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Writers and their Superstitions

Writers and their Superstitions

I used to work as a union gaffer (lighting), scenic artist, and makeup artist. The entertainment field is full of superstitious people. I remember all the superstitions associated with stage work like don’t whistle on stage. Actors telling each other to “break a leg” before a performance supposedly leads to good luck and a fine performance. Leaving a single lit bulb upstage center when the theater is empty is meant to ward off mischievous spirits. Anything associated with Macbeth, especially saying the word “Macbeth” in a theater, will lead to disaster. It’s the curse of Macbeth. Don’t leave peacock feathers or real money on stage or actors will forget their lines and set pieces will break.

So I wondered, what kinds of superstitions do writers have?

I don’t have any myself. I have a schedule I like to adhere to but if I miss a day or don’t start at a specific time each day I don’t panic over not being able to write. I don’t have a lucky pen or statuette or piece of clothing I must wear. Some famous writers had some downright bizarre superstitions. The closest I come to a superstition was keeping the cats away from my laptop because I was afraid they’d delete my files. That’s not really a superstition. That’s being practical.

Here are a few examples of famous writers and their superstitions:

Isabelle Allande – Always starts a new novel on January 8 because that’s the date she began her first novel, The House Of The Spirits.

John Steinbeck wrote his drafts in pencil. He kept 12 pencils on his desk, all perfectly sharpened.

John Cheever put on a suit, took the elevator with other men who were on their way to their office jobs, and he would get off in the basement. Then, he’d take off his pants and write. He said it was more comfortable.

Truman Capote refused to begin or end a work on a Friday. He also wrote lying down.

Mark Twain, George Orwell, Edith Wharton, and Marcel Proust also wrote lying down.

Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Philip Roth, and Charles Dickens wrote standing up.

Alexandre Dumas wrote his poetry on yellow paper, his fiction on blue paper, and his articles on pink paper

J. K. Rowling refused to title a story until after it was finished.

Carson McCullers wore her lucky sweater whenever she wrote.

Friedrich Schiller, friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, couldn’t write without the smell of rotten apples around him. I have no idea why. That one is just weird.

Superstitions have always struck me as a bit foolish, but sometimes I fall prey to them. For instance, I won’t walk beneath a ladder not so much because I believe it’s bad luck but because I’m afraid a full paint can will fall on my head and crack my skull in two. That sounds like very bad luck to me. When I was a kid and mad at my parents I would step on every crack in the sidewalk, but no one’s back ever broke. I knock on wood because I think it’s a great way to accentuate a point.

Then again, a ladybug just flew into my hair. I’m at a writer’s retreat in central Massachusetts, and I’m working on this article in a bedroom with a beautiful view of the snowy outdoors. I’ve attached a picture of my view to this blog post. How a ladybug survived the winter is beyond me, but I know they’re good luck. I’ll take whatever good luck I can get. Ah, wait, another one flew by! I feel especially lucky right now

Rather than superstitions related to writing I have rituals. I always must have something to drink nearby – most often coffee, hot tea, seltzer water, red wine, or especially champagne. I sometimes must have music on or I can’t concentrate. Other times, I need quiet.

Are you a superstitious writer? If you are, what quirks do you have that help you express your creativity? What do you do to keep disaster or writer’s block from happening?

Elizabeth Black writes horror and dark fiction as E. A. Black. Friend her on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter. Visit her Amazon Author Page.

Editing – from Soup to Nuts: An Indie Experience

Editing – from Soup to Nuts: An Indie Experience

If I had traditionally published my books, the publishing house would have assigned an editor to me and the whole process would have been mapped out, complete with details and deadlines. But as an indie, the editing ball was in my court just like every other aspect of bringing my books into the world, and I had quite a learning curve. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way about finding an editor, working successfully together, and navigating the multilayered, and sometimes intense, editorial process:

Understand what kind of editing you need.  

Good editing can make indie books look indistinguishable from traditionally published books. But if you’re new to the business, or working on your first project, you might not know that there are different types of editing, or understand what kind of editing your manuscript needs. When choosing an editor, understand what services that editor provides. This may mean hiring more than one person.

The first type of editing is developmental. I think of developmental edits as  big picture edits. I’m too close to my manuscript when the last word finally claws its way out of my overtired brain and onto the paper. I can’t see plot holes, character issues, places where the writing drags or where something doesn’t make sense. Skilled beta readers or a trusted critique partner can help with this, and so can an editor.

Once all the major issues have been solved and readers are responding to your story and characters in the way you’ve intended, it’s time to fine tune and hand over the manuscript for a copy edit. A copy editor will assure consistency throughout the manuscript. For example, I have a Jon in one of my books, and I would periodically spell his name John. A copyeditor will also catch overused words or phrases, correct grammar mistakes, and essentially polish the manuscript.

Finally, the manuscript will need a proofreader to give it a final look before publishing to find typos and small mistakes. I always proofread one last time after the proofreader, but that may just be my obsessive personality at work!

Use referrals to narrow the search for an editor.

Now you’ve got a handle on the different steps involved in the editorial process, and you know what your manuscript needs. How do go about finding the right editor? There are a ton of free-lance editors out there and it’s hard to sift through all the information.

