Sunday, April 23, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: G is for GRAMMAR . . .

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. . . and four GOOD reasons to GO GET some.

To be a book author, you do not necessarily have to grasp the difference between a gerund and a participle (although such understanding doesn't hurt). You do, however, need to know enough grammar to write a readable—and publishable—book manuscript.

What is grammar and why does it matter?

Grammar is a system of rules that define the structure and functioning of language. Here are four reasons why brushing up your grammar is a worthwhile endeavor:

1.
Writing is all about communicating clearly. Grammar aids clarity by giving you, the writer, a fixed set of rules, or conventions, that readers can readily interpret. If they have to struggle to find the meaning within erroneous or inconsistent grammatical usage, misinterpretation is possible and clear communication is compromised.

2. A knowledge of grammar empowers your writing by providing you with a set of tools that are always in working order and always available to you. These tools enable you to produce correct, original writing and reduce the likelihood that you will fall back on the errors of email writing style or the tired ploys associated with hackneyed writing.

3. Like every other author, you have an individual voice and personal vision of the book you wish to write. The better your grasp of grammar, the better your ability to bring your voice to its highest potential and effectively share your creative vision with your readers.

4. Writing a book with the greatest possible grammatical correctness will reduce the amount of editing required. For conventional authors, a manuscript that requires minimal editing will have enhanced appeal to agents and publishers. For self-publishing authors, a grammatically correct, carefully prepared manuscript will increase the chances that you will only need basic copyediting or proofreading—as opposed to expensive stylistic and substantive editing. Good grammar, in other words, can significantly reduce your publishing costs.

Your grammar foundation

You may never bother to find out the definition of a gerund or an ergative verb, and you don't necessarily need to do so. You will, however, do yourself a disservice as a writer if you ignore grammar altogether and make no effort to master its conventions.

Gaining a sophisticated, or merely adequate, grasp of grammar is an ongoing process for most people. Even high-level editors have to look things up and are always adding to their knowledge of the finer points of grammar.

For beginning writers who feel the need to strengthen their grammatical knowledge, my suggestion is to master a grammar foundation, to bear it in mind as you write, and to build on it as part of your overall growth as a writer. Opinions undoubtedly vary as to what is a minimally acceptable level of grammatical understanding. The following is what I consider to be a basic grammar foundation—that is, the very least you should know before starting to write a book:

A noun is a word designating a person, place, thing, or idea. Nouns usually form plurals by adding an s. For possible exceptions, check a reliable dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Nouns also have possessive forms that take an apostrophe: singular—the cat's tail; plural—the cats' tails.

A pronoun is a word used as a substitute for a noun (for example, he, she, you, it).

A verb is a word or set of words expressing action (We traveled by train to Paris.) or state of being (Paris is a beautiful city.) or possession of some tangible (Paris has many museums and galleries.) or intangible (Paris has an air of romance.) attribute(s).

Verbs have tenses, which signify the time of a verb's functioning. The most common tenses for book writing are present, past, and future: These days, I walk to work. Last year, I walked to work. When spring comes, I will walk to work. You may want to use the resources cited below to familiarize yourself with the nuances of the perfect and subjunctive forms of these tenses.

A sentence expresses at least one complete thought and must consist of at least one subject (noun, pronoun, or group of words functioning as a subject) and one predicate (verb).

A run-on sentence contains two or more complete sentences, each separated by a comma. For an example and how to correct it, see "E is for EMAIL," under "Self-editing email style"/"Break up run-on sentences."

A sentence fragment stands on its own and ends with a period, but is missing either a subject or predicate. Used in moderation, sentence fragments can add drama or emphasis.

A paragraph is a group of sentences treating a single topic or theme. When the topic changes, make a new paragraph. Most topics or subtopics of a longer discussion can be handled in paragraphs consisting of nine sentences or less. Paragraphs that run on for more than twelve sentences are tedious, as well as detrimental to readability and the aesthetics of the printed page. Occasional usage of one- or two-sentence paragraphs can create extra drama, suspense, or emphasis.

