blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing, writing process

How To Make Your Writing Shine

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You did the thing and now you have a completed first draft. You’re a writer. You have written. Congratulations are in order.

Now the hard work really begins, because you have to edit and polish your story. Getting a story out is like mining gemstones— difficult, dirty work. And what you bring to the surface is probably not a thing of beauty, yet.

But it has potential. If you can strip away the dull bits and hone the good bits, you might just have something brilliant. Here are ten ways to make your work shine.

1. Strengthen Your Storyline

What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.

Maybe she finds out her husband is a spy. Maybe they’re both secret assassins but he’s her latest target. Give the story a twist, otherwise there’s nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

Sometimes what you’re writing is an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t always enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves.The characters are changed in some way by the events.

Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.

2. Fix Your Pacing

Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.

  • Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the trip to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
  • Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
  • Too much action without an actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.

To correct these try the following.

  • Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.
  • Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
  • Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.

3. Make Words Count

Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.

Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.

Tighten up your prose by removing crutch words.

This tool helps you find and destroy clichés.

4. Let The Reader Do Some Work

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekhov

Telling robs significant moments of their power.

When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.

Describe his actions so readers can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky while ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.

Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, skip to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.

Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.

5. Make Dialogue Tags Pull A Double Shift

Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.

There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.

You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags. They combine what was done with what was said, and by whom.

“Is this okay?” She held out the report.
He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”

The tag belongs on the same line as the dialogue. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.

If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow who’s talking, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
 

6. Fix Your Point of View

Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third-person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first-person typical of modern YA novels. For example:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.

My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.

Emma Darwin discusses the use of different POV here but you must make your choice and stick to it.

Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else. Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.

This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So in his POV you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which is his companion’s observation.

It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing.

As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing. Unanswered questions make people turn the page.

7. Know The Time

Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.

Past tense remains the most familiar choice. We’re used to hearing about events that have already taken place.

Tense is not the same as POV.
You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.
Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.

Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately. However most writers prefer a consistent tense throughout. It’s easy to slip between present and past tenses, so careful editing is essential.

Find advice on managing tenses here.

8. Nurture Their Disbelief

It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.

You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.

Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the story and their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.

This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events.

Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.

Giving the protagonist exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.

Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.

9. Go Easy On Themes

Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.

It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.

Use a light hand with symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.

Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.

Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.

10. Looks Do Matter

Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.

Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors. It gives the impression that the author doesn’t care.

You care, so fix your work. This 12 step self-editing checklist covers a range of tips and resources that will help you polish your drafts.

Finally, Get to The End

The secret is not following the right path, it’s following that right path to the end. Don’t quit, my friend, until you’ve arrived.
Toni Sorenson

Unfinished works linger in the back of your brain, slowly draining your energy. You feel anxious and guilty about them.

Do whatever you need to finish. If you can’t let go, that’s a sign. Complete your piece somehow. You can’t query half a novel or publish half an article.

Work on the issues above, or trash the piece and start fresh.

Let go of perfectionism because done is better than perfect. And once it’s done, it can be edited until it’s as close to perfect as you can get.

Go to it. Your readers are waiting.

blog, productivity, writing, writing process

How To Attract More Readers For Your Great Content

if you build it right they will come – and stay

FancyCrave on Unsplash

Do you want more readers?

Of course you do. You’ve got something to say and without an audience all that effort goes unnoticed. In a world where new content is everywhere, how can you get anyone’s attention?

Sadly there are no guaranteed routes to a bigger readership. But there are some changes you can make to shift the odds in your favour.

Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse

The purpose of the headlines must be to convey a message to people who read headlines, (and) then decide whether or not they will look at the copy.
John Caples

The headline is your shop window.
The world is a noisy place and you have to work hard to catch readers. That might mean tricking people into looking your way; lure them with the candy of an eye-catching banner, then feed them the wholesome food of your content.

It’s fashionable to sneer at so-called clickbait headlines that too often lead to worthless content. But looking at their structure can teach you what attracts attention. Then you can get your good content in front of more people.

Your potential reader will make a decision to stop and read or scroll on based on the offer in the headline. Copywriters and advertising have a lot to teach writers about headlines. We often spend little time on them, but they are as important as the content. If the reader doesn’t stop, he can’t be persuaded by our words.

Sell the benefit of your piece.
Mention the value or learning that readers will get from reading, and then deliver. There’s a reason that “How To” headlines and lists are so frequently used; they work. They draw people in.

The CoSchedule headline analyzer is a free to use resource that scores headlines based on an extensive database. The results can be counter-intuitive, especially for writers used to crafting beautiful prose. Save intrigue and wordplay for later. The headline has a job to do, and it has to be effective, not beautiful.

This example shows different versions of the same idea. The very simple headline scores best, showing the power of “How To” even though for me it’s not the most attractive.

Better writing is one step away = 63/100
You can become a better writer = 67/100
You can become a better writer now = 71/00
How to get better at writing = 78/100

Write and analyse several versions of your headline. It’s hard but you’ll learn what actually makes a better headline, rather than what you think is better.

How Hard Can It Be?

So you’ve got your reader hooked. She’s looking forward to learning something or being entertained. But instead, she clicks away because your piece isn’t readable. Don’t let her go.

