Posts Tagged ‘advice’

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Most of you are probably not old enough to remember actual prizes in Cracker Jacks boxes. Not those lame tattoos or stickers. We used to get actual toys — mini puzzles, tiny race cars, code rings, those whistles that go “whizzzzz” when you blow them.  Same thing with cereal boxes. I remember receiving actual playable records you cut out of the back of the box and stick on your turntable. Nowadays it’s all about the Happy Meal toy.  Because kids today couldn’t possibly wait through a whole box of cereal or even a whole box of Cracker Jacks to get to the prize (come to think of it, we weren’t always entirely patient, either).

So you may understand how we felt when, after all of the anticipation, we finally got our prize and it turned out to be … well, junk. There’s a certain amount of build-up when your mom says you can’t pour out the entire box into a mixing bowl just to get a toy; you’ll just have to wait.  Or when you’ve finally saved up enough pocket change to buy a box a Cracker Jacks with no idea what may be waiting inside.

Getting feedback on your manuscript is like that. You never know what you’re going to get after the long wait. And the anticipation is especially accute when you have to work just to find someone reliable and experienced to actually read your stuff in the first place. After all that, sometimes the advice you get is … well, junk.

The difference, though, is that sometimes you can’t tell if the advice is bad or not. Sure, if you can get several people to look at your stuff, you can start to see patterns and maybe get a consensus on certain rough spots or problems.  But even then, it’s hard to know if they just aren’t seeing what’s on the page. Often, when a reader misses something you feel is very clear, that simply means you’re not seeing it from their perspective — you can’t.  Other times, it just means they aren’t paying attention. Or maybe they aren’t part of your target audience. This is especially true when you write children’s books. It is unlikely you will be receiving detailed critical analysis from eight-year-olds. Or maybe your readers just simply aren’t familiar with the tropes of your particular genre.

This is why we work so hard to get multiple readers — so we can see if everybody sees the same thing or not. But even then, we may not agree. To be sure, it is not healthy — or practical — to take every piece of advice that comes your way. You will drive yourself insane trying to please every reader. Tastes vary. You know your voice and your message better than any reader, and you know when certain advice will break them. So you choose not to follow that advice.

But none of these judgement calls are black and white. There are a lot of reasons one might choose not to heed the advice of a critique, and not all of them are because the advice is fundamentally flawed. You may decide to go a different route than that suggested, solve the problem a different way. You may decide to wait and see what others say. You may know something the reader doesn’t, that gets revealed later in the story and which will make what you have written make perfect sense. Or, you might not be in an emotional position to embrace perfectly valid advice.

I just finished a substantial revision to the opening of the book I’m querying, which addressed issues that had been riaised by a number of readers, including professional editors and agents.  These were issues I was unwilling to concede to at the time, and therefor unable to deal with then.  However, the time eventually came when I was able to accept cutting several thousand words — and my favorite scene — out of chapter two, and getting to the “good stuff” that much sooner.  I added higher stakes and made my main character work harder to get what she wanted. These were big changes, which resulted in alterations throughout the whole book. and the time had to be right for me to tackle them.

So just as important as the quality of the advice is your receptiveness to it. Obviously, if your reader suggests something that is way off-base, don’t follow it. Less obviously — but equally important — if you are emotionally unwilling to embrace the advice, don’t follow it then. Bad Things will happen if you force it when you’re not ready. But also, keep that advice on file for when your perspective changes. Because it will.

Back to my manuscript: After making this latest rather ambitious revision, I am getting feedback from fresh readers. And more than one has suggested the beginning is boring and I don’t get to the “good stuff” soon enough. Possibly this is true. I’m not able to hear this advice right now, though. Because I’m just not willing to rip the fresh stitches out of this manuscript and dive into it again. Not right now. I need time for this new version to “cure,” for the scars to smooth until it all feels natural to me again (I can clearly see the fresh passages and missing sections as if they are written in different-colored ink on the page). The time isn’t right, just as it wasn’t right the first time I heard the advice that led to this latest revision. Maybe I’ll be able to embrace it later. But if I start revising again right now, Bad Things will happen.

