Category Archives: Novels
A couple weeks ago I discussed the concept of overwriting, the use of needless words in your writing. Having known about overwriting for years, it seemed like basic stuff to me. So I was stunned by how many of you told me you’d never thought about it before. I was even more stunned when I asked Twitter what to blog about today and RedParrot told me she’d like me to talk more about overwriting.
My goal has always been to help you become better writers, and since there’s high demand for advice on this topic, I thought I’d discuss a few more examples of overwriting to give you a better feel for it.
Last time we discussed overwriting I gave you a handful of specific words/details that can be left out of your work. Today I’m going to show you how to cut overwriting by showing the editing process I’ve used on one of my own stories.
To do this, I’ve grabbed the first paragraph from one of my currently-in-editing stories, Brothers.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been allowed out of the city twice, both times with my parents and a hundred armed guards to attend a wedding. Of course they were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army, whose job is to kill the undead—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had some freedom. They could walk down the hall, even out of the castle, without anybody watching.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been outside Moon Spire twice, both times with my parents and their guards to attend a wedding. They were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had freedom. They could leave the castle without anybody watching.
You’ll notice that the original paragraph is five lines, whereas the edited paragraph is four. How did I achieve this? When I could turn two words into one–such as turning ‘out of’ into ‘outside’–I did so. By removing the word ‘some’ from the second last sentence, not only did I shorten the sentence, but I made it stronger. Too many words weakens the sentence and distracts the reader from the point you’re trying to make.
I also took out some of the details because they’re not important to the story. This story has little to do with the Slayers, so it’s not necessary for the reader to know that they battle undead. When Jacob says he was jealous of Slayers for their freedom, saying they could leave the castle without anybody watching is enough. We don’t need any more details to know how constricted Jacob feels within the life he’s been given as heir to the kingdom.
If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that not all my changes shorten the work. In the second sentence I traded “the city” in for “Moon Spire”, which is still two words. Why did I do this? Because “Moon Spire” is more specific. It gives you a better idea of where you are–a specific city rather than just any city–and doesn’t use any extra words. Being specific gives your readers a better feel for your setting and characters, and is more important than shortening your sentences.
Applying this to your own work
To eliminate overwriting from your manuscript, start by looking for places where two words can be shortened to one. This includes contractions, but it also includes things like changing ‘next to’ into ‘beside’.
Once you’ve found all the places where you can turn two words into one, start looking for extra words and phrases. Words like just, very, some, and most words that end in -ly can be cut from your manuscript to make it stronger. Remove these from your manuscript whenever possible. Keep them only when removing them alters the sentence beyond recognition.
Even after you’re familiar with the concept of overwriting and you’ve ruthlessly cut unnecessary words and phrases out of a dozen manuscript, you’ll find that you still end up overwriting. That’s fine. Everyone does it. No writer is perfect, and that’s why nobody should ever send out a first draft. Your job is not to make sure everything’s perfect–it’s to make sure that you only send out the best possible work.
Where have you found instances of overwriting in your work?
I don’t often discuss the technical side of writing in depth, but after reading the self-published works that inspired last Monday’s post, I’ve decided to discuss the biggest problem I’ve seen in these novels: overwriting.
What is overwriting? There are two ways authors overwrite: with excessive details, and with particularly wordy phrasing. Even a perfectly spelled piece with flawless grammar can be made frustrating if the author overwrites them. It makes a book frustrating to read and in today’s fast paced society, most readers will walk away. I’m particularly forgiving of this if the story captivates me, but enough of it will make even me gash my teeth.
So today I’d like to discuss some of the things that can–and should–be cut from your writing whenever possible to make it easy reading.
Let’s start with the details:
1. Characters brushing their teeth. Or combing their hair, or getting dressed in the morning. These things should only be included if they’re used to add depth or move the story forward. For instance, if your character notices a giant bruise developing on their face while they’re brushing their teeth in the morning, that’s a good use of the scene. In fantasy settings, often the nobles have servants to dress them, and these scenes can be used for gossip with the servants to great effect. George R. R. Martin uses this technique often to pass information between characters.
2. Details of your setting that don’t matter to the plot. Festivals, events, street names and other details of your setting should only be mentioned if they’re important to your story. If you’ve spent hours creating your location or done months of research it can be tempting to include all the details, but that will bog the story down. Include only what is necessary to the plot. People don’t pick up a novel expecting a detailed tour of the city or town in question. They want a story, not a tourist guide. Some detail helps them enjoy the story. Too much irritates even the most patient reader.
