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An Overview Of The Writing Craft, With Orna Ross And Dan Parsons: Foundational Self-Publishing Podcast

An Overview of the Writing Craft, With Orna Ross and Dan Parsons: Foundational Self-Publishing Podcast

Mastering the writing craft is a foundational skill for indie authors and, if you want to earn your living as an author and publisher of books, you have to master not just quality but productivity. In this Foundational Self-Publishing Advice Podcast, Orna Ross and Dan Parsons set up the basics that ensure your production process supports your writing craft.

Dartfrog BooksThis podcast is brought to you by specialist sponsor Dartfrog Books. ALLi Partner Member DartFrog Books provides indie authors with opportunities for bookstore placement and promotion to more than 27,000 book clubs. Their self-publishing, hybrid,  traditional, and single-service publishing platforms are designed to engage authors of all types, at every stage of their journey. We’d like to thank Dartfrog for their support of this podcast.

And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.

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About the Hosts

Orna Ross writes and publishes historical fiction, inspirational poetry, and nonfiction guides for authors. She is director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Dan Parsons writes the Creative Business series for authors, bestselling fantasy and horror novels (under Daniel Parsons), and a weekly blog for The Self-Publishing Formula. While pursuing his author career, he has worked for three traditional publishers, managed two bookstores, and listened to an unhealthy number of podcasts. Now he manages ALLi’s book production schedule.

Read the Transcript: The Writing Craft

Orna Ross: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Foundational Podcast.

I’m here with Dan Parsons. Hi, Dan.

Dan Parsons: Hello Orna, hello everyone.

Orna Ross: How are you doing?

Dan Parsons: Not too bad. Good news this week, I got awarded a BookBub coming up. So, I’m a little bit excited. I know! I’ve applied for 50 this year and I’ve got two, so that’s not a bad ratio.

Orna Ross: That’s a really good thing for people to know, because I know so many authors who give up when they get the first rejection. You applied for 50 and got two. I think you win. I’ve heard, I think you’re now leading the post in terms of the number of times you’ve tried, I mean. We were talking about this earlier, and this has nothing to do with the topic we’re going to be talking about today, which is writing craft, but just because you raised it, we were talking earlier about how important it is to make your marketing, kind of, automatic and not to be, when you’re applying for promotions, if they don’t come through just immediately apply again and don’t think too much about it, make it into a sort of routine. So, that’s obviously what you do. You just send them out.

Dan Parsons: Every month I apply for five or six, yeah, and then just see what strikes. Yeah. What about you? Anything fun and new?

Orna Ross: Oh, we’re having great fun with the Self-Publishing Advice Conference coming up on Saturday.

Dan Parsons: Of course. It’s like I prompted you.

Orna Ross: It’s always a fun time of the year. Yeah, very busy obviously, but we’ve got lots of great things going on. So, if anybody wants to check that out and who hasn’t registered already, there are three free days if you register, and it’s at selfpublishingadviceconference.com.

Alright. So, we better start talking about our topic today, which is loosely writing craft, but really focusing in on how you integrate your writing craft with your productivity, your need to be a productive writer.

So, it’s fine for somebody who is really interested in producing a beautiful work and quite happy to devote years to it and who isn’t really thinking about making money as a writer or being their own publisher or, you know, running their own business, but most of our listeners are people who want to do the latter and not the former.

So, we decided writing craft as a huge topic. It is the topic of SelfPubCon, and that’s why we aligned this session with it. But the line we’re going to take in this particular podcast is we’re going to look at where productivity meets craft and how you can write the very best possible books without getting stuck into fixing and over editing and filling it out, and all that kind of thing.

And as somebody who took over 10 years to write her first book, I needed this podcast 25 years ago.

So, Dan, can you talk to us a little bit about the form that you choose for your book, the form, the genre; how that affects the craft?

