Being an Active Member in Your Writing Community

Also Known as Good Writing Karma

Let’s be honest, as creatives, we can sometimes become a little self-involved with our creative process, our routines and art-making. This seclusion and intense inward focus is often a necessary part of the practice, but it’s equally important that we take the time to support other creatives and members of our writing and reading community. That’s just good karma. If you’re running a little thin on ideas don’t worry, the below suggestions will help get you started.

Write Reviews and Leave Comments

As a writer, you know how much time, energy and sacrifice goes into the creation of a book. That’s why it means so much to us when someone takes the time to acknowledge or praise our work. If you’ve enjoyed reading a particular book, take the time to write a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Not only are you telling the author how much you loved their book you’re also supporting the success of that book as the number of reviews – especially positive reviews – greatly effects book sales.

Lots of positive reviews = More book sales.

No reviews = No sales.

We’ve all experienced the warm fuzzy feeling that follows ANY compliment; doubly so when the compliment is about our creative work. Giving the gift of praise to another writer is damn good karma. Cos let’s be honest, so often we slave away on a piece of writing that even our parents and friends can’t be bothered reading. That’s why it’s so important that we support one another and that we give each other praise and feedback. Not only do we value language and story in a way that non-writers do we also know the discipline and sacrifice it took to make that book, article or blog.  Let writers know that you enjoyed their work. Write a review, leave a comment and spread that writerly love!

Shop Locally

It’s vital that we support small local independent business whenever we can. Yeah, you can buy books cheaper online, but such purchases rarely come with a smile, additional recommendations or bookish banter. Plus, you don’t have to wait 1-7 days for said purchase to arrive. Instead, you can crack that spine within thirty seconds of leaving the story. Instant gratification!

If you DON’T support your local bookstore, then one day you may not have one. Ask yourself the following question: do you really want to live in a town that doesn’t have a bookstore?

The books at your local store may be a touch more expensive, but you’re paying for the privilege of leisurely browsing, picking up physical books, flipping them over and reading the blurb. You get to amble past shelves that haven’t been organised by a logarithm. You get to see books that haven’t been curated according to prior purchases. This small freedom may introduce you to a new book or novelist; pleasures yet to be experienced. You are also paying for the bookseller’s expertise. If you give the assistant a few clues, they’ll meet it with a handful of recommendations – books that you may not have instinctively picked up.

You get to amble past shelves that haven’t been organised by a logarithm. You get to see books that haven’t been curated according to prior purchases.

A bookstore is not a shop. It is a community centre where authors, budding writers and readers can meet in real life. It is a place where you can discuss the latest Zadie Smith, Tim Winton or Ann Patchett novel and you won’t be met with blank stares. It is our place. That’s why it is so important that we show up and support it with our time, money and presence.

Critiquing

Writing can be a lonely business and we don’t always do a good job of assessing the strengths and weaknesses in our own work. If there is a member of your writing network (physical or virtual) whose company or storytelling you enjoy, consider offering to critique their work. Remember, the ideal critique partner is someone who is kind and honest. Always start your critiques with positive feedback by highlighting the works strengths and any sentences that you found beautiful, poetic or technically impressive. Whatever weaknesses you do identify, be sure to deliver that criticism kindly followed by a suggestion on how they could potentially resolve it. You shouldn’t offer to critique someone’s writing with the expectation that your generosity be reciprocated. If your partner does make such as offer be sure to take them up on it and say thank you — just don’t expect it!

Sensitivity Reader

If your novel deals with some heavy themes or if you’re representing marginalised groups, then you should consider hiring a sensitivity reader. Of course, writers can write about anything, but readers (and critics) also have the right to tear that author to shreds if they do a bad job. Sensitivity readers are useful if you are writing about an experience you haven’t had, or if you are writing from the perspective of a character whose race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental abilities are different from your own. You are responsible for your representation of people from marginalised groups and people who’ve had traumatic experiences, so act responsibly. A simple Google search will provide you with a host of readers you can approach. Once you’ve made contact, they’ll be able to tell you whether they are the most appropriate person to proofread your work.

