Focus on those Nitty Gritty Details

I hope you’re following Dory’s advice and staying persistent… just keep swimming (writing)!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed yet, but editing really is my favorite part of the creative writing process. I know I might be alone in this, and that’s ok. My goal this week was to help you see that editing is not as hard as it seems… it just takes patience, persistence, and motivation. Today I want to leave you with some ideas to help you edit on a very detailed level. Beware, those faint of heart and annoyed by long posts, as this just might be my longest ever.


Set up a timeline for editing your book. Do you want to finish editing a chapter a day? Whatever it is, make a pact with yourself to go through your draft once only. Be determined to catch every mistake the first time through. This will keep you focused and efficient.

Give yourself a break if life gets in the way of your editing timeline, too. There is nothing worse than feeling guilty about not working, and worse yet, the more upset you are with yourself about not working, the more your guilt will build. To the point that you won’t want to edit. Always, always, always avoid feeling like you don’t want to touch your work.

Editing the Beginning

This is by far the hardest and most frustrating part of the book to edit, it seems. Therefore, I’m going to apply this week’s editing tips to the introduction of my first book. That way you can see an example of how I’m thinking, and hopefully find similarities in your own work to know how to edit.

I started my first book, Catching the Rose, with narrative description because I read classics when younger and that’s what I was used to. It never occurred to me that reader preferences would change in 100+ years.

Silly me. Today’s readers expect to begin with action, whether by/to the main character or by/to a character who will affect the main character later. So let’s see an example of what my first paragraphs were, and what they would be if I were writing the book now.

Continue reading

Tell Me, Don’t Show Me

Here is a conversation I hope I never see in your work, ever.

“Hi Belinda.”

“Hey Marcie. What’s up?”

“Nothing much.” Marcie sighs into the phone. “Making dinner. Hubby’s coming home soon and he gets grumpy if I don’t have it ready.”

“Oh man,” Belinda murmurs. “What’re you making? Spaghetti? Gotta love spaghetti.”

Snore, snore, snore, right? How many of you have heard a conversation like this while walking around a store? A conversation about nothing that annoys everyone else who has to hear it? Don’t force it on your readers or they’ll throw your book against the wall.

As important as showing is, telling is equally important when used at the right time

Let’s define some terms, first. Exposition is when the author stops to describe something to us, say, a house. We need to know what this house looks like because the main character is about to sneak inside, but it doesn’t forward the plot at all. Narration is when the description forwards the plot along, often by describing emotions or thoughts, or when transitioning from one scene/location to another.

As you can see, there isn’t a big difference here, so I’m going to collapse both terms into simple ‘narrative.’

Now, narrative is imperative for prose fiction: it’s what defines prose from poetry (among other things, of course). But how do we know when to show and when to tell?

Use narration to set the scene.

Do this quickly. You don’t want to disrupt your reader too long, which is what you’re doing whenever you rely on narration. This is the most traditional way to use narration, because it works. A simple paragraph describing the scene does more than a page of dialogue talking about the trees, the sky, the buildings, and the characters’ moods. Let’s see an example:

It was night, not that Belinda could tell the difference with the blindfold on. Her hands pulsed with a dull ache thanks to the rough rope knotted around her wrists. She had lost feeling in her legs hours ago. Her cheeks were sticky with tears, and the old sock in her mouth choked her.

There it is again. Heavy footfalls shuffling up the wooden staircase toward her.

This narration tells us everything we need to know. What time of day it is, that Belinda is panicked, tied up, has no idea where she is, and dreads the sound of heavy footsteps coming toward her.

Use narration when you need to cover a block of time or a boring conversation.

We don’t need to know every detail, just tell us the information we need to know to keep up. This includes generic introductions between characters, or when a couple of days go by in your plot timeline that don’t have any real action or events to maintain interest. Never do extended flashback scenes if you can help it. Going back to my opening example:

A week went by before Belinda called Marcie. The phone rang four times before Marcie picked up, and there was a definite hesitation in her voice. Belinda ground her teeth as they wasted time talking about how Marcie was making dinner for her husband. Forget your husband, Belinda wanted to scream, and get out while you still can.

I could have written this narration two ways: Marcie upset about her husband’s demands, or the way I wrote it with Belinda not understanding how her friend can stand her husband’s demands. Or a third way, with the husband coming home and wanting to know why Marcie’s gabbing on the phone instead of making dinner.

Use narration when you’re switching locations, moods, characters…

This is the smoothest way of letting your reader know that something is shifting. For example, you can end a chapter with your character saying, “I bet Frank’s sneaking his way into the girl’s locker room again.” And then start the next chapter with a teacher dragging Frank by his ear out of the girl’s locker room. You gave a hint about where Frank will be the next time we read about him, and not only is he there, he’s making us laugh that he got caught. Silly Frank.

