Quick Fix: He Thinks, Therefore I Am

Before I launch into this edition of Quick Fix, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate this post’s title. I love a good pun, especially an obnoxious one.

One of my favorite parts of editing is learning how to write better and tighter prose. I’m interested in what every sentence accomplishes. In why we write the way we do. All of this applies in this example, which I see frequently in editing, especially in novels written in close third-person.

Close Third: He Thinks

Some writers have a tendency to add “he/she thinks” while in a certain character’s POV. Occasionally, this can be useful, especially when cycling quickly through multiple close third-person perspectives. In general, though, we don’t need the added “he thinks.” We are in his head, therefore every line is his thought and perspective. This is also true of “he hears” or “he sees” unless the actual act of hearing or seeing is the objective of the sentence.

Taking that a step further, we often see “he/she thinks” shortly before the writer moves into first person. Wait, what?

First person: Therefore I Am

The change from first to third can be effective, especially in showing a character speaking to herself. We all have an interior monologue. We do this in real life, albeit the other way around. For example, I think to myself, “you’ve got this, Kait.” I have moved from first-person (natural state), to second, to an address of name.

But, this should be used sparingly. “She thinks, I don’t know what to do,” for example. The move to first-person here takes you out of the POV and the character’s head without the necessary payoff. How does “she thinks, I don’t know what to do” improve upon “she doesn’t know what to do?”

Often, the second part of the phrase (“I don’t know what to do,” above) appears in italics. I’ve written about italics online before–and will likely do a “Quick Fix” post on them soon. If you’re moving from third- to first-person frequently, you should take a close look at your perspective. Maybe your writing would be more effective in first person. Maybe you should remain in third, but rephrase to keep POV consistent.

As always, writing and editing is subjective. But we should always consider why we’ve chosen to make a change like the one from third- to first-person, what it accomplishes, and if the emotional payoff of that accomplishment is enough to offset the disorientation of the reader.

 

Quick Fix: Conjunctions

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction” stuck in my head since third grade. People have a tendency to overlook conjunctions; like prepositions, they’re the boring (song exempt!) building blocks of our language. We usually don’t pay a lot of attention to them in writing and editing. But conjunctions help to make ideas flow smoothly. When conjunctions and prepositions are used incorrectly or oddly, they often alert me to an issue with the writing on a syntax level. I’m going to focus on just two conjunctions—”and” and “but”—in today’s post.

Please enjoy my simple examples I obviously put a lot of thought into!

“And” joins two related things

“And” appears everywhere in our writing. On a stylistic level, I love a repeated “and” to increase emotional intensity (“beautiful and lovely and smart” in lieu of “beautiful, lovely, and smart”) or the inverse with “and” eliminated (“beautiful, lovely, smart”). But “and” also serves an important function, especially when combining two independent clauses. Those clauses need to be related. For example: “She sat at her desk and the dog went to get some water.” This would be better separated into two sentences. They have two different subjects. Her sitting down at her desk doesn’t affect whether the dog goes to get water. Consider another example: “She sat at her desk and her eye caught the mirror.” This could be better rephrased as “She sat at her desk and caught her reflection in the mirror.” (Or whatever it is her eye caught.) There are lots of additional options to replace “and.” A semi-colon can be remarkably effective in connecting two phrases that don’t appear related on first glance. For the most part, “and” functions perfectly well and doesn’t necessarily need a second look. But if you do a search and spot an unusual number of them on the page, consider whether they’re working to their full potential.

“But” requires conflict

How many times did I begin a sentence in the last paragraph with “But?” I have no issue starting a sentence with a conjunction. It can be remarkably effective in creative, stylized writing—don’t quote me on formal writing! You should remember, though, that “but” must appear in opposition to something. For example: “she wanted to sit at her desk, but thought better of it.” This is particularly important when discussing competing ideas. They have to be in conflict with each other. “She loved him, but she found him spectacular.” These two things are not in conflict. Now, this is not a complex example of competing ideas. I see issues with this more commonly spread out over several sentences or a paragraph. When using “but,” make sure you’ve clearly identified the antagonist, as it were, earlier in the sentence (or in a close preceding sentence). Again, most people have a firm grasp on the use of “but,” but it never hurts to remain vigilant when editing!

