Tag Archives: editing

How to Grow a Novel

By Barbara Graham

Graham_MurderBySunlightProbably because I’m in the midst of trying to get my garden to produce something other than really healthy weeds, and my next book is in the formative stage, the comparison between gardening and writing a novel seemed ideal.

After all, they both start with high hopes and big plans. Each beginning I think—this will be the garden/book that won’t have “issues” like weeds, blight or repetitive phrases. The characters will be fascinating and the tomatoes won’t have blossom end rot.

Before beginning such a fabulous project, there is some studying involved. I peruse the seed catalogs and gather ideas for the best vegetables for the sunny end of the garden. Can they grow in our short season? For the book, what will the story line be and because I write mysteries, who should I kill this time? The first book in my mystery series, Murder by Serpents: The Mystery Quilt was inspired by a headline in the newspaper. It simply read, “man found dead in car.” No snakes, no other tie to the storyline. I began playing with the scenario. Why would a man be dead in his car? Any number reasons. You pick one of your own and write that book.

So, we plant a seed and soon there is a sprout. The seedlings go into the garden on the recommended date but I like to cover the tender sprouts. I often use plastic milk bottles without lids and the bottoms cut out. They form individual greenhouses. Also too tender for early exposure, ideas and characters being developed now should avoid the early critique situations. Let them get some roots and a good strong stem before hearing from the critics. Something fabulous could wither and die from early exposure to the world.

Pull the weeds and throw on some fertilizer. Add more words, maybe create a world with murderous garden gnomes. This is the waiting game. Slog through the pages adding on. Fix the dialogue. Protect it from outside intruders like deer stomping the tender leaves with their sharp hooves, making a mess, it is your world to save.

The garden is planted, out of human control, except for watering and constant weeding. Heavens, some weeds are taller than the desired plants. Every first draft of the next book, I find myself wondering “who wrote this mess?” Is that a weed or something worth keeping? Sometimes in the early stages, they look the same. There is much work to be done. Peering at the vegetation, you see emerging baby carrot tops. They look like fine parsley but sharing the same spot is some nasty broadleaf weed. The weed must be carefully extricated without killing the carrot. It is the garden equivalent of excising the wrong word in a sentence, a writers’ weed destroying the intended meaning.

Is anything worth keeping? Yes. Throw some more fertilizer in there, use better words. Plants and story are both improving at last. The plot has only a couple of small holes now, easily mended, and your hero is worthy of the name. There are small, dark green tomatoes on a plant. Green peppers on another. The potatoes plants are tall and covered with small purple flowers. There are jewels in the dirt.

One more rewrite. A walk through the garden again. The ripening tomatoes are even more gorgeous than expected. Maybe you should enter them in the county fair. Let the judges see what a real tomato smells like. As for the novel, a few more rewrites, queries and maybe a contract, all yours for the picking.

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Barbara Graham began making up stories in the third grade instead of learning to multiply and divide. A native Texan, she later lived in Denver, New Orleans and East Tennessee. Inspiration for Silersville (home of her imaginary friends) comes from her Tennessee period. An unrepentant quilting addict, she lives in Wyoming with her long suffering husband and the spoiled dog. Her motto is “Every book needs a dead body and every bed needs a quilt.”

Her most recent book, Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt is book five in her Quilted Mystery series featuring Tennessee Sheriff Tony Abernathy and his quiltmaker wife, Theo. Visit Barbara at her website.

Barbara is giving away one copy of Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt to a lucky U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on this post by midnight Mountain Time Friday, September 12. The winner will be selected using random.org and the name posted here on Saturday.

Crush the Crutches

By Mark Stevens

Do you have “crutch” words?

Words you inject into your prose without thinking?

I mean, they are such great freaking words that you when you ask a reader to plow through your latest incredible best-selling novel, she comes back and says:

“Well, not bad. But did you know you used the word ethereal 187 times?”

Or (fill in the blank for your go-to word)?

Me?

Guilty as charged. I’ve got a few. They change from one piece of writing to the next.

They are words my inner brain fell in love with, most likely, decades ago.

