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Monday, February 29, 2016

Your Novel is Boring (Here’s Why and How to Fix It) By Bethany Brengan

Your Novel is Boring (Here’s Why and How to Fix It) 
By Bethany Brengan  

[Chris's note: The text of Bethany's post included proper footnotes and list formatting in the word document she sent me, which I tried very hard to make Blogger reproduce, but my full on lack of HTML coding is why I chose blogger over Wordpress in the first place, so apologies, but I had to improvise. The option of pasting the text as is usually leads to even worse format issues (as you can see with some of my older guest posts). Let's all pretend I totally did right by her.]


Your character lets out a scream into the void of space. Because you forgot that sound can’t travel in deep space.

Your protagonist introduces himself as “Jones. Joe Jones.” Because you forgot that in the previous chapter his last name was Johnson.

Your teenage protagonist ends up in an “oh-so-confusing” love triangle. Because you forgot that love triangles are stupid.

There are as many ways to screw up storytelling as there are types of novels in the world, but you will find audiences willing to forgive almost any mistake (real or imagined) as long as you don’t commit the one unforgivable sin of writing: boring the reader. Nothing makes a reader (or an acquisitions editor) more likely to put down a novel than boredom, and no trait reveals itself as early in a manuscript as monotony. Here are the four most common reasons a novel is boring:

The “Nothing to See Here” Opening.  I almost called this the “Nothing Happens” Opening. But you can start a novel (in certain genres) slowly, with descriptions of scenery or a character, as long as those descriptions are good and meaningful (and connected to the tone and themes of the novel overall). What you shouldn’t do is start a novel with a blocks of information. You need to engage the reader’s senses. Pride and Prejudice starts with a statement (and a killer one at that): “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This is followed by an equally satirical statement, and then Austen moves straight into dialogue. Two sentences of (funny) information to set the tone and then right into a scene. Even before television, most good writers knew better than to waste the reader’s time pontificating.

Avoid what I call the “drinking orange juice and thinking about life”[1] opening. You know. . .that first chapter in which the character wakes up, drinks orange juice, and thinks about why her ex-husband left her, how she hates her job, and why she worries about her teenage daughter. Pretty soon you’ve got five pages of text and all that has happened is the character thinking. And she’s still got half a glass of orange juice left.

Information about your character’s relationships and job might be important, but unless orance juice has a symbolic significance, there’s no reason to start your novel with it. Your job is not to give the reader information. A novel is not an essay or a scientific report; it is an experience.


The Fix: Bring the reader into the protagonist’s experience by engaging the senses. Don’t just start with an info-dump about your character’s past. If the information is important enough to spend more than two hundred words on, then it probably deserves a fully realized scene.

I’m currently reading Open City by Teju Cole. It’s a slow-moving piece of literary fiction. (I have no idea yet if I will like it.) But even though book starts slowly (the main character literally walks around and thinks about life), it immediately gives the reader something to experience (the geography of NYC), followed by something to see (migratory bird patterns and “the faint contrail of an airplane bisecting the window”[2], and something to hear (“the odd way my voice mingled with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcers”[3]). Even though this is obviously a novel of ideas rather than action, Cole quickly gives the reader something tangible; he builds a scene in the reader’s head.

Or to put it more bluntly: Don’t tell me that “it’s literary fiction” is your excuse for a dull beginning. All that means is that you need to work even harder than traditional genre authors to maintain the readers’ attention while you lure them into your ideas and language.

Start with the good stuff. And then stay with it. Always ask yourself “Is there a better way to get this information across—a way that reveals something about the character or foreshadows something or ties into the theme in an interesting way?”


Nobody Special Protagonist. Now, I love stories about regular people. But part of what I love about them is the way they reveal how “unregular” regular people can be, how they highlight the human experience. Sometimes authors say, “I want to write a story about an ordinary [mom/police officer/teenage boy/doctor/etc.].” But when the manuscript is finished the characters don’t resemble anyone I know. Instead, they resemble the author’s mental image of certain people, and that image is boring. In order to follow your characters for 250+ pages, the reader has to enjoy them. This is sometimes described as “likability,” but I think that term can get confusing. Not all characters are for all readers, and that’s fine. But when we talk about whether or not a character is “likable,” it has less to do with the character or the interests of the reader, and more to do with how you have presented that character to the reader.

Last year, I read the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. The main character is several things I normally hate: a self-important sexist going through a midlife crisis. But he also has a wonderful dry wit. I kept reading because I wanted to hear what horrible thing he was going to say next. His horribleness was interesting (and ultimately contained a small seed of vulnerability, buried at the bottom of his character). The author let me enjoy watching Asterios without forcing me to sanction his behavior.

When approaching character, many writers mistake ideology for personality. In essence, “the character who believes all the same things I do and is therefore good” will generally have the traits and quirks the author secretly considers “best.” This is boring for several reasons but mainly because what happens to the characters ends up being based, not on their choices or circumstances, but on the approval or disapproval of their less-than-subtle creator. There are no surprises. The indie-music-loving, poor-writer-guy comes out on top; the jerk-boss-who-only-listens-to-oldies gets his comeuppance; and the pretty-but-not-too-threatening-girl learns to stop listening to Taylor Swift and love poor-writer-guy.

This is not simply a failure in writing; this is a failure in imagination. The author has failed to imagine people complexly[4]. Instead of really thinking about how and why people act certain ways, the author relies on stereotypes.

The Fix: Do your own research. Fortunately, you live in a world full of people. Talk to your neighbors. And actually listen. Every time your neighbor says something that doesn’t fit with the type of person you’ve already decided they are (e.g., soccer mom, stoner dude, won’t-pick-up-her-dog’s-poop idiot), don’t automatically dismiss it as an anomaly. Consider it another facet of his or her character. Study personality and basic psychology. Study people. Study yourself. Pay attention.

I love listening to actors talk about changing their body language for particular roles. It makes me consider how to describe my characters in physical space. Think about the ways different people move. Think about the ways different people react to anxiety, sadness, or anger. Now think about how emotional expression changes depending not just on personality but also on who a person is around. Think about your characters in various environments and relationships. Think about how people behave in groups and as individuals. Remember that the expression of personality isn’t static.

Let your characters be complicated.


Obvious Plotline is Obvious. This one is tricky. Frankly, predictability isn’t always bad. We repeat certain types of story for a reason. However, there’s a difference between “I knew from the beginning that this would be a story about the protagonist finding her voice and becoming brave enough to stand up for herself” and “I knew the treasure chest was actually empty this whole time and that his mentor was going to betray him.” One is an element of character growth that we recognize and crave, and the other is a plot twist that never twisted. Plot problems are difficult to discuss in vague terms. I can point at specific elements in a story and say, “That’s predictable” or “I’ve seen that too many times.” But it’s harder to discuss what makes something predictable. Perhaps because what is predictable now was once fresh and innovative. And perhaps because even the most overused plot elements can be written in fresh ways. I can, however, give you some pointers for finding the overly obvious plot points in your own writing.

