So here we are in a new year and I know for a fact that bunches of you are working on manuscripts and once you’re done with your draft, you’re going to hopefully get it submission-ready. That is, you’re going to prep it in hopes that a publisher will think it’s awesome and sexy.
First things first. Not all houses accept a full manuscript for a read. They might just want the first few chapters. Or maybe the first few chapters and the last few. That’s fine. The point is, if you have a full manuscript that’s ready to go, you can easily extract the chapters or first 50 pages or whatever it is the potential publisher may want to see. And you want those to be clean and ready for viewing. So here are 10 things you can do to help you get it that way.
Hi, all! I just finished up a short (for me) novel and I’m getting it ready to send to a potential publisher. While I’m pondering that, I thought I’d do a round-up of hopefully helpful posts I’ve done that will provide some helpful info for those of you racing around writing.
I heard that George Michael song the other day during a throwback radio show. You know the one. “Faith.”
And I got to thinking about that. There are many kinds of “faith.” Faith in yourself. Faith in your friends. Faith in your family. Faith that you’ll get that big promotion. Faith that things will work out. And, of course, the kind of faith that too often gets grafted onto religion.
I say this because a few days back, someone asked me if I go to church. I immediately froze, because I’m not comfortable with questions like that. The person proceeded to tell me that I’d probably feel better if I prayed. Which only made me even more uncomfortable.
Why? Because it’s presumptuous to think that everybody thinks like you do. And it’s presumptuous to think that your way of coping with something (i.e. religion) is for everybody. I try to be mellow about statements like this, because I’m sure the statements come from good intent. But nonetheless, it comes off as patronizing and, honestly, proselytizing. And yes, I have an uneasy relationship with organized religion, given my current go ’round on this planet as a woman and as someone who identifies as not straight.
And before you ask, I’m one of THOSE people who tends not to discuss religion publicly. I will occasionally discuss politics, but when it comes to religion, I just don’t go there. Why? Well, because I consider religious and spiritual beliefs to be a personal matter, so I don’t ever ask people what theirs are nor do I offer anything about mine. If someone asks, we can discuss it privately. Otherwise, it’s not something I address and it’s never something I ask people.
So a couple of folks expressed interest in how to write an effective opener for a novel.
To which I say, “good luck.”
And then I supply links LIKE THIS, which have the alleged “100 best first lines from novels”, posted by the American Book Review site. I must say, Iain M. Banks’ line from The Crow Road is a grabber: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Hit that link at Amazon and you’ll be able to read the first few pages to determine what that’s about.
At any rate, what makes a great opening line? Well, I’d say that’s a topic up for debate, depending on a reader’s taste. But overall, let’s try to dissect what makes a great first line in terms of writing craft. Here are five things to think about.
As some of you know if you follow this here bloggie thingie, I’m in the middle of a bit of a writing burnout and I’m actually not currently writing (stories/novels/novellas), which, though a relief in some ways, comes with its own set of issues (OH NOES I AM SLIPPING INTO WRITING OBSCURITY AND NO ONE WILL EVER CARE THAT I WAS ONCE HERE WRITING *gnashes teeth tears hair reaches for glass of bourbon*).
Regardless, I had to take a break because it just got way too scary trying to balance everything and not take any time to simply live and I started worrying about things like emotional health. And I’ve found some awesome things since I went on writing vay-kay. Here they are, in no particular order:
By now some of you are no doubt lamenting the Super Bowl. Others are celebrating. And still others are thinking, “Oh, the Super Bowl was on? Huh.”
And then there are many others who have been working on writing projects. Some of you may actually have FINISHED a project! Glory! Hallelujah! So…what now?
There are actually any number of things to do when you complete a manuscript, but the point here is to start with a basic list and then you tailor it to your own specs and hopefully, you’ll then have this little ingrained checklist in your skull that becomes some kind of sick ritualized habit that you engage in when you finish a manuscript. Heh. That’s the idea, friends! Start making good habits now, so you incorporate them into your world.
Okay. So you finished your story/novel! GO, YOU! How much awesome are you carrying around because of that? LOTS! Go ahead and pour yourself a tall glass of awesome juice, because you earned it. So what now? Short of posting your glorious news all over social media?
I do hope that 2015 has started off awesomely for you. And before you ask, no. I don’t make “resolutions” in the classic sense. Rather, I have “schedules.” That is, things I will be working on, and those usually involve making adjustments to my daily regimens and organizing writing and editing projects.
At any rate, this year I’m going to be doing some writing in genres that I’m not known for (including paranormal). I think it’s important to stretch as a writer, and try new things in order to get a sense of how your style and voice work across genres and what kinds of adjustments to make to write effectively no matter what you’re working on.
