The Ruthless Side of Storytelling

Ira Glass is one of the most recognized voices in radio. He’s the man behind This American Life, which has landed no fewer than six Peabody Awards, among other accolades and nominations. Glass has spent the last 30 years of his career as reporter and host for numerous NPR programs and was nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming. He is known for his thoughtful, relatable stories and was acknowledged for setting the aesthetic standard for nonfiction programming in both radio and television when awarded the Edward R. Murrow award. What is it about Glass that captivates audiences so effectively? Let’s take a look at two undervalued bits of wisdom from this four-part interview shared on YouTube.

1.      Finding the Right Story

 

“Often the amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story… if someone wants to do creative work, you have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories.”

–Ira Glass

 

Did you hear that? Just as much time needs to be set aside for finding the story for TV or radio. Maybe not in exactly the same ratio, but this counsel is so relevant and necessary in the lives of so many writers, both fiction and nonfiction. It takes time to really find the right story to tell, and it’s important not to be discouraged every time you hit a dead end. That’s just the way this works! Ira admits, “between  half to one-third of everything we try, we go out, we get the tape, and then we kill it…I think that not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” I’d like to add that this time spent on odds and ends that don’t pan out is not time wasted. All of that work, every interview, paragraph, and character sketch is just making you better at what you do. It’s an essential part of the creative process.

 

“… failure is a big part of success… you’re going to run into a ton of stuff and it’s going to go nowhere, and you should be happy about that.”

–Ira Glass

 

Why would we be happy about that? Because it means we’re doing it right. You have this lightning bolt idea, but toss it around, do the research, spend some time on it, and ultimately realize there are some key flaws and it’s not going to take shape the way you need it to. It’s okay to let that idea die! There’s a reason the age-old adage, “kill your darlings,” never goes away. It’s just a fact of creating good art. The key is knowing when to quit. Stop shoving effort into a blah story. Be encouraged by those discarded scraps of Not Quite. They are freeing you up to pursue something much better. Just keep looking, keep showing up and doing the work and you will be on the road to creating something special.

 

“You will be fierce. You will be a warrior. And you will make things you know in your heart aren’t as good as you want them to be. And you will just make one after the other.”

–Ira Glass

 

2.     Ruthless Editing

 

“You have to be, like a killer about getting rid of the boring parts and getting right to the parts that are getting to your heart, and you have to be, you know, just ruthless if anything is going to be good.”

– Ira Glass

 

You’ve found the right story to tell? Fantastic! Don’t hang up your machete. The savage work has just begun. Create and stitch and solder together your anecdotes, reflections, and revelations. Then get brutal. You will have to make tough choices about what needs to be there, and what is a distraction.

 

“Things that are really good are good because people are being really, really tough, and you’re going to be really tough.”

–Ira Glass

 

Evaluate the purpose and power of each part of your manuscript, and if in doubt, cut it out. Read it again. Does something new stand out? It is surprising how much impact is made when you’ve left only what’s most meaningful. If it’s causing your work to lose focus or spin off kilter, it’s got to go. It can be hard to see your work objectively, which is why I recommend letting it rest before diving in with the carving knife. If despite all this you know you’ve got a story, you’ve cut what you could but still aren’t satisfied; consider hiring an editor to point out the areas that need work.

 

“You don’t want to be making mediocre stuff… that’s not why anyone gets into this. The only reason why you want to do this is because you want to make something that’s really memorable…”

–Ira Glass

 

Your Editor is not the Bad Guy

 

Red ink bleeds across the page. Hard questions scrawled down the margins. Rewrite this whole passage? Really? Sometimes confronting your work after a thorough edit can be as daunting as running into Darth Vader in a dark alley.

 

“Editing might be a bloody trade, but knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.” – Blake Morrison

 

Your Han Solo self might not think your beloved Millennium Falcon is in any need of repair, but you can’t see the entire ship from the cockpit. Here’s the thing: our minds see and feel the whole picture, and it’s incredibly important to recognize the many mini-jumps your brain makes when reading your own text that will be impossible for the reader to replicate. You know the protagonist inside and out, and it can be challenging to see where you’ve misled readers by providing incomplete or inaccurate information. You know it’s supposed to say, “He dashed over the log…” and your brain may not flag you that it actually says, “He dashes over the leg…” because it already knows what it should be. That’s what your editor is there for! Even the best of the best need editors, which is why the acknowledgements of practically every book published are practically gushing with gratitude for their editors!

