Category Archives: Musings on Editing

The Red Pen: Top 3 Errors in Grammar

Following up on my previous post, below are the three most-recurring grammatical corrections I make in my editing assignments.

1. Tense consistency:

All manuscripts I’ve edited so far have been narrated in past tense. While it’s still okay (and necessary) for their dialogue to use present tense, sometimes there are incorrect lapses into it in the narrative. More often, though, I’m correcting the times when past tense is used instead of past perfect.

Past perfect is basically the past tense of past tense. If the main action of your narrative is already in past tense, events described as having occurred prior to that are denoted as even further in the past by using past perfect tense. e.g.:

  • I called him. (past)
  • I had called him. (past perfect)
  • I was upset. (past)
  • I had been upset. (past perfect)
  • Why didn’t he tell me this before? (past)
  • Why hadn’t he told me this before? (past perfect)

[Brief flashbacks can be easily handled this way. If ever writing a lengthy flashback, though, in which you think using past-perfect for paragraphs or pages on end might be awkward / distracting / lacking immediacy, you can alternatively offset the scene in italics and/or as its own section.]

2. Commas for coordinating conjunctions:

Unless denoting a pause for particular emphasis, a comma is only needed before and, but, or, for, so, nor, yet if the clause following one of those conjunctions could stand alone as its own sentence. e.g.:

  • I called him, but I hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him but hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him, and I asked about tonight.
  • I called him and asked about tonight.

3. Semicolons:

A semicolon is basically the same thing as adding a comma + conjunction (and, but, or, etc…). It separates what are otherwise two complete sentences that could stand independently from each other. e.g.:

  • I called him; I hung up before he could answer.

The easiest test for when it’s appropriate to use a semicolon or comma+conjunction is to ask yourself if you could use a period in place of either. And the point of not just always using a period in that case is to vary your simple sentences with complex ones.

This goes right back to what I was saying last time about varying sentence structure. Unless repeating a certain structure for emphasis, it’s good to change it up. Of course, sentence fragments can also be used for an effect, but you’ll use those only to a limited extent. As long as I’m totally dorking out here, I’ll take this opportunity to share the basic sentence formulas for evaluating structural soundness.

The cheat-sheet of basic sentence structure & punctuation:

I = Independent clause (it can stand alone as its own sentence)
D = Dependent clause  (it can’t stand on its own, unless for stylistic emphasis)
c = coordinating conjunction

Starting with the simple sentence below, the subsequent compound sentences can be formed a few different ways:

I .           The monkey screeched.
I , c I .    The monkey screeched, and it fell out of the tree.
I ; I .      The monkey screeched; it fell out of the tree.
I D .      The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree.
D , I .    When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched.

So there you have the basic building blocks for any sentence you could come up with, like the compound-complex ones below that combine the above in different ways for all sorts of crazy fun ;):

ID,cI.
The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I,cI.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I;I.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched; it grabbed for a vine.

I,cID.
The monkey fell out of the tree, and it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

I;D,I.
The monkey fell out of the tree; as it grabbed for a vine, it screeched.
I;ID.
The monkey fell out of the tree; it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

And blah-blah-blah, blah-blah. I think you get the idea. How we phrase our sentences usually comes from a more innate, magically creative place, but the basic formulas above remind us of the options and, at the very least, are a great way to check commas and semicolons. Even if you want to play with this punctuation, too, for stylistic reasons, you still have to know the writing rules in order to break them.

I’d better leave it at that before the red pen editing section of my brain lights your brains on fire, too…


The Red Pen: Stylistic Variation, Story Arc, and Other Manuscript Concerns

Hey there! I haven’t shared any editing anecdotes in a while. To date, my first assignment has been published, the second has been passed on to the managing editor, and I’m getting started on my third. I’d never commented on the second one, so thought I’d retroactively share the issues addressed.

To start is advice I gave the author on stylistic variation:

Where sentence structure is concerned, you describe a lot of consecutive or simultaneous character actions, and, to convey that, “as he” and “as she” are very frequent (as are –ing verbs following a comma—these are called present participial phrases). While not technically incorrect, it’s when repetitions of this structure become noticeable that they can be an issue, so just keep an eye out and consider ways to vary the syntax of your sentences to mix it up. Reading aloud is an awesome way to work through sentence/paragraph flow and catch where words/rhythms might repeat!

Examples:

“As she turned on her heel, she smiled and took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel as she took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel, taking his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled while she turned on her heel, took his hand, and led him through the forest.”

Etc., etc.

