What’s your writing plan?

You know your writing goals, but what’s your plan to get there?

Plans

A 55-year-old woman spoke at her GED/High School Equivalency Diploma graduation ceremony. She shared her struggle to get that diploma and the obstacles she faced. It took years, but she reached her goal because she never gave up.

“Remember, if the plan doesn’t work, change the plan but never the goal,” she said. Sage advice for all of us.

Failure as progress

As many of us look back on last year’s writing resolutions, it’s easier to focus on the failures and not the accomplishments. But even if your goals weren’t accomplished, the past year brought you closer to them. Every rejection means you’re one step closer to acceptance. Every failed plot means you’re closer to finding the one that works. At the very least, you know now what doesn’t work.

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So, where do you go from here? Be specific in setting out a plan. Make appointments for specific tasks as in everyday writing, seminars, workshops. Set deadlines for specific projects as in submissions, research, queries.

“Write more” isn’t specific. When? Where? For how long? With whom? Answer those “write more” questions. Your calendar should reflect your focused plan of attack.

Everyone wants to win. But winners have a strategy. They have a plan.

Reunite with old writing

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This is the perfect time of year to revisit and reacquaint yourself with half-baked ideas, undeveloped scenes and unstoried characters you filed away—and nearly forgot.

Do you have a file like that? I usually keep a hard copy of all my manuscripts tucked in file folders in plastic bins. Character descriptions and random scenes are handwritten in notebooks.

I could look at my pile of scripts and notes and see nothing more than failed attempts at plot, writer’s block folly or cringe-worthy rejects. Instead, I imagine it as a treasure trove of second chances—or third …

Time away from something can sometimes give a new perspective. A character might finally spring to life in a new story. A rejected article might be a few tweaks away from acceptance.

Time to dig. Time to make something old new again.

 

The em dash—my favorite

If you were to page through my manuscripts, you’d see it—the em dash. I love that thing. If it were a person, I imagine it as an adoring fan gazing at me with rapt attention—unlike my family members. It’s always at the ready to make sure everyone is listening to the very important thing I’m about to say next.

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It looks like a harmless short line, but in a sentence, it pokes the reader in the ribs and says, “Hey, you, listen up.” The em dash can be used to amplify or explain as if it were a little megaphone in a sentence.

Examples of em dash for emphasis:

  •   She doted on him and loved him—nearly to death.
  •   You could say Gerald was passionate—or obsessed—about his new hobby.

Maybe the em dash appeals to my inner preacher … or nag. Maybe I like it because I’m never sure anyone is listening. Whatever the reason, I like the thought of poking someone with punctuation to say, “Pay attention” or “Check this out” or “Just so you understand” or “Here’s the punchline.”

Are you too in love with your protagonist?

We want to protect those we love. It’s human nature. But it shouldn’t be a writer’s nature—not with our characters. Don’t shield your protagonist in heavy armor. Life sucks sometimes, but it should especially suck for your characters. It’s called drama, action, adventure.

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Do you want the reader to feel your character is in danger? How can that happen if no one is able to get across that mote you built around the fortress? Evil is threatening your protagonist, you write. But how invested can the reader be if that evil can never get close enough for her to feel his hot breath against her cheek, or hear his raspy whisper in her ear, or grapple with evil’s grip around her throat?

You can rescue her, of course, in the nick of time. But make it something worth rescuing.

Make your characters real. Stuff some meaty conflict inside them. Yes, good people get tempted—even tempted to surrender to the dark side. Let them go. To err is human. To mess up big time is great reading.

Even in children’s books, any excruciating experiences—humiliation, rejection, pain, loss—make the victory at the end much more satisfying.

Highlight the Senses in Your Writing

Long before those adult coloring books became a fad, I loved to color. Whenever my kids pulled out the crayons, I found myself doodling or filling in a page even after they moved on to the Legos.

There’s something soothing and satisfying in the rainbow look and waxy smell of a newly opened box of pristine crayons. Highlighters get to me, too, with their soft neon colors gliding across a smooth page.

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I’m not an artist. I do not paint. I wish I could, so maybe that’s why I welcomed the suggestion to highlight all the senses I could find in my novel. Will the reader taste, touch, see, smell, hear my story? The highlighters are lined up—pink, orange, yellow, green, and blue—each with an assigned sense. I want my pages to pop with the same inviting rainbow as a box of crayons or a package of highlighters.

Color me cautious

Could there be too much of a good thing? I think so. Descriptions draw the reader into the story. But they can stop the action and, well, get kind of boring if they go on too long. I can hear the reader now: “Yes, yes, yes—the trees, the bees, the wind—blah, blah, blah. What’s happening with what’s-her-face and what’s-his-name? Get on with it, already.”

So, a little pink here, a little blue and yellow there, it goes a long way. By appealing to a reader’s senses, hopefully, she’ll get that same pleasure that comes with opening a new box of crayons.

Confession of an exclamation point-aholic

“Hi. My name is Mary R, and I’m an exclamation point-aholic.”

“Hi, Mary,” droned the group of writers. A few disheveled members fidgeted with their phones. Others stared at me with exhausted, burnt-out eyes. The survivors, further along the road to recovery, nodded and smiled.

“It started out innocently enough,” I told them. “I was writing a children’s story, after all.”

“Ohhh nooo,” groaned the crowd.

“I didn’t even think twice about it. I typed ‘Hey,’ and before that second quotation mark even had a chance—shift, tap—I had hit the exclamation point. That punctuation mark pulsed on the screen, and an electric thrill zinged through me.

