Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Organizing Ideas—The Door

We’ve already talked about generating and capturing ideas. Now I’d like to chat a bit about organizing those ideas.

For a long time—like all the way back into my teen years—I kept my story ideas in loose-leaf notebooks. I put dividers in them and put any and all information into the appropriate section. I still have all those notebooks, and every once in a while I go digging through them for nuggets of inspiration. This isn’t a bad method of organization. It keeps things together in one spot, and you can keep adding bits and pieces to the individual sections until you get the urge to break the idea out and write it. (When you get enough collected that an idea needs its own notebook, it might be time to seriously consider writing an actual book.)

Karen Wiesner, in her book First Draft in 30 Days icon, outlines a method similar to this. She uses a file cabinet and folders instead of loose-leaf notebooks. I’ve used an expandable file folder as well, to keep track of quickie ideas or articles I find online that I print and toss in the file. (Evernote is great for this too, and I’m using it more and more instead of printing things out.)

One problem I had with this method, though, was that it doesn’t keep the story ideas right in front of my face. I’ll have a perfectly viable idea, or a sequel to something I’ve already written, worked out in the notebook, and I’ll forget all about it to go chase after some other crazy notion. (Squirrel! No, vampire squirrel!) I ended up writing lists, to-do’s, “what I’m going to write this year,” etc. But even that doesn’t seem to keep my crazy brain on point.

Then one day I was sitting in my office staring into space. It’s a relatively new office in an addition to my house that the previous owner used as a walk-in closet. (She had a lot of clothes.) Anyway. I was staring at the door and had a sudden urge to write all my WIPs, gestating ideas, bits of thoughts and wayward titles on sticky notes and stick them all over the door.

Why? my brain asked. What possible use could that be? So I didn’t do it right away.

Later that day when I was on IM with my best friend, I told her about this insane urge.

“Do it,” she said.

Thus enabled, I whipped out a pile of sticky notes and covered the entire freaking door. There’s a method to the madness—some color coding and a flow that takes ideas from germination to partial manuscript to full manuscript being actively submitted to published work. When a piece has been published, on the day it comes out I take the sticky note off the door, tear it into pieces and throw it away. (Some people might prefer to take them off the door and put them into a commemorative notebook or something, but I get a wacky tactile satisfaction out of ripping up sticky notes. 3 x 5 cards too. I’m weird. Deal with it.)

It’s fun to track the ideas around the door, watching them move from the middle of the door (idea) to the top left corner (complete) to the top right corner (accepted) and then come off the door. I try to keep that top row full—that’s stuff that’s contracted and will soon be seeing the light of day (it's much fuller now than it was when I took this picture). I also keep possible sequels grouped by publisher, or shuffle notes around as I start thinking about where to market them.

I also stick new notes on the door whenever an idea pops into my head, or when my best friend comes up with something. She’s great for generating plot ideas. We had a conversation one night that resulted in a yellow note with “Headbump Hieroglyphics” on it being slapped onto the door. Yeah, I know what it means. Other times she’ll say something like, “Evgeni Malkin, Persian Sheikh. Put it on the door.” I’ll put it on the door and let it work itself out later.
Evgeni Malkin, Persian Sheikh

This method may or may not work for you. Maybe you don’t have a convenient door. But for me, walking past all those sticky notes on a daily basis gets me fired up. I want to write them all, clear that door right off. Now if I could just stop adding so many new ones…

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Rhythm Of The Words

For me, there is a certain rhythm to writing a book. It’s not something I can just sit down and do, word after word, sentence after sentence, progressing through a logical sequence until the story has spun itself out on my page. There are, instead, phases to the process. Some of these phases look like active artistry. Others look like pre-work or preparation. Still others look like failure.

It’s taken me a long time to learn to trust this process, and in many ways I still don’t. I look at it askance, wondering if the pieces that feel like failure really are, if this is the time that the sequence will fall apart, like a zipper that has suddenly lost a vital tooth.

Because it feels that way sometimes—no, every time—when that spot comes in the writing when all the pieces are there, but they’re scattered, some here, some there, some ends tied off neatly, others frayed and broken. They couldn’t possibly all come together to form that final, tight weave that fashions story.

But they do. Eventually, they do.

I can’t make them do this. Sometimes sitting down to write, putting pen to paper, is enough to coax the flow and bring the various bits into alignment. But other times putting pen to paper is an exercise in futility. Nothing comes, or if it does come, it’s forced and twisted, broken, or it’s like trying to weave a stick into fine linen. It just doesn’t fit.

It’s then that I have to wait. It takes such patience, such trust, to just wait. I want to dive into the story again, to find all those loose bits and make them no longer loose, but on the days that require waiting, they simply won’t fold into each other. They’re ragged and sharp and stubborn. They don’t want to be.

Waiting, though. Waiting with the words, with the pieces. Hiding from them. Letting them hide from you. Lifting them into the light and examining them, like jewels under a loupe, looking for the flaws and the perfections. Ignoring them, then examining them far too closely.

