Re-evaluate, Re-vamp, and Revive Your Writing in 2019

New Year, new me; isn’t that what we say every year? 

Well, I think I speak for all of us when I say that 2017 and 2018 were complete clusterf**cks. 2019 has to be our year, lets face it, because it’s about time we all got off of this downward facing roller-coaster…

I can’t tell you how to meet all your goals this year, nor can I promise that this is the year that it all changes. What I can do, though, is help you to get fresh ideas, develop them, and better your writing style; so stick with me, kids, and we’ll weep our way through 2019 together. 

Planning For Success; Time Management and The Writing Habit

Plan and Prioritise to Keep Your Workload Under Control

In the past we’ve discussed time management and the benefit of getting in to a habit of writing in detail elsewhere, so in the interests of brevity we’ll cover a few quick and dirty ways to manage your time and get into a habit of writing!

Quick Time Management Tips

When you have a busy day, or week, ahead and a workload that just won’t quit there are a few quick things that you can do to get things under control once more;

  1. Get Up And At It; I advocate sticking to normal working hours as much as possible (time to relax is key for everyone, but easy to lose altogether as a freelancer), but when the going gets tough an early morning or two can go a long way towards getting you back on the right track. 
  2. Clear The Decks; A quick way to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment and de-clutter your to-do list is to deal with all of your small tasks in one morning. Get all of your calls, emails, and small “house-keeping” tasks like invoicing out of the way and you’ll notice that the white-noise recedes a little. 
  3. Prioritise; Make a list of the tasks that are left numbered from one downwards, number one being the highest priority, and work your way through it. 
  4. Re-evaluate; Once half of the day has gone, look at the work you have left, re-evaluate it and renumber if necessary. 
  5. Leave Yourself Notes; If you have unfinished work at the end of the day make a note of what needs done and knock-off at a reasonable time so you can do it all again tomorrow. 

Getting Into The Habit Of Writing

The truth is that you can only build a habit by, well, actually writing (I know, right?), but if you’re having trouble with your fiction at the moment there are a few things you can do to build the framework of your new habit. 

  1. Start Keeping A Journal; Whether you write about your life, your hopes, story ideas, or just b*tch and moan about how you can’t write, keeping a journal will not only get you into the habit of writing every day, but can actually help you clear your head. Set out ten to thirty minutes to just empty the contents of your mind onto the page first thing in the morning, or just before bed, and you might find that ideas start to crop up. 
  2. Write Fanfiction; Don’t turn your nose up at fanfiction! Sometimes letting yourself run away with favourite characters and worlds could be just the thing to get your motor running again. 
  3. Let Your Family In; Tell your family about your goals and your workload – ask them to hold you accountable (this will become annoying quickly, but hopefully it will motivate you to work in order to AVOID the reminders). 
  4. Sprint It Out; Quick sprints can ease you back into writing without risking becoming overwhelmed by an ambitious word count goal or work appointment. Ten minute or 500 word sprints can be an excellent way in which to make progress without pressuring yourself.

New Year, New View 

Narrow or Widen Your Focus for Interesting Results

When the old year goes out you have the chance to begin again; improving your writing does not always mean focusing on the technicalities of grammar and prose. Sometimes it’s about experimentation and lateral growth. 

Expanding Your Repertoire

That old saying “write what you know” is not so much a restriction as a challenge; if you increase your knowledge, embrace new points of view, and read voraciously you can write with more flair, more breadth, and more confidence. 

This isn’t just about knowing your history, your geography, your anthropology, however, but about writing style, and about the genre in which you write. If you understand and know the tropes of your genre, and you have experience of various writing styles, you can turn your hand to more. 

So, if you want to expand the pool from which you draw your stories and your ideas you can spend 2019 in this way; 

  1. Read Speciality Magazines; history, gossip, hobby, industry. Whatever takes your interest, whatever you think can be of use to you. 
  2. Read Novels Within Your Chosen Genre; search google for, for example, the seminal fantasy novels and read any ones that you haven’t already. 
  3. Read Novels Outwith Your Genre; dip in to science fiction, literature, romance, horror… anything that takes your fancy outside your genre. Broaden your horizons and see what tropes, themes, and turns of phrase you can pilfer from elsewhere. 
  4. Undertake Writing Challenges; prompts, one line starters, and theme challenges are a good way to stimulate creativity. 
  5. Live A Little; don’t spend all day every day reading and writing! Get out and live life; experiences inform our writing as much as anything else. 