Dan Parsons: So, in many ways, I think you need to be quite mindful of choosing a form before you start a project, because the form will underpin all of the choices you make going forward. You don’t want to start off writing in the style of a thriller, and you’re actually writing children’s fiction, it’s a very different medium. So, what you want to try and do is pick the form and then just stick with that, and then obviously the genre and the style grows out of that. And then that will give you an opportunity to keep your audience in mind, because your word choices and everything that comes off the back of the form need to be appealing to the right audience. So yeah, you want to make sure that that’s all in place from the beginning. Otherwise, you end up doing a lot of rewriting and it takes longer, and your first draft is obviously a lower quality because you’re not hitting the mark of where you need to be.

That’s not to say that you need to follow specific rules in order to succeed in a particular genre, or use a particular form, but there are sort of industry standards of the markers you need to hit for that to be useful. So, yeah, there’s the idea that, with fiction, you want to be writing something that’s nice and that reads well and it’s good quality, but then with non-fiction, your form could be completely different where you might have quite staccato sentences, you know, as a style and things like that, but it’s all about clarity, in terms of self-help books and things, so you’re not focused so much on style, you’re focused more on the quality and the delivery of the content to make sure that it appeals to your readers.

That’s not to say that all non-fiction is the same though, because if you read something like memoir, then some memoir can be quite literary and flowing, and it’s sort of the blend between fiction and nonfiction, but it all comes out to the idea of choosing your form when you begin.

Orna Ross: Yeah. So, I guess, as well as thinking about genre, genre dictates form to some degree, but then not completely, I think that’s what we’re saying. And as always with every topic that we cover as publishers, the answer very often is, it depends, and it’s very much about getting to know. It’s the same with writing even more so, there are no rules. There really are no rules. And a lot of what we’re talking about here, we’re going to be taking the approach that you have a choice here. You have choice in some of these things.

Now, lots of you do have choices, but there may be people who are listening who actually don’t have a choice, who are the kind of people who have to go through it in order to work it out. In other words, they are discovery writers, and the thing unfolds as they’re going through and they don’t have clear pathway at the beginning, and I think this is particularly true for your first book. Sometimes there’s nothing for it, but even though you haven’t got a clue, you might have something very, very vague and you begin to go on that. But what we’re trying to do here is lay out a pathway of understanding, so that even if you don’t manage to hit this on your first book you’ll understand more, and then in your second book. And then sometimes all you need is somebody to say it and you approach it differently.

So, if you do have a choice in how you approach it, what we’re trying to suggest is, take this choice, begin here and follow this pathway through, and you’ll find it should steer you through the whole process more quickly.

Dan Parsons: That’s a really good point you made about the lack in choice as well, because a bit like you, where you talk about, you know, inexperienced, you go into the first book, and I found that problem when I wrote a children’s book, but I was using quite an adult vocabulary, and then the plot wasn’t always in alignment with the language that I was using. So, you’re sort of accidentally appealing to two separate audiences, and then by doing that, you’ll appeal to neither of them.

Orna Ross: Yes, and I suppose that’s the thing. The more you can focus in on your genre and the types of typical forms that you find there, and even drill down beneath that, we’re always talking about this but it really is so important, understanding where you are positioned in the marketplace is essential for publishing, once it comes to publishing your book, but if you can get all that stuff up front before you write, then it really does help. So, the more you know about the kind of reader that likes to read the kind of book that you intend to write, and also the kind of writer that you want to be, how important is it.

I mean, poetry can be written in a very formulaic way and nonfiction can be written in the most explicitly beautiful and literary sort of way. So, it isn’t like form completely follows genre, but there are certain trends and things, but for you, there’s a big question about the kind of writer you want to be. So, if you want to be somebody who wins awards for the literary beauty of your work then you’re going to have a completely different sort of approach to writing than if you’re somebody who wants to, as quickly as possible, make a living from your writing. So, deciding things like your form and how you’re going to approach your writing craft can be a real act of self-discovery of who you are as a writer and as a publisher.

So, presuming that you now understand your form, and your genre, and your niche, and your micro-niche, and what your readers expect from you, and where you’re locating yourself within the great ecosystem of books, what comes next?

Dan Parsons: Okay. So, once you’ve got your form set up, I think we should probably move on to the idea of structure.

