Janelle Meraz Hooper
Tips for new writers
(A Little Tweaking Can Be A Good Thing!)
Janelle Meraz Hooper
I'm often asked by beginning writers how to get started. I always give the same answer: start a journal! It's a good beginning for lots of reasons, but what I like best about journaling is it will preserve the memories of your childhood. You may think you'll never forget the funny school stories, but sadly, you will if you don't write them down. Keep the journal forever—whenever you need a good laugh, it’ll be there...
Do you write in English, or do you write in email? Many of us pick up a habit of using abbreviations, codes, and other assorted shortcuts in our emails that can carry over into our regular writing. Watch it! Some people (for instance, teachers and bosses) are not amused!
I like to edit on paper, as my eyesight is poor. That can mean a lot of printouts over the course of a book. Lately, I’ve been printing in draft. There’s not that much difference in appearance, and think of the ink I’m saving! Oh! Don’t forget to change the settings back to normal before you do the final print-out!
What is today may not be tomorrow. My trusty spelling skills are beginning to fail me sometimes. I don’t know if it’s old age or poor eyesight, maybe both! It doesn’t hurt to run your work through spell check. It’s free, and you may have spelled a word wrong for years and have never caught it. Also, sometimes, they have an idea on grammar you haven’t thought of.
Writing is exhausting work. Having enough stamina to go that one extra rewrite can make the difference between success and failure. Do what you can (ask your doctor). Don’t overdo!
The standard page setup for story submissions to magazines is 12 pt. Times Roman, double-spaced, with one-inch margins. Unless you are asked to do otherwise, use these guidelines. Resist using a cool font. Your submission will end up in the round file (garbage!).
Check each story for "which" and "that." A lot of sentences that use "which" should be changed to "that."
Are you listening? Really listening? This week, I heard the term "predatory lender" for the first time. I used to have a list of new words and phrases, but I've misplaced it. Start your own list! Lately, I've heard: Frankenfoods (genetically altered foods), blooks (published blogs), Floodweiser (canned water Anheuser-Busch donated to Katrina victims), Spokesweasel (a public relations representative), more to come...
Listen to the sounds around you. Listen to the sounds a prom dress makes when it dances across the floor.
Talk less, and listen more. Listen not only to what people say, but how they say it.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” Jim Ryun
“It’s the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.” Sydney Smith
For weeks, I've been thinking about trays that I could use to carry my projects from the office to the living room. Everything I found was too heavy or too expensive (I wanted several). Finally, my husband came up with the idea of using something I already had a lot of: lids on boxes of paper. They are perfect: lightweight, free, available. All right, they are not as stylish as I'd like, but I'm willing to sacrifice style for the other features. Now, when there is a baseball game on, I can load up my box and take it to the living room. During a baseball game, I can do a lot of sorting, accounting, etc. After the game, it's easy to schlep it back to my office.
Are you driving yourself nuts going between your document and your notes? Try putting your notes at the bottom of your document. Just remember to delete them before you turn the paper in! If you're working with a paper and pencil, try writing your notes on colored paper--they'll be easier to find!
Binders are beautiful things. I keep all of my stories in a separate binder. I divide it into sections for glimmer (a file for thoughts and research on the story), outline, synopsis, story, and marketing (includes queries and rejections). Nothing ever gets lost, or mis-filed. If I ever lose my file in a computer failure, I have a hard copy.
The easiest way to keep paper for notes when you're out and about is to keep 3x5 index cards in your purse, pocket, or glove box.
Is your work area cluttered? Clutter confuses the brain. Recently, I took everything off my bulletin board, put it all in plastic pockets, and stored them in a three-ring binder. Then I hung up a beautiful painting in the empty space. Instantly, I felt better. Mostly, the board was littered with take-out menus and magazine articles—stuff that isn’t really important to see everyday. I keep my serious stuff on my weekly calendar.
I have a new trick: It’s what I call my string of pearls—and they hang across the top of my computer monitor now. It’s really small pieces of cardstock. At the end of the day, I move them around and put the projects I’m not going to work on the next day at the bottom. I have so many ideas that I tend to lose focus. I figure this will help. Update: the clutter got to me and I couldn't stand it anymore. Now, the same information is printed right on my desktop background photo. Easy to read, easy to change.
I’m finishing up the third novel in my Turtle Trilogy, and I need lots of room to lay out my chapters. My solution is to use my ironing board as a spare table. It’s handy. It’s free. Its height can be adjusted. And, tee-hee! At least it’s being used for something!
