How to Balance Writing With a Day Job

One of the questions I get asked most often is: how do you find the time to write? People seem to equate finishing a novel while working a demanding full-time job with pulling off a miracle, but I’m here to tell you there’s nothing miraculous about it! I make time to write because it is important to me. I juggle balancing writing with my day job, spending time with my family, cleaning, working out, and taking care of my puppy. Among other obligations. If you’re having trouble fitting writing into your life I suggest checking out Jessica Abel’s book Growing Gills. It will help you prioritize tasks and organize yourself so you can carve out time to work on creative projects.

My writing week in a nutshell (also seen in the infographic below):

  • 1.5 hours spent on word output/active writing during my train ride to work
  • 1 hour (sometimes 2-3, depending) spent editing another project on Saturday or Sunday morning
  • 1.5 hours on marketing – throughout the week, when I can or on the weekend
  • 35 minutes on social media – 5 minutes per day or one 30-minute session on the weekend

I have worked at this pace for several years. At this rate I am able to finish 1.5 books per year. Would I love to write more? Yes. But I think I’m doing alright if I do say so myself 🙂

Writing life info graphic

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How to make sure your manuscript is in great shape before sending it to an editor

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One of the things that terrified me about self-publishing was working with an editor. Even though I was confident enough in my novel to go about publishing it independently I was still worried the editor would have some harsh words for me when it came time to read his evaluation of my manuscript. As I waited for my editorial letter I was sure it was going to say I should abandon the idea of publishing my novel and quit writing altogether. I was afraid it would say my story was stupid, filled with ridiculous characters and shoddy writing. Instead, my editor said, “The story world feels real, like it’s inhabited by real people instead of shallow caricatures…you don’t tell us what a character is feeling, you show us the symptoms of that significance or those emotions.”

Though there were loads of grammatical corrections, in terms of rewrites the changes I had to make were very minor and could be accomplished in an hour or two. I think the reason the letter was so complimentary was because of my relentless editing and vetting of my manuscript.

To ensure a smooth reception of your own manuscript, I suggest following the steps below:

-Self-edit as much as possible. This translates to: read the damn thing as much as you can without going crazy. I read my manuscript probably 12 or 15 times before I took it to an editor. I did specific searches in Word for show vs. tell, re-read the first and last sentences of each chapter, and changed the font a few times which let me see my manuscript with fresh eyes. I discovered something I wanted to change with every single read.

-Start writing something else. I got a good chunk of another novel completed while editing One Night. Even though I loved the characters in One Night it got trying at times, spending so much time with them. To get a break I started a new manuscript. Taking some time away from One Night also allowed me to look at the novel with fresh eyes when I came back to it.

-Employ the use of beta readers at different stages of the editing process. I used beta readers after I finished a first draft and again after I finished the third draft. It can be hard to find good beta readers—i.e. ones that are actually helpful—but they are a must if you want to improve your manuscript. Whether you send the entire thing to beta readers or a partial manuscript it will help you immensely. They will catch things you yourself don’t see. There are many people out there willing to beta read for free so I suggest you save yourself some money and recruit people who are happy to devote their time at no charge.

-Read your manuscript out loud. This is really a companion to step number one, but since it involves reading aloud I wanted to add it separately. Reading your manuscript out loud makes you aware of awkward phrases you can’t catch when you read the pages in your head.

-Have professionals vet your novel. Before I decided to publish One Night, I tried to get it traditionally published. In fact, I urge all of you who are thinking about self-publishing to try the traditional route first. I queried agents for nine months. The reason I decided to go ahead and publish One Night myself was because of the high request rate I had for the full manuscript. Without this I would’ve been hesitant. Moreover, the reasons for rejection were all over the board and subjective. If agents had rejected One Night for the same reason over and over I would have thought major changes were needed, but since they varied greatly in their reasoning and complimented my writing and the characters I knew I was onto something.

I wish you the best of luck as you work with an editor on your manuscript and hope you find these tips useful.