So, every genre has an established structure. With children’s fiction, there’s the idea of Home-Away-Home, which is, if you look at a lot of classic children’s fiction, that the children are the main characters and they start at home in the parental house, they go on an adventure to Neverland or Narnia, or, you know, with Harry Potter, he goes to Hogwarts, and then they end up coming home at the end of the story. So, there’s this Home-Away-Home structure.

There’s the hero’s journey in a lot of different genres, and in the same way, non-fiction self-help, instead of beginning-middle-end, you have introduction, explanation, and then conclusion. So, it’s a very similar, sort of, three-act structure, even though it’s a very, very different form.

Orna Ross: Absolutely. And again, if you can set this out in your mind at the beginning, it can be really, really helpful. If you can think to the end and work your way back, that can be really, really useful in terms of understanding what is needed for you in the book. So, lots of things that will come into your writing craft like foreshadowing in fiction, or arguments against your thesis in nonfiction. If you know the end point, what you want the reader to experience by the end of the book, then working back can give you really significant hints about the kind of structure that you need and where you’ll be actually putting in your, if it is a three-form structure, or sorry, a three-act structure or a three division for non-fiction, or if it’s five, depending on where you end up. When you kind of think about this, then you can go back in and set in your high points, if you like, and your turning points, the parts where your narrative is, because whether it’s fiction or nonfiction turning points are the key to keeping your audience and your readers engaged. Turning points turn pages. So, that’s really important.

So again, structurally, if you can do it in this orderly fashion, it really helps. If you can’t, don’t worry, don’t let any of this stop your writing. But if you can, go for it.

And the other thing I would say is, we are going to mention things like the hero’s journey, and other ways of approaching form and structure. If you’re not familiar with these, we will have the links in the show notes for you to follow up, but time doesn’t allow for us to go into, in any depth, any of these different ways of approaching it, except in the most, you know, we will refer to them and we commend them to you, to have a look and see if these kinds of structures fit your project.

Dan Parsons: The good news is that, if you don’t know, you know, you haven’t been educated in the way where you know exactly how a structure should be set up, a lot of people have internalized them anyway, just by watching movies and reading books throughout their lives. So, what you’ll find, if you’ve gone into this completely blind, is that what you will sort of accidentally write a three-act structure without even realizing that you’ve done it. You just might have the ratios off a little bit, so you may have a really long middle and very little ending and beginning. Whereas, over time as you develop your craft and you know how everything should be proportioned, you’ll sort of work that out a bit better. I find that the most rigid tend to be romance and thrillers, just because thrillers, or whodunnits, they need to have, there’s the idea of the villain has to appear in the first 20% of the book, because they’ve got to feed through, and the same with the romance where they’ve got that happily ever after, and the different protagonists have got to come in at the right time for it to hit these markers. Because I know Mills & Boon, I believe, they’ve got a plan that their authors have to stick to, to create the formulaic box that they sort of produce. But it’s not the same with all genres, and even if you are writing in those genres, there are always outliers, so you might accidentally create something completely new.

Orna Ross: Which would be amazing.

Yeah, and I think what we’re talking about here, to some degree, is pacing, and pacing will vary hugely, again, depending on what end of the genre you’re in and where you are located, and the type of genre that you’re choosing. So, sometimes there’s nothing for it except to write it all out and find, you know, that act two is really, and very often people do get bogged down in writing the middle. It’s called the murky middle, and you can really get a bit lost in there. Sometimes there’s nothing for it, but just to write it and then cut it out, and if that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do. Again, we’re proposing a shortcut process for you but, especially on your first book, if it stops you writing, then just put all of this aside and just keep on writing.

You can write yourself into a decent form, it just means that you have to edit an awful lot more in the self-editing stage, but that is the stage in which you learn how to write and how to do these things so you can take this stuff into the next book.

It’s worth also saying that there is a difference between long form and short form. Short form works, generally you get away with more experimental kinds of forms and structures, they can just work somehow and sometimes people will look at a poem say, or a short story and say, I have absolutely no idea how this writer got this effect, and no matter how much you analyse it, you can’t quite see how they managed to do it.

