Tag Archives: Writing

Writing Creative Nonfiction

In my prior life as a university English professor, all I did was nonfiction writing. I taught it. I wrote it. I lived it. And I discovered something in the process: there is a strong tendency to want to divorce creativity from nonfiction writing. When you take a “creative writing” class in school, no one teaches you about crafting an essay or a research paper. You learn to write poetry and fiction. You learn about descriptive writing and crafting compelling characters. Unfortunately, I’ve never yet come across a creative writing class that focuses on the elegance of the written medium: crafting compelling sentence constructions, learning to manipulate the music of the language to delight your reader…even if you’re writing about astrophysics or remodeling your bathroom. I’m a huge believer in the power and beauty of language. And learning to appreciate and use this tool is truly “creative writing”.

The Beauty of Order

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When we’re organizing our table of contents, we don’t often stop to consider that we’re creating something beautiful. But just as there is beauty in the structure of a snowflake and elegance in the symmetry of a flower’s petals, there is beauty and elegance in the logical ordering of a topic. Headings, subheadings, topics, subtopics, indices, appendices…all of these contribute to the order of a work. For nonfiction, the topic determines the ordering techniques. A work of literary criticism won’t have the same structure as a DIY handbook of home repairs, but both will have structure. As you determine how best to organize your work, do it with intention. Is a topical grouping approach best for your topic, or does it require a more architectural approach, with each chapter building on the last? Your book’s structure is integral to the work as a whole, much like the skeleton is integral to the human body. A badly structured book is not likely to be successful, because, ultimately, it won’t be understandable. So consider carefully how to lay out your project, and don’t be afraid to rearrange things in the editing phase if the structure doesn’t flow.

Order operates on both a macro level — the table of contents — and a micro level — the ordering of words and sentences and paragraphs. Both are critically important to the success of your project, and both are opportunities for you to be “creative” in your use of your tool (language).

The Elegance of Prose

Yes, fiction is also prose. And it’s helpful to remember that! Just because you are writing about the works of Mary Shelley or the physics of motion doesn’t mean that you have to avoid figurative or descriptive language. But it does mean that your language needs to suit your topic. Elegance and beauty in language can come in many different forms. Language doesn’t have to be ornate and flowery and full of metaphors and descriptors to be lovely. There is beauty in simplicity and clarity too.

Know your topic, and know your audience’s expectations. If you’re writing a serious medical text, humor probably doesn’t have a place. But a book on dieting for mass consumption might call for a dash of humor to lighten up the topic. (Did you notice the food and diet imagery in that sentence? Don’t be afraid to have fun every once in a while! It’s good to make your readers smile.) Proportion is key: too much play with your subject can become tedious, so use it judiciously.

Delighting your reader is one of the best ways to keep them returning to you and your writing. No matter what you write, you will develop a unique style that sets your treatment apart from other books on the same subject. Your style is what keeps your audience coming back. Your readers learn to identify your name not only with a certain unique approach to the subject matter, but also with a mode of expression. The way you use humor, the way you break complex ideas into digestible pieces, the way your sentences flow, the vocabulary you use…all of these contribute to your unique treatment. It’s not too much to say that your style is part of your brand, and it carries through everything you write, whether it’s on your blog or in your latest book. So pay close attention to the way you craft your prose — it will become a hallmark of your work.

Elements of Nonfiction Style

As you work on your project and consider your style and approach and presentation, pay special attention to these four areas: diction (word choice), sentence structure, syntactical order, and sentence length. Let’s work through a short example so you can see how powerful tweaks to these elements can be, and how “creative” writing can make an enormous difference in your nonfiction project.

Version 1 (rough draft)

Getting a baby to sleep through the night is a task most parents dread. Sleep training methods seem either harsh (letting a baby cry it out until she falls asleep or the timer goes off) or too time-consuming (some gentle sleep training methods take weeks, if not months, to get results). Parents may feel added pressure from grandparents or friends to “do something” about their baby’s sleep habits. Adding this to exhaustion makes for a desperate situation. 

Not bad, but not great. It’s a bit of a yawner. The audience for this piece is clearly exhausted parents who are confused about the best way to help their baby sleep. They’re a bit desperate and strung out, and they may be feeling sensitive or even defensive about the decision they need to make. So let’s try livening this up by addressing the four elements I list above.

Version 2

Whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” never had kids. Helping a baby learn to sleep on her own is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, not least because of the dizzying array of sleep training methods out there today. Should exhausted parents set the timer for their baby and just walk away, fighting down tears as their baby wails in her crib alone? Or should they invest weeks — or even months — in a gentle method that may not provide a solution soon enough? And in our social media culture, grandma isn’t the only one sharing her opinion — everyone has something to say about the decision. It’s almost too much for the sleep deprived mind to process.