One of the first things I do every morning when I turn on my computer is open a page in Word to use as a scratch pad—I also use it to check my spelling.
Read. Everything. Well, almost everything. Let's stay in the high end of the IQ and morality pool. Remember the old computer saying: garbage in, garbage out!
Start building a reference library of books. Include books on subjects you're interested in, and of course, dictionaries and a thesaurus. I haven't been happy with the dictionaries online, but if you are, use them. These books don't have to be new. Check out the used bookstores.
I predict the next hot thing in entertainment will be something old-radio! Try NPR (National Public Radio). If you don’t have time to read the new books, at least listen to their reviews!
Doing research? Try using Post-it tabs for bookmarks. They won't fall out if you drop the book. If you don't have any narrow ones, cut some from regular-sized Post-its. I put several in the front of each book as soon as I get it.
Everything is research. If you’re stuck somewhere you don’t want to be (a traffic jam, Aunt Zoe’s third wedding, your mother’s company picnic, etc.), make use of your situation. Look around. Observe the people. Listen to how they talk.
Are you buried in boxes of newspaper clippings that are part of your research? For gosh sakes, open a file and scan in the clippings as you collect them. Doing it after you have a boxful is frustrating and very time consuming. Do it piece by piece, and you’ll be glad you did when you sit down to write. You may want to keep it on a disk, if you have a low memory problem (on your computer, not your brain!). And always, make a hard copy, for obvious reasons.
Revise! Sometimes, after a story sits for awhile, you'll see ways to improve it by changing a word here and there. A little tweaking can be a good thing.
Backup your files! And while you're at it, make a hard copy too. Do it soon! The next virus is just around the corner!
Check each page of your story. Do too many every paragraphs start with the same word? If so, you might want to change some of them. The most common culprits are The, She, He, etc.
Let’s remember the 3 Cs of writing: clarity, conciseness, and content!
Having trouble finding time to read? I set my alarm clock a little early each morning so I can get in some extra reading. Try it! I do this because, when I read at night, I go go to sleep until I read “The End.” In your household, it might work better for you if you go to bed early to read.
That reminds me, you do have a weekly calendar don't you? You can make one on your computer if you don't. When I was in school, I missed some important dates because I never wrote them down in the same place. I don't think anyone is that disorganized anymore, but I thought it was worth a mention...
If you’re working on a schedule, remember that time spent on a project isn’t as important as product. For instance, I divide up my yearly calendar by days I’m going to work (usually about 330 days). Then, I factor in the estimated length of the novel usually about 90,000 words—I write short). If the number of words I need to write to make my schedule is 273 words a day, then I write until I hit that number. Just sitting and staring at a blank screen doesn’t count. When my daughter graduated from college, I worked way ahead because I knew the house would be full of relatives, and little work would get done. Weeks before she graduated, I had those words banked so I could enjoy the festivities without guilt. In your case, what if you left a project until the last minute and then got the flu? How miserable would that be?
I keep a notebook full of newspaper clippings that interest me. You might keep one of articles that appeal to you. They may trigger a story idea!
I use my camera to take pictures of things I want to remember. It's like taking notes, only with photos. With a picture, I can draw on an experience I had years earlier, and write about it. If it's a person you're interested in, be sure to ask permission before you take his picture, people can get cranky! If they say no, smile and walk away, quickly!
The best tool a writer can have is self-discipline. 'Nuff said.
Quotes from Elizabeth Lyon*:
“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” George Elliot
“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
“The more you do, the more you can do.” Thomas Jefferson
“The harder you are on yourself, the easier life is on you.” Steve Chandler, author of Reinventing Yourself
*Elizabeth has some wonderful books on writing—check your library. Also, check out her website: www.ElizabethLyon.com
Date and keep all of your stories, even if they’re so bad you want to hide them under your bed. This way, you can look back and see how much you’ve improved!
A Little Story...
Are you thinking that English isn’t important because you’re going to be a math major?
I know a college graduate who got his first job as an accountant. His first assignment? Write a manual on what his department did and how they did it!
The moral of the story is you can spend the time and master English skills now, or suffer someday when your boss asks you to do something you never thought you’d have to do. Life is that way. Prepare now.
And you English majors...I hear you snickering over there. The same thing applies to you and your math. Master it now, or pay--dearly--later!
Hope this stuff helps! JMH
note: Teachers, feel free to make copies of these pages. Please remember to give me credit!