I’ve also got a lot of other writing things I’m up to, including romance and sci fi and I’m working on New Mexico things. So don’t worry. You’ll see things from me this year, too. 🙂
And speaking of working, I’ve been reading some “how to” and “how not to” books because I like to check in on my own techniques and continue working on my craft. I recently read this gem of irreverence, called How Not to Write a Novel, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, both writers.
The book is indeed filled with 200 examples of bad writing in an attempt to get other authors thinking about what constitutes bad writing and how to recognize it. The examples are often raunchy, hilarious, and in some cases NOT SAFE FOR WORK. So you probably don’t want to share this with teens or ‘tweens.
From the book’s website (linked above):
Many writing books offer sound advice on how to write well. This is not one of those books. On the contrary, this is a collection of terrible, awkward, and laughably unreadable excerpts that will teach you what to avoid at all costs if you ever want your novel published.
The book walks you through things not to do when you’re setting up your plots, writing characters, dealing with perspective and voice, learning about mechanics, and world-building. The examples can be over-the-top, yes, but the authors will tell you after the bad writing what’s wrong and why it doesn’t work (readers might also find the book interesting because it’ll get you thinking about the parts of a book and why some things work and why they don’t).
From the book’s intro (which will give you a sense of the approach):
We do not presume to tell you how or what to write. We are merely telling you the things that editors are too busy rejecting your novel to tell you themselves, pointing out the mistakes they recognize instantly because they see them again and again in novels they do not buy.
We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. ‘No right on red’ is a rule. ‘Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly’ is an observation.
Hundreds of unpublished and unpublishable novels have passed across our desks, so we have been standing here by the side of the road for a very long time. Had you been standing here with us, you would have seen the same preventable tragedies occurring over and over, and you would have made the same observations.
Do not think of us as traffic cops, or even driving instructors. Think of us instead as your onboard navigation system, available day or night a friendly voice to turn to whenever you look up, lost and afraid, and think ‘How the fuck did I end up here?’
Sometimes, dear writers, you need to see what absolutely does not work to get a sense of what to look for in your own writing. Most (if not all) of the examples in this book I have done, the vast majority when I was just starting out as a fiction writer.
Part of developing as a writer is finding your own voice and style within the rubric of solid writing craft. And that involves comparing all kinds of writing as you’re working to figure out who you are as a writer. Which is why I think having really bad examples can be helpful, along with the reasons that the writing is “bad.” You’ll also find tips in this guide that hopefully help you fix the bad so you can apply them in your own manuscripts.
So writers, if you’re looking for a funny and useful guide to hone your writing skills, give this a look (here’s the Amazon link; more purchasing links at the site). If you’re a beginning writer pounding away on your first novel, definitely give this book a spin. And if you’re a reader curious about what bad writing might look like and how writers might address it, you might enjoy this, too.
So let’s get crackin’ this new year and hit the manuscripts!
First, the anthology I co-edited with R.G. Emanuelle is now available in print! WOOO! Go get some.
And second, I’ve been doing a lot of mystery/thriller reading these days, trying to get inspired to write a mystery/thriller short story. I’ve never written a short story in that genre, so I’m a little tentative about it. I do have an idea, but I haven’t really had the time to sit down and hammer away at it. I’m hoping this weekend is the key.
Anyway, I just finished Walter Satterthwait’s Joshua Croft series, which he published in the late 1980s and early- mid-1990s. Croft is a PI in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the five books (listed HERE) are full of local color and the quirks and vagaries not only of Santa Fe, but of northern New Mexico and its myriad characters. For that alone these are worth the read, but what Satterthwait does so damn brilliantly is characterization and dialogue.
Croft is a wiseass, and the snappy interchanges between him and the other characters that fill these books with New Mexico goodness and maybe a touch of Southwestern noir lend great pacing to the plot arcs and subplots. Satterthwait is a master at pacing, and his descriptions and turns of phrase can be both brilliant and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Witness this, from The Hanged Man, the fourth in the series (that deals with murder most foul in a part of Santa Fe’s new agey community). Here, Croft is about to interview someone who was at the gathering at which a man was later found murdered. He’s gone to her house and is noticing its décor:
The basic motif here appeared to be Egyptian. …There was enough marble in the room to slap together a life-sized replica of the Parthenon. Even the floor was marble, black, as shiny as obsidian. That floor might be pleasant in the summer, on the two of three days when the temperature in Santa Fe rose above eighty-five degrees. During the winter, it was probably a bitch to keep warm. But I suppose that if you could afford a marble floor, you didn’t worry about heating the thing. You just marched your Nubian slaves in from time to time and had them breathe on it. [p. 26]
And one of the interesting things is that there are LGBT characters that pop up in some of the books, and they’re not treated disparagingly. They’re part of the fabric of the culture in Santa Fe, and for books written in the late ’80s and early 90s, that’s actually really cool.
