Some random thoughts I often find rattling around in my head go like this...
What are you, stupid?
Me: Dang, I wish I could write better prose . . . this scene sucks.
Lizard Brain: Maybe if you had more talent, Loser. Hey, what makes you think you’re a writer anyway? No wonder you can’t get a date . . .
As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about Mindset lately and how to develop a healthy one for achieving my writing goals. Carol Dweck discusses the psychology of the Growth Mindset (healthy) versus the Fixed Mindset (unhealthy) in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and I encourage you to give that a read or find a Ted talk on the subject. But what I’m most interested in is how to develop a successful writer’s mindset beyond the “set a schedule and stick to it” thing.
I started with what I wanted to achieve as a writer. Here’s my list:
I don’t claim any of this as original thinking. I mean, look at those. That’s the Olympic tag of better, stronger, faster, isn’t it?
Never mind, those goals will get me closer to my million words and ten novels, at which point I'll have developed a few skills.
Now, a fixed or limited mindset – expressed so well by the Lizard Brain – would say we’re born with only so much creative talent and you get what you get. A growth mindset says nuts to that, and views every project, every writing task as a critical step in the process of becoming the writer you want to be.
A writer with a fixed mindset will tell herself “My first draft sucks. I can’t write. Better take up yoga or something.”
A writer with a growth mindset will tell herself, “My first draft sucks. But the last part of my novel flows way better than the first, and I learned a lot about the importance of planning and plotting my scenes. So sure, it sucks, but I’ve got something to work with and learn from.”
Which one are you?
I have to admit, my default has been a Fixed Mindset since childhood (and maybe one day I’ll have the courage to share that journey with you), but I’m getting better and better at ignoring the Lizard and focusing on the positive aspects of the writing process.
With that in mind, here are my Three “How to Develop a Growth Mindset for Writers” tips:
1. When you write, don’t think, just write
This is really hard for me and I know it’s hard for you too. We love writing a couple of sentences and then jumping into edit-mode and start fiddling with words until we feel the writing is “good”. The key to developing a growth mindset is to let go of all that crap. Just write. Don’t edit. Resist the temptation to make your writing better (that comes after you’ve written your draft). So when you sit down to write, just write. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, what you’re going to have for supper . . . just write.
2. Write way more than you have been. Way, way more.
If the first key to a growth mindset is getting words out, warts and all, then the second key is writing a ton of words. Like, way more than you have been.
Writing is a numbers game. As Ray Bradbury said, and I paraphrase, if you write one short story every week for a year, chances are pretty good that at least a couple of them will have merit. Numbers. There is no short cut to becoming a successful writer. You must put in the time and effort, and that means writing a lot. Want to be a good novelist? Write a dozen novels and you will be. I guarantee it. Numbers.
So if your goal has been to write 1,000 words per day, then starting now, make that 5,000 per day for the next week and see what happens. I bet you won’t be able to spend nearly as much time fiddling to “make it better”. The only way to achieve that many words is to follow tip #1 above.
3. Stop caring so much
I might get emails about this one . . .
Do I care about my writing? Sure I do. I want to improve as a writer, engage readers more, and spin better yarns. But what I mean here is that if you want to improve as a writer, you need to stop putting so much pressure on yourself that the writing process becomes a shackle.
Here’s what I mean.
I often have writers come into the workshops with the goal of writing an awesome, intelligent, thoughtful, best-selling, profound novel with Big Themes and Unique Characters, about a story they’ve been thinking about since childhood. This is the one. All those other stories don’t matter compared to this one... the novel I'm born to write.
So the approach to writing becomes really important and serious. Every sentence is fiddled with. Plotting and planning can take forever (if they take place at all, because many new writers think that if George RR Martin can write by the seat of his pants, then everyone should do it that way). Daily word count drops to 200 words. And it can take forever to write the story. Most never finish.
Why? Because we care too much about it. We open the door to the Lizard and invite him in. There’s way too much pressure to make sure the writing and the story doesn’t suck, to the point where the story inevitably never gets finished. Subconsciously, we tell ourselves, "If I'm still working on it, then I don't have to share it with anyone, and I'll be safe."