If you have questions about pesky issues like these, please feel to suggest topics for this series in the comments below or on Twitter.

Quick Fix: An Editor’s Tips

After a long hiatus, I’m back to updating my blog and starting a new series: Quick Fix (thank you to The Huntswoman for the name).

In reviewing submissions and editing novels, I see the same small issues pop up again and again. We all have what I refer to as “writing tics.” In fact, I often end editorial letters to my authors with a summary of their most used. These range from overuse of “just” to POV issues signaled by italics to too many em-dashes. I myself am prone to too many parentheses; overladen, overwritten sentences; and repetition.

A large part of my job involves making good writing better. So how do you do that? Establish a voice, consistently apply POV, and eliminate redundancies, among other things.

Above all, good writing requires clarity.

The good news is, there are lots of quick and easy tricks to improve your writing. This series will provide a summary of what I look for as I read, along with issues that pop up consistently over the course of longer edits.

So let’s dive right in. 

Yes, No, Fix It So

“He nods his head ‘yes.'”

“She shakes her head ‘no.'”

Can you guess why I would flag these sentences?

The “yes” and “no” in these examples can and often should be eliminated. These are redundant. The “yes” and “no” are implicit in the action. You don’t nod your head “no” or shake your head “yes” in most cultures (I use “most” only because I don’t know what I don’t know; if this is a common practice in other cultures, please tell me!).

Peak/Peek/Pique 

An agent I work with posted something about this on Twitter the other day. Misuse of peak/peek/pique comes up all the time. I’m often guilty of it. I second-guess peak/peek all the time. But I’m most concerned when I come across a peak/peek used instead of pique. I don’t mind a letter mistake, but I do become concerned at usage that requires a different root and spelling.

All definitions (the most applicable ones) c/o Merriam-Webster:

Peak (noun)- 1. Promontory; 2. A sharp of pointed end.

(adjective) Being at or reaching maximum.

Peek (verb)- 1. To look furtively; 2. To take a brief look; glance

Pique (verb)- 1. to excite or arouse especially by a provocation, challenge, or rebuff; 2. to arouse anger or resentment in; irritate.

(noun) A transient feeling of wounded vanity; resentment

You see the difference? You reach the peak of a mountain or peak productivity. You peek around a corner. His comment piques your interest, which leaves your friend in a fit of pique.

In other words, you peek at the peak of a mountain, the height of which piques your curiosity.

We all make mistakes! I’m sure I’ve made a number here. We all could use an edit. Good writing contains mistakes; the best we can do is be smart about them. I hope Quick Fix will help you do just that.

Join me on Twitter, where I share more writing advice and publishing industry news.

On Keeping a Quote Book

Maybe it’s just my milieu, but just about everyone I know has read Joan Didion’s iconic essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” I keep many notebooks, which means they all have a different purpose, all spend much of their lives half-filled, and all fight for space in my (very heavy) purse or my (very crowded) shelves.

But of all of these, my quote book is my favorite.

It started as a Word document on my computer nearly a decade ago, a collection of lines I loved from the books I read for English class. The first entry came from The Sorrows of Young Werther. Later, full passages from Sense and Sensibility, The Virgin Suicides, and The History of Love. Movie quotes began to sneak their way onto the (figurative) page. I tucked these phrases away like a squirrel with an acorn, storing them for when I needed them most.

But as I added and reviewed and reread my Word document over and over again, it began to feel like I hadn’t taken all the care these words deserved. And so I started a quote book, painstakingly copying the lines I had collected over the years into a somewhat standard notebook I owned. I used colored pens, a different color for each source, my cursive loopy.

I am both careful and impulsive with my entries. I have added lines from movies, musicals, articles, even Tumblr I cannot get out of my head. I have included every phrase I’ve highlighted from a particular book read on my Kindle, even if I can’t remember why I called it out in the first place. There are months where I make a dozen entries; there are many months where I make none.

But I always feel better after copying those words down. Some of the quotes have begun to feel like old friends.

Sometimes, my quote book feels like an extension of my diary, an odd charting of my moods and ages, my successes and disappointments. Reading over some of my favorite passages take me right back to where I first read them; I recall my emotional response to them as much as the words themselves.

