Tag Archives: editing

Guest Post: A House of Prose, and Don’t be The Lauren

Everyone’s a critic.

When you ask for an opinion from someone on something you’ve done, what you’re secretly asking is ‘do you like this?’ And you secretly want them to like what you’re showing them. It’s the author’s curse; we want to be published, but we need to write something that people can relate to enough to want to buy.

The underpinnings of our society dictate that we have to ‘get along’, ‘be liked’, and ‘hold approval.’ Popular people are who we hear about; unpopular people are spoken about derisively or with hatred sometimes.

Books and writing our expressions of our writer’s soul. It is the innermost child (..or occasional lurking adult) seeking the light of day and the likes of others.

We pick our genre, the one we feel the most at home with, and we decorate the house of our novel home with the things that belong there. A family of characters, or a single person looking out the windows. A bunch of good-natured or mean neighbors to challenge the family. And then there are the things that try and burn the house down or break in and steal their stuff.

I say it’s a house here because the analogy is apt to me; we ‘live’ in the space of our novel when it’s going good, and then when it’s done, we do our best to spruce it up and invite guests to come visit.

I’ve lived in a few places over the years; that first moment when someone new sees my new place they always look around. Form impressions. Some of them look at the things I have on the walls, some of them look at my knickknacks, some of them look at my furniture, and a few of them poke their head in the bedroom.

“Nice place.” they say. Whether they’re being polite or not, I don’t know. But then again, I live in a rental, so it’s not a house I can do a lot of decoration with. I’ve been in a few houses that I’ve said, ‘this is a gorgeous place.’ I have things that I want in my house, so when I see one of those things, I appreciate it.

Now apply that idea back to books again.

Some folks can write an amazing epic tale that grabs you from the get go; some folks write a ramshackle tale that barely holds itself together; you can see the holes in the plot like you notice crayon marks or holes in the walls.

It is not a reflection on the owner/author; it is all about the _everything_ in the house/novel, rather than the bits that you notice that stick out to you.

I’ve got a friend that I’ll call Lauren. She wanted to be a writer, because I was one. She participated in the NaNoWriMo, because I did, and people really liked my first novel.

When she read it, the first thing she asked was, “Is this about you? Is that character there me?”

(The answer was no and no. Because I am not a six foot tall efficiency expert who drives a convertible.)

Then she started poking holes in the novel. Pointing out typos, a half-finished sentence here and there, that sort of thing.

“I know.’ I said, defensively. “It’s a first draft. Thanks.”

When she won NaNo for the first time, she gave me her first effort at writing a full length novel. Asked me what I thought.

It was a pretty good tale, but she got lost in the weeds when she hit Week 3 and there were two very similar characters that I kept getting mixed up, and there was another point where she was missing parts of the description because she was in what I call ‘fugue state’ — you can see the action in your head, and it’s rushing fast, but she didn’t put it all down on the page.

“Did you want me to make edits or did you just want an opinion?”

“Just an opinion. I know my writing sucks.”

“I liked it. It had some good suspense elements, and your heroine is genuinely likable. Your supernatural elements are solid, too. And your writing does not suck.”

“Do you think I could get it published?”

“I think it needs some work before you can get there. There are some elements that need more details, and your ending is a bit rushed. I’d like to see more of the world, too.”

“You hate it.” she said.

“No, I don’t hate it. It’s good! It’s a first draft and I like what I see here. That’s the nature of the Nano — nobody ever produces a perfect first draft, but the Nano makes you actually finish that first draft. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have finished it.”

Later, I heard she’d shared it with some of her other friends, with the additional rider comment that she felt I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was good enough to get published. Of course, she was giving it to friends who liked her as a person, and since she had predetermined for them that she was looking for praise, not critique, by way of ‘Friend didn’t like it, I’m hoping you will’ — she was told what she wanted to hear, rather than the truth. And when one of her friends, who is usually bluntly honest, said that it was ‘scattered and disorganized’, Lauren was done showing people. The manuscript went somewhere dark and never saw the light of another person’s eyes again, for fear of disapproval.

