Showing posts with label revision. Show all posts
Showing posts with label revision. Show all posts

01 May 2017

How Growing Up With a Writer (Inadvertently) Made Me a Marketer

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the third in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
When we talked about inviting family in, I asked both my wife and my daughter if they were interested. Jenn runs my website and Barb, my wife (who declined) used to write ad copy for radio and still acts in several productions a year. Both are better writers than I am, and both are great sources for feedback when I'm stuck. So here's Jenn.
— Steve

by Jenn (Liskow) Waltner

My dad is author Steve Liskow.

When I was growing up, he was English teacher Mr. Liskow at a high school I didn't attend (and really, kids should NEVER have to go to a school where one of their parents teaches).

As a kid, I had no idea how my dad's likes, passions, and aptitudes would influence my own career path. Sure, the ceramic dinosaur collection he had as a boy made me want to be a paleontologist when other kids couldn't even SPELL the word, but then I discovered that science wasn't really my thing and decided I should come up with another plan.

"Content marketer" was totally not that plan.

Here's how it happened. I wanted to go to college for photojournalism, but the school that threw money at me to attend didn't have that major. I figured I'd go for two years, knock off a bunch of core classes and then transfer somewhere with the program I wanted.

I went in as an English major. I figured it was a common major that would transfer easily and I'd do well because I grew up reading voraciously. But more than that, I grew up understanding the different components of storytelling and connecting with an audience--largely thanks to my dad.

It never occurred to me that those skills could lead to a career.

I've been doing this stuff daily for the last two decades as a marketer, mostly for high tech software companies.

When I was little, my dad explained different forms of writing: fiction vs. nonfiction, short stories vs. novels, poetry vs. prose, sonnets vs. sestinas (which I love) vs. haiku vs. blank verse vs. all the other forms of poetry I have forgotten, scripts vs graphic novels...you get the point. When you write, at some point you have to choose your format. The same holds true for marketing. I have to identify the best vehicle for telling each story. Should it be an eBook, a webinar, a blog post, a video, an infographic? Something else entirely? How can I adapt the story to work in different formats?

Next question: who;s the best person to tell the story? I vividly recall my father reading me the opening pages of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to show me how the whole story can change depending on who tells it. In marketing, having a trustworthy narrator is crucial. I often get to decide whether a particular piece of content should come from an internal author or if it works better coming from a customer, analyst, or media partner. Understanding how the choice of narrator influences the audience's perception has proven invaluable in my career over the years.

If you've read any of my dad's work, you know he's a huge music fan. Listening to songs together helped me wrap my head around style. Led Zeppelin covering Willie Dixon, Aerosmith playing Yardbirds songs, the Cramps covering Jack Scott, everyone in the world doing Bob Dylan stuff...two artists may be playing the same song, but with entirely different results. As a marketer, I work to define a brand's particular style and bring it to life. Is this brand sassy or buttoned-up? A little bit country or a little bit rock and roll? It's a fun choice to make.

My father's affinity for Westerns and his experience directing stage plays also helped build my marketing chops. Think visual storytelling. It's not all about words. Go watch the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (or better yet, the final gunfight). With no dialog, narrative, or subtitles for a good few minutes, the action and images let the audience know exactly what's going on.

With a theatrical production, the set and the costume choices give the audience critical information about the characters and the mood. I use visual storytelling in almost every piece of content I touch, whether it's choosing an image for a blog post, building a slide deck for sales, working with an agency to create a new product video, or teaming up with a designer to develop an infographic.

Discussions about bad writing and books that didn't work helped me just as much as conversations about books my dad and I both loved--seeing how a plot falls apart is a great lesson in user experience. My dad and I both hate books with deus ex machina endings that leave readers feeling cheated. With a little more planning, the writer could have injected pieces into the story that let the conclusion feel more natural--delivering a better reader experience.

So often simple changes--a scene in Chapter 3, a paragraph in Chapter 17, an extra line of dialog on page 243--can make those transitions easier for the reader. That's the essence of user experience--making things easier. User experience often guides my discussions with web developers, product engineers and graphic designers. Questions like "Can we make that text easier to read?" or "What happens if we move that button over here?" may seem trivial, but can make a huge difference for someone encountering a web page, trade show display or product welcome screen for the first time.

Finally, my dad's teaching background helped me learn how to coach other writers. When I edit, I don't just make changes--I mark up documents with comments so the writer can see what I changed and why. The "why" matters most--good writers learn from my comments and correct similar bits on their own future projects.

