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We’ve all heard the old cliché about how a character “speaks” to an author? It happened to me a few years ago. This young girl popped into my head with a story. She was good company, persistent, too. She went on for about a month until one day I sat down and began writing what would become her story.
Now, this girl, she happened to be a person of color. And if you check my bio, you’ll quickly see that I’m a run-of-the-mill white guy, closing in on middle age. We’re talking, wears-cut-off-shorts-and-black-socks-to-cut-the-lawn. SPF 50 on the nose, kind of guy. But none of that mattered when I set out to write this thing. I can honestly say it never once occurred to me that it might be odd, me writing from the first-person perspective of a twelve-year-old black girl.
Maybe it’s because I hate to plot. Outlines for me are like creativity killers. And speaking of killers, people write from the perspective of serial killers so why did it matter? Okay, where was I going with this? Oh yeah, it does matter.
So I wrote a story about this old curmudgeonly blues player and this young girl, Nita Simmons. Even in the roughest—or rawest—drafts, I was aware enough to avoid stereotypes. No Ebonics or broken English for Nita. In fact, being so tip-toe careful to avoid stereotypes, I went the other route, and Nita became this gifted, straight-A student. A case-cracking superhero.
Reading through those first drafts, it was clear. In not wanting Nita to be a stereotype, I’d done something just as bad, or worse: I’d made her perfect.
And where’s the fun in that?
I dove back in, peeling the layers to the real Nita. The Nita in my head was a normal girl with normal problems. She was self-conscious, stubborn, she doubted herself and fought with her mother. She was still a gifted writer but shaky at math. And being a budding teenager, she was a know-it-all at times, terrified by the world around her at others. And she was gullible. She fell for the stories the old man told her. And it was through the stories that a friendship formed. After all, friendship—not race, was the heart of my story.
And because I write in frantic sparks of inspiration, always in haste, like an idea might slip away if I don’t get it down, it took multiple drafts for the Nita on the page match the Nita in my head. I worked at this story for over a year. I combed over every word and submerged myself into this world I’d created. I bought a guitar and taught myself some old blues standards. I’m awful, but I can pluck some chords now.
I’m no Harper Lee, but Nita is my Scout. I root for her every step of the way. I listen to podcasts, study black history and devour middle-grade books. I’ve read my share of Life Magazines. I fell in love with my characters.
Here was the original query.
Putting yourself out there can be tricky. Whether you’re 12 or 72, headed to a new school for smart kids, or strumming up the courage to play the blues in front of a crowd. Such is the case for Nita Simmons and Earl Melvin, two friends too stubborn to quit on each other.
After a disastrous day at school, the last thing Nita wants to do is solve the puzzle that is her neighbor, Mr. Earl Melvin. People say he’s crazy, that he once tried to burn down the city library. But something in that sturdy voice of his grabs her, and after a second encounter her fear gives way to curiosity. From there the unlikeliest of friendships takes hold.
Mr. Melvin regales Nita with tales of protests and sit-ins. How he marched against segregated schools and lunch counters. His stories are magical and inspiring, his cooking unmatched, and his guitar playing is the truest thing she’s ever heard. Nita decides that old man did all those things, then she can deal with school. But when she stumbles upon a discovery—one that threatens to prove everyone right about Mr. Melvin all along—Nita’s left with a decision to make: leave the old man in the past or drag him into the future.
Not perfect, but it worked. I got some bites. I think I queried over fifty agents. I don’t recall the exact number, but I received somewhere in the neighborhood of ten full requests and five or six partials. Not bad, I’m told.
But in all my research, in all my writing and revising, I completely missed something else entirely. Something big. Something raw.
As the agents got back to me, some were short and sweet in their rejection, and others came with some editorial advice. A few I never got back. Then, I got all the feedback I needed.
Here is a sample of what she passed along (as she passed on the story).
First, the good:
Your story intrigues me and I think you do a good job with the middle grade voice here. I really like the interactions between the characters, Earnest and Nita specifically, as well as Mrs. Womack and Nita, and of course, Mr. Melvin and Nita. You develop these nicely.