I rave over my editor. I tell anyone who asks what a find she is and I regularly give out her contact information. When a writer loves their editor, you’ll know it, and an enthusiastic referral is a great place to start looking. Ask people in your writing community and on-line writing groups who they recommend, and then reach out.

Interview a few different people.

Ask these folks to edit sample pages of your manuscript to see what kind of feedback they give and how they deliver that information. Find out how they like to communicate and ask about their process. Does their style resonate with yours? Do they enjoy your genre of writing? What does their turnaround time look like?

When you hire an editor, due diligence upfront is important. Your work together will be a business arrangement certainly, but it will also become a trusted relationship, and you’ll want to make sure this partnership is a good fit.

Recognize that editing is different from drafting, and honor your process around it.

You’ve found someone to work with and you’re eager to get started. So, what’s all the fuss you’ve heard about editing? Why do writer’s lament this part of the process, wring their hands in angst, scream with frustration, cry into a bottle of wine?

Okay, so maybe all writers don’t do these things! But for me, and for many of my writer friends, editing is a different animal entirely from creating a first draft. And when I say this, I’m now referring mostly to the developmental editing phase. Drafting a novel fills me with creative energy. I lose myself in a world of my own creation and fall in love with my characters. Sure, I may get stuck in a plot tangle, but the overall writing experience is joyful.

Editing is different. On the one hand, the bones of my book are in place. I know where I’ve started, where I’ve ended up, and I have a lot worthwhile material in the middle. I know I have a good story and there’s relief and satisfaction in this. On the other hand, once I’ve turned in the draft of my manuscript after months of intensive work, I don’t even want to think about touching it again. I’m exhausted, and the idea of tearing it apart and reassembling it is daunting.

So, I have to honor my process and emotions around this. Here are some tips for making it through a developmental edit with your love of writing still intact:

  • First, celebrate the accomplishment of finishing the first draft! Without a first draft you have nothing. But now the story is out. Good for you! I admit to popping a bottle of champagne in celebration within moments of typing the last word. Then, I send the draft off to my editor. While she’s working on the first round of developmental edits, the manuscript gets shelved while I gain some distance. I’ll actively work on another project during this time period, basking in the glow of my achievement.
  • Recognize that it’s really hard to have your work critiqued, even when the edits are spot on. Although I know what’s coming, I’m never quite prepared for the emotional stress I feel when I receive a five-page editorial document filled with commentary, and my own manuscript covered in red ink. To be honest, I want to cry – maybe into that bottle of wine! I want to call my editor on the phone immediately and beg her to tell me she loves me and that I’m not a horrid writer. I’m sure she’s pleased when I refrain from doing this.
  • Take time to process the critique. Once I read what she’s sent me thoroughly, I put the manuscript aside again for a few days, maybe a week. I let the ideas percolate. I begin to see that what she’s suggesting resonates with what I already knew. I take it seriously when she reacts to something in a way I didn’t intend. I recognize my own bad writing habits.
  • Allow the creative process to re-ignite. Once I dive back in to writing, creative ideas for how to fix things start to flow, in the same way they did when I wrote the draft. I scribble notes everywhere, from the backs of napkins to the little pad I keep by my bed for middle of the night inspiration. I form a plan of attack. Then I call my editor. We talk. We even laugh. And I get to work.
  • Recognize editing can take more than one go around. My editor and I will go back and forth, sometimes with a round of beta readers working on it in between, until we are both satisfied that content-wise this book is ready. Most of the work I do with my editor is developmental in nature, but she is very meticulous, so by the time the manuscript goes to the copy editor, it’s quite clean. We still both believe that extra set of eyes is important though, because at this point, we’ve both looked at it so many times we know we’ll have missed something.

My editor has become a trusted partner in my publishing journey. I know if something is bothering her, I need to pay attention. Likewise, I know that when she says my book is ready, it’s ready. She gives me confidence to move forward when it’s time, but also honesty when my work isn’t quite polished yet, and as an indie, that’s invaluable.

Editing is daunting, there’s no question. But understanding what the process entails, how you personally need to deal with it, and finding a trusted professional to work with makes all the difference.

So You’ve Completed NaNoWriMo

So You’ve Completed NaNoWriMo

NaNoWroMo CrestNational Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is all about getting creative writers motivated to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, is a few days behind us, and I’ve already seen a few participants crowing about meeting their goal — which they should, because writing 50,000 words in a month is no small feat.

If you’re among the NaNoWriMo winners, good for you.

I mean that. Whether you’re doing this for the first time just for the fun of it or you’ve always wanted to take a serious crack at becoming a novelist — via traditional or self-publishing — and you’re using NaNoWriMo to light a fire under your ass and finally get it done, I hope you found it an exciting and rewarding experience.

Now comes the “however” part…

I’ve known a few people who did in fact attempt to parlay their NaNoWriMo product into a published novel and failed hard, and what I’ve gleaned from their efforts is they made a critical mistake of thinking that once the novel was completed, all they had to do was run spellcheck and that would be it — their novel was finished.

