Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Common Writing Mistakes to Look Out For

While I'm editing and rewriting my second novel, I find it's worth looking for common mistakes that slow the writing down or just look amateurish. As I write first drafts without rereading and checking over things except for plot elements, these little mistakes sneak in easily. It's best not to do this while you're writing as you'll never move forward. 

I have a list of these from my teaching past, but I've picked up some new ones from the writing group I've been attending. Some of these you may not do often, some you may over do.

These are just a few that have popped into my head as I've been rewriting and workshopping lately, not an exhaustive list by any means. 

- 'to be' and boring verbs. 'He was old.' 'It had been a long day.' Give me more information, don't tell me about it, show me. Spice up your verb usage, break out the dictionary and look for synonyms. It's nice to mix it up, but don't be afraid to use 'to be'. As in all things, balance.

- overuse of adverbs. This also falls in the telling versus showing category. Don't tell me 'he ran quickly', show it through more details. 'His feet skimmed over the grass as he raced down the hill'.

- filter words. We talk a lot about getting more of the character's senses involved in the story. How does she feel, how does an item taste or smell or sound like. But you don't need to broadcast the fact that you're adding these descriptive details by telling is 'it tasted like', 'she felt'. Here's an article that lists lots of filter words which could be used less. The hard part is editing them out as it's not as easy as replacing a verb. Rather than say 'it smelled mouldy' say 'mould oozed from the cracks, filling the air with its rancid spores'. It makes your writing more immediate and interesting.

- using the phrase 'began to/begins to' or 'started to/starts to'. For example - 'she started to get up.' Why not just say 'She pulled herself up.' or be more specific and tell us how she did it.

- using the word 'just'. I discovered I use this word a lot. 'I just don't know what to do.' 'He was just picking up the car when . . .' Do you need to use it so often? Do a search and discover how many times you use it and if it seems like a lot, go through and see if they're necessary.

- repeating information - this can be through over-explaining an image or detail or it can be giving the same information in different scenes through different characters. If you've just showed your main character breaking up with her boyfriend, don't have her explain what happened to her best friend in the next scene. You can use indirect speech for this 'I told her I broke up with Joe' and then move on to new information.

- character descriptions - describing every character's hair and eye colour, what they're wearing in depth. This is not something I do, in fact I probably don't describe my characters enough, but I really dislike reading it in other's books. Pick a detail or two, preferably not hair and eye colour, and focus on that, something that gives us a feel for their personality rather than just how they look. 

- using 'there' too much - This is a new one for me and my next edit will involve looking at how I use 'there are' and 'there were'. Here's an interesting article about it. 

On to rewriting my first novel, I'm getting to the point where I feel the new section will soon meld with the old novel. I still have a lot of patching and smoothing to do and adding things later on to up the action. 

Best of luck with your writing or rewriting.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Moving Forward

I'm still rewriting my first novel. Thirty-six pages of mostly new material so far. I'm a slow writer, but I'm getting there. I don't really have a plan, just trying to get my character up to where the novel previously started and to have more action and suspense. I'm not sure how it's going as I'm not rereading yet, but I'm happy that I'm able to keep moving forward at this point.

Do you reread and edit as you're working on a first draft? I tend not to, unless I have an idea that needs incorporating earlier or I need to change something plot-wise. I like to keep pushing the characters into new situations without worrying too much about fixing the mistakes or tidying up the writing. This is especially important when I have no firm plot I'm working to. If I spend too much time going back and fixing things, I'll never move on to writing the new material. 

There's a buzz in following your character's first steps through a scene, meeting a new person for a first time. If you're worrying too much about tidying up your previous scene, you may miss an important detour the character wants to take or the details of this new adventure. I find it easier to go back and sort the language and add, take out or move information than it is to discover it the first time. 