Resources for building on your grammar foundation

Books

Favorite Grammar & Style BooksNot all grammar books are the dull texts you perhaps remember from junior high English classes. Check out Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. This book is both educational and fun to read. On the cover, there's a cute panda that, depending on the presence or absence of a comma, either subsists on a diet of green shoots and leaves or, after eating a sandwich, shoots his way out of a café. A comma is sometimes a matter of life and death.

The classic authority on grammar and elegant writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This little book is readable and entertaining. Take a couple of hours to read it from cover to cover, refer back to it as needed, and before long, you will be a proficient grammarian and stylist. You can purchase a recent, updated edition or find the first edition online for free.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the grammar and style bible for the English language book trade is my all-time favorite book. Where else would you find out whether your ellipsis should have four dots or three, how to quote things with or without quotation marks, and where to put hyphens in every possible scenario (unless of course you should be using an en dash)?! The CMS is available as a pricey hard cover book aimed at editors and other seriously dedicated grammarians and stylists. To sample the CMS for free, try the reference section of your local library.

Courses

Some college continuing education programs and other community programs include basic grammar courses. Quality no doubt varies but the ones that I know about have been popular due to instructors who make the effort to bring grammar to life through humor and lively examples. If you're the kind of learner who likes to take workshops and courses, it's worth investigating the educational offerings in your community to see if they include Grammar 101 or Syntax Made Simple.

Online

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) offers an online subscription. To sample a range of its content for free and to get answers to specific grammar and style questions, visit Chicago Style Q&A.

If you're after quick and dirty—but reliable—grammar tips, then try the blog and podcasts of Grammar Girl. Careful, though: they can get addictive.

Benefits of building on your grammar foundation

Building on your grammar foundation and knowing where to find the resources to do so offer significant benefits. Not only does your grammar improve, but your writing becomes stronger and easier. This in turn boosts your confidence as the kind of book author who has something important to say—and knows just how to say it.

Coming next week . . . "H is for HACKNEYED writing"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: F is for FORMATTING . . .

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. . . and FOUR reasons to FIGURE it out.

So what's the big deal about manuscript formatting? It's just something boring that I'll worry about later or get someone else to fix. If I want to write my book with a purple comic font on a yellow background, that's my choice and it's OK for now.

Well, yes—and, then again, quite possibly no. In fact, there is some basis for getting your formatting right—right now, as you work on your first draft.

Four reasons to figure out formatting now

1. Formatting is its own thing of beauty with intrinsic value, like a newly stretched and primed blank canvas. A correctly formatted manuscript may contain unresolved writing issues, but at least you can feel like a professional because the tangible expression of your ideas—ultimately the only thing that counts—is presented to meet book trade standards.

2. Formatting may help you write more easily. With correct, functional formatting in place, you have one less thing to worry about, freeing at least some small part of your mind for creative endeavor. It is a further boon that proper formatting eliminates annoying, distracting glitches and reduces the possibility of file corruption. Finally, professional-level formatting that you learned to do yourself may also contribute to your confidence as a writer geared to success.

3.  A correctly formatted manuscript meets the basic expectation of the publishing industry. Sending a sloppily, incorrectly formatted manuscript to agents and publishers will result in its immediate relegation to the reject pile. It won't matter how beautifully you write, as no one will be bothered to read what looks like a substandard production.

I recall visiting the office of my New York agent. The latest manuscript from her highest-earning, best-selling author had just arrived. My agent handed it to me to look over. Of course, the writing style was polished, but I was also struck by the presentation of the work: heavy white bond paper, clear black font, generous margins, correctly placed headers, and so on. This was an object lesson to me that in the real-world book trade, ability to format is right up there with literary talent.

4. Formatting facilitates book design. Designers can fix most formatting errors and oversights. But why not give them something that already looks good? It might well lead to a better final design, and it will save on production costs.

Formatting your manuscript

The following list presupposes that you are writing in Microsoft Word. If you are using some other kind of writing program, you should still be able to conform to these guidelines. Doing so will produce a professional-looking manuscript and reduce compatibility issues across programs.

