Step One: Write Without Barriers; Step Two: Cut, Cut, Cut!

The Editing Pen

The Editing Pen

Last week I mentioned that this week’s topic would be about “the last time you could write about whatever you wanted and not care a bit what anyone else thought about it.”

Now, unless you keep a diary that’s locked and hidden somewhere very secure – or, I suppose, if you do the same with a manuscript that you never plan to see the light of day – it is nearly impossible to write without worrying about anyone else’s opinion. I have to admit, it was a bit of a trick question.

Of course, I have attended workshops with so-called writers who were arrogant enough to think that they could write whatever and however they wanted, and any criticism from their fellow workshoppers was not worth heeding. Which made me wonder why these people signed up to begin with. To bestow their writerly beneficence on other, less gifted souls? Or to receive lots of praise and pats on the back?

As you can likely imagine, these writers got a rude awakening when they found out that their prose, in fact, was not a gift from God to the rest of us. And they had a very difficult time ever taking the well-meant critiques and applying them to the manuscripts that they thought were already perfect.

Most writers (or those of us who are realistic about our chances of publishing and actually being read) know that we have to quit thinking about ourselves at some point and consider the readers. Of course, these audiences are varied. Some may be very narrow, others broad, even all-encompassing. And though we may hate the idea of “selling out” or writing to be marketable, the fact is that if you write a young adult novel with a 60-year-old narrator – and a cast full of geriatrics with not an adolescent in sight – you likely won’t have many young adult readers. Sure, write that book if it floats your boat, but don’t expect it to find a publisher.

Now, there are always rule breakers, many of them quite famous. Elmore Leonard’s number one rule for good writing is to never open a book with the weather. So what did he do in his novel, Get Shorty? He opened with the weather (read that opening and others here.)

There are writers who break the rules because they know what they’re doing, and people applaud them for having the guts to do it – and do it well. There are others who don’t know the rules or ignore them, thinking that rules are for those unfortunate writers who don’t have “it” – you know, that mysterious something that puts some writers on bestseller lists.

These others – the ones who think that the golden prose that flows from their fingertips should never be sullied by an editor’s red pen – hamper themselves by not moving (or not moving very far, anyway) beyond the first draft. And if you read my post last November about first drafts, you know that they’re necessary, of course, in the writing process, but there is a reason they’re called “first” – you’re supposed to move on to a second and a third and however many it takes to get the job done right.

When I wrote my first drafts post, I was a little over a week into NaNoWriMo. (And if you don’t know what that is, read all about it at – and then participate this November!) During November, I wrote over 80,000 words and edited very little, except for those few times when I needed to go back and re-read something, and I caught an error.

I continued writing through December and January and into the first part of February, when I finally wrapped up my novel – at about 148,000 words. I knew it was on the wordy side. With a first draft, you write without barriers; it’s just you and the manuscript. I liken it to writing an email that you never plan to send. If you want to let someone know a piece of your mind, compose an email full of all the vitriol it will hold, but instead of sending it, sleep on it, and you will often find that your original email doesn’t need to be sent at all or can be toned down. The same goes for manuscripts. Much of what authors include in a first draft is backstory or info-dumping that is more for the author’s benefit than any use to the readers. When you start to edit, save your first draft in case you need to go and use some of that info later, but likely, a good portion of it will get cut.

In my first draft, my first person narrator contributed all kinds of thoughts and snarky asides that do not belong in the final version. Since the style is largely conversational, I let quite a bit of it pass, even after a couple rounds of edits. I did cut almost 20,000 words, after all, so I felt like my novel was ready to move to the next stage and be dispersed to some beta readers.

Then, last weekend, I had an unexpected opportunity. Writer’s Digest was offering what they called a bootcamp with a literary agency, focusing on the first 10 pages of a novel. All I had to do was really polish those first 10 pages and get some professional advice on how to make them even better.

When I posted my excuse of a blog last week, I had just sent off the final, revised-again 10 pages to the agent I was working with, and I felt like I had been somewhat mentally flogged. Her first assessment had been short, with one positive: I had a good handle on the language. The negatives: too much dialogue, too long (I had given her the word count for the whole novel), and too much telling instead of showing.

Well, crap, I thought. My beta readers haven’t give me any complaints like that (yet). They helped me with pacing and big content issues, but then again, they weren’t pulling a magnifying glass out on the first 10 pages only. My beta readers went in knowing that they were going to finish the book. While I can tell agents all day long that they’ll like it if they just read to the end, they know that prospective readers will likely only read a page or a paragraph or even just the opening line before they decide to buy the book – or not.

