You've probably heard some version of the phrase, "You don't know what you don't know."
And that's the absolute truth at the start of a writing project. For every writer.
You don't know what you don't know.
You have an idea for a project. You think the idea is fresh. But you worry that others may have already written on the subject.
And you should worry.
Because you don't know what you don't know.
At least not yet.
The "Knowing" Journey
Obviously, at the start of any new adventure, you don't know what you don't know.
But if you want to write something substantive, something fresh, something truly new - you need to know what you don't know.
It's okay not to know everything about your idea at the start.
But you can't stay in the dark.
You must discover what you don't know. You must take the knowing journey.
Read Your Competitors
Most book proposals that I read include a list of "competitor books." Ergo, a list of books that are similar in subject and readership.
But often, as I read, say, the first chapter of the proposal (nonfiction), it's clear the person has not read the competitor books.
He or she has simply provided a list for the proposal because "that's what an agent or publisher expects" in a book proposal.
So, here's a quick tip: Read the published books that you think are similar to yours.
You definitely need to dig into (or, better, "absorb") the four or five most recent books that address your topic.
And if you are writing fiction, and you want to write a series like Harry Potter, then you had better be a diehard Harry Potter fan.
You can't just attend the movies. You must read the entire book series. Maybe several times.
So much good happens when you read published works that are similar to yours.
Your writing becomes more nuanced.
Your ideas become more crisp.
You gain confidence because you know that when you publish ("make public") your words, they will be new to the world.
You will be building upon what has been published before you.
And thus your contribution will be truly unique.
Now, buckle up and write!
Every book has a heart. It’s not just an idea; it’s why the idea matters. Whether it’s a nonfiction book, a memoir, or a novel, every book has a purpose. It has a “why."
The “why” is your answer to the question: “Why am I writing this book?” And if you don’t have an answer to that question, then you might need to spend some time wrestling with it.
Novelist, memoirist, and nonfiction author Donna Freitas spoke with us on the “why” of writing and offers this timely advice.
Why the “Why” Is Important
The “why” of your book brings clarity to your book idea. As Freitas describes it, the “why” is a roadmap for your book. It shows you the route to take to connect the beginning to the middle to the end. With it, you will know what you need to do—what scenes to write, which arguments to include, how to develop your characters, what research must be completed, etc.—to complete your book.
Freitas’ book, The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano, for example, follows the story of a woman who chose not to have children, and the different variations of life when her choice changes: what would happen if she had a child? What would happen if she didn’t?
Freitas explains the “why” of her book was asking permission (and forgiveness) to be a woman who didn’t want to have children. The “why” helped her map out the plot, character exploration, and themes she wanted to explore in her book.
Each author’s why is unique. Some “whys” include:
To help you identify the “why” of your book, ask yourself: “Why am I writing this book? Why is it important for me to write this book now?”
The “why” provides direction to your writing moving forward. Often, authors get stuck when they aren’t crystal clear on the “why.”
How the “Why” Improves Your Writing
The “why” of your book will help you 1) craft your content, and 2) keep your reader hooked.
Books, to state the patently obvious, are not an amalgamation of random content. Each chapter—and all of its scenes—serve a purpose: to support and develop your “why.”
Think of your “why” like a filter [link to Rob’s podcast]. It will help you determine which content is salient, and which content is useless. An easy way to determine which content to use: Ask yourself, “Does this piece of content support my ‘why’?” If it doesn’t, then consider cutting it, as difficult as it might be.
I am a fan of hypothetical scenarios, like “What if I was stranded on an island by myself…”
Without question, I’d be doomed. I’d never figure out how to make fire, spear fish, or build shelter.
But sometimes I think about what it would be like stranded on an island with all my favorite things: a quaint climate-controlled tent; food at my fingertips; and books. (Sounds more like a vacation.)
Sometimes I even imagine being stuck on an island with my piano.
I’m the world’s okay-est pianist. And in this scenario—the stranded-on-an-island-with-my-piano scenario—I imagine that I’d have nothing else to do but practice the piano. Finally, I’d have time to master a classical piece or two.
