Monday, April 16, 2018

Taking Advice Like a Pro





by Jan Drexler




When we first start out writing, we usually grab the pieces of advice that come our way as if they're the gospel truth. They become “rules” for our writing. After all, we’re trying to learn, right? And we all know that learning to write is hard. It has a steep learning curve, so every bit of information we can glean along the way is valuable.


But once we start writing that story of our heart, we find that not every piece of writing advice works. Well, at least not for us.
And then doubt begins to creep in… if I don’t do it the way Super Author does it, does that mean I’m not really a writer? I’ll never get published!

I’m here to give you one rule to cover all the other voices you hear: 


I don’t know any two writers who approach their work in the same way. The key is to find what works for you.
Let’s look at a couple pieces of writerly advice you’ve probably heard, and whether you need to listen or not.

I’m sure you’ve heard that real writers write every day.
Let me change that a bit: 



I know some wonderful writers who do write every day. (Raise your hands, Seeker-sisters!). That works for them and works very well.
I don’t write every day. I almost always take Sunday off, and unless I have a looming deadline, I take Saturday off, too. I need my weekends to connect with my family and recharge my creative battery.
For some people, writing is what charges their creative battery. For me, it’s getting away from the manuscript, breathing different air, letting the story simmer on the back of the stove for a while. Then I come back on Monday morning ready to dive in again.

Do I do it wrong? I don’t think so.
Do I do it right? It works for me.

Do you do it wrong?
Ask yourself: Is my writing schedule working for me? If it is, then don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. But if it isn’t, try changing things up a little. Experiment. Find your sweet spot.

Another piece of advice I’m sure you’ve heard is: Never use the word “was” in your writing.
There’s a good reason for this piece of advice. Many beginning writers have trouble keeping their writing out of the passive voice. “Was” is one of those words that you find in the passive voice, and it can signal trouble.
What is the passive voice? Here’s an example: 


In the passive, the object of the sentence (flea) is the one acting rather than the subject of the sentence (dog). Here’s an example of the same sentence in active voice: 


Do you see how the word “was” shows up in the passive sentence but not the active one? Yes, you want to avoid that use of “was!”

However, sometimes you want to use “was,” but in a different context.
“Was” is also used in a verb that’s showing continuing action. It’s called the “progressive tense.” Sometimes you want to use that verb tense, like in this example: “She was eating hot dogs through the entire baseball game.” Or this one: “Andrew was eating his lunch when he heard a car drive in the yard.”

I read a book recently that never varied the verb tense, and it was painfully obvious that the author was following the “never use was” rule. What happened to her writing? It was stilted and boring. I never finished the book.

So rather than the “never use ‘was’” rule, I have a different piece of advice:  



Be aware of verb tenses, active vs. passive voice, etc., and keep your writing fresh by varying the tenses when your story calls for it.

What does this mean to you? Maybe you need to brush on your grammar (don’t groan!). 
Or maybe you need to give yourself this homework:  

You can find great lists of well-written books when award finalists are announced. I make it my habit to read the finalists from the Christy Awards, the Carol Awards, and some of the categories of the Rita Awards. Those books are some of the best from the current year.

What you read affects your writing. Whether you are aware of it or not, your writing will echo the books you’ve been reading. That can be a good thing when you’re reading the best books in your genre. What you take in will affect what you produce in your writing.
  
Am I telling you to throw out every rule or piece of advice you’ve ever heard and strike out on your own?
No way. We need rules. Boundaries. Guidelines.
But I love this quote from Pablo Picasso:



So, tell me, what are some rules you find difficult to follow? And what are some of your favorite pieces of advice?

One commenter today will receive a copy of my latest release, "The Amish Nanny's Sweetheart."

Love in Plain Sight 

As nanny for her nephew, Judith Lapp’s finally part of a vibrant, joyful Amish community instead of living on the outskirts looking in. But teaching her neighbors’ Englischer farmworker to read Pennsylvania Dutch wasn’t part of her plan. And the more time she spends with Guy Hoover, the more he sparks longings for a home and family of Judith’s own.