Here are the basics:

Set up margins. One inch all around.

Set up line spacing. Double.

Use a standard font. 12-point Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier. Black, no colors.

Include an unnumbered title page. It should contain the book title, your name and contact information, word count, and copyright line: Copyright © 20xx by Your Name.

Start the body on page 1. Insert a header and page numbering. Your Name / Your Book Title (shortened if long) / 1. Align the header right.

Start each chapter on a new page. Use Insert/Page Break, not extra enters, to make a new page. For both print and ebook layout, drop the chapter heading down the equivalent of four single-spaced lines. Alignment may be centered or left. Chapter number and title, if any, can be all caps, bolded, or a combination of these.

Align main text. Left, not justified. First line of each chapter may be set flush left or indented as below.

Spacing between sentences. One space, not two.

Indent paragraphs. Use the tab key, not spaces. Better still, set up an indented paragraph style using Styles for Normal Text.

Italicization. Use the italic font, not underlining.

Submitting the manuscript. If printing, use 20-lb. bond paper. If sending digitally, follow recipient's instructions.

Format margins, title page & paragraph style
Set up margins, unnumbered title page, and paragraph style for your book manuscript.
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A final note. IMPORTANT—If you follow the above guidelines, your manuscript will be professionally acceptable. But to enhance your manuscript's chances for a favorable reception, always check agents' and publishers' websites to determine specific requirements and preferences.

Proper formatting can enhance your chances of publication success by making a good first impression on agents, publishers, and designers. You can hardly go wrong by easing the lives of the professional support people on which authors depend. Not least of all, as you progress with your draft, a well-formatted manuscript will help add to both your sense of  professionalism and satisfaction as a writer.

Coming next week . . . "G is for GRAMMAR"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: E is for EMAIL . . .

. . . and ERRORS in writing.

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Email, a relative newcomer to the world of written communication, is now deeply embedded into our daily lives. And why not? It's mostly quick and easy, and it doesn't demand the time-consuming formalities of old fashioned letter writing.

The problem is that what is acceptable in email writing style, even colorful or amusing, can be downright annoying in a book manuscript—annoying to the point of being a deal breaker. Agents and publishers will take one look at a manuscript riddled with the typical errors of email writing and think: "Too much editing required." In today's competitive book trade, that's all you need for a rejection. If you are self-publishing, your editing costs will soar if you do not self-edit the email style out of  your book manuscript. If you choose to bypass editing, some readers might not mind your cool, free-wheeling style, but plenty of others hold book authors to a higher standard. Can you afford to lose these potential readers?

Video still of "Email Writing Syndrome"
Email Writing Syndrome.
Watch the video below . . .
A few years ago, I noticed the extent to which email writing mannerisms and errors were infecting book writing and coined a tongue-in-cheek term for this contemporary malady: "email writing syndrome." You can read all about the symptoms and find out my suggested cures here. Alternatively, watch the video version at the end of this blog post.


How to recognize email style

The main signs of email writing style are:

Inattention to paragraphing. Paragraphs run on despite topic changes; alternatively, there are too many one-sentence paragraphs, creating a choppy effect.

Use of hyphens instead of conventional punctuation. Hyphens have specific uses, for example in compound words and in some prefixes and suffixes. They are not sentence punctuation.

Overuse of sentence fragments. Incomplete thoughts presented as sentences have their place and can create drama or emphasis. But too many sentence fragments lead to disjointedness and impaired readability.

Run-on sentences. Connecting several complete sentences or thoughts together, separated only by commas, has its uses in dialogue, as it shows how people often talk. This dialogue technique has made its way into the chatty style of email but needs to be used with restraint in other forms of writing.

Ellipsis gone wild. She paused..............................then tried again, without success, to tell her story............................................

Use of capitalization for emphasis. This KIND of EMPHASIS is acceptable in design, advertising, and some headlines but generally NOT appropriate in book writing.

Overuse of exclamation marks. Need I say more?!!!!!

