Would a Writing Coach Make Sense for You?

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Managing publisher/editor Lane Diamond discusses the usefulness of a writing coach, and how it just might lead to a contract with Evolved Publishing.

Have you asked yourself this question: “Do I need a writing coach?”

Here at Evolved Publishing, we believe first and foremost that the strength of what we do revolves entirely around our team, around the quality of the individuals with whom we work. When you work with quality people, you will naturally produce a quality product. It’s really that simple.

That has meant, at times, that we’ve (I’ve) taken on projects that require a little more work than we would typically accept here at EP, because I was simply certain that the author in question was exactly the kind of person we wanted to have on our EP team. Ruby Standing Deer, author of the great books Circles and Spirals, is one such writer, and is now one of our most critically-acclaimed and successful authors. Megan Morrison, author of And Then It Rained: Lessons for Life, also fell into that category. Even D.T. Conklin, co-owner of EP, author of Eulogy, and the person I trusted to edit my own Forgive Me, Alex, started out that way – with me as coach. I’m working with another author now, who will remain unnamed to protect her privacy (unless she cares to comment here), and whom I hope will be, when the process is done, another great addition to the EP team.

Butterfly - Mark TwainAnd all of this leads to the real point of this post: if you’re an aspiring author, or perhaps a self-published author who wants to get on with Evolved Publishing, but you’re not sure your work will pass muster (perhaps we’ve already rejected one of your submissions), all hope is not lost. A writing coach might be just what you need to raise your writing to the next level, and to get you over the hump. Indeed, I’m currently hoping to add one such client to my coaching list. Why? Because we want great people on board here at EP, and because nothing is more rewarding for me than helping an author get to that stage.

Must you be coached by me to get your work approved by EP in the end? No, of course not. There are other coaches out there; just do your homework and choose wisely. Will you have a leg up if you’re coached by me? Well… naturally. Let’s face it: I’m the primary decision-maker here at EP (with the help of a great editorial staff), and so, as I coach you, I’ll be helping you to raise your work to a level we’ll want here at EP.

Indeed, I’d only be interested in coaching you if you want to be an EP author. That’s my primary interest.

I realize this might sound like a bit of a sales pitch, but it’s really about an opportunity to bring on a new author, once the process is done, who will make Evolved Publishing that much better for our valued readers, and for the rest of our team. It’s been my experience that authors appreciate those who help them succeed, and that kind of loyalty is something that cannot be bought; it must be earned. I recognize that every author needs to start somewhere, and that the process is one that can be grueling, confusing, frustrating, and defeating. Yet many of us get to a point where, if we just have the right guidance, the success we desire can be within reach. I love mentoring more than anything else I do, with the possible exception of writing my own work, so this is as pure a win-win as it gets.

If you think you might be the person we’re looking for, stop over at my personal website HERE. At the bottom of that page is my email address so you can contact me to discuss it. I have room in my schedule for only one such client, so to some extent, this will be a first-come, first-serve opportunity. However, I must determine that: 1) I can help you get where you want to be, meaning you and I are a good fit, and; 2) you’re the right author for EP.

If you don’t wish to be published by EP in the end, this would not be the opportunity for you or the prospect for me. If you are, then please head to my website, and I look forward to hearing from you.

For Authors: Even Minor Characters Are Critical

Managing Publisher/Editor Lane Diamond offers some helpful advice to writers.

Readers are a demanding bunch, and if you want them returning to your works over and over, you need to avoid trivial, dull characters. Ramp up the emotional impact of your story at every opportunity, including when you create so-called “minor characters.”

For more, see this article: Even Minor Characters Are Critical.

Dear Author: Show, Don’t Tell – Part 3

LaneDiamond102_760xThis post is brought to you by Lane Diamond, Managing Publisher/Editor, and Author of the psychological thriller, Forgive Me, Alex.

Every author has likely heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” When you tell too much, and show too little, it’s a little like asking the reader to sit in an auditorium staring at any empty screen. The reader won’t stick around for long. This article is Part 3 of 3 in a “Show, Don’t Tell” series I originally wrote for my freelance editing clients. I hope it helps you writers struggling with this critical concept. (If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.)

