Tag Archives: editing

Time to Trust

All summer, I’ve been busy working on a book on plotting. As I’ve pondered, analyzed, and explained technique for this manuscript, I realized how easy it can be to over-think fiction. Sometimes, you simply have to back up . . . and let go.

Usually novice writers start out by falling in love with fiction. We absorb books like plants do water and sunshine. Then there comes a day when we decide we’ll write our own stories. Our imagination is teeming. We’re excited. We throw ourselves into our fledgling effort and either zoom to the end–yippee!–or we hit a stumbling block and stall out.

Wannabe writers who zoom along with no awareness of problems often become what I call scribblers. They write effortlessly and heedlessly, oblivious to their mistakes, and happily create drivel in the certainty they’re producing terrific stuff. With such hobbyists, I wish them well but hope they never seek publication.

Other beginners, however, realize quickly that there’s an entire universe of things they don’t know. They falter and stop, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they need to learn.

Of this second group, some pull themselves together and seek training or continue to hunt and peck their way through exploration and discovery. The rest declare writing to be too hard and drop out.

Those who keep trying by joining writers groups, taking writing classes, networking, seeking mentors, and devouring books on writing while generating story after story will improve. Their hard work will pay off, eventually.

But sometimes the determination to learn so much and to overcome difficulties can lead to over-thinking. The placement of every comma; the heroine’s dialogue rewritten and read aloud and rewritten, rewritten, polished, tightened, rewritten and rewritten; the worry over how a subplot is going; the concern that several scenes aren’t quite right, etc. can all lead to a hyper-critical state that becomes counterproductive.

You can become so conscious, so aware, of the process that you make the mistake of trying to control it. And that’s not what pros do. Instead, they trust.

Learning and mastering technique is important because it helps you navigate the challenges of awkward plots and difficult characters. Knowing what you’re doing gives you confidence. Best of all, as Ray Bradbury pointed out, once you’ve mastered technique you don’t have to consciously think about it anymore and you can then concentrate on your story.

Therefore, relax. Accept that the process will always get you there. Learn to trust it and let go, the way when swimming you trust the buoyancy of water so you can float. Allow your story to unfold without agonizing over every word. Write the rough draft from a spirit of fun. Believe in your idea. Follow through with it and stick with what you’ve planned, but allow for little quirks and the extras that are going to occur to you when you’re in the flow.

The actual creation of rough draft should not be censored, criticized, second-guessed, or analyzed as you go. That’s too restrictive, and it will hinder you so much that you may develop writer’s block. You should never attempt to edit yourself while you’re creating. As I’ve said many times, the editing function and the creative function operate in separate brain hemispheres, and the human brain is not designed to utilize both hemispheres simultaneously. Work on one function at a time.

When an idea comes to you, embrace it and indulge it at first. Then analyze and test it. Send it back to the idea-maker and create anew. Then analyze and examine it as much as you need to until you have a solid outline. That’s what you trust–all the upfront work to check plausibility, check feasibility, check plot holes, fix plot holes, think and tweak, etc., until you have a solid plan. Then close your doubts and uncertainty, and just write.

Write with all your heart–not your mind. Write fast. Write passionately. Write until you barely know who you are when you leave the keyboard. Live with your characters. Be your characters. And wear their skin through every scene as it unfolds. Don’t look at them from some remote and safe vantage point. Stand in the dusty crossroads as war refugees trudge along. Smell the dust and fear. Listen to the rumble of trucks and the distant pounding of artillery too far away to see. Feel the beating of your heart. Clutch that silly candlestick that belonged to Aunt Ziva, the one that’s stood on the mantel as long as you can remember. It’s now a symbol of home, all you have left. Hang onto it. Don’t drop it because if you do, you’ll somehow lose connection with the past, with family, with memories of when life was happy, and with any hope that life one day will be good again.

When you’ve finished the rough draft, you can once more put on your editor’s hat. You can think, criticize, revise, and pick at it until it’s tight, clear, and riveting. Just remember that when you revise, be honest. Did you come close to what you planned initially? Or did you fall seriously short?

If you made technical mistakes or lost your way through part of the manuscript, trust the process you’ve learned and fix the errors. Then step back, say “good enough,” and let the story live. Don’t kill it by polishing the zest and breath from it.

Plan. Trust. Write. Fix. Believe. Submit.

It’s never easy. But it really is that simple.




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Joys of Proofreading

Do you love proofreading, or do you hate it? Do you force yourself to check over your written copy, or do you attach your manuscript blithely to emailed submissions to editors and press “Send” in the hope/belief that all is well despite neglecting to skim over that story one more time? Are you dyslexic? Are you a poor speller? Are you never sure whether an appositive clause should be closed by a comma? Should you or should you not use the “Oxford comma” and do you even know what that means?

Why don’t we check our copy thoroughly and carefully before we submit it?

The push to meet a deadline can be hanging over our heads like lowering barometric pressure, but that doesn’t excuse any writer from completing the job. And no story is complete until it’s checked for factual, spelling, punctuation, and sense errors.

