Outside Opinion

Outside Opinion

Okay, so 2020 wasn’t the best example to use for this post. I’m trying to be more optimistic for 2021 (yeah, I know – it’s a big departure for me). Or I’ll save time and point out that writers are no longer trapped by the need to print everything out and submit things by mail like we did back in the stone age. Therefore, the adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way” applies, and this post will still work.

Moving on.

If you’ve never attended a writers workshop – whether a standalone or as part of a con – you’re missing out. These little affairs are gold mines for writers. And that applies to writers of any type. If you look, you’ll find a workshop for ANYTHING. And COVID-19 or not, most of those workshops persevered this year, through Zoom or other mediums.

Most writing workshops follow the same format:

  1. You submit a manuscript you want critiqued.
  2. Everyone in the workshop reads the piece and writes up their critique.
  3. You spend the workshop going through everyone’s work, one at a time.
  4. When it’s your turn, you take copious notes (while keeping your trap shut).

Easy, right?

I’ve attended a couple of speculative fiction workshops, and the information I received each time improved my writing. I also found myself with new ideas. Not from the other people’s writing, but fleshed out of notes they were giving to each other. For instance, I’ve killed every prologue I’ve ever written. It’s where I first learned to massacre my adverbs. And the first workshop I attended started me down the path to writing more science fiction – simply because the overwhelming amount of fantasy presented made me realize there was an opening.

You’re in an environment with people who want to help improve your writing. Some have publication credits, others don’t. Some have attended other workshops, some are there for the first time. Everyone has a different background. At my last workshop, I was able to correct a medical fact for someone – something they had no knowledge of but that was commonplace for me. Little things like that matter, and everyone’s grateful for the insight.

Are writing workshops perfect?

Of course not. Humans are humans, after all. You’ll encounter people who are focused on themselves. I had several people who’s feedback consisted of, “I don’t read this genre.”

Gee, thanks.

I mean, I wasn’t a fan of everything I read, either, but I did my due diligence and provided concise feedback on everyone’s work. I felt it was owed as a responsibility.

I also had one guy who went on a long tangent that made no sense and had nothing to do with my novel excerpt. (Pretty sure he just wanted to hear himself talk)

It’s hit-or-miss. However, there were plenty of people who DID care and provided me with information I could use. And that was the majority. I also got to read some amazing writing. Writing I want to see in print. And I told those people as much. Getting to connect with writers is another perk of such workshops. You never know where networking might lead.

Putting your work in someone else’s hands is always nerve-wracking. You don’t know what they’re going to say. (Think about it – how much do your hands shake when you submit something?) But if you have an opportunity to make it BETTER, isn’t that worth it?

In my book, it is.

So whether it ends up being virtual again this year or not, I’ll be hitting Dragon Con’s Writers Workshop in 2021 – my second visit. And this year, I’ll have more confidence under my belt than I did before. Because I know that, even if my piece gets ripped apart, it’ll emerge better at the other end.

Take a look at the workshops for your chosen writing genre. Swallow that knot of fear. And pick out a piece to submit. You won’t regret it.

Writing Police

Writing Police

Screenshots of Grammarly

Pop Quiz time! Hands up everyone that has never made a single spelling or grammar mistake in their writing. Everyone with their hand up – go to the closest chalkboard or pad of paper and write 100 times: “I must not tell lies.”

No one writes perfectly – EVER.

It’s a simple fact of life. You misuse words, use the wrong word, overuse adverbs, slip into passive voice too frequently, get fixated on one word through a single paragraph, and go into comma overdrive. And while you review your work, it’s still your work. Since you know what’s supposed to be there, you overlook mistakes and miss things. It’s why writers use beta readers to catch those errors.

There’s nothing wrong with admitting the mistakes. We’re HUMAN. If you think your favorite author types out perfection, boy are you in for a surprise. Editors exist for a reason (and, no, it’s not simply to reject you). And even they miss things. It takes an effort of sheer will for me not to grab a red pen and start marking up some of the books I read. (Don’t laugh – I’m not the only person who gets that way)

However, there’s a line.

