Nitty gritty: tense and POV

Last week’s writing post led into a conversation about creative writing courses and how they don’t always teach the actual basics of writing. So I was mulling over what I could say about the subject without getting too bogged down, and how it might relate to my life, and … well, I’m currently shifting a novel from first person present tense to third person past, and I’ve got some Thoughts about that.

Tense

Some people have Very Strong Feelings about books written in present tense. (She sees the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretches out a hand.) The first time I picked up a book in present, I was thrown. We’re generally used to past tense, depending of course on genre and trends. (She saw the dog. The dog looked up at her. She stretched out a hand.)

Why I like present tense: it’s immediate. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen, either. They’re living through it and we’re trailing along over their shoulder.

Okay, granted, your character doesn’t have to be writing in past tense from an advanced age, meaning she clearly survived the encounter with the dog. I specifically remember reading Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David, which is told from Apropos’ point of view as an old man recalling his life, and thinking “Okay he’s going to survive everything” because clearly he already had. The tension there is in how he got out of all of those impossible-sounding situations, not if.

Depending on what genre you write, you might be more pressured to pick one or the other. The main thing, though, is not to mix them. (She saw the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretched out her hand.) If it’s present, keep it present. If it’s past, keep it past.

Here’s a fun thing about past tense, though. (Can you tell I’ve taught grammar before?) Take a look at these two examples:

a) He had a cat.
b) He’d had a cat.

The second one is further in the past than the first. Weird, right? If you’re writing in past tense, sometimes you need to reference things that happened before the thing you’re writing about – things that are even paster than the past. So, if he owned a cat when he was a kid, but doesn’t now, you might get something like:

Chris looked at the cat and wrinkled his nose. He’d had a cat once, but once had been enough.

In the moment of the story, he’s looking at the cat and wrinkling his nose. Before the moment of the story, he’d owned a cat. Cool, right? (Or weird and complicated. It’s okay. You can say it.)

POV

Point of view is when you decide where your camera goes. We’ll start with first, second, and third.

  • First person: I. This is when you’re deep in someone’s head. You can hear all of their thoughts without them having to say “I think” or “I wonder.” It’s just “Whoa, Jenna’s skirt’s a bit north of the knee” or “What the heck did that mean?” So your first person would be: I saw the dog. The dog looked up at me. I stretched out a hand.
  • Second person: you. This one isn’t very common outside of choose your own adventure books. (And don’t get confused – the book You by Caroline Kepnes is actually in first person. The POV is inside Joe’s head. He just talks to Beck in his head. A lot.) You saw the dog. The dog looked up at you. You stretched out a hand.
  • Third person: he/she/they. This one’s outside of everyone, and comes with more choices: how many of your characters do you want to follow around? Whose shoulder does the camera peek over? How many people’s thoughts can you hear? How often are you going to move the camera to follow someone else? They saw the dog. The dog looked up at them. They stretched out their hand.

I tend to think about POV as how limiting I want to be. If I stick to first person, then anything that happens without my POV character in the room can’t be shown. Will that work for the plot I’ve got in mind, or do I need to see some of that other stuff? Is there going to be enough tension that way, or does the reader need to see the bad guy getting up to something?

If I’m going for third person, then how many (or really, how few) people can I follow? Younger Me really, really loved pulling a Stephen King, writing up a few dozen characters, and then trying to follow all of them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. For multiple POVs, consider how quickly your readers will be introduced to them; how easily it’ll be for them to follow the switches; and make sure you don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene. (Jenny thought that was a bad idea. Jeremy wondered if it might work. That’s two heads, right in a row. If Jeremy is the POV character, he’s stuck with what he can see, unless he can read minds: Jenny wrinkled her nose, but Jeremy wondered if it might work.)

It can help me to color-code my scenes so I know which POV I’m following and how often I’m switching. Some books alternate chapters between two POVs; others jump all around and cue readers in with the character’s name as the chapter title. The important thing is to make it clear to your reader whose eyes they’re looking through and whose thoughts they’re hearing. Even if it’s meant to be the Mysterious Bad Guy chapter, make sure your readers knows it’s the Mysterious Bad Guy.

What can be seen? Who sees it? Who gets to think about it, analyze it, and interpret it for the reader?


One important thing to keep in mind in all this is that you don’t have to worry about it in the first draft if that’s going to trip you up. You can even switch tenses and POV partway through a draft if what you’d originally picked isn’t working. It’s not exactly fun to go through and change things into a different tense or POV, but it’s a lot easier than starting from a blank page. At least you’ve got the story down and a firm place to start.

