Mine Field and Gold Mine: Why You Should Read Your Primal Posts

Since my imagination seems to be in a bit of a dry patch when it comes to blogging these days, I decided to explore the wonderful world of reruns. The hope is to recycle some of my original posts that may have escaped general notice the first time around. Luckily (?), plenty of the Internet paid absolutely no attention to me for quite some time, so I’ve got a bumper crop of possibilities at my personal website. But my ongoing trip down blog-memory lane is not what this post is about. As often happens, my exploration in one direction led me some place unexpected.

Reading my first attempts at blogging reminded me of some wisdom I picked up somewhere, way back when, before I had a website (you know, a couple of years ago). Like most good advice, it was simple: the wise one said that all bloggers need to make a habit of reading their old posts and correcting/updating them as needed.

The wise one was right. I know this because, to date, I have completely and utterly failed to take the wise one’s advice. And my oldest posts reflect that. If you, like me, have gotten into the habit of publishing one of these things and then pretty much forgetting about it, then you, like me, might be surprised by what you find in the dustier corners of your archives.

It’s sometimes feels like a different person wrote them.

At first, I thought to share some of my choicest new-blogger gems here. But then it occurred to me that I would just be highlighting what is essentially mediocre writing worsened by bad editing. It occurred to me that might not be the wisest course of action for a freelance writer and editor to take. Though, if you hurry, you can still probably catch lots of the typos and bad grammar I haven’t gotten to yet. I am, after all, still the same procrastinating person I was before. And there are quite a few of those old posts. This process is definitely going to take some time.

But it’s proving beneficial on two fronts: I’m not only hiding my shame, I’m also discovering the various ways my writing has improved. (Yes, I like to think what you’re currently reading represents an improvement.) The biggest example of my writer-ly maturation has been seeing how my voice has matured.

So go back and read your primal blog posts, you might be glad you did. At the very least, you’ll probably catch a few of the typos you missed.

A Turkey Day Miracle!

I just wanted to share a little Turkey Day miracle I experienced this year.

I recently took on a ghost writing project. Obviously, I’m not free to go into any detail about it, but I was basically hired to help on a manuscript that had stalled out during revisions.

The author and I had been batting big ideas back and forth for several weeks with the goal of generating an outline. It was slow going and frustrating for both of us as we brought our very different perspectives to the project. But the slog finally paid off. Only — as is often the case with revisions and miracles — this pay-off ended up looking nothing like I expected.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I finally emailed an outline to the author. But that wasn’t the miracle. No. The miracle occurred on the other end of the exchange. It seems the author had, totally unbeknownst to me, been busy rewriting his entire manuscript while we were discussing and (as far as I could tell) butting heads over some pretty major elements of his story. Soon after I was hired, I had suggested an idea for a substantial change I felt would solidify the hero’s character arc and give the reader a better empathetic focal point. We had agreed to implement this change, but we couldn’t seem to come together on how. And, with the holiday season fast approaching, I was running out of time. In addition to all the normal Yule-time crap, I still work backstage on Ballet Austin’s Nutcracker. So I tend to get very busy with non-writer things in December.

But, like I said, the author I’m working for had been furiously revising in response to our discussions. And he had taken his story in a whole new direction that simplified and clarified and generally turned the whole thing around. I found the fruits of his labors waiting in my inbox on the morning after Thanksgiving.

Nitpicking can be a good thing

Here’s where we get into the miracle. Which is, simply put, that this writer had not only fixed a lot of the problems with his story, he also reminded me why I love to edit. And, more importantly, he showed me the incredible power an editor has. Even if an editor doesn’t “get you,” even if an editor seems to do nothing but nitpick and ask annoying questions, he or she can still help because all those questions and comments will force you to look at your work in a new way. And those questions and comments – no matter how far off base they may feel – should force you to think about why you’ve made those choices. Even better, your editor’s nagging will make you figure out ways to fight for what you decide is important. And they’ll make you clarify the $64,000 question of why you wrote the thing in the first place.

Which is exactly what happened during my Turkey Day Miracle. The moral? It’s simple: take the time and effort (and risk) to find qualified people to react to your work while you’re working on it. And listen to them, especially when you don’t agree with what they’re saying. You’ll almost always be glad you did.

Revising May Not Be As Much Fun…

I’ve started a closed Facebook group for a couple dozen folks. They have agreed to beta read the first half of my WIP, The Search for Stagehand Jesus. Here’s thelink. Some folks have started posting their feedback already, but most seem to be reading the whole chunk first. Or they’re like everyone else in the world and crazy-busy with their own lives. Otherwise I can’t understand why they haven’t dropped everything they care about to read part of my book. But seriously, I’m grateful for their support and optimistic about what could happen. Since I figure I can’t thank them enough, I’m doing it one more time here.

Also, anyone reading this post who’s curious about the group should feel free to observe from the outside. You can see the activity without joining. Or, if you’re interested in a more active role, ask me for an invite. I’ve got folks from all of my different worlds mixing together in there. If they really engage, it could be fun.

And knowing people want to read what I’m revising is a heck of a motivator. Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty effective paralyzer. Since I created the group, it feels like I stagger between these two states most of the time. But I’m making progress on my revisions. Slowly. As usual, I blame things like my having to write this blog when I don’t work on The Search for Stagehand Jesus, but I know better. It really just boils down to priorities.

When I prioritize my WIP, it gets my attention and effort. When I don’t, it doesn’t. It’s that simple (and frustrating, since this realization leaves only myself to blame when I let the work go undone).

My most recent distraction has been NaNoWriMo. I know lots of people who signed up to write the first draft of a novel this month, and I’m following their progress through Facebook posts. (When exactly did Zuckerberg take over the world?)

