Monday, November 30, 2015

Help Me Focus!

A popular post from November 2011, very relevant today!

by Annette Lyon

First off: To all you NaNo-ers out there, keep pushing on this last day! Congratulations to all the winners out there; celebrate your accomplishment!

I have had a hard time focusing lately. That includes work on my writing, my editing, and even attention to housework and (worse!) to my family.

Many things can be blamed for it, among them the legitimate issues of ADD and chronic pain.

But life must go on. I need to write and edit. More, I need to make sure my family actually eats and has clean underwear.

I've found a some things to help, some of which don't make much sense at first glance. In hopes that some of them may help you, here's a list:

White Noise
Yes, Virginia, it really does help you focus. At least, it does for someone with ADD. My son (who inherited it from Mom, alas) discovered Simply Noise, which has several free options. The basic choices are all essentially what's known as "white noise" but which all sound slightly different. The variations are called white, pink, and brown noise.

Brown noise is my favorite (and my son's, too). I find myself able to focus on a project and get a lot more done in less time while listening to it.

The site also has other sounds, downloadable for a small fee, like ocean waves and a thunderstorm.

A To-do List
People who follow me on Facebook are aware of this one: I have a list of things I want to accomplish in a month. Yes, a month. Big-picture, yet concrete, goals are easier for me to handle than specific ones I have to get done today. With monthly goals, I can look at the list and decide what I can do now.

It's a hard-copy list in a notebook, so I have the bonus of using a bright orange Sharpie to cross out items as I do them.

Major sense of accomplishment!

I have a writer friend who has also become my accountability buddy. At the beginning of each month, we email one another our progress on last month's goals and our goals for the upcoming month.

This provides an outside source of accomplishment (getting ego strokes from someone outside my brain helps a ton), and it's also an extra motivation to reach the goals I sent her before. Saying, "Yeah, well, I totally dropped the ball on all my goals" isn't going to cut it.

Meeting with my critique group helps here too. I need to have pages to read when I show up, so I'd better write some.

Minimizing Distractions
For me, that means the Internet. I can sit at my computer with great intentions to do X, Y, and even Z on my to-do list. Then I check email, Twitter, Facebook, and news links, and next thing I know, I've blown two hours.

There's a reason a product exists where you pay for it to disable your Internet connection for determined periods so you can focus on your work.

At one point I wondered if a smart phone would help. (For years, I have a simple candy-bar style phone that did nothing fancier than text.) I figured that if I got online updates while away from my computer, I wouldn't feel as tied to it. Then, when I did sit down at my desk, maybe I'd get more work done.

It was just a theory. Until now. Due to a set of unforeseen circumstances, I got to open my Christmas present early: a shiny new iPhone.

It's done exactly what I predicted: I don't feel the same urge to sit at my desk just to make sure I don't miss something. My kitchen is cleaner than it has been in a while. I got more reading in today. And more writing in. And research. Oh, and I wrote this blog post.

I think this is the most I've accomplished in one day in, well, a really long time.

A Timer
One element I didn't expect to help me on my iPhone, but which has: setting alarms. I'll set it 30 minutes out, and suddenly I can stay on task. When the phone rings, I get to do something else, if whatever I'm doing feels hard. Or, on the flip side, if I have only X amount of minutes to accomplish such-and-such, I'll buckle down and work hard. Great tool, and one I'm sure I'll be using more.

What helps you focus?

Friday, November 27, 2015

Dear Author . . .

A popular post from October 2011

By Julie Wright

“I spent a bit of time perusing the Dear Author for the romance category boards over on Amazon. It was hilarious . . . until it wasn't.

I'm in the process of editing one of my earlier manuscripts that I've received my rights back from the publisher. I knew the writing was rough because I was young when I wrote the book and inexperienced as a writer. I had no idea how bad it truly was until I got two sentences into the edit.

Sad that it only took two sentences for me to start rolling my eyes. I actually would have been eye-rolling at the first four words except I was too shocked to be capable of the eye-roll.

I made a lot of mistakes in those first books, mistakes that would instigate the words, "Dear author . . . Please don't . . ."

It's important to remember your audience and to read enough in the genre in which you're writing so you understand the cliche's and sand-traps of that genre. Basically, what I'm saying is . . . learn your craft.