Guy figured he would never be truly accepted by his Amish employers’ community—even though the Mast family treats him like a son. But Judith’s steadfast caring shows him that true belonging could be within his reach…if he and Judith can reconcile their very different hopes—and hearts.






68 comments:

  1. Sage advice from such a smart lady.

    I hope everyone reads this. I hope they realize it's meant for them!!! That we all do this differently, and that's okay... because God created us to be unique.

    I think the press for words every day (all over the web) came from developing the habit of writing... but I also think that if you love it, if you're meant to do it, you'll develop the habit because you really want to create... fear holds folks back.

    Oh, silly fear! Begone with you! Get away!

    We all begin at the beginning...

    Jan, thank you for this. Wisdom on a Monday. A very pouring rain kind of Monday here, after a bitter cold, then ice storm Nor'easter weekend...

    Spring: A fickle wench!

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    1. Good morning, Ruthy!

      Developing the habit of writing is SO important, isn't it? Sometimes we need to change up those habits to increase word production to meet a deadline, and sometimes we need to change them to deal with family issues or personal issues and still get our writing in.

      Writing is hard work, isn't it? It's the best hard work, and definitely worth the time and effort!

      And that Spring! (Or Sprinter!) I'm dealing with that topic over at the Yankee Belle Cafe today. Be sure to pop over there, too!

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  2. Good morning, Jan! Excellent post. So true that writers have to find what works for them--whether it's carving out time to write in the wee hours or up long after the kiddies have been tucked in or writing in snatches on lunch breaks or, or, or...!

    I think some of the "rule breaking" comes with writer voice and style. For instance, a "rule" I used to hear not to start a sentence with the word "but" or "and." Why not? BUT do it where it fits logically and effectively and won't confuse a reader. AND don't OVER do it. :)

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    1. LOL! I first heard that rule about not starting a sentence with "but" or "and" when I was in Junior High School (wow, that dates me, doesn't it?). A friend I admired, and who had gone to an International school in Pakistan the year before told me about it. For several years I tried. I really did. But I couldn't stop. And I still can't. :-)

      I don't worry about rules too much when I'm writing my first draft. It's on the second and third times through that I examine the words I've used and make sure the story is readable.

      And you've hit the main point - each of us has to find out what works for us!

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  3. Years ago, contest judges/critique partner commented on my use of "was", so I worked diligently to eliminate by reworking the sentence. Almost every place I made a change, another judge would comment about the new sentence. I couldn't get it right. I finally quit worrying and now look to see if a paragraph/scene has too many.

    I'm w/Glynna on beginning a sentence with "and" or "but". Starting a sentence this way can be very effective because it's how we think. But try not to over do it.

    Great advice, Jan.

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    1. Your experience is so common, Connie! That "was" word! But as you've found, reworking the sentence doesn't always solve the problem. You're experienced enough in your writing to avoid the passive voice, but you're also right in pointing out that the progressive tense can be overused.

      It all comes down to being aware of how and why we use every word!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. Yeah, I love sentence fragments. I use them a lot.

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  4. Jan, this post is loaded with great advice. Like this one:

    You said: If I don’t do it the way Super Author does it, does that mean I’m not really a writer? I’ll never get published!

    Me: Oh, my goodness. That is exactly the way I felt those first few years into writing. I thought I HAD to do those things or I wouldn't get published. Then I realized that I'm am not this author or that author. My brain doesn't work like theirs does and what they're telling me completely stifles my creativity. And we can't have that. I mean, without creativity, how are we supposed to come up with new and different stories?

    Bottom line, that is an uber important piece of advice for new authors.

    Like you, I don't write every day either. The implication that I wasn't a real writer if I didn't write everyday used to bother me. But, like you again, I need to have other creative outlets or simply to let my brain rest. When the words are flowing, that may not be as important, but on those days when you have to fight for every word, those times of refreshment are imperative.

