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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Revision Strategies Part III: Guest Blog from Lynne H.


*raises right arm to the square*
I promise not to call you “delusional” for thinking your writing is perfect.

Some aspiring writers struggle to honestly criticize their own work  They fail to notice awkward word choice, repetition, redundancies, sloppy plotting or awkward pacing, and underdeveloped characters. As any good therapist will tell you, “admitting you need help is the first step.” There are ways to tackle this; let me show you a few.

Read your work out loud, either to yourself or to somebody else. Hearing your words read aloud might help you identify what sounded good in your head but doesn’t work on paper. If your speaking voice sounds too much like the one in your head, have somebody else read it aloud to you. A different voice speaking your words might make a big difference to your perception of your writing.

Find some people to read and critique your pieces. Choose friends, colleagues, or even relatives whom you trust to not look at your work through rose-colored glasses.  If you only choose people who are afraid to be honest or who really aren’t critical thinkers, you’re not going to get much help, so perhaps you could start by giving them one chapter and see what suggestions they come up with.  If people use words like “interesting” or “amazing” or “needs more detail” but cannot tell you what they specifically find “interesting” or “amazing” or just exactly what details they’d like to see “more” of, they might not be the right ones to help you. Look for people who can ask you specific questions about your work. Readers should ask questions like:  “How did Cecelia and Elliott get from just-meeting to best-friends so quickly?” “So, Justine is an expert sword fighter after only one lesson?”  “I’d like to know more about what the building looked like.”  “Wait--is she really as ‘slender as a willow sapling’?” “Do you need to describe the sun as ‘glowing’?” You may, of course, ignore any and all questions, but I submit that seeing your writing from the perspective of another can be a real eye-opener.

Some writers find writing groups helpful.  You can join groups of writers who are all working in the same genre (romance, fantasy, etc.), or you may prefer working with a mixed group of writers who are working in diverse genres. You may be uncomfortable with the intimacy of reading and discussing your project face-to-face with live people, but it may be preferable to having undetected ridiculousness in your writing, and the bonus is that you’ve caught it before it got out there for people like me to get snarky about.

Or, if you prefer the relative anonymity of cyberspace, you can join one of the dozens of online writing communities.   A caveat:  It’s an absolute crapshoot as to whether you find reliable, helpful critique buddies on one of these or not. I’ve seen some pretty laughable stuff get rave reviews.  I’ve also seen some nasty flame wars.  The same anonymity that protects you can turn other people downright hateful and cause them to say things they’d never say to a person’s face. 

Read negative reviews of published works.  Pay attention to what caused the reviewer to give a negative critique of the work in question.  Get cheap used paperback copies of novels and underline the crappy bits.  Write notes in the margins.  Converse with the author. It can be therapeutic to see that bad stuff gets published all the time. Tell yourself that surely you can overcome some of the foibles that made this particular author look so ridiculous.

Of everything I’ve mentioned here, however, I’ve saved the most important bits for last, and even gave them bullet points for emphasis (you’re welcome):

     Analyze your work as a reader and not as a writer.
     Analyze others’ work as a writer and not as a reader.
     Develop a thick skin.
     See writing as a journey and not just as a means to an end.
     Take responsibility for your own work.  Don’t count on editors, beta readers, or your writing group to fill the gaps in your skills.

Up next:  Some help with “fleshing out” your characters.

Be sure to check out Lynne's blog at askthewordnerd@blogspot.com.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When Less Is More: Trusting Your Reader

Over the past few weeks, I've been reworking a story I 'completed' several years ago.  At that time, I considered it the best writing I'd ever done.  Sadly, at that time, it probably was.  Let's just say 'editing' is too mild a term for what the story needs.  Words like 'decimation,' 'reconstructive surgery,' and 'pulmonary resuscitation' come to mind.  

While ruthlessly annihilating waste-of-space sentences, trimming repetitive paragraphs, and chopping bulky scenes, I've noticed a common theme.  In almost every case, the necessary eliminations have come about because I failed to trust my reader.

What does it mean to trust your reader, and how can you tell when you aren't doing it?  Trust is having faith that your reader will be intelligent enough to fill in the blanks on her own.  Not trusting is giving into the temptation to explain.

