Why Writers Need an Editor

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Many writers say getting a novel’s first draft down on the page is the easy part. It’s the rewriting and editing afterward that presents the biggest challenge, especially for beginning writers. Even after rewriting and editing it several, you may feel there’s something lacking in your manuscript. Most editors agree it’s at this point that writers may need to hire a professional editor.

Recently I attended a webinar called “Maybe It’s Not Your Plot” presented by author and book coach Susan DeFreitas. She says the problem with most manuscripts isn’t about what happens (the plot) but about WHY it happens, which is tied to character arc. She explains the role of character arc best on her blog.

DeFreitas outlines the six steps of a character arc, which I have shared below:

  • The protagonist has an internal issue to overcome, a mistaken belief about their world that will be challenged as the story unfolds.
  • Connected to this internal issue is the protagonist’s backstory, which explains how the misbelief originated.
  • There are conflicts and challenges that push the protagonist to view their misbelief in a different light.
  • The protagonist resists making necessary behavioral changes that fit the new belief. They want to go back to the way things were when the story began.
  • Change occurs incrementally to show how the protagonist fights against themselves.
  • The moment of truth occurs around the climax. The protagonist must face a hard truth, discover what’s been missing or didn’t understand.

Character arc is what drives the story and provides the emotional quotient that readers want to experience. But it’s also where most writers struggle with their story. This is when they tend to reach out to professional editors for advice on how to move forward.

According to DeFreitas, writers might need to hire an editor because:

  • The story is overwritten. There are too many words. A well-crafted novel should contain roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. Romance novels require less than that while some science fiction or fantasy novels can run more than 100,000. Generally speaking, if your novel is too long, you’ll need to cut word count and scenes. Since you might be reluctant to do the cutting yourself, an editor can help you sort through the extra copy to determine what to keep and what to discard.

  • You have a million drafts. Perhaps after working a story multiple times, it still has not jelled the way you imagined. Or you have so many drafts that the story no longer resembles the one you started out writing.

  • You’ve gotten lost in world building. This is especially true for speculative fiction and sci-fi novels where alternate world is key to the story. You can get so caught up in the details of this other world that you lose sight of the plot and character development.

  • You have no clear idea how to end the story. You may have started off strong with your writing but by the middle of the story, you have no idea how to get to the end. I’ve found it helpful to write the ending before I begin writing the beginning so I know how the story will proceed. An editor can provide tips on how to visualize the ending of your story.

  • You can’t figure out how to revise your manuscript. This is especially true for pantsers who write their story organically with no initial planning. Once the scenes from inside your head are written, you may realize that the story heads off in different directions. You feel stuck on how to fix things. An editor can help you scale back your ideas and formulate a revision plan moving forward.

  • You received lukewarm response from beta readers. The good news is you’ve completed your manuscript. The not-so-good news is that your beta readers gave it a lukewarm reception. They politely offered feedback, which you gladly accepted. But you want more than that from them. You want them to feel enthusiastic for your work. A lukewarm response is a warning sign that something is off about your manuscript.

  • You’re not getting responses from publishers or agents. If you’ve reached this step, congratulations. You’re much further along than most aspiring novelists. Only problem is editors and agents aren’t responding to your novel at all. That should tell you that they either have not gotten around to reading it yet, or that it wasn’t worth their time to respond to you. You want to create excitement for your manuscript, and when a book editor or agent is excited about your novel, they’re more likely to get behind it.

 Editing your own manuscript is never easy. But working with a professional book editor can give you a better understanding of the revision process.

Tips for Pre-Planning Your Novel

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Writing the first draft of a novel is the easy part. Revising it is the hard part. The next hardest, I believe, is pre-planning your story.

Sure, you can begin drafting the story as you see it in your head (as I usually like to do). But most authors have to do some pre-planning to know what they will write about in the first place. Otherwise, you can get through six or seven scenes then draw a blank about where the story will go next.  

Pre-planning is important for several reasons.

  • It helps you know how your story will begin – and end – and the major plot points in between.
  • It helps you understand who you protagonist is, what they most desire and what is getting in the way of getting what they want.
  • It helps you figure out who the other characters are and what their motivations are.
  • It helps you get a clear idea of the back story and setting.
  • It helps you understand how the story will progress, and how the tension will develop.
  • It helps you organize your notes so that you’re not stopping and starting your writing.

There are different approaches to pre-planning depending on the type of writer you are. If you’re a planner, then pre-planning will come naturally to you. The downside is you may get so caught up in the pre-planning, that you delay starting your novel.

If you’re a pantser like me, you prefer to write intuitively, letting the scenes and characters show up organically. However, even among pantsers, pre-planning can help you organize your ideas and give some structure to the story before you begin writing. The good news is the pre-planning process provides a skeleton layout of your story while giving it enough flexibility to allow new characters and scenes to develop.

There is no right or wrong way to plan your novel. It all depends on how much planning you like to do ahead of time. Some plans are more detailed than others. But there are a few common steps.

