The A-Z of Writing Struggles

MK Fiction editing is nearing its first birthday, so I’ve been celebrating with an A-Z of all the things we love, and hate (and love to hate) about writing. This A-Z was originally posted at https://www.facebook.com/MKFictionEditing

Do you think of yourself as an author?
Yes, technically an ‘author’ is published and a ‘writer’ isn’t, but with the rise of self-publishing and even in editing terms like ‘authorial intention’, that difference kind of goes out of the window.

For me, whether you only write on weekends or during your holidays, whether you’ve got a small following online or whether your best friend is the only person who’s seen your work, thinking of yourself as an ‘author’ is about attitude and approach, and whether you take your writing (and yourself) seriously so that other people can, too.

It’s a big part of my job to treat your work as I would any other book. Of course it’s likely to be an early draft, maybe even unfinished, printed out on A4 paper and held together with the biggest bulldog clip I could find, but I’ll never really experience the story properly unless I read it through once in a comfy place, cup of tea in hand, so that’s what I do.

What is more daunting than a blank page, or the pressure of knowing you need to get something done?

Not knowing where to start a story, what element to work on first, or just being too daunted to begin anywhere are all things I’ve heard from writers over and over, and things I’ve experienced myself. I find that this is enough to make me forget what or why I was writing in the first place. And then the doubts and over-critiquing set in.

So, what is the best way around this? For me, inspiration. Work on what gets you talking quicker, or scribbling faster, the bit you keep circling back to when you’re trying to focus on other things. A phrase, a character, an ending…it doesn’t matter where you begin, it just matters that you do.

Are you sitting on an unfinished project or an early draft? Are you scared to share it for feedback, or even to finish it, because you doubt whether it’s ‘good enough’?

Yep. Plain and simple, confidence is a big struggle for everyone, both in writing and in general. It’s easy to lose confidence, to worry and re-write your words over and over again or just put your WIP away and try not to dwell on it. But, the problem with not doing something because you lack confidence is…you don’t do it.

We’ve all heard that famous phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” but if, like me, you’re not quite that bold, my advice is to just try and remember why you started in the first place, what magic you experienced that convinced you to first put pen to paper. If it was enough back then, why not now? And if that doesn’t work for you, there’s also that weird phenomenon whereby you feel like you’re worse at something the more you learn about it…so, perhaps your doubts and extra-hard work are signs that you’re becoming a better writer…

Do you struggle to write ‘good’ dialogue? Do you try to avoid it as much as possible?

Writing dialogue is hard, but there are some golden rules that can help you through it:

1. Always make sure that your dialogue has a purpose.
Speech in fiction is very different to speech in real life, and dialogue should always help to advance the plot or characterisation in some way.

2. The protagonist should not be the only person who speaks.
They need to hear from others to further their development, and we need to hear from others to build up the world and the scene we are immersed in.

3. Dialogue is as much about how things are said, and how things are not said, as what is actually said.
Think about what you can imply or hint at: a secret? an emotion? something yet to come…

4. Dialogue doesn’t (and shouldn’t) exist on its own.
When you are having a conversation with someone, you might use your hands or body language for emphasis. you might find yourself edging away from or towards the other person, you might find your opinion of them warming as they’ve said something you like, or cooling as they make a point you can’t agree with. And, most of all, you’re likely responding to what they’ve said with thoughts inside your head, even if you say nothing aloud. These things can be a goldmine for creating a scene and using dialogue as action.

5. Worry more about these things above than you do about speech tags.
Sometimes speech tags can be dropped in a conversation if it’s clear who is speaking first. Sometimes it’s good to shake things up with a “She screamed”; you don’t want to distract the reader with too many out-there tags (“She concurred”), but there is also a risk of making all speech sound monotonous. Overall, though, none of this matters as much as what is being said, and what it means for the character and their story.

What do you think of when you think ‘editing’?

‘Editing’ can mean lots of different things. Of course, most people think instantly of fixing spelling and punctuation errors, but that is a small part of what ‘editing’ is.

Editors can edit for consistency, for structure, or to help analyse a work’s strengths and to help develop its ideas well before we get down to the copyediting issues of grammar. For writers, ‘editing’ can mean revising, trying to get your work ready or tidy enough to share with friends, editors or competitions.

And, to top it all off, terms like “developmental editor” (AUS) and “line editor” (US) are geographical, while other terms (like ‘structural editing’ and ‘developmental editing’) are sometimes, but not always, used interchangeably. What a struggle!