I'm an educator, so it's in my personality to explain.  Sometimes I explain the same thing twice, which is to say I repeat a similar thing in two different ways.  (Since the point of this post is trusting your reader, I'll assume you've already spotted the lame attempt at humor in the preceding sentences.)

On a sentence level, check your writing to see if you do anything like this:

"Get out!  Get out NOW!" she shouted, her face burning red with anger.

One could reasonably argue that your average reader knows your character is shouting without being reminded of it in the sentence tag.  But does the reader even need to know the protagonist's face is "burning red with anger'?  Sometimes the most unnecessary words are the hardest ones for an author to let go.

Here's where confession time begins.  I don't just explain with sentences.  Sometimes I explain in entire paragraphs.  When I'm really on a roll, I use an entire scene!  In the aforementioned manuscript, I repeatedly resorted to inner monologue to sneakily force my protagonists to explain the romantic feelings they were experiencing.  Shameless of me, I know, and any savvy reader will see right through it.  If a little dialogue, a furtive glance, and a warm blush aren't enough to get the point across, it's time for me to reassess my 'show don't tell' techniques.

Almost as bad as the last example was an entire scene (Now deleted!) created to showcase a few of my favorite research 'gems.'  Several pages existed so I could slip in something about the 'chape' of a sword's scabbard and several more came into being so I could explain how the natural oil in the scabbard's wool lining protected the hero's sword from rust and corrosion.  (There!  I finally found a way to use it!  I feel much better now.)

Your reader is intelligent.  He proved that by learning to read.  So take a few risks.  Trust that he'll get the point.  And if you still have lingering doubts about people 'getting it,' you might consider looking for a trustworthy beta reader.

 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revision Strategies (Part II)


In Part II of an ongoing series of guest blogs, Lynne H. shares more of her editing expertise with the Creative Writing Toolbox.  Thank you, Lynne!
 
By way of explanation, the previous post A. C. graciously included in his blog dealt with what authors call “sentence-level” revision.  This post will contain more of the same.

After getting rid of illogical phrases (blinking eyes, nodding heads, silently nodding heads), the next thing to do might be to edit for specific word choices that seem repetitive or redundant.  If you already caught some of these in your first search-and-destroy, go back and catch some more. If this is your zero draft and you don’t edit as you go, there will probably be more *facepalm* moments for you than for some of us who are the edit-as-we-go types. 

Be on the lookout for:

how many times a character shrugs
purses his lips
rolls her eyes
lifts or raises an eyebrow
nods (silently or otherwise)
smirks
smiles
grins
or how often does the hair on the back of somebody’s neck stand up?
And no, you can’t get away with these as long as you vary the modifiers you throw at them.  

Do the characters’ eyes become nearly anthropomorphic (as in “my eyes went to his face”); does his gaze or glance “fall on” something or someone too often?  Do you overuse certain verbs, as in “he cast a glance in her direction” or “her final insult was cast over her shoulder as she left the room.”?

Are you considering your readers, or are you merely trying to show off your mad thesaurus skills? Have you fallen in love with the word effulgent and are you insistent on using it anywhere it will fit?  I’m not asking you to “dumb down” your prose or condescend to your audience, but you might want to reflect on why you’re using the word. 

Please realize none of these are “evil” in and of themselves.  What we’re mainly talking about is the annoyingly repetitive use of such words or phrases. While in editing/rewriting mode, you might try using some of the tools your word processor has to seek out some of the more overused words and either destroy or replace them (it’s actually called “search and replace,” but I prefer “search and destroy”).

Another suggestion, maybe a little more fun:  go to Wordle.net, click on the “Create” link and copypaste a paragraph, a page, or an entire chapter of your novel and examine the resulting “word cloud.” It will be obvious which words you may be abusing; they’ll be the ones in larger print.

Also, as regards repetition: how many references are you making to a character’s voice, eyes, hair, build? Such references slow your pacing and get in the way of character development that would be more useful, such as personality quirks, thoughts, or relationships with other characters. “Okay, okay, we get it.  He’s the hottest guy in school/ the company/ the universe.  Move on!”