I won’t say the agent’s comments were a blow, but they were a wake up call. After getting clarification on the negatives, I saw my book through new eyes – someone’s else’s – and realized that there is a lot more work to be done. And since I love a challenge, I’m having a fun time editing – again.

So to address my own topic that I presented last week and again at the beginning of this post, the last time I wrote something without caring about what anyone else thinks was when I wrote that first draft – and every time I write a first draft. What a relief to get it all off my chest (or out of my head, as the case may be).

And, yes, I need to be true to myself and write the book that I want to write, but sometimes the book that wants to be written needs me to move out of the way a little. I need to quit thinking about what an impact the end of Part One will make and weigh every word up to that point. Maybe some (or a few thousand) of those words need to go.

And to paraphrase another agent who was so right (although it’s hard advice to swallow): sometimes that line you keep coming back to – you know, your favorite – is the line that you absolutely must cut.

What Do Writers Wear, Anyway?

English: A pair of high heeled shoe with 12cm ...

Shoes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a couple cliches about dressing professionally that basically boil down to the same thing: “dress for success” and “dress for the job you want, not the one you have” are supposed to motivate, to get people into the proper mentality for their desired careers. My five-year-old runs around in a surgical mask and latex gloves and plays with his homemade doctor’s kit, so at least one of us is on the right track.

I’ve pondered this work attire notion lately. There is something to dressing for a particular occupation. Think about a man on the street in the three-piece suit. He’s probably a lawyer, right? Or an executive at a bank or big corporation. If you’re a corporate headhunter, he might get your attention, and that’s the point, I suppose. One time, I paired a red sweater with some khakis, took one look in the mirror, and immediately changed because I felt like I was going to work at Target. In my case, I decided not to dress for the job I didn’t want.

As with the above examples, there are certain stereotypes. If I say “rockstar,” “priest,” or “Best Buy geek,” you probably get an automatic picture in your head. At my parents’ business, we have a lot of customers who are artists, and it’s not unusual to see eclectic or bohemian clothes, colorful hair, and tattoo sleeves.

Well, what about me? As a writer, what in the world am I supposed to wear to let others know what I do? I don’t fit in with the artists, nor do I wear a beret and tiny circular sunglasses, sipping coffee with my pinkie up at outdoor cafes, poetry journal in hand. Until recently, I pretty much dressed the way I had all through college: jeans and t-shirts or casual blouses. Then I started substitute teaching and found that my limited business casual wardrobe (which contained mostly pants and a few black dresses that I only ever wore to church) would never get me through a week of teaching. Now that I’ve been forced to expand my wardrobe, I own more clothes than ever before. And I find that wearing the occasional dress isn’t terrible, it’s just not what I would choose, in a perfect world. But at least I blend in.

The real me lives for stay-at-home Saturdays, maybe lazy, maybe catching up chores I couldn’t get to during the week. At the ends of days like this, I haven’t offended anyone by wearing workout clothes all day, or my bedroom slippers. Back when I envisioned myself as a successful, stay-at-home writer mom, that’s kind of how I thought every day would be. Let’s be silly and imagine, for a moment, that this really did happen. I’m the next American J.K. Rowling, and now someone wants to do a movie about me. The on-screen version of me would have to be sexed up a little for anyone to want to watch it. Okay, she’d have to be sexed up a lot. I can’t imagine someone wanting to watch an actress wearing baggy pajama pants and a non-matching, fifteen-year-old t-shirt, typing away on a MacBook, face devoid of make-up, hair long and limp. But that’s me.

Here’s another fantasy scenario: I have to go to a Hollywood movie premier, say a movie version of one of my novels. And the next day, when the entertainment shows dole out the awards for best and worst dressed, I get completely panned because I showed up in a Dillard’s special. Accessorized by my trusty Tigger watch.

I suppose the conclusion is that, for this writer at least, there is no dress code. Dressing in a way that someone else thinks is right is not going to make me write a better novel or get noticed by a big New York publishing house. In fact, as far as professionalism in writing is concerned, a simple, serious email address and clean query letter make more of a positive impression than a pants suit and stilettos. Writers who don’t dress their stories for success first are wasting their time if they’re mostly concerned with how they dress their bodies.