She tried her hand at writing the sequel the next year, because like many first time successful novelists, they still have a story left to tell. And it’s easier to work within an existing world than it is to spin up a brand new one.

But she got sick the first week, and stopped writing, and because she was a week behind, she gave up. This was the same year I wrote 100K words in the month.

She hasn’t attempted the Nano since.

For me, the NaNoWriMo is one of my life’s passions. I’ve done it every year for the past twelve. I talk about it a lot. Whenever I’m with friends or family, and I bring up the idea of Nano and they like the idea and are impressed with someone who can write that much in that little time, none of them really ask, ‘Yes, but are they good novels?’ If they do, or they ask when I’m getting published, I just grin and say, “I’m still working on that part. It’s a first draft, and a story that needs to be told, and one of these years I’ll like something enough to edit it and try and get it published. But it’s great practice and a grand adventure that I willingly take every year.”

They are invariably encouraging.

Lauren, if she’s also present, frequently jumps into the conversation with the “Hey, I wrote for the Nano too…” (Subtext: I want some of the positive attention you’re getting.)

“Oh cool!” is the response. “What are you writing this year?”

“Oh, I’m not likely to. I did it once about six years ago.” she says. “I have a bunch of good ideas, but I don’t have the time.”

Predictably, that means the focus goes back to me shortly after, because I have Ideas and Advice and Encouragement That You Should Play This Year. Nano is my passion, and I believe everyone should play at least once — if not more than once — because everyone has that lurking story in the back of their heads, triumphs, troubles,tasks, thoughts, tribulations, trout that traversed the trawler’s tail temporarily, those things. Tall tales. Truth, too.

At the end of one of those days, Lauren asked, “How come they never acknowledge me as an author like they do you? Do I suck that badly?”

“You didn’t show them your work.” I said. “You can’t know that they won’t like it until you show them, and the people you showed all liked it.”

“You didn’t like it.” she said.

“I did. I’m sorry you don’t think I liked it because I offered constructive criticism.”

“Well, I’m not a writer anyway.” she said.

Don’t be the Lauren, ladies and gentlemen. Write because you want to. Write because you have an amazing idea that’s half-baked — and understand that it’s okay to write a story that goes awry in the first chapter, as long as you follow the prose wherever it goes.

Don’t write because you need to be loved vicariously through your writing. I’ve written some of my best work when I was miserable, because pain is a crazy good resource to write out of sometimes.

Do write because you have a world you want to share, no matter how big or how small the space is. Do write because you want to finish the story, or at least take it for a spin around the block. Or the galaxy.

You never publish what you never write.

Nobody will ever see the house that you’re afraid to invite them over to visit. And when you decorate the walls with your art, be it imitations of the Masters or kid macaroni art, when you get your furniture of gleaming chrome and exquisite silks, stuff you, personally, might never be able to afford, but your characters can?

Don’t expect everyone who visits to want to move in. It’s your house of prose. You wrote it. You made the installment payments of 50,000 words or more (or occasionally less). Maybe the back rooms aren’t done. Maybe the roof has leaks that you didn’t see. Maybe the patio door is hung upside down. But it’s your home, the home of the tale you had to build from the ground up, and you ought to be proud of it.

You can always redecorate later, but you’ve got to turn the key in the lock and drag the readers in, first.

Build your first story, and you have the beginnings of a homeworld that is uniquely yours.

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Editor’s Block

Other than the writing of the story, the editing process is my favorite. As time goes on and you spend more time with the novel or the short story, or whatever it is, you learn what exactly you want to do with it, and you have a better idea of what fixes to make.