It reminds me of a quote by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club: “I’ve often fantasized I would get a lot of writing done if I were put in prison for a minor crime. Three to six months.”
Even the Pros Get Distracted
Tan’s admission is humorous and validating.
Even the pros feel like they never have enough time to produce the writing they want to produce.
Being distracted is a universal human condition.
I think that’s why I like Journey Sixty6’s motto: “Buckle up and write.”
The idiom, “buckle up,” of course, metaphorically has to do with preparing yourself for something exciting, intense, or maybe even hair-raising. The writing journey is all of those things.
But another reason I like “Buckle and write” is because it is a reminder that you, as a writer, can take control of your writing life.
You can fight the distractions of your day, buckle into your writing seat, and make progress.
It’s an empowering motto.
Staying Buckled Up
So how do you stay buckled up to write and take control of your writing life?
Here are a few ideas:
First I got rejected, and then I got paid.
At the Big Bang of my writing life, years ago (in the heyday of magazines), I submitted an article to a publication. And it was promptly rejected.
I persisted in my writing aspirations, begging the editor for an opportunity.
He finally threw me a bone: "Here's a book to review. If we like your review, we'll publish it."
I was ecstatic. And became obsessive-compulsive.
My wife reminds me that I worked on the small project during our honeymoon.
But in the end, the book review (400 words) was accepted. I think the payday was about $75.
Today, however, no one pays a dime for content.
A client (for my strategic marketing business) recently published a piece in the online version of Kiplinger's Personal Finance.
No payment. Just the satisfaction of publishing with a brand name.
Another landed a column in the online version of Psychology Today.
Nope. No payment. There's no money in writing.
But there are expenses.
Here's one expense (of many) to consider when thinking about your writing life:
Audience Building Comes Before Publishing
Melissa and I repeat this truism again and again and again:
Only writers who have a "platform" get picked up by a traditional publisher.
Platform is another word for an "audience," such as:
* You have an active email list (5,000 or more);
* You've attracted a large following on Instagram or another social platform; Melissa has grown her Instagram following for her Vintage side hustle to almost 30,000 followers;
* You have a history of speaking engagements to large audiences; a few of our writers speak regularly and thus can sell their books at their engagements; or
* You are a regular columnist for a major publication (such as the Wall Street Journal).
So, if you don't have an audience, you need to invest in building an audience.
To write requires that you grow an audience for what you want to publish.
That involves both time and money.
The Podcast Approach to Building an Audience
In 2015, a friend and I started a fly fishing podcast: 2 Guys and a River.
In five years, we built our subscriber base to about 10,000 subscribers. We published an episode and one article on fly fishing every week.
Our costs included:
* audio editing software (about $20 a month / Adobe Audition);
* microphones for podcasting for the two of us - about $300;
* monthly fee for hosting the podcast with Podbean ($9 a month, if paid annually);
* website hosting fee ($34.99 a month with Go Daddy);
* images for the articles on the website ($100 a year with iStock); we used images from our fly fishing trips for many articles;
* email marketing software ($20 a month); and
* graphic design; we hired a fabulous designer who helped us with our quirky logo and all the icons for our brand ($2,000).
There were a few other costs, of course.
We spent some money on promoting posts on Facebook, since a large chunk of our audience was on the social platform.
But we did everything ourselves, including editing...
If you’ve spent time searching for tips on writing, you’ve probably come across the phrase “show not tell.” It’s a tip authors, editors, and agents commonly throw out. But what does it mean?
“Show not tell” is a scene-building technique. It’s how you, as the writer, describe the experiences of your characters (or yourself) by engaging the senses.
“Show not tell” is applicable to all forms of writing—nonfiction, fiction, and memoir alike. It draws the reader into your writing. Immerses them in your book.
While “show not tell” is important to engaging your reader, it can be tricky to implement. It often demands you slow down. Place yourself into the scene. Ask deeper questions about your characters and setting.
To help you better understand this technique, check out the three tips below. And be sure to listen to our podcast to pick up three more tips!
