It was great talking with you today. Thanks for sharing your ideas for your book. I totally get your concern that your story might not hold meaning for anyone else—that it might not be (a) valuable (contribution) to literature or society.
But I want to assure you, if you can dig deep and excavate the shining core of your story and write about it (convey it) in a compelling way, readers will connect with what you have to say.
Of course, there’s a certain skill to writing a compelling story—but that can be learned.
You seem really engaged by (invested in) (committed to) your idea, and that is the reliable spark that will fuel the work of learning that/those skill(s).
Together, we’ll find the techniques that will make your story/idea strong, give the deep meaning of it, its value, a shape and a presence that will make its inherent value/worth evident to your readers.
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, in a bit of a funk, I wrote a post titled “Sometimes Don’t Write.” In it, I talk about needing a break, sometimes, for our forebrains to have rest. REST was my main focus then. Today, a year later, I have an update for that:
We writers are WORD-y people. We like to think in language, play with language, describe in words—even that old (accurate) adage “Show don’t tell,” is all about using even MORE words to describe a situation or image.
For instance, if we’re just telling, we might, economically, write, “Sue’s looking happy today.” But if we’re doing our duty to our readers, we’ll dig in an write, “______.”
That’s XX words compared to the original XX words! And we had to think through each one in writing.
So. Even our writing instructors/mentors/teachers/guides … they are always wanting MORE WRITING, MORE WORDS from us.
So, writing is actually a translation—of what we see, feel, imagine, remember—into the hard currency of words. And like going into the coalmine of our brains to find these nuggets, this translation is hard work.
And sometimes exhausting. I don’t know about you, but finding language to explain myself all week—to writers and in my own text on the page—my brain can feel like two stones rubbing together: dry, but unlikely to produce fire!
That’s why, in addition to a daily journaling practice—which does keep my hand-to-brain connection wired and the messages flowing—I also make collage.
It’s completely nonverbal, and gives me great satisfaction. My style (as you can see), is very loose. Lots of smearing of paint, tearing of paper, and scribbling of pencil! But most importantly for me, it allows me to be playful and creative without using language, which is the coin of my realm.
And, interestingly, and different from journaling/writing, I find my thoughts free-flowing as I choose images and colors and trial-and-error assemble them into a pleasing (to me) composition.
Like my daily journaling practice, my art-making habit contributes ultimately to an easier flow on the page—and also to making wider, more unexpected (freer) connections and associations. It’s like letting my brain out to play.
Maybe that wider-association-making is specific to collage. I mean, visually, that’s exactly what collage is/how collage happens—through tapping unexpected juxtapositions.
But maybe if you wantto create more order and organization in your writing, you might try the non-verbal rhythmic pattern-adherent craft of knitting. Or (and ‘m a terrible cook1), maybe if you enjoy spending (nonverbal) time in the kitchen, cooking, it would lead to ____ more SENSORY writing?
You see where I’m going, right? While it seems any nonverbal creative activity (gardening … bookbinding, …) gives your word-making mind a break, while still inviting you to experience the suppleness of creative engagement and play … maybe WHAT nonverbal creative practice you choose/focus on can be an RX (prescription) to heal what ails your writing! An antidote or stimulant to fix some aspect of your writing that’s foundering (for more about this and how, perhaps, to identify what needs fixing and what art form would be helpful, see 21st Century Mind).
Other writer friends I know do needlecrafts, or garden, or knit, or paint, or … cook or … all opportunities to give the ol’ word-making machinery a rest.
The good news! I come back from a session at my art-making table refreshed.
Wander the stacks of your local bricks-and-mortar bookstore or the virtual stacks of Amazon looking for new traveling companions. Follow other writers, authors, editors, agents on Twitter or Instagram or join a Facebook group or two. There’s so much support and encouragement for us along our sometimes lonely path. Use the sources I offered up as a starting place—and find … s
TOM WALLACE IS A SAVVY EDITOR and an extraordinary ghost writer. I asked him if he’d be willing to share a useful nugget from his wide experience in the world of professional writing—and he delivered the goods!
The Sample Edit
Shopping for a freelance editor can be a nail-biter. You know you need one, but they have to be the right one. You want an editor who not only knows the principles of editing backward and forward but has the sensitivity and perception to edit your voice, to get what you’re saying. One of the most important tools to use in this epic search is the sample edit.
