Showing posts with label editing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label editing. Show all posts

17 April 2017

God Bless the Beta Reader

by Steve Liskow

You have to revise your work, probably several times. That means you're looking at structure, pace, and character development along with accuracy, voice, and grammar. Is your dialogue effective? Does your plot build? Do your characters deepen and grow? Does the whole thing even make sense?

One of the problems with revising is that the more you do it, the more you invest in what you see in front of you. The more you revise and polish, the harder it is to recognize what might be a big problem with pacing or logic because you've been looking at it so long that you begin to take it for granted without even realizing it.

That's why a good beta reader is so important. Someone who hasn't watched you grow and nurture your first several drafts isn't as connected to it and can question your ideas more easily. Distance is a great thing.



Not everyone can be a good beta reader. I know several former English teachers who are so used to correcting grammar and spelling that they can't focus on larger issues like plot or character arc. Dialogue using slang can distract them from the characterization. If they see "literature" as something removed from "genre" or popular" fiction (which many of them do), their bias can get in the way, too.

I've been in two writing groups, and neither of them did the job I would have liked for a number of reasons. The first was composed of people who wrote in all genres: poetry, "literary," memoir, nonfiction...and me. I was dismayed to learn that the rules of good writing don't carry over from form to form. Two people in the group wrote well and offered intelligent feedback, but the rest made me wonder why we'd outlawed flogging. I finally left the group when one woman announced, "This is in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marques," and I, with my usual tact, replied, "So why isn't it in Spanish?" Nobody laughed.

The second group was all genre writers. At one time, we had 23 members, but six or seven showed up at most meetings, four of us regularly and the others at random. One always came to complain that she hadn't had time to write and wanted us to commiserate. I was the only crime/mystery writer, and people complained that my characters kept getting into trouble. Fortunately, the organizer ran into family turmoil and the group dissolved before I had to resort to violence...which I would have called "research."

Both groups had problems with anyone pointing out weaknesses, such as illogical plot twists, 40 pages of description in a 50-page excerpt, or characters who changed speech patterns from meeting to meeting.

Ideally, a beta reader is familiar with the form you write, whether it's mystery, romance, science fiction, free verse or financial theory. They have to understand your work and appreciate it, but still not be impressed by it. Yes, it's a paradox, but it's vital. If people love your work, they'll be reluctant to point out problems, which is the whole reason to be your beta reader.

A good beta reader can spot inconsistencies and inaccuracies but still focus on the big stuff. I remember one reader who wondered if my scene might have more impact in a different point of view, and I realized as soon as he said it that he was right. I changed it.

Another good reader stage-managed several plays that I directed, and she understood my rhythms and my visual/aural sense. She grasped that I "heard" things better than I "saw" them on-stage and blocked scenes and beat changes as a form of punctuation.

When I drifted away from theater, I asked her to read one of my novels. We met a month later, and she pulled out the well-thumbed MA (she'd read the whole thing three times, bless her) and flipped to a page with a paper clip on it.

"Do you know there's a huge energy drop in this scene?" She'd even turned down the page where it started, and it showed me that the scene needed drastic cutting. A ten-page scene became five because I had included so much detail that added nothing to the story.

Both those readers have moved away and I don't have emails for either of them. Alas. I have two or three readers now, and they all have strengths, but they all have weaknesses, too. Fortunately, they complement each other. One is great for details and fact checking (you spelled this name with an "ie" here and with a "y" later) but doesn't get structure or pacing. We constantly argue about a turning point coming too soon (I think 90% of the book is fine, but she wants it in the last ten pages, even though I don't write whodunits). Another, who does physical training, has a sense of my pacing and comprehends my rhythms. Her standard comment is along the lines of "I thought this dragged until incident Z in Scene AA." That helps me enormously.

A good beta reader can tell you what bothers him or her without necessarily telling you how to fix it. Sometimes, a casual comment like "this seems to start more slowly than I expected" is all you need. Or, "was that supposed to be funny?"

A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in chocolate, so if you find one, cherish him or her. And DON'T give him stuff that isn't ready for another pair of eyes. I don't like to show anything until the fourth or fifth draft because by then I've fixed most of the typos and can mention specific concerns, such as shifting POV or a strained plot point.

Whatever your beta reader tells you, listen to it. You don't have to change everything but remember that this is a preview of how other people will respond to your book. Think of it as a first date that you want to go well. Otherwise, what's the point?

