Before You Write a Novel, Start With Something Shorter

Write short stories to master the art of fiction writing

May is short story monthMay is short story month. I share this news in advance so you can consider how you want to celebrate. You might want to spend the month reading short stories or perhaps focus on writing a few. But regardless, give short stories some consideration in the month of May. Doing so will inform your other writing, whether you write fiction or not.

I know many beginning writers who sit down to write a novel. They have a vision and enthusiasm, but not much else. They start writing but soon give up in frustration. And for the few who do finish, their story isn’t that good.

I’ve often heard that novelists write several bad novels before penning a good one. Those first books serve as training for them to learn what works and doesn’t, to find their voice, and to hone their craft. They need to figure out plot and structure and story arc and character development and dialogue and a slew of other things. And they write several practice books to get there.

Why not write several practice short stories instead?

I took that path. In fact I focused on flash fiction: short stories with fewer than one thousand words. I experimented with first person and third person, present tense and past tense. I even wrote a second-person, present-tense short story—something I’d hate doing for an entire book.

Using short stories, I fine-tuned my dialogue. I worked on intriguing titles, strong openings, and satisfying closes. I practiced “show, don’t tell” and worked on word choice.

I did all this in preparation to one day write a novel. You see, I didn’t want to waste several novels practicing. I used my short stories for that. I got feedback from critique groups, hired tutors, and studied.

Then one day I wrote a piece of flash fiction. It started out as 900 words. But I liked the premise and added to it to produce a 2,500-word short story. I fell in love with the characters and wanted to write more. I did write more, a lot more. By the time I finished my story arc I had a 28,000-word novella. But it needed more. Next I added two secondary story arcs and the length grew to 46,000 words, enough for a short novel and about perfect for the YA (young adult) genre.

So my 800-word piece of flash fiction grew into a 46,000-word novel.

But the story isn’t over.

Last year, for NaNoWriMo, I wrote a 49,000-word sequel. Then I mapped out a series. I’m ready to start writing books three and four.

Writing short stories prepared me to write novels. And writing fiction helps me write better nonfiction and memoir.

So celebrate the short story. May is short story month. It even has its own Twitter account: @ShortStoryMonth, which often uses the hashtag #shortreads.

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Writing a Novel is Like Running a Marathon

Before writing a book we need to train

I dislike the phrase aspiring writer. Either we aspire to write or we actually do it. Being an aspiring writer is no more than hoping for a future outcome, one that will never happen because the aspiring writer spends all his or her time dreaming and no time writing.

Yet some people are truly aspiring writers. Then one day these aspiring writers say “enough is enough” and they sit down to crank out a novel.

This is like waking up one morning and deciding to run a marathon—that afternoon. While hardheaded determination may eventually propel the novice runner to the finish line, it’s not going to be pretty. More likely this out-of-shape entrant will realize the folly of running such a great distance without the needed training and drop out after a couple of miles.

This beginning runner vows to never run again. Or better is a decision to train before attempting another marathon.

So it is with an aspiring author. A few chapters, pages, or even sentences into the novel and the words crumble into frustration. The vision vanishes. The muse refuses to cooperate. Or the needed skills simply aren’t present.

The aspiring writer gives up and vows to never write again. Or maybe, just maybe, this novice stops aspiring and starts training. Of course some aspiring authors never do anything except train. That’s no good either.

Just as a good prelude to running a marathon could start with jogging, wise preparation for writing a novel starts with the short story.

As a nonfiction writer, I cranked out hundreds of articles before I attempted my first book. Though I completed it, the results were sad. Then I wrote a second and a third. At some point they became worthy of publication. (Thankfully the first one will never go past a couple of beta readers and a developmental editor.)

When I considered writing fiction, instead of diving into a novel length work, I begin with flash fiction: short stories under 1,000 words. This allowed me to experiment with different ideas and various techniques. If something didn’t work, I wasn’t out much. After I had several dozen finished, I stumbled onto one that captivated me. I couldn’t let go of the characters. I expanded it from flash fiction into a longer short story. Then it grew into a novella, and with later the addition of some secondary character arcs, it became a novel. Now I’m editing the sequel, with a series arc for twenty books.