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“Two sentences later I typed another. Don’t get me wrong. I did think about it before I … Okay, who am I kidding? It popped up on my screen as if it had a life of its own. The energy, the excitement radiated from that slash-dot. My face flushed, my heartbeat quickened. I gave myself over to the ecstasy of exclamation! I was hooked.

“Before I knew it, I had a page full of exclamation points jumping up and down, dancing, flipping, and doing other unspeakable things—in a children’s story, mind you. Some of them clumped in an angry mob—two, three, yes, four! I admit it: four exclamation points in a row!! Adrenaline surged through my veins. I could hear the excitement in my character’s voice. I could feel his energy. He was alive, I tell you, ALIVE!!!

“Sorry.”

One writer shook her head at me. Most held their heads in their hands. I saw a couple wipe away tears. “We’re here for you, Mary,” said one.

“I’m here because of the children,” I told them. “I had nightmares of children jumping on their beds and bouncing off their walls. And it wasn’t because of the plot or the characters or the conflict. It wasn’t because of well-crafted writing. It was because I let loose a gusher of exclamation points that hit them like a frozen slushie tidal wave, like a stampeding sugar rush. In the corner, an editor writhed in pain as if battling an ice cream brain freeze. I did that to them.”

“It was only a nightmare,” whispered someone.

“But it could happen,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”

A tortoise in the writing race

So, how’s it going? National Novel Writing Month, that is. This would be the almost halfway point in your quest to hammer out 50,000 words on your novel. If you’re like many writers, that bright, shiny goal might be looking duller by the day.

Go ahead and curse NaNo if you wish. I will not judge you. But don’t stop writing.

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I always fancied myself as the tortoise—not the hare—in the writing race. My eyes are fixed on the goal. How fast I get there is not my main concern. Getting there is.

So, if you ruminate over a particular word, or rewrite a scene you labored over last week, or feel compelled to pause to research a detail, that’s okay. The clock may be running out on that NaNo-word-count-thingy, but don’t despair. It’s all about writing anyway.

Whether or not you get those 50,000 words, you are going to wake up December 1st and still write … right? So press on. Write.

Rescue a Comma Today

Comma splices—sad. How did that poor comma get there between two independent clauses? What kind of person expects that wispy curlicue to do the heavy lifting of a period or semicolon?

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What’s a comma splice?

Let me give you some examples. You read, and I’ll cower in the corner until I think you’re done. Here goes:

  • Lucy is boring, she doesn’t know when to shut up.
  • Ed is addicted to chocolate, he eats it all day.
  • Walking outside is healthy, it relieves stress, too.

Comma splices may be as rare as a Yeti sighting, but they’re out there. Believe me. There are also some people who don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s true. There are those who insist if the independent clauses are short and are closely connected, go ahead and use a comma. They say it’s no big whoop.

I beg to differ. That’s how it starts, people. It’s a slippery slope. Can’t you see? Who decides what’s “short,” huh? Who decides what’s “closely connected”—some bleary-eyed writer at the keyboard with one, two, three too many martinis? That guy? Huh?

If you are overwhelmed with the temptation to put a comma between two independent clauses, try using a semicolon. You’ll feel better, and so will I.

If you think you may have commas in need of rescuing, visit I Spy Edits.

Read any funny books lately?

“How long is this dystopian ride going to last?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t even say the word dystopian. That is so over,” the young, bright-eyed literary agent told me. “What’s happening now is gritty realism.”

So, imaginary-futuristic-depressing gave way to contemporary-depressing in middle grade children’s books? Sigh.

“What about humor?”

“Weeell.” She scrunched up her nose and pulled her mouth into a tight line. “Humor is a hard sell,” she said. “It’s so subjective.”

But depressing is not. Got it.

Don’t get me wrong. I got into The Hunger Games as much as anyone. And I know readers—teenagers especially—feed off any devastating and gripping rollercoaster of a read. But do people want to read that all the time?

I like humor. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough of it on the bookshelves—for middle grade, young adults, and beyond.

Remember when Oprah had her TV book club? I would look for that little Oprah seal on a paperback and buy it. However, I bailed out early. My God, no wonder suburban housewives drink. Isn’t real life rocky enough without a constant consumption of depressing books?

Not much has changed since my conversation with the agent more than a year ago or even when Oprah first started her book club way back when. Are writers sad and angsty and tragic in general? Or is all that stuff just natural to write about?

I know I might be alone out here in La-La-Happy-Land, but … come on! Where’s your sense of humor, publishers? Writers? Help a reader out.

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Writers: Beware of sound-alike words

Do you know the difference between the words stationary and stationery?

When I edited articles for a parenting magazine, we got a charming piece about thank-you notes and how kids can create their own stationery. Charming. Except the writer kept using the word stationary, meaning not moving. Apparently, she didn’t catch the difference between stationary and stationery—and neither did her spell-check.

Homophones, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, can be a pain (as opposed to a pane). Examples:

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principle – principal

capitol – capital

cite – site

discreet – discrete

enumerate – innumerate

lightening – lightning

canvas – canvass

elicit – illicit

fare – fair

flair – flare

foreword – forward

peek – peak – pique

 Also:

  1. Did she arrive in the nick of time or the knick of time?
  2. He got his just deserts or his just desserts?
  3. I waited with bated breath or baited breath?
  4. The tortoise had free rein of the house or free reign of the house?
  5. Did he wreak havoc or reek havoc?

Answers:

  1. nick
  2. deserts (Surprise!)
  3. bated
  4. rein (I’m not lying.)
  5. wreak

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So, let’s be careful out there. Give your words a double take.