Auntie Deborah Answers Your Questions About Writing

In this installment, Auntie Deborah discusses writing a first draft, the unfairness of publishing, and when to run away from a publisher’s contract.

Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I prevent myself from constantly trying to edit as I draft?

Auntie Deborah: You’re halfway there in understanding why it’s important to plough through that draft so you can look at the whole thing when it’s time to revise. It’s tempting but (for many of us) deadly to halt forward progress and nitpick. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  • Beginning each session with reading the last page or so but not making any changes in it.
  • Reminding myself that the only draft that counts is the one on my editor’s desk. And that what looks like an error may point me in the direction of a deeper, richer story, so I need to preserve all that drek the first time through.
  • Reminding myself about author B, whose work I greatly admire, who told me that no one, not even her most trusted reader, sees anything before her third draft.
  • Giving myself permission to be really, really awful.
  • Falling in love with the revision process. I can hardly wait to get that first draft down so I have something to play with.
  • Writing when I’m tired. Believe it or not, this helps because it’s all I can do then to keep putting down one word after another.

All that said, sometimes editing is the right thing, like when it feels as if I’m pushing the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, or I’ve written myself into a hole I can’t dig out of. Usually that means I’ve made a misstep earlier, not thought carefully about where I want to go. Or whatever I thought the story was about, I was wrong, and the true story keeps wanting to emerge. How do I tell when this is the case? Mostly experience, plus willingness to rip it all to shreds and start over.

Dear Auntie Deborah: How do you come up with names for your characters?

Auntie Deborah: Sometimes the novel and its setting dictate parameters for last names. For example, if I’m writing a science fiction novel about Scottish colonists on Mars, I’m going to look at Scottish last names.

Often the character herself will suggest a last name, either based in ethnicity or personal traits and history. An aging hippie might have changed their last name to Sunchild or Windflower or Yogananada. A family trying to erase immigrant origins might have a last name like Smith or Jones.

And then there’s the telephone book (do such things still exist?) Or the credits for a really big movie, the ones that go one for screen after screen after screen. Do be careful when using real last names, though. If they’re too different, they might be identifiable. Just use the lists as prompts for your thinking.

Another strategy is to look at first names and then use them as last names. (My middle name is Jean, which was my mother’s last name, so the reverse could also be true.)

That said, always do an internet search for the name you’ve chosen. Even if you aren’t aware of others with that name, it’s good to know.

Auntie Deborah

  • There are no quality gate-keepers (or, often editors and proofreaders) for self-published books. Anyone can type up garbage and throw it up on the web.
  • Literary quality takes second (or twelfth) place to great story-telling, and great story-telling is in the mind of the reader. Commercial publishers go for what makes money, not what will be read and appreciated a century from now.
  • As science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon said, “Ninety percent of everything is cr@p.” One might argue that 99.99 percent is more accurate.

It’s infuriating for authors who pour their heart and soul into a book to make it the very best they can. Alas, it’s also the cold, hard publishing business. But hang in there and keep improving, because someday, an editor will adore your work and shower you with money to buy the right to publish it.

 

Dear Auntie Deborah: Olympia Press offered me a hybrid contract, but I can’t afford the fee. Am I walking away from a great opportunity?

Auntie Deborah: You are walking away not walking away from a great opportunity, you are walking away from a scam. Never pay a publisher! This is what Writer Beware, has to say:

Hybrid Publisher: There’s some disagreement over whether there actually is such a thing as a hybrid publisher–a company that charges substantial fees yet provides a service that’s otherwise equivalent to traditional publishing, including rigorous selectivity and editing, high royalties, offline distribution, non-bogus PR, and more. Regardless, the term is extensively misused by vanity publishers trying to look more legitimate. Any publisher billing itself as “hybrid” demands further investigation.

Writer Beware goes on to include Olympia in their questionable firms.

Seven Prolific Vanity Publishers (Austin Macauley Publishers, Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, Olympia Publishers, Morgan James Publishing, Page Publishing, Christian Faith Publishing, Newman Springs Publishing) Austin Macauley Publishers, Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, Olympia Publishers, Morgan James Publishing, Page Publishing, Christian Faith Publishing, Newman Springs Publishing
I highly encourage you to do your homework about any prospective publisher. Check it out in Writer Beware and Editors and Predators. Talk to writers who’ve worked with that publisher. In almost all cases, you’re better off self-publishing than going with one of these exploiting outfits. (Note: CreateSpace went by-by several years ago and is now Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing; I prefer Draft 2 Digital, which gives you library sales through Overdrive.)

Given that there are some wonderful, highly professional small presses who consider unagented material, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t begin with the top traditional publishing markets first.

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Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions

Dear Auntie Deborah, How do I stick with my story idea and finish writing it?

Some writers can take an idea and launch it into a story while writing, but most of us can’t — or else end up revising many times to whip that shapeless manuscript into something that resembles a true story. Your description of losing motivation suggests that you, like me, need to have more structure in place before beginning.

What do I mean by structure? I need to have a hook or inciting incident — the action, situation, crisis, or decision that fuels the first part of the story. Then something goes wrong (or right, or unexpected) and spins the story in a new direction — that’s the first plot point. I need to know what it’s all building toward, and also the feeling or flavor I want to leave the reader with (sadness, triumph, satisfaction, chocolates on the pillow?). I need at least 2 or 3 characters I’m in love with, although I don’t necessarily need to know what happens to them. I write all this down, do flow charts and maybe a map or two. If I’m submitting on proposal, I’ll need to flesh it out into a proper synopsis plus the first 3 chapters, but for writing for myself on spec, that’s enough to get me going.

If these concepts are unfamiliar with you, I encourage you to learn more about storycraft and the journey from idea to plot/character/dramatic arc. Ideas aren’t a bad place to start, they’re just not enough.

Dear Auntie Deborah: My critique group keeps giving me contradictory advice. I’m at a loss as to which direction to take. Help!
 

Deborah: It is as important to know which advice to ignore as which to pay attention to! Without knowing the sources of your opinions, I can’t evaluate their validity, but — BUT — I am always leery of anyone who tells me how to fix problems in my own work. This was true when I began writing on a professional level 35 years ago, and it certainly is true now. What helps me are comments like, “I’m confused about x,” or “This didn’t work for me,” or “I don’t care what happens to this character.” In other words, careful readers marking where they had problems. Then it’s up to me, the author, to discern where I went wrong and how I want to remedy it. (This is how my publishing editor and I work together, by the way.)

My second point is that learning to write and working on a specific project are two different things. A project problem may highlight a skill you need to strengthen, but someone telling you how to improve it makes it their story, not yours, and isn’t likely to help you improve as a writer.

I wonder if you might fare better by not showing your work to anyone until it is completed to the best of your ability. Otherwise you run the risk of distorting your artistic vision to please others so much that you lose your authentic creative voice. When you are ready for feedback, seek out trusted readers (who need not be writers themselves but who have keen sensitivity to their own reactions) or writers a little ahead of you in their careers. Make it clear what kind of feedback you want: What worked for you? What didn’t? Where did you lose interest? Was the result satisfying? And leave the nuts and bolts of prose craft for a separate discussion.

Dear Auntie Deborah: I think my novel has way too much speech in it. What should I do?

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