There’s a line from Almost Famous (which, conveniently I copied into my quote book):

“I always tell the girls never take it seriously, if you never take it seriously you never get hurt, if you never get hurt you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

I feel that way about my quote book.

Reading is, in my ways, a radical act of empathy. For a successful reading experience, you have to step outside your self and connect with someone else. Writing, too, requires the same effort. You never know what could resonate.

On a Kindle, you can see the phrases people highlight most often, which is sometimes fascinating and sometimes annoying. In either case, the underlining draws your attention. In a few cases, I wonder why anyone would mark that portion. Other times, I’m grateful other readers have pointed out a beautiful line I might have otherwise missed. It feels like cheating, like I am just going along with public opinion.

Mostly, though, I love that my quote book feels sometimes like a scrapbook of my life, all these past version of me accumulating into a whole. The lines I loved 10 years ago aren’t necessarily the lines I love now. I can see myself change, see myself grow, within these pages. I make sense of the world in words, and sometimes the only way I can work through a problem is by repeating the words of someone else. These lines are like a magnifying mirror, something that reflects your image in a way you might not have seen it before.

There’s something beautiful about having a physical manifestation of the things you loved, the people you were, the ideas to bolster you as you move on to other things. I have lines I can recite from memory and lines I can’t remember copying. Every so often, I’ll reread a book and find new phrases that knock me out. So I’ll grab my pen and write them down in the same color as the original.

I’m a big believer in everyone having a quote book. Not just because I am a person who loves to remember, not just because I have an odd fascination with the subject of permanence, but because I believe that words provide comfort, and I like to see how that translates and transforms as the years go by. I may not be sixteen any more, but I can flip to the front of my quote book and remember exactly what that feels like.

4 Quick Tips to Improve Your Writing

In my day job, I spend a lot of time getting into the nitty gritty of a writer’s prose. Here are habits I see all the time that can be easily avoided to strengthen your writing.

1.Prune adverbs

This is advice novice writers always hear. It’s sometimes mistaken for “use no adverbs,” which is not what this suggests. Take a look at your adverb usage and look for places where adverbs compensate for weak writing. For example, “she said softly” could become “she whispered” or “she murmured.” Make sure that the adverbs you use are necessary to your meaning. The same advice goes for adjectives.

2. Take a closer look at was + ing

The was + ing (was walking, was talking, was writing, etc.) can often be replaced with a past participle. Unless it’s vital to the understanding of a timeline, this should be rendered in past tense. Many ongoing and continuing actions can be understood in past tense. For example, “he was looking at her throughout the night” can become “he looked at her throughout the night” with little loss to the meaning.

3. Keep an eye out for stage directions

When writing, authors like to visualize a scene in their head, parsing it out step by step. But sometimes those steps aren’t eliminated in the revision stage. A reader rarely needs all the detail about a character that strides to the door, places her hand on the doorknob, turns the knob to the right, pushes open the door, steps into the room, swings the door back, and shuts the door. Use only what’s necessary for the story.

4. Make sure you know whose head you’re in

If you’re narrating in close third person, don’t slip into another tense or POV without reason. I see many authors writing in close third person switch into first person italics without considering the perspective. If we are in a character’s thoughts, we don’t need tags like “she thought.” In the same vein, “I heard someone knock at the door” is not as strong as “someone knocked at the door.”

250 Words a Day, One Year

In October, I wrote about my goal of writing 250 words every day for the entire year. It had come up as a project of mine for my “25 at 25” list, a manageable daily goal with big returns (91,000 words) by the end of the year.

A few weeks ago, I made my 26 at 26 list, and that 250 words per day goal is still there.

The problem is, I’ve hardly even started on my 26 at 26 list. The perils of creating your yearly list of goals on vacation. So far my word count has been minimal.

But to back up for a second to the first year of 250 words per day.

I didn’t manage 250 words every day. I strived for it, which made a difference. If I knew I had limited time one evening, I tried to make it up the next day. The goal did get me in a pattern of writing more often. As with anything that requires habit and practice, it got easier the more I did it.  By August, I’d written a 91,000 word novel, which fulfilled my yearly word count goal.

