Speed Reading Techniques

I don’t consider myself a fast reader by any means. I am slow, methodical, and like to savor every word. This can become problematic considering the general wisdom that the more an author reads, the better a writer they become; or as Stephen King puts it: If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.. This is compounded especially when you have a busy schedule. I often find myself in a situation where I only have enough time for 1 activity left in the day and I have to ask myself: “Should I read, or should I write?” And that’s not a situation that I want to be in, so I did some digging on speed reading techniques.

  1. Eliminate subvocalization. This is where you say the words aloud inside your head as you read. Your eyes can read faster than your brain can pronounce words. This will take practice, but we conscious of it and force yourself to quit this bad habit.
  2. Read multiple words at a time. As we first learned to read as kids, we read one letter at a time until we could read an entire word at a time. To continue this trend, we must learn to read multiple words at a time. This could be solved by what your vision is limiting you to see. Try holding the book further away from you so that your eyes can see more than a single word at a time.
  3. Avoid rereading. We’ve all done it, where we’ve had to go back and read the passage again. Regardless of the reason, you can try to minimize this bad habit by finding a place to read with very little distractions, and/or visually guiding your eye with either your finger or a pen.

The end-goal is to of course, increase your reading speed, but maintain your reading comprehension. For those that care, the average reader reads at 200-230 wpm and maintains a solid level of comprehension. I just took this free speed reading test and got 207 wpm and a comprehension of 91%. Apparently, the world speed reading champion, Anne Jones, can read 4,700 wpm with a comprehension of 67%. That’s insane! My goal is to try the techniques outlined above and move up to the next level at 300-400 wpm.

What did you score on the test?

 

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On Deviating From Your Outline (and why you should do it)

Writing is an art form, an extension of our vibrant imagination put into the written word. Writing is a artistic expression of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, where the turn of a phrase can excite an audience and a fictional character can tug at our hearts. There should be no doubt that the art of writing is intertwined with an author’s muse, inspiration, and creativity.

But when a writer first conceives of a story, what does he/she do? Create an outline of course! But when we generate outlines, we are putting our story into a box. Albeit, the author pours his/her creativity into the outline, but I fear that for some the creativeness of their ingenuity stops there.

As a writing exercise, try thinking of an alternative plot point from what you currently have planned, and begin outlining the events that would occur from this new pivot point in your novel. Then compare the two story paths (original vs. new); which one was better for you?

I recently did this and was thrilled with the results! My original outline didn’t capture all the particular details that lead up to Chapter 9, so upon my arrival at this point in my story, I realized my characters were stuck. There was now an obstacle that wasn’t there in my outline. I was forced to improvise – and that is when I had this epiphany!

The more I write, the more I favor organic character development – and by extension: story development. I am usually a big planner, down to every detail, so I know how important story outlines are, but now I try to keep my outlines at a high level so that I won’t stifle my creativity as I write.

How to Write a Synopsis For Your Novel

Synopsis of Hamlet. This mind map gives a visual display of why it is so difficult to capture everything from a novel within the short length of a synopsis.

In my journey toward seeking representation, I have queried over 50 literary agents, all of which did not require a synopsis as part of the submission. I kept a reserve of ~20 other literary agents that I would submit to if my first round of submissions didn’t go so well. These 20 all require synopsis’s.  Unfortunately for authors, literary agents do not have standardized requests. Some ask for 1 page synopsis’s and others want 2 pages (a rare few even ask for a 3-5 page synopsis), which of course must be submitted along with your Query Letter and/or a sample of your work. While I do have one very promising agency reviewing my manuscript (fingers crossed!), I am preparing for round 2 (just in case) and just completed my synopsis.

SYNOPSIS TIPS & FORMAT:

At the top of the page (left or center) provide this info: Synopsis of “Title”. Genre: ____ Word Count: _____ By: “Your Name” (however, you can put your pen name if you wish).

Since most agents/publishers ask for either a 1 page or a “brief” synopsis, I think it’s best that you craft it to be within 1 page, single spaced. A synopsis is a narrative of your story, written with the same style and sense of excitement and wonder of your novel. Do not simply say, “Here is the main character, and this is what happens to him/her,” you must make the synopsis drool-worthy.

Synopses are always, ALWAYS, written in 3rd person and in the present tense. No exceptions! The synopsis must introduce your main characters. When you do so, you must make their full name in ALL CAPS, but only for the first time you mention their name. This makes it easy for a reader to locate the introduction of a character.

You do not have to detail all your sub-plots or all your characters, but the main story line must come across in your narrative. So it is best to ensure that you have captured all the major scenes and major plot elements and conflicts, and most importantly: The ending. Yes, you must give away your ending. How you conclude your story is especially important to agents and publishers.