Story arc also needed work. This happens to be a rather sexy romance, so:

A key element to pacing is varying the functions each chapter serves. Too much of the same “function” served by too many consecutive chapters risks flattening the story arc. In this case, the recurring function I see is sex, either with purpose or gratuitous. The sex is of course what readers will love about it, but from a story development standpoint (not a prude one :)), I’m concerned that the frequency of sex scenes is making the middle/third quarter of your story fall flat, with the underlying plot getting a bit lost. There can be too much of a good thing, and too much of anything can make reader attention wane no matter how exciting or saucy the action. And the function that sex serves in a romance novel is not only entertainment, but a vehicle for moving the central relationships forward, so it really ought to only appear when it does move the story forward, rather than be there for its own sake.

Don’t worry, if you ever read it, there’s still a-plenty left in it to warrant hosing yourself down afterward (hot damn!). Other issues addressed:

  • more than one dialogue tag used in a paragraph of the same character’s dialogue (not technically wrong, but judge when it’s superfluous)
  • dialogue tags used for almost every line of dialogue in a conversation – starts to sound overly “he said/she said” when it’s otherwise easy enough to tell who’s talking. Sometimes a corresponding character action suffices in place of tag; e.g.:
    • “Wait a minute,” she said as she held up her hand.
    • “Wait a minute.” She held up her hand.
  • redundancies in description / tendency to over-describe using lists of adjectives when one or two suffice
  • overly repeated (verbatim) words and phrases
  • use of “began to”/”started to” for actions that are followed through, not interrupted.
  • keeping each section within only one character’s POV (in keeping with 3rd person limited, multiple perspectives)
  • time continuity – matching the time-frame of an intermittent subplot to the main plot.
And regardless of how polished the new manuscript I’m editing is, I’m still encountering pretty common grammatical errors—I’ll pop back later this week to share these. Good luck with your own writing/editing!

The Red Pen: The POVerdict

Hiya! Crap, it’s been a while, and I apologize for that. Especially when I have so much I want to share with you!

For today, though, I’m pleased to just announce that we’ve finally found compromise on the POV issue I’d related earlier. To quickly recap, an author I’m editing for had been writing through a sort of hybrid 3rd person limited/omniscient POV. The story alternates between POVs such that we have the sort of “head-hopping” found in an omniscient perspective, but it’s only between two characters (not all), which would signify the POV is limited.

So we originally thought entire scenes/chapters would need to be rewritten from one character’s POV or another to keep within 3rd person multiple limited perspective. This would entail extensive revision and kill some of the playful back-and-forth between the two main characters. On the other hand, revising it to be omniscient would be a lot of work, too, as additional characters’ thoughts would have to be written in. The solution proposed, then, is to simply insert section breaks between paragraphs where the POV makes the jump. The section breaks will serve as a visual cue to the reader that POV is going to shift, so the author can jump between her main characters’ thoughts within the same scene. In short, it hopefully means hardly rewriting anything; instead, it’s more of a structural revision. We’re lucky in this case that most of the scenes are in multi-paragraph chunks within a single POV to make this possible.

In the instances where we see a POV shift on a sentence-by-sentence level, on the other hand, the author will need to commit to one POV or the other and rewrite them as such. Again, though, this should be easy, as in a lot of cases, one character’s POV is definitely dominating, so it’s only a matter of revising stray sentences here and there.

I can’t share the author’s work here, so let me make up some BS text on the spot to demonstrate what I’m talking about:

Lucy was livid when she found out she had to revise her manuscript. She simply didn’t understand the problem with the way she approached point of view.

Bob, on the other hand, didn’t understand what the big deal was. Why couldn’t Lucy just suck it up and do it the right way?

Lucy looked at Bob and huffed; it figured he wasn’t going to take her side on this. [and this paragraph continues in Lucy’s POV…]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]

[A paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

So, obviously the red font denotes Bob’s POV. We can see at a glance that Lucy’s POV dominates the first few paragraphs of this “story.” The first section, then, should be solely from her POV; therefore the two sentences from Bob’s POV that have strayed into there need to be rewritten into Lucy’s POV—what is there needs to be reasonably inferred by what Lucy can observe of Bob’s outward actions or dialogue. What we can also see at a glance here is that, once Lucy’s POV ends, we have a few paragraphs solely from Bob’s. This is okay. Nothing requires rewriting; all we need to do is insert a section break before Bob’s POV begins. Then the reader hopefully won’t be as confused when the scene suddenly continues in his head.

The revision (in bold) can look something like this:

Lucy was livid when she found out she had to revise her manuscript. She simply didn’t understand the problem with the way she approached point of view.

“I don’t understand what the big deal is,” Bob said. “Why can’t you just suck it up and do it the right way?”

