Person writing in notebook

Win A Free Manuscript Critique With A Professional Editor!

My work on this site is about more than just posting articles on writing process and running writing contests. I also offer detailed, professional critiques for writers in all genres — to help writers learn their strengths and weaknesses, and to help you determine if your work is ready for submission to editors, agents, and publishers. It’s my way of giving back to the writing community, and helping other writers succeed.

But I know that not every writer has the resources to hire a professional editor to look over their work. And that’s why, during the month of August, I want to help – by giving away one free manuscript critique to one lucky reader.

That’s right — I will personally look over up to 5,000 words of your writing and provide detailed feedback, totally free of charge. I’ll look at style, character development, structure, plot, and anything else you want feedback on! Normally this service would cost $150 or more, so it’s really a great deal. I’m open to short stories, articles, novel excerpts, or anything else you’d like to send my way.

I know what you’re thinking… There must be a catch. And there is, kind of. To enter the drawing, I need you to go take this quick survey and answer a few questions about the site and your writing goals. That will help me figure out what type of articles I should be posting to help my readers really get the most out of the site. I promise it won’t take more than 5 minutes — it’s only 9 questions long. (10, if you count the question where you give me your email address so I can let you know if you’ve won!)

Here’s the link to enter the giveaway again. It’s going to be open through the end of July — on August 1st, I’ll randomly select one lucky winner. Good luck, and thanks in advance for your help! :)

sleeping  kittens

Creative Nonfiction: “Living and Dying with FIV”

Our cat Moss woke my wife and me up in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last (Moss is a snuggler, whether the snugglee likes it or not). Something was different about that night. She walked on our pillows, nudged our heads with hers, and mewed softly, then louder. I don’t know why, but I mumbled to myself in the dark, “We’re going to lose Roi.”

We had adopted our cats Moss and Roi a few months before. Stickers on their kennel named them “Augusta” and “Savannah,” sisters from the same litter, just a few weeks old. The two were tortoiseshell negative images of one another: Moss dark with light flecks like the night sky and Roi bright with shadows like a smoky fire.

We fell in love immediately.

We tried to talk ourselves out of it. Our wedding was still months away; my fiancée was living with her parents. We didn’t have any cat stuff, which was just as well since we had nowhere to put it. There was a house we were looking to buy, but it was a fixer-upper where we would have to be careful with cats. I could imagine one of them slipping into a hole in the drywall, disappearing into the ventilation, becoming a meowing ghost we may or may not ever see again.

But we had fallen in love, and so we came back the following day to adopt them.

The next few months were difficult but good ones. We replaced walls, laid flooring, patched, painted, and re-painted. We renamed the cats from their “old lady” names to Moss and Roi after gender-bent characters in the British comedy IT Crowd.

Finally we were moved in, and life settled down a little more. The cats loved the new house, especially all the boxes to climb over and semi-arranged furniture to hide under. Their room, our library, was the first to be finished. They were allowed out during the day, but we closed the door at night to keep them out of trouble. They would knock, making ominous thuds as if politely stating, “We’d like to come out and play now,” over and over and over again until we gave them full run of the house twenty-four hours a day. They accepted nothing less.

Moss and Roi loved to play chase, running and sliding as fast as they could over the wood floors before bounding on top of furniture. Meal-times had to be punctual, as if they knew to take turns to keep us on our toes. Closets had to be opened for inspection. When my wife and I settled down for a movie, they would settle, too, on the back of our couch: Moss on the right, Roi on the left. Always.

Roi was the sweetheart of the two. She would sit in my lap while I graded papers or wrote, always seeming to know when I needed company. When I had a case of food poisoning, she waited at the bathroom door until I had finished evacuating bad chicken wings and then came to nuzzle me, as if checking to make sure I was feeling better. It was so adorable that we decided to get her a nurse’s costume for Halloween.

She didn’t live that long.

Roi never seemed to grow much. We did not think much of it until our regular checkup at the vet where Roi had a low fever. The doctor gave us some antibiotic that we had to give to both cats to make sure Moss didn’t catch anything, too. It was an orange-pink solution that smelled sweet as it came out of the dropper. The cats hated it. Roi didn’t seem to struggle nearly as much.

They didn’t play chase anymore. Roi spent most of her time in warm spots under the bed or in a sunbeam. Moss outpaced her growing so much we joked about her being a football player, never realizing it was Roi who wasn’t normal. Even though we loved her and were with her every day, we had no idea her little body was giving out.

Moss nudged us urgently that late Sunday night. I woke up first, but I was too tired to move. Then my wife said, “Do you hear that?” Soft coughing sounds.

Little Roi was in the living room. She had thrown up something watery and lying nearby. As we came in, she got up, took several steps, and then slumped back down to the floor.

We petted her gently, asking in soothing voices what was the matter. She made a brave face, as if it were nothing she couldn’t handle by herself. After a few minutes of petting, she seemed better and walked casually to the little fabric cube she used as her own little room.

