Friday, February 16, 2018

How to Choose Good Writing Partners--Making the Process Less Trial-and-Error

They say it takes a lot of support to write a book--the process is long, hard, and personal for most writers.  We need encouraging words and people who believe in what we're doing, so we can keep doing it when the journey feels useless.  I know most writers who complete books gather a team of supporters by the end.  Supporters like writing groups, writing partners, or hired editors/coaches. I don't know many who get published without this kind of backup.
Recently I taught a week-long writing retreat in Tucson and two of the participants were returnees from last year.  Between then and now, they had been accountability partners via email, logging their progress with each other each week.  Not exchanging writing, but keeping each other on task via encouragement and support.  Another writer in the retreat talked about her two writing groups, formed after taking online classes--she had found a small circle of support that kept exchanging after the class was over.  Not surprising that all three of these writers were still moving forward with their books.  They'd found the secret of good writing partners.
Others aren't so lucky.  Even excellent writers, even published writers, can inadvertently fall victim to unkind feedback.   
One of my past students joined a writing group where an unknown writer was keen on giving feedback. The exchange looked promising, but the reader was of the slash-and-burn mentality, so even this skilled, experienced writer felt "yucky" afterwards.  She's strong enough not to stop her project, but I've heard stories of one bad feedback exchange devastating someone enough to quit their book.  That's a shame, and it's not necessary. But unfortunately, this happens more often than not.  
A bad feedback exchange is NOT a reflection of the value of your book.  Many times it's a marker of poor communication skills, or training that leans towards critical rather than supportive.   
In my book, Your Book Starts Here, I devote a whole chapter to getting and giving feedback.  Since support is essential, it's also essential to know how to take care of yourself and your book idea or manuscript, as it gets ready to be born.  
But how does a writer find a safe home for their work, at any stage?  Here are some tips from successful partnerships forged by students in my past classes.  They might be helpful to you, too, if you're looking for a writing partner. 
1.  Most said that the safest way to find writing partners is through online classes, where you can test out feedback skills in a moderated environment.  The teacher makes sure folks are kind to each other.  You get to see how the other writers respond.  Eliminate the ones who simply parrot the teacher's remarks, or say they just love the piece but have nothing more to add.  Also avoid those who give only "surface" feedback--spelling errors, for instance.  That's proofreader stuff and not necessary until you're about to submit to agents.  
Look for those who share original, helpful comments that make you think.  The comments might sting a little, but they don't flatten you.  Often, the best comments  are in the form of questions--that's the mark of a really superior reader, in my experience.  Questions open doorways for the writer. 
2.  Look, also, for gratitude in the partnership.  If a writer in one of my classes receives but doesn't thank the people who give her feedback, it doesn't bode well for future writing partnerships.  Partners who are good bets long term are usually very aware of and grateful for feedback.  They know how valuable it is!
3.  Look for consistency.  Does the writer post regularly?  Are they moving forward on their book, steadily? This is sometimes harder to assess, since some people in classes can show up to please or impress the teacher, not for themselves or their books. Some writers also feel more comfortable giving feedback than sharing their own writing--another danger sign. You want someone who posts their own work as often as they comment on others' work.  
4.  Always vet the partner with a sample before you begin.   Even if you know each other from class, share only a little outside, at first.  See how it goes.  Be prepared to say no thanks.  You HAVE to safeguard your work, no one else will do it for you, and you have the right to first refusal, even if it means making up something like, "Got suddenly busy, have to pass, but wish you the best!"
5.  Don't ask too much in the beginning.  If you're used to inline comments from class, you may need to start private partnerships with something easier.  People don't always understand how much time a regular exchange takes, and it can be harder to maintain without a class structure.  You want this partner for the long haul, not a short flash.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Writing Amazing, Authentic Dialogue--Hard to Learn, Vital to Know

