Write the jagged edge - overcome writers block

Write to the Jagged Edge: a Tip for Breaking Writer’s Block

Write to the Jagged Edge: a Tip for Breaking Writer’s Block

For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to get into the discussion about whether writer’s block is real or not (Google “myth of writer’s block” and you’ll have plenty of results). In the ways that matter, whether it’s “real” or not doesn’t matter.

Write the jagged edge - overcome writer's block

Staring at a blank page can make you an anxious wreck. Fret not, you can overcome it! Image courtesy of Big Stock. Some rights reserved.

We can all agree that writers sometimes get stuck. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re burned out or lack perspective. Sometimes we get stuck because we put ourselves in a corner. Reliably, we are our own worst enemies, often playing ostrich with our manuscript because we don’t want to deal with some thorny issue (which might have something to do with the manuscript, OR with our relationship to the manuscript).

This second kind of writer’s block (putting ourselves in a corner/playing ostrich) is entirely self-constructed and you can make this problem disappear, every time. My advice on how to do this doesn’t rely on (y)our ability to make a clear choice in the moment—because you probably won’t want to. Instead, we are going to learn how to outsmart ourselves.

Set yourself up for success—by cheating

Now before you think I recommend nefarious/ethically dubious/illegal activity, ask yourself this: What’s the number one problem we experience when we sit down to write?

Answer: we don’t know what to write about.

Of course this isn’t true, not really. We do know what to write about—sort of. What’s more true is we can’t figure out where to get started…where to grab hold of the thoughts and how to line them up in a row.

Sitting in front of an empty page, we easily think ourselves into a state of paralyzed anxiety.

So how do we overcome this problem? Easy. We cheat.

Can you cheat yourself our of writer's block? Yes you can! Here's how Click To Tweet

The easiest way to cheat yourself out of writer’s block is to leave an unfinished thought for you to deal with later. Don’t finish the chapter. Don’t finish the paragraph. Hell—don’t even finish the sentence.

When you finish writing for the day, make sure to NOT wrap up your loose ends. Leave them dangling in the breeze.

The jagged edge

Are you annoyed even thinking about doing this? GREAT. Perfect! That is exactly what we want. Your fingers are veritably twitching to finish that sentence/thought/chapter, to put a nice bow on it. Seeing it dangling there, unfinished, provides you with endless frustration and…guess what? The desire to continue writing.

I call this leaving the jagged edge. You are purposefully leaving the writing unfinished, broken-looking—in need of repair. The magic is that by definition, you create the situation wherein you not only want to keep writing…you know what you want to keep writing about.

How to use the jagged edge - and why it will help to overcome writer's block Click To Tweet

Try it a few times this week. Come back here and tell me how easy (or not, though I doubt this) it was for you to pick up where you left off and keep going.

If you really need to finish that thought, fine: keep going. Continue long enough to create another jagged edge.

You don’t have to make any decisions in the moment or the writing session. Ahead of time, before you write one word, you decide this is how you’re going to operate while writing the rest of the manuscript. You will finish every day (except for the day right before you send your editor your draft) on the jagged edge. You will leave every day’s writing unfinished.

Then, while writing, you don’t need to think about choices at all. Are you frustrated because you wish to keep writing? Brilliant! Come over here and tell me so in the comments, or ping me on Twitter or LinkedIn. I will shower you with high-fives.

The Bottom Line

Much of the time, writer’s block is a condition we give ourselves, and we usually use it as an avoidance strategy (it’s REALLY effective). One of the easiest ways to sidestep your own self-sabotage is to adopt the strategy of writing to the jagged edge. Try it. Trust me, human beings were not designed to be ostriches. We lack the requisite feathers.

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Give the Gift of a First Draft

Give Yourself the Gift of a First Draft

Give Yourself the Gift of a First Draft

As writers, we talk a good game with our quotes on creativity.

We bandy the coolest-sounding advice phrases from successful authors and pretend we totally agree with them.