Between teaching classes Monday, I took Roi to the vet for some blood-work. She still stumbled as she walked, and she didn’t fight like she usually did going into the carrier. I held the carrier on my lap, petting her with my fingers through the wires of the gate.

The vet came back to say that she tested positive for FIV—feline immunodeficiency virus. The two cats had tested negative when we adopted them. Where had she gotten it? Had the neighbor’s cat spread it to them through the screen door we left open? Did we bring it home somehow?

It was hard not to blame ourselves, especially since there was so little else we could do. FIV itself just meant that we had to be careful to certain she didn’t come into contact with other cats. The real danger was the secondary infections, which is what made Roi sick. Like many cats with FIV, she developed a buildup of infected fluid. Other cats typically had a buildup in their abdomen like a squishy belly, but Roi’s settled in her pericardium. If it had been anywhere else in her body, anywhere, we could have had the fluid drawn off. Instead, the fluid was building up, giving our little kitty, still months from being a year old, congestive heart failure.

The vet asked if I would like to have her put down. I shook my head. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye like that.

I took her home, and my wife set up our guest bedroom just for her. We gave her fresh soft towels, her own water bowl and litter box, anything a cat could want. Her food bowl was filled with the best canned food we could find.

Not salmon, though. She didn’t care for seafood.

My wife and I wrestled with what to do. Roi was dying of a broken heart, and there was nothing we could do. We sat with her when we could. She lay still most of the time.

About two in the morning that Thursday, my wife woke me up. The coughing sounds were back. Moss was already at the door to Roi’s room, ready to be with her sister. She didn’t knock; she just waited.

Roi was splayed out like a ragdoll, panting as if she could not get enough air. My wife petted her while I got out the carrier to take her to the all-night emergency clinic across town. It was time to go.

It wasn’t that cold of a night, but despite my heavy jacket, I couldn’t keep warm. I drove faster than I should have. Roi coughed in the backseat. After just a mile or so, she went quiet. When we hefted carrier out of the car, her weight didn’t shift.

The vet at the clinic confirmed that she was gone. The vet gave us a cardboard box that folded up into a little coffin, and we went home. We didn’t talk much, except that my wife said we had to show her to Moss.

 When we got home, we laid out Roi’s coffin in the front hall and let Moss come see her sister. Moss sniffed at the box and then sniffed at the Roi’s body inside. She seemed to know it was no longer her. While my wife held Moss, I went into the garage and found a shovel.

Under a full moon, I dug next to the big tree in our backyard, splitting roots and digging deep with every ounce of sorrow I had. I wanted to be angry at God and the universe and myself, but I just couldn’t do it. There was so much good in the few months that we had spent with Roi that all I could do was to be thankful for that time.

There, under a tree under the full moon, at three in the morning, we had our little funeral for Roi. We placed a little stone over her that rests there to this day.

Stacking Up and Defying Time (+1)

Writing in Multiple Genres: How Can You Make it Work?

Hi Julie,

As a writer, I’ve never felt that I could find myself in a specific genre or keep a steady tone to all of my work. I can write blog posts, articles, short stories, poetry, fiction, non-fiction – written with honest and comedic tone or serious and dramatic tone. I find it hard to answer people when they ask what I write, because I just do. How can I find my place in a writer’s market that tends to shelve authors as a certain kind of writer? Can I find a literary agent that can embrace a client who is interested in writing non-fiction as well as fiction, and even different genres (YA, literary, etc)?

Thank you,

Ashley W.

 

Hi Ashley,

I feel your pain! I really enjoy writing in a lot of diverse genres and styles as well, and yes, sometimes that ends up hurting me when I try to market myself or build a following. For example, people who are interested in my writing on environmental issues probably get frustrated when I just post fiction, and vice versa. I get a lot of unfollows on Twitter whenever I take a new gig or try something different. (That’s okay – there are plenty of people who end up sticking around, too!)

As far as literary agents go, there are a couple approaches you can take. If there are multiple genres you’re interested in, you can look for an agent that handles all of them. It’s also possible to be represented by multiple agents who work in different areas – with your agent’s blessing, of course.

Plenty of writers have managed to be successful and make this work for them. The late Iain Banks was known for both his science fiction novels and his literary work. Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin also write in a variety of genres – fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction. The prolific Isaac Asimov is best-known for his science fiction, but he also wrote nonfiction on a wide array of topics. Joyce Carol Oates has written just about every genre under the sun. Even J.K. Rowling has transitioned to writing crime fiction, although she tried to hide under the alter-ego of “Robert Galbraith.”

Now, I would really recommend focusing on one genre to begin with, or at least genres that are related. (Writing both sci-fi and fantasy isn’t a huge leap, for example, nor is writing both a nonfiction book and a memoir.) Mostly this is so you have time to build a reputation and a fan base in your chosen genre – once you’ve proven yourself in one area, it’s a lot easier to make the transition to another, and makes it a little less likely you’ll lose readers. (It also shows any potential new agents that you have a successful track record.) Of course, I don’t think you need to pigeonhole yourself to maintain your “brand” if you’re really not inspired – you don’t want to be miserable or burnt out.

