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I am working on the ending of the short paranormal story so for all of you who have been despairing of ever seeing that, take heart!

Carolyn Gives a Talk!

I gave a talk the other day to a writer’s group, which I entitled “Fitness For Fiction.” It was my first talk ever to writers. Years ago I addressed a large group of female attorneys about technology issues, which was when I discovered that I was not, in fact, terrified of public speaking. I expected to be. I was prepared to be. But when I was facing these women, I realized they were eager to hear what I had to say — and as it happens, I rarely am at a loss for an opinion.

Props!

I brought props to my talk to the writers — the cover flats I got from Sue Grimshaw of Borders Books, some writing books I’ve found useful. Not surprisingly, I was unable to find the books that were not helpful to me, which was a shame because they might well have been helpful to someone else. But I knew the names of those books. I also brought one of my notebooks, and the binder that contained my partially edited WIP. I also brought some ARCs and some magazine, all things that I got circulating through the room for people to take a look at while I was up there giving my opinions. Not the binder or the notebook. Some things are sacred to me and a WIP is one of them.

Methods of writing

The first half of the talk, I spoke about structured approaches to writing as opposed to methods more like my own. I was not, as you might imagine, able to go into great detail about structured approaches other than to relate what I have heard from writers who do lots of structured things. Extensive outlines, lots of notes, character bios, GMC charts, spreadsheets, cool uses of office supplies and the like. What I hope I got across was that as writers who were, for the most part, starting out, it behooves them all to discover the methods that work for them.

What, they asked, was a sign that a given method was not working? Good question. My answer was that not finishing a MS was a pretty good sign. If they found themselves floundering or continually working on the same 10 chapters, then perhaps one ought to consider trying something else because, obviously, their current methods weren’t succeeding. It was clear that some of them had heard “rules” and felt they had to be followed. Was it true, someone asked, that you should always bull through a first draft, never going back to polish or edit? I could see the question-asker was tense about the method — that she felt it something one had to do. As I hope you can guess, I disagreed. The answer to such things is almost always it depends.

If you’re writing and rewriting the same chapters without ever moving on, then yes, it would be worthwhile to try the blast through a draft method. But what if you’re more like me? Writing a first draft that quickly might end up being worse than useless. I, for example, need to discover my characters. What a waste of time, for me, if I write an ending before my characters are solidly formed. But they need to discover what works for them and what does not.

I do feel it’s helpful for even a pantser like me to keep some bare bones structure. A skeleton outline to help check for arc. A cast of characters so you can check for eye and hair color, and whether you have names that are too similar.

There are things you can do to help you see the MS fresh. If you have the luxury, set the MS aside for a month. A working writer on deadline isn’t likely to have the time. Reading on the screen and reading on paper are not the same. Print your MS and read through and edit. Then transfer your edits back to your file. Change the font so it looks really different.

Polishing and Editing

I also talked about polishing and editing. Check the arc of your story (a plotter or more structured writer, will probably already have done this in the planning stages) — the point, really, being that at some point in the process you should be checking the arcs. Do you have too many action scenes close together? Have you set up your high points by writing the quiet points? Have you checked for repetition of words and information? In general, say it once.

I relayed how I felt when I tried to fill out a GMC chart — so frustrating! I felt like such a failure because I had no idea what my characters internal or external motivations were. As it turns out, that’s something I discover in the writing.

Words, Lovely Words

Another subject of discussion, and one that is near and dear to me, is the use of words. A writer starting out is well served, I think, by taking a particularly descriptive scene and removing all modifiers from it. All the adjectives, adverbs and the like must go. Return only the ones required for sense. Now ask yourself if your image makes sense. If you were relying on modifiers to do the heavy lifting (which might well be the case in an early draft) it’s quite possible that the underlying structure is weak and does not, in fact, say what you intended. If not, fix it. And only then return modifiers if they’re needed to give your new and improved image the flavor you want. Do this a few times and it will become instinctive.

Use of strong verbs, not wishy-washy verbs. Helper verbs, the verb to be and gerunds are all indications that, here, the writing could be much stronger. But, then again, not every single verb should be strong. There’s a pacing and rhythm to the words, too. Give your strong verbs more impact by leading up to them with less strong ones or following them with softer ones. Favor the specific or the generic, subject to the same proviso about not overdoing it.

When you think you’re done, search through your MS for words ending in LY and ING and remove those modifying words unless they’re really truly required. Words like pretty and very are also good candidates for overuse. And every writer, and, probably, every MS, has a word or two that is overused. You undoubtedly suspect what that word is. Search and delete.

Read your MS out loud or have it read back to you. Retype it from the beginning.

Agents and Editors

I also talked about the role of agents and editors. I gave a couple of bad agent examples, and then some good agent examples. How, they wanted to know, can you tell if you have a bad agent? Well, ultimately, you don’t know if it’s a good fit until the agent is working for you, but before you sign, check the websites that keep track of these things. Do your due diligence. Contact clients. Ask to see the agency contract. Go to conferences and sit in the bar and listen to what the agented authors are saying. Don’t approach an author as if she has some obligation to answer your questions in detail. Be respectful. Keep your ears open. Go to the agent panels and listen to what they have to say.

Hubris

And, though it was not the last subject, I addressed the danger of thinking Writer A does this, so it must be okay for me, too. The point is to find out what kind of writer you are. By allowing yourself to use a given writing habit simply because some other writer does it, means you’re imitating and not finding your voice. It doesn’t matter that Writer B, for example, uses lots of modifiers. You are not Writer B. This sort of thing most often comes up as an excuse that is essentially this: I don’t need to write well because Writer C writes like crap and she gets published. If you believe that, you are in trouble, and if you don’t understand why that is so, then there’s little hope for your success. It’s good to take note of things other writers are doing. You can adapt, adopt, avoid and/or assimilate, but always be working toward finding yourself in your writing.

It was a fun talk and a great group of writers.

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