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One of the most stressful parts of writing is not writing. Everyone knows this. Even people who don’t write. Because in every movie or television show which features a character who is a writer, there is a scene where that character is wracked with anxiety, pacing a floor ankle-deep in crumpled paper balls of failure, and basically rending their garments.

I’ve never had this experience, because I’m not particularly susceptible to wailing and gnashing my teeth. And I’ve never seen any of my writer friends melt into a steaming puddle of angst, either. But the anxiety is real, and any writer will tell you that there are times when the challenge of facing a blank screen can seem overwhelming. “Writer’s block” and “dry spells” most definitely happen. And when they happen, they can seriously erode your confidence, which only makes the problem worse. It can feel like you’re floundering in quicksand, surrounded by miles of empty desert in every direction.

It doesn’t have to feel that way.

Have you ever seen the movie “Mr. Baseball starring Tom Selleck? It’s certainly not the best movie ever, but it has its moments. Selleck plays a struggling baseball player that gets traded to a team in Japan, and he fears his career is over. Plus, he feels utterly out of place (very American, not worldly, daunted by all the differences, and 2 feet taller than everyone else in the whole country. So, he basically disregards everything anyone tries to tell him and fights with his new coach.

Finally, his coach does this sorta Karate Kid thing where he makes him hit golf balls with a bat at a driving range for hours at a time until Selleck finally throws down the bat and says, “I want to hit baseballs!” And his coach smiles and says, “Now you’re ready.”

The point is this: When you’re stuck and feeling guilt and pressure and self-doubt because you can’t write, and the idea of dragging out your manuscript is torture because it only justifies your feelings of failure — that is when you need to put it away and find something non-writerly to do for awhile until the desire to write comes organically. Maybe it will take a few months until you get your mojo back, and that’s okay — give yourself permission to recharge. Plant a garden. Binge-watch something you haven’t made time to watch. Learn to cook a new dish. Read a lot, until you begin to burn with the need to do it better than the writers you’re reading.

That’s when you’re ready. Until then, get comfortable on the bench. It doesn’t mean you’re out of the game; it just means you’re between innings.

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I touched on this briefly a few months ago. I’m not sure it sunk in. Of course I realize that not everyone I encounter on every writer-related website, discussion group, or social media feed is a regular reader of my blog. But I like to think they are. And I still field questions from writers asking if there is any place where they could, maybe, get a little feedback on their writing.

The level of ignorance being perpetuated is as astonishing as it is disheartening.

In one group a popular discussion started with the question:

Does anyone know of a “share site” or group where we can gather and share our stories to see if they are viable?

The question is perfectly valid. Here is a new writer seeking to expand her awareness of the writing community. She, quite naturally, gravitates toward the notion of a group of writers who swap their stories and offer constructive feedback. What shocked me were the responses.

The most common suggestions were LinkedIn and Facebook.

Wha…? How…?

Linkedin is a button-up social network for career management. There are discussion groups there, for sharing concepts and posting relevant articles, but posts are limited to 450 words. How much of your novel can you get feedback on in 450-word bites? And where is the mechanism for inviting critiques and analyzing feedback? And where is the motivation to give feedback? Facebook isn’t much better. LinkedIn and Facebook are like trying to construct a house with Tinker Toys.

One “expert” fella posted this gem (the origianal poster is a children’s writer):

Seriously doubt you can get valid comments from other adults … Suggest you beta test concepts with a group of children.

Because 8-year-olds are going to be able to coach you on your pacing, emotional arc, and key plot points. Another respondent recommended asking “friends, family, kid’s teachers/babysitters.” Worst. Advice. Ever.

This is a writer’s group. A group of writers. Who presumably write. How do they not know about critique groups and critique partners? Clearly none of these people are reading my blog.