It’s this constant handling, dropping, picking up and examining that finally lets me find the pieces where a story line has gone astray, or the place where I planted a clue I didn’t even know I’d written. When I find the flaws and the ways to smooth them out, or the underlying themes I didn’t know were there. Only then, after this careful and constant, trusting search, can I finally pull all those pieces together into a unified whole.

Only with the constant, steady practice can you learn to trust those silences. Only when you’ve let the process happen time after time, watching it, exploring it, can you truly believe that the story will find its way, with you or without you.

Constancy. Practice. Diligence. Trust. When these all come together, the result is the miracle that is a completed work of written art.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Links for Your Perusal

Livia Blackburne--How to Incorporate Backstory that Hooks the Reader.

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing--Konrath's Resolutions for Writers 2012. A little late, but hey, it's still January.

Jodi Hedlund--How to Drive Yourself Crazy as a Writer. Ways to make your life a LIVING HELL!! Read the article. Avoid the practices.

Write it Forward (Bob Mayer)--12 Daring Predictions from the Indie Author Trenches. Thought-provoking stuff.

Jane Friedman--Guest post by Brad King--The Design of Authorship. What does it really mean to be an author? How is technology changing that definition?

The 99 Percent--Setting the Scene for a Productive Day. Using your environment to trigger more productive work sessions.

Study Hacks--Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player. Yeah, it's about piano playing, but easily adaptable to any artistic endeavor.

Justine Musk--How to Flunk Social Media.

Dean Wesley Smith--New World of Publishing: Failure is an Option. Quitting is Not. Excellent advice on goalsetting.

Writer Unboxed (Jane Friedman)--The Secret to Finding the Time to Write, Market, Promote and Still Have a Life.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why Being Edited Is Like Getting Your Eyebrows Waxed

I only wish my eyebrows looked this good.

I have bushy, annoying eyebrows. They have a good general shape, but they develop extra growth all around the edges and sometimes decide they want to try to make a unibrow. It’s pretty annoying. I hate to pluck because it hurts, and I’m a huge wimp. I’ve tried threading, and got great results, but wow—I nearly passed out. My tattoo hurt less than that.

So my eyebrow grooming approach of choice is waxing. They let you lie down on a massage table, or sit in a comfy chair, and they put nice, warm wax on your eyebrows. Then they rip it off in one fell swoop. Yeah, it hurts, but it’s over quickly, unlike plucking and threading, where they just keep ripping stuff out in one horrifying stab of pain after another.

Oh, but then the waxers aren’t done. Because after they wax, then they pluck. They have to clean up all along the edges, get the shape just right, and get your eyebrows looking like they both belong on the same face. It’s a tricky business. And sometimes they take out too much, and you have to go to the grocery store and buy eyebrow pencils. Or they don’t take out enough, and you wonder why the heck you gave them your hard-earned $15, plus tip, just to wave the wax in the vicinity of your still-hirsute brow.

How is this like editing? If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m guessing you’ve never been diligently edited.

You start with rewrites. Not always, but often. You get a manuscript back that you thought was in pretty good shape, but it’s all annotated with bits about how you have holes in your plot, or your characterizations aren’t consistent. Scattered throughout are probably bits of detritus like spelling errors, grammar mistakes, typos, formatting issues, etc. So you grit your teeth and do the work, figuring hey, as much markup as there is here, there can’t be much more left to do after this, right?


The story comes back again. Move this word here or over there. Is this the right word? This sentence doesn’t quite make sense. I think a comma here would make things clearer. And maybe this happens two or three more times, until your eyes are watering from the pain and all you really want is for somebody to spread that nice lavender oil over your eyebrows so the pain will go away and everything won’t look all red and swollen.

But the tweaking is an important part of the process. It’s the fine-tuning that gives you just the right quirks so you can have entire conversations with the lift of a brow. You’re striving for—well, not necessarily perfection, but something clean and sleek that fits your style. It’s worth the pain in the end.

Beware, however, of the editor who plucks too long (and the author shouldn’t do this either). Too much tweaking, and you’re scrambling for the eyebrow pencil to get some semblance of your personality back. But perhaps worse than that is the editor who doesn’t do enough, and leaves your manuscript only partially shaped, its unibrow glaringly obvious for all to see.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Links

Patricia C. Wrede--When They Don't Wanna. What to do when your characters get all recalcitrant n stuff.

Passive Income Author--5 Clever Tactics to Get More E-Book Sales per Reader. Non-hokey ways to keep your readers coming back for more.

Anne R. Allen's Blog--Guest post by Roni Loren--Why One Author Chose Traditional Publishing--and How to Decide if It's Right for You. Thoughts on the pros and cons of traditional vs. indie.

Mystery Writing is Murder--Inexpensive Ways to Improve Your Writing or Get Published in 2012. Need help with your professional development goals for 2012? Find some ideas here.

Publishing Perspectives--Guest post by Jane Friedman--Experimenting with Serials for Fun and Profit. Some ideas about publishing series and serial fiction as well as pros and cons of this approach.

