Writing Tips

You *Can* Write While Depressed (but you don’t have to)

It’s almost funny how little I want to type this post. The thoughts are in my head, but the idea of full sentences is too much. You need to plan out the subject, verb, predicate. Have a snack. Vary sentence structure. Go on to Sentence #2. Consult Chicago Manual of Style as to whether you capitalize “sentence” in previous sentence. Find stills of Nicole Kidman’s hair in The Undoing, costarring Hugh Grant on HBO. Watch Practical Magic.

You guys, I made it to the second paragraph and even included a GIF! So what next? Right. Let’s see. The last eight months have been shit on a stick for everyone. Creativity can’t thrive in such environs. Or can it? Writers are supposed to be depressed, understand the inner workings of…something. All the greats were bozonkers! But there’s depressed…and *depressed*.

So, how does one shake out of it?

I really don’t know. No one does unless they’ve survived the 1918 pandemic. They didn’t have the same “therapeutics” or mental health resources as we do, so we shouldn’t complain. That doesn’t lessen the suckiness, does it? COVID-19 has been so long lasting, so global, epically shitty (I said it again, Mom). Forming new sentences seems at the bottom of our lists of needs, just below Sprite.

Even though the idea of writing strikes me as impossible, a few tools kick me further toward a butt-in-chair situation. I know I’m not alone in this, so I hope you can relate, and if not, never mind.

Helpful tips!

  1. Work while your spouse, friend, child, colleague, pet is working (or sleeping). My husband starts remote teaching at 6:30 pm, so that’s when I write. The sound of his voice lulls me into a relaxed state, which is how I can type this now.
  2. If you can’t write, read books or watch movies that are related to your story. Because I’ve been writing a women’s fiction novel (with twisty suspense), I’m reading about jewelry, Structuralism (I don’t really know what this is), Paris, New York…and lots of celebrity stalking. So if I can’t write, I can read until the wee morning hours and feel on track.
  3. Set a low, achievable word-count goal. For me, this is 1K words. Easy peasy. Even if it’s a pile of crap, as Anne Lamott says. Bird by Bird is a must read, btw.
  4. The obvious: Reward yourself often with things that please you. Wouldn’t it be funnier if I said, “Run at the wall headfirst until unconscious?” Seriously, I appreciate whatever makes my surroundings beautiful, like Essie nail polish. I take an hour to do my nails or watch a makeup tutorial. My husband likes to cook and go on bike rides. What do you like to do?
  5. Suspense-aholics: For months, I’ve been making the mistake of over-watching Snapped, Dateline, other types of murder shows. Pace yourself since the awfulness of crime can rattle your psyche further. Temper bloody knife-waving with a little The Office, Hallmark Channel (as much as possible), Ted Lasso, or dramas where the acting is so good it’s like a happy story.
  6. This is a hard one, and I promise I won’t buy another leopard print blouse or eat the rest of my “share” bag of M&Ms, but the impulse purchases and naughty food is a poor substitute for writing. Maybe on a Monday or Tuesday. And Wednesday.
  7. But if you have to spend the day in Michael’s getting fun beads for necklace-making, consider that there’s a book waiting to be written. You have all the time in the world, no pressure…but it’s there. Break it down into small steps. Make a promise that one day you’ll return to the extremely rewarding and not-at-all-challenging world of writing.
  8. And yet, no one can tell you what to do. Especially now. As South Park‘s Cartman says to his mother, “I do what I want!” Genius truth–Life is too short.
  9. Doomscrolling, not a word 13 years ago. While my grandparents faithfully watched The Love Boat and Fantasy Island with me, along with several soap operas, Grampa Smith said that it was a “waste of time.” So is Doomscrolling. Forget that, I love it too. But it sucks.
  10. Romanticizing past productivity and the evils of technology can be your depression-go-to–and you can also venture out into a semi-normal world and do something as ordinary and normal as filling out a ballot, which can lead to a desire to tell the world (which is officially writing). I love Mondays, so I set out today with my new sneakers (impulse purchase).

With so much change, there is much to be grateful for (and totally pissed about). Getting to this end of this post is my win for the day…and finally voting. However you strive for inspiration in these not-normal times, it sounds good to me. I hope you find little pockets of creativity and can share it with us–along with pictures of COVID impulse purchases in the comments.

Writing Tips

5 Ways to Outsmart the Editor

This past December, the list of “read immediately” submissions was longer than my winter scarf. We masochists love a challenge, especially if it involves staring at words. Reading for eons is a pleasure–not to mention my job.