Style And Substance; Making It All Count

Crown Yourself King or Queen Of Writing Excellence!

So, you’ve got your time management skills on point, your workload is prioritised, and you’re world view is broader than it has ever been; all you need to do now is make sure your prose is on fleek!

Nuances and Technicalities

People will tell you that writing is an art, that a good story trumps technically flawless writing, and that rules are made to be broken… 

It would be wrong to say that all of the above is false, but there is a caveat to consider. Writing may be an art, but it is also a craft which requires work. Good story telling can compensate for bad technique, but a good story becomes great when your technique is also good. Finally, rules are made for a reason. 

I know, I know, this is an unpopular and old fashioned opinion, but i hold to it; the rules are like scaffolding. Learning and following these rules helps you to learn in a structured way and create pieces of writing that are functional as well as pleasing, if not overly original. 

Understanding why these rules are in place is the next step; when you understand why they are there you can figure out which can be bent without making your story structurally unsound. 

If you want to improve your technique and style you should;

  1. Read About Writing; books such as On Writing (Stephen King), and Zen in the Art of Writing (Ray Bradbury) are good basic texts to get you started. You could also consider The Art of Voice (Tony Hoagland) which, yes, is about poetry, but should be required reading for all writers (I think). No craft will prepare you for novel writing quite like
  2. Brush-up On Your Grammar; English Grammar For Dummies is not the last word on English grammar rules, but if you were never formally introduced to the foundational aspects of grammar (as so many people in the UK were not) this is a great place to start.
  3. Learn How To Edit; when you look into the practice of editing you’ll find yourself surprised by the way in which editors consider fiction (I know I was!). You don’t need to have professional editing skills in order to write well, but a basic level of skill will help you to prepare your manuscript for literary agents. Better still, it will help you up your skills so that there’s less work to do when the editing stage rolls around! Consider Copy-Editing For Dummies or Copy-Editing  to help you on your way.

Experimentation

Finally, fuse your new found skills and techniques with all that new knowledge and your expanded world view for interesting (and often pleasing) results. How?

  1. Rewrite A Famous Fairy Tale; a fresh take on an old story could be just what you need to revamp your portfolio. Try a sci-fi, horror, or modern take on a few different fairy tales. Don’t just stick to the big ones, either; look into some of the more obscure examples too. 
  2. The Train Of Thought Challenge; sit down with a phrase, word, or character and start writing. Whatever comes into your head until it comes to a natural conclusion. 
  3. Revisit Your Old Work; see how your new eyes feel about old writing. What changes would you suggest? Do you feel the same way about the idea that you used to?
  4. Write In A New Genre; move out of your comfort zone to put some of your skills to the test. 
  5. Try New Points Of View; used to writing in 1st person? Try 3rd! Used to past tense? Why not give present a go? In fact, if you want a real challenge try writing in 2nd person with a future tense (that’ll bend your head!).

Above and beyond all of this, however, you should have fun with the process; life is for living. Make 2019 your year, and stay merry!

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Managing Your Time

Now that the season is on us (NaNo season, that is) you may well have noticed that there are simply not enough hours in the day to get everything done. You start the day full of great intentions, but, somehow, you blink and it’s already gone.

So, what can you do to make sure that you get through the work you have set for yourself (without working yourself into the ground)? First and foremost, you can learn to effectively manage your time and workload; when you can do this you will find that your days become significantly less stressful.

 

Prioritisation And Planning

The first step in any time management endeavour is to be aware of what you need to do. After all, if you don’t know what needs to be done you’ll never finish it. Sit down, take a deep breath and list everything you need to do today; once you have put a star next to things that have to be done by the end of the day.

You might be tempted to tell yourself that it all needs done today, but the truth is there will always be things which can be put to the bottom of the list.

Make a numbered list; the top three should be your most urgent tasks, those which absolutely must be done, the next two are the ones that should be done today. Anything after that should be items of low priority; things which you would like to get done, but which are not necessary.

 

Putting The Plan Into Action

When it comes to managing your time you should view your task list as a living document; your to do list should evolve as the day goes by. Focus on the most important tasks first, of course, and try to limit multi-tasking. Logic might tell you that if you’re doing two things at once you’ll make progress faster, but the truth is that you’re only going to be distracted, at best, and overwhelmed at worst.

Start with the most urgent task and work your way through the list.

Half way through the day stop and take stock of the progress you have made; cross of tasks you have finished, leave notes beside any that you can’t finish for any reason, and re-prioritise the remaining tasks.

