Writing Craft–5 Great Ways to Learn It & Why You Must!

By Leslie Miller

book-page-1335687-mThe main problem I find with editing new writers is that although their ideas may have real potential, they are unable to express them in a way that hooks a reader. Why? Because they have not taken the time to learn basic writing craft.

I participate in a lot of LinkedIn groups and there are always threads with authors (usually as yet unpublished) bitterly complaining about the tyranny of writing rules. They don’t want to learn them, they don’t want to follow them, they don’t understand the “why” of them, they don’t want their creativity roped in or stifled in any way . . .

They hide behind the myth of subjectivity. Who’s to say what is or is not good writing? It’s all personal taste, right?

I have a very different opinion of writing rules and writing craft than the “rebels” on LinkedIn. In my experience, if you really study your craft, it will enliven, deepen, and perhaps even liberate your writing. If you do not, your book will be much weaker than it could be. Your story less compelling. Your characters less interesting.

The purpose of writing is either self-expression or communication–or both. If you are merely writing for yourself, have at it in any fashion you choose. But if you are writing with the hopes that others will read and enjoy it, or learn something from it, then a good knowledge of writing craft is your best friend. It allows you to convey your story or ideas clearly, in a powerful, entertaining, or compelling fashion.

  • Wouldn’t you love your action scenes to have readers holding their collective breaths?
  • Wouldn’t you love your emotional scenes to bring tears to readers’ eyes?
  • Wouldn’t you love your plot twists to make readers gasp out loud?
  • Wouldn’t you love people to say, “You have to read this; I just couldn’t put it down!”

This type of  writing usually doesn’t happen by accident. Sure, there are probably some wildly talented writers who have absorbed whatever they need to know by osmosis, in school or their own reading. And when they sit down to write, they have an inherent mastery of consistent tense, effective use of POV, knowing when to show and when to tell, using active voice, stimulus and response, story structure, etc. But I suspect these writers are the proverbial one-in-a-million.

I haven’t run across one yet.

Brilliant ideas are not enough–you need the skill to make them come alive on the page. That’s what writing craft is to me: it’s that skill. It’s not just some ridiculous, arbitrary set of rules designed to stifle your muse. It’s not something designed by a bunch of old, fossilized gatekeepers who are trying to keep you down. It’s not something you can skip if you are planning to self-publish, because readers don’t know the difference anyway. They do know–they just don’t know how to explain why they put the book down.

If you want to do your ideas justice on the page, you need to have a solid understanding of craft, plain and simple. So how can you learn it? Well, there is a lot to learn, but it doesn’t have to be mastered all at once. Popular author James Scott Bell suggests spending at least one hour a week studying your craft. You might find you enjoy it so much, you will spend many more hours at it and your writing will grow that much faster.

I have several suggestions for people who would like to study the craft.

1. Have beta-readers, critique partners, or an editor evaluate some of your work, to find out where you need the most help. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. Focus on those areas in your study. Many people swear by critique groups and critique partners. Be open, but have discernment. The best crit groups focus on constructive criticism and contain some published writers who are farther along than you are.

2. Follow writing craft blogs. There are dozens online. This is a great free and easy way to study, because you are taking information in little bits at a time on an ongoing basis. After a while, seemingly without much effort, it clicks in. Some of my favorites include:

  • http://jamigold.com/
  • http://blog.janicehardy.com/
  • http://www.floggingthequill.com/
  • https://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com/
  • http://writerunboxed.com/
  • http://www.publishingcrawl.com/

There are many more as well. Google “writing craft blogs” and follow the ones that most resonate with you.

3. Take online writing courses. They are relatively inexpensive, you can take them at your own pace so they fit in with your lifestyle. Getting feedback not only on your own homework, but on other students’ as well, will really drive the points home. However, let the buyer beware. There are gazillions of these courses online of varying usefulness. The instructor makes all the difference so before signing up, go onto their website and see if you resonate with what they are teaching.

I highly recommend the Lawson Writer’s Academy and I know there are other great ones out there too.

4. Writing craft books. These are numerous, and again, of varying degrees of usefullness. To avoid wasting a lot of money, try finding them through your public library, or read the opening pages on Amazon.com to make sure you resonate with the subject matter. If they offer exercises, make sure to do them! You might think you “get it” but when you sit down to do the exercise, you’ll see where you are weak and where you need more practice.

5. Read, both in your genre and in others. This is classic advice, but I want to put a new spin on it. You’ve probably been reading your whole life, but that doesn’t mean you can write anywhere near as well as the authors you love. Instead of just reading and enjoying a book, try to break down what the writer did that made it such a great read. Once you start studying writing craft, that will become much easier. Once you study the problems of info dumps and long passages of exposition, you’ll be able to study how your favorite author avoids them and what he or she does instead, to get the information across. Once you know you are weak in the area of dialogue, or dialogue tags and attributions, you’ll be able to study how successful authors are using them.  If you find you’re completely sucked into a passage, later go back and examine exactly what the author did to make it so compelling. What kind of sentence structure? What kind of word choice? What kind of description?