Self-editing email style

Here are the basics for editing email style out of your book manuscript, and replacing it with a dash of elegance:

Break long paragraphs into shorter ones. Use no more than twelve sentences per paragraph in most kinds of writing. Use occasional one- or two-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect or extra emphasis.

Use hyphens for compound words and some prefixes and suffixes. Examples include kilowatt-hour, mass-produced, co-op, anti-inflammatory, university-wide, and so on. Consult Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for authoritative help. In sentence constructions, replace hyphens with commas, semicolons, periods, or em dashes (—), which are sometimes typed as two hyphens--as shown here.

Use sentence fragments sparingly. The fragment is a device to add compelling, not distracting, effect to your writing. A device—not a complete writing strategy.

Break up run-on sentences. Insert periods to make shorter sentences, or use conjunctions and semicolons to separate thoughts within a sentence. Wrong: The dog was black, the cat was white. Right: The dog was black. The cat was white. / The dog was black and the cat was white. / The dog was black; the cat was white.

Use ellipsis properly. Ellipsis is signified by three points, with a space between each, used with or without added punctuation. Ellipsis can indicate speech trailing off in dialogue:  "What . . . ?" "I don't . . ."  It also indicates time elapsed and/or repetitive action: They walked and walked. . . . In advertising and design it can be an attractive substitute for a colon or em dash.

Avoid using capitals for emphasis and keep exclamation marks to a minimum. Create emphasis through language and imagery, punctuation, cadence, and occasional use of italics.

With email style eliminated or reduced, your true authorial voice has a chance to be heard.

video

Coming next week . . . "F is for FORMATTING"

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: D is for DISCIPLINE . . .

. . . and DEVELOPING it now.

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"Apply seat of pants to seat of chair." Today, the old tried and true formula for disciplined writing might be extended to include: "Park feet in front of standing desk"; or: "Tap finger on touch screen"; or: "Direct voice to speech-recognition software." The trouble is that all such admonitions are more easily uttered than acted upon.

However you choose to write, finding the time and discipline to do so is a challenge. Life—in particular, the day job—tends to get in the way of your best-laid plans to establish a writing regimen. Apart from the imperative to work and pay bills, buy groceries, and keep a roof over your head, even writers need to spend time with friends and family, get some exercise and fresh air, sleep a few hours, and just chill out.

So when do you write? 

Choosing a time of day to write

Your choice of a time, or times, to write will depend on a number of variables: for example, whether you are a morning person or a night owl, the quiet or chaos in your household, and the demands of your employment. Most writers that I know either get up early and write before going to work, or they write in the evening after dinner. A few energetic types manage to write both early and late in the day. Those whose "day jobs" are at night, or who work changing shifts, have to create their own versions of the before-work and/or before-bed writing sessions. Some particularly motivated multitaskers may also manage to get in some extra writing time during lulls in the workplace, coffee breaks, and lunch hours.

The writing session 

How long should each writing session be?

For significant progress, plan for sessions of at least an hour each; more ideally, two to three hours.  On a good day, you can produce a reasonable quota in an hour. On other occasions, the words do not come so readily and you will need two or three hours to grind out what might not even amount to a minimum daily quota. Don't worry unduly about the less productive sessions. Over time, the good and not-so-good days average out, and the slow sessions, while frustrating, are nonetheless part of an overall forward progression.

Writing discipline: "Apply seat of pants to seat of chair."
How often should you write?

Obviously, the more days per week that you can manage to write, the better. But if you're working at your employment twenty to forty or more hours a week, you are unlikely to be able to write daily or even every other day. The good news is that you don't have to write that often. In fact, to produce a book-length manuscript in reasonable time, you really only have to write one to three hours three times a week, or some equivalent of that. Here's why:

Word count: The mathematics of writing a book

All you need to write at each session is a comparatively modest 550 words—approximately two double-spaced pages. On a good day, you will do this in an hour or less. On those other days, you might well need a two- to three-hour session. Either way, if you produce just 550 words three times a week, that's a weekly total of 1650 words. Multiply that by the 52 weeks in a year—and there you have it: a finished draft of 85,800 words. This is an acceptable length for all but a few specialty subgenres (some of which may even require fewer words)—and you can congratulate yourself on having written a book in a year.

