Tag Archives: editing

Meeting With a Publisher

The other week, I met with a local editor/publisher, David Braughler of Braughler Books, to pick his brains about the publishing industry and how I could find someone to take on my recently self-published books. (It’s a long story. See https://wp.me/p4e9wS-118.) This was suggested to me by a friend from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which I attended a few years back. Actually, I had met Mr. Braughler at that workshop, too, but only spent ten minutes talking to him.

So, here’s what I learned about meeting with a publisher.

First, it’s necessary to dither (at least for me, it is). I wanted to make a good impression, so I had to overplan every aspect of the situation. Where was the Starbucks we were supposed to meet at? What should I order? Would I even know how to order from their arcane menu, this being my first time at any Starbucks? Honey Citrus Mint Tea? Short Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate with 2% Milk? And OMG, what should I wear?

The next thing I discovered was that I needed to be prepared (yes, I was a Girl Scout). I rounded up copies of my two books. I got a small notebook to record any suggestions and placed it in my purse. I acquired a small thumb drive and loaded my work in progress on it, just in case. (I was going to ask for advice about that, too.)

And I followed the publishing company on Facebook and checked out the company online – how long they’d been in business, how many books they’d published, testimonials from satisfied authors, etc. Best to be able to ask a few intelligent questions or make knowledgeable remarks.

Then I started the conversation. What I most wanted to know about was promotion and marketing. I made a list of all the things I had done to promote my first book and ideas I had for the second book. Mr. Braughler validated the things I had done for the first book (a reading/signing, postings on Facebook) and some additional ones I had done or planned for the second book (an ad on Jenny Lawson’s blog page, since our audiences overlap) and an email to an author I know whose WIP is in the same genre as mine. (I never got a chance to give my WIP to Mr. Braughler, but I did give him copies of my two published books.)

I paid attention and made notes. I wrote down the info about the local authors’ day. I made notes on how to convert Word files to Mobi or to convert Kindle to Mobi (the software is free at Amazon) in case I wanted to take advantage of Amazon’s services in order to resurrect my first book, which was going out of print. I asked about Kirkus Reviews and received a suggestion about getting free reviews in writers’ or subject matter newsletters. He told me about a local library that has monthly author days and a local university that has a free workshop.

I followed up. I called the library and booked a date to participate in the local author day (assuming the libraries will be open again in May), and noted their suggestion that I get signage and a credit card reader for the occasion. I wrote to the author about my WIP and received a nice email back. I went ahead with the Jenny Lawson ad and am still debating the Kirkus  Review and an IngramSpark ad. I connected with alumni newsletters from my alma mater.

I evaluated what I learned. Mr. Braughler told me I was doing many of the right things when it came to promoting my books. I discarded the idea about producing a Kindle edition because of all the software hassle and went with IngramSpark to get my second book published and my first back in circulation. I learned that I should keep doing what I had been doing, only more of it.

I am grateful to Mr. Braughler for taking the time to talk to a local author and found the 30-minute conversation very informative and helpful. If in the future I need the services of a hybrid publisher, I shall certainly go to him. In the meantime, I will do my best to put into practice his wise suggestions and hope they will help my books, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, go viral.

Don’t Mention It

Headline writers – love ’em or hate ’em. Sometimes they write hilarious headlines (though usually unintentionally) like “Murder victims seldom talk to police.” Those are the ones that make me laugh.

Then there are the ones that piss me off – the ones where the headline writer (usually not the same person that wrote the story) feels compelled to tell the world a woman’s reproductive status as if it were vital to the story. You know the ones I mean:

Grandmother locks intruder in basement

Mother of three wins science prize

Mom of the Year saved from serial killer

In each of these cases, the news is that someone foiled an intruder, won a prize, or escaped a terrible fate. If you must say it was a woman, which may or may not be relevant to the story, at least leave out whether she has managed to reproduce.

“Grandmother” headlines usually indicate that an older woman accomplished something. What do they put if she’s not a grandmother? That’s right, they focus on her age. “75-year-old woman locks intruder in basement.” I say, pick one. Either “75-year-old locks intruder in basement” or “Woman locks intruder in basement.” That’s enough information to make me want to read the story.

Or use a sex-neutral term: “Professor won science prize.” “Kettering resident locks intruder in basement.” “Intended victim saved from serial killer.” And think about it. You never see a headline that says “Father of three runs for city council.”  Deep down, the writers know that reproductive status is irrelevant to the story – as long as it’s a man who’s done something worth mentioning.

I also despise what is known as “inspiration porn” – those stories that tell how some brave boy invites a disabled girl to the prom. There’s always a photo so we can see that she uses a wheelchair, or has Down’s Syndrome, or something. We all applaud the boy for being so courageous and understanding.

