Category Archives: Writing Elements

Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 2

* SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen The Sure Thing *

Ah, a little inspiration in one’s life can go a long way in one’s writing…love, love, love that movie.

But to pick up where I left off Monday, here are the last two items covered during my one-on-one sessions at the Festival of Writing with agent Juliet Pickering and author Emma Darwin—

Opening Chapter:  Does your opening chapter compel further reading?

JP – “I don’t have a strong sense of [main character’s] age or experience. She seems fairly calm in this alien place – has she travelled a lot before? Surprised that no wariness when accepting drinks etc.”

ED – “Yes, to some extent. Want to know about the mysteries in the past, and how the prologue fits. Can’t say I care much yet, about [main character] because we haven’t had much insight into what makes her tick, what drives her, why she’s come to [this setting], etc.”

Me: Let me just preface with some context –  as you can probably tell, my first chapter starts out with my protagonist traveling in a foreign country. During our session, Juliet had seemed mildly interested in the chapter, but her lack of feel for the character prevented her wanting to read more. Emma, however, told me she definitely did want to read more, if for any reason because she was intrigued by my prologue in the voice of the historical thread’s main character and how it would come to relate to my modern thread. To repeat (and elaborate on) my last post, I have both a modern and historical narrative. The modern thread is the dominant one accounting for the bulk of the story, but the historical one pops up now and then to gradually reveal its influence on the former. Emma was engaged by the historical voice and the mystery of its cryptic words, but it was unfortunately my modern protagonist that fell flat for her as with Juliet.

I place a lot of the blame on the fact that this first chapter used to be my third one. I’d hacked out a duller, wordier opening and likely didn’t thoroughly think through what necessary elements of character were thrown right out with it. I’ve therefore been working to reincorporate that into the opening chapter; it isn’t all as simple as adding an age reference in there, but showing more characterization (and consistency in that characterization) through thoughts, dialogue, and actions. Bearing in mind the critique of my writing style from last time, I’ve also worked to simplify sentences and present it in a *hopefully* snappier, more engaging way that will make the reader more interested in my gal by virtue of better understanding her personality, background, and motivations.

Next Steps:  Recommendations for the way forward.

JP – “Perhaps add a little more emotion into [main character’s] thoughts/feelings?”

Me: Juliet’s primary recommendation related to the issue above – characterization needs to be strengthened from the get-go. Emma hadn’t written anything down for this, but, in person, she reemphasized to me the importance of my two narrative threads having an impact on each other. She liked my writing (was hooked by the first sentence of Chapter 1—score!)—and just warned against the over-writing that confuses what I’m trying to say.

One sigh of relief was Emma’s validation with the way I shift POV between the two threads – the indie publisher I referenced Monday had an issue with that, but Emma said it was perfectly fine. There is an abundance of stigmas against first-time writers and what we are and are not able to do expertly enough; not that I’m saying I’m handling this case in point “expertly,” but I have a list of reasons why I’m doing it the way that I am that I’m choosing to stand by, no matter what. I can see it making a difference if a newbie tries something just for the sake of doing it, to be stylistic and experimental, but when there’s actual purpose underlying the choices we make, that’s gotta be worth something (see “POV for Vendetta” for an instance of this). We’ll see.

So once again, I ask you, readers, what feedback have you received on your manuscript’s opening that you’ve found helpful? How did you address it? 


Picking My Fleas – aka, Constructive Criticism Part 1


I’d mentioned ages ago that I would share the feedback I received at the Festival of Writing, so today I’m finally getting around to it. Along the lines of my post last week, the 10-minute one-on-one sessions were geared toward discussing the marketability of my story based on its first chapter (which the agent/author read in advance). I met with UK literary agent Juliet Pickering of AP Watt and author Emma Darwin (yes, she’s related to Charles), and this is what they wrote on the standard session form…

Market Appeal:  Is the concept of your MS well-designed for the market?

JP – “Literary fiction – female readership? Any authors you could reference in intro?”

ED – “Always room for well-written high-end commercial women’s fiction, but it still needs to be strong in narrative drive, and the history-plot needs to have an effect on the story of the modern strand.”