The last thing the world needs is more poorly research literature. Books and words have power and we need to be careful about the way we use these tools.

It’s important that we make time for the crafting of our stories, but it’s also important that we make the time to support other writers, readers and book lovers. This is our tribe and we need to take care of it.

 

Five Things That Will Derail Your Writing

Five things that will zap my productivity and derail a writing day like nothing else* are a lack of sleep, technology/internet, excessive noise, not knowing what needs to be done next and skipping breaks.

Lack of sleep

This is a tricky one to talk about because we are both in control and not in control of our sleep patterns. A bad night’s sleep doesn’t always derail my productivity, but it does influence what tasks I chose to complete. If I’m sleep deprived, I probably won’t tackle heavy tasks like reading theoretical scholarly texts or writing assignments. If I’m feeling weary, I tend to tackle lighter tasks like writing blogs, editing vlogs or catching up on domestic chores and errands. Of course, there are also times when you just have to take the damn day off.

There are habits you can develop that both assist and hinder your quality of sleep. Avoiding blue-light (laptops, mobiles and even televisions), keeping the room cool, minimising all forms of light and noise from your bedroom and engaging in relaxing activities at least one hour before bed are all good practices to improve your quality of sleep. Doing the exact opposite of this may not affect your sleep, but if you’re struggling to get eight hours of shut-eye, reassessing your sleep-time habits and developing new healthier ones is a must.

The internet, email and social media

This one is fairly obvious, right? The internet/technology is an endless source of interruption with all those bells and dings that alert us whenever we get an email, text or phone call. It is so easy to distract ourselves with social media, email and texting. It is so easy to reach for our phone or web browser whenever a task feels too hard or a problem arises and we don’t know how to fix it. Unless you have an iron will – some days I do and some days I don’t – the best way to combat this problem is by turning off your devices, including your wifi. An even better solution is relocating your workspace to a place where there is no wifi! Hello, dingy café!

Excessive noise

I prefer writing in silence, but that’s not always possible. While I can easily tune out a little background noise, the sound of the television, music playing or people talking can become very distracting. If you can’t relocate your workspace, then I highly recommend that you check out the website ambient-mix.com. This site contains a wide variety of looped white noise soundtracks including Sherlock’s Apartment and Griffindor Common Room. It’s not silence but when combined with a comfy pair of headphones it’s the next best thing.

Not knowing what needs to be done next

This point pertains to just about everything from academic and creative writing to your good old general to-do list. It is so easy to waste time when you don’t know what needs to be done in order to move forward.

If I start a writing session without knowing what needs to happen next, I can waste 10-30 minutes staring at the screen or writing waffle because I’m trying to write my way into the story rather than writing the story. If I refer to my outline or if I spend five minutes writing a mini-outline, then I can dive right into the story because I know what has to happen next.

When it comes to general to-do lists, it’s not always easy to determine which tasks are the priorities. A lengthy to-do list can leave us feeling scatterbrained and overwhelmed, especially when every task seems vital and urgent. Our inner taskmaster will try to convince us that everything is important and everything needs to be done right now, but that is rarely the truth. A simple way to combat this problem is to consider which tasks (if any) have deadlines. If so, start with those – especially if the deadline is soon. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to re-examine your list and ask yourself if any of these tasks can be broken into smaller tasks. For example, you may be torn between writing your next assignment or working on your thesis. Given that your assignment is due first, that task needs to be made the priority. If you are working on a long-term project like writing a thesis, you need to break that HUGE task into small manageable steps like read five journal articles this week and write a 500-word piece that summaries what you’ve learned or find ten sources that will help you write the first chapter.

