Editing 101

This may, or may not, help budding writers: What is the best way to edit your manuscript? Here’s my take, based on the experience of two novels:

Step 1: Finish your Manuscript, then throw it aside for a few weeks. Return to it and read it through, noting obvious errors. Each time you step away from your manuscript you come back to it from a fresh perspective. Note: your first draft is always (yes, always) inadequate.

Step 2: Use an Online Editor. I like using prowritingaid or, more recently, grammarly. Both of these help identify issues such as repeated phrases, over-use of adverbs, sentence lengths, etc. I don’t recommend paying a subscription service, unless for a short period (e.g. a month) in order to check your entire manuscript. A feature I liked as the one where (in prowritingaid) where you can compare your style to another author. You may not be a Hemingway fan, but I like the simplicity of checking chapters in the Hemingway app. Here’s an example from my new novel (with the Hemingway result alongside);

Nikolai had a glass in hand and a faraway look. The lighting cast deep shadows in the folds of his face. He seemed angry, or drunk, or both.
“Wow, that’s a stunning photo of the old man and the sea; a perfect Hemingway moment.”
“I read a Hemingway book at school.”
“Which one? He wrote many.”
“The one about an old man and the sea.”
“About catching a big fish?”
“You remember. Yes, a poor fisherman in Cuba had caught nothing for eighty-four days.”
“It’s been that long since I had a boyfriend. How do you know this detail from the novel?”
“Because it was the same number of days as the title of another book I read, called Nineteen Eight Four.”
“Oh, I see what you mean. “Did you like the story about the old man and his fishing?”
“I loved it because it was the shortest novel we had in our English course. I had to learn some quotes for the final exam, such as, ‘Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?'”
“I bet the old man we just saw woke up early.”
“And now, he’s fortified for a long day.” They giggled.
“How old do you think he was?”
“Seventy? Eighty? It was difficult to tell.”
“Where did he go?”
“No idea. I looked at my phone for a bit and missed his exit.”
“You’re always on your phone. If you weren’t married to it you might find a boyfriend.”
“Did you ever have the hots for Hemingway?”
“Course not, I just loved his writing; short, intense, and so easy to read.”
“But you must have lusted after his type; a rugged outdoor man with a bushy beard and all that?”
“No, silly. Even if I had fallen for him, it would be short-lived.”
“Why?”
“He had four wives. His longest marriage was to his writing, and even that had a sad ending.”
“Why sad?”
“He wrote the last chapter of his life. Like his relationships, it was brief.”

Step 3: Join a Writing Circle. This is, I’m my humble opinion, the MOST important step. Get a writing-circle to review your work. This circle should consist of other writers or readers in your genre who will give constructive advice and not hold back on any criticism. For example, one of my fellow writers gave such good feedback that I rearranged my chapter order, changed the ending, and built a more authentic and powerful plot. And I was able to reciprocate and also offer him advice on his new book.

Step 4: Find a Professional Editor. There are many people who have experience in the publishing trade who are happy to review your work. I used one to check my submission trio – the Query Letter, Synopsis, and first three chapters. Their fixes and recommendations were so good that I asked them to check over other key chapters in my novel. What I especially liked was an experienced editor’s positive encouragement with, “I have a good feeling about this book.” Now, I just need a literary agent to agree.

Final Note: Don’t let any of the above steps change your own writing style. Stay true to who you are as a writer and use the steps to improve your style, rather than force it into someone else’s.

The Hardest Part of Being a Writer

Kristan Hoffman writes: “Some days the font is all wrong. Some days your wrists hurt. Or your back hurts. Or both. Some days your dog won’t stop barking, and there are three loads of laundry to fold. Some days you can’t fall asleep because you’ve got a million ideas for your story. Some days you can’t remember a single one.

Some days the words just flow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them in a rush. Some days you feel so high. Some days you laugh at your own funny parts, and cry at the sad ones. Some days you know that this book is The One.

Then some days you read about that 7-figure, 3-book deal and you just want to scream. Some days you think it’s never going to be you. Some days you wonder why you even bother.

And some days you read a great book, and you think, This is why. I can do this. I will do this. I am doing this.”

I love this advice and it reiterates what many great writers have said. For example, George Orwell notes that, “Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Even the Everest of a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, admitted, “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

As I struggle to re-write portions of my next thriller, it is helpful to have these thoughts to ponder and ease the burden. Sometimes, putting the computer down and losing myself in my plot or character gives me the space to find new ideas and better ways to write about them. I wonder if giving my thoughts more space allows new ones the room to come in?