What’s something you wish had been covered in creative writing class that nobody ever thought to mention?

What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Is it worth it? 

I was looking through 101 Author Interview Questions for some inspiration (and a distraction from my current writing to-do list), and came across this one. If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably already know how I feel about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but just in case …

First, what is NaNoWrimo?

At its strictest, NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That averages out to 1,667 words a day. You can’t start your novel until it’s officially November 1 in your time zone, and if you have to submit your final word count before the calendar ticks over to December. NaNoWriMo is also traditionally for new projects, partly so you’re not bogged down on trying to get it all “right.” The point is to get your first draft down. You can fix it later.

Traditionally it’s for fiction – single long works, since “Novel” is part of the name – but I’ve also used it for my nonfiction: drafting, revisions, editing, and proofreading. There are two “Camp” sessions in April and July that let you pick your own goal, but November (and 50k) is the main event.

What’s it cost you?

Nothing. You sign up for free and pick your screenname. Create a project – you can choose whatever filler title you want, or go all out and pick not just a title, but make a cover – and update your word count during November. Nothing happens if you don’t hit 50k. If you make it, you get sponsor prizes … and a first draft of a novel. Your own.

What are the negatives?

Well, November can be a busy month. You might get bogged down. Americans have Thanksgiving thrown in there, which usually comes with family commitments. And if you’re like me, you don’t pay attention to how many words per minute you write. Until I did NaNo, I had no idea where I fell along the fast vs. slow continuum. So you might not know how long it’ll actually take you to write 1,667 words.

There are lots of tips for time management floating around out there, specifically related to NaNoWriMo. Food prep, for example. Setting your schedule and taking advantage of even 10 minutes of down time. Following @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter for the prompts and the feeling that you’re writing along with other people. I’ve seen people talk about how they wear a special hat while writing to cue other household members into the fact that this is a Do Not Disturb time, especially when they don’t have a room with a door that can be closed.

I’ve also seen a lot of “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” Generally by people who wouldn’t dream of participating. And the thing is … you’re not going to turn around December 1 and query what you’ve written. What you’re doing is drafting, which is one very had and amazing step, but not the last one prior to querying. But think about it: you’ll have this draft by the end of the month, and you can’t edit a blank page. (Thanks, Jodi Picoult.)

What do you stand to gain?

Community. There are events during NaNoWriMo for everyone who’s made this commitment. You’re not alone. Other people are out there doing this too, struggling and succeeding and asking for advice. All 2021 events are going to be virtual, so check out the region closest to you to see how many writers there are and what platform events will be on. (I’ve been one of the co-leaders of the Michigan :: Upper Peninsula Region since 2012, and we’re on Discord. You don’t have to be a Yooper to chat – visitors are welcome.)

Accomplishment. Starting out is scary. Trying to write one word, knowing you have to somehow pull out 49,999 more to follow it. That you’re supposed to craft some sort of story, with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end. But every single word you write is one that wasn’t there before. Whatever you’ve got at the end of the month, you made all that.

Writer, know thyself. It’s not just a learning experience about getting the words on the page, but getting to know yourself as a writer. Do you like to frontload the month and get a ton of words down as padding? Are you a steady 1,667-words-a-day sort of writer? Does the panic of the final week make your word count jump? There’s also the chance to talk to so many other writers to figure out what they did, and whether it might work for you. How much prep work do you need? Do you do character sheets and maps? Or do you just wing it?

The thing is, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – Novembers and Camps – since 2010. The first half of Not Your Mary Sue is barely changed from my original draft in 2017 (so take that, “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” You’ll never know unless you try). I love writing, especially writing fiction, and the level of energy that happens during NaNoWriMo is just amazing. I get all antsy throughout September and October, wanting to start my novel but putting it off until my laptop clock tells me it’s officially November, and it just all builds up and floods out. I absolutely love NaNoWrimo, and if you’re looking for that nudge to finally write a novel, it’s totally worth it.

Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? Will you be joining me this year?

Do you always finish every piece of writing you start?

It’s a fairly common piece of writing advice. Neil Gaiman’s got a few quotes about it. For example:

Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.

Neil Gaiman

I general like Neil’s writing advice. We seem to have a lot in common. So, do I obey Neil and always finish everything?

I’m going to be optimistic and say “Not yet.”

