Category Archives: Editing tips

Weight, or Keeping things in Balance

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.

Getting Conversant with Conversation

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.

When is your novel good enough to publish?

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.

So you’ve finished that novel…

You accepted the challenge of National Novel Writing Month and came out of it with a novel. Everyone told you that first drafts were rough, but you didn’t believe them until you went back and read your book. The first time you read one of your first drafts is always a traumatic experience. The good news is that your novel doesn’t have to stay in that rough shape. There are ways to make it better.

The first thing I do is let the writing sit for a few months. I always have several projects on the go, so put the book on the shelf and do something else for a while. Then come back and read it. For this first read through I like to print it and use highlighters and a pen. I have a red highlighter for stuff I’m deleting. It’s terrible and it’s going. I use a green one to mark stuff that I like. I want more of that, but for now I just mark it so I know it’s there. The pen is to make notes in the margins. Comment about gaps in the plot, descriptive needs,  characterization, anything that you want to add to the novel.

When that is done, I go back to the computer and work through the draft with that marked up copy on my desk. At this point I rename the file so I’m not saving over the draft. I may need that someday. It’s a good idea to start a new version for each major revision. I delete stuff, move things around and add what I need to add. If you aren’t sure you’ve got everything at the end of the first read through. Do it again.

If you think you’ve got a decent quality draft, it is time to get someone else to do a similar process. That’s your content editor, me. I will not only focus on the good, the bad, and the missing, I will talk about structure, plotting, voice and a lot of other things.  If you pay me to look at your book and comment on it. Expect to work hard when you get the book back. You don’t want me to send it back saying “It’s great.” That doesn’t help your story improve. I may tell that parts are great, but I’ll also suggest ways and methods of making them better.

If you aren’t sure about what I can offer you. Send me a chapter and I will comment on it free of charge.