The Fix: Ask others to read your manuscript and comment on what they “saw coming.” See if you can tweak these areas.

Don’t make things easy, either for yourself or your characters. One of the major pitfalls that makes a storyline predictable is the overly simple resolution. Number 19 on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” (I know Pixar writes “kids’ movies,” but I also know that the beginning of Up made you cry. Look up the whole list if you haven’t already.)

Let your characters lose things. Even things they deserve to win. That said, also let them win sometimes. Grim and gritty can become predictable if it’s always the outcome. Let characters win things they should lose. Letting a potentially terrible situation fizzle out unexpectedly can create a good moment for comic relief, or for a break from suspense right before you build it back up.

Don’t telegraph your moves. Writing a scene that’s going to end terribly for someone? Try writing it in the exact same language you would use if everything was going to be fine, and then use that last paragraph to pull the rug out from under the reader.

Raise the stakes (emotional, personal, physical), and then raise them again. Make the characters face the things you are the most afraid of, and then bring them through to the other side.

Dick-and-Jane Prose. “The author writes sentences. The author gives the reader some information. The author gives the reader more information. The reader is bored to tears.”

This can be a subsection of the “Nothing to See Here” Opening. But the problem isn’t necessarily info-dumping; it’s just repetitive sentence structures.

This isn’t restricted to the “subject verb object” structure. All authors have personal clichés: phrases and sentence styles that they lean on a little too much. I like sentence fragments. A lot.

Too much?

Probably.

Also, I like starting sentences with also. In moderation, any of these things can work. But the variation of sentence length and subject placement does a lot to build, or demolish, the pacing of your novel, and thus, the attention of your reader.

The Fix: Read it out loud. Unnecessary repetition should become obvious. If it doesn’t, try reading aloud to someone else and notice when that person’s attention starts to drift. Read passages by your favorite authors and note the varied styles and lengths of sentences they use. If all else fails, buy a copy of The Art of Styling Sentences (Sullivan and Longknife) and practice the sentence exercises. (I know I mentioned Provost’s Beyond Style last time, but that also contains advice on sentence variation.)


So go ahead: let Joe “Johnson” Jones scream his love-triangle woes into the depths of space. Just make it interesting.


1- I read about this years ago in Writer’s Digest, back when the magazine used to critique first chapters. I don’t remember the exact wording or the author of the critique, but I do remember thinking, Oh, crap. I do that. So thank you, forgotten editor from Writer’s Digest.
2- Teju Cole, Open City (New York: Random House, 2011), 4.
3- Cole, Open City, 5.
4- Totally stealing this phrase from John Green.

Bethany F. Brengan is a freelance writer and editor who reads too many comics. She is a contributing writer to Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing and Batman (
McFarland Books). Her poetry has appeared in The 2015 Poet’s MarketPoetry Quarterly, and The Crucible. She can be found at www.brenganedits.com and
www.readingwritingraptures.blogspot.com.



If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices (even if they don't always agree with me). Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Friday, February 26, 2016

James Patterson's Contest by Claire Youmans

The highly prolific author James Patterson has been showing up on my Facebook feeds recently. Of late years, he’s been producing books with co-authors, and lots of them. Now, Patterson is holding a contest for his next co-author. To enter the contest, one must pay $90 to join his Master Class, and submit samples of the proposed work, which is to be as much like Patterson’s own work as possible. During the class, Patterson (and others) will review the work submitted, push ahead with telling the class members what they actually want, and supervise the production of still more sample, to the point of complete outline, from which finalists, and ultimately the winner, will be selected, the latter by Patterson. It’s going to be lot of work.  

Certainly, the selected person will probably get some money, though I’ll bet the lion’s share goes to Patterson. The selected person will have a better shot at getting a contract for his or her own work, I suppose. What does being a co-author to Patterson really mean for one’s own writing? Well, it means that with a little help from Patterson, one can learn how to produce a Patterson clone. Thrillers! Mysteries! I like both. I like Patterson’s work, generally, as recreational reading. Patterson clones sell well, and Patterson’s name recognition will not hurt.  “Author of Book with James Patterson” sounds pretty nice.  Like a guarantee of a decent recreational read.

Losers will be left with a complete outline of a mystery/thriller/adventure that they can then finish themselves. That might not be considered a bad trade for your ninety bucks. If you like to write books in the style of James Patterson. Even if you don’t, you might learn something anyway.

This looks like a chance for Patterson to get people to pay to audition to be his ghost writer. He’ll guide, edit and make sure the final work is something he doesn’t mind endorsing. It looks like something he’s going to make a bundle from. Whether and how much the winner will benefit from working with Patterson depends on many factors that can’t be predicted, at least by me. It could be a Very Good Thing for someone who wants to write Patterson’s kind of books in Patterson’s way, and make no mistake, Patterson can write a good, gripping book. It’s possible it could lead to contracts and contacts, and truly give somebody a boost. Patterson says that’s the point, and I have no reason to disbelieve him.

The co-author methodology feels a little like work-for-hire contracts written under a brand name. Hello, Nancy Drew. Hi, Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, Dana Twins. It’s not a new concept. It’s not even a bad one.

I have a book coming out next summer, third in a series, so entering this contest just wouldn’t work for me in terms of time or interest, yet I did think about it. If I went to the library and immersed myself in Patterson for a couple of weeks, I could probably come up with initial submissions that would work. Most people who can write can imitate style and plotting with at least some credibility. The worst that could happen is I’d have an outline for a book that would be, by this time, easy to write, and a better idea of how to write it.

What does this mean to you? If the idea sounds appealing, check it out. Go for it, work for it. It’s certainly cheaper than a MFA, and I suspect an entrant who follows through might learn quite a lot.


Also check out Claire's blog and FB page and available books here:


http://claireyoumansauthor.blogspot.com
www.tokigirlandsparrowboy.com

Facebook:  The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy
Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Toki-Girl-Sparrow-Boy-Claire-Youmans/dp/0990323404/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8



If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

No Post

Had to put out some fires this morning. Kiddo is teething or sick or maybe just inconsolably sad today.

I'll put our guest posts (yes, two of them) up tomorrow, do some typical weekend stuff on Sat and Sun, and if all goes well, Monday will be some fiction.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Best Magic System (Poll Results)

Well, I waited as long as I could for this tie to get definitively broken, but Discworld and Dresden just kept switching places at a one vote lead, and I have to go to work, so here are the results of our best magic system poll.


There are WAY too many close races for my comfort, but what can you do?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Prompt: "Scene 2"

It's been too long since I've added to my list of prompts, so here is one of my favorites.

This prompt will require you to have a play that you haven't read or seen performed before. There are hundreds of plays online for free, but here are a few if you need help finding one. A movie script is likely to have scenes that are too short and too much action and direction within the parenthetical text.

