Who gets to talk first? #LearningfromMyMistakes by Suzan Lauder

Today, you’ll hear all about how I had to do a complete re-write of four chapters and learned from it.

When my latest novel, Letter from Ramsgate, was accepted for publication, but before I submitted the manuscript, I was asked by my editor, Gail Warner, to make some changes. No big deal. The same thing happened with Alias Thomas Bennet. In that case, I cut the verbatim letter from Mr. Collins, a rehash of the Lucas Lodge party, and minor redundancies with Austen that added no value to the novel.

This time, Gail asked me to shuffle and reword the first few chapters of the book to try to get more face time for Darcy and Elizabeth, the protagonists.

In Letter from Ramsgate, our dear couple don’t meet for several chapters in the novel, so their early scenes are separate. Gail explained that this could be the reason I found my AHA readership slow to grow when I was posting a year ago: not enough D&E at the start of the story.

“Eureka!” moment! Readers want D&E and are dead bored without them. No author wants dead boring in their first chapters! Yeah, I know readers want more D&E than any book can handle! So we’ll give them D&E!

Portrait of Léon Riesener as Mr. Darcy in LfR. Artist: Eugène Delacroix.

I thought about it for a while, and decided to write a short new scene. The basics of the scene had been originally told from a minor character’s point of view (POV): one Mrs. Isabel Younge. Mr. Darcy got to tell the story instead, and the novel now opens with that scene. (Click on the thumbnails to see a better view of the artwork for the “casting” of the main POV characters in Letter from Ramsgate.) We carried on in a linear time line—more about that in a minute—and I rewrote the bulk of the first three chapters into Elizabeth’s POV, with minor scenes going to Georgiana starting in Chapter 2.

 

Suzan Lauder’s “Learning from My Mistakes” Lesson #8: Avoid telling too much of your story through the voice of a minor character, particularly in the early chapters. Let your lead characters’ voices shine through.

Now, exceptions to Lesson #8 will take place when a skilled author attempts a complex approach to POV by showing the protagonist through the eyes of a lesser character as a narrator who will never be important. In that case, the narrator is often omniscient and carries their POV through the entire novel. I’m going to talk about POV choices and my own learning curve with POV in a later post.

Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, 1812 as Elizabeth Bennet in LfR. Artist: François Pascal Simon, baron Gérard.

Amélie du Bois, wife of Lt.-Gen. Emile Joseph Frison, aide to King Leopold II, as Georgiana in LfR. Artist: Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet

As for Letter from Ramsgate, once I’d established with my readers that Elizabeth was the protagonist, then and only then did we have Georgiana’s minor scenes. The flashback from Isabel’s POV was all in one chapter later on rather than in the beginning of the novel.

Marie-Denise Smits née Gandolphe for LfR Isabel Younge. (Courtesy Christie’s)

With Alias Thomas Bennet, there were a half dozen flashbacks within the main story, and a few reviewers gave feedback that they didn’t care for flashbacks. To find that others find something I enjoy reading as a confusing style was a surprise, but rather than question their position, I decided to learn from the knowledge of their preferences. So Letter from Ramsgate has a very linear time progression in comparison.

Suzan Lauder’s “Learning from My Mistakes” Lesson #9: Take care with the use of flashbacks or “in media res” as some readers are confused by details that are “out of order” of a linear time line.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t lament the style for ATB. I recently read it for pleasure for the first time (after a couple of dozen times reading it as a writer and self-editor!) and I like the way it turned out, how the flashbacks doled out the hints for the mystery at a slow but steady pace. It wouldn’t have been the same without them, and the mystery is a gem of that novel.

I’m going to talk about how to choose point of view in a later post!

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

Writers, Betas, and Editors: all top Writing Resources for Learning from my Mistakes

Who taught me the best writing lessons, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous?

First, I have to ask: where do you as an author learn to become a better writer? Like most others, I try to read to find ways to improve. I find it easier to read short articles or blog posts than a book. The books recommended to me are written by well-known authors, and the writing advice I’ve heard quoted from them seems a bit fishy, so I don’t trust that their book is going to be helpful. In fact, many sound like marketing and vanity tools.

The best lessons for me personally came from other individuals, including other writers, beta editors, and my Meryton Press editing team. I think the best talent to help a writer grow and excel is a willingness to listen and change, even if it’s hard at first.

