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.

Mark Twain’s Tips on Writing Well

We all know Mark Twain for Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, etc. In literary circles he is known for his lambasting essay, The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper, where he writes his Nineteen Most Important Rules of Literature. The essay claims that James Fenimore Cooper, another well-known American author, broke eighteen of them. How do you make out?

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.

3. The people in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The people in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the people of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. When the author describes the character of a person in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a person talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a [slave] minstrel in the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. People of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. Characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

Whoosh. Twain really didn’t like Cooper’s writing! And he isn’t done yet. Additional requirements for authors include…

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

For the life of me, I can’t find the 19th rule, the one Cooper didn’t break. If you want to read Twain’s complete essay, check it out here. You have to admit, though, Twain is onto something here. Especially #5, where characters should only talk when they have something interesting to say that also has to to with the plot. So come on, fess up: How many rules have you broken?

Five Tips on Character Building through Adversity

We don’t remember Scarlett O’Hara for her beauty, we remember her because she survived countless marriages, a war, childbirth, poverty, sickness, the end of the world as she knew it, and heartbreak on a monumental scale. And she’s flawed, boy, is she flawed. And a brilliant character. You either love her, or hate her. So how do you make your own Scarlett?

It should be cliche at this point: Know your character. Sometimes you will only know your character after you’ve thrown a couple of bad situations at them. I really do suggest sitting somewhere with a journal, and ask yourself, “What if…?” What would she do? Who does she turn to? Inward for self-reflection, or outward for comfort?Don’t know what to throw at her? That’s okay, I’ve also provided you with a list of bad things that you can use as a starting point…

  1. Physical adversity. Death, dismemberment, sickness. Everyone will go through at least two of these in their life, so your character better have some experience with at least one of them.

    Sometimes this is the worst thing that can happen to your character. But what if it isn’t? Don’t be afraid to pile on the adversity. The worse the situation is, and the more empathetic your character is, the more you hook your reader.

  2. Unfulfilled desire. No one ever gets things the way they want all the time, every time. What if your character is used to getting her way, and one day doesn’t? What if this moment completely alters her understanding of herself and the world around her? What does she do? Does her desire destroy her, does she rise above it? Does she ruin the lives of those around her in her quest to satisfy her desire?

    Note this desire doesn’t have to be romantic in nature. In fact, if it isn’t, and you’re writing a romance, what a great twist to your story! Suddenly you’ve added a new dimension to your romance, making it all the more believable. No one in the real world has time to only worry about their romantic life, so why should your characters?

  3. Haunting past. Regrets about things you didn’t do. Regrets about things you did. Each of us is interesting because we have personal histories. For instance, many think I savor my food, or that I just eat slowly. I do this now, but it started because my baby brother choked many times as a child, and one time I panicked instead of remaining calm. My father had to perform the Heimlich even though I’d been trained by the Red Cross. From that moment, I realized how easily it is to be careless and put your life in danger.

    See how much you learned about me just by hearing how I eat? The moral of the story is: Don’t discount the little things. They are the collection of moments that create our personalities and fill the prologues of our lives.

  4. Use the time period to your advantage, and against your character’s. The women of today are strong-willed and ready to shout it from the rooftops. The women of yesterday were just as strong-willed, but required the mastery of subtlety or they might suffer the rule of thumb. If your character wants to do something that she just wouldn’t have done in your chosen time period, don’t give it up for the sake of the time period.

    Use the frustration to build your character, showing the reader just what sort of a person she is.

  5. Go with it. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself with the scenarios you create. Actually, I hope you surprise yourself. In fact, you better surprise yourself. If your scenarios don’t surprise you, you won’t surprise your reader, and that’s bad.

    What’s really great is when a character surprises herself. But again, you need to know your character well enough to know when she can surprise herself. As a hint, use your research to spark your imagination. Read old newspapers and be amused and shocked by what happened back then. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

I’m using all of these techniques against my character, and while it pains me to write scenes where my character suffers, I’m also ridiculously proud of her stamina against adversity.

