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As the weather has turned more summer-like over the past week I’ve been drawn to work outside and, since I don’t yet have a garden to speak of,  the lawn has dominated my attention. Fortunately for me, I guess, it needs a lot of work. It is overgrown with crabgrass, clovers (which I don’t mind as much), various kinds of moss, and of course dandelions. And not the normal dandelions. We’re talking ginormous dandelions, like the ones that were exposed to “ooze” in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. And as I stooped over to pull one of these freakishly large weeds out with the help of a very cool stabby tool, I was struck with a thought. “To make this a really nice lawn,” thought I, “all I have to do is get rid of everything that is not the lawn.”

And then I had an even bigger aha moment… That’s just like writing! To craft a really great story, you must get rid of everything that is not your story. Usually that means cutting unnecessary words or sentences. Sometimes it means striking chapters. As I worked, I was struck with more lawn maintenance/writing analogies. Morbidly curious? Read on!

1. Flowery words, like dandelions, are best removed before they take over.

2. A lawn looks best when it’s mowed, but not when it’s too short. The same goes for wordiness. If you can say it in fewer words, do. But don’t strip your prose down so far that all you can see is dirt.

3. Fixing the punctuation in your manuscript before taking care of major plot issues is like weeding a patch of lawn that you’re going to tear out the next day to build a planter.

4. Even if your house is really really great, it’s hard to see it past a lawn like this:

There are just some writing rules that should never be broken. Like proper punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. You can say that those things are the editor’s job to worry about, but I’m pretty sure most editors and agents aren’t looking for manuscripts that need quite that much work. A lawn that needs to be edged and mowed, maybe, but not a yard full of weeds.

5. When you’re pulling dandelions, make sure you get the roots too. If you don’t, they’ll just grow back again and again. In other words, when you receive feedback on your work, don’t just blindly make changes without finding where the problem is stemming from. If it’s good advice, break it down to its basic elements and incorporate it into your writing philosophy so it doesn’t keep popping up (some examples of this that I’ve seen are the misuse of it’s/its, there/their/they’re, etc.; the writing of characters that lack logical motivation; and being repetitive and redundant in an attempt at being descriptive).

And…..

6. If there are just too many weeds, it may be best to just kill everything and start over.

Tonight is another Tin Pencil meeting. This time I actually did the optional assignment (days in advance, too), which was inspired by the article in the Guardian that asked several writers to share their personal writing rules. Most of the lists weren’t so much rules about the craft of writing, but about the writing lifestyle and positive writing practices. So here are my rules (I’m sure they’ll continue to develop over time, too):

  1. Spend some time everyday alone in the quiet. Let your thoughts rise through the silence.
  2. Even when you’re not writing, think about your story, let your mind wander through the world you’re creating, so that when you finally sit down to write you’ll already be in that space.
  3. Always keep a pen/pencil and a writing journal with you.
  4. Keep an idea box and store away ideas for future stories and characters or random bits of information that inspire you.
  5. Read, read, read… and not just in the genre that you write.
  6. Don’t let research slow you down. Research for your book can easily turn into procrastination for actually writing your book. Get to writing and place-mark the details that need firming up.
  7. Choose your readers cautiously at the early stages of your story. Don’t solicit feedback until you’re really ready to hear it.
  8. Listen carefully to feedback. If you hear the same thing more than once it probably deserves your attention.
  9. Don’t fall in love with your words, be in love with your story. It makes editing less painful.
  10. Know why you’re writing.

And here are my three bonus rules on the craft of writing, which are mostly inspired by my current irritation with The Physick Book of Deliverence Dane, by Katherine Howe ( I haven’t even reached the end yet and there are two instances of dialogue that read “Shhhhhh,” he shushed her):

  1. Create REAL conflict. A character over-reacting to a situation is false conflict.
  2. Give your characters TRUE motivation, real reasons to do what they do and react how they do. Make their actions consistent with their personalities and desires, not just a vehicle for your plot.
  3. The story is the most important ingredient in your book; know where you’re going and why and how you’re going to get there.

I’m always on the lookout for helpful writing resources, but I feel as though I’ve just stumbled across a Crumple-Horned Snorkack!

