Tag: writing tips

Smarter Writing? Try these Writing Hacks.

I turned to my fellow Miss Demeanors to find out what their favorite tricks of the trade are. Here’s what they had to say. (If you’re counting, you’ll see we have one new member…stayed tuned for more about the fabulous Connie Berry).

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Suggestion 3: Don't Let the Demons Win

I’m sure there are writers who don’t suffer from self doubt. There may even be some writers who never write a terrible sentence, let alone a terrible paragraph, or a terrible entire middle of the book. If you are one of these writers: good for you!  I’m not.  A variety of demons live in my head. Some whisper, some shout, some just drone on and on. I used to fight with them, but I’ve discovered that simply identifying them for who they are and accepting what they say lets me get on with things. Somewhat counterintuitively, my acceptance has softened their voices. When Overwhelmed Ophelia (that’s what I call her) screeches there is no possible way I can make all the PoV changes I need to make before my deadline, I accept her anxiety because it’s realistic, but I remind myself that I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. Here’s what my wise (and very kind and supportive) fellow Miss Demeanors say on the subject of those pesky writing demons: Paula: Writing really is rewriting for me. Because for me, the first draft can be an angst-ridden slog. But once I’ve pounded out that first draft, I can relax a little and enjoy the process of making it better. Now I have something to fix. Fixing is fun. Fun being a relative term. Susan: I have an idea of how I want something to sound. And it doesn’t. Or I’m trying to get a handle on a character and she just sounds like a cliche. And I torture myself going over and over it, but I’ve come to realize that if I’m patient enough, I’ll probably figure it out. Sometimes it will take months. At night I’ll think about it so that my dreams can help me out. I’ll read writers I like and see what they did. And then invariably the solution does pop into my mind. I guess an advantage to getting older is that I have a certain amount of trust in myself, or the process. I just have to force myself to wait. Of course deadlines are a whole other thing. Good luck, Alison! Michele: I’ve just realized after listening to and reading Walter Mosley’s writing advice that my first draft is really my outline. That makes sense to me as a pantser, and it explains why rewriting is so important. I’ve come to enjoy rewriting as a way to improve each draft, an opportunity to write a better book. The demons in my ear are often voices that conflict with my instinct. I think it takes a lot of experience to know how to distinguish sound writing advice from suggestions that may interfere with your voice, your originality, and your willingness to risk taking a chance. The best way to handle doubts about who to listen to is to learn who you can trust. On one occasion, an editor made suggestions to me that I knew were ill-advised. I asked our swell agent and she confirmed my doubts. Robin: I agree with the sentiments about rewriting. It’s the fun part. But there is one thing I agonize over and that’s pacing. Too slow is an obvious problem but too fast is just as bad. Am I missing opportunities to draw out tension? Am I drawing it out too much? What are secondary characters doing at the same time main characters are in focus? Is a subplot heightening the tension or too distracting? Do I need a distraction for the reader to catch their breath? With early drafts, usually the first or second, I storyboard the scenes with an eye on action and pace to literally see how it flows and look for gaps. On later drafts, I’ve been known to print out manuscripts and place each chapter on the floor of my living room then physically move them around to see how order adjustments impact the pace. It can turn into a weird game of Twister. One time, my dog played. I stood looking over the piles of paper and she walked across them. Out of curiosity I sorted the chapters in the order her paws hit them. It didn’t work out but it would’ve made a great backstory, wouldn’t it? 🙂 Tracee: So many good ideas here. I think I’m learning to edit in waves. Meaning, spend time perfecting every sentence and it is harder to cut (or re-cut) a big swath of the story, so don’t try to do it all at once. Maybe what I’ve really learned is each edit is for a different reason. Tone, pacing, character, continuity, etc. I agree with Michele that the first draft is likely an outline, regardless of whether you are a pantser or plotter. If I think of it as an outline then it’s easier to make the (likely necessary) big changes. After all, it was only an outline. I believe it is Amy Stewart (author of the Miss Kopp mysteries) who turns randomly through her finished manuscript and on that page picks the weakest sentence and tries to make it sing. She keeps a check list and does each page that way until finished. I like this idea. I also believe in the looming deadline….. fear and panic can be helpful as long as you’re in the final stretch. On that note, good luck Alison!          

