Composing a Writer #10. A Manuscript is Not a Book

Let’s say pigs fly. You’ve written the thing you always wanted to write. It’s a miracle. It’s been in your mind since reading that first book that stole you away. It means you’ve sat by yourself for untold hours and managed to commit the words to the page. You’ve edited it to perfection with an obsessive-compulsive love disorder that includes nurturing the idea like a baby bird, watching it grow feather by feather, only to hack it to bits with a meat cleaver so it can rise from the flames …a phoenix. Ta-da. You have a completed manuscript.

I don’t know how this would feel to a fresh young mind, but I do know how it feels in the second half-century of life. Fist-pumping elation and a happy dance complete with the backside shimmy that’s best left undescribed. This is where the story ends in the movie version. The End scrolling over my… um, end.

Meanwhile back in real life, I notice that I don’t actually have a book. I have a file in my computer. It feels marginally better than having a stack of paper that my prairie wind would surely find a way to plaster along the south fence line.

I’m feeling a strange combination of gosh-it’s-no-big-thing humility and I-did-it-I-did-it! pride for a thing stuck inside my computer, when a stranger saunters into my thoughts. Someone with a swagger and she might be wearing a push-up bra. At first I guessed her name was Kills Kittens for Fun but no, it was Ambition. I could tell because the word was lettered in cursive across the chest of her sweater… a sweater that might have fit her back when she was a high school cheerleader. And worse, a couple of inches of her midriff was showing. She set down her suitcase, drained her can of beer, and burped. Just kill me.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]


This Week: We’re ten weeks in and writing is vying for equal time as your primary language. Words flow like a conversation with an old friend. You have as many words to write as you have to speak; you have paragraphs and chapters, you have a book, a trilogy, a tetralogy, a pentalogy and even a hexalogy. You are filthy stinky rich in nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Assignment: Write about the day after an accomplishment or graduation or the birth or death of something. Write about the thing after the thing. Write your feelings about ambition; how does it fit you? What do you think of ambitious women? Men? Is it okay to make money from your art? Or write the hardest thing of all –write something intentionally funny. You can tell it’s working if you chuckle while you type. Then share whatever you like on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Or comment on what others have written. Or, just know we are your herd, no excuses necessary. Wait and jump in when it’s right for you.


It was my last chance to slide the manuscript in a drawer, or bury it in my tax return file on the computer. But instead, I had an overwhelming need. Nothing prepared me for how much I wanted my manuscript published. I thought writing it would be enough but each step in the writing process edited me as a would-be author. I changed as much as the manuscript did but I’d been so busy writing and studying the publishing world, that I hadn’t noticed. But now I was overtaken with an uncomfortable ambition to get the story out in the world and I’d worked on it so completely that I thought Stable Relation was worthy of that. It was like waking up with a weird kind of amnesia: I knew exactly who I was but I had no history to prove it.

There is so much attitude in the writing world about the publishing question. Some will say submitting to traditional publishers are the only way to get that genuine stamp of acceptance. Publishers are the gatekeepers to a literary career. That any less means your writing has no value because self-published books are trash. So, you worship the rich history of suffering, related by examples of famous authors whose work got rejected time and again before they became famous. Because we all know the very best artists wear suffering like war medals on their chests. It’s the Big Five Publishers or die!

But the Big Five Publishers are more distant and élite than ever before. Some say they are all going down because they aren’t keeping up with changes in their industry. But to get a manuscript to the big boys, they say you must be someone famous or know someone famous. You’ll need an agent because the very idea of traditional publishing is running the other direction. So, you attend conferences and try to network. And worry that you’ll always be a groupie for famous authors while paying off your travel debt and remaining unpublished yourself.

Small presses are a possibility. Genre publishing is booming and it’s a door open to authors of romance or Christian or children’s books. Opportunities drop off fast if you aren’t in one of those genres. And Stable Relation was every publisher’s ugly stepchild –a memoir. Even with a popular genre, small presses won’t invest in an author unless she can prove she has readers waiting. If you manage to hook a small press, they will promote your book for sixty days but it takes them twice that time to let you know if they will even read your manuscript.

