My Most Annoying Writing Tics (Any of These Yours?)

I spent last weekend going through my novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery. My agent is about to submit it to some editors again and she suggested I might want to read through it.  I hadn’t looked at it since last August, when I rewrote it.  So I said, yeah, I’d take a glance.


I’m really happy with the overall state of the book. The rewrite I did last summer is the best yet, reversing some of the horror of the previous revision and adding in new dimensions to the characters and story.  But I could not believe some of the terrible mistakes I repeatedly made. I offer them to you as cautionary examples. Such as:

–My main character, Madeleine, waffles. She says things like, I was fairly certain, when she could just use the word certain. Or, it seemed a bit like. C’mon, Mad, be direct!  All her statements are modified, pacified, dumbed down, softened.  (Have to admit, I was on the lookout for this because I’d read in The Bestseller Code that characters in bestselling novels were strong, direct, not afraid to have opinions or take action. Once I started looking for how Mad acted, I cringed over and over again at how she weakened herself.)

–I over explain. Instead of trusting the reader to get it, already, I hit them over the head with what I’m telling them. Over and over again.

–I write one sentence too many. (Similar to above.) I’ve written what I need to write, and then I write more. Sigh. JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN’T GET IT.

–I tell, then show.

My clients are laughing as they read this, because I would never let them get away with doing any of these things!  I was never able to see them before because I was too close to it. Oh, and let us not forget the Wordstrumpet Hall of Fame for words that are used so many times they need a new warranty:

At this moment

And (swear to God, I start every other sentence with it)

And so

In order to



Of course

One of the things I found helpful was paying attention to the Word grammar suggestions. Sometimes they are laughable off the mark, but they also showed me how often I used “in order to” when “to” would do just fine.  And there may have been a few unforunate instances of using not one, but two adverbs together in a sentence. Such as really miserably. Oh God, I’m hiding under my desk at the thought!

The moral of the story is twofold: letting your work sit for a while is a good thing, and yes, those people at Microsoft know at least a few things. Or, use whatever tools you got!

What’s your worst writing habit? Leave a comment so we can revel in it together.

And please don’t forget connection calls! I’m loving connecting with you guys. You can go here and book an appointment directly.

Photo by clix.

A Compendium of Writing Tips and Tricks

Note_creative_author_260972_lAs I've announced at least fifty million times in every place I could possibly think of, I'm busy rewriting my novel for my new agent, Erin Niumata, which is why things have been quiet around here.

But as I've been concentrating fiercely on my rewrite the last couple of weeks, I've realized some things that are working well for me–and things that I'm learning.   I'm hopeful these miscellaneous tips will be of value to you, too, so here they are.

1.  Getting up every 30 minutes (or so) makes a HUGE DIFFERENCE.  I've been at my desk a lot lately, for longer stretches than usual, and I've been consciously getting up regularly and walking around and stretching.  One day last week I didn't do this–and I felt completely difference at the end of the day. The romantic image we have of writers requires us to be so wrapped up in our work that we sit for hours.  But actually you will feel better and do better work if you get your butt up off the chair.

2.  Your main character needs an origin story.  Just as superheroes have stories about how they got their superpowers, your protagonist (and probably others in the story, too) needs an origin story.  How did she get her obsession for fashion?  Why did he become a detective?  Did he watch his best friend get killed and vow to avenge him?  Figure this out and you've unlocked your character. This deserves a whole post and will get one when I'm done with my rewrite.

3.  Use more description than you think you need.  I mentioned about how I've been learning this as I rewrite to my agent's notes.  And I am finding that more description makes for a fuller, richer read. (Bear in mind that I'm writing women's fiction, and lush description is a huge part of it.  In another genre, this might not be so.)  Also, as my buddy J.D. Frost brilliantly pointed out to me in an email, you can use description to pace your plot.  A lot of it signals a restful spot.  A lack of it shows action.  

4.  Having long stretches of time to write is a wonderful thing.  I'm the original proponent of using little bits of time here and there to write when you can, but for this rewrite, I've gotten in the habit of clearing away whole days to work.  (See #5.)  Let me tell you, it is fantastic, especially when you are working on a rewrite and need to hold the whole book in your head.  Having more than one or two hours at a time to devote to the book gives me the mental space to dig deep into character arcs and figure out a more cohesive plot.