Do you struggle to get into a good writing flow? Me too.

Some people recommend writing every day so that the practice makes the words come more naturally. Others like to book out a chunk of time and do nothing but write, immersing themselves in the creative process with no distractions.

What’s your best tip? Mine is to find whatever small bit you’re passionate about and go from there.

What genre is your work-in-progress?

If you can answer that confidently, what do you love about your genre and its possibilities? And if you can’t…does it matter right now?

Yes, genre is important for things like ensuring that your work will have a readership and tailoring it towards them, but sometimes genre can get in the way – it’s another thing to fret over, another thing that can stop you from writing at all. And, like all aspects of writing, you can sure up your WIP’s genre in a later draft. Sometimes it’s not obvious what a story will be until it’s written (it’s one of the things I can comment on in an appraisal or developmental edit), and that’s okay.

Have you heard of head-hopping before? Have you been told you do it?

Head-hopping is moving from one character’s thoughts/perspective to another’s (and sometimes back again) without a clear reason/indication that you are doing so. It often happens by accident, and is fairly common in fiction writing.

For example:
“Would you like a sandwich?”, Jane asked, worrying that they weren’t up to scratch. Surely Maisie would notice the lack of mayonnaise. Maisie took one. “Oh, thank you”, she said, regretting that she hadn’t been brave enough to tell Jane that she was gluten-intolerant.

This is written from Jane’s perspective (limited 3rd person). How can she know what Maisie is thinking? She can’t. So, how can my limited perspective know this? It can’t.

Instead, maybe Jane could notice something in Maisie’s facial expression. Maybe Maisie ends up saying this out loud. Or, maybe the next chapter is written from Maisie’s perspective, and she reflects on the interaction as part of her next step.

If you really do want to show multiple perspectives on the same scene at once, there are other, clearer ways of doing this that can be explored so that your reader can understand and keep up with your intentions.

How wonderful it is when you have a brilliant idea and it spurns you on to do a whole project. It can be great when an idea gives you confidence, passion and direction…but what if it doesn’t? What do you do when you’ve just got an idea, but no idea what to do with it? Or when you have a project to do, but no idea of what to do next?

Well, I always think it helps to talk these things through with someone, even if they have no context or deep understanding of your project.

One big thing I learnt writing academic essays for five years: it’s more about what you discover when you’re trying to explain your problem than what the other person can say to help you.

How often do you put aside your critical hat and just write?

J marks the 10th entry in this A-Z of writing struggles, and already it seems like there are so many things we have to contend with and battle through when we write. It can be hard, but the only way through is to just write. The revision and the editing and the doubts can come later. 

You’ve probably heard this phrase before, but do you know what it means?

“Kill your darlings” is some pretty common advice for writers when they start editing and revising their manuscripts. Some find the wording a bit dark or cliched, but all it really means is that to make your work stronger, you’re going to have to let go of some of your favourite bits.

Have you ever loved a character or a subplot or even a sentence, and then had a reader say it makes no sense or seemed counterproductive? Well, getting rid of that for the sake of the readers’ experience and the overall integrity of the book is what “killing your darlings” means. And it’s okay (you can just save that bit for another project!)

Yep, like so many hobbies, passion projects and jobs, writing is a process of constant learning and development. Sometimes this is great, and you can’t wait to try out a new genre or technique you’ve learned about…and others it’s overwhelming. All I have to say here is don’t forget it’s about practicing and exploring and having fun, too!

Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’?

I myself love a fluke and rarely use a plan that’s anything more than a rough skeleton. But, when it comes to editing or critiquing a piece of writing once it’s written, mapping out what happens, to whom, and when and why can be a great way to spot plot holes and inconsistencies. Also, if you’ve written what you had in your head and don’t know what to do next to progress your idea into a story or manuscript, a map or plan can be perfect to show you the way ahead and unearth more ideas. 

How do you come up with names for your stories, characters and settings?

I’d never really considered this before I started editing, but some writers seem to put a lot of effort into coming up with names. I’ve seen writers splicing names together or researching names from different languages to make sure the meaning fits and, quite frankly, I’m in awe.

Of course, the names you pick, and the importance of those names, will have a lot to do with the genre and story world of your manuscript. For example, if you’re writing in a historical setting or a fantastical realm certain names will stick out like a sore thumb. So, consider whether a name matches the setting, language, and culture of your setting to avoid distracting your reader.

Tip: You can search Google for when a certain name was popular, or for which names were common during a specific time. 

