I love THAT

that

For the past few months, I’ve been engaged in the writerly task of editing four books. I do this full-time for about 14 hours a day, divvying the tasks up into four categories: 1) borderline boring, 2) terribly tedious, 3) downright dreary, and 4) mega mind-numbing. That way I can mix them up for a little variety.

One of the editing passes that I undertake is the arduous process of “enlivening my words.” I use the search function on Word to look up dull words and one by one swap them out for more interesting ones. At the tippity-top of the humdrum list is “was.” An exceedingly handy verb but not a writer’s best friend. I allow myself an average of one “wuz” per page. This means looking up about 600 wuzzes and switching 300 of them out. For 4 books, I’ll comb through approximately 2,400 wuzzes.  Ack!

I have 33 wimpy, weak, crutch words that I put through this process, none as dreadful as “was” though “had” ranks right up there in second place. It takes forever.

I’ve completed all my swaps except for the last – Word #33: THAT.

For some reason that I can’t explain, I just love that word. I could write that word in every sentence that I write. And that’s a problem. Plus that’s a word that’s hard to replace without completely changing the way that a sentence is written. I know that other writers can figure that out without that much trouble, but that’s easier said than done. For me, that’s an editing step that takes tons of time that I could use to make other changes that would improve my work.

Good Grief. Ha ha.

Okay, I gotta cut this out so I can cut that out. Wish me luck – only about 3,000 to go.

Should You Edit Your Published Book?

When to edit

Like just about anything we do (paint, cook, dance, carpentry, write) we get better with practice. We learn better methods, the tricks of the trade, how to blend color and spices, cut a rug and cut a bevel.

We learn how to craft a tight plot and rich characters, show versus tell, reduce dialog tags, choose verbs, kill the adverbs. If we’re lucky, we get strong feedback from editors, critiquers, and beta readers. We take courses, read books on writing, and write, write, write.

Knowing that improvement is a given, the books we wrote five years ago might not look as polished as those we write today.

As I reclaimed my publishing rights from my publisher, I planned to reread my books to correct typos and buff them up a bit. I didn’t expect to do much rewriting – after all, the books were edited and they’ve received decent reviews.

I started reading … uh oh.

Look at all those adverbs…
Erm, telling words…
Yeesh, I could eliminate a lot of these dialog tags…
Hmm, this section doesn’t really advance the plot…
Oh dear, kind of wordy…

So the books got a much closer look than I intended, and I’m glad I made the effort. This exercise got me thinking about two editing questions related to previously published books.

yes-238378_960_720When is a re-edit of a previously published book a good idea:

After a while, most authors develop an inner “knowing” as to when their story is done, and it’s usually based on the writer’s current level of skill. It’s as good as they can write it at the time.

Thus, our first books are often, not always, a little beastly. And this speaks to why editorial feedback is so vital, particularly early in one’s career. I know this from experience; my first book was a warty little troll before an editor got her eager hands on it for a makeover.

Fortunately, like most skills we tackle, we make gigantic leaps forward in the beginning and then start to level off when we near our peaks. For this reason, revisiting previously published books makes the most sense after we are a few years into our writing careers. By then, we have pages of experience crammed in our back pockets.

Another time to revisit a previously published book is when it has few or mostly negative reviews. Early works may need anything from a major developmental edit of plot and structure to a simple scrubbing for grammar and flow. If a book didn’t run through an editor’s gauntlet the first time, it’s not too late.

As authors, we might weigh the impact of leaving older books out there if they’re not reflective of our current skill. The last thing we want is for a reader, once snagged, to walk away and miss the awesome talent infusing our later works. It’s a confidence boost to polish up the weakest links in our backlist chains.

no-238376_960_720When to stop re-editing a book (published or otherwise):

Your novel is done. Finally! But wait; maybe you should give it a last read-through for typos. Then there was that scene in Chapter 7 that gave you so much trouble. Just one more look. Wa-la! Oh, darn, there’s a telling word; are there more? What if I can cut another thousand words; maybe describe their clothing less; nobody cares about clothing. Okay, done! Maybe my protagonist should have a goatee…

Some writers never publish because they never stop editing. The editing loop can roll on forever and ever … even after publishing. Knowing when to stop isn’t always easy, but it’s important.