  1. Know what kind of story you want to write, and who your audience will likely be. Do you want to write a mystery? Women’s fiction? Literary? Or historical fiction?
  2. Write the story’s premise in 1-2 sentences. You might consider playing the game “what if” to come up with different scenarios for your story. For example, what if a rising figure skating star is kidnapped as a revenge against her father and the skater’s coach must work against the clock to find her? Be sure the premise hints at the conflict.
  3. Write a bio of your protagonist. It might help to write it in their voice so you can easily get inside their head. What is their greatest desire? What or who is getting in their way of getting it? Who are their friends and family? Know your protagonist inside and out.
  4. Brainstorm different scenes. Just jot down the ideas for each scene in 2-4 sentences. You’ll flesh them out more fully later.
  5. Create a timeline for your story. Does it take place over several days in a thriller? Or several years as they might in historical fiction. Understanding the timeline ahead of time helps you figure out when each scene will occur in relation to one another. Otherwise you’ll have to address the timing of events in the revision phase. (I highly recommend this step. I wish I had done this with my current work in progress.)
  6. Know your audience. This can be several sentences. Who are your potential readers? What else do they like to read?
  7. Do your research. If you’re writing historical fiction, this is especially important to understand the setting and customs of that time. But even if you’re not writing this genre, some research is needed. Do any of your characters suffer from a rare medical condition? You’ll need to know the symptoms and treatment. What types of poison are least likely to be detected? You’ll need to know the answers before you begin writing.
  8. Begin writing. You can start anywhere in the story. I find it helpful sometimes to write individual scenes that you can see in your imagination. You can always figure out where it will appear in the story later. Another option is to begin at the end. Writing your ending first can help you figure out how to start your novel. If you know your protagonist has to end up at Z, then you know you have to have her begin the story at V, and get through W, X and Y.  

You’ll find numerous resources and articles about planning your novel on the internet. There are numerous approaches, and you may have to experiment with several of them before you find one that works for you.

Good luck and happy writing!

Must-Read Historical Fiction with Strong Leading Female Protagonists

Photo courtesy of The Regal Writer

March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate the occasion, this week’s post will focus on historical fiction featuring strong female protagonists.

Throughout history, women have made huge contributions to our world – in science, politics, lifestyle, sports and, of course, literature. It makes sense to tell their stories to showcase their accomplishments. Even fictionalized accounts of real events can bring meaning to today’s readers.

Historical fiction can mean a number of things. It could be fictionalized stories that take place during  true events, such as World War II (Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale), or it could be a fictionalized story of the lives of real people (Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler).

While I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, I’ve read enough of them to compile my list of must-reads. Below are my top choices of historical fiction featuring strong leading female characters. They are not listed in any particular order. In some cases, I’ve included alternates choices.

Do you read historical fiction? Which of the stories you’ve read would you recommend?

* The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is the story of two sisters who find themselves facing life-changing horrors during Germany’s occupation of France during World War II. Vianne and Isabelle resist the war in ways they never thought possible. Beautifully written and at times heartbreaking, The Nightingale has one of the most poignant and memorable endings. It is currently being made into a movie starring real-life sisters, Dakota and Elle Fanning.

Alternate choice: Winter Garden, also by Kristin Hannah

Set in the year 70 C.E, 900 Jews held out for months against the Roman army on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. Historians say only two women and five children survived. Hoffman’s novel tells the stories of four bold and resourceful women, each of whom has come to mountain by different means. It took Hoffman five years to research and write this lengthy novel. Beautifully written but at times painful to read. Be patient; the book starts out slow and meanders in the opening section, but with each women’s story, readers get a view of the horrific pain and devastation that affected so many lives.

Alternate choice: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, also by Alice Hoffman

  • In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

    In November 1960, three sisters were found dead near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff in the Dominican Republic. A fourth sister lives however. The sisters, whose code name was Las Mariposas (the Butterflies) were leading opponents of the country’s dictatorship. The story is told through the voices of the four sisters who speak across several decades of their lives up until their deaths. I found the story intriguing and heartbreaking at times.

Set in Charleston in the early 1800s, The Invention of Wings tells the story of the two Grimke sisters, Angelina and Sarah, who became early abolitionists and advocates for women’s rights. When 11-year-old Sarah is given 10-year-old Handful to be her personal maid, Sarah balks. With alternating viewpoints, the story shows how their relationship evolves over 35 years.

Alternate: The Secret Life of Bees also by Sue Monk Kidd  

The only book on my list written by a man, The Book Thief is also set during World War II. While standing at her brother’s grave site, Liesel finds a book buried in the snow, which spurs her love of books. With the help of her step-father and a Jewish refugee that her family hides, she learns to read. Anyone who loves books and reading can empathize with young Liesel who goes to great lengths to spare books from destruction by Nazis. One of the few stories I enjoyed as both a book and a film.

  • Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

    Interestingly, I find this fictionalized account of the life of Charlotte Bronte far more compelling than the original Jane Eyre. The story covers the last nine years of Bronte’s life, her relationship with her father and sisters and how she came to write Jane Eyre.

Rewriting a Novel Isn’t Easy. Here’s Why.

