Tag Archives: making effective revisions

Revisions part 1: Spotting the Code Words and Mental Shorthand #amwriting

When we set the first words on a  blank page, our minds begin forming images, scenes we want to describe. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker notes that we are not born with language, so we are NOT engineered to think in words alone—we also think in images.

It follows that certain words become a kind of mental shorthand, small packets of letters that contain a world of images and meaning for us. These words will be used with frequency in the first draft as they are efficient. We write as fast as we can when we are in the mood, and these words are a speedy way to convey a wide range of information.

Because we use them, we can get the first draft of a story written from beginning to end before we lose the fire for it.

One code word that slips into my first draft prose is the word “got.”

It is a word that serves numerous purposes and conveys so many images. “Got” is on my global search list of “telling words.” The words in the list are signals to me, indications that a scene needs to be reworded to make it a “showing” scene.

Got:”  He got the message = comprehension. He understood.

Some other instances where we use “got” as a code word for our second draft:

  • He got the dog into the car.
  • He got the mail.
  • He got

Code words are the author’s multi-tool—a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters serves many purposes and conveys a myriad of mental images.

Every author thinks a little differently, so your code words will be different from mine. One way to find your secret code words is to have the Read Aloud tool read each section. I find most of my inadvertent crutch words that way.

Another code word on my personal list is “felt.” Let’s go to Merriam-Webster’s Online Thesaurus:

Synonyms:

  • endured
  • experienced
  • knew
  • saw
  • suffered
  • tasted
  • underwent,
  • witnessed

Words Related to felt:

  • regarded
  • viewed
  • accepted
  • depended
  • trusted
  • assumed
  • presumed
  • presupposed
  • surmised

It’s natural to overuse certain words without realizing it, but that is where revisions come in. Anytime I’m working on showing interactions between characters, certain words will be hauled into play over and over.

As you go along, you’ll discover that some words have very few synonyms that work.

Consider the word “smile.” It’s a common code word, a five-letter packet of visualization. Synonyms for “smile” are few and usually don’t show what I mean:

  • Grin
  • Smirk
  • Leer
  • Beam

When I come across the word “smile” in my work, it sometimes requires a complete re-visualization of the scene. I look for a different way to convey my intention, which can be a frustrating job.

Our characters’ facial expressions display happiness, anger, spite, and all the other emotions. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump, and hands tremble.

I refuse to drag the reader through a long list of ever-moving facial expressions, lips turning up, down, drawing to one side, etc., but sometimes the brief image of a smile is what you need.

When done sparingly and combined with a conversation, this can work.

But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more boring than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage. We must be more concerned with what is happening inside our characters than about the melodramatic outward display.

When you discover one of your first draft code words, go to the thesaurus and find all the synonyms you can and list them in a document for easy access. If it is a word like smile or shrug, you have your work cut out, but consider making a small list of visuals.

Think about the expressions and body language an onlooker would see if a character were angry.

  • Crossed arms.
  • A stiff posture.
  • Narrowed eyes.

A little list of those mood indicators can keep you from losing your momentum and will readily give you the words you need to convey all the vivid imagery you see in your mind.

Literary agent Donald Maas has good advice in his book, the Emotional Craft of Fiction.

If you don’t have it already, another book you might want to invest in is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Some of the visuals they list aren’t my cup of tea, but they do have a grip on how to show what people are thinking.

This aspect of the revision process is sometimes the most difficult.  It takes time when we look at each instance of our code words. They don’t always need changing—sometimes, a smile is a smile and that is okay.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Victorinox Multitool.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Victorinox_Multitool.jpg&oldid=484117422 (accessed February 14, 2021).

6 Comments

Filed under writing

Revisions and Plotting the End #amwriting

Many authors who finished NaNoWriMo with a complete story are now beginning the revision process. This year, I wrote most of an unplanned novel, one I had no intention of writing, and therefore I had no outline.

In the rush of laying down those ideas, I wrote many scenes that will need to be moved to a more logical place in the story arc or cut altogether. Still other scenes don’t yet exist and will need to be written so that the ultimate outcome makes sense.

For me, working on the outline is a form of brainstorming. If you haven’t already done so, this is an excellent time to draw up a brief outline that shows you at a glance what you have written. If you are beginning from scratch, writing this outline will take the better part of a day.

However, having an outline to work with will speed the revision process up by a month or so.

I did make an outline in an Excel Workbook as I went, so I have the basics done, but many things didn’t get noted. I have two major events to plan and write, and then the first draft will be complete.

I know what has to happen, but I’m not sure how to begin this push to the end. So, this week I’m planning what needs to be done next to carry this tale to its conclusion.

Using a spreadsheet program like Excel, or the free program, Google Sheets, allows you to cut and paste events, moving and rearranging scenes up and down the story arc, so they flow logically. There are programs like Scrivener out there that also help you do this, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to use them. I stick with the simple, cost-free options.

When I make the decisions first on a small, easily manageable scale rather than the larger manuscript, I don’t get confused. This makes cutting and moving scenes forward or back along the timeline a lot easier.