 

Patrick Ness advises, “Learn to take criticism. Your first draft won’t be perfect, and it’s damaging to the book to think that it is. Every great book you’ve ever read has been rewritten a dozen times. This is the hardest thing to learn (trust me), but very, very important.”

 

A good editor will jump at light speed on issues with story arc and continuity in a developmental edit, or search with the uncanny precision of a Jedi for errant language in a line edit. The purpose of it all is to make your work the best it can be. At The LetterWorks you’ll find some of the most encouraging and gentle editing services out there, but they also strive for a letter-perfect edit. All the editors are authors themselves and fully understand the incredible honor it is to be entrusted with your younglings! It is precisely for that reason a manuscript may come back with some serious work to be thoughtfully considered and executed.

To reach publication, sometimes to even be considered for publication, your manuscript needs to reach a certain caliber. Even a vigorous plant is sometimes in need of some pruning to really let it shine and flourish. So take courage, and take up that pen. Let your editor be your ally.

May the “fourth” be with you.

 

 

Putting Poetry into Motion by Melissa Heiselt

As National Poetry Month comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on the art and its significance in my journey to become a better writer, and ultimately a better editor.

Poetry is often considered to be the inaccessible literary art form, and is arguably one of the most difficult to get right. In 2011, we experienced a resurgence in the popularity of art’s most unpopular medium. Poetry featured in publications like The Moth, and Button Poetry flooding the digital world of Facebook and YouTube with engaging narratives, brought it back to pop culture in a way that I wouldn’t have suspected as a closet-poet teen. I was always told back then to focus on more “practical” writing endeavors, grow up and let the poet die. Here’s why everyone was wrong.

Poetry is a powerful practice for mental health. Researchers from the University of Liverpool investigated the effect of poetry on the brain, and their findings published in 2015 suggest that poetry strengthens the mind in ways little else can. The flexible thinking and agility required to extract multiple meanings from Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” employ the same mental gymnastics we perform when navigating the unexpected in our daily lives. The National Association of Poetry Therapy embraces a body of research reaching back to the early 1920’s as basis for their therapeutic work. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith says, “Poetry invites us to listen to other perspectives, and to care about others who may not look, sound, or think like ourselves.” Embrace poetry, whether through sound, sight, or action and see what it does for you.

Poetry is built to evoke emotion, a sense of place, and presents abstract thoughts in a tangible way. These are effects every writer seeks to draw out as they write a narrative, whether fact or fiction. Take for example the way Carl Sandburg brings us, in just a few words, to a specific moment that inspires memories of a thousand of our own meaningful moments:

 

“See the trees lean to the wind’s way of learning.
See the dirt of the hills shape to the water’s way of learning.
See the lift of it all go by the way the biggest wind and the strongest water want it.”

~ Carl Sandburg, Landscape ~

 

Studying and putting into practice what you learn can improve your writing by orders of magnitude. Poetry is the practice of paring down your words until only the most necessary and meaningful remains. Catherine is fond of quoting Antoine de Saint-Exupery who once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” I whole-heartedly agree, and no exercise is more effective in sorting that out than the writing of poetry.

The study and practice of poetry compels a writer to focus on word choice in a very detailed way. You consider things like assonance, which hones in on the vowel sounds within the words you’ve strung together; and alliteration, which refers to sentences or phrases with the same beginning sound. Consider that Carl Sandberg poem again. The concrete images, paired with metaphor, dressed in nothing but rhythmic repetition, a little alliteration, and assonance make it powerful. These devices are put to good use by talented authors for more than just poetry. They create music within any text and can evoke a sense of mood without being overtly… “rhymey.” (Yes, I just made that word up.) Take a look at this excerpt from Ursula K. LeGuin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea“:

 

“Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together.”

~ Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea ~

 

Notice the repeated word pairings, coupled with how the “S” and “W” sounds chase and echo each other? It seems to amplify the meaning of her words creating this flow and feeling of natural growth extending into eternity.

Last of all, poetry is practical. We see poetry all around us without noticing… a child’s picture book, your favorite song on the radio, a meaningful greeting card, and catchy ad jingles … it’s enhancing the messages in our lives all the time. Just because it isn’t flowery and old doesn’t mean it isn’t poetry. So you don’t see yourself taking up a job as an ad writer. That’s okay. Neither do I! It still brings value to your life, and especially your writing. And if you, like me, are a closet poet, take out that old notebook and add to it as part of your regular writing habit. Maybe you won’t publish an anthology of your own… and perhaps you will. Either way, the practice of appreciating and writing poetry itself will do wonders for every other form of literary prose you choose to write. So whether you want to become a great journalist, fiction writer, or biographer, I encourage you to nourish that inner poet. She just may feed you back.

Testing Your Novel’s Heart: Boulter’s ECG by T.N. Rosema

Back in December, we posted about Harmon’s Embryo, which checks the strength of your plot. This blog talks about Boulter’s ECG, which checks the emotional pace or “heart” of your novel.

The Echocardiogram (ECG for short) is a technique from Writing Fiction by Amanda Boulter, senior lecturer for creative writing at the University of Winchester. The ECG is best applied to longer works such as novels.

If we accept that a story is about change, then:

  • What changes are triggered by the events within it?
  • How do our characters deal with these changes?
  • How does the reader experience these changes?

 

The answers to these questions form the emotional pace of your story. To visually chart this, we can create an ECG in three steps.

1) Assign each scene in your novel a score out of 20.

Boulter suggests this framework:

1-5 points: scenes of “deliberation / recovery”

6-10 points: scenes of “intrigue / emotion”

11-15 points: scenes of emotional conflict or physical action

16-20 points: the vital scenes of “crisis and climax”.

 

2) Plot all your scenes on graph paper.

3) Join the dots.

Here’s an ECG for a novel with 40 scenes:

 

 

So how can the ECG help us to strengthen our novel’s emotional pacing?

  1. Avoid extended flatlines. Extended flatlines at any point will kill your novel. Too many contemplative navel-gazing scenes in a row, and the reader yawns. Too many blistering action scenes in a row, and the reader has nowhere to catch their breath. (“Oh…another murder?”)
  2. Aim for peaks and troughs. The goal is to change it up, so that readers progress through a series of tension-contemplation cycles. If your novel follows a conventional structure, these cycles will rise to a climax. For example, ECGs for novels based on the popular three-act structure will show a left peak, rising peaks (or crises) in the middle, and the largest peak to the right.

 

Boulter’s ECG is a fun technique that shows the reader’s emotional journey through your novel at a glance. Use it to manage your story’s pulse and guard the reader against heart attacks!

 

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REFERENCES

 

Boulter, Amanda (2007) Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches. Palgrave Macmillan.

You might be a writer if…

You know you’re a writer if:
You regularly include your tweets as part of your word count.
You spend more time staring at your blinking cursor than actually moving it.
You are afraid the FBI will investigate you based on your search history.
Friends and family have come to understand that anything they say or do can end up immortalized in print.
You have a clearly designated idea notebook into which you tape the napkins and bill envelopes you actually write your story ideas and notes on.
You consider staring into space to be a form of writing.
If you have ever finished a draft and then just deleted it.
If you have changed a major character’s name more than halfway through a story.
If you write poetry and hate always having to explain why some poems don’t rhyme.
 
If you have ever been looking through an old hard drive, CD, or notebook and found a story you once wrote that is actually pretty good!
If you have ever been looking through an old hard drive, CD, or notebook and found something you once wrote that is absolutely terrible and unsalvageable.
If someone asks what your story is about and you mumble something incoherent about three other stories that have tiny pieces of similarities to yours.
You have ever been *this* close to finishing a story only to have your brain insist that this other idea is too important not to write *right now*.
If you have ever delighted in fictionally destroying a person who was cruel to you in real life.
If you have ever used the same cup for coffee and wine in the same day.
If sending your novel out to it’s first beta reader is like sending your kid off on his first sleepover.
If the string of letters, “NaNoWriMo”, makes your heart start to race.
If you have ever cried for your own main character’s pain.
If you try to write off lattes at a coffee shop as a work expense.
Have one to add? Send us a comment!

