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Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less

This month’s installment of a column brought to you by . . . YOU.

This is where we give up control of what’s said and hand it over to the people who matter most: our clients. Your words appear in this space, once a month.

Why?

Oodles of ah-ha moments.

Some of the writers who appear here didn’t have a clue where to start and subsequently transformed into writing machines. Some started right where you sit today, confused and needing guidance or maybe a little inspiration. And some were seasoned authors who needed a boost.

ALL of them figured it out and wrote epic shit.

This week, meet Suanne.

***

When I sent the first chapter of The Man I Love to Becky for a sample edit, it came back with several notes and corrections.

“You’re far too talented a writer to fall into these bad habits,” she wrote, and proceeded to lay down the law. No semicolons, no overused words, such as “very” and “suddenly,” and no starting sentences with “there was” or “there were.” Solid gold nuggets of advice which shaped me as a writer from that moment to present.

Other admonitions were harder to swallow. I got into a rousing, heated debate with Becky over the use of speech tags. I clung to the notion that using only “said” in dialogue was boring and amateur. She insisted if my dialogue was good enough, “said” was all I needed. I grumbled, but tried it her way and I eventually embraced its exclusive use. With few exceptions (such as “whisper”), it’s the only way I write dialogue now.

I will skip over the entire Oxford comma thing, it’s just too emotional a topic and we’ve agreed to disagree.

By far, the greatest takeaway from working with Becky was this simple advice:

Just tell the story.

My first draft of The Man I Love jumped all over the place. Flashing back, skipping ahead. I thought it made a dramatic, riveting read.

Becky said, “I have no idea what’s happening here. You’re introducing people and situations as if I already know them and I don’t. You’re losing me, which means you’re going to lose the reader.”

You’re going to lose the reader. For an author, that’s the equivalent of a cancer diagnosis.

Tell the story, Beck went on to teach me. Don’t be clever, don’t be cryptic. Just tell the story in order, as it happened and let it unfold its own riveting drama. And don’t keep things from the reader.

An almost sacred relationship of trust exists between author and reader, and once the the trust is broken, the book gets closed and your story—and all your work—is dead in the water (minus two points for cliché). “If you’re going to withhold information from your reader,” Becky said, “you better have a damn good reason.”

As with the speech tags, I wasn’t thoroughly convinced. But by this point, I was developing my own relationship of trust with Becky. Noting I didn’t always like her edits and notes, nine times out of 10, she was right. Dammit. (For the record, I prefer damn it, but it’s not a battle worth picking. I’m over it.)

So I rearranged my chapters into chronological order and tried to clear my mind and read it as if laying my eyes on it for the first time. (Any author will tell you this is practically impossible, hence the need for an editor and outside eyes.) I clarified characters and situations, took out unnecessary drama and suspense. I just told the story.

It was better.

Miles better.

Insanely better.

What had I been thinking?

“Don’t think,” Becky wrote later. “Just write. It’s my job to think about that other shit. Just write. With your words. Say what you mean and tell the story.”

Just write.

***

Come back next month for another edition of “Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less.” Suanne can be found here.

Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less

This month’s installment of a column brought to you by . . . YOU.

This is where we give up control of what’s said and hand it over to the people who matter most: our clients. Your words appear in this space, once a month.

Why?

Oodles of ah-ha moments.

Some of the writers who appear here didn’t have a clue where to start and subsequently transformed into writing machines. Some started right where you sit today, confused and needing guidance or maybe a little inspiration. And some were seasoned authors who needed a boost.

ALL of them figured it out and wrote epic shit.

This week, meet Ellen.

***

In July of 2013, I joined Becky’s writing camp looking for help staying focused. I didn’t want another ten-year novel. After I completed a first draft, Becky and I worked together twice more to bring the novel to completion. As the one-year anniversary of the writing camp approaches, my second novel is set to release. It’s hard to believe that in a single year, I went from a strong concept to finished product.

What did I learn from Becky?

Do you have a few hours?

Most issues – commas, formatting, dialogue tags – were known to me. I wanted an editor to fix them, but I was confident in my voice and style. I knew I could write my sophomore novel if someone nipped at my heels. Call me naive, but I couldn’t wait to strut naked in high heels across the page, shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

Showing the reader is a problem all writers confront. Show more leg, show less boob, show how perfect porridge sticks to a spoon with a honeyed thickness of creamed corn flakes.

We all work on the craft of showing and we all have techniques. What we don’t know about are the nasty habits that invade like toe fungus.

Becky peeled back my snoozing writer-eyes when she poked at my use of cliches. The text wasn’t littered with them, and I knew they existed, so I bristled and grumbled. “I was planning on fixing that,” I said to myself. My teeth may or may not have ground pencils.

Then Becky smacked me and asked if I was crazy. “Tell me what you mean.”

I sputtered because it was so obvious.

“Use your words.”

What do you think those groupings of symbols ARE? I wanted to ask.

“Make it yours.”

Oh. Mine?

My words.

Me.

Push the place holder out of the way and let my voice fill in like creamy porridge that sticks to the readers ribs.

Oh. Okay.

I’d love to say it only took one cliche, but Becky poked my draft until something unknown bit. I used cliches as spot savers, return-to-later markers that I didn’t always remember to fix. In lazy moments, I thought my carefully borrowed image (read: auto-cliche) spoke directly to the reader. They’ll understand perfectly, I thought, while ignoring my imagination stuck in the bog of my story’s first half.

See, the cliches I left to laze around in my prose slowed the tenor of my voice. Even just a few mired my creativity, instead of freeing me to write more. The solution was such a simple thing. “Write what you mean in your own, unique way.” But discovery meant trusting more than just me.

Now when a cliche offers to help out, I set it down and pose it before grabbing my pencil and sketching my own interpretation. This works for fiction, blog posts and even tweets.

I came to Becky with my voice clutched in my hands, looking for cuddles. I was timid and insecure. She taught me to trust me, my voice.

Thank you, Beckster. (No exclamation point)

***

Come back next month for another addition of “Pictures of Success in 1,000 Words or Less.” Ellen writes about broken condoms, unhappy marriages and women’s issues. Her first novel Strong Enough was released February 2013. Her sophomore work, The Anonymous Blog of Mrs. Jones, debuted this July. You can find her at www.ellenharger.com.

P.S. You have 24 days left to enter the contest for your shot at $5,500 to write your book.