Category Archives: Editing

Writing Mistakes 101: Storybombing

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookSay you’re watching The Walking Dead and the scene turns to everybody’s beloved bad boy Daryl.

So you’re all geared up for some more eye-popping, cringe-worthy gore and storytelling wizardry and – as always – delicious character development. The tension is positively aching. You’re ready for the jump-out-of-your-socks moment.

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Walking Dead? Walking POET: “You take that stupid hat and go back to ‘On Golden Pond'”

Then Daryl swings his crossbow over his shoulders, leans back on his Harley, looks up into a cloudless Tiffany-blue sky – and starts talking about the music of solitude and how the weight of one empty heart is greater than weight of the world.

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“Azure” was taken.

Whuut?

I know. I mean, he might have all that in him but that ain’t Darryl’s voice. That ain’t even his character.

Writers do this all the time. Even published writers. In an industry where in-house editing is still smoking from the seemingly endless economic slash-and-burn, these mistakes slip by more and more.

So what’s going on? Well, likely the writer is the one who thinks about the music of solitude and the weight of the empty heart. And Tiffany-blue skies. Probably there’s even a notebook with this very phrasing scribbled out in woke-up-at-3am-giggling-over-this-idea handwriting. The writer has been dying to use it somewhere for quite some time, and when the protagonist is placed into a position where solitude and empty hearts become a focal point – BAM! There it is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the kind of earned wisdom that comes from working the land or an embattled life. Some of the most powerful words have come from the least powerful people.

photo courtesy of torgo10.tumblr.com

Poor kid. Wait till he gets a mortgage.

The writer wants to philosophize and wax poetic to show off his or her ideas and some writing tricks, and uses a character to do something the story will otherwise  not allow.

Don’t count on publishing houses to catch this for you. One editor might be juggling the whole list for a season where there used to be a whole team. Or you might get someone who isn’t experienced enough, awake enough, or interested enough in fighting over it. But, you might say, if it doesn’t bother them, then what’s the big deal?

Well, buttercup, once the book’s out there, readers will care. Sure, if you’re a good enough writer they will enjoy your novel or story but those weird inconsistencies will irritate like a sesame seed under dentures. In a hyper-competitive book environment, can you afford to lose credibility and authority? What about your next time out? Word of mouth is still the greatest form of promotion, so when talking (or posting) about your book, readers are more likely to feel less positively than they would have if you hadn’t barged into the story.

Awwk-waard!

Let’s put it this way: The Walking Dead is the powerhouse that it is because the writers know their characters. Even when they do something out of character, it is consistent with the circumstances. It all makes sense together. There is more going on under the storytelling surface than meets the eye, but it is within the narrative scaffolding and not the writers’ whims.

But just watch. As soon as they forget what their story is about, and as soon as their characters go off the map without circumstances that make sense, the viewership will drop like a bird having a heart attack in mid-air. When the writers start intruding on the storytelling to say something they’be been dying to add for a long time, to make the story about something other than what it’s about, to play with the underlying driving factors, this show is done.

It’ll be Lost all over again.

Is that what you want for your writing career?

Know you characters. Know your purpose. Know what drives the whole. Stay the aitch-ee-double-toothpicks out of your own story.

Then you will be less likely to storybomb your own writing.

Want to know how to prevent storybombing through structure? Read my post about an exciting one-of-a-kind writing tool soon to be launched that will change the way you write. Subscribe to this blog for updates on this never-before seen product, and be among the first to get hold of a copy. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to get your plotting on the right track.

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What’s With All The Talk About Structure?

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookIt’s everywhere. The snowflake method. The Wordplay lady. Moi. Probably a few other places.

Why are people talking about structure all of a sudden?

Does a story even need it? Or maybe it’s just for genre writers. Besides, isn’t that like putting shackles on a running thoroughbred? Especially literary writers?

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Structure? No thank you. I’m an artiste. I wing it.

Whoa there, back up. Please don’t mistake structure for some dictatorial pre-fab format. Structure is to story what bones are to flesh. It’s there, whether you consciously create it or not. Writing without structure is like walking without bones. If you’re lucky – and most of us are not – you have a knack for intuiting structure from within the writing process. Like a boss. Bravo.

However

It’s a bit like raising children: if you don’t teach them values, someone else will.

Image courtesy of totalfilm.com

Like this guy. He will teach em up real good.

