#amlearning and #amsharing

The bathtub at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, otherwise known as my favorite place in the world.  I have not yet figured out how to take a bath in this old clawfoot tub, but I did manage to decorate it with a fluffy towel and a bar of Writer’s Block soap.
The past few months have been slow from a writing perspective, but huge from a learning perspective.  I had my eight week apocalyptic fiction class followed by a two week LitFest: both hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  In one of my workshops, my instructor, Rachel Weaver, gave me words to salve my guilt for not writing much lately when she suggested we think of the writing process as seasonal:  imagining, writing, editing, learning, and (someday) publishing.  If all you do is sit down and write, write, write you actually will never publish anything.  There are other seasons.  So here on the solstice of my learning season I wanted to share with you readers some of the most thought provoking lessons of the past 12 weeks.

Finding Scriptures

Jennifer Haigh taught me to find my writing scriptures.  These are works that address one of the challenges you, as a writer, have with a particular work.  Maybe you’ve never written in first person before and your story is in first person.  Find a book that reflects your desired point of view and really break it down to understand how the author accomplished what you want to do.  Learn from them and let their accomplishment teach you how you can do the same.  You aren’t copying, they are your guideposts.  That said, don’t use paralyzing books as scriptures – you know, the ones that are so good that you want to quit writing and go read under a bridge.

Wowing Agents

The Nelson Agency sat for an hour and showed a room of writers how agents read the slush pile.  Each attendee was invited to bring 1-2 pages from a work and the agents would evaluate manuscripts live.  The two agents, Joanna MacKenzie and Kristen Nelson, were brutally honest in their evaluations.  In the twenty five(ish) manuscripts they reviewed only one would have even received a second look.  Was it mine, you ask?  No.  Because I learned a hard lesson this day.  I only provided one copy of my manuscript, while the instructions distinctly said two copies.  Only one copy equals no evaluation.  As writers we are told again and again to follow submission instructions to a tee, and I’m normally very careful, but this day I was in a rush so I messed up.  Next time, when it really counts, I’ll do better.  However I learned from other’s works as well:

  • For your first novel you really only have 1-2 paragraphs to grab the agent’s attention so do not:
    • Spend the whole opening in narrative or telling
    • Jump into backstory
    • Change point of view
    • Create unnecessary confusion with the reader
    • Tell the reader how they should be feeling
    • Have the character not do anything
  • Do:
    • Create an emotional response
    • Create something interesting
    • Create tension
    • Make the readers want to learn more
    • Have a strong voice
    • Anchor your character in place and time
    • Put your reader with the characters.  Remove the distance.

For those of you who despise the idea of writing to a “formula” for an agent, Rachel Weaver put things into perspective.  She said that you only have two paragraphs to get your first agent, so do everything you can to make your debut novel as readable as possible.  Then have faith in yourself that once you have an established readership you’ll be able to be more creative.

Random other tidbits

  • Sometimes you don’t need to edit.  You need to rewrite.  That involves putting your manuscript aside and actually retyping from scratch the scenes you wrote the first time, or making a new scene, or combining several scenes into one.  Not everything can be fixed by moving words around on a screen  – Vicki Lidner
  • You have to earn emotional scenes in your work, otherwise you risk sounding sappy, trite, or melodramatic, which will make a reader put down an otherwise amazing work.  Make sure the reader is invested in the character before you create scenes of happiness, love, nostalgia, or sentimentality.  Never forget that tension, even in these sentimental scenes, adds power so layer happiness and sadness together.  – Alexander Lumans
  • When editing, there is an arc where your writing becomes better, then just different, then worse.  Stop when you are in the different stage.  – Rachel Weaver
  • If you write something and it just sucks, don’t stop.  Call that section a “placeholder” and go back and fix it later.   Also know that early dialogue is always a placeholder. –  Rachel Weaver
  • Introduce your characters the way you would introduce yourself.  Don’t provide pages of backstory and details the first time you write a character or risk him/her being the person no one wants to talk to or read about.  – Rachel Weaver
  • What is the difference between showing and telling?  Envision this.  You are standing outside of a house where an amazing party is going on.  A man approaches and says, “Wow, there is a great party inside.  There is a world renowned DJ and all these famous people are joyously dancing to his mixes.  The food is the best thing anyone has ever eaten and it is paired with delicious drinks.  Everyone there is having the best time of their lives.”  That is telling.  Showing happens when you get to go to the party.  Let your readers go to the party.  – Rachel Weaver

Now, with all that newfound knowledge I #amwriting and I #amediting, and I’m doing both in a way that feels more productive and inspired.  The seasons are changing in Afthead-land.

Editor’s Block

I got past my reader’s block in July and quickly moved into the next phase: editor’s block.  In this phase I stared at my 99,000 word manuscript and tried to figure out how to eat the editing elephant.  I would scribble word changes and deletions because I didn’t know what else to do.  I paid good money to learn how to write a query letter and sent my first 10 pages to an agent.  (This was through Writer’s Digest and I thought it provided great insight into the publishing process.  If you are almost done with editing and want to try conventional publishing this is a great resource.)  My assigned agent, Mary C. Moore, gave me some good tactical advice:  vary my sentence structure; keep prose active; don’t over explain smaller actions of characters; be aware of slow pace; and, most importantly, “Keep going with this, you are on the right track!”