Unfortunately, this is almost always lip service. We agree with these successful authors…when it comes to anyone else’s manuscript. When it comes to our own manuscript, though…well, we’re just special, aren’t we?

One of my favorites is from Terry Pratchett, and it’s about the first draft.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Give the Gift of a First Draft

Your first draft does not have to be perfect. Keep pushing through it to get to the next phase, making it better. Image courtesy of Big Stock. Some rights reserved.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I’m sure if you were having coffee with a writer friend right now, you’d thoroughly enjoy telling them this and nodding sagely. Continue reading

Wrestling an incomplete manuscript book coaching

Wrestling the Incomplete Manuscript: Book Coaching

Wrestling the Incomplete Manuscript: Book Coaching

“I’ve started writing a book, and I can’t figure out how to finish it.”

“I think I have an outline, but how do I go about writing a complete book?”

“Can anyone help me while I’m in the process of writing my book?”

Editing is great and all, but until you have a complete manuscript—a full story with a beginning, middle, and end—professional editing is of limited value to you. While you’re actively writing, other types of feedback pack a bigger punch, which is why some writers turn to coaches in their book creation process.

Wrestling an incomplete manuscript book coaching

A book coach can help you during the writing process. Image courtesy of Big Stock. Some rights reserved.

Do any of the above scenarios sound like you? I’ve coached authors who’ve gotten deep into manuscripts and lost the thread, writers who want actionable feedback on how to make their story better, and would-be authors who seek accountability and ongoing support. All that being said, coaching is not for everyone—and now may not be the time you want or need it.

Book Coaching: The Basics

Most writers turn to coaches for a combination of accountability (that manuscript you started ages ago and never finished), and ongoing feedback (comments/revisions to make your work better as you’re writing it). Some level of cheerleading is also included, because every writer can use someone who supports their work.

All good coaching involves outline development. This means creating a structure you’ll use to guide you as you write. Your coach may work with you to create an outline, or if you already have one, review it to help you stay on task and on target. Don’t like outlines? We can guide you through using mind maps or other techniques that capture the big picture.

Coaching by definition is book development. We’re asking the same big questions the developmental edit asks, only we’re asking them over and over again.

  • What is your concept?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the overall structure and how can you develop your ideas?
A book coach will help you fine tune your concept, audience, and book structure. Click To Tweet

If you’ve read my blog post from last month, these questions might sound suspiciously like the Big Four Questions everyone should ask their manuscript.

In addition, coaching pays close attention to:

  • Your writing strengths and weaknesses
  • Strategies you can use to help you meet your writing goals

Depending on your needs (and payment choices), coaching can be very “high-touch.” You might be speaking with your coach or sharing revisions back and forth on an intensive basis. Or, you can decide on a less-intensive schedule of feedback, on a spectrum that suits you.

Coaching is a flexible arrangement. It’s also a great way to build accountability into your writing process and ensure you meet your deadlines, whether self-imposed or external. However, it is not for everyone, all the time.

Coaching is a great way to build accountability into your writing process and help you meet deadlines. Click To Tweet

When Book Coaching is NOT for You

Fiction authors, in particular, can go through a long process of story discovery. If you are playing with a variety of ideas and characters, and a big story arc or character hasn’t solidified for you as the central figure, coaching may be premature.

Alternatively, if you want to hone your craft and tinker with a variety of ideas big and small, coaching may also not be appropriate. In these cases, I recommend taking writer’s workshops, and/or attending writer’s groups in the genre of your interest.

And finally, if you want help writing your book, and what you mean by that is “can someone else write this for me?” the answer is yes. This person is a ghostwriter, not a coach.

When Workshops and Writer’s Groups May Be Helpful Instead

Nonfiction writers can also benefit from classes and writer’s groups. You can connect with like-minded writers who share personal experiences and best practices. And you can find workshops on book proposals and building your platform, all of which helps your book.

You can find literary hubs in many cities. In Denver, we have Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop; Minneapolis has The Loft; Boston has Grub Street; Seattle Hugo House; you get the idea. The Loft has a listing of literary organizations, as does Writer’s Market. Find a group that works for you, and work on your craft in a supportive environment.