These stories, while they may be meant to demonstrate that a person with a disability can still “live a normal life,” actually stress that it is rare enough an event for it to be news. The boy is the hero of the story, with the girl merely a prop for his altruistic nature. He’s seen as doing good by asking an “otherwise-undateable” partner to the dance. Frankly, I’d be embarrassed to be singled out in the news as either one of the couple.

Then there was Chopped, which I watched the other night. One of the guest judges had a prosthetic hand, a hook sort of arrangement. I was so pleased to see that no one even mentioned it, as it was not relevant to whether the man had a discerning palate.

Eventually, it was mentioned – by the man himself – during a discussion of harvesting stinging nettles. (He said that when foraging for them, he “used the hook.”) At that point, one of the other judges asked about it, respectfully, “if you don’t mind sharing,” and the guest judge told how he lost his lower arm to electrocution and should have died. I give all the Chopped team credit for carrying on as usual. Until and unless the man brought up the subject himself, I doubted that anyone would have said a word.

True, judge Chris Santos might have refrained from asking about the disability even then, but at least he had a legitimate opening. And once asked, the gentleman couldn’t easily back out of acknowledging his difference and answering the question on TV. But it was handled with a modicum of sense and sensibility.

It’s also worth mentioning that Guy Fieri often introduces contestants on his Food Network game show as a “father of twin girls” or “dad to five children” as often as he refers to mothers and their kids. American Ninja Warriors also announces the reproductive status of its participants, usually in heartwarming featurettes about Dad training with his kids.

I know “grandmother” stories are thought to be more interesting. I know that prom stories make people feel warm and fuzzy. I know that. But they also reduce people to stereotypes – a mom, a person with a disability. Maybe someday these aspects will not be deemed newsworthy, but until then such stories (or at least headlines) will continue to be written.

 

 

Hyphens and Help

So, I was an editor, but I was not the editor. There were editors over me – way too many of them. The company I worked for published several magazines and each one had an editor. I worked on all the publications and for all the editors. Sometimes I felt like I was a bone, with a pack of dogs fighting over me.

Then there was the executive editor, nominally in charge of all the other editors and a really great boss. He was a pleasure to work for.

There were other employees that I had to please as well – art directors, production managers, the Big Boss, and any number of others. It was a balancing act, or more likely, a juggling act. But I thought I had mastered it.

One day, one of the publication editors decided to take a completely new approach to the hyphenation of adjectives. She was a little old lady, well known for sending in manuscripts hand-written on cash register receipts and soap wrappers. Still, she was the founding editor of that particular magazine and she knew the content, the authors, and the industry better than anyone alive.

But there was the hyphenation. It was idiosyncratic and defied all rules of grammar and punctuation that I knew. Nor was it the first time that this editor had gone off on a stylistic tangent. I had memories of the times she had insisted that her odd notions of punctuation and grammar be adhered to.

The first person I saw after the hyphenation edict came down was the production manager. I ranted. I explained exactly how weird her system of hyphenation was. I told him what was wrong with it and why the way we had been doing it was perfectly fine.

“Well, you’ve got to consider that she’s 100 years old,” he said. (She wasn’t quite, but close.) “She’s set in her ways. She’s used to being in charge.” With every word, he expressed how unreasonable it was for me to be upset and how I ought to give in to her notions of proper punctuation. “Let her have her way,” he advised.

I left his desk deeply unsatisfied. Then I went to the executive editor. I went through the same spiel – the magazine editor, the “novel” method of hyphenation, what a hassle it would be, and how ridiculous it would look.

“Tch, tch,” he said.  “Isn’t that awful?” He said it without a trace of irony or condescension. I truly felt that he had heard me and sympathized.

And that was all I really wanted. I didn’t need explanations of why the batty editor had come up with this idea. I didn’t need ways to cope with her insane notions. I didn’t need to learn how to acquiesce gracefully to her punctuation regime.

What I needed was someone to understand.

It’s like that sometimes. There are times when you need advice and there are times when you just need to vent. It is the wise boss – or friend or spouse – who can recognize which time is which.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise,” and that’s the truth. Sometimes advice is unwanted; sometimes it’s unneeded; sometimes it’s intrusive.

I’ve noticed that men often have an immediate response that when something is complained about, it needs to be fixed, so they offer advice. (This is not always true. The executive boss who listened to my rant was male and he never proffered a single suggestion. But my husband, who has a “fix-it” complex, took time to learn this lesson.)

So did I, when it comes right down to it. I have friends who have lots of problems (and who doesn’t). Many times I tried to give advice to one of them or offer solutions to her problems, but they always met with stubborn explanations of why they couldn’t possibly work. Now I simply offer sympathy and a willing ear and I think we are both more content. She has a sounding board and I don’t sound like a know-it-all.