Publetariat--5 Proofreading Techniques Every Talented Writer Should Know. Ways to break down your proofreading tasks for efficiency and effectiveness.

Kidlit.com--Big Revision. Big revisions vs. "tinkering" with the manuscript.

Jody Hedlund--Write Tight--3 Pieces of Advice I Wish I'd Known Earlier. Advice on streamlining your writing.

Indies Unlimited--Writing Exercises Return With a Twist! Fun for those who like regular writing prompts.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why Editing is Like Sculpting a Masterpiece

Editing: Finding beauty in chaos. sxc.hu/andyvu
Editing is an art every bit as much as writing is. It takes a careful hand to shape a book to be its best self while maintaining the author's voice and staying true to her original vision.

When I edit, which I do almost as much as I write--some days more--I try to address the story on several levels.

  1. The story level. Does everything make sense? Is the structure compelling, leading the reader from one scene to the next without confusion? Does it meet the requirements for the genre? Are the characters consistent?
  2. Story detail level. Here's where I look at things like description consistency--eye color, clothes, hair color, spelling of names--things authors sometimes change by accident as they're writing.
  3. Grammar and clarity. This can be tricky, as this part of the process drills down to the author's choices word-by-word. Sometimes markup here is easy--if a sentence is grammatically incorrect, or the author uses the wrong word, changes need to be made. If a sentence throws me off as a reader, so that I don't understand what the author is trying to say, then that too should be addressed. However, if a sentence structure, word choice, or grammatical construction is integral to the author's voice, then changes should be carefully considered. Sometimes there's a find line between a stylistic choice and an easily understandable sentence, though, and it's important to keep the author on the right side of that line, for the sake of the reader.

In many ways, this process is like carving a sculpture. Anything that gets in the way of the story itself is removed or modified. Large issues come first, then lower level issues are carefully chipped and carved away.

Unfortunately, this can't always be accomplished in one editing pass. Sometimes it takes one pass for the larger issues and other passes for the fine-tuning. Then the editing really becomes like sculpting--taking away the larger bits first, then working down to the details. When this takes severla passes, it can be frustrating for the author, but the best editors always ahve the best interests of hte story at heart, even when it feels like they're being overly picky or obsessing over every detail. In the end, if you and your editor work well together, your story will be the better for the hard work.

Next time: Why Being Edited is Like Getting Your Eyebrows Waxed.

Friday, January 6, 2012

New Year's Linky Links!

Talk to YoUniverse: Tightening Your Plot by Layering. A great checklist for one element of rewrites.

Palm Beach Pulse: Palm Beacher James Patterson's 10 Tips to Improve Your Writing. Good advice, regardless of your personal opinions on Patterson's writing.

Etexts from University of Virginia Library: Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, by Mark Twain. I started to read The Last of the Mohicans, and I have to say my opinion of the writing was much like Twain's. I recommend watching the movie instead. It has a better plot and 100% more Daniel Day Lewis in buckskins.

Marketing Tips for Authors: 15 Commandments for Getting FREE Publicity by Carolyn Howard-Johnson. Some ideas to expand your list of promo ideas.

Writer's Digest: How to Use an Outline to Write a First Draft.

Writer's Digest: 50 Simple Ways to Build Your Platform in Five Minutes a Day. A long list with a lot of ideas.

Jody Hudlund: How Much Time Should Writers Devote to Social Media? Useful guidelines based on where you are in your writing career.

SFWA: Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. A comprehensive guide to worldbuilding for fantasy authors. Probably good for other sorts of authors as well.

Ebpublishing a Book: Promotion Stages. There are several parts to this series. It's worth a click-through.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Idea Growth--Ring of Darkness

Ring of Darkness was another book that took a very long time to arrive in its current form. I think I had the basic idea, of an arranged marriage and a magical threat, cooked up some time in Jr. High (yeah, they call it middle school now—whatever). In fact, I have another partial manuscript lying around somewhere with a similar plot seed.

The story itself, though, didn’t come to fruition until about 1993. I remember writing big chunks of it while I was at home on maternity leave with my now 18-year-old son. I would type with one hand while he was nursing in the bend of the other arm. I had set a goal at that time of writing at least one page in my steno notebook (about 220 words) every day, but even a paragraph or two felt like a major accomplishment. (I was obsessed with steno notebooks back then. I wrote everything in them, because they fit in my purse and I could carry them anywhere. I gravitate to Moleskines now for the same reason.)

The very first version of this book I shared with an online group I belonged to at the time (still belong to, actually). The read it chapter by chapter and provided feedback. When I finished and had done my editing pass, I sent it out to a few publishers, with no luck. It went into the drawer for a while after that.

I know I fiddled with the book off and on for a while, but the revision I really remember occurred in the winter of 2001. Ring of Darkness was the first book I dove back into after 9/11, and served as part of my emotional recovery. I don’t recall what changes I made, but I remember being profoundly relieved that I could write at all. It had been hard to put words together for a while.

I submitted the book a few other places over the years, but it finally found a home at Noble Romance last year.