And then I kind of took a break. I edited the novel, which counted for something. But I got busy and fell out of the habit. I think I should feel guiltier than I do about it.

So I’m trying 250 words again this year. I’m not going to beat myself up if I skip a day or week, but it’s reassuring to have the goal there; to know that a little bit each day translates to big rewards by the end of the year.

On Writer’s Block

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My friend posted a status on Facebook asking for fellow NaNoWriMo participants to form an accountability group. I sporadically attempt NaNoWriMo– well, I do my modified version of NaNoWriMo, which really means that I cheat– so I scrolled through the comments. Someone mentioned that she had a great idea, but chronic writer’s block. Which got me thinking about how I might solve writer’s block on my own projects.

As I’ve mentioned rather recently, I try to write 250 words every day, which is one good way to keep going when you’re hitting the wall.

There are a lot of opinions about writer’s block. To oversimplify, the “butt in chair” school tends not to believe in it; the “muse” school does. My thoughts fall somewhere in between. I believe in writer’s block, but I think that timing can lie at the root of the issue. If you keep hitting your head against a wall, you start to ask “why?”

Sometimes an idea– even a great idea– is not yet ready. It needs to marinate for a little while longer. It needs another element. It needs a different narrator, a switch from first to third person, a plot twist, a transition from A to C.

I come across this problem all the time in my own writing. I’m a longform writer. I like novels; I like television. But even long projects come from a single germ of an idea. I once wrote a novel from a title. I’ve written from a line of dialogue, from an image, from a scene. I’ve finished these projects. But there are a lot of ideas I’ve had that sit in a notebook. I let them rest. Sometimes, another idea pairs with them down the road.

Here is how I write. Everyone has a different process; everyone should have a different process. (Additional strategies for combatting writers block that I do not use will be detailed below).

I need to know where a story is going before I get into it. I’m a planner, not a pantser. If I don’t have an outline for where the story is going, I get stuck, usually around the 1/3 or 1/2 mark.

When I have an idea I want to play with or a premise that I love, I allow myself to write 5,000 words with no guarantees. By the time I hit 5,000 words (which falls anywhere between 1 and 3 chapters), I force myself to write an outline.

I start slowly with novels. My word count per session grows the closer I get to the end. By then I know my characters, I know what’s happening, and I’m exhilarated by the final act. So while I write my 5,000 words, I’m usually jotting down notes. Plot points, scenes, characters, great lines I need to jam in somewhere. By 5,000 words I take a step back. I spread out my notes and figure out how to structure this novel. I make a chapter-by-chapter outline– not extensive, anywhere from one line to a paragraph about the action in each chapter or the problem it needs to solve–just something that I can look at when I get stuck. I don’t always stick to the outline; often, my best plot twists are the ones even I don’t see coming.

My brain thrives on structure. I like to think I can inflict structure on any chaos. Every time I start something new, I believe that my idea is so sound, it’s going to fall into place flawlessly.

A lot of the time, I fall flat on my face.

The outline has a way of pointing out flaws.

I’ll give you a couple examples.

  1. I was writing a YA novel about a girl who decides to carry out her dead sister’s bucket list. It pains me to admit that I thought this was a fantastic idea. The first two chapters flew out, but I started to get stuck on the third. I had some notes: characters to introduce, bucket list items to check off. Then I spent three weeks promising myself to write an outline. I couldn’t get past chapter five. I knew my three acts; I knew the climax and resolution of each one, but I couldn’t fill in the middle. I couldn’t come up with more bucket list items that would fit into the story. And after three weeks, I admitted that I needed to put it aside. I would have another idea. And I did.
  2. I’d been playing with an idea based on a short news article about a dead body in the LA River (which is not strictly a river). I wrote a great prologue/first chapter. Really. I remain immensely proud of that page. Then I tried to figure out the rest. I had a couple characters, some ideas for who this man was, how he ended up there, but it just wouldn’t gel. I decided to let it sit and hope that it would untangle in my mind. Months later, I had a breakthrough. I had the wrong main character; it needed to be told from two perspectives. I was energized, but as I tried to parse it out, I became stuck again. Someday, I think, it’ll work out. But for now I’m moving on to other things.