Recently I found a CD of my fiction from 2000 through early 2007 and, out of over 70 files, maybe a dozen were “finished.” Call it a completion level of less than 20%. Or … is it?

A lot of those partial documents were attempts at what, in November 2010, became my first NaNoWriMo novel – a completed story. Each individual document is incomplete but, because I kept trying, I eventually completed it. How do I count that one?

In 2011, I stared a NaNoWriMo project that ballooned into a multi-part epic fantasy. I wrote 180k that month and then … stopped, both because the month was over and because I’d written myself into a corner. For over six years, that story was incomplete … until Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2018, when I’d figured out the ending and was able to finish it.

There’s at least one idea left on that CD that I want to revisit, so it’s still in the category of “not yet,” although … that still leaves a bunch of files that aren’t finished. And, at this point, that I don’t think would be worth finishing.

I’d say, like any rule, it’s a bit flexible. You can bend it. Finish things, yes, absolutely – if you never finish things, then that’s an issue. But it’s also okay to look at something, nod to yourself, and agree to put it aside for now. Because you’re not ready for this story, or because you need time to figure out how to get your characters out of this bind. It’s okay to set things aside for later. (The key here being the plan to indeed come back to it later.)

What I see when I look back on these files (from high school and college – go ahead and do the math) I can see both my determination to get it right this time and my acceptance that certain approaches just … weren’t working. The ability to sigh, hit save, take a step back, and try a new path in. (Note that “save” is an important step – save your work! You never know when your ideas will catch on again, or be able to see how far you come, if you get rid of all the evidence.)

There’s also a sense of seeing value in your ideas even when they aren’t working right now. The thought that it’s still worth pursuing, even if this isn’t the right way to do it. The fact that I even saved everything, all my half-pages and random ideas, means I figured I’d want to remember them. They might not be worth anything to anyone other than me, but … I count, right?

There are absolutely lessons you learn from finishing things that you don’t get from abandoning them, but the reverse is also true. Although again, when you save something and set it aside, remember it’s really “for now.” Keep up the idea – or maybe the polite fiction – that this, too, will be finished one day. Maybe all it takes is the right spark, and those can come out of nowhere.

Plus it can be fun to look back on who you used to be, as a writer, and compare it to who you think you are now. (Then check in again, another 20 or so years down the road …) Keeping the old files helps you map out your literary journey in a way abandoning them won’t.

And who knows – maybe some day you’ll finish that one idea that still hasn’t let go. It’s just not done … yet.

How do you approach writing? Do you finish everything you start?

“Do you actually write every day?”

I’ve got a writing buddy who’s working on his dissertation, and his coach just told him that writing every other day isn’t enough – he’s never going to finish it. She wants him to write every day. Well, every weekday, at least. We’ve been meeting two hours a day, three days a week, so we’re going to start meeting every weekday morning. Which is fine, because whether or not we’re zooming, I set my mornings aside for my own work, but my dad asked “Wait, do you actually write every day?”

The snarky answer is “Define ‘writing.'”

As a process, writing isn’t solely “putting words on the page.” It’s a necessary step, but not the only one, and usually not the first one for me. There’s reading, both nonfiction research and fiction in various genres; outlining; planning; editing (and deleting); and so on. Do I try to do at least one of those steps each weekday? Yes. Does that mean I actually do them? Not always.

But I do set aside the time for it. I’ve got a two hour block open for it. Some days I know it’s not going to happen, and I ignore it. Sometimes I work on the weekends. And sometimes I put in more than one writing session in a day. For me, two hours is the optimal amount of time: long enough for me to get into it, but not so long that my concentration wanes.

The more you write, the more you’ll figure out what block of time works best for you – and whether you can trust yourself to give yourself “days off” or if you need to be sterner and make sure you sit down and do it. (I set my own writing deadlines for my dissertation and could make myself stick to them, but my office mate told her advisor that she needed someone to take a firm stand and not budge. If you know which one of us you are, you can negotiate the tools that you, personally, need so you can finish a project.)

One of the things it’s taken me a long time to accept is that there are some days when even sitting here in front of the laptop isn’t going to get me more words. Days when I need to take a break and do something else. Days when that means recharging instead of avoiding. Sometimes it’s a shorter break, and sometimes it’s an “until tomorrow” break, but the important thing is that it’s only ever a break, not quitting. I set the next writing time in my mind and let myself ignore all writing things until then.