As with many exercises/prompts in writing drama, the key here is to pay attention to how to minimize telling and focus on showing. Fiction obviously employs more description than drama, but many writers use this description  to try and dump huge, clunky chunks of exposition or try to tell the reader what to think about what's going on or another character. With only dialogue and sparse description to work with in drama, a writer is forced to find other ways to tell their story. Valuable lessons, even when taken back into prose.

Prep: Read the first scene of the play. Pay very close attention to how the writer shapes both the characters, the exposition, and the tension using only dialogue and a few stage directions. No matter how awesome, compelling, embroiling, and interesting scene 1 is, stop reading.

Prompt: Without reading past scene 1, write a scene two of the play. Continue to use the characterization you noticed in scene 1 and develop the plot and tension.  Write at least three pages (or more if you wish).

Don't forget to have fun!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Last Call For Votes and Nominations (Best Magic System and Best Series with a Single Arc)

You and a friend could
change the whole game.








What is the best series with a single story arc?

What is the best magic system in fiction?   

First of all, thank you for putting up with an entire week of donation stuff. I try to make that sort of thing just a post every couple of months, but the end of the year means some extra work and we were deep into month two of the next year. This weekend, I'll get the The Best of W.A.W. updated so that the monthly best reflects the titles that went on to 2015's best.

But now we need your input because the old poll is almost over and the new poll is going up soon.

So please go and vote on our Best Magic System Poll. The current results are incredibly close and you could make all the difference. Even the titles that aren't doing well are six books all but tied for fourth place.

Secondly, go to our Nominations Post for Best Single Series Story Arc and nominate some series (or second the nominations that are already there).  We have just enough to do a tiny little poll, but more titles would make things more fun!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Thanking 2015's Donors



Pretty much all of W.A.W.'s meager income (running at a about two dollars an hour for the work I do) comes from donation from my generous readers. I discontinued generic Google ads a few months back after I noticed that no matter how many sleazy ones I blocked, more would take their place. So now it's really totally my donors who make this rocket get off the launch pad.

That's you all.

Even though I can't ever thank you enough, I wanted to make sure everybody got one last call out before we head into 2016.

2015 saw more small donors than last year but not as many as 2013 (I got a lot of small donations after Creepy Guy); however, it has also seen a growth in a few people who are simply blowing me away with their epic generosity. Larger donations and ongoing donations have both nearly doubled (even though this year was a lot of jazz hands). When I started, I thought for sure I would be dealing with lots of small donations but it turns out that nearly half of what we make here at W.A.W. comes from about half a dozen people.

Because of all of you, I have to work fewer hours at both teaching and as a househusband to meet some of my expenses. Two years I was able to go from two classes a week to one. Last year I was able to hire a professional cleaner to come in once a month and this year they're coming bi-weekly. This cuts my househusband hours way down.  We also have some sitting help with watching The Contrarian for a couple of hours on some of my longer days. All of that is going straight into more writing time.

Perhaps the biggest news on that front is that this summer, I won't have to divide myself between househusband and summer school. The summer school gig is a cushy one, and it's hard for teachers to get summer teaching gigs, so even though my kids drive me nuts and by the end of the six weeks I'm ready to burn the school down, I'm going to keep it. However, my usual mental split where I'm coming home and tagging in to do a few hours of toddler wrangling after a day of teaching, and then spend Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday weeping uncontrollably isn't going to happen this year. You gave me the opportunity to drop summer school through donations. I just chose to drop everything else instead since summer school is a cherry gig.

Please don't forget that 10% of every penny Writing About Writing makes goes to my local library earmarked for local Children's Literacy programs*.

*Our current beneficiary

The long term goals of W.A.W., should things continue to grow, are roughly the same. (I mean besides the groupie threesomes, of course.) Eventually I hope to farm out more housekeeping so I can focus more time on writing. (I'm at about as much little kid time as I think I can handle.) That will give me more time for better quality posts, and make my offerings of fiction a much more frequent possibility. After that, I'll look into hiring someone to give my posts a professional editing sweep.

So without further ado, allow me to thank my wonderful and generous patrons. If you've given to Writing About Writing in the last year, and you don't see your name, please let me know, and I will gladly make an edit. I've spent the last four days digging through my e-mail archives and going crosseyed. Gmail has a tendency to "bundle" emails from the same recipient together if they come in within a certain amount of time, so I certainly may have missed a name.

Many have donated money, some have donated time and energy to help improve blog. (Editing help, art, guest blogging, and in a couple of "meatspace" friends cases, helping me out with a few hours of housework so that I could get back upstairs and keep writing.)

Rachel
Nichole
Matt
Mary
Simone
Melissa
Sarah
Riley
Joe
Kent
Sarah
Donald
Katherine
Cathy
Nancy
Zepher
Michael
Nickayla
Jennifer
Anna


Special Thanks
For much larger donations, setting up ongoing automatic payments (of any size), large donations of time and energy, or the donation of highly specialized skills. Also the guest bloggers who have joined the crew and decided to defer their pay back to the blog.

Sarah
LeeAnn
Amanda
Janet
Anonymous
Claire Youmans
Bethany Brengan


Patron Muses
The Patron Muses are the most generous, the most supportive, the most unbelievable. Their generosity actually shocks me in a palpable way. Some have dug deep and donated very large amounts, set up auto-pay donations that make my eyes pop...every month, they have donated hundreds of hours of time and energy helping me to edit, have supported me since the very first days of W.A.W., have helped me proliferate to perhaps tens of thousands on social media by sharing and liking posts, have used Google analytics credit to help W.A.W. place some ads, and have even shown up to conventions wearing homemade Writing About Writing T-shirts. In many cases, they've done more than one thing on this list and maybe a thing or two I'm leaving out because I'm a classy dude who doesn't talk about my sexploits, and every single one of them has, without the slightest hyperbole or poetic license, kept me going when all I wanted to do was put the blog on hiatus and take a fortnight off.

Laura
MaryAnn Stark
Kelly
Terra
Gillian
Tracesea
Amy
Ginger
Anna
Plymoth
Lydia

You are all–ALL of you–breathtaking, amazing, and wonderful. And there might be invisible ninjas cutting onions all around me whenever I think of any of you for too long. There is no way I can thank you enough. I shall keep writing and hopefully keep entertaining you.

We will be making a donation to Oakland Reads from this year's donations shortly. I won't tell you exactly how much it is (because then you'd just be able to multiply by ten and figure out our finances), but suffice to day that we will probably be able to cover at least one class or top off a couple.

Again, if your name is missing from this list, please contact me and I'll fix it right away. G-mail sometimes "stacks" multiple donations into a single e-mail notification when Paypal sends me two notifications in a short period of time, and I don't always notice the e-mail "underneath."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Giving to Writing About Writing

Our week of money stuff continues. Thank you for your patience in this. Normally I'd spread this stuff out over a few weeks, but we're already over half way through month two here and it needs to happen.

