Category: Fiction (Page 2 of 3)

Write what you have

The most important thing for me when writing a first draft—other than trying to remember that First Drafts Suck, and That’s Okay—is to focus on writing what I have, instead of trying to come up with what I have not.

Right now, for my next book, I have something of a beginning, and something of an ending. I have an idea for how it might develop. I have detailed thoughts on several characters and light mental sketches for a few more. All together, it’s entirely insufficient for writing an actual novel. There are probably more scenes that I haven’t thought of than ones that I have. Most of the characters are so thin they’d hardly stick to the virtual paper I’m typing this on. The core idea of the story may not work. And so on, and so on.

Fortunately, it is enough to write a first draft, as long as I focus on those parts that I have. “First drafts are for figuring out what your story is about,” someone once said (I can’t find the attribution, comment below if you know who it was). The best way to figure out what your story is about is to write the parts you have, and ignore the fact that there are clearly massive question marks.

One big question mark is plot. In any first draft I write, there are always big holes. Not “plot holes” like you might find in a finished story, but gaps, where it’s clear something has to happen. I might have a clear idea for Scene A, and a clear idea for Scene B, and a clear understanding that Scene A and Scene B can’t happen right next to each other. Maybe more time needs to pass, or maybe something specific has to happen in between. But if I don’t have anything to put in between those scenes, then I can either a) struggle mightily to try to find something suitable or b) ignore it and keep going.

As much as possible, I try to choose option B when working on a first draft. First drafts aren’t for anyone else to read. They’re often closer to a Hollywood-style script treatment than a real prose draft. A first draft is an exploration that’s documented well enough for me to follow the same path (or a similar one) a second time. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth…

The most important thing in a first draft is momentum. It’s mind-numbingly hard to write when I don’t have any momentum built up, so I try as hard as I can to conserve it. I’d much rather write a quick sketch of a scene (or skip the scene altogether) rather than get bogged down trying to make it good. Good can wait until I actually know whether the scene will make it into later drafts, and I won’t know that until I actually get to those later drafts. The key for keeping up momentum is to write what I have in my head, regardless of whether it’s any good or whether it’s missing any obvious bits.

So: Write What You Have, and Ignore What You Have Not.

In the next post, I’ll give some tips for how to keep your final-draft brain quiet so you can finish that first draft and move on to figuring out what your story is really about.

Closing the deal

If you’re a professional writer (or ever plan to be one) and don’t have a day job as an intellectual property lawyer, you really need to read Kristine Rusch’s Closing the Deal on Your Terms. I guarantee that you will learn at least one detail about publishers, contracts, agents, or copyright law that will a) scare you and b) make you smarter about how you approach the publishing business.

Rusch has some positions that are a little extreme–she basically thinks that nobody should ever hire an agent or sign a traditional publishing contract–and sometimes her condescension can be grating. But her arguments are compelling. If at one end of the spectrum you have the starry-eyed writer who’s certain that they’re going to make it in the publishing business as long as they have a good book and a good agent, then at the other end you have Rusch, waving her hands and shouting about all the things that can go wrong if you make bad business decisions.

She goes through a pretty comprehensive list of things you should be aware of before signing a contract, from options clauses and rights licensing to termination and reversion. A lot of it is stuff that, if you’re lucky, you’ll never need to worry about; most people probably won’t have publishers trying to extend the lifetime of a contract in perpetuity or enforce dumb non-compete clauses. But the smart money is still on making sure you don’t end up in those situations by negotiating contracts that aren’t tilted against you.

Sometimes Rusch’s stories about the horrors of traditional publishing make her seem a little like the neighbor with a bomb shelter who thinks you’re an idiot because you don’t have a month’s worth of food and water handy in case of a worldwide flu epidemic. You’ll need to make your own decisions about how you publish your  book and what sort of contracts you sign. But whether or not you follow her advice to the letter, you’ll make smarter decisions if you hear her arguments and consider her points before you sign on the mythical dotted line.

from the how-many-rights-did-you-just-sign-away dept

There are really just three steps to learning how to write well

Writing is hard.

Boy, howdy, is it hard. There are a million things you need to learn if you want to master the craft. There’s big, story-level stuff like character arcs, plotting, theme, and pacing. There’s small, line-level skills like writing clearly, using proper grammar, and not overusing your favorite part of speech (whether that’s adjectives, adverbs, or participle phrases).

