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Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category

By now I expected to have several posts up, be well on my way to completing my contest submissions, and have the basement cleaned out. None of those things has happened yet and January is almost over. On the positive side, though, I’ve read several books, come up with some blog post topics, and worked on my novel.

For today I have a useful tidbit of information to share with those of you who like tools to keep track of your writing progress. Svenja Liv has 4 free awesome spreadsheet themes for keeping track of your word count goals. Although I’m not experienced with Excel, I was able to download the steampunk spreadsheet template and correctly enter my data with no problem. I also use her site to update my progress bar, which is located in my blog’s sidebar. I fill in my data on her site, then copy and paste it into the widget area of my blog. These tools don’t get the writing done, but they are a visual reminder to me of how far I’ve come, and how far I need to go.

 

EDIT FEB. 15, 2013  The link to Svenja Liv’s site is broken. Not sure when/if it will be available. If I find another source for tracking tools, I will post it here. :(

 

 

Are you making progress toward the goals you set for yourself? Do you use word count templates or tracking tools that you would recommend?

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My latest addiction is TheJigsawPuzzles.com. As a child I enjoyed working jigsaw puzzles with my mom and grandmother, but with an active family and 5 cats I’ve never had a safe spot to lay out the pieces of a traditional puzzle in my own home. Problem solved! With virtual puzzles, I don’t have to worry about losing pieces or keeping tiny feet from destroying hours of work. And puzzles can be a lot of work.

Putting together jigsaw puzzles may seem a wasteful use of time to some people but it has helped me get a clearer focus on my writing goals. Here are 4 analogies I’ve noted regarding jigsaw puzzles and effective writing techniques.

 

1. Working on a project I truly enjoy makes it easier to get through the difficult parts.

Whether it’s a puzzle or a story/article, if I’m not interested in the subject matter and hit a rough patch, it’s tempting to quit. External motivations such as money or praise from others may help, but the internal satisfaction I get from doing something I enjoy is often the primary factor in achieving my goals

 

2. Having a clear idea of the big picture helps tremendously.

I choose puzzles that fit my mood, and sometimes they involve lots of colors and unfamiliar subject matter. Having a picture of the completed puzzle to refer to as I work helps me organize the pieces and determine their approximate placement when I get stuck. The same holds true with my writing. I’m not a strict outliner, but knowing the basic story and key plot points or talking points helps me stay focused on the end result.

 

3. Breaking the project down into smaller components keeps it from being overwhelming and provides structure for areas that may be ill-defined.

The larger the puzzle the harder it feels, but there are ways to make things more manageable. Putting together the outside pieces first is very helpful, providing a framework and a place to start building connections as well as reducing the number of loose pieces I have to deal with. It hints at what goes in each area, so when I’m sorting through the remaining pieces I have a general idea of where they may belong.

When an idea or scene doesn’t seem to fit what I’m currently working on, setting it aside until the writing project is further along may help clarify where it should go. In the same way, formulating the beginning and end of a chapter, scene, or paragraph helps determine what is needed in the middle.

 

4. Knowing the basics of how things work and customizing the process to fit my needs increases the likelihood of achieving my goals.

Each puzzle site I’ve visited operates in a slightly different way, and it took a while to learn how to navigate them comfortably. The online site I like best lets me see a picture of the complete puzzle as I work, has a button that lets me automatically separate the edge pieces from the others, has a timer I can use to pace myself, and lets me choose how many pieces I want the puzzle to contain and the style of the cuts. By customizing a puzzle to fit my interests and abilities I don’t get overwhelmed with something I’m not capable of handling. With practice, my skills improve and I’m able to take on more complex puzzles. I’ve also learned how to upload my own pictures and turn them into custom puzzles to share with friends.

The process of becoming a successful writer requires an understanding of how the writing and publishing process works, and also requires some customization to meet our individual needs.  Each of us has different experiences and skills, so our roadmaps to success may follow different routes.  Being aware of our strengths and weaknesses can help us figure out where we need additional help to achieve our goals, and we can work on those areas first in order to maximize our chance of success. When writing, knowing where to look for help with grammar issues, being aware of the proper format for the type of writing we are doing, and understanding how to use the basic features of our word processing program will make writing projects less stressful and more professional in appearance. Understanding how agents and editors expect us to submit our work to them, and following their guidelines, will give our submissions an advantage over our less-knowledgeable competitors.