There are two kinds of sample edit. The first is the paid sample, usually of a good chunk of your writing—say, your opening two chapters or initial twenty pages. This is, frankly, not a popular choice, because, if you’re getting four paid samples, this search could get a bit costly.
The second type is free, so that’s what we’ll focus on in this post. Most freelance editors will be happy to do a free sample edit. They’ll jump at the opportunity to prove they’ve got the chops you’re looking for.
5 Tips to Getting the Most from a Sample Edit
Tip #1: A free sample will be about five pages. Get a sample of this length from three or four editors, so you have enough comparison material to make an informed choice between them. Have all your prospective editors work on exactly the same material—which should be the first five pages of your book. (Indeed, the three most important parts of your book are the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page. What’s in the beginning constitutes your best hope—quite likely your only hope—of hooking a reader.)
Tip #2: This sample should be done in Microsoft Word with the Track Changes function turned on, allowing you to see every revision and margin comment made by each editor.
Tip #3: Editors might deal with any number of issues: wordiness, spelling, punctuation, character development, pace, etc. So comparing these few sample edits can be very enlightening.
Look for things in the text like deletions of repeated words or ideas, the rearrangement of sentences and re-punctuation of dialogue, and the solving of grammatical problems like dangling modifiers. If two or three editors agree about the majority of these issues and one does not—well, then it’s time to remember what you learned on SESAME STREET: one of these editors is not like the others.
Also, if editors are revising for style, which does the best job of polishing your work without obliterating your voice. Are they really adding value, or are they just changing things to change them?
Tip #4: Look at the margin comments. These may contain information about why something was changed, suggestions to you about what you might add, or questions meant to clarify your meaning or clarify an idea in the editor’s head that will help her do good work on your material, should you decide to work with her.
Tip #5: Finally, if you don’t understand a choice an editor has made, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Remember that each editor is essentially auditioning for a part in the play that is your writing life. If they grumble at the idea of answering questions—or communicating with you in anyway—they shouldn’t be in your play.
Sample edits rock. They’re one of the best tools you have in your search for a talented editor.
Thanks so much to Tom for sharing the ins and outs of getting a sample edit. Want to learn more about working with a freelance editor? Contact Tom Wallace!
FROM OUR FIRST CONVERSATION, I knew Mona was a writer … although that notion was in complete contradiction to the fact that she didn’t write! Still. There was something about her that just felt like a writer—and as someone who spends most of my waking hours talking with writers, I was pretty confident in my assessment.
Julia Cameron talks about shadow artists. These are folks who long to have a more creative life, but instead live in the shadow of other creatives. Perhaps they manage a gallery instead of painting themselves, or, in the case of writers, read voraciously, but rarely put pen to paper. Before this past year, Mona may have been living in the writing shadows, but not anymore. Since we met, she’s taken many steps into the light. I’m grateful to her for sharing both a bit about her journey here and a beautiful piece of personal writing that shows her writer’s soul!
A Writer’s First Year
My writing year started when a friend invited me to join a blog group in early January. Participants received daily prompts from the organizer, wrote posts, and shared them with the group. Thinking I could learn from others and maybe connect with fellow wannabes, I jumped in, although I felt really insecure about my writing.
I am a rule follower, so I wrote to the suggested topic each day, though no one else seemed to. In fact, only a very few of the twenty or so other participants wrote at all. After a few weeks of limping along, trying my darnedest to get into the flow, I read our leader’s post about her writing coach, Jamie Morris.
Jamie’s enthusiasm gave me a positive vibe—I could do this. I could explore writing in a safe, fun, educational environment with a writing coach! I had asked and the Universe had delivered something better than the blog group.
Then I broke my wrist while skiing. Immediately, my very active life became sedentary. It turned out to be the break (no pun intended) I needed to slow down and explore the short “writing opportunities” Jamie offered me. I wrote about a painting in my living room, about hotel carpet, about my long-dead fish, Beta (see story below). As winter melted into summer, I took walks and wrote about what I’d seen along the way.
And Jamie and I wrote together, too. In those sessions, I noticed how unfamiliar I am with spilling out my ideas. I keep circling authors whose books I’ve read and am in awe at how they are able to write hundreds of pages of really good words, all strung together, while the writing I produce seems still to be so elementary.
I struggle to imbue myself in the pieces I write, and I struggle to find the words. And I still have stretches where I just don’t write. But when I do, sometimes I am actually pleased with what I write—like I am with this piece.
