Tag Archives: blogging

Primitive Blogging

I know it’s going to be the modern equivalent of “I walked 30 miles to school in the snow. Uphill. Both ways.” But a lot of us are going to be saying, “I had to use floppy disks to add software to my computer. The printer was dot matrix. The monitor was one color – either amber or green,” and watching kids gawp in disbelief. (There’s a song with the line, “We programmed in ones and in zeroes. And sometimes we ran out of ones.” But I digress.)

At the moment, however, I am experiencing another sort of primitive computing – my environment.

I used to have a nice study. Large desk with drawers and cubbyholes. Printer stand/file cabinet. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Many pieces of artwork on the walls. The lighting wasn’t quite what I might have wanted, but, hey, you can’t have everything. I had a window for natural sunlight and an overhead room light.

That was in the days when we had a house, and the house had three bedrooms. One of them was my study and the other was my husband’s. He kept his computers, TV, DVDs, fossils, and who-knows-what-else in there. (The third, naturally, we used as an actual bedroom.) It was perfect, or as nearly as one is likely to get.

Now, and for the next couple of months, circumstances have forced us to live in a one-bedroom apartment. The bedroom, again naturally, is used for sleeping, which leaves me for a study – practically nothing. I can’t set up my computer in a corner of the bedroom because A) the room is too small, and B) my husband sleeps days, when I most need to compute.

What does that leave for a study? The utility room, where the water heater lives and the washer and dryer are supposed to go. There’s no room for an actual desk, so my husband constructed me a rustic platform from four totes containers with three planks balanced across the top. It’s just wide enough for my computer and keyboard (though the Mac does get to jostling a bit when I really get going typing). The planks are long enough to hold the printer, too. I have a proper desk chair, but not much else. Except boxes of belongings that we have nowhere else to store. It’s a claustrophobic existence.

(My husband’s “study” is the breakfast bar and a kitchen stool. No fossils except a couple of desiccated potatoes that need to be escorted outside.)

Unfortunately, with my makeshift desk taking up so much room, a laundry setup is out of the question. We’re back to scrounging for quarters so we can do laundry in the complex’s communal facility. And I make my husband do that. I’ve read too many true crime books about women who were killed in their building’s laundry room.

There’s also the noise. The water heater makes strange gurgles at irregular intervals, which breaks my concentration, and my husband watches TV during my prime working time (our schedules are just a wee bit peculiar). Which wouldn’t be so bad, if he didn’t watch the Screaming and Explosions Channel. (I think we get it on Roku.)

And then there’s the smell. Gentle floral scents wafting through my room with a quiet hiss every now and then – to cover up the scent of the litter box, which I also share with my utility room, our two cats, a scooper, and a whisk broom.  I’m not sure whether the air freshener is beneficial to the cats – or to me – but I try to pretend I’m walking past the beauty counter at a posh department store and trying to avoid the perfume snipers.

This is the environment in which I must do not only my blogging, but my transcription work till the end of August. I suppose one can get used to anything for a couple of months, especially if it means money still comes in, but one thing I know for sure – the litter box is NOT going to be in my new study once I get one.

 

Beating the Rejection Slip

focus photo of yellow paper near trash can
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

Writers fear them, yet they are inevitable: rejection slips. I’ve seen many a one in my life as a writer. (That’s what good about blogs. You never have to send yourself a rejection slip.) They can be cruel. They can be perfunctory, mass-produced and not even signed by a human being. An actual rejection slip may never arrive at all, leaving a writer to wait in anxious hope forever.

Rejection slips can be devastating. They can be empowering, too, in a strange sort of way. I’ve known writers who’ve defiantly papered their walls with rejection slips until they got a book contract. Once in a while a rejection slip comes that makes it clear the editor or agent has actually read the proposal or sample chapters. He or she may even provide helpful comments that can lead to improving your writing. Or the editor may say that your writing is good, although the book is just not for them. Those desperate for validation (most writers) treasure the first half of the evaluation.

Short story and nonfiction article writers and certainly poets get rejection slips, too. But the book rejection slip can be the most devastating because you may have spent literally years preparing your manuscript.

But here is a tale that may give you hope: I just beat the rejection slip. I have been offered an author contract.

How did I do it? I followed the rules. I gave up. Then I got lucky.

Since my book was a memoir (non-fiction), I knew that I had to prepare a proposal with sample chapters. (Fiction requires a completed manuscript, not just a proposal.)