Get it? Don’t just read–study!


Who Needs a Developmental Editor and What Exactly Do They Do?

By Leslie Miller

bless my sponge bathThere’s a terrific article today over at author Jami Gold’s blog that explains the process of working with a developmental editor. If you are unclear as to what developmental editing might include, or if you might need it, I suggest heading over and checking it out. Of course, I hope you’ll come back here when you’re finished!

Jami’s guest blogger, Stacy Jerger, mentioned a couple of things I’d like to comment on:

The assumption I hear most often from authors who haven’t worked with a developmental editor is, “My entire book will be changed, and I won’t have any control.”

I suspect these authors may be confusing a freelance developmental editor like Stacy or myself with an acquisitions editor at a big publishing house. The latter might have some control over your work; we certainly do not.

As a freelancer, I have NO CONTROL over your work. None at all. You are the client! I will make suggestions, give opinions, do rewrites, offer ideas and constructive criticism. I might even suggest that you read certain helpful writing craft articles or take writing lessons. But you, as the author, have the absolute responsibility to decide which of my ideas and changes work for your book. You have the final say in which changes you will implement, and how you will implement them.

Sometimes I will rewrite a scene — not because I want the author to use my words instead of theirs — but because I am illustrating a specific point in an area where the author needs some improvement. My rewrite is merely a teaching example. It might be how to write with a closer, tighter point-of-view; it might be how to deepen character through dialogue tags, it might be how to show a scene instead of tell it.

Stacy also mentioned how underused consultations are. She was talking about a consultation before starting the work. I like phone or even in-person-over-a-cup-of-coffee consults because they help ensure that I am on the same page as the author. I sat down a few weeks ago with a non-fiction author who was just starting his book. He pitched me his idea; we discussed his theories and the best ways of getting them across to readers. We discussed how to focus the book for his target market and how we would work together to bring the book to completion.

Although this is different from how I would work with a novelist, I usually like to try and form some kind of a bond and assess the author’s openness to suggestions. It’s simply a fact of human nature — some authors are much more sensitive than others. Some want it blunt, others’ need a bit more hand-holding. I try to be aware of that when I offer my notes.

I also offer a phone consultation after the work is completed, in case the author is uncertain about any of the points or suggestions I’ve made, or has any questions about how to implement the revisions. I have rarely had a client take me up on this post-editing consult.

(Of course, I take that to mean that my work was so thorough and so clear, they simply don’t have any questions… :lol: )

Once upon a time, writers had to pay their dues before being published. They likely had many short stories and novels rejected before scoring their first publishing deal. Today, anyone can publish at any time, relatively inexpensively. It is particularly inexpensive if you do not hire a professional editor.

Many of these new authors have not mastered their craft and are sorely in need of editing — perhaps even more so than the writers who came up in the traditional publishing system. Working with a good editor can be an excellent, time-effective way of improving as a writer.

And yet, at the same time, many of these authors do not see the need for editing, do not want to pay for editing — and certainly not more than one round of it! They are unaware of what type of editing they might need. Many assume “editing” is a generic term referring to copy-editing or proofreading.

There are various categories of editing: developmental, substantive, line/content, copyediting, but the distinctions between them are not always cut and dried; they are not mutually exclusive. I might include several of them in one project, depending on what it needs, and what the author has asked for. One project might need more help with the plot, although the author’s voice and word craft are good.  Another might have a well developed plot but need more help with showing instead of telling, or syntax, or word choice for power and flow.

I call my service Novel Nurturing because it allows me to assess what each particular manuscript needs.

If you’re wondering what kind of editing you might need, I’d be happy to consult with you, either by phone or by email, and look at a chapter of your manuscript.



Busting Through a Stuck Plot Point: the Climax

Watercolor on Yupo by Leslie Miller

Watercolor on Yupo by Leslie Miller

By Leslie Miller

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”  - Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

My experience of my current novel ties right in with King’s oft-quoted words. When the idea sprang into my mind, I felt like I could feel the different pieces of it floating in the air around me, just waiting for me to pull them in, tie them together, give them life, and most of all . . . do them justice on the page.

Now, I’d read that King quote years before, and thought it was kind of . . . silly? Pretentious? Too woo-woo, perhaps? Until I had my own experience of a story that seemed to already exist, popping almost full blown into my mind, only the details missing.

Unfortunately, some of those details have stubbornly refused to come in from the cold.

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Start Your Novel: What’s the First Choice You Need to Make?

By Leslie Miller

One of the first things a writer must decide when beginning a story is what point-of-view to write it in. There are more choices available than the newbie author realizes.

Most people are only aware of first person (I ran toward the cliff) or third person (He ran toward the cliff). Third person is where most problems seem to arise. You have a choice between:

1. close third single, where the entire book is told from one character’s POV and we are in their heads the whole time,

2. close third multiple, where the story is told up-close-and-personal from one point-of-view per scene, but can switch to a different character’s POV in a new scene or chapter,

3. distant third, where the story is told without really zeroing in on the characters thoughts and emotions, so there is more distance between reader and character/s,

4. and every level of depth and distance in between.

