Writing Tips

Editing

I’ve done a lot of editing in the past fourteen years. Both to my own work and others. And I’ve noticed that all authors have their own brand of mistake that they can’t see through. They may even critique it  in other groups, about other authors, without noticing it in themselves. This is normal. It’s not hypocrisy. Writers have blinders on when it comes to their work. It takes a long time to notice these mistakes and train themselves out of them, and a first draft, no matter how long the writer has been writing, will have these weaknesses. They crop up. Especially if the writer is trying to finish something in a certain period of time.

Here’s a few examples: Spelling. Personally I’m terrible at this and rely heavily on spell check and online dictionaries. Missed commas, missed words, repeated words in a few sentences that don’t reinforce a need or emotion in the characterization or plot.

This is why editors exist, grammar Natzi’s, if you wish. Harsh as that sounds.

But editing is more than grammar, more than copy, it even goes further than sentence structure and flow. There’s structure for a novel that comes into play – developmental editing is a term I keep seeing lately. For the best book on novel structure – in my opinion – see Larry Brooks Story Engineering.

What I see some editors miss, especially those not formally trained, is that the author has a voice and a style and a way of saying things that needs to be respected. Something to be noticed. And this style needs to be acknowledged in the editing, and the note taking for changes to be made in a manuscript. It’s not just a matter of deleting, changing, or modifying sentences, paragraphs or whole chapters of a book. Good editors, truly involve the author in the process.

If your editor isn’t doing this, it may be unconscious, or ego, or training, so give him or her a break, let them know. Don’t take everything they do as gospel, but, stay open to their ideas and suggestions. This has some of the same components of a writing group. It takes a certain amount of bravery. And in the case of an editor, you’re often paying for a service. This means you get to define the experience before it starts. So take part.

A good editor is like a good therapist, they take time to find. Look well.

Hug something today, rocks and walls don’t count.

Writing Groups

I’ve been going to three writing groups a month for ten to twelve years. That’s a lot of critiquing, editing, and being critiqued. Of course, I sometimes take a break as well, from one or another of them. It’s growth work to sit in a room and have people tear holes in your work. It builds a thick skin. It makes you vulnerable. It leaves you open to grow, not only as a writer, but as a person. You see, you have to keep your mouth shut to really appreciate what other people are saying, to not defend your work or your reasoning behind the work. Why? Because your readers will do the same thing and if you defend or retaliate to the validity of your work, you will lose a reader. At least, I think so. I’ve seen writers get so defensive on line that the comments they get in return become caustic. And it just gets worse. Best just to say thank you and move forward.

A critique group is one of the best tools in the world to learn to be a better writer. Of course you’re going to get every type of personality and ego out there. That’s part of the charm and the curse of writing groups.

Some will be grateful that you shared with them, and a piece of your soul; some will be joyous at the effort it took for you to share. Some call that bravery. I do. Especially if you’re shy or introverted, or both. Some are happy to help you improve your writing. They do this with suggestions to make your writing better: how to change your voice; words choices to make stronger sentences; ways to improve characterization, and heaven forbid, grammar and punctuation changes. The last is a slippery slope as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t matter in a group because if you care about your work, it’s the last thing you do to make your work polished. You may even pay an editor to do this for you, but in a critique group, you’re showing first and second drafts and at that point, it’s all the other stuff that needs details to improve your story.

You will also meet people who will tell you their way of writing is the only way; people who don’t care because it’s not in their genre, and have nothing to say to improve the writing, so it becomes a “why did you write that,” kind of thing; and those that don’t know how to be positive.

Go back to the first paragraph and see the comment about thick skin.

Writing holds a lot of rejection. Get used to it. Learn from it. Listen to the things that most people reinforce, this means it’s being noticed and there may be something wrong there. Things mentioned only once, may really be only personal opinion, and everyone knows what that means on the grand scale of things.

But a writing group should point out your strengths and weaknesses. That’s the important thing. That’s how you grow. It takes time. Be patient.

Give yourself that chance.

Hug someone today.

Something New

I recently read a friend’s story, one that was accepted to On Spec, the magazine. I don’t have permission to use her name, so I won’t. Suffice it say, it was a brilliant story; beautiful structure and word usage. Strong female character. Good tension and…it was brilliant, but that’s not what this is about.  As I read it, in the side column, were comments from someone else that had proofed it for her. Her comment; put changes to voice and emotion before speech so the reader didn’t have to go back and see if the words fit.