Hit the Wall

Few things are more off-putting than a wall of unbroken text on a screen.

We need more white space on a screen, which allows our eyes to rest. Break up the prose. Have one idea to a sentence and two to three sentences to a paragraph. Don’t be afraid to have many short paragraphs, it makes the text more readable.

Important sentences can have a paragraph of their own to make them stand out.

The Long and the Short Of It

Pitch your writing at the right level for your readers.

Reading age describes the ability of an average child of a given age to read and understand a piece of writing. Most people prefer to read for pleasure at least two years lower than their educational level. The average reading age in the US is 12 years. Compare the reading age of some popular media.

  • The Sun, UK tabloid 7–8 years
  • Harry Potter novels 12–13 years
  • Stephen King novels 12 years
  • Reader’s Digest 12 years

You might be a true logophile, but most readers want to see words they understand without reference to a dictionary. In most cases use simpler words and sentences, and keep paragraphs short. Avoid jargon unless it’s essential, and explain the meaning of unfamiliar words the first time you use them.

Keep It Moving

Academic and business writing are notorious for being stodgy and dull. These writing styles favour the passive voice. Active voice is more immediate and informal, which keeps readers moving down the page. For example,

The passive voice is disliked by modern writers.
Modern writers dislike passive voice.

Address your reader directly when possible so they can identify with your point.

Avoid The Angry Trap

Keep laments and angry rants in your journal. It’s cathartic but comes across as self-absorbed unless you make a point that’s relevant to your reader.

I recently unfollowed a writer who is angry. All the time. I share many of their concerns, but I wish they’d provide solutions or insight into those issues.

Instead use your emotion as a starting point to help others deal with shared themes. Tell your story briefly then move on to how you dealt with it and your reader can too.

Put Meat on the Bones

So your headline drew the reader in. Your piece is well crafted. But is it compelling? Your content needs to solve a problem for your reader; it should inform, instruct, or entertain.

Here’s where you deliver on the promise of your headline. Ask yourself who your readers are and what problems they have. Make sure your piece answers their question or tells a great story.

If you posed a question, answer it. If you offered solutions, explain them. If you promised information, give it and make sure that it is something worth the time spent reading.

Much has been written about “voice”, that elusive quality that makes a piece unique to its author. A good place to start finding your voice is writing as you speak, as though your reader is sitting next to you with a cup of coffee listening to every word.

Be conversational and friendly. Read it out loud to check that it flows well.

Showing Up

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

Success isn’t always about greatness. It’s about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.
Dwayne Johnson

After all that hard work you might want to rest and admire your words. But instead, you have to do it again. Building an audience is never a matter of one viral post. You need a body of work and you need to give your audience what they want.

Showing up, over and over, is much easier said than done. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside. It’s a long slog with little reward in the beginning, and as soon as you finish one post you have to make another.

Some days you’ll feel exhausted and want to stop. But if you stop, you can’t win. Slow down if you must, but keep moving.

Remind yourself why you started. Celebrate your wins, however small. Remind yourself how far you’ve come.

  Actions mean everything. The people you enticed in with a headline and who stayed to read your content want more from you. Build a portfolio and keep adding to it.

You can’t predict which post will make your name. All you can do is do good work, over and over, and share it with the world. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.

Walk That Talk

An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.
Karl Marx

How is it that we consume so much self-help and advice, and yet remain overweight, unfit, unhappy and unfulfilled? The disconnect between reading and nodding sagely, and actually following the steps given is huge. Your success lies in closing that gap. I know —  because I live the same struggle.

A few months ago I was very discouraged about my work on Medium. I was putting in more effort but not yet seeing results. Belief in the process didn’t make it any easier to deal with my disappointment.

I leaned into my discontent. I studied harder, learned more and then put what I learned into practice. I followed advice, both my own and others who’ve trodden this path.

The result: more fans for this one piece in 5 days than in the previous four weeks combined.

I wrote more, learned about exponential growth and encouraged myself. In addition, each published piece was a new opportunity to connect with people through the comments. Hearing that my words helped someone else was the reward that lifted my mood and got me working again.

Elite sportspeople know about marginal gains. Even a world champion can improve — as a result of multiple tiny tweaks rather than one major change in their routine. True champions push their personal best by optimising all the subroutines that make up their whole practice.

Let go of what you think works. Experiment with another way of doing things and adjust according to your results. Like any change, it will be uncomfortable until you’ve repeated it so many times that it’s second nature.

You’re good now — and you can be better. Learn, improve, repeat.

blog, productivity, writing, writing process

How to Improve Your Writing Dramatically in Less Than 5 Minutes

little tweaks, big results

tulips -yellow_keila-hotzel
Photo by Keila Hötzel on Unsplash

Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.
John Travolta

Everyone’s a writer these days. Whether working on your novel or captioning your latest social media image, you’re writing every day.

How do you choose your words?

Do you always use the same few words, or are you a logophile who loves playing with shades of meaning?

Although it’s difficult to count the number of words in the English language, around 170,000 words are currently in use. An adult native speaker uses 20-35,000 words (source) depending on age, education, location and so on.