I think it was Hemingway, but don't quote me on it, who said he liked to leave off writing knowing where the character was going next, so when he sat down to write the next day he could start off right away without figuring out that information. I try to do this as well. It doesn't always work because sometimes I just can't see how to get my character out of whatever situation she's stuck in and need some time away from the screen to ruminate on it. But if I can, I leave my character ready to head off on their next adventure. 

Actually, do quote me on it: The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable things I can tell you so try to remember it. - Ernest Hemingway from an article in Esquire, Oct 1953. More advice from the man here.

Today I finished off a scene that had been hanging over me for a week as I was uncertain of how to get her out of it. Now her next steps are planned, well, I know who she's going to be with and what they plan on doing. What actually happens is totally up to them on the day. 

I've also been working on the poem I started last week. It's basically done, I'm just tidying up the language which could take another week. First poem I've written in a while. 

The magazines have been very quiet lately. I know Finland starts to grind to a halt in June and totally goes dormant in July, but I didn't think the literary world would go so silent this early. I haven't had a rejection or acceptance or anything for over a month, I think. It's frustrating to sit here and wait to send out more work. I'm sure there are editors everywhere buried under reading piles, but let's hope they get some responses out soon. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

A Break and Returning to Routine

I've had a friend visiting from Scotland for half of last week and while I did very little work while she was here. It happens and is to be expected, better yet plan for it.

A break from your writing routine can be a good thing, but only if you remember to push back into it afterwards. Take advantage of the rest and change of scene and people and use the time away from your routine to stimulate your writing. It's easy to slide into being lax, so you must be ready to start back right as soon as possible after your break. 

A change of location is often good. I usually write in the kitchen, occasionally in waiting rooms or cafes. In the past, public transport was a good place for me to write, the monotony of the rhythm and the views if it's a regular trip, but also sense of movement and the flashes of scenery and people. I rarely go on buses now because I am reliant on the car to get the kids to their various venues, so a half hour of scribbling notes to the stop and start hum of the bus while I was heading into town to meet my friend was enough to stimulate my poetic juices which have been buried under fiction for the past few weeks.

I also get a burst of writing adrenaline from talking to new people or ones I haven't seen in a long time, even if it's not about writing. I've had four days of talking to people I haven't spent time with in months or even a year, visiting places I rarely go to. Along with the unusually warm, sunny weather the past week has been a wonderfully exciting change of pace.

So this morning was the disappointing drop back into stressful mornings of getting everyone to school. But after the kids are finally at their various schools, I return home to silence, breakfast, tea and my writing routine.

I should be outside, enjoying the gorgeous weather, I should be sorting out my allotment, I should be cleaning up the house after it's been ignored for four days, but I'm hiding from the birch pollen and writing in the kitchen. Sometimes I just have an hour or two, other days I have longer. I can choose whether to focus on poetry, fiction, submissions or research. I set the rhythm, but the routine is familiar and comforting.

I'll need to look into setting a new routine soon as the kids will be off school at the end of the month. We have a few weeks of summer camps and the littlest still in nursery, but after Juhannus, mid-summer, regular life shuts down in Finland for the slow summer crawl.

The kids will be home all day and I'll struggle to find time to write between finding things to entertain them and catering to their needs. My hope is I can get up relatively early with them and write while they eat and potter around on their screens. Then we can go out in the afternoon and have a quiet early evening at home where I might get a bit more done. We'll see how well it goes.

Enjoy the fantastic weather, if you're getting any, while it lasts. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Rewriting After Rejection

I love to edit my work, I'm always tightening pieces and trying to bring out their best. In the rewriting stage especially, I take on reader's feedback and consider it when working on my novels or poetry. So it's not unexpected that after a big rejection like I had last week that I’ve been looking at my first novel with new eyes. 

Or maybe clearer eyes. I often know when a piece of writing isn't working, but finding a way to fix it is more difficult. I was partially aware that my first novel had some problems. It's not a mainstream novel and my unusual style is difficult for readers to become comfortable with: too poetic, too disjointed, the main character in too many pieces at the beginning to connect with. For years, I have been unable to find a way to approach this without losing how I saw the novel. 