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Suggestion 2: Plan Your Re-write Attack

This is hard. Even writing about it is hard. I’m not going to lie. When you have eighty thousand words, give or take, and editorial pages critiquing what works and what doesn’t, making a plan can seem overwhelming. Don’t let it be.  For me, there are four basic steps to the rewriting process.  Step 1: Check the calendarCount the number of days you have until your deadline. Be honest about how many days in the week you can work. Is Sunday impossible for you? Take it out of the rotation. Is there a family wedding? Be honest about how much time you can sneak away from family obligations. There is no right answer, there is only a truthful one.  Step 2: Attack the big stuffBy “big stuff” I mean the major plot issues. In Blessed be the Wicked, my editor had wanted a minor story line to become more central. She was completely right. I ended up writing a handful of completely new chapters developing the relationship between Abish and her brother. I had always adored her brother and I knew Abish and her brother John were close, but none of that made it into the first version of the book. My editor was right to push me on it. It was natural. The writing came easily because it was what the story needed.  Step 3: Make a master list of all the small stuff.It’s easy to forget the little stuff, so I make a list of “global changes” that I literally check off as I go through the manuscript. This is something that is ongoing, but by the time you are at your deadline, every item should be checked off. This list consists of everything from language tics (I use the word “just” too much, so I search the entire document and eliminate every non-necessary “just”) to checking times and dates (if the murder happens in the late morning and your detective has spent hours working, you don’t want him to then meet someone for breakfast…unless you explain the time lapse). The main point here is to not lose track of the details. Suspense and mystery because readers are a very observant lot.  Step 4: Let everything else in your life take a back seat.This step has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with writing. You have creative energy, that’s why you write. When you are on a deadline, you need to manage that creative energy in the most exacting way. If that means shifting your exercise routine, do it. If it means ignoring the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, ignore them. Let your dear friends and family know that you are working and will be back to your normal self soon enough. After you’ve finished your revisions. Good luck on your re-writes! See you tomorrow for a discussion with my fellow Miss Demeanors about writing demons and how to make friends–or at least learn to tolerate–them.

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Suggestion 1: Get honest feedback

If you’ve written the perfect book, congratulations! You’re done. If you’re like me, and you haven’t written the perfect book, here are my suggestions for managing feedback. You must take time to process, but you don’t have time to wallow. Remember: right now I have twenty-five days. Step 1: Take time to digest. When I get comments, I read through them once and then set them aside for a day or two. I let my subconscious process what’s there. I don’t judge myself or my editor. I just take it all in like a neutral observer. Step 2: Get detailed. After my self-imposed time out, I go through the comments again. This time, I underline sentences, circle words, scribble notes in the margins. I do this as many times as I have to in order to understand the critique. There may be big themes like pacing and PoV. There might be issues like the number of characters or the setting. Perhaps–maybe–your dialogue sounds stilted. Whatever is there in the comments, make sure you understand it, even if you don’t agree with it. Step 3: Decide what resonates with you. I happen to think my editor is right on over 90% of her suggestions. That leaves less than 10% to be ironed out. If that 10% is important to you, be clear in your own mind about why it is. If you just love a particular description, but deep down you know it doesn’t add to the story, you need to part with it. Really. Step 4: Communicate. This is when I send an email or text and set up a convenient time to talk to my editor. I’m a big believer in talking. Some writers may be able to skip this, I can’t. I need to be able to ask questions and make sure I understand the answers. For me, it’s the most efficient way to understand the reason behind the comments. I come away knowing what needs to be done and, if I’m lucky, I even end up with a plan for how to do it. That’s the wonderful thing about editors. They see things in a way writers don’t.  That’s it for today! Tune in tomorrow to meet Mike Cavaioni, the CEO of CritiqueMatch.com, and find your perfect critique partner so you, too, can join in the fun of feedback.

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The Art of the Rewrite

 “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”  This oh-so-famous Ernest Hemingway quote has been on my mind lately. You write, polish, revise, and edit. Then, you pass on your manuscript to another human being. The moment of truth. If you have a publisher, this is when you get your comments. If you’re breaking into the business, it’s when you hear back from your beta-reader, freelance editor, or agent. No matter where you are in your writing journey, it’s the time when you see your book in the harsh light of day through someone else’s eyes. Why am I obsessing about the Hemingway quote right now? Because I just got comments back for Abish Taylor #2. I have exactly twenty-six (26!) days to incorporate my editor’s thoughtful critique into my manuscript. There aren’t any shortcuts. No app. No Ted Talk. No podcast. Just me, her critique, and my computer.  As I’ve been contemplating the art of the rewrite, I realized I do indeed have something resembling a process. It’s not perfect, and it certainly may not be for everyone, but because I’m in the middle of crunch time, I’ll share what helps me not only get through rewriting, but actually helps me (pretty much) enjoy the process. Feel free to take what resonates and leave what doesn’t. For those of you who are planners, here’s a preview of the posts about how to navigate the rewrite:  Suggestion 1: Get honest, reliable, and tough feedback. (Finding someone to critique your work can be a challenge itself, which is why on Wednesday I’ll be interviewing Mike Cavaioni, the CEO of CritiqueMatch.com, about his platform that helps writers and bloggers connect and exchange feedback). Suggestion 2: Make a detailed plan of attack. Suggestion 3: Don’t let the demons win. Happy re-writing! See you tomorrow to explore how to make the most of your feedback.    