Lucy looked at Bob and huffed; it figured he wasn’t going to take her side on this. [and this paragraph continues in Lucy’s POV…]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Lucy’s POV]

***SECTION BREAK***

[A paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

[Another paragraph in Bob’s POV]

Alternatively, the rewritten portion above could still have Bob not say anything. Something like:

Lucy looked at Bob and huffed. She could see from the way he screwed his face that he didn’t understand why it was a big deal. It figured he wasn’t going to take her side on this.

In a case like this where part of the original does get cut, if it’s something the author really likes and doesn’t want to lose entirely, she can try to find somewhere else to fit it without infringing on the wrong POV.

I don’t know how much sense I’m making with this, but let’s just say the author seems happy about it, which makes me happy. And let me also say there are entire scenes only in one POV, so the whole thing is not going to be chopped up in small sections all the way through. That would be a whole new issue if so.

I can’t say, though, that I’ve read many (if any) books like this. What do you think? Is this a reasonable approach that you’ve seen before (and that’s been done well), or do you think it’s still confusing for the reader?


The Second Coming: If at First You Don’t Succeed, Write and Write Again

Image from etsy.com

I’ve got lots and lots of material to share and will do so in the coming days (or weeks, more realistically, given the bat-shit craziness of my sheh-jule these days…). And what I’m noticing right now is that my writing life is experiencing a rebirth of sorts that has me coming back for SECONDS…

To start, while the jury is still out on the POV issue plaguing my first editing project (see “POV for Vendetta“), I’ve been assigned my SECOND PROJECT, which is already presenting issues of its own. In this case, the author is safely applying 3rd person limited across different characters by only shifting POV in new sections and/or chapters. However, its story arc is sagging in the middle due to a repeating element that flattens it out through lack of variety. In future posts, I’ll speak to both my editorial comments on this specific manuscript as well as pacing a story in general.

In the last couple weeks, I have also been mapping out a SECOND MANUSCRIPT of my own! Idea remnants that got left behind as I finished my first manuscript have inspired another story line altogether, so I’m working to apply all I’ve learned from my many, many mistakes on manuscript #1 to what will hopefully be a better planned and executed #2. Outlining the plot from the get-go is a first for me, as I’d nearly written myself into a hole the first time around and didn’t know how to bring it all together (see “Fraying at the End“). So while ms #1 accordingly still needs a lot tender lovin’ care, ms #2 is providing my mind a healthy diversion for a while. Having a second project in the pipeline also keeps me from placing too much pressure on that first one navigating its path to publication. As presenters at my workshop said last weekend, hardly any new author’s “debut” novel is actually the first book they’d written.

Speaking of workshop, I got a SECOND WIND for tackling both the manuscripts I’m writing and editing by attending the Festival of Writing in York this past Saturday and Sunday. In addition to two ten-minute one-to-one meetings with a literary agent and published author (the latter being Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, no less), I attended several workshops on topics like plotting, pacing, and marketability. It gave me gobs of food for thought, so I’ll share what smattering of notes and resources I can with you.

Finally, while I admittedly didn’t churn any creativity out during the month of February for Write 1 Sub 1, I feel I’ve gotten a SECOND CHANCE this month thanks to my sister-in-law, as fate would have it. This ridiculously talented lady is a graphic designer by day and painter, photographer, and potter by night. Her latest endeavor is to create a website for her lovely pottery, and instead of presenting each with an ordinary catalog-type description, she’s opted to pair them with short stories inspired by their design and function. So guess who’s the lucky gal who gets to write these?! I’ve written five short-short pieces so far with five to go (as far as I know), so hopefully these will be appearing online by mid-April. While I still aim to write stories for submission to literary publications in subsequent months, I’m hoping this gig at least covers me for March.

All right, time to shut my yapper. Just a preview of more posts to come after I take a SECOND to catch my breath… 😉

What’s on your writing agenda these days? Any writing firsts or seconds to celebrate this month?


Leggo My Ego

I am a sensitive artist.
Nobody understands me because I am so deep.– King Missile

I can’t help it
Because I am so much more intelligent
And well-rounded

Than everyone who surrounds me. […]

I stay home
Reading books that are beneath me,
And working on my work,
Which no one understands.”

Yep, there are a lot of divas out there like this, particularly among those of an artistic temperament, so we writers are no exception. Well, becoming a teacher certainly knocked any such pride out of me, reducing me to such a state of humility on a daily basis that I finally learned it’s okay to admit when I don’t know something. No one could know all information, master all skills, and we certainly won’t grow in any respect until we can learn to acknowledge our limitations and accept help from others. 