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I began writing a novel in earnest last February and finished it by Memorial Day (end of May in the U.S.). It was satisfying to finally type the words “the end.”

But writing the first draft was the easy part. It’s the rewriting that was harder than I expected.

I let the manuscript cool off for several weeks before I decided to tackle the revision. That first week, I stared at the manuscript, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I had no idea how to go about editing and rewriting a project that size. I quickly got bogged down by the process, but I never got discouraged. I was determined to finish this manuscript, if only to prove that I could finish it.  

I reworked some chapters that seemed salvageable and chopped away at a few others. I set it aside again. Now I am making my way through a second revision. But as I gradually proceed, I feel I’m taking one step forward and two steps back again.

That brings me to the main point of my post today. Writing the first draft was easy. Rewriting it was where the hard work began.

Since starting the rewriting process – twice now – I’ve learned quite a bit about myself as a writer. I’m happy to share those lessons with you.

Lesson 1: Rewriting a novel is much harder than writing the first draft.

When writing the first draft, I can let my imagination fly. I may sketch out the first few chapters ahead of time, but I allow the ideas for characters, scenes and dialogue to take over. So what if I write 120,000 words for an 85,000-word story? That’s where the editing and rewriting can make a difference.

But rewriting is hard work. You can become emotionally connected to your work, and to cut so much of it can be excruciating. But it’s also necessary. As I reread the material, some scenes didn’t make sense, others were out of sequence. You may find that some characters lack depth and others aren’t needed at all. It takes time to rethink the plot and make sure it follows proper novel structure. It can take up to five rewrites – sometimes more – before the novel is truly complete.

Lesson 2: Instead of “killing your darlings,” save them for another story.

One of the toughest things to do when editing your own work is cutting material that you’ve created. It’s a painful experience. You can be so proud of the work you’ve done, only to be forced to “kill your darlings,” because they know no longer fit the story. It takes great courage to recognize that a scene or character isn’t working.

But here’s a thought. Rather than “kill off” those offending pieces of prose, send them away for adoption. Keep a file of unused material that you’ve killed off. Those sections may not work for your current novel-in-progress, but perhaps they can be adapted to fit another manuscript later.

Lesson 3: Have a clear vision of the novel’s ending.

When I began my current work, I wasn’t sure how the story would end with my protagonists besides a happily ever after. The conclusion should tie up all the loose ends. I found once I drafted my story’s ending, it was easier to handle the rewriting because I knew where the story was headed. For some writers, it might be helpful to draft the final chapters first before starting the novel’s beginning. You can also revise the ending if needed, but at least you have a direction for your story.

Lesson 4: Find the best place to jump into the story.

While it helps to have a clear vision of the novel’s ending before you begin writing (and rewriting), you might experience the beginning differently. It may come across as vague, unfocused and meandering. Perhaps there’s no conflict facing the protagonist. Or the main character has no personality.

I usually have to write and rewrite multiple versions of the first few chapters to find the right scene to jump into the story. Sometimes you start the story in the wrong place. But it’s important to determine that inciting incident that moves the story forward, or you won’t be able to engage readers’ interest.

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Lesson 5: When the going gets tough, take a break.

There will be times during the revision process when you might feel stuck, unsure what to do with the rewrite. Should that character get cut? How do I go about changing this scene? When stuck like that, I’d often step away for a few days to tackle household chores or do some other writing. When I came back to it, I could usually figure out what to do next. Rewriting can be overwhelming, and sometimes you need to give yourself a break to see the way forward.

Lesson 6: Keep your material organized.

When I began writing my novel, I didn’t realize how much organization was required. Keep copious notes, and don’t lose them. When I started writing, I had notes in different places. I’m still trying to figure out a system that works for me.

Organization is necessary to keep track of multiple versions of a scene or chapter. It’s also helpful when figuring out the proper sequence of events within the story. To make sure each scene is set up in proper sequence, I list each chapter along with a brief summary. Then I review the chapters to make sure they made sense in the order I had them. I can usually tell at a glance if I need to add another scene or rearrange the ones I’ve already written.  

Lesson 7: Be patient with your progress.

I’m not the most patient person in the world. Writing (or more accurately, rewriting) is hard work and it usually takes longer than you think it will. Rewriting is a painstakingly slow process. It comes in fits and starts, and you may never be satisfied with your progress or with the words on the page. Be patient with yourself during the rewrite. A little bit of work every day can help you move closer to your finished manuscript.  

What about you? Are you rewriting a novel? What lessons have you learned from the rewriting process?

Nine Lessons I’ve Learned on My Writing Journey

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After a brief hiatus, I’m back to writing for The Regal Writer. The time away has cleared my head. I’ve been writing this blog since 2016, and I found that I was running out of story ideas. I’ve had a lot of time to think about my writing journey, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you. Hopefully, my lessons will resonate with you.

Lesson 1: It’s never too late to begin your writing journey.