But really, there are only three basic steps to becoming an accomplished writer. (And two of them are the same thing.)

Don’t believe me? Here they are.

Step One: Write something as well as you can

“Oh, is that all?” you might say. “Just write well?” Except I’m not saying you need to write something at any particular level—just that you write it as well as you can. It doesn’t have to be David Copperfield. It doesn’t have to be anything other than the best you can do.

It’s still easier said than done! Writing something to the best of your ability means not putting up with anything less than your best.  It means taking everything you’ve learned so far and applying it to the entire story. It means rewriting sketchy passages until they’re as polished as you can make them. It means trying to get your characters as human as you know how to make them. It means making it your very best.

It also means finishing. Not just finishing the first draft (and aye, that’s hard enough) but taking the time to clean it up so that it’s consistent. It means not stopping with your rewrites until there are no areas that you know how to make better.

I know this seems blindingly obvious, but it’s important. You can only fix problems that you know how to fix. Furthermore, you won’t know how to fix every problem until you’ve mastered the craft (and maybe not even then). You have to force yourself to solve the problems you know how to solve, while also not beating yourself up about the problems you don’t know how to solve.

Curtis Sittenfeld said it much better than I can:

“It’s OK to let your book be [finished] if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be [finished] if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.”

I’m paraphrasing, here, since she wrote “published” instead of “finished,” but the same principle applies.

So you’ve completed step one! Congratulations. You’ve written something that you can justifiably be proud of, whether it’s your first time at the keyboard or whether this is your tenth novel in ten years. You’ve looked it over and found no problems that you know how to fix. What do you do now?

Step Two: Learn how to make it better

You figure out some of those problems you don’t know how to fix. You figure out how to make it even better.

Once again, this is easier said than done. Didn’t you just write this to the best of your ability? Didn’t you stop precisely because you couldn’t make it any better? Well, yeah. Except you know that it can get better, in a hundred different ways. You just don’t know precise solutions yet. And it’s now your job to figure some of those out.

The first thing you need to do is set it aside for a few months. When you come back to it, you’ll have a much more objective eye, and poorly-written passages will stand out like sore thumbs. Or a particular plot arc (one that you were so proud of) will make you roll your eyes.

But in the meantime, you need to get help from other people. Read books, attend classes, go to conferences and seminars. Ingest their advice like an elixir of learning and store it in your belly. Take notes, highlight, bookmark, record. When you go back to your manuscript, take your notes and see how they apply to your story. You’ll likely find a half-dozen ways to use the advice to improve your manuscript.

Even better: get people to read your story! Preferably, get critiques from other writers who are at least as accomplished as you are. There are a lot of online critique groups which will help you do exactly this. Your fellow writers will helpfully (and constructively) point out a dozen more major things you can do to improve your story. Remember, though, that it’s their job to convince you of things that need to change. You’re not looking for someone to hand down edits from on high. You’re looking for someone to show you what things aren’t working and suggest fixes. Most of the time, you won’t take their fixes exactly as suggested. But their suggestions will spark ideas of your own for how to improve the piece. And more importantly, their feedback will help you understand how to write better, meaning that even if you never actually go back and revise this particular manuscript, you’ve still advanced your knowledge of the craft.

Which brings us to the final (?) step…

Step Three: Do it again

In Step One, you worked on your manuscript until there were no problems left that you knew how to solve. In Step Two, you spent months learning how to fix things that you suspected were broken and finding out about new types of problems that you didn’t even know existed.

Now you put that knowledge to use by looping back around and writing again.

It doesn’t have to be the same manuscript. It’s up to you whether you spend time improving something you’ve already written versus starting on a new project. Sometimes you’ll spend months learning and yet still feel like there’s no specific way to improve the manuscript you’ve just finished. In that case, move on! Start something new.

But a lot of the time, you’ll come back to that manuscript with a mental list of the things you can do better. It’s almost like those daydreams you have about how much better you could do high school if you could do it all over again. (Everyone has those daydreams, right?) You’ve gained wisdom. You’ve gained confidence. You’ve leveled up.

And so whether you start a new project or rewrite an old one for the umpteenth time, you’re writing better. That’s the only thing that matters.