That’s pretty unusual in a novel. Even the most stream of consciousness sort of novel that isn’t, or novels that aren’t very well plotted, still you will see form and structure at play in there to some degree, but sometimes poems and short stories, you just go, wow, that’s amazing. It just punched me in the stomach or made me cry, or whatever it is, but I don’t really know how they did it, and I cannot see a replicable structure or form here. So, there is more latitude with poetry and short stories, I think, and that is why they are very, very challenging and very easy to do badly. It’s actually, ironically, harder to go wrong with a novel if you follow some of the general rules of form and structure,

Dan Parsons: I think that’s possibly because people try to apply the, like I said, the internalized idea of structure to a short story, where they think it needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Whereas with short stories, they tend to be more snapshots, and you can leave a lot of questions open, which you can’t do that with a novel as much.

Orna Ross: Yes, exactly. It’s a very unsatisfactory experience to get to the end of the novel and be left with a big question mark, unless that’s absolutely what you’re going for at a thematic level. That’s not a good way to leave the reader, generally speaking, but once they’ve committed to a long form experience, they expect resolution. Whereas with poetry and stories it can be much more lyrical and much more impressionistic, and so.

But yeah, talk to us a little bit about how we can do our research and do our outlining in such a way that it helps us to structure, just before we leave this section on structure.

Dan Parsons: So, you talked about writing everything, I know you’re a big advocate for free writing, so you talked about the idea of free writing quite a lot, and how you can sort of write your way through and then edit out, but you can actually save a lot of time by free writing an outline, and then editing out the bits that you know are going to go wrong from the beginning, because if you’re editing out a tiny two-line scene, that would have been a 3000 word chapter if you waited until you’d free written the entire novel. So, you can actually use an outline to circumnavigate a lot of the wasted time. You won’t necessarily have exactly the same ideas, but in some cases you will, because some people do like to write beats for a story in the first place.

Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely. I think if your story doesn’t work, if your novel doesn’t work as a short outline, then it’s not going to work as a long novel, and you can get very lost, and this is where a lot of people, most people who start to write a novel and start to write a book of any kind don’t finish, and I think this is one of the reasons, they just write themselves into a corner, they get lost. So, you’re absolutely right, free writing doesn’t mean just writing reams and reams and reams and reams, and eventually getting there. I mean, you can take that approach if there’s no other way forward, but it’s not the recommended way is what we’re saying.

So yeah, you can use free writing to develop a character. You can use free writing to create an outline. But then the outline and the story must make sense structurally, and from a form perspective, before you go on to do the first draft. That is the ideal, so that you’re working out your ideas and your twists and turns, you’re turning points, and everything, you know what’s happening, the rising tension and so on, while it’s still in outline form.

And then you go from there.

Dan Parsons: I think the one danger of going too far the other way, for people who love to outline though, is they outline a plot without any consideration for realistic character reactions. So, they’ll want a particular outcome to happen, and they’ll make the character do that outcome, even if it’s completely out of character with the other scenes that they’ve been in.

So really, if you want to start an outline, I think one of the perfect ways to start is by developing a premise, initially, for the story, but then before you go into developing the plot of the story, maybe thinking about the characters that are going to be in there, what different idiosyncrasies and character types they’ve got, and then you can get them to play off each other to create this original outline that is authentic to the characters and how they would actually react.

Orna Ross: Exactly, and it happens in a very similar way with nonfiction, where you go in and you get your outline, but then you need to work out, well, what sorts of examples am I going to use? How am I going to be? Otherwise, your non-fiction book can turn out to be just a load of platitudes. You need to earth it and ground it, and you know, while fiction grounds itself in character, non-fiction tends to ground itself in very specific examples and research. So, in this way of approaching form and structure, you would do your research into your outline, first of all, and that also saves you when you actually come to your drafting, hopping onto Google in the middle of a sentence to research something and finding you haven’t left for two hours because you got lost in research. Guess who does that too often?

So, the more you can do your research in a structured way, it means you’re only doing the research that you need as well, if you’re working to the outline. Whereas, if you start doing, particularly, I’m a historical novelist, it’s an absolute occupational hazard to get lost in the research because it’s so interesting and so much fun to somebody who likes history.

So, keeping your research very much focused in on your outline is really important.