Use narration when you’re giving your reader information that your characters don’t have.

This is used all the time in romance, as well as political thrillers, mysteries, suspense… We as readers know that when the bad guy promises not to do it again that he’s lying, but the hero believes him for some reason. We know that when the romantic hero says he doesn’t care about the heroine that he does, it’s just that he probably doesn’t realize it yet. Foreshadowing is a great example of this as well.

The Point

The only time you shouldn’t use narration is when it is better to use action and dialogue. The only time you shouldn’t use action and dialogue is when it is better to use narration. Sounds like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it? Here are things to keep in mind when deciding to show or tell:

  1. Always and only tell your reader what they need to know for the plot and characters to make sense.
  2. Don’t distract the reader with your writing mechanics. Too much narration, description, or dialogue will throw your reader off, so try to maintain a healthy balance.
  3. Don’t summarize important conversations, only the ones that don’t cover anything new.
  4. Always reveal something new. Never rehash what you told your reader earlier, they’ve seen it already.
  5. Don’t let the narrative run away from you. If it goes longer than a paragraph or two, take a step back. Does your reader really need all that information? Or can you see them thinking, “Come on, already!”

Comment with your thoughts on ‘telling’ to enter the free Worderella critique contest. Do you have trouble integrating narration into your action without slowing the plot too much? Does telling come easy to you, but showing is hard? Or vice versa?

Books to Buy: Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (free online version)

Links to reference: Why nouns and verbs are your friends, Active vs passive verbs, Using modifiers objectively

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

“Don’t talk of stars, burning above! If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire, if you’re on fire, show me!
Here we are together in the middle of the night.
Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight!”
Show Me from My Fair Lady

Think of your book as a court case. Would you, as the jury, believe the prosecutor if he screamed, “The defendant is guilty!!! …And I rest my case.”

No. You want proof so you believe beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.

Apply the same idea to your writing. What proof do you have to convince your reader that your character is bored, that her hero is unhappy, that his antagonist is delighted? Let’s look at an example.

Belinda was bored. She had a lot to do and her friends, while hilarious, had no idea what sort of deadlines she faced. Three C++ programs and an analysis of Moby Dick to write? She had to figure out how to make her excuses and get out of there, quick.

What’s the problem? I’m telling you she’s bored and has a lot to do, but I don’t tell you how she’s reacting to these facts. Let’s try again.

Belinda twisted her ring around her finger. A paper and three programming assignments. She crossed her legs. Maybe she could write the Moby Dick analysis first? She uncrossed her legs. No, Moby Dick would take much longer, better do the programs first. Belinda glanced once at her cell phone, pressing the side button to illuminate the little screen and see the time. Class in twenty minutes. She stood to stretch, and no one said anything, knowing her history with back pain. She pushed her chair back to its desk and straightened the other empty chairs around her, inching for the door.

What is different? I rely on shorter sentences to portray an anxious mood. There are descriptive verbs: twisting, crossing, uncrossing, glancing, stretching, pushing, inching. Can you see someone doing this? Too polite to say they want to leave, but showing you they want to, anyway?

The Point: Use small details to reveal the bigger picture without flat out explaining the bigger picture.

Movies and songs do this because they don’t have the luxury of 80,000 words to explain everything. Love songs describe missed phone calls, the smell of an old shirt, the empty half of a bed. Small details showing us the singer is alone and heartbroken, which is more powerful than the singer repeating, “Oh, I’m heartbroken, can’t you see I’m heartbroken?”

Treat each scene in your book as if it were a scene in a movie. What details would the camera show the audience?

Showing Through Body Language

Watch your co-workers, family, friends and enemies, the strangers on the street. Can you tell what is going on without hearing the conversation? Are they standing upright? Are their shoulders hunched? Are they looking away as they speak? Are they sweating?

Showing Through the Environment

Sure, maybe it was a “dark and stormy night,” but we’ve all heard that before. What about your five senses help you realize that it is storming, and that you wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle of it? Are the gnats gathering into furious swarms? Is the heat pressing against your skin, making you feel like you can’t breathe? Are the trees swaying? Can you smell the heavy dampness?

Showing Through Architecture

What about the buildings that your characters live in? Are they worn down, a sad testiment to what once was? By the way, don’t ever say “the house was worn down, a sad testiment to what once was.” That’s telling.

Show me the house is worn down by describing spider webs in the windows, so thick they prevent the full sunlight from shining into the room. Show me how the roof is badly patched with pieces of rotting bark collected from the nearby forest. Details, details, details.

Comment on the Show Don’t Tell mantra to enter in the Worderella free critique contest. Do you think it works? Are you tired of hearing it? If this is the first time you’ve heard about it, does it confuse you?

