Tag Archives: writing tool

The One Fatal Mistake Writers Make And How To Fix It (Text Version)

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookWhat if I told you that something you’re doing right now as a writer is actually making it almost impossible to reach readers, whether you’re published or not?

You’d think that with all the writing going on today, and all the advice out there about writing, we’d be churning out more masterpieces than ever. But it almost seems like the opposite is true. So what’s going on?

As an editor I see the same problems over and over. As a writer, I repeat the same problems over and over. We all do. Editing obviously helps with a lot of minor issues, and even some major flaws can be fixed with editing. But the one quality that counts most, and the one failure that’s consistent in the writing I see – and in my own – is the one that can’t be fixed with any amount of editing.

Writers just don’t know how to tell a story.

And if you can’t tell a captivating story, how will you ever get published? How will you get read, or if you do get published how will you find an audience? Because being published is not an indicator or a guarantee that you will ever have readers. If you’re writing, you must want readers, right? We’re all in this to one day be read.

But writing is what writers are interested in. Writing, and getting published. Everyone is writing everywhere, and wherever you look someone is telling writers how to write so they can get published. So much writing, and so much writing about writing.

Such a huge waste.

Writing isn’t what gets you read. It’s what gets the story out of your head, but it isn’t what gets the story into the reader’s head.

There’s one part of the narrative process everyone’s skipping over, the one part that’s most important to get right and the least understood, and that’s storytelling.

And to be clear, storytelling is not plotting. You can have a so-called plotless novel that’s a storytelling powerhouse, and you can have a heavily plotted novel with no storytelling value whatsoever. Writers focus obsessively on the one quality that almost doesn’t even count as long as you can string sentences together, but they do almost nothing to nurture storytelling – the one  thing that brings the reader into the story. They don’t know how.

I certainly never did.

Just ask any editor or publisher and they’ll tell you that incompetent storytelling is such an overarching deficiency that editors aren’t eager to commit precious resources to fix something the writer doesn’t even understand about her or his own work.

Think about it.

It isn’t writing that keeps readers turning the page. If it were, lyrical literary works would be bestsellers all the time, and some of the worst writing out there wouldn’t be turning some people into millionaires. Really riveting storytelling can blind a reader to terrible writing. And on the other hand, beautiful writing keeps the reader mired in the words, not in the story; it can blind the writer – and sometimes publishers – to the importance of storytelling.

It’s all about storytelling. It answers for reader engagement in a way no other part of writing can. It is the narrative transportation system between the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind.

As a writer, I’ve never had problems getting my queries read. About 90% of the time I get a full manuscript request. At times I’ve gone up to two years into the consideration process before that final rejection. I’d lick my wounds, then go back to the writing.

And I’d keep going back to the writing when writing wasn’t the problem. It was the storytelling. I could see the lack of storytelling in my clients’ submissions, or in too many of the novels I was reading, but never in my own. The more contact I had with other writers’ work, the more I began to recognise that it was a universal fatal blind spot.

So the question is, what makes up storytelling? What urges readers to give up their weekends and forego sleep to plough through the pages of someone else’s imaginative output? What makes so many readers go back to the same stories over and over again throughout their lives?

Now, let me give you a bit of background so you can judge for yourselves my qualifications to even talk about this issue. I’ve been editing and writing for nearly thirty years. I have a business degree with a specialty in marketing but strategy also fascinated me. My master’s degree is in literature and creative writing, with a specialty in composition rhetoric.

These divergent backgrounds have helped me approach problem solving for writing from a completely different angle than other writers and academics who are producing all the workbooks and guidebooks advice blogs and writing methods and software out there, who all approach a textual problem with a textual solution.

So, there are some unusual skills I bring into not just diagnosing the problem, but also finding a solution to address all the problems writers face in story development.

Putting aside uncontrollable variables like genius and raw talent, I started analysing the best fiction ever written with an eye to understanding what it is about their shared storytelling qualities that has made devoted fans of readers generation after generation. Despite widely varying writing styles and voices and approaches, I wanted to know what storytelling choices in the most enduring fiction out there, literary or genre, keyed into reader engagement.

