Writing Advice

  • Pressing the Reset Button

    Pressing the reset button
    Pressing the reset button

    Do you ever feel that you spend too much time online? Are you getting as much writing done as you’d like? Do you feel your attention span is suffering? Are your writing sessions fragmented by constantly checking social media?

    For that matter, do you ever feel like you could do with a break from both social media and writing?

    I’ve been thinking recently about the concept of pressing a reset button. Before social media, there were activities I engaged in regularly that have since fallen by the wayside. And before I joined Twitter, I was getting on with learning new tunes on my wire harp.

    Sadly, Twitter put the kibosh on that. In fact, it set me back years. If I’d never gone on Twitter, I would have achieved a lot more. Not just in playing a musical instrument, but in working on my writing, taking rest breaks, and so much more. I used to watch a lot of foreign language films. But after reading stuff online I found I didn’t feel as eager to read subtitles anymore.

    When I look back to the 1990s, the distractions of the 21st century just weren’t there.

    And it’s not that the internet is completely a bad thing. If you have a hobby you want to take up, there’s loads of useful information. The problem is there’s so much information and options that it can be paralysing.

    Social media blockers are great for silencing distractions, but they can also be frustrating in the short term. This is because the pull of social media takes time to resist. I’ve used a three-week blocker in the past – I got a lot more done in that period. Likewise, when I temporarily deleted my Twitter account for nearly 30 days, after the first week it seemed more of a relief than anything.

    One thing I decided to try was mentally listing the things I liked doing as a kid. Then I crossed out anything that was no longer feasible or of interest. This took me back to playing a musical instrument, for one thing. It’s not that I want to be a performer. But I do think it’s a great way of switching off the chattier side of the brain. Armed with a wire-strung lyre a relative bought me for Christmas, I’ve been working on the kind of tunes I hope to get back to playing on my harp. The advantage of the lyre is it’s smaller and I keep it beside me when I’m at my desk.

    If I want a few minutes break from editing, I pick up the lyre and practise the current tune.

    I’m also trying to do more reading for pleasure. Reading fiction is part of my job, which sometimes makes it harder to read books for relaxation.

    I’ve returned to daily walks. Sometimes I go out twice a day. There’s nothing like fresh air and exercise. There are other old interests and hobbies I’d like to revisit. But there’s always the same danger of ending up scattered and overloaded.

    So, for now, I will pluck the strings of my new lyre and learn some new tunes.

    Need a developmental edit or critique?

    Otherwise, I am currently coming to the end of two edits, so there’s room in my schedule for new clients. If you fancy an advanced beta read, an opening chapters developmental edit, a full developmental edit, or a manuscript critique, drop me an email at karen@indiecateditorial.com. I also edit novel outlines for those who want to plan out their book chapter by chapter before they write out the story in detail.

  • #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    Are you currently engaged in National Novel Writing Month? Have you been furiously writing away and watching your word count build as the days go on? With the middle of the month approaching, maybe you’re already suffering from #NaNoWriMo Burnout?

    Maybe you’ve even fallen behind or dropped out. Due to that one or two days when you couldn’t get any writing done… You felt like you’d failed and you dropped out.

    Or maybe you picked up your thread again, but those missing days still bug the hell out of you.

    Don’t heap unnecessary pressure on yourself

    The truth is, with everything else that’s going on – Covid, lockdowns, restrictions, job worries – you don’t need the added stress of writing obligations.

    Or a feeling that you’ve somehow failed.

    #NaNoWriMo is great for getting people engaged in an activity for a fixed period of time, where you can also talk to other participants.

    But if you find it’s all getting too much, it’s perfectly okay to drop out.

    Your health is more important than a word count

    First of all, your health and wellbeing come first. Secondly, your writing won’t necessarily benefit from you feeling stressed out and under some kind of obligation to produce.

    If you feel that NaNoWriMo is the boot up the backside you need to get you motivated, there are others ways to get the same results. And they don’t involve the same short-term pressures.