I’ve done this as a reader, had to go back to see what someone meant. It breaks the flow of the narrative. Not always, but enough. I thought it was a great idea. Have I seen it before, I’m sure, have I noticed it before, no. But that’s the point of good narrative, keeping the reader in the story from front to back.

Personally I’ve always put this kind of information behind the speech, thinking I didn’t want it to get in the way of conversation, or to add impact to the conversation itself.

So it was new. And I’ve started using it in my own work. I find it makes some things more powerful, others, it adds clarity to the speech. These are good things.

So, not only did I get to read a great story, I learned a new trick to mix in with the others I know.

I’m sure I’ll get to know when my friend is published and I’ll let you know. At that time it should be okay to use her name but I will still get her permission.

Information comes from everywhere. Stay open to it.

It’s nice when it comes from someone who really deserves it as well. She’s good at her craft. I wish her every success.

 Be Kind. Be Loved. Read / Write. Do all of them, often.

Editing

Editing is a part of writing. It’s more than using a spellchecker, though they are invaluable for people who misspell, but they don’t help with legitimate words that are used wrong or out of context. They don’t help with missing words, usually. If your fingers move faster than your brain or your brain is quicker than your fingers like mine – I won’t say which version – you need to double check your work.

I checked the previous post, twice before I posted it, and still missed something. I went back and fixed it, but it  happens. It happens to everyone. Even professionals. And it can stay in print till a second edition if you’re not lucky enough to catch it. I’m sure a good publisher would help with this, insist on it even. I think.

But editing is more than spelling, it’s the flow of words and the structure of a sentence. It’s word choice and placement on a page. It’s more than just the sentence and the paragraph and the scene on any one page. It can be setting and ambiance or the creepiness of the story coming through. What emotion are you trying to convey in the story, to the reader? Is it related to theme?

Getting the ideas onto the page are important. Editing smooths those ideas and concepts out so that the reader can see them clearer. It’s the weeding out of the garden so only the product you want is visible. Ever write something so clunky that it made no sense to you till you managed to edit the meaning into it. Or smoothing it out made it so much clearer to you, and then the next sentence jumped into place even better because of that.

Here’s a few things that might help:

1) Speak it out loud, if you stumble over the words in a sentence, you might need to rewrite it.

2) Get someone else to look at it. This, at it’s heart is why people do writing groups, fresh eyes point things out to them. Things they didn’t see or were to close to see because it is their work.

Some people just won’t pass up the opportunity to correct you; might as well get something from it if they do.

3) Print it out, the eye sees things differently on paper than a computer monitor.

4) Put the work away for a time, then go back to it, you’ll see things you didn’t.

You’re writing will never be perfect, that’s not what editing is about and it’s not what I mean by this post. But if your world-building and structure and lack of noticeable mistakes – because you went back and edited your work – keep people in your world, you’ve accomplished something magical.

Striving is the goal here, that and progress. Everything you do to improve your writing, will make you a better writer. You may never run a 3 minute mile, that doesn’t mean you have stop exercising.  Then again if you keep adding a foot to each run, another second of speed, every day, then you might reach that goal. And the possibilities to your writing improve just the same way with every word choice, edit, revision or rewrite.

Don’t be afraid to take your work apart, to add flesh, or bones, or even take some of those things away. But, like Larry Brooks says, “Don’t take away structure, all stories need that.”

Edit.

Be Well, be kind. Smile at small children, run away if they cry.

There are Basics

Start writing, and becoming critiqued, or doing research and you’ll soon get the basics that everyone hears about: Elmore Leonard has a list of ten. Do a search on the internet for it. But here’s my take on several of the basics, in no particular order, and why they matter.

1) Writers write: They do, and they do it a lot. And this is important, because for most people without this kind of practice, they don’t get better, or they make the same mistakes over and over. Should I say it again. Okay, I will – “and over again.” Writer’s write. But don’t let others define this for you, it can be too aggressive or intimidating if you do. Write to your own pace and dictates and eventually, you will write more according to your passion. If you’re serious about this craft you will do more.

