Tag Archives: Novel writing

Eleven Rules for Freelance Editing

eleven car

Have you ever thought of taking up freelance editing? It’s a good gig for writers because you put your language skills to work and get paid for it, often earning more money than your client will as the author. And with the abundance of folks self-publishing their projects, opportunities are plentiful. After all, every writer needs an editor.

The bad news: Editing is skilled labor, not something you can pick up over a weekend. Before you spill a drop of red ink over anyone’s precious manuscript, you must know these eleven rules of freelance editing:

1. Write. Write some more. Write until knowledgeable people say you are a good writer. You have to understand the rhythm of language to edit.

2. Read. Read some more. Read all kinds of stuff, because it will help you understand the rhythm of language even better.

3. Know language mechanics and grammar rules (but don’t let them rule you).

4. Think expansively. You’re not simply editing words. You are editing words in a format within a genre using a language that serves a culture containing multiple sub-cultures. A book about the history of hip-hop in Los Angeles requires a different application of language than does a guide to refinishing antiques or a historical romance novel. In other words, “get” the material.

matt smith25. Respect your client’s voice. If your author styles herself after William Faulkner and you emulate Tom Clancy, you edit with William Faulkner in mind. Your job as an editor is not to make the story sound as if you (or Tom Clancy) wrote it. Write your own book.

6. Respect your author’s story. If you think chapter one is dull and needs an action scene to grab the reader, suggest that to your client. If you think your author’s inner-city drama about a middle-aged, married, white woman falling in love her 25-year-old gay, black, male parole officer would work better as a medieval-era papal conspiracy thriller about a robot triceratops discovered under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, shut up and write your own book.

7. Understand that editing is a multi-stage process. Shaping the document involves reading the entire manuscript and identifying the parts that don’t work or the parts that drag or the sequences that confuse, and then suggest rewrites. In the line-editing stage, you will go line by line, eliminating redundancies and tightening prose until you have successfully removed that which blocked the full expression of your client’s voice. Proofing is the final pass, during which typos, grammar missteps, and punctuation mistakes are fixed.

8. Develop an eye for unnecessary words. Read:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

Editing that, you can cut at least 15 words and up to 20, depending on the audience and the tone you seek. I hope your client writes less clunky constructions than the one above, but not all writers are equal.

Here’s the minus-15 version:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 different teams make the playoffs at the end of the season each year, though only one of them will be able to skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly over their heads.”

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs each year, though only one will skate away with the Stanley Cup raised proudly.”

With 20 words removed, slicker but with less emotion:

“In the National Hockey League, 16 teams make the playoffs, though only one skates away with the Stanley Cup.”

9. Be consistent. If a movie title is italicized in Chapter One, it shouldn’t be placed in quotes in Chapter Four and bolded in Chapter Nine. You may not be ultimately responsible for formatting, but don’t set bear traps for the printer or publisher.

Lloyd10. Be prepared to fact check. Editing isn’t all limos and invitations to party with Justin Timberlake. Sometimes you have to make sure your author gets dates right, attributes the right quotes to the right real-life serial killers, and so on, whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction. I recall reading a novel that mentioned a J.S. Bach symphony. I happen to know something about classical music, and I know that Bach did not compose symphonies; he composed concertos (there’s a difference). I can’t remember much about that book, such as its name for example, but that flub is still vivid.

Note that in my entry for rule #6 above, I joked about a robot triceratops found in medieval times under the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thing is, St. Peter’s was not finished until the Baroque era. How embarrassing! Keep your flub radar on at all times when editing.

11. You have to be on, all the time. You can’t zone out halfway down the page. You must read every single damn word in the entire manuscript and look at every last comma. You have to look at them hard and interrogate them. You must outlast the text. If you have a short attention span, editing is probably not your gig.

For real meaty editing talk, visit Candace Johnson’s blog Change it Up Editing, the top of the food chain for such things. And feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments!

Recommended Writing Process for the Criminally Insane


Do criminally insane writers exist?

