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Let It Die

Let It Die

Is it time let your novel die?

That’s a question every writer faces at least once in his or her writing life. The decision to pull life support is difficult at best, debilitatingly impossible at worst. You’ve worked on this novel for, what, months? years? How many hours have you invested? Even a poorly-written novel takes a long time to write.

Then there’s the emotional cost. Whether you love your characters or hate them, they’ve most likely become real to you. (I’m 99 percent certain I’ve seen some of mine hanging out at the local Starbucks.) Giving up on their story can feel like signing a bundle of death warrants. And who wants to do that?

There are a number of good reasons to let a novel die – a plot that goes nowhere, characters that just lie there on the page, un-patchable holes in story logic, an unbelievable premise, and (though this might be the hardest one for the writer to identify herself), shoddy writing. Thankfully, most of these things will rear their ugly heads long before you’ve finished your work, saving you the agony of having to decide the fate of a Fully Operational Death Star… I mean, completed novel.

But let’s assume for a moment that your plot is sound, your characters interesting, and (according to someone other than your mother), the writing is actually decent. And you’ve finished the book. And you’ve been shopping it to agents (or, if you have an agent, he or she has been shopping it to publishing houses) for months. And months. And months.

And nobody wants it.

You’ve heard a dozen variations on “It’s not for us” or “The writing is good, but I’m just not blown away by it” or the real soul-killer, “I wanted to love it…”

Do you give up on your novel after ten rejections? Twenty? Fifty?

How many times can you go back to the story and “improve” it before you actually start to make it worse? Five times? Ten?

I’ll offer you the inspirational message first. Don’t give up! If you need a break from constant rejection, just set aside the novel for a time and work on something else. [Insert any of a hundred stories of authors whose novels languished for years before becoming an “overnight success” story.] When the time is right and the market is right and the stars align and God decides He likes you, all your hard work will pay off in a contract offer and the subsequent joy of walking into Barnes & Noble to see your lovely book on the front table next to Dan Brown’s next bestseller.

If inspiration is what you need, you should stop reading now.

For the rest of you? Well, killing your unsalable book might just be the best thing you ever did. It’s quite possible your stillborn story is holding you back from creating something better. If every time you sit down to write a new work, you look longingly at your last project and wonder “why oh why don’t they love you like I do?” you might be dooming your current work to the same fate.

Letting go of a novel can free you up to try new things with the next one.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting you should delete all files and throw away all hard copies of a go-nowhere book. That would be silly. You should keep past work in some sort of archive. That archive is a great testament to all you’ve accomplished, and (hopefully), a scrapbook that shows how far you’ve come.

But what I am suggesting is that you effectively let the book die. Stop thinking about it. Put all your time into the current project. Apply everything you’ve learned from the last one and make this story shine. You can’t hurt your previous novel’s feelings. A novel understands its role, even if the writer doesn’t. A shelved novel has already served a very important purpose. It has taught you.

Now about this new work? You really should pay attention to it. Because, as you know, this is the one that will get you published.

Yes, this one. It’s a living, breathing thing.

And I think it’s hungry.

A Few Words of My Own

A Few Words of My Own

A couple years ago, on a blog far, far away, I invited readers to send me a word or phrase that I could use as the basis for a short story. Readers sent me words like “cheesecake” and “dragonfly” and “rick-rack.” I wrote a story for each. But there was this one reader who thought it would be funny to send me more than one word. Here was her list:

  • pus-oozing scabs
  • maggot-infested corpses
  • lightning bugs
  • Hello Kitty band-aids
  • Silver Queen corn
  • a kite-flying windy day in March
  • chocolate cake
  • tiramisu
  • sargassum tea
  • Hershey’s Kisses
  • flying monkeys
  • a white tiger
  • transistor radios

I told her I could write a story that included them all. And so I did.

* * *

Not Enough Sky

I am watching her sleep.

It is a restless sleep. She has been like this for two weeks.

It began the night after she got that letter. Elle had tried to hide her reaction from me, but in an unprotected moment, I saw the life drain out of her, the air sucked from her lungs, and the hope ripped from her heart. It took extraordinary courage and strength to force an almost-believable smile to her face when she finally said, “It’s from my old college roommate.” Then she got up from the kitchen table and shuffled outside in pajamas and slippers to sit on the porch swing.

My pj-girl sat there in the brisk morning air for more than an hour. I wanted to follow her. To sit next to her and put my arm around her and hold her in whatever sort of silence her heart needed.

But somehow I knew that would be too much.

