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Category Archives: Editing

Advice to a Non-Reading Writer

I would not send a poor girl into the world, ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself. —Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As an editor, I would not send a writer into the world ignorant, nor would I do all the work for him, depriving him of self-respect and self-reliance, of the power to learn, to improve, and to correct himself.

Most of the inquiries I receive for editing are followed by requests for free services or for writing advice. A good number of those requests are for manuscripts not yet ready for editing. But then there are some, such as the one received in February this year from a new writer for whom English is a second language. He prefers graphic novels over prose novels, and feels as if his head will explode if he reads more than a few pages at a time. And yet he wants to be a writer.

Although I have enjoyed helping fellow writers prepare their work for publication, my experience with non-reading writers has been mostly negative. Therefore, the decision to step aside was a matter of moments. However, not wishing to leave him without any aid, I offered this:

Congratulations on writing a book!

Since you asked for advice, allow me to be honest. I am concerned you’re not a reader, because one of the keys to good writing is good reading.

I write fantasy and science fiction most of the time, but my reading is wide: histories, biographies, mysteries, classics, poetry, and more. If all I read were other fantasy and science fiction novels, I might be tempted to imitate those stories rather than writing my own. Reading widely helps me to come up with fresh ideas for my work and fresh approaches to storytelling.

So, my first suggestion: Start reading. Read wisely. Read much.

Second suggestion: If you have not already done so, print out the entire manuscript so you have a copy you can hold. Then, as you revise the book, cut it up and rearrange it. Spread the pieces of paper out on a table or a counter or even on the floor, and then tape them back together as you see the order / the shape of the book.

Whatever scenes or parts you decide to omit, set them aside in a folder or paperclip them together (you might need them later). The stuff you intend to keep, tape those paragraphs back together.

Why do this with actual paper, tape, and scissors, instead of doing it digitally on the computer? Because it helps you see your work differently. In fact, your brain will process the information differently while you handle the physical objects instead of merely reading the words on the screen.

Once you have the manuscript cut-and-taped back together, the next step begins. Open a new document on your computer, and start typing the story in its new form. You may see scenes that need to be expanded, details that can be omitted, holes in the plot, and more.

Then, after the manuscript has been revised and retyped, now’s the time to find at least one trusted reader, but no more than five readers, who will read the entire manuscript and give you honest feedback.

Be willing to accept their criticism. Consider what they say. If their responses are too vague (“I like it” or “it’s boring”, but without any useful details), then ask questions until the readers can give you specific answers (“I don’t like the plot because_____” or “The middle part is boring because _______”). Honestly consider what they say, and determine whether or not it will be useful to your work.

Then, revise the manuscript again.

At this point, the book should be ready for other eyes. Go ahead and find a new batch of trusted readers, make any further revisions you deem necessary, and then search for an editor.

All through the process, be reading. Study the structures of other novels, the order of short stories anthologies, and so on. This will help your writing in more ways than I can name.

Writing is hard work, but it can be rewarding in many ways.

It can stab at your pride, but it can transform you, too.

No one will care about your work as much as you do. Know that truth. Accept it, and don’t be upset when other people aren’t as nice as you’d like them to be when they offer opinions about your writing or your storytelling. Allow them to be honest. It is the ultimate kindness they can offer, and it will help you grow as a writer.

My best wishes in your endeavors, and I hope to hear good news about you in the future.

As a young writer — still a teenager — my pride was wounded when I encountered a writer who offered criticism alongside her praise. I thought I was better than I was, and she showed that I still had a long way to go.

A similar sting may have accompanied my advice to this writer. He never replied. Perhaps he didn’t actually read the message. I can only hope he reads widely and sharpens his craft.

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Advice to a Young Writer

Advice to a Young Writer

This message from a young writer arrived last week via my website:

I am interested in writing teen fiction light novels. The genre I would like to work with is fantasy, adventure, and space. What does it take to become a fiction writer? What steps did you take? and How did you accomplish your work? I am still working on my fiction story. I created a link [omitted]. Just to get a head start.

A few days later, when I had time to provide a lucid reply after sleeping hours and hours, I wrote back:

Welcome to the land of stories! We writers are an odd bunch, living so often as we do in worlds of myth and make-believe.