 

 

Do you enjoy working jigsaw puzzles? What is your favorite way to “waste” time? What writing resources do you recommend for people who might be struggling down the road to success?

 

 

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Whether writing or speaking, the words we use convey images to our audience.  The literal, dictionary definition of a particular word is its denotation; the implied meaning or perception associated with it is its connotation.  Selecting the right words for the thoughts we want to communicate requires knowing both their literal meaning and the emotional context surrounding them.

Many words have positive, negative, or neutral connotations that add color to their literal meanings. For example, calling someone a chef will generally imply more skill and prestige than saying they are a cook, even though both words denote a person whose job is preparing food to eat. Saying a woman’s hair looks nice can have a neutral, or perhaps negative, connotation even though the word “nice” is generally considered complimentary. Seeing the name of an inner-city gang scrawled across the wall of a building might make a gang member feel pride, but the same sight might incite anger or fear in other people in the community. Factors such as age, culture, education, and life experiences will affect how a person perceives certain words. 

Using words that connote more than their literal meaning can affect the tone and mood of what we write, and adds depth to both fiction and nonfiction by stimulating the reader’s imagination and invoking an emotional response.

 

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What are some words you react to based on their connotation more than their denotation?  What type of words do you view as “neutral?”  Do you think about the meaning of the words you are using more when you are writing than when you are speaking?

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In general, mysteries follow the typical story structure of an enticing beginning, a middle building tension to the climax, and a satisfying ending. Sometimes these stories feel more like a circle, though, as they may open with a crime (often a murder) or other event that needs investigating and end with that mystery being solved. Many of them are part of a series of books that have the same protagonist. Those books may end with an event that leaves open the possibility of a new mystery.

Mysteries tend to be somewhat formulaic, with subgenres that have characteristics readers can rely on. The protagonists range from hard-boiled detectives to amateur sleuths and can be any age. Though characterization and setting are important elements, the plot is always the central focus of the story.

Clues are interspersed throughout the story so readers feel involved in solving the mystery along with the protagonist. An occasional red herring to throw the detective—and readers—off track is fine, but the twists and turns of the plot must make sense when the outcome is revealed. Mysteries must be solved using logic rather than supernatural means or deus ex machina.

This is a genre that’s popular with readers of all ages. Some mysteries involve elements of romance, fantasy, or suspense, and the degree of danger to the protagonist varies. Factual accuracy is important, and certain types of mysteries require extensive research to create a believable story.

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Some common types of mysteries are:

The Cozy: usually involves an amateur sleuth in a small-town setting, with little violence involved

—For more on cozies, check out http://www.cozy-mystery.com/Definition-of-a-Cozy-Mystery.html

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Private Eyes: a hired investigator follows clues to solve the mystery       

—A good site for more info is http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/PI.shtml

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Hard-boiled Detectives: police investigate crimes involving violence, with a gritty feel to the story

—If you’re interested in crime fiction, you might enjoy http://www.crimeculture.com/

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For a more complete description of subgenres, check out http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/genres.shtml  or  http://ticket2write.tripod.com/id29.html

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For more tips on writing mysteries, here are a few helpful sites:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/genrefiction/tp/mysteryrules.htm  General mystery writing tips

http://www.right-writing.com/child-mysteries.html  Writing mysteries for kids

http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/floyd.shtml  Writing short stories

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What type of mystery stories do you enjoy? Who are some of your favorite mystery authors? Who is your favorite fictional detective?

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Sometimes I get so caught up in the details of a particular scene, or involved with developing one character, that I lose sight of the big picture.

Losing My Perspective

This is especially frustrating when writing the first draft since events later on may change portions of what I’ve already written. It’s tempting to go back and revise earlier chapters or scenes to take into account things that happen later, but in most cases this isn’t the best approach for a first draft. You can lose momentum, or you may come up with an idea you like better later down the line–meaning you have to revise the beginning yet again. One way to minimize this problem is to put off the editing process until the entire story is down on paper.

Get the bare bones of the story down before you start editing, then set it aside for a while. When you go back to it, you’ll be able to read it more objectively and clearly see errors or plot holes in what you’ve written. Knowing how everything fits together will help you layer in details, foreshadow events, leave clues, develop subplots, and clarify what’s going on.

 

 

The Big Picture

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Do you wait until the first draft is complete to make major revisions, or revise as you go? How do you keep track of things that you change later in the story, such as details about the backstory, or name changes? At what point do you start checking the grammar and punctuation?