I also do my best to write down ideas as soon as they hit, whether it’s in my little writers’ notebook or on my phone. “I’ll remember it later” doesn’t always work, no matter how big the idea seems – write it down. Make a note. On your break times, this helps you get back to whatever else you’re doing. If you’re working on one project and a lightbulb shows up for another project, you can write it down and then get back to what you were doing.

Does “getting one good idea and writing it down” count as writing for the day? I don’t know, but that’s just one place where “Do you write every day?” gets tricky.

The thing is, when I’m working on a project, or even when I’m between projects, I’m frequently thinking about it. Letting it churn over in the back of my mind. Coming up with these ideas and scrambling to write them down before I forget. Piecing things together or figuring out a way through the latest plot snarl. Sometimes this happens years later – I only finished my 2011 NaNoWriMo epic fantasy in 2018 after finally figuring out how to wrap everything up – but hopefully it’s faster when I’m on a deadline. I’ll think about characters and plot bunnies from ages ago, either to work them into a current project or to see if I can actually do something with them.

But that’s not as easy to track. It doesn’t fit neatly into my two-hour block of time, and I don’t have a word count increase to show for it. Some people might label it “useless daydreaming.” But it’s still a necessary part of the process.

If I’m going to wrap it up and try a concise answer, I guess I’d say “Yes, I write every day, but it doesn’t look the same every day.” That’s not my process. It’s changed over the years as I develop and grow as a writer, but that’s who I am now: writing every day, even if “writing” doesn’t always look like writing.

What about you? Do you have a writing schedule? What works best for you?

“How much do you talk about a project while you’re working on it?”

This question can be approached from a few angles and is kind of hard to tackle, which is why this is the fourth first sentence I’ve written for this blog post. So let’s just dive right in.

Angle #1: I don’t talk about my WIPs (works in progress) because I don’t want someone stealing my ideas.

That’s the fear, isn’t it? If we share our work in writing groups or online, it’s not just the emotional vulnerability of putting ourselves out there. Plagiarism is real, and nobody wants to lose years of work to someone who swoops in and scoops our best ideas. So … do we just never talk about our work at all?

Angle #2: If I talk about my WIP, then I lose all the joy and momentum. Writing it feels like chewing my food twice.

If this isn’t you, then you probably know someone like this: they’ve got the backstories and world building and character design all planned out. They talk about it all the time. But as far as actually getting words down on the page and writing it … it’s not happening. Talking is joy. Maybe talking is less work. And once you’ve said it and gotten an audience reaction, what’s the point of writing it down for an audience you won’t actually see?

Angle #3: I don’t talk about my writing because nobody’s interested.

Maybe your topic’s too niche, or maybe you don’t have writing friends. You don’t want to talk about your WIP because it’s not a conversation – it’s just the other person waiting for you to run down so they can have their turn.

… or maybe a bit of all three?

I’ll say straight off that the people I talk to in real life get a lot more details about my projects than anyone online, possibly because of all three of these reasons. If all I tell you about my novel is “a serial killer kidnaps the woman he wants to write his bestselling biography,” we’re never going to write the same story. Even if you somehow stumbled across my summary on the NaNoWriMo website years ago and spent all this time working up your own version, it’s not my book. (And even that summary is pretty darn vague.)

But do I keep my WIP talk vague solely so nobody steals the idea? No. That’s not the only reason.

Part of it is Angle #2: if I already tell people all the interesting bits, what else is there? You’d know the climax (which should be, of course, the most interesting bit). You’d know who lives and who dies and how it all comes out. So … why read it if you’ve already been given the CliffsNotes version? Don’t people get those so they don’t have to read it?

And yeah, part of it is Angle #3: I know not everybody cares about my work at all, much less half as much as I do. I don’t want to bore people with long info-dumps. That’s not a conversation – that’s a monologue. So I’m careful even in person, when I’ve got body language and such to judge when someone’s attention wanders. (Here on my own blog I get to ramble as much as I want, I guess. You can always click away.)

There’s also another aspect to it. Maybe not a full angle, but at least a partial one: I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want to get all publicly hyped about an idea only to have the project fizzle out at a later step and never actually appear. I’m talking one of the later steps in the publishing process nobody wants to think about: contract signed, manuscript delivered, and still something falls through. Complete superstition, I know, but it’s still totally there for me.