Tomorrow I will be posting a list of all the donors for 2015 (as well as the last six weeks) to Writing About Writing, and then we'll finally be done with everything and ready to roll into 2016.

But each year I also update the information about where your donations go and what you can expect in return. Also, having had a couple of conversations with high level patrons, I have decided to be a bit more conservative about the hand written thank-you emails and save my creative time and energy for MOAR WRITING!!!


Writing About Writing will never be behind a paywall site (or have the "best" content only available to Patreon donors or anything like that), and we also will never again host random ads. We may one day post ads for products we truly believe in, but the random ones for butt hair eliminators and robot crawl editing are a thing of the past. I have also opted out of traditional publishing completely, so unless some day there is an unbelievable million-dollar book deal that contractually requires me to remove my online version, everything I ever write will be free online. There might be a small charge for a e-reader version or a cost-covering charge for a print on demand physical copy, but mostly everything will be free.

Which means I am 100% dependent on the generosity of donors.

And while we love all the other ways in which fans show their support–by liking and sharing articles, with engaging and robust comments, by becoming members of or following the blog, recommending us to friends, and a host of other ways–monetary support works a lot better than "likes" when it comes to paying rent or getting a professional web designer to look under W.A.W.'s hood (for example at the shitshow I call top level menus).
No seriously.

I can't ever fully thank the few who donate so that the rest might get more and better content or express just how much that few dollars means. Right now, my efforts average out to somewhere between one and two dollars an hour on a really good day, so even the smallest donations are like mana from heaven. However, as insufficient as any such gesture is, and however "gauche" a rewards tier might seem without keychains, tote bags, and weekends in Napa, I still want to try to let everyone know in some feeble way how much you mean to me.

What your donation supports:

Though your donation may be to Writing About Writing, what you're really supporting is an entire range of my creative efforts. Of course there's Writing About Writing, but there's also Social Justice Bard (which had a rocky launch because of surprise cancer but is getting back on its feet as of this writing). There are other blogs I write for less frequently like Ace of Geeks. I also maintain a Facebook Page for Writing About Writing filled with goofy memes and puns in addition to the daily posts and cross posts. And a lot of my proto-thoughts, social justice bard test balloons and daily shenanigans happen on my public Facebook Wall–strictly speaking I don't expect anyone to donate to me Facebooking but there is a measure of my creative energy that goes in that direction. I will also make sure that W.A.W. is a "home base" with links that go to any other public writing I do.

Also please don't forget that 10% of every donation goes to a local children's literacy charity. (We're doing Oakland Reads right now.) 

Another ten percent also goes into blog improvements, which will mean editing and website construction when there's enough income to do so, but for now gives W.A.W. a very modest promotional budget to advertise some of our "greatest hits" on Facebook, gain followers, and expand our modest audience.

Unfortunately I've really had to ratchet up the thresholds for various rewards this year. This is no reflection on any sort of shifting awesomeness threshold, but simply one of my time and energy away from blogging and fiction. Especially being on the front line with supporting someone through cancer. We have a very large number of smaller donations, and while each of you is absolutely wonderful and awesome, if I stopped and wrote a thank you note to everyone, it wouldn't be long before that was all I really had time to do.

The Agape Love of Ongoing donations- Of course we love any donation we ever get from anyone...ever. It's always a treat that I don't feel like I deserve and a pleasure and an honor. That can't be underscored enough. One-time donations make up over a half of our entire revenue here.

However, ongoing donations help us in a very particular way. They help us budget for things since it is an income we know we can (at least tentatively) count on month after month. For example, ongoing donations were what helped us drop a teaching class each week (down to one), hire a housekeeper, and get a sitter to tag in for a few hours each morning, all of which have made more writing possible. The only reason I was able to keep anything going while we dealt with the cancer diagnosis is because of the help we paid for from ongoing donations. I'm going to need to crunch some numbers to see if I can afford to take off summer school this year (which if you've followed the blog, you know has been my nemesis for three years running), but if it is possible, it will be because of ongoing donations.  It's less like a surprise or a gift and a tiny bit more like reliable income. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a smaller recurring amount will help us out more than a large periodic donation that we never knew was coming and don't know if will ever come again.

It's very easy to make an ongoing donation. Just click on the Paypal link the same as you would to make a one-time donation, but instead, click the ticky box to make it recurring.

Right there in the middle....
Yessssssssssss.

Rewards....kinda:  I honestly wish I had some Writing About Writing coffee mugs and gym bags to make this part a little less ridiculous.

$1.99 or less - While I will never turn down any donation here (because I'm a starving, debased artist with no integrity or something), I will just let you know that Paypal will be taking 30 cents per transaction, so denominations this low lose 15%+ of their value. I will make significantly less if you donated a dollar a month than if you just saved up and donated ten dollars a year.

Up to $100.00- All donors at this level will be included in a post at the end of each year thanking each donor for their patronage and support*. I will use only your first name as it shows up on your Paypal receipt. If you would like your full name to appear, would prefer to be completely anonymous, or be referred to by a pseudonym please either mention so on your Paypal "note" or send me an email at chris.brecheen@gmail.com and let me know that you'd prefer anonymity/psudonymity/fullonymity.

Also, I will shoot you a quick note right away thanking you and letting you know I got your donation.

$100.01-$200.00-  All of the above.  In addition, I will send you a small personal message of thanks, including a few details about what's going on in my world and the projects I'm hoping to get started on next.

$200.01-$300.00-  All of the above. In addition, I will pick your brain about any updates you might like to see coming up in the future, and I will try to expedite that article in my mental queue.(Obviously this is more of a preference favoring than actual creative control, and I can't make any guarantees about time tables.)

$300.01-$499.99- All of the above. In addition I will ask you about anything you generally would like to see more of and try to work that in more frequently.  (Again, I can't make creative or time-table guarantees, but I am likely to at least give it a try for a while.)

$500.00+ All of the above. In addition if you approve (and only if you approve), I will give you a shout out on the blog right away. (This can be as large as your own praise-singing post or as small as a line of thanks slipped in before another article depending on what you are most comfortable with--the point is to thank you vocally, not embarrass the shit out of you.) As with the end of the year post, I will only use your first name unless you inform me you would prefer to be anonymous or have your whole name used. This is in no way intended to put you on the spot or cover you in embarrassing glory if you don't want it; it is simply the only way I have to really thank those who have been so incredibly supportive.

The Great Patron Muses-  There are a few great patron muses (but always room for one more). They have given more to Writing About Writing than I can possibly thank. While blistering hot oral sex or being part of a groupie threesome would certainly qualify one for P.M. status, most of the Great Patron Muses have either donated over and over month after month and/or have donated huge amounts and/or have done something totally amazeballs like show up to a convention wearing homemade Writing About Writing t-shirts. In addition to everything above, I have promised the Patron Muses that should I write a zombie apocalypse story (and there's definitely one rolling around in my melon) characters with their names will be making it to the helipad.