I’m not even sure the phrase “Criminally Insane” means anything. A horror film called Criminally Insane came out in 1975, but it was not about writers and it was certainly not legitimized by the presence of APA-certified consulting psychiatrists on set. I prefer the alternate title, Crazy Fat Ethel, anyway. A movie should deliver on the promise of its title.

But I digress (if it’s possible to digress from a topic one hasn’t brought up yet). Now that I’m in the groove with my novel-in-progress, I believe I am taking pantsing to a new level of chaos. Warning: You plotters might experience actual physical pain reading this.

I have no outline, a given for a pantser. I am not using writing software (beyond MS Word). I have tons of characters existing in four overlapping subplots, none of whom have written biographies and all of whom are tracked only within the haunted labyrinth of my synapses. And the best part: I’m writing out of sequence. That is, I am not composing the story in the order that events unfold. I’m doing this because 1.) I’ve lost my mind, and 2.) I am realizing what this story is about as I go, and when the ideas hit, I often need to go back and set them up with a bridging event. Oh, I gave up on numbering the chapters for reasons that should be obvious. I’m giving them placeholder names like “Car” and “Run” and “What am I thinking?”

crazy fat ethelYou are no doubt thinking I have an unreadable disaster on my hands. It’s ok. I don’t blame you. No one can follow such a method and produce anything other than an incoherent word jumble. Funny thing is, it’s working for me. It’s like I have a box of invisible puzzle pieces and no idea what image I am assembling, yet an image is emerging anyway. Because once a piece is in place, the cloak of invisibility drops for that piece. Now I’m starting to feel the satisfying snap of pieces unexpectedly interlocking and creating clusters of pieces. I don’t know that I’ll ever work this way again, but I’m finding that chaos has its attributes.

In case you are a criminally insane writer, or just one who feels stagnant and is up for a change in methodology, here’s a summary of my steps so far. It’s the closest thing to an outline I’m composing this year:

I. Get a story idea from a three-word phrase that, of its own volition, pops into your head while you are showering

II. Write a short story based on the idea

III. Like the short-story enough to turn it into a novel, only set the novel years before the events in the short story take place

IV. Make the antagonists friends

V. Start in story in the middle, then tell the backstory

VI. Don’t think, just write. The characters and events will reveal themselves as you go

VII. Realize one of your minor characters is actually the villain and go back to fill in his story

VIII. Realize your characters are all connected and have been committing parallel acts (some overt and some symbolic), but with different motives, decide that is awesome in its organic-ness, and go back to build the bridges.

IX. Be confident that it will work and be interesting and different.

X. Nothing. I thought my outline would look better ending in “X”

That’s it. Happy insanity. Feel free to tell me I’m a fool in the comments!

A boring post… sweetened with unrelated media


I’m using my blog as an actual blog today, which is to say I am reporting on my life as if it’s interesting to anyone other than me. Hey; at least I have the self-awareness to keep it short.

See, after letting it rust for about a year, I’ve sort of been working on my novel here and there recently, and I want to accelerate the momentum. Thus, I make this public pledge/shaming statement:

I will finish the first full draft of my novel by August 31, 2014, and I will finish the second full draft by December 31, 2014.

Yeah, I know. Who cares? If WordPress is an ocean, bloggers writing novels are plankton. But you know what the experts say about writing down your goals: You use up paper and ink.


As promised, here’s some Unrelated Media, a concept I’m stealing from Michelle Proulx (she of the weird Canadian last-name spelling), inspired by a concept I’m stealing from Kevin Brennan, not Canadian to my knowledge, but that’s no reason for you Canadian readers to judge him. Get off your high horses already!

The other day, Kevin posted a photo of a fiction passage he admired and asked readers to guess who wrote it (we all failed. It was from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates). I’m not going to make anyone guess mine. I’m simply showing you the opening paragraph from The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe because it is pure freakin’ genius writing. You learn everything about the narrator and know what the entire book is about in five short sentences and 70 words.

p mccabe

Two Writers Debate: Pantsing vs. Plotting

Janna (L) and Eric (R). There's no debate about which one eats more Dunkin' Donuts.

