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Pro-Tip: What Makes Strong Writing?

10 Mar

Across all genres and purposes, writers want to know the one thing they can do in order to ensure readers consider their writing “good writing.”

My first piece of advice is to get rid of the notion of “good writing.” Pitting yourself against other writers in order to determine if your creative vision is “good” will get you nowhere. Writing, even in the academic and professional fields where creativity might sometimes be limited by style sheets and strict requirements, is a deeply personal endeavor. It’s not just the final product that author’s judge, but their journey to get that product. Trying to put worth on an experience is like saying your dream vacation is only worth as much as the airfare costs. It discounts everything you get out of travel on an intellectual, spiritual, and physical level. Writing a text is a trip–maybe not always a vacation–but a trip nonetheless.

So, why would you try to qualify your path against someone else? And why would you settle on the achievement of “good writing” when that’s based on how similar your process and product is to someone else you consider “good?” Isn’t that just good mimicry? You want to be “good,” or rather strong, at what YOU do and how YOU do it.

Strive, instead, for strong writing, writing that holds it’s own regardless of how similar (or not) it is to the work of others you admire. Yes, we first learn by mimicking, in speech as babies, and as authors. But, at some point, you start to sound like YOU, and if you go around trying to decide if your writing, and therefore if YOU, are good enough, you’re likely to have moments of doubt. You might feel like you don’t measure up, like an imposter, like someone who isn’t REALLY an author because you haven’t done x, y, or z thing that some other person who uses the title of author has done.

Strong writing is original, written with pride (but not necessarily confidence because you can be proud of your effort and still worried about its outcome. Confidence takes time), and organizationally sound. Above all of the basic prescriptive grammar and mechanics rules, the tenets that say writing SHOULD be done a certain way, is organization. If you’ve got a solid structure that readers can follow, if it’s logically arranged, if it’s thoroughly explained and balances detail without crossing into the condescending, then everything else you do after that will fall into place. Proper grammar and following the rules (which you can purposefully break once you know them) is only useful if your thoughts are linked together in a coherent way. Every sentence could be perfectly constructed according to the textbook way to use punctuation marks, point of view, and tense, but a text still won’t make sense if the overall structure doesn’t carry your thoughts clearly.

What I’m getting at is this: You want strong writing, not “good” writing because strong writing is not a matter of opinion. A text either makes sense or it doesn’t. A text is either organized or frenetic. (Don’t confuse the organized or frenetic nature of a text with the same qualities of a character. Even pieces with chaotic characters are still organized as a whole, although let’s not get into the unreliable narrator discussion. It’s often an exception). “Good” writing will be different to every author and reader. Stop comparing yourself to other authors, and start holding your writing up to your past work. Are you improving?

Pro-Tip: Copyright

3 Feb

Copyrighting is the legal process of filing your original creation (literary works for the purposes of this discussion) with the U.S. Copyright Office (or the office responsible in your country). This process of registration is the only way to fully protect your original content. By virtue of creating a text, saving it on your computer and/or keeping handwritten originals, publishing online through a blog or other platform, and/or publishing electronically or in hard copy for sale, the work is copyrighted in your name (or the pen name/alias used when publishing it) just because it exists. However, the only way you can pursue legal action against someone for violating your ownership of the text is if it is formally registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Only a registered work can be defended in court.

Many people think copyrighting their work is difficult, expensive, and requires a lawyer’s assistance. Not true (at least not always). Now, take this information with a grain of salt, as it’s reflective of my own self-publishing experience, I’m not a lawyer, and certain projects cost more and risk more than my fiction novels. However, I’ve copyrighted two of my own projects so far, spending $35 each, and find it to be one of the easiest parts of the publishing process. I log in, choose the online form for literary works, answer the questions that determine whether my project is eligible for online registration (my type of texts-a single item, novel, with a single author/owner-always are), fill in information about the novel and my personal/business information, pay, and submit the text as an attached word document.

If you’re ready to start this process for your novel or other text, go to the U.S. Copyright Office website and make sure your text belongs in the literary works category. Then, begin the online application by clicking “Register a Literary Work” under the eCO section on the right side of the screen.

To file, you must be the creator/owner of the work or the legally responsible agent for the piece (meaning publisher, agent, lawyer, or other responsible party that has the author’s permission to file for and/or hold the copyright). In my opinion, it’s best that authors own their own copyrights. It gives more control over your intellectual property. This won’t always be a possibility in certain publication scenarios, so decide the level of involvement and ownership you wish to maintain as author before signing anything for anybody.

