I love to read articles where famous writers discuss their writing. I always anticipate a grand revelation that will take me from a mere writer to an amazing writer. Such gems are rare and precious. The most precious of 2015 was reading Stephen King declare war on adverbs. The man hates adverbs, and I could not understand why, since I used them often. The key word there is: used. It turns out that adverbs are facilitators for all that “telling” and not “showing”, which you (as a writer) know is the death knell of the written word.
That is all the explanation you will get, because I’m not an editor and this article is not about writing style, but H.O.O.T.’s of Wisdom on writing. If you would like to read a great article that blew my mind on editing, please read Sharon Miller’s Self-Editing Tips: Part 1 and Part 2.
I find that when I create I get two types of ideas:
1. Ideas that amuse me.
2. Ideas that consume me.
The less scary of the two is the first. These are simple ideas that belong to themselves. They come from life; someone would say something, I would see or dream something, read something,… They usually begin with: What if…?
Such an idea resulted in my first artwork book, Animals In My Hair. I heard my mother tell my father that he should get a haircut, because his hair was a forest! (This is a common Serbian expression.) I was doodling in my sketchbook and translated from Serbian into English, then asked myself: What if our hair really was a forest? Surely there would be animals living in the hair. But, why would animals be living in someone’s hair? Because, people have destroyed their habitats and they needed a place to hide! Several years later, I published a book about a little boy who goes for his first haircut and endangered animals tumble out of his hair.
The second kind of idea frightens me, because it is not contained in itself. This kind of idea keeps changing as I grow and change, until sometimes the world I am creating seems more real than the one I live in. It is the kind of idea that can tip a creative mind into madness.
Warriors of Virtue, my fantasy series, grows from such an idea.
Prior to Warriors of Virtue, I was doodling comics with my own and mythological characters inspired by Greek/Roman Mythology and Sailor Moon. One day, I was watching Anne of Green Gables the Sequel. There is a scene where Gilbert tells Anne that she should write about people she knows. I thought that would be fun. So, when I read The Lord of the Rings instead of creating fictional super-characters, I added my cousin, sister, and myself to the story. Eventually, my story outgrew Middle Earth and I created the land of Ardan. Ardan is populated by creatures I have never seen before, and have no idea where they came from. Every character has a life. If I would think about a character, even a minor character, glimpses of their memories would come through. All the pain and sorrow I’ve felt, some characters felt. The fears I’ve had, some characters lived. The meaning of life is revealed in a way that makes logical sense to my own meaning of life. A few years later, the characters that started out as myself, my cousin, and sister, took on lives of their own. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m a conduit to a parallel world, and sometimes I wonder if this world will consume me in the end. Warriors of Virtue is everything that I am and that I wish to become. The stories keep tugging at me. One day, will I forget to tug back?
I fear that greatness or madness is the result of such ideas. I treat them with caution, because only time will tell where I’ll find myself.
Publishers and teachers recommend writing outlines.
I write outlines… Well, sort of…
When I’m writing a formal paper outlines are essential. They keep me from repeating myself and help me organize the paper in a logical, scientific, manner. I find that writing fiction is different.
Once, while I was still seeking a trade publisher, I tried to write a detailed outline showing my characters’ motivations, conflicts, and resolutions on their journeys. Then I realised that for me, outlines are a waste of time. These days I write a roadmap. I know where my characters are, I know where they’ll end up, but I have no idea how or why they will end up there. I leave that bit of the story fluid, letting the characters take me on their journeys. Often, they surprise me, taking me down paths I would rather not travel… at least not without an invisibility cloak.
Once I have the idea and the roadmap, I write.
At this point I become a filmmaker. All the characters are living their lives. Where do I place my camera? What angle of the story do I show? What do I reveal? How much do I conceal?
There is so much to show, that I have to keep telling myself: LESS IS MORE.
Given half a chance, I would go in and focus on the pale morning sunlight kissing the budding leaves of a powerful oak tree. Unless a character is about to pop up from behind one of those leaves, there really is no point to write about the tree at all—is there?
While writing, I also remember Hitchcock who said he shows the audience only what they need to see.