I pull them out of the dust-covered brain cells that are my word filing system and I drop into the prose without really thinking.

(Question: Why can’t my ability-to-edit brain see the heavy repetition of my crutch words? When I read manuscripts by other writers, their crutch words jump out at me like something from Sharknado. “Did you mean to use the color ‘salmon’ on page four and page 196?”)

Which brings me to Visual Thesaurus. (http://www.visualthesaurus.com/)

Stevens_Visual ThesaurusIf you are looking, occasionally, for that little spark to kick a sentence or a paragraph in the butt—a way to give your writing voice a little inspiration—check it out.

It’s a word lover’s daily jolt of caffeine.

First, take your crutch word and enter it in the search engine. VT will give you a visual rendering of the universe in which your word lives—all its relatives, close and distant.

If you want to tweak your favorite plum word in one direction, you click on that word within the sphere (Do mean “hot” as blistering or “hot” as spicy?) Suddenly, you are charging down another path looking for the right word.

Plus, VT has daily columns about word derivations and interesting takes on word usage. A recent column looked at “anxious” versus “eager.” Knowing the difference is the kind of distinction that might give your prose more accuracy.

If you subscribe ($25 per year), you get a daily ‘word of the day’ in your email and lots of nifty/nerdy info to go with it.

As I write this, today’s word is ‘theurgy.’ (“Magic performed with the help of one—or more.”) Recent words were cheroot, caliphate and hypernym. As Visual Thesaurus says: Dog, for example, is a hypernym for dachshund, Chihuahua, and poodle. Some folks call ‘em generic terms or superordinates.

In fact, Visual Thesaurus will help you avoid hypernyms (and your damn crutches) and be as precise and fresh as possible.

Every day.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

How to Make Your Editor Happy

By Katriena Knights

Nobody wants one, but everybody needs one. Maybe it sounds like a riddle Bilbo Baggins should have tossed Gollum’s way, but it’s really just a fact of the publishing business. Everybody needs an editor. Even the editors.

I’ve worked as an editor for almost ten years, in addition to writing my own books. There’s a certain satisfaction in figuring out what an author is trying to say, that maybe they didn’t even know they were saying, and helping them tease that out of their manuscript. There’s a bit less satisfaction in finding all the typos and grammatical errors an author may have committed, but it’s part of the job, too.

But this post isn’t about working as an editor. It’s about how to interact with your editor in a way that’ll keep your relationship positive and productive. The more positive your relationship is, the more likely you’ll be able to work together to produce a piece of work you’re both happy with. And if you and your editor are happy with it, your readers are that much more likely to be happy with it, too.

So, with that in mind, here are some guidelines for communicating with your editor.

  1. Your editor is always right. Well, okay, maybe not always dead right on every issue, but if your editor flags something because it made her cringe or roll her eyes or just get confused or made her go back to read a sentence more than once, it’s worth your time to take a look at the suggestions. And it would probably behoove you to make a change, even if it’s different from what the editor suggests. After all, your editor is your first reader, and if something doesn’t make sense to her, it’s probably not going to make sense to somebody else.
  2. Don’t tell the editor flat-out no. As an editor, I don’t have a problem with an author not wanting to make a change. But I do like to at least hear why they don’t want to make that change. Sometimes, by explaining what they meant to say or get across, the author can give me insight into how a phrase or a plot point isn’t doing what the author intended. When this happens, we rework it together until the author’s intent is crystal clear. At other times, it becomes clear that we’re not on the same page, and that’s fine. The author should win in these cases, unless it involves a conflict with a publisher’s guidelines. And even then, if you’ve explained something to me and I understand you feel strongly about it, I’ll go to bat for you with the bosspeople and do what I can to keep your vision intact.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Fighting about punctuation is a waste of time, unless somebody’s moved a comma and completely changed the meaning of a sentence. In most cases, minor grammatical tweaks like this are a matter of house style, and even if the editor changes them, a line editor will change them back. If it’s really important to the story, then yes, talk to the editor about arranging exceptions. But if it’s just a style issue, it’s better to let it go. (This is an advantage of self-publishing, by the way—you get to make your own style guide. My personal style guide REQUIRES the Oxford comma…)
  4. Save your energy for the big stuff. If it’s worth throwing down over, throw down. There are occasions when an editor or publisher’s demands for your story are so counter to what you wanted to get across with that work that you just have to draw that line in the sand. And there are things worth throwing down over. You’ll know what they are, because the thought of changing them makes you nauseated. Focus on those things. Hopefully, you’ll never run across an editor who works at this kind of cross-purposes with you.
  5. Send chocolate. Chocolate is always a good idea.

