Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reading Like A Writer

Whether you write novels, memoir or short stories, one thing that can help you improve your writing is to learn how to read like a writer.

After many years of writing, teaching and developmental editing, I no longer read for pleasure. Instead I read like a writer, which I find more fun than the old way I used to read.

So what does it mean to read like a writer? This is when you read in order to critique. And when we say critique, we aren’t talking about whether you’re liking something or not. It’s all about analyzing and dissecting what’s on the page. The goal is to unlock the secret of what the writer is doing successfully and turn the book you’re reading into a sort of textbook of creative writing. Analyzing stories in this way is a skill that you can develop if you’re motivated. And the next step after recognizing these inner workings in the writing is to try and apply them to your own work.

This isn’t stealing or copying from a writer—this is learning.

Reading like a writer is sometimes referred to as a close read. You’re mainly focusing on answering the question, “What is the writer doing here?” You’re digging deep and noticing all kinds of things, including:

~ How much time the story covers
~ How the timeline is employed
~ How many chapters there are

~ How chapters begin
~ How chapters end

~ Style
~ Diction
~ Where scenes are taking place

~ How the story begins
~ How the story ends
~ Paragraph breaks
~ Techniques used
~ How characters are depicted
~ How exposition is handled
~ How suspense is employed
~ Pacing
~ Point of View
~ Parallel stories and subplots

and much more.

I also do this when I’m watching a TV show or movie. If I’m losing interest, I try to figure out why. Usually it means there’s some kind of inherent weakness in the story or in the protagonist’s motivation, which causes a disconnect. It’s useful to try and think of how you’d fix a film to make it better or perhaps marvel at how well it’s working on all levels. This actually enhances the pleasure and entertainment factor for me. And the fact that I’m usually learning something new or getting validation about something I already know is a bonus.

So try it the next time you read a book or watch a film. In future blogs posts I’ll give specific examples of what to look for with passages from novels as examples.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Giving Your Critique Group an Overhaul

I’ve been in a number of writing workshops and critique groups (and have led some as well) and, in general, I think they’re valuable for getting feedback on your writing. We all need constructive comments and suggestions at some point as well as moral support, and a good group can provide this. Sometimes you might outgrow your critique group or find that the members become less and less objective about your work the more they get to know you personally. And of course there can always be growing pains where writing levels among members end up differing dramatically.

If things aren’t going so well in your writing workshop or critique group, or if it’s just at a standstill or kind of stuck in the mud, here are some possible changes to consider that might shake things up for the better.

~ Regularly Scheduled Meetings – Employing a definite schedule will go a long way in taking your writing and all members’ writing seriously. It will also help with writing discipline since members will commit to submitting their pages by a certain date and use that as a deadline.

~ Regular Attendance – Members who often skip meetings or pull out from submitting their writing at the last minute can put a damper on the group’s morale. Make sure all participants are on the same wavelength and replace those who aren’t dedicated or share the group’s vision.

~ Arriving Early – Set the time of the meeting and make sure that when it begins it will start with the manuscript critiques. If people want to socialize first, have them come thirty or so minutes earlier for chit-chat and catching up.

~ Read Manuscripts Ahead of Time – I’ve heard of some groups where participants bring in 10 pages or so and read them out loud and then get “instant feedback” from the group. In my last blog post I celebrated the art of reading your work aloud, but that was in the context of self-editing and revision. I don’t know about you, but I have a very hard time articulating much useful feedback when I’ve only heard something for the first time and haven’t read it on the page. Since most of us are looking to have our work read on the page by agents, editors and general readers, I think it makes sense to submit work ahead of time so members can read (and re-read) and think hard about what they want to say, and then write comments on the hard copy. Another good practice is to have everyone write a cover sheet attached to the manuscript that offers a summary of general reactions to the piece.

~ Select a Leader – This can be a person who is the ongoing leader or someone who can be changed at each meeting. Meetings will be more focused and will run smoothly if there’s a person in charge who can pay attention to the time and cut off discussion if need be in order to move things along.

~ Organizing the Verbal Feedback - Consider having the leader begin the group with each participant giving their general reactions from what they’ve written on their cover sheet. After that’s done, the leader can then lead the group in a page-by-page analysis. An example could be:

Leader: Who wants to comment on page one?
Greg: The opening paragraph really hooked me with the protagonist’s strong voice and the issue she was grappling with.
Melinda: I liked the opening too, but I was confused as to who was talking when the dialog started in the fourth paragraph.
Leader: Anyone else agree or disagree with that?
Riley: Yes, I was confused as well.
Leader: Anyone else? Ok, let’s move on to page two.

This type of approach is more efficient than a freewheeling style. It’s also specific, which will probably resonate more with the author and hopefully will avoid pointless digressions.

Author Silence – I think it’s important to make sure that the author of the piece does not respond to any of the feedback until after everyone has finished giving his or her reactions. The writer can take notes while this is going on and then ask questions afterwards or offer clarification of unclear areas. An author “arguing” back or wanting to explain things or make a point in the moment will only bog down a meeting. And sometimes things can go so downhill that they will never recover.

