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Category: Self-editing Tips

When You Care, Send the Very Best

When You Care, Send the Very Best

This is going to be a short post. Because, quite frankly, the topic only needs a few words. Here they are: Never* send an editor or agent a first draft.

I could end the post right there. But just in case there’s a lingering “huh?” out there somewhere, I’ll elaborate with three reasons for this common-sense advice.

  • First drafts, even really good ones, typically still suffer from fixable plot and character problems. It doesn’t matter that your writing is excellent, such problems signal impatience to editors and agents. It’s good be be known for your passion and your dedication to excellence…but not for your impatience.
  • When you start working on a second draft, you have the opportunity to see with an editor’s eyes. While this can often be a painful experience (did you really forget an entire plot thread?), skipping this step is akin to saying, “an editor’s experience and insights aren’t that important to me.” Show editors the respect they deserve – wear their shoes during your revision process and be tough on your manuscript.
  • Editors and agents-who-offer-editorial-assistance have a limited amount of time to work with your manuscript. Assuming you’ve gotten their interest with your great writing, wouldn’t you rather have them spending time making a great book excellent instead of struggling to make a good book great (or merely “publishable”)?

*If you are contracted to write a novel and struggling to find direction (this often happens with a second novel), sending a first draft might be acceptable. Just make sure your editor knows this is a “rough idea in search of big-picture help” and not something you’re trying to pass off as finished. (Note: This needs to happen long before your assigned deadline. Don’t submit anything but your Very Best on the delivery date for your manuscript.)

Contest reminder: Look for this blog’s first writing contest to be announced on Friday. I’m not going to say any more about it until then. But between now and then, tell all your friends about noveldoctor.com. The greater the number of visitors to the blog this week, the bigger (and cooler) the contest prize.


Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules

Just yesterday, an Internet friend asked me to read his short story and offer him a little editorial advice. Sometimes I get nervous when friends ask me to read their writing, but I’d shared enough of a conversation with him to expect he’d know his way around words. I was right. Even though it was a first draft, the observational story (non-fiction, but with the textures of a great fiction piece) had plenty of bite and surprising depth.

One of the things that struck me about his story was the manner in which he introduced dialogue for the various characters. He didn’t separate it from the rest of the first-person narrative with expected paragraphs and punctuation. Writing rules would tell you this was a mistake, something to fix in the second draft. But after reading through the story multiple times, I was convinced it needed to stay exactly as written and told him so. To write the dialogue using a more traditional format would have weakened the story, stripped it of both intimacy and menace.

Now I’m fully aware that the short story often plays by different rules than a typical novel, but the rationale behind what makes a “broken rule” work in his story and what makes them work in novels is very much the same.

Anyone who reads (and/or writes) science fiction or fantasy knows the importance of consistent and believable “laws” for their created worlds. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than a character who suddenly discovers a new ability that goes against the rules of the imagined universe. Suspension of disbelief evaporates the moment Sir. Junket of Swarthy swings his sword in the Arthurian tale and laser beams fly out of it to kill the minotaur. (Unless, of course, the story has been developed in such a way that all three elements play nice with each other. Then it would be just fine.)

The same is true for the writing craft in general. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for example. I’ll admit it took me a few pages to get used to McCarthy’s creative use of non-punctuation and sentence fragments. But the more I read, the more it made perfect sense for the story. The novel broke a ton of rules, but it did so with such consistency and believability and purpose, many thousands of readers (and those fine Pulitzer folks) didn’t mind one bit.

I’ve heard lots of writers complain about the “constricting nature of writing rules,” but more often than not, when I run into those broken rules in practice (head-hopping, sentence fragments, odd punctuation, etc.), they betray poor plotting or lazy writing rather than purpose. The best writing advice – to “just write” – is still and always the best approach to take when starting a new work. Don’t worry too much about the rules while writing the first draft. But once you start working on revisions, it’s critically important to carefully evaluate if what’s on the page draws the reader into the story or pulls them out of it. Can you really justify the head-hopping? Are the sentence fragments distracting or do they fit the rhythm and voice of the narrative?