That’s what I’ve been enjoying so much about the blogging community I’ve shared in for the last year—aspiring writers who are proud of their work, yet willing to put their vulnerabilities and uncertainties out there in their blog posts for all to know and empathize with. By doing so, we’re learning and improving. We also learn and improve from having our work critiqued, be it by peers in a writing group, an informal beta-reader, editor/agent feedback, etc. When taking on such a personal task as writing that inherently possesses so much passion, however, it can be difficult to accept criticism of our babies. What we write is who we are, and who likes hearing that they’re anything less than perfect? I’d say not a single one of us, if I were a bettin’ man (or a man at all, for that matter).

Yet take it in stride we must. It’s hard to control how another will respond to our work, but we can control how graciously we respond to their feedback. I love the tale I’ve written and certainly want to retain ultimate creative license, but as agent rejections already start rolling in (2 so far), I understand that there will always be something to adjust. And in this case I just hope I can handle it as gracefully as the author whose work I’m presently editing. I just got her edits back, along with this lovely email:

“I must say, your editorial was wonderful, so user friendly and in tune with what I was aiming for and didn’t quite reach.  I particularly appreciated how you explained why certain patterns weren’t working or how they could work better.  I believe that your input will benefit my future writing as well, and not just this work. […] I did take your suggestions to heart, and I’m pleased with the result. Really, your editorial was invaluable. I’m looking forward to your opinion of the revised work.”

Not that I’m letting this go to my head ;)…but it was an inspiration, not to mention such a relief! So time now to get over myself and help this author reach her personal best. Ego begone! But confidence, stay.

How about you? Has a dose of humility ever caught you getting a bit too stubborn during the writing process? How do you know when to assert what you believe are your strengths and when to concede your weaknesses?


The Red Pen: Editing Another’s Manuscript – Part II

Hello again! Just accommodating the overspill from yesterday’s post, as I yet wanted to address developmental edits on my first manuscript assignment in this capacity. Again, I can’t share any comments that would give away plot/character specifics, and I’m obviously not including the little microediting minutiae here (like reworking sentence structures), but what I am doing is grabbing the meatier highlights of what I found to be the most prevalent issues in the hope it helps reinforce what to check for in your own manuscript as it did for mine.

So to speak on a macroediting level today, this author’s main focus now as she makes her edits (due back to me later this month) needs to be on her ending. We’ve talked story arc before, and a scene after a critical moment of rising action in a later chapter seemed to drag out too long as the reader nears the story’s climax, for which I noted:

[…] I’m not suggesting cutting these parts out, as they serve a purpose in the story and provide important information. Yet perhaps if they’re condensed a bit the pacing could keep flowing toward that climax. What’s key is to determine what you perceive as this story’s pinnacle and make sure everything is building up and up to that, keeping the reader compelled and not bogged down in too much talk or description that tends to flatten out the story’s trajectory when it should be climbing. Dialogue can be [tightened], limiting it to what keeps moving [the characters] and the reader forward.

And whereas that section seemed to drag on too long, the last chapter forced too much into too short a space in seeking a complete resolution. This is a romance novel, so that resolution naturally involves the two main characters attaining closure on where their relationship stands:

Hm, this sounds like a lot to load onto [him] all of a sudden […] when they’re only just working out whether they’ll stay together. I know in assessing that they may as well get all the big deal-breaker topics out of the way, but it still seems like a lot at once. Could she possibly just reference [her wants] in such a way that’s meant to show [him] she’s in for the long-haul with [him], too, in the spirit of taking it one step at a time?

And with romance novels, there’s always the risk of confusing “romance” with “sex,” so when the latter comes up (“up,” quite literally) right at the end and after a sweet moment of sentiment, I suggested:

Hm, seems to undermine the sincerity of the emotion. Maybe [this] can just be coinciding with his revelations of love for her, helping to unleash these realizations rather than being the way he chooses to show her his love after the fact (it’s a little caveman). Some description of her engagement with it might help as well to show this love as something they share in both the emotional and physical sense.

I expressed this merely as my reader’s POV, and not as a prude or a feminist. There’s a way sex can be written romantically, but this just wasn’t it, and I think the author agrees that the resolution can take a less easy, but higher road out.

