Robots Don’t Make Good Writers

Writing has rules, we know about grammar, spelling and punctuation. There are also genres of writing and each has it’s own rules of style, theme and plot. Romance is always about a relationship, the words in between make up the story but the genre insists on a successful relationship between two people. Mysteries, have their rules about dastardly deeds and criminals caught in the end. Horror has bad creatures/ people who end up being slain by the hero. You get the idea.

If you write in one genre for awhile you can line up the basic plots alphabetically and just fill in the individual details like names and dates. It can become routine and you begin to wonder if a million monkeys typing at millions of computer keyboards could not, after all, come up with a best selling novel.

So, to get out of feeling like your own cliche, read other genres. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read news stories. Read recipes! Go to the library and pick a book at random. Read things that have nothing to do with your usual writing, other than the use of words and language. In reading other genres you can find ways to break out of your own cliched plot. Small things, as the basic elements are ingrained and expected. Still, if you can get around feeling like a robot writer, that’s a good thing.

You Too Can Write Earth Shaking Headlines

I’ve always found headlines fun, a kind of challenge but a freedom to be a bit daring, wild and just plain contrary. You can pick something a bit misleading, something humourous, something argumentative or whatever appeals to you at the time.

The point is to catch the reader’s attention and draw them into the article. By hook or by crook, you want to make them look.

Make sure your headlines are not redundant. Don’t use words which will be skimmed over. Choose words which aren’t already flooding the magazine. Words which the reader isn’t glossing over due to repetition in the theme, content or other articles in the magazine/ publication. Make your headline unique, fresh and unexpected.

Keep it short. Most publications don’t have space for your best creative headlines. If you keep it brief you won’t be sad when the editor chops it down to size. Ideally, a headline fits in one line of column text. If you know the standards for the publication you’re writing for measure your headline against the space available.

As always, keep in mind the tone and style of the publication. Don’t submit something sexy if they avoid that style. Don’t submit something really cutsey if the publication is serious. You may think that’s limiting and takes away from all the fun of writing headlines. But, it doesn’t. It just makes it that much more challenging. Have fun!

Sense of Writing

The act of writing is very much about the five senses. But, how do we know there are only five?

I’ve wondered if there are other basic senses we just don’t know about. I don’t mean a sixth sense like ESP. Beyond those metaphysical senses. What if there is something just as physical as sight but since we don’t have eyes we can’t see it?

We know music because it’s a sound and we can hear sounds. Hearing is one of our five senses (sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing). We know what we like to eat because we can smell and taste it. It seems to be there could be other things we will never know, things we aren’t equipped to sense.

I have no idea what other sense we might be missing. How could I? I don’t have the sense to figure it out. But, it does seem possible for something like that to exist. After all, there would be no music if we couldn’t hear it. Just as there would be no words if we couldn’t read them.

Publishable and Practical

You’ve got the greatest idea! It’s sure to be a billion dollar blockbuster, rivaling Stephen King and that other writer whose name you can’t quite remember though it’s on the tip of your tongue.

But, is your idea a good one, really? Some of our ideas seem really super charged at the time, when we have that first burst of passion as the idea evolves. But, not every idea is going to be publishable and practical.

Here are guidelines from Cheryl Sloan Wray and her book ‘Writing for Magazines’. (Paraphrased by me).

1. Are you really passionate/ interested enough to spend the necessary time developing, researching and writing this idea?

2. Can you narrow the focus? Some ideas need to be broken into smaller chunks to suit the market/ publisher you are aiming for.

3. If your idea is already narrow, or would appeal to a small, exclusive percentage of the reading public, can you bulk it up? Can you add more points, bring in another slant or find more sources?

4. Can you market this idea to several publications? You want to have a selection of publishers to choose from so you aren’t twiddling your thumbs if the first of them aren’t keen on it.

5. Imagine yourself as the reader of the publications you have chosen. Are you sure their readers will be interested in your idea? If not find other publications to appeal to, or slant your idea in a different, more appealing direction.

6. Describe your idea in 15 words or less. Then, in another 15 words, tell why readers will be interested in your idea/ topic.

7. Will this idea be expensive to research or take up a lot of time to develop? Is it going to cost you more than it will bring in for you? You can’t forget your bottom line after all.

The last point is the best I think. How many of you keep track of your expenses? Do you know if you actually clear more than you spent on each article/ manuscript? Don’t skip your time either. Time is money and that includes you!

Hope this helps bring you some clarity, focus and profit from your greatest ideas. Keep them churning!

Playing With Text

Writing isn’t the only way to play with words. Take them down a peg, look at them as just letters, forms on a page and you can make a different art with them. This isn’t writing, its a whole new creation.

