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NaNoReViSo Revelation

It’s Monday morning, 1 a.m. so technically, I think it’s Tuesday. But I have had a huge breakthrough, the one I needed. A mighty big THANK YOU to Geoff Le Pard who took time from his Nantholgy to review my research dilemma and explain it in clear terms that made sense. Not only did it make sense, but it led to a revelation.

Two secretes held by Sarah Shull — who shot Cobb McCanles and why was Cobb accused of absconding with taxpayer’s money in North Carolina. They both were intelligent. In fact, that’s the basis of their attraction. Mary was beautiful, a fine cook and loving mother and Cobb adored her, but he couldn’t resist his wicked urges or ambitions of the mind and body around Sarah.

The revelation is that the duo repeated their deed scheme in Nebraska. It’s been there all along in the documents and histories. No one has seen it for what it is. I even felt sorry for Cobb, thinking he kept selling land or bridges or wagons and having to collect them and sell them again to someone who would pay in full. But what if he never intended for anyone to pay in full? Geoff set off my realization when he said Cobb, as sheriff in North Carolina, would have kept the deeds in his dealings. So many historians have written about his selling terms which included…him keeping the deed. He’d get some money out of each buyer, but retain the deed and sell again to someone else. And all the while, Sarah kept his books.

I revised a scene tonight and feel like I have the right tone between the two. While this is a big breakthrough, revision continues to be daunting. Irene Waters said something last week about a page and a half a day; 179 to go! And I thought, that’s why this feels so intimidating — the mind only sees a mountain to climb when all we can do is muster a step or two, but have to reach the peak in an impossible stretch. To all fellow writers in edits and revisions and new drafts, stay the course!

And here’s a bonus scene from  today’s revisions:

KATE SHELL by Charli Mills

“You need to go by another name.” Sarah McCanles, Leroy’s pinch-faced wife cleared the evening meal.

Sarah slowly rose to help and calmly replied, “My name is Sarah, too.”

“Leroy, honestly, it’s confusing, two Sarah’s living here and working in the store.” When Sarah McCandles’s voice pitched to the volume of a whine, Leroy grabbed a jug and indicated with a toss of his head to Cobb that they should go out on the front porch.

Sarah envied the men their retirement to the cool evening air. “Do you ever go by another name? Like Sally?”

The other woman frowned, creating creases in her forehead. “Sally. That’s for old ladies. My mother had an Aunt Sally. Oh, do please change your name!”

After the dinner dishes were washed and dried, Leroy’s wife shuffled the two little ones off to bed and Sarah slipped outside. Cobb made room for her on the rough hewed bench. Leroy leaned against the post, staring out into the darkness. “Mountains, that direction,” he said.

“Pining for mountains again, Brother?” Cobb pulled back on the jug and took a long swig.

Leroy turned around and noticed Sarah. “Ah, it’s Sare-Bear.”

“Sare-Bear?” Sarah smiled at the silly name.

Cobb looked at her, his eyes slightly glazed. Liquor or lust. “How about Bare Sarah?”

She poked him in the ribs. “Behave, Mr. McCanles.”

“I’m behaving,” said Leroy.

Sarah shook her head. If ever two brothers had matching mirthful grins, it was this pair when in each other’s company. Too much whiskey though and they were trouble.

“Kate!” Leroy’s wife stepped outside and all three turned perplexed looks her direction.

“Who’s Kate, Wife?”

“She is,” pointing at Sarah.

Cobb chuckled low in his chest. “You were a bonnie Scot in disguise all this time.”

“I don’t think so. No one seems to be confused. Traders respectfully call you Mrs. Leroy McCanles, and they call me Sarah.”

“I hate that! My name ain’t Leroy! You can be Kate and they can call me Sarah. Kate Shell. That’s your name and I’m going to tell everyone it is, that’s all there is to it.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, woman!”

Everyone turned to look at Leroy who seemed more surprised than any at what he just said. His wife, eyes wide and filling with tears, screeched and ran back into the cabin. Coyotes across the flat responded with yips.

“Leroy, there’s a reason our father always said never swear in front of the women folk. You might be sleeping in the barn tonight.”

Sarah covered her face with palms to hide her want to laugh.

“Damn it. I—” Leroy looked sideways at Sarah. “Sorry.”

Sarah couldn’t hold back and laughed loud.

Leroy reached for the jug, but Cobb held it back. “Think you had enough, already.” He joined Sarah in laughing. Leroy headed to the barn, muttering and a few words Sarah could distinctly detect as swearing.