Learning from other writers by extensive reading goes back to Lesson #1: As an author, your goal is to provide a reading experience with the greatest level of satisfaction that is within your control. I evaluate the pluses and minuses of other books and try to improve my own work based on that reading experience. I also act as a beta editor for other authors, which is a great way to learn, as I have to look up items such as in Lesson #5: If in doubt, look it up.

A not-so-secret technique is to have several friends review my chapters as I write.
Beta readers help keep me on track by critiquing all aspects of the story. I’ve learned a lot of techniques to help me grow as a writer from listening to these cherished advisors, who are generally writers and readers in the author’s genre.

Usually by the time I’ve finished incorporating their suggestions, the plot flows well, the style is consistent, no glaring continuity problems remain, anachronisms (errors in history and language in a non-modern novel) are corrected, the characterization is consistent and will please readers, good habits are employed with the storyteller’s point of view, the spelling is error-free, most of the punctuation follows rules we as well educated persons can agree upon, and so on. Different authors have different weak spots, and a trusted beta can help from brainstorming prior to writing to final cold reading for typos and everything in between.

Suzan Lauder’s Learn from My Mistakes Lesson #6: Beta readers can help an author at all points in the writing process.

They’re also free help, and with love and respect for the huge leaps and bounds my betas have taken my stories through, I must stress that, unless the story is not all that complex, problems will remain within the novel that none of us have experienced before.

That’s why I need professional editors for my work, and I strongly encourage all authors to consider this valuable resource. That impoverished journalism student, the English major who offered to help, a teacher you know, or your sweet Aunt Sally may be free or almost free help, but they’re not necessarily aware of all the details of proper copy editing and proofreading for a novel, which has rules and conventions of its own, never mind how to fit them into the layout for an e-book or print book.

My viewpoint on this is strengthened by experience reading novels written or edited by teachers and English majors that contained numerous simple errors like we discussed in our “Lesson 5” last post, never mind editing conventions they had no clue about! I read a novel by a professional editor who should have hired a professional editor. We just don’t see our own mistakes, and amateur editors don’t recognize them.

Another important issue is that writers must listen to their editors and not disregard their good advice. There’s no use in getting good advice if you sell a book full of problems that you could have avoided, but your vanity wouldn’t let you modify. Amazon readers like to attack those problem areas, and a disclaimer is insulting to both you and your editor.

Suzan Lauder’s Learn from My Mistakes Lesson #7: Every author listens to and incorporates the advice of one or more professional editors who know the conventions specific to their style, content, sub-genre, etc. There are no exceptions.

My sympathy goes out to those who have hired poor quality editors. As in any job situation, impartial references and entrance exams are important. Most editors will give you a few free pages to see if they are a “fit.” Also, read a published book they’ve edited.

Next post: some examples of when I had to suck it up and listen to my editor.

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

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Learning from my Mistakes: What’s Chunking?

Writer’s block.

Editing block.

What do do?

block-ok-comm-smallerSome recommend handwriting out your scene to get it out of your head. Blocking out the future sections with ideas on post-it notes can help if your problem is flow or outline. Printing out what you have, cutting it up, and moving it around can help as well. Bullet point notes on the scene help if you can’t even get to writing whole sentences or you’re dealing with broader issues than basic prose.

I’ve written shorter works by the seat of my pants (with no outline) but for a novel, I’m a big fan of the flexible outline: one or two paragraphs a chapter through the conflict and climax at the very least. It’s okay to change an outline as you get closer to the next set of outline chapters. The author can still move scenes or sets of chapters around in a novel to make it flow better or repair continuity problems along the way.

Most authors write in a linear fashion, and others write major scenes (conflict or turning points) and fill in (write bridging scenes). I’ve had success with both. If you’re blocked, sometimes you can go ahead a few scenes and then return to the problem area. Sometimes you have to “Kill your darlings” as Stephen King says. Keep cut scenes in a word processing file for later use.

Many authors know their ending at the beginning of writing, or at least part way through, but I tend to write the end after the story arc is complete. None of this is wrong, and there are other methods that work, too.

Chunking the big fears

Sometimes all the best plans, outlines, and techniques don’t save an author from being blocked.

I procrastinated several times while writing my novels, particularly when continuity issues muddled me. Procrastination continued during editing, as things wouldn’t work out in the linear fashion I wanted, and I had to think them out. At times, I had too much on my plate in real life or wasn’t well enough to write. These are reasonable times to procrastinate.