Anyway, I also read crime fiction written years ago to get a sense of how investigation has changed over the years, and what techniques people used to track down suspects. Having a historical sense of shifts in methodology, I think, can help a writer develop a better sense of the many different ways people use to find information. And indeed, ol’ skool is still used for some things today. Reading authors like Satterthwait not only gives you a sense of shoe-leather approaches, but also of how that type of investigation can influence pacing, characterization, and plot arc.
Reading someone like Satterthwait, who weaves the setting so beautifully into his plots and whose characterization is so good, can also provide you some guidance on writing a thriller/mystery with regard to those elements, and how they should work.
So with that in mind, read the oldies, friends. You can find lists of them at links like this:
I’m currently in that awkward place between projects. Kind of. I’ve published a novel this year, just released an anthology I co-edited (in which I have a story), and had 2 other stories selected for publication in 2 other anthologies. I’m also waiting to hear on whether another story I wrote is selected for a different anthology.
I am working on the fourth installment of my space opera series (I’m about halfway through) and I’m doing a bit of research on the fifth in my mystery series, so I am working on some long-term things, but I’ve just about finished up a whole bunch of things that I wanted to this year. And that feels pretty good.
Having said that, I am trying to hammer out another story this month for yet another anthology, but I’m not sure I’m going to make the deadline. If not, I’m not going to freak out about it because it’s not like I haven’t done any other writing this year.
In terms of my writing life, it generally cycles between completely slammed and these stretches where I’m not pressed to do a whole lot. I like these lulls. I still write during them, but I don’t feel the frantic OMG I HAVE TO GET THIS DONE HOLY SHIT SOMEBODY HOOK ME UP TO A RED BULL IV that can accompany my slammed periods. I also use the lulls to ponder writing projects that aren’t related to what I’m currently working on, and that’s always fun, to think about all different characters. I think that might be why I’ve written a lot more shorter stories this year than in years past. I wanted to hang out with some different characters and see what sorts of things could unspool in the narratives.
I do that, too, if one of my long-term projects is giving me some issues and I haven’t figured out how to write/re-write it to fix it. I’ll write something else — usually a short story or novella-length thing — and that helps loosen the logjam in the other project. There are times, too, that I’ve completely scrapped a project and started over from scratch. I don’t know any author who hasn’t had to do that, so if you’re in the middle of that, don’t freak. It’s normal.
So here. 5 things I do that help with the writing cray-zee.
1. Don’t force it. If a project you’re working on is just not working out, stop working on that one. Work on something else. If even that isn’t working, it’s a sign that you may need to take a couple days off (or more) from writing. In which case…
2. Read. Yeah, you heard me. Go read somebody else’s book. When I’m not feeling it, I read. And I generally read a genre that is different than the one that’s got me hung up. For whatever reasons, that gets me out of my headspace and gets me excited and interested in different kinds of plotlines. That feeds the creative stuff, and helps with logjams. If you don’t want to read…
3. Watch a movie. Or stream something. Some cool series you’ve been wanting to watch. Watch a couple episodes. Or, hell, go ahead and binge-watch. Just be careful with that. You don’t want to get into the habit of binge-watching all the time. But every once in a while, it can help get you out of a writing rut.
4. Get out of your house. Or office. Or wherever you write. Take a walk. Go exercise (which you should be doing regularly anyway, because that, too, helps the creative juices). Go do something in your community like visit a museum that’s having a cool temporary exhibit. Go catch a live music show. Call up some friends (or text or however you do it these days) and meet them for dinner or coffee. Have a barbecue with friends/family. Point being? Remove yourself from writing for a bit. Writers live in their heads. It’s important to get out of your head and, as they say, smell the roses. Besides, if you don’t, you might be missing out on good writing fodder.
5. Take a couple of days and go out of town. No, really. Leave. Even if it’s something goofy like driving a hundred miles to a neighboring town and spending the night at a B&B there. Do it. Go hiking or mountain biking. Rent a canoe and do a day-long tourist-y river float. Being outside in natural surroundings is a cure-all for just about anything that ails you. Don’t believe me? Here. And here. Oh, and definitely here.
Find whatever combo works for you. And don’t beat yourself up if you’re in a writing rut or stuck. What that means is you need to recharge the ol’ creative batteries. It’s a normal part of a writing life, to hit ruts. So make it part of your normal writing life to develop healthy strategies to recharge.
Speaking of, what are some of yours? Leave ’em in the comments and happy Wednesday.