Yet you can improve your writing immediately by using fewer words. It might seem obvious to avoid long words, but what about small words?

Some small words reduce the flow and clarity of your writing. You might not notice them because they’re so common, they’re practically invisible. Before we look at them in more detail, make an exception for dialogue.

Writing rules are less strict when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak properly all the time. You can make your lines sound natural is by reading them out loud.

No doubt you’ve been advised to write the way you speak, but remember that written dialogue is natural speech, polished.

Reducing the frequency of these four common words will sharpen your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction. No words are completely excluded – just use them with purpose.

That’s That, That’s All

Good writing does not come from verbiage but from words.
Jeff Lindsay

“That” is a common word which you can often cut without losing the sense of your sentence.

This is the plate that she told me to wash. I can see that it’s dirty.

This is the plate she told me to wash. I can see it’s dirty.

The sentence is more direct if you reword it.

She told me to wash this dirty plate.

Try your sentence with and without that. Rewrite if needed.

The Thing Is…

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
Vladimir Nabokov

What is the thing you’re trying to convey? Using “thing”  is imprecise at best, and at worst pulls your reader out of the writing. If he’s scratching his head wondering what the thing is, you’ve lost him.  Find a better way to express your idea.

The thing is, we’ll never know the truth. He may or may not have a thing for kale.

We’ll never know the truth. He may or may not love kale.

Look for thing and either define it or remove it, unless you aim to mystify the reader.

What’s the thing we all strive for? Happiness.

What emotion do we all strive for? Happiness.

Parts Of Possession

Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.
Liz Vassey

This tiny word is absolutely essential – but not all the time. You can’t speak or write without using “of” and this leads to overuse through familiarity. Consider these four examples.

  1. Informal

It’s not that big of a problem or  

It’s not such a big problem or

It’s not a big problem

Which sounds better to you?

The first example sounds ‘different’ to my ear, since I speak and write British English. I can use the difference to make my American character more believable. But if my English character said that phrase it wouldn’t be authentic.

The cadences of speech spill into our written words, so think about the effect you want to produce. Ask yourself who is speaking, and what’s the context?

  1. Wordy

The roof of the house. The sleeve of his shirt. The golden colour of her hair or

The roof. The shirt sleeve. Her golden hair.

Sometimes we over-explain. The reader can follow along if the scene is clearly described, and you don’t have to assign every detail.

  1. Archaic

I present Achmael, Lord Protector of Blein, Archduke of Nimra, Third of his name… or
This is Achmael Blein III.

The first example sits well in a high fantasy story, while the second suits a more modern setting.

  1. Cliché

The end of the day. The blink of an eye. The dead of night. A thing of beauty.

Watch out for clichés – overused, tired descriptions and metaphors. Rewrite the phrase and make it your own.

What Was Going On?

No words are too good for the cutting-room floor, no idea so fine that it cannot be phrased more succinctly.”
Merilyn Simonds

Writers often use the word “was”  paired with a verb ending in -ing. It’s natural in storytelling to say something like this.

“So I was moving away, and all of a sudden there was a loud crash behind me.”

Writing aims for a more polished delivery, and the style varies with the desired effect. Replace all was/am/were plus -ing verbs with the simple past tense, which is shorter and more immediate. If adverbs clutter the sentence, choose a stronger verb.

Thus “I was walking slowly” becomes “I walked slowly” or better yet “I strolled” “I crept” or “I hobbled” according to need.

For the examples above, a possible rewrite is this.

What happened?

“I ran, startled by the crash of metal against metal behind me.”

Of This and That and Other Things

Four small words –  that, thing, of, was – are indispensable in the right place. You’ll tighten your prose by hunting them down, shining a bright light in their eyes, and asking them, “What do you think you’re doing here?”

Only let them stay if you get a definite answer to that question. If not, you know what you have to do. Your clarity is at stake.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing, writing process

How To Be An Authentic Writer Without Feeling Exposed

the truth doesn’t have to hurt

Photo by W A T A R I on Unsplash

Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.
May Sarton

They say write what you know.

Be authentic and write from the heart. But what if that’s too painful? What if, like many writers, you’re afraid to be exposed by your words?

It happened to me. I wrote a story that I was afraid to publish.

Not because it was risqué or difficult. It was honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.

As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Something sneaked past my filters and on to the page. I wrote it for a competition, but missed the deadline while I agonised over whether to let it go.

How could I be prepared to send this off to be judged by strangers, but hesitate to post it on my own media?

The difference was anonymity.

The story was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible to me.

Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?

I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to write them with my own blood.

Was I right to hesitate?

All Eyes On You

Have you ever heard the expression: Walk a mile in my shoes, and then judge me? And write your own books.
Ann Rule

You know how it feels when you’re anxious or shy. You feel as if everyone is looking at you and worse, judging you harshly. But that’s not true. Everyone is as consumed by thoughts about themselves as you are.

This is known as the spotlight effect. You hide because of the erroneous belief that everyone is watching. They’re not.

Remember that as the author you know everything about your story. You know where you found events and people that appear in it. Nothing is disguised. But the reader doesn’t have that inside knowledge. As long as you change details, especially about real people, the reader’s unlikely to draw the conclusions you fear.