    If you can find a writing group – including an online writing group – that would certainly help motivate you.

    You could also try and find some accountability partners. It can be one or two and then check in with them periodically. Set reasonable goals for the next check-in.

    Never set unreasonable goals. You’re just setting yourself up to fail and feel bad about it.

    And that can keep you trapped in a negative downward cycle of ‘what’s the point’ and ‘I can’t do this’.

    One technique I found helpful in the past

    One thing I’ve found helpful in the past is writing down a word count for each day. Even if it was just 30 words. Tiny word counts were fine because there were other days when the count would be in the thousands.

    Momentum was the key.

    I could count up the words at the end of each month, each quarter, each half-year, and each year.

    Over the years, the overall word count went up dramatically.

    At first, there was novelty and enthusiasm. Then there was the sense of obligation and the grind of having to do it. This is why even allowing small word counts can help. After a while, I had to write and if I didn’t there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. I didn’t associate it with a sense of failure or duty either. It had more to do with the feeling that writing was such a part of my daily life that I missed it and didn’t feel right when it wasn’t there.

    Nevertheless, we’re all allowed breaks.

    If you feel that a month of writing isn’t for you, it’s fine to take a step back. Never mind what other people are doing. Writing is not a competition – though it might feel like it is sometimes when you’re on social media.

    Still intent on finishing #NaNoWriMo?

    If you’re feeling a bit burned out, but you still want to continue, remember to take breaks. Go for a walk. Listen to music.

    If you need help concentrating, you can use a social media blocker like Cold Turkey.

    You can also use a Pomodoro timer to pace yourself.

    Whatever you write this month is just a jumping-off point, not the end goal. You can rework it later. Or even run off with a side character and live happily ever after in a new plot/novel!

  • Should you dust off that old novel?

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    I’m currently analyzing a novel that received very fast agent attention some years ago.

    Later it piqued the interest of literary scouts. There was international interest. But in spite of the initial promise, the novel failed to get an English-language deal. And because of this, the international publishers didn’t take it either.

    The main issue was that it needed a developmental editor.

    A common piece of advice is to ditch a rejected novel and get on with the next one. This is not bad advice in the short term. But it could be a mistake to ditch it forever.

    How to decide if your book is worth saving

    Here are some things to consider:

    • Did the novel show a lot of promise?
    • Have you had positive feedback since on its potential?
    • Do you now have the skillset to address any problems and fix them?
    • Do you want to rewrite the book? (If you don’t, then that’s the end of the matter.)
    • Market trends might also factor into whether it’s time to rework that book
    • Taking a few years out before re-examining the book is also instructive – it’s hard to read your own novel with fresh eyes at the best of times
    • Is this book similar to other books you have written or intend to write? (If it is, that would be a plus.)

    It’s understandable that some books are not worth revisiting.

    But when a huge amount of effort has been invested, as well as research, and the problems can be identified, it seems a shame to close the door on a rewrite.

    After all, revisiting the book is like meeting up with old friends… visiting old haunts. But you also get to meet new people and new places as the new draft takes hold.

    Identify the problems and the solutions

    In the case of this novel, the central issues lie in a problematic triad of structure/location/viewpoint. It’s a classic example of how changing one thing – viewpoint – could actually change the structure of the entire book.

    If the main character is telling the story, the reader can only know what they know and hear things when they hear them.

    This can have a very negative impact on story structure, pushing a lot of twists and revelations towards the latter part of the book.

    And this in turn creates structure and pacing problems.

    This is what happened with the book I’m currently looking at.

    Multiple third-person POVs would make a huge difference, freeing up the narrative. The plot structure would be more balanced. And information, revelations, and so on, more evenly spread through the book.

    If a book has a strong central voice, it might be difficult to let go of it and try something new. But if you really want to give your book a second chance, it will be necessary to change some things.

    This writer intends to rework their book.

