Thursday, December 03, 2009

Revision Roundup

"Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea." - Iris Murdoch

Congrats to everyone who attempted National Novel Writing Month! Whether you wrote 50,000 words or not, you're a winner in my book. I finished with 90,690 words, the second draft of a novel written from scratch without looking at the original work at all. Considering how quickly it was written, this draft may be as bad or worse than the first, but I stumbled upon few good ideas along the way and saw some problems I'll be able to catch the next time through.

In the spirit of the edits that loom ahead, I've rounded up a few blog posts on revision that might help us all. Special thanks to Debbie Ridpath Ohi for her Twitter inkyelbows links to most of these.

What's your editing process? If you like, leave a comment below.

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Monday, November 02, 2009


Over the summer, I compiled a "To Do" list of 76 items to revise on the memoir I've been writing for the past few years. I'd hired a freelance editor to suggest changes and a friend read it and offered feedback. I began with the easy ones, slogging through slower than a snail. Late September, 70 items remained. I really wanted to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which begins November 1st each year. I did not, however, want to set the memoir aside. So I gave myself a deadline. Only if I finished the memoir edits by midnight October 31st would I allow myself to plunge into a NaNoWriMo project.

At the beginning of October, I thought I had all the time in the world. Thirty-one full days. The weeks passed. My progress slowed. Each time I fixed one problem, several more appeared. In the last week of October, I still had 37 items on my list. I wouldn't make it. When I complained to my husband, he said, "It's not November yet." I reminded myself of my deadline and trudged ahead.

I had hoped to get done a few days before November 1st in order to plan a strategy for NaNoWriMo, but October 29th, then October 30th came and went. Saturday, October 31st, I was down to four items. One of them involved moving an entire chapter and another required me to thread a theme through the whole book. I didn't see how it was possible, but I had my deadline. I told myself, "Just start and see what happens." At 6:35PM on Saturday night, I crossed "Renumber Chapters," the last item, off the list. HURRAH! That gave me a few hours (thank you time change!) to plan for NaNoWriMo.

Do you set deadlines? How do they work for you? Leave a comment below if you like.

Nita Sweeney
(c)Nita Sweeney, 2009, all rights reserved

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

It's October! Time to Plan for NaNoWriMo

The poet William Stafford wrote:

I believe that the so-called 'writing block' is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance ... one should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It's easy to write. You just shouldn't have standards that inhibit you from writing ... I can imagine a person beginning to feel he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now ... You should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn't make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you've done it.

One fun way to lower your standards is by participating in National Novel Writing Month ( Faced with the daunting task of writing 50,000 words in thirty days, you won't have time to fret about quality. You may write a great novel in the process, but, you won't have time worry about it. And, if Stafford's ideas hold true, you won't have time for writer's block.

Although the NaNoWriMo rules don't permit you to begin the actual writing until 12:01AM of November 1st, you are allowed to plan ahead. You've got the entire month of October to outline, plot, develop characters, and build worlds. When November first rolls around, you'll be ready.

Do you plan to participate in National Novel Writing Month? How will you prepare? If you like, leave a comment and let me know.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Pen is Your Friend

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." - Thomas Mann (1875 - 1955)

People often ask whether I write by hand or on the computer. I do both. But there was a time when ninety-five percent of what I wrote was by hand. Page after page in a spiral notebook with either a ball point or rollerball pen. I can go for an hour straight without stopping. In my class, when I explain this, invariably someone will say, "That's impossible. My hand is killing me after one round of ten minutes."

In Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, best-selling author Natalie Goldberg lists several rules of writing practice: "Keep your hand moving. Don't cross out. Don't think. Go for the jugular. You're free to write the worst junk in America." But there's one rule she didn't mention. The pen is your friend. It is not a dagger. You don't need to grip it as if you were trying to stab someone. And you're not clinging to a life raft even though it might feel that way emotionally.