I was so glad to have been published with those first couple of books, so excited to be an "author," that I jumped in before I was ready. Was it a mistake? Maybe. Maybe I never would have published and worked to get better if I hadn't had those first books come out the way they did. Or maybe I would have kept writing until I grew in my craft and had a first book release that would have stunned the world. Who knows? Twelve novels later, I am a much different writer today than I was ten years ago. I hope to keep improving and growing and BECOMING.  For now, I am editing and eye-rolling. And paying close attention to notes like, "dear author . . ."

Feel free to peruse the Dear Author board on Amazon for yourself:

Dear Author . . .

And do you have any memos you wish you could say to authors in general? Things you wish they'd stop doing or do more of?                   

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


A popular post from April 2012 

By Josi. S Kilpack

Last week I posted about time cues and Kurt Kammeyer brought up the point of chronology the comments. He made an excellent point and while my post focused on the more minute details of time, his point was big picture. We all know how important the big picture of things are so I thought I'd give a little time to that part of storytelling--the how and when things happen on a big picture level.

Kurt's comment reminded me of  a situation I found myself in several years ago. I was at the galley stage of my second book (galleys are the typeset pages of your book sent to the author by the publisher just before the book goes to press. It's the authors last chance to proofread the story before it becomes an actual book.) and was reading along with red pen in hand when I realized that my character had an appointment on Tuesday. No big deal except that it had been Tuesday a few pages ago. I went back and re-read; sure enough I had two Tuesdays in a row. I fixed this, but it required me to smoosh two days worth of events into one day, which mixed up some other days. The galleys were bleeding with arrows and margin notes that eventually made sense of my brain cramp. Once that was resolved I continued forward only to realize I had two Thursday's later on in the same week.

Fixing the Thursday-neurosis was trickier and required more arrows and margin notes, but also a handwritten page to slide into the galleys themselves. (There is a lesson here on having good editors that catch these things for you, but it was my book so it's ultimately my responsibility to have gotten it right). The final book was okay--my week was sufficiently fixed--but each time I reflect on this I'm surprised I didn't figure it out in my own revising. I should have, it's not as though it was hiding, but I didn't. However, I did learn from it and nowadays I'm much more careful about tracking my chronology as I write.

I'm sure there are multiple ways to do this, but here are a few ideas:

*Use an online calendar to map out events as they happen. Gmail calendars allow you to color code events, which you could do to specify characters, and the events are then easy to change should they need to be shifted around. I'm sure other online calendars would be equally easy to use. I'm not sure how this would work with multiple books, but I'm sure someone clever out there could figure it out.

*Spreadsheet calendar. I'm not so good with spreadsheets, but some people are whizzes and can do all kinds of cool coding and auto-fill options that seem as though they could give you similar flexibility and ease of use as the online calendar option. If you're not a whiz, look to make whizzy friends--maybe they can help you.

*Make notes at the top of each chapter as you write, showing the date and time (if it's important) so that as you go through your book you can see your chronology laid out before you. This method keeps it all in one place, so you can see your date and times as you write/revise. The drawback of this method is that it can require a lot of scrolling if you get lost in regard to your timeline.

*Use an old calendar or printable calendar to fill in events by hand. This is my preferred method. It helps me to have a physical calendar I can write on. I always use pencil (different colored pencils for different storylines/characters) so I can change things around but I like being able to line up the months and look as them as I'm typing my story.

*Make index cards for your chapters or your scenes, putting the date and time (if important) in a location on the card that's consistent. Again, use pencil so things can be re-arranged, but this can be another visual way to lay things out and see how they are happening. This is an especially useful method if a lot happens in a short period of time. You can have a card for each event, rather than trying to squish a dozen events into one tiny square on a calendar.

If you're dealing with multiple storylines or characters, keep in mind that their chronology needs to still work in one timeline. It's very distracting to your reader if they read about what Bob did on Wednesday, then what Sandra was doing on Monday. This can get very tricky to write, especially when events are happening simultaneously, but the closer you can stick to the actual order of events, the more clear things stay to  your reader--confusing your reader is BAD (Say that six times). It's sometimes more advantageous to skip a scene or chapter than to go back and forth chronologically.