Books to Buy: Eight Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, How to Write a Damn Good Novel

Links to reference: Showing Through Dialogue, How to Avoid Too Much Backstory

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

Be Brutally Honest

Today we are going to work on being honest when editing. I always like to think of editing as having three major factors: being honest with yourself, with your writing, and with your audience.

First: Be honest with yourself

There are times when all you want to do it edit, and other times when you dread the idea. Whatever the case, ask yourself these questions before you begin.

  • Are you tired? Take a nap before you edit so you are alert enough to notice mistakes.
  • Have you had a bad day? Just come out of an argument? I suggest not editing then, because you’re upset. Everything is going to look bad to you, and that’s not constructive.
  • Have you had the most wonderful day of your life? Don’t look at your WIP with rose-colored glasses. Realize that your good mood might make you think your writing is better than it is, which is also not constructive.

In other words, realize that your mood will change how good you think your writing is. Train yourself to be objective no matter your mood.

And if you become frustrated, or if your eyes start to burn from reading too much, stop. Take a break and come back to it tomorrow. There’s nothing worse than getting burnt out, because then you get lazy with your editing.

Second: Be honest with your writing

It helps to know what sort of writer you are, i.e. character-driven, plot-driven, etc, and then look for your weaknesses. I had you print your work in a different font yesterday so when you read it, the words themselves will look unfamiliar, thus helping you recognize flaws.

  • Are your paragraphs more than five lines long? That’s a lot of exposition. We’ll discuss this tomorrow.
  • Are you relying on dialogue to explain details? Better summarize it in a paragraph and move on. We’ll discuss this on Thursday.
  • Does everyone sound the same? You’ll only know this by reading aloud. When you’re at a restaurant, try eavesdropping on conversations just to get a feel for how people really sound.
  • Are you lacking setting? Keep the five senses in mind (but don’t info-dump), and you won’t go wrong.
  • If you have to read a sentence twice, it doesn’t matter if it’s clever. Look at it this way… you had to read it twice to know what you are talking about, which means everyone else will have no idea. Rewrite it or get rid of it.
  • If you find a page that has beautiful writing but has nothing to do with that chapter, move it somewhere else. If it doesn’t belong in the book, it doesn’t belong in the book. Save it later for another project.

This is what I mean by being honest is hard. You have to be strong enough to let go of that perfect sentence… because it turns out it isn’t so perfect after all. But whatever you do, don’t erase any of your edits, and don’t cross lines through your printed text so you can’t see what you wrote. You need to see where you came from to know where you’re going.

Third: Be honest with your audience

Sometimes when we get into the thick of writing, we forget we are writing for an audience. This is the time to look at your work from their point of view by keeping these things in mind while editing:

  • Do you like your protagonist? Have you fully realized your antagonist? Make your reader care about your characters, even the bad guy, and you’re on your way to a solid manuscript.
  • Do you know where everyone is in the room? What room are we in, anyway? Did you even tell the reader? Shame on you.
  • Was someone out in the rain in the last chapter, and miraculously don’t have a cold or any sniffles in this chapter, only an hour or so later? Continuity is a big thing for readers, oddly enough. It helps to keep a timeline so you don’t run into this problem.
  • Does anyone even talk like that? This is why you should read your dialogue aloud. If you’re stumbling while reading, change it. Reading aloud will also help with purple prose; if it sounds cheesy, it probably is.

Your reader wants to love you and your book, so please, help them. Your reader will notice if something seems contrived. Strive for a simple, honest story at its heart, throw some twists into the mix, and everyone will be happy.

Frustrated? Stay with me. Tomorrow we’ll discuss how that vague mantra, show, don’t tell. Comment with your questions, suggestions, or what you find hardest about editing to enter the free Worderella critique contest.

Books to Buy: Revision and Self-Editing, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore

Links to reference: Proofreader’s marks, Editing Fiction, Twelve Tips for Editing Your Fiction, Writer’s Editing Checklist, Revise, Revise, Revise

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read more for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

Put that Shitty First Draft Away

I once read somewhere that there are three phases a writer will go through before a work is ready for consumption:

  1. You write the first draft for yourself.
  2. You write the second draft for your audience.
  3. You write the third and last draft for publication.

So take heart, dear one, though you’ve only finished draft numero uno. It may seem like a gargantuan task now, but you’ll be at the third draft in no time at all.

First thing’s first: put that shitty first draft away, you’re gonna hurt somebody

No, I don’t care if you suddenly figured out what you need to do in order to fix that one chapter/scene/sentence. Print out the shitty first draft (SFD) in a font that’s different from the one you typed it in (I’ll explain tomorrow), put it in a special binder, kiss it, hug it, do whatever you need to do in order to say goodbye. Then hide it from view for a week at the very least. A month is better.

This time away from the SFD is imperative because it brings objectivity. The less you remember about writing it, the more you will read it like someone who has no idea what to expect from you and won’t have any reason to say “Oh, it’ll get better by chapter four.”

