Writing Tips

Plotter or Pantser?

Writers are generally divided into two categories: plotters and pantsers (there’s also a hybrid of the two called “plantsers”).

Plotters plan. They outline. They essentially plot out their entire books, chapter by chapter. They know where they’re going and how they’re getting there. They create (often elaborate) backstories for their characters and detailed character profiles that include all kinds of information that may not even be relevant to the story that’s being told, such as how many second cousins a character has, or his or her mother’s maiden name. Plotters start from a place of information.

That’s not me.

I start from a place of no or little information. I’m what you call a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants. On the fly. I just sit down and start typing. When I begin the process of writing a book, I have a general idea of where I want to go but have no idea how I’m going to get there. I figure it all out on the page. And by the end of the book, although we’ve started out as strangers, my characters and I have become intimate. I know them inside and out, including, maybe, their mother’s maiden name (or maybe not). I like it that way. Feels like a real relationship. Like we’re getting acquainted over time.

What kind of writer are you?


By |2018-10-22T22:43:31-04:00October 22nd, 2018|Uncategorized, Writing Process, Writing Tips|0 Comments

I Blame Tommy Lee Jones

After I wrote Baby Grand, I decided to write a stand-alone novel, In the Red, before I tackled the sequel. I tend to do that, even if I’m reading (and not writing) a series — I concentrate on a work that’s completely unrelated, and then return to the next book in the series. I find that the distance creates a little perspective and pushes me more to think about the characters and plot lines and what they mean before I plunge back in.

G3stickmenI finished In the Red after a looong four years, and, unfortunately, realized that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. It needed some major revisions, and I decided that, rather than doing that, which would take quite some time, I would instead start writing Baby Bailino, the sequel to Baby Grand. This was in late 2014.

In spring of this year, I finished Baby Bailino. So now — as I prepared Baby Bailino for publication — it was time to move onto my next book, which, based on history, would be something completely different from the series I was working on. Right? However, In the Red had so many issues, which freaked me out, and had taken so long to write. I didn’t want to wait four years to start the final Baby Grand book!

I decided (isn’t it fun making these arbitrary decisions?) that it would be best to start writing the last book in the Baby Grand series immediately instead of doing something unrelated. Perfect. Sounds like a plan. I would start writing the next Baby Grand book right away.

And then I watched an old Tommy Lee Jones movie.

I have a certain affinity for suspense movies made in the 1990s. I don’t know why. I turn them on whenever I catch them on TV. The Fugitive. The Firm. Primal Fear. Anything with Ashley Judd. I tend to find my greatest inspirations there. (Baby Grand, in fact, was inspired by Robert De Niro’s character in Heat.)


By |2016-07-08T10:22:42-04:00July 8th, 2016|Uncategorized, Writing Process, Writing Tips|5 Comments

Time to Stick my Sequel in a Drawer

Well, it took a year and a half (the same amount of time it took me to write the first book, coincidentally) but I’ve finally finished writing the sequel to Baby Grand. Woo hoo! Cue confetti!

What’s the next step? Stick the manuscript in a drawer (yes, I’m showing my age), or, perhaps, on the back burner of my life, and refrain from looking at it for at least a month. Why? It’s important to get some distance from your work, and that’s something that only time can achieve. Even when I write feature articles, I can go an hour or even an overnight between reads. Time has a way of revealing all kinds of typos and issues. My students at Hofstra University always hear me say that just because you can write “The End” on a manuscript and upload it to Amazon the same day doesn’t mean that you should. Like my mother-in-law’s chili, manuscripts need to marinate a bit for maximum flavor.

So, a month from now, I’ll go through a round of editing, and I’ll have a better idea of where things stand, because I’m sure there will be more to work through (there always is), but for the moment I am breathing a sigh of relief and giving myself a little pat on the back. My book may not yet be ready for prime time, but the first step of the publishing process is completed, and that certainly is worth celebrating. Yay, me! :)

By |2016-04-05T11:01:01-04:00April 5th, 2016|Uncategorized, Writing Process, Writing Tips|4 Comments

I Gave Up Facebook for Lent & Found Me

It was a spur of the moment decision. On February 9, the day before Ash Wednesday, I decided to give up social media (excluding WordPress and any postings I do for work) for Lent. I did it for lots of reasons, chief among them being I wanted to finish writing the sequel to Baby Grand, a project I started back in December 2014. I knew I was spending too much time on social media, but I just didn’t know how much. It was a lot. At first, I was perplexed by all the oodles of free time I didn’t know I had, but soon I found new activities to fill the void, as if I were a starfish whose amputated limbs were regenerating: I wrote quite a bit (the sequel is nearly completed, and I also found time for other writing, including this essay that appears in today’s Newsday) and charged through my daily to-do lists like nobody’s business. I also found myself calmer, serene. Turns out, while I was busy scrolling through posts, my thumb double-tapping images almost absently, I had been missing out on a lot of something that was important to me: me.


