Stay Organized to Stay Focused as an Author
Most likely, you’ve heard the famous line “Mind the gap!” in relation to the warning given to railway passengers. It’s a warning for people to watch that short distance between the railcar and the platform. It’s such a small thing, but potentially disastrous if someone isn’t minding the gap. In the same way, many novelists fail to “mind the gap” when it comes to the seemingly small thing of staying organized.
I understand we all have different personalities, and one author may not lean toward being organized as much as the next. Yet, doing even a few simple things can help you stay more focused and avoid wasting time and creative energy.
So here are a few organization basics that can help you be a more productive author:
Making the Most of Your Time between Writing Novels
You’ve just typed “The End” on the last page of your novel—maybe your very first finished manuscript. Way to go! Treat yourself to a piece (or two) of your favorite cake or pie (or both) and maybe some ice cream on the side … or perhaps a night out for dinner and a movie with your special someone. It’s worth celebrating, because it takes some grit, tenacity, and perseverance to finish a writing a story—and writing isn’t quite the glamorous job some people think it is. It can surely be enjoyable, exciting, and invigorating, but it’s still work. Thus, kudos to you for unleashing the muse in your heart!
So, after finishing your novel and celebrating that evening, the next morning arrives—and you can’t even imagine sitting down at your computer to write the first sentence of a new novel-length story (if you’re a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants author) or to start a chapter outline and/or character charts for your next heavyweight (if you like having all your ducks in a row before writing a word). What to do, what to do?
Avoid Passive Sentences for More Engaging Stories
If you’re a serious novelist, then you’ve likely heard the maxim, “Write active sentences and avoid the passive.” It’s a popular recommendation from editors for one simple reason: It’s true.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of passive sentences:
The dolphins were watched by the kids in the stands.
The house was painted and let to dry by the newlyweds.
The ball was hit by Joe into left field in his last at-bat.
From a grammatical standpoint, these sentences are okay. Yet from a reader’s standpoint, they’re, well … weak. When it comes to crafting stories, weaker sentences equate to less engaging writing, and that means disengaged readers who will be more apt to put a novel down if they run into enough snags like these.
To see the weakness of each of the examples above, now take a look at the sentences revised in the active voice:
Don’t Get Caught in the Trap of Writing for the Market
I recently had the opportunity to speak by phone with the publisher/owner of an indie publisher that specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. During the course of our call, he mentioned something that got my mental gears cranking. To paraphrase, he stated that he cannot believe the number of sci-fi/fantasy manuscript submissions he receives from authors who clearly have no understanding of either genre.
After hearing this and then bringing our call to a close, my mind went to a quote by Stephen King in his book, On Writing:
“What’s … wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky…. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.”
Now I can’t say for sure why all these authors were submitting to this sci-fi/fantasy publisher, but the fact that they have no understanding of these genres leads me to believe that at least some of them chose these fiction categories because they saw market potential, especially given the extraordinary number of recent and current Hollywood movies that feature these sorts of stories.
Lay Aside All Other Goals and Simply Aim to Tell a Good Tale
Hearing fingernails dragging across a chalkboard has never really bothered me. However, I can imagine how many folks feel about that particular sound every time I hear someone say something to the effect of, “Well, what’s the point of the story? What’s the novel’s message or moral?”
I think what gets me most is that these people assume that a novel has to have some “higher” goal than simply being a good story that engages and entertains readers. (Please note: I am still more than happy to give such individuals plenty of kindness and grace, because fiction just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s thus hard to connect with someone philosophically if you’re not at least somewhat a kindred soul with the person.) But can I say plainly that if you’re a novelist, the point of your story is THE STORY. To wit …
The point of your story is not to make sure people clearly understand some message you want to share with the world, perhaps about the dangers of deforestation in the Amazon, for example. If you have a passion about that subject, then by all means write a nonfiction book on it and let your passion emanate from every sentence you pen, finishing with a bold call to action for the reader.
Keep Yourself Accountable by Establishing a Personal Metric
You may already be a published author, or perhaps you’re an aspiring novelist at the moment. Either way, you likely wear any of a number of other hats in your life: husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, father, mother, employee, employer, president of (fill in blank) club, soccer coach, church volunteer, etc. In other words, being a writer is only one of many things you are doing with your life, which further means that your wordsmithery needs to find a place on your schedule just like everything else you do.
Does this mean you need to have a daily writing goal? Maybe so many words or so many minutes (or hours, if you have them available)? I believe it does, because if you are serious about being a writer, then you’ll want to hold yourself accountable by clearly establishing some type of daily personal metric for yourself.
Avoid This Subtle Way of Telling Instead of Showing
If you’ve read even a little about the craft of writing fiction, or had an editor like me review your story, then you’ve no doubt had someone tell you, “Get rid of those adverbs! They only weaken your story!” But we all learned how to use adverbs in grammar class at some level, right?
So are they really that evil?
Short answer: Yes.
Adverbs—technically “manner adverbs” as we’re discussing them here—tell how someone acts or speaks, usually –ly words like “deftly” and “powerfully.” For example, “Jim deftly sidestepped the linebacker and ran for a touchdown” or “The speaker powerfully made his point known.”
Get Your Story Written, Then Think Revision
Not long ago, I was helping our youngest daughter with a writing assignment about medieval knights, and she told me she couldn’t think of an adjective to modify a certain noun. She offered a few ideas and then just sat there, stuck. I could only say to her what I encourage novelists with: “Just write what comes to mind and get it down on paper. You can always go back and revise it when you are done.”
So I figured I’d run with that notion and offer a few thoughts to those of you who are working on novels, but finding yourselves constantly wanting to self-edit during the writing process. On the whole, most novelists will tell you that self-editing during composition is a self-defeating endeavor that eventually brings writers to a halting screech—and often sends them in the direction of the kitchen for their favorite comfort food.
Why should you just write your story from start to finish without worrying about fixing this, that, and the other? Mainly, it’s because you want the passion and inspiration for your story to find its way out of your heart and imagination and onto the written page with little to no interruption of your creative flow. The STORY is the key; it’s why you’re dedicating a certain amount of your time and energy each day (hopefully) to an endeavor that might seem pointless to others who don’t hear the muse that writers do.