To write such a story, an editor will prefer you belong to the ethnic race of the primary characters. This story speaks to so many significant moments and people of the African American experience so, ensuring this is accurate is essential. But even more important, because you utilize first person when writing this text, Nita specifically, an editor will question your validity to do so.
Two things. I’m not saying the writing was perfect. It wasn’t. And let me make it clear that I’m one hundred percent in favor and support the #ownvoices movement. It’s great, a crucial tool in getting diverse books in the hands of kids who need them. Publishers want books about people of color written by people of color. Because think about it. How authentic is it going to look to find this book, with a black cast of characters, only to see some blue sock wearing, lawn mowing white guy on the cover jacket? (I suppose I could ditch the socks).
Rejection sucks. It hurts. And yes, it is personal. After spending so much time with a story and its characters and every single time it gets requested you feel like you could just march up a staircase to the clouds. And each time it gets rejected it feels like being knocked back a few steps. But I always hit the ground running. Until that last one, that one stopped me cold.
It was like a funeral, knowing it was the end of the road. Sounds dramatic, sure, then again, I do write fiction. After that last rejection, there was a new voice in my head (my poor wife), a suggestion to change the characters. Simply make Nita white.
I guess that’s on the table. But to me, it’s absurd to whitewash my main character in the name of diversity. So I’ve retired the story. Because Nita is Nita. And I still have control over that.
I’ve written a few novels since this one. One has gotten some requests, while another is getting closer to querying. And I don’t regret writing Nita’s story. I can’t help who spoke to me (pause here to acknowledge blatant cliché usage), or what characters emerged in my head. They’re mine. And if I could do it over, yep, I’d write it again. After all, I write for me first. In fact, I have, but that’s for another post.
Rejection is tough just one time, it starts to wear on you after a while. But those hours I spent getting lost in Nita’s world? In Mr. Melvin’s world? In their relationship? I think it was worth it.
I started and finished a project. I submerged myself in race relations and its ugly background (even as I ignored its current climate) and came out a better writer and person for it. And hey, maybe most importantly, I can play the blues on guitar.
So it wasn’t all for nothing.
Essay by Irene Waters, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.
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This writing is raw. Most of my writing that you may have seen to date is raw. By that I mean it is uncooked, the first draft without changes and alterations. The grammar may be imperfect, it may have spelling mistakes, it may be lacking in description and there may be the odd inconsistency. It is done quickly, allowing creativity to flow unimpeded. Blogging raw I find helpful in the creative process. I don’t spend a lot of time on the posts but it kickstarts the flow of ideas, allowing work that I plan on editing and re-editing – cooking it and processing it – to be written to the page.
For a memoir writer there are a couple of other types of raw writing. The first is a type I rarely do and for some, including one of my thesis examiners, my writing is not raw enough. Some think that memoir should be an open cut, exposing bleeding wounds and laying open the scars for all to pick at. Certainly some types of memoir call for this. The misery memoir is a good example. A few memoirs in this group are Mary Karr’s and Frank McCourt’s three books. Although I am now tackling a memoir that will have this type of raw writing, my previous two memoirs have been written purely for the story where true life adventures are related.
In memoir there should also be a distinction between what is private and what is public knowledge. Whilst maintaining honesty the memoir writer should sift through the raw material and decide what belongs purely in a diary and what can be shared with the world. Elizabeth Gilbert said of her memoir Eat Pray Love that it was so finely tuned (no longer raw) that the reader doesn’t get a sense of her. She is unrecognisable. She said that if you wanted to know her, read her fiction work as there, believing that she was anonymous, she did not censor her writing and to her surprise found that more of her showed through in it than in her memoir.
Another type of raw that the memoir writer needs to be aware of and avoid is writing when the emotions are still raw. The passage of time is essential to enable the episode to be viewed dispassionately. The others in the memoir must be treated ethically – for when you write a memoir you also write someone else’s biography. If you write with raw emotion (useful as a therapeutic tool but not for publication) the purpose for writing is often slanted, and may be judgemental, a desire to hurt someone, to pay them back and this may not reflect well on the writer. Rather than sit in judgement, time allows the memoirist to write in a sensitive manner that will show the reader, through the actions of the characters, what manner of person they are.