PRO TIP #1:

Have a reader that is unfamiliar with your story read your synopsis and give you feedback. It can be difficult for you to be objective about your synopsis since you understand the meaning behind every sentence.

PRO TIP #2:

Think outside the box. You don’t have to write your synopsis in the same order of events as your novel. You can explain things out of order, which can help when you are trying to condense things down to one page.

PRO TIP #3:

Before writing your synopsis, bulletize the main points that you want to write about. This will help keep your novel at a high level and will help prevent you from diving into the details.

PRO TIP #4:

Don’t go down a rabbit hole. Beware of explaining one event/scene that forces you to explain another. Rabbit holes add additional details to your synopsis that only raise more questions than answers.

PRO TIP #5:

Less is more.

PERSONAL OPINION:

Why did I delay writing a synopsis, you ask? Because, summarizing your entire novel into one page is quite possibly the Achilles Heel of every author. Reducing my 100,000 word novel into an ~900 word page is difficult, to say the least. For most novels, there are so many complex sub-plots that hold a lot of weight to the overall story (as shown in the picture above), and not being able to fit them into your synopsis can be torturous.

When I joined NaNoWriMo this year, in order to fill out my profile, it made me write a synopsis of my novel before I even began writing it. I must say that writing the synopsis beforehand helped me identify character motivations that I hadn’t even considered in my outline. It was profound, and it helped me expand on my planning. However, if you were to write a synopsis before hand (which is similar to the Snowflake method of outlining, which I discuss here), you can bet, with a certainty, that you will need to revise it after you finish your novel.

STEPHEN KING’S APPROACH:

In his novel, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King doesn’t touch on writing a synopsis, but what he does talk about is plot – which is what a synopsis is supposed to capture. Steven King’s novels are not born from the conception of a plot, but are based on a single situation instead (I wrote more about it here in my discussion of the 7 basic plots). He is able to reduce his entire novels down to one sentence. It struck me that when writing a novel using this approach, it would probably be a lot more friendly when it’s time to summarize your novel into a synopsis. And even more helpful for the purposes of writing a Query Letter (explained here with additional detail here).

How To Design Your Story Outline

Sample Flow Chart Plan for The Mystery of Chimney Rock

I’m in the middle of planning book 2 of my series, The Chromium Smith, and I thought it would be a great time to see if I can improve upon my story outline process and share everything that I’ve found. When designing the outline for book 1, The Soul Smith, I used a chapter by chapter approach toward planning the plot-based events. However, I found it cumbersome because I couldn’t fit all the chapter’s events I had planned into just one chapter, resulting in continuous revisions to my outline. After I abandoned a written plan, I found that I was able to develop my characters more organically as I wrote. I felt that this was a positive byproduct of the lack of a written outline, but I wasn’t without any plan at all.

With book 1, to compensate for a lack of a chapter-by-chapter written plan, I had conceived of the overarching story line and used proper character motivation to get from A to Z. I added one additional mechanic that I coined as ‘The Logic Test’ which prevented me from having any holes in my story. Lastly, whenever I thought of a great scene for the book, I wrote it down immediately. This list of scenes became my ‘Bag of Tricks’ that I was able to pull from whenever I felt a little stuck, or deprived of creativity. All of this was the same tried and true method that I employed when designing stories for role playing games.

So why even do the extra work to generate and maintain an outline? Well, when I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, for critique at Critter’s Writer’s Workshop, I had one reviewer say, “I suspect a lack of outline.” In that instance, my A to Z approach didn’t work so well, but I blame that on my initial choice of an ending (which has since changed). Plus, with my novel, I had made an embarrassing mistake with a character’s name where I unintentionally changed the spelling of it half way through my book. I could have really benefited from a good character tracker system. Also, some publishers like Xchyler Publishing require a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of your book (among other things) when submitting your manuscript for consideration.

I had asked Xchyler Publishing why they required a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and this was their response: “There are a few reasons. 1. It shows you know your story, which means you have spent time, and at least read back through it. 2. It helps our editing staff know what the main points are. So if/when they need to be edited down, the key points remain.3. It shows you are devoted to the success your book as much as we will be.”

What is the goal or purpose of an outline? It is there to help you flush out any holes in your plot, to ensure that your story is solid, and to help you write your novel. It will help you stay focused, monitor your pacing, and will guide you through your story. It will help you think through your novel, so that you can make any changes to plot or story upfront before you write yourself into a corner. In addition, it will (at times) help prevent writer’s block.

What does an outline need?