If you just can’t focus on one genre at a time, another option is to use pen names for the different genres you write in. Anne Rice, for example, wrote a series of erotic BDSM novels under the pen name “A.N. Roquelaure.” She only came clean about her authorship of the novels about 10 years after they were published. J.K. Rowling, of course, is another prominent example – she wanted to start fresh in a new genre without any of the expectations and baggage attached to her Harry Potter series.

For now, keep writing what inspires you. Worry about what genre you fit into when you have a book-length work that’s ready to be shopped to agents. I hope this helps give you a little direction in your work!

–Julie

Are you an aspiring writer who needs some advice to help jumpstart your career? You can submit your questions for our column by filling out this simple form. Then, follow us on FacebookGoogle+, or Twitter to see our columns each week as soon as they go up!

 

What you type may be used against you...

How Can I Get Started as a Freelance Copywriter?

We’re trying something new here at the Renegade Word – an advice column for writers! Over the past two years, we’ve published over a hundred articles, infographics, and how-tos to help aspiring writers improve their craft, get published, and get paid to do what they love.

Now, we want to answer your questions directly in a new, weekly advice column written by our editor, Julie M. Rodriguez. She’s a professional nonfiction writer and copywriter, with 400+ articles published online and in print. She even moonlights as a genre fiction editor, with 6 books she’s edited published or coming out soon. (What we’re trying to say is that she can tackle a pretty wide range of topics.)

If you have any questions about the craft of writing, approaching editors, character development, comma usage, or anything else, we want to hear them! If someone on our staff doesn’t know the answer, we’ll find an expert who does.

You can submit your questions by filling out this simple form. Then, follow us on FacebookGoogle+, or Twitter to see our columns each week as soon as they go up!

We’re looking forward to answering your questions.

 

Hey Julie! A friend who really admires your work told me to contact you. He told me you’re an awesome copywriter and person. I’m just getting started and could really use some advice! Do you have any tips on how to land freelance gigs without much experience?

–A.H.

 

Dear A.H.,

Yes, I’d be happy to help!  It can be really hard to break into copywriting without some experience, but there are a few things you can do to build your portfolio that will make it easier for you to get better paying gigs.

First off, it’s essential to learn everything you can about writing copy. Sales copy is a totally different world from the kind of writing experience most of us have — it’s not like an article, a short story, or a blog post. Copyblogger has some amazing free resources available that will help you learn the basics: how to write copy that convinces people to buy, headlines that will draw people in to read your pitch, and SEO best practices that will make it easy for people to find your content through search engines.

If you’ve gone through all the free resources you can find and really want to step up your game, you might want to consider investing in a paid course. I personally found AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting really helpful when I was starting on my copywriting career. This is a great resource if you’d like to learn to write long-form sales pages or direct mail. (Note: it IS a $500 program, so the cost can be a little steep for someone just starting out. However, consider the cost of a single college course, which can easily be in the thousands of dollars! At the end of this program, you will leave with a lucrative and marketable skill. You might be able to find a used copy of the manual on Amazon or eBay if you’re strapped for cash, but when you buy the program at full price, you’ll also receive professional critiques on your copy assignments.)

If you’re interested in writing generic web copy and not necessarily “letter” formatted sales pages, AWAI has a course on that too. They even offer a course on how to write successful email campaigns, which I strongly recommend — email copy is very different from writing for a web page. The great thing about these courses is that they all include copy “assignments” based on fictitious brands, so at the end of the course you already have material for your portfolio to show prospective clients.

The next thing I’d recommend is volunteering for projects you care about. If you have a friend with a small business or a pet project of your own, that’s a great way to gain experience and samples. When you’re just starting out, it’s also okay to take lower-paying jobs from small companies that can’t afford a well-known copywriter. I think nonprofits and startups are a great option for this since they probably have a limited budget and are more likely to hire someone who’s passionate about their cause.

Once you have 4-5 really good samples, then I think it’s easier to apply for more professional gigs! Right now I get most of my freelance gigs through referrals or people who find me on LinkedIn – since I don’t freelance full-time I have some flexibility there and can just let people come to me. I find this pays better than applying to job listings, but it’s not the most reliable way to find work.

If you want to actively seek out new gigs, there are a lot of job boards out there where you can find copywriting jobs. Here are a few that have helped me successfully land steady freelance clients:

(Some of these sites are mostly focused on blogging gigs, but they sometimes have copywriting gigs, too!)

I would definitely recommend staying away from sites like Elance, oDesk, Guru, etc — there is a lot of competition, and it seems like most of the users on these sites are willing to offer ridiculously low rates, so it’s very hard to get work that pays well enough to be worth your time. Some people have successfully used these sites as portfolio builders, but for me it was just way too much time and effort, and I had a hard time getting referrals or even testimonials from clients — once the job was done, they tended to disappear off the face of the earth!

