My biggest challenge has been writing a book in exactly two weeks. It would be a self-help book. My twenty-year old ghostwriting client gave me an outline to follow. He chose topics that only such a younger person would. Always think positive and focus wins every time. Although I did not agree with every single thing he said I accept the project. I did not exactly know how much it would take over my life.
For a week I woke up every morning drafting in my head and remembering stories that would fit into my client’s outline. It was something hanging over my head until I sat down to write. If I wasn’t working on it, I was just about to. The deadline was looming and I was not even halfway done. So I had to set up a work area in my apartment and sit there for at least four hours a day. Five days in, I purchased a wrist brace, a keyboard pillow and a butt cushion. This was not fiction, so I could disguise my opinion much easier and the words could gush or trickle depending on my mood. A self-help book was a new adventure for me. One that I would never have taken on myself. Ray Bradbury found them a poor substitute for actually reading and I find some patronizing and simplistic. Still, I found myself actually enjoying the whole advice giving vibe.
By no means am I an expert in mental health, but I have had plenty experience in life. Losing parents, losing friends, break ups, searching for friends, trying to stay gainfully employed, having your heart broken so many times that connections are scary, keeping hope alive when doom is easier, and other things. Fiction has always been my first love and now I was cheating on it with reality.
Then the deadline suddenly was way too close. I had not wasted time, but had not lit the fire under my ass needed to write a book in two weeks. My first book took me close to five years to complete. It was a lovely two week affair with non-fiction. However, I had to end it and quickly. Yesterday I woke up early for the summer and made my couch as comfortable as possible. I layered on pillows and got a gallon of water. I had 12,000 words due in 12 hours; it was go time. Procrastination was not my thing, but I was never going to get it done unless I bit the bullet and sucked it up. I wasn’t sure how I would respond to the pressure.
Ideas stalled at first. I had to write a thousand words an hour to deliver the goods. I had to research different topics and write as if I was on fire. Some of the ideas I could not wrap my head around like showing genuine interest in every person you meet tripped me up. I goggled a few ideas and took off. Just because it was my view that you should only like the people you do otherwise friendships become shallow were obsolete. This was about the client and I had to get out of my own way. Luckily, my hands did not ache and for hours on end as I wrote. I kept track of track by posting my progress on Facebook. My “friends” must have been confused but I needed to gauge my progress. A thousand words an hour became my goal and as the day wore on, I was able to bring it down to forty-five minutes.
Then my nephew came for a visit. When he is around, he is priority and I stopped my writing. He said I looked like a woman possessed as I nested on my couch, engaged in my own speed writing contest. As midnight neared I became on edge. Never one to miss a deadline, I feared this might be the first. My client did not contact me, but another one did wanting a huge chunk of their piece done by Sunday night.
Right after this project another awaited and then the phone rang. Another client rang and wanted to discuss a project. I begged him off telling him I had another deadline and would call when I was done. It is a general rule to make each client feel like the only one, but today was not the day for that. Every one had to be a hostile stranger today.
Around one o’clock, I was done. My eyes were sore and my brain was crispy. The television had not gone on all day. I had been strangely peaceful as if my nervous energy had direction for once. Coming down off the writing high was tougher despite my complete bodily exhaustion. I had not moved all day and I likened it to flying to Thailand non-stop; you want to move, but you have to stay in your seat.
I read about Kim Kardashian’s bad maternity wear choices on the dailymail.co.uk to calm down. My brain needed fluff to stop the rush of ideas and stories still running around. It worked and I was snoring within thirty minutes. My mind had finally gotten the release it craved after so many weeks of running on toxic energy and panic.
I learned that I can be a prolific writer and if I need to punch out a fiction book in a month, I would be able to do it. My only secret is sit your bum on the couch and decide to do it. There are no shortcuts. It helps tremendously if you have already written a book and your mind has a blueprint. If you are a writing virgin, then just go for it as well. It was an empowering day, one I may repeat as the projects miraculously line up as if the universe has been waiting for me to stop torturing myself with self-doubt and start seeing that my energy has a purpose- to create.