 

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Armed with things to do, I made a goal to finish editing by Christmas.  I only needed to edit 3 pages a day.  Time passed and I didn’t edit so the goal became 5 pages per day.  Time passed and I realized I had no idea what I was doing.  It was like I had a plan to swim the
English Channel.  All I needed to do was swim an additional 100 meters every day but I didn’t know any strokes, didn’t have a swimsuit, and couldn’t identify water.  Despondent about my book progress and a host of other things I turned to my family therapist.  She told me to do two things: come out of my writing closet and find a writing group.  I’ve talked with other bloggers about writing groups, and while not enthused about the idea, I felt like I needed to find some experienced writing peeps to help me.  Minutes into my Google search I found Lighthouse Writers, a local “community for writers and readers.”  I joined, and then on a whim physically visited their space.  This wonderful woman stopped what she was doing, and joyfully took me on a tour of the amazing historic mansion that houses their program.  Lucky me, a four week session was just starting, and in it was a class called The Big Edit which promised to “turn the amorphous process of cleaning up your draft into a manageable practice.”  Gasp!  Of course it was full, so I got on the wait list.

Providence does not put all these magical pieces in place just to snatch them away, so four days before the start of class a space opened. Eleanor Brown, the author of the New  York Times bestseller The Weird Sisters is the teacher and in the first fifteen minutes she laid out a process that made total sense.  She explained how we would edit in at least four passes.  We’d start with the Big Picture, move to Characters, then to Pacing and end with Copy and Line Editing.  (This means that I don’t have to worry about commas until the very last editing pass.  Hip hip hooray!)  This process isn’t quick, but I am okay with that.  I’ve spent years on this book.  I can invest another year so long as I’m moving forward.

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Not only has she given me a process to follow that makes total sense, but she’s also promised to help us discover our strengths and weaknesses as writers.  Through the class we’ll understand if we are good at theme, story, character, or pacing.   She’ll give us tips for adding editing passes for things like dialogue, humor, flashbacks or description that will help address weaknesses.  We will make a plan which allows us to stay focused and organized while developing a feeling of progress the same way we felt progress when writing.   We even have homework!  (I’m excited by this even though anyone who experienced my school days knows I hate homework!)  Here’s a picture of my first completed assignment: developing a theme card that I can hang above my writing space to remind me what my book is about.

In 2015 I came up with a list of nine things I needed to do to get my book published.  I’m still on step 2, having vastly underestimated the scope of the editing step.  But I have a plan now and cannot tell you how amazing that feels.  I have book hope for the first time in ages.  There is work to do, and I know what that work is.  I finally agree with Ms. Moore’s statement, “Keep going with this, you are on the right track!”  Time to get to it.  I’ve still got more homework.

Reader’s Block

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I wrote a novel.  Well, I wrote the novel right hear on planet Earth, not far way, but it was finished over fifteen months ago, which is a long time ago.  As a novel writing novice, I thought the step from first draft to publication was a small one.  Following the advice provided by Stephen King’s On Writing, I sat down to read my whole book in one sitting after giving myself a nice break.  I had my pen ready, and prepared to make a few brief notes as I fell into my book.

I’m a great reader.  I love novels.  Short novels, long novels, well written, good plot, and why-the-hell-don’t-I-stop-reading-this-drivel novels:  Twilight series, I’m looking at you.  I love them all.  No iota of my mind was worried about this step, the reading of my book.  Oh, silly me.  Reading MY book was nothing like reading A book.  I would sit down to read and become stuck in the land of commas, verb tense, and sentence structure.  Hours would pass and I would have “read” a few measly pages.  This scenario happened over and over.  I couldn’t read my own book.

Finally in July inspiration hit.  You can email files to your Kindle and read them on your device.  I have known this since I got my first Kindle and used to send technical reports to it when I wanted to do a last cut for readability.  (If you want to try this for yourself, check out the Send to Kindle page.)  The solution worked.  Unwilling to mark up my Kindle screen with annotations I was able to read my book.  I also did this while I was on vacation so my access to paper and writing implements was limited.  Gloriously, many of the pacing issues I thought I had disappeared when I wasn’t distracted by note taking.  At times my book was good, and once or twice it was really good.  I did come up with a few big picture things I wanted to fix, which I think is the point of the first big read.

Hooray!  Problem solved.  Now all I had to do was edit, which in On Writing takes two measly pages.  You look for big plot holes, awkward character motivation, and ask big questions while you edit.  After two drafts you bestow your book on your ideal reader.  Easy peasy.  Folks, let me tell you that I have been struggling with how to execute those two pages for five months now.  I have begun to understand that King’s book was called On Writing and not On Editing for a reason.

I needed help, because I’d moved past Reader’s Block into Editor’s Block.  Have you ever found yourself in either place?  If so, I’d love to hear your solutions.  Keep reading and I’ll share how I am clearing out the blockages.


My first of a series on reader’s and editor’s block.