Here are some reasons to stop editing:

1. There is no such thing as a perfectly written book. And even if there was, someone would hate it. 90% Perfect and shared with the world is better than 100 percent perfect and wallowing in your head.

2. Endless revisions take time away from writing something new!

3. Over-editing can dull your pov characters’ distinct voices. This is especially dangerous when you’re editing in bits and pieces and lose the narrative flow.

4. You’ve done your major developmental edits, content edits, stylistic edits and proofing, and now you are increasing rather than reducing the word count.

5. Instead of improving your book you are only making it different. And maybe making it worse.

6. You haven’t taken a break from your book in a year. Time to let the beast sit for a month or so. You’re way too up-close and personal with your novel and both of you need some space to relax and think rationally.

7. You started the book when your kids were in diapers and they just graduated college.

8. You hate looking at your book and the thought of rehashing it one more time makes you want to barf. Time to shut it down.

Have you written a book? Are you writing a book? How do you decide when it’s ready to fly?

Take Your Criticism and Love It!

Take your criticism

For five years, I had the great fortune to be a member of a dedicated Writer’s Critique Group. During that time, I line by line edited approximately 1,920,000 combined words for my four critique partners, and they each critiqued about 780,000 words for me. That’s a lot of words. 

And did I ever learn a lot about writing!

Of course, the positive feedback was nice, and it was delightful to know when things were going well. But the real joy, the most valuable feedback was the constructive criticism. I craved the ugly, gritty details. I wanted to be nitpicked and challenged. I longed to improve and grow as a writer, and to accomplish that, I needed to know everything I was doing wrong. Each correction, negative comment, and suggestion was a precious gift that someone cared enough (about me) to write down and share.

As writers, we are usually too close to our books to be objective. We are infatuated with our characters and intimate with our stories. We know far more than we’ve put to paper, and therefore, our viewpoint is skewed. We don’t have the “fresh” perspective on plot, character, and pacing that other authors (and readers) can bring to a book.

board-786119_960_720

Then there are the technical aspects of structuring sentences and paragraphs in interesting ways, making verbs pop, deepening point of view, showing versus telling, slashing filler words, killing redundancy and tightening. Until someone points out the weaknesses in our work, until we see it applied directly to our prose, it’s hard to comprehend.

Apparently, I couldn’t write a sentence without the word “that.” That was an invisible word that I never noticed until that was pointed out to me. That was eye-opening and that was a word that I now cull to the extent that I can. 🙂 UGH. Thank you to the wonderful writer who opened my eyes to “that!”

Now, I’m not talking about nasty comments or broad sweeping statements. Those don’t encourage growth and aren’t worth the words. I’m also not suggesting that anyone provide an unsoliticted critique of someone’s blog post! I’m talking about private, constructive feedback with contextual examples, the goal being to teach the craft, support one another, and improve our stories.

I’d suggest that every serious writer seek out criticism.  Join a local writer’s group, find critique partners online, pay for an in-depth edit of your first three chapters if it’s all you can afford. Ask for tough love, soak it up, love it, and painstakingly apply the principles to your whole book.

When I started out, my writing was crap. I was clueless. I took my criticism and loved it. I still do.

zombie-499199_960_720WARNING: This only applies to writing. Critiques of my bland cooking, lackadaisical housekeeping, and unfashionable attire will earn you “the look.”

Happy Writing!

16 Reasons to Read your Words Aloud.

pixabay free image - ClkerFreeVectorImages

pixabay free image – ClkerFreeVectorImages

Most writers have learned the importance of reading their words aloud. It’s advice I heeded early on and am happy to pass along.