MOMENT OF BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION: My new book, Blood on the Ice, arrives tomorrow at Samhain publishing. I hope you’ll take a gander!

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

Beware of the False Hook

By Tiffany Lawson Inman

What do most writing craft books say about openings?

A lot of don’ts and dos.

Am I right?

  • Don’t use a lot of description.
  • Don’t open with back story.
  • Do try and start with action.
  • Do introduce the story theme and problem.
  • Do establish character and setting.
  • Do excite your reader.
  • Do show the promise of your novel in the first sentence, in the first paragraph.
  • Oh yeah…and DO hook your reader.

Hook your reader.

Hook your reader, HOOK YOUR READER!

All are true. All are dangerous. Why? Because everything rests on the HOOK!

E V E R Y T H I N G. Writers work their butts off on the beginning of their novels!

Or they should.

What happens after the first hook line? There should be a hooking paragraph. A hooking chapter. But that is not always the case.

How many of you have read a false hook? Loved the first line or paragraph, and then the book goes downhill. Such a disappointment. We don’t want a bunch of marketing tactics drawing your reader in for one bite, when the rest of the meal tastes less than good. It sullies our reputation as storytellers.

Writers should be hooking their readers through the entire novel. Raising questions. Little and big. Keep them turning the pages.

How to avoid the false hook? Look at more than what you are saying. Also look at how you are saying it. The tone.

You need to show the promise of your novel with what is going to happen and how the story will be told. They go hand in hand. The how is your needle, the what is your thread. Can’t have one without the other. Readers don’t want a great story that is written poorly. Nor do readers want a crappy story that was written beautifully.

Let’s look at how NY Times Bestselling author, Harlan Coben uses his needle and thread. Below are his first two of paragraphs of Tell No One in either the right order, or the wrong order.

Which one is the first paragraph? Does one have more or less promise than the other? **********You better not cheat. Don’t run and get your copy, or look on your Kindle.

Look at his writing.

Tone

Quality

What else?

The third piece to a solid hook: Reader questions. There are questions on top of questions on top of questions. Egging the reader to turn the first page and melt into this man’s world.

Paragraph A :

There should have been a dark whisper in the wind. Or maybe a deep chill in the bone. Something. An ethereal song only Elizabeth or I could hear. A tightness in the air. Some textbook premonition. There are misfortunes we almost expect in life—what happened to my parents, for example—and then there are other dark moments, moments of sudden violence, that alter everything. There was my life before the tragedy. There is my life now. The two have painfully little in common.

Paragraph B :

Elizabeth was quiet for our anniversary drive, but that was hardly unusual. Even as a young girl, she’d possessed this unpredictable melancholy streak. She’d go quiet and drift into either deep contemplation of a deep funk, I never knew which. Part of the mystery, I guess, but for the first time, I could feel a chasm between us. Our relationship had survived so much. I wondered if it could survive the truth. Or for that matter, the unspoken lies.

OOOOh I got the chills!

Are you turning the page for more? Yes you are.

He has given us over 20 questions in 163 words. And his tone? The intensity of his tone is one wave after another moving us further into his story.

It is always taught in speech writing classes: you tell the audience the same information three times in the course of an informational speech. It takes three times for your reading audience to really get what you are saying. Well. Harlan does it 20 times in the first two paragraphs. He wants us to listen and keep listening.

What is the difference between Harlan Coben’s novels and an unknown suspense thriller that has just been passed over in the submission pile? He uses the what, and the how, very well. And the tone he uses is a question in itself.

