Friday, March 26, 2010

Editing; or Why Didn't I Write This In The First Place?

I was asked about my editing process earlier this week, and since I've been doing some pretty heavy-duty editing this week, I thought I'd share that here (with a few extra embellishments):

1) Initial Read-Through: When I finish a book, the first thing I do -- because I've tried, and I absolutely cannot resist -- is to read it all the way through to make sure I got the ending in the right spot.

2) Dusting and Vacuuming: Once I've done that, I go back and do my initial "dusting and vacuuming" pass, where I correct any blatant spelling and grammar errors. This is where I also do my first round of "pull out the excess commas." (I'll do at least three more rounds of this before I'm done.) This is the edit that gets sent out to Eager Alpha Readers (my small but loyal fanbase).

3) Rest: I'm firmly of the opinion that, like a roast turkey, writing needs to sit and "rest" a bit before you carve into it. I'm trying very hard not to even look at The Daughters of August Winterbourne for two months before I start the real editing process. That helps me put a little distance between me and it, which makes it easier to see things that just plain don't work.

4) The Process of Elimination: I tend to write long, so for me, the editing process consists in large part of seeing what I can cut out while still keeping the story intact. So once I start editing, I'll begin by going through and giving it a read to see which scenes can be combined or eliminated altogether. Note that I don't plan to edit for spelling, grammar, etc. at this point -- because there's no point in polishing up things I'm just going to hack out anyway.

This phase also includes making sure each scene starts and stops in the right place. I usually find that most scenes could end a few sentences or even paragraphs sooner.

Something I want to try on one of my stories is writing a synopsis of each scene on an index card, along with why it's important to the plot, then laying them all out on a table. I'm hoping that will help me see where things could be cut out. For instance, if I've got a ten-page scene where the only contribution to the plot is to show how two characters interact, perhaps I can work that interaction into another scene and eliminate the first one.

5) Nuts and Bolts: After that,I start working on grammar and style:

- I go through and edit for my list of problem words. These are ones that are either weak words ("seems" is one I tend to use way too much), or unnecessary words ("then", "suddenly," "very").
- At this point, I also look for things like passive voice, and fix those.
- Another thing I get rid of at this point are excess dialog tags, and fix the ones that got away from me ("He screeched" "She intoned" "He glared")
- While I'm at it, I'll yank out another round of excess commas (Have I mentioned my comma problem?).
- I'll also incorporate any feedback from alpha readers, both here and in the previous step.

One thing I had suggested to me was to try editing from the end backwards -- take your last chapter and do a style edit on it, then the one before that, then the one before that. I'm currently trying that on my Regency romance, and it's working pretty well.

6) And then I'll give it a read and see how it flows. If I'm satisfied (unlikely), then I'm done. And if not, repeat process from step one (though perhaps with a shorter resting time). I might also run it past a critique group before digging in to edit again.

That's my plan, anyway.

How do other people approach the editing process?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Yikes! So sorry for the absence but sometimes RL just gets in the way.

So I've been thinking about preconceptions this week. This summer in Denver will be the RomCon, a convention for romance writers and their fans. One of the features is a published author contest. Anyone could sign up to judge it. You picked which categories you were interested in and they'd send you 2-4 books to read.

I received my books this week. I listed Paranormal and Romantic Suspense as the categories I was interested in. I received two of each. Three of the authors I've read previously. Unfortunately, in the past I have not been a fan of any of the authors' work.

One author, I'll cut some slack because the only other book of hers that I have read was her first novel. And I never completely judge an author by that first shot out of the gate. Last night I started to read the books and picked up hers as the first one. I wish I could say that I see that she's grown as an author or that I'm just blown away by the book. But I can't.

But I wonder if the book is really the way I'm seeing it or because I have that preconceived notion of the author in my head. Perhaps someone else would read it and think it was awesome (a possibility with any book). I'm trying to keep an open mind as I continue on in the book, but dang, sometimes it's hard.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The End; or Finish What You Started

Last Saturday, I completed the first draft of my work in progress, The Daughters of August Winterbourne. It's always a strange feeling for me, finishing a book. For some reason, the endings almost always creep up on me unexpectedly. In this case, I was pretty sure I had another chapter or two to go, and that it would take me another day or two to get there. That's because, while I knew where the story ended, I didn't know for sure where I would stop telling it.

Does that make sense?