With words as paint and the page as canvas, paint us a picture.

This is a continuation of my last post, though I focus on a slightly different element of Show, Don’t Tell. Those three little words constitute one of the High Commandments of effective writing. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Yet it requires commitment, determination, vigilance and inexhaustible effort.

We writers tend to get lazy with our prose as we rush through the first draft of a story. We so focus on the plot, the characters, the setting, the central conflict and eventual resolution—a proper focus, of course—that we pay too little attention to the words. If I may revisit a metaphor I use often: we so focus on the forest that we forget to enjoy the trees.

This, my fellow writer, is why the writing gods created self-editing, lest we fail to honor our covenant. We have much to address in the self-editing process, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I’ll focus on that one commandment: Show, Don’t Tell!

We most engage a reader when we create for him a scene he can visualize, when we fire-up the film projector in his mind. The longer our piece drags on without affording him the opportunity to exercise his mind’s eye, the likelier he is to set our story aside out of boredom. Put another way, the reader should see not our words, but the images those words create. Think of words as your paint and the keyboard as your brush, and paint a picture to compel the reader forward.

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Simile and metaphor function as effective tools in this artistic pursuit, as they force the reader—if you’ve done your job well—to visualize your image and translate it to, or associate it with, the underlying, true meaning of your scene. Symbols will also enhance this experience for the reader. As a simple example, a gray, overcast day mired in a constant drizzle might highlight and heighten your character’s depression.

As is true of so many writers’ tools, you must use these to maximum effect, which not only means using them in the proper places, but also that you must not overuse them. Too much of a good thing can be… well, not so good. Give the reader a slice of chocolate cake as dessert, but don’t skip the meat and vegetables and force him to eat the entire cake at one sitting. We writers mustn’t make our readers sick.

As a rule, the shorter your similes and metaphors, the more frequently you can employ them. If you pop a quick, one-sentence simile into your story, you needn’t wait several pages to offer another. On the other hand, if you just completed a three-page metaphor, you don’t want to jump into another metaphor on the next page. Like all artists, you must apply a deft hand. Let your instincts guide you initially, and let your editor, your writers’ group, or your trusted reviewer help you refine and polish it. I offer now a series of examples from pieces I’ve edited or reviewed. As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.

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TELL: He was by far the tallest person in the meeting room. >>>>> Note: First, the author started with the weak SOB (state-of-being verb). Second, the author provided nothing to stretch the reader’s imagination, to engage his mind’s eye. >>>>> SHOW: He towered above the others in the meeting room as if they’d all skipped over from the local chapter of the Lollipop Guild. >>>>> Note: Did you just see that moment after Dorothy landed in Oz? Perhaps you even heard their song. In the end, you should have concluded that the character “was by far the tallest person in the meeting room.”

TELL: He walked slowly and without enthusiasm toward the door. >>>>> Note: The author fell into a typical lazy trap here. Few adverbs are duller than slowly, quickly, loudly or quietly. Remember the value of body language to express a character’s mood and mental state. >>>>> SHOW: His shoulders slumped and his face drooped, as he dragged his feet toward the door.

TELL: “What are you doing with these jokers?” asked Little Butch. [P] Rosemary said, “Partying. What else?” She was sloshed. “You still going with Jennifer?” >>>>> Note: At issue is the simple description: She was sloshed. Sometimes simple is fine, and you don’t want to paint with too heavy a hand, but consider these types of sequences opportunities to paint a picture for the reader. >>>>> SHOW: “What are you doing with these jokers?” asked Little Butch. [P] “Partying. What else?” Rosemary’s words mixed in an alcoholic slur as she leaned against the car to prevent herself from falling over, and her eyelids bobbed in time with her head, as if they weighed a hundred pounds each. “You still going with Jennifer?”