Me: Juliet had a harder time discerning who my market would be exactly, so she recommended being more specific in my query letter. I’m still not exactly sure what authors I would list…My inspirations for story came from Rumer Godden’s A Fugue in Time, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to an extent, but I kinda modeled my approach (*wishful thinking*) after more modern books by Audrey Niffenegger and Gregory Maguire (Lost, not his fairy tale retellings). I haven’t aimed to copy anyone’s style nor do I want to, but I guess I’d aspire to Kate Morton if I did.

In any case, during our session, Juliet did say she thought the ghost-story element of my manuscript is marketable at this time. I have two threads of narrative running through the manuscript of different time periods, so Juliet had also echoed what Emma later said about one narrative needing to have an impact on the other. Rest assured, they do relate, though the interaction only gradually becomes clearer by the second half, and I leave the reason for this relationship open to speculation until close to the end. Right or wrong, I’m relying on the mystery of that to keep the reader going and give the ending its ta-da!, so hopefully it’s okay that the connection isn’t readily obvious from the start.

Prose Style:  Is your prose style strong enough to sustain an agent’s interest?

JP – “Yes”

ED – “Potentially rich, and very evocative at its best, but it is over-written: too many elaborate words getting in each others’ way. Also I think it’s blinding you to where you’re using words loosely or wrongly, or a sentence doesn’t actually make sense.”

Me: Juliet’s commentary during the session was short-in-sweet on this point, too. Emma, however, was invaluable in calling me out on what I do get criticized on time and again. I had a professor in grad school who told me, “You’re a very good writer. You could be great if you relaxed it more.” The indie publisher who previously offered me a rewrite opportunity likewise said that my writing at the outset of my story was “very ‘erudite’ sounding with lots of metaphors and description, lots of almost ‘purple prose'” and needed to be “simplified a bit to make it more accessible so as to meet with the expectations of our typical readers.” So let’s just say I know this about myself and have for quite some time. I was also reading A.S. Byatt and stuff like Of Human Bondage and Victorian Gothic fiction at the time I started, which made a lot of old-school formality creep in. I’m working on it.

Interestingly enough, that publisher found my language to evolve over the course of the book, which no doubt has to do with practice making, well, closer to the elusive “perfect.” The act of writing itself is the way to become a better writer, and, not having tackled such a lengthy project before, I know that I fell into a more natural groove as the story progressed and had been applying other lessons learned along the way. So I’ve been concentrating lately on these opening chapters to make the writing more consistent. And when Emma says, “using words loosely or wrongly,” ha! Ouch! She’d noted specific instances in my first chapter, and they were definitely parts where I let myself drift into a bit of prose poetry without considering whether I’d let myself get too experimental/abstract. I’m hoping my writing prompts or Eda vignettes will be my outlets for that sort of thing and help get it out of my system for longer prose that should be more straightforward. 🙂

There are a couple other items on the list that I’ll leave for Part 2. In the meantime, happy writing-to-write-better, everyone! And please do tell what feedback YOU’VE received on the two questions above. How did you respond?



Pacing Your Pages – Part II

Playing the "Time Lord" is no matter to horse around with.

After surely leaving you in suspense all week with the dramatic hook at the end of my last post, “Pacing Your Pages – Part I,” I bring you the thrilling conclusion of the joke:

A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says

“WHY THE LONG FACE?”

Boddum-bum. *ching!*

Right. To get back on topic, last time I introduced the first part of author Julie Cohen‘s workshop on Pacing. She’d explained how we’re the “Time Lords” over our readers’ experience with our novel—how engaged they are and how quickly they move through it. We’ve already been over analyzing our use of conflicts, functions, hooks, and variety, so moving onward today…

Keeping secrets is another tool for creating a page-turning novel. As Cohen said:

“Readers are nosy.”

As the writer, we can choose to either keep a secret from the reader or let them in on one that’s kept from a character. However you approach it, try to keep that secret for as long as you can, as wanting to find out what it is (or see the character do so) is what will prompt readers to keep reading. That being said, know when to let it go, even if it’s earlier than you’d want to if it means not distracting or overly teasing the reader. You want them intrigued, not annoyed.

And just when we’ve been talking about how to pick up the pace of your novel, just as important is slowing down. Moments warranting a slow-down are dramatic events, sudden happenings, and emotional high points that we might want to prolong for their significance and to allow the reader to process them. Strategies for expanding on reader time include adding section breaks, changing point-of-view, and leaving an incident for a chapter before returning to it later.