This is why I have a rule: if I can’t make an outline work after some serious effort, the novel isn’t ready. And that is okay. Ideas take nurturing. You have to trust them to grow.

I think that a lot of writer’s block can come from not being ready or from being scared. You need to know when to push through and when to rest.

Here are some other ideas for writers block:

  1. Try working on the most vivid scene in your head. Even if you’re working in order. The more you exercise the writing muscle, the more in shape you get.
  2. Write about your day. The logistics, thoughts, feelings, your plans for tomorrow. The story doesn’t need to spring from your imagination, but it will get your brain thinking about writing.
  3. Take a walk. Listen to music. I like to get into my Spotify Discover playlist. Go through a few songs. Sometimes I challenge myself to pick a random song and imagine a scene around it.
  4. Read a book. Copy down a page you really like. What do you love about it?
  5. Don’t write. Seriously. If you’ve been trying and hitting the wall for several days, take a couple days off, then come back to it. Sometimes taking a step back is what you need.

I hope this is helpful. Do you have any tips for combatting writer’s block?

250 Words a Day

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Photo from 2012, taken at my favorite table at Les Deux Magots

I am a person who loves lists. When I feel overwhelmed, I write down everything I need to do in 10-15 minute increments. It calms me down. Makes me feel like I am accomplishing something. Makes me feel like I have a plan.

Today, for instance, I wrote that I would work on this post at 8:15. So here it is, 8:15 and I am parked on the couch with my laptop.

I make lists for everything, but my favorite list is the one I devise every year for my birthday. New Year’s Resolutions have never worked for me; monthly resolutions seem short-sighted. But I wanted a way to track what I accomplished in any given year in line with my goals. I have one item for every year of my life. This year, I’m working on my 25 at 25 (I started this several years ago, inspired by this 101 in 1001). Most of the goals are arbitrary, and I usually figure out which during the course of the year (how important is it to me to visit every New York City borough? Do I really need to learn how to make five cocktails?), and if I’m really honest, I usually don’t achieve the majority of them. It feels like failing every March.

I have recurring items on the list; I just keep writing them down until they happen. I read a certain number of recreational books every year; I (try to) write in my journal weekly (I’m lucky if I manage monthly).

This year, I have a new addition as item two: to write 250 words every day. This works out to 1,750 words a week and 91,250 words a year. But the goal is to manage to get 250 words down every single day, no matter what.

It worked really well from March-June. Then I got busy in July, and I got tired in August, and overwhelmed in September. But it seemed fine, because from March to June of this year, I’d written about 50,000 words. I was well on track to my yearly goal.

I’ve always loved to write; like most people, I found publishing and editing by writing. But last year, I felt like I was struggling to get things down. Writing became a slog. I put a post-it up at my desk at work that reads, one word in front of the other. And I thought, if I can do that every day, I could easily write a novel-length project every year.

I chose 250 words because it seemed manageable. That word count is small when I can devote a day to working on a larger writing project (I’m partial to novels), but it’s something I can achieve even when I’m swamped with work. Even on my most blocked days, I can knock out 250 words in 15 minutes.

Somehow, I still fell off the wagon.

This month, I’m recommitting to writing 250 words a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s on this blog (can check that off today!) or in my journal or on one of my other two major writing projects. Writing 250 words a day is about discipline. It’s not really about how quickly I can knock out a project or how many words I can write in a year. It’s not even about writing anything good. It’s about sitting down and doing the work every day. Forming a habit. Making it essential. Making time.

Back in college, I took a creative writing class with Richard Powers. We had a meeting to discuss one of my stories in his office. He knew two major things about me: that I wanted to be a book editor and that I wanted to write novels.

He asked if I had a daily writing routine. I said I didn’t. I was a college student. I wrote when I had the time (which, in retrospect, was often). No, I didn’t write every day, but I could finish a novel project in a year. That seemed good enough.

The conversation nagged at me over the years. To do anything you care about, you need to prioritize, and you need to make it routine. So this year I decided to do just that.

I still don’t have the kind of daily writing routine he was referring to. I don’t write from 5:30-6:30 every morning or from 8-9 every night; I fit in my 250 words whenever I can. But there’s always my 26 at 26 (eek!) next year.

And if you have any tips for habit-forming, please let me know!