I admit that it lets loose the perfectionist in me. I get a second and third and fourth glance at the content and have an ability to make any tweaks or even re-write as I see fit. As someone who is very picky about what she writes, I manage to have a very difficult time through NaNoWriMo, when the biggest principle is simply to “keep writing, don’t revise until the month is over.”

Though, in some cases, revising and editing can be a worse task. John Green said once that he had re-written 52,000 of Looking for Alaska’s original wordcount when he got to the first round of editing.

That, to me, however, is incredibly intimidating, but I can see where it comes from. You have a better idea for the story and its direction, and accordingly, you need to re-write and take things out where it’s appropriate to accommodate.

Others, however, hate the task of editing. Friend finds it rather a daunting process, to go through all of the 60-100,000 words. While I relish in the chance to be able to mark up  my work and get it in the form and pristine shape that I want it, he’d rather leave it as is. There’s so much to read through, to try and fix other than the obvious typos.

If you hate editing and revising, there’s still hope, you can do it! I have faith in you! You can do the thing! <pom poms>

First, take it a little bit at a time. Measure it chapter by chapter instead. If you’re having trouble remembering what exactly happened in the novel, there’s no shame in going back to re-read it and getting it fresh in your head, to return and do the best work on it that you can.

Second, focus on typing mistakes first.

As you go on, you’ll likely see things you do or don’t like, things you’ll want to improve or leave or expand upon. This is where the third step comes in, but it should come naturally. Your writing instincts should be able to tell you what you want to keep and what may need to be re-written.

The more time you spend on it, the more you’ll do. It’s a natural progression, start small and work your way up. It doesn’t deserve to intimidate you, it’s your work, you own it.

Another option is to send it to a friend you trust, who also writes (preferably), and get a second opinion. Take it into consideration, and try to see what you think is the best course of action.

If you’re going the professional route of being published, you’ll likely have an editor who thoroughly checks and rechecks your work for errors and gives you their opinion. A writer back in the 50s (forgot the name), who I was studying for a Fiction Writing class back in college, had an editor that would take out huge swaths of his story and re-write them, or simply take them out. Looking at a revised copy of his original work was like watching the short story go through the chop-shop.

Then again, that editor was credited for the man’s great success as an author.

Personally, that’s a little terrifying. To encounter someone who changes that much of your work and to have to put your trust in them for getting anywhere with the story. Whew.

I love editing, like I said. If you don’t, I know you can make it through; think of it as selective writing! You’ll get to the end quicker than you realize, if you stick with it.

-The Novice Wordsmith

Pushing It

Something that gets faced a lot in physical sports and activities is that line of “can I keep going on this pain/annoyance, or should I slow down to recover?” It is something I’ve struggled with in running when I up the ante, and it seems to translate to writing in different ways.

You know the days, slow, sluggish, your head is cloudy and you can’t get the picture right. There’s too much fuzz on your mental television and you can’t tune it in just right to see correctly. Maybe it’s just a bad day, or you’re out of sorts, but you still need to get your writing done for the day, and you do still want to make progress on something.

Except, you can’t. You’re stalled out mentally. So when do you keep pushing, to try and make something happen, and when do you call it a mental health day and walk away from it until you can see better?

When it becomes an all-out struggle, I stop, to breathe and try to calm down. It’s easy to get frustrated when you feel like you can’t get any details right. Likewise, it’s hard to get anything right when you’re flustered. I’ve had a BIG problem with this recently, and it’s the cause of a few month-long pause on a project I’ve been wanting to work on very badly.

Funks and grooves are easy to get into sometimes, when things have been thrown off, but the best thing to do sometimes is to wait until it feels okay. Do what you can to alleviate some frustration, whether it be outlining or getting fresh ideas for the scene, or rethinking what you’ve done so far. Don’t count yourself out completely.

Then there are times where you force yourself to finish it, no matter what, you have to get to the finish line. The point here is that you can go back and revise what you did. You can even re-write it, if you really feel like you have to, but if there’s a need for you to finish now, don’t worry about revision. Write. Come back to it later, look it over, you may yet like what you wrote when your head’s a bit more clear.

