Author Archives: Emily

Why It’s Hard to Learn New Things

I’ve always thought I hate learning new things. I know it’s important to do it, and it feels really good when I DO learn something new. But I avoid it until it’s necessary. Why does it feel so hard?

Learning Can Be Hard

person wearing glasses at laptop, looking frustrated and biting pencilWhen I learned calculus in school, I also learned a lesson about learning. I would listen to the teacher’s lecture and feel completely lost. The words made no sense. Then I’d go home and read the matching text, and it wouldn’t be so hopeless. By the time I did the homework, the material would make sense. Learning calculus made me feel like my brain was a very tough balloon that I was forcing to stretch with my weak little lungs.

So I learned that discomfort is part of the process, as it is in so many other situations. Later, I often remembered learning calculus when I was struggling to understand something. You don’t always get it on the first try. When I have to read an academic paper, for example, it’s often incomprehensible on the first read, and then it starts to make sense on subsequent readings.

Another secret I’ve found is that I can use my love of sharing material I’ve learned. That’s why I started blogging for writers, editors, and self-publishers: once I learned something new, I wanted to share it, possibly in an easier to understand format. I use the “carrot” of getting to write a blog post as motivation to learn the material. Sometimes I even draft a post as I learn.

Don’t Make It Worse

Recently, I’ve been trying to learn more about e-books. I want to improve my own e-books, for example by adding alt text to the images, and formatting the bold words so they carry over into the e-book. Also I suspect that cleaning up my files (so there are less fonts and styles) will make my e-book files smaller.

laptop on desk in library; the screen looks like a chalkboard and says "never stop learning"Learning tech stuff is one of the hardest things for me. After one e-book webinar, I felt completely discouraged. I went outside to mow the lawn, and continued thinking about how frustrated I felt. I’ve been trying to actively “turn over” unhappy situations, so I dragged myself up from the frustration and tried to think something positive. I told myself, “I will learn how e-books work eventually. This is just the frustration of having made a first attempt.”

The attempt to be positive worked far better than I had expected—I felt not just less frustrated but actually hopeful. And I think I figured out why: I didn’t just add positive thoughts; maybe I displaced negative ones.

I had not recognized that I was perpetuating my own frustration. But knowing my propensity to become bogged down in a negative thought, I wondered: Had I been telling myself something negative? Like maybe, “I’m too stupid to learn about e-books” or “I’ll never get the hang of this”? Maybe the negative feeling I get when trying to learn something new isn’t just about the inherent frustration of learning, but about the story I tell myself, making it worse.

couple sitting on a small sofa outside, holding an open book

What Counts as New Adult?

couple sitting on a small sofa outside, holding an open bookI used to read a lot of young adult fiction (YA) books. I liked how the characters were learning about themselves, forming relationships, and discovering the truth about the world. But I got tired of reading about teenagers; I hadn’t learned and discovered all this stuff until I was 30 or even 40!

When I first tried writing fiction, I decided to write the book I wanted to read: a YA-like book with older characters. Then I discovered that new-adult fiction (NA) was actually a thing. Since then, I’ve been trying to read NA books, but they’ve been hard to find. What exactly counts as NA?

What Makes a Book “New Adult”?

two cartoon people in suits, one is straightening the other's tie

This image is what results when I search “new adult” on Pixabay

Wikipedia (as of October 2018) describes NA as having “protagonists in the 18–30 age bracket” with a “focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices.”* This sounds hopeful.

I’ve ordered some of the new-adult books I’ve read about online, and so far they all have characters aged around 20. This disappoints me a little, because I wanted books written for my age group. But 20ish is the age of the former YA audience who are now new adults, whom publishers may see as the biggest market. When I wrote The Knowledge Game, the characters were 30, but the editor I worked with suggested I make them 25 to help the book sell to a publisher. I guess I can look forward to ten years on, when the original YA readers age into their thirties, along with our characters.

NA is about more than the protagonist’s age. Like YA, it seems to include the characters’ emotions and thoughts, with the reader following along as the character changes. When I started a NA shelf in my library, I considered the books in my adult fiction section. Some of the books written before NA became a thing seem to embody the NA ethos. I decided that Sophie Kinsella and Emily Giffin both count as NA, because their 20-something characters are struggling with relationships, careers, and making it in the world, and changing internally as their stories progress. I decided NOT to shelve Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next books in NA, however. Even though Tuesday is the right age, those books focus on Tuesday’s world and the action she’s involved in, not on her inner changes.

New Adult Sub-genres

silhouettes of a couple kissing with the sunlight streaming in from behind themSo far, the NA books I’ve read focus on contemporary romance. While I love contemporary romance, I was kind of hoping NA would include the range that YA does: dystopian futures, science fiction technologies, fantasy worlds, mythical creatures. Maybe I just haven’t found these books yet, or maybe they are coming. For some reason, I have this fear that NA will be stifled before it takes off—if publishers decide that all the money is in contemporary romance.

I also hope that NA will be allowed to include larger, deeper books. I want it to include two recent books I loved: (1) Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (see my review) features a graduate student who stumbles through a portal into a world filled with magic. She has to escape evil fairies and train with a grouchy wizard before she’s able to find her way home… and by then she isn’t sure she wants to go home. (2) Holly Goddard Jones’s The Salt Line (see my review) is set in a future where disease-ridden ticks have forced humans to live in isolated cities, and a trip into the woods is considered an extreme adventure.

Here’s what my NA shelf looks like so far:

a row of books on a shelf, including Boy Meets Girl by Meg Cabot, Losing It by Cora Carmack, five Emily Giffin books, The Salt Line, Lev Grossman's Magician series, and several Sophie Kinsella books

What About Historical NA?

Sarah Dessen's book Along for the Ride, and Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey

Family struggles? Check. Difficult job situation? Check. Resident hottie? Check.

During this process, I wondered about some of the older books on my shelf. There’s a series I loved in the 1990s by Cindy Bonner that starts with Lily, featuring a teenager growing up and falling in love in 1800s Texas. This book should be YA, but I can’t bring myself to move it off the adult fiction shelf. Is it because it was written before YA became a thing? Or because its target audience was not teenagers?

And what about classics like books by Jane Austen or the Brontes? They feature teenagers and new adults, with many of the right themes: difficult family dynamics, evil bosses, the love interest who stops by for tea. The themes are universal, but somehow these books in historical settings don’t seem to gain access to the shelves of YA or NA. Maybe this again has to do with marketing—publishers don’t include them in the genre because there’s no money to be made.

I’m excited to see where the NA genre goes, and hopeful that it will thrive in various forms in the current publishing world, perhaps via the new models of publishing like hybrid and self-publishing. If you have a favorite NA book please share it in the comments!


* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_adult_fiction, accessed October 7, 2018

Dane, Emily, and Brittany sitting in a row, each holding a frame over his or her face; Emily is wearing an old-fashioned hat, and Dane as a Picasso-like third eye pasted on his face

Halloween for Adults

This is my first attempt at a post in the “Thoughts” category. I’m a little nervous about posting it but I have to start sometime!

I wanted to write about Halloween, in the hopes of figuring out where it went wrong. Last year I gave up on Halloween for the first time ever. I did go to my usual party, but only because it was less distressing than sitting at home in the dark, dreading the ring of the doorbell should any trick-or-treaters suspect I was home. I didn’t even try to come up with a costume. Maybe I’m just too busy, or maybe it was the failure of my 2016 costume, which I spent hours on and no one seemed to appreciate: Abraspam Lincoln.