How does one become a writer? One writes.

A lot.

Like all crafts, writing takes time and practice. Often, the first book written will not be the first book published. Many writers have manuscripts that will never see publication, because those were their practice books. Maybe book three or book five is the one finally published, the one readers might think is the author’s first book ever.

Dragon’s Rook took twenty years from concept to publication. Most writers don’t take that long. I was busy making a living while writing short stories and poems, submitting them to contests or magazines, and then — at long last — finishing a novel.

However, there are many unfinished novels. Some I threw away, because the time to write them had long past. Some I kept, because I still have a passion to complete them.

I can’t give you any rules or checklists to guide your journey. It’s unique to you. However, all writers become writers by — drum roll, please! — writing.

Learn all you can about constructing compelling storylines, creating intriguing characters, writing dynamic dialogue, and even learn proper grammar and sentence construction. Good paragraphs are structured like good jokes: not that they are all funny, but that they build toward a strong ending. Write a strong sentence, write a strong paragraph, write a strong scene. Repeat until you have a chapter, until you have another chapter, until you finally have a book.

Avoid cliched phrases or trite characters. Avoid lazy writing. There may be only a limited number of stories in the world, but find a way to tell your story in a fresh way.

Be open to constructive criticism. Not nasty put-downs, but honest feedback meant to help your work improve. Be humble and teachable. Be ready to stand up for your story choices, if necessary, but also be ready to consider other options. Be willing to look at the story honestly, and to see its flaws as well as its strengths.

I saw on your website that you have some of your story posted. A word of caution: Avoid offering too much of your work for free, or too soon. A chapter or a scene might be okay, or a short story related to the novel not included in the book itself. (Many writers are offering free short stories or deleted scenes as bonus material for readers.)

I wish you all the best on your journey, and I hope to hear good things about you in the future.

Sincerely,
KB

Any other advice you’d give a young writer?

 

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When Gaerbith Met Kieran

Struggling to complete this scene. I’ve already composed the first paragraphs of a scene that comes later, involving these characters, but am not sure how to proceed with this fight scene. It should be intense, I think, but witty.

Perhaps I am asking too much of it.

From the Plains rose a smudge of green that grew or shrank depending on the swell of the land as they travelled. Days later, it revealed itself as trees, and in two more days, the trees revealed their size, giants standing arm-in-arm.

Yanámari halted her mount on a grassy rise and looked East. “The Guardians.”

Gaerbith nudged his horse up the slope and joined her. Thick limbs intertwined, and massive trunks were separated only by the shadows between them. Somewhere beyond them light flashed, perhaps sun reflecting from the glass observatory built by King Meresh in long ages past. How had it survived the war and all the centuries after?

“The House of the Sky,” Gaerbith said, clasping Yanámari’s hand. “Home to your mother’s ancestors.”

“That blood is too remote to claim any kinship here.”

“Still. Almost home.”

By nightfall, they rested in a hollow among the tangled roots of the guardians. Fallen branches provided enough fuel for a fire in a small pit dug where the Plains sidled up to the trees, and a tiny brook trickled out from the shadows as if it had been awaiting their arrival before springing up from the ground. Gaerbith and Yanámari sipped handfuls from the rill spilling over tumbled stones, and the horses drank from the little pool it formed before disappearing into the tall, waving grass. Animals shuffled and snuffled somewhere beyond the Guardians—familiar night noises—but when a sudden silence fell, both horses lifted their heads, chins dripping, and pointed noses and ears toward the darkness.

A faint shrr of cloth against cloth sounded a moment before the quiet firmness of a careful footfall.

Reaching over his shoulder, Gaerbith gripped the hilt of his sword. “Come, you. No skulking. Show your face.”

He did not expect the answering chuckle, or the pleasant low voice that accompanied it. “That sword is nigh man-tall. Exchange it for a stave, and we will have fine sport.”

A thick staff flew from the shadows. Gaerbith caught it more by instinct than sight.

