What You Read When You Write Matters

“Structural priming” is the psycholinguistic phrase for how our environment, particularly the media we expose ourselves to, influence the way we write.

. . . your brain’s activity in one part of the day shapes it in another, especially when it comes to creating sentences. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.” Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically. Our tendency to say the same sorts of sentences as those around us was first studied by someone looking at, of all things, walkie-talkie conversations between burglars. Our words and sentence patterns are also primed in the same way, such that the words we chose are the words we will choose later.

(The full article is worth a read, and can be found here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/escaping-ones-own-shadow-in-writing/?emc=eta1)

I write fiction that could be categorized as either contemporary women’s fiction (chick lit) or new adult fiction (fiction that bridges the recently-recognized gap between young adult and adult fiction).

Have you ever seen a sentence that uses the word “fiction” five times? Now you have.

Anyway, I read this article when my first novel was completely written but still in need of serious editing. I kept it in mind on the days when I chose to watch an episode of my beloved The Biggest Loser, read around on blogs, or check out facebook before I sat down to write. I also kept it in mind when I carved out time to read from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle—a book that contained no less than a dozen words I’d never seen before.

My writing was less inspired and less interesting on the days when I opted for the lighter diversions, things that were probably closer in tone to the thing I was writing. When I spent less time with those and more with my pal Edgar, my sentence structure was more diverse and character and plot developments came more naturally.

This is not to say that I don’t read within the genres I write in. It remains important to me to know what other authors are doing. I pay close attention to books, as well as film adaptations of books, that I imagine my manuscript would be shelved beside: At what point are secondary and tertiary characters introduced? How? How much back story does the reader get—when and how? When does the story hit its climax? How quickly are things wrapped up thereafter?

I also pay close attention to the jacket copy on books within my genres. This is the best way to learn to write a query letter: How much of the plotline is revealed? What do we know about the protagonist, the time, the place? How many secondary characters are mentioned? Which are not? How many words, total?

Moral of the story, a broader bookshelf can make for a better writer. So go hit the library today. Wander into a section you’ve never seen before. Find something that piques your interest.

And then write, write, write.

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Get the Words on the Page

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my own writing process is that there’s no substitute for simply sitting down and writing. Researching the market isn’t going to get words on the page. Reading about other people’s writing isn’t going to get words on the page (though I do hope this short piece helps!). Checking out feeds on facebook certainly isn’t going to get words on the page.

 

We humans have an innate reluctance to strive to achieve our goals. Too often we are afraid to fail, and thereby fail despite ourselves.

 

I have no issue admitting that I love The Biggest Loser. It’s never just about the weight; there’s always a deep-seated issue that has, in the past, prevented a contestant from feeling worthy of his or her own success. Once the contestants find confidence in themselves—once they can accept that failure is part of the process, but never the final destination—they turn themselves around mentally, emotionally, and, of course, physically.

 

Too often I experience a similar fear when it comes to my writing. I can think and think and think about what I’ll accomplish in my next writing session, but once the computer is in front of me, I freeze. What if the logistics of my plot don’t make sense? Am I putting too much of myself into my characters? What if my protagonist doesn’t resonate emotionally?

 

If I don’t get the words on the page, I certainly won’t fail in any of those regards. But neither will I give myself the chance to succeed in these or any other aspects of my work.

 

Back in the day, when visiting colleges to decide where to apply, I attended an information session for an Ivy League school. “Is there any guarantee that you will be accepted to this school?” the counselor asked. “No. But if you don’t apply, you can guarantee that you won’t.”

 

I did apply. I didn’t get in. I’m okay with that.

 

It is the same with writing: harbor the fear of failure, and you most certainly will not succeed. Give yourself a chance, and you might surprise yourself.

Every Book Has Its Place (and It’s Not Always at the Bookstore)

One of the first things I ask prospective clients is what their goals are for their manuscripts. Some intend to get their work into the best shape possible, write a killer query letter, and submit to agents. Others mean to try the agent route, but are prepared to self-publish, should they not land an agent or a deal. Still others just want to clean up their stories and get them printed to share with their grandchildren. And some very honest ones admit little to no knowledge of how the publishing process works, and reply, “That’s what I want you to tell me.”

 

While you’re writing—to a certain extent—it’s important to keep your goals in mind. Quite simply, you can’t achieve a goal unless you have one.

