I feel Alex put a lot of time and thought into the content edit of my historical fiction manuscript. His comments were thorough and helped give me the information, knowledge and understanding needed to make important changes to the story and characters. He also gave a multiple page evaluation at the end, guiding me to where I needed to make additions, deletions, how to strengthen the plot and so much more. I also really appreciate that he complimented the writing in various places throughout the manuscript. What writer doesn’t need a little praise to drive away those negative demons in our head? I would definitely have Alex edit a manuscript again. I feel like I received a lot for the price. I almost feel like I was taking advantage of him! Sorry Alex, but thanks again!
“My book needed some work, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I couldn’t afford $1,000 or more for the usual professional editor, so I thought I was going to have to rely on friends and family to read the story and give me their best suggestions of how to tighten up my writing. Then I found Alex McGilvery at Celtic Frog Editing. His rates were unbelievable and I’d heard excellent things about his process, so I jumped on the opportunity to hire him to edit my book. I’m so glad I did! Alex not only has the ability to pinpoint exactly what needs fixing, he can give you great suggestions and ideas on HOW to fix the problem areas that are holding your book back. He also tells you what you’re doing right so you know what not to change in your final draft. I’m indebted to him for giving my so-so book the potential to be a great book! Thank you, Alex for offering a great professional service at a fraction of the cost!”
Link to Valerie’s book Carry Me Home, on Amazon.
Weight is the term I use to talk about how important something should be in a story. In a lot of stories authors feel that the only way to make their characters real is to create some tragedy that they have to survive. The problem with this approach is that some things are heavier than others.
Killing a parent or a sibling is not something that a character will get over in a few days, weeks or even months. The same is true of other physical and emotional traumas. If you put some tragic in your story for effect, but then don’t deal with its lasting consequences your story will be out of balance. Instead of making your character look tragic it will make them appear uncaring. That can be a useful tool if you want to portray someone as a sociopath, but for the average character you need to think ahead about how the pain/grief/anger is going to change the way they interact with the world.
Conversely, a relatively minor occurrence shouldn’t be the case of a drastic change in the character. The exception would be the use of imbalance for comic purposes. The example would be a cheerleader who wanders blithely through life until she breaks a nail and goes thermo-nuclear. Exaggeration is one of the mainstays of comedy.
The other way that weight comes into play in a story is more important in longer works. This is how much time the author spends on something early in the story should be balanced by that thing’s importance in the conclusion of the story. If you spend six pages describing a log floating in the ocean, that log better have some importance toward the end. If it doesn’t the reader will be unconsciously watching for it and will get increasingly impatient. It is better if you don’t make it obvious that you are giving a lot of weight to something early on, but it can be a simple as giving it an extra adjective, or mentioning it more than one or two times.
It is amazing what the unconscious mind will store away for later. An example would be the bow in Hunger Games. A lot of words in different places go into showing what a great shot Katniss is with the bow, yet early on in the Games, she doesn’t have the bow. Then when she does, she hardly uses it. That way when it does come into play the reader thinks, “Ah, now that’s more like it!” and you have a satisfied reader willing to stretch their imagination just a little further.
The corollary of spending too much time on something of no importance is not giving a vital bit of information enough time. If you are going to have your heroine slay the werewolf with a silver knitting needle in the final battle of your book, you had better have made more than a passing reference to that needle in the second chapter. Again you don’t have to make it obvious, but mentioning it a few times or giving it some extra description will set it apart enough that the reader will think “Of course, she had it the whole time!” and be satisfied.
It is possible to use weight to misdirect the reader. I’ve read a few stories in which great time and care was spent describing a sword that was to be the hero’s salvation in the final battle. Only to have the thing shatter so the hero needs to scramble to get the real magic sword. The interesting thing was there were also a couple of clues scattered here and there to hint that the hero had the wrong sword.
Mastering the concept of weight in writing will make it easier to guide your story and your reader to a satisfying conclusion.
If you have more than one character in your story you will have to write dialogue. Even with just one character dialogue is possible. One of my favourite resources on dialogue is Dave King’s Self-Editing for Writers. Actually, it’s a terrific book all round.
Here’s a brief dialogue.
“Ayyoop, them stars shur is purty tonight,” said the grizzled old cowboy.
“Bah!” Bob snapped whitheringly, “Stars are just gas, like some people I could name.”
“Sorry,” said Cookie as he let loose another fecund cloud of gas. “Beans always gets to me.”
“Then why does you only cook beans?” Stan coughed. The fire burned blue as the three men held their breath. “Is that there star gettin’ bigger?”
