Category Archives: writing advice

The End Makes the Best Beginning

The End Makes the Best Beginning

boy crossing race finish line with his arms in the air to celebrate

The End! CC image “Mike to Mike Half Marathon” courtesy of Fort Bragg on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Most of your readers will start reading your book at the beginning. That doesn’t mean you should start writing there.

The beginnings of books are notoriously tough to pin down. So much rides on those first pages, even the first sentences. Continue reading

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

closeup of outline or mind map diagram

CC image “mind map” courtesy of madstreetz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Little divides writers as much as whether they should write a book outline or not. These two big categories are the pantsers, and the planners.

The planners, as you might expect, begin with a plan. They decide what they are going to write about, in what order the story should unfold, the main points they want to hit, and they typically create a detailed outline. Then, they write according to this plan.

Pantsers discover the story and the book as they go. Though they typically start out with an idea of what they want—the beginning and ending are common anchors—they don’t know, as they begin, how they’re going to get to the end. They “fly by the seat of their pants.”

Planners think of pantsers as disorganized and chaotic, and pantsers think of planners as rigid and unimaginative. Both these assessments are true and false in equal measure. Continue reading

Writing About Real People: Making sure they don’t hate you or sue you after you publish

Writing About Real People: Making sure they don’t hate you or sue you after you publish

old word processing keyboard with Ooops button. writing mistakes

You don’t want to feel this way about your story. CC image “Oops.” courtesy of Marcin Wichary on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writers of all stripes constantly draw from real life. Nonfiction and memoir material obviously depend on real people, and even fictional characters are drawn from what we know and have experienced. The question is: How much “real” information can we include in our work? Is there a limit, and if so, where is it? Can we use real names? What is OK to say, and how can we be both respectful and legally safe while maintaining truth and honesty in our work?

Not everyone is happy to find themselves portrayed in a book. Our writing has real-world consequences, some of them less pleasant than an uncomfortable holiday meal after we’ve aired our family’s dirty laundry to the world. There may be legal ramifications. Below I discuss best practices for writing about real people and factual events.

Note, this post is meant as a guideline ONLY. I am not a legal professional and in no way does the following constitute legal advice. Also, this article is not about journalism or journalistic ethics and obligations. If you have a question, please consult a legal professional.

Real-world effects of writing about real people

Negative fallout from telling real stories falls into one of two categories: people who never speak to us again, and people who sue us. Both of these are frightening for different reasons, although people who sue us can have a vastly broader impact on our lives.

And negative fallout typically comes because we share less-than-flattering stories. Let’s face it: if we’re being outrageously complimentary, who’s going to object to that? Legally speaking, compliments are a non-issue, while real or perceived insults need our more careful attention.

If you’re wondering whether you might face difficulties when you talk about real people, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can your portrayal be seen as unfavorable or slanderous?
  • Are you lying or being “malicious”?
  • Can the characters be readily identified by name or other characteristics?

Writing that is respectful and legally safe

Sometimes unhappy stories are the reason for your work in the first place. If you’re writing a memoir about overcoming a tough chapter from your life, that tough story is probably necessary. In nonfiction, real-life examples are important. If you’re writing fiction, your characters need to grow, change, and face obstacles, otherwise there is no book—and real experiences are great sources of fictional narrative.

In all cases, you need to maintain truth and honesty. However, this doesn’t mean you need to drag a specific person through the mud. Be respectful—even if you feel certain people don’t deserve it.

Think about the larger ramifications of what you’re sharing: what serves the story you want to tell? Do you need to identify your boss Jim by name, description, and personal habits? Or do you need to convey how his behavior affected you personally?

Strategies for how to write about real people in your book

Some writers are so concerned about reactions to their book that they wait until the affected people die before publishing. This is one way to avoid offending anyone and having them sue you, but it doesn’t suit everyone and I encourage you to explore other options.

Get permission.

This is the simplest way to include real information about real people. Get written permission from them to use it. Now, you may argue that this isn’t necessarily easy, but easy and simple are two different things.

Change the character name and other identifying characteristics.

You probably don’t want to name your awful character after your boss Jim. Re-naming your characters (whether real or fictional) is an obvious first step. Since we can identify people by more than names, make sure you also change other details, such as physical characteristics, habits, personal interests and hobbies, and so on.

