On Writing and Living

Blog Book by April Line

© 2012, April Line, April Line Writing This book has been adapted from blog posts at April Line Writing, ww.AprilLineWriting.com, all rights reserved. Cover Picture by Mike Kline, used via a Creative Commons License on Flickr. April Line is a freelance writer who lives in Northern Pennsylvania with her child and partner. She’s fond of books, coffee, good food, and good talks. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Sou’Wester, and

Susquehanna Life Magazine
She’s also available for hire as a writer, blogger, essayist, developmental or line editor, and copywriter. More info at www.AprilLineWriting.com

On Writing and Living

I’m going to try not to be self-conscious about this blog book. It feels rather self-congratulatory and mildly masturbatory, and I am hyperconcerned with being perceived as pretentious. Still, I am heartened by those of you who read my blog, who see me in town, who are biologically or otherwise related to me, and keep telling me how much you enjoy the blog, and how I’m a good writer. So thanks for the encouragement. I would have talked myself out of this if not for you all. I can’t not be a writer. Trust me, I have tried. Since eBooks are hip, and since I’m grateful to you for reading my blog, I’ve compiled and edited some of the most popular and best posts about writing, the writing life, and tips on grammar, style, and voice. This book ends with my Productivity Post which should leave you with all the tips you need to work writing into any schedule. My hope is that you’ll take a bit of education or affirmation from what follows, and carry on as a writer. It is a hard, but rewarding, pursuit.


Table of Contents
Oy! So You Wanna Be a Writer?.............................................................6 How To Be a Great Writer………...…………………………………..10 Why You Need a Developmental Editor……………………………...15 Style is Not Voice: Five Rules to Internalize………………………….21 Past Perfect Tense: Don’t Do It!...……………………………………..27 The Incredible Benefit of Writing in a Group………………..............31 Grammar & Influence are Important…………………………………34 On Truth & Originality……………………… ……………………….38 Self-publishing: Show Me the Money!...……………………………...41 How to Be Insanely Productive…………...…………………………..46 Reading List……………………………………………..……………...53

On Writing and Living

Oy! So You Wanna Be a Writer?
Do it. Yes, like Nike. Sit down, and write. Write longhand or type or record yourself talking and transcribe it. I don’t care. You won’t get good unless you do. Also, have sex. Sex is good material. If you can’t, won’t, or don’t have sex, exercise. Habitually drinking too much is also good material*. You just have to be sober enough to write recognizable prose. Practice observing. Next time you’re at a restaurant, look at the people at the next table and note their state of hygiene, the color of their hair, whether they wear wristwatches, if they talk after they order, or if they just stare at each other. Make notes about this. Mental notes or physical notes. Read, Read, Read, Read, Read. The best analog I can come up with here is with athletes. Tennis players play tennis, yes, but they also research tennis. They watch their heroes playing tennis well and they mimic them. You will not become a show-stopping writer if you’re not reading stuff like that which you want to write. And here’s a truth, “I don’t want to be influenced,” is amateur for “I want to be a hack. The only people who will ever read me are my mother.”


April Line There are no new ideas. You bring your lens to ideas that are part of the collective unconscious, that’s what makes your voice. The best thing you have is your voice, and if you have a strong voice—which is something you need to be a writer—it will not be appropriated by other voices you’re reading. Too, you will learn by reading. You will write stories using tricks like those you’ve read. I recently read a book that was in three different points of view (first, second, and third person!). It worked! I would even call it genius! From reading, you’ll get implicit permission from other writers to try new stuff. Reading books about writing is good, too, but I’d say the best thing is to read what you want to write. Obsessively. You can pepper in a book about writing here and there, but don’t overdo it. It’ll overwhelm your mind and cause stagnation. Keep a journal. I’ve been known to quip, “all writing is writing practice.” This means emails, tweets (especially tweets because of the character limit), Facebook Status Updates, etc. But journals—separate from emails and social networking—force you to be alone with your thoughts. If you want to be a writer, you have to be comfortable with your thoughts. You have to love your thoughts. Your mind has to be your favorite playground. If you experience regular thoughts and/or arousal involving desecrating other humans, and/or rooms full of blood, maybe you 7

On Writing and Living do not want to be a writer, and maybe you should seek therapy**. Not everybody can be a writer. Quit crying. It’s true. Some people are shit writers no matter how much they practice. Or they have no stomach for rejection. Or they don’t notice anything, ever. Don’t feel bad! If my life depended on the ability to do algebra, I would die. Sure, if you want to commit your life to becoming a writer, you can do that, and do it adequately. Megan Lloyd, a famed Children’s book author came to my elementary school and told us all that she started her life coveting the life of an artist, but couldn’t draw for anything. She forced herself to learn, and I suspect that that drive is the gift— not the ability that comes with it. If you can write, or if you can’t help but write, do. If you don’t, take up something else. You will probably be more rewarded and fulfilled. Getting shot down is part of the thing. Suck it up. If you’re reduced to tears by a single no, or if you’re someone who gets one rejection and quits trying, don’t waste your time becoming a writer. Every brilliant writer gets rejected more times than she gets accepted. Eventually rejection won’t be such a part of the thing—you’ll have written a few articles or books and people will ask you to come talk and read, and from that more doors will open, but it’s rough going for oh, let’s say, the first decade or so. Don’t wait! Writing is a lifestyle. If you want it, start now. If you’re 8

April Line ten years old and you still haven’t started, you have some time, but not much. This is ideal if you’re a trust fund kid or independently wealthy, or spend a ton of time sitting around staring into space at your job. If not, you must find time to do it. Every day you’re not writing is a day you’re not getting better, mastering the craft, learning about yourself as a writer and reader. You must do this now and every day for the rest of ever. The best part is knowing yourself. When you find yourself at age twenty-three, with no social life to speak of, but pages upon pages upon pages of writing, and the few people you do speak to nod condescendingly and say, “you talk like a writer,” know that their condescension is envy. They wish they knew themselves the way you do. You are starting adulthood with the ability to complete tasks, to be self-directed, and knowing how your mind works. These three tools are invaluable in every pursuit. *April Line Writing accepts no liability for people who follow this advice and go on to become alcoholics. **Or serial killers.