Wait a minute, three men? I was sure there were four. The problem is that Stan and the old grizzled cowboy are the same person. It’s important in dialogue to keep the attribution consistent. If you are having an old grizzled cowboy talking, then he needs to stay an old grizzled cowboy through the whole dialogue. If you had, Stan, the old grizzled cowboy, then you’d be OK. The exception to this rule would be if the character is introduced during the dialogue.
“Just call me Stan,” the grizzled old cowboy said. And you can safely do so for the rest of the dialogue.
While I’m talked about Stan, let’s talk about dialect. Dialect is fun to right. We hear the character’s odd speech patterns in our head. This is just how he sounds. Just be aware that it may work differently for the reader. The reader may have no clue what Stan just said. I read a book in which one characters speech was translated as “scottish sounding noises” in my head. It was just too much work to translate. If that character ever had something important to the plot to say, it was lost on me. Dialect can be achieved with rhythm and a few subtle shifts in spelling.
So what’s Bob’s problem? First it is the snapping. Most people I read on dialogue suggest that you use ‘said’ unless you use ‘asked’ because the speaker is asking a question. The reason is that said becomes like punctuation. The reader only sees it to attach the speech to the right person. The habit some writers have of trying to come up with ever more clever ways of saying ‘said’ forces the reader to pay attention to the words instead of the dialogue. Always use the ‘he said’ order. “Said he” sounds archaic and forced. Only use this order if you want to sound archaic and forced.
The same holds true for adverbs that intend to describe how the sentence was spoken. Mark Twain is supposed to have advised writers to substitute ‘damn’ for ‘very’ so the editor will remove it at no detriment to their writing. I would expand that to remove just about every adverb that you would care to use. If you want to put emotion into the dialogue, put it into the words that are being spoken. Don’t write boring dialogue and try to spice it up with adverbs.
The last bit about attribution is using non-speech words to attribute speech. People don’t cough up sentences, or laugh them, or weep them. If you are writing about a certain age of boy, they may burp them. Stick with said and use a beat to add the coughing, laughing or weeping. The bit about the three men holding their breath? That’s a beat. A beat is action in the midst of dialogue that helps pace the dialogue. In this case it gives a break between the first part of the sentence and the second.
The punctuating of dialogue seems complicated, but it isn’t that difficult.
“Look,” he said, “only lower case for the attribution unless you’re using a name, or something that would normally be upper case.”
“Hey!” she said, “remember that exclamation points and question marks are treated like commas.”
“I was getting there,” he said. “How about those Yankees? You see how I used upper case since I was starting a new sentence in the second segment of the speech?”
That’s a primer on dialogue. I may put some more advanced suggestions up at a later date.
I took Alex McGilvery up on his recent promotional offer of $100 to content edit an entire book. I don’t have extra cash for my writing, so this was not an easy decision, but I was feeling mired down by this manuscript (that I love) and needed a boost. He made nearly 400 separate comments on the document, plus several pages of recommendations and observations at the end!!! By the time I have finished responding to his suggestions, both the book and my skills as a writer will have significantly improved.
I met Alex through CIR and don’t know him personally. I believe he may still have this offer. If so, and if you can possibly swing it, take advantage. He is very skilled. I can pretty much guarantee his rates will not stay this low. Here is his website, or you can contact him through CIR.
Thanks Alex! (and thanks Lia London Author for CIR)
I have been privileged to work with Alex McGilvery over the past couple of years as I enter the final editing stages of my new novel A Circle of Roots Alex spend a lot of time reading and critiquing my novel in depth. His comments covered everything from grammar errors, sentence or syntax problems to a great analysis of my plot and character development, and my handling of point of view. Alex asked all the tough questions and made me most accountable particularly in areas of the novel that I had “glossed over.” He was accessible for questions and helped me work out problems that were not obvious to me or where I was looking for a difficulty when some minor editing is all that was needed. Alex graciously agreed to read my book again after I had completed my rewrite. He made further comments on where things were smooth now and gave advice on areas still requiring work.
I feel fortunate to have Alex as my editor and know my novel is stronger as a result. I would recommend Alex to anyone who is looking for an editor to give critical and honest feedback.
Email [email protected]
The beginning of your book is exciting. You’re meeting new people, new relationships form. Stuff is happening! As you get past the beginning, all the people who are going to populate your book, with a few minor exceptions have been introduced. You know who likes who and who is hoping to do the bunny hop with who. It’s like October in High School, routine.