I was sorely tempted to sign up myself.

Because first drafts are such fun! Generative writing is magical: that feeling when the fingers fly over the keyboard (or the cramped hand scratches it out across an empty page) is what got me into writing as a kid. There are no mistakes or bad choices in first drafts: all the new ideas are exciting and the characters get to do what they want.

But I didn’t sign up for NaNoWriMo because I’m revising. I’m not generating a new story. And starting a new project would mean deprioritizing my current one. You know, like I always do. No. This time I’m pushing past the second draft and into the realm (hopefully) of a polished and marketable manuscript. I’m done adding to that file drawer of abandoned first drafts. My goal is to finish this round of revisions by the end of the year. That way I can be ready to feed it to my beta reader friends on Facebook. And maybe even start pitching it at the next Austin SCBWI Conference.

Happy Holidays indeed.

No Idea What to Write? Get Over It

It’s not new, but an idea repeatedly struck me at the recent Texas Book Festival while I manned the Yellow Bird booth with poet, novelist, and fellow avian editor, E. Kristin Anderson. This was my first time being the face of Yellow Bird to a general audience (i.e. not a bunch of writers at a conference). I talked to a lot of people who aren’t actually writers, at least not yet. Some had had some good experiences in a few creative writing classes somewhere along the way. Some had always kept journals that no one’s allowed to read. I easily recognized them from my own not too distant past when I, too, thought writing was all about having a good idea.

Well, I’m here to say you don’t need an idea to start writing. Take this post as an example. This morning I stood and stared at the coffee dripping into the pot, thinking about the book festival, and wondering if I could mine my experience for a blog post. I had nothing. It did eventually occurr to me I needed to clean my coffee pot in a pretty bad way. The coffee dripped until I took a cup. I went in and sat down in front of the screen repeating my mantra in my head:

You don’t need an idea to write. You don’t need an idea to write.

So I typed that. Over and over. It’s a technique I picked up from one of the impromptu writing exercises Kathi Appelt was generous enough to lead at the Writing Barn’s Full Novel Revision Week back in August. It’s based on the theory that your brain hates wasting time and energy and that it will come up with something for you to write about simply to stop you from typing all that nonsense.

Imagine my surprise when it dawned on me halfway down the page that I could write about not needing a good idea to get started writing and how that ties in with the people I talked to last weekend, not to mention some of the themes I’ve already been exploring in this blog, and my recent experience at the Writing Barn. Forgive the massive sentence, but I needed to convey the enormity of the connections my brain made in that flash.

All because I didn’t wait for some inspiration to descend from on high. I forced it.

Again, I know this isn’t a new idea. I certainly don’t mean to claim any ownership of it by writing about it here. I just hope maybe a couple of those people I spoke to at the book festival might read this. And maybe one of them will set their alarm a little early tomorrow, and get up and stare at the coffee pot until they can take a cup. Then they’ll go in and type nonsense until they start to write again.

College Football and Revising: Who Knew They Had So Much in Common

Before getting to the blogpost proper, I have an invitation: come visit me October 25th or 26th at the Texas Book Festival!

I’ll be hanging out with E. Kristin Anderson in the Yellow Bird booth. Okay, we’re only in half a booth because we’re sharing with The Writing Barn. But that’s even more reason to stop by. Between Yellow Bird’s editors and the always amazing programming at The Writing Barn, you can probably find a lot of the help you’re looking for to get your WIP whipped into shape. And, as always, we’ll have candy while supplies last, not to mention coupons good toward the cost of future editing.

And the Free Query Letter Raffle is back on!

But you have enter in person at the Texas Book Festival. So stop by Saturday or Sunday, the 25th or 26th(this month). Bring all your questions about freelance editing and get a little sugar fix while you explore the festival.

This concludes the announcement portion of the post.

(Please don’t stop reading.)

I am a fan of UT football. Especially this season. I can’t remember ever being more proud of my alma mater’s football team than I have been this fall.

No. Seriously.

But they suck this year, you may be saying. And with a 2-4 record, you’d arguably be right. Unless you look more closely.

When I watch the Longhorn football team I can’t help thinking of the ways talented but immature writers have to struggle with themselves. Watching Coach Strong doggedly implement his ‘don’t be a dick’ policy with his players, regardless of the short-term cost, reminds me of my own ongoing — sometimes rocky — development as a writer.

I couldn’t help empathizing with UT last Saturday when they beat OU in almost every way except the final score. Their opening drive was a perfect example of what I mean. They ended up moving the ball down the field despite repeated self-sabotage (in this case, multiple stupid penalties) and somehow still managed to put points on the board. They kept showing flashes of brilliance, only to undercut themselves each time. Then they gave up a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff. And that’s pretty much how it went the rest of the day: 1. Sprint Ahead, 2. Shoot Own Foot, 3. Repeat ad nauseum.

Like a writer clinging to a scene or image that’s brilliant but just doesn’t fit his story, this Longhorn team clings to its former — let’s just call it traditional — superstar athlete mindset. But like a good editor – come on, you knew I was headed there, it’s an editors’ blog – Coach Strong keeps pointing them in what he sees as the right direction, insisting on a level of self-discipline and commitment a lot of his players obviously struggle with.

UT’s new coach has fired a lot of talented young stars. But like an editor confronted with that brilliant but not quite right scene, he knows that sometimes you just have to make the ruthless cut. Push delete and keep focused on the big picture. Get through that first season as best you can and build your program from there. I just hope he gets a chance to finish his revisions.

Because, unlike an editor working with a writer, the whole world’s watching Charlie Strong and the Longhorns go through their rewrite process. That’s got to be rough.

Oh, and Hook ‘Em!