On Writing and Living

How To Be a Great Writer
First, a writer should live some life. And I don’t mean the pansy, TVwatching, under-mom-and-dad’s-protective wing sort. The sort that almost all high school and college kids—and even some grown-ass people with children of their own—are guilty of living. I mean the real stuff: having to go to a horrible job because if you don’t, you don’t eat. Fill in your own personal blank of hell here__________________. Then do that. For at least a year. Five years is better. If you don’t emerge still wanting to be a Great Writer, you will learn much about the world and yourself. A writer should try to live. A writer does not necessarily have to make foolhardy decisions that have a lasting impact on her life, but it probably would help. I read this terrific, acerbic (almost to the point of hatefulness) article at Huffington Post by Ruth Fowler. The piece was about how Tea Obrecht, famously the very-young Orange Prize recipient author of The Tiger’s Wife. Ruth Fowler has lived. I get why she has little patience for tales of (and by) inexperience! 10

April Line

Fowler’s theory is that the MFA is to blame for the spate of ridiculous novels that are being touted as brilliant or revolutionary by prestigious literary prizes or the critical journalist set. These novels came from lackluster MFA programs pumping out competent writers. I do not think that is true. The MFA might be the last stop on the fail line, but we don’t get to the MFA without our overburdened, under-funded elementary, secondary, and post-secondary programs failing in some way. I think “Hills Like White Elephants” is a shitty story to show to a bunch of aspiring writers. I read it in high school in my honors lit course, then again in one of my first writing workshop courses in college. I get it. It’s Hemingway. He’s doing something clever (or at least was then). But he also wrote the story as a thirty-plus-year-old man, and had been writing professionally since the age of seventeen, during a span of history in our country in which we lacked the distractions of TV, tablets, iPods, the internet; when life was a little (or a lot) harder in general. Hemingway was dead before TV made its way into most middle class households. What it does is tell young wannabes, who’ve probably only written what was absolutely required of them to the point at which they en11

On Writing and Living counter “Hills,” is to try their hand at something that’s so far beyond their depth that they’ll almost certainly fail, and then they’ll either think themselves genius or just give up. How is either pole desirable? For one thing, it’s difficult to tell a whole story only in dialogue. For another thing, “Hills” is a story that it’s impossible to tell without having lived some life. All good stories are impossible to tell without living some life. Perspective, wisdom, and experience make good stories. It’s been during my tenure on our green-blue globe that there’s been this cultural shift toward prizing self-esteem above achievement. According to a documentary called Waiting For Superman about the public education system in the US, the only thing US kids score best on worldwide is confidence. Confidence is not helpful when there is no call for it. Confidence is a thing that needs to be earned after years of toil. Especially as a writer. I can think of no other pursuit in which rejection and failure are such an integral part of the process. And absolute confidence is a myth for a writer: self-doubt remains of tantamount importance throughout. I find it to be obnoxious when writers talk about their compulsion to write as an albatross, but I can understand why some of them feel that way. I spent about a decade living and trying to escape being a writer, because almost everything else is easier.


April Line Here’s a truth that nothing I learned before the age of 25 prepared me for: Not Everyone Can Be a Great Writer. It is not true that you “can do whatever you want.” Also, you must read. You must, you must, you must. Truthfully, if you haven’t been reading voraciously as long as you could—which is something all the writers I know have in common—being a Great Writer is probably out of your grasp. If you’ve been reading since you were a child, it probably doesn’t matter what you’ve read. If you want to be a writer and you haven’t been reading, you should start reading now. And try to read everything that’s ever been written that is like what you want to write. Do this before you make it to the keyboard or pick up a pen. Once you do, remember that the widely accepted theory on expertise is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become awesome. I should tell you that I have practiced at writing for far many more than ten thousand hours. I have been scribbling out sentences since I could write full words. I remember yearning to learn to write, to create with a pen. I did not know what that meant at the time, only that I needed to do it. At least for the time being, our fair interwebs and its voracious appetite for content makes living life as a writer possible. I am living my 13

On Writing and Living life—at least half time—as a writer. More unpaid than paid at this point, but I am working and studying hard to flip that. You, my readers, are making this possible. And my fellow writers are telling me how. And how not to. For free. So maybe the new truth is that Great Writers are a thing of the past. Because a lot of what I’ve been reading lately says that the biggest ingredients for success at making a living as a writer from your blog, with social media, and by marketing yourself, are effort, energy, and dedication. Maybe the new Great Writers will be the most driven and tech savvy with the best grasp of SEO.


April Line

Why You Need a Developmental Editor
Writing is so complicatedly ego-driven. On one hand, we have to be somewhat narcissistic to love the writing life. All the time alone, in our own minds, reading and re-reading our own words, writing more of them, clamoring after friends, peers, editors, agents to read them, dealing with the rejection and keeping on... But on the other hand, the ego battles us! We have to come up with strategies for silencing our inner editor. We have to figure out how to block the negative, self-hating thoughts that will keep us from finishing work. And on a third hand (handy!), I know a lot of authors and writers who would be just as happy being invisible. I write because the stuff my brain does through my fingers is way more interesting than anything it does through my mouth. And because I’ve always done it. I don’t know how not to. I feel like it’s a calling of sorts, or at least a strong compulsion. So when we work on our novels and stories and essays and memoirs, in the brave new self-publishing world, it’s incredibly tempting to just say, “I know I’m interesting. I’m just going to self publish. I don’t need an editor! I’ve been hard enough on myself along the way.” Yes you do need an editor! A quick Google Search will turn up piles 15

On Writing and Living of them, but if you want some recommendations, or to hire me, visit me online at www.AprilLineWriting.com. And any traditionally published author, or author who makes money writing books will tell you, revising is the hardest, most essential part of writing, and you simply can’t do it alone. We can’t get enough space from our egos to get where we need to go. We need a person with a pair of first eyes who we trust, who gets our writing aesthetic, and who will not be afraid to tell us hard truths about our stories, characters, or plotting impulses. These people will help us, if we can figure out how to let them. There are three main types of editors that someone who’s considering self-publishing should find. Start with a developmental editor. Much more on this below. Then hire a copy editor, who reads for technical inconsistencies (name spelling change and hair color change, plot queerness, syntax, grammar, style, consistency throughout, etc). Then hire a proofreader, typically a last set of eyes, focuses in on punctuation and spelling primarily, but may flag larger issues. Hopefully there will be few if you’ve chosen well for developmental editor and copy editor.