As for redundancy, look for sentences like: “He was gone, but I could still feel the warmth of his hand on my arm.”  If this isn’t a flashback to when our speaker was ten and now-deceased Grandpa Simon placed a hand on our speaker’s arm to tell him or her a secret or to share some truth about life, “still” may be dispensable and superfluous (this is where you say, “I see what you did there”).  Watch for overuse of modifiers, as in:  “The people suffered innumerable and infinite injustices at the hands of the Council,” “Czongor wisely and astutely disagreed.” “We took a tedious and monotonous route through the barren desert.” Some would even consider “barren desert” redundant. 

What to do if you still cannot see some of the glitches in your own work?  That’s for the next post.

Thanks again, Lynne!  For more of Lynne's insights, visit her at askthewordnerd@blogspot.com.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Avoiding the Ing

A common problem shared by many amateur writers is their emotional attachment to the dreaded Ing.  What is this insidious affliction?  See if you can spot it in the following passage:

Walking down the road, Carol heard something.  Looking over her shoulder, she shuddered.  Following her was a ten foot tall hairy creature.  Licking its lips, it reached out with a massive hand.  Seeing its dirty hangnail-covered fingers, Carol screamed.

Skilled writers avoid drawing too much attention to any single word or phrase unless there's a strategic purpose for doing it.  Gerund phrases -- especially when scampering one after another like lost puppies across a page -- draw attention from the story and focus it instead on the mechanics of each sentence. 

Experienced writers start a sentence with a gerund once or twice every few pages at worst, once every ten or fifteen pages at best.  An observant writer can make it through entire chapters without resorting to these attention-stealing sentence starters.  Creative writing teachers can help younger and older authors alike learn to overcome this habit through guided revision of paragraphs like the gerund-infected example above.

Almost as bad as "ing" openers are sentences starting with "as" or "when."

As I opened the door, something moved.  When I stepped in, I heard a floorboard creak.  As I turned toward the sound, an Ing stepped out of the shadows.  Swallowing hard, I backed away.

Another way to cure your students is to have them use their word processor's "find and replace" function to seek out and highlight any sentence starting with "ing," "as," or "when."  If they're serious about their writing, this can be an eye-opening, writing-changing experience.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Word Nerd weighs in on Revision strategies


Lynne H. (a.k.a. the Word Nerd @ askthewordnerd.blogspot.com) is more than a mere reader or editor.  She's like a no-nonsense personal trainer for writers.  I've been the fortunate beneficiary of her critical eye on my last two projects, and I've asked her to share some of her editing insights today.  Thank you, Lynne!

Thanks, A. C., for inviting me to post on your blog.

Stephen King said it well:  “When you write you tell yourself a story. When you rewrite you take out everything that is NOT the story.”

 I’ve been asked to talk about revision. Revision (not to be confused with proofreading)  is probably the most difficult part of the writing process, but it is also the most important. Consider “revision” as a “re-seeing” of your work. This is where you focus on content:  characterization, action, tension, pacing, and word choice. There is analysis involved.  Sometimes it is painful. You may have to give up some beloved phrases, ideas, or plot points.  You may have to delete a character that isn’t working. Put your ego on the shelf and think of your story, your characters, and, most important, your readers.

First revision hint:  Be logical! Go through and find the “easier” fixes, those dealing with redundancies or word usage first.  Look for “blinking eyes” or “nodding heads.”  While we’re on the subject of nodding, is it necessary to tell your readers that somebody “nodded silently” as Brandon Sanderson does so many times in the Mistborn series?  “Silently” is completely superfluous, unless somebody’s brains have been replaced with marbles.  Maybe they can nod “slowly” or “briefly,” depending upon whether they’re hesitating or hurrying as they acquiesce, but “silently”?  Please, no. On that same note, look for redundancies in your descriptions.  “Round orbs,”  “loud explosions,” or “tall giants,” for example.

Trust your reader to be as logical as you are and delete any unnecessary information such as “Rebecca clasped Jane’s two hands in her own two.” Yes, sadly enough, such passages in published works exist. Unless this is an alien species that holds hands with their feet or boasts more than one pair of hands, you have not added any relevant description nor have you aided your reader in seeing what you see. Better:  “Rebecca clasped Jane’s hands in hers.”  And some would argue that “in hers” isn’t necessary either. Now you have room to have Rebecca look in Jane’s eyes and thank her, warn her, or encourage her, which goes much further toward character development than letting your reader know that each girl has two hands. 

The benefit from using logic and eliminating redundancies when revising is that you get clarity as a bonus. A clearer sentence is a stronger one.