Orienting Your Reader

I am currently on holidays in Manitoba for a month, visiting family and attending two weddings, as well as my mother’s eightieth birthday celebration.

While I am here I am also trying to carve out some daily time for writing. This is more easily said than done. I don’t have an internet connection so doing research presents a challenge. But the library is not far away.

Recently a friend loaned me a book I wish I had known about years ago. It is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. If I had studied this book early on, it would have saved me countless hours of editing I am now required to do on my novel.

Techniques of the Selling Writer was published in 1965 and reads like a college textbook, so you have to be prepared to plod through it, but it is well worth it. It has more practical advice than any other book I have found. I would say it is a must read for every beginning novel writer.

Like the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” We all have gaps in our knowledge and we don’t know what they are. As I read Techniques of the Selling Writer I recognized many of my gaps. It was thrilling for me to learn why some things I was doing were not working and to find out what I could do to improve my story. I am not yet finished the book and every time I pick it up I learn something new.

One thing I learned was that with every scene, and particularly in the beginning of the story, it is important to orient your reader. Give your readers a sense of time and place. It sounds simple, and maybe you have always done this. But I looked at my story and went, at what point does my reader realize that the story happens in Portland, ME? It was way too long before this became evident.

Also ask yourself, what time of day is this incident happening, and then slip in a clue. Sometimes you make a clear statement like, It was six o’clock, on Friday, March 6. But more often you’ll probably say something like, Sally dried the last of the dinner dishes. Or, The sun was sinking behind the trees as he turned into the driveway and saw Jayne sitting on the front step with the twins. Earlier you have clued the reader in to the fact that your lead character looks after the twins every other weekend.

Think about seasons too. Is it cold or hot with humidity? You could state, It was January in Chicago. Or, maybe the month isn’t that important and you simply want to give your readers a sense of the weather by saying, He wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck as he bent his head against the wind and blowing snow. Here is another example, Dark clouds loomed in the sky. Maria slapped a mosquito on her arm as she sat down on the grass and opened her lunch bag. The reader knows it is noon, there is the threat of rain and it is warm enough to sit outside on the grass without a coat.

Our readers will appreciate this small consideration. It will help them to relax and get into the story. If we tell them early on, then they will not feel jolted by information that came too late and didn’t match their assumptions. After you do this for awhile it becomes second nature.

If you are serious about writing, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’m sure you will make some surprising and helpful discoveries.

What is Your Writing Worth?

My writing is important to me, but lately I’ve had to take an honest look at what it is I want and need to do with my life. I’ve concluded I want to write. As a result, I am setting aside time to write.

And, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and investing in resources. Connecting with people who write, buying books, attending conferences.

As part of my honest analysis, I admitted to myself that I also need to make money.

This week I came across some very timely advice that I plan to apply to my writing and you might find it useful as well.

I went to Chip MacGregor‘s website because he will be at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference I plan to attend in August. Before a conference it’s a good idea to do some homework and read up on the agents and editors who will be there. Chip is a sought after agent, and the owner of MacGregor Literary. I have also submitted the first ten pages of my manuscript to him under the OCW Manuscript Submission Program.

In his article, Ask the Agent: Is it Realistic to Think of Making My Living at Writing, he caught my attention with this statement:

Set a financial goal, start to work toward it, and look for opportunities to generate some income from your writing skill.

Writers, Chip says, are pathetically underpaid and we seem to think we just have to accept that, but this is not the case. Chip’s idea is we need to take charge of our careers and make sure we are getting paid.

Here are a couple of suggestions from Ask the Agent: What’s the One Piece of Advice You’d Give a Career Writer:

Develop a writing calendar….a document that details what you’re going to write each day.

To figure out what you put into each day, you look at your “to do” list and do some prioritizing. What needs to get written today? What will pay off? What will push your career forward?

…you don’t just write down the goal for each day and stop. You then go back and add in a dollar figure, so each project is seen as contributing to your budget.

Figuring out your writing value isn’t hard — if your goal is to make $36,000 per year at writing, you’re trying to make $3000 per month, or $750 per week, or an average of $150 pr day.

“Write in a dollar figure.” Have you ever thought of your writing in this way? I hadn’t.

This becomes important when you are considering a writing assignment. You estimate how many hours/weeks the job will take you to finish, and then you calculate how much it will bring in and consider if it fits within your overall budget plan. He gives an example:

You’re expecting to sell that book for about $5000, so each chapter has a monetary value of roughly $250.

Let’s do the math. If you are only making $5000 on a book, or another assignment, then, to stay within a $36,000 budget, you need to complete this project in less than two months. That’s probably unrealistic for a book.

If you know it will take you six months of steady writing to complete the work, you need to make $18,000 when it is finished.

Our writing has intrinsic value as it educates, informs, entertains and inspires our readers. But from a practical standpoint, if we want to survive as writers, we may have to become strategic and place a dollar value on our writing.

Thanks Chip MacGregor for the heads up!