When you look back at something you wrote ten years ago, what’s your first thought? I’ll bet it’s oh, man, I can do so much better than this now. That’s the one-and-only sign of becoming an accomplished writer. There’s no reliable way to measure yourself in any absolute sense. But you can certainly measure yourself relative to your skill in the past. And if that writing you see in your rearview mirror always makes you scream holy cow I’m better than that, then you’re learning your craft.

To put it another way, it doesn’t matter where you are as a writer right now. The only thing that matters is your trajectory. If you’re improving, and you keep working at it, you’ll keep improving. You’re upward-bound. Think of it like this: would you rather have $100 now, or $10 per year for twenty years? Growth is the thing that matters, not your current skill. If you keep growing as a writer, you will eventually achieve your goals. Full stop.

I freely admit that I’ve glossed over nearly all of the important details about writing. This advice, on its own, is almost useless. You’ll need to study and follow the guidance of writers who are much better than I am if you’re going to actually accomplish any of this.

And yet.

That advice can be overwhelming, frustrating, and painful, because you can’t always follow it. You’ll pore over a book on writing better dialogue, and then you’ll apply it, and you’ll say wow I still screwed that up. It takes a long, long time to learn everything there is to know about even a small part of the craft of writing.

But you can always follow these three steps. Nothing can ever stop you. Write, improve, write again. When everything else seems bleak, you can look back and know that you’ve learned something new and put that knowledge to use. If you keep following that path, you’ll always get where you want to go.

from the lather-rinse-repeat-dept

Reading your own writing, for fun and profit

Reading your own writing is a strange experience. It’s kind of like listening to your own voice while you’re singing: it feels like such a part of you that it’s hard to know what it really sounds like.

With your voice, it’s easy to record yourself and then play it back. Instantly, you get the same experience as a listener. It’s much harder with your writing, because your brain is very good at short-circuiting the reading process. It’s seen those words on your screen a thousand times, and so it doesn’t route them through the same neurons that get used when you read someone else’s work.

There’s also a subtle psychological ‘packaging effect’ when you read an unpublished manuscript. Because it’s not bound, justified, and paginated the way a book from the bookstore would be, manuscripts feel like they’re not books. Printing and binding a book says “this is a real book.” Printing a manuscript on an inkjet printer says “this is a work-in-progress.” Worse, it’s your work-in-progress, and it’s easy to believe that those Times New Roman words aren’t worth the copier paper you just printed them on.

So how do you trick your brain into reading your own work in the same way that you read a book you would buy from a bookstore? Well, short of wiping your memory clean, you can’t do it. But there are two techniques that can help.

The first is a bit of advice that probably dates back to Homer: put the manuscript away and work on something else. Let your brain process some other words of yours. When you come back to the first piece, a lot of the baggage will have been wiped clean, and you’ll see your story in a new light.

The second technique is to read your book in the most book-like format you can. Up until recently that was almost impossible, short of sending your rough drafts off to a vanity press for a one-copy print run. But with e-books, it’s a cinch to take your manuscript, format it for a Kindle or Kobo reader, and put it on your device.

(It’s a cinch, anyway, if you use Scrivener. If you don’t use Scrivener, well, this alone might be a good enough reason to switch.)

It’s amazing how different your own story feels when you put it on an e-reader. It’s like taking a painting, framing it, and putting it up on the wall of a gallery. Almost immediately, certain sections feel like they belong. Your brain says, “sure, this is a real book.” And some sections feel wrong, like they’re typewritten rough drafts that got pasted in. If you’d read those same sections on your screen or on printed paper, you might have passed by them without a second thought. But now that they’re part of a real book, they stand out as the stinkers they are.

So take some time away from your latest draft and work on something else. When you’re ready to come back to it, put your manuscript on your e-reader and read it in bed, or on the train, or wherever you read other people’s novels. Don’t worry about line-editing; just look for sections that feel unnatural. Mark them with the highlighting function on your e-reader and move on. When you’re finished, rewrite those sections and make them as fresh as you can.

Reading your work like this won’t replace beta readers, or developmental editors, or line-editing. But it will give you a good feel for which parts of your story are off-key, and give you confidence in the parts that do work well.

filed under electronic-words-are-people-too

How to deal with Type 2 writer’s block

As a writer, you’re going to run into times when you don’t have a good idea of what’s going to happen next. This isn’t full-on, Type 1, staring-at-a-blank-screen writer’s block, and it isn’t a mild case of Type 3, I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today doldrums. This is the in-between variety, the Type 2 writer’s block, where you know you could write a scene, but you don’t feel ready to write it yet.

