Tag Archives: making effective revisions

Three Grammar Rules We Know but Don’t Know We Know #amwriting

In English, as in other languages, certain rules of speech are learned so early on in life that they are instinctual. No matter the level of our education or the dialect we speak, we use these rules and don’t know we are doing so.

to err is human to edit divineToday I am revisiting three wonderful quotes on these rules from linguist Steven Pinkereditor Stan Carey, and Tim Dowling, a journalist for The Guardian.

The Jolly Green Giant rule:

The rule is that multiple adjectives are always ranked accordingly: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech. You simply can’t say My Greek Fat Big Wedding, or leather walking brown boots. And yet until last week, I had no idea such a rule existed. Tim Dowling, for The Guardian, Sept 13, 2016. [1]

My editor often finds and points out words whose order must be rearranged to sound natural. Inadvertently putting our words in the wrong order is why some sentences seem clumsy when you read them. The author wrote them that way when they were in the middle of laying down the first draft of the manuscript and didn’t notice it during the revision process.

It happens because, in the first draft, we are madly getting the words out of our heads. In the rush to get the thoughts down, words emerge in the wrong order. My red large Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. 

Muddled phrasings often slip by when we revise our work because our minds automatically put the words in the correct order. This is the writer’s curse—we see what should be there, the eye skipping over what we actually wrote.

This ability to see a finished product is a necessary facet of the creative instinct. But it is a curse to see our work as intended and not as it is. The naïve belief in the perfection of our work is why we need an unbiased eye to read our work and point out those rough areas.

My large red Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. 

Ferrari_Portofino_M_IMG_4351Actually, my large dirty minivan is not as comfortable to ride in as it used to be. Grandma’s imaginary red Ferrari would be a lot more fun, but alas—if wishes were Ferraris, my driveway would look a lot fancier.

In every language, native speakers automatically order their words in specific ways. In English, we order them this way:

  1. opinion,
  2. size,
  3. age,
  4. shape,
  5. color,
  6. origin,
  7. material,
  8. purpose

Shannon’s light blue wool jacket was left behind.

The Mishmash rule:

“Reduplication” is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-ayemishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit. Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012. [2]

Have I mentioned how much I adore mishmash words? They roll off the tongue with a kind of rhythm and musicality. Sadly, while I regularly entertain my youngest grandchildren with them, I hardly ever get to write them. Mishmash. Hip-hop.

The Hip-Hop rule:

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Have you ever wondered why we say fiddle-faddle and not faddle-fiddle? Why is it ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than pong-ping and patter-pitter? Why dribs and drabs rather than vice versa? Why can’t a kitchen be span and spic? Whence riff-raff, mishmash, flim-flam, chit-chat, tit for tat, knick-knack, zig-zag, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, criss-cross, shilly-shally, seesaw, hee-haw, flip-flop, hippity-hop, tick-tock, tic-tac-toe, eeny-meeny-miney-moe, bric-a-brac, clickey-clack, hickory-dickory-dock, kit and kaboodle, and bibbity-bobbity-boo? The answer is that the vowels for which the tongue is high and in the front always come before the vowels for which the tongue is low and in the back. (Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994:167) [3]

So, you now have a mishmash of words, three rules native speakers of English know and use without consciously thinking about it. Wonky word order is just one more thing to watch for when revising our work.


Media: Ferrari Portofino,  Alexander Migl, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Tim Dowling, Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realizing, © The Guardian 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/sentence-order-adjectives-rule-elements-of-eloquence-dictionary (accessed 25 May 2018)

[2] Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012 © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2009-2018. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/a-hotchpotch-of-reduplication (accessed 25 May 2018)

[3] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: HarperPerennial.


Filed under writing

Codewords and Mental Shorthand #amwriting

Many of us are in the revision process, working on the novels we wrote during November’s NaNoWriMo. These novels are disjointed and uneven, but they contain the essence of what can be a great book—with a lot of work.

depthPart1revisionsLIRF05252021On November 1st, when we began setting the first words on the blank page, our minds formed images, scenes we attempted 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.

For each author, certain words become a kind of mental shorthand, code words used with frequency in the first draft because they are efficient. Code words are small packets of letters that contain a world of images and meaning for us. These words help us get the story down more quickly when we are in the grip of creativity. Code 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.

I have mentioned before that one codeword I sometimes find in my first draft prose is the word “got.” It’s a word that my family used and is ingrained in my subconsciousness as a tool word.

It is a tool word because it serves numerous purposes and conveys many images with only three letters. “Got” is on my global search list of codewords. The words in the list are signals to me, indications that a scene needs to be reworded to express my true intent.

Got can signify understanding or comprehension, as in “she got it.” Some other instances where I might use “got” as a code word for my second draft:

  • He got the dog into the car. (put, placed)
  • He got the mail. (acquired)
  • He got (became) In an instance like this, an entire scene must be written, one I didn’t take the time to write during the rush of NaNoWriMo.

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

Every author thinks differently, so your codewords will be different from mine. One way to find your secret codewords is to have the Read Aloud tool read each section. I find most of my inadvertent crutch words that way. When you hear them read aloud, they really stand out.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusOnce you find them, you need to go to the thesaurus to find alternatives that better express your intent.