Or do you self-publish? Because technology has changed the publishing world. Because everyone knows a self-published book that broke the glass ceiling like Still Alice did. Because some published authors are now self-publishing after being dropped by publishers who won’t publish new books. Or do you find the statistic that says that only 10% of self-published books sell more than a hundred copies?

There’s no answer, so you spend a few thousand hours more, researching publishing and self-publishing online, and see that there is no more agreement than there was a month ago. You think no one wants your book. You think self-publishing could be a swamp filled with alligators, and one with particularly gnarly teeth could have yarns from a certain cheerleader sweater dangling like bloody floss.

(TBC)

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

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Composing a Writer #9. Beta Readers, Secrets, and Dead Darlings

Most families have an odd relative. It’s an uncle with hairy ears who drinks too much on holidays or a cousin who converted to a strange religion. We are a species of odd ducks and eventually we quack it out.

Do I sound dismissive? It isn’t that I don’t have empathy for awkward turkey dinners. Problems are relative. My family kept a filthy secret that some of us barely survived.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

I was almost half-done with the manuscript for Stable Relation when I shared it with my first beta reader. He was complimentary. The first chapter was good, he said, but the biggest thing was missing. He was an old friend; he knew the family secret and without revealing it, he thought nothing else made sense.

I fumed about it. I was having a good time writing funny stories about moving to the country but he was right. It was as if there was a decomposing skeleton in the room and I was arranging flowers to brighten the place up. I started over, dreading the truth that needed telling and not at all confident that I could find the words, even all those years later.

I had to work up to telling the secret, so I laid a trail of breadcrumbs, intermingling painful scenes from my childhood farm and setting the stage, while practicing writing about the emotions that changed my life’s course. When the time came to write about the final incident, my first draft was only two paragraphs long. It took a month to bleed out the other three thousand words. The chapter title came last: The Worst Thing. That chapter took on a blinding importance to editors and beta readers, even if it was hard to talk about. Just like a family secret.

A shout out to beta readers; what a lousy job. A beta reader is someone you hope will be more honest than kind. Someone you know who is seriously knowledgeable about books. Someone who will tell you the truth before the general public gets the chance.

Each time I sent a version of the manuscript to an editor, I sent copies to three beta readers as well. There was a list: A childhood friend who was a life-long reader and professional librarian. A riding client who was younger and a writer herself. A friend I’d written a screenplay with who was now a pro writing in L.A. An ex-boyfriend I’d written about in the book –and so on.

As I spent the next year working with editors, I also weighed the opinions of my beta readers. One thought the book should start with the Worst Thing chapter and another thought it should be somewhere in the middle of the book.

One beta reader told me that that Worst Thing chapter totally ruined the book. It was too sad and too ugly. With an ironic smile, I thought, yes. I’d certainly edit it out of my life if I could but for me and millions of women, we’ve had to find a way to survive the unthinkable in our lives. I didn’t know where to put this odd duck of a chapter but the chapter would stay. Sometimes the awkward thing no one wants to talk about is the most important part to share.

I never wanted children; I wasn’t sure a family like mine should procreate but as I wrote the book, I thought about my niece and nephews. After my parents passed, the worst thing secret was told and they learned the reasons for my strange behavior in hindsight. I hoped they understood. I think that’s often how we get to know people, in present time with flashbacks to the past, so that was how I arranged the book.

When Stable Relation came out I was a wreck, feeling naked to the world, while relying on the mixed opinion of my beta readers. In that first year, I lost count of the number of personal letters women sent me, thanking me for voicing their experience. It was humbling …maybe I wrote the worst thing chapter for all of us.


This Week: Your writing gets more comfortable every day. The words are bright and clean and as comfortable as your own skin. What used to feel like getting dressed up for a court date now feels like beach attire. Writing is brilliant sun and a day off, all at once.