So, what do I need to look at first? In this case, it is the timeline: as I wrote, I noted most of the decisions my protagonist and the antagonist made on their way to this point, such as this scene in my antagonist’s thread:

  • Kellan shares relic w/Eriann.
  • Eriann possessed, goes mad.
  • Kellan terrified, casts sleep. Not sure what to do when she wakes.

In the rush to write during NaNo, some scenes didn’t get noted. I’m adding them now, and this is how I will brainstorm the chapters leading to the final scenes.

If you choose to do this, I recommend that you list every decision they made that triggers an event. You need to see the ripple effect of how their actions affect the other characters’ storylines.

Ivan, Marta, and Kellan all made decisions that affected their journey to this point. I need to ensure that I have written them in a way that follows a logical connective evolution. My mind sometimes thinks too far ahead while I am writing.

So, if these choices don’t seem to follow a logical path, I will use my spreadsheet program’s cut and paste function to rearrange the order of events. Then I will go to the manuscript and move or delete them.

Are the choices they made all necessary to achieve the final goal? Does every scene move the plot forward? Does the action reveal aspects of the characters to the reader that were hidden before?

We all write fluff, but it can be hard to recognize it. Are the scenes you wrote background or word-wandering for word count? If so, they don’t advance the plot. I will cut them and save them in a file labeled as background.

Next, I will look at the outline of the story structure again. In every second draft, I ask these questions:

  • Who is the story about now? Are the main characters still the original protagonist and antagonist, or have side characters stolen the show? If so, I would need to rewrite it so that the characters who best serve the story are the center of focus.
  • How high are the stakes if the protagonist fails? Why should we care?
  • How high are the stakes for the antagonist, and why should we care?
  • What do these two characters want most now that they have had a chance to evolve? Did the quest remain the same, or has a new goal emerged?
  • Did the protagonist grow and evolve as a person? If not, why not? Or did they turn to the dark side, becoming an antihero or an antagonist? Is there a new hero?
  • Where are the pivotal places where something important to the logic is missing?

I am going to examine my outline to see what doesn’t need to be included. What should I remove to make the ultimate ending feel more logical? I will write new scenes into the outline, events that push the plot to its conclusion.

I have read many stories that weren’t told in chronological order. Some were successful, but others failed.

Suppose you are going out of chronological order. The plot should still be the same logical chain, but the story might contain flashbacks or memories. I suggest you make a note on your timeline of where these occur so that you don’t repeat information the reader already knows.

Some authors use “flash-forwards,” which can easily make the story arc feel clumsy and unbelievable. I don’t use them myself but have read plenty of books that employ them.

I will tell you now that inserting a flash-forward requires good planning to fit seamlessly into the story and not ruin the mystery.

Good foreshadowing doesn’t tell the story in advance. It offers small clues hidden in the overall picture, hints in the scenery that all is not what it seems. It tantalizes the reader and makes them curious.

Many authors reject the outline process in the first draft because they prefer to “wing it.” The novel I am working on right now was written that way and was fun to write. However, my story has wandered and skipped its way to this point, and now I need to drag it to the conclusion. I will find many places to cut and other areas that need expansion.

This will require more work than if I had planned it and written to an outline, but I am glad I wrote it the way I did. NaNoWriMo 2020 was a good experience. It’s been a long time since I had a novel that insisted on writing itself.

9 Comments

Filed under writing

Revisions: Transitions #amwriting

When we rewrite something, we are making revisions. I love the word revision.

re + vision = to envision again.

When I’m making revisions, I try to look carefully at my transitions. These are the small connections that are woven into the larger narrative.

When we begin revising our manuscript, we are looking at small passages of our work with new eyes and seeing how they might be changed to better fit the story. Most times, I can condense them, but sometimes these scenes get expanded.

If it takes more than a paragraph to make the transition, I must be vigilant in my revision. If I must give information, I look for and change all the passive “code words” to active prose. I’ve posted this list before, but if you didn’t copy it then, here is your opportunity.

  • This is an image. Feel free to right-click and save this list as a .png or .jpg for your private use.

    All forms of To be (see the graphic to the right)–>

  • basically
  • Too many emdashes
  • Exclamation points (usually not needed)
  • Finally
  • I think
  • -ing
  • Its / it’s
  • –ize –ization (global search)
  • just
  • Like
  • -ly (global search)
  • now
  • Okay
  • Only
  • Really
  • Said (decide if speech tags can be eliminated and shown by actions)
  • Seem
  • Still
  • Suddenly
  • That (often not needed)
  • The
  • Then (often not needed)
  • There was (a subjunctive)
  • –tion (global search)
  • Very (usually not needed)
  • Which (not a substitute for ‘that’)

For example, when I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone is on the move.