If writers don’t consciously deal with structure, the reader will. And while s/he might not be actively aware of what the problem is, the story will simply not sit right. If you troll the comments sections of your local online book emporium, notice how often you read assessments like “a mess”, “went nowhere”, “had no point”, “all over the map” “fell apart” “pointless” or “doesn’t know what it wants to be”.

But, you may argue, that’s just bad plotting. Or there’s probably no theme tying it together.

Oh, pookie. These are not plot issues. They’re not thematic problems. They’re structural.

How do I know?

Theme is, say, a massive glass skyscraper in the heart of Kabul, or a cookie cutter neighborhood. If a building is ugly, it’s a design issue. If it falls down? Structural. If there are cracks in the walls, crumbling? Structure. Warping or listing? Structure. Accretions? Structure. Seepage? Structure.

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My house. See? I know what I’m talking about. That’s 360-degree structural issues right there.

The qualities of structural soundness apply whether you’re knee deep in basement sewage (and have miraculously found no Hot Wheels stuffed in the toilet) or wrist-deep in narrative sewage.

Take a look at this:

Theme = what your story is about. A glass skyscraper in Kabul says something (intentionally – we’ll get you on your feet economically, or perceptually – we’ve been colonized). A cookie cutter neighborhood says something. Theme is either directed or interpreted, and not necessarily the same way.

Ugly story = unappealing, distasteful, unfamiliar style, voice, form. And ugly can be beautiful: As I Lay Dying.

Collapsed story (ie: a mess or fell apart) = failed structure

Cracks in the narrative (ie: pointless, makes no sense) = unsound structure

Warping/listing story (ie: all over the map, bad beginning, weak middle, fell apart at the end) = weak or poorly constructed structure

Accretions in the story (ie: stuck, all build-up/no follow-through) = compromised structure

Seepage (ie: doesn’t know what it wants to be) = breached structure

You can be a fantastic writer but a bad storyteller, and you won’t have an audience. You can be a terrible writer but with amazing storytelling skills and end up a millionaire.

Structure is everything. Storytelling stands on its foundation. Genius and talent and great ideas are nothing without the substance of structure.

That’s what the big deal is about structure. That’s what all the talk is about.

Unfortunately, it’s also the hardest part to get right. So someone’s telling you to use fractals to set up your story. Start with generalities and work your way toward specifics. It’s a nice idea but how does that help you with your story, now – right now? How do fractals create the dramatic momentum required to tell a good story?

Someone else out there wants you to write summaries and tack them all together with scene-building. What does that have to do with structure, or momentum, or internal logic?

Three acts? Five? Does it matter?

Did you tell a good story after all those exercises? Can you even tell?

Now what? How do you test out whether your story will be a good one? Shouldn’t there be some way to examine the components to see if it has created a structure strong enough for good storytelling?

Mapping? Storyboarding? They might be good for idea generation but how are blind guide methods going to help writers structure? Keep reading all the self-help type books but it’s like reading about building houses. If you want to actually learn how to build a house you have to build a house. That’s when all the weird words and actions take on meaning. Real meaning.

So build your structure.

Over the next few months readers of this blog will learn about the only structuring tool available anywhere that can truly help: read my post on the Writer’s Studio Series:Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative). Learn how to structure by structuring your story. This is something different. Right now every other method out there is like trying to make sense of a film by looking at one photo at a time. The Structural Flowchart is your whole story. All at once. Right in front of your eyes so you’ll know instantly when something isn’t working, and how it affects other parts of the structure.

Let that bake your noodle for a while.

If you want to tell better stories, if you want to increase your chances of having readers and getting published and doing well, you will need this tool. Subscribe to my blog (rather than merely “like” the post) for updates about when the Structural Flowchart will be available. I’ll continue teaching readers about what exactly this thing is so that by the time it launches on Kickstarter, my blog subscribers will not only know what it is, they’ll also be among the first in the world to get a hold of it. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition, so please tell anyone you know with an interest in writing to come to this blog, subscribe, and be part of something that will change the way stories are built.

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Why Everything You’ve Ever Done To Keep Track Of Your Story Is Wrong

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookGuidebooks: Blahblah blah. Blah blah. Blah. Huh? Interesting. But how was that supposed to help me actually write – ?

