Shopping for Writers

It’s that time again, like it or not. We were at the mall yesterday to see a movie, but we could barely get there for all the holiday shoppers scurrying frantically about. Is Christmas shopping still fun? Was it ever?

I bet you have some writers on your shopping list. I know I do. And this past week, I’ve seen several proposed shopping lists floating around the internet, all of which I thought terrible, filled with expensive tech gewgaws more likely to distract a writer than to aid one. So of course, I decided to prepare a list of my own.

Editing Tools. I’ve written a previous blog about the importance of outside editing for all writers, and I’m always available to help you find an incisive copyeditor. But some people are seeking advice on technical matters. Hemingway is an app that helps you improve readability. It tells you if you’re being too wordy or technical. Deadline and Grammarly are apps that check grammar and punctuation, but if you’re giving a gift, I suggest the more in-depth (and expensive) analysis provided by ProWritingAid. You paste in your text and it will give you many different reports (how many depends on how much you pay) and an overall summary. It will not only correct grammar but point out cliches, redundancies, vagaries, excessive dialogue tags, and much more.

Writing Tools. The most stylish writer in the house, Kadey, suggests a Tiffany & Co pen, preferably in the iconic baby blue. Diamonds are optional. I’m a fountain pen man myself, but I have to admit, they are lovely. If you don’t want to spend quite that much, try the Knock Knock Note Pads. They are hilarious. I prefer the Pep Talk version, because it seems to be speaking to writers with check boxes labeled “You Can Do It!” or “It Is What It Is.”

Consider an Assistant. Overwhelmed by the social media necessary to publicize a book these days? Consider an author assistant. The cost might be less than you imagine–find a bright English major by posting at your local community college. Every time you punt some chore like media posting or manuscript formatting or managing email or fact-checking or website management, you’ve bought yourself more time to write.

Illumination. Lara (author of the acclaimed novel The Wantland Files) suggests candles. This may be influenced by the fact that she writes in the bathtub (don’t laugh, so did Voltaire), and what’s the point of a bath without candles? Bath & Body Works is currently having a sale on their aromatherapy line.

Education. I would be remiss (and excessively modest) if I didn’t mention my summer writing retreats, which are also more affordable than you might imagine–I haven’t raised the price in ten years. My 2017 schedule is finalized, and if you register before the end of 2016, you get a 20% discount. I love working with aspiring writers, and the fact that more than two dozen of my students have gone on to publish with major publishers suggests that the retreats work. I know they’re a lot of fun. Here’s the schedule:

June 21-25, 2017 East Coast Retreat
Dolliver’s Neck Road
Gloucester MA 01930 (near Boston and Freeport)

June 28-July 2, 2017 Deep South Retreat
The Veranda
252 Seavy Street
Senoia GA 30276 (near Atlanta)

July 5-9, 2017 Ozark Mountains Retreat
The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow
515 Spring Street
Eureka Springs AR 72632

July 19-23, 2017 West Coast Retreat
Huntington Beach CA 92647 (near LA and Anaheim)

July 26-30, 2017 Southwest Retreat
2801 Parklawn Drive
Midwest City OK 73110 (near OKC)

For information about the retreats, call 405 203 8641 or visit my website: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Here are some more links:

Tiffany pens 

Knock Knock Notes

Hemingway

Grammarly

ProWriting Aid

Candles

Don’t forget to enjoy Christmas!

The ABCs of Editing

Everyone needs an editor, even experienced, multi-published writers. At some point in the process you become too close to your work. Glaring flaws, immediately obvious to others, may elude your notice. Experience won’t cure this. And don’t imagine that because you read a lot and got good grades in English, you’ll never make a mistake. You will. We all do.

The sad truth is that no book ever published was ever perfect (at least not in the first edition). No matter how many eyes proofread the manuscript, something will slip through. Your job as a writer is to keep that to an absolute minimum, because every little boo-boo erodes confidence and draws the reader out of the story. If they occur too frequently, your reader will likely stop reading.

That said, a good editor is hard to find. I’ve had far too many people come to my retreats after spending thousands of dollars getting some of the worst editing and poorest advice I’ve ever heard. Don’t let that be you. Don’t hire anyone based on an ad or a conference appearance. Here’s what you should be looking for:

  • Actual Publishing Experience—If the editor has never published anything or worked in a publishing house, why would you imagine they know what publishers want? You’re not looking for a grammar nerd. You’re looking for someone to help your book succeed. That requires a knowledge of what agents and editors want, what makes a book read professionally.
  • Past Successes—There are some people who can’t create anything original but are still good editors, so if they haven’t written anything themselves, they should at least be able to tell you what books they’ve worked on in the past. Have any of those books attained any level of success? If the editor speaks in vague generalities about past work, that’s a red flag.
  • References—Similarly, if the editor has worked on books or with authors with a successful track record, they should be able to produce references. If the editor can’t give you a name, don’t part with your money. If the editor has any real experience, there will be testimonials on their webpage.
  • Professional Organizations—Another measure of professionalism is affiliation. Is the editor a member of Publishers Marketplace or the Editorial Freelancers Association? Both of these groups charge dues, so that factor alone will weed out many amateurs. Also look for affiliations relevant to your work, genre-specific groups like Mystery Writers of America.
  • Terms—Make sure you are absolutely clear on what you will get and when you will get it before you part with your money. Your editor should be able to provide a sample edit. A contract may give you even more peace of mind.