What do you think? It’s more fun and more relevant, and the flow is much better. There’s a bit of humor in there as well, because this is an emotionally charged topic for many parents, and a smile can cut through some of that frustration.

We could continue to tweak this passage, but I think you get the picture. Creativity isn’t just for fiction writers, so add facets to your work until your gem of  a project truly sparkles. Fascinating, creative, and well-organized writing will keep your readers coming back for more! 

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Vivid vs. Violet Verbiage — The Vivid

Now that we’ve cleared up the meaning of purple prose, I can talk a little bit about what makes great prose so beautifully vivid.

Please note that, for all I’m warning you to avoid the overly-ostentatious verbiage, I’m not recommending reducing your vocabulary to the grade-school level.  No, your writing should always bring some challenge to the reader — it should expand their horizons, imaginative, philosophical, and intellectual.

Now, what makes prose beautiful?  Quite simply, it is using good words well.  Besides all the things we’ve talked about elsewhere (rhythm, cadence, sound), it is fundamentally about using the right words at the right time.  For instance, both “foggy” and “murky” can describe an obscured environment, but they convey this sense in two totally different ways.  Foggy has a more pleasant connotation, whereas murky suggests latent evil and mystery.

Likewise, “gloomy” and “murky” both have dark connotations, but in different ways.  Gloomy has a feeling of something sad, repressed, weighted down, rather passively bringing people in that environment into the same sort of state.  Murky almost feels more actively evil…something that tries to entangle hapless travelers in confusion and danger.  (It is not for no reason that Tolkien called the dark, sinister version of the Greenwood “Mirkwood.”)

All right.  So, we know that we need to use the right word for the job, and to construct our sentences carefully, descriptively, and rhythmically.  But what else?  Is there anything else?

I’ve read some great fiction where the writers used clear, expressive prose.  Sentences flowed with no jarring rhythmical errors, scenes came to life with bright and lush description…. And that was fine.  I love those books.  They are beautiful, well-written, and have their own flair of poetry and lyrical merit.

Lately I’ve discovered something else, though — a new way to bring life to prose.  I first noticed it in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races.  Some people may think she went overboard on her metaphorical prowess, but simply the fact of what she did made me completely reevaluate how I thought about “poetic” prose.

For instance, in The Raven Boys, she talks about how Ronan “dissolved what was left of his heart in electronic loops.”  This simple sentence is sheer. utter. genius.  Just look at how much she conveys, how vividly she conveys it, in so few words.  The dissolving suggests just how loud the music is playing.  Instead of telling us exactly that Ronan is listening to techno or electronica, she suggests it through “electronic loops.”  And the best part of all is that she says “what was left of his heart” instead of “his heart” which in just a few words clues the reader into a hugely important aspect of this kid’s character.

So what exactly did Stiefvater do?  She used fairly typical language — but in remarkably unexpected ways.  I remember in The Scorpio Races she talked about bicycles “bucking off” their riders, or how someone’s breath is “dark, the underside of the sea.”  For one thing, we don’t usually think of someone’s breath being “dark”…but what a vivid picture that paints!  And describing it as the “underside of the sea” links the character to the wild, mysterious, and deadly sea.  She employs a metaphor without ever using “like” or “as”, but in a way, the comparison is even stronger.

I have to credit Stiefvater for opening my eyes to a whole new way of understanding vivid language.  It invokes a fresh and almost…skewed…way of looking at reality, in the sense that you’re still examining reality, but not straight-on as most people do.  You look for connections that you never knew existed.  When you make a comparison or a metaphor, you avoid the old cliched tropes, the old standbys, the familiar similarities.  You look for the unexpected, the startling, the “why didn’t I ever think of that” connections — and I don’t mean you’re trying to shock or appall your reader.  You’re trying to delight by making them see the world in a new way.

For instance, say you wanted to describe your character running away as fast as possible.  You could say, “Anna bolted, fast as a rabbit.”  Yawn.  Everyone knows rabbits are fast.  Everyone knows that when you want to describe something as fast, you use a rabbit.  Booooring.  Well, what if you said, “Anna bolted, quick as fear.”  Huhhh???  Suddenly that invokes whole new vistas of meaning.  Not only is there the suggestion that Anna is running because she’s terrified, but it also makes you think about what fear is like, maybe in a way you’ve never thought of before.  In other words — you think about the thing being described as well as the thing used to make the description.

Sometimes even inverting a description can be a fun way to convey an idea.  For instance, going back to the fear idea, we all know how “fear runs like ice through her veins.”  But what if you read, “a chill inched through her veins like fear.”  Nice.  Or, similarly, “shame rushed like blood to my cheeks.”  We all know that blood does rush to your cheeks when you’re ashamed or embarrassed, but really, you don’t feel the blood so much as the shame.  It’s a quirky way of making you think twice about how you understand both shame and blushing.

