Writing: nitpicky points

Lately, I’ve gone to a few more writing/author sites than I usually do.  I’ve been curious what’s out there.  I’ve especially taken the time to read a few stories posted on Wattpad, a variety of short stories submitted on Chuck Wendig’s blog challenge, and stories offered here and there on twitter posts.  I found lots of great writing, but I also found small, nitpicky points that bothered me.  

I’ve found a lot more spelling and grammar mistakes than I expected.  Way back in my young and innocent youth, I was blessed to have two, high school, English teachers who would not tolerate grammar mistakes in their assignments.  Mrs. Meese made us diagram sentences until our eyes glazed, and Miss Wimmer would allow us one mistake of any kind–commas, spelling, dangling participles–per page of our assignment.  If she gave us a five page paper to write, when she hit the sixth mistake, she put a huge, flaming red F on the page and quit reading.  She informed us–repeatedly–that she read for content and ideas, period.  Suffice it to say, if we wanted to pass her class, we did lots of proof reading.  No writer is perfect.  None of us can see every mistake we make, but I think we should treat readers like I treated Miss Wimmer. Readers notice mistakes.  They might not put a red F on our story, but they can quit reading.  We need to make our writing as free of errors as possible.

I started out writing mystery short stories.  I’m a devoted fan of Agatha Christie, and I follow her rule that if you put a gun on page two of a story, someone had better shoot that gun by the end of the story, or use it as a red herring, or make it significant in some way.  Details matter.  Significant details matter more.  A reader notices them, stores them away for future use, and is disappointed when they add up to nothing.  A story is like a dance.  It moves from one point to the next, constantly striving to keep the reader’s attention, with every movement adding up to a grand finale–and if we do it right, each movement evokes emotion.  If a character shows up on page three, just like the gun, he has to contribute something of significance to the story.  Nothing is random, even if it feels like it.  It all works to serve the whole.

My last point, and it’s personal, is that I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings.  I went to a sci-fi story from a twitter post, and I got really excited because I thought the writing was superb, wonderful, but I didn’t understand the story’s ending.  And that frustrated me.  I’d invested time and energy, reading it, and then I had no idea what it all added up to.  I know that this is probably the mystery lover in me, but when I add up clues, I want them to mean something.  The shorter the story, the harder it is to set the scene, perfect a voice and tone (two, separate things), move the story, and then wrap up everything in a great ending.  Rushed endings FEEL like rushed endings, but even those work better than endings that leave a reader saying, “What?”  At least, that’s the way I feel.  

I don’t know if anyone’s ever written a perfect story.  I know, for sure, that I never have.  We all try, though.  We just get in a hurry, or do so many rewrites that we can’t keep track of where we are in a story any more, and we all fall short.  Even if we DID write a perfect story, not everyone would like it.  So good luck with whatever you’re working on.  Happy writing!



Writing–Before Your Book Goes Online

I’m mostly an indie author.  Not exactly, because I have an agent, who’s wonderful.  And an agency, which is awesome.  So I get to skip some of the steps that 100% indie authors do.  Which is fine by me.  So I can’t tell you how to format, because Sharon–who’s an e-book wizard–does it for me.  And I can’t tell you about working with a publisher, if you have a book coming out in hardback or paperback, because I’ve never done that.  All I can share with you is what I know or what I’ve tried.  But here are the steps I go through to get a novel/novella online:

1.  People keep saying it, but they’re right.  Write the best book you possibly can, because there are a LOT of books out there–some good, some bad, but you want yours to be the best it can be.  So don’t slap words on a hard drive and share them with the world.  Edit them.  Have a few beta readers (who don’t tell you you’re wonderful and shouldn’t change a word) critique them for you.  Then decide what you could do better and fix it.  Now, I’ve had several friends who would be happy to NEVER send their book out into the cold, cruel world because they’re never going to be satisfied with it.  They can always see one more thing to fix, one more thing that will make it shine.  You have to find a happy medium here.  But don’t rush your book either.  When you send it out, make sure it’s good.

2.  Have someone who knows his/her stuff copy edit your work.  I notice misspellings, bad grammar, and the “sprinkle method” of adding commas.  (I had a friend once who told me that she didn’t understand commas, so she just “sprinkled” them on the page so that they looked good).  Aaargh.  Grammar and spelling are the basic tools of writing, but none of us finish writing a manuscript with no mistakes.  And we can’t always see our own mess-ups.  Make sure your manuscript is clean before you offer it to the world.  (My biggest weakness is hyphens.  Hope one belongs in mess-up???)