If you’ve evaluated the editor based on these factors and still feel unsure—don’t do it. Trust your instincts. And yes, I’ll edit your book if I have time, and if I don’t, I’ll refer you to someone I know is good and won’t charge an exorbitant fee. Just email me (willbern@gmail.com).

FYI—Kindle Scout has become a terrific opportunity for forging alliances with Amazon, the shop that sells more than 50% of all books sold in the US. My wife Lara’s book, The Wantland Files, is currently on Scout. Would you please take a moment to nominate her book? It’s free. All you need is an Amazon account (and if you don’t have one, you can set it up in a few seconds). If Lara’s book is chosen, you’ll receive a free copy. The writing community is all about helping one another. Please follow this link and nominate.

Nominate The Wantland Files on Kindle Scout

Myth #2: Writers Are Born, Not Made

This is one I still hear a lot, more often than not from people who don’t write and never will, usually as a prelude to an opinion about who the “truly great writers” are, which will be a long list of highbrow names that the speaker may or may not have ever actually read. As I have said before, there’s a great deal more snobbery among those who want to be perceived as literary than there is among actual writers.

Do I sound like I’m ranting? Perhaps. But as a person who has devoted a great deal of time to writing instruction, and someone who has seen literally dozens of my students later publish, I find this myth not only offensive, not only stupid, but actually destructive. Because it can only lead the person struggling to write wondering if they weren’t “born” to this endeavor, since the words don’t come easily and their early work isn’t nearly as good as they would like it to be.

I personally don’t believe there is a “writing gene,” a special brain synapse, something encoded in the DNA, or even a specialized form of intelligence. I think writing is both an art and a skill, and you learn both by: 1) reading the best material you can lay your hands upon, 2) practicing, practicing, practicing, and 3) getting useful instruction and advice.

Reading is how you feed the muse. Every time you read something of value, your brain absorbs the rhythms, the flow, the style. You’re teaching yourself how to write. No one is born understanding grammar or punctuation, much less mechanics and style. You get that by reading. You cannot write if you don’t read. It’s simply not possible.

Practice is essential. Writing is no different from anything else–the more you do, the better you’ll get at it. Kurt Vonnegut suggested that we all have about a million words of garbage we have to get out of our systems–then we start writing well. I think there’s some truth to this. Even if you don’t ultimately publish what you’ve written, you haven’t wasted your time. I spent about twenty years sending in stuff that was uniformly rejected, for a good reason–it wasn’t very good. Was I wasting my time? No. I was teaching myself how to write.

Good advice and instruction is essential. Yes, there are a few genius writers who did it all themselves, but there are far more who benefitted from a mentor, teacher, or writing program. Maxwell Perkins mentored most of the great writers of his era. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find that level of mentoring at a large publishing house today–they’re too busy taking meetings. Find a program or person that has a track record of success and learn what you can. I’ve had far too many students come to my writing retreats after spending thousands of dollars on “book doctors” or “writing coaches” who gave them some of the worst advice I’ve heard in my life. Check the resume. If the person hasn’t published anything themselves, why would you imagine they can help you publish anything?

I do think some people develop a love for books and stories at an early age, and that may be the greatest impetus to wanting to write yourself. But don’t despair if it doesn’t come easily. It never comes easily. Writing is hard and always will be. But it is so worthwhile when you do write something wonderful, when you hear that your work has made a difference in someone’s life. And you can make that happen. Just keep writing. And never quit.

By the way, Rose State has extended the early registration discount for our writers conference to August 26. Save yourself some money and give yourself the push toward publication you need. Join us for the Rose State Writers Conference, September 23-25, 2016.

Rose State Writers Conference Info and Registration 

The Ten Most Common Myths About Writing

I think I’ve written enough about the publishing world and not enough about writing in this blog lately, so I’m going to take a break and address the ten major myths, the cliches I hear spouted most frequently at conferences and workshops despite the fact that they are completely and demonstrably wrong. At least in my opinion. I’ll do the first five, take a break, then get back to the others later.

Today’s myth: Writers wait for inspiration to write.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that I think this is nonsense. If we all waited for inspiration to write, there would be a lot less writing, and probably nothing longer than a short story. In my experience, creativity flows when you’re writing. Often the best ideas come unexpectedly when you’re writing a scene and immersed in the characters and the situation. If you write every day, the ideas will come more frequently and purposefully. The smart writer will chase creativity by committing to a regular working schedule, rather than sitting around idly waiting for lightning bolts from heaven.