Another item on the agenda is character development, and, in this work, I felt the two main characters were developed fully. I genuinely liked them and, from the romance aspect, really wanted them to get together—they made sense as a couple. Most importantly, I believed in them—they felt real, through their dialogue, actions, back-stories, chemistry, etc., and that’s all to the credit of this writer and her keen insights into people and engaging writing style. Where I did encounter some mixed feelings concerned the female protagonist and her ex-lover, a secondary character who is integral to the plot and the protagonist’s growth, yet himself appears very rarely in the story. Even so, his development felt too one-dimensional to me:

He is just so vile, and this makes perfect sense given his animosity toward [her revenge] and that he’s just a bad fit for her. What it leaves me wondering, though, is what it was about him that she used to care for. While I can see her insecurities leading her to choose the wrong men, [she] also has too much substance to go for someone with zero redeeming qualities beyond the materialistic.

Not that this would have to be developed in depth, but consider such opportunities where she’s [already] reflecting on him to somewhere incorporate (even just a sentence or two) the appeal he did once have for her, even if it only ended up being fake or that he changed.

In this case, the secondary character’s lack of believability could impact the protagonist’s, so this was a strongly suggested change to preserve consistency in her character—and, even better, it’s a quick, easy fix. Likewise with the following case where the protagonist still seemed to pine over her ex during the final scene with her new love:

From the way you’ve depicted him, I’m highly doubting [her ex-lover] would ever want [what she claims here], so I don’t see this as being the issue with him that would come to light at this point. I’m actually surprised that she’d be talking about him at all right now and getting choked up in residual emotion over it – [there was] sufficient enough closure [earlier]. Plus, she just [made several  grand gestures to win her new lover]—she’s all about [that guy] right now, and it doesn’t seem appropriate for her to bring up old flames in this intimate setting. […] Her not reflecting on him as anything that ever mattered would be a most convincing way of [showing her growth].

But that’s my take on it, which is why I label this as a “suggested” change, albeit a very strongly suggested one because I felt disappointed in [her] when she started saying all this.

And this last comment shows how I do try to approach my edits of another’s work delicately, keeping ultimate stylistic/plot control with the author while also trying to earn trust in my feedback. It’s very easy for all of us to get protective of our writing, but if we really want it to become its best, we need to consider reader response seriously. (Tahlia Newland addresses this fact and several other awesome tips on ms revision in her recent Lethal Inheritance post on how to know when your manuscript is ready.) And as I learned in teaching, the key with feedback is balancing the positive with the constructive so a writer isn’t feeling like there’s nothing of merit in his/her work; be honest, but preserve some pluck for carrying out those revisions effectively!

How about you? Have you ever had to edit someone else’s writing? How did it help you with your own?


The Red Pen: Editing Another’s Manuscript – Part I

As a new year is about making resolutions, I realized there are still a couple promises from my November I.O.U. that I haven’t yet fulfilled. So let’s tie up those loose ends!

To start, I owe Milo from In Media Res 10 random things about myself, which can be found at this link (’cause you know he’d send a guy to break my legs if I didn’t make good on that).

I’d also meant to share some of my editing notes on a manuscript that shall remain anonymous, so to the extent that I can do so without giving any specifics of the story away…

On a word level, I provided a list of frequently-recurring verbs/adjectives and noted:

Would be worthwhile to scan and determine how you might replace them with synonyms here and there for variety, or possibly eliminate altogether in the event the characters’ actions and/or dialogue already convey the same idea (thereby making description redundant). They’re great words that make description vivid, but because they stand out, their repetition is less invisible.

Try to reduce use of dialogue tags to when it’s necessary for identifying the speaker. Especially avoid overly descriptive ones – show tone instead through the dialogue itself or the character’s actions. In most cases, “said” is best, as it’s invisible to the reader.

I likewise advised on minimizing adverbs and “to be” verbs—the former “tell” more than “show,” and the latter slow down pace and sound a bit more passive. Where description was concerned, the issues that stood out most were telling-versus-showing, redundancy, and certain physical descriptions that ran too specific and frequent:

While you have an effective way of threading description through dialogue, sometimes that description can be condensed together rather interrupting the flow of the dialogue multiple times. Seeking opportunities for this will enhance the pacing and snappiness of your characters’ great dialogue rather than bog it down.

Just to interject another comment on adverbs and other description accompanying dialogue – think of how certain messages/attitudes/etc. might be conveyed through the characters’ dialogue or actions for the reader to figure out rather than be told outright. [Sometimes] it can make the reader feel like a detached third-party rather than in on the action. I definitely feel pulled into this story, but teeny moments like this can sometimes remind me that I’m reading something rather than “living” it—almost like little road bumps that interrupt an otherwise smooth experience.

And it’s not always about replacing description with description—it can be taking some description away altogether.  Your characters share such witty, snappy banter, that it may at times feel appropriate to just let them talk with minimal interruption. For example, if this first sentence of the paragraph was taken away, I would still catch on to [Secondary Character]’s displeasure and coolness by virtue of his brief first sentence and shift [in dialect].