Broken rules that truly serve the story are invisible to the reader.

One final note: If the novel you’re shopping has broken tons of writing rules, you might have a harder time selling it to an agent or publisher. Publishers are hesitant to take a chance on something that falls outside of familiar boundaries – especially if they have lots proposals for good books that fall within them.

But don’t stress too much about this. If what you’ve written is brilliant, you won’t go unnoticed.

Contest reminder: Look for this blog’s first writing contest to be announced on Friday. I’m not going to say any more about it until then. But between now and then, tell all your friends about noveldoctor.com. The greater the number of visitors to the blog this week, the bigger (and cooler) the contest prize.

Bend and Break

Bend and Break

One of the more common problems I run into when editing fiction is the “dimensionless character.” You know her. She’s defined by…um…her lack of definition. She’s a paper doll trying to make a splash in a three-dimensional world.

Now, when I say “lack of definition,” I don’t mean she’s not well described (though sometimes this is also true). That she has pink streaks in her midnight-black hair is a fine detail, but it is a meaningless (and potentially unnecessary) detail unless we know enough about her to care why she has those streaks.

Perhaps it’s evidence of a rebellious nature. (That would be a reasonable guess.) But it could also be evidence of a playful, free spirit. What if it’s the consequence of a lost bet? Could it be a not-so-subtle cry for help? An invitation for love? Or maybe it’s a poignant picture of longing – a sincere-yet-misguided attempt to paint herself into a peer group that she knows will go all Star-Bellied-Sneetches on her the second they see her hair, quickly replacing their own pink streaks with beaded locks or some other look.

If the author has done a good job revealing the character, we’ll know exactly why she did it. Even if the reason goes against her nature, we’ll understand what prompted the act.*

So, how do you get there? How do you give your paper doll flesh and blood and a soul worth caring about? There are tons of ways to do this and I’m sure you’ve discovered many of them in that leaning tower of “Building a Better Character” books stacked on your bedside table. Write her backstory. Make up a resume. Base her on your crazy Aunt Lucy. All are fine ideas.

Now here’s mine: bend her until she breaks. Put her in situations that will test her mettle, challenge her beliefs.  If she continues to put on a Stepford smile and say “everything’s just fine” each time you toss her a challenge, try tossing her in front of a train.

Take away her friends, her family, her dreams. Push her, Job-like, to the edge and then keep pushing. (BTW, it’s okay if you don’t use these scenes in your novel. The point of this activity is to reveal the true nature of your character.)

If you’re doing this right, it’s gonna hurt you as much as it hurts her. Don’t shy away from that pain – it means you care what happens to her.

And isn’t that what you want from the reader?

*I’m not suggesting that you avoid all description until a character is well-defined. That would be silly. Use all the paints you want, but just make sure that somewhere along the way we learn enough about her to understand the why behind the what. Don’t underestimate the power of those “oh, now I understand” moments when a reader discovers a character’s underlying motivation for previous acts. They are just the sort of discoveries that bind readers to the characters and the story.

The Mysterious Importance of Mystery

The Mysterious Importance of Mystery

Not so many years ago, my younger son became a fascinated by videogames. Like his older brother before him, this fascination grew into a full-blown addiction for a time. But unlike his brother – who suffered through the challenges of finishing a level using the age-old technique known as “if at first you don’t succeed, stomp your feet, pout, growl, try out a new word to see if your parents notice, then try again” – my younger son was known to ask, “is there a cheat code for this?” Younger son has always been rather pragmatic; he likes order and when he comes across an obstacle, he prefers a simple, ordered solution to a complex puzzle.