I wore duct tape on my face, and no one cared! Maybe Abraspam Lincoln was just too bizarre.

Friends with kids seem to have a focus, but I’m adrift. Halloween was always the one day of the year I could wear whatever I wanted, I could make myself conspicuous and force myself to leave the house, knowing the self-consciousness would quickly fade. But now it seems like just another party to avoid.

Looking Back

Emily with bright red hair, dressed like Lola and making fists and yelling

Lola enacting the scene in the casino

Sure Halloween was great when I was a kid, even if we weren’t allowed to eat all the candy,* but it peaked when I reached graduate school in Chapel Hill. The town closes off Franklin Street and it becomes a giant Halloween party. In the old days, it was a parade of costumes. My best year, I dyed my hair red and dressed as the title character from the movie Run Lola Run, and I ran up and down the street all night. (I actually trained for a month, since I’d never been good at running.) I didn’t think anyone would know who I was, but people were calling, “Run Lola, run!” after me all night.

Emily inside a box painted like an oven, with a small pot glued on top and a pot lid on her head; she is holding a tray of cookies out the door with potholders on her hands

But Franklin Street Halloween degenerated into a drunken crowd (or maybe I outgrew it). The last year I attended, I dressed as an oven (there was a plan to go as appliances, and everyone backed out but me); I had a tray of cookies inside that I’d use to push open my door, offering them to people.

For some reason, everyone on the street wanted to take the lid off the little pot and ask, “You got Oodles of Noodles in there?” By the end of the night I was over it.

So I started attending a neighborhood party. It was fun, and over the years we had some good group costumes. There was the year we went as a s’more:

(We’d stand apart, and when people would ask what we were, our marshmallow would say, “I’m starting to feel warm,” and we’d squish ourselves together into a s’more.)

There was the Monopoly game: I was the Chance cards.

(The cards were Velcro-ed onto me in a stack, and you could peel one off.)

And there was the creepy historical portrait gallery:

Dane, Emily, and Brittany sitting in a row, each holding a frame over his or her face; Emily is wearing an old-fashioned hat, and Dane as a Picasso-like third eye pasted on his face

(This blog post might just be an excuse to share Halloween pictures.)

So now, I keep going to the party, but then I wish I were home, and wonder how late I should stay out. And should I be out if I want to get up and write at 5 AM?

What Next?

One of the main themes of my bicycling memoir (and of life since writing it) is staying present, and the idea that one can become “stuck” in life by trying to hang on to a moment. I wondered if this were happening: should I stop going to the Halloween party? Had its time passed? I considered alternatives:

  • I could visit my parents and pass out candy to the 800+ kids who trick-or-treat in their high density neighborhood.
  • I could find a friend with kids and tag along trick-or-treating as a chaperone.
  • I could find a new event, like Bynum’s annual jack o’lantern celebration on the old bridge.

Emily wearing a flowered 1900 hat and fancy shirt, holding a picture frameThen I wrote this blog post, and looking at all the old photos made me remember how fun it is to dress up. And I still have an adult party to go to! How lucky is that? Another theme of life lately is turning things around instead of accepting it when I get down. Maybe that’s what I need to do here. Maybe I don’t want to give up on Halloween or to be so busy that I can’t participate.

I’ve got three weeks left to come up with a costume.


* We were allowed to collect candy, but then were required to play a trading game with Mom, who would swap our candy for non-sugary treats and other gifts, like crayons and trinkets. This was actually a lot of fun, and all of the chocolate candy became chocolate pudding, which we did get to eat. Where the plan fell apart was that the confiscated candy would go into a grocery bag for Dad to take to work, and the bag would sit on the counter until Dad remembered, so we’d have to see our former candy, just sitting there, day after day.

Get Your Novel Plotted and Ready to Go

Last week I wrote about my initial attempts at plotting a novel, in preparation for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. (Read here.) I persevered and finished an outline, and also clarified a process that works for me. Maybe it will be useful to other writers; if so, there’s a template to print below.

Brainstorming Scenes

When I last left my plot… I knew my next step would be actual writing: that is, brainstorming scenes. I also realized that plotting takes time; somehow it had seemed like an outline has so few words, I should be able to jot one down in five minutes. Not the case.

a stone cottage at the back of a rose agrden

The romantic gardener’s cottage in the rose garden at Biltmore inspired me

I sat with small blank pages (index cards work great; I used the backs of old page-a-day calendars) and waited for the scenes to come. This was hard. I reminded myself of the main themes of my story: it was a love story at heart, with a crime/mystery keeping the characters apart. Once I focused on the love story, I was able to envision some scenes I’d like my characters to experience: they go on a research trip together, they go into town together and are besieged by the press, they escape a rainstorm to a cottage in the gardens—right before the evidence appears that makes her look guilty of the crime (spoiler: she’s not).

It also helped me to use what I know. When they take the trip, what city could they go to that I’m familiar with? What could she be studying in school that I know enough about to add detail to conversations? What topic has always interested me, that I’d like to research more, to get the detail I need? Maybe some writers can make this stuff up, but I can’t.

At times, a more complex issue would start confusing me, and I would stop brainstorming to write out the issue. For example, one character’s family history is entwined with the story, and I kept confusing his ancestors, and which one did what. I wrote out a family tree, labeling as needed (grandpa was the kind one who sent him to school, great grandma was the one in the painting, etc.) and noted the approximate birth dates of each to make sure my timeline worked and fit with history (they lost their fortune during the Great Depression, for example).

Splitting My Outline in Two

As I worked, I found that I kept diverging from writing what happened in a scene to writing about how the action affected the main characters (MCs): how they felt, what they learned, how they changed, what new challenges arose for them. This diversion kept getting me off track. So I got this picture in my head: running along the bottom was the timeline of the character arc—how each MC changes in the story—with the individual scenes tacked on top. I liked this picture because it paralleled the idea that each scene must have a purpose and must advance the plot, with the MC changing in the process.

I started making this picture, using the scenes I had brainstormed. Eventually, my picture evolved to have this structure:the structure of the outline, with scenes on the right and what happens to the main character by the end of each scene on the left

Note that I had two MCs, so my picture actually had two left columns.

I kept working until I had used up most of my scenes. Had I plotted enough? I counted my scenes and compared with the number of chapters I expected for a 50,000-word novel, and the outline seemed reasonable. So I tied things up with a few final scenes. (Note: I’m using the word “scene” where others might use “chapter.” Sometimes the MCs might leave one location and go to another within one scene/chapter, but in my head, this was still one scene. Other writers might prefer a different definition of “scene,” or might have shorter chapters where each chapter only has one location or event in it.)

For Next Time: The Whole Plotting Process

My first attempt at plotting was a little messy, but I can now see what I would do next time. I’d start with some initial questions:

  • Who is(are) the main character(s)?
  • What misconception has the MC internalized?
  • What is the status quo when the story begins?
  • What are the main events that occur in the story?
  • What are some challenges the MC faces?
  • How does the MC change? What does the MC learn?
  • What are the subplots?
  • What are the climax and resolution?