So tell me, what is the worst situation you’ve thrown at your characters? And how did you feel while writing those scenes: timid, worried, daring, jubilant?

Beta Males Revisted

Just a quick entry to let you know about an interesting discussion that’s happening at Redlines and Deadlines about beta males in fiction/romance.

In case you don’t remember, I wrote a similar entry two years ago, Mr Beta Male, and Romancing the Blog has written about the beta hero as well as his counterpart, the beta heroine. For you writers who are interested in using the underdog in the romance world as the love interest in your WIP, I suggest taking a look at all these articles to make up your mind.

Refresh Your Writing

“I think that writers need to be out there, be in contact with people, struggle with other things and then come back and bring it to her writing.”
– Chitra Divakaruni
Belinda writing and re-writing, drawn by WorderellaWhenever I feel like my writing is losing focus, or that I’m losing the edge or spark, I begin to panic. Mainly because these symptoms preclude a wicked case of Writer’s Block. If you’re lucky enough to have never suffered from this horrible disease, let me be the first to congratulate you and explain what I mean. Writer’s Block is a common disease and hard to recover from; even if you do recover, there are always those pesky flare ups. Its symptoms include staring at a wall or out the window, willing something creative to flow from your mind to the paper, with nothing doing. You will be given to bouts of depression as you walk past your neglected computer/journal/legal pad on your way to your day job. Your characters shun you. Your plot turns trite and your dialogue cliché.

What is a writer to do??

I like to follow Chitra Divakaruni’s advice, as in the quote posted above. If you have Writer’s Block, you have sapped all of your creative juices. We writers tend to think we should write all the time without replenishing our imagination, which is as unhealthy as exercising all the time without stopping to replenish fluids. How do you replenish your imagination? Get in contact with people! We attempt the impossible by trying to transcribe the unorganized chaos of life into an organized plot that (dare I say it?) makes sense, is engaging, and means something.

So if your characters are flat or your dialogue stilted, have a dinner party or meet some friends for lunch. While you’re with them, watch how they speak. What are they doing with their hands? Do they maintain eye contact, or look away while speaking? Or better yet, go to your local park, sit on a bench, and pretend like you’re reading. Or have headphones on, without the music playing, and eavesdrop. You’d be amazed how detailed and intimate conversations get when people think no one is listening.

Little girl journaling by JOD Old-Fashioned GraphicsIs your plot lagging? Read the newspaper, or tune into your evening news station. Truth is stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use a bit of that strange truth to inspire you. I once read about a woman who dug up her boyfriend because his family didn’t invite her to the funeral or visit him at the hospital while he was sick. Now that’s a short story in the making. Edgar Allan Poe would have loved that, I’m sure. Or better yet, use your own life as inspiration, with some tact and restructuring, of course, so no one gets insulted.

What about your setting? Have you even thought about it? Are your descriptions tired? Go out and enjoy a bit of nature. Pretend you’re new in town, or you’re doing a study on local names/descriptions for the flora and fauna of the area, and ask people what they think that flower is named, or how they would describe that park. Don’t take their idea as your own, of course, we don’t want another Cassie Edwards case on our hands, but allow their ideas, if imaginative enough, to spark a few of your own.

…Still distracted? Unable to focus? Clear your desk so you’re not fiddling with the items there. Move your pens out of the way, file your bills, hide your mail. More importantly, if you do your writing on the computer and you use a program like MS Word, use the “full screen” option under the View menu. This will make your writing the only thing visible on your monitor/screen, thus preventing you from wanting to check your e-mail again, or answer that quick IM, or (if you’re like me) re-organize your files. Simple as that sounds, I get so much more writing done with Word in full screen mode. It prevents my usual multi-tasking, which is refreshing and a little nerve-wracking at the same time. 😛

Do you have other suggestions or little tricks that work for you? Let me know, I like to be prepared… You never know when another case of Writer’s Block will knock you unconscious.