Anyway, it’s a lot of work at first to get started, but once you do a few jobs and start to make a name for yourself, it gets easier.  I hope this helps. If you’d like a little more advice on choosing a niche and building your portfolio, be sure to check out How to Break into Freelance Writing in Just 7 Steps for more tips.

Good luck!

–Julie

Image credit: Lali Masriera

Beer vs. Coffee: Which Makes You More Creative? (Infographic)

It’s no secret that many writers credit their creativity to liquor or caffeine. But how do each of these substances really affect your brain? Ryoko of I Love Coffee has created this infographic that should help writers figure out when to hit the bottle…and when to order another espresso.

Beer Vs. Coffee: which makes you more creative?

Image by Ryoko of ilovecoffee.jp!

241/365: Yellopen

Creative Nonfiction: “Progress Report: Great American Novel”

It’s hard, looking back — reading what I wrote at age 13, in the throes of adolescence and on the cusp of discovering postmodernism, with no academic scaffold or frame of historical reference to ground me. While the explorations of a child into the nature of good and evil might be of interest to posterity, that doesn’t mean the setting is cohesive or the fiction particularly readable.

And so what, if the characters have gone through about 10 different names? What’s a few sex changes between friends? Suddenly, they’re getting married and having children — that was never in any of the outlines. They have minds of their own, and while I can (mostly) keep them straight between incarnations, my friends and family are lost. It might as well be a completely different story. It might make more sense if it were — but it’s not.

They ask me why I can’t just finish what I’ve started. Why so many re-writes? Why can’t I let it go? And there’s just no way to explain, when I’m 13, 15, 17, that I just can’t write what I envisioned, not yet. I’m not good enough. Someday, maybe, I will be.

At some point, though, doesn’t that turn into an excuse to let the project slide? To tell myself that it’s just not writable? It may lie dormant for years, slumbering beneath the surface. This isn’t writer’s block anymore: it’s a creative impaction, wedged deeply in an uncomfortable, private hollow that’s impossible to reach.

And in the midst of it, I forget to feel guilty. There’s too much life in the way: short stories that suddenly seem far more surmountable than a novel or a trilogy; doomed romances with other aspiring writers who barely write; day jobs to pay the bills that just become jobs; school and homework and student loans.

There’s one advantage to forgetting. When I rediscover my manuscript, I can finally look at it with stranger’s eyes, and for the first time see the truth: it’s pretty terrible. When it makes sense, it’s preachy. The characters aren’t likable and it’s not because they’re horrible people, it’s worse: they’re boring. The plot doesn’t go anywhere. The setting is bland and, I realize, I never actually had any real idea what the world was even supposed to look like.

With years of work built on that unstable platform, where can I really go?

Well, there’s one thing: I can always start over. Again.

photo by: bradleypjohnson
Chapter 30

Original Story: “A Fiction She Could Believe In”

She didn’t have any siblings. She didn’t really need any. Her imagination kept her company, dreaming up worlds inspired by the books she read. Books were her friends from the very beginning. They brought her to places only her mind believed, delicately held only in the pages. But to her, these places, these characters, were real. For the times when she opened a book, a new reality would whisk her away. And she would only return hours later with a smile on her face.

She devoured books like food, always hungry for more. And sometimes she would return again to the ones that captured her most. But mostly, she always moved onto a new book after finishing one. There was always a new adventure to discover. New friends to meet. New problems to solve. She brought books with her everywhere, for if there was a spare moment, it was used to dive back into a world no one else but her could see.

She would read while other kids would play on the weekends. Summers were spent wandering the rows of the air-conditioned library. But she never felt like she was missing out. In the cool, dry air of the library, she would run her hands over the book spines, searching. Searching for her next adventure. Triumphantly carrying her spoils, she would only emerge from the stacks hours later. Wavering under a fictional high-rise of literature, she would carefully line up to take her books home and into the sanctuary of her bedroom.

She grew up, as all little girls do. And over time, her trips to the library diminished. The never-ending stack of books in her room slowly disappeared. Book by book, her room had never felt emptier. The stories she always looked forward to were replaced by the disinterested, hard facts of textbooks. Textbooks were cold, uninviting. They never extended a hand out to her, welcoming her into their fantasy, for there was no fantasy within their pages. Instead, they stared back at her unblinkingly.

She felt tired. Tired of these books forced upon her, for they were strangers who had taken the place of friends. Tired of the reality they imposed. Tired of the deceptively colorful diagrams and charts. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t escape them. How she longed for the worlds she used to escape into. And so, for the very first time in her life, she fell out of love. Reality had taken hold and driven a wedge between her and the books she had loved so much.

She no longer remembered what it felt like to get lost in hills of creamy white pages, surrounded by fields of black type. She taught herself to not miss any of that. Stories became just that — stories. They had always been fiction, but a fiction she could believe in. Now, they were a fiction she could hardly lose herself in. But one day, she surprisingly found her way back to the love that she had lost.