Then, I’d make an outline:

  • Brainstorm scenes (stick to plot details and events)
  • Work out the details of any tricky parts (like the timeline or family tree)
  • Make the outline using the template

papers on a table along with a mug of tea, pen pencil, eraser; the papers are labeled in groups: initial thoughts, notes for more complicated parts of the plot, individual scenes, and the overall outline with scenes and character arcs

If you’d like to try this method, here is a PDF of the template to download. Page 1 is for a story with one MC, and page 2 is for a story with two. Print multiple copies of the page you need; the “status quo” box only needs to be filled out on the first page of your outline.

http://emilybuehler.com/wp-content/uploads/plotting-template-PDF.pdf

(If you’d prefer the Excel file, just send me an email and I’ll send it.)

Having a plot outline makes me excited for NaNoWriMo this November! Please feel free to share any plotting tips or experiences in the comments.

a pond and bridge surrounded by trees

I Tried Plotting and I Liked It

You may have heard of the concept of plotting versus pantsing: some writers plot out a novel before they begin writing, while others sit before a blank page and “fly by the seat of their pants.” Both my Nanowrimo experiences were pantsing, and I loved it. I didn’t know how I even would plot a book, since I always start with an opening scene and no idea where the book is going.

This past year I worked with a developmental editor on my new-adult novel (The Knowledge Game [or maybe The Knowledge Trick?]; Nanowrimo 2014), and she cut about 30,000 words and suggested some major rewrites. After working through the revision, and feeling certain she was right about it, I returned to my romance novel draft (Rose Fair; Nanowrimo 2016) and found a similar mess, and set about reworking it.

So I was thinking, maybe there is something in this plotting. I was waffling on Nanowrimo 2018—can I really fit it in this year?—and decided to try plotting a new novel. If I could generate an outline before November, I’d sign up.

My First Attempt

a tree and forest with mountains in back

The rolling hills around the house suggested plenty of opportunities for my protagonists to sneak away from the tourists

I knew the opening scene, at a grand estate. Mom and I were heading to Asheville to see a Chihuly exhibit at Biltmore, so I decided to keep alert for plot ideas in the background of my brain during our visit.

a pond and bridge surrounded by trees

A romantic tryst on the bridge?

At the farm, we watched a video on the historical residents of Biltmore Village. I jotted ideas. As we rode the shuttle to the Biltmore house, I scanned the countryside and imagined my characters venturing into it. More ideas. I took notes in the gardens: there was a greenhouse, a gardener’s cottage, a team of workers planting mums. We walked to the pond through the azalea garden; if it were spring, the azaleas could be blooming.

When I got home, I sat with my notes and a sheet of blank paper and started planning my scenes, writing a few words about each and connecting them with arrows. I plotted eight scenes before running out of notes.

Getting Advice on Plotting

person in dress leaning back in wicker chair with cushions, outdoors on stone patio

Here I am relaxing on the loggia

Setting aside time to plot felt like it opened my imagination. But now I was back in normal life, with the cats crying for breakfast, the rug un-vacuumed, the office job looming over my morning. How would I continue?

I googled “how to plot a novel” and the results overwhelmed me: use our template, the definitive guide, the Story Circle Method, three awesome plot structures. There was one video that seemed to be Google’s top choice, though, so I watched it: Ellen Brock’s “How to Plot a Novel,” https://youtu.be/cems_-085nQ. Ellen offers a simple approach. (1) Write down every scene you can think of that you’d like to include in your novel. (2) Put them in order. (3) Make sure each is part of the main goal, and has conflict or an obstacle. But where do these scenes come from? I thought.

I also applied the main lesson I learned from reading Story Genius (see my review here):* the main character existed before the story begins, and developed a misconception about herself that she tries to overcome in the story. I’d be writing a romance novel, but the central thread of the novel couldn’t just be “Cailin wants to find love.” It would be that Cailin has begun believing she is unlovable, and can’t believe Alex would love her—especially not when she realizes who he is. What about Alex? He’s grown distrustful of women since they’re so often interested only in his wealth. Cailin seems different; she likes him before she finds out who he is. But then the circumstances indicate she might be playing him (spoiler: she’s not), and he is forced to tread carefully. Identifying this central belief for each character seemed to bring my plot to life.

More Advice: I Test Ride the “How to Plot a Novel” Articles

I gave googling another shot, first thing on a Saturday morning. This time the results didn’t seem so overwhelming. I’d recently learned that Google ranks results based on how long users stay on a page after clicking, so I would trust the writers who had searched before.

three pages of notes and a chart with notes

The Jericho Writers method

1. “How to Plot a Novel,” by Jericho Writers: https://jerichowriters.com/how-to-plot/
This article stresses keeping it simple, which I like. It asks you to jot down seven points about your novel; there was a pad and pencil sitting next to me so I made myself do it, and guess what? It was easy, and I had enough material to do it. So far so good.

Then I jotted down subplots and put everything into a template. There were also tips for if you don’t have enough material. I hoped for another step to turn my sketch into an outline, but the article ended there with a sales pitch. Still, I give this one five stars.

2. “How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success,” by Now Novel: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-plot-novel/
This article gives a writer a lot to think about. At first I found both the article and its links overwhelming, but I read through it all and found it worthwhile. The tips include

  • Think about the elements of the best plots
  • Create an outline
  • Plan subplots
  • Consider the goals of each character
  • Identify the purpose of each scene
  • Plan for characters, events, and settings, not just one of these elements

One of the links is to “How to develop a story: 10 steps to a winning plot” (https://www.nownovel.com/blog/develop-story-10-ways-write-better-plots/). The steps include

  • Write a one-page synopsis of each chapter
  • Create a timeline
  • Plan how characters will develop over time
  • Plan what else will change as the novel progresses
  • Use index cards to create a storyboard; each scene has a reason
  • Add subplots to reinforce the main plot

Another link is to “Plot outline creation: 7 smart methods” (https://www.nownovel.com/blog/7-ways-write-plot-outline/), which lists different methods that might work for different authors. No particular method jumped out at me, but rather I noted what they all have in common: start with a sketch, add detail, then add more detail.

a vase of flowers, and a painting of the flowers with only blue paint

The monochromatic initial sketch (that’s my painting spot in Andrews Hall at William and Mary!)

This general method reminded me of painting: Before I had any training, I would approach a painting by starting at one spot with detail and working outward. Often the result would fall off the canvas, or have an inaccurate overall shape. Then I learned to sketch the whole painting first, in one color, before filling in detail, and it worked much better.

3. “How to Plot a Novel: The Definitive Guide,” by Novel Writing Help: https://www.novel-writing-help.com/how-to-plot-a-novel.html
The third Google result was an overview with links to the articles of the “definitive guide.” I read the whole overview and then skimmed through the articles. A lot of the material now felt like repeat material, but the organization and detail might make this a good starting place for some writers. The one section that filled a gap for me was “Plotting the middle” using linked “mini goals” and “mini plots” to keep the reader hooked. That said, the detail overwhelmed me and I gave up about a third of the way through the page.

4. “7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story,” by K.M. Weiland: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/7-steps-to-creating-a-flexible-outline-for-any-story
I found this article to be a good overview of everything I’d read previously. It also seems to suggest doing what I had found myself doing last week at Biltmore. It includes several steps for generating material, followed by organizing that material into an outline.