You also have a choice between subjective omniscient, objective omniscient, and combining various different POVs in one novel (if and only if you are extremely skillful.)

As my mother used to say, “Oy vey.”

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The Importance of Voice in Memoirs

By Leslie Miller

Original watercolor by Leslie Miller

Original watercolor by Leslie Miller

Memoirs are one of my favorite genres to edit. I like the feeling of really getting to know the author through her words and what she reveals about her life. I like hearing about lives and experiences that are different than my own, presented in a very personal and intimate way.

I suspect this is the secret of memoirs’ endless popularity.

I recently finished a developmental edit on a memoir that was part travel, part self-discovery. Although the manuscript needed a lot of work and a new draft, it also had a lot of potential. The author was clear about her purpose for writing the book and what she wanted to express, and some of her scenes were pee-in-your-pants hilarious. This book had what I’d call, “agent potential,” meaning I could imagine an agent and traditional publisher being interested in it.

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Should You End Chapters With a Character Going to Sleep?

By Leslie Miller

Watercolor on Yupo, by Leslie Miller

Watercolor on Yupo, by Leslie Miller

In an attempt to bust through a couple of plot issues, I’ve outlined my novel-in-progress on a timeline, writing down what needs to happen each day. This turned out to be extremely helpful, and I was able to move things around in ways that helped the story make more sense and ramp up the tension.

At the same time, I realized I had actually done something similar with the manuscript itself. I had ended each chapter with the character going to sleep, and started each new one with her waking up.

This might be an easy, logical way to structure chapters of a novel, but is it effective?

I’d say no, unless there’s a really compelling reason for doing so.

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Novel Writing is All About Decisions

Original watercolor by Leslie Miller

Original watercolor by Leslie Miller

Last week, I discovered that although a lot of people have downloaded my free eBook and subscribed to my blog, they have not been receiving any posts.

I used a terrific plugin to allow people to subscribe and receive the ebook. Somewhere along the line, I missed the fact that it didn’t actually send out posts! How embarrassing (and no wonder I never get any comments).

So hello, subscribers! Welcome to the blog. I hope you’ll take some time to come onto the site and look at some of the posts you might have missed.

If there are any topics pertaining to novel writing, editing, or revising that you’d like me to cover, please let me know.

And now, on to the post.

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How Much Description Is Too Much? Ten Questions to Ask Yourself

By Leslie Miller

Watercolor by Leslie Miller

Watercolor by Leslie Miller

Writing evocative, memorable, and pertinent description is truly an art. It’s not just describing what some thing, some place, or some one looks like. Writers give description so readers can visualize the scene or the person, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Details and descriptions are really signposts, not just allowing readers to “see” the scene, but also telling them what is or isn’t important. Some descriptions are necessary to ground readers in the scene, particularly in your opening pages, when you need to convey place, mood, season, era, etc. (all without turning it into an info dump).

But how much is too much? How do you know?

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Stuck on the Opening of Your Novel? Five Suggestions to Create an Opening That Works

By Leslie Miller

Original watercolor by Leslie Miller

Original watercolor by Leslie Miller

The first few pages of any novel are always the most difficult. The novelist has to walk a fine line, giving us enough of the main character and her situation to intrigue us — but not so much set-up or mundane daily life that it reads as boring.

The novelist must also walk a fine line between dropping the main character into the action so soon that we don’t yet care about her or her problem, and not starting the action soon enough, making us wonder if anything is ever going to happen. (Your first chapter should not be able to be used as a sleeping pill. Just saying…)

Opening with exposition is a no-no. Something has to happen on the first page, it cannot be all set-up. It doesn’t have to be related to the main theme or topic of the book, but something. Please.

And what about prologues? Some people love them, some people hate them, many people skip them. If you are starting off with a prologue, you need a good reason. Prologues have the same requirements as the actual opening of the novel. Starting with one doesn’t let you off the hook for writing a terrific and compelling Chapter One, either.

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Researching a Novel Opens a Door to a Whole New World

By Leslie Miller

Panthera pardus -Ngala Game Reserve, Limpopo, South Africa -with kill in tree-8
Raphael Melnick / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

I’m back on track with my novel and enjoying writing again. Along with breaking through my writer’s block, something else has happened. Something completely unexpected.

Let me backtrack.

I was completely daunted when I realized this story absolutely had to take place in Africa. I visited the “Dark Continent” once, many years ago. I met rural villagers who still lived in the same style mud huts with thatched roofs that their tribes had lived in for centuries. I went on safari and saw elephants, giraffes, and monkeys in the wild. I’ve always wanted to go back.

But my time there was years ago and hardly enough to write convincingly about it. I knew I would have to do tons of research and the thought of it really put me off.

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