Workbooks: Scribble scribblescribble scratch. Erase-erase-erase. Scribble. Scribble. Who the – What the – Why’d I write that? And why did I put it there in the first place? Erase erase erase. Scribble. Rip. Dayum

Software: Tappity-tappity tap tap tappatappa. Tap. Delete delete. Tappity tap. Backspacebackspacebackspace. Tap. Delete delete delete. Tappity – Hmm. Where’d I put that part about the atheist praying mantis? Tap tap – Where did – Ah! Oh. Ugh. Delete delete delete. Wait – maybe I need it after all. No, it’s gone. But – maybe it really is important to the story. But then – Aw, I don’t even know any more. Click. P-khew!

Files & Notes: Aaargh! Sob –

Structural Flowchart* – Write write write. Oh! So that’s how that works! Wow. Just – wow. Write write. Oh, so that’s not supposed to be there. Correct. Track track – yes, now it makes sense why it didn’t work. It doesn’t link up with any of the other narrative threads. Ha. Lee. Loo. Ya.

Nuff said.

* Coming soon to a Kickstarter near you: the Writer’s Studio Series: Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative). Tell your friends. If you (and all those friends who are dying to write better stories) want to be updated about the progress of the project launch, please subscribe to this blog.

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A Revolutionary New Storytelling Tool Is Coming

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookThis will change the way you write.

If you can imagine what blueprints and the fundamentals of structural engineering did for architecture, or what arrangement principles and scoring sheets did for composers, you have an idea what this tool will do for writers. It’s the perfect marriage of form and function, and there is nothing like it anywhere in the world. Anywhere.

The Writer’s Studio Series Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative) is not a guidebook, it’s not a workbook, and it’s not cumbersome, overly-complicated software. It’s so unbelievably simple that writers will wonder how it hasn’t already existed yet.

It will shave years of frustrated effort off your writing.

It. Will. Change. Your. Life.

What is it?

Stay tuned.

Soon I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for this project, which will allow backers the chance to get hold of a hot-off-the-press copy long before it’s available to the general public.

But here’s where it gets amazing: without naming names (because I haven’t secured permission to name-drop yet, but you know which one I’m talking about), the biggest media venue in the world dedicated to writers wants a first-run copy of this product to assess for a possible feature article aimed at its global audience of writers and publishers. That means, after the Kickstarter campaign, if demand goes supernova, copies will be hard to get hold of for a while as I scramble with my supplier to manage the upped game.

This is where it gets ugly. Kickstarter is all-or-nothing. If a project doesn’t meet its goal, not one dollar changes hands. So, if writers want this amazing tool in their hot little hands, this thing has to go viral. That means every person reading this blog post who wants a copy of the Classic Arc Narrative Structural Flowchart will have to tell everyone, and ask them to tell everyone.

Subscribe to this blog for updates and clues, and be among the first to become a backer.

It’s okay to “like” the post, but this will not get you any updates, so if you want to stay informed about the progress of the project and the Kickstarter campaign, you must subscribe (along the side bar). The project launch will go hand-in-hand with the launch of a dedicated website. Once the Kickstarter campaign begins, there will only be 30 days to take action.

No one can imagine designing a building without blueprints, or composing a symphony without a score. It’s time writers were given the same advantage. The Writer’s Studio Series Classic Arc Narrative Structural Flowchart is the best possible tool available for structuring fiction. Find out for yourself what architects and composers have known for centuries.

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Add This And Stir For Memorable Writing

Do a quick tally of memorable writing and you’ll find that a surprising amount of fiction includes a very specific feature. Is this deliberate, subconscious, a device not revealed until writers reach some mysterious tenth World of Writercraft level where we can unleash these heretofore unknown literary easter-eggs? And what is the magic in it?

No. I won’t reveal it. But I will offer clues so you can figure it out for yourself:

Bright without light, I hide; between day and night I abide. Most rare, no fair, doomed to scare, I am sporting and sported beyond my share. In two dimensions I am fabulous, in three fabu-less, with never a reason why. What am I?

Go ahead. I’ll give you a minute…

Huh, right?

Why is it used in the first place, and why does it stir up such magic in stories? What does it add to memorable writing? If you’ve used it in your own writing, how did you give it purpose? More importantly, why?