I tackled this assignment because it was the end of the year and that’s what vacations are for. Open doc, read, make notes, decide yay, nay, or maybe. I got into a zone. Sometimes it took two pages or a whole chapter before I knew the verdict. After years of urging writers to focus on the whole book, not just the first three chapters, I’ve changed my mind. With our increasingly complex world of fast vs. thorough, we are in an age of just-get-me-through-the-door. On the traditional publisher path, here is what a writer might face.

I am a meaner reader than I used to be. It takes less time for me to decide if I want to keep reading, which is why I am now urging writers to pay extra special attention to those opening pages. Time is limited. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a new Cynthia Rowley sweater. It’s important that you grab an editor’s eye quick–and keep it. Read on, and don’t be distracted, not even by this.

Tip 1: Make that first paragraph, first page count, even if it drives you to eat twenty of these. Elmore Leonard has a helpful list of writing rules. Every little bit helps, right? I’m not a stickler, but weather descriptions are a bore unless you’re in an elevator and you have no idea what to say to your neighbor. And don’t be distracted by everyone’s tips, even these really good ones!

In this vein, if you start off with dialogue, it better sparkle like Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. No mundane comments, like “How does this dress look on me?” Start with a big moment, without throwaway lines. Instead of showing off a dress, maybe she sees a dead body on her doorstep; her test says Not Pregnant which is funny given the kicking in her stomach; as she walks down the aisle, she notices the man she actually wants to marry and he’s officiating the wedding…and you have no idea who your groom is. Or you can knock your reader’s socks off with irresistible points of view (Hello, every Kristan Higgins novel).

Tip 2: So I hear you detail your car. Do that with your first three chapters. Go over every sentence. Every word. Every feeling, movement, description, conversation. Is there balance and flow? Do you repeat “very” and “definitely” and “actually”? As your editor shrink, I suggest you and your book become intimately involved. Does your voice shine through? Do you find cohesion in your plot? This is the moment when you pare away unnecessary sentences, without going overboard. Bribe yourself with treats (candy, beer, cat nip) all the way through.

Tip 3: I love a romance checklist, though you can distill all advice into one question: Will your reader care? If you have those first three chapters the way you want them, have gone over them a million times, and you definitely feel, Yes, my reader (and future editor) will care, you could be ready. But read the next tip first.

Tip 4: Pretend you’re at a glamorous reading for your book. Your hair/makeup are perfect. You manage to appear scholarly and hip at the same time. You have the voice of Maggie Gyllenhaal or Colin Firth. Read your chapters out loud to an audience. As you listen, mark down parts that don’t sound right. Fix them! Read that part again like it’s your audiobook.

Tip 5: During writer/editor pitches, if the story appeals to me, I ask for the complete manuscript and a synopsis. So yeah, it’s better if your book is done. It shows you can write a complete book. But between us girls, you really should have those first three chapters polished and shimmering with wit. Readers like me will likely make a decision based on your beginning. If the writing is solid, she or he will eventually request the complete story. Send three chapters, synopsis and, while you’re waiting for an answer, get that complete manuscript in order.

Bonus Tip: Don’t worry that the editor has read so much and you can’t compete in the slush pile. You totally can! Even after reading 30 submissions, editors will keep reading if #31 is page-turning. We are professionals so we don’t reject an amazing story if we’re in a bad mood. A great book makes the editor forget the real world.

You made it through. It’s now time to work on the beautiful adventure that is your book. Do not click on this harmless yet tempting link.

I am waiting.

Writing Tips

Easy Romance Writing Tips

In the last week, I read 40+ submissions. You may not believe this, but I love reading slush! It’s not fun to walk in when you’re wearing new shoes, but slush is an oft-tarnished term that means a submission from the publisher’s general pile. What’s wrong with that? Publishers need submissions to survive, end of story.

As I was reading, I noticed once again (as I do with non-slush pile submissions) easy fixes for those about to submit. So, before I forget, here are items you can revise in your sleep.