Next Steps

a painting of cosmos flowers in a vase

Here’s the final painting, in case you were wondering; in the class critique, my peers described it as “the dark side of obsession”; it’s not one of my favorites but my mom likes it

I clicked on a few more Google results, and there was more good material, as well as repeat material and recommendations that fell flat. But none of the websites told me exactly what to do next. I gradually accepted the truth: the next step would be sitting to write, forcing myself to come up with (1) more scenes and (2) more detail. There’s no magical method for making it happen that doesn’t involve (wait for it) actual writing.

Being at Biltmore gave me a boost and made the process feel fun and effortless. Cailin is an art graduate student who hangs out in the library carrels with her classmates. Since I live close to UNC–Chapel Hill, and used to frequent the libraries there, I plan to take a “research” trip to visit the libraries and art department.

And even when all I can do is work at home, I can aid my plotting effort by setting aside time and clearing my head of distractions.

What’s been your experience with plotting? I’d love to hear more tips.


*There are dozens of books on writing craft, and I hope to read them all eventually. It seems to me that authors will find most of them useless but will connect with a few. Or, some authors might find key takeaways in each, while not subscribing to the entire method presented. This is how I felt about Story Genius; I got a lot out of it, but at this point in my writing career, I would go nuts trying to follow the plan step by step.

a row of identical doors in a wall with fancy wallpaper, and a polished wooden floor

New Subscribe Options (and How I Created Them)

This week I added categories to the subscription widget for this blog. Originally the blog was only for news updates, but then I started posting tips for writers and editors. As I continue my fiction writing journey, I hope to post content related to my future books; considering this new content pushed me to make a change.

I put off making this change for a while because it seemed daunting. Below, I’ve shared how I added the category capability.

About the Categories

First I clarified the categories I’ll be using. I wasn’t sure about the new category, which is why it has the vague title “Emily’s Thoughts.”

  • two cartoon people holding a laptop and a checklist with boxes checkedNews
    News about Emily’s upcoming books and events, and other happenings in her life. Usually there is one post every few months.
  • Emily’s Thoughts
    This is a new category as of fall 2018, and I’m not yet sure what direction it will go. It’s a place to post ideas and topics that may interest readers of my (upcoming) new-adult dystopian fiction book.
  • For Authors
    Practical posts relevant to authors, including resources and ideas about the craft of writing, as well as tips on the business of writing.
  • For Academic Authors
    Practical posts relevant to science and academic paper authors.
  • For Editors
    Practical posts relevant to editors, including tools and resources as well as the business of editing. Authors may be interested in this category as well, to learn tips that can help them self-edit their writing.
  • For Self-Publishers
    Practical posts relevant to those interested in self-publishing.
  • Miscellany
    Posts that don’t fit elsewhere. There are not too many of these.

(I categorized this post as “For Authors” because of the how-to content below.)

About MailChimp

The basic idea is to use an outside email service (I chose MailChimp) to manage my list of subscribers. My list will have “groups” (that is MailChimp’s term, and is parallel to the blog’s categories). Subscribers will be able to choose which groups they join. I’ll then set up an automatic “RSS to Email” campaign for each group; when I post in the News category, for example, everyone in the News group will automatically receive an email notification.

MailChimp offers a free account if you have less than 500 subscribers. This free account only includes support for the first 30 days; so, plan to set up your list immediately after signing up, so that you can get help if needed.

I had used MailChimp at my day job before setting up my own list. It can be a little confusing. I hope the steps below will help!

How to Add Subscription Capabilities for Categories

Step 1. Get started.
Create an account at MailChimp, and answer their questions. They will automatically create your first list, with your email address in it, using the name of your business; you can change the list name if you want. This list is where you will add your subscribers. There are other pages you should look at and customize under Settings (“List fields and *|MERGE|* tags” is where you can choose which information subscribers are required to provide, for example), but this post’s focus is on creating the campaigns and a sign-up form including categories, to use with my blog.

Step 2. Create groups.
On the main menu, choose Lists. Then choose the name of the list to open it. Under Manage contacts, choose Groups. Click the gray button to Create Groups. Choose “As checkboxes” so that subscribers can be in more than one group. Name your Group category (I used “Emily’s Author Blog”) and then fill in your blog categories under Group names. (This is a little confusing because MailChimp uses different terminology! Don’t create a new group category for each blog category. [You might if your categories fall into different types—like if you had an author blog AND a plumber blog, and you wanted a set of groups/categories under each.]) You can see mine below. Remember to Save.

a screenshot in Mailchimp showing a list of group namesStep 3. Create segments.
When you send an email campaign in MailChimp, you can send it to your whole list or to a segment of your list. You cannot, however, send it to a group. So, you will create a dynamic segment for each group; the segment will update as the group updates. Then you will send the campaign to this segment. To create a segment, choose Manage contacts, Segments, and click the gray button to Create Segment. Then use the dropdowns to find your Group category and one Group name, like this:

A screenshot from Mailchimp showing the dropdown menus in use when creating a new segment

Click Preview Segment, and Save Segment. Don’t worry about the “Goose egg” screen; there is just no one in your segment yet. Name your segment and save. Now repeat Step 3 for each blog category. Note: you can’t rename a segment so get it right the first time, otherwise you’ll have to delete it and create a new one.

Step 4. Create signup form.
Choose Signup forms from the menu, and then Embedded forms. (Note: This is not relevant to the current process, but it is worth looking at the Form builder, which is where you would make a “free-standing” sign-up form; you could then send interested people to this form via a link. There are also items like the confirmation email subscribers receive, which you may want to customize. There are a lot of items here, and I am not clear on which ones get used when. Another option is a pop-up form, but I did not want anything popping up on my website, because pop-ups have become common and I find them annoying.)

The embedded form will appear with information already filled in. You can see a preview on the right (you might need to scroll to see all of it) as well as the code. You can customize the form under Form options on the left; I changed the title, to indicate a blog. Copy and paste the code into a text file and save it. (There doesn’t seem to be a way to save it in MailChimp.) Then, paste this code into your website and the form should appear. For me, using WordPress, I used a “Custom html” widget in my sidebar, although a “Text” widget seemed to work as well.screen shot of creating a signup form, with the form preview and code on the right, and the place to edit on the left

Step 5. Test the form.
Your email address is already subscribed in MailChimp, but use the signup form on your site to subscribe to all the blog categories. Having an email address in each group will make Step 6 easier.

Step 6. Create an RSS campaign for each group (using segments).
Choose Campaigns and then click on the gray button to Create Campaign. Choose Email, Automated, and Share blog updates. Rename the campaign to match one blog category, and click Begin. Note that steps of creating the campaign will appear along the bottom of the screen. Here are the steps:

RSS Feed: Paste in the URL of the RSS feed of your blog category. I’m not totally clear on how RSS feeds work, but I think if you go to your blog, click on a category, and add “feed” at the end, the URL will become the feed URL. (You can’t see the feed on Safari; you’d need to download a feed reader app.) When you try to save, MailChimp will tell you if the feed URL is invalid.

My feed URLs for the above categories look like this:

  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/news/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/thoughts/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-authors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-academic-authors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-editors/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/for-self-publishers/feed/
  • https://emilybuehler.com/category/miscellany/feed/

You also need to set when the emails will go out. If you post often, you might decide to send emails once a week, as a digest. I decided to send on most weekdays at lunchtime, because I think more people are online at this time. So, if I post in the News category on Saturday, subscribers in the News group will receive an email notification on Monday at 11 AM. If I post in the For Authors category on Tuesday night, subscribers in the For Authors group will receive notification Wednesday.

screenshot showing the URL of the blog feed and schedule for sending emails

Click the blue Next button to proceed to the next step. If you need to stop working, click Save and Exit at the top right. Note that you would find you campaign under Drafts when you are ready to continue building it.

