2014 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers

After a beautiful week off celebrating Christmas with loved ones, I am sitting down to work on my novel, which I haven’t touched since mid-November. Did you find it difficult to squeeze in writing time over the holidays?

Often we feel like we can’t work on our book unless we’re locked away in our room, with no conversations or plans to distract us or tempt us away from the task of concentrating and putting everything we have into one book.

This time, I don’t feel like it’s difficult to get back into the story. I don’t feel that dread you get the night before you know you’re going to have to trudge through the mud that is trying to re-absorb and remember the details of your story so that you can actually work on and improve it. (It’s no coincidence that sentence felt long and difficult to get through – just like that first edit.) What’s different this time? Confidence. Excitement. The last time I worked on my story, I deleted entire scenes and moved big moments closer together – and it paid off. I felt it when I re-read the first few chapters. And I felt it when Team Tweak emailed me back their enthusiastic response.

So do yourself a favour this year. Is your New Year’s resolution to publish your novel? To finish it? To start it? Let 2014 be your year. Here’s how.

2014 New Year’s resolutions for writers

  1. Write. Now. Don’t wait until 2014! That’s how you end up with that horrible dread and lack of confidence the night before your first big editing day. Take bite-sized chunks. Start with reading this post, then opening up that file and reading a few pages of your book to get back into your world. Then put it away. Or, at least, tell yourself you’ll put it away and continue another day – but maybe you’ll find you’re so into your own story that you’re ready to work on it now. You might surprise yourself with how wonderful it feels to be back.
  2. Make a plan. Is your goal right now to finish your book? Or to read over the complete draft and improve it? Or to find someone to publish it? You need to know where you’re going before you jump into this again.
  3. Write down what you’re going to have to do to get there. For instance, I’m reading over my latest draft and improving scenes that I didn’t get a chance to look over since Team Tweak sent suggestions for them. My book has matured so much and it’s just about ready to go out into the world. So my “steps” right now involve re-reading and tweaking. Your steps might be similar, or perhaps you’re at the querying stage (we can help you learn how to write a query letter). Perhaps you’re looking for some feedback (check out Team Tweak’s critiquing service). Or maybe you just want to get past writer’s block. Whatever stage you’re at, Team Tweak is here to help – and making a list of baby steps will help you get there.
  4. Hone your craft. Meet other writers. Get excited about writing again. If you live in the GTA, take advantage of Brian Henry’s workshops. Team Tweak met at one of these helpful classes and since then, all of us have found that our stories have reached new heights. We can vouch for this!
  5. Believe in yourself. KNOW that your book will be published, or finished, or whatever you want it to be. And TELL people. Since I’ve started my Christmas vacation, a couple friends have already asked me how my book editing is going. It feels great to know friends are interested and supportive, and it also helps keep you on track!

Happy New Year from all of us at Team Tweak!

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Team Tweak’s Tips: Writer’s Block and Empathy

It’s been a busy week, but the weekend is finally here. Friday night, while everyone else is out socializing, you’re at home with your True Love: writing. You have adventures to take your characters on, worlds to build, relationships to develop … And then nothing happens. Your cursor blinks at you, and you blink back. Riveting stuff!

The Great Enemy has come to your door. Writer’s block.

writer's block

But … is it an enemy? Or is it a warning sign? Your body feels pain and fatigue when you’re doing something you shouldn’t. I suspect that your creativity feels writer’s block to let you know when something isn’t right.

This can be as a result of other things, but today I’m talking about empathy, how important it is to writing and how sensitive it is. And how your writing can suffer if you’re not careful …

Character-driven writing requires empathy. As writers, we step into the shoes of our characters, know what they’ve done and what they’ll do, understand their motivations, know how they’ll react … And it must be consistent. Not only that, but we do it for Every. Single. Character. Whether they’re a major player, the cashier at our protagonist’s favourite shop, or an elderly gentleman waiting on a bus bench.

Several much better and more experienced writers have spoken on the subject. Here are a few examples, though there are many more out there:

http://thewritepractice.com/empathy-story/ “Why Empathy is the Key to Story”

http://crimsonleague.com/2013/06/08/creative-writing-and-empathy-how-writing-fiction-helps-you-connect-with-others/ “Creative Writing and Empathy”

http://www.tayarijones.com/on-writing-with-empathy/ “On Writing With Empathy”

What I want to talk about is one of the down sides to this requirement.

I recently visited my hometown to spend time with friends and family. My husband and I spent two weeks with three or more social engagements each day. Prior to our trip, I thought I would have time in the evenings or mornings to work, but no such luck. I sat in front of my computer, completely incapable of connecting with the story. It took me a few days to figure out why: The empathic muscles I would use to write were being used to socialize.