I spent a lot of time last week pondering this. I did some simpler editing based around the problem of using a first-person narrative, too many I's, the sentence structure too similar, but the bigger issues continued to haunt me. How to make the beginning of the novel more approachable, but not lose my poetic sense of the novel?

I'm not sure if it's going to fix the problem, but I've decided to give it a go. I'm taking a person from the main character's past who is referred to in flashback scenes and bringing him forward and building a foundation from which the main character can fall into her disjointed state. I'll try to reduce the scenes from what is now the beginning, so that they are shorter and hopefully by embedding them in the foundation it will feel less of a jump for the reader. 

It will involve writing a substantial new chunk for the beginning and doing a lot of rewriting to make everything mesh. 

I'm not totally chucking my original. It might still find a home at one of the other publishers where it languishes in a slush pile. And I might hate the rewrite, so will want to go back to the original or start again from there. 

When the feedback is negative, it's not necessary to immediately jump to rewriting. Sometimes you have to valiantly cling onto your novel or poem with all your might until you find the right magazine or publisher. But if there's a niggling feeling that they might be right, it's worth exploring other options. Or if the same feedback comes back time and time again, you might need to admit it's a problem that needs to be fixed. 

Sit back and let the readers' comments and criticism sink in. Some questions to ask yourself. 

Is there a basis for their comments? Can they back it up with examples?
How will it improve the piece: help the readers' understanding, improve the saleability, etc?
How much does it change the original concept?
Is it a fix-it from the reader?
How dramatic and time-consuming is the change?
How do you feel about changing this?

I've mentioned 'fix-its' before when I was writing about criticism from writers' groups. It is when a reader suggests how you should 'fix' a problem your piece of writing. I am wary of these because the reader makes it personal, fixing the story to their needs. Sometimes the suggestion is good, but I prefer when the criticism is more about what they feel doesn't work, rather than how to fix it. I want to figure out my own way, do it in my style. Point out my story needs more suspense or hooks, don't suggest I should have my character get pregnant or have her mother abuse her. These are real life suggestions I've received for my current novel. Comments from readers can sometimes be very blunt. 

I've been sitting on this finished novel for ten years with the feeling that it wasn't quite right and that it wouldn't find a market as is. I'm at the stage where I'm happy to consider playing around with other ideas. 

In the end, it's your story or poem, you have to be proud to send it out, to see it with your name on it. 

Well, back to the rewriting. Best of luck. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018


Part of the waiting is over. One editor has come back to me with a negative response for my novel. Actually two this week, but I really wasn't expecting anything from the first.

I'm usually not bothered, I get lots of rejections. For my poems, my novel, but I allowed myself to hope a bit with this one. I researched the company and really liked the sound of their editing procedure. The editor was really nice and personable in her emails and requested to see the first 50 pages, then the whole thing very quickly. It seemed all positive.

The rejection, though half-expected because I'm not 100% sure of my fiction, hit me hard at first. I was literally numb for a few minutes looking at the email.

Her comments were brief, but to the point. One problem she mentioned can be fixed with some work. A few of the others I've known in the back of my mind since completing the novel, but I'm not sure how to rework it, rewrite it to fix them. Some surprised me. I can't tell how far she really read, it seems like maybe only the first 50 pages from her email. Maybe it improves after that point. It might be a matter of rejigging things to move some of the scenes around, but it might require a whole rewrite. It could mean changing my idea behind the novel.

It might be the fatal flaw and need changing, I can't decide right now. And I won't. For now, I'm fixing the fixable and scribbling notes of what I could do to approach the other bigger problems.

Rejection this big is heart-breaking, but it doesn't signal the end. There might be an editor who can see what I see, it's still at a few other places. I might find a way to rework it without losing my original vision. I have scrapped 30,000 words of this novel and started from scratch before. It didn't stop me from writing then, it won't now.

I will give myself time to recover, I will continue on with this novel and with my second. With my poetry. With writing.