I write, letting everything pour out of me without stopping, because I know editing comes later.
I also write beginning to end. I may note down bits of scenes to come in a journal, but I never write chapters out of order.
I write and I save often. Then I copy my work in case something happens to my computer.
I also keep an Encyclopaedia of characters, places, magic spells, powers, etc. I’m amazed how faulty my memory of my work becomes… Well, just as faulty as real life memories. However, when writing I need to know that my character wore a blue gown on a particular day, so I would not write about her lovely pink outfit. If my characters go on a journey, I need to draw a map and keep track of their days. If it takes human characters 6 days to reach the Forbidden Mountains on foot, how long will it take the Dragon-Prince Diamond to fly to the Empyreal Castle and back to the Forbidden Mountains?
At one point, I was developing the Ardanian language. However, I decided not to bother, because the language can be gibberish and still add interest to the story.
Writing is rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting,…
I wrote Warriors of Virtue when I was sixteen as a 30-page short story for my English class. My teacher nearly had a heart attack; my classmates submitted short stories that did not exceed five pages.
Shortly after, I wrote the second part of the fantasy series (currently titled, Cured by a Rose, a name I will change because it sounds too girly). The second part was about 200-pages long. Then I decided to expand upon the clinical-like precision of Warriors of Virtue.
After sixteen years of rewriting, Warriors of Virtue is about 600 pages in length.
I wrote the original in the past tense. The current novel is in the present tense. There is an excellent reason for this that involves the Three Fates, but I’ve deleted the intro bit that explains why the story can only be written in the present tense, because I wanted the reader to get to the meat of the story sooner in the fantasy series.
I hope I’ve made my point: writing is rewriting.
After I’ve written the first draft, I no longer think of my work as writing, but editing. A great tool that helps me edit my own work is the “Text-to-speech” feature. I’m currently using Microsoft Word, but I’m sure that all writing programs have this feature. Though the computer voice is flat and monotone it helps me pick up on typos and the rhythm of the language.
I would edit my work, then I would turn on the text-to-speech feature and edit the work again. After that I may leave the work for a few weeks, or if time allows months. Then I will edit the work again.
While editing I keep aware of my audience and ask myself: Do I need this to communicate my ideas? Most of the time my work is shorter after I edit, though sometimes it can be longer. People are taught early to connect the dots.
For example: “What do you mean?” He asked bewildered. These two sentences are overkill. The question mark indicates that he is asking (or inquiring, or wondering,…). The sentence itself makes us understand that he is bewildered. Therefore, the sentence in quotation marks can stand on its own.
When writing, I also try to keep my language as simple as possible; I use “talking” instead of “confabulating”. As a writer, I want to make sure that my audience understands what I’m trying to say, instead of impressing them with my handy thesaurus.
Ever since the “congealing dust” incident, I use Google often to define words. I want to make doubly sure I know the meaning of the word I’m using. Google also helps me find adequate synonyms when I find I’ve repeated a word too often.
Another lesson I’ve learned is to avoid descriptive passages. I love descriptive passages. Tolstoy is great when it comes to descriptive passages. However, the reality is that people today have more visual information than people prior television. Think about this for a second. When Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes, he wrote passages and passages describing the jungle. Today, all you need to write is “jungle”, and everyone who has ever seen a jungle travel or nature program knows what a jungle looks like. As an author today, my job is to set the mood of the scene, and that can be done in a couple of sentences. I do not need to go on and on about the crisscrossing vines and broad leaves, sunlight fighting through the foliage,… Unless, the description is important to the character, I leave it out. For example, there is a scene in Warriors of Virtue when the main character stares at herself in a mirror. I could leave most of the character’s description to the reader’s imagination, but in this scene the description is important. The character overheard one of her friends say to the other that she is not pretty enough for a princess, and the character studies herself in the mirror trying to determine if her friend is right.
The sad truth about editing is that it does not matter how many times I go through my work, I always find something I can change to make it better. I must have edited the first three chapters of Warriors of Virtue at least sixteen times in sixteen years. My editor went through the work, and at my last attempt I found bits and pieces to delete. An important part about editing is learning to let your work go, because if you do not stop, you will never publish.