“I saw” “I heard” “I felt”
One of the easiest ways to engage your reader through “show not tell” is to flag sensory phrases—phrases like “I saw” or “I heard” or “I felt.” These phrases usually lead to surface descriptions rather than drawing the reader into the sensory experience.
Instead, draw your reader into your scene by using imagery that engages the senses.
Return to your elementary-school days and remember your lessons on the five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound. How can you show these senses in your writing? Can you describe the taste of the food? Or the smell of the setting (freshly brewed coffee in a café? The manure of a farm?)?
Here’s an example from Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
“Standing to Liesel’s left, the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions.”
Note how Zusak avoids the word “felt”. He could have simply said, “The grave diggers felt cold.” Instead, he shows how cold they are by describing their hands rubbing together and through their whining. (Think about the last time you whined about being cold. I bet you can feel the cold Zusak describes!) Zusak immerses the reader in the scene.
As you review your manuscript, search for the phrases we mentioned above (“I saw”, “I heard”, “I felt”). And challenge yourself to rework them (at least some of them) by showing the feelings.
Strong, Active Verbs
Another way to “show not tell” in your writing is to place strong, active verbs in your scenes.
A weak verb is a generalized description of what’s happening. A strong verb is a more specific description.
Strong verbs build a visual for your reader. And they provide a specific picture of what’s occurring in your scene.
Read through this passage from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
“Archie scrabbling up the...
I’m a decorating nut. My home has been featured in both Country Living and Flea Market Style magazine. And in Spring 2023, it will be published in a book called Lived In Style.
My style certainly isn’t for everyone. I am what people in the design arena call a “maximalist.”
As you might guess, maximalism is the antithesis to minimalism. It’s the idea that more is more. More art. More color. More texture. More layers. More.
The more-is-more philosophy is dangerous, though.
It’s akin to giving your child free rein of their Halloween candy bucket. Most kids don’t know when too much is too much.
Maximalism demands restraint even its muchness.
The trick is knowing when to stop, or strip some of it back.
Because, let’s be honest, too much can be too much.
Writing Like a Maximalist
Some writers are minimalists, like Dave’s favorites, Ernest Hemmingway and Cormac McCarthy.
Minimalist writers embrace short sentences, matter-of-fact observations, and precise minimal language.
Maximalist writing, on the other hand, is layered, complex, and reliant upon a wide variety of literary devices and techniques, like Don De Lillo’s.
But like a maximalist decorator, a maximalist writer is deliberate—even restrained—in her craft. The writing isn’t haphazardly jampacked with flouncy adjectives and adverbs, overwrought metaphors, and meandering sentences.
And let’s be clear, there’s a difference between maximalist writing and overwriting.
The Struggle of Knowing When
Most new writers (and many seasoned writers) struggle to know when they’ve added too much.
Just this week an author, who is working on the editing process of his first novel, reached out to me and asked that very question: “When is too much writing too much?”
Of course, the answer is subjective. There’s no real formula for determining when to hit the save button for the final time.
But, you must start by honestly answering a primary question: “Are my additions adding a layer that develops the character, the plot line, or my meta-idea (or thesis) of my writing? Or are they simply flourishes?”
Overwriting, or “flowery writing,” often slows down the pacing and pulls the reader out of prose.
One obvious way to find out if you’re slowing down a reader, is to find a reader. Ask specifically, “Where in my writing do you feel like bailing because I’ve lost your interest, or confused you?”
The feedback will help you know when you’ve tried to do too much. It will help you know when too much writing is too much.
But the developmental editor in me says, “Don’t become paralyzed by the idea of overwriting in your first draft. Release your...
A good friend had a so-called midlife crisis at around 45.
He was a pediatric ophthalmologist, a high paying, meaningful profession: He performed eye surgery on children.
But he was restless.
He wanted more meaning in life. So he decided that he would become ... a writer!
He quit his day job as an eye surgeon and, instead of writing every day, went back to school.
He decided that he needed a degree in literature from the local university before he could get really serious about writing his great American novel.
Essential #1: You must write consistently
You really don't need to go back to college. Or land a spot in an elite MFA (master in fine arts) program.
You mostly need to write. So write.