You have to trust your story, and your judgement, and move forward despite anxiety.

Feel The Fear

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.

Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. They told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.

beach_publicdomainpictures
 

The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that speaks more eloquently than any words could.

And it is the drop of your blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the connection true.

Channel real emotion into honest writing.

If you’re writing memoir, events can be portrayed as they happened, letting the reader experience them with you.

If you’re writing fiction, you need to get emotion on the page without revealing your source material. Change names and places. Combine elements of real people into a new character. Writers have the power to immortalise or demonise friends and enemies — but a libel suit or worse, an angry relative is best avoided.

When you write betrayal, for example, think back to when someone let you down. Allow yourself to experience it again and jot down the first words that occur to you. The first words are the true ones, before your brain has time to filter and censor.

How would your character express those feelings? The circumstances are different, but the emotion is familiar.

You don’t know how it feels to hide during an alien invasion. Or maybe you have been that person, frightened of being discovered or left behind. In any case you do know something similar; fear, despair, anger, hope. That’s what you write.

Only Connect

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.
Paul Gallico

I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. In sharing experiences and lessons learned, we connect. We give people the chance to recognise themselves on the page, and feel less alone.

Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.

When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.

Someone needs to read your words and recognise themselves within them.


Have a comment or suggestion? Leave it below.

blog, creativity, writing, writing process

How To Bounce Back When Your Writing is Rejected (Even Though You’re Terrified of Another No)

Photo by photo-nic.co.uk nic on Unsplash

A boo is a lot louder than a cheer.
Lance Armstrong

Rejection is tough.

No matter what people say about collecting 100 rejections or actively seeking out rejection in order to grow, rejection never feels good no matter how you try to spin it.

If you’re a creative, you’ll face a lot of rejection. Your pitch, query, design or article will be politely turned down, or worse, ignored altogether. You’re hardwired to remember the negative more than the positive. But you go on because nobody has a perfect hit rate, right?

You try again, and again.

One day, another rejection is the final straw. You’ve been slaving away to make your work the best it can be, and you just can’t take any more. You stop working.

Each no makes you feel like an egg dropped on the floor. And this time, you shatter so badly that you can’t put yourself back together again. You know mindless distractions don’t help, but you numb the feelings with food or alcohol or endless scrolling anyway.

What are you going to do now?

Never Too Big To Fail

The reality is: sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens.
Beyoncé Knowles

Nobody succeeds all the time. When we see the hits, it’s easy to forget all the misses. And we never see all the pieces that didn’t make it into the public eye.

You are not your work.

You’ve put time and effort and maybe a part of yourself into your work, but it isn’t you. A rejection of your work doesn’t pass judgement on you as a person or your overall skill as a creative.

Separate your work from your self-esteem and reframe the loss. Maybe the piece wasn’t a good fit, or it was the fifth similar piece that month, or it was overlooked. None of that has anything to do with you. Remember opinion is subjective and what’s wrong for one person is just right for another.

Have a mourning period if you need it and then move on to action.

Take Two

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Henry Ford

The quality of the piece is something that is entirely within your control. Feedback on rejected work is uncommon but take it if offered. It’s time to review and rework your piece.

Could it be better? The answer is almost always yes. Look at it with new eyes, or pretend it belongs to someone else. When in doubt, cut the beginning. It might work better without it, or with a new opening.

Learn to self-edit ruthlessly and polish your work to show its best features. When you believe it can’t be improved further, you’re ready for the next step.

A New Home

Have you had a failure or rejection? You could get bitter. That’s one way to deal with it. Or…you could just get BETTER. What do you think?
Destiny Booze

Take your shiny piece and resubmit elsewhere. If you want to be published in a journal, you have to contend with a very low acceptance rate.

Let’s say your journal of choice publishes four pieces by new writers four times a year. Only sixteen of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of pieces they receive will make it. The same goes for contests.

The odds are against you so you’ll have to play more games to increase your chance of winning. A tiny proportion of players become winners, but that doesn’t mean that the rest have no merit.

Alternatively, bypass the gatekeepers completely. You have the freedom to publish whatever you choose on sites such as MediumWattpad, or your own blog.

Believe in your work and search for a better home.

Climbing From The Wreckage

It’s you vs. you.

Dwayne Johnson

So you sent your story out to do battle elsewhere, or maybe you concluded it wasn’t in fact good enough. Your next step is to regroup and renew.

Look around for the next opportunity — a contest or publication. Use prompts. Or indulge and write something just for yourself. Make something new and make it great. Setting a deadline forces completion.

A portfolio of completed pieces boosts your confidence and drives improvement in your skills. No words are wasted whether they are made public or not.

Do you keep an ideas file? If not, start one. Capture them all in one place, whether digital like Evernote or the notes function on your phone, or an old-school notebook. When you don’t know what to write, pick an idea and write without judgement.

Don’t be derailed by perfectionism. Your inner editor will whisper, “That last piece bombed, what makes you think this will do any better?” Ignore it. Your job is simply to write.

Spew out a messy first draft and keep going till you reach the end. You can’t edit an empty page.