06 February 2017

Writing by Ear

by Steve Liskow

My Grandmother and her cousin were elementary school teachers, and her daughter and her husband (my aunt and uncle) were reporters long enough ago that they weren't yet called "journalists." My sister and I were the youngest of eleven cousins, seven of whom also became teachers. Another cousin is a lawyer and at least three of us got involved in theater along the way. They joined my parents in reading to me--and, later, my sister--from the time we could sit upright, and they read with vitality and expression.

That's probably why both my sister and I entered kindergarten reading at about fifth grade level. I also grew up hearing a voice saying the words when I read. Later, a reading specialist told me this was a problem, but I never believed it. I still don't, even though means I can't read more quickly than I can hear the words.

Since we grew up in the Midwest, those rhythms, broad consonants and nasalized vowels became my default sound track. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Roethke (whose sister taught me ninth grade English), and later Elmore Leonard, Loren Estleman and Linda Barnes sounded like family. I left Saginaw, Michigan fifty years ago but the rhythm is still an internal metronome when I write.


That's good because American English creates meaning by rhythm instead of case endings like the Romance languages. Stress different words in "I can't really bring myself to trust the fellow" and listen to how it changes the meaning of the sentence.

Shakespeare's vocabulary isn't that different from ours--he's writing in Modern English, after all--but he's a master of using rhythm to show actors how he wants a line delivered. The usual iambic pentameter line (ten syllables with the even-numbered ones receiving more stress) is the norm, but if Bill throws in an extra stress, especially in the middle of a line, it forces you to slow down for emphasis. A line with many monosyllabic words goes very slowly and gets lots of attention.

Good queen, my lord, good queen I say, good queen.

This is the only fully monosyllabic line I remember in the canon, and Paulina (my wife in the picture) says it to Leontes in The Winter's Tale when the latter accuses his wife of being a strumpet and she disagrees. Can you hear how slowly she pronounces the words, nearly hammering them into his head? During my stage career, I performed in about a dozen Shakespearean productions and directed six more. I know several actors who were so comfortable with the language that they could improvise in blank verse if they had to. That's the power of strong rhythms.

Hearing the words I read helped me learn lines on-stage, too. I was one of many actors who learned the lines along with the movement (blocking) because it helped fix the words into my body. It's also how I blocked (choreographed) scenes when I directed: a rhythm shift always told me that someone on the stage should move.

I don't act anymore, but rhythm helps writing, too.

Worry less about being grammatically correct--especially in dialogue--and more about whether or not you can SAY what you've written down. That's my final test, and it's my main point here.

In your final draft, READ YOUR WORDS OUT LOUD. I walk around the room while I read, too (my wife and our cats have learned to ignore me), because speech rhythms and movement rhythms work together. If I break stride or stumble over a word, it means I wrote the wrong word or put it in the wrong place.

Some grammar rules are misleading, too. A split infinitive is a mistake only when it confuses the audience. Sometimes, it makes more sense with the adverb between "to" and the verb, and it may flow more smoothly. The same goes for ending a sentence with a preposition. People tell you it's wrong, but the real issue is that it means your sentence ends with a weak rhythm. In English, you put the words you want to emphasize AT THE END (Thank you, Strunk & White).

When you read out loud, you're more apt to notice repetitions or awkward phrases, too. If you put several words with the same sounds close together, they're hard to pronounce. My favorite, a line I stumbled on one night in performance, comes from Twelfth Night:

Notable pirate, thou salt-water thief,
What foolish boldness brought thee to their mercies  
Whom thou in terms so bloody and so dear
Hast made thine enemies?

Hear the repeated and overlapping consonants? Try saying the speech five times fast after four frozen daiquiris.

Punctuation should help the reader read your words aloud, too, so forget the debate about the Oxford comma, the serial comma, the non-restrictive clause, the direct address and everything else. Where do you want the reader to pause to make the words impart the meaning you intend them to have? That's where you put the comma, period, or whatever else you need. If you walk as you read aloud, you can tell. Walking helps you find a smooth natural pace. Speed up for action scenes or slow down for drama. If you walk too slowly, you may lose your place, too. If that happens to me, I need to cut exposition or description, both of which I dislike writing anyway.