Janna G. Noelle (L) and Eric John Baker (R). There’s no debate about which one of these two eats more Dunkin’ Donuts.

Only two approaches to writing exist: Good and Bad. Write good. Debate over!

Hold on a sec. That’s not what this post is about. This post is a point-counterpoint between two WordPress bloggers arguing the merits of two distinct writing methods, pantsing (freeform writing) and plotting (writing from an outline).

Read on as right-brained, right-coast writer Eric John Baker argues in favor of pantsing (at least we hope that’s what happens… he is making it up as he goes, after all), followed by left-brained, left-coast writer Janna G. Noelle making a case for plotting, probably with all kinds of charts and graphs and stuff.

No matter how ugly and violent it gets, they promise to return you home in time for tea and biscuits!


Plotting. Pantsing. Marching. Dancing.
By Eric John Baker

I’m not much of a dancer. Stepping this way and that, being graceful, weaving a pattern not immediately apparent. Can’t do it.

Walking a straight line is easier. But walking only brings me to a predetermined destination, whereas dancing can send me places far more mysterious and wonderful: Joy. Surrender. The coat closet for a snog with my dance partner (come on, all that eye contact and bodies touching… it’s nature). If only I knew the moves.

Writing is like dancing in that way. Plotter or pantser, I’m sure you’ll agree: You have to understand composition before you can write well. Until you reach that level, outlining is probably necessary. Once you’ve mastered mechanics, though, maybe not so much.

Outlining seems smart and efficient; it helps you keep track of settings, characters, and events. You know exactly where you are, eyes straight ahead, sight set on your ending.

You know what else is efficient? A pair of handcuffs. And what would we do without lines painted on the road, telling us where we can and cannot drive the car? I’d say outlines are the law enforcement of the writing world.

I used to outline my fiction, scene by scene, and I never crossed the double-yellow lines. Sure the outcome was boring and predictable but, um… I stayed true to my outline! I got to type “The End” exactly when I planned as well.

You see, once the outline was in place, my creative brain shut down. It was all about mechanics after that. The regions of my mind that encourage me to poke a dead jellyfish with a stick or to intentionally alight at the wrong bus stop or to ask, “I wonder where that road goes?” had gone dark. Any reader could guess where my stories were going, because I was telegraphing the conclusion.

Then, one day, I came across the term “blank-pager” in a writing book, though most writers call it “pantsing.” Inspired, I took a (boring and predictable) short story of mine and rewrote it, reusing only its concept and main character. I ended up with a 70,000-word novel, and it was the most fun I ever had writing. I bet any reader would say, “I didn’t see that coming,” at least a dozen times. How could they? I didn’t see it coming either. I spilled seeds as I went, and by the end, I had grown a garden of twists, hidden identities, and red herrings. Fact: my conscious mind could not have generated such ideas in advance. I know, because I had already written the same story with an outline and it failed.

I don’t actually like the word “pantser.” It sounds like a person no one wants to sit next to on the train. For my own reasons, I prefer “phone ringer,” but today I’ll stick with the more popular term because it rhymes with “dancer,” and that was seed enough to grow this argument, sans outline.

Keep Your Story In Line With An Outline
By Janna G. Noelle

I’ve heard just about every explanation for why pantsers don’t outline their stories:

  • It hinders creativity
  • Knowing how a story’s going to end ruins the fun of actually writing it
  • Plotters are rigid, unimaginative, their work is soulless, and they have cooties
  • Creativity is a transcendent process wherein a story’s true essence only emerges when permitted to spring forth unfettered in ecstasy of inspiration, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Or at least the first 30,000 words of true essence.

Yeah, I said it.

30,000 seems to be the magic number where many pantsers’ journeys of discovery comes up short, and unsurprisingly, they realize they’ve run out of plot.

This is unsurprising because of nature of that which pantsers are trying to freestyle. A story isn’t an organic, right-brained, boundless entity; it’s contrived, structured, and logical. No matter how simultaneously beautiful.

Of  course  there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Of course there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Nothing that occurs in a story is just ‘coz. Everything needs to fit together in a causal chain of events that points toward an inevitable (though not necessarily predictable) ending.

