Three steps to immortality:
- Skip the clichés.
- Use your own words.
- Live forever.
Author Thomas E. Ricks recently penned an interesting article in The Atlantic detailing the intricacies of the author–editor relationship as he wrote Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom.
Over our Caesar salads with sliced steak, I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. “Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,” he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, “Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.”
Whether you’re familiar with the writing process or not, this piece is a great read.
The next surprise, about three weeks into this process, was coming to realize, over the days of thinking about it, that Scott’s criticisms were spot-on. I saw that if I followed his suggestions and revamped the book, with a new structure that emphasized biography and told the stories of the two men chronologically, the book would be much better. I emailed a note to Scott. “You are right,” it said. This wasn’t so much an apology as the beginning of the next phase of work.
“Only a good writer would be able to say that,” he graciously responded.
You can read the article in its entirety here.
Use those few minutes before a meeting starts, standing in line at the supermarket, and waiting in the doctor’s office. Instead of watching TV or checking social media, write. All those micro writing sessions add up to pages, which add up to chapters.
There are many overused story openings that you should avoid at all costs. Several literary agents, acquisition editors, and publishers have written about this, but here is a short list of the most annoying and disliked ways to start a story.
Do not open your story with:
Get your characters out of bed already.
Nonfiction authors have the benefit of being real-life narrators, yet they often remove their own personality from their books.
When writing a nonfiction book, use your own voice. It should be a voice of authority about the subject and a voice that matches the tone of the book.
J. K. Rowling’s advice about protecting writing days is fanciful. Days? How often does the average writer get a full day just for writing?
Work, school, and family obligations keep most writers I know from ever enjoying so much as half a day to themselves. However, Rowling is correct in using the word “ruthless”; writers need to be unflinching when it comes to their writing time.
In order to manage whatever writing time you get, you must set boundaries.
It’s important to let anyone who might overstep those boundaries know what you expect during your allotted writing time. Your family and friends need to know to leave you alone. It helps if you can be specific. Saying “I’m going to write for an hour” instead of “I’m going to finish this scene” might actually result in an uninterrupted hour of writing time.
Let go of the guilt
When you have a stretch of time during which to write is when people will most want to spend time with you. This is an unexplained phenomenon similar to what happens when you sit down to read.
Write first and spend time with them later. It’s nothing to feel guilty about.
Don’t sabotage yourself
Sometimes getting other people into the habit of respecting your writing time is easier than getting into the habit yourself.
Don’t answer the phone thinking you’ll be able to get off the call in a few minutes. If you went to a coffee shop to write but did more people watching than writing, don’t go there again. Turn off the TV.
Time management starts with saying “no”; drawing boundaries is more like saying “not right now.” It’s the crucial second step to having enough time to write.
The beginning of your story is meant to be an induction to the rest of the story as a whole. Your job is to hook your readers from page one and give us a taste of the rest of the book.
I recently performed a developmental edit on a well-written thriller. In the opening scene, the protagonist is hiding in a closet and listening to the sounds beyond the closet doors. She is eventually discovered and makes a break for the exit. Throughout the book, the protagonist does a lot of traveling and encounters many dangerous people, but the book starts with her stuck in a closet.
How could the author make the first few paragraphs representative of the entire book?
My suggestion was for the author to show us the survivalist we come to know in the book. She is resourceful and lively, cautious but daring. By showing us a character who searches the closet for weapons, devises a plan or two, and moves as stealthily as possible, we’re able to see the gumption and intellect that will aid the character throughout the book.
Now when she makes a break for the exit, we are cheering her on and hoping she escapes. We already like her because we already know her.
You’ve made a new year’s resolution to get that book done. So, let’s do it.
Every Monday for the next two months I’ll offer a time management tip that will change your behavior and the behavior of those around you, resulting in more time to write. Be warned: these are going to be succinct, useful, and harsh recommendations.
Time management tip #1: Say “no” a lot.
Once you start a new project, excuses will keep you from working on your new venture. By “excuses” I mean people you think you must please and events in which you think you must participate. Take this week to say “no” and realize how many time suckers are lurking in your life.
Why we say “yes”
We often say “yes” to events because we feel like we might miss out on something. Keep saying “yes” and you’ll miss out on writing a great book. We also say “yes” because we don’t want to disappoint anyone, no matter how many times they’ve disappointed us. Instead of letting other people down, you let yourself down. Over and over again. Stop it.
What happens when you say “no”
People might be miffed, but you’ll have written a killer scene, so what do you care? Those who care about you will admire your dedication. Those who get mad and stay mad were never planning to read your book anyway.