The Strengths of the Harry Potter Series” by Jim Adam and hosted by Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog “There Are No Rules,” is a continuing series of posts on what J. K. Rowling did so right and what writers can learn from it. The most recent addition, “No Description Dumps! Crafting a Story With Details & Immersion,” made some very good points about using physical description to give us insight into the character’s personality/lifestyle/interests/etc. (like Harry’s glasses being held together with tape revealing that he is often bullied by his cousin), as well as spreading out descriptions through actions and dialogue (such as learning that Harry’s hair is untidy by Uncle Vernon telling him to comb it, and as a bonus we also see how poorly Harry gets treated by his uncle).

With ten posts completed and at least three still to come, I’ll definitely be returning for another dose.

I have the most wonderful husband in the world, and Garlic Jim’s has the tastiest gluten-free pizza. Yesterday, after a long day at work and a fun-filled Tin Pencil meeting, the question of what to fix for dinner hung in the air on the car ride home. It was after 8:30pm already, and I asked my husband, David, if I should fix nachos.

“No, I don’t really feel like nachos tonight,” he said to the windshield.

David has never turned down nachos before and it caught me by surprise. But no matter. Then, when we got home and I was finally able to give him a proper hello, I noticed something else strange.

“Did you have garlic for lunch?” I asked, pulling away. Earlier that day, he had told me he’d had fast food.

“No,” David said, giving me a confused look. He started test-smelling his shirt and then turned his nose toward me. “Maybe it’s your hair.”

I laughed doubtfully and went to the kitchen, my bat senses tingling. The final three clues came in quick succession. I started looking in the fridge and searching the cupboards when David interrupted me.

“Let’s go get in comfy clothes,” he said.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked, baffled that Mr. Hollow Legs would delay an already late dinner a moment longer than necessary.

“I really want to go change,” he insisted.

I made my way to our bedroom and then realized he wasn’t with me. Clue one.

“Where did you go?” I hollered.

“Be right there!”

And then I heard it. The beep of the kitchen timer being set. Clue two. When he appeared by my side a moment later, I eyed him suspiciously.

“What did you do?” I asked with a grin. “Is there something in the oven?”

“No!” he said, unconvincingly.

“What did you make?” I was jumping up and down now, a childish tendency that I can’t seem to suppress when David is around.

“I didn’t make anything,” he said. This time I knew he was telling the truth and that this was the third clue.

I didn’t dare hope. Could it be pizza? I was afraid to ask but did anyway and he told me to go look in the oven. It wasn’t just gluten-free pizza, it was THE BEST gluten-free (non-homemade) pizza I’ve ever tasted (and have only ever had once before). Garlic Jim’s! David had gone there for lunch as part of a work thing and brought a pizza home for dinner. What a guy! Honestly, I wonder how I ever got so lucky.

By the way, for anyone who’d like to spread the pizzawesomeness, Garlic Jim’s is a franchise. Please, someone open one in Spokane (the closest one is nearly an hour away)!

I never cease to be amazed at some people’s inability to use their imaginations and, for one moment, put themselves in another person’s shoes. It’s not that I expected my previous post on this topic to obliterate the habit, really, I just continue to find it surprising.

A gentleman came into the gallery this afternoon to show me his wildlife photography (he failed to adhere to rules 4 and 6 of the previous post, but did okay with the rest). Besides seeming a bit self-important, he was a friendly enough gent and proceeded to tell me about a particular photo he had taken at a to-remain-nameless national park. He explained that, after he returned from his trip and saw how amazing his photo had turned out, the first thing he did was get on the phone with the folks at the national park, to see if they were interested in it. Then, rather grumpily, he told me that he wasn’t let to speak to the man in charge but could only talk to the man’s personal assistant. “She wanted me to send her the photograph,” he huffed, giving me a knowing look. “I said, I’m not sending you nothing.”

“What did you expect them to do for you without letting them see the photograph?” I asked.

He was afraid of them stealing his image. “And, anyway, if I’m going to do business with them,” he said, “I’m going to do it in person and not over the phone.” He felt that  she wasn’t the one he needed to be talking to. He wants to talk to her superior. The one who makes the decisions.

Not sparing his feelings, I laid it out plain for him.

“Why should they give you their time when they don’t even know if the photo is any good or not?” I asked. “Maybe if Ansel Adams was calling they’d be a little more receptive, but they don’t know you from anyone. And treat that personal assistant with respect. She’s the gatekeeper; it’s her job to work with people like yourself, and if you want your photo to go somewhere with the parks you’re going to have to jump through their hoops. You should send the picture. If you don’t feel comfortable sending a digital file, don’t. Send them a printed 4×6 if you’re really afraid of them reproducing it.”