    But for other writers in the same boat, the question is, do you want to rescue your novel or not? If you’d rather keep it as it is, and you’re okay with it not being published, then you can leave it. But if you want to publish it, it’s best to look at what can be improved.

    The advantage of returning to an old manuscript

    Here’s the beauty of working on an old manuscript:

    • You know the characters already
    • You know their backstories already
    • You know the locations already
    • You know the plot and subplots already

    So, you don’t have to start from scratch. You already have this information in your head.

    You just need to have the objectivity to know what’s best to keep and what to throw out. Hopefully, your writing skills will have improved enough that you can pull off a good rewrite.

    Never use the old manuscript as a roadmap

    But here’s something to avoid – dusting off your manuscript and using it as the basis of the rewrite.

    What you should really do is read it over and make notes on what works and what doesn’t work. There are things you previously thought were important – maybe you’d happily ditch those things now.

    What is worth keeping? What do you wish you’d done differently?

    Write up a rough plan. Then put the old draft aside and start again.

    Give yourself the freedom to start from scratch. Where you find your enthusiasm flagging, you might have stumbled on something that doesn’t work so well anymore.

    Where your enthusiasm picks up – that’s something worth keeping, or maybe just something new and exciting!

    The thing about tackling an old manuscript is you’ve already done the research and planning. You don’t need to plot the whole thing out again unless you have serious plot holes.

    Maybe the plot is great but it’s let down by the choice of viewpoint or the order of the scenes. Or there’s something off with the structure.

    Or maybe you started your novel in the wrong place and this set off a chain reaction right through the novel. And now you can see how to fix it.

    Not everyone wants to write a lot of novels. Some people would rather write fewer books and spend more time on them.

    One approach is not better than the other. Writers are all just different. This is not a competition.

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    It really comes down to whether you’d want to spend more time with the characters and that world.

    It also depends on the value of the manuscript. If it received positive attention from industry professionals, that might suggest it’s worth revisiting.

    Of course, you could just go down the indie route and publish it yourself.

    But if you want to have another go submitting it to agents, you could put it aside for a while. Even better if it’s been lying around for a few years. The more objectivity you have, the easier you will find it to spot the strengths and weaknesses.

    If you try to rewrite the manuscript by closely following the previous draft, you’re in danger of making the same mistakes again. Because the old draft exerts a certain gravitational pull – where you end up repeating too many things from before.

    In fact, tinkering could actually be harder than throwing out the previous draft (metaphorically) and starting again. Constantly referring to the old draft takes up too much time.

    Open a new file. Here’s your fresh start.

    You know your main plot and characters already. You are free to make any changes you wish. You are free to change the name of your characters, their appearance, and so many other things.

    You can make things better. Use the skills you’ve learned since the last draft.

    This is your second chance.

    Useful links

    If you want to check out my editing services, I offer developmental editing, manuscript critiques, beta reads, and custom reports. If you don’t see the particular custom critique service you’re after, you can email me at: karen@indiecateditorial.com

  • Too much period language in a historical novel?

    Too much period language in a historical novel?

    Too much period language in a historical novel?

    I was recently in the mood to read some historical fiction and decided to pick an indie novel. The blurb sounded fun and I looked forward to spending hours and hours in another period. As per usual, I started with a Kindle sample.

    And that’s as far as I got.

    In fact, I didn’t even get to the end of the sample.

    I gave up.

    So, what was the problem? To be honest, there were numerous problems. Some are simply related to the lack of a good editor – or any editor. Because I suspect this book never saw an editor.

    But that was not the biggest issue.

    No, the biggest issue was the language. Or rather, the saturated archaic language meant to evoke the period.

    The problems with syntax, grammar, and shifting tenses only added to the difficult prose.

    So, let’s talk about using period language in historical fiction. What can possibly go wrong? And should you use it? And is there such a thing as too much period language in historical fiction?

