I admit that the title of this post is click-bait, since I don’t really think I suck, but I AM learning a lot from my first go around with a professional editor.
In preparation for self-publishing my first book this Spring, I am working with Nancy Cassidy, an amazing freelance editor at The Red Pen Coach. (Any suckiness in the finished project will be entirely mine, and not hers). Nancy has an impressive background in publishing and editing and is also an author, with erotica published under the name Lilly Cain, so I feel like she really gets it. She did a great presentation today to the Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, my local RWA chapter, and pointed out some things about working with an editor that should be pretty basic, but maybe aren’t all the time.
- Your editor should not be mean to you. It’s crazy how many stories I’ve heard online about editors being totally insensitive to their writers – who are paying them to help improve their work. Nobody is saying authors should be coddled and lied to about their work, but there is a difference between constructive and cruel.
- You don’t have to make changes to your work if you don’t want to. Yes, you should be prepared to make changes and take direction, but you should also be prepared to explain why your choices are valid, or at least have a logical debate about them.
- Ask around before you hire an editor. Don’t just take the word of some stranger on the internet that they are an awesome editor. And if you don’t know anyone the editor has worked with, it might behoove you to have a contract. (I’m always looking for a way to work behoove into a sentence).
Because I think it’s important, I will separate this link from the bullet points: You can find a sample editorial contract on the Editors’ Association of Canada website. It’s pretty basic, but gets the job done, and I imagine you can find something similar for the US or other jurisdictions, or adapt this one. (THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE, JUST A PERSONAL OPINION.)
Another thing I learned from Nancy’s presentation is that there are many types of services an editor can offer. Knowing what sort of help you need can save you time and money. The Editors’ Association of Canada has a very handy page describing the different types of edits there are.
So now that you have all that wonderful info, I will share some of the things I suck at with you, as discovered via the editorial process:
- First chapters – I already knew this, as it happens with everything I write. The first chapter is always too slow or too fast, too much backstory or no context at all. I really struggle with hitting the right opening note. Luckily, that’s what revisions are for!
- Overusing particular phrases – On my first pass through my book, I noticed that my main character thought everything was “apparently” this and “clearly” that. Now, a million passes later, I’m noticing that she’s always “forcing” herself to do whatever or “managing” not to do something else.
- Point of view issues – You know, I actually always thought I could have been an editor if I had been so inclined. After all, I have an English degree, I’m pretty good with spelling and grammar, and I totally get point of view. Except, not. I’ve had a whole batch of critique partners, but I would never have known I was doing weird things with point of view if an editor hadn’t pointed it out.
For fellow writers, what do you suck at? (Or to put it more nicely, what are you improving on at present?).
And for readers, what are your editorial pet peeves? Head hopping? Spelling mistake in the first chapter? Let it out!
An introduction to personality types (and a bit about me)
Lately I’ve been thinking about how personality type affects my writing – specifically, how it can improve or hinder my word count. In my day-job-world, I’m currently enrolled in a management course that has afforded me the opportunity to take all kinds of personality tests (I love this stuff). And when my writers’ group met last weekend, we were treated to a great presentation from the fabulous Linda O’Toole on how to harness our personality types to get the most out of our writing time.
One thing I have learned from all of this is that I am an INTJ – a personality type outlined by the famous Meyers-Briggs instrument (MBTI). According to this “test”*, my personality profile looks like this:
I Do you focus on the outer world or on your own inner world?
This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).
N Do you focus on basic information or do you add meaning?
This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).
T Are your decisions based on logic or people and circumstances?
This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).
J Do you get things decided or do you stay more open to new options?
This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).
According to Wikipedia**, INTJs are one of the rarest of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types and account for 1-2% of the population. So does this mean I’m a super special snowflake?
Well, no. Not particularly.