 

c2017, KB, for Dragon’s Bane, a novel

 

The connection between these two guys is a minor plot twist — revealed to the reader earlier in the story, but not yet known to Kieran. And, at this moment, not known to either guy, because Gaerbith does not yet know it’s Kieran who is challenging him.

 

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A Brief Word About Beta Readers

A Brief Word About Beta Readers

In a discussion on Facebook, someone asked the difference between a beta reader and an editor, and the cost one might expect to pay for the services of either. When I said that one should not pay for beta readers, there was disagreement. However, I still maintain that one need not pay for beta readers.

Consider them your product testers. They’re the focus group who tries out the new invention, samples a new product, gives feedback on an upcoming ad campaign, views an early cut of a movie, or tests a new video game to see if it plays as it should.

If you (or a close, trusted individual) are the alpha reader of your manuscript, then beta readers are the folks who see the final, pre-publication draft. That version can still be a manuscript, or it can take the form of a galley or proof copy of the book.*

In return for their effort on your behalf, give beta readers a signed copy of the published book, or offer to read or test something they’ve created.

But don’t hire beta readers as you would hire an editor. And while editors can provide a similar service in the form of a manuscript critique,** there’s nothing like getting feedback directly from readers — who are, of course, a writer’s intended audience.


UPDATE (8-7-16): The paragraphs below are from a reader’s comments in a Facebook discussion sparked by this blog post. They expand upon and better explain what I attempted above.

A beta tester for a video game or other piece of software enters into an agreement wherein he receives a free or discounted early release of the software to use, and in return, the tester will tell the company what he thinks about the software — what does or doesn’t work, what is or isn’t intuitive, what he would like to see changed or further developed, etc. The beta tester is not paid for his work. He is asked, as an average user, to give the company his average-user opinion of the product. At best, he gets a free copy of the software, but it is both understood and accepted (and generally stated in some Terms and Conditions document somewhere, for legal reasons) in the IT community that beta testers are not compensated.

Testers who are hired on for their services are not hired to come at the software from the average user’s perspective; they are hired to make sure that the software functions appropriately (e.g. program doesn’t crash on loading, save function actually functions, etc.). They are hired to seek out and fix problems with the software, not to provide the average user’s perspective. These testers are not referred to as beta testers, because that’s not the job they do.

A beta reader receives a free or discounted early release of a book to read, and in exchange, the reader will tell the author what he thinks of the book — what does or doesn’t seem to fit or flow well in the story, what does or doesn’t make sense, what he would like to see further explained or developed, etc. This makes a beta reader the exact literary equivalent to a software beta tester. Traditionally, beta readers are treated the same as beta testers — that is, they are not paid for their services. And there is nothing wrong with that.

For clarification, if any reader, compensated or otherwise, provides any services outside what I listed above (other services include but are not limited to any form of editing, proofreading, etc.), then he has ceased to be a beta reader and strayed into editor/manuscript critic territory.


* It’s best if beta readers are honest with you about what works or doesn’t, what they like or don’t like, and are willing to give specific feedback (not merely generic “I hate it” or “I like it” statements, but detailed responses).

Prepare a list of questions for them to answer, so they know what kind of feedback you need. Example: “In the scene where Tara is driving Sven to the airport and they encounter an overturned ambulance, is the dialogue and action believable? Why or why not?”

Keep the questions simple and straightforward, and keep the list short. Try not to make the readers feel they’re doing homework, but make it easy for them to help you.

Also provide readers with a simple way of reporting any typos or grammar issues they find. It’s handy when they provide you a page number, and maybe even a paragraph and a line number — “page 35, paragraph 3, line 7” — as well as a description of what’s wrong (“dipsolve” should be “dissolve”). 

** Manuscript critiques may cover such issues as continuity, characterization, worldbuilding, etc. Regular editing may also touch on those issues, but will also focus on the writing itself.

 

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Where Are You Going?

Where Are You Going?

“Progress” is merely motion in a certain direction, as in advancement toward a goal. Depending on the goal, your motives, or your methods, that progression can be positive or negative.

People say, “Hold on! It’ll get better!” but sometimes we need to let go. As much as we admire people who trudge onward toward their goals, there is, indeed, a time to give up.

