Are you sure your writing is really done?

You know how sometimes fried chicken is all brown and crispy on the outside, but then when you cut it open, it’s pink and bloody inside? That’s how I’m feeling about some of the work I have been reading in my role as one of the editors of the Timberline Review, for which submissions closed yesterday.

It happens mostly in poems, but also in prose. I start reading and think, wow, this is going to be great. What a fresh topic, what wonderful imagery. The rhythm, the emotion, the substance. And then . . . rats. The piece fizzles out. Suddenly I’m at the end, and the writer didn’t carry through with the promise he or she made at the beginning. The piece ends in a stream of vague generalities or clichés, goes on too long, or stops suddenly, leaving me wanting more. We grade the poems on a 1 to 4 scale, 1 being yes and 4 being forget about it. In my weariness last night, I gave one poem a 5. I hate, hate, hate starting out reading a 1 poem and having to give it a 4 because the writer didn’t finish it.

I worked in the newspaper business for a long time. We were lucky if we had time for two drafts, but if you’re writing on your own, you do have time for two or 20 or however many drafts it takes to make sure your work is the best it can be. Right now, take out a piece of paper and write down these words. Write them big. WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY? Hang it up where you can see it and ask yourself that with everything you write.

Write your first drafts as loose and wild as you want. Don’t worry about things hanging together or even making sense. But when you revise and before you ever send your work out for publication, ask yourself that question. What am I trying to say? Write down what you’re trying to say in one sentence. And follow it up with: Does this piece of writing say it? Does it say it all the way from the first line to the last? Can I tie the opening and closing together? Are there sections that just don’t support that main idea? Did I run out of steam halfway through or quit too soon? Finish your thought. Then stop. The most common editing suggestion we’ve been making to our poets is to cut the final stanza. So take another look. Is your work really ready?

Two other editor quibbles I have to share today:

1) If the guidelines say not to put your name on the submission, don’t put your name on it. Don’t put it in the file name or in your headers or footers, don’t put it anywhere except in your cover letter or the online form you use to submit. When editors say blind submissions, that’s what we want.

2) Learn the difference between lay and lie and how to conjugate them:

I lie down now, I lay down last night, I had lain down last Tuesday, I am lying down now.

I lay down the book now, I laid it down last night, I had laid it down last Tuesday, I am laying it down now.

See the nifty chart and examples at The Grammarist.

Now let’s go write.


Let Your Writing Marinate for a While

Dear writers,

Did you miss me last month?

I learned two important things while I was off-blog. One is that I missed doing this blog, even though I have two others to keep me busy. I like talking about writing, teaching it, and editing it. I just like playing with words.

Last month, I did some teaching at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, but I did even more learning. The big thing that I learned is the value of setting a project aside for a while. I’m talking about my novel, Being PD, which does not yet have a publisher. At the conference, I pitched it to a couple of agents who were interested but made no promises. I also attended a “First Page Gong Show” in which actors read the opening pages of participants’ novels. A panel of agents and editors “gonged” them as soon as they lost interest or heard something they didn’t like. Only about four first pages made it to the end. I was number 38, and they never got to my page. Thank God. Most important, I took several classes from Jennifer Lauck, author of four memoirs and a fantastic teacher. Her workshops on structuring one’s novel or memoir blew my mind.

While struggling with a memoir, I’ve been marketing my novel. I was sure the novel was finished, that I could not make it any better, and that even though 105,000 words is a little long for a novel, the editors would just have to live with it. I did not plan to look at it again until an editor from a publishing house demanded changes for the final version. I’ll bet you can see where this is going. After talking to agents and editors, attending the Gong Show and inhaling the wisdom of Jennifer’s classes, I came home and started tearing PD apart.

I was working on a deadline. I had assured the agents I would send the book to them within two weeks. So I cranked into high gear and got it done. Suddenly I could see exactly what I needed to do with this book, none of which had occurred to me before the conference. The first thing I did was ditch not only my first page but the whole first chapter. I didn’t need it. I needed to start closer to the action. Plus the gong panel was universally turned off by certain bodily functions. So, bye-bye. Cutting that chapter meant I needed to figure out how to include certain necessary details later, but it was not difficult.

The agents said I needed more romance. That was easy to add. And most surprising, I found oodles of words I just didn’t need. Excess verbiage. As I cut, the word count went down painlessly. Another big chunk went out toward the end of the book because I could see the ending went on too long. I trimmed approximately 9,000 words in all. Now I’m in the ballpark. And now I know this novel is the best one I’ve ever written. I was certain it was perfect before. I was wrong. It was good but not quite cooked. To read a brief excerpt from the new and improved opening, click on the Being PD link at the top of the page.

I couldn’t have done this revision if I hadn’t set the book aside for months while I worked on the memoir. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing. We all want our books out in the world as quickly as possible. But we need to let them marinate for a while, then throw away the excess sauce to make them the best they can possibly be.

It also helps to bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes, whether it’s a critique group, a teacher, an editor, or an agent. Take classes, read good books, never say “good enough” just because you’re tired. Set it aside and come back to it later. It will be so much easier than if you didn’t wait.

Jennifer Lauck teaches online as well as in-person in Portland. You might want to check out her classes. She strongly recommends Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

The annual Willamette Writers Conference takes place in Portland, Oregon the first weekend in August.

Now, let’s go write.


