Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Breaks and Routine

Creative people, although awesome, sometimes have a hard time focusing their creative energy into their potential work on a daily basis. Some people refer to their creative juices as their muse, someone or something that gives them ideas or inspiration.

NaNoWriMo is all about writing whether or not your muse shows up. And somewhere along the way of forcing yourself to write, you learned how to keep going whether or not you felt like it.

Yes, the crazy deadline of 50,000 words in 30 days is in our past. But the lessons we learned in those 30 days can stay with us much longer than November. You can write more than once a year if you develop a habit of writing.

If you’ve decided to write on a regular basis, you must find a routine that is conducive to both your schedule and your sanity. If you decide that your best time to write is 5am, make sure that you can get up at that time on a consistent basis, what you write is coherent, and you don’t spend the whole time going, “This is stupid. I should be sleeping.”

While routines are wonderful, things like the holidays, family trips, family emergencies, power failures, and whatnot tend to disrupt those routines. While you may enjoy the break from cleaning out the castle grout with your standard toothbrush, remember to get back to your writing after your schedule clears. But if you take too long of a break, you may never come back to your story.

Basically, breaks are awesome. Constant progress on your story is also awesome.

Now, get back to your story. Your princess is complaining that she’s been left alone too long. The good thing about editing is that you can place her with the hungry dragon whenever she’s annoying. Whether or not you tell her that you won’t leave her there is entirely up to you.

*saluting you with my own editing toothbrush*
*heading back to my reconstructing castle*

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Constructive Criticism

Today we will discuss criticism. No one likes being told where the flaws are in their story. This is one reason it is recommended to get some distance from your story before going back to edit it. When you look through the pages that took you hours to craft, the post-NaNo glow will have worn off. You will spot errors – some that should have been apparent the moment you wrote it. The more you read, the more horrified you become regarding your work. It is this feeling of “this is wrong!” that I want to address.

During the month of November, we stopped listening to the Inner Editor and kept kicking Doubt out the door. Now that your draft is complete, it is time to listen to both of them. You will be bombarded with their feedback and might even be horrified with parts of your story.

But without listening to them, you cannot make your draft better. You cannot mold your November work into a manuscript worthy of another set of eyes without questioning the character’s motives every three days and deleting those extra adverbs.

You may be wondering how this has anything to do with criticism. Once you’ve given yourself space from your story, you’ll see your mistakes. This is good, since seeing the mistakes means they can be fixed. Accepting that your November baby needs work is essential. When your beta readers contact you, they will be pointing out the same thing.

Your wonderful beta readers will read your work and give you feedback. They will see more mistakes that you haven’t caught. They will question your secondary character’s background, why the horse appeared without warning, and why you spent three paragraphs describing alien technology that wasn’t needed vanquish the bad guy.

You will disagree with your beta reader on some things. But their words will cause you to think. They will make you answer questions you haven’t asked yourself. They will ask questions about parts you left out without meaning to. Their feedback will help you.

Now, we don’t point out to a child who’s handed us a picture of a rainbow that the colors are wrong. They are basking in the glory of creating something. But you’ve reached the point where you’ve learned that it takes more than the simple joy of creating something in order to make your story presentable. You must question everything, and you must enlist the help of people to help you do the same.

Please keep in mind that their feedback is not attacking you. Your story, your baby, is not perfect. It is your beta reader’s job to point out where it is not perfect. Where there are flaws. They are there to help you catch typos, punctuation errors, plot holes, historical inaccuracies, tangents that don’t connect, and scenes that don’t work.

Beta readers don’t tell you these horrible things so you will sit in a corner and cry. They do it with the mind set that you want your story to improve. And in order to make some things better, you have to redo some things, regardless of how long it took you to begin with.

Each suggestion they make is just that – a suggestion. You don’t have to take their advice. If they don’t like your ending, fine. This is why I suggest enlisting more than one beta reader. If more than one person points to the same section as a trouble spot, chances are it needs work.

But the section that one person touts as unbelievable may earn praise from the next reader. This is where you just have to go with your gut and the majority of your votes. If one person didn’t like your ending and the rest loved it, chances are you’re good.

When my beta readers checked in, I got two different reactions about the ending. One person didn’t like who I picked as the groom, and spent most of the ending upset because their choice was not it. Another beta liked the ending, but agreed that a certain aspect of the ending needed work. I was able to take both of their comments and did a partial rewrite, making the consequences for one of the characters more believable.

Hearing how much work you have ahead of you is never a fun thing. But if you don’t know where your trouble spots are, it’s always nice to have someone point you in the right direction. There may be a few tears when three people point to the scene that you were so proud of three weeks ago as one that needs rewriting.