Sometimes we persevere in the wrong direction. We may not know it. We may know it but not know how to change it. Our effort, skill, hope, endurance, loyalty, courage, and strength of will are expended in vain.

Step back. Examine goals, motives, methods, relationships, results. Is this truly the path you want to tread? Is this the end result you desire?

Don’t be discouraged by how much road — or how much life — lies behind you. It’s never too late for a course correction.

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

east on a Wyoming highway (c2013, KB)

 

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Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Scathing: Receiving Criticism, Avoiding Labels, and Redacting a Review

Ever been labeled something that puzzled you?

Recently, a fellow writer wrote that I was unethical. At first, I thought she meant someone else, and thought, “What does she mean? That’s not true of that person,” but then realized she referenced a blog post I wrote last year regarding how pride can get in the way of receiving feedback or criticism. No names were mentioned. In fact, the only person readers knew was involved was me, and I admitted that even now, after decades as a writer, my pride is still sometimes stung by harsh criticism.

Hey, even the most thick-skinned of veteran writers still wants his work to be liked and read, no matter how many bestsellers he has behind him. (I’d like to have at least one bestseller, but that’s a goal yet to be reached.)

Another label put on me in the past — this time by a publisher — is “the editor who makes authors cry”. That is not an appellation of which to be proud. By no means. My goal has been and always will be to help authors produce their best work. Sometimes, they can be so in love with their creations that they cannot see flaws or weaknesses, missed storytelling opportunities, or clunky sentences. When an editor tells them what needs revising, they don’t receive the news well.

There is an implied compliment in the fact that someone else is taking the time to not only read one’s work, but to help one improve it. However, we writers often react with affront, with offended pride and scathing words toward the “clueless”, “high-handed”, “overbearing” editor. We don’t see his/her true intent. All we know is that we didn’t receive the praise and the rubber-stamped approval we desired.

Before we slap labels on folks and burn bridges we might need to rebuild, might I suggest a bit of reflection? Some distance? Perhaps a walk, a rant to a friend, a scribbled diatribe in a journal? A good night’s sleep? Prayer? Something that allows us to grow calm, to be objective, and not to say or do something we’ll regret. (Related reading: “What’s Your Filter?“)

We may find — as I did while editing Dragon’s Rook — that snarky, scolding feedback that shoots wide of the mark can still contain something valuable. When I stepped back and looked at the advice with cold objectivity, I saw a couple pieces I could use. As a result, I tore apart one scene that had been troubling me. The reconstructed version is many times better than the original.

So, then, what should I do when I’m now the one giving the ugly, scathing criticism?

Write it all out, and then don’t say most of it.

Recently, a PR firm requested I review a new novel by a young author. After reading the back cover blurb and the dark, well-written prologue, I had high expectations for the book. Below is the review. For the author’s sake, it will not be posted elsewhere, and has been edited here to obscure the author’s identity.

~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~  *  ~~

Although marketed as contemporary literary fiction, this novel could also be described as speculative fiction, a mix of modern and futuristic, of post-apocalyptic dystopian and the quest for utopia-via-enlightenment, of a perverse coming-of-age/search-for-meaning story with a science fiction existentialist-absurdist tale.

Try saying that ten times, fast. 😉

[Story synopsis, character list, and website links have been omitted to preserve author anonymity. However, quotes from the novel text remain unaltered, but for the characters’ names.]

It is not often I write a review like this. I want to write only the positives, but the cons are weighty. To be blunt, this book needs an editor, for content as well as mechanics.

It runs the risk of being “a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). The writing is often preening and pretentious, but that could be the result of a conscious stylistic choice on the part of the author, matching the attitudes and egos of the characters.

Yet it sometimes feels like the writer is trying to make use of every high-sounding turn of phrase he can conjure or every word he can find in the dictionary. One is left wondering if, by the sheer volume and length of words, the author believes he has communicated—but, perhaps, I am not the audience for this work. I can wax lyrical with the most poetic of the poets, but prefer straightforwardness to roundaboutation.

Macbeth^Orson Welles

Orson Welles as Macbeth

As Macbeth might say, “Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly,” (Act 5, Scene 5).