I’ve dreamed of writing a novel since I was in my 20s when I dabbled with a few story ideas. But nothing concrete ever took shape. Once I got to my 50s, well, it seemed all the more pressing to begin the process. So I took a few classes to learn about the writing process and experimented with different storytelling techniques. I realized early in this journey that I was not alone. I’ve met several new writing friends along the way with similar goals. I also learned that numerous other authors were late bloomers. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Little House on the Prairie and its series at age 65, Bram Stoker wrote Dracula at 50 and Raymond Chandler penned his first novel The Big Sleep at 51. I figured if they could find success, so could I.

Lesson 2: Read widely in different genres.

One of the first books I read about the writing life was On Writing by Stephen King, which I highly recommend. The book freed me to start this writing journey and to take chances with my writing. One piece of wisdom he shared was to read and to read widely, not just my chosen genre but others, because reading is the best way to learn about crafting stories. My library is stocked with everything from non-fiction, romance, literary and the classics. There is something to learn from each one.

Lesson 3: Keep learning – and growing.

Much like reading books of different genres, it’s important to keep up with your education about writing. It seemed that the more classes I took and the more articles I read, the more there was to know and understand about writing. I’m still learning and growing, and I expect I will continue for as long as I call myself a writer. I have also learned that the best education was the actual process of writing. The more I experiment with ideas and characters and plot lines, the more I’m learning about the craft of storytelling. You learn best by doing.

Lesson 4:  Fiction writing is very different than writing for the business world.

I’ve enjoyed a successful career as an editor and communications professional. I’ve seen my work published in association publications and earned a byline. But I quickly learned on this journey that writing fiction is a very different animal. Like other newbies, I had to start at the bottom and learn how to craft a story, how to create the plot, develop characters with depth, and how to create suspense that will satisfy readers. It’s been a long, arduous process, and I’m still working on it. That said, writing fiction is more fun.

Lesson 5: Don’t be afraid to experiment with different writing styles.

When I began this journey, I had yet to settle on novel writing. The first classes I took focused on essays of about 1,000 words. The hardest part of this experience was revealing personal details of myself, which made me uncomfortable at times. I wondered if essays were the best avenue for me. I experimented with other styles – short stories, novellas, and eventually worked my way up to a full novel. I’ve dabbled with writing suspense, romance and women’s fiction, because I enjoy reading all those types of books. Experimenting with the different genres and lengths helped me determine that women’s fiction is probably the best outlet for my talents.

Lesson 6: Don’t be afraid to fail.

I once heard those words of advice from someone interviewing me for a job some years ago, and they’ve stuck with me ever since. In writing, it’s easy to fall into the mind trap that I’ve failed just because I never finished a manuscript or an editor rejected your latest piece. But no writing effort is ever a true failure. There’s always something to be salvaged from the manuscript – a piece of dialogue or a character with a unique perspective – that you can adapt to another piece of work. In writing, the only true sign of failure is giving up. Which leads to lesson 7.

Lesson 7: Never give up on your writing dreams.

I’ve had this dream of being a writer since I was in my teens. I’ve had teachers who encouraged me along the way. While I didn’t write a word for a couple of decades while I focused on my career, built a home life and enjoyed a social life, I was still compiling life experience. When I was ready to write again, I had plenty of fodder to draw from. So if you’re grappling with how to fit writing into your life, all I can say is there are ways to make it happen if you want it badly enough.

Lesson 8: Finishing the first draft is easy; it’s the revision process that is most challenging.

With several manuscripts in various stages of completion, I can honestly say that drafting stories is so much fun. I may sketch out the first few chapters, then begin writing. That’s when my imagination takes over. Characters show up that I never envisioned and plots develop in unexpected ways. It’s when I get to revising, shaping it into a marketable piece, that the hard work begins. That’s when I need to arm myself with patience to get through the often slow, painstaking revision process.

Lesson 9: It’s not the destination; it’s the journey. Enjoy the ride.

As I mentioned above, once I begin writing, I allow my creative muse to take over. My hands on the pen or keyboard are only the conduit for the words that come. It’s that part of the process that I enjoy most. I rarely think about what the end goal is. Maybe I’ll get my work published, more likely I won’t. But I relax and enjoy the process all the same. Don’t worry about what the end looks like, just enjoy the ride. Hope these lessons inspire you to keep writing.

12 Tips to Survive – and Thrive – National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo

This article is reposted from October 2020.

Have you always wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure how to start writing it? Maybe you’ve had a story idea swirling inside your brain for the past decade and just never made the time to write it. With November right around the corner, here’s your chance.

National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place every November in which participants aim to write 50,000 words in 30 days toward a completed novel. The event is hosted NaNoWriMo, a nonprofit organization that encourages writing fluency and education for all ages. According to its website, the NaNoWriMo group believes in “the transformational power of creativity.”

Participation in this annual event has escalated from a mere 21 people in 1999 to 306,230 in 2017, according to the Novel Factory. You don’t have to sign up on their website to participate. You can do this in the comfort of your home, which is what I plan to do. While the goal is 50,000 words for the entire month, that is only the goal. If you can only achieve 30,000 words – or 1,000 words a day – that’s fine too. This is a personal challenge to motivate writers to write every day and work toward a larger goal.