If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t hand in work that resembles The Eye of Argon. (Anyone who’s ever attended a Con knows that novella) Which means you need someone or something checking behind you. It also means having enough brains and maturity to admit you USE some kind of checker in the first place. You’ll gain more respect for the honesty.

Anything I write – be it work or fiction – gets a minimum of four reads from start to finish. (Yes, blog posts are an exception. You get these straight off the cuff) And, yeah, I catch things each time. Sometimes it’s just rearranging words or eliminating a sentence I don’t like. Other times it’s a mortifying realization that my brain checked out on me.

Fiction sits for weeks between readings, letting the story mellow and settle in my brain. Which was why when I went back to “Everapple” I realized my brilliant idea to leave the main character unnamed at writing made a confusing mess at the first re-reading. I had to scrap that “genius” and give her a name to untangle the confusion. Had I plunged into my editing immediatley, I wouldn’t have caught the problem.

I don’t have that same chance with work. I still catch problems, though. I also use Grammarly (and, yes, I sprang for the Premium version). You have the advantage of deciding the tone of your work, the level of your audience, and several other parameters. It’s a deeper check than the standard spelling and grammar review you get with your standard word processor. And it watches over your shoulder in EVERYTHING:

  • Word processors
  • Online (you can upload documents there, too)
  • Email
  • Even here in blogs

It won’t solve ALL of the problems for you, but it coaches you through most of them. Which is nice, since it builds your writing in a better direction. My initial articles leaned heavily on passive sentences. Since I turned to Grammarly, they rarely make an appearance. I naturally made the switch. It’s a subtle writing guide in addition to a checker.

However, Grammarly doesn’t get to touch my articles until AFTER I’ve completed the first two reviews. I trust myself over the AI, and for good reason. Grammarly is computer-smart. It does see things and pick up on errors I miss. It also goes off-the-rail crazy and tries to fix style choices and quirks that make my writing voice unique. It is, after all, a program. And if I were writing…okay, I’m actually not sure what I’d need to write to make it completely happy.

We get into arguments sometimes, which devolve into my screaming at the computer screen (always therapeutic). And it’s HORRIFIC when I try to use it with my fiction. Teaching Grammarly to tolerate pathos, alien dialects, and fantasical turns of phrase is an effort in futility. But it flags the things I’m worried about (to-be verbs, adverbs, etc.). It lets me tighten my prose between bouts of shaking my head.

Whether you adopt Grammarly or another tool, check your writing. And tell your clients you use the programs. They appreciate the extra effort you use to police your writing. It isn’t an admission of failure, it’s a mark of professionalism. And it saves them some time. They’ll still edit your work, but it won’t take them hours of sorting through your bad day.

And happy editors are GOOD things.

Running Log

Running Log

Screenshot of my Excel Tracker

If you decide you’re only ever going to write one thing in your life, maybe you won’t need this post. Just kidding – you still will. Plus, who wants to only write one thing? That’s just plain madness. Writers are infected individuals – consumed with a never-ending need to to create. And once our creations are complete and polished, we have to send them out into the world.

Which is where things get complicated.

Now, I spoke about my passionate love of white boards already. Frankly, I don’t know how I’d live without them. But they have their limitations. While a quick glance over my shoulder tells me where my short stories are right now (and how long they’ve been there), the board can’t tell me everywhere they’ve BEEN. Markets today have strict policies regarding submissions, and woe-betide the writer that fails to follow the guidelines. One of the biggest is that, unless they specifically request a rewrite from you, they don’t want to see anything twice.

While I have a great memory, it isn’t perfect. There’s no way for me to remember where every story has been. I mean, there are currently nine stories listed on my board, with more being written all the time. Recall where each one’s been?

Madness!