Writing is like learning how to shoe horses. Or garden.
You have to do it to become a craftsman or craftswoman at the skill.
Essential #2 - You must become a continual self-learner
The impulse to go back for a degree is mostly a good one, if somewhat misguided.
The emotion of feeling like you need to learn more is absolutely real.
You do need to learn more. A lot more.
And much of this you can do on your own. Or at least start to learn on your own.
It all starts with the basics:
After decades of writing, I still read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White about once a year. And I always have my nose in a writing book.
I must go back to the basics of writing. Again and again and again.
And go back to the fundamentals:
* Make sure I have strong verbs and nouns;
* Eliminate the passive voice unless it is strategic;
* Ensure that the opening of every section has a hook or begins with a story;
* Evaluate my sentences for cadence;
* Stitch in more dialogue if needed; and, among others,
* Evaluate and re-evaluate how to structure my piece or book.
We not only learn by writing, we learn by reading experts on how to improve our craft.
The learning curve is endless.
Maybe you need to take a writing class. Either online or at the local college.
The point is that once you decide to join the writing life, you must also develop a learning mindset.
Essential #3 - You need a small village
As we state on the home page of our website, "Writing is a solo act, but it is not a solo journey."
Few of us can live like hermits and still produce scintillating prose.
We all need a little help along the way:
1. Feedback from experts;
2. Feedback from readers;
3. Kudos from our mum. (Okay, maybe not);
4. Support from fellow writers who know our pain; and
5. Connection to people in the publishing or self-publishing industry to help us complete our projects.
Writing may be the most community-intensive journey that there is!
The Rest of the Story
My friend never completed his novel.
His wife stayed in her job as an elementary school teacher as he fought the good fight and tried to produce a novel.
Eventually, however, he returned to eye surgery. He had to go back and retake some of his boards, because he had let them lapse.
He is now retired, and his wife just published her first children's book. Go figure: his wife who...
Shopping at Goodwill is a near-daily ritual for me.
I’m convinced thrifting is as much a part of my DNA as my dark brown hair.
Because my “jobby” selling vintage demands finding oldish, affordable stuff to resell, I frequent the place where oldish, affordable stuff ends up—Goodwill.
There’s a Goodwill less than half-a-mile from my house; its siren song is loud and irresistible.
My frequency makes me a regular. The best part might be the people watching.
So many people. So many stories.
A Story Behind the Person
One day at Goodwill I stood on one side of a 4-sided wire shelf. To the left of me was a woman about a decade older jamming to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”
I confess, I stood there long after I was done scanning the shelf. There was something about the woman still in her pjs, studying porcelain pig figurines, and singing—aloud—like she was a 17-year-old at a summer concert.
I wanted to bottle up that moment. I wanted to write about it—because I wasn’t sure what about that moment made me feel so good.
Maybe it was because I could imagine her in her unencumbered youth. And by association, I could see myself in my youth (but instead singing to Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand”).
She was carefree and open to possibilities. She wasn’t worried about bills, laundry or doctors’ appointments. In that moment, the demands of the day were crowded out by a dopamine-inducing pop-charts favorite.
Living in the moment: that’s what it was.
Discovery through Writing
In an essay called, “Why I Write,” Joan Didion writes, “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Before writers write, they observe.
They pay attention to the things they see—and the feelings attached to those things.
Writers are gifted (generally speaking) with curiosity. With it, they are given the sacred gift of helping others see what they might have missed in the ordinary.
More important, and I think what Didion is getting at, writers connect commonplace experiences to the deeper human experience.
It’s why many writers journal. And why, if you’re not journaling, maybe you should start today.
A journal is simply a place for you to think about what you have observed. Dig for the deeper truths. And find a way to articulate it in a winsome way.
Some of that might end up in the writing you’re working on for publication. Lots of it won’t.
But the practice of finding meaning in the ordinary is as important as learning how to use the semi-colon.
This week, I hope you find some time to observe and find meaning.
New writers know they need to revise their manuscript. But when you’re new at something, it’s often difficult to know where to start the revision process for novels and memoirs.