Remember that writing is an art. It takes a lot of practice to be any good at it. You are allowed and expected to make mistakes. The trick is to find your mistakes and correct them in a way that pleases your future readers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Time Has Come

“The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax. Of cabbages and kings.” – The Walrus and the Carpenter (quoted in Alice in Wonderland)

Though I was one of the children that found Alice in Wonderland a bit creepy, I still remember this quote (mostly...I only got a few words wrong, one of which was a synonym). I cannot think of "the time has come" without remembering this random line from a poem.

Anyway, today we will discuss something very helpful in your editing process. Without this step, you will likely spend more years editing your manuscript, driving yourself crazy, and writing in circles than making progress. And while those things are very scary, what I’m about to suggest may give you another panic attack.

Let Others Read It
If you are the writer who turned off spell check, wrote scenes out of order, song lyrics, recorded what you ate for lunch and why your character is driving you insane all within the confines of your novel, do not run away. I am not telling you to send that document to a reader to get their opinion. We don’t want your friends thinking you’re too crazy.

When you finish editing your draft, it will at least be semi-coherent, if not mostly that way. But there will be rough spots. It happens with a draft. Remember our talk about that? A draft means it’s not done.

Just like the post-NaNo glow, if you read over your newly edited draft, you will get a warm-fuzzy feeling. Aww! I did that! It’s even better than before! Yeah! And while editing improves what you have, you’re not done. :(

The next step, once your draft is at least decent, is to give your manuscript to a reader. Explain you need an honest opinion. Tell them what you want to do with the book.

Pick the Right Reader

Your family and the majority of your friends are most likely the wrong candidates for this mission. They know you, they love you, and anything you have done will only be seen through the eyes of “aww, you did that!” Like a child finger painting, you will receive praise and adoration for a job well done. These readers will not tell you that you colored outside the lines, that you used the wrong color order for your rainbow, or that they didn’t like your secondary character. They may not notice some things that desperately need attention. They’re just still amazed at your ability to write.

Find a fellow writer who understands what you are doing and why. Make sure they understand what your book is about, the kind of feedback you’re looking for (varying from “is the story any good?” to “how much much work does this need?”), and that you need honesty.

Now, don’t give your vampire novel to someone who hates that genre. Find a reader who is interested in your story, who you have interacted with before, and one you feel comfortable sharing your work with. I have sent my NaNo manuscripts to strangers I met on the forums, but the most valuable feedback I received came from ones who I already knew from the critique boards. They expressed interest in reading more, and I took them up on it. Their feedback was honest, nitpicky, and exactly what I needed to make my book better.

Give a Deadline

Set a reasonable time frame to get feedback. If they are in constant contact, respond honestly. Answer their questions. Though it hurts your pride every time, agree when they point out one of your mistakes that you swear made sense when it was penned in November.

Don’t nag, but don’t disappear from them. Check in if your time frame passes and you haven’t heard from them. Most will let you know if things are crazy and will say if they need more time.

Be Specific

Always ask questions from your readers. Let them give you their feedback, but ask questions that you’ve been sweating about in the mean time. Did you know that was the villain? Was her illness believable? Was the ending too convenient? Did I describe the alien architecture enough? Did that conversation with the uncle work?

If you aren’t specific in your questions, you are likely not to get specific answers.

Be Thankful

Thank your reader often. They are taking time out of their lives to provide you with valuable feedback. Thank them. Thank them. Thank them.

Be Prepared

You will likely not like all of what your reader has to say. I had a beta reader who hated my dream sequences and had issues with the way I ended the story. But because they were specific about why they felt that way, I was able to make the ending better.

Keep in mind that your beta reader’s word is not gospel. Opinions vary. Though it’s hard, I suggest finding at least two, preferably three readers. If all three have issues with the same section, chances are that needs work.

Being a writer means growing a tough skin. Next week we will talk about how to handle constructive criticism. This, too, is an essential skill if you wish to continue writing. But we’ll talk more about that later.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


The joys of NaNo have ended. Crossing the finish line of victory is now in our past. We must now let loose our Inner Editor and let them wreak havoc on one of our writing babies.

Get Some Distance

Reading through your novel shortly after you finish it is fun. You will see some errors, but I’ve found that mostly you will smile, like the story, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. If all you want to do is get that warm-fuzzy feeling again of how awesome you did during the NaNo season, then go ahead and reread your NaNo creation.

With that said, though, I will tell you now that I don’t plan on rereading my own NaNo story until at least Christmas, more than likely January. I spent a good part of November rereading chapters the day after I wrote them. I wrote for 30 straight days, ignoring my own advice about taking a day off. The story is good, I know. But the mechanics of it show traces of NaNo, down to the rambling prayers, minor word padding, and the random > symbols that signaled the start of my word wars.