But, the biggest difference: Harlan keeps his answers close to his heart. He lets go of information in a deliciously suspenseful way.

A crumb here, a morsel there.

And he does not let go of those nuggets until after the reader has met the wondering threshold.

It is true.Timing is everything.

Harlan has excelled at the art of threading his hook through every moment of his Bestselling novels.

Look at your WIP.

  • How far does your hook get you?
  • How can you work in the concept of needle and thread?
  • When do you start giving up those precious answers?
  • Open to a page in Chapter 18, is the reader still asking questions?

Thank you so much for reading today!  Next month I will give you a bit more meat in the world of writing-craft-know-how, today was just a sample.

Do you have a favorite author that has a knack for threading a hook?   Let’s chat about it in the comments! I will be teaching online this summer and I will be giving a class away to one of the brave writers in the comments section. So don’t be shy, say “Hi!”

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Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars in  late 2014.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.

Word Nerds – Will Work for Proper Punctuation … by Trai Cartwright

I always suspected I was a little weird about words (strange, odd, peculiar, uncanny—yes, I prefer uncanny). Recently, I taught a seminar for Delve Online which proved I was absolutely correct.

As a kid I was a voracious reader, but I was also a ruthless one. If I caught a typo in a book, it was like a betrayal. How could these professional writers make such a blatant mistake??

To which the sane response would be: egads, go outside and play with some others kids, would you?? My response: pull out a piece of paper and write a letter to the writer to let him know the error of his ways.

Like I said, I’m uncanny. Or maybe just weird. It took many years and an infinite number of typo sightings for me to realize that two things were happening: one, humans were at work and humans make mistakes (lord knows with all the typos I’ve released into the world, even typo fascists aren’t perfect). And two, I had a unique eye.

They just jump out at me, and every time, I have to think about what the correct grammar or punctuation or spelling would be. Have to. So OCD.

At this Delve discussion of editing last weekend, I joined Tiffany Yates Martin, another self-proclaimed Word Nerd and professional editor for a raucous good time discussing typos. Okay, our attendees began slipping out the door one at a time, no doubt in fear of their safety, but Tiffany and I had a blast. You can’t put two Word Nerds together without us gleefully and loudly sharing favorite examples of our obsession.

Hers: “His brothers John and Jim went into town.” Harmless enough, right? But without commas, she doesn’t know if it’s “his brothers, John, and Jim,” ergo a whole gang of folks, like, at least four, or was it just two people? Ergo, John and Jim are the brothers.

My example was the use of the onomatopoeia “klunng” in a fight sequence. When I first read it I stopped cold and thought – why two n’s? The answer seemed obvious: three n’s would make the reading humorous (klunnng), and this was a serious scene. Meanwhile, one n doesn’t provide that ominous resonance to which the writer aspired.

Yes, this was the content of our delightful session. Don’t judge.

I say thank goodness for people like Tiffany and me and Conan the Grammarian.

We obsess so you don’t have to.

Like many with this crazy fixation, I’ve turned it into a service I provide for other writers. Part of my Story Consultant business includes copy editing. This goes beyond just fixing commas; I have the idea that if writers can understand their own grammar tics, they can overcome them and thus improve their writing on a line-by-line basis.

For example, writers have a tendency to start every sentence the same way. Or suddenly we’ll go on a thirty page jag of ellipses…or em-dashes—

Or, we’ll use the same phrase, one that’s cliché, one that’s sure to turn off the readers (they smiled at each other; he gazed at her; he turned away—ugh!).

I love that stuff. Not just because they just sort of leap out at me (again, in other people’s writing; I hire an editor for my own), or that it soothes my OCD. I love it because once a writer starts tuning herself in to those grammar tics, she’s plugging into the heart of writing. No, the story won’t be better for having excised every double space between sentences, but it will be better told for it.

And you won’t risk having some pesky twelve-year-old writing to let you know that on page 28, you mixed tenses, and on page 74, “letters” was plural when it should have been singular…

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

The Importance of a Good Beta Reader

by Katriena Knights

If you’ve seriously pursued writing for any amount of time, you know you can’t be trusted to judge your own work. Scenes that seem wonderfully constructed in our heads are completely incomprehensible to other people. Glorious flights of poetic prose are actually pools of verbal quicksand from which no reader will ever safely return. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

This is why we need Beta readers.

