I keep having to remind myself this.
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(To all you NaNoWriMo writers out there: This article is my gift to you. Good job!)
You’ve written something, and you’ve typed the last line, and you’re done! Woohoo, time to celebrate. Tomorrow, ignoring your hangover, you’re going to rush it out to the publisher and…
Stop! Hold on, not so fast. You’re not done yet. As perfect and wonderful as you think your story is, you are far too close to it to be at all objective. Your best bet is to put it away for a while. A month at least, longer if possible, then go back over it with a fresh perspective.
|“Put it away for a month?” you exclaim. “Are you nuts?” No, not nuts. Understand this: you are still hot off your project and your internal writing machine is still primed and running — time to jump right into your next project while the one you’ve just finished cools down and rests.|
When going over it with a fresh perspective, what you will most likely find is that the parts you really liked are not so good (and may even be embarrassing), and the parts that you didn’t think were so good now seem so brilliant that you can’t believe it came out of your very own brain. So you start going through and rewriting, making adjustments here and there, cutting out parts that don’t contribute to the story, and smoothing the rough patches so that the text flows easily in through the eyes.
Good job. The rewrite is the important part, the part where the story really comes together. When you’re finished with that, guess what?
It’s time to put it away again for a while. You want to give it at least one more read-through with as fresh a perspective as you can. In fact, I recommend you read it out loud to yourself, all of it, because that way an entirely different part of your brain will process it and you’ll discover — or, actually, hear — things you didn’t notice before. Turns of phrases you thought were clever are suddenly awkward. Words are arranged wrong, and you’ve typed things like “was was” instead of “he was.” How could you not see that before?
Because, dear writer, these words have come from inside you and were processed with your fingers and eyes … and when you go back and read it, you don’t really see it. Your brain recognizes it and remembers what you thought you typed, not what you actually typed. It skips over the input coming from your eyes and replaces what it knows from memory. But, when you read it out loud, whole other sections of your brain get involved, parts that have no previous experience with the manuscript.
Even after you’ve done this, you’re still not ready to publish. The story all makes perfect sense to you, but you are completely intimate with it. A reader is not, and there may be gaping holes where they need to know something only you know in order to understand why your character whacked the mailman over the head with a wrench, or decided to take up juggling, or has an aversion to pet rocks.
You need an editor. Even if you’re planning on sending it to a traditional publisher, who has editors, you still need an editor to make it to the threshold of perfection to sufficiently impress the pants off the publisher’s editor.
Yes, you read that right. You need an editor before you show it to an editor. It need not be a professional editor, but it does need to be a reader who will be honest with feedback without letting his or her ego get into the mix. What I highly recommend is you find and join a good writers group, either in your town or online.
Your editors in this case will be test readers, and fellow critique partners. One thing to understand up front is that critiquing a story, or especially a novel, is hard work and requires time and effort. You can’t expect to get this without also giving something in return — and trust me, the pleasure of reading your unedited writing is, honestly, not usually something you can consider payment for their effort.
I’m not saying you need to hire a professional editor or proofreader, though they do exist and are a wonderful resource if you can go in that direction — what I am saying is that you must reward these people somehow, even if it’s with a bottle of their favorite expensive scotch, or a beautiful gold pen, or by babysitting their kids for free for a week.
Also, and more likely, they’ll have manuscripts of their own to critique — and that’s a fair trade. There is an art to giving a good critique, too, and I’ll cover that in a future article. Suffice to say, when you do a proofread and critique of someone else’s work, you give it the same careful consideration as you’d expect them to give yours.
A good writers group (yes, there are not-so-good ones out there) will give you this resource in droves, but you will work for it. Even a not-so-good one can be useful if you are careful in your dealings within it. It’s best to get involved and test the group out with short stories, and ascertain the following qualities:
- Are there any big, overshadowing egos involved, who need to lord how wonderful they are over everyone?
- How much drama is involved?
- Do any of these people have any real experience?
- Most importantly: What’s the ratio of calm, reasonable people vs. outright jackasses?
A good writers group contains a balance of people who all get along; who don’t get their egos easily bruised; who deliver criticism kindly and constructively; who don’t raise their voice unless it’s in boisterous joy; and who don’t contain pompous, self-important assholes.
