When Should You Care About Your Audience?

I attended a workshop given by actor/author Keith Strunk. At one point, when describing how an actor decides what actions to use to convey his character appropriately, someone asked him, “Do you consider how your actions impact the audience at this point in the process?” Keith replied, “Absolutely not. To think about how you are impacting the audience at this stage would be death.”

This got me thinking about the writing process, and at which points the author should consider the audience. Because Keith is right—there are some points at which we cannot think about the impact we are having on the audience.

When we are writing the story, that first draft, caught up in the creative passion, bringing it to life, we cannot consider an outside influence like the audience. The story needs to speak for itself, we need to hear what it and the characters need to come alive. If we start considering the audience, we run a grave risk of forcing the story into directions it should not go, or creating puppet-characters that only do what we think they should do. We risk taking the vitality out of the story.

After that draft, when the revision starts, that is when the audience should enter our thoughts. Are the characters relatable to the audience we are targeting? Is the language and content appropriate for that audience? This is where how we impact the audience comes into play.

I also think that we need to consider our audience in the initial idea phase. If you primarily write middle grade and you come up with an idea, you need to consider 1) would/could this idea make an appropriate MG story? and if not 2) do I want to write a story for a new audience and try and break into a new market? I do not think at this point you should try an shoehorn a non-MG idea into an MG idea, since then you end up with the problems mentioned above. But I do think you need to know before you start who your audience would be for this book. That way, if you do not want to break into a new market, you don’t waste your time on a book that you can’t sell to the market where you are already established.

To write your absolute best story, you need to listen to the story—not worry about your audience. So when you sit down to write, just write the story as it needs to be told. Listen to your characters. Be bold and explore.

Chances are, if you do that, your story will be so good that any audience will devour it.

When do you think about your audience?

Revision: Stepping Up Your Writing Game

My two co-authors and I just sent The Egyptian Enigma out for critique. Both of them are hoping for a relatively clean return. I am hoping for a lot of red ink.

I hear you asking, “Are you nuts?” (And since I’m hearing your voice in my head asking it, then perhaps the answer is yes.)

Nobody can actually want to revise! Not this deep into the writing project. To have to wade through an entire novel again! To have to rewrite scenes and chapters. To have to rethink characters and motives. To have to do yet another storyboard.

I understand. To revisit, to rewrite, to revise, can be frustrating. Especially if the revisions are of the major variety. Revising can sometimes feel like starting at square one—for the third or fourth time.

But I find it exhilarating. Sure, I get to the same “Not again!” feeling every once in awhile, but I see revisions (especially of the major variety) as a challenge. It’s a chance to step up my game. To stretch myself as a writer. To find a new writing level inside I never knew was there.

It’s also a chance to get it right. Every writer knows what I’m talking about: That feeling that what you put on the page doesn’t reflect the intent or the vision in your head, even though it’s the best writing you can do. That feeling doesn’t go away (at least, it hasn’t for me). It just keeps shifting as you learn more about your craft. There’s always something you haven’t mastered yet.

I am an editor. And I fully agree that you cannot effectively edit your own work. But as a writer and editor, I have a good nose for when my writing isn’t quite cutting it. When I don’t feel that “click” when every aspect of the writing comes together the way it should, making the writing feel solid and seamless. However, I often don’t know why I feel that lack of solidity, or how to fix it.

That’s why I’m hoping for a lot of red from this reader. Because The Egyptian Enigma is a really good book—but I want it to be better. There is something missing that can take it from a good book to a great book, and I can’t figure out what it is. I’m hoping my reader can tell me.

I want to step up my game.

When is a manuscript done?

Okay, I will admit that’s a trick question. No writer I know is ever really “done” with a piece. We could all tweak until the end of time, because we are constantly growing in our craft.

But if we want to be published, at some point we have to finish the manuscript. It has to be “done” so we can send it out. So how do you decide when it’s done? When it’s “perfect,” or when you simply have revised so much you can’t stand to look at it anymore? Or some other criterion?