But there are blocked times that aren’t typical procrastination. I know I’m not the only author who has the story in their head but can’t get started because it’s almost like a fear of opening a file and typing. Artists have the same problem, and it’s known as “Blank Canvas Syndrome.” I learned a technique for this problem that works in some situations (but not all).

parasol resized for bullet pointsSuzan Lauder’s “Learning from My Mistakes” Lesson #4: When you’re stuck, break the task down into chunks. Write each chunk down on paper and schedule them.

oreo-pop3-okay-comm-smaller

 

First chunk: read the current text. That way, you haven’t said you’re going to get “Wow” written today, just a manageable chunk.

Next chunk: Write down what chunks you’d like to use. Don’t make them too big. Refer to the techniques at the beginning of this post.

Continue in small, achievable chunks, one day at a time, or one sitting at a time.

When the writing chunk comes, aim for a fixed number of words per day—no more than 500 to start. It may be hard to start, but push for that 500, even if you have to start writing in outline form. It may become more!

That’s today’s chunk.

 

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

 

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Reader knows best! Suzan Lauder’s new blog series “Learning from my Mistakes”

Suzan Lauder, Exhibit #158 at the Jane Austen Festival of Port Alberni, July 2016

Suzan Lauder, Exhibit #158 at the Jane Austen Festival of Port Alberni, July 2016

A couple of months ago, I thought about all I was learning while editing my latest novel and decided I’d write a few blog posts on the topic to help others learn from my experience. I thought I’d start writing posts straight away, but editing my novel, and my husband’s last minute decision to retire early, and editing, and summer, and editing, and working with the cover artist, and editing, and a Jane Austen Festival, and editing, and my niece’s visit, and editing all stepped in.

I haven’t had a haircut in more than three months, and the end-of-season sales are over and I still haven’t found that elusive perfect pair of low-heeled dressy wedge sandals with no toe post but a full ankle strap for next winter in Mexico. Fussy, right? You would be too if you’d turned your ankle one too many times on steep driveways across the sidewalk.

But the introductory post is now written and in your sweaty little palms. Or so it would be if this were 1979. More on that later.

Now we begin our journey together. We’re here to giggle over this author’s mistakes. Each post will have a few examples of my own revelations as lessons to all writers, perhaps to give you a boost rather than let you learn the hard way. The end result isn’t about my opinions any more than the opinions of writing experts, editors, publishers, or any person other than the reader.

parasol resized for bullet pointsSuzan Lauder’s “Learning from my Mistakes” Lesson #1: As an author, your goal is to provide a reading experience with the greatest level of satisfaction that is within your control.

Some of what I’ve learned as a writer in the last few years is different than in classic novels or “What We Learned in School” (as if the capitals in our voice somehow make it Gospel). Some say these techniques are trends, buzz phrases, “flavour of the month.” Yet, if techniques you think are buzz phrases are guaranteed to give the reader greater satisfaction, what’s stopping you from incorporating them into your story?

Hmmm? What’s that? I can’t hear you.

“The way I do it is was good enough for Hemingway.”

Are you Hemingway? If Hemingway knew ways to make the reader enjoy his novels more, would he have said the way he does it is “good enough?” Perhaps. But he had a gift that 99% of writers do not, so we have to fill the gap by utilizing every tool available to us.

An interesting story Miss Ray, by William Wood, 1806, Met Museum.

An interesting story Miss Ray, by William Wood, 1806, Met Museum.

I struggle to be a good writer where others find it easier. Ease is not a good reason to sit back on your laurels over and over again. You may get a toned butt and quadriceps, but that’s about it. Yeah, I suck at idioms.

Perhaps as an author, you can sell loads of books that are merely “good enough,” but as a reader, don’t you prefer that extra little something? It’s sort of like warming the speculum, chilling the beer mug, smiling at the end of the transaction.

Good writing practice is never “flavour of the month.” If you’re arguing against good writing practice, either you don’t understand the specific application or you’re making excuses to dig in your heels in a world that’s already made the big change. Despite my use of a goofy idiom, it’s no longer 1979, but if you want to stick with the way you’ve always done it, have fun with your typewriter.

Instead, I hope my blog followers enjoy how I describe newer writing concepts to make them easier to understand, and that other authors may be inspired and brave enough to give them a try.

I don’t expect to change the world, just entertain you for a few minutes. Please, have a few laughs at my expense as I bare all my “problems” as a writer!

Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!

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