April Line I’ve been in hundreds of hours of writing workshops and read tens of thousands of pages of student writing and writing that’s on its way to book form, and I’ve become acquainted with some of the common faux pas of early drafts, even from the most brilliant writers. We all do these things. Here are just a few that are also reasons to hire a developmental editor: Editorializing—where the character will think something clever, and while the implication is transparent, go on to explain the joke or thought in the next line or two. My favorite thing to say to writers, and the best thing I ever learned from a writing teacher is this: “Trust your readers!” I read a great article in Writer’s Digest whose thesis is basically this: people who read books are smart. Do not try to dumb yourself down. Do not explain something that’s obvious to you. If it needs explaining, your developmental editor will tell you. Using flashbacks or dreams to cover up poor plotting—a lot of writers, unwilling to return to the story board after hundreds of hours of work, or much too married to their plot maps, decide to throw in a dream sequence or flashback to explain away their poor planning. Developmental editors have radar for this kind of thing. They’ll tell you, honestly, whether you’re employing some trick that a reader will see through, or whether you’re missing an opportunity to take your character someplace affecting or compelling or wonderful or story17

On Writing and Living propelling! Replacing actual character depth with wardrobe ticks and social stereotypes—A lesbian is portrayed as a short-haired, aggressive, ugly girl with her septum pierced, camouflage cargo pants, and two pit bulls. Developmental editors will tell you if you do this, and they won’t re-write your characters for you, but they will have tricks up their sleeves to guide you to deeper characters. Using verb tense and point of view changes without knowing why— You can’t artlessly apply these techniques. Verb Tense and Point of View are two very intimate things about any story, and they are also promises to a reader that are made in the first pages, and that you need a massively compelling reason to break. Developmental editors can tell you if you’re doing this successfully. The trouble with self-publishing is that—unless you have a bunch of besties with MFAs or who work in publishing, and sometimes even if you do—you have to pay people to help you make your good work great, and chances are, you’re not independently wealthy or some kind of writing idiot savant to whom none of this applies, so hiring the team that traditional publishing houses (still) have on hand gets pricey. I was recently asked to review a self-published book. It was published through Create Space, which is Amazon’s self-publishing service that 18

April Line offers comprehensive copy editing and proofreading as well as book marketing for prices that range from $220 all the way up to $4,000. I think that the old adage, “you get what you pay for” applies here. It probably costs a publishing house in the neighborhood of $25,000 to see a book from manuscript to press-ready. That amount of money pays acquisitions and developmental editors, copy editors, proof readers, and book artists, cover designers, etc. Getting yours to the mouth of the press for $4,000 seems like a dubious bargain, doesn’t it? Copy Editors and proofreaders are not paid enough to do developmental editing for you, it is not in their job descriptions, plus it’s massively beneficial to use multiple sets of professional eyes. Don’t be a Diva! Don’t you want people to read your book? You have to figure out how to shut down your ego’s diva. Send her shopping for shoes or something. Let the developmental editor help you. Chances are she’s been to school to study stories, writing, and grammar. She probably has an advanced degree or years of practice or both. She loves books and stories and has read thousands of them over the years. And don’t stop there. Hire more help. The investment will return itself to you in the form of book sales. What good is a quickly published 19

On Writing and Living book if it’s so sloppy nobody will read it? If you want to self-publish, terrific. It’s a good business decision. Being your own book’s puppeteer sets you up for maximum benefit. But it’s short-sighted and a poor business choice (and it diminishes your credibility as a writer) to unleash your novel or memoir or collection of short stories on the world without investing in yourself, your work, and your business to present the most polished product you can muster!


April Line

Style is Not Voice: Five Rules to Internalize
I do a lot of proofreading. The two most popular manuals of this component of publishing, in fiction and most other trade publishing, are Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS, or CMS) and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged (or Collegiate) Dictionary (Sometimes M-W). I do not pretend to know everything, so I subscribe to both of these services online, and own hard copies, too, and I learn more nuances of our language every time I do a book. Proofreading is the last step before publication. In the golden days of publishing, books were proofread by a number of people, usually staff proofreaders, then reviewed by the author and editors. Now, they’re proofread by a freelance professional (me), immediately after a copy edit by another professional (can also be me, but is never me on the same book), and then carefully checked over by a Production Editor. Still, the manuscript should be practically spotless, and I should only have to mark bad breaks and the errant misspelling. I see practically published manuscripts all the time that wouldnt’ve made it in any of the intro-level writing courses I took in college (I took three, fiction, poetry, and composition). So often, I get these manuscripts with edicts like, “don’t touch the 21

On Writing and Living voice!” when what the author (or editor) means is, “Please don’t unstack the lists of fragments or call into question the special fondness for the ellipsis!” Part of what’s at issue is a function of the books I proofread. Most of these are trade romance fiction, and for a small press whose authors seem to be more prone to grammar/style Diva behavior than is strictly reasonable. I did a new web search for “writer’s voice,” and I was surprised by the dearth of actual definitions. So it’s no wonder people are confused. A lot of trade paperback authors within the mainstream fiction market (genres like romance, sci fi/fantasy, crime/romantic suspense, etc) are on their second or third career as a novelist, and they did not attend or teach the ridiculous number of hours of writing workshops that I have, or that many professional freelance writers, editors, and consultants have. A writer’s voice is a thing that’s cultivated carefully over 10,000 hours of practice. It’s not something that can be faked, and it has nothing to do with punctuation, the use of fragments, or long, hyphenated, don’tpop-until-you-can’t-stop adjectives. The voice encompasses things like ethos, diction, cadence, syntax, semantics, rhetoric. A voice is the music a reader hears while reading. It is the difference between “I went to the store and bought eggs,” and “I 22