For me, memoir is the making of identity. Without memoir, such as when a person is suffering from dementia, the person’s identity fades with the worsening of the condition and eventually is lost to them and kept alive only by others who can tell their stories. Depending on what you tell will depend on the identity you give yourself. But I digress from raw literature.
To conclude I will give an example of raw literature from the first draft of my manuscript Nightmare in Paradise.
My fear as to what I might find on arrival at the volcano overrode the abject terror I normally experienced every time I travelled the road over the mountain to the other side. It is also the only time I had been over that stretch of road at speeds far exceeding that which would guarantee a safe arrival at the other end. My head was spinning. Had I brought sufficient equipment with me to deal with anything I might find? What might I find? It just couldn’t be true.
After editing this passage is no longer raw although I feel as though it has more rawness. It gives, I hope, the reader an idea of what travelling to the volcano was like the night one of our tourists, along with a local guide, was killed by a lump of lava from the volcano.
The troop carrier sliced through the dark heat of the night as it sped, at speeds none would attempt in daylight, towards the volcano. I knew I was with other people but apart from Jim, the owner of Tanna Beach Resort I had no idea who was riding in the back with me. No-one spoke, everybody lost in their own thoughts. Mine were a nightmare. A nightmare that allowed the terror I normally felt when negotiating the sharp hairpin bends over the steep mountainside to remain hidden. The visions in my mind were vivid, in full red colour, whilst the reality of where I sat was grey, as though a mist had descended obscuring the others who sat with me.
Irene Waters blogs at Reflections and Nightmares where she focuses on photography and writing challenges. She has written a memoir Nightmare in Paradise which she hopes to publish in 2017. As a memoirist she found that there was little scholarly scrutiny on the sequel memoir. She carried out research on this subject gaining her Master of Arts in 2017. This also saw the completion of her second manuscript. She is now working on a novel way of writing raw memoir.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of my favorite analogies for writing and revising a book is to look at editing in three layers: bones, flesh and skin. At any layer, your writing can be raw — newly knit bones (structure); exposed flesh (details); and tender skin (polish). It depends upon a writer’s process, unique voice and set of strengths as to what one’s first efforts unfold to be. This is what we are talking about in essays by guest writers at Carrot Ranch. This is raw literature.
Today, I was reminded of the importance of structure at the beginning of a writing journey. I’m beginning a different journey, my first ever pulling my home/office on wheels. We had a dinky (and leaky) camp-trailer last summer that pulled behind our farm truck after our rental went on the market and we had no other rental available in our rural north Idaho community. We became among the shadow homeless, meeting other rural homeless in RV parks and veterans living out of their vehicles. This is different from what you see in urban centers where those experiencing homeless are on the streets.
It’s been a raw experience in the sense that it was unexpected and not intended.
But like raw literature, it holds surprises. We’ve learned that with the right RV, it can be enjoyable. I’ve even met a few other uprooted writers and we’ve become part of a sub-culture in America. However, with the right RV, we needed the right truck — a bigger truck. We landed on Mars and have been stranded in lot 70 for all of winter. With the return of tourists to Zion National Park, we knew our home needed to get moving. Through several moments of synchronicity, the Hub’s sister found us a truck. And appropriate to Carrot Ranch, it’s a ranch truck.
The Hub drove 2,400 miles to swap the farm truck for the ranch truck in Kansas. We had a tight schedule, having been given a date by the RV park that we needed to move out of lot 70. On the way back, the Hub encountered the Dodge Death Wobble on an 8,500 foot mountain pass in Colorado. It scared all three of us, the Hub, the Sis and me. He got back on the road after talking to us both, and the Sis and I stayed on the phone together, helping each other not to worry. The ranch truck did fine after that. The Hub met a group of cowboys at a cafe the next morning, and he asked them if they experienced such a vibration in their Dodges. They all laughed and welcomed him to Dodge ownership.
In a way, it’s like writing. We often encounter death wobbles in our first efforts — stale details, flat characters, cliche-pox. It scares us into thinking our writing isn’t sound. But it is all fixable. Like the cowboys told the Hub, slow down on the corners downhill. Dodge is a good truck; it has good bones. In your first efforts, focus on your story, the bones of what you want to do and slow down and pay attention to the details and leave the polish for last. Write strong bones.