Is Your First Book Your Worst?

Don’t you love this book title? I remember reading somewhere that an author’s first book is ‘always their worst’. I loathed that thought and was determined to disprove it. Yet, the final draft of my first book was so rough that I had to completely re-edit and improve it.

After a period of time I discovered that my first book, although well received, could have been much better. I had moved on and so had my writing. As someone posted, “Ten years ago you thought you were doing alright. Now, today, you may look back and cringe at your hairstyle or the clothes you wore or the way you acted and thought. I was terrible! you might say, but at the time you didn’t realize it…First books can be similar…Two books or a few years later you can see how much you’ve grown and cringe at the first attempt. If it’s bad let it be bad and grow from it. Don’t let its potential to be bad keep you from moving forward.

A great post and one I can connect with. What did I learn from my ”first book experience”?

  1. I used it as a platform to get better
  2. I revisited it months later (after being self-published) and did an entire re-write (and re-publish). Note: if I had taken the traditional publishing route I would have avoided this drama 🙂
  3. After an ‘aha’ moment, I added another chapter to my first novel
  4. I took my first thriller, with all its shortcomings, and worked harder to make my second thriller a vast improvement – more nuanced and complex, with clear connections from start to finish.

You Need More Layers in Cold Weather

When we lived in the fickle weather of Portland in the North-West of the USA we learned to layer our clothing and adapt to the changing conditions (which is why the Columbia clothing seconds store was so popular). We needed more layers as the weather headed south. The same is true for a thriller; it needs layers to gather complexity—layers that unwrap as the plot thickens. I like this analogy as gives weight to the fact that thrillers can’t be too short. If they are, the layers are thin and the reader chills too quickly. But, a multi-layered story holds their interest. Thrillers with several layers provide complexity. In my first draft of my second thriller, feedback from Beta Readers pointed out that the ending was too simple. I agreed with them and, with a tough edit and re-write, finished the book on a more powerful note. My new ending prompted some other changes, even as far back as Chapter One. So, layer up friends and look forward to a thriller that, hopefully, keeps you warm throughout.

Now that seasons have been mentioned, these play an important descriptive part of my new thriller. Here is an example taken toward the end. It also gives a strong impetus for the protagonist to want to leave dreary London and settle somewhere warmer;

Sir Donald stands, holds a match to his pipe and looks across to Hans Place Garden. I follow his gaze. The trees have shed their coats, leaving a wet carpet of brown and yellow leaves along the street and over parked cars. Another dull and soggy day in London ushers in an early night. I hate winters here and yearn to be back in the Mediterranean. [pg 339]

Motive!

Motive is the glue that holds a thriller together, and keeps the plot racing to its conclusion.

In my new novel, I required a glue strong enough to sustain an outrageous heist; a glue that provided background for the characters, and helped them ‘stick’. Here is a sneak peak from page 15;

In his 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell feared a controlling Big Brother would conceal the truth from us.  In his Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley suggests our Orwellian dystopia is created by too many distractions.”

“In short, we’re overrun by messages; bombarded by endless data coming to us via the internet, mobile devices, and television. We’re lost in a sea of virtual, fake news. It becomes impossible to see what’s important, or even what’s real. We’re drowning in a rising tide of irrelevance and, since COVD-19, accelerated social regulation, telling us when to stay home, when to shop, how to socialize, when to be inoculated, and when and how we can travel. The loss of civil liberties is the first sign of a totalitarian regime.”

I would say that a global race to an Orwellian dystopia, with increasing social control, is high motive for action against it?

When description matters

I’m playing with words again and, this time, lingering over a short section of my final chapter. Here’s the original:

“I have a gift for you,” she chuckles.

The Christmas wrapping is enticing.

“I wonder what this could be?” I reply, shaking the parcel in the same way that I did as an excited young boy on Christmas Eve. “It feels solid.”

“A small keepsake,” she replies.

My hesitation is over the boy and his reaction to the present. What is missing? I remember now. It was not just a Christmas present, but my reaction as a young boy to the sight of all the presents under the Christmas tree and wanting to feel each one. So, I added to the text to give a sense of this excitement. It now reads,

“I have a gift for you,” she chuckles.

The Christmas wrapping is enticing.