2) Don’t give up: For most people criticism hurts, for some writer’s I’ve met it hurts a lot. After my first rejection slip, because someone didn’t think I was brilliant enough right off the bat – and doesn’t that sound egotistical – I gave up. For a while. Because I’m insane and have to write, I got back to it. Don’t give up, this is your dream and no one else has a right to dictate that. They may not help you though, or they think they are, but that’s where persistence comes in, stick with it whether you’re getting help or not, eventually the tools you need will show up.

3) Do Your Research: See the bit above about Elmore Leonard.  There are other things to this – see rule 4 – for now you will find that you need to do research to make your worlds and characters believable, even if you’re writing fantasy. Because it has to hold together like a well defined puzzle. If you don’t know the motivation for your characters actions, how will someone else get it. if your world has red skies, what makes it so, not the color of the dirt you’re standing on. Not usually.

4) Punctuation and Grammar Matters: And don’t let anyone tell you different. The only way to know how to break a rule is to know it in the first place. I’m not published yet. I’ve had a dozen rejections so far this year alone and no, I don’t submit enough, so I can’t speak for what editors want but I listen to people that have been published. Your craft has to be 90 to 95 percent polished to be accepted. If your story is absolutely brilliant, they may do more to help, but if what you write to open the door isn’t polished and correct to a high degree…you see where I’m going with this. Here’s another point, if your writing bad grammar on purpose, as part of a character’s speech, it helps to know  what good grammar looks like. And it needs consistency. That’s another thing rules teach you.

5) Read Your Competition: Learn from them. How do they do things technically? Structurally? How do they define their characters. There are trends that flow with books. One day it’s vampires,  the next it’s the psychokinetic antique dealers. And if you have favorite authors, their style and voice might help you find yours. In no way am I suggesting plagiarism. Period. Ever. While there are no new ideas under the sun, how people put them together, and in what ways, is part of what makes an idea original or an authors signature idea or concept. So be careful with that. If you’ve never read your idea in print it’s one thing – think of simultaneous discovery, the radio comes to mind – but if’ it’s on purpose it could be a world of hurt.

6) Don’t Repeat Yourself: Yes, there are times and places where it’s necessary, especially with ideas, concepts, and sometimes emotions, but the less you do it with individual names and places and items, the better. Writing to this rule alone will teach you to improve how you say things in your writing. The idea is to think about it. Of course, once you become published this rule matters less. Published authors break this rule all the time, even the good ones. This is a proof of concept rule for new writers. For the most part – live with it – it’ll make you a better writer.

7) Write What you Know: You’ll hear this one a lot, but what does it mean, especially if you write fantasy or aliens ate my brain type of stories – really, that happened to you, once. In some ways it talks about what you know, the actual knowledge – what it means to build a bridge or blow up a tree, but mostly, I think it’s about emotion and how that affects you and the people around you. We know this one, we know the gut wrenching fear of being punished for doing something wrong at the age of five. Remembering it might be another matter. We know what it feels like to get a job, lose a job, be rejected – fall in love. Write what you know, research the rest. The point, support your writing with emotions, because when you get right down to it that’s what people want in a story, to feel; and to have it done so well the rest of the world goes away. For a few minutes, anyways.

8) Don’t Write the Boring Bits: There is a reason we don’t see Heroes or Heroines going to the bathroom, unless a snake is crawling up out of the sewer. Same goes for brushing teeth, or the long detailed walk to the first fight in a story. Get to the point and make it matter.

9) Show  – Don’t Tell: Impossible. Show where and when you can, it is important, it makes us feel the character better, puts us in their view point and makes us care. But it’s impossible to show everything. See rule 8. But when you have to tell, tell well. It matters too, just don’t make it irrelevant to the work at hand, or add details not needed.

10) Read Books on the Writing of Craft: It’s part of the job. I never would have gotten a grasp on story structure if I didn’t do this kind of thing. Yes, I mean Larry Brooks, and Donald Maass, Stephen King, and Lynne Truss just to name a few. Mind you, I got some of this from conferences and workshops, so they are valid avenues as well. Just don’t think that reading only in your genre is the way to go. Writing has a never ending learning curve. It’s more knowledge in your toolbox, more support for your ideas. It makes you a better conversationalist, too.

Be well, be kind. Kill your children. NO, I do not mean your actual children. I mean the books that are your children. It means listen to what people have to say about your work. Call it rule eleven. If more than one person says they don’t understand or feel what you mean at a particular place in your writing, chances are those people, plural, are pointing out something you need to know.