Nix the Modifiers! A Writing Exercise

St. Augustine Florida

If you have a creative writing bent, I have a challenge for you. Write a descriptive paragraph without any adjectives or adverbs. (Adjectives are words that describe nouns, “red” and “big.” Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs and often end in “ly,” “steadily” and “quietly.”)

I have a love-hate relationship with this exercise. I love it because it forces me to write with the utmost care, to improve, but I hate it because it’s so much easier to be lazy and let all the descriptors do the work for me. I was introduced to this method in my fiction workshop days (thanks, Ari), and I just prayed that I wouldn’t be the one who got picked to read her work aloud.

If you’ve ever been in a writing class, you’re familiar with the instruction to “show, don’t tell,” and although adjectives and adverbs aren’t necessarily of the devil, if you’re not careful, they contribute to “telling” writing. It’s easy to say, “She was mad.” It’s much harder to describe someone who is mad and let the reader draw the conclusion him- or herself.

It is difficult, not to mention time-consuming to write something without any adjectives or adverbs—especially when you realize that helpful transitional words such as “now,” “most,” “always,” and “never” are on the list. If forced to think creatively, however, a writer can describe with carefully chosen nouns and verbs. For instance, instead of writing “swimsuit,” use “bikini” or “Speedo.” Or try “mom-jeans” or “bellbottoms” instead of “pants.” You get a better visual, don’t you?

Below are three examples of what a student could write in a “what I did this summer” kind of assignment. (Hint-hint, teachers—this is a way to make them really hate you!) The first is chock-full of modifiers. The second is devoid of a single one. Once you’re able to write a descriptive sentence or two without any adjectives or adverbs, you’re ready to selectively (ah—there’s a useful adverb!) add them again, and that’s what I’ve done in the third case. See what you think. . . and take on the challenge if you dare.


Adjectives and Adverbs Galore:

Now that we’re back from vacation, I’ve swapped stories with my friends. While many of them spent their summers driving the winding roads through the mountains, sipping iced tea on quaint porches in New England, or voyaging abroad through the much more comfortable or—let’s face it—often chilly terrains of England, Ireland, France, and Spain, I had a good old-fashioned staycation, right here on the southeast coast of the United States. With my trusty, lemonade-filled red cooler, my favorite, polka-dotted beach towel, a ridiculously huge beach umbrella, and not a few novels from my to-read list, I lived the Floridian lifestyle to the fullest, throwing in a trip to St. Augustine (good art galleries, shopping, plus a history lesson or three), and even a trip down to theme-park central, Orlando. I visited my favorite childhood haunt, Disney World, as well as Universal Islands of Adventure, washing the heat away with a refreshing mug of butterbeer. Alas, all good things must come to an end—at least temporarily—because we’re back to school again. I sit inside, looking out upon a world that will most likely continue to be scorching hot for another couple months, savoring the sweet memories of warm sand between my toes and tart, thirst-quenching sips of lemonade while reading for myself and no one else.


Almost As Sparse as It Gets:

Back from vacation, I’ve swapped stories with friends who traveled to the mountains, New England, and Europe. I could be jealous, considering I didn’t set foot out of Florida. Despite the heat, however, I enjoyed my summer at home. Armed with my cooler, towel, umbrella, and books, I soaked up the sun—and novels—at the beach. I did wander out of town upon occasion—to St. Augustine (art, shopping, and history), Disney World (revisiting my childhood), and Universal Islands of Adventure (butterbeer, hurray!). School brought us back. I sit inside, looking out on a world that will be hot into the fall, but I savor my memories—of sand between my toes, a cooler full of lemonade. . . and books.


Something a Little in Between:

Upon returning from summer vacation, my friends and I swapped stories. Many of them traveled to places much cooler than here, from the mountains to New England and even Europe. I could be jealous, but I really did enjoy my staycation, hot as it was. Armed with my lemonade-filled cooler, favorite beach towel, enormous umbrella, and a number of books from my to-read list, I spend most of my days at the beach. There were a handful of mini-trips, including St. Augustine (shopping, art appreciation, and history all rolled into one), Disney World (tapping my inner child), and Universal Islands of Adventure (my first taste of butterbeer). Too soon, though, we’re back at school, looking out on a world that will only cool slightly before October. I will savor my memories, however, of sand between my toes, the tart refreshment of lemonade, and my fill of fiction.