Whether this is the first time you take part in the event or the tenth, here are some helpful tips for surviving this 30-day writing challenge. You can find other helpful tips here too.

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Outline and research your story ahead of time. Since you’ll be spending your November days writing, you’ll need to know what you’ll be writing about. Plan ahead. Plot your outline in advance. The Novel Factory has some awesome free downloadable tools to help you plan your story.

The same goes for research. If you’re writing historical fiction, do your research ahead of time. If you get to a place in your story where you need to do more research, make a note of what you need to do and come back to that place during the revision phase. Don’t get distracted by the desire to look up something or you will never get back to your writing.

Plan your schedule. With a hefty 50,000 word goal, you’ll need to plan how you will achieve it. That’s roughly 1,667 words a day with no days off, or 2,000 words a day with one day off each week. Those daily word goals can be daunting. So it’s important to plan how much you’ll be able to write. It might mean getting up an hour early each day to write, or doing mini sessions throughout the day. Remember, you don’t have to write in one huge chunk of time.

Try something new. Many writers use NaNoWriMo to experiment with their writing. It might be re-writing a current work-in-progress from an alternate point of view, or trying their hand at writing a different genre – science fiction when they normally write psychological suspense. This approach can be applied to your writing schedule too. For example, try getting up an hour earlier in the morning to start writing rather than waiting until the evening when you may be too tired.

Participate in live write-ins. If you’re looking to stay motivated throughout the month, check out a live write-in in your area. If you sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, you’ll be given locations of write-ins near you. With the pandemic, I imagine there might be virtual write-ins too. 

Work with a writing buddy. When you participate with a friend, you can motivate each other and help you through the rough spots. If you’re both competitive, set up your own contest to see who can write more words each day. Try putting a giant thermometer on your wall. As you complete your daily word count, fill in the thermometer with red to see your progress. Then compare your progress with that of your friend’s.

Be prepared to put some activities on the backburner. That may mean less time hanging out on social media, less time watching Netflix or Hulu or shutting off the TV. It could also mean spending less time socializing with your friends and fewer Zoom meetings. You’ll have to decide what you can live without for the short term while you work on your masterpiece.

Silence your inner critic/editor. As you write, turn off the internal critic who tells you that your work isn’t good. It’s easy to get sidetracked by negative thoughts. First drafts usually aren’t very good, so relax and just tell your story without judgment and self-criticism. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to challenge yourself to write your story. There will always be time for editing later.

Avoid going back to the beginning. If you are ever tempted to read what you’ve already written or rewrite it, don’t. You may decide that your work is terrible and give up. Or you may want to start editing it, which only wastes time. If necessary, read the last page or two that you wrote to remember where you left off, but otherwise, keep a forward focus.

Find your writing rhythm. You may find one week into NaNoWriMo that you’ve hit your stride. That’s great news. If you get to the end of your 2,000 word goal and you still feel motivated to keep going, then by all means, keep writing. That’s one way to build up your word count early on in the challenge so if you feel a bit sluggish by the end of the month, you can slow down without harming your end goal.

Reward yourself when you reach milestones. When you get to the 5,000 word mark, for example, treat yourself to your favorite snack or watch a favorite movie. Set another reward at 10,000 words, 20,000 words and so on. Occasional rewards serve as great motivational tools to keep you writing.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your writing goals. So you only wrote 30,000 words. Congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. That’s better than not writing at all. Remember the purpose of this event is to challenge yourself to make quick, steady progress.

Make time for exercise and fresh air. All work and no play can stifle your creativity. Make sure you get outside if the weather is nice, and go for a walk or a bike ride. It’ll help clear the cobwebs from your brain and you can return to your desk with a fresh perspective.

Most important, have fun with NaNoWriMo. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work involved, but stay positive. Look at how much you will learn and grow as a writer. No matter how many words you eventually put down on the page, you can be proud of your accomplishment as you see your story develop.

For more great tips to survive NaNoWriMo, check out this article from Reedsy.

Learn to Read Books with a Writer’s Eye

Recently, I read A Deadly Game of Magic, a young adult mystery by Joan Lowery Nixon, who had been a favorite author many years ago. I decided to pick up a couple of her mysteries that I had not read before. A Deadly Game of Magic lived up to my memory of her suspenseful writing. Not only did the story keep me turning pages, it scared the pants off me – more than any other book I’ve read in recent memory. (Then again, I’m easy to scare.)

Why was her book so successful in my opinion? What kept me turning the pages to the very end? How did Nixon create tension throughout the story? How did she manage to scare me (and other readers, I’m sure) without mentioning a single drop of blood or showing a dead body?

These are questions I will have to ask myself the next time I read the book.

We’ve all had those novels that we could not put down. Or conversely, we’ve read stories that bored us to tears or made us feel confused by the protagonist’s actions.

This is where it helps to know how to read a novel with a writer’s perspective. It’s one thing to read for pure enjoyment and entertainment. It’s quite another to observe the techniques the author used to develop the story. You read to notice how the story was constructed.

In other words, you read in order to learn about the writing process.