Another way of spicing up the prose is to use a metaphor which itself contrasts two things that are either vastly different in character, or vastly different in degree.  For instance, in Prism I describe a conflict between two characters as being “like watching a fight between lions or gods.”  On the one hand, I suggest the rather raw, animal anger driving them — something not human, but in a sub-human way (though the lion image is intentionally used to convey something awesome and majestic, as well as terrifying).  But on the other hand, they are compared to gods, suggesting something so high above ordinary human experience that it’s almost incomprehensible — something also not human, but in that lofty, super-human sort of way.  In both cases, you get a sense of the utter foreignness of their conflict, but in two opposite ways.  They are both these things, and yet at the same time we know that they’re just two men.

Using language like this can really add another dimension to your prose.  It’s not necessary to do it all the time (and some readers might not like it), but when you do, using language in new and unexpected ways can really delight and tantalize your reader.

Notice that, even while the descriptions are unexpected, they don’t pull you out of the fictional world the way purple prose does.  I’d almost argue that it weaves you into the world of imagination tighter than ever.  The experience of reading a book like that — for me — is so…wildly alive that I don’t want to leave.  Especially if the descriptions really do a good job of matching the narrating character’s voice.  That’s hugely important — but the topic for another post.

Finally, notice that in these few examples I’ve given, no huge long multisyllabic words were used that required the venerable Oxford English Dictionary to decipher.  You can create beautiful, vivid, unbelievably poetic prose with ordinary (though not necessarily simple) words.  In a sense the most important skill it requires is not a vast vocabulary, but an ability to see the world in an excitingly fresh way.  Give it a shot.  I bet you’ll find that it makes you a better writer — even if you don’t use these metaphoric techniques often — simply because it broadens your vision and view of reality.


Vivid vs. Violet Verbiage — The Violet

As S.K. noted in her last blog post…it’s been a crazy end to the old year and an even crazier start to the new year for us around here.  Apologies for being MIA…

At any rate, today I want to talk about something I’ve said I want to talk about many times in the past — the habit of writing vivid prose.  Now, to approach this topic properly, we first need to distinguish vivid prose from amethystine cabochons of literary splendor.  Yes.  We want to know what makes prose purple, and what makes it perfect.

So, in this post, I will give a brief overview of purpleness in prose.  Next time I’ll talk about real ways to bring your prose to life.

Purple prose, in case you aren’t quite clear on the meaning, is the habit of emblazoning the folia of your illustrious manuscript with ostentatious expressions of literary genius.  I.e., it means overwriting everything.  It means looking up every adjective, every verb, every noun in the thesaurus and pinpointing the one that sounds the most snobbishly pretentious and erudite, on the assumption that it will make your prose more “sophisticated.”  It doesn’t.  It makes it sound ridiculous.

Besides, you run the risk of using a word that has entirely the wrong meaning for what you’re trying to convey — but because it’s listed as a synonym for the word you should have used, you assumed it has the same connotation.  It may not.  And someone who actually knows the meaning of the word is just going to laugh at you for being a rube.  Sorry, but it’s the cold hard truth.

Imagine that I wanted to describe a character as chubby.  So I look up “chubby” in the thesaurus and go through and…hmm, brawny is a great word!  Yes, it’s listed as a synonym with chubby under the word, “fleshy.”  So, without doing a double-check on my chosen word, I plop it into my sentence: “The brawny little woman with small round eyes…”  Um.  No.  That would not be the image I’m trying to convey.

Besides the risk of sounding like an idiot, purple prose can actually defeat the purpose of good writing.  I read a story once where the author used that word I used earlier — cabochon — to describe tears.  Okay, is cabochon a good word in a sense to describe a teardrop?  Maybe, in this way: a cabochon is a gemstone that has been polished into a smooth shape, rather than being faceted.  Okay, a teardrop isn’t exactly faceted, so, yeah.  Technically, you could describe a teardrop as a cabochon.  Now, does that make it good fiction writing?

No.

Why not?  Well, when you’re writing about a deep emotion, like grief or mourning, over-describing can actually work against you.  It puts up barriers between the reader and the character.  It makes the reader pay attention to the prose, rather than what the prose is saying.  So, instead of feeling the character’s grief, the reader sits back and wonders, “What the heck is a cabochon?”  NOT the effect you want.

Purple prose is notorious for distancing the reader from the story.  Using a great vocabulary is one thing.  Using inappropriately grandiose vocabulary is something else entirely.

One final note.  A writer might think purple prose makes them sound smart, but readers are actually quite adept at detecting pseudo-intellectual fluff.  They can smell purple prose a mile away.  If they get even the slightest whiff of a sense that you’re using words you don’t really understand just to make your prose sound loftier, you will not see the end of their ridicule.