It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially for those of us raised on Ann Landers and Dear Abby. Sometimes advice is not what’s needed. Sometimes it’s just a little understanding.

 

 

Getting Closer to a Real Book

book chapter six
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I’ve written before about publishing a book and how amazing it feels to get a response to a query from a publisher, a request for a complete manuscript, and an author contract.

There are even more joys to come, big things that make your book more and more real and smaller things that make you grin. Here are some of mine.

Being assigned an editor. Another person is now actually working on your book, helping to make it into something real and better.

Working with said editor. I’ve been an editor myself and know what it is like. It can be a game like chess by mail (or email, in this case). Your editor – in my case Aaron Smith from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – sends you a tracked manuscript with suggested changes and you accept them or not.

For my book, the great majority of editorial changes were right on, particularly in the matter of punctuation. I have a tendency to overuse commas, parens, and dashes. These are things that feel like my natural voice in writing but aren’t necessary or even correct. Aaron also helped me see where my writing needed to be fleshed out and where links to other sites were superfluous. Only one round of back-and-forth was needed before we both were satisfied.

Getting an ISBN number and barcode. If you’ve ever looked at the back of a real book, one you’ve bought at a store, you’ll notice the ISBN number and the barcode. The barcode, of course, allows someone to know the price and pay for the book. The ISBN number is what tells you you’re got a real book. Here’s an explanation from the International ISBN Agency: “An ISBN is essentially a product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition and format.” A real book!

The cover process. I understand that with large book publishers you simply take what you are given. My small, indie publisher, however, sent me a copy of what they came up with and allowed me to comment on it. It’s nice to be asked. They even gave me a do-over and a new designer when I didn’t like the first version.

The galleys. Or in this case, a copy of the documents laid out in spreads, like the open pages of the book it will be. I reminded the publisher that I wanted a dedication to my husband, suggested a way to make the table of contents a bit clearer, and pointed out when one essay title was in the wrong font. I don’t know if there will be final galleys after this, but if there are, I will read them thoroughly and promptly.

The bound books. I am not yet up to the point of this ultimate thrill, but I anticipate it with great incipient glee. When the box of 25 books arrives on my doorstep, I will, after my husband picks it up and brings it inside, rip it open, make high-pitched sounds of delight, and insist that many photos be taken of me posing with the books and in my Eliezer Tristan Publishing t-shirt and signing a book for Dan.

Then I will get to decide who gets an autographed copy and who has to wait for it to come to a bookstore near them.

The launch party. This is still theoretical at the moment, as I can’t afford to throw an actual party. Perhaps a local bookstore or library will let me do a reading and I can call that a launch party. Or maybe my friend Tom, who does online concerts, can coach me through an online launch.

The t-shirt. Completely optional. But my husband has said that he will take an image of the cover and have it printed on a t-shirt for us both to wear. Maybe we can call it advertising and take it off our taxes.

Then I can get to the really important stuff – promoting my book and selling it, which the publishers will also be doing. It takes a real book to be able to do that.

A Different Kind of Freelance Gig

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Most people think of freelance work as writing, or sometimes editing or proofreading. Those were the kind of gigs I myself had – editing magazines and video scripts, writing nonfiction articles and children’s stories, proofreading master’s or doctoral theses. And that was the kind of assignment I had been applying for when I suddenly fell into a different kind of freelance gig: transcription.

I was sucked into this new kind of work by applying for one of my old standards: proofreading. I did a telephone interview and the interviewer assured me that I was way overqualified, which I knew. At this point in my life, I’m overqualified for everything, except for those things for which I’m underqualified or not qualified at all.

The work was repetitive and boring, she said, sporadic and unpredictable. Some weeks there would be lots to do and others very little. I assured her that at this point in my life, that was exactly the kind of work I was looking for – not high stress, with irregular hours so I could work in some other assignments, go to appointments, or even nap. Also, I have bipolar disorder, which usually prevents me from working a standard 9-to-5 job out in the workplace. (I didn’t mention that in the interview.)

I also asked the interviewer that if any of the other successful candidates washed out, to please consider me as a replacement. It sounded like the sort of job that someone might start and then hate.

Whether it was my willingness to work beneath my skill set at odd hours or my willingness to fill in, I was accepted. To work for the transcription service I would need to purchase a certain type of foot pedal for controlling the recordings and a certain piece of software. I didn’t object, as I figured I could take them off my taxes, but I could see how reluctance to do that might indeed weed out candidates, thereby making more room for me.

What I learned is that proofing transcripts is indeed boring but relatively quick and very low-paying. So quick and low-paying, in fact, that it was hardly worth my time.

Then they got into a bind and ask me if I wanted to move up to transcriptionist.