Reader Request: What Do Editors Write? By Catherine Foster

Reader Request: What Do Editors Write? By Catherine Foster

A reader of ours reached out and requested a blog article devoted to shining the spotlight on what is on our editors’ private writing dockets. This seemed like an idea for an interesting topic, but also an excellent time to demystify some myths associated with editors. While it is true we wield the dreaded red pen, we are just as often the subject of one ourselves. Many—I daresay most—editors begin as authors themselves, and a great number of them continue to write and submit their works as they support their clients, as well. So it may surprise you to learn that we are all in this thing together! Editors often pass work along to each other for a simple “brushing up” or for someone to “glance over”—as professionals, we understand the necessity of having a fellow editor check our work, but I’ll admit that it takes a lot of years before it gets easier to accept constructive criticism and learn to make necessary changes to our beloved writing! With time, we come to anticipate and expect the work that comes after the joy of writing, but even seasoned authors’ hearts sink a little when we open a document and see nothing but slashes through paragraphs, big sections omitted and huge notations in the margin for our perusal. I share this with you so that you know that we have the expertise as editors but also the humanity; we have walked in your shoes but are most likely walking with you even now as we share the process from the same side. Editing requires precision but also gentleness, and anyone who has been writing and submitting for some time has been shaped by experience enough to have both. Here is a list of what is inspiring and humbling us into the best editors we are at the moment:

Josh Smith: Josh has recognized that he is a much stronger editor than he is a writer, and as such has been spending most of his creative energies on projects of that nature, the most exciting of which is the first book release by Bedlam Publishing, where he is Editor-in-Chief. The seeds for “All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows: collected poems” by Ramez Qureshi were planted by Ali Eteraz four years ago, and fluctuated between various states of production until last year when all the pieces really started coming together. It will be out in hardcover and eBook editions this spring, and is Qureshi’s posthumous debut. Once the book hits the print shop, Josh will begin work on the next edition of Bedlam’s annual art & lit magazine, Loud Zoo. He is also editing pieces for a prospective collection by The LetterWorks’ very first client, Brett Petersen!

His only current project that doesn’t involve editorial work is something of a musical experiment. A passable percussionist and frequent found-object musician, he inherited a bass and has been attempting to incorporate it into his sonic palette. With a stack of lyrics already written and more coming all the time, he’s trying to figure out how to play the music that’s rattling around them in his head, and then he’s sure to bother anyone within earshot with … whatever it is he thinks he’s doing.

Amanda Wayne: Amanda is currently researching the effect of brevity on connotation and denotation and the way in which readers react to word choice. (Read: spends too much time on Twitter.) She is also doing a study on how repetitive iterations of children’s literature forces parents to reassess the importance of literacy. (If she has to read SkippyJon Jones one more time, Mama Junebug is going to be mourning the loss of her kittyboy.) Occasionally, she manages to jot down an idea for a story. These notes, when later fished out of the toy box and read, appear to be written in crayon and are actually sketches for inventions to get toddler pee out of battery powered toy trucks or prosthetic arms so that a mom can hold a baby and also make herself a sandwich.

Melissa Heiselt: Melissa doesn’t have any focused work in progress, but she’s always tucking away ideas and developments for a couple of larger fantasy pieces that will likely be marinating for years yet. She feels as if she has some foundational gaps that she needs to work through before she spend too much time writing a monstrosity (or two) that would need a massive overhaul. [ed. note: this is a completely unfounded sentiment] She’d rather have the bones laid straight from the start. She occasionally writes poetry. Since discovering Deep Magic, her new goal is to flesh out some short stories to submit to that E-zine. She preaches all the time about making regular time to write because she knows all too well what happens when you don’t! It’s a struggle to regain those writing muscles that have atrophied, and it’s a vicious cycle that makes you not want to write because your work just isn’t up to your own standards anymore, but the only solution is to keep writing more things!