In my experience, most of these hubs focus on traditional publication, and some may be more open to the idea of self-publishing than others. However, they have excellent instructors and you can learn a LOT about the craft of writing, as well as find a community of like-minded people.

The Bottom Line: What a Coach Can and Cannot Do

Know this: your coach will not write your book for you. If you begin work with someone as a coach, and your arrangement morphs to where they are doing the writing, instead of you, what you now have is a ghostwriter.

A book coach can be a great resource for you as you tackle a manuscript that doesn’t want to get done. Consider what you want from your coach: accountability, craft tips, help with the outline, and so on. Interview your coach just as you would your editor.

Coaches can’t make you do what you don’t want to do. We can give you lots of great advice about the writing and revision process. We can give you great feedback on your ideas, your arc, your characters and style. We’re a great source of tips on how to break through writer’s block. But we can’t make you write your book. You still need to put in the work.

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  • Learn how different kinds of editing can improve your book
  • See what your manuscript needs to get to the next level
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Writing a Good Synopsis

Writing A Good Synopsis

Writing a Good Synopsis

Every writer’s fantasy: an opportunity to write a soulless summary of the book whose intricate nuances you’ve slaved over [insert number of months/years], glossing over all the twists and turns, and giving away your carefully crafted ending. Yes. What’s not to love?

Writing a Good Synopsis

Creating a synopsis doesn’t have to be a soulless exercise. CC image “writing” courtesy of Paul Sableman on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This is how most writers feel about the synopsis. Unfortunately, they’re wrong on a couple of fronts. For one, it should definitely not be soulless—although you will be much more straightforward in your synopsis style than in your book.

For another, they’re wrong when they assume the synopsis is pointless. Just read the book. Aha, but the synopsis is not for the reader who’ll find your title at the local bookstore.

The synopsis is for the people who will help you get your book to the local bookstore—if you do it right.

So what is a synopsis, and why should you care about creating a good one? Continue reading

What to do with your neglected manuscript

What to Do with Your Neglected Book Manuscript

What to Do with Your Neglected Book Manuscript

Remember when you were fired up by your new book idea? You were excited by the possibilities, and filled with ideas. You made tons of notes, perhaps sketched out an outline or started the first chapter… Remember those days?

What to do with your neglected manuscript

Is reviving an abandoned manuscript worth the work?  Image courtesy of Big Stock. Some rights reserved.

Now, you have a manuscript you’ve avoided or forgotten about for weeks or months…maybe years. Continue reading

Young Woman Writes To Black Diary

The Four Questions to Ask Your Nonfiction Book (They’re Good For Fiction, Too)

The Four Questions to Ask Your Nonfiction Book
(They’re Good For Fiction, Too)

Many first-time authors come to me with a book idea or a book started, and they’re not sure how to proceed. The question they often ask first is, “How should I tell this story? What’s the best way to tell this story?” Continue reading

graffiti-style picture of Wile E. Coyote holding a question mark sign

How Long Should My Book Be?

How Long Should My Book Be?

graffiti-style picture of Wile E. Coyote holding a question mark sign

Can you help me with my book? CC image “questions” courtesy of Daniel Novta on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the twenty million dollar question. Everyone has an opinion. Perhaps you’ve seen what someone else called a “book” that you thought fell short of that title—so short, in fact, “pamphlet” might have been a better term. I’ve had clients roll their eyes at such publications (and in all fairness, I sometimes have, as well). Perhaps you are a goal-oriented writer, and a firm target tickles your fancy. And perhaps you’re a reader who is simply curious. How long should books be?

Write what needs to be written

The true answer, and the annoying one, is that books should be as long as they need to be. Sorry, objective rule-based folks.