For me, the problem is usually that I don’t have the right concrete details. I think there are two basic types of “what should happen” questions: high-level structural stuff and low-level details. You need both to make it through a draft (or at least, I do).

The first question is pretty simple: where is the scene/chapter/novel going? At a high level, what is it trying to achieve, and how do the pieces fit together to achieve it? For me, by the time I get to a scene or chapter, I have a pretty good idea of what I want it to do. In the story as a whole, the plot goes like this, the characters develop like that. For a particular scene, this is the state going in, and this is the state coming out.

The second (and in my opinion, more important) question is: what are the key details? You need more than big-picture ideas before you can start writing. Every generality in your story is going to be supported by specific details. Readers don’t read about the duality of self; they read about how a particular self is torn in two by a specific set of events. They don’t read about obsession; they read about how a certain person becomes obsessed with a particular thing. This applies to a scene just as much as to a novel. Readers don’t read about a conflict between two opposing goals; they read specific dialogue between two characters who have those goals.

You need (at least, I need) a few of those specifics in mind before you start writing: a line of dialogue, a particular action, even a certain description. I can go from “this scene is a muddled blank mess” to “I have a clear picture of what this scene is going to be” just by thinking of one detail or one good line of dialogue from the most important part of the scene (usually something near the end). Once I have that specific bit, I can hang the rest of the scene around it. Other parts all fall into place as either leading up to that detail, or following from it.

It’s like trying to find your way through a wilderness: when every direction seems just as valid as every other direction, it’s hard to make any progress at all. But if someone were to whisper in your ear, hey, at some point you’re going to pass by an oak tree with a big black lightning scar on its trunk, in the middle of a field with nothing else around, then suddenly you’ve got a much better sense of where you’re headed.

For me, the best way to come up with these details is to take a walk. Walking is a wonderful distraction for your body. It’s physical enough that it gets your blood flowing, but not so much that your brain has to concentrate on what it’s doing. I think the simple repetition of putting one foot in front of the other has the same drone-like cadence of a meditative chant. It takes over part of your brain, and lets the rest of it wander.

Often I find that when I start walking, it’s hard to concentrate on what I want to think about—the next section of my manuscript—and that’s okay. I try to nudge my brain there, but I give it a little time to settle in. Then, about ten minutes into the walk, my mind gets into a focused zone. I can bring up questions like “okay, brain, what should happen next?” and quite often, I’ll get good answers.

Walking may not be your cup of tea. Your cup of tea might be an actual cup of tea, just under the point of scalding, sipped on your back porch. Or a hot bath, or a ride on a unicycle. Whatever floats your boat—including, I suppose, floating boats.

The key, I think, is to get yourself away from your writing, and to get yourself into a zone where bright little bits of creativity can emerge from the dark crevices of your mind. Big-picture things like plot or structure can be chewed-over by your logical mind. But the sharp little details that make a scene work have to come out of your creative side. You can’t force them into existence; you can only put yourself into a place where they can spring into existence.

When they do appear, it’s important to get them recorded quickly. Don’t trust yourself to remember them later! For me, the best way to save ideas while on a walk is to use the voice memo feature on my phone. Then later, when I get back to my desk, I transcribe them. Since walking-and-thinking usually takes long enough that I don’t have time to write as soon as I get back (real life, unfortunately, is waiting for me), I end up transcribing the voice notes at the start of my next writing session. Hearing my own ideas about the upcoming scene, and typing them out, is a great way to ease my mind into a writing state.

Whatever your specific method is, I’ll bet twopence to a pound that there’s something you can do to move your story along that isn’t chaining yourself to a desk (and isn’t playing hooky either). If you can figure out what you have to do to get your muse to whisper some details in your ear, you’ll spend less time in a literary wasteland, trying to figure out which way you should go next.

filed under walking-your-way-to-better-writing

Listening to books

Jason Hough recently brought up something that I’ve been noticing a lot myself lately: that listening to audiobooks can improve your writing. A few months ago I started listening to audiobooks on my morning and evening commutes (since if you’re going to be stuck in Bay Area traffic for 45 minutes, you may as well listen to a good book).

