Words Count

Back in the fifth or sixth grade, I had the option of writing a story for a contest. Creative writing has been a love of mine since I was old enough to write my name, so I was in. Write a story – no problem. But there was a problem, and it was the word count. No more than 200 words. I think the only reason this has stuck with me is because of how ridiculous the word count seemed. My classmates groaned about the seeming impossibility of creating a story, no matter the length. To me, however, the limit of 200 words shot my dream of writing a winning story dead before I could even start.

In college, when I joined my first fiction workshop, I puzzled over how to write a story that was short enough. I struggled to shrink my first one to less than 20 pages, which I knew was problematic because the instructor read each story aloud during class. The day that a woman turned in a two-page story, I wondered how in the world it would amount to anything. Surely a two-page story would hardly be worth critiquing.

It was one of the best stories submitted that semester.

Eighteen years old, and I finally learned that longer is not necessarily better.

Of course, that’s not to say that I was unaware of being brevity-challenged. I’d heard about killing your darlings. I’d also heard of taking out the proverbial axe and chisel to finesse a piece of literary art. But my approach was always to write pell-mell on the first draft, then make sure the second draft was cut down by ten percent. The problem with this technique is that my first drafts are often much too long, and cutting ten percent is not enough. And when I started writing freelance, I had to learn how to hone my skills by writing articles with word limits.

It’s one thing to write a story and know that it needs to be around a certain length. It’s another to be assigned an article and know that you will be rejected if you go over 300 or 400 words. When I started writing articles for clients, I faced this challenge. And it turns out that I can write an article, prove a point, share an idea within a small space. A good thing, too, since many people will choose not to read an article if they see it runs onto a second page.

So, what then about novels? If you read my post last week, I complained (yes, I admit it) about my latest encounter with an agent. Her assignment was to help me fix problems with my novel’s opening, but when I submitted my excerpt to her with a note about how long my young adult manuscript was, I didn’t expect her to critique the novel’s length. But that’s just what she did. Cut it down by about 40,000 words, she said.

My first reaction was to be offended. Hadn’t she heard of Twilight, EragonHarry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, for crying out loud? These books blow average word counts out of the water. Granted, the first Harry Potter book was closer to what is considered normal, so by book five, J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted. But still, I thought, how do young adult authors break into the publishing world with longer-than-average novels?

Of course, my goal needs to be to make my novel the best it can be. Length isn’t the only factor, but it could be the one that consigns me to the slush pile yet again. While making my manuscript the best it can be, maybe I need to pull out the old axe again.

When I started editing my novel, although cutting words was a secondary goal, I was more concerned with making it clean and clarifying scenes that had confused my beta readers. But with my number one critique from the agent being the length (and after all, she does sell novels for a living, so I kind of have to lean toward her expertise on this one), I became hyper-aware of every word. I should have been making sure that each one counted from the beginning.

As of this post, I have cut almost 14,000 words – and I’ve added two scenes and am not even halfway through the book. There’s hope for me yet. If I can cut 30,000 words and make my prose shine, maybe there’s a chance that I’ll catch someone’s attention.

So, for those of you who don’t know where to start, here are some specifics:

  • Choose your adverbs with great prejudice. Sometimes you can’t cut the adverb out and get your message across. Sometimes it means rewording a section to avoid adverb usage (and adjectives, too, but adverbs are the bigger culprit). As a writing exercise, write a scene with no descriptors at all. Challenging? You bet. You’re welcome.
  • KISS (keep it simple, stupid). If you can make your point in three words, why use ten? Are you trying to impress someone with your use of words like “anthropomorphism” and “juxtaposition”? Give me a break. Likely, you’re only impressing yourself. Make your point, and move on.
  • Read your prose aloud. This is especially important for dialogue. It’s also a great technique for discovering when you’re using the same word or phrase too often.
  • Express yourself through punctuation. Need help? Check out Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style. You will be amazed by how much you can say without using words at all.
  • If you haven’t already, buy copies of The Elements of Style, On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There are many, many others, but these will give you a great start.
  • Kill your darlings. I’m so sorry. It could be that the line you’re most proud of is the one that needs to go. Once you start, you’ll find that it’s easier to keep cutting. If you’re afraid that you’ll regret your cuts, save each revision of your work as a separate document, so you can go back and put a line back in later if you decide you’d rather keep it.
  • If you’re writing an article, make a rough outline. Although I like to be a free spirit when it comes to fiction, when writing articles, you need to have a clear direction for your key points. Then, if space allows, you can add flourishes later.
  • Give your piece a rest. If there’s no hard deadline, take a vacation and work on something else for four to six weeks. You may find that something you thought integral to your manuscript before is unnecessary.
  • Hire an editor. I’m not just trying to get more work for myself; if you are serious about making your manuscript publication-ready and feel you’re not up to the task yourself, that’s why we’re here.