Then there’s the matter of speeding up. If you want to get things rolling a little faster, avoid coffee-drinking scenes and the like with characters just sitting around and gabbing if it’s not moving the story forward, along with description for its own sake. Establishing atmosphere and such can be better achieved through a few concise, well-selected descriptions than rambling on over every detail of everything appearing in a scene—and remember your R.U.E.: Resist the Urge to Explain! Other areas to cut include naturalistic but unneeded dialogue, bits that aren’t hooks at the beginning and end of scenes, and things necessary to real life but not fiction (think going to the bathroom or getting from one side of the room to the other).

Where making these cuts are concerned, Cohen says:

“If you have a sneaking suspicion something shouldn’t be in there, cut it.”

We new writers hear this advice at every turn. That’s because it’s essential, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Looking on the bright side of cutting things out, we can: 1) accept that we’ve learned something from writing it; and, 2) use it again somehow…perhaps in another story, as a “free read” on your website or blog as a means of drawing readership, or, quite possibly, it might even have to be stuck back in the story it originally came from! Cohen herself had this experience—she’d cut a scene out by her own choice, but when her editor later suggested that that part of the story was lacking a certain something, the bit that she’d cut was exactly the solution!

Finally, I’d mentioned her color-coding system before for determining the appearance and interplay of conflict throughout a manuscript. She likewise closed her session with a similar method for outlining other aspects of plot. Basically, however you’d like to slice and dice it, assign each plot element a color (e.g., interaction between hero and heroine, interaction between hero and his mother, etc.) and jot it on a Post-It note. Then go chapter by chapter and apply the Post-Its to a sheet of paper for each to see your story’s development. This isn’t so much for outlining in advance as it is a post-draft diagnostic tool.

* To see a photo of this strategy and read Cohen’s own description of it, see her blog post, “Post-It Plotting“:
http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/2010/09/17/post-it-plotting/

What pacing strategies have worked for you? Would you give any of these from Part I or II a go?


Pacing Your Pages – Part I

Whoa there, horsie! Slow-n-steady does NOT always win the race...

Ah yes, welcome back to the Animal Kingdom, where if I’m not a monkey, I’m evidently a horse…let’s just say my husband and I are big fans of the Grand National and cheer the horses on the best way we know how from the pub. Now the Grand National is a looong-lasting steeplechase, so, just as in the London marathon two days ago, the runners have to pace themselves strategically so they have enough energy to race through the climactic finish. But that doesn’t mean they start walking, and, of course, it’s crucial they stay on track. Likewise, the workshop I attended, “Pacing: Or, How To Keep ‘Em Turning Pages,” at the York Festival of Writing instructed on how to keep the pace of your novel moving without meandering off course.

To start, as you can see on the right side of the screen, I’ve just started reading the novel Getting Away With It. I’m doing so for entertainment, yes, but also as a lesson in pacing—it so happens that its author, Julie Cohen, led the above-mentioned workshop, so I thought I’d check ‘er out.

Cohen started out by noting “novel time” and recommended using a blank calendar to map out the story’s timeframe (bearing in mind “reader time,” the timeframe during which the readers actually read it…you want to keep a novel moving, but you also want to work in enough time for your readers to catch their breath). And while a longer novel versus a shorter one can allow more breathing room for character introspection (which are necessary moments), she recommends against over-using it.

As for conflict, Cohen calls us the “Time Lords” over reading time. 🙂 What she means is that reader time is subjective; it’s the writer who manipulates it. And she advocates doing so by including as much conflict as possible in each page, which I’m sure we’ve all heard before:

A lot of well-handled conflict will go quickly, no matter how many pages.”
Julie Cohen

She’s not talking car-chase, high-drama conflict at all turns but, rather, varying types of conflict—this could be any of the usual types: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature. A blend of these conflicts are likely occurring in your novel, and Cohen suggests tracking them via a color-coding system to map out how they coincide chronologically. This can help you visualize the interplay of conflict as well as an approximation of your story’s shape.

Next up is function. A pacey book is efficient in its storytelling. Among the functions its chapters/scenes serve is moving the plot/subplot forward, developing character, creating emotion/atmosphere/conflict, and imparting information. But if you find you have several scenes serving the same function, either condense them or add in additional functions. A good way to determine this is to make a “scene function” list.

