Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Quantifiable Goals

“If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else.” ― Yogi Berra

National Novel Writing Month 2014 has come and gone and I'm happy. The ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon which was 114,400 words on October 31, 2014 now stands at 83,228 words approximately the length of many published memoirs. The secret? A quantifiable goal.

You've heard me talk about National Novel Writing Month again and again. Why does it work for me? There are many reasons, but this month it was the ability to turn something that seemed like an overwhelming challenge into bite size pieces I could work on every day.

I made two complete passes through the document. During the first half of the month and the first read-through in November I found words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole scenes that didn't belong. I removed approximately 1667 words per day. During the second half of the month and the second pass I gave myself credit for the amount of time I spent clarifying unclear passages, remedying inconsistencies, and turning the thing from a bunch of scenes into a book. I was ruthless. At the end of the month I had the equivalent of the golden 50,000 words needed to "win" NaNoWriMo in my own rebel way. Having a tangible method of tracking my progress gave me the motivation to get the work done.

The book still needs more polishing. It's a long way from being ready to send to an agent, but I nearly have a draft for Ed, my husband and first reader, to review.

Do you create quantifiable goals? How? I'd love to hear your methods.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

It's Still Too Long

"All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences." - Somerset Maugham

Shortly before Ed and I moved to New Mexico, a friend gave me a going away present. It was a tiny dictionary. In the front she wrote, "So you'll never be at a loss for words."

Right now I have the opposite problem. After I completed another pass through the ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon, the word count stands at 114,400. This is down from 190,000 words, but still.

Last night when I couldn't sleep I pulled up memoir after memoir on and looked at the page count. Multiplying by the approximately 250 words per page confirmed my fears. The word count of book after book totaled something close to 80,000 words, 34,000 fewer than my current manuscript.

I have options. I could turn the story into two books. I could ignore editorial wisdom and let the book stand at nearly one and a half times the conventional word count of most memoirs. I could pay someone else to figure out what to do. I could put it in a drawer and start something new. Or I could do the thing I most dread: cut more words.

You know what I'll choose. Wish me luck! And if you have any tips for whacking still more of my precious prose from this document, please send them my way.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Fall: When The Wrimos Gather

“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time.’” - Stephen King

When the leaves in central Ohio begin to turn, I think of two things: the Columbus Marathon and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This year I'm running the half marathon instead of the full so I have more energy to plan for NaNoWriMo.

The NaNoWriMo motto is, "The world needs your novel." I don't know if the world needs any of the books I've written, but I definitely needed to write them and I've enjoyed using the NaNoWriMo structure to write the first drafts.

There's something about knowing more than 100,000 other writers are out there pounding the keys just like me. Attending the write-ins and hearing the keystrokes of three or four or twenty other writers from my area inspires me. It was intimidating at first, but once I began the first sentence, I was fine.

If you want to write a novel or need a structure to get your work done, NaNoWriMo might work for you. The official goal is to write 50,000 words of fiction in the thirty days of November. That's what most wrimos (folks who participate in NaNoWriMo) do. Nano rebels write nonfiction, poetry, short stories, or songs. And some folks, myself included, use the structure for revision. Last year I used it to remove 50,000 words from the 190,000 word manuscript about running my first marathon. I called it reverse NaNoWriMo.

I'll definitely play along this year as well. I'm at the place in my revision process where I need to make another pass through the book. I'll divide the number of scenes by the thirty days in November and read and make notes on a set number of scenes each day to get through the whole book by the end of the month. The communal energy of NaNoWriMo will pull me through.

What are your goals for November? Do you want to play along? You can find the ABCs of NaNoWriMo on the website. For more information, get the books No Plot? No Problem!
and Ready, Set, Novel!.

My screen name on the NaNoWriMo website is willwrite4chocolate. If you decide to join, please look me up. It's good to have friends wherever you go.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Remove the Scaffolding

“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity...edit one more time!”
― C.K. Webb

I continue to remove as many words as I can from the crazy huge manuscript about running my first marathon. My latest trick is what good friend and award-winning author, Tania Casselle, referred to as "removing the scaffolding" when she critiqued a different book I had attempted.

Often first drafts contain phrases, whole sentences, or even entire paragraphs that prop up the real thing we want to say. If our work is strong enough, it can stand on its own. Our job is to remove that scaffolding.

