Writing in a bad year

2019 has definitely been a year to remember. Two dear aunts, sisters from my Mom, passed away. My beautiful dog, Dana, who was with me for more than 14 years, also passed away. There was a fire, caused by short circuit on the TV plug, that devoured my Mom’s room and almost killed her. My closest aunt had an accident with a huge wardrobe falling and splitting her head badly. My country went into political turmoil for almost 3 weeks, with almost a civil war in the making. Mobs of delinquents attacked people on the street, beating them to death, setting on fire everything they found, including houses. Three weeks I deeply wish nobody goes through anywhere in the world, days we lived in panic, enclosed in our homes or trying to battle attackers when there was still no police to defend us.

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The year is almost coming to an end and although there have been good times in this year, good trips in the middle of everything and other experiences, I cherish this year as the personal growth has been insurmountable.

I’m heading at this moment to WordCamp Guayaquil where I will be speaking about “Wanting to be a blogger and finding time,” in other words about time organization. I would have never imagined a couple of years ago talking about time manage skills. Me, the person who used to procrastinate as nobody else and could never find time for anything. I wondered a couple of times if I’m the best person to talk about this, but I feel I’ve grown so much in the last years, specially in this year that I thought I would share my experience.

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Writing and working full time has been a challenge. I must be honest I only commit an hour and perhaps an hour and a half, the most, to working on my current manuscript. I haven’t been the best at keeping this schedule every day. There are days when I don’t write, and even weeks. But I haven’t give up. It doesn’t matter how slowly I move forward. I’ve committed myself to keep doing it.

At this point, my goal of finishing the review of my manuscript by the end of the year doesn’t look promising. Probably, I’ll end it by the end of January or even February of 2020. But it doesn’t matter, I’m still doing it, little by little, step by step. Besides, I don’t have an agent or a publishing contract that says I have to finish by a specific date. It is true I wish I could have it by the end of this year but nothing will happen if I don’t.

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In a bad year, I could have just plainly written little. My attitude could have been different. Perhaps that would have been the case when I was younger. But my determination has gotten bigger this year. Without it, I would probably have never finished reviewing the first round. I would have never gotten great beta readers and the inspiration the keep writing. Somehow a bad year has make my desire to keep on writing stronger. It has kept me afloat amidst all issues, knowing that there is a greater goal out there for me and that I’m still moving towards it.

Life is about going through problems and obstacles, otherwise it would be pretty boring and we would never grow. Writing on a bad year has actually been a positive experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Writing on a bad year has proved to be good.

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Writing in Bolivian Dictatorship

I never been interested in politics, neither being active in it. Being Bolivian, I’m surrounded by latin-american literature influenced mostly by our turbulent political history. This is social literature that is marked mostly by conflicts and our disastrous governments. I didn’t understand well the impact of these events in literature until the last 3 weeks in my country. Social and political environment can definitely influence your writing soul.

To be honest, I didn’t write/edit a single word in these weeks. For those who haven’t heard it, we were living under dictator Evo Morales’ regime. He has changed the constitution to perpetuate into power. A couple of years ago, he did a referendum to ask Bolivians if we wanted him to run again for presidency, we voted “NO”. We’d had enough of this government that sympathized too much with Venezuelan and Cuban counterparts. However, the tyrant didn’t accept the referendum results and he searched his illegal way to run for presidency for a fourth time.

A bit more than three weeks ago, he blatantly committed fraud to forge his win in these elections. The people felt insulted and angered. We protested and took the streets, not knowing how else to protest. We suffered 3 weeks of attacks from delinquent groups that supported his regime of terror. These groups invaded our cities, burned whatever they saw, including houses. People were beaten to death with bats, sticks and stones. The police had instructions to not go out, leaving us to our own fate. They were complying with “orders” from above.

Finally, after weeks, the police couldn’t take anymore our suffering and pleas for help and riots started to happen into their own units. When the OAS’s audits revealed the fraud, the tyrant called for “new elections”. But we were no dumb. That wasn’t enough. He was a criminal. He had to go. When the army didn’t support him, he finally resigned and ran away.

Just when there was a brief air or relief, Morales’ groups attacked with more force. The police was now on our side but it wasn’t enough. People organized themselves to help defend neighborhoods. But we could still hear the dynamite explosions, people crying for help. The day following Evo Morales resignation was the darkest one of these weeks. I will never forget the days with warnings to turn the lights off, sirens with alarms to let you know that the hordes of delinquents were close to your home. Morales had ensured to feed these people with hate and anger all these years. They just wanted to destroy everything on their way, burn houses, business, and beat to hell whoever they found. When the police was surpassed by these hordes, we begged the army to step in. It wasn’t until they decided to step in that we had some relief.