It just means that I’m my own special little weirdo, like everyone else. No one personality type is any better than the others, because each comes with its own quirks and pros/cons. According to various combinations of characteristics, the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types are sometimes further grouped into one of four categories:
My INTJ classification makes me a Guardian, meaning that I am supposedly analytical, pragmatic, logical, and not scared to tell someone when they’re being stupid. As you can probably imagine, there are benefits (getting stuff done) and drawbacks (calling the boss stupid). The Myers & Briggs Foundation says that its instrument is approximately 75% accurate, and in this case I think they got it right – I definitely see myself in the INTJ profile. I love efficiency, and at times I can be both a loner and an excellent leader.
- Jafar from Aladdin
- Bruce Wayne from Batman
- Howard Hughes from The Aviator
- Rupert Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer
- The James Bond villain, Le Chiffre, from Casino Royale
- Ebeneezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol
- Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty
and the list goes on.
How does your personality affect your writing?
So how does all this affect writing and learning? I found this Georgia State University paper*** on student learning and the Myers-Briggs type indicator fascinating. I’ve summarized some basic key points below and added my own ideas about how knowledge of these traits can be harnessed to enhance your writing:
Extroversion v. introversion
- The majority of university undergraduates are extroverts, while the majority of university faculty are introverts.
- Extraverted students report learning best when working in a group (think writing partners, collaborative projects, and critique groups), while introverted students want to create frameworks to connect information so that it becomes knowledge (think plotters v. pantsers, outlining, using writing programs like Scrivener).
Sensing v. intuition
- Sensing students prefer organized, structured lectures (think RWA University online classes, how-to books, and workshops rather than panels).
- Intuitive students must have the big picture to understand a subject (think plot mapping, “write the ending first”, and reading widely in your genre for research).
Thinking v. feeling
- Thinking students like clear topics and objectives. “Thinking” writers will likely be more comfortable working with agents/editors/publishers/writing groups who set clear deadlines and provide specific feedback.
- Feeling students need to work in harmonious groups. For writers, this may mean that deadlines and sales numbers aren’t as important as working with a team of people who really “get” your vision for your work/career.
Judging v. perceiving
- Judging students focus on tasks and like to take quick, decisive action. When writing, this strength can be maximized by fast-draft writing (getting it all down on the page without worrying about revision until later) and colour coding dialogue or scenes for easy mixing and editing later.
- Perceiving students often postpone assignments until the last minute – not because they’re lazy, but because they want to gather as much information as possible. If you are a perceiving writer, you may find that you have a tendency to over-research or plan a project, and that you never get around to actually finishing it. You can get around this by breaking a project down into more manageable sections (think of the three act structure, for example). You might also find it helpful to set yourself a specific word count for the book and break it down by chapter so you know exactly how much should fit into each section.
So now that you know so much about the MBTI, where can you take the “test”? The answer is that while the official MBTI must be administered by someone who has been trained and certified in its use, there are plenty of similar, free resources online.
This one, for example, is not endorsed by the Myers & Briggs Foundation, but it is “based on Carl Jung’s and Isabel Briggs Myers’ typological approach to personality”, and the results were pretty close. (According to this test, I’m an INFJ today rather than an INTJ).
And this one also thinks I’m an INFJ. I assume the difference is related to how I’m feeling today, rather than some flaw/discrepancy in the tests, but they’re still pretty darn close either way. (And for those who are interested, I prefer this test over the one above – there is more information given, and it was more fun to answer).
* I say “test” in quotation marks because the Myers & Briggs foundation website is quite clear about the fact that “MBTI® tool should be referred to as an instrument rather than a test or psychological assessment”. For more on finding reliable MBTI® info on the internet, check out the Foundation’s webpage on “Trusting MBTI® Information on the Web“.
** Yes, I am aware that I quote Wikipedia a lot on this blog, but this isn’t exactly scholarly, peer-reviewed academic writing.
*** “This material can be copied and used for educational, non-profit purposes only. Copyright: Harvey J. Brightman, Georgia State University”. From The Master Teacher Program website (warning for those reading at work – there is a video on the homepage that plays automatically on click through).
