Reading Like A Writer

Reading Like a Writer

We sit down at the computer each day ready to write. Our fingers dance across the keys and we’re sure that we’re writing the best thing (or sometimes the worst..haha) ever written. But when is the last time that you sat down to read? Not to read for ideas or because your favorite author finally released the next book in their series, but to really read. The kind of reading where we break down each chapter, scene, paragraph, line, word choice.

You see, to be a writer you absolutely have to write. It’s kind of in the job description. But the very best way to grow as a writer, and become the kind of writer you always dreamed of being is to read like one. This means keeping an active and questioning mind as you read. 

Let’s break it down into a few parts, so that the next time you read you know which questions to ask. 

Dialogue: Readers love to read dialogue, so don’t disappoint them with lame sauce dialogue. When you read an interaction that rocks ask these questions:

  • What about this exchange felt real? 
  • What about this conversation pushed the story forward? What added to the story tension?
  • Did it answer any questions you or the character had?
  • Did it give you new information? 
  • How did the author tag the dialogue? How often did they tag the dialogue?

Rhythm: Each writer’s voice has its own rhythm. Each story also has its own rhythm. So ask yourself:

  • What’s making the rhythm here? Is it word choice? Pacing?   
  • What kind of rhythm does your own writing voice have? What makes it that way?

Word choice: I’m a bit biased because I’m originally a poet, but seriously consider putting effort into your word choices. 

  • If you’ve only ever heard a word, but you’ve never read the definition, then take the time to look it up. Its definition might surprise you. How does the author make the most of word choice in this story? 
  • Take connotation into account when you choose a word. It matters. How does the writer make the connotation match with the characters/mood/tone/scene? 
  • Take the time to think about how each of your main characters talk. If they all sound the same, your reader will notice. So in this book you’re reading, how does the author make this work? What phrases distinguish each character? Jot them down. How can you do the same thing in your WIP?
  • Make sure that the word choice matches the emotions of the scene. Is this true for the story you’re reading now? How so, or how isn’t it?

Character development: Characters or plot driven? It’s an age old question, but what’s more interesting for you reading as a writer is this: how is this author developing the characters throughout the story?

  • How are the major characters different from the beginning of the story at the end of the story?
  • Why kind of events did the writer use to challenge and change the characters?
  • How did the character’s struggle to reach their goals?
  • What were their motivations?

Chapter breaks: Did you know that these also help create tension in a story? Well, now you do 🙂 So examine the story you’re reading. 

  • How do they use chapter breaks? 
  • Where do they break the scene?
  • How does this make you want to turn the page?
  • What can you do to maximize your own chapter breaks?

Imagery: They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, right? Well I hope not, because there can only ever be one Charles Dickens y’all.

  • What images did the writer include? 
  • How did they describe things?
  • What did they leave out?
  • How did your mind fill in the blanks?
  • Does the scenery fit the story? How so, or why not? 

Other pointers: 

  • Takes notes- Don’t lose the sentences or paragraphs that hit you in the feels. Mark it, or jot down the page number so that you can come back to it again and again because stringing the right words together is it’s own kind of magic. 
  • Reread books you’ve already read- There are more books in existence than you can ever read. So why not reread the books that spoke to you. There was something special about it, otherwise you wouldn’t keep thinking about it. Reread it and see if you can identify what writing techniques they used to make it awesome in the first place. 
  • What other pointers can you think of? 
  • What other questions do you ask while you’re reading a book?

6 Common Fiction Mistakes

I could go on for quite some time on this topic, but I’ll spare you (for the most part) and cover some of the top ones that I see daily as an editor.

  1. Passive Voice: Passive voice simply means that the subject of the sentence isn’t clear. It looks like this: The door was broken.

Cool, but by who? An easy trick is to avoid this is if you can add “by a zombie” and the sentence still makes sense, then you need to revise it and make it active voice. Which would look like: She kicked the door off its hinges as she made her way through the creaky, old house.

Now I know who did it, and as a bonus I also get an image. Anything that you can do to keep your reader in the present moment and focused on your characters is going to make your story keep the reader engaged. Don’t give them any reason to put your book down. We want them to stay up all night reading your awesome story, and a great way to do that is to not use passive voice or passive verbs.

2. Passive Verbs: These are your was/were sentences. It looks like this: He was sitting. They were walking by the river.

Why it’s a problem? Because it’s boring. Remember your lovely reader actually turned Netflix off to read your book! Give them a story that they can’t forget by doing your best to choose verbs that leap off the page.

If we revise “He was sitting,” it might look something like this “He slouched down further in his chair, praying that his boss didn’t notice him. The last thing he needed was another tardy mark.”