  • Characters
  • Places and Scenes
  • Problem
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Tone

How do you design an outline? There are numerous different methods that work well for different people. It could be as simple as a bunch of post-it notes or as scientific as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. After searching the web, I’ll share a few ways below:

  1. Flash cards or Post-it Notes: Great way to stay organized and keep all the pertinent info in an easy to find place. Have a post-it for each character, write down descriptions for reference, who they are related to, etc.
  2. White Board or Mindmapping: I rather enjoy white boards, and I have a simple one in my home office because I like staring at a visual to be reminded of things, or to think through issues. Similarly, you can connect thoughts, or plot events to characters to show motivations, etc using mindmapping. The free iPad and iPhone app called Total Recall is a great tool for this.
  3. Simple Document: Whether you organize everything into a table, or you have a story board process using PowerPoint, or you write down everything in paragraphs of text, a simple document is a great place to start.
  4. Software: There is too many to list, but you can see them (and buy them) all here: Writers Store
  5. Chapter by Chapter: I tend to think that this document should be made as you write your novel, so that it can become a useful reference guide. It will help you remember which chapter introduces what character, what events occurred in what chapter, and can help you take a glance at the pace of your novel. Reader’s dislike changes in pace, so if your plot-driven events are slowing down, it may be time for some revisions.
  6. The Snowflake Method: Created by Randy Ingermanson, this is an incredibly detailed planning process. It was developed around the idea that novels are designed. At its most basic concept, you start small with one idea and then you expand it outward; writing individual story lines for characters and expanding them to full page descriptions, expanding the plot from a one page synopsis to a four page synopsis, create a scene list and grow it into a multi-paragraph description of each scene, etc. You do this until every tacit of your novel has matured, and then you write your first draft.
  7. Combination: I plan to use a simple document to keep track of characters, as well as  a white board to help me think through character motivations, and a chapter by chapter outline to help me monitor the pace of my novel and use as a good reference. Feel free to use your own combo to ensure that you have a solid plan in place.

How to Format your Final Manuscript

I just had the pleasure of formatting my final complete manuscript, so I would like to share how it should be done with other authors. I had to use multiple different sites to obtain concurrence about how something should be formatted as well as just to find ALL the information. Too many websites left out important details so I will ensure that this one is comprehensive.

Title Page

In the top left corner, you should have: Your real name, address, phone number, email address. Top right corner should say: Approx. XX,XXX words. Then centered in the center of the page, it should say TITLE OF BOOK <press enter> by <press enter> Your Name or Pen Name.

NOTE: As much as I wanted to include the cover art for my novel, it has no place here. That is why I believe authors (even unpublished ones) should have a webpage. The agent/publisher should have been given a link to your website during the Query process, which is how you can get them to see it. I will Blog about this later.

Manuscript Header in Microsoft Word

Insert Header, pick Blank. In the top left hand corner type “Your Last Name/TITLE OF YOUR BOOK”. Under the Design tab, check the box for “Different First Page”… this will let you NOT have a Header on your Title Page (which is what you want).

After done entering the info in the left corner, Hit Tab twice. Select Insert Page Number, Current Position, Plain Number. You should edit it so that the page number count starts at 0… this will take into account the title page (and since no header will be displayed on that page) the first page of your manuscript will start with 1.

Entire Manuscript Format

Within Microsoft Word, hit Ctrl + A to select all your text. BE CAREFUL NOT TO DELETE ANYTHING WHILE EVERYTHING IS SELECTED.

Make everything 12 point Font.

Make everything either Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New Font.

Make everything Double Spaced. Instead of choosing “Double Spaced” as your Line spacing selection, choose “Exactly” and set it to 25 pt.

Make everything have 1″ margins on every side of the page.

At the end of your manuscript, center the word “End” on a page.

All new paragraphs should be indented (TAB over).

Chapters

When you start a chapter, the word “Chapter” should be 1/3 or 1/2 the way down the page. Make sure the way you capitalize Chapter, and/or the way you use the numeric portion is consistent throughout. For example, CHAPTER 1, or CHAPTER ONE, or Chapter 1, or Chapter One.

The first sentence of your chapter should always be indented half an inch (or one TAB over). This is exactly how every new paragraph should start.

In order to keep Chapters starting on their own new page, you should always enter in a Page Break. This can be done by inserting a Page Break through the buttons in Microsoft Word or simply hitting Ctrl + Enter at the end of every Chapter.

Little Things

If your manuscript ever changes POV, use a # in-between the paragraphs to signify it, make sure it is centered on the page.

If there is a break in time, use *** between paragraphs, make sure it is centered.

Some Agents/Publishers are picky about how you format it. Just follow their instructions. If they don’t provide instructions, then follow what I have outlined above. If you are submitting it via e-mail, then you should probably send as a .pdf (unless they request different). If you are printing it out, do NOT print front and back… just do 1 sided printing. And if you print it out, ONLY use plain white paper.