I don't write poetry, but I try to end a scene with a strong beat or cadence. I play guitar, too, and at least three bass players will tell you they like to play behind me because I'm easy to follow, which I assume is a good thing.

Nowhere does rhythm matter more than in writing humor. We talk about comic timing, but it's flexible, not absolute. Some people (remember Jack Benny?) can hold a pause so long you feel your hair turning gray, but they still get the laugh. Others deliver the same punch line more quickly and get the same laugh. You have to find your own rhythm when you write, and that means you have to hear it and feel it.

Look on-line and check your local library. If you can find Mark Twain's essay on how to tell a joke, it's still the last word on the subject, a century after his death.

So there it is. Read your work out loud. If you feel yourself falling into a drone or losing your place, you need to change something (cut adjectives, more active verbs, etc.).

With a little practice, you will find that your ears will help you more than your eyes.

And I still hear a voice when I read.

05 November 2016

Tales From the Dark Side


by Michael Bracken



NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome my friend and 2016 Golden Derringer Award recipient Michael Bracken as a guest blogger. Although Michael has written several books, he is better known as the author of more than 1200 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery MagazineCrime SquareEllery Queen's Mystery MagazineEspionage MagazineFifty Shades of Grey FedoraFlesh & Blood: Guilty as SinMike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and many other anthologies and periodicals. He has received two Derringer Awards, was nominated for a third, and has earned several awards for advertising copywriting. Stories from anthologies he edited have been short-listed for the Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, and Shamus awards. He lives, writes, and edits in Texas. Learn more at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com and CrimeFictionWriter.blogspot.com. As always, it's great to have you here, Michael! -- John Floyd





I don't discuss editing near as often as I discuss writing, but my editing career stretches back almost as far as my writing career. My first published writing was a poem in my junior high school's literary magazine when I was in the 9th grade. My editing career began two years later with a science fiction fanzine my best friend and I started when we were high school juniors. I then edited my high school newspaper as a senior, continued editing and publishing my fanzine for several years post-high school, and later edited several company and organization newsletters.

For many years now I have been editor of a weekly newsletter, managing editor of a bi-monthly consumer magazine, and an editor for a monthly tabloid newspaper. Additionally, I have edited eight crime fiction anthologies (five published and three cancelled prior to publication) and one essay collection.

Editing Knights, the fanzine Joe Walter and I started in 11th grade, brought my first contact with professional writers. I published regular columns by Grant Carrington, Charles L. Grant, and Thomas F. Monteleone, and work by Robert Bloch, Algis Budrys, David Gerrold, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and many other writers who were then, or later became, widely published science fiction, fastasy, and horror authors. These are the writers--especially Grant, Charlie, and Tom--who taught me by example what it meant to be a professional writer.

I have tried, as a writer, to live up to the standards of professionalism these writers exemplified. As an editor, I wish other writers did the same.

Though I don't have any sordid tales of debauchery to share from the dark side of the editor's desk, I do find that too many writers and would-be writers stumble over fundamental aspects of professionalism. Following are a few examples of how:

Plagiarism. In a word: Don't. Several years ago, a regular contributor to one of the publications I edit submitted an article that included a quotation from a famous play. As part of my editing responsibilities, I searched for the proper attribution (author, play, act, scene, line) and discovered instead that the quote was but a small part of a significant portion of the article that had been lifted verbatim from another source. When confronted about this apparent plagiarism, the writer provided many excuses for the grievous failing. Though I sometimes see that writer's byline in other publications, that writer no longer contributes to the publication I edit, nor will that writer ever contribute to any other publication I may edit in the future.

Failing to withdraw work accepted elsewhere. Within the past year, I prepared an article for publication, all the way from initial editing through page layout. While in the process of determining how best to illustrate the article, I learned it had been published in a non-paying online publication a few days earlier. The article was removed from my publication's production schedule and replaced with another. Not only did this writer lose income, but it is unlikely the publication for which I edit will ever again consider this writer's work.

Failing to incude contact information. Writers frequently fail to provide complete contact information (name, address, phone number, and email address) on their manuscripts. During the production process, email attachments often get separated from submission emails, so that, even if this information is provided in the body of the original email, I have a difficult time tracking it down several months after submission when the work is slated for publication.