I helpfully pointed out local face-to-face groups and Ciritique Circle and Agent Query Connect. But, honestly, these are a first step. The bare minimum anyone should do before attempting to put their writing “out there.” If you are serious what you want is a critique partner. Or three. CPs are the next evolutionary step on the ladder to getting published. What a dedicated, organized, and active critique group is to “asking your mom” to read your manuscript, a CP is to a critique group. Groups are essential, but they can be flakey. You have to commit to meeting every week or every other week, and you may find yourself surrounded by writers who simply don’t enjoy or “get” your particular genre or age group. Surely, you can find romance groups and sci-if groups, but what if you are writing children’s historical fantasy? You may be spending your weeks fielding advice from people who are not your audience and have little or no experience with books like yours.

But a critique partner? The idea is to locate individuals who specialize in just the kind of thing you write. Then swap manuscripts and keep each other on target. Writer besties. Someone who gets you, and who’s book you also love.

But were would one go to find such a unicorn? See, this is why everyone should be reading this blog. Invite your friends.

Here are some links. Get clickin’.

Critique Partner Matchup.  This Google Group has listings for 9 different genres/categories, including YA sci-fi fantasy, MG, poetry, romance, and adult contemporary.

Romance Writers of America offer their own critique partner matchup.

Agent Query Connect has multiple listings for CPs in various genres in their Wanted Ads forum.

Ladies Who Critique is a site set up specifically to make CP matches, broken down by popular age groups and genres. Men-folk also welcome.

The Write Life posted a piece titled, “40 Places to Find a Critique Partner Who Will Help You Improve Your Writing.”

Finally, keep an ear to the ground by way of Twitter; #CPMatch is a thing and it happens a couple times a year. During the Twitter party you pitch your book and browse the feed for others who you think might make a good CP match. Follow Megan Lally for details, or get it straight from her blog.

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There is a lot of advice out there about querying your manuscript, but one of the most common pieces of advice is “Don’t give up!” Variations on this include “Aim for 100 rejections a year,” and “Don’t stop querying until you’ve queried at least 80 agents.”

Fine. I have no problem sticking it out that long. I’ve gotten a grip on my self confidence and can keep this up for as long as it takes. The problem actually comes when you start to run out of agents to query. So what do you do then?

I’m not sure it’s possible to run out of agents to query — only to run out of places to look. There are hundreds of agencies in the U.S. alone, and even if you strike out with one agent, rarely is it prohibited for you to try again with a different agent at the same agency. So where do you look? Following is a list (far from exhaustive) of places you can find agents eager to read what you’ve got, or at least eager to take a look.

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  • Annual Guide To Literary Agents. This is basically an alphabetical directory of agencies, with detailed information including what they are looking for, what terms they offer, recent sales, how to submit, and the names of individual agents. The book also has detailed articles on how to write a good query, how to write a synopsis, what agents look for, etc. The book also contains a directory of conferences. In addition to this book, you can also find similar books such as Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Christian Writer’s Market, and Poet’s Market.
  • AgentQuery.com.  “The Internet’s largest free database of literary agents.” You can search by quite a large selection of genre keywords in fiction and non-fiction.  The site also contains many resources for writers, including information on e-publishing, networking, what to do with an offer, etc. There is also an active writer’s forum, including critique groups and genre discussions at agentqueryconnect.com.
  • ManuscriptWishlist.com.  This site continues to expand and improve, and now includes extensive articles by active agents and writers, and a monthly e-newsletter to whitch you can subscribe. Manuscript wishlist grew out of an annual Twitter event during which agents and publishers would post on the hashtag #MSWL what kinds of things they were looking for. The main (and best) feature of the site is the searchable database, which focuses on what each individual agent is looking for and how best to get their attention, as well as specific submission guidelines. There is also mswishlist.com, which is basically just an agrigator of Twitter posts using the #MSWL hashtag, which by this point is just a contrast stream. This site also has streams for #AskAgent, “queries” (such as #500queries, #100queries, #tenqueries, etc., where agents post their responses to a set quantity of queries they receive in the course of their daily routine), and #PubTip, as well as a listing of agents on Twitter, including the genres/age groups they represent. You can click on any of these tags, such as MG, and get a filtered list of agents who represent that category.
  • Twitter. Yup. It isn’t just for witty observations and pictures of you lunch anymore.  Haunt the writerly hashtags, such as those mentioned above, as well as #QueryTips, #AmQuerying, #AmWriting, or even just your genre or age group, and you will find an active flow of tips, advice, announcements, offers of assistance, and upcoming events. Many of those who post on these hashtags are agents seeking submissions or offering the benefits of their experience. This is a great way to connect with agents who share your tastes and interests.  Pay attention to the contests, too, because even if you don’t choose to enter, most of them include a roster of participating agents and their bios, wishlist, and contact information.