Writing works on myriad levels. On one level, it’s the mechanical delivery of a story, the typing of words according to rules. It’s fingers on keyboards, reams of paper and editing drafts. Beneath the surface, writing is meaning-making through narrative, tapping universal themes and archetypes that existed before man first etched his carvings into cave walls.

As an art form, writing has the ability to transport a reader into another world. We paint with words on the mind’s canvas, compose the music of language, stir smells, tastes, and tactile impressions. The goal is emotional immersion, being present in the experience.

I have an irksome sensitivity to the sounds of words, the rhythm of phrases and sentences. When I search for the right word, it’s not just the meaning I’m chasing. I’m looking for the right number of syllables, the sharpness or softness of the consonants. As I nestle a word into a sentence, I listen for the subtlety of alliteration, a rhythm in the flow of the words that form phrases, phrases into paragraphs.

A story has a natural cadence that arises from sentence structure, word choice, and the balance of narrative, dialog, and exposition. By reading our stories aloud, we’re able to experience that cadence the way our readers do. As part of an editing process, hearing the sounds of our words polishes our work. It’s a positive step not only for individual careers but for the indie community as a whole.

pixabay free image - ClkerFreeVectorImages

pixabay free image – ClkerFreeVectorImages

Why it works:

  • Our wondrous human brains expertly and unconsciously correct and smooth over our mistakes.
  • On top of that, we are familiar with our work – we’ve written it, edited it, read it, and lived it. We no longer need to read each word it to read the sentences.
  • Reading aloud forces our brains to focus. The goal is to go slow, read each word, and hear the writing “fresh.”

Reading aloud is one of the most powerful proofreading techniques around, and reading from a printed copy is even better. It further tricks the brain by changing up the visual (as well as providing room for notes).

So what are all these amazing benefits?

1) Typos, missing and misplaced words: Since our brains automatically correct our mistakes, these small errors can be hard to see. Note that if you find yourself verbally stumbling or reading a sentence twice, there is probably something tripping you up.

2) Punctuation:  Like typos, these errors are easier to catch (especially if you read a printed copy).

3) Repeat words: (Example) The drizzle descended with the clouds. They waited inside the shelter for the drizzle to cease.

4) Repeat gestures: Everyone’s nodding, smiling, or raising an eyebrow.

5) Repeated rhythms in sentence structure: (Example) Biting her nails, she strode to the window. Glancing outside, she saw the carriage approach.

6) Starting sentences the same way: (Example) He fell asleep to the music. He dreamed of her swollen face and the blood in her hair. He reached for her wrist, and he felt no pulse.

7) Stacked prepositional phrases: (Example) He stood in the garage under the fan by the car in his underwear.

pixabay free images - OpenClipartVectors

pixabay free images – OpenClipartVectors

8) Repeated information: Telling the reader twice that the character shut the door or was surprised by the phone call.

9) Information that needs to be reordered: The character reacts to the gunshot before the reader hears it. (Much better the other way around.)

10) Missing information: The character trips over the cat in the bedroom when last the reader knew he was eating ice cream on the living room couch.

11) Overly long and run-on sentences: Look for sentences that are difficult to read in a single breath or that lose their coherence. (Example) Sam galloped to the steps, leapt three at a time, and landed on the mat, but nothing prepared him for the ice that had formed unexpectedly overnight despite the forecast for fair weather, and he fell flat on his back.

12) Inconsistencies: A character wears a green shirt, and a few pages later, the shirt is blue. Or you’ve indicated that the character can’t see because it’s pitch dark, yet you’ve described the room.

13) Dialog: People generally talk with a natural rhythm of sounds and pauses (or not for some characters). When read aloud, stilted language will sound unnatural and tongue twisters will interrupt the flow. Anything that requires a pause for a second read is worth a revision.

14) Transitions: Transitions from one topic or scene to another may happen too abruptly and need smoothing out.