Reduce level of description for secondary characters that do not recur. This draws attention to [Secondary Character] and makes me think I should know her well, yet she never reappears later.

Sometimes these color and make/model details seem superfluous. We see [Main Character]’s truck play an important role later, but [Secondary Character] and anyone else’s vehicles don’t really matter to the story.

Then there were structural considerations on sentence, page, and chapter levels:

Consider breaking down some paragraphs with embedded dialogue […]. It creates more white space to quicken the conversation’s pace and allows the reader’s eyes to “breathe.”

[T]he description of one character embedded with another’s dialogue sometimes makes it confusing who the speaker is. Sometimes, perhaps, a description like this could skip to the next line, provided the continuing speaker is tagged.

To enhance flow, perhaps join these two [simple] sentences using a semicolon or conjunction.

Section break to accentuate passage of time and shift of focus to [another character].

Basically, I proposed many paragraph breaks to not only help break up clunkier sections, but also separate dialogue from descriptions that didn’t correspond with it. My suggested section breaks not only helped to denote shifts, but also provide a breathable white space and prevent a chapter from becoming the structural equivalent of a run-on sentence. And in a couple cases, I recommended converting a section break to a chapter break—in the case of the very first chapter, doing such preserved the opening momentum as the second section was rather lengthy.

Such are just a few examples, but what all the edits peppering that manuscript boil down to is clarity and consistency.

This has gotten long, so I’ll save my two pence on the more developmental edits I made for tomorrow. Ta!


The Manuscript Manicure – Part II: Micro-Editing

All-righty, finally back with my next installment on editing a manuscript (refer to Part I if you missed it). Once again, this is all thanks to the ladies at Room to Write for sharing insights that might be new to you or least validating of what you already know. Nothing compares to that face-to-face conversation, but I love the interaction that occurs between writers online via blogs. As they said at the workshop, there is so much to be learned beyond our own work, after all—it’s as important to listen to and learn from the projects and experiences of others.

It also teaches us to peel back our skin and not be overly protective of our work. I had to laugh when author Wendy Robertson spoke on all the emotional loading that goes into the critique when we offer it to others for feedback; she said something to the effect that when we give our work to someone else:

“You’re giving your critiquer the power to upset you.”

Ain’t it the truth. Perhaps this is why when I sent the full edit of my first assigned manuscript to its author this afternoon, I cushioned my email with empathy and compliments of everything that was done well, hoping she’ll receive my suggestions for improvement in stride and be willing to work with me constructively.

Anyway, when it comes editing for ourselves, remember that we must become self-conscious of who we are as a writer and what it is we want to achieve. To do that best, we need to identify our style and describe it in a few words. If you read 50 pages of your own novel, what comes across on the page? Is your style spare, lyrical, conversational, whimsical, direct, abstract (to offer a few), or combination of more than one?

We are now shifting from macro-editingto micro-editing and need to explore our style in relation to our content:

– I mentioned the “shape” of the novel last time, which relates to your story arc. This might continually ascend like a surging wave or start thin (yet interesting) and thicken in density to an explosive climax—Wendy likened this to the body of a whale, with the tail being the interesting opening and the blow-hole the climax. Or maybe your chapters are individual stories unto themselves that link together in some way to provide continuity and relevance, like a chain with a large loop toward the end where this progression culminates into the climax (Blackbird House is an example of this shape).

Shapes can vary, but there should always be conflict (tension), climax (crisis), surprise and revelation. And from a micro-editing standpoint, this needs to apply to each of your individual chapters as well.

– Speaking of chapters, as mentioned last time, ensure there’s continuity between them, yes, but also within them on a paragraph-to-paragraph, sentence-to-sentence level.

– With continuity maintaining our story’s consistency and logical progression, we must also make sure the words and sentences flow. This concerns the musicality of the language itself, and the best way to determine this is to read it aloud so you hear it.

– Your musicality and style will be greatly impacted by your sentence construction, so evaluate your writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. Is the syntax effective? Does it flow? Does it make sense? It’s important to ensure you’re applying correct grammatical conventions through punctuation and arrangement of clauses. Use commas, semicolons, and colons for sentence variety and make sure they’re used correctly.

Of course, creative writing allows for creative departure from conventions as well, but make sure that if you do deviate from the rules, there’s a specific purpose for it that strengthens what you’re trying to say. If it’s not producing the intended effect, revisit it and, all else fails, run with the convention rather than muddle your ideas in unclear writing.