Recipients: Choose Segment or tag, and choose the segment from the options that appear. (You can also create new segments at this point, but we created segments in Step 3. I find it less confusing to create the segments in advance.)

screenshot showing how to choose a segment to send your campaign to

Setup: I altered the From name but otherwise left the defaults in place. I selected “Personalize the ‘To’ field” using the subscriber’s first name (*|FNAME|*) because I like the idea of the notifications going to a person’s name. Note that the Campaign name is not visible to the public.

Templates: This is where you start designing the actual email. The body of the email (the links to your blog) will be generated automatically, but you might want to add a logo or header at the top, and a background color, among other things. You can build from scratch or start with a template from the Themes tab. My advice is to start simple if you are new to MailChimp. Remember that whatever you use will be in every email (until you change it); you would not want to include five photos and a lot of text introducing yourself, because your subscribers would then receive this material every time they get a notification. I wanted a simple design that would work week after week. I chose Basic, 1 column.

Note that below, after designing the email, I saved it as a template. Then when I repeated this step, I used the same template, so that all emails would have the same look.

Design: MailChimp has a drag-and-drop system where you drag elements from the right onto the email on the left, and then click on an item (on the left) to open an editing window (on the right) where you can make changes. You must click Save and Close after editing each element. I’m not going to give details here, other than to say that you’ll want to use “RSS Header” and “RSS Items” because those are the elements that will automatically populate with your blog posts. The RSS information comes from your feed, so (for example) if you don’t like the title of the feed, you would update it at your blog. MailChimp’s design help is here: https://mailchimp.com/help/design-an-email-campaign-in-mailchimp/

Here’s what my campaign ended up looking like:

screen capture of email campaign, with merge tags showing

And, if I click on Preview and Test and Enter preview mode, it looks like this:

screen capture in preview mode, with blog post information filled in to email campaign

Just to make sure it was working, I published two test blog posts in my News category and checked preview mode again, and saw this:

screen capture of preview of email, with two blog posts showing

Note that, as seen in the above images, the merge tag “RSSFEED:TITLE” is being filled in with “News – Emily Buehler” while “RSSFEED:DESCRIPTION” is blank. I can try to find the place to change the title or to add a description at my blog. I can also remove either merge tag by clicking on the “RSS header” element in my email, choosing “Custom,” and editing the code.

(This is where you should click Save as Template.)

Confirm: I had an error here that no one was in my segment. I knew that my own email address was in the segment, however. I tried logging out and in, but it didn’t help. It took a whole day before MailChimp got on track and recognized that an email had been added to the segment. Once the error was fixed, I clicked Start RSS and was told that an email would go out Monday at 11 AM. It would only go to me (the only subscriber).

Now repeat Step 6 to create a campaign for each of the other blog categories! Remember to use your template. Don’t worry, this step goes much faster with the template.

Step 7. Add subscribers.
You now have a form on your website where fans can subscribe to your blogs by category. If you collect email addresses at events (note: you need permission to subscribe people), you can add them to your list and to the various groups from inside MailChimp (open the list and use the Add contacts dropdown). If you previously used a subscription plugin, you can export the emails and import them into MailChimp.

Note that when someone subscribes, MailChimp will send them old posts going back a certain number of days, depending on how you’ve configured the timing of emails. When I added my list of subscribers to MailChimp, I didn’t want them to receive emails about blog posts they’d already heard about (with my old system). I wasn’t sure what would happen, so I didn’t post for a week, then posted one new post (this one!), and then subscribed a second address for myself, to see what would happen, before uploading my subscriber list. (Even then, it didn’t work out as planned; this post had “expired” from the queue by the time I uploaded my subscribers, so I had to update the date on it to get it to send.)

I also sent an email to all subscribers (using a separate, one-time campaign in MailChimp) that explained why they were receiving the email, that I was changing to a new system, and that they could now choose which categories to subscribe to.

So, to sum up, you now have a MailChimp campaign set up for each category on your blog. When you post in a category (e.g., “News”), the post goes into the News feed, which MailChimp picks up. The RSS to Email campaign you created in MailChimp for the News feed creates an email that is sent to everyone in the News segment, which is everyone who subscribed to the News category on your blog. Yay!

a flowchart showing a stick figure and computer posting a blog post, which goes to MailChimp, is turned into an email, and is sent to Segment X, which includes people who subscribed to category X on the blog

Resources I Used

Here are the articles I read while doing this process:

This one is about installing RSS buttons on your blog, which I did not do, but reading this article reminded me that MailChimp would enable me to have readers subscribe to categories: https://www.wpbeginner.com/wp-tutorials/how-to-allow-users-to-subscribe-to-categories-in-wordpress/

This one is about the difference between categories (overall groupings, can have subcategories) and tags (more like items in an index), and is important to understand from the beginning: https://www.wpbeginner.com/beginners-guide/categories-vs-tags-seo-best-practices-which-one-is-better/

This one is similar to what I am doing, but they tinker with the code from MailChimp to alter the signup form, which adds complexity to the instructions. They are also setting up email campaigns for different send times, as opposed to different blog categories: https://www.wpbeginner.com/wp-tutorials/how-to-create-a-daily-and-weekly-email-newsletter-in-wordpress/

Here are Mailchimp’s instructions for a basic RSS campaign (which does not mention groups/categories); I basically did this process several times, once for each group/category: https://mailchimp.com/help/share-your-blog-posts-with-mailchimp/

Problems with the System

two identical 6-paned windows in a wallIn the past I’ve sometimes added a blog post to multiple categories. Subscribers would get one email each time there was a blog post. With the new system, if I add two categories and someone subscribes to both of them, the subscriber will get a separate email notification for each category. So, I will try to use only one category per post. (This seems to be a best practice for SEO reasons anyway.)

Right now, the notification emails are set to go at lunchtime on most weekdays. I think this will work because I don’t post constantly. If I started to post multiple times per week, I would switch to a weekly send time, to announce multiple posts at once. However, MailChimp does not have an easy way to combine the notifications from different categories, so someone who subscribes to multiple categories would receive multiple weekly digests, if I use a weekly send time. I’m not going to worry about this for now.

I did add one thing, though: an “All Categories” category. This is not actually a blog category! But I went through Steps 2 through 3 to create a group where readers can subscribe to all blog posts with one checkmark, and redid Step 4 to generate a new signup form including the All Categories category. Readers who check the All Categories box will receive notifications of any blog posts bundled into one email at noon on weekdays. (If they check all the other boxes AND the All box, though, they’ll get multiple copies. I included some text at the bottom of my emails [see above] to try to alert people to avoid this.)

The feed URL that you use for All Categories is the feed for the whole blog, not just one category. It should look something like this:*
https://emilybuehler.com/blog/feed/

I created three test posts in various categories on my blog. I also used the custom RSS header block and removed some of the code. My preview of the campaign for All Categories looked like this:

screenshot showing preview of email including all blog categories

I hope these instructions help anyone else who wants to add the ability to subscribe by category to their blog.