Skipping breaks

This bad habit has two different forms. First, there is the chugging away day after day after day which can quickly lead to burn out and a week spent on the couch staring at the ceiling or Netflix if that’s your jam. The second is when you work for five hours straight – no stretching, no toilet breaks, no water, no lunch – and then collapse in a heap at 2pm.

Taking a break can seem like a lousy idea when you’re in the flow. And look, if you don’t take a break, the writing police aren’t exactly going to kick down your door, but most of the time we aren’t working in a frenzy because the muse has whacked us with her inspiration stick, we’re simply working. And when you’re simply working, make sure you take regular breaks.

You may enjoy using the Pomodoro technique of working for either 25 or 45 minutes and then having a 5 or 15 minute break. These mini-breaks give you a chance to peel your eyes away from the screen and to stretch your body, get some water or go to the bathroom. Do not check your phone! The idea of these breaks is to get your eyeballs off blue-light screens.

In addition to these physical needs, it also gives your brain a rest! Dani Shapiro said that smoking used to be one of her best writing habits because it allowed her to fully relax for a couple of minutes. This was back in the early nineties i.e. no phones. These days, we fill our “breaks” with social media and texting. Rather than allowing our mind to relax and become empty, we fill them up with images, posts and Insta quotes. Please note, I am not advocating that you take up smoking but what I am saying, and Anne Lammot will back me up here, is that everything works again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you! Giving your brain a mini power down is a great way to ensure that you get the most out of a work day. Instead of going hard and burning out after a couple of hours, you can steadily putt through an entire day.

These five things may be small, but the impact they have on your level of productivity can be huge. Thankfully, all five of these distractions and interruptions can be overcome with a little planning and a splash of will power. Don’t let anything get in the way of finishing your story or reaching your writing goals, not even Instagram!

(*Disclaimer: this list does not include the interrupts and emergencies that life can throw at us. Instead, it focuses on the inconveniences we can control).

The Downside to Being a Precrastinator

We’re all familiar with the term procrastination – and some of us may have even experienced it! – but have you heard of the term precrastination? When I first heard this term, I thought it was a cheeky way to describe ‘doers,’ but the more I read about it, the more I realised how perfectly this term describes the way that I manage my to-do list.

Basically, a precrastinator is someone who prefers to complete a task as soon as possible. They like to get things done well in advance. This approach is particularly relevant to short term tasks such as email, errands and minor requests*.

Many of us have long term goals that may include writing a novel, completing a degree, or increasing our fitness. Intellectually, we understand that these goals take a lot of time and a lot of energy to achieve.

If we are chugging along on one of our long term goals and a short term tasks suddenly pops up on our to-do list, a precrastinator will rush to complete that task in order to get on with their ‘real work’. Many of these tasks are lopped onto our already full plates through the evil channels of email, social media and our mobile phones. Ah, the joys of being constantly contactable…

Maybe you’re in the middle of a writing session when you receive an email from a colleague requesting you to edit a journal article, or a friend texts asking for your lasagne recipe, or you duck into the kitchen for a cup of tea and the kettle croaks it.

Working on your masterpiece has now become impossible because all you can think about is that your colleague needs that article to be edited, your friend needs that recipe and someone has to buy a new kettle. How can you possibly write another chapter with these pesky demands nipping at your heels?

There is a couple of things at play here. Firstly, there is a belief that these short term tasks are urgent. We spin ourselves into a frenzy as we tend to these tasks in an attempt to get them off our to-do list as quickly as possible. Of course, we should also take a moment to acknowledge the dopamine hit that happens when we complete these short term tasks. Ah, instant gratification. Progress has been made! Or has it?

This habit can have two consequences. If you allow yourself to be constantly distracted and interrupted by short term tasks, this will drag out the completion of your long term goals. Alternatively, if you continue to focus solely on short term tasks, then you may never reach your long term goal. In which case, your precrastinating has turned into procrastinating.