Cobb walked her across the dark yard to the back of the stone structure that would be the post office soon. She stepped through the door and turned to face him, leaning against the frame. “Come in?”

He breathed deep like a man smelling dogwood blossoms. “Best get home to Mary.”

Sarah nodded.

“Hey.” Cobb reached for her hand.

It felt small, gripped in his larger one. “Yes?” Her voice was breathy and inwardly she said a few of Leroy’s choice words.

“I’m thinking of selling the toll-bridge.” He kissed the palm of her hand.

“I wondered when we might get around to such.” She smiled like a real mistress.If she couldn’t have Cobb in her bed, she could have his clever ambitions to plan and hide.

“Think of some terms. Goodnight, Rosebud.”

Terms. Yes, there would be terms. Down payment. Deed, of course, she’d keep that filed. Difficult terms to meet. The new owners would never really own it. He who has the deed…it was her comforting thought as she readied for bed. Kate Shell. Maybe she could take an alias. No matter. Folk would be slow to catch on in this Territory. Rumors seeped out of North Carolina, but no one really understood how Cobb made off with the cold hard cash and left the bondsmen bickering over land deeds. It would take Weith years to sort it all out. Before turning down the covers she lightly tapped her fingers on the leather ledger.

No one knew Cobb like she did.


Tools of the Trade: Self-Editing

Tips for WritersThe fledgling barn swallow careens drunkenly, barely lifting off the ground higher than the dog chasing it. With fumbling feathers it flits to the top of the pasture-gate and clings with wiry bird toes as the dog sniffs from below. Later, it attempts flight again, swooping almost comically from side to side, crashing into a clump of tall pond reeds.

I cringe because I can relate.

As an emerging author–dare I say it too early–I feel as though I’m careening through process like I’ve a bottle of moonshine stashed in my desk drawer. Nip, nip on the bottle, snip, snip on the page. I take a deep breath. I don’t drink at my desk and I don’t randomly edit with scissors, but some days I feel as wet-behind-the-ears as that fledgling bird.

To counter doubt, I assemble tools important to my trade. I feel more like a carpenter when I wear a carpenter’s belt with hammer, nails and level tucked close to me.  I’ve talked about other tools employed in writing such as

When you write, write. But before you call it a book, edit.

Last week we discussed a few time management ideas and broke down editing into levels. When it is time to edit, edit with tools. This will help steady you if you feel like you’re careening when faced with the tower of pages in a project. Think of your tools as guides or training wheels. Even when you master this thing called writing a book, it is because you’ve mastered how to use your tools.

Self-editing requires knowledge and assistance: books, beta-readers and professional editors.

Self-Editing (2)

Books for Self Editing

Writers, know thy language. Before you can write brilliant prose, you need to know how to construct basic subject-verb-object sentences. You need references that remind you what it is to write clearly and correctly. Yes, brilliant authors break basic rules, but only because they wore the basics long enough to make them into comfortable, ragged jeans that they could retrofit into the latest-greatest fad.

This short-list of must-have books for self-editing is American-biased. I’d love to hear from writers outside the stars-and-stripes as to what would be comparable references.

  1. Strunk & White, “The Elements of Style.” Don’t let the thin book fool you–it is as dense as a slice of chocolate torte. Be clear. (That’s chapter 16, by the way.) But know your punctuation, your constructs of sentences. Strunk and White advise, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!” This book must grace your shelf and be your self-editing companion (well, if you are American).
  2. The Associated Press Stylebook. The caveat here is that this book is for media writers. However, most authors–established and emerging–blog these days and the AP Stylebook is the proper reference guide, referred to as the “journalist’s bible.” I use it as the foundational guide for client work, making notes for differing styles or words not included (such as, fair trade). It defines email (not e-mail), farmers market (not farmer’s market) and proper weather terms.
  3. Webster’s New World College Dictionary. This is the companion dictionary to the AP Stylebook. Before I got into editing, I relied on my Heritage New Dictionary, and if I want to geek-out on words I go to my beloved Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. What I love about my version of Webster’s is that the book came with a disk so I have loaded both the dictionary and companion thesaurus onto my computer. It makes checking words a breeze (even those occasional “chiefly British” words I hanker to learn). Point is, have a dictionary.
  4. Williams & Bizup “Style, Lessons in Clarity and Grace.” If you are serious about mastering language, get this book. If you are in college to study English (Lit or Writing) you will be required to get this book. So, if you are at home working on a DIY MFA, get this book. It’s $50 and worth the expense. If you don’t have the dough, go to your library and work on the lessons there. Bring a notebook.
  5. Eyes. Not a book, but a self-editing tool. Use your eyes to read other writers (good writers, masters, classics). Use your eyes to review your own work. Use your eyes to look up references, not problem areas and learn as you work on your craft.