The first draft of anything is shit.
Ernest Hemingway

You have more stories to tell, so get writing.

Rise Up

Your ability to adapt to failure, and navigate your way out of it, absolutely 100 percent makes you who you are.
Viola Davis

What’s the real meaning of rejection?

It means you succeeded in facing the worldYou took a chance on your own abilities and risked the pain of failure. Rejection is a lesson. It asks, “How much do you want this success, and what price are you prepared to pay?”

There’s no shame in giving up a dream, as long as you don’t give up on dreaming altogether. There’s no shame in failure, as long as you use it to fuel your work.

Every five or ten rejections, reward yourself for effort. It’s painful and you deserve to ease that pain, even if you accept it’s necessary for your growth. We all know the Beatles, Ernest Hemingway, and JK Rowling faced rejection before they found success. But it’s still hard when it happens to you.

Nobody bats a thousand. But winners keep swinging until they hit that home run, and then they keep going. Athletes who didn’t make the winners’ podium carry on eating clean and logging training hours so they can beat their personal best and win next time.

To make rejection work for you,

  • Reframe the loss
  • Review and rework it
  • Resubmit elsewhere
  • Regroup and renew your efforts
  • Reward your bravery

Rejection is unavoidable, but you can work through it. Success is waiting, so keep writing.

A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success.
Bo Bennett


Have a comment or suggestion? Leave it below.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How To Call Yourself A Writer (And Mean It)

it’s time to claim your title

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

I know a secret about you.

You want to share your secret and at the same time you’ll never tell. What would people say? How would they think about you after they learn the truth?

Well guess what? I carry the same burden, and since you can’t talk about it openly I will.

You’re a writer. There, I said it.

Are you already blushing and stuttering, denying what you know is true? Maybe feeling a bit angry at being exposed? Then read on, because you need to fix this immediately.

But Are You Though?

If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it.
Michael Jordan

Most writers realise their calling when still young, though some come to it later. Hobbies and interests come and go but those of childhood have a tendency to remain, even if they’re driven underground by adult responsibilities.

Some avid readers remain just that, while others start making up their own stories. You might not have written a word for years, yet the idea nags at you. You keep a journal or scribble bits of poetry when you feel sad. You read novels and think you could do as well if not better.

These moments can be the beginning of a writing career if you go from thought to action. Dreaming gets you nowhere, you must act. Talking about it, thinking about it, or planning it isn’t enough.

To be a writer, you must write. And you must finish your stuff.

A chef doesn’t serve a raw pie. A surgeon doesn’t down tools halfway through closing a wound. And a writer finishes what she starts, no matter how hard it is.

Stephen King said that if you’ve paid a bill with money earned from writing, then you can call yourself a writer. That’s true for a professional, but we all have different goals and money is only one of them.

A writer has an itch, a compulsion, a need to express themselves in words. That’s you, and you want to know how to own it.

Not in Public

Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.
Robert Heinlein

So you want to call yourself a writer, but something is holding you back. Perhaps you remember being dismissed or ridiculed by someone whose opinion mattered — a parent, teacher or friend. They told you writing poetry was banal and writing romance was pathetic wish-fulfilment.

They told you your words were no good, and by extension, you were no good. The resulting shame caused you to bury writing where nobody could find it and use it against you.

Things are different now. You’re grown, and nobody can tell you what to do. These wounds run deep but you can heal them without therapy.

    1. Recall what was said and who said it
    2. Write it down
    3. Write a letter to that person telling them they were wrong
    4. Burn or tear up the letter

Anyone can write, just as anyone can cook. But not everyone can do it well. Maybe you think you’re not good enough because you’re not Neil Gaiman or Stephen Covey yet.

You must practise. Write a thousand words, then ten thousand more. Make writing a central part of your life so that it becomes familiar. Lose your fear of the thing you love and get good.

No Words to Say

Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
Neil Gaiman

Imagine this scene. You’re at a social gathering and someone you know asks, “So I hear that you write, what are you working on?” They smile encouragingly. What do you do?

    • Flight — you get away as soon as possible without answering
    • Fight — you deny it or make some self-deprecating remark
  • Freeze — you’re terrified and unable to speak

You’re a writer and words are your tools. It’s time to use them.

You need two stories; one for you and one for your work.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
 

What Would Super Me Do?

Beginning. Middle. End. Facts. Details. Condense. Plot. Tell it.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Picture yourself as a confident writer. If that’s too difficult, create an alter ego (why do you think authors use pen names? Just for anonymity?) A superhero writer who looks like you but acts like she was born to do this.

Now ask yourself WWSMD? What would Super Me do?

She’d face her questioner and smile. Then she’d say something like, “That’s so kind of you to ask. I’m working on some short stories/ editing my novel/ working on my blog.”

When the follow-up questions come, she’s ready with the address of her blog and an elevator pitch for her book. She isn’t ashamed of who she is. But she isn’t her work either; it’s part of her life, not her whole being.

So use your skills and write those stories. Write the description of you as you are now, making the best of your position. A single sentence should do. Then write the next part, where you answer deeper questions. Be vague; say it’s at an early stage, or in editing, or that you plan to find an agent in the future.