How can an artist expect to even discuss their unsolicited work with anyone without being prepared to show their work? Even if he had been let to speak with Mr. Man In Charge, did he think he would get anywhere just by saying that he took a great photograph? Is Mr. Man In Charge supposed to take him seriously just because he says so? It would be like if I called up a literary agent to ask if they would represent me, bypassing the querying process, and, oh by the way, Ms. Agent, I won’t send you my manuscript until you sign me, but trust me it’s good.

I don’t think so.

If you want to be treated like a professional, you’d better act like a professional, people! And treat others with respect. What makes this fellow think he is too important to talk to someone’s personal assistant? The fact that Mr. Man In Charge even has an assistant means he’s too busy to talk to you, and if you offend his gatekeeper you may find that she’s too busy to talk to you too.

Since I was a kid I’ve written New Year’s resolutions, and for the last, oh, ten years there has been at least one resolution regarding writing. Sometimes it pertains to setting aside more time to write, a couple times my publishing aspirations surfaced with the resolution to “get novel published!” when it should have read “make novel publishable.” This year I was much more specific.

1. Distribute Reader Copies of Novel By the Second Week of January.

As the holidays approached, I was also nearing the completion of my novel — for REAL this time. The outline had taken me a year, the first draft another year, and for the next five years the story alternated between the shelf and the editing block, moving to the back burner as my focus shifted to The Wizard Rockumentary. But after several consequent drafts and a complete rewrite of the first six chapters, I felt that the story was finally ready to set out into the world. But querying agents is a big deal and I didn’t want to mess it up. So I set deadlines for myself. I resolved to read through the novel twice more and make any necessary changes and then distribute reader copies for outside critique.

Everyone knows how difficult it is to wait… waiting to hear from my friends and family what they thought of my novel (some had read a previous version years ago, others had never read it at all) was, I think, even harder than the waiting I’m doing now: waiting to hear back from agents. But I’ll never forget how much easier my friend Kate made things for me. She sent me an email after reading each chapter to tell me what parts she liked and if there were areas that needed more attention. For about a week, I got a handful of emails a day (and the occasional phone call). It was delightful to get to share in her excitement and hear her theories of what was going to happen next, while chuckling to myself over how surprised she would be.

2. Compile List of Agents and Start Sending Out Query Letters the First Week of February.

I’ve been a longtime fan of several agents’ blogs and they are, obviously, great resources for finding out what agents are looking for in a query. At least as far as what information to include, their prefered format and submission guides, etc. But even if you were to do everything right with your query letter, it still gets down to whether they connect with your story. Scary! No one likes rejection, but luckily I’m a Gryffindor and I don’t scare that easily.

My query letter went through a few rounds of peer review and editing, and I am so glad that I didn’t skip this step. It was incredible the varied feedback I received, and since I had never met any of these folks I would be querying it seemed like I should take all strong reactions into account. When I had thought the letter was polished, I sent it to another member of my writing group for a last look-over, and she asked me out to coffee so she could gently tell me that the letter hadn’t excited her in the slightest. I was so grateful! (Thanks, Sue!) I went back and rewrote it again and was amazed by how much more I liked it too. The greatest challenge in writing the query was that, for me, each detail I included about the story represented a much bigger picture, and it was difficult to remember that all the agent would see was that one detail.

So now I get to wait and see what happens, and as a bonus I’ve actually kept my New Year’s resolutions this year, if you don’t count the resolution to get up early each morning and stretch out before work. That one only lasted about a week.

Mallory Battista’s Blog

Notes from an aspiring author, artist, and occasional gluten-free cook.

Storytelling isn’t just a thing to do, it is a way of seeing the world.

I am a storyteller. I live as though I am a hero on a quest and I strive to treat every person that crosses my path as the main character of an equally complex and exciting story. I find joy when their paths overlap with mine, and though some encounters are fleeting and others last a lifetime, I see the importance of each one to the continuation of Life's plot. I am grateful for the adversity that is set before me, as it makes me a more well-rounded character and adds challenge and excitement to my journey. And I always, ALWAYS have faith in happy endings.

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