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CritiqueMatch: An interview with CEO Mike Cavaioni (and how to find your perfect writing critique partner)

Drum roll, please. Today, I’ve managed to corner Mike Cavaioni, the CEO  of Critique Match, a new platform that allows writers to find critique partners. It’s a beautiful website, but, more importantly, it’s easy to use and fills a gap in the writing universe: how to find yourself the right critique partner. Alison: Providing a community for writers to swap work is simply genius. How did you come up with the idea for CritiqueMatch? Mike: I’ve been a blogger for a couple of years now, writing on
technical subjects, such as artificial intelligence. I can’t tell you
how many times I’ve edited a blog, passed it through
Grammarly, and yet, my lovely wife still caught errors! I
realized one always needs a second pair of eyes, someone who
can give honest, constructive feedback. Yes, one could rely on
a professional editor, but a critique partner goes beyond a professional service transaction. Writing is such a solitary journey. The encouragement and companionship a partner can provide are crucial to keeping one’s momentum going. So I knew critique partnerships were crucial to writers. The next question was: where do you find the right critique partners? And how do you know if they are any good? Hence, the idea of creating a community of writers who can easily find each other and rate the critiques they receive. Alison: For someone who hasn’t seen the website, can you give a quick description of what CritiqueMatch offers writers?  Mike: Sure! Our platform is currently in beta mode and free to all users. It helps writers connect and exchange critiques securely and privately (we are not trying to be the next Wattpad, where an author’s work is shared with all users and anyone can comment on it). On our platform, you can find writers based on multiple search criteria that match your preferences. Additionally, down the road, we want to allow those writers who have demonstrated strong critiquing skills to complement their income via giving paid critiques.   Alison: The website is beautifully designed and so easy-to-use (even on my phone!). What went into creating it?  Mike: You are too kind, thank you! The creative portion was a lot of fun! I’m an engineer and, unsurprisingly, I love to build things from scratch—from software to homemade bread! So I knew
from the beginning that I wanted to create a fully customized platform, instead of merely using a pre-made template like WordPress. Overall, it’s been an iterative process that started with the basic need for a directory of writers with different searchable characteristics, such as their genre, sub-genre, location, etc.
But was that enough? Would a telephone directory be enough to help you pick a restaurant? I didn’t think so. Instead, what if the writers rated each other, and just like a restaurant, you could see first-hand accounts of how good someone’s critiques were? I interviewed many writers as I was developing the first few features and got constructive feedback that I incorporated them into the site. I had to put my ego aside and quickly adapt to make this work. I still encourage users to give me suggestions! There were many technical aspects, including creating wireframes, hiring software developers, until here we are, live and growing every day, with plenty of critique partner matches already! I hope years from now we’ll be receiving those types of messages from writers celebrating their critique partnerships that started on our site in a retreat somewhere beautiful, like Iceland. Alison: When I browsed through the members, it looked to me like there were writers from all over the country and the world. What are you seeing in terms of who’s using CritiqueMatch?  Mike: According to Facebook, there are 40 million users who have listed ‘writing’ as an occupation or a hobby. That’s just in the US and Canada! I think that writing, as with many other forms of art, has no geographic boundaries and people should find those sharing the same passion, no matter where they live. Someone in a remote cabin in Iceland, like the one shown on our home page, might be the perfect partner for a New Yorker. We are thrilled that our user base is already a melting pot of people from all over the world! So far, we’ve seen users connecting based on the specific sub-genre of their interest. For example, for those writing a police procedural mystery, like your book Alison, Blessed Be The Wicked, they could find a critique partner or beta reader in that exact sub-genre, instead of broadly in mysteries. The granularity of the search is what makes CritiqueMatch unique. Alison: I can’t let you go without asking you what you’re reading right now, and what’s next on your TBR list?   Mike: Does the “All summer long” script I’m reading for my acting class, count? I’m joking… I typically mix and match various art mediums. I have To Kill A Mockingbird on my nightstand at the moment. This classic had escaped me up until recently when I saw the incredible Broadway performance based on the
book. Maycomb, Alabama of 1936 is more relevant today than ever. But that’s a whole other discussion…
In non-fiction, I love listening to the How I Built This podcast for inspiration on how to grow a business. Because you’ve been terrific, I will spare you the details from the artificial intelligence papers lying on my desk! On behalf of writers everywhere: Thank you, Mike and CritiqueMatch! 