Dear Authors: Cut Down on the Turning

Turning. We all do it. Throughout our days, our commutes, our hokey-pokeys.  We turn this way and that as we go about our lives, zigzagging through the years like a hockey puck.

But I’m finding that many characters are doing way too much turning these days:

Juliet whispered Romeo’s name. He turned and walked over to her.

Joey’s mother called him from the open window. He turned and said, “I’ll be right there.”

Turns may be a part of life, but that does not mean you have to mention all of them in your book. Turning is one of those actions that’s understood by the reader even if you don’t write it. Kind of like when a character walks down the street. Do you write that he is putting one foot in front of the other? Or that he is bending his legs at the knee to do so? That’s extraneous information.

For example:

The doorbell rang.  Guy Fieri turned and walked over to the peephole to see who it was.

The doorbell rang. Guy Fieri walked over to the peephole to see who it was.

Now, the only extra bit of info the first sentence gives us was that the poor sap wasn’t facing in the right direction when the doorbell rang. But is this so important that the reader has to know this? When Guy discovers no one at the door, will he TURN back the other way and walk into the kitchen? Well, he will, but does the author have to mention it?

Turning is one of the surest identifiers of the newbie author. Turns clog our manuscripts with unnecessary words. A good idea is to do a search for all the turn mentions in your book. What would your text be like without the word? Take it out. Does your sentence have the same meaning? My hunch is that unless your character is doing things like turning off the television or turning red with embarrassment, it will.

By |2014-07-23T14:42:42-04:00July 23rd, 2014|Uncategorized, Writing Process, Writing Tips|2 Comments

Handling Criticism from Author-Friends

Chances are your closest family members will love whatever it is you have written — even if it’s just a shopping list. They love you and, in turn, will love it.

But what about your author-friends? Those people who, like you, pen books? Many of my friends, who are authors themselves, have taken the time to read Baby Grand — out of the legions of books out there — and I am truly grateful for their time and their support. Many times, these author-friends will have positive comments (yay!) or have questions about plot and character and back story (that I love to answer!). But, other times, author-friends have had criticisms. And because they are authors themselves, we tend to take these critical comments — which can be very specific and very insightful — seriously. One author-friend went as far as sending me an email itemizing all the “errors” he said he found in Baby Grand. Now, THAT was a fun day. :)

Okay, so what do you do when faced with such criticism. What did I do on that fateful day I received an innocuous-looking email with the subject line: BABY GRAND? Did I open up a can of whoop-ass on him? Tell him he was ugly and his mother dressed him funny? No. Actually, I did nothing. There’s nothing TO do. Damn, I may have even thanked him for his time.

But, why?

Well, first of all, I do believe — with all my heart — that, despite the laundry list of “errors” he was kind enough to send me, this person had my best interests at heart. After all, he is my friend.


By |2014-07-21T15:56:10-04:00July 21st, 2014|Uncategorized, Writing Process, Writing Tips|6 Comments

Don’t Let a Few Beta Readers Throw You Off Course

In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard from no fewer than three fellow authors talk about reworking their books, second-guessing their instincts, or scrapping their manuscripts altogether based on comments from a few beta readers. Now while I’m the first to admit that novel writing is a two-way street — books are meant to be read and loved and cherished by other people or else we’re simply writing diary entries — I am seeing authors put way too much emphasis on early reader input.

I can hand Baby Grand to 10 people and get 10 different opinions about it — all of them valid, of course, because reading is very subjective and personal, but that doesn’t mean that I, as the author, should be adapting my book to honor each and every one of them. As with parenting, I think ideally we should listen to what everybody has to say, but only put into use what resonates with us. After all, these are YOUR characters. This is YOUR story. We don’t just toss our kids out the window when they aren’t to others’ liking.