You might be relieved to hear that there’s not a one-size-fits-all revision process for novels and memoirs.
Like writing, revising is about finding your own process. That typically happens through trial and error. Some writers revise every 50 pages. Other writers will aim for a certain word count, stop writing, and then start revising. Writers might break their manuscript into a three-act structure and revise each individual section upon completion.
There is no right or wrong process!
We spoke with novelist and memoirist Ann Hood, author of Fly Girl: A Memoir, who helped us reframe the revision process. And in this blog post, we’ve provided tips on how to revise your manuscript.
What Is the Revision Process for Novels and Memoirs?
New writers often mistake copy editing with revision. They read through their first draft and tweak the grammar. They notice a misspelled word and correct it. But revision isn’t solely copy editing, and it’s not a one-and-done process.
Revision is the act of reimagining your work.
It’s about getting the words right, and also getting the story to a place where there are no mistakes. You want your narrative to be at a place where your story has no weak spots.
From accounts that support your meta idea to the development of characters, every detail in your story has a purpose—and a place. The revision process helps you determine where the details belong.
The revision process for novels and memoirs can be disheartening. You just spent months—years—writing your manuscript and all you want is to publish it. But revision is a necessity. It’s the takeoff to getting your book ready for publication. It’s not necessarily the glamorous part, but when you revise and get it right, it’s just as glorious as writing.
So, what does revising look like?
Types of Revision: Micro vs. Macro
In our interview, Ann explained there are two different types of revision: micro and macro. Effective revision relies on both forms to produce a great manuscript.
Micro revision—as its name denotes—focuses on the minute details of your manuscript. It’s the copy edit of your manuscript. Incorrect grammar, spelling errors, flat cadence, and poor paragraph structure fall into this category.
Typically, micro revision comes last—it’s the proof of your manuscript before you release it to agents and publishers. Copyediting is the final polish. It reflects your credibility as a writer. And agents will stop reading your manuscript if simple errors are abundant.
The second type of revision is macro—the revision of the development of your plot (novel) or big idea (nonfiction and memoir), as well as revising the structure, character arcs, and timeline of your...
Around this time every year, I receive a DM from my literary pal with a link to John Keats’ poem, “To Autumn.”
That message combined with Starbucks’ DM reminding me to “Remain calm [because] pumpkin spice is back!” officially signals the change of seasons.
Because I still haven’t memorized the poem (despite vowing to each year because it is that good), I click through and luxuriate in its lines, as abundant as the Autumn he describes.
If you haven’t read it, you ought to. It’s as tasty as a pumpkin spice latte. Or hot apple cider, if that’s your jam.
As I re-read it this year, I was reminded why I love poetry—and why it’s good for us writers to read it: to remind ourselves that diction matters.
What Is Diction?
Diction is a fancy-schmancy word to describe the words and combination of words we use in our writing to evoke an emotion in our reader.
When I read “To Autumn” I feel warm, satisfied, intoxicated, content. Keats helps us not to long for the newness of spring or dread the death of winter. Instead, he invites us into the overflow of autumn.
Just take a look at Keats’ verb choices.
They’re a master class in diction, specifically choosing strong verbs:
“load and bless,”
Notice how Keats turns adjectives “drowsy,” “plump,” and “soft-lifted,” into atypical, but visual verbs.
His verbs aren’t ornamental. In fact, arguably they’re quite plain. But together, they transport the reader to Autumn’s bountiful fields.
Power Up the Feelings
Unless you dig into the poem, like I did a bit, you aren’t aware of Keats’ deliberate diction. You just feel something when you read it.
That’s diction at work. It powers up feelings in readers.
And when readers feel they remember. They return to your words. They dig into their meaning. And they make connections between your ideas and their lives.
It’s why my friend sends me “To Autumn” every year. She knows I dread winter and that Autumn signals its inevitable arrival.
It reminds me that all seasons are purposeful—and to “think not of [winter], [because
Autumn] has [its] music too.”
The poem forces me into the goodness of autumn’s fleeting moment.
Diction matters. Don’t skimp on it. And if you need some inspiration, dip into some poetry.
Now buckle up and write.