3.  Once your manuscript is ready to go, it’s time to format it for whatever site you’re going to load it on.  Most of my writer friends pay someone to do this for them.  A few take the time and effort to do it themselves.  I’m lucky.  (And I know it).  Sharon does it for me.

4.  Books need a cover.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with Michael Prete.  I love the covers he’s created for my novels and novellas.  (And for the first time, he’s told me he’d like to do more covers, so I can share his name and web page: http://vertex10.com/.  He usually designs web pages, so his site only shows his professional work as a web designer, but if you like any of the covers on my work, he’s done all of them, and his prices are reasonable!!).  He’s also been kind enough to let me find images that I think fit the story/tone that I’m trying to create.  Sometimes, I only use one image for a cover.  Sometimes, I combine them.  I just copy the links of what I like and send them to him, and he works his magic.  But whatever you decide to do, your book cover is what makes people notice your novel.  Don’t kid yourself.  People DO judge books by their covers.  Here are my two favorite sites to find images for Michael to work with: http://www.canstockphoto.com/  and  http://www.shutterstock.com/.  Be warned, though, once you start flipping through all of the images, you can lose a few hours without noticing.

5.  And last, but not least, once your book is ready to go, how are you going to market/promote it?  What have you got in place to help people find it?  I’ve already shared a few great marketing sites in previous blogs.  A good one is http://www.lindsayburoker.com/.  Another is https://twitter.com/BadRedheadMedia.  I had great luck with Book Bub ($90), but it’s getting harder and harder to get your book listed there.  I had okay luck with http://www.ebookbooster.com/ ($40).  By okay, I mean I had over 3,000 downloads of my free book with ebookbooster.  Not bad, but nothing compared to the 18,000+ downloads I got from Book Bub.  Later this month, I’m going to try out the parajunkee site to see how that works for the release of my 2 new novella bundles.  I’m experimenting, looking for a mix of sites that help readers discover my work.  I’ve been lucky enough to have several bloggers feature my books.  I still haven’t been brave enough to try a blog tour.  Twitter makes a difference when I tweet about a new release.  So does Goodreads when I self-promote in Making Connections or Nexus.  But an occasional paid ad has proven pretty effective, worth the money, (but only because I have more than one book online).  All that I’m saying is that not many people are going to stumble on your book amid the thousands or millions of novels on amazon and Nook unless you help them find it.  You can twitter (but do it right.  Don’t just list your book over and over again.  People stop reading your tweets).  You can join Goodreads or Facebook.  Or start a blog.  But whatever you do, do something!

P.S.  Just because I LOVE this cover and I mentioned Michael, this is the cover he created for the first Babet/Prosper bundle that’s going online Sept. 23–and this one happens to be FREE when it goes up.


My facebook page (but it’s mostly the blogs you’ve already read): https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/JudithPostsurbanfantasy


Every writer has to find what works for him.  I was on a writing panel a while ago, and one of the authors said that he always works on three projects at a time, because when he gets bored with one and runs out of ideas, he can pick up the next story until the first one tugs him back.  Another friend of mine always rotates between two novels.  Me, I’m a one-at-a- time type writer.  I might start a new story while I let a draft sit, to let it “cool” and gain some objectivity before I polish it, but I don’t jump back and forth between chapters and scenes.  Come to think of it, though, I can’t multi-task all that well either.  Just saying….

My friends and I have different approaches to rewrites too.  Paula writes these deep, layered,  power house scenes, then does rewrites to connect them.  Two of my friends think BIG and words flow from their fingertips.  They use rewrites to cut and shape “too much” into order.  I tend to write sparely–if I get the basics of the scene right, I’m happy.  My rewrites are adding all  of the things I didn’t put in the first time around.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still think about word choice–did I use the exact word I needed where I needed it?–and verb choice–did I use active instead of passive?  I look at grammar and sequence, but those are the basics.  After those, I hit the things I’ve been known to overlook.

Did I set the scene?  And I don’t mean does the reader know where my characters are standing or sitting.  I want the reader to feel like he’s standing there too.  I want him to be able to picture the room he’s in or the field he’s crossing.  I want him to squint his eyes because the sun’s too bright and inhale the scent of crisp air and freshly turned earth.  If my character’s cooking, I want my reader to smell onions sauteeing and the spices on the sizzling meat.  Not every scene, of course, but enough that my reader is grounded in place.