3. Most flashbacks. There’s often a more efficient way to mention past events, and flashbacks should only be used when absolutely necessary. Unless you’re doing a story intentionally that starts at the end and shows you how the character got there, the best way to give readers a feel for the important parts of your character’s past is to mention them briefly and then expand on them bit by bit later. Make it a gradual thing rather than a flashback or a long winded explanation, and you’ll keep the reader’s interest more easily.
And some words that can almost always be left out:
1. Just. It seems like an innocent word, but while it doesn’t ruin your grammar, it’s often redundant. Think about these sentences:
He was just a little bit taller than me.
She lived just around the corner from the scene of the crime.
In both sentences just is grammatically correct, but does it need to be there? Consider these sentences:
He was a little bit taller than me.
She lived around the corner from the scene of the crime.
The sentences are now a little bit stronger and shorter without having changed meaning. Getting rid of ‘just’ might not seem like a big deal, but once they’re gone, you’ll see a big difference.
2. Then. This is one I’ve been ripping mercilessly from my manuscripts. Sure, there are occasions where it’s essential, but often it’s unnecessary, particularly when used after the word ‘and’. Consider these sentences:
And then she kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and then held it in front of her defensively.
Now look at these:
She kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and held it in front of her defensively.
Which sentences do you think are stronger? In the end, ‘then’ is just another word bogging down your work. Cut it whenever you can, especially when you see it after ‘and’.
3. Very. This is another unnecessary word. Take a look at these sentences:
The mansion was very big.
She was very angry.
Now consider these:
The mansion was massive.
She was furious.
By eliminating very and using stronger words, I’ve made these sentences shorter and more visual. Look for this word in your work and delete it whenever possible. Be ruthless. There’s almost always a better way to emphasize something than using the word ‘very’.
Exercise: Pull out a story/project you haven’t looked at a while and a highlighter. Highlight every excessive detail and every instance of just or very that you see within the first three pages. Count them, and then find ways to get rid of them. Remember that overwriting doesn’t make you a bad writer–almost all of us do it in our first few drafts. Editing may be painful, but it gives your work the best chance possible for success.
Just for fun, post how many instances of overwriting you found in your first three pages. For each reader who does, I’ll look through one of my old projects and count the instances of overwriting. Let’s compare numbers!
November is finally over and hopefully so is your novel. If you’re anything like me, that means you’ve spent half the weekend celebrating and the other half catching up on sleep, and now you’re getting ready to dive into your December projects. It means you have time to get back to all those things you were neglecting this November. It means you can slow down your writing to give yourself time to focus on those things–your friends, your family, sleep.
But how do you slow down without losing momentum completely? It’s hard–and the fact that I’m writing this post now, after having spent the last two days in a coma, is proof of that–but it can be done, even with the holiday season looming over your head with a thousand distractions. Over the nine years I’ve spent doing Nanowrimo, I’ve learned quite a bit about keeping some of that November momentum, and I thought I’d share some tips with you today.
1. Have a set to-do list for the month. In order to stay organized during December, you’ll need a list of things that you’d like to accomplish this month. However, in the interest of being able to write in January and taking into account the holidays, you don’t want this list to be too long. It needs to include just enough to challenge you without making you continue the break neck pace of November. My own list only has four things on it: finish editing Moonshadow’s Guardian, get all the content written for a free e-book I’m working on, write a query for a shorter project, and write a new short story. These goals are enough to keep me busy all month without drowning in the amount of work I have to do.
If you’re unsure about where your balance is, put less on the list than you’re naturally inclined to. It’s totally normal to think you can accomplish more than is realistic. So to find the perfect balance, write the list of things you’d ideally like to accomplish this month, and then cross two or three things off the list. What’s left over is bound to be more realistic than what you were thinking.
2. Have designated writing time. It should be easy to implement a writing schedule since your family’s already gotten used to the idea. My suggestion is to take half the time you spent writing in November and dedicate that to writing in December. This way, you’ll have a little more time for your family and other needs, but you’ll still have a set time during which you work on your writing.
3. Don’t take too many days off. Now that there’s no deadline looming over your head, it’s easy to miss days and to fill up your writing time with events or even just with TV. But once you’ve started taking days off, it’s hard to get back into the routine. While it’s a good idea to take some days off this month–say, for example, you might decide not to write on Christmas Eve–too many will totally destroy your discipline. This is most dangerous if you take several days off in a row.