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NEW! Fiction Timeline Worksheet – Improved: Now Including Structural Template

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As mentioned in the original Fiction Timeline Worksheet Post, this spreadsheet (in MS Excel) is always open to improvement according to suggestions and experimentation. So here it is, distilled and ready to help writers organize and make better sense of their stories.

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Follow this blog for updates on the upcoming launch of a game-changing story development tool that can do what no existing writing management system can – turn writing into storytelling so writers can finally understand how to engage readers to improve the chance of getting read and getting published.

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The Alchemy of Great Storytelling

In the ancient world, the magic of turning lead into gold was thought to be achieved through alchemy. What are writers trying to do but work toward some kind of alchemy through words? Strong writing and great storytelling – not always concurrent expressions – are something exquisite wrought from the ordinary.

The Prima Materia of Great Storytelling

Water. Wind. Fire. Earth. Original elements – Prima Materia – in a particular combination, in particular quantities, combined with a mystical unknown element called quintessence by some, the Philosopher’s Stone by others, were thought to turn sundry earth-bits into precious metal.

So how do writers turn word-bits into that rare, lustrous, ductile narrative commodity? Is there a secret buried beneath great storytelling and strong writing (even if not exclusively great literature) that can be made more understandable through the old ideas of alchemy?

The classical elements recur in psychological theory, Jungian in particular, where alchemy corresponds to the process of individuation.

All this translates aptly into the literary realm, and has been woven through narrative in other guises. For some authors the classical elements relate to the seasons. The weight or focus upon a given season gives birth to genre. Winter/water is satire; spring/wind is comedy; summer/fire is romance; autumn/earth is tragedy.

It is the life cycle of conception, birth, growth, and death. In maturation it’s the stages that take us from dependency to initiation to mating to mortality.

In storytelling, just as it is in the specific process – the Magnum Opus or Great Work – that creates the Philosopher’s Stone or unknown element, precedence of order matters. In every great narrative, the crux of strong writing depends upon beginning in the right place. And if alchemy is really an expression of the universal and the primal, a structural truth springing organically from something that has existed in us since first consciousness – then the beginning, it seems, is really an end.

The Process of Great Storytelling

The Ordinary

The generative phase of the Great Work is that of Nigredo. In the realm of classical elements, this is the earth constituent,  represented by the Hippocratic humour of black bile – melancholy. Necessarily, this aspect of the mystical alchemic process is the decomposition of the ordinary and the known, the lead. It is the chaos before creation.  It is autumnal, the cyclical space wherein the past is in ruin but the future remains beyond reach. It is tragedy. It’s the spiritual death without which there can be no rebirth. For Jung, this was a confrontation with Shadow, the concealed subconscious aspect of Self. For Freud: Apocalypse, the breaking up and breaking down of the known.

It’s possible that this beginning place seems so natural in literature because it corresponds with the origins of our very existence: the beginning is the void. It’s what precedes the Big Bang, and the nothingness before creation and before birth; it is the nothingness without which the eventuation of human existence would have been impossible.

From the the Book of Genesis to The Satanic Verses, great narratives begin with void – of the soul, the psyche, the city, society, civilization, the personal life, the political and ideological life.

This is more than just a character who wants something, as writing advice often suggests. Writers who want a shot at something greater than invisible-making work must dig into the profundity of the void, what it looks like (deeply, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, existentially), how we share it, and how it translates into narrative. Jung’s Shadow occupies this space: it is the face of identity turned as much away from the self as the public, and its awakening triggers the ruin of the known self. Pull a scratch-n-sniff level excavation, or go full-bore into the bowels of human experience; how far depends on the writer’s capabilities and will. The richness and value to the reader(s) will be a matter of what’s been tapped, and how.

In Crime and Punishment, the void is ever-present in the bleakness of pre-Bolshevist Russian society, but the void is also – simultaneously – the looming presence of radicalism that forms in answer to Raskolnikov’s social reality. In every description is a suggestion that Raskolnikov is a product of a gaping social and ideological blackness. It is already in him, psychically formed of the Intelligentsia ideal like a pustule. It’s in the physical filth and greyness. It’s in the man who beats his horse to death as much as it is in the reactions of those who witness it. From the outset Raskolnikov is the embodiment of spiritual, intellectual, and social putrefaction. His choices are society’s choices. His actions are those of a man who has broken open the breach of false selfhood and recognized his own Shadow. He murders because his intellectual superiority makes him fit to judge the moral worth of another human being. So says the mask-self. But as Raskolnikov comes to understand his Shadow self he accepts what truly underlies his murderous side.