If you indulge in this form of procrastinating too much, you may develop a habit of rushing through ALL the tasks on your to-do list. Instead of taking the time to complete a task properly, you may find yourself in a vicious cyclic pattern as you hurry to complete one task then another and another. Who wants to live their life as though it were one big to-do list?

Obviously, some tasks can be completed quickly, but if you rush to complete the edits your colleague request, if you shot off an email to your friend, or if you hurry out the door to buy a new kettle – you may find yourself in a sea of regret!

What if you miss a bunch of typos? What if you email your friend a confidential file instead of a recipe? What if you buy a full-price kettle instead of one on sale because you were too busy to look?

When you rush through a task you may fail to give the time, attention or consideration that it truly needs. The result? Your colleague doesn’t ask you to edit another paper. Your friend reads that confidential material. You regret your quick purchase.

Precrastinating isn’t necessarily a problem. There is something good about clearing the decks so that you can give your full attention to your long term goals, but you need to be honest with yourself, are you simply tending to minor tasks or are you procrastinating under the guise of being efficient? You need to ask yourself questions like:

  • is my procrastinating leading to mediocre work?
  • Is it harming my reputation?
  • Is it causing me to rush through long term goals instead of giving them the time and energy they actually need?

It’s not very often that I EVER defend procrastinating, but there can be benefits to completing tasks at the last minute or at least delaying your starting of them. If you have a month to prepare a paper and you rush to write, revise and submit it in a week, you’ve just lost three weeks of ‘marinating’ time. Procrastinating isn’t (always) a dressed-up form of laziness or resistance, SOMETIMES, it is a way to allow deeper reflections, thoughts, insights and connections to occur. A person who does not write a paper until a few days before the deadline may wind up writing a better paper because they’ve allowed themselves to really think through their argument and to find some stellar sources.

There’s nothing wrong with being either a precrastinator or a procrastinator. The only times these behaviours do becoming troublesome is when they start interfering with your long terms goals.

*Of course, precrastinating also extend to medium sized tasks like re-planting a garden bed, servicing your car or building a website.

The Professional Edit

Note: If you prefer video content, you can access the vlog version here.

Writing is not a solitary task but a collaborative effort. The first draft (and several after) may be crafted with the door to your office firmly closed, but eventually, you will need to let others in. The feedback, critiques and advice from other writers, readers and professionals can help us to see the flaws in our work, such as excessive use of filter words, repetitive phrases, redundant sentences, plot holes, inconsistencies, and incomplete character/story arcs.  Novels contain multiple moving parts, so it’s easy for a writer to make a mistake. This is why editors exist: to help writers turn good stories into great stories.

If you are fortunate enough to get a deal with a traditional publishing house, then your manuscript will go through multiple rounds of editing. If you are interested in self-publishing, then I urge you to have your manuscript edited. Readers are savvy. They don’t want to pay $2.99 for a novel that is actually a first draft. Readers want good stories and if you are a self-published author, it’s your responsibility to make sure you are putting forward the best, most professional content that you can. That means you need to get your work to an editor.

However, before you go sending your manuscript off to the first person you find online, it’s important that you understand the different types of editing available. And by the way, if you are serious about being a writer then you should hire a professional editor for the following three processes: structural/developmental edit, copyedit and proofread. You may have to hire different editors for all three stages, or you may find an editor who offers all three.

A word of advice, if you hire an editor to do the structural/developmental edit and copyedit, it may be wise to hire a different editor to do the final proofread. Why? If an editor has performed both the structural and copy edit on your manuscript, they may miss errors/typos during the proofreading stage because they have become overly familiar with the work.

Structural/Developmental Editing

Structural editing focuses intensely on the novels core drive: character and plot. Typically, a structural editor will read your entire manuscript while taking careful note of how each element of the story is working. They will analyse your work for consistency, believability and effectiveness with a particular focus on big-picture elements such as:

  • Voice/style
  • Plot
  • Pacing
  • Timeline
  • Characterisation
  • Story Arc
  • Character Arc.