Clean up your synopsis. Let’s get out of the way that you can’t write a synopsis to save your life. We know that already–though some of you are pros at crafting a summary of your book. One tip is to be aware of how many times you begin a clause with “When”. Vary your sentences. Even if you can’t write a synopsis, do try to write a good one. 🙂

A comma of direct address sets you apart. Pet peeve alert! In the last ten years, maybe more, the comma of direct address has disappeared from many submissions. I don’t understand this. Or I do, but it’s still infuriating. For love of the English language, throw in that comma. I won’t say that leaving it out will make me reject a story, but…

Open your story in the right place. Often, there is an abundance of setup in the first few pages, which bogs down the pacing. I’m more interested in the voice, the character’s point of view as he or she experiences a remarkable event. I don’t care that she’s driving to a scene or getting ready for a party. I don’t need to know what she’s thinking as she goes up the hill in her Honda Civic, wondering if she’ll encounter her mean ex. I want her to be examining the zombie’s body and realizing it’s her lost husband. Some good examples of openings: The Morning Show, Mission Impossible 2, and The Bodyguard (the one on Netflix, not the Whitney Houston one).

Monitor your use of And, But, Actually, Apparently, especially at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs. Even with writers I’ve worked with for decades, I have to strike sentence misfires. It is so easy to start a sentence with And or But or He or She. And it adds to the flow of your paragraph. But it winds up sounding repetitive. And lazy! And did I say repetitive? At some point, you will need to go over every single word in your manuscript (don’t leave it to the editors). Be brave in getting rid of those easy words or at least use them sparingly.

So your villain calls your heroine a bitch. Do you envision a man with a twisty mustache, too? Since I first began reading romance novels, I encountered this same bad person. Forty years later, bitch is stale and dated. In the real world, don’t you think your villain would call her something…I don’t know…hard-hitting? Better yet, give your evil mastermind a creative way to insult the heroine. Think of Hannibal, who knew exactly how to push Clarice’s buttons without name-calling.

That’s all I’ve got on this Sunday. Happy Writing and those who are Nanowrimo-ing, keep on rocking those words! You can do it.

Writing Tips

How to Spot Problem Areas in Your Story:

It happens to every romance writer. You have a polished piece of work in front of you, but you feel something isn’t quite right. Maybe you should go over it one more time. Maybe the editor will love it even though you kind of don’t. Does love matter if your book has great potential to sell? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Maybe you love your book but can’t let go of it. There are so many maybes, so many unknowns in this precarious world of writing Romance. Half the fun is the process, right?

Chances are, if you aren’t wild about your story, an editor won’t be either. Here are a few red flags you should address immediately.

You get bored while proofreading.

You’ve read this story a million times but your attention starts to drift around Chapter 4 and so you skip a few pages to get to the juicy part. Warning sign! Your reader will want to skip as well. Do something radical and cut those skippable pages. Think of an even more fantastic event to occur to keep the reader’s attention. Throw a monkey wrench into those wonderful plans you had for your story.

You don’t care that much about your hero and heroine.

Sally Smith and Matt Steel are nice people but you’re not wild about them. You might snicker behind their backs about how perfect they are. If your characters feel flat and uninteresting, we won’t like them either and will feel they are mannequins brushing up against each other for 250 pages. Consider what makes a person so fascinating. Who captures your interest in a powerful way? What are the qualities that you admire most? Or meditate more on those characters speaking in your head.

You beat around the bush.

Does the heroine really have to learn a new baby blanket pattern before she joins forces with the detective assigned to find her missing child? Do they have to make love before embarking on a mission to foil an arms deal? Some novelists can weave in those details seamlessly. If you want your characters to dine on a sumptuous dinner of mushroom risotto and duck confit salad, be sure that the meal adds to the story instead of delaying it.

Your characters are Chatty Cathys.

Matt and Sally just go on and on because writing dialogue is easy. It fills up pages. You watch a lot of movies and you just know dialogue. Witty banter can make a romance. Look at Hugh Grant–so good with the wit in Romance, but it only is fun on screen. In a novel, make your conversation count.

Your eyes hurt and you have “screen nausea” from staring at the computer.

It won’t help your book if you feel like you’re going to throw up on your computer. You need a break. You have a hundred pages to proof, are on a deadline but, you know, nothing is so important that you can’t take a day away from your work. Go for a walk. Eat chocolate and indulge in a guilty pleasure. Do something that has nothing to do with your manuscript. You’ll come back fresher and ready to tackle that last bit.

So your story has a few problems. Whose doesn’t? As clichĂ© as it may sound, it’s important for you to trust your instincts. If you didn’t trust them, you wouldn’t write. You write because you know you have a story and now it’s time for you to communicate it in the best possible way. Trust your gut, keep writing, tackle what you know deep down doesn’t work, take a break, and think about the joy a reader will get from reading your work. If you keep these tips in mind, you are well on your way. Happy writing!