Writing dialogue should be easy, right?  Most of us talk.  We text, we email, we use words in conversation all the time.  We listen (sometimes) to other people talking.  Dialogue runs through our thoughts all day, every day.  So why isn't dialogue on the page just a matter of listening well and copying down what we hear?
Literature has different rules than real life--obviously.  So dialogue on the page also has different rules than spoken dialogue.   
It makes sense.  What we read must present high stakes, tension, and not give it all away--otherwise, why would we keep reading?
Next week, I'm teaching an eight-week online class on writing authentic, amazing dialogue for fiction and memoir.  The class was born from a one-day workshop, which often left writers wanting more.  They understood the basic tenets of writing good dialogue but they wanted to practice, get feedback, and get better at it.  So the online class will cover both the mechanics of dialogue--how dialogue is created, crafted, and used; when it's not used (there are real rules about this!) and when it's most effective in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction books--and placement.   
Placement of dialogue is important.  Dialogue speeds up your story's pace.  It's faster than description, for instance.  But too much dialogue in a chunk creates the fast-train-ride that you may not want just then.  So dialogue needs to become a conscious tool in the writer's hands.

This week, I wanted to share one of the writing exercises we'll be using in the class.  It helps tune your ear to the essential difference between real-life spoken dialogue and dialogue on the page.  It also trains you to hear subtext, then begin to use it effectively in your own writing. 

Listening for Subtext 
In real conversations, subtext, or undercurrent, what's not being said, the meaning or emotion underlying the talk, is presented by visual aids:  gestures, a facial expression, looking away or down, movement.  It's also revealed via the setting around the conversation.   
Imagine a bad date.  One person is eager, the other totally turned off.  Although the conversation itself, the stripped-down dialogue, might stay polite, even pleasant, there are all kinds of visual cues as to what's really happening, right?
In writing, you don't have these visual cues.  You have to create them on the page.  You can use all the same tools (gestures, etc.), but even more important are the actual words you use in your dialogue.   So there are two steps:  learning to hear and see subtext in real conversations, so you get good at noticing this undercurrent, then learning to craft your dialogue so it's evident on the page.   
Here's one small example out of many of the craft skills you need:  Placing the reveal.  What's a reveal?  In dialogue, it's where people say what they really mean.  If you "reveal" too soon in your written dialogue, or say too much true stuff, you lose tension.  Why?  Because there's no subtext.  So "reveal" dialogue (where people really say what they mean) is reserved for special times in the written dialogue scene.
Another example of a craft skill we'll learn and practice:  Writing in "beats."  Beats are where people pause, interrupt, or change the subject.  That's increasing subtext, because it signifies an emotional shift.  Maybe the topic is getting too hot and the speaker shifts away from it abruptly.  Ever have this happen in a real-life conversation?  It's used a lot by novelists and memoirists to show the subtext.   But where you place a beat is the key to making it work.
In early drafts of a scene, we often work with the just obvious level:  text.  We're still telling ourselves the story, rather than bringing in the subtle layers.  We're writing close to real-life conversation, which is what most writers begin with.  There are few beats and the dialogue will often contain too much "revealed" information, at that early stage. 

In revision, we begin to craft it.  We get more subtle and we look at placement for the "reveal." 
I find it's helpful during this crafting stage to find a published book or story in your genre.  Turn to a page or two of dialogue that you admire.  Study where the "reveal" is placed, how much subtext you perceive, what kind of beats are present and where.  What's the placement of this dialogue in the overall chapter?    
It helps you build your listening and writing skills, but it takes time and practice.  Try it more than once, if you can.    
Your dialogue will begin to explore what's not being said--and that's where the true literary conversations take place.
If you want to try one of the online class exercises, I'll include it below.  It's an eavesdropping exercise that tunes your ear and eye to subtext.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Find a busy place to sit for a while with your writer's notebook and take notes.  Cafes are good.  Or bus stations or doctor's offices or airports.
2.  Eavesdrop.  Take notes on how people talk.  Write down all the jigs and jags of human speech.
3.  Pay attention to the rhythms you're hearing, how many times people interrupt or talk around the topic or use partial sentences.
4.  After an hour or so, or however much time you can spend, take what you've written and read it over.  Underline the best three lines, the ones that speak about something that not's being said.
5.  Using one of these, begin a freewrite for 20 minutes (no editing) for a scene from your book.  Write the overheard line of dialogue at the top of your page and start adding responses until you've crafted a conversation.
6.  Look it over.  Decide what's not being said (the subtext).  Is it a strong current under your characters' words?