Beta-Readers for Self-Editing

Why do I think somebody else reading your manuscript is a form of self-editing? Because you need to be in control of this process (unless you are a control freak and then maybe you just need to lighten up). Don’t just blindly say, “Hey–want to read my book? Yea! Great! Thanks!” Be mindful of why you want your beta-readers to read:

  1. Content. At this level of editing you are seeking feedback. Is the plot flowing, are the characters believable? While it is important to gauge a reader’s interest in your book you do need to go deeper than an opinion (“It was great!” or “It sucked!”). Ask specific questions for your beta-readers to answer.
  2. Clarity. It’s entirely possible to have a beta-reader review your book for clarity. This is a level at which you might ask an industry expert to read. For example, I wrote a climate-fiction project and I might send a few chapters to a climatologist or to someone who is familiar with Baffin Island. My sweet neighbor Bessie isn’t going to be the best beta-reader at this level unless she’s a retired book publisher who worked for NASA and visits Baffin Island.
  3. Correctness. I have more than a few Grammar Tyrants in my life who’d love to scan my sentences for errors and bleed red pen on the page. These are NOT the beta-readers I want at the content level as we will only frustrate each other. But they can be terrific proofers at the level of editing for correctness. However, be sure that they can manage focus for a project the size of a book. Most editors minimize their editing hours or else they overlook mistakes. Personally, I’d prefer a professional, but maybe you are lucky enough to have one volunteer or work out a trade of sorts.

Working With a Professional Editor

One valid reason yet for traditional publishing is to work with industry professionals. However, the conundrum is how do you get the professionals to even glance at your emerging book project? Often, you will need a professional to work with you on the editing. Again, you, the writer, are a part of this process.

  1. Find a professional. There are plenty who call themselves editors. I do, but I would never edit anyone’s book. I have zippo experience in the book publishing industry. I’ve worked for daily newspapers, magazines and businesses. I do volunteer to edit as a beta-reader for friends working on their masters or books only if I know that they are also working with advisers, professors or a final proof-reader. I want an editor who has worked in the industry, read books in the slush pile and honed a knowledge based on experience.
  2. Have your manuscript assessed. For me, revision was paralyzing. I knew I needed to make changes but i doubted each one. So I hired a professional who listened to my desire to write a hero’s journey. Not only did she point out where it was working, she also pointed out where it needed bolstering. She also brought things to my attention such as a persistent slip on point-of-view. I would never have caught that and my early beta-readers hadn’t noticed. I felt confident revising my novel project after her assessment and it cost less than two nights out for dinner.
  3. Have your final revision proofed or copy-edited. Again, you need to be involved with making this decision. If you had an editorial friend go over your book as a beta-reader, maybe all you need is a final proof. If in doubt, send a few chapters and the professional can help you decide what you need to polish the pages until it shines like the star you want it to be. Stay actively engaged in your edits and complete the suggested changes. Always be using your eyes (unless you are writing, then use your imagination to get into that flow).

What tools do you have in your writer’s belt? Have you used beta-readers or editors? Let me leave you with a testimonial for my editor in case you are in search of one or want to check out her company.

Testimonial: Write Divas

When I experienced trouble with revision, I sought the help of Write Divas. I chose this organization out of my list of editors because they had a strong and vibrant brand backed by expert posts on craft and industry. They were punctual in responding to my inquiry; affordable and accurate in their quote; and they saved the day with my manuscript, pointing out weak places that needed attention. Before you can copy edit, you first need to make sure that your story is clear, your structure sound and your characters believable. That’s what an assessment can accomplish. I feel more confident as a writer with the feedback from Write Divas, and I’m able to revise without second guessing my changes. They will help me each step of the way to achieve my publishing goals. Every writer needs an editor, so why not a Diva?

5 Reasons to Hire Write Divas:

  1. Because you get to tell your tweeps that you have your own Diva.
  2. Just look at their brand. Don’t you want to go hang out with them? Write Divas are hip!
  3. It sounds impressive to say, I’m a writer and I have an editor who is not my grandmother.
  4. Because now you have deadlines and no one wants to miss a deadline to a Diva.
  5. Besides all the fun, you have now committed to being professional in your writing pursuit.

Levels of Editing: When & Why

Tips for WritersWriters, like it or not, you can’t multitask.