Writers ye be warned.


Jazzing up the Editing Process

Hi all!

Goodness…the holidays and the New Year obviously swallowed up the SisterMuses! We have both been busily writing…just invisibly. I am feverishly working on The Artifex (Book III of the Silesia Trilogy), which will be released on August 31, 2013. J. Leigh is immersed in the world of The Madness Project, which she plans to release on June 1.  It looks to be an exciting year for the SisterMuses!

Today, I’m over at Engelia McCullough’s blog guest posting about the editing process. If editing always gets you down or you feel daunted by that phase of your literary journey, head on over here for some easy ways to take the sting out of the process! Thanks, Engelia, for hosting me today!

Happy writing (and editing)!!!

S.K.


Editing Focus 3: Line Editing

Sorry this is late in appearing, everyone…that’s what this annoying little thing called…”LIFE”… will do to a person.  O.o

So, I’ve been working on beta reading S.K.’s awesome new book, The Lords of Askalon (can’t WAIT for all of you to be able to read it!).  Beta reading for me is mostly line-editing.  However, since I generally only have time to do a once-over, I usually try to work in syllabic editing and at least some consistency editing (did you really mean “north” here???:).  But most of what I’m doing is looking at the mechanics of the writing, and making sure that the prose is as tight and vibrant as possible.  I promised to share with you my tips and techniques, so that line-editing can be a little less of a headache for you.  Here you go.

First thing’s first: whenever you’re going to do a significant edit on your book, SAVE A COPY OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT.  You don’t want to experience the horror of slashing all of Chapter 9 and saving over your only file, only to realize…”Oh no!  I really wanted to recycle that one passage into another chapter.”  Save it as “MyAwesomestNovel_EDIT” or something.  Then when you’ve got it edited to perfection, save it (again) as “MyAwesomestNovel_FINAL” or whatever.  I’m obsessive about that.  Any time I make significant changes to my story, I save a revision document.

Scanning Edits

Okay, this isn’t really a step one, but it’s kind of a….macro-y sort of line-edit, so I’ll talk about it first.  One of the first things I’ll try to do when I start editing is It’s basically a sort of page-scan.  This means that I’m not actually reading so much as doing a sort of visual pattern search.

For instance, I’ll scan over all the dialogue on the page.  If I see too many modifiers, too many dialogue tags, I’ll start slashing them.  This is one of my personal banes — using too many adverbs (he said thinly/ flatly/ harshly/ sharply/ gently/ whatever-ly), or too many descriptive verbs (he snapped/ laughed/ demanded/ lamented).

My general rule — if I were to have a rule — would be to see no more than one or two of either of these things on a page, or per chunk of dialogue.  I prefer when action frames some of the lines of dialogue (He shrugged. “Who cares?”), rather than dialogue tags.  Then you can use context to identify the next speaker…except where you need to introduce a newcomer to the reader.  So:

Bob and Milo sat quietly for a while, constrained in uncomfortably close quarters.  Milo sighed and fidgeted.
“Where are we going?”
“I have no idea.  No. Idea.”
George glanced at them in the rearview of his Mini.  “Chill out, guys, we’re just going to grab some donuts!”

Now, that does the trick, right?  Right before the dialogue starts, we’re talking about Milo, so we can safely assume that he’s the first one to speak.  Then, Bob has to answer, because he’s the only other character we know.  But I can use an action frame to introduce George — and also to start solving the mystery of why Bob and Milo are feeling so uncomfortably constrained squashed.

So if I’m scanning the page and see several lines of dialogue that elaborate too much, I’ll start cutting.  I’m exceptionally brutal about this, because, as I said, it was the bane of my writerly existence for years.

ALSO.  Don’t be afraid of the word “said.”  It’s perfectly fine.  It doesn’t always need to modified, either.  I’d say…35% the time you don’t need anything modifying the dialogue.  25% of the time, just say said!  25% of the time you can use an action frame.  15% of the time you can use a colorful “speaking” verb, like “demand, snap, whisper” etc.  Anyway, different people have different preferences…just watch out for going overboard in any direction.  ALL of these are problematic:

“I went to the store today,” George said.
“That’s nice,” Bob said.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.

AND:

George frowned and slammed his hand on the door.  “I went to the store today!”
“That’s nice.”  Bob’s face lit with a malicious grin.
Milo squirmed, nervous.  “I went to the store yesterday.”

AND:

“I went to the store today,” George whined.
“That’s nice,” Bob sneered.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo announced.

But this is sort of better (if we can salvage this idiotic dialogue…):

George speared a glare at Bob. “I went to the store today.”
“That’s nice.”
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.

You get the idea.

Also in the scanning edits, I watch for snippets or phrases that might tend to get repeated overly-repeated snippets or phrases.  This includes phrases like: shrugged, frowned, shook (his) head, sighed, grimaced, groaned, etc.