They went, but how did they go?” Went can be changed to any number of verbs:

  • they walked (to the next room, or down the street, or to Mordor.)
  • they drove (a car, a wagon, a spaceship.)
  • they rode (a horse, donkey, motorcycle, or dragon.)
  • they took a plane (bus, ferry, space shuttle, or sleeping pill.)
  • they teleported (vanished into the ether)

Regrouping after an encounter with the antagonist or some other roadblock to success makes a logical transition scene. I see these transitions as opportunities to move the plot forward through conversation or introspection.

When the characters are trying to survive amid chaos, there must be order in the layout and pacing of the narrative, or the reader will become lost. This is called pacing, and it is a key aspect of good transitions.

Pacing is the rise and fall of the action, drama and transition, the ebb and flow of conversations.

  • action,
  • processing the action,
  • action again,
  • another connecting/regrouping scene

Regrouping transitions allow the reader to process what just happened in “real-time,”  experiencing it as if they were the characters.

Transitions provide us with opportunities to ratchet up the tension. They are also where we justify the events and show motives, making them believable.

Unfortunately, these are also places where it is easy to accidentally jump into the headspace of a  different point-of-view character, also known as head-hopping.

For this reason, in the revision process, it’s important to pay attention to who is talking and make sure we are only in their head for the entire scene.

One useful kind of transition is introspection, usually shown with internal dialogue. When done right, internal dialogue offers an opportunity, a brief segue in which new information necessary to the story can emerge.

  1. Introspection also allows the reader to see who the characters think they are. This is critical if you want the reader to bond with them.
  2. Introspection shows that the characters are self-aware.

I do suggest you keep the scenes of internal dialogue brief, or they can meltdown into an info dump. Also, as I’ve said elsewhere if you use italics to set thoughts off, I suggest your characters don’t do too much “thinking.” A wall of italics is hard to read, and we want the reader to stay with the story.

The overuse of weak words can derail transitions. These are any kind of qualifier or quantifier: just, a little, a bit, somewhat—these are words that show indecision. Active prose should not be indecisive.

Also, weak words can be action-stopping words: started to, began to— these are word combinations that slow and stall the action. They are passive, so if you want to write active prose, go lightly with them. Your characters shouldn’t begin to move. Have them move and be done with it.

And never forget to look for and possibly remove words that end in the letters ly: probably, actually, sympathetically, magically … etc.

These are weak, telling words. I spend a lot of time thinking of how to show what I mean rather than telling it. I go to the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and find stronger words that more clearly show what I am trying to say.

Whether you are ending a chapter or connecting a series of shorter scenes, dramatic passages have universal commonalities:

  • All scenes have an arc to them: rising action, climax, reaction.
  • These arcs of action and reaction begin at transition point A and end at transition point B.
  • Each scene will end at a slightly higher point of the overall story arc.

In some ways, I find that transitioning from one scene to the next is the most challenging aspect of making revisions. We can choose to end the scene with a hard break and start a new chapter, or smoothly flow into the next scene.

Either way, I hope I’ve written the scenes in such a way that they blend smoothly into the one that follows. This sometimes takes several attempts before I get it right, so if you also struggle with this, you are not alone.

6 Comments

Filed under writing

Self-editing: Action, Events, and Introspection #amwriting

If you are a member of any writers’ forum on Facebook or through a private group, you know that today’s authors are constantly prodded to emphasize the action in their narratives. For new, inexperienced authors, this can lead to an imbalance, a narrative where the characters aren’t allowed time for introspection.

An editor looks at the scenes to see how they fit into the narrative and to ensure they are in the right order and flow into each other well.

Sometimes, I see a manuscript where it seems as if a horrific event has been inserted for the sake of shock value. In the revision process, you should examine these scenes to see if they do their job.

  • Was the event foreshadowed well, or did it come out of nowhere?
  • Is the scene necessary to force change and growth on the protagonist?
  • How are her fundamental ethics and ideals challenged by this event?

A structural editor will tell you that if there is no personal cost or benefit to the protagonist or antagonist, there is no need for that scene.

Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time. You never know when you will need those ideas, so don’t throw them away—always keep the things you cut in a separate file. The fact that an idea doesn’t work for one book doesn’t mean it won’t work in another.

For my own work, I label that file “outtakes.” Having these unused scenes ready to adapt to other uses comes in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.

In the rush of writing the first draft, it can be easy to focus on setting traps and roadblocks for our protagonist and her nemesis. We forget that readers need a chance to process what we have written.

Events must force the character to grow. Creepy scenes must have a purpose. If your story absolutely must contain that scene, it must deeply affect the characters involved in it. Events must be catalysts for the character’s evolution and growth.

We may think we have written evolving characters, but they remain stagnant if you don’t allow the reader time to see that evolution and process it.

We’re all avid readers. Consider how your favorite authors in these genres connect their underlying themes with the action and growth of their protagonists, and how they allow the reader to process each event.

Political thrillers are set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. They feature political corruption, terrorism, and warfare as common themes. How the protagonist negotiates these situations and is affected by them is the story. Introspection is key to the reader’s understanding of the events and their root cause.