Later, after the sun fell behind the hills, we sat in the den together, reading. I brought her a glass of red wine. She stared at the same two pages for at least forty minutes before slipping away to bed. It was a book by Anita Shrieve. I don’t remember which one, but it had a silvery-blue cover that reminded me of winter.

She is waking up now.

“David?”

“I’m here.”

She has been crying. The moonlight paints pale blue trails down her cheeks.

“You were having another nightmare.” I wipe the blue away with the back of my hand.

“I…I was…”

“What was it this time? Maggot-infested corpses?” I say this with a smile, hoping to soften the edge between asleep and awake.

“No…no…I…”

“Pus-oozing scabs?” She brushes my hands away from her face.

“Stop it. You’re making fun of me.”

“No, I…I’m sorry, Elle. I don’t mean to.”

She swings her feet over the bedside and sits there with perfect posture, staring out the window.

“Go back to sleep,” she says. I hear fresh tears in her voice.

I don’t argue. Not this time. I lie on my back, look over at her silhouette.

She is a ghost.

* * *

“Chocolate cake?”

Elle takes a long sip of her coffee.

“Okay, then what about tiramisu?” I ask. She, sputters, nearly chokes. “You used to love tiramisu. It’s been years since you had it…”

“No.”

“No?”

“No, I don’t want dessert.”

“Elle…I wish you would…”

“No, David. Not tonight…”

“But Elle…”

“David…I can’t. I just can’t.”

I reach my hand to hers. She flinches as skin touches skin, but does not pull away from me.

“Will you ever want to talk?”

“I don’t know,” she says. And now she retracts her hand, bringing it up to join the other in cradling her coffee cup. She starts coughing. A deep, throaty cough.

“Maybe we should trade that coffee for sargassum tea,” I say. She finds a smile and for a moment I see the Elle I chased along the beach two years ago during our 10-year-anniversary getaway. She’d threatened to make sargassum tea right there on the shoreline and force it down my throat.

“I don’t want you coughing up your lungs this week,” she’d teased. “I need you healthy so you can make love to me every morning and every afternoon and every night.”

I didn’t need the tea. The promise of passion in her beautiful brown eyes healed me faster than a Hello Kitty band-aid could wipe way little Haley’s tears after a tumble.

On the way out of the restaurant, I grab a couple Hershey’s Kisses from the crystal bowl by the door. I’ll place one on her pillow tonight.

She really did want dessert.

* * *

We are celebrating Haley’s seventh birthday. It is a kite-flying windy day in March.

They are standing together atop a hill, staring at the darting and diving colors.

“Look, mom…flying monkeys!” Haley points and laughs. It is an inside joke between mother and daughter. But I think I know how it came about. I wandered in late from work one evening to the cackle of the Wicked Witch of the West accompanied by the sobs of a frightened six-year-old coming from the family room. I didn’t hear what Elle said to her, but it wasn’t much later when Haley’s high-pitched giggles skipped around the house, brightening every room.

“How many ears of corn do you want?” I shout.

“Just one for me, daddy,” Haley calls back.

“And one for me,” Elle adds. “Unless it’s Silver Queen.” She blows a kiss to me. Perhaps she winks.

“Sorry, ma’am, we’re all out of Silver Queen,” I say in my best southern accent. It’s not a very good impression, but Elle laughs anyway at our own inside joke.

* * *

Haley is asleep in her bed, arms wrapped tight around her new best friend, a white tiger. When she announced his name to us after tearing through the wrapping paper and giving him a breathtaking hug, Elle turned whiter than the stuffed animal.

“William,” Haley said, “I’m going to call him William.”

We are sitting on the bottom step of the back porch. The neighbors’ bug zappers sizzle and crackle like poorly tuned transistor radios.

Elle reaches into her pocket and removes a folded-up letter. The letter. She holds it for a moment, turns it in her hands, then gives it to me.

“Look…the lightning bugs are out,” she says. Her voice is steady.

I hold the letter in the sliver of light coming through the kitchen window. I am afraid to read it…

Dear Elle,

I have some sad news. There’s no easy way to say this, my good friend.

William died yesterday.

He was driving home from work and someone ran a red light. He was killed instantly. We’re all stunned. Lisa is a wreck, as you might guess. I can’t even imagine it, losing my husband like that. And the kids…oh my, they’re all so sad. I haven’t stopped crying.

I knew about your letters. I found out quite by accident and confronted William. I hated him so much then. Do you know what it’s like to hate the brother you’ve looked up to all your life? Then I made him tell you a lie, Elle. I made him write that last letter all those years ago. I made him promise never to write again.