Generally I don’t want to see more than one character doing any of these things more than once in any particular scene…or at least make sure that you give some solid distance between instances.  If everyone’s constantly shaking their heads and nodding, I’m going to assume they are Bobbleheads.  And yes.  This is one that I have to be extra-careful about, because I do it a lot.  It’s especially hard if you write in fits and starts.  If you don’t make sure to reread your previous few pages before starting again, you risk repeating phrases that you didn’t remember using.

Also watch for consecutive sentences starting the same way.  If you’re scanning a paragraph and see: “He…   .  He…  .  He…”, then you have a problem.  Even worse would be: “He was… .  He was… . He was…”  AGH!  Death.  Try to avoid starting multiple sentences with the same word/grammatical structure.  It gets quite annoying.

So basically, this step is just my eye scanning over the pages, looking for things that are visually….disturbing.   You’d be surprised what you can catch this way, which you might not when you’re actually reading.

Continue reading


Editing Focus 1: The Big Picture

J. Leigh laid out our editing map very nicely last week.  Today, we’re going to consider Focus 1, what I call the “big picture” edit.  There are three levels present in Focus 1 — character, plot, and setting.

Character Editing

As we step back and look at the Big Picture, we need to consider how well each character performs his or her role in the story.  We’re looking here at character function and depth.

Character Function

Your characters are the doers and receivers of the action of the plot.  Main characters will be changed the most dramatically by the events of the plot, and they will also have the most impact on the plot direction — character development and plot arc are truly inseparable and interdependent.  So, when we edit for character function, we’re looking to make sure that a character’s arc tracks with the plot arc.  In order to check this, you might ask the following questions:

Is/Are your main character(s) the main character(s) throughout the novel?  In other words, do we follow Mr. X’s actions, thoughts, and emotions primarily throughout the novel, and does he have the greatest impact on the plot?

Do your secondary characters have clear purpose?  Secondary characters function in a novel by impacting the main character’s arc and/or by impacting the plot arc.  We care about them because they are important to our main character(s), not so much because they are important on their own.  Consider, for instance, Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.  We care about him first because Elizabeth cares for him and because he is tied to Mr. Darcy’s past, and then because his dastardly behavior (running off with Elizabeth’s sister) and Mr. Darcy’s role in its resolution crystallizes Elizabeth’s true feelings for Mr. Darcy.  Wickham isn’t really important on his own, but he is integrally important for the plot and for the development of our two main characters.

Character Depth

A character’s depth is very much tied to his or her function in the story.  Obviously, we spend the most time and energy on our main characters.  We explore not just their actions, but their motives for action, their responses to action.  We care about them as a “whole person,” you might say.  When we edit for character depth, we need to make sure that we have created a compelling main character.  The reader has to have strong feelings about him or her — love or hate.  You can’t have a successful main character if the reader could care less what happens to him.  We also need to make sure that the detail we give to our secondary characters is proportional to their role — they need to be detailed enough to perform their function in the story, but not so much that they start to rival the main character.

Plot Editing

When we edit for plot on the Big Picture level, we are looking for a tight, streamlined story arc.  Everything that is in the story needs to propel it forward, either by revealing your main characters or by advancing the plot.  A scene may be exquisitely written, but if it’s not doing one of those two things, it needs to go.  Remember, we don’t write in a vacuum.  You’re writing for your reader.  Your novel is like a train, taking your reader on a journey.  Your reader doesn’t want to get dropped off at the train station to wait for your plot to resume in twenty pages or so.  He’ll walk to the next track and pick up a new train.

Most of us start writing with at least a vague blueprint of our story in mind, and hopefully this blueprint becomes more like a detailed architectural plan as we dive into the world and the characters and the action.  Architects don’t add useless doors or windows to their plans; likewise, writers should make sure that their scenes lead somewhere.  

So, as you reread your story, do you feel the push?  Do you feel the plot moving you forward?  Do you feel like you can’t put your book down?  Like you have to read just one more chapter?  Like you can’t wait to find out more about your main character?  If there are spots where you get bogged down and bored, then take a good, hard look at those scenes.  Improve them or cut them.  Be ruthless.

Setting Editing

In my post Dressing the Set(ting),  I made the point that the setting details you include should be functional, not just beautiful.  When you’re looking at setting editing on the macro level, you’re considering your world-building.  The reader needs a certain amount of detail in order to enter the construct you’ve created.  But too much detail all at once will make your novel a snoozer.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe the ripple effect that one good detail can have, and I’ve finally come up with one (and it’s a bit skewed, I admit).  If you’ve ever played Minesweeper, you know how you sometimes click on a square and it opens up a whole field?  Setting details should work a little like that.  They should unlock your reader’s imagination.