We can feel him inching down to avoid his boss, and that makes us care enough to keep reading and find out if the boss notices our poor character.

There is an awesome book that you can read about the most common mistakes that we editors see. It’s called: How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman. It’s funny and informative. Check it out.

3. Repetition: Unless you are a poet, keep your repetition to a minimum. Both your word choices and your sentence patterns. If your character always saunters and never jogs or pads through the kitchen, then your reader is going to get annoyed.

It’s an easy fix. Hop on the internet, or pick up a hard copy if that’s more your speed, and look up a thesaurus. Make sure that you take into account that each word has a connotation (what we think/feel when we hear the word) along with a definition (what the word means). A word’s connotation changes over time, so take care to use words that invoke the right emotion for the scene.

If you always write long, complex sentences your story pacing will crawl and your readers will drop like flies. If you always write super short sentences, it will be hard to carry heavy emotions and your character will feel two dimensional. Vary your sentence lengths based on what you want the reader to know and how quickly they need to know it. As a general guide mix long and short sentences. If you want the pacing to pick up, shorten your sentences. If you want us to slow down and savor something or think through something lengthen your sentences.

4. A Boring Character: Characters that feel fake, that have predictable storylines, and characters that are too good/bad are all boring. Think about the people in your own life. Why do you like them? Why do you dislike them? Your characters need the same things to make them believable. Make your story about someone that grabs a reader’s attention from the first page. Don’t be afraid to put your main character in harms way, or in loads of tough situation. Drag them through the mud, then toss some rocks in that mud puddle and drag them through it again. Beat them up. Show me how they change because of it. It will make them a better character, and you a better writer because you have to get them back on the path towards their goal. Not all your characters have to be complex, but your main cast certainly should be. You main character’s goal should fuel the story. Your major secondary characters should not exist solely because your main character needs them to populate the book and fawn over them. Your secondary characters should have goals of their own. Bonus points if those goals go against the main character’s at some point. Make a character arc sketch for each of your main cast members. Think about their motivation, what they want, why they want it, and how they get it/don’t get it and what that means for them by the end of the story.

5. The infamous info dump: Please stop info dumping. It’s bad for your reader’s health. It’s bad for your story’s health. Let’s start a movement to kill info dumps :).

It can be quite tricky to know what to share and when, so let’s talk about it.

The first chapter is your chance to win or lose a reader. Your second and third chapters are your chance to establish where/when/why we are. Keep it simple. Treat it like a first date. I want to know that your character has complex emotional trauma, but I don’t need the full story on page 1. What I need on page one is a reason to turn the page. I need some awesome word magic to suck me into this story, otherwise I’ve got 3 seasons of Kim’s Convenience to binge on Netflix.

When we enter a part of the book where we meet the villain or we need a better understanding of something so that the scene makes sense, don’t go crazy. Keep it simple. Remember your reader is after the action. They want to know what happens next. If you bog them down with a Charles Dickens-like explanation they lose interest in the character’s plight. This is a great question to bounce it off a couple of beta readers so that you can gauge if you’ve got the right balance (Keep in mind how often your beta reader reads in the genre that you are writing. If they are better versed in your genre, they will have certain expectations for explanations and will be to give you a better sense of if you are doing well or not).

There’s a really neat book that talks about the science behind a reader’s mind. So if that’s your cup of tea, check out Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. This book talks more about what engages and disengages a readers mind.

6. Tell, tell, tell and no show: You keep telling me that your character is angry, but nothing about their actions or their dialogue is convincing me that this is the case. Don’t tell me he’s angry. Show me he’s angry. It looks like this:

Tell: “Thanks.” He said angrily as he hung up the phone.

Show: “Thanks,” Paul sighed as he chucked the phone across the room. He took two big handfuls of Doritos from the open bag beside him, and stuffed them into his mouth. He chomped on them as he replayed all the things he wished that he would have said to her.

As always, happy writing friends.

A Basic Editing Guideline

Knowing when to use your beta reader or when to hire an editor can be tricky. Let’s keep this simple for today, and talk draft numbers/number of beta readers that your story has been through. The longer you write, the more that you will understand what kinds of edits you need and when.

First Drafts/First Beta Reading: This draft needs only content comments. At this point we don’t care about commas or word connotation. We need to know if this draft has big, gapping plot holes. We need to know if the character changes from start to finish. We need to know major, story changing information.

This is the draft that you need a book coach/writing group or friend to keep you accountable for if you are struggling.