Ideally, by the time you have made it to this point you should have finished your top two or three tasks so consider what you have left and mark the next most urgent. When you reach the end of the day, do the same once more; cross off completed tasks, leave notes next to any partially completed ones, and mark the next most urgent if any are left.

The marked tasks should be first on the list you make the next day.

 

Maintaining Your Energy Levels

When you have a lot on your plate, it can be tempting to work at break-neck pace until you… well, break. This isn’t the way; burnout is very real, and very debilitating. If you burnout you will quickly find that your productivity, your mental health, and  your workload suffer.

If you want to avoid burnout and maintain your productivity throughout the day, and week, there are a few things you should do;

  1. Eat regularly; have breakfast and have dinner. If you’re not a lunch person don’t force it, but be sure to snack so that you can keep your focus.
  2. Drink enough water; stay hydrated to ensure that you don’t get headaches or begin to feel sick.
  3. Work in bursts; work for an hour or two before taking a quick break of five minutes or so. Stand, stretch, have a drink, and walk around before you sit down and start working again.
  4. Set working hours; and stick to them! When you work for yourself, or you’re a full-time student, this is particularly important. Working twelve hours a day may seem like a good way to get work done, but you’ll make yourself sick in the long run.
  5. Draw a line; define your work and private lives, and make sure that they don’t bleed into each other. One way to do this is by having “work” clothes. It may seem silly when you work at home, but something as simple as washing your face and changing your clothes can help your body and mind to change into a more relaxed gear.

 

If you’ve already managed to burnout you should start the process of beating it.

 

The Three Cardinal Sins Of Writing

There are some mistakes that simply cannot be rectified no matter how skilled your editor is.

Thankfully such catastrophic writing mistakes are few, but beginner beware; should you commit one of these cardinal plotting sins your only option will be to scrap the piece and go back to the drawing board!

 

1) A Concept That Can’t Win

Some ideas are just bad.

I mean it, step away from that self-important monologue from the point of view or Johnny Rotten’s guitar. Please.

If your concept is bland, implausible, or just plain bad there is very little you can do to salvage any work that springs from it. While it’s true that a real genius, like Neil Gaiman for example, could perhaps do something with even the worst idea… saying that is, well, kind of like saying you think you’re up there. You might be, who knows? But if you have doubts about the concept just take the time to evaluate, develop, or, if needs be, abandon it rather than taking that long and difficult path.

What You Can Do

If the concept is terrible people will tell you – listen to them.

If there’s something in it that you really want to keep, the best thing you can do is strip it back to the bare bones and brainstorm a new form with someone whose judgement you really trust.

Once you have a new, ish, concept to work with try again (or just put the poor thing out of its misery).

 

2) All Premise, No Plot

You have a great concept, you’re excited by the idea, and yet your book is being rejected, with no commentary, left, right, and centre. Why?

Well, it could be that your premise has no plot backing it up. You’ll be able to tell that this is the case with a simple test; outline the major plot points on paper. If there’s less than five you’re in trouble.

A premise is what makes your intriguing, the plot is what makes it go. If you have no plot then nothing happens, no conflicts are resolved, and your characters never grow.

i.e. no plot = no story = no book = no chance.

What You Can Do

Give it a plot; if you can’t make a plot its because the story you wish to tell isn’t strong enough, or it doesn’t work with your premise.

Keep the basic premise and lose the rest; brainstorm with that seed and start again.

 

3) USP? What USP??

You’ve written a great spy-thriller with a cool premise and an action filled plot, but agents and publishers are still passing… why?

Well, if your spy John Bland is fighting Dr Death in a subterranean lair it might be the fact that you’ve written a knock-off with no USP (that is Unique Selling Point) to distinguish it from its “inspiration” source.

If there’s nothing unique about your novel agents, publishers, and consumers have no reason to buy it; you need to give them something with a hint of freshness.

What You Can Do

Be honest with yourself about the “borrowed” elements of your story and take steps to remove or alter them.

Blog Class: Writing, Presenting, Selling. — THE EDITOR’S JOURNAL

AA said… My hope is that my stuff isn’t cluttered and rife with poor writing. I am writing fiction most of the time, so a large audience would be quite surprising, albeit pleasantly so. It would need to be a patient audience, given the glacial span of my updates. I’m barely able to read most […]

via Blog Class: Writing, Presenting, Selling. — THE EDITOR’S JOURNAL

Writing a Killer Synopsis

When it comes to querying literary agencies you will notice that most, if not all, request that a one page synopsis of your work be sent alongside your query. It is this,  believe it or not, that most authors struggle with, especially when it comes to their first query/novel.