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3 Ways Screenwriting Makes You a Better Writer

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Hi all,

Please check out this guest post from my writer friend Sarah Hohman. Sarah is a writer, comedian and teacher. She is one-half of UpWriteladies.com. Follow her at www.UpWriteLadies.com, or @upwriteladies on Twitter.

3 Ways Screenwriting Makes You a Better Writer

As a writer, I have dabbled in all sorts of genres, motifs, styles, and forms of writing. I have written novels, blogs, journals, poetry, jokes, screenplays, short stories, and teleplays, just to name a few. However, I have found that learning how to write a proper screenplay taught me how to be a better writer more than any other form of writing I have done. In fact, I advise any burgeoning writer to learn screenplay format to improve their writing.

1 – Formatting Forces You to Be Efficient

Sure, it’s a pain to learn screenplay format at first. It’s intimidating and seems to favor form over art, but once you get used to the nuts and bolts of it, it becomes second nature and doesn’t inhibit your storytelling at all. When you are writing a novel, you can make it as long as you want, which means a lot of writers (particularly new writers) tend to overdo their descriptions. They add a lot of padding they simply don’t need, which can be fun to read but ultimately gets frustrating, repetitive, and boring for readers.

Screenplay format is very specific about page count and how much “white space” should be on a page. Unless you are a Tarantino, you’re not going to get very far writing a 300 page screenplay. This means you have to be able to pare your story down to the proper length of between 90 and 120 pages for a feature-length script, which forces you to self-edit and only include vital scenes. You may have to cut things you like for the sake of page length, but you will quickly learn how to “cut the fat”, which makes you a better writer.

2 – It Focuses on Character and Dialogue

Screenplays are written to be filmed, but they must be fun to read, too. You have two audiences you have to please with one piece of writing; the movie-going public, and the producers who will read your screenplay and decide whether or not to make it come to life. Because viewers of your movie won’t be able to read the action that is happening on screen, the bulk of energy while writing a screenplay is spent making the dialogue stand out. A reader’s eye naturally scans the action, and lingers on what the characters are saying. If your dialog sucks, you’re sunk, and that becomes obvious by page 10.

When writing a screenplay, you can’t rely on flowery descriptions. Action lines are supposed to be no more than five lines at a time, so you are seriously limited in the amount of time you can spend telling your reader what is happening. You have to use the words your character says to tell the audience about them: their education, their background, their motives. The more you allow the characters to come to life through their dialogue, the more engaging your script will be. Creating different and distinct character voices is an incredible challenge, and it’s one that writers of novels and short stories don’t have to face in the same way. Because there can be long patches of prose between dialogue in a story, you don’t have to think about how well a single conversation flows. With a script, the dialogue is in a single block, so any clunky-sounded word choices or conversation-fluency problems stand out like a sore thumb. You can’t cover up for bad dialogue.

3 – You Have to Get to the Point, and Do it Fast!

While writing a novel, you need an inciting incident. However, there is no set time for that incident to occur. You could spend 100 pages developing relationships or talking about tertiary characters if you want. There is no real standard. With screenplays, you have to grab your reader in the first 10 pages. If nothing happens (i.e. the inciting incident), you will lose your reader, and your film will never get made. This pressure makes you a better writer by forcing yourself to confront your story structure. Are you actually moving the plot forward? Does everything that happens have a purpose? Can you be more efficient? Thinking along these lines is not easy or natural for a writer, but being critical and reflective about your plot improves your writing greatly.

In general, screenplays are my favorite things to write. I love the challenge, the freedom, and the way it challenges you to push yourself to be better, more efficient, and deeper all the time.

 

How to edit your novel

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Every writer has a different editing process, but over the years I’ve figured out what mine looks like and wanted to share it with you in case it helps you with your writing. There’s more than one way to edit a novel, but this is what works for me.