Look, if you want to be a writer, you have to stop caring so much about every little word. This goes back to #1. Just write. Stop thinking so much about it and write. One way I found that really helps me is to write a story about something I don’t really care much about at all. For example, if I give myself a task of writing a story about Pat who’s out catching fireflies one night and ends up catching something a lot more sinister instead, then I think yeah okay whatever, set the timer, and off I go. I’m not married to the story. So now I can focus on just getting it written, warts and all. No pressure.
Ah, okay, I’ve rambled on enough about this now, so I leave you with a challenge for today.
Take your best writing day. How many words did you crank out? 1000? 2000?
Now double that number.
Now triple that number.
That’s your challenge for today: to write three times as many words as your best day.
Don’t worry about quality (that will improve naturally just by writing a ton). This is all about hitting the word count.
Let me know how it goes!
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So you’ve finally finished the first draft of your novel . . . congratulations! That’s an amazing accomplishment.
But you also know the real work has only begun. Before your send your opus into the world, it must look and feel as good as anything you’d find in a book store, including cover design and layout and, of course, a polished and awesome story.
Let’s focus on polishing the story today with a look at editing.
The Editing Problem
For most writers, myself included, self-publishing is the way to go. But we don’t want to put more garbage out into the world. You know what I’m talking about . . . buddy thinks he’ll write a story, which he does, and then vomits it all over Amazon for the world to see, warts and all.
If you’re going to spend the time and effort writing a novel – and hopefully a good one – then you owe it to yourself to make it look as professional as possible. This means a solid edit.
But, the cost of editing can be tremendous. Suppose you’ve written a 75k word novel. For a run of the mill copy edit – assuming that you’ve followed a well-structured plotting system so you know the story works – you could pay as much as $0.05 per word. That’s a cool $3,750. Even a final proofread to catch any remaining typos will cost $750.
I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never, ever recoup that money from book sales because, honestly, very few self-published authors ever sell more than a hundred books. Ever. At a couple bucks of royalties per book, you do the math and it looks grim.
Still, though, your story needs editing. You don’t want to hold your nose and contribute to the barf on Amazon, do you?
The Editing Solution
Many a novelist believes the solution to this costly, but necessary, service is to self-edit. Maybe pick up a piece of software or read a couple of books on it. That will help. But you also need to check your mindset. When you’re writing, you’re in creative mode. As an editor, you need to put a skeptical scowl on your countenance and slay all those pretty words of yours.
Not everyone can edit their own work.
I can to a point, but then I need outside help for all my blind spots.
Still, you can get about 80% of the manuscript problems fixed on your own, saving you a ton of money in the process.
Here’s how . . .
The 3-Step System (with 2 bonus steps)
With your finished draft in hand, you’re going to do three revising passes through it, focusing on What, Why, and How.
Let’s look at each one.
1. What Happens
In this pass, you’re going to focus on the story and what happens. This isn’t the time to get cute by throwing in all those Big Themes that might please your high school English teacher: focus on making sure the story is coherent. It flows logically, the action is appropriate. Fill in any missing gaps. Fix the chapter transitions. Make your story flow.
As you do this, when you notice typos, fix them up along the way. You’ll miss a bunch, I guarantee you that, but it’ll be a start.
2. Why It Happens
In the second revision pass, you’re now going to focus on the characters and their motivations to really understand why they behave the way they do. This will ensure consistency, which is super important if you plan to keep your readers engaged (which we want, just to be clear).
Your Main Characters
When I talk about “main” characters, I’m talking about your viewpoint characters (if you’ve taken a workshop with me, you’ll understand that . . . if not, these are your protagonist, antagonist, and a confidant or romantic interest or some other primary character in your story).
So make sure the good guys are likeable and the villains are nasty. For even more effect, give your hero flaws and vulnerability, make her take some bad decisions. Readers need to feel sympathy for them. Also, give your antagonist some good traits. Make him real. Sure, he might have murdered Don Fanucci in cold blood, but just because he did, Vito Corleone loves his kids a ton (can you tell I just watched the Godfather II?).
Followers of the Snowflake method of plotting get this, but all writers should have a thorough understanding of what makes their characters do what they do.
Characters are motivated by two things primarily: a concrete goal (that is, the story goal) and an abstract goal. So for example, your hero might have a burning desire to solve a murder (concrete goal) because it speaks to their sense of justice in the world (abstract goal).