This is one of those points, frankly, where a beta reader can be supremely helpful.  After all, you know this world.  You’ve been living in it for months.  You can fill in the blanks without even realizing that there are blanks.  But if you don’t have anyone to help with this stage, then take a breather from it and come back to it after a week or so.

Big Picture Editing

So, now you’ve reread your novel with an eye on character, plot, and setting.  You’ve seen how these layers are fundamentally interconnected, you’ve eliminated throwaway scenes (thus making your more detailed editing easier) and you’ve conveyed your world with powerful details.  You’re now satisfied that your story hums on a macro level.

Congratulations!!!

You’re now ready to embark on Focus 2: Consistency Editing.


Preparing to Publish: Editing

As S.K. said in her last blog post, we’re celebrating the month of September with an in-depth look at the publication process.  Now, I’m going to assume that you have a finished manuscript.  Your story is complete.  Your characters are well-rounded and you’ve inflicted on them all necessary challenges and sufferings for growth and all that good stuff.  Your plot makes sense, has a good arc, interesting climax and satisfying denouement.  Now all you have to do is polish it up and get it ready for the press.

So that’s where we’re starting.  In this series, we’re not going to tell you how to write a novel or how to develop complex characters.  Maybe another time.  We’re just going to make sure the book you publish is the best it can be.  In this article, I’ll give an overview of the different stages of editing many writers like to follow, then in subsequent articles we’ll go more in depth about each stage and give practical h0w-to advice.

So, what are the main stages or types of editing?  I honestly don’t like calling them “stages” of editing, as if you have to follow them in order and do them only once.  Usually when I edit, I’ve got an eye on at least two of them.  Maybe we should call each of them an “editing focus.”  And they kind of range from macro to micro, so that’s the order I’ll present them.

Focus 1

This may or may not be a kind of “editing,” strictly speaking.  You know how I just said you’ve got a nice finished manuscript with good characters and plot arc and all that?  Well, the first thing you want to do is take a good long look at that manuscript.  You might even want to put it away for a week or longer before undertaking this step.  But the idea is, you look at all the elements of your story and say, “Is this the absolute best it can be?”  Is that character as interesting as possible?  Is that plot twist too predictable?  Is this character a cliche?  Is there enough detail in the world-building to make the setting come to life?  Is there too much, making the prose dull and boring?  Is that chapter 10 where Egbert finds the stray kitten really necessary to advance the plot, however attached I might be to the scene?

Focus 2

This is what is commonly called or thought of as “consistency editing,” and it’s pretty much the most macro-y of the macro edits, technically speaking.  In this focus, you will be rereading your manuscript from start to finish.  Basically, what you’re doing is watching for errors in consistency in your story telling.  This can be something as big as the story arc or as small as details like eye color.  You have no idea how easy these are to miss, and how annoying they are to readers.

Focus 3

The next focus is what you’ll hear editors refer to as “line editing.”  I’m kind of torn about whether this Focus should be next, or Focus 4.  Focus 4 is more of a stylistic edit, so I like to put it last because it doesn’t make sense to do stylistic edits on prose you’re about to slash from the manuscript.  However, line edits can catch mistakes introduced by Focus 4, so….maybe the best way to think about it is that you will probably end up doing two stages of line editing — one here, and one at the very end.  More on that later, though.

For now, all you need to know is that line editing is where you take a magnifying glass to your manuscript, line by line, and look for anything that can structurally weaken your story.  You’re looking for language misuse, grammar errors, punctuation errors, spelling errors, and even things like mixed metaphors or overused phrases.  I’ve got some tips to make line-editing less of a headache…those will come in a future post.

Focus 4

This focus is something I’ve heard called “syllabic editing.”  Here you’re going to be paying attention to the flow and sound of your story — how it strikes the reader’s mental ear.  Often times with syllabic editing you will be looking at tightening up your prose, cutting unnecessary words (hence, syllables).  But I like to think it has a poetic purpose too, not just smash and slash.  Sometimes you’ll end up adding words.  Sometimes you’ll cut and rewrite whole paragraphs…or even entire scenes…if they just don’t flow the right way, or convey the right tone.  A lot of times you will be looking at better ways to say something, if the original phrasing is too  bland or passive.

At this point, after running through all of these steps and doing a final line edit, you will be ready to prepare the actual manuscript file for the press.  We’ll be covering that whole process in future posts, too, so never fear.  In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at Focus 1.


Understanding Character Voice

So, I had intended to write a follow-up post to the last one on scene-setting by S.K., but instead I’ve decided to write about Character Voice.  It’s something that’s been on my mind lately, and I think it’s one of those essential vocabulary terms for all writers to understand.