April Line went to market for eggs.” Both of these are grammatical sentences that say the exact same thing, but they are written in two different voices. And yes, voice can be augmented by the writer’s choices about punctuation—as in whether to offset parenthetical elements with commas, parentheses, or em dashes—but speaking purely, one has relatively nothing to do with the other. I consulted one of my favorite reference manuals from college, M.H. Abrams’s A Glossary of Literary Terms, too. Abrams argues a larger role for ethos in the writer’s voice: the voice is not just cadence, it is the reader’s sense of the author’s selfhood, her morality, her credibility. So too in that regard, the following are excellent rules to know, rules to internalize, and if you’re interested in publishing (self or traditional), following these rules will go a long way toward proving your chutzpah as a serious writer. 1. Use Italics Sparingly. Using italics for emphasis is a trick that is often liberally employed by amateurs to ensure that their readers hear the exact same voice they heard while writing. This impulse is a good sign. It means the writer is engaged by her characters and in the process. However, italics for emphasis is almost never necessary, and should not be over-applied. CMS says, “Use italics for emphasis only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure. Overused, italics quickly lose their force. 23

On Writing and Living Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis, and never a whole passage.” Appropriate uses of italics: to demarcate internal dialogue, and when using the title of a longer work, like a book, play, or film. 2. A few overused punctuation marks that are to be scarcely applied, but that often riddle a manuscript like a plague of locusts. Each of these have a specific purpose, and like italics, lose their force when too liberally applied. The ellipsis indicates trailing off in dialogue or thought or an omission in a quotation. Ellipses should only be consistently used in a manuscript in dialogue, and have no place in prose. They are not voice. Em dashes work sort of like parentheses, to set off a phrase or incongruous idea from another within a sentence. These, too, should be used sparingly. Exclamation points are the literary equivalent of using a hammer to end a sentence. Overuse of these can be off-putting (and harmful) for readers who prefer to experience a character via context and sentence structure. CMS has this to say: An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment. 3. There are lots of rules about hyphenates: Very specific ones for different parts of speech, but here’s a more-or-less fail-safe crystallization to remember: When used before a noun, an adjective may be hyphen24

April Line ated (ass-faced baby, yellow-and-blue fabric), but words that end in ly are not hyphenated either before or after nouns (badly drawn boy, person who is loudly dressed). Chicago Manual has a whole table. If you subscribe, you can download the PDF. I always have it open while I’m editing. 4. Fragments make you look stupid, and they piss off your reader. I am all for the carefully used fragment. Sometimes, fragments can elevate prose. Sentence fragments are sentences that are missing their subject, verb, or object. Another amateurish impulse is to use fragments to indicate either high intensity or excitement in a character’s inner experience. Usually, the writer doesn’t need to because they’ve painted a clear picture with precedent prose, and then this use of the fragment falls into the realm of the imitative fallacy which is when a work of fiction too closely imitates life. Here’s an example: Frederick pushed the animal under him to run harder. Didn’t stop till Dixie. Ate a sandwich. Took a nap. Again, an isolated use of this tactic can really sing. But doing this to your reader once or twice per 250 words is just silly. And it makes you look bad, like you only have one trick. And it is not your voice. Hear me? It’s not your voice.


On Writing and Living 5. Use of any of these things together is nearly always a no-no. Let’s re-write that example, and you’ll see what I mean: Frederick pushed the animal under him...to run harder! Didn’t stop till Dixie. Ate a sandwich-for-lunch—...took a siesta! Your voice is more than smoke and mirrors. It is your essence, it can’t be manufactured; so work hard to develop it by writing often and trusting what comes out, and follow these five rules.


April Line

Past Perfect Tense: Don’t Do It!
I edit Romance Novels as a contractor. I love the work. I like the books. I used to sneak read romances when I was a kid. My mom read them constantly, and I felt so naughty reading these grownup sex scenes at twelve, getting aroused. It was awesome. Now that I’m a grownup, their effect is less, um, severe?, but I still kind of enjoy the strange clichés and the way every book kind of feels like the same story, but with different characters. I’m reasonably well compensated, so it’s kind of like a delicious treat on somebody else. Occasionally I get to feeling martyrish about it. Especially when authors seem to be missing craft stuff that I honed in college to such a degree that I honed nothing else. I continually remind myself that a lot of these women (and some men) are women whose writing careers began as escapism. They wrote after their kids were asleep or because they made all the money they needed as attorneys or interior designers. That it was a hobby that grew into something else. That they have educations in things like psychology and law or from the school of hard knocks. They are, without exception, smart, driven, ambitious women (and men). So I have recently felt it necessary to begin a crusade to banish the unnecessary use of the past perfect tense, the pluperfect as it was once called. In fiction, the past perfect tense is almost never necessary. So 27

On Writing and Living it, like so many other things that one should avoid as a matter of style, has its place, its use, it importance to the craft. But tossing it around all willy nilly is wholly unnecessary, and makes the reader work too hard. Readers don’t need to be bashed over the head. They are just as smart as the authors they read. They have read books before, I’d warrant. Allow them to suspend their disbelief. Trust them to read between the lines. Here’s what Chicago Manual of Style says about the past perfect tense: 5.127: The past perfect (or pluperfect) tense is formed by using had with the principal verb’s past participle {had walked} {had drunk}. It refers to an act, state, or condition that was completed before another specified or implicit past time or past action {the engineer had driven the train to the roundhouse before we arrived}{by the time we stopped to check the map, the rain had begun falling} {the movie had ended already}. I think the impulse to mis- and overuse the past perfect tense in romance fiction specifically comes from the fact that most romances— all of them that I’ve edited—are written in third person, past tense. So when a writer is imagining something as if it is happening right now, but telling the story as if it happened in the past, a lot of strange, tense -shifty things are bound to happen. Tense shifting happens when writers use tense inconsistently. Less28