Here's a very brief example:

First draft:
I spent some time standing by the window looking out at a pale moon. The light that it shone glinted against a thin layer of ice on the cracked sidewalk. That cracked sidewalk was where I had fallen when I was running just a few weeks before. Then it had looked ugly and swollen even though the crack was the merest of things, just a bit of a thing, not even an inch of difference in the two edges, but there I had fallen down hard on my arm and my knee and hit my chest. It hurt bad. It still hurt. The ribs were still bruised and I favored them even though I tried not to.

Second (third or fourth) draft:
I looked out the window at the pale moonlight. It glinted off a thin layer of ice on the cracked sidewalk. I'd fallen there a few weeks before while running. Then the small crack had looked ugly and swollen, the merest bit of a thing, not even an inch of difference in the two edges. My skinned arm and knee and my bruised ribs still hurt. I favored them even though I tried not to.

I've removed the scaffolding. Only what I want remains.

Now you try it. Let me know how it goes.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Trimming the Flab: A List

“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” ― Henry Green

My progress in reducing the word count of the ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon continues. I'm cutting unnecessary material, the flab. Sometimes an entire scene must go, but more often I whittle at the subcutaneous fat deep within the sentences. Here are some examples of things I trim:

1. Verbs that end in "ing:" "I was standing" becomes "I stood." This removes a word and turns the sentence from passive to active.

2. Forms of the verb "to be:" (were, is, are, be, being, etc.) I transform these with more powerful verbs. "There is a tree" turns into "A tree grows there" or "a tree stands there." Again, passive becomes active.

3. "Very, just, and simply:" These are words I use when I want to hedge my bets. "I just wept" becomes "I wept." "I'm very tired" becomes "I'm exhausted." "I simply couldn't manage" becomes, "I couldn't manage." I rarely find an instance when one of these words can't be removed.

4. "That:" I remove it and see if the sentence stands.

5. Unnecessary pronouns. "We sat down" becomes "We sat." "I stood up" becomes "I stood."

This list barely touches the possibilities. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

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Thursday, July 03, 2014


"The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser - in case you thought optimism is dead." - Robert Brault

A rectangular eraser lies on my desk next to the lamp. It supplements the tiny eraser on the end of my mechanical pencil which would quickly run out if I used it exclusively.

Next to the lamp sits a pen and pencil holder. In it live roller ball pens of several colors. My favorites are the hot pink ones. I use those to mark up the print-outs of the scenes of whatever book I'm currently revising. I go through almost as many of those as I do blue or black pens.

While I appreciate the optimism of Brault's quotation, it doesn't reflect my reality. If I designed a pencil to accurately show the amount of time I spend on revision versus writing, the eraser would be two feet long and the pencil less than half an inch. This pains me since I thoroughly enjoy that flying blind bliss of the first draft. Sometimes I find that same pleasure in second or third drafts. But once I'm down to the deep cuts writing requires, it's all work.

I know others with the opposite perspective. For some, the initial draft is the hardest part and once they have "something to work with" they're golden. My hat is off to them. Still, I would wager even these people spend much more time rewriting than they did on the initial draft.

What about you? Do you spend more of your writing hours in drafting or revising? I'd love to hear about your process.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Hard Copies

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

I spent last week in Arlington, Virginia at a Marriott while my husband attended a conference. I wrote and ran for five days. Each day after my post-run shower, I found a quiet spot with chairs and a table near a window in a hallway near the conference rooms to work.

Before we left home, I had printed several chapters of the book on running. I took the pages and a fuchsia roller ball to my quiet spot and began hand-editing. I prefer pink to red. It's more fun. I'd brought my laptop and could easily have carried it to the window seat. Or I could have stayed in our very nicely appointed room and sipped from a coffee made in the miniature coffee maker while I worked. I chose not to.

Stepping away from the computer prevented me from being tempted to check email or social media. Without adorable kitten videos to distract me, I spent several hours engrossed in the work. The world dropped away. With the tactile sensations of paper and pen between my fingers, the editing went well.

Back in November, during my reverse-NaNoWriMo, I worked directly on my laptop to reduce the book by 50,000 words. That technique worked then. Now, this second time going through the whole book, I prefer looking at printed pages. I do not have studies to cite, but I believe two slightly different parts of the mind are triggered by each of these techniques. I choose to tap both of them.

In my next writing session I'll enter the changes from the hand-edited pages into the document using the laptop. In addition to the changes on the pages, I anticipate finding other things to revise as well. So this typing-in of the edits is yet another pass through the manuscript. Nothing is lost by this "extra" step.

Do you print out pages? What is your process? I'd love to hear about it.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

There's revision and then there's revision.