Then I combed the Internet for agents that were accepting new clients and publishers that would accept proposals directly from authors. I sent out my query letters or proposals. I was very careful to send each recipient what they preferred and to make it meet their specs: query only, proposal only, proposal with three sample chapters, or ten pages, or whatever. I attached my proposal or pasted it into the email, whichever they wanted.

I tried to be at least a little sensible. I looked for people who wanted the kind of writing I was doing – nonfiction or memoir or mental health. I looked over their websites to see if there was one particular agent/editor who was more interested in my genre and addressed my query to that person. I never sent a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” query.

I did this dozens of times. I kept a list of where I sent each and crossed them off when the rejections came.

And after a number of years and rejections, I gave up. I decided to abandon my book (by that time it was completely written) and move on to another book-length project in another genre.

While I was struggling with that manuscript, however (I still am), I noticed a new independent publisher who was looking for nonfiction books on mental health issues. So I said, what the hell? I was pretty much inured to rejection by then. I sent a query letter.

And I got a reply, within days. Did I have a proposal or a completed manuscript? Encouraged, I said that I had both. They asked to see the manuscript. And within a week, I had an offer. Given the length of my rejection list, I jumped at the chance.

I was a little wary of throwing in my lot with an indie publisher, and a start-up at that. But the founder was someone I had heard of, someone who was a noted expert and activist in the field of mental health. It was not a vanity press.

And now I have signed my author contract and been assigned an editor (I look forward to many fruitful conversations with him). They also introduced me to the intern who had picked my manuscript out of the slush pile, to whom I am eternally grateful.

I’m not a novice at writing. In addition to these blog posts, I have written and published nonfiction articles and children’s stories. But being a BOOK author is the best! The day I get my 25 printed copies I will indeed squee, long and hard.

Say hello to the next author from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – me!

 

Retirement: Small Change for a Freelancer

money coins cash currency
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I retire – very soon now – it will make very little change in my life as a freelancer.

I’ll still be able to write my blogs and articles for support groups, which pay nothing, but allow me to stretch my writing muscles and speak about issues that I care about.

Nor will it be “small change” in the sense of being very little money. I worked enough years in Corporate America (editing, writing, and proofing) with freelance writing as my side gig to have made my 35 years of higher income. Even my first dozen years as a full-time freelancer went well enough to make a contribution to my accumulated earnings. The amount I’ll be receiving will be enough to pay the mortgage. My husband’s income will pay the other bills if we’re careful. (And don’t think he isn’t jealous that I can retire soon and he has to wait a few more years.)

No, the small change will be that I will have a steady income while still pursuing freelance work. And that will be sweet.

For while freelance work has fallen off for me of late, it hasn’t disappeared completely. I still write occasional articles or stories for paying markets and am working on a novel and a memoir. (Who isn’t?) And I’ve recently picked up a gig as a transcriptionist and proofreader.

The point is, I’ll still be able to do freelance work – up to approximately $17,000 a year – without reducing my Social Security benefits. For me at least, that total will be a healthy sum. Not a stunning one, but healthy. (And if my mystery novel takes off, who knows?)

So what is the small change I mentioned in the title? A steady income. We all know the ups and downs of freelance life and lately I’ve come to hate them. It’s not an adventure, I don’t know where the next check is coming from, and at this point in my life I need to. A steady income combined with the ability to keep freelancing will bring some much-needed balance into my life.

It’s kind of like when I worked 9-5 and freelanced as a side-gig. The difference is that the steady income will come not from work that I’m doing, but from work that I’ve already done. That Social Security money is mine. It was merely lent to the government to invest in whatever they wanted and to pay for things I don’t necessarily approve of.

Now they have to give it back. (At least until and unless they gut the fund to do away with Social Security or do something else I won’t like. Then I’ll get to be the boomer version of a Gray Panther and write in protest of their actions.)

And with that steady money coming back to me, I will have a cushion and an opportunity to concentrate more on my freelance writing (transcribing, editing, proofing, blogging, writing my novel, whatever) – the freedom of the freelance life without many of the hassles.

I’ve checked with my accountant and we concur. Even my husband agrees.

I’d be a fool not to do it.

 

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.

 

 

 

The Basics of Editing On-Screen

Most of the writers I know do their writing on-screen. Naturally, that means they also do their editing on-screen.

Editing on-screen is, admittedly, not as much fun as editing on paper, when we got to use colored pencils and make arcane hieroglyphic marks that the uninitiated couldn’t translate.

