Articles For Writers

Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten  •  Building A Career
The Internal Editor  •  Creating Characters  •  Editing 101  •  The Writer’s Image

Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten

I admit it. Like most writers I have a stack of how-to writing books—books on breaking in, breaking out, writing a winning proposal and developing a killer style—so many “rules” that sometimes trying to figure out which advice to follow makes me feel as though my head’s going to start spinning around the way Linda Blair’s did in The Exorcist.

But some of the best writing rules I’ve found came from a bunch of five and six year-olds I met when I read to their kindergarten class. Now when I finish writing something, these are the standards I judge it by.

1. A story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, or it’s not a story.
2. It should be funny or scary but not just regular.
3. Stuff should happen, not just people talking all the time.
4. Don’t make it boring.
5. A good story is when you can see the pictures in your head.
6. Use words that everybody knows.
7. When you get to the end you should stop, because if you don’t it’s annoying


Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten  •  Building A Career
The Internal Editor  •  Creating Characters  •  Editing 101  •  The Writer’s Image

Building A Career

What’s the difference between being a writer and building a writing career?  It’s a lot like the difference between your original idea and the finished manuscript.  If you’re in this for the long term here’s a list of things I’ve learned the hard way, things your mother would tell you, except she’s not a writer.

1. Writing for a living is not the same as getting published no matter what. The desire to have your book in print—to be able to wave it in the face of all those nay-sayers who’ve delighted in telling you it was never going to happen—can be enough to make otherwise intelligent people act as though their brains just fell out of their noses.    If what you want is to make writing your career, stop pouncing on every gimmick and dubious opportunity that pops up.  Set goals.  Make a plan.  If you don’t take your writing seriously neither will anyone else.

2. Writing is a profession.  Behave professionally.  Trashing your agent, your editor, your publishing house, or that writer you know who just signed a contract with a lot of zeros, in any public forum, will come back to bite you.  With pointy teeth In a place that hurts a lot.  A conference is a public forum.  So is a book signing, a workshop and a critique group.  So is a blog.  When that big vein in your forehead starts throbbing think twice about where you blow off steam. 

3. Writing is a business.  Educate yourself.  Agents, publishers, genres, trends, marketing-- find out the basics about all of it.   Read.  Take workshops.  Go to book signings.  Make friends with librarians and booksellers and other writers.  Ask questions.  It takes years, a lot of studying, a lot of hands-on work, and more than a few shocks to become an electrician.  Building a writing career isn’t a whole lot different.

4. Other writers are not the enemy.  The publishing business is not like a cake. If Sandy and Liz and Julia and Sharon and Lonnie get to a cake first it’s likely there won’t be anything left by the time I show up—especially if it’s chocolate.  But if Sandy and Liz and Julia and Sharon and Lonnie all get book contracts it doesn’t mean there’s no longer anyone who wants my book.  I admit I’m not that highly evolved a person that I haven’t felt some twinges of jealousy, or eaten half a cake when a writer I know signs with the hotshot agent or gets a multi-book deal.  But the feeling doesn’t last.  And it gives me the push to get back at it, so that next time I’ll be the one with the good news. 

5. Published writers don’t have some inside knowledge that gets them published and keeps you out.  There’s no secret handshake or special code we add to our correspondence We don’t say, “The scarecrow walks at midnight,” when we meet an agent or an editor so they’ll know we’re part of the club.  We just write.  We write the very best book we can.  Then we send it out into the world and start writing another one. 

6.  Write the book.  This one seems so simple but it’s also what messes up a lot of writers.  You have to finish the book.  And that won’t happen if you never get past chapter twelve.  “But there’s this voice in my head that keeps telling me it’s all a pile of dreck,” I’ve heard more than one writer say.  It’s your head.  Ignore the voice. Kick it out.  Tell it to go do something anatomically impossible.

And that’s it. 

Go write. 

That’s what it takes.

Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten  •  Building A Career
The Internal Editor  •  Creating Characters  •  Editing 101  •  The Writer’s Image

The Internal Editor

One of the things you have to deal with on a long project, like a book, is the Internal Editor, that annoying little voice whispering in the back of your head that’s never satisfied with what you just wrote. The Internal Editor is a sneaky, ingratiating creature who always wants you to go back and “fix” the last thing you wrote. I always picture him, and you’ll notice I say him, as the guy you hooked up with in high school who you knew deep down inside was going to be trouble.

He’s the guy who kissed up the side of your neck and whispered in your ear, his breath warm on your hair. Then the next thing you knew your underwear was on backwards and you weren’t really sure what had happened.
Ignore him.

Keep writing.

Don’t listen. Keep writing. Eventually he’ll go stick his tongue is some other writer’s ear.

Just keep writing.

Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten  •  Building A Career
The Internal Editor  •  Creating Characters  •  Editing 101  •  The Writer’s Image

Creating Characters

The best characters are the ones you remember after you’ve finished the book. They feel almost alive. You know how they think, you know what they’re going to do to make things worse before they do it.

“You should always know more about [your characters] than your reader will,” writer Lynn Viehl says. She’s right. You need to know your characters’ secrets to make them come alive. That’s what makes the difference between a character who feels like a real person and one who has about as much life as a paper doll.

This is where some writers get stuck. They know all the surface things about a character; how long her hair is, what color eyes she has and every item of clothing in her closet, but they don’t know what her secrets are. Ask yourself what your character is hiding. Ask yourself what she doesn’t want anyone else to know. For example, maybe in that closet she has three pairs of jeans that are size eight, plus a pair size four and a pair that’s size fourteen. A woman with three sizes of jeans in her closet is a different person from the woman who has five pair, all a perfect size six.

Maybe you’ll share some of your character’s secrets with your readers. Maybe you won’t. Knowing them will help you figure out who she is and how she’ll act. Maybe all your readers get to know is that your main character has long, blonde hair, while only you know it’s courtesy of L’Oreal. You may tell your readers that your hero has a university degree but keep to yourself the fact that he flunked kindergarten.

What scares your character? What embarrasses him? What is he afraid of losing? What does she lie about, even to her closest friends? What happens in her nightmares? What makes her laugh? Who broke his heart?

When you can answer these kinds of questions you’re a lot closer to knowing your character and your character is a lot closer to life.

Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten  •  Building A Career
The Internal Editor  •  Creating Characters  •  Editing 101  •  The Writer’s Image

Editing 101

Step One:
Write the dang book.  The entire book.  All the way to the end.  Finished.  Done.  Completed. 

Step Two:
Go back and read Step One.  Finished means the whole story has been written, not just the beginning and the ending, and some notes about the abyss known as the middle.  All of it.  It doesn’t matter how badly it’s written.  You can’t edit what hasn’t been created. 

So you’re working on the book.  What happens if a third of the way through you suddenly realize Rick should be Rhonda?  Or the cabin where you set the story needs to be by a river instead of a lake?  Keep going making the change from where you are forward.  From now on Rick is a petite blonde who hides tofu ice cream bars in the freezer and can’t walk in high heels, instead of a six foot three African-American with an addiction to Boston cream donuts.  And from now on the cabin is next to a rushing river, swollen with the spring run-off, instead of a lake so still the surface reflects the trees like a mirror. On an index card or a notepad write a reminder: Chapters 1 – 6 change Rick to Rhonda, Chapters 2 – 5 cabin on river instead of lake.

Step Three:
Once a book is finished I try to take two or three days off before I start any editing.  That breathing room helps me look more objectively at what I’ve written.  When I’m ready to edit, the first thing I do is look at my notes and see what things I need to fix.  This is the point at which I go back and give Rick a sex change, turn the lake into a river, and do any foreshadowing I forgot in my outline. 

Step Four:
I like to do my actual editing on a printed copy of the manuscript—for some reason I catch more mistakes on paper than I do on a computer screen—but before printing anything I run a spell check to look for grammar and spelling errors.  And I use Word’s Find feature to search for words I tend to overuse, like very, just and almost

Because I’m always looking for ways to use less paper I print this draft out on what I call scrap paper—pages that have already been used on one side.  Then I sit down with my copy of the manuscript, a pencil, and a notepad. 