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” —Philip Roth

There are two main kinds of revision: big picture restructuring and small picture polishing. In big picture work, I move whole pieces of the book around and reshape the thing from the spine up. Sometimes this means adding new sections or cutting out whole other parts. The beginning becomes the end and vice versa. This kind of editing has to come first.

The second kind of editing is my favorite. This is the word choice editing. It's grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, rhythm, and sound. This is where I remove all the unnecesssary words like "very" and "a lot." It's where I decide if I really need that second that. I rewrite the passive verb sentences into active voice. I polish and polish and polish.

The book I'm writing about running a marathon is still in the big picture editing phase. I am so tempted to jump into knit-picky grammar, punctuation, word choice, line by line revision, but that's not what it needs. I err on the side of polishing since it is my favorite kind of editing. This will cause trouble. Unless I have the shape of the book down, doing smaller scale revision is a waste of time. The section I am so lovingly polishing might not even be there on the next draft. How much more difficult will it be to cut if I've just spent two weeks crafting it?

So I have to force myself to only look at the big picture. What can I cut? Not just words, but what whole sections? Is this part necessary? Can the book live without that? Does this section go as deep as it needs to go? What else does it need? How can I bring it to life?

Do you have a favorite form of editing? How do you help yourself do the kind of work you least enjoy? I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Business and Art

"Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." - Andy Warhol

We don't talk much about the economics of writing. It's definitely not my forte. Still, folks have questions. Fortunately, some artists do talk dollars and sense or how to make sense of the dollars that come.

One such person is Elaine Grogan Luttrull. Luttrull addresses the business of writing in her book, Arts & Numbers: A Financial Guide for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Other Members of the Creative Class. Luttrull states, "I hope Arts & Numbers does this (subtly) in sharing relevant financial information with creative entrepreneurs in a technically-accurate and accessible way."

Luttrull was interviewed by Doug Dangler, the host of the Wednesday evening show Craft on WCBE (90.5) about the business of writing. The interview will air on May 21st at 8:00 p.m., and Doug has two copies of her book to give away as part of the show.

The interview came about because Chang-rae Lee mentioned casually in an interview with Doug that he never discusses the economics of writing with his students because, "they know what they are getting into." She believes there is a better, more proactive, slightly more empowering approach to the subject.

You can listen to the interview with Chang-rae Lee here (and read their exchange in the comments!). More about Craft: The Show is on its website as well.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


"Writing a book is 10% inspiration and 90% not being distracted by the internet.” George Dyson

Facebook. Twitter. Buzzfeed. Instragram. Pinterest. Goodreads. And so many more. I mean just the internet in general. These potential distractions all make it easier than ever to avoid writing. We get sucked into this world of cuddly puppy photos, recipes, and political rants not to mention cat videos and e-postcards created by friends and relatives. What's a writer to do?

Lately I've been using Freedom, an inexpensive program, to minimize distractions (aka the internet). You tell the program how long you want "freedom" from the internet and it blocks you for that amount of time. To regain access before the time has expired you have to restart your computer. You can use the trial version five times before you must switch to a paid version. There's also Anti-social which only blocks social media. That way, you can do research, but not check Twitter. Freedom and Anti-social are not magic bullets.

I still find myself trying to click to Facebook before I realize what I'm doing. But once I remember my "freedom," I get back to work. Maybe these will work for you!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Poor Grammar? No Problem!

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

Last month I received yet another note from a reader who dreams of writing a book. Like many others, he fears his poor grammar will prevent him from succeeding. His note to me read:

I've wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. I'm a voracious reader and I love to write. But I've struggled with grammar and punctuation since grade school. Do you have any suggestions on how to master grammar now that I'm an adult?
Many of my readers have similar qualms. Here was my reply:

If you want to write a book, just write a book. Don't let any of your fears get in the way. In WILD MIND, Natalie Goldberg suggests, "Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, or even the lines on the page." She's talking about first drafts, but she's serious. Later, after many drafts of the work are finished, hire a copyeditor to polish it for you.
As far as learning grammar and punctuation, there are many great books including EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES by Lynne Truss. I also follow a blog called Grammar Girl that may help. I subscribe and follow her on Facebook. I attempt to master each tip she posts. I discover my errors by reading about them and finding the solution.
Here's a list of 10 good grammar sites including Grammar Girl. Purdue Online Writing Lab and Grammarly are both very good as well. Enjoy and have fun!
Do you have any great sources for finding grammar information? I'd love to hear about them.