Ever feel like there just isn’t enough time in the day to accomplish everything you’d planned?
Or worse, that there was enough time but you’ve squandered it, frittered away the hours doing God knows what when you could have been – should have been – writing, or reading, or doing anything but watching back-to-back episodes of The X-Files on Netflix? (Guilty as charged.)
When I started this blog, I had the best of intentions. I posted something new every week, and I had no problem coming up with the time or energy to maintain the schedule I set for myself. The same went for my writing – I worked on my current novel every day, rain or shine, without fail.
But somehow in the past couple of months, something changed…
Life got in the way.
First there was some day job stuff that took up a lot of energy.
Then I had knee surgery, and my convalescence ended up being longer than expected.
And then…and then…and then…
And then, nothing. “Regret for wasted time is more wasted time“*.
Over the past few weeks, there has been nothing and no one preventing me from pursuing my goals but me. But the thing is, the longer you let your ideas and imagination languish, the harder it is to get back up and keep going. So here’s how I gave myself the kick in the a** I needed:
1. No judgment.
When you know you’ve been procrastinating, and you feel bad about procrastinating, but somehow can’t make yourself stop procrastinating – don’t worry about it. Just don’t. Maybe you needed a little vacation, maybe you’re just being lazy, but it doesn’t matter. Judgment and self flagellation is just more wasted time.
2. Find inspiration.
Maybe you find it incredibly relaxing to be out in nature, like I do. Or maybe you get off on the hustle and bustle of busy city streets. Maybe you like to play video games, or read comic books, or listen to music to unwind. If you’re stuck in a non-creative rut, at least put yourself into a good headspace so that you’re able to create when the time comes. So if watching Netflix all day is your thing, go for it. But on the other hand, if it gives you cabin fever and makes you lash out like a rabid badger…you might wanna put down the remote.
3. Learn something.
Watch a documentary. Read a book. Browse Wikipedia for towns with weird names. Maybe even talk to someone new. With more resources for knowledge at our fingertips than ever before in the history of the world, don’t you think it’s kind of a sin not to learn just a little bit every day?
4. Create something.
It doesn’t matter if you make a craft out of macaroni and popsicle sticks, or if you paint a masterpiece. I believe that just the simple act of creating something – anything – because it’s fun, or interesting, or challenging will pay off hugely. There have been more studies done and articles written about creativity than I could ever hope to summarize (or fully understand), but the Wikipedia article on creativity is here for anyone who is interested.
- “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are”
- “When you can’t figure out what to do, it’s time for a nap”
- “If I can’t serve as a role model, let me serve as a warning”
Some of the jobs I’ve held include: short order cook, nanny, postmaster’s assistant, and “background talent” (read – extra in movies and commercials). But of all the jobs I’ve tried, the one that I’m least likely to write about is the one that I spent the most time training for – my current profession of lawyer.
Although it sometimes seems like you can’t throw a gavel without hitting a lawyer-turned-authour, there are two main reasons you won’t catch me writing about my day job any time soon (though I’ll never say never):
- My source material would be pretty boring – and that’s how I like it.
Some writers have no problem turning the day-to-day life of a lawyer into the stuff of thrillers, but I have a hard time associating the reality of my job with the kind of romance and adventure I enjoy reading about. Actually, scratch that – I actively avoid romance and adventure in my day job. It decreases the odds of getting sued.
Do I personally find my work exciting? Yes. Would the general public? Eh, maybe it depends on the day, but if I had to guess – no. The types of law I practice do not lend themselves to Grisham-esque scenarios. Nor is there anything particularly glamorous about wearing pantyhose for 10-12 hours per day.
- Writing is my escape from the ordinary.
Everyone is familiar with the old advice to “write what you know”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write what you do. So far, I have written about ancient Greek legends coming to life, the colonization of a far-away planet, and the adventures of a high-class madam. As you may have guessed, I have first-hand experience with exactly none of these scenarios.
But I do have a lot of fun writing about them!