I had to, Elle. I love you and David too much…

I stop reading and fold the letter. I hold it out for Elle.

There is a sudden silence. The night waits.

She takes the letter and slips it into her pocket.

The stars are brilliant tonight. They remind me of something Elle told me on the beach after we’d made love to the gentle rhythm of the midnight waves. “There’s not enough sky to hold all my love for you,” she said.

In the stillness God has granted, I take her hand in mine.

The crickets tentatively resume their chorus. The wind blows music through the hanging glass chimes.

LIghtning bugs dot the yard.

Slowly, patiently, the night returns.

And morning will follow.

Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Scent. The forgotten sense.

Take a look at your work in progress. How often do you invite the reader’s nose into the story? My guess? Not as often as you should.

Consider real life for a moment. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the life where you have to do laundry and feed the dog and occasionally acknowledge the existence of your spouse and/or children.) Breathe in each the following. Be sure to pause long enough for the brain to write the scene that goes with the scent.

Diesel fuel.

Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

The sidewalk after a summer rain.

Burning plastic.

Theater popcorn.

Cigar smoke.

Wet dog.

Spinning class.

The ocean.

Lavender.

Is your head spinning yet? Good. Then you get my point. In real life (see above for reminder of what this is), scent is one of our most powerful memory-triggers. Whereas I sometimes struggle to re-paint the visual elements of a past experience, scent memory acts like an impatient time machine. The moment I smell vanilla, I’m in my mother’s kitchen, barely as tall as the counter, fingers dusted with flour and waiting impatiently for the first spoon of cookie dough. The heady tease of campfire smoke takes me to any of a dozen childhood-through-adult memories, each flashing by in some visceral “Best Of…” camping memories video. And then there’s the unique pheromonic signature of those we love… or once loved. Sigh. The paradox of hope and a broken heart in a single inhale? Don’t even get me started on that one.

As with every other aspect of writing, using scent in story is an art form. It’s not as simple as saying “She smelled of raspberries.” Here are a few basic tips to make the most of scent:

  • Vary the manner in which you put the scent on the page. While it’s easy to write “she smelled like…” or “the air smelled like…” and so on, this sort of simplistic introduction to scent can actually diminish the reader’s experience over time. Mix it up. Use sentence fragments. Or just toss the source of the scent on the page. (“When she reached for the spoon, she knocked over the open bottle of vanilla and it soaked her sleeve.”)
  • Choose your scents carefully – what takes you back to a happy memory could take someone else back to a sad one.
  • Obscure scents can be effective (they take readers to very specific places), but familiar ones will have the most universal impact.
  • Allow plenty of space around the scent. Unless you are trying to overwhelm the reader in a particular scene, don’t throw a bouquet of aromas on the page. A single mention of burning plastic can linger almost as long in a story as it does in real life (remember real life?).
  • Scents can be used for good or for evil. Don’t be afraid to use them for the latter. Nothing will make a reader remember a villain more than being told he reeks of a decomposing mouse.

The nose matters.

That’s all for today. But before I go, I thought I’d share some of the titles I almost used for this post. Just because.

  • The Ol’factory
  • Scents and Sensibility
  • Sulphur for Your Art
  • The Odor Way to Write
  • Scratch and Sniff Your Way to a Pulitzer

In case you’re wondering – I haven’t forgotten the “First and Last” contest. Your entries are lined up in my reading queue. I’ve skimmed them once already. You people are quite creative. And slightly insane. In a (mostly) good way.

Winners will be announced Friday.

Smell you later…

Time Travel & Teleportation Aren’t Just for Science Fiction

Time Travel & Teleportation Aren’t Just for Science Fiction

The written word defies the laws of physics. Right now, as you read this, the author of these words could be parasailing in Grand Cayman, or tied to a chair in the belly of an abandoned oil tanker while being pistol-whipped by thugs (a case of mistaken identity, surely), or (gasp) even dead. Okay, that last one’s a bit morbid, but the only thing you can be relatively certain of is that on Sunday, when I wrote this, I was none of the above.

But do you see what’s going on here? I’m talking to you from the past. Yup. We’re time traveling. I don’t know what “voice” you imagine when you read my words (I hope it’s a resonant, clever & sexy voice and not Steve Buscemi’s nasally weasel-whine), but the thing is… I’m not really speaking them, am I. It’s all in your head.