Second Drafts: Some writers don’t even consider using a having a beta reader until the second draft. Again, this comes with time. When you’ve written for a while, you’ll be able to tell some of the big novel-changing plot issues on your own. Second drafts are where you want to pull in your awesome beta readers and we want to focus again on content. We want to catch those big and small plot issues. This is the draft where we can start consider individual chapters. Are they working together to build a story? What details have we missed? Do we have some misspellings? Cool, let’s right click and see how you’re supposed to spell that word.

This is the draft that you can use either an editor or book coach if you want. If you hire an editor here, you want them to do a content edit.

Third, Fourth Drafts: Hello, scenes! This is the draft where we focus on the scenes. Are they working well together. Does each scene have tension? Do they transition us from place to place both physically and emotionally, or are there places where the transition is jarring and I’m taken out of the story.

Are my sentence lengths varied? Do I have the correct connotation here? Is there a better way to say this? Is this cliché? Cool, let’s say it in an original way. We can get picky about word choice and think about the smaller components that make up a chapter.

This is a great draft to get an editor.

Fifth Drafts and on: Okay, now we can care about the commas. And if commas aren’t your thing hire an editor to line edit your story.

Happy writing friends.

6 Things That Will get Your Novel Rejected

  1. Not Doing Your Submission Homework: You’ve written a book. You’ve had it beta read. You’ve revised it. You’ve sent it to a professional editor. You’ve revised it again. And now it’s ready for the world. So you send it to several publishing houses, but you didn’t bother to compare your story to the kinds of stories that they’ve published in the last couple of years. And, you didn’t bother to send it to the right person at the publishing house. And, you didn’t bother to send in a query letter. No, you sent the entire draft. That’s cool, right? Not even a little. Any of those mistakes will land you in the slush pile and not even one pair of eyes will ever read the first sentence of your manuscript. So make sure that you are doing your homework. You don’t have to read every book that they’ve ever published, but you should not send your YA paranormal romance to a publisher that is looking for space operas.

2. Not Playing by the Genre Rules: We all love a good rule breaker, but we don’t love the bad ones. I’m not saying that you can’t genre blend, because you certainly can. But every genre has certain expectations, and if you are breaking rules in weird ways without a good reason then your readers are going to ditch your book because they came expecting your science fiction book to contain some fictional science and all you’ve given then is a one scene with an empty Petri dish and a whole lot of romance that doesn’t tie into the empty Petri dish. If you’re going to break the rules, break them on purpose. Break them because you understand them, and not because you don’t understand your genre’s tropes.

3. POV: No one is asking you to repeat the horrors that were middle school English classes, but if you are writing a story from first person you will need to know what that looks like (I turn the corner). Same goes for limited and omniscient POVS (are we inside the character’s head or outside watching them as they go through the story?). It’s okay if you can’t readily tell me what the POV definitions are right this moment. Go home and google it. Learn how to use POVs correctly, otherwise off the slush pile you will go.

4. Your Novel is too Mundane: Y’all we live boring lives. Work. Bills. Ugh, do I have to make dinner again? I’m not complaining about that necessarily, but if you want me (or any other reader) to pick up your book then your characters cannot also live boring lives that look an awful lot like mine. Action, action, action. That doesn’t mean that bullets have to go flying on every page, but it does mean that I need tension. I don’t care if it’s romantic tension, situational tension, emotional tension, etc. Readers want some drama to entertain them after yet another exhausting day of being boring.

5. I’ve Read Your Novel and I Still Don’t Know What’s at Stake: If your main character’s goals or what’s at stake if they don’t accomplish their goals is unclear then off your book goes to the slush pile. This is why we focus all our rewriting efforts on the content issues for the first couple of drafts. We want to make sure that these types of things are crystal clear from the early drafts. Beta readers are invaluable for this very reason.

6. Your Story is Unoriginal: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but your story should have some originality to it. Just as each of us is unique, your story needs quirks and charm of its own. Ask you beta readers if your story is too unoriginal, and if they say yes then brainstorm together with your writing friends on how to spice it up.

Where do Story Ideas Come From?

You’ve written a lovely story. You’ve edited said story. You’ve even submitted said story (and hopefully, it found a lovely home). Now what? Now you get to write a new story, but where do new story ideas come from?

The problem is that blinking cursor isn’t giving you any ideas. So you close your computer, and you pull out the book you’ve been reading. But you soon discover that that isn’t giving you any ideas either. Next you pull up the show that you keep binge watching way too late into the night, but that isn’t giving you any ideas either. Now what?

Here are some places that I go to when I’m low on inspiration.