Despite my 20+ years as a marketer, I'm still learning my craft--often inadvertently--through discussions with my dad, the writer.

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?

20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues

by Steve Liskow

Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...


A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:


I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.


Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?

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.

23 January 2017

Break It, Fix It, Break It, Fix It Again

by Steve Liskow

Last time, I listed several books that helped me write better. They all tell what to do in order to write more effectively, but no book can tell you how to do it. That's a personal thing.

Grad school rekindled my long buried urge to write, and over the next nine years, I wrote five atrocious novels. All I can say is that I learned to produce junk more quickly. When it came time to produce a thesis/project for my sixth-year degree at Wesleyan, I decided to rewrite one of those train wrecks based on what I'd already learned from hundreds of mistakes.

I chose Dr. Joseph Reed as my adviser, partly because I knew he didn't give a rat's ass about hurting my feelings. When I phoned to ask him if he would be my adviser, he said, "Probably not, but come in tomorrow and we'll discuss it."

Because of his response, I did two things I'd never done before. I wrote a 2-page summary (Now I know enough to call it a synopsis) and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the events in my story.
Joe looked them over as though he saw checkmate in three moves. When he learned that I wrote everything out longhand and re-typed it for him--this was 1980, pre-computers--he shook his head.

"You're wasting time," he said. "Compose at the typewriter and don't worry about typos. You're going to revise everything to death anyway."

An outline and typing the first draft changed my process radically. Between 2003 when I retired from teaching and started writing full-time, few other changes merit discussion. But here they are.

Jodi Picault once said that a writer must learn to write on demand, and that's another skill nobody can teach you. Stephen King and other writers set word count goals--King's is 2000 words a day--and I forced myself to do that, too. It didn't matter if 1999 of them were crap, I wrote until I reached that number. Some days, I finished by noon and other days I wrote until midnight, but after a few years, I knew I could sit down at the keyboard and produce two or three pages of semi-coherent English is an hour.

Now, I generally write a few paragraphs in the morning and go to the health club if I get stuck. While I sweat on an arc trainer, my mind runs free to figure where I'm going next. But I don't have to write in the morning. Remember that write on demand thing? I wrote the first draft of this essay at 4 pm.

Do you outline just because your teacher told you to do it in school? If so, have you found a more flexible way to do it? If you do some form of pre-writing, is it words, diagrams, phrases, or something else? What really works best for you? I used to doodle on separate sheets of paper and move them around to figure out my basic plot and character relationships, but now I use a dry marker board. At the end of the day, I photograph it and stick it in my picture files so I can start with a fresh board the next day and still refer to the previous work.

The only other major change is my outline/synopsis. Somewhere in those years of wood-shedding, I started doing what the screenwriters would probably call a verbal story board. I list fifty scenes in order. The character name in bold type is the POV character, and I tell the essential action/change of the scene in a sentence or two. The number at the end is its order in the MS.

The storyboard tells me where I need to do research and shows if I have too many expository or action scenes together so pace is an issue. It takes me several weeks to develop fifty scenes (although I'm getting faster) and that's my first draft. Writing those scenes out as real prose is my second draft, and always shows where I've left something out, repeated something, or put events or information in the wrong order. I correct the scene list ("Chronology" in my terminology) as I go, each change a "save as." By the time I have my first full MS, I'm usually on at least the twelfth draft of the scene list. That continues through the next several drafts, and my record is 31 scene lists.

That first full MS has to come fast because that's how I find the rhythm of the story. It helps me feel when a scene is in the wrong place. I wrote the first "full" version of Dark Gonna Catch Me Here in 33 days (I didn't plan it, it just gushed out that way) and it had over 92,000 words and 57 scenes. The final version a year later lost four of those scenes, added an new one, added another POV character, and cut about 8000 words.

Through my first four or five drafts, each scene revision is a separate word file: Scene 1-A, Scene 1-B, Scene 1-C, Scene 2-A, Scene 2-B, etc. I keep them separate because it's easier to change the order by renumbering a five or six page scene than it is to cut and paste in a 300-page document. If Scene 12-C needs to move, "Save As" gives me Scene 22-D.

None of this means you should do it, too. But if you're in a rut or things aren't working, maybe put a few new parts in the machine and see what happens.