She picked up a book, but it wasn’t just any book. It had been years and years since she had traded her fictional worlds for matter-of-fact statements. This was the first book since then that she was curious about, that she couldn’t wait to turn the pages of. She was about to start a new life in a faraway country, so sure, she had picked it up because she needed to occupy herself on a long flight. But it didn’t really matter that she had done it out of necessity. What mattered is that she did it.

She settled into her seat and pulled out the book, taking her time to admire the lovingly illustrated cover. It was like seeing an old friend again. She couldn’t help but smile to herself. She carefully opened the book, afraid it might disintegrate in her hands — a figment of her imagination. Her eyes widened, sparkling with the joy of discovering a new, secret world carefully tucked away behind the cover. She gobbled up the words, falling head-first into this new reality that she hardly noticed when the plane took off.

She fell in love again with every word, every sentence, she read. She breathed it all in, wrapping herself with the pages of new people to befriend, new journeys to embark on, and new stories to tell. And so there she was. On a plane, miles away from home. On a journey of her own to start anew, she found comfort in the old, knowing that these adventures would always welcome her with open arms. Knowing that these books were a slice of home, of her childhood. Books were her friends from the very beginning. And they would always be till the very end.

This short story was originally published on Medium.

photo by: carolyntiry
notebook

Hello Freewrite, My Old Friend: Jumpstart Creativity By Letting It All Out

Lately, I’ve been in a downright writing slump. For a time, it seemed that creativity flowed like a river – filling me with easy inspiration. Now it’s full of clichés…like the one preceding this sentence.

Part of the reason to the slump is my lack of a writer’s schedule — I’ve stopped writing every day. Last year, I always worked at the same place, at the same time,  and I was amazed at what I was able to get done. But I’ve let that go, and now I write only when rare flights of fancy hit. It hasn’t exactly been working out.

But recently, my writer’s workshop reintroduced me to an old friend: the freewrite. I’d forgotten how good it feels just to get your pen moving across that paper, or typing with the purpose of simply writing. There are lots of ways to freewrite: I include journaling and prompts under the umbrella. Both of them have a simple goal: getting your creativity out of your body and onto the page, without stopping to edit or nitpick your work.

Creativity in its purest form is something you let happen without thinking about. The other parts can come later. Developing an idea, editing, fixing up your words, all come after you’ve finished vomiting nonsense on the page.

Freewrites are helpful to anyone who feels like they’ve lost their creative spark. What’s liberating about a freewrite is that you’re supposed to suck! It’s the first step in a writing process where you are meant to vomit everything in your head and hope it somehow makes it onto the page. Sentences will run, grammar won’t exist, your spelling will be appalling, and your handwriting might look like another language. And being able to stop worrying about those things is incredibly liberating!

There’s another side to freewriting, of course: it also reminds me of how terrifying writing can be. After all these years, parts of me are convinced that I have to create brilliance. I am once again battling with my arch nemesis: perfection. But after a few minutes of free writing, my body gets into it. The pen scratches against the paper and I become unaware of what I’m even writing about. And after a rough start, I feel better. Cleansed. As if coming to the page daily can open the door to all the writing projects I want to work on.

As writers, we all find ourselves in these slumps, battling against our own perfectionism and failing to finish anything as a result. I think many writers stop themselves from writing before they ever get a word out. We sit down at the computer and expect the words to just flow. And then our fingers freeze over the keys. We feel overwhelmed. Our inner critics come out of the woodwork, and after hours of staring at a blank screen, nothing happens. We bite our nails and troll the internet for inspiration in a futile attempt to jumpstart our creativity.

We ignore the fact that journal writing, working on prompts, and writing the crazed thoughts in our heads is just as productive as working on our freelance projects or novels. Freewriting is a form that exercises our writing muscles, and gets us in the space to write deeper and longer until we can move onto other forms of creation. It’s one of the strongest parts of the writing process. The point is just to do it: get in a habit of journaling and working on prompts. Get in the habit of writing for the sake of writing.

Starting is one part of the battle. Maybe this will help: start out slow. Try five minutes of freewriting a day, on any topic. Write nonsense. Repeat yourself. Write about your fear of writing, about the color blue, the sun—anything that get you moving your pen across paper. It will be hard at first, but once you start, you’ll soon find yourself reconnecting to your creative source.

Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. See what happens when you freewrite every day for a week. It’s only five minutes. Don’t know where to start? You can download the Renegade Word’s free writing prompt e-book, or look through the collection of prompts on our website.

And remember: above all else, give yourself some room to have fun!

photo by: waferboard
Writing Tools

Quick Tricks to Help You Tighten Up Your Writing

Writers often think about tightening their writing. Just what does that mean? And how is it done? Is there a way that writers can tighten writing without losing their voice or compromising their writing style?

Like sneaky calories, many unwanted words and phrases find their way into our writing unnoticed and bog it down. The goal should be to write in a concise fashion so that our meaning is clearly understood. It’s not all that tricky to do. And don’t worry—this can be done without adversely cramping a writer’s style.