As you revise your work, double check your timing on things. Calculate distances traveled and how long it will take, double check the time of day in certain scenes, for instance if they have a fight at dinner and eight hours later she's knocking on the door to talk to him, it's two o'clock in the morning. Afford reasonable amounts of time for your characters to do what they need to do, and make sure you have enough time and chronology cues to keep the reader subconsciously aware of the timeline--something they don't have to think about, but is woven through the story in such a way that it feels automatic from them and leads them along as smoothly as possible.

Happy Writing!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Taking a Critique, Part 2

A popular post from July 2011, continued.

by Annette Lyon

A few weeks ago, I posted about how to take a critique.

That post has a lot of important points, so if you haven't read it, do. Then come back.

Now for the next step: actively using a critique. I'll use the term editor below when referring to the person who did your critique. That could be a critique group member, beta reader, editor, or anyone else who is giving you feedback.

1) Before changing anything, do an initial pass.
Read through the entire edit quickly, without making any changes. You'll get a simple overview of what's ahead. Take stock of what's been changed, suggested, noted. Get a feel for what kinds of changes your editor sees for the book (or chapter or scene) as a whole. If you don't know your editor personally, this also helps to give you a feel for their personality.

2) Set it aside and take a deep breath.
If you're anything like me, even if you can take a critique because you've built up thick skin, you'll still get butterflies (or, say, nausea) opening up and reading an edit for the first time. That feeling may not subside (and it may get worse) after that initial pass. Sometimes setting the work aside for a bit (an hour, a day, a week, whatever it takes) lets you come back without the nerves but with a clearer, more objective view. Making changes is so much easier when your stomach isn't an emotional knot.

3) Attack the small stuff first.
That means addressing anything that you can change in short spurts, whether it's punctuation, grammar, and other line-editing stuff, or fixing somewhat bigger stuff, like showing this scene instead of telling it, upping the characterization in that scene, and so on.

4) When you find "big stuff," skip it. For now.
You'll be cruising along on your edit, with pages behind you, when you hit chapter nine and a big huge comment that you know is valid but is going to require some serious changes. The changes could mean rewriting entire sections or going through the entire manuscript to fix the same problem in multiple pages. Whatever it is, "big stuff" can be overwhelming. It can also be discouraging. With any luck, you won't have more than about ten or so "big stuff" issues.

5) THEN attack the hairy parts.
There's nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a lot of work done, whether it's manuscript pages or notes in an electronic file. Relish in the victory of finishing that "easy" pass (because even the easy pass isn't easy; it is work). Now go back and deal with the bigger stuff, one issue at a time, as your creative brain (and, let's face it, your emotional stress detector) can take them. If you get stuck, set the work aside again and think through the big issue you're facing to find the best way to address it. Don't rush big fixes.

6) Go over it again.
When you've addressed every note and change in the edit, do a final pass. You may catch new problems you've inadvertently inserted into the text through your changes (time lines, character or location details, overall consistency). Fix them as you come across them.

And while you're at it, be sure to enjoy reading through a cleaner, better version of your work.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

How to Take a Critique

A popular post from June 2011. 

by Annette Lyon

As many of our regular readers know, I've been part of a great critique group for a long time (since January of 2000). I've been published for 9 of those years, and I've been editing professionally for at least five of those. It's safe to say I've been on both sides of the "get your work torn apart" process.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for when you get feedback, whether it's from a beta reader, a critique group member, or an editor.

1) No matter what anyone says, it's still your book.
No one's opinion is law. Therefore: you don't have to change anything you don't want to.

Sometimes that realization is rather freeing.

It's also a pain in the neck, because things are so subjective in the arts. At times it would be nice to have a formula: X + Y = success! It's not quite like that.

That said:

2) Consider each piece of feedback seriously.
Even if you totally disagree with someone's suggestion about changing a section, don't dismiss the idea out of hand. Think about whether they have a valid point. Maybe their fix isn't the best idea, but their diagnosis is right on: something is indeed wrong with the section.

So maybe Mark wouldn't say what the editor suggested, but is there a chance his original dialog was flat or unmotivated? Is pace sagging here? Is that chapter confusing? Sometimes editors are great at spotting problems and suggesting solutions, but it's your job as the writer to figure out the best fix.