So online I’m incredibly vague. In person, if we don’t really know each other, I’m the same level of vague: unless it’s been officially announced, I deflect. But, if you’re in my writing group, or if you’re my husband …

Yeah. They get the CliffsNotes. The questions. The rambling “I don’t know if x or y should happen” and “I’m thinking of killing Z.” The people who are there for the process get to see the entire thing – the excitement, the frustration, the internal debates. My writing group gets weekly updates because everyone gives weekly updates. They want to know about the comments I get back and how I’m either going to address them or argue against them. They’ve heard about so many manuscripts I’ve completed that will never, ever see print.

(They’ve argued that, someday, a library will want to collect all of my unpublished manuscripts and people will actually read them.)

So I guess the short answer is that, for most of you, I’ll talk very little about my WIPs. I’ll wait for official announcements and share exactly that much information. Which is all a personal decision about what feels right for me – you don’t have to do that part.

What I would encourage all writers to do, though, is to find community. In person, online, however it comes. Find the people who’ll celebrate each step of the process with you and who understand it – the ones who make you feel safe to share without prefacing something with “Okay nobody steal my idea seriously I mean it.” The people who’ll remember your characters’ names and ask if you’ve decided their fate yet.

I like talking about my writing, but mostly I just like writing it.

How about you? How often do you talk about your projects?

“Do you do more research for your fiction or your nonfiction?”

An academic friend of mine asked me this after my novel was announced. She’s familiar with how much work (a lot) goes into academic writing, and she wanted to know how fiction compares. It’s a good question, but I don’t really have a short answer.

My upcoming novel deals with a serial killer. Generally writing about characters who are nothing like you takes a lot of research. However … that is my research area. I’ve read true crime documents in the hundreds, from the cheap paperback, read-it-on-the-beach variety to textbooks used in training courses. That includes execution sermons from the 1700s, newspaper articles from the 1800s, the best-selling books from the 1900s, and Netflix documentaries from this century.

And that’s just the nonfiction. I also read widely when it comes to books generally shelved under thriller or mystery. True, there are some I put down before I finish them, but I still make it through most of them. (Usually I google the plot of something I’m not sure is worth my time, just to see if it’s worth finishing. Sometimes the twist or reveal makes me keep going just to see how the author pulls it off. Other times I put the book down because it’s the author playing with the reader instead of the characters doing the concealing – it’s a small difference, but a deal breaker for me.)

I picked up a lot of the true crime specifically for my academic side, but I generally want to just be able to enjoy my thrillers when it comes to fiction. I want a book I’m going to enjoy and want to finish because I care enough about how it’s all going to come out, whether it’s written “well” (whatever that means) or not. I want a story that’s going to pull me through to the end and then, only after I’m done, will I sit back and start to pick it apart.

(Side note: it kind of sucks making your passions into your research. You can’t just read things for fun anymore.)

So when I think about research for my fiction, I’m including not just the shelves upon shelves of true crime, but also all of those novels on my “have read” list. The novels don’t really feel like research, and the research is usually directed toward my nonfiction writing … but it all plays together when it comes to writing fiction about serial killers.

I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived so I don’t have to spend too much time figuring out the literal lay of the land or the sort of people who live there. I don’t need to look up “common Midwestern sayings” because it’s the sort of stuff that just comes out of my mouth, or to wonder about what sorts of restaurants are available to my characters. I’ll bring up the website and double-check the menu, but I already know where they’re eating.

I don’t usually stop in the middle of writing to look something up, but then, I also put off actually starting the writing for months at a time, letting things swirl around in my head. Not Your Mary Sue was initially drafted during NaNoWriMo 2017, in November, but I had the idea going since February that year. Instead of drafting on paper, I was putting things together in the back of my mind, examining them, and taking them apart, all the while reading things and adding to my general store of knowledge. I had a very solid idea of who my serial killer was – his motivations and his personality – before I sat down to write him.

So when I look back on it, the answer is “A lot. Seriously a lot.” That’s a ton of research I’ve been over and over, all sorts of words from both killers and authors, perspectives from killers to prosecutors to researchers to surviving family members of victims, all piled up and put into my writing. I mean, I wrote my dissertation on the history of written crime narratives in America and then came up with a situation where someone’s demanding his own written crime narrative. The two things can’t easily be separated.

So really, if you’re considering writing fiction, I’d suggest starting by taking a look at what you’re already reading and what you already know. The areas where yeah, maybe you need a little more exploration on some specific details, but you’ve already got the broad strokes handy. It’s not so much “write what you know” as “write what you’ve read,” especially when you’ve already done so much work to learn about your passions. Not every tiny tidbit of information is going to make it into a novel, but it can inform a lot, from plot to characterization to setting.