But these days, it’s necessary. Whether you’re editing your own writing (see http://wp.me/p4e9wS-rS) or someone else’s, it needs work. It’s a mistake to take the first outpourings of your brain and slap them up on WordPress or LiveJournal. Even if you’re a fantastic writer with brilliant thoughts, there are many glitches possible between your mind and what you offer to the public.

I write mostly in WordPress and Microsoft Word and edit mostly in Word or PowerPoint. But whatever the platform, there are certain similarities. Here are some techniques that will make your on-screen editing easier and more accurate.

Editing Ergonomics. This may sound obvious, but with wide-screen monitors taking over America’s desktops, perhaps it needs to be said: Center the page you’re editing directly in your line of sight. And remember to blink so your eyes don’t dry out. You already do that, don’t you? Find a type size that’s comfortable for you (175–200% enlargement is about right for my feeble eyes).

Periods and Spaces. Forget all the arguments. The standard for anything that is to be read on-screen is one space after a period. Period. Many writers don’t know this, and even those who do may lapse into their old typewriter ways and automatically, robotically, put in two spaces.

Fortunately, there is a cure – Find and Replace. All you have to do is ask the computer to find two spaces and replace them with one. Ask it to replace all the double spaces it finds in one go. Then save (for heaven’s sake!). Voilà! Your manuscript is now up to date in the format accepted by online publications.

Use Your Tools. Word processors these days have built-in tools that check your spelling, your grammar, your word count, and sometimes even your lexile. (Why is lexile important? It’s a readability score that indicates whether you’re writing at, say, a fifth-grade reading level or a seventh-grade level or a twelfth-grade one. A ninth-grade level is usually acceptable for a general audience.) Add-on tools also exist, such as Grammarly, which checks your writing on the fly and suggests what you might have meant or how you should have punctuated it.

Don’t Trust Your Tools. For most problems, you can, but sometimes you know better than the computer what you mean to say. For example, my computer flagged “lexile” and wanted to know if I meant “exile” or “flexible.” (I didn’t.) There are thousands of autocorrect memes floating around out there that show just how funny or horrible the results can be. Nor will spelling/grammar checkers catch everything. I just typed “Thre” for “There” and the program didn’t flag it.

Remember Your Low-Tech Editing Habits. Read over your finished piece slowly, or, better still, aloud. Put it away for a few hours at least, or preferably a day, and reread it. Slowly. Concentrate on a paragraph at a time, then go back and read the whole piece straight through. Double-check the spelling of names and places, another thing spelling checkers may overlook. (Although I just wrote a piece using the name “Semelweis” and the checker suggested “Semmelweis,” which was indeed correct.)

Have Someone Else Read Your Piece. You may be writing all alone in your Fortress of Solitude, but there’s a world of people out there who may be glad to look over your work before you release it into the wild. (Also some who won’t, so you may want to set up an arrangement with a trusted friend or a writer’s group.) Shoot the piece off by email and get replies the same way, or using those handy electronic Post-It Notes or comment features.

As time passes, fewer and fewer people will have those old typewriter and pen-and-paper habits. Even those born writing on-screen can use a few reminders, though. But on-screen or off, remember that there is still no substitute for a pair of human eyes and a human brain. Blaming errors on the technology is a cop-out – you’re the writer; you are responsible for the finished product.

Why I Write About Myself

Lately I’ve been taken to task for writing about “me, me, me.” So I felt compelled to introspect, and I’ve decided to write more about me. Here’s why.

I’ve tried to live an interesting life. I’ve always admired and enjoyed people who have tried many different things and talk about them. Once I realized that, I set out to try new experiences – travel, hobbies, friends, music, education.

I’ve traveled to the Caribbean, England, Ireland, Croatia, Montenegro, Rio de Janeiro, and other destinations (“Travels With Mom” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-dM). I’ve studied French, Spanish, and Russian, and taken a college course on beekeeping (“How I Faced My Fear – And Failed” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7H). I’ve taken up archery (“I Arched Before Arching Was Cool” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6E), ninjitsu (“I Was a Teenage Ninja” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-49), spelunking, and geocaching, and tried horseback riding, cross country skiing (“Whoa!” http://wp.me/s4e9wS-whoa), writing a novel, guitar and banjo, and reloading bullets (“The Day I Brought Bullets to School” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-50). I’ve written for I Love Cats, Black Belt, Today’s Catholic Teacher, and Technology and Learning. I’ve drunk with Tom Paxton, met the Archbishop of Jamaica, taken Carl Sagan’s class, and interviewed Captain Kangaroo. I’ve eaten snails, octopus, goat, and sashimi. That’s plenty of material for blog posts.