April Line obvious examples of this happening are when a piece is in past tense, but has the characters thinking things like “Now we were in trouble.” Or “Here was where she slept.” Explanation: In the first example, the preposition now, though not a verb ending that affects the representation of tense (-s, -ed), is a word that indicates present tense. And that disagrees with the verb “were.” Fixes: “We were in trouble at that moment,” or “Then we were in trouble.” And “She slept there.” Here’s an example of how past perfect is routinely used, but is also unnecessary. Past Perfect: “She had brushed the mare’s mane and had given her a bucket of oats before returning to the ranch house.” Simple Past Fix: “She brushed the mare’s mane and gave her a bucket of oats before returning to the ranch house” The fix compresses the language, giving the sentence a feeling of immediacy. This immediacy can fight with the way past tense works to tell stories that feel like they’re happening as we read. The past perfect is also unnecessary in this instance because of the preposition “before.” Before does the past perfect’s work, but without the need to be cognizant of parallel constructions, and without the extra words.


On Writing and Living So even though it’s true that she returned to the ranch house in the past, but before that in the past she brushed the mare and fed her oats, thus rendering the past perfect technically correct, from a craft perspective, the simple past tense works better. The reader does not lose any information specific to the action, and doesn’t have to read a bunch of hads to get the meaning. Furthermore, always using the past perfect tense when it’s technically correct has the same effect of the imitative fallacy: the reader gets bored because the story is too much like real life. Generally we see this fallacy in dialogue, where young writers recount a conversation as it would actually happen, with all the repetition and ums that we regular, talking, alive, non-fictional humans use. A good rule of thumb for when to go to past perfect is if there is a chronology of events that is paramount to understanding the story. I.e., if it is important on a plot level that something happened before something else did. Otherwise, take a scan through some of your work. Convert it all to simple past tense. Re-read it. Note the new clarity and motion.


April Line

The Incredible Benefit of Writing in a Group
I’ve been giving writing workshops as much as possible lately because I love them. I always do group writing prompts in workshops. In fact, my Know Thy Characters workshop is more prompt than presentation. In my other workshops, we always do one prompt at every meeting. The first ten minutes of class. It gets us in the zone. Last year, a lot of Big Thinkers (Like in the New York Times and in TED Talks) were talking about how the workplace is trending more toward collaboration and socialization and how this is not good for certain types of creative introverts. Penelope Trunk sees a lot of evidence of de-valuing the individual in Generation Y. So I’m not here to tell you that you ALWAYS should write in a group. No no no. I will tell you that it’s probably almost always better to write alone. But here’s what happens for me whenever I write in a group, or even with one other person, or even spend a few hours (not writing) surrounded by other creative people: 1. The gates between my inner and outer life are opened for a bit. It’s really easy to get too lost in my own head, to forget that there’s a rest of the world, and to remember that my ideas are generally best when I let them out of my mental vacuum.


On Writing and Living 2. The energy of other creative people comes in through the gates. I never get more breakthroughs in my thinking about my writing than when I’m writing in a group. This is almost never a breakthrough in terms of phrase or diction, it’s an idea breakthrough. For example, I was in trouble about a character in my book, Delta. I went to a conference where I was surrounded by creative people and taking part in this amazing buzz of enthusiasm and energy, and Delta got an identity, or at least a skeleton of an identity. 3. I surprise myself. This is going to sound egomaniacal, but I surprise myself a lot in general. I think that’s in large part because whenever I am alone, I am convinced that I’m an uncreative loser with nothing to contribute. So whenever I have a great blog day or a big idea, I am surprised. The ways in which I surprise myself whenever I write in a group are different. I get these brilliant phrases and I think, “I don’t write that well.” It’s attributable to the open gates thing, and to the fact that whenever I write in workshops, I do it with a pen on paper and not—where I do most of my writing—at the keyboard. And here’s what I’ve noticed for my students: 1. They surprise themselves! The writers who come to my workshops are all over the place in terms of their ages and writing achievements and ambitions. I have very young students all the way up to adult students who were teachers themselves. One guy found out that his villain wasn’t really a villain. Another was surprised that her hero was 32

April Line more like a villain. 2. They get more out of the workshop. People are accustomed to getting droned at. Sometimes, you can watch their brains shut off in their faces as they walk into a classroom. Writing prompts, engaging in a creative process with other people, opens them up again. Even if you only follow the prompt with one question, and that question is as lame as, “What did you think of that prompt?”, the students re-engage and contribute more. This engagement and contribution increases as the workshop proceeds. 3. They get inspired. When I have workshops on weekends, my blog traffic spikes. Where I normally have twenty or fewer views on a weekend day that I don’t post, I recently gave a Saturday workshop, and my views were at almost 100. People were looking for my workshops, for my writing. So that’s one action, but another—and one that I’m sure happened, and is still happening—is that the folks had big ideas that have helped to propel their stories. I love when people tell me after the workshop that they never thought about something I told them before, and they seem jubilant about it.


On Writing and Living

Grammar and Influence are Important
One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced. First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant. Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artiste, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original. To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance. If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work. Which is wrong and lazy. Artists of all sorts need to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them. I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art. So too with writing—though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not. So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality. Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9 34

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Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new. Here’s the secular authority, Jung himself in a document about his theory of the Collective Unconscious. Jung’s thoughts on the topic are decidedly denser than those in Ecclesiastes. Nobody is doing something original. What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique—or at least lesser-considered—way of filtering things. And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence—nay, we must invite influence—and we must study our craft. I read a blog post by an editor once that listed slang terms she’s personally tired to death of. That got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted. A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about. For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.” Awesome! I want you to read to escape. I’m a writer, after all! Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show. But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore 35

On Writing and Living craft or intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer. Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes. Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling, tense, varied language, point of view. I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine. Craft is a writer’s tool belt. It is the larger concerns of storytelling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense. Knowing the difference between tenses does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better! Restricting your use of punctuation & style short hand may be more challenging than actually writing the damn book, but it will make the book better. Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer 36

April Line hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing—even when it is commercial writing—is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.