*While I would honestly and sincerely love to get back to every single donor with a personal message, there are just so many small donors, that trying to keep up with them has taken entire days of my writing time and left me with much less time to write.  Please know that I sincerely appreciate every one of you; however, I hope that you'll understand if my thanks in this case is continuing to devote almost all my spare time to bringing you more content.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

One Last Generous Donation in 2015

Deep Chris.
Real deep.
Like the ocean trenches where I take my craps.
I write this post with a heavy heart.

Seriously like four hundred pounds of heart.

Whale heart.

I write this post with whale heart.

Each year there are donations to Writing About Writing (or to me as a writer since the gestalt of my writing also involves other blogs and even some occasional deep thoughts on my Facebook wall). Regardless, people do this thing I sort of have trouble wrapping my brain around where they give me money so that I can do things like hire a housekeeper so that I can clean less and write more or hire a babysitter for a few hours so I can watch The Contrarian less and write more.

This isn't money I could go live on, even in Louisiana, but it has totaled up to a non-trivial amount for about the last 18 months or so. Every single one of you is amazing and awesome.

And this is all amazing and incredible to me. I am always touched, often have sudden attacks of onion ninjas to deal with, and have no small number of days where getting out of bed and writing is a matter of remembering the people I feel like I would let down if I didn't. If you think it's easy to call in when your boss doesn't care, try when your boss is 100% empathetic and egging you on.

Thus, I try so, so hard to write everyone thank you notes. I don't like writing the cut and past form letters. "Thank you so much for your generous donation....blah blah blah" That feels so impersonal and cold to me. So for every donation over certain amount, I really tried to actually WRITE a genuine and sincere thank you note.  I tried to include some personal details about what's going on in my life, and some of the projects  I was hoping to undertake next. And since the blog started, this has been getting more difficult, but still feasible. But they're time consuming to write. I spend about half an hour on each one, and while it might seem like I'm complaining that my diamond soled shoes are too tight, that can get to be hours and hours when I have a lot of donors over the threshold. Since the first day of the blog four years ago, it has always been my favorite and least favorite horribly wonderful chore/honor.

2015 was a bear even before the end of the year turned nightmarish. Toddlers toddling and time management failures, a miscarriage in the family I live with, health crises left and right, a dear friend's mental breakdown. Another friend's suicide. I was behind on thank you notes from the first day I went to Denver to help O.G. deal with some of her post op cancer stuff.

Still, I thought I was going to make it.  About 75% of those thank you notes were written by mid-October, and I was doing pretty well. That's about when health stuff started getting very serious. We didn't know at the time what we were dealing with–just that there were a lot of really scary symptoms that the hematologist couldn't figure out. And then of course, the diagnosis hit, and nothing has been quite the same since. I've scraped together some time here and there (a bit more in the last three weeks than in the month or two before, but still not much) to do some writing, but it's been a catch as catch can nightmare.

So what I am asking you is that if you donated in 2015 (or this first six weeks of 2016), and if I haven't already sent you a thank you email, please forgive me.  And I mean please literally forgive me...of the debt of that thank you note. Life has just been too fucking awful these last few months and I really want to head into 2016 with a fresh slate instead of the thank you notes of Damocles hanging over my head.

I'll be doing my annual thank you post on Friday if you want to check to make sure I received a donation, and if you really want to just get a tiny ping from me trying (ineffectually) to express my gratitude, you can send me a quick e-mail and I'll try to write something back.  But I don't have it in me to do the 24 or so remaining thank you notes right now.

I'm still going to write to all the patron muses (and one particular single donor who dropped so much it must have felt like passing a kidney stone) because their help and support goes above and beyond–multiple donations, huge donations, monthly donations, free editing help, constant post promotions, stalwart shows of support, and inspiration– so if you're on that list and you want to forgive me, just shoot me an email (and be prepared to answer the "Are you SURE??" question). Otherwise you should be seeing them this weekend as I try to catch up on at least that much before the next round of chemo.

I am truly sorry that I dropped this ball. You all are absolutely wonderful and my life's business and inability to thank you properly is absolutely no reflection on it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Silver Bullet

Folks, I've got to take a few days to take care of year end business from 2015. We're already a month and a half into 2016, and if I don't finish this stuff up, I'm going to end up half way to next year before it gets done. Apologies in advance if the week feels a little boring and money focused.

So even though I'm dealing with the little cold that could (it really thinks it can), I'm going to take this week to do just that. I'll start gathering up the data for the year end donor thank you post, we'll adjust the current 2016 shout out model, and we'll add our new Patron Muses into the mix. Also, in less awesome news, the cancer has just made keeping up with thank you notes (because I send hand written ones, not copy/pasted ones) impossible. While, we had a lot of wonderful donors in 2016, I've got the regrettable task of asking some of them to forgive me for the fact that life is just a little too much to get each a personalized thank you note. That will probably be Friday's post.

However, today, I do want to remind everyone that I give 10% of every cent Writing About Writing makes (more during any kind of a pledge drive) to local children's literacy charities. In this case Oakland Reads matches up donors with teachers in need in order to try to get Oakland's literacy rate to 85% by 2020 (it's in the low 40's now).


This is YOU folks. They write these thank you notes to Writing About Writing, but every one of these is really a thank you note to all of you.

Monday, February 15, 2016

President's Day Blues

A quick reminder to anyone who might be wondering what the hell I've been up to this weekend: Writing About Writing takes off bank holiday weekends. (Mostly because I can't even get Grendel and his mom to come open up the cafeteria on those days.) And it's a good thing too: Uberdude spent the weekend at one of those "Be A Better Superhero" conventions, and I clocked in about 60 hours last week between teaching and househusband. We could all use a bit of a break.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

That Year We Forgot Blog's Birthday

The breath I took with my hand on the doorknob could never be deep enough.

I ignored the "Go Away" and "Knock First" signs, and stepped in, at first thinking that I would flick the lights on, but then deciding that the pastel rainbow thrown off by the line of lava lamps was kind of nice. Blog was lying in bed listening to headphones and facing away from the door.
"You didn't knock," Blog said.

"I know," I said. I went over and sat on the edge of the bed. Blog shifted further over and showed me more of its back.

"I'm sorry," I said.

Silence.

"I could tell you what was going on, but you know what's going on. There's no excuse."

I'm not sure how, but the silence got worse. Longer. Silenter.

"I forgot your birthday," I said. The words themselves somehow hung in the air, making the whole thing real.

Blog turned, still looking upset, but finally looking at me.

"I didn't get you anything. I completely forgot."

"Yeah," Blog nodded.

"You know why, right?" I asked.

"Yeah," Blog said. "It's not like it's a bad reason. I felt bad for caring."

"No no no," I said. "No, I still should have remembered. You're four now! FOUR. I mean we've been doing this for a tenth of my life. A TENTH of my life."