Some structural editors may also provide feedback regarding the manuscripts potential target audience and its overall marketability.

Structural editors will provide a report that analyses the quality of your manuscript. This may take the form of a letter that discusses the manuscript as a whole, or they may provide a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. Either way, this report should identify:

  • Plot holes
  • Inconsistencies
  • Lack of tension
  • Pacing issues
  • Irrelevant characters, scenes or plot development
  • Believability of characters
  • Whether the work is engaging
  • Areas of confusion, particularly in SciFi and Fantasy.

Structural edits do not focus on the manuscript on a line level (sentence-by-sentence). Instead, it is looking at the bigger picture and how the novel hangs together. For this reason, the structural edit should be the first round of editing your manuscript goes through.

Copyediting

Copyediting, or what some call line level editing, focuses on the manuscript on a sentence-by-sentence level. Here, editors are looking for problems regarding:

  • Grammar
  • Style
  • Repetition
  • Word usage
  • Jargon
  • Filter words
  • Dialogue
  • Unclear character motivations.

The copyediting phase should not occur until after the structural edit has been completed. There is no point in fixing an entire scene, sentence-by-sentence, only to have that scene deleted because it isn’t furthering the plot. These types of edits typically occur as in-document critiques using track changes. 

Proofreading

Once all the large structural issues with your manuscript have been fixed and you’ve carefully examined every sentence for clarity and quality, you can then move on to the final round of editing: the proofread. Like I said earlier, if you used the same editor for the structural edit and copyedit, it may be wise to hire a different editor (someone unfamiliar with your work) to do the proofread. It never hurts to have a fresh set of eyes—especially when it comes to editing! Proofreading is the lightest form of editing as it focuses on minor errors such as:

  • Grammar and style (e.g., tense, measuring units, consistency with numerals and words such as “5” or “five”)
  • Capitalisation and punctuation (e.g., correct usage of commas, semicolons, colons, periods, dashes and apostrophes)
  • Spelling and word usage (e.g., to/too, affect/effect).

You may be tempted to skip the proofreading stage, but please don’t. You’ve already put so much work into polishing and editing your manuscript, the last thing you want is to receive an email from a reader highlighting all the typos and errors that were missed during the copyediting phase.

Critiques

Critiques are not a part of the editing process, but they can be tremendously useful. You can pay a professional to critique your manuscript (I offer such services), or you can approach other readers or writers who may be willing to critique your work for free. Critiques focus on the major issues in your manuscript and a good critique should focus on big-picture elements such as:

  • Voice/style
  • Plot
  • Pacing
  • Timeline
  • Characterisation
  • Story Arc
  • Character Arc.

You can have a critique partner provide feedback of your manuscript as a whole, or you can ask them to provide chapter-by-chapter reports that focus on elements such as:

  • Plot holes
  • Inconsistencies
  • Point of View Issue
  • Dialogue
  • Description (too much or too little)
  • Areas of confusions, particularly in SciFi and Fantasy
  • Sensitive/ethical issues or anything else that may harm your chances of publication.

Before you hire a structural editor or look for a professional critique, it would be wise to exhaust all free resources at your disposal, this includes beta readers, critique groups and critique partners. That way, your manuscript is in the best condition is can be before you invest in professional feedback.

Editing a manuscript can be hard work, but if you find an editor you ‘click’ with then this collaborative effort can be deeply rewarding.

If you have a short story, novella or novel that you believe could benefit from a professional critique, you can find my list of services here.

New Project = New Process

I recently started drafting the novel that will become the creative component of my doctorate thesis. Although I’ve previously written one full-length novel, three novellas and numerous short stories, I found myself asking the question: “How the heck do you do this?” 

The truth is, my fiction writing muscles have become a little rusty. In the past six months, most of my focus has been on the craft of academic papers, assignments and my thesis. As part of honours, I was required to submit a novella, but most of the past six months were spent editing that story – not drafting. It’s a lot easier to edit a first draft than to write a first draft.