Also essential to pacing is starting and ending each scene with a hook, as well as giving your reader variety in mood, topic, theme, and style. To demonstrate the efficacy of this, Cohen had us do a simple exercise with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (it took a teacher to identify another teacher right off the bat, by the way—her presentation style was straight out of the trenches of keeping teenagers engaged, complete with energy, worksheets, and jigsaw activity. Everyone loved her! :)). Anyway, she’d provided a list of consecutive events from Act 1 Scene 1 to Act 2 Scene 2, and we were to label each with symbols denoting different tones, emotions, characters, and dramatic points of the story. The result is…*drum-roll*…That’s right, variety. You see an interplay of different elements without formulaic repetition.

Putting your readers on a rollercoaster is going to make them think and feel like they’re going faster.
Julie Cohen

So in an attempt to pace myself and allow time to digest the above, I’ll quit here and resume with the rest in Part II. But to practice my lessons, I’ll end on a hook. While I haven’t yet shared the punch-line to my “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?” joke, I’ll leave you with this one, in keeping with today’s theme:

A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says


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?


POV for Vendetta

“[F]airness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives…[I]f you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me…”

V for Vendetta

In the time since my last post, my eyes healed (thank you for your well wishes on that!), and I’d come to trade my sunglasses for a different mask of sorts…one that had tried to preserve an eternal grin to bear the POV debacle that was crashing down on me just as I set off on holiday last week.

Don’t fear. Though I now live in London, it is not my intention to load a tube train up with explosives and send it on its merry way to Westminster. (I did infiltrate Parliament once, though, back in ’98 when my friend—an intern—snuck me in. I stood on the MPs’ terrace and drank a Carlsberg in the pub they have in there. Oh, and I bumped into a blind MP, which made me feel really bad. In all fairness, however, he should have been able to smell me from a mile off, as I’d just gotten in from a train from Spain via Paris and hadn’t showered in all that time. But I digress…)

Anyway, the real issue at hand concerned the manuscript I’m editing for my freelance work with an independent publisher. I will certainly assume the title of “Dufus” on this one, but the whole situation really has had me reevaluating my perspective on, well, perspective…a.k.a. point of view.

So here’s the deal. The author intended the novel to be 3rd person limited POV, which is precisely how I read it as well, correcting here and there for stray thoughts of other characters to which the POV was not limited. This is a romance, and the two lead characters that comprise the central romantic couple share the limelight 50/50, as do their thoughts. The writing was strong, so it honestly didn’t confuse or distract me through my many reads of this ms that the POV was head-hopping between the two, sometimes on a paragraph level. I made sure the POV didn’t shift within a paragraph, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it doing so between these two characters within a scene.

Okay, technically, that’s more omniscient than limited where 3rd person goes, and that’s what the managing editor at the stage beyond my developmental edit called us out on. For 3rd person multiple limited, shifts in POV between the multiple characters should be denoted by a section or chapter break. If this author is asked to revise for this (which she was last week and, thank goodness, spoke up about it, as I agree with her), it’ll be like rewriting half the novel, and the playful sexual tension that the omniscience delivers so well will be squashed. If she’s required to adhere to this technicality of 3rd person limited, that is…

As it stands at present, our appeals induced the managing editor to forward the ms to the other MEs for their opinion on whether it can work as-is or be revised as 3rd person omniscient instead. The author and I are strongly preffing this option, as it’ll not only be a significantly less extensive revision, but will preserve said back-and-forth tension. It’s not that this tension couldn’t be brought about otherwise, just that it hasn’t been written that way all along, so in the direction the story has since gone, it would be difficult to change and really sap it of its spirit, at this point and in this particular case (you’d have to read it to know what I mean).

So this is my question to you: Why can’t a 3rd person limited POV (limited to multiple characters) head-hop between the characters it’s limited to if it’s been done in a skillful manner that is not confusing and actually enhances the tone and conflict of the text? Now, if this author is given the go-ahead to switch to omniscient, she’ll be adding thoughts of secondary characters as well, which is only promoting further head-hopping and extremely unnecessarily, all in the name of convention. Why would it be okay to hop around several different heads instead of just two if it’s all about ensuring clarity for the reader? Why can’t an “omniscient” POV be limited to two characters? Am I making myself sound like even more of a dufus?

