Posted: April 23rd, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Ghostwriting, Writing Tips | Tags: editing, fiction, plots, publishing, revising, themes, wordsmith, writing, writing tips | Comments Off
As readers, we all know instinctively the difference between a good and bad story. Good stories leave an imprint on your readers that lasts beyond the moment their eyes leave that final page of text. Getting to that unforgettable status not only takes great writing– but also great editing and revising to clarify and present a creative vision in the best light possible.
At Night Owls Press, here’s what we think are the absolute basics you’ll need:
1. Does your story have soul?
Capture some aspect of the human condition in your story. These can come in the form of thematic elements, and can be as simple as ‘love conquers all’ or ‘people never learn from their mistakes and tragically repeat them’. A story theme provides the essence of your narrative, the lasting idea that you want your readers to take away when they finish. We all read to experience something new and to gain insights into our own lives. The themes in your story should engage the reader at this deeper level and remain consistent throughout.
Here are some questions we ask when editing fiction:
- Does the story illuminate the human condition in some way that inspires or moves the reader?
- Is the theme made obvious through action, plot, and characterization?
- How well is the theme and supporting points integrated into the narrative?
2. Does your story have ‘good bones’ (a.k.a. strong narrative framework)?
Many writing guides have suggested (a bit reductively sometimes) that all fiction falls under seven archetypal plots— all of which come from the basic human drama— the Jungian development and integration of the mature self: 1. Conflict with nature. 2. Conflict with fellow [wo]man. 3 Conflict with the environment. 4. Conflict with machines/technology. 5. Conflict with the supernatural. 6. Conflict with the self. 7. Conflict with god/religion. There is also the 20-plot and 36-plot taxonomy—but these are mostly variations of the 7.
A well-written story has robust narrative threads that are (no matter how complex and clever) focused and clear. Your characters, plotlines, and themes should complement each other so that the story in its entirety is a unified piece. Lack of focus, narrative redundancies, and nonsensical tangents disrupt the reader and convey sloppiness.
Here’s what we check:
- Does each chapter steadily build toward some climax?
- Are the dilemmas in the story consistent and articulated in a believable and fresh way?
3. Does your story have power?
A well-written story— whether a thriller, comedy, high literary or genre piece— creates a lasting impression on the reader and resonates at a deeper emotional level through its characters, themes, and storylines.
Some questions we ask to determine level of emotional ummpph:
- Does the writing use active language, fresh imagery, and have an authentic voice that engages?
- Are the characters well-developed and three dimensional?
- Are readers challenged or provoked?
Night Owls Press provides creative, thorough ghostwriting and editing services for budding authors. We polish your prose, so your ideas and stories shine. Contact us for a free quote. Get more writing tips here.
Posted: April 16th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Writing Tips | Tags: famous authors, first drafts, reading, wordsmith, writing, writing quirks, writing tips | 3 Comments »
As writers we all have our quirks. Even the literary stars can’t escape their writing tics.
Word has it that Virginia Woolf wrote all her books standing up. Not bad advice considering we now know that sitting for long periods of time is a potentially lethal activity. (In one study, men who spent “six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher.”)
Lewis Carol and Ernest Hemingway also eschewed the chair in favor of penning their masterpieces while standing.
There are also writers with fashion quirks. Edgar Allan Poe was the spooky man in black; Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain chose white– the color of wide-eyed innocence.
Not all writers are sedentary folks chained to their desks. Charles Dickens purportedly walked nearly 20 miles a day (perfecting the art of people watching along the way I’m sure– no wonder he’s a master at the character study and capturing mannerisms). Dan Brown likes to break for push-ups and sit-ups several times a day while writing.
Balzac was a coffee addict, reputedly downing 10 cups of coffee a day.
I was surprised to find out that Stephen King (Mr. King Prolific– cranking out 10+ pages a day) wrote in the same seat at home and arranged his manuscript and notes in neat piles. Other writers are decidedly haphazard. Nabokov wrote on index cards.
The wide variation in these quirks makes these habits less personal rules than a way to ensure creative excellence on a day-to-day basis. Honing the craft for writers is about finding the right combination of habit and defiance, I think– rebellion against convention.