I had to give this some serious thought. You see, the problem is that I can’t type. Oh, I type well enough to type articles, stories, and other freelance writing assignments, but I have never actually in my life taken a typing course and learned to type (excuse me, keyboard) with all ten fingers. When I was in high school a hundred years ago, typing was offered only in the secretarial track and I was solidly in the academic track. Never mind that when I got into college as an English major, I discovered exactly how many papers I would have to write and to type. And of course, I couldn’t afford to have someone else do it for me.

So all these years I’ve been faking it. But could I fake typing well enough to be a transcriptionist? I said I’d try, on the condition that I could drop back to proofreader if I wanted to.

Transcription, it turns out, is boring. A lot of business meetings that I would never want to attend. Lawyers’ consultations in which most of the lawyers mumble and most of the clients cry. Recordings that skip. Voices that are indiscernible. Financial jargon that I don’t recognize.

But making the transcripts paid much better than proofing the transcripts and since it was remote work nobody could see how unconventionally I typed. As long as I hit my deadlines, they didn’t care. I moved up from part-time transcriptionist to full time. It’s not a career, but a few hundred bucks a month sure is welcome and I still have time to work on these blogs and my mystery novel.

It’s not the part-time gig I would have imagined myself in, but it beats driving for Uber.

 

Beating the Rejection Slip

focus photo of yellow paper near trash can
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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

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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.

 

 

 

Editing: How to Cut Your Golden Prose

Sometimes it’s necessary to cut your copy. Say you’re entering a contest, but your piece is over the word limit. Or you’re repurposing an article for a different market, which requires a lower word count. What do you do?

You cut, no matter how painful it is. It will still be quicker than writing entirely new copy. And you’ll actually improve your writing as you do it.

I offer a few examples from pieces I’ve had to rework, one about a cat that went from 936 to 586 words; and one on bipolar disorder which needed to get from 1624 words to under 1000.

Here are two techniques for shortening a piece of writing. (Likely they will lead you to some rearrangement as well.)

The Surgical Method 

Clip and snip unnecessary words. Tighten up the writing, which is always a good thing. Say it succinctly.

Take this sentence:

The cat froze, waiting to see what came next.

Now tighten it up:

The cat froze, waiting.

You’ll never miss those extra words. Or how about this:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek tri-colored fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds that spoke of invitation.

It becomes:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds of invitation.

Earlier in the piece it was established that the cat was a calico, so “tri-colored” is unnecessary. “That spoke of” may sound nice, but do you need those words? Out they go.

Here’s one rewritten paragraph that saved 20 words:

“Calicos are almost always female. They need two X chromosomes to get that color pattern.” I knew I was being pedantic, but I wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. Our big gray and white cat Django had died not long before, and I wasn’t ready to give my heart to another feline companion.

became:

“Calicos are almost always female.” She wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. The big gray and white cat had died not long before, and she wasn’t ready to give her heart to another.

Admittedly, surgical cuts gain you only a few words. But enough of them can make a difference, especially when combined with the next technique.

The Samurai Method

This involves cutting whole sentences and even whole paragraphs. Look closely at the first and last paragraphs. Is there a punchier beginning a paragraph in? Did you stop when you should have? In this piece on bipolar disorder, I cut three paragraphs at the end. They represented nothing more than fumbling for a pseudo-profound conclusion.

Or take this monster paragraph:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication, to say the least. My envy lasted through her ambitious plans to make identical green velvet Christmas dresses for her three daughters. And vanished when I saw her tear them apart, recut them, start over, change her mind multiple times. You can write the ending to this one. There were no dresses, not by Christmas and not ever. Kate was riding the roller coaster – perhaps the most common metaphor for bipolar disorder – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end.

And look how much tidier it became:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication. Kate was riding the roller coaster – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end. With all that, Kate never got anything done.

Yes, I lost a nice anecdote. But was it essential? Not when I had to lose more than 600 words.

This paragraph disappeared entirely:

I had heard how in the 1950s electroshock was used as a way to punish or control unruly, uncooperative, nonconforming women. And of course everyone knew about the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Snake Pit. As far as I was concerned, electroshock was right up (or down) there with icepick lobotomy, the frighteningly efficient epitome of former psychiatric treatments.

It was off the topic.

Here’s another case of too many details:

Those years are mostly a blur to me now. I remember sleeping a lot. I remember sitting on the sofa watching “reality” shows so I could see people whose lives were train wrecks worse than mine. I recall not having the wherewithal to add water and nuke a cup of macaroni and cheese. Not bathing. Not feeding the pets. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

This is much tighter and just as effective.

Those years are mostly a blur now and were immobilizing then. I remember sleeping a lot. Not bathing. Not eating. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

 

Cutting your own prose is seldom fun. But sometimes you just have to – and sometimes you even want to. Even famous books could have stood a little trimming. Just read some Victor Hugo or the first chapters of Ivanhoe if you don’t believe me.