ASCII art is my personal favourite. But, there are other ways to get into the game of playing with your words. Typography is playing with fonts. What others have you found? Email me, I’d like to hear about them.

There is the whole riddle, puzzle, Scrabble issue. But, I’m looking at making plain ordinary everyday text into art.

Does anyone make ASCII art or am I the only retro geek? Someday, that ever illusive day, I want to make a whole website in just ASCII and ASCII art as illustrations/ graphics. I’ve seen one done in this way. It was very unique looking now. Back in the old days of dinosaur computers it would have been normal, if not cutting edge.

Anyway, this week take a break from fiddling with words and try something new. Play around and look at them in a whole new way. You and your keyboard will never be the same again.

Spelling Lesson for Grammarians

I try not to be a grammarian or spellarian myself. It’s not easy to resist the temptation to teach someone but I know most people won’t feel that way about it. Most people see it as being corrected, not taught. That makes it easier to resist telling them to fix their spelling. But, one thing I often notice is how often the grammarian’s spell a lot as one word. It’s not. Alot is not a word. It’s actually two words all too often combined. Alot is not a compound word, it’s just wrong, bad spelling but easily fixed. So, if you tend to give in to your urge to teach spelling remember not to make this simple mistake yourself. Just a note for the day to the grammarians out there. Of course, it’s my chance to teach spelling too. Hard to pass that up.

Query Letters

We’re writers, we know the words, so why is it so tough to write a query letter? Why do we second guess every word on that page? Why do we agonize over the punctuation, the grammar and the spelling? Why do we “just die” when we realize a typo was missed in our proofreading of that all important query letter?

Because we are bundles of self conflicted maniacs. Geez… I thought you had that figured out by now. Anyway, I thought it was time I wrote something about query letters. We know how important they are, giving prospective editors and publishers (clients) that vital first impression. Plus, of course, the actual idea you’re pitching them.

A query letter is a proposal, describing an article or book you would like to write for a particular publication or publisher. Queries should be kept short, a readable length, one page. A couple of paragraphs to sell the story, a line or two to actually ask for the sale and another paragraph to describe your qualifications.

If you get no reply after a month send a follow up letter. Of course, you kindly ask if they read your first query and remind them of the particulars. You know yourself how hard it is to catch up with an idea you brushed against a month ago. Keep that in mind as you write your follow up. Make a copy (or keep a copy) of your letter. You’ll sound foolish if you finally hear from the editor only you don’t remember what you queried about, exactly.

The basic elements of a query letter:

Start with something to catch their interest and make them read on. An anecdote, statistic or something you can enclose in the envelope along with the letter. Chances are you won’t have anything to send other than your words but if you can come up with something more go for it.

In a paragraph or two explain your idea, why you want to write about it, why their publication would be interested in publishing your article. Gear your idea to the market you have chosen. Of course, you have already spent time picking out your target market. Make sure you also get the editor’s name right (and spelling counts!) and the name of the publication. This would also be an important part of researching your market.

Draw them in with your special angle, slant or hook on the topic. It’s likely true that everything has already been written about at least once. So you need something new to say about it or say the old stuff in a new way. Show them how your slant is new and interesting. Let them know if you can include photographs or other illustrations to go along with your article.

If you have clips (copies of previously published articles) offer to send them. Remember, you’re selling yourself too. Add any other credentials that would help. Are you an expert in the field or have some related experience?

How many words will your planned article be? The editor will know how much space they can offer and you’ll have to work with that. But, start by giving them an idea of what you plan, how much content you can provide. Tell the editor what format you will be using- plain text email, Word document, double spaced, etc. Maybe these seem trivial things at the beginning but to someone working on filling space and keeping a layout they matter and make life easier.

If your query isn’t being emailed or faxed you need to send a SASE (self addressed, stamped envelope) for return mail. This is part courtesy and part hoping making a reply easier will make it happen sooner. We always have our wishful thinking, they can’t take that away from us. Also, make sure the editor accepts email queries, some people still don’t like or use email. Email queries should also have an email signature which sticks to the rules of email etiquette: not more than 4 lines or approximately 60 spaces wide. Please, don’t send an email where your return address shows up as “CutsiePie69”. Unless you’re writing about online chat or some such thing you want to project a professional image. That means no smilies too.

In the end sell yourself and don’t be too modest. What makes you the right writer for this job? How can you (especially) bring this story to life for their readers. Enclose your writer’s resume if you have one and it seems relevant enough.