I have a blog called Bipolar Me (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). Inevitably, that involves talking about myself. While I try to include posts about news and events regarding bipolar disorder, the person whose case I know best is my own. I can’t generalize my experience to encompass everyone, or even most, people with bipolar disorder, but I hope my readers can see some of themselves in my writing.

My personal writing is what most people seem to be interested in. When I write about politics (“Political Noise” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ol) or books (“Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ry) or social issues (“Whitewashing: Where’s the Line?” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-5a) or music (“Owed to Songwriters” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-mr), the response is underwhelming. (I write about them anyway, because sometimes I need to. I’m not doing this for the numbers.)

But when I write about things I’ve seen and done, especially humorous pieces (“Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-56, “Butt Check” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2U)), I get more reactions and comments.

I don’t know a lot about any particular subject. (Except bipolar disorder, I mean.) Some people know all there is to know about medieval Scottish armor or the works of Tolstoy or Hungarian cooking. I’m more of a generalist. My education has been broad, rather than deep. If that means I’m full of useless trivia, so be it. I can write about what I know about Shakespeare or astronomy or getting rid of possums (“How to Get Rid of a Possum” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46), but if you want detailed, expert knowledge, you’ll have to go somewhere else.

I write a lot about cats, too. My cats, in particular, so in a way that’s still about me. (“Stupid Cat Tricks” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8I, “Sir Boinks-a-Lot” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8A, “I Blame the Cats. Always.” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B)

So, although I’ll try to keep the posts about other topics coming, I have a feeling I’ll continue to mine my own life for material. After all, it’s the subject I know best.

 

What I’ve Learned About Publishing From Lack of Success

I have been an editor. I have rejected lots of manuscripts.

I have been a writer. I have been rejected by lots of editors and agents and magazines and ezines.

Right now I have two books in the works: a memoir based on my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com) and a mystery novel hovering around 40,000 pages (60-75,000 would be a reasonable length).

Here’s what I’ve learned.

BOOKS

I’ve learned one queries nonfiction with a proposal and fiction with a completed manuscript. However, I spent so long contacting agents and publishers about the memoir that I actually finished it while I was waiting to hear back.

At some point, you will reach the “This book is crap” stage. Do not give up. This is natural and to be expected at least once or twice. The thing to do is pause. Go read a book about how to plot or write description or whatever it is that made you say “This is crap.” Or work on another project for a while. You do have at least two going, don’t you? Or at least a great idea for another one? Or you could join a writers’ group and see if any of them can figure out the reason for the crapitude.

Note: The first draft is not a manuscript and should not be submitted. That’s why it’s called a first draft. You will need at least another draft or three before it’s ready to release into the wild.

Yes, you need an agent. Probably. Only a few publishing companies look at proposals and manuscripts that don’t come from an agent. There used to be editorial assistants who had to read those submissions, but budgets are tighter than tight in the publishing industry. You don’t need an agent to submit smaller pieces of work like short stories and articles.

Which brings us to:

EZINES and MAGAZINES.

I write blog posts of 600-1000 words and, if appropriate, submit them to online magazines. (Most of this applies to print magazines too, if you can still find one.) A large part of the time, it’s like dropping my writing down a proverbial well. But again, I’ve learned a few things.

First, a heresy: You will have to write for no money. At first, anyway. People who say not to write for free are coming from a position of privilege. They are at a stage in their careers when they can get actual money (at least a little). If you’re just starting out, you’re not. There are reasons for this.

Some editors will want to see work that you’ve had published, just so they can tell you can write, meet deadlines, and be professional. The other reason is exposure. Yes, I know starving artists die of exposure. Yes, I know that exposure doesn’t pay the rent. But it does help in other ways.

An agent or an editor will look at a query more seriously if it says, “I am a regular contributor to X website and have been published on Y and Z.” Or “I have had short stories printed in Publication A and B.” Even if you only got six copies of the magazine as pay, or a byline and a bio, these are credits. They indicate that you’re more than just a wannabe. After you’ve got a few credits to your name, you can start pitching to sites that pay.