After I complete a first draft these are the steps I take to get it to what I consider a finished state:

  1. I do an initial read-through. In this stage I read everything on the computer and fix any glaring issues: grammatical errors, plot holes, add/delete scenes. Etc
  2. I add details/description. I have a tendency to underwrite on the first draft – leave out what someone looks like, what the setting looks like, etc. On this draft I add those details in.
  3. I print out the book and read it again. The whole time I am in these stages I am also developmental editing. Are there enough obstacles for the character? Are they changing enough?  Is the pacing ok?  Some writers do this as a separate edit but it’s always in the back on my mind as I’m editing.
  4. I edit for show vs. tell. Using this checklist usually catches all the culprits.
  5. I do another edit for the first and last sentences of each chapter. Those should be as compelling as possible and make the reader want to read more.
  6. Assuming I am satisfied at this point I show parts or all of the book to at least three beta readers or critique partners.
  7. I make edits if people are commenting on the same issue and/or I agree with their suggestions.
  8. I print the book out and read it to my dog. Usually there are errors that crop up when hearing the book out loud.
  9. I change the font of the manuscript, print it out, and read it again.
  10. I show the book to three different test readers than before.
  11. I make edits as I see fit based on their comments.
  12. I read the book on my Kindle. I feel like this is the only real way to mimic a reader’s experience. If anything jumps out at me I fix it in the manuscript.

As you can see, if you can’t find something to love on the fifth, tenth or twelfth read of your novel, perhaps you should move on to another project. Also, keep in mind all of this happens before the book goes to a professional editor.

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Interested in having me speak to your writing or school group to cover more techniques? Go here for more info.

 

The Complete Novel Editing Checklist (aka Why You Have to Love Your Novel)

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Every writer has a different editing process, but over the years I’ve figured out what mine looks like and wanted to share it with you all in case it helps you with your writing. There’s more than one way to edit a novel, but this is what works for me.

After I finish a first draft these are the steps I take to get it to what I consider a finished state:

  1. I do an initial read-through. In this stage I read everything on the computer and fix any glaring issues: grammatical errors, plot holes, add/delete scenes. Etc. I add details/description. I have a tendency to underwrite on the first draft – leave out what someone looks like, what the setting looks like, etc. On this draft I add those details in.
  2. I print out the book and read it again. The whole time I am in these stages I am also developmental editing. Are there enough obstacles for the character? Are they changing enough and/or are they remaining consistent when they need to be (i.e. staying in character)?  Is the pacing ok?  Some writers do this as a separate edit but it’s always in the back on my mind as I’m editing.
  3. I edit for show vs. tell. Using this checklist usually catches all the culprits.
  4. I do another edit for the first and last sentences of each chapter. Those should be as compelling as possible and make the reader want to read more.
  5. Assuming I am satisfied at this point I show parts or all of the book to at least three beta readers or critique partners.
  6. I make edits if people are commenting on the same issue and/or I agree with their suggestions.
  7. I print the book out and read it to my dog. Usually there are errors that crop up when hearing the book read out loud.
  8. I change the font of the manuscript, print it out, and read it again.
  9. I show the book to three different test readers than before.
  10. I make edits as I see fit based on their comments.
  11. I read the book on my Kindle. I feel like this is the only real way to mimic a reader’s experience. If anything jumps out at me I fix it in the manuscript.

You can see why the alternate title of this post is “Why You Have to Love Your Novel.”  If you can’t find something to love on the fifth, tenth or twelfth read through perhaps you should move on to another project.

If you have any editing tips for me I’d love for you to share in the comments section.

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How to see your manuscript with fresh eyes

Sometimes it’s hard to look at a manuscript that you’ve been staring at for months with fresh eyes.  There are passages you gloss over because you’ve read it a million times and your brain just fills in the gaps.  In order to see your manuscript in a new way and take it to the next level try these tactics:

  1. This one’s obvious, but step away from the manuscript for a while. It will be hard since all you want to do is get it out into the world, but taking a month long break from it, or even two weeks really does help.
  1. Change the font of your manuscript. I don’t know where I picked this up, but it works.  Spelling errors or other parts that are off will jump out at you if you change the font.
  1. Write a few pages from a different point of view or a different tense. It will make you see things you didn’t before.
  1. Write a piece of backstory that isn’t in the book. This might reveal parts of your characters’ motivations or lead to other improvements in your manuscript.
  1. Read the book out loud to your dog (or yourself or whoever will listen). If you stumble or reword parts as you read fix those areas in your manuscript.