With certain exceptions, figuring out how many words you want to write before you write them puts the cart before the horse. A more constructive approach is to ask yourself what the story needs. Continue reading

Dos and Don’ts of Advance Reading Copies

Advance Reading Copies—Dos & Don’ts for Self-Publishers

four different hardcover books in different colors spell "OPEN"

Open your book! CC image “BYU faculty survey…” courtesy of opensource.com on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How do you go about getting one (or more) of those nifty recommendation blurbs from well-known authors on the back cover or inside flyleaf of your book?

How can you time your book to appear when a notable review of it is also released?

What about getting test audience feedback on your story or their reaction to your cover?

You can do all of these with Advance Reading Copies of your book, also known as ARCs.

What are the benefits of using Advance Reader Copies (aka ARCs)? Click To Tweet

Advance reading copies: benefits

At the most basic level, ARCs are a preview of your forthcoming release. Prior to the main print run (or mainstream e-release, if you are not doing a print version), you print/create a select number of copies and send them to select people. Emphasis: select. You are not saturation-covering the known literary universe.

ARCs are NOT final copies of your book. You can use them to check for errors, formatting, and print production choices. You may also think about tweaking the cover, now that you have an example of it in your hands and not only a PDF.

You can get test audience feedback with ARCs. In addition to more private feedback directly to you, you can use advance reviews to your advantage on sites such as Goodreads and Amazon, and to reach out to bloggers and others. ARCs are great for reviews and author blurbs, because you can get a copy of your book into the hands of reviewers before you publish to a wide audience.

Advance reading copies: don’ts

Do you want to send out Advance Reader Copies (ARCs)? If so, do NOT do this! Click To Tweet

Although your ARC is not the final copy of your book (and you should clearly state this in all copies), appearances matter.

  • Don’t send out a messy ARC. Make sure your formatting is clean and neat.
  • Avoid sending out your ARCs before you’ve had at least one major editorial pass. Readers don’t care how awesome your story will be later if they think the book is a hot mess right now. Remember, they can post advance reviews on various websites.
  • Avoid hedging about your genre. Readers will not be pleased if they receive a horror story when they expected a comedy, or vice versa.
  • Don’t send out your copies without basic proofreading. You might be surprised how many people focus on your spelling over the story, even if you tell them they’re reading an advance copy.
  • Don’t send out ARCs that are not CLEARLY labeled as such.

Many authors don’t think about the ARC until they’re through with the editorial process. However, I have had clients who were excited to share their book, and who really wanted to gather blurbs and reviews prior to release. In some cases, they sent out unedited manuscripts in the form of a Word document to readers. Unfortunately, this produced mixed results. I would strongly caution you against this tactic. Most people have certain expectations when they hear the word “book.”

ARCs and beta readers

As I mentioned, ARCs can be a great way to get feedback from your audience. However, they are different from true beta readers.

What's the difference between ARCs and beta readers (and why it matters) Click To Tweet

Beta readers are your writing colleagues and others who read your work while it is still in progress. These people have a high understanding of the writing process and sensitivity to the challenges and excitement you encounter while writing your book. They help you brainstorm, they commiserate with you, and provide you with craft feedback. They are a small group.

ARC readers on the other hand read what you hope will be the final product. This can be a much larger group than the beta readers, especially if you send them to reviewers and bloggers. They may or may not care about your process; they review the book in front of them as though it was the real thing. They may not have craft insights to share with you, and instead react with words such as “boring,” “awesome,” “interesting,” and so on which do not help your writing process—though they do help you gauge whether you’re reaching your audience.

What you should do with ARCs

  • Do clearly mark your ARC copies as “advance” and not final.
  • Do proofread them before they go out!
  • Do read reviewer guidelines and send ARCs to reviewers several months before you wish to publish.
  • Do tell your readers what to expect in terms of your book genre.
  • Do use this opportunity to see how you feel about the print production and the cover.

The bottom line

Advance reading copies are your book’s ambassadors to the world. You can generate advance interest in your book, get blurbs and recommendations from other writers, receive glowing reviews, catch errors, and take the temperature of your test audience. ARCs can do this best when they are produced and used with care and attention to quality control. As with every other part of the book process, think about what you want your ARCs to achieve.