  1. Writing prompts. I know that there are a lot of writes that hate writing prompts and occasionally I can be one of them. But I often find that if I combine 2 or 3 of them together they give me enough of a spark to at least get some words down.
  2. Listen to your favorite song and come up with a song to match it. I absolutely love music (and art). If I’m stuck without any fun ideas for a new story, then I’ll pull up my newest favorite song (or painting) and write a story using it as the backdrop.
  3. Pull out a collection from a single author or a anthology based on a theme. My latest idea for a novel came to me this way. It was time for another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and I was fresh out of ideas. So, I pulled out a collection of Irish folktales I bought way back in undergrad and began reading. Soon I had the makings of a new novel.

Ideas can come from so many different places. Maybe a quote from a conversation you overheard while waiting to checkout, or taking a single headline from the newspaper will send you down a road that you could have never dreamed up. The best way to discover new story ideas is to keep an open mind as you live your daily life. You never know when, or how, inspiration will strike when you live in the present moment.

Happy writing, friends.

Self Editing

Welcome to the never ending bane of your existence as a writer. Just kidding… sort of. Self editing is one of those skills that comes with lots, and lots, or practice. It’s very rare for me to meet a writer who loves the self editing stage. Still, it’s one of the most important steps in your story writing process. So, let’s start from the beginning.

You’ve completed a first draft (yay you!). Now what? Should you send it off to a beta reader? An editor? A publisher? Nope. Now it’s time to self edit that lovely but messy piece of writing.

There are so many different ways to approach a self edit. Some writers read the entire thing out loud and correct mistakes along the way. Some writer print it out and hand edit it. Others take it scene by scene. Still others will reverse outline it to see where the plot gaps are. What should you do? Where do you start?

On page one.

You had a story idea that you just loved. You wrote it all out. For weeks the excitement of the story kept you coming back to the computer until you finally typed “the end.” Sure, you know it has a few problems but ultimately how could anyone not love this story?

This is why self editing is so hard. This is the stage after the initial love affair with your story. It’s the time where that inner critic you’ve kept locked away in your mind gets a real chance to speak, and it can be frustrating and terrifying. But don’t give up. This is also the stage that takes a lovely story idea and gives it a chance to truly sparkle.

Start from page one, and go through it. Line by line. Don’t be afraid to recognize where the weak spots are, because this is just a draft. You can rewrite those weak scenes until they flow, but you have to be willing to really look at what’s on the page and not what’s in your head. You have to be willing to admit that maybe some of the writing techniques you’ve chosen aren’t doing what you need them to do. So pick up a craft book, or read a few blog posts until you have a better idea of how to wrangle those words. But most importantly, don’t give up! Keep going back and adjusting until you need a second pair of eyes on it, then send it off to your favorite beta reader and brace yourself for another round of editing. Because any story worth writing, is worth editing until it shines.

Happy writing.

Writing Conferences

Have you ever asked yourself if all those writing conferences or retreats are worth the price tag and hassle?

What if I told you that they were? What if I told you that they are a great place to make new writing friends? What if I told you that you don’t have to spend a fortune?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been a panelist at a southern convention. I’ve also attended AWP and plenty of other writing conferences and retreats. With that in mind, here are my two cents on writing conferences.

For a few bucks you can go from panel to panel and hear writing advice from some of the masters in this craft. They will talk about everything from the basics to the wildest parts of the writing. If you’re feeling brave enough, you can even raise your hand and ask them a question. Either way, it’s nice to hear that even the best writers out there struggle getting their words to do what they want. It’s a great place to restock your writing toolbox with new writing ideas and techniques.

These gatherings are a great place to make new writing friends. So many different kinds of writers, publishers, editors and agents go to things like this and they all want to meet you. All you have to do is walk up to their table and say “hello.” If you’ve got a book you’re hoping to submit, make sure that you come up with an elevator pitch. You never know when a publisher will ask you about your book.

Some of the more famous writing conferences and retreats can be pricey. Start by checking out your local writing resources, and branch out from there. Plenty of writing conferences work by volunteer manpower, so there is often an option to work a couple of shifts at the conference you want to attend in exchange for free admission to the rest of it.

Have any other questions about writing conferences? Leave them below in the comments.

Happy writing.

What Tools do You Actually Need as a Writer?

There are so many different products and programs out there for writers. Devices can range easily from $50-$500 or more. Then there are an endless list of programs for everything from submitting to grammar checks to specialized writing programs. So dear writing friends, what do you actually need to write?

A desire to write, or at least the discipline to sit down and try.

You read that right. If you want to write in a blank document on your computer, go ahead. I’m not going to stop you. If you want to write every word out by hand, I’m cheering you on. Do you want to buy that neat gadget that converts hand written text to typed documents? Will it actually get you to sit down to write? If so, go for it. You need whatever gets you to get words out of your head and into the world.