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Why Showing your writing to others is extremely important

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I might be wrong in this assumption, but I think most writers are introverts by nature.  They’re more comfortable observing the crowd and taking it all in instead of being the center of attention.  That shyness can be a big hindrance when it comes to writing.

I wish I could go back in time and give my younger self a valuable writing tip: share your work.  Years ago, and even sometimes now, I am terrified to show other people what I’ve written.  But I’ve found that it is the only real way to significantly improve.  Yes, there is a lot you can learn about the craft through reading, workshops, etc. But the fastest and best way to learn is to have someone else, many someones in fact, critique your work.

Years ago the word “smile” used to appear in my manuscripts far more often than was necessary, excessively so.  I never noticed this until an editor pointed it out.  I never did it again and now the word “smile” rarely appears in my manuscripts. Requests for my work increased 250% after I started showing my work to others.  Sharing my writing has helped me more than any writing course ever has.

I just wish I’d learned this sooner.

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How to make a novel longer

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I wish I had the problem that some writers have of writing way too much and having to cut a ton of words out of my manuscript. I’m good at not including dead weight in the first place and have the opposite problem: sometimes I write too little.  If you’re like me and need help expanding your novel here are some suggestions.

-Add more details. What does the house look like? How does it smell?  What does it sound like?  Adding details where appropriate will beef up your novel.

-Add or expand on minor characters. How can you make the main character’s world more real? In earlier drafts of my novel One Night, Thompson my MC had no memorable co-workers. They were names without much personality. To make his work world more believable and entertaining I added a cast of quirky co-workers with their own issues/sub plots.

-Flashbacks. Where appropriate that is.  Unless this is a time travel story you don’t want a million flashbacks.  Readers care about what’s happening right now.  But flashbacks can be used to a reveal a character’s motivation and give insight into their choices.

-Vary sentence length.  Longer sentences interspersed with shorter ones can draw a story out and give the reader variety.

-Blow it out. If something major just happened let your character react to it, fully.  How are they feeling?  What are they thinking?  What is their next move?

-Add scenes if need be.  Does your main character grow and change too fast?  Add scenes.  Is the plot moving too quickly?  Add scenes. Of course they can’t be random and must serve the greater point of the novel.

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Five reasons readers stop reading

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There are several reasons I stop reading a novel I’ve picked up and not one of them has to do with being short on time. Stopping to reflect on these reasons can help us avoid these pitfalls in our own writing. The main reasons I stop reading books:

1. Unrelatable characters.  The characters’ lives are just too far off from my own and I also find no redeeming qualities in them. I don’t hate them but I don’t like them either. They are too perfect which is unrealistic, or have no motivation.

2. Characters who change too much. Characters who make decisions that seem out of character are also a turnoff. If a character has acted one way for the first half of a book but then suddenly changes in a way that is completely unexpected I’m not inclined to read anymore.

3. Story moves too slow/drags. If there isn’t any action, some hook, to get me within the first few pages I’m out.  Oftentimes I will give novels the benefit of the doubt and give them at least 30-40 pages, but if the action isn’t there and I don’t care what happens next I will definitely move on to the next book in my To Read list.

4. Plot is unbelievable in a bad way. I’m talking about novels where too many crazy things happen. A shooting, terminal illness, apocalyptic events.  I read somewhere that readers can handle one fantastical event per novel.  I think this is true.

5. Bad and/or lazy writing. Some writing, even published writing, is just bad.  Repetitiveness is my biggest pet peeve. There’s a certain bestselling novel that uses the word “beguile” upwords of fifty times.  Readers pay good money to read your work which means you should do your very best.

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