In some situations, forcing it to happen may make it worse. It can get you to put characters in situations you don’t like, or say things that aren’t true to their personalities, and the list goes on. Complications feed complications, and sometimes it’s easier to see what’s going wrong, and others can be harder to tell.

If it’s mild, try to do what you can, but you know your limits best. Don’t make something happen if it doesn’t feel right. It’s okay to take breaks. Up against a deadline? Pause, breathe, and go forward as you can.

If it’s severe, it’s better to reset your head. Wait for it. Take it slow.

What I hear a lot of is that taking rest days from an injury often deters training for a race. It’s the same in that, if you have a deadline with your publisher or a personal deadline to reach, having to stop creates a lot of stale chaos for you. Bury yourself in “homework:” if you can’t write, read, or watch a movie related to what you’re writing, or a television show. Something will come up. Something will spark.

Everything takes time, though. Pace yourself. Relax. Look at what’s going on and see what the best course of action is. Don’t panic, there’s a way. There always is.

-The Novice Wordsmith

Recycling Bin

One of my favorite things to do is to re-write old stories, things I felt like I didn’t do well enough, or there were new pieces to consider, or there was a change somewhere else. I love looking back and between and seeing the difference, to watch growth and change and see how I shape my own personal style.

Especially in the case of something I wrote when I was 12. The difference was astounding. One character went from the portrayal of everything I wanted when I was a kid, the epitome of my naivety, to a stunning young woman who had an astounding amount of depth and personality for how young she was.

The difference was alarming as it was hilarious. It was like looking between the kindergarten scribbling and the college level painting.

As you keep writing, progressing both through age and experience, you learn more about telling a story. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the bare-bones of the beginnings, but the more you keep climbing up the mountain, you find things that you hadn’t seen before. You see what a three-dimensional character is, you see with the character’s eyes instead of your own.

It doesn’t have to be time only, either. You had a bad day, you couldn’t get something down right, you weren’t able to tap into your vocabulary like you usually can. You lost a pet or a friend. Someone turned their back on you. You broke up with your partner. We are all affected by everything in our lives, and so too is our writing.

It’s not uncommon for someone to write better when they’re suffering, either, from whatever it may be. Clarity comes in all forms. In other cases, it can cloud our typically clear thoughts and make things more difficult for us.

Revision and editing, as awful as some people think they are, are also a great tool for the reason of fixing things you didn’t like before. Don’t scrap it and re-write unless you know it can’t be saved, because simple revision, having someone say one thing instead of another, can change the whole view and feel of the chapter, or story, making it stronger.

Such in the case of my NaNo novel of last year. A chapter I thought was passable and “fine” had become a strong piece that would set the pace for the next few chapters. There was nothing terribly wrong with it before, but the revisions I made helped round it out with better detail especially, and a change of topic helped bring focus to the brewing conflict.

Then, of course, there’s writing something you end up downright hating. A friend of mine shared a quote with me today that sums it up: “Why should I write even if I don’t like what I wrote?”

Just because you hate it doesn’t mean everyone will. You are your own worst critic, and the glaring flaws you see, someone else won’t. Which has happened to me before, too, and was incredibly surprising. I passed the piece off as “meh” and shared it because they asked for it. I got told, “Whoa. That was incredible.”

Hearing that can really change your tune. Then again, there are the pieces that you think really can’t be saved, but why not give them a chance?

Though on that note, my advice is to look for opinions if you’re conflicted. If you really are not happy with it, change it. Writing is about putting down whatever comes to mind and shaping, molding it to what you want. After years, loss, gain, happiness, turmoil. You are always shaping, like a glass blower! Except with words. And not with something molten.

Let your life’s changes and experience affect your writing, for better or worse. See the merit, take advantage.

-The Novice Wordsmith