TN Rosema: TN is an accomplished poet, author and editor who helms a longstanding writer’s group. Their interests are pre-writing and manuscript revision.

Catherine Foster: Catherine began publishing poetry at age ten and has been writing and submitting ever since. She moved on to short stories and recently counted her number of published titles in the seventies. She’s written and had moderate success with everything ranging from poetry to short stories to memoirs and even dabbled in writing scripts. Writing has always been a part of her life, but over the past few years she’s slowly evolved into editing more and more. At the moment, she spends her time writing to penpals in prison, which takes up quite a bit of the time that she used to devote to creative writing, but she feels it is a more worthy endeavor at this stage in her life. It is fair to say that she is retired from writing and submitting at this time and focusing solely on the business of editing and writing for volunteer purposes.

So that is our team! We all come from different backgrounds and are at varying stages in our careers. We have a wealth of knowledge and continue to evolve. The important thing to know is that we are editors and writers because we cherish the craft and respect the language, and we entered this field because we have a passion for helping others succeed. If you have any questions or if we can help you, please let us know in the comment section or email me directly at catherine@theletterworks.com. Until next time, happy writing!

 

 

When Less is Really More by Catherine Foster

Did the Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, have an accent? What color was the dress Emma Bovary wore when she swallowed the vial of arsenic? When Van Helsing hunted Dracula, did he wear his brown boots or his black ones? Did Odysseus wax poetic upon the length of Circe’s hair before she turned his crew into swine? Was Lancelot born with blue eyes or brown?

You probably never thought to ask these questions because they aren’t that germane to the story or even that interesting to ponder. Some details of stories are important to note. For instance, it is a key plot point that Harry Potter bore a lightning-bolt-shaped-scar on his forehead. It is less important for us to know that Hermione has buckteeth and frizzy hair. It might be crucial to the fairytale Cinderella to mention that there is a slipper, but it is not pivotal to reveal that the shoe is made of glass. How can we know which things are necessary to include in our writing and which ones we should leave out?

This is a question, of course, of personal preference. There is no central rule that applies, and this article can only serve to illustrate one viewpoint, which is to champion the cause of minimalism. In the course of my career as an editor, I have seen many mistakes the authors make, and one that touches my heart most is when the frank earnestness of well-intentioned authors causes a mess of florid prose to pile up on the page. We often enter this craft because we have a love of words. Many of us have had a calling to write or have been writing stories since we were children. Some of us have vivid worlds and characters inside our heads that are fairly bursting out onto the page. It may seems counter-intuitive or even close to impossible to pull back on description. And why should we?

The answer is simple: when you include extraneous detail, you rob the reader of the experience of their own imagination. What color is the little mermaid’s hair? For those of you who have seen the popular cartoon, it is a memory that is now branded foremost in your mind. But in the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, it merely says, by turns, “flowing” “long” “thick” “waving” and “beautiful.” Never, at any time, does he describe a color. This leaves you free to imagine a mermaid and her beautiful hair any way you see fit—until, of course, you watch a Disney version.

Why is this important? Because Mr. Andersen undoubtedly had an idea in his own mind about what constituted beauty. We might surmise that, as a person of Danish ancestry, he might find the standard of beauty to include traditional blondes with fine features. This is conjecture, of course, but whatever Mr. Andersen considered beautiful, he did not impose his own ideas into the story. As an author, he must have had an active imagination, and he must have had a firm idea in his head of what his little mermaid looked like, but by not imposing those ideas on us, the audience, we are each free to imagine her as a blonde, a brunette, a redhead, even Chinese or African. He gifted us a blank slate and said “beautiful”—this allows each of us to imagine her in our own mind. As standards of beauty change throughout the decades, the little mermaid stays fresh and relevant. Her hair color isn’t important. The author’s idea of beauty isn’t important. Each person’s unique vision remains a gift through each retelling.

