Category Archives: Self-editing Tips

Trails for Rabbits and Writers. And Rabbits.

Struggling with your current work in progress? Good for you. I mean, it’s lovely and wonderful and all when the story just flows like gravy over the Spoon Ridge Mountains of your mashed potatoes, but if you ask me, struggle is a good thing.

You’re somewhere in the middle of your book, aren’t you. And you’re totally frustrated. And ready to quit. Actually, yes, I am psychic. You’re also not eating enough vegetables and you need to call your mother and the world is going to end in 2012.

But before you grab and drop your messterpiece in the virtual trash, read the rest of this blog post. Your novel may yet be salvageable.

I said may be salvageable. Because let’s face it, sometimes the whole project does belong in the trash. But usually, it’s just a few pages here and there that deserve such fate.

This is where I must pause and offer a moment of reverent silence for the Days of Typewriters and Correction Fluid. In those days (yes, I actually am old enough to remember those days, the proof of which can be found in my so-mild-it’s-almost-precious brain damage, an unavoidable result of inhaling the literary scent of a generation: Liquid Paper), there was only so much you could fix on a page before it started to look like a cheap hooker in bad Kabuki makeup. That’s when you would practice the time-honored rip, crumple and toss that reminded you in multi-sensory fashion just what a horrible writer you were. At least on that particular page. Sometimes, the joy of actually making a three-point shot in your wastebasket would cheer you up enough to return to your novel in progress with renewed vim and vigor. But probably just vigor. Vim doesn’t get out much. Same with flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam gets lots of solo dates. Jetsam? Nope.

Today, it’s too easy. Bad writing doesn’t engage enough of our senses. It’s just “click, drag, pop” accompanied by wind chimes and the chirping of happy sparrows. There’s no satisfying machine-gun gear-grind inevitably followed by a pained groan from a spouse or co-worker who respects machines far more than humans and considers the removal of a sheet of paper from typewriter by anything other than gentle spinning of the platen wheel a mortal sin.

I know, you young folks are all “what? Platen wheel? What?” Google it. Wait, no, don’t Google it. Go to the library and check out a book called an “encyclopedia.” It’s sort of like Google, except it’s better at pressing flowers.

While you’re at the library, go to the fiction section. Grab the dustiest hardcover you can find and remove it from the shelf. Open to somewhere in the middle. Read a paragraph or two. Then find a comfy chair and keep reading. When the librarian taps you on the shoulder and says “we’re closing in ten minutes,” do a quick inventory of the past few hours. Were you drawn inexorably into the story? Or did you fall asleep? If the former, use this as motivation to get back to your own novel in progress. Because, let’s face it, the writer of the dusty library book struggled as much as you did with the middle. She just kept at it, you know? Maybe she took a break and made a BLT, only without lettuce and tomatoes since she really only likes BLTs for the bacon, and this inspired a brilliant idea that the protagonist could be allergic to wheat bread which would then solve her problem of a stalled plot because he just got a job in a bakery. Or maybe she printed out the offending pages, crumpled them up one at a time and played wasteketball until she felt so guilty about her growing carbon footprint that she vowed never to buy bottled water again, which gave her the brilliant idea of making her protagonist a quirky environmentalist because that would create palpable tension between him and his Hummer-driving love interest. Or maybe she went to the library and pulled out a dusty book and sat in a comfy chair and fell asleep because it was really horribly boring.

And when she awoke, she felt just what you did moments ago when the librarian tapped you out of your slumber, an electric surge of superiority all writers politely deny in public but crave in secret that goes by the name: “I can write better than that hack.” And as you brushed away fading dreams of secret library rendezvous and monkeys with typewriters and correction fluid in a spray can that works on annoying people, you realized you can do this.

You can fix the middle. Because you’re a damn good writer. Better than that loser who put you to sleep, anyway.

So go do it. Crumple up a few pages and write some new ones.

But first you should probably make a BLT.

Just in case.

The end. Yup. Really. Feel free to dig for hidden wisdom in this post.

* * *

You may be wondering why I don’t post more often. Why don’t you tell me? Choose from the following, or make up your own answer.

