Monday, May 31, 2010

Getting Ready to Write: Advice for Beginners

Please welcome Sandy Tritt and her first post with us on the Book Doctor Blog. This lady is not only a wonderful editor, she's a kind, helpful person and goes above and beyond to help writers improve their craft. You can find Sandy, not to mention her entire staff, at Inspiration for Writers.


So you wanna be a writer when you grow up, huh? My first word of advice is don’t. Don’t become a writer. Not for money. Not for glory. Not for any reason other than that you have a passion in your gut that is so strong that nothing can prevent you from writing. Unless you have stories in you that you must tell, and writing them is as important to you as eating and sleeping and breathing. And sometimes more important.

With that out of the way, I assume you have passion. So, what do you do with this life of yours to pave your way to the writing world? Read. Observe. Write. Live. Those are the four main ingredients to preparing yourself to write.

Read everything you can get your hands on. Read classic literature, read literary fiction, read commercial fiction. Read books on the craft of writing. Read books on writers. Read dictionaries. Read cereal boxes. Just read.

Observe. If there is one attribute a writer must have (other than his passion to write), it is the ability to notice details. What is it about the way she walks that captures your attention? Is it her clothes? Her figure? Her wiggle? What words could you use to describe the preacher’s snorts between shouts? What do his eyes look like when he says “Hell”? What keeps his hair from falling into his eyes (or onto the floor)?

Look at your surroundings as though you’re showing them to someone who’s never been to your area. Notice the sounds you would hear if you listened. Notice the smells, the colors, the textures, everything you normally take for granted. Think of new ways to describe old things.
Write every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dozen words or a dozen pages, write. And don’t limit your writing to your passion—try writing poetry, fiction, journal entries, essays. Keep a journal or notebook with you at all times and jot your thoughts as you think them.

Live. Can you write about New York City if you’ve never been there? Probably—if you’ve seen enough movies and read enough descriptions, you could write with integrity about a city you’ve never seen. However, you would not be able to add new insight. For me, a small town girl, it was the vastness of the big city that took my breath away. And that most of the thousands of people all scurrying to some place would gladly pause a moment to give directions or advice.

Visit as many places as you possibly can, but also consider actually living in as many different types of places as you can. Yes, you can get superficial impressions of cultures during a seven-day vacation, but to truly understand a culture, you need to experience it more deeply. I’ve lived in small towns, large cities, suburbs, villages and deep in the country. I’ve lived in apartments, houses, complexes, dormitories, alone, with friends, with family. I’ve lived in Appalachia, the Midwest and the Deep South. And each of these has left an imprint (as well as an accent!).

Experience as many aspects of life as you can. Can you really understand the pain of heartbreak if you’ve never been loved and left? Can you understand the intensity of a mother’s (or father’s) love if you’ve never experienced it? Can you understand the thrill of surviving the bunny slope on down hill skis if you’ve never put your life at stake?

This isn’t to say you must become an alcoholic to understand alcoholism (although it does help :-)) or a bank robber to understand a thief. What it does mean is that writers need to take more chances than the average Joe, need to experience more of life in order to write more knowledgeably. It also means that writers must have empathy to understand people and situations beyond their personal experience.

What kind of job should you hold while waiting to publish? Well, many successful writers have had successful careers in business, law, medicine, education or any area you can think of before becoming published. So it doesn’t matter a lot what your “day” job is, just don’t go into debt. Live humbly and within your means, because once you sign that car loan, you are obligated to your 8-5 job.

Of course, some jobs will give you more “material” to incorporate into your writing than others. If you are just passing time, here are some suggestions:

Work with people from diverse backgrounds, such as you can meet in airports, resorts, hotels and restaurants. These give you plenty of characters to draw from.
Work physically. Manual work doesn’t occupy your mind. I do some of my best creative thinking while washing dishes by hand and mopping floors.
Work where you have free time to write, such as night desk clerk, night guard at a business, bowling alley clerk (on the slow shift), car lot attendant, and so on.