So, you’ve worked your way through the struggles of confidence, flow, head-hopping and killing your darlings…are you still optimistic?

It can be impossible to remain positive after so many setbacks and reality shocks, all the twists and turns that have popped up since you decided you had a great story idea…

So, now is the time to celebrate how far you’ve come, how much you’ve achieved, and how rewarding writing can be. Nothing else today, no criticisms; just be pleased with your progress, and hold on to that.

Do you plot out your novels?

Plotting involves deciding what parts of your story will happen in what order so that the story is told in the most interesting, engaging way.

Do you start with a later scene and then go back to the start? Do you start with your protagonist as a child, going through a few key events in their life before they begin their quest as an adult? And, beneath that, it involves deciding what type of plot structure your manuscript follows.

So, when it comes to plotting, make sure you’re asking yourself this question:
What order will tell your story best?

Writing and asking questions go hand in hand:
“Why would this character do X?”, “How can the story get from this event to the next?”, What do I do to make X make sense?”. But, what do you do if you can’t work out the answers?

A big part of my job is also to ask questions…and to make suggestions to help you come up with answers. So, what advice can I offer to help you answer your manuscript’s questions?

Sometimes the solution lies in my burning need to know something as your reader, sometimes it’s based on a theme or plot point common in the genre, and sometimes it’s there in the manuscript, but it just takes a fresh set of eyes to see it.

It can be hard to re-write the draft that you’ve spent so long agonising over…but the rewards are almost always worth it.

Whether it’s a small change like re-writing a scene or merging side-characters or a bigger restructuring of the whole thing, re-writing based on the feedback you’ve received is terrifying, but can really unlock the potential of your story.

So, how can you bite the bullet and just do it? Have faith in your beta readers or your editor, they want to help you. And, if you really don’t like something, you can always try out the re-write but decide not to use it, or re-write it in a different direction. You’re still the boss!

“Show, don’t tell.” “Write scenes, not summaries.” Have you had this advice before?

I have. A uni tutor told me that my writing did too much telling and not enough showing…and to be honest I had no idea what she meant even after she tried to explain it. But, being re-taught the whole business as an editor, it made much more sense:

Your reader wants to see, feel and experience your characters’ journeys first-hand, not reported back to them.

Think of it as if it were a tv show.
Would you be happy if someone was sitting in front of the tv, telling you everything that was happening but not letting you see or hear it for yourself? Of course not.

Yes, some bits of summary are necessary, but if something important is happening, if there is action, or a conversation, or if the protagonist is coming to a realisation, your reader wants to see this frame-by-frame. Give them the whole scene, including the setting, characters, emotions and significance surrounding what happens. Use your scenes to show your reader.

Finding time to write can be hard. Some people can make use of short bursts here and there, while others require a few solid hours of uninterrupted creativity (I’ve always been a bit of both).

Whatever writing time you can find or make, my best advice is “Don’t be too hard on yourself”. The fact that you are still writing is what matters, and you’ll make the best of it if you’re not constantly thinking “I should’ve done more”.

And if you feel you’re not getting the most out of your writing time, maybe you could switch it up. Write in short bursts or before you have to go and do something to jolt your brain, or set aside a few uninterrupted hours if you can. Or maybe try writing in a new location (cafes, gardens, at the house of a writing buddy). It’s amazing what a small change can do!

What do you do with unhelpful thoughts and influences? Criticism has its place in the process of writing, but what if its stopping you from writing in the first place?

Fears and doubts arising from starting something new or different, the frustration of writer’s block, imposter syndrome and comparing yourself to other writers and full-out writer’s burnout (have you heard of this before?) all cause unhelpful thoughts, and are caused by them.

Of course, you can’t simply shut these out (that would be very impractical advice). But, what you can do is work through them, try to quieten them, pair up with a buddy or a group to tackle them together and, most importantly, do your best to not let them stop you.

Unhelpful thoughts are just that: unhelpful. They may slow you down, but you can still push on and win.

Have you found your authorial voice? Have you found your character’s voice?

Voice is one of those tricky things in writing and editing that can be hard to pin down and explain.

When it comes to your characters, they should have a unique voice that sets them apart from the other figures in the book, and which suits the characteristics and backstory you’ve given them. When it comes to authorial voice…it’s not so clear cut.

We all have a unique voice when we write – it’s conveyed in our word choices, use of grammar and sentence structures, and in the things we emphasise. In fiction, your authorial voice is what ‘makes’ the book: it helps the reader to be drawn into the story, it’s their guide, and it is both distinctive and unnoticeable at the same time.