Romance Novels detail the developing relationship between two people and show how they overcome the roadblocks to happiness. Both the conflict and climax of the novel are directly related to the core theme of a romantic relationship with a happy conclusion. Without small chances for introspection, the reader won’t feel connected to the protagonist and their story.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative. This genre features introspective, in-depth studies of complex, fully developed characters. Action and setting are not the points here, although they frame the character and provide a visual perspective. In other words, opportunities for introspection are a key feature of literary fiction.

Science Fiction details realistic speculation about possible future events. All technology should be based solidly on knowledge of real world science, both past and present. A thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the Scientific Method is crucial. Events involving science and technology must be based on known and theoretically possible physics. Morality and the wider effects of  the choices we make are a strong theme in all science fiction. Without introspection, moral choices get lost.

Fantasy is my usual genre to write in. It is often set in an alternate, medieval, or ancient world. The common themes are good vs. evil, the hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Some fantasy is set in urban settings with paranormal tropes, but if that is the case, the author has similar constraints to those affecting the science fiction author. In urban fantasy, the reality must be true to life and contrast with the paranormal. This contrast highlights and emphasizes the fantasy elements.

These genres look widely different, but they all have one thing in common—they have protagonists and side characters who experience life-changing events. These moments become important to the reader.

In my mind, genre and setting are a picture-frame, a backdrop against which the themes that drive the action of the story are played out.

What is the underlying theme of your story? While you were laying down the first draft, did you notice a moral concept that was woven into the story? Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it the death of hope?

In the revision and editing process, we must identify the events that strengthen that theme, and frame them with moments of reflection.

Personal growth and the hero’s journey are often the central themes in my work. Those are the stories that hooked me as a young reader, and I still gravitate to them.

The idea of the heroic journey was first introduced by Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, writer, and lecturer, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949). In this ground-breaking work, he discusses the monomyth or what is called “the hero’s journey.”

He describes how this motif is historically the common pattern of humanity’s myths and legends. Each of these tales involves an unlikely hero going on an adventure. This hero, in a decisive crisis, wins a victory, then returns home changed or transformed.

I often use Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit as an example. When Bilbo Baggins faces the giant spiders, he also faces his own cowardice. Bilbo is amazed to find he has the courage to fight them.

That scene was the first step in his realization that his bravery doesn’t depend on the magic ring he found earlier. He is afraid, but he is not afraid to be courageous. This is a core concept of this book, and of the entire Lord of the Rings series.

What is important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Those are the themes you should be writing to, what your events must support. You must allow your reader the chance to consider how those events affect the protagonist, to absorb the theme and deeper personal meaning of that character’s journey.

In that way, you will hook the reader and keep them firmly in your world.

4 Comments

Filed under writing

Revisions and Self-editing: repetition and inconsistency #amwriting

I just finished reading book two of a three-part sub-series, set within a larger 21-book series. I enjoyed it but would have liked it more had the protagonist not repeated his back story aloud every time he was asked. That was a flaw that ran deep into book three. All that repetition just padded the word count.

All through this 21-book series, numerous proofing errors and random cut-and-paste-mistakes make it clear to me that few people other than the author see these manuscripts, and they aren’t professional editors. Yet, his work sells because he has marvelous characters and compelling storylines. He is now putting out four or more books a year and is published by TOR.

The Big 5 publishing giants are just as tempted to rush a manuscript to publication as we indies are, and editing sometimes falls by the way. However, if an indie publishes work as badly edited as that, the entire indie community suffers abuse.

Since the large publishing houses aren’t doing editing the way we always thought they did, it’s up to us to find the flaws before we submit our work to them or publish it ourselves.

When we lay down the first draft, the story emerges from our imagination and falls onto the paper (or keyboard). Even with an outline, the story is forming in our heads as we are writing it. While we think it is perfect as is, it probably isn’t.

The revision process is about far more than merely grammar and word placement. It is about making sure the story arc doesn’t flat-line.

Those who regularly read my blog know that I frequently repeat an idea, phrased just a bit differently further down the post. My elderly brain seems determined to make that point, no matter what. We all do this in our first drafts, and very few things are more “first draft” than a blog post.

Inadvertent repetition causes the story arc to dip. It takes us backwards rather than forward.  What I have discovered in my own work is that the second version of that idea is usually better than the first.

Last week, in my post called Revisions: Self-Editing, I talked about the way I do my revisions, how I try to get an unbiased view of my work. Basically, I print out each chapter. Beginning with the last paragraph on the last page, I work my way forward with a yellow highlighter.

Then I put the corrected copy on a recipe stand beside my computer and make the revisions in a new file. (I never delete the old files, because we never know when we might need something we have already written.)

Here are a few things that stand out when I do this:

  • Repetition of entire ideas, each instance worded slightly differently.
  • Inadvertent shifts in the spelling of names for people and places, such as Dyljan becomes Dyjan. (Keeping a style sheet of how names and created words are spelled and doing a global search for each before publishing resolves that.)
  • Places where I have contradicted myself, such as a town being north of the main character’s location, but they travel south to get there. Making a simple hand drawn map resolves the location problem if you remember to look at it.
  • Punctuation errors and missing quotation marks also stand out when printed.

