Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Self-Editing 101

I hate editing.

Let me rephrase that. I hate editing my stuff. I find great joy in editing other people's works. Something inside me has decided, I think, that once it's written down, my part is done.

Most writers will tell say you'll spend more time re-working than you will actually writing, and maybe that's true for them. They will also tell you not to edit while you write; there, I stand convicted. So yes, it can take me longer to actually get stuff out, but once it's there it's usually pretty good. That's me, that's how I write, but I wouldn't encourage anyone else to do it that way.

However, there isn't a human being alive who doesn't need to be edited. And if you learn how to do the preliminary stuff yourself before giving it to the powers that be, you'll save yourself some embarrassment.

1. Read it Backwards. Basically, reading backwards allows for you to be able to break up the "oh, I know this section" effect and analyze each sentence on its own merit. This technique works best for smaller pieces.

2. Read it aloud. After I finish a chapter, I usually read it aloud over the phone to Kara. When I read it aloud, I find those places where something is spelled oddly or words are missing or that sentence that doesn't really make much sense. Also, when I'm reading it to an interacting audience , I'll know which jokes played well and which got lost.

3. Love your printer. Editing onscreen really doesn't work that well. Yeah, you can catch some mistakes, but not as well as on the printed page. After I finished Divine Discontent, I had the entire book printed and bound at Kinko's. Note: for this kind of job, I highly recommend the spiral binding. I kept one copy and gave the other to my editorial assistant (read: mother). She went through one copy, I went through the other. Sometimes we found the same spots, there were others where I decided to rework entire sections. After we both finished, I had the enviable task of going, page by page, through the manuscript and making the changes on the computer.

4. Share with others. Editing things you wrote yourself gives you a kind of handicap. Letting others eyeball your work is good; just know that as the writer you have the final word. You only have to make the changes you decide are appropriate for your work. Granted, if your reader is an editor, give their words more weight.

5. Know the heart of your story. This has less to do with editing punctuation than it does with know what to take out - or what to leave. Decide what your story is really about, and what you want it to communicate. If you know what the heart is (or "nut" for anyone who studied journalism), then you can better defend it.

6. Be flexible. Yes, sometimes that scene/line/phrase/punctuation that lies near and dear to your heart really needs to go. Sometimes the story arc isn't really working. Maybe that side character is distracting from the protagonist. It's okay to be liberal with the red pen. Less really can be more. Just keep an open mind and focus on what the heart of the piece really is.

Because really, what editing is all about is protecting that heart and not letting unnecessary distractions get in the way.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Writing 101

What's funny about college is that you aren't necessarily taught to write. Honestly, most of what I know about writing I learned everywhere but school. When an editor is going through your draft, you learn fast. And there are all sorts of fantastic materials about writing written by - get this - writers. Here are some tips I've picked up, and they can be used in every form of writing...

1. Show, don't tell. Please don't tell me that Jane runs fast. Do her legs blur as she tears up track? Much more involving.

2. Use active voice. This is tough, especially for people writing in the academic field, because academic researchers love their passive verbs. Passive verbs, keep these under your hat -


Recognize them. Avoid them. Instead of "Jane was running," say "Jane ran." By using active verbs, you're painting a more vivid picture while cutting down on wordiness. Passive verbs can't always be avoided, but where there is action, there should also be active verbs.

3. Avoid the "ly" adverbs. Karen Ball beat this into my head six years ago. It's amazing how many time's you'll find lines like "she screamed loudly." Well, duh. Can anyone scream quietly? Adverbs modify verbs. Trouble is, if you've got a lot of "ly" adverbs hanging around, your verbs aren't working hard enough. Make your verbs earn their keep. Again, there are times when they're appropriate, especially if they're modifying linking verbs (see above verb list). But where there is action, there should be strong verbs that don't need the support of the "ly" underlings.

4. Be specific. This is especially important when writing comedy. When I was in a screenwriting class, it was described this way - "If you say 'gay cartoon character, that's kind of funny. If you say 'gay smurf', you've got a laugh." Specificity makes your writing that much sharper and that much more vivid. Juno is the poster-child for specificity. Successful TV shows are also really good examples - early seasons of Gilmore Girls drip with specific cultural and media references. Blue Like Jazz is another example.

5. Don't marry the fly. Got this out of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, a book every writer should keep close. The jist of this rule is not to get so enamored with small details that you lose sight of the big picture. Don't get so hung up with the fly that you forget about the two people in the room who happen to be throwing candleabras at each other. This is the flip side of specificity. Everything's a balance.

6. Find your own voice. I will never write like Francine Rivers. Ever. Mainly because I'm not Francine Rivers. Don't pressure yourself to write like someone you're not. I worked for two years on a mystery/suspence novel, written in third-person. It was hard going, and writing the action took a lot of effort. Then I began to behave badly and started working on another project, a first-person comedy. All of a sudden, the narrative became easy. My character had a voice and she didn't mince words and it was funny. After that, I stuck with first-person. When I took Divine Discontent to the conference this last summer, Karen read my proposal and nodded. She told me that I had found my voice, that it was me, that it sounded right.