What words do you overuse?

We have approximately one million unique words in the English language. The number varies, depending on which expert you ask. The numbers for how many of those words we  use also vary wildly, but they all come out to fewer than 10 percent. Of course, we have the words we understand and the words we speak or write. Our language is full of delightful words that I understand but never employ, words like famished, harbinger, porcelain, and scurrilous.

I find that like most people, I’m guilty of using the same words over and over. For example, “amazing” comes out of my mouth at least 20 times a day. Surely everything is not amazing. But I hear the word all around me, so I use it. I go for the excessive word. I’m not just hungry, I’m starving. I’m not just cold, I’m freezing.

We often mimic what our favorite TV characters say. “I know. Right?” “Seriously.” “Seriously?” We also imitate our friends and family, copying their favorite expressions and their favorite curses. That’s not a terrible thing. Using the same words helps us communicate. BUT if we’re writers, we need to go beyond repeating the same old words. I’m not saying we need to start writing in such a way that readers won’t understand what we’re talking about. God forbid. But we do need to stretch a bit, to vary our language and find those words that are the best fit for the circumstances.

I’m in the midst of fine-tuning my new novel. Last week, I found a tool that helped me identify words that I use excessively. It’s amazing. Oops, I said amazing again. How about ingenious? In Microsoft Word, go to the edit menu and click on replace. In the blank that says “find,” insert the word you’re looking for. In the “replace” blank, type ^&. Now click on “replace all.” It will give you a number without changing anything in your document. Magic, right?

In my manuscript, I found 94 uses of “really.” I wrote “car” 150 times and “phone” 115. I used “freakin’ far too many times and employed f— more than I like. My character speaks of “crying” or “tears” 74 times. I used “so” more than 400 times. Obviously I have some work to do.

We all have our pet words. Among the most overused are “amazing,” “awesome,” “great,” “quite,” “so,” and “then.” Many are qualifiers like “really” or “very” that can be deleted without hurting a thing. Others are lazy words, not quite the right word but the one that comes to mind first. When I write freezing, is it truly freezing? Are things turning to ice, or is it just cold? Is it chilly, nippy, crisp, biting, or piercing? Am I shivering? Do I have goose bumps? Are my feet going numb? Am I truly starving, as in going to die for lack of food, or did I just miss breakfast?

When you’re writing a first draft and the words are flowing, don’t stop to worry about making each word perfect and unique. If you’re not sure of the right word, mark it and keep going. But when the rush of words slows, go back and reconsider your words. Is there a better word, a more accurate word, a more colorful word, a more powerful word?

Remember what Mark Twain said. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

If you must, consult a thesaurus, a book that gives you words that mean pretty much the same thing. I’ve got my yellowed old Roget’s Thesaurus paperback, but I’m finding it easier to consult thesaurus.com online. Plug in a word and see what you get. But don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means and always consider whether you need that word at all. Seriously.

Now go write.


The way to great writing? Slow down

Last weekend, I attended the Northwest Poet’s Concord right here in beautiful Newport, Oregon, and I learned a few things. Don’t tune out if you’re not a poet because the most important lesson I learned applies to all kinds of writing—as well as to other things in life.

The workshops covered many different aspects of poetry, from line breaks to language to setting poems to music, but for me it all boiled down to one thing: slow down and pay attention. Don’t just whip it out and call it done.

Our keynote speaker David Biespiel, poet and poetry columnist for the Oregonian newspaper, showed how us how to read poetry in a way I had never tried. Don’t just dive in, he said. Prepare.He compared us to Olympic divers, who spend more time preparing than actually diving. When preparing to read a poem, look at the title and think about what it suggests the poem is about. Think about the poet. What do you know about him or her and the era in which they wrote this? Read the first line and stop. Consider that line as an entity on its own. Now go down to the bottom and read the last line. How does that relate to the title and the first line? Then look at the ends of the lines. What kinds of words do you see? Are they concrete, philosophical, erudite, slang? Do they rhyme? Finally, read the poem, slowly. Then read it again.

Now, try this with your own poems as if you have never seen them before, as if you were a reader approaching them for the first time. Look at the title, look at the first line, look at the last line, etc.

Another session focused on revision, particularly the use of line breaks and sentences. The instructor urged us to consider every choice we make. Why are we breaking the line here? Why are we putting a comma there? Can we justify every adverb or adjective or are they just lazy ways of saying something that could be said with one powerful word if we took the time to find it?

Finally, choose the strongest line in your poem and work to make every line meet the same standard. Stop and think about this. Find the strongest line and work to make every line meet the same standard.

For prose writers, instead of lines, we can think of paragraphs. Maybe you have a brilliant first paragraph, but some of the others are just . . . there. Can you make them better? Can you leave them out? What about characters? Are a few so clearly drawn you can see and hear them while others are clichéd or vague? Stop and make each one as strong as the best.

As a former newspaper reporter, I write in a hurry. What if I took more time? What if I sat with that poem, story, essay, or novel as if it were the only one I would ever write?

This, I think, is the key to greatness. Try it. Take one piece of writing and see what you can do. Maybe a few changes will make it stronger. Remember, if you don’t like the changes, you can always delete and start over, and Word has a wonderful feature called “undo.” Control Z.

I’m heading out to the backyard now with one of the poems I read at the Concord. I thought it was fine before, but now, I think I can make it better.