Your assignment this week is to write something dark or hurtful or embarrassing. Tell a secret or confess to a crime. Be a witness to heartbreaking destruction. Write about it with dispassionate clarity. Use the best words (think tired, write exhausted) and physical descriptions of locations that evoke a feeling. Show the reader what it was like. Be scary like a campfire ghost story. Think about pacing and suspense. Kill your darlings. Remember that whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing is still an art. Then share your feelings about writing what’s hard to write on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Most of all, keep on writing.


Last Sunday, I had to stop for groceries on my way home from teaching in the wind for hours. It was the time of day that my post-surgery foot swells to a size larger than its boot. As I shuffled through the produce department, I heard a voice first. It was a woman leaning against the lettuce shelves, telling a story.

As I stepped closer to get some spinach, it sounded like she was doing stand-up comedy but I couldn’t tell who she was talking to. A little boy stood by her side and a man was buzzing around like a hornet, doing a hissing scream-whisper at a little girl backed up against the apple counter.

I swallowed hard and hesitated. She was thin and pale, maybe four-years-old with her little shoulders flinched up around her ears. The man bent low to get in her face and rage-whispered even deeper. I heard her tiny voice barely squeak her answer, “I didn’t have to then…”

The woman glanced to the side, still talking, as the man lifted the little girl by her upper arms and slammed her against his chest as he stalked away.

My jaw tensed as I shot a look at the woman, holding hard eye contact for long seconds. Then I walked toward the checkout, meeting my husband on the way, and keeping my gaze down. I told him that I’d just seen a little girl get grabbed but the voice that came out of my mouth sounded just as tiny as hers.

Writing is just like life; a struggle to find your footing between the darkness and the light.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #8. Editing the Editing

I was raised by a woman who chronically rearranged furniture. It was a nervous habit. Coming home late you had to look for a particular end-table that got put in odd places, usually just in front of your shin. Then a week later, in front of your other shin. I had spent my life trying to not-like-my-mother, but there I was shuffling chapters around like a veneer end-table, a green Naugahyde sofa, and an orange and brown zig-zag afghan. How the mighty had fallen.

After a whole year of typing away on my manuscript for Stable Relation in predawn hours, I’d lost perspective. I had 80,000 words but I had no idea if they made any sense. I’d tried so hard to write in a way that did not draw conclusions, that didn’t tell the reader what to think, that I couldn’t tell what I thought.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

I had an idea of how I wanted to tell the story when I started. I wanted the first chapters to feel rushed and a bit uncomfortable. Then that feeling would give way to an eventual sense of gratitude and ease. I wanted the writing style to reflect the story line as it progressed. I told the story in an episodic way, more than chronologically because I like stories that circle back on themselves. In hindsight, a more linear approach might have been easier but I wanted the story to unfold like we meet people; who they are gets defined by their experience but we only learn that over time, in bits and pieces.

My developmental edit hadn’t been what I expected …as if I’d written enough books to know. After the best rewrite (rearrange) I could do, I sent the manuscript to a second professional editor for line editing. It cost real money like the first editor, but my reasoning was that if I wasn’t willing to invest, why should a reader? I knew that a publisher would edit the book if they picked it up, but I wanted my version so tight that perhaps they’d let it be. I consulted the Editorial Freelancers Association and found three possible editors, interviewed, decided, and sent the manuscript off again.

My manuscript came back, digital this time, with red ink track changes in the margins. Who knew word tense was such a challenging thing? I made the same grammatical errors repeatedly but correcting them a few dozen times does drill the lesson. There were times the notes in the margin told me I was redundant and other times that I was preaching (no surprise). The edit was impersonal but at the same time, I felt she cared profoundly about my grammar and sentence structure. This edit was a lesson in how to write as well as a keen focus on the lumps and holes in the story. It transformed my ability to write a sentence, in this manuscript and going forward, and I joyously paid her fee. I had no idea if she liked the actual story; she was objective. Then near the last chapter, in a red track change, one word: [crying]. Through the editing, I had come to respect her abilities; I didn’t know until that last moment how much I wanted her to like Stable Relation.

