Monday, April 29, 2013

Writing This Novel part VI

I know you want to submit your story as soon as you’ve finished it. So do I.  Writers are under a lot of pressure to churn out work quickly in this publishing environment. I get that. But this is a little piece of your soul you’re sending out into the universe, and polish is the only protection it’s going to have. So please, slow down. Treat your work like a gourmet meal instead of fast food. Make sure it’s presented in the best possible way. You’re the only one who will give it such loving attention.

So. Editing.

Suggested reading before editing: Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King)

A line-by-line copy edit helps you find typos, missing words, and grammar mistakes. Below, I share the way I do it, but as always, do what works for you. However, I strongly suggest that you allow the MS to sit a few weeks after you finish your final draft before you plunge into copy edits.  

If you work in Word, you know all about the wavy red lines for spelling errors and the wavy green for grammar.  You probably also know by now that those are often wrong. There are many online sources to help you with tricky, specific grammar questions. Plus, you have writer friends, right? Turn to them. But always verify with a trusted authority on the matter.

I write science fiction so many of my proper nouns are marked as spelling errors in the Word document. Adding them to the dictionary gets rid of so many red wavy lines and Word will flag it if I have a spelling variation (AKA a typo), which happens a lot with odd names. I have yet to figure out how to get Scrivner to accept my world-specific vocabulary.

Despite the weaknesses of Word’s grammar and spell check, it can show you interesting statistics such as percent of passive sentences and reading level. I won’t say that I dumb down my manuscripts, but if the reading level is over eighth grade, I know to look for simpler vocabulary replacements as I edit. I usually run at about 2-4% passive sentences. Despite what you’ve heard, passive sentences aren’t evil, bad things. They have a place in your writing. No editor wants to see 60% passive sentences in your MS, but you don’t have to completely eradicate them either. Another interesting statistic is average words per sentence. If it’s over twenty-five, you may be guilty of too many complex or run-on sentences. If it’s under eight, your writing may have the delivery of machine gun fire. Mix it up to create a pleasant reading cadence.  

After spelling and grammar, I consult my ‘errors I make all the time so you’d think I’d know better by now’ list. I often type prefect instead of perfect. I switch the words from and form. I’m addicted to the word just. Spellcheck won’t catch those errors. Do you have crutch words or phrases? Are you aware of word substitutions you make often? Use the search function in your word processor to search for your recurring mistakes.

After I’ve finished those corrections, I print the MS for the first time. You might be able to see errors on a computer screen but I see many more on paper. I take a green pen and circle every error. If the problem is an entire sentence, sometimes I write the correction on the paper but other times I’ll simply circle it and deal with it later. POV errors, continuity, and plot holes are also circled but with a short note about the problem. This is detailed work so I don’t do too many pages at one sitting.

Next I sit down with the MS and make my corrections in the computer. This is another time when the search feature comes in handy. You can type in a three or four word string and it will find them for you so you don’t have to scroll through the whole MS.

At this point, I print the corrected MS for what I consider to be the hardest editing task. I read my entire MS aloud.

What I think I wrote makes sense. What I actually wrote is missing words or other errors I didn’t catch on my first editing run. What I actually wrote is repetitive either in theme or in word choice. What I actually wrote has weird rhythm. Or it’s a tongue twister. Or what the heck was that supposed to mean? All those errors are easily glossed over when I read mentally, but they’re glaringly obvious when I read aloud.

Reading a sex scene aloud can be embarrassing even though I wrote it. R has, on occasion, poked his head into my office and said, “Bragging about your cock again, dear?” Instant mortification.   

While reading an entire novel aloud, I often get lulled into a mental space where I will start reciting what I intended to write rather than what’s actually on the page. This happens even when it’s been weeks since I looked at the MS. That’s one reason why I limit my reading aloud to about twenty to thirty minutes a day. Another reason is that reading aloud is hard on the throat.  

After I’ve corrected any problems I caught that time around, I may send the MS to beta readers or I may submit it without reader input. That’s your choice.  Sometimes beta readers are more harm than help. Sometimes they try to impose their vision on your story. Sometimes they simply don’t get it. Sometimes everything you do is wonderful and lovely and… no. This is not helpful. You need critique, not ego strokes. Some beta readers have brilliant insights and totally call you on your weaknesses. Love that class of beta readers. Cherish them. They are amazing, wonderful, precious humans.