    I could go on, but I won't. Great post, my friend.

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    1. You are so right, Mindy. If we let other voices keep us from finding the way to spark our own creative genius, we won't be able to be creative the way we're meant to be.

      Thanks, Mindy!

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  5. Jan, this is such good advice! I think I listened too seriously to the rules when I first started writing and taking online classes. I fretted so much about every little detail that it stalled me sometimes.

    I sure hope any teaching posts I've done here at the blog haven't stalled any writers!

    I do break some of the rules. I use "was" sometimes. Sometimes a good passive sentence can be fun as a way to highlight it. And I've found that southern writing can break some rules--though I tend to realize that later, after I've written the pages. They're not planned! :)

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    1. You brought up a great point, Missy! One of the secrets of being a great writer is to know the language, how it works, and the way you can use it to bring out the nuances of your story.

      Sometimes the passive voice is the best thing to use - but it's only powerful when it's used sparingly and specifically.

      And that southern writing! I love reading it, but I would never attempt to write it. It would be like asking a cat to bark. :-)

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  6. Thank you so much for the explanation on passive voice! I know I use it, but couldn't figure out the issue. Now I know!

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    1. You're welcome!

      I know I had the hardest time getting a handle on the passive voice. It wasn't until I forced myself to learn grammar that it finally made sense.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  7. Good morning, Jan! Notice how I'm not commenting at 4:30am? Yes! Solly slept through the night!! I feel SO GOOD right now :)

    I love this post. It reminds me of a jazz pianist. He'll spend years studying and practicing the "rules" of classical music theory. Once he has that mastered, then he knows how and why to break the rules to create something beautiful.

    I don't remember who said it or where I read it, but some of the best advice I found when I started seriously writing was that I would need to write millions of words and then I can start writing. Same idea... practice practice practice. We are artists, after all, painting pictures with our words. And there is a sense where we need to "practice the classical rules of story theory and grammar" before we figure out how and why we're breaking them.

    The flip side, and why I love this post, is that there are a lot of "rules" out there that really come down to personal preference and even misinformation...like the "never use was" rule. We can certainly glean gems from our favorite authors and writer blogs and books, but at the end of the day its on each of us to put our BICHOK and figure out what works for us. :)

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    1. Exactly, Meg! That's why I love Pablo Picasso's quote so much. We're artists, using words as our medium. If we don't understand our medium, then our "breaking the rules" becomes chaos rather than art.

      I'm so glad that little munchkin let you sleep through the night! Go, Solly!

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    2. Megan, I love the advice to just practice, practice, practice!

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  8. Great post, Jan! Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Thanks for your post as I have struggled with all the rules of writing that at times overwhelms me. I have mild dyslexia that was never diagnosed- unheard of when I was in school- and something I didn't realize I had until I was an older adult as I loved to read and got top grades in school.

    I think the best breakthrough for me was that there is no set rule in writing that can't be broken- not that I use it as an excuse for sloppy writing. Spell check has helped me enormously, but even there I also have to be vigilant too.

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    1. Hi Dorcas!

      You said it - "there is no set rule in writing that can't be broken." We need to know the rules, but we also need to know where we can bend them and make them fit the way we write.

      At the same time, we need to be vigilant, like you said. Sometimes there is a rule that can't be bent too far, or else you lose your reading audience.