Worse, though, is what happened recently. An article made it all the way through to publication. When it came time to pay the writer, we discovered that the only contact information we had on hand--after searching through a year's worth of emails--was the writer's email address, and the writer has not responded to any emails we've sent requesting a mailing address. For this failing, the writer might never be paid.

Submitting sloppy manuscripts. Though I rail against sloppy manuscripts as often as possible, this transgression is irritating rather than career threatening.

I edit far more non-fiction than fiction, so I work with many contributors who are not writers. They are, instead, professionals for whom writing is a secondary task. I have worked with manuscripts prepared using a variety of fonts, a variety of font sizes, a variety of paragraph indents (or no indents at all), and which violate every "rule" of proper manuscript preparation (see this link.)

Part of my job as an editor is to reformat all of these mss. before they are put into the production pipeline. To avoid irritating your editors, consider following these manuscript guidelines:

1. Put your name, address, phone number, and email address on the manuscript itself.

2. Number pages using Word's Header/Footer command.

3. Be consistent. For example: However you indent your paragraphs, indent every paragraph the same way. However many spaces you put between sentences, put the same number of spaces between all sentences. However you indicate an em-dash, indicate an em-dash the same way every time. And so on.

In the end, remember that editors are striving to produce publications that attract readers, and you are striving to produce work for editors that will do just that. So, treat your editors and your work with a high level of professionalism. If you do, you should avoid ever providing the examples someone like me uses to frighten new writers.






19 September 2015

Mystery Missteps


by John M. Floyd



Over the past few weeks, I've finished three mystery-writing projects: a 7500-word short story, a 110-page screenplay, and a 90,000-word collection of thirty of my stories. The short story will be submitted soon to one of the mystery magazines, the collection is scheduled to be released by my publisher next year, and the screenplay will probably be used to prop up a table leg--but all three were great fun to put together. What wasn't fun was proofreading my late-to-final drafts. I tend to make silly mistakes when I write, and the sheer volume of those mistakes gave me the idea for this column, which will probably contain even more mistakes. Believe me, I try to find and correct these before they go out into the world, but still . . .

Thorns in my side
Here are some writing errors (some minor, some not-so) that show up a lot in my fiction manuscripts:

Pet phrases. For some reason I apparently enjoy writing things like "she narrowed her eyes," "he scratched his chin," "she plopped into a chair," "his face darkened," etc.--there are a couple dozen of these--and I find myself using them over and over. Why? Who knows. My characters also seem to like sighing, staring, shrugging, and turning. Especially turning. They turn and leave, turn to reply, turn and look out the window, turn to answer the phone, and so on. It's the kind of repetition that annoys me when I discover it in my drafts, and if I left it in it would certainly annoy editors and readers. (Actually, if it bothers the editors it'll never get a chance to bother the readers.)

Overuse of dashes. I love dashes. Maybe because it's hard to use one improperly: under the right conditions they can be substituted for semicolons, colons, parentheses, and almost anything else. I use them often for asides--like this--and I also like the notion of "interrupted speech" (because real people interrupt each other all the time when they talk), and dashes are an effective sentence-ending way to indicate that. Even so, too much of anything is not a good thing.

Cliches. Boy do I like cliches. My excuse, I think, is that I use so many in real life it's only natural to want to put them into my writing as well. But if it's not in dialogue, a cliche probably doesn't belong in the story. When/if I come to my senses, I try to locate them and weed them out.

Backward apostrophes. This error occurs only when using certain fonts, but in Times New Roman, an apostrophe before something like em (Round 'em up and cuff 'em) winds up turned in the wrong direction--which looks ridiculous. To correct it, I type a letter immediately before it, then put in the apostrophe, then delete the preceding letter. A good way to remember it: type th'em and then delete the "th."

Too many combined words. This is something else I love, probably because it speeds up the pace. Examples: doublecheck, halfwit, ballplayer, dumptruck, kindhearted, mothership, workboots, overanalyze, mumbojumbo, coattails, thunderclap--and especially when they're used as adjectives, like smalltown politics or livingroom furniture or quartermile run. But I have to be careful not to do it when it really shouldn't be done (bluejeans, divingboard, machinegunfire, etc.). Being innovative goes only so far.

Extra spaces between words. This is pure carelessness. They're hard to catch, and they're distracting if you don't. If, for instance, you prefer to put only one space after a period, you should be consistent and do it every time.