Do you really need to pitch? Or can you just send a story or article? Publications differ. The website will have a page helpfully called “How to Submit” or “Submission Guidelines.” Follow these instructions exactly. If they say query first, do that. If they say send completed story, do that. If they say paste it in the body of an email, do that. If they say attach your file as a Word doc, do that. Whatever they want, give it to them. It takes longer than blasting out a flurry of identical query letters or submissions, but it increases your chances of getting favorable attention.

I have either made all of the above mistakes or seen them made by people who submitted work to my publications. I can’t guarantee that any of this advice will get you published. This business doesn’t come with guarantees. But you can piggyback on my failures and those of others on your way to becoming a success. Good luck. Even if you’re a terrific writer, you’ll still need it!

 

 

 

Should You Self-Edit?

In a word, “Yes!”
That’s not to say that you won’t need a professional (or at least semi-pro) editor at some point in the writing process. But in order to get your manuscript – anything from a blog post to a novel – ready for a wider audience, you need to give it a good edit.

Proofreading. Of course you’re giving your manuscript a good proofreading. Aren’t you? Proofing is the stage when you catch errors of spelling, punctuation, typos, and some simple grammar flaws (such as subject-verb agreement). Anything more complicated than that is copy editing.

You may or may not be able to do copy editing yourself, although it’s always worthwhile to give it a try. Flaws to look for in copy editing are sentences that are too long or all the same length, too much passive voice, parallel constructions, and misplaced modifiers. If you don’t know what those are, you definitely need to have your manuscript vetted by someone who does. And don’t trust the “grammar checker” built into your word processor. There will be times when you want to use the passive voice, for example, and your grammar checker may tell you to change all of them.

Nonfiction. Whether you’re writing an article, a memoir, or an essay, take a close look at your first and last paragraphs. One good technique is to ask yourself whether you really need that first paragraph. Try reading the piece without it. Sometimes the second paragraph is more vivid or personal or relevant.

The last paragraph should do something, not just dribble off. It can reinforce (not restate) the first paragraph, ask a question, suggest an answer, sum up, or leave your readers with a final thought. Whatever you do, don’t end your piece with “Time will tell.”

Fiction. Fiction can be trickier than nonfiction in some ways. You have to take all the regular steps of self-editing and more besides. One of the best ways to discover where a story may be dragging or missing essential information is to read it aloud. (Actually, reading nonfiction aloud is not a bad idea either. If a sentence is difficult to say, it will likely be difficult for your audience to read.)

It may be best for you to have another person read your work aloud while you take notes on a separate copy. Then you can go back and fix them later. Trying to do this solo can divert your attention from the overall flow of the piece as you start and stop to make notes or corrections.

Longer works. Say you’re writing a book. You’ve self-edited every chapter using the above suggestions. Now you’re faced with the challenge of editing the whole darn thing. Pay particular attention to the breaks between chapters. Especially in fiction, the reader needs a reason to continue reading. That doesn’t mean you need a cliffhanger in every chapter, but it does mean that some question, action, motivation, plot point, or dilemma should remain unresolved, or at least suggested. If the action has reached a point for a logical pause, hint at what is going to happen next.

If your book is nonfiction, it helps to give readers “way-finders” that suggest how the next chapter is related to the one or ones that have gone before. If you have given some thought to the order in which you present information, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Re-ordering the chapters may be necessary, though.

Congratulations! You have now finished your first draft and produced a second. If you are writing a blog post, article, essay, or other short piece, you may be done. In fact, you may have produced a third or even fourth draft, depending on the length and needs of your manuscript. It’s very difficult to perform all the self-editing techniques in a single pass. The general rule is content edit first, then copy edit, and finally proofread.

Professional editing. Self-editing may be sufficient if what you are writing is a blog post, essay, or other short, less formal piece. But what if you have written a book? In that case, a professional edit is advisable.

Make no mistake: If it is going to be published, your manuscript will be reviewed, judged, and perhaps altered by at least one editor. (For books, the editor may suggest edits and you can then play a game of chess by email as you work out the details.)

But should you hire a professional editor to examine your manuscript before you submit it to an agent or publisher? It’s a really good idea.

For a blog post or short article, you may be able to find among your friends an English major or experienced blogger who will give your manuscript at least a quick once-over. For longer works, you will likely need a professional. And you will have to pay this person (by the page or by the project) to give your work a thorough, comprehensive edit. Since you’re going to be dealing with a professional and spending money, you may want to check the editor’s references first.