When I look at this story again, I’m not going to be looking for the warm-fuzzy feeling of NaNo. I’m going to be trusting my Inner Editor to tell me what needs to be fixed. And it order for my Inner Editor to do that properly, I need space from my story. Give yourself at least a few weeks, then come back to the story. Your Inner Editor will point out things with clarity not even he had three weeks before.

Don’t Panic

When you finally get back to your story with enough distance, you will see things that you did not see before.

Wait a minute. She can’t be in her bedroom there! Her sisters were sleeping in her bed last night!
Hmm. How far away is that landmark?
Aren’t the aliens buildings round here? Why are they sitting in a corner?
How did I miss three words in that sentence and NOT NOTICE it before?

Wrong name. Gah. WHY DO THEY RHYME?

Just as I told you before, noticing these things does not make you a horrible writer. Actually, seeing things that must be fixed means you’re on the road to making your story presentable to the masses.

Be Realistic

You just hammered out a draft. A draft has problems. A draft is not done. When you go back to your story, do not expect it to be perfect. Do not expect to fix spelling, grammar, and minor errors and be done. There will be rough spots. Chapters might have to be rewritten. You might have to fill in some plot holes. When you come back to your story in order to fix it, don’t be horrified to find yourself making notes every four sentences. These things are typical of a draft.

Each Writer is Different

Some people have set processes and will have a polished manuscript done after one or two editing sweeps. Others will throw out their stories and start from scratch. My guess is you will be somewhere in between these two extremes. You aren’t going to catch everything the first time through. With that in mind, not everything you’ve written in the past month is worth scrapping. There are some gems somewhere in there.

I’ve found a process that works well for me. I print out my book and make my notes by hand. When I go back to the computer, I have my marked up copy with me. I don’t have to read through each line now, I can scroll down until I make my next note. This is harder than it sounds, because I could have “elaborate” written three times in a single page, meaning I need another up to another paragraph or two describing or expanding on whatever I talked about. Then I have to make sure what I just wrote fits with what is already written.

That’s what works for me. Find what works for you. If it's making comments in your computer document on your first read through, go for it. If it's correcting everything you see as you read through it, working on one page a day, pinning each page to a wall once you're convinced it's perfect, by all means, do it.

Let Others Read It

Yes, your writing can be intensely personal. Yes, you poured your heart and soul into this story for the past thirty days. But YOU wrote it, and you aren’t going to see some things. I highly recommend getting a group of people who enjoy reading your type of stories, who will be honest, and will make the time to read it.

Friends and family reading your stuff is good if they will provide you with feedback beyond “it’s good.” Yes, after thirty days tearing your hair out and agonizing over the next words, “it’s good” is an oasis to your soul and a boost to morale. You have not written drivel, but a coherent story. HOORAY!

But if after reading it through again, you decide you want this story fit for publication, you must make your story better than good. In order for your book to have any kind of chance in the marketplace, it has to be phenomenal. And in order to get your NaNo draft ready for the masses, you have to get opinions of people who live outside your head and haven’t done a tour of the main character’s bedroom yet. You have to have people tell you where your weak spots are. “This is a major plot hole” are words you never want to hear. But if you don’t hear it from someone else, you might never see it yourself.

This Takes Time

Writing is fun. Creating new worlds, describing people who you met three minutes ago while you were staring at your computer screen, and plunging head first into a new character’s set of problems is a lot of fun. Terrifying, exhausting, and slightly crazy as well, but writing is fun.

I’ve met a few who think editing is fun. And while there are light bulb moments and you realize the perfect comeback for your witty sidekick or why the main character always sits in a certain chair, editing as a whole is NOT fun. Editing involves critically looking at every sentence, every sentence structure, every word choice, and every piece of punctuation.

Think of it this way – writing is like storming the castle to rescue the princess. It’s hard, but it’s doable. The process of editing is somewhere between cleaning the castle with a toothbrush and dismantling the castle in order to rebuild it, all while your princess tells you that you’re not doing it right. Remember that dragon you slayed to save her neck? At some point you’re going to wish he had eaten her so you will be done with the story and never have to hear her whining voice again. “I’m not whiny. I’m just right a lot. You know, I think that stone looks better over by the window...”


Just like in writing, breaks are good. You gain perspective. You regain your sanity. You can stop thinking about your whiny princess and why you had to dismantle the castle to begin with. Be sure to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.

The problem I’ve found with editing that while other people can see your mistakes more clearly, there’s usually no one better to fix such things than you. Why are you only given a toothbrush? Maybe so when you finish, you know it’s mostly done. At least until the next time you edit.

Editing is a long, hard, frustrating process. It is also very rewarding. Once you finish fixing your mistakes and look over your work, you’re going to be happy with the outcome. Though it drove you bananas, you will be glad that the dragon did not eat the princess in the last scene.