As Gabriela Pereira at DIYMFA explains: “You understand that every piece of writing has a purpose. Once we read toward that purpose, we can see how writers shape and craft their words to accomplish what they want.”

When you read with a writer’s eye, you might focus on certain areas of writing, such as:

* Plot/story structure – How does the plot develop? What is the inciting incident that starts the story?
* Emotional tone – What is the tone of the story? Is the protagonist sad, angry, surprised, or confused at the start? How does the tone change throughout the story?
* Character development – is it consistent throughout the story. Do you care what happens to the protagonist?
* Conflict – is there enough conflict to keep your interest?
* Point of view – Which point of view is used to tell the story? Are there multiple viewpoints or just one? Would you use a different point of view if you were telling this same story?
* Theme – Most stories have a theme, such as good always wins out over evil. Does it come through the story?
* Setting – Where does the story take place? Can you visualize where it is? How important is the setting to the story? For example, in Nixon’s mystery, the story takes place at an old home in the middle of nowhere that is thought to be uninhabited – but it isn’t.

So how do you go about reading with a writer’s eye? First you need to understand that writing consists of a series of choices by the author on how they will tell their story. As you read, you work to identify what some of those choices are, whether they work well or not, and whether they can work within your own writing.

Author Shaunta Grimes says as “story consumers” (I love that description), readers must first “read deeply and analytically.”

But does that mean you must study every paragraph of every chapter? No, say most writers. Go back and re-read only those sections that drew your interest. For example, was there a particular setting description that intrigued you? Or a chapter that was filled with tension? Go back and re-read those passages to study the techniques the author used.

Grimes shares a three-step process for doing a “deep dive” to study an author’s craft.

1. Choose a story you’re already familiar with. Perhaps it’s a book from the Harry Potter series, or a childhood favorite such as Little Women. When you’re already familiar with the story, you can study certain passages without getting distracted.

2. Know what you’re reading for. As mentioned previously, you’ll be looking for specific passages. For example, you may want to study how the author makes transitions between the current time and the past. Or you may want to look at the way the protagonist’s character is developed so that she feels real to you.

3. Read with a pencil in hand. Don’t be shy about marking up the book and highlighting sections that stand out. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and try to understand why.

Another word of advice: Be patient with this process. It takes longer to read as a writer because you are studying and absorbing the content.  

It’s one thing to read for pleasure. But by studying the works of others authors, we can all learn to be better writers ourselves.  

How to Craft Stories – the Hallmark Movie Way

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I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Hallmark movies. I’ve been watching that channel on and off now for at least five years. Especially during the holiday season, I am glued to Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, losing more than two months of my life as I immerse myself into their holiday rom-coms.

As I watch their productions, however, I notice a pattern in story telling, which really isn’t hard to do. Hallmark movies follow their own story structure, though it isn’t that different from other types of films or from romance novels. Hallmark gets a bad rap for its formulaic story structure, but that’s what makes them so popular with their viewers, who come to expect those feel-good stories. After you’ve watched as many as I have, one story looks and sounds just like the next.

That said, I enjoy these movies because they make me feel good at the end. As a hopeful romantic (why they call it hopeless, I’ll never understand), I’m always rooting for the couple to get together. I like to see that two people can find happiness despite the obstacles thrown in their path.

I also enjoy these movies for the pure escapism they provide from the everyday world. I suppose if the outside world didn’t seem so dark and hostile at times, Hallmark wouldn’t be as popular. Further, I like what they have done for my imagination, which keeps spilling out a stream of story ideas that may or may not fit the Hallmark structure.

But as a writer, I recognize the pitfalls of these films too, such as the predictable plot structure. I also dislike how they engross me so much that I lose time away from writing. Since Hallmark began showing their annual barrage of Christmas movies in late October (another aspect I dislike — way too early, in my opinion), I’ve made little progress toward my own writing projects. I’m ready for January when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

As I mentioned, there is a set structure to these stories. I’ve outlined the basic elements below, based on my own observations as well as comments from screenwriters and producers who presented at a Story Summit workshop recently.

1. Start with a strong protagonist. Rom-coms feature female leads who enjoy an aspirational career, such as a lawyer, a bakery owner, florist or nurse. While she seems content with her career, she has one great desire to achieve something within her career or outside of it. She feels her life is complete just as it is and is NOT looking for love.

2. Surround the protagonist with a supporting cast. The female protagonist usually has one or two close companions who are her confidants. They provide counsel and advice when they see she needs it, and encourage her when she feels down. In addition, she may be part of a larger group of friends or colleagues at work or in the community.

3. Some incident sets the action into motion. This is true for all stories, not just Hallmark rom-coms. The female lead might get a plum assignment, get engaged or break off a relationship, or maybe she receives an inheritance. Something significant happens that sets her on a course that puts her in the path of her love interest.

4. Create a compelling love interest. No Hallmark rom-com would be complete without the love interest. He may not get along with the female lead at first. They likely clash over conflicting goals or they’re fighting for the same thing but in different ways. However, he complements the female lead in ways that may not be obvious at first. He provides a skill or specialized knowledge that helps her achieve a goal, and occasionally, she does the same for him.