 

If your goal is a deal with one of the big six publishers, you can’t write an okay query letter and hope for the best. If you want success in self-publishing (and you’ll first need to define what “success” means for you), you need to find the outside help to fill in the gaps in your skill set, be it proofreading, design, or marketing. If you’re excited about presenting a polished story to your grandchild on her birthday, well, then you have one lucky grandchild.

 

There is something incredible about the fact that we can make certain marks on a sheet of paper or press certain keys to make symbols appear on a screen and thus communicate thoughts, emotions, experiences, stories. If I’ve learned anything as a submissions reader and a conference critic, it’s that every book does indeed have a place, even if it’s not on the bestseller list.

 

Find your story’s value and audience and be proud of it. Become a better writer in the process.

What a Writer Needs: Humility

Thanks to the new pope, Francis I, variations of the word “humble” have been all over the news the last week. It’s not one that often comes up in popular media, and I imagine that’s largely because the term is misunderstood. But it’s a term that matters, especially for writers looking to make it to the next step.

 

Humility is not self-denigration; rather, as Erasmus says, “Humility is truth.”

 

No one wants to be the guy who boasts about his accomplishments, only to find that no one else is as impressed as he himself is. At the same time, what use is it to so underestimate your work that you never give it a chance to see the light of day?

 

The key to real humility is knowledge—objective knowledge of the quality of your work (see You Really Do Need an Editor) and realistic knowledge of the competition.

 

If aspiring authors saw what I saw every day as an assistant at a literary agency and at a publishing house—reading manuscripts and writing rejections every day—I have to believe most of them would take more time to polish or even rewrite their manuscripts before submitting them. In your own home, on your own computer, to your family and friends, your manuscript probably looks phenomenal. But what happens when it journeys out into the world to fend for itself? Are the characters really fleshed out? Do the logistics of the story make sense? Did you proofread—like really, really proofread? Have I heard this story before? Will anyone else want to hear it? Is it going to stand out, or is it going to blend in?

 

Practically, how does one get that perspective, without working or interning at a literary agency or a publishing house?

 

Step One: Join a serious writers’ group. If you write children’s books, check out your local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). If you write for adults, get in touch with local colleges and the professors of their writing workshops. Post an ad on campus or in a local paper.

 

If you are starting your own group, be discerning of how you grow your community. You might ask for writing samples or have trial workshops before you solidify the group. Not everyone needs to write within the same genre, but everyone does need to be equally committed to the group. Set standards for when work is to be submitted, how often you will meet, and how feedback will be provided. Don’t be afraid to stick to your guns. Make sure your fellow workshoppers are aware of what they’re getting into and are prepared to contribute.

 

For me, at least, the act of getting the words down on paper is a solitary activity. I need time and space to dive into the world I’m creating. But once the words exist on the page, it’s time to involve a community I trust to help show me my strengths and weaknesses—and to encourage me to grow through both. A good leader can take advice while continuing to make her own choices. Be the leader of your own craft.

The Agent Hunt

So let’s say you’ve finished writing your novel. You took a step back for a few weeks (or better, months), made changes, had a professional editor review it, made a few more changes, and then proofread like it’s your job (because at this point, it is—but that’s another post).

 

Or let’s say you’ve hit a roadblock, you’re sick of editing, and you’re downright anxious about whether anyone else in the world will ever see your work.

 

Either way, it’s time to consider the next step in the publishing process: agent hunting.

 

The world of literary agents is a mysterious and sometimes terrifying place. You want to find an agent that’s interested in projects like yours, but isn’t saturated in them already. You want someone who gets what you’re working on . . . but there’s always the chance that someone will want to step a little outside of his or her comfort zone to take you on. It’s a delicate balance.  So where to start?

 

Create a spreadsheet with the following columns: agency, agent, what referred you to said agency (see below), what relevant authors they’ve published (along with titles and publishing houses—editors, too, if you can find that), website, submission guidelines, submission prepared, submission sent, agent’s reply.

 

You might also include a ranking system for how interested you are in each particular agent, 1-5, 1 being your dream/reach agent, 2 being someone you’d love to have, 3 being your B-list, 4 being someone you likely won’t submit to, 5 being a bust—no contact information available; actually into sci-fi, not historical non-fiction; you get the idea. Among other things, consider how professional they appear to be online, how recently they’ve made a sale and to whom (if you’re willing to pay for a subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace, the information is at your fingertips), and whether they’re still taking on new clients.

 

Once you’re ready to capture your information, it’s time to make a list of potential agents. It’s an arduous process, but you’ll learn a lot along the way.