If you are drawing a graph of excitement in your novel it starts out high. If it doesn’t you need consider how you are going to draw your reader in. But, as the thrill of introductions wanes you go downhill to the lowest point of your novel. This is the swamp. This is where everything looks the same, there is no clear path and the bugs are eating you alive. You don’t want to stay in the swamp, but to get to the mountain on the other side ,which is the joy of completing your story and making sure that everyone gets what they deserve, you have to cross the swamp. There are no short cuts.
The problem is that the swamp is a dangerous place. If you aren’t careful that tuft of grass you are standing on will disappear and dump you into the murk. Some of that beautiful green turf is a lie and cheat, you will fall through and vanish. There are creatures here that eat novels whole. Writer’s block watches you from stagnant water waiting for you to show weakness. Unnecessary characters sit like vultures in the tree ready to enter your story and weigh down your plot. Real life buzzes around your head whispering that you’ve failed, again, and why don’t you get a real job. Will-o-the-wisps try to entice you away from your plot line.
For all the danger, there is treasure to be found in the swamp. Scattered islands of golden apples. Here is where the relationships that you created are tested and reforged. Strange beings give odd advice. Your characters learn to discern what they are about. What they are really about. This is where their false hopes and perceptions are stripped from them. This is the abode of that oddest of creatures – the talking donkey.
The talking donkey is the thing that comes from out of the bounds of the story and changes everything. It may be a car accident that forces someone to face their mortality. It may be an infestation of rats that eats everything a character owns so they realize that they valued none of it. It might be a midnight conversation with a stranger in a cemetery. The point is that it changes things. This above all is what makes the character different when they climb out of the swamp.
Every story has to have its swamp, its low point. It isn’t fun to be a writer in the swamp. It is messy, frustrating, and saps your energy, but this is where you can shine as a writer. Paying attention to what you do in the swamp will make your conclusion that much brighter. It takes discipline and courage. Sometimes you’ll get lost and have to retrace your steps. Sometimes the swamp dumps you onto a foreign shore and you have to decide whether to stay there or go back.
The longer your work, the more important the swamp is, and the more likely you will encounter it more than once. False peaks abound, but eventually you will prevail and the final mountain will rise out of the mists. It is then, scratching your bites and scraping of the mud from your feet, that you will make the exhilarating climb to the end.
This is a poem I wrote for National Poetry Month – April.
How to write a book
Write some more
Write until you get to the end of the story.
Do a little happy dance.
Tell people that you wrote a book.
Read your book.
Crawl under your desk and weep and bang your head against the wall until the sound makes the neighbours crazy.
Re-write the book adding some annoying neighbours.
Get pulled into the story again.
Rant and rave at your characters.
“Behave,” you say, “or I’ll kill you off.”
They laugh and run off to dance in the moonlight.
Bang your head some more.
Apologize to the neighbours, again.
Tell them you’re writing a book.
Start to wonder how any one person could have made so many mistakes in one book.
Fix mistakes, make new ones.
The book takes on a life of its own.
No longer just words on a page, this is your baby and you want it to grow up healthy and strong and maybe be a bestseller someday.
Allow the neighbours to read your precious child.
Gnash your teeth when they point out that the scene with the talking donkey really just doesn’t work.
You love that scene; you wept tears of happy abandon writing that scene.
Can’t they recognize brilliant writing?
Cut the scene.
Start to hate the book, again
It’s horrible, mindless drivel, but it isn’t the book’s fault.
So you keep working,
Cut more scenes that you love,
Let a few stay in,
One day think:
This whole thing may actually work out.
It isn’t going to change the world.
No one may even read it.
But it’s time.
The story has to stand on its own now.
There are still things you can do, but you don’t.
Instead, you hold your breathe and send it off with a backpack filled with sandwiches and a change of underwear.
Look, there it goes.
Isn’t it cute?
I see variations of this question on writing boards all over the internet. It is tempting for me to read a few lines of the book and answer the question for them. “No, it isn’t ready. Go back and fix these issues.” After all that’s really what I’m doing when I’m editing for people. I’m showing them the parts of the novel that make it not ready for publication.
But that is just my opinion. I’m one person with one set of ideas about what constitutes a well written novel. One of the things I’ve learned in my years of reviewing is that there aren’t many rules that can’t be effectively broken. I probably would have sent 50 Shades of Grey back for more editing.
I’m not going to tell you if your novel is ready for publication. I will tell you what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of that novel. I will push you to polish and make it as ready as possible.
So, how do you know?