On the door of my campus office is a saying: ALWAYS PROOFREAD. YOU MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING OUT.

Computers perform many useful, wonderful functions for us but even they can’t catch sense errors or understand the difference between two, to, and too. As humans allow technology to sweep them into faster and faster lives, it’s easy to get in a rush and convince yourself that a quick glance at your computer screen is sufficient to catch everything.

Except it’s not. Scientists are finding out that our brains process information differently from reading paper than a computer screen. That, in turn, affects what details we notice and what we overlook.

Expert proofreaders know that the best way to catch errors is still by reading a paper copy. However, the real world doesn’t always grant us that leisure. For example, for the past two weeks, I have been carefully combing through certain novels in my back list, checking to be sure the OCR scanner doo-dad hasn’t made any peculiar errors. An entire science fiction series from my past endeavors–the TIME TRAP books–will be going up in new electronic versions next week, with more of my older science fiction and fantasy to follow in February. Needless to say, I have been busier than a squirrel storing acorns in trying to catch up, keep up, and stay up.

I’m checking a pdf conversion, line by line, onscreen. I can’t use track changes to edit or correct the errors I find and I can’t print out a paper copy. So I’m doing my best not to let myself be caught up in the rapidity of the story pacing or in the dilemmas faced by the characters. I’m staying emotionally uninvolved, looking for errors the scanner failed to catch or else garbled. Things like “tenor” instead of “terror” or “he” instead of “be.”

Tedious work? Yes. Yet it must be done if my readers are to enjoy the stories with as few distractions as possible. And what can be more distracting than a misspelled word? It’s like trying to conduct a job interview with an applicant that has an enormous red zit glowing on the end of her nose. You can’t help but stare, no matter how hard you try.

Writers work very hard on plot, characterization, viewpoint, pacing, and setting. Perhaps they shouldn’t have to do the proofreading as well. And yet, who better for the job? Who has a bigger stake in presenting a smooth, error-free story under your name than you?

My writing career began long enough ago that I experienced publishing done the “old way” when my manuscripts passed through the hands of editors, copy editors, and proofreaders in addition to my own checking. Now, with reduced editorial staffs, writers must take on more production responsibility in seeing their work brought to print. Or, if writers are self-publishing, they must take sole charge of checking for errors and glitches.

But what happens if you aren’t by nature a meticulous, detail-oriented reader? What if you can’t detach yourself from your story or your characters’ emotional angst in order to look for correct comma placement? And, heaven forbid, what if you simply don’t know what correct comma placement IS?

If you’re shaky on punctuation rules, then it’s time to learn them. Too back-to-school for you? Yet a writer unwilling to learn punctuation is like a carpenter unwilling to measure.

The best guide remains Strunk & White. It’s short, simple, and relatively inexpensive. Or look up punctuation rules online. Information is plentiful.

Besides study, turn on the computer checker for grammar and punctuation errors. It’s not 100% foolproof by any means, but at least it will flag the most egregious mistakes and offer you suggestions for correction. The computer will also search for spelling goofs. Again, it’s not perfect. You can’t rely solely on the computer software to catch everything, and you’ll still have to read over it yourself, but it’s very useful.

You can also hire a proofreader. Universities usually have writing centers that offer tutorials, but you can hire students majoring in English or librarians or teachers at your child’s school in need of extra cash.

If you have trouble from getting caught up in your story so that you can’t objectively examine your copy, then you’ll have to work through the manuscript backwards. This means you read the last page first and work your way through the manuscript to page one.

And if even that approach fails to detach you, then use a ruler and place it beneath a sentence while you read. One line at a time. That is indeed agonizing and slow, but do what’s necessary to deliver a smooth, clean story to your audience. The longer the manuscript, the less likely it will be absolutely perfect, but give it your best effort. Don’t your characters and plot deserve that?

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Being Tough; Being Kind

One of the tightropes a writer must walk is knowing when to be tough on yourself and when to give yourself a break.

Toughness means having the guts to challenge your ideas, to examine them for holes and contrivance, to see if they can withstand scrutiny or whether they’ll crumble, etc.

Kindness means testing your ideas without killing them. Giving them a chance to bounce back. Letting them grow without grinding them to dust.

Toughness means pushing through the writing of your rough draft until you have it completed. It means not surrendering, not quitting until that task is done. Fatigue, worry, doubt, and interruptions must be withstood in order to keep going.

Kindness means understanding that you will lose your way at times but you’ll always find it again. It means knowing that it’s natural to become tired. That’s nothing to beat yourself up about.

Toughness means facing your mistakes, even when it means jettisoning a scene, chapter, or maybe 100 pages.

Kindness means being glad you found the error and can fix it, and not calling yourself stupid for having erred in the first place.

Toughness means writing the best story and characters you can.

Kindness means knowing that we aren’t machines. Some of our stories will be better than others, and that’s just the way things are.

Walk the rope, friends.

Walk the rope.


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