A good Beta reader will help you find those holes in your manuscript where your brain fills in the details but a reader gets confused or completely lost. She’ll find continuity errors, wobbles in character development, and help you figure out where you’ve indulged yourself too much and could really stand to cut things down a bit.

A really good Beta reader will call you on the phone and say, “Hey, mostly I liked the story, but there’s this one thing I HATE with the BURNING PASSION of a THOUSAND MILLION SUNS. Change it.”

True story.

Yes, we’re still speaking.

My Beta reader iBloodontheIce-ART-Smallers also my best friend. She doesn’t just read my manuscripts, she also feeds me story ideas. For example, my upcoming novel from Samhain, Blood on the Ice, is entirely and completely her fault. And yes, she betaed it for me. A couple of times.

Early in the writing process, she read through some chapters and said, “Wait. Your game schedule is a complete mess.” And then she sent me a link and said, “Use this.”

The link was the entire Chicago Blackhawks schedule from the 1955-1956 season, when the NHL only had six teams. “Just plug your six vampire teams into this schedule. That way it’ll make more sense.”

I think I banged my head against a wall for fifteen minutes. It worked, though. Using the actual schedule—even though I did tweak it a little—added a background continuity that made the Vampire Hockey League more realistic. And if there’s anything that needs added realism, it’s a hockey league populated entirely by vampires.

When my final draft was ready, she told me we could get together over Instant Message on Memorial Day and go through the manuscript. I figured we’d chat for a little while, I’d make a few notes, and then I’d be off to finish my submission-ready draft.

Eight hours later (you read that right—EIGHT. HOURS. LATER.), I had about 25 pages of notes copied and pasted out of IM into a document. I was also really freaking hungry. Over the next few days, I reordered several scenes, added some exposition, and took out an entire character. (You know how they say to kill your babies? This was an ACTUAL BABY. Her whole subplot got removed. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll fit into the next book.)

That right there is what every writer needs in a good Beta reader.

I’m always grateful that my BFF happens to have a ridiculously good story sense and isn’t afraid to tell me when stuff just plain sucks. It’s the kind of objective eye every writer needs. I can’t tell you how to find your own—all I know is you can’t have mine.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

By Lori DeBoer

“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think.  Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.

I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event.  By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.

That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.

I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.

Here goes:

Write nonsense–Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story.  You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going.  If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.

Write a shitty first draft–I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s.  If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say:  “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Give it your worst shot–I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating.  Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants  to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels.  (www.bulwer-lytton.com)

Pen a gossipy letter–This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter–dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think?  In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters.  What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers?  What is your antagonist hiding, anyway?  You love to dish.  Indulge.

Borrow a line–Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump.  Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process.   For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres.  Caveat:  don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.

Cut to the exciting part–Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast  forwarding to the exciting part.  Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.

Prompt yourself–If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help.  Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.

Throw in some mystery–If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too.  You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on

Come out swinging–You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.

Picture it–Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story.  Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk.  If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.

Start with the ending–I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done.  Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco

Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page.  What are some of yours?

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

When is “done” done?

By Sean Curley

One of the things writers ask me is how I know when a manuscript is done? The answer isn’t as easy as you might think. It can be incredibly difficult to just complete a novel. When you are done, however, you aren’t really done. The revision process can be long and harrowing. For me, the feedback I received from (non-friendly) reviewers of my first novel, Propositum – A Novel, prompted me to put the novel on hold for over two years while I improved my craft. Once that was complete, I re-wrote the book, not quite from scratch since I had a great plot, but close.

When that was complete, my editor and I went through a serious of reviews and edits. We started at a macro level and looked at plot and consistency. Then we looked at flow and transitions. Finally we went to paragraph structure and wording. You might think at that point that the novel is complete and ready to publish. However, each subsequent review yielded more changes that improved the book. From cleaning up the sound (try reading it aloud) to making it more concise to correcting outright errors (grammatical or semantic), every review found issues. In revising this novel my editor and I each read the book a dozen times or so. Each time it improved. By the end, after a couple of months of this, I decided I was fed up with trying to make it perfect and gave it to the publisher to generate a test copy. That would be my final review of the novel. I found that reading it in print yielded some surprising results. Issues were found that I had never seen when reading on a screen.