I don’t think there is any set rule, other than it has to be as good and polished as you can possibly make it. So the stopping point will be different for everyone. For myself, I usually consider it pretty close to done after the fifth or sixth major revision. At that point, I start to “feel” the story becoming solid. Almost like all the pieces of a puzzle locking together. Once I feel that solidity, I start the polishing process.

But sometimes I have a manuscript that never gets that “together” feeling. I love everything about it – plot, characters, you name it – but something just isn’t clicking. People say you can’t edit your own work, and I know that’s true for me. My editor’s nose tells me when something is wrong, but I can’t always see the manuscript clearly enough to figure out what it is.

How long do you work on a manuscript that you believe in but that simply is not working? If no one has been able to point you in the right direction, what do you do? What is the right length of time to struggle with it before putting it in the drawer and revisiting it later, when your writing skills have matured enough that you can hopefully pinpoint the problem and fix it?

Maybe I shouldn’t ask what length of time, because now that I have a toddler my writing time has disappeared. Before the baby, I was a workhorse – I could churn out words like nobody’s business. Now I fight for every word I get, so revisions take many times longer to complete than they used to. So perhaps the better question would be: How many major revisions before you say, “This isn’t going to work right now” and move on to something else?

I know people who have been “perfecting” the same novel for twenty years (and not because they have small children). It is hard to let your work go out when you know it’s not perfect. But nothing is ever perfect. At some point you have to say, “It’s as perfect as I can make it with the skill and tools I currently possess.” Then you send it out.

So when is a manuscript “done” for you? And at what point do you give up on a difficult one?

Editing Your Life

I’m running around like a fool trying to pack up everything in my house because we are moving in less than two weeks. It’s not like this was a surprise, but you know how it is—you don’t jump into it until you have to because the project is almost too massive to contemplate and stay sane.

Of course, I’m not just packing. If all I was doing was dumping everything into boxes, that would be easy. But I firmly believe in not moving junk I don’t want or need to a new location. I am, after all, paying the movers by the hour so the less stuff they need to pack and unpack into the truck, the less I will pay. Besides, there is something freeing about divesting myself of old stuff with no purpose or meaning.

In essence, I am editing my life.

I am getting rid of all the stuff that once seemed important, but in hindsight is not. Of things that once meant something but no longer do. Of things that once fit me, but no longer fit who I am. Old clothes—I’m a stay at home mom whose body is a decidedly different shape than it was when I worked in an office many moons ago. Do I still need those business suits that no longer fit (and scream “Eighties!!!”)? Old paperwork—do I still need the repair history of a car I no longer own? Old memorabilia—if I can’t remember why I kept it, do I still need it? Old books—okay, I need all of them.

On the other hand, I am keeping all the things I still need. Not just the practical everyday things everyone needs, but things that are like a piece of me. A box with commemorative T-shirts. The old typed stories that were my first stab at writing. Photos. Shining mementos that bring me back to another time, that call up another human being as if they are in the same room…that recall events that made me who I am, moments of brilliance that made my life wonderful.

I couldn’t help (because I’m a geek) thinking how much like editing a book this process is. I edit to weed out the things that aren’t needed anymore. Things that may have been needed in the early draft, but now are simply dead weight. I kill my darlings. I rework prose that no longer fits the style.

And I keep the things that work. Those phrases that capture a character or place perfectly. The dialogue that sparkles. All of the gems that make the story shine and glitter. Weeding out the flotsam allows them to shine.

So weed out some unnecessary junk in your words and in your life. Let your essence burn bright, strong, and unfettered.

The Art of the Collaborative Writing Process

I talked last week about collaboration agreements and creative control, but people often ask me about the process of working with a collaborator. How does it actually work? After all, writing is usually a solitary pursuit.

Truthfully, every collaboration partnership will find the process that works best for them. In non-fiction, the most common partnership is where one person provides the knowledge or expertise while the other does the actual writing. It can work this way in fiction, too, where one partner who loves research provides the details the other writer needs to make the book’s world pop.