Like many who push a pen, I’ve had to find work to pay for the ink. Eons ago, I waited tables in a ridiculously short pink polyester dress. On Wednesday nights at the casino restaurant where I worked, it was regionally famous for beer and steak. Nevada buckaroos brought their wives to town; Navy (yes, there is a Navy base in Nevada) fly-boys arrived to eat, drink and play 21; and miners cleaned up to make it a date night.

What I had to do felt like multitasking at its most demanding–seat tables, bring beer, fetch water, take orders, prep salads, bring extra rolls, laugh at bad jokes, pick up hot plates, remember steak knives, refill beer, find steak sauce, clear plates, scoop sherbert, tally tab and earn a good tip. Times that by ten because it was how many tables we each had in our sections and on a Wednesday night we were packed from 5 to 10 p.m.

Later, as a manager I learned that multitasking is a myth. This NPR article on the topic even cites a restaurant line cook as an example–of not multitasking. Instead, we humans are expedient at changing from one task to the other, but we cannot do multiple tasks at once. It’s why you need to break down your tasks into chunks with breaks in between.

We break down writing into scenes, and we break down editing into levels. It’s how we make it manageable.

Before I launch into editing as a separate task from writing, let me offer you some ideas for time management. It’s getting to be that time of year when everyone is feeling pressed about time, uncertain which tasks to prioritize and overwhelmed by trying to do it all.

Tips for Efficiency in Time Management:

  1. Use a calendar to enter all important dates: deadlines, blog schedule, writing goals, personal time and appointments. Hint: your calendar should not be “full.” You need blank days.
  2. Make a to-do list weekly and prioritize tasks according to importance: A, B or C. Work your As off first. Studies show that we tend to do the easiest tasks first and often those are Cs.
  3. Organize tasks. I have outdoor chores, downstairs duties and office expectations. I take time for each “place,” giving it my full attention.
  4. Set a timer. Especially if you work for a client or have identified a distraction, you need to monitor your time.
  5. Embrace a distraction. When migrating birds kept me at the window with binoculars, I started a blog. It gave me an outlet for the distraction, and a way to practice my voice in writing. If you like a game, play it for 20 minutes as a reward for finishing an important task for the day. Use it; don’t let it use you.
  6. Take breaks after ending one task and starting another. You can learn more about the Pomodoro Technique, but suffice to say that you need to include regular breaks.
  7. Go easy on yourself. If you are scrambling for time, all the time, lighten up your load. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to post fewer times on your blog. It’s okay to cut your writing time back to 30 minutes a day if it means you’ll better be able to write every day.

So on to editing and why writers can’t multitask. When you write, write. Turn off the Grammar Tyrant in your head with the promise of, “we’ll edit later.” When you edit, break it down into manageable chunks. Don’t try to write and edit simultaneously. You’ll either frustrate your creativity or flow of ideas; or you’ll miss big mistakes and little ones, too.

For a client, I edit their bi-monthly newsletter. It’s a project management role that goes beyond editing–I plan, hire contractors, organize the layout, assign submissions, write copy, edit, monitor distribution and increase readership. Truly, editing is only part of that project. And I edit, when it’s time to edit.

Here’s how I break down editing a project:

  1. Content. For my client, I make sure each article supports the organization’s mission and messages and meets word count.
  2. Clarity. Next, I read as a reader. Does it flow, make sense, is clear? Are the facts substantiated? If it needs major revision it’s returned to the writer; minor changes I make without altering the voice of the writer or the approved content of the client.
  3. Correctness. Finally, the Grammar Tyrant can come out and go to work. It’s the last task of editing. Often, this is called proofing, although I do a final proof not for incorrect grammar, but for missed typos.

How does that equate to editing a book? Consider these same levels:

  1. Content. Enlist beta-readers, volunteer editors or writing peers for feedback on early drafts. Use caution and go with your gut. You don’t want divergent opinions, but you want to know if the story in your head is coming out on the page. Is the message coming through?
  2. Clarity. Depending upon your genre, clarity could include fact-checking or deepening a character. You want a professional who knows the business of books. You can hire an editor to assess your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Correctness. By the time you’ve revised your draft to sharpen the story, you’ll need to edit again for correctness. Mistakes happen in re-writing. If your revision was major, consider copy edits. If you are just in need of polishing, then proofreading should suffice. If this is your first book, consider content editing which is a deeper service, but worth the extra cost if you want to go the traditional publishing route.

Not only is multitasking a myth, but I also believe that writers can be their worst own editors. We worry; we over-think; we over-correct; we under-correct; we get attached; we delude ourselves into thinking the story is clear; we delude ourselves into thinking the story is crap. There’s nothing objective in that scenario.