How about you? Are there any jobs you find duller than dirt? Any that you can’t, or won’t, write about?
(I assume all those romance-blog-enthusiast international spies out there are sworn to secrecy, but let’s hear from the rest of you!)
This post is re-blogged from my post on the Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada blog, a great place to learn more about some very talented romance authors. Check it out here!
What if a pill could make you rich and powerful?
This is the tagline attached to 2011’s Limitless, a film about struggling writer Eddie Morra, who is able to access 100% of his mental abilities with the help of a mysterious, experimental pill. Predictably, mayhem ensues as the miracle drug turns out to be more than the writer bargained for.
While Morra’s use (or rather, abuse) of the fictional NZT48 enables him to write like a fiend, attract women like Casanova, and speak new languages effortlessly, there is unfortunately no miracle drug in real life that can make us all better, smarter, more productive versions of ourselves.*
So this is where life hacks come in.
Life hacking “refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency” (from Wikipedia), and in the writing context, life hacks can be used by authors to provide motivation, increase output, and improve the quality of that output.
Here, I discuss four major obstacles that commonly prevent authors from meeting their goals, and what to do about them:
1. Manage Your Time
Something that many authors, myself included, struggle with is finding time to just sit down and write. It always seems like there’s some other writing-related task that needs to be done, and sometimes we end up putting our blog updates, social media, and critique partners ahead of our own WIPs (work in progress).
So how do we keep all these demands on our time from interfering with our actual writing?
- Schedule writing time into your life – and stick to it. This tip may seem obvious, but many people write when the spirit moves them, rather than as a matter of routine. I’m guilty of this all the time, but it really is an ineffective way to pursue and achieve your writing goals. If you allow yourself to feel overwhelmed by your day job, family obligations, and to-do list, you will end up trying to “sneak in” writing time around everything else. Instead, try scheduling blocks of time into your day or week, and then stick to them. Let your family and friends know that this time is off-limits, but that you will make yourself available to them once your scheduled time is up.
- The Pomodoro technique. This method of time management was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, and takes its name from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro being the Italian word for tomato). In this technique, you work in set intervals of time, with short breaks between each. Traditionally, intervals of work are 25 minutes long and are used to tackle a specific task. When your timer goes off, you put your work down and take a 3-5 minute break. Every four intervals, you take a longer break (say 15-30 minutes). If you complete a task before an interval is up, you devote the rest of the interval to overlearning – practicing your newly learned skill beyond the point of initial mastery so it becomes automatic. (So if your goal was to finish a chapter, and you’re done early, you might find a writing prompt online and practice writing dialogue, or showing instead of telling).
- Use technology to hold yourself accountable. With countless time management apps and programs available, keeping track of where your time goes has never been so easy. I particularly like this Lifehack.org roundup of the Top 15 Time Management Apps and Tools. Just a few of the apps listed include:
focus booster, based on the pomodoro technique;
Toggl, which lets you know how much time you spend on projects and tasks via graphs, charts, and timers; and
focus@will, which claims to combine neuroscience and music to boost your productivity.
2. Minimize Distractions
One of the biggest obstacles to my writing is a tendency to ignore certain distractions. If the phone rings? I answer it instead of letting it go to voicemail. A new email comes in? I have to check it right away.
So how do I ever get anything done? Here are two things that work for me:
- Set yourself up for success. Pick a spot that you find comfortable enough to hang out in for a solid block of time, and gather up all the writing accessories you need. This way, you’re not constantly jumping up for a cup of tea, your power cord, or a snack. Figure out whether you work best facing the window or a wall. Ask yourself if you feel more productive when you get dressed and sit at a desk, or if you’re able to settle in better in your pajamas on the couch. Whatever your ideal routine is, figure it out and then give yourself permission to follow it. Just for fun, here are a few routines used by famous authors, from brainpickings.org:
John Steinbeck kept twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk and used them so heavily, his editor had to send him round pencils to combat the calluses he developed from the traditional hexagonal shape;
Anthony Trollope began every day promptly at 5:30 A.M., and wrote 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch; and
when Victor Hugo was writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he put himself under house arrest and locked away all of his clothing, save a large grey shawl, to avoid the temptation to go outside.