Repetition. Especially in early drafts, I repeat so many things it's hard to believe: ideas, words, phrases (see "pet phrases," above), even locations and character names. In my defense, I think some of this comes from trying to make things extremely clear to the reader--but the truth is, today's readers are smart enough not to require everything spelled out for them in detail, or--to use another cliche--to have writers beat them over the head with something in order for them to understand it. Cutting out repetition is a large part of my self-editing process. It becomes even more important when putting previously published stores together in a collection, because those stories, when first written, weren't expected to ever be read back-to-back with other stories.

Omitted quotation marks (usually close quotes). More carelessness.

Using a for an, and vice versa. Why do I encounter this so often in late drafts, since I truly do know when to use one and when to use the other? Probably because I've gone back and changed things in the manuscript, and when I happen to change a noun that doesn't begin with a vowel sound to one that does, etc., I might've unintentionally created an "a vs. an" error.

Thorn removals
Some of the missteps I seem to have gotten better at avoiding, over the years:

Overuse of semicolons. I think semicolons are a great way to divide two complete sentences that are too closely related to be separated by the finality of a period. But semicolons do look a bit formal in genre fiction (certainly in dialogue), and too many of them can be distracting. These days, I go through my manuscripts-in-progress and try to turn most of my semicoloned sentences into two separate sentences, or add a "comma followed by an and," or substitute one of those overused dashes. But--just shoot me--I still like semicolons.

Too many "ly" adverbs. There's always been a difference of opinion as to whether this is even a problem, but most writers agree that it's better to use stronger verbs than to have to prop them up with modifiers.

Too many back-and-forth lines of dialogue without identifying the speaker. The reason I don't commit this error as often as I used to, I think, is that it irritates me so to find it in stories/books that I read. Nothing is more maddening to a reader than having to count lines backward to find out who's saying what.

Too many italics. Thank God I'm finally beginning to bring this weakness under control. You don't always need to put emphasis on a word, or italicize an unspoken thought; sometimes it's obvious from the way the sentence or paragraph is written. (Oh no, she thought, flattening her back against the wall. Did anyone see me?)

Overuse of ellipses. Unless you're hesitating . . . and even if you are . . . too many of these can become bothersome.


Unnecessary exclamation points. I almost never use an exclamation point anymore. When I do, it's in dialogue, and it has to be something like Your socks are on fire! or Look out, it's a werewolf!

Overuse of dialect. There's a fine line here. Some writers feel that any use of dialect is overuse. I maintain that using too many misspelled words to convey dialect can be a mistake. Sho nuff.

POV switches. These still sneak through at times, especially in stories with third-person-limited viewpoint. (Example: Judy looked at him, and her face turned red. If we're in Judy's POV, she can't see her own face turn red, even though she might "feel her face grow warm.") Other switches might include, in a third-person-multiple story, two characters having a conversation and jumping from one's POV to the other's too abruptly, without something like a scene break in between.

Afterthoughts

Not that it matters, but here are some things I find fairly easy to write, probably because I like them so much: dialogue, humor, plot twists, weird characters, action scenes, and surprise endings.

Things I find hard to write, probably because I don't like them much: descriptions of people and places, backstory, exposition, unspoken thoughts, flashbacks, and symbolism. I realize how necessary these can be, and I hope I'm getting better at them, but for me they require a lot of effort.

What are your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes? What are some writing errors that constantly seem to find their way into your stories and novels even though you know better? Which ones bother you the most when you encounter them in the writing of others?

Whatever they are, here's to better mysteries and fewer (mys?)steps. For all of us.







31 March 2014

Edits and Editing

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

Okay, class. You've all heard this before but it's good to remind ourselves over and over about the joys of editing. I used to hate to edit, because it seemed so tedious but once I realized how much better reading my story or book will be with good editing, I hopped on the band wagon.

I've been reading books for an award to be given later on this year. I'm the chair of the committee and there are two other people on the committee with me. We each will read a book, not the same book at the same time, but we need to winnow the pile down and pick our nominees and our winner. In the back and forth e-mails we are sending each other, one big thing has been discussed back and forth. The need for some good editing. It not too easy to edit your own work, but I've found one thing that helps me is to put that mss in the file cabinet for at least a day or two. A week is even better and three weeks is excellent. Let the story jell. Work on something new, and take your mind totally off your work in progress (WIP).