How about you? How much research do you do? Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both?

“Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product.”

You’ve probably seen that before, maybe in Helvetica with some sort of soothing photo background, but maybe you’ve never really thought about what, exactly, it means. How many steps go between a rough draft and a final product?

Short answer: too many, thanks.

Longer answer: let me walk you through it.

First, I have some sort of nebulous idea. Sometimes it just comes from reading and thinking about a topic. Other times I see a CFP (Call for Papers/Proposals) that gets me thinking in a certain direction. Depending on the deadline, I can remain at this nebulous idea stage for weeks or months.

Sometimes I do a little more research here, too, with my idea in mind. This can help it become less nebulous. This means another few weeks (or months) before I actually start to draft it. I might take notes, scribbling ideas or phrases here and there, but a lot of my pre-planning takes place solely in my head.

Then comes the first written thing: the proposal. I have to have a good enough grasp on the idea to get it boiled down to fit the required word count. This can be around 300 words for a conference paper or a chapter, or longer for a book proposal (which also includes a couple chapters), but it’s me laying out what I’m going to do.

It’s also the first time where my idea – and however much writing I’ve done so far – gets feedback. This is important: I’ve only really started writing the thing, but I’m already getting feedback. Someone else has already seen it and provided a nudge.

It’s also important to note that, at this point, I’ve got a complete outline. I know where things are going, and the people judging whether it’s an idea worth pursuing know it, too. If things get approved, I’m locked in.

Then, if I get the go-ahead, we get to the actual writing itself. Which usually looks like:

  • the first draft: just get the words on the page. Jump around that outline if I get stuck. Slowly narrow down the parts of the draft that still need to be written until I have to write the stuff I didn’t want to at first.
  • let it sit: put the draft aside after saving it in multiple formats, just in case, and don’t look at it for a while. Do more research if I found any gaps. Let it become as new and strange to myself as I can.
  • read it again: with multiple pens and my stamps at hand, I pick up a hard copy of my rough draft and go to town on it. I go directly for the weak spots. Sorry, Past Me, but this part sucks. So does this one. And this … well, it’s a mess. I color-code the issues and make a ton of notes to myself.
  • attempt to fix it: once the paper copy is covered, I’ll go back to the computer and start implementing the changes. I say “attempt to fix it” because yeah, sometimes new issues get introduced at this point, but … I try.
  • let it rest again: if I have time, I take another break. Try to make it strange and new and exciting again before I come back to it.
  • read through from the beginning, slowly: this is where I have Word read it out loud to me, and man, this part takes time. I’m looking for continuity, to see if the patches I put in totally stand out and need to be smoothed over, and also for any typos. Through, though, thorough … that kind of thing. I’m super nitpicky at this stage because it’s usually the last thing I do, mostly because the thing is due.

And now somebody else sees it. The whole thing and not just the proposal.

At this point the writing gets bounced back and forth multiple times between the editor, peer reviewer(s), and me. I get comments, make changes, and send it back. Get updated comments, make more changes, and send it back. I think the most times I’ve volleyed something is three, but I’m responding to multiple people at this point, in multiple roles. Trying to make them happy because, if they’re not happy, this isn’t going to get published.

Then there’s another break, on their end instead of mine this time. Time to twiddle my thumbs or get more ideas.

Some day, out of the blue, I’ll get proofs. Another chance to go over it line by line and look for typos or other issues that might have snuck in. If it’s a book, I’m also doing the index. And usually I’ve got a couple other people reading through it at this point in case I miss something.

And then – then – it gets published.

Phew.

I mean, I fall into the same trap sometimes – I want that first draft to be perfect. Polished. The absolute best writing I’m capable of producing. Even when I know all the steps that still have to come before it’s actually out there.

But your first draft is just … a draft. Something only you ever have to see. The thing you’re going to massage and tweak before handing it over to other people who will further massage and tweak.

Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s final product, and don’t compare your first draft to your own previous final products, either.

Do you struggle with this, too? Do you have any advice on how to keep from thinking this way?

How do you encourage a writer?

This has come up a few times lately, in different settings. One was a discussion with a mother of young kids who wanted to know how, exactly, I got to like writing so much. One was a question in an online forum about whether or not they should tell their friend about all the errors in a story the friend and shared. And one was on Father’s Day. They all kind of mush together in my answer.