That’s not to say these tips are a cure-all for major flaws in a story, article, or book. But similar to the get-in-shape-fast programs, here are some simple things writers can do to tighten sentences, shed unwanted words, and tone and shape the whole “body” of work.

  1. Eliminate fatty words from your “diet.” Make a list of your weasel words. Those are the words you throw in out of habit. Often they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to. Grab a random page of your document and see if you can eliminate at least one or two words from every sentence. It may not be possible, but it’s a good exercise. If the word doesn’t add importance to a sentence, it should go. Then attack the rest of your novel.
  2. Reword passive voice where possible. Whether referring to general passive (“The food was eaten by me” instead of “I ate the food”) or present progressive passive (“The food is being served” instead of “the waiters served the food”), most of the time a sentence will be stronger if the passive voice is avoided. An easy way to seek and destroy unwanted passive construction is do a “Find” for ing, was, is, it was, and there was, to name a few.
  3. Avoid circumlocution. I just love that word, so I have to use it. Don’t use two words when one will do. Don’t use four when three will do. If two adjectives are similar, pick the best one and toss the other.
  4. Ditch the extraneous speaker and narrative tags. If you are writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, you may have dialog in your piece. Be aware that if the reader knows who is speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over—especially in a scene with only two characters. And remove all those flowery verbs that stick out, such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected. Just use said and asked, and maybe an occasional replied or answered. Really. Less is more . . . effective.
  5. Search and destroy repetition. We tend to repeat words, phrases, or ideas in the same paragraph. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do, to drive home a point, perhaps in summary at the end of a section or subheading. But writers often try to say the same thing in a different way, and instead of adding new material they are essentially rehashing what they’ve already said. One great way to catch those repetitive words is to hear your piece read aloud using a  software program like Natural Reader.
  6. And a word about backstory . . . Yes, the dreaded backstory, which novelists have been told to shun in the first chapters of a novel. But really, do you need it? Take a look at all the places you have backstory and boil down just a few lines of the most important information you feel the reader must know to “get” the story. Then see if you can have a character either think or say these things instead of going into lengthy narrative. Look for any passage that feels like author intrusion or an info dump and find another way to impart the information.

 If you’re the kind of writer that needs to “add weight” to your skimpy book, you have a different challenge, and the problem won’t be solved by ignoring all the above tips. Remember, it’s the unwanted fat you want to eliminate. Be sure what you add to a skimpy novel is muscle, not fat. And for the rest of us who overwrite, be reassured that by implementing these easy tips, you can help trim those unwanted “pounds” from your pages and tighten your writing.

photo by: peteoshea
Ernest Hemingway

Kickstarter Project Takes a Fresh Look at Famous Authors’ Last Words

The publishing industry has been changing rapidly over the past few years thanks to the ease of self-publishing and the rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. While before an author would have to pay to publish a book out of their own pocket, the internet has made it easier than ever to find an audience and fund creative work that might not fit in at a traditional publisher.

One such project is Writings to Die For, where Kevyn Arnott of Kill Adjectives plans analyze the final writings of famous authors in depth. As Renegade Word’s resident Dead Author Fan, I reached out to Kevyn to ask him about this intriguing project.

Lauren Seegmiller: To start off, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself? I noticed your blog, Kill Adjectives, doesn’t have an “About Me” section.

Kevyn Arnott: Let’s see, I’m a writer from Atlanta, Georgia. I’m an English major who some how wound up working in the technology field. I began writing the blog early this year when I felt professionally successful, working at Apple was a longtime dream, but I felt unfulfilled working such long hours. So I began writing this blog, and I’ve never been happier. In fact, three months after starting the blog I left Apple, and now I’m a technology consultant, which gives me much more flexibility in my schedule and thus more time to write. Life’s good.

Edgar Allen Poe 1898
Edgar Allen Poe’s writings inspired Kevyn’s project.

LS: I’ve read on Kill Adjectives that before Writings to Die For, you’ve been really interested in authors as biographical figures. Is your educational background in English and/or creative writing? Are you a lifelong voracious reader? What led you to this project?

KA: Yes to both. I studied English specializing in Creative Writing, and I’m absolutely a voracious reader. There’s also a major history buff in me.

Honestly, there are numerous things that led me to this project. The biggest one has to be a realization I had while writing a term paper on George Washington for a history class. Many people know George Washington as this great American and first president, but very few know that he was a terrible general, soft-spoken, and oddly enough a homebody. Ironically, the best thing he did was leave the Presidency after his second term, which created a rare peaceful transition of power. He was hardly the founding father that we want him to be, yet we built a large tower in his honor, put his face on two most commonly used currency pieces, and frequently name things after him.

There’s an importance to dehumanizing George Washington, which happens when you take away his mistakes, his imperfections, and his personality. My term paper ended up focusing on the reasons why an organization dehumanizes or idolizes someones. I believe the title was The Infamous Name Behind the Forgotten Man. 