What I’ve found is that my “writer’s mind” is much more active while listening to books than it is when I read them as text. Sometimes I try hard to analyze a particular writer’s technique when I’m reading, but it’s always a struggle, because I’ll get caught up in the story itself and stop paying attention to what the author is doing.

Listening to a book, though, is completely different. For whatever reason, I can immerse myself in the story while at the same time thinking about whether it works, how it works, and why it works. My mind will regularly ‘ding’ with thoughts along the lines of “ooh, that was well-done” or “meh, that could be better.” I’ve started to feel like I’m learning much more about the technique of the writers I’m reading.

And now that I think of it, that’s usually how my brain works when I’m watching a TV show or movie–a fact that my wife absolutely loves. Because walking out of a good movie, it’s perfectly normal and lovable to spend the next half-hour dissecting everything about it, right?

Maybe it’s a good thing there’s nobody in the car with me listening to my audiobooks…

filed under there’s-no-such-thing-as-over-analysis

Best middle-grade book you’ve never heard of: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Latham, won the Newbery Medal in 1956, but since then it seems to have slipped into obscurity. An aunt gave it to me for my eleventh birthday, and while it didn’t seem terribly interesting based on the cover, I was fortunately at an age where I would read just about anything, so I lay down on my bed, set the book on my chest, and cracked it open.

A full explanation of the story wouldn’t have gotten me much more interested, either: a historical novel about a mathematician from the eighteenth century? Meh. But Latham does a fabulous job of endearing the reader to young Nat Bowditch, who was born near Boston just before the start of the Revolutionary War. His mother and  grandmother die at the start of the story, and a sister and brother not long after–if there’s one thing this book teaches you, it’s how fragile life was before modern medicine–and Nat is left with his father and older sister. Nat demonstrates a knack for mathematics, to the point where he’s punished by a schoolteacher who doesn’t believe he’s actually solving arithmetic problems on his own.

Nat dreams of going to Harvard, but is forced to quit school to help his father with the bookkeeping at their cooperage. When the business is sold–“lock, stock, and bookkeeper,” as the new owner jokes, Nat becomes an indentured servant, meaning he won’t be free to go to Harvard (or anywhere else) for nine long years.

This is where the main theme of the book starts to show through: when life throws up obstacles, the only thing you can do is just find your way around them. A fellow bookkeeper complains that he and Nat are ‘becalmed,’ but Sam, an older captain, tells Nat that when the wind dies, a ship has to ‘sail by ash breeze:’

Nat asked, “How do you sail by ash breeze?”

Sam grinned. “When a ship is becalmed, the wind died down, she can’t move, sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They’ll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her. Or they’ll carry out anchors and heave them over, and the crew will lean on the capstan bars and drag the ship up to where the anchors are heaved over. Oars are made of ash–white ash. So when you get ahead by your own get up and get, that’s when you sail by ash breeze.”

Nat takes Sam’s advice to heart and sets about learning Latin, French, and Portuguese with the help of people he meets around Boston. He gets access to a local library and teaches himself mathematics.

When he’s finally releases from his indentured servitude, he goes to sea as a “supercargo,” a term for anyone who isn’t able to directly help with the mechanics of sailing. He’s tasked with keeping the books for the ship’s trade, but he develops an interest in the mathematics of celestial navigation. Many sailors of the time prefer traditional dead-reckoning because they don’t understand or trust the newer mathematical techniques. Nat tries to reassure them that math can be trusted, but he has a hard time winning anyone over.

One night, while reviewing the primary navigation text of the day, The New Practical Navigator by John Moore of the English Royal Navy, Nat finds an error in one of its tables. He bursts into his captain’s stateroom:

Captain Prince jumped to his feet. “What’s happened?

“I found an error in one of Moore’s tables!”

Prince looked at him in utter disgust. “Is that what you came slamming in here about? An error in which table?”

Nat told him.

Prince gave a short laugh. “My dear Mr. Bowditch, Moore didn’t compute that table. Do you know who did? Nevil Maskelyne, the royal astronomer of England!”

“I can’t help who computed it!” Nat barked. “There’s an error!” He showed Prince his page of figures. “There! I checked it! See? Why didn’t Moore check those figures before he accepted them?”

Prince looked at the paper covered with Nat’s tiny figures. “All that, to find one error? And there are probably two hundred thousand figures in those tables. Maybe that’s why he didn’t check every figure, Mr. Bowditch.”