As much as I can, I like to make all my notes on the printed copy of the manuscript.  The one exception is notes about any new scenes I need to write.  I’ll mark the manuscript where a scene needs to be inserted, but notes about the scene go on my notepad.  For example, let’s say I decide I need to add a scene at the end of Chapter 3 that shows Rhonda’s fear of heights.  In the manuscript, at the end of the chapter I’ll write “A.”   On my notepad I’ll write A again but with an explanation: Scene with Rhonda in the attic showing her fear of heights.  If I need to add another scene it’s labeled “B” and so on. 

Step Five:
Once I’ve been all the way through the manuscript it’s back to the computer to write any new scenes and type in all my revisions.  When I’m finished I run spell-check again and print out a new, corrected copy of the manuscript.  This copy I read out loud.  It’s the best way I’ve found for catching mistakes.  I make corrections on the pages as I read and then on my computer copy.

Step Six:
I only use this step when there’s something that bothers me about a book.  Maybe it’s just one scene that reads “wrong.”  Maybe it’s an entire chapter.  I copy the pages into a new file and send it to my friend Susan with a whiny email that says, “This sucks.  I’ve forgotten how to write and I’m going to Wal-mart to apply for a job.”  In a couple of hours I’ll get an email back written in the same tone one would use with the very young, the very old, and the very deranged, with a reminder that a blue vest would not flatter my figure and a suggestion such as, “Do you have to kill this character?” or “The transition between scenes was a little abrupt.” 

And I realize she’s right.  (She always is and I always smack myself in the forehead and think, why didn’t I see that?)  I fix the problem scene, make sure the pages are numbered properly and everything is formatted the way it should be, and then send the book off to my editor.

Now right before your manuscript leaves your hands or your computer on its way to an editor, you may be hit with the urge to read it just one more time.  I know a writer who ended up re-reading the first chapter of her manuscript twelve times looking for errors. 

(Okay, that was me.)

Have confidence in your ability and try not to give in to the feeling.

Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten  •  Building A Career
The Internal Editor  •  Creating Characters  •  Editing 101  •  The Writer’s Image

The Writer’s Image

Whenever I tell someone I’m a writer I almost always hear, “You don’t look like a writer.” If I ask what I do look like, the answer I most often hear is an academic. A few times I’ve heard that I look like a psychologist.

I think it’s the glasses.

Back when I worked in radio I was always hearing that I didn’t look like my voice. “I thought you were blonde,” people would say when I showed up at some community event, looking at me somewhat disappointed. (When I say “people” I mean guys and when I say looking at me I don’t mean in the eyes.)

The face we present to the world does matter. Readers—as well as agents and editors—like to be able to put a face to the name. And a photo of me in my paint-spotted sweatpants with my hair standing on end is going to make a very different impression than the photo of me smiling in the sunshine at the park. But I think there’s another part to a writer’s image that’s even more important than how our author photo makes us look, and that’s presenting a professional image.

Do you have a business-like email address? (Not bobbys-girl or bbq-king.) Do you answer emails within a couple of days or have an auto-respond message to explain why you can’t? What’s the message on your voicemail? (Your acoustic version of the Bay City Roller’s Saturday Night is not professional unless you’re looking for work in a tribute band.)

When your manuscript is finished is it properly formatted and checked for spelling mistakes and grammar errors? When an agent asks to see it, do you get back to her in a few days or a few months? Do you wrangle over every single suggested change with your editor? Do you argue for days about serial comma use and whether or not Ms needs a period? (It’s not an abbreviation so I maintain it doesn’t.) Do you meet your deadlines? Do you say please and thank you?

Being reasonable, responsible, and easy to work with is part of creating the image of a professional writer. No one’s suggesting you have to be a pushover. But over time, people get tired of working with the “difficult artiste,” no matter how brilliant his or her writing is.

Maintaining a professional image makes it just a bit more likely that you’ll have a long career. And no one will be disappointed if it turns out you’re not blonde.

Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned in Kindergarten  •  Building A Career
The Internal Editor  •  Creating Characters  •  Editing 101  •  The Writer’s Image