5.  You have more time to write than you think.  I have a lot of clients at the moment.  They are all wonderful and diligent and doing good work, and I adore every single one.  (I really, truly do–I am constantly amazed and honored to be chosen to shepherd a writer's creation.) And, they all need my care and tending: reading their work and then time on the phone to discuss.  I'm also planning three in-person workshops (France here, Nashville here, Portland is already full).  And I have a clamoring family that I love to let distract me.  Yet I've carved out four full days to devote to my rewrite in the last week.  I never would have thought I could do that I've you'd told me so in January.  But I did it, by working really, really hard on the other days and carefully managing appointments.  It is working so well, I'm going to continue to do this even after I'm done with this rewrite.

6.  Notes are your pals.  I had pretty much totally gone over to Evernote, which I do love, because I tend to accumulate scraps of paper with notes on them all over my desk.  But that's gone out the window with this rewrite and I've got lists and notebooks everywhere.  The thing is, this is working for me (it wasn't before, which is why I sought out a different system). When I'm working on chapter six, and I get an idea for chapter ten, it is easier to grab a piece of paper and scrawl my idea on it, then to open the Evernote app and create a new note.  The thing to remember is to go through your notes regularly!  And the point of it all is to do what works for you to get the writing done.

7.  Reading is your BFF now more than ever.  I'm reading a ton at the moment.  What am I reading? Women's fiction, exactly what I'm writing, with a stray girly mystery thrown in.  As I read, I learn.  In the novel I just finished, I noticed how the author handled description of characters and emulated it.  In another novel I just started, I liked how the author wrote about the setting.  All these ideas go directly into my work.  (And yes, I will write a post like this one about the books I'm reading soon.)

So that's what I've learned while writing lately.  How about you? What are you working on? How is it going?

Gone Rewriting

I am working on a rewrite of my novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery.  And, of course, the exciting news is that this rewrite is not just for me.  Nope, I am rewriting to the notes from the agent with whom I just signed, Erin Niumata, and one of her readers.  

This is all happening fast.  As in, a month ago I hadn't even submitted a query on this novel.  And now I have an agent for it and am working on a rewrite.  This process is interesting, and to all my students and clients, current and former, I say, yes you really do need to expand those descriptions and details! That is one thing I'm seeing repeatedly–a request for more details and description of my characters.  It cracks me up, because I'm constantly saying this to clients–more, more, more!  

Anyway, I have a deadline coming right up to finish this rewrite (which is an excellent thing, as I am very deadline-oriented).  But with my current load of clients, my students at MTSU, and my clamoring family, that means time is at a premium the next couple of weeks.  I've already emailed people and postponed lunches and coffees and non-essential meetings.  

The next thing to fall is going to be blog posts.  You know I can't ignore you for long, and I won't.  I will post at least once a week, but until mid-March that will likely be it.  I know you will understand and forgive me.

In the meantime, there's over 1,000 posts on this site, so you can start at the beginning, nearly eight years ago and read up to the current day.  I'm kidding.  However, there is a topic cloud in the right sidebar and if you click on some of those subjects, you'll find reading material tailored to your interests.

And let me just remind you of three upcoming workshops:

In Portland, How to Write A Book, on March 21 (mercifully after my deadline).  I think we only have a couple of spots left, so let me know if you are interested!

In Nashville, May 1 and 2nd, From Spark to Story.

In Collioure, France, Secrets of Structure, September 5-12.  There is only one spot left here, so let me know if you want to come.  It is going to be a blast!

Oh, and rumor has it there may be an online workshop coming up one of these days soon, so stay tuned!  And happy writing!

Rewriting: The Middle Way

Table_269134_lThis is a short-ish post, seeing as how it is two days before Thanksgiving, when I host a dozen family members here for dinner, and the lovely Olivia (19 months) is spending the day with me, and the house needs a lot tad bit of cleaning and, oh right, I do have to figure out a few recipes.

I'm deep into rewriting my next novel, and all I can think about writing-wise is related to rewriting, which is kind of an individual thing.  So I've had a hard time coming up with ideas for writing posts lately, which you know is unusual seeing as how we're coming up on eight years of blogging and over 1,000 posts.  Craziness.