If you decide to proceed with the process, you must have the most current, closest to publication-ready version of the text as you can. You will be required to submit that text online as an attachment or by mail as hard copy (which they do not return to you) after payment (via credit/debit or direct withdrawal from a bank account).

A lot of people worry that they cannot make any changes ever to the text once it is copyrighted. This is a misconception. The general rule of thumb is that minor changes to your manuscript after it has been registered (things like editing for grammar and typos) do not require you to resubmit for updating. However, large creative changes, like adding a chapter or creating an updated edition with a new forward or new footnotes, will require re-submission because the copyrighted product then differs too greatly from the publication version of the product. At that point, they are no longer the same text. This is why it’s important to be as ready to publish as you can before submitting.

After that, it’s a waiting game. Assuming there are no errors with your application or file submission, there will be a long silence and then the copyright will appear in your mailbox. They say this takes around 8 months. My first copyright came in 2. If something is amiss, it will take longer, as you’ll have to resubmit to fix any errors. They’ll let you know if anything is holding up the process. Essentially, no news is good news.

If you have any questions about the process, I highly recommend visiting the FAQ page on the Copyright Office’s website. Everything I know about the process and have shared with you here I learned from reading the materials and guidelines they provide. You can also comment with your questions or advice, or email me: amanda@redinkenthusiast.com.

As a writing services provider and fellow author, I can help familiarize you with this process and send you to helpful resources, but please remember that I’m not a lawyer. I do not provide legal services or advice regarding copyright infringement, libel, et cetera. I do not provide financial services or advice regarding marketing, sales, or the publication process. All information given is based solely on my personal experiences as a scholar and fellow self-publisher and is not to serve as the sole recommendation on which to base your writing and publication practices.

Pro-Tip: Drafting-Behind the Scenes

8 Dec

Hello, all!

I realize this website has become quite self-serving. I haven’t written a pro-tip in a while, but I’ve advertised the life out of my book.

Oh, well. Here comes some more–a pro-tip/advertisement hybrid.

I recently had two of my poems published by Life In 10 Minutes. The first was a characterization exercise for Acephalous. The second was a true-to-life musing about the holiday season.

For my characterization planning, I wrote from the point of view of Atlas to better get into his head. Even when characterization exercises don’t make it into the book directly, familiarizing myself with my characters on that level allows me to write about them as if they are each a real person. I highly recommend it.

There’s no right way to do this. For me, these things usually come in fits and starts in the middle of the night. The MEMO section of my cellphone is awash in brooding prose that has no bearing on my emotional state but that of my characters.

I know other writers who carry around a journal everywhere they go, just in case. That’s a bit much for me. No girl needs anything extra added to the weight of her purse. There’s enough in there already!

However, I am drowning in post-it notes. Someone out there, please invent a post-it note binder or portfolio so I can store these things with some logic.

Regardless of how you might choose to complete your characterization projects, I recommend that you do it somehow, sometime, before you write the final revision of a text. Acephalous is a different book from the version people test read, and it’s a good thing it is.

If your dialogue makes you outwardly cringe, try a character profile sheet or writing a poem from his or her point of view. It works.

 

Pro-tip: Writer’s Block

7 Oct

I’ll use myself as an example today. I sat here for a good 10 minutes trying to come up with a pro-tip for you guys about grammar or the publishing process–something useful. But, I just didn’t want to write about any of those things. Between past articles and teaching composition classes 4 days a week, I feel like I’ve said it all. So, instead of forcing myself to say what I thought YOU would want to hear–advice that caters to a very specific issue or topic–I said, “Screw it. I’ll say what I want to say,” and tackle a broader concept.

My first piece of advice on writer’s block is to stop trying to say what you think the audience wants to hear, and just do you. Get YOUR thoughts out first, whatever they are. Forcing your writing to fit others’ expectations rather than your own does no favor to the audience. It will sound forced, and they will notice. Plus, it doesn’t matter one bit if  your first, second, third draft is worthy of its audience. Whose is? Hemingway himself knew that first drafts are shit. His words, not mine.

So, don’t you think that makes a first draft a great time to experiment with your thoughts? Address audience needs later on when you’re revising. It will do no good to cater to the audience in those first few versions that no one will see anyway. That’s your time to decide what the heck you’re trying to say in the first place before shaping it to fit their expectations.

Once you get around to revising the more permanent versions, that’s when you have to ask yourself if you’ve followed through on all of the expectations you set up in your introduction. That’s when you consider what the audience already knows and what they still might need a little background or description to figure out. That’s when you assess your word choices and decide if your vocabulary meets the level/age of the audience, if your approach matches the goal of your text for that audience, if the tone matches the nature of the piece.