On some occasions, (like when I was too busy doing Really Important Stuff to be a good parent and drop to the floor, pick up a controller and help solve the problem right then and there) I went in search of his requested code, handed it over, and returned to doing Really Important Stuff. Looking back, I now see this was a mistake (one more to add to the growing list that surely will be enumerated someday in the privacy of a therapist’s office).

Cheat codes provide a shortcut around the very purpose of a good videogame: discovery. And by handing these to my son, I cheated him out of the joy of that discovery. The other day I came across a link to an article in Wired Magazine written by J. J. Abrams. Here’s a brief excerpt:

True understanding (or skill or effort) has become bothersome—an unnecessary headache that impedes our ability to get on with our lives (and most likely skip to something else). Earning the endgame seems so yesterday, especially when we can know whatever we need to know whenever we need to know it.

– excerpt from “J. J. Abrams on the Magic of Mystery” (Wired Magazine, 17.05. Click here to read the complete article.)

The article makes some rather salient points about the damaging role the “spoiler” plays in our Internet-soaked, “I want it now” culture. Spoilers (like cheat codes) have the potential to steal the mystery from a story. People still might have flocked to see The Sixth Sense had they known the ending, but the experience would have been less.

Much less.

I was thinking about this in relation to novels. What is it that keeps a reader reading? A compelling story is important, of course. Twists and turns, tension and release, uncertainty and anticipation all urge readers to turn the page in search of “what’s next.” Generous readers will often forgive cardboard cutout characters if the the pace and action are interesting enough to warrant continued attention. But well-written characters compel the reader forward for anther reason – because we care about them. Whether good or evil, kind-hearted or hard-hearted, want to know them. We want to follow their stories to a satisfying pause. There is a tremendous opportunity for mystery-that-leads-to-discovery in well-written characters because they’re as much in the dark as we, the readers are – sometimes even moreso. It is the question of who they will become, and how they will act and react along the way, that compels us to keep reading.

A few months back I was editing a novel that had a well-structured plot and interesting enough characters, but it just didn’t grab me as a reader. As I turned the last page (okay, as I scrolled to the bottom of the screen – you caught me), all I could muster was a response that teetered on the edge of damning with faint praise, “Um…that was nice.” Something was missing.

Here’s a beautiful paradox: what was missing was “less.”

After some spirited discussion about the manuscript, the author agreed with my plan to trim back the internal dialogue and cut a few scenes that explained away too much of the story. If I might return to the videogame metaphor, I edited out the cheat codes. The result? Well, we’ll see when the book hits the shelves, but I am convinced it’s a better story simply because of those (relatively minor) edits. Readers will have to do a little more work, a little more intuitive sleuthing, perhaps, as they read – but because of this, the turning of the last page will be accompanied by a satisfied sigh instead of a shrug.

A Book, Some Editorial Advice and a Picture of a Kitty & a Puppy

A Book, Some Editorial Advice and a Picture of a Kitty & a Puppy

It’s Friday, which means absolutely nothing to a freelancer since all days end up looking the same. But for the sake of the rest of the working world, I’m going to play along. Hooray for the weekend! (For the record, I almost never use exclamation marks. This is not because F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote of them, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes,” but because I rarely feel all that exclamatory. So, if you see one on this blog, it’s either a sign of the apocalypse or a snide comment on the sentence that precedes it. Listen for the sound of hoofbeats. If you hear them and you’re not at a rodeo, it might just be the former.)

In order to set a trend early in this blog’s life, I’m declaring Fridays as “write a post about anything” days. This is my way of lowering expectations and providing for the likelihood that I’ll be underwhelmed by my own writing at least once a week. Which is not to say you are required to be underwhelmed as well. Feel free to be as whelmed as you like.

Friday Item Numero Uno – A Book

shameShame, by Greg Garrett. Buy it. Read it. I edited it. Okay, so this could be considered shameless self-promotion (irony noted), except for the fact that it really is a great book and I’d recommend Greg’s writing even if the closest I ever got to editing it was scrawling “best” in my autographed copy between the words “To my…” and “friend, Steve.”