“But he should have! Mathematics is nothing if it isn’t accurate! Men’s lives depend on the accuracy of those tables! It’s, it’s, criminal to have a mistake in a book like this! Do you hear me! It’s criminal! Men’s lives depend on these figures!”

Nat invents a new way of calculating a ship’s position by sighting the moon and eventually decides to write his own navigation text, and spends years of his life making sure that it is accurate enough for sailors to rely on. He becomes a captain of his own ship, and demonstrates the usefulness of mathematical navigation by sailing to trading ports around the world.

This book was engrossing enough that I’m pretty sure I read it five or six times as a teenager. I suppose I knew that it was more-or-less historically accurate, but I didn’t realize at the time how important Nat Bowditch was to sailing and navigation. The book he published in 1802, The American Practical Navigator, is still carried on every commissioned US Navy vessel. When doing research on celestial navigation for a science-fiction novel, I read through online forums which referred to Bowditch’s book. I felt proud, as if I’d just heard about the triumphant success of an old grade-school friend. These sailors and navigators might know everything about Nathanial Bowditch’s navigation text, but they didn’t know Nat Bowditch like I did.

filed under newbery-gets-it-right

The OTHER form of grammar to watch out for in your writing

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear as a writer is to avoid using adverbs. To some writers, the adverb is the spawn of the grammar devil. “Search your manuscript for any words ending in -ly,” they’ll say, “and kill them with fire.”

It’s sound advice to watch out for your quicklies and loudlies and antidisestablieshmentarilies and make sure that they’re really necessary. But there’s another form of grammar which gets overused by beginning writers: the participle phrase.

In case it’s been a while since you took English 101, a participle phrase is a verb phrase that serves as an adjective or adverb:

Strutting up to the car, Mary held out her hands.

The running back charged through the defenders, leaving linebackers scattered in his wake.

Strutting up to them is a participle phrase which modifies the noun ‘Mary,’ and leaving linebackers scattered in his wake is a participle phrase which modifies the verb ‘charged.’ Note that participle phrases are different from gerunds, which are verb phrases which serve as nouns:

Skiing through trees is my favorite pastime.

He wasn’t quite used to the process of transforming himself into a unicorn.

Like the passive voice (another form of grammar that you’ve surely been warned about), participle phrases are weak and indirect. They decorate a clause with an additional, “this-is-happening-too” verb, instead of being broken out into their own clause. Participle phrases are like the sprig of parsley that garnishes your soup: they look pretty and smell nice, but don’t mistake them for the main course.

Writers sometimes use participle phrases as a way of ‘adding an extra verb’ to a sentence. But if the action described by the phrase is an important one, it’s probably better off as its own clause or sentence. For example:

Swinging the sword with all of his might, the knight chopped off the dragon’s head.

The knight’s mighty swing is important enough to be treated as an actual verb clause, instead of a tacked-on phrase:

The knight swung his sword with all of his might and chopped off the dragon’s head.

The participle phrase can seem even more tacked-on when it doesn’t make sense when combined with the main verb of the sentence. People can certainly look around while walking into a room, or pick up an object while speaking. But what about this?

“You are finished,” the knight said, swinging his sword and chopping off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.

Wowsers, that’s quite the participle: two verbs and a prepositional phrase, all glued to a line of dialogue. Even if you assume that it’s possible to say that while actually chopping off a dragon’s head, it makes the swinging and chopping seem like a casual, tacked-on action. That might work for chopping a head of lettuce, but probably not for the head of dragon. Compare it with this:

“You are finished,” the knight said. He swung his sword and chopped off the dragon’s head in a single stroke.

So what should you use instead of participle phrases? Your best bet is the good ol’ subject-verb-object. Compare these passages:

Sliding down the bannister, Joey hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He skidded across the floor in his socks, flailing his arms wildly. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, leaping down the stairs after him. Turning the corner into the living room, Joey braked to a halt in front of their mother.

Four participle phrases in four sentences—a bit of an extreme example, but I’ve seen passages that were almost as bad. Compare it with this version:

Joey slid down the bannister and hit the kitchen floor at a dead run. He flailed his arms wildly as he skidded across the floor in his socks. “I’m going to get you for that,” his brother screamed, and leaped down the stairs after him. Joey turned the corner into the living room and braked to a halt in front of their mother.