Dan Parsons: That’s a good thing you said about the historical accuracy, and things like that as well. When it comes to plot, you don’t want to oversaturate it with too many examples. It’s the same with non-fiction where you don’t want too many ideas pushed in together. So, ultimately you can carve out the ones that don’t work, because they might be great ideas, but there’s the idea of killing your darlings, and this is just as relevant for plotting as it is for actually writing and creating beautiful sentences that don’t work. So yeah, you might want to cut out some scenes that, even though they may be historically accurate, if you’re writing historical fiction, if they don’t work in the plot, you don’t need to pretend they don’t exist, just don’t include them in your plot. Your character can just be in a different area because that’s more relevant to their journey.

And then obviously you can fill in between the main ideas with story beats, which is an idea that comes from script writing, where people sort of connect the dots, which makes it a lot easier to write the first draft when you know how everything is going to connect. You don’t end up ending one chapter and then thinking, I’ve got three chapters worth of blank content here to get to this next tent pole moment. So, if you create these beats before you start, you’ve always got a flow every time you sit down to your desk every day.

Orna Ross: Yeah, and I do think it’s important to know yourself, with regard to this stuff, and the classic, supposed divide, in the community is between plotters and pantsers, but of course we all have to actually do a bit of both. No one is ever completely, it’s a bell curve though, and if you know yourself and know which end of the bell curve you fall at, you can balance out the dangers. So, the dangers with the outlining, the plotter approach, as Dan has said, is that you get dry stuff that’s just hurtling to the end. And the danger for the pantser is that you just get lost in the process.

The more you can get to know yourself and know your own flaws and failings here, the more you can actually mitigate against them, and compensate for them by leaning a little bit. Of course, you lean into your strengths, but also by leaning a little bit towards the opposite, because we have to combine both of these as writers, and the people who do best and produce really great, beautifully crafted books often, are those who have managed to integrate these two different sides of themselves. So, beware that thing of, oh, I’m a pantser, I’m a plotter, and locking yourself into one side of the spectrum or the other. We all have to be both.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, even Stephen King, who famously is a pantser, I assume that he plots in his head to some degree before he even begins. So, it’s the same, it’s just that he’s internalized the process rather than writing it down.

Orna Ross: Exactly. Exactly. There is an outlining thing going on there, either consciously or unconsciously. There has to be, or it wouldn’t ever get finished.

So, do we want to talk about what the actual outline process looks like for fiction vis-a-vis nonfiction?

Dan Parsons: Yeah. So, ultimately, they’ve got quite a similar arc where, like I said, you want to start with characters or premise. They can sort of go interchangeably, because you need the characters to create the premise, you need the premise to get the characters involved, but those are the two first ideas. Once you’ve got a premise for your story, and you’ve got distinct character types that you can sort of play around with, you can then start creating events.

Now, in fiction, obviously, you’ll have these tent pole events. So, you’ll know, if you’re creating fantasy, you need the hero to discover the dragon and then they go on the adventure and then there’s a war and something needs to be destroyed in a volcano. There’s that type of thing. So, there’s these big tent pole moments in the story, and then after you’ve got those moments, you’ll flesh them out with beats in between, which are just the small scenes that make everything chronologically make sense, or non-chronologically if that’s the way you wanted to structure your story, where you want to omit things so that people don’t know that something’s coming up.

Then yeah, once you’ve got the beats you can create your first draft, which, you know, you’ve got everything in place ready to go. Non-fiction is different, but similar. So, instead of characters, you’re going to want to have themes. You’ll have lots of initial ideas, but possibly too many initial ideas. Instead of then having a premise for your plot, you’ll have your focused argument. So, your non-fiction book will want to talk about lots of things within the themes, but they will need to be a central through line of an argument that structures everything and puts it altogether, and then you can put your ideas in order, in the same way that you’ve got these tent pole moments in fiction, where you’ll need everything to move from one idea to the next and to flow chronologically. And then obviously you can connect them with smaller ideas and get the transitions in and out of chapters. And then, yeah, you can go with your first draft. So, it’s very similar with fiction and non-fiction, even if you write non-fiction, you may actually be better at writing fiction than you think, because you’ve already got that sort of structure and process in place.

