Self-Editing (It’s Not Just for Polite Conversation)

I’ve read a lot of books on this topic, scoured blogs, took any and every class I could at conferences and workshops on the matter, but I always still feel like there’s vast room for improvement when it comes to editing your own work.

Part of the reason is that it’s incredibly hard after writing, rewriting, and rewriting again (times a thousand) to edit all of those words. Not because we’re narcissistic megalomaniacs and don’t think there’s anything wrong with our novel, but because there’s a true phenomenon that happens in our brains as we read (and re read, and re read again) our own work.

The human brain is complex and the way it takes in and interprets stimuli from outside is a complicated and delicate dance. If we were to notice every single thing in our world, we wouldn’t be able to exist in it. The noise, the colors, the sound, the smells are so varied and ever present that our brains would be in a constant state of interpretation that would cause us to vomit, or pass out. Or both. (Which is one of the reasons so many people on the spectrum can have a difficult time coping with crowded, noisy, overstimulating places). As a result, we tend to soften the edges of a lot of information, block it out, or keep it in the peripheral of our consciousness, allowing our brains to make up a great deal of what we take in, through context.

It can be the same as when we edit. We tend to be in a taking-things-for-granted-because-I-read-it-so-many-times-before haze. We coast over the words and retell ourselves the story we already know in our heads, rather than focusing on what is actually on the page.

You, the author who created this magnificent book, know what it’s supposed to say, you know what you meant when you wrote it. So in your brain, when your eyes pass over the words, it will fill in the missed words, ignore the double ones, and forgive the dangling participles because in your brain, it’s reading correct. Very rarely do we ever approach our own work as a completely new reader. It’s practically impossible to do.

Does that mean we shouldn’t edit? Fuck no. Unless you’re incredibly rich and can afford an editor to take your first draft to your final over the course of 9 rewrites. And if you are that author, why the hell are you reading this blog? This is for the poor, struggling authors who are trying to procrastinate their own editing by reading my blog. Not for big money-bag writers who bang out twenty political spy thrillers a year because they have a nanny, and a cook, and a dog walker, and a personal shopper, and a house cleaner…

Where were we—ah yes, self-editing. Here are some of the biggest tips that have helped me produce a much better final version (before I send it in to an editor for the one or two rounds I can afford).

  • Take it line by line, sentence by sentence. Is the structure sound? Does it make sense? Is it passive? Is it clear who is doing the action, who is in control of the perspective? Is there a random “pineapple” thrown in at the end of a paragraph?
  • Read it out loud. When all else fails, read it cover to cover, out loud. That’s when I find most of my mistakes. Or, if you’re not into that (or you live with people who aren’t into listening to you and by people, I mean cats) at least read aloud the passages, paragraphs and parts that feel awkward or over the top.
  • It’s not too late to kill some darlings. I have been known to cut out scenes/sentences/dialogue, in my final rounds that I knew didn’t belong but I clung to them like a freezing poor boy on the wreckage of the Titanic. Save them in a different file, but if you know in your heart it’s there to stroke your ego at your brilliant wordage but it’s not doing the story any good then show some humility and axe it.
  • Check your tense, check your POV, be consistent in those little things because they make a HUGE difference on whether or not your reader can follow the story and isn’t frustrated trying to do so.
  • Print it out. You can get a good deal at local or national printing companies (my local FedEx cashier knows me and it is so heartening every time she asks “new book?” and hands me the brown box of hope). Double sided, nothing fancy, cheapest version possible will still only set you back about $30 for a 250 page book. You will see things in ink that you cannot see on the screen, guaranteed.
  • Get a Beta reader or twelve. Yeah, it’s not really self-editing, but it’s part of the process that will help bring new eyes to your work. And usually it’s a low cost way to get a ‘real readers’ perspective on your work.

All right, that’s all I’ve got. Good luck out there. Don’t think this bullet list will take the place of a good professional round of editing, but it should help in your process. And maybe it can even help turn your first drafts into better drafts.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #5: Point of View

Thank you to the beautiful people at Grammarly for this awesome little image of Point of View.

Whilst (I love using that word) typing up the title today I realized, that all of these blogs on novel writing can also be used in other aspects of your writing. Short stories, flash fiction, non fiction, and even poetry all contain aspects of plot, character, and point of view. In a novel, however, consistency of your point of view is crucial for keeping your reader snuggly in your world. Shifts in POV can cause confusion or jar them out of the story.