Similarly, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables enters a time and place already in the process of destruction. But more importantly, he is France’s benumbed conscience, the nowhere place out of which the future of France will be born. He is a grown-up construct of the society that gave birth to him, that made it possible for him to become a hardened criminal to begin with. On a dark and solitary road he begins to awaken to his Shadow self.

The Magnus Opus’ Albedo (white) phase is a purification of lead into silver. Water is the element. It is winter, and satire. The decomposed remains from the generative phase are washed through into two predominant opposing principles. Of the humours, Albedo corresponds with a phlegmatic temperament – unemotional, stolid, calm. For Jung the splitting is between the psychological Anima and Animus – unacknowledged femaleness and unacknowledged maleness that must finally communicate to achieve wholeness and eventually a fully individuated Self. It is Freud’s Deluge among the archetypal motifs.

No better literary exemplar for this idea of splitting and opposing principles can be found than A Tale of Two Cities. The famous opening lines foreshadow the ways in which England and France, London and Paris, and Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay come to represent social, ideological, and political cleansing, and the distillation of self and identity – all in opposition. They query the provenance of human and cultural development. They are at once forces that both compete and complete.

The Extraordinary

Nothing as common or predictable as a simple ablution will metamorphose the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even with strong writing and strong storytelling this holds true, and it’s what divides good from great.

In narrative, to misunderstand the core of this transcendent movement is to derail storytelling and character development. It’s to continue the trajectory of the ordinary, or to make an auspicious beginning only to lose narrative footing by attenuating its potential right back to ordinary.

Exactly where this moment occurs in a narrative is part of storytelling’s quintessence.

Citrinitas represents the yellow bile of the humours – elemental fire. Yellow bile is choleric, aggressive. In this phase an alchemic transmutation by fire occurs, where silver transforms into gold.  Of the Jungian archetypes, fire is the Wise Elder or Senex. For Freud it’s Creation.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz, both obliquely through the idea of him and directly with the eerily brilliant but dying Kurtz, changes Marlow. Most would argue that Kurtz is the evil genius archetype but the transformation of gold in this alchemic phase does not necessitate a gentle, coddling Wise Elder. It demands a catalyst for a trial by fire. That Kurtz is the evil genius is only one aspect of his own evolution into demigod and chieftain, a self-styled and perverse redaction of the Senex, but his role in the narrative is no less that of the Wise Elder for his depraved contribution to Marlow’s development. In fact, it might be argued that only Kurtz’ personal and projected dissonance with his own embodiment of “horror” could hold the power to purify Marlow’s Self.

Finally, signifying success in the alchemic process is the unity of the quintessence with the newly rarefied gold. This phase is called Rubedo. The element is air, and the Hippocratic humor is that of blood or sanguinity. It’s Jung’s archetypal Self.  The importance of this coalescence lies in the representation of red in both components of this final stage – gold and quintessence – and thus the unity of opposites; it’s material with immaterial, body with spirit, effable with ineffable; it’s a signal completion of the Magnum Opus and the fully individuated or actualized Self. As a Freudian archetypal motif: Unity.

Not all alchemic endings are happy, but they must ring true to the process that generates them. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the moment when Dorian stabs his own portrait symbolizes a confrontation between what he has learned of himself and what he has become. Only death can provide true unity. The metaphoric and symbolic synthesis is not just concluded through the redness of blood, it is made choate.

Raskolnikov and Sidney Carton choose self-sacrifice – that of freedom and that of life, respectively, to substantiate the unity between the past self and the discovered Self.

To some extent, all great stories contain elements of the alchemic. As humans, our very existence – our lives – play out that paradigm. Throughout literary history it seems to have always cohered with readers, and likely always will.

Perhaps this sheds some light on the qualities that make stories relatable and memorable. For writers, that is the eternal mystery. Its revelation lies both in the cosmic and quantum matter of human experience, that existential site either too big or too small to understand except in pieces, where we and our stories become one.

Writers must find that place, interpret its alchemic Prima Materia, then assimilate them in just the right way, in the right quantities, in the right order, weighted precisely, then – gold.