Don’t forget the letter writing basics. Add your return address and the date to your letter. Start and finish your letter with salutations, something suitable, not too personal. Don’t forget to proofread and proofread without using spellcheck on your computer. Be meticulous, even down right nitpicky, check your spelling, punctuation, grammar and the typo factor. Don’t ever send a query letter you haven’t checked more than a few times and don’t ever write one when you’re too tired (or just not in the mood) to check it as well as you know you need to.

Short for Impact

The best quotes are those that dazzle and enlighten with one sentence. That quick one two punch that leaves you thinking. Quotes wandering along into two, three or more sentences loose their power. You have to read them and think as you’re reading. It spoils the effect.

Condensing your sentences, your whole essay, story, whatever you’re working on, will also give it more power. Short sentences get noticed. Long winding sentences wandering around to make their point tend to blend into the wood work and take longer to be absorbed. See the difference?

When you’re writing an article draw the reader in using content and focus. Content being the subject. Focus is making the subject clear and important or interesting enough to be read. You can get someone to read about bug spray if you write it right. Tell them something new. Don’t muddle the idea. Use short sentences like a trail of bread crumbs. Keep your wordage uncomplicated too. Don’t load them down with dictionary words they’ll have to stop and think about.

Later, when they’re into your subject and you’ve given them questions they want answered, you can bring on the longer sentences and the more detailed information. First the focus and then the heavy duty content. At the end you give them closure of some kind.

Not so different from a quote. Think about that next time you’re writing. What was the last really great quote you read and why did you like it? Maybe your eye was drawn to it because it was one simple sentence. Possibly one word had some personal appeal to you or perked your curiousity, so you read it. When you rewrite see if you can shorten a few sentences, yank their chains and make them stand up and take notice. Check for extra words just hanging around not adding to the focus or the content. If you want to be read think about what gets read.

Spelling Style

Spelling is tricky all on it’s own. When you throw in different languages and cultures it gets down right complicated.

First, consider English and American spelling. Then throw in Canadian spelling, which is some combination of the two. Same for other countries in the commonwealth.

Have you seen words spelt with an s instead of a z? You would if you were English or from South Africa. Do you see words with a u in them or without a u in them? You would see them with added u if you were English or Canadian.

Which is right? How do you know which spelling to use? Will people think you just don’t know how to spell? Possibly.

But the world is a big place, if you were writing locally you would spell for your readers. But, when you are writing on the Internet, your readers come from all over the world. Which spelling should you choose?

First, talk to your publisher or editor. Find out what they use for a standard. They call those style guides. It’s a good idea for publications to have one. Not just for different spelling issues. If you’re more or less on your own as for style, go with what comes naturally to you. It’s hard to remember to spell a different way. Likely you’ll miss a few anyway. You may hear from the odd reader who thinks you don’t know how to spell. But, that just gives you something to chat about in your reply to them.

Is spelling an art or a science? I think I’ll leave that as thought fodder for you.

eHarlequin

I’ve joined up the Book in Year challenge. Wish me potatoes. Luck has nothing to do with it.

Plot 101

Book in a Year
Kate Hardy’s 10-Step Plan for Writing a Book

1. Write your synopsis. Maximum one page, main events only, with no adverbs, adjectives, dialogue or description. (Action, action, action. Keep it really spare.)

2. Check it for holes (i.e., what’s missing?). Are there enough plot twists? Is there enough emotional punch?

3. Write your character biographies, then take another look at your synopsis. Now that your characters are developing, does that affect any events in your book? Can you add more emotional punch? Can you fill in the holes?

4. Break your revised synopsis down into chapters, determining what action will take place at each point in the book.

5. For each chapter, write a more detailed chapter plan. If your characters suddenly start having a conversation while you’re writing the chapter plan, fine — add it in. The chapter plan is for you to work from, so it can be as long or short as you like.

6. Set yourself a target — if you write two double-spaced pages a day (500 words), that’s a 50,000-word book in a little over three months.

7. Keep to your schedule — it’s all too easy to watch a film/call a friend/write a few emails and promise yourself you’ll catch up tomorrow. Do that for a week and you’re setting yourself up to fail — 500 words is manageable but 4,000 need a bigger chunk of time!

8. But be flexible, too. As you’re writing, you may find the book changes — as your characters develop, you might have a better idea for a twist in the plot or decide that something else will work better. (In my case, I get two or three more chapters than planned….)

9. Read it through, then write yourself another single-page synopsis based on the actual book.

10. Check the new synopsis for holes. Do any sections look weak? Is there enough emotional tension? Make notes on what you want to change, make your revisions, then read the whole thing through and ensure the book still works. (If it doesn’t, repeat points 9 and 10 until it does.)

Congratulations! You’ve just written your book!