Friday, October 30, 2015

Oh, Really?

Yesterday my sister-in-law's husband, a physicist, called me with some questions about the publishing business. "I just wrote a book," he said, "and I'm committed to getting it out there. I really feel passionate about this."

"What kind of book is it?" I asked. "Is it related to your job?"

"No, it's about my hobby."

"Great! It's a subject you know a lot about. Is your book nonfiction or is it creative nonfiction--you know, a memoir?"

"Actually, it's a novel, except I don't know what kind. I don't read novels myself."

(Yes, that's right. He never reads novels, and yet he thinks he knows how to write one.)

"Do you want me to describe it to you?" he asked.

"Yes, please."

So he told me all about his story, which apparently has no plot and no main character and mixes fiction with nonfiction. (Specifically, whenever he feels he needs to explain something, he sticks in a chapter on that subject; for example, after a scene in which a character has to deal with a tragedy, he has a nonfiction chapter providing information about psychological issues related to trauma and grief.)

"How long have you been working on this manuscript?" I asked him.

"For three months now, and I did three drafts!"

"Three drafts isn't actually all that much when it comes to writing a book," I said gently. "And many novels can take a year or more to write."

"Oh, really? I didn't know that. But I can't spend any more time on this project because I want to quit my job and to do that I need more money in the bank."


"Yeah. You know, from book sales. I'm absolutely sure I'll be able to sell 100,000 to 200,000 copies because I did some research online and that's how many people are involved in my hobby. And the great thing is that they'll buy my book even if it's not any good, because people always buy everything related to their hobby!"

Oh, really?

"But don't you want your book to be good?" I asked, trying not to sound ready to bash my head against a wall.

"Of course. But the important thing is to get people to buy it so they can decide for themselves whether it's any good. So do you think I should get an agent and go the traditional publishing route, or should I just self-publish?"

I took a deep breath. There was so much I wanted to say, but no way I was going to say it. (Dealing with relatives can be a tricky thing!) "It's hard for me to give you any advice without my actually reading the manuscript," I said. "And unfortunately I just don't have time to read anyone else's work right now. I'm too busy trying to meet my deadlines."

"Okay, I understand. I suppose I'll just start sending it out to agents then. It probably won't take me very long to get one. And in the meantime maybe you can tell me about self-publishing over the holidays. Aren't we getting together for Thanksgiving?"

"Uh, I'm not sure."

(Something tells me I might be 'out of town' then!)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Switching Things Up

I recently spent a week at an RV park beside California's American River, and while I was there I got a chance to write in the great outdoors. What an eye-opening experience this was! It made me remember what writing was like for me in the Old Days.

When my kids were young I could write on the fly, anywhere, anytime. I always carried a notebook with me so I could scribble in doctors' offices, on bleachers, in the car while waiting to pick somebody up from something, or wherever else I found myself. But when my kids hit high school I chained myself to my computer (a desktop, back then) and lost my ability to write elsewhere.

My time on the American River broke those chains. I nearly didn't take my laptop with me on the trip; I only did, in fact, because I had a nonfiction book deadline two days after our return, and although I'd already finished the manuscript I hadn't had a chance to proofread it yet. So my intent was not to write on vacation but to edit, a left-brain activity that for me isn't reliant on sitting down in just the right chair at just the right time. Once I had the laptop out, however, I found myself feeling creative -- so creative that I produced more work and better work each day than I normally do. Go figure.

So when I got home, I decided to switch things up a bit, varying not only the location for my writing but the time of day. And it's definitely made my work fresher, especially when it comes to my fiction. I'm seeing characters in a new light (both figuratively and literally!), and it's bringing me valuable insights into my work. It's also increasing my productivity, making it possible for me to write more words (both fiction and nonfiction) per day than ever before.

Again, go figure.

But now I know that my Muse likes variety more than she likes habits and ruts, and that she needs a good roadtrip every now and then to keep her happy. I think I'm going to take her down to the local public pool next, after warning her that we have to stay out of the splash zone. How about you? Is there someplace you can take your Muse today?