These are all really just the starting point. Because once you find a potential match through one of these resources, you will want to investigate further before dashing off that query burning a hole in your hard drive. Find them on Twitter and explore their posts. Visit their website — many have both an agency page as well as a personal page. Search the Internet for interviews and read them; you will often discover some pet peeve to avoid or some special interest you share. But most importantly, you will want to find that thing in common between what you have to offer and what they most want to discover in their in-box. This is the key to personalizing your query to each agent.

My last piece of advice is to start a spreadsheet to keep track of who you have queried, by date, and what responses you receive, if any.  Many agents will indicate that no answer after a certain amount of time = a pass.  I personally use Microsoft’s OneNote, because it is free and mobile. I have it on my PC, my iPad and my phone, and they are all automatically synced.

Now, you should have no problem putting out a query a day, or five a week, or whatever goal you set yourself. Get to it, and good luck!

Just Write It

Posted: January 25, 2017 in Writing
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The best thing about pitch contest season is how motivational it is.  No kidding, every contest has its own Twitter presence, and while participants and others wait (often for days) for the results, those Twitter feeds fill up with encouragement, cheerleading, pats on the back, and success stories. And these are great. That’s 7/8th of the reason you should enter in the first place.*

The other thing these Twitter feeds fill up with are little motivational games like “Tell us what you listen to when you write,” or “Who do you imagine would play your main character in the movie version of your book?” These are fun, but here’s the thing: sometimes new writers will collect the answers to these questions and all of the success stories and so forth from more experienced entrants, and build little shrines to them. They begin to think things like, she listened to Mozart when she wrote her book and she was a finalist, so I must find a Mozart channel on Spotify.

Just No.

These are very much like when a new writer will earnestly take to heart such “rules” as Never Start A Book With Dialogue, or Always Begin With Action. These are not rules, and even if they were, most rules are meant to be broken when called for. New writers are eager sponges looking for any secrets that might help them corral those untamed words that erupt from their fingers. And in that vein, then often cast these tidbits of advice in stone and pray to them.

This reminds me of a story (possibly an urban legend) of a woman who would always cut then ends off a roast before putting it in the oven, because that’s what her mother did and her grandmother before her. She eventually learned that the reason her grandmother cut the ends off was because her pan was too small to fit the whole thing.  You want to understand the reason these “rules” were voiced in the first place, and judge for yourself if the issue for which this advice was given actually applies to your writing.

All of this to say: just write it. It doesn’t matter if your favorite author only drinks white wine (she may have a low tolerance for sulfur), or that one professor shuns anything written in italics (telepathic dialogue in italics was an overused trend in pulp fantasy about 30 years ago). I only write after 10 pm; it doesn’t make me a better writer, nor is my muse an insomniac. I write after 10 pm because until then my 8yo is awake and greedy for my attention. You do you. Find what works and stick to it. Advice is fantastic, and so is the voice of experience, but you don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel to succeed.

Also, new writers are often overflowing with reasons to fail. I’m here to tell you, don’t feed that beast by convincing yourself you’ll never be great because you hate white wine and always fall asleep by 9.

Just Write It.


*There’s also winning, but that hardly ever happens. Well, in fact, it happens every time, but hundreds of people enter these things, and there are only so many spots.  But that’s why you keep entering; to increase your odds.

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If you are a querying writer with aspirations of becoming an agented author, pitch contest season is like June for college graduates — polishing their resumé and practicing their interview face. For us writers, it is time to get our bits ready.

