Losing Perspective

I stand by the window this morning, coffee in hand, watching the clouds scud over the mountains. I can barely see them because it’s still mostly dark, but there’s a pale light on the horizon to the east. That sliver of brilliant color turns the clouds from invisible dark-on-dark to charcoal on near black burgandy.

The morning go-to-work crowd rushes past the house in their still snow covered vehicles, climbing the steep hill until they disappear over the crest.

I take a sip of coffee, then let out a sigh, squaring my shoulders. I have reached an inescapable conclusion: my story is crap, my writing is crap. I am crap. I need to turn my life to something else and stop wasting it with the fairytale of becoming a well-read author.

I’m not surprised I have come here. It hasn’t snuck up on me; I’ve felt it building for days – weeks even.

And it’s nothing new.

It’s right on schedule, actually.

Usually in the course of a second draft rewrite, I get lost. My perspective goes right out the window and I stumble. I fall down, right in a puddle, and cry.

I forget this is only a second draft. I forget there are many (many!) more rewrites ahead. I forget the other novels I’ve written to brilliant success. I forget I have lots of people who love what I write. I forget that I’m one of those, when the book is finally published.

I become tunnel-visioned, seeing only the few pages I’m working with right now. I’m caught in the struggle of trying to remember the color of my character’s latest heartthrob’s hair. I’m battle-scarred and a bit jaded from the blank lines between my sentences, where I’m sure there should be something written.

Then I remember my characters are spectacular. My storyline has a unique perspective. I write better than a good percentage of the (famous) published writers. And it’s just the second draft.

Reason eventually returns. I turn back to my notebook, my gaping first draft, put down my coffee and pick up my pen.

I think every writer goes through this. Every novelist, certainly. I’m actually quite surprised we don’t hear more about it.

I also think this is the biggest reason people quit writing. Novices lose perspective and don’t know enough to keep going anyway. Writing is a learned skill. You won’t get better if you don’t keep learning, keep working. I read somewhere, don’t quite remember where, though (You Can Write A Novel, James V. Smith, Jr.), that you need to write 10 novels before you can call yourself an author.

I used to laugh at this. “Certainly rewrites count! And all those unfinished things! What about the ones I don’t write out, but run through in my head to see if I want to write! 10! I’ve written dozens that way!”

But no. I now firmly believe Smith’s assertion. 10 polished novels give you enough experience to know what you’re about, to know your own voice, to be able to withstand those horrible, horrible losses in perspective where the words are too empty and the ideas are too dry.

Give yourself every chance to succeed. Study hard. Work harder. Don’t give up until you’ve got those requisite novels under your belt.

10 novels. I think I’ll get back to work on my #9.

Preparing for Publication

The key to turning out good stuff is rewriting.  The key to grinding it out is consistency. – Forrest McDonald

Let’s just assume you have a killer idea for a story or article. You have great, multi-faceted characters against a dramatic backdrop. You KNOW it’s going to sell. What now? How do you get the manuscript ready for publication?

These are the steps I use.

I begin with the larger building blocks and finish with the tiny details.  It makes no sense to correct a word in a sentence if I end up deleting that whole paragraph later.  By reversing this and concentrating on the paragraphs before the sentences, I’ll be saving time (and frustration).

Step 1 – Read it Aloud

I read my story/article aloud. I mean really aloud, not mumbling. It helps if I read it to another person (or to my cat) Why? Because the eye sees and the mouth reads what the brain says. But the ear doesn’t lie.  It is the receptacle for what the eye reads and tells the mouth to say. 

My mission in this step is two-fold. 

First, It helps me get used to the story as only a document, not as the living being that it was while I wrote it.  I’m able to figure out what belongs in the story, and what doesn’t.  I get rid of the scenes/chapters/ paragraphs/sentences that are redundant, extraneous, or can be combined with something else (a scene where the characters are speaking about a crime scene could easily be combined with the scene where they are driving).   Everything should move the storyline or plotline forward, not just be informational or setting.

Second, I check for truth and accuracy.  Do my characters maintain the same color hair all throughout the story (unless it changes as part of the story)? What about where your character is located? Can Jane talk to Jim, face to face, if I killed him off in the fifth chapter (unless he’s a ghost)? Was Bill’s name Steve in the last rewrite and I forgot to change it in three of the chapters? Does the subject of my article really think his neighbor is a hitman? Was the hero dog named Spot or Sport?

Step 2 – Scene Structure

Just like the storyline, a scene has a beginning, middle, and end.  It also has a climactic moment.  Everything in that scene relates to everything else in that scene.  Everything in that scene should move the story forward.  The scene itself should move the storyline/plot forward, not just set the stage.

As I said earlier, I try to make my scenes do double duty.  A scene with three characters on the roof talking and another scene a few chapters away where the three characters are actually doing something should be combined to make the three characters talk while doing an action.

Step 3 – Paragraph Structure

Each and every paragraph should ground my reader in the scene: setting, character, dilemma. If it isn’t doing that, chances are I just have words on a blank page, not living breathing characters in a real world.