Did I deliver emotion?  Tension?  By this, I mean–why is this scene important to my POV character?  It’s not enough to just have things happening in my story.  Those things have to impact my character.  Why does she care?  What difference does it make?  To do this, I often use internal dialogue or deep POV.  So many times, I look at a scene and everything’s right, but it just doesn’t work.  It should–important things are happening, but it’s flat.  Then I know that it’s not what’s there, it’s what’s NOT there that’s tripping me up.  And that’s almost always my character’s emotions.  What does she think about what’s happening around her?  Does it make her happy, sad, or frustrated?  What’s her take on it?  That’s when internal dialogue can make a scene significant.

And finally, for me and my rewrites, I check my story for transitions.  Did I jump from one place to another too abruptly?  Did I leave out a scene that would add to the story?  And lastly, the dreaded “show, don’t tell.”  Did I gloss over something, tell the reader what happened, when I could let him experience it along with my character?

This is my list of things I look for when I rewrite a story.  They’re things I know I tend to rush over or forget on my first draft of getting things on paper.   Each author has his own style and habits, so I thought I’d add a link that probably gives better information than mine on critiquing (for me, that includes how I critique my own stories to make them stronger).

When I first started writing, I dreaded rewrites.  Now, I recognize them as the difference between a good story and a great one.  I hope this link gives you even more ideas to make your stories better: http://www.crayne.com/howcrit.html

Tools of the Trade

I can still remember walking through the door of my eighth grade classroom for English, and Mrs. Meese would be sitting behind the piano, pounding out a song.  She taught music and choir, too.  And she was passionate about both.  Come to think of it, she was passionate about everything.  She had a deep voice and a loud laugh.  And I loved her.  Thank the heavens for the Mrs. Meeses of this world!  Great teachers inspire great things.  The planets smiled on me when they sent her into my life.  Often, she’d start diagramming sentences and break into song.  She was unpredictable and awesome—and if you didn’t know grammar when you left her English class, you didn’t want to.

For one nine week period, our grades hinged on memorizing 300 lines of poetry and reciting it.  My mother had an old, spiral notebook filled with handwritten poems–her favorites that she’d copied from books.  I chose most of my readings from those.
I can still envision “The House on the Hill,” and I remember the punch line from Whittier’s Maud Muller: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”  My favorite memory is making Mrs. Meese laugh by reciting the poem “Elsie Was a Glow Worm.”  But I learned more from that nine weeks than 300 lines of poetry.  I learned the rhythm and cadence of words, the importance of word choice—how one, specific word is worth a dozen, vague ones, and how a few, powerful words an entire story can make.  I’ll never be brilliant at poetry, but I learned to appreciate it.

The other thing Mrs. Meese taught me was grammar.  Once a week, she wrote long, involved sentences on the chalkboard and it was our job to diagram them.  Bless teachers who still diagram sentences.  You’re forced to know how each and every word works with others to form a thought.  I’ve long since forgotten the labels that I learned—articles, gerunds, and prepositions have blurred into matters of habit, but those labels made me
aware of where to put commas (which are becoming passe’, but I still adore and use abundantly) and when to use capitals or dashes or exclamation points.  All essentials to building words into stories.

I once had a friend who told me, “Commas confuse me.  I just write a page and then sprinkle them in.”  That appalled me.  How can you be a writer if you don’t understand most of your tools?  It would be like making a cake with no measuring cups or spoons.  You just guess.  I’m not saying that writers don’t make mistakes.  Every morning before I start writing a new scene, I polish the pages I wrote the day before.  And I always catch something I messed up.  A word misspelled.  A dangling participle.  A pronoun gone astray.  You can never be too careful.  A scene from one of the PBS Lewis and Hathaway mysteries comes to mind.  I’m a huge fan of the twosome, and I can’t remember which show it was in, but Lewis is driving and they pass a handwritten sign.  Hathaway grimaces, and Lewis says, “I know.  It bothers you.”  Hathaway replies, “I like apostrophes.”  Because whoever wrote the sign failed to use one.  I feel like that.  I like correct grammar.

When I completely finish whatever manuscript I’m working on, I go over it again.  Then I give it to a long time friend, Ann W, who copy edits with zeal.  And she always finds more that I did wrong.  I have a weakness when it comes to hyphens and compound words.  I put words together that shouldn’t be and separate words that are one.  I’m doing better on past perfect verbs.  All that I’m saying is that even when I make a real effort to complete a clean, mistake proof manuscript, it’s impossible.  If you don’t make an effort, guess what?  And for me, a page filled with small, grammatical errors is sloppy writing.  It’s a sign you don’t care.  Or that you never had a Mrs. Meese in your life.  You need one.