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If you’re planning to give a pitch to an agent or editor at a conference, you may want to take a one sheet, or pitch sheet, with you. Some resources use these terms interchangeably, but some say a one sheet covers all of your work while a pitch sheet is designed to help you present just one book or series. Regardless of the term, a one page summary comes in handy when you get a chance to present your work.

In addition to your full contact information, this page should include a professional-quality photo of yourself, and an author bio. Also write a short blurb about the book or series you’re pitching. Make it enticing, like the short summaries you see on the back cover of books in a store.

These sheets should showcase you and your work. Although you should use white paper and black text, it’s acceptable to use photos and some simple graphic design elements, including colored ink, but don’t let those features overpower the story. A template for a flyer or newsletter may help you get the look you want.

If you’re more comfortable with a simple document, go with that rather than trying to create something fancy. Their purpose is to give you one more tool to use in your effort to entice an agent or editor to ask to see more of your work, and an amateurish one sheet will probably not do that.

Author Kaye Dacus goes into more detail than I have, and also give examples:

http://kayedacus.com/2007/08/28/beyond-the-first-draft%E2%80%94the-pitch-sheet-and-one-sheet/

Another helpful reference is by Tracy Ruckman:

http://www.tracyruckman.com/downloads/One%20Sheets.pdf

Amy Wallace has an example that includes different books:

http://www.amywallace.com/pdfs/One_Sheet_Sample.pdf

Although I’ve seen one sheets recommended on several agents’ blogs, they seem to be optional. 

EDIT AUGUST 9, 2011: Agent Rachelle Gardner discusses one sheets on her blog today, and has links to several excellent examples her clients submitted. 

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Have you ever prepared a one sheet/pitch sheet? What’s the first thing you’d say to an agent if you were going to pitch something to them? What would you talk about with a conference faculty member who wasn’t an agent or editor if you were given the opportunity of a one-on-one meeting?

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On my way to do errands yesterday, I stopped at Dairy Queen for a chocolate-covered-strawberry Blizzard. I sat in my car and enjoyed the breeze blowing through the windows as I savored the ice cream and admired the waving fields of corn across the street. My thoughts drifted from one topic to another as I relaxed for the first time in days, alone and loving it.

Out of nowhere, a big ole SUV pulled into the parking spot next to me. The wind blew snippets of conversation, laughter, and exhaust fumes into my car, and the peace I’d felt moments before flew out the window. Though I’m usually a sociable person, it annoyed me that the other driver had parked right beside me when there were plenty of empty spots in the lot. It felt like an intrusion on my personal space.

Author intrusion in a story feels the same way. It pulls a reader out of the fictional setting and makes her notice something else. There are several ways this can happen:

The narrator makes a comment or observation that isn’t consistent with what the reader has been led to expect from the viewpoint character.

Dialog seems directed toward the reader as a way of explaining backstory, or as a means of inserting the author’s personal views, rather than being a natural part of the story.

Details regarding the setting or characters aren’t consistent, causing the reader to pause and question what the author has written.

Holes in the plot, outdated information, or factual errors can confuse or annoy readers, pulling them out of the make-believe world the author created.

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What other ways does an author intrude on a story? What things annoy you when reading a story?

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Despite the clothes, the props, and the setting I fashioned for my deck chair earlier today, he failed to live up to my expectations for a character worthy of his own story. He was flat rather than well-rounded, and content watching life pass him by rather than taking an active role in it. That type of character might help move a story forward in the same way a movie extra does, but main characters need to be fully developed.

Here are a few things you can do to keep your characters from being lifeless and flat:

1. Give each of them a distinctive voice. Readers should be able to recognize the speech patterns and thoughts of each of the main characters.

2. Make the dialog believable, but leave out the boring conversational crutches that real people depend upon—like discussing the weather (unless it’s crucial to the plot).  

3. Let the character’s personal taste in clothes and possessions hint at her values and goals.

4. Have the choices they make reveal their personality strengths and weaknesses.

5. Show characters acting and reacting in ways the reader will understand and empathize with.

6. Pay attention to the little details that distinguish real people from one another, like the way they respond to children, the type of goodies they keep in a bowl on the kitchen counter, or the personal tics they display when they’re nervous.