The experience I can really point to as being That Moment comes from when I was 15 and writing my first long original fiction. I’d been doing some fanfic, but I had this idea for a character and a plot that just didn’t fit within any of my fandoms. So, not really knowing what I was doing (which was probably helpful in and of itself), I started writing my own story.

I don’t entirely remember how this next part started, or who suggested it, but it turned into me reading that day’s output to my dad each night. And he just … listened. He didn’t gush over it, and he didn’t critique it. He was simply consistently available to listen to me read my story. And the next one. And the next one. To the point where, when I went off to college and couldn’t read to him every night, I recorded myself reading my new one. Somewhere he has 6 CDs of a Rebecca Frost original audiobook.

It evolved from there to printed “zero editions” in binders and now it’s emailed files. He got a kindle so I could email him my stories as soon as I was done with them (rough plots and typos have never been an issue for him) and now reads them on his iPhone. Come November and NaNoWriMo, he starts asking me mid-month if I’m done yet.

We’ll talk a little bit about them, but nothing at length. No real critique. I’ve made him cry with character deaths (sorry …) and we’ve got a running joke about how poorly I treated my first male main character before I let him get his happy ending. We’re talking two decades of Rebecca writing her little stories (some of them not so little – I maxed out one fantasy epic at over 250,000 words) and sharing them with her dad when they’re done.

That’s been such a big thing: somebody who wants to read the next one. And if you’ve got a writing friend or kid, take notice: all it takes is the time for you to read it and say that you did. That’s it. Maybe point out a cool line or particularly emotional scene as proof.

That’s where the “Do I tell my friend her story is illogical or lacks depth or …?” question comes in. If someone hands you their writing and sort of awkwardly says they want you to read it, then that’s your job. Read it. Let them know when you did. If you like the person at all, let them know you’d like to read the next one, too. (Seriously it’s scary sharing your writing with someone. If I get anything less than “Let me know when you’re done with the next one,” you’re not getting the next one. And I’ll be shutting up about my writing around you in the future.)

The only time you should give feedback on someone else’s writing is when feedback is specifically asked for. “Hey, can you tell me if this plot is off?” Respond to the plot. “Can you proofread this for me?” Clarify that they just want typos and such and then only look at typos and such. “I wrote a novel about dragons. Would you want to read it?” Read it and let them know you did it. Maybe tell them what you liked about the dragons.

I’ve been a writing instructor. I’ve taught my share of college composition. I know you want to argue with me and say grammar and punctuation matter – and yes, sometimes misuses make things a lot harder to read. But, unless this is taking place in a classroom or as an agreed-upon exchange and critique, it’s not your job to teach your friend about the genitive case or they really need to research x. If they go to publish and keep getting things kicked back and ask you why you think this might be, then you’re being invited to critique. Otherwise you’re being asked to encourage.

We learn to write by writing. If we get quashed when we’re young, we’re not going to learn. We’re just going to stop.

It doesn’t take much to encourage a writer. Just a little bit of your time to show that you don’t think their stories are frivolous and stupid. And then, once they’ve written more and have been able to grow (and look back on that first story and wince and thing “You let me read you that and you still came back for more?”) you can have good things to say about what they write.

How about you in your own writing journey? Who’s been your biggest source of encouragement and support?

The curse of “perfection”

The other day I read a comment (about a knitting pattern, but it still applies) where someone said “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect.”

It wasn’t even an exorbitant amount of money. Just a very normal price for a knitting pattern. Probably too low, even, but we don’t need to get sidetracked into discussions of fair pay for designers. The part that’s stuck with me is this idea of “If I’m paying for it, then it should be perfect.”

Putting your writing (of any kind) out there for other people to read is a scary thing, because it means random strangers can pick it apart. Insult it. Post that they can’t believe they paid $X for this. Sharing your writing means opening yourself up to critique, criticism, and insults of something you’ve worked hard on, and done all you could to “fix,” but …

Errors happen.

Especially when your document goes from person to person and each is focused on perfecting one aspect of it. Your editor fixes your commas, maybe, but then once it goes into layout, you end up with a weird line division of a multi-syllable word. It’s not because layout wanted to introduce an error. Layout did exactly what layout is supposed to do. And hopefully you catch it in the proofs stage, but in the proofs stage you’re looking for errors and trying to build your index, working under a hard deadline.