In this review, we are looking back at three essayists who explore raw literature. The purpose of the reviews is to give writers and readers time to catch up and reflect on the previously posted essays in the Raw Literature series. This is meant to be an ongoing discussion. One essay may spark an idea for another.
- Anne Goodwin considers what it means to develop first works and take your work From Raw to Ready. She reflects on the industry standards that don’t come with a rule book: “Of course, you might be thinking, if you want people to read your stuff, it’s got to be right! I’m not disputing this at all. Publication implies a certain standard; what’s not clear is how to set about achieving it, or even what that standard might look like.” Anne compares raw writing to raw walking and the importance of acquiring skills or tools. She also applies a model that takes the writer from raw to ready and asks for your ideas, too.
- Jules Paige takes us directly to the page and explains her pen name in Jewels on the Page. She shares her first process as a child that has led to the writer and poet she is today. Jules says, “I write for amusement. Perhaps guided by a muse. Though some may argue that muses do not exist. Maybe my muse is my own intuition, which often unconsciously picks up even the most subtle of cues.” She explores the process, the impact of prompts and interweaves her poetic verse.
- C. Jai Ferry takes us to an unsettling incident in a rural community to give us the experience of what it’s like to seek stories for Writing Grit. She talks about how her stories explore human nature between black and white norms. C. Jai says, “My stories will never be made into after-school specials. They are gritty and raw, tackling difficult issues that we all face at some point in our lives.” She explains how her goal is not to normalize these raw lives of her characters but to shed light on the evil lurking in our own communities.
As you can see from this set, the idea of raw literature is as varied as the writers who step up to create. Enjoy this week’s review!
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at email@example.com.
Mile marker 490 on Idaho State Highway 95 marks the spot where industry once built a town called Elmira. Throughout my two blogs, I’ve explored what remains of the town, mostly an iconic 1910 schoolhouse. I’ve guessed that the industry was logging or railroads based on what brought people to settle this area.
Last month, I got a writing gig with a new online magazine called, Go Idaho. It’s not yet live, but it will live up to its promise to be a magazine about amazing people and places in my state. You can sign up for the VIP List and I hope you subscribe. It’s an innovative magazine that forgoes advertising and generates revenue through subscription. And, it pays writers. I’ve freelanced for 22 years and watched the industry shift from robust regional publications to watered down global internet.
Yet, I still believe in the value of quality writing. Companies still need copy-writers who understand consumer engagement; readers still want good stories to read; and we all recognize top-shelf writing with appreciation. Making a living as a writer is not exactly the career path any school counselor would promote, but any industrious writer can make it work. You have to find a niche (business background, regional access, past experience, interests), an outlet and fair payment. If you are all about the literary writing, seek artist grants in your town or region, set up a plan to submit to contests with prizes or polish your work to submit to paying literary outlets.
Do the groundwork and keep writing.
Living way up north in the Panhandle gives me a regional writing niche. Funny thing is, my book editor got me in touch with the magazine editor, so be open to who others might know. It’s a perfect fit to my Elmira Pond voice, journalism profile background and content writing for internet. Your perfect fit is out there, too. Same goes for publishing a book. First you need to know what you want to achieve, then you have to find the right publishing partner. I believe that many rejections writers experience are due to poor fit. Get to know that agent or publisher or editor and study what interests them.
It’s why I know Elmira was a railroad and logging industry town — it fits the terrain.
One of my assignments for Go Idaho is a series about places and the traces of cultural diversity in its history. Naturally I began with Elmira. For fun I called up people (random neighbors) and asked each to complete the sentence, “They say Elmira was a ________ town.” I was trying to find the myths and compare it to historical record. For example, I’ve heard that Elmira was founded by Italian immigrant railroad workers. My neighbors gave me even juicer myths and history gave me a surprise. I will continue to write this series and have already explored Swede Island and have a spring trip planned to discover a Chinese burial ground known to some locals.