  1. Because I’m lazy.
  2. Because I can’t write until the muse shows up and she’s lazy.
  3. Because I like being contrary and infrequent blogging is exactly the sort of thing blogging experts tell you not to do.
  4. Because more often than not I don’t have anything new to add to the conversation and I have little interest in saying the same old thing in the same old way. Besides, you can get that elsewhere.
  5. Because I’m sending a coded message to rebel authors who are preparing a literary coup of the current publishing regime. (Count the number of days between posts. Assign a letter of the alphabet to each of those numbers. Re-arrange the letters until they make sense, in a “literary coup” sorta way. Follow the instructions carefully.)

The Voices In Your Head

I suppose it’s possible to be a writer and not suffer from some variation of multiple personality disorder, but I haven’t yet met one who isn’t at least circumstantially Sybilic. I’m not talking about the characters you create who take up temporary residence in your gray matter, I’m referring to the diverse and often contradictory voices that all claim ownership of your publishing success.

There’s Clueless Cheerleader, for example. She’s always saying things like “You can do it!” and “Write, baby, write!” and “Every word you write is one word closer to ‘The End’!” Everything she says ends with an exclamation point and she doesn’t care what the other voices are saying. To her, writing is easy. Clearly, she doesn’t know much about writing.

Her nemesis is, of course, Self-Appointed Voice of Reason. It needs to be noted right away that Self-Appointed Voice of Reason is Self-Appointed for a reason: she’s not really the voice of reason. She’s a nay-sayer. A nattering nabob of negativism. A sourpuss. A party pooper. She has a ready response for every naive [her word] aphorism Clueless Cheerleader tapes onto the bathroom mirror. Her favorite rejoinder is “You’ll never be as good as Hemingway or as lucky as that writer who sold all those glittery vampire books, you know, what’s-her-name.”

Programmer’s voice is measured and calm. She can explain (in five succinct bullet points) exactly how to write a novel. This is because she studies all the how-to books and knows every system there is for turning a novel idea into a perfectly readable novel. She sounds smart because she is smart. She’s also a deadline’s best friend. But sometimes Programmer can get a little huffy. Like when Rabbit Trailer speaks up.

I’m sure you recognize Rabbit Trailer. Hers is the voice that encourages you to follow every stray thought. Sometimes she is certain the thought will lead somewhere important. Other times, she doesn’t think about where the thought might lead. She just tells you to follow it. When Programmer asks, “Where do you think you’re going?” she will usually reply, “I’ll know when I get there.”

Programmer’s cousin, Rule Keeper, also gets peeved with Rabbit Trailer. She’ll say things like “that’s not a complete sentence” or “kill all your adverbs” or “don’t you dare write a prologue” rather loudly [adverb added against counsel of Rule Keeper], not caring one bit that these sorts of things might hurt Rabbit Trailer’s feelings.

There are others, of course. Many others. Woe Is Me will tell you to seek out a new hobby/career, and fast. It’s Okay to Ask For Help will encourage you to seek the wise counsel of crit partners and professional editors. Don’t You Dare will tell you your words are spotless and golden and that if anyone even thinks about changing them that person should be forced to read [Name of book deleted by voice of If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Don't Say Anything At All] from cover to cover. Out loud. A hundred times.

Most of these voices have some merit. The real challenge of writing is sorting through them, managing them. What happens when you’re not managing the voices in your head? Error-filled query letters. Broken plots. Two-dimensional characters. Oh, and a little thing called writer’s block. All the stuff that keeps you from realizing your dream of being published.

Here’s my advice: acknowledge these voices. Let them know you appreciate their role in your publishing journey. But also let them know that if they don’t play nice, you won’t hesitate to grab the microphone and kick them offstage. At least until you need them again.

Okay, Brevity just whispered in my ear that I should bring this post to a close.

So, um…The End.

When Editors Go Bad

book cover fakeIf you’ve been reading my little blog for any length of time, you already know that editors aren’t prefect. [Yes, I just wrote “prefect.” Squirming yet?]