TELL: The sky was a brilliant blue with a few white wisps scattered here and there. Her long smooth legs were warm from the sun. >>>>> Note: The key here is to replace the weak SOBs with more active verbs that bring the image to life for the reader. This typically requires some simple restructuring. >>>>> SHOW: Sunlight, broken occasionally by scattered white wisps, radiated through a brilliant blue sky and bronzed her long, smooth legs.

TELL: He knelt by the gravestone, completely exhausted and desperately needing sleep. He’d never been so sad and lonely. He couldn’t imagine what life would be like without Karen, the only woman he’d ever loved. >>>>> Note: It’s important to remember that readers hear you telling them that something happened, or merely that something was, when you pile on the adverbs and adjectives. Conversely, they envision the scene (see what happened) when you utilize active verbs and descriptive nouns. >>>>> SHOW: He collapsed to his knees alongside the gravestone, and expelled his last ounce of energy in a sputtering, tearful gasp. Silence shrouded the cemetery, broken only by his heavy breathing and the uncertainty that pounded like war drums in his mind. The love of his life, the object of his greatest dreams and desires, lay six feet beneath him, beyond his reach for all time. How would he survive without Karen?

Remember: The reader must see more than your words; he must see the images those words create. When you write, live within the scene, and paint a picture of everything that happens around you. Don’t tell the reader what happened; let him see what you see, hear what you hear, feel what you feel, as though he’s standing beside you inside the scene, witnessing and experiencing it right along with you and your characters.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

Dear Author: Show, Don’t Tell – Part 2

LaneDiamond102_760xThis post is brought to you by Lane Diamond, Managing Publisher/Editor, and Author of the psychological thriller, Forgive Me, Alex.

Every author has likely heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” When you tell too much, and show too little, it’s a little like asking the reader to sit in an auditorium staring at any empty screen. The reader won’t stick around for long. This article is Part 2 of 3 in a “Show, Don’t Tell” series I originally wrote for my freelance editing clients. I hope it helps you writers struggling with this critical concept. Watch for Part 3 coming later this week.

Make Your Characters Blind, Deaf and Dumb.

No, I’m not suggesting you write a story where the only characters are Ray Charles, Helen Keller and Marlee Matlin. Although, now that I think of it, that would be quite the writing exercise, wouldn’t it, to create a scene in which the three of them interact?

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I’m merely suggesting that a reader doesn’t really care what characters see, hear, feel, etc, in the most direct sense. In other words, she doesn’t want you, Dear Author, to TELL her THAT the character saw something. She wants you to SHOW her WHAT the character sees, right along with him, at the very moment he sees it. She wants to experience it as the character does. She doesn’t want to hear from the author, after the fact, that the character saw it.

This is truly the essence of storytelling. Perhaps we should coin a new, more appropriate term: Storyshowing.

The first step in eliminating excessive telling from your story is to find all instances such as those I list as “triggers” below, and to replace them with sequences that show instead.

SAMPLE TRIGGERS: She heard, he saw, I thought, we listened, they noticed, she felt, he looked, I peered, we smelled, they anticipated, she observed, he imagined, I wondered, I knew, etc.

NOTE: Like all “rules” of writing, this is not a 100%-er. You may have occasion to use appropriately these phrases in your story. However, these should be the exceptions, not the rules. These phrases should trigger a self-review. How can you better show what happened rather than tell that something happened? I offer now a series of examples from pieces I’ve edited or reviewed. As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles to protect the not-so-innocent.

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BAD: I could feel the intense heat radiating from the smoldering hulk. >>>>> Note: In a first-person narrative like this one, the author is clearly in the character-narrator’s POV. Thus, when he mentions “heat radiating,” the reader already knows it’s because the character “feels” it. Not only should the author not tell us (show us instead); Author doesn’t need to tell us. >>>>> GOOD (Simple): Intense heat radiated from the smoldering hulk.

BAD: She heard the crashing waves of an incoming tide and she saw the gleam of whitecaps under the stars. >>>>> Note: Not only does the author tell us that the character heard and saw, he does so in a wordy way. Note how, in the show-us-what alternative below, I cut the word count from the original 19 to a more concise 11. >>>>> GOOD (Simple): Waves crashed on the shore and whitecaps gleamed under the stars.