The magazine gig and a new client project has made me a naughty novel writer. I set my revision aside for a rest at Thanksgiving and, yes, it’s still resting. My goal this year is to discover something in between revision obsession and revision avoidance. Right now, I’m coming out of a holiday break that I can’t claim was adventurous, productive or reflective, but it was restful. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get industrious again.
Where to begin? Assessment. The turning of a new year is always a good time to reflect. Not all writers set goals, but I tend to be goal-oriented. I also have a vision for what “success” looks like for me as a writer. In fact, I shared that vision last year and mentioned my interest in hosting writing retreats in northern Idaho. Whether you have set goals, an idea of what success means to you, or you simply reflect on what has come to pass and what next, now is a good time to take stock.
2015 was not the year I expected. However, I didn’t let the setbacks derail me. In taking time to assess at various points throughout the year, I found it wise to shift priorities. Next week, after Longboarder returns to a more boisterous home and friends and I have in all my client submissions, I plan to plan. We have our first Anthology to craft and publish; Carrot Ranch is expanding to a live monthly writer’s support program at the local library; my Rock Creek revision deadline is the end of January; and I need to continue to source writing income.
Vision. Goals. Plan. Assess. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
And above all, write. Writing is a combination of drafting, researching, arranging, revising, reading, inspiration and perhaps other activities such as plotting, people-watching, imagining, exploring. Writing is a hearty stew, not a single ingredient. And these days, if you publish — magazines, blogs, books — you need to add promoting to the mix. I’d like to get back to my platform building posts. Target audience is the biggest gap I see in our book publishing industry, and it’s a tricky one to deal with whether you publish independent, small press or with the big pillars.
Humans are industrious. Sometimes our industry is driven by greed — the desire to make money and be powerful through wealth — and sometimes it is driven by compassion — the desire to help others. I’m sure industrious people have a plethora of reasons for their efforts. Cobb McCanles came to Nebraska in March of 1859 and built a toll-bridge, dug a new well for pioneers, settled four ranches, operated a Pony Express relay station, traded with indigenous tribes, ran a stage coach stop, kept a wife and family and kept a former mistress. He was definitely industrious. The west often afforded such opportunity. In part, it’s what frustrated him about the southern economy based on plantation expansion and support of a slave trade. Only a few made wealth. Out west, a hard working man could make a living.
So could immigrants who came to America, believing in better opportunities for those clever and hard-working enough.
You see that picture up above for the flash fiction challenge? That’s a train of railroad cars all carrying steel rails for maintenance. I’ll give you the hint that Elmira was, and still is, a railroad maintenance hub. I see those rails parked outside and I think of the gandy dancers of men that once worked in teams to realign the rails before modern machinery. Were they Italian? Did they settle Elmira? Ah, you’ll have to read my story at Go Idaho!
December 30, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write an industrious story. It can be about an industry or the efforts of a person or group of people. What does their industry reflect? Does hard work pay off? Are there risks or accidents?
Respond by January 5, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Prairie Industrialist by Charli Mills
Sarah knelt on the bank above, handing Cobb tools he needed. He waded the icy creek and directed the digging. The timbers he squared himself.
A small and curious crowd gathered. A few of the buffalo hunters pulled whiskey and crouched alongside several Ottowas. Many traded at the store. Her store. Well, Cobb’s store really, but she was running it.
“What’s he doing?”
Sarah looked up at the ranch wheelwright Cobb hired. “He’s building a toll-bridge to make a safer crossing at Rock Creek.”
“First spring flood’ll wipe it off the face of the earth.”
“Cobb’s a solid builder.”
Re-creation of the bridge Cobb built over Rock Creek at Rock Creek Nebraska State Park:
NanoReviSo is an acronym of my own making. It’s a nod to one of my favorite drafting tools, NaNoWriMo, which officially began yesterday, but acknowledgement of where I’m at in my writing process this November — revision.
Week 1 began with a bang; I might have broken my big toe. It’s swollen in all the wrong places and is a purple bloom of bruising. It’s my big toe on my left foot which has been my tripping toe for years. It’s the toe that I thought would cause me to break other bones, but ironically, I broke it and on the eve of NaNoReViSo.