Second, don’t stop before you start! Many people are under the impression that if the first line, first page of a text isn’t catchy, then there’s no point in continuing. And, while an interesting hook is important, its existence shouldn’t be the reason you do or do not continue writing the piece. Writing and revising are recursive processes. This means that it’s never totally done. You will always go back and look at something you’ve already done and scrutinize it. It’s exhausting, but wonderful. This means what you write, no matter how attached to it you feel, is not set in stone. Write that crappy introduction and keep going! Go back to it when you’re done with the draft. Sometimes, it’s easier to write a snappy intro once the whole story or essay is finished. At that point, you know what you have to draw from, what’s upcoming, what you can allude to in the first few sentences.

Third, shut off the teacher’s voice nagging in the back of your mind. Even if that voice is your own. If the rules you’ve been taught about what you can and can’t do when you write don’t help guide your process, if they stall you out instead, ignore them (at least until you revise–some situations, like work and academics, do legitimately require a rigid standard of delivery and shouldn’t be ignored).

In writing, especially creative writing, there are very few rules that are law. Most are just stylistic guidelines based on a prescribed method of academic or traditional writing. This is called Standard Written American English. It’s the prescriptive norm of how “they” say English SHOULD BE used, including both grammar and usage. Sometimes those standards don’t allow us to convey the creativity or naturalness of speech we’d like. When writers take guidelines as law, they often catch themselves in a rigid process that can’t conform to the pliable, recursive nature of a text. Embrace the descriptive use of language. This is the way English is ACTUALLY used in every day speech: slang, colloquialisms, and regional/cultural dialects included. Doing so will help create realistic, relatable characters, natural settings, conversational dialogue, and a personable approach that engages the reader. Even in formal writing, this can be achieved by staying true to your authorial voice rather than trying to force it into the voice you think the reader is waiting to hear.

Most importantly, don’t blame the inability to sit down and write something on “the muse” not showing up. Writing is work. Whether your muse has shown up or not, you still have to in order to get something done. It’s not always an inspired, fevered gutting of the author. Sometimes, it’s just that thing you’ve got to get done today. Writer’s block is usually always rooted in some sort of anxiety: Can I do this correctly? Am I breaking the rules? What if it’s crap? No one wants to read this. I’m boring and there’s nothing original left in the world. How am I going to do this by the deadline? I’m afraid to say this. What if people think the main character is me?

Sound familiar? I get it. But who cares if it’s uninspired? You’ll get to fix it tomorrow.

For more reading on writer’s block and methods to move past it, read Mike Rose’s fantastic, albeit lengthy, Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block.

 

Pro-Tip: YOU! Second Person POV

21 Jul

It’s been a long time since I posted a new Pro-Tip, so I thought I’d jump at the chance while there’s a lull in my schedule (read: my printer is SO slow).

Second Person Point of View is the least commonly utilized POV for fiction, and the hardest to use well. Second person POV is the “you” form of narrating or discussion. This POV places all of the actions of a text on the reader, as if he or she is the one doing something. This method is useful for creating suspense in text, as well as to discuss the “general you” of human-kind. It’s also a helpful tool in marketing and how-to writing, like a lot of my advice on this website. In addition, second person also effects some suspension of disbelief because it requires the readers to pause their individual worldviews and personalities and inhabit the mannerisms, emotions, actions, and context of the text’s “you.” For advertising especially, it entreats the reader to say, “Yeah, I DO need to go buy this/do that.”

Fiction Ex: You pull up to the curb and cut the engine, noticing there's already a 
light on inside. You know you left the house dark when you went out hours ago. The 
sight is alarming. Your hairs raise. As you approach the door and extend your key, 
each step brings you closer to confirming your worry. The door is ajar. You can hear
your heart thumping in your ears, a symptom of the fight or flight response. 
Responding with the former, you kick the door wide and enter, shouting, "I'm calling
the police." 

Advertising Ex: You can't miss this sale. Find all the great styles you'll need for
that beach vacation. Come shop TODAY!

Notice in the examples that the narrator doesn’t draw any attention to himself. This differs from a first person, “I,” point of view and from a third person point of view where, though the narrator doesn’t interject his own worldview, the narrator also doesn’t discuss the reader.

Sometimes first and third person narrators will occasionally talk directly to the reader. It’s a unique method of storytelling similar to breaking the third wall in film. Whether the primary POV is first or third person, a narrator makes personal interjections directed at the reader. This isn’t an easy voice to pull off, and I generally allow the reader to feel as much a part or observer of the text as he or she desires depending on their own levels of empathy, introjection, and interest in suspending reality. However, I won’t be the one to say, “Never do it!” Talking directly to the reader lends a certain casual feeling to a story, and can be very inviting to a reader because it asks the reader to join the conversation or play a role in the events. Read the example below to see the difference in tone provided by talking to the reader while using first person POV. Notice also that the first example is in present tense and this example is in past tense. I did this to display that tense choice does not exclude any POV options.