I reworked the book with those edits but it was more like moving knick-knacks instead of entire sofas. Word by word, my confidence meandered back. I sharpened my points and got all my ideas on the same page; irony and humor returned. I said more with less and in the right tense. When the time was right, I sent the manuscript to a third editor for a final proofreading edit.

A few weeks later the manuscript came back, this time with fewer red track changes than ever, mostly grammatical, some capital letter mistakes with job titles. (The humans in my book had job titles; only the animals had names.) There were a few more word mistakes, like using one instead of on, one every other page or so, that my eyes had missed. In the process of making changes from the last edit, I had written new prose in a few places with imperfect skill. Editors are magnificent.

This Week: You’re a writer. You write. Words are your minions. They await your bidding with energy and a good ground covering gait. Miles of words pass through your fingers. After all the emotional and technical challenges of writing, you remember how much you love to tell a story.

Your assignment this week is to consider an old Akira Kurosawa movie called Rashomon. Tell the same scene from more than one perspective. Or write a story that tells something important in hindsight. Alter your voice in prose: Use sentence structure to help define the emotional aspects of your scene. Have a written plan for an essay and then stick to it; think fascinating introduction, the arc of the story with plot twists, and really stretch for an unexpected ending. Or for the fun of it, write a bit of nonsense with wrong words spelled correctly, in that one and on sort of way. Pick one of these ideas, or make one up that interests you, and just start.

And then let us know on our Writing Herd Facebook page. It doesn’t matter where you are in these assignments. Some new members have joined; say hello! If you are a founding member but have not shared your thoughts yet, chime in, whether it’s sharing a piece you’ve written or your thoughts about writing in general. We’d love to hear from you. Let us know how it’s going; let’s use each other for encouragement and talk about how we write and well as what we write. Most of all, Write on!

That final editor called me just before returning my digital manuscript. It was a Saturday morning and I was giving a riding lesson. I usually don’t answer my phone while teaching, but I will check caller ID to check if it’s a client. Seeing my editor’s name, I apologized to my rider and took the call. I listened as my editor said it was the best book she’d every edited. Then she said some other things. I forget what happened the rest of that day.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Composing a Writer #7. Criticism Wanted

I was fifty-nine years old and someone had scribbled “Why should I care?” in thick red ink on my hard-fought 300-page manuscript. Not just once but every few pages. Wait, it gets better. I sold a saddle to pay for this!

It started on Christmas Eve, my second least-favorite day of the year. I packed up the dogs, my laptop, and some snacks, and headed to a rented cabin in the mountains. Just finished with a thirty-day sprint of writing 1500 words a day, I was ready to begin writing my memoir.

For the following twelve months, I got up at 3:30 every morning and poured words into my Scrivener writing software; building, rearranging, editing, and editing some more. Every evening, I poured over the internet for information about professional editing, submitting manuscripts to publishers, self-publishing, and any other detail I could think of. I joined a few writer’s groups, attended a writer’s conference, and performed my elevator pitch to the horses while I mucked. I had a sentimental reason for starting this but at some point, the project overtook me.

So you could say this fury of red ink was my own fault. I hired three professional editors for Stable Relation, and the first was a developmental editor. His job was to go over the story for weakness including characters, plot lines, and writing style. In short, the whole book. He wanted it in hard copy, so I sent off the manuscript the old-fashioned way.

Three weeks later, the manuscript returned looking black and white and red all over. The editor didn’t like the first chapter. He didn’t like the title. Some of the chapters were flat or obscure. “Why should I care?” he wrote in my blood. Parts were long-winded and others poorly explained. He particularly didn’t like a chapter about ducks.  “Why should I care?” he wrote in duck blood. My writing was good, he said, but the storyline didn’t flow. My word tense was out of control. Some chapters were repetitive. He suggested I write a different book from a chapter he did like. He suggested I put my manuscript in a drawer for a year and gave me a list of memoirs to read.