My paragraphs should vary in size: thick and dense to slow your reader down, if I want them to spend some time at a specific point; and short and choppy if I want them to speed through the story, like in an action scene.

The things in the paragraph should relate to each other, should expound on each other.  I try not to mix in things about something else.

Step 4 – Sentence Structure

Each of my sentences should have a subject (John) who does something, the verb. Often this verb is done to someone or something (the car).

John                washes             the car.
subject             verb                 object  

That’s the basics of sentence structure. If I’m missing the subject or the verb, my sentence is incomplete. While some of this is style, too many and my story starts reading like a yo-yo or an axe on a chopping block.

Things added onto sentences are called clauses.

John washes the car (for his father).  

I can’t have many clauses in a sentence. One or two is the most, and those have to be used carefully. 

John, dressed in his blue shirt, wearing his shiniest shoes, and holding the water hose at a distance, washed the car for his father.  

Occasionally clauses are used in a string to display a list of events.  These should be used few and far between.

A sentence that has the object first with something being done to it by someone is called a passive sentence.  Publishers don’t like them.

The car was washed by John

It’s important I vary the structure of my sentences between simple (subject/verb/object) and complex (with clauses) as well as the length, just as I did with the paragraphs. This keeps the reader from falling asleep.

Step 5 – Show, Don’t Tell

People are always saying, “Show, don’t Tell.” Advice like that is good, but not very helpful. What are needed are specifics. 

I turn adverbs into verbs. Instead of ‘run quickly’, I try ‘bolted’ or ‘scampered’. Both are quick running, but are very different types.

I use all five senses, not just size and color (both sight senses).  What else is there to notice? Is there something to taste or hear?  What would happen if my character touched something?  The sense of smell is supposed to be the longest remembered sense.  I try to use it a lot.  I don’t just describe what the person looks like, I describe her perfume and the silky texture of her hair.

I don’t repeat the same word more than four times in a scene.  I try not to use words that repeat themselves: Pour Out, Fill In, Hollow Out, Add Up. Just use Pour, Fill, Hollow, Add.

I limit all conjugations of the verbs ‘To Be’ and ‘To Have.’  I am careful not to substitute another verb: The sky was orange changed to The sky looked orange. Here, ‘looked’ is used as ‘was’.

Vague words weaken a powerful story.  Instead of ‘trees’ , for example, I try ‘this maple grove’.  Instead of ‘orange sun’, I use ‘the sun looked like a tangerine’ or ‘the sky blazed orange from the sun’.

Also, I watch out for concept words: Memory, Reality, Freedom, Someone, Everyone, People, Time, Eternity, Democracy, Thing, Etc. I try to be specific.  What people? What did they look like?

I work to eliminate vague words that weaken my writing. It’s all about making words powerful so that they’re noticed and taken to heart, right?

Step 6 – Spelling & Grammar

Your manuscript has to be spelled well and grammatically correct, or the publisher won’t give it a second look.

I don’t trust my computer Grammar correct and Spell checker; they don’t catch everything, and often “correct” misspelled words to become wrong words. As long as the sentence has a subject and a verb, and has consistent tenses, Grammar correct allows it. As long as the word is a real word, right or wrong (to, two, too), Spell check thinks it’s correct, and Grammar check won’t catch it.

I invest in a good dictionary for my computer and a style manual. I use them both quite often. I have a thesaurus too.

Grammar and spelling correction isn’t the editor’s job, it’s the writer’s.

Step 7 – Read it Aloud, Again

Everyone who knows me, knows I keep a red pen with me. This is where I get it out and start reading aloud again. It helps if I stand while I read. Again, I read to someone.  This time, I’m listening hard to how the story affects me. I mark where the background starts to disappear from my immediate understanding of the scene, where I have thick blocks of text that my brain doesn’t listen to anymore, or I start thinking about something else.  I make note where I stumble, where I have to reread to understand, where it gets a bit wordy, and where I slow down because I just plain don’t understand what I’m hearing.

Basically, I just mark anywhere there’s a hitch in the smoothness of the story.

Step 8 – Cut Through the Fog

This is where I fix the hitches I found in the prior step and keep cutting all the extraneous words/sentences/paragraphs/scenes. They weaken, and I want my manuscript as strong as it can possibly be so that a publisher will be interested.

Most beginning writers (and a few advanced) think they are adding details when they add words. Not so. Make sure the words add to the story, not just the story length.

By now, my story should be strong, tight and smooth like iced glass.

That’s it.  That’s all.  I go celebrate!

Then I come back to my desk, research my markets and get busy submitting!

Tip #13

When people come see you at a show, reading, signing, whatever, give them something to take home.

I use bookmarks. Who doesn’t need more of those? I’m always losing mine. And they’re pretty, too. Most people have gotten so used to logos on their clothes, or on nearly everything they own. They won’t throw them away.

These are things they’ll see when I’m not around. A visual reminder of me. 


Tip 13