BAD: She saw a wound at his hairline, deep and ragged. She peered closer and didn’t feel the horror she expected. She saw a portion of the white skull. >>>>> Note: First are the various triggers: saw, peered, feel, and saw again. Second, “white” is unnecessary in “white skull”—everyone knows the color of human skulls. Third, although the scene teases at an intense, gruesome image, its weak construction fails to deliver. >>>>> GOOD (Detailed): A deep and ragged wound pierced his hairline, and a portion of his skull protruded from his scalp, laced by tattered skin and tissue. Horror lingered at the edge of her mind, yet the grisly scene compelled her to investigate closer.

BAD: I knew then that there would be no more looking back to the future. My destiny lay ahead of me in the past. >>>>> Note: The author almost—almost—creates a compelling paragraph here. The first problem is the telling trigger: I knew. Please, it’s a first-person narrative—if the narrator is relaying events, of course he knew the events. The second problem is that it’s wordy and awkward. Some simple tightening, along with showing rather than telling, makes all the difference. >>>>> GOOD (Simple): There would be no looking back to the future. My destiny lay ahead of me in the past.

BAD: He felt the wolf pack curl around him and his grandmother, and when he looked up, he saw his mother and his baby brother sleeping peacefully among them. >>>>> Note: We have the usual triggers here: felt, looked and saw. We also have redundancy: “he looked up” before “he saw.” Finally, we can trim back on the word count, from 28 to a more concise 19. >>>>> GOOD (Simple): The wolf pack curled around him and his grandmother, and his mother and baby brother slept peacefully among them.

BAD: “Come Fire,” he murmured before each life breath he blew. “Wake Fire,” he whispered as if into a lover’s ear and a timid crackle he heard. >>>>> Note: Set-up: The author uses “Fire” as a character, and thus capitalizes it as a name. The first thing that struck me was the length of the dialogue tags, which feel forced and awkward. By combining the tags into a single dialogue lead, the reader will better hear the tone of voice and emotion. Finally, the author ends with a classic telling trigger: he heard. >>>>> GOOD (Detailed): He murmured before each life breath he blew, as if whispering into a lover’s ear. “Come, Fire, and wake.” A timid crackle provided his first reward.

BAD: John looked at the sack with uncertainty. “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.” >>>>> Note: The first sentence, the dialogue lead, is a perfect example of where we writers must earn our keep. Most writers, and a fair share of editors, would think nothing of that sentence, and the author might be fine leaving it be. However, it is all telling. Now, let me make clear that some telling is fine, but you should always consider a situation like this an opportunity to engage the reader. The keys here are “looked at” and “with uncertainty.” The author could have run him through one or two brief mannerisms here—I’m talking about body language—that clearly shows John’s uncertainty to the reader. The telling is… well, dull; a little in the story is fine, but every reader has his own boredom threshold, so it’s always risky. When you show the reader, you pull her into the scene, you engage her, and that’s interesting for her. This author needed to stretch a bit. >>>>> GOOD (Simple): “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.” >>>>> Note: Yep, the author decided (rightly so) that the dialogue flowing between the two characters of the scene—their actual words—said all that needed to be said. The dialogue lead was unnecessary, and it interfered with the scene, so the author simply cut it—a good choice. However, for the sake of illustration here, let’s assume that he still needed to paint the scene and show John’s uncertainty. >>>>> GOOD (Detailed): John bounced his leg up and down and nibbled on his lip. “I thought we would be attempting another animal first.”

BAD: The lighting was dim and the only sound he heard was the piped in elevator music that played in a seemingly endless loop. He could hear Karen Carpenter’s “Close to You” over the relentless rain tapping on the ceiling of his cell. >>>>> Note: Note the weak word choices (was [2], seemingly, could) and the usual triggers: heard and could hear. Once again, the author should trust in the character’s (“he”) POV and just show the reader—paint the scene. >>>>> GOOD (Simple): Dim lighting deepened the sullen mood as piped-in elevator music played in an endless loop. Karen Carpenter’s Close to You accompanied the relentless rain that tapped on the roof of his cell.