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

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The Best Editing Tool You Probably Don’t Use

All writers experience this problem: after hours or days or months staring at the computer screen while your imaginative gems appear before your eyes one pixellated word at a time, you no longer have perspective. As far as editing tools are concerned, you’re tapped. Is it writer’s block? You’re missing even simple mistakes. You don’t realise you’ve repeated the same word ten times on the same page. How is the narrative flow? Who knows? After reading and re-reading your manuscript you get …

Nothing.

You might as well have cotton balls for brains.

Print it out, of course, but in terms of qualitative effect as an editing tool it’s only one removed from what you see on the screen. Back to cotton balls. Plus, who needs to kill so many trees when there’s a better way?

This trick refreshes your perspective so that you can see your work with new editorial eyes. Mistakes and flow problems will pop out like never before, just as they do when you’re reading a novel.

Have you guessed what the editing tool is yet? Your e-reader!

Most e-readers allow you to download pdf files, so the next time you need to do a major read-through, create a pdf file that will allow you to throw your manuscript onto the little screen and give it a published-novel look that will completely alter how you see your own work.

There are some formatting issues you will need to take into account first. If you don’t make them, it just won’t work. These instructions are for KOBO in Microsoft Office Word, although other devices can’t be very different.

  1. First create a copy of your file in Word and tweak the name (eg: My Novel2 or My Novel – e-reader). You will  need this secondary Word file as a base to create a pdf file. Always keep your original document intact.
  2. On the Home tab in your new Word file:
    • Select All. Formatting changes must be done with all the text selected
    • Under Font choose Palatino Linotype – Size 14. The PDF/KOBO sync did not handle some fonts well, especially Times New Roman, creating a dog’s breakfast of the file, so this was one that worked cleanly. You can try others yourself. The goal is to be viewing a product that most closely resembles a finished novel even if you prefer to work in sans, which is why a classic serif font works best.
  3. Go to Page Layout tab
  4. Choose Page Setup:
    • Paper Size:  8.5×11” Borderless (this is an important distinction, usually used for printing photos). You may need to create a custom paper size to accommodate the borderless feature.
    • Orientation: Landscape
    • Multiple Pages: 2 pages per sheet
    • Margins: Top: 0.5”; Bottom: 2.0”; Inside: 0.5”; Outside: 0.5”; Gutter: 0.0”
  5. Choose Paragraph:
    • Indentation: Special – First Line by 0.3” (standard 0.5 eats up too much space on the small screen)
    • Line spacing: single

When Saving As PDF:

Choose Save As. When the screen for the Save As PDF feature pops up, choose Options:

  • Page Range: All
  • Publish What: Document
  • Include Non-Printing Information: Document Structure Tags for Accessibility (allows table of contents and bookmarks in e-reader. Without re-formatting the tags and bookmarks it won’t be pretty but at least you’ll be able to navigate through the KOBO Menu’s Table of Contents feature)
  • PDF Options: Bitmap text when fonts may not be embedded

Try creating JPEG or GIF cover art for your book and insert it as the first page, with the title and your name splashed across the front. It’ll do wonders for how you imagine your project. You can stretch it across the whole page by selecting a Through text-wrapping option to give you control of image placement, and then dragging the edges.

Finally, plug your e-reader in, open the folder that contains your pdf file, right-click on the file and choose Send To from the drop-down menu to select your removable storage device. Done.

The beauty of this editing tool is that you can send your file to someone who also has an e-reader. It’s a highly accessible feedback tool. Although you can’t make changes like you can with an open Word document, you can certainly keep your original file open and on hand to make changes as you read. Alternatively, keep a paper pad nearby to make notes on the changes you need to make in your original Word document.

Make all your changes to the original Word file, not the pdf Word file. Although it’s a hassle, even if you copy and paste the text into the secondary document, each time you want a new copy for your e-reader you’ll have to change the formatting once again. Merging files may work, but it’s an experiment you’ll have to try yourself.

This is probably the best editing tool you will ever use to give you a fresh perspective. Try it, and see if it doesn’t completely change the way you read and edit your own work.

Other posts by Sandra Chmara:

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Making Yourself Submission-Ready

Remember the scene from Seinfeld where Elaine develops a rash, and every attempt to seek medical help ends in the ominous click of a ballpoint pen and a permanent notation in her file that marks her as a difficult patient – all the way up to the government level? What, you may ask, does that have to do with writers making themselves submission-ready?