On Writing and Living

On Truth & Originality
I told a friend the other day that I honestly can’t remember the pain of child birth. I can’t describe it specifically, the way I can describe a mosquito bite ages after it’s dried out and my flesh is white and smooth again. My friend will soon become a mom, and she is worried and scared and she wants to avoid the pain. I understand that. There is no benefit to the pain. Other than knowing that your mind can swallow anything it doesn’t want you to recall. I think she asked me about it because she expected me to tell the truth. She has read some of my blog. I am a writer. What are writers, after all, other than people who use lies to tell the truth? What I did tell her was that whenever I try to write about it—in prose or poetry or essay—all I get is that the pain was like I imagine it must feel to have a cinder block slowly rotated inside your vagina: scraping and sharp and bloody. Once, on the blog I wrote about the Writer’s Digest webinar I attended, and author Smoky Zeidel wrote in the comments that she tells her students not to listen to Writer’s Digest’s advice about how stories work, because they train people to write “factory fiction.” (That’s a phrase I love.)


April Line I think she is both right and wrong. Doing it in a formula can be as helpful as it is unhelpful. Every writer must find her own way. In college, I learned how to read intensely in short bursts, how to really dig in and engage, interact with text. That is exhilarating. But now that my mind is bigger and more experienced, I am much more able and willing to take a book for its whole self. To think about it in larger ways than about chapter 2 or page 227, or the one sentence on page 43 that means everything. But In rereading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, I found this chapter that really resonated with me, and that speaks to this very thing. Every writer at any stage of the game should own a copy of this book. It is always relevant and inspiring and full of ideas. But it is not prescriptive. It does not say, “This is the way.” It says, “There are many ways, here’s mine. Let me help you look for yours.” Here’s my favorite passage right now: This is where the depth of the relationship with yourself is so important. You should listen to what people say. Take in what they say. (Don’t build a steel box around yourself.) Then make your own decision. It’s your poem and your voice. There are no clear-cut rules; it is a relationship with yourself. What is it you wanted to say? What do you want to expose about yourself? Being naked in a piece is a loss of control. This is good. 39

On Writing and Living We’re not in control anyway. People see you as you are. Sometimes we expose ourselves before we understand what we have done. That’s hard, but even more painful is to freeze up and expose nothing. Plus freezing up makes for terrible writing. And that’s what, I think, Smoky was saying when she said that Writer’s Digest will train the writer out of a person and make her into a factory fictioneer. Following a formula that somebody else taught you means that you can stop trusting yourself. “If I do it like this, then it will be right.” That is wrong. Right is, “If I do it like me, then it will be right.” I and Smoky and Natalie Goldberg want you to trust your own sense of truth when you’re writing. We don’t want you to ask Writer’s Digest how to make a story, or Donald Maass, or J.A. Konrath, or Mike Hyatt. There are no new stories. What it unique is you. There’s no other writer in the whole wide world who has exactly the same life, experiences, expectations, ideas, values, thoughts, education as you. So even if you’re telling a story that’s been told a zillion times before, it’s new because you are telling it. Your truth is original because it’s yours.


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Self-Publishing: Show Me the Money!
Just because J.A. Konrath is standing up there on the rafters, shrieking down at all of us about the insane pile of cash he’s making as a “selfpublished” author does not mean that the gravy train is just waiting for you to step on board. I would ask Mr. Konrath why the heck he’s still using a blogger site for his author platform if self-pubbing is making him so filthy stinking rich? Like every other creative pursuit, if you are looking at it strictly as a way to get money, you should probably stop. You should stop—not because you are not allowed to write, or because there’s 0% chance of success for you—because there are about a thousand easier ways to get money than by writing. Take a sales job. Car dealerships like newbies. I would have made $70K my second year if I didn’t have this damn fool compulsion to write, write, write. And of the sales jobs I’ve had (there’ve been four proper, career-type sales positions), selling cars was far and away the least invasive of my regular life. Self-publishing is not free. Self-publishing is more than just writing a book, putting it in a PDF, and posting it on Amazon for sale.


On Writing and Living You need people to sell your book to. You need a platform. Building a platform is a full time job. Writing a blog or tweeting or being consistent on any social media while writing, and doing whatever it is you’re currently doing to get money, equals two full time jobs. Here is a short list of the main costs of self-publishing (if you want to be successful): 1. Your Time: I spend at least three hours a day with my blog. Writing a post, editing it, finding a public domain picture that works with it, reading comments, replying to comments, and monitoring it on Facebook and Twitter and (less frequently) on LinkedIn and Google +, making notes about ideas for future posts, taking pictures of noteworthy life moments, etc. I could spend more time because I love my blog, but I can’t because I have other stuff to do. Self published authors must blog. It is not optional. They must also provide all the other marketing muscle: scheduling blog tours, soliciting reviews, scoring public speaking opportunities and preparing for these, researching and attending industry conferences (RWA for Romance, SFWA for Sci Fi & Fantasy, AWP for literary authors, and many more) getting their writing and names in front of tons of people, plus all the numbers and stats grunt work of self-publishing (and selfemployment in general). Hazarding a guess, building enough of a platform to make the kind of 42

April Line bread J.A. Konrath likes to shriek about would take about a decade’s worth of full time work, and you couldn’t let up and coast. Ask Konrath about that, would you? Tell me what he says. This is besides the hours upon weeks upon months upon years of toil that go into the writing and editing of a book. 2. Your Ego: Ok, so you’ve written a book, and your lover, family, and handful of friends who like you enough to invest the time to read it have told you you’re brilliant, and you must get your book out there. I’m willing to bet it’s not. I’m sorry. It’s just probably true. The first draft of everything I’ve ever written has sucked, and my friends and family have told me what a damn genius I am. You can’t believe what people who love you say about your writing. How devastating would it be to write the book, put it up on Amazon, and after the first 20 copies your nearests and dearests buy, it just sits there, collecting proverbial dust? That will happen. And it is why you have to get editors to look at your work before you take it public. 3. Your Cash Money: Writer’s Market has a handy-dandy table called, “What Should I Charge?” It amasses data from thousands of freelance respondents around North America. Here’s a little run down on the minimum/maximum costs of the services you need to self publish: Content (developmental) editing: High: $125/hour, Low: $54/hour 43