The idea is to write continuously. It's not a race. Most people find it difficult to keep up with their thoughts, but you don't have to grip the pen tightly to keep it from flying across the room. Slow down. Let the words roll off. Relax your hand and shoulders. Also, try different types of pens. Sometimes the barrel of the pen is too fat or too thin. Switch and see what happens. But for goodness sakes, let the pen go. Try holding it so loosely that it does fly across the room. Calmly pick it up. Sit back down and begin again. Don't worry if you can't read your handwriting.

These techniques work at the keyboard too. If you can sit up relatively straight and relax your neck and shoulders, your fingers can move more quickly. Position your keyboard so that your elbows hang comfortably at your sides with your wrists slightly lower than your elbows so that your wrists do not need to bend. Keeping your shoulders back and your back straight adds to the relaxation. It's like sitting meditation. Posture is important. Your body wants to keep working for you for a very long time. Do what you can to help it along.

The other secret about pain is that sometimes it is simply resistance. The mind creates pain in the body because it is afraid. This type of pain provides a way for the body to work things out at a muscular level. In meditation practice a teacher will ask you to sit through the pain, to observe it with awareness and equanimity. When you get up from the cushion, the pain goes away. This is true in writing as well. Only be alarmed if the pain continues beyond your writing session.

The ex-lawyer in me requires that I tell you I'm not a doctor and that this little essay is not intended as medical advice. I learned these tricks by trial and error. I want you to know that you can do writing practice forever. You can do it under all circumstances. You can do it for an hour. You can build up muscles in your arms and shoulders and can continue even when you are certain you can't.. You can write like a samurai. And you can be kind to you body in the process.

Do you experience pain when you write? If so, how do you deal with it? If you like, leave a comment and let me know.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lose That Dead Weight

No. Not the love handles. Lose the extra flab in your manuscript!

Rachel Gardner has an excellent post on the topic: "Tighten Up Your Manuscript."

Here’s a checklist of things to consider cutting:

→ Adverbs, especially those with “ly” endings. Ask yourself if they’re necessary.
→ Adjectives. Often people use two or three when one or none is better.
→ Gerunds. Words that end in “ing.”
→ Passive voice: Over-use of words like “was,” "were" and "that" indicate your writing may be too passive. Reconstruct in active voice.
→ Passages that are overly descriptive.
→ Passages that describe characters' thoughts and feelings in too much detail (i.e. long sections of narrative or interior monologue).
→ Passages that tell the reader what they already know.
→ Unnecessary backstory.

And there's more.

Here’s a list of words to watch for. Carefully consider their necessity and effectiveness:

about, actually, almost, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, just then, kind of, nearly, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, truly, utterly, were.

What she said.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

One True Sentence

I've been revising the memoir about my father. Some days go better than others. On a not so good day last week, a friend reminded me of this Hemingway bit from A Moveable Feast:

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then, because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone else say.

I might not be in Paris, but I can still look across the suburban lawns of Upper Arlington and think, "Do not worry. Just write one true sentence."

You too can look out from wherever you write and think the same. If you like, leave a comment below and let me know where you're working and how you're doing.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Nose To The Ground

In Women Who Run With The Wolves Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:

Wolves never look more funny than when they have lost the scent and scrabble to find it again: they hop in the air; they run in circles, they plow up the ground with their noses; they scratch the ground, then run ahead, then back, then stand stock-still. They look as if they have lost their wits. But what they are really doing is picking up all the clues they can find. They're biting them down out of the air, they're filling up their lungs with the smells at ground level and at shoulder level, they are tasting the air to see who has passed through it recently, their ears are rotating like satellite dishes, picking up transmissions from afar. Once they have all these clues in place, they know what to do next.

Writers also lose the scent from time to time. We stare out windows and crane our heads to listen to distant winds. We grab random books off library shelves and sniff the pages for clues. We start a scene only to stop halfway then start a second and a third. We look a bit balmy.