I use beta-readers. Those are people who don’t know me and have had no part in the creation of the book whom I ask to read the book and tell me what they don’t like about it. It may seem harsh to ask only what people don’t like, but I find it is a very effective way of getting the most out of my beta-readers. If they don’t like something, the chances are very good that other readers won’t like it either.
I fix what the beta-readers don’t like. If there was a lot of things they had problems with, I might find a second set of betas and turn them lose. When I start hearing that the book works well -they finished it without a struggle, they didn’t have major issues with the plot and/or characterization in the book, then I know that it is close.
I have my content editor go through the book before I send it to beta. The line editor I have look at it after. I’m not longer going to make huge changes, but just make certain that I’m consistent, that I don’t use the same word too many times (unless I have a good reason to do that).
I make the changes suggested, then I sit down one more time and read the book from cover to cover. I don’t use a pen to mark it up. I just read. I want to see if the story pulls me in. Does it evoke emotion at the right places? Do I like this book? If I hadn’t written it, would I buy it?
Now I’m ready to answer that question. Is my book ready to be published? Not only can I answer it, I can answer with confidence. That is very important when you are marketing. You need to know that you’ve put out a quality product. If you’re apologetic or uncertain about your own book, you won’t sell very much.
I’m still learning. I can see the difference in my two books and I’m working to create as big a difference in my third book. That doesn’t mean the first two weren’t ready, though I’d do things differently now. It means that I’m getting tougher on myself and raising my expectations.
That’s why you need to ask yourself that question each time you finish a book.
I see lots of writing sites that are driven by giving people help with their writing. I can understand needing help. Lot’s of people tell me that I need help, but that’s a different post. The problem is the way many people need help is not very helpful. What I see writers asking more and more for others to help them with their titles, their characters, points in the plot, even the core idea for the plot in the first place.
It is time to talk about the creative process. That is, the means by which we come up with the ideas that we later turn into stories. Ask any writer where they come up with their ideas and you will get either a blank stare or a sarcastic answer. This is because everyone has their own way of generating concepts for writing stories. I know authors who never leave the house without a little notebook in which they write ideas down about characters, situations, dialogue etc. It is a little disconcerting when they pull the book out in the middle of a conversation, but at least you know that you may be immortalized in their next book. Others research trends and try to find concepts that haven’t already been addressed. They place their stories in the cracks between other people’s stories. All my books have started with a single image or scene; a princess who didn’t get enchanted, a girl who befriends a tree, a devil who gets a chance at redemption. I read one author who when asked said that he found his ideas under cabbage leaves.
The point of all the different methods is that they imply an openness for the story to come and take up residence in the writer’s consciousness. So the real question is not “Where do ideas come from?” but “How do I open myself to the ideas?” If you only read one kind of book, you are only going to write one kind of story. If you only talk to a select few people, you will only have a certain kind of dialogue. I think you get the idea. The broader your experience and the more different people you encounter, the richer ground for ideas you will develop.
So how do you move from that initial idea to a full blown story?
Some people are outliners – they carefully set up each plot conflict and character point and arrange the time line to work best with the story. This is good. It means that you are in control of your plot, you aren’t likely to have holes for trucks to drive through and you can manage plots and sub-plots of great complexity.
Other people just start and they keep going until they stop. They have no idea how the book is going to turn out until they reach the end. Then they go back and try to find the inconsistencies and holes to fix them. This is good. It means that the story is fresh and exciting and can take wild turns at a moment’s notice. Character grows in an organic way.
Some people use a bit of both.
The important thing with however you plot your story is that you make the story and the characters your own. This isn’t about originality, or not completely. It is about taking the time to be open to what your story is telling you. How is your blond bimbo different from all the other blond bimbos? What does that difference mean to the story? That difference may become the fulcrum of the story upon which everything else balances. The same thing is true of setting and culture. The more you can own the setting and the people of your story, the richer it becomes.
So why is asking for plot ideas, or character ideas not helpful? It isn’t that it is bad. When I’m writing I will sometimes use random generators to give me words or names. The difficulty comes in that it is very much harder to use someone else’s idea to create a story. It is a stranger to us. We have to woo it and get to know it, maybe buy it drinks before it starts to blossom in our minds into a story.
If you are having a hard time writing your idea, spend some time with it. Play with it. Turn it around and twist its sides like a Rubix cube. At some point it will tell you what it wants you to do. Talk to your characters, push them and see how they push back. If your story is stuck, you may be in the Swamp, or you may have taken a wrong turn. Go back and read your story and listen for what it is telling you.
If you are desperate for an idea, any idea, go look under a cabbage leaf, there may be one waiting there for you.