*On my site, I had originally named the blog page “News,” so my feed actually appears at this URL: https://emilybuehler.com/news/feed/. But since News is now a category as well, this is confusing. On most blogs, the default name will be “Blog.”

laptop and coffee mug on patio table

Late Summer News

Happy September, everyone! Just an FYI, I am working on adding categories to the subscription form, to allow subscribers to choose which content they receive notifications about. This is in anticipation of adding some additional types of blog posts, as I ease into the world of being a fiction writer. I don’t want to subject anyone to “Emily’s Thoughts” if you just want tips for writers or news updates. I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s what I’ve been working on all summer, and what I’m looking forward to this fall.

Continuing Education on Self-Publishing

I’ve been a fan of self-publishing since I published Bread Science in 2006. I’ve tried to capture and condense everything I know about it many times (see the summary in this blog post), most recently in a presentation I gave at the local library this summer (view the slides PDF, here). I plan to refine this presentation and offer it again.

code from an ebook with the preview of the book, showing an error

A sample of ebook code and the ebook it generates, showing an error

The trouble is, in addition to self-publishing being a huge topic, many aspects of self-publishing keep changing, as new services and software become available. And I’m always learning new bits. Most recently, I delved into the code of the Bread Science ebook to fix an error that prevented me from uploading the ebook to OverDrive. I posted about that experience here: https://emilybuehler.com/2018/tinkering-with-ebook-code-for-beginners/

I continue to read articles and attend sessions on self-publishing, always hoping to learn something new. In August, I attended a talk at the Durham library by author Nancy Peacock and author/publisher Nora Gaskin. At first, I felt disheartened; how did other people know so much about self-publishing? Then Nora described how she struggled to compile a self-publishing process for herself to follow, a process she now shares with others, and I realized I was just having another incident of imposter syndrome. Her struggles sounded similar to mine.

Writing, Writing Associations, and Writing Conferences

the cover of the book Green-Light Your Novel

Brooke Warner’s excellent book

Last spring I worked with developmental editor Tanya Gold on my new-adult dystopian fiction novel, currently titled The Knowledge Trick (#KnowledgeTrick—although I keep changing my mind and have not actually tweeted this hashtag yet). I revised heavily based on Tanya’s feedback, and plan to attend the NC Writers’ Network’s fall conference in Charlotte, where I’ll participate in the “Manuscript Mart” to get feedback on pitching the novel. I’m reading up on how to pitch, but I’m keeping my options open. While I want to explore a traditional publishing route, I’ve been reading Green-Light Your Book by Brooke Warner, which makes me wonder if traditional publishing is right for me. I’ll continue to learn more and hopefully the right path will become clear.

a table with a laptop and coffee mug, on a porch overlooking trees and a river

The first day of the writing retreat

On my self-funded summer writing retreat, I got back to work on my romance novel, Rose Fair, using everything I had learned from working with Tanya. I finally joined the Romance Writers of America (RWA), as well as the local chapter, Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, and hope to learn more about the romance industry and to find where my novel fits in. It’s a big industry, and I’d like to find the authors and publishers with goals similar to mine: writing well-written, easy-to-read stories with smart, empowered female protagonists and with deeper meaning behind the actions on the page. I plan to attend the RWA conference in New York in July 2019.

I know I still have a lot to learn about the craft of writing, but I compiled a blog post about the stages I’ve been through so far, and the resources that helped at each stage. Read that here: https://emilybuehler.com/2018/my-writing-process-and-resources-for-new-authors/

Freelance Business

two booklets about improvised explosive devices

The report and the summary I drafted

I’ve been busy with my editing business. I’m still copyediting academic papers, and I’ve been formatting longer reports, which has an appeal similar to that of copyediting: making it all consistent. Occasionally I do some writing work. Last winter, I drafted the summary of a report I had edited, and then I revised with feedback from the report authors. The report was titled, Reducing the Threat of Improvised Explosive Device Attacks by Restricting Access to Explosive Precursor Chemicals. The summary is now available from the National Academies Press, here.

Possibly my favorite freelance work is what I call “beta reading,” for lack of a better name: reading the manuscript and pointing out places where the reader is pulled out of the story, or where the point-of-view accidentally shifts or the action is confusing. It’s a step between an early developmental edit and a later stage copyedit. I think I like this service best because I sense that I’m making a difference to the writers, not just correcting one text but informing their writing. A few authors have approached me this year, and after seeing my sample edit of their work (which pointed out recurring issues), all decided they’d better do some more work on their own before hiring an editor.

A screen capture showing Microsoft Word running PerfectIt

PerfectIt at work

With all the writing I have been doing, I’ve noticed a reduction in my blog posting. One final post I did this summer is about using PerfectIt, a tool for writers and editors that finds inconsistencies in text. It’s not that PerfectIt is hard to use, but before I did, I didn’t understand how it worked at all, so I wanted to share that experience. Read that here: https://emilybuehler.com/2018/editor-tool-perfectit/

Upcoming Appearances

I say “appearances” because some of my upcoming events are brief ones. I’m participating in a new book sale featuring local authors at the Orange County, NC main library on November 24, sponsored by the Friends of the Library. If you’re in town please stop by and say hello. I’ll also be the local author giving the “art moment,” a brief reading to open the Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting, on December 3. I’m actually quite nervous about this—I attended this month’s meeting and remembered how big the room is, with about a hundred attendees.

a table with many baskets of bread, all labeled

The bread display at the student show at the Folk School last June

I have two classes scheduled at the Folk School, and registration is open:

The January class comes with the added bonus that you’ll get to meet my mom, a.k.a. the Two Blue Books distribution office. I also plan to teach my usual “Beginner Kneading” at the Asheville Bread Festival, date tba.

colorful code on a black computer screen

Tinkering with eBook Code (for Beginners!)

Producing an ebook is one of the more confusing parts of self-publishing. Guides offer all kinds of suggestions for DIY software and companies who’ll create the ebook for you.

I chose to create my own ebook for a few reasons: (1) to save money, (2) to learn something new, and (3) because Bread Science is complicated. I wanted the index of Bread Science to link back into the book, but without page numbers, I had to choose which word each index item would link to. I also had to move the 200+ pictures to be in-line in the correct place in the text, and to modify the text in places to match. I thought it might be impossible for someone else to make these changes correctly, or at the very least it would cost a fortune.

But recently I had to look at the code of my ebook. (While I have never found a problem with it, running it through an “ebook validator” showed six errors, and this prevented the ebook’s acceptance at OverDrive [via Kobo], the ebook service libraries use.) I’m sharing the experience here.

Methods of Creating eBooks (as far as I can tell)

  1. Create a Word document, format it properly, and convert it using conversion software (like Calibre) or upload it at a sales site (Kobo, KDP, etc.) and let them convert it. This seems like the most accessible method to me.
  2. Create an InDesign document, format it properly, and export it as an EPUB: I’ve been told this is a thing, and preferred by professionals, but I have no idea how this works! I’ve only used InDesign as a page layout program.
  3. Create an EPUB by writing code. Yikes.
  4. Pay someone else to create an EPUB,
  5. Use method 1 or 2, then tinker with the code to make it better. This method is what we’re exploring here.

eBook Code

I’m not an expert so i won’t try to explain this in detail, but basically, what’s behind an ebook is code similar to a web page’s code. When you use a program to convert a Word document to an ebook, the program creates that code. Your proper formatting of your Word document results in good code.

There are probably people out there who can write that code straight out of their heads. Most people, though, create the code using a conversion program and then tinker with it. Calibre has an ebook editor, so I decided to start there, since I’d used Calibre to create the ebook.