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Have Fun While Writing Your Book—You’ll Be More Successful

Have Fun While Writing Your Book–You’ll Be More Successful

colorful picture of boardwalk storefronts with sign saying fun zone

Not what everyone thinks about while writing their book. CC image “fun zone” courtesy of Sandy Schultz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Some folks consider writing a book a chore. After working on the manuscript for several months (or years), unfortunately, it can start to feel this way, including for those of us who begin with enthusiasm. You may wonder if all you’ve got is one long, dreary task list to plow through.

Finishing a book definitely takes work, no doubt about it. But if we’re going to spend so much time on this project, I want to make sure the process isn’t unrelieved misery. Let’s explore a few ways we can keep the fun in our writing process.

Find reasons to celebrate

Sounds obvious, right? How often do you do that, though? My bet: you’re waiting to celebrate until you’re “finished.”

Wrong idea.

What does “finished” mean? When you finish writing the first draft? When you finish revising? Going through the book with your editor? When the book is published?

Pick smaller milestones. Much smaller. Smaller still.

Celebrate when you complete your daily writing goal. Celebrate when you nailed that character description. Celebrate when you develop your outline. Celebrate choosing a title (even a working title). Celebrate when you wrote something—anything—no matter how awful, on a day when you wanted to write nothing at all.

Your celebrations can take many forms. A happy dance around your house. Dinner with friends. A Netflix mini-binge. A coloring book (children not required).

You spend a lot of time acting as your own worst critic. Time to be your number one fan, as well.

Treat writing as playtime

If you’ve seen my other posts, some of these suggestions should ring familiar. Some people write best when they sit down at a clean desk with their laptop in front of them—all business. After a few months/years, though…

Even if this comfortable writer is you, I encourage you to experiment.

  1. Write by hand.
  2. Use a “nonstandard” writing tool: pencil (graphite or colored), crayon, marker, fancy ink, the list goes on.
  3. Buy a roll of butcher paper, spread it out and tape it down to a surface, and write all over this, in the tool of your choosing. You can tape it to a wall, wrap your kitchen table with it, or if you have a hardwood floor, tape it on the floor so you can walk all over it. If you’re going to use a marker or pen that may saturate through, tape down several layers. Butcher paper is super affordable (your gorgeous floor or table, perhaps not so much).
  4. Every so often, write in a different location. I know I encourage you to make daily writing a habit as much as possible, and a predictable routine is part of that. Sometimes, though, you need to change it up. Even if the change is as small as another room in your house.
  5. Like hats? Get a couple of fun ones: your writing hat, your thinking cap, your editorial hat. Switch it up while you work.

Schedule writing “vacations”

All of us need a break from work now and then. That’s why there are weekends, and vacations (I personally know quite a few people who bring their work with them into these timeframes, which defeats the purpose, by the way). Set up writing holidays the same way (and treat them better than my workaholic friends).

Are you great at writing in sprints? Stretches of time where you do nothing else? Schedule a sprint, followed by some time off where you are not allowed to write.

Do you excel at the slow and steady? A little bit of the book at a time, all routine? Pick a predictable interval to schedule a non-writing interlude. Is it once a month? Every other month? Maybe you only need a few days to recharge, or a whole week or two sounds good.

Whatever method you choose, schedule the time off—and the time back on. That way, you can holiday guilt-free, because you know you are doing the work. And you can work knowing that your next break is just around the corner.

The bottom line

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Find ways to insert fun into the writing process, take breaks, and above all, celebrate every step you take. The road can be long. Let’s enjoy the trip.

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  • Learn how different kinds of editing can improve your book
  • See what your manuscript needs to get to the next level
  • Get tips on how to find the editor that’s right for you

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Move Beyond “Potential”: Make Your Indie Book Shine

Move Beyond “Potential”: Make Your Indie Book Shine

yellow background with a line drawing of a person inside a huge T shirt that reads "potential"

Does your book have a shape or only potential? CC image “potential” courtesy of yukky.u on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I wince a little inside when I hear someone describe a self-published book as having “potential.” At the same time, I feel a small piece of acknowledgment—because not every author sticks with the project through the final, frustrating revisions that would make the book truly excellent.