Well, my friends, you are Elaine, your masterpiece of fiction is a rash, and somewhere out there is someone ready with a ballpoint pen.

What if your submission makes an editor never want to hear from you again? Are you prepared to make a name for yourself for all the worst possible reasons, all of which tie your name to literary garbage? What do you suppose that does for your chances of getting published in the future?

Everyone makes mistakes when they start out, but writers who begin the submission process rarely think about submission-readiness or the effects of a premature effort.

Unfortunately, writers waste a lot of time with false starts – not just their own, but that of the publishers and editors and agents who must slog through acres of tripe and dreck just to waste more time sending out rejection letters. Are you one of those writers who make editors want to quit their jobs? Will you get it wrong? Did it already happen?

Are you submission-ready?

Find out. Before you lick that stamp, here’s a check list that can help you determine your submission-readiness:

  1. You’ve vetted your entire work somewhere for detailed feedback, and parts of it broadly through different venues:
    • workshops
    • writing conferences
    • writers’s groups (with at least one person who knows something about writing)
    • writer-in-residence programmes
    • college/university coursework
    • MA/MFA
    • professional editing services
    • legitimate competitions
    • publication history
  2. You’ve learned to self-edit:
    • POV is clear and strong, without confused multiple points-of-view within a scene
    • purple prose is under control (and you know what it is when you see it as well as when you write it)
    • sentences vary in structure, length, and word choices, and partipate actively to convey pacing and tone
    • able to pick out repetitious words and phrases both in close textual proximity and overall
    • minimal spelling and grammar mistakes
    • no errant homophones (it’s/its; their/there/they’re, etc.)
    • able to maintain focus on the main story line and excise anything that detracts from moving the plot forward – even when you love it
    • facts are checked and double-checked
  3. You understand what kind of story you’re writing:
    • genre
    • style
    • category
    • form
  4. You know whether your characters are flat or dimensional, you know the narrative uses of each, and you made a deliberate choice based on the kind of story you’re writing.
  5. Your plot choices are focussed and well-considered:
    • chronology
    • appropriate use of flashbacks
    • setting
    • structurally sound
    • tone
  6. Character development arc is defined
    • purposeful
    • tied to events and experiences
    • keeps the story moving forward
    • you can easily describe it to someone
  7. You’ve identified your audience
  8. You’ve made conscious and purposeful structural choices:
    • you know how your narrative is shaped
    • you know how to start and end a paragraph, and why
    • you know how to start and end a chapter, and why
    • you know where to start and end your story
  9. You’ve mastered dialogue:
    • it’s natural
    • each character voice is distinct, even without indicators
    • it drives the story forward
    • it adds to character development
  10. You display a mature attitude about writing:
    • you are able to accept analysis and criticism without falling apart
    • you understand that nobody is going to steal your work or your ideas no matter who sees it
    • you are able to distinguish between valuable critique and misdirected criticism
    • you show an ability to simultaneously work and wait
    • you’ve read books produced by the publishing house(s) to which you are submitting, you can see an obvious pattern of literary tastes, you know that the publishers’ preferences either relate to your writing or don’t, and this research informs your choice of publishing targets.

Everybody who ever started out writing stinks. Everybody. There is a learning curve that takes longer for some, and less time for others. For some writers the window of opportunity and the story’s readiness won’t come together for years or even decades. A great story is worth holding onto, and worth waiting for that conjunction of time and talent and tastes that turns a seemingly futile effort into literary magic. The key is having the strength of character to resist sending your material out simply because your wrote it, and knowing the difference between your story’s readiness and your own.

No matter where you are on the curve, there is no advantage to rushing unless you’re writing a shocking expose about political candidates and the election is in a few months. Even then, opportunity does not make a well-told story.

Your chances of getting published are greatest when your work displays a consummate consciousness of craft, professionalism, and maturity; when you’ve faced the death of any illusions about the writing life or your own magnificence; when you show a willingness to do the hard work of making yourself as submission-ready as you have made yourself author-ready.

Because if you don’t … CLICK!

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Women and Writing: Epic Fail

If you’re a woman and a writer, and if you publish, you have about a 75% chance – give or take – of being universally ignored in literary reviews. This according to the latest data collected by VIDA now reverberating throughout the literary community and stirring up every shade of argument and apologia.