Blog couldn't help but smile a little at that. I saw a tiny glimmer of the hopes and dreams flashed through that smile, and all the impish demands for unreasonable accolades over the years.

I put my hand next to Blog, still not sure if contact was okay. "It's going to be a tough year."

"I know," Blog said.

"We might not hit too many milestones," I said. "We got like 1600 because of that First Sentences thing for some reason, but that was the first real post I wrote in like two months that wasn't just a personal update."

"We hit the goal that matters, Chris," Blog said.

"We did?" I racked my brain. Two million page views? 60,000 in a single month? Five thousand in a day? What was it?

"You never quit," Blog said. "Sixteen hours a day in the hospital, and I still had a post up just about every damned day. You think I don't know what that was costing you?"

I laughed. Not a real laugh. More one of those sharp sighs of disbelief.  "You're way too wise for four. You understand this, right?"

"Eh, I still think I'm going to be a famous blog some day," Blog said. "How wise can I be?"

"You know..." I said, and my voice cracked. I pressed it down and took a deep breath and pressed it down again. "There's a chance..."

"I know," Blog said.

"...and I don't think there's any way I could keep writing through that."

"I know," Blog said.

"At least for a while," I finished. "At least on you. Maybe emo poems or...." I stopped because I couldn't press it down any more.

"Burn that bridge when we come to it," Blog said. "In the meantime, come ON. Have you met Sonic Gal? She makes other fighters look like pacifists. If she has to reach into her own chest to pull that lymphoma out, I'm pretty sure she will."

"As long as she can punch her way through the problem somehow," I laughed.

"Right?" Blog said.

As the laughter died, the silence shifted inexorably towards awkward.

"So...uh....I ordered a cake," I said. "Do you want some totally late birthday cake?"

Blog turned and looked at me. Stared really. For a long moment.

"Who do you think you're even talking to? Fuck yes, I want cake!"

"Come on into the kitchen," I said. "I don't want you getting crumbs in the bed."

"Also let's do the 2 million thing before I reach half a decade. That's really not so much to ask! Use guilt trips for page views. You could play the cancer card on your readers. We can totally do this...."


Happy Birthday Writing About Writing


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Best Single Arc Series


[This poll is now closed to more nominations, but you can go vote!]

What is the best single arc series?

Even as you pop over and vote on our Best Magic System poll, let us move ahead on our extremely late February poll so that we can try to catch up to a poll each month.
We do a lot of "Best Series" polls here at Writing About Writing, but today we're going to look at a very specific kind of series. Many "series" tell several stories in a single world. Series like Dresden or Discworld. But some series are really a single story spanning multiple books.

While one or all of the books (especially the first one in many cases) might stand alone, the series itself is really a single work.

What is the BEST series that is really a multi-book single story?

The Rules

1- As always, I leave definitions up to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you feel that Harry Potter counts as a single work, even though clearly each of its stories (especially the first three) are stand alone works, I am not going to quibble over the nomination. If there is a specific run of three books in Discworld that you feel tells a SINGLE cohesive story, you can nominate that. But the point here isn't to bend the rules to get a series you like on the poll, (we do plenty of polls–there will be other chances to shout out your faves); the point here is to really nominate the best multi-book single story.

2- You may nominate two (2) series. (Remember that I am a horrid and unyielding power hungry monster* here at Writing About Writing. To encourage reading and reading comprehension I will NOT take any authors beyond your second nomination.) If you nominate more than two books, I will only take your first two and consider any beyond that to be pre-seconds for a future nomination.

3- You may (and should) second as many nominations of others as you wish. No series will be going on to our poll that doesn't get at least one second.

4- The series must be done. Otherwise we don't know if it's got an ending that really lives up to "the best single arc."  So, for example, no Song of Ice and Fire.


5- Please put your nominations here. I will take books nominated as comments to this post on other social media; however, they may not get the seconds you need because no one will see them.

6- PLEASE NOTE: If we end up with an unwieldy number of nominations, the first split I will make will be the science-fiction, fantasy divide. If you feel your series is in any way genre bending or ambiguous, please include which way you would to see it go should the split occur. Otherwise I'll use my best judgement.  And while I don't anticipate any series that aren't either one or the other, if they do show up, I'll do my best.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How Do I Write a First Sentence? (Mailbox)

That monocle is not fooling anyone!
How can I write a perfect first sentence?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one each week. I have a LOT of backlogged questions right now, but I will try to eventually get to all of them.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I may give myself a few slow balls right over the plate as I warm back up into a regular blogging schedule here.]

Li writes: 

I'm having a lot of trouble with this [referring to the image to the right about opening sentences -Chris]

Stephen writes: 

I could really use some help coming up with the first sentence.  

Angela asks: 

Do you have any first-sentence wisdom you could lay on us? I know they set the whole tone of the novel, so I just sit there, frozen

My reply:

First of all, let me thank everyone for their patience with the generally fluffy content on the blog these last six weeks while I dealt with Sonic Gal's cancer diagnosis. Now that we're out of the "ZOMG Cancer!" emergency, hospital, 24/7, doctors tag teaming us (and not in the fun way), nurses at 4am, really shitty meatloaf and that-jello-with-the-fruit-suspended-in-it phase, and moving into the long (but more predictable) chemotherapy phase (which involves hair loss and existential angst but a blessed absence of nurses Sonic Gal finds ridiculously hot telling her that they'll be the ones changing her bed pan), The Brain has been able to do things like schedule childcare for The Contrarian and set back up a little bit of my old writing time. So while I can't promise that things will go back to their pre-medical mystery splendor (at least for at least five months or so), we should be able to put a bit more on the table. Forgive me if I answer a few softballs while I get back into the swing of things.

But let's get on to first sentences. 

Look at your typical advice about first lines: They must be surprising. They must grab the reader. They must be vivid. They must establish your unique voice. They must be true, clear, amusing...they must contain the entirety of the novel. They are the "handshake with the reader." 80% of readers will decide whether to continue based on your first line. Everything you are as a human being and all your worldly artistic ambitions are riding on this sentence.

"No pressure n00bs" -LeGuin probably

Oh is that all?

And look what you're up against!  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” “My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered.” "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."  "Mother died today."  I mean...DAMN, right?

Let me give you the best advice I possibly can about your first sentence.

Fuggidaboutit. 

Seriously, I'm not kidding. Stop worrying about it. Skip it. Start with your second sentence. Start with your second paragraph. Start with your second CHAPTER.

There is absolutely no earthly reason in any of the buttholes of the Greek pantheon that the first sentence you write should be The First Sentence™ of your written work. First of all, if you're just sitting down to a blank page, you don't really know what your story is about. You might have some ideas, but the process of writing is messy. Your story is going to change. (I know. I know. Not YOUR story. But just for shits and giggles, play along with this concept that every creative person in the whole world has been trying to tell you that the process is messy.) You may find new themes emerge. You may find your main character isn't important but that minor character is who the story is really about. You may decide to start your story at chapter three and skip that impossible-to-digest solid twenty page bowel movement of exposition you tried to cram into chapters one and two. You may find the idea that brings your whole story together in one beautiful symbol.