- Avoid the internet. Or better yet, just turn it off. Even critically-acclaimed, bestselling authors like Zadie Smith have had to resort to internet applications to – ironically – turn off the internet in order to get anything done. In fact, the UK Daily Mail notes that Smith relied on such apps so heavily in writing her latest novel, she thanked them in the acknowledgements.
3. Increase Your Output
One of the most well known stories on the internet of how to increase your output is that of author Rachel Aron. On her blog, she describes how she went from writing 2,000 words per day to 10,000 without increasing the time spent writing. Instead of writing longer, Aron advises, write smarter.
Her number one tip is to know what you’re writing before you write it. This will minimize the time spent – or wasted – trying to think your way out of plot holes and seemingly un-resolvable cliffhangers. For those of us who are natural “pantsers” (authors who write from the “seat of our pants”, rather than planning things out), this advice can be hard to follow. However, I do find that I’m able to write much faster when I have an outline.
Secondly, Aron advocates paying attention to the time – how long it takes to write a certain number of words, and what factors affect that time. You should also pay attention to when you reach peak efficiency, and when it drops off. Aron, for example, found that the longer she wrote, the faster she wrote, up to a point when she would become too “brain fried” to continue.
Finally, Aron points to enthusiasm. While the advice to write every day, no matter what, is often touted online, her practice is only to write on days when she is able to muster enough knowledge, time, and enthusiasm to do justice to what must be written next. To get excited about the day’s work, Aron plays a scene through in her head, looking forward to the parts that work, and getting rid of the ones that don’t. This way, she is always eager to start, and enjoys the added bonus that her work improves from the visualization.
*I include often-abused “study drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall in this statement, as I firmly believe that non-prescribed use of medications will eventually catch up to you in a negative way. (And of course, I am not suggesting that those medications shouldn’t be used by people with legitimate medical concerns who can be helped by them).
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity in genre fiction – where to find it, how to write it, and what it means. In my own writing, I aim to include people of diverse backgrounds and histories, whether cultural, racial, sexual or otherwise, but like many authors, I worry about whether I’m “doing diversity right”.
I worry that I will create stereotypes and tropes (commonly occurring devices) through ignorance, even as I try to avoid them, since diversity in fiction necessarily calls for writing about people whose cultures are foreign to me and whose experiences I haven’t shared. But I also don’t want to not include those characters just for fear of getting them wrong.
So what am I doing about it?
Well, first and foremost, I’ve been researching. I’ve been reading articles, essays, and blog posts for months, trying to understand different points of view and how my own contribution to the written word can impact the world around me. I’ve been learning about what differentiates an innocent trope, such as “robots” or “time travel” in science fiction, from the harmful – like the “Magical Negro”, a cliché in which a person of color with supernatural powers, wisdom, or insight appears for the sole purpose of helping a white character.
Although I had seen this character over and over, it wasn’t until recently that I really became aware of it in the media I consume. According to Wikipedia, “critics use the word “negro” because it is considered archaic, and usually offensive, in modern English. This underlines their message that a “magical black character” who goes around selflessly helping white people is a throwback to stereotypes such as the “Sambo” or “Noble savage””*.
After reviewing this list of Magical Negro occurrences in fiction (which is far from exhaustive), I realized that not only had I been consuming the trope for years, I’d been buying into it without thinking. And so do a lot of really wonderful, well-intentioned readers and writers. As Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu points out in her 2004 Strange Horizons article “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes”, my own favorite author’s frequent use of the Magical Negro may be problematic, but it doesn’t make him a racist.