Do you write at a particular time of day because you need to get to work or the kids have to be in school? If not, try earlier or later. Try in a different room. Walk around outside before you write, or go to the gym, or listen to some music. Do you write with music? Try a different kind (baroque instead of jazz, for example) or silence. Do you hear the words better?

If you normally outline, write a scene or two without planning and see what happens. If you don't outline, try it. This is a huge change, and it's hard, but you might discover something.

Try writing character bios for your main characters before writing your story. Figure out what's at stake or what that character's weakness is. I do bios for my major characters and have a file so I have ages and major events consistent (like when Zach Barnes stopped drinking or Chris Guthrie almost lost his leg in the shoot-out), but the minor characters change as I need them, especially names.

Try writing in pencil or roller ball or ballpoint or fountain pen (my fave for early planning) or even crayon or dry marker instead of the keyboard. If you write longhand, go to the keyboard first.

Do you write a few pages, then go back and revise before moving on? Try writing the whole work before you go back. If you usually do a complete draft, try revising scene by scene.

Do you have a word or page goal for the day? What happens if you raise or lower it? What if you write a scene instead of a word count? If one scene is four pages long and the next one is ten, can you still do it? That's my only solid rule now, I have to write the complete scene in a day because the rhythm won't sustain overnight. My scenes average about 1600 words, so if I write one a day, that's about 50,000 words a month (Hello, NANO). And I no longer have to write every day. The point of the fast and messy first draft is that it gives me something to fix. A first draft is like a block of marble: once you have it, you have to chip away the excess to make a statue of an elephant. Or Michaelangelo's David.

When I finished that MS in 1980, Dr. Reed encouraged me to send it out, and it collected a stack of rejections. I knew I'd revise it yet again someday--when I'd learned more craft. When I looked at it again a few years ago, I understood that the opening dragged because the important subplot took a long time to develop. Re-sequencing with several overlapping flashbacks helped, but that created another problem. For the first time, I listed all the events in the story in chronological order before I wrote the new outline so I could keep the back-story coherent. I've only done that with two other books (one of them is currently a WIP) because they had more history to them than usual.

I added a couple of scenes and expanded one character, but beyond the re-sequencing that demanded some new transitions, at least eighty percent of that book is what I wrote in 1980. That astonished me. I finally self-published Postcards of the Hanging (Another Bob Dylan allusion and not the title from back then) in 2014, 34 years after it was a thesis and 42 years after the first version began in the back of a spiral notebook.

Gotta keep it fresh, right? My next project is to learn to write with my left hand...while standing on my head.

What have you changed since you started writing? What do you wish worked better?

14 January 2017

Revision: Murder by Pencil

by B.K. Stevens 

"Murder your darlings"--that may be the most famous piece of advice about revision, one that's been attributed to just about everybody but really, apparently, originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British writer and critic born in 1863. I think it became famous because it so vividly sums up two facts almost all writers instantly recognize as true:
  • Revision is mandatory.
  • Revision hurts like hell.
We labor so hard to bring our words into this world that sending any of them back into the void feels wrong. It feels like murder--a kind of murder even mystery writers don't enjoy. And according to Quiller-Couch, the words we labor over hardest, the ones we love best, are probably the ones we most need to obliterate. How can we force ourselves to be as pitiless as we know we need to be? Is there any way to make the process less painful?

Several years ago, I ran into two essays that transformed the way I revise. Both had been around for decades, but I hadn't encountered them before. (They were in a prose anthology I used in a first-year composition course I was teaching. I chose the anthology because I hoped it would help students improve their writing. If it helped them half as much as it helped me, it was a good choice.) While both essays contain many valuable insights about writing, they've made a difference for me primarily because each recommends one specific technique that has helped me murder my darlings more efficiently.

The first essay is Donald M. Murray's "The Maker's Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts," published in 1973 and available online here. Murray first discusses the early stages of revision when most writers, he says, focus on "the larger problems of subject and form." Then he discusses the stage when writers move "closer and closer to the page," working through the manuscript sentence by sentence, sweating to make every word right. At this stage, Murray finds it best to work "in short runs, no more than fifteen minutes at a stretch." If he tries to keep going longer than that, he says, "I become too kind with myself. I begin to see what I hope is on the page, not what is actually on the page."