What to include, what tone to write it in, and really what a synopsis is are common questions; you can find some answers here. But first, here’s the most common question;

Do I really need a synopsis?

In all honesty? Yes. There may be some agents that do not explicitly request a synopsis, though that is very rare, however even in these cases you will improve your chances greatly by including one.

 

What is a synopsis?

The synopsis is a one page sum up of your story and all the major plot points; it is your best, if not your only, tool for selling the story to an agent or publisher, and it could, in fact, be more important than your cover letter (though you will find advice on how to write one of those here, too).

What a synopsis is not is a jacket-blurb (you know, one of those high on drama, low on details, halfway breathless attention-getter statements designed to tell you next to nothing about the actual plot?), nor is it your thoughts on the symbolism, themes, and market for your novel.

A synopsis lets the agent know what they could have to work with; its the skeleton of your plot laid bare, so that the agent or publisher can decide if they want to see the full manuscript.

 

What should be in a synopsis?

A summary of the main plot points, main characters, and main character arcs that have a lasting effect on the direction and nature of the story. A simple synopsis will include the following;  the premise, inciting incident, rising action of conflict, climax, character growth, and the resolution.

Please do not leave out the ending or main plot points; this isn’t about keeping the reader in suspense, it’s a skilful way to inform the agent or publisher of what you have made. Think of it as a recipe; include everything that was vital to creating the finished product.

 

How to write a synopsis

Before you start to write your synopsis, you need to prepare your plot points; if you work from an outline this will be easier for you, but pantsers still have hope (in fact the process of writing your synopsis may help you to identify plot holes if you write this way).

If you don’t have an outline to work from you should read through your novel and make a note of all the main plot points. Try making a short summary of the key events in each chapter. Once you’ve done this you’ll probably have four or five pages of notes. Some agents want a long synopsis, three to five pages, others a very short one. I would suggest you make your notes into a four or five page synopsis and keep a version of this in case an agent wants this long version. For those looking to receive a concise synopsis you can cut it down a little.

Once you have a sum up of your key plot points you can begin the four stage process of writing the synopsis;

  1. String together your main plot point summaries to make a coherent narrative; cut anything that is non-necessary to understanding the progression of the plot and character arcs. If you find it easier to write the character arcs and main plot points individually, do so. At this stage you should be thinking about having a functional sum up of your novel; polishing and embellishing can come later.
  2. Consider the beginning; you don’t have space for a huge amount of context during your, but you should built a short foundation. Talk about who your main characters are (CAPITALISE their names), what position they start in, and most importantly what problems they face from the start. Pick up the thread of this conflict and weave it through the summary you have already created.
  3. Focus on the end; read through what you have with a particular eye for plot points, character arcs, and trends, and reinforce your ending in a way that emphasises how your ending ties up the loose ends, or if it’s a trilogy/series which loose ends are tied up.
  4. Read and refine; cut the fat, add any missing plot points or characters, and of course proofread for spelling, grammar, and consistency. At this point you should also make sure that your synopsis is formatted correctly.

 

How to format your synopsis

  • No matter how you write your story, e.g. in first person, third person, past or present tense, your synopsis should be written in third person, present tense.
  • Unless stated otherwise any synopsis of more than one page should be double-spaced. A one page synopsis may be single spaced, or have 1.5 spacing, but check your chosen agency or publishers website to see if they specify. If they do specify always comply with their specification.
  • Align left (do not justify text).
  • One inch margins on every side.
  • Indent first line of each paragraph by 1/2 inch.
  • In the header, include; author last name, title or key words from title, and the word Synopsis.
  • If you are sending this with a cover letter you may not need contact information in your synopsis, once again check for direction otherwise.
  • Page one should have: header information (slug), a title one or two lines below the header (centred), the word Synopsis one or two lines below the title, and then the main body of the synopsis.
  • If contact info is to be in the synopsis add it after the header information and the title.

 

Choosing a Literary Agent

So you’ve finished your first draft, you’ve edited your manuscript (1, 2, 3), and you’re ready to get it out into the world.

You can go the self-publishing route if you want, but if you want to get picked up by a traditional publisher you’re probably going to need an agent. Once you’ve identified the best agent for you there are somethings you should definitely never say, and there are certainly ways to ensure that your query is the very best it can be.

Before you can get to this point, however, you need to identify an agent that suits you.