Even if you find yourself in a group with one or more negative traits, you may find and partner with others in the group who are more reasonable — these people will become your friends, maybe even lifelong friends, and if you work your ass off helping them polish their manuscripts to perfection they will hopefully reciprocate and do the same for you.
So we’re down to the wire here. You’ve given your manuscript, your darling, your baby, over to other people to judge and correct. You’re holding your breath, hoping they like it. That is absolutely natural. When criticism starts coming in, you get defensive.
This is very important. Stop.
Do not defend your manuscript.
DO NOT DEFEND IT.
You asked for criticism. They’re giving you what you asked for. Do not, under any circumstances, argue or try to explain how they don’t understand, or why they’re wrong.
DO NOT DO THAT.
You asked for an opinion and you’re getting it. THANK THEM FOR IT.
You do not have to agree. You do not have to do what they tell you to do. But you do have to thank them for it, without any further comment. Keep your hysterical denial inside. This denial is natural and perfectly okay, but you want — and NEED — their input, and no one is going to want to give it to you if you are unpleasant about receiving it.
This is hard, but necessary. You must do your absolute best to divorce yourself from your creation, and let them do their worst to it, because — and I can’t stress this enough — no matter how harsh it seems, it will be infinitely worse when you release it into the world at large. Someone, somewhere, will always hate your writing. Someone somewhere will always dump all over you, publicly, in front of everyone, it searing bold letters up on Amazon or B&N, or in their blog, or in the New York Times.
The flip side of this is there will also always be people who absolutely love what you write, who will take it to heart, and who will incorporate your thoughts into their life through what you’ve written. The sad part is, unlike the negative prick who dumped all over you, these people who love you will do it silently, privately, and you’ll rarely, if ever, know about it.
But they are there. They will always be there. You’ll only detect them through the money you end up getting when you see people are spending their hard earned wages on everything you put out there. Every penny you receive will be a sign of love.
So back to the critique of your work: like I said, you can ignore what they say if it doesn’t make sense to you. If you give your manuscript out and get five critiques, and only one brings up the perceived problem, you can ignore it if you want. If two people bring it up, then you can’t ignore it. If three, four, or all five bring it up, there is a definite thing you have to address. A glaring problem.
It’s okay to have a glaring problem. Nothing ever comes out perfect the first time. No matter what it is, you can fix it. It may be a little work, or it may be a lot of work, but you do have to fix it.
It all comes down to your readers — what kind of experience do you want them to have? They pay money for your words, and they invest time out of their lives to read it. What are you giving them in return for this? If you shit on them, they will be angry, not come back, and badmouth you to everyone who will listen.
You don’t want to do that to your readers if you want to keep writing and keep selling, especially if it’s the first thing of yours they’ve ever read.
You want them to be glad they read what you’ve written.
The manuscript can have some flaws, and it can have some plot holes — it’s not a good thing to have, but they can be there — if the reader still comes away with a pleasant feeling for having read it. This is how you build a readership. This is how you cultivate a group of people who you hopefully love, even though you’ve never met them, who will be excited to see whatever you produce next.
While you’re editing, based on critiques, or based on professional feedback, this is the ultimate goal to shoot for: a really good experience for the reader, leaving them wanting more.
That’s why everyone needs an editor, because it’s extremely rare that you can pull that off without one.
For some odd, unfathomable reason, there is a gremlin in the heads of most of us, and that gremlin’s sole purpose is to screw up every wonderful thing we try to do.
If you are lucky enough to be one of the few people who don’t suffer this, there is no point for you to keep reading. Go. Do something wonderful.
For the rest of us, we know this shadow creature all too well. Call it what you like: Procrastination. Resistance. Mister Lazybones. Satan. Whatever its name, it’s there, lurking. Its dark hand on your shoulder. Whispering demotivational crap into your subconscious, or distracting you with shiny objects, or giving you the idea for something else prematurely, coaxing you to drop what you’re doing and work endlessly on other things…
…but finishing nothing.
As a writer, when you start a project, your job is to give it a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying end. Sometimes you lose interest, or don’t know where to go next, or get stuck because the story has gone off in some wrong direction. Sometimes the story just doesn’t work. It’s perfectly okay for you to abandon something and work on something more rewarding.