On Writing and Living

Copy Editing: 6 pages/hour x $46-100/hour OR: $1.00-$6.00/page (page is firm at 250 words, that’s double spaced, 1” margins) Proofreading: $31-$75/hour, or $2-5/page (this normally happens in a single-spaced, publish-ready document). Book Production: $67-100/hour, or $10-17.50/page (this could be a touch lower if you are not printing any copies, but it’s a safe estimate for all the steps between having a polished manuscript and having a book or eBook to send out into the world. Print runs would cost separate money, and are widely available both online and probably in your town somewhere, and would probably start at $3,000 for 1,000 copies.) Cover Design: I’ve seen quotes as low a $300 for a digital cover design. I’m sure you could pay as much above that as you wanted to. Dues: All of the professional organizations and their conferences mentioned above cost money to join, and more money to attend the conference. Self-published authors spend their own cash going to these events (most traditionally published authors do, too), and they are— again—not optional for self-published authors who want to be successful. It would be easy to spend $3,000 a year paying dues and in the costs associated with attending conferences.


April Line 4. Your Sanity: You think I’m being melodramatic? Penelope writes a lot about the startup life, the 100-hour work weeks, the blood, sweat, tears; the way your family will suffer. Being a successful self-published author is like running a startup. Buckle in and get busy. It’s not a casual consideration. I hear people say all the time, “I’m thinking of selfpublishing.” Like they’re deliberating over the choices on a menu. Yes, it’s true that the publishing world is changing, and this is a unique time for Authors. But if Authors really want to take their successes into their own hands, they must realize that they are going to be holding a mountain of work.


On Writing and Living

How to Be Insanely Productive
People have been asking me lately, “How do you do it? How do you get so much stuff done?” These are usually my fellow self-employed friends and they are typically asking with respect to my blog. I spend a lot of time on my blog. A LOT. I also freelance consistently for one publishing company and a handful of publications. I’m also a mother and a partner and a grownup with a modest (but rewarding) social life. But I’ve always been a high energy person with big ideas who digs being turbo busy. I had three jobs at a time in high school. I worked full time through college while making Dean’s list every semester. I applied to grad school 1.0 while Child was an infant and I was a senior in college and running an eBay business. I have held several sales jobs while freelancing as an editor and writer, being a single mom, and responsible for a domicile. I’m not bragging. This is all insane, and if I keep going at the pace I’ve maintained for the past sixteen years, I will burn out by the time I’m forty. But if you really want to know, this is how I do it: Be born blue collar. I credit my ridiculous work ethic 100% to having been born into a family that doesn’t have much money but works really, really hard. I’m productive because I have to be. And I’m not going to blow any of that working class self-righteous smoke up your 46

April Line asses. I’m not going to say, “I’ve worked damn hard for everything I have and that’s why I’m not a twat.” I’m not a twat because I’m a nice person. I have worked very hard in my life, but that’s because I’ve had to. If given a choice, I wouldn’t have, but I would probably still be a nice person. I know plenty of people who are nice who have led reasonably charmed lives. I know lots of blue collar twats. The source of twattery is not—as the blue collar set would have you believe— privilege. The rest of this applies regardless of class. Acquire as many competencies as you can as early as possible. When I was a kid, I loved learning how to do new things. I got bored quickly and would move on to the next thing. This did a number of things for my future productivity: It taught me how to self-motivate, and it gave me self-confidence. Here are some of the things I learned how to do before I was twenty: play piano, play saxophone, paint ceramics, throw clay pots, take pictures, draw, dance, cook, sew, clean, write, read, do laundry, knit, crochet, paint, etc. To be fair, I’m only still interested in about seven of those things, and only any good at about four of them. But learning how to do things quickly and well sets you up to like yourself and be efficient as you go along in life. Since I was twenty, I’ve learned to play guitar, knit & crochet better (though I am still a total rookie), make jewelry, do Zumba, and write and read better. Continue to read and learn and grow. That will make you like yourself more, which will make you more interested in pushing your personal boundaries, which will mean that you’ll be more motivated to do more stuff. 47

On Writing and Living

Get Acquainted with Dawn’s asshole. I get up at five. Sometimes earlier. On weekends, when I sleep in, I sleep till 6:00, stay in bed till 7:00. Monday through Friday, I’ve accomplished more than most people do all day by 9:00 a.m. I’ve grown and drawn boundaries, and I feel positive about a five-day work week these days. But if I didn’t have a child and partner who want to spend time with me, I would do this seven days a week. If you can’t get up, stay up. Work into the night. I used to do it that way. Work till 2:00 a.m., get up at 9:00 a.m. The get up early model works better for me now because I am mom. If you are feeling shitty and you need a day off, take it. I only relatively recently—within the past two years—started this policy, but it increases my productivity because I get all the wallow or sick out of my system, then I can return to my pursuits with full steam energy and effort instead of diminished-by-moodiness-or-illness energy and effort which can be embarrassingly lackluster. Plus, when I push through sickness or the doldrums, I hate myself for not getting anything done, and then I keep not getting anything done because my energy is all negativity and fatalism and not positivity and gumption. The glass is half full. My cliche mantras: It could always be worse; At least I’m not dead; I’m good enough, smart enough, and people like me. These are the little truisms that keep me going, that keep me looking on the bright side. It’s not enough to just say them, though. You have to believe them. You have to know that your life is never as 48