5. Allow the couple to grow together over time. The two leads are thrown together to work toward a common goal – planning a fundraiser, putting on a production, or solving a mystery. The more they work together, the closer they get and the more attracted they become to the other person. They each provide the other with a perspective they’re lacking. They keep fighting the attraction, however. Further, one or the both of them are harboring a secret that could tear them apart.

6. Create confrontation by revealing the protagonist’s secret. Once the secret is revealed, a confrontation ensues and the leads wonder if they can trust the other person. All seems lost. But through the separation, the female lead begins to realize what’s really important to her.

7. Save the kiss for last. They see the fruits of their labors in the final scenes – they reach their fundraising goals, the production takes place and they solve the mystery. The couple reconciles their differences because they each realize they are better together than they are apart. They finally come together for a kiss, which takes place in the very last scene.

A couple of other pointers: For Christmas-themed stories, either the protagonist or love interest lacks the holiday spirit, so the other person helps them regain it by engaging them in Christmas activities. That said, there are so many times I can watch scenes of playful snowball fights, baking cookies or Christmas tree lightings.

I will leave with one more bit of advice, and this stems from a personal pet peeve. Keep the title short and pithy, which will be easier for readers and viewers to remember. I find the longer movie titles are distracting and do nothing to entice me to watch.

As a writer, I’ve begun to look at movies the same way I experience books. I pay more attention to the key elements, like the characters, plot, setting and dialogue. I observe how the story unfolds, the relationship of the characters and I consider different ways I can tell my stories. This can either be helpful to me or a distraction. That said, I notice that when I’m immersed in the movie or book, I don’t pay attention as much attention to those details because the story is too compelling. That means those elements are working well together.

Whether writing a rom-com novel or a film script, these story telling elements will create happy endings that will make readers feel good.

To learn more:
Inside the TV Networks’ Battle for Christmas Movie Supremacy

Your NaNoWriMo First Draft is Done. What’s Next?

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Congratulations! You’ve just completed your first NaNoWriMo challenge (or maybe it’s your third or your tenth), and your novel is nearly complete. Take a moment to savor your accomplishment. Finishing a first draft is hard work, so celebrate this important milestone.

Once you catch your breath, you’ll probably wonder “What do I do next?” You know your draft isn’t perfect—yet. You know you have work to do. Remember that the first draft is only a rough draft, like doing a practice run of a marathon or doing a sound check before the live performance.

If you thought writing the first draft was hard, brace yourself for the next phase. That’s the revision stage—the process of rewriting, editing, adding, subtracting, switching scenes around and creating new dialogue or eliminating characters.

“Rough drafts can be overwhelming,” writes Emily Wenstrom at The Write Practice. “Your first instinct might be to never look at that hot mess again.”

But you will need to look at it again, whether it’s a hot mess or not. Usually, it’s not nearly as bad as you think it will be. Still, be prepared to do a lot more work on your manuscript to make it publishable.

As the experts at Scribendi write, “the first draft is about telling a story; the second draft is about writing a novel.”

To take the intimidation factor out of the rewriting process, it might be helpful to plan how to go about your revision process. To get a good inside look into one author’s revision process, check out Joanna Penn’s explanation in this blog post.

Here are some steps that can help you answer the question, “What’s Next?  

Step 1: Give your manuscript a rest. Set it aside for a few days or weeks to “cool off” as if it were a freshly baked pie. This waiting time allows the story to settle a bit. When you allow enough time to pass before looking at it again, you can review it with a fresh eye. A week or two might be enough time or it might be several months. That all depends on your desire to rework your draft.

Step 2: Print out a copy of the manuscript and review it from start to finish. It might help to read the story out loud, which might help you catch sticking points in dialogue or narrative. Don’t revise just yet. Instead, jot down notes in the margins for the changes you want to make. The first pass of review can take a week or longer, and the edits tend to be more substantial than later passes.  During this first review pass, pay attention to the scenes that need to be developed more fully. There’s plenty of room to develop the setting, characters and plot. Understanding these elements will serve as a foundation as you work though the rest of the story.

Step 3: Return to the beginning and make the changes you noted in the margins. This can be a painstaking process, so be patient. There will be a lot of notes and tons of rewriting. But that’s all part of the revision process. When you are done with the rewrite, print it out again and read it through. Do the same process of note-taking. You might have several review passes before you are satisfied with your manuscript enough to send it to an editor.

Wenstrom suggests focusing on the biggest issues first and work your way down to smaller details. It might be tempting to run spell check first or correct little inconsistencies, but Wenstrom warns against it. These are purely cosmetic changes and a form of procrastination to avoid having to deal with the larger aspects that make the story hum.

Step 4. Remember there’s a difference between editing and revising. According to Scribendi, editing is concerned with the technical aspects of language, while revising tackles the larger issues of storytelling, such as plot structure, dialogue, character development and pacing.

Here are some of the key areas that will need the most attention.  

1. Plot. Does the story start in the right place? Is the plot interesting and does it follow a strong time line? You may have to add or delete scenes. In any case, problems with plot will require the most rewriting work.