If someone is asking personal questions like how much money you’ve made, don’t get angry or embarrassed. Find words that you can say with a smile, then change the subject.

“When I make my first million, I’ll let you know!”

Writing an elevator pitch is a great exercise for any novelist and forces you to condense your story into its essentials. Try it, and you’ll find it easier to write queries, blurbs, and synopses.

Do not put yourself down by saying that your writing isn’t serious, or that you’re no good. Nobody wants to hear that. Don’t apologise. Avoid any opinion, just stick to the objective facts.

No Fear

I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.
Rosa Parks

Fear is at the heart of our troubles.

We don’t tell the truth about our work and ourselves because we fear an imaginary outcome. As writers, we’re blessed and cursed with well-developed imaginations, full of monsters and disaster.

It’s never as bad as you think it will be. Practise in low-risk settings first. Try out your routine on a trusted friend, in the same way Chris Rock tests his routine in small clubs before going on tour. Tweak and adjust until you feel happy with it.

As you get more confident, expand your arena. Last year my online writing group produced an anthology of short stories. Each writer was tasked with getting people to be part of the street team who would be early reviewers. Did I want to approach people and ask for something? Hell no.

After I calmed down, I wrote a short Facebook post that started with, “As some of you may know, I am a writer.” Writing it down was much less scary than speaking it out loud. Two surprising things happened.

First, lots of people agreed to be part of the launch, not always the ones I expected.

And second, I introduced myself to my social network as a writer, and the sky did not fall. In fact, it became much easier to say it in person.

Claiming your title as a writer is simple.

    1. Write stuff —  and finish it
    2. Release old programming that doesn’t work for you anymore
    3. Write the story of the new you
    4. Practice makes perfect

Soon you won’t need an alter ego because you will become Super Me, proud writer and not afraid to say it.

Go on, you can do it. Start today.

blog, writing, writing process

How To Shower a Writer With Gifts (Even If You Have No Money)

because money isn’t everything

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

 

We all have an innate desire to make a difference, to make an impact, to be seen, to be heard, to leave behind something better than what we’re brought into.

Maureen Johnson

Christmas may be a distant memory, but there’s no wrong time to give a gift. And there are always birthdays, anniversaries, and random Thursdays to celebrate. If you want to treat a writer in your life, or even if the writer is you, here are some generous gift ideas that go beyond another fancy notebook.

Money Money Money

You can find some free resources for writers here. But if you’re feeling generous or the occasion demands a bigger splash, try these.

  1. Essential Hardware

The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Confucius

A new laptop or phone tops this wishlist, but a more affordable choice is external storage. Backup that work in extra paid cloud storage or an external hard drive.

Noise-cancelling headphones are a luxury, but the joy of being able to choose your own sound environment can’t be overstated.

 

  1. Specialist Software

My writing process hasn’t changed… A lot of reading, a lot of research if the subject warrants it, a lot of sticky notes and scraps of paper…

Kathe Koja

While excellent free options exist, programs such as Scrivener and of course Microsoft Word offer more sophisticated ways to organise words at varying prices. Screenwriters will appreciate something like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

  1. More Books

The more that you read, the more you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss

Any writer worth their salt has a pile of books waiting to be read, whether digital or physical (or both.) That doesn’t mean a few more wouldn’t be welcome.

Ask your writer which craft books they’d like and what genre they write in, then buy one or two best sellers from each list. Reading their competition will help them refine their own voice.

I prefer physical reference books though ebooks are a great alternative for fiction. Yes, you could give a gift voucher but there’s no thrilling parcel to unwrap.

  1. Community

Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.

Orson Scott Card

No serious writer would turn down a ticket for a conference or writing retreat. Local options can be affordable, and if you want to push the boat out there are luxury options in beautiful places both at home and abroad.

These events are opportunities to meet other writers and network with people in the publishing world. Some people find agents and editors, but time to concentrate on writing and talk with like-minded others is the big draw.

  1. Welcome to the Club

Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.

Amy Poehler

A subscription is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider Writer’s Digest, Writing Magazine, The New York Review of Books, among many others. Websites, print, and digital magazines cover every corner of the writing universe and offer contests, publication opportunities, and advice.

 

Not Available in Stores

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Simone Weil

Gift giving is fraught with social and individual expectation. We make many judgements when it comes to selecting a gift and measuring its success.

If we’re less well off, we feel that we can’t give what we don’t have. And if we’re well off, we can resent spending money we worked hard for. All these negative feelings sour both giving and receiving.

How about taking money out of the equation altogether?

Tangible gifts are welcome of course, but what humans crave is often something both simpler and more complex. You and I both want the same thing; we want to matter. We want to be heard and appreciated in some way. Here are some options for generous gifts for writers that don’t cost a penny.

  1. Time

The hardest part is making the time to write. Not finding the time to write, mind you. Making.

Carmen Agra Deedy

If you share a busy life with a writer, chances are they struggle finding enough time to write. Look at your schedules and figure out a slot that works for both of you. Put it in the planner and stick to it. And be prepared to take on the work that needs doing to make it happen, whether that’s taking over bathtime or walking the dog.