If you sit in a room with a bunch of writers, chances are one of them will eventually start tossing around words like voice, tone and mood. For beginning writers, all these concepts can seem a little fuzzy, not to mention a little scary.  What exactly do they mean?  How do you know if you’re doing it right?  Don’t panic.  It’s not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.

Though writers often talk about voice, tone and mood in the same conversation, don’t mistake these concepts for synonyms.  Tone and mood have more to do with the storytelling itself, whereas voice is a matter of characterization.  We might talk about a book’s mood being dark, gothic, atmospheric, or it’s tone being bubbly, sarcastic, or ironic. To put it briefly, mood describe the overall feel of the story, while tone is how the author approaches the story.  But I’ll come back to the question of mood and tone in a future post.

Character voice, on the other hand, has to do with the personality of the character, shining through how they see, understand, and discuss the world.

Think of ten of your friends.  They’re probably a lively, diverse bunch.  Now, think about the greeting you get when you reach their voicemail.  Some of them might use the automated robot response: “The number you are trying to reach is not available”, or some such.  But for your friends with personalized messages, do they all have their own robot response saying, “The number you are trying to reach…”?  No.  Probably not.  In fact, their messages are probably quite a good reflection of your friends’ personalities.  One of my friends has a very standard, serious, no frills message.  One of them has a great message that starts, “Congratulations!  You have failed to reach [friend’s name].”  I smile every time I hear it.  Another one offers the psychologically damaging message: “Hello? [five seconds]  How are you? [five seconds]  Sorry you missed me!  Please leave a message.”  Gee, thanks for making me feel like an idiot.

Okay, that’s great.  So what?  What does that have to do with character voice?  Well, everything.  If we, as writers, give all of our characters dialogue that sounds identical — and identically robotic and bland — then we have failed to give our characters a unique voice.  Voice is the principal way readers can identify a character’s personality.  It’s how, if we’re reading an untagged bit of dialogue, we can identify who is speaking simply by the way it is said.  Consider this example:

Joe glanced up in surprise as Ms. Mary Rhodes entered the coffee shop.  A fleeting sense of panic seized him, nudging him to hide behind his newspaper. He forced himself to be calm.  Mary might be the CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation, while he was just the electrician, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t exchange a polite greeting.  He got up and crossed nervously over to the smartly-dressed woman, who turned to him in surprise.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“How are you doing today?”

“I’m all right, thank you.  How are you?”

“Very well.  Are you here for a cappuccino?”

“No, actually I drink espresso.”

“Really!  I never would have imagined that you would be an espresso drinker.”

Okay.  Pop quiz.  Who started the conversation?  Who is the espresso drinker?  Honestly, I don’t even know.  Two computers might be talking to each other for as interesting as that exchange was.  Now, what if the dialogue ran like this?

“Hey…uh, hello!”

“Oh.”  Pause.  “Good morning.”

“Nice day, huh?”

“It was.”

“Guess you’re here for a coffee, huh?  You drink them fancy cappadachinos or what you call them?”

“Actually, no.  I’m a bit of an espresso connoisseur myself.”

“No sh— I mean, never would have guessed that!  Hard core!”

All right.  So basically, we’ve had the same dialogue exchange here, and we still didn’t use any tags to mark the speakers.  But it should be fairly obvious who’s speaking.  We’ve already set up that Mary is the CEO of a highly successful corporation, and Joe is an electrician with low self-confidence. Now, unless we seriously wanted to shatter some reasonable expectations, we know that the nervous speaker who mispronounces the word cappuccino must be Joe, while the snobby, slightly catty speaker who uses words like connoisseur must be Mary.

That, in a nutshell, is what character voice is all about.

The concept becomes more interesting when we start talking about 1st person POV narrative, where character voice begins to usurp the place of author tone.  What 1st person POV does is put the reader directly inside the mind of the narrator, who is a character and not just an outside story-teller.  It’s basically me, as character, relating the world and the events of the plot as I see them, to you the reader.  Everyone has a unique personality (think about those voicemail greetings).  Some people are positive and outgoing.  Some are shy.  Some are gloomy.  The vocabulary and phrasing you use for the narrative must all reflect that personality in 1st POV.

For instance, if I have Joe, the gloomy, broken-down, pessimistic electrician as my narrator, would this bit of description feel authentic?

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When the Going Gets Tough….

Bother.

It’s hard to write about not following your own advice, isn’t it?

In the last post, I made very true remarks about the importance and necessity of daily writing.  Slogging ahead.  No matter what.  Right?

Well…I got off my routine.  I realized that my July 4 deadline for Lords of Askalon was incompatible with producing a quality product.  Could I get it written?  Yes.  Would it be worth much? Probably not.  Leaving myself no time to work it over, to edit, to mull, to contemplate, to tweak…not good.  I think this really hit me when Brandon Sanderson tweeted that he planned 9 revisions for his new book.  Nine.  And he’s Brandon Sanderson.  And I wasn’t going to give myself time for one?