I mean who knows what's going to change.

But there's no way your first sentence can reflect all those changes until you've written the damned thing. And if you're trying to shoehorn in something you thought was brilliant before all that other shit changed, it's going to feel forced and awkward. Like that weird joke that your friend tried to tell that didn't REALLY have to do with the conversation, but they were so excited about telling it that they kept trying to work it in. ("Your conversation about high priced dog kennels reminds me of this one time I was eating designer cheese in Dubai....")

The first piece of advice I give my college students who are writing essays when they're hung up on their introduction or thesis statement is to write their paper first, and then figure out what they wanted to say. As they wind into their conclusion most of them have a much better sense of what they're trying to say, and can go back and write a killer introduction. The same thing applies here. Okay, that's not true at all. Actually, the first bit of advice I give them is to learn what a fucking comma splice is and stop using "I feel" in formal academic essays, but shortly after that we get to the introduction/conclusion thing.

All trying to get it right the first time does is paralyze you into not writing. It's performance anxiety. You sit at the screen in a blind sort of panic because it has to be perfect. You know it won't be perfect, and so you rack your brain in a Sisyphean quest for words.

This paralysis is at the heart of 99% of what people call writer's block.

I don't want to trivialize how frustrating and real this paralysis ("writer's block") can be. I really don't. But fundamentally most writer's block (especially the "first line" kind) is a lack of respect for the process. You're sitting down and thinking that you have to get it right.

You don't have to get it right.

You're sitting down thinking your sentence has to be surprising, grabby, vivid, amusing, true, and clear, and that is what's holding you back.

It doesn't.

Let me say that again: IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THAT STUFF.

Not yet anyway. There's no WAY this is going to be your first sentence by the time you're looking for an agent or trying to shop it around or publishing it. Fuggidaboutit. You will change it. You will revise it. And you just gotta trust me that you have to respect that part of the process. You have three or four drafts and a dozen revisions before you have to think of your first sentence in some sort of "handshake the reader" kind of way, and by then you'll probably have a much better idea how to do it, what you want to say, what your voice is in the piece, and how to make it clearly introduce the story.

When you sit there frozen because your first sentence isn't perfect, it is absolutely frustrating and real and I don't want to diminish how painful it can be, but it's happening because you're not having faith that it's okay to write crap. It's performance anxiety when you haven't done the rehearsal and don't know your lines. It's the curtain opening up on a Madison Square Garden audience, and you don't even know the name of the play yet. And unless you're Ian McKellen or James Earl Jones, you're going to freeze up. For a writer, the rehearsals and line readings and tech week all happen in the rough drafts and revisions.

Chris is a Hottie McHotterson -James Earl Jones probably
He's hottie times infinity plus another infinity -Ian McKellen surely
Totes magotes- James Earl Jones almost certainly
That means being willing–nay having FAITH–to write your crappy, flawed, predictable, forgettable, false, and muddled first sentence, that you will go back and fix later.

Write ANY sentence. Any sentence at all. Fuck, if you want, use a randomly generated sentence for all it's going to matter to your final product. See what sort of juices it gets flowing to try and make that the start of your story. Just get your ass writing and stop trying to be perfect. You could even try to write a hilariously bad first sentence.

But you're never going to reach perfect, and you can't even come close on your first attempt.

You have to kill that inner perfectionist with fire, because no artist can work with that asshole looking over their shoulder. (Okay maybe don't kill them with fire. You'll need them later to sniff at your work when you need to revise the third draft. But definitely wound them for the duration or put them in the Pit of Despair™and suck the life out of them until they're mostly dead.)

Artists have to have permission to fuck up. (The good shit happens when you're making mistakes anyway.) Destroy the impetus to write something on the first shot that will never change. That's exactly what's making you sit there like a statue called The Blocked Writer™, eating coal and crapping diamonds because you're so anxious about how to get it just right. Let go of your literal and hypothetical sphincter, and produce some crap!

Once you've written your story then all that advice about how to make a first sentence that kicks ass will be so much easier. You will be more able to see what your story is and what will reflect your voice and how to be clear and grab your reader's attention.

If you're blessed with first sentence mojo, maybe you can come up with them and they don't change or don't change much throughout the life of your story. For all the rest of us mortals down here on Earth our story's first sentence–the real one that we end up going with–should probably actually be one of the last ones we write.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Best Magic System (Final Round)

http://marcsimonetti.deviantart.com/art/Mistborn-429867494
What is the best system of magic in fiction?  

Our final round is live!  

Our poll is ten names. Culled through semifinals from 20 names that you offered though our write in nominations. Each of you will be given three (3) votes. Please remember that there is no "ranking" system for votes so each vote you cast beyond the first will "dilute" the power of all the others. You should vote for as few as you can bear to.

This poll will only run until Feb 18th. After that our desperately late February poll will be going up.

The poll itself is on the lower left of the side menus–just below the "About the Author."

Since I can't really stop shenanigans, I welcome all the shenanigans. The main one is of course that Polldaddy tracks your IP for a week so you could vote from multiple computers or vote again after a week, but people have also enlisted friends, family, and even author forums or Facebook communities to join in the fun.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Best Magic System (Poll Results Semifinal 2)

Next week we have lots of poll stuff that'll be going up, including our February poll nominations and our final round of the Best Magic Poll.

So here are the results from the second semifinal round of the Best Magic poll. Everything from His Dark Materials and up will be going on to the final round. Look for that tomorrow!


Thank you to so very many for voting.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Return of the Weekend Warrior

I'm going to start blogging on weekends again.

But Chris! I'm sure you're all thinking. You have so much going on. You can't possibly blog on the weekends and take care of people through chemo and have time for all those groupie threesomes! 

That's true. But there's method to my madness and it goes beyond simple sadism (at least this time).

1- I have a lot of fluffy posts to share. Ever since I stopped blogging on weekends, I've slowly but surely started to accumulate a backlog of low priority posts. Nothing vital, but just things like thank you notes from our donation beneficiaries, poll results, menu clean ups, revised older posts. Things that generally I would never want to use up a week day to post. Unless I want to post two or three times a day (I don't) I really need an extra couple of days a week where some of that lower importance stuff can go in (and the curious can dig around and look at it at their leisure).

2- It's probably going to be weekdays that are more often emergencies.  Though all I can tell you for sure about the next four or five months is that our regular productivity is likely to be low and sporadic, it seems like most of the really sudden emergencies that require either hospital runs or immediate childcare tag ins happen actually on the weekends. So those are more likely the days where I'm going to wave the white flag and admit I just can't get a post up.