Are the lines really drawn between genders or is something else going on? And if women are so under-represented in the literary world, what’s getting in their way? Is male dominance so entrenched as to expressly give preference to inferior writing because the author is male?

It’s frightening to imagine the business model that represents. Ultimately, it’s like some kind of sick Soviet delusion that crams the Lada down the public throat because it can’t admit what a failure communism is, doesn’t care what the market wants, and won’t concede to the better – though flawed – system of democratic free-enterprise.

Are we to believe that some nefarious patriarchy is so moronic and self-destructive that brilliant writing will be systematically and pointedly pushed aside to serve a male agenda, even at the risk of lowering standards, profitability, and overall readership?

The VIDA people trot out arguments about the ratio of submissions and qualitative rubrics to dismiss the proportionality of reviews to submissions between the genders, cited by editors and publishers to explain the representational discrepancy. In other words, editors and reviewers are saying that 75% of the attention goes to male writers because 75% of the submissions are from male writers. VIDA doesn’t buy that, and believes it can mathematically chop up quality in an analysis to determine that these reviews are preferentially ignoring works of a higher calibre because the writers are women. The idea of qualitative rubrics is curious, since writing quality and publishability are so utterly subjective that it’s hard to imagine a statistically viable rubric for a process built necessarily on variability and inconsistently personal taste, which may differ widely within a single publication from editor to editor, much less from publication to publication. Even two comparable qualitative samples in writing cannot possibly express the broader scope of ineffable narrative factors that make one story a failure and the other a success.

A recent Globe & Mail article by newly minted publisher Linda Leith is likely to kick up a lot of dust just as it appears to have settled. She explains, without blame or setting up an argument about the causal chain, that in her experience as an editor, women fail both in the quantity and quality of submissions, and that if a publisher’s objective is to select the best of the best – well, the numbers are in favour of men. Hands down. Why women are submitting so infrequently relative to men, and why the writing quality is so poor are questions that must be asked and answered.

To this, VIDA would say that it’s the job of the publisher to go out and solicit women writers.

If editors must scramble to solicit writers who lack the wherewithal, ambition, or talent to find markets for their work, should they be published? Are they even ready for it? Such a publishing model – pushing the disinterested and the halfhearted – the half-baked – into publication just to make the numbers look good – is a recipe for mediocrity and failure. It does not answer the core questions about submission rates and quality.

Successful women in any field have been successful because they wanted to be, and they had the chops to flip inevitable chauvinism right on its back. Margaret Thatcher was not solicited to be Prime Minister to even out the gender score. She earned it. Oprah Winfrey did not become an entertainment powerhouse because some special interest group recognised the triple-whammy of her gender, racial, and weight disadvantages, and so coaxed her out of the shadows like some shy, dungeon-blinded patriarchal captive.

Will men go out of their way to shut women out? Some. But not all.

For anyone who wants what they want there are many routes to success, and they will turn and push and turn and push until something gives. They just do it. And if resistance and failure put an end to their efforts, then they likely didn’t want it with the same single-mindedness as the competition.

The internet is too immediate and too accessible to leave stuffy journals of yore with such overarching power. Even if the Old Boys are still at it, readers will effectively and efficiently bypass disingenuous publications that continuously churn out mediocrity that comes by way of skewed ideological positions, or more directly by pushing their version of the Lada on a public with a taste for something else.

No review can make a reader passionate about bland writing. A lack of formal reviews won’t keep a brilliantly written novel by a woman from the big prizes, or from the perusal of the general public. Readers will choose and buy, now more than ever, based on the opinions of other regular readers. Nothing can be more democratic and anti-chauvinist and anti-patriarchal than that. They will assess online commentary and reviews because they trust the integrity of even the most basic likes and dislikes, and ultimately they trust the aggregate.

So if the Big Boys are pursuing a dead agenda a hundred years past its due date, then the public will reward them by rendering such journals and their reviewers irrelevant, thus bringing to an end formal, knowledgeable literary reviewing. If such is the case, good riddance.

In the end it’s the depth and the storytelling magic that matters, not the review. Readers will always be attracted to beautiful writing, a sense of insight, and the writer’s connection – intellectually, spiritually, emotionally – with the broad sweep of the human condition.

Not male condition. Not female condition.

The  human condition. How beautiful. How full enough for us all.

Maybe that makes all the difference.

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