I knew, plotwise, what I needed to accomplish. But what I hadn't yet worked out in my mind was a good, satisfying place to stop once I'd gotten those plot points down. I could easily have spent another chapter or two detailing what happens after Our Heroine, Celia Winterbourne, and her party return to England after adventures abroad. There were certainly consequences aplenty to face as a result of their adventures. And yet, that seemed to draw focus away from where I really wanted to leave the story. So in the end, I summarized everything between the return to England and the end of the school year in a short epilogue, and then ended on a bittersweet, wordless exchange between Celia and Nicholas Fletcher.

I knew I'd found the right spot when I typed the last line and got all teary-eyed. Yeah. That's a good spot. It felt right, and it felt final. "The End" would flash on the screen at that point in the movie version. Yup. Done.

Then on Sunday, for the first time since about the second week in November (when it was much shorter), I read the whole thing through from start to finish. I was surprised that the bits that felt slow and draggy when I was writing them didn't seem nearly so slow and draggy upon reading. Yes, there's still some tightening up to do, and a couple of minor subplots I'm planning to yank out on the first major revision pass, but for the most part, the story holds together reasonably well. Overall, I'm pleased with it.

So that's the good news.

The bad news is that the first draft weighs in at roughly 186,000 words; in other words, about 86,000 words longer than it should be if I have any expectation of publishing the story. It looks as though I will need to lose more than one or two minor subplots, and I'm gonna need to do a LOT of tightening up. There are some places where I think I can do this; I go into far more detail than is needed about a lot of things. But just as you shouldn't carve a turkey the instant you pull it from the oven, you should also let a story rest a bit before you go about hacking it into bits. So at this point, while I am giving it a quick once-over before sending it off to my alpha readers* (they're an impatient lot, and really wanted to read it before it was even finished), I'm otherwise not planning on touching or even looking at this story for another month, maybe two.

What am I going to do with myself in the meantime? Trust me, I won't be bored. I have some extensive edits to do on the first volume of my space pirate adventure series. I've also got a Regency romance that needs to be pared down a bit (why does it seem as though everything I write comes out at approximately 200K words?). And I've got the beginnings of a fantasy story that I want to post to my website as I write it, as an experiment. Website, you say? Oh, yeah, that's something else I can work on.

And of course, I'll be posting here every Thursday, sharing my words of wisdom/incoherent blatherings with all of you. Maybe next week we'll even get that "topic of the week" thing going, like we've been planning!

* If you wish to join the ranks of my eager alpha readers, drop me a comment and I will add you to the list.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Authenticity in Fiction

Last weekend was my RWA chapter’s monthly meeting. The husband of one of our members gave a presentation on handguns. One of the things he mentioned more than once was giving any character you have using a gun credibility. For those of us who write suspense or other fiction where a character may handle a weapon, some of what he shared with us was eye opening and proof that movies and TV rarely get it “right”. Enough people own or handle handguns that they are going to know when you have your character not doing things correctly.

Not all of our readers are going to know the ins and outs of different subjects we put in our writing from setting to time period to occupation. But there will be those who do. You can recognize when a writer has just researched about a place. Those writers that spend time in a place infuse the setting as another character. Not only does that add more flavor to the story, but those who are intimately familiar with a place will know when an author has done their homework and when they’ve just googled.

As a historical writer, I have the tough but fun job of making sure that every detail from clothing to kitchen utensils to slang is historically accurate for the time and place. Part of my job is taking the reader into that time period and accuracy counts. Maybe not every one is going to know what underclothes the hero is going to be removing from the heroine during a love scene set in the fall in Montana Territory during the year 1870, but the person who does who sees that it’s wrong is more than likely going to toss my book across the room and never read me again. Worse, she might tell her friends that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Even if you aren’t someone who knows a lot about the subject at the heart of the story or the character’s occupation, not being authentic can pull a reader out of the story all the same. My best example of this is a short story I read a couple of years ago. It was a historical set in Argentina before 1900. That alone caught my attention. The heroine was a woman who was on the run from someone who thought she stole something. The hero was helping her. During an amazingly written action scene they are running through the streets of a city, ducking in and out of alleys and stores. Then they come to a bar that the hero frequents. The heroine notices a man standing guard outside the bar and in her thought bubble refers to him as the bouncer.

And I was out.

Now I’m not up on my origin of words but I had a hunch that “bouncer” wasn’t the occupation we think of today in Argentina before the turn of the 20th century. It just threw me right out of the story.