2. Character. Pay special attention to your protagonist. Does he/she change over the course of the story? Are characters believable? Are their actions consistent with their personalities? Make sure your story shows how the protagonist changes over time, for better or worse, which makes the story more compelling. Also consider if any characters are forgotten. For example, do they appear once early in the story only to disappear as the story progresses?

3. Language. Now that you’ve written your 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo (give or take a few thousand), pay attention to extra padding in the copy—useless words like really, very, and just. Avoid dialogue tags, (he said/she said) and pay attention to any language quirks of your own–wordiness, redundancies and other empty phrases that don’t move the story along.

4. Dialogue. Does the dialogue flow naturally? Is it authentic? Read the dialogue out loud and note the rhythm of the conversation and whether it’s believable and natural.

5. Sensory descriptions. Make sure to include sensory descriptions and imagery in your novel which depicts a sense of place, time and theme. Keep descriptions simple and concise, and avoid flowery, extravagant language that may sound nice but don’t add anything to the story.

6. Inconsistent details. Watch for changes in details throughout the story. For example, at the start, your protagonist might have had long, straight blonde hair and by chapter seven, she had shoulder-length auburn waves.

Because there are many things to take note of in your novel, it may take several review and revision passes to catch all of them. The last thing you want to do is submit a manuscript to an editor filled with errors and inconsistencies.

“Every rough draft is ugly. That’s because it’s a first draft, not a final draft,” writes Wenstrom at The Write Practice. “Use it for what it is – a foundation – and build from it to get your story to its full potential.”

20 Best-Selling Authors Share Their Best Advice about Writing

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In the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a time to give thanks to the many blessings we enjoy in our lives. At this time of year, I am always grateful for the writing talent I’ve been given, as well as the abundance of story ideas I receive and the courage to share my writing experience with others. I’m also grateful for my readers. Thank you for reading my blog and commenting on posts; it keeps me grounded and motivated to keep writing.

During this Thanksgiving week, I thought I’d share a compilation of the best advice from the world’s most celebrated published authors. Let these words of wisdom serve as motivation for your own work, whether it be a novel, memoir or short story collection.

It’s comforting to know that other writers have gone through the trials and triumphs of a writing journey, like I’m going through now. It’s also worth remembering that though we might each live/work in isolation, we are all part of one interconnected community of writers.

Be grateful for your writing talents, dedicate yourself to learning your craft, and share your stories with pride. Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are celebrating this year. Enjoy!

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“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”   — George Orwell

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise, you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of our right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”   — Margaret Atwood

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the muse shows up too.”  — Isabel Allende

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write.”  — Stephen King

“Nothing will happen unless you produce at least one page per day.”  — John Grisham

“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, and you find out who they really are.”  — Joss Whedon

“A short story must have a single mood, and every sentence must build towards it.”  — Edgar Allen Poe

“Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”  — Kurt Vonnegut

“When you’re stuck and sure you’ve written absolute garbage, force yourself to finish and then decide to fix or scrap it – or you will never know if you can.”  — Jodi Picoult

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”  — William Faulkner

“Run your own race. Don’t worry about how fast someone else writes, how much another author makes, how many followers another author has. Write what makes you excited, and the enthusiasm will come through on the page.”  — Christina Lauren

“I think success requires a lot of hours learning the craft through books and workshops from talented teachers, to the point where you have enough confidence and instinct to sit down and say, “I’m now going to perform.” Where you can apply it to your past projects and drafts and understand what didn’t work, as well as what did.”  Robert Dugoni, author of My Sister’s Grave

“It’s freeing to actually write the thing that you want to write, because everybody when they start out tries to be the authors that they loved. I was able to explore all of these different voices, but every author has to come up with their own individual voice. It takes a while.”  — Jenny Lawson, author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

“Finish the book and don’t let the success of others make you feel less.”  — Beverly Jenkins, romance novelist

“It takes a lot of time and effort to get good enough at writing to make books that are fun to read, and you just need to accept that. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a deep natural gift at writing. Even writers who are famous for just one book did a lot of writing before they wrote that book.” — Andy Weir, author of The Martian

“You have to believe in this career, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to move with great determination forward, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult.”  — Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale

“Everyone loves talking about how busy they are. But there are 24 hours in a day. Make a half-hour or hour in a day, or an hour in a week, for writing. Just make sure you have one designated time—however long it is, given your constraints—to focus on writing.” — Roxane Gay, author of The Bad Feminist

“It’s very hard to write without having things to write about. That doesn’t mean necessarily going out as ‘a writer’. But having experiences that interest you in the world are a good first step to having material.” — Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball

“I am a huge believer in revision. The more times you write it, the more alive it becomes. For me, very often the first, second and third times it’s kind of dead material, but the more you go over it, the more you rewrite it, the more it comes to life.” — Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic

“The best advice I can give is to close the door to your writing room and not worry about anyone’s feelings until you’ve finished a draft. You don’t know what you’ll discover through the writing unless you write it—and considering people’s feelings before you’ve even written is a form of self-censorship.” — Dani Shapiro, memoirist