When a critique group is working well, the writers will be inspired to go home and write more and look forward to the next meeting. In your critique groups and workshops strive to create an atmosphere where everyone can take themselves seriously as writers, enjoy the process and sincerely help each other.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Improve Your Writing By Reading Your Work Out Loud

I’m always surprised at how many writers, both novice and experienced, confess that they never read their work out loud. They say it’s embarrassing or a waste of time or that they don’t like the sound of their own voice. But whether you’re working on an essay, a short story or book-length work, this can be one of the most helpful methods of self-editing. It doesn’t cost a thing and is a highly instructive exercise.

Reading your writing out loud can uncover the smallest errors on up to major plot point issues. It can also improve your rhythm and pacing and make you aware of wordiness and over-writing. And if you stumble or skip over a passage while you’re reading, chances are it needs rewriting or perhaps cutting out altogether. You may even discover things about your characters that will help you flesh them out in revision. Try using different voices for different characters. Imitate what you’ve heard on a great audio book. Have fun with it!

You can also try recording your voice and listening back or reading out loud to someone else. Or have someone else read your work to you (but make sure they’re a decent reader!).

Here’s a list of just some of the things you’ll be attuned to when you read your work out loud:

~ using the same word(s) in close proximity
~ stilted or unnecessary dialog
~ boring or dead descriptions
~ incorrect use of words (“illicit” when you meant “elicit,” or “inherit” when you meant “inherent”)
~ awkward language
~ calling a character the wrong name
~ plot holes
~ dropped characters
~ places where you don’t provide info
~ places where you provide too much info
~ overuse of the same style of sentence
~ discovery of your “pet” words and phrases
~ inconsistent or “head-hopping” points of view
~ scenes that tend to take place in the same type of surroundings (e.g., restaurants, coffee houses, etc.)
~ characters talking in similar styles

and more.

If you find that you’re making edits on your hard copy (or on the computer) while you’re reading out loud, you’ll know that it’s working.

Give it a shot!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Being a Good Literary Citizen

Readers as well as aspiring and even experienced writers are often eager to be a part of the literary world, but might not realize exactly how they can contribute and support their favorite authors. Yet there are a number of ways to participate in a literary community. Think there’s not much you can do or that you’re too busy? Here are some practical ways to pay it forward and be a good literary citizen.

~ Use the “Like” Button on Facebook – It’s so easy to click on “like” on a Facebook post and it takes very little time out of your busy day. The more likes a post receives, the more traction it gets, and the more people will see it. So if your favorite author or a fellow writer has posted a blog post, some news about a new book or a reading, just click “like.” And clicking like doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you literally like something or “endorse” it. It can also just mean: I’m here, supporting you.

~ Favoriting and RT’ing on Twitter – In the same vein, you can easily select to make a post a favorite on Twitter. It only takes a second. Retweeting an author’s tweet is also an easy way to show your support without having to take the time to come up with your own tweet. And you can even retweet a writer’s tweet about another writer. The possibilities are endless and the time it takes is minimal.

~ Attend a Reading (But It’s Ok To Not Attend Every Reading) – There’s a lot of pressure on writers to support fellow writers by attending readings at bookstores, literary festivals, events, etc. And we writers do appreciate anyone and everyone who shows up. But sometimes we’re just overwhelmed with work and life or, frankly, just burnt out on literary events and can’t make that one more trek to the big book launch party. But you can still buy the author’s book. Or you can try making it to an event that’s later on down the line after the book’s been out awhile; the one at the venue that might not attract as many people, or at the odd time of day, the one on a rainy night at Christmas time when everyone’s too busy. The writer will surely appreciate this.

~ Take Photos – And if you do attend a reading or event, take some photos of the writer in action and post them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or your social media of choice. It’s another easy thing to do. You might not have time to write a book review or blog an interview, but this can give an author another valuable boost.

~ Buy the Book – Yes, buy the book if at all possible, but don’t buy it at a used bookstore—the author will get nothing out of that. And avoid borrowing the book from a friend or loaning your copy to your mom. Encourage people to buy their own copies to support the writer. If you can’t buy the book, request your library to stock it and check it out there. And if you can purchase the book, ask the writer what type of purchase will most benefit her. Yes, we want to support independent bookstores, but perhaps buying off the publisher’s online store (in the case of small and independent publishers, for example) might be more helpful in certain cases. Or if Amazon rankings are vitally important, it might be best to purchase the book there. Or buy a copy at a book signing at Costco. You never know. Ask the author what will help her the most.

~ Don’t Feel Guilty – We all get overwhelmed from time to time and have to take the time to care of ourselves. Don’t feel guilty if you just don’t have the time, money, energy, etc. If you can’t manage that blurb, tell the writer quickly so she won’t get her hopes raised. Give her a nice shout-out on social media instead. Don’t feel people are judging you or that you aren’t a good enough literary citizen. We’re all doing the best that we can and that’s what counts.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

5 Questions to Ask About Your Book’s Beginning

So you’ve finished the first draft of your novel or memoir—congratulations! Now you’re on the road to revision and you need to ask yourself some hard and pointed questions. Of course a good place to start the analysis of your manuscript is at the beginning. Your book’s opening pages are the place where you make a contract with your reader. You’ll want to draw her in and keep her reading. And if this reader is also an agent, making the best impression you can is even more important.