Asking my white board to do that is just as insane. (I’m not sure they make white boards that big). I also have personal essays, magazine articles, and novels to keep track of. While there’s some appeal to living in a house made of white boards, I don’t think my fiance’s is going to go for it. (Nor does he want to deal with the meltdown that would ensue if something got erased)

This is where Excel became my best friend. It took me all of five seconds to create a tracking spreadsheet. With one glance, I can see what genre a story is (newsflash: not every market takes every genre), the length, where it’s been, how long the response time was (helpful in case I’m considering holding out for a certain market), and my reference numbers. I never end up accidentally repeating a submission, I don’t accidentally send a simultaneous submission (some markets allow this, but most don’t), and I can see which markets have sent personal rejections over form letters. I log tons of valuable information for myself. All from a few minutes of my time.

And it takes no time to update!

Screen shot of the Market tab of my Excel tracking spreadsheet

Best of all, I keep a running list of markets. I know who accepts what, word limits, editor names (hint: never send a cover letter to “Editor” – use their name), and which markets are currently on hiatus.

Yes, setting up the Market tab took a lot longer. It’s worth it, though. I know when reading periods are. I know what restrictions are in place for various markets (i.e., must be clean, must contain a required science element, must have an animal, etc.). When I’m ready to submit one of my stories, instead of having to run through my bookmarks, hunting for a suitable match, I just consult the tab. (And, yes, I have the payment information right at my fingertips)

Wait – am I discussing organization again?

Of course I am! Organization is a writer’s best friend! You can definitely try to do everything by the seat of your pants. I wish you luck. When I first started, I just had file folders. And I wasted time combing through them, trying to figure out where a story had already been. I had to constantly read guidelines and search for markets. (Granted, this was also back when you sent submissions via snail mail) It SUCKED! I had to learn the hard way to be smart and make my life easier.

There are apps and programs available that do this for you, and you can definitely take advantage of them. Personally, I like Excel. I already own it, so it doesn’t cost me anything, and I can set it up however I want. As long as you find a system that works for you and keeps things on track, that’s what matters. You’ll be happy, I promise.

More to the point, the markets you’re submitting to will be happy.

The Modern Note Card

The Modern Note Card

Screen captures from Evernote

For those of us who lived through school without Google, there’s nothing quite like savoring the joy of shuffling our thoughts together via color-coded note cards. We were trained to think that way when researching, and a lot of us carried that training through to our writing (assuming you’re not an organic writer like myself). Character traits, plot points, scenes, quotes you dreamed up and didn’t want to forget: plunk them on a note card and then shuffle them into the appropriate order.

Nothing wrong if you’re still doing that!

However, if you have your own demon with a penchant for stealing note cards, I have an advancement for you: Evernote (available via the Apple Store and Google Play – and, no, I don’t receive any kickback from this). Evernote is the equivalent of those note cards, gathered into nifty notebooks, with the added bonus of being available to you 24/7. You can utilize the app on your computer (desktop or laptop) and your phone, so when you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, you can grab your phone and type/write it out without needing to find a light source (or, as I’ve done, attempt to decipher what you wrote in the dark). The image above is a screen capture from my story idea notebook, the handwritten scribble from one such late-night idea. Best of all, with one account, you can link both devices, and they’ll sync with each other.

Sometimes, technology gets it right!

On the research side of things, Evernote has a great “clip” feature which allows you to save website clippings – complete with the original page, in case you need to refer back to entire page at some point. This works beautifully for me when I’m doing research. Since each “Note” functions as a standard document, you can also format it any way you want (hello, color-coding?). I use it to keep my work documents organized by contract and then assignment, noting deadlines at the top, as well as any particular notes the client has requested.

Evernote has a selection of built-in templates you can access, including several geared toward writers. I’m not a personal fan of them, but you can create and save your own. For one of my regular contracts, I’ve done just that since the same notes apply each time. If you’re one of those writers that DOES prefer to plan, the templates are a great option.