So there’s the reason for the new release date.  But on to the inevitable, awful consequence of this decision: I stopped writing.  I got caught up in other things.  Meaningful and necessary things, to be sure, but not writing things.  I let myself get caught, too, by the self-criticism monster that paralyzes all it touches.

The horror.

Today, for example, when I opened up my manuscript and got ready to write, I caught sight of the last scene I had written.  I promptly closed the window and wrote a journal entry instead.

One could make the argument that any writing is better than no writing, and I think there’s something to that.  But I don’t particularly have writer’s block…my huge and beautiful butcher-paper outline of this novel is pinned to the wall right beside me.  I know where I need to go, what I need to write.  But that last scene is so…flat.  Ugh.

Having a clear plot outline isn’t the same as having a strong sense of the characters, of their purpose, of the dynamics that guide their interaction.

Before I can come back to the story, I need to establish those things clearly for myself.  And work out nagging details like timeline issues.  For me, simply pushing through won’t do the job.  Will that method get the plot written?  Yes, probably.  But it will be as lifeless and sketchy as the outline on my wall.

So sometimes, when the going gets tough and your narrative feels flat, it pays to take a step back and consider a few things about the deeper structure of your story in general, and the characters inhabiting your world in particular.  Ask yourself:

  • Do you really know your characters?
  • What are their personal conflicts? (A character’s personal conflict is not necessarily the overarching conflict of the book.)
  • What drives your characters in their interactions with other major/minor characters?
  • How do these interactions meaningfully reveal their character arc?
  • How does each character arc intersect with the plot?  What events need to happen for that character to develop?

Once you find the answers to these questions and have a clear sense of each character’s purpose and role, you’ll see the life flowing back into your bloodless plot structure.

So…I’m off to reacquaint myself with my characters.  How will you move your story forward today?


The Daily Grind

I’ve been working diligently on The Lords of Askalon this past week, and I’ve learned something that I suppose I should have learned a long time ago…or perhaps I’d just forgotten it since my frantic dissertation writing days.

There’s just no replacement for honest hard work when it comes to writing.

I’ve called this post “the daily grind” for a couple of reasons:

  1. Sometimes writing is a grind.  It doesn’t come easily.  Every word has to be squeezed out, like giving blood when you’re dehydrated.  But daily is the operative word: it doesn’t matter whether it’s easy or not.  It must be done.  Must.  Daily.
  2. I don’t know about you, but the phrase “daily grind” also conjures up the lovely image, experience, and smell of freshly ground and brewed coffee.  And so take this meaning away as well: the daily grind of writing may be hard, but there’s reward at the end of it.  A completed page…ten pages…a chapter.  A step that much closer to your goal.  And that is a sweet thing indeed.

How can you make your daily grind resemble #2 more than #1?  Here are a few of my favorite tricks to force motivation and enthusiasm when you’re running on writerly fumes.

Assemble an awesome writing mix of music.  I am seriously contemplating putting together a “soundtrack” for The Lords of Askalon – songs that inspire me to work on this story, right now.  Just like every movie has its own score and soundtrack, every novel does too.  Find music that inspires you.  (I’ll have to explore this idea further!)

Set a time of day when writing rules.  For me, this has to be the littles’ afternoon nap time, and my older kids are (thankfully) enthusiastically supportive of my escape to the office – partly because they want me to hurry up and finish the book so they can read it.  No matter when it is, make sure that your backside is in front of the computer at the designated time and write.  Do your best to eliminate distractions (read: social media or that search for writing music) and crank out as much as you can.

Don’t worry about quality control right now (or, don’t listen to your gut).  Unless you’re in the finishing stages of your project and editing is your new daily grind, just write and worry about smoothing things out later.  It can be hard, especially when your gut tells you that this isn’t your best work.  But I’ve found that sometimes my gut does a great job of killing my writing enthusiasm and dragging me down into the maelstrom of self-criticism and self-pity.  Tell your gut to take a hike, and listen to your music instead.

Find a writing buddy and set some goals together.  I am so thankful all the time to have J. Leigh Bralick for my writing buddy – she keeps me on track, and we inspire each other to work harder and write better.  If you don’t have a SisterMuse or writing buddy already, check out Camp NaNoWriMo (the summer version of the official NaNoWriMo in November), which is going on right now.  If that’s not what you need, there are many online boards devoted to writing.  Local writers’ groups are also an option, if you prefer warm bodies and live conversation to messaging and virtual comradeship.  When you putter out, call or message your buddies and let them help you get up and running again.

Bottom line: Writers write. We don’t just talk about writing or whine about writing or dream about writing (though we may do this too).  If you want to be a writer, then write!

(This post is also up on my personal author website – head over to skvalenzuela.com and check it out!)