  1. Space

No pen, no ink, no table, no room, no time, no quiet, no inclination.

James Joyce

Maybe you don’t have room for a Pinterest-worthy writer’s study overflowing with books and a vintage typewriter. A corner of the spare bedroom or living room might have to do. Respect that space. Keep yours and the kids’ stuff off the table when it’s writing time.

Your writer needs space in time to attend a retreat or conference. Again this might mean you have to take up the slack in domestic chores. If you’re the writer, return the favour by trading chores and fun another time so you both get away. This works well for friends with children who need watching.

  1. Notice them in the world

I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no-one did, I felt lonely.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Buying a book? There’s a card for that, but interaction is priceless. Engage with your writer’s work in public. Write a positive review or comment, rate or clap their pieces, like their Facebook page, and sign up for their email list.

  1. Amplify their voice

Every human being is trying to say something to others. Trying to cry out I am alive, notice me! Speak to me! Conform that I am important, that I matter!!

Marion D. Hanks

Writers and creatives are often introverts who hate to be too visible, even as they want their work to be noticed. You can help by engaging with them on social media. Follow them, retweet them, talk about their work online and in person. We’re bombarded with so much information and choice that personal recommendation means more than ever.

  1. Acknowledgement is everything

The simple act of paying positive attention to people has a great deal to do with productivity.

Tom Peters

We say it’s the thought that counts but it’s more than a cliche. The most important gift of all is acceptance. The person who describes themselves as a writer does so after much soul-searching and doubt. Allowing them to claim that identity, without mockery or dismissiveness, is a precious gift.

Enthusiasm and genuine curiosity in asking about their work will be remembered and appreciated long after the conversation is over.

 

Give A Little More

We all have the ability to make someone’s life better. If you have plenty of resources, or your donor does, appreciate your good fortune and choose something to move your work forward. But the intangibles, the things which are free but rarely given, are even more valuable.

Award gifts to yourself, to others, and remember what goes around comes around. Build good writing karma and give at least as good as you get.

Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression. We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous. We experience joy in the actual act of giving something. And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given.

Buddha

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

The Beyoncé School of Being A Masterfully Creative Artist

How to delight your audience

Beyonce Dublin 2016
Beyonce at Croke Park Dublin

 

In 2016 I went to see Beyonce in Dublin. It was one of the best lessons in pleasing your audience that I’ve ever been given.

We may inhabit the same planet, but Beyonce lives in a different universe. She flew in from London that day after watching Serena Williams win her seventh Wimbledon title. Then she performed at Croke Park in front of 75,000 fans.

Her show was an amazing spectacle. There were lasers and dancers on water. There was fire and fireworks. There was the feeling that comes from being part of a huge crowd, all of whom are focused on enjoying the same thing; a global superstar.

Yet her show wasn’t what I expected.

The Hero’s Promise

When you connect with your heroes through their work, you have certain expectations. When those expectations are met, you’re satisfied. If they’re not met, you’re disappointed.

Your feelings about that experience shape your future choices. If you’ve seen a movie, read a book, or attended a concert by someone you admire, you know how that plays out.

“That was amazing, can’t wait for the next one!”
Or
“It was all right.”
Or
“What a waste of time, next time don’t bother.”

All these responses are mediated by dopamine.

Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain. It lights up the pleasure centres when we do something that feels good, and prompts us to repeat the behaviour.

Our brains have evolved to reward us when we engage in behaviour that improves our survival, such as drinking water, eating, and procreation. Nowadays we also seek dopamine hits elsewhere, in activities like shopping and gambling. For our brains, it’s all the same thing; if it feels good do it, then seek it out and do it again.

But what’s less well known is that dopamine also plays a part in avoiding negative emotions. Your brain learns from experience and steers you away from those that felt bad before.

When you get what you expected, you get a dopamine hit. But it’s much larger when you encounter the unexpected. That’s why novelty is so important in life. That’s why gambling machines pay out unpredictably. Gamblers are hooked by a small win, and play on compulsively in search of the biggest win and the ultimate dopamine rush.

Why does that matter and what does it have to do with a pop concert?

No Rest For The Best

Beyonce is a global phenomenon. She could have milked the adoring crowd, played a few of her many wonderful old hits and forced a smile. She didn’t do that.

Instead of resting on her laurels, she raised her game.

She gave us more. More dancing, more costume changes, more new material. More dopamine hits.

We were dazzled by a smile that looked genuine and a gorgeous show that was underpinned by tons of hard work. She gave us her best and lived by her work ethic.

Her ethic says create a wonder, send it out into the world, then create another. Her ethic pays attention to the tiniest detail that 99.9% of consumers miss, but delights the 0.1% who notice.

Her ethic says, “My audience turned out for me, and I am sure as hell turning up for them.”

This is a creative philosophy we can all get behind.

Delight Is Tough


The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.
Pearl S Buck

Building a body of work is hard. You have to keep going through stress and doubt and blocks. You have to go to your audience, shout for their attention, and then continue to deliver to keep their attention.

Isn’t it tempting to rush through and cut corners? To say that will do and send it out anyway? That’s a mistake.