If possible get someone to give the WPI a read for you and I don't mean your mother or brother or even your critique group. Let someone you trust that has been published read and critique for you. And it's very important if you don't have an editor at your publishing house. If it's a small press and they just don't have enough people to go around, you might consider hiring someone to edit for you. It could be that a friend who has some experience, has been published and especially in your genre will look at your book without charge. If so, that's great. Take them to lunch or at least promise them a copy of the book when it is published.

There are also a number of editing services. But like with anything, some are good and some not so good. Some may be too expensive for you. Check with organizations like Sisters-in-Crime. You don't have to be female to join. We call them Brothers-in-Crime. Check with Mystery Writers of America. Here in Texas we have a large national and international writing organization called Writers League of Texas. All will have listings of editing, critiquing services.

Several years ago before I was published I checked with the major university in my home town with the creative writing department. I found a professor who was willing to read and critique my WIP. He charge a fairly substantial fee. I didn't have much extra money at the time, but I wanted the mss to be in the best possible shape. Unfortunately, he wasn't that familiar with the mystery genre, he leaned way over to literary fiction. He wanted to know the theme of my book. The motivations of each character. He thought the dialogue was too informal. In other words, he was too much of a professor for me. And his help was no help for me.

A short time later, I attended a writing conference in Houston, with editors, agents, and a handful of published writers . All were willing to read and critique, I believe the first fifty pages of your WIP at no charge other than the conference fee. Mine was being read by a New York agent. He was fairly well known in the business. I walked into the room where I was to have a private talk with him. The first thing he said was, "I don't like your characters and I don't like your setting." I was flabbergasted and crushed. I said, "Okay, but how's my writing." "Oh your writing is fine," he said, "but I just don't care for your book." I was supposed to have a fifteen minute meeting with him and this all took about two minutes. I walked out, went straight to my room and cried.

A few minutes later, my roommate walked in and she was crying. Her critique had been by one of the semi-famous authors and what he actually done was a line edit but it was like he wanted her to change so much, she felt like he didn't like her book. He destroyed her. He gave her the full fifteen minutes but they had been quite rough. After she got over her initial shock and we looked at what he had done, we realized his line editing was very good, it's just we were still babies in the writing game and didn't understand what had been done. I, on the other hand, could find no redeeming words for my visit with the agent. I did realize later that opinions were very subjective in this writing game. I received rejections that said, the characters weren't strong enough. The next editor who read the very same mss said my characters were wonderful but the plot sucked.

Several other attendees had similar complaints and we all reported what had happened to the organizers. It was decided from that time forward, we would pay the critiquers a nominal fee. That way they didn't feel like they were working for nothing, the conference had paid their way to Houston, paid their room and meals but they obviously felt put upon. It did seem to make a difference. I think the fee might have been twenty-five dollars for a 15 minute meeting. They could schedule as many as they felt they could handle over the two day conference.

One of the neatest stories I heard during a Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America was from a man who was a best selling author of True Crime and a number of fiction books and stories by the name of Clark Howard. Even some of his stories were made into movies. When he was in college in the mid-west, near Chicago, he took a creative writing class. The students were to write a story, turn it in, the teacher made copies for everyone and passed them around. The whole class was to critique the story in class. When they got to his story, the whole class ripped it to shreds. Whatever one person said, the next person piled it on. About that time the class was over and Clark said, "I didn't have the nerve to tell them I'd just sold that story for five hundred dollars. He left and never went back to that class. (I don't remember if he'd sold it to Ellery Queen or Hitchcock magazine.) I told him I would have walked back into class the next time they met and tell them he'd sold the story and then say "Neener, neener," and then walk out.

I do think it's  important to get your WIP in the best shape possible before you let anyone publish it. Most writers I know, say their first reader is their spouse. And sometimes that works very well. My late husband, Elmer, was my first reader and he caught things like the correct description of a gun. Or the way a building or house looked or was constructed. Or my description of a car or motorcycle. Anything mechanical or along those lines he was an expert. And often if a scene or a plot line made good sense. But he had no idea if the dialogue was stilted or sounded natural. He had no idea if I wrote a run-on sentence or an incomplete sentence. So I always had to have another writer read and let me know about sentence or scene structure or punctuation. I was fortunate in the early years I had a wonderful critique group. There were only four of us. Susan Rogers Cooper, Barbara Burnet Smith and Jeff Abbott. Susan had published three or four novels and I had published two or three short stories and a handful of magazine articles. But Barbara and Jeff were not published  We did help each other and Barb and Jeff were soon published.