A first draft codeword high up 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

We all overuse certain words without realizing it. That is where revisions come in and is where writing takes effort. You’ll discover that some words have very few synonyms that work.

When you discover one of your first draft codewords, go to the thesaurus, 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.

Consider the word “smile.” It’s a common code word, a five-letter packet of visualization. We can use it to show happiness, but also it can suggest so many other moods and unspoken emotions.

Synonyms for the word smile are few and usually don’t show what I mean. When I find that word, it sometimes requires a complete revisualization of the scene. What am I really trying to convey with the word smile? I look for a different way to express my intention, which can be frustrating.

Facial expressions are only one of the many ways to display happiness, anger, spite, and other emotions. We shouldn’t rely only on a character’s face to show their moods.

Yes, their eyebrows raise or draw together, foreheads crease, and eyes sometimes twinkle. However, posture conveys a great deal. Shoulders sometimes slump, and hands often tremble. Sometimes characters refuse to look at the person they are speaking with.

Sometimes the brief image of a smile is the best expression to convey your intention.

Nothing is more off-putting than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage. As a reader, I’m more concerned with what is happening inside the characters than about the melodramatic outward display.

Think about the 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 show all the vivid imagery you see in your mind.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alIf you don’t have it already, a 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 know how to show what people are thinking.

The revision process is sometimes the most challenging aspect of writing because we are also looking at scene composition and framing (which was covered in my previous post). It takes time to revisualize each scene when we are also looking for codewords and rewriting entire paragraphs.

But codewords don’t always need changing—sometimes, a smile is a smile, and that is okay.


Filed under writing

The garden-path sentence #amwriting

As NaNoWriMo winds down, I am preparing to face a manuscript full of wandering, garbled sentences. These are the products of my fingers not being able to keep up with my brain. I might know what that sentence means, but my editor won’t. My job in December is to be alert and watch for ambiguous phrasings.

MyWritingLife2021About garden-path sentences, via Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

(The term) garden path refers to the saying “to be led down the garden path,” meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced.

After reading, the sentence seems ungrammatical and makes almost no sense, requiring rereading to fully understand its meaning after careful parsing.” [1]

In this case, confusion arises because we attempt to understand sentences as we are reading them. The “garden-path sentence” begins by taking you toward a particular destination. Midway through, it takes a turn for the bizarre.

There are two types of garden-path sentences.  The first is a “local ambiguity,” meaning it can be cleared up easily with the addition of a word or punctuation, such as:

“The raft floated down the river sank.” Add one word to make it clear: “The raft that floated down the river sank.”

“We told the man the dog bit a medic could help him.” Add two words for clarity: “We told the man whom the dog bit that a medic could help him.”

Wikipedia offers this example: “The old train the young fight.” Adding a comma reads: “The old train, the young fight.” The addition of the comma makes sense of the words. One could also argue that the sentence means “The old train the young to fight.”

The other type of garden-path sentence is “globally ambiguous” because the meaning stays unclear no matter how many times you reread it when it is taken out of context.

A sentence should be understandable even when removed from its context. Wikipedia offers the sentence: “The cat was found by the shed by the gardener.”

Hydrangea_cropped_July_11_2017_copyright_cjjasperson_2017 copyWhen I have asked a beta reader to read a section of my work, they sometimes flag a paragraph as unclear. It might make perfect sense to me, but if I am the only one who understands it, it’s time to tear that paragraph down to see if each sentence can stand on its own.

Sara’s missing cat was found by the shed by the gardener. Mittens was frightened and hungry but safe.

Let’s break that paragraph down sentence by sentence:

  • Sara’s missing cat was found by the shed by the gardener.
  • Mittens was frightened and hungry but safe.

The first sentence is passive and ambiguous, open to interpretation. Was the cat by the shed? Or was the shed by the gardener? Or were the cat and the gardener both next to the shed?

Once I’ve taken it out of context, it’s easy to see why the reader didn’t understand it.

Usually, a simple rewording to make my phrasing more active is all that is required.

The gardener found Sara’s cat near the shed. Mittens was frightened and hungry but safe.

Often, a new author has been criticized for using the relative pronoun ‘that’ too freely. Thin-skinned and bleeding profusely, they will go to any length to avoid using the word that, which can lead to awkwardly phrased sentences.

Relative pronouns have a fundamental place in English. While it’s easy to turn them into crutch words, they are essential words that make nouns specific.

  • That dog bites, so watch out.
  • Harry Potter was the boy who lived.

The way to resolve the garden-path sentence is to:

  • Insert a relative pronoun (such as “that” or “who”) for clarity.
  • Insert proper punctuation for clarity.
  • Reword the sentence to make the prose active.

Readers want to read without bumps and hiccups. Anytime they have to stop and reread something, you risk losing them. Sentences that are ambiguous stop the eye, which throws the reader out of the story.

Clementines_Astoria_White_Hydrangea2019I don’t want to introduce vagueness into my work. Just because I like what I wrote doesn’t mean it has to stay in the finished product. Maybe I don’t see that it’s confusing, but my friends who read my raw manuscripts will.