And that, my writing friends, is the magic of the written word. It takes on a life of its own the moment it lands on the page for someone else to read. And while all writing does this little trick to some degree, the best writing does more than simply speak from the author’s yesterday – it takes you to places you otherwise might never go, introduces you to people you otherwise would never meet.

Have you taken a train to Hogwarts? Stared in awe at Mt. Doom? Have you listened to Reuben Land’s asthmatic wheezing? Fought cold and fear with father and son as they walked Cormac’s Road? Felt the ache and uncertainty of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting’s honeymoon night on Chesil Beach?

The mark of a truly excellent story is its ability to grant you the impossible gift of living someone else’s life – to feel his or her pain, fear, wonder, joy. When you read a great novel, the words on the page dissolve into adopted memories nearly as real as the once-lived ones.

Does your novel do this? Or is it just a bunch of words on the page? Here’s an easy way to find out. Give your story to someone who doesn’t have to sleep with you at the end of the day. Ask him or her to read it, then… forget you asked. In a month or two, go back and ask what they thought. If their eyes light up and they recall a character or a story element in great detail, that’s probably a good sign (at least of that particular story element). If they say, “It was good” and that’s all? I think you have some work to do. (If they say “it was pure crap,” then surely they don’t know good literature – or maybe it was pure crap.)

Okay. That’s all. Nothing really earth shattering today. I mean, it’s Sunday after all, right? What’s that? It’s not?

I know.

Pretty cool trick, don’t you think?

Don’t forget about the “First and Last” writing contest. Still plenty of time to enter.

On the Subject of Subjectivity

On the Subject of Subjectivity

Deep breath…

The Da Vinci Code is the best novel ever written. You know it’s based on a true story, right?

The Left Behind books are more well-written than anything by Fitzgerald or Hemingway or any of those boring Russian authors.

The Road. It changed the way I view dialogue said the man. And punctuation. His life was a series of fragmented sentences. And so was the book. The Road is not just Cormac’s tarmac. It is brilliance said the man. The boy turned his head and coughed.

Don’t you dare question the infinite incredibleness of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or a horde of orcs will pour out of your closet in the middle of the night and chop you up and feed you to the Balrog!

Atonement? [tap…tap…tap-tap…tap…] The best book ever written [tap-tap…tap…tap…tap-tap-tap] that features a typewriter as a main character! [tap…tap…zzzzing!]

I’d marry the Twilight books if I could. But only after months and months of chaste, yet extremely passionate longing. If you don’t agree, I’ll bite you in the neck.

Sigh. The Notebook. A Walk to Remember. I don’t care which one you choose, you absolutely have to fall in love with anything Nicholas Sparks writes. Of course, then something tragic will happen to you. But that will just make you love his books more. The most recent one? I don’t know what it was called, but it made me cry. They all make me cry. They should come with a box of tissues. Sigh. I just love Nicholas Sparks.

* * *

Hi, it’s me. Your noveldoctor. You breathing okay? I suspect a few of you might be experiencing some kind of emotional and/or physical distress. Go ahead and take a moment to calm down.

Okay. Wait a second. Some of you in the back row are still hyperventilating. Breathe in through your nose…now exhale through your mouth…

Better.

I really don’t need to say much more here. You know exactly what I’m going to say next, right?

Skunk.

Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming. [I considered writing “Squirrel,” because doing so would immediately divide the audience into two camps, thereby underscoring the point I will have beat to death by the end of the next paragraph. Camp one would have been all, “Ah, how cute. That’s from ‘Up’! I loved that movie!” Camp two would have smugly grumbled, “What a lame attempt at humor. That whole ‘squirrel’ thing is so yesterday. Get some fresh material, Parolini.”]

Here’s the paragraph where I make the point you already see coming. When it comes to reading, subjectivity rules. What you love, someone else might hate. What you see as brilliant, someone else might see as pretentious or just plain stupid. Readers like what they like…because they like it. (Go ahead and get that tattooed down your spine. I won’t charge you a royalty. But please send me a picture.) Argue all you want about the literary merits of Brown or Meyer or Jenkins & LaHaye, millions of folks read and enjoyed their books. Does that mean you have to love them, too? Nope. Read your Nabokov. Your Tolstoy. Your Austen. Your  Marilynne Robinson. You’ve always read what you enjoy. Why stop now?

Okay, we’re about to make the leap from talking about “reader subjectively” to exploring “acquisition editor/agent subjectivity.” Lock the germ-infested metal bar tight against your legs, remain seated, and by all means, keep your hands and other body parts inside the vehicle at all times.