 

Identifying a legitimate literary agent;

First things first; ensure the agent in question is legitimate! There are many new authors so eager to land an agent that they will not only query agents who are a poor fit for them, but also agents who are not even genuine!

How ca you tell if an agent is legitimate? Well, first and foremost they will not charge a reading fee, they will not take fees upfront (if they do they will usually include a clause that states they cannot take any further upfront fees without your written consent, though, so check that out), and they will not refer you to fee charging editorial services. Legitimate literary agents make their money through commissions earned when they sell your product to publishing houses. The usual fee ranges between 10% and 20%.

Be wary of any agent that contacts you out of the blue; if you have not solicited them and

do not have a large social media following or platform its likely they are scammers.

 

Finding the right agent for you;

When you’re thinking about querying an agent you need to consider how they fit with your genre, your style, and your goals. Most agents will specialise in either fiction or non-fiction, commercial or literary, informative or narrative, and of course many specialise by genre as well.

You should be looking for agents that have represented works similar to your own. Start by compiling a list of agents that state they are open to books in your genres and field, and then do your homework. Yes, this means more research.

No, you can’t get out of it. Here’s how it can benefit you; just because an agent is open to your kind of work does’t mean they are the very best fit for you. Try to find out some of the following information before you query (or rule anyone out);

  • How many deals have they made?
  • How many within the last two years?
  • Do they sell to a variety of publishers?
  • Which authors have they worked with?
  • What kind of advances have they negotiated?

You may not be able to find out all of this information, but you will surely find out some, and this will not only give you an idea as to whether this is the correct agent for you, but you’ll have an idea of how to personalise your approach when you do query them.

 

Once you have your agent single out, you’ve written a kick-ass query (and of course your manuscript is ready), all you have to do is write up a one page synopsis and you can start querying!

Do you need a Literary Agent?

This is a divisive issue; there are plenty of people who will tell you that you don’t need an agent, or that you should avoid them at all costs. They’ll tell you either that they’re blood suckers, or that you’ll never get anywhere without them.

The truth is less clear cut, but certainly there are pros and cons to being represented by a literary agent;

Pros

  • Experience and Reputation; when you work with a literary agent you’re not only benefitting from the time they put into your manuscript, but the time they have put into every project that came before yours. You’re getting their experience, skill, and know-how as well as the time they actually put into your manuscript; after all, a reputable and experienced agent will have many years of experience in polishing and pitching novels. You also gain a bit more clout with publishers; when they see you are being represented by an established agent you will stand out, and as such have less chance of being lost in the slush pile.
  • Contacts and Connections; when you form a partnership with a literary agent it will be because they are confident that they know who they can sell your book to. You benefit from their connections, their contacts, and the relationships they have built in their career.
  • Another pair of eyes; before you query an agent your manuscript should be as ready for publication as you can make it, however an agent can offer an extra pair of eyes to really polish it till it shines.
  • Someone to fight your corner; your agent makes money when you make money, so when you hire an agent you know that they want to sell your novel. They want you to succeed, and having someone that you know wants you to find success can be a real boost when things get rough.

 

Cons

  • More time; when you go to an agent first you’re essentially pitching your book twice. This has its benefits, as outlined, but you will be adding time onto the process.
  • Cost; agents, like all professionals, will need to be paid for their services. Generally speaking this means 15% of your earnings from sales, but this can vary. It’s up to you to decide if the cost is worth it.

 

How to approach/query an agent.

There are a few things which you should definitely never say when querying an agent, but what should you do and say to up your chances of success?

  1. Finish your manuscript
  2. Do your research
  3. Be concise, reasonable, and professional in your query letter
  4. Be realistic

To expand upon these points a little; make sure your novel is completely written and proofread before you query, look for an agent that represents your kind of fiction, don’t invest in a gimmick when you write your query letter, and be realistic about what you expect from your novel. If you claim to be the next George R. Martin, you may be met with scepticism.

Take as much care with your query letter as you did with your manuscript, and include a one page synopsis which clearly states the main characters and plot points of your novel. Don’t try to get cute and leave them guessing as to what happens; you should be making it easy for them to know whether or not they wish to represent you.

 

Remember that agents receive hundreds of letters and emails each and every day; be professional and concise in your approach, and you’ll find it’s appreciated.

 

Resources;

Three Differences Between Literary and Genre Fiction (know which you fall into if you want to pitch well!)

A Query They Can’t Refuse

Self-Editing 1, 2, and 3