recognize the differences between your novel and the one you are drawing inspiration from.  Once you do, capitalize on those differences throughout your book.  Analyze the methods your favorite author used to keep your interest rather than replicating exactly how they did it.  Avoid sharing specifics in common, and avoid adding in extra details that don’t further along your plot.  Just because it worked for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you, and most likely it won’t.

If you find that there aren’t that many differences to capitalize on or that they are so minor (like only names or colors) that they can be overlooked, then it may be time to re-evaluate your novel.

Best of luck writing!

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No Zero Days – The Key to Finishing Your Novel

I was speaking with an associate recently about motivation, finding time, and just making progress on a goal, and he shared a technique with me that is helping him achieve what he wants.

For myself, this goal would be finishing my novel, Isle of Elandia.  Chapter 3 is complete, and now that the new school semester has started I have not been able to find much time to even open my Scrivener to begin chapter 4.  It’s not that I don’t know what happens in chapter 4, I just can’t seem to put aside enough time during the day that I think will be beneficial enough to make a dent in it.  After speaking with my colleague though, I’ve realized that I may have the wrong mindset about what it takes to make progress.

What I’ve realized is there will always be something more important than my novel, such as: working, my child, dishes, yard work, laundry, a shower, walking the dog.  The list of things that take priority over novel writing is endless, and that list will never shorten because they’re ongoing tasks.  Until I retire, my child goes off to college, global warming destroys all vegetation, I join a nudist colony, my dog goes to the eternal rabbit fields, and I buy into the idea that the bacteria on my skin cleanses me, I will never have free time to write my novel.  And isn’t this the truth for all of us who haven’t written a word in ages but always plan to?

So back to my associate.  He told me about this concept of “No Zero Days”.  It’s premise is simple, don’t go a day where you make zero progress towards your goal.  You don’t have to devote an hour or two hours to it, and you don’t necessarily have to not do something else critical in order to accomplish it because the concept of No Zero doesn’t have a time limit, it’s just do something.  It can be a thought, a sentence, a detail of a landscape setting, a unique marking on a character, or something as simple as deciding how many chapters to have in your book.  Too often we set lofty goals for progress, (this week I’ll finish a scene!  …yea right) and become overwhelmed by how much effort or time it will take to complete it, so we put it off “until I have time.”

In contrast, there is no overwhelming goal with No Zero Days.  And even the busiest of us must admit that there are periods throughout the day where we are inevitably forced to do nothing, and which could be transformed into No Zero Day time.  One great example is going to the restroom.  We all have to do that every single day, and there is literally nothing else to occupy your time doing it besides thinking, so put those moments to use.  Think about your novel, iron out a plot detail, and make it a No Zero Day.

To help keep track and make this a visual goal, print out a calendar sheet and tack it up somewhere that you will see it throughout the day to help remind you to take a moment and think about your novel.  Maybe, just maybe, you might surprise yourself and find a few minutes while waiting in line for your coffee to jot down a scene, or a dialogue, or resolve a key plot hole or piece of character backstory.

There are tons of calendars out there on Google images for free.  Or if you don’t have a printer at home, set a daily reminder on your phone’s google calendar.  Not close to paper or pen or your laptop?  I bet your cellphone is handy though! Use the memo feature to record your progress.

The main point I’m making is this:  Progress doesn’t have to be big, it can be small, but it needs to be progress or else that novel won’t get written.

There are many great writers who have employed a similar technique and were successful at completing many novels.  One writer that comes to mind right away is J.R.R Tolkien.  I don’t know if he called it No Zero Days, but he was no stranger to making small amounts of progress at a time.  His The Hobbit  began while he was grading a student paper.  He took one moment to collect his thoughts and came up with the sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” that blossomed into the tale we know and love today.  That didn’t take an hour or two hours, and he didn’t even set aside a special time for writing, he just took a moment and made it a No Zero Day.

So, if you’re serious about completing your novel, then you have to start, and you have to do.  Forget about carving out time because most likely it’s not going to happen.  So don’t worry about making time, make progress, even if it’s just a one liner that you think about in between grading papers, answering phones, typing emails, walking the dog, or taking a dump.  Just make today a No Zero Day.

 

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