I would call this empathic overburdening. In a social situation, I try to empathize with the people I’m with, much like I would with my characters. How is my friend feeling? What would make my grandmother feel better? How can I bluff and win this board game? By the time I got home, I couldn’t empathize my way through a wet paper bag.

After making those observations, I have this advice to give: If you’re having trouble writing—in particular in the arena of character development—then I recommend reorganizing your time and giving yourself the mental space to work. If your muscles are working overtime trying to keep up with a social life, you may not be giving yourself the chance to understand and channel your characters.

If you’re experiencing writer’s block, this can be a factor. Take a look at your life–does it support your writing aspirations?

Like grammar, dramatic tension, plot points, and all the other tools, time management and understanding the space you need for writing is just as important!

Carver’s Cuts: Part Two

Here we are again, with some of those pesky critters found while going through an intensive editing process. Keep an eye out! These words can potentially weaken your writing.

As always, if you’d like to add some words or discuss the ones I’ve listed, please leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Feel / Felt / Could feel, etc:

I know I’m a perpetrator, but I actually see a lot of other writers doing this as well. Once I noticed it this became a definite Pet Peeve (I have kennels full of peeves, honest). For me, the issue is that you don’t need to say that your character felt something, not unless your character usually doesn’t feel things, or the fact that they are feeling it is unusual or noteworthy in some way. For example:

No: “Tara felt a cold wind, making her shiver.”

Yes: “A cold wind made Tara shiver.”

Yes: “Although everything seemed perfectly still around her, Tara felt a cold wind, making her shiver.”

I suppose it’s a question of passivity … If you’re describing something as an experience, you could throw in as many “feels” and “felts” as you’d like. But I’m beginning to join the school of thought that every action has a perpetrator, and actions will be more immediate and engaging if described from the “point of view” (sort of) of that perpetrator.

Other senses:

“Feel” and “felt” were the big ones for me, but what I said above goes for the other senses as well. You don’t need to say that your character saw or heard something, you can just describe the sight or the noise. The fact that you’re describing it is a strong indicator that your character observed it. Exceptions to this would be when the sensation is unusual in some way, or if the narrator is third person omniscient and you need to specify what your character can and cannot observe.

Started / Began:

Unless the fact that they started to do something is extremely important, I do not recommend using these words. They take up space. For example, is there a difference between these two sentences:

Example A: “Tara started walking to school. Upon arrival, she grimaced at the sight of so many brand name jeans.”

Example B: “Tara walked to school. Upon arrival, she grimaced at the sight of so many brand name jeans.”

I suspect that I (and maybe we), use “began / started” because we are watching our narratives unfold as we write (I believe that’s called “Seat of the Pants” writing). When our characters begin an action, we don’t know if they’ll be interrupted right in the middle. So watch out!

Carver’s Cuts: Part One

Every time I do an editing push, maybe taking a few days to read over this or that novel, I inevitably notice one more chronic issue that drives me nutty. I don’t know where they come from. I swear they just grow whenever I put my manuscript down. And then editing is like turning a log over. Lots of squirming things and me going, “Eek!”

Loooooog

Sure it looks good, but what’s underneath?

As authors, it’s our job to cut out these little many-legged critters. Today I’m starting a series of posts called “Carver’s Cuts,” and I’ll be talking about those unnecessary words that bore holes in our manuscripts. Not to say they aren’t good words (is there such a thing as a bad word?), but that they might pop up a little more than is absolutely necessary.

I hope this is as helpful to you as it is to me. I’ll be back next week with another set. And if you can think of some that you find in your own work or prevalent in our www dialect, or if you have a different opinion about the ones I’ve listed, let us know!

  • Managed: I don’t know why, how, or when I started doing this, but I stick this word everywhere without realizing it. It’s always, “I managed to do this, he managed to do that, she managed not to use ‘manage’ in every single sentence …” Really, the number of times you need to put “manage” in front of an action should be absolutely minimal, otherwise you’re watering down your text.
  • Just: Again, I don’t know how, why, or when I started to do this, but my characters apparently “just” do this, or “just” do that. Reading through my own work turns my vision red sometimes, because there are so many of them and they are completely unnecessary 99.9% of the time. The only reason you might need “just” is in a comparative situation, such as, “Tara wasn’t hungry, she just needed the comfort of peanut butter garlic toast.”
  • Tried: Exactly like “managed,” I found myself using “tried” far too often, so I made a pact with myself. I would only use it if a character tries and fails to do something. Even then, only if the narrator is inside that character’s head and we know for absolute certain that they are trying (though in some ways, all characters are trying for their authors /rimshot). Like so many of my other unnecessary words, “tried” merely watered down my text.