Every time I participate in NaNoWriMo and then take that manuscript through revisions, my first draft skills become a little stronger. I write stronger sentences in my first drafts and have to make fewer changes, which feels like a victory.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Garden-path sentence,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Garden-path_sentence&oldid=1053287156 (accessed November 28

Comments Off on The garden-path sentence #amwriting

Filed under writing

Successful Self-Editing #amwriting

Books are machines, comprised of many essential components. If one of those elements fail, the book won’t work the way the author envisions it. So, what are these parts?

no_graceful_way_outLIRF02212021Prose, plot, transitions, pacing, theme, characterization, dialogue, and mechanics (grammar/punctuation).

As an editor, I’ve seen every kind of mistake you can imagine and written many travesties myself. This tendency to not see the flaws in our own work is why I have an editor. I need someone with a critical eye to see my work before publication.

I am in the process of revising my Accidental Novel, prepping it to send to my editor. I have a three-part method, using specific tools that come with my word-processing program.

Phase one: the initial read-through. This stage is put into action once I have completed the revisions suggested by my beta readers. At this point, the manuscript looks finished, but it has only just begun the journey.

I use Microsoft Word. On the Review Tab, I access the Read Aloud function and begin reading along with the mechanical voice. Yes, it’s annoying and doesn’t always pronounce things right, but this first tool shows me a wide variety of places that need rewriting.

ReviewTabLIRF07032021I use this function rather than reading it aloud myself, as I tend to see and read aloud what I think should be there rather than what is.

  1. I habitually key the word though when I mean through. These are two widely different words but are only one letter apart. Most miss-keyed words will leap out when you hear them read aloud.
  2. Run-on sentences stand out when you hear them read aloud.
  3. Inadvertent repetitions also stand out.
  4. Hokey phrasing doesn’t sound as good as you thought it was.
  5. You hear where you have dropped words because you were keying so fast you skipped over including an article, like “the” or “a” before a noun.

This is a long process that involves a lot of stopping and starting, taking me a week to get through the entire 90,000-word manuscript. By the end of phase one, I will have trimmed about 3,000 words.

Phase Two: The Manual Edit

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingThis phase is where I find my punctuation errors most often. I look for and correct punctuation and make notes for any other improvements that must be made. Usually, I cut entire sections, as they are riffs on ideas that have been presented before. Sometimes they are outright repetitions, which don’t leap out when viewed on the computer screen.

  1. Open your manuscript. Break it into separate chapters, and make sure each is clearly and consistently labeled. Make certain 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 chapter files this way:
  • BH_ch_1
  • BH_ch_2
  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 or hear when the voice reads it aloud.
  2. Turn to the last page. Cover the page with another sheet of paper, 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. Put the corrected chapter on a recipe stand next to your computer. Open your document and begin making revisions as noted on your hard copy.

This is the phase where I look for what I think of as code words. I look at words like “went.” In my personal writing habits, “went” is a code word that tells me when a scene ends and transitions to another stage. The characters or their circumstances are undergoing a change. One scene is ending, and another is beginning.

In fact, all info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words are codes for the author, laid down in the first draft.

Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. In the rewrite, I must expand on those ideas and ensure the prose is active. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.

I look for all of the eight forms of the verb “be” and change that passive phrasing to make it active if possible. The forms of “be” are subjunctives and are tricky words. They’re necessary in some cases, but not always and can become crutches.

Be_Eight_Forms_LIRF05122019Passive phrasing does the job with little effort on the part of the author, which is why the first drafts of my work are littered with it. Active phrasing takes more effort because it involves visualizing a scene and showing it to the reader.

For example, when I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone goes somewhere. But “went” is a telling word and is passive phrasing. I ask myself, “How do they go?” Went can always be shown as a scene. Loretta opened the door, gave Burt the finger, and strode out.

By the end of phase two, I will have trimmed about 3,000 more words from my manuscript.

Phase three is the step that only works if you have an understanding of grammar and industry practices. Currently, at this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function.

You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.

Tools like spellcheck don’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it probably won’t alert you to an obvious error.

  • There, their, they’re.
  • To, too, two.
  • Its, it’s.

In the third phase of prepping my work to send to my editor, I go over each chapter one more time, this time using Grammarly. I have also used ProWriting Aid. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.

Context is critical. I am wary of relying on Grammarly or ProWriting Aid for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

If you don’t know anything about punctuation, don’t feel alone. Most of us don’t when we’re first starting out, and if this is your case, your best bet is to avoid these programs.

chicago guide to grammarUse that money to invest in a book like the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and learn how grammar works.

Good editing software is not cheap. But for my specific needs, it has been a worthwhile investment. If you do choose to invest in some, use common sense when reviewing the program’s suggestions.

This three-part process can take more than a month. When I’ve finished, I’ll have a manuscript to send my editor that won’t be full of distractions. She’ll be able to focus on finding as much of what I have missed as is humanly possible.

Hopefully, between the two of us, I’ll have a decent book to publish early in 2022.



Filed under writing

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:


  • 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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under writing