      And I had to laugh at your comment about spell check. One the favorite sayings around our house is, "spell check is not your friend." :-)

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  10. I love this post Jan! Years ago when the kids were young, I sold Marin kay for a few years. They had a “rule” that if you wanted to be successful and reach Directorship and that coveted pink car you needed to belong to the “Five A.M. Club”. Now, I know Ruth and a few of you ladies are sometimes up writing even earlier than that, but there was NO way I could get out of bed and function consistently at 5 a.m. even when I was a cop I only had to do it two days in a row! And I was kicked out of the “club” and deemed a failure. No rule breaking in Mary Kay lol! So I have to admit I really find this post refreshing because I tend to look around me at others and compare myself. I don’t write on weekends either as we’re too busy - although that’ll change now that I’m contracted. I’m a slow and steady writer. I don’t clock huge word counts unless I force myself to do a BIAW. And it all goes back 25 years to trying to sell cosmetics lol! So, thank you for this freeing and uplifting post to start off our week. I feel vindicated that perhaps my methods are just fine and “I am a real writer” just like Pinocchio became a “real boy”. Have a blessed day everyone!

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    1. LOL! Your contract proves that you ARE a real writer, even if the hours spent at your computer hadn't convinced you of that already!

      I'm glad you found the post refreshing! When you look around at others, make sure you realize that we're all on our own paths. You're doing great on the path God has laid out for you, and it isn't like anyone else's. :-)

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  11. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Jan! I have been much more intentional about reading well-written books and studying other authors' craft. But I'd also add... an occasional not-so-well written book can be a good learning experience as well. As an English teacher, when I make a writing assignment, I provide a well-written student example (anonymous and from a previous year) so we can discuss what works. I also provide a student-written example that has problems, and we discuss what doesn't work. That is as valuable to my students as the exemplar. I recently read a book (mainstream) that was a series of events but lacked rising action. I kept waiting to see where the next event would lead, waiting for that question a reader seeks to find the answer to. It never came. That made me think about my WIP. I wondered if I were at risk of doing the same thing, if my character's emotional journey was a series of events or if I had truly given the reader an answer to seek, with rising action and a climax. I decided I need to develop some areas more. Also, when I still dreamed of publishing a book some day, my goal was to write a book at least as good as the worst published book I'd read. :) So an occasional bad book or two can encourage a wanna-be author and make publishing feel possible (kind of joking). :)

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    1. You make a great point, Karen!

      I love to read well-written books because they inspire me to make my writing the best it can be. But reading that occasional "dud" can be very educational, too.

      And you aren't the first author who has said, "I can write a better book than that!"

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    2. Karen, one reason I love judging contests is to see examples of what I think works and what doesn't work for me. I really learn from that and can apply it to my own work (as I also try to give constructive feedback to the entrants).

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  12. Great post Jan! I'd like to be in for your book; have the first one TBR and would like to read both at same time! Thanks for your giveaway!

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    1. You're welcome, Jackie! Glad you enjoyed the post. :-)

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  13. Jan this is great advice and I love how you address the different styles. I want to write everyday, but it's just not possible and then I feel guilty for not doing it. I appreciate the "let it simmer" method and sometimes, that sparks great creativity.

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    1. I'm not sure where my stories would be if I didn't let them simmer. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes - enough time to eat my lunch. Other times it can take an entire week for the story problem to solve itself in my mind.

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  14. Hi Jan:

    Great post! I can agree with all your comments and I'd like to provide this bit of advice from my time as an advertising copy writing editor:

    "Aways read each sentence two or three times to determine if it could have more than one meaning…that is, a meaning other than the meaning you intended."

    Here's a recent example from one of our most esteemed Seekers writing about agreeing with editors:

    "You're an ornery, uppity snip and you think your work is beyond repair."

    Here was my immediate mental image of this sentence: my car was totaled in a wreck meaning it was a total loss and thus beyond repair. The insurance company would not even try to repair it.

    However, I believe the meaning intended was this: "My work is so perfect no repair could be done because there is nothing repairable about it. It's perfect, baby!"

    When this happens in advertising it can kill the sale. Like when the announcer says, "Hurry in to our big sale. These chairs won't last long."

    My immediate mental image is having to rush into the store before those chairs fall apart.

    Not exactly the message the advertiser paid for and intended!