How to Write a Bio for New Authors

First time authors like myself have it a little tougher when it comes to writing a biography. It’s common knowledge that literary agents want to see previous publishing credit in your query letters as part of your bio. In fact, in my searches I have come across a few literary agents that do not accept unsolicited queries from unpublished authors. I’ve seen others that ask for a cover letter that lists all published works. I know most of my blogs have been about the topic of a query letter, but this one will focus on what should be the last paragraph of your query. So what should a new author say in the bio-section of his query letter?

In the world of the publishing industry, an author’s “bio” is actually a resume. It’s not who you are, it’s what you’ve done. Only if you have some life-experience that relates to your novel will you find that who you are is actually important. For instance, if you are writing a London murder mystery, and you happen to live in London all your life, then it gives credit toward your writing. For writers like me that love world building, there is nothing about my life that is relevant to a literary agent. I could say that I love all aspects of fantasy (books, movies, video games, board games, table-top games, RPGs), but none of that is what they want to hear.

Other acceptable and reputable credentials to add are that you are a member of RWA or SFWA, but those Writer’s Associations don’t just let anyone in. You have to have previously published works or short stories to qualify for membership. I searched for writer’s associations that do not have such high standards for membership and joined one or two, but then it seems that they just aren’t “resume-worthy”. I have also read that it is recommended to mention that you have joined a writer’s critique club. If you do, I highly suggest you join one that meets in person, my experience with an online club has been less than impressive. . . but I guess you get out what you put in. . . I just made a vow to myself to become a more active member! =)

Lastly, there is formal education. But if you didn’t go to college for creative writing or some sort of English major, it’s deemed irrelevant and doesn’t warrant mentioning in your bio. Also in my readings of how to craft a bio, adding that you partook in a writing workshop is not noteworthy either.

So as a new author what should be said? Or what can be said? Nothing. The conventional wisdom is to just focus on the story and wow them with your musings. They understand that new authors are out there and have great stories to tell. So just don’t send up any red flags in your query, don’t stress the fact that you are new, don’t add irrelevant info about yourself. But in an effort to rise above and distinguish myself from the slush pile, I can tell you what my plan is: I’m going to write a short story, set in my world, and work on getting it published in a magazine and/or enter it in a contest. There are a lot of contests for short stories out there. http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/creative-writing-contests.html But I will blog about this later.

An Author in a Sea of Authors

Becoming a published novelist is the golden apple of the publishing world. With such high prestige, it makes me wonder why so many people follow this pursuit. Shouldn’t the prestige of becoming a published author deter instead of invite? Certainly, striving to be an Olympian doesn’t attract talent the way the dream of publishing a novel does.

But that’s just it. Talent. Many people believe they have it just because they have a story to share, but describing the actions and imagery requires a learned skill. One that can be sharpened and honed. There are certain rules that should be followed when writing, (and believe me, I learned the hard way) and they can be subconsciously gleaned through the osmosis of reading. But the rules and skills of writing still require the conscious mind to analyze and comprehend them.

I belong to the Critters Writers Workshop, a critique group that’s designed to do just that. However, the most prevalent flaw in the writing that I see coming out of Critters Writers Workshop is lack of showing, with too much ‘telling’. In fact, I’m in awe that The Hunger Games ever got published with the abundance of “telling” that occurred in Katniss’ narrations, but I digress.

Let me be clear, I do not consider myself above any of these other authors, for they have had the same driving desire to have their story told on the world’s largest stage as I have, and they never gave up which is a triumph unto itself. My biggest hurdle with my story was changing my writing style from “telling” to “showing,” so I’ve been there and know what it’s like. I was lucky to have my closest friends have the courage to provide me their honest feedback. My saving grace was my openness to criticism. Throughout writing my novel, my ‘skill’ did greatly improve which allowed me to go back and revise my earlier work; a necessary evil.

The sheer number of aspiring authors is still a wonder to behold, and its no wonder that this industry has erected numerous hurdles to prevent just anyone from taking a bite at the golden apple, such as Query Letters, Synopsis’, and author bio’s.  They sound simple, but they are a baited trap if I’ve ever seen one. Designed to filter out the masses, its no wonder agents refer to their submissions as “the slush pile.” Too many aspiring authors come and go, or give up along the way. It has become my goal to rise above, and float to the top of the slush, and I will share my imagination with the world. Persistence, the meticulous formatting and care given to my queries and synopsis, along with the continual refinement of my craft are what will separate me from the crowd. To be standing at the very edge, at the precipice, looking for a bridge to connect me to the global stage… to be so close, failure is not an option.