In fiction, probably the most important consideration is voice—the novel must have a consistent voice and feel to the writing all the way through. The exception, of course, is when the writers purposely want two distinct voices or points of view in the structure of the story, such as alternating chapters from different characters’ POV. In the vast majority of cases, however, the book should feel “whole,” with no indication that multiple writers had their fingers on the keyboard.

The best way to achieve this is to have one writer be the primary writer. The primary should be the writer whose natural voice best fits the purpose and tone of the story. This will mean less revision later for reasons of voice, which is one of the harder things to edit and revise for if it is not strong from the start.

The primary writes the first draft; then the secondary takes it and makes edits, additions, suggestions, etc.; then it returns to the primary to be “polished” into the proper voice. Some may choose to have the secondary write the first draft and then the primary work it into the right voice in a rewrite, but I believe that is an inefficient process. The primary would almost certainly have to do a complete rewrite of every chapter to get the voice the collaborators want.

In my collaborative fiction project, I am working with two other writers. We each bring different strengths to the table. I am the primary writer, because my voice is the one we liked best for the project. I tend to focus on character and emotion. One of my collaborators, Jim Kempner, is excellent with plot and research. My other collaborator, Jeff Pero, is a line editor with a great nose for writing action. So our process goes something like this:

We all hash out the outline of the book. This was an enormously fun part of the project, full of synergy and enthusiasm. I then wrote the first draft. Then Jim took it and added detail and description and poked holes in the plot and logic, which he then mended. Jeff took it from there, checking for grammar but also policing the pacing and action. We all, of course, also kept an eye on character and dialogue and all the other things we writers need to juggle!

After Jeff, it came back to me, and I polished it, massaging all of Jim and Jeff’s inserts into the voice of the book. Then we all sat down together, read it out loud, and made line-by-line edits.

And that is how the three of us wrote our book, The Egyptian Enigma.

Have you ever worked with a collaborator? What was your process like?

Machetes vs. Machinists: Reaching word count

I never liked math, which is one reason I decided against becoming a scientist (always loved astronomy). I went into writing because you don’t need math, right? Wrong! Who knew how often numbers would come into play?

The business side of things obviously contains a lot of math. Like figuring out percentages in contracts or how many books you need to sell to earn out your advance. Or how far you can stretch your money in a publicity campaign. Or how many conferences or workshops you can go to in a year. Or if you can pay your babysitter in Monopoly money.

I never realized how many times numbers can figure in the actual writing of the book, though. I mean, it’s words, right? But the devil is in the details, and one of the biggest details authors need to be cognizant of is word count. You know—a number.

Every genre has its own word count range, and authors would do well to try and follow them. If the author becomes the next J. K. Rowling, then word count goes out the window, but an aspiring author had better treat that number as if it is set in stone.

How do you make sure you reach that magic number? I have found two ways of approaching it. One, you write without counting and then edit down, like using a machete to cut your way through the jungle. Two, you control precisely how long each chapter is as you go along, with very little editing needed on the back end, like a meticulous watchmaker.

Personally, I am a practitioner of formula one. I write my first draft with no thought to word count at all. Which is fine because my first drafts are usually written short—I tend to leave out a lot of description and depth. My second draft is where my manuscript packs on pounds. I elaborate on everything that needs depth and color and description, and my word count balloons. It is only in the third draft that I start working on word count, trying to trim and rearrange and streamline things. Normally, I have no trouble getting down to my word count.

Those who follow formula two are something of a mystery to me. I see them post things on Facebook like, “I’m 1,000 words from my end!” How on Earth do they know how many words away they are? Chapters I could understand, but words? I suspect these writers have a very precise outline they follow, which would help them figure out words per chapter, etc. If any reader out there can elaborate on this technique, feel free to share!

So which are you? A machete-wielder or a precision machinist?

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