Typically, as writing progresses, momentum grows, and you could increasingly surpass your session quota. If so, then you would in fact produce an entire book manuscript in a matter of months. When you get the hang of it, disciplined writing doesn't require as much discipline as you once might have thought!

Coming next week . . . "E is for EMAIL"

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: C is for CHAPTERS . . .

. . . and CREATING a book structure.


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The most common and important unit of division in most kinds of books is the chapter. Books may be divided solely by chapters; or they may be divided by chapters that are further divided into sections or scenes. In many books, chapters are also grouped in parts or even in books within the main book. For artistic or informational reasons, a few books consist only of sections or parts or some other divisions that may or may not function as, or resemble, chapters. I will refer mainly to chapters in this discussion, but what is said will in most cases apply equally to books structured by other kinds of divisions.

Designating chapters 

Nonfiction works typically use numbers and titles to designate chapters. Novelists these days usually opt for numbers without titles or numbers each prefaced by the word chapter. Some authors of fiction have reinstated an earlier practice of both numbering and naming chapters. Some works of fiction and nonfiction may have chapter titles without numbers. Before writing, you may wish to come up with working titles (which can be changed as needed in the course of writing) or simply think of your chapters as numbered units.

Creating a working structure 

Start with a basic concept of the ordering of your book's chapters (or groups of chapters or episodes within chapters). Then you sort your notes and thoughts accordingly. You may accumulate and conceive these in any order, which tends to be how the creative process works. But you organize them according to your planned book structure.

I use a combination of physical file folders and computer folders to put my ideas in, with each folder labelled by chapter number and working title. Very short chapters may be grouped into parts, similarly labelled by number and/or by working title or main theme. For note taking and idea jotting, small-sized notepaper, recipe-type cards, and short computer documents/texts are the best choices for easy sorting and reference. Give each note or related group of notes a title or label so you know at a glance what it is about. If you go in for too-lengthy notes without clear labels, you will find yourself in the predicament that I described in "B is for BLOCK"—overwhelmed and blocked by too much text as you struggle to find the idea or information that you need in order to keep writing. Your chapter file folders, each containing individual notes and ideas, constitute your book's working structure. When I come to write a specific chapter, I pull the file with my labelled notes and ideas, sort them into what seems to be a sensible order—by theme, chronology or plot—and write away.

Your working chapter structure keeps you oriented as you write and defends against writer's block. Your organizational system allows you to add thoughts quickly, file them without getting confused, bogged down, and then blocked. You can even write out of numerical chapter order to stay fresh and productive when you perhaps are struggling or bored with one chapter. Leave it for a while and start another, and then go back and forth, if you wish. Write the whole book out of order if that pleases you. You are free to do so because, with the aid of your organizational system, you carry the whole book structure in your head, with each chapter's specific notes, ideas, plot twists, episodes, character sketches, research, sources, and quotes organized for reference whenever you need them.

To outline, or not . . .

Book structure need not be carved in stone
Your ideas may be monumental,
but they are not cast in metal or
carved in stone. The same should 
be true of your organizational
system and book structure.
You might think of your organizational system as a kind of outline. There remains the question of a more formalized outline—that is: Do you need a written-out, detailed book outline in addition to your organizational system? Seasoned writers are divided on the value of such an outline.

I personally work from my sense of the overall structure in conjunction with my files and have not found a need to spend creative energy devising an additional outline. If you, however, feel that you need a detailed outline for writing confidence or memory jogging, then so be it. But don't allow the outline to constrain you and limit the introduction of spur-of-the-moment ideas that could make a crucial difference to your book and its success. Think of your outline not as cast in bronze or chiseled in granite. Think of it instead as something changeable and fluid—like the weather, or a river with many streams that might bear exploring.