This thought never left me. As I look at literary history, I see the same thing. I find that authors become less human as we move further way from them in time. This happens because we naturally look fondly upon fallen greats. We idolize them. We uphold them. We dehumanize them.

We start by removing mundane unpleasantries, then we take away their poor decisions, and we start reading only their great works. The truth is being human is making mistakes. Eventually, every literary great will end up like William Shakespeare, which is to say untouchable and lacking any documented emotion.

I prefer to study authors as they were. In the case of Writings to Die for, the last work isn’t typically their best. It’s usually rough, sometimes unfinished, but always purposeful. Authors, to me, are human, which is to say riddled with mistakes and engulfed in emotional context. Obviously, this isn’t your typical way to study an author.

 

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires
Jane Austen, one of the subjects of Writings to Die For.

LS: Of course, the Kickstarter campaign goes into the greatest detail about Writings to Die For, but could you sum up your campaign in few sentences?

KA: There’s really three major parts to Writings to Die For. Firstly, it’s a biographical exploration into famous writers’ lives and what led them to write their final works. Secondly, it’s a textual analysis of their last works, and thirdly, with the help of a researcher in psychology, we go into the mind of the writer in their final days.

LS: What is your goal, and what will meeting it allow you to do?

KA: The truth is research is expensive. I sometimes quadruple-check facts if needed, and to do that I’ve invested a lot in resources and time. Oddly enough, the more famous the writer the more energy it takes to research. For example, Shakespeare is as famous as you can get, but researching this man is a chore if you want to learn about the man behind the playwright.

LS: How did you pick the authors you chose for this project? Did you have to leave anyone out? (You mention Douglas Adams in the campaign text.)

KA: I chose authors from a pool of literary greats who had full writing careers and changed the writing world in some lasting way. The criteria, in which I chose from that pool, was solely dependent on the last works and the role it played in their live’s themes. Sometimes, I had this really incredible author, but their last work was a work that didn’t do much to further our perspective on who they were. In the Kickstarter, I mentioned Douglas Adams was on the cusp of being included, and after many messages encouraging me to include him I’ve decided to raise the book to thirteen featured writers.

LS: Following the author question, I’m curious about the works. For example, Sanditon by Jane Austen was unfinished when she died, but Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss was published the year before he died. And Hemingway’s letter, which you address in this post, is a private epistle. Why did you choose the works that you did?

KA: I chose works that were as close to the death as possible. Because of this, there are a few unpublished works in the mix; in fact, the unfinished works are some of my favorites because I know that the words I’m reading are raw and untouched. To get that level of access into a famous writer’s mind is a rare feat.

From what I’ve researched about Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go was his last work. There have been a few pieces published posthumously, but everything I’ve found has put those works as unfinished and abandoned earlier in his career. Hemingway’s letter was a matter of a few weeks before his death, and that letter is chilling in the context of his life. To be in this book, the author needs to be prominent and the last work needs to be meaningful. With that combination, I’ve come across some of the most gripping stories that I feel are either untold or seldom told.

Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, 1953
Ernest Hemingway in a pensive moment in 1953.

LS: I have a B.A. in English literature and one thing that really stood out to me about your project is this: I can remember often being warned against the so-called “biographical fallacy,” or the idea from New Criticism that advocates keeping an author’s work separate from the author him/herself and avoiding biographical interpretation of works. Of course, that’s not the be-all and end-all of textual analysis, but I wonder if you could talk about your project’s relationship to the idea of the biographical fallacy?

KA: Absolutely, biographical fallacy is a very real thing. You have to separate the writer from the narrator and characters. They’re distinctly two different things in the case of plots, dialogue, characters, but in the terms of themes and subtext it’s hard to disguise a writer’s true feelings and thoughts. For example, Robert Louis Stevenson struggled with his father his entire life. He never was able to acquire the admiration of his father. Ultimately, Stevenson’s last work and self-proclaimed and unfinished masterpiece was Weir of Hermiston where he explores the relationship of a father and son. When it comes to a writer’s last work, it appears all too common for that writer to choose a story that is exposing, troublesome, and extremely dear.

LS: On your Kickstarter, you write that you worked with someone in the field of psychology. Can you talk more about that? Can you share an example of some of the insight they provided?

KA: I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with someone who is highly knowledgable in psychology. She specializes in abnormal psychology and has worked on ground-breaking mental illness research. Without giving away too much, she’s helped me look at the authors’ psyches in vastly different ways.

LS: And this is unrelated to the Kickstarter, but as another writer who loves dead authors, I want to know: who are you reading right now? Do you have any contemporary authors you’re a fan of?

KA: I’m always reading a few different things. Currently, I’m reading Bar Rescue by Jon Taffer, which isn’t about dead authors but rather dead bars. I just finished Contagious, which was very insightful to the marketing world, and the deadest thing I’m reading or re-reading is John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” which isn’t so much as reading as it is trudging, but nonetheless I love Milton, and I will gladly trudge through his works.