Nor is the problem of the Magical Negro inherent any time a black character commits an act of self-sacrifice for the good of a white character. Rather, per Okorafor-Mbachu, “[the] problem becomes apparent when viewed in context: 1) The fact that this character is typically the only (or one of very few) black character[s] in the story. 2) The history of slavery and subsequent race relations in the United States, and the world. 3) The Magical Negro’s low position in life.”
Which leads me to a really major conclusion, one that I thought about long and hard before deciding that diversity in fiction was even an issue I felt ready – or qualified – to discuss.
Ready? Here it is:
It’s ok to make mistakes.
Really great, famous authors make them, and regular people make them, and I will undoubtedly make them too. But the real mistake is in not thinking about the big issues that affect all of us. Like diversity, or privilege, or how our contributions to the world will affect it.
So far, I haven’t been guilty of the use of more obvious clichés like the Magical Negro, but all my reading has left me aware of other things that could be improved upon in my writing. For example, issues of diversity are not limited to just primary or supporting characters – they extend to worldbuilding as well.
As Geena Davis (star of Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own, and founder of her namesake Institute on Gender and Media) discusses in her excellent December 2013 essay on sexism in Hollywood, even crowd scenes in movies are “enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space”. Aside from female characters’ hypersexualization and lack of occupations in family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), Davis points out the following:
- there are roughly three male characters for every female;
- that crowd and group scenes in these films — live-action and animated — contain only 17 percent female characters;
- and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946.
So how do we address this issue?
Davis explains how we can very easily boost female presence in our writing:
“Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?”
Author Marie Lu also endorses the concept of flipping characters’ gender, race, or orientation in her “Writing Diverse Fiction: A Practical Guide”, and provides further useful tips on how to apply the Bechdel Test to your writing. While Lu cautions that the Test isn’t always accurate, and may be best used as a guideline than a hard and fast rule, the main point is that if your story features primary female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man, there’s a good chance that you’re on track to feminist writing.
As Lu says, we all mess up from time to time, but it is far better to try and fail than to ignore diversity altogether.
* from Jones, D. Marvin (2005). Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers. p. 35. ISBN 0-275-97462-6. OCLC 56095393.
I recently came across an entry on style and body image blog Already Pretty that resonated with me. Entitled “What Could You Accomplish?”, the post discusses a conversation the author had with a female friend, who said that she would never run for office because of the scrutiny and criticism she would receive for her appearance. Apparently, the friend had worked in politics for years, loved public speaking, and was passionate about her beliefs.
But she still hesitated to put herself ‘out there’ in public, in case she was dismissed for not being [attractive/stylish/fill in the blank] enough to be a politician.
The author went on to mention a talented musician friend who keeps her music in the background for similar reasons, and I was reminded of the fears I have about putting myself ‘out there’ as an author – particularly of romance novels. Although the author of the Already Pretty post discusses fear of judgment in the context of body image, I, like many authors, sometimes find myself thinking similar thoughts about my writing.
I wonder if I’m fooling myself, if my writing is any good, if anyone could possibly be interested in what I have to say. If the people who know me in my ‘real life’ – my family and friends, my coworkers and colleagues – will think less of me for following this dream. (After all, in many people’s minds, my dream is associated with an image of Fabio standing against a dramatic, full-color backdrop, hair flowing in the wind).
That image is a good reminder not to take myself too seriously, but when I have doubts, I also tell myself that my goals and dreams are not made ridiculous by their packaging. It helps to think about what might have happened if all the other writers I love had been too afraid to declare publicly that yes, they are authors – and no, they’re not ashamed.
What if Stephen King, for example, hadn’t listened to his wife’s encouragement when she famously fished the first draft of Carrie out of the trash bin? Or what if Nora Roberts had given up after her first rejection?
As Terry Pratchett says in his book Moving Pictures:
“You know what the greatest tragedy is in the whole world?…It’s all the people who never find out what it is they really want to do or what it is they’re really good at…It’s all the people with talents who never even find out. Maybe they are never even born in a time when it’s even possible to find out. It’s all the people who never get to know what it is that they can really be. It’s all the wasted chances.”
I’m determined not to waste mine.