No. No no no. Your work has only just begun.

First of all, your story might not actually be finished. If your larger goal was to produce a proper novel, you probably still have some writing to do. Depending on your genre, 50,000 words might only be a novella — which isn’t a bad thing, and maybe 50,000 words is the right length for the story you’re telling, but if you plan to seek an agent or traditional publisher for your work, you might want to think about going beyond 50,000 words.

This piece by Chuck Sambuchino is a great reference for defining novel lengths, and you’ll see that once you start writing for any adult market, 50,000 words isn’t going to cut it as a “novel.”

But let’s say you have produced a finished work. If November was National Novel Writing Month, December should be National Novel Revising Month. This is when you take your finished first draft, read through it, and recoil in horror at how truly unfinished it is. You’re going to find spelling errors, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, continuity gaps, plot holes, inconsistent characterization, clunky dialog — all manner of major and minor screw-ups. Suddenly, the literary masterpiece you think you wrote will turn into a steaming pile of crap that will make you doubt your talents as a writer.

Welcome to the world of writing.

First drafts aren’t about producing a finished work; it’s about getting the ideas out of your head and onto the screen. Second drafts are about replacing or scrapping entirely everything that’s wrong with the story and strengthening everything that does work. Since you’ve given yourself a month to do this, take your time. Go through the manuscript a few times and keep fine-tuning it.

No, you’re not done yet, because January is National Novel Test-Reading Month. This is when you send your manuscript to some trusted friends to look it over and tell you what they think. Four to six people is a good number of beta testers, but make sure you choose people who will be brutally honest with you. You don’t want their praise, you want their criticism. You want them to tell you what still isn’t working so you can fix it in February, which is National Novel Revising Month – The Sequel.

Don’t undersell the importance of this step. By now you’ve gotten a little too familiar with your novel and aren’t seeing a lot of flaws anymore. Outside eyes will catch the problems that have become invisible to you.

And don’t dismiss this as “art by committee.” Just because your readers make suggestions, you’re not obligated to heed them — though you’d be foolish to ignore them out of hand. Think about their critiques long and hard before you make a decision one way or the other.

While the book is out with your test-readers, you can consider whether you want to try and pursue a traditional publishing avenue or go the indie author route. Each approach has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so consider what you need, want, and hope to get out of putting your book out there, and see which path fits better. Personally, even if you decide to go with self-publishing, going through the process of preparing your book for submission to agents and publishers is a good experience. It’ll help get you in a professional mindset, you’ll learn how to concisely describe your book and pitch it to a prospective reader — something you’ll have to do a lot as an indie author — and who knows? Maybe you’ll get picked up.

You can find an extensive list of publishers and agents in the Writer’s Digest market guide, along with many helpful hints for putting a submission package together. I’d also advise checking out the SFWA Writer Beware page, especially if you go looking at small presses. There are a lot of predatory small presses out there, as well as self-publishing platforms that falsely present themselves as small presses, and the last thing you want is to unwittingly give up the rights to the novel you worked so hard on.

If you decide to pursue indie authorship, this is a good time to start hunting down editors and cover artists — two things you do not want to skimp on. You want someone with a professional eye to review your finished manuscript for any lingering errors and perhaps make final suggestions for tweaking this and that, and you want a real artist to put together an eye-catching cover that will attract readers’ attention.

Services such as CreateSpace can help you put together a prefab cover that looks decent, and for little to no money, but if this what you choose to do, tread carefully, and never assume your skills as a graphic artist are sufficient to the task. Go check out to see what happens when a cover misfires if you need further convincing that hiring a professional is the right call.

Yes, these people will cost you money but it’s worth the investment. If you can’t pay for them out of pocket, crowdfunding may be your salvation — but again, do your research to find out what makes a successful crowdfunding campaign or you’ll hit a brick wall pretty fast.

Assuming you’ve managed to stay on schedule so far, dedicate March to preparing everything while your editor does his/her thing. Get your submissions list ready — or, if you’re self-publishing, make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with your chosen platforms, because preparing a novel for publishing is a major undertaking in and of itself. Write your cover/query letter, synopsis, and any other required submission materials. If you need to, go back into your manuscript and fix any lingering problems, even if it pushes your timeline back (unless you want to be embarrassed by putting out a novel that isn’t ready for public consumption).

Once all your ducks are in a row, once all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed, it’s time to face the scariest part of the process: pulling the trigger and actually submitting the novel to agents/publishers or releasing it via your chosen self-publishing platform. Trust me, it’s terrifying, but take the leap. The worst you can do is fail, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

There’s a LOT more to do once the book is out there — marketing, promotions, publicity, etc. — but that’s a dissertation for another time.

Final word of advice, which is admittedly a bit of a personal pet peeve: don’t use NaNoWriMo as a promotional point. I’ve seen self-published books that are pitched to readers as a “NaNoWriMo Award-Winning Novel,” but that’s perhaps the least impressive “award” you could claim. It doesn’t speak to your story’s quality at all, it just means is you wrote a 50,000-word first draft in 30 days, so don’t start out your career by slapping disingenuous awards on your book.