Personally, I find that taking a couple days off doesn’t hurt my discipline, but if I take more than three days off in a row it instantly becomes a lot harder to get back into the routine. So I never take more than two days off, and even on my days off I try to write something–a short scene, a descriptive paragraph, whatever I have the time and energy to write. Make sure you don’t spend too much time away from your work this month, or you’ll find it much harder to keep a writing routine in January.
4. Plan your writing time. By this I mean not to plan what hours of the day you’ll use to write–that’s what #2 is all about–but to plan what you’re going to do with that writing time each day. During Nanowrimo it’s easy. Your goal is already set for you: 1, 667 words every day. After Nano, it’s easy to get sidetracked and start working on things that don’t really matter. To combat this, create a daily to-do list.
Your daily to-do list should include goals that help you complete your monthly to-do list and should be balanced so that you’re not over working yourself. For me a typical daily to-do list includes things like write a blog post, edit three pages of Moonshadow’s Guardian and brainstorm future story ideas. I usually find I can complete about 4-5 items in my writing time, more if I’m really focused or if I have nothing to do but write after I get home from school.
Create your own list by breaking your monthly goals into chunks and figuring out what you can do every day to get closer to those goals. Don’t create your lists too far in advance though–I find the best time to create my to-do list for one day is right before bed the night before. This way, you can account for the fact that you’ll have different amounts of writing time on different days. For example, my to-do lists are always shorter on Tuesdays because I go to my writing group on Tuesday evenings. Remember to account for whatever events you have to go to when creating your own list.
These are just a handful of tips to help you remain productive in December and beyond. While today I mention them specifically to help you keep your November momentum, they’re good tips to keep in mind at any time of year. And while this is what works for me, different things work for different people–don’t be afraid to keep trying new ways of managing your time until you find one that works for you.
Oh, and one more thing–congratulations, guys, you survived another crazy Nanowrimo adventure!
Today is the last day of November for most Nanoers, though some of our friends “down under” have already run out of time. For those of you lucky enough to have a few hours left of November, today is the last day to make a final push towards 50, 000 words or whatever your final goal for the month happens to be.
Of course, unless you’ve already made arrangements for it to do so, life probably won’t just stand still so you can finish your novel. I myself have a full day of school followed by an evening school trip to dinner and a movie premiere. This means that while I’ll probably be lugging around my laptop all day, I probably won’t get a chance to write until at least 9:30 tonight. Still, I am hoping to write a couple thousand more words before midnight hits.
So today, no matter what your word count is or what you have to do, I challenge you to write with me. In fact, I challenge you to find some time on this final day of November and write at least 1, 667 words. It might not get you to your goal, but at least you will be able to say you tried, that even on the last day you didn’t give up.
And tonight when the clock strikes twelve and November ends, give yourself a pat on the back no matter what your word count is. It is time to celebrate, because the only way to be a loser in Nanowrimo is to give up.
Tonight, I congratulate you, my fellow Nanowrimo novelist. You have survived Nanowrimo 2012 and hopefully come out of it with a novel–or at least most of a novel–and some new experiences and insights. Now, let’s hope the world doesn’t end before you manage to get the darn thing out into the world.
Usually in the first week of December I write a post discussing what to do when you’ve finished your novel. In the interest of organization and planning ahead, this year I’ve decided to write the post before November ends.
So what should you do after you finish your novel? You can do just about anything, but I have two main suggestions which I hope you’ll take seriously. The first is that you should keep your momentum from November. The second is that whatever you do, you shouldn’t start editing your novel.
Now, before you get all righteous and tell me how your family needs some love and your novel is horrible and needs editing like some people need heart surgery, let me explain what I mean. I don’t mean for you to ignore your family completely for another month. What I mean is that now, when your family’s already used to you taking some writing time out of every day, you should explain to your family that you need to write and create a writing schedule. Of course you can spend less time writing than you did last month, but the important thing is that you write regularly. It’s easy to fall out of the habit of writing regularly and to let your family distract you, but if you maintain a regular writing schedule, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you finish projects–and at how much better you feel.
Now, about editing your novel. The reason I tell you to wait is because to properly assess any piece of writing–or art, or just about anything else–you first need some distance from the work. Since you’ve just spent a month living and breathing your novel, you really won’t have that distance on December first. Instead, put your draft aside for the month and work on something else, preferably something quite different from your novel.