The “bits” to which I am referring are your 140-character Twitter pitch and your 35-word longline and your 250 to 300-word synopsis and the first 250 words of your finished manuscript.  Plus, you’ll need to have your genre worked out (pick ONE; fantasy steampunk horror romance is not a thing). Know your age group (pick ONE). Choose a couple of good, contemporary comps (NOT Harry Potter, NOT 50 Shades of Gray, and something you’ve actually read and an agent has actually heard of).

Also, you know, just know your story and your characters, because many of these contests will ask you to come up with a clever “code name” for your book, or answer a “character question” as part of your submission. Sometimes these contests will pop up out of nowhere, and you will discover you have only a day or two to get everything compiled and ready to submit during a small window.

Let’s take Sun vs. Snow, for example. This year the entry window opens on January 23. So, as I write this, there are still almost two weeks to prepare.  On the above-linked website there are very specific instructions for how to format the e-mail you will submit, including spacing, what font to use, where to bold, etc. There is a character question, so even if you have all your bits neatly organized in a folder, you still need to write a pithy (100 words or less) answer to this.  Then when the window opens at 4pm Eastern time, you have less than 5 minutes to hit send, because they only take the first 200 entries. In past years the contest filled up in four minutes.

READ THE CONTEST GUIDELINES CAREFULLY. Because this really is a case where judges will be overwhelmed with entries and must whittle down to just a few who can go through. What do you win? That varies from contest to contest, but generally “winners” of dinferential stages earn close, personalized feedback from professional editors, who will help you polish your ms and query and get them ready to present to agents. These contests almost always earn someone a contract with an agent. But don’t enter if you’re not prepared to do a lot of revisions very quickly.

Getting in is hard, because these contests are fiercely competitive, but they are worth it because someone always makes it through, and the odds go up the more you participate. Not to mention you will have an opportunity to receive free, professional feedback — not only on your ms, but you can learn from the feedback others receive. There is almost always a Twitter feed you can follow to read live comments from the judges as they evaluate the (usually) anonymous entries. It’s fun (and terrifying) to imagine they they might be talking about your entry.

You have nothing to lose, so why not give it a try?

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Last week I introduced the idea of “preinforcing” — going back after you have finished a manuscript and revising with the intent of adding details to support later scenes. This is in contrast to “foreshadowing,” which I distinguish as putting in details as you write to support future scenes not yet written.

By preinforcing, you have a much better opportunity to fold in finer details and make them more subtle.  When my daughter and I wrote our first draft of THE LAST PRINCESS, we knew that near the end of the book our hero would discover she is descended from trolls. We also wanted this to be an “of course!” moment for our readers by sprinkling in many supporting hints along the way.  However, as the book evolved, so did our definition of a troll.  Also, those scene where we wove in our clues changed, moved, or were cut, and many of those details were erased or altered to the point where they were no longer useful.

At this point we have a finished and polished manuscript, which has gone through several revisions of varying degrees, but there is one new idea we would like to emphasize. Near the end of the book, our hero is locked in a duel with her rival for the crown, and losing. She has all but given up and is succumbing to his special kind of magic, when a voice of encouragement pulls her out of it.  Then more voices. She discovers that all of her friends and many people she has never met have come to support her in her hour of need. That support gives her the strength to defeat her foe.

We realized that we weakened a potentially big moment, here, because it is later revealed that her best friend called most of these people and told them to come. Which is important to their friendship. But we realized this would be stronger if those people came to support our hero because our hero inspired them to do so.  This is a perfect case for preinforcing.

Throughout the book, our hero meets or is introduced to new characters who help her on her quest or provide a vital clue along the way. These people make up the core of those who come to support her at the end. But to believably change the reason they all show up, we needed to go back and add a pinch of motivation to each of those conversations.  So our notes for this revision pass looked something like this:

LAST PRINCESS – CLIMAX SETUP

GAIL: Gail needs to mention how none of the fae-born races can see each other anymore. Cat needs to think about that.

MR. P: Make sure she mentions she wants to unite the fae-born. He scoffs at this.