So today, we’re going to briefly discuss the typical types of POV as well as which ones are most effective to use.

For the budding writer, I’ll lay down some foundation.

Point of View is basically who is telling the story.

In First-Person POV, then the action is happening to the person telling the story (the narrator is the main character). Here, a writer uses “I/We” mostly while only using “he/she/they” as outward observations. They can tell you what they see, feel, hear, know, etc, but they can’t tell you what anyone else sees, feels, hears, or knows. The best way to show those things are through action and dialogue AND by having faith in the reader to understand by your clues the general idea.

Second-Person is the red-headed step child of writing POV. I’m sorry. I said it. Second person uses “you” and “your” and they narrator speaks directly to the reader. “You were amazed. You’d never seen a chicken with five legs.” They make you part of the story. I suppose some of my blogs have been in 2nd person, non-fiction informative may utilize this POV. I’ve never used this in a short story or my fiction but occasionally it creeps into my poetry. In fiction, it’s very difficult to do well. (“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerey, “The Sweetheart” by Angelina Mirabella, “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern)

Third-person is an outside narrator telling the story from a distance (she/he/they). When it gets closer in (think into the characters’ heads) it’s called third-person omniscient. Third-person is popular with light fiction, serial romance, cozies, beach reads, sci-fi, fantasy etc. The tricky part of this POV is being able to stay focused on one character at a time. If the story dictates it (two or three main characters) I will switch POV in Third by chapter, possibly by section, but never by paragraph or within the same scene.

We discussed each typical type, but how do you know which one is best for you? Well, part of this comes down to your writing style. When you write, are you the character? Are you in their mind, in the arena, in the pilot’s seat? Or are you observing them, building the world around them and telling them what you see from above? Are you walking them through the story, a sort-of inward conscience to their journey? Which genre is your story? What’s the purpose of the story?

All of these factors can make writing in the right POV harrier than my old math teacher at the swimming pool (Hey! Take the sweater off before you get in–oh…wait…sorry!) Some genres are more lenient as to how much you can change or shift the point of view. Some genres really do best when one specific POV is used.

Take memoir for example. This type of storytelling should be first person, past-tense. Period. That’s your story, it happened to you. You are telling it.

Now, romance novels can dance on the edge of third-person, third-person omniscient, or first-person.

Most contemporary fiction these days is first-person (think Hunger Games) or if you’re feeling fancy, 2-person, first-person (look at Gone Girl–a book told in first by two different main characters–very clever)

I am wont to say that sci-fi and fantasy tend to be third person, due to the world building that has to occur. But it can be done marvelously in first as well (check out “The Martian” which tickles both first and third).

The important part about POV (especially when working with third) is that you stick to a strong, non-passive-voiced point of view that stays in its lane.

Check this out:

“You’re such a selfish prick!” Jill yelled and slammed her fist into the table upsetting the spoons. She’d had enough of his late nights at the track and the dwindling bank account.

Bob jumped back at the sound. His heart fell to his gut and he felt like crying. He couldn’t believe he’d lost their honeymoon money. He was only trying to double up on the winnings so they could have a bigger trip.

Jill paced the room in a fury. How could he? After she had been saving for months and months so they could go away…

Yowza. For one–this is a lot of information dumping out on your reader. You can’t describe your main character’s (Jill) thoughts and feelings about Bob and then in the next paragraph have Bob spring into an inner dialogue on his thoughts and feelings about her. It’s called head hopping and it confuses the readers. Only a few really talented authors can make this happen and not lose the reader (I’m looking at you Nora Roberts).

Don’t cause a ruckus. If the character you are writing for (be it third or first) isn’t a goddamn mind reader then don’t describe things they wouldn’t know.

If you want the reader to have the information, you show through body language and dialogue.

“You’re such a selfish prick!” Jill yelled. “I can’t believe you blew our savings at the tables!” She slammed her fist into the table and knocked over the cup of spoons.

Bob hung his head and swallowed. His voice trembled. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Sorry doesn’t even begin–“
“I was only trying to–” Bob started.

“It doesn’t matter!” she yelled. “You don’t get another chance to make this better!”

Here, the reader has enough information to gather how Bob feels without dropping us into his head.