As evidence of this, I present to you some of the most common mistakes editors make. By “editors” I mean me. And by “mistakes” I mean errors in judgment prompted by sleep deprivation, excessive drinking, lack of confidence in the job, or plain ol’ incompetence. I’ve given each of the editorial screw-ups a title, but these are only my made-up titles and are not the terms officially sanctioned by the National Governing Board of Freelance Editors (NGBFE), which I don’t think exists, but if it did I would already be reaching for my wallet to pay a fine for my contextually inappropriate abbreviation of “old” in the previous sentence.

Never Say Never – It’s so easy to do and it seems so right, we don’t think twice. We just do it. And the thing is, it’s quite often the right thing to do. But…not always. I’m talking about trimming adverbs. You see, we’ve read all the books, too – the ones that say adverbs are badverbs. Or something like that. So we cut ‘em out of habit. Even when we shouldn’t. We make similar mistakes when applying other Rules of Good Writing, like getting rid of all semi-colons or universally suggesting all “tell” copy needs to “show.” Thankfully, this sort of mistake only happens when we’ve been editing for 24 hours straight. Which we aren’t supposed to do, according to the NGBFE.

Exterminate! Exterminate!Despite the fact that the title is a reference to Dr. Who’s Daleks, this editorial no-no has nothing to do with science fiction and instead is a subset of what I lovingly call The Goldilocks Compendium. (Actually, I’ve never called it that until just now. And because of that little lie, I can expect another fine from the NGBFE.) Exterminate! Exterminate! is all about being “too hard” on a manuscript. It’s about cutting. (Not the kind that people do when they’re emotionally unstable, though it must be acknowledged that all editors are emotionally unstable and probably would resort to this sort of cutting if not for coffee, wine, and chocolate.) This is the arena where I am most roguish. If I had a sweatshirt with my editorial mantra on it, it would say “Less is more.” I think it would be dark gray, with a half-zip collar and white lettering. I celebrate the economy of words, perhaps to a fault (except in blogposts, where I overwrite to my heart’s content). Maybe this is why Twitter is fun for me. Anyway, when I come across a big paragraph, my eyes get bigger still and out comes the X-acto knife of death. Cut, cut, snip, snip. And now it’s just a single sentence. There’s nothing wrong with cutting extra words (most people use too many), but I run the risk of cutting away the pretty colors in a manuscript if I’m not careful.

Intimidate! Intimidate! – Part two of The Goldilocks Compendium is a corollary to the above: going too soft on a manuscript. I’ll admit I can be intimidated by good authors. I’ll read an amazing manuscript and think, “damn, that’s good,” and question my editorial skills and my sanity and my salvation and wonder if I have the right to touch any words at all. Usually, on a second pass, I discover areas for improvement and make those edits and recommendations. But sometimes I’m not tough enough on what’s there. It works, so why change it? Well, here’s a good reason: to bump it from good to great, or great to excellent. This is why I’m (eventually, though never soon enough) paid the (not really) big bucks. And this where an editor’s art and uncertainty walk hand in hand like young lovers. (No, I don’t have a clue what that means.) Hopefully, more often than not, I make the right call. But I am always thankful, if a little sheepish, when an author says, “Hey, you missed something. I think we could actually cut this (or add this, or change this)” after I’d already let it slide.

My Word Is Better Than Your Word – I think this is self-explanatory. But I’ll explain it anyway. Sometimes an editor replaces a perfectly good word just for the hell of it. [Note to NGBFE: I"m kidding. Officially.] Okay, that’s not usually why. They replace the word because they like it better. I have my word preferences and you have yours. Most of the time, yours work just fine. But sometimes, I’ll read yours and think, “Really? ‘Crepuscular?’ Why?” And then I’ll change yours to mine because I’m the editor and I’m supposed to know what’s best for you. Normally, I’ll realize my selfish ways before I finish editing and you’ll never see my words because I’ll change them back to what you had. Unless there’s defensible benefit to changing your word, I don’t need to touch it.

Whose Voice Is It Anyway? – Some authors have clearly defined voices. When I read their manuscripts, I hear exactly what they sound like and can attenuate my editing to match that voice. However, when I work on a manuscript where the voice isn’t so distinct, I sometimes make this editorial blunder: I apply my writer’s voice (or one of them, anyway, considering I suffer from Multiple Author Voice Syndrome). That’s not the right thing to do. In these cases, it’s the editor’s responsibility (according to NGBFE statute 27.1, subsection R.) to help the author find and then maintain his or her voice throughout the manuscript. This is easier said than done, by the way.