Fair warning if you’re looking for a whiz-bang-shoot-em-up thriller with paranormal tendencies – that ain’t this book. Shame is the story of John Tilden, a good man wrestling with relationships and regret and the lure of oft-remembered longings that threaten to redefine the life he has come to know. Reading Greg’s prose is like canoeing on a twisting, gently flowing river – it draws you in, carries you, sometimes surprises you, but always takes you to a satisfying ending.

Friday, the Second Thing – Some Editorial Advice

Ready? This one’s profound. You sure you’re ready? Because when I say “profound,” I mean it. Okay, here goes: Don’t take every bit of editorial advice as the gospel truth. Even what I just wrote.

I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath.

There’s a lot of great advice here on the Interwebs and also in those dust-gathering paper things with pages people in one possible future will refer to as “Pre-Kindle Reading Devices.” Learn as much as you can. Soak it all in. But don’t presume that what works for one (or even a thousand) will work for you, too. For example, many writer-advisors say, “Kill adverbs now!” (Unless they speak irony, in which case they might say, “Quickly, kill all adverbs!”) Hey, it’s generally pretty good advice, but maybe your book actually is better because it has three adverbs in it. Here’s another: conventional wisdom says don’t open your novel talking about the weather. Yeah, “It was a dark and stormy night” probably won’t give that agent you’re stalking a literary orgasm. But “When I was seven years old, a tornado swept through my small town and took everything with it but me” just might.

Here’s my best advice on the whole advice thing: Study all you can, then stuff all the study materials under your desk and simply write. The hints and tips and advice that most resonated with you will begin to naturally shape your writing. And even if your writing still sucks…er…isn’t brilliant, the best time to fix it is after you’ve written your first draft, right? At that point, you can go back to learnin’ and apply what you discover to your work in progress.

But then again, don’t take what I say as the gospel truth. (See “Some Editorial Advice” above.)

Finally, Friday Item 3 – A Picture of a Kitty & a Puppy

Because some of you were disappointed that my Tuesday post included words about writing and not a picture of a kitty and a puppy, here you go. Happy “Awe, cute!”ing.

istock_000003740402xsmall

Have a swell weekend.

7 Things that Keep Editors in Business

7 Things that Keep Editors in Business

A long time ago, in a life far, far away, I worked as an assistant manager of a Pizza Hut. The owner of this particular store (a former Pizza Hut corporate big-wig) had hired a man we’ll call “Gary” (since that was his name) to globally manage the stores. Since each store already had its own manager and more than a few assistant managers, I wondered what Gary’s responsibilities entailed. I found out one Friday in the middle of the lunch rush hour. He entered the restaurant as any other customer, waited to be seated, then proceeded to order enough food for a family of six.

Since this was my first experience with Gary, I was puzzled by the fear that marked the faces of my lead cook, the hostess, and every other employee under the red roof. (Even some of the regular customers seemed to cower in his presence.)

I soon learned that Gary’s primary responsibility was delivering surprise inspections. On this particular Friday afternoon, he was troubled by the dents in the Parmesan shaker (ten point deduction); the microscopic tear in the red and white checked table cloth (goodbye five more points); and worst of all, one of the pizzas he ordered was overcooked (there goes the hope of a passing score).

Inspection fail.

At first I was a little peeved at the nit-pickiness of Gary’s complaints. I mean, dents in the Parmesan shaker? And the pizza wasn’t that overcooked. After my fifth surprise inspection, I began to wonder if he kept finding things wrong with the store solely to justify his job. But then one day we scored a 97, much to the delight of the store manager (a man I feared not because he was my boss but because he was a semi-pro kickboxer and carried himself in the store like he was stalking an opponent in the ring).

It was then that I finally understood what Gary was doing: he was teaching us the difference between good and great, illustrating (in his own snarly, self-important fashion) how vigilance and attention to detail can introduce excellence where “good enough” once held sway.