And it all started by writing a short story.

By the way, May is short story month. Think about it.

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Should You Avoid Formulaic Writing?

Does using a story device guide our work or hamper our creativity?

Avoid Formulaic WritingIn many books and most movies something will happen about three-fourths of the way through. With the desired goal within reach, a roadblock pops up to thwart our protagonist’s progress. While this is sometimes an ingenious plot twist, too often the problem seems contrived, predictable, or avoidable. But maybe I’m overly critical because I expect it to happen, and I wish it wouldn’t.

The reality is that this plot development is both intentional and prescribed. It’s part of a formula, a well-honed and recommended part of a blueprint for producing a compelling story. And I don’t like it.

I know it’s going to happen. I just don’t know what it will be—at least not usually. I’m braced for it and irritated by it. This plot twist doesn’t surprise me, at least not in the big scope of things. What does surprise me is when it doesn’t happen, which is rare.

If you study fiction writing you have likely heard about the seven basic plots, the three-act structure, the story grid, the twelve stages of the hero’s journey, the eight-point arc, and so forth.

Maybe I’m not experienced enough in fiction writing to know what I’m talking about, but these models seem to restrict creativity and stifle a truly good story. I don’t want to follow a formula when I write; I just want to create an interesting story.

I don’t care which of the seven basic plots my story falls into, if I hit the prescribed marks at the ideal points, or if I can check off each item on someone’s must-have list of requirements.

When I write a story I know the beginning and write to reach the end, which I know before I start (though I’m open to it changing). What happens in between unfolds organically and isn’t constrained by a formula, grid, or blueprint.

Yes, I could follow one of these devices and end up with a good story that will please most readers, but I think I can disregard them and produce a better result that will please even more.

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5 Tips to Become a Better Writer

Writers serious about their craft should take concrete action to advance their career

I am a Writer, by Peter DeHaanIn a recent interview an author was asked, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever done to improve as a writer?” What a great question; I so appreciated the author’s answer. Yet my mind immediately considered how I would respond.

Within seconds I knew my answer. I smiled, thinking back to how that one decision changed me as a writer, propelling me forward.

Just as quickly another idea popped into my mind. It was a good answer, too. Which one was more important? I wasn’t sure. How could I pick just one?

But then a third significant thought surfaced, followed by a fourth, and then a fifth. They were all pivotal. Without any one of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Each was essential.

So I have not one answer to share, but five. My five tips to becoming a better writer are:

1) Call Yourself a Writer: It sounds corny, and it’s hard to do. But my first tip is to say, “I am a writer.” When I first did this, my lips moved, but no sound came out. After three tries my claim was just a whisper—and that was in private. It took a couple years before I could comfortably tell someone, “I am a writer.”

I occasionally teach a “Get Started” workshop at a writers conference. I often have my class say this. Their first try is cautious, timid. But by their third attempt, they are confident and grinning. We need to call ourselves writers in order for us to believe it.

2) Commit to Writing: Once I called myself a writer I needed to commit to it. I had to set time aside to write, not just when I was motivated or had an idea, but even when I didn’t feel like it. Once a week on Saturdays, became three times a week in the evenings, which moved to five times a week in the mornings. Now I block out significant time each day to write. It’s my schedule, like going to work—but in a way it is. Writing is my job.

3) Attend Events: Next is the need to connect with other writers. Join a writing or critique group. Attend conferences. Mentor someone else and seek a mentor. Maybe you need to mentor each other. At my first conference, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. It was terrifying, and my naiveté cost me a bit of embarrassment, but the conference was so worth it. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

4) Learn about Writing: With technology we have many options to learn about writing: blogs, podcasts, and webinars are usually free. Books and magazines don’t cost too much. I’ve also taken some online classes—not university types, but practical, applicable writing instruction. I started with reading blogs and the rest of these followed.

5) Seek Help: As I began to make some money with my writing—which took years, by the way—I had funds to invest in my work. I began to hire experts to help improve. Aside from an editor, for my first effort I paid a retired writing professor to help me improve my short story writing (as a prelude to novels). His input was invaluable. Since then I’ve hired developmental editors and a grammar guru. With them, I slash my learning curve and gain valuable information fast.