These all come down to making sure that every word counts. If it doesn’t further your story or article, it’s got to go. Only then can you write a winning story in under 200 words – or cut thousands of words from your novel without compromising important scenes. I have confidence that you can, and I’m certainly going to try to do it, too.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Author

You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.

                                                                                                                                             –Truman Capote


The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy (Photo credit: Darlene Acero)


Avid readers, do you remember a time when you discovered a new writer, fell in love with one book, then went crazy looking for all of his or her other publications?

This has happened a number of times with me, from my early days of reading with authors like Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott, then ramping up to Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Crichton, and then Stephen King. In every case, I devoured their books, as many as I could get my hands on.

But sometimes… sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sure, every prolific author has an off-book or two. Even in the middle of bestseller series, it’s not uncommon to have a middle-of-the-road slump. (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix comes to mind.)

Sometimes, it’s no fault of the author’s, though, because they get pigeonholed. They commit the unforgivable sin of writing outside of one particular genre and so get panned by masses of once-adoring fans.

This often happens with actors. Think about how many of them, in the effort to avoid being typecast, take on just about any role they’re offered to prove they can do something other than what originally made them famous. You might be disillusioned when your favorite child actor tries to show she’s all grown up by portraying a risqué character.

Now, authors aren’t going around in the nude to prove that they’re all grown up. But sometimes we treat them as if they’re doing just that. If you find out that your favorite children’s author has an adult title coming out soon, don’t be shocked that it’s not all “See Dick and Jane” anymore. Dick and Jane might be doing something that you don’t want your children to read about. And that’s fine. Writing for children doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer the writing world.

The opposite it true for authors such as Stephen King. Many people shy away from him because he’s known primarily as an author of “horror” stories. But I’ve found that he actually writes much more fantasy and suspense than horror, not to mention moving love stories, at least one hard-boiled mystery, and one of the best non-fiction books on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read. (Check it out here.)

Truman Capote was right: we can’t blame writers for what their characters say and do. There is a certain amount of censoring that automatically happens if your story is meant for younger audiences, but the truth must always prevail. As Stephen R. Donaldson writes about the creative process:

[N]one of us can explain how it works. In a sense, writers don’t get ideas: ideas get writers. They happen to us. If we don’t submit to their power, we lose them; so by trying to control or censor them we can make the negative choice of encouraging them to leave us alone.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds very unattractive to tick off my muse by not letting the story be the story. I recently posted about striking gold with a story idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo. When this idea first occurred, I assumed that it would be another young adult novel. After all, the main characters are teenagers, and most of my stories end up going the middle grade or young adult route.

Yet the more I’ve thought about this new premise, I’ve realized that my novel might actually be for adults. That’s not to say that young adults wouldn’t ever read it – after all, I started reading Stephen King when I was 14 – but the amount of censoring I’d have to do to make it appropriate would change the intent and tone of the story. I suppose I could make it work, but would that be right?

This reminds me of a book I read recently, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yeah, she wrote that itty bitty Harry Potter series that a few people around the world seem to like.

Okay, if you know me, you know that I’m a Harry Potter nut. I bought The Casual Vacancy, which Rowling published as an adult novel, with no illusions of it containing wand-wielding teenage wizards. In the early pages, I sometimes scratched my head over this being the same author of the seven books I so dearly love. True, there are teenagers in her new book, but they’re facing very real temptations and demons, not the fantastical kind. The language, the grittiness was sometimes hard to reconcile with my previous experience of this author.

But knowing how hard it is to force a story into a genre that it’s not, I had an easier time – making my preconceived notions of Rowling disappear into the background – than many other readers who gave up on the book when they discovered it’s not about adult wizards. Rowling still has her fingerprints all over it, but in the form of turns of phrase, descriptions, and little gems that claim her no matter what the genre.

As much as I love most things young adult and fantasy, what I love above all are characters that come to life on the page and stories that pull me in. When I allowed the story to take over, it both compelled and moved me. It took a lot of courage for Rowling to put herself out there and publish something so different than the series that made her a household name. I know of people she’s upset because they expected more of the same, but I admire her for letting the story take the lead.

If you’re an author wrestling with a story unlike anything you’ve ever written, here’s some great advice from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “[S]ome days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Getting out of your own way means ditching those preconceived notions about what you can and should write. Let the story tell itself – at least in the first draft – and you can figure out what’s still appropriate to keep in the revision process.