I have confronted the dreaded blank page many times in the last six months in the writing of the previously mentioned papers, but it is far easier to write non-fiction than it is to write fiction.

Non-fiction has a set structure and a particular voice. There is the introduction, a body that contains a clear argument and a conclusion. Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence and a concluding one that ideally, leads to the next paragraph. It must have a distinct voice, whether it be your natural speaking voice or one that is appropriate to the topic or in-house style guide. Non-fiction must be backed up by fact, whether that it be in the form of research or experience. Through trial and error, most of us established a set process on how best to write non-fiction pieces.

I start with a vague question or area of interest. Then I read. A lot. I make note of useful papers and record exciting or relevant quotes. This stage goes on until I sense that I have read enough material. Usually, that means I’ve started to notice links and connections between the sources and my own ideas or question. Key ideas become heading and each heading is given a particular word count. Then it’s basically paint by numbers. A conclusion is added and then the introduction. That’s my process. And it works. Your non-fiction process is likely different from mine, but I bet it’s pretty much the same every time.

Fiction does not adhere to set processes. Don’t get me wrong, I have a process, but I also enjoy messing with that process and challenging it. Fiction writing is creative after all, right?

I wrote my first novel with no outline and no character profiles. What guided me was an idea I had for a pivotal scene, the kind that happens towards the end of a novel. All I had to do was figure out how my characters got there. Of course, the first draft was a complete mess! By writing an outline, timeline and distinct character profiles, I was able to see all that was wrong with the manuscript and then fix it. Since then, I’ve written three novellas. For these, I used skeleton outlines (paragraph summaries of each chapter) while simultaneously writing character profiles. This worked better, but of course, there were still a few hick-ups. And in case you’re wondering, there will always be hick-ups! For my honours project, I decided to write a really detailed outline which quickly became the first draft, but because I was so intent on figuring out the structure and logic of the story, I spent little time developing the characters. It was only later during the editing phase that I constructed the character profiles that helped transform them from puppets to people.

For my latest project, it felt right to construct a (very) loose outline and a complete set of character profiles before beginning the first draft. I’ve set a word count for each day, and after I hit that word count I spend five-minutes brainstorming what will happen next. These ‘mini’ outlines are roughly one hundred words and are a great launching pad for the next writing session.

Now, for a word on word counts. For this project, I decided to set a fairly low daily word count. When writing the first draft, I usually prefer to get the ‘crappy’ first draft done as quickly as possible so that I can then get onto the next task: fixing it. Sometimes that meant writing 4,000-6,000 words a day. And that is not very enjoyable. This approach also zaps your energy and it usually affects your productivity the following day. So for this project, I’ve decided to end my writing sessions before I become exhausted. This way, I stay hungry and excited about the story.

I’m currently 15,000 words into the first draft. Though I know the general trajectory of the story, I will not hold the story to this outline if it no longer feels right. Stories have a mind of their own. They have their own natural and logical flow. If you show up and do the work, inevitably, the story will tell you how to write it. For instance, I started this draft with the intention of using a rotating, first-person point of view. And it totally didn’t work. So, I changed to third person. And so far, so good. Under the guise of ease, I set the story in a town I once lived in, but by the time I hit 10,000 words I was totally bored. Frankly, writing about a town I once lived in made me a little uncomfortable. It was too close to home and I didn’t enjoy seeing my fictional characters tromping around the stomping grounds of my past.

So, in 15,000 words, I’ve already realised that the setting and POV aren’t working.

You can plan and plot all you like, but sometimes, you don’t know whether or not something is actually going to work until you start writing. That’s ok though. I’ve worked on enough projects to know that I’m presently at the bottom of the hill that is my story. Though I can make an assumption about what the view from the top will look like, chances are that my expectation will differ from reality. The only way to find out though is to climb.