I am fond of saying that there are two aspects to writing—the craft and the art. The craft is that which can be learned—grammar, using active voice, the basics of dialogue and so forth. The art is the God-given talent that a writer is either blessed with or isn’t. It is the ability to “see” the details in a setting and relay that in interesting, unique words to make the reader feel the location. It is the ability to understand human nature and empathize with even the most dastardly villain. If you have that talent, and if you have that passion to write no matter what the odds, you are a writer. And nobody can take that away from you.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Overcoming Disappointment: Contests

  • Sunday night I watched the season finale for Celebrity Apprentice. Sixteen proven celebrities, from the very well known to the lesser lights, competed for the opportunity to win money for charity. Fifteen proven winners turned into "losers" over the course of several weeks. In the end, Donald Trump chose Brett Michael as the winner.

    Any time we enter a contest, numbers predict we will lose. Yet it's always hard.

    One of the big contests for Christian writers, the Genesis contest for unpublished novelists sponsored by American Christian Fiction Writers, announced finalists a few weeks ago. My local ACFW chapter had finalists last year and this; it makes me proud to be a part of such a great team!

    (And speaking of finalists, Sandi Rog of Book Doctor was a finalist last year!)

    But five finalists per genre leaves scores of people who received no satisfaction from the contest beyond a score sheet with comments from judges. It hurts not to win.
    It's excruciating to receive comments that suggest you made a mistake to try.

    So that's the question I'm addressing today: What can you do with the not-so-good and downright-awful comments you received?

    Here are some tried-and-true ways I've discovered for turning disappointments into positives.
  • Do nothing for as long as it takes to gain perspective. When I first receive a response from an editor, I zero in on one statement, good or bad; I rarely get the true gist of their comments upon first reading. So, let it set before you take it out again.
  • Congratulate yourself for entering! You took a leap of faith.
  • Consider that contest entry fee as a paid critique.
  • Now go back to the comments.
  • What was your score? Anything over 50% says you got more right than you did wrong. As agent Terry Burns told our OCFW group on Saturday, "A lot of people write good books. You need to write an excellent book." You may be (probably are) in the good-but-not-yet-excellent category.
  • Don't let negative comments outweigh the positive. Put the positive comments in a "warm fuzzies" file. "She said I wrote natural-sounding dialogue." Breathe it in. Accept it. Give yourself peptalks: I can write great dialogue!
  • As for the comments, if all of the judges make the same comment or give you the same low score, there's a problem.
  • If only one judge makes a comment, take it or leave it.
  • If 2 judges agree? Something about it isn't working. Look, then look again.
  • The judges' comments may suggest they don't understand what you were trying to say. The problem isn't their understanding--the problem is with your communication. Is it a regional expression? Can the character's words or gestures be interpreted more than one way?
  • Dig into your resources to develop your weak areas.

Above all--need I say it?--keep on writing!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Put Your Reader to Sleep

Yes, you read the title correctly. Put your reader to sleep. Okay, maybe not completely to sleep, but at least allow them to dream. What does dreaming have to do with writing? Everything. The dream I’m referring to is the fictional dream. If you’ve never heard the term before, don’t worry. I guarantee you know what I’m talking about. I think author, John Gardner says it best. “What counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind.”

A fictional dream occurs when the world in the story you’re reading becomes more real than the physical world around you. We’ve all be there at one time or another—transported into another time or another place by an author’s well crafted words.

This experience is one that we try to create for our readers. And it’s one of the biggest differences between a good book and a great one. So how do we create this dream world? We do it by paying attention. Notice where you are right now. Are there sounds? Smells? Even if you’re not overwhelmed by your setting I bet you’re aware of it. The same thing is true for our characters. If we neglect those details, we deny our readers the chance to be transported.