Here’s the clever transition from a post about pizza to a post about editing. (You were way ahead of me, weren’t you?) Yup. I’m Gary. All editors are Gary, though thankfully, most of us don’t look like we’re trying out for the part of Blake in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.

So to that end, here’s a list of seven things that keep editors in business. Fix all of these in your novel and we’ll all be out of a job.

Or maybe we’ll find something else that needs attention.

  1. Pet Words and Phrases – These are the words that just keep coming back like the killer that won’t die in a cheesy horror film. You may think “Becky spat the words at him” is perfect for the scene you’re writing, but what you don’t recall is that Becky spat words three pages earlier. So did Louella. And Fred. And in the next chapter, Timmy is going to spit words. With so much spitting going on, your novel is drowning in saliva. Kill the repeat offenders when possible. Please.
  2. Head-hopping – I’m aware there’s an ongoing debate (I prefer to call it a conversation) about the whole POV issue, but my complaint here is very specific. Let’s assume you’re not trying to write from a pure omniscient POV (it might well be the hardest to pull off with excellence). Okay, so you’ve got your four or five main characters and each one is reasonably well defined. Good for you. So why, in the middle of Jason’s scene, does the unnamed baker across the cupcake counter have to interrupt his POV to point out just how indecisive Jason is being? Head-hopping within a scene is confusing. And I think it’s just lazy writing.
  3. [To be added later] – I have a writer friend who can churn out 10,000 words in a day. In order to maintain that pace, she often slips in placeholders such as [descriptive word] when the right words don’t come quick enough or when further research is required. But long before she turns her novel in to her editor, she goes through the manuscript and fills in those blanks. This way, her editor won’t have to wonder what she meant by [large potted plant with spiky leaves]. Now, if you’re collaborating with your editor early in the process, this isn’t such a horrible thing. You can work together to solve the puzzles. But if you’re saying “this is it – this is the final draft” and it’s full of holes…well…fix it first, dear Liza.
  4. The Brady Bunch Syndrome – This may just be my pet peeve, but I’m constantly amazed by how many novels (including many published novels, mind you) end so abruptly. Characters you’ve come to know and love suddenly resolve all their issues and everything is dandy. End of story. It almost feels as if the writer just got tired of writing and said, “well, I’d better end this now.” Give your ending due consideration. If you’re pushing the edge of your word count, don’t automatically cut from the ending. Just write your novel, then go back and trim (most likely from the middle). Allow the ending to breathe. A good story doesn’t stop at the last page. Well-written characters live on.
  5. Perfect Characters – This is a corollary concern to the previous item. Have you ever known anyone without a flaw? I don’t mean have you ever known someone whom you perceived as flawless, I mean have you ever known a perfect person? Me neither. Allow your characters to show their weaknesses – even the ones you want the reader to despise. Give the reader a peek behind the curtain to see at the very least, a hint of their humanity.
  6. Name Dropping – When writing dialogue, it’s not necessary to attribute every spoken sentence to a character by name. Nor is it necessary to write out their full name every time they appear. If we’ve already met Skip Johnson, it’s okay to say “Skip stepped up to the counter to order a Nehi Grape soda.” If you’ve chosen your character names well (if they’re not too similar, for example), the reader won’t be likely to mistake Skip for someone else. Also, think about how people address each other in real life and apply that to your dialogue sequences. Yes, it’s true that written and spoken dialogue have a different pace and flow about them, but if you’ve got too many names flying around the page, it can be unnecessarily distracting for the reader.
  7. Thesaurusitis – Do I need to say more? A thesaurus is a great tool, but when used as a crutch, it can obfuscate the congenital pulchritude of the scribed utterance. Sometimes the first word that comes to mind is perfect. Use it. Unless, you’ve used in a dozen times before. Then see item #1. (Obvious tip: To improve your natural un-thesaurusized vocabulary, read. A lot. Above your grade level.)