    When this multi-meaning happens in fiction it can cause several re-readings, pulling the reader out of the story, before it makes sense. Sometimes the reader just runs with the wrong meaning because it makes sense only to find out later that story itself is not making sense. ("I thought the hero's car was totaled…how did I miss that the car came out of the accident unscathed?")

    I was in Oklahoma for two years thinking that the OU football announcers were nuts when they said, "OU is 14 points behind. Nothing is working. We have to get this team untrack."

    I wanted to scream at the radio, "You are untracked! What you need to do is get your act together!'

    Then one day a fan told me the same thing. I said, "what do you mean untracked"?

    "We have to get them back on the track….like a train that has been untracked."

    "You mean 'on track'?

    "Yes, what did you think I meant?"

    "Untracked!"

    "Untracked…but that doesn't make sense."

    "Exactly!"

    I also do at least one edit just looking for alternate meanings for each sentence. These mistakes are very common. You may not notice them because you got the right meaning the first time. But some readers didn't! Consider that.

    Please put my in the drawing for your book.

    Vince

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    1. Great point, Vince.

      That's one reason why I always appreciate the revision notes from my editor. More than once, I've gotten the message, "This sentence doesn't make sense to me." And that's my cue to either change the sentence or the context.

      You're right that it's hard for the writer to see the double meanings the sentence might imply. It made sense when I wrote it! :-)

      And I've run into situations like your "untracked" story more times that I can remember. The problem usually comes with my northern ear trying to interpret what a southern speaker is trying to say.

      I remember sitting in a Bible study class one time in Texas, and the teacher kept talking about the "flying squirrels" in chapter five of Zechariah. It took several readings of the passage before I figured out that she meant "scrolls!" But she was saying "squirrels" plain as any northerner would say the word. LOL!

      As always, thanks for stopping by, Vince!

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  15. Such wonderful advice! Sometimes I think we paralyze ourselves with 'rules' to the point that we suck all the individuality out of our work! Write that first draft like you're finger-painting if you need to, admire the colors and the swirls. You can always sit down later and fine-tune some brush strokes. :)

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    1. Great word picture, Erica! That first draft doesn't need to follow any rules at all!

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    2. Erica, I LOVE that!! Boy, oh boy, did I love to finger-paint when I was a kid! That shiny paper. The smell of the paint. Great memories!

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    3. LOVE what you said, Erica. Once you've been professionally edited a couple of times you can get to a point where you over-analyze everything you write until you slow to a halt and stop writing anything at all. Good reminder to relax a little.

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    4. Jenna, been there! Not with editors but in my early days with critique partners. Yikes! I still have to remind myself to relax a bit and enjoy what I'm doing, shut down that inner editor, and remember that anything can be tidied up later!

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  16. Oh Jan! I love this post. There is so much information out there it can paralyze a person. One tip that has been a blessing to me with all kinds of writing is to set it aside for a bit and reread. I write a lot of copy at work and it really helps me disconnect from the writing as the writer.

    Thanks for this post!

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    1. That's a great tip, Kelly. When we're in the midst of writing, we're too close to our work. That time and space of setting it aside gives us a new perspective.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  17. Great post, Jan! I've definitely edited some things that seemed to follow too many rules and that made the story feel so stilted. Some rules are good, but finding your own voice as an author is so important, and definitely helps the story to flow.

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    1. You are so right, Beth! We can "rule" our voices to death if we're not careful!

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  18. Great post, Jan. Thanks for permission to not be like everyone else. I need to keep a schedule that works for me, which doesn't include working early in the morning! I also know that using the word "was" is necessary sometimes and I wouldn't try to eliminate it completely. Your best advice is to know the rules so we can understand how to break them.

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    1. Hi Sandy!

      As if you need permission to be yourself!!! :-)

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  19. Thanks for the encouraging post. I could see myself in some of the rules. I am one who was told never to begin a sentence with and or but. Yet, I do break that rule from time to time. Thanks for the explanation of passive voice. It's been awhile since I studied grammar and I had forgotten so when critques pointed it out. I wasn't sure what that was.