(And to provide further on-the-go help, next time around I'll talk about Noteshelf and other iPad apps I've found helpful to my writing.)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A New Start

Yup, it's been a long time, folks!

I apologize for the absence of posts over the past couple of years, but a lot was going on to keep me busy elsewhere -- books were written, courses taught, children shepherded through the transition from young adult to full adult. But now that two of my kids have flown the nest (well, actually, they were shoved!) and the third is nearly out (and engaged to be married next year), I have more time for sharing tips here.

My available blogging time has also increased due to my decision not to teach writing courses anymore. I do still coach writers (on a limited basis), because I enjoy one-on-one mentoring too much to give it up. But those courses were taking too much time away from my writing, and I have lots of books to write this year: four YA nonfiction manuscripts (two of which are already in production) and a YA sci-fi novel, the first in a trilogy. I'm also already committing myself to deadlines for 2013 projects, so things won't be slowing down for me any time soon.

This is all by way of saying, "Be patient with me!" I'm going to try my darnedest to post regularly from now on -- I'm determined to blot out the stain of my horrible blogging record to date -- but sometimes a deadline will take precedence.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

For ShannonAnn -- About Choosing a Critiquer

In the comments section of my last post, I discovered an excellent question I'd like to answer here. (Thanks, ShannonAnn!) It concerns how you choose someone to critique your work.

Yes, it can be very scary to turn your work over to someone else for judgment -- and this is true whether you're a beginning writer or an old pro. And a big part of the scariness is the fact that once you hand over your manuscript to this other person, you have no control over the kind of feedback you're going to get back.

Or do you?

I've found that the best way to reduce the scariness AND get more valuable feedback is to give the critiquer specific instructions regarding the kind of information you're seeking. For example, you might say, "I've written a romance but I don't know if the relationship between the two main characters is working. Could you please read it and tell me what you think of the way these two people interact? Also, are both characters equally realistic? Are you having any trouble visualizing them or their actions? I'd really like to know your reaction to either or both of them."

Another example: "I've written a fantasy novel but I'm not sure if the world I've created is detailed enough and/or realistic enough. Could you let me know what you think of my descriptive passages? I'm especially worried that they might be slowing down the pace of my story. Do they drag?"

I've always gotten really valuable feedback from this approach, probably because it gets the critiquer thinking in terms of what works and what doesn't, as opposed to whether the manuscript is "good" or "bad." I'm not interested in subjective judgments like that, only in how the reader is responding to various aspects of the story. And if I want to know lots of different things about the manuscript, then I use several critiquers and give each one different instructions regarding what to look for.

As to how to get balanced comments -- that is, comments that aren't all negative or all positive -- all you have to do is tack this instruction on to the end of your request: "And if you'd like to make some general comments about the manuscript too, please be sure to tell me about its strengths as well as its weaknesses."

Don't be afraid to ask for exactly what you want! I've never yet had a critiquer (friends, family, whoever) react badly to being told what to look for; in fact, most find it easier to make comments when you set things up this way.

As to how you choose your critiquers, I've found that the best ones are people who read lots of books in your genre. My favorite critiquer from years past was a friend of mine who was addicted to romance novels at a time when I was struggling to write a romance novel. She loved reading my work, and because she herself had no desire to be a writer, she didn't try to turn my story into her story; she simply let me know how it affected her as a reader and what she expected to see in a romance novel. (Reading groups are good places to find people like this.)

Sometimes, though, the only person on hand to read your work is a family member, and if this is the case with you, then it's even more critical that you give that person specific instructions. It's also important that both of you understand it's the manuscript that's being evaluated, not the author. Don't take any of those criticisms personally! It's the manuscript's strengths and weaknesses you'll both be talking about, nothing else -- and if you can't keep that straight, then hand your manuscript to a complete stranger instead.

So there you go, ShannonAnn and others! I hope this information has been helpful -- but if you still have questions, just let me know. (And I apologize for not responding to the question more quickly!)

Until next time, happy writing!