“I wonder what this could be?” I reply, shaking the parcel in the same way that I did as an excited young boy on Christmas Eve. How I loved the presents wrapped and stacked beneath the family tree.

“It feels solid.”

“A small keepsake,” she replies.

My hope is that the addition of this text gives more sense of a boyish reaction, and has the reader getting excited too, to see what is inside the wrapping. Of course, I am not going to give the game away here and reveal the present, but it suits the plot.

The Best Writing Advice I Ever Had

Joe Fassler on Seven of the Most Common Writing Tips

I once heard John Irving give a lecture on his process at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an in-depth account of the way his novels come to be. He kicked it off by writing a single sentence on the chalkboard—the last line of Last Night in Twisted River. All his books begin with the ending, Irving explained, a capstone he works and reworks until it’s ready. From there, he’ll generate a detailed summary that ultimately builds towards the finale. Only when he has the synopsis and last sentence in hand will he actually start writing. I remember being fascinated by this. The approach had clearly been successful, and made sense in theory, and yet was so unlike any creative strategy that had ever worked for me. Which is an important thing to keep in mind when trafficking in the familiar genre of writing advice: Just because John Irving does it that way doesn’t mean you should. Not only is every writer different, but each poem, each story and essay, each novel, has its own formal requirements. Advice might be a comfort in the moment, but the hard truth is that literary wisdom can be hard to systematize. There’s just no doing it the same way twice. And yet. In the five years I’ve spent interviewing authors for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series, it’s been impossible to ignore the way certain ideas tend to come up again and again. Between the column and the book I’ve engaged a diverse group of more than 150 writers, a large sample size, that nonetheless has some defining traits. Here are the recurring ideas, distilled from dozens of conversations, that I think will most help you—no matter how unorthodox your process, how singular your vision.

  1. Neglect everything else. It starts with a simple fact: If you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you.
  2. Beginnings matter. Everyone knows that the opening line is a crucial invitation, something that can make or break a reader’s interest in a book. But far less attention has been paid to the role first lines play for writers, leading them through the work’s dark, uncertain stages like a beacon.“The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” William Gibson told me, a radical, koan-like conviction that nonetheless seems to be commonplace. Stephen King described spending “weeks and months and even years” working on first sentences, each one an incantation with the power to unlock the finished book.
  3. Let Go and Follow the headlights. Give yourself some leeway in the early drafts. Throw out all your plans and assumptions, and make room to surprise yourself.
    Andre Dubus calls this following the headlights: it’s like driving a car down a dark, unfamiliar road, simply describing as things become visible under the beam. “What’s on the side of the road?” he asked. “What’s the weather? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is just to follow the headlights—that’s how the architecture is revealed.”

    Dozens of writers have told me some version of the same story. “The writing I tend to think of as ‘good’ is good because it’s mysterious,” Aimee Bender said. “It tends to happen when I get out of the way—when I let go a little bit, I surprise myself.”

  4. Sound it out. Of course, all this is easier said than done. In the absence of a concrete plan, how to know when you’re headed in the right direction? For many writers I’ve spoken with, the answer seems to lie in the sound of the words.
    “Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm,” the late Jim Harrison said. “It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.” George Saunders described a similar process, explaining that sound shows him where the energy is, revealing which aspects of the story are important, which lines to follow. It can help with revision, too. Many drafts in, when he can no longer see the work with fresh eyes, Jesse Ball told me that he turns to his ears. “Sound gives us clues about what is necessary and real,” he said. “When you read [your work] aloud, there are parts you might skip over—you find yourself not wanting to speak them. Those are the weak parts. It’s hard to find them otherwise, just reading along.”
  5. It’s supposed to be difficult. One of the things that’s surprised me most is how much the process—even for best-selling and critically acclaimed writers—never seems to get any easier. Khaled Hosseini’s piece in Light the Dark is one especially poignant testament to this: material success doesn’t blunt the pain an author feels when the words just come up short. But writers seem to be masters of deflecting existential despair, the malaise that takes hold in the middle of a taxing enterprise. I’ve covered this in more detail in an essay for The Atlantic, so one example in particular will suffice here: Elizabeth Gilbert’s concept of “stubborn gladness,” a term she borrows from the poet Jack Gilbert. It’s a promise to take things in stride, to remain cheerfully engaged no matter how difficult things get. “My path as a writer became much more smooth,” she said, “when I learned, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.”
  6. Find the joy.Ultimately, the writers I speak to seem committed to finding the joy within their work, even if that means looking in the most unexpected places. “One of the things that aids me, and which he helped teach me, is this: fundamentally, I do not believe in despair as a real aspect of the human condition,” says Ayana Mathis. “There is great confusion, there is great pain, there is suffering, all of those things, yes. But despair? I don’t believe in despair, and I don’t write from despair. I write from difficulty, absolutely. I write about people who are in great pain, who are desperate and sometimes even miserable. But despair, to me, means an absolute absence of hope. It is a nothing. There is always hope for betterment.”
    But it’s not just leaving room for hope and levity on the page. It’s about retaining one’s own capacity to find joy within the process, making sure the work’s difficulty never fully squeezes out delight.