Ready?

* plink *

We’re there. What’s that? You didn’t feel any dramatic stomach-drop excitement? Well, of course not, silly. That’s because there’s very little distance between your reading subjectivity and the subjectivity found in the agenting and editorial realms. Yes, editors and agents have a practiced understanding of “good writing” versus “bad writing” and they quickly pass on all “nowhere near good” manuscripts based on this somewhat objective (though not purely so) criteria.

But that’s not all they do.

They also rule out manuscripts that simply don’t grab them. In fact, they do this a lot. This is where the editor’s or agent’s selection process starts to look surprisingly like the reader’s selection process. You’re going to argue that agents and editors choose books that have a chance of selling. That their personal preference may play some role, but that it’s not the main factor. You would be right, at least in part. But… why does one manuscript look salable to an edigent (just coining a word here so I don’t have to keep writing “editor” and “agent” every time) and the next one doesn’t? Sub. Jec. Tivity. Whether the edigents are asking the question “would this sell?” or “do I like this?” they’re doing so through a filter uniquely their own. This is why it’s so important to seek out agents who represent books similar to the one you’re writing. I’m aware this is common sense. But sometimes I think writers skip this step and select agents based solely on how cute they look in their blog photo.

The book you’re submitting to agents? It might be a perfectly publishable book. (Or one with enough promise to be publishable at some point in the future.) And yet you get rejected. Once. Twice. It happens to nearly every writer. Even the ones mentioned above. Just keep working on the craft of writing. Do all you can to eliminate anything that would relegate your book to the “easy dismissal” category. Then do your research. Send it to more agents.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

We all know the hard truth: many novels, even some that are brilliantly written, won’t find a home on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Yours may be among the missing. But the only way to be certain yours won’t make it to the shelf is to give up trying.

Don’t give up.

Listen. Learn. And hope that one day your study and persistence will pay off and that the gods of subjectivity will smile upon you and drop your manuscript in the lap of an edigent who just happens to love urban fantasies featuring a protagonist who is half unicorn, half stockbroker.

Now get back to work.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I just made up those comments at the top of the post. I do happen to like some of the books mentioned, but not all of them. Guess which ones I like and I might send you a prize.

10 Reasons Writing Fiction Is the Best. Thing. Ever.

10 Reasons Writing Fiction Is the Best. Thing. Ever.

  1. You can explain away talking to yourself as “trying out a conversation between characters in my novel.”
  2. Your much-used acronym for “work in progress” is alarmingly similar to the acronym for “rest in peace” and this adds an air of clever mystery to your role when casually mentioning it among non-writers. (Plus, you only have to change one letter to appropriately re-categorize any book that’s going nowhere.)
  3. You can overindulge in any of the three “C”s with impunity: Coffee, Chocolate, Cocktails.
  4. You can do your job almost anywhere. While still stuck in bed, or at your desk in a chair. You can write in a car, you can write in a bar. You can write on a train or in the air on a plane. You can write on a yacht, in a full parking lot, and (though you prob’ly ought not), while sat on the pot. You can write Way Out West, or wherever works best. That’s the thing about writing that makes it so fun. (Now I just need a laptop I can read in the sun.)
  5. You can do mean (or wonderful) things to real life friends, family members and enemies simply by putting them in your novel and changing their names.
  6. You can write new friends, family members and enemies into existence when the real-life ones shun you after seeing what mean (or wonderful) things you’ve done to their alter egos in your novel.
  7. You have a ready and reasonable excuse for why you’re reading a novel when you’re supposed to be doing the dishes, cleaning the garage, or picking up your mother-in-law from the airport: “I’m working.”
  8. You can refer to Ernest Hemingway, Nick Hornby, Marilynne Robinson and Jane Austen as your “co-workers.”
  9. Eavesdropping = Research.
  10. And finally, you get to answer the question “What do you do?” with, “I’m a writer.”

Got any more to add? Leave ’em in the comments.

A Little Editing

A Little Editing

Remember that writing contest I had a few weeks ago? Well, as part of that fun, I asked if I could use some of your entries as editing examples right here in front of everybody. With Jana’s permission, I’m going to show you a couple of ways I might approach the editing of her creative entry.

First, I’ll show you the original work.