My friend Marcella was giving betta fish as party favors at her daughter’s high school graduation party. I decided to take one with me to my apartment, 350 miles away. Like my cousin Danette, my nephew Chris, and my niece Sonia, I took a bright red one. To make the fish’s trip as comfortable as possible, I carefully packed his bowl in a box with a towel around it. The temperature was in the 90s. Fortunately, my car had excellent air conditioning.
I’d never owned a fish before, but the idea of a pet in my little apartment put a smile on face. I named him Beta. Bettas are fighters; they don’t do well with other fish in their tank. Even when people stooped to talk to him at eye level, he’d do his aggressive dance, coming up to the side of his one-gallon tank, puffing out his gills to make his head look bigger, and attacking them, by swimming in reverse, then charging forward, stopping right before he hit the side of the tank.
But Beta was really friendly to me. He would greet me when I talked to him. I was convinced he recognized me! When he was feeling particularly friendly, he’d wave his little fins at me when I looked him in the eye. In the morning when I fed him, I would drop of couple of flakes into the tank; he would swim around one of them and then attack it, munching it down quickly.
My neighbors Peg and Mike took care of Beta when I’d leave town for more than a couple of days. After watching him for over a year, they would joke when I took him over to their apartment that he was going to camp—Betta Camp. He was pretty entertaining for all of us.
One day, though, after he’d been in my care for three years, he started acting less frisky, looking a little gray below his mouth. After researching on the internet, I concluded he was sick, not dying. The guy at the pet store who sold me the Betta Fix, which was the medicine to cure him, told me a typical betta lifespan was about three years. The internet said two to five years. I was determined to get Beta past three, even to five.
I changed his water frequently, didn’t overfeed him, and of course I talked to him. But he didn’t make it. After a few days of hanging out at the top of his tank on a floating plastic plant, he died. I came home from work to find him standing on his tail leaning against the little Buddha in his tank. For his final swim, I took him down to the Roaring Fork River and let him go in the current, thanking him for being my companion.
Hopefully, in a complete cycle, he was food for another fish, or a bird that spotted his bright red body from high in the sky.
In December, Mona asked herself, “Am I done with this experiment?” A gut check told her no, she’s not done. There’s more she wants to explore in this coming year. She reported that she’s signed up for two classes, one with Natalie Goldberg and one at her local college. She’ll also continue working on a longer piece, about Georgia O’Keefe and Mabel Dodge Luhan, that she started last year, hoping to find a place for its publication. But whether or not she does, Mona told me she’ll keep going, approaching writing with perseverance and gusto, the way she likes to approach the rest of her life (especially skiing!).
* * *
I hope you found this inspiring. Got a dream? Be like Mona! Go for it—even if you take it tortoise-slow and with the tiniest of baby steps. Just give it a year and see how far you’ve come.
Big name authors discussing their genres and journeys.
Experts teaching literary craft.
Agents and editors sharing insider FAQs about the publishing industry.
Also, ballrooms filled with fellow writers, a chance to pitch your book or have your first pages critiqued, a bookstore to sell your latest work, networking opportunities galore … and, of course, too much mediocre hotel food.
All at a fairly steep cost, right? Even a local-to-you writing conference is likely to set you back $500. Add travel and lodging for an away-from-home weekend, and you’re looking at twice that, or more.
But if you believe the golden information gleaned from authors and industry experts forms the heart of a writing conference, I’ve got great news! You can get that delivered right to your door—every month, at the tiniest fraction of the cost!
All you need is a subscription to a top-notch writing magazine. Here are four excellent magazines for your consideration:
In each issue, these magazines provide a plethora of topics you’d expect to see presented at a writing conference—like agent spotlights, new-author features, craft articles, and industry guidelines. And these pieces are written by the same experts you’d expect to see on a discussion panel or speaking from a conference platform!
For instance, articles in the most recent issue of WRITER’S DIGEST (just arrived in my mailbox last week) include,
The Art of Breaking Character: when, why, and how to have your characters act, um, uncharacteristically.
Steering the Ship: twelve tips for researching a nonfiction project.
The Frugal Writer’s Guide to Everything: ways to save big money on literary expenses. (Hey! This blog post is right in line with my pal Elizabeth Sims’s article!)
The Power and Peril of Prologue: when, how, and why to use a prologue—and what risks you run with agents and editors by doing so. (This in-depth, super-helpful article is by another pal, Ryan Van Cleave!)