Team Tweak’s Tips: Writing Queries

So you finished writing your first book and now you’re ready to send off that query letter. But wait! Before you start writing, have you done everything possible to give your book a fighting chance to make it on the shelves?

You poured your emotions, time, and sweat into the work of art you have created so why shouldn’t you give it the best chance possible of getting published?

I have put together some of the dos and don’ts for writing a query letter. I am definitely no expert and this is certainly not a comprehensive list but I am passing on the tips and knowledge that I gained from attending Brian Henry’s seminar, browsing through hundreds of websites, and, of course, not forgetting the advice and input from my writing buddies and editor friends.

Before you start writing your Query Letter:

  • Get someone to read over your manuscript.
  • Check your story for correct grammar, sentence structure, etc. You get one chance to pitch your book. Make sure you give it your best shot.
  • Do your research and make a list of the agents/publishers accepting manuscripts in the genera you are writing?
  • Confirm if the agent is accepting submissions by email or snail mail. For example, most agents do not accept attachments and prefer the query letter and sample chapters pasted in the body of the email.
  • When sending your query via email it might be wise to include the word “Query” in the subject line. Some agents have a filter set on their email and if the email has attachments or does not have the word “Query” in the subject line, it might go straight into their junk folder.
  • Follow the instructions exactly as given by the agents on how to submit your query letter. If an agents says to send the first 5000 words of your story then send only the first 5000 words. This shows that you have done your research and you can follow instructions.

What to include in the letter:

  • Your name and the title and genre of your book on the top left.
  • The Agency and Agent name below that.
  • Unless stated otherwise, greet the agent by their first name.

For simplicity, the following format makes the most sense:

Divide the letter into four paragraphs:

  1. The first paragraph introduces your book, including word count and what category your book falls into. If it is a series, mention it. You might want to compare it to other books, if applicable.
  2. In the second paragraph include a summary of your book. Sometimes it is hard to sum up 50000 words into a one paragraph. Try summarizing your book into one page, then use the elimination process to reduce it to few paragraphs, and then to one paragraph.
  3. In the third paragraph talk about yourself. Mostly, showing the agent your writing abilities. Maybe a course you took or a writing workshop you have attended.
  4. In the fourth paragraph thank the agent.

You have sent of your Query Letter. Now what?

Most agents are pretty good at responding within the time frame they state on their websites. If you don’t hear anything after that time has lapsed then, unless the agent has specifically stated for you not to follow up, go ahead and send another email asking for an update on your Query.

Finally, don’t give up. Just keep improving your skills and believe in yourself. Go to writing workshops, join writing groups, and keep learning and writing.

A wise man said: Getting your book published depends on three factors: Luck, luck, and luck. But who makes your luck?

Answer: You.

Team Tweak’s Tips: Hanging Loose With Modifiers

Dangling Modifiers

“Josie saw the rain clouds walking down the street.”

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” – Groucho Marx

Hopefully reading the quotes up above made you smile, giggle or even roll off your seat, doubled over with laughter. If you find yourself rather puzzled as to why, then keep reading (but keep reading anyway, everyone!).

The quotations posted above are examples of dangling, or misplaced, modifiers. What is this newfangled notion?

As you probably already know or can tell, “modifier” is a term that refers to words or phrases that describe something or add information to something. Modifiers can be adjectives, adverbs, phrases or clauses. A dangling modifier is one that has been placed incorrectly in a sentence, so that it can’t connect to the object it’s supposed to be describing.

So Groucho Marx’s “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas” could technically mean that Groucho shot an elephant who was wearing Groucho’s pajamas. Most of us read this sentence and think, “Well duh, he means that he was wearing his pajamas when he shot the elephant.” The meaning may be obvious here but that’s not always the case; plus, when you’re submitting a manuscript, you want your grammar to follow the usual rules, right?

Here are some more examples of dangling modifiers:

“Covered in a delicious layer of frosting, he wasn’t surprised when he found out his best cupcakes had won the competition.”
(OK, that’s weird, the guy who baked the award-winning cupcakes is covered in frosting!)

“Small, round and ugly, Nancy thought the baby was anything but cute.”
(If Nancy’s so unappealing, then why is she so ready to judge a baby based on its appearance?)

Usually, it helps to place the modifier next to the object it’s describing. As others have said, “Modifiers are like teenagers: they fall in love with whatever they’re next to.”

So: “He wasn’t surprised when he found out his best cupcakes, which were covered in a delicious layer of frosting, had won the competition.”

Keep a close eye out for dangling modifiers; your brain will be quick to correct the meaning of one so you might not even notice it. But an editor will! Plus, dangling modifiers are just so much fun to read and find.