It still hurts to think that this man tried to take advantage of the poorest segment of the population, the indigenous, that because of their lack of access to information were brainwashed with ideas of racism and division. A corrupt network of leaders ensured the poorest ones joined these delinquents groups, threatening them to take away their lands and resources if they didn’t comply.

When I see Tweets from people abroad, the international community, claiming this was a Coup, I get angered. Only Bolivians know what we went through. Through this week, we heard the tyrant’s speeches mocking us, telling us he would siege cities to see if we could withstand it, mocking from our protests and blockades, calling “his people” to defend him.

Days are showing a bit better now. We still have a long way to fight and hordes will keep coming in protest for the tyrant’s exile. They will never accept that we, the people, won. The dictator is gone. And even though he threatens to come back, we’ve learned a lot. We learned that unity is strength. Our patriotism and faith has grown. We love our country more than ever and we embrace our multiculturality, our diversity across all races, colors, and beliefs.

When I think why I didn’t write in this time, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t find the head to do it. I admire those writers that were able to write in moments of political convulsion where your own human rights are at risk.

I started to write today. It felt weird to go back to my science fiction novel when my feelings are still boiling inside. But I have to go back. I won’t let this tyrant absorb more days of my life. And for the first time ever, I definitely understand the impulse to write social literature. The writer I was weeks ago will always be marked by this experience.

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People revising your manuscript

My previous post was published more than 3 months ago. I remember telling myself: I won’t distract myself from any other kind of writing until I have my current first manuscript ready. I originally targeted to finish it by January and Look! we’re almost in the middle of the year. Sigh… It took longer than expected but it’s finally done.

I initially had one friend volunteering to read it. She was an encouragement as I had told her it would be ready for January and having her asking about its status helped me push through the line and finish it. I soon found out I had two other volunteers to read it. That was exciting but it also made nervous. Extremely nervous. Why? Well, my mind was invaded by these thoughts:

  • What happens if the whole plot doesn’t make sense or is boring to death?
  • What happens if the whole idea of writing a book is not for me?
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I’m an amateur writer and always have self-doubts about my writing skills. I’m usually not that insecure about life in general but writing is important to me and therefore I tend to feel vulnerable to people revising my manuscript. But then I gather myself, I exhale loudly and I think that this comes with the process. I have to learn to listen to feedback and trust in my work. I’m starting; there is a lot to learn. I have to accept the challenge and keep my faith that hard work makes the master.

And you how do you feel when people start revising your manuscript?

Reviewing, plotting and just writing

Plotter or pantser

When I started writing, I found the question about being a “plotter or a pantser”. Plotter would be the person that plans the story before they write and a pantser would be the person that only lets the inspiration guide and build the story as they write. Initially, I was sure I would fit the plotter role, I wanted to set up everything correctly before starting to write. It didn’t work that well. As soon as I started to write, characters acquired life and different scenarios/events invaded my mind. I remember thinking then that I was definitely a pantser and welcomed the idea of getting inspired as I wrote. I ended my first manuscript of my first project, ditching the plotting and welcoming the pantsing.

The end result was not the best. After some rounds of feedback and self-revision, I found out that the story had many holes in it. The story was weak and it wasn’t working as I wanted. I started to re-shape the story, changing chapters, deleting scenes, adding new plot twists, etc. But after several rounds, I still was unhappy with it. Now that I look back, there wasn’t a time when I totally felt confident with how the plot evolved.

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Editing while writing

Then comes editing. When I started to write, without any previous experience, I reviewed/edited my reading after a couple of paragraphs or even after a single paragraph – trying to get the perfect grammar and writing. That didn’t last. This method certainly cut my inspiration and it would take me ages to finish a single chapter. Then my first NaNoWriMo came and I thought that this was the opportunity I needed to be able to end my first manuscript. And I sort of did it. I didn’t finish it, but I learn how to sit and write without giving a look to previous paragraphs. Editing would come later.

The result wasn’t the best either. There was terrible writing everywhere – not acceptable for requesting feedback. I had to go through a couple of rounds of editing before it was presentable. Those two/three rounds took me a lot of time, probably more than a month. And I really hated them.

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What I found out this time

It was trial an error. I still did a couple of mistakes when I started to write my second project. I initially tried to start as a pantser – my objective to write until the manuscript ended and already dreading the rounds of revision in advance. But I already got a feeling that the result would be a plot filled with holes and a writing so embarrassing that would only lead me to endless rounds of revisions. I stopped after a couple of chapters. Why would I need to be either a plotter or a pantser? Why I had to decide between editing while writing or editing everything at the end?

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I took a break after a couple of chapters. Then I started reviewing everything I had written. I wrote a little bit more – with a better mindset of the story in mind and continued writing. Then I reviewed my last written words, changed them into a more decent writing and continued. The result:

I write a couple of chapters. I go back to read them and do a general revision of the writing itself. I analyze the plot a little bit before continuing. I do a little bit of planning for the next chapters and continue. It’s a mix of all methods above. And I found that it works for me. There are no longer surprises, fears, or even apathy to future rounds of editing. There is no structured planned plot that cuts my inspiration but I also don’t write with no horizon in mind.