Ouch! I’d wanted the truth; I didn’t hire him to coddle me. But I also wasn’t putting it in a drawer.

Breathe. First, I had been a self-employed artist for decades and used to people judging my work. Second, I’d shown horses. Surviving embarrassment and humiliation is part of the ride. You get back up.

The trick is to not take it personally. That manuscript was a stack of paper, even as intimate as it was. It was not me. Not that I’m some insipid PollyAnna; his red ink cut deep. But if I hadn’t found a way to keep my heart safe, I would have never survived childhood. I’d invested a year of writing and I wasn’t about to get bucked off now. Besides, I sold a saddle to pay for this and I’m a frugal person. I had to get my money’s worth out of his red ink.

I set my jaw and went to work; I cut chapters out, re-wrote other chapters, and changed the order of chapters. Each time I saw red ink, I took it to heart and wrote better reasons to care. Even about ducks.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

This week: You still write. High and wide, you write. When you aren’t writing, you’re thinking of how you’ll write. And then you write. Syllable by syllable, the words are starting to see it your way.

And you have discovered that the word “edit” has as many meanings as there are stray commas. During a first edit, I run my work through several word processors. I like WordPress, but I also use my Word program, and then sometimes I run it through Scriveners or Google Docs, too. Besides that, I use the free Grammarly app. None of them catch everything. You don’t have to hire a pro, but eventually, someone has to edit your work and there will be corrections. Try to find a way to embrace it.

For the Writing Herd: It remains your choice where the line between safety and challenge rests for you in this group. If it’s your choice to journal privately, push on. If you’re sharing your writing with the group, please continue. If you would like constructive criticism on shared work, please note that when you share the link on our page. (To be clear, if you want criticism, post “criticism welcome.” Otherwise, comment as before.) In riding lessons, I ask that each rider/judge say three good things and one thing to consider working on. It might be a good start here, too.

Your assignment is to read critically. Not being mean, but to have discernment about how words are used, as well as what they say. Whether you publicly comment or not, think like an editor this week. See their side and then share that experience.

If you’d like a writing topic this week, write something about criticism or taking things personally. Or write yourself the most caustic review imaginable and get it out-of-the-way. Or ponder the idea of criticism and friendship. Or relate a time you welcomed criticism.

My worst competitive dressage ride was on a brilliant young horse. But at least there was a big crowd watching. My horse and I entered the arena with my friend who would read our test (call out the movements to be ridden.) She and I shared our goals before each show, read for each other’s tests, and afterward, we made a point to say something complimentary on the way out of the arena. It was a tradition.

My horse and I started the test and things came apart quickly. Straight lines became serpentines. He spooked at a letter and whiplashed sideways five meters. There were spontaneous gait changes, along with an unplanned gallop. Eventually, we landed a crooked halt near “X” and saluted the judge, who had to be relieved we finished.

My horse and I turned to leave the arena, and as disappointed as I was, my curiosity teased a smile. What could my friend possibly compliment about this ride? I almost felt sorry for her. What comment could she make that would even have a shred of truth and still be positive? Her mind must be racing! We caught up with her at the out-gate, but she kept her head low. Then she looked up at me with a sly grin. “Nice job of staying on,” she said.

Riding and writing have much in common.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

Composing a Writer #6. Writing for Readers

It’s a moment of exquisite anxiety. The kind of anxiety that’s prickly and blunt at the same time, and you can’t see around it. One word at a time, it’s been an act of faith that you’ve come this far. You retreat, change a word here, and alter some punctuation there. You’ve lost count of the number of edits. You’ve edited the edits. To kill some more time, you read it aloud one last time because it’s easier than worrying about what people will think.

Who gave you the right, anyway? In a world of real authors who have valuable things to say, and the schooling and creativity to say them well, why do you even try? Who do you think you are?

Silence. Then you hear a tiny voice that cracks and wobbles. It’s you, saying something that sounds awkward and defensive, even to you. Breathing is shallow as your hand moves to your mouse. You stare as your cursor moves across your computer screen. It pauses, hovers, and goes still. You’ve been here before. It’s hang-time …then a conscious choice. Click. Publish.