Look at your viewpoint / main characters and ask yourself what motivates them. Then, as you go through this revising pass, keep those motivations in mind when your characters act and make decisions and generally do stuff. They need to be consistent or else your reader will scratch her head and wonder wtf . . .? Why did Sally do that? It should be clear.
3. How It Happens
Now we’re getting close to the next end (you’ll discover, if you haven’t already, there are may “ends” in the writing process).
In this third revision, you want to add in some of the colour to your prose. Things like describing your settings in each section or chapter, what your characters are wearing, what the weather’s like, and so on. Be careful: this is not an invitation to give each character a laundry list of descriptors. You know what I mean: Sally stared the killer down. She wore a blue smock with white socks and gray shoes, a black ribbon in her hair, and a pendant that said “Bite me” in bold lettering.
Don’t do that.
Drip your descriptions in.
What you’re looking for are those small things that help the reader engage. Like one of my baddies who has a penchant for dandelion tea. Think about the old Law & Order shows. Whenever the cops went to interview a person of interest, that person was always doing something: mowing the grass, fixing a car, cleaning the house. Those are the little details that readers love and that keep them engaged.
But wait . . . there’s more!
Two bonus revision passes!
4. Chapter Openings and Closings
If you follow a proven plotting method like our Plotting Roadmap, you’ll see that all sections (which later become chapters) open by hooking and orienting the reader. The endings leave the reader having to keep going to find out what happens (does Sally kill the killer? Does she die?)
So in this pass, you’re focusing on the openings and closings of your chapters. You need to keep your reader hooked. Don’t let them put your book down!
5. One Last Proofread
All the while, as you’ve been going through your drafts, you’ve encountered typos and fixed them. Now you get to do it one more time. So put your manuscript away for a few days, and then read it through again. Don’t fiddle with it anymore, just focus on typos and consistency in your writing.
For example, if you write “six o’clock in the morning” one place and “6 am” in another, it might just be enough to kick your reader out of the floe. Be consistent.
And now, you’re ready to publish, yes?
Now you’re ready to pass your manuscript off to your beta readers with a list of broad questions so you can make sure you didn’t miss anything big.
By following these steps, and a proven story structure, you will eliminate the need for extensive editing completely and save yourself thousands of dollars.
M.C.R. Marshall wrote and published his first novel Delphi's Shadow, an action-packed and thoughtful science fiction story. Here's my interview with Mike...
Where did the idea for Delphi’s Shadow come from?
I had a completely different idea for my first novel. Started developing it and everything. Then about two weeks into the first write your first novel course someone (might have been David in fact) posted a link in the Ottawa Writers Workshop FaceBook page about the Hubble telescope detecting a pitch-black planet. Hmm what could they be hiding? I thought. And off I went.
Delphi’s Shadow is a ‘hard’ sci-fi story, meaning that I try to ground it as much as possible in realistic science and logic, as opposed to something like Star Wars which is closer to fantasy. There was a lot of influence from the Expanse book series and Charles Sheffield’s Cold as Ice series, as well as Ian Banks (especially the names of the ships).
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing Delphi’s Shadow?
This was my first attempt at approaching novel writing in a structured way. I had the usual misgivings about structure somehow destroying the art of the writing, but once I understood it as a process that teaches you the fundamentals, rather than some sort of restrictive set of rules, I was good to go. Although I got into a real mess because I used cue cards to map out my structure rather than a Word document, and I ended up turning them into such a scribbly mess that I couldn’t understand what I’d written and had to redo the whole thing.
As it is with a lot of people, getting the space to write was a big challenge. I have a busy job that demands a lot of brain energy, I’ve got kids, I’ve got chores around the house, I have friends and hobbies and I like to stay in shape and all sorts of things that take up my time. So I had to make room by giving things up. For me that was Netflix. That hour I’d spend watching a series, I recommitted to writing.
Another thing I noticed was that about halfway through the novel I felt as if I’d leveled up as a writer. I’d hit 50k words and suddenly I was putting better sentences together, I was showing and not telling, I was getting comfortable with pacing and foreshadowing and reigning in my overdependence on passive verbs. Which was great, but also discouraging because I realized I had to do something with the first half of my novel to raise it up. I spent a lot of time rewriting entire sections and I still don’t know if it made that much of a difference. I think this is a dilemma that most first time novelists may face one way or another.