No worries. Stay in the work even if all you do is rub your snout against the pages. Continue collecting data and do not give up hope. Estes explains, "As soon as she processes all the information from the clues she's gathered, she'll begin moving in an intentional manner again." Like the wolf, you will find your way.

Do you ever lose the scent? If so, what do you do?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Hi Ho. Hi Ho. It's Off to School I Go!

"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." - Mark Twain

I'm headed for Marydale, Kentucky to the 10-day Writer's Retreat Workshop. It's never too late to learn more about writing. I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I'd love to hear how you'll be spending your time. What will you do with the next 30 days of your writing life?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

To See Again

"I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." - James Michener

Re-vision. To see again. I’m revising the 72,000 word first draft of my novel. The biggest obstacle is self-honesty. To revise, I have to find that place where I can be brutally honest with myself about what’s on the page and whether it works. It’s not as if I consciously lie to myself, but I cannot always see my own work clearly.

One way to gain distance is to physically put my manuscript in the hands of another writer, someone I trust. Preferably someone who’s also writing since I like to read something of hers while she’s reading mine. I hand this friend a list of questions along with the manuscript. At this stage I’m especially interested in the main character. Are her actions and words consistent? Are they plausible? Does she change by the end of the book? Is this change believable?

I also ask the friend to mark those places where she wanted to skim or stop reading altogether. I don't expect her to fix the errors. I just want to know where she popped out of the story. And, I’m not interested in grammar and punctuation, but rather getting the story straight and creating characters. It’s a trap to begin tweaking individual sentences when the big picture isn't right.

If such a friend isn’t handy, I must find the distance within myself. I may have to step away from the manuscript for a bit or imagine that it’s my friend’s work. Sol Stein, in Stein On Writing, suggests rewriting the title page and inserting someone else’s name as the author. We’re less likely to be misguided about someone else’s work. I have to do whatever it takes to find the self-honesty necessary to see the words clearly on the page.

I'd love to hear what you do to gain the necessary distance to revise.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reality Check

I'll admit it. I'm a daydreamer. Some days, when I don't feel like writing, I imagine what it would be like to have a book hit the New York Times best-seller list. This is rarely productive. A blog post I read today effectively snapped me out of the dream.

In a full disclosure attempt to dispel the illusions surrounding mass market bestsellers, New York Times best-selling author Lynn Viehl has posted the first royalty statement for her book Twilight Fall on the blog GenReality with an explanation of the numbers and comments about what made her book a best-seller.

Take away point? While hitting the best-seller list is an awesome feat (Congrats Lynn), it's not like winning the lottery.

Of having a best-selling book, Viehl writes, "I’ll tell you exactly why [the book] got there: my readers put it there."

Now that's reality!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Oh Those Social Agents

You on Facebook yet? Do you Tweet? How about LinkedIn? MySpace? There are many good reasons for authors to have a presence on social networking sites. Some literary agents also Tweet and spend time on Facebook, and there's been a lot of kvetching around the 'net about that issue. I'm sidestepping that landmine. I think it's more important for writers to remember that befriending an agent on a social networking site is very different from being on-line friends with the folks you go out with on Friday nights. As a writer, it benefits you to make a multitude of friends and keep them up-to-date on your latest writing projects. Social networking sites are a great way to do that. But it behooves us to remember who's watching those sites before we post photos of last weekend's debacle.

Agents feel the same way. They are careful who they choose to friend on Facebook and other sites. Twitter is a little different because agents can choose who to follow while anyone can follow them. But don't be surprised if an agent ignores your request to friend them on MySpace or Facebook. And, in general, agents don't want to be queried on these sites. Follow the submission guidelines on the agent's website instead.

Chuck Sambuchino covers this nicely in a post at the Guide to Literary Agents Blog.

I'm on most of the social networking sites. I tend to keep my Facebook page for friends, family and a few others, but I'm happy to be followed on Twitter. I most often Tweet about procrastination, walking my dog, and procrastinating by walking my dog. I don't Tweet about weekend debacles. Feel free to follow me if you wish.