In lieu of a fist pump and victory dance, you stare sullenly at the screen, considering another edit.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

This is our sixth week writing together. I hope new habits are gaining strength and your writing is pulling you in. Writing isn’t mystical or romantic; it’s a choice. This week let’s check in, and recalculate our position, and ask ourselves if we’re headed where we want to go.

Do you want to write for yourself or for others?

Maybe some of us gave it a chance and discovered writing isn’t what we thought it would be. If you can lay down the dream with no regrets, consider that knowledge a win.

Maybe writing is something you enjoy doing for your own purposes. Does writing clarify your thoughts and tell your story? Keeping a journal is a time-honored art form used for self-discovery and creating a legacy for your loved ones. Maybe journaling is perfect for you. Let it be.

Perhaps your writing isn’t as clear as you’d like, so you’ve been “googling” writer’s blogs and even checking out writer’s conferences. There’s information available to writers –like daily prompts and articles about improving your technical skill and word choice. In the beginning, my ideas out-ran my skill set, pronouns got confused and when I read my writing aloud, even I couldn’t tell what I meant. There’s no spell-check for confusion and run-on sentences. Maybe you’re honest to say you want to linger and improve your writing skills before you move on. Wonderful investment!

While I continued to study the art of writing, listened to authors speak every chance I got, and most of all, let myself be inspired by the writing of others, I still wanted more. It was time to start making friends with readers. In other words, time to get verbally naked in public.

My first published piece started out as a bittersweet joke in 2010. I was pouting about my good horse’s forced retirement. As a dressage competitor, I received the United States Dressage Federation’s monthly magazine, where the back page was devoted to stories from readers. I noticed that there was always a small photo of the author with the byline. I submitted a story that barely mentioned my horse, it was accepted, and when they asked for a photo, I sent one with my gelding lurking over my shoulder. That was the win; his photo in a national dressage magazine.

There was a book lurking over my shoulder as well, but I knew I wasn’t ready so I started a blog. I gave myself deadlines that I never missed –twice a week for the last seven years. I kept a list of possible topics, but beyond that, each post was a writing assignment to describe something hard to describe or to write something humorous or poignant. I took my writing seriously. I practiced.

It took all my courage to ask my friends to follow my blog and for a couple of years there were just a handful of readers. I posted on blog sharing sites, like Barnmice, and finally got brave enough to share it in board daylight on Facebook. I knew no one wanted to read my words because who did I think I was. I shared anyway.

This week: Congratulate yourself on the writing you’ve done. If it’s time to let go, celebrate your discovery and take guiltless flight to your next adventure. If your writing is gifting you with understanding and self-esteem, then journal it out! Let your words lead you on.

If your writing practice has inspired you to want more, consider going public and start making friends with readers. Write an article. Start a public blog with a deadline schedule. Begin an outline for your book. If you’re uncertain about your next step, choose the scary thing. This week make up your own writing assignment.

And then let us know on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Celebrate the dream and tell us how you’ll start cutting it into bite-sized pieces. Write on!

When I talk to writers, lots pooh-pooh blogs as the ugly step-child to real writing. I counter that if readers won’t read your words for free, why would they ever buy a book?

With gratitude, I owe everything to my blog readers. They encouraged me in the beginning while I found my words. As my writing gradually improved more readers discovered me. The blog growth gave me the confidence to start my book, Stable Relation. In turn, when the book writing got sticky, the positive comments on my blog lifted me up. There was a snowball effect; the more I wrote, the more I wrote. It was an unexpected and empowering gratitude cycle …and once that baby starts rolling, anything is possible.

I don’t know if there’s an avalanche of good writing in your future, but I do know this: It’s your choice.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

Composing a Writer #5. Write Long, Write Short

Edit Mad dog

As soon as I escaped, I started writing poems. I was barely eighteen and living four states away from my complicated family. I struggled with depression and love poems were out of my range of experience. I was all teen angst: Walking at night, soaking in self-loathing, and alone in a city. When I did speak, my words cut to the bone with truth and rage. I wasn’t much fun to be around.