When I opened Bread Science in the ebook editor, it looked like this:

three panels on a computer screen showing a list of html files, a blank editor, and a blank space where a preview will appear

Fixing the Errors

The staff at Kobo had helpfully sent me information about the errors in my ebook. (I later realized that I could find these errors by uploading my ebook to a free online ebook validator.) Two of the six errors looked something like this:

ERROR RSC-005 /index_split_012.html (line 24, col 33) Error while parsing file ‘attribute “value” not allowed here; expected attribute “dir”, “id”, “lang”, “style”, “title” or “xml:lang”‘.

Initially I had no idea what these errors meant. You can see that each error contains a location: an html file name, and a line and column. I opened the file (index_split_012.html) in the editor and looked at line 24.three panels on a computer screen showing a list of html files, html code with a problem area circled, and the preview of the ebook page with the resulting problem pointed out

You can see that the code for list item 9 (in the box) differs from the code for the other list items, and there is a corresponding odd indent in the ebook. The code is extra confusing because some of the items are bookmarked and linked to from the index (that’s what the blue ids are for) but some are not. List item 9 (“Cooling”) is not linked to from the index.

I altered the code to match the code from line 19 (list item 5: Fermentation), because this list item also does not have a link from the index. This removed the error.

three panels on a computer screen showing a list of html files, html code with a fixed area circled as well as teh code that was copied to make the fix, and the preview of the ebook page

So basically, I never really understood the error in technical terms, but I was able to adjust the code using nearby samples.

Two of the errors looked something like this:

ERROR RSC-012 /toc.ncx (line 30, col 58) Fragment identifier is not defined.

This turned out to involve a table of contents (TOC) item, the dedication page, that was missing its bookmark. So, the converter (rightfully) got confused and pointed the link to the dedication page at the title page instead. I manually added the bookmark code, and in two places corrected the link (sending it to the dedication page, index_split_004.html, instead of the title page, index_split_000.html).

The final two errors looked something like this:

ERROR RSC-005 /toc.ncx (line 20, col 58) Error while parsing file ‘identical playOrder values for navPoint/navTarget/pageTarget that do not refer to same target’.

The file toc.ncx appears to be one loooong file. It’s related to the table of contents, and it doesn’t produce a preview. Note that each item in the list has a “playOrder” that increases one by one, but the error occurs when playOrder=“2” repeats. (You can also see the index_split_000, which I changed to index_split_004, as mentioned above.)

html code containing a list in which the number "2" repeats

I think this error occurred because my Acknowledgments and Dedication are two items in the TOC, but I did not insert a page break between them as with all the other TOC items. I had to search the error online to figure this one out. It appears that a playOrder number cannot point to two different locations. Even with the “000” corrected to “004” I still had two different locations: index_split_004.html and index_split_004.html#id_Dedication.

So I had two choices: change the second location to match the first (in which case readers clicking on “Dedication” in the TOC would be taken to the top of the page, and would have to scroll through the Acknowledgments to reach the Dedication at the bottom), or renumber all the playOrders manually. I did the latter.

Success!

I uploaded my tinkered-with EPUB to an ebook validator and it passed the test. I still find working in code daunting, but at least now I know what it means to tinker with the code, and I was able to make some quick fixes.

a red pen and edited paper with the PerfectIt logo

Editor Tool: PerfectIt

PerfectIt logoRecently I installed PerfectIt. I’d heard editors talk about PerfectIt as a time-saving tool, but until 2018 it was not available on Macs. Also, I have a general dread of new software, and I had no conception of how PerfectIt would work… but when I learned that PerfectIt was available, I signed up.

Initially I had some technical difficulties to the point where the support person at Intelligent Editing, the company that makes PerfectIt, gave up on me. A short time later, though, after a Microsoft Word update, I tried again, and the installation worked.

PerfectIt is called an “add-in” and works from inside Word. Now that I’ve used it and seen how it interacts with Word, I wanted to share the experience.

Overview of installation

I won’t give detailed instructions, as they probably vary with computer, operating system, and Word version, and probably change regularly. Also, because the process was not smooth for me, I don’t have good clean notes. So this description may not be perfect but is a basic overview of installing the PerfectIt software.

  1. Make sure Word is updated on your computer and note your version. (Note: PerfectIt does not work on .doc documents, only .docx documents.)
  2. Buy PerfectIt (at Microsoft’s app store—see the “Get it now” button) or start the free trial (at Intelligent Editing’s website), after checking that it is compatible with your version of Word. I’d use the free trial to make sure the software works, to avoid the potential hassle of asking for a refund. On the free trial page, you choose your version and are taken to the Microsoft app store page.
  3. You’ll be asked to sign in to your Microsoft account or to create one, so that Microsoft can keep track of your purchase. If you’ve purchased Word recently, you probably had to create an account to install it. I had some trouble logging in, even though I had written down my password.
  4. Follow whatever instructions you are given to download and install the software. For me, I opened Word and added the PerfectIt add-in from inside the program by clicking on Insert > Add-ins > My Add-ins, and selecting PerfectIt. This was the step where I encountered trouble; Microsoft kept asking me to log in, and then nothing would happen. You might have to wait or to close and reopen Word for it to work.

Once installed, PerfectIt will appear right in your Word ribbon (see picture).

screenshot of PerfectIt in the ribbon in Word

Using PerfectIt

Once you have the add-in installed, PerfectIt is simple to use. Click on the PerfectIt tab in the ribbon, and choose “Launch PerfectIt.” A panel will open on the right side. You may have to log in (my PerfectIt account information differs from my Microsoft account information).

Then, you choose from a dropdown menu which task you want PerfectIt to perform (the main one is “Check Consistency,” and the other options are to check if a document conforms to a certain style guide or spelling) and click a big “Start” button.

screenshot of PerfectIt in use

A spinning arrow will indicate that the program is working, and text will tell you what specific item it is working on.

screenshot of PerfectIt in use

If PerfectIt finds an inconsistency, it will present you with your options.*

screenshot of PerfectIt in use

You might need to click on the options a few times to understand what the program is asking: if you click on version 1, you see the places where version 2 appears in the document, and vice versa. You can choose to fix one or the other or both, or to skip the item.

screenshot of PerfectIt in use

It’s that simple!

Do you need PerfectIt?

So far, PerfectIt has caught one hyphen inconsistency for me. While I’m waiting for it to run, I think about the other editors calling it time-saving and ponder the irony of how using it adds time to my process. However, I edit mostly short academic papers, where it’s relatively easy for me to catch all the inconsistencies myself. I can see PerfectIt being useful with longer documents or book manuscripts. It also has a language feature that I plan to use if I ever have to change a document from US English to UK English.


Note: When I was taking screen captures for this post, I tried running PerfectIt on a document with only three lines, with an obvious inconsistency. PerfectIt showed a message that it performs best with documents over 300 words, and it did not find the inconsistency. I’m not sure what to make of that. I added a bunch of text to the document and ran PerfectIt again, to get the final image above.

stacks of books on a shelf

My Writing Process and Resources for New Authors

As I’ve resumed work on my new-adult fiction novel, I’ve considered the steps that have led to the current moment: I feel confident in my writing, but I know that I’ll continue to learn about the craft and improve. I’ve observed writing as a craft that can be improved, and not merely as the first words that spew onto the page when the author sits to write (at least not for me!).
I want to record the early steps while I still remember them. This leads me to remember the resources that have been most helpful to me, which I find myself suggesting to other new writers I meet. And, it leads me to the long list of resources recommended by others that are stacked on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.