If the middle of a story is saggy, it’s because it wasn’t set up well enough in Act One.

If a story’s ending is weak, it’s not a problem with the last chapter, it’s a problem on page 127.

In no other endeavour would someone leave the creation of a highly structured entity to a vague impression of how to do it coupled with chance.

If you were building a house, or a business, or a garden, you’d be all too willing to draw up a blueprint, a business plan, or a list of what actually grows in your region lest you plant bananas in the Northwest Territories.

If Eric decided to drive to Vancouver, BC to have this debate with me in person, he wouldn’t just head north in the general direction of Canada (at least I hope he wouldn’t, especially since Vancouver is northwest of New Jersey!)

Rather, he’d want much more detail of where the road ahead actually leads: some timely hints from the British GPS lady, plus a supplementary map of some navigable scale showing every major junction along the way.

Because an outline is map in the truest sense of the word: a representation of everything between here and there to help you not get lost in your own plot.

It’s not a set itinerary you’re beholden to follow. It’s not a prison sentence. You can take your story in a different direction any time you want.

You probably will, for when have you ever had something go 100% according to plan? Even President Eisenhower recognized this:

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

An outline will keep you moving in right direction, providing a reference if you wander too far off the beaten path. It’ll also likely save you a few drafts of backfill and the risk of growing sick of your novel before it’s fully completed.

And in this way, rather than hinder a writer’s creativity, plotting actually sets it free to explore and discover the full range of possibilities within the story you’re actually trying to tell.


There you have it, writers. The battle lines have been drawn (most likely by a plotter; they’re big on setting parameters up front). So where do you stand in this debate? Squarely inside the plotters’ outline? Over there somewhere with that bunch of pantsers gathered sorta together but sorta not because they’re free spirits, you know?

Somewhere in between?

And more importantly: which of us do you think will be the dirtier fighter if this degenerates into a back-alley brawl? All bets are on!


 Hey, gang! Check out Janna’s cross-post on her excellent writing blog, A Frame Around Infinity.

Serendipity for Fiction Writers: Non-Fiction

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Find out below.

The Shirelles: Fresh-faced, 1960s pop singers or THE BRINGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE??? Can you afford to not read this post and find out?

Writers look everywhere for inspiration. History. Dreams. Family and friends. Our own faces reflecting back, toothpaste dripping from our chins, as an intriguing snippet of dialog or captivating phrase chooses that random but specific moment to gel in our consciousness.

Of course, it’s no revelation that non-fiction inspires fiction. If you do historical romance, you probably read about the time period that interests you. Sci-fi authors surely devour the latest popular-science books to stay current on new discoveries and speculations. But what about those happy accidents? Not when you’re conducting research for a novel or checking maps in a quest for geographic accuracy but when you’re reading a non-fiction book simply because the cover looked cool when you saw it in the library. Or it was a birthday gift from Bill, your brother-in-law who’s a marine biologist, though that has nothing to do with anything.  Or because you had 11 bucks left on an Amazon gift card and were feeling whimsical that night. This hypothetical non-fiction book has nothing to do with your novel’s setting, genre, or time period, but just as you flip from page 19 to page 20, the epiphany strikes. “Son of a gun,” you say, “There’s my theme!”

You don’t actually say “gun,” but you remember that your blog can be read by your employer, so you decide to clean up the language a bit.

This has occurred twice for me recently. That is, a non-fiction book serendipitously provided me with a story core in one instance and the impetus for an unusual scenario and setting in another. These stories of mine are early works in progress, so they are too naked and raw to discuss in detail, but I’ll tell you how they were informed and will, ultimately I hope, be strengthened by unrelated works of non-fiction.

Project Two is a survival story about three preteen girls fighting to stay alive after a global catastrophe. I had most of the elements in place: A setting, a scenario, characters with motivation, and a plot (sort of…  I avoid outlining). What I didn’t have was a core. Once you have the mechanics of writing down, you can write a competent novel if you have a concept, a setting, characters, a threat, and a plot. You can write a good novel if your story as a core. A theme. A heartbeat.