In my work, I’m privileged to read a lot of books. Design elements aside, the one element that bugs me about many indie books is the short shrift given to the editorial process. If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ll have heard me say this before: EVERY good author works with an editor; no one comes out of the gate with a first draft that is as beautiful as what you see in the finished work. If [insert name of your favorite author] needs to go through revisions and editing, don’t you think you should give it a try?

When you self-publish, you get to call the shots. That’s both the blessing and the curse of the model. I love that authors get creative control with independent publishing. Unfortunately, some authors use this control to veto work that would be good for their book. So, how do you know when your book might need more work? Below are a few clues.

Clues your book needs more editorial work

1. Have you finished writing your manuscript, and then gone back and re-read the whole thing, from beginning to end?

You haven’t? What are you waiting for?

I promise you, your story has logical gaps, discontinuities, and/or repetitions. If you haven’t re-read your entire manuscript, you are making a huge mistake, period.

2. Do you have title/subtitle ideas?

While you’re working on a first draft, it’s perfectly natural to have only a working title for your book—you might call it “My book.” You’re figuring things out. However, beyond the first draft, you should be getting other ideas. If you don’t, this is a sign you probably need to work more on your manuscript. Writing and revising will provide ideas.

3. Have you read your last chapter as often as your first?

Writers have a tendency to spend a lot of time with Chapter One. And the beginning of your book is important. But, newsflash: so is the end of your book. The end is what your readers will remember—assuming they read all the way through. If you haven’t paid attention to the end of your book, you’re not ready to publish.

4. Have you read your “middle” more than once?

Some of you are now thinking, “OK, this now makes EVERY part of the book an ‘important part.’” Yes, yes it does. Did you see #1 above?

Those readers who get to the end? They have to make it through the middle of the book. The reason I call out the middle by name is that writers give it even less attention than book endings, and by far less than beginnings. For this reason, it’s earned the name “muddy middle” in the writing world. Your book can get flabby around the middle—just like we can. Have you spent time working it out?

5. Did you make any big changes in your story/topic while writing was in progress?

I guarantee you will want a complete re-read of your manuscript, if you have. Skip this step, and you’ll hand your editor—or, so help us, your designer—a hot mess.

6. Are you clear on your audience?

If you can’t picture one specific person (not your mother) reading your book, stop and take a minute. You should not—I repeat should NOT—publish without this knowledge.

7. Are you sick of reading your manuscript, or only sick of writing it?

I get it. First drafts are hard. Most of us don’t want to look at the darn thing anymore, after we finish what we think is “The End.” That’s not the same as reading your manuscript a lot. By this I mean, you’ve taken a break after you reached The End; you’ve read either a hard copy or you’ve refrained from beginning to edit as you read; and you’ve done #1 more than once.

Being done writing is not the same as being done revising. You better be sick of revising before you publish.

8. Your editor hesitates AT ALL when you ask whether your book is ready for the next phase.

MAJOR red flag.

9. Your designer asks you, “Has this been edited?”

See number 8.

10. The people who read your manuscript say, “It’s promising.”

Ugh! This is like saying something is “interesting.” It means it’s not finished and they don’t know how to tell you.

The bottom line

If you at all wonder whether your book needs additional work, chances are yes, it does. Even after many revisions. This is your opportunity to ask an expert for their assessment.

Be careful to not let your enthusiasm and impatience for getting the wretched project out of your hair lead you to pull the plug too early on writing and editing. I love seeing manuscripts with potential. But published books should achieve that potential. Get out of the B leagues—do the work.

== ==

Subscribe to the monthly newsletter and get all future blog posts delivered to your inbox. You’ll also receive instant access to the Checklist for Self-Publishing Writers:

  • Learn how different kinds of editing can improve your book
  • See what your manuscript needs to get to the next level
  • Get tips on how to find the editor that’s right for you

Sign up today!