And if you’re a reader who tends to pigeonhole, open your mind a little bit. Realize that the best authors, the ones that convey the truth through pages and pages of lies, are simply doing what Stephen R. Donaldson wrote about: they’re allowing the creative process to work as it should. To censor it, to hold back, would be to lie in the worst possible way.

For writers to deny themselves the chance to branch out into other genres and interests is to deny growth within the craft, to deny them doing what they’re meant to do.

Writers don’t just love to write – they must. Lamott also says:

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Amen? Amen.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Punctuation: It’s More Than Emoticons

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

In Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she has a particular problem with emoticons – you know, the colons and parentheses that make sideways smileys, as she calls them. I admit that I use them, but only for fun. I certainly don’t include them in cover letters or resumes. But there is a whole generation of kids right now who, without proper education, might never know that the colon has an actual use within a sentence.

Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, [Truss writes,] because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function. What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes. What’s this curvy thing for? It’s a mouth, look! Hey, I think we’re onto something.

: – (

Now it’s sad!

; –)

It looks like it’s winking! (193)

Why should we care, though? Why bother continuing to fight what seems a losing battle? Truss puts it pretty well early in her book.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. (20)

As a musician, I get it. Anyone who’s ever read lines from a script gets it, too. But what about everyone else, those who consider punctuation so much debris on the page? Think about ancient Hebrew, in which there was no punctuation, nor were there spaces between words – not even vowels! There have been nasty fights over translations of the Bible because of this. But by the time we began printing, we’d devised ways to help readers decipher the meaning of what they were reading. All these little marks, the periods and colons and dashes and hyphens, are aids; they’re here to help us.

When did things begin to fall apart? Truss gives her opinion on the matter, one well worth noting:

But to get back to those dark-side-of-the-moon years in British education when teachers upheld the view that grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression, it is arguable that the timing of their grammatical apathy could not have been worse. In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what’s happened: everyone’s a writer!

[. . .] People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their leisure hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others. And there is no editing on the internet! (16-7)

That’s right; there are a lot of people claiming to be writers – educated people! – who make absolute fools of themselves online. Since anyone with access to a computer could be a virtual writer now, it is more important than ever to know the rules. How many times have you misread an e-mail because it’s just so hard to decipher tone and meaning via electronic communication? At least if the punctuation is right, that will go a long way toward making the meaning clearer.

After we learn the rules, we can flex our artistic muscles and enhance our writing with the stylistic uses of punctuation, as Noah Lukeman points out in A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. As I mentioned two posts ago, the only form of punctuation that he doesn’t cover is the apostrophe. He even considers paragraph breaks as a form of punctuation. And the way you apply (or don’t) all the different forms of punctuation tells something about you, the writer.

The semicolon, for instance. Aside from the winky face, what good is it? A semicolon separates two independent clauses when a comma and conjunction just don’t do the trick, and when two sentences separate those thoughts a little too much. But writers could choose one of the alternatives I’ve just listed and still be technically correct. Truss says that newspapers don’t use it,

[T]he official reason being that readers of newsprint prefer their sentences short, their paragraphs bite-sized and their columns of type uncluttered by wormy squiggles. It’s more likely that the real reasons are a pathetic editorial confusion about usage and a policy of distrusting contributors even when they demonstrably know their onions. (110)

Ouch. And Lukeman’s take is that

Artistically, the semicolon opens a world of possibilities, and can lend a huge impact. In this sense, it is the punctuation mark best suited for creative writers[. . .]

We use the semicolon for the same reason we trade cement floors for marble: cement floors are equally functional but not as elegant, not as aesthetically pleasing as marble. The semicolon elevates punctuation from the utilitarian (from punctuation that works) to the luxurious (to punctuation that transcends). Business memos do not need semicolons; creative writers do. (70)

It follows that creative writers are artists and might decide to get flowery with their punctuation, but I can easily imagine academic writers turning up their noses at such a notion. There are, however, necessary punctuation marks that everyone has to use, so it’s important to learn about them – and how to keep from overusing them. Lukeman subtitles a portion of his last chapter “Use Sparingly,” and included in this section are the question mark, exclamation point, italics, ellipses (you know: . . .), and the hyphen. Most of these make sense, but the question mark? It’s supposed to come at the end of a question, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be right to end a question with a period (although that doesn’t stop people from trying). In the publishing world, Lukeman says,