So if you’re not working on editing this novel, what should you be doing this December? Well the first thing is to pick up any other writing projects where you left off. This December I plan to finish my edit of Moonshadow’s Guardian; while there are several other projects waiting for me to get to them, this one is most important to me. Once you’ve finished those projects–or if you’re someone who really needs to have multiple things going so you can switch when you get stuck on one–start the project on your list of possibilities that is most different from the novel you just finished writing. For example, once I finish editing Moonshadow’s Guardian, I will be putting all of my energy into producing a non-fiction ebook with information and exercises for writers. This will distract me from my fiction, ensuring that when I get back into it I’ll have the distance I need.
Long story short, this December you should make a point of working on something new or finishing an old project totally unrelated to your novel, and you should make sure to work on this project every day. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish when you keep even a small amount of that November momentum and work at it every day.
Today is November 26th. If you’re like me, you planned to write a ridiculous amount of words this weekend, not only catching yourself up but putting yourself ahead, but life got in the way and your plans were totally ruined. Which means, if you’re like me and you’ve got a lot on your plate this week, you’re wishing there was another week in November. Of course, there isn’t, so you’re left with a choice: to give up, or to scramble frantically towards your desired word count, using every spare moment to write(which you should have been doing anyway, but I’m not judging).
No matter what your word count is or how busy you are, I’m here to tell you to go for it. While we all have our limits, you can’t know what’s possible until it’s done. I personally have written 50, 000 words in three days before. Of course, I didn’t have anything else to do on those days, but even on days when I’ve had other commitments I’ve managed to write over 10, 000 words–sometimes even over 20, 000 words. And certainly not everyone can replicate my writing speed, but you never know until you try.
So no matter what your word count is, this week I would ask you to try. Grab every spare moment you can and race to the finish line. In the words of Nike, “just do it”. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in a few short days, and remember: even if you don’t make it, you’re still a winner for trying.
Today’s guest is a long time Nanoer and a dear friend, known lovingly by the ToNano community as Tabs. Though she hasn’t actually lived in Toronto for the last many years, she is just as much a part of my Nano family as all the people who do. Please give her a warm welcome.
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It’s ironic that this year has been the hardest year for me with NaNoWriMo and yet here I am, writing a pep talk. But the thing with NaNo is that not every year is going to be your golden year. We’re rounding into the last week, which I always find is my toughest. I get frantic, I get upset, and as I look at my word count goal, I find myself feeling like I’m just not going to make it.
The last week is always tough. That’s why there are two things that you should focus on to get you through.
1) No matter what you finish at, even if it’s not the goal you set, you’ve likely been more productive on one novel in a single month than 90% of writers will be in a full year. That’s a lot to be proud of.
2) If you fall short of your NaNo word count goal, it’s not over. Sure, you’re not going to be pounding out 1667 words a day for the rest of the year, but the project doesn’t have to end on Nov. 30.
This is the point in the month where you need to look back at what you have accomplished and remind yourself of the great work you’ve done. To look at it and realize that you have done fantastic this far, and that, as much as reaching that 50k, 100k or whatever your goal is would be awesome, you’ve already done awesome. The last week isn’t the time to panic. It’s the time to focus your energy on finishing up the story as much as you can. It’s the time to breathe and cheer yourself on, because you have done something awesome. This is the week to make sure that, if you haven’t done so already, you have fun with it. Because really, when it comes down to it, that’s a major part of what NaNoWriMo is about — having fun.
So don’t give up, and certainly don’t give in. Keep on going, and focus on doing what you want to do with that story this week. It might just surprise you how much more you end up writing.
Whether it be due to your characters rebelling, your story shifting, your muse abandoning you or a dull ache in your wrists, at some point this month you will hate your novel. In fact, you’ve probably already had a moment like that. At some points during the drafting process–both inside and outside of Nanowrimo–you will be unable to look at your novel anymore. The key is to remember that these moments pass, prepare yourself to play catch up and then go off in search of something better to do than look at your novel, because staring at your novel at these times will probably give you the intense urge to delete the whole thing.
Today I’m going to suggest an activity to distract you entirely from the awful draft you’ve been working on all month, one that’s in keeping with my practice of productive procrastination, an activity that will keep you moving towards success as a writer while also distracting you from the less pleasant task at hand.
So what should you do when you can’t stand your novel anymore? Start planning future projects! Do you have any idea what your plans are for December? If not, now’s a good time to start making them. It’s also a great time to start setting your 2013 goals. By starting now you’re actually getting ahead, giving yourself more time to plan the next year than many people do. You’re also staying productive, even though you’re refusing to face your novel.