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of a stranger. He was encircled by four armed men. A fifth man curiously appraised the unusual items that had been confiscated. One object was like a ring of red light reflecting the flames. Fascinated, the man reached out to nudge the object, half expecting it to be hot. He smiled as he held it in his hand, caressing its smooth cool surface, captivated by each intricate detail. He stepped closer to the fire when he noticed unfamiliar markings on the circular centerpiece. As he scrutinized it, he noticed movement within. He tapped it sharply to determine if it was alive. Then he held it up to his ear, quickly dropping it, startled. When it fell, it began emitting a green light. Trying to regain his dignity, he carefully retrieved the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. The stranger jumped to his feet shouting unintelligibly, but was quickly stopped by four sharp spears held inches from his throat. Unfazed, the man continued his study, pushing on the strange protrusion. A flash of light suddenly enveloped him, blinding the observers. When it subsided, he had vanished.

Intriguing, don’t you think? Okay, here’s a quick line edit, keeping the contest’s word count limitations in mind.

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of a stranger. Four armed men encircled him while a fifth appraised the confiscated items. He reached for a ring of red that reflected the firelight, expecting it to be hot, then held it in his hand and smiled, caressing the smooth, cool surface. He stepped closer to the fire to study the ring’s intricate markings. Had they moved? Was it alive? He tapped the ring sharply, held it to his ear, then dropped it, startled by a foreign sound. When it fell, the ring began emitting a green light. The man looked over at the others who stood as still as statues, then retrieved the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. At this, the stranger jumped to his feet and began shouting, but he was quickly silenced by four sharp spears held inches from his throat. Unfazed, the fifth man continued his study, pushing the strange protrusion. A flash of light suddenly enveloped him, blinding the observers. When it subsided, he had vanished.

Can you identify the changes in this version? I replaced some of the passive voice with a slightly more active voice here and there and attempted to clarify the action a bit. By defining the object as a ring, I made it something the reader could easily picture. That doesn’t mean Jana has to use a ring if she prefers some other device, but whatever the object, it needs to be described in such a way that the reader sees it immediately and can participate in the action along with the fifth man. And about that fifth man – as it is written, this is his POV, his story (or about to become his story).

Just for fun, I decided to play even more with the content. Now this is slightly more involved than a standard line edit, but I wanted to push a few of the ideas a bit farther, just to see what this could become. This isn’t necessarily a better version, just a different version. When I work with authors on the early stages of a book, I often offer suggestions like these to show the author alternative ways to color a scene. (Usually these suggestions are noted in margin comments, though, not in the midst of the narrative itself.)

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of the stranger. Four armed men encircled him. A fifth appraised the confiscated treasure, each item a curious enigma. His eyes were drawn to a ring of red reflecting the flames. He reached for the ring, expecting it to be hot, then smiled as he held it in his hand. He caressed the smooth, cool surface, captivated by the intricate detail.

He stepped closer to the fire to study the unfamiliar markings. They seemed to be moving. Was it alive? He tapped the ring sharply, but it did not scream. He held it to his ear, listened, then threw it down, frightened by the foreign language of click and whir.

When the ring came to rest on the stony ground, it began emitting a green light. The fifth man stood tall, turned to look at the others, grunted a false confidence, then bent down to retrieve the object. He ran his finger over a small bump on its side. The stranger jumped to his feet and began shouting unfamiliar words, but was quickly silenced by four sharp spears thrust within inches of his throat. Unfazed, the fifth man pushed the protrusion. Suddenly a flash of light enveloped him, blinding the other men.

When it subsided, he was gone.

As you can see, I added a few lines here and there. Maybe it works, maybe not. But these are the sorts of editorial changes and suggestions that lead to a spirited dialogue with the author. Sometimes the scenes look completely different at the end of the process than either the original or my first editing attempt. Sometimes they look very much like the author’s draft. And, of course, sometimes the scenes are cut entirely.

picture-3Now, the way this looks in practice is different than the above. In addition to the “comments” feature, I always use the “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word so the author can see everything I touched and I can see every change he or she makes throughout the back-and-forth process. Just for fun, I took a screen capture of my second edit with track changes turned on. This is the “red pen of death and life” at its finest – scary to look at, but upon closer inspection, it’s not so bad, really. The story is the same. And hopefully, the author’s voice is intact or better defined.

Okay, I’ve already missed my posting deadline, so I’m going to wrap this up for now. Thanks to Jana for allowing me to play with the fun scene she entered in the contest. If you want to play the part of the author, feel free to ask why I made a particular editing change or suggestion in either of the above examples. I’ll share my rationale and then you can nod and agree or tell me why I’m wrong. (Because I sometimes am, you know?)

Have a great Wednesday. See you here again tomorrow? Bring a friend. We’ll make s’mores.