It reminds me that I will revise Rock Creek by December 15, “no matter what.” No matter if I feel overwhelmed by the volume of material I have. No matter if I doubt my plot arc. No matter if I have holes in my history that I can’t find plausible answers for, including an entire year (1858) when none of my historical counterparts to my characters did anything. It’s like 1858 slunk into a fog. No matter. I’ll get this.
Even if I did break my toe.
What’s a big toe to a writer anyhow? Well, it can become a distraction. Distractions are why I’ve set an hourly increment to two vital processes, revising and reading. Revising is much messier than drafting. It’s parts of writing: part dismantling, part tinkering, part building up, part organizing, part tightening. When you are dealing with 70,000 words or more, it’s like looking at a Lego creation, one piece at a time strewn across the floor. Reading is yet another part. I need to find unanswered history questions, re-read vital primary documents, read chapters and scenes with a critical eye. Distractions easily upset the process.
Thus, I’m using hourly increments the way NaNoWriMo fights distraction through a daily word count.
I’m hoping to discover revision bliss. NaNoWriMo helped me discover that my drafting bliss occurs at word 900. It can feel like painful slogging to write a scene up to 900 words, but after that, the story takes shape or the characters reveal themselves through dialog and the remaining words flow. Will I find that with revision? I hope so!
My plan is to dive in and not be intimidated by the work I know I need to do. I have historical timelines to shore up and an arc to build from my idea of the original arc I wrote. I might have made this too complex, writing from multiple points of view (POV) and starting with a story timeline that weaves in and out of the 1930s and the 1850s, all headed to a final revelation of what really happened July 12, 1852 at Rock Creek Station in Nebraska Territory. I have to be prepared to defend my theories, my fiction that is rooted in fact and a plausible conclusion.
No distractions 5 hours a day while attending to other responsibilities and icing my purple toe. I prepared by creating to-do lists for the other responsibilities over the next six weeks and by designating a week off, even from those tasks. I prepared by finishing out the last of the firewood hauling from the mountains (and the weather agrees with my plan, it’s now to muddy and snow has hit the higher elevations). I prepared by cleaning my house, decorating with fall candles and leaves, shopping to stock up my pantry and freezer with groceries, and baking a cake.
It was in baking the cake (not hauling firewood) that I broke my toe. Who breaks their toe mixing batter for a yellow buttermilk cake? Me, apparently. I accidentally knocked over my heavy Pyrex measuring cup and it landed square on my big toe and felt like an iron rock. Kitchen accidents do happen, but they seem ridiculous. Sympathy withers when you say, “Oh, I did it baking a cake.” Was it somebody’s birthday? An anniversary?
No, it was just the start of NaNoReViSo.
To all my fellow writers doing (or not doing) NaNoWriMo and to my special NaNoReViSo buddy, Sherri Matthews, go punch someone in the gut! Make those readers feel your words! Stay the course, no matter what.
The 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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Because you get to tell your tweeps that you have your own Diva.
- Just look at their brand. Don’t you want to go hang out with them? Write Divas are hip!
- It sounds impressive to say, I’m a writer and I have an editor who is not my grandmother.
- Because now you have deadlines and no one wants to miss a deadline to a Diva.
- Besides all the fun, you have now committed to being professional in your writing pursuit.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Organize tasks. I have outdoor chores, downstairs duties and office expectations. I take time for each “place,” giving it my full attention.
- Set a timer. Especially if you work for a client or have identified a distraction, you need to monitor your time.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Content. For my client, I make sure each article supports the organization’s mission and messages and meets word count.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
“You should take Mary Carroll Moore’s class on developing a book.” A newly published author offered me this advice in 2012 when I told her I was quitting my day job to finish writing my novel. She took this workshop, published and won a literary award.
Moore teaches in NYC, Minneapolis and on Madeline Island. Of the three places, I actually lived in Minneapolis, but along with quitting my marketing career I was downsizing and moving in with my eldest daughter and her husband. They lived in WI six miles south of where my novel, “Miracle of Ducks,” is set.
Together we would move out west where I’d rejoin my husband who had taken a contract earlier in Idaho. My kids were headed to grad school in neighboring Montana. So I had a blessed but small window of time to actually live where I had imagined my characters.