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Have Laptop Will Travel

I have lived in the same two states my entire life: New Jersey and New York. More specifically, I have lived in Manhattan or within ten miles of it for my entire childhood and adult life (save for four years of college in Princeton, NJ, which wasn’t really that much farther).  I set many of my books in these two states because I’m most familiar with them. After a decade in the city, I feel like I have a handle on the culture of Manhattan and, even more so, its suburban environs where I live and grew up. As a writer and a person, I’m comfortable in my area.  But that very comfort is the reason why I must travel. I need to see other places to gain perspective on the location that most often serves as the backdrop to my stories. When I don’t visit other places for awhile, I can become so immersed in my home that I can’t recognize anymore what’s unique or strange or beautiful or nutty about it. Writers need the ability to see a place as both an outsider and an insider. We need to have the accuracy that comes from immersion but also the distance to point out what makes a place special.  Recently, I went to Chattanooga TN to see my mother-in-law compete in a half Iron Man.  (Side note: if the world ever devolves into a Walking Dead situation, I’m on her team). The place has all these incredible rock formations and a mountain cave system complete with an beautiful underground waterfall that really should be the setting for a dark thriller–albeit not one that I would write since it would probably devolve into a Raft of The Medusa situation and I don’t do that kind of gore. Still… The city is also incredibly active. Everywhere, people are biking, rock climbing, running, kayaking, and just, generally, hanging outside.  I don’t know if I’ll ever set a story in Chattanooga, but going there did help me see how sedentary life in my home state of New Jersey is, particularly when the weather gets colder. We drive to indoor places or stay in our houses. When we need to work out, we drive to the gym. Seeing it, reminded me of how any story that I set in New Jersey really needs to note the driving culture. If there’s a book set in NJ and someone is not running around in an SUV, then it’s not really set in NJ.  It also reminded me of how active I was living in the New York City. I walked everywhere. Ten blocks. Twenty Blocks. Fifty blocks, in nice weather. I would walk from Battery Park to the Upper East Side on a beautiful day. Why take a cab? I’d walk five blocks in rainy weather to duck into the subway (impossible to catch a cab).  If a story is in Manhattan and it involves someone driving anywhere save for outside of Manhattan, it’s not a story in Manhattan. *Unless that story is Taxi Driver.  What is something that you learned about your favorite setting about being away for awhile? What place have you travelled to that had helped enrich your perspective.      

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When I was a young mother, it was out of the question for me to go to an MFA. program. First of all, I didn’t have the money.  Secondly, I had four young children. Those years were filled with hiking around and laundry and writing late at night. Though I did manage to persuade my kids, for quite a long time, that they should go to bed at 7:30. I remember my oldest son once saying to me that he was the only kid in 8th grade who had to go to bed so early, and I said he didn’t have to go to sleep at 7:30. He could read for as long as he wanted. He just needed to let me have time to write. Anyway, during that time, I had to invent my own personal MFA program, and the way I did that was by finding passages in short stories and novels that I liked. I would type up those passages, because it helps to have the words in your fingers. Then I would print them out and put them on my wall. I’d read them over and over again, trying to figure out what worked and why they moved me. One particular influence was V.S. Pritchett, who I became obsessed with. Another was Anne Tyler. At one point I think I covered my wall with paragraphs from Saint Maybe. I was thinking of that recently when I read a book by Neil Gaiman. I’d never read anything by him before, but a lot of people love him, and I’m always intrigued by writers who are loved. I came to this passage, which is describing a character with a hangover: His skin felt clammy, and his eyes felt like they had been pt in wrong, while his skull gave him the general impression that someone had removed it while he had slept, and swapped it for one two or three sizes too small. An Underground train went past a few feet from them; the wind of its passage whipped at the table. The noise of its passage went through Richard’s head like a hot knife through brains. Richard groaned. I love this for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s true. If you’ve had a hangover. Which I have, once or twice. It’s alive. It’s funny, but it’s real. It surprises me. It makes me see something familiar in a new way.  I’m going to type it up and put it on my wall. How about you? What passages inspire you?  

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