Many authors want to fight for the right to hold onto their vision of their story. That is understandable, but is it more important than the right of each reader to discover the magic of their own imagination? If it is a crucial detail, then by all means, include that detail. But if you include a detail that is for your own purpose, just to communicate your own vision, you are robbing people of a reading experience for no purpose than your own ego. It is similar to watching the movie before reading the book—which do you prefer? Which makes a more lasting impact? Explaining details instead of allowing for imagination, even on a small scale, makes for one less bit of interest they will have in your story and your vision. The more you explain to someone, the less they are invested and the less they care. If they imagine for themselves, they will come to love your tale more. You will gain more in the end with restraint.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is something I urge every author to take to heart. It should be the guiding principle not of writing, but of editing. Trust yourself, but also trust your readers. They will thank you for it in the end, and you will see your fans multiply!

Grammar Matters by Melissa Heiselt

Language is constantly evolving. New words are rising up and taking the world by storm. “Google” is a verb in the dictionary and pronouns such as “they” are now an accepted gender-neutral third person singular option. Even spelling evolves as what was once okay is now also OK. Yet incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation can be as off-putting as bad breath on a first date. Especially in the world of online business (and who doesn’t do at least some portion of their business online anymore?) your primary contact with customers will come via the written word. Think only Grammar Nazis care about that stuff? Think again.

In 2017, Global Lingo conducted a study to see how much impact poor grammar and spelling would have on a business. The result? Fifty-nine percent of participants were less likely to patronize a company whose materials contained obvious errors. Obvious to whom? Well, over half of their prospective customers, clearly. Failing to fully vet marketing and communications shows a lack of attention to detail and professionalism, which leads customers to question the quality of the product or service at stake.

The folks at Grammarly proved that good grammar was a decent predictor of success; participants in their study who were promoted just four times in ten years made 45% more grammar errors than their counterparts who were promoted six to nine times in that same period. A 2014 study found that freelancers on eLance (now Upworks) with the fewest grammatical slip-ups on their profiles land higher-paying jobs than their competitors with flawed profiles.

It’s not just in corporate matters that grammar can be a problem. A pair of studies conducted by two linguistics professors found that 100% of the time, emails from strangers containing typos and common grammar mistakes resulted in a lower opinion of the email sender. Need a new housemate? Updating your profile on a dating site? Check your grammar. When it’s a friend or associate we may overlook substituting “their” for “they’re” but when it’s a first impression, it’s one of the few things we have to use in forming a judgment. The jury has spoken: Grammar matters.

So, spelling and punctuation are not your strong suit? Have someone with stellar word sense look things over. Grammarly is a popular option for people who want a filter for casual online communication, emails, twitter posts, and the like. Unfortunately, it can’t catch everything. You need an actual human to catch things like a wrong word (not just a misspelled one) or to edit for clarity. As Canadian communications giants Bell Aliant and Rogers Communications discovered, a misplaced comma can cost you two million dollars. For more enduring output that will be an official reflection of you or your company, think contracts, advertising brochures, web content and consider hiring an actual editor. The LetterWorks staff can look over everything from menus and marketing materials to a resume and cover letter. Truly. It’s worth it.

Organizing Your Creative Chaos by Melissa Heiselt

Authors tend to be creative people, and creativity tends to be messy. Everyone has different ways of bringing order to that chaos, and finding the way that suits you is an endeavor well worth the effort. In “The Wand and the Word,” Leonard Marcus interviews various fantasy authors revealing their path to success, and their methods. The most fascinating thing about these interviews is how incredibly varied their responses are. There is no hard and fast rule about how to successfully organize information, but there are a few main categories that encompass different personalities and styles of organization.

Highly Structured

Brandon Sanderson has mentioned in his podcast, Writing Excuses, that he organizes everything from characters and their motivations and network of connections to world-building details in spreadsheets. He finds it a useful way to track and cross-reference those crucial story points. I am a very visual person, and that is so not for me. I can say this with confidence because I tried it, and it was miserable. For me it took so much effort to think about how to arrange things in an unfamiliar terrain, and I didn’t have enough room to see what was in each box. For people who love organizing things so they are neat and tidy and put away, it may be right up your alley. If you are more familiar with spreadsheets, I am sure there are many ways to layer and search information efficiently in that format. If you like to see the big picture, or flip from one idea to the next quickly, it might not be the best fit.