Sunday, September 20, 2009


My writing students typically have a lot of trouble with word limits. They spew words on the page, and when they find out their manuscript is too long they say, "I just don't know what to cut!" But it isn't a matter of cutting as much as replacing; they need to take the time to find the one strong word that can replace three weak ones.

I think computers make it too easy to spew words. You do it because you know you don't have to worry about how you'll clean it up later. When writers used typewriters it was an ordeal to change a word (often you ended up retyping the page), and revising a manuscript meant retyping the entire thing, so you made sure that every word was perfect before you pressed those keys.

While revising a novel recently, I spent an hour finding exactly the right word to replace a word my agent didn't like. An hour! But I really did need to choose the perfect word, because it was part of the opening sentence of the book. (You know what they say about first impressions.)

Some of my students have really strong aversions to revising anything. One came to me with a manuscript that was about 100,000 words too long and said, "I'm not cutting a word, so don't even ask me to." (What editor would want to work with someone like that?) I told the guy, "Don't worry about it. My edits are always suggestions, not mandates. You don't actually have to make any of the changes I recommend." In other words, I marked up the manuscript anyway, showing him what he could (should!) cut, and left it up to him to reject or accept the fact that his manuscript would be better off shorter. In the end, after much internal struggle, he ended up cutting about 50,000 words, unable to part with a weak subplot that would have taken care of the other 50,000.

Another writer who won't revise (but isn't a student of mine) is in the process of falling for a scam. He wants to believe his novel (a first draft) is perfect as-is, and he's found someone happy to tell him so. She has a website offering to help writers with their novels, but she's vague about her credits. "I've created content for ABC, HBO, and other networks," she says. No specifics about credits, no mention of belonging to the Writer's Guild. What does "content" mean, exactly? And why offer help to novelists if you write for television? It doesn't make sense -- but the revision-resistant writer sent her his manuscript anyway, paying her several hundred dollars to read it, and she praised it in glowing terms. Then she said something like, "Your novel just needs a little tweaking, a few minor word changes here and there. I can help you with it, for an additional fee." Next she'll probably offer to help him submit it, for a fee.

(There's an interesting article about a similar scam at

It's tempting to think your writing is really that good -- and of course, sometimes it is. But it's better to have several people tell you that than just one, and to get feedback from individuals who have nothing to gain or lose by telling you one thing or another. With my own manuscripts, I get feedback from my daughter, my husband, a good friend, and my agents. (I now have two agents, plus my agency encourages everybody in the office to read and comment on agency-represented novels.) And if anyone tells you a first draft is "perfect," doubt them. I've never yet come across a novel that didn't improve with multiple revisions.

And now I'm tempted to revise this post, because I've found myself talking about revisions (again) when I started off talking about word limits. But instead I'll just give a final word of advice on word count. If you're good at revising, go ahead and spew while writing your first draft, with the awareness that you'll have to cut a lot of words later. If you hate revising, take the time while writing that first draft to choose each word carefully, tracking your word-count progress as you go to ensure that you won't have to cut a bunch of material later. But either way, know that at least one full revision of your manuscript will always be necessary, and usually many more revisions as well. (The typical for me is eleven drafts, which is why I'm tickled that there's a good book on writing called The Eleventh Draft.)

So until next time, let me wish you not only "Happy Writing!" but "Happy Revising!"

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Revision Blues

I know I promised to do some book reviews this time around, but those will have to wait until I have more time. (Although in the meantime, try out some puzzles in Word Searches for Dummies by Denise Sutherland; I've been using them as warm-ups for my writing sessions, and they're a great way to stimulate the brain!)

And as to why I'm so busy . . . I'm dealing with the most complicated revision of my life -- so difficult, in fact, that at one point I actually exclaimed, "I just can't do this!" (But since quitting isn't an option, I'm still slogging along.)

The reason this revision is trickier than most is because it's requiring me to make such major changes to the story that in the end the novel will no longer be the book I set out to write. I intended to create an 'edgy' contemporary teen novel whose main focus was a really messed-up family. ('Edgy' is what agents and editors call a certain type of teen story, one that's tense, provocative, gritty, etc.) But now the focus has to shift to what made the family messed-up in the first place: a murder.