Tell yourself the story first. Let the creative side work it's magic, write the whole mss. Of course most of us edit the previous day's work before we continue the new day.  Before long it will be finished. Then set it aside to cool off. Wait as long as you can to take the story up again and let the editor side of your brain read and edit and edit and edit. But don't forget to stop and let it go. You can keep messing around with it and in time you'll think it's got to be perfect. Once you've done some rewriting and let someone edit for you then send that WIP to your agent or editor and keep your finger crossed. Before you know it you'll be holding your book in you hands. You'll open it up and start reading and find 10 mistakes that you or someone should have caught. But that's okay, you'll get better editing on the next book.

All right, class dismissed. Stay warm if you're still in winter. April is here and warm weather is coming. I guarantee you.

20 February 2013

A Smelting With The Senator

by Robert Lopresti

Oh, you will laugh.  It is 4 hours before deadline and I just slipped in to make one tiny change to this blog, which I finished a week ago.   I apparently hit the wrong key because the entire damned thing just disappeared.  So I am recreating it from what I laughingly call "memory."  Wish me luck.

Note: The illustrations are, in order, a buggy, a smelter, and  a senator.  Thank you.

Last month I finished the first draft of the novel I have been working on since July.  I spent the next two weeks running it through spellcheck.  That may seem excessive, so let me explain.

I am a very slow writer.  Therefore on a first draft I don't stop for nothin'.  I see typos, glitches, malaprops, and worse but I ignore them so as not to cut what flow there is.  That means there is plenty for spellcheck to catch later.

Worse, I wrote part of the draft on my iPad.  I hate writing on my iPad because the on-screen keyboard feels all wrong and I still don't know how the Pages program wants me to do certain things. For example, I still haven't learned to  turn off the autocorrect.  As a result of that I discovered one of my characters announcing that it would be no buggy to arrange a smelting with the senator.

I think he actually meant to say it would be no biggy to arrange a meeting with the senator.  But what do I know?  I'm just the author. 

And then there is the unforgettable scene in which my hero is chased by "two guys with nuns." 

But now I am doing a fast read-through of  the book and I have discovered I love  proofing on my  iPad.  For some reason it goes much faster than on my other computers.  Maybe because the machine is designed for reading text?

Soon I will be done with the read-through and then all I will need to do is edit.  And edit.  And edit...

30 May 2012

Flunking the Oral Exam


by Robert Lopresti

Those of you who turn on your computer with trembling hands every Wednesday morning, eagerly awaiting my latest contribution to civilization, will no doubt recall that last week I was rushing to get a piece of fiction into shipshape before a deadline.

Yesterday I decided it was just about perfect, and that it was almost time for me to kiss it goodbye and set it on its merry way.  But first came the final test I give every story: reading it out loud.  It is amazing how often the ear will catch what completely glides past the eye.  This time I decided, on a whim, to keep track of how many corrections I made.

Big mistake.  Would you believe I made 94 changes in my near-perfect manuscript?

Now, to be fair, only a few of them could be called mistakes.  Instead they were exactly the type of infelicities the oral reading is intended to catch.  For example, the same word showing up three times in a paragraph.  Maybe that's a good opportunity to bring in a synonym.  Not errors, just improvements.

But let's talk about the genuine boo-boos, because they amazed me.

* In my last draft I added a sentence about "the awful Iowa waters."  Waters? I thought I had written "winters."
* I wrote "the colors would have magnificent."  
I swear, I noted the missing word "been" at least five times and somehow forgot to add it every time.
*  When my character thinks someone is reaching for his money, "his hands folded reflexively over it."  Which would be fine, but what I ACTUALLY wrote was "folded reflectively..."  
Maybe he had mirrors on his fingers?

What drives me nuts about that last one is that I know for a fact that I wrote it in the first draft, which means it slid past me in at least twenty rereads.  Almost as bad was one I caught a few drafts ago, in which the same character was complaisant about a compliment.  No, dammit.  He was complacent.

I think I need to reread Adrian Room's Dictionary of Confusable Words.

And we won't even discuss the afternoon that shifted from rainy to sunny in the course of one page without anyone commenting on it.  Sigh...