Friday, March 27, 2009


"Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned." - Oscar Wilde

When the writing is slow, I fear I’ve forgotten everything I know about how to write a book. Everything I learned in all my years with best-selling author Natalie Goldberg. Everything I learned in MFA school. Everything I have read in writing books. Everything I’ve gleaned from reading the books that I love. Everything. This might be a good thing. Perhaps I have to start from ground zero with each book and learn all over again how to write. Each book has its own rules.

A friend reminded me that what I know has been absorbed so deeply, I might not remember it. It’s in my bones. I hope she’s right. Currently it feels like I’m taking Polaroid photographs. I want a refined end product, but I want it now. I find it frustrating to wait while the image develops. Each time I go through the work, the characters become clearer, the images brighter. Only in the end will the picture be clear.

With writing, unlike Polaroids, there’s work to be done beyond swinging the thing back and forth or blowing on it hoping it will dry faster. The writer needs to stay in the book. Sometimes this means reading sections and moving things around. Since I’m still working at the macro level, I often find myself rearranging scenes and writing notes. Sometimes it means writing placeholders for scenes that need to be written or simply daydreaming about the next place my main character needs to go in order for the story to move along. The micro-edit will come later. All the while, the details of my characters become more focused.

Writing is not for the faint of heart. When I hear my heart pounding, I worry that it’s a heart attack. But writing is still the thing I love best. The picture will grow sharp if I’m willing to do the work.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Creating Author Websites

If you're putting together a website for your books, check this out. Here's a great summary of do's and dont's just in from Book Binge from the reader's perspective.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Show, don't tell. Most of the time.

Good post over on Query Tracker blog about "show, don't tell."

I especially appreciated the part about when to tell. Telling has its place.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

#queryfail Day on Twitter

Hey Tweeps, in response to a suggestion by literary agent Colleen Lindsay, a number of agents and editors are tweeting their memories of the worst queries they've ever received kicking off Query Fail Day, the first of what will likely become a regular Twitter phenomenon.

Go to:

My favorite example so far comes from ReneeAtShens:

"P.S. I collect stamps. Should you have any stamp...that is destined for the trash can, [please] stuff them in the enclosed SASE" #queryfail

Uh huh.

Follow-up to QueryFail:

Amazing amount of brouhaha about queryfail. IMHO, the purpose was not to mock writers, but to teach us what not to do in writing a query. For a nice collection of links to articles about how to write great queries and avoid #queryfail, check out this Chico Writer's Group blog post

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Ask the Psychologist blog has been revamped, rebooted, relaunched with several guest bloggers including Columbus author, psychologist Dr. Carolyn Kaufman of Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers fame.

Dr. Kaufman's bio explains:

Visitors will find not only articles about psychology tailored to their needs, but they can ask Dr. K their writing/psychology questions. She is often quoted by the media as an expert resource.

Whether you need to know what happens in a therapy session (um, are there really any writers out there who haven't yet had therapy?), you want to make your protagonist a psychologist and need the inside scoop, or you'd like to know your villain's official diagnosis, Dr. K will now take your questions.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Quick! The Rabbit's Napping

"Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers." - T.S. Eliot

Taped to the edge of my computer screen is a yellowing newspaper horoscope from September 25, 2003:

Please remember that you are not competing in a sprint. You are running a marathon. Be sure to pace yourself and not be overly concerned about the fast starters who have sped ahead. Clear your beautiful mind of envy and self-doubt as well as the pushy expectations of people who don't know the intricacies of what you are doing. Use your fine mind to figure out how to be motivated by pleasure, not pressure.
Some days I still beat myself about the head and shoulders with the accomplishments of others. Don’t get me wrong. I love to see the people I know succeed. They show me what is possible. But sometimes I forget it’s not a race.