15) Pacing: Reading aloud is particularly helpful in identifying sequences that are racing by too quickly, slogging along, or wallowing in backstory.

16) Tone: Does the tone sound right? Too formal or casual? A book has an overall tone as does each scene and character.

Do you read your work? Has it helped?

Share your tips and insights.

Writing that First Draft

troll enwikipediaorgNaNoWriMo looms. My outline has taken shape. The terrain of a new world sprawls before me, rife with civilization. Characters chatter, love and battle in my head. If you’re like me, that first draft is a molten caldron, uncontainable and ready to erupt. I can’t hold myself back anymore.

troll enwikipediaorg3A first draft is a flawed, untamed, tainted, wonderful, intense piece of art. Before I started using the volcano metaphor, I likened it to vomiting, spilling my guts over the keyboard. Disgusting, but so cathartic.

A first draft has nothing to do with perfection. It’s about the story. It isn’t the time to edit, to labor over weak verbs, revisit dialog, or craft flowing descriptions. You’ve spent weeks fleshing out your outline; it’s time to put it to work and start spinning your tale.

troll enwikipediaorg2A few sections of that first draft will feel inspired and flow from your fingertips. Other parts will require patience and will-power as you drag them like whining teenagers across your page. Your outline will help you persist through those hair-pulling hours, because with an outline, there’s no writer’s block. No matter how painful, you know what you have to do.

Get the story out of your skin. Just write it. That’s the point of the first draft–the story. Your outline is your guide, but remember that a creative outline is still fluid; expect it to morph, flex and grow as you write.

trolls pinterest2My first draft is a constant play between an evolving outline and the written page. My characters continue to surprise me, plots deepen, new scenes appear, dialog ripples off in unexpected directions. I have to go back and add or change scenes, hint at backstory, place the sword on the belt. This isn’t editing–this is getting a story down on paper. At the very same time, I am massaging my outline, changing what is coming based on these unforeseen tangles and turns. I’m deleting and adding, noting follow-up details, tying up loose ends, and making certain that the story is still rational and cohesive when I get to the end.

trolls pinterestThis marvelous, messy, raw creation is your own foray into new territory. I never share my first drafts with anyone. They’re too ugly. They’re warty little trolls blinking in the sunlight. They need baths and haircuts, a visit to the dentist, and a decent meal. But I love them, and they are princes when I get them cleaned up.

Artwork compliments of creative commons: en.wikimedia.org, flickr.com and pixaby.com.

 

The Word Police

keystone-kops-granger

Your WIP is looking respectable. It kicks off with a barbed hook and wraps up with a big fish. You’ve plugged up the plot holes, got the dialog flowing, the pace humming, and planted Chekov’s gun on the mantel. The characters are consistent, motivated, and true to life. The structure can withstand a windstorm.

The time has arrived for a visit from the Word Police,
and they’re a humorless bunch.

This is Step 3 in my editing process, the epitome of tediousness, a procrastinator’s nightmare. This is when writing is unadulterated, grueling toil. It’s time for me to weed out all those lame words, wimpy verbs, and crutch words that add no value to my prose. They’re plain old polyester when I strive for silk.

We all tap ordinary words. This post brims with them. Sometimes they’re the perfect choice, and sometimes there’s no wriggling around them.  In dialog, where characterization drives dialect and word choice, an attempt to police your words could prove foolhardy.

Yet, on the whole, if we explore more colorful options, delete the meaningless fillers, and zero in on those “telling” indicators, our writing will grow richer and more compelling.

In my case, the Word Police handcuff me to my recliner for two weeks straight, inject me with caffeine, and force me to use the “Find” function in Word until my eyeballs dry out and my brain shrivels. They know my lazy words well, those I’m oblivious to as they tiptoe into my WIP. For starters the Crutch-word Cops make me look up 561 “that’s.”