Even more important than what we do to put our readers to sleep is what we DON’T do. I think writers are far more often guilty of waking a reader up. We, as the author, have an obligation to not jolt our readers out of their dream world. So what are some things we do that interrupt pleasant dreams?
  • Bad Grammar—I’m not talking about a missed comma or two. I’m referring to sentence structure that’s difficult to read, modifiers that modify the wrong thing or even complicated punctuation. All of these things can cause a reader to stop and ponder what you’re trying to say. Once they stop you’ve lost them, they’re awake.
  • Confusing Dialogue—This can include things like long sections of dialogue with no speaker tags or beats. If the reader has to go back and figure out who’s speaking it means you’ve either not put in enough tags or your characters don’t have unique enough voices to be identified. One word of caution, overuse of ‘said’ instead of interspersing with speaker beats can be just as jarring.
  • Creative Speaker Tags—Anytime you use a speaker tag other than said or maybe asked you run the risk of making your reader stop. The word said is so common place in literature that it’s almost invisible. The reader skims lightly over it, uninterrupted. If, on the other hand, you pull out your thesaurus and try to find other words to use in its place you end up with jarring prose that tells the story through speaker tags instead of dialogue.
  • Characters who don’t act right—I’m not referring to moral actions. We’ve all read stories where a character does something and we find ourselves shaking our heads. Know your characters well enough to keep them from acting out of character.
  • Overwriting a dialect—I’m not against allowing your character to speak with an accent or in a dialect, but be careful how you do it. When the character is first introduced you can use a heavier hand with the spellings that denote dialect, such as learnin’ instead of learning. But after the reader gets to know the character they can hear the character speaking in their head and you don’t have to use spelling to convey their voice. In fact, if the reader has to work too hard to decipher your intent they will never even make it into the fictional dream.
  • Head Hopping—This is when you switch POV (point of view) from one character to another without a good reason. The rule of thumb is that each scene should have a single POV character and that should be the character with the most at stake.
The storyteller who can invite the reader into his world and make him believe it's real has captured the essence of what it means to be a great writer.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Friday I completed a monumental task: I completed the rough draft of the longest book I've ever written. All writing is work, but this particular story has felt like a spell in a Siberian labor camp.

Different things made it difficult. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Self doubt
  • Lack of focus
  • Lack of plot direction
  • Risk

If you're a writer, you've experienced at least one of those roadblocks in your work. What sets most published writers from pre-pubbed can be summed up in one word: perseverance. As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent persperation."

What keeps you going when you're ready to give up? Some things that helped me reach my goal:

  • Trusting this is God's work--not my skill
  • Work on one project at a time (kudos to those who can do more!). Use those between-book lags to to benefit.
  • Work and rework the plot and characters until they work
  • Accept risk as a consequence of growth

Whatever happens with this story (an editor requested the full manuscript)--I have succeeded in pushing past my fears.

Do you have a project that you're ready to abandon? What makes you feel that way? What can you do differently to finish it and move on?

Note: Stop by and leave a comment on my blog for a chance to win one of my books and a couple of other featured books.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Make Your Settings Count

The writing world is cyclic, just like everything else. Right now, the cautionary phrase on the tip of every critique partner’s tongue is show don’t tell. They’re right, of course. Showing draws the reader deeper into the story, and adds an immediacy to the reading experience. But many well-meaning crit partners often label narrative or exposition as telling.

Narrative is an integral tool that a writer uses to make the scenes come alive. Without good narrative the story isn’t grounded. So how do we make our settings come alive? We let the reader view the story’s settings through the filter of the POV character’s emotions, experiences and beliefs. Look at the examples below to see what I’m talking about.

Example 1
Catherine looked at her lovely childhood home. She saw the horribly neglected yard and remembered a happier time. Her feelings of despair almost overwhelmed her. She knew she would find a way to get through the next few weeks, but it wouldn’t be very easy.

In this example the setting is described in a cold and distant way. When I first began writing, I thought this example was good writing. It is good—but it could be great. Watch what happens when we delve into Catherine’s emotions and experiences

Example 2
Catherine peered out the car window at a past she never thought to face. Overgrown trees and bushes loomed down at her as she got out. She explored the once happy yard, games of tag and kick-the-can echoing in her mind. The familiar bench, half hidden by an overgrown wisteria bush, beckoned with promises of rest and peace. She shook her head. Peace would be hard to find without Tom beside her. How would she get through the days to come? A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She could almost hear Tom’s voice, “Work, my dear, it keeps the hands busy and the memories at bay.”

Do you see the difference? When we look at the setting through more than just Catherine’s vision it comes alive and resonates with the reader.

There are some things we can do to insure this kind of depth to our settings.
  • Utilize the five senses. This will add depth to the scene.
  • Tie the setting to a dream or a memory.
  • Focus on the emotions your POV character is feeling and let that color how she sees her surroundings.
So next time you start to describe the setting in your story, slow down, take a good look at what your character is seeing and feeling. Then let the reader experience the setting through the character’s senses and emotions.