And if you'd like to find out more about my online dialogue class, click here to be taken to the Loft's website.

Friday, February 2, 2018

How Do I Know When I'm Done? Five Stages of Writing a Book

A past student from my Madeline Island retreats emailed me recently with a great question.  It's one most writers struggle with:  How do I know when my book is actually finished?   "An overarching question I find more difficult," she says, "is whether it could ever be ready. Some things may not be worth the effort or the money. Is it better to pay someone willing to say yea or nay first or does that have to go together with sending it out for paid editing?"
There are five stages to writing a book, from seed idea to final revision before publication.  I think of them as gateways to the process.  If a writer can go through all of them, the book is probably ready to submit.  If you get stalled at any, know that you're not alone--I estimate only a third of writers who start book projects actually complete them.  But it helps to know where you are in the journey, so you can intelligently choose whether to go on.  
Five Stages
1.  Gathering stage:  When you start a book, you have an idea.  You sketch out chapters, or scenes.  You research.  You freewrite.  You do a rough storyboard, if you're into structure like I am (saving tons of time).  You may outline instead, or in addition to the storyboarding.  This is only a gathering stage, but it's essential to the process.  It allows you to explore, to really decide if you have enough for a whole book (maybe the idea is just a short story or essay or article).  A big gateway exists after the gathering stage, and not many writers make it through.  Structuring shows you whether you have a book--or not.  And some of us would rather not know.   
2.  Structuring stage:  At critical mass moment, when your gathered material becomes overwhelming, you either learn to structure or you hire an editor to help you see through the morass.  This is often when writers come to my class, Your Book Starts Here (online starts February 14, in person workshop on March 30, if you're intrigued).  Or they hire me to help them privately.  This is what editors at publishing houses used to do, back when I began publishing.  It's what takes your writing, however good, into a logical shape that a reader can follow.   
3.  First draft:  Once the material is shaped, you create your first draft.  Some writers do a draft before structuring, which is fine--as long as they know it's basically going to be a freewrite until it's structured for a reader's viewpoint.  I usually structure, or at least attempt to, first, to save time.  I've worked with hundreds of writers, some well published already, who don't know this.  (I don't blame them--we're not taught structuring in MFA programs or writing classes, normally.  It's the editor's domain.)  Your first draft should be about 60,000-90,000 words, depending on your genre.  It should have cohesive chapters.   
4.  Revision:  There's a huge gateway here too, probably the biggest and hardest one.  Most writers aren't trained in revision.  They need to hire an editor or coach to help them.  Revision is a LOT more than just refining sentences.  It double-checks your structure on three levels:  outer story (plot or information), characters' narrative arcs, and the sense of place.  You may be good at one or two of these, weak at the third.  Even though I've worked as an editor since the eighties, I still hire out revision help.  It costs too.  What you're looking for is a careful read-through, structure analysis (if you can get it), and suggestions for revising those three areas.  Your editor might come back with suggestions like:  (1) your plot falls apart in chapter 15; (2) I don't believe this character's motivation; or (3) I don't know where we are in time or place--your setting is not anchored yet.  These are hard to hear!  I know, I've been there for every book I've written.  Editors are gold, though, because they see what you can't see.
Many writers take an intermediary step before hiring an editor.  They attend classes on revision, to learn the basics.  Downside of most classes at revision stage is that you workshop only part of your manuscript at a time--a chapter, say.  If you go for a class at revision stage, try for one like Grub Street's Novel Incubator or Memoir Incubator (not revision stage for all writers but useful for whole-book perspective), or the Loft's year-long writing projects.  Classes do help hone individual skills, like dialogue or setting or character motivation.  But don't expect whole-manuscript help from a class.  Nobody is paid that much!