Enter Girl Groups, Girl Culture by Jacqueline Warwick, a music professor at a university in Canada (as of the book’s publication a few years ago). I was reading it because I am a fan of 1960s pop and soul music and because I am a civil-rights advocate, and this non-fiction work promised to discuss the former against the back drop of the latter. What I got was that and a fascinating examination of how these performers bonded as sisters (or didn’t) while touring relentlessly and being totally removed from a normal lifestyle. Say, it’s almost a metaphor for what’s happening to the young women in… my…


To quote Christoph Waltz in the film Inglourious Basterds, “Ooh! That’s a Bingo!” And, as a dumb-old boy trying to write about girls, I need all the bingo I can get.

angela smithProject One is a reveal/twist kind of thing that will be ruined if explained, but I can say it’s dark science fiction/ tech horror (you choose the label). This time I had the plot, characters, threat, setting, scenario, and core, but I needed a “why” that was less of a contrivance than “because.”

My question was answered last month when I read Angela M. Smith’s Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema, the title of which is so long it took up all the space I had for explaining what it’s about. Suffice to say, the discussion of the early 20th century Eugenics movement (in part, a philosophy on genetic and racial superiority that advocated for sterilization of disabled and chronically ill people) lit the proverbial light bulb over my head. Why did I bother bringing this up since I’m not explaining what the novel is about?

My contrived answer: Because. Because it still cements my point, which is that writing inspiration can come from unexpected places, especially when you aren’t looking for it.

I don’t know if I’ll finish either of these projects. I put #1 on hold to work on #2, which I put on hold to work on a short story collection, so who knows? But won’t it be cool if I do finish them, and they are published, and you read them, and you track down this post, and read it again, and say, “Son of a gun!”

Only you don’t actually say “gun.”

So tell me about your serendipitous inspiration. That thing that improved or inspired your fiction when you least expected it…

There’s Always Somebody Better

Trying to write the next Grapes of Wrath and getting blown away like so much dust? Dreaming of outselling J.K. Rowling with an epic fantasy series that knocks Harry Potter off his broomstick… but ending up with a migraine instead? Outraged that people don’t notice your religio-art conspiracy detective thriller (?) is ten times more brilliant than anything by Dan Brown?

Bad News: Whatever you try to do, there’s always somebody who does it better.

Take me for example. I’ve been known to sport a pretty decent beard. In fact, I get compliments on it from a lot of dudes (and the occasional dudette). Here’s a picture of me wearing it:

 Eric's beard

Guys tell me they wish they could get such solid, even coverage. Women tell me their husbands and boyfriends try to grow beards but end up getting frustrated because it looks bad and shave it off. But the truth is, I’m only semi-pro. If you want the King of Coverage, the Baron of Body, the Thunder god of Thickness, the Heavyweight of Hair (that all grows in the same direction)? I give you hockey player Hank Zetterberg, all-star forward for the Detroit Red Wings:

Henrik Zetterberg

Zetterberg is to ______ as Daniel Day-Lewis is to acting. (Answer: beards)


Not even Chuck Norris would mess with Zetterberg’s beard!


I could become despondent over the fact that I’ll never have a beard like Hank Zetterberg’s. But remember what I said above? Lots of people tell me they wish they could grow a beard like mine, and some ladies’ husbands are indeed envious. To boot, it only takes me about a week.

Once upon a time I became frustrated that neither of my manuscripts landed me an agent or a publishing contract. I’d glance over the shelves at the bookstore, randomly picking up new novels and scanning the beginning pages. A lot of them were drivel, honestly. I’d grumble. I’d furrow my brow. My manuscript was better than this junk!

You may have had the same experience. Or perhaps you didn’t sell nearly as many copies of your self-published novel as you dreamed. “Darn it,” you’d say, “How come this other thing got popular? Mine is better. It drives me nuts that that one particular writer is more successful!”