If you must write, start the next book. I bet you have a sequel all planned out, so this is the perfect time to start.

Once you come back to the SFD, don’t edit at the computer

Why? Because we read superficially at the computer. It comes with surfing the internet. Superficial editing, I like to say, is the same thing as revising. You’re moving main points around, and that’s not what we wamt.

Why? Because editing is not revising.

To revise is to alter what is there, to shuffle things around and perhaps make a bigger mess than you already have. To edit is to have the guts to slash or add a sentence/page/subplot if it will enhance the whole.

So find your printed copy and your favorite pen (I know you have one, we all do), crawl into your favorite chair, and get ready for the long haul. Because this is going to get messy. Comment with your theory on why it is so hard to put the first draft away to enter the free Worderella critique contest.

Books to Buy: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Links to reference: Editing: Do You Dare?, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (an excerpt), and Self-Editing and Revising Your Fiction

This five part series is my participation in Lynn Viehl’s Left Behind & Loving It (LB&LI) convention. I’ll tackle a different facet of editing each day:

  1. Monday: Put that shitty first draft away
  2. Tuesday: Be brutally honest
  3. Wednesday: Show me, don’t tell me
  4. Thursday: Tell me, don’t show me
  5. Friday: Focus on those nitty gritty details

Read mre for details about winning a free Worderella critique at the end of this week!

Writing for the Love of it

The real secret is to do it because you love writing
rather than because you love the idea of being a Writer.
– Iain Banks

I once got into an odd conversation with someone about writing… let’s call this person Frank the Writer. So Frank saw my pile of writing magazines, and I could tell by his expression upon opening one of the issues that he was surprised I highlighted certain sentences which I found insightful or helpful to me as a writer. Watching him read my notes in my old Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, and The Writer issues was, for some reason, like watching a child realize there is no Santa.

Frank asked why I think I’m a writer, and I responded, “Because I have to write, or face the possibility of insanity.” I added something about how I’m drawn to writing, that I get personal satisfaction from it. I asked him if he didn’t feel the same.

“No,” he said. I’ve never heard anyone sound so mournful. “I don’t. I read these books that tell me I should feel something that tells me I’m a writer, just like how you just told me, but I don’t. I never feel anything when I write.”

This was puzzling to me. How can you write something and not feel anything while writing it? I asked Frank a series of questions which led me nowhere until, frustrated, I asked, “Do you want to write, or be considered a writer?”

“I want to be a writer.” No wonder he never felt anything when writing. His motivation was all wrong. He wanted the fame without the work. He wasn’t writing because he felt any special need to, or because he wanted to send a message of sorts out into the world, or even because he thought he had a story to tell, but because he wanted the recognition for being brilliant. No wonder his writing felt cold, empty.

Writing takes guts, patience, and stamina to do what it takes to be “considered a writer.” It takes years to be “discovered,” and by that point you will have numerous drafts hidden beneath your bed, stuffed in a back cupboard, shoved between cracks in the wall. Even if you go the self-publishing route, you have to be a savvy business-minded writer to make the publishing process worth it.

What do you think? I know some of you have multiple drafts lurking in the dark corners, and others of you with agents. What do you have to say to Frank and his misplaced motivation? Can I help him learn to love the process that is writing rather than love the idea of being a Writer?

Book: Arranged Marriage

Title: Arranged Marriage
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Genre: Short Stories
Length: 307 pgs

Summary: A powerful, eye-opening, easy to read set of thoughtful short stories set in India and the USA about the lives and loves of Indian women in the world.

pg 59 – You hate it when he talks like that, biting off the ends of words and spitting them out. You try to tell yourself that he wants to hurt you only because he’s hurting, because he’s jealous of how much [Mother] means to you. You try to remember the special times. […] You try to shut out the whispery voice that lives behind the ache in your eyes, the one that started when you said yes and he kissed you, hard.

Mistake, says the voice, whispering in your mother’s tones.

Sometimes the voice sounds different, not hers. It is a rushed intake of air, as just before someone asks a question that might change your life. You don’t want to hear the question, which might be how did you get yourself into this mess, or perhaps why, so you leap in with that magic word. Love, you tell yourself, lovelovelvoe. But you know, deep down, that word solves nothing.

Why should you read this book?
This is a powerful testament to Divakaruni’s talent as a poet and prose writer. The excerpt above shows how powerful her writing is; my theory is because she was a poet first and then turned to prose. You can tell how carefully she picks each word, how she puts them together to get just the effect she’s looking for.

Read this book for an example of how to organize your short stories/chapters in a way that is thoughtful and provocative and for heartbreakingly human characters. For those of you writing about Eastern culture, read this book for one author’s take on how to introduce Eastern culture to a Western reader in a subtle, sophisticated manner.