So for the time being, at least, we're back on at LEAST Saturdays (maybe Sundays too) in order to keep everything running smoothly here, not spam several posts a day, and to keep the content at about the right place even given that some weekdays are simply going to disappear into "Childcare! Sorry!" posts.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Should I Hire an Editor? By Bethany Brengan


Should I Hire an Editor? (What to Look for and How to Decide If You Need One)
by Bethany Brengan

First a little background. I am currently a freelance writer and editor and have been for several years. Before this, I worked at a small independent publisher—first as a copyeditor, and later, as Editorial Director (a.k.a. “Person Who Deals with Author Meltdowns”).

I find that writers are often uncertain about what exactly an editor does and whether or not they need one. If you are in that boat, here are some questions to ask yourself.

  1. Where are you in the process? An editor doesn’t need to see your manuscript until you’ve done at least three thorough revisions yourself. I have worked with early versions of books before (because of time constraints or as part of a developmental edit), but it’s very time-consuming, and therefore, expensive. And usually, the advice that I end up giving to early birds is “Go back. Fix [specific things] and then contact me again.” You can save yourself some steps (and money), by vetting your own work as much as possible. Have you joined a writers group? Have you pawned off your novel on “friend who reads a lot and whose opinion I trust”? Let the work sit a little between revisions so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes. Professional editing, if you need it, comes later. Don’t let it distract you from writing.
  2. What are your publishing goals? If you plan to self-publish (and charge readers for the publication), I can almost guarantee that you will need an editor. (Some POD, hybrid, or self-publishers will offer a copyediting service. A handful offer more complex edits. The quality of and the amount you will pay for these services will vary. If possible, look through some of the edited books put out by the company before signing on.) One of the major hurdles to marketing a self-published book is to overcome the negative “vanity press” image a lot of readers still have. Poor editing is part of this stereotype. And sometimes, unfortunately, it’s earned. If I had a dollar for each time an author told me, “Oh, it’s almost ready to print” of a manuscript that then required moderate to heavy copyediting (never mind the content editing). . . well, I still wouldn’t be rich, but I could definitely throw a lavish tea party.
Most traditional publishers have in-house editors. This leads some writers to shrug and say, “Oh, well. . .they’ll fix that in editing, right?” Only if you make it that far. Publishing is a business. And every book is a risk. No matter how promising “the bones” of a manuscript are, a publisher won’t accept it if the cost of the editing hours required to clean it up is too high. I worked briefly in acquisitions at my small publisher, and since I was also the main editor, sometimes I’d look at a submission and see the months and months of work ahead of me and think, Nope, not worth it. That said, many traditionally published writers didn’t hire editors before submitting their manuscripts to publishers or agents. But they did make sure their work was in the best shape possible. And that should always be your goal.
  1. What type of editing do you need? Editing comes in a lot of flavors. Keep in mind that the following definitions are not strict categories and they often bleed into each other.
  • Proofreading. This is mostly for catching typos. This is usually what people mean when they say, “Oh, my great-aunt’s sister helped me edit my novel.” It’s an important step, but it’s considered the very lowest rung of the editing ladder (i.e., unpaid interns who also have to clean the office microwave do this). And it’s usually a last step rather than a first.


  • Copyediting. The editor catches typos, punctuation errors, bad sentence structure, confusing word choice, grammatical problems (e.g., subject-verb disagreement, changes in tense, dangling modifiers, etc.). The editor will also decide on more subjective areas of English (e.g., copy editor vs. copyeditor). Signs of a good copyeditor include: a well-thumbed copy of The Chicago Manual of Style and knowledge of several style guides and grammar texts. Copyediting may also include basic fact-checking.

  • Line editing. This is copyediting on crack. Not only will your grammar and punctuation be on point and your meaning clear, your sentences will sound good. Not just “correct” or “good enough.” A good line editor makes you sound like a smoother, more articulate version of yourself. This is about tweaking sentences that are correct but verbose and challenging descriptions that are clear but boring. This is about making your sentences sparkle. (Some editors will simply refer to this as a form of copyediting.) \
  • Content (or structural or full-manuscript) editing. This is where you really get your money’s worth. Correct comma placement means nothing if your plot has the structural integrity of cooked spinach. Content editing covers everything a manuscript is about and made of. This might be as simple as moving a couple chapters and revising the introduction. It might be as intense as rewriting the protagonist’s motivation and character arc. It’s simply whatever the book requires to be its best version. Good content brings readers (and sells copies) in ways that great punctuation can’t. (Content editing is sometimes done as a separate process from copyediting, especially if intense revisions are expected.)


  • Developmental editing. I’ve heard content editing also referred to as this, but generally developmental editing is when the editor helps you develop your book. It’s sometimes just helping you work out your ideas before writing, and other times, it’s a close cousin to ghostwriting.

  1. What should I look for in an editor? Does the editor come recommended by another writer? That’s usually a good sign, especially if that writer can give you specific examples the editor’s skill. Many freelancer editors will give you a small sample edit for free or a minor fee. I find this sample to be the strongest indicator of quality. Are the comments on the sample edit clear and insightful? If there are line edits, do they make your work more concise? Do you sound like the best version of yourself? You want an editor who will be honest with you, who respects your voice as a writer but also pushes you. Especially if you hire a content editor, you need to pick someone you can question. (I love when authors challenge me on edits or ask for explanations. My family is tired of listening to me rant about semicolons.)
  2. I can’t afford editing. Am I doomed? No and yes. Kno-Pub the Terrible is not going rise from the Pit of  Obscurity and curse your manuscript to the Eternal Slush Pile. You are doomed to be creative and work hard. But you’re a writer, so this is the fate you’ve already chosen. If grammar and punctuation are  your weaknesses, start brushing up. Sites like Grammar Girl offer grammar advice in digestible bites. If you struggle with plot, I often recommend Story by Robert McGee (even though it’s technically about scriptwriting; I’ve yet to find another book that tackles essence of story structure so well). If your prose is clunky or overwrought, consider reading Beyond Style by Gary Provost. (I don’t agree with Provost on everything, but he’s great at explaining how to build pacing into your sentences.) Bribe beta readers with coffee and chocolate. If you’re truly desperate for an editor, find someone who is starting out (there is a group on Goodreads for connecting writers with editors). Sometimes, beginning editors will work for reduced fees in exchange for recommendations, but be warned, the quality of these edits varies widely. Also consider paying for a small section of edits (your first chapter or a query letter) from an editor you trust and gleaning as much as you can from the notes.

If you had questions about editing, I hope that begins to answer them. Now here’s some free advice for the road: You can end a sentence with a preposition (but that doesn’t always mean you should). In American English, commas and periods go inside quotation marks. It’s okay to break any of the rules, but only if it gives the readers something.


Bethany F. Brengan is a freelance writer and editor who reads too many comics. She is a contributing writer to Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing and Batman (McFarland Books). Her poetry has appeared in The 2015 Poet’s MarketPoetry Quarterly, and The Crucible. She can be found at www.brenganedits.com and
www.readingwritingraptures.blogspot.com.



If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices (even if they don't always agree with me). Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.