The style sheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or keep minimized on my desktop until it’s needed. I copy and paste every invented word, hyphenated word, or name the first time they appear in my manuscript, and if I am conscientious, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale.

My editor is grateful that I make this list so that she doesn’t have to.

All the lists of words and things to look for, all my knowledge comes from having worked with editors who are passionate about writing. Many years ago, Maria gave me the list of weak words to watch for.

Carlie trained me out of using “that” as a crutch word.

Irene trained me to notice my inadvertent shifts in spelling and to love how grammar works. She kindled my desire to learn more about the craft.

Alison trained me not to be so thin-skinned and self-important.

If you have the resource of a good writing group, you are a bit ahead of the game. I suggest that you run each revised chapter by your group and hear what they have to say. Some of what you hear won’t be useful, but much will be.

And yes, you will have to make more revisions. I have discovered that the real work of writing comes after you have written the story.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

Revisions: Self-Editing #amwriting

Nowadays, all authors are financially responsible for getting their manuscript revised, edited, and proof-read, even if they intend to go the traditional route. Editors for the large publishing companies have a landslide of work to pick from, so they aren’t going to accept unedited messes, no matter how good the story is.

Hiring an editor is not cheap. Freelance editors are in business for themselves and must be paid for their work. Therefore, a 70,000 word manuscript can cost from around $700.00 or more to have edited, depending on the services you want.

An editor spends many hours combing the manuscript, so if you break their fees down to an hourly wage, they probably aren’t charging enough.

I always recommend that authors hire an editor if they can, because our eyes may skip typos and autocorrect errors in our own work. Those who are regular readers of my posts know that I am horrible at catching my typos and other errors.

We overlook the flaws in our work because we are as immersed in visualizing the scene as we were during the moments when we first wrote it. Our eyes see what we imagine to be there, rather than the typos or missing words.

Many editors offer a service called Beta Reading at a much more affordable price. Beta reads are helpful in identifying areas you may want to revise.

If you’re a member of a writers’ group, you have a resource of people who will beta read for you at no cost. As a member of that critique group, you will read for them too.

Be careful how you phrase your comments on their work. Be accurate and find positive things to point out as well as areas that need work. If you are harsh and dismissive, your work will receive that treatment in return.

Regardless, if you intend to publish what you write, you are responsible for making the line edits in your work.

If you are unable to afford a full professional edit, there is a way to make a pretty good stab at revising your own manuscript. However, it is time consuming, which is why an editor’s services are not cheap.

Open your Manuscript.

Break it into separate chapters by copying and pasting each individual chapter to a new document. Doing this preserves the original manuscript, and breaks it down into manageable chunks.

Save the chapters in a new file labeled with the word ‘revisions.’ For a current work-in-progress, I would label this new file: Barons_Hollow_revisions_02-12-2020

Clearly and consistently label each chapter. Make sure the chapter numbers are in the proper sequence, and that they don’t skip a number. For a work in progress, Baron’s Hollow, I labeled my individual chapter files this way:

  • BH_ch_1

Print out the first chapter. Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen.

  • Turn to the last page. Cover the page, leaving only the last paragraph visible.
  • Starting with the last paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.
  • Look for typos and garbled sentences.
  • With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction.

YOU MUST UNDERSTAND AND OBEY THE BASIC RULES OF GRAMMAR.

First, you need something called a style guide. As an editor, I regularly refer to my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. If you are an author writing fiction you someday hope to publish, and have questions about sentence construction and word usage, this is the book for you.

The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living changing language, and when generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.

A less expensive option you might consider investing in is Bryan A. Garner’s Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. This is a resource with all the answers to questions you might have regarding grammar and sentence structure. It takes the CMOS and boils it down to just the grammar.

For quick reference, here is a list of links to articles I’ve posted on the basics of grammar:

Authors are like everyone else. We get tired and sometimes take shortcuts.

Punctuation is not an area where we can cut corners. Punctuation serves as the traffic signals, keeping the words flowing at a good rate, and avoiding verbal chaos.

Those who  think the common rules of grammar don’t matter to readers are doing their work and their reputation a disservice.

You don’t have to be perfect, but readers want to enjoy the book, not struggle through rambling, garbled sentences.

Self-editing is not an easy task. As a rule, I don’t recommend it, because we authors see what we want to see. However, the costs of such services place severe constraints on some of us. This means that hiring an editor is out of reach for some.

With that in mind, on Monday we will look at how the placement of words, both nouns and verbs, affects the flow of our narrative.

13 Comments

Filed under writing

Revising the NaNoWriMo Novel Part 2 Word Choices #amwriting

No one writes perfect prose every time. Occasionally, even award-winning authors write an awkward description in the middle of an otherwise gripping passage. Consider this pearl, a quote from one of my favorite books dropped in the middle of an otherwise powerful, well-conceived battle scene:

A screaming black arrow knocks down yet another attacker. [1]

The narrative is written in an unusual mode, one this particular author, L.E. Modesitt Jr., uses in many of his books: Third person present tense. I have read this book several times, and there are several proofing errors, but that line in the final battle has always tripped my eye.