So here is the writing process of my novel so far (resources in bold), and below I will outline the updated process that I’ll use in the future:

Stage 1: Write and Revise

Nanowrimo winner badgeI wrote the first draft somewhat randomly, finishing with Nanowrimo. (I’m currently pondering if this is the best way to start a novel, or if more planning is a good idea—more on this below.) I had a story and characters I liked, but the writing itself was bad and the whole thing was a mess: trying to keep track of who knew what, how many days had passed between scenes, and what weather it was from day to day.

To address the writing, I read some books on “self-editing” or revising for authors:

  • The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, a short guide that points out, one-by-one, specific problems new writers’ books often have.
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, a longer guide to problems and solutions, with lots of examples from literature.
  • The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, lists of specific actions that might occur when a character feels an emotion. (So if I had written, “Nick looked angry,” I would look up “Anger” and see a list of possible actions that Nick might do, such as his lips tightening into a hard line, or his face becoming red. I would rewrite the sentence to show that Nick was angry instead of telling.

three books that are mentioned in the textSome of the major changes I made included removing adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs, removing distracting “said” words in favor of “said,” and hunting down and removing repetition. I considered each section of each chapter: was it narrative, exposition, or scene? A lot of the exposition (text explaining to the reader) came to life when I replaced it with an actual scene with dialogue. I read my dialogue out loud to make sure it sounded natural. After applying the lessons from the books, I felt a lot more confident in the writing.

To address the confusion, I made a map of my setting, a timeline of the characters’ histories, a long scroll of the plot and what happened each day (including the weather), and a world-building spreadsheet (using a template from editor Tanya Gold) that I filled in with information about my world, like the political system, the current technology, the state of the environment, etc. By the end, I felt confident the plot was consistent.

Stage 2: Get Feedback and Revise

I took my work to a local writing workshop where we spent a few hours working on our first page. I never would have believed that much revision could occur on one little piece of writing! But being forced to keep at it resulted in all kinds of changes. I also submitted my manuscript for a colleague’s class to use as a sample, which generated feedback from the students and also the colleague.

a drawing of a woman in an old-fashioned dress reading a bookI rounded up a team of beta readers. (I asked for readers in my winter holiday letter, and then approached half of those interested.) I was lucky to receive a huge amount of feedback, from little points of confusion to suggestions that affected the whole book (like, “Devlyn is too whiny and immature” and “It’s the future but the technology is just like today’s”). Some of the feedback was overwhelming or I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow it; I actually put aside the whole project for about a year and finished self-publishing my bike trip memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere. It was good to get a break and fascinating to see how everything I’d learned about fiction affected the writing in the memoir.

(Aside: Sometimes friend beta readers don’t follow through. Authors can meet colleagues in person or online to swap beta reading, meet with a writing group for ongoing feedback, or hire a professional editor to give feedback, with varying levels of commenting (i.e., overall feedback or line-by-line). As a freelance editor, I worked with some authors on their manuscripts and realized that the feedback I provided seemed to be a professional beta read, so I now use that description of my services [read more here].)

A year later, I came back to the novel. I made a huge list of the changes I wanted to make based on the reader feedback and new ideas I had had, and then got to work making them. The revision made my novel stronger, but the feedback had left me wondering about a few major points (Was the plot too random? Was Devlyn’s age appropriate?) and I worried that my characters were not deep enough. I also just had a general feeling of insecurity and wanted approval from a professional.

Stage 3: Get More Feedback, Learn More, and Revise

I applied for a local arts council’s grant for new writers, to use the money to work with a developmental editor. The process included finding the editor to work with. I approached Tanya Gold, a colleague at the Editorial Freelancers Association whom I had taken a class from (the class was on working with authors, and I loved Tanya’s collaborative approach). In the end, I didn’t get the grant, but I wanted to work with Tanya so much that I decided to make it happen. I might have shied away from spending the money or approaching editors, because it’s a daunting step to take, so I credit the grant-I-didn’t-get with making me take the step.

a pencil and blank notebook on top of a map of a cityWhile I waited for Tanya, I learned about making book maps (read more here). I had been trying to keep track of various parts of my novel in various ways. A simple book map in a spreadsheet was just the tool I needed. I also learned about sensitivity editing, which looks for problems like gender and racial stereotypes or writing that assumes the reader is a certain race, and planned to read my manuscript with those issues in mind.

Tanya’s feedback was incredible. She had asked questions to understand my goals and concerns. She sent back a letter that assessed my manuscript (including things I hadn’t even thought of, like the underlying theme and how to make it stronger) and a chart of what actions I should take with each chapter. She made major changes in the manuscript (tracking them so I could follow along) and left comments throughout. Some of the comments addressed writing issues in general. For example, I often aligned my dialogue in a way that could lead to reader confusion, with one character speaking and then another character acting in one paragraph. Other feedback made the plot stronger; for example, when Devlyn is kidnapped, her growth as a character would be stronger if she managed to escape rather than being passively rescued.

One of the major changes Tanya suggested was cutting large sections of description and explanation. This was hard for me to accept; I loved the feeling of autumn when Devlyn is walking home from work, explaining to the reader the details of the future world I had created. Thankfully, I attended the NC Writers Network’s spring 2018 conference; each session I attended seemed to address the changes I needed to make both to make my story stronger and to attract an agent and publisher (read more here). I came to see that bringing the reader in to share the viewpoint of the main character, and to be in the moment with her, was the way to hook the reader into the story.

More Resources

three books that are mentioned in the textThe conference led me to several books about crafting stories. I started with Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which underscores the need to get the reader into the moment with the main character, invested in her situation. Lisa also suggests mapping out your story before you begin writing. I’m debating her idea. While I can see that I wrote a lot of material that went to waste (like the scene of Devlyn being rescued instead of escaping, plus the second and third kidnappings, which were cut entirely!), I loved the process of sitting down with no plan and seeing what came out. Lisa suggests that many writing teachers recommend this random approach because it works for them, but that it doesn’t work for most new writers.

I’m currently following Tanya’s plan and rewriting, while also making a book map. The next resources on my list are the following:

  • Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
  • The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson
  • The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

The most recent #EFAchat on Twitter (a chat among freelance editors) discussed working with new authors and helping them improve, and offered these additional resources:

(View the chat transcript here.) 

A Plan for Next Time

stacks of books on a shelfI still like the idea of spewing out a rough draft during Nanowrimo with no planning, but I might do some initial outlining next time. Either way, I think the process will look something like this:

  • Write first draft (incorporating lessons like using “said” and powerful nouns and verbs, and keeping the reader in the story versus explaining)
  • Make a book map to ensure consistency and aid with tracking plot lines
  • Create a world-building spreadsheet
  • Revise to improve the writing, to replace telling with showing, and to root out exposition
  • Look for workshops to attend with my manuscript; keep reading and learning about the craft of writing
  • Get feedback from beta readers
  • Revise using new knowledge and feedback
  • Work with Tanya on a developmental edit (I hope I won’t need this some day, but for now I think it is an important step for me)
  • Revise
  • Get second round of beta reader feedback
  • Revise
  • Find an agent or publisher!