Visually Organized

Graphic novelists, designers and cartoonists (for obvious reasons) tend to gravitate toward storyboarding, where the story is told on a large horizontal space with images and text together showing what the story is to evolve into. Some authors use sticky notes to create a timeline for their work, which can easily be moved around and experimented with before the actual writing begins. Mind mapping is a highly visual way of showing connection, cause and effect, and the underlying moving forces in a piece. It is one way I have enjoyed organizing information for a smaller project, such as an article. It can also be a useful way of showing character connections and motivations, or even a useful way of revealing those less-obvious connections in a non-fiction piece. Many times I’ve had a revelation as I surround the nucleus of an idea with its many outgrowths and discover truths I hadn’t seen before. XMind is an excellent digital way to record an extensive mind-map.

Spontaneous

Notebooks are a huge part of cultivating a healthy writing habit. Writing every day is essential! It’s also a place to capture the genius that visits in the night, or the moment that would otherwise be lost. The problem is: how the heck do you find anything useful in there? It’s as good as lost if you never revisit those words. Enter the card file idea. This was a method suggested to me for organizing research papers back in the day, but never have I found it more useful than when I have the seeds of several good stories, but need time to flesh out the details and characters more fully. On my countertop I keep an old school card file box. I know. So retro. But it’s in the center of my home where I work, and right at my fingertips so I can jot down snippets while passing by. I have color coded notecards for each of the stories I have in progress at the moment, with headers on each card noting what the card relates to; anything from character name lists, plot twists, or map sketches. They are then chronologically ordered in relevance to the story. You could do the same thing in Evernote as Josh recommended a couple of posts ago, which would make it available across platforms, making your ideas that much more accessible and searchable, which is hugely helpful as a project grows.

Don’t be afraid to try out something new on your next project… but also trust yourself. Just because Jack Kerouac typed it all out on a typewriter, or Brian Jaques hand wrote his work nearly flawlessly in beautiful flowing script doesn’t mean you need to follow suit. Same goes for these organization ideas. Do what works for you, and keep writing!

Let it Rest. by Melissa Heiselt

Writing is easy. As the distinguished columnist Red Smith once said, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s the editing that’s murder.

Like any great bread, cheese, or wine, time is the secret ingredient to making your writing the best it can be. Let’s say you’ve just finished your masterpiece; a complicated story, biography, or self-help manuscript that you just know is going to enlighten and entertain. Maybe you feverishly earned that NaNoWriMo Badge proving to the world that you can write a novel in just one month. We all know editing comes next, and so many writers want to dive right in and tackle it! Believe it or not, the most valuable thing you can do here is: leave it alone.

In my experience, the length of time for a good rest is dependent on the length of the material. A blog post or article may need just 24 hours. Something that has soaked up your life and soul and absorbed your every thought for months, and especially years could benefit from even more time. Giving it time does not mean abandoning the work altogether. It’s thoughtful time away from the manuscript, enabling you to disengage that part of your brain that created those words, and engage the part of your brain that’s wired for refining those words.

My first NaNoWriMo piece was a disaster. DISASTER, I tell you. I dove right in once the frenzied writing was over. After a month of trying to force that monstrosity into shape, I finally decided it was an interesting writing exercise, but for me was ultimately just not going to result in any kind of complete, publishable work. I had completely forgotten about it until clearing out my computer and stumbling across it years later. Just for laughs, I decided to read over this disasterpiece. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. I was too close to it at the time to have perspective enough to know how to handle the awkward transitions and pacing that resulted from my feverish endeavor. There were sections that truly were all but unintelligible. But with time between us, we were able to make amends.

This experience opened my eyes to the importance of respecting the time and space required for good writing. When I’ve typed that last period I know it’s time to put it away, take a walk, and enjoy the life of the living for awhile. Now  even as an editor, I’ve learned that when things start to feel muddy, and frustration creeps in, walk away. Give it some space to expand and develop in your subconscious before you return to the work and give it its best chance at published life. You’ll be glad you did.