The thing is that for each and every one of us, what we need to get into the right mindset to write is different. During my early writing days, I was obsessed with writing everything by hand. I have bins full of my old writing journals. But now the thought of having to write a short story by hand makes my carpel tunnel act up, so I’m all about writing on my Chromebook.

Don’t worry about what all those other people are saying is the best device or program for writing. Find what works best for you, and write with it. If you find yourself getting stuck and you think it’s a medium issue, then try something new. But as my Mamaw (grandma) says, “If it’s ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

All you really need to write is a little courage to let the words out.

Happy writing.

Creative Spaces

Have you ever asked yourself what a creative space should look like? Over the years my creative space has changed looks many times. Whether you have lots of extra room to set up the full setup or you’ve got a tiny amount of space to call your own, let’s talk about the kinds of things you can do to make your creative space meaningful to you.

Finally got my desk at the BankSimple offices.
  1. You don’t necessarily need a lot of room  to  call  your  own  to  establish  your  creative space. Sure, having loads of extra space to decorate how you wish would be awesome, but it’s not always practical. What you do need is some kind of routine that tells your busy brain that it’s time to focus on writing. You can do this by writing on the same couch cushion or spot at the kitchen table. The amount of space isn’t as important as what you use that space for.
  2. Set the mood for writing. If your brain can think about something other than writing it will. Try making a playlist of writing songs or picking a certain scented candle to establish the mood for writing. Use your other senses to establish a habit that tells your brain to focus. You can think about all that other stuff later.
  3. Are you an indoor/outdoor/at home/out of home writer? If you’re newer to the craft, you may not know where you best write at. Even if you’re a veteran writer, if you’ve hit a wall it might be time to try out different locations to see if your muse likes one location over another. Maybe you write best at home, but revise best at your favorite coffee shop. Whatever the case, don’t be afraid to change up the location.

Just as it’s important to establish good sleep hygiene by turning your phone off and lets thoughts from the day quiet down, it’s just as important to establish good creative space practices. Once you’ve established the habit of writing, it will be easier to sit down and get those words down on paper.

When the Words Won’t Come

You’ve sat down in your writing specific place. You’ve got the mug of whatever it is you like to drink. The door is locked, and the writing tunes are on. A new document is open and ready to be filled. But no matter how long that cursor blinks you’ve got no ideas. You’ve run out of words to write. Nothing is coming to mind. Now what?

First, you should know this is pretty common. When you’ve finished a draft, sent it off into the world to find a home, and sit down to write something new it can be tricky to come up with a new story idea. You’ve got some options, which we’ll talk about in a second. But for now let’s talk about that feeling of being uninspired. It’s not a fun felling to sit with. It makes you feel like the color gray, or like an empty paper bag. That feeling is a good thing, and here’s why. It means that your last writing project was full of emotions. It means that you didn’t hold back when you wrote your last piece of writing, and for that I hope you give yourself a big pat on the back. Way to go writing friend!

Now, let’s talk options. Here are some of my go-tos:

  1. Pinterest writing prompts. Sometimes you need to borrow a spark and you can find those in loads of places around the internet. If Pinterest isn’t your thing, try Google or any other place you can find a good list of ideas.
  2. Go read something. I usually pick up a literary journal or some kind of collection, be it short stories or poetry. You would be surprised at how many ideas you can get once you’ve read a couple of really good stories.
  3. Switch up your genres. Sometimes we get so caught up in writing in the same genre that we forget to stretch ourselves a bit and try something new. New is scary, sure. But new is also exciting and it might be just what you need to get your creative juices flowing.
  4. Not all writing time has to be spent writing. Don’t get out your pitchforks just yet, friends. A writer writes, right? Of course. If you want to be a writer then you have to write words, but sometimes a writer needs to be creative in a different way to recharge those creative juices. Maybe you need to go for a walk, or dust of that guitar sitting in your closet. Maybe you should pull out those water colors and paint a vase of daisies badly. Try being creative in a different way and see what comes of it.
  5. Type whatever comes to mind for 5-20 minutes. Seriously, even if it’s the grocery list. You would be surprised at how day to day stress can impact our writing. If our minds are focused on the stresses of daily living, then it’s going to have a hard time focusing on creating. So, empty out that brain of yours right on the page and give the creative some space to breath.

Don’t panic if you have a bad writing day, or a long stretch of them. Being a writing is a lot of hard work. It’s some good days mingled with the some bad ones. That’s okay. Take a deep breath, and don’t give up because the words will come back sooner or later when they’re ready.