I suspect that we have all read books where there are many errors and been frustrated. None of us want to be the author of one of those books. On the other hand, there is a point of diminishing returns when continuing to review and edit means you are trying for a perfection that, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily worth it. Maybe if you want to publish a single “Great American Novel,” it would be worth the effort. But, in my case, I want to publish a number of novels and can’t afford to spend my life improving every single word in just one.

In general, I practice the following steps when revising a novel (don’t do this alone as your specific idiosyncrasies may cause certain errors to be difficult to discover; find someone who is willing to critique you at the right level – meaning point out real issues, but not try to rewrite the novel for you):

  • Let it sit for a while (after the draft is complete) and then read it again
  • Confirm the plot and story are complete and that the book flows and ends well
  • Review the novel for paragraph and sentence structure and for word choice
      1. Check for replication of unusual words
      2. Check for similar words too close together (within a few sentences)
      3. Check for year/location- and world-appropriateness of words
  • Tighten up the language and make sure it reads smoothly
  • Re-review the text until you are comfortable it is close (so repeat as needed)
  • Read it aloud as a final test of readability
  • Use a POD service like Lulu to print a single copy and review the hard copy
  • Call it good and be proud of it!

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Sean Curley - Author Photo

Sean Curley (1961-) was born and raised in California. His Catholic upbringing shifted to Philosophy and Computers during college. Others have referred to him as a Renaissance man because of his diverse educational background in Computer Science, Philosophy, Management, Space Studies, and Creative Writing. He is frequently found speaking on diverse topics such as Humanism, management, parenting, separation of church and state, and religious history. He has published one non-fiction book, Humanism for Parents, and one novel, Propositum – A Novel. He is currently working on two more novels. Mr. Curley lives in Colorado with his children.

Reading Like a Writer

By Lori DeBoer

We read for many reasons—to be entertained, to be swept up in a story, to be transported into an interesting world, to laugh, to cry, to learn, to gain insight and to be inspired. But when we become writers, we need to read like a writer. We become active readers, slowing down the process and becoming conscious of the material. We examine published writing to learn what moves us, to figure out what works and what—in our not-so-humble opinion—doesn’t. By doing so, we gain insight into what we want to write and how we want to write it. Ultimately, we learn about both craft and art by reading and emulating great writers.

Someone reading for merely for pleasure engages in a passive process—he or she may romp through a book or story but probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about what went into it. An active reader may read something the first time through for pleasure, but pays attention to which parts of the story were memorable, which passages were funny, sad, thrilling or merely confusing. An active reader goes so far as to make notes in the margin to flag passages that call for a more in-depth look. Active reading requires revisiting a piece of writing many times to understand its underlying structure and all its nuances.

When I worked as the public relations director for the Liquid Crystal Institute, a research center at Kent State University, I remember that one of the research scientists showed me a really expensive, tiny computer from a competitor that he was going to take apart.

“This will show me they work.”

“Can I have one after you’re done?” I asked.

He looked at me, frowning. “After I reverse engineer them, they won’t work anymore.”

Lucky for us, when we reverse engineer a piece of writing—taking it apart to see what components it contains and how they fit together—we rarely ruin the story. In fact, we can come to appreciate the story even more because the skill of the writer is revealed. Reverse engineering is a good model for the process of active reading.

Another way of thinking about being an active reader is to think about a piece of writing the way you would a house. If we visit someone’s house for the first time, we like taking a tour and looking at all the cool pictures and furniture. If you were an interior decorator, you might observe that the rooms are harmonized with blue and red accents, or that the walls have a rich, faux paint. An architect, however, would likely visit the house and become engaged by its structure and design style, and perhaps may not be jarred if the décor doesn’t match the period. Bring along your buddy the building inspector, and you can bet he’s not going to go gaga over the décor or the architectural style. He’ll peer at the porch to see if it sags or has termites. He’ll poke around in the basement with a flashlight to see if the foundation stands firm.