I was so depressed I didn't have the gumption to print the story out for one more read.  But I will.  Sisyphus and I have our stones to roll.  Watch out below!

03 December 2011

Editorial Crimes

by Elizabeth Zelvin

In a recent talk to a group of mystery writers about editing, critique, and craft (“The End Is Just the Beginning”), I ruffled a few feathers among the professional editors present by indicating that I had had some negative experiences in this aspect of getting various manuscripts into print. I salute the many excellent substantive editors who can improve a manuscript’s structure, pace, and clarity, as well as those copy editors whom authors rightly credit with making their writing clean, crisp, and grammatical. I spent fifteen years as a damn good editor myself, back in the days when you could get a decent full-time job in a publishing house shepherding a work “from manuscript to bound book.” Unfortunately, there are exceptions.

I never edited fiction, so I never had to worry about that mysterious and essential ingredient in a damn fine story (please have patience with the “damns,” I’m going somewhere with them), voice. Everybody involved in publishing novels says how important voice is, but it’s remarkable how many seem not to recognize it when they see it or can’t trust the author enough to leave it alone. In a third-person narrative, the authorial voice can be distinctive; in first person, it’s even more crucial. Some crime fiction writers are masters at varying their voice. Ruth Rendell is one: her Inspector Wexford novels sound completely different from the psychological suspense standalones she writes as Barbara Vine. Other successful and popular writers have a voice that works and that readers love, but it seems to be the only voice they have. To my ear, Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall sounds exactly like his Spenser.

I am both fond of and grateful to the editor who worked on my forthcoming Death Will Extend Your Vacation, third in the series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. My first-person protagonist is a streetwise New Yorker with a smart mouth and a not too well concealed heart of gold. He used the word “damn” half a dozen times in the course of the book in constructions analogous to the “damn good editor” and “damn fine story” above. My editor, bless her heart, is a lady, and one who knows her grammar. She added “-ed” to every “damn” that Bruce uttered. Bless her even more for not giving me a hard time when I deleted the “-ed” throughout, explaining that Bruce would never have said “a damned fine wake” or “damned insulting questions,” not to mention “damned yellow tape,” “damned boat,” or “whatever damned thing she wants to say,” not in a million years. Being a New Yorker with a smart mouth myself, neither would I. Dr. John Watson, yes. Amelia Peabody, yes. But not me and Bruce (and no, please respect my voice and don’t make that “Bruce and I”).

Luckily, I was able to persuade the editor of an earlier Bruce story not to insist on making Bruce say “not sufficiently far” for “not far enough” and “an alcoholic such as I” for “an alcoholic like me.” I can laugh about these distortions of my character’s voice when I catch them in time. What makes me nuts is when they’re inserted after I’ve signed off on the manuscript (after correcting galleys, in particular), so that I don’t discover them until I see the book in print. There were two in my last novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, that still make me squirm in embarrassment. I’d rather attribute them to the final proofreader than to the editor who I wish had checked her work and consulted me if she wasn’t sure. She did email me when the proofreader asked if I really meant a night security guard on Wall Street to ask my characters to “state your name and who you got the apperntment with.” (“Did you mean ‘appointment’?” “No,” I write back, grinding my teeth and glad we’re not Skyping, “it’s what used to be called Brooklynese.”) Maybe the editor is simply too young. I suspect the issue was sense of humor with one I didn’t catch because she didn’t ask me. It involved a character I’d described on page 34 as follows:

Vinnie frowned. His bushy black eyebrows almost met above a massive beak of a nose. I doubted even a broad smile would make more than a centimeter of breathing room in the middle.

Much later in the book, Bruce and his sidekick Barbara are reviewing possible witnesses and suspects.

“We haven’t talked to his friend Vinnie—the nice one from the funeral,” Barbara said.
“I don’t think he was no nice,” I objected. “I didn’t like his eyebrow.” I waggled mine like Groucho Marx.

Guess what appears on page 191 of the printed book. Yep, “eyebrows.” They went and tromped on my joke.

My final example, from the same book, involves an error, also introduced in the final post-galley proofreading, that in striving for grammar makes a hash of meaning. Instead of describing it, I offer the two versions—the first as submitted and passed through several stages of editing with my approval, the second in print. Let’s see if you can spot what’s wrong.