Ok. Whew! Speaking of info dumps, huh? Take a minute to absorb all of that. Think about your story, what you’re trying to do, who you’re trying to follow, and how you want to bring the reader along. If you’re writing short stories, experiment with all the types of POV. I’ve only written a few things in first and its very powerful, but for some reason, it’s very hard for me. My comfort is in Third-Omniscient, but as in all things in life, we have to push our comfort zones to be better. So…push your zones, get uncomfortable.

Pick a POV per project and stick with it.

Until next week. Happy writing!

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #31: Novelty

Happy Thursday, Writers.

I hope that you had a productive week and are staying safe wherever you’re stationed right now. It seems in all parts of the world, different calamities are occurring. In my own state we went from 80 degrees to 30 in a matter of hours. And while I weep for my garden, my hope is that the snow and rain will put an end to the massive fire that is raging north of our town.

Remember, remember…when the world wasn’t collapsing into chaos and death?
Photo by Ashutosh Sonwani on Pexels.com

So whether you are being lashed by hurricanes, trampled by heat, or decimated by fire, I am sending all my hope for your safety and well-being. Believe it or not (and most of the world’s leading climatologists agree) this is probably tip of the melting iceberg in terms of where our world is headed.

What better time to start writing that dystopian/apocalyptic novel that you’ve been putting off?

While we still have power to do so, let’s write.

THE NOVEL

Now, some of you are short story aficionados and some are poetry pros but there’s something beautiful and obstinate about writing a novel. It’s the kind of thing that gets bandied about at coffee shops and by people in thick rimmed glasses over cups of burnt coffee, smugly proclaiming that they’re drafting their first, second, or third revision. It’s daunting just trying to write a first version for some of us. While we could probably spend a month-long class on the craft of writing a novel, I’ll try to pare it down to the essentials for those of you who are looking to get started.

Most novels come in between 60,000 and 120,000 words. Some exceptions can be made and I’ve seen as few as 40,000 and over 150,000. The large spread is due to the specifics of genre. A light romance novel only needs to distract us for an afternoon, so 50,000 is plenty. A science fiction tome, where entire worlds are built and new languages are developed will require three times that.

For the most part, I like to keep my novels between 80,000 and 100,000 (but even the Southtown Harbor Series pushed into the 120,000s–ghost sex takes some time to maneuver through). This is simply the cold hard number in the equation. The real magic of a novel is so much more than that.

You can scour the internet all day and dredge up at least fifty sites, each with a pretty little bullet-point list of the “essential” elements of a good novel. One might have 5. Another 3. One had 24. Still another 12.

Just like a novel, it’s all cute and fun until it poops itself.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Just like parenting your first child, when it comes to writing your first novel, you will get a deluge of advice both good and bad. I encourage you to read as much of it as you can and reject what doesn’t fit your style. Because at the end of the day, if you are forcing your voice and writing style into the confines of a bulleted list that doesn’t gel, you’re not going to get that book written.

Here are the consistent elements that all novels really should have and that we’ll be covering for the next three to five weeks, in no particular order of importance. (Yes…I get the hypocrisy of giving you a list…just…go with it.)

  • Plot (can’t write a novel without a purpose/story)
  • Characters (can’t engage a reader unless they have someone to follow)
  • Viewpoint (or even Point of View if you will–affects how the reader travels with you and how you are able to convey information)
  • Style (your particular voice as well as the overall tone of the book)
  • Arcs (some say beginning, middle, end…I say doorways. Potaytoe, Potahtoe)
  • Setting (not only does setting affect character and style but can also be a character itself)
  • Dialogue (I’m throwing this one in because, if done well, it will move the plot along and connect us to characters. If done poorly, it will stunt the flow and disengage the reader)

Well, it looks like I have seven there. I think that’s a happy medium point and a good basis to start. Beginning next week I will be posting both on Tuesdays and Thursdays, mini lessons in the art of writing a Novel. I may even include some excerpts of my own work as examples.

If you have some thing you’d like to ask, or a problem you’ve encountered in the process and want to shoot me an e-mail, I’d love to hear from you and try to help get you out of the pit, so to speak. It may also help another writer who is struggling to hear similar questions and concerns. So don’t be shy.

Until then, gird your loins for next Tuesdays riveting episode on Plot.