Your own authorial voice is a reflection of you, of which parts of a story or scene you find most important, of your ideologies and experiences. It’s the reason why you and I could tell the same story in very different ways, and it’s the reason why we can hear the same basic plot over and over again but still find it new and exciting.

Most of all, your authorial voice needs to be genuine. A great authorial voice is confident and comfortable with itself.

Check out the full blog post, ‘What next? What to do after finishing your draft’

It takes a lot of time and work to finish your draft, but what do you do when it’s finished? Here’s a bit of a break down of what your next steps might be:

1. Let it sit for a while.
Give yourself time to appreciate what you’ve achieved and to distance yourself emotionally before you let in the criticism, even if it’s constructive.

2. Get it read for fun.
This first reading should be by someone you trust, whether that’s a friend, family member, partner or writing buddy.

3. Get it read for feedback.
Again, this should be by someone you can trust, but with a bit of knowledge in the area. This is normally where a beta reader fits in, and may result in some feedback or suggestions you can take on board.

4. Start re-writes.
If you’ve got some useful advice or helpful suggestions, take a bit of time to re-write the sections in question. And if you’re inspired to add or change more, do!

5. Get it appraised.
A manuscript assessment or appraisal is much more comprehensive than a beta read, but written as a letter or report so there’s no need to fear the dreaded red pen/track changes yet. An appraisal will point out which areas are strong and which ones could do with some revision, and offer suggestions to help you. (Authors don’t usually seem to know about this service, but they love the results!)

6. Continue the re-writes.
Hopefully your appraisal has left you feeling inspired or re-invigorated. If you’re starting to doubt how good your writing is now, try to remember that you’ve learnt so much by this point, and your standards are getting higher.

7. Consider a developmental or structural edit.
If you’re planning on publishing your work, an important step before copyediting is developmental editing. Its job is to check that your plot, characters, setting, etc. are as strong as they can be, and to follow-up on any issues raised in the manuscript appraisal.

8. Get it copyedited.
Copyediting involves fixing the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure of your finished manuscript. A copyedit can also sometimes comment on issues of consistency and factual accuracy (but check this with the editor).

9. Get it proofread.
Proofreading is the last editing step, and involves checking for any remaining errors and also checking typesetting issues if you’re preparing for publishing.

10. Achieve your dream!
Whether you’re submitting to a competition or a publisher, or publishing yourself, it’s time! Your book/short story is the best it can be. Congratulations!

This is, of course, just a guide. Your writing journey doesn’t have to look like this, it’s just to give you an idea of the order of some of these steps.

Do you see what I did there?

Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether a sentence is perfectly executed, whether a manuscript is completed perfectly. I’ve done my best to do what I need to and carry on with this A-Z, and it’s just fine.

Perfecting your execution is all part of editing, sharing and learning. Perhaps after I’ve done a few more A-Zs I’ll come up with a much better X word. Perhaps I could talk it through with another editor and come up with something better. But for now this works, and I can move on to tomorrow’s post.

For more on execution, check out my longer blog post.

Okay, so the word might be a little laboured but the point still stands: knowing why you write, what you’re getting out of it and what your intentions are at the end, is very important.

For yourself, knowing why you’re writing and what you’re getting out of the process is what will keep you going when things get hard. And whether you’re writing to develop your craft, to submit to magazines and competitions, or to publish one day, knowing what you’re reaching for and celebrating your achievements is key.

For me (or another editor) to help you, knowing your writing goals is important so that I can make sure my advice is really useful for you. (For example, if you’re aiming for a traditional publishing deal, issues of genre expectations and marketability are much more important than if you’re writing for yourself or to publish online).

So, why are you writing, and what are you hoping it will yield?

To be ‘in the zone’ is a marvellous thing…but it’s not always easy to make that happen.

How do you get into the writing zone?
Do you need a nice half-hour buffer to relax and get the creative juices flowing before you start?
Do you have a specific time of the day that you write, come what may?
Do you listen to a specific playlist to help focus your mind?

I find I always write best when I’m not overthinking too much. I need to not be hungry, not be cold, and not sit in silence. A nice big cup of tea never goes astray, either…

Feel free to share your tips for getting into the zone below!

So, that’s it. They’re the struggles we face, and my best tips to start to overcome them. Feel free to leave a comment below if you liked this, or if you think I missed something, and get in touch if you’d like help overcoming these struggles. As always, happy writing!
-Megan

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