But, upon further reflection, I did realize I had something of minor brilliance to say.  It may even be major brilliance–it all depends on if it resonates with you or not.  Here's the story:

The other morning, 5:30 ish* and I'm working on my rewrite.  I come to a part I'd dreaded, because it involved the way one of my main characters, Jack,  reacted to a situation.  Readers commented they didn't believe his reaction, given his actions earlier. 

What's the obvious fix here?  Why, give him the opposite reaction, of course.  Which is what I had figured I'd do in all my rewrite planning.  But as I started making the fix, it didn't work for me.  Didn't feel right.  Didn't seem like something Jack would do. 

So I got up from the computer (actually I sat there frustrated for a few minutes) and took a shower. And the answer came: Jack doesn't have to have a different reaction, he just has to have his current reaction challenged by the other characters and thus explain his reaction.

In other words, what I needed to do was make it work on the page.  

This, my friends, was following the middle way.  It's the sometimes circuitous path between two black and white option, and it comes to us not just in writing but in life.  You look and look and look at an obstacle and can only see it as something barring your journey.  But then, suddenly you realize you can just go around the damn thing–and get back on your road.

And so that is what I did.  Jack is happy.  And so am I.

I had a counselor once who called this grace.  And that's what it feels like, doesn't it?

Have you had moments of grace in your writing or life recently?

*I've used "ish" twice in this post.  Last week, I was having lunch with a childhood friend (we grew up around the corner from each other) and we agreed that both of us had the same laidback attitude toward life, which she attributed to being the baby of the family.  She said–and I love this–that her favorite word is "ish."  As in,  soon-ish.  Or later-ish.  You get the picture.  Thus, the preponderance of the word "ish" in this post.

Photo by monmart.

Rewriting: Print Out Your Work

Aelse_ilovenature_glow_5663_hSorry, trees.

The topic of today's post impacts your health on this planet, and for that I'm truly sorry.

But I'm rediscovering the helpfulness of printing out my work in order to rewrite and revise it.  (I like to make a distinction between the two words.  To me, rewriting is what you do on the second draft, when you're looking at big stuff like character arc and plot.  Revising is what you do on the final draft, when you're looking at every word, and comma and period.  Big difference.)

This all began when I saw Anne Lamott last Friday night.  She spoke in Portland at the Baghdad Theater as part of her book tour for Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son.  The theater was packed, I'm happy to report, full of happy fans eating pizza and burgers and drinking wine and beer.  Which was just the wee-est bit ironic, seeing as how Anne is a famous recovering alcoholic.

But it didn't seem to bother her and she had some great things to say about her life and her writing.  (She delivers her lectures in almost a stream-of-consciousness style that appears effortless and is very entertaining.)  She talked about writing as a radical act (hear, hear) and also that she likes to repeat the mantra, "it could happen," after a character in an old movie, Angels in the Outfield. (Such as, bestselling novel?  "It could happen."  And so on.)

What really struck me, however, was when she talked about printing out your work in order to edit it.  Yes, we live in an electronic world, but it is still important to make a hardcopy of your writing and see it on the page.  Use the electronics to communicate with the world and tinker with your work on the page.  The real page.

I used to do this all the time.  It was the only way I could rewrite.  But lately, with the convenience of editing on the computer, I've gotten away from it.  This week, I decided to experiment and printed out 70 pages of my next novel.  Totally different experience.  You simply see things differently when you edit on the page.  Try it.

I'm not sure I recommend printing out pages every single time you edit.  So much of editing goes on as you re-read a draft on the computer, perhaps before you begin your writing session.  But as an exercise at certain key points along the way, it can be very useful.

And as for the trees? Buy recycled paper.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Next time you're finished with a draft, print it out to make your revisions.  See if it works for you.

Please comment.  How do you approach rewriting and revising?  Do you do it on the computer or on hard copy?  Which do you prefer? 

Photo by Josef F. Stuefer, and I found it on Everystockphoto.

Writing Process 3: Rewriting

This is part four of a continuing series of the writing process.  For the previous articles in the series, see the end of this post.

What's there to say about rewriting? You just get in there and do it, right? So what's there to write about?

Well, plenty.  For starters, let me make one thing clear: I make a distinction between rewriting and revising. 

Rewriting is what you do after you've written a rough or discovery draft, glumping everything onto the page.  You've written the rough draft, which is you figuring out the story for yourself.  And now you have to figure out best to present the story to your readers.  So you work on things like character arcs and ways to show theme and plot.  