– The language you use is the building block for everything, so you need to evaluate your writing on a word-by-word level as well. Make every word count, the strongest choice it could be (English in particular is too word-rich to not take advantage of it!). And obviously don’t allow excessive repetition, incorrect/inappropriate use, or incorrect spelling distract and otherwise undermine your writing.

– The “look” of the page is important as well, so ensure ample inclusion of “white space” now and then to allow your reader’s eyes to “breathe.” This is usually achieved through dialogue that isn’t overly bogged down in paragraphs of description. Section breaks provide white space as well to help accentuate shifts in time/setting.

And if you’re cutting down for word count or tightening, rather than prune on a word/phrase level, they seemed to opt for removing whole chunks, if not lifting an entire chapter to see if the story even misses it. I would suffer some major separation anxiety in that case, but I know some of you have said in your blogs that you’ve done it and lived to tell the tale. And it might not be a matter of ridding of it entirely. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying:

“Don’t throw your babies out with the bathwater.”

Well, they warned us of this as well, and it’s actually why they cautioned not to overly prune on a word/phrase level—making our sentences sparser could deprive the story of some of its joy! And even lifting an entire chapter may just be a structural change by which you drop it into a different place in your manuscript. (Now that I have done, and it works so much better!) At any rate, they said:

“If you kill your darlings, don’t put them in the bin—save them for something else!”

Another novel, a short story, a poem, who knows?!

All right, folks, if I haven’t successfully made your eyeballs roll out with all this reading by now, keep them sucked into those sockets—I’ll be back with a little bit on what they had to say about manuscript formatting, publishers, and self-promotion.

PART I Macro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


The Manuscript Manicure – Part I: Macro-Editing

Hiya! I’m back to redeem that I.O.U. I gave you last week. See, my word’s good as gold ;)…

As I mentioned, I attended a writing workshop with Room to Write over the weekend that was geared toward prepping a novel manuscript for submission. The full-day conference was divided into two primary parts—Editing and Publication—the first of which I’ll address in part now and break the rest down into separate posts. But, first, I’ll start with some general notes I jotted along the way to get us in the proper mindset:

One thing they stressed is that, above all:

“Editing is a creative process.”

Yes, it involves the nitty-gritty technical stuff, but we’re not merely playing the role of English teacher grading for grammar with red pen in hand—revising our work requires every bit of imagination and innovative thought as writing our initial draft does. For as they said, when the first draft is finished:

“You’re only just beginning.”

Ah yes, it does feel that way doesn’t it…my question is, when the hell does it end???

Anyway, in order to become our own editor, we have to become a “self-conscious” one. No, not as in insecurity-ridden—I think I’ve already mastered that one just fine :). What they mean is to be conscious of the kind of writer we are and the audience we’re writing for. The better aware we are of this, the better  we’ll be able to edit our work with this focus in mind.

Macro-editing is concerned with the overall  novel as a cohesive work. It’s our opportunity to step back from our first draft and contemplate whether it has achieved what we wanted it to and is structured effectively. They encouraged us to print a hardcopy of the manuscript to initiate this stage, as reading your words on the page is truly a different experience from reading them on screen. (I wouldn’t have expected this, but wow. There’s so much more that I catch with that ms in hand.) You will also want to list your themes, summarize your entire book in three sentences, and keep these with you as you journey back through your text to ensure you aren’t straying from any critical elements.

Key aspects your self-conscious-editing self should look for (not only in the novel as a whole, but in every chapter and scene as well) are:

– A compelling beginning, a hook that makes the reader want to continue. The first chapter in particular should be compelling in an action sense, but also in a literary way—it needs to be beautifully written. Subsequent chapters likewise need their own hooks and should be varied in how they start (i.e., beginning with dialogue, beginning in the middle of action, etc.)

– Action, drama, or “trouble,” as they called it.

– Appropriate pacing.

Three-dimensional characters that are brought to life and desire something;

— Characters are “thinly veiled versions of the writer” (sound familiar?), but we must immediately establish distinction between them and from ourselves if they are to appear as separate people; if they’re all clones of us, then they’re clones of each other.
— If you can “see” the character in your mind (consider gathering clippings from magazines and such for reference), then they will come across on the page.
– Provide physical descriptions of your three main characters, enough to help visualize their traits, but not full-bodied detail. Leave something to your readers’ imagination.
— Characters should be consistent from start to finish (i.e., if you reveal or yourself learn something new about them later in the novel, are these traits present at the beginning as well? If not, try to introduce them at least subtly).
— We should see growth in the main character.

– Clear sense of when and where each scene partakes.

– Long sections of description/exposition that could be cut.