But, guess what… You wrote a novel! And it was pretty good. On the planet Earth, how many people can make that claim? Not many. And you learned a lot, so much so that your next novel will be ten times better. You might not be the next John Steinbeck, J.K. Rowling, or Dan Brown, but you are already the first you. That is a worthwhile and unique achievement.


Writing advice: Personal quirks and preferences are not “rules”



If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I’m not big on writing rules… unless they are backed by evidence. I’m a science-brained person. If you tell me all writers should do X, please show me some stats.

I’m going to steal an example from myself: I while back I blogged about how so many experts say, “You must join a writing group.” In my post, I asked why. I didn’t say writing groups weren’t good for some people; I merely wanted evidence that being in a writing group increases my chances of publication or makes me a better writer. Because if it doesn’t, why must I join one? Statements aren’t proof of themselves.

Ok. In the world of science, it’s standard practice to back up statements with hard data. Since the goals of writers vary so much, and “better” isn’t a concrete measurement, let’s expand the parameters to include common-sense proof.

For example, agents often advise, “Don’t send a 10-page query letter. I’m not going to read it.” Read enough agent blogs and websites and you will see, again and again, instructions to limit your query to one page, or the equivalent in e-mail form. That should be enough common-sense proof that “Don’t send a 10-page query” is good advice.

Same thing with, “Keep your first manuscript under 90,000 words.” It’s a good, common-sense suggestion. Occasionally a debut novel will be a massive epic, but not usually. Go to Barnes and Noble and look at the new-authors display. Most of those novels are about 300 pages. Go back a month later, and a month after that, and you will see a pattern: 300-page novels. That new-authors display should be solid evidence that your 700-page manuscript will probably get rejected. The odds against being industry published are already dramatic, so why reduce your chances from almost zero to zero?

But then there are the “my personal quirk” bits of advice that writers, agents, publishers, and writing teachers dish out as if from a science book about the solar system: Jupiter is the largest planet. Venus is a rocky world roughly the size of Earth. All writers should use outlines.

What? If Neptune, Uranus, and Saturn joined to form a superplanet, then who would be biggest? Huh? Jupiter? I think not.

Wait, that isn’t the point I was trying to make. Where was I? Oh yeah…

What? All writers should use outlines? That’s not a fact, it’s a personal preference, yet I come across that claim at least once a month somewhere in the advice-o-sphere. The fact that Stephen King does not outline is ample proof that not everyone needs outlines. He became one of the best-selling writers of all time without them. If outlines make you a better writer, then use them, of course. Personal fact: I write better without outlines.

More science

More science

I can give a dozen examples of quirks masquerading as advice that alleges to make us better writers, but, given space limitations, I’ll discuss only one. It really grinds my gears:

“Don’t have characters using profanity. If your characters are swearing, it means you lack creativity with dialog.”

Since lots of really good writers—who are known for their dialog— depict characters swearing, this advice is not advice at all, unless it is prefaced with, “If you get hired to write the next Nancy Drew book…”

Not having characters swear isn’t more creative or less creative. It’s a preference. It might be an unrealistic one sometimes, too. If you write novels and stories about NYC homicide investigators or about angst-filled teens caught up in a world of cheap booze and homemade drugs, for random example, PG-rated dialog would come off as silly and tepid, as if you are trying to avoid offending anyone instead of telling the story the way it needs to be told.

Maybe the advice giver read a poorly written, cliché-riddled manuscript with lots of swearing and thought, “This writer is uncreative. Look at the dialog!” But could it be that, even if the writer had chosen a less-profane route, the novel would still suck? Maybe the profanity-laced dialog is smoke and mirrors. Maybe the problem isn’t that the dialog is dirty… it’s that the writer lacks skill.

Or perhaps the advice giver has a visceral reaction to profanity. Visceral reactions are organic and words are intellectual. That requires a lot of back-and-forth translation between our primal brain to our cerebral brain. That is, there must be a rational reason I was repelled by this dialog. I know! I am a writing expert, and I react to bad writing. Thus, cursing is bad writing!

Oops. I’ve reached my self-imposed limit (see, no plan). Talk to me:

This is the only time you will see the word “NaNoWriMo” on this blog. Ever.