Missing the Point Completely – Sometimes Editors Miss the Point Completely. An author may have constructed a perfectly reasonable plot or created a perfectly believable character, but the editor Just Doesn’t Get It. And in their attempt to fix The Thing They Just Don’t Get, the editor makes things worse. I don’t have a Really Good Excuse for why this happens. Let’s just go with, Editors Are Human and follow that up with Humans Are Imperfect and leave it at that. Here’s the good news, though – Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Then someone invented the Internet. Now editors and authors can Talk About Stuff and Clarify Things They Just Don’t Understand. [Another note to NGBFE: I've already calculated the fees for excessive capitalization. You'll be receiving payment in approximately six to twelve-hundred weeks, depending on when my accounting department can get to it.]

Other Stuff – We add typos. We miss continuity errors. We break a plot when trying to fix it somewhere else. We change the color of your protagonist’s hair. We get fingerprints on the printed manuscript. We remove all references to Al Gore. We add references to Al Gore. We write whole sections for you instead of simply noting in a comment what we think is missing. We can be lazy and careless.

But mostly we try really hard to do everything we can to make your book the best book you’ve ever written.

That’s all for today. I need to go screw up edit a manuscript now. Thanks for coming. Please deposit your 3-D glasses in the bin at the end of the hallway on your way out.

Writing Tips from Novels: Alex and the Ironic Gentleman

Yes, there are lots of great books “on writing” (my favorite is the one that goes by that name, except capitalized; it’s by Stephen King), but I’ve found that you can get some great tips from the characters and narrators of Actual Novels. And isn’t it more fun to read a novel than a book about writing a novel? Sure it is.

I have a few of these lined up in the queue (gosh, I love writing that word), but I thought it might be fun to open this irregularly recurring blog feature with an unexpected little book. It’s called Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and is written by Adrienne Kress. Alex is a middle grade novel about pirates and treasure and schoolteachers and a train you can never leave and an Extremely Ginormous Octopus and the Very Wicked Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society. It stars young Alex Morningside who is actually a ten-and-a-half-year-old girl with short hair, not a boy at all.

The book is clever and quirky-with-a-capital-Q (watch for the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it scene featuring a pirate who uses a laptop to record the piratical business of the day). I’ve visited the author’s website and followed her tweets (that just sounds creepy) and I believe I can say with absolute most-likely-hood that she, like her novel, is also Clever and Quirky. And while Adrienne is a real life actress in addition to being a multi-published author (there’s a sequel to Alex, called Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate), she seems a very down to earth sort of person, quite unlike the Extremely Ginormous Octopus who tends to drink a lot because no one sees him as a serious Actor.

This is where we can all take a moment to offer a soft sigh of complaint that Some People are granted more than their fair share of talent and “why oh why can’t I have just a little of hers?”

There. I feel better.

Now, on to the helpful writing tips, taken directly from the novel. Feel free to apply the wisdom found here to your own writing. I trust your interpretation. After all, you’re Very Clever. (And Possibly Quirky, though I’m not sure how that applies here.)

On Imagination:

She also liked making up stories, though she wasn’t sure if the Alex in her stories was as brave as the Alex in real life. Well, it didn’t matter, because her imagination was her own, and she could do with it whatever she wanted.

On Plotting and Pacing:

“Um, could you tell me about the painting?”

“Oh, I am so glad you asked, dear,” replied the little old lady, spit flying out of her mouth. “It is of an uncharted island, somewhere far out to sea. Now I don’t know if you know about the tale of Alistair Steele and the Infamous Wigpowder…”

“Yes, I do – very well,” she said quickly. She hated it when people took too long to get to the heart of the story.

On Predictability:

Because of all their warnings, Alex half expected a cage to fall from the ceiling and trap her. But nothing happened, not even an alarm, and Alex went quickly over to the secret door.

Without waiting – as she knew well enough that, in stories, if you wait or think for too long, you get caught – she pushed the button, and the door opened.