Ex: I pulled up to the curb and cut the engine. I noticed there was already a light 
on inside.  

You know, I'm pretty forgetful, but I'd bet you $50 I hadn't forgotten to turn it 
off.

I'm sure I left the house dark when I went out hours before. The sight was alarming. 
My hairs rose. As I approached the door and extended my key, each step brought me 
closer to confirming my worry. The door was ajar. 

I bet you saw that coming. 

I could hear my heart thumping in my ears, a symptom of the fight or flight 
response. I don't know if I made the right choice; you'll have to be the judge of 
that. I kicked the door wide and entered, shouting, "I'm calling the police." 

You're going to laugh at me when I tell you what happened next.

Essentially, a text doesn’t qualify as second person POV just because “you” is used in the narrative. The designation of POV is most easily assigned by looking at who in the narrative is completing the actions of the story. 

The Takeaway:

First Person: I, as the narrator (and often main character), do things within the story, and the other characters are seen through my eyes and worldview.

Second Person: You, the reader, do things withing the story, and the other characters are perceived by your worldview.

Third Person: They, the characters, do things within the story, and they are perceived by a named OR unnamed narrator that, depending on limited or omniscient knowledge, has varying degrees of insight into each character’s worldview.

 

 

 

Pro-Tip: Naming Characters

2 May

Whether you’re the type to go for allegory, obscurity, trends, or historical accuracy, naming your characters can take daunting research. It’s a fun job, don’t get me wrong, but it helps to have thorough tools to get the job done.

Baby name websites are a good start. Just Google “baby names” and you’ll find a number of sites that’ll do the trick. They usually include origin and meaning of the name. In addition, many rank the names based on popularity. So, if you want to reflect the times, you can choose a popular name. If you want uncommon names, you know what to avoid. However, these lists, in my experience, are exclusively for given names. And that makes sense. People aren’t looking at lists of surnames for their children. They get those automatically.

Writers, though, we get saddled with having to choose it all. These decisions, if you’re one to put a lot of emphasis on names reflecting personality like me, are foundational ones to make. (It’s totally fine to arbitrarily choose a name based on aesthetic preference alone, too.)

The website Behind the Name is the most thorough list of surnames I’ve found. It includes many geographical areas making naming by ethnicity or nationality is easy. It provides the meaning of each name listed, and it is detailed about noting any variations in spelling or language where applicable.

I’ve gotten a lot of use out of Behind the Name today while working on the second installment of Acephalous. New characters, new names. Comment below if you’ve got your own favorite naming sites to add to the conversation!

Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico

Author, Editor, Red Ink Enthusiast™

Pro-Tip: Testing

14 Apr

Every novel goes through a test-phase. If it doesn’t, well, I think it should.

A test run of your manuscript means that you’ve pried your hands away from the keyboard, clamped down on your desire to continue editing and rearranging, and actually allowed others to read it.

I know it’s tough. You’ll want positive feedback, but the negative will be more useful.

This necessary step in the revision process affords you some time away from the text. When you come back, you’ll read with fresh eyes and new opinions. While it’s nail-bitingly nerve wracking to give something that you consider unfinished to others for the sole purpose of judging it, the feedback you’ll receive will be that last push you need to move toward completing the project. Finally.

Personally, this stage, which I’m about to embark upon myself, is exciting because I’ll get to hear from outsiders, both within and without my target audience, and who know nothing about the story, whether it’s as slow, redundant, cliche, or lame as I worry it is in certain parts. I’ll learn whether my jokes hit the right note, if my characters are relatable, and if I’ve classified the genre and age range correctly.

Help your test readers out by giving them a reader’s note along with the manuscript. Include your log-line and jacket summary. If they know what you intend to get across with the story, they’ll be able to tell you if you did or didn’t accomplish that. If they don’t know your intentions, they’ll find their own meaning along the way and assume you did a nice job. Include a bulleted list of concerns you have–things you want them to consider and report back on specifically. Include your prospective genre and age range to make sure you’re on target regarding content complexity and appropriateness. And DEFINITELY include a big thank you. Your friends and family have just agreed to do for free what editors charge enough to make a living doing.

And remember that no matter what kind of feedback you fear getting ahead of time, you will get to edit again because nothing in a manuscript is permanent.

Happy writing, happier re-writing!

 

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