Oscar the GrouchYou know I love you, right? I want you to write something brilliant, and I want you to love it. I hope it gets published and you become the next superstar author, to the degree that you can cut back to 30 hours a week at the office and still make payments on your Corolla.

It’s just that I’ve come to dread November every year. Throughout the 11 other months, I get to read great essays, poetry, and flash fiction as well as moving personal stories. I see inspiring photos and art. And, of course, I get amazing insights that, bit by bit, help me become a better writer. All generated by my fellow WordPress bloggers!

Then, in November, all that stops and my blog reader suddenly fills with post after post after post after post citing… word counts. 1200 words! 4000 words! 12,000 words! 23,000 words! 35,000 words! That happens for three weeks, followed by a fourth week of anxiety posts about falling behind schedule with word counts. Then three or four days of triumphant victory posts reporting that the 50,000-word target was met, or, far more likely, laments about the abject misery of failure.

Surely that’s the purpose of this event: to make you feel bad about yourself.

Yes, I understand people welcome the challenge, and they value the sense of accomplishment if they meet it. I get that it pushes people to stop procrastinating and start writing. But this event does not make for remotely interesting or enlightening blog posts, except, perhaps, to the compulsively supportive.

The event is a cool idea, but I’m not sure it leads to great writing as much as a frustrating sense of obligation amongst participants. And, frankly, shouldn’t a bunch of writers be able to come up with a less clunky and, at this point, less grating name for the thing?

oscar the grouch 2How about Novelember? 30 Days of Write? Word Turkey? Clock Back Word Stack? Hey, at least I’m trying!

Please, if these are fun times for you and you are bursting with enthusiasm to write and discuss, post away about your 50,000 word, 30-day adventure. Just don’t be upset with me if I hide under a rock and avoid everyone until it’s all over.

How about you? Are you eager to start word blasting? Are you secretly sick of the whole thing? Or are you thinking I’m just a grumpy old killjoy who hates to see others have a good time?

The Next Big Trend in Writing: Writing.


At your day job, are you expected to be the company’s top salesperson, best engineer, most effective receptionist, savviest IT technician, hot doggiest recruiter, speediest delivery driver, wiz-bangingest marketing and public relations writer, snoop-lionest accountant, whip-crackingest plant manager, and least-distractible assembly-line worker? If so, you won’t last long. You can’t be all things to all people.

So why are writers supposed to be?

I give writing advice; you give writing advice. Agents give it, editors give it, publishers give it. According to what I’ve learned, I need to do the following things if I ever expect to be published for money, followed by my estimate of how much time is required each week:

1. Build a social media presence

Hours per week: 50

Get thousands upon thousands of rabid fans to follow my blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates, despite that I don’t have a finished novel and, therefore, have no reason to expect such a loyal following. If I had a novel, I’d be querying it. That way, it could be published and I’d get some fans to follow my social media… um, wait a second….

2. Join a writing group and have lots of people read my stuff, and then do rewrites based on their suggestions

Hours per week (over 5 years): 3

Cool. This is my personal focus group. At three pages of reading per week, they should have heard my entire novel by 2018. I’m going to go ahead and do rewrites based on what they liked and didn’t like, because they represent everyone in the world. Multiply the 3 hours above by how many people are in my group, since they’ll all have different opinions and I’ll need a separate version for each one.

3. Read in your genre so you know your competition

Hours per week: 40

Cost per week, hardcover versions:  $54

Great. I’ll run to Barnes and Noble and spend all my gas money on novels by people who also write whatever it is that I write. After a few months, I’ll be broke and realize that everyone is using the same plot. I’ll get depressed and quit writing. That will free up lots of time. Oh yeah, I can’t forget to be totally different from all those other writers, but still kind of the same.

4. Be awesome at dialog

Hours per week: 23 of practice

Must write dialog that is authentic, snappy, relevant to the plot, gives depth to the character (but only if it’s relevant to the plot), and is tagged with the perfect blend of “saids” and “you should be able to tell who said it based on the character’s actions.”