    “The joy of being an author is the joy of feeling I can do anything,” says Neil Gaiman. “There are no rules. Only: can you do this with confidence? Can you do it with aplomb? Can you do it with style? Can you do it with joy?”.

    Find the joy, and when you do, there are no rules.

    [Comment: I came across these ‘rules’ and found myself agreeing with them all in part, especially ‘Find the Joy’. However, finding the joy takes discipline and courage; it only comes after completing another 500 or 1000 words, and then finishing and editing and then editing again and again; and then being dissatisfied with the end result and starting again in utter frustration when you discovered a better way to order the plot. As Tip #3 says, “follow the headlights”. However, I have discovered that this is rather awkward when the headlights are coming at you! I have left out the 7th writing tip. Why? I don’t use it 🙂 ]

Polished editing takes time

It can take 21 months or more to cut a diamond into sparkling perfection. Rushing the process could lead to excessive diamond wastage, unnecessary ugly inclusions and poor shaping. The Diamond cutting business is a prime example of an industry in which “Slow and Steady” wins the day. The same applies to editing and polishing a manuscript. I, for one, have been too keen to take my rough manuscript and hoped it would pass the keen eyes of an accomplished literary agent, only to realise too late that the work needed many more months of fine revision. My humble experience has taught me to not rush the process, and take as long as it needs to make it ‘shine.’ With my first book, 3 WISE MEN, I was not happy until about a year after the first version; with my new book, it has taken a similar length of time to get feedback and re-work the ‘final’ draft. I am so pleased that I slowed down the revision process and hope my readers will be too. A good red wine needs to be opened and sit for a while, allowing it to “breathe”and soften the flavours and release enhancing aromas. Writing is no different? No. JD Salinger took 10 years to write Catcher in the Rye, and the first Harry Potter instalment was six years in the making. Time heals many things and writing is no different.

The value of a Writers Circle

Beta Readers are a great source for discovering faults in a draft manuscript, but a Writers Circle can add real value by providing advice on improving the impact of your novel on readers, and for giving encouragement from an author’s perspective. Writers value input from other writers. I recently asked a fellow writer to be part of my Beta Reader group. His input was especially helpful for identifying weaknesses in my plot. He also validated his impressions of my novel from his perspective as a writer. Now, I have the privilege of doing the same for his new novel and we have discovered the joy of forming a small Writers Circle. In conclusion, I have discovered that Beta Readers, and the added value of a Writers Circle, are key elements in helping take my writing to a new level. I appreciate their input – it is like gold to me as an author.

Prepositions expanded

A preposition is a word or group of words used before a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, time, place, location, spatial relationships, or to introduce an object. Some examples of prepositions are words like “in,” “at,” “on,” “of,” and “to.”

Prepositions in English are highly idiomatic. Although there are some rules for usage, much preposition usage is dictated by fixed expressions. Used wisely, with effective placement, prepositions:

  • Create dramatic effect or flourish.
  • Enable the writer to finish scenes/chapters by making a statement of intent.
  • Help heighten atmosphere with a sense of immediacy.
  • Make a direct point.
  • Ask rhetorical questions.

Example 1: He wasn’t sure who they were or where they were going; the human misery cooped up in the foul, stained wooden train. But he was determined to find out.

The placement of the preposition of ‘But’ creates directness, a blunt atmosphere for the scene, and it also becomes an effective way to finish the scene within a determined statement of intent, thus informing the reader of what is yet to come.

Example 2: He stepped back from her, unwilling to engage. She couldn’t find the words…Since when did John start carrying a knife?

Here’s a much better definition:

 

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