As serendipity would have it, that setting included Madeline Island. And, Moore was offering her book development class while I’d be living in the area. Of all places–so yes, with my final “real” paycheck, I paid for the workshop.
In order to get to Madeline Island, which is the largest of the Apostle Islands that buffer Chequamegon Bay from Lake Superior’s inland sea, you have to take a 30 minute ferry. The ferry lands at La Pointe which is a significant place to my novel’s protagonist and an ancient community first settled by Ojibwa, French, British and finally American.
Madeline Island School for the Arts (MISA) is about three miles inland from La Pointe. For five days, I ferried my car and drove to MISA while other attendees stayed in cabins. Most were from the East Coast; a few from the Twin Cities; one from England and two from WI. And I was close enough to commute.
Writing workshops are nothing new to me. Like most writers, I value classes, workshops and conventions to learn and meet other people. And, like many writers, when I had a full-time day job I took at least one extended weekend a year to focus on writing. My favorite was in Lacrosse, WI at a Franciscan Spirituality Center where I studied the hero’s journey by living it in a guided retreat.
But, at the rate I was writing, I’d finish my novel in 2050. This leap of faith, this deliberate switch in focus, the whole idea behind quitting a good career, was to remedy that drawn-out process. I couldn’t afford to live on a dream, I had to work it into a reality. So I was trusting that earlier bit of advice to take Moore’s class.
My first day was disappointing. Of 20 attendees I was one of two who had not taken a previous class or joined one of Moore’s online writing communities. I felt like I was the starving writer surrounded by a bunch of rich groupies who could afford to hang out on a remote resort island for a fab lit retreat.
But I was wrong. Yes, these were highly successful people–lawyers, college professors, pilots, business owners–and they were mostly (except for a handful) published authors. I went from feeling like I was the studious writer to feeling last-in-class.
Yet Moore, from what I learned, had no patience with such feelings. She was not like the approachable workshop leaders I had met previously, she was the real-deal: a multi-published author who worked in the industry I hardly knew anything about. I shoved my feelings of inadequacy aside and began to learn what this group already knew.
Moore knows how to develop a book.
If you can’t take her class, buy her book, “Your Book Starts Here.” What I can tell you is that by the end of five days I knew how to write “Miracle of Ducks.” I learned more from this workshop in five days than I did in four years earning a degree in writing.
And it’s all in the storyboard. Now, a storyboard is nothing new. It’s Moore’s understanding of how employ both linear and non-linear thinking, using the storyboard. For me, I knew it was “my” storyboard when I learned that her process mapped the hero’s journey. No matter the genre or topic, I believe that the best stories follow the arc of the hero’s journey.
So this is my back-story (you know, the thing they tell you not to do in a novel). But I felt you needed to know why I believe in this process, how I used it to write my novel and how I’ve adapted it for revision. In fact, I spent my weekend revising the storyboard as a tool for my revision process and I’m excited by the results.
Because I’m revising the next few months, I need a bit of structure. My structure, I hope, will benefit you, too. Each Monday my tip for writers will be about this storyboard process and I how I’ve used and adapted it. This is what you can expect over the next few months and it all involves the storyboard:
- Mapping the Hero’s Journey
- Writing a Novel Scene by Scene
- Finding the Gaps
- Creating a Three Act Arc
- Using NaNoWriMo to Create or Complete Novel Projects
- Novel Project Versus a Novel
- Levels of Editing: When and Why
- Self-Editing, Beta Readers and Professional Editing
- Mapping Revisions
- Annual Progression of Projects
Roughly, this is my documentation of process. Feedback, questions and comments about your process are encouraged. We can all share in the learning together as we write our way to our goals.
Some inspiration from MISA 2012:
No more tweaking, second-guessing names, plot and character development. It’s whole, revised and under review. The review I’ve requested from my editor at Write Divas is to assess the hero’s journey. Is it working?
To me, a story’s strength is in nailing the journey of the hero from call to adventure to final transformation. I like stories and I’ve always been drawn to narratives that focus on this age-old cycle. The hero’s journey is what I love to read and tell. It’s what I chose to write.
So, I look for this cycle in all stories whether in books or on the screen. Since it is the beginning of my easy month, I watched a movie this weekend, “Gravity.” And I was delighted to recognize the hero’s journey.