    I hope everyone is doing well. We've got a few snow flurries here in the NC mountains.

    Please put me in the drawing for your book. I wanted to get it at Walmart last month but didn't have the money and then when I had the money they were all out. I suppose that is a good problem since that means your book sold.

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    1. I do love hearing when a book has sold out! You're in the drawing.

      And Wilani, you have my permission to break rules once in a while, as long as you do it like an artist! :-)

      I hope you enjoy snow. Even my friends in Kentucky are getting it today!

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  20. Jan, I love your story's blurb. So does he become Amish? I know. I need to read the story! :)

    Like you, I don't write everyday. But I am brainstorming or weighing plot points or doing research. I tried writing everyday with a certain word count daily goal, but that process doesn't work for me. I have to write a fast first draft on my AlphaSmart and then struggle through the rewrites over and over again. :)

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    1. Hi Debby:

      I should do like you and write the first draft on my AlphaSmart but the screen is so small, that's hard for me to do. Do you work from a tight outline? That way you would not have to see too far back to know what you're doing. Also, do you make frequent printouts so you can see back a few pages as you write?

      The AlphaSmart has a wonderful keyboard. I'd like to use it more often.

      Vince

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    2. Debby, I hate to say this, but you're just going to have to read the book! If I gave away the ending, it just wouldn't be fair. ;-)

      I've tried writing a fast first draft, but that doesn't work for me. I edit the previous day's words before I start writing, and I even edit as I go.

      I know, I know. That runs counter to almost everyone's advice, but on the upside, my "first" draft comes out needing very little editing before sending it off to my editors.

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    3. Vince, I work from a 16-18 page synopsis so I know the major plot points but have room to embellish. I submit the first three chapters with my proposal and then write the entire draft on my Alpha without printing any pages. Once I get to the end of the draft, I rewrite!

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    4. Debby, that's an amazing system! I'm kind of a compulsive editor, so maybe that would be a good way for me to plow through. Maybe it's time to dig out my Alpha-smart!

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  21. I learn a lot by trial and error. If I hear some advice, I'll try it out. If it works I keep it, if it doesn't. Bye, bye. That's how I do everything life so of course it translates in my writing.

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    1. That's a great way to approach writing, and life in general, Nicki! It keeps you teachable, but not a slave to every new idea that pops up. :-)

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  22. I especially liked the passive vs active voice. A great reminder. And I've got to remember the Pablo Picasso quote. Good writers are word artists!

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    1. I love that quote. And yes, it does remind me that I'm not only a wordsmith, I'm a word artist.

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  23. Sometimes rules just need to be broken. I like it when writers are creative and rebellious.

    Count me in thank you.

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    1. You're in the right place, Mary! I think we have a LOT of creative and rebellious writers around here!

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  24. Really impressive post. I read it whole and going to share it with my social circules. I enjoyed your article and planning to rewrite it on my own blog.
    Packers and Movers Delhi

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  25. I'm a newbie, so this is very helpful. I'm finding myself OVERWHELMED by the amount of wonderful, helpful advice out "there".

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    1. It is awfully overwhelming, isn't it? And so many pieces of advice contradicts other advice! It's enough to drive you batty!

      But I like Nicki's suggestion in her comment above - When you hear a new piece of advice, try it out. Does it fit you? Then keep it. If it doesn't - bye, bye!

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    2. Yeah, it's good advice to try things and find out what works for you. We're all very different when it comes to writing methods!

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  26. Oh Jan, this is such a good teaching/reminder post. Thank you! The Picasso quote is a treasure :-)
    Nancy C

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  27. Thanks, Nancy! And yes, I love that Picasso quote!

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  28. Great advice for writers and readers because we readers often get stuck trying to write a review that isn't the "same old same old"!
    Blessings to you!

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