Breaking the actions into separate clauses gives a much more immediate feeling to the action. It’s probably not necessary to eliminate every participle phrase from this passage: flailing his arms wildly is a good description of what he’s doing while he skids across the room in his socks. Whether you keep that phrase or not depends on what sort of effect and style you’re going for.

Which brings us to the most important point of all—just like the passive voice and adverbs, participle phrases are not evil. It’s not necessary to purge your writing of all -ly and -ing suffixes, but make sure you know when (and why) they work and don’t work. If you want to write bam-bam, bare-bones action like Elmore Leonard, you’re going to develop stylistic rules that are very different than if you want to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald. So re-read your favorite authors and try to figure out what makes their style work. Do this for as many authors as you can, and then you can develop your own style, picking the choices and styles that you like best.

To (mis-)quote Arthur C. Clarke: All these forms of grammar are yours. Use them wisely. Use them in peace.

filed under spawn-of-the-grammar-devil

Scrivener for non-scriveners

I suppose writers had it pretty bad three or four thousand years ago, when chisels and stone tablets were the only writing implements to be had. We must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when parchment and ink came around, and then (for the handwriting-impaired among us) the mechanical typewriter. And for the last thirty years or so, we’ve been able to write and revise on-screen with word processors, instead of having to retype everything anew with each draft. “Progress,” wrote Robert Heinlein, “isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”

Then God bless the lazy men and women at Literature and Latte, the makers of Scriviner. They’ve spent the last several years trying to perfect the task of writing, and they’ve come damn close. At this point, you may as well go dip your quill in ink and grab a length of foolscap as use something as antiquated as Microsoft Word. Word is fine for shorter-length stuff (anything up to ten thousand words or so). It’s got a great revision-tracking system, and since it’s the standard format for editors and agents, you’re going to be using it to share revisions at some point. But I shudder at the thought of trying to use it to actually write a full-length novel.

Folders and Sub-documents

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One of the things that Scrivener does an amazing job of is letting you break your manuscript up into folders and sub-documents. With Word, you either put everything into a single file (which makes navigating difficult) or you break each chapter or scene up into a separate document (which makes it hard to join it all together again).

With Scrivener, you create a ‘project’ for each manuscript. The project is like a miniature, self-contained file system. You can create folders and subfolders to organize all your various scenes, chapters, and notes, which means that you don’t have to wrangle the herd of separate-but-related Word documents that make up your manuscript. I like to have a folder for each major draft of a novel, with each chapter in a draft broken out into a separate document. That makes it easy for me to navigate between chapters in my current draft and see the word count for the chapter I’m working on. I can also easily find a particular chapter in an older draft if I want to resurrect some bit of description or dialog. Some people break their manuscripts down even further, with a folder per chapter and a document for each scene in the chapter. Scrivener will let you do things like search and replace or word counts across an entire draft, so it never feels like breaking your manuscript up into sub-documents ever becomes ‘too much.’ It’s really just about whatever is most convenient for you.


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Snapshots are a way of keeping older versions of a particular document around in case you want to go back to them. Snapshots are astonishingly, wonderfully, awe-inspiringly amazing, and once you get used to them, you won’t be able to write without them. I create a snapshot of whatever I’m working on at the end of each writing session. That gives me the freedom to hack apart a chapter and put it back together again without worrying about losing my work. You can restore a document back to a particular snapshot if you want, or you can view the differences between an older snapshot and the current version to see what’s changed. Some people even use snapshots as a way to work with writing partners or editors, by taking a snapshot of their original version and then comparing with the new version.


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Compiling is at the heart of what makes the project-based, folder-and-document structure of Scrivener work. You can keep your manuscript broken up into whatever chunks make the most sense to you when you’re writing—scenes, chapters, sections—and when you’re ready, you compile them all back together again for output to a printer, exporting to a Word doc, or even generating a ready-to-read Kindle ebook. Scrivener can automatically add chapter headings, page breaks, and title pages to make the output look exactly the way you want.

There’s another great benefit to compiling. After my years of using Microsoft Word, I’ve gotten used to good old Times New Roman. More editors are accepting drafts in roman type, but some still require fixed-width fonts like Courier. I like 1.5 line spacing with a little extra between paragraphs, but submission formats often ask for double-spacing. In a regular word processor, you’d have to constantly change back and forth between different options in order to generate a printed or digital copy with particular formatting.