As writers we have to not only tell an entertaining and compelling story, but we also have to make sure we get things right.

I’d like to know if you’ve ever “caught” an author not having done their homework or how you, as a writer, make sure you make your work authentic.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Secondary Themes; or, What's That Lurking In The Background

This week, I finally found the secondary theme of my current WIP, The Daughters of August Winterbourne. The primary theme, of course, is that of family, and of working together to accomplish a common goal. But this week, with only a very small amount of the story left to tell, I discovered that the story had a secondary theme all along: the end of childhood.

When I told this to a friend of mine, her reaction was, "Oh, that's sad." And yes, in a way it is. But it's also happy and exciting, because the end of childhood is also the beginning of adulthood, and of the adventures that go along with that. It's also a little scary, because with adulthood comes the obligation to take responsibility for one's actions, and for the consequences of those actions. Some of my characters are about to learn about that in a big way, when one of their actions has consequences much more far-reaching -- yet closer to home -- than they bargained for. Another character is already regretting a decision regarding the priorities in their life. (And yes, I am playing a little fast and loose with the pronouns here -- sorry!)

When I am planning a story, the primary theme usually reveals itself fairly quickly. But the secondary theme(s) can be trickier; some stories never reveal one at all. Are they necessary? Well, not in the strictest sense. You can tell a story with just one theme. It's just not as interesting. Is it okay to start writing the story not knowing what the secondary theme is? Yes! Sometimes you can't find it until you've had time to sit down and play with your characters and get to know them better, see how they interact with each other.

And then, sometimes (much to my annoyance), a tertiary character who was only ever planned to be around for one or two scenes wanders in and serves it up on a platter for you. (Yep, that's what happened this time around.)

So how do other folks work with themes? Are they there for you, up front, or do you find them as you go along?


Housekeeping: Starting next week (hopefully), it looks like we'll be changing gears a little bit here at The Melt-Ink Pot. We're going to try selecting a theme each week, and having each of us posting our take on the subject. Looks like fun to me! Stay tuned!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Getting Back in the Saddle

Hello! Why yes, it has been a long time since my last post. I was off battling computer viruses and then some physical ones, and when you toss in some general writerly apathy, it leads...well, not to this place.

But that was then, this is now. I'm regrouping and getting back into the writing mindset. This week I'm setting myself a nightly goal of writing for 15 minutes nonstop. No, that's not very long, but right now 15 minutes feels like 15 hours. Baby steps, you know? I'm scared to start writing again because I'm scared I won't find the words. They're in me, though. I just have to hunker down and dig them out.

Over the next few weeks I think all of us here at the Melt-Ink Pot are going to try something new and pick a weekly topic on which we'll each share our own thoughts. I, for one, am looking forward to this experiment; I hope you are too!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Into The Home Stretch; or, The End Is Near

After writing a few difficult scenes for my current work in progress, The Daughters of August Winterbourne, I can definitely tell that I'm on the home stretch. I've begun the big, climactic scene, and it's rolling along nicely. I can see the end of the story, and it's suddenly not very far away at all.

I love this part of a story. It feels like everything I've spent the last several months building up has finally fallen into place, and all that's left for me to do is to stand back and let gravity take its course. To me, it feels almost like flying, or at least gliding. The words are pouring out of my fingertips almost faster than I can catch them. Certainly my poor little keyboard has taken a pounding these last few days!

And yet ... I also hate this part of a story. By the time I've reached this point, I feel like I'm finally really getting to know my characters, that they've become my friends. I've spent time with these people almost every single day (with one exception) since the beginning of last November. And in a few more days -- maybe as little as a week -- it will all be over. I will have told their story, and I will never be able to tell it for the first time again.

Oh, I know, there will be months and months of editing. And there are always the sequels I have planned. But good, bad, or indifferent, this story will be finished. If and when I write about Celia and Nicholas and Papa and Celia's sisters again, they'll be different characters than they were at the beginning of this story. Their adventures will have changed them, shaped them. They'll be the same people, but different, just as their new story will be different.

Ah, well. That's what it's all about, right? And in the meantime...I've a book to finish.

How do other people approach the end of a story? Do you wax nostalgic, or are you just so glad to have it over with that you don't even care any more?

(p.s. Although I'm a little late getting the word out, today is National Grammar Day! And a bonus link: Grammar Girl often has answers to life's nagging grammar questions. Check out her website!)