I look at thousands of words, one at a time. When I can, I switch them out, thin them, delete them, or rewrite them away…depending.

word-police

Here’s the full list (except for the ones I missed). Get to know your favorites and feel free to add a few!

Wimpy Verbs: was/were, has/had, have, be, been, could, got, did, put, needed, wanted, gave, took, saw, walked, ran, sat, liked, moved, looked, appeared, seemed, made, turned, came, went, became…

Crutch Words – fillers:  that, then, next, well, OK, just, actually, really, only, still, yet, since, perhaps, maybe, so, even, tried, began, started…

Vague Words:  very, quite, rather, more, almost, about, around, often, some, somehow, somewhat…

Lame Words: really, awesome, amazing, great, better, dark, sad/happy, cold/hot, fast/slow, old/new, big/small, bad/good, nice, fine, interesting, beautiful, wonderful, sexy, for a moment, a bit, a few, lots, someone, something …

Telling Words – thinking/explaining: knew, thought, suspected, remembered, believed, understood, imagined, doubted, supposed, realized, wondered, guessed, hoped, wished, because…

Telling Words – sensing: Watched, saw, observed, felt, smelled, tasted, heard…

Telling Words – adverbs: Hopefully, quickly, slowly, slightly, sincerely, personally, possibly, certainly, exactly, finally, suddenly… (search by “ly”).

Any others I should add?

Keystone-Cops

Gardeners and Architects

image from spamula.net

image from spamula.net

When I plunked down to write my first book, Myths of the Mirror, I was on a mission of discovery, led by the muse and sheer inspiration.

I had no plot in mind beyond a mental sketch of a couple things that could happen maybe sort of somehow. It was all incredibly vague, but what did I know? Nothing. I wrote like a woman obsessed, relishing every moment of my creative forage and traipsing along behind my characters down whatever path they chose to wander.

Halfway through my journey, a secondary character whom I was in the midst of killing off stood his ground. With the unwavering support of his companions, he argued that he should not only survive but should become a main character. Oh, okay, I said, and skedaddled back to the beginning of the book to start over. That happened a lot.

A year later, once every character had their say and did as they pleased, my masterpiece was almost 190,000 words long. Ta da! Ready to celebrate, I enlisted a couple courageous readers.

Uh oh.

For the next two years, I peeled away words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters! Deleted. Recycled. 60,000 words forever gone. I felt as though I’d been flayed.

Then an editor wielded a red pen and lopped off another 4,000. After all the anguish and suffering, I had to finally admit it – I had a much better book.

Nature-Multicolor-Flowers-Garden-Summer-Bees-Depth-HD-PhotoGeorge R. R. Martin separates writers into Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners are discovery writers, planting seeds and digging around in the dirt of writing because they can’t wait to see what grows. They thrive on a process that is full of surprises and let their stories develop organically. To them, outlines feel like straitjackets, stifling the natural unfurling of character and action.

images (22)At the other end of the spectrum, Martin’s architects are outliners. Structure is key. Charts, graphs, and spreadsheets abound. Every step is planned in advance: the story’s try/fail cycles are mapped, the hero’s journey arcs through its phases, the turning points and pinches are set in stone. For outliners, the steps of each plot and subplot form the stairwells in a skyscraper. An architect has an eye on the penthouse and knows how to get there.

awesome-tree-houses-to-live-in-plextm4bAfter my trials and tribulations as a gardener, I brushed off my hands and applied a bit of architecture to my stories. I wouldn’t say I engineer skyscrapers – that’s still too much concrete for me. In my mind, my method is more akin to building tree-houses, leaving plenty of space for nature and play.

I plot out the story threads and set the characters off on their journey, letting them be who they are. Occasionally we have to negotiate and backtrack, but overall they cooperate. It’s collaborative; they know their goals and I know mine.

My guess is that most authors engage in a little gardening while they construct their cottages, fortresses, and stone towers. How do you bring stories to life? Are you a Gardener? An Architect? A builder of tree-houses?