In Excellent Editing, I discussed the growing “pantser” phenomenon, that is, those who prefer to write from the seat of their pants rather than planning their books in advance. This approach may seem like more fun, but is far less likely to result in a polished (or even finished) book. At conferences I’ve asked self-professed pantsers if they’ve produced work they were able to publish, and the answer has never been yes. I think sometimes people are misled by author interviews. Authors in the spotlight never admit to planning or outlining. They’re afraid that will make it seem too mechanical, less creative, and subject them to abuse from snob critics. But don’t confuse what people say in interviews with reality. Most professional writers outline, because they’ve learned it results in a better book with less time wasted.

I like the answer attributed to Somerset Maugham when asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when inspiration struck. Answer: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.”

I have often wished I had a magic formula I could give my writing students that would make writing easier, but I don’t. Writing is hard work. You write and rewrite and rewrite and hope that in the end you get something worthy of your time and talent. But there are no easy paths or quick fixes. I can give you tools, ideas, and suggestions, but you still have to put in the effort. If you think your first book will be easy (or easier than your current job), you’re probably wrong. The next one might be a little easier because you’re more experienced, but it still won’t be easy. It never will.

That’s why it’s so important to work through all the steps in the writing process (detailed in Excellent Editing). And most importantly, don’t shy away from the outline just because you’re anxious to start the book or it doesn’t sound fun. If you write a solid 60-scene outline, your chances of finishing a first-rate book increase exponentially. It’s worth the time, and it won’t stifle your creativity. To the contrary, it will give you a useful framework within which your creativity can be most productive.

Next Week, Myth Two. Wanna guess what it will be?

Have you considered attending the Rose State Writer’s Conference in OKC, September 23-25? I organize the conference, which this year features over thirty presenters, including top writers and literary agents. It’s the lowest price and best value you’ll find anywhere. Take a look at the website and see if it might help you take your work to the next level.

Excellent Editing: http://ow.ly/tLZX3032C3G

Rose State Writer’s Conference: http://ow.ly/BK4n3032Ca0

Excellent Editing: The Writing Process

You will probably not be shocked to hear that today’s blog is an excerpt from my new Red Sneaker book, just released, titled Excellent Editing: The Writing Process. The book discusses how to edit, revise, and proofread your books to perfection (or as close to perfection as we humans can ever aspire). But the book also emphasizes that editing is a part of the entire writing process, so it covers the steps for taking a book from the initial idea to the final product. Too often people have terrific ideas but can’t convert them into a polished book, or they start books but run out of steam and never finish. This book is designed to prevent that from happening, to help you create a book that is successful and published, a book you’re proud to see bearing your name.

I do not, however, recommend that people try to edit themselves while trying to get a first draft down on paper. Here’s an excerpt from the book on that subject:

It’s important that you don’t try to revise while writing the first draft. The time for revision will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. Don’t lose your momentum. I’ve heard one writer compare premature revision to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep the pages flowing! George Miller wrote, “Polishing at an early stage is usually a complete waste of time.”

 

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are or how much research you’ve done, you never really know what you have till you’ve completed and read your first draft. After that, you can read the whole thing and understand what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what are the strengths and weaknesses. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled across your theme as you wrote and realized that it required a scene to be added or subtracted, a character to be added or given a gender change, a motivation to be altered. Only after you’ve finished the first draft can you see the big picture.

To put it more succinctly, I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say that writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if you’ve composed a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely, it calls attention to itself. And if it calls attention to itself, you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in the story, not thinking about how ingenious the writer is. Similarly, if you get to the end of the first draft and realize the tone or direction or focus of the book has altered, you’ll have to do some cutting and revision, perhaps more than you anticipated. That’s fine—do the work that needs to be done. But I don’t want you to waste a lot of time during the first draft beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor. Save the revising for later.

Here’s a link to my new book, Excellent Editing: https://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B01FHYK3N2

When to Edit–and When Not

Sneak Preview! Here’s the first-ever excerpt from my forthcoming Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing:

Don’t try to edit yourself while writing the first draft. The time for editing will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. I’ve heard one writer comparing premature editing to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep writing!

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much research you’ve done, you never know what you have till you’ve finished the first draft. Then you can see for what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what the strengths and weaknesses are. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled onto your theme as you wrote and realized this new idea requires a scene to be added or subtracted.

To put it succinctly: I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize later that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if there’s a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely—it probably calls attention to itself. So you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in your story, not thinking about how clever you are. Similarly, I don’t want you to waste a lot of time beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor.

Wait until you’ve finished the first draft to revise or you may find yourself wasting an enormous amount of time, or worse, never getting to the end. This project will take a long time even if you work with maximum efficiency. Don’t make it any worse than it needs to be.