When you allow the reader to experience your story at the instant your characters do, you make it possible for her to share in the emotion and impact of the moment. This mechanism, more than any other, draws a reader right into the story as though she’s a spectator at the scene. The difference may be subtle at times, the reaction hidden in the reader’s subconscious. Yet it’s often the key to making a reader say, even for reasons of which she’s not consciously aware, “I liked this story.” If you fail, she might instead say, “Eh, this story didn’t really do it for me.”

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

Dear Author: Show, Don’t Tell – Part 1

LaneDiamond102_760xThis post is brought to you by Lane Diamond, Managing Publisher/Editor, and Author of the psychological thriller, Forgive Me, Alex.

Every author has likely heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” When you tell too much, and show too little, it’s a little like asking the reader to sit in an auditorium staring at any empty screen. The reader won’t stick around for long. This article is Part 1 of 3 in a “Show, Don’t Tell” series I originally wrote for my freelance editing clients. I hope it helps you writers struggling with this critical concept. Watch for Parts 2 and 3 coming later this week.

Readers Can’t See What Something Is “Not,”
They Can Only See What Something “Is”

If you’re a writer, you’ve already heard this primary commandment of effective writing: Show, Don’t Tell! Yet most writers say at some point, “Great! And just how do I do that?” Ah… if only one could offer a single, simple answer to that.

One example of violating this commandment is the placing of statements in negative form. E.g. John was not big. When you read that sentence, and you try to visualize John, what do you see? Right. Nothing. The words “not big” are vague and meaningless, and thus evoke no mental image. You must first decide what “big” even means, and then you must decide, by contrast, what “not big” means. That’s too roundabout—never takes you to a clear image.

In my well-worn copy of The Elements of Style (Third Edition, Macmillan, 1979), by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, the authors state definitively on page 19, “Put statements in positive form.”

Now, many people revolt against The Elements of Style because the authors take such a dictatorial approach to their lessons: you must do this, and you must not do that. Okay, so there’s no such thing as a 100%-er; after all, writing is art, not science. Nonetheless, if you apply a dollop of common sense and a dash of critical thinking, and pay attention to how the human mind works, I believe you’ll come to agree with most of what Strunk & White command.

In the case of negative versus positive statements, at least, they’re dead on.

Reading is a visual experience. Now before you say, “Well duh, Diamond,” let me clarify. Reading is more than just seeing words on the page, it’s seeing the images those words represent. Your aim as a writer is to evoke those vivid images through the power of your words.

When you tell a reader what something is not, you’ve only told her what not to visualize. If you want to evoke that image, and tell the reader what she should see, you must tell her what something is. Let’s revisit my simple example above: John was not big, which contributed to his lack of confidence. >>>>> As discussed, this is meaningless. We know what you’re trying to say, but we can’t see it. >>>>> John was small, and rather self-conscious about it. >>>>> This is better, but still lacking. Five different readers will likely have five different ideas of what the vague “small” means. The good news is that they may visualize John in some way; the bad news is that they won’t necessarily see him as you intended. >>>>> At 5’4″ tall and 132 pounds, John fought constantly to embrace and project his masculinity. >>>>> See the difference?

You might be saying, “Wait just a minute, Diamond. It’s not about negative versus positive, but rather vague versus specific.” Actually, it’s both. Imagine if I had said this: John was not exactly a 6’2″ strapping hulk, and thus fought constantly to embrace and project his masculinity. >>>>> Once again, we have nothing to see. Indeed, it is impossible to say only what something is not, and be specific, at the same time. Specificity requires that you place the statement in positive form.

I’ll leave you with this silly example to cement the point:
“Harry, what was it that broke through your front door and ripped your living room to shreds?”

Harry just stared at Tom.

“Please, Harry, I simply must know what the heck happened here!” Tom fidgeted on the edge of hyperventilation. “What was it? What did all that damage?”

“Well, it was not an aardvark.”

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‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).