Here are some sites that offer good suggestions to help create believable characters:

http://niemanstoryboard.us/1998/01/01/building-character-what-the-fiction-writers-say/

Rounded characters vs flat ones

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http://hollylisle.com/fm/Articles/wc2-2.html

Creating empathetic characters

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http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2009/11/giving-your-characters-life.html

Giving your characters life

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http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/06/character-and-plot-inseparable.html

Characters and plots

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Can an exciting plot keep you reading even if the characters are poorly developed? Do you relate better to characters that have values or beliefs similar to your own, or does that matter when you’re reading? How can writers make characters believable if they haven’t experienced the things they are writing about—like murder, romance, super powers, etc?

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After completing your rough draft and revising it until you’re satisfied with the basic structure and content, it’s time to start polishing it for submission.

At this stage you may want to get someone else’s input on your work. Some people have critique partners look over their manuscripts, but even readers who aren’t writers can offer useful insights into problems with clarity, pacing, characterization, or awkward sentences.

This is also the time to review your manuscript for:

1. Errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Don’t rely on the spell check function of your word processor as it isn’t always right. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently (homophones) are easy to overlook when editing.

Make sure you’re following the appropriate style guide for the publisher you’re targeting. Agent Rachelle Gardner suggests making an Editorial Style Sheet to help keep track of pertinent details that an editor will want to know about your manuscript.

http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/07/keeping-track-of-details.html

2. Smooth transitions between paragraphs and scenes.

Make sure your point of view changes are clearly indicated.

Try to have a cliffhanger or unanswered question at the end of each chapter to entice people to keep reading.

3. Correct format and headers.

Using the proper manuscript format is essential to make your writing look professional. In the absence of specific guidelines, use a standard format: double spacing for hard copies, 1 inch margins, black Courier or Times New Roman 12 point font, headers with last name, title, and page number. Don’t forget a cover page. (See my post on manuscript formatting.)

Each manuscript will have special needs. There are many resources available on line and in books to help you figure out what’s best for yours. Many people also pay free-lance editors, or book doctors, to help them get their work ready to submit. If you decide to hire an editor, be sure to check their background and references before entering into a contract with them.

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What are the final steps you take to prepare your manuscript for submission to an agent or editor? Do you have any tips to share about revising or polishing a manuscript? What type of feedback do you ask for from friends, family, or critique partners?

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I’m back with the second post in my series on revising manuscripts. There are lots of books and online sites that go into greater depth, but these are some ideas I use as general guidelines for my revision process.

1. After you finish the first draft of your manuscript, it’s best to set it aside for a few days, weeks, or months so you can tackle the revisions with a clear mind. When you begin the task of editing, I suggest that you read the whole thing from beginning to end before making major changes in order to give you a sense of how the story fits together. It will help you identify problem areas and notice inconsistencies.

2. By the time you’ve finished the first draft, you should know what the book is about (plot), and the idea you want the reader to take away from reading it (theme). You’ll need to give that information to an agent or editor anyway, so write it down before you start making changes. Use it as a guide to help decide what needs to be cut, or added, to your story.

3. Know what market you’re writing for so you can make sure the manuscript will meet any special requirements for word count or content. For example, if your rough draft is 150,000 words and you’re writing a genre romance, you know you have a lot of cutting to do. If it’s only 30,000 words, you’ll need to add thousands more.

4. Go through the rough draft and jot down a few sentences about each chapter. This will help you make sure the scenes and chapters are organized the way you want them, and you’ll see where you need to make changes. These notes will also be helpful when you write your synopsis.

5. Make sure all story threads are tied up in a way that fits the story. Add layers of backstory, characterization, and action that will give depth to the plot and clarify what’s going on. Remove any scenes that are confusing or don’t serve a valid purpose.

6. Be sure that you’ve been consistent when describing physical attributes; actions are appropriate for each character’s personality; and the dialog is fitting for the person’s age and educational background, as well as the time period and setting.

Some people will rewrite their story several times while others may only write a couple of drafts. The number of revisions isn’t as important as the quality of them. No story will be perfect—someone will always find something to criticize about it. Do the best you can with your revisions, ask someone you trust to take a look at it, and then polish your manuscript before sending it out.

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Do you have any tips for revising a manuscript? What method of keeping track of what needs to be changed do you use as you review your writing, or do you change everything as soon as you notice something doesn’t sound the way you want?   Do you use a different process when writing nonfiction? How many drafts do you usually write of  a short story, or a novel?

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