So without going into all the gruesome details (ha!) about what I need to change, essentially it boils down to this: ready or not, I'm writing a crime novel now, and if I can do the requested changes in a way that makes everybody (including me) happy, the novel will sell.

But in the meantime I have to ward off the revision blues, and remind myself of all the good things people said about the novel before they told me what I needed to change. It's hard sometimes to keep those good things in mind when you're concentrating on everything that's 'wrong.' (Although I hate to even use that word, because I maintain that there's no wrong writing -- only writing that won't sell today but might sell tomorrow.)

And I also have to shake my head over how many times I've found myself pointed in one of two directions: crime or romance. We all have 'natural genres,' I think, and elements of these genres tend to creep into everything we write. And when the creeping becomes flooding, we just have to go with the flow -- which is what I'm going to do from now on!

So what do you think your 'natural genre' might be? Do you find yourself including romance in a lot of your stories, even those that wouldn't normally lend themselves to romance? When people praise your writing, do they tend to single out one aspect of the story over others? For example, do you find that your action scenes are always being praised, or your love scenes, or your descriptions of historical settings? And what about your narrative voice and your character voices? Do they tend to sound young (which might indicate you're a natural for children's books), or are they adult? Do you find yourself writing lots of simple sentences, or more complex ones?

Pay attention to what seems effortless for you, and use this self-awareness to guide your writing choices -- so that even if you don't stick to writing what comes naturally, you'll be able to prevent the kind of flooding I just experienced. (Although as my experience proves, sometimes we're too close to our own work to see the obvious -- which is why it's always a good idea to get lots of feedback from writing-group buddies etc. before you start submitting it to agents or editors.)

Oh, and one last thing: don't ever succumb to the voice in your head that says, "I just can't do this!" Every time you hear it, either ignore it or shout, "Yes, I can!!!" That's the best advice I'll ever give you. =)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Next Step

My book for younger kids is nearly finished (barn-runner phase again!), and the teen novel I mentioned earlier is in the process of being shopped around to publishers. Next up is another contemporary teen novel, but after that I might tackle either a crime novel or a historical romance, two types of writing I haven't done in a long time.

I used to be very into crime stories, but after I had kids my desire to describe violent scenes fizzled; when I looked at their innocent little faces, it felt wrong to put any 'bad stuff' out into the world. Now that my kids are young adults and our culture has made graphic violence much more accessible, though, I'm less worried about my own contributions to the genre, which by comparison are pretty tame.

However, the historical novel attracts me a bit more because it's a story I've wanted to write for at least a decade. What's kept me from doing it is the amount and type of research involved; I wouldn't just have to plow through a lot of reference material but I'd have to do some serious traveling to other countries. I always told myself I'd do this when my kids were grown up, but now that they are I still find myself holding back. The time, the effort, the dangers in one of the countries -- it all seems so daunting.

"Feel the fear and do it anyway," my husband says. "But could you wait until the economy improves?"

Ah yes, and then there are the travel expenses.

The beauty of doing contemporary novels is that they take place in today's world, so no pre-writing historical research (and/or worldbuilding, for fantasy and sci-fi novels) is required, and if you set them in places you've already been, no travel either. This means that the planning phase of the project is fairly short, and during the writing phase you can focus more intently on developing plot and character. Perhaps more importantly, you're less likely to succumb to PBR -- Procrastination By Research -- whereby you make endless trips to the library and/or the locations of your settings just to avoid actually writing the darned book.

For these reasons, I try to steer first-time novelists towards contemporary fiction -- though I don't push too hard if they're absolutely in love with some other genre. In my next post, I'm going to talk about how passion figures into your work, and how you can balance your need to feel passionate about your writing with the needs of the marketplace. I'll also have a writing-book recommendation for you -- or maybe two, if I can get enough reading done between now and then. But for now I've got writing to do . . . and I hope you do too. So get to work!