The WD Interview: with Pulitzer Prize-winning author of LESS, Andrew Sean Greer. (No, Andrew’s not a pal—but I did love LESS!)
And that’s only half the full-length articles this month. There are also ten columns, the Writer’s Workbook feature, and Inkwell, with its writers’ guide to editors.
It will take me most of the month to digest (ha!) every morsel of this month’s WRITER’S DIGEST—chewing on its contents in bite-sized pieces that are easier to process (for me, anyway) than the weekend binge of a writing conference.
Top Writing Coach Tip
Here’s what I suggest:
1) Subscribe to a great literary magazine. 2) Read all the articles in each issue (you never know what information will come in handy!). 3) Earmark pieces that are relevant to your current project(s). 4) Discuss what you learn with writer friends (over coffee, and you’ve got the makings of a mini-conference!). 5) Feel reassured you’re keeping your writer self current on what’s going on in the writing world.
Of course, attending writing conferences is great, too! There’s lots of interactive magic afoot in those ballrooms. Just don’t get your hopes up about the food.
BACK IN THE DAY, Shakespeare, sick of the sticky-sweet love sonnets of his time—the kind that compared women’s eyes to placid lakes and their tresses to molten gold—penned a send up, “Sonnet 130.” In it, the Bard refutes any likeness his lover might have to the beauties of nature. Instead, mocking his sonnet-making contemporaries, Shakespeare harshly negates his love’s charms. And yet … and yet …
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress when she walks treads on the ground. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
1) Now, that you’ve read (and enjoyed?) “Sonnet 130,” try modeling it! Is there someone (or something) you love in an unconventional way? Or whom you see as unconventional? How does your love stray from the ordinary way of things?
Even trickier, can you do the opposite of damning with faint praise by, as Shakespeare does, praising with a two-edged sword of truth?
2) Alternatively, write a love letter (or a poem or a personal essay or a scene for a novel or a short story) in which you or a character declares love for someone—at length and in detail—without using the word “love” or any of its synonyms!
(Bonus points for creating a sonnet! You’ll find descriptions of various sonnet forms and some instructions to help you get a sense of how they’re constructed on the LITERARY DEVICES website.)
WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I was mesmerized by the sound of Captain Kangaroo’s scissors chomping through construction paper. I still love paper crafts—so it was a given that I’d love this LITERAL cut-and-paste writing exercise.
This prompt, which appears in poet Pat Schneider’s wonderful book WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, is a bit complicated—but, to me, the scissors and glue (not to mention the sometimes eerie results) make it worth it. (And, of course, it’s almost as cool if you do an electronic cut and paste!)
STEP ONE: WRITE
Create (or dig out from your writing journals), two short poems, five to ten lines each. One poem should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone. The other poem should have an agitated, angry, or distraught tone.
Alternatively, you might use a paragraph (of equal-ish length) of two prose pieces. Again, one piece should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone, and the other, an agitated, angry, or upset tone.
STEP TWO: CUT
Cut your poems—or paragraphs—apart, line by line as they appear on the page (NOT sentence by sentence). Here’s an example from the beginning of a paragraph I found in my journal to demonstrate how/where to cut:
I wandered in my neighborhood today and saw that the Halloween
STEP THREE: PASTE
Alternating lines from your first and second pieces, paste them together to make a single new piece. Don’t worry! It’s not supposed to make literal sense. But the poetic sense the juxtaposed lines create can seem quite uncanny.
I’ve created an example for you using two short poems—really just two ideas, only a couple of sentences each. The green lines are the first piece I wrote—the quiet one. The black lines are the second—the uneasy tone. I didn’t edit, just broke the lines apart and shuffled them back together. I did tweak the punctuation—and I’m not sure it improved matters. Maybe it would be better without punctuation?
Quiet now, neighbors gone to sleep, to rest. The tension builds like paint; it flakes in scabs. No more radio, backyard conversations that reveal the raw red rash of remarks beneath the buzzing tools that tame the yards, the civility that is thinner than the peeling paint. No more laughter that chips when hands are extended to be shaken. Only swaying branches, a quiet cloud, or the window rolled down to wave, like in self-defense, the bats dipping and silent on the invisible breeze, the white flag of proximity.
If you’re struggling to loosen up your writing, this is a great way to lose control of intending a meaning and, instead, discovering the meaning that happenstance may provide.