Of course, depending on whether or not you’ve already given this some thought, you might not want to start making to-do lists for next year right away. Instead, you might want to brainstorm future projects. One way to do this would be by creating a mindmap of potential project ideas. Another would be to create categories that sort ideas in terms of topic, genre or length.
When you’re choosing what projects you’re actually going to put on that list, first consider what you’re actually able to accomplish in a given period of time. Consider the obligations you already know you’ll have–school, work, childcare, that sort of thing–and how much time you’ll have after those. Then consider how much time each kind of project takes you. Once you’ve figured out an average time for each kind of project and you have an idea of the time you’ll have available, create a list of the projects you plan on completing in the time period you’ve chosen.
My advice when you’re creating a plan, whether it be for a month, a year or a day, is to plan for two thirds of the projects you want to complete. Humans are over confident and that over confidence leads to over commitment and a cycle of procrastination and guilt. Life is also impossible to predict or understand completely, so leaving some room for error is always a good idea–this way if a family catastrophe occurs or you come into a new project you never expected, you have some leeway.
In December I’ll be talking a lot more about creating your plans for the next year, but right now, if you can’t stand your novel, the best thing to do is get ahead by planning out your 2013 now. When December comes around you’ll be happy to find yourself already prepared with the beginnings of a plan–or a detailed plan, depending on how much you hate that novel right now.
At my best, when I took this challenge, I reached the 10K easily. The first two or three times I did it, I wrote a little over 12K in the four hours I had been assigned.
This Saturday, I devoted four hours as fully to writing as I was able–and I wrote 8.9K. I’d already been feeling slow this year, but this challenge really brought it home for me. I just can’t keep the pace I used to.
So what changed? It’s not that I became a slower writer. I still type just as quickly as I did then. My story is falling from my fingertips as easily as any novel ever has–maybe even more easily at times.
What changed is not my typing speed or my level of inspiration. It was the condition of my wrists. I’ve struggled with tendonitis in my wrists for several years, but this year the amount of pain peaked after March break, when I spent a week in so much pain that I could barely lift a small bottle of Dr. Pepper. In June I could barely write a page by hand without tears forming in my eyes from the pain.
I spent August with my left wrist–where the pain is worst–in a splint all the time, and I have been splinting when I sleep ever since. While the pain is certainly not as severe as it was in June, some nights it takes all my energy just to write a thousand words, and I find myself having to take more breaks. Once upon a time I could easily write for four hours straight, my only breaks being when I got up to refill my glass. Now I find myself having to take several breaks in those four hours, even after taking painkillers.
What does this mean? It means that I’ll probably never be able to write 300, 000 words in a month again. It means that until my wrists recover–and I don’t think they’ll ever fully heal–I’ll be extremely limited in how much I can write on any given day, and some days I will not be able to write at all. It means that when I’ve worked myself too hard, I’ll know because of the blinding pain in my wrists. It means that some days I’ll have to be careful how I open doors, because if I do it wrong I’ll hurt myself.
And why am I telling you all of this? There are a few reasons. One is to show you why it’s important to take care of yourself. If you start doing regular wrist stretches and invest in a heating pad and a cold compress for when you overwork your wrist muscles before you have tendonitis or carpal tunnel, you’ll stop yourself from developing these issues. And if you do have tendonitis or carpal tunnel, remember to care for yourself so it doesn’t get worse.
The other important reason why I’m telling you this–other than that it’s good fodder for blog posts–is because my failure to hit 10K in four hours means I will be trying this challenge again this Saturday. This Saturday from 2-6PM, I will be trying again to write 10K in four hours. I’m determined to stay focused this time and more determined to prove that I have not been completely conquered by tendonitis.
Of course, since I’m doing the challenge again this weekend, you’re all welcome to try with me. Pick your own hours or write with me in spirit, it’s up to you. If you participate, just leave your username and word count achieved in the comments on this post and you’ll be recognized on my blog.
On account of this being more difficult than I remember, I am changing up the list a little bit. It will now be two lists: one list of those who succeeded, and another list for all those who tried. Just like when you attempt Nanowrimo, failing to meet the official goal doesn’t make you a loser–in fact, you’re a winner just for being brave enough to try. So I’ve decided that everyone brave enough to attempt writing 10K in four hours will get a place of honour on my blog. I’m also hoping this will encourage more people to try, because it’s always more fun with a bigger group.
So, do you think you can write 10K in four hours?