Luckily, I’m an introvert, so I wrote it out for hours at a time. My words built a cage for my monsters. In a while, I felt safe enough to sleep through the night with the help of a few good dogs.

Writing is therapy and some of us need it more than others. I was fine with that. Somewhere in the process of distilling an experience into words, I found a bit of sanity for a few hours. And poetry forced me to whittle huge thoughts into mere paragraphs and then dissect to the heart of that.

Poetry is editing in the extreme. 

Of course, I knew poetry was as foolish as wearing underwear-hats. Too self-absorbed, too elite, too obscure.

My self-doubt created a literary character who had a habit of publicly reading her embarrassingly lame poetry, to the chagrin of her friends. I bite my tongue for her to this day. The character out-lived that book outline and she’s still here, poking me to write poems while heckling me for being a dolt. Have I mentioned that I think too much?

I attended a book talk given by author Michael Ondaatje a while back. He won the Booker Prize for The English Patient, but has published numerous fiction, non-fiction, and poetry books. His autograph table in the lobby looked like an entire library. When asked about that genre range, he said that prose opened the door to poetry and then, in turn, poetry informed his prose. He continued to answer questions eloquently while my brain stalled, grasping at the idea. What if all my words worked together instead of being contained in separate categories that name-called each other? It seemed obvious in hindsight.

So with absolutely no acknowledgment, for fear someone would notice, I started posting blogs where I edited 800-900 words out. The other word for that is poetry.

[A reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made, with writing exercises included. It isn’t that I think I’m an expert or that my book sales have bought me a second home. Or even a second bathroom in this home. I’ve just had such a great time and sharing it serves as a thank you. Friend me on Facebook if you’d like to be part of the online group. We work on the honor system; participate as you like. Writing is common sense; you’ll get about as much out of it as you put in.]

This week: The assignment that never changes… write. Write like the wind, write like thunder, write like the desert. Write because writing improves the quality of ordinary thought and we become more interesting to own ourselves.

There are general guidelines on word count for most genres. Books should be about 80,000 words, give or take. A plot should run tight and hot. Longer manuscripts are frowned on by the book industry. The assumption being it’s badly edited; that it rambles or has superfluous characters. The generally accepted length of a blog is around 600-800 words to rank well in the search engines, and not over 2500 words. Blogs are considered short form writing and should be crafted to stay on topic and hold the reader’s attention. Briefly.

Look at both word count and word choice. If it isn’t important, edit it out. If it’s a good turn of phrase, save it for later writing, but hack away now. Be strict. Be heartless. Train yourself to only use your very best words. Then edit most of those out. Shorten redundant sentences and leave something for the reader to be interested in following. Then remember the only difference between editing a blog and a book is that you relentlessly chop and hack for thousands of words longer.

The best reason to exercise your edit skills is that there’s a secret task up ahead. The very hardest part of writing a book isn’t the first 80,000 words. It ends up that’s the easy part. After that you need a blurb. The damned blurb. You’ll need one that’s 500 words and another at 250 words. Then, almost impossibly, one about 100 words long. Finally, you’ll need the hardest piece of writing in the world: A blurb for the back cover; a precious few life-or-death words to entice a reader to cross the line and read it. My blurbs have taken me weeks and weeks to write and I’m not alone. Start flexing those editing muscles now. I could write a book… The Angst of Reduction.

This week’s assignment is to write long and then write short. Begin a reduction. [Wiki: In cooking, a reduction is the process of thickening and intensifying the flavor of a liquid mixture such as a soup, sauce, wine, or juice by simmering or boiling.] Write a longer piece and then edit it in half. Then boil that down to a sentence or a poem. Twenty words or so.

Then post on the Writing Herd FB page. Share this assignment or your feelings about this assignment, or anything else you’d like. We’re your readers.