 

As you’re working, read around on potential agencies’ websites. Do web searches for the agents to read interviews with them and get a sense of their likes, dislikes, and personalities (be aware of how recent these interviews may be). Agents move around sometimes, so be sure they’re still where you think they are. Follow them on Twitter to see what they’re paying attention to and what drives them crazy. Use this information for your rankings. Make notes if you need to, so you can keep everything straight.

 

A couple ways to start making your list:

  1. Find a copy of the most recent Writer’s Market. Use the agent section to develop a list of potential agencies and agents for your type of book. Then check out all of these online for the most up-to-date information.
  2. Make a list of books like yours (in industry-speak, comp titles). Go to the authors’ websites and look for their agents to be listed on their contact pages. You might also do a web search for “[Author’s name] agent.” If you can’t find the information there, go to the bookstore or library and check the book’s acknowledgment page. (This is also a good time to read the jacket copy, to help you get a sense of how much of your story to tell in your cover letter.)

 

Taking it all on at once can make your head spin. Challenge yourself to research five new agents every day. Once they start to blend together, take a break. An old colleague of mine once told me, “Nothing in publishing is the end of the world.” Be patient. Be smart about it. Like anything else, rushing won’t get you the results you want.

 

Approaching agents can be a scary thing, but it doesn’t have to be. With diligent research, you can have some fun with it and learn a heck of a lot about writing and the publishing industry along the way.

You Really Do Need an Editor

I am a professional freelance editor. People hire me to read their work and point out what isn’t working, what needs to be cut, what needs to be expanded upon. They pay me to check for grammar, spelling, syntax, verb tenses, and so on. I know how to edit a novel, and dare I say, I am good at it. As long as it’s someone else’s work.

 

It is nearly impossible to apply the same objectivity to my work that I can to someone else’s. I know how I want things to sound, what I want certain moments to convey, but without a fresh eye from another, professional reader, I cannot be sure that I accomplish what I set out to do.

 

If you’ve read around on tips for writers, you’ll see time and again that asking friends and family for help is not the best way to gain productive editorial advice.  This is not to say that their feedback is useless. When I’ve asked family and friends to read for me, I’ve asked them to read as, well, readers, not editors. I want to know when they wanted to put the book down. What didn’t you believe? I can go back to that spot and do some of the editorial work myself, once I have a second-hand view of where to look.

 

On the other hand, what made you want to keep reading, to recommend this book to a friend once you’d finished it (if it was finish-able)? I, for one, thrive on positive feedback. If someone tells me my writing is good, I will continue to improve it.

 

Still, there is no substitute for a real, honest-to-goodness editor. Someone who has been trained to look for pacing, voice, realistic dialogue. Someone who is nitpicky about the little things like the way you use certain words (and the way you spell them). There are tons and tons of freelance editors out there today, waiting to offer their years of experience and guidance.

 

But that’s an investment, you think. One that may not come back to me if my book doesn’t sell.

 

Absolutely. Hiring an outside editor is no guarantee that your book is going to be on the shelves at Barnes and Noble anytime soon. But it is most certainly a guarantee that you will become a better writer in the process.

There’s Writing a Book, and Then There’s Writing a Book

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the majority of people in this world think writing a book is a big deal. Even for those of us who might have completed sixty- or eighty-page research papers or theses in our time can see than creating a cohesive 200- or 300-page work is an accomplishment.

And it is. But if I’ve learned anything about writing—and more importantly about getting that writing published—it’s that writing a book is a whole lot more involved than writing a first draft. I am one to edit as I go, to an extent, but even then, a first draft is just that—a first in a series of drafts.

I understand the nervous energy of having finished writing a manuscript. I’ve been there; it’s a wonderful high. I also understand the feeling of impending doom that comes with the prospect of editing an entire novel. It would be easier to start sending it to friends or—perish the thought, agents—and let them figure it out. Bad idea. Really bad idea.

Writing a book is about more than typing out a single draft of a story. It’s about patience, humility, and hard work. It’s about listening to others, while being true to yourself. It’s accepting the mountains set before you, and finding a way to pass them. To write well, there is no substitute for taking one’s time and seriously considering every possibility for each scene, each exchange, each moment, each word.

If all this sounds daunting, that’s because it is. Seriously writing a book will sometimes feel like more pain than pleasure. But the best things in life are worth working for. Hopefully your book is one of them.