Revising is what you do after you've rewritten that first draft a gazillion times and finally feel you've gotten all the big picture stuff down pat.  Revising has to do with word choice and making sure you have lots of different kinds of sentence structures, and grammar and punctuation.  (And its the subject of next Monday's post.)

So, here's the deal about rewriting: at first, its hard.  Because at first, especially when working on a long project, there's puzzlement about how to find a way back into your work.  The logical place to start is with reading it again, but that can be confusing, also.  Because, what are you supposed to be looking for while reading? How do you know what to change?

This is when giving your rough draft to trusted readers  (critique group or a mentor) can be incredibly helpful, because they can give you a starting point.  But what if you don't have access to such readers? Or if you're simply unwilling to yet show your draft to anybody(which is your right–follow your intuition about when to share)?

Here are a few tips:

1. Begin with reading.  Because, really, you've got to go back to the beginning and remind yourself of how it all starts.  I don't know about you, but by the time I've written some 350-odd pages, I have a hard time remembering every single nuance of the start.  Or even the middle.  So, print out  your manuscript, grab a pen and notebook, and go sit in your favorite chair.  The one where you sit to read books (of the sort written by other people).  Read through your manuscript and take notes.

2. Find a way in.  Your entry point might be something you notice about a character–how, for instance, he talks about his desire to become king in chapter 10 but really needs to inform the reader of this vital point a bit earlier.  Or maybe you realize that a crucial plot point is misplaced.  Or perhaps it is something small, like a description that you think could be rewritten.

3. Expand on your notes.  When you're finished reading the draft, go back over the notes you took.  Between the notes and the reading of your draft, you should now have a better idea of things you want to work on.  Turn your notes into a plan for rewriting, even if its just a to-do list.  This will help you enormously.

4.  Look for places to go deeper.   Rewriting is most often a process of adding to, not removing, contrary to popular opinion.  Far and away the biggest problem I see in scenes is that they are not developed enough.   There's not enough description, not enough scene-setting, not enough of the viewpoint character's thoughts.  As an experiment, choose a paragraph at random from your draft and pull it apart and add to it. You might hear this referred to as unpacking.

5.  Remember that rewriting begets more rewriting.  Because once you've changed certain areas of the story, other areas are revealed.  You've gotten the character arcs straightened out, so now the parts of the plot that need work are evident.  And so on. 

Those are my tips. By the way, an excellent book to use as a guide for rewriting a novel is: Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass.  (The companion book is Writing The Breakout Novel, but I don't find it as helpful.) Another, more general title, is The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell.

What are you best tips for approaching the rewrite?  Do you find any books especially helpful?

Previous Posts

The Writing Process, Again

5 Guidelines for Critiquing the Rough/Discovery Draft

Writing Process: The Three Ps of Glumping

Rewriting: Its All in the Plan

Facing a rewrite can be difficult, if not downright daunting.

You've written a draft (or two, or three), gotten feedback, and now you're ready to make the changes in your manuscript.  So you open the file on your computer….and sit there and stare at the words on the page.

Let's admit it, sometimes confronting a manuscript page that needs rewriting can be as dreadful as facing a blank computer monitor.  How to make room in all those words for what you need to do?  What to cut?  What to add?  Where to begin?  Wouldn't it just be easier to shut down the computer?

What I've found is that I can just discover a way into the work, everything else will follow.  And often I end up tricking myself in order to find that way in.  So here's how I do it:

1.  First, I ponder.  I review the critiques I've gotten or the notes I've taken.  Sometimes I do this the night before I know I'm going to work on my novel in order to give my subconscious time to play around with the ideas.

2.  Second, I insert.  This is where the tricking myself begins.  I open the file and tell myself that all I'm going to do is insert notes–in all caps–places where I am going to make changes.  Then I go through the entire chapter and insert away.  This is not difficult because I already have the notes.

3.  Third, I rewrite.  By now I've reviewed and inserted and not only do I have a good idea what I'm going to change, I know where I'm going to change it.  The notes are all in place, ready for me to roll with.  And best of all, I can open the file and start anytime, knowing that I've marked up the manuscript and I know what I need to do.

I think its the not knowing how to proceed that stops me.  So I try to find ways to know ahead of time how I'm going to proceed.  It works for me.  By following this plan I'm generally able to convince myself to hop right to a rewrite.

Note I said generally, not always.  But I'll take whatever I can get.