So… in this series about writing, I try to give an example of what I mean in each post. Here goes:

I write about life, using horses are a parable. There are three books now, several hundred blogs, and lately, I try to sum it up in even fewer words.

Go the distance.
Do it with grace or do it ugly,
because some days
that’s what your best looks like.

It only matters
that you go the full heart distance.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #4. Why Words Matter

 

She’s been my friend for decades. That was me at her daughter’s birthday party, singing and tap dancing in a rented Big Bird costume. She came to all my weddings. We’re chosen family but we almost had to hate each other in the beginning.

I met her husband first; I was a goldsmith and he was a diamond dealer, capable of witty banter. Business calls collapsed into lightning fast quip-fests and I fell in love with his words. He told each of us about the other and we’d exchanged cautious greetings on the phone. We set our first meeting; he’d bring her to an art opening I was having, promising her on the way that she could have any piece of mine that she wanted. We were in our mid-twenties and feigning maturity. But it was an art opening and I already felt awkward and socially intimidated and fearful about my work. In other words, I was desperately feigning.

My best friendships have all started with love at first sight. Yes, I saw her across a crowded room. We were physical opposites. She was petite and golden, with rich olive skin, glossy dark hair, and sparkling eyes. She wore a bold yellow sundress and strappy rainbow-colored shoes. I probably stared. As her husband introduced us, my throat got tight with all the things that mattered.

“Nice shoes,” I blurted out. I might have sounded sarcastic. 

[A reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made, with writing exercises included. It isn’t that I think I’m an expert or that my book sales have bought me a second home. Or even a second bathroom in this home. I’ve just had such a great time and sharing it serves as a thank you. Friend me on Facebook if you’d like to be part of the online group. We work on the honor system; participate as you like. Writing is common sense; you’ll get about as much out of it as you put in.]

It’s trite to say words matter –especially to writers. We know that words hang in the air forever. We even hope some of those words are ours.

When we first began reading, it was a storybook before bed or a Dick and Jane primer in first grade. We sounded out words in syllables, puzzling words into sentences until a story formed with the help of clues –pictures of dogs and bicycles and school houses. It was a big deal to graduate to “books with all words.”

Learning to write is a lot like learning to read. In the beginning, we’re a bit stilted. Writing is a puzzle and we’re still sounding out words. If things seem too complicated to describe, we might over-simplify in an effort to be understood. We don’t quite trust the reader. It’s easier to just tell them what to think rather than write in a way that invites them to come to their own conclusions. It’s complicated enough to make you nostalgic for a time when things were black and white. The other word for that is boring and flat.

Writers are hoping to hook the reader with confident prose, while we hide behind the words, teetering in a flop-sweat about our personal literary issues. We want it to sound so casual, so normal, knowing we only have a sentence, or at most a paragraph, before the reader will move on to something more interesting. Ouch.

On a good day, we try to see that word/time/challenge as an opportunity. Storytelling is an art that we practice. There’s the way we write now and the way we hope to write eventually. We’ll need to collaborate with readers to get there.

This Week: Continue writing every day. Let your words flow without judgment. Let your words be so abundant that you throw them about wantonly, littering the entire page. Be fluent in choice and quantity and imagination. This week write something out on thin ice. Tell a story and let the reader know more than you do. Describe something hard to describe. Let a scene have an emotional runaway. Write something with images and no dialog. Write something with dialog and no images. Write in a way that the abstract is as plain as furniture. Write about vulnerability and let your vulnerability show. Challenge yourself to be clear and still trust your reader to connect the dots.  This is an open assignment; latch onto any of these ideas and follow it to other ideas. Be surprised where you land.

Then post on the Writing Herd FB page and share something you’ve written or your feelings about this assignment, or anything else you’d like to share. We’re your readers.

As for my friend, we’ve shared our lives that way women do. We bore witness for each other with humor and love and tears. There are words that will hang in the air, and stay in our hearts, because we survived that first awkward collision and kept on trying. Nice shoes, indeed.

 

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro