Tag Archives: Editing

Editing tips

It’s an honour

The Australian Horror Writers Association Short Story winners have just been announced – and I’ve got an honourable mention for my short story ‘Glow’.  I am so excited that I’m almost shaking!

I started this story three times. I finally finished the first draft in March and two days later put it through my Adelaide writers group. There were problems with the story. I re-wrote it, re-wrote it and re-wrote it. Finally I subbed it to the competition nearly a whole week before the closing date (I was determined NOT to be the final entry as I normally am). By now I both loved and hated this story.

Then I got the news that there had been a record number of entries. There were nearly double the number of what they had received last year. My heart dropped. This story had been banging about inside my head for four years, why did I pick this year to give it life?

Of course you know the punch line, so I won’t labour the point, but I do have to give a massive thank you to Lilliana, Sam and Margot from my writers group for their fantastic feedback. I thought the story was finished and they all explained to me the many reasons why it wasn’t. It was a much better story after I added and cut what they suggested, and this honourable mention is proof of that.

For all of you out there who think a writers group will crush your creativity or box you into a style that is not yours, I want to say that’s rubbish. You have been going to the wrong writers groups. I’ve been a part of two so far and they have both taught me so much. I am a better writer because of them.

Thank you!

The Unreliable Narrator

There is a format of writing know as the unreliable narrator. This is where the character taking you through the story is lying to you, but you don’t know it. For example, they may talk about how wonderful person X is and can’t understand why someone would murder them, then the punch line of the story is that they are the one who murdered person X.

Generally this style annoys me (though when pulled off well it can be excellent), and the only way I can relate it back to real life is those friends (and we all have them) who exaggerate their stories and sometimes get confused about what they imagined and what actually happened. And let’s face it, we know they do this so we don’t put a lot of stock in their tales anyway.

But then I realised we do all have an unreliable narrator who we cannot trust; ourselves.

I recently wrote a story and tried to edit it within 24 hours of finishing due to a writing group deadline. The edit was a waste of time. The story looked like a mess to me. I couldn’t see enough good bits to exorcise the bad bits. Yesterday I edited it again. There were lots of good bits, yes there were also lots of opportunities for improvement, but it was not the total write-off that my first edit indicated.

Then I was talking to a friend who was saying how much she hated her novel right now, and instantly I went ‘oh, you’re up to that bit’ –because it is so common for writers to hate their story at some stage, usually closer to the end than the beginning. It is our unreliable narrator kicking in and telling us stuff is crap when it is not.

I’m sure this same narrator tells us we are stupid, fat, ugly etc. and we believe it. If only it was so easy to recognise our exaggerating, lying self in real life as it is when it comes to editing. I guess we do have the benefit of writers groups to tell us that it is not crap (and honestly tell us when it is), but our friends and family are probably a little less reliable when we check in with them about if we really are being stupid.

The out loud edit

I’m working on a kids book at the moment, aimed at the 6-8 year old market. This area straddles the bracket between picture books and chapter books, but the books are not so long that parents can’t sit and read them to their kids. Because of this I had to make sure it sounded okay when read aloud.

I have heard that a lot of published writers go through an out loud edit, even for their adult books, and several people in my writers groups said they do the same thing for their adult stories. I had never seen it as being necessary before, and have always done all my editing and critiquing by reading in my head. But for the kids book I thought I’d better be more thorough as it might get read out loud.

Wow, what a surprise. Something my brain was happy to read, I was amazed to discover my mouth would stumble over. I didn’t realise how similar some words sound when read aloud, how twisty sentences can be when they don’t have a break in the middle. My red pen edit (the out loud edit) is by far the most prominent on the page. I slashed whole sections and simplified ruthlessly.

I think I need to do this for all my stories. As mad as I feel reading out loud when no one is listening but me, I think it does help you to see your sentences much better. The brain can be very forgiving, but the tongue doesn’t have the same level of tolerance, so I’m going to utilise that a bit more.

WriMoFoFo 2013

Yes, it is on again, WriMoFoFo – Write More For Four (weeks). This was the brain child of one of my old SuperNova writing group members. The idea was born after a rather disappointing effort (on behalf of all of us) at NaNoWriMo –National Novel Writing Month.

The idea behind WriMoFoFo is that we pick the time of the challenge, usually when we are all going through a bit of a dry spell, or when there are deadlines we need to meet. NaNoWriMo is run in November which (especially in the Southern hemisphere) is traditionally full of lots of social engagements and pre-Christmas build up. Not a good time to be trying to pump out loads of words.

Another difference is that we set our own word targets. Yes it would be nice to write 50,000 words in a month, as required for NaNoWriMo, but that is a LOT of words, so the chances of hitting it for full time workers with families is pretty remote. And if you do reach the target you are either burnt out at the end, or half of what you have written is crap. This WriMoFoFo I am going for 20,000 words.

NaNoWriMo specifies everything must be new words, WriMoFoFo allows you to set editing word targets. Very handy for those of us who put editing up there with gutter cleaning and doing your taxes. WriMoFoFo also goes for just 4 weeks, instead of the NaNoWriMo month. Those extra couple of days are just too much.