Editing Books Writers Should Read

This past quarter, I read books on the side between my crazy class schedule, work, and the magazine. I should write my typical Worderella review on them, but instead I’m going to list these books and give a little blurb about why you should add them to your To Be Read list. If you’ve read these books, let me know what you thought about them.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

This book kind of changed my life. My writing life, that is. I have it sitting next to my Strunk and White on my shelf of books on writing. It taught me it’s ok to be brutal and take out something you were “iffy” about in the first place. If you’re questioning that paragraph, rest assured that your agent and/or editor will do the same, except the solution to the problem won’t be you deleting the paragraph, it will be the sight of your beloved manuscript thrown in the nearest trash. If you aren’t sure about it, as the author and creator of your book’s mini-universe, your reader, agent, editor, and publisher probably are unsure about it too, which is dangerous in this mad business.

Self-Editing has a chatty, enjoyable tone that makes the pain of realizing all the work you need to do in order to improve your WIP bearable. Each chapter focuses on a different facet of fiction, ranging from high-level topics such as plot, characters, and dialogue, to low-level topics like proper grammar and good, action-oriented sentence structure. If you have a writer in the family, this is a great holiday gift. It may make them cry for a few days as they rip apart their WIP in order to improve it, but afterward, they will thank you. Maybe even shake your hand. Take my word for it: all writers ought to read this book. If anything, it’s a good book to fall back on if you need to charge your writing through a rough spot.

On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels

Finally, a book that definitively tells me what is the difference between erotic, erotica, sweet, and mainstream romance, as well as what makes a book historical fiction or historical romance, or a romantic historical! Another great book with an amusing and informative tone, what might sound like a manual or text book to others was my nightly read before bed. This is a good reference for anyone writing in the romance genre because it not only defines the different levels of romance, it goes into the history of the subgenres, giving a chronology of which subgenres were popular and even ones that have fallen by the wayside.

This is a great marketing tool because for every example cited, two or three other similar works are mentioned. If you want to learn more about Sweet Romance, this book has a lot of great examples, and lists more in the back. That really excited me, because I’m under the impression that I’m one of a very small number of sweet romantic writers.

On Writing Romance also includes example query letters, synopses, and cover letters for those of you going the traditional publishing route. I’ll be honest, this book had me thinking maybe I shouldn’t go the self-pubbed route and instead try my hand at traditional, just because I had some great examples staring me in the face. It sort of makes you think, “I can definitely do that.”
A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman

Ok, so I haven’t read this one yet. But it’s on my Amazon wishlist and my To Be Read list. Like the previous two, it has high marks on Amazon reviews, and, as I’m a sucker for good books about writing, even punctuation, this is on the list. I feel that we as a culture have forgotten the high points of the written word, most especially punctuation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read books and thought, “Oh man. He definitely missed the opportunity to use an em-dash there,” or when I point out a passage to a friend or my mom, saying, “See this? She would have had a better sentence if she used a semi-colon.”

Maybe that’s just me. I love punctuation though, so I’ve put this on the list. If you’re like me, give the book a chance and let me know what you think.

Article: Hold on to Your Plot Part 3

And now, the finale for the article on how to hold on to your plot!

Article found here:

Complex Structures
The credibility of most plots depends on their logic and consistency, but whether your readers will find them gripping will also depend on the elements of unpredictability, surprise and tension. What you need is a strategy for revealing or withholding details of the plot – in other words, a structure.

One persistent model – an epic poem which begins with birth of a hero and ends with his death – goes back to storytelling in its earliest forms, and features three distinct phases: the beginning, the middle and the end. In the past, these have followed a strict chronology, but over the last couple of centuries storytelling itself has been affected by the progress of modernity. This has largely been in the form of urbanization, mass communication, and our subsequent separation from ‘natural’ chronological and seasonal cycles.

Take any news story. Usually, you’ll hear the climax of the story repeated several times from a bewildering variety of viewpoints. Later on, we’ll receive various kinds of information about the origins of the story and its background. More often than not, we’ll be teased over a matter of days, weeks and even months about the final resolution, if there is one. In these circumstances, the neatness and predictability of traditional storytelling becomes literally incredible.

Continue reading