It’s a “first draft” telling line, a signal to the author indicating an intensity of emotion he wanted to convey in a ship-to-ship battle. I suspect he was in the zone and writing as quickly as he could. The many proofing errors in this book, much as I love it, told me that editors, even those working for a publishing giant like Tor, are fallible human beings. When an author is pushed to become a book producing machine, proofing and editing can suffer.

So how could we write a scene about a hazardous inanimate object and convey a sense of imminent danger without resorting to words that don’t quite fit? First, we must understand that these are the places where getting the prose right takes time, and sometimes, many attempts.

In a conversation, it’s easy to convey a sense of fear and peril. Danger seen through a character’s eyes is easily done—describe the shock and gut reactions and move on.

Danger described from an outside view (third person) is more difficult. In a fight or battle, sounds, visuals, and smells must be employed.

And this is where it gets tricky: for me as a reader, the best fight or battle scenes have both personal witness and third person narrative.

Hollywood has been quite good at portraying battle scenes with some degree of accuracy, although not always. In the movies, arrows arc, rain down and sometimes flash. They whiz past, and sometimes they appear in the victim’s back, seemingly out of nowhere. In the movies, they travel slowly.

But, in real life the arrow strikes the target nearly immediately after leaving the bow, even at a longer distance. An arrow is not as fast as a bullet, but they are fast.

My friend Michael, who is an archer, tells me that arrows, both ancient and modern, do make a sound, depending on how they are fletched (the feathers). The hissing sound as it passes the human ear varies from nearly inaudible to soft, depending on who fletched them and what style of fletching they used.

What you will hear is the snapping sound the bow makes when the archer lets the arrow fly, followed closely by the sound the arrow makes when striking a hard target. An arrow striking a soft target like a human or animal would make a sickening sound, but one that is not loud.

In my opinion, screaming is the wrong sound for arrows.

But it is an appropriate sound for the victim that was shot by the arrow.

There must be a certain amount of telling. What is the balance between telling and showing?

In describing, we must choose our words carefully. Examine the logic of your descriptions. How do we both show and tell in a balanced way?

In War and Peace, Tolstoy conveyed the feeling of each cannon ball hitting the ground and exploding, without resorting to clichés and awkward descriptors. Andrew Kaufman is the author of Understanding Tolstoy and Give War And Peace A Chance says:

“You see, hear, and feel everything in Tolstoy’s world: glistening sunrises, whining cannonballs, exhilarating troika races, glorious births, brutal deaths, and everything in between.” [2]

Good, immersive prose requires showing in such a way that the reader isn’t blown out of the scene. This means a small amount of telling is required. For that, we’ll go to Tolstoy’s War and Peace again. This quote, written in the same third person present tense as Modesitt’s quote, is an observation, a way of both telling and showing the reader what is goes on in the subconscious mind.

“When a man sees a dying animal, horror comes over him: that which he himself is, his essence, is obviously being annihilated before his eyes — is ceasing to be.” [3]

In that one sentence, Tolstoy shows us that in Napoleon’s time, soldiers weren’t the only casualties of war. A cavalry is made up of soldiers on horses. This means that living animals went to battle and were killed too.

Tolstoy gives us the visceral experience of witnessing a horse’s death but allows us to contemplate what death means on a human level. He uses powerful words that evoke deep emotion: dying, horror, essence, annihilated.

Witnessing the death of a horse brings us closer to understanding how frail a soldier’s grasp on life is when in the midst of a battle.

Modern writers would cut the words obviously being, but despite having been written 160 years ago, the sentence has power.

Word choices are especially important in action adventures. Strong, powerful words can make or break a sentence. To revise properly, we must step back from the manuscript for several days or even weeks.

Then we come back to the manuscript and consider the visual logic of our descriptions.

We move verbs to the front of sentences, placing them before the nouns so that most sentences lead off with action words.

In the second draft, we eliminate the many insidious forms of was and to be. They’re insidious because they’re signals to the author, saying that something needs to be made active. But they can slide under the radar in the editing process and end up in the final product.

It takes work and perseverance, to find the words that correctly evoke the emotions we want to convey.

But that is what good writing is about.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from The Magic Engineer, by L.E. Modesitt Jr., 1994; A Tor Book, Published by Tom Doherty and Associates, LLC. Fair Use.

[2] Quote from Andrew Kaufman, The Only Classic Needed for Modern Times © 2014 Off the Shelf, Simon and Schuster, Inc. Fair Use.

[3] Quote from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, PD|100. First published by The Russian Messenger (serial).

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Sculpting the second draft #amwriting

The end of NaNoWriMo approaches. Many novels have been written, and many are still incomplete. And when we do finally write the last words, we will get that happy-dance feeling, that moment where the world is singing.

Following that burst of joy, we have the urge to immediately share it. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it.