In Scrivener, the font, spacing, and styling that you use in the editor have nothing at all to do with how it gets compiled. If I need traditional typewriter-style printouts, I can choose that option when I compile for printing, and the editor never needs to know that I’d been working in mushy old Times New Roman the entire time. You can set up headers, page numbers, fonts, and spacings to exactly the format that a picky journal or magazine asks for, and then re-use those settings whenever you’re ready to submit.

Scrivener can also compile your project to the Kindle ebook format. I’ve written before about how useful it is to read your own work in a ‘realistic’ setting. With Scrivener, it’s easy to take the latest draft of your manuscript and export it to your Kindle (or the Kindle app on iOS/Android) and read it over. While I don’t suggest that you use its output format for actual self-publishing—you’ll want an app that’s designed specifically for that—the Kindle output is a great way to share with friends, family, and beta readers.

The details

Scrivener does a lot of little things well, too—it has an excellent tool for setting word count goals, which I use for making sure that I’m on track to get to a particular manuscript length by a certain date. It has a solid ‘distraction-free’ composition mode, and great tools for outlining, cork-board-style organization, and note-taking. It can back up your entire project to a timestamped zip file, which you can easily back up to an external drive or cloud file service so that you can go back to older versions even if you really cock things up.

There are probably a dozen other great Scrivener features that I hardly use but other people will swear by. It does a good enough job at everything so that I’ve never felt like I was leaving anything behind by abandoning Microsoft Word. I even have a Scrivener project for blog posts, so that I don’t have to worry about the internet eating my latest draft. I still have to do a little formatting once it gets into WordPress, but all of the basics like bolding/italicizing work properly with a simple copy-paste.

Best of all, Scrivener is reasonably-priced: $40 for either Mac or Windows, and you can sometimes grab it on sale for half that. Do yourself a favor and check it out. I’ll bet that after a week or two using Scrivener, you’ll look back at the bad old days of regular ‘word processors’ and wonder how you ever got anything done.

from the I-made-my-word-count-for-the-week-dept.

The eyes have it

For me it’s all about the eyes. Specifically, where they’re pointing. In any scene I write that has more than two characters, I end up with at least three or four ‘looks.’ She looked at him oddly. He turned to look at her. I looked up from what I was doing. You can’t pull a fast one on any of my characters, because whatever is happening, they’re looking at it.

Their conversations, though, are full of momentary pauses. Someone will often refuse to answer someone else for a moment. Or they’ll be silent for a moment. Or they’ll do anything except speak—but always only for a moment.

As soon as they get outside, though, it’s the sun and the horizon, preferably combined. Suns really like to ‘hang low on the horizon’ in my stories; apparently my characters live in a world where it’s always late afternoon. If the sun does happen to end up in a different part of the sky, I’ll definitely let you know about it. The sunlight will filter through leaves, gleam on the hood of a car, or shine in someone’s eyes.

I’m guessing you have them too—words or phrases that you overuse. They’re like your own special spice: whenever you’re making dinner, you pull them out and sprinkle them on. You know what this casserole needs? A sun hanging low on the horizon.

The number one rule of drafting is don’t stop, so if you’re in the flow and the time seems right for a character to look oddly at someone or refuse to answer for a moment, then let it flow. Who knows? Maybe this will be the one spot in your story where you let that phrase shine. Maybe all of those other uses are the extraneous ones, and this one right here is the whopper that you let ride.

But when the time comes to start revising, you have to be on your guard for your little bon mots. I find it’s handy to build up a list of words that I overuse in general, and then a separate list per manuscript of phrases that I’m pretty sure are popping up too frequently. My first novel is set on Mars, and the color of the sky shows up a lot. It’s an important thing to describe—if you were suddenly transported there, the color of the sky would be one of the most striking and memorable elements—but I have to make sure I don’t describe it the same way each time. So sometimes, when I’m writing a particular bit of description, I think to myself I bet I’ve used this somewhere else and so I jot it down in my note-taking app. Then later I do some project-wide searches to whittle my descriptions down so that each one is as unique as possible.

It’s late afternoon here in Pacifica, and the sun is hanging low on the horizon, so I’m going to look up from what I’m doing here and go see if I can refuse to answer someone’s question. For a moment.

filed under david-bowman’s-retina

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