These are the five steps I took to become a better writer. I can’t say which one was more significant, but I will admit that without taking that first step, I would have never gotten to the next four.

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When Should You Enter Writing Contests?

Participating in writing contests can offer 6 key benefits

When Should You Enter Writing Contests?I used to enter writing contests, but I haven’t done so lately. Writing contests are fun when you win, and I had a few wins early on. Interestingly, as I’ve improved as a writer, my success rate has dropped to zero. Hence I’m now less motivated. Plus, I’m now a lot busier writing other things.

Nevertheless, don’t automatically dismiss writing contests. Here are six reasons you should consider submitting content to a writing contest:

1) If Deadlines Help You Write: I always write with more intention when I have a due date. However, I’m also a disciplined writer and would be writing anyway, just perhaps not with as much purpose. However, other writers need a deadline to produce content. If submitting to a contest helps you write, then that presents a sufficient reason to do so.

2) If Your Submission Can be Repurposed: Everything I write nowadays can work in multiple situations. That way if the first contest or publication falls through, I have a second source to consider. That way none of my work is ever wasted.

3) If There is No Submission Fee: Some contests carry submission fees; others, don’t. Sometimes the fee is small; other times, not so small. I have submitted to both kinds. Going forward I will never pay to enter a contest unless it meets the next criteria.

4) If the Pay-to-Play Contest Provides Value: I understand that some contests will give you feedback on your work. I’ve never encountered those contests, but I hear they exist. Receiving professional feedback may be worth the cost of submission, even if you don’t win. But you might be better off to skip the contest and just pay someone for his or her opinion.

5) If You Want to Expand Your Bio: Being able to say you won a contest looks impressive in your author bio. However, most people have never heard of that particular writing contest so winning it carries little prestige, even to people in the industry.

6) If You Need to Learn How to Deal with Rejection: Face it. Most people who enter writing contests don’t win. It hurts to hear “No,” but it’s a reality of being a writer. Each time we hear a “no” toughens us up a bit more and prepares us to do this writing thing for the long haul. Plus, as they say in sales, “Each ‘no’ brings you one step closer to ‘yes.’”

Writing contests have value, but only pursue them if they make sense for you and your situation.

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your Writing

Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your WritingI hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.

One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.

As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.

  • The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
  • If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
  • A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
  • Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.

While I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.

In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.

Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.

Your Turn: What’s the Best Writing Advice You’ve Ever Received?

Sharing writing tips with other writers helps the whole writing community

UR Turn, Help me finish ths post by sharing...I spend a lot of time learning about writing. I read blogs, listen to podcasts, attend conferences, scrutinize magazines, and study books. Though I will never finish growing as a writer, I have learned so much. In fact everything I know about writing came from one of these five sources.

In considering it all, the one thing that helped me the most was the simple adage to write every day.

This advice to write every day, however isn’t absolute, it’s a principle to write regularly. It means to have a schedule and stick with it. It reminds us to write on the days we don’t feel like it or have other things we’d rather do.

It was a big stretch for me just to move to five days a week, which later became six, and eventually seven. Now I’m working on scaling back to six days so I can have one day off each week from writing. It’s a hard adjustment for me to make. I’m still not there.

Yet the principle to write every day has made the difference for me and my writing.

Your Turn: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Please share it with other readers in the comment section below.

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3 Types of Editing and Why We Need All Three

There are three types of book editing and you need a different editor for each type

3 Types of Editing and Why We Need All ThreeEvery book needs three basic types of editing, and each type of edit requires a different editor.

1) Development Edit: The developmental edit, sometimes called substantive or comprehensive edit, is the big picture stuff. Basically it asks the questions, does the book flow? Does it work? It addresses style, organization, and overall readability. For fiction this means the story arc and related elements; for nonfiction it means the central theme and supporting materials. What’s getting in the way of this? Are there roadblocks or detours? Does the writing veer off course? What sections will confuse, bore, or frustrate readers? Until the developmental edit is complete—and the needed adjustments made—it’s a waste of time, money, and effort to move on to the next two types of edits. Always do a developmental edit first.