Changing up the writing between exposition, narrative, and dialogue.

– A sense of atmosphere and appeal to the senses that lends texture.

– Something in each chapter that surprises the reader.

Continuity between scenes and chapters; ensure nothing is missing.

– Evaluate the “shape” of your novel/chapter in terms of story arc. Shapes can vary, but there should in general be a rising sense of action/conflict until the climax, then a dip toward resolution (so check for any sagging in the middle).

– Evaluate the ending and ensure a sense of resolution. They advised us to look at six novels we personally enjoy and look at their endings as a guide for managing this successfully. They also admitted that, in the interest of keeping your ending brief (the resolution should just be a “flick” after the climax) as well as ensuring your reader understands what has happened, the resolution may indeed warrant more telling than showing.

Throughout your macro-editing assessment, then, you will want to sit back and assess whether this is the story you wanted to write in the first place. I suppose it doesn’t hurt if ends up morphing into something even cooler than you thought it could be, but if it seems to fall short in some way, pinpoint where it diverges and contemplate how to get it back on track. Another very important point to consider outside of yourself is if it is the story your reader will want to read—how will they experience it?

I’d better cut this off here until my next installment. Many thanks to author Avril Joy for guiding us through this session of the workshop! More to come…

PART II Micro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


Revisal of the Shittest

“I believe imagination is like a Darwinian system.”

sock monkey image from cthulhufhtagn.deviantart.com

In the above quotation from the novel Sophie’s World (which I finally got through a week ago), Alberto Knox—the story’s philosopher—discusses with Sophie the nature of creativity and how it follows the natural selection of Darwinism:

“Thought-mutants occur in the consciousness one after the other, at least if we refrain from censoring ourselves too much.  But only some of these thoughts can be used.  Here, reason comes into its own.  It, too, has a vital function.  When the day’s catch is laid on the table we must not forget to be selective.”

Oh, that Alberto and his way with analogies…sorry, can’t help being sarcastic toward this book. Disregarding the tremendous education on philosophy it provides (which in itself is good reason to read the novel, and I’m glad that I did), it’s the fictional aspect of the plot that pricked into my skin like so many fleas in my fur. An interesting attempt to provide an entertaining means of digesting large concepts and history, the fictitious story line that distinguishes this as a “novel” versus “textbook” fell a little flat for me. The dialogue was unbelievably forced (most of Sophie’s comments/questions simply served as breaks or segues in the long lectures), and though it takes an interesting twist mid-way through, the characters and thin plot just didn’t endear themselves. Quite frankly, I found Sophie to be a precocious little twit. But I digress…

In any case, what he’s getting at here is that imagination generates the ideas, but reason weeds out the “mutants” and selects the best ones to carry on.  The plot twist in the book also ushered in some self-reflexive commentary on writing and the manipulative power the writer has over those ideas, settings, and characters in his/her charge. As far as the creative process in general, Alberto continues to say (with another analogy in practically the same breath as the first…):

“Maybe the imagination creates what is new, but the imagination does not make the actual selection.  The imagination does not ‘compose.’ A composition—and every work of art is one—is created in a wondrous interplay between imagination and reason, or between mind and reflection.  For there will always be an element of chance in the creative process.  You have to turn the sheep loose before you can start to herd them.”

This “wondrous interplay” is what laboriously polishes our inspired first drafts into final manuscripts. It’s what also keeps us in check so we don’t overly pillage our paragraphs of the words and thoughts that breathe soul into them; all too often, reason defeats imagination when there should instead be a balance of power.

Unlike the negligent Dr. Frankenstein, however, we do need to be mindful of what we bring into being. Our stories inspire us, they speak to us, they surprise us, yes, but they also rely on us to nurture and shape them, to help find a suitable place in the world for them. It’s still essential to follow the writing rules so we don’t feed our stories after midnight or get them wet, thereby leaving the sweet Mogwais of our imagination to metamorphose into Gremlins of loose redundancy and holes. That said, I don’t mean to be harsh on our uncensored minds, and perhaps my title isn’t fair in calling our first drafts “shit”…but far be it from me to pass up a good rhyme, and, anyways, sometimes they just really are ;).  (I think Sophie’s World, for example, might’ve benefited from another read-through…)

Serendipitously, at the same time as I’d read the chapter quoted here and mulled over this intellectual tightrope, Tahlia (author of Lethal Inheritance who blogs on the site of same name) posted “Do we write a story or uncover it?“—here, she asks how much we write using our rational intellect versus not thinking and just going with the flow.  It seems we universally tread this fine line, leaving us with this:  To think or not to think…that is the question when it comes to the evolution of our story.


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