On Showing Vs. Telling:

Philosophy is sort of silly like that. We spend all this time wondering why things exist, instead of dealing with the fact that they do.

On the Value of Interesting Words:

Coffee-table books are written to be so extremely dull that you can’t do anything but give up and look at the pictures. And you always start by reading the book, you always really, really, try, but it is no good. No matter how hard you focus, your eyes will start to glaze over, your mind will begin to wander.

On Problem-Solving:

Alex crossed the hall into the dark library. She looked out the window – again a steep drop down. She could see the town twinkling in the distance. It was so infuriating how close she was to escaping, and yet so far! There must be a way. There was always a solution to any problem. You just had to find it.

On The Importance of Setting:

Now sometimes, and I don’t know how it knows, the weather decides it wants to help with a certain situation by creating Atmosphere. At this moment, it decided to blow a gust of wind that rattled all the nonbroken windows and properly attached doors of the buildings along the bridge.

On Believably Imperfect Characters:

And what made one person good and the other one bad, anyway? In her long journey she had met good and bad people alike, people who were not pirates, but who had respectable jobs and were well-liked within their communities. And yet these same people could get away with the most reprehensible behavior. Couldn’t there be good pirates and bad pirates?

Writer Vs. Self-Editor

Once upon a time, there was a writer…

Whoa, hold on there. Wait one darn minute, mister.

Excuse me?

“Once upon a time”? Really? Where’s the originality in that? Surely someone who calls himself a “writer” can do better.

There was a writer…

Pa-thet-ICK.

Look, I’m just trying to…

“Was.” Passive verb, my friend. You should know this by now. Passive verbs suck. Spice it up a bit. Put some life in your words or you’re going to put your readers to sleep.

I appreciate your concern, but I’m not trying to write the Great American Novel. It’s just a blog post on…

Just a blog post? Attitudes like that are the clumsy sausage fingers pulling the Jenga blocks from the very foundation of literacy today.

What?

Here. I’ll give you a little help. Kick off the opening with something surprising. Like, “First she broke his heart, then she broke his kneecaps.” Or maybe, “Melinda dove into the water a girl, but came out a mermaid.” Wait, I’ve got it, “The tornado-ravaged mobile home park lay before them like a toppled Jenga tower.”

What is it with you and Jenga?

I like building things and taking them apart. And then re-building them. Sometimes I knock things down for the hell of it. And, no, this sort of behavior does not fit the clinical definition of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and therefore is considered perfectly normal. My therapists all agree.

Do all self-editors have multiple therapists?

Yes.

Well, thanks for your help, but  I can’t use any of those opening lines.

Why not?

They don’t make sense. Not with the post I’m trying to write.

Okay, fine. What’s the topic?

It’s about silencing your self-editor when writing first drafts.

Ouch. That hurt.

You asked.

First drafts are the bane of my existence. They’re the windless sky to my kite of purpose. The decaffeination in my coffeepot of determination. The upside-down-shake of my Etch-a-Sketch hope…

Okay, okay. I get it. You hate first drafts. And you overwrite. How did you ever get to be an editor, anyway? Don’t answer that. Please be patient. You’ll get your say. Just not yet.

Fine. But make your first pass better this time, okay? I’m still feeling nauseous from the “Once upon a time” bit.

Then you might want to get a bucket.

You wouldn’t…

Once upon a time, there was a writer who couldn’t finish a novel because his self-editor kept interrupt…

I’m going to be sick…

…because his self-editor kept interrupting him before he could get the story on the page. But then one day, just as his self-editor was preparing to correct his spelling of “qeue”…

Arggh…ugh…please…gag…fix…urp…

…he kicked his self-editor in the groin and plowed on ahead. He wrote his story without stopping to fix spelling errors or labor over perfect words or even solve gaping plot holes.

…can’t…breathe…

And wouldn’t you know it? He actually finished that novel. And it was perfect.

Wha????

Kidding. It wan’t perfect. It was better than he expected, but there were still lots of problems. So…he helped his self-editor to his feet and said, “Have at it.”

Finally.

Feel better now?

I will after I fix your crappy  post. Okay, first of all it’s spelled “q u e u e.” Now, about that “Once upon a time” thing…