Ask yourself the following questions and make some notes on your manuscript. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a hard copy or Scrivener or something in between—use what feels the most comfortable.

1 - Are you spending too much time warming up?

A lot of newer writers feel they must set the scene and prepare the reader for what’s to follow. Or they think that they need to warm up with a long description of the trees dotting the mountaintops and the clouds billowing in the sky before getting to the action. Am I saying that you can’t have some description in your beginning? Nope. But you need to get things moving—to not waste any time in getting to the interesting part of your story.
You don’t want to put your reader to sleep. Now there are some writers who are so skilled at their craft that they could make the dullest environmental impact statement riveting. I am not one of them and neither, probably, are you. So think about dispensing with the dull and irrelevant bits and don’t hesitate to get to the point. You can always fill in other details later if necessary. Show the action first and explain later.

2 - Is There An Inciting Incident or Triggering Event?

This is the interesting part (see above). A lot of time this will have to do with something that happens to your protagonist, not necessarily something he is actively pursuing. It can be, for example, when the dead body is discovered or when the protagonist receives an invitation to her college reunion or when a father receives a call that his son has just been arrested. The inciting incident or triggering event usually signals that the stability of the protagonist’s world is in jeopardy. Remember the Teletubbies? When something happened that wasn’t quite right, little Po was sure to say, “Uh-oh.” Make sure your beginning has an “uh-oh” moment or two.

3 – Is There Too Much Backstory?

Sometimes critique group members might complain that they want to know more about your protagonist. This can be a legitimate concern, but the trick is to not be bogged down in the beginning with lengthy explanations about the character’s background. If you can pull off a riveting opening and show your character in action with a problem at hand, you’ll find that readers will be patient enough to wait for more details that will fill in the blanks. You should be evoking the feeling that they’re in good hands with you as a writer, that you will be taking care of them in due time.

4 – Why Should the Reader Care?

A reader wants to feel that he is getting somewhere as he reads and not just experiencing a series of random events without any cause and effect. You should be evoking a feeling of forward momentum and emotional energy and urgency, and this is whether you’re writing a coming of age journey, a tale of suspense, or a love story. Of course not everything needs to be revealed immediately, but your reader needs to feel rest assured that there is a point to all of this and that it’s worth his while to keep going with your book. It’s a big question and it bears repeating: Why should the reader care?

 5 – Is That Prologue Really Necessary?

Yes, there are certain genres where it seems to be de rigueur that you start with a prologue. But often prologues can be red flags to agents. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they can simply be construed as a filling in of a plot point that should be employed elsewhere or not at all—or trying to fix a plot hole. Or giving a point of view of a mystery character who we don’t end up hearing from until 200 pages later and by then he’s long forgotten. And readers often skip prologues anyway. Think outside the box and see if you can’t employ your prologue’s information in another way or dispense with it altogether. Ask yourself objectively what it truly adds to your book.

Monday, April 25, 2016

14 Books That Can Help You Become a Better Writer

Back in the day when I was a budding novelist dying to get an agent and get published, I was always looking for the ANSWER. What did I need to do in order to write the best novel I could, the one that would finally get me an offer from an agent for representation and then get a book deal? What did I still have to learn? There had to be some secret that everyone else who’d gotten published (seemingly all my writer friends except me) seemed to know that I wasn’t privy to. Because I sure as hell wasn’t getting anywhere.

So I embarked on a journey of learning. Of critique groups, workshops, developmental editors, writing teachers, writers conferences, online networking, writing contests. And I read books on how to write fiction.

What a journey it’s been. By now I’m a published novelist. I have an MFA in Creative Writing and teach classes on how to write novels. I have my own manuscript consultation practice where I help authors make their novels and memoirs become the best they can be, and some clients have even seen their publishing dreams come true. This past February I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference as a panelist and moderator of several panels about writing and editing. I also acted as a consultant, where attendees could make an 8-minute appointment with me to pick my brain about their query letter, pitch, opening to their novel—whatever they needed. Frankly, I’m thrilled to be at this stage of my wild and crazy journey and being able to help writers.

No, there is no magic ANSWER and there’s no shortcut to writing a good novel. But there is all kinds of help out there if you know where to look for it. And while books on writing aren’t a panacea and there are no perfect ones, they can really help and inspire you as well.

So here’s a list that I share with my students. Some of these books have helped me personally, and some I know have helped other writers. Some are strictly about the craft of fiction, while others serve the purpose to inspire. Check them out and see which might resonate with you.

The Making of A Story – Alice LaPlante (highly recommended)
Beginnings, Middles and Ends – Nancy Kress
Fiction First Aid – Raymond Obstfeld
The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors – Catherine Wald
Writing the Breakout Novel – Donald Maass
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction – Stephen Koch (highly recommended)
Conflict and Suspense – by James Scott Bell
The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile – Noah Lukeman
Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go – Les Edgerton
Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction – Edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life – Dani Shapiro
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott (highly recommended)
Revising and Self-Editing for Publication – James Scott Bell