But yeah, they can be very similar. That’s not to say that everybody works exactly the same way, because this is just the best practices that we’ve come up with, with our examples. But everyone’s got a different experience.

Orna Ross: Everyone has a different experience, but looking up the vast, looking across the community, as it were, looking at the people who are managing, as we said, to produce books at a high craft level often, then these are very often the useful steps that are followed, and putting together a poetry book is also very similar. So, it does seem to suggest that there is an underlying universal process that’s happening in writing long form books.

So, with poetry again, you’ll decide, you know, you are generally bringing a group of poems together. I mean, there is the long epic poem that is a book in itself, and that follows, almost identically, the way in which a novel is constructed. But the collection of poems too, also will have a central theme to start off with, and if you can get a synopsis of ideas about what it is, this book, the theme of this poetry book is, then you know what’s in and what’s out, and then you begin to order them so that the book has a natural sort of shape.

So, even though a poetry book might look like it’s quite haphazard, the best poetry books are also structured in a very similar way with connecting points between the poems. Usually that’s at the thematic or the image level, so it’s not as obvious as it is in nonfiction or fiction, but it’s absolutely there in a successful poetry book, as well.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, I’ve heard musicians say that they do albums exactly the same way, where they’ve got a theme and then it creates a story across the songs.

Orna Ross: Exactly. So, yeah, it does seem like there’s some kind of universal need in the reader, and in the writer, to create this sort of pattern. So, the more aware you are of this then the easier your job becomes, in theory anyway.

So, now we’re onto the first draft.

Dan Parsons: Yeah. So, the first draft is the fun bit. If you’re not into plotting, you know, you can start on the first draft. So, what I often find, and I think a lot of other authors work in this way is, the first draft is full of passion, and it helps to be very unfiltered where you just write what you want. Yes, you may be glancing at your outline every now and again to keep going, but there is an air of fluidity about it, where you made meander away from the plot and you come back, and you can fix everything in editing. Or you may have happy accidents where you start to create something that’s a little bit different to what you originally thought, but you can reign it back in.

The problem we get, I think, is that a lot of authors lack consistency, which means they never actually finish their first draft, because it actually takes a lot of dedication and consistency and, regimentality to constantly work at something. What you tend to find is that, before books, professional authors might have an incubation period where they don’t write anything, or they do something else, you know, as a palate cleanser, and then they’ll start their next project and then they finish the book, and they’ll have a similar idea where they have a little break.

What authors who struggle to finish books tend to find is that they try to create that palate cleanser moment in the middle of a book, when they’ve started to struggle with the middle, and then it doesn’t really follow back on because they lose the flow.

Personally, I’ve found that if I miss more than two days of writing in the same plot, then I lose the plot and I’ve got to go back and reread. So, you can’t just jump in, and when you can’t jump in, it’s a big task thinking, I’ve got to read 23,000 words before I carry on the story. So, I think daily writing, or at least not skipping more than two days, for me, actually works much better.

Orna Ross: Yeah, and it does take strength of character to believe in the book enough at this point. When it gets to the middle of the first draft, doubt really becomes a huge thing to deal with, because you really feel like nobody cares, and this so hard, and how am I going to keep going, and I don’t know what the ending is, I have my outline, but it doesn’t make any sense, I hate this thing. You know, you get a lot of resistance coming up at that point and yeah, discipline is one aspect, consistency is absolutely essential. Also understanding yourself and your resistance, and how it presents for you, and how you deal with that. It’s useful to have practices that you can actually calm down the conscious mind.

So, the idea of the first draft is, as Dan said, is very much to get the conscious mind out of the way so that the unconscious can flow through and get the words along the pathway that you have outlined in your outline. So, getting out of your own way is really, really essential for this, and this is where most people get lost. And so, there really is nothing for it, nobody can help you here, it’s one of those, you know, the hero’s journey is not just in the book, it’s while you’re working on the book.