Then there is the final part of WriMoFoFo that I love – the nifty spreadsheet that lets you plot, track and graph your words each day, so you can see if you are on target or how many words you need to make up in order to get there. Please feel free to contact me if you would like a copy of the nifty spreadsheet sent to you.

It starts August 24th – so plan what you want to work on and join in! See this WriMoFoFo page for more information and to post your progress. Writing can be a very lonely pastime, so a bit of support and sharing of good (and not so good) stories along the way can be really helpful!

Just actually

Despite my promise to write new chapters on my novel, I’ve uncovered a big hole that needs filling. So I’ve gone back to edit the early chapters to fill in the base to shore it up before I keep constructing the novel on top.

These are raw first drafts I’m looking at, and it is amazing the number of times I repeat words. Some of the words are repeated in only one chapter, possibly written in one sitting (I sometimes do that) and for some reason that particular word was banging around in my head. Actually starred in five paragraphs in a row, with two mentions in one of those paragraphs – I deleted them all.

Another word, which sneaks into all my writing, from emails at work, to blog posts, to stories, is ‘just’. Nine times out of ten it is completely superfluous and has made me realise that one of the first things I should do when I complete any piece of writing is do a find and delete for ‘just’.

I know this affliction doesn’t only plague me, it features in enough ‘how to’ writing books, and stories I critique, that I know it is common to all of us. What I don’t understand is why.

Funnily enough (I took note in this edit) most of the time I preferred the second use of the repeated word over the first one. This immediately dispelled my theory that I had liked the first use of the word so much that my subconscious mind wanted to please me again.

I guess it is a quirk of the human mind to head back to the familiar. Or maybe this is more evidence of the subconscious having trouble distinguishing between what is real and imagined, as it is not sure that we did use the word the first time it proposed it. Who knows, but so far it is what is jumping out at me most from my edits.

And for reference; I have deleted five uses of the word just from this post (and no actually’s).

Typing vs longhand editing

I am not a big fan of longhand writing. For starters I’m so out of practice that my hand starts to cramp after about half a page, the other thing is that my writing is so bad now that even I struggle to read what I have written.

Yet I like to edit in longhand. Perhaps after so many years of writing groups where I have written my critiques on pages that can be easily handed back, it is now just habit. But I swear my eye picks up on things on the actual page that it glosses over on the virtual page.

The transposition of if and of, he and her, an and and, they all jump out at me like stains on a shirt when they are on the physical page, yet if I’m reading them on the screen, my unconscious brain corrects them without  my conscious brain having any idea.

Which leaves me in a bit of an annoying pickle; I am now printing off all my writing so that I can edit it on paper, but when I find a bit that I want to re-write, my handwriting struggles to keep up with my brain. I could have the computer open at the same time so I could swap between the two, but that all sounds a bit too complicated and if I have learned anything about writing, it is that you need to remove the barriers.

Now when I sit down to edit, I am not only armed with my purple pen and my reams of paper, but I also have two highlighters, one to indicate the bits that need to be re-written and the other to point out bits that conflict with earlier facts.

So the editing process is getting to be much longer, but the thing is it is turning into a process, which means it is much easier for me to get into it. I’m sure in a few years time it will get easier again, I’ll have some kind of advanced ‘paper’ which I can write on with an advanced ‘pen’ and when I’m ready to edit I’ll just plug it in and start typing.

Re-reading

This is not the blog post I was going to write. To write that one I needed to read a story I have had published previously, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

That got me thinking about why I didn’t want to re-read it. It is a bit of a no-brainer; as the author you will always find something you want to change, and once it is published it is too late to do so.

But the explanation is not that simple, because I don’t like to re-read my story when it comes back to me before it is published as a proof. That is the time when it can be changed, indeed you need to find the errors, so you are forced to read it. So with gritted teeth I always look through it, trying to put as much distance between me and the work, after all, by the time the story has got to proof status it is very annoying for the publisher to change it, so semantics are not well tolerated.

I also hate re-reading my stories before I send them out for consideration. Again, this is another must. You need to make sure that if there is anything a reader might stumble over, you identify it and fix it before you send it out. So again with the gritted teeth (and often out loud) the re-read begrudgingly occurs.

Post final-edit is also a pain for me. I’ve already read it what feels like a million times (and some paragraphs surely do come close to that), so once I get to the end I don’t want to look at a word of it again. But you have to. Gritted teeth…

Pretty much the only time I’m happy to do the re-read is after the first draft is completed and you write those magic words ‘The End’. Probably because at the end of every first draft I’m convinced I’ve just finished the best piece I’ve ever written.

The first re-read usually cures me of that misconception.

Maybe that’s why I don’t like re-reads?

Weeding

I’m growing some garlic at the moment. What I didn’t realise when I put it in the ground nearly four months ago is that it can take up to nine months to get to maturity. This means the plot sits there for a long time not doing anything. A little bit like most of my manuscripts.