Without spoiling the movie, I’ll just relate a few points. The journey is small compared to “Star Wars.” But that’s the beauty of the archetype; it can be contained in a small story. The setting is vast, of course, as it opens in space with the hero (Sandra Bullock’s character) orbiting earth on a mission to install a piece of engineered hardware.
Her reluctance to accept the call (to adventure) is understood with her ambivalent attitude toward her space walk. She’s there to do a job. Space? Earth below? So what. What follows next is typical–the tensions of challenges, the revelation of a mentor, the approach to the cave.
Ah, the cave. Finding the cave for a character on the hero’s journey can be tricky. The cave is a metaphor for the hero being forced to face what is happening. To be a hero she must first refuse the call. Because the hero refuses the call yet life keeps sending her trouble, the cave becomes that inward reflection of “do or die.” Death isn’t always imminent, but it reflects a major loss if the hero doesn’t become the hero.
In “Gravity,” the cave is literal. Sandra Bullock is tucked up in a small, confined space that all but yelled, “cave!” And she had her most important choices to make in that space. It is a major shift in the progression of the movie.
Reflecting on my own novel, I wonder if I did not enclose my protagonist in her cave as clearly. This thought is a revelation to me and probably what ‘s been nagging at me about my own story. Finding the cave means leaving your character in discomfort (and your reader) until a decision is made. It’s not about plot twists; it’s about character evolution.
Now I realize that I will be using my easy month to reflect on the cave and how I might better define it. Watching movies like “Gravity” that deftly defines the hero’s journey will help.
Writing a full-length fiction manuscript is a new target for me as a writer. It stretches everything I’ve learned about writing in my freelance and business career. And sometimes it paralyzes my draw.
Feeling paralyzed–as in, not knowing what to do next–can happen to anybody when he or she has stepped outside of what is known. For instance, get me talking about marketing, branding or how to use stories to engage people, and I can flow like a river spilling spring run-off from melting snow. But ask me about the revision process for 70,000 words and I might just shrug.
Thus I’ve found that I’m not even drawing my pistol, let along shooting at my target. If I don’t shoot, I won’t know how bad my current aim is. Even if I miss the target, I can see where I over shot, high or low. So instead of reading about targets and aiming, I decided to just shoot.
So how does this analogy translate to you as a writer? Here are some pointers that I’m learning from the process:
- Do something different. We all know the definition of insanity, right? It’s doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. If you want different results, try a different approach. If you are struggling with character development, stop and work on a different scene or go back to your storyboard (or outline).
- Do something. If you aren’t even struggling with your revision, having set it aside and taken an interest in cleaning out the barn, or reorganizing your pen collection, or endlessly reading funny memes, you’ve become distracted or paralyzed. So do something. Sit down and speed-revise for 20 minutes, challenging yourself to read your pages. Or go write flash fiction, something unrelated to your novel (hint, hint, join me in writing flash every Wednesday). Do something that involves your writing, your craft, your voice.
- Examine your aim. Missing a shot can tell you much about your aim. First of all, know your target. Define it for you; not for your friends, your spouse, your colleagues. Know what are you aiming at in the first place. Then shoot that direction. When you miss, don’t turn critical because missing can give you valuable information. It can inform and reinvigorate your writing.
- Practice. We might hit the target shooting from the hip, but not consistently. Know what you are aiming at and practice. Writing flash can help you craft a creative idea in just a few words. Submitting short stories to publications and contests can help you practice the same elements that go into writing a novel. Commit to something like a writer’s workshop or National Novel Writing Month to practice the craft of noveling.
- Hang out with the right posse. Your great-aunt Tilly might love your writing, but think about getting involved with a productive writer’s group. Find one that fits your needs and your time. Or hang out with other social media writers who are also practicing craft or publishing books. If you want to publish independently, build a posse of Indies. If you are revising a mystery novel, build a posse of other mystery writers. Take a look at their shooting techniques. Share and learn from one another how to aim better.
Bottom line is this–if you are going to write, then write. Don’t talk about it, do it. Pay attention along the way and if you feel stuck or need to get to that next level, just shoot.