April Line shitty as it could be, and that around every corner is an opportunity waiting for you to grab on and charge forward. You have to know— without needing affirmation—that you’re good and smart and people like you. Take advantage of every minute. Here’s how to do housework when you’re already booked past full: It only takes five minutes to do dishes. It takes about ninety seconds to move laundry if you have to go to a different floor. It take six minutes to fold laundry if you’re anal about it like I am, less time if you’re not. It takes about four minutes to vacuum a big room. It takes fifteen minutes to scrub hell out of a bathroom, ten minutes to sweep and mop the kitchen. Whenever you’re waiting for something to happen, do something else. If you’re baking some macaroni or chicken, run up and clean the bathroom till the buzzer goes off. If you’re ready to go and you still have five minutes till you have to leave, do the dishes. Go to the grocery store as early in the morning as possible, that’s when the fewest people are there so it will go faster. Whenever you go to the basement with laundry or supplies, bring up something you need. If you can choose, put your laundry machines on the same floor as the bedrooms. In short: be efficient. A cool thing that can help you even more with this is using the Pomodoro Technique’s free timer. There’s a DROID app, too. The idea is to work in bursts of twenty-five minutes with a five-minute break between each burst. It will keep you focused, plus you can use the fiveminute break for dishes or laundry.


On Writing and Living Sometimes you have to give yourself a treat. For me, productivity and accomplishment are their own rewards. But I’m also a deeply moody person and can be too sensitive and pissy without reason. Sometimes, I have to go get myself a ridiculous decadent coffee from Starbucks. Breve and extra espresso and whipped cream and all of it. Or I have to have an absurdly carby meal. Once in a while, do whatever gives you superfluous joy or gratification. It sometimes helps to bribe yourself: If you know that you can do anything if you get to have a long, hot bath, promise yourself one once you accomplish a micro goal. Exercise. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately, since I’ve been working out with intention. But when I was younger, I ran my face off as a food server around everything else, so I’ve usually practiced this in my life. Getting sweaty is key to optimum productivity. Do this in a way that gives you satisfaction and as little discomfort as possible. I am ridiculously motivated by self-sufficiency and money, so waiting tables was a good match for me. Now that I can’t fit that into my life anymore, I do Zumba. If you love to run, run. If you love to dance, dance. If you love to hike, do that. If your thing is outdoors, have a bad-weather backup plan. Do not make excuses, just do it—at least three times a week. Make time for the important stuff. This is the hardest one for me. I have no trouble at all feeling urgency about getting work done for money. Sometimes, I have to force myself to acknowledge the importance of leisure and family time. Money is not as important as good 50

April Line relationships or being a good parent. Volunteer at your kid’s school as much as your schedule will allow. Spend time with your partner or best friends. Write emails with people who are important to you but who live far away. Your work will always still be there tomorrow. These things will keep stuff in perspective. Perspective will keep you moving. Know your own boundaries. You can’t push yourself past your own physical limitations. If you need eight hours of sleep a night, take it. If you can’t exercise three times a week, do it as often as you can. If you can’t work for 6 hours straight, take breaks. Get to know yourself while pursuing productivity, and if you must push past your boundaries, work up to it systematically: Every day, do another five minutes or hour of x, reward yourself, and drink coffee. Be careful with other, less-legal uppers. I almost called this post the Honorary Crack Files, but I didn’t want you to think that I’m getting ramped up with drugs. I’m not. Have a clear sense of your goals in both short and long term. My ten year goal now is to be able to make enough money just from writing. I want people to come to me for services without prospecting. I can do this, and I will. My shorter term goals include finishing the MFA ahead of schedule, and get a couple of tidy, nice-paying writing gigs so I can give up some of the work that I derive lesser satisfaction from. My goals for this week are to read 600 pages and do another five pitches to my current target publications, Bust and Paste. I am con51

On Writing and Living stantly re-evaluating these goals and priorities and building action plans around them. Reuse your work, take shortcuts, and ask for help. If you’ve done a piece of work, make it work for you in a different context: if you’re a writer, re-sell your stories, or use your research to do different pitches. If you design something, figure out how to use that design for other, similar projects. Start from scratch as little as possible. Google the phrase, passive income. Almost everybody has a potential passive income source. Find yours. If you find a fast way to do something that does not diminish the quality of the final product, use it. There is honor in making the most of your time, even if it you’re not using a classically perfect method. Also, use technology. If you don’t know how, learn. It will make your life easier and will give you back time you wouldn’t otherwise have. Email saves me tons of time. Instead of a list of phone calls that need to be made during business hours, I can write emails at any time, and schedule them to send at appropriate hours. Asking for help can be anything from reading a blog by a person who does what you want to do but does it more effectively, to asking other human beings for help, starting a child care co-op, or setting up a chore share with your roommates, partner or spouse. Don’t get down on yourself if you don’t get everything done. If you fall short of your goals, don’t fret. Step back, re-evaluate, and do better next time. There’s always a next time. Some failures do not mean failure is constant. It just means that you have things to learn. Learn them and bear forth. Be diligent and thorough, and the rest will follow. 52

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Reading List & References
Books: **By no means a comprehensive or even partial list, this is bare bones for books all writers should have on hand.** Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, ©1986 Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition by University of Chicago Press ©2011 A Glossary of Literary Terms, by M.H. Abrams ©1999 Writer’s Market 2012, by Writer’s Digest Press, © 2011 The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White, ©2000 The Faith of a Writer, by Joyce Carol Oates, ©2003 Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande, original ©1934


On Writing and Living Blogs: **again, nowhere near a comprehensive list, but these will lead you to others, and so on.** Jamie Chavez is an editor and writer. www.jamiechavez.com Penelope Trunk is a writer and an entrepreneur. www.penelopetrunk.com Cathy Day is a writer and professor of writing. She also gives courses in social media for writers. www.cathyday.com Julianna Baggott is a writer and professor of writing. She’s also writes under some pen names: Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. www.bridgetasher.blogspot.com Smoky Zeidel has a lot of insight about writing, and some books to help. www.smokyzeidel.wordpress.com


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