Thanks very much to Kevyn for illuminating your project. If you’re interested in lending your support to Writings to Die For, the deadline for funding Kevyn’s project is January 1, 2014 at 11:59pm EST.
Because knowledge is power...and inspiration.

Five Ways to Find Inspiration on a Deadline

Since making my last contribution to the Renegade Word I have secured my first official regular writing gig. I now contribute weekly columns to Hot For Writing and have had to teach myself a thing or two about writing on demand. I’ve started employing a few rules to my writing regime to ensure that I can come up with and produce a decent column when I need one.

1. Stay Alert.

The site I write for focuses on news and culture so this is particularly relevant to me. But for any kind of regular spot you need to find something to write about, so keep an eye and an ear on the news. This also means being tuned in on Saturday—even if you don’t plan to write until Wednesday. Little things cropping up at any time could inspire a column.

2. Keep Reading.

Once you are consistently knocking out a particular kind of writing, you need to investigate your field a little more deeply. The world of online content is constantly under construction, and no matter what your readership is your work is a part of that process. Reading other similar sites and pieces also provides a great source of inspiration, even if that inspiration comes in a “I could have done a better job than that” format.

Because knowledge is power...and inspiration.
Because knowledge is power…and inspiration.

3. Interact.

This goes hand-in-hand with the reading element. Part of the work of writing online is coming back for the comments: seeing what people have to say and responding to it. Likewise, it’s probably useful to get commenting on some other online writing that you’re into.

One of the main joys of writing on the internet is that you get to start conversations with likeminded people. Equally, it’s important to not get sucked in by trolls. There is a valuable difference between intelligent discussion of an issue—which may or may not include differing opinions—and the general flame wars that can crop up in any unsuspecting comment section.

4. Experiment.

Often I find that I’m turning the same idea over and over in my head. I’ve considered it as a topic but not really decided if it is worth writing or not. I can do that for days at a time without making any progress. It isn’t until I dive in, do some research, and start getting words onto the page that I can actually tell if it’s worth pursuing or not. Writing and thinking about writing are very different processes.

Safety glasses are optional.
Safety glasses are optional.

5. Don’t Be Deterred.

By very definition, not everything that you do can be your best work. You are going to be more pleased with some pieces than you are with others. And whilst it is important to remember that you absolutely must put the effort in with every piece, you can’t expect everything that you come up with to be another masterpiece. That’s a surefire way to dishearten yourself, and one of the hardest parts of writing is being able to self-motivate. I read somewhere once that although it’s fine to love writing, it is important to remember that writing does not and cannot love you back. You have to fight your own fight.

On balance, being a regular contributor has been good for my writing. It isn’t always easy and I don’t always produce the work that I wanted or expected to, but I do believe that it’s been a valuable and generally incredibly interesting experience.

On second thought...maybe I'll just eat lunch in the bathroom today.

Writing Prompt #21: The New Kid

Almost every TV pilot starts with a character entering a new life-stage. One of the most convenient setups for a pilot is to show how a character navigates a totally new environment. The first episode of my favorite TV show, Mad Men, starts on Peggy Olson’s first day as a secretary at Sterling Cooper in 1960. I also just started watching The Good Wife, which follows Alicia Florick’s first day at a law firm after fifteen years as a stay-at-home mom—and after six months of scandal following the downfall of her husband, the former State’s Attorney. The movie Mean Girls starts with Cady’s first day of public high school after growing up in Africa.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that I watch too much TV—it’s that new situations are an imaginative gold mine. Think about it: conflicts arising right and left, desperate grasping for alliances, new characters, and testing how your character will react to all of these stimuli.

The cool kids' table.
The cool kids’ table.

We’ve all been The New Kid at one time or another. In my experience, it’s not a very fun role to play. Thankfully, I was never singled out at school; my first days at new schools were the same first day for hundreds of people. I’ve only ever been The New Kid on the job. I’m pretty shy and really awkward. I’m also a big doormat and kind of a suck-up. I get really flustered and I can’t stop asking questions. I feel like I’m wearing a mask and I’ll be anxious for the whole day, no matter how nice my supervisor.

But that’s me. Maybe that’s not your character. Maybe your character feels at ease rather than singled out. Keep in mind that a new situation can be an easy pathway to reinvention—everyone knows someone from high school who changed their name once they got to college. Maybe at their last school or office or whatever, your character ate lunch alone in a bathroom stall. But now maybe she’s confident to just stride right up and  sit down at the Cool Kids’ Table.

On second thought...maybe I'll just eat lunch in the bathroom today.
On second thought…maybe I’ll just eat lunch in the bathroom today.

How to use this prompt

If you’re a fiction writer, put your character in a new situation and see how they react based on the personality you’ve constructed. Maybe they do the opposite of what you expect. If you’re a poet or a nonfiction writer, perhaps you can take this prompt a little more personally. Share your experiences with being new. Did you rule the school (or office or whatever) in a single day, or did you hide in a bathroom stall whenever you could?

Share your responses in our forum!