Then I went to work putting what I was learning into context.

I asked myself: what does it take to get the story that forms in the writer’s imagination to take root in the reader’s imagination?

If you trust Dickens and Tolstoi, Graham Greene and Hemingway, if you trust Toni Morrison and William Faulkner and Stephen King and Margaret Mitchell, and all those other great writers we’re still reading today, storytelling is everything. Even character development works synchronously with story development. If you have poor story development, characterization suffers. It has to. What happens to character depends on what happens to story. It’s why the most memorable stories also usually produce the most memorable characters.

I began to analyse method to the story process in a way I had never seen done before – not online, and not in any of the textual material that’s available.

If you think about the story as a body, you have to have a skeletal system that provides form and structure. In order for it to make sense, the parts have to connect to each other in a specific way to give the whole its shape. The same is true in something like architecture. You can have the most outrageous appearance on the outside of a building, but if you don’t abide by certain physical principles of structure and engineering the building simply won’t stay standing.

You can’t just throw something together and hope it will turn out right in the end, yet writers do this all the time. Editors and readers know when you’re offering them a mess, even if you don’t realise it. Even stream of consciousness is purposeful and still great storytelling in the hands of a master. You have to compose deliberately, consciously, with a keen eye for cause and effect. Everything in narrative is connected, but not in the way writers think framed in a series of plotting details.

Then there’s the musculature that provides force and locomotion. If it functions well it pulls the reader along as though the story has a will of its own, and the reader has no choice but to submit. If it doesn’t function, it trips the reader up. It moves one way then another or shifts focus until the reader finally gives up long before the story actually stops moving and dies – which is usually well before the last page anyway.

So there was this idea that something has to keep a story together to give it authority and credibility so readers can trust that the writer knows his or her own creation and what to do with it. Something has to keep it moving to generate the kind of page-turning momentum that gives storytelling vivacity.

But none of this matters for writers unless you address three other problems in story development: continuity, management, and tools.

Serious writers have always intuitively known that uninterrupted story development was crucial to storytelling, and to solve the problem they’ve done everything from writing on the walls to taping sheets of paper together to keeping bulging files and plastering sticky notes everywhere.

What other choices are there? Designers have blueprints and computer-aided design. Composers have scores. What do writers have that can help them manage story development?

The answer has always been inadequate. Paper. Then computers.

No workbook or guidebook or complicated software can ever do the job properly. The forms are not a good match for narrative function. And the hallmark of excellence in design is the perfect fit between form and function. Form must properly fill the gap between function and need.

In fact, the tools writers use every day – the paper and screen forms – actually contribute to the problem for writers simply because the act of turning the page or tabbing over to another screen disengages the writer from story flow. There is no way to access every part of a narrative at once. And if you want strong story development, this is critical.

Then there’s the problem of how to deal with the constant change that comes with each draft and rewrite. Writers try juggling it all in their heads but there are a lot of dropped balls in every manuscript, and a lot of balls still being juggled that should have been dropped, which only contributes to the mess industry professionals see ever day.

What are writers to do, then?

Well, I’ve taken everything I learned about storytelling, and everything I assessed about the writer’s needs, and designed a revolutionary new premium story development tool that will do what no other workbook or guidebook or software can. It will turn writers into storytellers.

It’s like nothing writers have ever seen before. It’s so groundbreaking that Writer’s Digest, part of the largest media empire in the world dedicated to writing, wants a first-run copy to assess for a possible feature article.

 

Follow this blog for updates so you can be among the first to turn your work into the kind of story that will keep readers turning the page.

NarraForm, the world’s only panoramic storytelling tool, providing writers with the continuity and perspective needed for beginning-to-end control of story development, has launched on Kickstarter. It’s the only story development aid anywhere based on unique storytelling benchmarks found only in the best fiction the world has ever seen. Become a backer and be among the first to change how you create and develop stories, and at great values that won’t be possible once NarraForm goes retail.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

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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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Publishing, Sandra Chmara, Uncategorized, Writing