I think it’s time for Gaiman’s First Law again:

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.”

Neil Gaiman

We’re human. All of us, no matter what our title or CV or reputation. We’re all trying our best to contribute what the process – and it’s a long, long process – needs from us so we can end up putting something in your hands. We read our own words so many times, trying to approach them from so many mindsets, that a mistake isn’t a sign of neglect. Everyone involved is doing their best and laboring over the document and reading so closely that yes, sometimes we miss something that a casual reader will think is glaringly obvious.

There will always be errors, and there will always be people pointing out errors. I guess my fear is that someone will read “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect” and then … never try. Never write something in the first place. If a complete stranger has such high expectations, never having met you, imagine how high your own must be since you’re fully aware of your own capabilities.

Have you ever heard this one?

A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.

old academic adage now apparently posted everywhere without an accompanying citation

Stop expecting perfection. Of other people. Of yourself. If perfection were a requirement, nothing would ever be published. We’d all be stuck in the pit of despair and red ink. Forever.

If your idea is going to get out there, you need to make peace with the fact that it won’t be perfect. (Whether you really want to make peace with the fact that strangers will communicate with you solely to point out errors is your own decision.)

There are some things you have no control over. There are some things you just have to let go. One of the first is others’ idea of perfection. And one of the second is your own.

What do you think? Can writing ever actually be “perfect”? (And do people send the same number of comments about something if it is?)

Tools of the trade – digital

It’s the third point of the triangle: my favorite purely-digital writing tools. Once again there’s a selection, depending on what part of the process I’m in. I don’t use all of these every single day – except maybe Microsoft Word – but they all tend to play a role in every writing project.

Microsoft Word – Yeah, I know, but first, most places want you to submit as a Word document, and second, I’m not going to talk about the typing aspect. While it’s useful, and my comfort my word processor, lately I’ve been utilizing the “Read Aloud” feature.

You can adjust the reading speed, but I keep it a little slow and jerky because I’m not really listening to get the meaning of what I’m writing. I use it to proofread, because Read Aloud won’t add extra words in if I’ve missed them, won’t skip over the extra words I’ve put there, and will pronounce whatever word I’ve written instead of the one I think I’ve written. Proofreading your own work is hard, but listening to a semi-robotic voice cover exactly what’s on the page helps.

Scrivener – I’m not as die-hard a Scrivener fan as some of my friends, but I’ve been playing around with it more since the update earlier this year. Scrivener lets you view things as notecards (a plus for me, considering my analog tool preference), move them around, and get an overview more easily than Word. You can choose how closely to zoom in on your work and when to pull back to see how it all fits together.

If you just jump in without watching the tutorial, you’ll probably be lost and think it’s pointless. It might not work for your writing style anyway even after you do watch the tutorial, but there are a lot of steps and processes built in to Scrivener that make it … Scrivener. Going through the tutorial means knowing all of the possibilities, and you might stumble across a different way of thinking about your writing.

Pro Writing Aid – A self-publishing friend of mine recommended Pro Writing Aid because it, like Scrivener, gives you a different way of looking at your work. You can try it out for free on the website with a small sample and play around with the various reports it offers. For me, Pro Writing Aid works best when I’ve got the writing as strong as I can, so it comes near the end of the process – I haven’t tried composing in the program, but just importing once it’s fairly polished.

All the reports and suggestions can be overwhelming, so it’s recommended to work on small sections at a time, anyway. It helps give an overview of your writing weaknesses and crutches, beyond “just” grammar and usage.

Dragon (formerly Dragon Naturally Speaking) – Whenever I mention this one, I get hit with “Oh, I could never dictate my writing!” I mean, not with that attitude …

There’s a learning curve. Any new process or technology has a learning curve. I first downloaded Dragon in December 2020 to give my hands a break because, for some reason, I decided to completely NaNoWriMo (50,000 words) in two days. Ow. So I looked into various dictation tools I already owned, and then went with Dragon because it’s not an add-on – it’s all they do.

And yes, you start off slow and feeling kind of silly. Yes, you have to train yourself to add in punctuation. But again, Dragon offers something that typing doesn’t, the way different programs have their own affordances and limitations. I like being able to dictate when my hands feel like they need a break, and I’ve put enough time into it that I can switch back and forth, depending on how I want to write that way. You absolutely can dictate your writing, if you decide it’s worth the time and effort.

What other digital writing tools do you use? Is there anything else I should try?