Despite proofing errors (the repeated use of “causal” in place of “casual”, for instance) and some awkwardly-constructed sentences or phrases (what are “cathartic muscles”?), there remain many quotable lines:

“I take it you’re the self-proclaimed chosen one?” (Leroy) asked. “Prophets are rarely successful. Even when they are, society kills them.”

(Walter’s) thick lips gave way to a line of crooked teeth. “Hence, it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” (p77)

Later in the same conversation:

“The day is not calm when you discover humanity to be ripe for the taking.” (p78)

And some lines read like refugees from a modern-day “Jabberwocky”—they have a sound and a rhythm, and therefore the reader might almost think he understands their meaning or the author’s intent. But repeated readings reveal, no, the words really do make no sense.

This paragraph on page 121 transforms from poetic imagery to lyrical nonsense:

The notes of a distant piano played a melodic Bach and a blue Chopin to the beat of Kerouac. The sounds were unremitting as they’d always been in her mind. Real, but at the same time not real. Resonating. Vibrating. For she was a lollipop made of cherry and petrol, more given to the depths of trench coats and dark alleys; lethal-red lipstick, rocking a tear that was not a tear, but moisture secreting the nostalgia of an instinct held away from mankind by the missing link. From the real show and state.

Thank you, Google Translate. Sense to make, you do not.

The novel’s subtitle—[redacted]—is a clue to how readers are expected to view this work. The publisher’s mission statement, as well as the author’s explanation for the story’s existence, seem overly earnest, betraying a certain immaturity and youthful desire to ‘make a difference’:

[mission statement redacted]

Below is a quote from the introduction:

In the novel you’re about to read, I do not seek to victimize technology, nor to condemn our evolution, but to instill the realization that we are the product of our own thoughts, our own ideas, our own dreamed of reveries. We are the discomfort and leisure of humanity, the bright flame and its grey ashes. By nature we are born free.

Can’t argue with that last line. No doubt the author and I would find agreement on several other points. But how does one “victimize technology”?

Confession: I skimmed the second half of the book. Perhaps the story improved as it progressed. However, despite seeing interesting passages, I was not compelled to continue. The green-visored, cigar-chomping curmudgeonly editor who lives in the back of my brain could tolerate no more, and he suspects that publisher, editor, author, and the originator of the “editorial review” on the back cover are one and the same.

Nonetheless, [name redacted] is talented and intelligent, and is definitely an author to look for in the future. Give him time.

And his website waaaaay outclasses mine.

 

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Excellence v. Mediocrity

Excellence v. Mediocrity

From an article by novelist Athol Dickson on his site, discussing excellence v. mediocrity in writing:

It’s true many novels by Christians are poorly written. That’s also true of many other kinds of novels. In fact it’s true of most novels of every kind, but it’s not a particular indictment of mediocre writers or the readers who enable them. Most people don’t really care about excellence in architecture, sculpture, painting, or dance . . . or government, commerce, marriage, or anything else in life that ought to matter.

What interests me, is why. In our discussion about the “Worst Books” list, some of my author friends speculated that so many people dislike those novels because they were forced to read them in school and disliked them then. But these books truly are works of genius—most of them are, anyway—so why didn’t we love them in the first place?

It’s a thought-provoking read, not only for writers who happen to be Christians, but for any writer who strives for excellence.

As an editor, I am constantly confronted by the “good enough” work of fellow writers who just want me to sign off on their manuscripts rather than helping them shape those manuscripts into polished books. The constant fight to challenge other writers toward excellence can be wearisome, but it’s not a fight I can ignore.

Just this past week, I had an e-mail conversation with a rookie novelist whose work is being published soon. He acknowledges that it needs more crafting, but it’s been praised so highly by so many people—I was his only negative reviewer—that he’s going ahead with publication, because (as he put it himself) it’s good enough.

Not to sound overly pessimistic, but I’ve been feeling like the “lone voice crying in the wilderness”—and then I read Mr. Dickson’s eloquent, thought-provoking post. I’m dropping a copy into my archives so I can pull it out whenever I need encouragement. Or a kick in the pants.

originally posted October 18, 2012

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,

 

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