It really is lonely, and you really do have to get over yourself in order to make it happen, and that’s why a lot of first books flounder at this stage, and I think this is where ALLi, and other authors, and particularly indie authors who are trying to do things in a similar way to you, can come really, really help. Where you can just go out there and say, I’m really struggling, and get some feedback from other people about what worked for them, and also to understand, this is the process. You know, we read these amazing books and we just assume that they just popped into the world fully formed and beautiful, and our baby is completely ugly in comparison, but every single writer goes through this process every single time. It doesn’t actually get all that much easier. You always hit this point with a book. Well, speaking for myself anyway, and I’ve seen it over and over, because each book is an attempt to grow as a writer. And so, for that growth to happen, there needs to be that challenge, and that challenge needs to be met and overcome. So, if you are, by any chance, in the middle of your murky middle in your first draft, do keep going. Don’t stop.

And yeah, that idea of a thread from day to day is really great. So, if you can finish each day with a rough idea of what you’re going to write the next time you sit down, if you can make a commitment to yourself, you know, we all have different lives and different levels of outside commitments outside of our book, but if you can’t write every day, just making a commitment, okay, I will sit back down at such and such a time, such and such a day, and keeping that commitment to yourself. And if you can’t make it, re-scheduling, just like you would with a friend, not just letting it go. So, yeah, you’ll get there.

Dan Parsons: The idea of removing a resistance, as well, because I think a lot of authors, they’ve got the idea where they got to set up their desk, and they’ve got to have it all perfect, and then there’s a laptop and whatever they’re doing, and there’s a lot of groundwork to actually get into the writing. So, if you’ve got an area where you can write then set everything up and then leave it there, because there’s no resistance to you coming back the next day. So, you can just jump on and write for 10 minutes and then go and do what you’re doing for the rest of the day. Whereas, if you’ve got to do 20 minutes to set everything up before you start, you may not actually get to the writing, because you can’t justify 20 minutes before you even begin, because you’ll have to go out the door. So yeah, if you remove as much resistance as possible in your lifestyle, it may even mean writing on your phone, I know ergonomically it’s supposed to be horrible for you and I’ve had RSI in the past, so I really shouldn’t be giving this advice, but if it’s the only way you can get down the words, just to keep the consistency going. I think E.L. James wrote 50 Shades on her phone, on the train. So, that’s a little bit of an inspirational story, if you want that sort of success. You don’t have to have the perfect writing methods set up and all that. As long as you stay consistent, you can get to the end.

Orna Ross: I do experiment with a few things like that, like writing on your phone. Michael La Ronn writes all his books on the phone because he’s got a full-time job, and family, and I don’t know what else, doing an MA or something, as well. So, he writes in the cracks of the day on his phone all the time.

Another thing that has been very useful for authors, and this from a craft perspective as well as, especially if you’re somebody who gets hung up on craft, is dictation. Some authors it really works for, others can’t do it at all. But if you can, you do get that nice flow and fluidity, because you don’t take yourself too seriously when you’re in verbal mode as you do when you’re in writing mode, Writing with a capital w. So, if you’re somebody who does tend to trip yourself up and get too hung up in the first draft, then maybe dictation might be good for you.

So yeah, the important thing is to experiment and get to know yourself better and better as a writer, and what kind of practices give you the best result craft wise so that the right mind is in operation as you’re writing, and you’re removing as much tension and stress and consciousness out of the process as you possibly can.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, I’ve actually tried dictation in that way, as well and I’d say, when you talked about writing on your phone and dictating, if you combine the two, it works quite well. So, I outline on my phone and then I carry my phone on a walk and dictate with the outline in front of me, and that just makes it a lot easier just to keep the flow going, because you’ve always got your ideas bullet pointed in front of you.

Orna Ross: Fantastic. Okay. So, we’re coming close. In fact, we’ve gone over time, but just to finish off by talking about the importance, obviously, of self-editing in craft. Now, we talk lots in ALLi about the importance of the professional edit, and of course, that will come. But before you do your professional edit, you have to do your own edit, and that takes two stages for that usually.