At first, this approach sounded strange to me--it seemed too fragmented--but I gave it a try. It works. Now, when I reach the final stage of revision, I set a timer for fifteen minutes (or usually, to be honest, thirty) and start working. I'm alert, I'm focused on revision, and I'm determined to find ways to make improvements. When the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break. I put in a load of laundry or do some other household chore, I respond to an e-mail, or I read a chapter of someone else's book. Sometimes I exercise (I should do that more often), and sometimes I fix a snack (I should do that less often). When the break is over, I attack the manuscript with renewed alertness, focus, and determination.

I think this approach helps me revise more effectively; I know it makes me more ruthless. When I try to revise without taking breaks, it's too easy to slip out of revising mode and into reading mode. I start enjoying the characters and smiling at the dialogue. After all, I created this manuscript--it's natural for me to love it. But if I want other people to love it, too, I can't afford to go easy on it. I have to scrutinize it critically and be prepared to murder any little darlings that aren't as good as I'd like to think they are. Revising in short runs helps.

The other essay is William Zinsser's "The Act of Writing: One Man's Method," written in 1983. (If he'd written it more recently, he probably would have called it "One Person's Method.") Again, there's lots of good advice about revision in general, one specific technique that stands out for me. When he was teaching writing at Yale, Zinsser says, he would read through students' essays and "put brackets around every component . . . that I didn't think was doing some kind of work." The "component" might be a single word, such as "the adverb whose meaning is already in the verb (blare loudly, clench tightly)," or it might be an entire sentence that "essentially repeats what the previous sentence has said." "Most people's writing," Zinsser says, "is littered with phrases that do no work whatever. Most first drafts, in fact, can be cut by fifty percent without losing anything organic."

I don't know exactly why the brackets work so well, but they do. When I'm reasonably satisfied with the content and general shape of a manuscript, I print a hard copy and go through it again, looking for words, phrases, sentences, and--who knows?--whole paragraphs I might be able to cut. I always use a pencil, not a pen. That way, any hasty decisions I make while revising can easily be reversed, anything I cut can readily be restored. Sometimes, I can cross things out immediately, confident they aren't doing "some kind of work" and will never be missed. Often, though, I hesitate. Okay, so maybe that phrase isn't strictly necessary, but I like it--it's a darling--and I hate to cut it. So I put it in brackets and move on, postponing the final, painful decision. Later, when I go back and see a page studded with half a dozen or more bracketed words, phrases, and sentences, I realize how much tighter and sharper the page can be if I find the courage to make the cuts. Usually, I grit my teeth and cross out everything in brackets, and the page snaps into shape.

Maybe it's easier to murder our darlings if we do it in stages. We put a component on trial by bracketing it, we later weigh all the evidence about the page or the chapter as a whole before reaching a verdict, and only then do we convict and execute. And when I look back at a page and see only a few brackets, I know I've slipped into reading mode and haven't been ruthless enough. It's time to take a break, and to come back in ten minutes determined to find more suspects to put on trial.

You could also, I'm sure, type the brackets, or highlight possibly superfluous components, or find some other way to use this technique without printing a hard copy. For me, though, for revision, a hard copy and a pencil work best. Maybe that's because I'm a dinosaur who wrote her first manuscripts on yellow pads and manual typewriters. Or maybe there's a real advantage to getting physically closer to our manuscripts during the last stages of writing, to having our hands travel over our words as we make our final decisions about their fates--which ones to keep, which ones to change, which ones to murder.

I do know these two techniques have made a difference for me, and that's taught me another lesson. Before I read these essays, I'd been writing for decades, teaching writing for decades. I considered myself an expert on the writing process, and I thought my own process was set. These essays proved me wrong. We never know enough about writing. No matter how experienced we are, we can still learn from what other writers have to say. Some of the books and essays we read will simply repeat things we already know, and some we'll reject as just plain wrong. Once in a while, though, if we keep reading, we'll find valuable new insights, ones that might even make us revise our approach to revision.

How do you approach revision? Can you recommend techniques that have worked for you? 

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Last year, the day before I planned to leave for Malice Domestic, I tripped on a stupid throw rug, fell, broke my right arm, injured my left leg, and ended up going to the emergency room rather than to Bethesda. I've gotten rid of the throw rug, and of every other throw rug in the house, and hope to make it all the way to the conference this year--but I've learned not to take anything for granted. If you're also planning to go to Malice and haven't yet completed your Agatha nominating ballot, please consider "The Last Blue Glass," a short story that appeared in the April, 2016 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can read it here. (Even if you aren't going to Malice, you might enjoy the story. I worked hard on revising it.)