Other writers use writers' groups for this stage.  They are great, and I've used them too.  Again, you rarely get whole-manuscript revision help, since your groupmates read only chapters or scenes each time.  You can, however, make great writing connections in groups and classes, and from these, if you're lucky, come beta readers.  I coined that name, which means an early tester of your whole manuscript.  Beta readers are helpful in ways that writers groups and classes can't be.  You exchange manuscripts with them.  I always go through this step with my own manuscripts before hiring an editor; beta readers often catch problems I can fix before I spend money.
Revision can take years.  At some point, like the student who emailed me above, you have to decide if you're going to take the manuscript one more step, into submission.  You may not be sure, which is why I recommend both beta readers and a paid editor who will help you with structure and whole-manuscript review in the three categories mentioned above.   
A world about magical thinking:  Many writers, especially first-time book writers, believe that an agent will help them with this stage.  That used to be true--when I first was publishing in the eighties, my agent did just that:  take fairly unformed material and help shape it.  Also, the publisher's editors did this job.  No longer true.  Agents won't even glance at your manuscript unless you've done your utmost to get revision help.  One agent I know gets 400 submissions a week.  Unless the writing is tight, bright, and clean, it doesn't even get past her assistant's desk.  Don't count on an agent to bail you out. 
5.   Submission:   Why do writers decide to submit to agents or publishers?  It's the toughest gateway of all.  Maybe you want validation that the book works and someone else can see your genius.  Maybe you desire fame and fortune.  (I'm laughing a little at that one, because although I've published thirteen books, I've never made a living from any of them.  The advances were good for some, but not living-worth.  I won awards but I didn't get famous.)  Mostly, the reason I go through the agony of submitting my manuscript to agents and publishers is that I believe in the book.  I wanted it out there, in readers' hands, helping and inspiring others.  This has been my go-to reason for every book I've published.  
I also want the book to be the absolute best it can be, before I start this process, because it's a glorious feeling to read one of your published books, ten years later, and still love it.  So loving your book, given the incredibly tough publishing industry right now, might be s the most valid reason to approach this final gateway.   
Many writers, even well-published ones, are looking at self-publishing or partner publishing now, instead of traditional publishing, and using a publicist to help market the book.  This is less painful.  It requires an investment of money and time and energy.  But so does traditional publishing, these days.  You'll be spending your own energy to get your book read, no matter which avenue you choose.   
But bottom line:  Is the story worth it, to you?  There's an axiom in writing circles about the first book being the one that you learn on.  I understand this, because you might get to this fifth stage and decide, No, it's not worth the energy, the rejection, the cost.  That's fine.  You've learned a lot, you've come far.  But it's a very individual choice, not one another can make for you--not even all the agents you query that say no thank you.  Because agents aren't the final word as to whether your work is worthwhile.  You are.
I guess this would be my answer to the student who wrote me asking how to know if you're done.  Is the book something you'd like out there, in readers' hands, as it is now?  Would you be proud of it in ten years, if it were published?  If not, then scroll back to earlier steps and ask yourself which would be logical to consider.  Which you may have skipped over, telling yourself you didn't need it.  Or consider this book is your learning curve and you learned a lot.  And now you can move on to the next project.
The road to writing a book demands the same kind of--or more--belief in yourself and your purpose than a triathlete training for a race or an entrepreneur starting a business.  Books aren't easy to write, revise, and publish.  they'll take everything you got.  But they give back in many ways--the joy of achieving a dream, the light in a reader's face as she tells you how she stayed up all night, reading your book.

If you accomplish any of the stages listed above, congratulate yourself.  You've achieved something that few writers have.  Consider the next stage, what skills or stamina or tools you need to approach it.  Consider your belief in your book--is it still strong enough to carry you through?