Yes, your writing will improve with time, and you will cringe at the work you have done only a few years ago, but that is all part of a writer’s life. I know I have to accept that what I have done is the best that I can do at this moment in my career. Then I need to trust my editor to see the mistakes I’ve missed. After, the public will let me know if my book is worthy or not.
Never let others know you have doubts about the quality of your work. If you let the public know that you do not feel good about what you have done (which I think every author on the planet does) the public will choose another book to pass their time. Never, ever, defend your work (unless you are fighting for your PhD). As an author I have something to say, and if I’ve managed to communicate that something to my readers that is all that matters.
I have days when I think my work is the greatest written piece since Shakespeare, and days when I think I should forget about writing and just focus on being an artist. This is normal.
So far, everyone has loved Animals In My Hair. I do not have a single negative review. This does not mean that I will not get one someday. Negative reviews are perfectly normal. The ones that explain why they do not like the book help improve the work. The ones that are negative just for the sake of being negative are written by Trolls and should be ignored. Creative works by nature are subjective; a question of taste formed by experience, rather than conclusion backed up by evidence. A lot of people loved Napoleon Dynamite. I cannot recall why, but I remember after watching the movie that I wanted those two hours of my life back. This does not mean that the movie is bad. It just means that the movie is not for me. Game of Thrones is insanely popular, but I doubt I will ever read the books or watch the series even though I am a fantasy fan. Why? Because I do not like excessive blood, death, and gore. By reputation, Game of Thrones is riddled with all three. The key when writing is to find a group of people who will love what you do (your audience) and make them happy. I have a small group of such fans, and I’m grateful to them; not only for their support, but because their praise inspires me to be better and gives me courage to take risks.
When you go public, everything you ever write online is online FOREVER. Keep in mind you ARE under public scrutiny, even if you are not famous and no one is reading your blog at this time. Once you find your audience and your work takes off, your fans will look you up online. The moment you become a great success, there will be those who will wish to pull you down. It’s human nature. I never understood why people love to trash and invade celebrities’ lives, but if you went on a rant in your teen years, that rant will find its way to a magazine once you step into the light. We all have our moments, I know I have mine, but there is no reason to “air out your dirty laundry” in public.
Now that Warriors of Virtue is only a few months away from publication, I find I cannot settle. I wrote this series, because I wanted to read this series. Reading Warriors of Virtue the last time, I loved the story. I wrote it and still I found myself shivering and laughing at bits. That must mean it’s good, right? I wrote this story for me, but now I want to share it with the world. Will the public like it? Will they think it the greatest thing since Harry Potter, Sailor Moon, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar the Last Airbender? Only time will tell. I have had my say, the public will have theirs. I believe that most people will enjoy this work, but what I know is that I’ve given everything I have to this story. As an author, at the end of the day, that has to be enough.
H.O.O.T.s of Wisdom
Hire a professional editor. Do not publish unless a professional editor (or at least a PhD in English graduate) with credentials edits your book. It will not matter if you’ve written the greatest story ever, if you’ve done so with poor style, faulty grammar, and lots of spelling mistakes. An editor is not where you want to skimp if you are self-publishing. There were books whose ideas I loved, but I could not get through because English was terrible. One of these days, I’ll contact the author and beg him/her to hire a professional editor, republish the book, and let me know when the new version is out because I really want to read the story.
Keep a notebook by your bed, and one near you at all times. You never know when a great idea will strike. I cannot count on my memory to remember everything. Can you?
Write out character sketches for every character in your book. Copy and Paste text where they are mentioned with page references. Create your own Encyclopaedia. You can use this in the future to promote your novel.
Think of yourself as a filmmaker not script writer. Instead of telling what your characters are doing, show us how they look, the movements of their hands, reactions to scenes, etc. Every gesture must have a meaning to the story. If a gesture does not reveal something about the character or the story, leave it out.
When you are ready to go public, create a platform for yourself, have a website with your own domain, and a blog where you can connect with your fans. Even if you are not yet famous, think of yourself as a public figure and act with wisdom and grace. Ask yourself: do you want to be a fad or an institution?