5. Be awesome at plotting

Hours: 23 of practice

If you don’t have three exciting subplots, each of which starts with a non-gratuitous explosion, that twist together like a Celtic design and end up in a brilliant, dovetailing revelation, rewrite the whole thing. Because all published books have that.

6. Be awesome at using all five senses

Hours: 23 of practice

If your characters can’t smell the meteor coming, get busy with the rewrites!

7. Be awesome at characters with history, depth, detail, and complexity

Hours: 23 of practice

Make Tolstoy jealous with your character tree.

8. Read agents’ and publishers’ blogs and writing magazines to find out the latest trends and see what their successful clients do

Hours: 15

Be sure to put aside at least three hours to rage after reading the examples of successful query letters that not only don’t follow the advice the agent just gave but, frankly, need serious editing.

Time spent per week learning to be a good writer: 200 hours

Time left over to work on my novel:  minus 32 hours

Number of famous, successful novelists who did all these things well: 0

Writing Dialog, Part II

My darling Anastasia

My darling Anastasia

“Eric, are you giving more advice about dialog writing?”

“Yes I am, Anastasia. Don’t judge me!”

“No, Eric, please. I’m not judging you, Eric! I just wonder… ”

“What do you wonder, Anastasia?”

“Well, Eric. I wonder what you love more, me or giving writing advice. My love for you is so deep, Eric, yet I feel like you are shutting me out.”

“Don’t, Anastasia. Don’t say it.”

“But Eric!”



You’re probably thinking, now that’s a fine example of dialog. I’m so glad I clicked in here today. The sad truth is, you’re wrong. That is not good dialog at all.

Seriously, I can’t believe how of often I see name swapping in books. I read a novel last year written by a professor of writing at a posh private college in New York, and I only got 10 pages in before I started banging my head against the metaphorical wall of irritation and frustration. Every stinkin’ line of dialog included the recipient character’s name.

“Seth, don’t you think it’s time you came home?”

“I’ll come home when you quit drinking, Brad.”

“Seth, don’t you dare bring up my drinking when it was you who killed Mary in that accident.”

“Don’t, Brad. How dare you!”

How could a professor of writing think it’s acceptable to name swap? How did he get that job when he does not recognize such a basic flaw?

Knight? Or...

Knight? Or…

Think about the conversations you have with family, friends, co-workers, medieval knights, male strippers, and other people you run into every day. Better yet, listen to your conversations as you conduct them. How often do you say your counterpart’s name? Not very.

Here are the times we say the name of the person with whom are interacting: When we pass them in the hall at work, sometimes when we greet them for the first time that day, and when they are our children and they piss us off. That’s about it.

Here’s a much more realistic version of the exchange at the top. Let’s assume I set up the narrative so that we know it is Anastasia talking to Eric:

“Are you doing another post about dialog?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“What the hell? I was just wondering.”

“You were wondering what?”

“Well, since you’re being such a bitch about it, I was wondering if you even give a shit about me anymore. You pay way more attention to your stupid blog than you do to me.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s what’s happening.”

“It is! I’m a blog widow.”

“Knock it off. I’ll be done in five minutes. What’s with the drama-queen act?”

I wouldn’t leave eight consecutive lines of dialog untagged in an actual story, but I did here to emphasize the point of today’s post. Read the first version aloud, and I dare you not to imagine it’s from a soap opera. Then read the bottom version aloud, and you’ll start inflecting and adding emotion, because the pretense is stripped away and you can focus on the meat of the exchange.

If your manuscript doesn’t feel quite like a pro wrote it (or like a certain professor of writing in NY wrote it), strip out all the name swaps between characters. You’ll notice an instant, marked improvement in the realism of your dialog.


Please pardon me as I shamelessly plug my eBay auctions for the week.

Fans of ‘80s horror unite in bidding for the 11 horror-related collectibles I’ve made available, including the rare Fangoria postcard magazine, issues of Gore Shriek, a Japanese Godzilla book, out-of-print books about Tom Savini and Lucio Fulci, and a special Fangoria issue autographed by Alice Cooper. The auctions end between Sunday and Thursday. Hope to see you there!