NANNY S: Nanny says her mother was friends with different types of fae-born. Cat points out she might meet more of them herself if she went out in the daytime.

ROSE: Cat shares with Rose the bit in her reading about how all the fae races used to be united.

MR. G: When he mentions that dwarves and elves don’t get along, she asks why and he admits he doesn’t really know.

MR. & MRS. J: When Cat tells them who she is, add that she wishes to bring the fae-born communities together. Mr. J will think this is a great idea because of his business.

HUNTER: When Hunter gives Cat the figurine, she tells him she would like to give his number to her dwarf-born friend. As an elf-born, Hunter is not enthusiastic about the idea. She tells him things will change when she becomes princess, and he might as well get used to it.

FAYE: When Cat tells Faye she plans to re-form the Seelie Court, add that she hopes to reunite the fae-born into one big community.

BONE-BREAKER: Work in that she wants to unite the fae-born, not control them. The prince will think that is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. He claims the fae-born will never voluntarily get together.

By subtly slipping in these little preinforcements to already-established scenes in such a way that makes them a natural part of the conversation, it will become perfectly reasonable for all of these people to come out and support her in her hour of need — which they already do as-written. However, now, it will be because Cat spread the idea that they should all get together.

So, without having to completely re-write the story, we are able to weave in a new idea to support a scene already written, and give it a whole new level of meaning.  Try this yourself, and let us know how it works for you.

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Okay, I’ll admit I’m trying to up my cred as a children’s author by inventing my own word. Spread it around.

PREINFORCE. It means foreshadowing. Only, the thing is, “foreshadow” isn’t actually very descriptive or evocative of it’s function. I just feel like, as writers, our own tools ought to embody our art, and not simply be flowery. Amiright?

So. Russian author Anton Chekov is famous for having said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The point he was trying to illustrate is basically don’t put anything in your story that does not eventually serve a purpose. This concept is known widely as “Chekov’s Gun.”

In broad strokes, this is an excellent rule.  But Chekov was talking about plays, not novels. In novels, writers often add a line of dialogue or a sentence of description simply to evoke a mood or to create a beat in the pacing.  There will inevitably be things mentioned in a novel that are never revisited.  Particularly in this age of writing in anticipation of the eventual sequel.

The other thing about this kind of thinking is that it occasionally leads a writer to make up a reason to justify something they really like earlier in their book, just so they can keep it. I’m not too proud to admit that this exact kind of thinking led to the villain in my and my daughter’s WIP.

But this is not actually the same thing as foreshadowing. The art of foreshadowing requires a skill for thinking backwards every bit as much as thinking forward. In fact, to be really effective, the actually event you are foreshadowing should be fully established in all its glorious minutia before you go back and sprinkle in all of the supporting details. The process of adding in those details on a later pass is what I call “preinforcing.” Like all good words, it means precisely what it sounds like — you are reinforcing in advance. Burying clues along the way that do not look like clues.

That’s the difference between foreshadowing and preinforcing. With foreshadowing, a writer puts something in their story in anticipation of a later event which has not yet been written. Or, as I’ve already talked about, they put in something that they later decide to expand upon. Preinforcing, on the other hand, is deliberately preparing your reader to properly experience an event you’ve already written.

How does one do this?  Well, the fact that all of the details are already in place makes it much easier to be subtle. Foreshadowing before you’ve written the later scene must necessarily be done in broad strokes. Whereas going back and seeding subtle details is really only possible when the tiny details have been established. Then, you can evoke a mood or a color or a scent early on which will fit in so smoothly that it never suggests it is planted to foreshadow some future event.