3) Don't argue, debate, or defend.
You've asked for (maybe even paid for!) an opinion. If you don't agree with it, fine. But insisting that your reader misread or misinterpreted your work, or insisting it must be this way or the reader is an idiot and missed this or that and here is why? That's not useful. (And it can be insulting; you asked for an opinion and got one.)

Okay, maybe the person is an idiot.

Or . . . maybe your reader missed a big point because you didn't write it effectively.

Figure out which it is, and, if necessary, get back to work. If getting an honest critique or edit stings too much and/or makes you want to whip out your defensive karate moves, there's a chance you're not ready for outside feedback quite yet.

4) A corollary: Just because something "really" is a certain way or "really" happened that way, doesn't mean it'll be believable.

For example: Some time ago, as I prepared to write a scene where a character dies, I read several first-person accounts from people who had loved ones die in similar circumstances. In my scene, I added the kinds of details that really happened to real people.

My critique group got hung up on a few of them because they didn't feel real.

What did I do? I could have insisted that "Some people really do go through it just like this." (And I could have proved it.)

Instead, I recognized that if those details pulled them out of the scene, if the moment didn't ring true, I needed to revise. I found other details (also real) that felt more true and familiar. The result was a much more powerful scene.

5) Don't go back to your editor to answer their "questions."
I put that in quotation marks, because if an editor writes notes like "Where are they?" or "What's the name of that museum?" or "I don't think such a building on that street exists, does it?" the editor is not really asking because they want an answer.

They're asking for the reader's benefit.

The editor is merely pointing out an issue for you as the writer to address: something is confusing, telly, unclear, or unbelievable. The question is a way for the editor to tell you that something isn't working. Questions give you, the writer, a direction to go.

I don't know of a single editor who ever waits for a client to send an email with, "Oh, by the way, the building you asked about is two blocks west of the City Bank on Main Street. It really exists. Here's a Google Map link to prove it."

(Thanks . . . that was totally keeping me up at night . . .)

In my experience, most editors are happy to clarify what they meant by a certain question if you aren't sure what the underlying issue is. But trust me; they aren't expecting you to answer those questions in any place except the actual manuscript, which the editor may never see again.

Answering a question (especially if it's one of those "See? I was right," issues) can rub the wrong way. Which leads to:

5) Resist correcting your editor.
We're human, so yes, we make mistakes, no matter how perfect we try to be. Whether it's a typo or fact we're off on . . . let it go. (Even if the mistake is phrased as a question, as in #4.)

Imagine this scenario (this exact situation hasn't happened, but it hearkens to real events): Your historical novel has a World War I battle and lists it as taking place in 1920. Your editor points out that the war had already ended by that point, with a note along the lines of, "WWI was over by then. I think the final battle was in 1919."

You recheck your facts and realize that whoops, the war was indeed over before 1920. But check it! The war ended in 1918, although the Treaty of Versailles wasn't signed until 1919.

Hah! Your editor was WRONG!

Sure, technically. But here's the deal: Your editor was correct in spotting your error. That's all that matters here. You were saved from looking bad. Returning with "Well, you were wrong too," won't elicit a thank you or warm fuzzies.

6) Have Reasonable Expectations. Or: Apply what you've learned. THEN come back.
Often, we editors get e-mails from clients saying that they learned so much from the 50 pages they had edited, whether it's about showing, exposition, dialog, or something else, and thank you!

We love that kind of feedback; helping writers to improve their work is what we're after.

Next step: apply what you've learned to the rest of the manuscript! Then ask for more editing.

Sometimes a writer wants to hand over 300 pages of a draft, pay for an edit, and end up with gold. That doesn't work. A single edit can take a manuscript only so many steps up. The better a piece is before an editor gets their hands on it, the higher level it'll be at the end of the edit. No matter how great the editor, coal cannot be turned into a diamond. Create a diamond, even in the rough, and the editor may be able to find the right cut and shape for it to sparkle!

This is, as we've mentioned on this blog before, why we often do manuscripts in chunks: it gives the writer the chance to learn from the edits of the early pages and apply those lessons so that later edits will be even more effective.

And finally, because it bears repeating:

No matter what anyone says, it's still your book.