We need to gain some distance from our work to see it more clearly, so put it aside. If you work on something else for a couple of weeks, or even a month or two, you will gain a better perspective on what you just finished, and your revisions will bring out the best in your work.

Writers tell me all the time how new and intriguing characters pop up and take their tale in a different direction. Sometime this works out well. Other times, not so much. I floundered for years on my first novel, only to have it never be published.

So, when we do get back to our manuscript, where do we start so we can avoid the failed novel syndrome? I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a novel, which is clear when you look at that old ms.  I didn’t know that we are like sculptors. The first draft is not the finished product–it really is our block of clay.

I know—you see a complete novel, but trust me, others won’t see what you do in it, just yet. When a sculptor sees a block of clay, she also sees what it can become. She begins scraping the layers away, and that is what we must do.

We scrape the layers away scene by scene. As you revise, keep in mind:

  1. Each chapter is made up of scenes. It might be one scene or several strung together.
  2. These scenes have an arc to them: action and reaction.
  3. These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B.
  4. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.
  5. Strung together, these scenes form the entire story arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

If somewhere near the middle you discover that you have lost the overall plot of your novel, remind yourself what the original idea was. This happens to me for several reasons.

First, it can happen because I deviate from the outline, and while my new idea is better, it lacks something. I can

  • Go back to the original idea and rewrite it so that it conforms to that outline.
  • Try to figure out why the plot has failed.

More often, I have to ask myself, did the original quest turn out to be a MacGuffin?

Every story has a quest of some sort. It can be a personal quest for enlightenment or a quest for the Holy Grail. No matter what, the characters want something, and that thing must be sharply defined.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the name “MacGuffin” in the 1930s. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations. Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The Maltese Falcon is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The object of the quest might not be the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessy, two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

If the quest has become a MacGuffin, the effect that searching for it has on the characters must be clearly shown. The true quest is not for the object. It is for power, love, money, or personal growth and must be given more prominence.

As we are peeling back the layers of our rough draft, what symbolism have we subconsciously inserted into the story that we can work with? Once we identify the symbolic aspect of the plot, we must amplify it. Symbolism is a powerful tool and is part of the subtext that pushes the story forward. In my opinion, one of the most masterful uses of symbolism happens in the film, The Matrix.

In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer.

Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is a symbol, an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.

What is the deeper story? With each pass through our manuscript, we are sharpening the final product, scraping away from this part and adding over here, rewording and redefining as we go.

Ultimately, we will have exposed the core of our original vision, revealed the parts we couldn’t articulate at first. Some things only become clearer to us as we dig deeper.

This is why, while many people can write, not just anyone can write well. It takes patience and time to cut away the fat and bring out the true story that needs to be told. It also takes practice. Digging the deeper story out doesn’t happen overnight.

A first draft is our block of clay, and after much effort, the final draft is our finished sculpture.


Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).

5 Comments

Filed under writing

Final Revisions #amwriting

The question came up in a professional Indie writers’ group I frequent on Facebook: Do I need to get an editor for my final manuscript or is a good proofread enough?

The overwhelming answer was a resounding “Yes!”

I am an editor but I always have my final manuscript edited by a professional editor, and I get a final proofread by members of my writing support group before I hit the publish button. As authors, we never see all our own mistakes although we catch many. We see what we intended to write rather than what is written. We misread clumsy sentences and overlook words that are missing or are included twice in a row. Our brain fills in the missing words and doesn’t notice when we use ‘its’ rather than ‘it’s,’ or ‘their’ rather than ‘they’re’ or ‘there.’

Also, we tend to overlook clumsy and inadvertently awkward phrasing.

  • Her eyes rolled over her host’s attire.
  • Delicious sounds assaulted his eardrums.

We overlook little things like those examples in our own work because we are visualizing the scene as we read it, and to us, they convey what we are thinking. We can’t see our own work with an unbiased eye, any more than we can see our children with an unbiased eye.

If you are unable to afford a full edit, and they are not cheap, there is a way to make a pretty good stab at revising your own manuscript, but it is time consuming. If you aren’t going to hire an editor, you should consider investing in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. This is a resource with all the answers for questions you might have regarding grammar and sentence structure.

To do a thorough revision of your manuscript:

  1. Print out the first chapter. Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen.
  2. Turn to the last page. Cover the page, leaving only the last paragraph visible.
  3. Starting with the last paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.
  4. With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction.
  5. Look for
    • Typos,
    • Missing quotation marks,
    • Punctuation that is outside of the quotations.

Wrong: “dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house”. Said Toto. I went with her”.

Right: “Dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house,” said Toto. “I went with her.”

  • Words that are spelled correctly but are the wrong word – there-their-they’re, etc.
  • Look up “comma splice” and eliminate them from your manuscript.
  • Remove repetitions of entire ideas. If you explained it once, that was probably all you needed.
  • Check for repetitious use of certain key words and phrasing.
  • Eliminate all timid phrasing and remove unnecessary words. That and very are two words that can often be cut and not replaced with anything. Often cutting them makes a sentence stronger.