However, as a writer, you do need to learn how to self-edit, but we’ll talk more about that next time. Consider self-editing to be the clean up you do in between the revisions when working with an editor. We’ll also talk more about beta-readers which serve a different role from professional editors.

And do correct those mistakes! If you don’t, and the reader is the next set of eyes, they might not be kind. Angering a reader’s inner Grammar Tyrant is not what you want to do.

Say it With Said

Tips for WritersCrumpling newspaper to start a fire in the wood stove, an article caught my attention. It was in the weekly that advertises trucks, horses and cracked corn for sale so I wasn’t expecting a primer on language. Yet here it was, the third reminder in a week that “said” is enough.

The columnist quoted Elmore Leonard: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. Said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”

Just a few days ago, the editors at WriteDivas typed out the first reminder: “Commented, growled, roared, chided, joked, interjected, and teased are not dialogue tags.”

The second reminder showed up in my “Revision and Self-Editing” book by James Scott Bell. He wrote, “An attribution tells the reader who is speaking. Almost always, the simple said should be your default setting. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said isn’t creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it. This is a mistake.”

And, it is a mistake that editors readily notice. When I don my editor’s cap for clients, I often work with other contract writers who interview a variety of people for industry profiles. I’m vigilant to change all the “he quipped” and “she exhorted” to “he said” or “she said.” The reason editors notice this mistake is because editors read for clarity. The creative attribution is not clear and can imply a certain tone to different readers.

As a writer, what you want is an invisible attribution; you want a dialog tag that won’t make readers pause. Say it with said. It’s clear, understood and allows you to not intrude as a writer upon the speaker.

What I’m learning from Bell in his book (which I highly recommend for fiction writers) is that “Dialog the fastest way to improve your fiction.” He dedicates an entire chapter to this point. So, don’t get caught up in crafting creative attributions or dialogue tags, study the nuances of fictional dialogue and use it to shape your story and create character action.

I’m thinking this is a big lesson given the number of reminders I’ve encountered in a single week from diverse sources. “That’s our writing tip from Carrot Ranch for the week,” the buckaroo said.

Revision Review: Strategey

Revision ReviewWriting is the easy part. Revision is where the work resides and in order to slog through it with grace, you need to have a strategy. That is, you need to plan your approach otherwise you are just poking at words with a stick.

Start with a big-picture view of your manuscript and work down into the details. There’s no sense in fussing with punctuation and word omissions if your novel is not yet structurally sound. Be prepared to rewrite your book–my college professor used to tell his students, “It doesn’t begin to sing until at least the thirteenth rewrite.”

If that terrifies you, hang on. Let’s pause to do some math. First you had your idea. That counts. One. Maybe you outlined your chapters or developed and arranged scenes. Two. You wrote, word by word, scene by scene. Three. You rearranged your draft, added some research. Four. You renamed your character, changed his hair color, added his Meyers-Briggs type and gave him a quirk or two. Five. You shared sections with your writers group or took your first ten pages to a workshop. Six.

Even if your writing path has taken a different trail, chances are you have been tweaking your novel. You’re half-way to a singing manuscript. But now it is time to stop tinkering and start strategizing a revision plan. This is what mine looks like:

  1. Read for gaps in the big picture. Research missing details. Write missing scenes.
  2. Read for flow. Map the action. Read dialog out loud. Rewrite scenes to improve continuity and clarity.
  3. Cut. Ouch, yes, but necessary. Cut every scene, line and word that doesn’t serve a purpose. Be brave; cut your words. What you don’t say is as telling as what you do say.
  4. DIY corrections. Read for correctness and not just grammar–check your story for flaws. To be credible in fiction you need to be consistent with your details.
  5. Assign beta-readers. Review feedback. Make final changes.
  6. Hire a professional editor to proofread.

If you try to “revise” in one grand sweep, you will overlook too much. What editing publications has taught me is that you have to break down the process. When editing “This is Living Naturally,” the first read is simply for fit. Does the article fit the tone and message of the publication? Next I edit for clarity. Will the readers understand the story? Next I edit for correctness. Is the study cited accurate? Is that a comma splice? Did the writer mean “there” instead of “their”? Finally, I pass it off to a proof-reader because one set of eyes is not enough. And after that, I read it to to catch any omissions or errors in the final proof. If I tried to do all that editing in one sitting, I would either miss problems with structure, typos or facts.

No matter how big or small your writing project, you need to develop a strategy. It doesn’t have to look exactly like mine, but it needs to begin with the big picture and end with the smallest details. You also need to invite extra “eyes” to help see what your eyes have missed. Let your novel sing!