Taking a cue from various building professionals, the professional writer needs to roll many roles into one, examining writing in the same way that a potential home owner might scrutinize houses. You need to incorporate not only your penchant for interior decoration (the aesthetics of the writing), but you need to cultivate your appreciation of architecture (how the story is designed) and the critical eye of the home inspector (for construction details such as grammar and spelling).

You can learn just as much from pieces you don’t care for as the ones that you love. Reading like a writer requires that you read widely, that you venture into territory outside of your preferred genre to see what you can bring back to sustain your own work.

Action Step:  Make a list of your all-time favorite books, essays or articles. Note the genre you like most to read. Leave room to jot down what you liked about these works. Be specific. Was the story riveting or were you most moved by the quality of the language? Did the characters stick in your head and heart?  You might want to revisit a few works in your personal library and read them more closely, practicing active reading.  Please let me know what discoveries you make.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award.  For more information, visit her website and blog at www.lorideboer.net.

Tips on Working with a Manuscript Reader

By Alissa Johnson

Alissa JohnsonWhen I finish a book I love, I turn past the last page. I look for anything I can read so I don’t have to set it down. I want to stay immersed in the feeling of the book. Inevitably, my search takes me to the author’s Acknowledgements Page.

I’ve come to believe this page would be better called the Gratitude Page because it’s so often more than a list of names. It’s a tribute to the people who helped bring the book to life, and it’s a reminder to writers: writing may be an individual act but the process of creating a good book is never solitary.

Chief among those listed on the Acknowledgements Page are trusted and insightful readers—people who identified where the story flowed and where it needed some work. Theirs is one of the most important steps in writing, and one of the most vulnerable for the writer (I imagine it’s like parent teacher conferences, waiting to hear if your kid is a pro or a total slacker).

I’ve seen it go incredibly right, inspiring a writer to move forward with her story, and I’ve seen it go incredibly wrong—literally stopping a writer in her tracks because she didn’t pick the right reader.

Here are a few ways to make sure that you and your reader get it right:

1. Select readers with the skill sets you need. My two most trusted readers brought opposite (and equally important) skills to the table. One responded to the big picture—did the plot make sense? Were the characters clear? Where was it confusing? The other favored a black pen and editing a sentence like his life depended on it.

2. Ask for sample feedback. Send five to ten pages or a chapter and ask what he or she would suggest so you can get a sense for the input you’d receive.

3. Choose readers you like. If the communication flows easily it’s going to be a lot easier to take the good and the bad when they send you feedback on your manuscript.

4. Let your reader know if there are specific questions you want addressed, but trust that he’ll be seeing it with fresh eyes. Leave room for him to tell you what he sees.

5. After you send the manuscript, do something fun. Go for a hike, a ski, a run, or out with friends. Celebrate the fact that you care enough about your story to get someone’s input on how to make it better.

6. Resist the urge to edit before you get feedback. It’s difficult to work with feedback based on an earlier draft, and the time away from your work will let you see it with fresh eyes.

7. Set your own expectations before you get feedback. You’ve been living and breathing this story, which means that you are too close to see it clearly. You’ll hear some good stuff, but you’ll also learn where it’s not working. That’s not a failure—it’s the point of getting feedback.

8. When you get the feedback, read it and digest it. But before you start making each and every change, look at your manuscript for yourself. What do you see that needs work?

9. Once you’ve made all your revisions, read the feedback one more time. You don’t need to make every suggested change but make sure you’ve carefully considered each one.

10. Remember that revision is where the magic happens in writing—where prose comes alive and the storyline comes into its own.

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Alissa Johnson is an award winning writer and writing coach in Crested Butte, CO. She helps clients find peace with their writing process so they can get the most out of life and feel productive as writers. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Dirt Rag Magazine and Green Woman Magazine among other publications, and she holds an MFA from Western Connecticut State University. You’ll find her at her personal website and blog, and at the Writing Strides website.