An editor points out and encourages you to correct all instances of timid phrasing. Timid phrasing leads to wordiness, and we really want to avoid that. Overuse of forms of to be (is, are, was, were) also lead to wordiness. Long, convoluted passages rife with compound sentences turn away most readers.

To avoid wordiness, use action words (verbs) in place of forms of to be. In active prose, our characters don’t begin (start) to move. Instead, they move. They act as opposed to beginning or starting to act.

  1. Open your manuscript on your computer and make your corrections.
  2. Repeat these steps with every chapter.

If you notice a few flaws in your manuscript in your final pass but think no one will be bothered by them, you’re wrong. Readers always notice the things that stop their eye.

In my own work, I have discovered that if a passage seems flawed, but I can’t identify what is wrong with it, my eye wants to skip it. But another person will see the flaw, and they will show me what is wrong there. This is why this editor always has a professional editor go over her manuscripts.

Once you have finished revising your manuscript in this fashion, have it proofread by a member of your writing group. If you are in a critique group, you have a great resource in your fellow authors as proof readers—they will spot things you have overlooked your work just as you do in theirs.

Editors do more than point out comma errors–they will make a note of incongruities, and contradictions.  They will also note inconsistent style and usage. When a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and that pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a style sheet.

The style sheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or  keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and past every invented word, hyphenated word, or name the first time they appear in my manuscript, and if I am conscientious, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale. My editor is grateful that I make this list so that she doesn’t have to!

Be aware that it is not an edit if you have done it yourself–it is only a deep revision. The best we can do with our own work is to keep revising it until it is as clean as we can make it. (See my article of June 20, 2018 – Thoughts on Revisions and Self-editing.) Only an external eye can see our work with an unbiased eye and properly edit it. But with diligence and the assistance of your critique group, it is possible to make good revisions yourself and you can turn out an acceptable book that a casual reader will enjoy.

I hope these suggestions help you in your revision process. We want our work to be enjoyable by the casual reader, and if we are conscientious in the final stages, we can turn out a readable manuscript that is not rife with easily fixable errors.

17 Comments

Filed under writing

Thoughts on revisions and self-editing #amwriting

New and beginning authors often (loudly) assert their ability to edit their own work. If you are “editing” your own manuscript, you have a fool for a client. There is no such thing as self-editing—the best you can do is make revisions and admire your work. For that reason, we need other eyes on our work.

As authors, we see what we intended to write rather than what was written. We misread clumsy sentences and overlook words that are missing or are included twice in a row.  If you are in a critique group, you have a great resource in your fellow authors—they will spot things you have overlooked your work just as you do in theirs.

The first draft of any manuscript is the story as it flowed out of your mind and onto the paper. Yes, there is life and energy in your words, but your manuscript is not publishable at this stage, no matter how many times you go over it.

You need an unbiased eye upon your work, or your book will be published with typos, awkward sentences, dropped words—the list of inadvertent errors goes on.

Every author needs someone to read their work before it is published. Just because I can see six instances of the word ‘long’ in one paragraph of someone else’s work does not mean that I will spot it in my own.

To the author in the first flush of victory, the completed first draft of his manuscript is a thing of beauty, a flawless diamond to be cherished and adored.  It is the child of their creative muse and is perfect in every way.

Let us consider the word ‘that.’ The following passage is from one of my original manuscripts as it emerged from the first draft in 2008, ten years ago.

 Jeanne was not upset over something that he had not done or not said. Now he sensed that it was a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt that she was feeling.

In just two sentences, my stream-of-consciousness writing included 3 instances of the word ‘that’ and 3 of ‘not.’  Yet, in my own mind, it was as good as I could make it. I didn’t see those unnecessary words.

This is how that paragraph read in my mind and is how I would write it now, ten years on:

Jeanne wasn’t upset over something he had done or said. He sensed she felt a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt.

I began working with an editor in 2012, and that is when I truly began to grow as an author. Each time they showed me where I had gone wrong, I learned from it and gradually, my stream-of-consciousness writing improved. I use fewer unnecessary words, and my prose is leaner.

Better writing habits are learned over time by writing regularly and by consciously applying the tricks and tips you learn from other authors.

Once your writing/critique group has given you their best opinions on your manuscript and you have revised it to your best ability, you need an editor. Ask other authors who they might recommend as an editor and see if you can work well with that person.

Your editor will likely point some things out that you didn’t see, but that a reader will.  At that point, you might be slightly shocked and hurt, but if you’re smart you’ll consider each comment and make your revisions accordingly.

Once you see your work through someone else’s unbiased eyes, you will be able to take your story to the next level.

The fact is, unless you can accept criticism, your work will never be what you want it to be. You must be open to viewing your work the way the reader will see it. You’re not obligated to follow every suggestion an editor makes, but 9 times out of 10 I make changes along the lines they suggest because when I look at the problem area, I can see exactly what they meant.

Writing seems like a solitary craft, and much of the time it is. However, joining a local writing support group or a critique group will give you a sounding board that costs you nothing, but from which you will reap many benefits.

28 Comments

Filed under writing