That’s my method for editing both short stories and novels. Do you have any tricks for catching errors? Beta readers – yea or nay?

Next time: submission. Finally.         

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Guest Blog at Unapologetic Fiction

Sommer Marsden was kind enough to invite me to her blog Unapologetic Fiction to answer 20 questions.

And yes, I really did dismember a doll.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Writing This Novel - "As you know, Jim"

I watched the premier episode of Da Vinci's Demons last night. The historical inaccuracies drove me a bit bonkers, but if I approach it as alternate history/ steampunk renaissance, I suppose I can forgive that. What I can't forgive were the multitude of "As you know, Jim" speeches. Whether its television or a novel, writers should do everything they can to avoid them.

So, what's an "An you know, Jim," speech? If you've watched any of the CSI shows, you've heard these. It's when a character says something along the lines of "As you know, Jim, I'm going to take this piece of crime scene evidence and try to find latent prints on it. I will do this by..."  But Jim isn't a child from another planet. He's another CSI tech and he knows damn well how evidence is processed because it's his job. So why is it being explained to him as if he knows nothing about it?  Well, the other character isn't explaining it to Jim. He's explaining it to the viewer/reader who presumably doesn't know. It's an acknowledgement of the fourth wall. On CSI, Jim usually responds with "Yes, and then you'll match any latent prints you find against our suspects, thus hopefully linking one to the scene of the crime" while in real life, Jim would say, "No shit, Sherlock."

"As you know, Jim" come up a lot in science fiction and fantasy because there's a whole world with different rules that the reader needs to know. A common way around this is to drop an outsider into the world so they can ask "What's that animal?" or "Why are those dudes in red livery shooting arrows at us?" without seeming like an idiot. Even in Harry Potter, he's raised in a muggle household, so everything about the wizarding world must be explained to him. He has a muggle's reaction to the things he sees and frames them in a muggle POV. (at least in the first few books) Later, as Hogwarts becomes his world (and the reader is just as familiar with it) the explanations drop away except when something extraordinary happens. (such as the tri-wizarding tournament). Hermione, in almost every situation, serves as Harry's interpreter. She understands his muggle POV since she comes from the same place, but because she's made a huge effort to understand everything about the world around her, she knows what's happening and why. Someone raised in the wizarding world wouldn't think of such things as extraordinary so they wouldn't know that Harry was unfamiliar with it, nor would they know how to explain it.

But what do you do if your characters are all from that world? How are you going to explain things without resorting to awkward "As you know, Jim," speeches? Not everyone in a world knows everything, so as "As you don't know, Jim" explanation is fine if the information isn't common knowledge. If it is common knowledge, the best way to inform the reader is to show the character lifting prints from crime scene evidence and comparing them to the suspects' prints. Show the second sun, the twin moons, the dragons, or the elves. Show someone breaking a taboo and how the other characters react. Show the magic of technology and what it does. You don't have to explain how it works (unless that's part of the plot) since most readers are willing to suspend disbelief and trust that it does work if you show that it does.

One of the strengths of books over television shows is that you can take your time to explore things. Television shows are about action, not thought. And as you know, Jim, you can take advantage of that.


Saturday, April 06, 2013

Turn it Off!

I've started working on a new novel.

I love this part, where the story is still full of promise and energy. I love how my imagination runs wild with the first draft.

Except that I can't rein it in. Not only am I awake late at night thinking of scenes I won't write until months from now, I'm thinking about other novels! It's sort of like watching a syndicated show on a cable station that splices in extra commercial time.  Did that make sense to you? Maybe not. I've been taking medication for this ear ache for four days now and it's making me loopy. Come to think of it, that might be the reason why my thoughts jump between a damp prison cell in an old fortress and a surreal carnival/party in an abandoned mansion. One moment it's the slow drip of water and unseen things rustling in the dark, the next it's harlequins and fire eaters on unicycles in a house with tilted floors and walls. One character wraps her arms around her knees and contemplates revenge versus justice. Another brushes Sophie's hair from her neck and kisses her. His lips linger. As he lifts his head, a drop of blood wells on her skin.

Yeah, see, this is how it goes. I'm trying to write the first novel and the second one is doing its best to seduce me away. Stop nibbling on Sophie, George! Stop. Do not let her tie you to the chair and... Just cut it... damn, that's hot.