Finally the editing almost killed me. Seriously. I think I spent just as long editing as I did writing. Some people love editing. I don’t know what planet they’re from, but for me it was like pulling teeth.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Definitely a plotter. I have to know where I’m going at least in broad terms. I think of it like planning a long journey. I start out with where I want to go, I have a good idea of how I’m going to get there, but I’m completely open to changing it up along the way if something interesting comes up. If I look back on my original plot outline and compare it to the final manuscript, there are big deviations. But the initial outline allowed me to think about how this was going to change the story and keep me from the dreaded writing myself into a corner trap.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I read a lot, as most writers do, which shows me how other authors have approached all the technical aspects of writing, how they create stories and engaging characters (or not - which is just as valuable). I’m constantly following up interesting articles and blogs, which is where I get my concept ideas. I particularly enjoy science and futurism blogs like Isaac Arthur’s Youtube channel. I also do a lot of people watching, because at the heart of any good story there are interesting people. All of my characters are made up of bits and pieces of people I know or even just passed on the street one day.
Now that your first novel is out, can you tell us what’s next in your writing agenda?
Delphi’s Shadow was set up as the first in a trilogy. But my next project was going to be totally different, because I wanted to experiment with something new. I’d plotted the new book and started in on the first sections. But I was having difficulty getting into it and I found myself drawn back to the story I started with Delphi’s Shadow. So I’ve given in and I’m plotting out the sequel, tentatively titled Delphi’s Remains.
Do you have any tips for writers who want to write their first novel?
Obviously I’m a big believer in making a plan and a plot, which was key to me getting the work done. But at the end of the day the most important thing is this: Write. Write. Write. It’s the only way you’ll get good at it and the only way you’ll finish that story. Make it a priority. Tell people that this is important to you so that they can help you claim the space to do it. Make it the thing you reward yourself with. Make it more important than that exciting new show on Netflix.
Today, I’d like to share with you the top 10 most common fiction writing mistakes. These were compiled by Danny Mancini at ProwritingAid, but I can tell you, they certainly ring true for me. I was most susceptible to number 3 when I tackled my first novel (the One that Shall Never See The Light Of Day). I've taken Danny's list and added my own thoughts :)
1. Poor handling of dialogue
Your dialogue must sound realistic. Try reading it out loud and letting your ears tell you whether it sounds real or not.
2. Unrealistic characters
No one is 100% Evil or Good. Make your characters – even the non-human ones – more realistic by giving them both good and bad personality traits.
3. Unlikable characters
This was my biggie back in the day. Your lead character – the hero – must be likable. If your reader doesn’t like her, she won’t care about her, and that is the end of her reading engagement. An unlikable lead is the kiss of death.
No plot twists? Predictable dialogue? That’s a big bag of yawns. Surprise your reader. Make him think “I did NOT see that coming!”
5. Use of clichés
Again, boring, tired, over-used. The only time clichés can work is in dialogue. If that’s the way your character speaks, then speak on!
6. Lack of pacing
Pacing in a novel is extremely difficult if you’re writing by the seat of your pants. Writers in my workshops understand that the Plotting Roadmap we use builds pacing right into it. Takes the guesswork away.
7. No sense of setting
This doesn’t mean you need to spend pages and pages describing the landscape (please don’t do that), but you must orient your reader frequently so they’re not left wondering where they are.
8. Lack of conflict
Another kiss of death. Remember, tension = what could happen, and conflict = what does happen. Make sure you have lots of both to keep your reader interested.
9. Editing as you go
Don’t do this. You’re giving in to the Lizard Brain when you start saying to yourself, “Oh, I can fix this up,” or worse, “Oh, this is garbage, I better fix it up.” There’s lots of time to edit after you’ve finished your draft.
10. Jumping on the genre bandwagon
You’ve heard the old adage “write what you know”? In this case, write a story in the genre you know. If high fantasy is your thing, then trying to write a hallmark romance because they sell the most will come back to bite you. You can’t fool readers. They know a genre fraud when they see one, so stick with the genre you understand the most.