One of my self-admitted quirks is that I have to read before I can write. Reading masterfully written text by others becomes both a warm-up and a self-taunt for me– a challenge to pull off something equally stunning and gripping. It also provides a way to get off-tangent in a creative way. It’s also the best way to procrastinate for half an hour before getting started on work. Writing for me is jumpy and associative– and that’s where the best ideas come from– the alchemy of disparate ideas that produces something new and fresh.
There are works, of course, (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, recently) that I read whose utter balance and perfection floor me for days and I can’t do anything else but slobber on my keyboard…
Another quirk I confess to having: my first drafts are always chaotic (and have to be). When I was in college, I could write something that was orderly and clean right from the first word on the first draft. Today, I’m a much better better writer and my first drafts have regressed into chaos. I write drafts that are more like pages of notes. They spill out like jumpy fish dumped on the deck of a boat. They hurl and flop, gasping for air. Rather than ‘writing’, I’m brainstorming and collating the results, grouping common ideas, banishing minor ideas but later bringing them back as interesting lead-ins. I become essentially a whirling writing dervish.
The first readable draft evolves slowly but steadily (I don’t linger over phrases and words, preferring to edit in a later stage). Writing first drafts is messy (and should be) because it’s as close to creation as you’ll get. To evolve past the first draft, you need to edit. Editing is just as important, if not more so than writing– it is the stage where your piece finally reaches a steady-state of readability and impact.
Posted: April 16th, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Writing Tips | Tags: digital publishing, e-books, Reif Larsen, super e-books, wordsmith, writing, writing tips | Comments Off
I just saw this phrase blogged by writer Danielle Evans in discussing what bad writing looks like: “A lion as taxidermied by a taxidermist who had never seen a lion”. Evans uses this vivid image to parse out a more nuanced revelation and also takes the old standby rule, ‘Write what you know’ dished out in writing classes– and blows it out of the water. Here’s what she says:
The phrase itself has always seemed to me alarmingly imprecise, and I’ve wondered about a better way to express the portion of the idea that’s useful…
Since it wasn’t originally a writing lesson, I plan to make it one: write what you know shouldn’t mean you need to be the lion, or to have raised lions, or lived with lions, to write about lions (wherein lions can be either the material conditions or the emotional underpinnings of the world you’re writing about.) If a person says that, they may think that’s what they want, but they’re wrong. What they mean is don’t write anything that’s fundamentally untrue to the basic nature of the thing you’re writing about, that’s so far from what you meant to represent that it evokes none of the reaction that it should. If you don’t know enough to tell the difference, then maybe you better ask some questions about lions before you get to writing about them.
In my commercial work, I’ve earned a decent living writing about things I don’t have doctoral-level expertise on. With a little sleuthing and smart research skills, you can vet and develop any idea with finesse and rigor. In fiction, it’s much the same. If writers only wrote what they knew, there wouldn’t be any need for imaginative flights. Maybe we’d all be like J. Alfred Prufrock– contemplating whether or not to eat the damn peach!
I picked up a book the other day– something I wouldn’t normally read– about a 12-year old genius map maker, T.S. Spivet who undertakes an adventurous trip on freight trains from his home on a ranch in Montana to the East Coast. He meets some memorable characters along the way, hitching rides here and there– including a Winnebago that could be alive, a preacher with homicidal tendencies, a foul-mouthed trucker, and members of a secret club. T.S. is a scientist at heart and the story told from his perspective comes with beautiful, illustrated marginalia: footnotes, digressions, drawings, and maps– lots of maps. There are great backstories and poignant revelations, too. A unique tale that would never have materialized if Reif Larsen, the author, decided to stick to mundane real-life. (The coolness factor of this story doesn’t end there– it’s now a fully interactive story with breathtaking digital elements that you can read on your iPad.
Posted: March 31st, 2011 | Author: Genevieve DeGuzman | Filed under: Writing Tips | Tags: editing, ninja, revising, wordsmith, writing, writing model, writing technique, writing tips | Comments Off
People ask us how we can crank out so much verbiage (say 5,000 words of finished, polished prose) on projects on a weekly basis. Writing like a wordsmith ninja takes three basic elements: quality caffeine in measured doses, reading lots of good writing– and more importantly– having and implementing a really simple and basic writing process.