[A] publishing professional is looking to reject a manuscript as quickly as he can. [. . .] And an abundance of question marks in the first pages  [. . .] nearly always indicates amateur or melodramatic writing. For some reason, the poor question mark gets seized upon by the writer who is desperate to immediately hook the reader in a cheap way. (184)

Likewise, the exclamation point

[C]an be painfully misused. Like the question mark, it can be used as a crutch to create a heightened sense of drama, can be transformed into a screaming car salesman. As a rule, if you need an exclamation point to make a scene come alive, then you better reexamine that scene. (187)

I do like an example that Truss cites, however, that wouldn’t be possible without these two marks. She mentions “the French 19th-century novelist Victor Hugo, who – when he wanted to know how Les Miserables was selling – reportedly telegraphed his publisher with the simple inquiry ‘?’ and received in the expressive reply ‘!'” (136).

Those of us who care enough to properly and painstakingly choose between semicolons and colons must first learn the rules (and when to break them) and unite with fellow sticklers. I’m waving my electronic hand here, trying to catch the attention of anyone else who cares. As Truss says,

[M]y personal hunches about the state of the language were horribly correct: standards of punctuation in general in the UK are indeed approaching the point of illiteracy; self-justified philistines (“Get a life!”) are truly in the driving seat of our culture; and a lot of well-educated sensitive people really have been weeping friendlessly in caves for the past few years, praying for someone – anyone – to write a book about punctuation with a panda on the cover. (xix-xx)

Truss’s book has a lot of answers, as well as Lukeman’s (and he covers much more than I’ve been able to do here). Three other books that I highly recommend because they have greatly helped me with the craft are the old standby, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition), Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and (believe it or not) Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft.

And I’ll let Noah Lukeman have the final word on making the case for proper punctuation:

[L]et your punctuation unfold organically, as the text demands. Punctuation should never be forced on a text, never be brought in to rescue you from confusing sentence construction. It is not here to save – it is here to complement. This is an important distinction. The sentence itself must do the work. If it does, the punctuation will coexist seamlessly, and you will never  have an awkward struggle to squeeze in a dash, or make a semicolon work. If you find yourself having a struggle, reexamine your sentence structure, your word choice. More likely than not, you will need to rewrite, not repunctuate. [. . . I]n the best writing the punctuation is seamless, invisible, at one with the text. It will never stand out. You know you are punctuating the best you possibly can when, ironically, you don’t even know it’s there. (200)

Someone Tapped My Brain Again, and Her Name is Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott (Photo credit: mdesive)

Did you ever read an article or a blog or a book, and afterward, you felt like the writer tapped your brain (but probably wrote everything much more coherently than you ever could have)? That is how I felt when I read Anne Lamott‘s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life “It’s one of the best books about writing ever written,” my writer/avid-reader cousin-in-law Julie told me. And I must agree. I only wish I’d known about it sooner. So now it is my turn to pass the good stuff onto other writers or people who are just interested in learning more about the writing process.
Although Bird by Bird is full of hyperbole, the exaggerations really aren’t too far off, at least with how writers often feel (even if we don’t literally move to a trailer park near our therapists, as Lamott suggests at one point). Her style is candid, humorous, and unafraid of pointing out some of the ugly realities of which new and non-writers are unaware. She explains writing truths that experienced writers know but that are so difficult to verbalize.
Below, are some of my favorite passages, although you should just do yourself a favor and read the whole book. If you want (or need) to be inspired, if you want to read about the trials and truths of what an author has experienced, this is the book for you.

Upon the publication of her first book, “it seemed that I was not in fact going to be taking early retirement. I had secretly believed that trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all its dizzying complexity. And this is what I thought when my second book came out, and my third, and my fourth, and my fifth. And each time I was wrong.

“But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. . . The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” (pp. xxv-xxvi)


“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.” (p. 52)


“Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.” (p. 53)


“I do the menial work of getting [the words] down on paper, because I’m the designated typist, and I’m also the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t even know what the kid is digging for half the time—but she knows gold when she sees it.” (p. 56)


“Over and over I feel as if my characters know who they are, and what happens to them, and where they have been and where they will go, and what they are capable of doing, but they need me to write down for them because their handwriting, is so bad.” (p. 60)


Regarding writer’s block, “I no longer think of it as block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.

“The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. . .

“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. . . But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.” (p. 178)


“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” (p. 198)


“Many nonwriters assume that publication is a thunderously joyous event in the writer’s life, and it is certainly the biggest and brightest carrot dangling before the eyes of my students. They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manuscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.

“But this is not exactly what happens. Or at any rate, this is not what it has been like for me.” (pp. 210-211)

Why our writing matters: “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” (p. 237)