I edit my writing as I go. I don’t do it immediately, I let it sit for a couple of chapters so that it doesn’t cut the flow or the feeling of writing freely.  I go back to review the writing of previous chapters to make sure that I have a decent writing over there, knowing that at the end it won’t be a terrible manuscript, that it will be readable and that might only need few editing before requesting feedback. I like my own method. And I’m not suggesting it to other people. I’m only saying that each writer has to find its own way to do things…

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Book review: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

I usually wouldn’t have selected this book if it weren’t for a reading club at my work. We wanted to improve our writing as part of improving our communication skills –  most of it is written. But why wouldn’t I pick this book if one of my main passions is writing? Because the book is directed towards nonfiction writing and when thinking of myself as a writer, I believe I’m mostly labeled as a fiction writer. But communication at work is written so it made sense to check how my writing was in the non-fictional world.

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What was different from this book?

The author, William Zinsser, explains with examples (the only way to learn) how to find your own voice. He gives a huge importance in finding your true self, your true voice. He encourages you to find the passion and enjoyment in your daily writing tasks and to never forget your own principles and the ones of the story you want to talk about.

But how is the sound of our writing voices?

Your writing voice should be as you are, not how you talk, but how you perceive things in your head. Zinsser gives the following advice:

“Don’t flight such a current if it feels right. Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good…”

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The importance of finding the right words

The right words don’t necessarily mean the complex sounding ones. “Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well,” Zinsser mentions. How many times we read a book with lots of interesting new words, and we find ourselves wishing we had more vocabulary. But sometimes we don’t need this, we only need to find the right words, the ones specific enough to show what we mean. There is no need for complexity, rather for specificity.

When we write fictional books, we tend to overthink the writing process too much. As we write, we’re trying to sound good and to ensure our text looks not simple – not amateurish. We want others to notice we have a great vocabulary and in this effort, we sometimes lose our own voice. I have tried many times to edit my manuscripts in an effort to make the text sound smarter – not simple – but using words that weren’t true to my own rhythm and voice.

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And how about simplicity and clarity?

Sometimes we take too much effort in describing a scene or a character that we lose our sense of direction. “Clutter is the disease of the American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words…” Zinsser mentions.  And although this quote refers to American writing, it still applies to all the writing world and even to all languages. How many times I have found the same issue in my mother tongue Spanish.

Part of this clarity is to question ourselves: Is our story,  the narrative, the description of scenes, and especially dialogue making sense?

Enjoying the process

We spent too much time thinking about the finished work. We tend to visualize or think too much about when the manuscript will be ready, when the book is going to be in a readable stage, and when a possible publishing time could come. We imagine the end line too often and we don’t find ourselves enjoying the process. We are writers, the process of writing should be “our thing” not going after editors and publishers. Let us enjoy the process for the time that is needed.

As Zinsser mentions: “The writer, his eye on the finish line, never gave enough thought to how to run the race,” and “You won’t write well until you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a finished product.”

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How much are we willing to defend our work and to dare to be ourselves?

No matter how much editing we do ourselves, our manuscripts will suffer one day with other editors. We have to make sure that our writing and our voice are still there.  “What you write is yours and nobody else’s”

I’ve struggled with this issue a lot. I want readers to recognize my voice. But sometimes, I’m so lost in having a decent product, in having precise sentences and paragraphs, good words, believable characters, believable setups, etc, that I lose my voice in it. Whatever comes out of our manuscript, it has to be ours, it has to show our own personality. As Zinsser puts it, “Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel”.  This mindset is key, how many times we suppress our thoughts and expressions while we write; an inner voice saying “no, that sounds ridiculous, people won’t understand it.” But we have to understand that there is a difference between readers not able to follow a story structure and not be able to follow the author’s sense of wit and voice. We shouldn’t worry about the latter, we should just go with our guts.

We tend to forget so much of these tips. We’re scared what readers of our manuscript will say, how copywriters will find the text and how editors will see it. We’ve been told rules such as not repeating words, but sometimes they are needed for a reason, sometimes the repetition is there to provide emphasis and to give it a specific rhythm (like the double sometimes in this sentence). Many times when we change our words just to obey rules, we change the effect we are trying to give to our voice, to our characters, and to our story.

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What other advice was also very helpful about this book?

Zinsser treats comedy as a good resource for writing, as a good way to show your personality. This doesn’t mean that you have to tell jokes, but it’s related to the wit with how you tell things. In most cases, this might be the best way to show the true you.

In summary, I really enjoyed the book. Even if I don’t intend to write a non-fiction book, it still had plenty of useful advice, useful not only for non-fictional writers but also for fictional writers, so I definitely recommend it. You can get the book here.