But (and you knew there was a “but” coming) at some point you need to finish something. You may be a writer because you write, but there’s no point in writing unless you intend for someone to read what you write. Even if you’re writing something to be read after you die, it needs to be finished.
If you find you have 30 things started and nothing is finished, it’s time to put and end on something just to know what it feels like.
When I was young, and we’re talking grade school, if I didn’t know what to do next with some little story I was scribbling — with a No. 2 pencil on blue-lined binder paper — I would end it abruptly with this line:
But suddenly and without warning, hydrogen bombs began exploding everywhere, and they all died in screaming atomic hellfire. The end.
My problem then, and occasionally now, is I had no idea how to end the story. When Monty Python didn’t know how to end a skit, they did something parallel to my atomic ending, and would drop a 10 ton weight on the characters, or have Terry Gilliam animate God’s foot coming down out of the clouds and and squash the the entire scene. The trick to avoid this, I’ve learned, is to not actually start a story until you know exactly what the ending is. Sometimes it’s best to even write the ending first.
It helps, it really does, and you don’t even have to use that ending — it just gives you something to aim at. Most times a different ending will form all by itself. Sometimes it will even happen a lot sooner than you thought it would.
Another idea is, if you find you just can’t finish something, is to write flash fiction — stories of 1000 words or shorter. Or write some poetry. Haiku, even — with only three lines, that’s all there is: a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
If the problem is something deeper, where you can’t bring yourself to actually do the writing — where you’re fighting the evil, demonic gremlin of Procrastination — the best way to combat that is to pick a time everyday to write, and during that time, that is all you are allowed to do. Even if it’s just an hour a day. Just write.
Set an alarm to remind you. Set a timer to give you the time. During that time there is no phone calls, no conversations, no Internet. No TV. Put earphones in your ears, turn on some pre-selected music that helps you with your creativity, open your manuscript and start typing.
No excuses. No, you don’t need to do dishes instead. Not during this hour. You don’t need to check email. You don’t need to call your grandmother. IN THIS HOUR you need to put your fingers on your keyboard, or your pen to paper, and conjure words into existence. No judgement is allowed, no re-writing. One word follows another, and one sentence follows another, and one paragraph follows another.
Procrastination will try at every insidious opportunity to derail you. If it fails to distract you, or discourage you, it will then try and make you fall asleep. At least that happens to me. I could be hopped up on energy drinks and the moment I start making progress on a manuscript I will often, out of the blue, nod off. This could have something to do with the mind, deep in a creative state, being close to that of the dream state. Maybe. But more likely it’s that gremlin, determined to see me fail, flicking my pineal gland with it’s dark clawlike finger and causing me to lose consciousness.
Pardon my language, but I hate that little f**ker.
You will never completely defeat Procrastination. You may quash it for a while, keep it at bay, but it will always be waiting and ready to work its way back in, usually from your blind side and without you knowing. All you can do is plan for it, and have countermeasures. I’m not going to go into details here, because that would be a whole book — and in fact there are libraries worth of books on the subject, two good ones of which I’ll list at the end.
Suffice to say, if you want to be a writer, you must not only write, but you must finish something. If you’re diving in and trying to write a novel, but you’ve never written a short story, maybe you should consider writing a short story instead. Or, like mentioned above, some flash fiction, and then work your way to longer forms. But whatever you do, endeavor to finish. And I don’t mean by dropping hydrogen bombs on the story, or dropping a 10 Ton weight on it, or having God stomp it like a bug. I mean a real, proper ending, one which satisfies your readers.
That being said, in your first draft, it doesn’t have to be perfect, because once you’ve finally finished, there comes The Editing. But that’s another subject.
And with that, I’ll finish this article.
This goes out to anyone who dreams of being a writer, and especially to those tortured souls doing NaNoWriMo this month.
Follow the Great Nike Way: Just do it.
If you write something, even if it’s unpubished or unpublishable, you are still writing. That’s what writers primarily do. They write.
If you are writing, and you say you are a writer, then you damn well are a writer. You don’t need a permit, or certificate, or a degree that states you are a writer. You don’t need anyone’s approval — in fact I would hazard to say the more disapproval you get from others, the more legitimate your claim. You are a writer because you say you are a writer, and you actively write things.