Listening to input is great and helpful, but it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for your own instincts. You cannot make everyone happy. Only yourself.

This discussion brings to mind an article I recently read in the New York Times about actor Zach Braff crowdfunding his latest film, Wish I Was Here. The crowdfunding aspect aside, I loved this quote from Braff about the final cut of his film, which, by the way, received lukewarm reviews by critics: “I can say wholeheartedly that it is a full articulation of what we wanted to say.”

THAT is what I think we should be striving for as novelists. Is this book a full articulation of what I wanted to say?

If it is, and a few beta readers aren’t getting it, the answer may be to get new beta readers rather than a new manuscript.


By |2014-07-14T11:53:57-04:00July 14th, 2014|Uncategorized, Writing Process, Writing Tips|17 Comments

Writing Tip #118

Idea capture is not writing, but it IS the first step to writing. A coaching client of mine, in response to an email I sent to her offering suggestions on a chapter, decided “you are right. I am throwing out most of Chapter 2.”

I was confused. I didn’t think I said she should.

She had submitted a chapter to me that had some issues — with pacing, clarity, information dumping — so I made quite a few notes and suggested she take another look, never thinking she’d decide to start again.

Of course, that is her choice, and she is very brave to do so. Starting over — whether it’s a chapter, several chapters or an entire book — is always a disheartening prospect, whether you are a new or a seasoned writer. The thought of killing those darlings, crafted with such care over hours, days, weeks or years, can be painful. But sometimes it’s necessary.

But not always. As I wrote to my client regarding her decision to scrap the chapter: “That’s totally up to you. There’s a lot of good stuff throughout the chapter that may just have to be fine-tuned. I think what you say…is true: ‘Idea capture is not writing.’ But it IS the first step to writing.”

Remember, there are times when you don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater when a simple siphoning will do.

I told as much to my client. Just so she knows. In the end, the decision will be hers.


By |2013-11-24T16:20:05-05:00November 24th, 2013|Uncategorized, Writing Process, Writing Tips|0 Comments

Writing Tip #117

One space after a period. I am always surprised when I read the manuscript of a new coaching client or when I work with a new freelance writer and his or her copy has two spaces after each period. Gosh, I haven’t put two spaces after a period since I typed my college term papers on my handy-dandy new typewriter (the one with the cool erase ribbon!). With the advent of personal computers and desktop publishing, the two-space rule went bye-bye, so try to remember, if you can. It’s one of those things that dates you as a writer.

By |2013-11-03T07:35:02-05:00November 3rd, 2013|Uncategorized, Writing Tips|5 Comments

Writing Tip #116

Print out your manuscript when proofreading. My husband — who is forever keeping tabs on the amount of ink used in our printer (and because his desk is right next to the darn thing, it’s difficult to sneak)  — can’t understand why I need to print all the time.

I wish I could explain it. The truth is I can’t figure it out myself. I could go over my manuscript again and again — even over a period of time where I go for walks or do laundry or see a movie in between readings — and I will miss stuff. Sometimes, as my 16-year-old son (whom I use as my in-house copyeditor) will tell you, I will miss ridiculous things like this (taken from my current project, a nonfiction book about French duo Daft Punk):

Upon its release Homework got lots of buzz from the clubbing scene as well as major promotional support from Records Daft Punk’s label, Virgin Records.

“How could you not see that?” he asked incredulously.

Simple. I probably wrote and rewrote that sentence through various drafts, moving the phrase “Virgin Records” here and there. When you do that, coupled with working on something for a long period of time, your brain sort of takes over and reads what it THINKS it sees, or what the copy SHOULD say, rather than what it DOES say.

That’s why it’s important to SNAP your brain out of its trance, and — and if you don’t have time to stick your manuscript in a drawer for a week, which also works — show your brain who’s boss and print that sucker out. When you read your copy on paper, rather than in your Word document on a screen, you will find lots of mistakes you’ve missed.

It really does work. Try it. And if you’ve got a penny-pinching husband standing over you, you can also try copying your manuscript (or a page or two of it) into an email. Same idea: Reading the copy in a visually different way, with a different font, etc., will help you catch all those wayward items you missed before.

By |2013-08-25T11:47:00-04:00August 25th, 2013|Uncategorized, Writing Tips|4 Comments
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