Today I decided to tackle the most recent weed infestation and it got me thinking about how much weeding is like editing. You have the ‘good’ bits, which you know are good, and you know you need to pull out the ‘bad’ bits to give the good bits the best chance they can get, but it is not as easy as it sounds.

For starters the bad bits have big root systems, and they can rip out the good bits if you pull them out without enough consideration and care. Also, especially when you start from seed, sometimes it is not easy to recognise which are the desired ‘plants’ and which are the ‘weeds’ when they first burst through the soil. You might think you are giving love and sunlight to your garlic, but it actually turns out to be onion weed.

Finally, when you have no idea, and you are doing all this for the first time, you don’t know exactly when you should harvest your plants. Too early and they will be tasteless and mediocre, too late and they will be woody and overburdened with pulp.

I guess that is why it is so important to make sure you seek advice from a gardener who has been there before, someone who has made all those same planting mistakes before you. It is always wise to seek some guidance and can save you from a ruined crop.

I really miss my writers group 🙁

Between a feather and a sledgehammer

Lots of us like stories that end in a twist or reveal. I love both reading and writing them, but sometimes the story doesn’t quite work, and in the worst case scenario you don’t understand the end of the story. The fault of this mystery comes down to getting the right balance of foreshadowing (or slipping hints into the earlier parts of the story).

It’s a fine line to tread, you need to pepper your story with enough clues so that if someone was re-reading it they would slap their forehead and go ahh, it all seems so obvious now, but put too many of these in and everybody guesses how the story ends before they get there. Wouldn’t you have enjoyed ‘The Sixth Sense’ a lot less if Bruce Willis had put his hand through the door handle at the beginning?

This is where a writers group can be invaluable. My general rule of thumb is that if half the group gets it, then it works. Fewer than half, then you have been too subtle with your hints. Also, if more than a couple guess your end before they got there, then you have overdone it.

So what do you do when you don’t have a writers group? You force your story onto a bunch of readers and get their feedback! Having recently released a story where you needed to pick up the clues to understand the end I am now feeling the brunt of my subtlety. If you miss the clues in this story you can think that it is just an ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ story (which is the kiss of death for an author). This has led to more than a couple of bad reviews. I had other hints I could have put in there, but I thought that would be sledgehammer-ing my reveal.

This story was written and published before I had a writer’s group, so as the editor ‘got it’ I figured I had my foreshadowing balance right. Now that it is on line I am discovering the majority of people don’t get it. What’s worse is when I explain it to people they shake their heads and say ‘nope, didn’t see that at all’.

Golden rule about writing fiction; if you need to explain your story, it is not well written.

I’m now on the edge of either a) pulling the story so there is no evidence beyond cached pages that it ever existed, and b) re-writing it with all the foreshadowing that I pulled out of the original version. I still like the premise, and the truth is there is a major continuity error that no-one seems to have picked up that I’ve wanted to fix ever since it came to me in the middle of the night a few months ago, so I think I’m going to go for the re-write.

So as much as one of my widest-read stories is also turning out to be one of my most disliked stories, at least I have learned a major lesson (which given all the times I blab on about how wonderful writers groups are you would have thought I would already have learned); always run a story past a group of readers before you send it anywhere (another golden rule).

Happy writing!

Nat

Move to trash

It’s funny how when I post a blog the refreshed screen always comes up such that my cursor is poised over the ‘Move to trash’ option. I can’t help but think it is my blog software commenting on the quality of my most recent post.

This is the paranoia a writer must live with.

Neil Gaiman famously tells the story of how he calls his editor during every book at the ¾ mark (or something close to that point) and says it is totally crap and no-one will ever want to read it (I’m paraphrasing by the way). Writers all seem to go through this, the only difference is at what point it occurs. As far as I’m concerned, as long as it is not when you write ‘The End’ then you can get through it. If you hate it when it’s finished you are really in trouble!

I too hit the ‘this isn’t working I might as well throw it away’ at about the ¾ point. Even with short stories and sometimes flash fiction. I now know that I should celebrate when I get to that stage as it means I’ve only got a ¼ of the story to go! But as lightly as I talk of it, it can be a really difficult point to get through. This is where novels get put down and not looked at again for months, or even years. It is also usually a fictitious fear.

I have set aside many unfinished stories as lost causes, only to go back and read them later and have no idea why I stopped writing them. What’s worse is you are no longer on the roll so you cannot just pick them up and start writing with the same flow. Sometimes I even forget what the end was meant to be.  At best it means re-writes at worst it can be terminal (for the story, I’m not THAT melodramatic).

Breathing time for any story can be a good thing. If it is not working, or you don’t love it, putting it down can be a good idea. The key is not to let it sit too long. I think anything you turn your back on should be revisited within a week of setting it aside. This is long enough to be free of that strange writer paranoia that sucks you down into a mire of negativity, as well as distancing you enough to read with fresh, honest eyes.

Remember, editing is always an option. Heavy editing can save a badly written piece, and it doesn’t matter if you completely re-write 2/3rds of what you originally put to paper. But if the story is never finished, there is nothing to save.

Happy writing

Nat