I have been writing a book for what seems like half of my adult life. The hardest part has been revising just as other writers warned me. I doubted it at first, especially when struggling to master dialogue and tense symmetry. I have sent my book out twice and instead of a ticker tape parade, I received big fat no thank yous that varied from the apologetic to the terse. A bit crestfallen, I put my book Mermaid away periodically to live life and gather strength to work on it again. A few weeks ago, I started seriously researching and taking classes on writing. Having invested so much time in my work, I knew I had to push to save it. When the Miami Book Fair set up, I took a few classes. I was able to understand how I had been going so terribly wrong. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to share my revising list with you. Please comment and let me know if anything (or nothing) has been helpful. Have a wonderful time committing literary murder.
1. Kill overly descriptive adjectives.
I have a tendency to be overly descriptive with colors. In one draft I said emerald instead of green and coffee colored instead of brown. This says to the reader that you are trying too hard. Stick to basics in an almost Hemingway direction, there is no shame in being descriptive just try to keep it direct.
2. Laugh at yourself.
Your writing is a beautiful product of your creativity, but as you evolve, you may see how young you once were. I find myself rolling my eyes at my past mistakes like heavy-handed dialogue.
We will get better.
3. Cut continuous exposition.
There is a tendency in all of us budding writers to tell and not show. Your points will get cross through details not meandering prose about the setting or character. Sometimes a thought, physical motion or a spoken word is more powerful than five descriptive paragraphs. Cutting has been painful for me and I push myself to ask, “Does this really need to be here? Is this moving the story forward? Cheesy as it sounds the usual answer is no.
4. Condense to about 250 pages.
In my research this seems to be the magic number. Not sure why it is, but just putting it out here.
5. Highlight bits you absolutely love.
Just because you have to cut things does not mean they are gone forever. I keep a computer document open wherever I cut anything called, aptly enough, “cut bits”. If you really love a line or word, highlight it and keep it in the back of your mind. Not everything has to be tossed.
6. Watch tense.
This is one of my Achilles heel. I will switch tenses throughout a page. Therefore, to counteract this, I bring intense awareness and scan the page several times to fix errors. Sometimes being aware of your tendencies is enough to fix them.
7. Work on between 10-20 pages daily/nightly.
The average attention span is twenty minutes and I find that ten pages of heavy marking I want to just zone out. After I reach my mental anguish limit of editing, I walk the dog or look at Vogue or read the New York Times. You might want to push for more, but break it up throughout the day. Otherwise, you might actually resent your writing and feel oppressed. However, you know yourself best and if you are on a tear, ride it out.
8. Nothing wrong with said or ask.
Answered, responded, inquired, beseeched –all of these stand out as we have been accustomed to said and ask. Anything else sticks out and thereby adds unnecessary scrutiny to our word choice. The reader needs to be drawn into our words, not our word choice.
9. Consider cutting the parts without dialogue.
My paid editor is a playwright and she tells me to consider just having scenes of dialogue and action.
10. Write a post it with your theme.
As an English teacher, I direct my students to constantly seek evidence to substantiate the theme. If you do not know what your theme is, maybe sit down and decide upon one now. My theme is an independent girl can grow into a strong woman only if she is fearless.
11. Make notes to yourself in the margin.
I write notes as if I am speaking to myself. I do not count the spelling and I make them as detailed as possible.
12. Keep sentences simple.
I teach fancy grammar, but sometimes a period is equal to a semicolon.
13. Rearrange scenes.
When you are cutting exposition, it unpeels a layer for further action. If a scene is great but does not work in the new context, consider tweaking it and putting it into a new area. I did this twice in my twenty-page limit today and I love the new direction.
14. Circle overused or questionable words.
My trouble words are chaos, drink, blink strange and observe. I circle them and look at a thesaurus.
15. Cross out lightly.
Some words, scenes and characters are salvageable. No need to throw everything out. I once had a friend go through an existential crisis and throw most clothes out of her closet. A few weeks later, she realized she had to buy new clothes thus defeating the purpose of her whole escapade. We may need things later when they make more sense.
16. You cannot type and edit at the same time.
I print out my work as seen in the picture and mark by hand. A recent workshop teacher suggested to do that and I wrote out my last blog post in my notebook. I saw this at work when I scored my second editor’s pick at my other blog at Open Salon. I know the difference now between trying out thoughts and formalizing them through typing. I go through my hand written pages and highlight or make notes. I think this really makes all the difference in the world.
If anyone wants to talk about writing, my email is email@example.com.