If you self-edit, you can argue with yourself all you want over details and potential fixes. If you’ve hired a professional, don’t argue. Just say, “Thank you” and pay the fee. Then decide which of the suggested edits you want to implement. Think carefully. You hired this editor for a reason. If you are too attached to your original manuscript and your immortal, golden prose, you might as well have not bothered and saved yourself the fee.

Ideally, a combination of self-editing and professional editing will produce the best, most marketable manuscript possible. But if you decide to go it alone, don’t skimp on the self-editing. Build time in your writing schedule for a thorough, objective look at what you’ve written. You will produce a better manuscript and be more likely to meet your publishing goals, whether you are looking for increased readership for your blog or an actual published book in your hands.

Muse Blues

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a question most writers have heard. And struggled to answer.

Those of us with blogs or columns get our ideas from daily life – family, news, travel, and what’s going on in the world around us. For example, I’ve written about ratatouille, possums, education, books, toilets, advertising, bipolar disorder, ghost towns, grocery shopping, and feminism, to name a few. Subject-specific blogs get their ideas from (duh!) the subject matter – recipes, medical conditions, politics, or whatever.

But sometimes the muse eludes us. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. That’s when you know what you’re writing about, maybe have even made a start at it, but hit a blank wall. This is the blank sheet of paper phenomenon, or Creative processthese days, blank screen. It gapes. It mocks. It snickers. It yawns. You rack your brain for amusing anecdotes, clever observations, strong opinions – anything at all worth writing about.

We’ve all been there.

But what can we do about it?

First of all, do not ask any friends or relatives, “What should I write about?” Ninety-nine times out of hundred you will get either “I dunno” or something exceedingly lame. That’s why you’re a writer and they’re not. Don’t ask a writer friend either. You don’t want to take an idea that she or he might want to use later.

Look at pictures. These can be snapshots of yourself, nature photos in National Geographic, or other sources. I belong to a photo service that I use to find the illustrations that accompany my blogs. Sometimes I browse through them and see if something strikes me. Mystery writer Sue Grafton even goes to secondhand shops and buys old photos from other people’s abandoned shoeboxes. It worked for Ransom Riggs, too.

Go somewhere. Really, you’ve looked at all the stuff in your house a million times and it’s just not speaking to you any more. Walks in nature often work for Thoreau-types. People-watching in malls and cafés (and, frankly, eavesdropping) can work too. Go to your basement or attic and see if that stirs memories as well as dust.

Read. Read a novel. Read the newspaper. Read your Facebook newsfeed. Someone else’s thoughts can trigger your own. Agree, disagree, explain, apply something to your own situation or town or friends. Read your old blog posts. Maybe you’ve changed your opinion, found a better recipe, or seen a follow-up news story. “Bathroom books” full of trivia and weird facts are good for topics to explore further.

Do research. This is for the truly desperate. You’ve spent all that time staring at a blank screen, and there’s not much left before your actual or self-imposed deadline (if you have one). Treat your topic like you would a research paper in high school or college. How many for-profit prisons are there in the U.S.? Are we the only country that has them? What about the time an elephant was electrocuted? What was up with that? How many raisins are in a box of Raisin Bran? Calculate the size of a “scoop.” (Okay, that was a dumb idea, but you get the gist.)

Google writing prompts can be fun too. Simply enter your name and a verb in the search box and see what Google suggests. One that I got was “Janet has a secret daughter.” Topic: If I did have a secret daughter, what would I want her to know about me? Other prompts: Janet shoulda known better. Janet is a party pooper. Janet loves jewelry. I could write 650 words on any of those.

If you’re getting down to your deadline and nothing else has worked, there are two more solutions. One is to ask one of your blogging buddies to do a guest post. The guest doesn’t even have to write something new for the occasion – an old post from his or her blog will be new to your readers. Then later, you may be able to return the favor and write a guest post, expanding your readership.

The other last-ditch option is to re-post something you wrote when you were first starting out. Maybe you had 50 readers then and 600 now. That means that most of them won’t have seen the piece. And some of them hold up quite well, or will with just a few tweaks.

And once you’ve chased down your muse and found something to write, don’t let her get away again. Write down good titles or one-line drafts. Save the URLs of interesting news stories. Keep digging in that attic, or whatever worked for you this time. Or try a different suggestion.

If all else fails, take Hemingway’s advice: Write drunk. Edit sober.