Here’s where being honest to the story comes in. Fiction writers may have an easier time with this concept than nonfiction writers. Say Jim is obsessive: great, do we need him to obsess about baseball scores, the way live Jim does? How about making him a fiend for a perfectly mowed lawn?

Create composite characters.

Use professional back story from one person, the obsessive personality traits from another, a love of gardenias from a third, and so on. Jim could be a lawn-mowing-obsessed female mathematician. You get the idea. Use multiple real-life figures so that the new composite doesn’t match any one person. You can be faithful to the character’s agency in the story without insulting someone you hope to have Thanksgiving dinner with, or inspiring an erstwhile colleague to drag you to court.

The bottom line

Best practices to keep yourself safe and respectful, while staying true to the story that you need to tell, include asking yourself how unflattering your portraits are, how recognizable your characters are (or need to be), and whether you are making your characters ugly and stupid out of spite. Ask yourself: what serves the story? Get permission to speak about people if you can, and respect their privacy by changing identifying details that are not relevant to the lesson or insight that you want to share.

The legal ramifications of talking about real people in your book can be more complicated than you think. When in doubt, please do seek professional advice.

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What are some of your concerns when you write about real people?

Books to Inspire Writers

Books to Inspire Writers

word map using inspiration and related terms

CC image “Inspiration” courtesy of photosteve101 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

During this week when the word “love” is in the air—for all kinds of reasons, some of them commerce, I mean, Hallmark—I played on social media with the theme “book love.” I even used that hashtag (#booklove) on Twitter.

Now, Seth Godin I am not, though the idea got me thinking. None of us works in a void. As writers, we are inspired and guided by what we read. Writing well means reading. Some of what we read may be didactic—The Elements of Style, for example, or, in my case, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. Most of what inspires us does so because of what it is: good writing, a good story, characters we can’t let go of, the voice of an author that we recognize and admire.

In keeping with the spirit of #booklove, below are starting points for writing reference and inspiration. Honestly, this list is individual to me, and could go on forever. My hope is you’ll see a little of what you are looking for, when you write. Continue reading

statue of a woman holding her head

Why the Developmental Edit is One of the Hardest Things You’ll Ever Do

Why the Developmental Edit is One of the Hardest Things You’ll Ever Do

statue of a woman holding her head

All this editing makes my head hurt. CC image “headache” courtesy of threephin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Friends, I’d like to address a difficult and emotional topic: the developmental edit.

You’ve sent your manuscript off to your editor for developmental work. You’ve completed a draft! The world is a beautiful place, filled with hope. Rainbows, puppies, and kittens are everywhere. You buy everyone dinner.

Then:

Your editor returns your draft manuscript filled with comments, cross-outs, lines pointing everywhere; or they’ve rearranged the content for you, and nothing looks like it did. There are questions, so many questions! You think about the pristine draft you sent out and realize now that it’s obviously defective and awful. You spend a week hiding in a dark room, blinds drawn, listening to sad music or watching Dead Poets Society on repeat.

A developmental edit is as necessary as it is painful

The best and worst part of a developmental edit is how radically it can change your book. Continue reading

closeup of typwriter writing word Feedback

Your book’s fresh start: How to ask for great feedback

Your book’s fresh start: How to ask for great feedback

The difference between dud and dazzle

closeup of typwriter writing word Feedback

CC image “Feedback” courtesy of Dennis Skley on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

New beginnings! Why is it we only think of them when we have spare time?

Truly. Ask anyone who has had to work over the end-of-year holidays: have they sat down to have a luxurious talk with themselves about the year past and the year to come? Probably not. What about that problem you’ve been trying to solve for months: how often did you solve it in the shower—when you weren’t thinking about anything else? My bet is: often.

When we’re in the middle of a situation, we often don’t see it for what it is. The same goes for that book we’re writing.

As you write your book, eventually you give in to the temptation to go back to the beginning, and “fix” it. Unfortunately, after you tweak one paragraph, you need to fix the next one, and the next… By the time you get to where you need to add new material, a lot of time has gone by, you’re tired, and you don’t produce much.

The more you play this game, the more likely you are to question any writing choices you make. Maybe the first way you said it was better? You can’t stop second-guessing yourself. Continue reading