In our WIP, our main character discovers in chapter 15 that she is descended from trolls. One of the qualities of pure-blood trolls is that sunlight turns them to stone. Having established that, I went back and preinforced this by giving her a sunburn and flaky skin, which she is still experiencing when she puts 2 and 2 together. I preinforced that by having her forget to put on sunscreen and worrying about her skin in the previous scene. And I preinforced that by having her mother tell her not to forget sunscreen because she burns so easily, way back in chapter 1. In every one of these cases, those little bits of additional information fit perfectly into the tone, mood, and pacing of the moment. In the middle scene, she has decided on the spur of the moment to sneak out of the house, hop on her bike, and ride across town to confront her nemesis. On the way, she realizes that in her haste she forgot to put on sunscreen and on top of everything else she’s going to have to deal with a sunburn. Later, when she is depressed because things did not go well, she sullenly scratches her sunburned arm and notices the flaky skin. So when she starts to pile up the evidence that she is troll-born, her sensitivity to sunlight has already been well and subtly established. It is not something that had been presented early in the story like a pistol displayed on the wall.

The best foreshadowing is the kind you never see coming. And to achieve that, you have to set it up carefully and deliberately. You can do it in advance, but to do it with finesse it is usually better to go back and add it.

Say it with me: “Preinforce.” Spread the word.

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Unless you’ve studied Charlie Chaplin’s films, you may not immediately see what I’m getting at.  If you can find it, there is an amazing documentary in three parts from 1983 called Unknown Chaplin, which breaks down his creative process and shows for the first time lots of his unused film.

But failing that, let me give it to you in a nutshell: Chaplin worked to his own schedule, refusing to let studio execs tell him what to create or how long it should take.  He often puzzled over a single “gag” for months without shooting a second of film, while all of the cast and crew sat around and waited.  He once re-shot almost an entire movie after recasting the leading lady. He never threw away an idea. And once he was satisfied with something, the finished product always looked utterly effortless.

That’s the key.  When you write make it look effortless, no matter how long or how hard or how many reams of paper you went through to get there.  One mistake writers make is to show how clever they are and make it obvious how hard they worked to get their story on paper — pages of in-depth backstory, obtuse and lengthy set-ups, flowery, purple descriptions of scenery or weather or location — all there to demonstrate the writer’s dedication to research and the richness of their invented world.  Chaplin’s best work was silent, with almost no dialogue, and in back and white.

There’s a scene in City Lights, in which the Tramp buys a flower from a blind girl, and she mistakes him for a rich man.  How did he do it?  No long set-up or clever dialogue. To avoid a cop while crossing the street, the Tramp climbs into a parked car and gets out at the curb.  When the transaction is done, the car’s owner gets in and drives off, leaving the Tramp standing there waiting for his change, which he never gets.  Smooth, natural, completely organic. Effortless.

Chaplin spent weeks filming that one 2-minute scene.

If you take this kind of no-excuses approach, and strive for these kinds of simple-but-sublime results, you should go far as a writer. Pick every word carefully. Make every word count. Rather than “a picture worth a thousand words,”  try to find those words that are worth a thousand pictures.

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Here’s the thing about being a writer with a goal of becoming a published author: the target keeps moving.

Okay, sure — the prize is always to get your book published.  But there are lots of steps along the way.  And not all of them are baby steps; some of them are ginormous steps.

  • Coming up with a novel-worthy plot and compelling characters.
  • Finishing a complete manuscript.
  • Learning how to give and take useful criticism.
  • Nailing a killer beginning.
  • Learning to get comfortable killing your darlings in the revision process.
  • Writing a 2 page synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Writing a 2 paragraph synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Writing a 2 sentence synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Sending out your first query.
  • Receiving your first rejection.
  • Taking the plunge and entering a pitch contest.

Every time you hit one of these milestones, you’ve accomplished something big in your career as a writer.  Each of these milestones is something you can build on to help you get to the next one.  Like way points on a long mountain-climbing expedition.

Here’s another thing about being a writer with a goal of becoming a published author: you have to know you might never actually get there.  Yet, for every published author, this did not deter them along the way.

So, what does “success” look like?

Have you ever climbed a mountain?  No, me either.  But I’ve seen a lot of movies and stuff.  It seems to me that along the way up the mountain, when you stop on those scenic way points and put down your pack, you can take a moment to look over the vista from your new vantage point.  Look back on where you came from and all you have passed through to get to where you are.  Assess your progress.

That is what success looks like.