Why? Having a process in place helps increase your writing capacity, plain and simple. No– writing isn’t factory work and Night Owls Press is definitely not a content farm (see Wired’s take and Google’s policy to take them down)– but we do advocate having a process. By following a few tips and tricks you can train yourself to write much more without sacrificing on quality or clarity. Here’s our advice on having a writing process:
1. Write to a model. Unless it’s an unconventional piece, or some arcane, avant-garde number– most writing projects have predictable standards. The writer looking to write better and faster should take advantage of this predictability. Don’t be turned off by the monotony of writing the same thing over and over again; instead, use this consistency to your advantage. Over time, every writing team (Night Owls Press included) accumulates a portfolio of work that has the same structure, the same ‘bones’. If you could do an X-ray of everything we have produced– reports, feature articles, and even books– you start to see commonalities emerge.
Here’s how we make use of models: Do an inventory of work you have created and classify them. Find a set of ‘samples’ of each type and rank them by quality or complexity. The objective is to have a handful of finished products that represent the creme de la creme of each type– these will serve as your models. Ideally, you will have these templates or models for a policy report, an analytical report, a business/management e-book, a self-help e-book, and so on. Dissect the model and see what makes each one tick– word count, layout, writing quality, structure and organization. Once you have a recipe, you are on your way to writing better and faster.
2. No blank checks on word counts– stick to a number. Writing more doesn’t mean writing MORE. When working with clients, we always make sure that we are clear on the expected word count– and I try to write within 100-200 words of that limit. Writing to a limit ensures that we do not eat up precious real estate in a column, or end up with a runaway Indiana-Jones-rolling-ball of text that keeps picking up speed and gets longer and longer. Writing without limits in mind can be good for certain pieces– like e-books that have more leeway on word count. But as a rule, and if you are juggling other projects– keeping yourself corralled by a number helps focus your thinking on paper.
The result: you end up writing tight, mindful copy, and stay conscientious about the details and presentation. A piece jammed with every fact under the sun can be tedious, boring. Keep your writing lean and clean with word counts.
3. Don’t write a house of cards– structure well. Seasoned writers can always spot the logical and predictable structural patterns required in certain pieces. For example, I know that when I write a policy report with an advocacy message that there will be certain sections, organized to an outline with key action words and a particular style of ‘wordslinging’ that will have the most impact on readers. An example outline of this for a typical nonprofit report would be something like: ‘Challenges (discuss the pressing problems that need to be addressed), Causes (give the underlying causes), Impact (describe effect on populations), Solutions (offer strategies for dealing with these problems), Practice (instruct on how to put it all to work)– sandwiched between a compelling introduction and conclusion’.
4. Don’t spend too long on a first draft; circulate and revise many times. A lot of people get hung up on their first drafts, drafting too long and trying to perfect text on the first go. The first draft should be the most creative: use the ‘rabbit-out-of-hat trick’ and ‘moshpit’ prewriting techniques to get started. In the drafting stage, I often write in stream-of-consciousness, which gets the ideas down on paper where I can review them later and move them around like chess pieces on a board in the revision stage. Think of yourself as a movie director trying to record all the footage you can in a single take. The real writing comes later– in the revision process where you polish text and ideas on the page, focusing less on the words and more on the content and structure and how to make each idea move seamlessly from one to the next. Over-drafting is inefficient and drags out a writing project longer than necessary.
5. Know the difference between revising and editing. It’s every writer’s ‘a-ha!’ moment when they realize that revising a piece is a completely different animal from editing. Knowing the difference between the two can help you move though the writing process faster. Revisions are changes to the meat and bones of a piece– fine-tuning the ideas and arguments or making the storyline more compelling and logical for readers. When revising, anything goes: the sequence of sections may be changed, ideas may be dropped or merged together, an introduction may be scrapped for another. In contrast, editing is more cosmetic: grammar, punctuation, syntax– any type of text-o-plasty to polish the text.
For more advice, see our previous posts categorized under Writing Tips or ask Night Owls Press for a free consultation on your writing project.