2) Copyedit: The copy edit, sometimes called a line edit, looks at paragraph structure, sentence construction, and word choice. Don’t do this until after the developmental edit and always before hiring a proofreader.

3) Proofreading: A proofreader looks at grammar, punctuation, and typos. A proofreader scrutinizes every word, the space between them, and how they’re connected.

Editors usually specialize in one area or another. Even if they do more than one type of editing, they can’t do all three types on the same pass. So if you find one editor who will do all three, it will still require three edits, not one.

Usually you need to hire these people. If someone gives you free editing, you often get what you pay for. And finding an English major or someone who likes to read does not make for a good editor. Always find someone with editing experience. Though every editor has to at one time do his or her first edit, don’t let it be on your book.

When I read self-published books they too often fall short, and most all of the time it’s because of editing issues: no editing, poor editing, or inexperienced editing. Or they didn’t have all three types of editing. And sometimes traditionally published books suffer the same fate. Though they have been edited, it wasn’t good enough.

Don’t skimp on the editing. Your book will suffer if you do.

Your Turn: What Writing Blogs Do You Read?

Writers can learn a lot by reading the posts of authors, agents, and publishers

UR Turn, Help me finish ths post by sharing...While it’s fun to follow my friends’ blogs (and there are more than I have time to read), I learn about writing and the publishing industry by reading the blogs of authors, agents, and publishers. I’ve followed some of them for more than a decade.

Over the years I’ve learned so much about how to write better and publish successfully. Here are some of the writing related blogs I currently follow:

Of course time doesn’t allow me the chance to read everyone every day, but I do find value in each blog and have learned so much.

Your turn: Do you read blogs about writing and publishing? Which ones are your favorites?

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7 Tips to Successfully Deal With Rejection

Being a writer means developing a thick skin, which is easy to say and hard to do

7 Tips to Successfully Deal With RejectionPart of being an author is putting our work out there for other people to see. Sometimes this means sharing our writing with other writers, passing it out to family and friends, or posting it on a blog. Other times we self-publish (more on that later). But eventually most of us get to the point where we submit our work for publication.

When we click “send” to deliver that email or “submit” to complete an online form, we do so with trepidation. We hope to hear “yes” but we fear a response of “no.”

I’ve heard both. Acceptance sends our spirits soaring, filled with excitement and packed with affirmation. Rejection spirals us downward, filled with deep despair and packed with self-doubt.

I’ve been there. Every writer has.

When someone rejects our work and tells us “no,” here’s what we need to remind ourselves:

It’s Not Personal: The rejection isn’t rejecting us; it’s rejecting one piece of our work, nothing more. Though it rarely happens, if they attack us personally or make broad statements about all of our work, then we need to reject them because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

It’s One Person’s Opinion: We all have opinions and sometimes we can be wrong. The same applies to those who evaluate our work. They just might be in error. (Though hearing the same thing repeatedly may signal an opinion to consider.)

It Doesn’t Define Us: Hearing “no” to one piece of our work doesn’t apply to us as a person or as a writer. The rejection of one piece is nothing more. Our body of work is more than one item of writing, and we are more than our body of work.

It Brings Us Closer to Publication: Salespeople know that “each ‘no’ gets them one step closer to ‘yes.’” They know selling is a numbers game, so they push forward until someone says “yes.” Guess what? Submitting our writing is sales.

If it Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It: Writing is hard work. Most people want to write a book or wish they had, but few actually do. We are the few who have written. This automatically makes us part of an elite group. The fact that writing is hard actually serves to reduce the competition. That’s a good thing.

It’s Like Life: Life has its ups and downs. We need the bad times to appreciate the good. Writing is the same way. If we heard “yes” on every submission, we would fail to appreciate it. Plus when we hear “no…”

It Makes Us Strive to Do Better: While we could let rejection break us, we’re better off using it to make us stronger. We work harder to write better. We should use the noes of writing to motivate us to improve.

Rejection sucks. It truly does. When it happens we need to mourn the loss for a time and then move on. When we do this we move toward publication.

Don’t let the noes of writing stop you from hearing the yeses.