Best of all, you can set up your own tags for each Note, making it easy to keep track of your work. So if you set up a Notebook for your novel, you can then generate Notes for everything you need within, from character profiles, to background profiles, to plot points, down to world-building details, and then use your tags to link everything together. You can also rearrange your Notes into whatever order you need, as many times as you want – the equivalent to shuffling those note cards around on your wall.

Evernote is really user-friendly, and while there are paid versions available, I’ve been able to function with the basic free edition quite happily. It gives me the organization I need for work, while also giving me somewhere I can scribble writing ideas down – without a risk of losing them (not to mention being able to decipher them).

A writer held responsible for their work is a writer that gets work done!

Color-Coding, Erasable, Visible – Oh, My!

Color-Coding, Erasable, Visible – Oh, My!

The two white boards I use for my writing life.

Behold – the greatest invention in the entire world! Yes, lasers and jellybeans, I mean the humble whiteboard. This little piece of erasable genius is pure perfection. If it weren’t for the fact that white is insanely boring and only meant for institutions, I could quite happily exist in a house made completely of whiteboards. (Side note: I promise my writing room is actually painted one color – just so happens the morning sun shines on one wall and not the other, so it looks like two in those pictures)

I use whiteboards for both sides of my writing: the work part and the fun part. I am an organization FIEND, and they’re one of the tools I use to:

  • Stay on track with my goals
  • Make sure I know where projects are
  • Leave notes for myself (I have a great memory, but no one’s perfect)
  • Plan out blog entries

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing, if you don’t have a visual representation of your goals somewhere you can see it daily, it’s harder to meet that goal. When it’s in your face every day, you find yourself with a greater drive to be able to mark the box – and the satisfaction of getting to do so is IMMENSE. Even if the box is minor – i.e., writing up to two Goodreads reviews or writing 1000 words a day. When you put an X or a check through that box, a sense of achievement/fulfillment comes over you.

Unless you only have one short story or novel that you are submitting – and if that’s the case, shame on you! – you need to know where your work is currently sitting and for how long. Things still get lost in this digital age, and editors/first readers aren’t infallible (they’ll be the first to admit that). While I do have an Excel file that has detailed records for every short story and novel (more about that in another post), being able to quickly glance at a whiteboard without having to pull up the computer is easier. It tells me where each story is currently at and how long it’s been there. It also tells me whether or not I’ve updated my Excel file.

I’d love to say I’m one of those people that never forgets anything – and if you’ve screwed me over or made me mad, I remember every word (not kidding). However, if I’m trying to remember where my can’t-possibly-forget-it hiding place is or didn’t-need-to-write-it-down item for the grocery list…yeah, no dice. Especially if it’s work-related, and especially because SOMEONE likes to steal my pen, the whiteboard becomes the catch-all for notes. (Thankfully, Tonks hasn’t figured out how to get to the whiteboard marker)

I do plan out my monthly blog entries – at least my weekly posts. I take time into crafting them, figuring out images and such; on my other blog, I take time researching quotes I want to use. This means setting out my schedule in advance so my brain has time to digest my topics.

Whiteboards let me do all of this, and then I erase what I don’t need and start again. Nifty, right?

And because I’m one of THOSE people, everything is color-coded. How else am I supposed to tell different tasks apart? How else am I supposed to tell different genres apart? It all makes my little organizational heart go pitter-pat.

I used to make do without the whiteboards, and things were more difficult. I had to turn the computer on (this was before my SSD – torture!), or I had to flip through a physical calendar to find things (I always had multi-color pens, so that wasn’t so bad), and trying to keep track of Post-It notes or scraps of paper – even without a tiny demon – never seemed to work well.

Now, everything is within a couple of steps, it’s easy to see, it’s easy to use, and I can add or subtract without a fuss.

It’s so easy, I added an additional whiteboard to help with the wedding planning…much to my fiance’s chagrin…um, “delight.”