Flexible organization

It is also advisable to remember that your working chapter structure is just that—a work in progress, and subject to rethinking and reordering. You can have a reasonable working chapter structure from the outset, but be prepared for some surprises as the writing progresses. For instance, you might discover that what you thought would be a great chapter 4 is too short to stand alone and should in fact be a section of chapter 3. On the other hand, your imagined, perfect chapter 10 is now going on and on, and really needs to be divided into two, or even three, chapters. It all becomes clear as you write, create, and re-create.

The point to remember is that planning and organizing to write, and actually writing, are related but different activities. A good working structure will ease your writing and go a long way toward eliminating block. But this structure must be flexible enough to shift as your ideas shift. Like creativity and writing, planning and organizing should be dynamic processes that have constant potential for change and improvement. Otherwise, your organizational system is not worth the price of file folders.

Organization creates structure, enhances clarity, and sustains focus. Flexible organization promotes ongoing inspiration.

Coming next week . . . "D is for DISCIPLINE"

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: B is for BLOCK, writer's . . .

 . . . and BEATING it.

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Writer's block is the fear of almost every writer and, from time to time, the all-too-real predicament of many. When you find yourself paralyzed by a block, it is arguably one of the most miserable of psychological states that any creative person can encounter. It might be some consolation to hear that such prolific writers as Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf also, on occasion, suffered from writer's block (though they might not have used those exact words to describe the affliction). But knowing that your pain is hardly unique does nothing to relieve your immediate discomfort.

Writing is in many ways a highly individualized act of creativity. At the same time, there can be commonalities that we all share. Here, then, is what I know, and have experienced firsthand, when it comes to writer's block and how to beat it. My solutions may not be the complete or ultimate ones for you, but I promise that they will help and give you enough relief that the block won't beat you and pummel your writing career into the ground.

I have found that there are two main kinds of writer's block:

1. Basic block

This kind of block has two variations. The first is a scenario something like this: You have been writing, it has been going well, and with some number of words or scenes or even chapters now written, you feel pretty good and decide to take a break. But not just any break—your plan is to reread all or some of what you have written, in order to pat yourself on the back for a job well done and fuel your fire to keep on writing. That's when the unforeseen happens: You hate what you've written. The thoughts might be fine but the wording is terrible. This isn't your annoying inner critic speaking but your actual professional instincts signalling the truth. This writing will not play in Peoria, let alone engage readers or publishers.

So you dig in and start some revision work, but this does not produce the desired result—the words are flopping like dying fish on the page or screen. So you try again . . . and again . . . until you are blocked.

There are three typical ways to resolve this unhappy situation:

  • Walk away for a while; have lunch; vacuum something; go outside and rake leaves; or, if it's getting late at night, go to bed. As the biographer Elizabeth Longford observed in her memoir, The Pebbled Shore, "Writing . . . problems that have appeared insoluble at midnight have a way of smoothly solving themselves at midday."

  • Leave the problem passage as is, carry on with the book, and fix the trouble spots during later revisions. When you have a first draft completed, you will benefit from a broader perspective on the whole book than what you had earlier. Now that it is time for revisions, you will usually find that fixing once-recalcitrant writing is straightforward. What was all the fuss about? you now wonder.

  • Hire an editor. A good editor can work wonders of clarity and rewording. But consider this a last resort—you will be a better writer if you master self-editing.

For some other ideas on addressing the basic block, see http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/7-ways-to-overcome-writers-block.

A variation on this sort of block is one that I have often experienced, and it typically involves short passages, such as a sentence or two, or at most an entire paragraph. It happens like this: You're writing; it's going well; and now you have reached a point where you know exactly what sentence or paragraph you need to write next. You write it and it either seems not to make sense or just sounds bad. So you tinker a bit and it's still not working. Following Einstein's theory of insanity, you keep fiddling—for hours, maybe the rest of the day and on into the next . . .

Occasionally, after much obsessive rewriting, I have gotten such a passage right, but here's what I have found to be true nine times out of ten: If it's that hard to write, it doesn't need to be there. Throw it out! You'll find yourself able to carry on without headaches or harm to your overall story or argument. If you can't bear to delete such misfit passages, then save them in a separate computer file, just in case you find a place for them later. You probably won't, but whatever makes you feel better . . .

2. Big, bad block

This truly worst kind of block typically happens when you start writing your book or when you are not far into it. Occasionally, it might also occur after you have written a significant amount but have, for some reason, been away from the project for a lengthy period of time.

You are at your desk or whatever is your preferred writing space. You have made time to write. The world is quiet around you. Your pen is poised over paper, or your fingers over keyboard. And then you can't write—you simply don't know what to write. You thought you did but now, at the moment of truth, words fail. You get up and pace, get a glass of water, and sit back down to try again. Same result. Z is for ZERO.

If you are writing nonfiction, this kind of block is sometimes due to a lack of information about some part of your subject. The usual solution is to do a little more research, or even merely to look something up in a reference book or online source, and with the gap in your knowledge filled, you are now able to write. In fiction writing, the comparable problem can be the result of a previously unrecognized missing piece, or wrong turn, in your plot. The best solution is to stop and think it through, discover the missing piece, or find a new turn in this part of your story line.

Writer's block is often the result of too much, rather than
too little—so many notes and ideas that when it's
time to write, you're overwhelmed and get blocked.
In my experience working with new authors, the more common cause of the big, bad block is not a shortage of ideas, but too many of them. In fact, your head is spinning with ideas but not a one wants to spin into anything resembling a coherent sentence. Fortunately, this kind of block only happened once to me, and I learned a lot from it.

I was about to start writing my master's thesis. I had already published shorter pieces, such as journal and magazine articles. But this had to be longer—at least fifty pages divided into five or six chapters, and it had to coherently present a lot of complex research. I kept trying to write and, except for a few words and sentence fragments, was getting nowhere. After some painful hours, I had one epiphany. A vague idea formed and I realized that if I started in one particular way, this might lead on to writing more. With that, I wrote some semblance of an opening sentence. And I now knew generally what I had to say next, but I just needed to consult some of my research notes in order to be accurate. I pulled out my three notebooks, where I had recorded research, sources, and ideas.

My three fat, full notebooks. With notes, sources, and ideas following the chronology of my research—a chronology that had nothing to do with the ordering of the thesis.

Hours later, I found what I needed in order to write the first page or two. Exhausted, I finally knew what I had to do. I cut the notebooks into scraps, one or two points per scrap, and sorted these by main themes and related topics. The result was several piles of ragged scraps. When I rearranged these piles into a logical order of presentation and argument, there it was: the structure of my thesis. I wrote it in a couple of weeks.

From this I learned two big lessons:

  • Know where to start.

  • Be aware that ideas do not necessarily come in the order in which they must be written.

The upshot of these lessons was the rather pedestrian, but crucial, realization that writing a thesis, book, or other lengthy project depends as much on a filing system as it does on creative thinking. I never had writer's block again. For every subsequent project of any length—major essays, PhD dissertation, and books—I avoided notebooks and used something physically or digitally movable and sortable: small-sized notepaper, index cards, file folders, and/or computer files so that I could always organize—and, as needed, reorganize—my information and ideas according to the ordering of the book rather than to my personal history of getting bright ideas.

Don't confuse chaos with creativity

There are a few strategies that will let your creative ideas flow freely while, at the same time, preserving, or creating, your book's structure. These will help you beat the big, bad block if you find yourself facing it. To maximize your chances of avoiding it altogether, follow these tips before you start writing:

  • Define your scope and purpose.

  • Develop a clear working idea about where to start: an opening hook, quote, question, anecdote, example, character problem, or seemingly unsolvable conflict.

  • Narrow your nonfiction topic.

  • Know where your novel is going; figure out the ending (or possible endings) before you begin; if you have already begun, stop now and figure out where and how to end.

  • Concentrate on main themes and events; don't bog down in trivial detail.

  • Devise a filing system in order to sort notes, ideas, etc., by any or all of book chronology, theme, event, section/scene, or chapter. I favor organizing and filing by chapters and will be saying more about this in my next blog.

For now, suffice it to say that focus and filing beat block.

Coming next week . . . "C is for CHAPTERS"