Of meditation practice, Shinzen Young said, "It's not whether you meditate every day, but will you still be meditating when I see you ten years from now?" Natalie Goldberg asks, “Who among you will still be writing in a decade?” I want to be the one who still picks up the pen. I’ve watched some of those who sprinted ahead burn out. Some aren’t writing at all while others have become disillusioned. It's the old tortoise and the hare business. To finish the memoir, I put one word after another, day after day, year after year. To finish this novel, I’ll need to do the same. Meanwhile I send query letters and submit the memoir to contests. Bit by bit it adds up to a writing life.

So let’s notice the scenery as we trudge along. If we miss our lives, we’ll have nothing to write about.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Google Settlement

Has Google violated your copyright? If you've published a book in the past several years, Google has probably published it online thereby stepping on your copyright toes.

Participate in the proposed settlement at this link:

Enter the ISBN of each book and the search engine will find it and fill in the information.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Planner Eating Dog Needs Name

Columnist and certified laughter leader Pat Snyder needs your help naming the dog that will appear prominently in her upcoming book, The Dog Ate My Planner: Tales and Tips from an Overbooked Life. She's sponsoring a contest to tag the beast. Here are the details:

This mischievous guy will romp through the pages of my soon-to-be-released book, "The Dog Ate My Planner: Tales and Tips from an Overbooked Life." Like the other dogs in our lives that disrupt our plans, his belly's full of planner pages, but he's hungry for one more thing: A Name. Contact Pat with your choice, along with your name, address, phone number and why you chose the name, by March 31. The lucky winner will receive a caricature drawn by book illustrator Michael H. Whiting of the winner's own dog (or cat or other favorite pet), which will be presented at a local book-signing.
Go to her website to see the dog's caricature and enter to name that dog.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Whether You've Got Grandkids or Not, Grand Magazine Wants You!

Terry Spaeth, Midwest Regional Editor of Grand Magazine sent this call for submissions:

Grand Magazine, an online ezine with a primary demographic of people that are grandparents, is soliciting articles for their upcoming issues. There are no strict submission guidelines. We are looking for articles about people or places that would strike a chord with our readers. Standard features on the site include: long-distance grandparenting, kinship care and grandparents' rights, children's health and development, intergenerational travel and reunions, family money, fun and games to do with your grandchildren, food and family gatherings, fashion, inspirations, grandchildren's photographs and funny sayings. For a free look at the magazine go to: or go to For more information or to submit an article, please contact the Midwest Regional Editor, Terry Spaeth at or 614-917-7435.

Be sure to tell them Nita sent you.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Literary Agent Directories

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of an unpublished manuscript, must be in want of an agent.” - Victoria Strauss

I’ve gotten a few questions about directories of literary agents. Check out Victoria Strauss’ blog post on the topic. She’s done an excellent job of detailing the myriad resources.

Best of luck. Persistence is key.

Friday, January 02, 2009

One Thing

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book." ~ Cicero [106 B.C. to 43 B.C.]

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions since I rarely keep them. Instead, I challenge myself to do one thing differently with my writing every new year. Some of these decisions have been ambitious. In 1995, I began sending queries to magazines and my first feature article was published in Dog World. In 1996, I began studying with best-selling author Natalie Goldberg. In 2000, I began teaching. In 2003, Write Now Newsletter was born. In 2006, I went to graduate school to study writing. In 2008, I completed a book manuscript and began sending it to agents.

In other years, my New Year's decision has been more simple. I've chosen to add more time to my writing schedule or adopted a new attitude about my writing. This year I'm joining a group of other Goddard College M.F.A. graduates to study writing informally on-line.

What will you do with the new year? Will you surf over to the recently updated on-going writing groups, and choose one to attend? Will you finish that short story you started in 2004? Or will you move your entire family across the country to study writing?

Whatever you choose, I'd love to hear about it. Feel free to post a response by clicking on the word "comments" at the bottom of the article.

Happy 2009 everyone, and happy writing.

(c)Nita Sweeney, 2009, all rights reserved

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