So if you're really struggling, try a lot of different styles. The one that feels like your favorite pair of broken-in jeans, that one's yours. Keep it.

7. Don't pressure yourself. Another tip from Natalie Goldberg - basically, tell yourself that you are not going to write the Great American Novel, you're going to write crap. Total crap. Writers tend to pressure themselves into greatness to the point that they can't get anything out, because whatever they've got isn't great enough. If you tell yourself you're planning on writing crap anyway, you've got something to work with. And more likely than not, what you get can be good stuff.

Small notes:

- Don't say something's interesting. In general, if you have to say it's interesting, it isn't.

- Avoid "It". You can get philosophical about what "It" really is or really means, but life is short. Just use it sparingly, and think twice before using it to kick off a sentence.

- Be aware that what you read influences what you write. When I went on my Louis L'Amour kick, I kept coming up with lines like "Gun in one hand, Bible in the other." When I went through my British Chic-lit phase, my characters sounded rather proper. Keep your eyes open and know that what goes in will come out.

- Do read everything, though. Some people avoid reading while they write, and that's just stupid. STUPID. Read everything you can get your hands on. Always.

Happy writing!

A book of the terrifying kind

There's something scary about the beginning of a good book. It all starts out so innocently - you laugh at the first couple pages, agree with some of the narrative and if you're me, read it to the person sitting next to you.

Words progress, and you become emotionally involved with the character, admiring the witty dialogue, and find yourself reading more than you planned.

Then forty-four pages in, this terrifying realization sinks in: you really like this book. You'd recommend it to other people, but you can't - because you don't know how it ends.

That's the kicker - the better the beginning, the greater the disappointment if the writer screw up. Some examples -

Avoiding Prison, and Other Noble Vacation Goals - flat out hilarious, depressing (sorry, "disquieting") at the end.

Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress - again, the beginning deserved to be framed. Then I wanted to clap my hands over my eyes during the middle, while the end was pretty good. But can you recommend a book when the entire second act inspires a gag reflex?

There was another book I can't remember the title of, but it was a modern take-off of Jane Austen's Persuasion. Loved it, until the author slipped in a scene that I'd rather like out of my head.

I'm also finding the ones with the most disappointment potential are the ones with the best title. The book inspiring this riff is Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story.

And it's really, really good so far. As in, I want my own copy. And I'm petrified that author's going to get in the way of my transcendental experience.

Moral of the story: writing a book is hard. One scene can make the difference. The lack of a scene can make the difference. Writing is putting something down, then calling everyone who read it to make sure it's okay and you still qualify as a writer. It's ensuring that you're not cheating your readers. When someone's placed their faith in your prose to read your book instead of mowing the lawn, watching Desperate Housewives on DVD or staring at the ceiling, it's your responsibility to make it worth their time.

Scary stuff.

Originally posted on June 25, 2007

The end of the novel - mine, actually

It's done. The book I started almost exactly two years ago is done. I finished at Starbucks yesterday at 4:22pm (finishing at Starbucks seemed appropriate, since it's where I met my husband), and was listening to Suzanne Ciani's "Princess" (what I walked down the aisle to - and yes, I am a sentimental romantic). The word count came out at 99,069 - but I haven't gone through and counted up words, chapter by chapter, for a bit since I've done some editing. It's kind of a long task. Involves math.It's crazy to think that this project is finally completed.

Told the husband and the family, then went out and celebrated at BJ's with dinner and a Pizookie. Then we rented "Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer" and I fell asleep.

So I'll print the monster on Monday and do a dry edit next week, then send the whole thing to the four people who've been waiting for it. We'll see what happens from there. But I'd really like a book deal, in part because I'd really, really like to replace my camera :-)

It takes a village to write a book. (Unless you're the weird loner writer type, but I personally think the village ones are better). I've had so many people contributing ideas and insights. It amazes me how involved we can get in the lives of those who do not exist. I often joke that novelists are obsessive-compulsive schizophrenics - we talk to the people who do not exist and then feel compelled to write down the conversation.

It's funny reading old chapters - I started in 2005, so the first chunk is written in the way that I wrote two years ago. Another chunk is written in the way I wrote one year ago. What's odd is feeling envious of your own writing style. I'd read stuff from the middle and go, "this is really clever," and worry that the newer stuff wasn't as great...then reread and be quite pleased with myself...Vicious cycle. Really.

The next project is Click - a comedy about online dating. I did a bunch of investigative research on this one, really put myself into the story. Yeah.

Months ago, I thought I'd be so excited about being done. As time stretched, I came to the point where I thought I'd finish and go, "thank goodness that's all over"...but when I actually came within pages....

It's exciting.

Originally posted October 13, 2007

Friday, April 25, 2008

Pardon the dust

While I'm setting up this blog (because I'm really pretty done with myspace), I'll be re-posting some of the oldies-but-goodies from my original blog.

In the meantime, amuse yourself by visiting I originally got it off the Yarn Harlot's blog (may she reign forever), and let it be said that I beat the high score she posted.