    An unfamiliar language

    The biggest issue is that modern readers are simply not familiar with this language. A writer might feel impatient at the unwillingness of modern readers to wade through overtly archaic language. But bear with me…

    For people of a particular period – say, Shakespeare’s time – the language used back then would be clear and transparent. It would not be confusing. It would be their own way of speaking – depending on class and education obviously.

    They would not notice anything strange or elaborate about their way of writing and speaking. It would be the norm.

    It would be as clear and transparent as a pane of glass.

    But, to our modern ears, it sounds like a different form of English… With a higher number of obsolete or strange words. Some words would be recognisable but possibly spelled differently. Or they might now appear in a slightly different form.

    If people from Shakespeare’s time were to teleport to the present and listen to us talk, we too would be hard to understand. Yes, people can acclimatise to speech and new words. But it’s hard work.

    And a novel isn’t meant to be hard work. At least, not when it’s a genre novel.

    But the point I was making above about period language being normal and easily understood within its time is important. When you use modern language, you might think it doesn’t sound right. But using the reader’s language, with some period words sprinkled here and there, is the easiest way to convey the period. (Along with actual descriptions of locations, events, mores, and so on.)

    Because to the people of Shakespeare’s time, their language was normal. It wasn’t a novelty or colourful or rich.

    Therefore, it doesn’t work to replicate the language of that time. Because we can never experience it as anything other than outsiders. Readers are like time travellers. They travel back and they immerse themselves in the period. But if they don’t have the natural language of the period, it’s going to be difficult. They will always be that modern person trying to fit in and never quite succeeding.

    To experience the period more accurately, it’s best to remove as many linguistic barriers as possible.

    Other ways to convey period language

    You don’t need to drop all period language. It’s a matter of density. Overuse makes the story harder to read and a modern writer is never going to write as fluently as a writer from the original period.

    In fact, a modern writer can make a big old mess of period language precisely because they are not and never will be fluent in the language. They don’t use it every day, speak it to their family, think in it, write in it, and hear it from their neighbours.

    A modern writer can unwittingly fall into pastiche or parody.

    It’s far better to read a lot of material from the period and listen to the rhythm of the language. Choose some words to use, but try to make your prose as transparent as possible. You should aim to give a flavour of the period.

    To go beyond that means alienating readers who might otherwise have bought your work.

    The language is the medium through which a story is delivered. So, the question is this – what should the writer’s priority be? Telling the story and introducing the reader to the characters? Or injecting a strong sense of the period through the language? You might try both and do a good job, but it’s a difficult balance.

    Get a good line editor

    If you’re going to attempt to write in the language of the period, you cannot skimp on a good line editor.

    Why?

    Because if you set up one difficult hurdle for the reader – obscure language – you can’t afford to have additional problems with grammar, punctuation, tenses, etc.

    All books will have some errors in them. The fewer the better. However, the more errors there are, the more times readers trip up.

    Here are just some of the problems you don’t want to be mixing in with overtly archaic language:

    • One long and convoluted sentence after another – this not only drags the pace, but it taxes the modern attention span
    • Grammatically incorrect sentences that force the reader to back up and read them again as they try to unpick the meaning (made worse by too much archaic language)
    • Meandering tenses

    I would also suggest being careful with overly long paragraphs. Especially if you have rather a lot of them. They can drag the pace down. They can also be more taxing on the eye, requiring visual scanning across one long line after another. Again, throw in too many strange words on top of this and a modern reader might balk.

    Having said all that, some readers do like a lot of period language – especially if they have some knowledge of the period to start with. But it’s worth considering the downsides and offset some of the cons by ensuring your book is edited well.

    Do you have a historical novel in need of a critique?

    I’m currently offering a special deal on an opening chapters edit. Contact me for a quote since you can opt for a custom word count. This developmental edit is detailed. It includes an editorial letter, plus track commenting in the margins of your manuscript. I read your manuscript several times, which allows me to dig deeper into the writing, characterisation, and plot. I’m also available for follow-up email feedback. You can email me at karen@indiecateditorial.com.

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