First of all, there is the development. So, you rest your first draft for a little while and palate cleanser, if necessary, and then you go back and you just take a look at the work and look at the parts, craft-wise, that you most admire, that you like best in the book, before you start the editing. Before you start in on everything you don’t like, just to go back in and see what has worked well from a craft perspective, what you do like, highlighting some of the parts of the book. So, reading it through from start to finish, with a highlighter pen, and just noting the bits that you like, and then bringing parts of it that are obviously gappy, or loose, or not developed enough, bringing them up to the same standard as the parts that you do like, and then you are ready for the edit.

Dan Parsons: Yeah, absolutely. I would say, depending on your process, some people will add words, some people will take away. I personally find that taking away helps to streamline the story and the actual quality of the writing itself. Typically, I take 20% of the book out. I don’t know about you, Orna, do you add or take away?

Orna Ross: Oh, well, the thing is, I do think that development stage is something that a lot of writers miss out on. You know, just the enriching of it after the first draft. So, at that point, that’s still adding, but then, ah, then it’s, you know, not a red pen, a big red knife. I just, yeah, hack, hack, hack, hack, hack.

I write way too much, and so many words. Even though I do follow now an outline, I didn’t at the beginning, I do follow now an outlining process, and my process is getting tighter and tighter. Still, at the end, you’ve got to cut. Cutting really, really improves your work. Nothing else is as important, and I think you’re not really a professional writer until you’ve learned how to cut and let go. As you said earlier, kill your darlings. Let stuff go, and sometimes that’s whole chapters. Sometimes it’s whole sections. You can repurpose bits that you take out, if they have value and worth, but if they’re holding up the story, if they don’t fit in with the outline, if you’ve gone off, despite your best intentions and your best outline, and you’ve gone off on a tangent, don’t be afraid to just hack it away. The work will be the stronger for it, and you’ve learned your lessons from doing it. So, take that and move on.

Dan Parsons: Yeah. In most cases, I think simplicity is better than complexity, because as beautiful as work may be, it’s drudgery for readers if it’s too complicated.

Orna Ross: Absolutely, and it’s very easy to lose the plot, as you said, Dan. And if we’re in love with something that we’ve written, very often it’s not as great as we think it is, and if we absolutely hate it, the same is also true. We bring very exaggerated emotions to these works that we create, and our emotions aren’t always to be trusted. That’s why we need a professional editor, as well, because we can’t see our own work objectively or accurately, and that applies at the sentence structure where your eye just glides over some big proofing error that you made, but it also applies at the scale of the work itself, there are flaws there and things that you won’t be able to see for yourself.

So, editing is an investment, not just in that work, and I’m talking about a professional edit now. It’s an investment, not just in that work, but it’s also an investment in you as a writer. Every time you get a good editor, and you’re working with a good editor, you work together with a good editor on your book, you’re strengthening your croft abilities. You’re learning all the time, and such is the joy, that is the joy of writing, you’ve never learned all you can learn, there are always more improvements, and you can just continue on.

So yeah, we really are over time now. Is there any final points you want to leave people with?

Dan Parsons: Not necessarily. Just the fact that it does get easier over time. So, like you said, it took you 10 years to write your first book. For me, it was four and a half years for the first one, and that was actually my, I think it was sixth or seventh attempt, because there were five or six books before that, that never reached the end. So, the first one took four and a half years, and now I’m down to about six to nine months per book. Which, in terms of process, that’s an exponential curve. It won’t continue to go until I’m producing one every two days, but you know, it’s a lot faster and I think it is easier, and you get a lot more confidence as you do more. You work with editors, and every editor teaches you something new, that possibly the last editor didn’t even know, and then you just habitually get better at these things until you don’t even realize, and you’re putting their editorial teachings into the work that you do in the future.

So, your first draft of your 10th book maybe better than your final draft of your first book.

Orna Ross: Absolutely. I think that’s a brilliant note to leave things on. So, this will go out on our podcast on Friday next, and we will have show notes with links to the various forms and structures and things that we spoke about earlier.

And if you have any questions about the session, just send them through to us any time, [email protected]

And do, if you’re around at the weekend, come along to our Self-Publishing Advice Conference. It’s free completely for three days, and you’ll find it at selfpublishingadviceconference.com.

Okay. So, until next time, happy writing and happy publishing everyone. Bye, bye, now.

Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads.

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