My fear stems from the true limited POV being that of these editors who shun 3rd person omniscient (along with 1st person multiple perspectives—in that case, um, hello? Time Traveler’s Wife? Poisonwood Bible?)  from the get-go because they so often see it mistreated by inexperienced writers. I understand that perspective, I do; green writers can easily make a mess of either one, and do. Yet I don’t think it’s quite fair to essentially adopt as a policy when there are more skillful writers (even first-time ones) who do pull it off. So it’s my latest bone of contention that is rendering Point-of-View my Pain-in-Ass.

By the way, this is really, really humbling for me to share as both a newbie editor and former English teacher, for cripes sakes! I guess the wonderful world of creative writing will always be full of surprises, just when we think we’ve dissected it down to a science. If there’s anything to be learned in this, it’s that I have a lot to learn…which makes it difficult to know when to fight for what I think is fair, just, and promotes creative freedom or to just grin and bear it.

Have you encountered this issue with POV in your writing? Can you think of examples of literary works that somehow defy narrative convention and pull it off?


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!


Looking Back & Flying Forward

Happy 2011! The past year has added another ring to the trunk of my tree, and as I trace a finger around the circumference of bark, I’m elated to be looking back on a year of frolicking, friendship, and focus, an enchanting year of feeling more at home overseas and in my new freelancing capacities, while still basking in the joy of home-home periodically—this last visit being an especially candy-coated one of icicles and white Christmas lights glowing from beneath inches of snow, of attending Nativity plays, marveling over how a bee could have stung my niece inside the house in December, hearing an older nephew’s voice deepen, and initiating a younger one into our Finer Things Club on the basis of his Harry Potter knowledge…of laughing with siblings, savoring parents, celebrating with in-laws, toasting with friends, and sharing chocolate fondue with several former students at the quaint café where I used to grade their essays :).

And, of course, it was a whooping, whirring, sometimes wilting, but always whimsical year of writing, but one that has now gotten me prepped for the humbling undertaking of querying and thrilled to start up new projects. Time to get warmed up, then…time for this monkey to fly.

The Prompt:

Today, page 44 of Room to Write asks us to write about flying—how it makes us feel, where it takes us. As an alternative, we can perform a free-writing by starting with the word “flying” or “wings.”

Response:

Flying these days inevitably makes me think of airports and how such places that used to represent adventure and freedom have now come to mean “goodbye.” There’s still anticipation in it, still excitement in it, yet somehow I also worry that with every new flight I take, the world becomes less unknown and more trodden. Nevertheless, flying is still my gateway to other perspectives, other features, other values, and flying is what will bring me to my 6th continent next weekend and allow my greying UK-ified skin to gulp up some Vitamin D. Flying is soaring, feeling the air rushing against my face as my heart rises into my throat and my stomach sinks to my bladder or clenches at my spine, it’s loop-de-loops and spinning spirals, then having to peel the cape off my face. It’s Peter Pan, it’s Superman, it’s the birds that escape the pavement and the predators and sing me out of slumber. Flying is icy pressure beneath my fingernails as they pierce the air and a tickling tug at my toes as their wake sucks a vacuum into being. It’s hearing the crackle of joints as my wings finally unfurl and spread out in a stretch that luxuriously takes my breath away before expanding my lungs with cool purity. Flying is connecting, an efficient means of traversing the distance between A to B or of ascending from thoughts to ideas, information to knowledge, sense to sensibility, for even when not stepping onto a plane, it is only opening a book or reading an email from Mom or closing my eyes atop a pillow that yet makes me fly. Flying is high-speed, forward-moving levitation, or it’s the freedom of imagination I enjoy while never feeling more grounded.

Reflection:

BeezArtist.com

I didn’t do a full-on free-write without stopping, but I did let my thoughts meander wherever they fancied sentence by sentence. No surprise that, being between a recent and upcoming plane trip, the word first took me to modern air transport, though it still didn’t take long to get to the actual action at hand, physically and metaphorically. Not my most creative effort, but a productive enough burst before bedtime to motivate me to wake to a day of more fruitful word-weaving tomorrow. I think when I found my mind wasn’t fully taking flight by writing tonight, it started yearning for a book—someone else‘s writing :). Fair enough. We become better writers by reading as well, so time for me to check-in (i.e., get in my PJs), get my boarding pass (grab my novel), check my bags (ditch any emotional baggage at the bedroom door), board my aircraft (climb into bed), switch on my reading light (uh, that’s really the same thing in both scenarios), and get ready for take-off!


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


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