While you absolutely must ship your work and avoid the perfectionist trap, it’s even more essential to maintain your standards. And to grow as a creator, you must push your limits and raise your standards over time.

When you under-deliver, you risk turning people away from your future offerings. They won’t necessarily give you a second chance unless they’re one of your true fans – or feeling generous.

When you over-deliver, casual observers eventually become fans who will amplify your message by sharing it with enthusiasm.

The better you get, and the more you surprise even yourself with the quality of your output, the more pleasure you’ll have in your work. Put care into the details, and someone else will notice and smile.

One of the joys of a good set of headphones is hearing all the intricacies that artists put into their music. Even though none of it can be heard on the radio or at concert volume, it’s there if you look for it.

So to create delight, do more than is expected. Add extra information and references to blog posts. Layer meaning in every name in your fantasy world. Use the language of flowers in the bouquet given to your romance character.

Don’t take attention for granted because novelty really does wear off. Try to find that extra 5% when you can, because it amplifies the whole experience for those who see it.

The unexpected brings us joy. We’re wired for it.

Give us your best – plus a little extra we didn’t predict, to keep us coming back for more.


Comment or question? Drop it below and let’s talk.

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

Learn to Love Frustration

beating the block isn’t what you think

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?

Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.

Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.

All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.

It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.

So Close

Expectation is the mother of all frustration.
Antonio Banderas

You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.

The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.

Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.

If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.

Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?

We struggled. Every one of us.

The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?

We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.

One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.

I had to find another way, fast.

Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start

Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration.
Wayne Dyer

Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.

In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.

A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.

For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.

I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.

We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.

I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.

I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.

There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.

A Different Playing Field

You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:

  1. You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
  2. Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.

1. Nice Try But No Cigar

You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.

Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.

Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.

Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
Newt Gingrich

Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.

2. The Lies You Tell

Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.

Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.

You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.

You can have excuses, or you can have results.

You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.

Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.

Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.

Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.

Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.

How Much Do You Want It?

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.
Sumner Redstone

Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?

Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.

The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.

And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.


Have a comment or question? Drop it in the form below and let’s talk.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

10 Common Writing Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t settle for good when you could be better

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

So you want to write a short story or maybe even a novel. Your idea is ready, you have an outline, and you’re raring to go. Or you’ve finished a piece and you’re wondering if it’s good enough to release into the world.

You don’t want the editor or agent to pass on it because of errors you could and should have fixed before submission.

You also don’t want to give your reader any reason to put down your manuscript or click away from the page.

Just because you’ve read published work that wasn’t that good doesn’t mean your work should be sub par.

Here are ten common writing errors new writers make and how to correct them.

 

1. Weak Concepts Don’t Fly

What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.

Maybe she finds out her husband is a spy. Maybe they’re both secret assassins but he’s her latest target. Give the story a twist, otherwise there’s nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

Sometimes you’re writing an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves. The characters are changed in some way by the events.

Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.

2. Poor Pacing is a Drag

Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.

  • Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the journey to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
  • Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
  • Too much action without actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.

To correct these try the following.

  • Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.  
  • Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
  • Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.

3. Overwriting Weighs a Story Down

Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.

Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.

Tighten up your prose by removing crutch words.

This tool helps you find and destroy clichés.

4. Telling not Showing

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekhov

Telling robs significant moments of their power.

When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.

Describe his actions so we can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky, ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.

Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, jump to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.

Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.

5. Dialogue Tag Troubles

Dialogue tags are a frequent source of errors new writers make.

Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.

There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.

You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags.

“Is this okay?” She held out the report.
He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”

Notice that the tag is on the same line as the dialogue it belongs to. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.

If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.

6. Point of View Problems

Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first person typical of modern YA novels. For example:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.

My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.

Emma Darwin discusses the use of different POV here but you must make your choice and stick to it.

Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else.  Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.

This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which his companion can observe.

It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing. As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing.

7. What Time Is It?

Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.

Past tense remains the most familiar choice.

Tense is not the same as POV. You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.

Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.

Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately and with care. Be certain of your choice before you start. Rewriting a whole work is tedious and careful editing would be even more essential than usual.

Find advice on managing tenses here.

8. You’re Unbelievable

It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
Mark Twain

Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.

You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.  

Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the story and their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.

This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events. Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.

Having the protagonist get exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.

Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.

9. It’s All Too Much

Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.

It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.

Use a light hand with symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.

Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.

Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.

10. Not Looking Good

Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.

Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors, giving the impression that the author doesn’t care.

You care, so fix your work. This 12 step self-editing checklist covers a range of tips and resources that will help you polish your drafts.

Re:fiction article on self-editing
refiction.com/articles/self-editing-checklist/

Finally, Get To The End

The secret is not following the right path, it’s following that right path to the end. Don’t quit, my friend, until you’ve arrived.
Toni Sorenson

Unfinished works linger in the back of your brain, slowly draining your energy. You feel anxious and guilty about them.

Do whatever you need to finish. If you can’t let go, that’s a sign. Complete your piece somehow. You can’t query half a novel or publish half an article.

Eliminate as many of the issues above as you can, or trash the piece and start fresh.

Let go of perfectionism because done is better than perfect. And once it’s done, it can be edited until it’s as close to perfect as you can get.

Go to it. Your readers are waiting.


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