If you want to be a writer, then just start writing. Anything. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense. It could be fanfiction — it doesn’t matter.
That’s what this NaNoWriMo craziness is especially useful for: jumpstarting your lifelong love/hate relationship with writing things.
If I never audaciously made the claim, to just about everyone’s amusement and scorn, that I am a writer, I would never have been published, and I wouldn’t be making my living right now as a working writer. It’s not my title, but it’s a big part of what I do, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I were not, in fact, a writer.
But even if I wasn’t earning my keep as a writer, I would still say I’m a writer because that’s what the f**k I am.
It’s a chicken and egg thing. One of the two has to have come first, otherwise there would not be any chickens. You will not become a writer until you decide you are one. Once you decide you are one, start typing words. And then make the commitment and tell someone, “I’m a writer.”
Expect people to guffaw. “Really? Are you published?”
That’s usually when your face turns red. But guess what? It matters not. If you keep writing you will be published. And, an unpublished writer is still a writer. Publishing, especially in this day and age, is inevitable, because you now have a number of options, only one of which is traditional publishing. Your goals should only be two-fold at this point:
- Start writing and keep writing.
- Do everything you can to keep learning how to make your writing ever more enjoyable for your reader.
Notice I didn’t say anything about making your writing better. “Better” is extremely subjective. No matter what you do, someone will hate your writing. Accept it. Shrug it off. It’s true in everything in this weird thing we call “life.” You can never please everyone. Someone will always look down their nose at you.
You goal cannot be to please everyone otherwise you are guaranteeing failure. Your goal is to find and cultivate a core group of people who “get” your writing, and make it ever more enjoyable for them to read you.
I’ll cover that, and lots of other stuff, in future blogs … so stay tuned!
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UPDATE: Nearly two years ago I made the switch from two spaces after a period, to one space. It was not easy, and it took a long time, but its finally reached the point where it feels natural and I don’t think about it. I thought I’d bring this blog post up to the top to, I suppose, commemorate this feat.
About an hour ago I finished reading an article on Slate called “Space Invaders” that calls for the death of the second space after a period.
It pissed me off and I wanted to write a scathing rebuttal, but thought – no, someone in the comments must have beaten me to it. Everyone in publishing knows that there are two spaces after a period. It’s standard form. Strunk and White said so. Right?
Wrong. I’m glad I checked. No one brought up an example from The Elements of Style in the comments that showed proper spacing after a period, and so I had to go and look myself. I went through the book front to back and came up empty handed. So I consulted my other handy writing guidebook, the Yahoo Style Guide for online writing.
Nothing. I have nothing to back me up, but Farhad Manjoo – the author of the Slate article – has plenty to back him up. And so I am wrong.
This sucks. First my astrological sign changed (apparently I’m no longer a Scorpio) and now I find that everything I’ve ever typed is wrong?
Including this article?
So I thought, and thought, and thunk and thunk, kind of like Winnie the Pooh wandering back and forth trying to remember where his secret stash of honey is, and finally came up with where I learned the golden rule of “two spaces after a period.”
1974. Webster Junior High School. Typing class.
Oddly enough this came to my attention a few weeks ago, because I’d noticed that on one of my websites if a line breaks at the end of a sentence, the next line has an errant indent from the second space. I’d assumed a problem in the formatting, but now I have to come to accept that the problem is not with the website template. The problem is that I’m using typewriter rules in a world where typewriters all sit unused behind glass museum displays.
This is going to be hard. Over 35 years of touch-typing reflex tells my thumb to bounce twice on the space bar after touching the period button. Like just now. And here too.
The funny thing is that if I type a period in Microsoft Word and follow it with only one space, Microsoft helpfully puts a squiggly underline below it to remind me to add the second one. I found the setting in Word – it defaults to two spaces.
With some sadness I set it to one.
The mistake I’d made in fiction for most of my career is to create a group of characters who all like each other. The secret, I think, is the opposite: Create a bunch of interesting characters who all hate each other. Wind them up and let them go. The story will write itself, and in the process, some of those characters will end up as friends.
The video on this seems a bit choppy but it’s okay, just close your eyes and listen…